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Commons Chamber

Volume 659: debated on Thursday 9 May 2019

House of Commons

Thursday 9 May 2019

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Village Halls

Village halls are at the heart of rural communities, and we want to ensure that they remain so for many years to come. That is why, on 5 April this year, the Government launched a £3 million fund to improve them. Grants of up to £75,000, or 20% of the project costs, are available for the refurbishment and alteration of these essential community buildings.

Village halls are a vital asset in many rural parts of my constituency, offering a wide range of activities for groups of people of all ages. I know that from personal experience, having served as chair of my local village hall in Shuttington for several years before my election. I welcome the fund, but how are village hall committees being encouraged to apply for it, given that they are often run by a large number of dedicated volunteers?

We have publicised the grant scheme on social media and fundraising community websites, and there have been more than 70 expressions of interest. The National Association of Local Councils has been informed, and I am sure that it will use its networks to advertise the scheme. I should point out that the deadline for applications is March 2020. The funds may already have been allocated by then, so we want to encourage as many village halls as possible to get on with their project proposals.

Bassetlaw will be happy to pioneer the green energy policy in village halls, along with the Secretary of State and the Government. We offer all our village halls to the Government, so that, with Government funds, they can work together to become carbon-neutral, and villages can see the benefits—

The question, Mr Speaker, is this: does the Minister agree that such a partnership would be in the national interest?

The Government have already done that extensively in village halls, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth will be delighted to take an interest in any proposals that the hon. Gentleman puts to her.

Although small, the village of Rushton in my constituency has a church, a pub, a village hall and a village newsletter. Village halls are extremely important. Will the Minister take this opportunity to praise all the volunteers who seek no reward, save to serve their local communities?

I certainly will. I am sure that in some of the villages in Buckingham tonight, the villagers will be gathering in their rural communities to watch Arsenal—hopefully—beat Valencia, just as they will have watched Spurs win last night and the mighty Liverpool win on Tuesday. Village halls are places where communities come together for moments of joy, but also for other important purposes such as community activities, and our villages would be poorer without them.

I welcome the fund, but may I ask the Minister to look again at the eligibility criterion that forbids parish councils from bidding for it? In villages such as Rainford, Billinge and Seneley Green in my constituency, halls run by parish councils are real community hubs, and they would be good umbrella bodies to bid for the money on behalf of their communities.

I will certainly look at that again. I understand that village halls are usually run by separate entities, so I am not sure why there is a barrier to grant applications in the villages that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

Hundreds of farmers are being treated for mental health issues. What plans have been made to ensure that village halls have a signpost to mental health help for rural communities?

Village halls are used for a variety of purposes, including the provision of health services, which are also available in the voluntary sector. I commend the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion on how we can continue to use village halls to support farmers locally.

Farm Workforce

2. What steps he is taking to ensure that farmers have access to the workforce that they need during the harvest. (910776)

DEFRA is working closely with the Home Office on the future immigration framework as part of the longer-term strategy for labour in the food chain. The seasonal workers pilot is now open, and the first workers have arrived on UK farms.

Eddisbury is the home of high-quality dairy farming and produces much of the country’s milk. However, dairy farmers in Cheshire are having huge problems with staff recruitment. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the £30,000 annual earnings threshold for migrant workers post Brexit will not apply to farm workers?

As I have said, DEFRA is working closely with the Home Office on this issue. The Government are committed to ensuring that a wide range of stakeholders have an opportunity to contribute their views and shape the development of the future immigration policy. That is why the Government have embarked on an extensive programme of targeted engagement with businesses and other stakeholders across the UK.

In evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, Archie Gibson of Agrico UK said that if Scottish farmers cannot get the seasonal workers they need to replace EU workers no longer able to come here, two fifths of farmers will cease the enterprise that needs that workforce; furthermore, three fifths will have to downsize. We all here, as the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) pointed out, have to make the not unfounded assumption that the same is true for the rest of the UK’s farmers and growers. Therefore, will the Secretary of State make urgent representations to his Cabinet colleagues that our farmers need migrant workers? They need a ready supply—not a short-term pilot, but certainty of policy that will not leave crops rotting in the ground again.

May I correct the hon. Gentleman? He says EU workers will not be able to come here; under whichever scenario we leave the EU, that will not be the case. Those who are already here will be able to stay. During the implementation period, people will be able to live, work and study as now, and there is a registration scheme. In a no-deal scenario, European economic area citizens will be able to live and work here without a visa for three months and then continue to stay by applying for European temporary leave to remain, which gives them 36 additional months.

Leaving the EU: Farming Policy

The Agriculture Bill lays the foundations for farming policy in England as we leave the EU. This new policy will be a system that pays public money for public goods, rewarding farmers for delivering environmental and animal welfare benefits. The protection of our countryside will allow us to leave the environment in a better state than when we found it while we support farmers to produce high-quality food in a sustainable way.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but within that does he see soil health as a public good on its own terms or merely as a proxy or gateway for other benefits such as biodiversity, flood management—so important on the Somerset levels—and food productivity?

Having studied soil science at university, I understand that soil is one of our greatest assets, and indeed the numerous environmental benefits and services that can be derived from activities that enhance soil health will be eligible for public money.

I am glad that the Minister has had a change of heart on that because he argued against my amendment on soil during the Bill Committee, but now he is on the Front Bench. What are we doing to try to meet net zero emissions from farming either through the Agriculture Bill or other mechanisms? The Committee on Climate Change again endorsed that this week. What are the Government doing and when is the target going to be reached?

The hon. Lady makes a good point and, indeed, emissions from agriculture have fallen by about 16% since 1990. However, progress has stalled in recent years, with little change since 2009, and I know from the work we did together on the Environmental Audit Committee that we need to make further progress on that, particularly by looking at methane, which has a briefer half-life than other greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and so needs to be dealt with in a slightly different way.

As we know, the potential of leaving the EU is creating some uncertainty so can the Minister reassure Cheshire farmers and the National Farmers Union that the current funding schemes that their members are working with will not be phased out until replacements are available to ensure that there will not be any loss of funding during any period of transition?

We have made the decision clear with regard to the 2019 and 2020 schemes, and I remind farmers that the deadline for applications this year is 15 May as usual. I hope that they will get their applications in; sadly, in most years, we get a lot of applications in the last 24 hours.

NFU Scotland and other farming organisations north of the border are increasingly concerned at the lack of agreement between the UK Government and the Scottish Government to allow a Scottish schedule into the Agriculture Bill. Will the Minister meet me and a cross-party delegation, including the NFU and crofters organisations, to hear from them what the industry would want in that schedule?

I would certainly be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I was in Aberdeenshire recently and met representatives of the Scottish farming unions, and last week I met Roseanna Cunningham from the Scottish Administration and discussed a number of issues.

Where is the Agriculture Bill? It left Committee months and months ago, and given that we are spending an infinite amount of time on statutory instruments updating what the EU Commission is now doing, can we be assured that we will not have to completely rewrite the Bill— although that could be useful in this time of climate change? We just need the Bill back so that farmers can have some certainty.

I am as keen as the hon. Gentleman is to make progress. Perhaps the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), will be able to help, because as soon as we can clear the logjam and get Brexit out of the way, we will be able to get on with it. She is part of the team that is negotiating an accommodation between the two main parties, so perhaps she can help us to make some progress on Brexit so that we can get on with the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills.

I must say to the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) that I have received two approaches about him this week. First, I received a letter earlier this week in my office telling me what I already knew—namely, that he was a splendid fellow—and then I was at a book launch last night, when somebody beetled up to me to tell me that she was a constituent of his and that he was a splendid fellow. I do not know whether this is an orchestrated campaign, but I require no persuasion on this matter.

Environmental Education

4. What steps his Department is taking to promote awareness of the environment and food production among young people. (910779)

Young people are at the heart of this year’s Year of Green Action. We are working with the Department for Education on the £10 million flagship children and nature programme, which supports children from disadvantaged backgrounds to give them better access to the natural environment. We work closely with the DFE to promote awareness of pathways into food and farming careers.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. One of my constituents, Tom Martin, has set up a fantastic initiative called FaceTime a Farmer, which enables pupils to engage with agricultural and rural issues in the classroom via a video link with farmers out in their fields. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Tom on spearheading this brilliant initiative, and would he be interested in a meeting to learn more about it?

I would certainly like to thank Mr Martin and farmers like him for all the hard work they put into such initiatives. FaceTime a Farmer is an exciting initiative to help children to engage with farming and get a better understanding of where their food comes from, and I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and Mr Martin.

Will the Minister pass on my congratulations to the Secretary of State on his decision to meet young people to talk about climate change? Unfortunately, the meeting this week had to be postponed for fully understandable reasons. Lola Chirico and 14 others were disappointed not to be able to meet the Secretary of State, because they want to talk about climate change with him. Lola Chirico is my granddaughter.

The Secretary of State is sitting here, so I do not need to pass that on. It is certainly important that young people are leading the way, and I think that many of us are perhaps slightly embarrassed that we have been so slow off the mark. Going back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) said, it is important that young people should be aware of how their food is produced and where it comes from and of the seasonality in this country so that they can understand when different foods are in season. If they buy foods that are in season, they will be able to reduce the carbon footprint of the food they purchase.

With an increase in the urbanised society and media, I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the education of our young across all parts of our communities is very important. Against that backdrop, will he welcome and add whatever support he can give to Open Farm Sunday, which is a golden opportunity for young people to see agriculture in tooth and claw?

Having attended a number of Open Farm Sunday events in my constituency, I can commend it and I hope that more farmers will contribute to it so that more young people, particularly those from urban areas who do not understand agriculture and the hard work that goes into producing the food they consume, can attend those events. Perhaps not so much food would be wasted if people understood how much hard work was put into producing it.

Palm oil is an essential component of much of our food production, but unsustainable palm oil production across south-east Asia is wrecking a lot of natural forests. Will the Government join me in congratulating Chester Zoo on its sustainable palm oil campaign? What support can they give to that campaign?

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is sitting next to me, is visiting that tomorrow, and we are all certainly aware of the environmental impact of palm oil. There is a perfectly good alternative, in the form of British rapeseed oil, which is produced in places such as Yorkshire and East Anglia.

Leaving the EU: Welsh Seafood

5. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the Welsh seafood industry. (910780)

Ministers from across the four Administrations in the United Kingdom meet monthly at the inter-ministerial group for environment, food and rural affairs to discuss the negotiations with the EU. The most recent meeting was on 29 April in Cardiff, and we will continue to work together to secure the long-term profitability of the Welsh fishing industry as we leave the EU.

Fishing vessels at Porth Dinllaen and coastal communities around Wales land a whelk catch worth £6.2 million every year. Have the Welsh Government made any specific representations to Ministers to ensure that our fishermen do not face tariffs of 20% on exports to the crucial South Korean market after Brexit? Will he meet with me to discuss the importance of the seafood industry to Wales’s coastal economy?

I completely appreciate the vital importance of ensuring that the trade in whelks between Wales and South Korea is protected. One of the reasons why the Department for International Trade has prioritised making sure that we have continuity trade arrangements with South Korea is to ensure that Korean consumers can continue to enjoy this great Welsh product. The one threat to that trade would be the election of a Labour Government at the next general election because, as we all know, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) could not run a whelk stall.

I think that one probably requires a little bit of work and finesse, but it is only a matter of time. That was a first draft.

Welsh fishermen will be particularly interested in the application of the Hague preference since the ability to invoke it and, more importantly, counter-invoke it against the Irish Republic is critical to our interests. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the withdrawal agreement will protect our ability to invoke the Hague preference, because he will understand that it is not part of the common fisheries policy but a political convention that needs to be invoked each year?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We will be able to continue to invoke the Hague preference in certain circumstances, and it is vital that we do so in defence of our interests.

Waste Incineration

6. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of a moratorium on new waste incineration plants to promote recycling. (910782)

It is important to do whatever we can to recycle as much waste as possible, but waste incineration plants continue to play an important role in generating energy instead of diverting waste to landfill. However, our assessment is that additional residual waste energy capacity above that already planned to 2020 should not be needed if we achieve our recycling targets.

Further to that welcome reply, has the Minister seen the recent report from independent consultants Eunomia? It indicates that we will indeed have enough waste incineration capacity to deal with our country’s residual waste and that if we build more incinerators, the danger is that waste will be diverted from recycling.

I have not seen that report, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we discussed this matter in his recent Westminster Hall debate. It is important to say that we are still making progress to ensure that we achieve our recycling targets, but incineration by default is certainly not the answer that we want to promote.

As the fast fashion trend continues to increase, will the Minister outline both the short-term and long-term plans to tackle the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of clothing that is incinerated every year?

There is definitely a market for trying to extract fibres from textiles. We are considering extending the extended producer responsibility to textiles, but the policy is still under consideration.

The Minister will know that Wales recycles more than any other part of the UK, with ambitious targets and a new £6 million fund to help businesses become plastic free. Should the Government not learn from Wales, given that they are flatlining on their own targets?

We do, and I commend the Welsh Government on that policy deployment. We are consulting on certain measures to try to increase recycling, and the consultation closes next week.

As the Minister knows, the level of recycling in England rose from around 7% in 1997 to around 44% in 2011, but it has flatlined since then. Much of the incentive for the increase in recycling during those years came from avoiding the landfill tax, and Government capital grants for increasing recycling were balanced by landfill tax receipts. However, now that most household waste is incinerated, those incentives no longer apply. The “Our waste, our resources” strategy states:

“Should wider policies not deliver the Government’s waste ambitions in the long-term, we will consider the introduction of a tax on the incineration”.

Will the Minister tell us how many more years of flatlining it will take before she is willing to make that consideration?

The landfill tax has been important in reducing landfill. As I have just said, we are consulting on measures that build on the resources and waste strategy that we published a few months ago. We have been quite clear that we must ensure that we increase recycling, and we will take further measures if incineration is still proving part of the problem.

Farm Subsidy Payments

We have delivered significant improvements to the basic payments scheme in England this year, with 99.7% of the 2018 payments now complete. I am, however, acutely aware that we have much more to do to deliver the stewardship schemes to the same high standards.

My constituency borders rural communities in Cheshire and Shropshire, and I know there is immense concern in the farming community on this point. In view of the pretty damning report in 2017 from the Public Accounts Committee and the fact that a third of all UK farmers are now aged 65 or over, will the Government act and do something urgently?

The hon. Lady makes a valid point and I do not underestimate the importance of getting this right. That is one of the reasons why we took responsibility for these stewardship schemes away from Natural England and gave it to the Rural Payments Agency, which is performing much better. But we do need to do better, not least because, if we want to incentivise more farmers to participate in these schemes, we need to make sure that we keep our part of the bargain and give them the money they deserve.

Not only is it a problem with stewardship schemes that existing farmers are not getting paid, but many farmers are deciding not to go into those stewardship schemes. The whole of our new agricultural policy will be going in that direction, so it is vital that the Minister now sorts it out. You have had some time—not the Minister personally—and it is time the Department sorted it out.

Point taken. On my own farm I have just planted wild bird seed and a big area of nectar plants, so I will report to the House when my payments come through, although I have insisted to officials that I should be in the last decile of payments—I do not want them to accelerate my payments. I will be one of the last to get paid, so I will keep a careful eye on this matter.

As I mentioned, many of the public goods we are to deliver will result in better soil quality. We also need to have a debate on the role of livestock on mixed farms because many of the farms I have visited recently on which soil quality is improving are farms that use manures and slurry to improve the soil—we no longer have that in many of the big intensive agricultural areas.

Climate Change

Tackling climate change is a cross-Government priority and it is one of a range of issues that I discuss with all Cabinet colleagues. My Department works closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to reduce emissions in the natural resources sector, as set out in the clean growth strategy.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Of course Scotland leads the way not only on renewable energy production but on the commercialisation of new renewable energy technology. Can he explain how this area is a priority for his Government when they are cutting the subsidies to renewable energy generators? When will he review that process so that Scotland can continue to generate new renewable electricity and export it to the rest of the UK?

I am happy to congratulate the many entrepreneurs, innovators and others who have been responsible for powering ahead with the growth of the renewables sector not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. One of the reasons why subsidies for solar, for example, have been cut is because the price has come down—the subsidies were necessary to kick-start investment. It is a fact that 99% of solar power generated in this country has been generated since 2010—since the Conservatives have been in Downing Street.

I understand that the Secretary of State sat in close attention when Greta Thunberg visited recently. Following her visit, will he tell us whether he agrees with the Scottish Government that there is a climate change emergency? If so, what does he intend to do to cut emissions from aviation?

There absolutely is a climate change emergency and a need to act, and Greta Thunberg’s testimony was incredibly powerful. When it comes to aviation, we need to work with the sector to ensure that we balance the need to promote growth and, indeed, the need to promote links across the United Kingdom while moving towards meeting our net zero goal.

The Scottish Affairs Committee, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and, most recently, the Committee on Climate Change all agree with the Carbon Capture and Storage Association that carbon capture, usage and storage technology—CCUS—is essential for achieving a net zero emissions target by 2050. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that, in order to tackle climate change properly, we must develop a CCUS cluster such as the Acorn project, which is centred on St Fergus in my constituency? Does he also agree that this cluster approach is far more effective technically and financially than previously proposed carbon capture and storage programmes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we are absolutely committed to supporting the work in St Fergus. Technological breakthroughs in institutions such as Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen are also precisely the sorts of work that we should be getting behind.

Today the Environment Agency announced that it is preparing for a catastrophic 4° rise in global temperatures and huge sea level rises. The EA says it needs £1 billion a year for coastal defences, but the Government have allocated only £2.6 billion over six years —less than half of what the EA says is needed. When should we expect the necessary increase in funding and a plan to protect our vulnerable coastal communities?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. First, I record my thanks to Emma Howard Boyd and Sir James Bevan, the chair and chief executive of the Environment Agency, for the leadership that they have shown on this issue. Under this Government, record amounts have been spent on flood defences and record efforts have been made to combat climate change. However, in both cases, more needs to be done. The national policy statement will be forthcoming shortly.

Moorland Wildfires

It is good to see the hon. Lady back in her place for the first DEFRA questions since returning from maternity leave and the safe arrival of baby James. Congratulations.

Protecting our moorland from wildfires is essential. The risk of severe damage from wildfire on wet, well functioning blanket bog is relatively low. Natural England is working with landowners and land managers through its uplands programme to develop long-term management plans. We are also currently undertaking a wildfire review to ensure that our future land management policies minimise the risks of wildfire.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response and for his kind words.

In West Yorkshire alone, there have been three significant wildfires in the past 18 months. The Minister will be aware that, if we manage our moorland and peat bogs responsibly, they will lock in water, which protects us from flooding; they will lock in carbon; and, kept wet, they will also protect us from wildfires. What more can we do to manage those moorlands and peat bogs responsibly?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that healthy wet peatlands help carbon storage and minimise and reduce fire risk. That is why peatland restoration is an urgent priority. DEFRA is currently funding four large-scale peatland restoration projects across England, involving a £10 million fund, including in the north of England uplands, the Welsh borders, Dartmoor and Exmoor and, of course, the south Pennines: vital work that we need to take forward.

Staffordshire moorlands has some magnificent heathland, but it has been affected by severe fires in the last year. Those are sometimes caused by disposable barbecues. Has the Minister looked at ways of ensuring the more responsible purchase and use of such barbecues?

We work closely with Natural England and the Home Office to see how we can tackle these issues. Operational plans are in place with fire services as well.


Our focus is on ensuring that effective monitoring and protection are in place. Since 2017, we have increased the protection of seabirds by creating five new marine special protection areas and extending a further nine sites. I draw your attention in particular, Mr Speaker, to the SPA at Flamborough Head, which has been extended to protect nesting and foraging areas for a range of seabirds, including kittiwakes and puffins.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. The UK’s seabird population is in serious decline. Will the Minister use the forthcoming review of the UK marine strategy to set out a recovery plan that includes both targets and a timeline?

Yes, we will. The plan will include targets to ensure that good environmental status is met for seabirds and set the indicators that we use to assess their status. Of course, we will continue to do other work such as reducing the impact of invasive species, which are damaging seabird colonies; carrying out the UK plan of action on seabird bycatch; and, as many across the House support, reducing marine litter, particularly marine plastic.

Environment Agency: Pay Dispute

11. Whether he plans to meet representatives of the Environment Agency to discuss the recent pay dispute at that agency. (910787)

That is very disappointing to hear. We have just heard praise for the Environment Agency, but its staff have seen a 20% cut in real terms over the past decade. The agency is suffering from recruitment and retention problems and, inevitably, low morale. Will the Minister think again and at least press the Environment Agency to reopen the discussions?

No, because it is an operational matter for the Environment Agency and it would not be appropriate for the Government to get involved in the human resources issues of an independent agency.

Major Infrastructure Projects

12. What steps his Department takes to ensure that major infrastructure projects comply with all environmental licences, permissions and protections. (910788)

I know this is a topic close to your heart, Mr Speaker.

Large infrastructure projects may require an environmental impact assessment of the likely significant environmental effects. In the case of nationally significant infrastructure projects, the EIA forms part of the development consent order application. Requirements are routinely imposed to ensure that development is delivered sustainably. Projects such as High Speed 2 include environmental minimum requirements and associated controls linked to the EIA.

I am glad that the Minister brought up HS2. Even before construction has been given the go-ahead, the HS2 enabling works have breached environmental undertakings and assurances. Given that the project will destroy 100 ancient woodlands, how can we ensure that what DEFRA is trying to achieve in preserving our environment is not going to be destroyed by the HS2 construction companies as they desperately scramble to cut corners and cut the costs of this highly expensive and useless project?

The environmental impact assessment is an important part of the planning process. The development of HS2 will require a number of protective provisions, consents and licences for work that affects protected sites and species and other aspects of the natural environment. The Environment Agency and Natural England will continue to work with HS2 Ltd to ensure that it complies with the conditions set out by the requirements. I recognise the issue relating to the ancient woodlands, but I am sure my right hon. Friend will join me in celebrating the fact that 7 million new trees will be planted, and planting has already started.

Topical Questions

First, I thank colleagues from all parties for their support for the Government in giving the Wild Animals in Circuses (No. 2) Bill its Second Reading. Thinking of our responsibility to the natural world, I extend my sympathy to the family of Guardsman Mathew Talbot. Mathew died working on an anti-poaching initiative in Africa just two days ago. He was a distinguished young 22-year-old solider who was fighting to preserve the natural world. Our sympathies go out to his family, friends and colleagues.

Vale of Evesham asparagus is the only asparagus with protected geographical indication status. As I am sure the Secretary of State is aware, we are currently in the middle of the British Asparagus Festival, which is held mainly in my constituency. Would he like to join me at that festival and to show his support for great British farmers who grow not only the best asparagus in the world but so much more fantastic, world-class British produce?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his drawing attention to the importance of asparagus growers in our broader agricultural export successes. It is not only grown in the Vale of Evesham, beautiful part of the country though it is; we also grow world-beating asparagus in Yorkshire. Overall, asparagus exports have secured £3.2 million for this country. Although I cannot join the festival, I would be delighted to share some asparagus with my hon. Friend at the first available opportunity.

Last week, the House made history by declaring a climate and environmental emergency. The Labour motion that was passed gives the Government six months to table urgent proposals to restore our natural environment and tackle devastating climate change. That means that the deadline is 1 November. The clock has started to tick. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Cabinet has met to discuss the urgent nature of the motion? When will he publish a timeline that clearly sets out how the UK can reach net zero emissions by at least 2050?

I thank the hon. Lady for underlining the cross-party, consensual approach that the House has taken to dealing with climate change and the broader environmental crisis that we face. The House will be updated not only on progress against the 25-year environment plan and not just in response to the recent report by the Committee on Climate Change on how to reach net zero by 2050, but on a broader suite of measures that every Government Department, from the Treasury to my own, is committed to ensuring that we deliver.

T2. What steps have been taken to establish a Great Britain-wide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, which the industry wants, including Highland Spring in Blackford in my constituency? (910796)

Having had the opportunity to visit Highland Spring, thanks to my hon. Friend, I endorse wholeheartedly the company’s leadership in providing high-quality products to so many people across the world. It also provides employment in his constituency. Highland Spring, like us, wants to ensure that we have a UK-wide scheme. Although I applaud the ambition of Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish Government Environment Minister, in taking forward a DR scheme, it is absolutely vital that we make sure it works UK-wide. I hope and believe that the Scottish Government will now put the interests of the United Kingdom ahead of the ideology of separatism that sometimes creeps into some of the things they come up with.

T4. One of the recommendations in the Committee on Climate Change’s report last week was a 20% reduction in meat consumption by 2050 to meet that net zero goal. Can the Secretary of State set out how he plans to achieve that in a way that is fair and equitable? Red meat is obviously particularly important in the diets of children and women, and we do not want to use price as the mechanism. (910798)

That was a typically balanced and thoughtful contribution from the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. One thing I would say is that sustainable farming, particularly mixed and livestock farming, is a critical part of ensuring that we have a healthy environment. I absolutely take on board her point. One thing we absolutely do not want to do is use a crude taxation intervention when it is much more sensible to work with farmers to raise the quality of livestock. There are things we can do on how livestock farmers operate that can contribute to reducing emissions, while at the same time maintaining high-quality red meat that is available to people at every price point.

T3. May I invite you, Mr Speaker, your officials and all Members in the Chamber to join me, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Kew Gardens, the British Beekeepers Association and others as the all-party parliamentary group for bees and pollinators discusses how we can green the parliamentary estate and get a hive of bees on board as well? Does the DEFRA team agree that we would all get a tremendous buzz to see Parliament as a hive of activity for our pollinators? (910797)

I had better answer this with a coat of honey. It is important that this Parliament is open to nature. We have already seen great changes through the Administration Committee and what we are trying to do about elements of plastic. The Department already has a beehive on its roof and I am keen that we should continue to do whatever we can as leaders. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also be very aware of the national pollinator strategy and how important it is to the future of biodiversity and sustainable food production.

T5. At Treasury questions a few weeks ago, Ministers boasted about how much hauliers had saved through the freezing of the fuel duty escalator. When I challenged them on the environmental impact, they looked absolutely amazed, as though the thought had never cross their minds. Should the Secretary of State be in a position of influence later this summer in a new Administration, will he be equally blinkered or will he be bold in tackling emissions from road transport? (910799)

I am frankly amazed at the suggestion that any Minister should indulge in something as prideful as boastfulness. I suspect that my Treasury colleagues were pointing out that this Government combines economic efficiency with environmental stewardship in an unprecedented fashion, which is why we have been responsible for reducing carbon emissions faster than any other G20 nation while at the same time growing the economy over the past 20 years by more than 66%.

T6. Consumers are doing everything they can to reduce the amount of packaging and to recycle their plastic, but supermarkets are continuing to wrap fresh produce, in particular, in massive amounts of plastic that cannot be recycled. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is high time the supermarkets did more to protect our planet? (910800)

We are meeting supermarkets on Monday at a big event at the V&A, hosted by the food waste champion Ben Elliot, about how to reduce food waste. The majority of vegetables do not need plastic packaging to extend their life, but some do, which is why we have to take a scientific evidence-based approach. Let me point out to my hon. Friend what we said in the resources and waste strategy: we would like to see more plastic-free aisles in our supermarkets and unnecessary use of plastic must be stopped as quickly as possible.

Last month, I visited Mountfield Primary School in my constituency. The pupils there told me that the No. 1 issue for them is plastics and litter in their environment. Pupils at Canning Street Primary School have also raised this with me. What is the Minister doing to get plastics out of the lives of the children in my constituency?

First, let me thank the tens of thousands of volunteers who participated in the month-long litter-picking campaign. It really matters that we try to tackle litter locally, and that is about education and activity. We have given councils extensive new powers to impose fines to try to reduce such behaviour.

The chair of the Environment Agency has highlighted the need for help in addressing coastal flooding. We need to protect not only houses, but some of the most fertile land in this country, from future flooding. Can we have a real plan for the way forward?

Yes. I have had the privilege with my hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of visiting the Steart peninsula in Somerset and seeing effective flood management that makes sure that we balance the need to protect nature with the need to preserve farmland. It is vital that we say more, and we will shortly in our national policy statement.

Thinking of young people and food production, the primary school in the small village of Inver in my constituency has a polytunnel. I do not know whether the school grows asparagus, but it certainly grows very good carrots and other vegetables to make delicious soup for the pupils. The pupils also sell the vegetables to their parents to make money for the school. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be very helpful if this idea were replicated in all schools across the UK? Perhaps, Mr Speaker, we could even have a polytunnel for hon. and right hon. Members to grow vegetables here on the estate.

That sounds very exciting, I must say—very entrepreneurial. I think it is time that I visited Caithness.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend been having with his Cabinet colleagues about cutting vehicle emissions—for instance, by improving the infrastructure of charging points in cities for electric and hybrid vehicles, which is absolutely critical to this aim?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have been working with the Secretaries of State for Transport, for Business and for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that charging points are automatically included in new developments. But there is more that we must do to ensure that we have an infrastructure that allows us to move towards ultra low emissions vehicles as quickly as possible.

Contrary to what the Secretary of State said to me last week, the DEFRA main estimate says that the budget for peatland restoration is unchanged. I am not going to ask for an apology, but the Secretary of State knows that peat amounts to 10% of our carbon dioxide emissions, so when is he going to increase the measly £6 million budget?

As much as I would like to continue indefinitely with these stimulating exchanges, I am afraid that we must move on.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Persecution of Christians: FCO Global Review

1. What response the Church of England has made to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s global review of the persecution of Christians, announced in December 2018. (910763)

The Church warmly welcomed the decision by the Foreign Secretary to launch an independent review of his Department’s support for persecuted Christians, which is being chaired by the Bishop of Truro. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster made a joint submission to that review, setting out practical recommendations for how the Government could take action to protect Christians facing persecution and to promote freedom of religion more widely.

The Sri Lanka terrorist attacks brought home the FCO’s recent review findings that Christians are suffering persecution at near genocide levels. Alongside the growing Christianophobia, there are growing incidents of Islamophobia—such as at Christchurch—and anti- semitism. What more can the Church of England do in co-ordinating international action across all faiths to combat hatred and violence against different faith communities by varied manifestations of the far right?

That interim report, which I recommend colleagues read, is quite a shocking revelation about how extensive the persecution of Christians and other minority religions around the world is. Just yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited the Foreign Secretary and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Lambeth Palace to discuss international religious freedom. The meeting included the Chief Rabbi and representatives of other faiths, because, as the Bishop of Rochester said in another place, it is almost impossible to predict when such terrorist attacks will occur and where.

The Foreign Secretary has commendably authorised that independent report, but does my right hon. Friend agree that unless the Department for International Development also engages with the interim report and with the recommendations in the final report when it is produced, this country will never achieve what it could achieve in addressing this issue internationally?

I do agree. In fact, one of the key points of the Church of England’s submission is that there needs to be a joined-up approach more widely, right across Government, to the challenges of keeping freedom of religion and belief. That is why, with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), I visited the former Minister who was jointly responsible at DFID and the Foreign Office to make sure that civil servants receive the right kind of training so that they really understand the threats that persecuted religious minorities face.

The right hon. Lady will be very aware of the situation in Sudan at the moment, with such a complex outcome following the removal of Bashir. Will she urge the Archbishop of Canterbury to look at the possibility of an early visit there to make sure that Christians in Sudan are protected?

This allows me to share with the House a bit of good news on a rather serious and depressing subject, which is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with Pope Francis, brokered a meeting in Rome of the key players from the Sudanese conflict zone. Those talks made really significant progress in bringing about peace in countries where a war has claimed over 400,000 lives.

International aid spending to recipient countries needs to be cut unless effective action is taken against attacks on Christians. Do the Church Commissioners agree?

The Church Commissioners are completely supportive of the statutory requirement in our law that 0.7% of our total income as a country should be spent on the world’s poorest people. In fact, DFID’s programmes direct themselves to the support of vulnerable minorities, but obviously the point of the report commissioned independently by the Foreign Secretary is to see how much more effective we can be at tackling the threats to religion and to people’s freedom of religion and belief.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voter Registration and Participation

While the commission’s remit does not include increasing participation in elections, it has an important duty to promote awareness of elections. The commission’s campaign for this year’s local elections saw over 570,000 applications, exceeding its target by 36%. Its campaign relating to the European parliamentary elections ended on Tuesday, and it saw a further 539,206 people apply to register. The commission also works to make improvements to the registration system itself. It is supporting the UK Government in their work to reform the canvass, and later this year it will publish the findings of feasibility studies examining how publicly held data could be used to improve the registration system.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but does she agree that we have seen a serious decline in registration activity? The number of young people registering in time for the Euro elections has been pitiful. The fact of the matter is that we can go digital and do all that stuff, but it used to be about knocking on someone’s door and checking that they were on the register, and that is what really worked.

My hon. Friend will know that the commission wants as many people as possible to be registered to vote and able to participate in our democracy, but he is right to point out that young people are far less likely to register to vote than others. I will make sure that the commission is aware of his concerns and takes account of what he said as its research work continues in this area.

Can the hon. Lady outline any discussions that have taken place regarding the ability to vote online and any security advice that has been sought with regard to that proposal?

I am not able to provide any recent updates, but I will ensure that the Electoral Commission contacts the hon. Gentleman to discuss his interest in that area.

House of Commons Commission

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Staff Bullying and Harassment: Cox Recommendations

4. What the timeframe is for the implementation of the recommendations made by Dame Laura Cox in her report on the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff. (910767)

Dame Laura made three fundamental recommendations. In response to the first, the Commission immediately terminated the Respect and Valuing Others policies. In response to the second, the Commission has been considering options for the investigation of non-recent cases of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct and expects to put a final proposal to the House before the summer recess. In response to the third, the Commission has agreed the establishment of a working group to consider how the process of complaints against MPs could be made fully independent, and we are in the process of agreeing the membership. Finally, the House service has appointed an independent director of cultural transformation, to translate Dame Laura’s wide recommendations into tangible, meaningful and lasting change.

I am grateful for the update. It is very important that the House is seen to be acting swiftly on this. Let us not forget that it is more than seven months since the report came out, and it is frankly damning that we are still talking about things happening in the future. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to get on with this and get the justice that victims deserve.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I can reassure him that the House of Commons Commission is considering these important recommendations at every meeting, but we have not made the progress that we should have done. These are complex issues, and we hope that the working group will be established soon, to process how to deal with complaints against MPs independently of Members of Parliament.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that response, but I want to push him a bit further. Underlying attitudes—sometimes misogynistic or deeply sexist attitudes—are frequently behind sexual harassment. What plans does the Commission have to implement training or awareness raising that targets people who are unlikely to take it up if they are not required to do so?

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. She may be aware that training is being made available to staff, and I understand that a trial will be made available for Members. Although the Commission and I are not in a position to require Members of Parliament to attend those sessions, I think it is essential that they do so.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voter Registration

The commission carries out regular assessments of the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers, including how levels of voter registration vary by demographics such as age and ethnicity. The most recent published assessment found that, across Great Britain, 85% of eligible people were correctly registered, and 91% of entries on the register were accurate. The commission’s next study, on the December 2018 registers, is due to be published later this year.

Before every election, the Electoral Commission runs an advertising campaign to get people registered, and it judges the effectiveness by the number of downloads of registration forms. Those advertising campaigns have cost as much as £90 per download. Bite The Ballot, an organisation that recruits young people in schools, can have a 100% success rate in going into sixth forms and getting people on to the electoral register, and it can do that for 25p a time. Will my hon. Friend take that back to the Electoral Commission and ask it to have service level agreements with Bite The Ballot and other organisations that have an effective record on registration?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has a keen interest in ensuring that people are registered to vote. The commission does not currently have service level agreements with other organisations. Instead, it collaborates through informal partnerships. The commission has a responsibility in law to raise awareness. There is plurality in the system, and that is its strength. However, I am sure that officials from the commission would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what more can be done in this area.

Has the commission made any assessment of the registration of EU citizens to vote in the European Union elections that are about to take place, and whether it would be appropriate for them to be able to take to polling stations on 23 May the form that they are required to have handed in by 7 May if they want to vote in those elections in the UK?

Following the 2014 European parliamentary elections, the commission did identify that the law needed to be simplified so that EU citizens from other member states might register to vote in the UK. However, following the EU referendum, the UK Government made it clear that the parliamentary elections to the European Parliament in 2019 would not take place, and therefore the commission did not continue to develop any further recommendations in this area.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Christian Community in Sri Lanka

7. What support the Church of England is offering to the Christian community in Sri Lanka in response to the recent terrorist attacks in that country. (910770)

These were appalling and despicable attacks, and those affected were in the prayers of millions right around the world on Easter Sunday. The attacks were clearly directed at the Christian community in Sri Lanka, attacks not just in their churches but in secular environments such as hotels where they were having Easter Sunday lunch. The Anglican Church in Sri Lanka is small but active, and it is working closely with the Anglican communion to build its capacity in the local community and to better protect itself.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. It is indeed tragic that 257 Christians were killed in the attacks directed at them on Easter Day. Everybody is entitled to freedom of religion and belief. Does she agree that the message we should send out from this House is that no faith sanctions conflict against another?

Will my right hon. Friend pass on to Christians in Sri Lanka just how much we admire their peaceful and dignified response, and indeed that of all Sri Lankans, to this atrocity?

I certainly will pass that on. The Archbishop of Canterbury immediately called the Bishop of Colombo after these attacks, and has offered support and help to bring the perpetrators to justice. The bishop himself has called for

“the safety of places of religious worship and to prevent any individuals or group taking the law into their hands or provoking acts of intimidation or violence against any community or group.”

This remains crucial in that country.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electoral Law

8. What recent representations she has received from the Electoral Commission on the effectiveness of electoral law. (910771)

The commission believes that there is an urgent need for simplified and modernised electoral law. It has submitted evidence to the recently announced inquiry on electoral law by the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs. The commission is concerned that a piecemeal approach to electoral law reform will increase complexity and inconsistency. As part of these reforms, it wants legislation to improve the transparency of digital campaigns, to bring greater alignment between party and candidate regulatory frameworks, and to strengthen the impact of its sanctions.

Does the hon. Lady share my concern that electoral law was broken in the EU referendum, the close result of which must now be questioned? Given that the Tories in Scotland were fined £400 by the Electoral Commission over a £100,000 dark money donation in the weeks before the 2016 Holyrood election, does she not agree that penalties for breaking electoral law must be urgently reviewed to ensure that they are fit for purpose and genuinely deter those minded to cheat?

The commission continues to urge each of the UK’s Governments to introduce legislation to strengthen its sanctioning powers. Its view is that the penalties need to be more proportionate to the income and expenditure of parties and campaigners.

Electoral law is far too important to play party politics with, in my view. I have the pleasure of serving on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I also served on the independent commission on referendums and their rules, run by the Constitution Unit. In its report, which was very comprehensive, we made a number of recommendations for changes to the law. May I ask the hon. Lady whether she has read that report, what she thinks of those recommendations and whether she, like me, would encourage the House to look at them urgently and pass them into law?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who raises an important point. Many of those recommendations are in alignment with the views of the Electoral Commission in urging change. She will know that the Government have indicated that they intend to bring forward changes to digital imprints for online campaigning, which will be an important step forward. I am sure that the commission would be grateful for any action she took to urge Ministers to bring forward that legislation as quickly as possible.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Cathedrals: Fire Safety

10. What steps the Church of England is taking with the Government to ensure the fire safety of cathedrals and churches following the Notre Dame fire. (910774)

Fire safety is a concern for all historic buildings, and they are particularly vulnerable during renovations or building works. Since the Notre Dame fire, the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division has worked with the Cathedral Architects Association to ensure that its records are up to date. It will continue to work closely on that issue, and a national conference on the matter is being considered.

George Osborne, the former Chancellor, found £40 million for the fabric of our cathedrals. Are we ensuring that that money is spent effectively, and that cathedrals work closely with local fire brigades?

The Church of England was deeply grateful to the former Chancellor for the £40 million of funding on the commemoration of the centenary of the first world war, and it resulted in important repair work to some of our most iconic buildings. For example, Lichfield cathedral was completely rewired, and it might otherwise have had to be closed because of the fire risk it represented.

What steps are being taken to support the creation of 3D laser maps to record our notable historical buildings and provide an accurate record of their construction in the event of damage?

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has enjoyed watching the TV programme “Ancient Invisible Cities”, where scanners are used to reveal what lies behind ancient buildings such as pyramids. I must tell the House, however, that such methods are very, very expensive. Lincoln and St Albans cathedrals have done that, but there are many other ways to try to be sure of the data on our cathedrals. We have good archives, maps, photographs and accounts that often give an excellent record of what lies behind those magnificent stones.

The hon. Gentleman’s impassive countenance suggests that he is not at this time willing to vouchsafe to us his viewing preferences, but they have been hinted at by the right hon. Lady, and perhaps he will update us on the matter in due course.

Refugees in Sri Lanka

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Asia and the Pacific what representation his Department has made to the Government of Sri Lanka regarding the safety of 1,193 UNHCR refugees in Negombo, who went to Sri Lanka fleeing religious persecution in their countries, but who now fear for their safety following the terrible Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.

Following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, there have been reports of isolated incidents of violence and of intimidation and discrimination against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers. In Negombo, a suburb to the north of Colombo where the terrorist attacks took place, 985 refugees and asylum seekers were forcibly displaced from their ordinary places of residence, according to UN figures. Those refugees and asylum seekers, who are mostly of Pakistani origin, are being temporarily housed and protected to meet their immediate security and humanitarian needs.

Our high commission in Colombo, led by our outstanding high commissioner, James Dauris, is in contact with the Government and UN agencies to work towards a more sustainable solution, and the UK is monitoring that situation carefully, along with other partners. The UN is providing basic support for food, drinking water, and immediate medical assistance, and co-ordinating with civil society to provide additional relief items. The humanitarian situation at the police station in Negombo is a concern. The police have so far been very welcoming, but we understand that facilities there are insufficient.

Staff at our high commission are assisting in advocating and co-ordinating with the Sri Lankan Government more generally to identify safe and secure relocation options to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. We understand that processes are under way for some of the refugees to be resettled in third countries, and 412 refugees are currently in the midst of the UNHCR resettlement process.

Ministers and representatives of the UK Government have met Sri Lankan counterparts over the past three weeks to reinforce the importance of inclusivity and respect for human rights in response to the Easter Sunday attacks, and to underline the importance of Sri Lankans working together to avoid intercommunal tensions. As was brought up earlier, I think we can all be pleased, without being complacent, that over the past three weeks there has been a sense of unity within Sri Lanka as a whole.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime visited Sri Lanka on 2 and 3 May, and met the President, the Prime Minister, military and religious leaders and senior Government officials to highlight the importance of those points and to talk more generally about security resilience. Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Lord Ahmad and I have met the Sri Lankan high commissioner over the past fortnight to raise general concerns about refugees and minority rights in Sri Lanka.

I think all of us want to put on the record our grave concern about what happened. These were terrible events and our commiserations go to all those who remain affected and will be affected for some years to come.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure we all send our heartfelt sympathy to the people of Sri Lanka and to all those mourning the loss of friends and family following the terrible Easter bombings.

Now that the spotlight of the media has turned, another tragedy is unfolding. There are 1,193 UNHCR refugees and asylum seekers, including 174 children, who have fled to three makeshift refugees camps in Negombo: the Pasyala Ahmadiyya mosque, the Negombo Ahmadiyya mosque and Negombo police station. Hostility towards Muslims following the attacks has led to growing violence, leading the refugees and asylum seekers to seek urgent safety. The conditions in the camps are worryingly inhumane. There is a severe lack of food and water, minimal toilet facilities, no medical facilities or basic sanitary facilities, no walls or beds, and not enough space to lie down. Over the bank holiday weekend, a child was born on the floor of one of the mosques. No doctor was present. Just this morning, latest updates indicated that more than one person had been taken to hospital due to illness.

The refugees and asylum seekers are largely from religious minorities who have suffered threats, attacks and persecution in their home countries. Many are Ahmadi Muslims who fled Pakistan, where their religious views may be punishable with death. Ahmadis identify as Muslims, but do not believe that Muhammad was the final prophet sent to guide mankind. This leads many of the refugees to be deemed to be “non-Muslim” in their home countries and to face persecution because of their beliefs. Now, in Sri Lanka, they face an imminent threat to their safety because they are considered to be Muslims.

The welfare of those in the makeshift camps is an immediate and serious concern, as is the possibility that these people will be forced to return to the places they fled from. Will the Minister use all his power to expedite the resettlement of the UNHCR refugees to safe third countries?

I thank the hon. Lady. She is very persistent: this is the third day running that she has applied for an urgent question on this matter. Robert the Bruce would be proud: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.

The hon. Lady makes a very serious point, not least about the Ahmadi Muslims and the terrible paradox of their situation. They are regarded as outcasts in much of the Muslim world, but find themselves very much at the forefront of tensions. It is important that we do not overstate those tensions. As I said in my statement, the high commission on the ground and our UNHCR partners will do all we can, but it is remarkable that, given the history of intercommunal conflict in Sri Lanka, over the past three weeks there has been relatively little that has led to direct concern. However, she is also quite right to say that housing over 1,698 asylum seekers and refugees, according to UN figures, in three unsatisfactory makeshift camps—the Negombo police station and the two mosques—is clearly not sustainable.

Civil society contacts with whom we are working have reported other incidents of displacement and harassment of refugees in other parts of Colombo. It is important to recognise that we work together with many other high commissions and embassies in the area, including those of the US, Canada and a number of European countries who have a strong Sri Lankan diaspora whom they also wish to represent.

Can the Minister be more specific about the support the Government are giving to the Christian community in Sri Lanka following the Easter Sunday attacks?

I am always touched by the amount of work my hon. Friend does in this regard, not just in Sri Lanka, but across the world. We are of course concerned at reports of minorities being intimidated, and as she rightly says, the focus of the attacks on Easter Sunday was the Christian community in several locations across Sri Lanka. As she will know, we welcome the interim report by the Bishop of Truro on the persecution of Christians worldwide and we look forward to the final report, which is to be published in the summer.

Freedom of religion and belief is clearly a priority for the Foreign Office, and we and our high commission are working to ensure that the threads of the report that are particularly relevant to Sri Lanka will have an impact there. The Christian community in Sri Lanka is of long standing. Part is Roman Catholic and other bits are Anglican, from our colonial times, but we hope to work together with all Christian communities. This is part and parcel of a package that does not represent one religion above others, but ensures that in this melting pot within Sri Lanka, all religions and faiths can live side by side peaceably and in prosperity.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing it. She has been very persistent and is right to draw to the House’s attention the plight of these refugees. I also thank the Minister for his response. I know he is very busy at the moment covering a large number of countries, but he brings a dedication to these issues, for which we are all grateful.

It is a matter great sadness that, despite the surge of national unity led by the Sri Lankan Government in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, groups of mindless individuals have instead responded to the attacks with reprisals against the refugee communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. They have responded to an act of sectarian hatred with further acts of sectarian hatred, which ultimately is what the terrorists want. The Sri Lankan Government have as much of a duty to crack down on this violence and to protect those refugee communities as they have to track down the organisers of the Easter Sunday bombings.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I wholeheartedly endorse the demands of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the other non-governmental organisations about what the Sri Lankan Government must do now to protect the refugees and make sure they are given adequate shelter and care while the situation is resolved. Will the Minister say today that the Government will not just endorse those demands but press counterparts in Sri Lanka to act on them? Will he also tell the House what support the Government are providing to Sri Lanka and whether, if any help is requested by the Sri Lankans, the British Government will respond?

As my hon. Friend said, the bitter irony is that many of these refugees in Sri Lanka are there having already fled religious persecution, and they have done so only to find themselves under attack again. The Government of Sri Lanka must urgently protect them.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words about my work. We have been on the opposite sides of this Chamber and other Chambers in this place several times in the past 48 hours, and I thank her for her constructive comments and for the work she does. She is absolutely right that we need to nip in the bud any return to sectarian hatred—something that is well known to anyone who has Sri Lanka close to their heart. The report makes very clear what is expected of the Sri Lankan Government, and we very much hope to work closely with them.

I have been to Sri Lanka as a Minister on three occasions in the past two years. It is a country that we take seriously, and I was very keen for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime to go out there in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, not least because we have some expertise to share in the important areas of institutionalised communication and preparedness. It is not for us to dictate that agenda, and obviously there is already important co-operation on the security and intelligence side, but we need to work closely on structures for the future to ensure that any sectarian hatred is nipped in the bud. When my right hon. Friend was in Sri Lanka, he met key national security figures, including the Defence Secretary, the State Minister of Defence and the army commander, as well as the Prime Minister. He also met the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo.

We see our role as not to dictate but, hopefully, to provide useful advice. More generally, I hope that our experience as a result of what has happened in one part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—can bear well on moving towards the reconciliation that all Sri Lankans deserve.

The Sri Lankan economy has recently benefited from increased tourism, particularly through cruise ship visits. Can the Minister assure me that he keeps the travel advice for British citizens on Sri Lanka under constant review? How can he ensure that our visitors to Sri Lanka continue to contribute to its economy?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her constructive thoughts; she is absolutely right. To recap, on 25 April the FCO amended our travel advice: we now advise against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka, except for airport transit. Obviously we hope that our advice can be adjusted as soon as possible, when the security situation allows, but given the somewhat chaotic immediate aftermath of the attacks, we felt that it was prudent. However, we understand that cruises and the fledgling but successful tourism industry in Sri Lanka will be very badly affected until we feel it is wise to update our travel advice.

The Foreign Secretary has made a statement to the House about the steps that the Government will take in the aftermath of the attacks. We very much hope to be able at the earliest opportunity to ease the travel restrictions that we put in place three weeks ago, but obviously that will be led by the evidence and the facts on the ground.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker; I commend the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing it. I concur with her words and those of the shadow Minister and the Minister of State. We add to those messages of sympathy to the people of Sri Lanka and those who have been caught up in the horrendous terror attacks of Easter Sunday. It is clear that some have heeded the wise words about compassion and tolerance spoken by the Bishop of Colombo, Dhiloraj Canagasabey, in response to the attacks, but that others have not. I hope that those words will now be heeded.

This is a tragedy heaped on a tragedy. Many of those who were caught up in the horrific terror attacks were already refugees: Ahmadis and Christians from Pakistan, Shi’as from Afghanistan, and refugees from Iran who had fled from religious, ethnic and political persecution in their country. What further assistance can the Minister provide to the UNCHR in expediting asylum claims? What assistance can he offer to the Sri Lankan Government? If, for whatever reason, the Sri Lankan Government cannot offer asylum, what can the UK Government and their counterparts do to ensure that these poor people are offered safe refuge as soon as possible?

I know that the hon. Gentleman also applied for an urgent question on the matter; I suspect that he will table more next week on related matters.

Clearly we are working together. The pace at which we are working with UN agencies has increased in the aftermath of the attacks. As I mentioned, 412 individuals are already going through the process of resettlement to other parts of the world. We will continue to work closely with our partners in Sri Lanka; obviously there is a process that needs to be gone through, but we and they will try to expedite it to ensure that those refugees who are entitled to be moved on are moved on as quickly as possible.

I do not want to trivialise these matters, but we are obviously very pleased to see that the Sri Lankan cricket team has arrived in the UK for the world cup, which is imminent. That has some relevance at this point, because the first match of the one-day international series, which I believe will take place on Saturday week, will be against Scotland, of all places. I hope that, in true Scottish national style, the team will be given a very good welcome when they play in Broughty Ferry, or wherever it may be.

The terrorists declared war on civil society and against the peace of Easter Sunday. What support can the Government give the Sri Lankan authorities so that they can take speedy decisions and actions against reprisal attacks, which would only aid the terrorists in their objectives?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: sectarian hatred needs to be stamped out. That is clearly a matter for the Sri Lankan authorities, but we obviously stand ready to co-operate and assist in any way in which we may be asked to do so.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for asking the urgent question. The Minister said that 412 refugees were currently involved in the UNHCR resettlement process. May I press him on that? How many of those refugees does the UK intend to take, and what more can we do with the UNHCR to increase the number who are resettled and brought quickly to a safe haven?

I hope the hon. Lady will excuse me if I write to her with more specific details once I have them to hand.

Will my right hon. Friend commend the local Muslim communities who have already given many refugees shelter in mosques? What more can this country do to help with those camps, which appear to be pretty unpalatable at present?

As my hon. Friend says, this can only be a short-term, interim measure, and we need something much more sustainable in future. The Government are spending £8.3 million of Conflict, Stability and Security Fund money on interfaith dialogue, reconciliation, police reform and training and de-mining in Sri Lanka, and a large sum on a wide range of other work, but I hope that elements of that can be used to deal with this urgent problem as well.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) has said, these refugee communities belong to religious minorities. Will the Minister make it clear to his Sri Lankan counterpart that there can be no question of their returning to Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran, where they will inevitably face religious persecution?

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that when there is a well-founded case for refugee and asylum status, there should be no question of that.

It is easy to find compassion for people who were persecuted, left Pakistan, came to Sri Lanka and now face further persecution. Will the Minister confirm that he will stand up for the Ahmadis, who have been through so much, and is there anything practical that the international community can do to help the Sri Lankan authorities on the ground?

I hope that I have explained in some detail what we are doing on the ground, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we will do all that we can. The plight of the Ahmadis, which is a global plight, is close to our hearts. As my hon. Friend probably knows, Lord Ahmad himself is an Ahmadi Muslim.

Given that the underlying issue is discrimination, and given that many of these poor refugees come from Pakistan, what representations will the Minister make to Imran Khan to make it clear that the blasphemy laws have no place in a modern world? They have caused not only this problem, but the case of Asia Bibi and, previously, the deaths of Salmaan Taseer and my friend Shahbaz Bhatti. It is about time that those laws were removed. Will the Minister do something about it?

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that our own high commission, and our excellent high commissioner Tom Drew in Islamabad, have made our concerns very clear. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Asia Bibi case. I think that we were all greatly relieved at the outcome, but obviously the security of her family is still at the forefront of our minds. I do not want comment on further speculation, but the fact that this matter has been resolved is, I think, a tribute not just to the Pakistan authorities but, in particular, to the new Pakistani Government. However, I will endeavour to ensure that our high commission is made fully aware of the specific concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Will the Minister undertake to raise with Sri Lanka the need to seek UNHCR assistance in managing the settlements so that they are not de facto detention camps? Also, further efforts need to be made for the security of these refugees, and Sri Lanka needs to deploy adequate numbers of law enforcement officers to ensure the protection and security of these vulnerable people.

The right hon. Lady makes the valid point that there is a risk, particularly if resettlement takes longer than we would all wish, that the settlements become de facto detention camps, which would be an unsatisfactory state of affairs, to put it mildly. As I have said, my counterpart from the Home Office was in Sri Lanka only last week and I know these sorts of issues were actively discussed. We will continue to make the case to which the right hon. Lady has referred.

The Minister will be aware that the Ahmadi community in the UK is very active, including delivering condolence cards to Christian churches here following the attack in Sri Lanka and raising lots of money for charity in the UK and abroad. If that community chooses to fundraise for the refugees in Sri Lanka would the Government be able to match, or indeed better, the sum it raises?

I had better be a little careful because though I have these added responsibilities, I do not have Treasury responsibilities. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right that it would be useful if we were able to match that sum in the way that we have on other occasions; perhaps he could write to me with specific details of that and I will take it up with the Treasury and other Departments.

Vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka must be protected, and the Sri Lankan Government have given an undertaking to protect those who wish to worship their God. What has been done to assist those Ahmadis who have fled Pakistan in fear but are now afraid in Sri Lanka and seek somewhere else to relocate to to achieve that?

The hon. Gentleman always speaks for the dispossessed across the world and stands up for the freedom of religious belief. As I have said, we are working closely on the ground to do all we can with international partners, particularly the UN, to make life better for those impacted. I hope to report back either in FCO questions next week, or in due course, about progress in what is happening in Sri Lanka.

Business of the House

The business for next week will include:

Monday 13 May—Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Preparation for Digital Services) Bill.

Tuesday 14 May—Opposition day (unallotted day). There will be a debate on prisons and probation followed by a debate entitled “Health and local public health cuts”. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Wednesday15 May—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (Further Implementation etc.) Regulations 2019, followed by a general debate on serious violence.

Thursday 16 May—General debate on the definition of Islamophobia, followed by a general debate on the international day against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. The subjects of these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 17 May—The House will not be sitting.

Colleagues will also wish to know that subject to the progress of business the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the close of business on Thursday 23 May and return on Tuesday 4 June.

The whole House will want to join me in congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the birth of their new son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. We wish them a lifetime of happiness together.

I am delighted that the Bill to enable the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster has this week been introduced. In the wake of the tragic fire at Notre Dame, and with clear evidence here from recent fire incidents as well as falling masonry and many other safety issues, this Bill is vital to ensure we safeguard the seat of our democracy for future generations.

Finally, I am looking forward to taking part in one of the first voluntary independent complaints and grievance scheme training sessions for Members of Parliament later today, and I encourage all Members to show their commitment to our new behaviour code by taking part in one of the training sessions as soon as they can. As the six-month review of the ICGS is now well under way, the roll-out of the training for staff and Members will continue to demonstrate our commitment to treating everyone with dignity and respect.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I was going to ask her for the Whitsun recess dates, so I am pleased that she has announced them. May I ask for an update on when we are likely to get the list of ministerial responsibilities? I should also like to press her on the summer recess dates. The deputy Prime Minister said that he thought 2 July was the cut-off date for EU matters. It should not be beyond the House to provide those dates.

Members have often raised the issue of Ministers and other MPs visiting their constituencies without giving notice, and it has now happened to me. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) kindly informed me that she was coming to my constituency, in fact getting me an invitation to launch a train—apparently there will be tea and sandwiches in one of my favourite places in the constituency, the New Art Gallery—but I had not even been invited, even though those events were taking place in my constituency. This is the second time that that has happened. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), kindly apologised to me when I was given notice of an event only two hours before she visited. Those Members were actually being quite helpful; it is just that something is going wrong with the offices and the invites. Will the Leader of the House please raise these courtesies and protocols with her colleagues? Members should be told about these visits, and indeed invited to the events.

I am pleased that the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill has been introduced. As we have all said, the skills and jobs should benefit all our constituencies throughout the country, not just a few property companies based here in London. We need to ensure that our constituents are involved. I say gently to the Leader of the House that I am sure the Clerk of the House practically faints when she mentions Notre Dame, because he would never allow people to be in this building if it was not safe. We know that people are constantly firefighting here every day, and no one would be allowed in the building if it was as unsafe as that.

Will the Leader of the House update us on when the withdrawal agreement Bill will be introduced? There has been some debate in the media about that. I do not think it was Faisal Islam who tweeted about it this time, but there has been some suggestion that it could be next Thursday, and I know that a Backbench debate has been scheduled for that day. Are the Government going to bring back the withdrawal agreement Bill next week?

We need certainty on that matter, because the right hon. Lady will have seen the research from the Incorporated Society of Musicians which shows that the uncertainty over Brexit is continuing to cause real damage to the music industry, which is a very important part of our GDP. The ISM has concerns about future work, mobility, visas, transportation of instruments and equipment, and health and social security. The research showed that 63 respondents cited difficulty in securing future work in the EU27 and EEA countries as the biggest issue that they faced because of Brexit. More than one in 10 respondents reported that offers of work had been withdrawn or cancelled with Brexit being given as the reason. May we have more certainty for that sector?

Many Members are trying on the captain’s hat, even though there is no vacancy for the captain of the ship, but as they look through the periscope, they will see that 200,000 nurses have left the NHS since 2010. If there is not a crisis, why are the Government having to recruit tens of thousands of nurses from overseas? It is because nurses are being driven out of the overstretched NHS owing to the lack of Government funding. Why are we seeing the first sustained fall in GP numbers in the UK in 50 years? Why are they leaving the profession? We also know that 30,000 ambulance staff have quit their jobs. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Health—when he takes off the captain’s hat—makes a statement on that crisis?

When the Home Secretary takes off the captain’s hat and looks through the periscope, he will see the crisis on our streets. The Prime Minister said yesterday that she had chaired a summit and a taskforce, and there will be a general debate on serious violence next week. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) wanted to raise this matter with the Leader of the House. Will she ensure that the Home Secretary comes to the House next week to report on the taskforce and to tell us exactly what is going to happen to stop people dying needlessly? Our police need their resources. Our criminal justice system also needs resources, and barristers are about to walk out on strike. It was no good the Leader of the House saying last week that it is up to the Justice Committee to respond when I raised the Criminal Bar Association’s strike. She cannot outsource responses to Select Committees; we need to know what the Government are doing.

The Leader of the House kindly said that she would get an answer to Opposition day motions within eight weeks, but exactly when will our climate emergency motion receive a response? The clue is in the word “emergency”. She will have seen the news about the effect of climate change on the unprecedented decline in biodiversity, and I will read out the whole thing so that people know what I mean. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services says that

“1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction”.

We need a response, and I understand that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did not say when he would respond to our Opposition day motion.

May we have a debate in Government time on their flagship digital identification system Verify, which is failing its users? Only 3.9 million people have signed up, and it will affect those applying for universal credit most of all. Some 25 million users are expected by 2020.

I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee agreed to a debate today, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), in tribute to John Smith, the former leader of the Labour party, as we approach the 25th anniversary of his death on 12 May. He served as an MP for 24 years, and I am sure that hon. Members will do him justice. I remember the image of Smith and Brown striding into the Commons to take the Government apart with their brilliant arguments. At this time, we think of his widow Elizabeth and his brilliant daughters Sarah, Jane and Catherine. He would have been pleased that today is also Europe Day, which marks peace and prosperity within Europe.

The Opposition also wish Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor and all the babies born this week peace and prosperity for their futures.

The hon. Lady raises several issues. The list of ministerial responsibilities will be updated in due course, and the summer recess is obviously subject to the progress, so I will announce it as soon as I can.

As for West Midlands Trains, I am glad that the hon. Lady accepts that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) went out of her way to ensure that she was invited. It was a matter for West Midlands Trains and has nothing to do with any Government mission. As a matter of fact, when my hon. Friend raised the issue with West Midlands Trains, she was told that the hon. Lady had in fact been invited but had not checked her emails. I hope that that deals with that query. The hon. Lady should feel free to apologise to my hon. Friend if she wants to.

Turning to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, I am glad that the hon. Lady shares my delight at its introduction. I am particularly grateful to her for being one of the Bill’s sponsors. It is important that it is a parliamentary project, so I am delighted by the cross-party support for it.

The hon. Lady asked when the withdrawal agreement Bill will be introduced, but that is obviously subject to the talks with the Opposition. so I am sure that she will able to get an update from her own side. It is the Government’s intention to seek cross-party agreement to get a Bill that the whole House can support. It is absolutely essential that we leave the European Union, and it is utterly unacceptable that we have not done so three years after the referendum. I say to all hon. Members who are worried about the impact on businesses and on people going about their everyday lives that if they support the withdrawal agreement Bill, we can put such issues to rest and get on with the important matters that our constituents are concerned about.

The hon. Lady mentioned GPs, and I can tell her that under this Government the NHS is having its biggest-ever investment, with £33.9 billion in cash terms by 2023-24. There are over 4,500 more paramedics since this Government took office, and Health Education England recruited the highest number of GP trainees ever last year—nearly 3,500. We are committed to increasing access to general practice, which is vital to us all. The hon. Lady raises the issue of serious violence and the serious violence taskforce, and I hope that she noticed that, in response to the many requests from across the House, I announced that we will hold a debate in Government time on serious violence next week. It is my expectation that the Home Secretary will lead the debate—although, of course, that is not a matter for me to determine—and it is for Departments to decide who is the appropriate responder.

On Opposition day responses, I confirmed a couple of weeks ago that, in response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s recent report on resolutions of the House of Commons, I have shortened the deadline for the Government to respond to motions passed by the House, from 12 weeks to eight weeks, to ensure the House gets those responses faster, while still ensuring that there is time for full and proper consideration of resolutions.

Finally, the Government and all parties agree that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world. To give the hon. Lady a few of the Government’s actions, we have planted 15 million trees since 2010; we are calling for an increase from 10% to 30% of the world’s oceans to be marine protected areas by 2030; we have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 25% since 2010; and we have launched a 25-year environment plan with a pledge to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste. Those are just a few examples of this Government’s excellent work, and we are determined to be world leading in our actions, not words, to tackle the global challenge of climate change.

May we have an urgent debate on the Turkish incursion into the Cyprus exclusive economic zone? The incursion is unlawful and unacceptable, and it is shocking that a NATO ally is responsible. This House needs an opportunity to condemn those actions.

My right hon. Friend raises a serious issue that I am sure she will wish to raise at Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday 14 May. I commend her for raising the importance of such an issue.