House of Commons
Thursday 20 June 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Account of the Contingencies Fund 2018-19
That there be laid before this House an Account of the Contingencies Fund 2018-19, showing—
(1) A statement of Financial Position;
(2) A statement of Cash Flows, and
(3) Notes of the Accounts; together with the Certificate and Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General thereon.—(Iain Stewart.)
A Whip or a Minister nods in such situations. Nothing further is said or done. There can be no opposition.
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Government Contracts: Climate Emergency
How grateful I am, Mr Speaker, to hear you say that there can indeed be no opposition.
Tackling the climate change and environment emergency is a cross-Government priority and an issue that I discuss regularly with Cabinet colleagues. The greening Government commitments include specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving sustainable procurement. Those commitments demonstrate the Government’s leadership in improving the environmental sustainability of their own estate, and the 2018 revisions to the Green Book have also improved the evaluation of the natural capital impacts of Government decision making.
Tomorrow, young people in Nottingham will demonstrate because we are not moving quickly enough on our climate emergency. This House declared such an emergency on 1 May, saying that the Government should
“set ambitious, short-term targets for… low carbon energy and transport”.
When we will see those targets?
It is already the case that we are the first Government of a developed nation to embrace the ambition of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. I congratulate the Members across the House who have campaigned to ensure that that commitment is at the heart of this Government’s proposals—indeed, it is a vision—to ensure that we leave a cleaner, greener planet for the next generation.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office team on their amazing diplomatic success in the negotiations with Italy, which mean that next year’s global climate change conference is almost certain to come to London?
The Foreign Secretary has done an outstanding job on the diplomatic stage and will continue to do so. Co-operating with our partners across western Europe, including Italy, will ensure that the 2020 conference of parties brings nations together to deal with this global challenge. The Secretary of State for International Development has also played a distinguished role alongside the Foreign Secretary in using our global footprint to ensure that our planet is in a more sustainable state.
I congratulate the students in his constituency and so many other students across the country on helping to ensure that our climate and environment emergency is at the heart of our decision making. We will put greening Government and greening the whole country at the heart of our decision making in the forthcoming spending review.
Food Producers: Overseas Marketing
I met with the Secretary of State for International Trade yesterday, and he told me that he had just come back from Turkey, where he had been exploring opportunities for British trade, including in food and drink. On Monday, I signed an agreement with China which means that British beef could be back on Chinese dinner plates by the end of the year, which could be worth £230 million over five years to our world-class beef producers. Those are just two examples of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Trade working closely to raise the international profile and reputation of the UK’s high-quality food and drink products, to open new markets, and to boost our exports.
I am grateful to the Minister for that timely answer. How successful has the GREAT campaign been at showcasing UK produce to markets around the world?
It has been great, as it says on the can. DEFRA’s “Food is GREAT” campaign supports DIT’s trade promotion activity, including at trade shows and meet-the-buyer events. It helps businesses to succeed in overseas markets by ensuring global recognition of UK excellence in food and drink, while encouraging our food and drink companies to export more.
This just shows what a barmy army we have on the Government Front Bench. To want more beef to be produced and shipped thousands of miles to China shows that they have not learned the lessons of sustainability or climate change danger. They had better learn those lessons quickly and do something to save our planet.
As a former Shipping Minister, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that 30% of containers go back to China empty, so there is tremendous potential for shipping goods to China without increasing our carbon footprint.
British breakfast cereals are among the best in the world and none is finer than Weetabix, which is based in the Kettering constituency and which sources its wheat from farms within a 50-mile radius of the factory. Will my right hon. Friend be the great British breakfast champion?
I am a great fan of Weetabix, not least because I am a wheat producer myself. Indeed, I have driven past the Weetabix factory in his constituency with my hon. Friend, and I quite fancy going to visit when my diary allows.
At the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that the EU would continue to protect UK protected geographical indications because they are European law. That seems to be incorrect. Was he mistaken, or did someone mislead him? Will he now put the record straight?
Geographical indications are important not only for producers but so that consumers know they are getting the real thing. It is important that we get that protection in our negotiations with the EU through the implementation period while, at the same time, talking to other trading partners around the world who may have different systems. We need to ensure that those systems dovetail closely with ours.
On a recent visit to seafood companies in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area, the American ambassador encouraged Young’s Seafood to export even more to the United States. What assistance can the Department give?
We are keen to export seafood around the world. Brown crab from my constituency is exported to China, whelks are exported to South Korea, and I hope that the Americans will enjoy even more of our seafood and other products when we leave the EU and can negotiate those trade agreements around the world.
I want to press the Minister on geographical indications, which are vital in our marketing of goods and products made across the country. In the event of a no deal, about which the frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest seems quite keen, protections for Cornish pasties, Buxton blue cheese, traditional Welsh perry, Cornish clotted cream and Whitstable oysters, to name but a few, will be at risk. What steps is DEFRA taking to ensure that those vital goods produced by our farmers and growers are protected come Halloween this year?
In a no-deal situation, we would wish to set up our own scheme and to negotiate with our friends across the channel to ensure some degree of co-operation, but I stress that no deal is not an option I would want to support. We need to get a deal, and we need to get it over the line. If, like me, Opposition Members had voted for the deal on the three occasions it came before the House, we would have left the European Union on 29 March and we would be in a much better situation for UK producers.
To increase tree planting rates, we have changed how our main grant schemes work. The woodland carbon fund now supports infrastructure such as roads and is available for smaller projects. The countryside stewardship woodland creation grant is now open for applications all year, rather than in short windows, which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to planting 11 million trees during this Parliament.
I thank my hon. Friend for his response. However, his passion for planting trees seems to be in conflict with the practice of both Network Rail and Highways England, which have decimated thousands of mature trees that lined the railway and motorway embankments through Long Eaton, Sawley and Breaston in my constituency and that acted as a vital natural sound and visual barrier. May I urge him and his counterparts in the Department for Transport to intervene to ensure that mature trees are reinstated on those embankments as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend is, and continues to be, a strong champion for Erewash in all ways. I recognise that removing trees can be concerning, which is why DEFRA is working closely with DFT to deliver a new policy for Network Rail, with the aim of improving its current approach to managing vegetation so that it enhances biodiversity on our rail network. That is in line with the recommendations of John Varley’s review of Network Rail’s vegetation management.
I planted some 3,500 trees on my land 10 years ago, so I see the benefits. Will the Minister further outline what help, advice and practical and financial support is available for landowners to prepare land for trees to be planted?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his efforts in helping to achieve our wider target. As I have explained, we are working hard to make our current schemes much more flexible. We will also be introducing the woodland carbon guarantee—£50 million in the Budget—and we launched the £10 million urban tree challenge fund just a few weeks ago.
Will the Minister join me in celebrating the 9 million trees planted over the past 30 years to create the new national forest? My constituency, at the centre of it, has seen a massive improvement in not only the environment but the quality of life, for visitors and residents alike.
I have had the chance to go to the national forest in my hon. Friend’s constituency on two occasions, and he is a fantastic champion and ambassador for the national forest. We need to take lessons from that and apply them in the northern forest as well, to see what the exciting opportunities can be.
The role of tree planting in tackling climate change is well documented. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) promised during his leadership bid to plant 100 million trees. The Minister has been mentioning targets, so it is disappointing to read this week that the Government are falling woefully short—by 71%—of their targets. Can the Minister explain why that is? What is he doing about it? How long will it be before we see the Secretary of State’s targets actually met?
We have set out a clear target of planting 11 million trees in this Parliament. We are at 3.6 million now and on the trajectory to achieve that target of 11 million, so I assure the hon. Lady that we are working in that direction. We have also set out strong aspirations to increase our woodland cover from 10% to 12% within the 25-year environment plan. We have stretching targets and we will move further forward.
Leaving the EU: Food Shortages
The Government have been undertaking extensive work to prepare for a no-deal scenario for the past two years, to ensure that trade continues to operate smoothly from the day we leave. We have long-established relationships with industry, and we are working closely with key stakeholders to prepare for all scenarios. The UK has a high level of food security, built on diverse sources, and this will continue to be the case when we leave the EU.
In reality, only just over half of the food we eat is made in Britain, with more than a third coming from the EU. Given that the Food and Drink Federation is predicting that after a no-deal Brexit fresh fruit and veg would run out after two weeks, why are the remaining contenders in the Tory leadership battle continuing to entertain this damaging prospect? Does he not agree that scurvy back on our streets is more important than the whims of fundamentalist party members’ wishes?
The hon. Lady has ruined a perfectly reasonable question by exaggerating. Of course we are preparing for every eventuality. As we have said already in these questions, a deal is the best outcome, and we all have a responsibility to help deliver that. We are preparing for all outcomes.
So will my hon. Friend confirm that my constituents do not need to stock up with tins of Spam or apricots in syrup?
We are not going to endorse any particular brand, but it is important to note that we have a rich and diverse source of food, and that will continue when we leave the EU.
Can the Secretary of State reassure my local businesses, which supply millions of people across the UK with high-quality food products, that enough refrigeration units will be in place to cope with the predicted delays at UK ports after our exit from the EU?
The hon. Gentleman can be assured that I have regular meetings—each week—with the main stakeholders in the food industry to prepare for no deal. We are looking at all eventualities. Primarily, we are looking at how we can ensure the flow of trade; that is our vital priority.
Yesterday, the Rural Payments Agency announced that it will make payments next month to all those who have been waiting on the historical revenue payments, and therefore every farmer who has been taking part in environmental and countryside stewardship schemes, which deliver important benefits for our environment, will receive the money that they deserve.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, because many farmers in my constituency have regularly complained to me about the delays in countryside stewardship scheme payments. Will he expand on that answer for those who, in some instances, have had to wait more than 600 days for payments?
My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for Hertfordshire farmers and indeed for workers across the English countryside. He is absolutely right: past performance has not been good enough. That is why I am so pleased that the RPA’s chief executive, Paul Caldwell, will make sure that all back payments are cleared next month.
I hope the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) realises that he has just been canvassed.
Last Thursday, the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), and I visited Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services. We met farmers who had not been paid for 18 months, so payments in July would be welcome. Will they get interest on the late payments?
The hon. Lady is a superb advocate for the farmers of upper Teesdale, County Durham and England, and it is not too late for her to cross the House. She makes a fair point, and I will look into it.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), as we leave the European Union we will build up more and more environmentally friendly agricultural policy, so stewardship schemes will be more important than ever. There has been a loss of faith in them, and I am worried about the future programme, because farmers really do not like the complexity and have waited far too long for their payments.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point; the schemes have been bedevilled by unnecessary complexity in the past. It is critical that as we leave the European Union and have new environmental land-management schemes, they are both simpler and more effective in supporting farmers in the wonderful work that they do.
In calling Dr David Drew, I remind Members and inform others that the hon. Gentleman has a doctorate in rural economy.
I know that, as always, you are my biggest fan, Mr Speaker.
I hear what the Secretary of State says, but one reason for the current collapse in the take-up of environmental agri-ecology schemes is the slowness and lateness of payments, which is bedevilling the pilots for the environmental land-management schemes. Will the Secretary of State assure me that those pilots will now get under way?
We have strengthened the national planning policy framework to make it clear that all development within its scope should achieve net gains for biodiversity. We have consulted on proposals to mandate biodiversity net gain for development, and will use the forthcoming environment Bill to legislate for a net gain system.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but will she assure me that she is taking action to ensure that all major infrastructure projects comply with all environmental licences, permissions and protections?
Large infrastructure projects may require an environmental impact assessment of the likely effects. In the case of nationally significant infrastructure projects, the EEA forms a part of the planning process and the development consent order. I assure my hon. Friend that each consenting regime has appropriate enforcement mechanisms.
West Oxfordshire wants the design of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds garden village to enhance, not harm, the environment. What guidance have Ministers given to developers on how garden villages can enhance things such as wildlife corridors and biodiversity in new developments?
Well-planned, locally led garden communities can play a vital role, not only in meeting the country’s housing needs and providing a stable pipeline of high-quality homes but by providing such opportunities as my hon. Friend referred to. In fact, they will be mandated to do so, to improve wildlife corridors and promote health and wellbeing and quality of life. That could be a win-win for my hon. Friend’s constituents.
What levers will the Minister have?
We have updated the planning guidance for the planning policy. As we set out in the consultation, we intend to develop in the environment Bill an update of metrics for biodiversity and wider environmental net gains. We will provide practical tools to support developers and, critically, local planning authorities to achieve better environmental outcomes for every development.
A 38 Degrees petition started by Norman Pasley from Bristol is calling for legislation on the installation of swift boxes in all new housing developments, and it has more than 130,000 signatures. As parliamentary species champion for the swift, I urge Ministers to support the campaign. Perhaps the Secretary of State in particular would like to make it his legacy from his time at the Department.
Hopefully, the hon. Lady will be swift in her praise for the work we are doing with the forthcoming environment Bill. As the species champion for bitterns, which are literally booming as we speak, I know that this issue matters. We want to take more proactive approaches to how we protect species. I am not sure whether a swift box in every single house is the right thing, as opposed to all sorts of other things such as beetle hotels—there is a wide variety—but we need to make sure that we encourage a wide range of biodiversity for birds, for wildlife and for the protection of nature for future generations.
The crowing from the Department about their bird policy this morning is rather touching. The Minister will be aware that changes by the water undertakers to discharge water regulations are causing concern for the Bathroom Manufacturers Association and house builders. Will she meet me and a small delegation to discuss how future developments can better look after our waste water?
I am sure that we can work that in with the question on developers and biodiversity, Mr Speaker. I recently responded to a written question and a letter from the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he can look at that first before we consider a further meeting.
The RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, which both have fantastic reserves in my constituency in the Newport wetlands and the Magor marsh, are strongly supportive of establishing a nature recovery network to restore and repair habitats. Will the Government commit to putting that on a statutory footing?
I have the wonderful RSPB Minsmere and various Suffolk Wildlife Trust sites in my constituency. That is already our pledge. It was in the 25-year environment plan and will be in the forthcoming environment Bill.
My constituents are up in arms about the felling of trees and vegetation to make way for HS2 during the nesting season. Will my hon. Friend confirm the Government’s commitment to biodiversity net gain for new developments?
That is absolutely the case. My right hon. Friend spoke to me this morning about this issue. I will follow up on it, because when major infrastructure projects go ahead, it is important that people should have confidence, and while some vegetation might need to be removed, HS2 is supposed to be planting at least 5 million trees. We will make sure that it does so.
Seasonal Agricultural Workers Pilot Scheme
The Government have introduced a new immigration pilot scheme for 2019 and 2020 to enable up to 2,500 non-European economic area migrant workers to come to the UK to undertake seasonal employment in the edible horticultural sector. DEFRA and the Home Office will evaluate the outcome before taking any decisions on future arrangements.
Government Members seem to be obsessed with 31 October. That is a pity, because harvest is coming rather sooner, and I wish they would show a similar interest in that. The NFU has made it absolutely clear that we need a permanent, fully functioning system and that at least 10,000 new workers are required in this area. Why will the Government not act, and why will the Home Office not take proper action?
It is important that we evaluate the pilot before moving further. From my point of view, we are meeting the requirements. We had 700 workers here already by the end of May and we expect to reach the peak in the middle of the summer picking season, although the Home Office might look at how many of those workers go back to the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Moldova at the end. We will need to evaluate that after the pilot before going further.
Absolutely. We understand how big an issue this is. Some 28% of those working in food and drink manufacturing, including fish processing, are from the European Union. That is 106,000 people. It is important that they understand that, whichever way we leave the European Union, including no deal, they will still be able to come here to work and participate in these important industries.
In November 2018 we announced that we will consult on a new English tree strategy, setting out how we will accelerate woodland creation to reach our aspiration of increasing woodland cover in England from 10% to 12% by 2060. The consultation on the English tree strategy will be launched later this year, and our recently reappointed tree champion is leading our engagement on this.
But clearly the strategy is not working when councils such as City of York Council fail to sign up to the White Rose Forest project. As we have heard, the Government have failed to reach their target by 71%, so there is no chance that we will see a growth in the number of trees across our country. Will the Minister look at mandating local authorities to sign up to the Government’s initiative?
We will do all we can to encourage local authorities to get involved. It is good to hear that Yorkshire Water is planting 1 million trees in Yorkshire. We need to do more, particularly in the hon. Lady’s area, with natural flood management techniques upstream. There is lots we can do.
Rare and Native Breeds
Our rare and native breeds are an important genetic resource. There are several purposes under clauses 1 and 2 of the Agriculture Bill for which financial assistance could be provided to support our genetic heritage.
I declare my interest in that my family are long-standing breeders of both the British Lop pig and pedigree South Devon cattle, but genetic diversity is critical to maintaining resilience in our livestock sectors, and protecting genetic resources is a primary responsibility for DEFRA. Will the Minister therefore agree to convene a meeting at DEFRA of representatives of our native and rare breeds to discuss what support would be appropriate for them under future policy?
I was already aware of my hon. Friend’s considerable interest in this policy area. I am pleased to tell him that a workshop with breed societies will be taking place in London on 12 September to look at the issues that he has in mind. Later today I will be visiting the Lincolnshire show, where I hope to see some of the rare breeds that are bound to be there.
This is all very encouraging, but I must say that as we are discussing rare breeds, I feel a great sense of personal sadness that we are not joined this morning by the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who knows a thing or two about these matters.
As does my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis).
I had not seen the hon. Lady but I have now, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State, who is doing what might be called a side line.
I probably should also declare an interest in South Devon cattle, as my family have bred them for generations as well. However, I wanted to ask the Minister about rare wildlife, if I might segue into the matter. Given all his work on general licences recently, what communications has he had with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds about sites of special scientific interest and the work it does culling birds in those areas?
It is important, particularly for ground-nesting birds, that other bird species that can predate on them and damage their nests are controlled. The RSPB carries out that work on land that it controls, and I hope that it will continue doing so to protect those particular rare species.
Badger Culling Programme
During 2018, badger control operations in 32 areas of England were all successful in meeting their targets. According to Natural England’s chief scientist, the results show that
“industry-led badger control continues to deliver the level of effectiveness required by the policy to be confident of achieving disease control benefits”.
Assessments of the effectiveness of badger control are published annually on gov.uk.
Given the extended roll-out, it is estimated that about 150,000 badgers will have been culled by the end of 2020. This animal, which has been around since the ice age, faces extinction in various parts of the country. What would the Secretary of State say about investing the money in a national badger vaccination programme? To quote the Wildlife Trusts, should not the Government be investing in “medicine, not marksmen”?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When it comes to dealing with bovine TB—a terrible disease that damages the lives of cattle and the livelihoods of farmers—we need to consider all steps that are appropriate. Culling and vaccination are both tools in our armoury.
Clean Air Strategy
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with his counterpart at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Discussions are also held at an official level about delivering the clean air strategy and relevant provisions that we hope to bring forward in the forthcoming environment Bill. Local authorities will continue to play a vital role in delivering improvements to the air that we all breathe.
The Minister knows that Bath has a considerable air pollution problem. Idling cars make a measurable contribution to inner-city pollution. I recently tabled a private Member’s Bill to give local authorities greater enforcement powers to stop idling cars. Will the Minister consider my proposal to strengthen anti-idling legislation?
I believe this is already circulating around the Government and has been for a couple of months. I hope that an announcement will be made very soon.
One local council that could do a much better job on air quality is Labour-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, by reopening Hammersmith bridge. The diversion of traffic through Fulham and Chelsea is horrendous. Will the Minister join me in calling on the council and the Mayor of London to introduce proper air quality monitoring, particularly on Fulham High Street, to properly assess the catastrophic impact of the council’s decision?
It is fair to say that air quality across the country is improving, but these sorts of congestion hotspots are really damaging that progress. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend that the bridge should be opened as quickly as possible.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson) has withdrawn his question, so I call Mr David Duguid.
Leaving the EU: Fisheries Policy
The Government’s vision for future fisheries policy as we leave the European Union is set out in the fisheries White Paper “Sustainable fisheries for future generations”, which was published in July 2018.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm his commitment to boosting investment in the fisheries sector to help with expansion outside the common fisheries policy but also to promote export opportunities and the UK domestic market for Scottish seafood after Brexit?
Absolutely I will. The UK Government will work with the Scottish Government to make sure that we have investment in port facilities in Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and that we have the marketing budget necessary to ensure that the power of our United Kingdom is harnessed to help Scots fishermen and, indeed, Scottish fish processors.
The Secretary of State has already promised Danish and Iberian fishing fleets that their access to UK waters will continue unhindered after Brexit. How many promises has he made to other foreign countries, and what percentage of the quotas is going to be reserved for UK fishing?
I have promised no such thing. What I have promised is to ensure that we are out of the European Union and out of the common fisheries policy, in stark contrast to the Scottish National party, which wants to keep us in the European Union and in the common fisheries policy. The Scottish National party and the Scottish Government claim to stand up for Scotland, but at every turn they prefer the politics of grievance and the ideology of separation to the interests of Scotland’s fishermen and Scotland’s citizens.
I am delighted to announce that Tamara Finkelstein OBE has been appointed as the new permanent secretary at DEFRA. She is the fourth woman in succession to be permanent secretary at this Department. With respect to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) , I do think it is a very, very good thing if important institutions in this country are, wherever possible, led by women.
I congratulate the new permanent secretary at the Secretary of State’s Department. It is always good to see senior women in leadership roles.
The Government have set out a new net zero emissions target. Putting our country on track to meet that in order to tackle the climate emergency is going to take urgent and bold action, so will the Secretary of State commit to bringing forward the date to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2030, allow onshore wind facilities to be built again, and re-establish the Department of Energy and Climate Change?
Those are important points, well made. Bringing forward the target by which we get rid of petrol and diesel cars is always kept under review. At the moment, we believe that the target is achievable and stretching, but we will of course keep it under review as more progress is made. On renewable energy, we lead the world in offshore wind, and we have also done a huge amount on solar energy, in particular—99% of the solar power generated in this country has been generated since 2010. I pay tribute to Ministers who served in the coalition Government between 2010 and 2015 for their work in this area.
The environmental impact of bags, including bags for life, can be reduced simply through reusing them. We will be publishing our response on extending the carrier bag charge to all retailers very soon, so we are not currently considering stopping the use of plastic bags altogether. In our bio-economy strategy, we have committed to issuing a call for evidence, because it is important to note that these biodegradable bags need careful treatment when they come to the end of their life.
Following the recent Scottish deposit return scheme proposals and the conclusion of the Government’s consultation on DRS, can the Secretary of State tell us how the Government intend to learn from best practice? Does he hope to emulate the 98.5% recycling rate achieved by Germany for plastic and glass bottles and metal drink cans? Will he commit to a deposit return scheme that matches the ambition of other Governments in Europe, to achieve a UK-wide standard, as suggested in “Our Waste, Our Resources”?
This is something that the Government have worked on extensively. I have visited several countries, including Germany, and it is fair to say that not all deposit return schemes take glass. As I have said to the House before, the front end of these schemes is very simple, but how we make the back end work is complex. That is why it is taking some time. We are considering carefully with the devolved Administrations how we can make progress, and I hope we will be able to announce more soon.
I agree. The Smithills estate was where the first tree of the northern forest was planted, which is a very important step forward. It is a great site, overshadowed by the wonderful Winter Hill TV mast. I love it, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for it.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s valuable advice. She is right: when it comes to dealing with air quality, we need to deal with ammonia emissions. We have a number of policies that we will implement as part of our environment Bill.
The River Mersey, which originates in Stockport and flows through my constituency on its journey to Liverpool, has been named and shamed by Greenpeace as proportionately more polluted than the great Pacific garbage patch. That follows a University of Manchester study showing that microplastics in the river bed sediment were higher than in any other environment. What work is the Department doing to address the issue of microplastics entering the waterways, and what pressure is being put on the industry to address it?
I grew up in Liverpool, and it is sad to hear that terrible statistic revealed by Greenpeace. I think it is fair to say that the Government have already taken action by reducing microplastics from certain cosmetic products and rinse-off products. We will do more by taking forward the ban on plastic straws and other single-use plastic items. We will continue to work with the water industry on what more we can do about filtration, so that we keep plastics out of the rivers.
Given the extraordinarily high contribution of cars on our roads to poor air quality, will the Secretary of State lobby the Department for Transport to review all major road schemes to see whether they will contribute to poor air quality, and look at modal shift, to get people off our roads and out of their cars?
The hon. Gentleman knows of what he speaks, as a distinguished former taxi driver, as well as a very effective spokesman for the people of Eltham in the Borough of Greenwich. We absolutely do need to take account in all new road-building schemes of the impact of pollution.
Yesterday I was able to sponsor National Refill Day with Water UK. Reusing our water bottles means that we could get rid of millions of plastic bottles that we do not need. It is about not only recycling plastic, but using a lot less. Does the Secretary of State welcome that?
I hugely welcome that, and I am grateful to water companies and others who have made the provision of water fountains a critical part of ensuring that we use less plastic.
The Heathrow masterplan released this week promises 40,000 more vehicles on our roads, 6 million more tonnes of CO2 released per annum and new noise for hundreds of thousands of households. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Secretary of State for Transport about the environmental consequences of Heathrow expansion?
Intense and productive discussions, but it is also important to recognise that a majority of Labour MPs and Scottish National party MPs support Heathrow expansion.
The Secretary of State has answered this several times, but it bears asking again: is it still his contention that other European Union countries are looking enviously at this Government’s efforts to leave the EU?
Increasingly enviously, and I think it is the case that other European Union countries, many of which I love, are looking enviously at the gallimaufry of talent that exists on the Government Benches at this time. I suspect that those other European Union countries appreciate the festival of democracy in which we are currently engaged.
Order. Before we turn to the next session of oral questions, I must advise the House that the urgent question I had granted to the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has now been withdrawn by the hon. Gentleman, so we will proceed from Question Time to the business question, and then to the two ministerial statements that are scheduled to follow it. That is really for the benefit of Members’ timekeeping, so that they know when the sessions they may wish to attend will be.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Serious Youth Violence
The Church was represented at the knife crime summit organised by the Prime Minister at No. 10 earlier this year, and the General Synod will be debating this subject at its session next month. There is no question but that this issue is of the utmost seriousness, as too many young lives are being lost.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Youth violence is often a symptom of a lack of role models and moral leaders. What part does she feel the Church can play to help communities in this area?
I think it is very well known that the Church provides role models for young people, such as youth workers. In the community, we work alongside young people in schools, youth groups and congregations. Our clergy, teachers and members of our congregations are supporting young people who are at risk of getting caught up in violence and their families, and young people in pupil referral units.
My constituent Ben Lindsay recently set up Power the Fight, a charity that enables churches to become part of the solution to tackling youth violence. The period after school is one of the most dangerous times for violence among young people. Churches have resources, buildings and volunteers that Power the Fight believes could be used to disrupt violence and keep young people safe. Will the right hon. Lady meet me and my constituent to talk about this valuable work?
I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady, who will know that the Church uses its community halls and facilities in particular to reach out to young people. There are a number of examples of that, but may I especially cite the work of Premier Christian Radio, which broadcasts from London? It has raised awareness of youth violence and what the Church can do to help. We are certainly active in this area, and I would be happy to meet her.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the work of street pastors, including those active in Kettering, who often find themselves helping to defuse potentially violent situations in our town centres late at night?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to the work of street pastors. In Birmingham, the nearest city to my constituency, I have gone out with street pastors at night and seen them minister to very vulnerable young people, making sure they are safe on their streets. The street pastors do amazing work.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her response. Will she outline the benefits that church-run youth clubs provide, and has she had discussions with the Chancellor to secure additional funding for faith-based youth clubs?
I think I have been outlining that. The Church actually provides youth workers in our communities where many have fallen away, and it continues to support the presence of such role models in our society, as is recognised by the Government. I could give the hon. Gentleman a whole series of examples of how the Government’s community fund is being used, through churches, to deliver knife crime awareness training and to help to tackle this problem. Indeed, many churches provide amnesty boxes for weapons that may otherwise cause people to lose their lives.
As the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is a member of Kettering Borough Council and also a special constable, my only surprise is that he does not serve as a street pastor, but that may be only a matter of time.
Clergy Recruitment: London
London presents a very positive picture in the life of the Church for the recruitment of clergy. The Church set itself a target to increase the number of vocations in all dioceses by 50% by next year. Most dioceses are well on track, and London expects to reach that target this year.
I welcome that great news on recruitment in London. A year ago three of our major parishes in Fulham had vacancies, but in April I was delighted to attend the induction of Rev. Ross Gunderson at St Etheldreda. Next Wednesday will be the induction of Rev. Penny Seabrook at All Saints, and we hope soon to fill the vacancy at St John Walham Green. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating and welcoming our new clergy in Fulham?
With pleasure—I wish all those incumbents great success in their new parishes. That demonstrates that the commitment to more training for vocations is really working, and I should share with the House the fact that there is now a 50:50 ratio of men and women in training.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The Commission has heard various oral representations. At its meeting on 14 May 2018, it considered a statement of accommodation requirements for the House of Commons decant. Most recently, on 20 May, the Commission considered the northern estate programme, which includes the temporary Chamber for the House of Commons, and endorsed the scheme’s proposals. Those proposals are currently out to a public consultation that closes on 28 June, and all comments and observations will be welcomed.
The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if I ask whether there is the intention to ensure that any temporary Chamber is equipped with facilities for electronic voting so that we can at least experiment with a bit of modernisation. However, when MPs and the public make submissions to the consultation, will they have the opportunity to suggest even more radical proposals, such as desks that we might lean on or facilities for plugging in electronic devices, as are seen in other Parliaments around the world?
It was no surprise that the hon. Gentleman made his point about electronic voting, which is something that I would like to see tested in the temporary Chamber—that is a personal opinion. I will monitor the responses to the consultation that are received by 28 June, and I will be astonished and extremely disappointed if the hon. Gentleman does not submit a response setting out exactly how he would like the temporary Chamber to operate.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Cathedrals: Contribution to Local Economies
It is estimated that in 2017 there were more than 10 million tourist and leisure visitors to our cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey, generating some £125 million for their local economies. That is a 37% increase from 2004, the last time that that was measured.
That is encouraging news; I know how Lichfield Cathedral benefits the local community.
Mr Speaker, you may be interested to learn that next year will be the 900th anniversary of the birth of Thomas à Becket and the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the American colony of the Pilgrim Fathers. To mark that, I believe there will be an initiative: the year of the cathedrals. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about how that will stimulate local economies?
We had a meeting of the deans of cathedrals in Parliament this week, and the Dean of Lichfield, who is a fantastic champion for that cathedral, came up with an interesting proposal, through the Association of English Cathedrals, to introduce a pilgrimage passport. That would encourage people—not just from this country, but from abroad—to visit more of our cathedrals, obtaining a stamp at every one, and would indeed assist the overall economy.
Having a cathedral city is a very fine thing, but will the right hon. Lady explain the arcane procedures through which a town can get a cathedral? Many places that I would call diddly-squat little places have a cathedral, whereas Huddersfield, a bursting, successful major university town, does not have the status of a cathedral city.
The hon. Gentleman is right: the process is arcane and complicated. My nearest city of Birmingham has what is known as a parish church cathedral, whereas Coventry, the city across the other side of my constituency, had an ancient cathedral which was bombed and then renewed. I think the best thing I can do for the hon. Gentleman is to write to him about how this is arrived at.
As the hon. Gentleman is now at the mid-point of his parliamentary career, having served for 40 years, perhaps he can devote the next 40 to campaigning on this important matter for his constituents.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Provision for Cyclists
Parliamentary authorities continue to review the use of bicycle spaces to ensure that demand is met.
Like many colleagues, I cycle to the parliamentary estate and I have to say that the parking facilities are woeful. If we are going to achieve a modal shift to encourage more employees of the House, as well as Members of Parliament, to cycle to this place, it is absolutely vital that we have adequate parking facilities. Will the right hon. Gentleman meet me and others to explore how that can be achieved?
I am very happy to do so. I am a cyclist myself, and I must say that the facilities within Parliament are perhaps not quite what they should be, certainly given the lack of covered parking provision for cycles, so I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady. I should point out that access to the parliamentary estate for cyclists has been improved, but I agree that there is a need to look at not just current provision, but provision under the northern estate programme and, at a future date, the restoration and renewal of the Palace.
Order. We have not reached the hon. Lady yet. She is ahead of herself.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Employee Pay Gap
The national church institutions have a unified pay policy that operates across all the institutions. There is an eight-band pay structure that is designed to ensure that staff in posts of equal value are paid the same. If we were to exclude staff in the Church Commissioners investment division, the ratio between the highest and lowest paid would be 7.3:1.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. The Archbishop of Canterbury has talked extensively about the need for economic justice, so I was shocked to read in Personnel Today that the Church Commissioners have a 23:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid in the organisation. The highest paid person receives £256,000 and one staff member was given a bonus of £250,000. For charities, the ratio is 10:1 and for local government the ratio is 15:1, so what does she think about what is going on in the Church Commissioners?
As I explained, the ratio, if we exclude the highest paid investment division, is 7.3:1. The investment division includes asset managers, who have to manage assets of over £8 billion. They are paid at the market rate for asset management, but they are nowhere near the top of the range. External advice is taken by the Church Commissioners on what and how we should pay, but those are the going rates for top asset managers in this country, and the assets of the Church of England have to be well managed.
Global Businesses’ Working Practices
This question relates to the previous one in an interesting way.
This month, the Church of England was ranked second globally in an industry survey of responsible investors. One of our most recent engagements has been holding to account the mining company, Vale, as responsible for the collapse of the dam in Brumadinho, Brazil. That underlines the point that really good, responsible asset management is something that one has to pay for.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. The dam collapse claimed the lives of 246 people. Vale is a British company and it is totally unacceptable to have lower standards of health and safety abroad than at home. What is the Church of England’s strategy, as an investor, for tackling that?
The Church Commissioners hosted a roundtable meeting with other investors and senior management from a number of the largest mining companies in the world, which exposed the fact that this is a widespread problem. To date, 29 of the top 50 mining companies have made disclosures about tailings dams. This is how investors can have an influence in an ethical way over their policy.
Mobile Phone Masts
The Church of England signed an accord with the Government in 2017 that signalled its intent to support national targets on mobile and broadband connectivity, particularly in rural and hard-to-reach areas. At previous Question Times, I have encouraged Members of the House by saying that if they have notspots for broadband and mobile provision, all the towers, spires, buildings and land of the Church of England is at their disposal to address that.
But the new telecommunications code has wrecked the market by advantaging big business at the expense of small sports clubs and churches. Can I enlist the support of the Commissioners?
There is evidence that changes by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to the electronic communications code are making it more complicated, although not impossible, for churches and other community buildings to be used to address shortcomings in the roll-out of digital infrastructure. We should work together and go and lobby DCMS to tackle the unintended consequences of the changes in that communications code.
The right hon. Lady will be aware of the growing controversy over 5G and of those who worry about its installation. It would be quite wrong if the Church was brought into those arguments in such a way that an unfair burden was put on it.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to join the lobbying party, because this is one more aspect that needs to be seriously looked into. There are gaps in provision under 4G, and the worst possible thing would be for the digital divide to continue or get worse as we move to 5G technology, so I think we should seek an early meeting.
Persecution of Christians: Bishop of Truro’s Inquiry
The Church welcomed the decision by the Foreign Secretary to invite the Bishop of Truro to chair an independent review of the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That is not a Church of England inquiry, but a Foreign Office inquiry. However, the Church is actively encouraging its agencies and charities to feed in their experiences.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I wholeheartedly support her in congratulating the Foreign Secretary and the Bishop of Truro on producing the report, which highlights the persecution of Christians not only on a large scale, as we saw in places such as Sri Lanka, but on a small scale in everyday life. Is not promoting the good work of Christians and Christianity in our society one of the best things that we can do? May I draw her attention to the Renew church in Uttoxeter, which has its mission week this week involving digging gardens, helping schools, washing cars and showing the best of Christianity?
It is just the interim report that has been published, and the important thing was that it mapped where the persecution takes place around the world. We await phase 2 with great interest, when we expect to hear more about what we can actually get done. I agree with my hon. Friend about the kind of approach that could be taken.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Relocation of Parliament
An option to move Parliament out of the Palace of Westminster to a new purpose-built building was included in the restoration and renewal pre-feasibility study of 2012. The House of Commons Commission reviewed that study in October that year and decided to rule the option out, agreeing that no further analysis would be undertaken on it. The House of Lords Commission took a similar view, and that commitment was reaffirmed by the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster in 2016, and more recently, in resolutions of both Houses in 2018.
I note the right hon. Gentleman’s answer, but when we rebuilt this Chamber, Churchill said:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.]
Given just how broken our political culture has now been demonstrated to be, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is time to take a bold approach and move into a modern Parliament in one of the great cities of the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supplementary question; I might have expected him to call for Parliament to be moved to Luton, but he did not. Clearly a decision has been taken. Some of the things that he would like might be possible for the temporary Chamber—that matter that was raised earlier—and I hope that he will want to make a written submission pressing for that Chamber to be used to trial and test some of the things that would improve our democracy.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for the week commencing 24 June will include the following:
Monday 24 June—Second reading of the Kew Gardens (Leases) (No.3) Bill [Lords], followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019.
Tuesday 25 June—Second reading of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill.
Wednesday 26 June—Opposition day (un-allotted half day). There will be a debate on a motion on immigration in the name of the Scottish National party, followed by a general debate on Armed Forces Day.
Thursday 27 June—Debate on a motion relating to the contribution of co-operatives and mutuals to the economy, followed by a general debate on the children’s future food report. The subjects of these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 28 June—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 summer recess at the close of business on Thursday 25 July, and will return on Tuesday 3 September.
That is very helpful to all Members.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) for suggesting the business. I am pleased that we now have a recess date, but can the Leader of the House tell us who will be at the Dispatch Box on Wednesday 24 July?
How can he know that?
Well, that is what I am asking him. I am asking him when the identity of the new Prime Minister will be confirmed. I understand that all the results will be out on 22 July; perhaps he could let us know. I am pleased to learn that the House will sit in September, and I am sure that the Leader of the House will announce the conference recess dates as well. I think it is only fair to the outgoing Prime Minister that she knows when her last Question Time will be, and, more important, only fair to us—to Parliament.
The Leader of the House will know that we have had a busy week. He will also know that on Tuesday we had a Back-Bench debate about the Cox report. When is he likely to table a motion for a debate in Government time? It may be necessary to change a Standing Order, so will he find a date as a matter of urgency, before the House rises on 25 July?
I know that Back-Bench debates are important, but there is a backlog of very important legislation. The Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill, the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill need Report stages, and the Trade Bill is again stuck in the other place. When are we likely to debate those Bills?
Ministers are so occupied with their bids to become the next Prime Minister. Only after dropping out of the Conservative leadership race did the Health Secretary order a root-and-branch review of NHS food. Parts of the country have been unsettled by torrential rain, homes have been left without power and roads have been flooded in Lincolnshire—people in Wainfleet are in tears—but there has been no statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I know that there have been questions to him, but there has been no specific statement about the people in Wainfleet. The Home Secretary has said that he will put 20,000 more police officers on the beat if he is elected leader, but the Government have cut the number already. He is merely repeating a commitment made by Her Majesty’s Opposition.
As for the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), he has been careless with his words. He has said that his comments about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had made “no difference”, but they were used at her trial. He has put a woman’s life at risk and separated a family. For the record, Nazanin was on holiday visiting her parents. She has been in jail for three years. I met Richard Ratcliffe yesterday, and other Members have visited him too. Will the Leader of the House raise Nazanin’s case with both the former and the current Foreign Secretary, and send the Iranian Government the message that they should show the international community their seriousness, and free Nazanin and reunite the family now?
A motion scheduled for next Tuesday is to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Climate Change Act 2008 (2050 Target Amendment) Order 2019. The motion is a step in the right direction, but why are we waiting until 2050? Heathrow is already the largest single source of carbon emissions in the UK. Plans published on Tuesday revealed that Heathrow airport will construct a third runway by 2026 and complete its 50% expansion by 2050. This includes diverting rivers, moving roads and rerouting the M25 through a tunnel under the new runway. The Government’s own figures show that nearly 1 million households are to face increased daytime noise from allowing a further 700 flights a day. May we have a statement on the new plans for the expansion of Heathrow airport, including the environmental impacts?
It is Children’s Hospice Week this week. Hospices across the country are under threat, including one in my constituency, Acorns. It employs 70 people to care for 233 Black Country children and their families. It is facing closure due to lack of Government funding. I met my constituent Mark Lyttle, a bereaved parent, who spoke about his daughter Isabella, who was cared for by Acorns. Mark said Acorns Walsall extended and improved her quality of life and provides the family with ongoing bereavement help, because, sadly, Isabella passed away earlier this year at the age of 11. Black Country MPs across parties are working to save this hospice, and it is the only one of the three in the area to close.
I know that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care should be accountable. We have heard the phrase “A bedpan dropping and we hear it Whitehall,” but so much for accountability: at this stage we have to write to the Health Secretary and the head of NHS England, and the Prime Minister said yesterday that they would match-fund what the clinical commissioning groups put forward. May we use the good offices of the Leader of the House to raise this with the Health Secretary? We need the Health Secretary to make the decision so that children’s hospices, particularly Acorns, have their long-term funding. We cannot crowdfund and fundraise to save a children’s hospice.
The third anniversary of Jo Cox’s murder was on 16 June. The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) is working very hard on one of Kim Leadbeater’s key asks for all of us: to focus on the humanitarian emergency in Syria, one of the issues that mattered most to Jo, by highlighting the plight of civilians trapped under the merciless bombing in Idlib.
It has been a busy week for me and the Leader of the House. Yesterday we agreed that we would save the education centre. It is also Refugee Week, and the education and engagement service will be providing a workshop to the refugee and migrant centre in Walsall, “An introduction to your UK Parliament”. I am pleased that that is going ahead and that education is also to be part of any restoration and renewal.
Finally, I offer my commiserations to the Scottish football team but wish the Lionesses well in the next stage of the World cup.
I thank the hon. Lady for her various questions, which I will go through in some detail in a moment. I also thank her for welcoming the recess dates, which I think we are all relieved have now finally been announced.
Having just announced the summer recess dates, an idea has occurred to me. We meet as a merry band on Thursdays—we are like a tightly knit club—and I wonder if this recess we might perhaps keep the camaraderie going, and all go off on holiday together. I would be happy to hire a bus or a charabanc, Mr Speaker, and as the new Leader who, as you know, has brought such a powerful sense of direction and renewed purpose to this House, I would be happy to drive it. Nothing would give me more pleasure than for my new-found friend, the shadow Leader of the House, to join me. She would be serenaded of course by the ever-cheerful hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on the pipes, or maybe the banjo, and accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) displaying his musical prowess on the spoons while spouting Wordsworth and Keats and John Clare and regaling us with cheery tales of those halcyon Victorian times when small boys cheerfully shinned up chimneys and widespread malnutrition and rickets were a mere footnote to a far happier age. And as the sun slips below the horizon we will hear the extraordinary tales of the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) explaining how he quietly took over the entire business of government with his Backbench Business Committee. Or perhaps we should stick to our original plans.
The hon. Lady raised several important points. First, she asks who will be at the Dispatch Box when Parliament goes into recess. Of course, that is unknown; I have no crystal ball. There are four finalists, all extremely strong candidates, and we will have to wait and see. I can offer her a membership form for the Conservative party so that next time she can participate in the excitement and fun. I was grateful to receive her satisfaction, however, at our having set out the situation for September and at the fact that we will be sitting from early that month.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Cox report. Her request for a debate would need to be taken up through the usual channels, but I have taken her request on board—it is the second time she has raised it with me—and undertake to come back to her later today at least with something by way of a response, even if it is to say that I have asked the usual channels at my end of the usual channel to consider it seriously. She also asked about various pieces of future legislation and when they will be coming forward. They will come forward in due course. On flood defences, which she mentioned, we have of course just had Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, which was an opportunity for Members to address that issue.
The hon. Lady made various important points about Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has now spent three years in jail in Iran. I can assure her that, whatever may or may not have been said by others in the past, the Government are working extremely hard to do whatever they can to ensure her imminent release. She also raised carbon emissions, which she will know the Government have reduced by 25% in terms of greenhouse gases since 2010. We have now had over 1,700 hours of producing power in our country without the use of coal, which is the longest stretch in the history of power production in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Lady made some very important points about hospices, particularly relating to the care of children, on which subject there will be an Adjournment debate on 1 July in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson). The hon. Lady may wish to attend and urge others to do likewise. I would certainly be prepared to facilitate the approaches she requested to the Secretary of State for Health in terms of funding.
The hon. Lady made some very important points about Jo Cox and the excellent work of Kim Leadbeater and her concerns about humanitarian aid in Syria. In that regard, we have a proud record in this country and have allocated some billions of pounds of assistance. Given that she also referred to Refugee Week, I should remind the House that we have agreed to take 20,000 refugees and 3,000 children from Syria.
Like the hon. Lady, I was pleased that during the remaining stages of the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill yesterday we underscored our commitment to education in this place, and, like her also, I commiserate with our Scottish colleagues on the football result yesterday while also cheering on the England team.
I think that the Backbench Business Committee is universally regarded in this House as a complete success. One of the great policies of David Cameron and Nick Clegg was to bring in a business of the House commission within two years of the coalition Government coming to power. The chaos in this place over the last few months caused by people trying to suspend Standing Orders was the result of our not having a business of the House committee. Can we have a debate on this matter? If we are to have a new Prime Minister, it would be a very good thing if all the parties could agree to have a business of the House committee so that we do not repeat the farce of the last few months.
The Government’s position on a House business committee remains unchanged: we will not be bringing forward proposals to establish such a committee. There was an absence of consensus on the issue at the end of the previous Parliament, and we believe that that remains the case today.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the purgatory for next week. As for his recess plans, they sound like some kind of holiday from hell, and I think I will resist the temptation to join him in that particular venture. I also thank him for his kind regards about the Scotland football team. I think we are recovering from the heartbreak of last night, and we all wish the Lionesses the very best in the remaining stages of the contest.
This business statement is unbelievable. Other than half a day for the Scottish National party, it is another week of absolutely nothing. This House should now be done under the Vagrancy Act. Never before in the history of Parliament has so little been done by so many on behalf of so few, as Churchill would never have said. But small mercies—at last this is the final day of the contest to see who will be gubbed by the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). It has become a kind of grotesque “Love Island”, without the love, the entertainment or the island. Maybe it is just Boris island. And I seriously do not get all this fuss about the issue of the racist rantings of the right hon. Gentleman being raised. If people say racist and unacceptable things, they have to expect to be held to account for them. I represent the most marginal SNP/Tory seat in the country. My leaflet is set to go, and it is simply a picture of the right hon. Gentleman and all his choice comments, with added quotes from Ruth Davidson. Scotland just will not take to his appalling “Etonic” buffoonery, and reasonable soft Tory voters in Scotland will be deserting the Tories in droves.
May we have a debate about Brexit? Remember that? They gave us extra time to try to resolve it, but they also told us to use that time wisely. We have not debated it in weeks, and there is no plan to debate it in the coming weeks. It is four weeks until the summer recess, and no progress has been made. Can the Leader of the House confirm that we will not be seeing the withdrawal agreement again? It must be dead and buried now. There is a new word that I want to introduce to the parliamentary lexicon, and that word is “unicornism”. That now seems to be the central policy of this Government in their approach to Brexit. They are doing nothing other than waste time and run down the clock. Halloween will soon be upon us, and the nightmare on Brexit Street will be set to haunt us all.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his weekly contribution. I have to say that it had a familiar ring to it, although I have to disagree with him about the summer recess. How could it possibly be a holiday from hell with him there? It would be nothing other than a great pleasure. He did give us the same old tunes, though. Last week I said he was using the Abba playbook, but this week I am going to elevate him to the Beatles. His meandering litany of woe was “The Long and Winding Road” that we had to endure, but as we know, it will all end up in the same place for the “Nowhere Man”. Anyway. They don’t get any better, do they?
The hon. Gentleman asks for a Brexit debate. The House has certainly debated Brexit at significant length over a very significant period—the best part of three years now. He could have chosen this very week to debate it in the half day allotted to the Scottish National party, although I have no doubt that, in the immigration debate that the SNP has chosen, he will be able to weave the European Union in somewhere.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the future of the BBC? There have already been concerns about taking away free TV licences from the over-75s, but frankly, after that dreadful debate on Monday between my parliamentary colleagues, the quality of public broadcasting needs to be looked at, and presumably, during the course of our debate, we could find out who the idiot was in central office who agreed to the format of that programme in the first place.
My hon. Friend tempts me. On the specific issue of the free TV licence, we are urging the BBC to rethink its position. I have to say that I agree with my hon. Friend’s observation on the televised hustings, which made the candidates look like some kind of boy band perched on their stools. The BBC should always be an institution that is debated, including in further debates in this House.
I was sad to see the demise of the Scottish ladies’ football team last night, when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory late in the game after taking a 3-0 lead. I was reminded that it has been only 41 years since Ally MacLeod and his tartan army ventured forth to Buenos Aires and sadly came back undone.
The Backbench Business Committee had a dozen applications for estimates day debates, and the business for those days has now been determined as relating to the spending of the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for International Development and the Department for Education. Will the Leader of the House confirm the dates for those debates? We have been led to believe that they would occur on 2 and 3 July, but I understand that there is now some doubt about that.
Despite the fact that the Backbench Business Committee has been getting an awful lot of business, I remind the Leader of the House that we still have unmet demand. He should also take note that, on Monday, the House went on to the Adjournment debate at 7.08 pm and adjourned at 7.47 pm. If the Leader of the House and the business team think that there is likely to be a shortfall in business—this was despite four urgent questions on Monday—could he think about making the Backbench Business Committee aware so that we could put something on at short notice?
The dates for the estimates days are not currently available, but I will ensure that we get them to the hon. Gentleman as soon as possible. I take note of his rather interesting observation about the possibility of a Backbench Business debate coming to the Floor of the House when other business is running short. There may be all sorts of technical issues around that, but I am happy to take his suggestion away and give it some thought.
A civilised society is defined by the way that it copes with and counters disadvantage. I was therefore alarmed to discover yesterday that 79% of assistance dog owners had been made to feel unwelcome or had received second-class service because they had their assistance dog with them, and in particular that 73% of those with guide dogs or assistance dogs had been turned away by a minicab or taxi driver. The Government commissioned a report on taxi licensing, and one of its recommendations was that we deal with this prejudice against people with guide dogs and other assistance dogs. It is time that the Government acted and joined you, Mr Speaker, and I, whose mission has always been to redistribute advantage.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I agree with him that access for assistance dogs and their owners, especially in taxis and other modes of transport, is extremely important. I would be happy to facilitate on his behalf an appropriate meeting with a Minister in the Department for Transport.
I know that my right hon. Friend is rather fond of poetry and, having been forewarned of his question, I found a poem by Julian Stearns Cutler that I think is quite appropriate to him as well as to dogs:
You’re only a dog, old fellow;
a dog, and you’ve had your day;
But never a friend of all my friends
has been truer than you alway.
Well, what a beautiful reply from the Treasury Bench. I must say to the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) that I have just received his most gracious, handwritten, borderline poetic letter in his illustrious capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Lebanon, and I intend to reply by hand—although probably not, as he would prefer, by the use of the quill pen—similarly graciously and within a very short timeframe. My response to his request will be in the affirmative, and I expect that he will wish to dance round a red telephone box, if he can find one, in appreciation of my reply.
Is it in verse?
My letter is not in verse. I know my limitations. I cannot compete with the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings on that front.
The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) recently joined me as a trustee of the John Clare Trust.
I welcome the Leader of the House’s comments on Jo Cox. She was a Labour family friend, and her constituency was close to mine. I know we do not talk about these things, but I still worry about the safety and security of Members, particularly female Members, of this House, and I do not think we have yet come to terms with some of the vulnerabilities involved. That is not for major debate.
In most of our towns and cities, we are poisoning many women—pregnant women and older women—and men, too with the dirty air they breathe every day. Can we have an urgent debate on a fast programme of activity, not the Government’s 2040 deadline, to cut down the poisonous air our people are breathing in every day?
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Jo Cox and, more generally, about security. It would not be appropriate for me to discuss it on the Floor of the House, but I assure him that I have already met the Chairman of Ways and Means and others to discuss matters of security across the parliamentary estate, which I take extremely seriously.
We have a clean air strategy, of course, and the Government have done a great deal to cut many emissions substantially over the past several years. Given that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), is still looking for opportunities for yet further debates, clean air might be a good subject. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) might like to approach him on that basis.
In eight recent Department for Work and Pensions appeal cases in my constituency the DWP has not submitted information to the court in time. That has led to the hearings being postponed, which is obviously distressing for the appellants. Will the Government make a statement on what they will do to make sure that the DWP adheres to proper timescales? Will the Leader of the House confirm that this is sheer incompetence from the DWP, and not a deliberate Government strategy?
I have two answers for the hon. Gentleman. First, when it comes to specific DWP cases—he cited some cases in his question—I am happy to facilitate an approach to the relevant Minister to make sure those cases are specifically looked at. On his more general point about how these cases are handled, DWP questions on 1 July will be a good opportunity to raise the matter.
It has been revealed today that Warrington Hospital has published a list of charges for operations that used to be free on the NHS. These are not cosmetic procedures but things like hip and knee operations and cataract removals. Can we have a debate on the creeping privatisation of the NHS under this Government and the denial of essential treatment to people who cannot afford to pay?
As a party and as a Government, we are entirely committed to healthcare being free at the point of delivery and on a universal basis. The Opposition often assert that wholesale privatisation of the NHS is occurring, which is simply not the case. The private sector has been involved in the NHS ever since its inception. Most of the drugs used by the NHS come from private companies, and general practitioners are effectively employed on a similar basis. As to the record of this Government, we have made the largest cash injection into the NHS in its history.
The Leader of the House is well aware of the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has already been mentioned in the House this morning. Richard Ratcliffe, her husband, is now on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy here in London to show solidarity with his wife and to highlight the appalling conditions in which she is being held.
Mr Ratcliffe’s sister lives in my Newport West constituency, and she is extremely concerned about the physical and mental health of both Richard and Nazanin. Given that the previous Foreign Secretary made a bad situation worse with his comments on her detention, will the current Foreign Secretary come to the House to update us on the efforts being made to get Nazanin back home as quickly as possible to be reunited with her daughter and husband?
I have already touched on the issue of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and repeat that it is totally unacceptable that she should be held. We are engaged with the Iranian Government. I also respect the fact that her husband has entered into a hunger strike, as she has at the same time. For that reason, and all the others of her detainment, we wish to see her released as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has raised Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case with President Rouhani, and we will continue to push diplomatically on this matter.
I am upset with the Leader of the House, as he did not invite me on his bus tour, but perhaps he will let me know what slogan he intended having on the side of the bus. I am also disappointed that the urgent question has been cancelled; I wonder whether the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has been sat on. I will turn the homework that I had done for the UQ into a question for the Leader of the House. Will he make time for a debate, in Government time, about how extreme is the new normal in the Tory party and, therefore, the Government? He will know that a majority of Conservative party members are willing to see their party destroyed and the UK broken up in order to secure Brexit. It seems that defaulting on our debts, as Argentina did, is also the preferred course of action. So may we have that debate, when we could also debate the damage that no deal would do to the UK economy and the damage a default on our debt would do to our international credibility?
May I apologise profusely for not having invited the right hon. Gentleman on our holiday? I assure him that there would be nothing disagreeable on the side of the bus, but we do have a dress code and so, for that reason, I am not entirely sure he would be able to join us—but who knows?
I have no idea why my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) withdrew his UQ, but I can assure the House that he was not sat on—and certainly not by me. I can think of nothing worse than the prospect of sitting on him. As for the issue of debates on the EU, I think I have addressed that earlier; there will be plenty of opportunities, in different guises, to discuss that, and I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman bringing his suggestions forward.
The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) judged that the situation had changed since his submission of the urgent question, and presumably it had changed to his satisfaction. I know no further than that. I am not surprised that the Leader of the House did not sit on the hon. Member for Stone, and indeed I should be very surprised if any Member on the Treasury Bench attempted to do so, for there has been one consistent thread in the career of the hon. Member for Stone and that is that he has had a relationship with the Whips characterised by trust and understanding—I do not think he has always trusted them and they most certainly have not always understood him.
New guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says that employers should help their staff to take part in physical activity. This measure would improve mental and physical health, and support our NHS, so may we have a statement from the Government about promoting physical activity in the workplace?
Before I answer that question, may I reply to you, Mr Speaker, about my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and reassure everybody I have invited on the holiday that he will not be there, and so there will be no sitting on him, be it on the holiday or otherwise? I say that just so we are absolutely clear what is going on in these important questions.
As for the issue of employers and physical health, there is clearly a link between physical activity and ensuring both physical and mental health. This might be an opportunity to speak to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee about another worthy possible contender for his attention.
Yesterday, reports emerged that the Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has been advertising a price list for operations that were once free on the NHS. Vital procedures such as hip and knee operations will cost more than £18,000, which is way outside most ordinary people’s budgets. Recently, we have been seeing the privatisation of our NHS advertised to my constituents, with sick and vulnerable people being exploited for profit. Will the Leader of the House give time for a ministerial statement or a debate on this important issue?
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that that question was in effect asked some moments ago. My answer remains the same.
The House will be aware that Ford has announced redundancies in my Bridgend constituency. Some 1,700 people are going to lose their and their families’ income, livelihoods and futures. May we have a debate about the Treasury’s benefiting from the misfortune of those who lose their job and face redundancy payments? At the moment, people will lose 40% of any redundancy payment over £30,000, and if those who will be able to access their pension once they are over 55 reach their 55th birthday after 2026, they will have to wait until 2027 to access it, thereby losing a further £40,000 to £60,000. It is wrong for the Government to benefit from the misfortune of those who are losing their jobs, and with a harsh Brexit ahead of us there will be many more to come. We need to resolve this situation now.
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is most unfortunate that there are redundancies at the Bridgend plant. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Secretary of State and his Ministers have been very much engaged in and closely connected to what is happening there.
The hon. Lady raised the specific issue of termination payments and rightly said that tax was due on payments over a £30,000 threshold, although there are some exceptions to that. I believe that is one of the most generous arrangements in the world and think I am right in saying—I stand to be corrected—that in Germany, for example, there is no threshold in play at all. However, she raised important points, particularly in respect of pensions, so I direct her to Treasury questions, which will be held on 2 July.
May we please have a debate on the statutory requirements for changes to bus services and the consultation process? Stagecoach has announced that seven services in and around my constituency might change. It has not given any details on what the changes are, other than to say that people in Neston will no longer be able to go to Arrowe Park Hospital. It is all squirrelled away online and is very inaccessible. It really is not good enough. Can we have a proper consultation process on changes to important local services?
That would make an excellent subject for an Adjournment debate, at which the hon. Gentleman would have an opportunity to ask the appropriate Minister specific questions about the specific routes and so on in his constituency.
On Sunday 16 June, the Quebec Government passed Bill 21, which prevents judges, police officers, teachers and other public servants from wearing religious symbols such as the kippah, the turban and the hijab while at work. The Bill clearly contravenes article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which says that the right to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. To say that a teacher who wears a cross or a hijab is somehow a threat to public safety and health is an assertion that is both offensive and groundless. It is important that the UK raises this issue with our Canadian friends. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement on the matter or, better still, refer it to a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and request that the FCO contacts the Quebec Government immediately?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his important question. Ultimately, it would not be appropriate for me to comment directly from the Dispatch Box on the position taken by the Canadian Government and their legislation—not least because I am not entirely familiar with the precise detail—other than to restate our position, which is that in this Parliament we are entirely committed to freedom of religious belief and the promotion of respect between people.
Today is Nystagmus Awareness Day. Nystagmus affects one in every 1,000 babies born in the UK and is a condition that I have. It means that my eyes wobble left and right and up and down, and I am registered severely sight-impaired. Today, it is estimated that nearly 2 million people are living with sight loss, but the number of people registered is significantly lower. Will the Leader of the House join me in celebrating Nystagmus Awareness Day? May we have a debate on the importance of registering people who are living with sight loss?
May I entirely associate myself with those remarks and welcome Nystagmus Day? I would be happy to meet with the hon. Lady to discuss making available appropriate time in some form or another to debate this matter.
In 2018-19, people from Coventry spent 674 days delayed in hospital because no suitable housing was available. That is the highest number on record. It is a shocking indictment of the Government’s time in office that we now have the highest number of homeless people trapped in hospital. May we therefore have a debate on the homelessness crisis in our country, its impact on our NHS and how the Government plan to improve collaborative working between housing and health services to stop people being unnecessarily pushed into homelessness or stuck in hospital for extended periods?
There are several important points to make about the important issue of homelessness which the hon. Lady has raised. The first is the Government’s commitment to ensuring that we build more homes. We have built 220,000 new homes, the highest number for any year other than one in the last 31 years. She will know that we have announced a substantial, multimillion pound fund to address rough sleeping. We have seen a slight decline over the more recent period, but there is still a lot more to do. This is an important issue that will always be worthy of debate, and if the hon. Lady would like to apply for an Adjournment debate, that might be a useful approach to take.
I think this is the first chance that I have had to welcome the new Leader of the House to his place. We are grateful for the SNP Opposition day, and I hope that the three hours next Wednesday will be protected.
I echo the calls for a statement by the Foreign Secretary on the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I had the huge privilege of meeting her husband outside the Iranian embassy this morning. He is showing huge determination and solidarity. I know that Members from across the House have been to visit, so perhaps the Leader of the House can encourage some of his colleagues on the Front Bench—perhaps the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign Secretary—to show their solidarity with Richard and Nazanin’s family and finally get the justice that the family are so hungry for.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; this matter has now been raised, quite rightly, for the third time in these business questions. I have set out the various actions that the Government continue to take to press the Iranian regime to do the right thing and release Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and I know that the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Richard’s hunger strike will have been heard throughout the House.
It is 10 years since the Pontcysyllte aqueduct and canal became a UNESCO world heritage site, thereby joining sites such as the Taj Mahal, the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Wall of China—although Pontcysyllte is of course superior to all of them. It was built in 13 years by those great civil engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop, and has a height of 126 feet. One can go on it on a boat; it is a most amazing place to travel. It is a masterpiece of waterworks engineering and a pioneering example of iron construction, and it was at the heart of the industrial revolution. I am a little worried that all Members will want to come on holiday at the same time, so perhaps they can promise not to do that. Will the Leader of the House explain how I can best promote the wonders of Pontcysyllte aqueduct and the canal across our nation and in this House?
That was a wonderful question. I will not attempt to pronounce the name of the canal, on the basis that I will probably not do it as well as the hon. Lady, but it is a marvellous construction and was the work of Telford and Jessop, as she said. I am delighted that it has achieved world heritage status. She asked how she can promote the canal; I would suggest that she has done just that with her question, but if she wants another opportunity, we will have Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions on 4 July.
The Royal Mail Group and the Communication Workers Union have agreed a groundbreaking collective defined contribution pension scheme for the group’s 141,000 UK employees. The trouble is that it needs to be enabled by legislation. Will the Leader of the House commit to introducing the necessary legislation prior to the summer recess?
I am happy to look at the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised, particularly as he suggests that it may relate to a requirement for future legislation. I also point him to Work and Pensions questions on 1 July.
A recent Smith Institute report confirms that Enfield has the third highest number of low-paid people of all London Boroughs. Even more concerning is that, according to the report, the low pay rate is £8.33 an hour. The current London living wage is supposed to be £10.55 an hour. Ministers are often telling us about employment levels, but these can mask the growth in poverty and poverty pay. May we have an early debate in Government time on the record levels of low pay and poverty that are causing such hardship to families and children in Enfield and up and down the country?
The Government strongly share the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Lady that we should do whatever we can to improve the position of the low paid. That is why we have taken 3 million to 4 million of the lowest paid out of tax altogether since 2010 by increasing the personal allowance, and why we have worked hard to get the economy moving to the point at which real pay has been increasing for the last 19 months consecutively. It is also why this party brought in the national living wage and why we saw such an increase in the national living wage at the start of this financial year.
Leo Goodwin, the managing director of TransPennine Express, received a lot of publicity last year because he earns £360,000. He is well known in Hull because he is presiding over a complete shambles in the management of Hull Paragon station. There are botched toilet facilities that were supposed to be rebuilt, there is signage covered in duct tape, and there are empty retail units that TransPennine built but cannot actually fill. To make things worse, on Monday this week TransPennine decided, without consultation with key stakeholders, to close one of the main entrances to the station between half-past 9 and half-past 4 o’clock—really putting up the white flag to a very small number of people who commit antisocial behaviour. This has meant that passengers, particularly disabled passengers, are having trouble accessing the station. May we please have a debate about companies that run stations appallingly?
The very specific points that the hon. Lady raises regarding TransPennine Express, the station and access issues would probably most appropriately be directed to an Adjournment debate, which would give the hon. Lady an opportunity to address them directly with the appropriate Minister at the Department for Transport.
My constituent was given a 10-year personal independence payment award in 2018 because of her heart condition. Recently she had a heart attack and spent 24 days in hospital. Having informed the DWP, she was sent for a PIP reassessment, at which she lost her entitlement. I was able to get that decision reversed, but we can all imagine how distressing that was for my constituent. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out the widespread concerns about PIP assessments, and how urgently this system needs to be reviewed and improved so that such an appalling situation does not happen again?
The situation that the hon. Lady describes sounds extremely unfortunate, to say the least. I commend her for the work that she appears to have undertaken to ensure that the original decision was overturned at appeal. I stress that there is the right of appeal in such cases, and that is an important check and balance in the system. If she has further cases of a similar nature and wishes me to facilitate an approach to Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions, I would be very happy to do so.
Rebecca Parker from Newport was in the news recently calling out high street retailers for the huge disparity between clothes size labels and the actual size of the garment, with the detrimental effect on self-confidence, particularly for young people, that that brings. As body image was this year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Week, could we have a debate on how the Government can work with retailers to address this?
The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. I say that as a father of three daughters, actually. I know exactly the element around body image and so on that comes at young women, in particular, from a variety of angles, including the one that she has raised. If she would like to meet me, perhaps after these questions, I would be very happy to talk further about how we could perhaps facilitate something in the way of a debate.
May I say how much I am looking forward to debating the Second Reading of the Kew Gardens (Leases) (No. 3) Bill on Monday, when we will talk about 11 houses? However, I would be even happier if we were talking about the Report stage of the Agriculture Bill. Where is it, when is it coming back, and is it going to be fit for purpose when it does?
The Agriculture Bill is there in draft. It is fit for purpose, and it will be coming back in due course.
The York Central development will see the wrong kind of housing built, which people in my community cannot afford. It will choke off economic opportunity and draw cars into the centre of our congested, gridlocked city. Can we have a debate on how public land must be used for the public good?
I think that issue might be one for an Adjournment debate to give the hon. Lady an opportunity to discuss it with Ministers. She will know that, as I said earlier, we have made very significant progress in terms of house building. The number of homes built in the last year for which there are figures available is at the highest level for all but one of the past 31 years.
I call Chris Stephens.
Tails never fails, Mr Speaker—thank you.
On a more serious note, two of my constituents were in the House on Monday as part of a Red Cross event for Refugee Week. One of them has a letter from Serco telling them to leave their accommodation—written to them two weeks ago, not this week as Serco is publicly suggesting. So can I ask, for the second week in a row, for the Home Office to make a statement or hold a debate on asylum seeker evictions in the city of Glasgow by Home Office contractor Serco?
Serco has not enforced eviction in Glasgow and continues, at its own expense, to house the group that the hon. Gentleman rightly refers to. It estimated that the number of people not leaving their properties had grown to over 300 and that was impacting on its capacity to house new asylum seekers. That is the background to this matter. It is a Home Office matter, as he indicated. I would be very happy to facilitate whatever discussions he feels that he needs with Ministers there.
Today is Clean Air Day. Leeds was due to implement the first clean air zone in the country. However, this week it was confirmed to Leeds and Birmingham Councils that the equipment for charging and for vehicle recognition would not be delivered on time by the end of the year. Given that the UK is due to host the UN climate change conference in 2020, can we expect a ministerial statement on this failure to be able to deliver the clean air zones on time in 2019?
I think the Government’s record on bringing down emissions—I mentioned, for example, the 25% reduction in emissions since 2010—has been a very good one. We have legislation coming on the Order Paper next week in relation to making sure that we set strong net zero carbon emissions targets up to 2050. We remain committed, through our actions on clear air, to keep moving strongly in that direction. It will not be quickly enough for the hon. Gentleman, perhaps, but there will no doubt be ample opportunities, through the Backbench Business Committee and other routes, to debate these matters very fully in the weeks ahead.
There is growing concern that, despite all the assurances given to the contrary, as EU legislation—particularly, in this instance, pesticide policy—is being converted into British law, it is being weakened significantly. One example is the removal of a blanket ban on hormone-disrupting chemicals, which are known to cause cancer, birth defects and immune disorders. Can we have an urgent statement from a Minister on how we can ensure that the process of transferring over EU law is being done properly and with due scrutiny?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about pesticide use. I know that there have been lots of debates about, for example, the effects of neonicotinoids on the bee population and fertilisation of plants. She will want to ask Ministers specific questions. We had Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions this morning, but if she wants to use me as a conduit to send some questions and suggestions to Ministers, I would be happy to serve that purpose.
Ah, the ever smiling Drew Hendry.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is always a delight to be saved and savoured.
Can we have a debate in Government time on Ofgem’s handling of the renewable heat incentive scheme? Several of my constituents have been served with repayment notices of eye-watering proportions—for example, £17,000 and £20,000—to be paid within six months. That is despite them previously getting clean audits. They have been left carrying the can for the guilty companies that have simply vanished, and they are in desperate straits.
That is an excellent opportunity for an Adjournment debate, and I recommend that the hon. Gentleman put in for one, so that he can grill the appropriate Minister accordingly.
Online Pornography: Age Verification
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement. As the House knows, the Government announced that age verification for online pornography, under the Digital Economy Act 2017, would come into force on 15 July 2019. It has come to my attention in recent days that an important notification process was not undertaken for an element of this policy, and I regret to say that that will delay the commencement date. I wanted to take the opportunity to come to the House as soon as possible to apologise for the mistake that has been made and to explain its implications.
In autumn last year, we laid three instruments before the House for approval. One of them—the guidance on age verification arrangements—sets out standards that companies need to comply with. That should have been notified to the European Commission, in line with the technical standards and regulations directive, and it was not. Upon learning of that administrative oversight, I instructed my Department to notify this guidance to the EU and re-lay the guidance in Parliament as soon as possible. However, I expect that that will result in a delay in the region of six months.
As the House would expect, I want to understand how this occurred. I have therefore instructed my Department’s permanent secretary to conduct a thorough investigation. That investigation will have external elements to ensure that all necessary lessons are learned. Mechanisms will also be put in place to ensure that this cannot happen again. In the meantime, there is nothing to stop responsible providers of online pornography implementing age verification mechanisms on a voluntary basis, and I hope and expect that many will do so.
The House will also know that there are a number of other ways in which the Government are pursuing our objective of keeping young people safer online. The online harms White Paper sets out our plans for world-leading legislation to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. Alongside the White Paper, we published the social media code of practice under the Digital Economy Act 2017, which gives guidance to providers of social media platforms on appropriate actions that they should take to prevent bullying, insulting, intimidating and humiliating behaviours on their sites. We will also publish interim codes of practice detailing the steps that we expect companies to take to tackle terrorist content, and online child sexual abuse and exploitation. These will pave the way for the new regulatory requirements.
We set out in the White Paper our expectation that companies should protect children from inappropriate content, and we will produce a draft code of practice on child online safety to set clear standards for companies to keep children safe online, ahead of the new regulatory framework. During the consultation on the White Paper, technical challenges associated with identifying the specific ages of users were raised, so I have commissioned new guidance, to be published in the autumn, about the use of technology to ensure that children are protected from inappropriate content online.
The new regulatory framework for online harms that was announced in the White Paper will be introduced as soon as possible, because it will make a significant difference to the action taken by companies to keep children safe online. I intend to publish the Government response to the consultation by the end of the year, and to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows after that.
I recognise that many Members of the House and many people beyond it have campaigned passionately for age verification to come into force as soon as possible to ensure that children are protected from pornographic material they should not see. I apologise to them all for the fact that a mistake has been made that means these measures will not be brought into force as soon as they and I would like. However, there are also those who do not want these measures to be brought in at all, so let me make it clear that my statement is an apology for delay, not a change of policy or a lessening of this Government’s determination to bring these changes about. Age verification for online pornography needs to happen. I believe that it is the clear will of the House and those we represent that it should happen, and that it is in the clear interests of our children that it must.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and the sincerity with which he has made this apology today. However, the statement is proof that a serious and important policy has descended into an utter shambles under this Government. I would like to ask the Secretary of State one question that he did not answer in his statement: when did he find out about this? He says that it was in the last few days, but could he be a bit clearer about that?
Age verification was supposed to be introduced last April; it was delayed. Then it was going to be introduced next month, and today we hear it is going to be delayed again. The Secretary of State says he regrets this. We do too, very much, because it is not good enough—it is not acceptable and it is letting children down. Recent reports showed that 70% of eight to 17-year-olds have seen images and videos that are not suitable for their age in the past year. Given the rise in the use of mobile devices and tablets in the past decade, the case for appropriate online pornography enforcement has increased.
The Secretary of State says that an administrative error caused the failure to notify the European Commission of key details, but are there more fundamental problems with this policy? Can the Secretary of State give us a commitment about exactly when it will be introduced? Indeed, is he confident that it will ever be introduced? When the legislation was going through this place, Labour raised serious concerns about whether the verification process was viable, and whether the process could work if very personal data was given over to commercial pornography sites. This delay shows we were right to be concerned. Is he confident that such extremely sensitive personal data will be safe from leaks or hacks?
Media reports from earlier this year showed serious flaws in the system, with journalists able to create fake profiles that circumvented age checks in minutes. Is the Secretary of State sure that when—if—the policy is finally introduced, it will actually work? The ultimate sanction under the age verification regime was the power to block rogue sites, with internet service providers compelled to comply, but new encrypted browser software is about to undermine this system fundamentally. The encryption will mean that ISPs are blind to the sites that users visit on the internet, and they will be unable to block rogue sites that compromise the safety of children. That system—DNS over HTTPS—undermines not only the age verification system, but the entire foundations of the regulation laid out by the Government in the online harms White Paper. Does the Secretary of State agree that online companies are outsmarting the Government, and that we urgently need to know how the Government plan to catch up?
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks. As she knows, I have spoken to the shadow Secretary of State about this issue—I accept that he cannot be here today and I am grateful to her for stepping in.
The hon. Lady raised a number of issues, starting with when I discovered the error. The answer to that is Friday last week, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries found out a couple of days before that. As the House would expect, we have spent the intervening time seeking to confirm that there is no alternative way of doing what I have described. We do not believe there is, hence the course of actions that I have set out to the House.
The hon. Lady rightly asked about personal data and privacy, which is an area of concern. As she knows, it was discussed during the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017 and subsequently. I do not believe that it is impossible to reconcile the important requirement that people’s data and privacy are protected with the equally important requirement that children are protected from material they should not see. It is perfectly feasible to do those two things in parallel, which is what we seek through our approach. As she knows, the British Board of Film Classification, which will be the regulator for this, has taken steps to ensure that beyond the requirement on all relevant companies under the general data protection regulation parameters, an additional scheme will be available to those who wish to take advantage of it. That scheme will set out a higher gold standard for privacy, which we believe should be publicised to those who may wish to use these services.
The hon. Lady mentioned sanctions, but she will recognise that the issue under discussion is not sanctions for a breach of the requirements, but notification of them to the European Union. It is important to understand changes in technology and the additional challenges they throw up, and she is right to say that the so-called “D over H” changes will present additional challenges. We are working through those now and speaking to the browsers, which is where we must focus our attention. As the hon. Lady rightly says, the use of these protocols will make it more difficult, if not impossible, for ISPs to do what we ask, but it is possible for browsers to do that. We are therefore talking to browsers about how that might practically be done, and the Minister and I will continue those conversations to ensure that these provisions can continue to be effective.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this is not the first time that a DCMS measure has had to be reintroduced because of a failure to notify the EU Commission? I hope that that problem will soon be removed, but while it exists, will he use this extra time to ensure that we get the measure right? There are still concerns on the grounds of freedom of speech and privacy, and about the ease with which measures can be circumvented through the use of virtual private networks. Will he raise similar concerns with the Information Commissioner to ensure that the age appropriate design code is right? It is much more important that it is properly designed than that it is rushed into place.
I suspect that my right hon. Friend knows from experience that this is not the first time that such a thing has happened, but I am doing my level best to ensure it is the last. It is important that we have new mechanisms to ensure that such oversights are not repeated, and that is exactly what I am doing at the moment. He is correct that we should use the time we now have to get this right and to work through some of the additional challenges that I described a moment ago—we will do that. It is important that we understand these technological changes and, if I may say so, that validates our approach in the online harms White Paper, which was not to be prescriptive about technology, but to ensure that we adapt our systems as technology moves. We will seek to do the same on this point.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the age appropriate design code which, as he rightly says, is produced by the Information Commissioner, not the Government. He is right that it is important that we do not to rush this and that the Information Commissioner takes full account of the responses to the consultation. Having spoken to the Information Commissioner, I know that she will take full account of all the comments before taking the matter any further.
I agree with the Secretary of State that age verification needs to happen. The delay announced today is one thing, but the delays actually stretch back to April. This latest delay does not inspire confidence, which is extremely serious, given that this is about protecting children from harmful content. Another six-month delay is not acceptable. Can he guarantee that there will be no further slippage in the implementation of age verification? Does he agree that robust age verification must apply to social media companies, which may operate around the fringes of the law? Can he reassure us that he will do all that he can to prevent those who are unwilling to provide age verification from accessing pornography and other inappropriate material posted on a social media platform? Does he agree that that needs to be dealt with robustly as a matter of huge concern, as further delays will start to look like a lack of commitment on the Government’s part?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that there is no lack of commitment on the Government’s part, as I hope she would expect. When we discovered that the mistake had been made and realised there was no way to avoid its consequences, the right thing to do was to come and say so to the House of Commons, to apologise not just to the House but, as I said, to those beyond it who have campaigned on this matter, and to set out what we now believe needs to be done.
We will of course do everything we can to ensure there is no further slippage. Both my hon. Friend the Minister and I will spend a good deal of time making sure that we have the necessary measures in place to ensure that such mistakes do not happen again.
The hon. Lady is right to say that social media companies have a responsibility. She will know that in our White Paper on so-called online harms, one area of focus was making sure that young people are not exposed to material to which they should not be exposed. We believe that the duty of care that the White Paper will institute should apply to social media companies across the board. They should be responsible for making sure, where they reasonably can, that harms do not reach their users. Through that process, we expect to develop a regulatory framework that will make that happen. I do not believe that online companies should wait for the regulator to be in place before they change their behaviour, and a sensible company will not do so. When the regulator starts work, it will want to be persuaded not just that an online company is doing the right thing on the day of the beginning of that work, but that it has been doing so for some time.
I very much hope that that will make a difference—I believe it will. The hon. Lady has my commitment that we will continue to work on a whole range of measures to ensure that young people are as safe online as they can be.
I commend the Secretary of State for being so open and frank about this administrative mistake; if I may say so, that is absolutely the right approach. However, as has already been acknowledged, this is not the first time that such a thing has happened. I understand that measures are being put in place to ensure that it does not happen again, but when will that happen so that we can be confident that the Department is operating as it should?
We will conduct that exercise as quickly as we can. As I indicated in my statement, it is important that there is an external element in the process so that people outside the Department can look at what has happened and give us appropriate advice on how that can be avoided in the future. I also think that we will need to look at the mechanisms that are applied to ensure that such an administrative error cannot be made again.
It is worth my saying that it is an important convention of this House—I know, Mr Speaker, that you resolutely defend it—that Ministers should take responsibility for mistakes made by their Department. I am not here to talk about an error of a particular official; I am here to talk about a departmental mistake for which I take responsibility as Secretary of State. It is only right, too, that I reinforce the commitment and dedication of my Department’s civil servants to keeping young people safe online. The measures that we have taken over the past 12 months have represented significant steps forward, and I am grateful to my Department for having achieved that. I do not in any way defend this mistake, but I think it would be wrong to give the impression that the hard-working civil servants of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are not doing everything that they can to keep young people safe online.
The Secretary of State is a very honourable man, and it is commendable that he has come to speak to the House today, but many people will be very disappointed by this delay. He said in his statement that he expected this to
“result in a delay in the region of six months”,
but often in this place we are able to expedite matters when they are urgent. Is there no opportunity to speed things up, rather than our having to wait for six months?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she says, and she asks a fair question. One reason why I did not come to the House before now was that I sought to explore exactly what we might be able to do either to avoid this delay altogether or to minimise it. Perhaps it would help if I explained why I think that six months is roughly the appropriate time. Let me set out what has to happen now: we need to go back to the European Commission, and the rules under the relevant directive say that there must be a three-month standstill period after we have properly notified the regulations to the Commission. If it wishes to look into this in more detail—I hope that it will not—there could be a further month of standstill before we can take matters further, so that is four months. We will then need to re-lay the regulations before the House. As she knows, under the negative procedure, which is what these will be subject to, there is a period during which they can be prayed against, which accounts for roughly another 40 days. If we add all that together, we come to roughly six months. As she will recognise, if we could proceed quicker than that, we would, but I do not believe that that will be feasible, so it is right that I am realistic at this stage.
The Secretary of State has made a sincere and frank statement to the House about the reasons for the delay, and I appreciate that this is a change of timescale, not policy. I understand that the technology to enable the changes required by this policy already exists and could be implemented. Will he therefore comment on whether the stakeholders responsible for this—the key internet players—are co-operating on the right scale and at the right speed? We know that they can co-operate, but are they doing so?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is important that we have the necessary co-operation. Of course, that will need to come with the regulator, the BBFC, and those discussions are continuing, as he would expect. I have been clear that the reason for the delay is an administrative error—it is not anything else. We expect compliance by the companies that provide online pornography and, as I say, I see no reason why, in most cases, they cannot begin to comply voluntarily. They had expected to be compelled to do this from 15 July, so they should be in a position to comply. There seems to be no reason why they should not, but we do not rely on voluntary compliance and we will therefore pursue—somewhat later than we hoped—the regulations that I have described.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his honesty. The protection of our children is paramount for everyone in the Chamber. Does he agree that typing in a year of birth is not an acceptable form of security to protect children’s innocence? Parents, including my constituents, demand that there must be greater verification. What does his Department believe can be done to enhance the verification process?
I know the hon. Gentleman’s long-standing commitment to and interest in this issue. He is right that we should not accept that someone simply ticking a box or saying, “I am 18,” is sufficient for the companies concerned. The regulations that we have laid once, and will now re-lay, make it clear that from the point of view of the BBFC, as the regulator, that will not be an acceptable way of complying with the regulations. Companies will need to do more than that. There will need to be a way of demonstrating that someone is over 18 before they have access to this material so that companies can be sure of that fact, with us as legislators being sure that we are taking every measure that we can to keep young people away from material that will be harmful to them.
It is vital that our legislation is fit for purpose in a digital age, and it is very unfortunate that age verification for online porn is being delayed. I join my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), in calling for us to ensure that this time is used well. I urge the Secretary of State to keep up a relentless focus on making sure that children are safe online, particularly regarding content on social media sites—especially inappropriate content on Twitter—and action on online harassment and bullying. Fundamentally, if a teenage girl walks down the street and some male in a mac flashes his pieces at her, that is illegal. It should not be legal to send that teenage girl a photo via AirDrop in a public place.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point. She is right: the principle that what is unlawful offline should be unlawful online guides much of the legislative activity in which we have engaged. As she says, we must maintain our focus on keeping young people—indeed, people of all ages—safe from online harms. As she knows, in parallel with these regulations, we will pursue the course set out in the White Paper.
We believe that the White Paper, along with the social media code of practice—which, as I mentioned earlier, has been published in conjunction with it—will start to drive these improvements, but the era of self-regulation has come to an end. It is important for the Government and legislators in the House to take seriously their responsibilities to keep people safe online, so that we know that social media companies will be more responsible in the future.
Export Licences: High Court Judgment
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about the High Court judgment on military export licences to Saudi Arabia.
Today, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment following the appeal by Campaign Against Arms Trade against the divisional court’s decision in July 2017 to dismiss CAAT’s claim for a judicial review of licensing decisions about military exports to Saudi Arabia for possible use in the conflict in Yemen. The case was heard by the Court of Appeal between 9 and 11 April this year. The original judicial review and the appeal relate to decisions made between December 2015 and February 2017.
Since the divisional court’s judgment in July 2017, the Government have continued to apply the rigorous and robust multi-layered process of analysis in making our licensing decisions, as highlighted in that judgment. We have, in the words of the 2017 judgment, engaged in
“anxious scrutiny—indeed…what seems like anguished scrutiny at some stages”.
The Government have always taken their export control obligations very seriously, and continue to do so.
There were three grounds of appeal. The judgment found in the Government’s favour on two of them, and against on the other, referred to as ground 1. We disagree with the judgment against the Government on ground 1, and will seek permission to appeal against it.
Today’s judgment is not about whether the Government have made the right or wrong decisions about granting export licences, but concerns the rationality of the process used to reach decisions. The process was upheld by the divisional court in July 2017. The central issue in relation to military exports to Saudi Arabia in the context of the conflict in Yemen is criterion 2c of the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, which states that the Government will
“not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
The criteria provide the rules for assessing military exports. Among other things, they cover concerns about human rights and international humanitarian law, the development of weapons of mass destruction, international obligations including sanctions and treaty commitments and the risk of diversion. They provide a thorough and rigorous risk assessment framework for the reaching of licensing decisions.
As the judgment makes clear, the Secretary of State responsible for licensing decisions has to rely on advice from those with specialist, diplomatic and military knowledge. In relation to criterion 2c, that means advice from the Foreign Secretary. Before the establishment of the Department for International Trade in 2016, the decision maker was the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. In July 2016, the responsibility passed to me.
So how have decisions been made under criterion 2c? We have used six strands of information and analysis to inform decisions: analysis of all allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law that are known to us; an understanding of Saudi military procedures; continuing engagement with the Saudis at the highest level; post-incident dialogue, including dialogue with respect to investigations; Saudi public commitments to IHL; and regular IHL assessments based on developments in the conflict in Yemen.
Each of these strands takes into account a wide range of sources and analysis, including those of a sensitive nature to which other parties, such as non-governmental organisations and the United Nations, do not have access. Taken together, these strands of analysis and information, which are reviewed regularly by the FCO in comprehensive reports to the Foreign Secretary and which engage continuously with the record of the Saudis in relation to IHL, form the basis of the Foreign Secretary’s advice to the Secretary of State making licensing decisions.
Given all this, why did CAAT appeal the 2017 judgment? The ground on which the Government lost in the Court of Appeal judgment concerned whether we were under an obligation to make some overall assessment of whether there had been historical violations of IHL, including whether a pattern of violations could be discerned. Our approach is in line with the EU common position; it is therefore focused on a predictive evaluation of risk as to the attitude and future conduct of the Saudi-led coalition and recognises the inherent difficulties of seeking to reach findings on IHL for specific incidents where we do not have access to the complete information. Indeed, the divisional court pointed to the “self-evident” impracticality of doing so.
Even so, we have fully and robustly engaged with incidents of concern and sought to test and understand the risk of future incidents. We have all along considered the historical record of Saudi Arabia in respect of IHL. Our whole assessment has been infused with IHL considerations; indeed, everything has been looked at through the prism of IHL.
Today’s judgment is clear that the context is not one in which the Government are sitting like a court adjudicating on alleged past violations, but rather the context is a prospective and predictive exercise as to whether there is a clear risk that exports might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL in the future. In this context, past incidents are only part of the picture. The judgment emphasises that Government advisers were keenly alive to the question of possible violation of IHL. It also acknowledges that the processes used to advise the Secretary of State responsible for licensing decisions were rigorous and robust, upon which a decision maker could rely and, indeed, had to rely.
Nevertheless, the judgment concludes that CAAT succeeded in the central argument advanced in relation to ground 1 of its appeal. In the court’s judgment the question whether there was a historical pattern of breaches of IHL required to be faced; even if it could not be answered with reasonable confidence for every incident, at least the attempt had to be made. Because the Government have not reached findings on IHL for specific incidents as part of our assessment of clear risk under criterion 2c, the Court of Appeal concluded that the decision-making process was irrational and therefore unlawful. The consequence is that we are remitted to reconsider our decisions in accordance with the correct legal approach. As I said earlier, we disagree with the judgment and will seek permission to appeal.
Alongside this, we are carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision making. While we do this, we will not grant any new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that might be used in the conflict in Yemen. As the Court of Appeal makes clear, different people may or may not approve the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. The judicial review is not an appeal against the Government’s decisions on their merits.
Once again, I stress that this judgment is not about whether the Government made the right or wrong decisions, but is about whether the decision-making process was rational, and the judgment emphasises that there would not be only one answer on future risk if historical violations were found to have taken place; in other words, changing the process as set out by the Court does not necessarily mean any of the decisions would be different.
The context is a complex and ever changing conflict. The Court of Appeal judgment does not undermine the UK’s overall framework for export controls as set out in the consolidated criteria. These criteria have stood the test of time and are shared by EU member states. The Court’s judgment is about how decisions were made in relation to one element of one of those criteria in a specific context, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. This week, the House marked in debate the 70th anniversary of the Geneva convention and the 20th anniversary of the United Nation’s Security Council first putting on its agenda the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The irony of today’s judgment by the Court of Appeal is that the United Kingdom is the penholder at the Security Council for that mandate. We are supposed to be guardians of international humanitarian law, not the people found in breach of it.
The Court of Appeal’s ruling is a damning indictment of the Government’s handling of export licences to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It finds that their handling has not been lawful. The Court found that the Government
“made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”.
Does the Secretary of State accept that this constitutes a clear breach of the Government’s legal obligations to assess an export destination country’s respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and that under criterion 2c of the licensing criteria the Government should have carried out such an assessment and denied licences if there was
“a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”?
The Secretary of State has tried to excuse himself by pleading that this judgment is not about whether the Government have made the right or wrong decision, but about whether the decision-making process was rational. Surely even he must understand that if the decision-making process was not rational, the Government could have had no confidence that it was correct and that it therefore follows that he could have had no confidence that there was no material risk of these exports being used contrary to international humanitarian law.
That the Government have failed to carry out such assessments is a matter of national shame. I am afraid that the Secretary of State’s suggestion that there has been anxious scrutiny of these decisions looks threadbare. I welcome his announcement that there will be a suspension of the granting of new licences to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, pending the Government’s appeal, but that is not enough. Given that the process itself is flawed, will he confirm whether the same process has been used for exports to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which are also involved in the Yemeni conflict? Will he confirm that he is also suspending all new licences to those countries?
The Opposition believe there should be an independent investigation into the Yemen conflict and that it is shameful that the Government should seek to appeal today’s judgment. We are also concerned that there should be no sudden upsurge in open licences to these countries as a way to bypass the suspension. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this will not be allowed?
During the legal proceedings in the case against the Government, it transpired that the Government had not been properly monitoring whether the Saudi-led coalition had been engaged in breaches of IHL and had refused to properly set out whether British exports or service personnel had been directly or indirectly involved in any breaches by the Saudi-led coalition, despite widespread evidence of airstrikes on non-military targets, double-tap bombing raids and the deaths of thousands of civilians. Can the Secretary of State tell the House categorically that there has been adequate monitoring of potential breaches of IHL such that no UK personnel could be implicated in any breach?
The Secretary of State is well aware that several other countries have suspended arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over concerns about those breaches in Yemen, including our European counterparts Germany and Denmark. He has suggested that it is his view that the Government approach is in line with the EU common position. What assessment has he made of international reports into possible breaches and what discussions has he had with his counterparts in Germany and Denmark about the evidence upon which they have decided to suspend arms sales?
The Secretary of State, in his response to the claims brought forward by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, has stated that the Government monitor potential breaches in a number of ways, including a Ministry of Defence recording tool, extensive on-the-ground military and diplomatic staff, positive close relations with Saudi Arabian officials, and the findings of the 14 investigations by the Saudi-led coalition into whether they themselves had committed any such breaches. It subsequently transpired during proceedings that the Ministry of Defence tracker may not have been recording such data, so the Secretary of State’s review of potential breaches of international humanitarian law seems to be entirely determined by what his Saudi Arabian counterparts have advised him. At what stage did he first become aware that the Ministry of Defence tracker programme was not recording such breaches? Can he confirm whether his Department was aware that such breaches were not being reviewed or recorded?
The Court of Appeal has determined that the Secretary of State must retake the export licence decisions and must therefore conduct a conclusive review of past violations of international humanitarian law in advance. Can he confirm that he intends to adhere to the Court’s findings, and will he tell the House what steps he is taking to conduct such an investigation? Given the serious breach of this Government’s duty of care with regard to export licences, we believe that there are clear grounds for a thorough investigation into the Government’s handling of them, and that there must be a full parliamentary or public inquiry to find out how that was allowed to happen and which Ministers were responsible for those breaches.
I note that several times in his statement the Secretary of State was keen to finger the former Foreign Secretary as the one with the “specialist, diplomatic and military knowledge” whose advice he was obliged to take under criterion 2c of the consolidated criteria. The House may be surprised to learn of that official description of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Can the Secretary of State explain, given that he has previously assured the House that he will
“personally lead on helping the defence and security industries to export and will be involved in the most significant global deals across all sectors”,
why he does not take full responsibility himself?
The House has grown accustomed to the outraged tone of the hon. Gentleman, but it does not actually reflect the balanced tone of the judgment. He said in his questions that this country had been found in breach of international humanitarian law. I find that outrageous, coming from the official Opposition of this country, and I hope that he will retract it. I think the record will show that that is completely untrue. It is an outrageous slur on this country.
The hon. Gentleman raised a number of valid and important questions, and I shall try to take them in turn as best I can. He asked about open licences. They are subject to the same scrutiny, and sometimes take between two and five months to pass, so they are not a means of bypassing the scrutiny set out in the consolidated criteria. I think that the House will be clear on that. As to how we look at existing licences, and at licences elsewhere, I have made it clear that we will review all licences in the light of the Court’s judgment. It is worth noting, however, that the Campaign Against Arms Trade did not seek an order to suspend licences, and that the Court has not ordered that in its judgment.
The hon. Gentleman asked about how the UK monitors international humanitarian law allegations. The Ministry of Defence monitors incidents of alleged IHL violations arising from airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen using all information available. This in turn is used to determine an overall view on the approach and attitude of the coalition. It informs the risk assessment made under the licensing criteria, where there is a clear risk that the items to be exported might be used in the commission of a serious violation. We consider a range of information from Government sources, foreign Governments, the media and international non-governmental organisations. We are now carefully considering the detail of the Court of Appeal judgment and its implications for this risk assessment and for decision making.
The hon. Gentleman asked about our discussions with the Germans. We of course have ongoing discussions with our European partners, but let me be clear that we are following the consolidated guidelines and the common EU position on this. I can tell him that there has been no breach in the duty of care in how the Government have approached this, and I make no allegations about any colleague, but I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman has tried to drag personalities into this serious debate on such serious international issues. If there has been a breach of duty in this House, it is the breach of scrutiny by the Opposition.
Do the Government accept that, as the years have rolled by since the 9/11 atrocities, it has become harder and harder to justify the closeness of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but in defence of what the Government are trying to do, would it not be sensible for my right hon. Friend to have conversations with the Foreign Secretary, perhaps with a view to publishing a digest of some of the representations that we make to the Saudis in trying to keep them from straying further away from acceptable standards of international behaviour?
The Foreign Secretary and I have answered numerous questions on this issue in the House of Commons, and we have certainly cited some of those incidents and been questioned on specific incidents in the House. On my right hon. Friend’s key point, I do not think the proximity or otherwise to 9/11 is the key determinant here; rather, it is whether Saudi Arabia acts as an important source of intelligence for this country in our shared combat against a global terrorism. It is a valuable partner in that particular battle and has helped to keep numerous UK citizens safe.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for giving me advance sight of it. I recognise that, under criterion 2c of the consolidated criteria, the Government will not grant a licence if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. I also recognise that the judgment is not about whether the Government made the right or wrong decisions, but about whether the decision making was rational. I also recognise the words from the 2017 ruling that there was
“anxious scrutiny—indeed…what seems like anguished scrutiny at some stages”
over the decision making process. However, that anxiety and anguish are as nothing compared to the civilians who have been on the receiving end of Saudi armaments since the war in Yemen began.
I also note that since that war started, the UK has licensed some £4.7 billion-worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia in a conflict whose death toll is now approaching 100,000 people. So may I ask the Secretary of State two questions? The ruling means that the UK must retake its decision on the correct legal basis, taking into account past possible human rights abuses from Saudi Arabia. Will this Government now take seriously the deep concern, anguish and anxiety that there are substantial human rights abuses emanating from Saudi Arabia? Secondly, I was disappointed to hear him say that it was the Government’s intention to appeal. I understand the legal costs so far are somewhere over £100,000. May I ask him to respect the ruling today, not to proceed with an appeal, and not to throw good money after bad?
The hon. Gentleman asks an important key question on the specifics. Of course, criterion 2c is a predictive element. We have to look at what we think the future risk is in granting licences, and we take into account all the information that we have had, not least since the last licensing period decision that we have looked at. That takes into account all the sources I have already given him. He asks about the wider issues. I want to make it clear to the House that in reaching the decisions, I have to rely on advice from those with specialist diplomatic and military expertise, but the law does not permit me, in taking these decisions on licensing exports of weapons, to take into account the UK’s strategic economic, social, commercial and industrial interests. These are very important issues, but there are areas of wider policy and they are not areas that I am allowed to take into account when I take these particular decisions.
I have some sympathy with the position that my right hon. Friend has set out the Dispatch Box today. He will recall that I have had, to say the least, the most profound reservations over the past three or four years about the Government’s policy in respect of what is happening in Yemen. However, he will also know that I have never called for an arms embargo for the simple reason that it would have little humanitarian impact. Does he appreciate that the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, said in his judgment today that the Government
“made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so”.
That is the crux of the matter that is before the House today.
I say to my right hon. Friend and to the other members of the Government Front Bench that they should listen more carefully to what Parliament has said consistently in almost every debate on this matter over the past three years. As recently as Tuesday, there was a Westminster Hall debate marking the 70th anniversary of the arrangements that were made in respect of international humanitarian law. After all these investigations of breaches of international humanitarian law, the argument has been that it is wrong for Britain and one side of the conflict to mark their own homework. It is essential that such breaches are looked at by an accepted and impartial international force, such as the UN. If the Government had heeded the warnings from the House of Commons, they would not be in the position that they are in today.
I agree with my right hon. Friend about the humanitarian costs involved in the conflict, and I also agree that there can be no military solution to this particular conflict. There can only be a negotiated and political solution. However, we do monitor allegations of IHL breaches, and we do take that into account when making decisions. Of course, the predictive nature of this process means that we have to look at the past pattern of behaviour, the information we have available, and what mitigations may have been put in place to ensure that any incidents are not repeated. We are unable to make absolute definitions about whether there has been a breach when we are not party to the full information, but we make those decisions based on the predictive element of criterion 2c and on the evidence that is available from both public and protected sources.
The Government’s position is, frankly, inexplicable, because the Secretary of State referred to all the careful analysis that has been done, but anyone else undertaking an assessment of future risk—this goes to the heart of the point that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) just raised—would look at the past behaviour of those using the weapons that we have sold to Saudi Arabia. As the Secretary of State well knows, others have done so, and the UN panel of experts found over three years ago that
“the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”.
The Government cannot continue to say, “We’re sorry. We haven’t been able to make an assessment, but we are not sure that there is a risk about the future.” I will ask a direct question of the Secretary of State: is it the Government’s view that Saudi Arabia has engaged in activities that have breached international humanitarian law?
I disagree with the premise of the question itself. The right hon. Gentleman says that the Government’s position is inexplicable, but it is not. We are following the EU and national criteria set out for arms exports, and we are following the EU common position. We look at all reports of potential breaches of international humanitarian law, but we must also take into account, by the nature of the predictive elements in criterion 2c, what we think the future risk will be based on, for example, any mitigations.
The Government have consistently maintained that this country has one of the strictest export control regimes of anywhere in the world, but on what grounds do they base those claims?
The divisional court’s judgment set out in terms why we operate a robust system, and I explained in my statement that we have gone well beyond what I think is naturally expected under criterion 2c. We operate what I believe is the most robust arms export policy of anywhere in the world. We operate under the EU and national consolidated criteria and alongside the EU common position. I do not believe that anyone else operates a more robust policy.
The Secretary of State has referred to the European common position several times. What is his assessment of the European countries that have decided to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia? Why does he disagree with their position?
The hon. Lady asks a good question. We discuss matters with our European colleagues, including our German colleagues, at the highest level, and it is our policy to continue to apply the EU common position to licensing. We do not comment on the commercial arrangements that underpin the export of military equipment and services, which are, of course, confidential. Our European partners and others are entitled to deviate from the EU common position if they wish, but we intend to follow it.
We all get emails from our constituents expressing concerns about the global arms trade. Will my right hon. Friend therefore assure me and my constituents that the UK does indeed have one of the most robust arms export regimes in the world? Does he share my wish that other countries had such robust regimes?
I do wish that more countries shared the criteria that we and our European partners operate in this particular field. However, I also believe that countries are entitled to defend themselves. If we were to have no international rules around arms exports, the whole global arms industry would be a laissez-faire space in which many innocent citizens around the world would be denied the protections offered by our export licences.
It is undeniable that the Government’s defiance in respect of the Court of Appeal ruling is disappointing. Given the public interest in the unfolding tragedy in Yemen, will the Secretary of State not at least acknowledge that there must be more transparency in how his Department deals with this issue? We understand the obvious sensitivities, but the public and the House deserve to understand how the Department is coming to its decisions.
I have made it clear on a number of occasions how we come to decisions and the process of ministerial accountability in that. The Court of Appeal judged that the process needs to change in order to be lawful, but it also made the point that changing the process would not necessarily have led to different decisions from those arrived at by the Government.
I say to the hon. Lady that I took offence at the comments of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on this matter, when she said:
“Saudi Arabia is an enemy of British values, including human rights and the rule of law.”
Such sweeping generalisations show a lack of grasp of the detail and understanding of the complexities of international relations.
On the one hand, the Court of Appeal is saying that the British Government must investigate allegations of previous international humanitarian law violations before granting export licences but, on the other hand, the British Government are saying, “Look. That is very difficult for us to do, because some of these incidents take place in foreign countries thousands of miles away.” Does not the solution to this lie in the hands of the Saudi Arabian Government themselves? We must say to them, “If you want to buy our weapons, where allegations exist they must be properly and independently investigated, and those findings must be shared with us before licences are granted.”
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The joint incidents assessment team was set up by the Saudi Government in February 2016 to help with that. It examines military activity in civilian areas to minimise possible civilian casualties and assesses the coalition’s rules of engagement. We have had input into that to ensure that the coalition is operating in a way that we would find acceptable.
Of course, we simply would not take that as being the end of the matter when it comes to information. As I have said, we look at a range of information from foreign Government sources, from our own Government sources, both those in the public domain and those that are restricted, and from NGOs and the media. It is in taking that complete picture that we were able to assess what we believe the risks to be, but we are always looking to see whether further sources of information may help to improve our decision making, alongside the decision making of our allies.
I have just returned from the Court of Appeal, where I listened to the judgment. The judges, in paragraph 141, say there was a decision in 2016 no longer to apply criterion 2 on the checking of IHL. This resulted in 100,000 deaths. Who made that decision?
My Committees, the Committees on Arms Export Controls, have manifestly failed to hold the Government to account. We now need urgent reform of the Committees’ powers, including creating a standalone Committee. Will the Minister confirm that he will not allow the use of any existing open licences to coalition partners during this review?
Finally, after the arms scandals of the 1980s and ’90s we had the Scott inquiry, and we now need an independent judge-led or parliamentary inquiry not just on this particular issue but on the failings of our arms control system—taking it away from the political interference and political control of Ministers to a truly independent and world-class system, which we do not have at the moment.