Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Climate Change Adaptation
The Government recognise the need for urgent action on climate change—on both mitigation and adaptation. For example, we are investing £2.6 billion over six years on flood defences. Some sectors are already adapting to the changing climate. When I visited the Fruit Focus event in Kent, I learned that the climate is now better suited for apricot production and for vineyards. The good news is that this will mean more high-quality English sparkling wine to toast the health and success of our new Prime Minister.
Do I detect an end-of-term feel about the Minister’s comments?
What analysis has the Minister undertaken of the impact on homes, infrastructure and communities as a result of climate change over the next 10 to 20 years? Will he share that analysis with the House, so that Members are able to assess the impact on our constituencies?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. The Committee on Climate Change assessed 33 sectors, and we welcome its report. We are committed to taking robust action to improve resilience to climate change. We will formally respond to the Committee’s detailed recommendations in October, in line with the timetable set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, and that will include the way climate change affects communities.
The Minister might be toasting the new Prime Minister, but I do wonder how much hot air is being generated and what contribution that will make to the net emissions target. The Scottish Government have committed to net zero by 2045, rather than the UK Government’s 2050 target. Is the UK not willing to match that level of ambition?
When it comes to hot air, pots and kettles spring to mind.
I look forward to working with the Scottish Administration to achieve the target. This is not a party political issue. Every single part of this House wants to take action on climate change, and it is vital that we do so to deliver a cleaner and greener planet in the future.
Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, but it is interesting to note that, unlike carbon dioxide, which takes 100 years to dissipate, methane dissipates in about 12 years. That means that if we can reduce the current rate of methane production—never mind net zero—we will actually reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere, which will be an important way of contributing to our net zero targets.
Forestry Investment Zones: England
We are piloting the first forestry investment zone in Cumbria to learn how best to support long-term forestry investment. I was delighted to visit Northumberland last week to discuss with my hon. Friend and others how to increase tree planting rates. We have everyone from the county council to the national park agreeing to work together to increase woodland creation in that great county.
I welcome the Minister’s visit to Northumberland last week and thank him for his kind words. Does he agree that what we need is a whole of Northumberland FIZ, which will be structured to allow long-term private investment to support local landowners to plant and, importantly, maintain extensive commercial and amenity planting projects, so that our 11 million new carbon sinks—our trees—will be a reality, not just a plan?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s further comments on the development of a FIZ in Northumberland and completely agree that we need to do more to make our long-term tree planting aspirations a reality. As we discussed last week, we need to explore further the opportunities around the potential FIZ in Northumberland, basing them around the lessons learned from the Cumbria pilot. I welcome the positive work that has already taken place. We clearly need to do a lot more to achieve our ambitious targets across the country and in Northumberland.
The Minister knows that the Tory Administration in the 18th and 19th centuries stole the public land from the people. That is the truth of the matter. The enclosure Acts were a stain on the history of this country. Is it not about time that we gave that land back and grew trees on it—and that we did so seriously, not through playing around with words?
Of course we need to do more to plant more trees, and we are taking that action. We are already committed to planting 11 million trees by 2022 and we are well on target to achieve that aim, but our aspirations are much bigger—going to 12% level of woodland cover by 2060.
Thank you. It is good to be back at this Dispatch Box.
Our priority is preventing plastic waste from entering the environment in the first instance. The resources and waste strategy sets out our plans to eliminate avoidable plastic waste, including measures to tackle certain single-use plastic items. This week we published Government responses to consultations on measures that include making recycling easier and ensuring that producers pay the full cost of managing their packaging waste responsibly.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new role.
Pupils from Kings Road Primary School and the Bishops’ Primary School in Chelmsford want to do more to reduce single-use plastic. I have obviously given them copies of “Vicky’s Guide to Going Green”, but what top tips would my right hon. Friend like to share?
There are many top tips in our 25-year environment plan, and I commend my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for his world-leading work on this matter. A key message to get across to all the schoolchildren around the country who want to take part in tackling plastic waste is: don’t drop litter.
I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment. Will she join me in congratulating the students from the National Citizen Service I met at Roots Hall in Southend on Monday, who, inspired by David Attenborough, are right at this very minute picking out plastic from our beautiful coastline in Southend?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Both these questions illustrate that there is a real attitude out there among the public that they want to be part of resolving this urgent problem. The Government will continue to support organisations such as the National Citizen Service to engage young people and ensure that they are playing a part in the Government’s determination to address this problem because people are concerned about it.
We have gone further than any other Government in history on tackling plastic waste. I acknowledge the concern felt about the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We will always try to move as fast as we can to ensure that we are taking the most effective action possible, but we also need to take time to ensure that we get it right. I assure him that I will be working hard to ensure that this action is delivered as soon as possible.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place.
On 1 May, this House unanimously supported Labour’s declaration of an environment and climate emergency. The Center for International Environmental Law predicts that plastics will contribute to 13% of global carbon emissions by 2050 if no action is taken, yet the Government’s plans do not envisage that extended producer responsibility for packaging will come into force before 2023 or that a 75% recycling rate will be achieved before 2030. Does the Secretary of State accept that the emergency requires much faster action?
I look forward to working with the shadow Front Benchers on these issues. We have gone further and faster than the previous Labour Government with radical changes, including the plastic bag tax and our plans to ban plastic stirrers and other plastic products. We are a world-leading country on this issue, and we will continue to be so because we are determined to tackle the problem.
Air Pollution: Local Authority Funding
The Government have invested £3.5 billion in improving air quality and £495 million is specifically set aside for councils where they are in breach of nitrogen dioxide limits. We will continue to support councils in a variety of ways to improve air quality.
Residents and businesses want to play their part in Greater Manchester’s plans to reduce air pollution, but unless the Government will properly support plans for vehicle upgrades and for retrofitting, many businesses will not be able to afford to do so. When will the Government give the clarity and the assurances on funding that businesses in Greater Manchester need?
Local authorities will not be able to fix the massive air pollution that is caused by a third runway expansion at Heathrow. The new Secretary of State and I both voted against that plan, and of course the new Prime Minister is a long-standing opponent. But pollution goes far wider than air pollution—it is also noise pollution—and it is in conflict with our law on net zero carbon emissions by 2050 that this House passed unanimously. Will the new Secretary of State now insist that this project is put on hold and that a review of it is undertaken before any further work is done?
It is the absolute priority for the people who are developing the third runway to come forward with a plan that meets environmental targets in law. If they do not, they will not get the consent to make it happen. However, I am highly confident that the operators of Heathrow airport will be able to devise such a plan.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about the importance of tackling air pollution with regard to lung health and other medical conditions. That is why we have been consistently working on this ever since I have been an Environment Minister, and air quality continues to improve. We are very conscious that the clean air strategy was welcomed by the World Health Organisation as being world-leading and something that it wanted other countries to pursue. The hon. Lady will well know that measures are being planned on air quality that will be in the forthcoming environment Bill.
Many parents, including those in Redditch, are worried about the impact of air pollution on their children’s lungs, especially when they are going to and from school. Will the new Secretary of State, who I warmly welcome to her place, ensure that local authorities’ funding under the clean air strategy is adequate to help them to tackle this problem?
I hope that my hon. Friend is aware that councils already have many powers to improve issues relating to cars and other vehicles, especially around schools. I would encourage her to work with Redditch Borough Council and Worcestershire County Council on taking advantage of those powers. She will also be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has indicated that we are going to increase the fines for idling.
To encourage more planting, we have modified our main grant schemes and announced additional funding of £10 million for urban trees and £50 million for the woodland carbon guarantee scheme. We have invested £5.7 million in the northern forest. We have also reappointed our tree champion to develop our tree strategy so that we can plan to consult on this later in the year. That demonstrates our commitment to achieving our goal of planting 11 million trees during this Parliament, and our wider aspirations.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her welcome return to the top table. Earlier this year, her predecessor visited the wonderful Thames Chase community forest in my constituency and planted a tree to contribute to this growing woodland. With the forest likely to be impacted by the lower Thames crossing, will the Minister provide an update on the Department’s biodiversity net gain plans to ensure that major infrastructure projects have the potential to enhance, not detract from, precious green spaces?
I know how hard my hon. Friend works for her constituency. We have committed to mandating biodiversity net gain through the forthcoming environment Bill. That policy will deliver measurable improvements to biodiversity through development including housing and local infrastructure, thereby making sure that development has a positive environmental impact through habitat creation or enhancement. The Government are also exploring the best approaches to net gain for nationally significant infrastructure, including the lower Thames crossing.
Trees are a vital tool in combating carbon emissions, but in Seaford and Alfriston in my constituency, trees are having to be cut down because of elm disease. What support can the Minister give my local council to ensure not just that those trees are replaced but that even more are planted?
As my hon. Friend knows, I am very aware of Seaford and Alfriston, and while no specific grants are currently available to replace elm in urban settings, there are opportunities for funding new planting in and around our towns and cities under the recently launched £10 million urban tree challenge fund. That fund will support the planting of at least 130,000 trees across towns and cities in England and contribute towards our manifesto commitment of planting 1 million urban trees by 2022.
Hyndburn Borough Council has planted an awful lot of trees. In fact, I believe that it has planted more trees than any other borough in Lancashire. When will the Government reward Labour councils such as Hyndburn Borough Council for the work they have done to meet the Government’s targets?
I praise the work they are doing. There is a huge opportunity with the northern forest, which the Government have helped to kick-start. It will make a huge difference, working through many community forests. I was pleased to be able to plant the first Government-funded tree in Bury just a few months ago.
I thank the Minister for his response. Tree cover across the UK mainland is approximately 12%, and in Northern Ireland it is only 8%. What is the Minister doing collectively with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to improve the lungs of the world by planting more trees?
I praise the work that is going on across the country. Clearly, there is important work going on in Scotland that we need to learn from. We are absolutely committed to taking forward this important work, as I know the hon. Gentleman is, because we need many more trees to achieve our targets in addressing and tackling climate change.
Single Use Plastics Directive
The Government strongly supported the single use plastics directive, partly because we were already undertaking several of the actions proposed. I am confident that the necessary regulations will be brought in within two years, as happens with directives, but as I say, we are already on the case.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I recently arranged for a bottle deposit scheme of the type used in Norway to come to Cheltenham high street, and I know from the reaction of my constituents that there is a huge demand to drive down the number of plastic bottles in our environment. Of course we have to get the detail right, but does the Minister agree that we should look at such a scheme very carefully, with a view to introducing it as quickly as possible?
Indeed. The Government published their response to the consultation just the other day, and we have indicated again our support for continuing with the scheme. I know that people are impatient—I am impatient. I have now been to about seven countries to look at their deposit return schemes. It is complex. We have the biggest on-the-go market out of any country in Europe, and we need to ensure that we have a system that works, alongside all the other reforms we are making, such as extended producer responsibility and the plastics tax. It is important to ensure that those are co-ordinated and will have the desired effect.
Access to Food
Ministers and officials regularly discuss all aspects of food security, including accessibility. We have long-established relationships with industry and work collaboratively to ensure that the UK continues to have access to safe, nutritious and affordable food from a wide range of sources, particularly from British farmers. I plan to visit the Game Fair tomorrow, so I will make a plug for British game and the grouse that will be coming into our larders following the glorious twelfth.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, particularly because my newly appointed right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not had a chance to speak to her Cabinet colleagues. The problem with safe food is that we need to be able to read on the label that it is safe. Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died because she ate food that was contaminated with sesame seeds, but the label did not make that clear. We still have a problem in this country with honesty in labelling. Can more be done, to ensure that the label says what it is?
On the subject of the Game Fair, it is very sad that Chris Packham has been banned from attending to speak out against grouse shooting. I would have thought that the Minister would welcome free speech on the subject.
On food, the Government grant for school meals has not risen in the last five years. It is £2.30 per pupil. It is really difficult to provide nutritious meals for children for that amount. Can he speak to the Secretary of State for Education about that?
It is a great pleasure to see the new Secretary of State in her place. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) for all the work he did on agriculture. I want to emphasise that, as we produce food in the future, we can have a better environment, but let us use all the technologies and everything available so that we can have affordable, safe food.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. Changes to the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (England) Regulations 2018, in line with changes to EU rules for ovine age identification, would go a long way to helping ensure access to safe and healthy food and would help our farmers, but I am repeatedly being fobbed off with an excuse that a consultation will be coming soon. When will we see it?
Having spent a lot of my life looking into sheep’s mouths in ageing them, I know how important it is to ensure that we have a system that we can demonstrate clearly does not present any risk to health. We were keen to move away from carcase splitting. We took a precautionary approach because of the delays in delivering Brexit, but I hope we can make progress once we have left the European Union.
Access to food also requires access to labour to plant, care for and pick it. Over the last year, I have had many representations from farmers in my constituency and from the National Farmers Union. What representations is my right hon. Friend making to Cabinet colleagues advocating a points-based system to make sure that that has sufficient flex so that there is access to labour not just seasonally, but all year round?
My right hon. Friend and I are both former Immigration Ministers, so we know this issue. Indeed, one of the points made to me at the Fruit Focus event was the need to access labour to pick our fruit. The pilot scheme that my right hon. Friend brought forward during her time at the Home Office is a step in the right direction, but we do need to ensure we can have the workforce to pick the fruit, particularly given the weakness of the pound and the fact that perhaps not all European Union citizens are as attracted to come to the UK as they were.
The Government will be working through the Waste and Resources Action Programme and with industry on developing an ambitious new phase of the sustainable clothing action plan. We are planning to develop regulatory standards and labels to support durable, repairable and recyclable products; consult on an extended producer responsibility scheme; and support innovation in textile recycling. We are also increasing the transparency of reporting required on modern slavery, and continuing to prioritise the enforcement of national minimum wage legislation.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place, but the announcements she has just made will not go far enough to tackle the fast fashion epidemic, which is being promoted by shows such as “Love Island”. It may be bikini weather outside, but when bikinis are being sold for £1 on fast fashion websites, it is clear that workers are not getting what they need. When is she going to bring in extended producer responsibility and ban clothing from landfill?
First, I very much look forward to working with the hon. Lady’s Environmental Audit Committee on these and other matters. I very much hope to appear in front of the members of her Committee when there is time in their diary.
The hon. Lady raises very important points. I think there is real consensus across the House that we need action. The Government have a credible plan, which we are delivering. As I said in response to earlier questions, we need to ensure that we get this right. I can assure her that we will be moving towards solutions on these problems in response to public concern.
Does the Secretary of State agree with me that fashion provides very important livelihoods for people in low-income countries around the world? As we, rightly, address the question of sustainability, we must never throw away their livelihoods, which are so important. In fact, we must seek to ensure that those livelihoods are improved.
With all these matters, our goal should be to pursue both prosperity and environmental sustainability at the same time. My hon. Friend makes a very valid point that in taking forward our new regulatory structures to tackle this problem, we must also take into account the impact on developing countries and the interests of people on low incomes.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. As we have heard, fast fashion has a negative impact on our environment. The Secretary of State mentioned environmental sustainability, but she repeatedly voted against measures to protect the environment and tackle climate change. How can we trust her to deliver the transformative change that we need to tackle the climate and environmental emergency we all face? Will she confirm that net zero is still the Government’s target, and if so, will she commit to taking the necessary steps that she previously voted against?
I do not know whose voting record the hon. Lady has been looking at, but it does not sound like mine. The Government are doing more on climate change than ever before, and we are one of the first developed countries in the world to commit to the net zero target—not something that our Labour predecessors were prepared to do. I have backed, with enthusiasm, a succession of vital measures taken by the Government—for example, to ensure that more of our electricity is generated by renewables than ever before.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am delighted to have been asked to take up the outstanding work previously begun by my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and the team of dedicated public servants at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and its agencies. I look forward to working to deliver the Government’s historic commitment to hand on the natural environment in a better state than we found it, by driving up animal welfare, championing and supporting our country’s fantastic food, farming and fisheries, and ensuring that we seize the opportunities offered by Brexit.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to her role. My constituency has some of the best vineyards in the country, and places such as Breaky Bottom, Ridgeview and Rathfinny produce award-winning English sparkling wine. What steps will the Secretary of State take to promote English sparkling wine at home and abroad, and may I invite her to visit one of those vineyards to taste that wine for herself?
I would be delighted to take up the invitation to do a little tasting of the fantastic wines to which my hon. Friend refers. The GREAT campaign has a strong focus on the brilliant high-quality food we produce in this country. In June, English sparkling wine was promoted at various events in Japan, and the campaign plans to return there in September and October. In August and September we will support Wine GB at events in the United States.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, such matters are in the hands of the Leader of the House and the official channels, so he might wish to raise the matter during the business question. I assure him that we wish to press ahead with these matters as soon as we are able to do so. This Government are getting on and delivering on their priorities, including the environment.
My hon. Friend is right: people expect clear, honest labelling on their food, and if marketing terms are not used consistently, the Government should act. Clear labelling is important not just for pasture-fed livestock, but for organic food, which is trusted around that world.
Discussions on the spending review are already under way, particularly with the Mayor of London, and we are considering what more we can do to boost resources. Particulate matter is one of the key things we need to tackle right across the country. That is not solely about transport; it is also about domestic burning, and I am confident that we will bring forward regulations on how to reduce that.
In July, we published the Government’s response to the consultation on consistency in household and business recycling collections in England. The response sets out plans to legislate to ensure consistency between local authorities, which is vital to ensuring that we raise recycling rates, and to people having a consistent picture and a better understanding of the most effective ways to recycle.
Our new Secretary of State’s commitment to animal welfare is very clear. The Government share my hon. Friend’s abhorrence at the thought of eating dogmeat. I recognise both the substantive and symbolic nature of the issues he raises. As he knows, I am exploring actively with colleagues what else we might be able to do to send the clearest possible signal that this behaviour should never be tolerated.
Does the Minister share my concern that the Environment Agency states that Yorkshire Water has unacceptable environmental pollution performance, and that Yorkshire Water discharged sewage into the River Wharfe on no fewer than 123 days last year?
The Government absolutely take that seriously. Investment in sewerage has seen a huge reduction in phosphorous and ammonia entering waters, and the Environment Agency is very active on the issue. It undertakes checks of the ecological health of rivers regularly and it will, as will Ofwat, take action against Yorkshire Water when it fails.
Mansfield and Warsop are full of animal lovers, as is the rest of the UK. News of tougher sentencing for animal abuse is very welcome. What steps will the Department take, perhaps working with charities such as Battersea and others, to make sure that everybody is aware of the new sentencing rules, so that animal cruelty can be prosecuted as robustly as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He makes a very good point. It is not enough just to change the law; we need to make sure there is a greater awareness of the changes that I hope are soon to be implemented. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the coalition of charities that campaigned so hard for the proposed legislation, which will shortly come back to the House, to ensure that we raise the maximum sentences for animal cruelty.
In private, the Government are apparently briefing local resilience forums about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on food supply and food prices, and are predicting mass disruption. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that is true, and will she stop keeping people in the dark? Will she publish this information, so all of us can see whether there are adequate contingencies in place?
On Saturday, I met impassioned climate change activists Cliff Kendall and Donna Tyrelli. Cliff Kendall is on hunger strike to protect the environment. They suggest that the average household can reduce its energy bills by more than £250 a year by switching to renewable energy suppliers. What steps is the Department taking to educate households about such green initiatives that help to cut the cost of living?
There is a range of programmes under way to encourage people to switch, both to ensure that they get value for money and to talk up the advantages of moving to a more sustainable electricity supply. I will certainly be taking a personal interest in these matters in my new role.
A year ago, Lewis Pugh was completing his long swim along the length of the English channel, from Land’s End to Dover. That incredible feat highlighted the need for full protection of our seas. What plans does the Minister have to expand the number of areas of UK waters under full marine protection?
Lewis Pugh was one of our “Year of Green Action” ambassadors and I am delighted that he continues to raise awareness of this issue. My hon. Friend will be aware of the 41 new marine conservation zones that we have designated. It would really help if the Scottish Government could also start designating more marine conservation zones, so that together as a United Kingdom we would have more than 30% of our areas protected. I wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) well with his highly protected marine areas review.
We have regular conversations with the Scottish Administration. We have made it clear that as we fund the new schemes in the United Kingdom, they will not be Barnettised and will take account of the nature of Scottish agriculture. Scotland will get a fair settlement.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Behaviour on Social Media
The Church of England supports the Government’s aim to make this country the safest place to go online and has submitted evidence to the Government’s online harms White Paper. On 1 July, the Church launched its digital charter, which thousands of individuals around the globe have signed up to and which the Government have welcomed and support.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that she will share my serious concern about the level of hatred, intolerance and rage that appears online, especially on Twitter, sometimes with devastating consequences for young people who are very vulnerable. We have seen tragic examples of that. Will she take our appeal to the Church of England, asking that it does everything possible to work with other organisations to try to instil and inculcate in the next generation the importance of behaving normally and politely on social media?
As one of the largest providers of school education, the Church of England is encouraging all its schools to support the digital charter initiative. However, safe internet use applies to people who have faith or have no faith at all, and those of all ages. All Members of this House will be aware of the hate and hostility that many in this Chamber face on a daily basis. I urge all colleagues to consider joining up and supporting the digital charter so that we can foster a more positive experience for people online.
Can I urge the right hon. Lady to make sure that all the bishops—we seem to have a lot of them in the Church of England now—lead this campaign? I am sure that Rose, our wonderful chaplain, is going to be a very energetic Bishop of Dover. We all wish her well and will miss her, but let us get these bishops doing a bit of leadership on issues such as social media.
The bishops are all participating in social media and they are signed up to this charter. Let me share with colleagues some of the things that the charter advocates: that “what we post online” ought to be “fair and factual”; that we should engage constructively and think “the best of people”; that we should consider “the language we use”; and that we should
“use social media in a way that genuinely engages others.”
These are good principles.
Since the Speaker’s Chaplain has been mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I say for the record that I condemn absolutely the very unpleasant article in The Spectator about the Rev. Rose, who has served this House outstandingly; I spring to her defence.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady. I am bound to say to her that I do not read the organ in question and therefore I am not familiar with that piece. I have no idea about it and frankly have absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. I know the Rev. Rose extremely well. She has proved to be a magnificent and enormously popular servant of this House. She will be a wonderful bishop. Dover’s gain is our loss, and we should take vicarious pride in the fact that someone valued and cherished by us is valued and cherished by the Church of England. Scribblers scribble; they matter, frankly, not a jot.
Telecommunications Masts in Parishes
Following on from my right hon. Friend’s question to me last month, I raised these concerns with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I have met with BT, EE and some of the small providers, including one from my right hon. Friend’s constituency, to discuss the challenges of providing reliable rural communications infrastructure.
I absolutely say yes to that. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would like to join me in going to meet the new occupants of the positions concerned. It appears clear that the new digital code tends to favour large providers, and the consequence of their preference for using existing infrastructure is a greater digital divide.
Churches, by their very nature, are historically and architecturally important, and new telecommunications masts could have an impact on buildings. What is being done to preserve these buildings and ensure that their architectural and historical value is retained?
That is a very important question, because the Church of England has put its entire infrastructure at the disposal of providers, so that we can, using towers and spires, beam a signal into notspots. Historic England is quite comfortable about listed buildings carrying small signal boosters, which are not intrusive.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Spending on Digital Campaigning
Transparency around spending on campaigning at elections helps voters to have confidence that campaigners follow the rules and limits on spending. Earlier this week, the Electoral Commission presented to Government statutory codes of practice on candidate and political party spending. If enacted, these codes will provide further clarity and consistency in reporting election spending, including on digital campaigning.
I thank the hon. Lady for that answer. That concurs with reports from the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Electoral Commission, which are clear that the law on digital political advertising badly needs updating. Some people have called for a database of online political ads, giving full information on content, target and reach, and spend. That should guarantee transparency. Is the hon. Lady aware of measures being taken to reform the law, and does she share my concern that so many people from Vote Leave who abused the system are now in the UK Government?
The social media companies’ voluntary ad libraries and reports are useful tools in monitoring who is spending money on elections and other political campaigning. In its response to the online harms consultation, the commission recommended that the new regulator ensure common standards and obligations on what social media companies publish about political adverts and that there be significant sanctions if companies do not publish meaningful information.
In the past four years, the commission has carried out approximately 450 investigations into a variety of electoral offences. The results of five of these have been challenged in the courts, and the recent appeal is the only challenge that has been upheld. The commission will review the full written detail of the judgment once it is made public, before deciding on next steps, including any appeal.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Two of the three principal recommendations made by Dame Laura Cox have now been implemented. Implementation of the third, on the independence of the independent complaints and grievance scheme from MP involvement, is under way. The commission will be considering options in the autumn.
As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, last week, we debated the Gemma White report and the real concerns of staff about the process. Does he agree that only when we have a procedure that is truly independent of Parliament, with effective, transparent sanctions, we will get the confidence of staff?
I agree with that point. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that a staff team have been set up to look at the issue of independence and are considering the options. They have an independent challenge group, which will look at, for instance, the impact on parliamentary independence, the ability of Members of Parliament to operate and ensuring that we have a system in which staff will have confidence.
On that matter, if staff want to be treated as though this is a normal place to work, and therefore to be treated separately from the involvement of Members of Parliament, why not simply treat them as though they did work in any normal business and use the normal facilities of the law?
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
FCO Support for Persecuted Christians
First, I would like to pay tribute to the outgoing Foreign Secretary for having the vision to commission a report on the support that the Foreign Office provides for persecuted Christians. It was warmly welcomed by both the Church of England and the Catholic Church, and I sincerely hope that the new Foreign Secretary will follow through on the its recommendations.
On 8 July, the now Prime Minister said:
“If I am fortunate enough to become PM, I will always prioritise protecting religious freedoms and stand up for those facing persecution.”
I know that it is very early days, but what plans does the right hon. Lady have to speak with the Prime Minister about exactly what he will do to support persecuted Christians around the world?
We have had quite a lot of opportunities at hustings to ask quite a few leadership contenders what they would do about the report on Foreign Office support for persecuted Christians, and I am pleased to say that the new Prime Minister did give a pledge to follow through on this. If hon. Members have time to read the report, they will find that it is very revealing, and it acknowledged that a great deal needs to be done to provide more support for persecuted Christians around the world.
One of the many important findings of the Bishop of Truro’s report is that it highlighted a lack of religious literacy at the Home Office, particularly when dealing with Christians fleeing persecution and seeking asylum. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Office should take heed of this recommendation, and does she believe that the Church has a role to play in improving religious literacy across Whitehall?
The report, which of course is a Foreign Office report, does reveal that lack of religious literacy, but the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster both wanted the proposal for improving religious literacy to extend to all Departments, because in a way there is hardly a Department that is not touched by the need for better religious literacy. I know that the issue of religious literacy in asylum applications has been raised in the other place and that bishops have had meetings with Ministers.
In a letter to me, the Government have indicated that they will look at sanctions against those who persecute Christians, or indeed those of other religious beliefs. Has the right hon. Lady had an opportunity to discuss with the Government what form those sanctions might take?
I have not discussed that with the new incumbent at the Foreign Office just yet, but I think that we need to go through all these serious recommendations that were made through the excellent work of the Bishop of Truro. For example, one of the recommendations, which I commend to the House, is a UN resolution to better protect Christians in the middle east and north Africa, whose population has dwindled from 20% to just 4%.
Last week, a number of MPs were the target of some really unpleasant social media attacks, simply for speaking and then voting in a conscience vote in this place according to their biblical beliefs on marriage and the sanctity of life. What is the Church of England doing to uphold freedom of speech and religion for Christians in the UK? This is a growing concern for thousands of Christians in this country today.
The hon. Lady might not have heard the answer to an earlier question, but actually the Church has seized the initiative by launching its own guidelines on safe and positive conduct on the internet. I commend that guidance to all Members present. It is certainly important that religious difference is respected. Dialogue is a two-way business, but as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, the Church needs to model disagreeing well.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Designated Smoking Areas: Health Risks
The Administration Committee considers proposals for the provision of smoking areas. I can inform the hon. Member that, for instance, on 11 March it endorsed a proposal to close the smoking area outside the Woolsack bar towards the House of Lords end of the estate, and she may want to write to the Committee if she has concerns or proposals on this issue.
Can we ensure that all designated smoking areas are risk-assessed—particularly the area between Portcullis House and Norman Shaw South, which is a major thoroughfare—not least because they are workplaces but also to ensure that we do the best for people’s health?
I can confirm that the House authorities have identified and assessed several designated smoking areas, but I will draw to their attention the smoking area that the hon. Lady has referred to, because Members will know that when crossing from Portcullis to Norman Shaw, there is a little bit of passive smoking for those of us who are not smokers.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Festivals in Cathedrals
Cathedrals all run a series of events and religious festivals throughout the year, which vary in size, and collectively they host over 11 million visitors a year. Lichfield cathedral, in my hon. Friend’s constituency, is an outstanding example of that and welcomes around 120,000 people a year to its excellent exhibitions.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for her answer. She will know that the Lichfield festival itself attracts over 50,000 people to the city of Lichfield and brings at least 10,000 people into the cathedral itself, so what action is her Department taking to encourage other cathedrals to do similar initiatives?
I find it an interesting idea that I have a Department, but the Church of England will seize the initiative next year; it is a great year for anniversaries in the Church of England, with the Pilgrim Fathers and Thomas à Becket, and it will be a year of cathedrals. The Association of English Cathedrals will provide a pilgrimage passport for those at home and abroad who want to visit as many cathedrals as possible.
Strategic Development Funding: Keighley
Mr Speaker, since this is the last question, I think, for me today I want to thank the parliamentary division in Church House and Simon Stanley in particular, as I do not yet know if I will be renewed in post; I sincerely hope so, but I imagine this is not high on the list of the Prime Minister’s priorities at the moment. I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Archbishops’ Council recently awarded funding totalling over £1 million for Leeds diocese, £490,000 of which will be awarded to the Anglican churches in Keighley.
I feel that I will speak for many in saying I hope that the right hon. Member is reappointed by the Prime Minister by lunchtime, but further to her reply, does she agree that the work of the united parishes of Keighley is perhaps one of the finest examples in the north of England of faith in action, along with the work of the Catholic Good Shepherd Centre, the Salvation Army and, indeed, Keighley’s mosques?
In the diocese of Leeds, Bowling, Idle, Great Horton and Clayton have a strong focus on deprived areas and groups that the Church of England found hard to reach, and that is why this large sum of money has been conferred by the Church Commissioners to the diocese.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
I commend the hon. Gentleman on being, I think, the sixth member of his party who in this Session has raised the issue of electronic voting; however, I am afraid that I cannot give him a different answer to the previous five responses. [Interruption.] I am afraid my response is that this is not a matter for the Commission; it would only be responsible for ensuring that, for instance, the funding that was necessary to ensure that that happened was in place.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer. I am sure when the Victorians built this place, the voting system we still have was state of the art, but now, for the modern age, we need to move to a current state-of-the-art system—electronic voting—and I hope he agrees that that would allow us more time to debate the substance of Bills.
Absolutely; I agree that it is time for change, although I suspect that the new Leader of the House may not be giving his entire support to such proposals as we revert to the Victorian era. I draw to the hon. Gentleman’s attention the fact that the Procedure Committee is looking at electronic voting, and he has until 27 September to submit a request to it.
I noticed that the whole House cheered when the right hon. Gentleman said he had no authority over this matter, but does he recognise the fact that many people see the current voting system as a huge advantage, because it enables us to nab Cabinet Ministers as they come out of the voting Lobby?
I would suggest to the hon. Gentleman that there are ways in which electronic voting can take place and he would still be able to nab a Cabinet Minister. I would also point out to him that Opposition Members often have difficulties in nabbing Cabinet Ministers in the Division Lobby.