Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
This is the last time I will be able to address you from the Chamber, Mr Speaker, so I would like to put on record my thanks to you for what you have done for this House, particularly during my time as a Back Bencher, when we worked closely on a number of issues. I thank you very much what you have done.
The UK is a world leader in efforts to protect endangered plants and animals from poaching and illegal wildlife trade. We have invested over £36 million between 2014 and 2021 on work to directly counter the illegal wildlife trade, including reducing demand, strengthening enforcement, ensuring effective legal frameworks and developing sustainable livelihoods. We will significantly scale up our funding from 2021 by doubling the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund as part of the £220 million international biodiversity fund announced in September.
I am concerned, along with many constituents who have contacted me on this issue, that the persecution of raptors is not treated as a priority by local police forces. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that raptor persecution, particularly that of hen harriers, is a national wildlife crime priority and that strong penalties are in place for offences committed against birds of prey?
The illegal wildlife trade is not just an international issue; it is a domestic issue as well. All our birds in the UK are protected. Wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and there are strong penalties for committing offences. The Government take wildlife crime very seriously and have identified raptor persecution as a national wildlife crime priority, and that includes species such as hen harriers and peregrines of course. We are very concerned, however, about hen harrier populations, which is why we took the lead on the hen harrier action plan to increase hen harrier populations in England. I add that DEFRA has committed to at least maintaining existing levels of funding for the national wildlife fund until the next spending review.
A constituent of mine has been terrorised by off-road bikers, who are also devastating local wildlife. Because this is happening on private land, our local police have found it difficult to take action, so will the Department and the police work together to overcome this dreadful problem?
I have had letters from the constituents of a number of hon. Members raising the same issue: off-road bikers causing wildlife mayhem in sensitive and fragile parts of the countryside. I of course commit to the hon. Gentleman to talk to the police and landowners and animal welfare charities to see what the best solution is. There is no silver bullet to solve the problem. It needs to be addressed, but it is not immediately obvious what that solution would be.
Canned lion breeding in South Africa is causing terrible angst for many people because these lions, barely two years old, are shot at point-blank range. That adds to the trophy hunting imports to this country. When is the consultation my right hon. Friend has mentioned going to begin?
My hon. Friend is right: canned lion hunting is one of the grimmest of all human activities. It is hard to see any defence for it. There are concerns that, although it may not be a direct conservation issue, creating a legal trade in lion parts, particularly lion bones, provides a cover for the illegal trade, and we know that lion numbers have plummeted in the last 15 or 20 years. As she mentioned, we have committed to launching a call for evidence and, based on the results we get, we will take whatever steps are necessary to end, or to regulate the import of hunting trophies.
I commend the Minister for all he has done to stop imports from trophy hunting, but with special reference to that can he outline recent steps taken to absolutely ban any such imports? I think it is the mood of the House and the country for that to happen. Can he tell us what has been done?
The hon. Gentleman knows my views on the issue; we have discussed it many times. From the Back Benches and as a Minister, I have debated the issue with him, although we have been on the same side of the debate. I am appalled by the very concept of wanting to shoot these extraordinarily beautiful, endangered wild animals. I cannot see any obvious link between that activity and protection of those animals. However, we are obliged as a Government, before embarking on any kind of legislation to prevent the import of trophies, to consult so that we know exactly what the impacts of that potential legislative change would be. So we have to do that consultation. We have to do it in an honest fashion. On the back of that consultation, we will take whatever steps are necessary, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not an issue that we intend to kick into the long grass.
May I just say that I am not ignoring the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)? I am conscious that she has Question 6, on which another party wishes to come in, so it would perhaps be better for her to wait until then. We look forward to hearing from her in a few minutes.
I wish you all the best for the future, Mr Speaker, and thank you for chairing DEFRA questions with such patience and consideration over the last few years.
We know that there are loopholes in the Hunting Act 2004 which are being exploited. A Labour Government would strengthen the hunting ban, so may I ask what the Conservative Government have been doing to stop foxhunters from breaking the law?
There is no doubt that illegal activities continue. They are well documented and often secure widespread coverage on social media in particular, and they cause outrage among the population. Those activities are already illegal: they are against the law. Digging up setts, bashing fox cubs on the head and breeding foxes to feed to hounds are illegal as well as abhorrent. The challenge relates to enforcement and prosecution. As I mentioned, we are committed to maintaining levels of funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and we are encouraging other Government Departments to play their part as well.
May I join others, Mr Speaker, in thanking you and your chaplain for your service to the House? You have been particularly kind in enabling me to raise from the Back Benches many issues that really matter to my constituents, and I am profoundly grateful.
The Government have introduced a range of measures to improve animal welfare, including a rigorous ban on the ivory trade and mandatory CCTV in all slaughterhouses. We are considering proposals to tighten the welfare rules for animals in transit, including a ban on unnecessary and excessively long journeys to slaughter.
We will be pressing ahead with the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill so that horrific crimes like that can meet with the appropriate punishment. We are consulting on compulsory microchipping for cats to ensure that lost pets can be reunited with their owners, and we have also banned third party sales of kittens and puppies.
One way of preventing animal cruelty would be to tighten the law on illegal foxhunting. Will Ministers undertake to introduce a system of monitoring before the foxhunting season starts in order to find out just how many illegal killings are taking place, so that we know how to address the problem?
As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has said, we believe that it is crucial for all our laws to be properly enforced, including the Hunting Act, and we will continue to engage with the appropriate authorities to ensure that that is the case.
That is very kind of you, Mr Speaker. I will save my tribute for the right time, in due course.
Unfortunately, as colleagues with rural constituencies may know, at this time of the year there is a steep rise in the number of abandoned horses as winter approaches. A couple of weeks ago I personally dealt with four abandoned ponies, including two foals barely weaned at 12 weeks. They were in a terrible condition: their feet had never been trimmed, their ribs were showing, and they had lice and mites. I had to get them rehomed.
I welcome the Government’s proposals to take a tougher line with those who abuse animals in this way, but can my right hon. Friend reassure me—gently, given the problem with her voice today—that the Government will support the police and local authorities in taking action and enforcing the law on these criminals?
There is cross-party support for increasing prison sentences for those who hurt and cruelly kill animals, but Ministers have dithered and delayed over the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. Even in this divided Parliament, and even at this late stage, there is still a chance to get that Bill on to the statute book before the election. Labour backs the Bill, the Secretary of State’s own Back Benchers back the Bill and the public back the Bill, so will she give a commitment that she will use every effort to get it on to the statute book before the general election is called?
May I add my fond goodbyes, Mr Speaker? I will forever remember, as a Back Bencher, waiting and bobbing and finally being woken up and called by you saying, “Rebec-Kerpow!” I will always remember that, although you probably did not realise you had said it.
The Environment Bill includes measures to improve air quality, which will ensure that local authorities have a clear framework and simple-to-use powers to tackle air pollution. DEFRA and the Department for Transport’s joint air quality unit works closely with local authorities, underpinned by £572 million in funding, to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances. More than £3 million in air quality grant funding was awarded to local authorities in March for projects in local communities.
Mr Speaker, may I first thank you on behalf of many of us for the role you have played in ensuring that this elected House calls the Executive to account with such fervour? Also, could you turn your attention to the bag that is in the cupboard in your office, which requires your signature so I can use it as a raffle prize?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. We know that the ultra low emission zone in central London has been a huge success, bringing about a 36% reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollution in London. Does the Minister not agree that it is vital that the Government support the Mayor of London in his efforts to tackle air pollution, and will she please support the expansion of the ULEZ in 2021?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. London faces specific challenges, not least because the size and complexity of the capital’s transport network is quite different from others, and the commitment of the Mayor and the Greater London Assembly to tackle air quality in the capital is absolutely welcomed. The Mayor has received a comprehensive funding settlement for dealing with air quality, to the tune of £5 billion, which includes measures to tackle the nitrogen dioxide limits.
May I wish you well in your retirement, Mr Speaker?
Air quality has been worked on across Government, across Departments and across local government, so can we be assured that all parts of the Government will do everything they can to get everybody working together to monitor air quality, get more electric cars and actually do something about the quality of air across the whole of our country, especially in the hotspots?
The Chairman of the Select Committee makes a very good point. Air quality is an absolute priority because it affects human health. We already have the clean air strategy, but in the Environment Bill we are putting through much clearer and simpler powers for local authorities to actually use their duties to tackle air quality, and we will see many more of these charging zones coming in over the next year. As the Minister in charge of air quality, I will ensure that these are tackled as fast as possible.
Tackling air quality is closely linked to what happens in the planning system, particularly when it comes to housing. Officials in the two Departments have recently collaborated on developing planning guidance. I recently wrote to Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers to urge much closer collaboration on, for example, housing and housing design, because all the emissions from housing affect climate change. This is all about cross-working.
Parts of Chatham suffer from high levels of air pollution. Medway Council is doing what it can to tackle it, but I am working with a school that sits right on a very busy road to develop a green wall to reduce some of the air pollution specifically for children. What work is the Minister doing with the Department for Education to support schools to provide their own green solutions to tackle air pollution?
That question is of great interest to me as a former horticultural journalist. Green walls are a great thing. Not only do they look great, but they help by taking in carbon emissions and so on. DEFRA has an air quality grant programme that can help local authorities to fund projects to tackle air pollution in specific areas like schools, so that school could ask for support under the programme. Good question.
One of the things that I will certainly miss when you are not in the Chair is how you pronounce my name, Mr Speaker. Thank you so much.
Why does the Environment Bill not include World Health Organisation targets for air pollutants or set clear targets to meet them?
Air quality targets are included in the Bill, but we already have an ambition in the clear air strategy. Reaching the target for particulate matter 2.5 is an absolute priority, but the actual target will be set in secondary legislation after expert advice has been taken on exactly how to do that. I met one of the heads of the WHO just last week, and she agreed that that is the right way of doing things, because this is tricky, and we must get it right.
To tackle plastics pollution, we have introduced a world-leading microbeads ban, reduced single-use plastic bag usage by 90% in the main supermarkets, and launched the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance to tackle the issue globally. We also have a widespread package of measures on plastic pollution in our Environment Bill.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your tremendous support for Back Benchers throughout this House during your time in the Chair. I also thank Becki Woolrich, who founded Stafford Litter Heroes, for all that she and her colleagues have done. By this weekend, they will have collected more than 2 tonnes of litter from the area in a very short time. We should pay great tribute to volunteers such as them.
There are 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution per mile of beach in the UK. The amount of plastic produced globally has increased from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 320 million tonnes a couple of years ago. It is clear that we need to produce less plastic, not more, so will my right hon. Friend explain what we are doing to ensure that as much plastic is recycled as possible and that that happens here in the UK? Plastic should not be shipped overseas for other people to deal with.
My hon. Friend is correct: current levels of plastic pollution are intolerable, and the Government are determined to tackle them. We will be introducing a system to incentivise plastic packaging producers to use more recyclable material, but also less material in general. We will be banning plastic stirrers and cotton buds. We are introducing a deposit return scheme on drinks containers. We will also be introducing more consistent recycling to help everyone to recycle more to tackle the terrible problem of plastics pollution.
Our Environment Bill provides the opportunity for future Governments to set targets on the use of resources and recycling. Reducing the need for single-use plastics is an important part of this, but recycling will also be a crucial part in reaching our goal of eliminating avoidable plastic waste in the coming years. That is why we are seeking to increase the amount of plastic that is recyclable and is recycled.
May I, too, wish you all the best, Mr Speaker? May I also thank you for teaching me the value of patience and for helping me have considerable exercise for my knees during my time in this Chamber?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituent Nik Spencer has invented an incredible, groundbreaking piece of technology that would eliminate the need for plastic waste entirely if it is commercially adopted, because it converts plastic waste in the home into energy? If, as I very much hope, we are returned to government, will she agree to meet me to see how we can stimulate and incentivise technologies such as this machine, so that we can tackle plastic pollution at its source?
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for making me feel welcome in the short time I have been here so far. After “The Blue Planet” and other television programmes, after the in-depth investigations by Friends of the Earth and others, after the mass campaigning by schoolchildren all over the world to prevent plastics in our oceans and after the verdict against a major British company for exporting unsorted waste, can the Secretary of State explain to me why there was nothing in the Environment Bill to tackle waste once it has left this country or to ensure that material collected in good faith for recycling is actually recycled?
The Government are absolutely determined to crack down on any unlawful waste exports and to ensure that waste that is exported is dealt with appropriately. I wish to emphasise that this Government are doing more or less more than any other Government in the world on this, including by making real progress in ensuring that we protect 4 million sq km of the world’s oceans by the end of next year.
Our clean air strategy sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollutant emissions from a wide range of sources. The World Health Organisation has recognised the strategy as an example for the rest of the world to follow. We have also put in place a £3.5 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations, and our Environment Bill makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter.
May I echo the tributes being made to your chairmanship, Mr Speaker, although I did not get the memo about sending a bottle to your office as part of it? I very much welcome the inclusion of air quality provisions in the Environment Bill. May I urge the Minister to look at some of the technological solutions, including one from a company in my constituency which is producing paints and coverings that neutralise nitrogen oxide emissions, not just absorb them? May I also ask her to look at the issue of air quality monitoring, because it turns out that several bits of air quality monitoring equipment in my constituency have not been working for some time? Although we have obligations on local authorities to reduce air pollution, we do not appear to have similar requirements on them to make sure they are monitoring it properly and accurately, and that needs to be looked at.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising these important points. Officials would be pleased to hear about any technologies, because the use of innovation and tech is absolutely the way we are going to solve lots of these problems. So I would be grateful if he would like to feed them in so that I can pass them on. Monitoring is also key, and it is all about science and data, which are very important. Our landmark Environment Bill requires us to set legally binding targets on this fine particulate matter, which is what authorities are mostly monitoring, as well as nitrogen dioxide, and to have separate long-term air quality targets to improve air quality nationwide. So we are moving in the right direction.
We are hearing commitments and good words from the Government but we are seeing very little action. They have been lackadaisical towards the breaking of legal limits on air pollution, including at 50 sites across London. The Mayor of London has taken effective action, through the ultra low emission zone, and has taken practical steps to reduce air pollution. Is it not time we saw the same sort of determination from the Government?
A great deal of action is taking place: local authorities have a duty to tackle air pollution and this year clean-air zones are coming into major cities right across the nation. The Department is working closely with others on the introduction of those zones, about which the House will hear more shortly.
Office for Environmental Protection
Clause 20(2) of the Environment Bill places a duty on the Office for Environmental Protection to
“have regard to the need to act…transparently.”
It must publish key documents, such as its strategy, annual report and accounts, and lay them before Parliament.
The concept of the OEP has been touted by the Government as an independent watchdog, yet it will be funded by the Government and its chair will be appointed by the Government. Surely the Secretary of State will agree that at the very least the relevant Select Committee should play a key role in the appointment of the chair and the non-executive members of the board.
I assure the hon. Lady that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee will play a key role in the pre-appointment scrutiny of the OEP chairman. I also assure her that the OEP will have a multi-year funding settlement and that Ministers will be required to safeguard its independence. In many ways, the departmental structure will be broadly similar to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has clearly demonstrated its total independence from the Government. I am sure we will see that same determination from this powerful new environmental watchdog.
I was very sorry to have to miss your visit to the SNP group the other day, Mr Speaker. I shall take this opportunity to thank you for everything you have done—for your doughty defence of democracy and particularly your support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and for Back Benchers’ interests. I wish you and your beautiful family all the very best for the years ahead. May I also commend the two gentlemen to your left—stage left, as we used to say—Mr Peter Barratt and Mr Ian Davis, who I know have offered you such valuable support over years?
Let me begin my question by saying happy non-Brexit day to the Government Front-Bench team. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Scottish Government support the proposals on the OEP? Were they consulted on them?
There was extensive work between the UK Government and the Scottish Government on the Environment Bill, including the clauses on the OEP. We are grateful that, as a result of that work, large elements of the Bill will apply in Scotland. I understand that the Scottish Government intend, I hope, to create a body that is broadly similar to the OEP, to manage the scrutiny of environmental matters where they are devolved in Scotland.
May I join the tributes to you, Mr Speaker? I thank you for your comradeship in opposition, when you were a spokesman with me in various Departments, and for your encouragement in respect of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you.
Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on steering Finn’s law through Parliament. The Government remain absolutely committed to tougher sentences for animal cruelty offences, and we intend to bring the Bill back to the House as soon as possible.
Thank you for my second go, Mr Speaker.
My right hon. Friend will know that the supporters of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019 were also keen to improve the maximum sentences and to see them go up. Can she confirm that that will be a top priority for any incoming Conservative Government?
Oh Mr Speaker, I do not know what to say. I am going to miss this. Thank you for everything you have done for Back Benchers.
The Secretary of State says that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is going to come back to the House as soon as possible; that could be Monday. There is cross-party agreement on this short Bill, and as the Labour DEFRA Whip I have the permission of our shadow Secretary of State to say that we support the Bill, we could crack on, and it could be done and on the statute book before Dissolution. Even at this late stage, why will she not put it on the Order Paper for Monday or Tuesday?
Waste crime blights local communities and the environment, and we are committed to tackling it. We have given the Environment Agency £60 million extra to tackle waste crime since 2014. The Environment Bill takes forward a number of commitments on preventing, detecting and deterring waste crime.
Fly-tipping is a scourge in many communities across North Warwickshire and Bedworth, and it costs councils and local landowners hundreds of thousands of pounds to clear up, but it is often unwittingly facilitated by householders failing to ask whether a valid waste licence is in place. What steps can householders take to check that there is a valid licence, so that they do not unwittingly become the recipient of a fine themselves?
Householders can check using the carrier’s business name or registration number, which the carrier should be able to give them on request, and they have the opportunity to check those against the details on the Environment Agency website, or by ringing the Environment Agency helpline.
I would like to say, Mr Speaker, what a pleasure it has been to serve under your speakership during my time in Parliament.
Recently, I went out with members of the National Farmers’ Union in my constituency and was horrified to discover a spate of fly-tipping of very dubious materials that then need to be checked by the landowner. The landowner has a responsibility to check out the hazardous nature of the materials and then to dispose of them safely. This is putting much additional pressure on farmers and rural communities. What can the Government do to support those rural communities and the police forces who continue to be under significant pressure to address this spate of fly-tipping?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. Fly-tipping is completely unacceptable, and it is blighting life in rural areas, in suburban areas, such as my constituency, and in urban areas. One thing the Environment Bill will do is facilitate the introduction of electronic waste-tracking, which should assist the law enforcement authorities to crack down on this unacceptable crime.
One of your predecessors, Mr Speaker, congratulated me on always addressing the Chair. If I may say it has been my particular privilege to address the Chair when you are in it, and, if I may also say, those who stand beside it have always gone to extraordinary lengths to be helpful.
The New Forest is being desecrated by people fly-tipping. Will my right hon. Friend have a word with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to ensure that we are more robust with respect to punishments—perhaps garrotting perpetrators with their own intestines?
I am not sure that I could go quite that far. Certainly, in providing extra resources for the Environment Agency, we are absolutely determined to crack down on this deeply antisocial crime. I hope the courts will view it seriously and inflict appropriate punishment.
May I join others in expressing the hope that no circumlocutory measures will be put in place to try to restrict your perorations post your retirement, during the next stage in your career?
May I ask the Minister to liaise with the Northern Ireland authorities to ensure that action is taken on the huge waste dump at Mobuoy, outside Londonderry, to ensure that restrictions are put in place and that we pursue those responsible?
We are running late, but, of course, the Chair has the benefit of Kantian perfect information. That is to say that I know how many people have or have not applied to speak in subsequent business, and subsequent business is not especially heavily subscribed. My priority is to try to accommodate, within reason, Back Benchers.
This Government are committed to taking action to protect and enhance the water environment, including our valuable chalk streams. Chalk streams are under particular pressure at the moment due to low groundwater levels following two dry winters. We are working closely with partners to reform and reduce the volume of abstraction, deliver catchment sensitive farming, reduce pollution and plan future environmental resilience.
Today is a sad day for Buckinghamshire, Mr Speaker, because we are going to lose you as the Member for Buckingham. Before I ask my question of the Minister, may I just say that you have been a superb colleague to sit alongside? I am going to miss you particularly because you will not be there to join me in championing the Chilterns, but you have consistently stood by my side when opposing HS2, and you are to be congratulated on what you have done on autism. As I press for the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty to become a national park, I do hope that, even though you will have left this place, you will still stand by my side and support that proposal.
The Chess and the Misbourne are ecologically vulnerable chalk streams in my constituency, and there are several in the Chilterns that are under threat. HS2 Ltd has now said that it requires 8 million litres of water a day for two years in order to build phase 1 of HS2. That means that we could face over-abstraction again, and could see these streams irreparably damaged or destroyed altogether. Will Ministers really take this on board and work with the Department for Transport to get HS2 cancelled—and, if not, to protect these absolutely precious pieces of our environment for our future generations?
Chalk streams are some of our most precious environments, so this is a serious issue. The Environment Agency is advising HS2 Ltd and its contractors on mitigating the potential impact of its work on water levels and the quality of chalk streams, including when it comes to water usage for tunnelling in the Chilterns. The Environment Agency will be reviewing any application for increased abstraction in line with the relevant abstraction management strategy to ensure that there is no detrimental effect on chalk streams. I take this matter very seriously and would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss this further because chalk streams are so important and it is important that we get this right.
Mr Speaker, thank you for turning the pronunciation of challenging surnames into an art form in itself—although I have to say that my campaign to be called in reverse alphabetical order continues.
The River Cam is fed by chalk streams. In July this year, it fell to a third of its normal level, which has caused huge concern not just in Cambridge, but in the surrounding county. This has happened largely due to over-abstraction. What can the Minister to do to assure us that that is going to be tackled with urgency?
The issue with chalk streams, of course, is that they are fed by groundwater from aquifers; they are very special areas of water extraction. There is going to be section in the Environment Bill on abstraction licences. I hope that when that gets going and we have proper discussions about that Bill, it will include some ameliorations for chalk streams.
Since the last EFRA oral questions, the Government have: introduced a major Environment Bill; committed to plant 1 million trees in Northumberland; pledged £11.6 billion for climate measures abroad; published proposals to restrict the import of hunting trophies from endangered animals; banned the sale of primates as pets; and introduced cat microchipping. We have made clear our determination to improve the welfare of live animals in transport, with a view to choking off live exports for slaughter or fattening. I have also had the chance to make visits around England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to talk to farmers, fishermen and those involved in the food sector.
May I join colleagues in thanking you for your help, Mr Speaker? I am going to once again try to avoid your eye while I ask what should be a very short question.
Blaydon Quarry landfill site in my constituency causes a huge nuisance for the communities surrounding it, particularly from the regular bad smells, as residents tell me there are at the moment. I think it is time for the site to be closed—safely. Will the Secretary of State join me in that call and put an end to the absolutely misery caused to local residents by this landfill site?
It is worrying to hear the reports of the odour from the site. I understand that an odour suppression system has now been installed in the waste tipping bay and that further engineering works are under way to try to tackle the problem. I can assure the hon. Lady that the Environment Agency continues to take this issue very seriously and is working with the community and the local authority. Earlier this year, it took regulatory action preventing the site from accepting waste until remedial work has been undertaken.
Thank you very much, too, to Oliver and Freddie. I look forward to seeing very much more of you.
Pagham Harbour in my constituency is one of the best places to see wildlife in the UK, covering 600 hectares of salt marshes, mudflats, reed beds and lagoons. It is an important natural store of carbon and it absorbs up to 310 tonnes per hectare. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that carbon-rich natural habitats are protected to improve biodiversity and help us to reach net zero by 2050?
Protecting nature is a key part of the Environment Bill. It supports the nature recovery network envisaged by our 25-year environment plan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done in relation to this wonderful site. She is right to say that nature-based solutions, with natural storage of carbon in such locations, will form a key part of becoming a net-zero economy.
I thought for a moment that for the first time in six years we might not get on to fisheries and agriculture at DEFRA orals. May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, along with others, to thank you for your chairmanship and stewardship of these occasions and wish you well for the future? May I also record a tribute to Reverend Rose, who is also leaving us? She not only presided over my marriage in St Mary Undercroft but baptised my daughter. Many Members have benefited from her pastoral support and advice.
I had a meeting with officials yesterday to discuss the issue of cod and the EU-Norway negotiations. Those negotiations will take place during November. I remain Fisheries Minister during the election period and will continue to monitor events. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the December Fisheries Council that formally adopts these proposals will be about three days after the general election. I hope still to be in place and to go there, but if I am not, I am sure that whoever my successor is will have a steep and enjoyable learning curve in coming to terms with the complexities of the December negotiations.
I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Scottish fishing industry wants to leave the CFP and take advantage of the sea of opportunity that we will have when we become an independent coastal state. It is his party that is standing against the interests of the Scottish fishing industry by wanting to remain in the European Union.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I commend Harrogate Borough Council. The National Trust has said that a child today is three times more likely to go to hospital for falling out of bed than falling out of a tree. Obviously I do not recommend either activity, but there is no doubt that children who are insulated from nature are losing out; I very much agree with him. Working with the Woodland Trust and community forests, we are on track to meet our target of planting 1 million trees at English primary schools by 2020, and we committed in the 25-year environment plan to encourage children to be closer to nature in and out of school. The last week of November is National Tree Week, and I strongly encourage Members to plant trees with their local schools, so that we can all celebrate together.
Mr Speaker, our careers have been somewhat in parallel. I had a slight interregnum in the middle of your speakership, but I am pleased to be here today, to top and tail it. We have remained good friends throughout.
The Government committed to keeping the current level of farm spending until the end of this Parliament, which will be in the next couple of days. The Labour party will commit to keep that level of spending and, indeed, even spending more under the new system, which will be expensive to introduce. Will the Government make that commitment?
The hon. Gentleman is right; the Government are committed to keep spending exactly the same until the end of this Parliament. He will have to wait to see our manifesto to find out what will happen in the next Parliament, but I will simply say this. It is implicit in the Agriculture Bill that there will be a transition over a period of seven years, during which we will roll out the new policy, and we have already committed to fund the objectives of the Agriculture Bill.
The Woodland Trust, of which I am a keen member, believes that we can increase the amount of tree coverage by natural regeneration. That seems to be the best way of doing it, so how can we incentivise that within the new environmental land management scheme?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is absolutely right. Much of what we need to do to tackle climate change and restore nature involves rewilding or natural regeneration. A growing number of projects around the country are already delivering vast benefits. For example, at Knepp Castle in West Sussex, agri-environment funding has helped to create extensive grassland and scrub habitats, with huge benefits for declining bird species such as the turtle dove and the nightingale. As he says, the new environmental land management scheme will be transformative, because it will make subsidies conditional on the delivery of public goods such as biodiversity, woodland and flood management. It really could be the big thing that improves biodiversity in this country, which of course means increasing tree cover and encouraging natural regeneration.
The Environment Bill sets out a duty to set targets—actual targets will all be set in secondary legislation, as has been quite clearly stated—and it has had a lot of support from many organisations across the board. The whole system will be overseen by the Office for Environmental Protection, which will have to look at the five-yearly targets and review them annually. There is a very strict set of regimes in there. The Government have given very clear indications about not reducing our environmental standards—that is absolutely not the direction this Government would ever intend to go in—and that includes comments made just last week by the Prime Minister about non-regression.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your kindness in calling me today, for your broader kindnesses to all of us and for all your service from the Chair.
I want to raise an issue again that I know is also of concern to you, Mr Speaker. Ministers know that HS2 and its construction will affect a good deal of farmland. They will also be aware, I hope, that HS2 Ltd has not been as effective as it should have been either in providing full and timely financial compensation for land lost or in making the practical arrangements necessary to allow farmers to farm properly the land they have left. Will my right hon. Friend and her colleagues please make sure they engage with colleagues at the Department for Transport to ensure that the financial and psychological consequences for the farmers affected by HS2 are properly mitigated, if this project is to continue?
Of course I am happy to give a commitment to engage with colleagues in the DFT on these important matters. It is of course vital that HS2 Ltd does all it can to ensure that it meets its obligations in a timely way in relation to farming and environmental concerns.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art: Frequency of Reports
The Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art publishes an annual report, which is considered by the House’s Finance Committee. The Commission does not receive routine updates. The annual report for 2018-19 was published on the Committee’s website yesterday.
The right hon. Gentleman will be amazed that I am not asking him about electronic voting for a change. This question was originally on the Order Paper in July, when Winnie Ewing was celebrating her 90th birthday. In a couple of weeks—on 2 November—we will mark 52 years since her historic by-election win and of the continuous representation of the Scottish National party in the House of Commons. Has the Commission been advised of any discussion by the Committee regarding commemorating Winnie’s immense contribution in this place with a portrait somewhere on the estate?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, although I am disappointed he did not manage to work electronic voting into it. He will be pleased to know that the Committee is conscious that Winnie Ewing is currently a notable absence from the parliamentary art collection. It is investigating the possibility of a temporary loan of a portrait for display in Parliament, and it will continue to search for a portrait painting or drawing to acquire for the permanent collection.
Mr Speaker, may I quickly say what a joy you have been for all genuine Back Benchers during your time in the Chair? We started a relationship early in your career here, and I saw you improve as a parliamentarian step by step. People sometimes forget the great inquiry you made into special educational needs under Tony Blair. I also remember other good things that you did with me, and others, on anti-bullying, as well as a cross-party campaign on autism.
Someone should also mention what you had to put up with due to the concerted malicious press campaign that was run against you, and your family, at a certain time in your career. It was a disgrace to British journalism and the profession of journalism. It did not come from the redtops—it was The Times and the Prime Minister’s Daily Telegraph. It came from journalists from whom we had expected better. Some of us stood by you at that time, and we will continue to stand by you. You are a young man with a career in front of you. I hope that you will do startling things, and that this miserable Prime Minister, who yesterday could not even pay tribute to the Father of the House, will put you in the House of Lords as your office deserves.
Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme
Good progress is being made on implementing the independent complaints and grievance scheme, and on the recommendations by Dame Laura Cox and Gemma White, QC, to improve the working culture of the House. Complainants with non-recent cases, and former members of the parliamentary community who were not previously covered by the scheme, were able to access it from Monday 21 October this year. A staff group is examining options for implementing the Cox recommendation on independent determination of complaints against Members.
I do not believe that the Commission is making good progress. It has been a year since the Dame Laura Cox report came out, and historical cases were finally reopened only last week. Recommendation 3 makes it clear that there must be an entirely independent process for investigating complaints of bullying and harassment in which Members of Parliament do not take part. It has been a year; it has gone on too long. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand how important it is for staff to have confidence in the system and know that Members of Parliament are not involved in judging their peers?
I agree that there should be a completely independent process, and I regret that 12 months on that has not been resolved. A group is making good progress on that, and it expects to report back to the Commission later this year. I hope that by the end of this year that issue will be resolved.
May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the support you have given me as a relatively new Member, and for the visit that you made to Manchester after the Manchester Arena attack, which killed two of my constituents? That meant a great deal to the families, and to me as a local parliamentarian. and I thank you for that.
A great deal of work has been done by the Commission, but what work is being undertaken to give Members of Parliament the adequate legal support they need to carry out their duties? Many of us have been the voice of people who have been mistreated, and we have called out corruption, mismanagement and fraud. When we seek help when we are the target of harassment, however, we are left wondering where that support is. Will the right hon. Gentleman look into that very real issue, so that MPs are not bullied, harassed and intimidated into eventually moving away from the responsibilities they have in representing their constituents?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. If he is referring to particular cases, he can pass the details on to me. I am aware that support has been made available to Members of Parliament against whom legal cases have been pursued. I will follow that up if he is able to pass me the details.
Digitising Parliamentary Processes
As I hope that Members are aware, the House of Commons and the Parliamentary Digital Service have made significant progress in digitising various parliamentary processes, such as through the Members’ hub for tabling questions digitally. Members might not be aware that “Erskine May” was made publicly available online for the very first time in July this year and is available through the UK Parliament website.
You were my first Speaker, Mr Speaker. I wish you and your family every happiness. I find it very hard to imagine this Chamber without you, although I do hope the electors in Newcastle give me the opportunity to find out. You have been a great reforming, inclusive, witty and stimulating Speaker, both in this Chamber and across the country. Your visits to Newcastle mean that you will be very fondly remembered by the people of my great city.
Part of the reforms you have instigated, Mr Speaker, have been on the digital and technology front. I congratulate the Parliamentary Digital Service and the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on the progress that has been made in making us more effective technically—the Members’ hub, the digitisation of tabling questions and support for Android—but there is much, much more to be done if we are to be truly as effective as possible. I know that Members of Parliament are very hard use cases to tie down, but participation in the development and design of digital processes is essential. What will he do to ensure that new and returning Members are part of design processes so that technology empowers us, as it should for all our constituents?
I can reassure the hon. Lady and other Members that if they have issues about the way the Members’ hub works, for instance, they can simply walk the short distance from here to the Table Office. I understand that the Table Office, on a monthly basis, reviews suggestions and possible improvements that Members have drawn to their attention. I know personally, from having raised an issue, that that has then been reflected in how the system works. I therefore encourage all Members—perhaps in the new Parliament we will need to remind new Members of this fact—to remember that the Table Office is there, and that it will respond to and review matters on a monthly basis.
May I put on record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for the encouragement you have given me? I remember my first day here in 2010 and seeing my name on the entrance as I came in. I remember your firm handshake and the friendship you showed, which put me very much at ease. As a Back Bencher, I thank you for giving me and others the opportunity to express ourselves on many occasions, which we have done. I also thank you for your encouragement, guidance and friendship. To your wife Sally and your family, I say thank you so much. It will never be forgotten: not by me and not by many in the House. Thank you.
What consideration has been given to encouraging more paperless routes to parliamentary procedure in an attempt to be an example to businesses outside this place on how to cut down and make the most of physical resources?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that that has happened and that there are further changes in the pipeline, for instance in relation to Committees, legislation and Members’ web pages. The changes he seeks to introduce to make this place a paperless environment are in the pipeline and, I hope, will be delivered over the next few years.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Climate Change: Investment in Companies
Since this is my last set of oral questions, I would like to record my heartfelt thanks to my small team of staff, and especially my constituency secretary, who has faithfully served me for 20 out of 22 years. We often forget that our staff are on the frontline of much of the abuse that we receive, and I want to record my admiration for their fortitude. I also thank the amazing staff I have had to support me in this role, particularly Simon Stanley at Church House.
In tribute, Mr Speaker, I thank you for your kindness and courtesy—unfailingly so, and especially at times of personal duress. I single out your inspired choice of Speaker’s Chaplain, who has enriched the spiritual life of this place—but more of that later.
The Church of England Pensions Board has tabled a shareholder resolution ahead of the annual general meeting of BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, on 7 November this month. It asks BHP to suspend its membership of trade associations that are not lobbying in line with the climate change agreement. This is just the latest example of the Church Commissioners using their shareholder position to change company policy in line with the climate change agreement.
Just as much as you will be missed, Mr Speaker—tributes are being paid to you—I know that my right hon. Friend will also be missed. This is her last set of questions and it is a pleasure to ask her about eco-churches. Last year, Salisbury became the first diocese to be awarded the status of eco-diocese. Ten churches in my constituency have signed up to the project. Will she tell the House what more the Church can do to help to tackle climate change?
My hon. Friend’s illustration shows that the Church is consistent from top to bottom in its determination to tackle climate change. Today we really can celebrate the fact that Salisbury diocese, with all that it has had to cope with, is indeed the first to win an award for an entire diocese. These awards are provided by the Christian environmental charity, A Rocha. Perhaps upon hearing this, all Members in the Chamber might like to encourage their churches and diocese to become eco-churches and an eco-diocese, because that would demonstrate consistency from top to bottom across the Church.
I, too, pay warm tribute to the right hon. Lady; she is an absolutely magnificent woman—[Interruption.] And I should know. She has done so much on so many different subjects, and it has been great that she took on this role, which is not often wanted by many MPs. She has carried it off with great panache and we should be grateful to her. She has also done a lot on the restoration and renewal of this Palace, and that will stand testament to her when she has gone.
I do not know the right hon. Lady’s favourite hymn, but mine is
“Hills of the North, rejoice,
river and mountain spring”.
Right at the heart of the Christian gospel is surely a belief that we must preserve the planet on which we live—creation that was given to us for future generations. Must that not be at the heart of all the decisions that the Church of England makes?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very kind words. I nearly invited my family to come and sit in on this last set of questions, but I think that if they had heard that description, there might have been a little heckling from the Gallery, so it is a big relief that they will read about it without having the opportunity to heckle.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and the Church needs to set an example in terms of its stewardship of the earth’s resources, which we are charged to look after. I certainly recognise that every one of us in this Chamber has an absolute duty to make sure that we leave this planet in a better place than we inherited it when we were born on to it. Of course, I wish him the very best with his candidature for the speakership, and I urge whomever is elected Speaker, with the forthcoming restoration and renewal, to think very, very hard about ensuring that the future Parliament is a green Parliament.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
HS2: National Audit Office Progress Review
Before I answer that question, Mr Speaker, I would like to thank you for your friendship over the years. I do not always agree with you, but in this place, John, friendship is more important than agreement, so thank you very much.
The NAO expects to publish its progress review on High Speed 2 in early 2020. The NAO expects to examine progress since its last value-for-money study in 2016, the reasons for cost and schedule increases, and the risk to value for money that remain.
In his bombshell report, Allan Cook, the chairman of HS2, admitted publicly that HS2 was billions of pounds over budget and years behind schedule. Quite frankly, given HS2’s poor corporate governance and the rapid turnover of not only senior staff but Ministers, who are supposed to have oversight of this project, may I encourage the NAO to provide an in-depth report into the financial operations and probity of HS2, and can this report be made available to Douglas Oakervee, who is carrying out the Oakervee review of HS2? That review should not report until it has had the advantage of the NAO analysis, and I hope that this project will then be cancelled or radically changed.
Of course the NAO will not get involved in the political argument about whether the programme is wise, but it has already reported three times on HS2. It found that the cost and benefit estimates underpinning the business case were uncertain, and addressed the weaknesses in the business case and in the estimate of the cost of land. I assure my right hon. Friend that the NAO will leave no stone unturned to ensure we get value for money from this project, if it proceeds.
Order. Colleagues, I would like to accommodate all remaining Questions on the Order Paper, but we must also consider those waiting for subsequent business. I do not intend or wish to be guilty of any discourtesy to colleagues in that regard, so I appeal to colleagues who are being accommodated late to be pithy. In so far as we have taken up time because people have been extraordinarily nice about me, while that is enjoyable for me, from this point on it is unnecessary.
Leaving the EU: National Audit Office
Brexit is, of course, a major task for Departments. Since 2016, the NAO has published 26 reports on aspects of Brexit. Most recently it has published reports on the UK’s border preparedness for Brexit and on Brexit’s implications for the supply of medicines to the health and social care sectors.
The NAO wants to get the Brexit work done as quickly and efficiently as possible and has been working with all Departments to assess the potential impact on their financial performance of the decision to exit the EU. The exact impact in the current year may depend on the outcome of negotiations.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Archbishops of Canterbury and York: Workload
The Archbishops of York and Canterbury have many duties in relation to the northern and southern provinces of the Church of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is also the spiritual leader of the Anglican communion, a global network numbering tens of millions of members. There is no doubt in my mind that both these men are able and effective.
But both these men are overworked. My right hon. Friend—indeed the whole House—will be aware that 1,200 years ago, Archbishop Hygeberht was the Archbishop of Lichfield. It seems to me that you, Mr Speaker, could have a future role in your retirement as the Archbishop of Lichfield—
Fortunately, I had a little advance notice of the tenor of my hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right that, for around 16 years between 787 and 803, there was an Archbishop of Lichfield. This arose from the fact that King Offa, in the kingdom of Mercia, struck a deal with the Pope, requesting an archbishop to be named to serve in his kingdom, but that deal involved sending an annual shipment of gold to the Pope for alms and supplying the lights for St Peter’s church in Rome. My hon. Friend, as the Member for Lichfield, might like to make a similar offer to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Church of England is involved in reconciliation work, both at home and abroad, and most recently on the international scene, the leadership of the Church of England has worked with the Roman Catholic Church on peace-building in Sudan, convening a meeting of Sudanese leaders in the Vatican. The Archbishop of Canterbury identified reconciliation as one of the key priorities for his tenure.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the veracity with which you have chaired this House and the firm but kind way in which you have held that office. We recognise your service, but also the sacrifice you have made for this Parliament and our democracy.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her reply and also wish her well in her retirement. Our communities are divided and so many people across our country are broken at this time, so what is the Church of England doing to drive forward a process of peace and reconciliation for the future of our country?
There is an active proposition to initiate a reconciliation process, run out of Coventry. The cathedral of Coventry has a mission for peace and reconciliation because of its heritage. The Archbishop of Canterbury has spearheaded this offer. I do not know much about retirement, but I have offered to help with this process, because there is no doubt that we need to heal the divisions in our society. The Church has the necessary infrastructure—a cathedral in every city; a church in every parish—to help us to do this.
May I also pay huge tribute to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who has done an amazing job?
With regard to paying tribute to the Archbishop of Canterbury and His Holiness the Pope, I was in the Vatican representing the Prime Minister. The work is amazing. Does the Second Church Estates Commissioner agree that one key thing that we need to do is to ensure that our diplomats have appropriate religious literacy training so that they can carry on such work on religious reconciliation around the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I certainly welcome him to this Question Time in his role as the special envoy for freedom of religion and belief. He can do important work within the Foreign Office to deliver on promises that officials will be required to undertake religious literacy training before postings to countries where it is really important to understand the role of religion in the culture and life of those nations.
What is the Church of England doing to help women leaving prison to strengthen family and community ties?
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to say on behalf of colleagues that we are hugely grateful to my right hon. Friend for her service to us here and to the Church in her role as the 41st Second Church Estates Commissioner. She has listened and acted as a wise counsel and an adviser behind the scenes to the Church, the General Synod, the Government and the many colleagues here who have raised concerns with her about the big questions of the day: the persecution of Christians overseas, Church schools and buildings, and strengthening our communities.
My right hon. Friend has helped the cause of getting mothers’ names on marriage certificates and has been a great all-round advocate for the role of faith in public life—not forgetting, too, that she was our first female Second Church Estates Commissioner. She will, I am sure, continue to be a positive voice and a presence for people of faith outside this place, and she will be greatly missed here.
Those are such kind words, and I will treasure them; I really appreciate the thought that went into expressing them. On the work of our prison chaplains and in particular the focus on ex-prisoners being reconciled into their communities, my hon. Friend is right. I did in fact host a meeting in Parliament with Bishops Christine and Rachel of Newcastle and Gloucester respectively, which focused on the great need there is to provide a suitable transition for women as they leave prison and return to the community and to address some of the long-standing issues from which they suffer. I commend the work of the Re-Unite project in Gloucester and the Anawim women’s centre in Birmingham; they are doing a remarkable job in helping these women make that transition.
Telecommunications: Use of Churches
This is a subject that my right hon. Friend has been very diligent in drawing to my attention. I recently met the Minister for digital and broadband, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), and we had a really positive discussion about the work the Church is doing to increase access to digital and broadband networks in rural areas. Hon. Members may recall that the Church signed an accord with the Government to put at their disposal all church buildings and land to try to make sure we can eradicate those notspots in rural areas.
This is an issue on which the right hon. Lady has been both most helpful and assiduous, as she has been in the discharge of every duty she has undertaken in the 20 years that I have known her. I thank her for that service and wish her all the best for the future.
I am not sure what can be said in answer to that, but hon. Members present will know with what great affection my right hon. Friend is held, affectionately known by most of us as Dessie. There is no one I would rather entrust my life to in a tight spot than this remarkable, brave individual.
On the matter raised, I just want to record the Church’s welcome for the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport of match funding with £500 million for the initiative by mobile providers to share masts. It does not deal with the shortfall, where there are no masts, but that is where the Church intends to help.
Given the Secretary of State’s announcement that she is retiring, I would like to record my grateful thanks to her for her work in this Parliament.
Thefts from Churches
As we have seen all too clearly in the recent very heavy rainfall, wet weather is often the moment we realise we have a hole in the roof, and, sadly, many churches have discovered that through the theft of lead from church roofs. It is only when the weather turns inclement that thousands of pounds worth of damage is done, which small congregations simply do not have the resources to meet. The Church is working closely with the police and other partners to raise awareness and encourage local parishes to take precautions, such as having roof alarms or SmartWater marking, so we can fend off what is organised crime.
May I, too, join in the tributes to the right hon. Lady in this role and the other roles that she has had in this place and say that I am sad she is leaving, and I am sad that she cited some of the abuse that she has received as one of the reasons that she is leaving this place?
On the specific question, what work is going on to consider the replacement of lead roofs with those of other materials such as steel or zinc?
I thank the hon. Lady for those very kind words, and indeed, with the full support of my staff, I did speak out about the abuse we face and that might perhaps be part of my legacy to this place; I hope sincerely that those who are returned will really do something about it, particularly by tackling the wild west of the internet where there is not sufficient regulation of what is expressed, although I commend the guidance given by the Church of England about how to navigate the internet wisely.
On the point raised, it is important to share the following information, because theft from churches, particularly of roofs, affects many colleagues. New guidance has been published by Historic England on non-lead metal roofs for churches, to deter the risk of metal theft. It is important to note that even a grade 1 listed building can be fitted with lead substitutes, which do not therefore attract the type of crime that I described at the beginning and is causing so much damage and cost.
Marriage: 16 and 17-year-olds
The legal position is that 16 and 17-year-olds are entitled to have their banns published and to marry in church. I am sure that all Members who have been to an Anglican wedding will be familiar with the moment during the service when the priest asks whether anyone has an objection to the marriage. That is part of the marriage process. When a young couple are preparing for marriage, they are prepared by the priest for the very profound decision that they are making. However, those of such a tender age constitute only a very small percentage of the number who marry in Anglican churches.
May I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and reiterate that my right hon. Friend will be missed when she leaves this place?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the international reach of the Anglican communion, the Church of England’s support for ending marriages between 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK would send a powerful message to other jurisdictions and faith communities around the world?
As I mentioned earlier, the Anglican communion covers a very large number of nations and a very large number of people whose cultural norms differ from our own, but aid agencies often handle the issue of child marriage very effectively through their health and education programmes. I particularly commend the work of the Mothers Union in this respect. Its members are active in, for instance, southern Sudan with finance and literacy programmes to ensure that families do not rely on dowry payments as a way to sustain themselves. Dioceses in Kenya work with the community to prevent child marriage, and there are similar arrangements in Ghana. The Mothers Union also has initiatives to tackle child marriage in the United States of America, because in 13 states there is no minimum age for marriage.
May I, too, pay my tribute to my right hon. Friend? She and I entered the House on the same day in 1997, as did you, Mr Speaker. We have shared many worthwhile causes, and she will be greatly missed. One of those causes was, of course, marriage certificates, whether for marriages between 16 and 17-year-olds or for any other marriages. As a result of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, mothers’ names will at last be added to those certificates.
Will my right hon. Friend update us on the progress that is being made ahead of the digital registration that is to be introduced? Is it the case that in certain churches, the Church of England has given its agreement to the manual writing of hard-copy certificates until the necessary technology is available? That, I am sure, would be a welcome common-sense measure.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. We did indeed enter Parliament together, and in those early weeks when we did not really have an office, and we were adjusting to the long-hours culture, and we missed our children—I was pining for mine—he was kind enough to make me hot cocoa late at night. I have not forgotten those early times.
Let me update the House. My hon. Friend was the Member of Parliament who landed the prize of securing a change in the law of 1837 that did not allow mothers the same right as fathers in terms of marriage registration, but progress is slow on the accompanying regulation. My hon. Friend may wish to join me in putting some pressure on the future Government to complete that process, because there are practical steps that can be taken in the short term. The Church has offered to allow existing registration books to be used, and where it says “father”, the name of the mother can be added in brackets. If it is to take a while to take marriage registration into the digital age, many mums who are hoping to have that new right can achieve it in the short term by means of a simple practical solution.
Digital Technology: New Congregations
During my time as Second Church Estates Commissioner, I have seen the Church of England transform its digital communications. Its annual mission statistics show, for example, that the Daily Prayer app has been downloaded more than 5 million times and is used on average for eight minutes per user per day; our social media now reaches 3.6 million people; the A Church Near You website allows people to google their nearest church and the times of the services there; and an Alexa skill set up by the Church has had more than 100,000 inquiries.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer and for the incredible job she has done as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. She has been truly amazing and a great friend to many of us. I have fond memories of her not only in her current role but on many occasions in Switzerland on the annual skiing visit. I would like to thank her for her friendship.
The Church is central to all our communities, and engaging with the wider public is ever more important. Will my right hon. Friend tell us more about what the Church intends to do to ensure that wider engagement through the use of social media and digital is rolled out more widely across the whole country?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. For the record, I must say that being Second Church Estates Commissioner has been a great blessing. When I was invited to do the job, David Cameron said to me, “The thing about this role, Caroline, is that you are answerable only to the Queen and God.” What a privilege that is!
It so happens that I met the diocesan directors of communication yesterday at Canterbury cathedral, and they are all really aware of the transition that the Church needs to make into a fully digital version of what it does today. I have given the House an indication of that, but for those of us who still like a hard copy of things to inspire us, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the fact that the forthcoming busy time will at some point be coterminous with Advent, for which the Church has published a “Follow the Star” booklet, which hon. Members are welcome to avail themselves of.
That was magnificently done. I hope that I can be forgiven for saying to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), and more widely to the House, that as the hon. Gentleman referenced Switzerland, and I am on my last day, he has given me my cue to say that the best thing about Switzerland is not its skiing, its chocolate, its watches or its financial services; the best thing about Switzerland is Roger Federer.
Mr Speaker, I should like to pass on my thanks to you, on behalf of Scottish Conservative MPs. You have given us the opportunity to speak so that our constituents know that the Scottish National party is not the only voice for Scotland in this place. It is good for our Parliament, our country and our democracy that all the voices are heard, so I thank you for that.
What conversations have been had with the Department, and indeed the estates in Scotland, to ensure that the Government’s new initiatives on the shared rural network for mobile coverage and the exciting new developments on broadband will mean that the estates in Scotland can be used and leveraged so that my constituents can benefit as much as constituents elsewhere in the UK?
I am delighted to say that my responsibility covers only the Church of England, but obviously the Church in Scotland is part of the Anglican communion and the opportunity to use church buildings, spires, towers and the ridges and hills on land that the Church owns is an obvious way to ensure that there are no more notspots in Scotland.