House of Commons
Thursday 6 February 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Organised Waste Crime
Waste crime blights local communities and our environment and this Government are determined to tackle it. Over the past six years, we have invested £60 million in measures to achieve that. Last month, we launched a joint unit for waste crime, led by the Environment Agency, and including the National Crime Agency, HMRC and the police. This new unit will help us crack down on serious and organised crime in the waste sector.
Fly-tipping in particular is an issue that costs our local councils and landowners hundreds of thousands pounds annually to clear up, with rural communities particularly affected. Just last week, the village of Austrey in my constituency was targeted yet again. What additional resources and powers can we give our local authorities and police to eradicate this scourge once and for all?
I fully appreciate how strongly my hon. Friend’s constituents feel about that issue, as do mine in Barnet. We are giving local authorities additional powers through our Environment Bill to tackle fly-tipping. We have also already enhanced their powers to search and seize vehicles, which may be involved in this menace, and we have granted them power to issue fixed penalty notices, and I encourage them to use those powers.
I welcome the Minister’s answer, but I must tell her that landfill tax fraud is a multi-million pound business. From my experience in the north-east of England, where there is some good co-operation going on between various agencies, the problem is with HMRC, which will not investigate unless a certain threshold is hit. I asked for feedback on prosecutions in one high-profile case that was activated four years ago and found that, to date, nothing has happened.
That is one reason we are bringing together the relevant agencies in this new joint unit. They include HMRC, which is absolutely determined to crack down on tax fraud and evasion of all sorts. The right hon. Gentleman has his point on the record, and I am sure that the issue will be raised in the new joint unit.
Fly-tipping ranges massively from lorry loads of hospital waste to a sofa. Farmers are then expected to dispose of that waste at their own cost. We quite rightly welcome what the Secretary of State says about taking lorries, vans and cars away from people, because we really must stop this crime.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are determined that our new joint unit to tackle this issue will ensure that those who are responsible for waste crime of all sorts, including fly-tipping, pay the price for what they are doing and are held to account.
Fly-tipping is a major issue in my area, not least because of changes in policy from North Lanarkshire Council. One way of stopping such crimes is by increasing the recycling rate and targeting particular sectors, such as the construction sector, which has a particularly bad problem with waste pollution. Will the Secretary of State outline potential areas such as training staff in those sectors to ensure that they are aware of how to recycle properly?
Of course, training in this area is very important. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as far as England is concerned, our new Environment Bill contains an extensive list of measures to improve rates of recycling, and yes, we hope that that will be part of a wider strategy to cut down on waste crime and ensure that more of our waste is recycled, and that all of it is treated appropriately.
Air Quality in London
The Mayor of London is responsible for air quality in the capital and has reserved powers under part IV of the Environment Act 1995 to reflect that. Although the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not had any recent discussions with the Mayor of London on air quality, our doughty DEFRA officials are in regular contact with the Greater London Assembly.
I also wish to welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I know that she is already a strong voice in her area, and is obviously indicating that she will continue to be so.
My constituency has some of the worst air quality in London. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Mayor of London needs to do more to improve air quality, given that currently only 2% of London buses have been converted to electric and only 10% of the 2 million trees that he promised have actually been planted?
My hon. Friend’s question demonstrates how strong a voice she will be in this place. I must reiterate that the Mayor of London is responsible for air quality in the capital and has reserved powers under the 1995 Act to do this work. A great deal of money has been committed to help with that work, especially the retrofitting of buses, but I would not underestimate the challenge posed by air quality in our cities, especially London.
Small and Medium-sized Food Producers
The Secretary of State holds regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the Government’s work to help small and medium- sized enterprises. Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing industry—bigger than automotive and aerospace combined. It is worth more than £100 billion per year and is geographically dispersed, which means it brings wealth to every corner of our nation.
What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that local British foods, which are some of the finest in the world, continue to benefit from a fair, competitive and transparent food supply chain post-Brexit?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Every Member will have examples of successful local food manufacturers. In her constituency, we have of course Samworth Brothers, a highly successful large business, and many other smaller enterprises. I congratulate her on having secured for her area the status of designated manufacturing zone. Government procurement rules encourage the local sourcing of food, and the requirements of some protected food name designations will also require food to be sourced locally.
What is the Department doing, and what discussions has it had, about giving support to those small independent shellfish producers on the west coast of Scotland who, because of Brexit, are about to be put at a huge competitive disadvantage to their Northern Irish neighbours?
I hold regular meetings with the shellfish industry. As the hon. Gentleman will know, my constituency is in Cornwall, where we have a large crab and scallop industry. The political declaration on our future relationship with the EU envisages zero-zero tariffs on all goods.
Last week, the Secretary of State followed in the Minister’s footsteps, visiting Cleethorpes and the neighbouring constituency of Grimsby, where she saw some of the fine seafood processors there. Can I urge her and the Minister to continue the support for that industry and to give it an absolute assurance that fish supplies will continue without any hitch?
I very much enjoyed my visit to the seafood village in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I look forward to visiting that area and Grimsby more generally again in the future. Our fishing industry will have many opportunities as we leave the European Union and depart from relative stability, but for our fish processors in constituencies such as his it is also important that we continue the flow of trade from countries such as Iceland and Norway.
Imported Agricultural Goods
As we set out in our manifesto, we are committed to upholding our high standards of environmental protection, food safety and animal welfare. Now we have left the EU, our high standards, including import requirements, continue to apply. We will not dilute our standards, or put the UK’s biosecurity at risk, in our future trade negotiations.
My constituents benefit from the glorious countryside of Northumberland and County Durham—landscapes shaped by small-scale farmers. Those farmers would be devastated by unfair competition from the American agro-industrial machine, with its lower animal welfare, food and environmental standards. The Secretary of State talks a good talk and reads a good brief, but she will not put anything into law, so will she now unequivocally condemn any Government who trade away our high food, environmental and animal welfare standards?
I can assure the hon. Member that we will not trade away our high standards of environmental protection, animal welfare or food safety. We will make sure that our trade negotiations work for our whole country, including the farmers she mentioned. I met farmers in Northumberland only a few days ago and had those very conversations.
On Monday, the Secretary of State heard from both Opposition MPs and MPs on her own Benches that she had to put our high environmental standards into law to prevent US agriculture from undercutting them in any trade negotiations. Now that a few days have passed since that debate, has she reflected on the fact that there is cross-party support for putting those promises into law and will she do the right thing and put them in the Agriculture Bill?
I reiterate what we said in a debate last week: our high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards are already in law, including legislating to prevent the importation of chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef, and our manifesto commits us to continuing to defend robustly those standards in future trade negotiations.
I am afraid that is not a good enough answer from the Environment Secretary, because unless there is a specific clause in the Agriculture Bill that guarantees that there will be no undercutting of British farmers by imported US agriculture in particular—produce grown to lower animal welfare and environmental standards—no one will believe a word that the Environment Secretary has to say. The Trade Secretary is today publishing a document that will apparently lock those standards into law, so if it is good enough for the Trade Secretary, why is it not good enough for the Environment Secretary to put the same commitment into law?
As I have said, those commitments are already in law, and the Government will defend them in our trade negotiations. There is a cross-party consensus in this House that we value our high standards. We will continue with those high standards; we will not compromise them in trade negotiations.
How will the Secretary of State ensure that ractopamine-treated pork and turkey meat from the United States stays out of our food chains?
As I have said, we will ensure that all food coming into this country meets our high sanitary and phytosanitary standards and our high standards of food safety. We will not under any circumstances compromise biosecurity or human health in our trade negotiations.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s and the Government’s commitment to maintaining high food, welfare and health standards, but can she update the House on what plans there are for a food standards commission, as requested by the National Farmers Union of Scotland?
I have discussed that with the National Farmers Union, and there is real merit in its proposal. We continue to consider it, but I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that, whatever the mechanism, we will engage very closely with farmers and other stakeholders as we take forward our trade negotiations.
Can my right hon Friend put the House at ease and confirm that any trade agreement will have to be ratified under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and that this House will therefore have a full opportunity to scrutinise any effect of trade deals on our food standards?
I can; this House will be involved in scrutiny of our trade negotiations, and I look forward to having those debates with hon. Members.
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government are clear that we are seeking a free trade agreement with the European Union without tariffs. That is something that the Prime Minister and his team will be working on in the months ahead.
Our manifesto commits us to increase tree planting to a rate of 30,000 hectares a year by 2025 across the UK. Our £640 million nature for climate fund will help us to deliver a massive uplift in tree planting, as part of wider efforts to become a net zero carbon economy.
The Secretary of State will know that many of us are leading on planting plans in our constituencies, working closely with local councils, local wildlife trusts and so on. A good example is the new arboretum at lower Westgate Street in Gloucester, which was planted at the beginning of January. However, does she agree that there is a risk that, however many thousands of trees we plant in our constituencies, somebody will always say that we should have done much more? Is there an opportunity for some independent body to make an objective assessment of how many trees can realistically be planted in urban constituencies such as mine?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about setting appropriate targets. We plan to work closely with local authorities as we drive forward with our commitment to plant more trees. The Environment Bill contains important changes to the planning system—for example, an environmental net gain—that will encourage investment in nature, biodiversity and tree planting.
Does the Secretary of State agree with me and the Woodland Trust that we need to get local councils writing emergency tree plans that identify land for tree planting, and that we need to ensure that developments that come forward from housing developers include a minimum of 30% tree canopy cover?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s ambition for tree planting in his local area. As I have said, changes to the planning system should incentivise investment in tree planting and nature. Programmes such as the urban tree challenge fund could provide a great opportunity for local authorities to play their part in delivering this tree-planting effort.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the pupils of Good Shepherd Catholic Primary School in my constituency, who recently planted 130 saplings in a new eco-area at the school? Does she agree that the new eco-area at the school will be a great educational resource for the students, helping them to learn more about the natural world while also helping to improve the local environment in Coventry North East?
I do congratulate them; it sounds like a wonderful effort. Our Environment Bill provides for local nature recovery strategies that are led by the local authority, but which I very much hope will involve engagement with schools and enthusiastic groups such as the one mentioned by the hon. Member.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the prime purpose of planting trees in the present climate crisis is to provide an effective carbon sink to produce the negative carbon emissions that offset other carbon emissions in a net-zero world? The Committee on Climate Change suggests that that means planting perhaps up to 50,000 hectares of trees per annum up to 2050—perhaps 2.4 billion trees. Does she agree that the present target in the clean growth plan of 11 million trees is tiny—especially as it is currently being missed by 71%—and almost amounts to “greenwash”? When is she going to get real on tree planting and management, and adopt measures that will secure the billions of trees we need and not the millions she is projecting?
Where I would agree with the shadow Minister is that we do need massively to step up our tree planting in this country, and that is what we are determined to do, particularly by working with the devolved authorities as well. I encourage everyone to take the message out to their constituents that they can get involved with these programmes through the countryside stewardship woodland creation grant, the woodland creation planning grant, the woodland carbon fund, the woodland carbon guarantee and the urban tree challenge fund. We will soon be consulting on a tree strategy for England to drive forward further the crucial task of planting more trees in this country.
Councils are required to deliver a five-year supply of sites for housing. Has not the time come for us to require councils to provide a five-year supply of sites for tree planting?
That is a very interesting idea. I hope that the process of local nature recovery strategies that we are establishing under the Environment Bill will embrace the kind of idea that my hon. Friend has just floated.
Glass and Plastic Deposit Return Scheme
In our manifesto, the Government committed to introducing a deposit return scheme to incentivise people to recycle plastic and glass. We are aiming to introduce that scheme from 2023. The Environment Bill that was published recently includes an important section on waste and recycling, and will introduce powers to establish deposit return schemes. A deposit return scheme would include aluminium and steel cans, alongside plastic and glass bottles. The final details of the scheme, including types of drinks containers to be included, are being developed and will be presented in a second consultation.
I thank the Minister for her response. I think the whole House welcomes the introduction of the deposit return scheme in the Environment Bill, but the concern is that it is overly prescriptive, specifying two categories of plastic, rather than creating a framework that could be amended and widened in scope to incorporate more materials that could be recycled in future.
I thank the hon. Member for his comments. I am delighted that he is so interested in the scheme. The first consultation had very wide support and we will have a further consultation. The industries wanting to use the collected recycled materials, particularly plastics, want very pure and well-sorted materials so that they can then turn them into the next products. We are thinking about this very seriously. More will be heard in the second consultation and that will come through in the Environment Bill.
Our clean air strategy sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollution from a wide range of sources. We have also put in place a £3.5 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Our Environment Bill delivers key parts of our world-leading clean air strategy and makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter, as well as enabling local authorities to take more effective action to tackle air pollution in their areas.
I thank the Minister for her response. She will know that incineration is considered to only be slightly better than landfill when it comes to disposing of waste, but Lib Dem-run Sutton Council seems to think that its Beddington incinerator has no harmful effects at all on my Carshalton and Wallington constituents. Does she agree that the council should improve air quality monitoring near the site, tackle congestion and be much more ambitious as regards tackling air pollution?
I am aware that Sutton Council approved the development of the Beddington incinerator as an alternative to landfill, which would have a higher pollution impact. The incinerator is required to operate in compliance with the permit conditions set by the Environment Agency, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows; he has mentioned the incinerator before. We encourage all local authorities, including obviously his Lib Dem-run council, to take action to improve air quality. I urge him to keep pressing it to keep within its commitments.
Birmingham City Council’s planned demolition of the Perry Barr flyover, which feeds traffic from Birmingham into West Bromwich East, will do nothing to tackle the already poor air quality in the area and cause huge traffic problems for my constituents. Does the Minister agree that local authorities have an obligation to ensure that major roadwork projects, especially on busy highways, improve air quality and ease congestion?
Local authorities are required by law to consider the impacts of development on air quality. Local authorities are best placed to take local planning decisions and should take into account a range of factors, including impacts on air quality, the local economy and traffic flow—so my hon. Friend raises a good point—when carrying out roadwork projects. In terms of the wider picture, we are providing financial and expert advice to local authorities to tackle air quality.
Air quality is seen very much as an urban issue, but even in the bucolic rural constituency of Thirsk and Malton we have our problems, including in Malton town centre due to high levels of standing traffic. What support can my hon. Friend offer to the local authority to resolve this issue?
The Environment Bill includes measures to improve air quality that will ensure that local authorities, including in Malton, for which my hon. Friend always speaks up so determinedly, have a clear framework and simple powers to tackle air pollution. The DEFRA and Department for Transport joint air quality unit works with local authorities, underpinned by £572 million in funding, to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances, and DEFRA provides grant funding and technical support via a dedicated helpdesk.
If the Secretary of State has read the unprecedented four reports in the last Parliament by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—chaired by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who is sitting behind her—she will know that a lack of power and resources in local government is a real problem, particularly in two-tier areas, as is the chronic lack of joined-up thinking by central Government. When will those two critical issues be addressed?
This Government take air pollution extremely seriously. We are investing £3.5 billion in air quality and clean transport. We are helping local authorities to tackle air quality through the implementation fund and the clean air fund, with a £572 million budget and a lot of expert advice. I am overseeing many programmes being rolled out, and the right hon. Gentleman will see a great deal happening this year.
Two hours of exposure to diesel fumes leads to 24 hours of negative impact upon a person’s health. What is being done to reduce diesel fumes for ordinary people in our communities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Roadside pollution is a key area. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the serious issues tackled under our nitrogen dioxide plan. Local authorities have a legal duty to tackle high levels of pollution on roadsides, which is why we have introduced a comprehensive system to help local authorities to tackle it. We are also bringing down the rate of diesel cars on the market.
In recent weeks, DEFRA has been driving forward the biggest programme of legislation in Whitehall. That includes publication of our landmark Environment Bill, to introduce a new legal framework and demanding targets on matters such as nature, recycling and air quality. We have published our Fisheries Bill, to enable this country to take back control of its fishing waters and end the common fisheries policy. The Agriculture Bill has had its Second Reading, to ensure a brighter, greener future for our farmers. And of course, my team and I have played our part in securing the biggest election victory for the Conservatives in 30 years.
Data published in the recent climate change agreements biennial report showed the dairy industry delivering a 21% improvement on its energy efficiency over the last 10 years—the latest in a long line of sustainability wins for the industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from being a villain in the climate change story, the dairy industry is proving itself a force for good?
I very much agree. I pay tribute to the huge efforts made in the dairy sector to become more efficient and more sustainable. I know that those in the sector have further plans through the pioneering dairy road map, and I wish them well with that. We need to support UK agriculture in the tremendous efforts it is making to be part of the solution on climate change.
This Government have made much of the fact that we are leaving the EU and all its bureaucratic processes, but only to replace it with the catch app, a far more complex system for smaller fishing boats. Will the Secretary of State instruct the Marine Management Organisation to change the new catch app and remove the risk of criminality, which is causing so much anxiety for fishers in our coastal communities?
I have met officials on that matter. The reason we introduced the catch app is that, if we want to improve our management of the inshore fleet and offer fishermen, say, three months’ catch opportunities at a time, or even move to an effort-based regime, we need better, more accurate catch data. Those rules already apply to the over-12 metres and will in future apply to the under-12s as well.
Yes, I do.
Burdens put on local authorities through the Environment Bill will be fully funded. They will play a key role in helping with biodiversity net gain. They will also play a key role—as will other local organisations—in setting up our local nature strategies, which will inform what we do, and I very much look forward to that.
I will, indeed. Our departure from the European Union gives us the opportunity to introduce a new farming policy—a new system of farm support—that has sustainability and the environment at its heart. We can use that to support our farmers in the brilliant work they already do as stewards of our environment and countryside.
We have a strong focus on these matters. The measures we will be bringing forward in the Environment Bill will help us to set challenging and demanding targets on those issues. Our new system of farm support will also provide support to farmers in reducing ammonia emissions. I know they are determined to do it. I understand completely the importance of delivering on this.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is such a campaigner on this issue. It is a great idea. I believe that one fast-food chain is already considering doing this. It is something I have thought about myself when I am out on my bike and I see all the litter on the verges. Trust me, this Government are doing a great deal on litter, but we need to do more.
One way to reduce food waste is to rebalance the relationships between suppliers and supermarkets. Will the Government therefore commit to expanding the power of the Groceries Code Adjudicator and amending the groceries supply code of practice to better protect our farmers’ interests and reduce the amount of unnecessary food waste that can occur due to supermarkets’ excessively strict requirements?
Our Agriculture Bill has an entire section on fairness in the supply chain, enabling us to introduce regulations that build on what we have started with the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure that there is fairness and transparency in that supply chain.
I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that for many years animal rights activists and welfare activists for animal rights have been calling on Government to stop exporting animals on the hoof, and to let them be slaughtered in our slaughterhouses and go on the hook. Now we have left the EU, can the Secretary of State confirm that that sort of practice will cease?
We do want to see an end to live exports, and we will soon be consulting on measures to improve the welfare of live animals in transport. We hope that ultimately the effect of this will be an end to live exports overseas.
My constituent, Mr Latimer, after exhausting every avenue to halt the flow of sewage on to the beach behind his very popular restaurant, ended up filing a complaint with the European Commission. The ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union stated that the Government needed to rectify the problem within five years. That was eight years ago. Can he expect any action from this Government?
I am certainly happy to look into that case and come back to the hon. Member.
Will the Minister tell us what the Government intend to do in their upcoming legislation on dog smuggling to prevent the import of drugged dogs by busker gangs?
There are already laws and regulations in place to protect animals used by buskers. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is a criminal offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal, or to administer an injurious or poisonous drug to an animal. If my hon. Friend has specific concerns, if he reported them to the police or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, action could be taken.
Does the Government’s policy in relation to the standards of agricultural imports align with the views of the relevant expert trade advisory group?
As I have said, in our trade negotiations we will ensure that the outcome works for farmers and for the nation as a whole. We will defend our standards in future trade negotiations.
As part of her proposals for a deposit return scheme, has the Secretary of State sought to persuade her counterpart in the Scottish Government that the interests of consumers, producers and administrators will be best served by a system that covers the country—the UK—as a whole?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. Scotland introduced its scheme first. We are consulting to ensure our scheme is absolutely fit for purpose. We want ours to completely align and we are very much lining up with manufacturers and processors to get the right system that suits them.
During the debate before the election on restoring nature and climate change, the Minister, who is now in the Lords, told the House that a legislative response to the problem of burning peatlands was being developed. When can we expect to see legislation being published?
We are looking carefully at the issue of rotational burning on blanket bog. We are working closely with land managers to ensure that we see this practice come to an end. We have scrutinised the voluntary mechanisms and in due course we will have to consider whether to legislate in this area.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
LGBT+ Christians in the UK
Before I answer the hon. Gentleman, I would like to pay a short tribute to my predecessor, Caroline Spelman, who demonstrated humanity, helpfulness and humour, all qualities I will do my best to emulate in this role.
This is a timely question from the hon. Gentleman, in LGBT history month. The Church has worked with Stonewall to produce the “Valuing all God’s children” guidance, which proactively combats homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools.
I thank the hon. Member for his answer and join him in his tribute to the former Member for Meriden, with whom I worked on many issues. I totally agree with the comments he made about her and wish her well for the future; I am sure she has a big role to play in the country. However, the comments that he made do not reflect the pastoral guidance that the Church issued in recent weeks, which the archbishops have apologised for and which suggested that sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage fall
“short of God’s purpose for human beings.”
Does he recognise the great deal of concern within the Anglican communion that this potentially pre-empts the Living in Love and Faith discussions, which are ongoing, and sends a message of non-inclusivity at the start of LGBT history month, which is greatly regrettable?
The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that the archbishops issued an apology for the way that that pastoral statement was issued. He is aware of the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project, which is looking very closely at all these issues and will be reporting later this year.
St Mary's Graveyard, Stoke Mandeville
I recognise the sensitivities in this issue and I can tell my hon. Friend that an agreement has been reached between the Secretary of State for Transport and the Archbishops’ Council about the exhumation of graves and the reburial of remains in consecrated ground. I can assure my hon. Friend that this will be done with dignity and respect.
My constituent Mrs Bradley’s great great grandfather is buried at St Mary’s, Stoke Mandeville, and she was very distressed to learn by accident that the graves were to be exhumed by construction work linked to HS2. How will the Church of England monitor this to ensure that the exhumations are carried out in the way that my hon. Friend has just described, even on deconsecrated land?
I am extremely sorry that Mrs Bradley found out about the exhumation of her great great grandfather by accident, and we will announce the location of reinterment in consecrated ground in due course. I can tell my hon. Friend that in all cases this will be as near as possible to the original grave or graveyard and that the law requires that HS2 put up a memorial for all those who are reinterred.
Public Accounts Commission
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
Leaving the EU: National Audit Office
If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, having served for 18 years as Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission and the Committee—I am standing down now—I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the National Audit Office, the Comptroller and Auditor Generals I have served with—Sir John Bourn, Tim Burr, Sir Amyas Morse and Gareth Davies—and the whole staff of the NAO and the Clerks who have served the two Committees. It is calculated that, during this 18-year association, we have saved £14.2 billion of public money—I just wish we were on commission.
In answer to my hon. Friend, the NAO’s work programme, which is determined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, is regularly revised to ensure it reflects current issues. The UK’s departure from the EU is of course a major task for Departments. Since 2016, the NAO has published 27 reports on various aspects of the preparations made by Departments. Departments have commented positively on the value of that work in assisting their preparations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his 18 years of exemplary service.
For all the problems of the Brexit process, rarely has a Government Department been set up for a specific defined purpose that is ultimately time-limited, but that is true of the Department for Exiting the European Union. Will the National Audit Office conduct an inquiry into the lessons learned from the establishment of that Department?
Absolutely. I am sure the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is completely independent in what inquiries he undertakes, will certainly want to do a report on the value for money of that Department and, perhaps, of our exit from the European Union in totality.
With particular reference to Commonwealth countries, what does the right hon. Gentleman believe is the result of work carried out? How can we do more to see better guidelines in place and in operation throughout?
That is a very good question. Clearly, the NAO, which is not concerned with policy matters but with economy and efficiency, will have its focus laser-like on how we can ensure, both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom, a good exit from the European Union, good outcomes and, above all, value for money. There is no doubt that a very large sum of money could be wasted—for instance, in the recruitment of extra civil servants. We will have to ensure that we look laser-like at getting value for money.
NAO: Overseas Work
The NAO is a leading, supreme audit institution in the international community and works closely with other offices. It believes that it can grow and learn as an audit office by sharing and exchanging ideas with others. It periodically benchmarks itself against other similar audit bodies in other countries.
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend, whose career in the Public Accounts Commission I have followed closely both from the Government Benches and from previously serving as his constituency agent. Does he agree that there is widespread concern about spending on international aid? Will he outline what the NAO is doing to ensure we achieve value for money?
Clearly, there are enormous risks in our overseas aid budget. I will not comment on policy aspects, but if we are linking expenditure with a proportion of gross national product, which can rise every year, there are enormous possibilities in the Department for International Development for waste, incompetence and employing too many staff. I know that the NAO is particularly concerned with ensuring that in our international aid work, which is so important, we concentrate on work on the ground and try to root out waste and incompetence.
We have some excellent institutions, in addition to the NAO, that work towards underpinning our overseas trade and investment, such as CDC and UK Export Finance, but if we are to boost international trade we need to increase our appetite for risk. We need to accept that a higher number of failed projects will be a sign of success. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the NAO’s attitude to risk is too risk-averse or too judgmental of individual project failures, there is a danger it may undermine our international trade objectives?
I assure my hon. Friend that that is simply not the case. The NAO recognises that the civil service, and indeed Ministers, occasionally have to take risks, because that is the only way to learn—you learn from failure. We are not risk-averse, but we expect Departments to evaluate risk. On projects such as the Olympic Games, IT projects, the Child Support Agency and all the things we have investigated over the past 18 years, we expect Departments to evaluate risk and take risks, but get things right in the end.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church Schools and Universities
The Church of England educates 1 million children every day, runs a quarter of all primary schools and operates 4,644 schools in total, 91% of which are good or outstanding. There are also 15 universities in the Cathedrals Group in England, which educate 100,000 students and train 40% of all key stage 2 and 3 teachers.
What help might the Church be able to give for the much-needed further education learning quarter in Wolverhampton?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Church strongly supports investment in further education and the Wolverhampton education quarter is an imaginative proposal to benefit the city. While we are at a very early stage of possible Church involvement, I know that the diocesan director of education and senior local chaplains will be very willing to meet him to discuss the proposal.
Will the hon. Gentleman update us on what strategic national work the Church might be doing with the Department for Education to support local schools that are experiencing changes to school rolls due to population changes? Otherwise excellent schools, such as St George’s and St Michael’s in my constituency, are having to experience differences in their local population. What strategic work is going on nationally to support the local work that is so necessary?
Being relatively new in post, I am afraid that I am not immediately aware of that, but I am very happy to raise the hon. Lady’s concerns with Nigel Genders, our director of education at Church House, and I will get back to her.
Christians in Nigeria
The Archbishop of Canterbury knows Nigeria well and has visited it on a number of occasions. He is extremely aware of the local tensions and context of this issue. The recent attacks in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram and Islamist militia are a source of profound concern to him and the Church.
Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the progress in implementing the Bishop of Truro’s findings?
I know my right hon. Friend takes a very close interest in these matters. Ten of the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s review have been, or are being implemented, and the others are being worked on. Our diplomats are using the review to engage their host Governments wherever there are abuses of freedom of religion or belief.
The UK hosts Christians from all over the world, from Lebanon to Sri Lanka, and in Lewisham East we have a vibrant Nigerian Christian community. It would be a shame if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not tap into the knowledge and culture available at home in the UK better to serve persecuted communities abroad.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for that excellent suggestion. I will certainly feed back to Church House and Lambeth Palace the point she helpfully makes.
I am accountable for the Church of England in this place. The Church Commissioners are not consulted on announcements by the College of Bishops. The archbishops have since apologised for the division and hurt caused by the pastoral statement.
Regardless of that, I think it was discourteous of the bishops not to inform the Second Church Estates Commissioner. The legislation was passed overwhelmingly in this House with all-party support. It is bad enough that the Church still treats its LGBT+ members as second-class Christians, but to say to the child of a heterosexual couple in a civil partnership that they should not exist because their parents should not have had or be having sex is so hurtful. Will he tell the bishops that unless this nonsense stops serious questions will be asked in this place about the legitimacy of the established status of the Church of England?
I will certainly feed back the right hon. Gentleman’s strongly felt concern on this issue to the College of Bishops. In their apology, the archbishops did recognise that the pastoral statement had jeopardised the trust that has been built up as part of the Living in Love and Faith project, which is intended to discern the way forward for the Church of England on this issue.
Church of England Free Schools
The Church has been a successful partner in the free schools programme since it began. Dioceses work hard to help these new schools to open. The Church is also keen to support new alternative provision and special schools through the free schools programme.
The fantastic Fulham Boys School will finally open at its new site in September, after a 10-year campaign. It is a Church of England-sponsored free school whose co-patrons are myself and Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington. However, the latest wave of free school applications shows very few involving the Church of England. What can my hon. Friend do, in his role, to persuade the Church to sponsor more free schools?
The Church of England educates a million children. It runs a fifth of all schools in England, and 91% of those are good or outstanding, which is just one of the reasons why they are so popular with parents. The Church is the largest sponsor of academies in England, with 900. I am delighted to learn that there has been a happy conclusion to Fulham Boys School’s search for a new site, and I know that lots of parents are very happy with the school.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Compostable Waste from Parliament
It is a real pleasure to answer questions on behalf of the House of Commons Commission. This is the first time that a member of the Scottish National party has answered questions in the House. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Tom Brake, who answered questions diligently and conscientiously.
I thank the hon. Lady for this first and very important question. To ensure that compostable food and disposable materials such as coffee cups and salad trays are composted, Parliament’s environmental sustainability team has set up a process to enable them to be effectively segregated. It covers the first point of disposal in dedicated compostable bins located throughout the estate to the final in-vessel composting facility. This initiative is backed by a wide range of communication and engagement tools to support Parliament’s “Right Waste, Right Bin” campaign.
I welcome the hon. Member to—
The establishment. [Laughter.]
To the establishment! A knighthood cannot be far behind.
An investigation by Footprint, whose findings were published in July, found that all the compostable packaging collected in the Houses of Parliament between October 2018 and May 2019 was incinerated rather than composted. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that that is not the case, and that no further compostable waste has been incinerated since May 2019? Can he also share some of the challenges involved in trying to introduce composting on such a huge estate with other organisations that are seeking to introduce it?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that Parliament takes composting very seriously, and so far 15.4 tonnes of waste have been successfully composed. However, as she says, there was an issue with the new scheme at first because of the levels of non-compostable waste and the fact that the bins were far too high for the receiving facility to compost the first batch of it. I can reassure her that every subsequent load has been successfully composted as use of the bins has improved.
It is a real honour to be able to ask a question of such a senior member of the British establishment. [Laughter.]. Tempted as I am to ask him how much of this waste is Scotland’s waste and when we are going to get it back—[Laughter]—I prefer to ask him what the parliamentary estate is doing generally to reduce the waste of all types that is produced on the estate.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very sincere congratulations and welcome. [Laughter.] I assure him that Scotland does indeed ensure that it receives its Barnett consequentials when it comes to the waste produced in the House.
Parliament takes this issue very seriously, and the environmental sustainability team works in close liaison with the Commons catering department to ensure that all the procurement specifications have all the necessary certifications. All the composting that takes place in the House has met the very highest standards, both European and world, and I am happy to reassure the House that we are making great progress with this scheme.
I congratulate my hon. Friend—he should be right hon.—on his appointment. Can he confirm that, or find out whether, the signs used in the Division Lobbies to indicate an England-only vote under the EVEL process will be either recyclable or compostable when they are consigned to the dustbin of history?
I find all the welcomes that I have received very endearing. I understand that the signs that were produced earlier this week for the English votes procedure will not be required as part of the scheme as they are likely to be used again, but I think that once they have been binned we will ensure that they are effectively composted and no waste is produced.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church Maintenance: Bosworth
Lowest income communities funding supported mission and ministry in Holy Trinity and St John’s churches in Hinckley in my hon. Friend’s constituency in 2019. Across England from 2020 to 2022, £82.1 million will be allocated by the Commissioners as lowest income communities funding, with a further £82.1 million in strategic development funding to support diocesan plans.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for talking about the repairs that are going on in churches in my constituency and across the country, but churches in Hinckley and Bosworth, and indeed across the country, face the risk of having their roofs stolen. This is an ongoing problem; it has not gone away. I would be grateful for his comments on what the Commission is doing to try to prevent this.
I am exceedingly grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, because it is a real issue for churches up and down the country, many of which cannot get insurance if this happens on a second or subsequent occasion. The Church has asked the Government to review and strengthen the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. Initially, the Act dramatically reduced thefts, but changes to serious organised criminal behaviour have led to increases, and I will be asking what plans the Government have to amend the Act.
BBC Licence Fee
(Urgent Question): At the risk of getting a cold shoulder, I should like to ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to make a statement on the Government’s plans for the future of the BBC licence fee.
I would like to reiterate the words of the Secretary of State yesterday and, first, outline the importance of the broadcasting sector and the value that we as a Government place on it. Globally, the BBC is seen as a beacon of British values. It is one of the most recognised and trusted brands, reaching more than 400 million people around the world every week. However, it is important to acknowledge that the media landscape is changing, as is its content and how we consume it.
Set against that, there remain legitimate concerns that the criminal sanction for TV licence fee evasion is unfair and disproportionate, and indeed an anachronism. As we move into an increasingly digital age with more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, we must revisit the logic of criminalisation and ask whether criminal penalties for consumer choice are consistent with a just and democratic society. We therefore believe it is right to look again at whether the criminal sanction is still appropriate. This is why it is right, as the Secretary of State announced yesterday, that the Government are launching an eight-week public consultation to examine the decriminalisation of TV licence evasion and to share the thoughts on the TV licence model and how it may yet change over time. The Government will consider the results of the consultation when it is completed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this timely and important urgent question. As our public sector broadcaster, the BBC is central to the lives of our constituents: 91% of Britons use the BBC every week, and 26 million households have a TV licence. The future of the BBC as a public service broadcaster is a crucial matter to all of us. Yesterday, the Government announced plans to look into the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, but decriminalisation was not mentioned in the Conservative party manifesto. Prisons are not overflowing with people locked up for non-payment, and the courts are not overwhelmed with non-payers. Last year, only five people were imprisoned for non-payment, so my question is: why now, when there are so many other pressing matters for Government time, and especially as the Government’s own independent review, carried out as recently as 2015, concluded that the current system was the fairest and most effective way of funding the BBC?
Convicting people through the civil courts could mean higher fines for vulnerable people and greater evasion. The cost of transitioning to a new civil system could cost the BBC at least £25 million in set-up costs and lost revenue. Does the Minister think that that would be good value for money? Does he believe that the Government have a mandate for such a drastic change to the primary funding stream of our public service broadcaster? Have the Government made any assessment of the likely impact on the BBC’s ability to carry out core programming functions?
The Secretary of State said yesterday that the BBC needed to be more transparent and accountable, but does the Minister not think that the Government need to lead by example rather than deciding who may and may not attend press briefings and banning Ministers from appearing on respected news outlets? Can he assure me that this announcement is not part of a deliberate strategy by the Government to undermine an organisation with which they have been at loggerheads?
I absolutely assure the hon. Lady that this has nothing to do with what she mentions. I remind her that this is a consultation on whether criminal sanctions are proportionate and fair, and we believe it is right to look again at whether that is the correct model for licence fee evasion. I hope the hon. Lady does not mind me saying that she has some experience of not paying the licence fee, because I understand that her character in “Coronation Street” went to prison for not paying, and I do not think that that was particularly fair and proportionate. The consultation will run for eight weeks, and many of the hon. Lady’s questions will form part of it. I am sure she will be contributing to it, and I encourage all Members and the wider public to ensure that they make their views known.
I say to the Government, through my hon. Friend, that the question underlying all this is the one identified by the Canadian broadcasting pioneer Graham Spry in 1932:
“It is a choice between the State and the United States.”
If any change to the BBC leads to its disappearance or vulnerability, there will be a great responsibility on anyone who is involved in that process. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that in this consultation we should compare not the disadvantages of the present system with the advantages of the alternative, but the disadvantages of the alternative with the advantages of the present system?
My hon. Friend the Father of House speaks with great experience on these matters, but I gently remind him what this consultation is about. We believe it is right to look again at whether criminal sanctions are the correct model for licence fee evasion. There will need to be a much broader conversation as to whether the licence fee model is the correct model beyond 2027, but the current model is guaranteed until the end of that period.
Many criticisms could be made by politicians and others, but the BBC is more than just its news output. Scotland has the new BBC Scotland channel, which has a budget of only £32 million despite Scottish licence fee payers putting in £311 million a year, with only £249 million spent in Scotland. Despite that austerity budget—the broadcasting equivalent of DIY and ticky-tacky—the BBC has managed to produce some great quality output against the odds, with comedy, culture, “Debate Night” and the well-produced “The Nine”, but it is not sustainable and must be properly funded.
Scotland has already implemented a system whereby no one faces a custodial sentence for failing to pay their TV licence, but there is a clear, unmistakable pattern when it comes to this Government and their attitude towards the media. The BBC is not Netflix. Banning lobby journalists from press briefings, failing to participate in media interviews, and carefully cultivating a group of friendly journalists to pursue their narrow agenda is straight out of the Trump playbook. Many will rightly be concerned that the Tories now intend to use their majority to dismantle the scrutiny of public service broadcasting, having already forced the BBC to adopt social policy. What will the consultation do to ensure that moneys raised in Scotland for public service broadcasting are actually fully spent in Scotland?
Ministers do talk to the public through a wide range of programmes every day, including on the BBC. That has always been the case and will continue to be so, and the lobby meetings happen twice a day, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. I remind him that the media landscape is changing. For example, five years ago a TV licence was not required to watch or download content on the BBC iPlayer. I hope that he raises his concerns about the BBC in Scotland as part of the consultation.
I thank the Government for their wisdom in bringing forward a consultation to remove an anachronistic privilege. Does not the hysterical reaction of defenders of the BBC speak for itself?
The BBC is an incredibly respected brand around the world. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Prime Minister recently said the BBC is, in fact, a “cherished British institution”.
As a Yorkshire MP, the Minister will know the importance of the regional BBC—both local television and local radio—to our constituents and the role it serves in the community. I remember its public service announcement function during the 2007 flooding. What thought has been given to making that function clear in the consultation so that people fully understand what they get from paying their licence fee?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. I have experience of working closely with the BBC regionally, particularly when we also had flooding. It is crucial that we have a BBC that reaches everywhere. The BBC serves our constituents particularly well. I hope she contributes to the consultation, which I remind her is about whether a criminal sanction is fair and proportionate for TV licence fee evasion. That is the remit of this consultation.
One of the arguments being run by the anti-BBC forces is that the magistrates courts are being clogged by the number of cases. Yesterday, the chair of the Magistrates Association said the change would make a minimal difference—less than 1% of the time spent: it would be an insignificant difference and we would hardly notice it. At this early stage of the consultation, will the Minister note that the idea that magistrates courts are overwhelmed by licence fee evasion is simply false?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. My understanding is that over 120,000 people were prosecuted and sentenced for non-payment of the licence fee last year, and the average fine for those who were prosecuted was £176. I am sure that takes a considerable amount of court time.
For the second time today, may I recommend that a Minister reads the most recent Select Committee report on this issue? Chaired by the Minister’s excellent colleague, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Committee considered the evidence in detail before the last licence fee review—I am sure the Minister likes evidence-based policy—and we found absolutely no grounds for doing this.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we had the Perry review five years ago. The landscape has changed, and we believe it is right to look again at whether the criminal sanction remains appropriate. I met many people during the election who asked whether it is fair and proportionate to be potentially criminalised for non-payment of the TV licence fee.
Does the Minister agree that the BBC’s public service broadcasting is at its best in local radio coverage of rugby league, cricket and football? Those sports are not getting any local coverage on commercial radio. Whatever the future funding model, that type of broadcasting must be protected.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who spent many years working for local stations in that sector. It is important that we maintain a local connection with communities via the BBC, and sport is an important part of that.
The Minister has said several times that the media landscape is changing. Does he agree that for decades the main driving force in that developing media landscape—including iPlayer and Freeview—has been the BBC? By calling for this consultation and saying it will happen, does he appreciate that for a lot of people it calls into question the Government’s commitment to the licence fee and to the BBC as it is today? The concern for many of us is that this changing media landscape is being used as an excuse.
I do not agree on that point with the hon. Lady. The broadcasting landscape is constantly changing—she is right about that—and this is only going to get faster. Ofcom research found that more children recognise the names Netflix and YouTube than they do the BBC, which should be an eye-opener for all of us. Conservative Members believe that the BBC is a beacon of British values, but we should be alive to the changes in the way people are consuming television.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the nub of this is about fairness and proportionality? If we are to have a free and open market in television, non-payment of the licence fee should be treated no differently from that of any other service?
My hon. Friend is right: this whole consultation is about whether criminal sanctions are a fair and proportionate system in the current world in which we live.
Given the demand that the BBC takes on social policy on the over-75s concessionary TV licence and now this consultation, how can the Government say that this is about anything other than an attack on public sector broadcasting and asset stripping the BBC?
I am not sure I could disagree more with the hon. Gentleman. The Government are very disappointed with the BBC’s decision to restrict the over-75 licence fee concession to those in receipt of pension credit. We absolutely recognise the value of free TV licences for the over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) alluded to the BBC being responsible for Freeview, but it is not free. People have to pay the tax in order to access other TV channels that are nothing to do with the BBC. The younger generation, who are not represented very well in this Chamber, do not watch the BBC any more, so why should they pay this tax?
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point, and this is why we are having this consultation, to which he will no doubt contribute. Younger people, especially those I have spoken to in the past year, do not understand why they have to pay for a service that they do not use. It is only right that we look at whether criminalising people for non-payment of the TV licence fee is fair and proportionate.
I do not think the Minister really believes in the licence fee at all, but the truth of the matter is that nothing in life is free. “Gavin & Stacey” does not come for free, and neither do “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Sherlock” or any of the great dramas, comedies or wildlife documentaries on the BBC. None of that comes for free. It comes free to air because everybody pays in and everybody gets something in return. It is a fundamental part of the way we do things in this country. The problem is that if we pull at a snag in a jumper, we end up unravelling the whole thing, and my worry is that that is precisely what the Government intend.
I have an awful lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he is missing the point of what this consultation is about. At the risk of repeating myself, it is about whether criminal sanctions for licence fee evasion are proportionate and fair. I am sure he will be contributing to the consultation, as well as in this House, and I am sure he will do so on many more occasions.
If the BBC is as popular and provides as much value for money as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and others say, surely it has nothing to fear from going to a subscription model, because presumably everybody will be queueing up to pay their subscription as it is such wonderful value for money. The BBC is petrified of abolishing the licence fee because this may emphasise how unpopular the BBC is and how few people want to contribute. I welcome this consultation on decriminalisation, but may I urge the Minister to go further and stop this unjustifiable tax on people, which they have to pay whether they want to watch the BBC or not? It is unsustainable in the long term, because of modern technology. In the meantime, will he make sure that over-75s do not have to pay it?
Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend on his election to the Select Committee. I know he is a huge fan of the BBC. He is right to say that as we move forward into an increasingly digital age, where there are more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, it is clear that many people consider it odd that they can be imprisoned for not paying their licence fee. On the over-75s free licence, we believe that is the responsibility of the BBC.
Is it not a fact that the BBC has been great at undermining itself? It tells us that it cannot afford to spend £750 million on licence fees for the over-75s, yet it can afford to pay 493 of its employees above their grade pay band and 129 of them above the highest-grade band, and it can afford to pay only 21 of those in the lowest-rate band above their pay band. When is the Minister going to get this out-of-control broadcaster under control?
The BBC is alive to the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is having to deal with a number of pay-equality cases and I am sure that there will be many more of those cases. Nevertheless, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the BBC is operationally independent from Government.
Surely this is an incredible opportunity for the BBC. The licence fee restricts its paying base to the UK, but if it had a subscription model, it could export to the entire world. As the Minister said, the BBC’s own prediction is that it will have a global audience of a billion people a week by the end of the decade. If just 5% of those people were to take out a subscription to the iPlayer at £6 a month, the BBC would recoup the entire £3.7 billion that it gets from the licence fee, but as export income instead of a tax on the British people.
My hon. Friend makes some good points, but we are talking about the decriminalisation consultation, not how the BBC is funded in future. The current model is valid until 2027 and there has to be a conversation before then about what model is appropriate for the BBC in a digital age.
We have rightly heard about the importance of the BBC’s local and regional coverage, but I remind the Minister of the importance of its international coverage. The World Service is the world’s most trusted news provider and an important part of the UK’s soft power. The Minister has said that the media landscape is changing, and he is absolutely right, which is why public service broadcasting is under pressure. At this time, surely the BBC needs our support more than ever.
The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. The Government strongly support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality and impartial news to a global audience, including some of the most remote places in the world and particularly where free speech is limited. The BBC recently launched 12 new language services, and we very much support its approach in that regard.
Can we not have an open mind and move on? We are no longer in the 1940s, with the whole nation huddled around a single radio set. This whole row about the licence fee for over-75s and this issue shows that we really have to consider other options. Is it fair to impose a poll tax on elderly people just to watch television when there is a whole mass of alternatives—one might say a morass? The same is true for young people. Will the Government please have a genuinely open mind about moving the BBC into the 21st century on a subscription basis?
My right hon. Friend is right to right to ask that question, and that is why we will be discussing how the BBC is funded going forward, but I remind him that the consultation is about whether a criminal sanction is fair and proportionate for non-payment and licence-fee evasion. Of course, we have to have conversations as to whether, in a digital age, the current licence fee model is appropriate.
I fear that if we look beyond the headline about the decriminalisation of non-payment, we see yet another attack from the Government Benches, led by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), on the BBC and the very principle of public service broadcasting. Given the shambles of the licence fee for over-75s, does the Minister agree that power over the licence fee should be removed from Government to avoid such political jiggery-pokery in future?
When we look at how the BBC is going to be funded, we will speak to everyone, and all our masters, particularly the general public, will have their say.
I welcome this long-overdue consultation on the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence—something that I tried to include in the Deregulation Bill back in 2014, and that at the time had the support of the majority of Members. My hon. Friend will be aware that the non-payment of the TV licence fee is currently managed by the magistrates court. Is he also aware that the Magistrates Association has been calling for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence fee for more than 25 years?
I am not surprised that the Magistrates Association has been calling for that. As I said in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) earlier, more than 120,000 people were prosecuted last year under the current regime, which is why we are having the review and consultation.
As the Minister knows, S4C is largely funded these days via the licence fee, and the BBC itself is the main provider of broadcast news in both of the national languages of Wales. What assurances can the Minister give that these vital public broadcasting services will be adequately resourced well into the future?
The hon. Gentleman is completely correct to raise this matter. S4C, as a public service broadcaster, is currently funded via the licence fee. We will be having conversations about the next settlement starting in 2022. Clearly, funding for S4C will form part of those discussions.
The television licence fee can be a heavy burden to pay for some of the poorest people in our society, so will the Minister please tell me what the Government are doing to make it easier for people to pay, so that they can avoid this enforcement action in the first place?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that matter. The licence fee is expensive for some people on the lowest incomes, so we will be introducing a new, simple payment plan. We have had trials of it, and I can confirm today that, with effect from 1 April 2020, there will be a new flexible payment instalment scheme designed to help exactly the people to whom he refers.
Has the Minister considered that, in this day and age of streaming channels and hubs and the amount of work that independent channels have to do just to exist, it does seem absurd that there should be a state subsidised channel? Does he agree that it is time for the BBC to stand on its own feet and on its own merit?
All of the hon. Gentleman’s questions need to be part of a much bigger conversation once we have done this consultation on whether criminalisation of licence fee evasion is fair and proportionate. We must have a conversation for beyond 2027, when the current deal via the charter expires, about how the BBC is funded in a digital age.
The BBC recently announced that it was shedding 450 staff from the news department, and yet it said that it would still provide a fully comprehensive service. When those reports are seen by my constituents, many of whom find it difficult to raise the funds to pay for the licence, they think that the BBC does need slimming down. Will the Minister assure my constituents that he will keep up the pressure on the BBC to reduce its costs?
The beauty of the current model is that there are assurances on funding, as there is a five-year deal. That has never been the case before, but I remind my hon. Friend that the BBC is completely independent from us, both operationally and editorially.
I declare an interest in that my late parents met while they were working for the BBC, and that I installed the computer system that is actually used for collecting and verifying the licences. What assessment have the Government made on the increase in the avoidance of paying the licence fee and therefore the increase in costs of catching those people who do not pay, because that all adds to the costs and, indeed, to the implications of the funding?
I am delighted to hear how my hon. Friend came about. We should all be grateful that he is the BBC’s responsibility. This is exactly why we are having this consultation. Of course there will be costs. Huge costs are associated with these levels of prosecutions, and I urge him, especially with his keen personal interest, to make sure that he gets involved in the consultation.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week will include:
Monday 10 February—Second Reading of the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order 2020, followed by a motion to approve the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2020.
Tuesday 11 February—Second Reading of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, followed by Opposition half day (3rd allotted day—1st part). There will be a debate on migration and Scotland on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party.
Wednesday 12 February—Motions relating to the Police Grant and Local Government Finance Reports.
Thursday 13 February—General debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
Friday 14 February—The House will not be sitting.
The provision business for the week commencing 24 February will include:
Monday 24 February—Second Reading of a Bill.
Tuesday 25 February—Second Reading of a Bill.
Wednesday 26 February—Opposition day (4th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.
Thursday 27 February—General debate on a subject to be announced.
Friday 28 February—The House will not be sitting.
The House will be aware of the remarks made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor during his statement on the evil attack in Streatham last Sunday. It is the responsibility of politicians from all political parties to play their part in keeping our constituents and the general public safe. To that end, the Government will bring forward the necessary legislation to stop the automatic early release of prisoners convicted of terrorist offences. This legislation will be introduced at the earliest opportunity, and it is with that in mind that I may need to return to the House early next week to make a further business statement.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and for giving me notice, albeit at 10.31 am, of his statement. After the terrible events in Streatham, we think of those who were injured and hope they make a full recovery physically and mentally and again thank our outstanding emergency services who responded so swiftly. The Opposition say that terrorist prisoners should not be automatically released but should be subject to parole board assessment before release, during their sentences. We will look carefully at the Government proposals and work with them, on a cross-party basis and in the national interest, to protect our citizens. I hope the Leader of the House will convey that to the relevant Minister. He says he will find time for the draft legislation. I hope he will also give the Opposition time to look at it.
We have our nominees for Select Committees. The Leader of the House mentioned to me that he was waiting for the Labour party, but he is not; we have all ours in place. I should have mentioned that this was the last time at the Dispatch Box for my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), as he is moving to a Select Committee. We have our Select Committee nominees. We are just waiting for the Leader of the House. Perhaps there will be some fallout from the reshuffle—who knows? When is he likely to introduce the motion on Select Committees? Will it be before or after the recess?
The Leader of the House will know that the European Scrutiny Committee needs to be set up under Standing Order 143. It has a statutory function under section 13A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which was inserted by section 29 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, and that statutory role will continue during the transition. Given that talks start on 3 May, and we need that scrutiny, will he say when it is likely to be set up?
We need more scrutiny, not less, and it is not right what the Leader of the House said last week about the Prime Minister coming to the House for 30 minutes being sufficient. He knows that that is just plain wrong. One Department has already been abolished. Scrutiny is important.
Is the Leader of the House not concerned about the events that took place at Downing Street this week and the way journalists were treated? Despite an urgent question that you granted, Mr Speaker, there was no explanation of whether special advisers overrode the civil service. Did they? Was there a breach of the civil service code, or is there a new civil service code? There was no explanation about who was allowed to stay. It cannot be right that a special adviser can decide whether one journalist is clever enough to take a technical briefing and another is not. It feels like a case of “Four legs good, two legs bad.” The Leader of the House knows more than anyone, with his background, that this is totally unacceptable, so can he find time for a fuller statement on the events that took place around the exclusion of journalists?
More Government shambles; the chief executive sacked and no one to replace Claire O’Neill. Is this the face of global Britain, which we debated last week—an absolute shambles? Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) held a meeting with the Nobel prize nominee Chief Raoni Metuktire and other indigenous leaders from the Amazon. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was there, as was I, but Australia, the Amazon, Bangladesh and the young people in Friday’s climate change strike all understand the urgency. When will the new chief executive be announced for COP26?
The Government may be reducing the amount of information given to journalists, but is the Leader of the House aware that more than 400 local authorities allow at least one third party to track individuals who visit their website? The data includes when people seek help for financial services or even for disabilities. Almost 7 million people are affected when they click on those websites. One data company, LiveRamp, is part of the group that sells profiles to Cambridge Analytica. Council websites perform a specific public service. Can we have a debate on the misuse of personal data on council websites and, if necessary, whether the Information Commissioner requires further powers?
It has been two weeks since Richard Ratcliffe and Gabriella met the Prime Minister to raise the cases of Nazanin, Anousheh and Kylie. Will the Leader of the House say what the purpose of their incarceration is and what will happen next?
Finally, I want to pay tribute to one of the Doorkeepers, Paul Kehoe, who has been here for 40 years. The Clerk of the House has recognised his 40 years’ service, which also gives us an opportunity to thank Phil Howse, the Serjeant at Arms and all the Doorkeepers for looking after us. They do an excellent job.
May I reiterate the thanks to Paul Kehoe? I have been holding roundtables with new Members, and I have said to them all when they have come to see me that if they want to know what is really going on in this Chamber, they should ask the Doorkeepers, because they are always better informed than anybody else— certainly better informed than me and, dare I whisper it quietly, sometimes even the Whips. We are very lucky to be so well served by a fantastic team of endlessly courteous and patient people who take such delight in their service to our Parliament. We are really privileged.
May I also reiterate the right hon. Lady’s thanks to the emergency services for their response in Streatham? I share her concern for the people who have been injured, both psychologically and physically, and thank her for the promise of co-operation in ensuring that the legislation can be brought forward effectively and swiftly. I assure her that the Government wish to work with the Opposition on this and that therefore her offer is received in the spirit in which is in intended. We will make every effort to ensure that the Opposition are satisfied with the way that we respond.
As to Select Committees, the European Scrutiny Committee will be set up at the same time as all the other Committees, which will be done as soon as is practicable. We attach great importance to proper scrutiny.
The right hon. Lady asked me about events at Downing Street and the briefings that have been given, and referred kindly to my antecedents in this area. With reference to my antecedents in this area, it is perfectly normal for journalists to be given different briefings. Sometimes some journalists are briefed, sometimes specific journalists are briefed, and sometimes there is a general lobby briefing. That has been going on since my father joined the lobby in the 1950s, which really is a reasonably long time ago—although not quite as long ago as when my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was referring to in earlier proceedings. What went on was perfectly normal. David Frost is a special adviser, it is routine for special advisers to give briefings to specialist journalists, and that was precisely what was happening.
As for COP26, the Prime Minister is taking a personal interest in this. It is a matter to which he is personally deeply committed. He gave detailed responses yesterday in response to six questions from the Leader of the Opposition, and it would seem, dare I say it, otiose for me to repeat the wise words of the Prime Minister.
I am very interested in what the right hon. Lady said about local authorities and the use of personal data, and I share her concern, although I must confess that I was previously unaware of this issue. Local authorities have a duty to be careful about the personal data they pass on, and I think this is a matter for the Information Commissioner.
With regard to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the junior Minister in the Foreign Office spoke to the Iranian embassy earlier in the week. There is a continued correspondence flow of representations, but we must always remember that the Iranian Government are behaving unlawfully under international law in holding Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We have to keep on pressing, but when a state of that kind refuses to follow international norms, there are limits to what the Government can do. I deeply regret that, but I assure the right hon. Lady that the Government will continue to press, and I hope that the Iranian Government will eventually be shamed into behaving properly.
The Oxford to Cambridge expressway proposal is a hugely controversial issue in my constituency that would devastate the Buckinghamshire countryside, and would achieve little that cannot be achieved through improving existing roads and delivering, for example, a bypass around the village of Wing. During the general election, the Transport Secretary pledged a priority review into this scheme. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on this matter, so that the folly of this scheme can be fully explored?
My hon. Friend’s constituency is exceptionally beautiful and attractive—just for the record, it is not quite as beautiful as Somerset, but none the less—and I understand completely the concerns about the possible implications of development in the Oxford to Cambridge arc, and particularly about proposals for a new road link between Oxford and Milton Keynes. The Government will provide an update in due course on whether the Oxford to Cambridge expressway project should continue, but I recommend that my hon. Friend raises the issue prior to the recess in the debate on matters to be considered before the forthcoming Adjournment, because that is exactly what that occasion is designed for.
I have two questions for the Leader of the House this week. The first is: when can we expect the Government to bring forward proposals to scrap the English votes for English laws procedure, which is now an embarrassment to this Parliament and everyone in it? I ask because this week saw the outrageous spectacle of Scottish Members of Parliament being denied the opportunity to participate at Committee stage in legislation that would have a direct and material effect on the people they represent. The NHS Funding Bill will have an effect on the Scottish block grant, and it will therefore have an effect on the money available for my constituents. As much as the Government may try to laugh it off, this is actually a very serious matter that should be of concern to anyone who calls themselves a democrat.
My second question relates again to the Scottish claim of right. When I last asked the Leader of the House when he would bring forward legislation so that the Government might recognise and deal with the fact that they do not have a mandate in Scotland, he gave me a rather flippant response. In order to understand the Government’s motivation, let me ask him again: does he agree with the concept of the claim of right for Scotland, and does he agree that it is something that continues to exist, after 18 September 2014? I ask that question because not once, not twice, but three times since we last discussed it opinion polls have been published in Scotland that give an indication to the thinking of people in that country, and every single one shows that there is now a majority of people who wish Scotland to become an independent country. I congratulate the Government, because that rise in public opinion for independence is entirely their responsibility and entirely their contribution. I assure the Leader of the House that, when we in the SNP get started on our campaign, that figure will rise even further. If the Government really want to do something about the integrity of the Union, surely it is time for them to recognise the different situation that pertains in Scotland.
With regard to the English votes for English laws issue, I remind the hon. Gentleman that his party did not oppose the programme motion, which led to there being no Report stage, during which it would have been possible to move amendments. However, all Standing Orders of the House are considered and are open to discussion through the Procedure Committee. A new Procedure Committee is in the process of being established—the Chair has been elected—and although it would not be for me to tell the Committee what its business ought to be, this may well be a matter that it would like to look at.
As regards the Scottish claim of right, the decision was made in 2014. The right was debated, the vote was held, and the SNP lost. Sometimes it is hard to accept a defeat, but that is what happened. The people of Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. Dare I say it, but on the first Opposition day offered to the SNP, did SNP Members go for the subject that they raise all the time, that comes up at business questions week after week, and that they constantly want to discuss? When they get their half day, do they decide to debate the claim of right? No, they think of something else.
I am aiming to run this until around quarter to 12, so it would therefore be helpful if we could have briefer questions and answers.
The Leader of the House said that he was very much in favour of scrutiny, as I am sure he is. Standing Orders require us to have 13 days for private Members’ Bills in a Session, but when a Session is more than a year, as this one is going to be, the Government have usually provided additional days. Could we have a statement on when these Bills are going to be debated?
My hon. Friend is slightly putting the cart before the horse in that we will need to see the length of the Session before we decide on the additional days—although I do wonder why he wants them. Is it merely so that he can filibuster a greater number of Bills?
Does the Leader of the House recognise that Vauxhall has a proud and long history with the LGBTQI community? Does he agree that we should have a debate, during this LGBT History Month, to celebrate their fantastic contribution to the UK?
I was unaware of Vauxhall’s history in that regard, so I am better informed thanks to the hon. Lady. Vauxhall is not a million miles from here, but I am grateful to her for raising that point. I would have thought that as it relates specifically to one area—to her constituency—it is worth making an application to Mr Speaker and raising it in an Adjournment debate.
I can assure the shadow Leader of the House that we are taking the responsibility of getting our Select Committee nominees very seriously—but we have such a huge number of colleagues to satisfy.
Could we have a debate in Government time on the Government’s decisions on the London plan? There are serious objections in relation to the green belt, parking issues, industrial land, density of housing, and back-garden developments. This does not just affect London; it affects the whole of the south-east. So could we have a debate in Government time on this pernicious plan put forward by the do-nothing Mayor of London?
I think we may be getting into the London mayoral elections in that question, and not unreasonably so. It is quite right that all levels of government, local as well as national, are held to account via this Parliament. I am sure that the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee has heard my hon. Friend’s request, as I think it is more suitable to Back-Bench business time than to Government time.
Speaking of which, I call Ian Mearns.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Leader of the House is very kind, and I am very grateful to the House for re-electing me unopposed as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, but I am currently a Chair without a Committee, and that does have implications for the business of the House. The Leader of the House has announced a general debate, subject to be announced, on Thursday 27 February. If we had been able to get the Committee up and running, had the Government party got its nominations together in a bit more of a timely fashion, we could be dealing with things like the applications for estimates day debates, which it now seems might not happen.
The hon. Gentleman’s point reminds me of what Robert Maxwell—a former Labour Member of Parliament for Buckingham—said about the ideal Committee. He said that a Committee should be an odd number and that three was too many, so it seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is in the position that Robert Maxwell always aspired to. I appreciate his point. We are very keen for the Backbench Business Committee to be set up, but the debates later this afternoon are ones that were put forward to the Backbench Business Committee.
One effect of EU membership has been the way in which rights are granted, the extent of which are then litigated in court rather than debated in this place. That has led to an explosion of judicial activism through the medium of judicial review, which has meant that the focus has moved away from this place to the courts. Can we have a debate on how we can restore this place to its proper position as the truly sovereign source of law?
My hon. Friend’s point of view is widely shared, and the Prime Minister referred to that yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions. Judicial review is a vital part of our legal system and must be protected, but we should also ensure that it is not abused to conduct politics by other means or to create needless delay. It is worth noting that one reason for there being so much judicial review is that, while the UK was a member of the European Union, law made by this Parliament could be superseded by law made in another jurisdiction. That is no longer the case. Since 31 January, our law and this Parliament are supreme, which I hope will lead to judicial review not being used as politics by another name.
Last month, it was reported that Justice Tolson, the senior family judge in London’s central family court, found that a woman had not been raped because she had not taken sufficient physical steps to protect herself. The Court of Appeal found that his judgment was
“manifestly at odds with current jurisprudence”
and based on “obsolescent concepts” about consent. Justice Tolson is still overseeing cases of domestic abuse and rape in the family court, and just this Monday, despite the Court of Appeal judgment, he made the same ruling again. Complaints have been made to the judicial ombudsman, and it is obviously right that this is handled completely independently of this place, but does the Leader of the House agree that the judge should immediately recuse himself from all cases involving domestic abuse and rape and that the Ministry of Justice’s review should be published urgently, to ensure that victims of rape and domestic abuse are not re-traumatised by the family justice system?
I absolutely hear and understand what the hon. Lady says. Her last point—that witnesses should not be re-traumatised—is right and fundamental. Victims ought to be at the heart of our justice system and protected. I am very limited as to what I can say about individual judges. If I may give her a steer, it is perfectly legitimate for this House to debate the behaviour and conduct of judges according to a specific motion, but not, unfortunately, to do so in the back and forth of questions.
We should not name somebody in the House in asking for that debate, but a substantive motion may be a way forward, which I am sure is what the hon. Lady was hoping for.
Can we have a debate on the merits of cadets and the University Officers’ Training Corps? I read with dismay that Cambridge University students’ union has banned the officers’ training corps from operating in the freshers’ fair. I declare an interest: I was the proud president of my students’ union at the academically superior Loughborough University. That idea was quickly kicked into touch when it was suggested. Does my right hon. Friend agree that officers’ training corps represent an important symbiotic bond between our civilian and military communities and provide a good education on what our proud armed forces do?
First, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on succeeding in becoming Chairman of the Defence Committee? I have a feeling that there may be a report coming on that important matter. I share his views entirely in relation to officers’ training corps, which are a useful means of bringing the civilian and military population together. However, dare I say, it was Cambridge after all—I am sure Oxford would not do anything so silly.
Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), can we get the Backbench Business Committee up and running as soon as possible? There is now a huge queue of requests for debates. For instance, a number of Opposition Members want to apply for a debate on homelessness and housing, but we cannot yet make that application.
There was a debate on that last week, so these issues are being debated. The Government are trying to facilitate debates in the days we have available prior to the Backbench Business Committee’s setting up, to ensure that issues raised by Back Benchers are given an airing, and we will continue to do so, but of course we want the Committee to be set up as soon as is practicable.
Yesterday, mums and dads, grandparents and loved ones of more than 20 young children who have epileptic seizures came to this House to ask for medical cannabis to be prescribed by their consultants free on the NHS. I ask again, as I have asked the Leader of the House several times, for a debate on the Floor of this House—not in Westminster Hall, and not through the Backbench Business Committee, although I am sure it would grant one—so that we can hold Ministers to account for why those who get a private subscription and can pay for it, get medical cannabis, but those who cannot pay for it are second-class citizens?
That issue was raised with the Prime Minister recently, and I know that the Health Secretary is well aware of it and pushing forward to ensure that matters are taken to a satisfactory conclusion. I understand my right hon. Friend’s desire for a debate, but I would suggest to him that this is an issue that can be very suitably raised during the pre-recess Adjournment debate, and if a number of other Members raise it at the same point, that will ensure that the issue is thoroughly discussed.
I understand that the census order in Scotland was laid on 23 January 2020, and 10 years ago the census order was laid on 21 October 2009. In December 2018, we were promised that the order would be laid in autumn 2019, but we are still waiting. Can the Leader of the House tell Parliament when we can expect the census order to be laid?
There was a general election in December, and that slightly interrupted the normal proceedings of business. However, yes of course it is important that the census orders are laid in a timely fashion, and that will happen.
May we have a debate in Government time on compensation for Equitable Life policyholders? Previously, a Conservative Chancellor accepted the ombudsman’s report in full and the differences between what policyholders would have received from their policies and what they received from elsewhere. On that shortfall, £1.5 billion has currently been paid out, but it is calculated that the actual loss was £4.3 billion. When will policyholders actually receive justice?
I was on the all-party group on Equitable Life and, like many Members, I had constituents affected by this, but I think the Government have done what is reasonable to put this right. In 2011, they established the Equitable Life payment scheme and have paid out over £1.2 billion to nearly 1 million policyholders. The scheme was wound down in 2016, but there are no plans to reopen this scheme or to revisit any of the previous policy decisions.
I understand that there are some who are disappointed that the taxpayer could not fund the full £4.1 billion relative losses suffered by policyholders, but there are always constraints on Government expenditure. It is worth bearing in mind that, at the point at which this scheme came out, we were running a budget deficit of about £150 billion a year. Within those limits, I think the scheme was reasonable. Up to £1.5 billion tax-free was provided for the scheme because some of the most vulnerable did receive 100% of their losses.
Last week, alongside many colleagues from across the House, including the Prime Minister, I attended the excellent Keep Britain Tidy event. Littering and fly-tipping is of huge concern to my constituents as it adversely affects not only our environment, but the wellbeing of local residents. May we have a debate on the powers of local authorities to tackle this blight? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as issuing fixed penalty fines, a fitting punishment would be requiring perpetrators to undertake supervised litter picking in their local community? That would be a better form of retribution and also act as a very strong deterrent.
It was marvellous to see the Wombles coming from Wimbledon all the way to Westminster—the Wombles of Westminster—ensuring that we try to keep Britain tidy. I think the punishment of offenders is probably a matter for the Lord Chancellor, but I will pass on the representations of my hon. Friend.
It seemed earlier this week that this place had become a very England-centric Parliament, but given the uncertainty we have around Brexit and the Government’s desire to level up the economy in Scotland and the north, will the Leader of the House meet me to discuss how we could reconstitute the Scottish Grand Committee to allow a full, focused and respectful discussion about matters important to Scotland and to the UK?
I am always open to meetings with all right hon. and hon. Members, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to be in touch with me, of course I would be delighted to meet him.
I am very proud of the vibrant Muslim community in Newport West and the fantastic interfaith community work they do to support local people of all faiths and none, so can the Leader of the House tell us when the Government plan to adopt the all-party group on British Muslims definition of Islamophobia, and can we have a debate in Government time on the contribution of the Muslim community to public life in the UK?
I was absolutely delighted earlier this week to be able to go to the Muslims for Britain party celebrating the role the Muslim community played in the debate relating to the referendum in 2016. It is important that we recognise the commitment and the contribution made to our society by all communities and all religions. As regards a debate in Government time, I am not sure that that is going to be easy to arrange.
The terrorist outrage last week reminds us of Burke’s wisdom that
“Good order is the foundation of all things”,
and further to the question raised at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) and today by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), will the Leader of the House look at judicial activism? We do need a statement not just on the escape from the clutches of the European Union but on rights legislation which is used to justify the unjustifiable and defend the indefensible. It is in the authority of this place that the people’s power resides.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the power rests with this place and it is up to us to exercise it. The only constraints on this House and what it does have been placed on it by this House and, if this House wishes to review those constraints, it is entitled to do so. But the democratic will is exercised through Parliament and that is a fundamental constitutional principle.
I was very interested in the Leader of the House’s response to the questions about compensation for the Equitable Life pensioners. It may be opportune to have a general debate in Government time on justice for pensioners. That would allow us to discuss the WASPI women—the 1950s women—and, just as importantly for my constituents, when the mineworkers and their widows can expect pensions justice. That would not cost the Government a penny; it is the miners’ own money.
On the WASPI women, there has been considerable effort to ease the very difficult problem that involved raising the pension age. Nobody has had their retirement age increased by more than 18 months and seven years’ notice was given of the changes, although I understand the distress that this has caused to some people. The issue the hon. Gentleman raises regarding the miners is of considerable importance. I will pass it on to the relevant Minister on his behalf and see if I can get him a fuller answer.
On 30 April this year, one of the UK’s biggest cycling races, the Tour de Yorkshire, comes to Marske and Redcar for the first time. May we have a debate in Government time on the excellence of Yorkshire cycling?
The excellence of Yorkshire cycling is clearly known across the world. I believe that there is a second-tier event that takes place on the continent, which has nothing like the magnificence of the Tour de Yorkshire. I congratulate my hon. Friend, but I am afraid to say that I am going to puncture his enthusiasm because I am not going to be able to offer him a debate in Government time.
In October 2017, the Government announced plans to increase the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving to life imprisonment; it is now 2020 and we are still waiting. While the Government dither, families continue to see the killers of their loved ones receive paltry prison sentences, which simply adds to their sense of injustice. Can the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister from the MOJ to make a statement to the House to confirm when the Government will bring forward these important proposals?
Those proposals remain Government policy and a sentencing Bill will, I believe, be coming forward. There are Justice questions on 25 February and I encourage the hon. Lady to raise this important matter, which has considerable cross-party support, on that occasion.
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on how we can encourage our constituents, no matter their background, sex, age or disability, to participate in organised grassroots sport as part of the campaign to encourage healthier lifestyles, and how important community assets, such as Bury football club and its Gigg Lane home, can be the drivers for such positive change?
May I reiterate my congratulations to my hon. Friend on his campaign for Bury football club, which he is absolutely assiduous about? Never having had great sporting prowess myself, I have always been a bit nervous about trying to enforce on others that which I would not particularly wish to do, but the more cricketers we have in this country the better.
Scientists tell us that we need to protect about 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 by placing areas of oceans off limits to human activity. For the first time ever, a global ocean treaty being negotiated by the UN could make that possible. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out how the UK Government will contribute to the global ocean treaty negotiations, and can he confirm that the most senior members of his Government will participate fully in the negotiations to ensure as robust a treaty as possible to protect oceans?
I keep on reminding hon. Members that it is not my Government—it is Her Majesty’s. That may be a particularly good thing to remind people of as today is the 68th anniversary of her accession. However, the Government take the matter of oceans very seriously. Hon. Members will be aware that large areas of sea under the control of Her Majesty’s Government have been protected. I am therefore sure that the Government will, at the most senior level, be involved in those discussions.
May we have a debate on neighbourhood watch schemes? Local people in my Colne Valley constituency are rightly worried after a series of car break-ins and burglaries. I very much welcome West Yorkshire police recruiting hundreds of new police officers this year, but neighbourhood watch schemes also have an important role to play, providing intelligence to the local police and helping to make our local communities feel safer.
Indeed. Preventing neighbourhood crimes, such as burglary and car theft, is a priority for this Government. Just last week, the Government opened up a £25 million safer street fund for local police and crime commissioners to bid for resources to invest in crime prevention measures, such as improved street lighting and expanding neighbourhood watch. My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that, for the part of policing that is actually done by the police, there will be a further 256 officers in West Yorkshire police in year one of the Government’s police uplift, supported by an increase of £36.7 million in 2021. There is good news for policing in West Yorkshire.
The current Chancellor, when he was Home Secretary, suggested that the time had come when the Government might reconsider the current ban on asylum seekers working on their arrival in this country. Will the Leader please update the House on whether the Government are considering bringing forward some sort of review or change in the law on that aspect?
There are Home Office questions on Monday. I think that would be the right time to raise that important question.
Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House to make a statement about flood defences? There has been a lot of focus, rightly, on places such as Fishlake, which suffered terribly from floods just before the general election, but my constituents are still waiting for improved flood defences from the Boxing Day floods in 2015. Perhaps the Secretary of State could come to the House to tell us when my constituents will get the flood defences they both deserve and need.
It is obviously very important that flood defences are put in place. The Government have a programme of improving flood defences, including expenditure of considerable amounts of taxpayers’ money, but I will of course pass on my hon. Friend’s question to the relevant Secretary of State to ensure he receives a fuller answer.
Junk food adverts drive childhood obesity, but the Government still have not banned them from before the 9 o’clock watershed. May we have a statement from the Government confirming when they will bring in this common-sense change?
There is always a balance with these things. By and large, people do not want the nanny state, however keen they may be on nannies. Before I get heckled by Opposition Members, let me say that nannies are splendid, the nanny state a little bit less so. There are Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions next Thursday, but it is a balance between free speech and the ability of businesses to carry on their business, and protecting young people.
I was tempted to ask if the legislation on the release of terrorist prisoners should be made retrospective in Northern Ireland, but that would probably be a bit cruel on the Government. Lord Dunlop was asked to write a report on promoting the Union. When will that report be published? Will it be published? Will its findings be debated and will there be a debate on the benefits of the Union?
I think we see the benefits of the Union every day, not least in the contribution the hon. Gentleman makes to our debates—and indeed in the contribution of our friends on the SNP Benches. Despite the fact they do not really approve of this place, they make a wonderful contribution and keep our debates going extraordinarily well. The Union is at the heart of our nation. The Prime Minister has made himself Minister for the Union and I share my right hon. Friend’s desire to promote the Union at every possible occasion.
The mineworkers’ pension scheme really needs review now. Since 1994, the Government have taken £4.4 billion out of the surplus—50% of it—and frankly, a much greater proportion should be going to the miners and their widows. There are miners’ widows in my constituency who are surviving on virtual pittances. It really is time for a proper review and the trustees fully support having one. Will the Government look at this as a matter of urgency and will the right hon. Gentleman personally introduce the debate?
That is not within my purview—it is not my responsibility—but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). This is an important issue and I will take it up with the relevant Minister on both their behalves.
I am glad that the Leader of the House values the contribution of Select Committees. I am sure he agrees that they must look and feel like the areas that they are there to serve. Last Session, the Scottish Affairs Committee was particularly effective because all its members were from Scottish constituencies and it felt a bit like the Scotland that we were elected from. Does he agree that as we go forward, it is important that we have the same type of representation on the Scottish Affairs Committee, that it must feel a bit like Scotland and that it must have Scottish-based Members on it?
A moment ago, our friends on the SNP Benches were complaining that the English were voting on things exclusively and that that was a bad idea. They are now saying that there should be a Committee that is exclusively made up of people from Scotland—I am not sure the two arguments go together.
When will the Government re-establish the Intelligence and Security Committee so that it can resume its very important work, including publishing the much-awaited Russia report? Will the Leader of the House assure me that it will not take the Government five months, as it did after the previous election?
The progress on setting up Committees is continuing, as I mentioned, and they will all be established as soon as is reasonably practical, but I heard the Prime Minister say yesterday that the excitement over the Russia report is really rather overdone.
Hammersmith suspension bridge is a national treasure, built in 1824. Its necessary closure for repair works has caused chaos across south-west London. There are additional vehicles on roads that are already congested, people are spending an hour extra each way to get to work on buses, and people are unable to get to hospitals—we do not have an A&E in Putney. Will the Government make time to debate Hammersmith bridge and especially funding? The lack of funding will stop the repairs going on, but a debate could unlock the funding and open the bridge.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on standing up for her constituents, and many people who drive through London, on this considerable inconvenience, which has affected so many. The bridge is owned by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and it is for the borough to maintain and repair the bridge, but the Government are considering a proposal submitted by Transport for London on behalf of the borough for funding to repair the bridge and intend to respond in due course. I cannot promise a debate until after that response has been given, but I strongly encourage her to carry on making representations on this, because nagging away in this House can be very effective.
My constituent has been awaiting an appeal on a personal independence payment claim since 11 June last year. She has now been told that it may be heard in March, which would mean she has been waiting for a decision on a PIP claim for a full nine months. Will the Leader of the House bring forward a statement or a debate to tell us what the Government will do to address this wholly unacceptable situation?
I will make sure that that constituent’s concerns are passed on to the Department.
Women across the nations of the UK coping with the menopause are suffering from the overall shortage of hormone replacement therapy medicines. Can we have a statement on what work is under way to end the crisis and what joint work is being undertaken with the Scottish Government?
I understand that there is a global shortage and that it is therefore not under the control even of our great Secretary of State.
Ahead of the Windrush debate on Monday, will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on how many people have died waiting for the compensation that they were rightfully owed? I have a constituent who was told by the Home Office, before he died in July, that his application had been concluded in his favour. He did not get the compensation before he died. His family still do not know what is going on, even though they have been told that they will get it. Will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to update us on exactly what is happening with those who have died?
The Windrush scandal is a serious blot on the nation’s escutcheon. We should all be deeply concerned about the way in which it has affected individual constituents; that should never have been allowed to occur. Monday is the occasion to question the Home Office in relation to this, and I am glad that the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill will be coming forward.
It is more than two and half years since the House debated the then new drugs strategy. Given that our drugs policy is failing the most vulnerable in our communities, may we have a debate on an update of the strategy?
The drugs strategy is a matter of enormous importance to this country, and there are issues surrounding it and its enforcement. The Government have been pursuing the county lines issue and the policing of it, and have been quite successful in bringing people to justice. That must continue, and the drugs policy must be pursued vigorously.
The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) was absolutely right to mention the people and families who came to the House yesterday, including my constituent Rachel Rankmore. Her son Bailey’s symptoms have been greatly alleviated by the use of medical cannabis, but it is costing £2,000 a month, which is unacceptable. Why can we not just have that debate and resolve this matter quickly?
I have very little to add to what I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead a few moments ago, but I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate before the recess.
When I was a councillor, the then Secretary of State for Health, Frank Dobson, wrote to all councillors reminding them of their obligations and responsibilities as corporate parents. We know that children in care are over-represented in the prison and homeless populations, and as users of mental health services. In the light of the appalling findings in a report on children’s social care services in Hull which was published morning, may we please have a debate about how the Government can strengthen political accountability for those children who have no voice? The director of children’s services has gone. The chief executive of the council is saying that we cannot put the failings down wholly to the cuts, which have been enormous, but I think it is time for the holder of the education portfolio to consider his position.
The House has always taken the safety and wellbeing of children very seriously, and obviously the Government do as well. Extra funds are being made available: £410 million is being invested this year and next in social care, including social care for children, along with £84 million over five years to enable more children to stay at home safely. When issues involving child safety arise, it is the responsibility of the House and the Government to look into them carefully, and to see what can be done to ensure that children are safe and proper measures are in place. The Government are certainly trying to do that, but this is one of those areas in which one can never do enough, and we must carry on doing more.
We now come to Jim Shannon.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. You almost cut me out there, you know.
The Leader of the House and the Government are well aware of the issue of invasive alien plants, animals and birds, such as mink, grey squirrels and signal crayfish, and of the problems caused by ash dieback and moth caterpillars. It is time to put the balance back into nature. There are now more parakeets than owls and kingfishers in Great Britain. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on this matter?
My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has just whispered to me that he is very concerned about Japanese knotweed.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this important issue. The Government will shortly respond to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on invasive species, and it may be a good subject for a debate once the response is published. We are committed to being leaders in tackling invasive species, and our 25-year environment plan commits us to enhancing the biosecurity of the country even further. I note that the Committee of one that is currently the Backbench Business Committee heard what the hon. Gentleman had to say, and I therefore think that a debate on this subject may conceivably be forthcoming.
Historical Stillbirth Burials and Cremations
I beg to move,
That this House has considered historical stillbirth burials and cremations.
Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate, which was also supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes).
It is a fact that anyone can be a Member of Parliament and anyone can be a Minister, but only someone who really cares can get things done, and it is without doubt that the hon. Lady has achieved much in the time she has been in the House because she cares. I have the utmost respect for her. She has done a fantastic job, and I think that her compassion has been demonstrated by the fact that she called for this debate.
Over the past few years, debates in this House have successfully raised awareness of the importance of supporting families bereaved through a stillbirth and other types of baby loss. By speaking openly and sharing their personal experiences, Members of this House have helped to stimulate improvements in bereavement care, including the development of the national bereavement care pathway for pregnancy and baby loss.
Unfortunately, in the not so distant past, people thought differently. Until the 1980s and 1990s, bereaved families of stillborn children were kept in the dark by doctors and midwives, ostensibly for their own protection. It was assumed that if a mother or father was allowed to see their stillborn baby and establish any kind of connection with it, this would only prolong and worsen their grief.
When I was preparing for this debate, I was reminded of my own experience as a nurse. In 1976, I was working on a gynae ward, and I was asked to take receipt of a cot that was coming up from the labour ward. In the cot was a baby that was still alive, which I was told was to be returned to “Rose Cottage” and put in the sluice room. The baby went there until it died a few hours later. Remembering that experience of years ago and the work I undertake now on maternity safety show just how far we have come in the way we treat maternity incidents, newborn safety and mothers.
Many parents were never consulted over funeral arrangements for babies lost through stillbirth, with individual hospitals having to set their own procedures and their own means of disposing of bodies. That makes this difficult, because it means that there is not just one answer across the country. There is not a clear picture as the situation is very piecemeal. Many parents were never told what happened to the body of their baby or the location of any burial or cremation. People thought they were doing the right thing for the parents by not inflicting more trauma on them.
That is a generous interpretation. There was a slight culture in those days in which women were not regarded with the esteem that they are today. It was almost as though this was not just about protecting them, and that they were not worthy of being given the information, either. There are question marks over the explanation, and that has a lot to do with the status of women at the time and again today.
The Minister is making an excellent point about the culture and about how women were treated. With families now coming forward wanting information about what happened, does she feel that those women and families are being treated better now? Are they, for example, being given the opportunity to find out where ashes have been strewn without their knowledge or permission?
I certainly hope so. In fact, those parents and women who are coming forward now are enabling us to move along the pathway to women being given the full, correct information about what happens when a maternity incident takes place. We still have a long way to go, but, as I said at the beginning, the hon. Member for Swansea East is part of that process. The debates that we have here about baby loss are also part of that process. There is not one answer, one sledgehammer, that comes from the Department of Health and Social Care. Everybody has a role to play, because this is an issue that is spread over decades. It is about culture, and it is about the culture in hospitals today. It is about the esteem in which women and mothers are held within society. It is a complex picture with many parts, and everybody has an opportunity to play their part, as do those women who are now coming forward to ask where their babies’ ashes are.
Some hospitals arranged for stillborn babies to be cremated and told the parents that, because the baby was small, it would not be possible to recover any ashes. Even if ashes were recovered, their parents were not told. The ashes might have been spread in a dedicated garden of remembrance, but in other cases they might simply have been disposed of or kept in storage at the crematorium.
Over the past 20 years, we have heard about the discovery of mass graves containing the remains of stillborn babies in, among other places, Lancashire, Devon, Middlesbrough and Huddersfield. The 2015 review of infant cremations at Emstrey commercial crematorium in Shrewsbury found that, by using appropriate equipment and cremation techniques, it is normally possible to preserve ashes from infant cremations.
We now recognise that parents are committed and connected to their children long before birth—I think we knew that back then—perhaps at the point of conception or even earlier, when women imagine themselves being mothers for the first time. I am happy to say that, nowadays, parents of stillborn babies are able to be as involved in decisions about what happens to their baby as they choose to be. New regulations were introduced in 2016 to ensure that parents’ wishes for the cremation of their children are respected. The regulations introduced include a new statutory definition of what constitutes ashes or remains and require cremation request forms to be amended so that family’s wishes are explicitly recorded prior to any cremation.
Thanks to tireless campaigning by the hon. Member for Swansea East, the Government launched the children’s funeral fund last July so that bereaved parents do not have to worry about meeting the cost of burying or cremating their child or stillborn baby. The fund is available regardless of a family’s income and also includes a contribution towards the cost of the coffin. We have received over 1,000 claims to date, and I am sure that the hon. Lady must be incredibly proud.
The hon. Member for Swansea East called for this debate to consider what we in Parliament can do to help bereaved parents who did not have the opportunity to bury their stillborn babies and now wish to trace their final resting places. We know that parents never forget their babies, no matter how long ago their death occurred. Unfortunately, tracing a baby’s grave or a record of cremation may not be easy, and it can be a difficult time for people, both mentally and emotionally.
Records containing information about the locations of the remains of stillborn babies are not held centrally. Parents therefore need to start their search by contacting the hospital where the baby was stillborn, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows. If records are still available, the hospital should be able to tell parents whether the baby was buried or cremated and the name of the funeral director who made the arrangements at the time—if, indeed, a funeral director was involved. Hospitals do not keep records indefinitely, and some records may not contain enough detail to be helpful. The hospital where the baby was stillborn may have closed or the funeral director involved—if one was—may no longer be in business.
Cemeteries and crematoriums, though, are legally obliged to keep permanent records. If neither the hospital nor the funeral director has a record of which cemetery or crematorium was used, parents can contact local cemeteries and crematoriums, starting with those nearest to the hospital where their baby was stillborn. As I mentioned, in many cases stillborn babies were and may still be buried in a shared grave with other babies. These graves are usually unmarked, although they do have a plot number and can be located on a cemetery plan. In many cases, several babies were cremated together. The crematorium should have a record of where the ashes are scattered or buried, but I am afraid the emphasis is on the word “should”.
My sympathies lie with families who have had to deal with the pain of not knowing what happened to their children’s remains for so many years. It is hard for many of us to imagine how long that pain must last. The Department of Health and Social Care expects all hospitals to provide as much information as they have available to any parents who inquire about what happened to their stillborn babies, no matter how long ago they died.
I echo the Minister’s tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris).
It is unimaginable to think that parents who lost their child through stillbirth were not even privy to the arrangements for the cremation or burial of that child’s body—it was a completely different world.
On the Minister’s last point about urging hospitals to co-operate as much as possible, there is a bigger issue in that some of these children may not have been stillborn. Where a child lived for a while, as in the case she cited from 1976. there are greater questions to be asked about the child’s birth in that hospital. As a result of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, coroners will have the power, when the regulations are introduced, to look at such cases. Does she agree that there is a serious question not just on the whereabouts of a baby’s remains but on the circumstances of that baby’s birth?
That is an entirely different question but, yes, I completely agree with the substance of my hon. Friend’s point. I am sure he contributed to the Government’s consultation on the proposal for coroners to investigate stillbirths, which closed on 18 June 2019. The consultation attracted over 300 responses from a wide range of stakeholders. Officials in the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care have been working carefully to analyse the responses received. The question of babies who were not stillborn but who lived for a period of time before they died is possibly worth considering.
I do not normally start with warm words about a Minister’s speech, but what we have just heard shows great empathy for and insight into an incredibly difficult subject. I thank her for her introduction.
I express our sincere condolences to all parents who have not only suffered the loss of a baby or infant but have been denied the opportunity to grieve when their child was buried or cremated in an undisclosed place or when they did not receive their child’s ashes following the cremation. That should never have happened—it was wrong—and I am sure all Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in extending our sympathy and full support to all those bereaved parents who found themselves in that totally unacceptable situation.
Each year, thousands of people sadly experience the loss of a baby in pregnancy, soon after birth or in infancy, and the feeling of loss and isolation can be overwhelming for bereaved parents. Nothing can remove that pain and grief, of course, but we know from evidence that good bereavement care can make a very real difference to the experience of parents and families at such a tragic time, which is why what we have heard already today has been so powerful.
Not so long ago, things were very different for parents who lost a baby during pregnancy or shortly after birth. Indeed, as we have heard, many hospital staff had to quickly remove the baby, and the parents were sent home to try again. Fortunately, this is not something everyone has to think about, but the law is clear on what must now happen to babies who are stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy or who die in infancy: they must be buried or cremated, and cemeteries and crematoriums must keep records of those burials and cremations.
Before the mid-1980s, it was often hospitals that took care of funeral arrangements for stillborn babies and for babies who died shortly after birth, and we know that parents were often not consulted or involved in those funeral arrangements. We can all see now that that was not the right approach.
The bodies of the babies were cremated, buried or put in a communal plot. In some cases, the bodies were placed in a coffin with a woman who had also recently passed away. Shockingly, information was not shared with either family in that situation. Many parents were not told what happened to their baby’s body when they were buried or cremated.
If the baby had been cremated, not all parents received their baby’s ashes. Some parents were wrongly told that there would be no ashes, and in some cases when ashes were recovered, they were disposed of without the parents’ knowledge. Again, we all now find that shocking, and it is extremely hard to fathom why it was allowed to be the practice at the time.
At this juncture, I echo the Minister’s tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for calling the Government to account and securing this debate. She has been a tireless campaigner for bereaved parents and, of course, she brings her own deeply moving personal experience to this place. She articulates why this is such an important issue in a way that only those who have suffered personal tragedy can and do. She is entirely right to demand help and support to enable the parents of stillborn babies to trace their graves so that they can finally commemorate their loss. It is only right that we do all we can do to support these bereaved parents, having failed them in the past.
I also want to commend all the brave individuals and families who first brought these issues to light, and those who have taken part in inquiries and consultations, sharing their own painful experiences, which we know would have been difficult, to ensure that lessons are learned and that no other families have to go through what they have gone through. I should also mention those who have worked selflessly and tirelessly to help bereaved families to trace their lost babies, as we are grateful for their efforts and extend our gratitude to them. I think we all agree that these people should never have been put in that position.
Thankfully, since the 1980s there have been significant and positive changes in the way those families are now treated. There is a much greater understanding that the care bereaved families receive from healthcare and other professionals following the loss of a child can have long-lasting effects. Indeed, the need for psychological support following pregnancy loss and stillbirth is recognised in the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance, the “Better Births” report, the maternity transformation programme and the NHS long-term plan. All those documents rightly highlight the need to improve perinatal mental health care. However, we must ensure that those plans translate into action and that the needs of bereaved parents are explicitly addressed in quality standards, national guidance, training for healthcare professionals and guidance for local services. It is important that all parents who experience pregnancy and baby loss and need specialist psychological support can access it in a timely fashion.
We know that, unfortunately, good practice is not consistent across the board and we need to aim to ensure that it is. Too often, people who experience a psychiatric illness after their loss do not receive the support they need. Most mental health support is available only to mothers and is focused on women who are pregnant or have already lost their baby. As discussed in the annual baby loss debates, we urge the Government to develop a national standard, with guidance.
We all agree that the woman, and indeed the whole family, should receive that psychological support if they need it, but just saying it does not mean that this help is getting to the people it should be reaching. In many cases, people find it almost impossible to get that support.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, as he raises the very point: the support is not consistent across the piece. We rightly raise that issue when we discuss these matters, because we need better support, better funding and better delivery of these specialist services. As he says, this is a difficult issue and support is needed at the right time.
I am pleased to hear what our Front Bencher is saying about this important subject, but I want to develop this point about mental health support. For families who have suffered and do not know where their baby’s ashes have been strewn, asking the local council to make inquiries, as happened in Shrewsbury with the Emstrey inquiry, goes some way to seeing whether there are answers to the questions they still have. Will the shadow Minister commit his support to local authorities that want to carry out these independent inquiries, to give whatever closure they can to families by trying to get the information they seek?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I know about the work she has been doing in Hull. She has articulated in the past why it is clearly important for such inquiries to take place and how it is the most effective way for families to achieve closure on these difficult issues. I am certainly in support of what she says.
The availability of talking therapies for bereaved parents is not how it should be. Nearly nine out of 10 clinical commissioning groups do not currently commission talking therapies specifically for parents, and where the services do exist they are usually only for mothers. We need to do better than that. Of course, I acknowledge that there is much good practice out there, but Members will know that it is often reliant on charitable grants and third parties. That is one of the main reasons why provision is patchy and at risk from wider funding decisions. I therefore ask the Minister to undertake a review of the current provision, including an evaluation of the models of best practice. Will she ensure that parents and professionals are involved in that exercise? The Minister was absolutely right to identify that when she talked about the culture in the past.
We also need to acknowledge that although the culture today has definitely improved, it is still not where we would like it to be. As we know, most of the time those whose loved one has been involved in a tragedy in the health service just want to know why it has happened and how it can be prevented from happening again. The former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), has on several occasions addressed the need for us to move away from a blame culture and towards a learning culture, so that when things go wrong there is proper analysis of why things have happened and we understand how we can prevent those things from happening again.
Only this week, I have heard from a constituent who has lost a lot of faith in the system in terms of getting to the truth about what happened to one of their family. They commented that the trust seemed to spend more money on lawyers than on actually uncovering the truth, and that should not be happening. We need to move away from the defensive culture that we see on occasions. I hope that we can look at that issue, possibly through the Select Committee, because there is still a temptation for trusts to lawyer-up at the first sign of concern. Most of the time, parents and family members want answers.
Back in October we heard that the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch annual report would share some of the learning about the more than 1,500 individual cases in which something has gone wrong in one trust. I hope that report will be available shortly. I think the quote was that it was going to be available in “early 2020”, so when she responds will the Minister update us as to when we can expect to see it?
Finally, although we rightly focus on the families in this debate, we must also not forget the impact on staff, some of whom will regularly have to deal with tragedies. The Minister set out clearly what that looks like. It is important that their voice is heard in this debate as well.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
My eyes were opened to the subject by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), since when we have worked together to bring about the children’s funeral fund—under her leadership, by the way; I was merely her acolyte. In doing that work, I became interested not just in that subject but in the whole matter of how people are dealt with when they die and how their loved ones are treated. There is much to be said on that, but time does not permit us to say it all today, for this particular debate is of course about stillbirth and lost children.
The Minister rightly said that things have improved. Some of this issue relates to the past—what happened to those who were loved and lost in years gone by—but I implore the Minister to reflect on whether it is possible for us to do more with local authorities, which are responsible for these matters, because, as she said, cemeteries maintain records, and cemeteries lie within the purview of local government. Perhaps further work can be done to impress on local authorities the need to make information available. Furthermore, in respect of people who are stillborn now, perhaps we could be certain that all health authorities are doing their best. I agree that things have improved, but we need to make sure that that improvement is consistent throughout the country.
In respect of the support given to those who have lost, as a number of Members have said, we need to ensure that the counselling, which makes so much difference, is readily available, quickly, and to whole families. Much is made of maternal love, and rightly so, but too little is made of paternal love. It is sometimes underestimated and often under-celebrated. The love of fathers and grandparents needs to be taken into account, too. Support for whole families when these events occur is critical.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point about fathers. We talk a lot about the perinatal mental illness suffered by at least one in six women—and much more is being done about that—but it is less known that many fathers, particularly new fathers, suffer from perinatal mental illness as well. The impact of losing a newborn is of importance not just for the mother but equally for the father. We forget that at our peril.
My hon. Friend, who served with me in the Department for Education, where he was responsible for matters concerning children, has a long track record of defending the interests of families and fathers. I pay tribute to that and entirely endorse what he has just said. Grandparents also feel these things very deeply. My children are only 19 and 15, so I am not enjoying grandparenthood yet, but those Members who are will know quite how profound their involvement is and their distress at loss can be. I entirely agree with what has been said about counselling, support and mental health.
I hope you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, for saying a word about public health funerals, a parallel but closely related matter on which the hon. Member for Swansea East and I have also co-operated. Councils in the UK spend about £4 million a year on nearly 15,000 burials or cremations for those with no next of kin or whose families are unable or unwilling to pay. They are known as public health funerals, although rather chillingly they are sometimes described as paupers’ funerals, which sounds so Dickensian, does it not? None the less, public health funerals are held for about 3% of all deaths, and there are real concerns about poor practice. The number of public health funerals has increased dramatically since 1997.
Tragically—in some cases councils are providing the bare minimum provision. Some of these funerals are held behind closed doors and families are prohibited from attending. There are instances of councils refusing to return ashes to families, even when requested. Sometimes, loved ones are not told when the funeral is going to take place, so they do not even know whether their loved one has been buried or, in most cases, cremated. I take this opportunity, with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, to call again on the Government to communicate with local authorities about the strict need to ensure that these funerals are dealt with in a decent, civilised and humane way. I am not confident that that is happening across the whole country, and it needs to do so without further delay.
I know that other Members want to contribute, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion simply by saying this. I spoke earlier of the Dickensian character of paupers’ funerals. Dickens said:
“A loving heart is the truest wisdom.”
Love is greater than life because love lasts longer and, because it does it should be at the heart of policy makers’ considerations when they deal with the highly important, very sensitive and profound issues that we debate today.
I am very pleased to participate in this debate today. I echo the thanks that have been expressed to the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing this debate and for all the work that she has done in this area.
The death of a baby is an extremely traumatic event, which impacts on both parents and the wider family for many years, if not forever. It is not something that can simply be got over. It is an event that families and individuals simply learn to live with. The burial of a child is also very traumatic, but it can, for many bereaved parents and their families, form a very important part of the grieving process, and yet it was only in the mid to late 1980s that the death of a baby was truly starting to be recognised as a major bereavement. Until then, as we have heard some Members mention, any baby who died before birth, regardless of the gestation period, was swiftly removed from the labour ward, and parents were not given an opportunity to see or hold them. Some mothers were sedated after the birth because it was thought that this would help them to forget. It was a generally held view among professionals and, indeed, society that parents should forget their babies and that it was best to carry on as though nothing had happened. Grieving was actively discouraged.
Stillbirth truly was a huge taboo, and we are now gradually starting to break down that taboo and deal with these matters with more compassion and sensitivity. I agree with what the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) said about the role of fathers in such events. Until fairly recently, fathers of babies who died before birth were pretty much ignored, and their role was considered to be one of merely supporting his wife or partner in her attempts to forget about the lost child and to have another child as quickly as possible. It is genuinely hard to believe that, until very recently, that was how we as a society dealt with stillbirth.
Some parents did not even give their baby a name, because they were not advised that they could or should do so. Some did not even know the gender of their baby, and many had no idea about what had happened to their child’s body. As a result, the grief felt at this traumatic life event was silenced and frowned upon, leading to unnecessary isolation, family breakdowns and poor mental health. It is down in great part to the work of charitable groups such as Sands—the stillbirth and neonatal death charity—that these appalling practices and attitudes, which, these days, are hard to believe, began to change.
Recent years have taught us that, although things are better these days, there can be no room for complacency. We have also learned that there are very different practices in baby cremations across the UK, with some parents receiving ashes from some crematoriums, while others are not. The availability of ashes after cremations seems to have depended on the equipment and cremation techniques used and/or how the relevant authority defined ashes. It seems that there was no statutory definition of ashes in the UK. That has now been rectified in legislation, and we have had legislation in Scotland similar to that mentioned by the Minister.
There is also the issue of parents being told that there were no ashes to be recovered when, in fact, there were ashes, but they were sometimes disposed of without the parents’ knowledge. Indeed, such practices led to investigations in Scotland, going back some decades, at Mortonhall crematorium in Edinburgh.
I am interested in asking the hon. Lady about the Mortonhall investigation inquiry. Does she feel that that helped parents who had questions about what had gone on and why things had happened in the way that they had? Was it something that she would support for other parts of the United Kingdom