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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 673: debated on Thursday 19 March 2020

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Pollution

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 £3.8 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Our Environment Bill makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter and enables local authorities to take more effective action to tackle air pollution in these areas.

Hyndburn has the highest levels of air pollutants in Lancashire and double the county’s average level of nitrogen dioxide. What work is being done with local councils such as mine to tackle that?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question; I see that she is already standing up for her constituency. Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010. Emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by 33% and are at their lowest level since records began, but that is not to say that there is not a great deal more to do. In Hyndburn, nitrogen dioxide concentrations around roads are actually within the statutory air quality limit, though local authorities are empowered to address local air quality concerns within their community. We have put in place a £3.8 billion plan to improve air quality and deliver cleaner transport, and last year we published our world-leading clean air strategy, which focuses on broader emissions beyond road transport and aims to cut air pollution and save lives. That strategy includes new and ambitious goals, legislation, investment and policies to clean up our air.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the more stringent air pollution reduction targets that the Scottish Government have agreed in legislation, and does she agree that the UK Government should match those targets in their Environment Bill?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but actually our clean air strategy has been described by the World Health Organisation as

“an example for the rest of the world to follow”.

With our £3.8 billion commitment, we are definitely leading the way.

Tree Planting

2. When the Government plan to implement their commitment to plant 30,000 hectares of trees per year by 2025. (901640)

Forestry is devolved, and we are working with the devolved Administrations to increase tree planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025. To drive up planting rates in England, we announced a new £640 million nature for climate fund, and we are developing an ambitious delivery programme. We will seek feedback and evidence on this through our new English tree strategy.

I thank the Minister for that response. The Committee on Climate Change has said that we need to plant 32,000 hectares a year for the next 30 years if we are to meet the net zero target, but my understanding is that the Government’s recent announcement was that they would be planting 30,000 hectares in full by 2025, not per year. Can the Minister clarify that? The manifesto commitment was per year, but I think the Government have not now committed to that.

I thank the Minister for her answer, and I welcome the investment in our green infrastructure. May I ask how the Government have funded woodland creation?

The Government have made major commitments. Chiefly, as I have mentioned, we announced the £640 million nature for climate fund in our manifesto. Ministers are working with officials on policy proposals to increase tree planting in England over this Parliament. We have also kick-started funding for planting the new Northern and Great Northumberland forests. In addition, last year we opened the £50 million woodland carbon guarantee, giving long-term income support to new woodland creation projects, while pump-priming the domestic carbon market, which is obviously something that will grow.

I thank the Minister for her responses so far. In her statement in answer to the original question, she referred to having been in touch with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the regional Administrations. Northern Ireland lags behind when it comes to tree planting. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that tree planting in Northern Ireland catches up with the tree planting that she mentioned in her statement and answers?

Obviously, we are keen for tree planting to expand everywhere, including Scotland. Scotland already does a lot of tree planting, because the nature of its landscape is somewhat different from ours. We have a raft of measures, and our officials will be speaking to officials in Northern Ireland. It is very important that we keep all that contact and do this as a joint thing. Trees work on the atmosphere: they hold the carbon dioxide, and that goes everywhere, so we need to be doing this jointly.

It is absolutely right that we vastly ramp up tree planting to help with carbon capture, but may I ask the Minister not to overlook kelp? It absorbs more than six times the amount of carbon as trees. We have vast tracts of seabed available, not least off Sussex. It helps with marine conservation, and it is also a food source. Please could we look at that more closely, and at how we can promote it, as we want to do, in Sussex?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly interesting point. It is something I am personally very interested in. As we speak, there is a project under way to plant kelp and to look at how its carbon capture is going. Mudflats are similarly really important, as are salt marshes. There could be a big future for this on our new horizon of dealing with the land and the landscape. All this carbon capture is a new feature in relation to climate change, and I think kelp will definitely be part of it.

The Minister has talked a lot about planting trees, but made no mention of where those trees will come from; in other words, will they be sourced within the UK or will we be importing them, which will have an impact not only on employment but on the importation, as we have seen previously, of pests and diseases? Will the Minister therefore give long-term contracts to the horticultural industry so that it can rapidly ramp up the production of seedlings, for the sake of the British economy and as a health and safety measure ?

I forgive the right hon. Gentleman for going on, because it is brilliant to mention horticulture. Horticulture is such an important part of this country, and we are in discussions with nurseries, because he is absolutely right that they have to provide these trees. We would obviously like as many as possible to come from the UK, because that is very important, particularly on biosecurity grounds. I see a great new future in that for those nurseries, and we are in discussions with the industry.

I declare an interest, as a member of Kettering Borough Council, which is increasing its planting of British native trees from 250 to 500 a year and supports plans for 40 hectares of new trees across north Northamptonshire on an annual basis. What more can be done to incentivise local authorities to plant more trees?

As ever, my hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for his constituency. Many local authorities are embarking on excellent planting schemes. There will be some big opportunities through the Environment Bill in the biodiversity net gain sector, where lots of people will be able to offset when building a development; they can plant some trees to add 10% more biodiversity. There will be opportunities right around the country through the new nature recovery strategies which my hon. Friend’s local authority will be a part of providing, and that will determine where the trees should be planted.

Deforestation

3. What steps the Government are taking to end deforestation in commodity supply chains as agreed in the Amsterdam declaration on deforestation. (901642)

I feel like a jack-in-a-box, Mr Speaker.

The UK supports a number of initiatives to eliminate deforestation from supply chains in line with the aims of the Amsterdam declaration. That includes establishing UK roundtables on palm oil and soya to help UK companies realise sustainable sourcing commitments and supporting the tropical forest alliance, a public-private initiative with over 160 members. We also convene the global resource initiative, which will shortly recommend further actions that the UK can take to green our supply chains.

In the year when are due to host COP26, the Environment Bill must be world leading and set an example for other countries to follow. How will DEFRA take responsibility for the UK’s global footprint, and will the Minister confirm that there will be action to remove deforestation from UK supply chains in future?

The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point and our vision is for everyone to benefit from more sustainable production of vital agricultural commodities. We have addressed this within the Environment Bill. Our global footprint is incredibly important, and we are considering the recommendations in the global resource initiative and will be very seriously thinking about how Government can take that forward. We are leading by example in many other areas, particularly our Government’s partnerships for forests programme and the soya programme that I mentioned in my previous answer.

Vulnerable People: Food Supplies

4. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to maintain food supplies for vulnerable people in the (a) North East and (b) UK during the covid-19 outbreak. (901643)

The Government are in close contact with representatives of the food supply chain and with local authorities, including those in the north-east, and also with charities, to ensure that those who need to stay at home will have continued access to food. We have well established ways of working with the food industry during disruption and our retailers already have highly resilient supply chains and are working around the clock to ensure that people have the food and other products that they need.

All of us found the images of empty supermarket shelves disturbing, but for those who are vulnerable, aged, unwell, isolated or dependent on food banks, that is causing real fear as to where their next meal is coming from. In the north-east, we have excellent local producers, but much of our food is dependent on supply chains, and I am afraid the Secretary of State’s response will not have given the reassurance required. What specifically is he doing to ensure the supply of food to the supermarket shelves and from the supermarket shelves to people’s homes?

It is very important to note that we have significant resilience in our food supply chain, in that food manufacturers are used to coping with increases in demand, not least every year during Christmas. There is not a shortage of food. The challenge we have had is getting food to shelves in time when people have been purchasing more. That is why we have taken steps including setting aside delivery curfews so lorries can run around the clock, and relaxing driver hours to ensure that deliveries can take place more frequently. We are in discussion with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government colleagues about other support that we would deliver locally to get food to those who are self-isolating.

I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me and the rest of the shadow DEFRA team this week to discuss concerns about the national crisis and food availability. I urge him to go further on some of the measures he has set out. I hope my questions are seen as being asked in a constructive spirit.

People are worried about how they will feed their family, especially if they are self-isolating, have had their income slashed to statutory sick pay or have lost their job. However, millions are already in food poverty, and this is an immediate family emergency for many of them. With food banks running low on food, and given that many food bank volunteers are over the age of 70 and will soon need to self-isolate, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to assist those in genuine hunger today?

As I have said, we have taken a number of steps to ensure that we can get food to supermarkets. I have been in daily calls with the food supply sector. Those have included discussions about food banks, and we are in dialogue with supermarkets to ensure that they get access to the supplies they need. I welcome the constructive approach that the shadow Secretary of State is taking. We are also working on specific proposals to help the most vulnerable—those with clinical problems—to ensure that we can get food to them should they be self-isolating.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I think he will need to provide more detail for those who are in genuine hunger today; the hope of detail in the future is not reassuring people at the moment. If I may press him further on supermarkets, we discussed the so-called grey hour, when elderly people can shop before the rest of society goes into the supermarkets. Will he press the Department for Transport to relax the times for free bus pass use to ensure that people can get to the supermarkets? Will he also ensure that every supermarket, not just the Co-op, is still contributing food to food banks and organisations such as FareShare? I suspect that he and his colleagues will want to ensure a private sector-led solution wherever possible, but I press him on this issue, because we will not get through this crisis unless there is Government intervention to support those people and ensure that food supply chains remain open.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a role for the Government. We must take action to set aside any obstacles to making the food supply chain operate in a way that ensures that people have food. On food banks, as I said, we are in discussion with supermarkets. We have also had discussions with them about competition law, and we will take whatever action is necessary to ensure that they can jointly plan their approach to these matters. For the most vulnerable, we are working on proposals that my colleagues in MHCLG will announce shortly.

Getting home deliveries to potentially millions of self-isolating households is a massive logistical exercise. Is it time for the Government to think about further intervention, including, I am afraid, the suspension of competition rules, so retailers and haulage companies can work together to meet this huge national challenge?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is why earlier this week we had a detailed workshop with both retailers and food processors to identify what they would like to do and what changes to competition law we would need to consider and implement. We are working on that right now.

Telford and Wrekin Council will now have to deliver 5,000 free school meals a day without being able to do so through schools, except for key workers’ children. What more can the Government do, given that many volunteers and people working in charities who might offer to backfill where support is required may be self-isolating or may have been encouraged by the Government to self-isolate? There really is an issue with logistics.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working on a national volunteer project to co-ordinate the many offers of volunteer help that we have had. In the context of food, we have been working very closely with supermarkets to expand their click-and-collect services to make it easier, where possible, for them to expand their delivery capacity to homes. We continue to work with other groups to identify how we can get food to people at this difficult time.

Care homes and other residential settings that have been let down by their wholesale food suppliers are now being told by supermarkets that they will be treated just like any other consumer. Two chickens do not go a long way if they have 136 residents to feed. Will the Secretary of State urgently look into this issue for all residential settings, please?

I am happy to look at the specific issue that my hon. Friend raised. However, it is also worth noting that while there has been an increase in demand at retail shops, notably in supermarkets, there has been a sharp fall in demand in the service trade, as restaurants, pubs and so forth find that demand for their services has plummeted. Our understanding at the moment is that there are not issues in the food service supply chain, but I am happy to take up any particular case that he might have.

Our supermarket workers have shown themselves to be the heroes of retail, making sure that people get fed and get the food that they need, but there are real concerns about whether they can maintain that service if they are not included in the list of key workers. Of course, many will have children who will need care if the schools cannot accommodate them. Can we have an assurance today that our retail workers will be on the list of key workers?

The Prime Minister made reference yesterday to the importance of those working in the food retail sector, in particular. Later today, the Government will announce jobs defined as key workers, but I can assure him that we fully recognise that over 25% of staff generally working in the food supply chain have children of school age, and that will be reflected when the list is published.

Support for Farmers

We have committed to maintaining the budget for our future agriculture policy at the same level as now, but to direct it differently. We are designing our farming reforms with those who work in agriculture and considering resilience issues. During the transition period, farmers will have time to adapt and prepare for the new policy.

Farmers’ and landowners’ ability to protect their crops and their livestock will be seriously compromised unless general licences are issued for protected areas, gulls and traps this spring. Will my right hon. Friend set out what he can do to make sure that that is the case?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am aware that Natural England intends to circulate the stoat-trapping general licence to stakeholders this week, and it is working hard to grant those licences as soon as possible. People wishing to control wild birds in protected areas need to apply for an individual licence, as must those wishing to control lesser black-backed or herring gulls except for safety reasons, given their poorer conservation status. We are also considering the best future approach as part of our review.

Right now, DEFRA, quite rightly, is focused totally on the food-supply questions that we have been talking about, but will my right hon. Friend also confirm that he will look to move forward with a trade and standards commission for food quality for UK consumers and for a fair field for our farmers?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will be aware that our manifesto and our published objectives for the US trade deal make it clear that we will protect our food standards and animal welfare in any future trade deals. I am aware that there has been a proposal for a trade and standards commission, which we are considering, and we are in discussion with other Departments, such as the Department for International Trade, about how best to ensure that agricultural expertise is fully reflected as part of the negotiating team.

If the motto in past crises was “Dig for Victory”, so far this one has been much more “Distribute for Victory”. Of course, the retail sector is very important, but I am less sanguine than the Secretary of State about future food supply and I think that we need to make sure that we support all those in that chain. The poultry industry, for instance, is very time-dependent. Two or three days extra for chickens on farms can lead to a whole range of welfare and logistical issues. Can I take it that the Secretary of State is pressing his colleagues to ensure that all those in the food supply chain are recognised on the Government list of key groups of workers, so we make sure that we secure our future food security?

As I said in response to an earlier question, the Government recognise that a significant number of staff working throughout the supply chain, both retailers and food processors, have children of school age; we estimate that the figure is between 25% and 33%. We therefore recognise that many of them will need to be defined as key workers, but further information on that will be published by the Government later today.

The standards of agriculture produce and animal welfare in Angus and elsewhere in these islands is among the best in the world. Is it not the case that the standards of imports are not always up to the standards of UK production? Is it not important that we follow the simple premise that, if something cannot lawfully meet the UK standards of production, it should not lawfully be imported to the UK? Will the Secretary of State enshrine that in the Government’s legislation?

We had a clear commitment in our manifesto to protect food standards and animal welfare in any future trade deals we do. Our view is that the right way to do that is through getting our mandate and approach to the negotiations right, and not necessarily by attempting to draft something in legislation.

Flooded Areas: Support

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on reforming the support package provided to flooded areas. (901647)

The Government activated the flood recovery framework in November 2019 and February 2020 to provide support to communities such as Calderdale, where 100 mm of rain fell in just 12 hours, causing extensive flooding. I extend my thanks to all those involved in the responses to recent floods, including those in Calderdale; I thank the local council, the Environment Agency, the military and emergency services for all their hard work.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, the funding package comes from several different Departments and, in the case of an isolated incident like that of the Calder Valley after Storm Ciara, and even after 1,200 properties were flooded, Government support for households was not triggered. Will he ensure that support by way of an off-the-shelf package is available for any affected area in future and that no area has to wait nine days again for support?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are having discussions across government about having a consistent threshold above which the flood recovery framework might be activated. On Storm Ciara, which affected his constituency very badly, in the event, we decided to treat Storms Ciara and Dennis as a single episode, which meant that Calderdale did qualify for the same support that other areas had.

Support for Farmers

7. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that farmers benefit from the Government's proposal to move from land-based to environmental enhancement-based support. (901648)

Our new environmental land management scheme will reward farmers and other land managers for delivering environmental public goods. We are committed to co-designing the scheme with stakeholders to produce the best possible outcomes for both the environment and our farmers and land managers. We are currently running a programme of tests and trials, which will be followed by a three-year national pilot, commencing in late 2021. The scheme will roll out from late 2024 across England.

Although my upland farmers in Weardale are already working on schemes such as peat restoration and afforestation, my lowland farmers are particularly concerned that they might miss out on some of these environmental schemes. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give me that these schemes will be available to all?

I thank my hon. Friend for that pertinent question. New schemes will be for all farmers, in all areas and for all types of landscape. At the moment, farmers can enter our new countryside stewardship agreements, which start from January 2021. Those who sign up to the improved scheme and who wish to enter the new environmental land management scheme will be able to leave their countryside stewardship agreements at agreed exit points, without penalty. Lots of farmers were concerned about that issue, but it is now clear that they can do that. Financial assistance under the environmental land management scheme will be available for all farmers and land managers, including lowland farmers in the country who undertake the eligible activities.

National Food Strategy

As my hon. Friend is aware, Henry Dimbleby is leading an independent review of the food system to develop recommendations to shape a national food strategy. The review was launched in June 2019. A vision for the food system is scheduled for publication in the spring of this year, and the review’s final recommendations will be published over the winter. The Government will then respond to those within six months.

In these moments of great crisis when we need food, there is no doubt that home-produced food is more important than ever. I would really love it if the food strategy incorporates how we are going to produce more home-produced food. Further to the question from the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), I am looking forward to the Secretary of State supporting the amendment from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to maintain high standards on food imports. Can that all be incorporated into the food strategy?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Events such as those we are experiencing now remind everyone that a critical component of our food security is healthy and vibrant domestic production, which is why we have committed in the Agriculture Bill to review our food security every five years. That will include a review of the health of the food supply chain and food production in this country.

What steps are the Government taking to adapt the seasonal workers scheme to support farmers in this important growing season?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. If there is disruption to people visiting the UK as a result of restrictions put in place, or general concern in other countries, that may have an impact on the number of seasonal workers who come here from countries such as Bulgaria. We are working with the industry and the National Farmers Union to assess the situation, and we will be working on proposals to address it before May and June, which is when it is likely to present itself as an issue.

Topical Questions

The covid-19 pandemic presents significant challenges for our country and, indeed, the rest of the world. It is currently my primary focus. I have been holding regular calls with key players in the food supply chain, to ensure that we take whatever steps are necessary to enable our food producers, distributors and retailers to meet an increase in demand. I wish to record my thanks to all those who work in the food industry—whether on a production line, driving a delivery vehicle or in a supermarket—for all the hard work they are putting in at this difficult time.

Our farmers are famously hardy folk, but like everybody else they are not immune to the effects of coronavirus, and nor are farm businesses. What further support will be available to farmers?

Earlier this week the Chancellor unveiled a package of measures to support all businesses, and some farmers would qualify for that. I am having regular meetings with the National Farmers Union to address any concerns that it might have. The NFU’s principal concern, in common with many other industries in the food supply chain, is the potential pressures on staff.

The shadow Secretary of State and I have spoken to fishers and their representative organisations right across the UK in recent days, and they are worried. In just the past week, the market value of fish landed by British fishers has fallen to 20% of normal rates. There are significant concerns about the viability of the UK fishing industry, especially the small boats that are the backbone of the British fleet. Many fishers are telling us that they will go bust in the next two weeks. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must take whatever steps are necessary to support fishers and the fishing industry to cope with the pressures of the covid-19 crisis?

I obviously agree that our fishing industry is incredibly important. The best way we can help it is to get the markets moving again. I understand that there is a particular issue with disruption to markets in the European Union, which is contributing to the situation. Officials had meetings yesterday with fishing representatives, and I am looking for some feedback from that to agree what we do next.

T3. Many of the farms in the countryside around Aylesbury are very small and often run just by families, so there is limited capacity to cover for sickness. What assessment has the Department made of the impact on very small farms if many of the people who work on them succumb to coronavirus? (901656)

My hon. Friend raises an important point: it is not just those employers with large numbers of staff that could face challenges; it could be those with a very small number of staff, or those with no staff, who operate alone. We are working with the National Farmers Union and others to work out ways to address this issue. It will require friendly and supportive neighbourly behaviour in some cases.

T2. Given the established links between air pollution and poor lung health, and the knowledge that poor lung health is a risk factor for covid-19, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to understand the additional support that may be needed to enable areas across the UK with the worst air quality to mitigate risks and keep people safe during the pandemic? (901655)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The Government have given specific guidance to those considered most at risk, including the over-70s. There will be additional support for those with clinical issues that make them especially at risk.

T5. Delivery slots should be reserved for the vulnerable. Will the Secretary of State stop them being hogged by people who are quite capable of getting to the shops? (901661)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. During this situation, we need everybody to be considerate to others. A number of supermarkets have piloted the idea of a reserved hour at the start of each day for the elderly and most vulnerable. That appears to be working and we will encourage others to do that. There is a limited amount of delivery capacity—currently about 7% of the market—but we will increase that if we can.

T4. As part of the key worker strategy, will the Secretary of State recognise the crucial importance of food and drink manufacturing and distribution in the food chain? In discussions about the long-term sustainability of the industry, can he and his colleagues persuade the Treasury to abandon its dogma for public purchasing that cheapest is always best? (901658)

When it comes to public procurement, for a number of years, we have had an approach called the balanced scorecard, which means that it is not all about price and that our procurement authorities should also take into account quality and other factors, too.

The spring selling season will soon be upon us. Across the country, against the background of the coronavirus crisis, farmers will be concerned to establish whether they will be able to buy and sell their livestock. Can the Secretary of State give any reassurance to farmers as to the extent to which they will be able to use their local farmers auction markets?

We are looking into that issue, but it is obviously critical to keep the food supply chain moving.

Supermarket queues are undoubtedly adding to the spread of coronavirus, not least because of a lack of social distancing. Doing whatever it takes means that there needs to be a sense of urgency from Government Ministers that simply has not been on display thus far across Government. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but it is true. People need to see a much greater sense of urgency. Queues need to be tackled to prevent the spread within supermarkets. Will the Secretary of State, with Cabinet colleagues, today implement and enforce social distancing in supermarkets to reduce the spread in that part of society?

We will not take that measure. It was done in Italy through a restriction on the number of people in stores, but they found that they had hundreds of people huddled together at the entrance to the store, so it was counterproductive.

There is growing concern in West Oxfordshire about the condition of the River Windrush, and particularly sewage discharge. We urgently need the Environment Agency and Thames Water to work together to clean it up. When the immediate emergency has eased, will the Secretary of State visit to see the river’s condition and help me to work with those two parties to make a real difference?

Such incidents are an issue for the Environment Agency, which is the first port of call in a pollution incident. Water companies have water management plans and, under the new Environment Bill, will have to have sewage management plans as well, which will help. Of course I will meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue.

I understand that in 2019, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and FareShare worked on a pilot scheme to make sure that surplus food was diverted to people who needed it. That is still being evaluated. When will Ministers come up with the evaluation? Is now not a good time to put the scheme into practice?

As I said, we are working with food banks and retailers to ensure that they have the supply of food they need through schemes such as FareShare.

I am sure that all hon. Members welcome the additional investment in flood and coastal defences in last week’s Budget. Will the ministerial team continue to work with local authorities such as Calderdale, which was flooded recently, to ensure that existing gaps in flood defence schemes are addressed?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government are making a massive commitment to flood spending and they have increased the current programme from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion between 2021 and 2027. They will be working with all areas that have floods, listening to concerns and considerations to learn lessons from what happened this time and using the current grant system, but I, the Secretary of State and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government are considering how the whole project might be improved.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Electronic Voting

1. To ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, what recent assessment the Commission has made of the potential merits of introducing electronic voting. (901624)

2. To ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, what recent assessment the Commission has made of the potential merits of introducing electronic voting. (901625)

The commission has had no recent formal discussions on the potential merits of electronic voting. Colleagues on the Procedure Committee have examined what practical and procedural changes to Divisions might be necessary in the context of the covid-19 outbreak and I thank them for their work on that. I know that they will continue to keep the situation under review. Any decision to implement electronic voting would need to be agreed by the whole House. The commission’s responsibility for this matter would be limited to the financial and staffing implications of such a decision.

The SNP has long advocated modernising this place so that votes do not take hours. As a still relatively new Member, I am shocked by the archaic practices that we, as Members, have to undergo in order to vote. Does the hon. Member representing the House of Commons Commission ever see this House leaving the late 19th century?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In my almost 20 years in this House I have probably spent the best part of a week traipsing around the Division Lobbies, exercising my democratic obligations as a Member of the House. It is a week that I am certain I will never get back. Last July, the Procedure Committee began an inquiry into the merits of electronic voting, which was interrupted by the general election in December. So far, no decision has been made to reopen that inquiry, but I encourage my hon. Friend to beat a path towards the Procedure Committee to encourage it to take up the inquiry again. Knowing of his determination, I am pretty certain that he will do so.

Last week, the Leader of the House declined the idea of an increased use of deferred Divisions. Given that we are in a changing landscape, that guidance has changed and, even within this Chamber, we are now self-distancing, will the commission reconsider that position?

The commission is acting with the most up-to-date medical advice from Public Health England. If at any point it was felt that we could not continue with Divisions in their current form, all feasible alternative arrangements will be looked at and put in place. I think my hon. Friend will have noticed just how responsibly this House has responded to the requests for social distancing. We just have to look around the Chamber and observe how we have positioned ourselves. I shall leave Members to form their own view about the wisdom of packing out the cramped Division Lobbies if there are any further Divisions in this House. I note that there has been none this week, and I know that it is the intention of Whips throughout the House to ensure that we will be using the Division Lobbies as infrequently as possible.

Covid-19: Access to House of Commons

3. To ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, whether the Commission plans to further restrict access to the House of Commons in response to the outbreak of covid-19. (901626)

The control of access to the House of Commons is vested in you, Mr Speaker, and not the commission. Mr Speaker announced additional access restrictions on Monday 16 March, following the statement by the Prime Minister to prevent the risk of exposure to coronavirus. This includes restricting access to passholders and to those attending for business reasons, such as witnesses to Committees. Those measures were implemented with immediate effect. Updates on Tuesday and yesterday outline further measures to prevent the risk of exposure to covid-19, including stopping all non-essential access to the estate, and from today closure of several search and screen points around the estate.

I tabled this question when there were rumours that Parliament would be closed and that we might not be invited back after the recess. Things have now moved rapidly beyond that, and we have to appreciate the members of staff who support us in keeping this place open so that we can do the vital job of holding the Government to account during this crucial period. May I invite the Minister to pay tribute to those staff who support us?

It is, in fact, me who will be invited to congratulate the staff around the estate. Every effort possible is taking place to ensure that staff are kept safe and that their exposure to risk is as minimal as possible. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that every effort will be made to keep this place open so that we can fulfil our democratic obligations, but that will always be done with the safety of all who use this estate in mind, and will constantly be under review.

Covid-19: Remote Working

4. To ask the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, what support the Parliamentary Digital Service is providing to hon. Members and staff of the House of Commons to enable (a) remote working and (b) video conferencing during the outbreak of covid-19. (901628)

Enabling remote working for hon. Members and staff is a key priority in the Parliamentary Digital Service’s response to covid-19. One focus is the provision of emergency laptops to Members’ staff who are normally equipped with desktop computers. Currently, a reasonable stock of laptops is available, but it should be noted that market supply has been severely disrupted. As of close of business on Wednesday 18 March, 56 laptops had been provided to 41 hon. Members’ offices. Other IT equipment has been made available as requested, such as headsets for Skype for Business use. The Microsoft Office 365 suite of tools is available remotely via personal devices and parliamentary computers. Part of that suite is Microsoft Skype for Business, which offers one-to-one video conferencing facilities. No more extensive video conferencing service is yet deployed.

I am sure that we all agree that the Parliamentary Digital Service provides amazing support for Members of Parliament in our wide-ranging and very demanding requirements. But our jobs are changing; I am not going to be able to have face-to-face contact with any constituent for the foreseeable future, and my staff will all be working from home, so we need to have support for a broad range of new applications. The Commissioner talks about laptops and hardware. I want to know that PDS will have the resources to support a wide range of new applications, such as video conferencing.

I thoroughly agree with the hon. Lady. I think that all Members of the House will now know the value of being able to keep in contact with constituents through video conferencing and other remote methods. All I can say is that the PDS digital support desk will continue to offer a 24-hour-a-day service. Undoubtedly there will be delays due to the volume of calls from people working remotely, but the team will make a real effort to deal with all calls as soon as they possibly can. As I said in my original answer, the PDS team want to ensure that as much facility and resource as possible is given to hon. Members, and I am sure that they will be working to secure and achieve that.

I meet a variety of organisations at Westminster, and would now like to do this remotely. However, the Skype system to which the Commissioner has referred only supports connections to those with parliamentary accounts. This helps me to link with my team, but will the Parliamentary Digital Service consider making Skype accessible to those outwith the parliamentary network? As a new MP, I also have new staff joining my team. What are the learning and development team doing to offer critical training for new starters—for example, on the Department for Work and Pensions, and so on? Will there be opportunities for those training sessions to be available remotely, as opposed to face-to-face as they have been up to now?

Every effort will be made to ensure that people are connected, and all facilities will be used to keep Members of Parliament in contact with their constituents. The PDS support desk is looking at the very issues mentioned by the hon. Lady, and hopefully progress will be made on all that. I think that the lesson here—this seems to be required from all Members—is ensuring that we can work remotely, that all our staff are as connected as possible, and that we continue to provide a level of service that we feel is commensurate with our roles as Members of Parliament. I am pretty certain that all Members will be providing that service in the weeks to come.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s energy to move us from the 19th century, particularly during these difficult times. The move to digital is important, but the telecoms companies are concerned that the sudden deluge from the entire nation moving to a digital platform will overpower those platforms themselves. Has he considered any contingency plans in case we do need to return in full back to the 19th century?

All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is: let us not go back to the 19th century. Let us hope that our 21st-century resources and infrastructure are able to cope with the increased demand that Members of Parliament and other people across our community will make on them. It is beyond my remit as a member of the House of Commons Commission to be able to comment on the failings of some of the infrastructure and its ability to withstand some of the demands that will be placed upon it.

All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that in the House of Commons, staff in digital services will do everything possible to ensure that we continue to be connected with our constituents. I would suggest to all Members that if they have any concerns about being able to work remotely or concerns about the ability of the network to withstand things, please get in touch with the 24-hour services available from digital services. I am sure everyone knows the number: 2001.

The challenges of the last few days and weeks have thrown up why we need to modernise this place and why we need to get on with restoration and renewal. I understand that the Commission is meeting on Monday to discuss next steps. Is it not time that we gave the sponsor body the powers to get on with dealing with the Northern Estate, make sure it is in the hands of proper professionals who can get on with the work and make sure that we are resilient for this sort of situation in the future and for many years to come?

I commend the hon. Lady’s creativity in being able to shoehorn restoration and renewal into question about digital facilities. She is absolutely right: the Commission will meet on Monday to consider further measures when it comes to restoration and renewal. The hon. Lady is very closely connected to and interested in this work, and those measures will be communicated when we have concluded our meeting on Monday. It is something, even in the current conditions and with the crisis that is facing us, that the Commission takes very seriously, and we will continue to inform the House of ongoing statements and work in relation to restoration and renewal.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Church Closure and Use

5. To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what criteria the Church of England uses to decide when to close a church and offer the building to other denominations and traditions. (901629)

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the Church opens as many, if not more churches than it closes each year. Parishes may want to focus their mission elsewhere, if the church in question is in a very remote rural location or if there is a very high repair bill. Use for worship by other Christian bodies is generally considered the best use, but there are many other suitable uses.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In my constituency, we have 24 churches of different denominations, yet the Christian religion is actually the minority. More recently, we have had a huge influx of Romanian citizens who are very keen churchgoers, but they cannot acquire premises. So as the Church of England population dwindles, can churches make efforts to reach out, particularly to the Romanian churches, to allow them to carry on their worship?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for explaining the situation in his constituency, and I can tell him that the use of church buildings by other Christian denominations is considered a very good use for any redundant Church of England church. The normal procedure is that the views of the local Member of Parliament, the local authority and local residents would be considered, so if there are closed churches in his area, he will have an opportunity to get involved in that process.

Can the hon. Gentleman outline what advice for smaller congregations is in place at this time? Is it his interpretation that the closure of all churches, regardless of size, is optional, or that small congregations can continue to meet, even if they do so in small numbers?

As my hon. Friend knows, I speak purely for the Church of England in this place, and the Church of England is following exactly the health advice from the Government. I can tell him and the House that while public worship has been suspended for the time being, churches remain open for prayer and in particular for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Self-distancing will be required. Numbers in churches will be kept to a minimum, and no one self-isolating must attend the ceremony. Parishes are being trained in live-streaming services where they can. Wellbeing and mental health resources will be published soon, and churches are of course encouraged to support the vulnerable who are self-isolating and to continue to support food banks and night shelters in particular.

In the light of my hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), does he agree that, although churches are not gathering for worship, they still have a vital role to play in meeting the spiritual, emotional and, indeed, practical needs of our communities at this very difficult time? Although they may not be gathering for services and other meetings, churches are most definitely not closed.

I thank my hon. Friend for that important point, and he is exactly right. The Church is much more than just its buildings; it is its people. This is an opportunity for all of us, as Christians, to reach out to others in need—there are many in all our communities—and that is exactly what the Church will be doing over the coming months.

As public worship is suspended during the coronavirus crisis, what plans does the Church of England have for a national day of prayer?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a national day of prayer this Sunday. The Church is particularly keen that all Christians reach out to look after the vulnerable in their communities, as I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). The archbishop has called for people to put lighted candles in their windows at 7 pm on Sunday as a sign of solidarity with what the nation is currently going through.

Persecution of Christians

6. To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent assessment the commissioners have made of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s progress on implementing the recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO support for persecuted Christians. (901631)

The Church of England is pleased that the Government have repeatedly said they will implement in full the recommendations of the Truro review. The Church is in regular contact with the review implementation team. Promoting faith literacy among our diplomats remains work in progress, but we are reassured by continuing work on that aspect of the review.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. As the world looks to navigate the challenge of the virus, other challenges clearly remain. Indeed, those challenges can be exacerbated in such circumstances, so what steps is the Church of England taking to work hand in glove with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to tackle anti-Christian persecution across the world?

I know my hon. Friend takes a strong interest in this important area. The Church is working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and with the Department for International Development to develop better religious literacy, and the Anglican communion combats persecution against all people of faith, or of no faith, around the world. The Church would welcome a Magnitsky Act to target sanctions against those who persecute people for their religion or belief, in line with recommendation 8 of the review. Quarterly progress statements on the implementation of the review would also be helpful.

Marriage and Relationship Support

7. To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what marriage and relationship support the Church of England offers to couples. (901633)

Almost all couples receive marriage preparation before a Church of England marriage service. Some churches later offer marriage enrichment courses and marriage MOT evenings. The Church is concerned about the fall in marriage rates, as well as about the breakdown of marriages, and a number of churches are taking action to address this issue.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. How does the Church aim to support couples and families in this moment of national crisis, when they are forced to spend more time together and are probably feeling anxious, possibly with several family members unwell?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very relevant question. The new marriage and pre-marriage courses released in January are now available online as digital resources that any church can forward to couples in isolation to help them invest in their relationship when they are likely to have more time together, as well as more pressure on them. The pre-marriage course welcomes and is suitable for couples who are not engaged but want to explore what marriage means.

This is probably something to come back to once we have got past the immediate crisis, but what progress has been made on liaising with the Department for Education on aligning such pre-marriage education with schools’ relationship education, which has now been made compulsory for all young people? Will that tie up?

I thank the hon. Lady, who I know takes a serious interest in these issues, for her question. I can tell her that the Church is very keen to work hand in glove with schools in this important area. Relationship education and relationship support has a very important role in our schools so that we have healthy, respectful marriages and relationships throughout our country.

May I suggest that one form of marriage support the Church of England might like to get on with is enacting clause 1 of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Act 2019, which became law a year ago now and will overhaul marriage registration and allow mothers’ names to go on marriage certificates for the first time since 1832? Can he give us a progress report on whether this is at last going to happen?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question—he has been very diligent in pursuing this matter for some time. I know it was a particular concern of my predecessor, Caroline Spelman, when she was in this place. I will get my hon. Friend an update on that issue. I will tell Church House about the urgency of the situation, and if he will allow me, I will write to him with specific details.