Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Pubs as Takeaway Restaurants
The Government welcome the reopening of food-to-go businesses in line with social distancing measures and have relaxed planning rules so that pubs and restaurants can operate as hot food takeaways. We published guidance for restaurants offering takeaway or delivery services, which has been widely welcomed by the sector. The UK Government, along with the devolved Administrations, are working closely with the food and drink and hospitality sectors to support their gradual reopening and continued operations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Pubs like the Fleur De Lys in East Hagbourne have been doing a great job, with takeaway pints of beer and food three nights a week, from fish and chips to roasts. Can he confirm that he actively encourages that but knows that it is not a substitute for being properly open and that the Government will work with pubs to guide them on how they can do so safely as soon as possible?
We were very clear when we imposed the original restrictions at the point of lockdown that those did not extend to takeaway food outlets. We were clear that we wanted to support those pubs and restaurants that wanted to remain open, offering takeaway food. Those that have done have made an important contribution to our food supply at this difficult time, and we very much welcome the steps they have taken. Of course, we also recognise that until things return to something closer to normal and they can reopen normally—hopefully later this summer—that will not give them all the trade they previously had.
I am encouraged by my right hon. Friend’s response. Our pubs are at the heart of the communities I represent in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. What work will he be undertaking alongside his colleagues across Government and, more importantly, on a regional level with our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, to ensure that pubs in the Black Country have all the means necessary to survive and thrive again once the crisis is over?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Pubs are at the heart of our community, and the fact that they have been forced to close has caused difficulty for many of them. As the Prime Minister has outlined, we intend that the hospitality sector, including pubs, will be able to tentatively start gradually opening, hopefully during the month of July, subject to the epidemiology supporting such a move. We are already working with the hospitality and pub sector to identify what social distancing measures they might be able to put in place to make that work properly.
Supermarket Supply Chains
We have worked closely with retailers and suppliers to ensure the security of supply chains, while also protecting staff safety. I would like to put on record again my thanks to the sector for demonstrating such resilience and flexibility in the face of the crisis. Staff have worked around the clock to ensure that people have the food they need. To support industry, we have introduced temporary measures, including temporary relaxations to competition law, and extended delivery hour regulations, and we have published guidance to help to ensure that workplaces and retail spaces are as safe as possible.
To support the resilience of the supermarkets and food shops on which my constituents in Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner depend, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that people who work in food supply and food retail are able to access priority testing for covid-19, so that they can get back to work?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that all essential workers, including all those involved in the food supply chain, are eligible for testing. We are working with the food sector to ensure that employees who are either self-isolating with symptoms of the coronavirus or who have a symptomatic household member are able to access those tests. Eligible workers who are self-isolating can apply for a test directly online or can be referred for a test by their employer.
The resilience of the food supply chains has been impressive, and we thank all those who work on our farms and in processing factories and the pickers, delivery drivers and, of course, shop workers who have kept the food flowing to our supermarkets. The foolish dismantling of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, now made worse by the covid crisis, means that we face an alarming shortfall in the 70,000 experienced people needed to pick our crops. The laudable “Pick for Britain” campaign may help, but it was reported only a few weeks ago that of the 50,000 applicants, only 112 had made it into the field. Can the Secretary of State tell us what those figures are today and what is his plan B?
We estimate that only about a third of the east European workforce who would usually come to work on our farms are here or have continued to come. That means that we will need a British workforce to step up and assist in getting the harvest in this year, and we are very encouraged by the results so far. The hon. Gentleman is right that a few weeks ago, when it was early in the season, there were not many jobs. But we are now approaching the peak season in June, and employers are starting to recruit more and more British workers. For instance, G’s salads currently has more than 400 British people working on its farms today
The food industry has responded quickly and impressively to the significant changes in demand that we have seen over the past month. That has ensured supply into stores and people’s homes across the country, and has demonstrated that the supply chain remains resilient. The Government have supported the industry with proportionate and temporary relaxations of competition law and drivers’ hours and extended delivery hours.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right: British farmers have been brilliant in getting food on the table. Does he agree, therefore, that there is no need for US-style industrial factory farming of poultry in this country, and will he look into the rotten proposal from my constituency, which I wrote to him about on 15 April?
I am aware, as it has been drawn to my attention, following my hon. Friend’s question, that there is a letter that I have yet to respond to; I will respond to that. Obviously, the issues that he has raised are predominantly issues for the environment agencies that carry out such environmental assessments. He mentions US-style poultry. Obviously, some approaches to poultry farming in the US will not be lawful in the United Kingdom, so I can reassure him on that.
The adequacy of the food supply includes the nutritional values and the production standards. The Government whipped their Back Benchers to vote against maintaining food standards for imports in the Agriculture Bill, and now we are hearing that it is a fire sale in the US trade deal. How can the public ensure that the food in our shops remains of the same quality as it is now?
This Government have a very clear manifesto commitment that we will protect our food standards in all our trade negotiations. Certain practices, such as chlorine washes on chicken or hormones in beef, are subject to a prohibition on sale in the UK, and that law remains in place. It is also the case that, as we advance trade negotiations with all third countries, animal welfare is one of the issues that we will be seeking to promote.
Supermarkets: Good Hygiene and Social Distancing
From the outset, we have worked extensively with retailers and Public Health England to establish best practice and publish guidance on social distancing and hygiene, to keep staff and customers safe. Industry has adapted effectively and quickly, and measures introduced include signage and floor markings to help customers maintain distance, screens at tills and limits on the number of customers in store.
On a recent visit to my local supermarket in Blyth, I was pleased to see that the supermarkets are taking all the necessary precautions to try to protect the public while they are out shopping. Those include cleaning stations, markings on the floor and regular announcements to tell people to maintain social distance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as measures are relaxed and we move forward, we must all be aware and mindful while out shopping, to protect not only ourselves but the staff, who have been providing an invaluable service during this pandemic?
On the latter point, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those key workers working throughout our food supply chain, from those working on farms to those working in logistics and food manufacturing, and of course those working in our supermarkets. They have helped to ensure that the nation has remained fed, and the work that they have done has been truly phenomenal.
I also agree with my hon. Friend that as we seek to evolve the current restrictions and move back to something closer to life as normal, we all have a great deal that we can learn from the measures that have been put in place by supermarkets—and also in factory environments by our food processors.
I congratulate my local Sainsbury’s stores in Erith Road, Barnehurst, and in Crayford on their good organisation and friendly staff. Does my right hon. Friend agree that other businesses will be able to learn lessons from the actions taken by supermarkets to ensure good hygiene and social distancing?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: our supermarket retailers acted within hours—certainly within 24 hours—to implement social distancing when lockdown occurred. They acted swiftly, and we have learned a lot along the way, in conjunction with Public Health England. I can tell my right hon. Friend that the experiences of our supermarkets and food manufacturers have been shared extensively with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as it has developed safer-working protocols for other parts of the economy, because we can—absolutely—learn from the steps that supermarkets and others have taken.
The coronavirus response has exemplified the resilience of the UK food supply chain. Industry has responded quickly to significant changes in demand to ensure that people have the food they need. In the initial few weeks, when there was an episode of panic buying, our food manufacturers increased output by some 50%.
Although our food security depends on both international trade and domestic production, this crisis has brought home the crucial importance of domestic food production. We are fortunate to have some of the most innovative food manufacturers and producers in the world, and I pay tribute to all they have done in recent months.
Between April and September last year, the Trussell Trust reported a 23% rise in the number of food parcels provided across the UK. As of April this year, the figure has doubled. Given the World Bank’s recent warning of a covid-19 worldwide food price spike, as well as the alarming rise in unemployment we have seen today, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to alleviate the shameful growth in food poverty?
We recognise that, as a result of the coronavirus crisis, the financial vulnerability of households has also increased. That is why, last week, the Government announced a new £16 million fund to support food charities, including refuges and homeless hostels. The food will be distributed by our existing partners in FareShare.
Food bank demand is surging, up on average by between 60% and 80% from pre-virus levels. Now, unemployment is soaring, up by nearly 70% last month. It is clear that we need measures that match the scale of the crisis. Last week, the Secretary of State whipped his MPs to reject Labour’s sensible proposals for an emergency coronavirus food plan. With The Times reporting that the Prime Minister is now keen on a food plan of his own, dealing with obesity and coronavirus, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s urgently needed food strategy, which must include a coronavirus focus, will be published before the recession bites?
The food strategy that is being developed by Henry Dimbleby, one of our non-executive directors, will involve an initial report in the autumn setting out the approach and the nature of the challenges, and the final report is expected in the early part of next year.
UK Food Producers
Our food and farming industry plays a crucial role in challenging times, and we are co-funding a £1 million campaign to promote milk, alongside industry and devolved Government partners. We are also supporting the fishing industry by promoting a wide variety of seafood species from UK waters. A further campaign is promoting beef across the devolved nations, and our Food is GREAT campaign, which showcases internationally products from across our four nations, has delivered successful trade and consumer focused marketing activities.
Given that there is already mandatory country of origin labelling for fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, wine, honey, olive oil and beef, does the Secretary of State agree that now is the right time for mandatory country of origin labelling for all meat, so that consumers can never be misled by dodgy imports produced in conditions that would be unlawful here and which are sold as if they were British?
As my hon. Friend has pointed out, there has been a long-standing legal provision for mandatory country of origin labelling on beef, in which, to claim that the country of origin is the UK, the animal must be born, reared and slaughtered in the UK. Those regulations on mandatory country of origin labelling were extended several years ago to cover all principal meat species. They do not yet extend to processed goods that might contain multiple goods, but there have been significant steps forward in broadening the scope of mandatory country of origin labelling.
Financial Support for Food Producers
We are working closely with the agriculture and fishing industries to manage the negative impacts of covid-19. In addition to HM Treasury’s financial support packages, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced support schemes for the dairy and fishing industries, and we continue to monitor other sectors.
The Government are very clear—and it was set out in our manifesto—that we will not compromise on our high food and animal welfare standards as we approach trade agreements. Specifically, that means that the UK will determine its own domestic standards when it comes to the so-called SPS chapter—those sanitary and phytosanitary issues—relating in particular to food safety. Those will be set at a UK level and we will not abandon or change those standards in response to demands from other countries.
I note that today’s announcement by the Department for International Trade does not change agricultural tariffs, so how will DEFRA Ministers ensure that the new tariff regimes after Brexit continue to favour our long-established and profitable trade in that sector with member states of the European Union? How will they ensure that the tariffs prevent our marketplace from being flooded with low-quality products from elsewhere in the world?
The new UK global tariff that has been announced today does retain tariffs for most key agricultural products, including those sensitive agricultural products that are often discussed in this House. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we would seek to grant tariff-free access to EU trading partners in future through a free trade agreement, and we have set out clearly the legal text of an acceptable free trade agreement should our partners wish to enter into such an agreement. Maintaining those agricultural tariffs also ensures that we do not expose our market in the short term to lower-standard products from other countries.
Covid-19 Lockdown: Air Quality
It is an absolute pleasure to be taking part today, Mr Speaker, although nothing really makes up for being there in person with you.
DEFRA’s roadside air quality monitoring stations continuously monitor air quality. Between 23 March and 5 May, nitrogen dioxide concentrations were, on average, 46% lower than this time last year, with reductions ranging from 9% to 65% at individual locations. That is largely due to the substantial reduction in traffic levels, although other factors such as weather may also have had some impact. Interestingly, concentrations of other air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, have not shown similar trends.
I thank the Minister for her answer. That is some small good news, I guess, out of lockdown. In Manchester’s sister city of Wuhan in China, private car use nearly doubled when the lockdown ended, with the obvious effects on air quality. Is the Minister concerned that the Prime Minister’s statement of 10 May encouraged the use of cars?
It has been made very clear in all the guidance and by the Prime Minister that, first and foremost, if people can work from home, they should do so. Those who have to go to work were advised to go by car, and also to cycle and walk. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question, because he strikes a good note. He will know that the uptake of cycling has surged during this time, especially where businesses are providing a scheme so that their employees can have bikes. He will also know that the Prime Minister has announced that we are phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035—earlier, if possible. Lessons will be learnt. The Air Quality Expert Group has been conducting a big survey, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be interested in the results when they are revealed.
It is my first time appearing opposite the Minister; hopefully we will have many fruitful discussions.
There is growing evidence that deaths due to covid are higher in areas of bad air quality, but lockdown means that right now we are breathing the cleanest air that we have had in generations. We need to do all we can to ensure that many of the survivors of covid, who will have weakened lungs, are protected. Air pollution currently kills 40,000 people each year, with 40 of our towns breaking the World Health Organisation limit. The Government and the Minister dismissed putting targets in the Environment Bill, but surely covid has changed all that. Will the Minister sit down with us and agree a form of wording that will require Ministers to set targets on air quality in order to reach the WHO standard by 2030 and help save British lives?
As the hon. Gentleman alludes to, the Environment Bill delivers key parts of the clean air strategy and introduces a duty to set an ambitious, legally binding target on PM concentrations of pollutants of greatest harm. I know that he will also be interested in the independent Air Quality Expert Group, which has been analysing the situation so that we can learn lessons from coronavirus, and from air quality and its potential impact on human lives. Air quality is a serious issue for human health.
Commercial and Household Waste Collection
DEFRA officials are working with local authorities and industry to ensure that commercial and household waste can continue to be collected safely during the coronavirus outbreak. I pay tribute to and thank all those working in local authorities and the waste sector who have ensured that nearly all household waste collections in England are operating as normal. On 5 May, DEFRA published guidance to help local authorities to reopen household waste and recycling centres.
Does my hon. Friend agree that waste collection is an integral part of ensuring health and wellbeing during this global pandemic? I know that she has thanked key workers, but would she particularly thank key workers in South West Herts? I am sure that they would appreciate her comments.
Of course, I would be delighted to thank those key workers. We must not forget that those who work in the waste sector are key workers, and they have done a tremendous job in keeping our waste systems flowing, with a terrific record of 91% maintaining normal collection services from our households during this difficult period. Many are now working in the waste and recycling centres that I am pleased to say have opened, and that are working efficiently in almost every area—albeit with strict guidance and slightly different services from those that they were operating before.
Covid-19 Death and Infection Rate: Air Quality
DEFRA has had extensive discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care on the relationship between air quality and health, recently considering the specific relationship between covid-19 deaths and air quality. DEFRA is actively working with Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics to assess further the relationship for the UK, and DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser is working with relevant experts in health, disease and air quality to assess the relationship between air quality and the risk of infection, based on the emerging scientific research into covid-19.
Research from Harvard University suggests that a change of 1 microgram per cubic metre of PM2.5 leads to a 15% reduction in covid deaths, and Queen Mary University of London has shown that short-term pollution gives rise to more infection. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State meet me and the academics from Harvard and Queen Mary on 29 May at the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution to discuss this, with a view to introducing World Health Organisation air quality standards into the Environment Bill?
I know that the hon. Gentleman works very hard in this area. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Public Health England and the ONS are working together to assess whether there is evidence of association between exposure to particulates—the PM2.5 that he refers to—and covid-19 mortality in the UK. The clean air strategy sets out the comprehensive action required across all parts of Government to improve air quality for everyone, and it includes measures to reduce key sources that contribute to fine particulate matter. Because of the lockdown, I think joining the APPG would be difficult, but I would be very interested to have some feedback from that meeting.
Tens of thousands of lives cut short every year—that was the UK’s air quality health emergency long before we had even heard of coronavirus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said, we now know that there is a strong correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and covid-19 deaths, so clean air zones are needed more than ever. However, Nottingham’s taxi drivers tell me they are worried about their ability to invest in new clean electric vehicles as a result of lost income, and other businesses face similar pressures. As we come out of lockdown, how will the Government support local councils and small businesses to go even faster to protect the public from toxic air?
As the hon. Lady will know, we have supported Nottingham City Council to tackle its nitrogen dioxide exceedance through a £1 million investment to support the uptake of e-taxis and £1.7 million to retrofit 171 buses, which means that there is not a need for a clean air zone. Nottingham is also one of the Go Ultra Low cities. My officials will be working closely with and will be very interested to speak to Nottingham City Council to see how the impacts of coronavirus are affecting its plans. They are doing that with all local authorities across the country, just to keep a weather eye on how coronavirus will impact our new clean air zones and our drive to reduce air pollution, which of course is all important.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Isolation of House Staff: Gemma White QC Recommendations
Good day to you, Mr Speaker. In February this year, the House of Commons Commission agreed to establish the Member Services Team, which will deliver the recommendations of Gemma White QC, including on the isolation felt by MPs’ staff. I understand that the team is already working with Members’ staff to see how their ideas for greater mental health support can be delivered. The MST is also currently recruiting two MPs’ staff advisers to tackle the issues raised around isolation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I know, Mr Speaker, that you are well aware of the excellent cross-party work that members of my team —Stephanie McTighe and Chloe Mclellan—have done on the issue of staff wellness and support, including by giving vital evidence to the board of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The Gemma White report highlighted that constituency staff often deal with vulnerable constituents, many of whom can be suicidal and in deep distress. Those existing challenges are now compounded by the fact that staff are working from home. Will my hon. Friend meet my team and I to discuss their work and how staff wellbeing can be made a priority, and to ensure that the Commission does all it can to support staff in our constituencies so that we can continue to serve our constituents in a safe and supportive way?
I thank my hon. Friend very sincerely and commend her for the work she has been doing across the House. I also thank her staff, who have inputted greatly into the work on this terrain. I draw attention to the fact that £4,000 has been made available from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to help with those very issues, and I encourage her to use that resource as much as possible to ensure that her staff are assisted. The employee assistance programme is already available to MPs’ staff for counselling and support. I encourage all Members from across the House to access those services and that resource, and do everything possible to ensure that their staff are kept safe and secure.
Hybrid Proceedings in Parliament
The Commission has made no formal assessment of the effectiveness of the implementation of hybrid proceedings in the House. I should like to put on the record—on your behalf, too, Mr Speaker, as you have led on these issues—our appreciation of the broadcasting service and the digital service for delivering the hybrid functions and services at breakneck speed. It is quite extraordinary that they have done it under these circumstances.
The Commission has no responsibility for making changes to the House’s procedures. That is a matter for the House itself. The hon. Lady may wish to make a submission to the Procedure Committee’s current inquiry into the operation of proceedings. The Commission has responsibility for the staff of the House and the provision of services to Members and their staff on the estate. It is currently working to ensure that the House meets the Government guidelines to become a covid-19-secure workplace.
Thanks to you, Mr Speaker, the parliamentary digital service, the Clerks, the Commission, the House authorities, broadcasting and other staff in the House, the digital Parliament has been a huge success, but now the Leader of the House wants to abandon it and instead insists that 650 MPs—potential super-spreaders—should travel from across the country to cram into Westminster, putting constituents and staff at risk. Why would the Government choose to ignore their own advice that those who can work from home should, unless it is to cast a protective cloak around their floundering Prime Minister?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question, and I note her long-term interest in this issue. Unfortunately, it is a matter not for the Commission, but for the Government. The Commission’s responsibility begins and ends with our obligations and service to the staff of the House. I note her concerns, and she may wish to take them to the Procedure Committee. There are likely to be further announcements about the operation of the hybrid virtual proceedings in the course of the next couple of days, and I encourage her to engage fully with all debates and discussions concerning them.
I echo what has been said, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for making hybridisation happen in a Parliament where just getting TV cameras in took centuries. Given that social distancing is here to stay, it will take 40 minutes of votes to incorporate it into our jobs. We are told, on issues from ending air pollution to destroying capitalism, that we cannot go on with what was happening before. Is there any reason why the Government seem in such indecent haste to rush back to the bad old days? Is it to disguise the drubbings that the PM is getting every Wednesday from our new leader by having a few more of his own around him to cheer him on?
Unfortunately, the answer is going to be pretty much the same as the previous one. That is a matter for the Government; it is not within the responsibilities and obligations of the House of Commons Commission. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that I note her concerns. We have obligations and responsibilities to the staff of this House. The staff unions have been making representations to the Commission on behalf of their members. I encourage her to take up these issues with the relevant Ministers.
Covid-19: Parliamentary Estate
The House Service is currently working in conjunction with Public Health England to ensure that we meet the Government guidelines to become a covid-19-secure work- place and to build on our existing measures to ensure that all those working on the estate can do so safely. That is underpinned by the completion of a covid-19 risk assessment, which will be shared by all those working on the estate if the House returns after the Whitsun recess. The successful introduction of those measures will help to reduce the spread of covid-19, and they have been supported by those on the estate.
I thank the Commission and, indeed, the staff in Parliament for the work they have done in enabling Members to participate virtually while complying with Government guidelines to stay at home. Of course, returning to normal proceedings would involve not just 650 Members but several thousand staff on the estate, many of whom are currently shielding. As my hon. Friend will know, it is almost impossible to travel more than about 10 metres in Parliament without touching a door handle. So what work is the Commission doing to ensure that both staff and Members stay safe and do not become super-spreaders?
The House is doing everything possible to ensure that we do become a covid-19-secure workplace. But my hon. Friend is right to note that if we do abandon these virtual proceedings tomorrow, it will be necessary for 650 Members to travel from all corners of the United Kingdom to participate in proceedings in an environment that will be very, very challenging in order to ensure that we can maintain social distancing requirements. All I can say, again, is that this not a matter for the Commission—it is a matter for Government, who are driving the “return to this House” agenda. I encourage her to take this up with Ministers to ensure that we do have a safe environment and that we do nothing further to put our constituents at risk.
Parliamentary works sponsor body
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
Parliamentary Works Programme: Cost
I am sure that covid-19 is going to cause all of us to think afresh about many things. For the restoration and renewal project, value for money is clearly vital—indeed, it is a statutory obligation. With the Sponsor Body and the Delivery Authority now substantive, we will conduct a strategic review that will consider the trade-offs and compromises that could be available. But of course, any such decisions would be for Parliament to make.
May I associate myself with the comments made earlier about 650 super-spreaders returning to Parliament?
We are currently spending in the order of several million pounds to repair the roofs and the brickwork, and to stop fire damage to that marvellous building, the Palace of Westminster. That is all correct. However, as my right hon. Friend said, there is perhaps some doubt as to whether R&R will go ahead, so I may I ask him to ensure that huge amounts of money are not now spent on a project that would cost between £4 billion and £8 billion to complete, if it is ever done at all?
I think it is rather more than several million pounds that has had to be spent by Parliament just to keep its own operation going. However, I want to reassure my hon. Friend that the business case would have come before Parliament for decision anyway. It was always envisaged that once the Sponsor Body was set up in law, there would be a review of certain aspects of the programme. But in these current circumstances, and with what we know now, it is right that that review will now be broader and deeper.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Electoral Commission: Effectiveness
In accordance with its functions under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Speaker’s Committee met on 24 March to examine the Electoral Commission’s main supply estimates for 2020-21 and its five-year plan. In doing so, the Committee had regard to the advice from the Treasury and the latest report made to it by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Committee was satisfied that both the estimate and the plan were consistent with the economic, efficient and effective discharge by the Commission of its functions.
May I congratulate the hon. Member on his new responsibilities? But this is not about figures— it is about the way that the Electoral Commission has hounded leave campaigners. There have been 34 investigations, eight court cases, and at least four people referred to the police for criminal investigation—and it has all come to nowt. Would the hon. Member support a review by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that the Speaker’s Committee is doing a decent job in maintaining scrutiny of the Electoral Commission. It is entirely appropriate, from time to time, for Select Committees to look into public bodies that fall under their competence, and I suggest that he write to the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee making that suggestion.
Boundary Review in England
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England continues to recommend fair electoral and boundary arrangements for local authorities in England. Last week, it published final recommendations for Westminster and Richmond upon Thames. These local government boundaries generally become the building blocks for parliamentary boundaries, which are, of course, a matter for the four Boundary Commissions, reporting through the Cabinet Office.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The covid-19 virus has, of course, had an impact on every facet of our lives at the moment. Will he tell us more about its impact on the commission’s boundary work and whether it has been able to co-ordinate its work with other Boundary Commissions, such as those working on the parliamentary boundaries?
When coronavirus-related restrictions were introduced, the commission shifted entirely to home working. It took forward work on reviews where further external information or input was not required, such as those for Westminster and Richmond. The commission aims to deliver external reviews informed by local needs, views and circumstances. It therefore paused some reviews that were part way through the review process while it considered how to proceed. It has now developed new ways of working, and commissioners are meeting today to agree how and when to restart paused reviews and begin others. On the wider issue of parliamentary boundaries using these building blocks, because that is a rolling programme, many of those building blocks will already be in place and other reviews perhaps would never have been ready in time for the particular parliamentary reviews.
Digital Election Campaigning: Transparency
At its meeting on 24 March, the committee approved the commission’s interim corporate plan, which includes plans to address voter concerns about digital campaigning. The commission’s recent report on the 2019 general election highlighted significant public concerns about the transparency of digital election campaigns, which risk overshadowing their benefits. The commission has set out actions that parties, campaigners, Governments and social media companies should take to support trust and confidence at future elections. The actions include extending the imprint rules for printed materials to digital campaign materials so that voters know who is trying to influence them.
This follows on from what the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) asked earlier. Last week, he said the Electoral Commission, which, as my hon. Friend said, is asked to do this important work on digital campaigning, was “arrogant”, “incompetent” and
“politically corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt”.—[Official Report, 13 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 246.]
This was because it had the nerve to enforce the law and fine Vote Leave £61,000. Would the committee agree that to try to intimidate an independent electoral body in this way is more in the tradition of the politicians of Zimbabwe than of Britain?
The Electoral Commission has a regulatory role and regulatory authority which are the same as those of many regulators throughout the United Kingdom. I suggest that the track record of the Electoral Commission is one that perhaps does not bear some of the description that has just been repeated. In the past five years, it has carried out approximately 500 investigations into a variety of electoral offences. Only five of those have been challenged in the courts and only one challenge has been upheld.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for South Norfolk, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme: Date of Eligibility
The National Audit Office’s work programme is ultimately determined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and it is regularly reviewed to ensure that it reflects current issues. Dealing with covid-19 is, of course, a major task of the Departments, on which the NAO will report. The hon. Lady may be interested to know that later this week the NAO will be publishing a report summarising the Government’s actions on covid-19 to date, which will provide the basis for further work. This first report will set out the main measures adopted under the Government response, including the coronavirus job retention scheme.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that response, which may well have answered my question—that is unusual. The point I wanted to flag up with him is that although the Government coronavirus support packages have helped a great many people, far too many have fallen through the gaps and, for one reason or another, are not getting the help they need. I therefore ask him to bring this issue to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General, so that the NAO could look into the operation of these schemes to see whether they represented the best use of public money or whether lessons could be learned as to how we would approach an issue such as this if, God forbid, we ended up with another situation as serious as the current pandemic.
I would hate to be thought of as responsible for starting a new trend by actually answering the question, but as I mentioned in my initial response, the NAO is soon to publish this report, which will be just the first in a programme of work supporting Parliament in its scrutiny of covid-19. I am certainly happy to draw the hon. Lady’s concerns to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The future work programme will include how the large sums that have been committed to the health and social care response, and indeed, to mitigating the economic impact, will be being spent, and the quality of that spending. It will be important for the NAO to review whether the money is achieving the intended impact, as well as how the risks of fraud and error are being managed.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
With no access to our church buildings, considerable innovation by the clergy has seen the creation of virtual prayer services, school assemblies, study groups, fellowship meetings and craft workshops. That is in addition to online church services, bereavement counselling, marriage preparation and marriage support.
In normal times, churches engage with thousands of parents and children each week through playgroups, coffee mornings, church services and youth groups, providing support to families across all sections of society. In my constituency, groups such as these have been a lifeline to many families, including my own. During this crisis, what steps are churches taking to remain in contact with these families, particularly to support parents as they continue to raise children in very difficult circumstances?
I am so pleased to hear how the work of the church benefits my hon. Friend’s family and the families of many of her Penistone and Stocksbridge constituents. I also recommend that families check out the Faith at Home video resources of the Church of England, which nurture a growing faith and this month focus on hope, courage, love and humility—all qualities that we need at work and in the community, as well as at home.
Clergy’s Access to Churches
Clergy can now return to their churches to pray and live-stream services. For the time being, churches must remain closed for public worship, as set out in law. The Government set out their ambition to reopen places of worship from 4 July, subject to further scientific advice. No place of worship will be able to reopen before a final decision by the Government, the necessary changes to the legal position in the published regulations and the accompanying decision by the diocesan bishop, which will take into account local circumstances.
During this national crisis, there has been a vital role for the established Church to represent the concerns and fears of the whole nation. Does my hon. Friend agree that the physical presence of a parish church, open for prayer and attended by its priests, is an important signal that we are not alone in our struggle? Health workers, care workers, bin collectors, posties and now all those who are unable to undertake their work from home have been asked to accept additional personal risk to carry out their important work for the health and wellbeing of the nation. Should our clergy not be allowed to provide the same level of service to their—[Inaudible.]
I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the physical presence of churches, but while our buildings may be closed, the Church is very much alive and has been astonishingly present in the midst of suffering and need, providing comfort, inspiration and a great deal of practical help. Those who allege that we have done nothing or vacated the field are not correct.
Buildings, Liturgy and Worship: Adaptation
The House of Bishops guidance issued on 5 May shows that the Church of England is committed to reopening buildings in a phased and measured manner, in accordance with the legal position. We are working with the Government and representatives of the heritage planning sector to assess the need for building adaptations related to public health.
Polling shows that during the current crisis, one in four adults, and one in three of 16 to 30-year-olds, have joined a religious service remotely. Does my hon. Friend welcome that, and what is the Church doing to ensure that this continues more widely, even after lockdown?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing those figures to the House’s attention and I welcome them very warmly, particularly the large viewing figures among younger people. She is absolutely right that the Church will need to keep up a significant online presence well after lockdown has finished.
Support for People in Need
The priority for the Church has been to continue its vital service to those in material and spiritual need in all communities despite the restrictions imposed. Bishops and the Church are in regular contact with Ministers, and to this end the Church is represented on two Cabinet Office taskforces.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have many interests, including cricket, as you do I know.
The smaller charities are struggling because of fundraising difficulties in the current crisis. Will my hon. Friend look at how the Church can work with those charities? It is true that our churches have closed, but the Church has many buildings—church halls and so on—that might be made available. Fellowship and faith are so important at this time, as is our charitable work. I wonder if he can help.
All food bank work in churches continues. For example, Christ Church in Eastbourne is feeding 200 people breakfast in its car park; churches in Alston Moor are delivering groceries in a refrigerated van; and St Luke’s in Buckfastleigh has delivered 18 sets of hearing aids among other items. There are wonderful examples of what the Church is doing, and no doubt that is happening in South Holland and the Deepings as well.
Clergy Discipline Process
I recognise my hon. Friend’s experience in dealing with these difficult issues. The operation of the clergy discipline measure is currently being reviewed, and it is hoped that less serious complaints could be referred initially to mediation or alternative dispute resolution, which would allow complaints to be dealt with more expediently and effectively.
Research has shown that the clergy discipline process leaves many members of our clergy vulnerable and, in some deeply saddening cases, has driven them to take their lives. What steps are the Church Commissioners taking to review these processes and to provide the right mental health support to those clergy subject to discipline, particularly where such discipline arises from a spurious or malicious allegation? Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that the Church Commissioners will provide our clergy with the support they need during the process?
Our hope is that the proposals under consideration, which I have just outlined, will mitigate the possible detriment to respondents from complaints that may be unfounded. Freeing bishops from direct judicial involvement in disciplinary matters would enable them more easily to offer the pastoral support my hon. Friend refers to. We are also exploring how to supplement ecclesiastical legal aid to support those responding to complaints.
Remote Access to Church Services
I can tell my right hon. Friend that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter day sermon was listened to by 5 million people and that the Alexa Church app has had a 70% increase in usage in the last month. Perhaps most notably, “The UK Blessing”, co-ordinated by Gas Street Church, Birmingham, has been downloaded 2.6 million times, and according to the Prime Minister is a sensational singing masterpiece to which he has awarded a point of light.
I warmly welcome the huge efforts going into ensuring that people have remote access to church services, but there are some situations when that is not a substitute for meeting in places of worship with one’s family, so can I urge the Church Commissioners and my hon. Friend to speed up the introduction of small-scale funerals within churches, with social distancing observed, because of the comfort they can bring to people bereaved by this terrible crisis?
I know what a deeply difficult issue this is. The Church will work with the Government on these issues to do safely what my right hon. Friend asks. She will be aware that cleaning in many of our churches is done by volunteers, some of whom are elderly and may have difficulty coming in between funerals, but the point she makes is very valid and has absolutely been noted.
Support for Hospital Chaplains
I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in and concern for our hospital chaplains, who have done such amazing work in recent months. The Church works closely with the College of Healthcare Chaplains to ensure support for our chaplains. Anglican chaplains, while being required to hold a bishop’s licence, are actually employees of the trusts they serve, not the Church of England.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Sadly, I was touched by the virus with the loss of my father, and Father John Diver of St Lawrence’s parish in Sidcup was a source of great comfort to him and my family at a difficult time. Would the Church Commissioner join me in recording our gratitude to hospital chaplains and to the clergy of all faiths?
I know that the whole House would want to extend our deepest condolences to my hon. Friend for the very sad loss of his father. What he says about all chaplains is absolutely right, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has himself been volunteering as a chaplain at St Thomas’s Hospital. I thank him very much for his kind comments, which will be deeply appreciated.
Church of England Schools: Support for Children and Parents
I would like to thank very warmly and pay tribute to all the teachers and staff in Church schools who are providing teaching and care for children at this difficult time. They have moved rapidly to provide online lessons and resources, and are looking after children of key workers and overseeing the distribution of free school meal vouchers. The Church is also delighted to have partnered with the Oak National Academy to provide assemblies and weekly collective worship.
Here in Cumbria and the South Lakes, headteachers of Church schools—in fact, of all schools—do want to return on 1 June, but of course they see protecting the safety of their school community as their first and primary responsibility. Will the hon. Gentleman make strong representations to the Department for Education about supporting those schools that decide to stay closed for the time being for safety reasons, especially given new Government guidance against schools using flexible approaches for returning pupils?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. In addition to being Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am a governor myself of a Church school, and I actually attended a governors meeting by Zoom early this morning looking at exactly these issues. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will make sure that his comments are fed in. I know that the Department for Education is taking these issues very seriously and will proceed cautiously, as we would all expect it to do.