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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 677: debated on Thursday 25 June 2020

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dairy Industry: Covid-19

The Government have had to take some unprecedented steps to control the coronavirus, and it is the case that parts of the dairy industry were affected by the closure of the hospitality sector earlier in March. We have introduced specific measures to support the industry, including a dairy response fund, which opened for applications on 18 June. Payments will begin from 6 July. We have also relaxed elements of competition law, and we are supporting an industry-led promotional campaign.

Would my right hon. Friend be able to work with the Welsh Government to secure greater milk processing capacity in order to add value back to Welsh dairy farmers, particularly in my constituency of Clwyd South, which has been hit hard by the demise of Tomlinson’s Dairies and by bovine TB, so that all farmers can get a fair price for their world-beating Welsh milk?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government do indeed work with the devolved Administrations to improve outcomes for our dairy farmers. Indeed, just yesterday, jointly with the devolved Administration, we launched a consultation seeking views from dairy farmers and processors on new regulations to secure transparency and fairness in dairy contracts. As he points out, there are also circumstances where grant funding can be made available to support investment in processing capacity, and that can help add value to the milk produced by our farmers.

Dual Tariff Proposals: British Food Standards

Like all Conservative Members, I am proud to have stood on a manifesto commitment that, in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. The Secretary of State for International Trade and I are working together to deliver that commitment.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but will he restate that he is still willing to stand by his party’s manifesto commitment to put that into law to prevent food from being imported into the United Kingdom that is produced in ways that would be illegal under current legislation? I am thinking particularly about chlorinated chicken.

Retained European law brings across a prohibition on treatments such as chlorine washes on chicken and, indeed, hormone treatments on beef. The Government have made it clear that those have been brought across and remain in place. We also stand by our manifesto commitment, which was to protect our food standards and animal welfare standards in trade agreements, but we did not ever say that we would legislate in the Agriculture Bill to do that.

Can the Secretary of State explain exactly how a dual tariff would prevent British consumers from having to accept imported food produced by causing animals unnecessary suffering, and how he will support British farmers striving to produce a high standard of food?

The hon. Lady makes reference to media speculation. I am sure hon. Members will understand that I cannot give a running commentary on our discussions on a future trade agreement or comment on such media speculation, but I will say that there are many ways, through a trade deal, that a country can agree with another country how to protect food standards—both food safety and animal welfare.

The public do not want our British farmers to be undercut by food produced to lower standards abroad. Research by Which? published today shows that eight out of 10 people are worried that trade deals will risk our high animal welfare standards. With the National Farmers Union petition now on 1 million names, it is clear that Ministers are on the wrong side of the argument here, so does the Environment Secretary need any more help convincing the International Trade Secretary to put the Conservative manifesto promise into law?

The International Trade Secretary and I are both absolutely committed to delivering our manifesto commitments, but we also have a manifesto commitment to expand the number of free trade agreements that we have, and it is also the case that the UK farming industry has offensive interests, particularly in dairy and in meat such as pork, lamb and beef, in other countries, particularly Asian markets. We want to expand the number of free trade agreements that we have to create opportunities for our industry but also to protect our standards, and that is exactly what we will do.

I think we all know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ministerial team are part of the eight out of 10 who are worried about animal welfare in trade agreements, but may I press the Secretary of State on a slightly different issue related to food standards—the outbreaks of covid-19 in food processing plants across the United Kingdom? This is serious. Any outbreak needs to be contained. Food standards matter, and standards for the people who work in those plants also matter. What assessment has the Environment Secretary made of whether meat processing plants and food factories are especially at risk, and what assessment has he made of the low level of statutory sick pay that forces many people to work in those plants instead of staying at home because they simply would not earn enough money to pay their bills if they did so?

I pay tribute to all those working in our food sector, including in manufacturing, who have worked very hard to keep food on our plates during these difficult times. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have heard now of three outbreaks linked to meat plants. They have been picked up through the testing and tracing approach that has been adopted and we are reviewing the guidance. We suspect that these outbreaks might have been linked either to canteens or, potentially, to car-sharing arrangements in those plants. We will be revising guidance to ensure that businesses have the approach that they need to prevent further outbreaks in future.

The EU is clear that tariffs to counteract its green box subsidies will not be acceptable. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that domestic food producers are not disadvantaged by matching those green box subsidies for farmers here?

As part of our agreement to leave the European Union, we have been working for a couple of years now jointly with the European Union on splitting the World Trade Organisation schedule, including what is called the aggregate market support boxes—the so-called green boxes and amber boxes—and the UK will have an appropriate share of that green box support in the WTO.

Zoos: Covid-19

The Government have introduced a £14 million zoos fund for licensed zoos in England. Outdoor areas of zoos and safari parks have already been allowed to reopen, subject to appropriate social distancing measures being in place. The indoor areas of zoos and aquariums will be permitted to open from 4 July. An announcement on further support for the zoos is expected imminently.

Unfortunately, the best chances of survival for some animals is in captivity. For centuries, we have taken away the natural home of animals and we should all accept responsibility for that. Keeping zoos and wildlife parks open is something that I wholeheartedly support, and I am grateful that financial support has been made available. We owe it to these animals to ensure that they survive and continue to be a part of this planet, so can my hon. Friend please assure me that Government will do all they can to ensure that not one animal in our zoos and parks is put to sleep due to financial constraints caused by this pandemic?

We are a nation of animal lovers. I know that you, Mr Speaker, are a very big animal lover, as am I and as is my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson). The objective of the zoo support fund, which, by the way, is open until 19 July, is to address avoidable animal suffering in zoos, including, in the worst cases, preventing unplanned euthanasia. My Department continues to engage weekly with zoos to keep on top of what is happening.

Trade Negotiations: North of England Small-scale Farming

We are clear that any future trade agreements must work for both our farmers and consumers. This week, DEFRA and the Department for International Trade have jointly announced a package of measures to help food and drink businesses grow their trade overseas. The package is aimed in particular at small businesses, which make up 97% of the food and drink industry. This will benefit businesses across the UK, including those in the north of England. We will always stand up for British farming and we will use our negotiations to make new opportunities for our businesses large and small.

As lockdown eases, many of my constituents are once again enjoying the glorious Northumbrian and County Durham landscapes. That depends on farmers small in scale but with really high production standards, whether for the cattle they graze on the town moor, or the sheep on the Cheviots, or the grain sold through local co-operatives such as Tynegrain. Why will the Minister not commit to writing into law that we do not import food with lower standards than those that our farmers already meet, so that they are not undercut by the American agro-industrial complex?

The Secretary of State has already answered that in some detail. As my right hon. Friend set out, a range of measures are available to protect the hon. Lady’s farmers, including existing regulations. We have great transparency in this House and with the general public in our trade negotiations. There is a great deal of scrutiny of exactly how those negotiations are taking place, and they will be put before the House again before they are signed. We also have a further range of measures—we will be consulting in detail on labelling before the end of the year—which are all designed to protect her farmers.

Animal Welfare Standards

This Government are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare. Our manifesto made it clear that we will bring in new laws on animal sentience, end excessively long journeys for farm animals and ban the keeping of primates as pets. We have introduced one of the world’s toughest ivory bans and will be supporting the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill.

I was disappointed that, because of coronavirus, the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill was delayed. Will my hon. Friend assure me that it will be heard in the House at the earliest opportunity?

We all shared my hon. Friend’s disappointment, and I am pleased to be able to reassure her that the Bill is due to have its Second Reading on 23 October.

Our constituents expect us to uphold animal welfare and high food standards. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that maintaining the UK’s high food standards and excellent animal welfare record is, among other things, in the Government’s interest, as that is what customers at home and abroad expect and demand from UK producers?

I absolutely agree with hon. Friend on that. The Government are proud of the high animal health and welfare and environmental standards that underpin our high-quality produce. The UK’s growing reputation for quality food and drink, with high standards of food safety, animal welfare and sustainability, serves as a great platform from which to expand our exports.

The Minister has been hearing a strong message from the House this morning about animal cruelty, because, sadly, the lockdown has seen an increase in it, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reporting 47,000 incidents —the Daily Mail calculates that that is one case every two minutes. As we have heard, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill has been constantly delayed. The Bill has cross-party support. The Government are supposed to be supporting it and they are supposed to be running this place, so will the Minister guarantee that Finn’s law will be on the statute book by the end of the year and available to the courts?

As I said a moment ago, 23 October is the date available for Second Reading. I have supported the Bill from the beginning and I am pleased it will be moving forward just as quickly as we can do it.

Food insecurity is a great issue, especially with the covid virus. Evidence we are taking in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shows that a lot of people are in need of good food. I congratulate the Secretary of State on the system of getting food straight from the farms to those who most need it, but can he extend it even more? I ask because after the pandemic and before the economy recovers properly people are going to need more and more food.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government have made available £16 million to partners such as FareShare to ensure that we can get food to thousands of food charities across the country to support those in need. In addition, we have been looking at other ways in which we can support those who are financially vulnerable at this difficult time.

Countryside Stewardship: Water Quality

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of increasing the number of areas that benefit from the countryside stewardship water quality priority areas scheme. (903802)

Countryside stewardship is designed to maximise environmental improvements and value for money for the taxpayers. Water quality actions are focused on areas posing the highest risk of water pollution from agriculture, for example, in catchments draining into specifically protected sites of biodiversity. We will look to review these focus areas in the transition period and, importantly, how we reward farmers for delivering public goods, such as water quality, through our new environmental land management scheme.

As we move from the single farm payment to support for farmers to protect the environment, these water quality protection areas are one of the schemes that my local farmers in the Wear valley are particularly interested in looking at. May I therefore urge the Minister to include us in any review that is taking place?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that this is an area he is particularly interested in, as he has spoken to me about it before. Management practices that farmers introduce on their land can bring multiple benefits to the environment, including to water quality. I will pass on the invite to the Secretary of State, whom I believe he has asked to visit. He may have to make do with me or indeed with the farming Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). We both have children at Durham University, so perhaps we could come together.

Waste: Reuse and Recycling

Our resources and waste strategy, published in December 2018, sets out ambitious plans for how we will minimise waste, promote resource efficiency and move towards a more circular economy where we will reduce waste, reuse and recycle much more than we do now. It combines short and long-term actions and gives a clear long-term policy direction in line with our 25-year environment plan.

As the Minister knows, the waste hierarchy calls for a reduction in the amount of waste we produce as the best way to tackle waste in this country, followed closely by reusing and recycling that waste. Can she update me on the measures that her Department is taking to reduce the amount of waste produced in this country as part of our green recovery from covid, and will she consider Carshalton and Wallington as a pilot area for any new schemes, such as a deposit return scheme?

My hon. Friend is always representing his constituency and pushing for new things, and rightly so. The combined effect of the measures set out in the resources and waste strategy and the Environment Bill will be to minimise the amount of waste that reaches the lower levels of the waste hierarchy, including disposal to landfill. We remain committed to eliminating all avoidable plastic by the end of 2042. We have already committed in our manifesto to introducing a deposit return scheme. Unfortunately, we cannot consider the pilot in his area, but I thank him for his support. We look forward to it being introduced, and the second consultation will be under way next year.

British Food Producers

We are promoting British food and drink producers at home and abroad. Just this week, we announced a package of trade and investment measures to help food and drink businesses grow their overseas trade, which includes reinforcing DEFRA’s Food is GREAT campaign and promoting 50 food and drink export champions. We are also supporting domestic campaigns such as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and Dairy UK’s £1 million promotional campaign for milk.

As the Secretary of State will know, Cheshire is not just renowned for its crumbly cheese. Our new potatoes are on the menu at the world’s finest restaurants, and our salt is being used by chefs all over the world to add flavour to fine food. We also have some of the finest farmers’ markets selling food prepared locally to my constituents in Warrington. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to support farmers and food producers in my constituency to navigate the challenging set of market conditions created by covid-19?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. His part of Cheshire is famous for its food, particularly its cheese, but also salt and new potatoes. Many parts of our country are renowned for their high-quality local produce, and we want to support farmers to promote that and add value.

May I push the Secretary of State on this? Does he agree that the future of British agriculture and the British food industry has to be based on quality and shorter supply chains as we come out of this pandemic? Will he join me in calling for an investigation into what is happening in our meat processing plants? Some of them look rather strange. In the four that I have looked at, many of the workers are reluctant to take a test because they would lose money and be isolated. That is a real problem. Could he look into it?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this country has built a proud record based on the quality of our food and food provenance in particular, and we will maintain that. On the specific point that he raises about outbreaks of coronavirus at three meat plants, we are looking at that and have been investigating the causes of it. We suspect, as I said earlier, that it is linked either to shared transport or canteen areas, and new guidance will be issued to those meat plants.

UK Farms: Productivity

The Agriculture Bill will allow us to introduce ambitious new schemes in England based on the principle of public money for public goods, so that we can reward farmers who protect our environment, improve animal welfare and produce high-quality food in a sustainable way. The Bill will also help farmers to stay competitive.

Despite spending £3.4 billion each year under the common agricultural policy and subsidies for our farmers, the productivity growth rate has not significantly increased since the 1990s. This is in stark contrast with unsupported sectors such as egg production, where in 2019 alone productivity increased by 3.8%. Does my hon. Friend agree that the removal of the damping blanket of the CAP, as well as increased competition, will drive productivity growth throughout farming, allowing Government support for farming to focus on public money for public goods?

I absolutely agree that moving away from the CAP provides the opportunity for a more prosperous, competitive and self-reliant industry. We will support UK farms to focus on their business modelling and to improve efficiency, which may well, in turn, reduce their environmental footprint.

UK Fishing Industry: Covid-19

We understand that this is a challenging time for the fishing industry and we have taken steps to support the sector. In April, we launched a £10 million financial assistance package for England’s fishing and aquaculture businesses, which included a £1 million grant scheme to support the sale of fish locally. The sector is also able to benefit from the wider financial support measures available for businesses. In addition, the Sea For Yourself campaign has encouraged people to eat more fish.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The process of determining which businesses received funding through the domestic seafood supply scheme has been criticised as being unfair. While one project in the Lowestoft area was successful, two good applications were not. What assistance will be available to these and other businesses to enable the East Anglian fishing industry to meet the infrastructure and other costs in preparation for the end of the transition period?

I cannot discuss the individual cases, but I can say that applications were reviewed by a panel of experts, including several representatives from the catching and processing sectors. The judging panel awarded funding to projects that best met the criteria, especially those that could deliver benefits to a range of fishing businesses.

Plastic Waste Increase: Covid-19

What estimate his Department has made of the increase in plastic waste as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (903809)

DEFRA continues to monitor the impact of covid-19 on material flows. We have made no specific estimate of the impact of the outbreak on levels of plastic waste. However, we remain committed to eliminating the scourge of avoidable plastic waste by 2042, as demonstrated by our plans to ban single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, which we discussed in this very Chamber just a week ago. We continue to monitor recycling rates for plastic packaging and we have committed to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks containers to incentivise people to recycle more plastic.

May I suggest that the Department actually needs to get on and make some plans for this? We are talking about not avoidable but unavoidable plastic waste, because the covid-19 crisis has clearly necessitated the use and disposal of massive quantities of disposable personal protective equipment, much of it plastic, and new mitigation measures for the catering and hospitality industry will generate another wave. We all accept that this is necessary to protect health and get Britain back to work, but what is the Department going to do now to deal with this volume of waste, much of it plastic?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who raises some good points. This Government are absolutely committed to getting rid of plastic waste, as our resources and waste strategy shows, and as measures in the Environment Bill will demonstrate by bringing forward the deposit return scheme and extended producer responsibility. We need to get all businesses to think about what happens to the plastic products they make at the beginning and where they end up, with a view to greatly reduced quantities going to landfill. He raises a good point about PPE. Many companies are rethinking all this, and lots are now starting to have reusable face coverings and to make their own. There is a very useful guide to that on the Government website.

Vulnerable People: Food Supplies

What steps he is taking to maintain food supplies for vulnerable people during the covid-19 outbreak. (903811)

We have mobilised an unprecedented package of support for our most vulnerable people, including over 3 million food boxes and priority supermarket delivery slots. An additional £63 million has been confirmed by the Government to be distributed to English local authorities to help those who are struggling to afford food and other essentials. The Government are also providing £16 million to food support through charities, including FareShare and WRAP.

The current pressure on food banks is absolutely immense, and we know that income is at the heart of food poverty, so will the Government take the urgent social security measures needed now to get people the financial support they need, so they can get food on their plates and on their children’s plates, by ending the five-week wait for universal credit and abolishing that punitive two-child limit?

The Government have introduced a package of support of over £6.5 billion to help families on benefits to cope with the financial impact of covid.

I would like to use this opportunity, if I may, to pay tribute to the taskforce, which I have led for the last few months, on feeding the vulnerable. We have worked very closely with colleagues across government—in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and other Departments—as well as, of course, with an excellent team from the supermarkets and volunteers. I am pleased to say that, in so far as we have been able, we have ensured that everybody who needs it has access to food.

Topical Questions

The coronavirus has created many challenges for our country, and the response of our key workers throughout the epidemic has been quite extraordinary. As we take the next steps closer to normality, I would like to take this opportunity to record our thanks to all those working in the food supply chain for the phenomenal way they have responded. From farmers to food manufacturers, and from the delivery drivers to all those working in food retail, their response has been truly phenomenal.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The agricultural land around Peterborough is some of the best land in the country. With that in mind, could he let us know how he plans to increase UK food and drink exports to emerging markets such as the Gulf?

This week, we announced new measures on exports, with export champions to lead the way in opening new markets and to get more of our fantastic food and produce in those overseas markets. I have in recent years attended exhibitions such as Gulfood in the Gulf, where there are indeed many opportunities, particularly for our lamb sector.

Last November, after the devastating floods, the Prime Minister committed to holding a summit to improve flood defences in the north of England. Can I ask the Secretary of State why, six months on, this summit has not taken place? Can he set a date, and can he confirm that the Prime Minister will honour his commitment and be in attendance?

The reason that we have not yet had that summit is quite simple: it is that the coronavirus outbreak has taken up quite a lot of our time and obviously made it very difficult to physically travel to areas. I think it would be better to have a summit such as that physically in the location, rather than it being yet another Zoom meeting. However, I can give the hon. Lady a guarantee that that summit will indeed take place. I gave that commitment and it will happen.

The green belt is rightly described as the green lungs around our towns and cities, and it is rightly cherished by residents across the country, including myself. Can my right hon. Friend advise what cross-government working has been taking place to promote our manifesto commitment to protect and enhance the green belt, including areas such as Elton reservoir and Simister in my constituency? (903846)

I thank my hon. Friend for that. Of course, people have valued all these green spaces in this lockdown period; that has been more clear than ever. Our manifesto commitment says that, through the Environment Bill, we will set a new domestic framework for environmental governance, and this will enable us to work with developers, landowners and managers to create and restore wildlife-rich habitats, with wildlife thriving everywhere. We will have biodiversity net gain through that environment plan, and we will have local nature recovery strategies and a whole new area called nature recovery networks. All this will help to look after our precious green space.

Animal welfare charities are witnessing a sharp increase in need and this is expected to rise, while hundreds of charity staff in the sector are being made redundant. Some charities are struggling to cover their core costs, animal feed and vet bills. When will the Secretary of State bring forward his strategy and the necessary funding to support these vital animal welfare charities? (903845)

We are aware that animal welfare charities have suffered from a fall in donations and have had to close during the coronavirus epidemic. There was an application that was considered as part of a charities fund, but we will continue to work with those groups to identify the support that they need.

Many people across Stockton South, including me, enjoy a cheeky Nando’s or a finger-lickin’ good KFC, but we are concerned about the prospect of chlorinated chicken. Can the Minister guarantee that chlorinated chicken will not be on the menu in our trade negotiations and that we will remain a world leader on food and animal welfare standards? (903847)

As I explained earlier, in any trade negotiation it will be for the UK to determine what goes into the so-called sanitary and phytosanitary chapter, which addresses these issues. As I also pointed out, there is currently a prohibition on the sale of any poultry treated with a chlorine wash.

Some 75,000 people work in meat processing in this country. Meat processing plants have been linked to the spread of the virus in many countries, and we have had convincing evidence from Professor Wood at Cambridge and Professor Semple at Liverpool on the risks at these plants. What measures specific to food processing plants has the Minister put in place? (903848)

Very early in this crisis, we worked with Public Health England on guidance for these plants. It included, in some cases, spacing out staff on the production line to maintain a distance of 2 metres, and, where that was not possible, ensuring that things were arranged so that staff were facing away from one another. It also involved increased hygiene, new measures on canteens and guidance on car-share arrangements. As I have said, as a result of the three outbreaks that have occurred, we are reviewing those matters.

I return to the topic covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), although I am less of a finger-licker than he is. Many of my constituents in Warrington South have written to me on their concerns about maintaining high food standards in future trade arrangements, many of them driven by misinformation from the Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend agree that sticking with the UK’s high food and animal welfare standards is, among other things, in this Government’s interest, because that is what customers in this country expect and demand from UK food producers? (903849)

We in this country have built a very sophisticated and valuable market based on the safety of our food, the standards of our food and our high animal welfare standards. We have committed in our manifesto to maintaining those.

Perhaps I could dwell on this finger-licking topic that has come up so frequently. Is not the simple truth that because so much of our food consumption goes through the food services sector—in the likes of prisons, hospitals, schools and the chains of restaurants on our high street—with a great proportion of it, the consumer will never know? That is the great fear. The US does not want labelling or descriptors, so those consumers will never know what they are consuming. (903852)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Food labelling can improve transparency, particularly in the retail sector, but of course there are limitations in that around 50% of food goes into the food services sector. That is why we will be addressing these matters in our trade agreements.

Overuse of antibiotics in animal farming has been identified as contributing to bacterial resistance. With American cattle receiving 13 times the amount of antibiotics that UK herds receive, how does the Minister plan to guard against importing resistant bacteria in US beef? (903857)

There has been a global effort to tackle antimicrobial resistance and, in particular, to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture, especially the critically important antibiotics. The UK is a leader in that and has adopted farm husbandry that has made it possible to reduce the use of antibiotics. We have also worked with international partners, including the United States, to assist them to achieve the same.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Services: Covid-19

When the Church Commissioners plan to reopen churches for services as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (903754)

When the Church Commissioners plan to reopen churches for services as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (903761)

What representations the Church Commissioners have made to the Government on enabling public worship to resume in churches. (903764)

When the Church Commissioners plan to reopen cathedrals and churches for worship; and if he will make a statement. (903779)

The last three months have been the first time in more than 800 years that England has gone without public worship and the sacraments, so there is real joy that we can meet again, socially distanced, from 4 July. I can give an assurance that the personal safety of clergy who are shielding should be prioritised and they can continue to do their duties remotely.

The self-sacrifice of so many people during the extreme lockdown period will have saved many lives, but one of the great sacrifices for many people will have been the inability to attend church physically and to have had to cancel weddings, baptisms and other deeply significant ceremonies. I understand my hon. Friend had to cancel his own daughter’s wedding last Saturday, and I wish her and her fiancé all the best. Will he now confirm that their wedding, as well as many others, can now go ahead in safety in church with 30 guests, and when does he expect the number of guests to be increased to reflect the capacity of the church being used and the new 1 metre-plus rule?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her kind good wishes, which are greatly appreciated. As she said, weddings can now take place from 4 July, but only with a maximum of 30 people. This is a huge relief to many couples throughout the country. For church services, there is no maximum number within a place of worship as long as the premises comply with covid-secure guidelines.

Given the country’s need for more housing, including more social housing, are the Church Commissioners able to take into account social and community outcomes in their land development decisions, and not just maximising financial profit?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and I can tell her that the Church of England pensions board already supports the social housing market through investments in social housing bonds. The commissioners also make provision for social and affordable housing on housing developments as per local planning requirements, while being required, like all charities, to obtain best value reasonably obtainable in the market when disposing of assets. But I am keen to explore whether the Church Commissioners are able to play any further role in solving the nation’s housing crisis. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s housing commission, which the Bishop of Kensington co-chairs, is looking separately at wider housing policy, and I am engaging closely with that work.

I used to enjoy a hymn sandwich before this interdict, but I have broken the habit. How is my hon. Friend going to lure us back if we are not allowed to sing? May I suggest, as a minimum, shorter services, even shorter sermons, some comfortable words from the Book of Common Prayer and an end to prating prelates?

That is a challenge indeed, Mr Speaker, but what I would say to my right hon. Friend is that I hope he has taken part in some of the uplifting online worship and services that have been available to him during the lockdown, and I would add that the warmth of the welcome, the opportunity for fellowship and the chance to grow in faith through prayer, worship and the revelation of God’s word will prove an irresistible temptation to my right hon. Friend to return.

I very much welcome that services can resume in places of worship in England and that private prayer is allowed in other nations of the United Kingdom, but what discussions have there been with Churches to ensure that people are encouraged to go back to church and are reassured that it is safe to do so?

The Church is delighted to be able to throw open its doors again, so that we can gather again for public worship and weddings in the way that we have not been able to do over the past three months. We will make sure that people are safe. I know that clergy and church wardens are taking their responsibilities very seriously to make sure that people are safe when they come, and we are really looking forward to seeing them back again in all our churches.

We are now heading to the shadows of the spires of Lichfield cathedral with one Michael Fabricant.

Thank you, Mr Speaker: from where I am sitting now Lichfield cathedral is just about 100 yards behind me.

Lichfield has a great choral tradition; we have a choral school and the services are very good. It is open for two hours a day at the moment for private prayer, but when does my hon. Friend anticipate that we will be able to go to evensong and enjoy the wonderful choir that sings there?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Cathedrals such as Lichfield are at the centre of the amazing choral tradition that we have in this country. Sadly, I have to tell him that singing and chanting are not allowed even at a distance, due to the additional risk of infection, and woodwind and brass instruments should not be used, but that still leaves many other instruments. His constituents can return for public worship from 4 July and I know that Lichfield cathedral will be making them very welcome when they return.

House of Commons Commission

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

House of Commons Apprenticeship Programme

Given the Prime Minister’s announcement that there will be an apprenticeship guarantee, and the significant decline in apprenticeships during the coronavirus crisis, building on the work that Mr Speaker is already doing in increasing the apprenticeship programme in the House of Commons, will the Commission double that programme, offer every new recruit to the House an apprenticeship and ensure that as many young people as possible can do apprenticeships in the House? (903756)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his long-term interest in the issue of apprenticeships in the House of Commons. I reassure him we are doing absolutely everything to remain committed to providing an effective and inclusive scheme in the House. We are always looking for ways to increase and improve our scheme and we will do what the right hon. Gentleman suggests, in line with the apprenticeship guarantee, as announced by the Prime Minister. We are close to halfway through our current scheme, and in the past 12 months, seven apprentices have passed their endpoint assessment. We were set to meet our obligations of 2.3% of public sector employees for new apprenticeships, if it was not for the coronavirus pandemic. We will do everything possible to meet our obligations to young apprenticeships and we will do more than we need to do in this House.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Services: Live Streaming

What assessment the commissioners have made of the effect of live streaming church services on the number of people taking part in church services. (903759)

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that more people have been taking part in church services during lockdown than ever before. The national weekly service of the Church has been viewed more than 5.2 million times, with 21.5 million related social media posts, and a third of the people watching Archbishop Justin Welby’s Easter day service were under the age of 34.

Parishes in the Winslow benefice in my constituency are seeing 400 to 500 people take part in virtual services each Sunday and about 100 each day in midday-ish prayer. Given the extraordinary number of people who have either connected with the Church for the first time or reconnected with it virtually, what plans do the Church Commissioners have to set aside funds to continue this excellent work?

I am delighted to learn about the increase in church attendance in my hon. Friend and neighbour’s constituency. It is not unusual. The Church made a significant investment in a new digital communications team in 2016 and we will continue to make sure that we provide a good digital offering. The experience of my hon. Friend in Winslow has been widely shared by churches across the country. Some 1,600 people are currently attending an online alpha course at one of our churches, and 3.3 million people have now watched the UK blessing worship video on YouTube, put together by Gas Street Church in Birmingham.

Smaller and Rural Churches: Covid-19

What assessment the commissioners have made of the ability of (a) smaller and (b) rural churches to re-open safely as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (903760)

Church House staff and the House of Bishops are doing everything they can to assist parish churches to open safely. The guidance published by the Church is applicable for small and rural churches as well as for larger and urban churches.

It is obviously fantastic to see Canterbury cathedral open for private prayer, but rural and smaller village communities often use their churches as a lifeline, particularly those who have been shielding. I want to reassure them that it is going to be safe for them to return to church soon.

I can give the hon. Lady that reassurance. I know from my own village church how seriously the vicar and the church wardens are taking their responsibilities to make sure that the return will be safe, with hand sanitiser, removing the kneelers, keeping prayer books covered up and so on, as well as making sure that people sit at an appropriate distance. I am sure that the rural churches will be back in action shortly in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

Support for Family Life: Covid-19

In the diocese of Oxford, which covers Beaconsfield, churches have opened food banks and community larders and supported vulnerable people who are socially isolating as well as asylum seekers and key workers. In addition, nationally, the new marriage and pre-marriage courses have been available online throughout lockdown so that any local church can forward them to couples wanting to invest in their relationship.

What better way to celebrate couples than getting married, but, sadly, in beautiful Beaconsfield countless couples have had to cancel their church wedding. I welcome the news of 30 people being able to gather at a wedding, but what has the Church of England done to work with Government and to lobby them to increase the numbers for gatherings and weddings? Could we increase those numbers for this summer?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and she is right to say that a maximum of 30 people will be allowed at weddings from 4 July. That 30 includes the minister and the couple, and there should be social distancing of 1 metre-plus between individuals, households and support bubbles. The figure of 30 is what the Government have advised for now, and they obviously continue to listen to the science, but the couples I have spoken to are just so pleased to be able to get married. Perhaps a bigger party—perhaps a celebration of the renewal of vows—could take place next year.

Covid-19: Financial Effect on Churches

What assessment the commissioners have made of the financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on churches. (903766)

Lockdown has meant that income from hall lettings, events and parochial fees has stopped completely in many cases. Donations of gift aid have also been adversely affected, so the Church is hugely grateful to those who are able to support it through the planned giving scheme. That regular, committed giving has become more important than ever to the mission and ministry of the Church.

The Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury, which covers my constituency, has told me that income is down by a third since lockdown—a loss heading towards £700,000. In the long term, this will have an impact on building maintenance. Have the Government considered an enhanced gift aid scheme to help our faith communities to mitigate the damage?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and he is absolutely right to draw attention to this. I will certainly raise the issue with the Government on his behalf and that of the diocese that has brought it to his attention. I am grateful to him.

Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—

Restoration and Renewal: Decant of Parliament

When the Sponsor Body plans to commence the decant of Parliament in advance of the restoration and renewal programme. (903768)

On current plans, decant would be in the mid-2020s and the proposed approach to the works and the schedule would be put to both Houses for agreement before that. While the restoration work continues to be vital, we are currently reviewing the approach, and we of course welcome the views of the hon. Gentleman and all colleagues.

Is it not the case that these plans have now effectively been mothballed and scrapped, and that Parliament is not going to proceed with the full refurbishment as originally planned? If that is the case, what measures will be put in place to maintain this wonderful historic building and keep it safe from fire and damage?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the risks from fire, flood and falling masonry. He was of course a distinguished member of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, and those works remain vital. We all have in mind the need for the uninterrupted effectiveness of Parliament in scrutinising the Government and in working on behalf of our constituents, but we also know that we must do that while providing the good value for money that is rightly demanded by our constituents, and that is what is at the heart of the current review.

Church Commissioners

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

Transition Pathway Initiative

What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effectiveness of the transition pathway initiative managed by the Church of England pension fund trustees. (903771)

The Church is proud of its role in developing the transition pathway initiative, which enables asset owners to identify which companies are implementing strategies in line with the Paris climate agreement. It is supported by investors, with over $20 trillion of assets under management, so it is now possible to distinguish between the high-carbon companies that are transitioning and those that are not.

I am very grateful for that answer, and congratulate the Church’s pension trustees on their innovation and vision. The TPI has worked with major global companies to reduce their emissions and has established a framework for pension funds to move towards net zero emissions. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether our own parliamentary pension fund is able to sign up to the initiative, and what more the Church could do to encourage other pension funds to join that $20 trillion of assets?

Each set of pension trustees has its own responsibilities, but I note that the Pensions Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has said it is important that all pension fund trustees understand the risks and opportunities posed to their investments by climate change. I am always delighted when others follow where the Church leads.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I will briefly suspend the House.

Sitting suspended.