Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are already working with our partners to take action to protect and enhance chalk streams, which are precious habitats. That includes reforming abstraction, improving water quality through the Environment Agency’s water industry national environment programme and legislating to support those measures. However, as I said at a roundtable that I ran this week with water companies, chalk streams are vital. We have to do something to look after them, and we will be hosting a conference on this on 16 October.
I am grateful for that reply. Last year, water companies discharged sewage into our precious chalk streams and rivers in North West Norfolk and across the country 200,000 times. I welcome my hon. Friend’s efforts to tackle that unacceptable level. Will she instruct the Environment Agency to take more enforcement action, and will she commit that the new powers in the Environment Bill will be used to set tough, legally binding targets?
We know that effective regulation is the key to preventing pollution from impacting on water quality. That is why a range of enforcement and sanction options are open to the Environment Agency, which we expect to be used wherever necessary. We also expect water companies to set out how they will manage sewerage discharges through drainage and wastewater management plans. However, I acknowledge that further action is necessary, particularly on sewage pollution and combined sewage outlets. I referenced that at the roundtable earlier this week, and more work will be going on.
Recognising that commodity supply chains are a major driver of deforestation, the Government established the global resource initiative taskforce. Following the taskforce’s recommendations, we are currently consulting on proposals for a new world-leading due diligence law and working to forge an international alliance on supply chains at COP26. UK international climate finance is also used to protect the world’s most biodiverse forests, with £5.8 billion committed between 2016 and 2021.
I thank my hon. Friend for being on the ball about the Environment Bill in particular, which will be back before the House very soon and will deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment to deliver the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth. We understand the eagerness about measures in relation to due diligence, but we do not want to anticipate the outcome of the consultation. Any decisions on the next steps on these measures will be confirmed in the Government’s formal response to the consultation, which will be published after the consultation closes on 5 October, but we are very positive about it.
Food Production Standards
We have a manifesto commitment that, in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental, animal welfare and food standards. We have retained in law our existing standards of protection. We have laid before the House our negotiating objectives, stating that we will uphold those, and we most recently established the Trade and Agriculture Commission.
Many of my constituents, including Nimmi Soni, have written to me with their concerns about the Government’s commitment to protecting food standards. The Secretary of State is right that his party’s manifesto promised not to compromise on food standards in trade deals, but twice—twice—the Government have refused to support Labour amendments to put that into law. If over 70% of people do not want us selling food imported from countries with lower food standards, and more than 1 million people have signed a National Farmers Union petition for British food standards to be put into law, why are the Government refusing to do what the public want and expect? The country has a right to know.
In retained EU law, we have indeed put in place the existing prohibitions on the sale of, for instance, poultry washed with chlorine and beef treated with hormones. We have legal prohibitions and our own legal bans on certain practices. Those remain in place and will not change.
Yesterday was Back British Farming Day, but while our farmers are at risk of being undercut in future trade deals, it will take more than just one day of wheatsheaf wearing to protect them. Will the Secretary of State support the amendment in the House of Lords to put the Trade and Agriculture Commission on firmer footing, especially to offset the clear conflict of interest of Tony Abbott negotiating agricultural trade deals with Australia that could risk British farmers’ livelihoods further?
Tony Abbott is one of a number of people on the Board of Trade. Their role is to champion British exports overseas. They do not decide Government policy or the Government’s negotiating mandate; those negotiations are led by the Secretary of State for International Trade. We have set up a food and agriculture and trade standards commission. That has been done and it is already meeting. It does not need to be placed on a statutory footing.
Nancy Pelosi and several other American politicians have said that there will be no trade deal with the US if the UK reneges on treaties that it has signed up to, as the Government intend to do with the EU withdrawal agreement. Given that the UK Government dumped food standards from the Agriculture Bill to pursue a US deal that now appears dead, what options will the Secretary of State be looking at to restore those protections, and can we see guarantees on food standards for imports written into law?
There are a number of ways in which we secure standards on food imports. One is through the prohibitions on sale, as I have already mentioned, which include things such as poultry washed with chlorine or hormones in beef. There is the sanitary and phytosanitary chapter that exists in every trade deal that sets out our requirements for food safety and food standards of food coming in. Finally, of course, we use tariff policy to take account of certain practices in other countries.
What advice has the Secretary of State asked for or been given about the liability of the UK Government for damages arising from their failure to ensure that our current standards are upheld in any future trade deal? Will the Government be prepared to compensate farmers and other food producers whose businesses suffer as a result? Will consumers whose health is affected similarly be entitled to compensation?
Food standards and geographical protections go hand in hand, and despite the Secretary of State’s earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), this Government are giving up on food standards and trade deals and are abandoning the EU’s protections on protected geographical indications. Those actions threaten Scotland’s high-quality produce, including whisky. What reassurances can he give to the whisky workers in my constituency that their industry will be protected, and will the Government do a welcome U-turn and seek to rejoin the EU’s protected geographical indication scheme?
We will not rejoin the EU’s scheme, but the withdrawal agreement makes provision in the area of protected food names and PGI s, and there will be recognition of the existing ones that have been set out. In addition, we will be establishing our own independent PGI and protected food name scheme to take new applications after we leave.
Measures to improve air quality are a key part of the Environment Bill, and we have engaged with stakeholders through the development of these measures to ensure that they are ambitious and impactful. We are confident that these measures, including the commitments to set two air quality targets, will deliver real benefits for air quality, and we will continue to engage and collaborate with stakeholders, parliamentarians and the public as we work to implement these measures.
Until lockdown, air pollution blighted the life expectancy and health of many of my constituents and, as traffic levels are starting to rise again, we are seeing the same problems of air pollution arise. Will the Government commit to including the World Health Organisation’s guideline on air pollution limits in the Environment Bill, and will they also include particulate matter as well as nitrogen dioxide in the legally binding targets?
As I have said, we have two air quality targets already in the Environment Bill and the WHO’s PM 2.5 is on there. We will consult on exactly how that will come through, which is absolutely right. All experts agree with that. The hon. Lady makes good points about coronavirus and the impact on air quality. The Air Quality Expert Group and others have done some very useful and significant research, which will be looked at in great detail to ensure that the right measures are coming forward.
Local modelling has revealed that 21 locations across Stockport will have nitrogen oxide levels above the legal limit in 2021. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), I ask the Government to commit today to including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter as legally binding targets in the Environment Bill.
The Environment Bill has a big section on tackling air quality, with two targets to be set. Many other air pollutants—five in total—are also tackled, and we already have targets in place for them as part of the clean air strategy. We have a comprehensive strategy, because we appreciate just how serious the issue of air quality is. We as a Government will be tackling that, including with clean air zones across the country, many of which are coming forward in the near future.
I thank the Minister for her responses to my hon. Friends the Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), but may I press her further? According to Labour research, almost 60% of people in England are living in areas where levels of toxic air pollution exceeded legal limits last year. That shocking statistic should jolt the Government into action. Will the Minister commit to incorporating World Health Organisation air-quality standards into the Environment Bill?
I welcome the shadow Minister to her place. As I have said, the Bill contains two targets, and PM2.5 is one of them. We understand that that is the most significant and impactful pollutant of our health, but we must consult on this issue. I have met many experts and specialists in this area, and we must wait for the actual data before we can finally bring those measures into the Bill and ensure that we get this right. As I said, clean air zones are being introduced across the country to tackle this issue through our clean air strategy.
May I point out to the food Minister, that contrary to what she might think—
National Food Strategy
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I take this opportunity to thank Henry Dimbleby and his team for their work to examine our food system and the vital role it plays? We will consider their independent report carefully, and we expect the second part during the course of next year. The Government have undertaken to respond with a White Paper within six months.
My apologies, Mr Speaker; my excitement about this report knows no bounds, hence my enthusiasm. In my constituency, the Minister is now something of a folk heroine, thanks to this report. May I invite her to visit Blackpool and see how the recommendations on tackling holiday hunger will benefit the most deprived communities in the UK? Because we may be in a food desert, she might have to put up with a Greggs pasty for her lunch, but we will put on a good show for her none the less.
Animal Welfare Offences
Animal cruelty has no place in our society, which is why the Government are committed to increasing the maximum custodial penalty for animal cruelty from six months to five years. The Government are fully behind the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which will provide one of the toughest sentencing regimes in Europe.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but I have been really disturbed by recent reports in the local press regarding incidents of animal cruelty in my constituency. I certainly worry that individuals who are capable of deliberately inflicting pain and suffering on animals are capable of far worse. Will the Minster go a little further and give a guarantee that the maximum five-year sentence for the worst animal cruelty offences will be on the statute book by January 2021?
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, and we are all keen to do what we can to stamp out animal cruelty. Unfortunately, I cannot give any guarantees about the progress of parliamentary business, but the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) who is currently in his place, will take place next month. The Government fully support the Bill and hope that it will become law very soon.
I welcome the Minister’s confirmation that we will have a five-year maximum sentence for animal cruelty. The RSPCA has estimated that there were more than 100,000 instances of animal cruelty during lockdown. That is a great concern, and we want to ensure that action is taken. Will the Minister confirm that there will be greater enforcement and steps towards prosecution, to ensure that those who commit animal cruelty are brought to justice?
There has been much laudable support for this and many good intentions, but since 2016, when we had the Select Committee report recommendation to bring in five-year maximum sentencing, each Government have decided they are going to do it and it is still not done. My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) has put forward his Bill, so this is about making sure that the Government will support it and make time, in Government time, to get this through, because we must not prevaricate any longer. With a maximum six-month sentence, and only four months if someone pleads guilty, it is absolutely ridiculous that we cannot bring in stronger sentencing.
The Chairman of the EFRA Committee and the Committee have done their bit through their important work in this area in producing the report in 2016. The Second Reading of the Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) takes place next month, and I very much look forward to either attending the debate or following it very closely. I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) by saying that the Government strongly support that private Member’s Bill and fully expect it to be adopted very soon.
The Government are determined to help our farmers and food producers to increase sales domestically and internationally. We welcome efforts from all parts of the food chain to promote UK produce, including the promotional work done by groups like the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. We have recently co-funded a consumer-facing milk campaign. We continue to work with the AHDB and others on future promotional work.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, which is very welcome indeed. Does he agree that food produced in other countries using techniques that drive up yield and drive down costs but are illegal here in the UK should be subject to import tariffs that make those techniques economically pointless?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. The use of tariff policy to protect producers and to safeguard against certain types of production is indeed a legitimate use of tariff policy, alongside other measures such as the sanitary and phytosanitary chapter that we are negotiating.
Healthy and Sustainable Food
We have commissioned the national food strategy independent review. Other Government policies are addressing healthy food provision, including the tackling obesity strategy, healthy start vouchers and free school meals. Sustainable food production is absolutely at the heart of our future agriculture policy.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Local welfare provision can be a lifeline for families on the brink of food poverty. That is why I warmly welcome the Department’s funding allocation of £63 million of emergency support back in July. I am growing increasingly concerned, however, that this funding is due to expire in October, at the same time that the furlough scheme is drawing to a close, food bank use is rocketing and we will be in the midst of a recession. What future funding will the Department allocate for local welfare provision?
We have put in place a number of interventions to help people struggling with food affordability, particularly in lockdown and its aftermath. We continue to keep all these policies under review. We have the free school meals voucher system that ran, as the hon. Gentleman says, over the summer, and there are other measures that we have been working on with local authorities.
Smaller Farmers: Supermarket Prices
We want farmers to get a fair price for their produce, and the Government are committed to tackling the contractual unfairness that exists in the agrifood supply chain. Through the Agriculture Bill, we are seeking to strengthen the position of farmers by improving transparency in the supply chain, and there are new powers in the Bill to introduce statutory codes of contractual practice.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply, but the supermarket Sainsbury’s is threatening to tear up the contracts of small dairy farmers in West Dorset that supply it with milk if they refuse to sell it a percentage of their calves. Does he agree that Sainsbury’s is abusing its dominant position, and will he support me in defending small farmers across the country from these predatory supermarkets?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue in more detail. We now have in place the groceries code adjudicator, which regulates the types of contracts that supermarkets can put in place and precludes certain practices, but through the Agriculture Bill, we can go further and stipulate further requirements in contracts in future.
This Government are investing a record £5.2 billion to deliver around 2,000 new flood defence projects to better protect 336,000 properties in England by 2027. Up to £170 million is also being invested to accelerate work on flood defence schemes that will soon begin construction, and I am very pleased to say that, largely thanks to my hon. Friend’s great campaigning efforts from the Back Benches, Tenbury Wells will receive £4.9 million in economic recovery grant to enable the completion of the scheme she has been championing and to better protect 570 jobs, 80 businesses and 82 properties.
I thank the Minister personally and the Secretary of State for all they did to ensure that funding will deliver a scheme for Tenbury Wells. May I ask her to encourage from the Dispatch Box the Environment Agency to crack on and get a socially distanced consultation under way on its preferred design?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for that and for all the work that she has done. Now that the money is there, she is itching to get on with the project. The Environment Agency has worked proactively to develop safe ways to work during the pandemic, and I am reliably informed that it will start a public consultation on the Tenbury flood risk management scheme this autumn. It will use socially distanced and virtual engagement methods that are covid-secure to ensure that it engages as widely as possible.
People in South Yorkshire are still waiting for the Prime Minister’s flood summit, which was promised last November, four months before the covid-19 lockdown in the UK. This is the second time I have asked the Secretary of State to explain the delay. Will he apologise and commit now to a date for the long overdue summit?
I thank the shadow Minister for that question. This issue has been raised a number of times. I have had many Zoom calls with Members from the area over the lockdown, and the difficulty with having the project has been that we have been in lockdown, but we have made major flood announcements, with £5.2 billion of funding. Many of the Yorkshire areas have benefited, but of course, if there are further conversations that the shadow Minister would like to have, we would be happy to have them.
Animal Welfare Standards
This country has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. We have modernised standards for dog breeding, changed the way we do pet sales, brought in a world-leading ivory ban and introduced mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses. We are going further, as we said we would in our manifesto, to end excessively long journeys for farm animals, to ban primates as pets and to ban imports from trophy hunting.
I thank the Minister for that answer, which will reassure the many Gedling residents who write to me on animal welfare issues. As our manifesto made clear, leaving the European Union gives us the opportunity to enhance standards, not reduce them. Given that, does my hon. Friend agree that we should perhaps stop playing party politics on this issue and get behind the many initiatives that the Government have introduced to promote high animal welfare standards and increased protection for animals in homes, farms and the wild?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there is a great deal of interest across this House and, indeed, among our constituents in issues concerning animal welfare. The UK is a leader when it comes to matters of animal welfare, but there is always more that we can and will do.
My family enjoys quality food bought directly from farms across my constituency, such as Ibbotsons in Sandbach, Glebe Farm in Astbury, Hall Farm shop in Alsager, the Cheshire Egg Co.’s dispenser at Pace’s farm and daily fresh Bidlea milk from Twemlow. What more can the Government do to help those and other rural businesses in my constituency to promote their high-quality local produce?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the delicious food—from lovely meat to the famous Cheshire cheese—that is undoubtedly available in her constituency. We are supporting initiatives to promote local produce, including through recent industry-led marketing campaigns. We will always champion our farmers and producers to grow more of our great British food.
The Fisheries Bill, which is currently in Committee and on which I will be spending the rest of the day, sets out a legally binding framework, including fisheries management plans, which will help to protect and recover stocks; to support a thriving, sustainable fishing industry; and, we hope, to safeguard the environment.
Sustainability means that coastal communities around the UK, such as Eyemouth in my constituency, can continue to fish for generations to come. When renegotiating access to UK waters, how will the Minister ensure that all boats comply with our rules and that our marine life is protected from overfishing?
In future, all vessels, both from the UK and elsewhere, will be subject to licence conditions set by the UK sea fisheries authorities. The conditions will set out the areas that can be fished, species that can be caught and types of gear that can be used when fishing in UK waters. Marine enforcement officers from all the fisheries administrations have the powers to inspect vessels and ensure that they comply with our rules.
As we approach the end of the transition period, DEFRA’s primary focus will be on putting in place all the necessary legislation for January, working with industry to ensure that we are ready for change, and putting in place the necessary capacity to enable us to deliver a smooth transition to becoming an independent country.
Seventy-nine per cent. of the climate citizens’ assembly agreed that economic recovery after covid must be designed to help to drive net zero, including through greater reliance on local food production and healthier diets. Will the Secretary of State commit his Department to review those findings and act on them?
The Government recognise that sugar beet growers face yield losses this year because of the difficulties in controlling aphids. We support the restrictions on neonicotinoids to protect pollinators, but we have always been clear that we remain open to applications for emergency authorisations under the current rules.
We are always open to recommendations, suggestions and proposals from people in all walks of life, whether they are on any type of formal committee or not. The point I was making was that we have our own national food strategy, which is itself running a large engagement process to engage people in many of these ideas. We will of course consider those ideas as we put together future policy.
I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these issues. But since 2010, the Government have invested £181 million in flood defences in Lancashire to better protect about 37,000 homes, and over the next two years the Government plan to invest a further £21.6 million to support inland fluvial and coastal defence schemes, and better protect nearly 5,000 homes.
We work closely with FareShare, as we always have. As the hon. Gentleman points out, we did make available some additional funding to help it to support the financially vulnerable during this pandemic. Obviously, as we go into winter we keep all these matters under review.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. In our response to the Godfrey review, we set out our approach to dealing with bovine tuberculosis in the next five years. In response to the specific question, we look at epidemiological assessments in individual areas to see where particular strains are present in both badgers and cattle, and that drives the decisions about where culling is necessary.
As the Minister said earlier, we have a consultation out at the moment, and people will no doubt respond to it. But the evidence we have is that actually many of these countries do have laws in place and the issue is a failure to enforce those laws, and that is why we have consulted on that basis.
I fundamentally disagree with the point made by the hon. Gentleman. It was indeed against the interests of the fishing industry, right across the UK, to join the European Union and the common fisheries policy, which has meant that we have access to only half the fish in our own waters. Leaving the EU means that we can rectify that and get a fair deal for fishermen in every part of the UK, which is why the Scottish industry strongly supports the approach of the British Government.
Following the outbreak of covid among staff of Banham Poultry, in my constituency, more than three weeks ago, the company has had to shut down its plants, and slaughter or sell millions of pounds-worth of its chickens to competitors for pennies, without the compensation it would normally receive for culling in relation to animal health, incurring losses of about £2 million a week. The two family shareholders have made it clear that that is unsustainable without any signal of Government support or progress towards reopening. Given that the company received no help earlier in the year through covid interruption schemes or furloughing, because it was rightly deemed a strategic food business, and has had no compensation for culling, can my right hon. Friend give some signal today, before the company’s emergency general meeting tomorrow, that the talks with Government in the past fortnight will lead to some financial support, to avoid the loss of an historic business and local economic devastation?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I had a meeting with my officials yesterday to discuss the case. We understand the difficulties that Banham Poultry is facing, and I know that our officials are in constant dialogue with the company, as are officials in other Departments, including Public Health England and the Treasury.
The WWF report is a wake-up call for everybody around the world. At the heart of every piece of policy in DEFRA is the intention to build back nature, including through our agriculture policy, where we are encouraging sustainable agriculture; through the new targets and governance framework in the Environment Bill; through our approach to sustainable fisheries; and through our work on due diligence in the supply chain. This is a crucial time, and the UK is a world leader here. We have COP26 and the convention on biodiversity, which we will be involved with next year, and we will be championing the environment in all those international forums.
Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
House of Lords: Relocation
There have not been discussions of that nature with the sponsor body, but the hon. Lady will be aware of the recent exchange of correspondence on the restoration and renewal review, copies of which have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
I thank the right hon. Member for his candid reply. Stakeholders in York expended time, energy and money on the House of Lords proposals the Prime Minister announced in January, so to learn today that the Prime Minister did not engage in due process is, quite frankly, shocking; it just shows his populist virtue signalling to my city and the north. Will the right hon. Member communicate to No. 10 that, if the Prime Minister is going to put forward proposals, he must go through due process before wasting time in places like my city, where people desperately needed the jobs that he was proposing?
I think the hon. Lady might have inferred something from my answer that was not actually there. To be absolutely clear, the sponsor body of the restoration and renewal programme works within the remit provided by Parliament and is currently conducting a review, looking at a range of options to make sure that we get continued, uninterrupted and sound operation of this place and secure value for money for the British public.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Covid-19: Mental Health
This is a timely question from my hon. Friend, on World Suicide Prevention Day. The Church’s healthcare chaplains work in both acute and community mental health services. The diocese of Manchester provides mental health wellbeing youth workers, to provide mental health first aid, and the parish of Goudhurst in Kilndown in Kent provides subsidised mental health counselling in 13 schools.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. His own diocese, the diocese of Oxford, reports that connection with young people has been greatly reduced throughout lockdown. With the new measures to suppress the virus coming in on Monday, churches can hold services tailored to young people, as many already do, and church youth groups can continue to meet in multiple groups of six or fewer. I hope that churches will consider those options to increase the number of young people involved with the life of the Church.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Covid-19: Electoral Arrangements
The commission is working to ensure that the elections in England, Scotland and Wales next May can be delivered safely and effectively. This includes close collaboration with the UK Government, public health officials, returning officers and political parties, and it is also closely monitoring comparable international elections taking place during the pandemic to see what may be learned from others’ experiences. In collaboration with the UK’s electoral co-ordination and advisory board, it is now working on additional guidance and resources for those administering May’s elections to address the specific challenges of managing the polls in a covid-19 secure way.
Throughout the pandemic, people are accessing news and public affairs online more than ever. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this highlights more than ever the need for increased investigatory and sanctioning powers for the Electoral Commission, as has been passed in Scotland in the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020, rather than the public attacks on it from Government Members?
It is true that electoral law as it stands predates much of what we now have from the internet, in terms of the way that information can be found. Any changes to those laws will be a matter for the House, but I am sure that the Electoral Commission will use its experience to give us advice on how those changes might be brought forward.
PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMISSION
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Carrier Strike Report
The National Audit Office produced an important report in June, examining the Ministry of Defence’s management of carrier strike and how it is addressing the risks involved in achieving the full capabilities of the carrier strike group. My hon. Friend will know that the Public Accounts Commission approves the strategy and the budget for the NAO but does not involve itself in specific reports due to the statutory independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General, but we are interested to see that the work of the National Audit Office does meet Parliament’s needs.
The Crowsnest radar system is 18 months late. The three crucial new support ships will not be ready until the end of the decade. Only 48 of the 138 Lightning jets have been ordered, and the MOD has no idea about the lifetime costs of this programme. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure full parliamentary scrutiny of the National Audit Office’s superb report, so that the MOD’s handling of this programme can be comprehensively examined?
My hon. Friend raises the question of the progress, or lack of progress, made around issues such as the radar system and developing the support ships required. He will be pleased to know that the Public Accounts Committee recently announced formally that it will take evidence on the carrier strike report from the National Audit Office during the month of September.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Electoral Commission: Independence
The Electoral Commission’s independence is established in statute. It is a public body independent of Government and accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which I represent here today. Its independence is a vital part of ensuring that it is able to deliver the vital functions allocated to it by Parliament. The Speaker’s Committee seeks to uphold that independence when it fulfils its statutory functions in reviewing the Commission’s estimates and plans and overseeing the appointment of electoral commissioners.
I thank the hon. Member for that response, but will he tell me whether he agrees with the eminent QC, Timothy Straker, that the Electoral Commission has made “gross errors”; that it
“always has its own interest to protect”;
that in legal terms, it had committed
“a gross error which would not have been committed by a first year law student”;
and that it should be stripped of its existing enforcement powers? Or does he just agree with me that it is time to scrap the Electoral Commission?
The hon. Gentleman has always made his views in the House very clear on this matter, for which I am always grateful. I have seen the reports of Mr Straker’s comments, which have been made to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and we await its report on the evidence from Mr Straker and others coming to it. The commission’s record of having had about 500 adjudications, only five of which have been challenged, and only one of which has been upheld in the courts, is a record that I think the commission can be proud of.
Ironically, I have come in to the House today in the middle of a training programme that I am doing with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on electoral monitoring. Of course, it is a feature of any proper democratic system that there is an independent electoral commission, and it is a feature of corrupt countries that they seek to undermine the work of independent electoral commissions. The remarks by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—I wonder whether the committee would agree—are typical of those who do not wish there to be an independent Electoral Commission, because the Electoral Commission found out that the activities of Vote Leave were illegal and fined it £61,000 as a result. That is the reason for these attacks.
Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the clarity of his position. The commission will continue to undertake its role independently, as decided in statute by this House. I would say respectfully to those hon. Members who seek to replace or abolish the commission that it might be helpful to bring forward proposals as to what they would replace it with so that we have some clarity about possible alternatives.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
House of Commons: Strategic Direction
Setting a strategy for the House of Commons service is a responsibility of the House of Commons Commission under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, as amended by the House of Commons Commission Act 2015, which states:
“The Commission must from time to time set strategic priorities and objectives in connection with services provided by the House Departments.”
As with many of its functions, the Commission delegates preparation of the draft House service strategy to the Commons Executive Board. The present strategy for the House of Commons service was considered by the then Administration and Finance Committees and agreed by the then Commission in 2019.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very full answer. I think it is clear that the strategy running the House of Commons has, perhaps unintentionally, diluted the focus of those we charge with running this place and, I believe, is at risk of adversely affecting both our culture and our ethos here. This is a serious place of business, now more than ever—we are putting in place laws for the future of our communities and our country—not a hospitality or a tourism venue. Will the Commission take this opportunity of a pause in business as usual completely to rethink the focus of its strategy and, importantly, look at how we embed the culture and ethos so important to the running of this place?
The right hon. Lady raises a number of very important issues that are at the heart of the consideration of the current House of Commons Commission. Can I just say to her that there is no impediment at all to Members bringing forward suggestions on how the House strategy is designed and improved? We would encourage Members to come forward to the House of Commons Commission to share their thoughts if they believe that improvements can be made. More engagement from Members is always a good thing, and their advice and input are key to making sure we get the services we need. We know Members are always busy, and the administration is working in new ways to engage Members in tailoring services for the House, and we now have a new head of Member engagement and a new customer services director. Any changes to the House of Commons Commission, as the right hon. Lady does know herself, would be a matter for this House.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
The committee has received no representations regarding the media reports to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, which relate to a submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. That committee is undertaking an important review of electoral finance regulation, and the commission looks forward to engaging with the conclusions of its work in due course. The Electoral Commission is established by statute, and any changes to its constitution would be a matter for Parliament, not the Speaker’s Committee.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his answer. Would he agree with me that, while we can probably all think of occasions where we disliked adjudications from the commission, the fact that the Government—or the governing party—clearly want to be rid of it is an indication that probably, as an independent body, it is doing rather a good job?
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the figures I gave earlier to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). The track record of the Electoral Commission is one in which over 500 adjudications have been made, five have been challenged in court and only one of those challenges has been upheld. So far as that works out, I think that record stands on its own two feet.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Covid-19: National Recovery
Church schools have taken a lead in getting children back to school, and many of the Church of England’s 33,000 social action projects have adapted and expanded—for example, in the provision of food, especially to those who are vulnerable and shielding. In my hon. Friend’s diocese of Salisbury, £1.27 million has been spent on the Renewing Hope project to support ministry and mission in rural communities, and Salisbury cathedral is one of 12 to benefit from the £900,000 the commissioners have spent supporting heritage crafts.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is incredibly encouraging to hear all of that. Does he agree with me that faith communities, the Church and other faith groups have a huge contribution to make to national recovery and to the future of our society, but that to realise this potential we need public servants at all levels of national and local government and in public services to overcome certain prejudices or suspicions they have about working with faith groups, and what does he think the Government can do to encourage this?
I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised this point, because he is absolutely right. The Government need to combat religious illiteracy by making the case that the public square should never be purely secular, as secular humanism is itself a belief system and such an approach would be illiberal.
Covid-19: Financial Support
Some 1,000 Church of England parishes are directly involved in debt advice, sometimes working with debt counselling organisations such as Christians Against Poverty. In my hon. Friend’s county of Leicestershire, the diocese of Leicester chairs the Fair Finance Group, which tackles financial exclusion, working with local councils, the Department for Work and Pensions and credit unions.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, because financial difficulty is a really difficult problem. I was lucky enough to visit St John’s in Hinckley, at the request of the Rev. Gary Weston, where he showed me their food bank and the food parcels that they deliver to provide support locally. One of the questions that he wanted me to ask today was about better joining up with local government and raising awareness of what churches can do, because they can respond very quickly to provide support for local people in need. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that that can happen?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, which leads on directly from the previous question from our hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and he is absolutely right to raise it. I am very aware of the good work of St John’s in Hinckley. He might know that it is benefiting from £800,000 of further investment in mission and ministry, provided by the Church’s strategic development funding. Churches such as St John’s have been quietly getting on with essential work in the community, as is happening up and down the country, and I am hugely grateful to all of them. He is absolutely right; they need to work hand in hand with local authorities, and local authorities need to be aware of what churches are doing in their areas.
Church Services: Innovation
My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. I know that he, like me, celebrates the fact that now more people than ever have been taking part in church services during lockdown. The Church will continue to support good online worship, incorporating the best of the changes from lockdown with the best of what came before.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, churches have been conducting services in a variety of ways. I am thinking in particular of the open-air services held by Wave House church in Newquay and the Anchor church in Fowey—in Cornwall we do like a church with a maritime themed name. Other churches have been holding services online. A recent Tearfund survey found that as many as one in four adults in the UK has listened to or watched a religious service during the lockdown. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we come out of the pandemic, it is important that churches continue to innovate and adapt, in order to engage with people in a variety of ways?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend raises a really important point. I am grateful to him for alerting the House to Tearfund’s research, which found that one in four people in the UK has listened to or watched a religious service over the lockdown, and I am particularly pleased to learn of the initiatives in the two local churches that he mentioned. He will be pleased to know that the diocese of London, for example, has led large outdoor services, and in the diocese of Norwich, in a large-scale drive-in service, hymns and preaching were beamed directly to car radios through a dedicated FM channel.
Palace of Westminster: Restoration and Renewal
Oh dear! It is eight years since one report said that we had “a looming crisis” in this building, and four years since a Joint Committee of both Houses produced a report, on 8 September 2016, which stated that we were facing “an impending crisis.” Since then we have had years and years of more new problems in the building than we are able to cope with. There is no sense of urgency about this crisis. Get on with it, for heaven’s sake.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that there really is a sense of urgency. Of course, he was a distinguished member of the Joint Committee, and he is right about the risk of fire, flood and falling masonry in this building. Progress has of course been made, but a lot has happened in the five years since the original proposals and it is therefore right that we have a review, which is proceeding at some pace, with quite an aggressive timetable, and will report in October.