House of Commons
Thursday 10 September 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
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.
Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Overseas Aid and Development
The pandemic has worsened poverty and hunger in many developing countries. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury has launched the Together In Unity Appeal to help vulnerable communities across the Anglican communion. The Church is in regular contact with Ministers and envoys to discuss a range of development and freedom of religion and belief issues.
I very much welcome the Church’s work in this area. Does the Church share my view that the merger of the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development must not lead to the UK abandoning its commitment to the 0.7% target, and that every penny counted against that target should genuinely be spent on aid and development purposes?
In July, both archbishops launched an anti-racism taskforce to assess progress in implementing past recommendations to the Church in this area. The report will be concluded before the end of the year, and then an archbishops’ commission will be formed to produce recommendations for action on combating racism.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s proactive approach over the summer to address the Church’s issue with racial inequality was welcome. He also commented that the Church was still deeply institutionally racist. Does the hon. Member believe, as I do, that there is a need to address in more depth the history of the Church’s involvement in the slave trade and beyond?
Although the Church has issued a formal apology for slavery and both archbishops undertook a public act of repentance, the Church does still need to be deeply mindful of its involvement in slavery and its more recent completely shameful treatment of Windrush generation migrants, who were, in some appalling cases, asked not to come to Church of England services. We ask forgiveness from those who we have treated so badly.
Business of the House
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. A member of the Leader of the House’s household is awaiting a covid test result after having been symptomatic. The Leader of the House is therefore self-isolating along with his family, so I have had the good fortune—yeah, right—to be asked to reply. The business for next week will include:
Monday 14 September—Second reading of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.
Tuesday 15 September—Consideration in Committee of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (Day 1).
Wednesday 16 September—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (Day 2).
Thursday 17 September—Debate on a motion on the coronavirus job retention scheme followed by, general debate on support for the self-employed and freelance workers during the coronavirus crisis. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 18 September—The House will not be sitting.
The Provisional Business for the week commencing 21 September will include:
Monday 21 September—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (Day 3).
Tuesday 22 September—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (Day 4).
Wednesday 23 September—Second reading of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill.
Thursday 24 September—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 25 September—Private Members Bills.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the forthcoming business. Of course we all wish the Leader of the House and the whole Rees-Mogg family well. We know that it had to be something very serious for him not to be here.
I am disappointed that, since last week, there is no legislation to protect renters. It is not in the business statement, so can I make a further plea on this, because the protection runs out on 20 September? We may well have unemployment chaos, but we do not want a homelessness crisis too.
All I asked for last week was a debate on the border in the Irish sea, but then we got the UK Internal Market Bill. It is so controversial that the most senior Government lawyer has resigned, possibly because a Minister said in the House that it would be a breach of international law, and now the shadow Counsel General in the Senedd has also resigned. The Treasury Solicitor is there to advise on the law—I know, because I used to work there—and he has a duty to the court to uphold the rule of law. Roland Phillips, a senior Government lawyer, produced a document called “Judge over your shoulder”, and that is what we have to do: advise to avoid being in breach of administrative law and the rule of law. It is not an op-ed from Government lawyers; it is legal advice. But now everyone who breaks the law made here in Parliament can say, “Sorry, your honour, I only broke it in just a small but specific way.” To use Lord Denning’s phrase, when he quoted Thomas Fuller:
“Be ye never so high, the law is above you.”
He said that to the then Attorney General. We all swear to uphold the law. Will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that the legal advice of the Treasury Solicitor is published or that a statement is made to the House on the legal implications?
This is clearly not the Government of law and order, because this time last year it was an unlawful Prorogation and this year they are breaking the law. I dread to think what is going to happen next year. One way to describe them is ICU—incompetent, chaotic and useless, whether on testing generally or for care homes specifically, because the Department of Health and Social Care has had to say this:
“We apologise unreservedly to all care homes who have been affected”.
One care home manager said:
“It’s like Russian roulette, people can be positive working for a week and no one knows.”
May we have a statement on how many processing lab centres there are? Every single university and technical college that has a lab should be pressed into service to do the tests for us locally in the UK.
Mr Speaker, you are right to say that the House is important, but there is a chaotic message. One day it is to Nick Ferrari and the next day it is to Robert Peston. That is not how Parliament works. Yesterday it was announced from a lectern that we are going reduce social gatherings from 30 people to six. Well, that’s the Cabinet sorted!
Will the Deputy Leader of the House please find time for a debate on the Procedure Committee report, which was published this morning? I have not had time to read the whole thing, but it stated in the summary:
“In any event, if lockdown conditions are reimposed in a way which prevents substantial numbers of Members from travelling to Westminster, the House ought to consider reverting to remote voting.”
The UK Internal Market Bill has huge implications for the devolved authorities, so in order that hon. Members can take part in the debate, will the Deputy Leader of the House allow them to take part remotely? Yesterday, the queues were far too long; hon. and right hon. Members were queuing in Portcullis House. As I said before, the Ayes and Noes should be separated. The hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell) said that maybe we should have four electronic readers. I know that when I pressed one, it was not in service. This is exactly what we are telling people not to do, yet we are doing it here. There are so many pinch points where we are really close to each other.
The Deputy Leader of the House will know that I constantly raise the issue of Nazanin, and despite the Defence Secretary’s helpful comments last week, she is now going to be put on trial on Sunday. She has diplomatic protection, so will the hon. Gentleman make representations to ensure that someone from the British embassy is present for her trial? She should have been released in March, and she is the only one not to have been granted clemency. Also, her tag needs to be extended so that she can go to hospital. Anousheh and Nazanin are being punished for being with their Iranian families. Could he also ensure that arrangements are made for their families in Britain to meet the Iranian Foreign Minister, who will be in the UK next week? And let us not forget Luke Symons in Yemen either.
Finally, I want to remember Martin O’Neill, who passed away on 27 August. He served the Labour party and this House incredibly well—28 years here, 15 years in the other place—and of course was a director of Hibernian FC. He was a true public servant. May he rest in peace.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her comments about the Leader of the House and his family—I am sure he will also be grateful for them—and I thank her for the welcome she has given me. I fear I will not be anywhere near as articulate or knowledgeable as my right hon. Friend, and I certainly will not know what happened in 1678 or 1824, or whatever quotes I am sure will come from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
The right hon. Lady mentioned renters. As she rightly points out, we have had a scheme in place up to September that has been running for six months. There is a balancing act between renters, and making sure they are secure, and people who are renting out their properties, some of whom are also struggling. The Government will look at this very carefully.
The right hon. Lady said she asked last week for a debate on the border down the Irish sea. I am glad that the Government have been as effective as usual in delivering that debate. We have five days of debate coming up over the next two weeks, which I am sure she will be pleased about. She will know that the Government do not publish legal advice.
I would be interested to know how many times Labour did when she was in the office. There are five days of debate, so Members will be able to debate all these issues extensively and put these questions. I am glad the House will have the opportunity to do that.
The right hon. Lady rightly points out the issue in care homes. I and the Government are grateful to all those who have worked in the sector during this incredibly difficult time, and we have ensured that lots of tests have been sent to those homes, but of course my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will be making a statement to the House immediately after business questions.
On making statements to the House, it is absolutely right that Ministers should come to the House—it is part of the ministerial code—and I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House reinforces that message each and every time to my colleagues in government.
The right hon. Lady is right to mention the Procedure Committee report. I actually think the hybrid system has been working extremely well, but my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is currently looking at that report and will come back to the House in due course.
I also want to pay tribute to Martin O’Neill: 28 years in the House is an incredible length of service, and I know that he was highly respected on both sides of the House.
Finally, the right hon. Lady was right to raise the issue of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is indefensible and unacceptable that Iran is bringing new charges, and of course we constantly raise the matter with officials over in Tehran. She made the interesting point about the families meeting the Foreign Minister when he is here. I will certainly make sure that that request is put to the Foreign Secretary.
Like many others in the House, I have campaigned long and hard on the unfair treatment of those suffering under the loan charge—including many in my constituency and around—and I know that the issue unites the House. HMRC has historically behaved appallingly with regard to those people, including by the retrospective nature of what it has done, but now it appears that those facing these issues have been asked essentially to put their representations in to HMRC before September—this month. The problem is that HMRC is not capable of processing all those representations now, which means that many of them will not get any justice or any help and assistance and may suffer even further financial penalties. My concern is that HMRC and the Government need to add extra months—six months more would help enormously—and I therefore make that representation, if he could pass it on to the Treasury.
Furthermore, I think it is time for us to have another debate in Government time on the process. It is vital, for our constituents to have any sense that this place represents them, for us to show that HMRC has behaved badly, leaving many of our constituents in deep financial difficulty, in depression and with some having even committed suicide.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to express the strength of feeling that many people in all parts of this House feel about the issue. I will of course pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. There has been extensive debate about this in the House, and we had long debates about it in the Finance Bill, of course, but it may be an opportune moment to make an application to the Backbench Business Committee, which hopefully could provide time for further discussion.
I also wish the Leader of the House and his family well. I can hardly hide my disappointment at his absence. After five long months of my absence from this Chamber and the sometimes problematic communication through the virtual proceedings, I have been looking forward to being patronised in the flesh, rather than over the internet.
To be serious, coming back here, I have been able to see at first hand, with my own eyes, the procedures that have been implemented in the House as regards the covid epidemic. I pay tribute to the staff and management of the building for what they have done. Just one thing seems incongruous, and that is the way in which we continue to vote in Divisions of this Chamber.
That brings me to the report of the Procedure Committee published this morning, which recommends, having considered the matter in great detail, that we should return to the electronic remote voting system we had at the beginning of the pandemic. That was not only efficient and secure but, most importantly, is safe and does not require Members to be in close proximity to each other. I therefore ask the Government, will they respond to that report before the beginning of November, when the current procedures run out? I think they should do so as a matter of urgency.
Secondly, I raise the question of the so-called internal market Bill, which will dominate our proceedings over the next couple of weeks. We should be explicit that the Bill represents the most concerted and full-frontal assault on the devolution settlement in the United Kingdom that there has ever been. Under the guise of securing common standards, there will in effect be a race to the bottom and a lowest common denominator approach to consumer and environmental protection. It is completely unacceptable.
To crown it all, clause 46 of that Bill makes provision for this Chamber—not the Scottish Parliament—to determine spending priorities on matters that are devolved. Pet projects of the UK Cabinet could therefore trump the wishes of the Scottish people when it comes to spending. Is it the intention of the Government to proceed with this legislation without the consent of the devolved Administrations? If it is, what is the point of those devolved Administrations in the first place?
The Government are insulting the concept of devolution. This will be a better recruiting sergeant for the cause of political independence for Scotland that anyone on the SNP Benches could ever be, so I caution the Government to be wary of that. I am out of time, Mr Speaker, so I will reserve my other points for my next appearance.
It did not take long for me to disappoint someone, did it? However, it is a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman’s cheerful face in public and live.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about the Procedure Committee. Let us be frank: we are not in the full lockdown position that we were in when remote voting was taking place. Remote voting also had its issues, with Members of this House having issues connecting. I can honestly say to the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) that, as Whip, I know full well how hard it was to get some of my flock connected to the system. The system we have is working as best it can in difficult circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman then came on to the issue of the internal market Bill—again, SNP Members cannot help themselves but peddle the myth that we are having a race to the bottom. Nothing could be further from the truth. We want to take this opportunity, as an independent sovereign country, to go around the globe seeking the best trade deals that we can get. As for this constant gripe about a power grab, there are 70 competences coming from Brussels back to the United Kingdom, many of which will go to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. This is not a power grab. If anything, it is a power surge for the devolved Administrations. I would like to confirm that we will, of course, be seeking legislative consent from the devolved legislatures and will continue to work closely with them to understand and respond to any concerns that they have.
In my capacity as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on freeports, I welcome recent reports that an early designation of freeports is likely, perhaps as early as the Budget. It would be helpful if those that are submitting bids, such as Immingham in my constituency, had a clear idea of the timeframe and when an announcement is likely to be made. Could we have a statement from the Secretary of State outlining the position?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituency, and I know that he will do everything we can to ensure that his constituency is at the top of the list. I will, of course, ensure that his question is put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I will come back to him as soon as possible.
I welcome the acting Leader of the House to his place. I very much welcome the announcement of Backbench Business debates next Thursday and the following Thursday, which will help us to eat into our significant waiting list of unaired debates.
Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House the testing capacity in Gateshead. At a time when there is a significant increase in coronavirus cases, my local authority has seen a significant reduction in local testing capacity, and it also tells me that it is being asked to pick up more and more of the work on contact tracing. Have the Government given any thought to how that will be resourced, and when will our local testing capacity be restored? We really need that capacity to deal with the increasing number of cases in Gateshead.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. I am delighted that we have been able to find more time to catch up with the Backbench Business slots that are available in the Chamber. Because we have had disruption over previous months, it has been important to get the legislative processes back in place as quickly as possible, but I am glad that we are starting to see more and more other aspects such as Backbench Business debates, with Westminster Hall hopefully opening in October.
The hon. Gentleman talks about local testing, which I know is a big issue. It is a fact that we have one of the best testing rates in the world, equivalent to one test for every five people in the country, and we are outpacing countries such as Germany, Spain and Italy. It is inevitable that there may be some problems; I accept that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be making a statement immediately after this, in which I am sure he will update the House on the progress that has been made.
As the Member of Parliament for Kensington, I feel passionately that we need to get fire and building safety laws on to the statute book as quickly as possible. Will my hon. Friend confirm that we are fully committed to implementing the first phase recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry and are doing everything to get that legislation on to the statute book as quickly as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Ever since she arrived in this House, I have seen her passionately fighting for her constituency on that issue. It is a very important issue, and she is right that we are determined to do this, but there is a process and a sequencing that we have to go through. I have seen some of the personal abuse that she has received, which is totally unacceptable. She is fighting as hard as she can for the victims who suffered that awful tragedy, and I know that she will not let that abuse stop her carrying on her great work.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I know that Members across the House will wish to mark that and thoughtfully share messages on their social media. Self-harm is, sadly, a strong predictor of future suicide. The all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention has been conducting an inquiry, and on 23 September we will be holding our virtual launch of the report to see how we can reduce and prevent self-harm in young people. May we have a debate in Government time to look at the recommendations of the report and to find how we can reduce the risk of suicide?
The all-party group should be congratulated on the work that it does. Suicide prevention is incredibly important. I think I have said in the House before that one of my friends killed himself when I was at school. It is something you never really get over. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there are early indications that we need to look at. This would be a perfect topic that the Backbench Business Committee might want to consider for a debate, because I am sure many Members would want to take part.
Will my hon. Friend find time for a debate on the restoration of the Sessional Orders preventing demonstrations outside the Palace of Westminster? Returning here last Tuesday, I thought I was entering the Glastonbury festival, which I thought had been cancelled. To allow the noise, the disruption and the cost of policing is absolutely ridiculous, so can we please restore these orders so that we no longer have demonstrations on a busy roundabout sandwiched between Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster?
Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, opening a medically supervised drug consumption room would break the law in a very specific and limited way. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that saving the lives of vulnerable people and reducing the harm and antisocial behaviour associated with drug injection would be a very good reason to break a flawed and outdated law?
I have heard the hon. Lady raise this issue on a number of occasions. This is a very, very difficult area that we have to be very careful with. I know that she has raised it with the various Departments, and there will be further opportunities for her to do so. Perhaps she will want to have an Adjournment debate to raise it in more detail.
I was going to ask my hon. Friend a question about Alfred the Great, but I discovered that he does not go back before 1600, so it will have to wait. He is fully aware that Somerset County Council is trying to make a bid to become a single unitary council: it calls it, believe or not, “One Somerset”, but that does not add up. For a start, the county council covers only part of Somerset. Its plan should be called “One Chunk of Somerset”. I am afraid it is a joke. Please can we debate the common-sense answer? Let us restore Somerset to its old boundaries before we change everything, and let us look at some of the real alternatives like the excellent plan put forward by the district councils, which is not only intelligent but makes sense.
It is almost as though a call for independence in the south-west is going on, but I know that as a strong Unionist my hon. Friend would not be calling for that. The White Paper will be available soon. That will present him with the chance to put forward his views loud and clear, but he may wish to seek an Adjournment debate if he has the opportunity.
I pass my best wishes to the Deputy Leader of the House, who is in the Chamber today.
I get regular contact from Pakistan about issues that are very, very important. Bishop Nadeem contacted me with media reports outlining how, on 7 June 2020, a mob reportedly attacked Christians in the village of Mazang Nowabad Sharaqpur, in the Punjab province in Pakistan. The mob were said to have come with assault rifles and clubs. They damaged houses, desecrated the local church and snatched goods and livestock. A total of 88 Christians, including women and children, were forcibly displaced from the village in which they had been living for generations. Will the Deputy Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate on this very important matter?
The hon. Gentleman, as ever, raises a very important point. The events that he describes are extremely distressing to hear. We are deeply concerned to hear about the scale and severity of violations, not just in the example that he gives but in other places around the world. I know that the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief will be overseeing the implementation of the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro and will be making sure that all Ministers are aware of them.
Clause 98 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 provides that, so far as it is practicable, a Minister must arrange for a motion to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons within seven days of the end of each six-month period of review. Will my hon. Friend update the House on plans to put such a motion before the House?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point and I agree that it is of utmost importance that Parliament is able to scrutinise Government legislation properly. That, of course, is a statutory commitment that has been made and further announcements regarding the debate will be made in the usual way.
Many children from my constituency of Bristol East attend Broadlands Academy, which is in the constituency of the Leader of the House. This week, 70 pupils there have been denied their right to education because of minor infringements of uniform policy—for example, a logo missing because the shop simply did not have those items in stock, or shoes that could not be polished. I suspect that the Leader of the House thinks that every child should turn out every day as if they are on their way to Eton, and I cannot begin to imagine his horror at the thought of unpolished shoes. I have applied for an Adjournment debate. Given that the Leader of the House will not be able to speak in that debate, I am quite willing to speak on his behalf. I hope that he shares my horror that these are children who have missed out on months of education, have had a really tough time and are now being denied the right to go to school. Is Westminster Hall likely to resume sitting soon, because I may stand a better chance of securing a debate?
The hon. Lady raises an issue of which I have no personal knowledge, so cannot make specific comments about it, but I agree that it is absolutely important that all children get back to school. It is imperative that they do so, which is why it has been a big priority of the Government and we are ensuring that it happens. I can confirm that we are doing everything that we can to ensure that Westminster Hall debates are up and running again next month. I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to update us further soon.
This week saw the launch of Onward’s levelling up taskforce, which seeks to address regional inequalities, such as those in my constituency, and to support the Government’s delivery of its manifesto pledge to level up. Will the Deputy Leader of the House make parliamentary time available to address how covid-19 has exacerbated those inequalities and how the Government seek to maintain the momentum for levelling up in historically underfunded communities such as Stoke-on-Trent?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. We had an opportunity in yesterday’s debate to talk about those very issues. She is right to say that coronavirus has affected different parts of the country in different ways. We have already published work looking at the various disparities in the way that the virus has affected different people in different regions. I hope that she will be assured that Public Health England is working with the local authorities to identify the way in which they have widened and hopefully we can mitigate that. I know that we now have excellent Members of Parliament for that great city who will carry on fighting to ensure that we level up we as promised.
A constituent contacted me yesterday to say that she had been trying to get a test for her eight-year-old asthmatic son who had been showing covid symptoms since 7.30 that morning. Her partner, who is a key worker, also had symptoms. By mid-afternoon, she was told that the only place with any availability was in Scotland. She lives in Bradford, an area currently under local restrictions with rates that are now the second highest in the country. When she went to the local walk-in testing centre, she was told that the tests had been sent elsewhere in the country. Although she has a test booked for today, many other people are facing exactly the same issue. Does the acting Leader of the House agree that that is totally unacceptable, and will he ensure that the Health Secretary sorts it out?
While the hon. Gentleman is at it, will he also ensure that the Health Secretary properly answers letters from MPs? In response to two separate letters that I wrote to the Secretary of State about the imposition of local restrictions, I received a single letter from an official who did not deal with any of the substantive issues raised. Given that my constituents are currently experiencing additional restrictions on their freedoms, does the acting Leader of the House think that I, as their representative, deserve a full and proper answer direct from the Secretary of State?
Of course, being a neighbouring Member of Parliament, I know exactly the issue that the hon. Lady faces regarding Bradford. As I said a moment ago, we are testing thousands and thousands of people. I accept that there are some issues, however, and I will certainly raise them with the Secretary of State. I know that the Leader of the House has personally been looking into the response to correspondence, and in fairness to the Department of Health and Social Care, it has received thousands and thousands of pieces of correspondence. I recognise, however, that we need to do better, and I know that the Leader of the House is ensuring that that happens.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box.
Notwithstanding the debate on aviation later today, let me give just one example of how British Airways is treating long-term employees. I have a constituent whose contract has two months to run. She has been sent a new contract that expects her, in just over a week, to agree to a cut of thousands of pounds to her pay, and to transfer to a zero-hours contract or take compulsory redundancy. She feels threatened and bullied, as do many others, and she knows of other companies following that pattern. Will my hon. Friend arrange for a debate on corporate employment practices and the way that some employees, particularly women, are facing brutal choices? Let us examine what the Government can do to assist them through this changing corporate landscape.
A huge strain has been put on many industries, and the Government have taken unprecedented action to support them. In light of that, the sort of behaviour described by my right hon. Friend is frankly unacceptable. I assure her that the Government are fully committed to ensuring that all employers remember the contract that they signed with their employees. There is a debate this afternoon, but she may also wish to apply to the Backbench Business Committee on this topic.
I wish the Leader of his House and his family all the best. I have just come out of quarantine, and it is quite challenging to be stuck within four walls, although how big someone’s four walls are might be debatable. The rise of covid infection rates is worrying to us all, and one way of protecting ourselves, and others, is to wear face coverings in many settings. The Government have mandated that in many settings, but why are we not considering the more widespread use of face coverings in this House and our own working lives? Clearly we have not done that, and it is not always possible to socially distance in this House. Would it be a way of protecting all members of staff in Parliament if face coverings were more widespread, and would it be sensible to debate that?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position, and I know that, as her neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House wanted to welcome her too. I will not comment on the issue of four walls—mine are very small. The House authorities have done an enormous amount of work to make this place safe, and if people want to wear face masks, they have the freedom and the right to do so.
Notwithstanding the statement that will follow, may we have a debate on the Government’s orders, which will marshal us in our streets and have a profound impact on family and social life? Will the Minister hang his head in shame that such orders can be made in a democracy without even a debate in a free Parliament?
It was this House, through legislation, that gave Ministers the powers to implement these measures. Ministers are not making these decisions lightly; they are not easy decisions to make. We do not want wilfully to restrict people’s civil liberties, but we have to act to ensure that we are keeping our communities safe. If my right hon. Friend wants a debate, I am sure that the Backbench Business Committee would be happy to hear his application.
Thirteen-year-old Jack Worwood was walking on the pavement on his way to play football with friends when he was hit by a vehicle. The driver, Liam Wilson, was driving at nearly three times the speed limit, and he fled the scene. Jack died the next day. Liam Wilson was sentenced last Thursday. After various reductions, it is likely that he will serve in prison only two years of a six-year sentence. Jack’s family members in my constituency are devastated at the lack of justice. On 16 October, the Death by Dangerous Driving (Sentencing) Bill is listed ninth for debate. As it is unlikely to be reached that day, will the acting Leader of the House commit to a debate on the issue in Government time, given that both this Government and the previous one committed to legislate to increase sentences for causing death by dangerous driving?
I cannot imagine how the family of Jack Worwood must be feeling. My sympathies—and, I am sure, those of the whole House—go to them. The issue of sentencing has been looked at and there is a sentencing review going on at the moment, but I will certainly raise the specific case with the Attorney General on the hon. Member’s behalf.
On Saturday, Consett AFC scored an extra-time winner to take them through to the FA Vase final on 27 September. Unfortunately, yesterday’s restrictions mean that the match might have to be played behind closed doors, on the first time that Consett have reached Wembley in their 120-year history. It looks as if there will at least be significant reductions in the number of fans who can attend—down to the low hundreds. Will the Minister use his good offices, if at all possible, to push for a flexible uplift in the number of fans who can attend if the coronavirus situation allows and for a general debate in Westminster Hall on the contribution of non-league football teams to their local communities?
I congratulate the football club. I know from when Leeds United were promoted recently that many fans were disappointed they could not have the usual celebrations. We do have Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions on 24 September, which would be a good opportunity for my hon. Friend to raise the issue with Ministers. Let us hope that we get Westminster Hall open as soon as possible so that he can have that debate.
As Members have already alluded to, today is World Suicide Prevention Day—an issue that cuts across politics and other issues, and touches on our basic humanity. In that spirit, I urge the Minister to find time for us to debate gay conversion therapy, which is a vile and fraudulent practice carried out by vile and fraudulent individuals on some of the most vulnerable people in our society; it is staggering that it is allowed in these islands at all. Scotland has been working to address the issue, and it has been found that 70% of people subjected to this practice have reported suicidal thoughts. There is a great deal of unity across the House for a ban, and we should find time to speak about the matter.
Personally, the hon. Gentleman is pushing at an open door. He raises a very important point that needs to be looked at carefully and in detail, and the Government Equalities Office is doing just that. I will certainly raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with the Minister for Women and Equalities, and come back to him.
Last weekend, my son developed a persistent cough after his first week back at school. We went online, booked a test, drove six miles to the test centre and had the results back in less than 24 hours, and I am delighted to say that they were negative. But that short period in quarantine was not an easy one, and I hope that the Leader of the House is released from his quarantine as quickly as I was. This week, though, I have heard from constituents in Warrington who have been told that their nearest test centre is 76 miles away in Telford. Will my hon. Friend tell me what steps the Government are taking with Public Health England to increase testing capacity in Warrington and to bring more testing specialist labs online?
I am glad that my hon. Friend had a successful experience with his testing and that he got the results very quickly. He is right to raise these issues. I accept that with the huge-scale operation happening at the moment, there will be some problems, but the Secretary of State for Health is coming shortly. I hope my hon. Friend will stay and listen to his answers.
Isn’t the acting Leader of the House doing such a good job today? He is being very clear and, as Sir Humphrey would say, very courageous. He has made it clear that if the Government announce new policy outside the House, they are breaking the ministerial code and that he will reprimand that Minister. Well, yesterday the Prime Minister announced major new policy in a press conference, so I assume the acting Leader of the House is going to go round to No. 10 and tell the Prime Minister off. Could the acting Leader of the House make a statement next week on how that meeting goes?
There is nothing like a bit of friendly fire, is there? [Laughter.] And to think that my hon. Friend stood in my constituency in 1997, I thought he would have been a bit more friendly. [Laughter.] I have made it very clear that the Leader of the House absolutely reinforces the message that statements should be made to the House, and he will continue to do so. Unfortunately, I suspect that I will not be here answering questions next week, so I will not be able to tell my hon. Friend how that meeting went.
Northern trains decided, just as the Government encouraged people back to work, to cancel all services to Manchester Piccadilly along the Rose Hill line until December. This would close Rose Hill, Woodley, Hyde Central, Hyde North and Fairfield stations. Working cross-party with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and Councillor David Meller, Stockport’s transport lead, we are seeking an urgent resolution to this problem. We met the Minister last week, who was really understanding, and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove has the Adjournment debate this evening on the issue, but what more can we do to send the clearest unified message from this House of Commons that Northern should think again?
May we have a debate on state aid? I am mystified why this should be a problem in the free trade talks. Will the acting Leader of the House confirm—indeed, will the Government confirm—that we have no intention of returning to the failed policies of the 1970s and that we have no intention of propping up failed companies or picking winners? If the Leader of the House was here, he could give us a lecture on the failed policies of 18th century mercantilism and the failed policies of autarky. Let us have a firm statement from the Government that the only freedom we want to have on state aid is to give less state aid than the EU norm. Let us have it now.
May we have a debate on establishing a bereavement standard to simplify, streamline and standardise the process for grieving families to close accounts with utility companies and service providers following the death of a loved one? I anticipate that the acting Leader of the House will say that I should go and see my good and hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) and the Backbench Business Committee, but may I respectfully draw the acting Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 818?
[That this House calls on the Government to introduce a Bereavement Standard to simplify and streamline the process for grieving families to close accounts with service providers following the death of a loved one; believes the lack of such a standard has created a complex array of arrangements with each service provider requiring different levels of information to close accounts; notes that it can often take weeks, months, and in the worst cases years to close down accounts prolonging the pain and suffering for a family in mourning; further notes that the four simple campaign aims would support families as well as streamlining the process and providing a level playing field for business by introducing standardised paperwork to close an account, accepting digital death certificates, wills and proof of beneficiary status where possible, dedicated bereavement customer care channels (email, chat, webforms) to avoid long call waiting times, an agreed timeframe for companies to respond and settle accounts, and agreed bereavement customer service behaviours supported by adequate training; and urges the Government to work immediately with industry to introduce a Bereavement Standard to support grieving families, many of whom have been impacted recently by COVID-19, through one of the most difficult times in their lives.]
The acting Leader of the House will see that there are sound arguments that, as well as aiding families, will support businesses. The EDM has attracted more signatures than any other EDM signed since 1 September, but it is noticeable that few members of the Government party have signed. In anticipation of pursuing it through the Backbench Business Committee route, will he encourage them to sign that EDM to identify their support for the campaign?