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Commons Chamber

Volume 682: debated on Thursday 15 October 2020

House of Commons

Thursday 15 October 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—

Tree Planting: England

We are committed to increasing tree planting throughout the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, and we are working with the devolved Administrations on that, too. We have announced a nature for climate fund to increase planting in England, and we recently consulted on the new England tree strategy.

Across the valley of the River Severn, the River Teme and the River Avon we are grateful for the support we are getting to improve our flood defences. Will the Minister tell the House how tree planting can improve flood resilience across river catchments?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Our new £640 million nature for climate fund will do a lot to drive up tree planting. We will also do a lot of planting with the emphasis on river corridors and floodplains and on nature-based solutions, working with the Environment Agency. In that way, we aim to slow the flow, control flooding and increase tree planting. Lots of plans are in place, and I hope my hon. Friend’s constituency will benefit.

I am absolutely thrilled that the Government-funded National Brownfield Institute will soon open in Wolverhampton North East. Will the Minister tell me how, as we move forward in the Black Country with building sustainable homes on reclaimed land, we can ensure that tree planting is not forgotten in new developments on brownfield sites?

We are very much looking forward to Wolverhampton’s National Brownfield Institute coming to fruition and to all the work it will do on sustainable development. Of course, trees will be an important part of sustainable development. This issue was referred to in our England tree strategy, and we are exploring ways to incorporate trees into the development of brownfield sites.

Air Pollution: Motor Vehicles

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the level of air pollution from motor vehicles since covid-19 lockdown restrictions were eased in August 2020. (907580)

Nitrogen oxide levels are rising again after lockdown as traffic levels increase. We continue to take urgent action to curb the impact of air pollution on communities throughout England through our ambitious clean air strategy and the delivery of a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle NOx pollution. The Government continue to engage with local authorities to deliver clean air zones, and through the Environment Bill we will take greater action on tackling air pollution.

As the north-east seeks to reduce its level of air pollution, will the Minister join me in supporting initiatives such as that proposed for the Tyne tunnel, where a new free-flow payment system will reduce carbon emissions from vehicles using the tunnel by a massive 90%? Furthermore, will the Minister commit to working with colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure that orders to implement the system are introduced to the House when available, so that air quality improves in the Jarrow constituency and in the region more widely?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. I am really heartened that she is thinking about the health of her constituents, because air pollution, especially fine particulate matter, is the single greatest health impact that we currently have to deal with. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss any actions. She is absolutely right to point out that her local authority is taking action on many of these measures. The Government have provided a number of funds to support local work on reducing pollution levels in traffic.

Air Pollution

I am like a jack-in-the-box this morning, Mr Speaker, with one question after another.

Our clean air strategy sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollution from a wide range of sources. We have also put in place a £3.8 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The Environment Bill makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter and will enable local authorities to take more effective action to combat pollution in their areas.

Prior to covid-19, polluted air was contributing to more than 40,000 premature deaths each year. It we are to reduce that awful statistic, we must set enforceable targets to bring air pollution down below harmful levels, so does the Minister agree that the Government’s Environment Bill must have air quality targets that follow World Health Organisation guidance and have an attainment deadline of 2030 or before?

The Environment Bill does introduce a duty to set a target for PM2.5. We are committing to ambitious action on this pollutant, which has the most significant impact on health. The Government are committed to an evidence-based policy on this issue. We will consider the WHO guideline levels when setting our targets, but it is imperative that we take all the right advice from all those who are working on the issue before we commit exactly to what we are going to do and how we are going to do it.

That just shows how important this issue is to the people of Lewisham.

New data published by City Hall on 3 October show a dramatic improvement in London’s air quality since 2016, due in no small part to the ambitious measures implemented by Mayor Sadiq Khan. However, air pollution remains a major public health challenge and complacency is not an option, despite the current crisis. Will the Government commit to setting ambitious national targets and give local authorities the powers and the funding that they need to achieve them?

I want to highlight that, through our landmark Environment Bill, we will be delivering on parts of our clean air strategy, which will introduce a target for concentration levels of PM2.5. We will be setting an additional long-term target on air quality, which actually goes beyond the EU requirement. We will also have in the Bill measures that will improve local air quality management frameworks used by local authorities to make them much simpler and easier to use, and all those measures will tackle the issues that the hon. Lady so rightly raises.

Campaigners, activists and our constituents are all waiting with bated breath for the return of the Environment Bill, which has dropped off the Order Paper for more than 200 days now and counting. When the Bill finally returns to the House, will the Minister commit to including the World Health Organisation’s guideline air pollution limits in it? She has already said today that she wants the evidence base to be in it, but the WHO has done the work, so can we not have a commitment to accept these guidelines?

I thank the hon. Lady for asking about the Environment Bill. As we say constantly, it will be returning very soon, but we do have an out-date for it, which is 1 December, so she can just work backwards from that, and I look forward to seeing her in the Chamber. On the point about the World Health Organisation, she should remember that these are guidelines. We have been praised for our outstanding clean air strategy, which is considered world-leading, and there is an absolute commitment to that. I think the hon. Lady came to one of the evidence sessions where we heard how complicated it is to set the actual target. There are many contributors to this particulate matter, and we have to look at them all before we set the target.

Plastic Pollution

We are committed to tackling plastic pollution. We introduced a microbeads ban and reduced single-use plastic carrier bag usage by 95% in main supermarkets. We are also increasing the single-use carrier bag charge to 10p and extending it to all retailers. We restricted the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds the other day, we are seeking further powers in the Environment Bill to charge for single-use plastic items, making recycling more consistent, and we will be reforming packaging waste regulations.

It has been suggested that one way of reducing pollution is to make greater use of oxo-degradable plastic. This involves using an additive in conventional plastics that causes them to break down and fragment into microplastics that, in the marine environment, can be digested by organisms. In addition, oxo-degradable material in the waste stream is a contaminant and causes a reduction in the levels of recycling. Will the Minister commit the Government to acting on the call from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and join the EU in banning the use of oxo-degradable plastic?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government recognise that innovative packaging types can help reduce the environmental impact of plastic if disposed of in the right way, and I know that he has a lot of knowledge in this area owing to his constituency connections. However, there is currently only limited reliable published evidence on the environmental impacts of oxo-biodegradable plastics—that is a mouthful. DEFRA and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published a call for evidence last year to better understand the effects of these and compostable plastics on the environment, and we will be publishing the results later in the autumn.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure the responsible disposal of face masks and other personal protective equipment?

Of course, that is a question that many people are thinking about, and I thank my hon. Friend for it. The covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in PPE, but we are starting to see businesses rise to the challenge, producing items such as reusable face coverings—we are seeing a whole lot in Parliament—that can be washed and reused, but, obviously, hygiene must be taken very seriously. The Government have published guidance on the disposal of face coverings and other PPE during the pandemic.

Countryside Protection

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend the Minister a rest from the Dispatch Box after a marathon session.

Within the rich diversity of the English countryside, our existing national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest have the highest status of protection. The Prime Minister has signalled our ambition in this area and is committed to protecting 30% of our terrestrial land by 2030. The £640 million Nature4Climate fund announced in this year’s Budget will drive our progress towards this goal.

The Secretary of State will know that he is popular in the House, and he is a very mild-mannered, pleasant chap. I want him to turn into some sort of ravening big beast, because he has been in the job nine months, and we have soil degradation, habitat loss and species extinction, while none of our rivers and streams is fit to paddle in, let alone swim in. When is he going to wake up to the crisis that is facing our countryside and do something about it? It is not “What’s the plan, Stan?”; it is “What’s the plan, George?”

The hon. Gentleman paints an accurate picture of the environmental degradation that has taken place, particularly in the past 50 years or so. As we think about the future, it is not enough just to protect particular sites; we need to build back nature in some of these areas. We will be doing that through our new environmental land management policy to replace the common agricultural policy, creating new habitats and creating space for nature. We will also be delivering this through the new approach and governance framework outlined in our Environment Bill.

Our familiar countryside is as it is today because of protection and management, but, as we have heard, the Environment Bill that is needed to maintain that protection has gone missing, and financial support for farmers, who of course do so much to manage our countryside, is just weeks away from major upheaval. The Secretary of State talks about sustainable farming initiatives without bringing any detail to this House, and that is a worry for everybody. Come 1 January, will farmers have the financial information they need to make informed decisions, and will the promised Office for Environmental Protection actually be in place and operating properly?

The Environment Bill will be resuming its passage in Committee shortly. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, for instance, that the Government have recently been consulting on our new approach to introduce due diligence in the supply chain to prevent deforestation. There are good reasons why the Bill has been paused while that consultation is considered. In answer to his question, yes, farmers will have all the information they need by next year, and we will begin the transition to the new policy next year.

Water Companies: Leaks and Wastage

If he will make it his policy to publish an annual league table to assess water companies’ performance on tackling water (a) leaks and (b) wastage. (907585)

If he will make it his policy to publish an annual league table to assess water companies’ performance on tackling water (a) leaks and (b) wastage. (907586)

I am back—I would like to say by popular demand, but I am not sure about that.

Water company performance data, including on leakage, is already published annually on the DiscoverWater website, and companies provide data to the Environment Agency on water losses. I encourage hon. Members to visit the DiscoverWater website.

This month’s Environment Agency report found that four out of the nine water companies are now rated as poor or requiring improvement—the worst result since 2011. Does the Minister agree that losing 3 billion litres of water a day through leakage is wholly unacceptable? Are her Government reconsidering the privatisation of water companies that have damaged the environment and left customers in my constituency with unaffordable bills?

Our 2018 water conservation report sets out an ambitious target of a 50% reduction in leakage by 2050. The water companies have made progress towards this, but quite clearly, they need to do a great deal more. On water quality, in our 25-year environment plan, we aim to bring three quarters of our waters as close to their natural state as possible. However, there is clearly a great deal more to do. I have met water companies recently to rattle the cage and raise the issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is also meeting water companies soon to discuss the same issues.

I thank the Minister for that response, but, although daily losses through leakage did fall during the 1990s from 4.5 billion litres a day to 3 billion litres, that figure is still too high, and a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee stated that the reduction had been followed by

“a decade of complacency and inaction”.

Does the Minister agree that the Government are failing to hold the water companies to account over their inability to deal with this level of leakage?

The hon. Gentleman raises a pertinent point, but the 2019 price review set out a £51 billion five-year investment package, and water companies committed to reducing leakage by 16% by 2025. They have definite goals and targets to do that, but they do indeed need to do a great deal more. We also have much discussion about reducing the overall amount of water that people use every day, with an ambition to reduce it to 110 litres a person. At the moment, it is about 143 litres, so a raft of measures are needed to tackled that.

A study by the National Audit Office shows that some parts of England will run out of water by 2040. Does the Minister agree that the targets set by the Department to cut water leakage in half by 2050 will be too little, too late to keep our taps running?

I have already mentioned that target of a 50% leakage reduction, but that is just one of many measures. There is a whole raft of measures, as I have just explained, that we are working towards. We have the policies in place not just to reduce leakage, but to reduce consumption in an efficient way, always being mindful of consumers’ bills and always looking after the vulnerable. On top of all that, we have our flood policy statement, which looks very closely at the whole water space—where the water comes from, where it is going, where the supply is and where the reservoirs are. The Government are absolutely on the case as far as water is concerned.

Animal Welfare Standards

This country has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. We have modernised standards for dog breeding, pet sales and other licensed activities involving animals. We have introduced a world-leading ivory ban and mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses. Our Agriculture Bill will recognise animal welfare as a public good and reward high standards of animal welfare, and we are also delivering on our manifesto commitments to end excessively long journeys for the fattening and slaughter of farm animals, to ban primates as pets and to introduce new laws on animal sentience.

As a veterinary surgeon, I was absolutely gutted that the amendment to the Agriculture Bill to uphold our high animal welfare and farming standards in trade deals was defeated this week. I am pleased that the Government have reassured us that products such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef will remain banned in the UK, but does my right hon. Friend agree that a practical solution to confirm that, along with bans on other products such as ractopamine-fed pork and those with excessive use of antimicrobials or growth promoters, would be to write those products into animal welfare chapters in trade deals? Does he agree that that makes sense and would make it clear that those products are off the table, allowing other acceptable products to be traded, and driving up animal welfare standards around the world?

We will be using a range of tools to deliver on our manifesto commitment to protect food standards and animal welfare in all our trade agreements, we have three principal tools that we can use. First, we have the option to prohibit sales, as we already do, for instance, for chlorine-washed chicken and hormones in beef. Secondly, as my hon. Friend points out, we can use the sanitary and phytosanitary chapter, which is a feature of all trade agreements, to dictate the terms of access when it comes to food safety in particular. Thirdly, when it comes to issues such as animal welfare, we will use tariff policy to prevent unfair competition for our farmers.

Agricultural Imports

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on management of agricultural imports at UK borders after the transition period. (907589)

DEFRA is working with officials across Government to ensure that the flow of agricultural imports at UK borders continues after the transition period. We will introduce a phased approach to import controls for EU countries, to give businesses impacted by covid-19 time to adjust, while maintaining biosecurity controls.

As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said in its report, covid-19 has showed that we need to get food through the borders very quickly. We have a just-in-time food system, so getting imports in after the transitional period is exceptionally necessary. I am also very concerned about exports. Imports are largely in our hands, but exports are largely in the hands of the French. In any agreement we get, we must ensure that we have the right veterinary certificates, enough vets to write them and a process that will be recognised and honoured when we try to get exports of lamb and beef into the continent, because there will be a real problem otherwise.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have been doing a lot of work on business readiness with the sector—in particular, with meat processors—to ensure that they understand what will be required of them. Whether or not there is a further agreement with the EU, meat processors will need export health certificates. We have been working with the Animal and Plant Health Agency to ensure that there is capacity in the veterinary profession to deliver those export health certificates, and we are also ensuring that those companies understand the customs procedures that they would need to go through.

It was recently revealed that the UK Government withheld information from the devolved Administrations about the risk of food shortages at the end of the transition period. How was the Department involved in discussions on that risk, and why were such vital assumptions, which the documents acknowledged would impact on devolved Administrations’ planning, hidden from them for so long?

I do not recognise the claim that this was hidden from them. I regularly meet Fergus Ewing and other devolved Administration Ministers to discuss this. They now join the EU Exit Operations Sub-Committee, which is a part of the Cobra Committee, planning for the end of the transition period. The devolved Administrations are fully engaged in all our planning.

Food Production Standards: Trade Deals

What steps he is taking with the Secretary of State for International Trade to maintain British food production standards in future trade deals. (907590)

Our manifesto made clear that, in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. We have retained in law our existing standards of protection, and we have laid before the House our negotiating objectives, stating that we will uphold them.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but in that case, why did the Government reject the pleas of their own Back Benchers only two days ago to protect our food standards, in line with the manifesto promises they made in December?

The answer is simple: we have all the powers that we need in law to deliver our manifesto commitment already. As I said earlier, we will use a range of tools, including tariff policy, to prevent our farmers from being undermined by lower standards of animal welfare in other countries, and the sanitary and phytosanitary chapter of trade agreements. We do not need new powers to be able to deliver on our manifesto commitment.

Flooding: Grant Schemes

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure grant schemes are available to (a) homes and (b) businesses affected by flooding. (907592)

For localised flooding, we expect local authorities to have established contingency measures. In exceptional circumstances, the Government activate their flood recovery framework, which was last triggered following the severe flooding in February 2020. It is designed to support communities affected by meeting immediate recovery needs, and comprises the community recovery grant, the business recovery grant, council tax discount schemes and business rate relief schemes. Additionally, the Government may activate a property flood resilience recovery scheme.

The beautiful market town of Marlow sits adjacent to the Thames and is also on a floodplain. Can my hon. Friend assure the House that we will be fit for the future when it comes to flood defences?

I would like to give my hon. Friend every assurance that we have been working extremely hard on this. The Government have doubled their funding in the next flood defence programme to £5.2 billion —more than ever before—which will better protect 336,000 properties. In the summer, we allocated £170 million to shovel-ready flood defence projects, and we have another £200 million for some innovative projects, because we realise that the demands are changing with climate change. That is why the new flood policy statement that the Secretary of State and I have worked on sets out a holistic approach to tackling this changing canvas, and nature-based solutions will be a big part of that.

Pick for Britain and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Schemes

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the (a) Pick for Britain scheme and (b) seasonal agricultural workers pilot scheme. (907593)

The Pick for Britain campaign generated huge interest—the website has received nearly 2 million unique page views since its launch—resulting in a significant increase in the numbers of UK-based workers filling seasonal roles in horticulture. DEFRA and the Home Office have been working closely to ensure the successful operation of the seasonal workers pilot and to undertake an effective assessment. The evaluation of the pilot is ongoing, and the results will be announced in due course.

Giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee several weeks ago, the Secretary of State claimed that one third of the seasonal horticultural workforce in 2020 was from the UK workforce. Could the Secretary of State provide the evidence to support that claim, and could he confirm what plans his Department has to meet the industry urgently to plan for next year’s labour requirements?

During the last summer season, I had regular dialogue and discussions with a number of companies involved in the horticulture sector. The general picture is that, at the beginning of the season, they did find a reasonably good or significant number of domestic workers who were keen to take these roles, and in many cases it was about a third of the workforce. Anecdotally, reports say that it then drifted down during the course of the season and was typically below about 20% by the end of the season, but this came from a range of anecdotal evidence provided to us directly by growers.

Topical Questions

Next year is a really important year for the environment internationally, with the UK hosting COP26 on climate change in October, but also with the convention on biological diversity taking place, where biodiversity targets to replace the Aichi targets will be agreed. The UK has been working on a leaders’ pledge for nature, which over 70 world leaders have now signed. We are also working to secure better targets on biodiversity and to make nature-based solutions a key part of our approach to tackling climate change.

The world needs to stop the loss of species, and endangered species need the conservation work of zoos, so I applauded when the Government announced their £100 million package to support zoos and the vital conservation work they do, but then I discovered the eligibility criterion that they must have less than 12 weeks’ reserves. The trustees of any zoo with less than 12 weeks’ reserves would already have declared voluntary liquidation, so will the Secretary of State look again at the criterion, replace it with one based on percentage of revenue lost and—

Order. Topicals are short and punchy, not full questions, please. This is to help other people, and to help me get through the list. I care about other colleagues even if colleagues do not care about each other.

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman was making. It is important to note that we had a smaller zoo fund to support small zoos, which was announced earlier. This fund is for the very large zoos, and many of them do have large reserves. It is right that we expect them to use those reserves before they come to us, but they can apply for the fund before those reserves run out, and we have increased it from six weeks to 12 weeks.

The Agriculture Bill has prompted a lot of discussion within parties, but does my right hon. Friend not agree with me—surely the whole House agrees—that the creation of a framework to allow the fair distribution of the meat levy across the United Kingdom is a very good thing? The Scottish livestock sector has been calling for it for many years. (907640)

There has been a problem for some years in the fact that the levy is collected at the point of slaughter, and Scottish farmers have raised with us a concern that animals crossing the border meant they did not capture all of the levy. We have now put in place the powers to address that, which is indeed very good news for our Scottish farmers.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that he has a plan to let food produced to lower standards into Britain if a few extra pence are charged on tariffs, meaning that our farmers will still be undercut if tariff protection is introduced as an excuse for allowing lower-quality food into our country?

I think the hon. Gentleman perhaps misunderstands the current situation in that it is already possible for these countries to sell us goods at a particular tariff provided they meet our sanitary and phytosanitary standards, and that will not change. However, tariff policy is the best tool in the box to address issues such as animal welfare.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to maintain food standards at the end of the transition period, so that there is no cliff edge in food standards? (907643)

At the end of the transition period, the existing animal welfare regulations and the prohibition on sale, for instance, of hormones in beef will be retained in UK law, but our new Agriculture Bill will also strengthen animal welfare and reward farmers for high systems of animal welfare.

Will the Secretary of State explain what the Government are putting in place, in the event of a deal not being concluded by 31 December, to allow the UK distant waters fishing fleet to continue to fish for Arctic cod? (907639)

There has been a long-standing arrangement between Norway and the EU under which, broadly speaking, Norway has some access to blue whiting in the North sea and in return the EU—we have a share of this—has some access to Arctic cod. Those negotiations are about to commence again. This year there will be an EU-Norway bilateral to decide these matters.

Concerns have been raised about the possible requirement for pet passports after the transition period. People from Northern Ireland want to know that, as part of the United Kingdom, they will have the same right to travel to the UK with their dogs, particularly guide dogs, without additional documentation or pet passports. (907654)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are aware of this, and it is one of the issues that we are seeking to address at a technical level and through the Joint Committee process for resolving how these finer details of the Northern Ireland protocol will work.

Farmers are being sold short on payments for their milk. That is destabilising the market and is not providing a fair price to farmers from processors. Please will the Secretary of State say what he plans to do to rectify this, and please will he have a meeting with one of my dairy farmers, Mr Andrew Birkle? (907648)

In the summer, we issued a consultation on having mandatory contracts in the dairy sector. That is something that I have long felt is important, since dairy farmers, perhaps more than any others, all too often are price takers. We will be considering that consultation and the responses we received, and we intend to introduce regulations under the future Agriculture Act. I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s constituent.

Food price increases due to harvests and Brexit, combined with cuts in support for those needing help in the pandemic, will hit the poorest families in our communities hardest. In the light of Louise Casey’s comments this morning, what is the Government’s plan to tackle food poverty, and will they follow the Welsh Government in guaranteeing free school meals during holidays until Easter 2021? (907656)

We introduced a number of measures to support those struggling to afford food during the initial lockdown and over the summer months. It is the case that, as unemployment rises, we are likely to see more such need, so the Government keep this under review. Obviously, through projects such as FareShare, we do support the redistribution of food to help those people, but we keep all these matters under review.

Cleaner air for residents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke is a priority for me and my neighbouring colleagues. The air quality directive from my right hon. Friend’s Department to close key roads in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, however, is not the solution to the problem. We have recently seen a drop in the level of dangerous emissions at key locations, and we are no longer above the Government’s threshold, so will my right hon. Friend meet me urgently to discuss a review of this project and enable Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to offer a range of alternative methods? (907664)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course I would be happy to meet him to discuss this matter. I think that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), has already met him and others to discuss it, but we are of course happy to meet again.

Fruit and vegetable growers have relied on skilled European seasonal workers to get food into shops and stop it rotting in the fields. The Secretary of State’s idea to fill vacancies is to use the unemployed in the UK. How does he think horticultural work can be taken on by people who do not have the relevant skills or experience? (907660)

I used to run a strawberry farm, so I am familiar with this challenge, but everybody needs to be trained at some point to do this sort of work, whether they are a foreign worker or a domestic worker. We are looking at the mix of this and are in discussions with the Home Office about arrangements for next year.

House of Commons Commission

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

Covid-19: Parliamentary Estate

How many and what proportion of people with permanent passes to the Parliamentary estate have tested positive for covid-19. (907539)

The House of Commons Commission does not hold data on the proportion of people with permanent passes to the Parliamentary estate who have tested positive for covid-19. Where data is recorded in relation to the House of Commons, a total of 11 positive test results have been recorded for the period March to October 2020.

Getting the flu jab is never more important than this year. What proportion of passholders does the hon. Gentleman think will be taking the flu jab this year?

My hope is that as many Members as possible will take the opportunity to have the flu jab this year. The House of Commons does not collate any particular information on that, but I think all of us in the House would encourage all our constituents and all Members of Parliament to do what they can to secure the flu jab to keep everybody safe.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Attendance and Participation

What plans the Church of England has to increase the number of regular church attendees during the covid-19 outbreak. (907540)

What progress the Church of England is making on increasing participation in worship, weddings and other ceremonies. (907545)

The “A Church Near You” website advertises 17,000 regular Church of England virtual services and events, and those are only a portion of all that is on offer. Weddings and funerals are also often livestreamed, as my own daughter’s wedding was in the summer, and my hon. Friends will be pleased to know that Carlisle cathedral streamed ordinations earlier this month and that St Martin’s, Liskeard will have a drive-in carol service in Morrisons’ car park on 20 December, which will also be livestreamed.

I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, it has been at first impossible and latterly difficult to enable church congregations to meet physically as they used to. However, churches up and down the land have done amazingly by offering virtual services, prayer sessions and courses such as Alpha courses, meaning that many additional people who had never been to church before are now involved in a church. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking churches of all denominations who have done so much during the pandemic to serve their local communities, ranging from worship opportunities to physical care, food distribution and pastoral support?

I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for what he said. Of course, I am delighted to do so. I am sure, in fact, that the whole House would like to thank clergy, staff and volunteers who have risen to the challenge of maintaining worship and meeting need in a magnificent manner. They have been astonishingly present throughout the pandemic.

Government guidance talks of including participation in livestreaming of services, as my hon. Friend mentioned in relation to his daughter’s wedding. What technical help is being given to assist churches to allow them to include more participation?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the Church made a significant investment in a new digital communications team back in 2016. The training has been used by over 4,000 clergy. Over 7 million people have used our daily prayer apps. Nearly 3 million people have watched national online services, with about a fifth of those being people who rarely go to church or do not go at all. The good news is that the Church is reaching more people than ever before.

Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals: Attendance Restrictions

What recent discussions the Commissioners have had with Government Ministers on covid-19 attendance restrictions for baptisms, weddings and funerals. (907541)

The Government have kept in constant touch with the Church of England, all denominations and all faiths throughout the pandemic. Dioceses, parishes and cathedrals are quickly notified of any changes in law or guidance.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but how can we ensure that we do not put any further restrictions on baptisms, weddings and funerals? Does my hon. Friend agree that those ceremonies must be supported and that we cannot have another six months of cancellations?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I am very pleased that baptisms, weddings and funerals can continue in some form in all three covid alert tiers. I am pleased that the Government recognise the huge significance of those services in people’s lives.

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

What plans the Church of England has to implement the recommendations of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse investigation report on the Anglican Church, published in October 2020. (907542)

As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, the findings of the independent inquiry are “shameful and disgraceful” and remind us how badly we have treated and continue to treat victims and survivors. All the recommendations are going to the House of Bishops on Monday for urgent response and action.

Any Church should be a haven for children and young people to be able to grow in Christ but to do so in safety. The report found that 390 clergy and leaders in the Church of England were convicted of child abuse between the 1940s and 2018, but many more will have evaded punishment for their crimes. In fact, we learned that in 2018 alone, 449 concerns were raised about child sexual abuse relating to church leaders, so does the Commissioner agree that historical complaints against living alleged perpetrators must be investigated and justice brought for their victims? Can he outline what action the Church is taking to ensure that those found guilty of offences are removed as a threat to children?

I can indeed. The House of Bishops is urgently and very seriously considering the recommendations, including deposition from holy orders. We will address both practice and culture within the Church and are working on a redress scheme for victims and survivors, and we fully co-operate with all police investigations.

Parliamentary works sponsor body

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

Parliamentary Estate: Planning Authority

What assessment the sponsor body has made of the potential merits of establishing the parliamentary estate and its immediate environs as a planning authority. (907543)

The sponsor body has not assessed the merits of the approach recommended by my hon. Friend, but that was considered by the Joint Committee on the Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill. It recognised that there was no easy way to streamline the process but that engagement is key, and that is the advice that the programme seeks to heed.

I encourage the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body to look again at Parliament creating itself as its own planning authority, as in the past there have been difficulties carrying out parliamentary works when that has involved Westminster City Council, the Greater London Authority and others. I believe that that would create a much easier method for restoration and renewal. Will my right hon. Friend look at this issue again?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, wider planning considerations affecting the parliamentary estate are a matter for the parliamentary authorities rather than the programme itself. I just mention that enacting the change that he mentioned would require primary legislation or an amendment to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, which, as they say in House business management circles, would have to compete against other priorities.

Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Digital Campaigning

What representations the Committee has received from the Electoral Commission on the regulation of digital campaigning. (907544)

Digital technology offers significant opportunities to engage voters, but the commission’s report on the 2019 general election highlighted significant public concerns about the transparency of digital election campaigns. At its meeting on 24 March 2020, the Committee approved the commission’s interim corporate plan, which includes plans to address voter concerns about digital campaigning. This includes voter awareness work, with a particular focus on digital campaigning, and the commission will also support the UK Government as they develop and implement new requirements for imprints on digital campaign material.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his full answer. Other than an all-out military attack, there are few things that pose a greater threat to our way of life than concerted foreign interference in our election processes. The commission has repeatedly warned of the need for greater regulation of online campaigning, and the Intelligence and Security Committee found that Russia is actively seeking to use social media and other online methods to exert a malign influence on elections in the United Kingdom. What commitments have the commission or the Speaker’s Committee had from the Government that they will take effective action to address these threats before our national and local elections are scheduled for next year?

The commission works to protect the integrity of elections and the public’s confidence in it. There are limits to the activities that it can lead. The legal powers and remit stop at the UK borders. It looks to others to lead important activities outside political finance regulations, such as ensuring that elections are free from foreign interference. It supports the UK Government and security services in that area of work. It has made recommendations to the UK Government that would improve the transparency of digital campaigning, ensuring that voters know who is trying to influence them online, and provide the commission with better powers. That would reduce the risk of interference from overseas organisations or individuals.

Chair of the Electoral Commission

What discussions the Committee has had on whether to recommend the reappointment of the chair of the commission. (907546)

As required under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Speaker’s Committee put in place and oversees the process for selecting candidates for appointment as electoral commissioners, including the chair. The Committee’s duty encompasses the recommendation of candidates for reappointment. There is no presumption in the statute either for or against reappointment. At its meeting on 16 July, the Committee took the decision to commence recruitment for a new chair to replace Sir John Holmes, whose term comes to an end in December. That recruitment process will begin shortly.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and I pass on my best wishes to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who would normally be here but I think is unwell at the moment.

I congratulate the Speaker’s Committee on what it has done; it has effectively fired the chairman of the Electoral Commission. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons for firing him was the fact that he oversaw the persecution of innocent people whose only so-called crime was wanting to take part in the democratic process and to ensure that the UK left the European Union?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Yes, it is not unusual for public appointments to end after one term. The Committee is grateful to Sir John for his four years of service in this very important role. The chair, and all commissioners who are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen following a recommendation from the House, work under a strict code of conduct during their time as commissioners. That requires and ensures impartiality and fairness, and is policed assiduously.

May 2021 Local Elections: Registration and Participation

What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to ensure widespread electoral (a) registration and (b) participation in the May 2021 local elections. (907547)

What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to ensure widespread electoral (a) registration and (b) participation in the May 2021 local elections. [R] (907554)

The commission is experienced at driving voter registration across the UK and across demographics. That is delivered through paid advertising, the generation of media coverage, and partnership activity with local authorities, charities and others. Most recently, ahead of the 2019 general election, 2.6 million people were registered during the period of the commission’s campaign. Ahead of the next elections, the commission’s work will include additional public information communications to ensure that voters understand how their experience at polling stations may differ from normal, and the measures that will be put in place to ensure that they can vote safely.

The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution recently confirmed that no new funding will be available to local authorities for the running of the May 2021 elections. Is the Electoral Commission content that enough funding is available to put in place the necessary measures to ensure that the May 2021 elections are covid-secure?

The commission has been working with colleagues across the electoral community to consider the potential impacts of the pandemic on the delivery of polls in May 2021. It is also liaising with the relevant public health authorities to ensure that its work is informed by the latest analysis and advice. The commission is now preparing to deliver its core functions in relation to public awareness and information for voters, and the provision of guidance to ensure that electoral administrators and campaigners have what they need to ensure that the polls are delivered safely and efficiently.

A key pillar of democracy is that everyone should have access to an equal vote without discrimination based on wealth, class or race. The Minister for the Constitution recently confirmed that no legislative changes would be made to enable more flexible forms of voting for the May 2021 elections in the context of covid-19, so what is the Electoral Commission’s view on introducing new innovative ways of voting to reduce queuing and ensure social distancing, such as early voting and drive-through voting, so that people do not have to choose between their health and the right to vote?

The commission will ensure that people understand the full range of voting options available that will enable them to participate safely in next May’s polls, including the process and timelines of how to appoint a proxy or apply for a postal vote. Its priority will be to ensure that voters have all the information that they need to make the right decision for their individual circumstances. Voters at local government by-elections in Scotland can now appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf if they require to do so following medical or Government advice to isolate or quarantine on polling day. The commission recommends that the UK and Welsh Governments should implement similar proposals for elections in May 2021.

Church Commissioners

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

Renting of Church Premises

What assessment the Church of England has made of the economic effect on parishes of the inability to rent out church premises during the covid-19 outbreak. (907548)

Around 60% of parish income comes from giving, but rental income from halls and other premises has been badly affected, so I would strongly encourage Christians to increase their giving to their local church if they are able to do so, to support our ability to tell more people the good news of Jesus and, critically, to support the 35,000 social action projects helping children who are homeless and vulnerable.

St Mary’s in Aylesbury is a grade 1 listed community treasure that is fundraising for much-needed repair and restoration, but it has lost about 40% of its overall income this year due to coronavirus, notwithstanding the commitment of members of the congregation who are paying by standing order, which is still being done. However, events such as lunchtime concerts, craft fairs and civic services have all been cancelled, so what will the Church do to help parishes such as St Mary’s financially during the current crisis?

I very much recognise the picture that my hon. Friend paints of what is happening at St Mary’s in Aylesbury. I can tell him that, nationally, the Church has provided a sustainability fund to respond to the financial pressures caused by covid, and I also want to thank the Culture Secretary for the £10.7 million for vital repair work for 66 churches and cathedrals, and for what it will do to keep key craftsmen and women in work. I would welcome my hon. Friend’s support in engaging the Government with the Taylor review recommendations to support the maintenance of churches like St Mary’s in Aylesbury in a sustainable and long-term manner.

Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission

The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Electoral Commission Impartiality

What steps the Commission is taking to help ensure public confidence in the impartiality of the Electoral Commission. (907549)

In its most recent public opinion survey, in February this year, the words most frequently used by voters to describe the commission were “independent”, “important” and “professional”. The commission plays a vital role in maintaining fairness, trust and confidence in our democratic processes, both as a whole and in the nations of the UK. Its work ensures that UK election processes are accepted and that the funding and spending at elections and referendums are transparent.

The Darren Grimes case flagged up some serious concerns about the capacity and ability of the Electoral Commission to prosecute cases. In fact, the trial judge found the Electoral Commission to be at fault for reversing the normal criminal justice burden of proof. Surely this undermines the concept of political impartiality. What steps are being taken to improve the investigative processes of the commission?

The commission’s legal fees in that case were approximately £228,000, including solicitors’ fees of £138,000 and barristers’ fees of £90,000. The commission also paid £535,000 towards Mr Grimes’s legal costs. Significant amounts of money are being spent in campaigning to influence voters, and it is right that the regulator for political finance should investigate and make findings on evidence of concerns. It is also right that the regulator should defend its findings in court. On this occasion, the court did not agree with the commission’s findings, and it accepts that decision.

Church Commissioners

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

Church of England Estate: Woodland

In December 2019, the Church Commissioners had 53% of their global land, 27.5% of their UK land and 4% of their English land in forestry, and we also own pooled timber funds in the United States.

The 4% English cover puts it at the very bottom of the list. As I understand it, there are 105,000 acres in England. Why is the figure so low? Is there not a strategy to increase that cover, given that we know how important the role of trees is in natural carbon sequestration? Could the Church of England not do an awful lot better when it comes to England?

Like the hon. Lady, I strongly want to see more trees planted, and can tell her that so far this year we have planted 1.1 million trees in the UK, on top of the 2.6 million last year. We are always looking to plant more trees, but most of our rural estate is high-quality agricultural land, and is held in long-term tenancies to produce food.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Electoral Commission: Political 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, as well as to Parliaments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Its independence is a vital part of ensuring that it is able to deliver its functions, and its work is integral to maintaining a democratic system that commands the trust and confidence of voters.

Apologies, Mr Speaker. I have only been here 19 years; I am just getting used to it.

I welcome the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) to his place and send best wishes to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for a speedy recovery.

I recently undertook election monitoring training with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. One of the features of any good democratic process is an independent electoral commission, and that is what we have—one that is not afraid to take on the governing party, if necessary, from time to time. I therefore encourage the hon. Member to resist some of the calls from Conservative Members and from the Conservative party to abolish the Electoral Commission, and to ensure, as is required, that the new chair appointed is someone who is not a member of any political party, has not served as an MP, and has not donated to a political party in the past five years.

The independence of the commission plays a vital role in maintaining the legitimacy of our democracy, working across the four nations of the UK. It works closely with Parliaments and campaigners to create a strong culture of compliance, and ensures that the processes of registering votes and casting votes are carried out rigorously and transparently. The commission’s work is integral to those functions.

In order to allow the safe exit of Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for several minutes.

Sitting suspended.

Business of the House

The business for next week will include:

Monday 19 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Immigration and Social Security Co-Ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.

Tuesday 20 October—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Non-Domestic Rating (Lists)(No.2) Bill followed by a general debate on Black History Month. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 21 October—Opposition day (13th allotted day) There will be a debate on a motion relating to “fire and re-hire tactics” followed by a debate relating to social care. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Thursday 22 October—General debate on covid-19.

Friday 23 October—Private Members’ Bills.

At the conclusion of business, the House will rise for recess and return on Monday 2 November.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 November will include:

Monday 2 November—General debate on covid-19.

I am not going to pre-empt the statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, but if there were to be any subsequent implications for next week’s business, I would of course update the House in due course.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. I note that it appears from the House of Commons Twitter account that we have not had any votes in the House. He mentioned last week the need for impartiality, but I point him to the “MPs’ Guide to Procedure”, that really handy book, which says that an explanatory statement must

“objectively describe the effect of the amendment”,

so all the Twitter account is doing—the House account; it says it in the name—is using the same words that for centuries have been drafted independently by House authorities and Clerks: the name of the ten-minute rule Bills and the vote. I consider that to be objective. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government are not censoring that Twitter account?

Mr Speaker, I am glad that you clarified with the Prime Minister yesterday that it is a matter for the Government whether we go back to a hybrid Parliament and remote voting. May I ask the Leader of the House to be careful how he updates the Prime Minister? He clearly is not doing a good job of it. We are entering a really difficult phase. As we speak, people are isolating, and hon. Members are doing the right thing by staying in their constituencies. The Leader of the House has scheduled two debates on covid-19. May I ask him again if we could return to remote voting and a hybrid Parliament? This is a fast-moving situation, and people have to be very careful.

On a House matter, the Chair of the Committee on Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), wants to know when the motion on lay members of the Committee will be laid before the House. This is an independent procedure. There was only one Member involved—the rest were all outside, lay members—and they will think it slightly odd if we do not follow the correct procedure.

We must not use the pandemic to hide accountability for public money. According to The BMJ, £100 billion has been spent on Operation Moonshot. No one has come to the House to explain Operation Moonshot, which has been paused. Who is responsible for it? The technology, as I understand it, does not exist, so where is the money going? The Good Law Project would like to know the answers for its pre-action protocol, so I hope it will get them. It is no wonder the Government are looking into a review of judicial review. Judicial review is a way of holding to account people who make decisions on the people’s behalf, using people’s money. May we have a statement from the Lord Chancellor when the review is completed? It is his job to uphold the rule of law, not to dismantle it.

I think it is frightening, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) thought it was grubby, this idea of one Minister saying, “I’ll give money to your town if you give money to my town.” I do not know if people are aware of the Carltona principle, but it means that a senior civil servant can stand in the shoes of a Minister and make a decision, which to me would seem an important way of dealing with this and avoiding the perception of Ministers giving money to each other. Given that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have both said that there is an issue with the towns fund, will the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government come to the House, as asked by his shadow, and explain this?

The shadow Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) has highlighted the fact that £56 million has been paid to consultants. I think now is a good time to publish the Cygnus report, so that we know whether public money has been spent in the right way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) has said that public money has been used for legal fees to stop the debt being paid to Iran. At the heart of that are the two victims, Anoosheh and Nazanin, and also Luke Symons in Yemen. At Foreign Office questions, the Foreign Secretary said that all he has done is entertain his counterparts at Chevening; he has not made a statement. The Chair of the International Development Committee has tried to get him to appear before her Committee since June, but he has not done so.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing that the Backbench Business Committee has a Black History Month debate next Tuesday. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) is co-ordinating an appeal for Memorial 2007, to remember the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. The Government have provided money for other memorials. Will the Leader of the House have a word with the relevant Minister so that in their response to the debate next Tuesday, they can announce that they are also going to put some money into the memorial to enslaved Africans?

Finally, Remembrance Sunday is in three weeks’ time. May we have an urgent statement on the organisational advice and guidance for local authorities for what will happen on that day?

The right hon. Lady is right to ask about Remembrance Sunday, but obviously regulations around the pandemic are changing and it would therefore be too early to commit to anything at this stage. She mentions Memorial 2007, and a very worthy memorial that is. It is worth remembering that in Victoria Gardens there is a memorial to the ending of the slave trade. It was put up in the 19th century, but most people walk past it without even knowing why it is there. We do commemorate, not very far from this House, the great effort that this country made in ending an evil trade.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Lady that all public money should be scrutinised carefully, however it is spent. We can be proud that this country has such a good record on its expenditure of public money. I think we are one of the least corrupt countries in the world, and that is because we have proper scrutiny of how public money is spent. I have every confidence that the way money has been spent by this Government, particularly on the towns fund, has been absolutely proper, because we know that there is scrutiny. That is the role of this House and has been since it came into existence. It is quite right that that should be the case.

As regards the review of judicial review, that manifesto commitment is being carried out. I am delighted that a Conservative Government are carrying out their manifesto commitments—that is why people voted for us, Mr Speaker. It shows that we are people of our word.

I am fascinated that the right hon. Lady raised the issue of the Good Law Project; I seem to remember that that is associated with a fox killer—a fellow who likes to go out into his garden and bash poor foxes over the head. I am surprised that people want to refer to that organisation, which is not necessarily led by the finest people in the land.

On Operation Moonshot, I do not recognise the figure of £100 billion having been spent; I am not sure where that comes from. Figures get bandied about, but £100 billion is a very, very large amount of money and I have to say that it might have been noticed had that much been spent.

The right hon. Lady asked about the lay members of the Committee on Standards. As often happens, motions are brought forward at the right time, and no doubt a motion will be brought forward, or more motions may be brought forward, at a suitable time.

I come to the heart of the right hon. Lady’s questions today: they are about how this Parliament does its business. We have a duty to be here doing our business. It is unquestionably the case that democratic scrutiny is essential, even during a pandemic. We have to be here, holding the Government to account, asking questions, getting answers, legislating and ensuring that statutory instruments of national significance are debated on the Floor of the House, so that our constituents are represented thoroughly, questions are asked, and we seek redress of grievance for the people whom we seek to represent.

As we come here, we have a responsibility to ensure that we act in a responsible way. The House authorities, led by you, Mr Speaker, have made every effort to ensure that we are covid-safe. Look around this Chamber and look at what we have done. We are sitting 6½ feet apart from each other; we are socially distanced. Look at the markings on the floor—I am pointing at things in the Chamber; I hope that that is not too difficult for Hansard to take down. Those markings are set out. People are wandering around wearing masks. I cannot pretend that I like wearing a mask. I cannot pretend that I do not find it slightly tiresome that my spectacles steam up, and therefore one is wandering around somewhat unable to see where one is going. But we are wearing masks because we are showing the nation what we ought to be doing, and we are legislating at the same time. We have a personal responsibility and a duty to legislate. We have a duty to be here. We have to show the way. To suggest that democratic accountability is not an essential service seems to me to be an offence to democracy.

The aviation industry is clearly going through a very difficult time at present, but that does not change the longer-term case for regional airports, such as mine in Blackpool, to increase connectivity, expand tourism and boost jobs and growth. Does my right hon. Friend think it would be in order to have a debate in this place about the role that regional airports can play in boosting growth and levelling up?

The Government certainly recognise that the aviation sector, which provides passenger and freight air services, is vital for domestic and global connectivity. The Government also recognise the importance of regional hubs. Bristol airport is very near to my constituency, so I completely understand the point my hon. Friend is making. We need a thriving, competitive aviation sector in the UK. The sector has benefited from the £190 billion package of job and income support, but it has been particularly badly affected. I think my hon. Friend ought to ask for an Adjournment debate specifically on Blackpool airport to raise any issues that arise with it.

I will not be the only person who was disappointed at the response that the Leader of the House gave to the shadow Leader of the House a moment ago. Three of the four countries in the United Kingdom have introduced tougher restrictions on the public since we last had similar exchanges, and England will likely follow suit. Across all of them, there is a core message of avoiding unnecessary travel and working from home where possible. Surely, it is time for this Chamber to lead by example.

Many people will feel that the attempt by the Leader of the House to equate the role of MPs with that of frontline healthcare staff is somewhat shameless. Doctors cannot treat sick people without being physically present, but that is not the case for MPs. Everything we do could be done remotely; it is just that we choose not to, with the Government instead putting on a show in the Chamber in a vain attempt at normality. With lockdowns intensifying, this cannot continue. When will the Leader of the House switch the remote voting system back on, as recommended by the Procedure Committee, and when will the Government abandon the arbitrary distinction that allows Members to ask questions online but forbids them from moving motions or taking part in debates?

Let me now return to the question of Scottish independence. The Leader of the House may have seen the latest opinion poll that was published yesterday by Ipsos MORI, which shows 58% for independence. When I asked him last week if he would regard victory by Unionist parties at next May’s general election as a mandate for the Union, he did not answer, so I ask him again. If he truly believes that the election has no relevance to the Union because of a prior democratic event seven years before, will he confirm that the Conservatives will not be campaigning on that question at the forthcoming election?

More importantly, if the UK Government are determined to ignore the settled will of the Scottish people, can we have a debate on the consequences for the Union? It seems that we are moving away from government by consent, and that the UK Government desire to keep Scotland in the Union against the will of the people who live there. If so, Parliament ought to be told.

The hon. Gentleman is disappointed with me, and that is a yoke I shall have to bear. It is, I fear, his default position to be disappointed with me, and I am afraid that in my answers today, his disappointment will only grow. I am sorry about that; none the less, I must proceed.

The House made a decision to be back in physical form and voted to return to physical voting—a system that is working effectively and ensures that our business can be done. It is essential for debates that we are here. The whole point of a debate is to challenge, to question, to intervene. That is not possible remotely. For Ministers, when we had that brief period of legislation going through remotely, it could not have been easier: all the Minister had to do was read out the prepared blurb. Nothing could be intervened upon; nothing could be questioned. [Interruption.] When we are here, as I am heckled by the Labour Chief Whip, interventions can come from a sedentary position, which may get the pith and moment of the debate, as the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) is so good at doing. That leads to proper, informed debate. [Interruption.] Even Mr Speaker is intervening now.

I am very reassured that you are sticking to the rules, Mr Speaker. It is essential that we have debates in person, otherwise the Government are not held to account.

Then we come on to the question of the United Kingdom. The vote was held in 2014, and it was won by the Unionists. The Scottish National party said at the time that it was for a generation. I know that the SNP is now a bit embarrassed about Alex Salmond, its former leader and almost the creator of its success. Its members are cautious about the text messages they have sent and forgetful about some of the meetings that the current leader held with him. It is amusing that, as I understand it, the current leader of the Scottish National party, Mrs Sturgeon, was so busy preparing to answer questions in the Scottish Parliament that she forgot what she had been discussing at other times of the day. I do not find that these memory lapses occur when I prepare for business questions, but never mind that particular point.

It was said that the vote would last for a generation, and a generation is not seven years. What will we campaign on? The success of the Union. Some £7.2 billion has gone to Scotland, and 779,500 jobs in Scotland have been protected in the furlough scheme. The United Kingdom taxpayer is able to afford that because it is the taxpayers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland coming together for the greater good of our wonderful nation.

Back in March, as the elected chair of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy, I called on the 47 member states not to let democracy be a casualty of the covid crisis. My default position is usually to support the Leader of the House. It is ironic that in our own Parliament, despite having the technology, elected MPs who cannot attend Parliament for valid medical or other reasons are denied the right to participate remotely in proceedings other than questions, statements and Select Committees. However, it is good enough for the unelected Members of the Lords, who are able to use remote facilities to participate in debate. A vital part of democracy is currently being denied to elected MPs. In the face of the rising tide of covid infections, can we have a debate on the death of democracy in the mother of Parliaments, or will the Leader of the House get off his high horse and remove this restriction, which has resulted in the discriminatory silencing of the voices of so many of his colleagues, leaving them unable to perform their scrutiny function?

I am obviously sympathetic to the position that my right hon. Friend finds herself in—she is a much respected Member of this House—but the truth is that democracy has not died; it is thriving, because we are holding our debates properly. My right hon. Friend does take part—she is taking part now in interrogative proceedings, which is an exception to our normal course of business. Debates do not work without interventions. I know that she wishes to introduce a private Member’s Bill on Friday, but when a Member introduces a Bill, they need to be questioned and cross-examined on what is happening. That does not work in remote proceedings. When we had remote proceedings, there was no facility for interventions. The remote voting system in the House of Lords went down, and they had to do it all over again. We cannot have systems that fail. When we are here in person, the debates work, the legislation is challenged and democracy is upheld.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for the protected time—as I understand it—for the Backbench Business Committee debate on Black History Month on Tuesday.

I cannot help noticing that the Government continue to schedule general debates of their own, albeit on important issues, with general debates scheduled for both 22 October and 2 November. The Backbench Business Committee currently has 32 unallocated debates on a wide range of subjects, subscribed to by hundreds of Members from all parties. I am saying this not on behalf of myself or the Committee, but on behalf of Members across the House who wait for time for their debates in various states of patience or impatience. Only this morning I was asked by the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), to remind the House that he has an application awaiting time for a debate on food hunger among children. Will the Leader of the House please consider that when he allocates time for general debates in the House?

I can confirm that there will be three hours of protected time for the debate on Black Lives Matter. I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but the Government have to strike a balance and there seems to me to be considerable demand for covid debates. I will of course bear in mind his request for more time for the Backbench Business Committee and our obligations under Standing Orders.

Last month, Her Majesty’s Treasury announced proposals to end tax and duty-free shopping from next year. The sector represents outputs of around £2 billion for our economy and employs around 20,000 people. May we have a debate on the reconsideration of the policy at the earliest opportunity?

One of the great things about leaving the European Union is that we are getting duty-free back, so for the first time in 20 years people will be able to get some cheap alcohol when they travel to the European Union. As I understand it, the VAT reclaim scheme will still apply if goods are posted to the person, even if it will no longer be available if a person takes them out of the country themselves. We had to decide, under World Trade Organisation rules, whether to extend the scheme to all EU nationals or withdraw it from non-EU member state nationals. The decision was taken to unify it in the way that we already have it with the European Union, rather than to extend the concession. The consequences for revenue would have been quite significant otherwise.

Of the 61 areas chosen by Government Ministers for the new towns fund, 60 were in Conservative-held constituencies. May we have a debate in Government time on this scandal?

My right hon. and very sound Friend will recall that I recently asked him about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the fact that it has treated Members departing from this place at different general elections differently and inequitably. I hope he agrees with me, despite IPSA’s letter, that it is wrong and should be righted. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that IPSA should not break employment laws, whether imposed by the EU or by our own lawmakers? Will he condemn the two-tier system that IPSA has decreed in respect of who can or cannot work for Members of Parliament? All Members in this place should be equal, but at present they are obviously not viewed as such by the establishment.

IPSA is independent of Parliament and Government and has sole responsibility for setting and regulating MPs’ salaries, pensions, business costs and expenses. That decision was come to in the wake of the expenses scandal in 2009: it was thought that Members should not themselves be responsible for such issues. I will, of course, take up for any right hon. or hon. Member any concerns they have with IPSA, but the principle of independence is an important one, and therefore as Leader of the House I should not weigh in with heavy criticisms of an independent body.

This morning I attended a virtual conference held by ThinkForward, which provides skills mentoring in my community. It was an exciting collaboration between young people, schools and local businesses, and we discussed how to create better opportunities for people in my community during these challenging times. May we have a debate in Government time on how we maximise opportunities in this difficult period?

The hon. Gentleman should come over to the Government Benches, where he would be extremely welcome, because he is really advocating Government policy for levelling up. I hope we will have many opportunities to debate the success and ambition of our levelling-up programme.

Our Union must be protected at all costs, so can my right hon. Friend confirm that it would be illegal for the Welsh Labour Government to introduce an intensive border within the UK to restrict movement between England and Wales, and that to do so would damage our precious Union and the links between our four great nations?

Mr Speaker, what would you expect of a hard left Labour Government? The approach to putting a border between England and Wales is unconstitutional and will place the police in an invidious position considering that they serve the whole of the United Kingdom. We are one single United Kingdom and we should not have borders between different parts of the United Kingdom. I am afraid that that is what you get when you vote for socialists.

The Leader of the House has already expressed confidence in how money is allocated by the towns fund this morning. If that is the case, why will the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government not come here to answer questions on the subject? I for one would love to ask him why every town that was classed as low priority by officials and that was actually given funding just happened to be a Conservative-held seat or a target seat at the general election last year. That seems to me a remarkable coincidence that demands an explanation by the Secretary of State. Does the Leader of the House agree?

I point out that we won lots of seats at the last election and we won lots of seats in areas that had previously been held by the Labour party, and that seats can change from one party to another, but that is not one of the criteria. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State makes regular statements to this House. He will be back here for questions on 16 November, but there are other ways of questioning him, including written questions, and the hon. Gentleman knows how to use the procedures of this House.

Can we have a debate on censorship? Then we would be able to discuss the sinister disappearance of the link from Google to the Great Barrington declaration, wouldn’t we?

When I first heard of the Barrington declaration, I thought it was something to do with cricket, but it turns out that it is not. Sir Ken Barrington was a very distinguished cricketer. I will not go into the Barrington rules for children to play under, which are very successful.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the question of censorship. The Government are sceptical about the Barrington declaration, but that does not mean that people should not be free to discuss it, and it is a worrying trend for large internet operators to think that they should be the arbiters of free speech. It is not for them to arbitrate over free speech. It is perhaps even more troubling that they are sometimes slow to take down material that could damage children, but they are not so slow to take down things that they do not agree with politically, and that raises important questions.

Disabled people already faced significant barriers to accessing work before the pandemic. Recent research from Citizens Advice shows that one in four disabled people have reported that they are now at risk of losing their job, or are in the process of doing so. What are the Government doing to ensure that this pandemic does not lead to a rollback in the progress that the UK has made on disability-inclusive employment?

The Government will be publishing a national strategy for disabled people, taking into account the effects of the pandemic and therefore including effects on employment, and that is policy work that is under way. There has also been the announcement of a fund of £1 million for charities supporting people with learning disabilities to help them in this difficult time.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the treatment of people suffering with endometriosis? On the 19th of this month, the all-party Parliamentary group on endometiosis will present its findings following a survey of more than 10,000 people. I do hope that our recommendations will be acted on.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue during business questions again. He has been an admirable campaigner for the treatment of people suffering from endometriosis, which is a disease of considerable significance and concern to a significant number of people, and he is right to raise awareness of it. His report will, I am sure, be welcomed and will be passed to the Secretary of State. If he has any difficulty getting a reply, he may raise it again at business questions and I will certainly help him to ensure that he gets a reply.

On 22 September, I raised concerns with the Prime Minister about holiday companies refusing to recognise the Welsh local lockdown regulations and refusing people refunds when they are unable to go on their holidays. The Prime Minister asked for details because he was unaware of the situation, which I provided to him on that day, but three weeks later I still have not heard anything back. Could we have a debate or a statement from the Government outlining what they intend to do to support people across Wales who are affected by this situation?

Obviously I will try to seek an update for the hon. Gentleman in response to his letter. As I said earlier in relation to Scotland, the United Kingdom taxpayer has given an enormous amount of support to Wales, with £4.4 billion and over 400,000 jobs being supported through the furlough scheme. There are significant amounts of money. This is part of the success of the United Kingdom in being one country and being able to support all parts of it.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate to ensure that this Chamber remains open in order that each one of us, on both sides of the House, can represent their constituencies —in my case, the beautiful island of Ynys Môn? The House of Commons sat during the war. We must sit now, especially at this most important time for our country.

My hon. Friend asks a really important question. At the beginning of the year, it was necessary for Parliament to sit virtually in order to continue to function and to scrutinise Government during the lockdown. But during remote proceedings it became clear that when working from home MPs were not able to perform their constitutional role as effectively, either in scrutinising the Government or in getting vital legislation on to the statute book. The House authorities have made really first-class efforts to ensure that physical proceedings are in operation in line with Public Health England guidance and are safe both for Members and for staff of the House. Your leadership, Mr Speaker, has been inspirational in these terms. It is the Government’s view that returning to a physical Parliament has allowed proper scrutiny to be restored with better debate and greater progress for legislation. It is only thanks to returning to physical proceedings in that carefully managed fashion that we have been able to scrutinise and pass new legislation effectively, including the new and urgent coronavirus regulations, and complete the essential transition period legislation.

Yes, but a growing proportion of Members simply cannot take part and would be able to if we switched on virtual participation in debates, while those who wanted to come would be able to. For example, we could have a debate on my early-day motion 1001 on the emergency gift aid campaign.

[That this House marks the annual Gift Aid Awareness Day which fell on 8 October 2020; appreciates that Gift Aid Relief is the practical application of the long-established principle that donations to charities should not be taxed; recognises that the charitable sector is in the middle of the biggest financial crisis it has ever faced, with huge falls in income at the same time as increased demand for services; considers that a Gift Aid Emergency Relief Package would go a long way to keeping vital charitable services running; calls on the UK Government to increase Gift Aid from 20% to 25% for two years from the start of the 2020-21 tax year; further calls on the UK Government to introduce changes to the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme to remove barriers for entry to ensure wider access across the voluntary sector and increase the amount that can be claimed from £8,000 to £10,000; and believes that the cost of such measures need not be prohibitive given that the National Audit Office estimates that £560m of eligible Gift Aid is unclaimed each year and that charities are likely to see an overall fall in donations in the current challenging economic circumstances.]

As the shadow Leader of the House pointed out, this time last week it was Gift Aid Awareness Day. So many charities, big and small, are providing vital services in response to the pandemic but are equally being hit by fundraising difficulties. A short-term uplift in the gift aid scheme, for a couple of years, would allow them to access extra funds in order to deliver those vital services. Could the Leader of the House find time for a debate on that?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of gift aid and the difficulties that charities are facing. The Government have provided some extra support for charities to help them through this period. I cannot, I fear, promise him a debate, but, Mr Speaker, you have no doubt heard his application for an Adjournment debate.

6 January 2009 was a sad day in our nation’s history when we said goodbye to a British institution. I worked for Woolworths and loved every minute of it. It sat at the heart of our communities, providing great jobs and some of the best pick’n’mix known to man. Our high streets are fighting for their lives in a battle made ever worse by the pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the future of our high streets?

Ah, the wonder of Woolies. May I commend my hon. Friend for his incredible ability with pick’n’mix? We are all looking forward to some sweets after business questions. High streets are essential to our towns and our sense of community. The Government are committed to supporting the businesses and communities that make our high streets and towns successful. That is why there is the £3.6 billion towns fund, which Labour does not much like, the purpose of which is to bring much-needed investment to towns and high streets across the country. We are also supporting local leadership through the high streets taskforce, which is giving them the expert advice that they need to adapt and thrive. Adapting and thriving is going to be essential for high streets, and I am glad to say that taxpayer money is there to support it.

The future of the Putney boat race is at stake. Not only that, but the closure of Hammersmith bridge is causing misery to thousands of people across south-west London. Does the Leader of the House remember my asking a question back in February about the restoration of Hammersmith bridge? He advised me to keep on making representations in the House. Well, here I am, keeping on making representations in the House. The Government have set up a taskforce. It has been meeting for five weeks, but there is still no sign of any Government funding, and that is what we need. Will the Government urgently make time for us to debate the funding of the restoration of Hammersmith bridge?

The hon. Lady is right to keep raising this point, and perhaps we can raise it with the Mayor of London, who has lots of money, which he spends extremely badly, or with the socialist Hammersmith Council, which has responsibility as well. Not everything falls on Her Majesty’s Government; there are local authorities that have responsibilities, and they need to fulfil those responsibilities with the funding provided to them centrally from taxpayers.

People throughout the country are benefiting from this Government’s stamp duty holiday. However, given the high property prices in central London, many of my constituents are not benefiting. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a fundamental review of stamp duty, because ultimately it is a tax on social mobility?

I think that I might cause trouble inside the Government if I started speculating about what might happen with stamp duty. That is a matter for the Chancellor, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, because I completely understand that it affects her constituency differently from many other constituencies in the country. I will pass on her comments to the Chancellor.

Yesterday, I heard that in my constituency of Blaydon, one child in four now lives in poverty, an increase of 7% over the past four years. New research from the End Child Poverty coalition shows that the north-east has the second highest rate of poverty in the UK. Poverty blights the lives of children for the rest of their lives. We urgently need a national strategy to eradicate child poverty, so will the Leader of the House commit the Government to examining this issue? Can we have a debate in Government time on this hugely important issue?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight this important and troubling issue, which shows that there is still more to be done, but the Government have already achieved a great deal. It is worth noting that 200,000 fewer people live in absolute poverty now than in 2010, and absolute poverty rates across the country have fallen in every region since 2010. There are 786,000 fewer children living in a workless household now, which is a record low. Although I absolutely understand what the hon. Lady is saying, and I sympathise with her point and I accept that there is more to be done, a great deal has already been achieved.

Carshalton and Wallington residents have been sending me photos and videos of the chaos that road closure schemes are causing, thanks to their introduction by the Lib Dem-run council. That has included videos of emergency service vehicles having to turn around while on call and find alternative routes to incidents. That is not acceptable, so can we have a debate about the introduction of these road closure schemes and the need for local authorities to consult properly with residents and with the emergency services?

Unfortunately, Lib Dems hate the motorist and therefore they have used this scheme, wherever they have had the opportunity, to make life more difficult for the motorist. Conservatives are supporters of the motorist and the great freedom that motoring brings, but local authorities are autonomous and therefore we must campaign for more Conservative councillors to try to be on the side of the motorist.

Polls released this week suggest that almost 80% of young people in Scotland would vote for Scotland to be an independent country. The Government have used public money to conduct their own polls on support for independence, and in response to earlier questions, the Leader of the House made the case for parliamentary scrutiny, so why will the Government not publish those polls and give answers to legitimate parliamentary questions asked by my colleagues? What have Her Majesty’s Government got to hide?

Her Majesty’s Government have nothing to hide. It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that there was a proper poll—a poll where people went with a pencil and cast an X in 2014. X marked the spot, and the spot was remaining in the United Kingdom.

In my constituency, inspire+ is a fantastic local charity that works with schools to provide engaging physical education lessons. It has shown me that active children are healthier, happier and better students. Can we have a debate on the importance of sports and PE in our national curriculum?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I congratulate inspire+ on the work it is doing. PE and sport is a vital part of a broad and balanced school curriculum—in brackets, when I was at school, I absolutely hated it, close brackets—[Laughter.] No, never mind. It has benefits not just for physical health, but for wider wellbeing, attainment and engagement with other children. The primary PE and sport premium provides funding directly to primary schools to make sustainable improvements. The Government have confirmed funding of £320 million for the current academic year, and the first payments will be made to schools, as usual, at the end of this month. I will make sure that my hon. Friend’s views are shared with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. I confess that, when I was at school, I made Walter the Softy look strong, which was perhaps why I was not so keen on PE personally.

Monzo, Starling, Lloyds and Barclays banks have all made gambling blocks available on their accounts. Introducing this friction is a vital part of the support that banks can provide to help people with a gambling addiction. Will the Leader of the House join me in commending the actions of these banks, encourage others to follow their lead and urge all in the financial sector to do even more to help prevent gambling-related harm?

Indeed, I join my hon. Friend on the very encouraging point she raises. Tackling gambling addiction is a cause that has cross-party support. The Government are committed to protecting people from the risks of gambling-related harm, and we have been clear that we will review the Gambling Act 2005 to ensure that it is fit for the digital age. I do hope that more banks will follow the commendable example raised by my hon. Friend. It is encouraging when businesses act of their own accord to improve the lives of their customers in this way and do not need intervention from the state. My hon. Friend is one of the most successful campaigners in this House, and I know she will continue with this campaign, which has a great deal of support. She has an opportunity to raise it further at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions on 5 November.

In last week’s business questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) raised questions about the flooding of raw sewage. This is an issue in many constituencies, including in my own in the historic town of Deal, which has seen inadequate management by Southern Water and ineffective oversight and regulation by Ofwat. Will my right hon. Friend provide time for a much-needed debate on this issue so that we can put an end to the scourge of smelly sewage and filthy flooding?

The distress that sewer flooding can cause is very considerable, and water companies have a duty to drain their areas effectively. I can assure my hon. Friend that the regulator takes this issue seriously. Water companies are expected to reduce the amount of sewage flooding that their customers experience, and they face penalties if they fail to achieve this. We do expect companies to improve their planning in co-operation with others responsible for drainage, so they can take a more strategic approach to reducing sewer flooding as part of the new drainage and wastewater management plans. In the first instance, I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but it may be another Adjournment debate under your auspices, Mr Speaker.

The national data strategy was unveiled recently, and I am sure the Leader of the House knows how important it is that we secure a data adequacy agreement with the European Union soon. He may also have noticed that commentators were surprised at what they termed the “buccaneering” language used in some of it, which I would perhaps attribute to Mr Dominic Cummings. Given the importance of securing data flows with the European Union, can the Leader of the House make time for a statement from a Minister on this very important issue soon?

As I have just mentioned, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions will be on 5 November, so “Remember, remember the 5th of November” for other purposes. The national data strategy is a very good strategy. We need to be buccaneering about it because it may determine our economic future, and if that is coming from Dominic Cummings, all power to his elbow.

In 1821, this House passed the Act that brought about the Stockton and Darlington railway, enabling Darlington to become the birthplace of the railways. Our world heritage bridge featured on the £5 note, with Locomotion No. 1 travelling across it, and my constituents are petitioning for that engine to stay in Darlington. We have grand plans to develop a rail heritage quarter, in part funded by a successful towns fund bid. Our nation will have the opportunity to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the railways in 2025. As they are central to our country’s identity and economy, I wonder whether the Leader of the House could find time to debate how our nation might mark and celebrate this significant milestone, highlighting the significant contributions of our railways, past, present and future.

My hon. Friend is right to raise this important anniversary, although neither of us was there for the Bill’s introduction in 1821, it being a little before our time. Locomotion No. 1 in Darlington shows Darlington’s central importance to the story of our railways and the community around that. The Government towns fund will spend £3.6 billion of taxpayers’ money in town centres and high streets to level up our regions and create places across the country where people want to live and thrive. So Darlington has its own bid in, and I wish it good luck. The 200th anniversary is an opportunity for international attention to turn to Darlington, and it is worth noting that Her Majesty’s Government have the biggest railway building programme since that happy era when Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Yesterday, the Government took out a full-page advert in my local paper to inform people of the new covid alert level across Bradford, but the advert got the tier wrong. It said that we are in the medium tier, whereas Bradford and the whole of West Yorkshire is in the high level. From statements via Twitter to late-night announcements, this is more staggering incompetence from a Government who are losing their grip on this pandemic. The very least we can all expect is accurate information on new rules, so may we have a debate in Government time on Government communications during this pandemic?

The Government have done a great deal to support local newspapers through this pandemic by placing adverts in them, and that has been an important way to help a community facility that is very much appreciated. I urge people to look up the regulations on the Government website to find out which tier they are in and what the regulations mean for them, but I am glad to tell the hon. Lady that there will be two debates on covid when it will be possible to raise these issues.

Please may we have a debate on the role of skills in the levelling-up agenda, which is so central to this Government’s priorities? It would be very valuable to explore the role of skills, particularly digital skills. Businesses raise the issue of digital skills with me more than any other issue in the sphere of employment.