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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 21 January 2021

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Great Britain-Northern Ireland Pet Travel

If he will take steps to ensure that the new regulations for Great Britain-Northern Ireland pet travel are not overly restrictive. (911159)

The Northern Ireland protocol under the European Union withdrawal agreement applies the EU pet travel regulations for pet movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Great Britain has currently been listed by the EU in part 2 of the regulations, which requires some documentation. However, Great Britain and Ireland have a similarly very high health status, and we are discussing possible bilateral provisions with Ireland. In the meantime, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is taking a pragmatic approach in this initial period.

I assume that the Secretary of State is aware of the challenges this causes for ordinary pet owners, but specifically can he advise what mitigations were anticipated and are being put in place for those who require assistance dogs to travel between Britain and Northern Ireland?

The primary purpose of the pet travel regulations is to control the spread of rabies, and both Ireland and Great Britain have very similar and very high health status on rabies, having not had it in dogs previously. We therefore think that there should be easement on the provision; we have argued with the Commission that we should be listed in part 1, but we are continuing to make those bilateral negotiations with Ireland a priority.

Buckskin Flood Alleviation Scheme

What discussions he has had with the Environment Agency on when the Buckskin flood alleviation scheme in Basingstoke will be completed. (911160)

I understand that the Buckskin flood alleviation scheme became operational on 24 December, Christmas eve, reducing flood risk to 170 homes. Final minor works are now scheduled to be completed by the end of January 2021, and the scheme has been delivered within budget despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

That is welcome news, because just a few years ago Buckskin was devastated by floods. My thoughts are with those who were flooded out last night in Greater Manchester, north Wales and Merseyside. No one can stop flooding completely, particularly groundwater flooding, so in addition to this very welcome flood scheme, what assurance can my hon. Friend give that homes affected by floods will still be able to get property insurance?

I thank my right hon. Friend for highlighting that issue. The joint Government and industry Flood Re scheme was designed to help householders at high flood risk to access affordable insurance. Flood Re is available from more than 85 insurance brands now; more than 300,000 properties have benefited since its launch. Before Flood Re just 9% of households who had made flood claims could get quotes from two or more insurers, but in June 2020, 96% of households with prior flood claims could receive quotes from five or more, so I hope my right hon. Friend agrees that that is a hugely improved situation.

Many parts of the country are currently facing severe flood warnings, and our thoughts are with those who have been flooded overnight. We need a proactive rather than a reactive approach to this crisis, so will the Minister today commit to holding an emergency flood summit that brings together agencies and regional leaders to make sure that we have a co-ordinated response to support local communities?

We held a flood summit covering the south Yorkshire area shortly before Christmas later last year. I have also said that we want to hold a series of roundtable meetings around the country covering individual water catchments.

Distant Fleet Fishing

Last Thursday, the UK Government published the determination of fishing opportunities for British fishing boats covering the period to 31 March this year. Licences have been issued for 2,750 tonnes of cod in the waters around Svalbard, which result from arrangements between the UK and Norway. The UK’s first annual bilateral negotiations with Norway will also be relevant to distant waters fishing, in particular with regard to Arctic cod.

Three weeks have passed since the transition ended and still the Hull trawler Kirkella is laid up in its home port unable to sail. The short licence the Secretary of State just mentioned to fish off Svalbard is for a fraction of the previous quota, which means it cannot operate viably, and still fishers’ jobs are at risk. We cannot lose Hull’s last link with its distant fleet fishing heritage, so I again ask: how much longer will they have to wait for a sensible and viable annual fishing quota for both the Norwegian zone and Svalbard?

It is not unusual for the annual fishing negotiations to go into January. This year, there has obviously been the very special circumstance that the withdrawal agreement came late, but in 2014 access was suspended while negotiations with Norway continued through January. We would anticipate that these negotiations would conclude within the next couple of weeks, and then access for Arctic cod, should that be agreed, could be resumed.

Food Imports and Exports

What steps he has taken to prevent disruption to food (a) imports and (b) exports since the end of the transition period. (911162)

What steps he has taken to prevent disruption to food (a) imports and (b) exports since the end of the transition period. (911181)

We have engaged extensively with industry to support trader readiness for new requirements for exporting to the EU. For those importing to the UK, we established a phased approach to border controls for the first period of 2021. We have supported exporters as they familiarise themselves with new processes around export health certificates and customs declarations, and we have liaised closely with EU states, such as France, that are also getting used to new processes at the border. Finally, we have worked closely with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure the rapid deployment of the covid-19 testing measures required by France.

Further to that, may I ask the Secretary of State what measures the Government are taking to prevent more border disruption and costly delays for food and drink exporters when the volumes of trade start to pick up again in the coming weeks? What assessment has he made of the impact on jobs if there are delays and disruption at the border?

The sector that has had greatest difficulty in these first few weeks has been the fishing sector, principally because it is a very time-critical, perishable product, but there are also some smaller businesses selling smaller consignments in mixed, grouped loads. Overall, the system is working well. We are issuing around 150 export health certificates per day. The volume of lorries through the short straits is back up to around 6,000 to 7,000 per day—still some way short of normal levels, but nevertheless it continues to grow.

Dina Foods, which produces delicacies in Acton for supermarkets here and all over the EU, rejoiced at the Christmas eve miracle of no tariffs and no quotas, but it is drowning in paperwork for forward freight and it is experiencing crippling additional transportation costs and pallet requirements, and border delays for customs clearance. Goods loaded for Spain on the 8th still have not made it. Buyers are losing patience. The same is happening for those importing from everywhere; what took two weeks now takes three months. Will Ministers fix the rules of origin to stop battering British business?

Colleagues in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are looking at the specific issue around rules of origin, which does affect some sectors, but overall, flow at the border through the short straits has been good. More than 6,000 lorries per day are travelling. DFDS, which leads on fisheries distribution, now says that it is getting lorries to Boulogne within 24 hours. Goods are starting to flow, but unavoidably, as we leave both the customs union and the single market, there is of course some additional paperwork.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work that he has put into getting the deal to work. We welcome the deal, but there are still lots of problems with people getting things through the border, and delays are reducing the value of fish especially. What compensation can be given to people, and what more can the Secretary of State do to get goods flowing through the borders—both at our end and, in particular, through French ports when there are problems at their customs?

Yesterday, we announced that we would offer one-to-one support for individual enterprises in the fishing sector that are struggling to get used to the new paperwork; that could be from HMRC or the Animal and Plant Health Agency. In addition, we work very closely with customs officials and Border Force officials in France to help improve the understanding at that level. We also announced a £23 million fund yesterday to help those fishing businesses that have struggled in these initial weeks.

I fear the Secretary of State is living in a parallel universe. He must have seen the headlines: “Pig Heads Are Rotting In Rotterdam As Brexit Delays Hit The British Meat Industry”. Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association understands that these problems are not teething problems; they are structural. He warns that the meat industry’s trade with the EU is in jeopardy. Is he right about that? What is the Secretary of State going to do about it—just suggest that farmers do something else?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. Actually, goods are flowing, particularly lamb, which is our principal meat export. Dairy goods are also flowing. Yes, there are occasionally delays at the border, as border officials in France and the Netherlands get used to the new processes, but we are intervening in all such instances to help the businesses concerned.

Europe’s biggest fish market in Peterhead is empty. An industry has collapsed because this Government’s ideological blinkers meant they made a mess of the negotiations and Ministers think it is a teething problem or a paperwork problem or it is not their fault. Will Ministers tell us how they intend to sort this out? Will the Government go back to the EU to seek a grace period and new negotiations on market access, as many in the sector are asking for, even if that means accepting some regulatory alignment?

Scottish Fishing Communities: EU Trade

What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement on Scottish fishing communities. (911164)

What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement on Scottish fishing communities. (911170)

The trade and co-operation agreement establishes tariff-free trade on fisheries exports to the EU and also establishes a five-and-a-half-year multiannual agreement on access and sharing arrangements for quota. Under the agreement, there are year-on-year transfers of fishing opportunities from EU fleets to the UK fleet. Overall, the EU relinquished 25% of the quota it had previously been allowed to catch in UK waters. There are gains, both in the North sea and in the west of Scotland.

Scotland’s high-quality seafood producers are warning that they are going out of business. They cannot have their products sitting in lorry parks in Kent waiting for customs clearance. Those products have to reach market fresh. What are the Government doing to change procedures and technology to ensure an entire industry is not destroyed? Will there be ongoing compensation offered to businesses until this is sorted, or was that offer a one-off? If the Minister could offer a slightly fuller response this time, that would be appreciated.

As I explained earlier, we have announced a £23 million fund to help exporters who struggled with the paperwork in the initial weeks. We have also been working daily with the fishing sector to tackle and iron out any particular issues it has encountered. Twice a week we hold long stakeholder calls with all businesses concerned. I have had personal conversations with organisations such as DFDS, which leads on distribution. We have given them all the support we can to help them iron out the teething issues they have been having.

This Government have followed up their sell-out of Scotland’s fishing communities with this £23 million insult. The industry is losing more than four times that every day. It is losing customers with it. And this was the one industry, we were told, that would benefit from Brexit. Why will the Government not act now, act quickly, eat some humble pie and re-establish barrier-free rapid access to the European market for this industry, so it can finally supply its customers again?

With the support we have given industry to iron out some of the issues it has been having, the flow of goods is now continuing. DFDS in particular has been very successful at transporting salmon to the European Union. This week, it resumed groupage systems to take smaller consignments. We know there are between 30 to 50 lorries of fish making their way to Boulogne each and every day.

Agricultural Support

The Government made a manifesto commitment to maintain the current annual budget to farmers. In England, we will be offering both transitional and productivity support from this year. Now we have left the EU, Wales, too, can shape its own agricultural policies.

I thank the Minister for her answer. This week is Farmers’ Union Wales Farmhouse Breakfast Week. This morning my family tucked into a hearty breakfast of local produce from the butchers at Anglesey Fine Foods in Valley. Farmers in my constituency, such as Gerald Thomas and Brian Bown, grow and rear some of the finest foods in the UK. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government to ensure they receive the same levels of support as English farmers now that they have left the EU? Does she also agree with me that Welsh farm sausage is the finest addition to any good breakfast?

Well, a Welsh sausage is hard to beat, and I congratulate the Farmers’ Union of Wales on its excellent farmhouse breakfast campaign and my hon. Friend on sourcing and enjoying local produce with her family this morning. DEFRA works closely with the Welsh Government, and we have a shared commitment to promoting Welsh food.

Food Producers: Content Restrictions

What assessment he has made of the potential effect on UK food producers of proposed restrictions on promotions of products high in fat, sugar and salt. (911167)

Colleagues in the Department for Health and Social Care carried out a consultation on the proposal to restrict the promotion of foods high in fat, salt and sugar in stores. The Government’s response to the consultation and the impact assessment were published on 28 December 2020. This concluded that the benefits for the nation’s health and the reduction in cost on the NHS outweighed the costs.

The inclusion of breakfast cereals in the proposals for restricting the promotion of these products is causing real concern to cereal growers in my constituency, such as Morris of Hoggeston, and the wider breakfast cereal industry. particularly as there is no allowance for the naturally occurring sugars and fats from the dried fruits and nuts often put with cereals such as granola, porridge and muesli. Will my right hon. Friend advise what assessment has been made of the impact on UK farmers of these proposals and work with colleagues, particularly in the Department of Health and Social Care, to see more common sense applied to breakfast cereals?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Cereals, such as those are grown in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are an important source of healthy food. Breakfast cereals will be captured by DHSC’s policy only if they are classified as high in salt, fat or sugar, and the nutrient profiling model used by Public Health England accounts for the nutritional benefits of cereals, fruits and nuts. I suggest that he raises his concerns with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), but I would also be willing to engage in that discussion, given the particular concerns that he raised.

Tree Planting

We committed in our manifesto to increasing planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares, and we are working with the devolved Administrations to deliver that. We announced a £640 million nature for climate fund, a lot of which will contribute towards the tree planting, together with our green recovery challenge fund, and the skills required to plant these trees and look after them will all be part and parcel of this. We will be publishing our tree strategy with all the details later in the spring.

As communities along the River Severn catchment are facing flooding once again, I thank the Minister for all she has done to fund a hardening of flood defences along the River Severn. Will she say how tree planting is also effective at reducing the amount of floodwater that goes through the catchment and reducing the speed?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for that question, and of course our sympathies go to anyone who has been flooded overnight. With the Environment Agency, we have a very big project on to oversee all that. We are absolutely committed to better protecting the country from flooding, and I thank her for her comments about what is happening in the Severn valley. Natural flood management, including tree planting, cannot solve the issues of conventional flooding, but it is part and parcel of the whole plan—the holistic plan—for dealing with flooding on a much wider and more comprehensive scale. Proposals to do that include flood-risk management options, which will include tree planting, improve water quality and enhance the environment. It will be an integrated approach and I very much look forward to hearing more about the plans for the Severn valley, which I know she is hugely behind.

Air Pollution: Brownfield Redevelopment

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the level of air pollution generated from the redevelopment of brownfield sites. (911169)

The Secretary of State regularly meets Cabinet colleagues to discuss a range of issues, including air quality and planning issues. Air quality is a key consideration of local authority planning decisions, and there are strong protections in place to safeguard people from unacceptable risks from air pollution where development is proposed, and this is detailed in national planning policy.

People living in my constituency feel choked by the fumes from the remediation of Southall gasworks, a project forced through against the wishes of local residents and local representatives by the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Will the Minister confirm that they will meet me and local residents to explain why they think this is acceptable and why the Government will not empower either the Environment Agency or Public Health England to act?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The redevelopment of the former gasworks site at Southall is a matter for the local authority and the Mayor of London, as I am sure he is well aware. Local authorities are required to review and assess local air quality and decide what monitoring is necessary in line with statutory duties. This Government are tackling air quality and taking it extremely seriously with their £3.8 billion project. If the hon. Gentleman wants to contact me with any details about this issue, I am happy to speak to him but I am not able to get involved in any way in particular planning issues.

Food Security and Poverty: Lockdown

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling food poverty and insecurity during the January 2021 covid-19 lockdown. (911171)

The Government have put in place a winter package to support the economically vulnerable. This includes a £170 million covid-19 winter support grant for local authorities to support households with food and other costs, and £16 million of funding for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to support charities with food redistribution to the vulnerable.

Over the last five years, millions of families have experienced food insecurity, causing a 74% increase in food bank usage, yet the Government are refusing once again to extend free school meals over the February half-term, saying that councils have to cover the cost. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that every single child entitled to free school meals, including those with parents with no recourse to public funds restrictions, will receive the meals they need over the half-term?

While we have not extended the free school meals during the half-term period, we have announced a range of other interventions, including the holiday activities scheme that was announced late last year and also the grants that I have just announced that local authorities can use to help those in need.

Animal Welfare

The Government are committed to the animal welfare agenda. Currently, we are working on proposals to ban live exports for slaughter or fattening, banning primates as pets and introducing compulsory microchipping for cats. We will increase sentences for animal cruelty, enhance the welfare standards of farmed animals and bring forward proposals relating to animal sentience.

I thank the Minister for her answer, and I am grateful for all she is doing, but both the demand for puppies in the UK and their price have skyrocketed over lockdown. I declare an interest: I bought two of the same breed several months apart and saw a doubling in the price. I have been speaking to reputable breeders, and they are choosing not to breed their dogs because of concerns about welfare. What are the Government doing to ensure puppy welfare, clamp down on puppy farms and stop puppy profiteering?

My hon. Friend raises an important question, which I know he has campaigned on before. Regulations in England require anyone in the business of breeding and selling dogs to be licensed. Last year, we banned commercial third-party sales of puppies and kittens, and also launched our national Petfished campaign to educate the public on how to source pets responsibly.

Puppy Trafficking

DEFRA takes the trade in puppy smuggling seriously. We operate a rigorous checking regime, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency works collaboratively to share intelligence, disrupt illegal imports and seize animals where that is necessary. The end of the transition period has created new opportunities for cracking down on puppy smuggling, and we are considering a range of options to help with this.

Every year thousands of puppies are still illegally smuggled across eastern Europe to be mis-sold to British dog lovers. Many suffer significant health problems and behavioural challenges and some do not survive. The Dogs Trust wants the Government to raise the minimum age for puppies to enter the UK to six months and to significantly increase penalties for smugglers. The Minister talked about the opportunities of the end of the transition period, so when are we going to get on with it?

The Government are actively considering a range of opportunities to crack down on this abhorrent trade, as the hon. Gentleman says. We are listening to the views of a large number of stakeholders, including the Dogs Trust and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which have made useful comments in this space. I look forward to working with him and Members from across this House to take these proposals forward.

Topical Questions

Over the past 48 hours, Storm Christoph has led to very high rainfall, leading to hundreds of flood warnings, particularly in areas around the north-west and Yorkshire, including in Chorley—your constituency, Mr Speaker. Four severe flood warnings have been issued, two in the Didsbury area of Manchester, and two in the Maghull area of Liverpool. Overnight, those in 200 hundred homes in Maghull and more than 2,000 homes in Didsbury were advised to evacuate. Water levels in the Didsbury flood basin have started to recede, but water will continue to work through the river systems in the north-west and Yorkshire in the coming days. More unsettled weather is expected next week, so we continue to prepare for further impacts.

The Secretary of State may not be aware that last night’s rainfall has caused another landslip on a former coal tip in Rhondda Cynon Taf. The long-term management of these tips is a UK Government responsibility. We all need to do what we can to protect our local environment, and coal tips are a major part of our heritage here in the Welsh valleys. Will he therefore commit to working with his colleagues in the Cabinet to publish a strategy outlining the Government’s long-term plan for managing these coal tips?

We have been working closely with both the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh Government on this challenge, which we all take seriously. I know that discussions have taken place in the past with the national Coal Authority on this matter as well, and we will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government on it.

I can visit the Lucombe oak at Kew Gardens, but not the rhinos at Whipsnade, and they are both out in the fresh air. Will the Minister press for the outside areas of zoos to be made available for the public to visit, just as they can go to Kew Gardens, as soon as possible? (911122)

We all very much hope to be able to lift the restrictions of lockdown as soon as possible. My hon. Friend will be aware that in the first lockdown, we allowed zoos to open after we allowed parks to open. Zoos are outdoors, but people tend to follow the same routes, so the risk is judged by Public Health England to be higher. However, I have sympathy with the issues zoos face, and we want to get them open as soon as possible.

Each year, 40,000 people die from poor air quality. Labour has tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill, on which there will be a vote on Tuesday, to put the World Health Organisation air quality standards into law. Can the Secretary of State tell me why his Government plan to vote against that amendment?

We are working on the air quality targets that will form part of our targets under the Environment Bill. We are looking at population exposure, as well as an absolute concentration target, and we are working with experts to assess what that concentration target should be.

I do not think that answer was good enough, and it speaks to a larger concern: the Government seem to be rolling back hard-won environmental gains. It will not just be Britain watching the votes on the Environment Bill; it will also be the Biden-Harris Administration. If Labour’s amendment is voted down, although it would prevent the Government allowing bee-killing chemicals, loosening the chemicals regime, and having a weaker environmental watchdog than we had last year, what message does it send about how much we can trust the Prime Minister when he speaks about “building back better”?

We have not changed our regulations on neonicotinoids, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. In common with 10 other EU countries, we have granted an emergency authorisation, which is an integral part of the precautionary principle. We have done so for a non-flowering crop, and we have also made it clear that flowering crops cannot be grown there for at least three years.

Six years ago, my right hon. Friend visited Sovereign Harbour in my Eastbourne constituency and saw ambitious plans for a whole new quayside development. Despite the challenges of covid, construction is in full swing. When the coast is clear, will he make a return visit to congratulate all those involved—and, importantly, to assure them that there are new opportunities ahead for the under-10 metre fleet, and that historical inequalities in quota will be levelled up? (911123)

I remember very well that visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is always good to see such ambitious plans come into effect and start to take shape. I would be delighted to visit her constituency again, and to outline some of our plans to ensure better fishing opportunities for our inshore fleet.

Farmers in Cockerham, Winmarleigh and Pilling have experienced considerable flooding in recent years. The farms consist of grade 2 and grade 3 agricultural land—some of the most productive farmland in Lancashire—which is vital to our local economy. What extra support are the Government prepared to give farmers and the Environment Agency to make sure that such businesses can adequately protect themselves from flooding and continue to produce high-quality, nutritious food? (911120)

Floods have impacts on many communities —not only urban communities and households, but farmland, which can lead to the loss of crops. There is some weighting in the floods formula to protect farmland, and we have a number of schemes to help to remedy flood risks on agricultural land when flooding occurs.

Early last year, Storm Ciara forced the banks of the River Calder to burst, causing devastation in the Mirfield part of my constituency. Yesterday, unfortunately, we had a repeat performance in Mirfield when Storm Christoph hit, cutting off businesses and homes. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the people of Mirfield that action is being taken to prevent such destructive flooding events in future? (911126)

Late last year, we held a flood summit to discuss some of the particular challenges around the River Calder in my hon. Friend’s constituency. There have been a number of important projects around that area, including at Hebden Bridge, where I believe construction is well under way. Further projects are in the pipeline, and we continue to work with the Environment Agency to manage water catchments effectively.

All that water from the Calder that we just heard about finds its way into my constituency via the River Aire, and we have, yet again, another nervous wait here in the lower catchment as the washlands start to fill and flood alerts and warnings are issued. Will the Secretary of State comment on the adequacy of the flood defence funding rules for communities such as mine, which repeatedly face flooding issues, or flood alerts and warnings? (911128)

My hon. Friend’s constituency is in a unique area with a unique geography, as he knows, and it does face frequent flooding—it was among the worst-affected when we had the floods last year. We will shortly issue a consultation on changes to the flooding formula, and one thing that we want is for greater weight to be placed on frequently flooded communities.

I have a constituent who wants to start a lobster hatchery, but they have been shocked by the impact on the fishing sector of our departure from the EU. Should anybody interested in coming into the fishing industry even bother? (911136)

Of course they should, because in the white fish sector and the quota sector we have secured an uplift in quota that is front-loaded; the uplift is 15% next year. We will also have full regulatory autonomy on technical conservation measures, which gives us the ability to support the shellfish sector far better than we were able to in the European Union.

Church Commissioners

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

Covid-19: Support for Vulnerable People

What assessment the Church of England has made of the effectiveness of partnerships between local authorities and faith groups in providing support to vulnerable people during the covid-19 outbreak. (911079)

I am delighted that Lichfield, Rochester, Blackburn and Salisbury cathedrals are among the church buildings being used as vaccination centres. As well as providing worship, prayer and community support, parishes have been providing food, medicine delivery, bereavement counselling and much more, serving the needs of everyone in their local communities.

The “Keeping the Faith” report in November showed the remarkable extent to which local councils have turned to churches and other faith groups during the pandemic, especially for help in distributing food, and how positive an experience for councils this has proved to be. Will the Church of England urge Ministers to help these new partnerships with local councils continue beyond the pandemic?

Yes indeed, and I warmly commend the all-party group on faith and society for its research, as well as the Kruger review. I look forward to Colin Bloom’s report, commissioned by the Government, which assesses faith community engagement. I hope it will build on my right hon. Friend’s important and very welcome all-party group research.

Persecution of Christians: Nigeria

What progress the Church of England has made on its work to help tackle the persecution of Christians in Nigeria. (911082)

I begin by very warmly welcoming the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion and belief. She has campaigned both knowledgeably and forensically on these issues for many years.

The Church is deeply concerned about the unravelling of the state security apparatus in Nigeria and the activity of non-state actors, which is politicising and polarising identity in Nigeria.

A recent Open Doors UK event highlighted that Christians are more likely to be tortured and murdered for their faith by Islamic militants in the north of Nigeria than in any other country. Persecution also includes denying Christians food, aid and treatment for covid-19. The UK Government need to place pressure on the Nigerian Government to defend and protect their Christian population. What is the Church of England’s involvement in supporting these persecuted Christians, and what relief work is it doing with Nigerian internally displaced people camps?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, who knows Nigeria well, is monitoring the recent violence and the kidnapping of 300 schoolboys. He and I have met the family of Leah Sharibu, who was kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2018, and who is still a prisoner, as she refuses to renounce Jesus. Clergy who have spoken out have been threatened by prominent civil society organisations, and the Church continues to stay closely involved.

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—

Covid-19: May Elections

What steps the Committee is taking to ensure the safe conduct of elections planned for May 2021 during the covid-19 outbreak. (911083)

The commission believes that it is an important democratic principle that elections should proceed as scheduled whenever possible. To ensure that can happen in May, the commission is working closely with electoral administrators, political parties and other campaigners to provide the necessary support and guidance, informed by the latest public health advice. The commission’s objective is for voters to be able to participate in the polls, campaigners and parties to be able to put their case to the electorate, and electoral administration staff to be able to run the polling stations and count centres safely and competently.

Looking at the electoral procedures to be followed, though, we can all see areas, such as the collection of nomination signatures, where there is potential for unnecessary face-to-face contact. Surely this is a moment when we can look at doing these things differently, but if we are to make any changes in time for May, that work would need to be done now. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether that work is being done by the commission?

The commission is undertaking work to ensure that the elections can proceed in May in as safe a way as possible, and is working with electoral administrators to achieve that. They will be following public health advice, but at this stage, as the elections are going ahead in May, there is little time to make changes to some of the procedures before those elections.

Has the Electoral Commission looked at the possibility of having all-postal ballots, or, failing that, at least providing households with postal vote application forms and a freepost return service, so that anyone who wants to vote in May’s elections—as everyone should—is able to do so safely and without any financial barriers?

May I take this opportunity to wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday?

The commission has highlighted that there would be significant practical challenges in delivering an all-postal election in May. In particular, collecting personal identifiers from all eligible electors, which is a key part of important security checks, is not practicable in the time available. The commission considers that, where possible, voters should be able to choose how they wish to cast their vote, including having the option to do so in person. It will make available all options to proceed as safely as possible for the elections in May. Whether the elections continue in May is a matter for the UK Government and the Governments of the devolved Administrations.

Church Commissioners

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

Lockdown: Church Attendance

What additional support has been provided to the clergy and churches to help people attend church in person or online during the January 2021 covid-19 lockdown. (911084)

What additional support has been provided to the clergy and churches to help people attend church in person or online during the January 2021 covid-19 lockdown. (911086)

The Church is grateful to the Government for not imposing another national closure of religious buildings. It is right that parishes take local decisions on what to offer. There were nearly 36 million viewings of the Church’s Christmas “Comfort and Joy” series. For those who prefer the telephone, the DailyHope worship has received 350,000 free calls.

It is very encouraging to hear that. It is a matter of deep regret that churches were closed during the lockdowns last year. I very much appreciate that they are allowed to conduct services this time. Obviously we hope that we will all be out of restrictions soon, but there is always a danger of further restrictions. We worry a lot about the provision of online teaching in schools. Does my hon. Friend agree that the delivery of online live church services is enormously important, and—we must be frank—that this is not a skill that might come naturally to many vicars? Does he agree that the Church of England should make an absolute priority the provision of online resources, and the training of vicars and church teams to deliver them?

Indeed I do. Over 7,000 people have now attended the Church’s digital training, equipping parishes across the country to stream services on a variety of different platforms. My own rector has now been commended for her YouTube skills by eight-year-olds in her benefice.

Many churches in Rother Valley have adapted during these times by holding online services, such as the many wonderful services at the Wales parish church and St Joseph’s, Dinnington. However, Rother Valley’s churches have lost a great deal of income from the in-person offertory collections and fundraising events, putting church maintenance and repairs at risk, including the much-needed repairs to St Simon and St Jude church in Thurcroft. Does my hon. Friend share my concern regarding the black hole in local churches’ budgets and potential delays to repairs, and will he work with churches to ensure that they have what they need to survive?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point. I draw his attention to the Parish Giving Scheme, which people can do by direct debit, and to various online giving options. Of course, the commissioners have provided tens of millions of pounds to help churches. I would also say that perhaps people who are not paying for a season ticket might want to pay a little bit more to their local church, given that they have made a saving in that area.

parliamentary Works sponsor body

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

Restoration and Renewal: Disabled Stakeholders

This is a vital issue. The programme is committed to improving accessibility in its detailed work on the outline business case, which will form the scope for the restoration and renewal project. It is engaging regularly on this issue with the House administrations, with representatives of staff with disabilities, and with independent accessibility and inclusion technical experts.

I thank the right hon. Member for his answer. Our historic Houses of Parliament are rightly an attraction for visitors from all over the world, but they are also a place of work for thousands of employees, including MPs’ staff. My assistant, Harry, uses a motorised wheelchair, and I have seen at first hand how he is unable to navigate most of the building on his own, facing difficult doors, steps and other obstacles. Despite the best efforts of the House staff to mitigate these issues over the past seven months, he is still not able to move around the building independently. Will the right hon. Member agree to meet me and Harry to discuss the renovation project, and to ensure that additional views are taken into account to make our Parliament a truly modern workplace for everybody?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue and Harry’s case. Of course I will be more than happy to meet both of them. The programme has established an accessibility and inclusion panel that meets monthly, with representation from both Houses’ diversity and inclusion teams and from ParliAble, which, as she will know, is the workplace equality network for parliamentary staff with disabilities. The recently established public engagement strategy identifies accessibility topics, and engaging with disabled people is a particular priority. Plans are also being developed to engage more broadly with all staff working in Parliament, including of course those with disabilities. But in the short term, I shall look forward to meeting her and Harry.

Church Commissioners

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

Persecution of Christians

The Church speaks up on behalf of all those who are unable to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief. The Church of England is part of an international consortium that has just received £5.6 million from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to equip parliamentarians and religious leaders in eight countries in Africa and Asia to counter these challenges.

From Nigeria to Eritrea and Burkina Faso to India, Christians are facing grave persecution because of their faith. The persecution of Christians, particularly where they are a religious minority, is a matter of growing concern among my constituents, and this has been reflected in the casework I am receiving. What steps is the Anglican Communion taking to tackle persecution of Christians across the world? Is the hon. Gentleman able to provide me with information on what guidance and support he is offering to churches in the UK in helping those who have fled persecution?

As part of the new Foreign Office project, the Church and the other consortium members will be equipping parliamentarians and religious leaders with the technical assistance and other expertise they need to propose solutions in their own countries to these terrible human rights abuses.


What steps the Church of England is taking to promote regenerative agriculture on its landholdings. (911089)

What steps the Church of England is taking to assess the efficacy on its land of zero-till conservation agriculture in promoting increased soil health, reduced use of carbon, biodiversity gain and carbon sequestration. (911092)

The Church Commissioners are undertaking a natural capital assessment to provide a baseline for our carbon outputs and to understand our ecosystem services. This will provide a plan to lower carbon outputs and inform our natural capital strategy. Where possible, our tenancies have clauses relating to good husbandry and the non-removal of topsoil, and with longer-term tenancies, soil analyses are carried out at the beginning and the end of leases to ensure that soil health is maintained to a good standard.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The Church Commissioners own an estate of about 105,000 acres. What is the Church doing to help its tenant farmers to achieve sustainable farming, especially in the light of the current pressure that farmers face during coronavirus?

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in this important area. Over 60% of our agricultural land is let on secure agricultural tenancies and the remainder on more modern sorts of farm business tenancies. When new tenancies are granted, we encourage sustainable farming practices through our tenancy precedents. We will be reviewing this further in the light of our natural capital assessment results. We want to help our tenants to achieve both sustainable and profitable outcomes.

The Church Commissioners’ ownership of a large amount of land—over 100,000 acres—gives us an opportunity to lead development of conservation agricultural farming techniques, improving soil health, reducing carbon inputs, and developing the evidence base on carbon sequestration. Does my hon. Friend agree that practitioners should approach management of their farming assets in the same way as they do with their other ethical investments?

As a leading global ethical investor, we regularly engage with all the businesses in which we are invested to improve best practice. While farming practices and management decisions are mainly taken by our agricultural tenants, we have some who do practice zero tillage, and we strongly encourage sustainable farming practices when new tenancies are granted.

Covid-19: Landholdings

What assessment he has made of the financial effect of the covid-19 outbreak on Church of England landholdings. (911090)

The Commissioners’ property assets are independently valued by third parties on an annual basis. The audited financial results for 2020 will be available later in the year and laid before Parliament once an annual general meeting is able to take place.

The recently appointed Archbishop of York has spoken in the past about the importance of caring for green spaces. In his enthronement sermon, he declared that

“we are at risk of separating ourselves from the planet itself, so obsessed have we become with the dangerous suppositions of our own importance and dominion.”

Can my hon. Friend encourage the archbishop to act on his words and impress upon the Church Commissioner landowners the need to have a rethink of their plan for the unjustifiable destruction of unspoilt countryside and farmland at Chidswell in Dewsbury?

I know that my hon. Friend works tirelessly for the people of Dewsbury. I and the staff of the Church Commissioners have met him to discuss this issue. Although the planning application is yet to be determined, it is in line with the strategic objectives of the Kirklees development plan. It will not only bring much-needed new homes to his area, but new employment opportunities and new public open space.

Covid-19: Persecution of Christians

What steps the Church of England is taking across the worldwide Anglican Communion to tackle the persecution of Christians during the covid-19 pandemic. (911091)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for being one of three Members today to raise this vitally important issue. The Church is grateful for the Government’s continuing commitment to implement the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations on this issue. In this week of prayer for Christian unity, we need to be especially mindful of persecuted Christians all around the world.

What discussions has the Church of England had with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure that covid-19 international assistance aid reaches all in need and is not abused by discrimination against Christians, which has appallingly occurred in some countries?

Last year, officials from the Church had regular meetings with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—both Ministers and staff—where concerns were raised that covid-19 was being politicised and that minority communities were indeed being discriminated against. Bishops regularly raise this issue in the other place as well, and I can assure my hon. Friend that the Church will continue to engage with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as the need arises.

Public Accounts Commission

The hon. Member for South Norfolk, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—

Defence Equipment Plan: NAO Report

What the planned timescale is for a response by the Government to the NAO report findings on the Ministry of Defence's equipment plan 2020 to 2030, published on 12 January 2021. (911093)

The National Audit Office produced an important report examining the Ministry of Defence’s assessment of the affordability of the equipment plan for 2020 to 2030 and the management of equipment expenditure. It is the latest annual update on the financial pressures that the Ministry of Defence faces in developing its military capabilities. The Government will respond to the expected Public Accounts Committee report on the subject after it is published.

In its devastating report, the NAO finds that the equipment plan

“remains unaffordable for the fourth successive year”,

that the budget gap is between £7 billion and £17 billion and that the MOD

“continues to make over-optimistic and inconsistent judgements when forecasting costs.”

What specific parliamentary scrutiny would my hon. Friend encourage to force the Government to address these very serious issues?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his assiduous following of this issue. He asked me about this issue in September last year, after the National Audit Office report on Carrier Strike. We now have the new report, “The Equipment Plan 2020-2030”, published on 12 January, and I am pleased to tell him that the Public Accounts Committee will be taking evidence on that report on 4 February. I would also be happy to draw his interest in this matter to the attention of the Chair of the PAC, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier).

Church Commissioners

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

Lockdown: Support for Schools

To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what support the Church of England is providing to schools during the January 2021 covid-19 lockdown. (911095)

Diocesan education teams and local churches have focused on supporting the wellbeing of students and staff through the ongoing provision of collective worship, by providing and distributing food for disadvantaged families and, in many cases, by renovating and distributing technology to enable online learning to supplement the Government’s provision.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. Church leaders and congregations in Eastbourne and Willingdon at St Michael and All Angels and St John’s Meads have stepped into the digital divide by rallying round and providing laptops and devices for primary school children in their parishes. Will he join me in thanking them for their contribution, which complements the Government’s support in this vital area?

Of course I will do that. I am delighted to learn of the work of St Michael and All Angels and St John’s Meads. It is typical of what the Church is doing across the country to help not just schools but entire communiti-es.