House of Commons
Thursday 22 April 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Food and Drink Exports to the EU
The combination of falling demand in the EU due to coronavirus restrictions and the introduction of new procedures at the end of the transition period meant that exports fell significantly in the first month of January. Exports of food and drink recovered in February, increasing by 77% on the previous month. While official statistics for March are not yet available, we know that the number of applications for export health certificates has continued to grow.
Since the Government’s precious Brexit, fish exports to the EU have collapsed and the Government said it was teething problems; cheese exports collapsed and the Government blamed exporters for poor paperwork; seafood exports collapsed and the Government said they might reclassify waters to make them cleaner. But nothing substantive has happened on any of it. What will it take to get action from Ministers, or do we have to wait for a text from a crony?
We have indeed taken action right from the moment that there were teething problems in that first week of January as import agents, exporters and border control officials struggled to get used to the paperwork. As I pointed out, it is an improving situation. The hon. Member asked about trends. The trend is a rising one, increasing by 77% in February, and with export health certificates continuing to grow.
Scottish exports make up a quarter of the UK’s food and drink exports. Those exports have been hammered by Brexit, losing out on hundreds of millions of pounds in sales in January and February alone, with some products seeing their market all but collapse, and virtually nothing is being done about it. A new Brexit cliff has arrived before we finished plummeting off the last one: composite food products now need export health certificates. The chaos of the last set of regs is still haunting our exports, and this new chaos will further dent them. Vets say they will not have the capacity to deal with this. What plans do the Government have to address that clear danger?
The European Union has changed some of its export health certificates, particularly for composite goods, from 21 April. We have been working very closely with industry and all those affected over the last few months. We knew that this was going to happen. We have worked with it on getting those replacement health certificates and, in some cases, the need for a private attestation. Yes, it is complicated. It is a change in law that the EU has made and always intended to make, but we worked very closely with industry and all those affected to make sure that they were ready.
I recently met the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor in March to discuss the important issue of pet theft. As a result of that meeting, officials from across the three Departments have been tasked with developing solutions that tackle this issue effectively. The work of the pet theft taskforce has already begun, with officials drawing together available data and evidence.
The Secretary of State, I am sure, has a comprehensive understanding of this issue, which causes undue distress to people and affects dogs, cats and all manner of other pets. This week, for example, Cats Protection told me that cat theft is up threefold since 2015. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will back my amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which deal with pet theft and introduce tough sentences for those whose actions devastate so many families?
We are aware that there are some reports of a significant increase in the incidence of pet theft. A number of organisations say that reports of it are doubling, and the official figures show a sharp increase, albeit from a relatively low base. We are looking at the issue, and that is why we established the pet theft taskforce. There is already the possibility of a maximum sentence of seven years for aggravated offences, particularly where there is emotional distress, which clearly there is in the case of pets. We are reviewing this particular area of law.
I am sure the Secretary of State recognises that for those committing the theft it may be a financial issue, but for those who have their pets stolen this is really a loss of a valued member of their family. I give credit to The Star newspaper in Sheffield, which has highlighted a growing number of these incidents, and the heartbreak and anguish it causes people to lose their valued pet. Will the Secretary of State accept that this is a different sort of crime to the normal theft of a possession, and that, as such, it needs a different, specific offence with specific and tougher penalties enacted for those who commit it?
It is a different type of offence in that there is emotional stress on the owner of the pet, but there can also be stress and effects on the welfare of the animal. That is why, in the current sentencing guidelines, the courts can take account of an aggravated offence with emotional distress, and the maximum penalty could be as high as seven years. We have asked the pet theft taskforce to look at this issue more closely and assemble the evidence to consider whether anything further is required.
Pet theft is on the rise, partly because of the demand for pets through lockdown. When gangs steal a pet, they cause harm not only to the pet, but to the families who miss it. We still do not have the five-year sentencing for animal cruelty, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) has been trying his best to get through. In the next Parliament, can we not only have that five-year sentencing for cruelty but link in dog theft to the legislation?
The legislation on increasing the maximum penalty for animal cruelty is nearing its completion. I have a high degree of confidence that we will be able to get it through before the end of the Session. Indeed, we will say more about that over the next day or so.
Coronavirus Zoo Animals Fund
The zoo animals fund has supported a wide variety of zoos throughout the pandemic—56 to date—and it continues to do so. It has helped to ensure the continued welfare of zoo animals and to prevent unnecessary euthanasia. We are really pleased that zoos of all sizes and types have been able to secure funding.
The problem is that the £100 million announcement was more froth than substance, with only £5 million or £6 million of it being spent and not returned to the Treasury. Will Ministers now agree to extend the zoos fund to the important conservation, educational and scientific work that is the bedrock of so much of what our zoos contribute to the global situation?
I do not accept that. This is a real fund, which is being used on the ground to help zoos get through the pandemic. I am very pleased, as I know the hon. Gentleman is, that Chester zoo is now open and that baby Albert the giraffe is open to view. We have extended the fund, for example, to include repairs and maintenance. We continue to work on the fund, but I politely suggest that other Government and UK funds are available to help with the important conservation work done by zoos, such as the Darwin initiative and the green recovery challenge fund. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with Chester zoo to look at whether those would be suitable.
The Government are committed to supporting alternatives to chemical pesticides. We are currently analysing the responses to our consultation on the national action plan. The proposed plan supports the development of low toxicity methods and improved advice and support for users.
One hundred and fifty-seven of my Bath constituents have written to me since January to raise this issue. We must remember that we are in not only a climate emergency, but a nature emergency. Given that the Government made an explicit pledge to keep pesticide restrictions in place after Brexit, will the Minister commit to giving the Office for Environmental Protection the powers and resources to hold public authorities to account on environmental standards?
I know that the hon. Lady shares my desire that the world will be in a much better place for our children, and may I congratulate her on the birth of her recent grandchild? The Government are therefore completely committed to reducing chemical pesticide use. Protecting pollinators, for example, is a real priority for the Government. They are an essential part of the environment and play a crucial role in food production. As I said, we are analysing the many responses—probably some of them from her constituents—to our recent consultation and we will set out our proposals in due course.
There was widespread relief this year that the colder weather meant that the risk of aphids spreading virus yellows was reduced. Before that, the Secretary of State had authorised a neonicotinoid pesticide to be used, and he has indicated that that will be the same again for the next two years. What is worrying is that the expert advice has been hidden from us—it took freedom of information requests from Friends of the Earth to get it. The Health and Safety Executive recommended refusal, so will the Minister explain why the advice was overruled? At a time when the UK is being looked to for global leadership on the environment, hiding that expert advice is not a good look. Who was pressing the Government to overrule that advice and will they do better in future?
The Government are committed to the neonicotinoid restrictions that we put in place in 2018, and to the sustainable use of pesticides. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was a signatory to the letter that we answered in January this year. As we set out in our letter, when making decisions on pesticides we took advice from the HSE, from the expert committee on pesticides and from DEFRA’s own chief scientific adviser. The specific exemption that the hon. Gentleman has referred to was for a non-flowering crop that is grown only in the east of England, to protect against possible aphid predation, which we were very concerned about at the time. I share his relief that it was not necessary to use neonics on that occasion, and I would ask him to welcome the fact that the authorisation was strictly controlled. We put in place a reduced application rate and a prohibition on growing flowering crops afterwards. I am pleased that it was not necessary to use it on that occasion.
Protection against Flooding
The Government are investing a record £5.2 billion to better protect 336,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion over the next six years. Alongside that, we recently announced that 25 areas will receive a share of a further £150 million for particularly innovative projects dealing with flood resilience and pioneering many things that we think we will learn lessons from. Our long-term policy statement outlines our ambition to create a nation more resilient to flooding and coastal erosion and we are taking a whole range of actions to forward that.
I pay tribute to this Government for the significant flood mitigation investment that has been delivered. What discussions has my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary had with our right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary about not building new homes on flood-risk areas, such as the proposed west of Ifield development?
As my hon. Friend will know, national planning policy provides clear safeguards for protecting people and property from flooding, and the national planning policy framework is very clear that inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided by directing development away from areas at the highest risk. Where development is necessary in such areas, that development should be made safe for its lifetime without increasing flood risk elsewhere, and should be appropriately flood-resilient.
Residents of Norton Green and their local ward councillors, Dave Evans, James Smith and Carl Edwards, have regularly raised the issue of flooding. The River Trent and the canal feeder to the Caldon canal both run through Norton Green, yet the river is hardly ever dredged. The river is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, and the canal feeder is the responsibility of Severn Trent Water. If those two agencies co-ordinated their work, they could help to alleviate the problem, so will my hon. Friend work with me to ensure that the Environment Agency and Severn Trent Water undertake regular dredging to help to improve the lives of Norton Green residents?
My hon. Friend is a doughty spokesman for his constituency, and rightly so. I encourage all relevant risk-management authorities to work together on watercourse maintenance, for the benefit of Norton Green’s residents in this case. Of course, responsibilities lie with a range of bodies, including the Environment Agency, which is responsible for the main rivers; lead local flood authorities or internal drainage boards, which are responsible for ordinary watercourses; and riparian landowners whose land adjoins a watercourse. My hon. Friend could usefully get all those heads together so that people can work constructively, as they are in many parts of the country, to deal with our flooding issues and keep our communities safe.
This year the Burnhams, the Creakes and other villages in North West Norfolk suffered flooding that resulted in sewage coming up through manhole covers due to water infiltrating the sewer system. Things got so bad that foul water had to be pumped into one of our precious chalk streams, so will the Minister ensure that the Environment Agency holds Anglian Water to account so that it puts in place plans and investment to ensure that that does not happen again?
That is a scenario that nobody wants to see repeated. I hope my hon. Friend knows that I am championing his cause, as are the Government. Tackling the harm caused by sewer overflows into rivers, particularly chalk streams, is a top priority for the Government. That is why we established a storm overflows taskforce, made up of the Government, the water industry, regulators and environmental groups, which has set a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows. The group is considering the problems caused by infiltration, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and last month we announced plans to introduce legislation to address these things. We are moving on this.
We are committed to tackling plastic pollution. We have introduced a ban, with a few very specific exemptions, on the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and reduced single-use plastic carrier bag usage by 95% in the main supermarkets through the 5p charge. This is a great day, and I am pleased my hon. Friend has chosen to raise this subject today, because we are debating increasing the charge to 10p and extending it to all retailers, and we are seeking powers in the Environment Bill to charge for single-use plastic items, making recycling more consistent.
Plastic waste is a huge problem in coastal communities such as mine, but does the Minister agree that it is not that plastic is the problem but that waste is the problem and we should do all we can to tackle waste? To that end, will she come to Redcar and Cleveland, when restrictions allow, to visit the new site for ReNew ELP at Wilton, which began construction last month and where revolutionary hydrothermal technology will be used to turn hard-to-recycle plastics back into their component oils, allowing them to be reused?
There is another doughty spokesman for his constituency. My hon. Friend has spoken to me about this matter before. It is vital that we tackle plastic waste by taking a holistic approach, which includes increasing reuse and recycling, in line with our ambition to transition to a more circular economy. More work is required to understand where chemical recycling represents the best outcome for waste and to assess any unintended consequences, but I welcome the invitation and the chance to visit the ReNew ELP site. He should contact my office, and, when time permits, I would be delighted to visit.
It is good to be here in the Chamber and see you face to face today, Mr Speaker.
The Joint Unit for Waste Crime is an important component of the fight against waste, fly-tipping and littering. The Peterstone Wentlooge area of Newport West is a good example of an area in dire need of action from this unit, as the “road to nowhere” there, as it is known, is blighted by fly-tipping, including of noxious substances and chemicals. Clean-up costs for more than 1 million fly-tips cost the taxpayer £58 million in 2017-18, the last time the Department published details of clean-up costs. This Government have pushed councils to the brink and removed the funding needed to tackle fly-tipping, so will the Minister tell the House when this Government will finally take the action needed to protect this green and pleasant land?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and I am sorry to hear about that road to nowhere. I would hate my constituency to be described as the “road to nowhere”. I understand what she is getting at, but this Government are tackling litter. We have a whole policy on tackling litter and I have been meeting Keep Britain Tidy regularly to discuss what more we can do. We have had a lot of campaigns, including “Keep it, Bin it”, which has been extremely effective, and we will be working further on measures. We relaunched the countryside code and added to it during lockdown to cut down on the amount of litter that is dumped, and this has had a significant effect. Local authorities have all of their measures that they can put in place—they can take people to court and people can get hefty fines—but they need to take action with the measures at hand.
EU Flowering Bulb Imports
It is important that we maintain our biosecurity. Physical inspections of high-priority plants from the EU, including flowering bulbs, have taken place at their destination since 1 January. This is a temporary arrangement designed to prevent delays at the border, but it is working effectively and has been well received by the trade.
Sadly, the bulb organisation that I spoke to told me that a couple of people have left the trade because it is not worth their while. I know that a lot of progress has been made since January on facilitating the trade between the UK and the EU, but there is still a lot of friction in the import and export of flowering bulbs. For instance, the export of bulbs in the green, which have soil on them, is now prohibited except in very specific circumstances, and sometimes 1,000 boxes might need to be inspected, which is not easy. What plans does my hon. Friend have to discuss with her EU counterparts the prospect of simplifying the trade in flowering bulbs with the EU?
It is true that the plant-health requirements for dormant bulbs are different from those for bulbs in growth. My officials and I are willing to discuss directly with my hon. Friend’s constituents the specific issues that she raises. I reassure her that we continue to have discussions with our counterparts in EU about export processes.
Toxic Air Pollutants: Local Authorities
Ministers regularly engage with local authorities to discuss air quality and assess their air-quality plans. I recently met elected representatives from Greater Manchester, Bath and North East Somerset, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke, and we have made £225 million available to local authorities, via the active travel fund, to deliver safe cycling and walking routes, including school streets. As we review the air-quality strategy, we will include measures specifically to protect children from pollution.
The death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah was a family tragedy, but it was made a public scandal when the coroner decided some time ago that her death was caused by air pollution, which was shocking. Yesterday, the coroner decided in his most recent report that there is no safe level of air pollution and called on the Government to bring our air-quality standards up to the World Health Organisation recommended levels, which would mean a significant reduction in pollution. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government accept that recommendation? If not, we are literally putting the lives of our children at risk.
We are of course taking this issue extremely seriously, and all our sympathies go out to Ella’s family. In fact, the Secretary of State and I were pleased to meet Ella’s mother—for which we thank her—and we listened closely to what she said. The coroner’s report was published yesterday and we will respond in due course. The points made are being taken extremely seriously.
Through our landmark Environment Bill, we will introduce a duty to set a long-term air-quality target and an exposure target. To do that, we are meeting all the scientists and academics and all those who can inform us as to exactly the right level to set. We understand that air pollution is a killer and we need to take it very seriously. A £3.8 million air clean-up programme is under way and we are working hard to ensure that that money is targeted at the places where it is needed.
In the Committee on the missing-in-action and elusive Environment Bill, Labour tried to write the World Health Organisation air-quality guidelines into the Bill. Unsurprisingly, the Tories voted us down. Yesterday, in response to the devastating death of Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013, the coroner published a prevention of future deaths report that recommended that the Government should view the World Health Organisation guidelines for air pollution “as minimum requirements”, because all particulate matter is harmful. The coroner has given a clear recommendation and clearly stated that it would save lives, so when will the Minister commit to setting a PM2.5 target that is at least in line with the World Health Organisation guidelines?
The report highlights that there is no safe limit of PM2.5, which is why it is so important that we get it right. That is why we are taking so much advice on it. The WHO has acclaimed our clean air strategy as world leading and
“an example for the rest of the world to follow”.
It sets out the steps that we are starting to take to improve air quality. The Environment Bill will introduce a duty to set a long-term target on air quality and an exposure target, which nobody has done before. We will give the issue all the attention it deserves.
DEFRA applies the precautionary principle in relation to pesticides. We therefore supported a ban in 2018 on the use of neonicotinoids to treat crops. Given what the current science tells us about these pesticides, they can be authorised for use only on an emergency basis if very specific circumstances are met and with the appropriate environmental safeguards.
Farmers in the east of England very much welcome the Secretary of State’s dispensation for the use of neonics in treating aphids. What I want from the Secretary of State is some reassurance for the farmers in the east of England that, until a suitable alternative to neonics that is evidence based is available, he will continue to use the dispensation so that we can properly support our farmers to grow crops and protect them from aphids.
As I said, these are emergency authorisations that we grant on an annual basis. In the case of this application for the current year, we added additional conditions to those that have been proposed by the applicant—in particular, adding another 10 months to the period before a flowering crop could be sown. Also, in this case, the threshold for pests was not met and was therefore not needed, but, of course, if there is an application in a future year, we will look at that again.
Today is Earth Day, an initiative that has been running now every year since 1970 and promotes engagement, awareness and individual action for our environment. The Government continue their own engagement with countries around the world in the build-up to COP26 in Glasgow later this year. As part of that programme, next Monday, along with the World Bank, I will be hosting the first dialogue on sustainable agriculture, setting out how changes to agriculture policy can incentivise regenerative agriculture and enhance environmental assets in the farmed landscape.
Given that food waste accounts for 19% of the UK’s landfill and that even the proposed targets in the Environment Bill to separate household food waste collections are unlikely to eliminate food waste in landfill by 2030, is it not time that his Department considered a food waste to landfill ban in England for food waste businesses that produce more than 5 kg of food waste per week?
We are obviously looking at this very carefully through our waste resources strategy and through the provisions in the Environment Bill. We will require local authorities to collect food waste through our consistent collections policy; that is an area that we are consulting on at the moment. Obviously, once food waste is collected separately we can treat it separately, and that could involve anaerobic digesters and other ways of dealing with this waste other than landfill.
As I said earlier, I had meetings in March with both the Home Secretary and the Chancellor on this particular issue. We have set up a pet theft taskforce that is investigating it and, in particular, gathering the evidence to understand the scale of the
The year 2020 was the warmest year on record: more habitats were lost; more species were facing extinction; and more raw sewage was pumped into our nation’s rivers, seemingly without consequence for the water companies involved. On Earth Day, will the Secretary of State commit to take fast action against water companies that are pumping raw sewage into our rivers, killing fish, killing habitats and killing birds, and do so while committing to no further roll-back of environmental protections?
I have already acted in this area. The Department has established a taskforce to look at combined sewer overflows, which are one of the key sources of sewage pollution, and we are also putting a real focus on tackling sewage incidents in our future water strategy, which will inform Ofwat’s approach to the pricing reviews that it has with water companies.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend on this matter. As he will be aware, the Environment Bill introduces the concept of extended producer responsibility, and we are consulting on that at the moment. In future, the manufacturers and the users of packaging for products will take responsibility for recycling it.
This is obviously a contentious area. However, energy from waste can be a way of extracting some use from it. It is often preferable to landfill and often has lower carbon implications because some energy can be generated from it. Nevertheless, there are some environmental concerns around this. That is why in England the Environment Agency has to authorise and license any such facility.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Fly-tipping has become a scourge in recent years. It has become a growing problem, with organised gangs behind some of these waste crime incidents. We have already taken action to improve our surveillance and to improve the traceability of some of these products so that we can trace them back to the source that they came from and bring those responsible to justice.
The Government monitor household spending on food very closely, and we agree that we want to raise earnings among the lowest paid. That is why it has been a long-standing policy of this Government to first introduce a national living wage and then increase it incrementally year on year, and we have done that to take the lowest paid out of poverty. As a result of that policy, household spending on food among the poorest households has actually fallen from about 16% to under 15%, which is the lowest on record.
I commend the work that my hon. Friend and those local volunteers are doing. We have our flood resilience forums around the country. The Environment Agency works with local government on them and on putting them in place so that communities can improve their resilience. More broadly, we have an ambitious capital programme of more than £5 billion over the next five years to invest in flood defences and to protect communities such as his.
I am not sure that is what my hon. Friend said earlier, but she was making the point that since there is no safe limit of particulate matter and PM2.5, what we should be doing is focusing on additional measures such as overall population exposure, and that is indeed something we are looking at through the target-setting process in the Environment Bill.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Families and Marriages
My hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have launched a families and households commission, which will be chaired by Professor Janet Walker, emeritus professor of family policy at Newcastle University, and the Bishop of Durham, who is the Church of England’s lead on family policy.
This has been a tough year for families, but the strain on family life began long before covid, with policies encouraging parents to work longer hours, the breakdown of family relationships and the toxic effects of social media. In my surgeries, I meet many parents deeply concerned about their children’s mental health but not knowing where to turn for help. The local church could be well placed to support families in this area, so what plans does the Church have to encourage, empower and equip parents as they do their best to raise children in such a challenging time?
My hon. Friend is right to raise all those issues. We know that it is generally far better for the mental health of children that they are in school, which is why Church schools have stayed open as much as possible. Millions of home-schooled children have also used the “Faith at Home” online resources provided by the Church. Many parishes are now reopening their early years and children’s programmes, and the Church is actively working to provide more children’s and youth work in future.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Political Literacy: Young People
The Electoral Commission has an important duty to promote public awareness of the UK’s electoral systems. Following the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland and Wales, and ahead of next month’s elections, the commission has been working with teachers and youth leaders to support citizenship education and has shared newly developed education resources for young people in Scotland and Wales. These resources will be extended to cover young audiences in England and Northern Ireland later this year. Alongside that, the commission has developed a new public awareness campaign and online information hub to increase public understanding of political campaigning carried out online.
Shout Out UK, the secretariat for the all-party parliamentary group on political literacy, emphasises that political and media literacy go hand in hand. Considering the excessive harm we have seen caused by misinformation, conspiracy theories and low levels of media literacy, how can the Electoral Commission collaborate with organisations working to counter misinformation in order to fulfil its remit to ensure the integrity of the democratic process?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The commission has recently published political literacy resources to include a module on online campaigning, which provides structured suggestions to help young people assess the information they see online. The commission has collaborated with a range of partners to develop those resources, including teachers, organisations supporting citizenship education, the Scottish and Welsh Governments and their respective Education Departments.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
The Church of England’s General Synod passed a resolution in 2017 calling on the Government to end conversion therapy, to prevent vulnerable people from being subjected to potential spiritual abuse. The Church remains committed to this and will work with the Government on how it can most effectively be framed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer and am glad to hear that restatement of the General Synod’s position in 2017. Do the commissioners agree that the Church must reject any assumption that any one identity or orientation is preferable to another and that any one-directional pursuit of a particular orientation amounts to conversion therapy?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The Prime Minister remains resolutely committed to prohibiting the imposition of any harmful and unnecessary practice in this area, without criminalising clergy and Church members for non-coercive pastoral support that individuals ask for.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. However, may I urge him to do all he can in the upcoming discourse on this important ban to which the Government have committed to ensure that religious freedom and banning this abuse is not presented as a binary choice? Does he acknowledge that many of Christian faith and other faiths want to see an end to this abuse?
The Church believes that it is possible to end conversion therapy without outlawing prayer and private conversations with clergy and Church members that an individual has requested. The Church has not requested an opt-out from the proposed law and will look carefully at the detail when the legislation is published.
Online Worship: Church Attendance
While I acknowledge the challenges that churches have faced in organising services of public worship, I am somewhat disappointed with the many weeks that some parishes have gone without services. What concerns me is that, if the Church quite reasonably uses more online resources in coming years, it should not use that to reduce the number of clergy, who have a much wider role in our communities than providing services. Can my hon. Friend assure me that this will not be used an excuse for reducing clergy numbers?
Increasing numbers of churches are now open again across the country, and while online services will no doubt continue, they are not seen as a substitute for meeting in person. Clergy have played an essential role during the pandemic, and I thank them warmly for everything they have done. My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that the Archbishop of York told the General Synod in February that the Church needs more priests, not less, and a parish system “revitalised” for its future mission to the nation, building on the work that the Church has done so well to tell the good news of Jesus and to meet need during the pandemic.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Candidates with Disabilities
The Electoral Commission has supported all three of the UK’s Governments to develop funds to support access to elected office for candidates with disabilities. It provides guidance to candidates with disabilities about how to stand for election and how the spending rules apply to costs reasonably attributable to their disability. More broadly, the commission works in partnership with a range of organisations to ensure that people with disabilities have the information and support they need to be able to register and vote in elections.
The proportion of politicians with disabilities still vastly lags behind that required to reflect our society, causing disadvantage and exclusion. The all-party parliamentary group for disability, which I chair, is undertaking an inquiry into the support required to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunity to stand for Parliament. Will the commissioners link with the APPG to support implementation of its findings?
The House will know of the work that the APPG has done across a range of disabilities, led by the hon. Lady, and is very respectful of the work that she and her team are doing. The commissioners are aware that the APPG will be undertaking this inquiry, and they assure me that not only will they help to inform that inquiry but that the inquiry will help to inform the commission with its outcome. Hopefully that will be a two-way process that will improve matters for people with disabilities in terms of their ability to stand for and participate in elections.
Local Referendums: Local Government Reorganisation
There are mechanisms in law for holding referendums on a number of local matters. Decisions on whether to deploy such a mechanism are political and not for the commission. It has therefore made no assessment of the merits of using local referendums to inform local government reorganisation.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I do not disagree at all, but we have a problem in this country when a body like Somerset County Council, which wants to go unitary, has asked the Government to do a consultation using the citizen space, which is not a consultation—anybody in the world can take part. Surely a referendum is the only way to truly hear what the people of Somerset want to say—under the auspices of the Electoral Commission, so that we have proper democracy, proper accountability? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is the way that government should work? Is that not the way the House should work?
The hon. Gentleman has a long history of promoting his concerns on local government in his area, and the House will respect the persistence in his campaign. However, under current legislation, local authority accounting officers would be responsible for running local referendums. The commission’s role would be limited to providing guidance to accounting officers on some aspects of the administration of local referendums, particularly where they are concerned with other events. If we were to achieve what the hon. Gentleman was hoping for, I suspect and fear that a change in legislation would be required.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Persecution for Religion and Belief
The Church of England is grateful to all those who carry the flame for the freedom of religion or belief. I would point to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as a reliable source of information in this area. In its 2020 report it singles out China, Eritrea, India, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam as countries of particular concern.
The global pandemic has only exacerbated the persecution of people of faith. I was dismayed to learn from this year’s world watch list that Nigeria has become increasingly hostile to Christians. The Anglican Church in Nigeria is its second-largest congregation in the world, so what support is the Church of England providing to raise awareness and to tackle persecution in Nigeria and around the world?
The persistent attacks in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram and Islamist militia are a source of profound concern to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who knows Nigeria well, and to the wider Church. We are in regular contact with the Nigerian authorities and the Foreign Office, and tomorrow the General Synod of the Church of England will be debating freedom of religion and belief, which shows how seriously Church members throughout the country take this issue.
I recently met Environment Ministers to discuss this issue, and the commissioners are working closely with the Forestry Commission and other similar landowners to share best practice to improve the environment of rural let estates. We are encouraging regenerative farming practices, with new farm tenancies including obligations on soil health at the beginning and end of tenancies.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for his excellent answer. The Church owns more than 100,000 acres of forest land, including large areas in Wales. How are the Church Commissioners ensuring that woodland can be sustainably managed, and that species such as red squirrels and hedgehogs are being adequately protected?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I can tell her that the Church Commissioners own 95,000 acres of forestry across the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States of America and Australia; 2,166 acres of our forestry is in Wales. All our forests conform to the UK woodland assurance scheme and the UK forestry standard and have Forestry Stewardship Council certification, which the World Wide Fund for Nature recognises as the hallmark of responsible forest management.
Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
UK Steel: Restoration and Renewal Programme
The Palace of Westminster is our nation’s flagship building and the home of UK democracy. It is only right that in procurement for its restoration we do all we can to support UK manufacturing and jobs. At a difficult time for the steel industry, an infrastructure project of this size and profile would no doubt be a huge boost for the sector. Will the right hon. Gentleman please outline what measures will be taken to ensure that steel used in the renovation and restoration of Parliament is bought in Britain?
I concur with the hon. Lady, who has consistently championed the UK’s high-quality steel sector. We do not yet know the exact steel requirements for the project, but there clearly will be a requirement. The project will obviously comply with public sector procurement rules but within those, as I said in my previous answer, we will seek to source materials domestically wherever possible. I confirm to her today that the programme is planning to sign the UK steel charter, an initiative from the sector that aims to maximise opportunities for the UK economy and UK steel producers.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Since 2015, the Church Commissioners have secured planning permission for 3,820 new homes, of which 820 are affordable. Across our portfolio, there is land suitable for the delivery of approximately 28,500 new homes across England, of which we estimate around 8,600 will be affordable.
I thank the hon. Member for that answer. He announced a new commission earlier. I welcome very much the bold vision for addressing the housing crisis in the archbishops’ housing commission report published in February. How will the Church work with social housing providers to provide desperately needed affordable housing, including in east London?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome for the housing commission report—a sentiment I very much share. The new housing executive team, led by the Bishop of Chelmsford, will focus on implementing the commission’s recommendations wherever we are able to do so across England, hopefully including east London.
I reassure the hon. Lady that the process initiated by the archbishops’ housing commission of mapping as much of the Church of England’s land as possible has begun. It includes not just the commissioners’ landholdings, but land owned by dioceses and parishes, as well as glebe land.
I thank the hon. Member for that response—it feels like we are starting to get somewhere. As he knows, I am keen for there to be transparency, because it will help campaigners identify sites for rewilding, agroforestry, social housing and other public goods. Accessing maps of all the land held by the Church Commissioners from the Land Registry would cost £37,428. Will he commit to making that information publicly available and free of charge? Will that be on the agenda at the General Synod, which starts tomorrow?
The hon. Lady’s intervention is timely, as the housing commission report has been timetabled for debate at the General Synod’s July session. The Church Commissioners are in close contact with the housing executive team, who are implementing the housing commission’s recommendations, about their plans for the future ownership and use of this map.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Voter ID: Democratic Participation
The commission’s independent evaluation of the Government’s pilots held in 2018 and 2019 found that a large majority of people already had access to the forms of ID used in the pilots. There was no evidence that turnout in the pilot scheme areas was significantly affected by the requirement for polling station voters to show identification. The commission emphasised that the UK Government and Parliament should carefully consider the available evidence about the impact and proportionality of different approaches on the accessibility and security of polling station voting. If legislation is brought forward, the commission will provide expert advice to parliamentarians on the specific proposals.
I thank the hon. Member for that answer. Notwithstanding the commission’s findings, though, it is estimated that it would cost something in the region of £20 million to introduce a measure such as this and there is always the risk of depressing voter turnout. Would he impress on the commission that, if that money is there to be spent, it would be better spent encouraging voter turnout, rather than on measures such as this, which I contend would inevitably depress it?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. The commission has a responsibility to maximise voter participation as well as to maintain free and fair elections. I will certainly impress on the commission the necessity of getting the balance right between those two responsibilities.
Before I call the shadow Leader of the House to ask the business question, I should like to remind all colleagues that, today, 22 April, marks the anniversary of the very first hybrid sitting of the House, when for the first time hon. and right hon. Members were able to participate remotely in our proceedings. This innovation helped enable Parliament to continue discharging its key functions of scrutiny, debate and legislation safely, despite the extraordinary conditions imposed by the covid-19 pandemic. On behalf of all Members, I should like to thank all the staff of the House and the Parliamentary Digital Service for their remarkable achievement in making the hybrid House possible. It is a big thank you to everyone.
Business of the House
Before I do, may I join you, Mr Speaker, in thanking the digital and broadcasting services? They worked over the whole of the Easter recess last year to make this possible. They gave up most of their holiday during most of last year to make our hybrid proceedings work, and thus ensured that there has been proper parliamentary scrutiny throughout the whole year and that our democracy has remained strong and effective. Our thanks are most sincere and heartfelt because they have done something of the utmost importance for our nation.
On the business statement for the week commencing on 26 April, the business will include:
Monday 26 April—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Financial Services Bill, followed by consideration of Lords message on the Domestic Abuse Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the National Security and Investment Bill, followed by a motion to approve the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) (High-Risk Countries) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 392), followed by a motion relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 150).
Tuesday 27 April—Consideration of Lords message on the Fire Safety Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve the draft Warm Home Discount (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2021, followed by a motion to approve the Trade and Official Controls (Transitional Arrangements for Prior Notifications) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 429).
Wednesday 28 April—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve the draft Double Taxation Relief (Federal Republic of Germany) Order 2021 and the draft Double Taxation Relief (Sweden) Order 2021, followed by a motion to approve the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Extension of the Relevant Period) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 375), followed by a motion related to the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 184), followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve the House of Commons Commission report on amendments to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.
Thursday 29 April—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
The House will prorogue when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.
I am pleased to announce that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the summer recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 22 July and return on Monday 6 September.
I join you, Mr Speaker, and the Leader of the House in the thanks that have been expressed. I want to thank the Clerk of the House for his leadership in ensuring that the whole staff of the House, the broadcasting and everything else enabled us to be the first Parliament in the world to be a hybrid Parliament and to carry on with our business.
I also want to congratulate Lord Fowler on retiring and Lord McFall on becoming the new Lord Speaker. Staying with the Lords, I want to pay tribute to Frank Judd, who served as an MP in Portsmouth from 1966 to 1979 and was a Minister in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments. He was a director of Oxfam before being appointed a life peer in 1991. He was an outstanding Member of both Houses. May he rest in peace.
We had Foreign Office questions on Tuesday, and there was nothing about Nazanin or Anousheh. Mehran Raoof’s friend has contacted the Foreign Office to ask for help. He has a trial coming up on 28 April, but has not been allowed to see his lawyer. He needs a Foreign Office representative to be at the trial and he also needs a doctor. I wonder if the Leader of the House could ensure that the Foreign Secretary is aware of that. It would have helped if the Foreign Secretary had updated the House on Tuesday about the permanent adjournment —it looked like a continuous adjournment—of the court case, even though a Government Minister has said the debt should be paid. I am not sure why the Foreign Secretary did not update the House on the citizens.
A statement was put out yesterday at 5 pm on the cuts to overseas development aid, and it is quite upsetting really that that was not announced in the House on Tuesday. This is a massive cut and it is going to have a huge effect on the way Great Britain is seen in the world.
I wonder what Her Majesty’s official Opposition have done because we do not appear to have received the business, whereas other Opposition parties have. Normally, we get the provisional business the day before, but I think we are off the bcc and cc lists. Would the Leader of the House kindly tell us what we have done wrong when we do not get the business?
Last week, the Leader of the House did not answer my questions on the independent adviser on ministerial standards. There has been no list of Ministers’ financial interests for nine months and no list of donor meetings. He will also want to correct the record, I am sure, because he said that Greensill did not get public support, when in fact it did: it got it from the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme. So the lobbying did pay off. Greensill is the only supply chain finance firm accredited for CLBILS, despite not being regulated by the Bank of England or the Financial Conduct Authority. What is so special about Greensill and what is so special about Dyson? He took his business out of the UK.
Now, the Prime Minister was wrong. The shadow Chancellor has asked me to ask the Leader of the House to remind the Prime Minister that there were companies making ventilators in this country—Siemens and Airbus, to name a few—so I wonder if the Leader of the House could pass that on. She cannot find the Chancellor—we would like to know where he is—otherwise she would have passed the message on.
The Government are doing it again. The Cabinet Office and the civil servants are saying, “Please don’t do this.” They are going to appoint the head of space policy at Amazon to the Government’s own OneWeb, in which they have invested £400 million. This person will be working at Amazon as well as working with the Government. The Leader of the House needs to look at that. They have their own project, Kuiper. They are clearly going to have a competitive advantage. This is another case of fix it and flog it.
It is disappointing that the Leader of the House did not tell the House last week that the Prime Minister might have been in India. We got it from the presidential-style announcement in the £2.6 million press conference room, which is now going to be abandoned. It is good because the Prime Minister is not a president. It is odd to spend £2.6 million, and there is no mirror and no comb. The really nice spokesperson went from announcing geek of the week on “Peston” to leak of the week—effectively, it was a leak because those announcements should have been made in the House. She is now going back to geek of the week at COP26. She will have the same difficulty because she will have to explain contradictory Government policy. While the Government are about to reduce new emissions, they are still considering proposals for the first new deep coal mine in 30 years. Could we have a statement ruling that out before COP26?
It was announced not in Parliament but by press release that mobile phone masts up to 30 metres tall are about to get the green light to be put up in our countryside. That is a 20% increase on the current maximum. The shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), has said rural communities have become an afterthought. He wants everyone to be encouraged to take part in the rural England policy review to protect our countryside. Could we have a statement on that in the House?
I know the Leader of the House eats “Erskine May” for breakfast, but he does not seem to be absorbing anything. He knows that the job of Parliament is to hold the Executive to account, but he has presided over the marginalisation of Parliament. It is not me or the socialists saying that, but a paper by Professor Meg Russell, Dr Ruth Fox, Dr Ronan Cormacain and Dr Joe Tomlinson, which referred to no scrutiny of regulations and no meaningful debate. The House of Commons Library—I would not call it a bastion of socialism—said that Ministers can spend up to £469 billion before they get parliamentary approval of departmental spending plans. It would be interesting to hear what the Leader of the House thinks about that. Could we have a debate on restoring Parliament and the checks and balances on the Executive?
Later, there will be an apology for how black and Asian soldiers were treated. George Floyd is a movement. He died at the age of 46. A knee was on his neck for double the amount of time that I have been speaking. It was the right verdict. A young man who was about to become an architect would have been 46 today. We remember Stephen Lawrence; today is Stephen Lawrence Day.
Mr Speaker, you will be pleased that the fans got it right—no super league. They will be singing “Que Sera, we’re on the way to Wem-ber-ley”. We will all be going to Wembley, not just Leicester City and Chelsea, but we wish them well for the FA cup.
Yes, of course, we are right to commemorate Stephen Lawrence and Lord Judd— may both their souls rest in peace—and to congratulate Lord McFall on becoming the Lord Speaker. I am sure that you and he will have an excellent working relationship, to the benefit of both our Houses, Mr Speaker.
I am sorry that the right hon. Lady thinks she has not been doing the job of scrutiny very well over the last year, and that the procedures we have had have not been satisfactory and therefore the Opposition have been incapable of holding the Government to account. That is really the problem of the Opposition, in failing to use the tools to hand, of which there have been many. We have ensured that any serious change in the rules has been subject to a debate and a vote; we have had legislation passed and when it has been emergency legislation it has had the agreement of the Opposition; we have operated by consent—a year ago, when we introduced the hybrid measures, they were with the consent of the Opposition to do that, to ensure that scrutiny could continue. We have had really effective scrutiny available to the Opposition, if only they had chosen to use it. If they have not used it, that is their problem not mine, because we have made sure that Parliament has been at the centre of the national debate and that we have been able to sit. MPs have an unquestioned right to attend Parliament if they wish and if they do not wish to do so, they are able to Zoom in. So I completely dispute the interpretation of the proceedings we have had over the past year, and this is why we were all thanking the broadcasting and digital team for the work they have done.
On Nazanin and Anousheh, I will of course pass on to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary the points the right hon. Lady has raised, but I must make it clear that there must be and is no linkage between the improper, unlawful detention of British citizens and any debt that there may or may not be between the United Kingdom and a foreign state. Those two issues must always be separate.
As regards overseas aid, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is appearing before the Select Committee today, so it is only right that the statement was made yesterday—it will no doubt form the basis for much of the questioning he will face. This is a proper way of ensuring that Parliament is respected and that the rights of Parliament to hold the Government to account are maintained.
On the issue relating to the adviser to the Prime Minister on the ministerial code, an announcement is going to be made on that shortly. A recruitment process has been under way. The key is that the lobbying did not pay off; as was clear from the messages between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the former Prime Minister, the lobbying did not lead to any change.
Then we come on to the terrible muddle the Opposition are in about procurement of ventilators. An Opposition spokesman said:
“The Ventilator Challenge is an example of how UK manufacturers, a world class workforce…have come together”.
They were all in favour of it. The Public Accounts Committee said that this national effort is undoubtedly a “significant achievement” and a “benchmark for procurement”. So what the Prime Minister did was to ensure that things happened. This is the dither and delay of the socialists. They do not want to do things; they want to put the process ahead of succeeding. It is not, as used to be the socialists’ mantra, that the end justifies the means, but that the means justify the ends, so if the ends had been no ventilators but they had followed some endless bureaucratic process that took six months, the socialists would be happy. Instead we got on and did it, and we got 30,000 ventilators in a matter of weeks—that was up from 9,000. It was a phenomenal achievement, and let us praise Dyson for all that he has contributed to British manufacturing, the huge success that he has been and the commitment—£20 million of his own money—that he put towards ventilators. That is a proper patriotic gesture by a man I hold in the highest esteem and we should praise.
As we are praising people, let us also praise Allegra Stratton, who has made a marvellous contribution to the Government and will do so for COP—the conference of the parties—as well. In her various roles, she has succeeded in holding politicians to account. I remember being quizzed by her in one of her various journalistic roles. Indeed, I was “geek of the week” on one occasion on the Peston show. Some Members may think I am geek every week, but I once got that particular award. I note that the office that has been so nicely done up is the Privy Council office. As Lord President of the Council, perhaps I should be putting in a claim to use it for a good and worthy purpose of Privy Council business.
As regards any coalmining planning applications, once called in they are, as the right hon. Lady knows, in a quasi-judicial process and it would be wrong of me to go into the details of them. Let me finish by reiterating the point that if there has not been proper scrutiny, she knows where the failure to scrutinise has come from .
There is widespread dismay and outrage across the Kettering constituency that the organiser of a huge Irish Traveller funeral, held right in the middle of Kettering during the covid lockdown in November and attended by 150 people, in clear and flagrant breach of the pandemic regulations, has not been prosecuted. He was served by police with the notice of a £10,000 fine, but the Crown Prosecution Service this week at Northampton magistrates court decided not to pursue the case, and his legal costs are to be reimbursed. In contrast, hundreds of local families who have lost loved ones over the last year have respected the rules and encountered much distress in limiting the number of mourners at funerals. I have already contacted the Solicitor General about this important issue, but can we have a Government statement on the fact that once again, it appears that there is one rule for Gypsies and Travellers and another for everyone else?
I am concerned about what my hon. Friend is saying, because, “Be you ever so high, the law is above you”. That is a fundamental principle of justice in this country. I am obviously not familiar with the details of the case that he raises and the CPS is operationally independent in its charging decisions. Cases ought to be decided by the CPS on their own merits, on the tests set by the code for Crown prosecutors. I note, however, that he has already raised this with the Solicitor General and I will pass on his comments to the Attorney General.
I join the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House in thanking all in the House who have contributed to ensuring that Members have been able to continue to participate virtually. It has not always been a smooth passage and there have often been disagreements about the process, but we have got there. Indeed, I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your part in that process, because you have made so much of this possible.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister indicated that he would “immediately” publish his personal correspondence relating to covid contracts, so will the Leader of the House update the House by telling us what the Government consider to be the meaning of the word “immediately”? When will the Prime Minister actually release this correspondence?
Given that the Prime Minister has promised to “fix” tax issues for billionaires over text message, will the Leader of the House also support a full public inquiry into lobbying practices under this Government and potential breaches of the ministerial code? Perhaps the Government could also advise the 3 million left behind and struggling without any support how they can get the ear of the Prime Minister, or is this only for the elite group with the phone number who are able to influence policy?
It is not just Opposition Members who are making suggestions about some of these issues. As a great believer in honest and fair procurement practices in the UK, I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will be alarmed to read the results of the Transparency International UK report, “Track and Trace”, which concluded that the absence of competition in awarding contracts has been “unjustifiable” and that
“arrangements for enabling scrutiny over the use of taxpayers’ money”—
have been “woefully inadequate” due to “systemic deficiencies in how” the Government
“accounts for the use of public funds”.
Will the Leader of the House now champion tougher action from Government, including backing my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, to ensure that Government contract decisions are not riddled with crony accusations and that decisions are being taken in the best interests of the public purse?
Finally, as a believer in market forces, I am sure that the UK Government will have a view—I would be keen to know what it is—on the supermarket wars that currently threaten the diversity of chocolate larvae lepidoptera. What will the Government do to support the campaign to free Cuthbert, or do they, in fact, back the protection of the species for Colin?
I think the last matter is clearly one for an Adjournment debate, so that every possible ramification of it can be considered.
If I may come to the mainstay of what the hon. Gentleman raised, it is really important that contracts are awarded properly. That is why correspondence will be published and why the contracts will be published as well. A proper process of transparency is taking place, but it is also worth remembering that there was a great deal of urgency. We went from 1% of personal protective equipment being produced domestically to—I think, excluding gloves—70% of PPE being produced domestically. We managed to have an extraordinary success in our vaccine roll-out programme, where we were fleeter of foot than other countries—indeed, of our neighbours in the European Union—and that was because we were able to get on with things. That had widespread political support while it was taking place last year, and people from all parties benefited.
It is worth reminding the House that £135.5 million-worth of Chinese ventilators went to a company that was incorporated not that long ago called Excalibur Healthcare Services. Its chairman, Sir Chris Evans, is a very distinguished biotech entrepreneur and a supporter of the Labour party. He is also a very distinguished and successful businessman and is somebody who is held in the highest regard across the House. He got a contract for a newly incorporated company of a very significant amount of public money not because of cronyism—it would be very odd cronyism to stuff the purses of socialists with gold—but because we needed these goods and we needed them quickly.
We have a very good and strong Public Accounts Committee, the most long-standing Select Committee in this House, which has kept a review of public expenditure for now well over 100 years. It is chaired by a distinguished Member of the Labour party, who is respected in all parts of the House, and the Committee brings forward reports to ensure that expenditure is proper, and I am all in favour of that. It is right that we must examine contracts and how they are awarded, but we should not cast aspersions purely for temporary political advantage, undermining the confidence that people can have in the fundamental honesty of the British state.
Stoke-on-Trent is one of the fastest growing economies and one of the top places for jobs growth in England. Added to that, we have excellent connectivity with the M6 and the A50 corridor; four international airports within 60 minutes; and a 90-minute train ride to London. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with Staffordshire police, Staffordshire chambers of commerce, and Staffordshire North and Stoke-on-Trent citizens advice bureaux, there could be no better second home for the Home Office other than Stoke-on-Trent under the places for growth programme, bringing high-skilled and well-paid jobs for the Stoke-on-Trent talent pool and seeing a former resident, the Home Secretary, return to her adopted city?
I thought that my hon. Friend was about to make an application to become the Home Secretary, rather than move the Home Secretary. The Government are committed to ensuring that the administration of government is less London-centric and to locating more civil service roles and public bodies outside London and into the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. The places for growth programme is working with Departments on their relocation plans and a number of announcements have been made. That includes the Cabinet Office establishing a second headquarters in Glasgow; a joint headquarters for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in East Kilbride; the Department for Transport building on its presence in Leeds and Birmingham; and a new economic campus in Darlington. My hon. Friend should keep on campaigning, and I will pass his message on to fellow Ministers, particularly to the Home Secretary.
May I first pass on my deepest sympathy, love and condolences to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) following the sad passing of her husband, Ray? Mr Speaker, Ray was a long-standing North Tyneside councillor, a fellow Newcastle fan, and a thoroughly lovely man.
Obviously, we are disappointed that there is no time for Backbench Business Committee debates to be scheduled next week, but should any gaps in the Government’s schedule occur before Prorogation next week, I am sure that we could organise debate sponsors to be on standby to fill any such void.
Lastly, after this week’s so-called big six European super league shenanigans, I was delighted to see the Government make their proposal for a fan-led review of football in England. Will the Leader of the House use his good offices to ensure that the review fulfils the Government’s manifesto commitment to being truly fan-led?
May I join the hon. Gentleman in passing on our condolences to the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) at a very sad time for her and for her family? We will remember Ray in our prayers.
As regards time for the Backbench Business Committee, next week will really be about sorting out ping-pong. Unless the hon. Gentleman is going to join us in a game of what some call whiff-whaff, we may not necessarily have time for Backbench Business debates.
To come to the fan-led review of football, this will be chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is herself a very committed footballer and fan of football. She knows everything about the subject very much from the point of view of a fan and will cover the financial stability of the men’s and women’s games, governance and regulation, the merits and the independent regulator, and, crucially to the hon. Gentleman’s point, how fans can have a greater say in the oversight of the game. I think, therefore, that it is a case of ask and you shall be given.
As we move along the road map towards normality, Ministers are rightly reminding the public of the mantra “Hands, face, space”. Does the Leader of the House agree that in future ministerial statements, there should be an additional message to the public, particularly to those visiting tourist areas such as East Yorkshire—namely, “Hands, face, space, but don’t be a disgrace. Take your rubbish and litter away and bin it”? Does he agree that we should be keeping Britain tidy as well as safe?
I remember an occasion when Margaret Thatcher went to St James’s Park to pick up litter—actually, the litter had to be put down for her to pick up because there was not any immediately to hand—and she had the slogan “Bag it and bin it and that way we’ll win it”. Those words and the words of my right hon. Friend are ones that we should all bear in mind.
May I associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) on the passing of Ray, the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon)?
The Government’s flagship education recovery scheme, the national tutoring programme, has reached 96% of its target numbers in schools in the south-east and 100% in the south-west but under 60% in the north-east. I share concerns expressed by the director of Schools North East that the Government’s one-size-fits-all approach does not account for the significantly higher levels of long-term disadvantage in regions such as the north-east or regional variations in how well established tutoring is as an intervention. We must see our recovery from covid-19 closing inequality gaps, not broadening them, so can we have a debate in Government time on making education recovery more responsive to local circumstances and trusting school heads to know the best way to support their pupils?
The Government are very committed to the levelling-up agenda and therefore ensuring that all parts of the country receive their fair share of support. The hon. Lady raises an important point. I ask her to point out to the Government—via my office, if that would be useful—where there are any blockages, so that the Government can ensure that those are removed, because it is fundamental that we should be fair and level up across the country.
A year ago today, I asked Parliament’s very first virtual question, and here I am doing so again. Does the Leader of the House agree that, as society reopens and resumes a closer to business-as-usual model, we in Parliament should be doing the same thing in a safe and secure way?
May I wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday? I hope that once he has finished Zooming, he will have an appropriate celebration, possibly leading the way as the public houses reopen outside. I agree with his point: Parliament needs to lead the way, and we need to get back to normal as soon as it is prudent and sensible to do so. I congratulate him on his efforts to hold the Government to account and to carry out scrutiny, and I am glad that he has been doing it, even if Her Majesty’s Opposition feel that they have not been able to scrutinise the Government, but we want to get back to a proper Chamber as soon as possible.
I have noticed that whenever my colleagues from the SNP have a question for the Prime Minister, regardless of the subject matter, the response always seems to revert at some stage to a tedious and tendentious diatribe against the supposed shortcomings of the Scottish Government. It is quite clear that the Government are keen to unburden themselves in some regards with respect to the Scottish Government’s record. Would the Leader of the House be good enough to make time next week for a general debate in the House on Scottish affairs, in order that Members can explore some of the reasons why voters in Scotland seem to be on course to re-elect the SNP Government and sack the Conservative Opposition?
As it seems that the SNP has been doing its best to make the Borgias look respectable in recent weeks, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman would wish to have such a debate, but it would be an opportunity to point out how the SNP Government are failing Scotland in terms of its education and its policing. The SNP Government recently stated that they would have done just as well with the vaccine roll-out by themselves, when under a year ago, the SNP spokesman was asking why they had not joined the European scheme and whether it was a great failure not to have joined it. So a debate on the failings of the SNP, its lack of success and its lack of drive in its position in charge of the Government of Scotland would be one that would have many speakers and there would be a great deal to say. However, over the next few days we have to deal with ping-pong with the House of Lords, so I regret to say that there will not be time for that pleasurable discussion.
May I also wish my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) a very happy birthday? On this celebratory day of the one-year anniversary of the hybrid Parliament, may I thank the digital team, your team, Mr Speaker, the Doorkeepers and the Clerks for remaining physically present in Parliament during the pandemic? Will my right hon. Friend update the House on plans for the physical return of Members to this House so that we can all grace these green Benches?
Between now and 21 July, there will be discussions as to what can be done in line with the changes taking place across the rest of the country and whether, when places of entertainment are allowed to have every other place full, this House will be able to do that. However, Mr Speaker will rely on the advice of Public Health England for that. All the restrictions fall by the motions we have in front of us around 21 June, at which point we will be back to normal. However, I would say to Members that they are entitled to come into the Chamber. There is a limit on seating, but that limit is not used on most occasions, and I would no longer discourage anybody from coming into this House. I think this House is better when it is physical. It is more immediate, and the quality of our debate is significantly improved.
May I also thank you, Mr Speaker, your team and the House authorities for keeping us all safe during a difficult year?
Too many deaf people are still facing social exclusion, and there is no more timely example of that than our still waiting for a British Sign Language interpreter at Government press briefings more than a year into the pandemic. British Sign Language is used by over 151,000 people in the UK. However, 18 years after it was formally recognised as a language by the UK Government, it has still not received legal status. Will the Leader of the House outline when the Government plan to bring forward legislation finally to give BSL legal status?
It is worth pointing out to the hon. Lady that, under your auspices, Mr Speaker, there is sign language for some parts of our parliamentary proceedings, routinely including Prime Minister’s questions. Whether it can be used more, and whether there is sufficient demand to make that worth while, is being looked at. It is taken seriously by the House authorities, and the broadcasters also provide it as a service. Great steps are being made. In terms of the legislative agenda, we will have a Queen’s Speech quite soon and that will contain the agenda for the coming Session.
I congratulate Lord McFall on his election as Lord Speaker and offer my sincere condolences to the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on the death of her husband Ray. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on funding for research into motor neurone disease and related illnesses? This disease has a devastating impact on the lives of sufferers and their families as I understand from a number of my constituents. Further funding is vital to continue the advances being made in the treatment of MND and to find a possible cure.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an unquestionably important issue. The Government recognise the immense challenges faced by people with motor neurone disease and are currently working on ways to boost significantly further research into the disease. In the past five years, the taxpayer has spent £54 million on motor neurone disease research through the National Institute for Health Research and UK Research and Innovation via the Medical Research Council. The 2019 Conservative manifesto committed to doubling funding for dementia and neurodegenerative disease research, including motor neurone disease research. The Government are putting plans in place on how to deliver on that commitment, but I encourage my hon. Friend to seek an Adjournment debate to discuss it further.
In recent summers in Nottingham, our excellent community sector, supported by the city council, has on a shoestring put together brilliant activities and food programmes for local children. This year, the city has secured significant resources to make that programme even better, so that it operates all year round and reaches thousands of local children. We want groups to come forward to be part of it. Can we have a debate in Government time about the importance of excellent holiday activities for our young children?
Holiday activities are extremely important for children, particularly during the long summer holidays, and I am delighted to hear that charitable activity in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is allowing people to do the sorts of things that children want to do and enjoy doing. In my area, Longleat is an enormously popular safari park. People like to see the lions, tigers, giraffes and elephants—[Interruption.] I do not think there are any buffalo there, but there may be. Ensuring that there are enjoyable activities for children in school holidays is admirable, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the efforts he is making in that regard.
Over the past few weeks, I have been knocking on quite a few doors in the Chantry area of Ipswich, where the Leader of the House has quite a few admirers, as it happens. The key issue is the growth in antisocial behaviour and potential drug dealing and taking in the area, particularly in Stonelodge Park. We know that increased police presence and regular patrols are part of deterring that kind of illicit activity, and I welcome the extra 45 police officers, but would the Leader of the House find space in Government time for a debate about the national police funding formula, which I and the police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore, believe is not fair for Suffolk?
I am delighted to hear that I have a following in Chantry. There is also a Chantry in Somerset, so it is clearly a very good name for a place.
The police funding formula remains the most reliable mechanism that we have to distribute core grant funding to police and crime commissioners. The funding settlement will be £15.8 billion in 2021-22, up £600 million on the previous year. Obviously, it is then about how that money is spent, and getting more police on the beat—I am delighted to hear that there are 45 more in my hon. Friend’s constituency—is key. The presence of a police officer is a sure way of reducing crime and antisocial behaviour.
On behalf of a constituent battling repeated malicious allegations, and another who, out of the blue, has been deducted for a 30-year-old social fund loan with no proof that it ever existed, can we have an opportunity to press Department for Work and Pensions Ministers on why it is taking, on average, a ludicrous 63 weeks for a complaint to be allocated to a caseworker? If I send the Leader of the House the details of those two cases, would he take it up with a Minister for me?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend and I are both committed democrats who believe that the voice of the people always deserves to be heard. In the Somerset County Council area, there will soon be a referendum to test public opinion about the rival plans for local government reform. I think my right hon. Friend and I would prefer that it were the whole of Somerset, but that is beyond the power of the council. The Secretary of State, by letter, said that this is a distraction, but I believe he is quite wrong. Elections to the county council have been shelved, and I am afraid the Government’s consultation was cheap, unfair and totally indifferent to the views of the residents. The chance to vote is now vital, and the Government ought to listen very carefully to the result before making any decision. Lawyers are spoiling for a fight about this, but democracy is an issue that cries out to be debated as soon as it can in this House first.
Vox populi, vox dei, but I refer my hon. Friend to what I said last week: it does not include the whole county of Somerset, and I think that is a great mistake. Somerset’s history goes back into the mists of time. It is one of the oldest counties in the country. As a whole, it is a complete, entire, perfect county that was cut up by Ted Heath in the 1970s to the disadvantage of people across the whole county. I would like to see the whole thing put back together. If only we could have the expertise of Humpty Dumpty.
May I offer my sincere condolences to the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on the death of her husband?
I have previously asked the Leader of the House about a promised Bill on access to cash, which has not materialised. Can he confirm that it will be included in the upcoming Queen’s Speech to provide certainty to those—mainly vulnerable people—who rely on cash? Will the Government agree to back the Banking Services (Post Offices) Bill, lodged by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), to place responsibility on banks to provide their services through post office branches?
I think that for me to pre-empt the Queen’s Speech would be lèse-majesté, but I can say that the Government recognise the importance of cash to the daily lives of millions of people across the United Kingdom, particularly those in vulnerable groups, and that we are committed to protecting access to cash for those who need it. The Government held a call for evidence on access to cash, which closed on 25 November 2020 and which set out our legislative aims—the legislative aims are there—for protecting access to cash throughout the United Kingdom. It sought views on cash withdrawal and deposit-taking facilities, cash acceptance and regulatory responsibilities for maintaining cash access. Although I cannot give the hon. Lady the direct promise that she asks for, I can say that the issue is very much at the forefront of the Government’s mind.
As we speak, the Foreign Secretary is being held to account by the Select Committee on International Development, following his written statement late last night. One thing in his statement that was rather confusing, because it is difficult to check like with like, is the fact that all budgets are being slashed dramatically. We know that the Foreign Secretary and others have decided that the 0.7%, which is enshrined in law, will become 0.5%, but we really ought to have a vote on that to see whether such an incredible slashing of funds is the will of Parliament. Will the Leader of the House tell us when we can have that vote? I know that various people think that we do not need one, but the 0.7% is enshrined in law. We cannot just say, “It is enshrined in law, but we will take no notice of it.” When will we have a vote, please?
The law is very clear and envisages circumstances in which the 0.7% target will not be possible to reach, for a variety of reasons including economic ones that may affect the Government’s ability to meet it. It sets out the requirement for the Secretary of State to make a report to Parliament, to be accountable to Parliament in the event that the target is not reached. The law is being followed—what Parliament decreed is being followed—and that is, of course, the right thing to do.
I have been horrified by reports from constituents—frontline customer-facing service workers across a range of sectors from retail and call centres to rail staff—of the abuse and violence that they have faced from customers. This is not a local issue. In polling commissioned by the Institute of Customer Service in 2020, 1,000 customer-facing workers reported increasing levels of hostility directed towards them in recent years, with more than half having experienced abuse from customers during the pandemic. This is clearly unacceptable. When Parliament is prorogued shortly, the private Member’s Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris)—the Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill—will fall, despite widespread public support. I hope that the Leader of the House will outline when we can have a debate in Government time on increasing protections for service workers in law in line with protections that emergency service workers receive. Abuse should never be part of the job.
The hon. Lady raises a point that concerns hon. Members across the House. People working in retail ought to be protected, and are protected, by the full force of the law. The Queen’s Speech debate is an opportunity to raise a very wide range of issues; that opportunity will be provided once Parliament is recalled, and there will be a new ballot for private Members’ Bills for the next Session. I hope that we will get through all 13 Fridays in more normal time than we have had over the past year.
May I add my deep condolences to the lovely hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon)?
Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House set out what assessment he has made of the cost and safety of the enormous amount of mechanical and engineering work that is required to restore this beautiful UNESCO world heritage site, the Palace of Westminster? Will he confirm that he agrees that although taxpayers’ value for money is absolutely at the heart of the restoration project, so too must be the importance of a contingency arrangement for our democracy to keep functioning should there be a disastrous fire, asbestos leakage or other disaster during such time as any restoration were to take place?
My right hon. Friend obviously knows a great deal about this subject. She will be aware that the sponsor body is currently drawing up its business plan, which will take into account all the risks. I can give my right hon. Friend the important reassurance that a great deal of fire safety work has already been done, so there are now 7,112 automatic fire-detection devices, 4,126 sprinkler heads in the basement of the Palace and 8 miles of pipe for a new sprinkler system in the basement, to ensure that in the event of a fire, life can be protected. That work has been completed in recent years to a high standard to ensure safety.
As regards contingencies, it is not normal to discuss their details on the Floor of the House, as my right hon. Friend will know, but obviously there will be some consequences of how we have operated over the past year when it comes to working out how any contingency could or should be carried out.
I too send my love and condolences to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon).
I asked the Lord Chancellor how many civil service jobs were moving to York and was given some vague percentage; however, a subsequent question indicated that the Department did not know. It appears that the Government’s distribution of job relocation and funding bids lacks transparency. With the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund soon to be administered, and with no matrices or frameworks having been published, will the Leader of the House raise my concerns with his Cabinet colleagues and ask them to come to the House before the recess to make a statement on their methodology—if indeed there is one?
As we discussed earlier, Government spending of taxpayers’ money is always carefully examined by various Committees in this House and by proper procedures within Government. The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will be an important way of ensuring that economic prosperity is possible throughout the country and that we build back better.
The hon. Lady made a detailed point on the Ministry of Justice’s moving to York and seeks a detailed answer; I will try to help her to get as detailed an answer as is available.
We have important local elections coming up, which inevitably leads to more residents seeking information and clarity on council services and who is the best value for their votes. In Nottinghamshire, we have contrasting fortunes: the Conservative-run county council has been able to support local people throughout the pandemic, while protecting services and balancing the books, whereas Labour-run Nottingham City Council has just about bankrupted itself, and residents will pick up the pieces. The money that the city council has blown on Robin Hood Energy alone could have built leisure centres in Mansfield or regenerated our high street. Will my right hon. Friend make time to debate these failings at the Labour city council, to aid our understanding of how it managed to make quite such a mess of it, openly assess the impact on taxpayers and ensure that such wasteful incompetence cannot happen again?
My hon. Friend makes an exceptionally good point. Every week, business questions throws up another example of appalling mismanagement by socialist councils. It is vital that Members of this House hold their local authorities to account; they have in this place a special and valuable platform that they must use for their constituents’ benefit. It is remarkable how many Members happen to complain about hare-brained energy schemes from socialist local authorities of both the red and yellow variety. Perhaps the people suffering under the red yoke in Nottingham might look enviously to the greener grass of the Conservative county council and use their vote accordingly on 6 May.
The all-party parliamentary group on disability, which I chair, is committed to ensuring that MPs support opportunity in employment for all. As a vital step, in early June we are undertaking an online Disability Confident workshop—supported by the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work and the Department for Work and Pensions—through which we hope to sign up at least 100 MPs’ offices as accredited Disability Confident employers. Will the Leader of the House support this work, alongside further progress and debate on disability inclusion in Parliament?
It would be an honour to do so. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this. I do a podcast on why Parliament works, and I did an interview with my noble Friend Lord Hague, who introduced the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, which has been so important in improving disability rights and employment opportunities for the disabled. Anything I can do through the office of the Leader of the House to further the work that he started, I would be privileged to do.
Eston swimming baths have been closed since the start of the pandemic, and will sadly remain closed for at least another year because of the state of disrepair, which it is estimated will cost almost £3 million to put right. I have said from the start that I am committed to having a swimming pool in TS6 for the people of TS6, and I am working with the council on a plan for a brand-new pool there so that everyone in South Bank, Normanby, Teesville, Grangetown and Eston can have a pool that they can use for decades to come. Does the Leader of the House agree with me on the importance of community swimming pools, and will he make time for a debate on this in the next Session?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has been doing to save the Eston baths, and I know that he has raised this matter with Ministers. He is an absolutely brilliant champion for his constituents in Redcar, and for ensuring that they are kept in the swim, so to speak. This is important work and the Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses throughout the pandemic to ensure that these vital facilities remain for people to enjoy after the pandemic has come to an end. This includes the £100 million national leisure recovery fund and £270 million from Sport England.
First, I would like to offer my commiserations and sympathy to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) on her recent tragic loss.
Over the past few months and years, we have seen the behaviour of Prime Minister Modi of India becoming increasingly violent and aggressive towards the people that he and his Government see as their opponents. There are still eight journalists held in prison on charges of sedition, a number of politicians are also being held, and 100 people are still missing after the farmers’ protest. This comes on top of all the appalling behaviour by the Government and the Indian Army in Kashmir. We know that talks are coming up between our Prime Minister and his opposite number, so could the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister will be raising human rights issues, as well as trade, at that meeting and that he will then report back to the House of Commons?
India is a most important ally of the United Kingdom. It is the largest democracy in the world, and it has the rule of law in addition to being a democracy. It is a nation with which we want to build and maintain the friendliest relationships in the coming decades and, indeed, centuries. Of course, with all countries with which we have close relationships and friendships, it is right to remind them of the high standards that are expected of nations of the standing of India, one of the most important nations in the world, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will always mention this when he is meeting foreign leaders.
May I add my condolences to the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon)? She is a dear friend from across the House.
This week, my constituency celebrates the opening of the Congleton link road. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating and thanking all who have worked on it, including community leaders, past and present councillors, council officers, contractors and the business people who worked so hard to secure it? It will help to reduce congestion, make getting to school safer, shorten commute times and improve air quality, and it was facilitated not least by the investment of some £50 million from national Government. Does not this demonstrate that this Government are committed to delivering infrastructure improvements in the north for the real-life daily benefit of the people who live here?
In the list of people who deserve thanks, my hon. Friend forgot to include the most distinguished Member of Parliament, who worked tirelessly to ensure that the link road was built. She brought people together, campaigned with them and made sure that it happened. She is looking slightly embarrassed as I say this, but I think she really does deserve a good deal of credit herself. This fits in with that the Government are trying to do. We will spend more than £600 billion of taxpayers’ money over the next five years, and £19 billion in transport next year alone. This is part of the levelling-up approach and building back better to ensure that the whole country benefits, and I am delighted that Congleton is benefiting from a bypass.
Perfect Getaways, an independent travel agent that is based in my constituency, is a perfect example of how a small family-owned business can grow and be a success, but of course the continued uncertainty around international travel has severely impacted its income. Although being able to access the restart grants for non-essential retailers is welcome, at the moment more holidays are being cancelled than booked, which is obviously causing it real difficulty—far more than for a lot of other non-essential retail outlets. Can we please have a debate on what more can be done to help those in the travel and tourism industry, who really need some sector-specific support for a considerable period yet?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the case of Perfect Getaways. It must be really difficult for people in the travel industry at the moment, because there is still so much uncertainty. We do not know about the progression of the disease in other countries. We do not know clearly how safe it will be to travel. The red list is currently going up rather than down with the addition of India later this week. It is difficult for businesses in that category and he is right to raise the matter. He may want an Adjournment debate in the first instance, but I am sure the House will return to the matter in the new Session.
Tomorrow, residents in Carshalton and Wallington and across England will celebrate St George’s Day. Although many celebrations cannot take place this year due to covid restrictions, could we have a debate to mark this day and celebrate all that is great about this green and pleasant land?
This week is actually a very interesting one for English saints’ days, because the 19th is that of St Alfege, who was murdered by the Danes for refusing to pay extra tax—a saint I have always particularly admired—and the 21st is that of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had a great row with William Rufus over the powers of the Church against the state. Then of course there is St George, who famously slew the dragon and did other great and noble things, and became our patron saint really in the reign of Edward III. He is the patron of the Order of the Garter as well, and a chivalrous saint, or very much thought to be. We should celebrate and discuss the great history of our nation and the interesting agglomeration of saints who pray for us on a daily basis, praying for the success not just of England but of the whole of the United Kingdom. St Andrew, St David and St Patrick—all the great saints—should be celebrated and commemorated.
Today is Earth Day, so it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the environmental damage caused to marine habitats by the clearing of unexploded bombs and mines at sea, which is highly disruptive to marine mammals which rely on their auditory systems for navigation and communication. Indeed, such damage threatens their very survival. Will the Leader of the House make a statement as to when the Government will progress regulations to favour the deflagration technique, which is several hundred times quieter than the current method of clearing unexploded bombs and mines at sea?
The hon. Lady is obviously right to be concerned for marine mammals such as dolphins, whales and porpoises, who, when seen, give such pleasure to people, and are an important part of the marine environment. I know that there are campaigns in relation to how munitions that have been dumped at sea are best destroyed, and I will happily pass on her representations.
Fly-tipping is a blight on all our local towns and villages, from Haslingden to Belthorn and Great Harwood to Huncoat. Locally we have some amazing community groups that are working to keep our streets clean, like the Baxenden Wombles, the Ossy litter pickers and Rossendale’s Civic Pride. Unfortunately, our Labour-run councils clean up an area time and again at the expense of the taxpayer, but we fail to see a tough stance taken through fines and prosecutions. Can we have a debate in Government time on how we make sure that our local councils take stronger action against the minority who ruin it for all residents such as mine in Hyndburn and Haslingden?
My hon. Friend raises a point similar to that raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight). Local councils do have that responsibility, and the availability of tips provided by the council can be very important in deterring fly-tipping, because if it is easy to dispose of waste, most people will do it, but if it is difficult and expensive, that may be a more complex issue and may lead to fly-tipping. It is, as I say, a council responsibility; but fly-tipping is wrong, it is illegal, and people should dispose of their waste properly and not put costs on to taxpayers by disposing of it illegally—and the law should of course be enforced.
I have a short statement to make about Select Committees. On 24 March 2020, the House passed an Order allowing for the virtual participation in Select Committee meetings and giving the Chairs associated powers to make reports. Under the powers I was given in the Order, I notify the House that I am extending the Order until Monday 21 June.
Let us now make the necessary arrangements. I suspend the House for three minutes.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission: Historical Inequalities Report
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the special committee review into the historical actions of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, when it was the Imperial War Graves Commission and subsequently.
I start by placing on the record my thanks and gratitude to the committee that compiled this comprehensive report, especially its chair, Sir Tim Hitchens, and contributing academics Dr George Hay, Dr John Burke and Professor Michèle Barrett. I am also grateful to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) who, alongside the makers of the Channel 4 documentary on this subject, provided the impetus for the establishment of the independent committee.
Today the committee’s findings are published. They make for sober reading. The first world war was a horrendous loss of life. People of all class and race from all nations suffered a great tragedy, which we rightly remember every year on Remembrance Sunday. Just over 100 years ago, what emerged from that atrocity was a belief by the survivors that all those who lost their lives deserved to be commemorated.
When the Imperial War Graves Commission was established, its founding principle was the equality of treatment in death. Whatever an individual’s rank in social or military life and whatever their religion, they would be commemorated identically. Unfortunately, the work of this report shows that it fell short in delivering on that principle. The IWGC relied on others to seek out the bodies of the dead, and where it could not find them, it worked with the offices of state to produce lists of those who did not return and remained unaccounted for.
Given the pressures and confusion spun by such a war, in many ways it is hardly surprising that mistakes were made at both stages. What is surprising and disappointing, however, is the number of mistakes—the number of casualties commemorated unequally, the number commemorated without names, and the number otherwise entirely unaccounted for. That is not excusable. In some circumstances, there was little the IWGC could do. With neither bodies nor names, general memorials were the only way in which some groups might be commemorated at the time.
None the less, there are examples where the organisation also deliberately overlooked the evidence that might have allowed it to find those names. In others, commission officials in the 1920s were happy to work with local administrations on projects across the empire that ran contrary to the principles of equality in death. Elsewhere, it is clear that commission officials pursued agendas and sought evidence or support locally to endorse 67 courses of action that jeopardised those same principles. In the small number of cases where commission officials had greater say in the recovery and marking of graves, overarching imperial ideology connected to racial and religious differences was used to divide the dead and treat them unequally in ways that were impossible in Europe.
The report concludes that post-world war one, in parts of Africa, the middle east and India, the commission often compromised its principles and failed to commemorate the war dead equally. Unlike their European counterparts, the graves of up to 54,000 mostly Indian, east African, west African, Egyptian and Somali casualties were not marked by individual headstones. Some were remembered through inscriptions on memorials. The names of others were only recorded in registers, rather than memorialised in stone. A further 116,000 personnel, mostly east African and Egyptian, were not named or possibly not commemorated at all.
There can be no doubt that prejudice played a part in some of the commission’s decisions. In some cases, the IWGC assumed that the communities of forgotten personnel would not recognise or value individual forms of commemoration. In other cases, it was simply not provided with the names or burial locations.
On behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Government of the time and today, I want to apologise for the failures to live up to the founding principles all those years ago and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation. While we cannot change the past, we can make amends and take action.
As part of that, the commission has accepted all the recommendations of the special committee. In the interests of time I will group these into three themes. First, the commission will geographically and chronologically extend the search in the historical record for inequalities in commemoration and act on what is found. Secondly, the commission will renew its commitment to equality in commemoration through the building of physical or digital commemorative structures. Finally, the commission will use its own online presence and wider education activities to reach out to all the communities of the former British empire touched by the two world wars to make sure that their hidden history is brought to life. Over the coming six months, the commission will be assembling a global and diverse community of external experts who can help make that happen.
There is also more the Government specifically can do. The Ministry of Defence I lead will be determinedly proactive in standing for the values of equality, supporting diversity and investing in all our people. There is always more to be done, and that is why I welcome the Wigston review into inappropriate behaviours and recently took the rare decision to let service personnel give evidence as part of the inquiry into women in the armed forces led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) through the Defence Committee.
Furthermore, to honour the contribution to our armed forces by our friends from the Commonwealth and Nepal, the Home Secretary and I will shortly be launching a public consultation on proposals to remove the visa settlement fees for non-UK service personnel who choose to settle in the UK.
The historical failings identified in the report must be acknowledged and acted upon, and they will be. However, recognising the mistakes of the past should not diminish the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s groundbreaking achievements today. The recommendations of the special committee should be welcomed by us all. They are not just an opportunity for the commission to complete its task and right historical wrongs; they point out what an amazing thing it is to serve our country and our allies.
The amazing thing I know from being a soldier is the relationships that are forged on operations. True soldiers are agnostic to class, race and gender, because the bond that holds us together is a bond forged in war. When on operations, we share the risk, share the sorrow and rely on each other to get through the toughest of times. The friendships I made in my service are still strong.
It was those common bonds that lay behind the Imperial War Graves Commission’s principles, and it is truly sad that on the occasions identified by the report those principles were not followed. I feel it is my duty as a former soldier to do right by those who gave their lives in the first world war across the Commonwealth and to take what necessary steps we can to rectify the situation. The publication of this report is the beginning, not the end, and I look forward to working with my colleagues across the House to ensure that the CWGC receives the support and resources it needs to take forward this important piece of work.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy of it. I thank the commission for its advance briefing, which a number of hon. Members received before today.
Above all, I thank the Secretary of State for his apology on behalf of both the Government of the time and the commission. This is an important moment for the commission and the country in coming to terms with past injustices and dedicating ourselves to future action.
None of this would have happened without my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). His documentary “Unremembered” laid bare the early history of the Imperial War Graves Commission and exposed its failure to live up to its founding aim of equality of treatment for all war dead. I pay tribute to Channel 4 and David Olusoga for producing the documentary and to Professor Michèle Barrett, whose research underpinned that work.
Perhaps in another era, we would have been tempted to leave it there, but rightly the commission did not. Indeed, my right hon. Friend would not have let the commission leave it there. The report is a credit to the commission of today, but its content is a great discredit to the commission and the Britain of a century ago. An estimated 45,000 to 54,000 casualties—predominantly Indian, east African, west African, Egyptian and Somali personnel—were commemorated unequally. A further 116,000 casualties, and potentially as many as 350,000, were not commemorated by name or not commemorated at all. In the words of the special committee that produced the report, the commission failed to do what it was set up to do:
“the IWGC was responsible for or complicit in decisions outside of Europe that compromised its principles and treated war dead differently and often unequally…This history needs to be corrected and shared, and the unfinished work of the 1920s needs to be put right where possible.”
This issue has been part of Britain’s blind spot to our colonial past, and we have been too slow as a country to recognise and honour fully the regiments and troops drawn from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Today is a reminder of the great contribution and sacrifice that so many from these countries have made to forging modern, multicultural Britain.
What matters now is what happens next. The follow-up to the report’s recommendations cannot be part of business-as-before for the commission. What role will the Secretary of State play as chair of the commission? Is he satisfied that the commission has sufficient resources to do this additional work and, if not, will he make more available? What role will Britain’s embassy staff, including our defence attachés, play in communicating this public apology, researching new names and telling the wider story of the sacrifice that communities in these countries made during world war one? When can we expect the completion of the investigation into the way the commission commemorated the dead from these countries during the second world war, and what commitment will he make today to report to Parliament on the commission’s progress on those goals?
Additionally, we welcome the Secretary of State’s pre-announcement of the consultation on a scheme to end the injustice of Commonwealth and Nepalese soldiers paying twice for their British citizenship. It is something we and the British Legion have campaigned for, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is not on the call list today, has led and championed that cause. Can the Secretary of State say exactly when the consultation will be launched?
In conclusion, no apology can atone for the injustice, the indignity and the suffering set out in this report. The Secretary of State spoke today as a soldier. It was a soldier, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough West, who, speaking about the commission in this Chamber more than 100 years ago, said:
“We served in a common cause, we suffered equal hardships, we took equal risks, and we desired that if we fell we should be buried together under one general system and in one comradeship of death.”—[Official Report, 17 December 1919; Vol. 123, c. 500.]
Today, belatedly, we aim to commemorate in full the sacrifice of many thousands who died for our country in the first world war and who have not yet been fully honoured. We will remember them.
I thank the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) for both his tone and his support for the whole House’s efforts. Obviously, it was the almost single-handed drive of the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) that got this higher up the agenda, even though, as I think he rightly credits himself, some of the academics and the programme makers made a step change in that. I want to repeat my regret that it has taken so long. None of us were here in the 1920s, but many of us have been here for the last 30, 40 or 50 years.
It is a deep point of regret for me that, in my own education, what I was taught of the first world war predominately boiled down to the Somme and poets, with very little about the contribution from the Commonwealth countries and the wider—at the time—British empire. As I go around the world as Defence Secretary, it is remarkable to be reminded of those contributions. In some parts of the world, there are graves and places to commemorate them. I went to my own father’s base, where he fought during the Malayan emergency—now Malaysia—to see the Gurkha cemetery. Men died both to defeat communism and protect Malaysia, but also on behalf of Britain, right up until the early 1970s. I think it is important to remember that we have excluded a lot of that from our children’s education, and we absolutely must rectify that.
To address the points of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne, I am absolutely happy to provide regular updates either in written form in the Library or indeed, on occasion, to come to the House to make a statement of update on progress. As the report itself says, some of these recommendations can be quickly delivered, and some will take time. For example, the investigation into the second world war commemoration and everything else is ongoing. I will make sure that the commission knows not only that it has my support, but that we will hold it to account in delivering that. I will seek regular quarterly updates from the commission on the progress it makes, and in turn update the House.
On how we will communicate with and make sure we work with Commonwealth countries, this is not just about an audience here, but about all the people in those countries. Only recently, I was talking to my Kenyan counterpart—I visited Kenya again and, indeed, visited Somalia—and it is important both that the people there understand the sacrifice of their fellow citizens and that we honour them as well.
As we speak, our defence attaché network, ambassadors and other officials around the world are communicating the report to host countries. With some of them we engaged earlier—with countries such as Kenya, for example—and we have already been working on memorials and things we can do together. We have been making sure that they understand the contents of this report, and we will continue to use that network.
As for funding and future steps, I am absolutely open to all suggestions about what more we can do for education and for commemoration. At the moment, the commission says that it is satisfied that it has the budget, but I do not rule out looking at more funding for it if that is required. Its current income is £52 million, with a range of Commonwealth countries contributing to the funding, but I am not ruling that out, and I would be open to sensible suggestions that make the difference.
As I said, I will continue to update the House and make sure that we can hold the commission to account and that the House can hold me to account in my position as chair of that commission. We should take this as the start point, not the end.
On 15 June 1955, a small force commanded by RAF Regiment officers, including my father, crawled into the Wadi Hatib in Aden protectorate. They were ambushed. The commanding officer was killed. Another British officer was killed, and six Arab soldiers were killed. My father took over command. The six Arab soldiers are unknown, except the Arab officer; he got a posthumous Military Cross, as did the commanding officer and my father. There is no record of the other five Arab soldiers who gave their lives for this country. So I entirely endorse the recommendations and conclusions of the CWGC report. Mindful of the fact that we do not pay any attention to graves from the Boer war or wars before 1900—they are just left to go to rack and ruin—how long will we be able to sustain the brilliant efforts of the commission to maintain graves from the second world war onwards?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He and I share the same thing: some of the sadness and anger that I feel from this report is driven out of being a soldier. He and I know what it is like to be on operations, and it is a great leveller—that is one of the strengths of military service. People you thought were not brave turn out to be brave, and people you thought were brave turn out not to be so. You realise that there are different skills that help you get through things, and it is never linked to your class or your colour; it is linked to all the other qualities that people have. First and foremost, it surprises you. It angers me that brothers in arms in those days—predominantly the brethren—were forgotten, for whatever reason, and that must not happen again.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as it is today, does an amazing job. Any Members who have attended the numerous graveyards or sites around the world will have seen the effort that has gone into them, sometimes in quite hostile countries. I do not think that there is any ambition to draw that down. In fact, in today’s world, we are more and more of the view that commemoration is very important for learning, to avoid problems in the future, so I think it will go on. We will continue to fund it and support it, and I know that Members across the House who sit on its governing body will continue to do a first-class job.
With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I congratulate the former MP for West Dunbartonshire, John McFall, a son of the Rock of Dumbarton, on his elevation to Speaker of the other place? While he knows that I am opposed to an unelected Chamber, he is a dedicated public servant, and I count him as a very good friend.
I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for all the work that they have done and the Secretary of State for his words, which I am sure will start the process of healing for the descendants of those who gave so much for a state that did not seem to value that sacrifice at the time. As the grand-nephew of James Timlin of County Mayo, whose name is found on the war memorial of Tyne Cot, having fallen on 29 December 1918, let me acknowledge the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
That said, there is something of a grim irony in this report coming so close to one on racism, which we heard about just the other week. It makes me wonder about what the Secretary of State just said. I do not believe for a moment that he does not believe that there has been a great wrong committed here. I just wonder whether he can somehow address the distinct cognitive dissonance that all Opposition Members feel when they hear it said.
There is another truth that is revealed in a report such as this one. Although we have become used to the Windrush post-war framing of immigration and diversity on these islands, is it not the case that people of many cultures have fought for, if not enjoyed the benefit of, our freedoms for an awful lot longer than that? We must think of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and animists, and those of no religion, who have not been commemorated because they did not fit the white ideal of what is supposed to fit into uniform. It is important that those of all faiths and none are assured that they are valued not only in our armed forces but in the police, the NHS or wherever they serve. The Secretary of State can be assured of the support of all Members of my party should he wish to do that.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments, including those about the elevation of the former Member for Dumbarton. Those of us who knew him in this House will be pleased for him.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I refer him to the points that I made earlier. What conforms to uniform and what makes a good soldier are all the qualities that I talked about earlier. It is not about colour, religion or the many other things that have been used to discriminate in the past. I hope this report is a catalyst that reminds people that many people gave their lives for this country and, supposedly, for the values that should have been agnostic to who they were and where they came from. If we are going to honour them through this report, we must do so by putting it right and making sure it does not happen again.
In the present, as Defence Secretary, I have to do much more to make sure we recruit more people from backgrounds other than the white background that we talk about—from all parts of our culture and society. That actually adds to the capability of our armed forces; it does not detract. We are sorely missing the right numbers of people to continue to make our armed forces the best in the world.