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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 22 July 2021

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

National Food Strategy: Small-scale Family Farms

What steps he is taking to help ensure the National Food Strategy provides a sustainable future for small-scale family farms. (903130)

The Government thank Henry Dimbleby and his team for their work on the independent review of the food system. We are committed to carefully considering the review and its recommendations, and responding in full with a White Paper in the next six months. That will set out our ambition and priorities for the food system to support farms of all sizes and our exceptional food and drink producers.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the heart will be ripped out of the British countryside if small-scale family farms in Kettering and elsewhere go under as a result of industrial agriculture and the relentless pursuit of cheap food? What will he do to ensure that family farms remain an important and permanent feature of rural life?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance of small family farms in our agriculture system. A lot of the economic analysis done by the Government and companies such as AB Agri shows that some of those smaller family farms are technically the most proficient and often the most profitable, as they have attention to detail. The Government are going to be bringing forward more proposals to support new entrants to our farming industry so that we have a vibrant, profitable sector, with farms of all sizes.

The National Food Strategy has recommended that the Government must define the minimum standards we will accept in future free trade deals and a “mechanism for protecting them”. The report says that without that there is “serious peril” that tariff-free deals could not only “compromise” our own attempts to drive up these standards, but allow cheap imports, which would “undercut” our farmers. Given that the Trade and Agriculture Commission already made exactly that recommendation in its March report, almost five months ago, can the Secretary of State tell me when these core standards will be set out and whether that mechanism for defending them will be in place before the Australia deal is signed?

The Government are working on a sanitary and phytosanitary policy statement that will set out the UK’s farm-to-fork approach on these matters, the science of good farm husbandry and how that improves food safety standards. We also have some key things in our legislation, such as bans on the use of hormones in beef and of chlorinated washes. Those are in our legislation and will not change.

Livestock Worrying

New measures to crack down on livestock worrying are being introduced as part of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. They will expand species and locations covered, and will enhance enforcement. Improved powers for the police will make it easier for them to collect evidence and, in the most serious cases, to seize and detain dogs.

Farmers in Aberconwy have been speaking to me about the threat that dogs out of control pose to livestock. Dan Jones, who farms the Great Orme above Llandudno, told me just yesterday about how five ewes were killed in two attacks in just one day. This week, I was pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) in her Bill to amend the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, because this is a UK-wide problem. Will the Minister meet her, me and other north Wales colleagues to discuss how we can strengthen legislation further to deal with this menace?

I would be delighted to meet colleagues to discuss this important subject. New measures in the Bill specify that a dog will be considered to be at large unless it is on a lead of less than 1.8 metres or the dog remains in sight of the owner, who is aware of the dog’s actions and is confident that the dog will return if called .It is important that we continue to work on these details to get this absolutely right.

Abundance of Wildlife Species: Legislative Proposals

If he will bring forward legislative proposals to set a target for the abundance of wildlife species by 2030. (903132)

We have amended the Environment Bill to require a new, historic and legally binding target for species abundance for 2030 to be set, aiming to halt the decline in nature. The details of that target will be set out secondary legislation and the target will be subject to the same requirements as the other long-term legally binding targets set under the Bill.

The UK is among the most nature-depleted countries; half our wildlife has decreased since 1970 and one in seven species is now at risk of extinction. Given a decade of huge cuts, all the rhetoric and the modest uplift in Natural England funding cannot hide the fact that the Government have consistently missed United Nations biodiversity targets. Minister, in order to show leadership and set an example to the rest of the world, should a natural target not be set now, rather than wait, so that we can stop and reverse the decline of nature by 2030?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that the Government are taking this issue really seriously. We are the first Government to set a target such as this, aiming to halt the decline of nature, and indeed recover it by 2030. We are working on the detail of that target. It will be set, along with all the other targets, through the Environment Bill, which will enable us to work together to raise up nature everywhere, and we will be announcing those targets in October 2022.

I have become accustomed to the flurry of press releases from the Department and the long list of initiatives that the Minister has a habit of reciting when questioned about biodiversity and species abundance. Does she agree with the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), when he says:

“Although there are countless Government policies and targets to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’, too often they are grandiose statements lacking teeth and devoid of effective delivery mechanisms”?

So, where is the plan?

I hope the hon. Lady will agree that the plethora of press releases demonstrate just how much work is going on in this Department. We are bringing through groundbreaking legislation that will put in all the measures that we need to tackle these really serious issues. So we have the targets in the Environment Bill and we have a whole range of grants and funds, such as the woodland creation grant and the Nature for Climate peatland restoration grant scheme. They are open now, and people can start applying for them, and we really are moving on this.

Tree Planting

The England trees action plan, supported by £500 million from the Nature for Climate fund, announced a series of funds to support the creation of woodland over this Parliament. That includes over £25 million for our woodland creation partnerships this year, £6 million for the urban tree challenge fund for the next two years, a £2.7 million local authority treescapes fund for 2021-22, and £15.9 million for the woodland creation offer this year.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend for her answer, and for the work that she is doing. Clearly, in urban and suburban settings, new trees are a lifeline to encourage the green lungs of the cities and towns around our country. What more can she offer to encourage local authorities to implement new street trees, which are appropriate to the setting, not only on streets, but also in parks and open spaces?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point. It is not just about planting trees in rural areas; our urban areas are so important, because that is where people engage with the trees. So I am sure he will be pleased to hear about the urban tree challenge fund, which is providing £6 million over the next two years to support trees in exactly the places he says—our towns and cities. We have also opened the £2.7 million local authority treescapes fund, to encourage more tree planting in non-woodland settings, but particularly along roads and footpaths, just as he is suggesting. I hope that he will be encouraging his local authority to apply for some of those grants.

Coastal State Fisheries Negotiations: Quota Share

What steps he is taking to maximise the share of quota for British fishermen in the next round of Coastal State fisheries negotiations. (903134)

It is very good to see my hon. Friend back in the Chamber after his illness. For 2021, the Government have secured fishing opportunities of around 628,000 tonnes of quota across all the annual negotiations—approximately 55,000 tonnes more than last year. The Government are now preparing for the next round of annual fisheries negotiations. We have held a series of briefings with stakeholders this month on the latest scientific recommendations, and we will be developing our negotiating mandate in the months ahead.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The decision not to come to an agreement with Norway was met with mixed reactions across the different sectors within the industry. While the pelagic sector is undoubtedly doing well out of our new status, there have been challenges for the demersal sector. So can my right hon. Friend give a commitment that the Government are determined to deliver honesty of opportunity for all sectors in the industry—demersal as well as pelagic?

My hon. Friend is right. The pelagic sector in particular has benefited from the UK becoming an independent coastal state with more quota and less competition from Norway and the Faroe Islands, which have not had access to our waters this year. For 2021, the fleet received an increase of around 5,800 tonnes of mackerel compared with the year before. My hon. Friend is also right: we want to deliver for all sectors, which is why, in England, we have given a significant uplift to the inshore under-10 metre fleet with additional quota this year. It is also why, as I speak, we are in the final stages of negotiations on annual exchanges with the EU that will help the white fish sector.

The fishing industry knows that the Government have failed to negotiate real-terms quota data with the European Union, and it also knows that the Government have no idea—no idea—how much non-quota species are being caught by EU boats in our waters. With the shellfish ban on exports and British fishers being harassed for catch data that we do not require from EU boats, where in the Tory manifesto did it say that we would actually give away control of our waters, and where is the plan for fishing? Where is the plan?

I will take no lectures on these matters from the hon. Gentleman who wanted us to remain in the European Union and wanted to allow EU vessels to have the ability to fish in our waters without even requiring a licence to do so.

The Government have required all foreign vessels, including EU vessels, to have a licence to fish in our waters, and that sets certain conditions. We have access to vessel monitoring data so that we can track the precise location of all those vessels, and we are also working on methodologies now so that they must declare their catch when they leave our waters and when they enter our waters, and that will give us the data that he suggests that we need.

Compulsory Microchipping of Cats

The Government have a manifesto commitment to introduce compulsory microchipping of cats, and that was recently restated in the action plan for animal welfare. We carried out a public consultation, which ended in February, and DEFRA officials are currently analysing the 33,000 responses. We will publish the details of our proposals later this year.

So despite widespread public support, as the Minister confirmed, we are yet to have a timetable for the compulsory microchipping of pet cats. We know that 2.6 million unchipped pet cats in the UK have less chance of being reunited with their owners if they are lost or stolen, despite how heartbreaking the loss of much loved pets can be and the recognised need to improve animal welfare. Will the Government ensure that the consultation on cat and dog microchipping reports as soon as possible and announce their timetable for introducing regulations to make microchipping compulsory for pet cats?

I share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for microchipping cats. A total of 74% are already microchipped, including my own I am pleased to say. We will be working hard, as soon as we have responded to the consultation, to legislate as soon as possible. Only secondary legislation is needed to bring about changes if those are considered necessary, so I do not anticipate any great delay, and I reassure the hon. Lady that we are working on this at pace.

Seafood Response Fund

The seafood response fund gave funding to shellfish, aquaculture and catching businesses across the UK when they had been affected by covid or by trade disruption. The size of each payment was based on the average fixed costs for each business. For catching businesses, this was based on vessel size, and for aquaculture businesses, this was based on the number of people they employed.

Now that the Minister has had time to read the deal that the UK Government have signed, she will see that it is a bad deal and that there has been a lot of trade disruption. In January and February, Scottish companies were losing roughly £1 million per day. By the end of February, the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation stated that its members had lost £11 million. What does the Minister estimate is the total cost of covid and Brexit on the Scottish seafood industry? How much compensation has been paid to Scottish companies? How much compensation is still to be paid, and what has she done to resolve the issue of exports to the EU?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the extensive work that has been carried out by the Scottish seafood taskforce, chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), which has provided practical and sensible measures to assist with exports to the EU. On the specific fund, we were very careful to make it clear that Scottish businesses should not lose out, so the fund was available for all eligible UK businesses, and Scottish businesses were able to apply for a top-up if that was appropriate, so we were very careful to ensure that Scottish businesses were treated equitably.

River Health

Measures in the Environment Bill will help to address the problem of untreated sewage entering the rivers. On 9 July, Southern Water was fined £90 million—the largest sum yet for a water company—for persistent illegal discharge of raw sewage. Ministers have been clear with water industry chief executive officers on their companies’ legal duties. We are also tackling river pollution from poor farming practices. In addition to regulation and financial incentives, catchment-sensitive farming helps thousands of farmers to make water improvements.

Leighton sewage works pumped raw sewage into the River Ouzel for 149 hours in 2019, and in March this year waste water was pumped into the river for several weeks at Mardle Road. Volunteers Ruth Mundy and Liz Hooper report the absence of ducks, egrets and kingfishers, which were common in the past. Will the new director of water quality at the Environment Agency be able to achieve a rapid and sustained improvement?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this issue. It is clearly unacceptable. I hope he will agree that we now have many measures in place; he has been involved in pressing for them. The storm overflows taskforce has been set up to deal with the sewage overflows, which, in our view, are used far too frequently. Much more monitoring is in place through the water companies. They have to publish a plan on this issue and the Government have to report back. We are really cracking down on the whole issue of water quality, which my hon. Friend is right to raise.

Support for Farmers

The agricultural transition plan sets out how support for farmers is changing. Instead of paying farmers subsidies based on the amount of land they own, we are introducing new schemes to incentivise good ecological practices. We will also offer grants to support new entrants to the sector, and to improve productivity and business planning.

The UK Government yesterday indicated that they were willing to break their own trade deal with the EU because of consequences that they told us would not happen. The EU may then very well implement tariffs on UK exports to the EU, as it has a right to do under the Tory-negotiated deal. That would be calamitous for our agricultural sector. The Minister will no doubt answer with reference to all the new deals that the International Trade Secretary is signing the UK up to, but just days ago the New Zealand Prime Minister warned that failing to keep to treaty commitments could threaten membership of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. Will the Minister commit to covering the extra costs to farmers that this whole sorry mess is causing, or are the consequences of this ideological Brexit crusade to be borne by everyone but the UK Government and their Ministers?

I do not think it is any secret to the House that I was no Brexiteer, but I must say that for farming and fishing I think we have really gained from Brexit. In England, we do not think the environment can wait. We want to start paying our farmers public money for public goods; that is how they will be supported in the future.

Scottish Seed Potato Industry

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for the Scottish seed potato industry. (903139)

The Scottish seed potato industry is renowned globally for its high health status and it is second to none. It exports to some 40 countries around the world and 80% of its exports are outside the EU—to markets such as Egypt and Morocco. As my hon. Friend knows, the EU has adopted a curious stance in respect of authorising Scottish seed potatoes. Although EU law provides a mechanism for equivalence to be recognised, the Commission has so far refused even to allow its Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed to assess our application. We are continuing to work with industry to unblock this issue.

To remove the risk to Scotland’s seed potato industry and respect the principle of reciprocal trade, will the UK Government agree to prohibit the importation of seed potatoes from the EU?

We introduced a temporary six-month marketing authorisation that allowed EU seed potatoes to be marketed in England and Wales earlier this year. That has now expired, as agreed with the industry and the devolved Administrations. If any applications are received for marketing equivalence, the UK will consider whether seed potatoes have been produced under conditions equivalent to requirements in GB regulations. Of course, the sensible thing to happen is for the EU to apply its own rules and laws, and to assess the application that we have lodged with it.

Food Security

The UK has a resilient food supply chain built on strong domestic production, open markets and an advanced logistics and retail sector. The impacts of the pandemic and labour shortages mean that it has been tested. We have been working with colleagues across Government to ensure that our food supply chain has the support that it needs. The Agriculture Act 2020 requires regular assessments of food security and the first of these will take place later this year.

Department for Work and Pensions data has revealed the shocking fact that, pre-covid, 42% of households on universal credit were food insecure. With the planned removal of the £20 uplift to universal credit, what impact assessment has the Secretary of State’s Department completed on the impact of removing the uplift regarding the food security of the 6 million people on universal credit?

We regularly monitor household spending on food. It is important to note that last year household spending on food among the poorest 20% of households was the lowest on record, at about 14%. That said, we absolutely recognise that there are individual households that struggle to afford food. That is why the Government have brought forward a number of initiatives over the past 12 months to support them through groups such as FareShare, as well as the holiday activities and food scheme.

There are crops rotting in the fields due to a shortage of people to pick them, there is a self-inflicted shortage of HGV drivers due to the Government’s poor Brexit deal, and there are now empty shelves across Britain because thousands of retail workers are doing the right thing and self-isolating. Why has the Secretary of State for food not got a grip on the lack of food security in the country, and where is the plan?

When it comes to labour, the hon. Gentleman will know that we have introduced the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which has been crucial this year in providing farms with the seasonal labour that they need, and we have allowed 30,000 seasonal workers to come in under that scheme. We are also continuing to work with businesses on the issue of staff having to isolate. The Government will shortly be saying more about their approach on this to ensure that key critical infrastructure can continue.

Recycling Rates

We are introducing reforms to the waste sector that will help us to increase the amount of material we recycle. These reforms include introducing consistency in household and business waste collection in England, extended producer responsibility for packaging, and a deposit return scheme for drinks containers. Together, these measures will help us to meet our commitment to recycle 70% of packaging by 2030 and 65% of municipal waste by 2035.

Not only are we in Wales the third best at recycling in the world, but in Newport, under the leadership of Newport Council and Wastesavers, we are the top recycling city in Wales, and the reuse centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) is one of three nominated for civic amenity centre of the year, with rates of 90%. Does the Minister agree that the Government can learn much from Wales and Newport?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I am not going to be sniffy about this: if we can learn lessons from anyone, I am never too proud. Equally, the challenges are different in every place. We have set our targets to increase our recycling rates here in the UK, but actually Wales, and Northern Ireland, will be joining us in the deposit return scheme. We very much welcome all the negotiations and consultations that we are having to ensure that that will work across the borders.

Leaks from Water Mains

What discussions he has had with Ofwat and representatives of utility companies on reducing leaks from water mains. (903142)

Reducing leakage is an essential part of our ambition to improve water efficiency. Ofwat has set companies a performance commitment to reduce leakage by 16% by 2025. The water companies have further committed to deliver a 50% reduction by 2050, which could save up to 1,400 megalitres of water per day. I will require water companies to develop their water resource management plans on this basis.

The problem we have in Bromley is that 95% of the mains are cast iron, according to Thames Water, and are therefore much, much more liable to breaking, rather than the average in London of 50% to 60%. It means we have repeated leaks, often in the same place, patched up time and time again. We had 133 in one postcode area in four months, in one instance. This is actually causing real issues for my constituents. Can we have a specific programme to replace outdated Victorian infrastructure and bring it up to purpose for the 21st century?

I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I do realise the challenges that people are facing in his constituency. Repairing and replacing leaking pipes is, as he points out, absolutely critical; obviously, it is particularly critical to maintaining clean, safe, reliable drinking water to our homes and businesses. Identifying those leaks is challenging, and water companies are looking at innovative ways to improve outcomes. It is really for the companies to decide how to maintain their infrastructure, but we are pushing them with the targets that have been set. To minimise the disruption caused, they are required to provide notice of planned work to customers and local authorities.

Topical Questions

Over the past 18 months, key workers in our food supply chain have worked incredibly hard to keep the nation fed during the difficult context of the pandemic. The recent hot weather has increased demand for some items, such as bottled waters, and staff absences have increased, but remain lower than seen earlier in the pandemic. We are working with colleagues across Government to support businesses in the food supply chain, and I take this opportunity to thank all those key workers working on farms, in food factories, in the distribution system and in our food retail sector for their extraordinary efforts.

In the past two years, we have seen tragic floods in Yorkshire, Cumbria and south Wales. We have seen the floods in Europe and now in China. The Government have cut spending on flood defences by 10%. Why?

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in that the capital spending on floods is increasing to £5.2 billion. That is almost a doubling of the previous programme. We have held meetings around the Yorkshire area, and Yorkshire will be one of the key beneficiaries from that investment we are making.

In many villages, such as Winchelsea Beach in my beautiful constituency, sewage or foul water drainage is not separate from rain water and storm water drainage. There is a combined system, which means that at times of high rainfall, many residents suffer sewage flooding in their gardens. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of environmental and health concerns, it is imperative that sewage is kept in a separate pipe from rainwater? If so, what steps will he take to ensure that these changes happen? (903092)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Some of the challenges we have are typically with houses built in the Victorian era where, as she says, the street drainage system goes into the foul water sewage system. That can lead to it being overwhelmed at times. Most developments that have taken place since the 1960s do have surface water drainage separated from foul water sewage systems. We have set up a taskforce to look at how we can address this problem and, in particular, reduce the use of combined sewage overflows.

I had a good trip up to Newcastle-under-Lyme recently to meet residents and the pressure group Stop the Stink and to see and smell for myself the horrific emissions from Walleys Quarry, the local landfill site that has the dubious honour of being the smelliest tip in England. What engagement has the Secretary of State had with the owner of the site, Red Industries, to restore residents’ physical health and mental wellbeing and stop the stink? Where is the plan?

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) has been raising this issue with me, the Prime Minister and others consistently. There is a challenge. I have met him twice to discuss it. I have also met the local team in the Environment Agency dealing with this, and I have discussed it with the chief exec of the Environment Agency. One of the problems is that it is thought that some plasterboard was illegally dumped at the site. That is what is causing the current problem with hydrogen sulphide. The Environment Agency is working on a plan to flare those gases off, and we are doing all that we can to support them in that endeavour.

I am pleased to be hosting another “Green-tember” in East Surrey this year—a whole month of pushing for environmental progress and looking at the small actions we can all take as residents to protect nature. As this helpfully coincides with COP26, would Ministers consider my request to speak at the East Surrey COP summit this year? (903094)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is a really big year for the environment internationally—not only with COP26 being hosted in Glasgow, but with the convention on biological diversity COP15, where we are going to be setting some crucial biodiversity targets. I am sure that either I or one of our ministerial team would be more than happy to speak to her event, and we are speaking to many other such events around the country.

When I visit schools in Luton North, including Lealands, where I went recently, I find that one of the top concerns for young people is plastic waste. The Government say they will eliminate plastic waste by 2042. By that time, the kids I met at Lealands will be adults, they would have jobs and many would have become parents. Will the Secretary of State work with Opposition Members to improve recycling rates, and actually deal with the plastics crisis affecting landfill across the country and the oceans across our planet before those children become adults? (903091)

I am regularly contacted by students in schools around the country on this great challenge. We have made some very important steps forward with the ban on some single-use plastics, and we intend to go further with such bans, and the levy on single-use carrier bags. We have, in our flagship Environment Bill, the proposal for extended producer responsibility, which will make the people who manufacture goods and use the packaging responsible for its recycling at the end of its life. That will be a significant change that will help reduce the use of plastics.

The annual scientific advice on fish stocks provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is a crucial element in determining sustainable fisheries in European waters, but there are concerns that without an independent peer review process the Government may take that wholesale without considering other elements such as social or economic concerns. What steps are the Government are taking to ensure there is a whole industry process that takes all these factors into account when determining total allowable catch and quota for the year ahead? (903095)

The UK Government work very closely with ICES. Indeed, our chief fisheries scientist at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science is the deputy president of ICES. ICES regularly receives submissions from CEFAS, and where we believe its methodology is incorrect, wrong or missing certain things, it is often our scientists in CEFAS who help to update that information. Of course, when we set quotas annually and set our position on that, we take into account a range of factors—principally the ICES advice, but other factors as well.

Almost 60% of people in England are living in areas where levels of toxic air pollution exceeded legal limits last year. Putney High Street and other local main streets are some of the most polluted streets in the UK, so my constituents know the dangers of air pollution only too well. Why has the Secretary of State rejected every attempt to include World Health Organisation air quality targets in the Environment Bill, and will he commit to doing this when the Bill returns to the House later this year? (903093)

We are doing a very detailed piece of work on all the targets we intend to set under the Environment Bill, including on air quality, but also on water, biodiversity, and waste and resource management. We are looking very closely at two particular approaches to air quality. One is a concentration target for PM2.5— and I know there have been representations from people that it should be 10 micrograms—and the other is population exposure.

[R] As I understand it, the DIVA test is being piloted at the moment. When can we expect it on farm, and if we must wait for approval, why has the Secretary of State cancelled culling licences before approval has been given? (903096)

We have not cancelled culling licences, but it is the case that the intensive four-year culls in many parts of the country have run their course and have therefore ended. To answer my hon. Friend’s question, we are running field trials at the moment on that DIVA test, and we plan to have that vaccine in 2025.

Shortages of workers in warehouses and food- processing centres across the UK are having a real impact on packaging food for supermarket shelves, with Tesco bosses warning that every week 48 tonnes of food is wasted. This is exacerbated by an estimated 100,000 shortage of HGV drivers. What interventions will the Secretary of State make to address this shocking state of affairs? (903107)

The Department for Transport has already announced some plans to increase the speed of driver testing and to deal with some of those logistics issues. Secondly, we are working across Government to ensure that where isolation is needed we protect particularly important strategic infrastructure.

I am sure the Secretary of State was shocked to see the huge volumes of litter left around Wembley and London’s west end after the Euro final. He referred earlier to extended producer responsibility for packaging. That seeks to put the blame for litter on manufacturers, making them responsible for the cost of the clean-up. Does he agree that this was all caused by illegal actions of the public, and while it is important to consider business responsibility, should the Government not also look to ensure that their citizens behave responsibly? (903098)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We all have a role to play in this; people should take responsibility for their litter. We have taken some steps, such as fixed penalty notices so we can issue on-the-spot fines to people who do litter, but we need a culture change in this area.

Public Accounts Commission

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

NAO Report on Local Government and Net Zero: Government Response

What the planned timescale is for a response by the Government to the National Audit Office’s report on local government and net zero in England, published in July 2021. (903180)

The National Audit Office produced an important report recently considering how effectively central Government and local authorities in England are collaborating on net zero. The report emphasised the need for clear roles and responsibilities and for ensuring that local authorities have the right resources and skills to tackle net zero. The question of when the Government will respond is a matter for Government, but I can tell my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, told me this morning that his Committee will be taking evidence on this National Audit Office report on Wednesday 8 September.

The National Audit Office report concludes that there are serious weaknesses in the Government’s approach to working with over 350 local councils in England on decarbonisation owing to a lack of clarity on the council’s overall roles, piecemeal funding and defuse accountabilities. Will my hon. Friend encourage the Public Accounts Committee to also scrutinise the Government’s response to this important report when it is eventually published?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Public Accounts Committee approves the NAO’s strategy and budgets and does not involve itself in individual reports, but he will also know that the National Audit Office report recommends that central Government carry out an analysis of the net zero funding available to local authorities, and it has highlighted that, despite the budget available going from £74 million in 2019-20 to £1.2 billion in 2020-21, the approach remains fragmented, so I hear what my hon. Friend says.

Church Commissioners

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

Social Prescribing

May I first apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and all Members participating for not being present in person as I am required to self-isolate at home?

I am very pleased the hon. Lady has asked this question because, like her, I am a big supporter of social prescribing, and I am delighted to be able to tell her that the Church of England is a member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs green social prescribing advisory board and that we work closely with the members of the National Academy for Social Prescribing.

While hospital chaplains play a crucial role in providing support within our NHS, our community chaplains and clergy are highly trained professionals and could play a far more integral role in the provision of community health, not least as primary care is completely overwhelmed currently. What further discussions have taken place between the Church Commissioners and the Department of Health and Social Care and also clergy and their local primary care networks on how they can support the social prescribing agenda in their communities?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for praising the valuable work that clergy do in this area. Examples of Church social prescribing include our therapeutic gardening projects, often in urban areas, and the new cycle routes to all our 42 cathedrals. Nearer to her, the Joyful Connections café at St Luke’s church in York is linked to a GP social prescribing scheme and has run dementia-friendly church services. Indeed, a 2018 American Journal of Epidemiology study showed the positive impact on wellbeing and mental health of faith in Jesus and being a Church member.

Public Worship and Singing in Church

What guidance the Church of England is providing on (a) singing in church and (b) public worship following the move to step 4 of the covid-19 road map on 19 July 2021. (903183)

The Church has published fresh guidance to help clergy and parochial church councils in their decision making, recognising that the circumstances in each parish may differ for space, age and demographic reasons.

It has been nearly a year since people in churches could lift their voices in song, and this Sunday there will be joy. But for some church leaders, some concern seems to remain, despite the very well established and known physical and mental benefits associated with singing. Does my hon. Friend agree that those benefits should be very much in the hearts and minds of decision makers as they look at how to progress this summer?

Just like my hon. Friend, I am very much looking forward to being able to sing in church again—and if it stopped raining or being a heatwave, we could even worship outside. Clergy will want to do what is right in their own churches and cathedrals, recognising that we are many members within one body and are called to be responsible to and for one another.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Elections Bill: Electoral Commission’s Discharge of Functions

What assessment the Committee has made of the potential effect of the proposal in the Elections Bill to introduce a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission on the ability of the commission to discharge its functions. (903184)

Any changes to the commission’s accountability are a matter for the UK Parliament through statute and not the Speaker’s Committee. The Elections Bill was introduced to the House earlier this month. Members will have the opportunity to debate the proposals relating to the Electoral Commission during the passage of the Bill. The commission will provide briefings for parliamentarians to support their considerations of the Bill’s content and impact, covering the full scope of the measures proposed.

I thank the hon. Member for that response, but under the Government’s proposals in the Elections Bill, the Electoral Commission’s powers to ensure that criminal offences under electoral law are prosecuted will be drastically curtailed. Given the numerous instances over recent years of sharp practice and outright criminality, and the corrupting influence of dark money in our democratic processes, will the Electoral Commission be able to fulfil its basic remit and properly regulate donations and spending if the Bill is passed?

The Electoral Commission tells me that effective enforcement when the rules are broken gives voters and campaigners confidence in the system. Where any political party or campaigner deliberately or recklessly breaks electoral law, voters have the right to expect that they will face prosecution. The Government do not consider prosecution to be an area of work that the commission should undertake. If the Elections Bill is passed, the commission will work with the Government and other prosecuting authorities to ensure that there is no regulatory gap across the full range of offences. The commission will retain a range of other powers and access to civil sanctions to continue its important work in regulating political finance.

Church Commissioners

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

Persecution for Religion or Belief

What assessment the Church of England has made of trends in the level of persecution of people for their religion or belief in 2021. (903185)

What assessment the Church of England has made of trends in the level of persecution of people for their religion or belief in 2021. (903188)

What assessment the Church of England has made of trends in the level of persecution of people for their religion or belief in 2021. (903189)

I am enormously grateful to all three of my right hon. and hon. Friends for continuing to bring the House’s attention to the ongoing, horrific levels of persecution of people for their religion or belief.

How concerned is my hon. Friend about the rise of persecution of Christians in India, and is there anything to be done?

My right hon. Friend is right about the reports that keep coming out of India. The Church is pressing the Government to see India as a country of particular concern where targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for severe violations of religious freedom may be needed. Overseas development assistance should be used to advance the human rights of people of all faiths in India.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the terrible conflict currently raging in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. There have been disturbing reports of violence against Christians and shocking allegations that priests and nuns have been attacked and killed. What is the Church doing to help ensure that Christians are protected in Tigray and that Ethiopia’s religious diversity is safeguarded?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the situation in Tigray is truly desperate. Both churches and mosques are being attacked and looted and, in some cases, their worshippers killed. Our bishops have raised their concerns forcefully with the Ethiopian ambassador and have asked our Ministers to relay their concerns to the newly elected Ethiopian Government.

In Nigeria, violence against Christians is ongoing. Since December, there have been 10 mass kidnappings and repeated attacks on churches and religious leaders. The week before last, 30 people were killed and 200 homes and four churches were destroyed. What is the Church doing to bring that to global leaders’ attention so that this appalling suffering can be brought to an end?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. We sometimes need to pause for a moment to take in the enormity of what is happening. The Church of England continues to press the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to provide the financial and technical assistance necessary to address these horrendous violations of religious freedom. The Church is also working to enable parliamentarians in Nigeria and elsewhere to hold to account those who perpetuate such horrific violence. These victims will not be forgotten by us.

Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

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

Restoration and Renewal

What recent estimate that body has made of the total cost of the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. (903190)

The Sponsor Body, supported by the Delivery Authority, is currently developing the detailed plan that will for the first time give an accurate sense of the costs and timescales and the full detail of the work needed for restoration and renewal. It will be put before both Houses for a decision before works commence. Securing best value for money is fundamental.

Given that the House has debated the subject numerous times, supported the Joint Committee’s 2016 proposal and passed the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, does my right hon. Friend agree that continually re-examining the scope and cost of the project increases the risk that we are not making our national Parliament fit for purpose and runs the risk of us having our own Notre-Dame moment with our beautiful and historic building?

My hon. Friend is right to mention the terrible fire at Notre-Dame, which serves as a reminder to us all of the risk to our great heritage assets. He is also right that putting off works tends to increase costs eventually, so I agree entirely about the time sensitivity of action and thank him for his timely reminder.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter ID: Electoral Fraud

What assessment the commission has made of the adequacy of the data on electoral fraud used in support of Government proposals to introduce voter ID. (903194)

The commission collects and annually publishes data from all UK police forces on allegations of electoral fraud. The data show that the UK has low levels of proven fraud. In 2019, police forces across the UK recorded 34 cases of alleged personation in polling stations, which resulted in one conviction and one police caution. Cases of electoral fraud that are not reported to the police will not be captured in that data. The commission has no reliable method to estimate how much electoral fraud goes unreported.

If the data show low levels, it is curious that the commission should have concluded that some measure of voter identification was necessary. May I ask the hon. Member to convey to the commission the view that, in fact, a rather more robust and substantial data gathering exercise is required before the case can truly be said to be made for changes in voter identification?

I will indeed convey that. The commission has highlighted that polling station voting in Great Britain remains vulnerable to fraud since there are no checks in place to prevent somebody from claiming to be an elector and voting in their name. That distinguishes voting at polling stations from other parts of the electoral process where identity checks already exist, such as voter registration and postal voting. The commission’s public opinion research shows that this issue concerns voters, but I will pass on the right hon. Member’s view to the commission.

Voter ID: Electoral Participation

What recent assessment the Committee has made on the potential effect of proposed voter ID laws on electoral participation. (903195)

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 that were used in these pilots. There was no evidence that levels of turnout in the pilot scheme areas were significantly affected by the requirement for voters to show ID at polling stations. However, the commission was not able to draw a definitive conclusion from the pilots about the impact of a voter ID requirement, particularly for a national poll with high levels of turnout. The sociodemographic profiles of the pilot areas are also not fully representative of many areas of Great Britain. The commission has recommended that any ID requirements should be secure, accessible and realistically deliverable. The detail of the Government’s proposals for a free, locally issued voter ID card will be key to ensuring that those who do not have another form of photo ID can vote.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He knows that in the 2019 general election there were over 47 million people registered to vote and only six convictions for electoral fraud—a rate of less than 0.00001%. He knows that there are fears that mandatory voter ID could suppress turnout and discourage voting in some communities. I do not want that, he does not want that, and I do not believe any MP wants to exclude people from voting. With that in mind, will he tell the House what more the Electoral Commission is doing to try to increase participation and turnout in elections?

Increasing participation is one of the Electoral Commission’s core missions. It tells me that it undertakes significant public awareness activity ahead of major polls to ensure that voters can understand how to participate and have their say with confidence. This May, the period of its voter registration campaign, saw over 1 million applications to register across Great Britain, breaking its targets. If the voter ID requirement is passed into law, the commission will be responsible for new public awareness activity to ensure that voters can understand the new requirements. This would significantly focus on audiences least likely to have the required identification and so most likely to need access to the proposed free voter card.

Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

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

Restoration and Renewal: Opportunities for Harrogate and Knaresborough

What assessment that body has made of the procurement opportunities for businesses in Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency as part of the restoration and renewal programme. (903196)

Restoring Parliament will use UK materials wherever possible and create jobs and apprenticeships in the supply chain across the UK, from high-tech design to traditional stonemasonry. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the project has already engaged with a Harrogate business providing professional services on procuring works on a value-for-money and UK-wide basis.

I am grateful to hear that—I did not know about that Harrogate business. In addition to promoting opportunities for businesses in Harrogate and Knaresborough, I was trying to get at an underlying point: the wider the contracts and benefits of the restoration project are spread around our country, the broader the support will be for the large sum of money involved in it. I am sure we have all heard people say, “You lot down in Westminster—”, as if Parliament has nothing to do with them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this project has the capacity to either compound or militate against that?

I do agree. My hon. Friend is right: it will be a large sum of money, and it is essential not only that best value is secured for that money, but that the benefits of it are spread, and visibly so, across the country. The programme is currently working on its supply chain plans and is already recruiting. The shared apprenticeship scheme is an example of an innovative approach to make sure that smaller firms can also share in the benefits of the programme.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Repairs: VAT

What assessment the commissioners have made of the effect of the charging of VAT on church repairs on the affordability of undertaking those repairs. (903204)

The Church believes strongly that it does not make sense to put value added tax on the repair and restoration of listed buildings. While the Church is grateful that the Government have extended the listed places of worship grant scheme to refund this VAT for another year, we cannot continue with these short-term, sticking-plaster measures. We need to put the maintenance of our listed buildings on a sustainable basis.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. I am sure he will be aware that, in 2019, Historic England commissioned a report into the economic value of and repairs to a sample of 30 churches and discovered consequential costs of 26% to those projects. Obviously, if VAT is charged, it can be claimed back under the listed places of worship grant scheme, as he said. In two cases in my constituency—St Mary’s church, Warwick, and All Saints parish church in Leamington—that consequential cost could be up to £750,000 for both. Does he agree that we should just be scrapping VAT on these projects?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that when regular maintenance is not done, the final costs are much higher. We have had other one-off grants in the past, such as the roof repair fund, which we have been grateful for but which have not provided a long-term solution. Having left the European Union, the Government have gained new tax freedoms and could use them to permanently reduce or, even better, zero-rate value added tax on the repairs and restoration of listed buildings.

House of Commons Commission

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

House of Commons Staff: Covid-19 Secure Workplace

What steps the Commission is taking to ensure a covid-19 secure workplace for House of Commons staff following the lifting of restrictions on 19 July 2021. (903210)

The House of Commons Commission has ensured that the House service has implemented the “Working safely during coronavirus” guidance to ensure that we remain a covid-secure workplace. At every stage of the Government’s road map, or when updated guidance has been published, the parliamentary covid risk assessment has been reviewed and updated to ensure that the appropriate mitigations are put in place.

I echo your repeated thanks, Mr Speaker, to the members of staff of the House of Commons, who do so much to ensure the smooth and safe proceedings of the House.

Members of the House travel extensively to our constituencies and within our constituencies. Being gregarious is almost a job requirement—we meet lots of people—yet there is no requirement on us to wear a mask in this place. Will the hon. Member give further consideration to what requirements can be placed on Members of this House to better protect those who do so much to protect us?

I would like to thank the staff as well. We are all gregarious—not just Members of Parliament, but House staff. I hope that when they are not looking after us, they are out enjoying the restaurants, clubs and bars of London that are reopening. Of course, our protective embrace cannot cover them there. However, face coverings remain one of the many mitigations available to the House to manage the risk of covid. The Commission continues to support their use, in line with national guidance, but the Speaker has no power to prevent democratically elected Members from coming on to the estate or into the Chamber when the House is sitting. There is therefore no meaningful way to enforce a requirement on Members to wear a face covering in the Chamber, but they are strongly encouraged to do so.

Church Commissioners

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

Anti-Racism Taskforce Recommendations

What recent steps the Church of England has taken to progress implementation of the anti-racism taskforce recommendations. (903214)

The Church is hugely appreciative of the work of the archbishops’ anti-racism taskforce. It has already committed to implementing 34 of the taskforce’s 39 recommendations and is keeping the other five under review.

The Second Church Estates Commissioner appreciates, as I do, the importance of cultural change in the Church. Clergy from diverse backgrounds must be supported and given equal opportunities, from new ordinands settling in to those moving towards more senior roles. What powers will the new commission led by Lord Boateng have to hold the Church to account as it enters the implementation stage?

As the hon. Lady says, in the autumn a new racial justice commission will start work under the chairmanship of Lord Boateng and with Lord Wei as a member. I am delighted to say that we have the highest number of recommendations for stipendiary ordained ministry training in a generation: almost 600, of which 10.9% are from minority ethnic backgrounds—a 2% increase on the previous year. The Church is making gradual but steady progress to make sure that its clergy look like the nation it serves, and the racial justice commission will certainly hold the Church to account on future progress.

I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.