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Commons Chamber

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021

House of Commons

Thursday 9 December 2021

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Environment Act 2021: Implementation

May I begin by welcoming the new shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), to his place? I am sure that, like all of us, he will find that the rich and colourful diversity of the issues in the portfolio means that there is never a dull moment. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for his two years in the role.

Work on implementing the Environment Act is well under way. We have started developing legally binding environmental targets, consulted on measures to reform the way we deal with waste, published a draft principles policy statement and published a consultation on due diligence in supply chains. Finally, the Office for Environmental Protection has been legally established.

I thank the Secretary of State for those words. In my beautiful constituency of South West Hertfordshire, as he will be aware, we have some stunning chalk streams, including the rivers Chess, Bulbourne and Gade, so I am glad to see the additional protections that the Environment Act offers. I have monthly meetings with Thames Water and related organisations. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how he is working with private companies to implement measures on limiting storm overflows?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the important issue of improving water quality. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), shares his passion for improving chalk streams in particular. We have made it clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority. We have set out that expectation through the strategic policy statement for Ofwat; we have also taken action to place it on a legislative footing in the Environment Act.

As we look at improving the environment, have the Government looked at the possibility of subsidising the growth of hemp, which allows us to make environmentally friendly cloth and biodegradable plastics and is a very good break crop for farmers to incorporate?

I know that there are the benefits that he mentions from growing hemp. Licences for medical hemp is an issue that the Home Office leads on, but it is an interesting crop; more people are starting to look at it and grow it. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point.

I welcome the proposals in the Act for biodiversity net gain, with an obligation on developers to ensure that all new proposals feature at least a 10% improvement in biodiversity. In the guidance that the Secretary of State issues, will he ensure that that obligation applies to planning applications that are already in the pipeline, not just new applications?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Biodiversity net gain will be an important policy tool to support work in local nature recovery strategies and make space for nature in new developments. On his point about timing, I think the measure will take effect in 2023 and will apply at that point to applications going for determination when it is active.

Fly-tipping incidents increased by 16% to March this year. The number of enforcement actions has decreased in the same period because of a lack of staff and resources. How does the Secretary of State think that the implementation of the Environment Act will ever improve those figures and clean up our country?

As the hon. Lady will know, we have a significant number of staff—more than 10,000—in the Environment Agency. Waste crime and fly-tipping have been a priority for them, and a number of successful prosecutions have been brought.

Water Quality

Improving water quality is a priority for this Government. We are the first Government to work to tackle the historic issue of storm overflows, including by placing a duty on water companies through our landmark Environment Act 2021. That duty builds on the expectation for the water industry to achieve a significant reduction in harm from storm overflows, as laid out in our draft strategic policy statement for Ofwat.

I am grateful for that and very much welcome it. The Secretary of State will be aware that Morgan’s Hill in my constituency is the source place for southern England; a drop of rain that falls there could end up in the North sea, the English channel or the Atlantic ocean. The Government are reviewing the mandate for Ofwat. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Ofwat will be directed to ensure that the water companies have the funding that they need—that they can raise the funding that they need—to make the necessary investments in infrastructure: not just the grey concrete infrastructure, but the green nature recovery infrastructure that is needed to clean our rivers?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I can confirm that the new draft strategic policy statement that we have issued to Ofwat states that there is a clear priority around reducing storm overflows and delivering our environmental outcomes. Yes, in the next price review, such infrastructure will be at the top of its list of priorities.

Landfill Sites: Toxic Air

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact on (a) the environment and (b) public health of toxic air from landfill sites. (904669)

Ministers have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues. We work with the Environment Agency when necessary, and our chief scientific adviser engages with various experts to consider any adverse impacts arising from landfill sites.

My constituents have been plagued for many years by landfill sites that often produce really foul smells, and many of them are concerned about the health implications. Now that we are all much more aware of air quality issues, will the Government take further steps to review the advice issued by Public Health England on toxic smells from these sites?

Only last week I visited a landfill site in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I know that it has a considerable impact on local communities. I also know that the hon. Lady has campaigned vigorously in respect of the site in Blaydon. We are now at the point of capture and contain: the site is being capped and the gases are being captured to prevent them from having that harmful impact. The site was monitored between January and September 2020, and the fumes were not found to be above safe limits.

Farmers: Productivity

There is great potential for farmers to continue to increase productivity in an environmentally sustainable way. Last month we launched the farming investment fund, which will encourage that through, for instance, investment in new technology, new equipment and small infrastructure projects.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s answer, and also for the time that she took to visit farmers in my constituency last month. How will the investment fund support agri-tech innovation, which is surely a pathway to prosperity and profitability for Buckinghamshire farmers?

The fund is broad, and we are willing to look at all sorts of programmes within it. Some great solutions could include new livestock feeds that might reduce methane emissions, robotics in horticulture—I have seen some very good examples around the country—and bio-fertilisers, which we are particularly interested in developing at the moment.

Far from helping farmers to increase productivity, this Government are demonstrating their keen ability to get in the way of productivity. We have a crisis in pig exports to China and seed exports to Northern Ireland and the EU, there are export health certificates for Scottish goods going to the EU but none for the EU’s goods coming to Scotland, there are the tariffs on jute sacks, and there is also the gross shortage and obscurity of the availability of labour. Would the Minister like to apologise to farmers in Scotland and say how she intends to improve this dynamic?

I am indeed concerned about farmers in Scotland, but that is because they are not benefiting from the revolution in agricultural support that we are undertaking in this country, and I am afraid that the Scottish Government are holding them back.

Tree Planting

We are committed to increasing tree planting to 30,000 hectares per year across the United Kingdom by the end of this Parliament. We are spending £750 million through the nature for climate fund on trees, woodland and peat restoration in England.

The UK and Ireland’s “sourced and grown” standard preserves the biosecurity of our woodland, as it ensures that trees are sourced and grown solely within the UK and Ireland for their entire lifespan. Following the Government’s biosecurity consultation, can the Minister please reassure the House that the tree sourcing standard will allow these future projects to be eligible for Government funding?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that important question. The plant health management standard will be the future baseline biosecurity standard for Government grants and contracts. That comprehensive standard, with 23 robust biosecurity requirements, covers the domestic production and international supply of all plants. I know that this is important to my hon. Friend, because the Colne Valley Tree Society is doing outstanding work.

I strongly support the provision of new trees, not only in woodland and beyond but in urban and suburban settings. Will my hon. Friend join me in praising the Trees for Streets project, which is working across urban settings to encourage the provision of trees in streets where residents can get involved not only in planting trees but in nourishing them?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Harrow Council on being one of the first councils in the country to join the Trees for Streets project, which is funded by the green recovery challenge fund. It aims to support the planting of 250,000 street trees over the next 10 years, transforming our urban environment. The national planning policy framework supports that; it promotes street planting and makes clear the expectation that trees should be incorporated into new developments, making our environment better for us all.

The Woodland Trust Northern Ireland has encouraged all local councils to adopt a tree strategy in order to adopt ambitious tree planting targets. Will the Minister introduce a similar scheme here on the UK mainland to encourage the idea of localised tree planting in communities?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago, but I would be happy to talk to him further about what is happening in Northern Ireland to see whether there are lessons to be learned.

Given that forestry is devolved, is not that 30,000 hectare target a bit of a con trick? Scotland’s target is 18,000 hectares, so the actual UK target is closer to 10,000 hectares. Why does the UK Government not step up, learn from Scotland and put forward an ambitious tree planting target?

I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not laud the ambition to plant those 30,000 hectares. Having spoken to those in Scotland, I would encourage the Scottish Government to get on and grant people the permission to plant those trees.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister was before the Select Committee last week saying that 7,000 hectares of trees would be planted in England by 2024. When planting those trees, we want native trees that have been grown in this country so as not to import disease. It takes three years to grow a tree, so we need the nurseries to be told exactly what we need for 2024.

We are working hard to ensure that my hon. Friend has that clarity and that we have that understanding in the area of biosecurity. We want to ensure that everybody knows what the rules are so that we can get on with improving the environment and planting those trees.

Clean Air Bill

7. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of bringing forward a standalone clean air Bill. (904673)

We know that air pollution is the greatest environmental hazard to health, and we have taken significant action to clean up our air. Emissions of nitrogen oxides are now at their lowest levels since records began, but there is much more to do. The Environment Act 2021 sets a clear duty to set new targets for air quality, which is something that I am now working on.

People have a right to breathe good-quality clean air, regardless of where they live. Greater Manchester’s clean air zone is set to come into force in May next year, and it will go some way towards tackling the atrocious levels of air pollution in the region. However, the clean air zone will be effective only with sufficient funding, so will the Minister confirm the Government’s commitment to work closely with Greater Manchester to understand the impacts of the clean air zone and assess the need for further funding? To this end, will the Minister agree to a meeting?

As I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman prior to this, I would be happy to have that meeting. I agree that we need to get this right in Manchester and the broader Manchester area, and to understand that the clean air zone works for everyone. The Government have provided £132 million through our clean air fund to support the retrofitting of buses and coaches and the upgrading of heavy goods vehicles, private hire vehicles, hackney carriages, vans and minibuses, mitigating the impact on businesses and individuals. I would be happy to work with him, because I will be looking for assurances on how the money is spent and that it is being well spent on the people of Manchester to clean their air.

Dog Theft

The Government launched the pet theft taskforce earlier this year, and it published its recommendations in September, including the development of a new offence. I am pleased to say this is now included in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which has passed its Committee stage. I look forward to its Report stage in the new year.

I welcome the Government’s taking animal cruelty seriously by introducing a specific dog abduction offence to crack down on dog theft. Cat owners have recently been more likely to purchase high-value pedigree cats and, heartbreakingly, criminals are now exploiting these cats and their owners, with cat theft rising more than threefold in the last six years. What measures are the Government taking to protect cats and to ensure there is no place for animal cruelty in our society?

I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point. The offence, as currently drafted, includes the power to extend it to other species. We are also taking other measures to protect cats, including compulsory microchipping, which was announced last week.

Food and Drink Exporters

I am sure the whole House will join me in welcoming the news that the US market is reopening its doors to UK lamb after two decades of restrictions. We want people at home and abroad to line up to buy British. We are establishing an export council and expanding our network of agrifood attachés.

New Zealand currently exports £4.8 billion-worth of meat per annum, including £1.8 billion-worth to the Muslim world via a national scheme. Will the Minister agree to meet me and the Minister for Exports, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), to discuss setting up a similar UK-wide scheme that could potentially open up millions of pounds’ worth of exports for our farming industry?

I would, of course, be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, as I have in the past. He is a great trade envoy to Pakistan. We work very closely on this with Ministers in the Department for International Trade, and we see significant opportunities for British agriculture in markets across the world, including the US, Japan, India and the middle east. We will be well represented at the Gulfood exhibition in February.

Exporting agrifood is fairly straightforward if it is wholly produced in the UK. Where part of it is imported from the EU or elsewhere, there are complicated rules of origin. What is the Minister doing to improve the situation so that exporting becomes much easier?

There is no doubt that the rules of origin are complicated. We regularly meet our colleagues in the EU to discuss issues raised by our exporters, and we work collaboratively to resolve them where we can. We have also set up a new export support service to help businesses navigate the EU’s requirements. I would be delighted to meet any hon. Member who has a constituent with a specific problem.

Free trade agreements like the one with New Zealand are the biggest contributor to British farmers needing to improve productivity. What recent discussions has the Minister had with colleagues across Government on protecting farmers’ interests in future agreements? As I said, we work very closely with colleagues, particularly in the Department for International Trade, and I am confident they understand the issues raised by our farmers.

Basic Payment Scheme: Farmers’ Income

11. What steps he is taking to support farmers who will lose income as a result of progressive reductions to the Basic Payment Scheme. (904678)

Farm incomes have grown significantly since 2016, as farm-gate prices in sectors such as beef, sheep and arable have risen to record highs. This Government are also delivering their manifesto pledge to maintain the agriculture budget throughout this Parliament but to spend it more effectively. Farmers will have access to new funds next year to help them invest to reduce costs and to manage their soil sustainably through our new sustainable farming incentive.

We hear stories of landlords turfing out their tenant farmers because the transition to the environmental land management scheme makes it possible for them to receive payments directly from the Government for rewilding or doing absolutely nothing, which means that the farmers who are producing our food will not have enough land to farm. So will the Minister tell me: how is it possible for tenant farmers to survive if they lose a quarter of their income now and are only getting a promise of a replacement in seven years’ time?

We have designed the sustainable farming incentive so that it is accessible to tenant farmers, and we have worked closely with the Tenant Farmers Association on that. As is always the case, even some of the agri-environment schemes we had while we were a member of the EU would have been carried out by the landlord—some of those investments and things such as land use change. However, the farmer is the one who farms sustainably and can deliver these projects, and so should be able to access the schemes.

I had a useful meeting with Stroud farmers and the National Farmers Union recently at a fantastic dairy farm that has introduced state-of-the-art robotics and transformed its practice. We all know, however, that even with fancy-pants technology farmers work around the clock and that farm labour is almost non-existent at the moment, so I was not surprised to hear nerves about farmers finding time to apply for the new schemes and getting their heads around them. What support is available from the Department?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last year, we made some funding available to a range of consultants and advisers across the country to help support all farmers with the transition. That advice is available, and I can write to her to make sure that she can relay it to her constituents.

Floor Risk Management: Inner Cities

12. What recent discussions he has had with the Environment Agency on the adequacy of flood risk management in inner cities. (904679)

I regularly meet the chair of the Environment Agency to discuss flood risk management, and indeed I spoke to its board yesterday. We have doubled our investment in flood and coastal erosion defence to £5.2 billion, to better protect 336,000 properties across the country by 2027. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome investment, for instance, in the new flood storage areas on the River Mersey, which were vital to reducing the risk to vulnerable communities during Storm Christoph earlier this year.

That is welcome, because in my constituency we found out that this is a growing problem this time last year, when we narrowly—by 2 cm—averted a disastrous flooding incident in Chorlton and Didsbury when the Mersey flooded. What is the Department’s assessment of the state of readiness in general of flood defences and flood response services as we go into the peak winter storm season?

I discussed this issue with the Environment Agency board yesterday. It is that time of year when being alert to flood risk is absolutely at the top of our priorities, and I visited the flood response centre at Horizon House in Bristol earlier in the autumn. So we stand ready; sadly, we have got quite used to flood response, but we have a good team responding to this now and they are ready for anything the winter might throw at them.

We now come to the shadow Minister and welcome him to the Dispatch Box in his new position. I call Alex Sobel.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

On Boxing day 2015, many town and city centres were devastated by floods. Spending on national flood defences is, in fact, 10% down on what it was in 2015. With increased storm events, how will the Minister defend residential and business properties with adequate climate adaptation this winter?

First, may I apologise for my oversight in not welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place at the beginning of this session?

We have made available £5.2 billion, and this is a significant increase in the capital programme over the next few years. Included in that is some dedicated work on property resilience, where we are working with communities and flood forums locally to identify how we can improve the resilience of individual properties and, when there is a flood incident, to make grants available to them so that they can replace some of their doors in order to be more flood-ready in future.

Plastic Pollution

We have banned plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds; carrier bag sales are down by 95% in main supermarkets, and we have extended our move on that issue to all businesses; and we are consulting on banning single-use plastic plates and cutlery and exploring how we tackle the scourge of wet wipes, sachets and other items. The Environment Act 2021 gives us a framework for extended producer responsibility, deposit return schemes and greater consistency in recycling, to help drive down plastic waste.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her answer. It has been said that the UK is one of the most significant plastic waste producers: each year it produces 99 kg of plastic waste per person, compared with 88 kg in South Korea and 81 kg in Germany. My constituents Amy and Ella Meek have set up the charity Kids Against Plastic to help to raise awareness in schools, and I am due to speak with them on a panel later today. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the responsibility of us all to reduce our plastic waste output?

Hear, hear—I agree absolutely and thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent work of Amy and Ella Meek and their Kids Against Plastic charity. I wish my hon. Friend well on the panel this afternoon and congratulate them and others who are taking action against plastic and raising awareness in schools. It is the responsibility of us all to reduce, repair, reuse and recycle. We must get on with reducing plastic waste.

Topical Questions

Each year, the UK faces a seasonal risk of the incursion of avian influenza associated with migratory wild birds. Although we have that threat each year, this year we are seeing the largest-ever outbreak of avian influenza in the UK, with 36 confirmed cases—the largest number since last year, when we had 26. We have put in place an avian influenza prevention zone, which came into force on 3 November in England and on 17 November in Northern Ireland, and an additional housing order was introduced on 29 November. Our chief veterinary officer continues to lead the response to this episode.

The replacement of bureaucratic and burdensome EU red tape with modern, nimble, digital UK alternatives, without compromising food or environmental standards, should be one of the biggest and most important opportunities following Brexit. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to introduce the “better regulation” proposals in my Government-commissioned “Power to the people” report, and when?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on that report, which he and I have discussed many times. There are many things in his report that we do indeed intend to take forward.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The devastation caused by Storm Arwen was significant. Even a week later, more than 20,000 homes in the north of England were left without power, and some with very little on-the-ground support. This was a national emergency that required a national effort, yet it took a full week before it was declared a major incident and it was a full week before the military were called in. Given that those most impacted were those in rural communities, and given the Secretary of State’s overarching responsibility for those communities, will he inform the House of when he visited those communities and what he took away from that?

My colleague the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food visited those areas last week and saw some of the devastation. The hon. Gentleman is right that there has been severe devastation and a tragic loss of many trees in those areas. There have been particular challenges in respect of power disruption; my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy obviously lead on getting that power back, and I know they have been working hard to ensure the issue is addressed.

Let us be absolutely clear: this was a national emergency but a Cobra meeting was not called; the Prime Minister was missing in action; and now we discover that the Secretary of State was missing in action. Instead of supporting the affected communities, the Government were bogged down here in London defending a dodgy Christmas party while hard-working people in the north of England could not even turn on the Christmas lights. Ofgem has announced a narrow review of the response by grid networks, but the situation requires the Government to take charge and carry out a full review, including of their own response. Will the Secretary of State apologise for not taking the time to visit and commit to a full and proper review?

As I said, the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food did visit and she held meetings with farmers to discuss their concerns. I have had raised with me issues such as damage to fencing and some of the problems that has caused for farmers. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have been working hard on the key issue of power disruption.

T2. It is so important that we uphold our high animal welfare and food production standards not only in international trade deals but in our domestic public sector food procurement. The Government buying standards for food and catering services currently still provide an exemption from meeting the standards if that would increase costs. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on when the Government will close this glaring loophole, as we on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have recommended? (904659)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his passion for campaigning on these issues. We have made a number of improvements to Government procurement over the years, including introducing the so-called balanced scorecard some five years ago. There is more that can be done, and I will certainly look in great detail at this particular proposal that has come from him and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

I welcome the new shadow Minister and the new shadow Secretary of State to their places. I commend the shadow Secretary of State’s predecessor, because I always found him a very diligent, knowledgeable and collegiate opposite number, and I look forward to working with the new team in the same vein.

After our exit from the EU, agricultural support for our farmers is changing throughout the UK, but support levels remain higher in Scotland than in England, and farming improvements are encouraged and promoted through our direct payment scheme. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government will not, under any circumstances, attempt to use the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 or the forthcoming Subsidy Control Bill to undermine agricultural support in Scotland, or attempt to lower it to the levels in England?

We set out, through our schedule at the World Trade Organisation, the so-called aggregate market support that is available for these things, and that does not provide any particular constraint. Agriculture policy is devolved and so it is for each part of the UK to decide what policy works best for its own part of the UK.

T3. On behalf of the small cider producers in West Worcestershire, may I thank the Secretary of State for the representations that he has made to the Chancellor about the taxation regime? Is he also making representations on behalf of the larger, more traditional cider makers with the stronger ciders who may be adversely affected by the tax changes? (904661)

I am aware that my hon. Friend lives in a part of the country, and represents a constituency, famous for its ciders. I would be more than happy to meet with her and any of those businesses to discuss any particular concerns that they have, although she will understand that alcohol duties are very much a matter for the Treasury.

My constituents were horrified to learn just how much sewage is dumped into Newcastle’s waterways during hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours each year. Instead of the meaningless progressive reductions that the Government are currently proposing, when will they ban the dumping of sewage so that my constituents can enjoy the glorious River Tyne in all its natural beauty and safety?

Earlier this year, we published the direction—the strategic policy plan—for Ofwat, which requires it to prioritise reducing the use of these combined sewer overflows and to secure the funding through the pricing review to deliver that.

T4. In Blackpool’s Stanley Park, 15 swans died last month following an outbreak of a deadly bird flu virus. Sadly, over the past month, avian flu has been found in several areas across the UK, and further cases have been confirmed this week. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his update on this issue a few moments ago. Will he arrange for me to meet with officials in his Department so that I can discuss this particular issue in Blackpool? (904664)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. My noble Friend Lord Benyon is leading on this issue and I will ensure that he can have that conversation. As I have said, we are following this closely, and the chief veterinary officer is leading our response.

When will the Secretary of State wake up and take a lead on sustainability? We have talked about clean air and clean water, but we need every town and city in this country to be sustainable for communities. When will he join our campaign for 500 sustainable towns, cities and communities? Moreover, will he stop dodging “Farming Today” and not appearing on the show?

I regularly appear on “Farming Today”, as do my ministerial colleagues.

The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises specifically is addressed through the Environment Act 2021, which has just been passed into law. We now have biodiversity net gain, which very much relates to local authorities, making sure that we have sustainable growth and space for nature in every part of our country.

Although hon. Members on both sides of the House are justified in saying that it took a long time to restore power following Storm Arwen, is the Minister aware that when Storm Sandy hit the east coast of the United States, it took six months to restore power in some parts of southern Manhattan?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. A storm of this scale, which brings down this number of trees, can cause significant damage to infrastructure. We should pay tribute to the work that many engineers would have been doing around the clock to try to restore power.

Wetlands, such as the RSPB’s Newport wetlands, are one of the best nature-based solutions for the climate, biodiversity and wellbeing challenges that we face, so what steps are Ministers taking to restore and create wetlands, as Government advisers have recommended?

Some of this work will be taken forward in coastal areas through our agriculture policy. We are also looking at protected sites more generally and the work that we can do in wetland areas.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Elections Bill: Independence of Process

1. What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential effect of proposals in the Elections Bill on independence of process for oversight of electoral spending, party finance and donations. (904631)

4. What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential effect of proposals in the Elections Bill on independence of process for oversight of electoral spending, party finance and donations. (904635)

The commission’s view is that, as currently drafted, the proposals for a strategy and policy statement are not consistent with its role as an independent regulator. The provisions would enable actual or perceived involvement by the current Government or future UK Governments in the commission’s operational functions and decision making, including its oversight and enforcement of the political finance regime. The scope of the proposed power is significantly broader than similar mechanisms in place for other regulators. If these provisions are not removed, this would allow Ministers from one party to shape how electoral law is applied to them and their political competitors.

It is clear that this power grab will mean risks to democracy. Even under existing rules, we have had party overspending seen as business as usual; that money funding the Tories in Scotland; Tory treasurers who donated £3 million made Lords; dodgy Russian donors; and cash for curtains. That shows the risk. Surely we need more power for the Electoral Commission, rather than a power grab by Tory Ministers.

The commission has made a series of recommendations to improve voter confidence in the regulation of election finance. The proposed new powers for the commission include the power to require information outside of an investigation and to allow data sharing with other regulators. These recommendations were recently echoed by the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The commission will take any opportunities to discuss these proposals further when it meets the Government from time to time.

The Electoral Commission identified that although unincorporated associations are considered permissible donors, those who give money to them are not required to be permissible donors, which means that they could receive money entirely legitimately from overseas sources and donate that money to political parties with nothing but the most perfunctory of checks. No transparency is required from unincorporated associations when they provide donations to candidates, rather than to parties. Government responses to the Committee on Standards in Public Life suggest that they feel that sufficient safeguards are in place to address the committee’s concerns. Does the Electoral Commission still consider these key vulnerabilities?

The commission has highlighted weaknesses in the transparency requirements for political donations by unincorporated associations. As the hon. Member says, they are not required to ensure that those who donate to them are permissible donors, which means that they could legitimately make donations using funding from otherwise impermissible sources, including, as she says, from overseas. There are also no transparency requirements in law for unincorporated associations that donate to candidates rather than to political parties or campaigns.

Elections Bill: Voter ID

2. What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential effect on electoral participation of the proposal in the Elections Bill to introduce voter ID. (904632)

The commission’s independent evaluation of the Government’s pilots, which were held in 2018 and 2019, found no evidence that turnout was significantly affected by the trialled introduction of an ID requirement at polling stations. However, it was not able to draw definitive conclusions, particularly about the likely impact at a national poll with higher levels of turnout. The commission has recommended that any ID requirement 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 accessibility.

Disabled people are less likely to have the valid ID required in the Elections Bill. Blind and partially sighted people are also singled out for greater challenges to their rights to vote, with the Government using the Bill to weaken requirements to accommodate their needs at polling stations—an issue that the Government refused to rectify in Committee by rejecting an SNP amendment. Does the hon. Member agree that the Bill—through its voter ID requirements, and loosening support for the blind and partially sighted—is unjust and undermines the rights of those who are most vulnerable to exercise their vote?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that if we are putting barriers in place in order to protect the sanctity of elections, those barriers should not disproportionately affect sections of society that are already faced with other barriers. The commission has identified certain demographic sections of the population, including people with disabilities, who might be more affected by voter ID proposals. It is also important that voters with disabilities can be confident of the support that will be available to them at polling stations when they vote, wherever they live. The commission will work with returning officers to ensure that they understand the new duty to provide any reasonable equipment that could help someone to vote. It will also provide guidance and set standards to help to ensure that all voters receive a consistent level of support.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Maintenance: Sustainability

3. What proposals the Church of England has to put the maintenance of churches and cathedrals on a sustainable basis. (904633)

The Church of England is very grateful for the generosity of congregations and local communities for the upkeep of its buildings, as it is to the Government for the recent £54 million of culture recovery funding, which included £20 million for capital repairs. However, putting repair and maintenance funding on a stable footing is essential if the Church is to continue contributing about £50 billion a year to national wellbeing, as calculated by the Treasury’s Green Book methodology. Past partnerships between Government and the Church have been very helpful in this regard, and with levelling up this opportunity is even greater.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Churches in rural communities face challenges of small and sometimes decreasing congregations, significant upkeep of old buildings, and, often, being in a group of churches under a common minister. These churches are at the heart of our rural communities and play such an important role for the people in those communities. What is the Church doing to support the long-term survival of small rural churches?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue; he is absolutely right to do so. Our rural churches are a precious part of the Church of England, and we are looking at various options for small rural churches that could include, for example, new insurance and maintenance partnerships to remove some of the bureaucracy from priests and churchwardens while, very importantly, retaining local ownership. We are committed to a thriving rural ministry to attract the congregations to be able to sustain these churches into the future.

In my work as a lay canon in the Church of England I have always been impressed by the engagement of local communities with churches in the process of sustainability in terms of caring for the building and caring for the place of the church in the community. Increasingly, we in the Church of England have new plans to make young people more energetic in this regard. Is that not at the heart of sustainability in the Church of England estate?

Sometimes the church is described as 22 people in need of a rest and a crowd in need of exercise. The hon. Gentleman has absolutely put his finger on something important, and I am grateful to him for raising it.

Family Relationships, Parenting and Marriage

The Church of England places a high value on the covenant of marriage and does all it can to support families and parents. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York want to strengthen family life further and have set up a commission to examine what more the Church can do to achieve that.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I also thank my local vicar, Michael Brown, who came to Westminster to play an active role in my own wedding, for all he does in the parish. What more can we do, as politicians, to recognise these often unsung heroes of our communities?

I am sure we would all like to congratulate my hon. Friend on her wedding. I am delighted to learn about the support that Rev. Michael Brown gave to her for her wedding and about all the good work that he does in his parish. It gives me, and probably all of us, enormous pleasure to pay tribute to Rev. Brown and indeed to all our parish priests who work tirelessly to show the love of Christ to their parishioners.

Having been married for 34 years, I understand the importance of marriage and relationships that last. With that in mind, can I ask the hon. Gentleman what has been done to ensure that, where there are difficulties in marriages—and that happens—and difficulties perhaps in looking after children, the Churches can work with Relate and other organisations to ensure that marriages can last beyond for the years to come?

I think we can do something even before that, because I am very keen on marriage enrichment as well, and I think that the Church can do more to prevent marriages from coming into difficulty in the first place. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, it is a very important role for the Church to play when marriages do run into trouble, and that is what the Archbishop’s joint family and household commission is also looking at.

Public Accounts Commission

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

NAO Report: Financial Sustainability of Schools

6. What the planned timescale is for the Government’s response to the National Audit Office’s report, “Financial sustainability of schools in England”, published in November 2021. (904637)

In November, the National Audit Office produced an important report examining the financial sustainability of schools in England, which complemented its report on school funding in England in July 2021. The Government will respond to the expected Public Accounts Committee report on school financial sustainability after it is published.

I welcome the Public Accounts Committee’s scrutiny of the financial sustainability of schools. This is an important report by the National Audit Office, and it shows that 22% of academy trusts had reserves equivalent to a fifth or more of their annual income, but on the other side of the equation, 27% of maintained secondary schools were in deficit. Does this not need to be investigated?

It is very possible that it does. Most maintained schools and academy trusts have been in surplus, but there have been significant pressures on some maintained secondary schools. As my hon. Friend says, a sizeable minority of academy trusts are building up substantial reserves, meaning that they are spending less than their annual income on their pupils. What is done about that is a policy question and thus a matter for Government, rather than for the National Audit Office.

Church Commissioners

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

Parish Ministry

At last month’s General Synod, the Archbishop of York spoke about the revitalisation of the parish in order that parish churches can reach and serve everyone in their community. I can tell my hon. Friend that since 2017, the Church Commissioners have given £130 million to support ministry in deprived parishes.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I quickly pay tribute to the Bishop of Ramsbury in my constituency, Andrew Rumsey, who has been appointed by the Church to review the use of church buildings across our country. The bishop is England’s foremost expert on the parish, and I know that my hon. Friend will want to save the parish as much as the rest of us. The Church of England’s vision for future ministry includes the line:

“a Christian presence in every community”.

What is the Church of England doing to ensure that every community has a locally based, theologically trained and well-resourced cleric?

I am delighted to welcome my hon. Friend’s new bishop to his post. I can tell my hon. Friend that the Church of England remains committed to providing a Christian presence in every community. Last year, 591 people were recommended for ordained ministry, the highest number for 13 years. Ordinations to stipendiary ministry have increased by 43% since 2013. I also warmly commend the work of the Church Revitalisation Trust and its Peter and Caleb streams, which are increasing the number of clergy from diverse or working-class backgrounds and those in later life.

Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend has just said, he will know that there is considerable concern in parishes up and down the country about the recent consultation, which many fear could result in a weakening of the ministry, rather than a strengthening. What can my hon. Friend say to reassure people?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and that of many of our constituents up and down the country. I can only repeat that the Church of England remains committed to a Christian presence in every community up and down the country, and the work that the Church of England is doing at the moment is focused on making sure that that remains the case.

I understand that the Government have set moneys aside for the restoration and maintenance of churches. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me and this House whether the same amount of money will be set aside for the UK? Will Northern Ireland be a participant and a recipient of those moneys?

The hon. Gentleman, whom I call my friend, asks a question slightly beyond the remit of my responsibilities as the Second Church Estates Commissioner, but I will make inquiries on his behalf and write to him. I speak for the Church of England.

Cathedrals: Sustainable Incomes

8. What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the deans of English cathedrals on methodologies to generate sustainable incomes. (904639)

Being a new Member, my hon. Friend is still learning the ropes. I can tell him that the commissioners recently allocated £20 million to the cathedral sustainability fund, and grants have been made for more than 120 new posts in cathedrals to support fundraising, engagement and financial stability. Deans and staff from our 42 cathedrals also recently met to learn from each other and share best practice.

Take two, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend said earlier in answer to a previous question that according to the Treasury, £50 billion is generated for the economy by our lovely English cathedrals, including, of course, the 800-year-old cathedral in Lichfield. Cathedrals are not just places for worship; they are used as vaccination centres and concert halls, and even for political hustings and debates. They cost several million pounds each year to maintain, so could he say a bit more about what regular funding can be provided?

I am happy to do that. Indeed, £50 billion is the contribution to national wellbeing that the Treasury calculated through its Green Book methodology. My hon. Friend is one of Lichfield cathedral’s most steadfast and vocal supporters, and rightly so, because the cathedral is not just a centre of worship; it plays a vital role in the local community and economy by serving, for example, as a vaccination centre recently, as he said.

Although we are hugely grateful for the £29.4 million for cathedrals from the Government’s culture recovery fund, £140 million is needed for cathedral repairs and maintenance over the next five years. If we want our cathedrals to continue to be at the heart of our national life, we will all have to put our hands in our pockets to keep them in good repair, because we cannot let 800 years of worship and service fail on our watch.

Loneliness

9. What steps the Church of England is taking to connect with people who are isolated and lonely in their communities. (904641)

Our parish clergy and lay workers try really hard to reach out to the isolated and lonely day in, day out. In addition, the free DailyHope telephone line—0800 804 8044—from the Church of England has been described as a “spiritual lifeline” for many isolated and vulnerable people. More than 620,000 people have listened to its prayers, hymns and services. It was recently described by one listener as,

“Something of a raft on which to hang on for dear life on occasions.”

Churches have loci in every community. Across our country, a staggering 9 million people experience loneliness frequently or occasionally. As a result, in the coming Christmas season, many people will be isolated. They might be a new mum, somebody who has lost someone dear to them or somebody who has been left lonely because of the twists and turns of life. Churches could develop a loneliness strategy to address that issue across our communities and to provide friendship, love and hope to people. This season gives real impetus to the opportunity to do that. Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the Church has a proper loneliness strategy, not just on the phone but in person, to support people across our communities?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this incredibly important point, and at this time of year as well, when it is even more significant for many people. She is right that Christmas can be an especially lonely time, which is why I am pleased, for example, that churches such as St Michael le Belfrey in York are running the Love Christmas campaign as part of a national project to provide 1 million bags of kindness across the country. For some people, that Christmas gift will be the only one they receive, and there have been wonderful stories of people joining local churches after that type of outreach. I would say to her that a lively worshipping, outward-looking church, which looks to speak to the issue of loneliness, at the heart of our community is one of the best antidotes to the loneliness she speaks about.

Downing Street Christmas Parties Investigation

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the details of the investigation into Downing Street Christmas parties.

As the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, he understands and shares the anger up and down the country, as do I, at seeing No. 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures. I join the Prime Minister in apologising unreservedly for the offence that it has caused to people who have been through what everyone in this House knows is immeasurable pain and hardship as a result of this appalling pandemic. The Prime Minister has been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no covid rules were broken. However, the Government also recognise the public anxiety about this and the public indignation—and I share that—in the sense of where it appears as though the people who have been setting the rules may not have been following the rules.

As the Prime Minister confirmed to the House yesterday, he has asked the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the facts, and I would like to update the House now, if I may, on the details of this investigation. The terms of reference for the investigation are being published, and I will lay a copy in the Library of the House later today. I can confirm to the House that the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation will establish the facts surrounding the allegations made of a gathering at No. 10 Downing Street on 27 November 2020, a gathering at the Department for Education on 10 December 2020 and allegations made of a gathering at No. 10 Downing Street on 18 December 2020.

The primary purpose of the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation will be to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of the gatherings, including attendance, the setting and the purpose, with reference to adherence to the guidance in place at the time. If required, the investigation will establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted. The work will be undertaken by officials in the Cabinet Office at the direction of the Cabinet Secretary, with support from the Government Legal Department. Those officials will have access to all relevant records and be able to speak to members of staff.

As with all internal investigations, if during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused. I must emphasise that the matters relating to adherence to the law are properly for the police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with the police, as appropriate. All Ministers, special advisers and civil servants will be expected to co-operate with this investigation.

Finally, I can confirm that, as I have said, the findings of the investigation will be provided to the House and made public. Following the long-standing practice of successive Administrations, any specific HR action against individuals will remain confidential.

I just say to the Minister that his remarks were meant to take three minutes, not over four minutes. [Interruption.] Just a minute. So I will give some flexibility to the other two Front Benches.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank you, too, for granting this urgent question today. I also thank the Paymaster General for his statement and for giving more information about this investigation.

Trust is vital during a pandemic—trust in the decisions being made and, most importantly, trust in the people making those decisions and the judgment about them. My constituent Sophie wrote to me yesterday to say:

“My mother died of Covid on Christmas Day last year—she was alone and frightened in an isolation room in hospital on 18 December while the alleged party was happening. She was admitted to hospital for a non-Covid related issue and contracted the disease whilst in there. Both of us had followed the rules and it breaks my heart that I was only able to see her a handful of times last year, and couldn’t be with her in her final moments.”

She is angry; people across the country are angry.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that he has asked the Cabinet Secretary to conduct an investigation. I have asked for this urgent question as there are further urgent questions to be asked about the investigation into the parties—we do not need to call them alleged parties; they were parties—held in a Government Department or by Government Ministers elsewhere. Are there more parties that we need to hear about? Is this investigation just a way of being able to say, “We’re doing something” while pushing it into the long grass, or is it a serious investigation?

The Prime Minster said yesterday:

“I have been repeatedly assured…that there was no party and that no covid rules were broken…But I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to establish all the facts.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 372.]

Who gave these repeated assurances? If there was no party, why did Allegra Stratton feel the need to resign? Is she taking the fall instead of Government Ministers? If this investigation finds that the Prime Minister has misled the House, will he resign?

I look forward to the publication of the terms of reference for the investigation later today. Will it include all the parties—not just the three but any others that were held? Who went to these parties? Can the Minister confirm that the Cabinet Secretary and the remainder of the legal team that has just been referenced did not go to any of the parties and so are able to conduct the investigation without personal interest? If they happened, who colluded for a year in the cover-up of these parties? When is the deadline for the investigation? How will the outcomes be made public? Is there any limit on the sanctions that will be given to people found to have been in the wrong?

I welcome the assurance from the Paymaster General that the matter will be referred to the police if there is a case to answer. We on the Opposition Benches will be following what happens very closely.

Finally, will the Government just be straight with the British people?

May I first say that my heart goes out to the hon. Lady’s constituent and the many thousands of other people who have lost loved ones as a result of this pandemic?

As I said in my opening remarks, the investigation will be conducted by the Cabinet Secretary. I know that the hon. Lady and those on the Benches behind her as well as everyone in this House has confidence in the independence and integrity of our civil service; the Cabinet Secretary heads the civil service and he is conducting this investigation. How long it lasts will be a matter for him, and the matter will, if it discloses criminality, be reported to the Metropolitan police for further investigation. In previous ministerial roles as a Law Officer—Solicitor General and Attorney General—I superintended the Government Legal Department, another organisation which of course has integrity and the confidence of all; it will be supporting the investigation. All those who are questioned by the investigation—civil servants, special advisers, Ministers—will be expected to co-operate with it. I hope that answers the hon. Lady’s questions.

Would it be helpful if there were a greater understanding of the fact that No. 10 is not a house but a front door, behind which there is a suite of modern offices and meeting rooms across three floors? It is perfectly possible to be in the rafters above No. 11 completely isolated from what else is happening in the building.

It is certainly true, as a matter of geography, that No. 10 Downing Street is a very large property with a multitude of offices and with many, many people working inside it. In that sense, of course—geographically—my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct.

On 16 December, on national television, the Prime Minister asked everyone to exercise

“the greatest possible personal responsibility.”

London also went into tier 3 restrictions, which stated:

“No person may participate in a gathering… You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party,”

whether it was in an office or in somebody’s flat upstairs.

On 18 December, Dr Katherine Henderson of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine stated on the BBC:

“We are at a really dangerous point which could tip into finding it incredibly difficult to manage.”

The same day, 514 people died of covid-19. I am sure the NHS and those in care homes were already over the tipping point.

On 18 December, the Prime Minister stated:

“If you are forming a Christmas Bubble, it’s vital that from today, you minimise contact with people from outside your household.”

The evening that statement was given by the Prime Minister in Downing Street, a Christmas party was held in No. 10, where officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a secret Santa. I wonder whether the Paymaster General agrees with me that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and it is at a Christmas party, it is usually a duck.

No doubt, if the hon. Gentleman has any evidence, he may wish to supply it to the Cabinet Secretary or the police. He has rehearsed to the House what regulations were in place at the time, and the reality is that that is accepted. What we need to do is investigate the matter of these gatherings. I have said what the primary purpose is going to be, which is to establish swiftly a general understanding of the nature of any gatherings that took place, including attendance, the setting and the purpose. That is what the investigation is all about.

There is understandable real public anger about what seems to have happened at Downing Street, and that is contributing to people’s unhappiness and discontent with renewed covid restrictions. Will the Government do everything they possibly can to lift the current restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so and ensure that Christmas is not cancelled?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, and I share the anger. The reality of the matter is that we are focusing on the pandemic as a Government and as a nation. We need to ensure that everything is done to protect the people of this country from the effects of this pandemic, and that of course is going to be the principal focus going forward, as it has been throughout. However, we will always follow the science, and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will have more to say in due course on the situation.

First, my sympathies go out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for drawing the short straw on coming here this morning to answer the urgent question. Can he explain to me the difference between a party and a “gathering”, in his understanding of the vocabulary? I note that he did not actually confirm that the “gatherings” or parties that we now know happened in No. 10 on 13 November, 27 November, 10 December, 14 December and 18 December will be within the scope of this so-called inquiry, which many Opposition Members already see as a cover-up.

The issue of the nature of the gathering goes to the heart of the investigation. Therefore, the answer to the hon. Lady’s first question about the nature of the gathering will be established by the Cabinet Secretary, assisted by the Government Legal Department, who will inform the police if any criminality is uncovered. So those questions will be answered in due course.

I should say at the start that I think Boris—sorry, the Prime Minister—is doing a great job of running the country. I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on securing the urgent question. I think the Paymaster General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) missed one of the questions she put, so may I put the question again? It is quite right for the Prime Minister to come to this House and say that he was told by someone, accepted it and did so in good faith. I want to know who the person was who told him. Perhaps the excellent Minister—he does not need any protection—will tell us that answer.

I do not have that answer. What I will say, as I have already said, is that, if required, the investigation will establish whether individual disciplinary action is warranted. That will be one of the principal focuses of the investigation. It will be ongoing and it will be in the public domain as soon as it is ready.

In which case, can we get an assurance that the Cabinet Secretary was not involved in giving the assurances to the Prime Minister? If that is not able to be given, then it is quite inappropriate for him to be in charge of the investigation. The question of legal advice also arises because the Prime Minister asserted that no rules were broken. Will the advice on which that assertion was made be given to the inquiry when it is held? On the question of the possibility of the investigation being passed on to the police, will people interviewed by the inquiry be interviewed under caution? The Minister, as a former Law Officer, will know that there is a risk of contamination of evidence that has been obtained in an internal inquiry unfairly, which would then prejudice prosecutions in the future.

The right hon. Gentleman is jumping ahead with his last point. Of course, whether or not there will be any police investigation is dependent on whether the investigation by the Cabinet Secretary uncovers any suggestion of criminality, which is then referred to them. If that then happens, that is entirely a matter for the police and not, of course, for the Government. I know the Cabinet Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman makes a suggestion about that. I have confidence in the integrity of the Cabinet Secretary. I also know the Prime Minister and I have confidence in the integrity of the Prime Minister. I have known the Prime Minister for many years. The Prime Minister is a man of honour and integrity, and he presented to this House his position yesterday. What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that he should wait and see what the investigation uncovers.

If it turns out that one of these gatherings involved politicians or Ministers, it is clearly of a very different order to half a dozen members of staff bursting open a bottle of prosecco and having a drink before they departed for Christmas. [Interruption.] That does not excuse it. If it is the case that it was indeed members of staff, it begs the question what sort of supervision and management structure there is. Who was the supervisor? Who was the senior person concerned? Who should have been able to discipline this matter? Can the Minister assure me that a proper management structure is being looked at again, to make sure that this could not happen in the future?

The matter my hon. Friend raises is a matter for the inquiry to uncover, but I can assure him that the people who work in No. 10 Downing Street, including over the pandemic, are hard-working industrious people who are seeking to serve their country. They work very hard to do that. What he mentions is a matter of great concern to the people of this country, as it is to me. We all wish to know the terms of the investigation, and I have announced to this House what the terms and the scope of the investigation are. They will clearly be published and a copy of the terms will be laid in this House.

Revelations of the 18 December gathering in No. 10 Downing Street have triggered much anguish across the country, so may I press the Minister on how exactly the Government Legal Department will support the investigation?

The Government Legal Department can provide support in a number of ways, and it will be up to the Cabinet Secretary to decide how he wishes to seek its support. One of the things he could do, for example, is ask for its advice as to the legal position on various matters. There are myriad ways that the Government Legal Department can help and give advice. It will be up to Simon Case as Cabinet Secretary, who heads the home civil service, to deal with the matter.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to pass on our congratulations to the Prime Minister and his wife on the birth of their new child today. The Paymaster General has been very careful in his words when addressing the House, but does he agree that one of the key issues is that those who are making draconian rules have to live by not only the letter of the rules, but the spirit of them?

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the news that, in the past few minutes, the Prime Minister and Mrs Johnson have been safely delivered of a baby girl. I am sure that the whole House will want to send them best wishes.

My hon. Friend’s point is understood. He is right to say that the public are angered by this matter. We share that anger and the matter must be investigated. Of course, people should follow the rules and it is crucially important that they continue to do so. That goes without saying and it applies to everyone.

Everyone experiences bereavement differently, but for those of us who have lost loved ones during the pandemic, there is a sentiment that increasingly unites us: anger. I am angry that while my mum lay dying in hospital, I could not hold her hand. I am angry that I had to bury my father-in-law and mother-in-law two days apart. Above all, I am angry that members of this Government could be so flippant, so callous and so arrogant as to host not one, not two, not three, but seven parties and then lie about it. Will the Minister confirm that the Cabinet Secretary will also investigate what happened on 14 December and 13 November, which he missed out? Will he also confirm that the Cabinet Secretary will have access to all documents, electronic communications, visitor logs and CCTV footage relating to the reported incidents?

I start by saying how very sorry I am to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s personal losses, and I offer my profound condolences for them. I know that there are many thousands around the country who have also had personal losses and my heart goes out to them, too.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the flippancy of a video recording that is in the public domain. It was totally unacceptable, grossly inappropriate and, frankly, inexcusable. I can say no more than that, and I will not try to go behind that. We are going to investigate. The Cabinet Secretary, of course, is non-political. He has the authority, as one would expect of the head of the civil service, to call for whatever material—whether it be documents or otherwise—that he wishes, and he will have the support and assistance of the several thousand lawyers in the Government Legal Department and of others if he needs it.

My constituents in Kettering are very angry indeed at reports of Christmas parties in Downing Street during what was a very large second wave of covid. The behaviour was totally inappropriate and possibly criminal. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that serving the public, whether as a Member of Parliament or as a civil servant, is a privilege and that the public should be treated with respect at all times, including with behaviour inside Downing Street?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend answer a question from the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) that I do not think he answered in his response? If the Cabinet Secretary or any members of the investigatory team were at any of these parties, will he ensure that they do not take part in the investigation?

I agree, of course, that it is a privilege and an honour for all of us to serve our constituents in this honourable House. What I can say is that my understanding is that the Cabinet Secretary has denied any attendance at any gathering that is the subject of this matter, but the reality of the matter is that he can therefore be said to be completely separate at the head of the civil service and able to conduct a thorough investigation, as one would expect from someone with his seniority. I reiterate that he has—I am told—indicated that he was not at any relevant gathering.

Over the period of the pandemic, people have been unable to have office Christmas “gatherings”, children’s birthday “gatherings” or any other type of annual “gatherings” that they would often have. I certainly hope we will not find that it is the drinks cabinet office that is investigating these matters.

Sanctions against staff have been talked about, but we need to be clear that if any wrongdoing is found, sanctions will also need to be taken against any Members, regardless of what office they may hold. Will the investigation look at whether there have been any breaches of quarantine at any of these “gatherings”?

The Prime Minister said yesterday to this House that Ministers, special advisers, civil servants and anybody else would be subject to disciplinary action if appropriate, so that applies. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

The Minister said that

“Ministers, special advisers and civil servants will be expected to co-operate”.

What will happen if they do not co-operate? Will they be required to incriminate themselves? Does this also apply to other guests present, including members of the press?

Mr Case, the Cabinet Secretary, will have to determine how he wishes to deal with that matter. One would expect him to take a robust course.

My constituents, like those of a lot of hon. Members here today, are very angry about what has gone on at this party. They have made sacrifices throughout the year, and they think that one of the outcomes of this should be the resignation of the Prime Minister. He should take full responsibility for the incompetence that has been going on in his Government.

I think it is important to get to the point here. Surely someone yesterday must have asked the person at the rehearsal for the press conference who asked Allegra Stratton the question about the party why he asked that question. We would like to know the answer to that.

Secondly, to come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), I am sure that the Minister wants to come to this House fully briefed and to respect the House for what it is. Before he came here today, did he not ask anybody at No. 10 who briefed the Prime Minister that no party took place?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s constituents’ anger. I know that they will be representative of constituents around all the parties. [Hon. Members: “Gatherings!”] The fact of the matter is that the gatherings will be investigated for what they were and for the scope thereof, and I think he knows that.

A No. 10 source has told CNN that Downing Street was an island where they had to work, and lockdown was not happening in the same way there as it was happening for the rest of the country. That single sentence sums up the culture of entitlement of this Government. No man, or woman, is an island—and, of course, we must remember for whom the bell tolls. Does the Paymaster General think it is right that the Prime Minister can get away with throwing staff members under the bus, rather than reining in the culture of entitlement that he himself has created?

The right hon. Lady quotes John Donne. It is true that no man is an island entire of itself, but we know that there is no culture of entitlement, and I do not recognise that characterisation. An investigation will be launched by the Cabinet Secretary. It will uncover what needs to be uncovered and the details will be ascertained.

The right hon. Lady referred to the key workers who have had to work in myriad different ways during the pandemic and its various stages. Of course we appreciate the work that all our key workers do, in whatever capacity.

At the beginning of the year, because I was following rules, I almost missed the birth of my son. I was told that I had to protect nurses and midwifery staff in the hospital where my wife had an extremely complicated labour. It would seem that, just five weeks earlier, Downing Street was holding soirées, or gatherings, or parties, while my wife and I—and many of my constituents, and people all over the country—were dreading and living in fear of not having their birthing partners present at the beginning of what are often very complicated processes. I think it is deeply shameful that the Paymaster General—whom I believe to be an honourable man—should stand there defending the completely and utterly indefensible behaviour of the Prime Minister, possibly other Ministers, and civil servants in thinking that they were simply above the rules that everyone else was told they had to follow.

I would like a straight answer—yes or no—from the Paymaster General. Did any Minister or Conservative MP attend any event, soirée or whatever he wants to call it that allegedly broke covid rules in Downing Street last year on 13 or 27 November or on 10, 14 or 18 December? If they did, they should be sacked and they should be investigated by the police.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman experienced the personal effect of the pandemic that he has described to the House and I am sorry that he missed out on the birth of his child. He asked about the nature of the people who attended any gathering. That is exactly what the investigation will establish—whether there was a gathering, the nature of it, the scope of it, any attendees and so on. That is exactly what it will be all about and the hon. Gentleman will hear the result in due course.

Does the Paymaster General agree that the one person who has come out of this with any shred of integrity is Allegra Stratton? I have known Allegra for many years. She is a first-class journalist, a woman of honour and a very nice person, and I am sure that she would not have agreed to the description “a gathering in the attic”. She is a woman of integrity, and I admire the fact that she had the honesty to resign yesterday.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for saying that. It was, if I may say so, characteristically generous of him. I do not personally know Ms Stratton, but I am absolutely sure that he is right. She was clearly mortified yesterday, and extremely upset by what has happened.

We all, in our day-to-day lives, seek to do the best we can to represent our constituents and serve in the public interest. I know the hon. Gentleman has done that for many years, and I thank him for it.

The Christmas party debacle proves further what we all know—this Government are sneaky, manipulative and corrupt, and believe they are above the law. Even their own Back Benchers are fed up. We in the Scottish National party have repeatedly called for the Prime Minister to resign because it is the morally right thing to do, so I ask this question: are reports that the resignation of the Prime Minister is dependent on a decision by rich Tory donors true?

I do not understand the nature of the hon. Lady’s question—[Interruption.] She does not know the Prime Minister. I do know the Prime Minister and have done for many years. He is a friend of mine and I know him to be a man of honour and integrity who is working hard in the interests of the people of this country, and she should reflect on the public service that all in the Government and the Opposition do to the best of their abilities.

From Collette in Middlesbrough:

“During lockdown, my 74-year-old mam was really lonely and depressed, but obeyed all the rules, as we all did. She sadly passed away in January 2021 alone in her flat. We were only allowed 30 people at the funeral so lots of mam’s friends and family were unable to attend. Nor were we able to have a wake to celebrate her life afterwards and comfort us. The government robbed us of that. So how dare they break the rules and hold a Christmas party. I’m crying as I’m typing this email, been crying since I watched the news yesterday. People must be held accountable and police action taken. We cannot let them get away with it.”

So instead of Allegra Stratton carrying the can, will the Prime Minister for once in his privileged, narcissistic, cheating existence do the right thing and resign?

My condolences to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. The Prime Minister has said, as I have said from this Dispatch Box, that disciplinary action will be taken if appropriate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent can be reassured by that. As to the course of action the police choose to take, if any, that is a matter entirely independent of Her Majesty’s Government; it will be up to the police as they are operationally independent. We have said that the Cabinet Secretary will involve the police if, during the course of his investigation, he uncovers any criminality.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly told this House that all covid rules were followed in Downing Street. Will the Minister publish the covid risk assessments undertaken prior to any parties, social events or gatherings that took place on Government premises in November and December last year?

I have noted what the hon. Lady says. That will be a matter for the Cabinet Secretary, and he will be free to seek any documents he needs during the course of his investigation.

We have rightly heard much about the consequences of the Downing Street parties on the moral leadership of this Government at a time of crisis. The response of the Met police thus far, in refusing point blank to investigate, must also be called into question at a time when several instances of the breaking of covid regulations in December last year have been prosecuted in the courts. With important regulations being reinstated, does the Minister think that the lack of respect that many will now accord this Government and the police is a dangerous combination for public compliance?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to criticise the police. The police are entirely independent in this country, and they make their decisions based on the evidence before them. It is entirely a matter for them, and it is not appropriate for me to comment on the operational actions of the Metropolitan police or anyone else in the police service. I have great confidence in the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and in the service of the Metropolitan police to this country.

I, like many in here, have met constituents who have lost loved ones, and I have seen the immense sadness that this has caused. I feel that my constituents and many others have been utterly betrayed, so can the Minister explain how the Government are planning to regain public trust, now that stricter plan B rules are being introduced once again?

Public trust is of paramount importance and it is necessary because we want to relay to the public the need for caution in dealing with this pandemic and the necessity of getting a booster vaccination—more than 20 million people have now had a booster vaccination. It is of paramount importance that the general public continue to exercise caution in all their dealings because the effects of this pandemic are what we know them to be, and I offer my condolences to the hon. Lady’s constituents on the loss they have suffered. We need to focus on ensuring the pandemic, which has robbed this country of so many precious lives, is dealt with as effectively and as efficiently as possible. That is what the Government have done, that is what the Government are continuing to do and that is what the Government will do.

The Government are supposed to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers. When these gatherings, parties or whatever were happening, across Coventry and Warwickshire we have had 5,000 incidents in the last 20 months in which people have been fined for breaking the law: a bar in Leamington was fined £10,000 for having a gathering; 200 Warwick University students were fined for holding various events; and another pub landlord was fined £1,000. “Party” is a synonym for “gathering.” These were not business meetings, were they?

That is exactly what the investigation seeks to uncover. If there was a gathering, it seeks to uncover the nature of that gathering.

The issue is not the however many gatherings. The Prime Minister has made a litany of errors, any one of which would have caused a decent Prime Minister to resign, whether it is the illegal Prorogation, the Barnard Castle incident, the comment on letting bodies “pile high in their thousands,” the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that has cost lives or the scandal surrounding Owen Paterson. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to go back to watching “Peppa Pig” and leave the grown-ups to lead the country?

As the hon. Lady knows, the Prime Minister has been given repeated categorical assurances about the party that has been alleged. The reality of the matter is that the allegations are just that. She makes those allegations and the nature of the investigation is to discover whether any gathering was in breach of any regulations. It has been made clear that, if there was a breach of any regulations, disciplinary action will follow, but these are gatherings that occur on a regular basis.

An event, gathering or party is

“any group of three or more persons who have assembled or gathered together for a social occasion or other activity.”

The Prime Minister has repeatedly said there was no party. The Minister now talks of a gathering. So does the Prime Minister now doubt his own version of events? Will the Cabinet Secretary also be investigating the cover-up of parties and gatherings at No. 10 Downing Street?

The hon. Gentleman should wait for the scope of the investigation, which will be made clear in a document laid in the Library of the House later today.

When, in early December last year, Kay Burley of Sky was busted for having a birthday party in then tier-2 London, she was contrite and accepted a six-month ban from the airwaves. In the interest of consistency, we saw a similarly distressed Allegra Stratton walk the plank yesterday. Will any male members of the Government or prominent public figures face a similar six-month ban? If not, why are women always the fall guys?

I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the matter. We have made it clear that there will be disciplinary action if the Cabinet Secretary uncovers any cause for such action.

In December last year, my friend sat with his dad to write a list of the people who would be permitted to attend his mum’s funeral. At the same time, we now know No. 10 was hosting myriad parties that the Prime Minister claims to know nothing about, despite the fact they happened in his own house. Surely even the Minister must accept that a Prime Minister who seeks to protect partying, indeed a Prime Minister who seeks to protect himself, rather than protecting the integrity of public health messaging, is no Prime Minister at all.

The hon. Gentleman says that we “know” certain things, but we do not—they are unproven allegations. That is why we have an investigation, just as investigations take place when other allegations are made every day in police and other affairs. What we will seek to do, through the Cabinet Secretary, is investigate the allegations that the hon. Gentleman and others make.

Now that the Paymaster General has had the opportunity to hold a gathering of his own, at least when it comes to his thoughts on this matter, will he heed the injunctions of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and expand the scope of this investigation to include all alleged instances of “gatherings”—or whatever we might like to call them—related to the Government on government property? Given that the Metropolitan police have, to date, shown a marked reluctance to investigate the allegations about these gatherings, will the Paymaster General confirm that he is not aware of any legal impediment that would stand in the way of the Metropolitan police investigating these matters if they so chose?

First, I do not think that this is my gathering—if it is anyone’s, it is Mr Speaker’s. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses again to criticise the police obliquely—I have no idea why he chooses to take that approach. We are blessed in this country with a police service of integrity and independence, and I have every confidence that just as they routinely investigate matters of extreme importance, so here they can be relied upon to investigate where appropriate—I emphasise the “where appropriate”. The Cabinet Secretary has said, and we have said, under the terms of the investigation, that if necessary—if criminality is uncovered during his investigation—he will, again, engage the police.

I know the pain and sacrifice my constituents in York have experienced over the past 18 months. They are sickened by what they have seen has happened at these so-called “gatherings” at No. 10, but they are also infuriated by the obfuscation of this Government, avoiding accountability. Therefore, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman refer these matters to the police, because my constituents have no confidence in an internal investigation? The investigation must be independent, in order for us all to be able to see what really happened.

The Cabinet Secretary is independent. Cabinet Secretaries in this country serve all the political parties, dependent on who is in government, and they can be relied upon to investigate the matter fully, independently. We will await the results of his investigation.

Just today, the Tories were fined nearly £18,000 for not declaring the donation for Downing Street refurbishment. So will the Minister confirm that a gathering to look at the Prime Minister’s shiny new curtains still would breach regulations? More importantly, will the Minister confirm that even if people stick to the line, “It was a socially distanced gathering, with bring-your-own booze”, that is still a party that breached the regulations and that if the Prime Minister was armed with that information, he misled Parliament and must resign?

The nature of any gathering is, as I have repeatedly said, going to be a matter for the investigation.

Like most ordinary people, I have no idea what the difference is between a gathering and a party, and I note that the Minister has been unable to clarify that. Given the complete absence of leadership that we have witnessed, does he share my wider concern that as we enter a new wave of the pandemic, these unsavoury revelations have seriously and gravely undermined public compliance with the rules, which will cost lives? In view of that, why should anyone believe a single word the Prime Minister says?

The Prime Minister has initiated an investigation by the Cabinet Secretary and it is a matter now for the Cabinet Secretary to delve into. He will, of course, have all the authority commensurate with that office to seek to discuss the matter with individuals and to source any documents or anything else he may need. He will have that authority, so it is now a matter for him.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 13 December will include:

Monday 13 December—Consideration of Lords message relating to the Armed Forces Bill followed by, remaining stages of the Subsidy Control Bill.

Tuesday 14 December—Motions to approve statutory instruments relating to public health following the statement made by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care yesterday.

Wednesday 15 December—Second Reading of the Professional Qualifications Bill [Lords].

Thursday 16 December—Debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

At the conclusion of business on Thursday 16 December, the House will rise for the Christmas recess and return on Wednesday 5 January.

By your leave, Mr Speaker, I wish to say a few words of thanks to the former Cabinet Office adviser Gosia McBride, whose secondment to the Government came to an end this week upon her return to the House service to take on the crucial role of the head of the Governance Office and the secretary to the Commission. The period of her secondment has seen some unprecedented challenges and she has worked tirelessly to provide invaluable advice to Ministers, and especially to me, on parliamentary procedure and handling, particularly in response to the covid-19 pandemic, when our procedures had to be adapted.

I am immensely pleased that I will have the opportunity to continue to work with Gosia in her new role on the Commission. She is absolutely brilliant and a source of first-class advice. The House is very lucky to be served by Clerks of such ability and it is truly the case, Mr Speaker, that my loss is very much your gain, but we will both work with her in future and I have a feeling she will keep us both in good order.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business and, of course, join him in giving wholehearted thanks to Gosia McBride, with whom I look forward to working in her new role on the Commission and in the Governance Office.

Will the motion on Tuesday to approve the statutory instruments relating to public health following yesterday’s announcement include any mention of mandatory vaccination for NHS staff, as has been widely rumoured?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister stood right there at the Dispatch Box and said that he was “sickened” by a party that apparently did not happen—it might have been an event—but, if it did happen, definitely did not break any rules. But that is exactly why he—or rather, the Cabinet Secretary—will now hold an inquiry and that is exactly why evidence will be handed over about something that may or may not have e