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Commons Chamber

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 23 June 2022

House of Commons

Thursday 23 June 2022

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—

Agri-research

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has one of the five largest science and innovation budgets in Government. It is investing £270 million in innovation through the farming innovation programme to 2029, working with our leading-edge agricultural research institutions across the UK’s four nations to harness the power of innovation.

The advocate-general of the European Union recommended gene editing, but the European Court of Justice opposed it and put it in the same category as genetically modified organisms. Professor Nigel Halford said that

“the decision could set back agbiotech in Europe by another 20 years. We are already a generation behind. Young scientists interested in agbiotech are likely to move to places where common sense and scientific evidence prevail”.

In the name of better productivity, healthier food and scientific progress, when does my hon. Friend expect to see gene-edited crops on the UK market?

The EU has just opened a consultation on the issue, because my hon. Friend is totally right that precision-bred crops are very different. We have already taken steps, starting with the introduction of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which will go into Committee very shortly. Through its agricultural research institutes, the UK is at the leading edge. There will be overwhelming benefits for climate change, food resilience, pest resistance and so on. I look forward to the Bill receiving support across the House, going through Committee and going on to the other place.

Wet Wipes: Plastic

Like the hon. Member, I am determined to tackle the issue. We have already run a call for evidence to explore policy options for tackling wet wipes, including a possible ban on those that contain plastic. We have also sought views on mandatory flushability standards, mandatory labelling and an extended producer responsibility scheme.

I welcome the Minister’s response. Billions of wet wipes containing plastic are still being used across the country, causing environmental damage and blocking our sewers. The consultation finished in February and there is still no ban in sight. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the next steps towards achieving a ban?

There was a huge response to the call for evidence, and we are working our way through the details. We have to make sure that if a ban is brought in, it does not have knock-on effects that will cause similar problems. Even though other wet wipes might be deemed suitable to flush, they still get stuck in sewers, so we have to be mindful of that. I say to everybody, “If you don’t need to use a wet wipe, don’t—and don’t chuck them down the loo.”

Could the Minister expand on that answer? When are the results of the call for evidence on the proposals to ban single-use plastics likely to be published?

My hon. Friend’s question demonstrates the interest in the issue. I am just as interested myself, but we have to get the science right. We must not jump out of the frying pan into the fire, so we are exploring all options and the science behind them before we make an announcement, but I assure him that it will be made shortly.

My constituent Stephen, who is blind and partially deaf, has an assistance dog called Jodie. Stephen has told me that he is required to pay £160 for an animal health certificate and vaccines each time he takes Jodie to an EU country—

Anyone who has visited a sewage works such as Budds Farm in Havant or Bishop’s Waltham, as I have, can see the impact of wet wipes on the sewerage system. What more can we do now to raise awareness of the issues among the public so that only the three Ps are flushed down the loo?

I am a mother who did not use wet wipes. It is all about comms and education. If one has to flush, one should look for the flushability logo. My hon. Friend is so right, because 93% of sewerage blockages are caused by wet wipes, which then get fat stuck around them, causing fatbergs. The more we talk about not using them, the better.

The Minister will know that when there are overflow discharges into rivers from water treatment works, wet wipes are not filtered out. She will also know that the River Tame has a very high concentration of microplastics. It is of massive concern to me, as secretary of the Friends of the Tame Valley, that the trees along the riverbank are littered with wet wipes. What is the Minister doing, not only to get the message out about not flushing wet wipes down the toilet, but to clean up our riverbanks so that they do not look like a horrific scene from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”?

I can only agree that it is revolting. We are getting sewage overflows more frequently than we need because of blockages with wet wipes. It is slightly extraordinary really, but that is why we are doing all the work and that is why we have done the call for evidence. We will come up with some suggestions for what we propose to do very shortly.

Farm Profitability

We will spend over £600 million on farm-based innovation over the next three years. Our recent food strategy outlined how we intend to use grant support to help businesses invest to improve their profitability and increase their agricultural output. While we will not tell farmers what to invest in, we will support the investment decisions that they judge to be right for their own businesses.

My farmers are seeing rising production costs, from increases in fertiliser costs, feed prices going up, the price of red diesel agriculture fuel doubling and increasing labour costs because of low availability of labour in the south-west. Those pressures will increase food prices further or see farms go to the wall. What more can be done?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is true that farmers are facing increased input costs, particularly for fertiliser, fuel, animal feed and energy. Some farm-gate prices are also at record highs, and that is helping to mitigate the impact of those increased costs. The Government have already announced a package of measures to support farmers with the availability of fertiliser. To help with cash flow, we have brought forward basic payment scheme payments to July, and we have also announced an additional 10,000 visas through the seasonal worker visa route to help with labour shortages.

What is the Secretary of State’s latest assessment of the impact on farm profits of plunging exports, new red tape and the labour shortage caused by the Conservative Government’s Brexit deal?

Farm incomes have seen a strong recovery since the 2016 referendum. Land prices are running at record highs and the price of milk has also increased. Farm profits have been on the rise in recent years. In the current year, it is true that the increased input costs caused by the spike in gas prices will put pressure on margins, but it is in the context of a successful post-Brexit boom for agriculture generally.

While the other place’s International Agreements Committee report broadly welcomed the Australia-UK trade deal for sectors such as financial services, it was concerned about the deal’s impact on UK agriculture, highlighting that it will allow the importation of beef from deforested land, crops grown with pesticides not permitted in the UK or the EU, and often no protection from copies for products such as Scottish whisky and Cornish pasties. The Committee fears that that will continue with other trade deals that the Government pursue and criticises their refusal to involve the devolved Governments. How can farms and our food and drink sector remain profitable in the face of such free trade agreements? Does the Secretary of State accept that his failure to achieve protections from untrammelled competition for farmers and food producers will ultimately have an impact on their businesses and livelihoods?

In the context of the free trade agreement with Australia, we secured staging protections for the sensitive sectors of beef and lamb for a decade, and then a very strong special agricultural safeguard thereafter, set against volumes. We judged that that would be sufficient to manage any risks to the market. It is important to recognise that Australia cannot compete with the UK on the vast majority of agricultural products, including dairy. In lamb, New Zealand cannot compete with the UK and does not use the quota it already has. Beef is an issue that we are watching, but we believe that we have the right protections in place.

Peatlands

We have a genuine focus on protecting and enhancing our peatlands, because that helps to tackle net zero and add to wider ecosystem services. We have an England peat action plan and a nature for climate fund, £4.8 million of which is to restore 3,500 hectares of blanket bog in the Pennines. That forms part of a bigger initiative working with the great northern bog.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty contains some of the largest areas of blanket peat bog in the UK. Peat can trap up to four times as much carbon dioxide as woodland. The peatland code provides a real opportunity for the voluntary carbon market to show it has quantifiable and additional benefits for the environment. What are the Government doing to highlight that and enable more environmental opportunities for areas of blanket bog peatlands, and ensure that environmental schemes are concentrated on where they can do the most good and not taking up—

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the value that restoring peat can bring to us. That is why we have nearly 100 restoration projects across the UK registered with the peatland code, which he referenced, enabling the restoration of nearly 14,000 hectares of peatland. Through the natural environment investment readiness fund and the peatland grant scheme, we are also developing a lot of pipeline investing projects that will bring forward all the things he is highlighting.

Food Strategy

5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implementation of the Government food strategy published in June 2022. (900675)

Before answering this question, I would like to take this opportunity to correct the record. In an urgent question to which I replied on 19 May, I stated:

“We are largely self-sufficient in wheat production, growing 88% of all the wheat that we need.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 839.]

In fact, we produce 88% of the cereals that we need and the figure for wheat is a little lower, at 81%.

In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, let me say that the food strategy has themes that are cross-cutting and have effects on policy in many other Departments. I can therefore confirm that the process of securing collective agreement meant that this issue was discussed exhaustively with Cabinet colleagues and other Departments.

I thank the Minister for that response. Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy was an

“excellent plan to help people escape the ‘junk food cycle’”.

That is what the former Conservative leader William Hague said when he was writing in The Times a few weeks ago. He went on to describe the Government’s U-turn on implanting any of the recommendations in that strategy as

“intellectually shallow, politically weak and morally reprehensible”.

Was he right?

No, he was wrong, because we have implemented new point-of-sale restrictions, which take effect later this year, in October. That is already driving reformulation; so we have put in place policies that deliver on the issues highlighted in Henry Dimbleby’s report. As for advertising and bans on promotions, we do not believe that that is the right thing to do in the context of rising food prices.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for issuing reports on food strategy, but I am still not entirely convinced that we have a long-term sustainable policy on the production of indigenous fertiliser in this country. Will he put into the House of Commons Library additional information for us to share with our farmers on this very important issue? Given the rising costs of fertiliser and the concerns about potential closures of fertiliser plants, may we have these assurances?

Although CF Fertilisers has confirmed its intention to close the Ince plant, it is maintaining production at the Billingham plant, which is the largest of the plants, and I understand that it has full order books until later this year.

On CF Fertilisers, may I thank the Secretary of State for the time he took yesterday to discuss the future of the site? I am pleased to see that there is interest in purchasing the plant. Does he agree that despite the ongoing challenges that the industry faces, with a parent company that increased its dividends by 33% in the first quarter, there is no reason why the plant cannot be sold as a going concern?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; although CF Fertilisers has chosen to consolidate its UK operations into Billingham, the Ince plant remains viable and the best commercial exit from that plant for CF Fertilisers would be to progress an offer based on selling it as a going concern. There are many skilled people in his constituency who have been working at that plant, and the best outcome for all concerned would be for it to be sold as a going concern.

The Secretary of State has just mentioned that we lack total self-sufficiency in wheat production. Presumably, given the skyrocketing prices in the wheat market because of what is happening in Ukraine, the Government food strategy is more about producing more of our own wheat. I do not ask him to comment on a particular planning application, but what does he think of an application to build a solar farm covering 7,000 acres of good agricultural land in my constituency? I am not asking him to comment on that proposal around Gainsborough, but will he consult his colleagues to ensure that we maximise food production on our farmland?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Some years ago, we changed the planning guidance from the chief planning officer in the then Department for Communities and Local Government to make it clear that there should be a powerful presumption against the construction of field-scale solar on the best and more versatile agricultural land—that is defined as grade 3b land and above. I am aware that there are concerns that in some parts of the country that advice is no longer holding and applications are being approved, and we are discussing that across Government.

Pets: Travelling Abroad

We are clear that we meet all the requirements to gain both part 1 listed status and recognition of the UK’s tapeworm-free status. We see no valid animal health reason for those not to be granted. We are carrying out further engagement to make progress on this issue.

I thank the Minister for her answer and wonder whether she could elaborate. My constituent, Stephen, who is blind and partially deaf, has an assistance dog called Jodie. Steven has told me that he is required to pay £160 for an animal health certificate and vaccines each time he takes Jodie to an EU country. I wrote to DEFRA on Steven’s behalf more than a year ago and received a response that basically said that the change has still not happened. Does the Minister recognise the impact of this slow progress on Stephen and other people who rely on assistance dogs? Could she elaborate further on what Stephen might do?

I do recognise the challenge. There is no change for animals coming from the EU to here and there is no reason why that arrangement should not be reciprocal. We are proactively engaging with the assistance dog community and relevant stakeholders and we are continuing the engagement with the EU to make sure that we can overcome this challenge.

Food Security

As we have recently heard, we have a high degree of food security in the UK. We produce 74% of the food that we can grow here and we have robust supply chains for the rest. Our food strategy sets security as a goal. We are clearly concerned by the rising pressures on household incomes and are monitoring them very closely.

With studies showing that 9.9 million people across the UK cut back on food or missed meals altogether in April, why are the Government cutting money to FareShare, which, in my constituency, has supplied the equivalent of 63,200 meals to charities over the past year?

We have worked very closely with FareShare, an organisation that I have the utmost respect for, during the last couple of years in particular. Tackling poverty in all forms is a real priority for the Government and the Chancellor has now committed £37 billion-worth of support as part of a package to help families with food costs.

An important part of food security is reducing food waste. I recently visited an amazing organisation in my patch, the Horley Food Club, which is doing tremendous work recycling food waste into the hands of the community, using great food that would otherwise have been thrown away. However, the big supermarkets say that some regulations are holding them back, such as use-by labelling. Will the Minister update the House on what we might be able to do about that?

I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this really important question. I am pleased to confirm that the Food Standards Agency has agreed to ensure that there are no more unnecessary barriers to food redistribution through food banks or other types of community sharing organisations. I would be ever so happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further.

The president of the National Farmers Union Scotland, Martin Kennedy, has said that the UK is on the verge of food security concerns not seen since world war two, due to a “perfect storm” driven by covid, Brexit and the Ukraine war, with the 300% increase in the cost of fertiliser impacting food production costs, on top of the rises in feed and fuel costs and the labour shortages affecting the sector. The SNP called for financial support for food producers months ago when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Will the Minister clarify whether the UK Government will heed that call?

As the hon. Lady knows, agriculture is devolved. In England, we have been able to take steps to support our farmers through rising input costs, such as those for fertiliser. On fertiliser, we have been able to bring forward the support payment to July from December to give farmers the confidence to place orders for fertiliser, which is important. We have also made other changes to the guidance on farming rules for water and urea, for example, which really ought to help the movement from chemical fertilisers to biofertilisers.

Yesterday, inflation hit a new 40-year high at 9.1% amid the cost of living crisis. Things seem to be getting worse with each month that passes. Currently, 7.3 million people are living in food poverty, including 2.6 million children. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people who will be in food poverty by Christmas this year? If that assessment does exist, can it be published and put in the House of Commons Library?

We continue to monitor very closely both the cost of food and the effect that this has on household budgets of those who are struggling. The Chancellor, as I have said, has recently added £15 billion to his total support package for struggling families—£37 billion in total. We know that food, while a very important part of household expenditure, is not the largest part in terms of cost for families. It is around 11% in the average family and 14% in more struggling families. We continue to work very closely with a wide range of organisations to make sure that we know what is happening on the ground and that we can intervene where necessary.

The Government’s own food security report relies on the existence of food banks to keep the UK fed. However, food banks cannot keep up today with the rocketing demand. Far from levelling up, what we see in reality is that our northern regions are the hardest hit with the highest levels of food insecurity. Is it not the truth that the Government’s record of low wages, low growth, record tax rises and out-of-control inflation is keeping people skint and hungry, and that the Government just do not have a plan to address it?

I dispute that. We very much have a plan to continue to help people with the pressures on the cost of living. This is a very difficult and sensitive issue. Often, the higher costs are in the housing or the fuel sphere, but it is important that we continue to work with the Trussell Trust and others, with which we have an excellent working relationship after the pandemic. We have all learned to deal in a much more granular way with food supply chains and how to get food to people who need it. It is important that we dial down the political tone on this and continue to help people who need it.

Village Halls

Village halls are at the heart of so many rural communities, and I am absolutely delighted that we have launched the platinum jubilee village hall improvement fund. Just as a mark of how important I think village halls are, let me tell Members that, when our own village celebrated 50 years of its village hall, I wrote a song about it, which I am still being teased about.

I thank the Minister for not sharing that song with us.

As a former chair of my local village hall, I know how important village halls can be in connecting people of all ages. That was particularly evident during the pandemic. Village halls are generally run by small dedicated teams of volunteers who, unfortunately, are continually scraping around for the cash to keep them open. What more can we do to give easier and more sustainable funding to ensure that as many of these vital community hubs as possible can stay open?

My hon. Friend makes such a good point. I congratulate him on his former role, and all those who have been on village hall committees. That included my husband who regaled me with many tales of what was said at the village hall committee. Our platinum jubilee village hall fund will provide for many halls the support they need to modernise, upgrade, and put in new internet and so forth. We also have a grant to support Action with Communities in Rural England to provide support for village halls across the whole country with advice, including on other sources of funding.

Puppy Smuggling

We are delivering on our manifesto pledge to crack down on the smuggling of dogs and puppies. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill includes powers to introduce further restrictions. We have recently consulted on these and we will be publishing our report very shortly.

The steps proposed in the kept animals Bill, in our Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on the movement of animals across borders, and in the commercial and non-commercial movements of pets in Britain consultation are desperately needed. I, as a vet, along with charities such as the Dogs Trust, have serious concerns about the biosecurity of the UK’s dogs if smugglers continue to be able to abuse the system. Will my hon. Friend go further and commit to now introducing visual checks on dogs that enter the country and also institute pre-entry health checks and preventative measures such as tick treatments?

My hon. Friend has long taken a particular interest in this matter and he was a very involved member of the Bill Committee. As I said, we will shortly publish the results of the consultation that deals with the matter. I very much look forward, as I am sure he does, to seeing the Bill back on the Floor of the House as soon as possible.

Discharge of Untreated Sewage

12. What steps he is taking to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers, inland waterways and the sea. (900685)

This Government are the first to set out our expectation that water companies must take significant steps to reduce storm sewage overflows. Through the Environment Act 2021 we have set a legal duty on water companies to reduce discharges and enhance monitoring, and we have just consulted on the largest programme in history to tackle storm overflows. Sadly, the hon. Gentleman’s party voted against these measures in the Environment Bill.

The Environmental Audit Committee recently recommended that Ministers tackle water pollution by setting a stretching timetable for progressive reduction in sewage overflows. However, under the storm overflow discharge reduction plan, half the storm overflows would still be spilling untreated sewage in 2040. This is totally unacceptable to my constituents, who have every right to expect clean and healthy waterways. Will the Government show some ambition and commit to a target of 100% of sewage outflows in priority areas not causing ecological harm by 2030?

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the storm overflow discharge reduction plan, which we will publish in September. A huge amount of scientific research is informing this, and we have set a revolutionary system in place that will tackle these storm sewage overflows. We also have to be mindful of the cost of this on water bills, but we are certainly tackling the worst areas first—bathing waters and protected sites. We have a very sound system in place to deal with this once and for all, and the water companies have to clean up their act.

Windermere is England’s biggest lake, and the beautiful weather this week has attracted huge numbers of swimmers to its shores, but people are being advised by conservationists not to swim or let their dogs in the water due to the amount of raw sewage being pumped into it by United Utilities. However, the official figures report that the Environment Agency claims that the amount of untreated sewage has reduced and there were no spills last year. Will the Minister admit that the reporting system is broken and take urgent steps to ensure that there is reliable monitoring so that people can enjoy beautiful Lake Windermere?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, but that is why we have a very sound system in place through the Environment Act and through our directions to Ofwat, the regulator, to tackle this area. It is why event duration monitoring will be in all storm overflows by 2023. It is why we have such an important and comprehensive system of monitoring and reporting back on when these storm overflows are being used. It is why we are tackling the water quality above and below storm sewage overflows so that we can demonstrate what is happening and action can be taken—and action will be taken on the water companies; we make absolutely no bones about that at all.

Topical Questions

I take this opportunity to welcome the confirmation this week that the UN convention on biological diversity, COP15, will now be going ahead at the end of this year in Canada under China’s presidency. This week, in preparation for that, the UK will lead ambitious calls to protect nature at Nairobi in the run-up to building ambitious biodiversity targets.

This week I met the US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture to discuss many issues around sustainable agriculture and trade. I am pleased to announce today that the UK will join the Sustainable Productivity Growth Coalition convened by the United States. I look forward to working with our international partners in this dialogue on innovation, science and sustainable agriculture.

The wine trade, and particularly wines produced in the UK, plays an increasing important role in Southport’s food and drink industry. Will my right hon. Friend meet some of these businesses to listen to how the proposed duty reforms will affect their trade?

My hon. Friend will know that duty and tax is a matter for the Treasury, but I am more than happy to meet his constituents. The English wine industry has been a fabulous success story in recent decades.

Given the impact covid has had on mental health and wellbeing, for many, access to the outdoors was a vital escape, but the Secretary of State will know that access is not equal. Research by Wildlife and Countryside Link highlights that the poorest communities are twice as likely to live in a neighbourhood without access to nature. What are the Government doing to ensure that every neighbourhood in every corner of England finally has access to a green and pleasant land?

We have set out some detailed proposals on this, both in our response to the Glover review, but also under the Environment Act 2021. Local authorities will be required to have local nature recovery strategies in future, and that will include commitments around public access in particular locations. We have also opened a new farming and protected landscape scheme, which is all about supporting public access to the countryside.

T2. Residents in Gedling have recently received letters regarding a nearby outbreak of avian flu, and I am grateful for the work of DEFRA officials in combating that, but might my right hon. Friend be able to offer any update on when restrictions are likely to be lifted? I am particularly thinking of my constituents who race pigeons. There is a short pigeon racing season from April to September, and they are currently prevented from doing so. They would like to get on with their hobby. (900690)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has highlighted, we have witnessed the worst avian flu outbreaks on record in recent months, having sustained 122 cases this year. We will lift restrictions in disease control zones, including those on racing pigeons, as soon as we are able to do so, because of the biosecurity need. This week, we have announced that scientists across the UK will join forces in a major new research consortium to fight against avian flu. I note that my hon. Friend has written to me, so he will get a fuller answer.

T3. Almost 343,000 meals were redistributed in Glasgow South West thanks to FareShare and other charitable organisations, yet FareShare says that its Government funding has been cut. Does the Secretary of State intend to meet FareShare and concerned Members of the House to discuss its funding, so that we can support its #FoodOnPlates campaign? (900691)

I met FareShare recently to discuss a particular proposal it had around trying to ensure that waste on farms was redistributed where possible. We did increase the funding for FareShare temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic, and we continue to support it, but obviously I will look into the specific case he raises.

T4.   The UK’s dependence on food imports makes it vulnerable to food insecurity and soaring prices. I know that the Minister will be joining me next week to welcome Infarm, which is bringing one of Europe’s largest vertical farming facilities to Bedford. Can she reassure me that these innovative urban farming methods will supplement, not replace traditional farming methods to ensure that Britain and indeed the world is more food secure? (900692)

I am very much looking forward to visiting next Monday, and I reassure the hon. Member that while there is no silver bullet, it is important that we use everything we have available. The innovation that is coming in vertical farms, in greenhouses and so on gives us the opportunity to produce more food in the UK to feed ourselves.

T5. I recently joined my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) on a visit to the Colne Valley regional park, which covers a number of Members’ constituencies. It is an important haven for agriculture, aquaculture and leisure. Will the Government support our campaign to improve the protections for this vital green space on the edge of London? (900694)

Our landscape review highlighted that areas of outstanding natural beauty are often just as important as national parks to their local communities, as my hon. Friend is demonstrating. We will be working with the National Association for AONBs to better reflect AONBs’ significance through their name and their purposes, and we have allocated additional funding to support that this year. In terms of new AONBs, we are always happy to consider applications from interested parties.

With prices spiking for fertiliser and vital fuels such as tractor diesel, farmers in Lincolnshire face extreme pressure on cash flow. Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving farmers the support and confidence they need to plan for the future is vital to our food security?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is why we have decided this year to give the industry the confidence needed by bringing forward half of the BPS payment to July from December. That will help ease those cash-flow pressures. In the context of Lincolnshire, which has a particularly strong horticultural background, we have increased the number of visas so that farmers can have access to the labour they need.

T6. On Tuesday, at Foreign Office questions, the House paid tribute to the activists Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, who were killed while working on the book “How to Save the Amazon”. Does the Secretary of State agree that our food chain is contaminated by products linked to deforestation, in particular livestock feed from imported soya that is grown in the region, and that we need to do much more to stamp that out and protect the work of activists seeking to expose this? (900695)

The hon. Lady raises a sad and tragic case, and our thoughts are with the affected families. On her specific question, she will know that we have introduced legislation to push for due diligence in supply chains; that will require producers in the UK to ensure there is due diligence right through their supply chain, in particular for forest-risk products.

Following last year’s mass shellfish mortality off the Yorkshire coast, the problem has still not gone away: catches of lobster are 50% down despite vessels venturing further out to sea. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has attributed this to algal bloom, but other theories are circulating. Will the Minister publish all the toxicology data available for sediment, sea water and dead crustaceans to independent scrutiny? Is it true that the recent extensive dredging of the River Tees is based on just one silt sample taken in February last year?

My right hon. Friend and the neighbouring MP are very concerned, as am I, about what happened last year, and I have been to see some of the crabs affected. As he said, we are not entirely sure of the cause of the mortality but algal bloom seems the most likely explanation. I have made it clear that we should publish every single piece of information available, and academics must work together on this.

Last Friday I was able to celebrate with the Environment Agency the investment of £45 million into flood resilience in York and the £38 million on the completion of the flood barrier. However, that came with a 17-year warning that unless investment is put upstream we could be here again by 2039. What steps is the Minister taking to address the upland resilience we need for the future?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes that funding on the Foss barrier; it is a tremendous project and well done to everyone involved. She also mentioned upstream work: we are investing £200 million in projects to investigate innovative and creative ways to deal with upstreams so we can stop the water before it gets to where it is causing the problem.

Church Commissioners

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

Persecution of Christians Overseas

1. What steps the Church is taking to support the implementation of recommendations in the final report of the Bishop of Truro’s review on persecution of Christians overseas. (900659)

The murder of 50 Catholics in church this month in Ondo state in Nigeria and the ongoing murders for alleged blasphemy are a stark reminder of why the Church of England stands foursquare behind the implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s review.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s response but the independent review of progress on Truro is due now, as required by recommendation 22. Will he join me in pressing for that? Does he agree that, whatever it says, there will be more work to do on the Truro recommendations and that that must continue as the problem of persecution across the world is getting worse? This year’s Open Doors world watch list indicates that 20 million more Christians than a year ago will be highly persecuted and that across the world a Christian is killed every two hours for their faith.

That is absolutely right, and the situation does indeed continue to get worse, not better, with over 4,000 Christians murdered for their faith last year. To end the work of the Truro review now would be unthinkable. Recommendation 6 calls for the establishment of the special envoy role permanently and in perpetuity, as for example in the United States of America, and the Church of England supports the full and ongoing implementation of recommendation 6.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Political Campaigning: Transparency

2. What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential effect of the (a) Elections Act 2022 and (b) provisions in the Online Safety Bill on the transparency of political campaigning communications. (900660)

The commission’s view is that the digital imprints requirement in the Elections Act will increase transparency by helping voters understand who is paying to target them online. It could provide further transparency if the requirement were extended to cover all digital material from unregistered campaigners, regardless of whether they paid to promote it. The commission has said that other changes in the Act relating to non-party campaigners will bring limited additional transparency, while increasing the complexity of the law.

The Online Safety Bill would include new freedom of speech protections for some campaigning content, but does not include any provisions that would directly affect the transparency of political campaign activities.

Recently, openDemocracy highlighted research that suggests it is difficult to establish exactly what more than £3.6 million was spent on by the Conservative party before the 2019 general election because of unclear or even unavailable invoices. Without that clarity, it is obviously difficult to establish exactly what political campaigning communications resulted from contracts that included £700,000 and £1.6 million to political consultancy firms, or even from the 200 out of 300 local Conservative branches that apparently submitted returns with no invoices. Yet the commission said it was “not proportionate” to take enforcement action. Under what circumstances would the commission be prepared to take action?

The commission reviewed the spending return delivered by the Conservative party following the 2019 parliamentary general election, and is aware that not all the required invoices were provided. Having reviewed the compliance of the return as a whole, it was decided that it was not proportionate to take enforcement action in relation to those missing invoices.

The hon. Member mentioned local associations, and local association campaign spending and accompanying invoices or receipts at a UK parliamentary general election are submitted as part of the spending return from their central party. The commission is required to publish the returns as soon as reasonably possible, whether or not they are complete. When a return is incomplete, the commission will consider what action to take in line with the principles of proportionality, as set out in its enforcement policy.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Schools

3. What recent assessment the Church has made of the contribution of its schools to education (a) in Penrith and The Border constituency and (b) across England. (900661)

The Church of England educates over 1 million children in its community schools across England, including nearly half of the primary schools in the Penrith and The Border constituency. These schools are generally very popular with parents of all faiths and none, and have a vision to be deeply Christian, to serve the common good and to foster a thirst for knowledge across a broad curriculum.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Unfortunately, the educational attainment of children across the country, including in rural areas, can all too often be impacted by poverty and isolation, including food and energy poverty. Would my hon. Friend join me in thanking the Church of England, including its schools in Cumbria and across the country, for supporting those vulnerable families, particularly in the challenging times of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis? Will the Church commit to continue to provide that vital support?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s thanks, and I can reassure him that the Church of England will continue to support vulnerable families wherever possible—for example, by buying school uniforms, providing breakfast clubs for free and paying for school trips. In the village of Shankhill in his constituency, the Church school supports the whole community by acting as a village hall for gatherings, lunches and intergenerational activities.

What assessment has the Church of England made of the impact, particularly on rural Church of England schools, of the dramatic reduction in the number of priests in some dioceses? Does the hon. Member share my concern that money generated by parishes is being increasingly sucked into diocesan administration and projects, meaning that an impossibly small number of priests serve huge numbers of parishes? That threatens the very future of English parish life, including the role of rural Church schools.

I totally understand the point the right hon. Gentleman is making. He will know that the Church of England absolutely holds to its vision to have a Church of England presence in every community. Of course, he is right that if there are not so many incumbents, it can be difficult for them to go in and do assemblies in Church schools and so on, but the Church is really focused on the frontline and putting the parish first.

Church education is quite rightly a priority for our Church, particularly for its leadership, but can my hon. Friend assure me that significant appointments to the Church, particularly to the House of Bishops, demonstrate that the Church of England is actively seeking to represent the breadth of opinion among its members, particularly those of a more conservative theological disposition?

Order. Sorry, but that is not a relevant question. [Interruption.] I know that the hon. Gentleman is shaking his head at me, but I cannot allow open supplementary questions on a closed question.

Freedom of Religious Belief: International Ministerial Conference

4. What role the Church will play in supporting the UK-hosted international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July 2022. (900664)

The Church of England is working closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to support the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief taking place in London the week after next, and very much wants the conference to make a difference. The Archbishop of Canterbury will address the conference.

Christian minorities across the world are clearly under threat of forced conversion or potentially death. What more can the Church do to ensure that minorities are protected across the world, starting with this conference?

My hon. Friend is right. Christians are the most persecuted faith, and the Church of England will always stand up for all people who are being persecuted. He is also right that the Church needs to show global leadership by building relationships with the leaders of other faiths and with Governments so that there can be truthful conversations about what change needs to happen. The Anglican communion has great expertise in inter-faith relations, and we will focus on that in the Lambeth conference this summer. He is also right that that needs to be a priority, given that persecution is getting worse.

Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

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

Protection of Stonework

5. What steps the sponsor body plans to take to ensure that historically significant stonework is protected throughout restoration works to the Palace of Westminster. (900665)

Following decisions by the House Commissions in February, the sponsor body paused its work on producing a business case for the restoration and renewal programme. The two Commissions have now proposed a new approach for how the programme should be governed and delivered. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that the Commissions recommend that a priority area for the work should be

“Conservation of the building fabric including stonework.”

It is intended that the new proposals will be put to Members of both Houses for debate and decision before the summer recess.

I recently took a restoration and renewal Palace tour and saw historically significant artwork painted directly on to the stone in parts of the building that are at risk of flooding. How it can be ensured that that artwork is not lost for future generations to enjoy and that it is properly protected during restoration works?

That is an extremely good question. As I sit on the sponsor board, I can say that that is an absolute priority for everybody working for the delivery authority. A huge amount of work has already been done in listing and understanding every part of the fabric and every piece of artwork; the hon. Lady can rest assured that, once the works commence, every effort will be made to remove those artworks so that they are not in any way damaged.

Church Commissioners

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

Places of Worship: Net Zero Target

6. What contribution the Church has made towards achieving the Government’s net zero target in relation to its places of worship. (900666)

The Church of England is trying to achieve net zero by 2030. Examples include solar panels on the roofs of Gloucester and Salisbury cathedrals, heat pumps and underfloor heating in Newcastle cathedral and Bath abbey using natural hot spring water. I even have a vicar coming to see me shortly about a tidal power proposition for his church.

I recently attended a wonderful service at St Mary’s church in Tickhill; it is a beautiful 12th century church and the pride of Tickhill. However, it is struggling to raise finance to replace its dated heating system. If that was to be replaced with a ground-source heat pump, that would cost in excess of £750,000. What can my hon. Friend suggest to help the church? Many of my other churches will face the same issue, including those in Hatfield, Rossington, Bawtry and Thorne, among others.

I absolutely get the scale of the challenge as I have similar churches in my constituency, and I know that the churches that my hon. Friend mentioned in Hatfield, Rossington, Bawtry and Thorne will be looking at the issue carefully. In the first instance, I suggest that they look at the diocese of Sheffield’s green energy audit scheme and the “funding net zero” section of the Church of England website. Emissions savings can be made by, for example, switching from oil to under-pew heating from renewable electricity.

Ukrainian Refugees

Four bishops and hundreds of clergy currently have Ukrainian evacuees living with them. The Church is also using vacant vicarages for Ukrainian families. The Church continues to encourage its members to open their homes and to support those who have.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. Certainly, I have seen lots of activities in churches in my own constituency. We have a lot of mums with children arriving in the United Kingdom and in South Northamptonshire. Lots of them either want to work or are working, but with the summer holidays fast approaching there will be the need for childcare. Can my hon. Friend give us an idea of what the Church can do to provide summer playgroups, so that Ukrainian children can keep learning English and making new friends?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is typically too modest to mention that she is herself host to a Ukrainian family. I thank her, on behalf of the Church of England, for what she is doing.

The point my right hon. Friend makes about summer holiday clubs for children is extremely important. I can tell her that most parishes are now operating such clubs, although we are not quite back to where we were before the pandemic, due to a shortage of volunteers. I will ask the Diocese of Peterborough to let her know the details of all our clubs operating in her area.

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to June Partington and others at the parish of Christ Church and St George’s in Denton? June and the parish have organised, on behalf of churches across Tameside in Greater Manchester, the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Is that not precisely what the Church of England, having parishes in every community, is about?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the strength of the Church is in its parish life. I am very happy to pay considerable tribute, and give thanks, to June and all the parishes in Tameside who are clearly doing such good and important work.

Russian Orthodox Church: Ukraine

8. What discussions representatives of the Church have had with their counterparts in the Russian Orthodox Church on the conflict in Ukraine. (900668)

The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken frankly with Patriarch Kirill during the invasion. The Church of England has chaplaincies in both Russia and Ukraine, and will continue to foster dialogue in the pursuit of peace.

Last week, the Foreign Office sanctioned the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. What steps can the Church of England take to try to persuade the Russian Orthodox Church that it is wrong to back Putin and this barbarous war?

The Church Commissioners and our pensions board were some of the first institutions to take all practical steps to withdraw from their direct investments in Russia. The Church of England remains committed to a ministry of reconciliation based on love and truth, and will continue to reach out—for example, through the chaplain of St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Moscow, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.

The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of many freedoms, including the freedom of religion or belief. I am very pleased that Ukraine will be represented at the conference on freedom of religion or belief here in July. What, in my hon. Friend’s opinion, would be a successful outcome to the conference for delegates such as those from Ukraine and elsewhere, where freedom of religion or belief is being violated or denied?

It is a really important question. The bottom line must be a reduction in global persecution, which is going up, not down. Presidents and Prime Ministers need to prioritise this issue. We need better co-ordination with civil society. We need freedom of religion or belief in education and we want young freedom of religion or belief ambassadors.

Institutional Racism

9. To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church is taking to tackle institutional racism. (900670)

Parts of the Church of England behaved appallingly in turning away Caribbean worshippers after the war. The Church has paid a heavy price in losing the spirit-filled vitality of those worshippers to spread the good news of Jesus. Work by Lord Boateng and the inspirational Peter Stream, which is drawing ordinands from a wide variety of races and backgrounds, is starting to redress that shameful episode.

The decision to refuse to ordain Calvin Robinson was a missed opportunity, but my hon. Friend is both a fair-minded and God-fearing person. I hope I can rely on him to ask the bishops to pray, reflect and reconsider.

I must say to my right hon. Friend that it would not be appropriate for me to comment specifically on an individual candidate for ordination. The period of initial formation for candidates is part of the discernment process, and not every candidate who starts training finishes it or is judged ready for ordination at the end of it. I am informed that, as with all applications for the ministry, this candidate was considered irrespective of Church tradition, political views or race.

British Council Contractors: Afghanistan

To ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to make a statement on British Council contractors in Afghanistan.

Last August, when the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating so rapidly, the UK Government worked at great speed to evacuate more than 15,000 people from the country within a fortnight. This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations, and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We are right to be proud of what our British forces and others achieved at that time. Those evacuated included British nationals and their families and about 500 particularly vulnerable Afghans, including some British Council contractors, journalists, human rights defenders, campaigners for women’s rights, judges, and many others. All former British Council employees who wished to resettle have arrived in the UK, with their family members.

The British Council played an important role in Afghanistan in working to support the UK mission there and to promote our values. It is right that the Government do the right thing for British Council employees and contractors, and that includes resettling eligible contractors if they are at risk. Therefore, in January this year the then Minister for Afghan Resettlement, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), announced the launch of a new Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which will resettle up to 20,000 eligible people over the coming years. There is no application process for the scheme, but people can express an interest in resettlement.

Eligible individuals will be referred for resettlement via three referral “pathways”. Under pathway 3, we are committed to considering eligible at-risk British Council and GardaWorld contractors as well as Chevening alumni. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will refer up to 1,500 people from Afghanistan and the region to the Home Office for resettlement, including eligible family members. On 20 June the FCDO opened an online system, whereby eligible individuals can express their interest in resettlement.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Minister for her response.

Members on both sides of the House have expressed our pride in and gratitude for Operation Pitting. However, I must say to the Minister that about 180 British Council contractors remain in Afghanistan, 85 of whom have been classified by us as being at “very high risk”, while a further 90 or so are deemed to be at “high risk”. They live in constant fear for their lives, moving from safe house to safe house as they are hunted by the Taliban. After questions in the House and a positive meeting with Lord Harrington, we finally secured a written ministerial statement last week announcing the opening of the ACRS on Monday, and that was welcome.

As the Minister mentioned, there is now a window for British Council contractors, GardaWorld employees and Chevening scholars to submit expressions of interest in coming to the UK, but this application window is open for two months, which may mean that submissions will not be processed by the Government, or decisions confirmed on individual submissions, until the middle of August. That would further delay the contractors’ journey to safety. However, responses to my written parliamentary questions earlier this week suggest that there might be some flexibility to allow applications to be processed before the window closes.

I suggest to the Minister that there is too much ambiguity, given the urgency of the case. It is clearly unacceptable that, 10 months after the fall of Kabul, we remain in this situation in which contractors—not just British Council contractors, but personnel who have promoted British interests, values and culture in Afghanistan—are still trying to sort out an application process that has taken too long as a result of bureaucracy. I therefore seek clarification on two important issues, and I would appreciate that clarification, because I do not want to keep coming back to the Chamber to pressurise the Government. I want answers, to help these people.

First, will submissions from those who are deemed to be at “very high risk” and “high risk” be processed before the closing of the application window in two months’ time—and here we are talking about the third week in August? Secondly, will their relocation to the UK or, in the interim, a third country, also be expedited so that they are able to leave Afghanistan as soon as they have been approved under the ACRS?

My hon. Friend has played an important role in championing the British Council, which does amazing work across the world—I have seen a lot of that work at first hand. It is absolutely right that we try to support the contractors, which is why we have made this online scheme available. We need to give people reasonable time to submit their expression of interest. I will look at the issue of very high-risk individuals, but we have not stopped taking people from Afghanistan since the end of Operation Pitting last August. In fact, another 4,600 people have since come to the UK, many through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy, including Ministry of Defence contractors and a wide range of other people such as members of the LGBT community, journalists, prosecutors, women’s rights activists and some country-based staff. Those 4,600 people have come here, and others have been referred through the UN pathways.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this important urgent question.

On behalf of the Labour Opposition, I extend my thoughts to all those currently suffering in Afghanistan following the dreadful earthquake earlier this week.

In February it was revealed that hundreds of British Council staff were left stranded in Afghanistan following this Government’s botched evacuation from Kabul. The Minister told the House at the time that the Government were supporting those in need and that 50 British Council contractors had been evacuated. Four months on, we are faced with the same problem: hundreds of former British Council contractors are stranded, with reports that they are being attacked and beaten by the Taliban due to their previous work on behalf of the United Kingdom.

Many of those still in Afghanistan are security guards who protected British staff at the embassy as they undertook an extremely difficult task during the evacuation last August. We owe so much to these courageous British Council contractors, and the fact that they are still in Afghanistan and facing daily violence due to their co-operation with the UK is, frankly, nothing short of a disgrace.

I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could tell us how many British Council staff are still stuck in Afghanistan today. What urgent measures are being put in place to evacuate the rest of the staff who are still stranded in Afghanistan? What engagement has she had with regional partners to facilitate safe passage for the former staff who attempt to leave? Once again, what message does it send to other British Council contractors who work in challenging environments around the world if the UK leaves Afghan contractors stranded in this way?

It is high time the Government got their act together and stood up for those who worked with the United Kingdom to promote security, tolerance and democracy in Afghanistan.

I also send my thoughts to those affected by the terrible earthquake two days ago. The UK is one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and we are already working with teams on the ground, including the UN, non-governmental organisations and the Red Cross, to get assistance to those who need it.

The hon. Gentleman asks how many British Council staff are still affected. I make it clear, as I did in my opening remarks, that all former British Council employees —in other words, British Council staff—who wished to resettle have arrived in the UK with their family members. British Council employees were prioritised both in Operation Pitting and in the immediate response to help those who were invited to take part in Operation Pitting but did not make it out, and they are among the 4,600 people who have since come out of Afghanistan.

The issue here is contractors. We have prioritised British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni in the 1,500 places we have this year. They will be able to put in their expression of interest between now and 15 August. I must say—maybe this will also help my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)—that if there are exceptional and compelling circumstances, for example a threat to life, they can set that out in their expression of interest and they will be considered for expediated action.

The bigger picture is that we chose to abandon Afghanistan and hand it back to the very insurgents we went in to defeat. We make grand promises to help the people of Afghanistan, the 40 million people left behind who are struggling to survive. Is it not now time to unfreeze the $9 billion-worth of Afghan assets? They belong to the Afghan people. We are not going to change the Taliban’s behaviour. The people who are now suffering because of that are the Afghans themselves, not the Taliban.

Let me be very clear: it was the Taliban who chose what to do in Afghanistan, rather than the UK. Our British forces did amazing work in that two-week window to bring British people out. The sanctions are important, but we also played a key role in establishing a humanitarian exemption under the United Nations Afghan sanctions regime. Thus we have a Security Council resolution adopted in December that gives an exemption from the asset freeze in order to provide humanitarian assistance. It is humanitarian assistance that people need. That is why in January we also laid our own sanctions regulations, which mean that we can also ensure that money for humanitarian needs and supporting basic needs can still flow.

I place on record my thoughts and those of all my SNP colleagues for all those impacted by the devastating earthquake in Afghanistan. If my calculations are correct, it is now 299 days since the end of Operation Pitting. While the efforts of our military personnel cannot be commended highly enough, what cannot be commended is the pitiful response of this Government, both in the weeks leading up to the fall of Afghanistan and in the many months since. Lest we forget, when Kabul was on the brink of collapse senior Government Ministers and senior civil servants were on holiday. Lest we forget, when people were literally falling from the outside of aircraft trying to flee the Taliban, the doors to this Parliament remained firmly shut. Lest we forget, it is nearly 300 days since Afghanistan fell and so many British Council contractors and others were left at the mercy of the Taliban. I ask the Minister this: why on earth is this taking so long, and when does she expect every single British contractor boot to be on UK soil?

Far from doing nothing over the past few months since Operation Pitting finished, the UK has been one of the leaders in the world in a) getting the exemption from the sanctions regime to help money to flow and b) ensuring that humanitarian aid is raised. In March we co-hosted the pledging conference and we are one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid ourselves. We have been working extremely closely to unlock the World Bank money, for example, and get that out. Since Operation Pitting finished, another 4,600 Afghan refugees or individuals from Afghanistan have arrived in the UK, including many from very vulnerable groups. It is a continuous process; we have committed to taking another 20,000 people through the ARAP system over the next few years, and that window is being prioritised for those contractors and our Chevening scholars.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) mentioned, there are just under 200 British Council contractors who are still trapped in Afghanistan. All of them are in fear for their lives. We must know the names of those individuals, but we probably do not know their exact location. Will my hon. Friend ensure that applications for those people to come out of Afghanistan to the UK can be lodged by other people on their behalf? Otherwise, people will have to spend time online and getting to places that will be unsafe for them to travel to.

I will certainly take up the point that my hon. Friend raises, but that is precisely why there needs to be a window of time for people to register their interest. I also point out that those taken under the pathway will be not only the individuals, but their family members; that is why 1,500 people will be able to come and we have a window of time to assess their needs and bring them through the pathway. I will certainly take on board my hon. Friend’s point about whether third parties can put in an application.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) is absolutely right. The hardest part of the process for the people affected is getting out of Afghanistan safely without it being detected that they are fleeing. Why on earth is there a two-month window only, rather than an open, rolling programme? Why is there a limit every year? As the hon. Members for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and for Harrow East have said, we already know who these people are.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that 4,600 people have already come to the UK since Operation Pitting. We are working to get some of the most vulnerable people out. This is an important prioritisation that we are doing for those who have been contractors—security contractors or British Council contractors. They need the window to express interest, but if there are exceptional circumstances such as threat to life, they will be considered for expedited action.

How many people have been resettled in the UK under the ACRS, since it opened in January, who had not been evacuated under Operation Pitting?

The 4,600 people who have been supported to leave Afghanistan and are either coming to the UK or, sometimes, moving to third countries—sorry, Mr Speaker; I should have been clearer on that point—includes people under both ACRS and ARAP.

What assessment has the Minister made of whether all those who might be eligible can safely and securely apply online for permission to come to this country? If they cannot do that, there has to be a fall-back position, has there not?

The hon. Gentleman is right that in certain parts of Afghanistan it is particularly challenging. That is part of the reason why we are giving a window.

I am listening to the Minister with a bit of incredulity. She said:

“It is right that the Government do the right thing…and that includes resettling eligible contractors if they are at risk.”

Minister, they are at risk! That is a totally mealy-mouthed and profoundly unhelpful statement. We have known about this for months and months. The UK Government have given those of us asking questions the runaround time after time. We know who these people are, we know that they are vulnerable and we know that their lives are at risk. Will the UK Government stop giving us all the runaround and tell us how and when these vulnerable people will be given the opportunity to come to safety?

I am actually extremely proud of the work that the UK does to support vulnerable people coming to the UK from so many different areas. Many of my constituents are working to bring in Ukrainian families and support the Afghans who have come to my constituency. Many tens of thousands of Hong Kong nationals have come here. As I said, 4,600 people have come under either ARAP or ACRS since then. This is an important prioritisation that we are doing to support these contractors. They will be given time to apply because, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) points out, sometimes it can be challenging to get online in these places. That is why we have to give them a window. We have brought 4,600 people, including some of the most vulnerable, during this period. These are difficult circumstances and the UK is doing much, much more than many others. I continue to be proud of what we are doing.

These British Council contractors live in fear for their lives on a daily basis. Each day they wake up could be the day of their death sentence. We know who they are. The logistics of getting them out of Afghanistan are going to be incredibly difficult. I would like to know what preparations the Minister has in place, not only to expedite their applications when they come in, but to physically get them to safety and out of the grip of the Taliban.

The hon. Gentleman will probably understand that I should not comment on that at this stage, particularly for those who are at risk. We have said that we will expedite matters, for example if there is a serious risk to life. We need to give this window for people to apply, but I am not going to comment on the specifics that the hon. Gentleman raises at this time.

Given the recent devastating logjams at the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Passport Office, can the Minister confirm how many extra staff have been appointed to process the expression of interest requests from those stranded in Afghanistan?

Afghan contractors worked to protect British Government officials and to keep them safe. We have left those contractors behind and done too little to repay the favour. What work has been under way for the past 10 months across the various Departments involved to try to ensure the safety of all contractors?

As I think I have said a number of times, we have brought in some of the most vulnerable people during this period, from various different groups. We have also been leading some of the international work to try to get aid into the country to help all of the citizens of Afghanistan with the extremely challenging economic situation. That is why we have led the pledging conference and put funding in for others to try to stabilise the situation. We are prioritising the contractors, which is why we have opened this window for them to express their interest and let us know their exact circumstances, and so we can bring out those who are most at risk.

First, I put on record my thanks to the Minister and the Government for all they have done in the Afghan resettlement scheme. I know that my constituency has been eager and keen to assist and help. On the issue of the British Council contractors, does the Minister agree that our withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves much to be desired? When it comes to the contractors we are all concerned about, our support must be blameless, and I suspect that unfortunately on this occasion it may not be. How will the Government improve the current support system in Afghanistan?

Business of the House

It will be a pleasure.

The business for the week commencing 27 June will include:

Monday 27 June—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

Tuesday 28 June—Opposition day (4th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 29 June—Consideration in committee of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill (Day 1).

Thursday 30 June—Debate on a motion on Iran’s nuclear programme followed by, general debate on 50 years of Pride in the UK. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 1 July—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 4 July will include:

Monday 4 July—Conclusion of consideration in committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill.

Tuesday 5 July—Estimates day (1st allotted day). Subjects to be confirmed.

Wednesday 6 July—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). Subjects to be confirmed.

At 7.00pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. I hope he had a wonderful time at the Tory party’s summer ball on Monday night. I hear the top prize auctioned off was a £120,000 slap-up meal for four including the Prime Minister, his predecessor and her predecessor. The absolute audacity of Tory MPs telling food bank users that they do not know how to spend their money, when Tory donors seem to be willing to pay the going rate of £40,000 per failed and failing Prime Minister. It is shocking. Tory donors, clearly unaffected by the cost of living crisis, are wined and dined by the Cabinet when working people face inflation at more than 9%, lower pay and backlog Britain grinding the country to a halt. Where in the upcoming business is the Government’s long-term plan to deal with all that?

Perhaps I can offer the three recent Conservative Prime Ministers a conversation starter: 12 years of underfunding and Tory mismanagement of our NHS; and record numbers of people waiting for care and waiting longer than ever before. In Wakefield, since 2019, the people of that great city have lost three local GP practices and 300,000 GP appointments per year, all while the Chancellor puts up their taxes. Does the Leader of the House think it is fair that his Government are asking the people of Wakefield to pay more, for less?

On Tuesday, Labour’s successful motion called on the Health Secretary simply to meet his Government’s own target of recruiting 6,000 extra GPs and to ensure that everyone who needs an NHS dentist can get one. Those are not unreasonable demands, but the Health Secretary cannot even meet them. He has admitted that he is not on track, so can the Leader of the House explain to his voters why his Government are breaking yet another one of their promises? What is the plan? People around the country, including those in Wakefield, will want to see it. Will he ask the Health Secretary to make a statement on how he is going to train, recruit and hang on to the GPs we need? I remind him that they are the Government and our motion passed. They should do their job and at least attempt to sort this mess out.

It is another week of the Government engulfed in Tory sleaze and scandal, instead of dealing with problems in our NHS. I do welcome the fact that they have realised that they obviously need an ethics adviser, but they must get on with recruiting a new one. On Tuesday, Labour’s ethics motion called for urgency. The Tories voted against it, so I ask the Leader of the House: when can we expect to see the ethics vacancy filled? Can he guarantee that the investigations that were ongoing prior to Lord Geidt’s resignation will be completed?

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) asked the Prime Minister for a straight yes or no on whether he had ever considered the appointment of his now spouse to a government post or one in any other organisation. We hear that No. 10 spoke to The Times after it published an article on this and the story disappeared. There is clearly something going on and it is clearly unethical to use a position as a very powerful person, possibly the most powerful person in the country, to get your partner a six-figure-salary job. The Prime Minister failed to deny this yesterday, so I am asking the Leader of the House now: could he advise us on what conversations were had and how far was this allowed to go?

Last week, the Leader of the House failed to address my question on missing legislation. The proposals on renters’ rights reforms last Thursday are welcome, but they were promised three years ago and all we have got is a White Paper. This is another example of the Government picking an issue, waving it around on a day they need a distraction and dropping it the next. This is no way to run a country. So when will the Leader of the House bring forward the actual legislation and give renters the rights they deserve, for which they been waiting for so long? Whether it is the distraction of sleaze and scandal, missing legislation or countless failed promises, the choice is stark: a Tory Government unable to govern or Labour, a party that believes in democracy, decency and respect, with a plan to deal with backlog Britain and tackle the Tory cost of living crisis. People up and down the country will be waking up this morning, including in Wakefield, knowing that it is time for a fresh start.

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. What is clear is that the Government are getting on with the job. We are making our streets safer; we are recruiting 20,000 more police officers, and we have already got 13,500 of those recruited. We continue to grow the economy to address the cost of living challenge that people face. That is why we have invested £37 billion to help people through the challenges that we face—frankly, the whole world is facing these challenges. We are funding the NHS to deal with those covid backlogs, which is why we introduced the health and social care levy; we are talking about £39 billion-worth investment in our NHS. The Labour party did not support that investment in our health service. We are providing leadership that is needed in these challenging times. We are the strongest supporter of Ukraine. We have delivered the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, which is why the economy continues to grow.

There was one question that I will address—there was one genuine question in all of that rant: what did I know about the allegation that the hon. Lady made about the Prime Minister’s wife. I can tell her and the House that I was the Government Chief Whip from the moment the Prime Minister became the Prime Minister. I think I am the longest serving Chief Whip since 2010. I was in meetings and rooms with the Prime Minister probably more than any other Minister during that period. I never ever in my political career heard mention of the Prime Minister’s wife getting a role—ever, to be clear.

What we heard in the shadow Leader of the House’s comments was anything at all she wants to talk about, other than the crisis that the unions are delivering to this country as we sit here. Look behind her at those empty Benches. The reason those Benches are empty is that they all ran like rats to get a train yesterday—[Interruption.] Across the House, colleagues had to go and get trains yesterday because of the misery the unions are pouring on to this country. Let us look at some of the working practices they are trying to defend.

Whole teams have to change a socket when one person could do it; they want nine people to go and do it. They want a walking time of one minute to take 12 minutes. [Hon. Members: “Shocking!”] This is absolutely true. A break time starts, and if one of their managers says hello to them during it, the break has to start again because management have interrupted it. Technology now exists with cameras to check the safety of rail lines—a very important job—but the unions insist that they have to be walking checks. Eight rail workers have been killed on the rail lines in the past two years doing those walking checks when technology exists to protect those lives and to look after people on our railways. Best of all, there was a threatened strike over the replacement of a tea urn with a kettle.

That is the sort of thing that these people are defending. I call on the hon. Lady and her friends’ paymasters to get back round the table, talk to Network Rail, and ease the misery that they are imposing on working people up and down this country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for announcing the business not only for next week but for the week after. At our meeting of the Backbench Business Committee on Monday evening, we will be determining the applications for estimates day debates. As an advert to the House, and beyond, could those who wish to submit applications do so by 1 o’clock on Monday at the latest? We will try to be as flexible as we can in terms of the number of speakers and so on that will be required for such a debate, but we obviously need to get on with the job.

My right hon. Friend announced the provisional business for the week of the estimates day debates but did not mention what is happening on Thursday 7 July. Could he update us on that, because we have a queue of applications?

Last night, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and I attended a symposium on the plight of Hindus across the world. Forced conversion, murder and, quite frankly, genocide have been committed against Hindus across the world. Can we have a debate in Government time on the threat across the world to Hindus, who are peaceful, law-abiding people who just want to live their lives in peace and harmony?

I encourage Members across the House to make representations to the Backbench Business Committee on the estimates, and I know that my hon. Friend’s door will be open to those requests. The business will be announced next Thursday, so I am sure that he will be in his place to hear what it will be on Thursday 7 July. I commend him for the work that he does in supporting Hindu communities not only in his own constituency but around the world. He is a true champion for rights and religious freedom—almost as robust and enthusiastic as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

I am quite surprised to see so many Conservative Members in their places—don’t they know there are by-elections they have to fight? I suppose it is a lot safer being in here, though, than having to traipse around Devon or the north of England having to explain away all the many prime ministerial indiscretions.

Can we have a debate about job opportunities, because it seems to me that if you are intimately involved with this Prime Minister your chances of securing a top job in Whitehall, with the royal family or at COP seem to be greatly enhanced? I listened to the Leader of the House on this particular issue. I do not know if this piece of prime ministerial nepotism is true or not, but it seems to be quite consistent with what we have experienced of this Prime Minister over the past few months. I know—maybe it is a job for the ethics adviser. Oh yes—there isn’t one; his role is currently being reviewed. Translated from the Johnsonian, that means it is being abandoned. This is a Prime Minister with the ethics of a polecat. Not even all the ethics advisers in the world could start to scratch the surface of the many issues that need to be confronted.

I am quite surprised—I thought Government Members would all be on their feet today celebrating Brexit day. It is six years since that decision was taken—six years of chaos and misery for this nation. In Scotland, this day is marked with nothing other than dismay, disappointment and simmering resentment. We are a nation taken out of an EU we cherished against our national collective will, after being promised that our membership would be safe if we stayed in their Union. The absolute failure of their Brexit and the preparation to break international law on Monday on the protocol is the main driver for converts to the cause of Scottish independence. They may have got themselves out of the European Union, but they have inadvertently helped Scotland get out of the mess of this Union. Maybe that is something worth celebrating.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I celebrate the fact that we left the European Union. I am not a democracy denier like the hon. Gentleman. We acknowledge that there was a democratic process and that is why we delivered on Brexit; that is why he should acknowledge that at the last referendum on Scotland’s place in the Union, he unfortunately lost. We are stronger together. He should celebrate democracy and join us in making the Union stronger.

The Government are getting on with the job. We delivered this week on the High Speed Rail (Crewe–Manchester) Bill, we are delivering on the cost of living with payments coming quickly to people, and we are supporting pensioners with disability benefits.

The hon. Gentleman talked about job opportunities. There is a job in Scotland available to people who want to engage in bureaucracy. This week, the SNP came forward with its plan to spend £1.5 billion on administration alone to secure the services of care workers from local authorities, only to then procure care workers’ services from the local authorities from which they have taken those care workers. It is absolutely bonkers. The SNP is too busy being distracted by its own Watergate moment, with its internal meetings being leaked. The SNP Chief Whip was so angry that he wrote to colleagues saying, “Please don’t leak”—only for that letter to be leaked. I think the SNP leaks more than its ferries.

In May 2016, Diana, the wife of my constituent, Peter Walker, was killed in an accident with a cyclist in Pewsey High Street. The following year the Government announced a consultation on a new offence of causing death by dangerous cycling. The year after that, in 2018, my predecessor Claire Perry was assured by the Government that the response to the consultation would be issued shortly. Four years on, we still have no response. Since 2019, I have written to the Government four times to ask for a date for when it will happen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this really is not good enough? Will he please use his good offices with the Department for Transport to get it to come forward with a timetable on the review and to bring forward the legislation that we need?

I am very sorry to hear about my hon. Friend’s constituent. I assure him that the Department for Transport takes the issue very seriously. We have had a tragedy in my own constituency, when a pedestrian was hit by an e-scooter on a pavement; the lady lost her life. The Secretary of State is planning to publish our response to the consultation as soon as we can and, as my hon. Friend knows, has already announced that we are considering bringing forward legislation to introduce new offences around dangerous cycling. We will do that as part of a suite of measures to improve the safety of all road and pavement users.

My constituent, Mr David Hand, has generously agreed to sponsor two Ukraine nationals who are fleeing that awful conflict. He made an application to the Homes for Ukraine scheme on 22 May, but has not yet received any update. My office has spoken to the MP account management team at UK Visas and Immigration on several occasions, but, unfortunately, no update is forthcoming. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate in Government time to discuss the unacceptably long wait that some refugees are experiencing in incredibly dangerous situations?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Mr Hand who is doing a very generous thing in supporting and offering to host those people. Many people up and down the country are opening their homes to refugees. We should be enormously proud of that. I am sure the Home Secretary will have heard his comments, but to make sure I will pass them on directly to her and see whether she can assist him directly.

Can we have a debate on the huge disruption being caused to our constituents by tube and rail strikes? We need the opportunity to condemn the Labour MPs who are supporting these irresponsible strikes, even to the extent that they are actually joining picket lines, which is scandalous.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. That is something that is worthy of debate. We had a debate on this matter last week. I think 25 Labour Members have been on the picket lines along with Arthur Scargill this week. It is causing misery to commuters. It is making students miss exams and it is causing huge damage to the economy. The only way out of this is for the unions to go and speak directly to Network Rail and resolve these matters around the negotiating table.

Can the Leader of the House confirm when the Government’s proposal on the use of agency workers during industrial action will be brought forward for debate in the House? I understand that a statutory instrument is due to be published today but, having looked at the sheet with the business and having listened very carefully to what he said, I have not heard any confirmed timetable or process. Will this be brought on to the Floor of the House so that we can have a proper debate?

I do not have to hand the specific time when that will be brought forward, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and let him know as soon as I am aware of that. The use of agency workers is an option available to employers up and down the country, but that must be done safely, ensuring that those agency workers can deliver a standard of service that is safe to members of the public.

I notice on the Order Paper that the restoration and renewal motion has been tabled. I welcome the proactiveness of the Leader of the House on the issue. Can he let the House know how individual Members can take part?

My hon. Friend is right that the motion is now on the Order Paper. It is important that the House understands that what the two commissions of the Commons and the Lords are seeking on this occasion is to take the sponsor body function back in-house to make sure that we can get on with the job quickly. Members across the House can engage. There are some drop-in sessions taking place. In fact, I hope that I and the shadow Leader of the House will do a joint one next week; I think it is currently in the diary for 2.30 in Committee Room 12. I encourage Members to come along, engage and find out more information.

The Leader of the House may be aware that a major pilot of a four-day working week, with no loss of pay for workers, has begun in the UK. A previous trial in Iceland was significant in finding improvements in terms of wellbeing and productivity, so a win-win for workers and for employers. The Scottish Government are committed to helping businesses to pilot a four-day week. Can we have a statement in Government time on whether the UK Government will also support exploring the benefits of flexible working, including a four-day working week?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Clearly, this is something that the Government will observe and consider. I know that there are a number of pilots taking place up and down the country. It is an interesting concept, but we would need to understand all the implications before it was rolled out as a national policy. However, it is certainly an interesting area of debate.

Speed cameras, love them or hate them, but for villages across my constituency, such as Felmersham, Thurleigh and Sutton to name just three, speeding through the village is a major issue. The desire for average speed cameras is at the top of the agenda for many parish councils, but funding is limited. Can we have a debate about alternative sources of financing? We do not want to make fines for speeding an incentive, but is there a way that we can help these rural areas to get the protection they deserve from speeding?

My hon. Friend will be aware that it is Transport questions next week, where he will have an opportunity to ask the Transport Secretary that question directly. Average speed cameras can be frustrating, but they happen to keep people alive and safe. I know in my constituency that several people lost their lives on the A614. Post the introduction of average speed cameras—I hesitate to say this, as I do not want to jinx myself—no one has lost their life on that stretch of road. They do work, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight it. I encourage him to seek a Backbench Business debate on the matter.

The Port of Tyne is an important economic player in North Tyneside, as well as across the whole of Tyneside and the region. On behalf of the port, I invited a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister to visit just over two months ago, but as yet, I have not heard anything. As the port is so keen to showcase all the good work it is doing, could the Leader of the House urge the Minister to respond positively to the invitation?

I will of course pass on the hon. Lady’s comments directly to the Minister. Not just the Port of Tyne, but ports around the country are an important part of our infrastructure and getting trade in and out of the UK. They need to work efficiently, and I will make sure that the Minister is aware of her comments.

My constituent Brian Leigh has been in a hospital in Corfu for 18 days, where he has been taken ill with a heart condition while on holiday. His wife, Michele, has come home and is desperately trying to get Brian back to the UK. His insurance company, Staysure, has handed responsibility for repatriating him to a company called Red Star, which has taken more than a week so far to get Brian home. Can we have a debate on the regulation of these arrangements, as my constituents have done the responsible thing and arranged travel insurance, but find it is little help to them when they need it?

I wish Brian a speedy recovery. Hopefully we can get him home soon with my hon. Friend’s efforts. I will make sure that the relevant Minister is aware of the case and encourage them to engage directly with my hon. Friend.

The Leader of the House will probably be aware that 6 July is the deadline for submissions for new bids to the next round of the levelling-up fund. What he will not be aware of is that Tameside Council is putting together an excellent bid for Denton town centre in my constituency, which I wholeheartedly support. It includes streetscape works, extensive improvements for pedestrians and cyclists and, at the heart of it, a new community hub at the Denton Festival Hall. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities so that we can have a better idea of the timescales for this next round of bids, and so that I can champion Denton, Denton, Denton?

I cannot deny that the hon. Gentleman does that on a regular basis. I hesitate to wish Denton well in its bid, because I am sure that many Members across the House will have bids for the levelling-up fund. I am sure that once the Secretary of State has received all those bids, he will be able to assess them and come forward with the great amount of investment that the country is looking for and the Government are committed to delivering.

I was very proud on Monday to attend the flag raising in Aylesbury for Armed Forces Week. It was an occasion to show support for everyone in our local armed forces community, from our cadets to our Army Reserve and from personnel at RAF Holton to service families. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all who serve in our armed forces at home and abroad and ensure that Parliament can mark its appreciation and gratitude, whether through a debate or other fitting means?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend; I think he is part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I am sure the whole House will want to recognise the great contribution that our armed forces make. I had the privilege of visiting the poppy factory in Richmond on Monday this week to hear directly about the fantastic work it does to support veterans and to see the wreaths being made in the factory. Members of the public can visit the factory and have a tour of it, and I highly recommend that they do so. There is a dedicated office team supporting veterans up and down the country, and it is something that the House would want to recognise.

One food bank in Aberdeen distributed 600 parcels in a week, and another distributed 80 in just a 90-minute period. That is a scandal, but it is a necessity because of the economic and welfare policies of the UK Government. The Chancellor happens to be in my constituency at this moment in time, so I have asked him whether he would like to attend one such food bank to see for himself the devastating impact of his actions. I am not too hopeful that he will say yes. Bearing that in mind, will the Leader of the House agree to dragging the Chancellor to the Chamber for a debate on the impact of Tory policies?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Chancellor of the Exchequer regularly appears at the Dispatch Box. I think that the last time he was here, he topped up the support fund to £37 billion. That is a huge amount of cash going to support people with those challenges.

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those charities which, alongside what the Government are doing, assist people when they fall into difficulty. We have increased the household support fund to £1.5 billion, we have the £200 million holiday activities food programme and we are funding £24 million-worth of school breakfasts. The Government are doing a huge amount to support people, but I also pay tribute to the charities that he recognised.

This week’s strikes have been incredibly disruptive for so many of my constituents, so I welcome the Business Secretary’s announcement today on temporary workers. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate on implementing minimum service levels similar to those in Italy and Spain so that we can limit the harm that these strikes do our people?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight once again the devastation that the strikes are causing. I encourage the unions to get back round the table and negotiate with Network Rail and the employers directly. I thank him for raising the matter, which is worthy of further debate.

Part of backlog Britain is the court backlog, which is unacceptable to my constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, and it is getting worse. Justice delayed is justice denied. My constituents face delays in getting a hearing and many lost payments from courts, which delay hearings further. They also face delays in getting judgments respected. Rogue companies are taking advantage of the system breaking down. Can we have a debate in Government time or a ministerial statement about what action will be taken on the court backlog to get everyone the justice that they deserve?

Of course, one of the contributing factors in getting people to court is a decent transport system. If the transport system is not running, how can people get to court? We recognise that, post covid, there is a challenge in our health service and in our courts system. That is why we have introduced a quarter of a billion pounds to support the court recovery. The spending review provided an extra £477 million to the criminal justice system. We will also increase funding for the victim and witness support service to over £192 million by 2024-25. That, of course, is on top of the billions of pounds that the health and social care levy is pouring into our NHS to deal with post-covid challenges.

Last month, I attended the Eastgate sheep show, which, due to covid, happened for the first time since I was elected. Later in the year, I will attend the Weardale show at St John’s Chapel, the Stanhope show and the Wolsingham show. Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the fantastic news that these shows are starting up again? Will he consider joining me at one of them—given his farming background, he would be a great addition—and provide time for a debate on these shows, which are a vital part of life in our rural communities across Britain?