House of Commons
Thursday 8 September 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Cost Increases: Food Producers and Consumers
I draw the attention of the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I also pay tribute to the previous Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team, who did fantastic work supporting UK agriculture, the environment and rural communities.
I can report to the House that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused huge ripples around the world in spiking energy and food costs. Food costs rose by 12.7% in this year to July, but the Government have already taken action to support farmers, pulling forward this year’s basic payment scheme payments and making sure that consumers are supported with their energy bills, with a huge package to support people with the cost of living.
I welcome the Minister to his new place. National Farmers Union of Scotland president Martin Kennedy has urged the new Prime Minister to immediately, on behalf of all food producers and consumers,
“address the brutal ‘here and now’ facing farming and food production whilst delivering an unequivocable commitment to the importance of food security across the UK”.
Given that the Prime Minister was formerly a DEFRA Minister, what funding support is being considered for Scottish and UK food producers, and what plans are there to ensure that affordable food is secured for consumers?
I hope the hon. Lady will recognise the contribution of UK farmers across generations to keeping the UK and Europe well fed for decades, which will of course continue. The Government are committed to supporting UK farmers through the use of taxpayers’ money, and I am sure that will also continue, but this is a challenge that we take very seriously and she will see that support over the coming months.
I welcome the Minister to his new role. Will he encourage the large supermarkets to enable community food projects such as Threehills Community Supermarket in Glasgow South West to purchase much-needed top-up supplies in bulk from their depots at as discounted a cost as possible, and can he assure the House that community food projects will be given top priority in his Department?
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that retailers will play a huge part in solving the challenges we face, not only in the United Kingdom, but across the whole world, with the price of food going up. The Government continue to engage with those food retailers, and we will support them in any way we can to try to help our consumers. He also highlights community projects, which have a huge part to play in meeting the challenge.
Local food partnerships could play an important role in providing resilience and healthy, cost-free produce to the local community. In this time of drought and water restrictions, however, South East Water has not made an explicit exemption for such partnerships, and that will really curtail their activity. Will the Minister join me in calling on the company to revisit its position—in line, I believe, with other water companies?
Of course those water companies have other responsibilities as well, but the use of water for agricultural food production will be fundamental to our success. My hon. Friend may be aware that there is a debate in Westminster Hall later today on food infrastructure, and she may want to come and contribute to that debate.
I warmly welcome the new Farming Minister to his place. I am delighted to see that he has been appointed during Love Lamb Week; he certainly knows his way around a lamb dinner. The sheep farmers in my Brecon and Radnorshire constituency produce world-class food that is good for our health, our environment and the rural economy. Will he take this early opportunity to restate his commitment to the red meat sector, and may I invite him to visit one of the seven livestock markets in my constituency?
I contemplated denying liking a lamb dinner, but I do not want to start by misleading the House. We recognise the huge contribution that Welsh farmers make not only to lamb production, but to food supplied to our country, and I would be delighted at some point, if my diary allows, to visit Brecon and Radnorshire to see one of those livestock markets.
First, may I welcome the new Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), 54and his Ministers to their place? I look forward to a constructive relationship, but it will be a testing relationship, as we work through the catalogue of failures left by his predecessor.
Rocketing food costs have pushed inflation to a 40-year high and, according to the Bank of England, households and food producers are set to face harder pressures yet. Last week, I received a letter from a family bakery who are extremely worried that their energy bills are increasing by 380%, potentially risking the viability of some of their stores. An energy crisis, a food security crisis, a labour crisis and an import cost crisis—how much worse is it going to get for businesses and the 7 million people already in food poverty?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and look forward to working with the Opposition Front Bench. I would strongly push back at his comments about the previous Secretary of State. The work he did to support rural communities and UK agriculture was fantastic, and we should pay tribute to him for that. Of course, Vladimir’s invasion of Ukraine has caused massive ripples. It is a global challenge, but we are in a position where the UK economy is fit, and that puts us at an advantage compared with some of our competitors around the world. We will be able to intervene to try and assist people. We have already committed to £37 billion of support for consumers, and if the hon. Gentleman waits, he will be able to listen to the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box later today setting out her plans to support those businesses and people across the country.
Thank you ever so much, Mr Speaker. It feels like business questions. I thought I was getting away from the right hon. Gentleman, but there is seemingly no escape. May I welcome him to his new role and congratulate the new Secretary of State? I know they have a huge inbox—they do not have to seek problems. As we have heard, there are rocketing prices for the rural economy and astronomical price rises for the consumer, and on top of that there is a fertiliser crisis, agflation in the sector and a harvest that remains unpicked because of the lack of seasonal labour. So is this the right time to pick a fight with the EU over the Northern Irish protocol, with the real risk of tariffs being introduced for the sector? Is now not the time to climb down, negotiate properly and get the best possible solution for our farmers, our producers and our consumers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; I, too, thought I had escaped him. He will be surprised to know that there is another method available to us, which the SNP does not understand. We do not have to pick a fight with everybody; we can actually talk to people and negotiate, and that is what we are doing with the EU. We are trying to build relationships rather than pick a fight with the whole world.
Fertilisers make up around 9% of input costs into food production. Cost increases may be absorbed at various points within the supply chain, but of course we should recognise that there has been a huge spike because global energy prices are going up. The Government recognise that input costs have increased and are challenging cash flow. That is why we brought forward the direct payments to try to help people with their cash flow, and we will continue to monitor that as we move forward.
Last month my constituents at CF Fertilisers were made redundant. Within days of that happening, the company announced that it was halting CO2 production at its plant in Billingham. I know that the Minister is new in place, but I warned his predecessors again and again that we could not afford to be in such a vulnerable position and that we should have got the company sold to the many people who are interested in purchasing it. I am so disappointed that we have got to this point, because it was completely avoidable. Will he, on behalf of his Department, apologise to my constituents who have lost their jobs unnecessarily and to everyone in the country who will be paying more for their food as a result of this very short-sighted decision?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, we do not want the company to be able to exploit the monopoly position it holds within the marketplace. It has ceased the production of ammonia at the plant, but it will continue to produce ammonium nitrate and nitric acid. The Government continue to engage with the plant to make sure we can secure supplies of fertiliser and other products.
I do not think the situation could be any more serious for farmers in this country, both grain farmers and grass farmers. The UK requires around 2.2 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser, and about 1 million tonnes of that came from the Ince plant and the Billingham plant. The Ince plant is shut and the Billingham plant is paused while waiting for deliveries of ammonia in order to switch from North sea gas. In welcoming the Minister to his place on behalf of the Committee, may I ask him to say when the first load of ammonia will arrive at Billingham and when production will commence? There is a real fear that the plant might not start, and then we will really be in serious trouble.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. That is something that we take seriously. We recognise the huge challenge to not only UK agriculture, but other sectors around the country. He will be aware that AdBlue, which many diesel cars up and down the country use, is also dependent on products of a similar nature. We will have to work together as an industry to look at other alternatives. We may have to look back at our ancestors and how agriculture operated in the ’30s and ’40s, with nitrogen-fixing crops and other agriculture methods, to solve some of the challenges that we face.
I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his place. I am sure that we will work constructively together, and I look forward to swapping Benches at the earliest opportunity. He knows the effect that high input costs have on farmers, whether that is fuel, fertiliser or labour. I am sure that one of the first questions he put to his civil servants was about the CO2 impacts of the shutdown of those facilities. Rather than just reassuring us, will he publish the Department’s assessment of the CO2 consequences of any shutdown at those plants?
It is tempting to resign, to be honest, but I will resist at this moment. We continue to have those conversations. We recognise the size of the challenge. If the hon. Gentleman gives us a small window, we will be able to make a full assessment of where we are at.
Labour Shortages: Agriculture and Fishing
The Government are working to ensure that UK agriculture and fishing sectors secure the labour that they need. We know that there is a shortage of labour and it is difficult for businesses across the food sector. That is why the Prime Minister committed during the leadership campaign to looking at expanding seasonal worker schemes. The Government have already expanded the number of people in the seasonal worker route to 40,000 for horticulture and poultry in 2022; we have commissioned an independent review into labour shortages in the food supply chain in England; and we launched a £10 million skills and training scheme in August 2022 to support new entrants in the fishing sector.
Ending the freedom of movement has been a catastrophe for constituencies such as Ochil and South Perthshire, with labour shortages in every sector, especially food production. The lack of seasonal workers and the food rotting in the fields are evidence of yet more Brexit chaos. We all must surely agree that food waste is a scandal. Given that the new Prime Minister pledged to expand the seasonal worker scheme if she was elected, when will that be done?
I think we need to give the Prime Minister longer than 48 hours to deliver on that commitment. The hon. Gentleman would have kept us in the common fisheries policy by remaining in the EU. The country requires an immigration system that benefits the United Kingdom; we should not just have an open door to anybody who wants to come. We need to be able to select the people who will assist the UK economy and make sure that the people who come to the United Kingdom benefit the United Kingdom.
Key sectors are facing acute labour shortages because of a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. Salmon Scotland has reported very low unemployment and extremely limited labour availability in rural areas, with processing factories 20% light on staff. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that fishing communities and processing sites have the necessary supply of workers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I set out, the seasonal agricultural worker scheme is a huge opportunity for people to come to the United Kingdom to support the sector, but we need to make sure that we get the right people coming to support our economy. The last thing that we should do is erect a border between Scotland and the rest of the UK—that would be a tragedy for Scotland. I hope he will reflect on trying to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the new Secretary of State and the new farming Minister to their places. The seasonal worker scheme is essential to the fruit sector in my constituency of Faversham and Mid Kent, so can my right hon. Friend assure me that it will be not only extended, but improved—and sooner rather than later—so that British consumers can continue to enjoy British fruit?
My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for rural businesses in Kent. I hope she will be aware that in December 2021 the seasonal worker visa route was extended to 2024. This visa route allows overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months each year to harvest edible and ornamental crops. In June, the Government announced that the food strategy will see the release of an extra 10,000 visas for the seasonal worker route, and this is something the Prime Minister committed to in the leadership election. We recognise the challenge, and we will do all we can to provide support.
I welcome the new Secretary of State and the Minister to their positions, and I look forward to working with them. A number of those at Montgomeryshire agricultural shows raised the issue of labour shortages, and while it is great to have record levels of unemployment in Montgomeryshire, we need people in our dairy farms, our abattoirs and across our food sector. Can I implore the Minister, if he is indeed enjoying a lamb dinner in Brecon and Radnorshire, to venture up to the other half of Powys and come to the biggest Welsh lamb market in the United Kingdom to talk about these important labour shortages and what we can do?
I realise what I have started here. Of course, I recognise the contribution that Welsh farmers are making. I think we should celebrate the fact that unemployment is so low, but in sectors such as the one my hon. Friend describes, that does bring its own challenges. We recognise such challenges, which is why we have the seasonal agricultural worker scheme, and we will be continuing to expand that as we negotiate with the Home Office to make sure the scheme works.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The volume of sewage spewed out by water companies is completely unacceptable, and the public have rightly shown their outrage. Yesterday, in my first day in office, I told water chief executives that it is not good enough, and I have instructed them to write to me formally by 21 September with a plan for how they will make significant improvements. I also met the Environment Agency and Ofwat, and I told them that they should use every enforcement power available to them to make sure that there is compliance. I will not hesitate to take further action if I do not see the pace of change that this House expects.
Over the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting those from the Hampstead and Highgate Angling Society, who fish in all 32 London boroughs. The River Wandle has had a very bad incident of water pollution, which included human sewage, and in the past the Environment Agency itself has said that the fines meted out to Thames Water were “not sufficient”. What is the Secretary of State going to do to improve this desperate situation?
First, it is this Government who introduced the monitoring that allows us to know what is going on. Secondly, it was this Government who introduced the Environment Act 2021, which allows the Environment Agency to levy unlimited fines on water companies.
We all looked on in horror at the viral images of beaches in Sussex being destroyed by disgusting sewage overflows. I have heard that businesses in the area that are very reliant on income from tourists—from beachside cafés in Seaford to tourist hotspots in Eastbourne—have lost money because beaches were shut and people were put off swimming in poisoned water. Will the Minister demand that Southern Water compensates Sussex seaside businesses?
First, I have already set out to the House what I intend to do. Secondly, I would observe that the Liberal Democrats’ plan is simply to play politics with this serious issue. When they were in government they did not take the action that we have done now. Sadly—and this is the serious point—what they are calling for in their leaflets is for sewage to flow back into people’s homes, because that is the consequence of what they are proposing.
Since asking a question on this issue in the House on Tuesday, we now have a new Secretary of State—I welcome him to his place—but we also have a new wave of sewage warnings across the country. Over 100 beaches have pollution warnings for untreated sewage. Water companies such as Northumbrian Water in my area have paid billions in dividends for dumping filthy raw sewage on to our playing fields, our beaches and our waters, and that is having a huge impact on biodiversity and public health. I went to the River Don in Boldon in my constituency a few weeks back, and the stench alone made clear the scale of the issue. The last Minister refused to do anything about this environmental vandalism. Will the new Minister take urgent action?
First, I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s account at the end of her question. The Government have been working on this issue, and we passed the landmark Environment Act 2021. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Double) published his plan over the summer, and we set out in that plan that there will be £56 billion of capital investment to tackle these issues. Indeed, we have ruled out some of the rises that the Opposition would have liked, which have added £122 to household bills. As I set out to the House, we are tackling this.
Ripping out our existing combined sewerage infrastructure is simply unaffordable, but will the Secretary of State, who I welcome to his post, look at sustainable development systems of the sort that have been implemented to very good effect in cities as far away as China and North America, particularly as the Government look at revising their planning laws to build much-needed housing?
I welcome the Secretary of State to his position, and I am pleased with the strength of the DEFRA team. I have spoken to him this morning about flooding on the River Severn, and I have also been contacted by residents of Coton Hill about the quality of the River Severn through Shrewsbury, and some of the discharge issues that he has heard about. Will he please accept my invitation to visit the River Severn and meet residents, and hear their strength of feeling about the need for him to take action on this essential issue?
The Liberal Democrats seem obsessed with my constituency, whether that is the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) this morning, or the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) yesterday. Does the Secretary of State agree that they need to be honest with people in my town of Seaford that their plan, when heavy rainfall occurs, would result in sewage backing up into people’s homes, gardens and roads, and that the Government’s £56 billion investment is the only sustainable solution?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituents and constituency, and she is right to say that although storm overflows should not be used, they are a safety valve. They stop the flooding of raw sewage back into people’s homes—that is what the Liberal Democrats are promising.
Over the summer, the Government allowed water bosses to dump sewage on 90 beaches in our coastal hotspots—the foundation of those visitor economies—affecting already hard-squeezed businesses that are barely keeping their heads above water. We hear that the Secretary of State is satisfied by a telephone call with water bosses, but does he not realise that they are laughing at him? They are laughing at Ofwat, laughing at the Environment Agency, laughing at the country, and laughing all the way to the bank. Without tougher penalties to ensure that there is a bottom line, they will not change their behaviour. Does he agree that there must be tougher sanctions, including prison sentences?
I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to be constructive, but now he is playing politics. Clearly he was not listening when I set out my plan a moment ago. First, the water companies are reporting back in two weeks, and secondly we have legislated to issue unlimited fines through a criminal process, and we will not hesitate to do more.
Fish Stocks and Marine Life
The UK’s rivers and seas boast some of the greatest biodiversity and marine life anywhere in the world. The Government have prioritised protecting species, not least by leaving the common fisheries policy that did so much to damage fish stocks. We have also announced plans to reduce the sewage being discharged in our seas and rivers, and we have recently taken action to protect our precious chalk streams against drought.
I hope that the Minister is aware of the ecological disaster off the coast of Teesside and North Yorkshire that has had a devastating effect on the fishing industry. Catches are now less than 10% of what they were, and it appears that a large part of our sea is dead or dying. When will Ministers recognise that they cannot rely on the conclusion that an algal bloom was probably the cause of this disaster, order a more comprehensive study into what is happening and come up with solutions to save our sea?
I pay tribute to the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, who has done a lot to highlight the issue. We do have to listen to science and the scientists who have done investigations, and one of their conclusions was that the algal bloom was a huge factor. We continue to talk to bodies in the north, including the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is continuing to carry out tests on material from the north-east coast. It is a challenge that we recognise, and we will continue to work with the authorities in that part of the country.
Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill
The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was introduced in June 2021 as part of our animal welfare action plan. The Bill delivers three important manifesto commitments—strengthening protections for pets, farmed and kept wild animals—as well as other valued reforms. It was reintroduced in May following Her Majesty’s most Gracious Speech and will continue to Report as soon as parliamentary time allows.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and welcome him to his position. I am sure that he will do an excellent job and look forward to working with him. I also welcome the Government’s commitment to the kept animals Bill, which will introduce landmark protections for pets, livestock and kept wild animals. That will include helping in the fight against puppy and kitten smuggling and cracking down on pet theft. Those milestone protections are hugely important to my constituents in Old Bexley and Sidcup who, like me, are animal lovers—hopefully, they may even vote for Westminster dog of the year next week. Will he provide assurances that the Government’s commitment to this landmark legislation will mean that Ministers will now go further and explore measures such as increasing the minimum age at which dogs can be brought to the UK, and prohibiting the importation to the UK of heavily pregnant dogs and those with cropped ears?
The kept animals Bill does include the powers to introduce those restrictions through secondary legislation. Last year, Her Majesty’s Government launched a consultation that proposed measures for both commercial and non-commercial movements of dogs into Great Britain, and I am told that there were more than 20,000 responses, so there was clearly a great deal of interest from the public. My Department will publish a response in due course.
I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State to his place. I pay tribute to the previous DEFRA team and look forward to continuing a robust relationship with the new team.
On a recent visit to Battersea here in London and to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Newport, I saw the consequences of the Tory cost of living crisis. I heard about Frasier, a four-year-old domestic short-hair cat who was taken to Battersea in June by his heartbroken owner who was facing financial hardship and could no longer afford to keep his beloved pet. That is happening across our country because people cannot afford to keep their family pets, so we need a plan. Will the Secretary of State tell us what it is?
First, the Government will cut people’s taxes. We are going to let people keep more of their own money. We are going to ensure that people continue to have great jobs in the economy by incentivising investment in our businesses. If the hon. Lady and Opposition Members are willing to stay in the House a bit longer, they will hear from the Prime Minister herself.
It is a privilege to be asked to serve as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In doing so, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) for his nine years of service as a Minister in the Department, and to all those who served with him. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister set out her commitment to get Britain growing. That means backing our thriving British food industry, working for a cleaner environment and maximising the benefits of Brexit. From food security and supporting our farmers to water quality and economic growth for our rural communities, there is much to do, and the Government are determined to deliver.
Valiant food banks serving Newport East tell me that they will really struggle to stay open this winter with rising energy, fuel and insurance costs and people finding it more difficult to donate to them. They provide a vital service that, sadly, we will need more than ever before, so what immediate steps will the Government take to help them stay open this winter?
My hon. Friend is, of course, right. I also encourage him to wait to hear what the Prime Minister says later today. It is very, very important to ensure we continue to be able to produce some of the best food in the world and the Government are committed to doing that.
Listening to those on the Labour Benches, one would think that between 1997 and 2010 there was no sewage discharge from our system. The fact is that there was, but it is only because of the measures that this Government have taken to put monitoring in place that we are aware of the problem, and we are now the first Government ever to take action to solve this problem.
I pay tribute to Rob and Sally. Staffordshire farmers are second only to Nottinghamshire farmers in their delivery for UK food production.
In my tourist town of Eastbourne, the sea is our greatest asset. Meeting with the Environment Agency just a week or two ago, water quality was deemed to be good, yet social media discharges by local Liberal Democrats would have people believe that it is dangerous to swim. Does my hon. Friend agree that the raft of measures we are bringing in through the Environment Act 2021 will not only improve the quality of the water, but that responsible, balanced and honest accounting is important, too?
My hon. Friend is a strong champion for her constituency of Eastbourne and the businesses there. She is absolutely right. This is the first Government ever to take the action we are taking to address this long-standing issue that has been going on for many, many generations. She is absolutely right that the misinformation put out by some Opposition parties is shameless scaremongering.
I want to see clean water in the Ladybrook, the Micker brook and all the streams that feed into the great River Mersey. United Utilities is responsible for our waste water and sewage discharges. It is consulting on its plan to spend up to £18 billion on the water quality and discharges in our area. I am asking my Cheadle constituency to join that consultation. Will the Minister join me in encouraging everybody to play their part and make their voices heard?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that addressing that long-standing issue will be a combined effort with everyone working together. It is really important that everyone engages in ensuring that we get the right solutions in every situation to address the problem and reduce the amount of sewage being discharged as quickly as possible.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. The demand for pet food banks is more than doubling in parts of the UK as owners have to make heartbreaking decisions thanks to the cost of living crisis. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), said, charities are bracing themselves for an increase in the number of abandoned animals, but it does not have to be this way. What assurances can the Minister give us about targeted financial support for those charities through a really difficult winter?
I am sure that we would all agree that owning a pet brings additional responsibilities. Everyone should consider those, including the costs, before deciding whether to take on that responsibility. The Government have already introduced £37 billion-worth of support to help households, targeting that at those most in need. The Prime Minister will announce further measures later today.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place, as well as the news from the Environment Agency on Wednesday that there will now be a regulatory investigation into Walleys Quarry in my constituency. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for his help over the summer. Will the new Secretary of State visit Newcastle-under-Lyme, and does he agree that now that we have two investigations—regulatory and criminal—into Walleys Quarry Ltd, it is imperative that those are concluded as soon as possible so that my constituents get justice and everyone gets to see some accountability?
I am very aware of the issue that my hon. Friend is raising, and I am pleased that we are making progress with the Environment Agency on enforcement action. I am very happy to meet him to ensure that we continue to do all we can, and if appropriate, to visit the site with him.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Six bishops and hundreds of clergy have Ukrainian evacuees living with them, and the Church of England is using vacant vicarages in a number of places. Churches are also actively involved in recruiting new hosts where needed.
Over the summer, I was delighted to meet Reverend Peter Godden at St Dunstan’s church in Monks Risborough—England’s oldest recorded parish—to hear at first hand about some of the incredible work that the church and wider deanery is doing to support 130 Ukrainian refugees who have been welcomed to the wider Princes Risborough area in my constituency, such as English lessons, a conversation café and a children’s summer week. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking all our churches for the work they are doing to support our Ukrainian friends? What more can the Church of England do to support churches such as St Dunstan’s in their work?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the interest that he takes in and the support that he gives to his local churches. It is wonderful to hear of the practical compassion in action of St Dunstan’s in Monks Risborough and St Mary’s in Princes Risborough. I know that those churches are making a big difference to the lives of Ukrainian refugees. I assure him that the Church is actively seeking new hosts where some families want to pass on that responsibility and it will keep on with this important work.
My right hon. Friend asks a typically pertinent question. I reassure him that many dioceses are developing schemes to rematch sponsors and Ukrainian refugees as the initial six-month placements draw to an end. We are also funding other support programmes for Ukrainians, for which I am extremely grateful. We must all guard against compassion fatigue.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that my parish church in Huddersfield is playing a very good role in helping Ukrainian refugees, but in a sense the honeymoon period is over? People from Ukraine in my constituency told me last week that they need help with permanent housing, with education and with the translation of their qualifications into English qualifications. They also very much need to use their high skills to help the community.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has told the House. I know that he takes a supportive interest in what his local churches do in this important area. He is right in everything he says. The Government will play their part, and I can assure him that the Church will absolutely continue to be there at a national and local level to do everything that is needed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his deep interest in these matters, which is much appreciated. Following on from what other hon. Members have said about the integration of Ukrainian refugees, has consideration been given to allowing the use of parish halls free of charge for English lessons and as community hubs for small pockets of rural Ukrainians to meet?
Persecuted Christians: 2019 Report
I thank my right hon. Friend for her sustained and long-term interest in freedom of religion and belief for Christians and people of all faiths around the world. At the Lambeth conference, the Bishop of Chelmsford, herself a Christian refugee from Iran, spoke about the need to challenge some of the darker elements of faith leaders who condone persecution.
In the light of the conclusions of the independent review assessing the implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s report on supporting persecuted Christians around the world, what improvements would the Church like to see in relation to the envoy for freedom of religion or belief? My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has done a wonderful job, but we want to see the post established on a permanent basis, with greater capacity to engage across Government and resources to match.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising an extremely important point. Our hon. Friend the faith envoy, who is in the Chamber, does a fantastic job. I can assure my right hon. Friend that the Church remains completely committed to the full implementation of the Truro review, especially recommendation 6, which is to make the envoy a permanent position with “appropriate resources and authority” to work across Government.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her question and my hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner for his answer. The recent independent review of progress on Truro has confirmed that there is more to be done before FORB becomes firmly embedded in the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. One area that was highlighted is the need for better engagement with stakeholders, among which the Church is key. Would the Second Church Estates Commissioner be willing to join me to discuss the matter at a meeting with an FCDO Minister, which has been agreed?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Elections Act 2022: Electoral Commission
The Speaker’s Committee has no plans to make an assessment of the potential effect of the Elections Act on the impartiality of the Electoral Commission. The commission itself has raised concerns about the potential challenge to its impartiality from the introduction of a strategy and policy statement by which the Government can guide its work. Its view is that that is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a democratic system. The commission is currently considering the consultation on the draft statement and will publish its response in due course.
The last Prime Minister and the Government attacked the impartiality of the Electoral Commission after the Downing Street flat refurbishment was found in breach of donation declaration rules and a fine was subsequently imposed. That was followed by leading Tory Members calling for the abolition of the Electoral Commission or, sinisterly, for its direction to be controlled via the Elections Act strategy and policy statement. Does the representative of the Speaker’s Committee agree that the new Prime Minister should commit to protecting the independence of the Electoral Commission and should remove the specific aspects of Government overreach in the Elections Act?
As I said in my previous answer, the Speaker’s Committee has made no assessment on this particular matter. Any changes to the Elections Act will be a matter for the House, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pursue those avenues in other areas of its business.
The road down which the UK has been travelling is increasingly concerning. It involves removing our human rights, threatening the removal of the European Court of Human Rights, and then gutting the impartiality and powers of the Electoral Commission in the Elections Act 2022 by Government diktat and the rejection of all Opposition amendments. This follows on from suggestions that no new independent ethics adviser will be appointed under the new Prime Minister, which would further diminish independent investigation. Given those facts, does the representative of the Speaker’s Committee agree with all but one of the board members that the Elections Act seriously undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission?
Let me repeat the statement that the Electoral Commission itself has issued: it believes that the introduction of a strategy and policy statement would be inconsistent with the role of an independent Electoral Commission. We are currently engaged in consultation on the Government’s draft strategy and policy statement. The Commission will continue to act in an independent and impartial way in order to help maintain public confidence in elections throughout the UK.
The Electoral Commission manages elections and plays a vital role in maintaining fairness, trust and public confidence in our democratic processes, and its independence of any party or Government is therefore essential. Does the hon. Member agree that one way of helping to defend that independence would be to ensure that in future the Speaker’s Committee never has a Government majority, and would he be willing to raise that with the Speaker of the House of Commons?
The hon. Gentleman himself has raised it with you, Mr Speaker, and I believe that the composition of the Committee is a matter for you. Its composition changed recently because of the reallocation of responsibilities from one Government Department to another, and therefore the chairmanship of the relevant Select Committee—the previous Chair was ex officio—has changed: the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) has been replaced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I believe that you, Mr Speaker, will be reviewing the position regularly.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Holy Trinity Church, Wingate: Review
This has been a deeply troubling time for the Bell family, and I want to pass on my heartfelt apologies for what has happened. I am pleased that the issue has been resolved and the lessons learned process begins next month, and I know that the vicar of Holy Trinity Wingate has strongly supported the family during this difficult time.
May I place on record my thanks to the hon. Member for his assistance with this matter during the recess?
I can report to the House that Thomas Bell’s coffin has been located, and that his late wife Hilda was buried with him after a heartbreaking eight-week delay. Appallingly, however, for 17 years the family—who were my constituents, living in Easington—unknowingly attended the wrong grave, and in the process of locating Mr Bell’s coffin several other errors were identified. Does the hon. Member agree that we need to improve burial records, with digital copies, introduce a new process for marking plots after burial, and draw up rules for the orderly organisation of plots in churchyards?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: record-keeping is incredibly important. The Parochial Registers and Records Measure 1978 clearly states that records should be kept in fireproof places, and the hon. Gentleman’s point about digital copies was also well made. The lessons learned inquiry will focus on best practice for all parishes. Let me add, on a personal note, that I was very pleased that Mrs Bell’s great-grandchild was baptised in the church last weekend.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Elections Act 2022: Regulation and Electoral Process
The Speaker’s Committee has not made an assessment of the potential effect of the Elections Act on the matters the hon. Member refers to in her question. The Commission’s view is that the Elections Act makes limited changes to the regulation of political party donations and finances and campaign spending. The requirement for new political parties to set out assets or debts when registering will give voters some greater transparency. Changes relating to third-party campaigners will bring limited additional transparency while increasing the complexity of the law. The digital imprint requirement will increase the transparency of campaign spending. The changes to the administration and conduct of elections will enhance the integrity of the electoral process. The Commission’s view is that the voter ID requirement addresses a vulnerability of polling station voting in Great Britain to fraud, but it has emphasised that voting must remain accessible for those who do not already have appropriate ID.
According to openDemocracy, between 2010 and 2019 the Tory party received £3.5 million from Russian-linked donors, yet instead of countering undue influence from oligarchs or shady think-tanks, the Elections Act weakens rules on donations from overseas, making it easier to pay for influence. The new report by the Institute for Constitutional and Democratic Research has set out a simple remedy: cap all political donations to a level appropriate to the poorest. Will the representative of the Speaker’s Committee confirm whether a donation cap has been considered?
The cap has not been considered in the Speaker’s Committee or discussed by the Speaker’s Committee and the Electoral Commission. The Commission says that it is committed to ensuring that political funding is transparent and to preventing unlawful foreign money from entering UK politics. It continues to recommend changes to the law to ensure that voters can have greater confidence in political finance in the UK. This includes recommendations for new duties on parties for enhanced due diligence and risk assessment of donations and changes to the law to ensure that companies have made enough money in the UK to fund any donations.
Elections Policy: Departmental Transfer
The Speaker’s Committee has not made any such assessment. However, the change in ministerial responsibility has had an impact on the Committee in a number of ways. As I mentioned in a previous answer, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) has been replaced as an ex officio member of the Committee by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). The Commission reports that it will continue to work closely with the team of civil servants, which has moved Departments. It has also had several meetings with responsible Ministers at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in particular to discuss the implementation of the Elections Act.
The governance of elections is of course a very important matter, and it was rather bizarrely removed from the portfolio of the Cabinet Office by the previous Prime Minister and entrusted to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Can the representative of the Speaker’s Committee provide any clarity on whether that will continue, and what consideration has he given to the merits of transferring the responsibility back to the Cabinet Office?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question, but the Committee will simply respond to however the Government organise themselves. It is a matter for the Government and the Prime Minister to allocate different responsibilities among different parties, and the Speaker’s Committee will respond accordingly.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Affordable and Sustainable Housing
Following the Church’s “Coming Home” report on meeting housing need, the Church is looking to establish a new national housing association and to make use of Church-owned land to develop more affordable homes where we are able to, along with pod homes to house vulnerable people temporarily.
Understandably, there were mixed feelings when the original St Elizabeth’s church in Eastbourne’s old town had to be demolished, but the church community moved next door and is thriving. Demolition created a significant site in a prime location in a town where housing development opportunities are few and far between. May I ask my hon. Friend what progress has been made in order to realise the potential on the site?
St Elizabeth’s Eastbourne was due for demolition in 2019 because the building was unsafe, and I am pleased that the congregation are thriving in their new location. We are now looking for a new home for the Hans Feibusch murals from the crypt, which I have to say, from the photographs I have seen of them, are very splendid. We are working with the local council, developers and the local community to find an appropriate housing scheme for this site.
Accessibility of Churches
The Church of England strongly encourages parishes and cathedrals to ensure access for all, wherever possible. On a personal note, I am grateful to the parish church where I grew up for providing ramps to get my mother in and out of the church in her wheelchair. The public worship of Jesus should always be accessible to as many people as possible.
The Holy Trinity or West Allington church is beautiful and historic, but access to it is quite poor. The lovely grass slope going up to the church means that, in winter and in poor, wet weather, the church is inaccessible to the elderly and those with disabilities, and some of my constituents have missed family funerals as a result. What can the Church Commissioners do to help?
It is typical of my hon. Friend’s conscientiousness that she has visited Holy Trinity, Allington to help get these much-needed improvements. If she contacts the archdeacon of Boston, the archdeacon will work with her and the parish, with the assistance of the church buildings department, to improve their bid for the necessary funds to help revitalise the church as a resource for the whole community. As she says, it is appalling that people have not been able to attend family funerals.
Business of the House
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I paid tribute to my predecessor yesterday but, before I announce the business, I would like to place on record my sadness and my thanks for the life and service of Nick Munting MBE, who gave this House 35 years’ service.
The business for the week commencing 12 September will include:
Monday 12 September—Second Reading of the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 13 September—Remaining stages of the Public Order Bill.
Wednesday 14 September—Remaining stages of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, followed by a motion relating to the Procedure Committee’s first report of 2022-23 on proxy voting and the presence of babies in the Chamber and Westminster Hall.
Thursday 15 September—Debate on a motion on NHS dentistry, followed by a general debate on the national food strategy and food security. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 16 September—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 19 September includes:
Monday 19 September—Remaining stages of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business, and I join her tribute to the former member of staff.
It is a pleasure to welcome the Leader of the House. As she dives into her new job, I hope it is not too cheesy to wish her all the best in making a splash. I also thank the right hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) for his service. The Leader of the House’s brief is unique in that it requires cross-party co-operation on a number of matters, and I look forward to working with the Leader of the House, as I looked forward to working with her predecessor.
The well-respected former Cabinet Secretary, Lord O’Donnell, said, “it is always best to look at the reasons why your predecessor fell and fix them.” I have been calling for the Government to bring forward the Standards Committee’s recommendations on strengthening the code of conduct for MPs for months. It is incredibly disappointing to see that it is missing from the business again. Will the Leader of the House please pass on Lord O’Donnell’s wise words to the Prime Minister and bring forward those recommendations urgently?
I pay tribute to my good and hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and his Committee for their excellent work, which must not go to waste. Labour has long called for transparency on Members’ interests and for a ban on paid consultancy work. Where Labour wants to act, the Tories sit on their hands. Labour would go even further by establishing an integrity and ethics commission that would sanction Ministers who breach the rules, but the Prime Minister has refused to say whether she will even appoint a new ethics adviser after the last two resigned in despair. There is clearly a need for stronger enforcement of the rules across Parliament and across Government. Will the Leader of the House tell me when the much-needed new ethics adviser will be announced?
The Government’s legislative agenda is in disarray. Without going all Craig David, let us look at their first few days. On Monday, the data Bill was pulled. It fell well short on ambition, but it was supposed to unlock growth and business opportunities. Does the new Culture Secretary support the Bill? If so, when will it be rescheduled? Or are the Government planning to drop it completely? We need clarity on which Bills from the Queen’s Speech of just four months ago the Government will be proceeding with. Are they dropping any other legislation that we should know about? If they are, may I suggest that the Leader of the House uses the space for the Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), which would give real protection and succour to victims of future public disasters and their families? It would be a lasting legacy for the Hillsborough families, who have suffered so much.
On Tuesday, the scrutiny session on the National Security Bill was cancelled when the latest Minister—[Interruption.] Well, I don’t know what happened. There have been four Ministers over the course of that Bill. Why could the Government not get anyone to turn up? Our Labour Back Benchers did. The zombie Government continue. Can the Leader of the House give us assurances that business on national security, or indeed anything else, will not be delayed again because Ministers cannot be bothered to turn up?
On Wednesday, whatever Craig David was up to, the Leader of the House announced that the Prime Minister would swerve scrutiny by announcing policy today in a general debate rather than making herself properly accountable by giving a ministerial statement. I see instead that there is to be a written ministerial statement, but it has not yet been published. Members cannot be expected to properly scrutinise significant policy when we have not seen it. When will it be published? Either way, this is not the same as bringing forward a policy, legislation and an implementation plan, and there is nothing in the Leader of the House’s statement. The energy price cap increases in less than a month, and without the legislation families will suffer. It is days away that the bills go up, so when are we going to do this?
So, the Government dropped a Bill on Monday, did not turn up on Tuesday, did something else on Wednesday and here they are planless on Thursday. Labour has been calling for action on energy bills for months. We could have passed legislation to freeze the energy price cap by now. Throughout the leadership campaign the Prime Minister consistently said she is against windfall taxes. What is it about this former Shell employee, the new Prime Minister, that means she is so determined to protect the £170 billion of excess oil and gas profits? She must now choose whose side she is on. Labour’s plan, backed by the country, is fully funded by a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. The Prime Minister is making working people pay. We have a new Prime Minister but the same story. Only Labour can tackle the Tory cost of living crisis, get money back into people’s pockets and deliver a fresh start for Britain.
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind and witty remarks on my appointment, although I have to disappoint her, because I am afraid there is nothing wet about me.
I am deeply honoured to have this role at a time when we have to restore trust in this place and in our politics, and that trust has to be earned through our conduct and our care, but also our policies. That is why—in answer to the hon. Lady’s question about energy costs—this Prime Minister believes in keeping our promises and delivering certainty for both households and people, and businesses and investors in this country.
I was buoyed up to hear the hon. Lady want to talk about the Prime Minister’s predecessor. I am taking that as an encouraging sign that she thinks the current Prime Minister is rather good. However, the hon. Lady does raise important issues about the code of conduct and the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser. I have asked for an early meeting with the Chairman of the Standards Committee—
We can debate over time, but I am pretty quick off the mark. The ethics adviser is a matter for the Prime Minister. She has an enormous in-tray to get through, but I know that she has a spectacular work rate and will get to these issues swiftly. I am keen to talk to the Chairman of the Committee, but I understand the importance of bringing these things forward swiftly and undertake to do so.
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind advice on House business. We will be announcing business in the usual way. On today’s debate, I think it is incredibly important that we will have debate time today on this most pressing issue. Members of this House will have been speaking to their constituents and businesses over the summer, and will want to get on record their views about what can happen. I just point out the care that the Prime Minister has taken to be able to give Members of this House information at the earliest possible occasion but not to breach the rules, as Mr Speaker would want—he would want this House to know first. [Interruption.] Hon. Members cannot have their cake and eat it. They cannot ask for information not to be disclosed prior to a debate and then criticise us for exactly that. Nick Robinson said on the “Today” programme this morning that he did not have the details of this. A written ministerial statement has been tabled and will be published shortly, in plenty of time for the debate this afternoon. As I said yesterday, that will not be the only occasion when Members will be able to comment on the measures being brought forward by this Government.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her position. It was an honour to serve with her in the Ministry of Defence, and I know she will apply the same due diligence to this role.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are committed to investing in new hospitals around the country. Leeds has an ambitious plan for a new general infirmary and children’s hospital, which will also have a new innovation hub, bringing £11.5 billion to the local economy. May we have a debate in Government time about the progress that project is making, so that I can sell the merits of the Leeds bid to her and our colleagues in government?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work he has done to progress that capital build. I encourage him to talk to the new Health Secretary—I am sure he has already written to her on the matter. He is very good at representing his constituents and will know all the means by which he can secure a debate on the Floor of the House on this important matter for them.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the Leader of the House to her new position and look forward to working with her and the shadow Leader of the House. I pay tribute to my energetic and witty predecessor, who enlivened many a session in this place over many years.
I welcome the news of the Government’s general debate on energy costs today, where the Prime Minister will finally detail the support to be offered to our many constituents who are struggling at this time. I believe she will also detail exactly what the Government plan to do about fracking and increasing oil and gas extraction, while remaining committed to their manifesto commitment to net zero by 2050.
Exciting times, eh, Mr Speaker? We have an exciting new Cabinet packed with exciting new talents: hard-line Brexiters, climate change sceptics and free marketers. We have a new Justice Secretary infamous for being prepared to break international law in a “limited and specific way”, and a Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy whose desk apparently does not boast a computer and who is on record as being a climate change denier. Obviously, they are raring to go and get stuck in—keen as mustard, like kids in their first week at school. And there are more announcements to come. Who knows what fresh delights await us?
I have a couple of questions, Mr Speaker. First, can the right hon. Lady confirm whether the newspaper reports are correct and the so-called Bill of Rights is, to the relief of so many, finally being booted up into the Back Benches with the former Justice Secretary—its biggest fan—or whether it is only simmering on the Government’s back burner until the new PM decides once again that just what the long-suffering people of these isles really need is politicians fiddling around with basic human rights that do not need to be fiddled around with?
Finally, other newspaper reports caused quite a stir in Scotland over the weekend by stating that the Government plan to introduce a referendum Bill setting out the rules under which they will permit the Scottish people a choice in their future again. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is their intention? I remind her that if the arbitrary threshold suggested had been applied to the Conservative leadership election, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) would not be Prime Minister, and that under it both the campaign to leave the EU and the Conservatives’ 2019 election bid would have fallen well short in England, let alone in Scotland. Clearly the Government have not learned anything from the last time Scots were cheated out of a result in a referendum in—[Interruption.] In 1979. The good news for us is that such desperate attempts to rig our independence referendum expose the desperation in Unionist ranks. They know that when we hold that referendum, we are going to win it.
I have made a schoolgirl error, I am afraid, because in my diligent preparation for these questions, I expected some questions relating to things that matter to the people of Scotland. Never mind—I hope for some in the coming weeks.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not feel able to celebrate the diversity of the new Cabinet. Despite her criticism of certain Members, the one thing that all members of the Cabinet believe in is holding to the results of referendums, which is an encouraging thing and something that I would recommend to her. We remain committed to our manifesto, and future business will be announced in the usual way.
I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her position, which I am sure she will enjoy, and I am sure she will serve with great distinction.
Global awareness day of aortic dissection is on 19 September this year. Aortic dissection is a terrible and all too often preventable condition if it is diagnosed, and it has affected my family. It affects more than 2,000 families whose loved ones die every year in this country. Please will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time to mark this date and also ask my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary what her Department will do to educate health professionals so that aortic dissections are not misdiagnosed, including working closely with the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and commend the work that she has done in the wake of a terrible tragedy to spare other families what she has had to suffer. I will bring this matter to the attention of the new Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister. Some encouraging work has been done by the Royal Colleges of Radiologists and Emergency Medicine to help spot and diagnose this condition in emergency departments and I thank her again for her work.
I welcome the new Leader of the House to her place and look forward to working with her in the coming weeks and months. It is refreshing to see that the Deputy Leader of the House is still in his place.
May I also apologise, Mr Speaker, for being slightly late? I have just been meeting a delegation of United States congressmen and women.
We have an extensive queue of debate applications waiting for Chamber time—quite a long list—but we are very much still open for business particularly for applications that are seeking time for debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so we would welcome such applications. Some Members are already particularly helpful in this respect—some might say a little too helpful! But we are very much open for business and looking forward to those applications.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. The work of the Backbench Business Committee is absolutely critical to enable Members to bring forward issues of concern to them. He will know from our conversation yesterday that I am looking at giving him early assurance of time both on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall and I will undertake to do that as swiftly as possible.
May I press the Leader of the House a little bit on the energy debate, which is starting in probably less than an hour’s time? I asked her yesterday about what information we would have. The written ministerial statement has not yet been laid; I hope that that will happen shortly. Furthermore, it is usual with a statement that, immediately the Minister making the statement sits down, a hard copy of that statement is distributed to Members. Can I have her assurance that, at the minimum, as soon as the Prime Minister has concluded her speech opening the debate, a hard copy of that speech will be circulated to MPs? It is a very significant announcement. We are expecting tens of billions of pounds, and Members need at least that level of detail to be able to debate it properly in the three-hour debate today.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this question both today and yesterday. I am very keen that Members of this House are given all the information they need to be able to fully participate in debates and to scrutinise Government policy. My understanding is that, because it is a general debate, that convention does not apply. However, we have raised this issue with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and that is the reason why a WMS will be tabled imminently, in good time for the debate this afternoon, and that will contain all the information that colleagues need.
I thank the Leader of the House for her positive response yesterday to my point of order. Will the Government consider having a debate on the private rented sector? It is one of the other key pressures on the cost of living crisis. I am pleased that the Government are—hopefully—about to deal with the energy crisis, but unless we deal with spiralling rents and ongoing evictions, people will suffer this winter. Will the Government bring forward a debate on this matter in Government time?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I would be happy to raise that matter with the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman will know from the Prime Minister’s statement that the cost of living and related issues are a priority for this Government, and I will certainly take that up with the relevant Department.
I apologise for being slightly late because I had to hobble here as the result of a sprained ankle.
I hugely congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new post. I speak from experience when I say that it is the most brilliant job, and I am sure she will serve with great distinction. I also say a huge thank you to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). He was brilliant and funny as the Scottish Nationalists’ spokesman all the way through, and I wish his successor much luck, Can my right hon. Friend assure us that she will give them no possibility of doing anything to tear apart our great United Kingdom while she remains Leader of the House?
Last week in my constituency I visited an Afghan family who have been in a hostel for more than 10 months. My constituent has been prevented from earning a living and providing for their family. They have progressed with help from the health service in the form of antidepressants. What they need is the ability to work and to live in a home rather than two rooms. They do not wish to remain dependent on the state and at its mercy. Will the Leader of the House urge the new Home Secretary to make a statement on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue and I am happy to raise it with the Home Secretary. Work has been going on in other Departments to remove barriers and enable people to get into work—for example, in the NHS—once their paperwork is sorted, and to see how Jobcentre Plus can assist people. All ideas from Members are always gratefully received.
I congratulate my fellow Hampshire MP on her new role. She will be aware that junction 9 of the M3 is a key piece of road infrastructure in our part of the world, from the docks in Southampton to the rest of the country. It has been held up while we make new plans in preparation—or not—for smart motorways. The new Prime Minister has been clear about her opinion that smart motorways will not be proceeded with. Should National Highways now proceed—as it had planned to do—with the junction outside the all-running motorway plan?
I thank my hon. Friend and fellow Hampshire colleague for his kind remarks. He will know that the Department for Transport has been reviewing the progress of that work, and it is right that we look at the genuine concerns that have been raised about that new technology. The Department will continue its plan as outlined, but I will raise the matter on his behalf with the new Secretary of State, because clearly his constituents and local business want some certainty on the timeframe.
Park home residents in Bath face soaring bills because their pitch fees are linked to the retail price index rather than the lower consumer price index. The previous Government committed to changing pitch fees in England if parliamentary time allowed. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is still the case?
I will certainly raise the issue with the relevant Department and ask it to contact the hon. Lady. I take it that she has raised this issue with it before, and clearly she has a number of means to secure a debate. If she has any difficulty in getting an answer to her question, I will be happy to assist.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new job. She follows in illustrious footsteps: Sir Robert Walpole, both the Pitts—Elder and Younger—Disraeli, Gladstone and Churchill. I want to bring up something to ask for her help about a historic appointment in Somerset. Mohammed Saddiq will soon take up an official role that was created by Henry VIII. He will get to wear fancy dress, represent our ancient county and welcome visiting dignitaries. However, his day job is director of Wessex Water, a company guilty of pumping thousands of gallons of human filth into my rivers and across the levels. Last year he received £422,000, including a bonus, for what was actually called “protecting the environment”. Somerset needs to be consulted about such appointments, and so does the rest of the country. We are not asked about them. Can we please have a debate in Government time on senior appointments so that MPs can have input into them across the United Kingdom?
On the issue of storm overflows, my hon. Friend will know that we are the first Government to have introduced legislation to reduce such discharges. He will fully understand the reason why they are done; the consequences of not doing them would be appalling for our constituents. Critically, since 2016, when only 5% of such overflows were monitored, monitoring is now at 90% and next year it will be 100%. That is not the solution, but it is incredibly helpful to the public. I think that background is helpful in the case he raises. Clearly, he will be as concerned as all of us in this House to get those matters resolved swiftly. Finally, I point out that last year we fined water companies £100 million for not following their obligations.
I warmly welcome the right hon. Lady to her new job, not least because she got to be leader after all; historically, the leader of the Government was the Leader of the House in the House of Commons, as was just pointed out. Her job is really important in terms of, as she has said, restoring the reputation of this House. Much of that started to fall apart with the Owen Paterson debacle last November. I hope we can put that behind us—although she voted, of course, for the wrecking amendment at the time—and work together to try to bring forward the new code of conduct as soon as possible. It is simpler, it tightens up the rules and it provides fairness for all Members. There should not be a higher standard for us than for anybody else in public life, but there should be standards in public life. I hope she will explain to us why she has pulled the debate that was meant to bring forward the new code of conduct next Wednesday.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks and look forward to our first meeting, whichever one of us initiated it. I do take these matters very seriously—I hope that is my reputation—and I believe strongly that in this role, as well as serving my Government, I also serve this House. I understand the full importance of restoring trust and confidence in our politics. I want to have a conversation with him, but he will already know that we are very sympathetic to the measures in his report, and I am not looking to delay those matters; I want to fully understand them and get the background from him. I hope he will take that as positive.
I too warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her new role. I thank Mr Speaker for agreeing yesterday to my request to hoist the Brazilian flag in New Palace Yard, because yesterday marked an important day in the Brazilian national calendar. I also thank him for receiving the Brazilian ambassador, Mr Fred Arruda. This is a moment of great pride for all Brazilians worldwide, but also for the large number of Brazilians who work on our estate. Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating yesterday’s anniversary of Brazilian independence, in which Britain played a significant part 200 years ago, as we look forward to growing a strong strategic and trade relationship between our two great countries?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and for giving me the opportunity to echo the statement that he has made. I suggest that he might wish to secure an Adjournment debate on this topic, and I thank him for all he is doing to strengthen our ties with Brazil.
Supported businesses such as Highland BlindCraft in Inverness rely on transitional support grants to help them to employ a wide range of people with disabilities and to help them to become valued members of our workforce. The grants are due to end in April. There has been no word from the Government about their replacement or any information about what is happening, and this is a critical time for these businesses in trying to plan. May we have a statement on when the situation will be rectified and when detail on the grants will be given?
I would be very happy to raise that specific issue with the relevant Secretary of State. One of our achievements has been to halve the disability employment gap. This continues to be of huge importance to the Government, and we want to do everything we can to enable that employment and others to continue.
I welcome the Leader of the House to her new role and congratulate her. When will we see leasehold reform on the Order Paper? This is a difficult, technical issue. We need to get it right, we need time to debate it, and there are people suffering now as a result of abusive practices that need to be tackled. I do hope that we will see it on the Order Paper soon.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this important point. I will take it up with the relevant Department and business will be announced in the usual way. I would also encourage her to use all the means that she will be very aware of to secure a debate on the issue, but I shall certainly raise it with the Department.
Several small to medium-sized businesses in Battersea have told me how much they are struggling with the cost of living crisis. Energy bills are soaring and business costs are rising, and then there are the supply chain and staffing issues as a consequence of Brexit. These small businesses are vital to our local economy and they need help now, so the Government must come forward with a plan of support that includes a contingency fund for these businesses. We need to see a cut in business rates and the energy price cap implemented sooner rather than later. May we have a statement outlining the Government plan to support small and medium-sized businesses?
That is the reason why we have given time for a general debate this afternoon. Many Members will have ideas about what support is needed and they will have the opportunity to raise them later today. We have moved Government business around to allow that to happen, and to allow measures to help the hon. Lady’s businesses to be brought forward.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new position? The Prime Minister yesterday agreed with the Father of the House that local authorities should be allowed by planning law to protect what matters most of them. I believe that should apply as much to Doncaster Sheffield airport as it does to the green belt. The land that our airport sits on has planning consent for use as an airport. Does the Leader of the House agree that the owners, Peel Holdings, should not be able to close our airport and use the land for anything else?
My hon. Friend is an assiduous campaigner on this issue, and I know that he has raised it many times. There are commercial decisions, which sit with the owners, about what their plans are, but I know that he is doing everything within his power to ensure a good outcome for his local constituents, and I am at his disposal if there is anything I can do to assist him in that.
In the absence of today’s cancelled debate, will the Leader of the House speak to her colleagues in the Home Office about restoring the Home Office hub that we previously had in Portcullis House? The biggest thief of time in my office is when caseworkers have to listen to a message on the helpline saying that there are more than five people waiting ahead of them. The Home Office has written to tell us that it will have a series of regional walk-in initiatives. Can she perhaps explain to the Home Office that the nearest one to my constituency is in Aberdeen, and that it will only be a walk-in service when my caseworkers can walk on water? They do brilliant things, but I fear that is still a little bit beyond them.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. My office has already had some discussions with the Home Office about what service it can provide to hon. Members, which is vital. Rather than being a burden on it, Members of Parliament can be of great assistance in getting cases resolved, so I will happily do that.
The Arctic ocean is heating four times faster than any other ocean in the world. The sea ice is melting and there is a whole range of other issues. The Arctic Council is not operating, and a whole series of issues is pending with regard to the Arctic, such as minerals and fisheries. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has promised a new Arctic policy document imminently—it says that it has been preparing it for quite a long time. Will my right hon. Friend, who I warmly welcome to her new post, find time for a Government debate on British relations with the Arctic, which could perhaps coincide with the launch of that new document?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue, which has always been important, but is even more pressing now because of what is happening with Russia. I will bring it up with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I encourage him—although I know he needs no encouragement—to do all he can to secure time on the Floor of the House to debate that important issue.
I warmly welcome the appointment of the Leader of the House. I particularly look forward to the exchanges that I am sure we will have in the Procedure Committee, particularly on proxy voting, in the coming weeks.
At the weekend, a group of cyclists from my constituency and the constituency of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) were doing a fundraiser for Prostate Cymru, travelling from Wales to Portugal. When they arrived at customs in Santander, their bikes were seized and they were asked to pay in excess of €10,000 to release the bikes for the fundraising effort. Clearly, that has had a huge impact on the fundraising; the cyclists ended up paying €8,500 to release the bikes, which the whole House will agree is appalling.
It appears that it was to do with a post-Brexit form linked to importers trying to sell goods in Spain, but clearly this was a cycling fundraising event. I would be grateful if the Leader of the House could make representations to the Foreign Secretary about providing more support to charities such as Prostate Cymru about what forms need to be completed, and about working with the Spanish Government to ensure that does not happen again to much-needed funds for charities.
I am very sorry to hear of that. There is no reason why they should have had that difficulty—it is outrageous. I take this opportunity to remind hon. Members about the excellent consular service that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office runs. I had an incident where a constituent was in real danger. Through the consular service, within half an hour of me making that initial call, the local police force in the United States was on that individual’s doorstep. I encourage people to use that facility, and I will do all I can to help to resolve and get compensation for the group of cyclists the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new position; I know that she will do a fantastic job.
Sadly, I was not shocked by Sandwell Council’s latest attempt to threaten and silence residents who are being let down by the Labour-run council. Residents who complain about their child’s special educational needs and disabilities travel service now face their transport provision being removed for good. The council’s latest terms and conditions reads:
“Please don’t use social media to make a complaint as it may result in your child’s transport being suspended or removed permanently.”
That is after the scandal around those contracts being awarded on the basis of friendships. We have really hit a new low. Can the Leader of the House advise me on whether we can have a debate on Sandwell Council’s ongoing SEND provision?
That is very shocking and sad to hear. It is absolutely the case that local authorities have a statutory duty to provide free home-to-school transport for eligible children of compulsory school age, and it would not be lawful for a local authority to withdraw transport from an eligible child on the grounds that a parent had complained—that is outrageous. My hon. Friend will know how to secure a debate, but I will raise the issue on her behalf with the relevant Department. It is a shocking indictment of that council.
I congratulate the new Leader of the House. I am personally very pleased for her and I wish her all the very best in this role.
This morning, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency produced statistics showing that Northern Ireland has had 340 excess deaths in the last 10 weeks, which is a 16% increase over the last five years. That is obviously devastating for those families and for those people, and it is largely because of delayed diagnosis. The cancer statistics are still not published, which means that this figure will be even higher in the next few weeks. I wonder at what point in the crisis in the Northern Ireland health service the Health Secretary here will be able to step in with emergency provision and emergency organisation. Can the Leader of the House raise that urgently with the Health Secretary?
That is very hard to hear. One of the strengths of our national health service across the United Kingdom is that it is devolved and run in slightly different ways. I know that the chief medical officers work together very closely to share good practice, to learn from each other and to strengthen the system as a whole. I will certainly raise the hon. Member’s concerns with the new Secretary of State, but he will know that we are doing everything we can to restore a Government in Northern Ireland so that these issues can be gripped and dealt with.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her place, and I think she will be a fantastic champion for this House. I also welcome the speed with which the Government are bringing forward measures to address the energy crisis. Alongside that, the No. 1 issue in my inbox from constituents is the fate or the future of Worcester Warriors rugby club. Professional rugby has been played at Sixways for all of my adult life, but this is now under threat due to the dire financial situation at the club. Five Worcestershire MPs have together written to both the incoming and outgoing Secretaries of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I am delighted—thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—that the Speaker has allowed an Adjournment debate on this issue on 19 September, but I fear that may be too late. We need urgent action by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as well as Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Football Union to save the future of this club. Are there any opportunities for me to raise this issue even sooner than Monday after next?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he and his local colleagues are doing to secure the club’s future. He has done exactly as we would expect him to do in securing that debate, but time is of the essence. I will happily raise the issue on his behalf and ensure that the new Secretary of State realises it is a priority. We have previously assisted clubs, even if it is just by buying them a bit of time, and I know that the new Secretary of State will be keen to do all she can to assist.
The Government have taken £4.4 billion from the mineworkers’ pension scheme to date. The cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report concluded that the Government
“should not be in the business of profiting from mineworkers’ pensions.”
I and 50 colleagues wrote to the two leadership candidates last month about this, but we are yet to receive a reply, so can we have an urgent statement from this new Government on this scandal?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this matter. She can clearly raise it as a question to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or seek to secure a debate, but I would be happy to notify the Department that this is a concern to her and ask it to get in touch.
Before the recess, I raised the plight of Obaidullah Jabarkhyl, a young Afghan boy who became separated from his family when they fled Afghanistan. Very sadly, he ended up in Paris while the rest of the family ended up here. Over the last 12 months, his solicitor, the family and my office have been trying to get him reunited with his family. The good news is that yesterday he arrived at King’s Cross and was reunited with his twin brother. However, this highlights the problems there are for Afghan refugees and others who are separated from their families across the world. Equally, 11,000 Afghan refugees are still in hotels in this country. May we have a debate in Government time on the plight of refugees, and on how we can ensure that we can short-circuit this and get people into decent homes that they can make their own?
My hon. Friend is an assiduous campaigner on these matters, and he continues to raise his concerns but also concerns shared by many Members of the House. I know that the new Home Secretary will be looking at these issues and asking other Government Departments to grip them. I would be happy to raise this issue on his behalf, and I will certainly encourage the Home Office, as I have mentioned, to be as helpful to Members of this House as possible in resolving these cases.
Marie Curie’s Dying In Poverty campaign is calling for urgent action from the UK to safeguard terminally ill people and their families against poverty at the end of their lives. Will the Leader of the House make a statement setting out her support for that campaign, and will she use her good offices to urge her Cabinet colleagues to do likewise, and put an end to the shameful indictment of our society where people die in poverty?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. She will know that as part of today’s business, Members will be able to make some progress on that. I know it is connected to a whole raft of things, and I will be happy to point the new Secretary of State towards the hon. Lady’s concerns.
There are not really enough hours in the day to speak about fishing and farming. With that in mind, will the Leader of the House please give Members more time in questions to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ask questions on rural affairs?
I warmly welcome the new Leader of the House and look forward to our Thursdays together. I remind her that some years ago, the lovely Cheryl Gillan managed to get the Autism Act 2009 through this place. May we have an early debate on the fact that autism is an important issue for so many families in this country? Up and down the country, many local authorities are ignoring that Act, failing to put it into operation, and leaving families in a dreadful state of despair.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House about one of the many services that Cheryl Gillan performed for this House in introducing that Act, which was supported by many Members of the House. It has been in operation for some time, and we should look at how it is performing. I encourage him to apply for a debate in the usual manner, and I will be happy to raise the issue with the several relevant Departments so that they can consider his request.