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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 722: debated on Thursday 17 November 2022

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Production

The Government food strategy sets out what we will do to create a more prosperous agrifood sector that delivers healthier, more sustainable and more affordable food, including commitments to broadly maintain the level of food we produce domestically and to boost production in sectors with the biggest opportunities. We are also providing support to farmers to improve productivity.

With a greater emphasis on food security as a consequence of Putin’s war in Ukraine, does my right hon. Friend agree that her Department’s response to the independent Dimbleby review, only to maintain broadly the current level of domestic food production, lacks ambition? Will she now bring forward a national food strategy that not only commits to increasing food production significantly here in the UK but gives preference to the production of healthy food to tackle the growing threat of obesity, especially in children?

My hon. Friend is right to flag these issues, particularly Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which is a reminder of the crucial importance of UK food producers to our national resilience. I do not intend to change the Government food strategy, but I am conscious that we need to ensure that food security, as the heart of our vision for the food sector, is delivered. That is why we will continue to maintain the current level of domestic food production, but there are opportunities, such as in horticulture and seafood, where we can do even better.

Some supermarkets are now rationing eggs and, ahead of Christmas, there is a real concern about the supply of turkeys. The British Free Range Egg Producers Association has said that a third of its members have cut back on production as a result of avian influenza. Can the Secretary of State say what the Government are doing to help poultry farmers through this very challenging time?

I understand that the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), is meeting the industry on a weekly basis. It is fair to say that retailers have not directly contacted the Department to discuss supply chains, although I am conscious of what is happening on individual shelves. Nearly 40 million egg-laying hens are still available, so I am confident we can get through this supply difficulty in the short term.

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to visit Old Hall farm in Woodton in my constituency to see the excellent work done by Rebecca and Stuart Mayhew who use regenerative techniques to produce high-quality food that both protects the environment and reduces costs to the NHS through more healthy food?

My hon. Friend offers an interesting invitation. Given my diary, I cannot commit now, but his constituents’ work is exceptionally positive. We introduced the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill because we know we need to adapt some of our food production industries to be resilient for the future.

We will produce less food if we have fewer farmers. In just a few weeks’ time, the Government plan to take 20% of the basic payment away from farmers, at the same time that barely 2% have got themselves into the new sustainable farming incentive. Will the Secretary of State consider delaying the reduction in the basic payment scheme to keep farmers farming while she sorts out the mess in her Department on the environmental land management schemes? Will she also meet Baroness Rock at the earliest opportunity to discuss her important tenant review?

It has been well trailed for several years that we will shift from the EU common agricultural policy for distributing money to our farmers and landowners to using public money for public goods. That is why we have been working on the environmental land management schemes and will continue to make sure we get them right. We will make further announcements in due course.

Food production is vulnerable to animal disease, and we have heard about the impact of avian flu on supermarkets, which are limiting the sale of eggs. This week, the Public Accounts Committee highlighted what it describes as

“a long period of inadequate management and under investment in the Weybridge site”

of the Animal and Plant Health Agency. The PAC warned that the APHA would struggle if there were a concurrent disease outbreak. As the Secretary of State well knows, other diseases do threaten. Although staff are doing their very best, what is her plan if we face another disease outbreak, or is it just fingers crossed in the hope that it does not happen on her watch?

I have been at COP27 for the past few days, so I have not read all of the PAC report, but I reject its assertion that our biosecurity is not well done. We should be proud that the United Kingdom is protected against such diseases, and that will continue. That is why the APHA is an important part of what DEFRA does, not only for England but for the UK.

Some of the things that we require to ensure increased food production are good trade deals, and in a rare moment of understated candour, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), has conceded that the much-trumpeted flagship Australian trade deal is “not…very good”, something any of us could have told him if he had been prepared to listen. Why does it take the resignation or sacking of former Secretaries of State to get that type of blunt candour? Does the Secretary of State agree that these rotten deals betray and let down all the sectors that she represents?

Water Industry: Competition and Regulation

2. If she will instruct Ofwat to publish and execute plans to strengthen competition and reduce regulatory burdens in the water industry. (902204)

I thank my hon. Friend for his independent report, “Power To The People”, which focuses on competition in the regulated sectors. Through our strategic policy statement, we have instructed Ofwat not only to put the environment at the top of the agenda but to promote competition where that would benefit consumers. This year, we also instructed Ofwat to produce a competition stocktake. It published that in July and we are reviewing it.

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words about my report on competition in all utilities, including the water sector, which was commissioned by the Government but, as she says, is independent. I am pleased to hear that we have now got a statement or a request—a demand, I suppose—that Ofwat introduces more competition. It is essential that we get dates and deadlines on introducing more competition and reducing the regulatory burden. Will she promise me that the Government’s response will aim for those dates and deadlines, so there can be no backsliding in progress towards helping my constituents with their water bills?

By putting competition on the agenda for Ofwat, we have already demonstrated that we mean business on this issue and we will respond to that report. Ofwat has already put an outcomes-based approach in its 2024 price review and it is already enforcing competition for the procurement of infrastructure. That demonstrates that we are going in a direction that I think my hon. Friend may be pleased with.

South West Water, which covers both my constituency and that of the Minister, has been given a one-star rating by the Environment Agency because of water pollution. It is clear that Ofwat cannot properly regulate some of the wayward companies that continue to pay out huge sums in dividends while failing our communities. Does the Minister agree with me that Ofwat should be abolished so that we can create a new regulator that actually has some teeth?

The answer to that is no. We are working very constructively with Ofwat. It can fine a water company that is found to be in breach 10% of its turnover. It has used fines, and Environment Agency fines have significantly increased over the last year as well. I am certain that working with Ofwat, so that it works with the water companies to bring them into line, is the right way to approach the issue, and that is what Ofwat is doing.


3. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of preparations to support communities and businesses impacted by potential flooding in winter 2022-23. (902205)

We are investing £5.2 billion over the next six years in flood protection to better protect communities across England. Some 35,000 properties have been better protected since April last year. Last week was Flood Action Week and we encouraged many communities to take note of whether they are in a flood area, as many people do not realise that; they can check that on the Environment Agency website. There are steps that we can all individually take. The EA has also taken on more staff, who are all funded and ready to respond whenever necessary.

In the last few weeks, with the weather getting wetter, I have been contacted by anxious farmers and residents in the Winmarleigh, Pilling and Hollins Lane areas of my constituency, all of which fall within the catchment of the River Wyre. What steps is the Minister taking to protect my constituents in Wyre against flooding before it happens and devastation is caused?

Our flood funding is funding 2,000 infra- structure projects across the country. There are three already in the hon. Lady’s constituency: two are about to get under way and one we do not yet have the date for, but all the work has been done. One of the key ways that we work with farmers is on nature-based solutions, so that they can take flood water if they have to do so. I am working closely with the Minister responsible for farming, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), on the environment and land management scheme, so that farms are also catered for to deal with water issues as well as food production.

Residents near Sleaford were horrified to find out that Anglian Water plan to flood a large area near Scredington, flooding their homes, their farms and their businesses. Apparently, this is to create a reservoir to provide water in the south-east of England. It is an entirely unsuitable place for such a reservoir: it is a large concrete-bunded, unnatural-looking structure. Will the Minister meet me so that we can ensure that this reservoir does not happen in this location?

We have already had a conversation on that and I am really happy to follow it up. We need water infrastructure in the right place, but we do need new water infrastructure, because we have to increase our water supply. We also need to tackle leakage and water efficiency. DEFRA is working hard on a combination of measures to make sure that people have the water that they need. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that proposal.

Environment Agency: Enforcement Budget

5. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of a reduction in the Environment Agency’s budget on its enforcement work. (902207)

I feel a bit like a jack-in-the-box this morning, Mr Speaker.

Environment Agency enforcement is at a record high, and its funding is closely monitored to ensure that it can continue to hold polluters to account. Last year, record fines were handed to water companies, making it clear that polluters will pay. The EA’s total budget this year is £1,650 million. I am always bad at reading out numbers and putting them into words. That is nearly 20% of DEFRA’s entire budget, including new ringfenced money for special enforcement activities, such as 4,000 more farm inspections and 5,000 more sewage treatment works inspections.[Official Report, 22 November 2022, Vol. 723, c. 4MC.]

I have been dealing with an Environment Agency complaint from residents near a pig farm in rural Wakefield, which has been operating without the necessary licence for more than a year. However, I have seen delay after delay, with residents getting no anticipated timelines and no commitments to resolve the problem, leaving them none the clearer about when life can go back to normal. Can the Minister set out how she will ensure that the Environment Agency’s enforcement actions are fit for purpose so that it can protect our communities?

I have already heard about that particular incident, but I do not have all the details. I would be very happy if the hon. Gentleman would like to meet me. It has been conveyed that the farm is operating illegally, that the EA is involved, and that he has already met the EA and will meet it again, but I am very happy to have the details.

I understand that there are pressures with the prioritisation of any kind of enforcement, but in my constituency, in the village Borstal, we have been blighted with an illegal waste dump for a number of years. It is totally illegal, causing distress to residents and a blot on an area of outstanding natural beauty. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can get the Environment Agency to take really swift action for something that has gone on for too long?

One never wants to hear examples such as that. Of course I will meet my hon. Friend to see what more can be done. We need to work constructively with the Environment Agency, because there is a protocol for what it does, and to get it involved with practical actions that can help.

It is a pleasure to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) back to her place.

The Environment Agency has a heavy responsibility for environmental protection, especially investigation and enforcement of pollution incidents such as sewage dumping. However, the Government more than halved the agency’s environmental protection budget from £170 million in 2009-10 to £76 million in 2019-20, and that included the three years in which the current Secretary of State was a Minister. Last year, the budget was only £94 million. I know that the Minister had some issues with the number, but that number was mainly around capital spending on flooding, and we have seen a fall in the budget for environmental protection, which is hugely important to people around the country, especially those who live near rivers and seas.

Morale is at rock bottom at the agency, and vacancy rates are as high as 80% in some teams, with many breaches not being investigated or enforced. How does the Secretary of State and the Minister plan to resolve crippling staff shortages and get us back to where we should be?

First, I would like to put on record that we must stop doing down our Environment Agency, which does a great deal of really exceptional work, particularly on the areas I have already mentioned such as flooding. Its staff numbers have been consistent for the last three years at around 10,700 and enforcement is funded from the EA’s environment grant, which the 2021 spending review almost doubled to £91 million.

Coastal Businesses: Sewage

6. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential impact of sewage spillages on coastal businesses. (902208)

I am still bobbing; I feel as if I am back on the Back Benches.

We are the first Government to tackle storm overflows through the storm overflows reduction plan. We recognise the importance of bathing waters to the economy of coastal areas, with each visit adding approximately £12 to the local economy. Our strict new targets will see £56 billion-worth of capital investment over 25 years and we will eliminate ecological harm from storm sewage discharge by 2050. Our impact assessment on the storm overflows reduction plans provides evidence of the benefits to businesses and society of cleaning up the water.

People in coastal communities have seen for themselves the increasing sewage on beaches during 12 years of Conservative Government. Business owners have faced the consequences, with tourists less likely to visit. Will the Minister admit that cutting the Environment Agency budget was a mistake, and perhaps apologise to Environment Agency staff for those cuts and for making it harder for them to do their jobs? While she is apologising, will she also apologise to coastal communities for the damage done and tell us what the plan is to stop sewage discharges on our beaches?

I take issue with that question. Our bathing waters in England are a massive success story, with almost 95% achieving good or excellent status last year, the highest since the stringent new standards were introduced in 2015. I accept that there are issues, and the hon. Gentleman will know how hard we are working—harder than any Government ever before—to tackle storm sewage discharges, hence our reduction plan and all the targets we are setting the water companies. We will do it.

The Minister will be aware that two or three weeks ago there was a well-publicised spillage at the beach at St Agnes in Cornwall, where a large volume of brown material was expelled into the river. Many campaigners immediately leapt to the assumption that it was a sewage discharge and became very voluble about how disgraceful it was. Had it been sewage, it would have been disgraceful, but it was in fact soil erosion. That is in itself another problem, but we need to urge moderate language when we manage these issues. People should not immediately leap to a conclusion, but allow the Environment Agency and the water company to be clear about what has caused the incident.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that particular issue. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, assuming that it was sewage, and it was proven not to be. That is why monitoring is so important and why this Government have set in place a comprehensive monitoring and data-gathering programme and project. We need that to sort out those issues, as well as all the other measures we have put in place.

Natural England

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Chair of Natural England on the (a) efficiency and (b) effectiveness of that body's regulatory work. (902209)

I have recently met both the chair of Natural England, Marian Spain, and the chief executive, Tony Juniper. DEFRA frequently discusses regulatory work with Natural England. Its efficiency and effectiveness is appraised in a range of measures, including 19 key performance indicators, which are published in Natural England’s annual report and accounts.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. When she next meets Natural England, will she tell it to stop exploiting the insufficient information loophole, which prevents it from having to respond within 21 days to planning applications as a statutory consultee? Brocks Pine in my constituency is a development that would be on the heathland and inside the green belt. It took Natural England nine months to respond to that, and when it did, it said it had insufficient information. Is that not wholly unsatisfactory?

Clearly, when statutory consultees do not respond promptly, it causes delays and deeper problems for developers and communities. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and esteemed colleague to discuss what went wrong with Brocks Pine, but I would say that Natural England are making significant progress across a number of measures, from countryside stewardship scheme agreements to the coastal path, national nature reserves and many others. There will be creases to iron out, and I will discuss those when I meet him.

Yesterday I met the chair of Natural England, which is doing excellent work. Will the Minister say a bit more about what she sees as Natural England’s role in nature-based solutions to tackle climate change?

Natural England is a vital organisation that I work with closely to ensure that we meet our environmental targets set out in the world-leading Environment Act 2021. Whether it is working with farmers, local communities or environmental organisations, Natural England is at the heart of everything we are doing.

Air, Water and Biodiversity: Statutory Deadlines

8. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the Government failing to meet statutory deadlines on (a) air quality, (b) water quality and (c) biodiversity. (902210)

The Government already have existing legal targets driving ambitious action on air and water quality. As the hon. Lady will be aware, bio- diversity was included in the Environment Act 2021, so it is already in primary legislation. When I became Secretary of State, frankly, I was disappointed to discover that we were not in a place to publish these targets, but we are now working at pace, building on the work of my predecessors and the environmental implementation plan.

My constituents will continue to suffer from breathing toxic air because of the Government’s failure to meet the legal deadline to introduce targets under the Environment Act. The Government are also planning to water down standards by committing to cut PM2.5 only by 2040, not by 2030, the target that the EU has committed to, reneging on yet another pledge not to water down standards post Brexit. Will the Secretary of State provide a new date for the publication of environment targets and commit to a 2030 target?

I know that we are in a debating Chamber, but what the hon. Lady said at the beginning of her question is factually incorrect. It is important to say that legislation is already in place. We are actually seeing air quality improving right across the country. Indeed, I remind her that in her constituency, it is of course the Mayor of London who should be driving improvements in air quality. He has all the powers at his disposal to do so and it is up to him to deliver.

May I welcome the Secretary of State to her post? She has been in post for three weeks now, but the crisis of raw sewage turning England into an open sewer can be traced back to her time as an Environment Minister. To undo that damage, will she update the House on when she held a roundtable with all the water bosses and what the outcome of it was?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that warm welcome. It is great to be back at DEFRA, a Department in which I served for three years—I am pleased to be there. Let us be candid about this: we have seen some difficult situations with water companies. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), is already on the case in that regard. I have not yet prioritised the water companies specifically, because other Ministers are doing so and I am prioritising my work to achieve environmental targets to satisfy the legislation set out by Parliament, as well as the preparation we are doing for the Montreal conference. My hon. Friend has already set out to the House some of the work that is under way. We are taking proactive action on sewage spillage.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), may only have been in office for just over a month, but even he met the water bosses for a roundtable on his first day in office. Why, for one of the biggest scandals in her Department, has she not seen that as a priority?

Moving on, in a stunning turn of events, ahead of COP27, the Secretary of State announced that the Government will breach their own self-imposed legal obligations to publish targets on air quality, clean water and biodiversity. How does she expect other countries to take us seriously at COP15 when we cannot even get our own house in order?

I was at the last COP on the convention on biological diversity, COP14, in Sharm El-Sheikh. I just got home from Sharm, from the climate COP, to come back in time for orals today. I assure the hon. Member that we continue to work with countries around the world to ensure that our outcomes in Montreal are as ambitious as they can be, including signing people up to the 30 by 30 coalition, and indeed the 10-point plan for biodiversity financing. I assure him that we are working at pace in the Department on the Environment Act, and the subsequent targets from it that we need to put into legislation, and I hope to update the House in the near future.

Fishing Communities

The Government are providing £32.7 million a year to enable all four fishing Administrations to deliver funding schemes to support the seafood sector, such as the fisheries and seafood scheme in England. In addition to that, £100 million is being provided through the UK’s seafood fund to support the long-term future and sustainability of the industry, helping to bring economic growth to coastal communities and supporting levelling up.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I draw attention to my role chairing Renaissance of the East Anglian Fisheries, a community interest company promoting the fishing industry in East Anglia. It is welcome that policy labs in the Cabinet Office are engaging with local fishermen in producing the bass fisheries management plan, and a REAF director recently attended a workshop in Lowestoft. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is also liaising with the Department for International Trade to confirm that the management plan accords with the trade and co-operation agreement, and will also apply to EU vessels?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tenacious campaigning on this topic. The bass fisheries management plan will manage bass fishing in England and Wales. We are delivering on our commitments in the Fisheries Act 2020. The fisheries management plan will apply to all vessels fishing in these waters, and the Fisheries Act 2020 requires consultation with all interested persons. Our fisheries management plans will comply with the UK’s international obligations, including the trade and co-operation agreement.

Topical Questions

I pay tribute to the previous ministerial team, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), on the work that they did while they were Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have just returned from my fourth climate COP, the UN climate conference in Egypt, where I held productive bilateral meetings with a range of counterparts from India to Japan. Yesterday, I was delighted to announce a new big nature impact fund for our country of £30 million as seed investment to bring in other private investment that will help us to plant more woodland, restore precious peatland and create new habitats, as well as bring green jobs to our communities. We should be proud of what we are achieving, and indeed the work that we are doing to unlock financing around the world, but it is critical that we have a great global effort, so that, as we head into the financial negotiations ahead of the COP15 on the convention on biological diversity in Montreal next month, we come together to ensure that we have ambitions for the future of our planet.

Carshalton and Wallington residents warned the Lib-Dem-run council that the incinerator that it campaigned for in Beddington would one day want to increase its capacity. Sadly, they have been proven right, because it is now seeking to burn more. I know that the waste minimisation strategy calls for the phasing out of incineration, so does my right hon. Friend agree that residents should get involved in the Environment Agency consultation to say that they do not want to see that increase?

It will be no surprise to anyone in this House that Liberal Democrats often say one thing to get elected and then do the exact opposite. We should be aware that generating energy from waste should not compete with greater waste prevention, reuse or recycling. Consideration must be given to the Government’s strategic ambition to minimise waste and our soon-to-be-published residual waste reduction target, and I agree that my hon. Friend’s residents should respond to the consultation in full force.

T2. Since the Boxing day floods in 2015, my residents on Riverside Drive have been living in fear. They recently found out that the works will be further delayed until 2026—11 years after the first floods. Moreover, a nearby floor basin project has increased the volume of water in its part of the River Irwell, meaning that the river now rises at a faster rate than before, adding more stress for my residents. I have raised the issue many times in Parliament, and I have asked successive Ministers to come to visit Bolton South East to see it for themselves and speak to residents. I ask the new Secretary of State to do the same. (902222)

I am not committing to visiting the hon. Lady’s constituency, but I am very concerned about what she just relayed. I have already asked for the Environment Agency to meet for a deep dive on the flooding budget. There is a frequently flooded fund, which can support constituencies such as hers, and we need to make sure we are delivering effective action. That also goes for councils, which need to make sure they have cleared the gullies, so that we do not get these levels of surface water flooding.

T3.   I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The packaging industry is ready to play its part in creating a world-class recycling system, and extended producer responsibility with a deposit return scheme and consistent household collections of waste will achieve that, but Government responses to consultations on the latter two are still awaited. Given that businesses are expected to do their bit by starting to record complicated packaging data for EPR from 1 January next year, in just six weeks’ time, could the Secretary of State say when the responses to those schemes will be available? (902223)

Following consultations on the two schemes my hon. Friend mentions, intensive work is going on in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make all the schemes link up, because these are complicated issues. I can assure him that we are aiming to publish our responses to the outstanding consultations by the end of this year.

T4. Under the previous Prime Minister, it was reported that the best and most versatile land would be re-categorised to include category 3b, with a view to blocking development, including solar power, from that land. Is that still the Government’s intention? (902224)

It is really important that we make the best use of our land, to have the food security that was referred to earlier. It is also important, when considering land use, that we think about the best place to put renewable energy. By and large, I think most people in this country would agree: let us have good agricultural land for farming, and let us use our brownfield sites for other energy projects too.

T5. I was grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), for her response to my Adjournment debate last week about our campaign on bathing water status for rivers, and specifically the River Nidd in Knaresborough. Will she meet me to discuss that campaign and the process for inland bathing water accreditation? (902227)

I hear that it was a lively debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. We are actively encouraging more applicants for bathing water status, and I look forward to receiving the application for the River Nidd and discussing it with him. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said in that debate, it is time to get your Speedos out.

There have been many warm words from successive Secretaries of State on saving nature. Many species may soon be extinct, including the red squirrel, the water vole and even the hedgehog. Two years ago, I was on the Environment Bill Committee, and much was made of new targets. The 31 October date for those new targets was missed. Can the Secretary of State be clear today: what is the date for publishing those targets and taking action on saving nature?

I would like to reassure the hon. Member that we remain absolutely committed to publishing our environmental targets, and I have been meeting partners, including farmers, environmental organisations and the people managing protected landscapes. The most important thing is that we deliver on the outcomes clearly set out in our 25-year environment plan.

T6. Communities in tiny villages such as Arlingham in my patch, a beautiful peninsular on the River Severn, are desperately worried about proposals for large solar farms. I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about protecting agricultural land, but can she confirm that she is speaking with colleagues across Cabinet, so that we can tighten up this policy and provide clarity? I am not somebody who thinks these things should be banned, but we need to do better on giving clarity to businesses and communities. (902228)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that planning policy is a matter for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and solar policy is a matter for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but she should be assured that my officials are working closely with those Departments to ensure that we get the right balance between boosting our food production and delivering long-term energy security.

Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the outstanding statutory deadlines we have spoken about on air, water and so forth will be published before COP15, so that we can lead by example? If she cannot guarantee that, does she agree that that bodes incredibly ill for the deadlines in the utterly misguided and reckless Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill? If we cannot meet these deadlines, how will we meet those?

I completely understand why Members of the House are concerned that the Government have not come forward with the secondary legislation as set out in primary legislation, and I have already expressed my disappointment. I assure the hon. Lady that we are working at pace to get those targets in place. I am conscious that we are still working on certain aspects of that, but I hope to try to get them done as quickly as possible.

I thank my right hon. Friend the fisheries Minister for rapidly acceding to the Committee’s request to set up an independent panel to investigate the cause of the mass shellfish mortality off the north-east coast last autumn. When does he expect that panel to be established and when might he expect it to report its findings?

Obviously we want to set it up as soon as possible and we want it to assess all the available evidence. All interested parties want to make sure that we identify the challenge. A number of—if I can use the term—red herrings have been thrown into the mix, so establishing the true facts as rapidly as possible will be the ambition of this rapid inquiry.

Some 80% of UK firms say that they are struggling to trade with the EU because of Tory Brexit red tape. Scots exports to the EU have been slashed by 13%. The cost to households in Scotland as a consequence of Brexit averages £900 a year. Additional Brexit checks for meat exports are being imposed on 14 December that will further hammer the agricultural sector. Where is the promised Brexit dividend for farmers? So far, all they can see from the Tories are restrictions and red tape.

One day, the hon. Lady will have to accept the result of the referendum and the fact that Brexit took place. We are embracing those opportunities in the Department. We are doing trade deals and promoting British products around the world. We are proud of what our British producers produce. We should get on the front foot and big them up, rather than being negative.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and, hopefully, will welcome her soon to Newcastle-under-Lyme to see Walleys Quarry for herself. As she knows, that major issue has been blighting the community for some time. Although the odour is getting better, we still have no accountability. There are two investigations going on—criminal and regulatory. Does she agree that it is imperative for the Environment Agency to bring those investigations to a conclusion as soon as possible so that my constituents can have justice and accountability?

As my hon. Friend knows, I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, but I can confirm that the EA is continuing to work closely to regulate the operator and to consider appropriate action in compliance with the enforcement and sanctions policy. That includes ensuring that the operator continues to implement all the 20 or more measures that were recommended, which, I think he will agree, are starting to have a real effect.

Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voter Identification

1. If the Commission will publish guidance for returning officers on the implementation of the Voter Identification Regulations 2022. (902269)

4. What discussions the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission on the publication of guidance for returning officers on the implementation of the Voter Identification Regulations 2022. (902272)

The commission will publish guidance for electoral administrators on the implementation of the voter ID requirements in phases over the next three months. It was unable to publish detailed guidance before the introduction of secondary legislation, which has been subject to significant delays but is now before the House. It published initial guidance on planning for the implementation of the Elections Act 2022 in August; further detailed guidance will follow on voter ID, which will cover the application process for the free voter authority certificate and polling station processes. It will publish a handbook for polling station staff in early 2023.

Although it is encouraging that the legislation has finally been produced, the delays were clearly lengthy, which has had an impact. We all want to see the smooth running of any elections, so I ask the representative of the Speaker’s Committee what consideration it has given to the impact of the delays in the legislation and the effect that will have on administrators of elections and voters themselves.

The commission has highlighted that delays to secondary legislation leave limited time for electoral administrators to implement new voter ID processes and for voters to ensure that they have acceptable forms of ID. Delays increase the risk of ineffective or inconsistent implementation, which could affect public confidence in elections. The commission will run an advertising campaign and work with local authorities and partners to ensure that voters are aware of the ID requirement and what they need be able to do to vote, but it reports that delays to the legislation have had an impact on its work.

In response to voter ID pilots in 2018 and 2019, the Electoral Commission found that some groups might find it harder than others to provide photo ID, such as the millions of people living with a disability. Has the committee carried out an equality impact assessment of the voter ID regulations to ensure that these groups are not being excluded?

The commission’s research has identified groups, including some disabled voters, who are less likely to have an approved form of voter ID or may need additional support to navigate the voter ID requirement. It is working with the electoral community and partners, including the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Mencap and Disability Rights UK, to reach disabled voters to ensure that they understand what they need to do to be able to vote. Understanding the impact of policies on different parts of society is essential. It is, however, for the Government to assess the impact of their own policies. The commission understands that the Government have carried out an equality impact assessment on the voter ID provisions.

Church Commissioners

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

Parish Ministry

Parish ministry is at the heart of the mission of the Church. The Church Commissioners will distribute £1.2 billion between 2023 and 2025 to support our mission and ministry—a 30% increase on the current three-year period—and the lion’s share of this funding will be used to revitalise parish ministry.

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the relationship between a parish priest and his or her congregation is the single most important element of outreach and service for the Church, and as such, its support should be the primary objective of Church funds?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why the Church Commissioners continue to fund increasing numbers of ordinands. In 2020, 570 new priests were ordained and there were 580 in training, with only 320 retirements. Innovative ways of attracting clergy from many backgrounds include the fantastic work of both the Peter and the Caleb streams, which I would commend to his parishes.

The Church Times is full of adverts for well-paid jobs at diocesan headquarters, yet clergy are spread ever more thinly across the parishes. It is the wrong priority, is it not?

I can tell my right hon. Friend, who I know takes a close interest in these matters, that by far the largest share of diocesan expenditure goes on parish clergy, and many diocesan secretaries are reducing central costs to support parish ministry. We should remember that hard-working diocesan staff support parishes, church schools and chaplaincies on vital issues such as safeguarding, vocations, ministry training, youth work and social action, none of which I am sure my right hon. Friend would argue with.

I have heard from dozens of voters in Blackburn who will be relying on free voter ID certificates, yet the Government have failed to specify the security features to be included. Can I ask the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission—

I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner for his reply. Rural communities have been greatly disadvantaged by covid, with Zoom meetings as a method of contact, and attendance at churches has started to lessen as well, so there has to be a new method of reaching out in parish ministry. The hon. Gentleman referred to extra moneys for this process. Within that process, is there more help for those who need cars for travelling out to meet people face to face? That is perhaps how the future of parish ministry will be.

I am grateful to the hon. Member, and I really appreciate his interest in these matters. As I have said, the Church Commissioners are increasing the funding to the frontline by 30% over the next three years —£1.2 billion—and it needs to go on exactly the type of initiative that he suggests.

Coronation of King Charles III

A service of holy communion will be at the heart of the coronation. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Earl Marshal and the coronation committee are planning the service, which will be a moment of great national rejoicing and deep spiritual significance.

I am glad my hon. Friend has emphasised that point. By immemorial custom, the coronation is a deeply religious and spiritual event. Will he convince us that the Church of England will use its influence to ensure that it remains as such, particularly the anointing, and does not degenerate into a kind of dumbed down, wokefest celebration of so-called modern Britain?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend. The anointing of the monarch goes back to biblical times, recognising the outpouring of God’s grace on us all, and the sovereign’s covenant to give his life in service to his people and his God. That is the foundational principle underlying our constitutional settlement.

Rural Clergy

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Church on increasing the numbers of clergy in rural parishes. [R] (902273)

Rural clergy play a crucial role at the heart of their communities, for which I know my hon. Friend is, like me, deeply grateful. I regularly raise this issue with the Church. In his diocese of Salisbury more than £1.25 million has been invested to support rural ministry in the Renewing Hope Through Rural Ministry and Mission project.

Let me say to my hon. Friend that we have a couple of vacancies in my benefice, and I hope he will feed back on that point. I would be particularly interested to understand what proportion of stipendiary clergy goes to long-established small and rural parishes, versus what proportion goes to more resourced churches, fresh expressions, and other new or novel forms of church.

I can tell my hon. Friend that 24% of the population live in rural parishes, and are supported by 38% of total stipendiary clergy. The figures he asks for are not held centrally as they are decided at diocesan level. I commend to him the Caleb stream, which often enables self-supporting clergy to serve in rural parishes, and of which many bishops are supportive.

I spoke recently to a priest who serves a number of rural parishes in my constituency. He pointed out that church councils are being asked for their views on the vision for the future of the Church, and they feel that they do not have sufficient resources to do that. If they look for guidance from the centre, they fear that church closures will be the outcome. Will my hon. Friend give additional support to parishes to plan for their future?

The Church Commissioners are providing a 30% increase in funding over the next three years. It is important to remember that they provide under 20% of the total funding of the Church, most of which comes from parish giving. In a sense, therefore, it is up to all of us to support our local churches and worshipping communities.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Political Campaigning

7. What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential impact of (a) the Elections Act 2022 and (b) provisions in the Online Safety Bill on the transparency of political campaigning communications. (902275)

The commission’s view is that the digital imprints requirement in the Elections Act 2022 will increase transparency by helping voters to understand who is paying to target them online. It could provide further transparency if the requirement was 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. As currently drafted, the Online Safety Bill would introduce new freedom of speech protections for some campaigning content, but it does not include any provisions that would directly affect the transparency of political campaign activities.

Today, openDemocracy and Who Funds You? released an audit showing that the least transparently funded think-tanks raised more than £14 million in the past two years from mystery donors. Those think-tanks appear across the media, such as on the BBC. They have secured hundreds of meetings with Ministers since 2012, and advised the likes of the former Prime Minister on policy choices that were subsequently proven disastrous. What steps is the committee taking to ensure that the funding of such think-tanks is transparent and accountable, and that foreign funding bodies are not able to commandeer our politics?

The commission regulates the spending of organisations campaigning for or against a political party or candidate during the regulated period ahead of an election, or for a particular outcome ahead of a referendum. It also regulates donations to political parties and candidates. Unless an organisation is engaged in regulated campaigning activity, it will fall outside the commission’s area of responsibility. The commission does not have a role in regulating the spending of political activity more generally.

As for foreign money, the commission 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. That includes duties on parties for enhanced due diligence and risk assessments of donations and a requirement for companies to have made enough money in the UK to fund any donations.

What concern does the Electoral Commission have about the ability of local councils to administer free voter ID on a short turnaround? Can we be confident that that will deliver clear improvements to the security of polls?

There is a long-standing understanding between Government and the electoral administrators that legislation on elections should be clear at least six months before it must be implemented. That will also apply to the introduction of voter ID. The Association of Electoral Administrators has said that the timetable for implementation presents significant challenges.

Public Accounts Commission

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

National Audit Office: NHS Reports

The majority of National Audit Office reports are considered by the Public Accounts Committee. Earlier this month, the Committee took evidence on the NAO’s recent report “Introducing Integrated Care Systems” and will report on that in due course. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that, today, the National Audit Office has published a report on “Managing NHS backlogs and waiting times in England”. The PAC expects to take evidence on that on 28 November.

In 2019-20, the NHS England budget was £124 billion, which has increased this year by 23% to £152 billion. Yet, despite that record extra funding, so far this year the NHS has treated 656,000 fewer patients than during the same period in pre-pandemic 2019—a drop of 5%. Is it the National Audit Office’s view that the NHS has a productivity problem?

Yes, it is. Indeed, the report published by the NAO today states:

“The NHS now has a problem with reduced productivity.”

NHS England has estimated that, in 2021, the NHS was about 16% less productive than before the pandemic. Some of that, of course, relates directly to the pandemic, but NHS England is also examining other potential causes, including reduced willingness to work overtime. Some of NHS England’s new initiatives such as surgical hubs and the transformation of out-patient services are intended to produce greater productivity. No doubt the National Audit Office will want to examine that in due course.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voter Identification

9. What recent discussions the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission on the (a) quality of and (b) implementation planning for voter ID in (i) Scotland, (ii) Wales and (iii) England in the event of an early general election. (902278)

The UK Government intend that the voter ID requirement for UK parliamentary general elections will come into force from 5 October 2023. Delays to secondary legislation have impacted implementation planning. However, the commission is working to provide support as quickly as possible, including guidance for electoral administrators in England, Scotland and Wales. It will conduct a public awareness activity in advance of any general election to ensure that voters understand what they need to be able to do in order to take part.

Scotland did not vote for the voter ID plan, but it has been forced upon us by this out-of-touch Westminster Government. Where general elections fall on the same day as local elections, will voters be required to show ID for some elections but not others? That is in addition to the already significant concerns about disenfranchising so many people. The UK Government do not listen to those concerns. Is that not just another situation where the best thing to do would be to ensure that nobody needs to be falling foul of this chaos and for Scotland to move forward as an independent country?

The hon. Lady is correct to say that, in the event of a UK general election falling on the same day as, for example, local elections in Scotland, a voter would need to show ID for the general election but not for an election to the Scottish Parliament or for a local government election. Voter ID is not being introduced for any devolved elections in Scotland or in Wales. The commission has highlighted the challenges of different rules being put in place for different elections.

Church Commissioners

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

Support over the Winter

The Church Commissioners have provided £15 million to help churches with their energy costs, so that they continue to act as places to worship Jesus but also stay open at other times, if they are able to, to provide practical community support, such as being a warm hub.

I thank the Government for ensuring that churches are included in the package of support that businesses receive to pay their energy bills. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the churches across Wiltshire that have opened their spaces to people in the daytime, providing their traditional role as a place for fellowship, community and support? Does he agree that the churches that have found it easier to fulfil this traditional role are those that have ripped out the Victorian pews, which are such an obstacle to the traditional role of fellowship?

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for exactly this type of voluntary community action. The Church of England will always be at the centre of such endeavours, which can be facilitated by churches that make possible the type of activity he mentions. I am not yet aware of any warm hubs in Devizes, although I have noticed some in neighbouring towns. I am sure my hon. Friend will be encouraging his local churches to facilitate such schemes in his area.