House of Commons
Thursday 12 January 2023
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—
Environment Agency Budget: Sewage Discharge
The volume of sewage discharged by water companies is absolutely unacceptable. Improving water quality is a high priority for the Government, which is why we have launched an ambitious plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm sewage overflows in water companies, the biggest in history. It is also why we have increased our monitoring from 5% in 2016 right up to 19% now. It will be 100% next year. Interestingly, one might want to note that under the Labour party there was no monitoring at all, and that the Environment Agency has received £2.2 million each year for the last three years specifically for water company enforcement to ensure that robust action is taken against illegal breaches.
I thank the Minister for that explanation. Across the country we are faced with the unprecedented dumping of raw sewage into our waterways, including into the Platt and Gore brooks in my constituency. It is good to hear the Minister’s plans to provide more money, because at the end of the day there needs to be sufficient funds for enforcement so that those who pollute our waters are held to account. What further will she be doing to ensure that that happens?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises the plan we have put into operation, because the like of it has never been seen before. I reiterate that it is our increased monitoring that is bringing to light the fact that permits are being contravened and sewage is going into our rivers. That is why we have cracked down and put in the biggest programme ever to tackle it, with our targets on storm sewage overflows and £2.2 million for the Environment Agency over the last three years for enforcement. It is taking cases, and the extra funding it got the last time around has enabled it to do more inspections.
I have raised previously in the House, and in letters to Ofwat, the Environment Agency and Northumbrian Water, the disastrous impact on waterways in my constituency of the continued pollution by Northumbrian Water. Sewage was dumped every four minutes during the Minister’s years as a junior Minister, with nearly 3 million hours of sewage discharged into waterways and the sea during her tenure as Minister with responsibility for water. As Environment Minister, will she now take action to stop the pollution? When will she publish the clean water and biodiversity targets, as required by the Environment Act 2021?
I have made it absolutely clear that sewage going into our waters is totally unacceptable. That is why under my tenure as Environment Minister—actually, it began with the previous Environment Minister, now the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—we set in motion the monitoring that did not happen under Labour, the storm overflows reduction plan, the targets in the Environment Act and the new direction to Ofwat. We are bringing everything together under one hat to tackle this issue once and for all. Because of the work we have done I launched an investigation, which is being undertaken by Ofwat and the EA—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working very closely with them. That is uncovering all these incidents. Trust me, we will be clamping down.
May I welcome the massive and unprecedented increase in the monitoring of illegal sewage discharges, and in particular the welcome steps taken by some water companies for live monitoring so that people can see in real time where sewage is being put into our rivers illegally?
That is yet another measure that has been put in place. There is a requirement now for water companies to report all discharges from storm sewage overflows with dates and deadlines, but some water companies have gone over and above. They already have that in place and some companies, in particular around the coast, are reporting annually.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 1MC.] That is proving extremely useful for anybody who wants to know the condition of our water. All of this will improve.
Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the Environment Agency for testing the water around our coast? I know she met South West Water earlier this week. Although I recognise that there is work still to be done, on the beaches around my coastline it has significantly reduced the storm overflow. The superb surf beach of Croyde has seen its water quality raised from good to excellent for the first time. It is important to celebrate those successes and to support the businesses that rely on those bathing waters for their futures.
My hon. Friend is such a strong advocate for her area. I absolutely love going swimming down there. She is right that the latest statistics show that 72% of our bathing waters are classed as excellent, which is brilliant for our tourism industry, particularly in her area.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, and your officers for allowing the time for this very important session; it is appreciated. When we met here in December, I asked the Environment Secretary if she had met water bosses to tackle the Tory sewage scandal that has had turned Britain into an open sewer. We are facing huge water leaks, drought and sewage pumping out across the country, and not a single English river free of pollution. Yet it was not seen as a priority that she clean up her own mess, because as a previous Environment Minister she literally opened the floodgates. Now she has finally met water bosses, can she say what firm commitments have been secured to finally end the Tory sewage scandal?
I have been meeting regularly with water companies, as has the Secretary of State. In fact, we had a joint meeting just last week with the five poorest performing water companies. That was a very feisty meeting, as can be imagined. The water companies are being held to account. We now have the data we need, thanks to the monitoring and the programmes that this Government are putting in place, which were not in place under all those years of the Labour Government. It is no good standing up there and scaremongering. At the end of last week I met South East Water, and this week it is South West Water.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 2MC.]
UK100’s Clean Air Recommendations
Happy new year, Mr Speaker.
I am pleased that air quality is improving across our country. I have not made an assessment of that report, but I expect all local authorities to make full use of the many powers available to improve air quality and meet their statutory obligations. That includes an expectation that local authorities will contribute to delivering the new target on reducing population exposure to PM2.5.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. She will be aware that UK100’s report, “Yes We CANZ: Local leaders delivering Clean Air and Net Zero”, highlights the importance of bringing together clean air and net zero challenges. Many sources of greenhouse gases are also sources of air pollution. Can she comment on the report’s recommendations? Will she agree to meet me and some of the cross-party local authority members of UK100 to discuss how the Government can support the further integration of the clean air and net zero agendas?
I will not commit to meet because, as I have said, I have not made an assessment. Let us think about the environment in the long term. That is why five years ago we set out the 25-year environment plan and why, at the end of the month, we will be doing the environmental improvement plan. If we think back, it was in the dash for net zero and reducing carbon emissions that we got diesel cars being touted. That was a Labour initiative—I am not criticising Labour Members because they did not realise the impact that would have on air quality. We want to continue to work together, but it is important to recognise that different Administrations, such as the Northern Ireland Executive when it re-forms, have that responsibility. Local authorities right across the UK already have significant powers to make improvements today.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker.
This Government’s targets under the Environment Act 2021 have finally been announced, more than six weeks after the legal deadline. Sadly, they condemn our children and grandchildren to live, learn and play in toxic levels of pollution for another 18 years. Will the Secretary of State, at the very least, pick up the excellent recommendation in the UK100 report to improve data for national and local action, with a comprehensive monitoring network of air quality sensors?
More air quality sensors are being put in place across the country. The hon. Lady will know that it is a devolved matter in Wales, so that is for them. Local authorities are doing this already. What worries me is that too many local authority leaders, particularly in Greater Manchester and London, are dragging their heels about improving air quality. We need to ensure that all our local authorities have a focused plan on how we make that happen.
The first UK food security report was published in December 2021, which showed that the UK has a highly resilient and diverse food supply chain. We produce 61% of the food we need in the UK, complemented by strong trade links, and that figure has changed little over the last 20 years. We also published the Government food strategy last June, setting out a commitment to maintain broadly the current level of food we produce domestically and boost production in sectors with the biggest opportunities.
On food security and fish stocks, Newcastle University believes the mass killing of crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans off the north-east coast is due to dredging ahead of the freeport, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has dismissed it as a natural event due to algae bloom and has set up an inquiry, with a secret panel meeting in private, despite the fact that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has asked for an open and transparent inquiry that is done independently. Will the Secretary of State commit to an independent evaluation of the evidence, to protect all our coasts from the massive destruction from toxic emissions ahead of freeports—
Secretary of State, I will decide when you come in.
I have already replied to the DEFRA Committee about this. The impact on crabs is under investigation, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, and it makes no difference to the adequacy of the UK’s food security, which is the topic of this question.
Is it not clear that secure domestic food production requires consistent orders? A huge amount of food is purchased by the public sector, including Government Departments, especially in Defence, hospitals and local government, and especially schools. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that they prioritise buying British? Is it not time to take back control?
I think the right hon. Gentleman voted to stay in the European Union, which stopped us promoting British food procurement. However, there is Government policy to encourage that, and I am confident that local authorities, including his, will continue to do so when considering school meals.
Recent events have shown that we need to pay more attention to how resilient we are across a range of core areas—food, water and energy are the obvious ones. Does the Secretary of State agree that producing our own food is key, but that resilience can also be improved with stronger trading relationships with many more countries, such as Brazil, that are friendly and with which we share history and common values?
It is important to recognise that there are many foodstuffs we enjoy that we simply cannot produce in this country; it is simply not physically possible. It is important that we continue to have that world trade. My hon. Friend is the trade envoy to Brazil, which is a very important partner for our Government in agrifood, climate and biodiversity, as I learned on my recent trip there.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest challenges to UK food security is the competing demands for the very land needed to produce the food from housing and commercial organisations and the latest scourge of solar farms? Will she therefore join me in welcoming the increased protections for agricultural land in the consultation on the new national planning policy framework?
I know that my hon. Friend made the case strongly during the passage of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill in this House and was able to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and secure some changes that are being consulted on. It is critical that we look at the use of land, and that is why we have committed this year to producing a new land use framework, in which the issues he raises are very important.
In December, the Environment Secretary told the Select Committee that she did not believe it was the role of Government to feed people. All of us want to see a country where work pays fairly and, through that work, families can afford to feed themselves, but that is not the case after 13 years of this Tory Government, with food inflation at a 40-year high, a cost of living crisis and 7.3 million people in food poverty. It is the Secretary of State who is responsible for food security. Her Department has a legal obligation to publish the food security report, and it distributes the FareShare food grant. To show she is not completely out of touch, can she tell the House the price of a loaf of bread and the price of a pint of milk in her local supermarket today?
Mr Speaker, it depends on what brand you buy. A pint is 95p, and two pints £1.20. It depends on what type of bread you get, but the last loaf I bought was £1.25 for a seeded one from Tesco—I am sure there are other retailers as well.
It is quite clear to me that the hon. Gentleman probably has not read the food security report published in December 2021. However, I will say that in my time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions we got more people into work and we provided an exceptional amount of funding through the household support fund, because we recognise that these times are really challenging. That is why we, as a Conservative Government, have made sure that the most vulnerable are protected, and it is why we will continue to do so as we move forward through this challenging time.
Is it not the truth that we have a Secretary of State overseeing a sewage scandal who did not believe that meeting water bosses was a priority; a Secretary of State responsible for food security in a cost of living crisis who does not think it is the Government’s job to make sure people have access to food; and a Secretary of State who has a lead role in climate change who, frankly, is clocking up more air miles than Father Christmas? Even when she is here, she is missing in action. Can she prove that she is finally getting a grip of this? It seems to the public that this Government have given up, have run out of ideas and have no plan, and in the end it is the people of this country who are paying the price. Is not now the time to just stand aside and let Labour get on with cleaning up their mess?
The hon. Gentleman is obviously taking lessons from other people on the Front Bench about talking complete and utter garbage. I could use stronger language, but it would be unparliamentary.
Let us just go back and remind ourselves that there was no monitoring of sewage under the Labour Government; that was introduced under a Conservative Government. That is why we have gone to a situation where we are recording more, and why we are in a position now to be challenging—using the price review we did, using our levers through Ofwat—to open up investment and get the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, so that by the end of this year we will actually have 100% monitoring right across the country. Conservatives do not shy away from problems; we open them up, put a spotlight on them, take action and get stuff done, as opposed to Labour, which just ignored it, did not want to know, looked the other way and now thinks it is all a new issue.
On my being missing in action, far from it: it is the hon. Gentleman. When I came back from Montreal after securing, with many other countries around the world, the global biodiversity framework, where was he for the statement? He was not here. God knows where he was. I then went to represent the United Kingdom at the inauguration of President Lula, and I think it was really important to do so to recognise how critical it is to improve the environment. Frankly, we will carry on to deliver action.
The National Farmers Union of Scotland is calling on the UK Government to recognise the strategic importance of fertiliser amid a worsening food security crisis and a 200% increase in fertiliser costs. It is vital that more support is given to domestic food production. Will the Secretary of State meet me and the NFUS to discuss supporting domestic fertiliser production and building greater transparency in the market to drive resilience and security?
The hon. Lady raises a very important issue, which is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries and I met the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to discuss this particular issue, and why that Secretary of State then took action by requiring information, so we are in active discussions about it. I am afraid I am not in a position to be able to share any more information, given the aspects of commercial sensitivity, but I can assure her that this Government are on the case.
As well as concerns about fertiliser costs, the Government’s expected classification of farming as a non-high energy business in their review of the energy bill relief scheme is another body blow for farmers. It will inevitably push up inflation for food producers and consumers, worsening the disproportionate cost of living impact on rural communities. What steps will the Secretary of State take to mitigate the impact on farmers and rural businesses right now to help tame global inflationary pressures on domestic markets?
We have seen support to industry through this Government, recognising the price of energy, which was beyond the control of individual users. We have recently seen that wholesale prices have fallen to what they were before the illegal invasion by Russia of Ukraine. We are trying to get to a situation where we stabilise the support we are giving, focusing particularly on recognised energy-intensive industries such as those represented by Members in the Chamber today.
Environmental Land Management Schemes
As my hon. Friend knows, this Government are committed to backing British farmers. Last week I announced that farmers will receive more money for protecting and enhancing nature, and delivering sustainable food production under the environmental land management schemes.
I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that some farmers are concerned about moving away from the basic payment scheme to ELMs. Can he assure farmers that it will be in their financial interests to do so, given the complexity and uncertainties of the schemes, and given the high production costs that farmers are facing to produce food, which is of course their basic job?
I hope my hon. Friend will have recognised the increase in the payments we are making. Only last week we announced that some of the prices we will pay in countryside stewardship will rise by more than 40%. I encourage his constituents, and farmers up and down the country, to take another look at these schemes, which are a great opportunity for them not only to produce great food, but to enhance the environment and improve our biodiversity.
We want ELMs to work, but as it stands, the scheme risks going the way of those magnificent elm trees that have so suffered across the English countryside over the past 40 years. The Minister has admitted that the uptake of sustainable farming incentives is low—indeed, the National Farmers Union rightly described last week’s announcement as “too little, too late”. Will the Minister come clean and tell the House how many farm businesses he will allow to go to the wall because of this failing agricultural transition process? Will he sit down with us and work out a simpler way forward that keep farmers farming and secures the environmental goals we all share?
I am genuinely disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s response, and his negativity is in danger of spreading across the Front Bench. We ran a pilot—that is why the uptake was low; it was because the pilot was small—and we listened to individuals who took part in that pilot. We tweaked those schemes in response to the pilot that we ran. That is good government. The way to organise and run such schemes is to listen to those who are taking part. We have listened, we have improved the payments, and there is now a great opportunity for our farmers across the country to engage in those schemes, improve our environment, improve biodiversity, produce great food, and make a profit.
Farming: Increased Costs
We have taken a number of steps to help mitigate global factors that are increasing farming import costs, in fertiliser, feed, fuel and energy in particular. Those include working with industry and looking to ease restrictions on feed imports, and providing regulatory flexibility where possible. We have increased payment rates on our environmental land management schemes, supporting farmers to lower their import costs.
Opaque fertiliser markets are damaging farmers’ confidence and their ability to plan and invest. To put forward a meaningful solution, what steps are the Government taking to establish a trusted gas fertiliser index, as exists with grain and other industries, to improve transparency in fertiliser, including new sources of fertiliser such as that provided by our friends in Jordan?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and pay tribute to her work in this area. DEFRA established the ministerially chaired fertiliser taskforce with key stakeholders, in response to global fertiliser supply pressures. The taskforce identified improving market transparency as an important action to increase farmer confidence. Industry members are currently leading that work, with DEFRA playing a convening role.
Farmers: Mental Health
DEFRA’s farmer welfare forum brings together England’s largest farming and welfare organisations that provide mental health support, such as Farming Community Network, which I was pleased to join recently at an online meeting. We also recently opened the third phase of the future farming resilience fund, which provides free business advice to farmers, and supports mental health and wellbeing where appropriate.
My right hon. Friend knows that my constituents Andy and Lynda Eadon lost their son as a young farmer to suicide. Will he join me in thanking the Eadons for all the work they have done to raise awareness of mental health challenges, particularly for younger members of the farming community? Does he share my view that we should do much more to ensure that mental health awareness and an understanding of where to go for help when it is needed is built into the education and training received by those going into farming?
Of course, I join my right hon. and learned Friend not only in paying tribute to Andy and Lynda Eadon, who have done fantastic work following the tragedy they experienced, but in recognising the importance of this issue and how we should all be able to talk to someone to assist us at moments of great challenge. I met Andy and Lynda at the recent National Farmers Union community farming heroes awards, where they were honoured and paid tribute to for their work. I encourage them to continue that great work.
The wellbeing of farmers in my constituency is a priority, and I work closely with the NFU and other organisations. Last week, I was fortunate enough to go to Swansea Museum, where there is an exhibition called, “Stories of a Changing Landscape”. It is hoped that the exhibition will create a point of connection for agricultural workers who are struggling with their mental health and with the issues with which years and generations have suffered. They are the people who feed our country. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Councillor Andrew Stevens, and the DPJ Foundation and Kate Miles, and in supporting them in the future? We need to prioritise our farmers’ wellbeing to keep them feeding the nation.
I of course join the hon. Lady in congratulating Andrew Stevens, and all the charities doing work in the sector. Farmers work long hours and are often isolated and do not have opportunities to speak to other people. Those charities working with the sector are doing great work, but we all have a responsibility to try to help and support colleagues across our society.
National Food Strategy
The Government food strategy responded to Henry Dimbleby’s independent review of the food system, taking on several of the review’s recommendations. DEFRA also worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop effective policies to deliver healthy, sustainable diets. “The Eatwell Guide” sets out the Government’s recommendations on eating healthily and achieving a balanced diet.
How can the Government be trusted to protect the health of our young people from the cycle of junk food when they are six months late in responding fully to their own national food strategy? I know that the Minister says that he has responded, but the recommendations of the independent body set up under Henry Dimbleby have been subject time and again to hollow promises. The Minister must also recognise the serious risk to our farming communities and to national food security, so when will the Government begin to implement the policies of their own review that they commissioned?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, we have responded to that report. The Department of Health and Social Care leads in this area in tackling obesity. The good news is that British farmers are producing great quality food that is healthy as part of a balanced diet, and I encourage them to continue to do so.
Support for Zoos
We are working with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the zoo sector so that our zoos can become even more sustainable and conservation-focused. In addition to £16 million of covid support funding, the energy bill relief scheme will help with overheads.
The Minister will be aware of the incredible work that zoos across the country, and in particular Colchester zoo in my constituency, undertake on conservation, tourism and job creation. Zoos are also doing incredible work internationally, but, as she knows, they have been badly hit by the pandemic. What support are the Government providing to preserve this great international work as well as to help create jobs, boost tourism and boost our local economy? Of course, she is always welcome to come to the Witham constituency and to Colchester zoo.
My right hon. Friend is quite right and is brilliantly championing Colchester zoo. Zoos across this country are working on more than 800 conservation projects with more than 105 countries. Saving endangered species is vital work. We have already announced that zoos will be eligible for higher-tier support under the energy bills discount scheme from April 2023 to March 2024. We also work closely with zoos and their representatives. We have continued to ensure that the updated licensing standards support zoos.
I welcome the support that the Government have given zoos, both through the pandemic and with energy costs. The right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) is absolutely right that zoos are at the forefront of conservation and are major employers and generators of income through tourism. When will the Government bring back the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill? It is in danger of running out of time, so can the Minister give us some information today about where the Bill is and when it is coming back?
That is, of course, a matter for business managers. May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman asks that question at business questions?
Flood Defences: Shipley
Bradford Council and the Environment Agency have identified 48 properties at several locations in the Shipley constituency that are at high risk of flooding from the River Aire. An assessment has confirmed that neither upstream storage nor walls or embankments provide viable options to protect those properties, as I am sure my hon. Friend has been made aware. Bradford Council is carrying out some property flood resilience surveys. When the evidence has been gathered, consideration will be given to putting in property flood resilience measures—depending, obviously, on feasibility and funding.
Fifty properties being flooded 10 times is as bad as 500 properties being flooded once. In fact, I would argue that it is even worse, yet the funding for flood defences does not reflect that. When he was Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) introduced the frequently flooded allowance to benefit constituencies such as Shipley, which are regularly flooded but do not have the flood defences that they need to protect residents. When will Shipley benefit from the frequently flooded allowance?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. We realise the difficulties for those few properties that are frequently flooded: as he says, it can be devastating for people who have to experience it time and again. That is why we opened the new frequently flooded fund. Applications have come in, and I am pleased to say that details of who will be awarded funds—I know that Shipley has applied—will be announced at the end of this month.
Affordable Local Food: Newcastle upon Tyne Central
DEFRA continues to monitor and work closely with industry to keep abreast of supply, prices and trends. While the Government do not set retail food prices or comment on commercial decisions by companies, we are providing £26 billion in cost of living support in 2023.
Food security is national security, and local food production is an essential part of that. In the north-east we have a fine farming tradition, but our food banks are overwhelmed with demand. West End food bank in Newcastle Central is handing out more than 2,000 food parcels a week, yet donations have halved because of the cost of living crisis. People in the north-east are poorer under this Conservative Government. What we need is a plan to address rising farming costs, to improve and integrate our supply chains and to target public procurement and decent wages for working people, not this absolute lack of any action.
The latest national statistics from a survey published in March show that 93% of all households were food-secure in 2020-21—an increase of one percentage point from 92% in 2019-20. I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the great farmers of the north-east, who are doing great work to produce food.
Deposit Return Schemes: Digital Technology
We recognise the benefits of a digital DRS. Many trials are being run; I am very encouraged by the results, and my officials and I will be looking closely at them. Once a deposit management organisation has been appointed to run the DRS alongside industry, it will be decided whether to introduce digital solutions to the scheme in future. We will be watching with a weather eye.
I am pleased that the Minister recognises the possible advantages of a digital deposit return scheme, which, according to Resource Futures, could reduce the cost of the current scheme by £3.3 billion. We were promised a response to the latest DRS consultation, but it has still not been published. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect a response?
Further details of the deposit return scheme, which will be so important to reducing waste, will be announced and published later this month.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 2MC.]
VAT: Pet Food
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Treasury leads on VAT policy, and that includes VAT policy on pet food. The Government are actively considering the impact of the increased cost of living on all aspects of people’s lives.
I know that you, Mr Speaker, are a particular fan of pets, and we all know that they are very important to people’s mental health. I recently visited the Dogs Trust rehoming centre in the Broomhouse area of my constituency, where staff told me of their significant concerns about the cost of living crisis. They said that many pet owners were going without meals themselves in order to feed their pets, and that one couple from Belvedere, also in my constituency, had said that the price of dog food had risen by 12% month on month. Would the Minister be willing to meet me, along with representatives of the Dogs Trust, to discuss this further and see what support we can provide for pet owners?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that important case. The Government recognise the challenge people are facing with their household bills, which is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced a huge package providing billions of pounds of support for household incomes. I also pay tribute to Dogs Trust, which is dealing with its own challenges when pets are presented at its centres when families cannot continue to feed them. I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the Treasury and will encourage Treasury Ministers to meet him, but if he has no success in that regard, I shall be happy to continue to work with him to secure the meetings that he requires.
We are investing a record £5.2 billion to deliver about 2,000 flood schemes benefiting every region in England. More than 349,000 properties have already been protected since 2015, and, as my hon. Friend probably knows, the Environment Agency has erected demountable flood barriers in view of recent flood alerts. Flood defences and barriers have also been deployed at other locations along the River Severn, including Ironbridge, Bewdley and Upton upon Severn, and, along with the agency, we will be monitoring the situation closely.
Flooding has become an annual occurrence in Shrewsbury, with devastating consequences. I chair the caucus of 40 Conservative Members of Parliament who have the River Severn, Britain’s longest river, flowing through their constituencies. I am extremely grateful for the £40 million secured from DEFRA as seed investment for the River Severn Partnership, a consortium of councils representing communities all the way down the river which is trying to find a holistic solution for the management of Britain’s longest river. Last year Treasury officials came to Shrewsbury to see for themselves the potential uplift in gross value added for our region if a holistic solution is found. What more can the Minister do to help us to secure—finally—that solution?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he has been doing in his constituency. Since I have been the water Minister, he has done nothing but bend my ear about Shrewsbury and the flood situation. As I have said, flood barriers have been erected, and we are listening: Shrewsbury has already received money for various projects. I also thank my hon. Friend for his work in the River Severn caucus, which brings together Members of Parliament up and down that important region. The River Severn Partnership has already benefited from significant funding for the development of schemes and some very useful pilots, and we will be working closely with it.
Crustacean Deaths: North-east coast
The independent panel of experts has already been established to look at the available data, and I expect a report from the panel later this month.
Following the environmental catastrophe of the mass die-off of marine life in the North sea off Teesside, will the Minister confirm whether capital dredging for the Teesside freeport project, and at other freeports including the planned freeport in Liverpool, will be paused while the Government await the hopefully independent panel’s findings about the causes of the disaster that has devastated the ecosystem and ruined livelihoods?
It is important that we get the facts as soon as possible, but I want to give the independent panel time to assess the facts. The hon. Gentleman and I have a shared ambition. We want to know the facts of what is causing the die-off in the north-east. We want the panel to look at that independently, without pressure. As soon as we have those facts, we can respond appropriately.
I raised this matter from the Dispatch Box back on 21 June 2022, when the official Government explanation was that the die-off was caused by algal bloom. The Government’s position has since shifted due to overwhelming evidence, but even yesterday the Prime Minister said that DEFRA
“concluded that natural causes were most likely responsible for some of the things that we saw.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2023; Vol. 725, c. 558.]
He also reiterated that
“an independent panel will be set up to report quickly.”
Will the Minister confirm that the independent panel has now been set up? His initial answer was very quick, so can he confirm that the panel will be reporting this month? The fishing industry in the Tees is dying off, and to continue it needs the certainty of that report.
The report will be given to the Secretary of State, and I expect it to come this month, in January. We want to get the facts as soon as possible, and to respond to them as they are presented.
We closed 2022 by agreeing a global treaty to protect and restore nature across the world, and I am delighted that we rang in the new year on 1 January with all public authorities, including national parks, applying the general duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity. As the general duty came into force, I was in Brazil for the inauguration of President Lula. I was pleased to meet Brazil’s new Environment and Agriculture Ministers, and to visit the projects we are supporting to make sure that the flora and fauna on which the whole world depends are restored.
I was contacted by a young farmer in my constituency who, after returning from maternity leave, moved to a new farm and created a new business. She was denied her young farmer’s financial support payment by the basic payment scheme because the Rural Payments Agency deemed it to be a continuation of her old business. The BPS rules have no business continuation guidance. Why are the new business questionnaires needed when the RPA determines that a new farm is not a new business? Will the Secretary of State ask the Farming Minister to meet me and my constituent to discuss this case?
It would be helpful if the hon. Lady wrote directly to the Farming Minister, who I know is happy to meet her to go through the case. It sounds like quite a complicated, technical situation, so it may take a little time to get a full answer from the RPA.
Brazil already produces a significant amount of foods that are not produced in this country, so we welcome any imports. My hon. Friend highlights the importance of trade and how we can export to Brazil. In any potential future trade agreement with Mercosur, of which Brazil is a member, we would want to make sure that we uphold our standards on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection.
We will be publishing our environmental improvement plan, but the hon. Lady will be aware of the action already taken by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). As we have highlighted to the House today, thanks to Conservative Government monitoring is now widely available, so that we can tackle that, and we never had it before. That is why we are trying to resolve the issues and I know that the hon. Lady will want us to achieve that as quickly as possible.
The Government have committed to consult on mandatory labelling reforms this year. We want to make it easier for consumers to purchase products aligned with their values. As part of the consultation, we will seek views on labelling products that conform with religious requirements, such as those that are halal and kosher.
I am chairing the fertiliser taskforce within DEFRA that is looking at these challenges. We recognise the huge pressure that fertiliser prices are putting on farmers up and down the country. We will continue to work with our colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to assist in dealing with the challenge we are facing. The good news is that the wholesale price of gas is coming down and some fertiliser prices are reflecting that drop in wholesale gas prices.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point, which highlights not only the role of local authorities in air quality, but ensuring that these action plans are reviewed and delivered on time. We have recently updated our local air quality management policy guidance, with a new escalation process for local authorities that do not have an up-to-date plan.
The hon. Lady raises the important point that the whole catchment is involved in flooding; this is about not just where the flooding occurs at the bottom, but where it comes from. Not long ago, I visited the Vyrnwy reservoir. Apparently, that was the first time a Minister had ever been there. I held a roundtable with the Welsh equivalent of the Environment Agency and all sorts of other bodies, but the Labour Welsh Environment Minister declined to join us.
Two days before Christmas, thousands of my constituents were left without any mains water after the perfect storm of the big freeze followed by the big thaw and a deluge of water into the Testwood and Otterbourne water supply works. Does the Minister agree that Southern Water, which I met last week, needs to get its explanation, with details of compensation, out to residents this month? Will she place on record her thanks to Winchester scouts, who did amazing work with the local resilience forum in getting bottled water to affected residents?
Yes. I also thank my hon. Friend for his work as the local MP; all our local MPs got involved in this, as did DEFRA’s emergency team. I met the chief executive officer of South East Water to talk about how it had to put up better water stations and improve its communications—all the things that he is mentioning. Its feet will be held to the fire to get its comms out to everybody to explain what happened and to improve the situation in future.
Untreated sewage was released from storm overflows for more than 2.6 million hours in 2021, according to The Rivers Trust, and now, according to the Competition and Markets Authority, customers are paying on average 20% of their water bills on servicing debt and rewarding share- holders. That is billions of pounds that could be spent clearing up our waterways and investing in infrastructure. Does the Minister really think that the current system of regulation is fit for purpose?
Yes, the Minister does think that the current regulation is fit for purpose, but many tweaks and improvements are made to ensure that it is working properly. That is why, under the Environment Act 2021, powers were given to Ofwat to alter the licences, so that what it pays out reflects whether it is improving the environment. That will be a critical step forward, as will our strategic policy statement that we gave it to put tackling storm overflows and improving the environment at the top of the agenda.
Sadly, the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza has been confirmed this week on a poultry premises in Eden in my constituency. My thoughts and prayers are with those affected there and across the country as well. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking everyone on the frontline, including vets and Animal and Plant Health Agency officials, involved in tackling this crisis? Will the Government reassure farmers and producers that they are keeping the avian influenza support and compensation measures constantly under review as we navigate this crisis?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those people who are working on avian flu, including the chief vet, who was recognised in the new year’s honours list. I can assure my hon. Friend that we continue to talk to, and work with, industry to make sure that farmers can be profitable and confident that their business will succeed next year.
There have been reports this week that the UK might be about to adopt ludicrous proposals that were, quite rightly, rejected by the EU to ban producers of plant-based products from using terms that are traditionally associated with meat and dairy. I do not think that anyone buying a hot dog actually thinks that it has canine content. Does the Minister think that the British public is so stupid to think that a product called “oat milk” comes from a cow?
My advice is not to believe everything that we read in the papers.
Blackpool’s historic piers are showing signs of significant deterioration due to sand erosion beneath them. Although the Department is providing £12 million to prevent coastal erosion along my constituency, the measures that we need around the piers are not included within those plans. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how they can be amended to make sure that we have the money to do this within the package that the Government are providing?
Within our budgets, we have the coastal erosion fund, of which my hon. Friend is aware. The pier is a very specific case. Of course, I would be happy to meet him to discuss this.
Research by Material Focus found that at least 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week. That is two vapes every second, and that includes precious metals such as lithium being improperly disposed of as well as a litter nightmare. Material Focus called for clear recycling advice and for manufacturers and retailers to install collection points in shops. What is the Secretary of State doing to support that, and what work is being done to prevent the huge waste problem that we are currently experiencing?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We had a recent debate on this subject. It is astounding that these disposable vapes are being literally littered. Measures include our extended producer responsibility scheme, which puts the onus on the manufacturer and the seller of the product to deal with their safe disposal. Repair, restore and recycle will eventually take in all these different sectors that we are having to deal with, and we are starting with packaging.
What steps is my hon. Friend taking to support the planting of hedgerows to increase hedgerow coverage by 40% by 2040?
Hedgerows are absolutely fantastic, as I saw for myself here in Parliament at the hedgerow showcase of CPRE, the Countryside Charity. As we treble tree planting across this country, I will ensure that we do everything possible to put hedge planting and protection at the forefront of our priorities.
What discussions have Ministers had with colleagues about monitoring and restricting plants brought into the UK from overseas by the public to protect biodiversity and food production?
The hon. Lady raises an important question. It is critical that we have that information for the public at our borders, as well as the targeted information focused on nurseries. We will continue to inform the public that bringing alien species into this country is bad news for nature in the UK.
I am conscious of the impact fireworks can have on animals. I will share my hon. Friend’s concerns with my noble Friend Lord Benyon, who covers this area, and I expect Lord Benyon will meet with him.
The Minister will be aware of the Northern Ireland protocol and the difficulties that vets in Northern Ireland are experiencing in accessing medicines. It is important that assistance is given on both availability and cost. Vets are reorientating their supply chains with great difficulty. Can I seek the Minister’s help for Northern Ireland vets in respect of medicines access, so that we have the same access to treatment as the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the status of what is happening with the Northern Ireland protocol. My noble Friend Lord Benyon leads on borders and veterinarians, so I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s question to his attention. It is important that we continue to ensure a peaceful solution to what is happening in Northern Ireland and a restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly as quickly as possible.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place, and wish a happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone in the House.
The business for the week commencing 16 January will include:
Monday 16 January—Second Reading of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.
Tuesday 17 January—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Online Safety Bill.
Wednesday 18 January—Remaining stages of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill.
Thursday 19 January—General debate on the imprisonment of Jagtar Singh Johal, followed by a general debate on Russian grand strategy. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 20 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 January includes:
Monday 23 January—All stages of the Northern Ireland Budget Bill.
Tuesday 24 January—Remaining stages of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (day 1).
Wednesday 25 January—Remaining stages of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill (day 2).
Thursday 26 January—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 27 January—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business and wish everyone across the House a very happy new year.
I apologise for the absence of the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who is under the weather and, I am afraid to say, has lost her voice. As the Leader of the House will know, it is not often that my hon. Friend finds herself speechless—I put it down to all the times she has had to call out the Government’s failing legislative agenda over the past year. I know we all wish her well and look forward to cheering her on when she is back at the Dispatch Box next week, undoubtedly in full voice.
The Leader of the House has announced the next in her Government’s long line of unworkable and impractical Bills. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) rightly said, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill does not actually make any mention of public safety. The Government are putting an intolerable burden on employers, unions and workers, and for what? To sweeten some of their own Back Benchers. The Transport Secretary does not think it will work and the Education Secretary has said she does not want it applied to teachers. In fact, the Government’s own impact assessment said that there is no need for minimum service levels in other sectors. If her own Cabinet colleagues do not support the Bill, how on earth does the Leader of the House expect the public to do so?
MPs must be able to scrutinise the Bill properly. We are already concerned about the Government’s lack of engagement with key stakeholders. Have they spoken to employers, unions or workers? I understand the Government have not even published their official consultation yet. Why not? What have they got to hide? They have said they will do so “in due course”. What does that mean? Can the Leader of the House tell us when the consultation will be published?
The Leader of the House has also scheduled the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Its Henry VIII clauses represent a huge Government power grab from Parliament. Yet again, they think they can get away with swerving scrutiny. Under that legislation, MPs will have practically no powers to determine what legislation stays or goes. After the chaos the Government have caused in this House over past months and years, on what basis does the Leader of the House think it a good idea to leave it to a Minister’s whim to replace 2,400 pieces of legislation with next to no parliamentary scrutiny?
If the Government are set on pressing ahead, will the Leader of the House tell us how they plan to square the practical difficulties? The irresponsible cliff edge they have set—to remove thousands of laws by the end of this year—is creating yet more chaos and uncertainty for British businesses and people, and they could do without it. The Government have not left enough time to produce serious replacements for complex areas of regulation, including environmental protection, food safety, civil aviation codes, health and safety in the workplace, employment law, parental leave, product safety, biosecurity —the list goes on. Does the Leader of the House not think that those important issues deserve to be properly thought through?
We do not even have a full list of the regulations. The Government have introduced a dashboard which, I understand, may not even be complete, so when will they ensure that it is? Will they consider extending the sunset clauses beyond the end of this year so that MPs can give these laws the scrutiny they deserve? It is a real possibility that some will slip through the cracks and be scrapped by accident. The Government must get their act together.
New year, same Government swerving scrutiny—time for change.
I start by wishing the shadow Leader of the House a speedy recovery. She will be frustrated to have lost her voice. I wish her well and hope she is not feeling too bad.
I shall be charitable to the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), because I do not think she has understood what the strikes Bill is doing. In addition to the powers in the Bill, we will focus on three areas: two blue-light services, and rail. That is because unions have behaved responsibly in other areas, such as nursing, where agreements are in place. We will act where we have concerns about threat to life or huge disruption and misery for the general public, with devastating impacts on their lives. For example, some people are losing their job because they cannot consistently get to work. Labour’s London has had nearly 100 public transport strikes, which is unacceptable to the public.
The proposal is modest and proportionate, many other countries do similar, and it will not prevent people from taking strike action should they wish. It will protect the public from the worst impacts on their lives and wellbeing. To dismiss a sensible approach before seeing the legislation and before the consultation that will help us arrive at the safety levels is, frankly, putting dogma before duty to the public.
However, I live in hope of a U-turn, because there have been quite a few from Labour recently. This week, we learned that the Opposition have gone from placing education at the heart of what they do to having nothing to say on the matter, except on the tax status of schools. They said they would defend freedom of movement, but now they are not. They said they would nationalise rail, mail, energy and water, except they are not, but then they might. They said they would not use private sector providers for the NHS; now they would. They said they wanted patients at the heart of healthcare and no more NHS reorganisation, except they now plan to abolish GP practices: the largest possible NHS reorganisation. They said they would abolish tuition fees; now they would not. They said they would restore faith in politics, but then blocked Brexit and now oppose the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which includes good scrutiny measures and, as the hon. Lady knows, flexibility on whether to push out each statutory instrument and on what areas are priorities for Government reform. They said they want local people in the driving seat, except that at every possible opportunity they want to take powers away from communities and give them to regional bodies.
The Leader of the Opposition said he did not want to get out the “big Government chequebook”, but Labour’s current spending commitments say otherwise, with £90 billion of uncosted spending plans. The Opposition say they want to clean up politics and that they are patriotic and on the side of hard-working families, yet some of their largest donors are also backing Just Stop Oil and one has been an agent of the Chinese state. They say that the unions’ demands are unaffordable, but join them on the picket line. So I live in hope that we might have another U-turn from the Opposition and that their position on this important strike legislation will change by Second Reading.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. Over the past three years, the most hideous crime in my constituency has been the theft of catalytic converters, with gangs of thugs arriving at people’s properties and threatening those who own the cars with baseball bats or iron bars while stealing the catalytic converters. Over the Christmas period, we heard that only about 5% of those thefts have been solved. May we have a debate in Government time on action that can be taken to combat this heinous crime and to prevent the thugs who do it from profiting from their thefts?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, which I know is a concern to many of his constituents. The next Question Time where he could raise it is Transport questions—Home Office questions are not until February—and I encourage him to raise it then.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and bliadhna mhath ùr to everyone. Goodness, where to start this week? Panicked draconian legislation trampling workers’ rights, news that £42 billion in unpaid tax is being lost each year to the UK Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Scotland’s claiming yesterday that there is no desire in Scotland to have membership of the EU, which will be news to the estimated 78% of my constituents who voted to remain.
Following questions on the new Westminster Accounts database, we learned that the Prime Minister supports transparency around political donations and outside interests, although oddly it did not seem high on his agenda when I asked him recently about the influence of opaquely funded think-tanks on Government policy. Nor did it seem high up the agenda of the previous three Prime Ministers when I asked them about meetings with bodies such as the infamous Cambridge Analytica, details of which mysteriously failed to appear on ministerial records.
The Prime Minister was asked whether companies that do not seem to exist should donate to MPs, in relation to hefty donations made to some Labour MPs. He must therefore have been very troubled by openDemocracy reports showing that obscure firms with no listed addresses bankrolled hordes of Tory red wall candidates in the last election. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether she supports calls for an inquiry into the donations system to root out secretive campaign finance from our politics and protect our democracy?
Lastly, I note that The Press and Journal yesterday ran an article quoting UK Government sources as saying that Cromarty firth would be one of the sites selected for freeport status, alongside the firth of Forth bid. I have checked with Scottish Government sources, who tell me they have not been consulted on this disclosure ahead of the formal announcement, which is expected on Friday. That is a pretty serious breach of trust when we consider that the Scottish and UK Governments were supposedly working together in partnership on those proposals. It was clearly leaked to the media in yet another pathetic attempt to steal a march on Scotland’s Government. Will the Leader of the House undertake to investigate who decided to bypass protocol in that way? It is no wonder the people of Scotland have so little confidence in Westminster Governments when such infantile games of spin are being played.
May I say happy new year to the hon. Lady? I admire her very much; she is plucky and brave and she has decided to press me on campaign finance. The SNP is asking questions about campaign finance, so let us start with the Scottish nationalists’ deciding to ignore other private sector firms and give support to bail out a smelting business—to the tune of £5 million per job retained, although they were not retained—that just happened to be a sponsor of the SNP’s party conference. There is so much more material, but I do not want to detain the House. I welcome any investigations into such financial matters.
I had hoped at the start of the new year that the Scottish nationalists might focus on the issues that are of concern to the Scottish people. I wonder what would happen if they focused on, for example, the tragic situation of addiction in Scotland, which currently has the largest number of drug-related deaths anywhere in Europe and the largest number of alcohol-related deaths anywhere in the UK. Imagine if they made it their mission to sort that out this year, instead of spending so much time—as they did in the first debate they held this year—on independence. Indeed, if that does not appeal to them, how about improving education; reducing the attainment gap, which they have widened; reducing waiting times at A&E departments, which are at record levels; cutting violent crime; or bringing forward their broadband roll-out to rural areas, some of which are having to wait until 2027?
It is my wish for the new year that the SNP starts to focus on those issues. Scotland needs it to.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker. Over Christmas, a 17-year-old boy purchased a two-foot zombie knife online and had it sent straight to his door. Had police officers not had the wherewithal to look for the packaging, they would have been unable to confiscate the knife because there were no violent images on the blade or the handle, as prescribed in the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the sale of such knives and the legislation that covers them, and join me in condemning the reckless retailers cashing in on crime by circumventing the law?
I thank my hon. Friend for her diligence in pointing out that loophole. I know that she was busy campaigning on this issue over the Christmas period. I suggest that the swiftest way to address the matter is to raise it at Home Office questions on 6 February, and I am sure that she will.
I call the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.
I wish you and Members across the House a very happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The Backbench Business Committee is very much open for business. We would welcome applications for debates in Westminster Hall which are normally on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, and applications for debates in the main Chamber which are also usually on Thursday afternoons. Applications for date-specific commemoration debates, particularly anniversaries and campaign days, are also welcome, but we ask that Members submit them well in advance so that we can get some planning in and notify the Leader of the House that those debates are coming up. A little note to make is that Thursday 26 January, which the Leader of the House mentioned would be for Backbench business, is the date we propose for the debate on Holocaust Memorial Day, which, of course, follows on 27 January.
Just over the border, in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), Orchard House Foods on the Team Valley trading estate, which employed many of my constituents, made its workforce of more than 250 people redundant just before Christmas. No workers have received any redundancy pay, and many have been left almost destitute at a very difficult time of the year. Can we have a statement from the Government on what they intend to do to protect workers from the cavalier actions of rogue employers such as Orchard House Foods?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his notice of the very important debate on Holocaust Memorial Day.
I am very sorry to hear about what has happened in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Although there is no good time for that to happen, it is a pretty terrible thing for families to endure before Christmas in particular. If he is happy for me to do so, I will write to the relevant Minister and ask them to contact his office to see what can be done. It is quite wrong for people to be left in limbo like that.
Happy new year to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, many of my constituents have not had a happy new year, because we have experienced extensive flooding in parts of my constituency. Nith Inshore Rescue has come to the aid of many people, but in the course of its activities it lost one of its support vehicles. It has made an application to the Department for Transport’s rescue boat fund. Will the Leader of the House encourage the Secretary of State for Transport to bring forward an announcement about the allocation of that fund?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. I am sure that the Secretary of State will have heard it, and I will make sure that he is aware of the matter, which is an immediate issue for my right hon. Friend’s constituents. I understand that the results of the next round of funding will be announced shortly. I encourage him to look at central funding and to ensure that the organisation has registered with the particular tool that pulls together all possible other sources of funding, but I will write to the Department and make sure that it knows that this is a very pressing matter for his constituents.
Following this morning’s shocking report from Citizens Advice that more and more people are being disconnected from their gas and electricity because they have been moved on to prepayment meters, often without their knowledge, and cannot afford to top them up, when will we have a statement from the Government about their intention to ban this practice so that our constituents do not lose their right to light and warmth?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. It is one of a number of issues that have been identified both by the Government and by organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice in its work on what it calls the “poverty premium”—additional costs and obstacles that are causing people to be disproportionately impacted by the cost of living crisis. I shall certainly write to the relevant Department about the specific issue that he raises, and I think it would be a very well supported debate.
I wish the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), well and hope that she gets better soon. It is good that she has such an able deputy to step in. It is always good to have an able deputy.
I apologise to the Leader of the House, because I gave her notice of the question that I was going to ask but I am not now going to ask that question. This weekend, the Wellingborough, Rushden and Corby taskforce will be out on the streets talking to people about their concerns and delivering the 2023 listening survey. However, it is already clear that one of the major issues they are concerned about is the thousands of people coming across the channel illegally. They want to know when the Government are going to introduce further legislation. Could the Leader of the House tell us when that is going to happen? By the way, if she is free on Saturday, she is welcome to come along and join the taskforce.
I thank my hon. Friend. I reassure him that, even if it is a lone campaign, I am certainly up for having an able deputy, and there would be no more able deputy than him. I am not motivated solely by the fact that it would prevent him from asking business questions.
My hon. Friend raises one of the most pressing issues, which I think all Members of this House are concerned about. We have to stop this racket in human traffic. I can tell him that he will not have long to wait for a piece of legislation that will give us the powers we need to resolve the issue. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have been working extremely hard on it, the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Cabinet Committee has had many meetings on the Bill, including this week, and my hon. Friend will not have long to wait for it.
May I wish everybody across the House a happy new year? I am so proud of my Bath constituents’ ties to Ukraine. Local fundraising meant that we were able to send 13 generators to the city of Oleksandriia—we received a moving message back from the Mayor of Oleksandriia this week—and we have welcomed 267 refugees into our local authority area with open arms. Unfortunately, Ukrainian refugees still face considerable bureaucratic difficulties. Registering their car in the UK and then reversing the process on their return to Ukraine is proving especially complex and costly. There are already car registration exemptions for overseas students and overseas workers on fixed contracts. Can we please have a statement from the relevant Minister in the Department for Transport on whether the exemption can be extended to Ukrainian refugees?
May I join the hon. Lady and thank all her constituents, and everyone across this country who is doing so much to support the brave fight of the Ukrainian people, including taking in refugees? People over the Christmas period will have been making extra efforts to have two Christmases in their households to ensure that the Orthodox calendar is acknowledged. I suggest, if she is content, that I write to the relevant Departments. At this point, with refugees usually having been here since May, there will be all sorts of issues coming up because they will be thinking about spending more time here perhaps than they did when they moved, including registering cars and so forth. I will write to her on that matter and see whether there is something we can do to scoop up all those issues, as well as the specifics she raises.
In my North Devon constituency, we have issues with legacy street furniture, such as public phone boxes. These phone boxes are no longer used by the majority of the public, so have become a hub for vandalism, drug taking and antisocial behaviour. Barnstaple is a recipient of the future high streets fund, and we are cleaning up our high street for businesses and residents. The state of these phone boxes has drawn multiple complaints. Despite that, the company that runs the phone boxes refuses to remove them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local communities should have a say over their public spaces, and can she advise how I might secure their removal?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter, and I suggest that she also raises it on 26 January with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport directly. There are provisions for these boxes to be removed, and that should be straightforward. There is also an alternative, in that the community can buy them for £1 and convert them to another use. I shall certainly flag her concerns with the Secretary of State and ask her, if possible, to contact her office before 26 January.
Order. I give just a gentle reminder that the focus is on parliamentary business, so asking for a debate or when the next questions might be is probably a good idea.
Can we have a debate—[Laughter.] I just thought I would get that in sharpish. Can the Leader of the House give the Chamber some idea as to when we might see the White Paper on football governance? The Secretary of State said at the beginning of December that it was imminent. That was not very long ago, and I am not impugning the motives of the Secretary of State, but the Leader of the House knows as well as any of us how urgent this issue is, and many Members from all parts of the House have raised it. Can we see the White Paper in the near future?
May I start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for convening a meeting in Parliament this week and all the work he has done on the fan-led review? As a Pompey supporter and someone who saw through the community buy-out of that 200-year-old club, which would otherwise have been lost, I know how vital this issue is to many clubs. Many clubs are teetering on the brink as I speak. I will write to DCMS, ask it about the timetable and get it to contact the hon. Gentleman’s office.
My right hon. Friend knows about my bathing water quality campaign for the River Nidd in Knaresborough. Progress is being made, including securing the support of Yorkshire Water, but a point often raised is that rainwater run-off from farmland, which can include animal waste and pesticides, is a big factor affecting the quality of our waterways. It is a complex issue, and local farmers produce some of the highest quality food in our country, so can we have a debate to explore how the Government can support farmers in mitigating this issue?
My hon. Friend will know how to apply for a debate. I know that he has applied for debates on this issue before and secured them. To assist him, I will write to the Secretary of State and ask her to respond to his issues.
Happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Salford Families in Need Meals Project is a charity I support in my constituency, ably led by Antony Edkins and Julie Larkinson with a team of volunteers. Every Wednesday, working with The Bread and Butter Thing, it distributes affordable food to around 70 families from a base at Barton Moss primary school in my constituency for the modest charge of £7.50 for three bags of food. Last year, the charity raised thousands of pounds so that we could distribute the food for free across four weeks around Christmas and new year. We then found that some families would struggle to pay for heating and cooking at Christmas, so we added £10 per household to help pay for energy. This is a serious issue. Projects such as ours and many others can distribute food to families who need it, but many can now not afford to cook the food. I ask the Leader of the House for a debate in Government time on how we can ensure that families still have the means to produce hot meals in the coldest months.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this very important matter. I pay tribute to that organisation and to the many similar organisations that do such fantastic work not just at this time of the year but all year round. She will know about the packages of support stood up by central Government and the funding we have given to local authorities to allow them to have a more tailored response in our constituencies. She will know how to apply for a debate, but I shall make sure the relevant Departments have heard what she has said today.
Happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker. This morning, the report into antisemitism in the National Union of Students was published. It is a damning indictment of the failure by that organisation to tackle anti-Jewish racism. Will the Leader of the House urge the NUS to get its act together on this issue, and will she find time for a debate on antisemitism on our campuses?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important and timely matter. As someone who was a representative in the NUS, I know that this issue has plagued that organisation for many, many years. I hope that, having published the report, it will actually do something about it. I am sure that any debate applied for on this matter, whether through the Backbench Business Committee or other means, would be extremely well attended.
Over two years ago, my constituent, a single mother with two young children, was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer. As a result, she subjected herself to punishing treatments to gain more time. Unfortunately, she has not yet been transferred to Social Security Scotland, whose policy is based on dignity, fairness and respect, so she was subjected to a reassessment for her personal independence payment claim, during which she felt she was having to justify why she was still alive. May we have a debate in Government time to discuss these really important issues for people right across the United Kingdom who are still subject to Department for Work and Pensions rules?
I am very sorry to hear about the experiences the hon. Lady’s constituent and her family have had. She will know that the Department has done a huge amount of work looking at a pathway for people who are terminally ill. There are campaigns at the moment on other asks for people who are terminally ill. We owe it to them and their families to constantly improve the systems they have to deal with. Many of these issues sit in Scotland, both on benefits and the interaction with social care, but if she gives my office the details of this lady’s case I will take it up this afternoon with the Department to see whether there is any further advice we can give her.
On 20 December last year, a young man in Ashfield, Sean Lynk, sadly took his own life. No one saw it coming, including his parents, Julie and Graham, who are obviously devastated, as are the rest of the community. Male suicide is now one of the biggest killers of men under 40. Graham has promised to dedicate the rest of life to his son and raise awareness of male suicide and suicide across the country. Does my right hon. Friend think it is a good idea to make time in this place for a debate on suicide to represent Sean, his family and all families who are affected by this epidemic?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. I extend my sympathies, and I am sure the whole House would wish to as well, to Julie, Graham and all those affected by that tragic loss. It would be a very good topic for a debate. It is shocking that suicide is the largest killer of young men in this country. He may also wish to raise this issue at equalities questions on 25 January, because we do not tend to focus on matters that affect men.
As a beneficiary of early diagnosis of prostate cancer, it is pretty shocking to see today’s Prostate Cancer UK report showing the differences in when men get diagnosed with this disease in the UK: a third in Scotland are diagnosed too late for effective cure and a fifth in parts of England, but only one in eight in London. Can we have a statement from the Government on what they will do to tackle this postcode lottery, not least to give much clearer messages to men about the need to get themselves tested in an area in which contradictory signals are sometimes given about what is the right thing to do? That should be done in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, because this disease affects people right across the UK.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for helping to raise awareness of this matter. I also thank the BBC for the good work that it has been doing to raise awareness that people may experience no symptoms at all, so it is important that they go for regular screening. I was very shocked by the disparity, and particularly the figures in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman said. One in three are diagnosed too late and the cancer has spread. We need to address that. I will write to the relevant Department to ensure that it has heard the House’s concerns.
On Monday, the Treasury announced the introduction of the new energy bills discount scheme to assist businesses, charities and the public sector. A substantial level of support will be provided to businesses in the sectors identified as being the most energy and trade intensive, such as the manufacturing industries. Can we have a statement from a Treasury Minister on that scheme? Leisure centres and public swimming pools such as Barnet Copthall in my constituency, which I visited in December, are facing significant financial challenges. It is not in the interests of public health for increased charges to be levied on people who are exercising.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I completely agree that it is not in anyone’s interest—particularly given all that we are doing to keep people active and healthy—for charges to be hiked enormously for access to swimming pools and other facilities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is looking at all these issues, including with other Departments, to see what we can do to future-proof such facilities, ensuring that they are the most energy efficient that they can be. I will flag up my hon. Friend’s concerns with the Departments involved.
Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), 600,000 people last year were put on to prepayment meters. It is expected that another 160,000 will be this winter. People in fuel poverty pay a premium for that, and every 10 seconds someone is cut off. A Government statement on prepayment meters is long overdue. Can we please have one urgently, because we need to scrutinise exactly what the Government are doing to protect the most vulnerable people from fuel poverty?
Further to the answer I gave a little while ago, I will certainly raise this with the Department. There are concerns not just about the practice of putting people on to those payment systems but about some of the billing by companies and the timeliness of Government support being passed on to those people. There is a raft of issues, which I will raise with the Department.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the concerns that were expressed across the House a few weeks ago about the curtailment of and changes to BBC local radio. Many of my constituents are concerned about the loss of local coverage on BBC Radio Humberside. Could the Leader of the House arrange for a statement by the appropriate Minister, so that we can hear the response of the BBC to the representations made in this House?
This is incredibly important. Local media is a vital lifeline; we saw that during the pandemic. It is critical to our national resilience and to our national democracy and our way of life in this country. I shall certainly make sure that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has heard my hon. Friend’s concerns, which I know are shared by many Members. The next DCMS questions is on 26 January, and I encourage all Members who are concerned about this to raise it with the Secretary of State then.
Further to the questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), the report from Citizens Advice on prepayment meters is urgent. Since November 2021, the courts have allowed 370,000 forced entry warrants—that is 30,000 a month. These companies cannot possibly be doing the right checks on people before the warrants are being sought, and the courts certainly are not questioning them when issuing them—they are issued literally in seconds flat. Can we have a statement from the Government? Next week, the weather will turn freezing again, so this is very urgent indeed, because it is happening now. Some smart meters are switched off without people’s knowledge, and they only find out when their electricity goes off. We cannot allow this to happen.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. As he will know, there is huge disparity across the country in how many warrants are issued. In some places it is only a handful, and in others it is many tens of thousands.
Portsmouth is one of them, so I have a particular interest in this. As with all the issues that Members have raised, I will make sure that I speak to the Department this afternoon and ensure that it is aware of the House’s concerns and comes forward to update it.
Happy new year, Madam Deputy Speaker. Ecclesbourne School in my constituency is threatened with being forced by a Government Minister to join a multi-academy trust following a disappointing Ofsted report. My concern is that while MATs have been successful for some schools, there is no process for leaving a MAT if it does not work out and no democracy involved. Could we have a debate in Government time on the democratisation of the MAT system?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. She will know that we have Education questions on Monday, and I urge her to raise it with the Secretary of State then. It is important that there are routes to leave a situation that is not working and, perhaps more importantly, that there is the right level of consultation before such agreements are entered into, to cause the least possible disruption to communities and, particularly, the education of children. I encourage her to raise it then, but I shall also raise it on her behalf with the Secretary of State.
With four prisons in close proximity to my constituency, a large proportion of my constituents are prison officers and members of the Prison Officers’ Association trade union. At the last Cabinet Office questions, I had a question about prison officer pensions transferred to the Ministry of Justice just before Question Time, only for the Ministry of Justice to say that it was the responsibility of Cabinet Office after all. I have since tabled written parliamentary questions asking who is in charge, but both Departments are pointing the finger at one another. Could the Leader of the House help to resolve this confusion and find out who is responsible for the pension age of prison officers, which, at 68, is far too late?
The hon. Gentleman asks a question that is exactly why we have business questions. I will certainly find out and give him a definitive answer a bit later today.
Many crimes are carried out in the heat of the moment or in a single lack of judgment. Fly-tipping is not one of them. It is a premeditated crime—no one fly-tips accidentally. It is an issue across the country, including, as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, in Doncaster. Can we have a debate on fly-tipping, as I believe that minimum fines of £10,000 or immediate custodial sentences are the only way to bring this abhorrent practice to an end?
My hon. Friend raises an important matter. He will know that we introduced fixed penalty notices in 2016, which gave councils the means to take swift action, and we have introduced fixed penalties for householders who give their waste to people who then go on to fly-tip. We had DEFRA questions earlier, so I will write to the Department on his behalf to raise this issue and encourage it to get in touch with his office.
May we have a debate on the proposal by McGill’s Buses to withdraw the No. 52 Barrhead circular service? It is a lifeline service for so many people in the town, connecting communities to shops, community organisations, the library, doctors’ surgeries and so on. The timing of the withdrawal announcement was deeply disappointing and it lacked any details about why this important and well used service would be withdrawn. In addition, I have presented a parliamentary petition. Does the Leader of the House agree with me that the significant work done by Rena McGuire, a community activist, in securing about 600 signatures to date on that public petition is testament to the way people in Barrhead value this service, and McGill’s should listen and change its plans?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to her constituent, Rena, who has worked so hard to raise awareness of this important service. I think the answer she is seeking will be with her local authority, and I assume she has already got in contact with it. However, I will take some advice, and see if there are other things the hon. Lady can do to try to ensure that this service is maintained.
Since I was elected, Blackpool has received over £262 million of additional Government investment, and a huge amount of extra money has been spent on a variety of projects. However, being Blackpool, we always want more. That brings me to our £40 million levelling-up fund bid for a new multiversity skills complex, which will help provide the next generation with the jobs for the future. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on when we can expect either news or a ministerial statement on the levelling-up fund bids?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work he has done and on what he has managed to secure for his constituents. The bread and butter of an MP’s job is, yes, to scrutinise legislation, but it is also to ensure that we are getting new funding and new opportunities into our constituencies, and I know he has made a tangible practical difference to the quality of life of people in his patch. I will certainly raise his interest with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but I know this is not the first time he will have campaigned on that bid, and I think decisions on that round of funding are imminent.
Can we have an urgent statement from either the Home Secretary or the Culture Secretary about the shifting focus of online harms to platforms that possibly fall outside the scope of the Online Safety Bill? I have been contacted by the parents of an 11-year-old girl in the Reddish part of my constituency, who was in effect groomed on Spotify. Fake accounts and playlists are being created by groomers, who are then communicating with children to encourage them to send explicit photographs of themselves. Thankfully, this was spotted by her parents, who are appalled, but what can we do, and can we have such a statement to ensure that Spotify and other streaming platforms cannot be abused by groomers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important matter. Both for Governments and for parents, I am afraid this is all about continuing to be vigilant and having to adapt what we know to protect our households, and the Government are always going to have to be advancing and adapting the tools we have. He will know that DCMS questions are on 26 January, but I will also raise this matter with the Secretary of State and ask her team to get in touch with his office.
The Leader of the House will be aware that there is no post-16 education provision in the Bolsover constituency, so I am sure that she will join me in welcoming the bid for a free school from Redhill Academy Trust, which runs The Bolsover School. She knows that I have a great passion for ensuring that all young people can fulfil their potential, so may we have a debate on the importance of the free schools programme in filling the gaps in our education system, and ensuring that all young people can fulfil their potential, particularly in Bolsover?
My hon. Friend provides another example of the difference that Members of Parliament can make, and the massive difference that that new opportunity would make to children in his constituency is evident. Since we have been in government, 10% more schools are now rated good or outstanding, with a wider variety of educational choice. I think that is incredibly important, and I will certainly encourage the Department for Education to consider my hon. Friend’s bid, and stay in touch with him regarding when that might be announced.
Dylan Gibson is a young professional teacher in my constituency, but sadly he has lost his sight due to illness. He is desperate to remain in employment, and his employer is being terribly supportive in that. The issue is that he has no means to access work; he does not have the means to get there. Mr Gibson has applied to the Department for Work and Pensions for the access to work grant, but he has been informed that he will have to wait possibly more than 20 weeks to get it, because the Department is prioritising people who are outside employment, who can get assessments within two weeks. That is pretty unfair. Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate in the House, so that we can debate the issue and come to some sort of resolution, and so that people such as Dylan Gibson do not suffer as a consequence of a failure of the system, and the Government can give the support that people need?
That is a shocking story. There should be no legislative reason why the hon. Gentleman’s constituent should not have that help. The access to work scheme, which unusually is something that Members across the House think is good, has a good track record of being there, able to be utilised when an individual needs it. We want teachers to be able to teach, and I am sure the Secretary of State would also wish that. If the hon. Gentleman gives my office the details of that case, I will take it up with the Department this afternoon.
Just before the Christmas recess, my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) secured an excellent Westminster Hall debate to discuss the Mayor of London’s appalling plan to expand the ultra-low emission zone to outer London. That will do nothing to improve air quality, and it will be economically disastrous for poorer people in outer London constituencies such as Orpington, and for those living outside Greater London. It is simply a cash grab, the Mayor has no mandate to do it, and it is overwhelmingly opposed by people in outer London. Will my right hon. Friend encourage colleagues across Government to consider withholding funds from Transport for London until the Mayor decides to withdraw that insane plan, and may we have a related debate in Government time?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. Whatever the merits or otherwise of setting up such a scheme, to do it at a time when businesses are recovering from a pandemic—this obviously affects not only businesses in London, but also those in surrounding areas, with tradesmen and others who will be coming in for materials or to do jobs, and I know it has had a hugely detrimental impact on many firms. I will raise the issue with the Secretary of State, but I encourage my hon. Friend also to raise it at Transport questions on 19 January.
I wonder whether the Leader of the House would consider giving time to a problem that affects many families in my constituency—indeed, in every constituency in the country—but which we have no way of gauging or recording, so we do not know its scale. On the death of a parent, we do not record at any point that there may be a child who is grieving.
I know from personal experience and from my sister’s experience that, no matter how stable the family, how supportive the family network and support system or how well the child appears to be coping with that grief, they may need support. Winston’s Wish tells me that there is no way of knowing how many children are bereaved at the moment. It would be simple to resolve that if, along with every death, we recorded whether there were dependent children. They will need support. It is not something that goes away with growing up, and they will need the most support at the point at which they are bereaved. Could we find time in the House to consider a way of ensuring that we know where these children are? If they have not previously been in touch with social services, we have no way of ensuring that they get the help they need.
The hon. Lady raises a very good idea. I know that other Members of the House have been campaigning on ensuring that people in general have more support and that, whether it is the state or those wonderful organisations in the third sector who support families, we can really tailor support to those people. I encourage her to raise it directly with Ministers, but I will also ensure that they hear what she has said.
Access to dentistry continues to be a huge problem for people across Stockton South. Many of us have heard the horror stories of people living on painkillers and undergoing DIY fillings and even DIY extractions. Will my right hon. Friend grant a debate on access to dentistry so that we can have an update on what the Government are doing to ensure that people in Stockton South can access a dentist?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. We spend about £3 billion on these services every year. Of course, at the start of last year we had an uplift in funding to help cope with the backlog and with getting more people access to a dentist. He will know that this depends a great deal on local commissioners using the flexibility that they have, and a debate would be an excellent way to compare performance in different areas. I encourage him to apply for one and to raise that with the Department of Health and Social Care on 24 January.
My best wishes to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to everyone in the House for 2023. I know that, like me, Mr Speaker is a keen cricket fan. In my constituency we are lucky to have several excellent cricket clubs, including Offerton cricket club, which dates back to 1921, Heaton Mersey cricket club, founded in 1879, and Heaton Mersey Village cricket club. As we approach the cricket season, which is starting in just a few months, I know that so many more people could be budding cricketers, yet sadly even before the pandemic the number of people participating in grassroots cricket was falling. As such, will the Leader of the House grant a debate in Government time on investment in grassroots cricket in Stockport and across England?
I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy new year too. He will know that, earlier this week, we had a debate on community sport and school sport, where I think many Members took the opportunity to discuss those issues. If there is further appetite, he knows how to apply for a debate, whether through the Backbench Business Committee or an Adjournment debate.
At the last estimates from Independent Age, some £5 million in pension credit was not being claimed annually by my Ogmore constituents. At the end of the month, working with Citizens Advice Cymru, I am hosting a pension credit advice day, contacting pensioners and asking them to ensure that they get what they are entitled to. In that vein, will the Leader of the House make time for a debate—or can we have a Work and Pensions Minister make a statement, either written or at the Dispatch Box—on what more Ministers can do to ensure that pension credit take-up is improved? It remains the form of benefit with the lowest take-up that is related to the elderly.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Department takes the matter very seriously and has produced materials and support for Members of Parliament to raise awareness in their constituency. Many Members have taken that up, which has helped to increase the numbers of people who can get access to and make use of the money to which they are entitled. We are always looking at new ways to do that better; if the hon. Gentleman has any feedback for the Department, I know that it will want to hear it. I shall certainly raise the matter with the ministerial team to see whether there are other things that they can do.