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Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 29 March 2023

Madam Deputy Speaker, I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is attending the funeral of Baroness Betty Boothroyd. I am sure the whole House would want to join me in paying tribute to Baroness Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.

I am sure the whole House does join in sending our thoughts and prayers about Baroness Boothroyd, whom we all held in very high esteem.

Phosphates leaching into the River Wye could be stopped by proven phosphate-stripping technology attached to anaerobic digesters, but Herefordshire Council’s bypass-hating Green and independent group will not support or engage, despite a moratorium on house building. What can the Deputy Prime Minister do to save our river and remove from the council such a vital strategic and environmental responsibility?

The River Wye is obviously of huge importance to nature. We are taking action to tackle pollution and raise farming standards. My hon. Friend will know about the Environment Agency’s farm inspection capacity and catchment-sensitive farming advice programme; I defer to his technical knowledge in this area. I am sure he will want to make submissions to the local authority.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and welcome back to the Chair. I share the Deputy Prime Minister’s words on our Baroness, and our thoughts are with her family today. I am sure the whole House will join me also in paying tribute to Paul O’Grady, whose sad death was announced today. He was a national treasure and a true northern star, and he will be greatly missed.

This week, the Government announced their so-called antisocial behaviour policy. It has only taken 13 years. Look, I will give him some credit: the Deputy Prime Minister knows first-hand the misery caused by thugs and their intimidating behaviour, lurking with menace, exploding in fits of rage, creating a culture of fear, and maybe even—I do not know—throwing things. So I ask him: under his new antisocial behaviour policy, does he think more bullies will be brought to justice?

I can reassure the House that I have never called anyone scum. [Hon. Members: “More!”] If the right hon. Lady was serious about standing up for communities and people who suffer from the scourge of antisocial behaviour, she would back our plan to deal more swiftly with these issues, make sure we ban drugs beyond the conventional ones and give police the powers they need. If Labour really wants to protect the public, it will back our plans for parole reform to make sure that murderers, terrorists and child killers are not allowed out free to threaten other people, and reintroduce the ministerial veto that Labour took away.

I would like to see the ministerial code introduced and adhered to on the Government Benches, because it is not just the right hon. Gentleman’s Department where antisocial behaviour is running out of control. It is happening across the country: police officers disappearing from our streets, replaced by criminals plaguing our towns and leaving people feeling unsafe. The truth is that the Conservatives are missing in action in the fight against crime. Can he tell his constituents and the public why, after 13 years of his party in government, there are now 6,000 fewer neighbourhood police officers on Britain’s streets?

The right hon. Lady really does have a brass neck, because Labour voted against our funding of police recruitment and the 20,000 extra police officers. What I will tell her and the whole House is that crime is lower than it was under the last Labour Government, violent crime has halved and reoffending is seven percentage points lower. If she really wants to stand up for the public and the victims of crime, Labour should back our Bill to protect victims and protect the most vulnerable from serious killers, rapists and terrorists.

No one believes that there are more police on the streets and no one feels safer. Neighbourhood policing has gone down, not up. Let us talk about crime. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that neighbourhood police can help to prevent antisocial behaviour and knife crime, but trusted local police are also crucial to protecting women. Women feel unsafe on Britain’s streets, always looking over our shoulder as we hurry to our front door. Can he tell me, under his watch as Justice Secretary, what is the charge rate for rape?

I will address all those elements and first of all say that the issue of rape and serious sexual violence against women is one of our top priorities. The right hon. Lady asks what we are doing about it. Since 2019, police referrals of cases have doubled and Crime Prosecution Service charges have doubled. She asks what has happened on my watch. The volume of convictions in rape cases has increased by two thirds. If she really wants to protect vulnerable women, whether from rapists or other serious crimes, she will back our parole reforms, which will mean Ministers are able to prevent people from being released into the public and causing more threats.

The right hon. Gentleman says that rape conviction has gone up. What he really means is that 300 women will be raped today while he boasts about an increase of 0.5%. He has not answered my question, because he is too ashamed of the answer: 1.6% of rapists face being charged for their crime—1.6%. Let that sink in. A woman goes through the worst experience of her life. She summons up the courage to relive that horrendous experience to tell the police in detail about her assault, but she only has a 1.6% chance of action being taken. Over 98% of rapists will never see the inside of a courtroom, let alone a prison. And the rest of those brave women? They keep looking over their shoulders and hope the perpetrator does not choose tonight to take their revenge for reporting the incident to the police.

In the last 13 years of the Tory Government, more than half a million cases of rape have been recorded by the police, but the charge rate for those attacks has collapsed. He has served under five Tory Prime Ministers and had three years as Justice Minister, and on his watch rapists are left to roam the streets. Will he apologise to those victims who will never get justice because of his failures?

First of all, the conviction rate measured by the Crown Prosecution Service—the leader of the Labour party used to be in charge of the CPS, so he might want to point this out—has gone up. It is now at 69%. We are doing much more to support victims of rape when they come forward.[Official Report, 30 March 2023, Vol. 730, c. 10MC.] [Interruption.] They are talking a good game but, in fact, we have quadrupled funding for victims since 2010. If the right hon. Lady looks at the latest data, she will see that the time it has taken from charge to completion of a rape case has come down by 10 weeks, or 70%, in the last three months alone. She should get her facts straight, particularly when talking about such a sensitive issue.

The right hon. Member will not apologise for the Government’s failure on charge rates. Sixty-nine per cent of 1.6%—is that really something to boast about?

Let me ask him about an issue that is directly his responsibility. On his watch, rape survivors are waiting on average more than three years for their cases to come to court. The right hon. Member talked about a 10-week reduction. From three years, 10 weeks is not anything to boast about—three years from the day of the assault to the final day of court. Is it any wonder that from April to September last year, 175 trials for rape and other serious sexual offences had to be dropped because the victim could no longer cope with the delay? When will he apologise to all those women denied justice because of his failure to sort the court backlog?

The right hon. Lady ignores the impact on the court backlog of the pandemic or, indeed, the Criminal Bar Association strike. Let me tell her what we are doing. We have quadrupled funding for victims since 2010—quadrupled the funding provided by the last Labour Government. We launched the 24/7 support line, so that when those victims of that appalling crime come forward, they get the support they need. We have increased the number of independent sexual violence advisers to more than 1,000, and we are making sure that women who suffer this appalling crime can give pre-recorded evidence in court. We are doing everything that we can. As I said, the rates are coming down and we will keep taking action. If the Labour party were really serious about this, they would not have voted against longer sentences for dangerous, violent and sexual offenders in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and she would get behind our Victims and Prisoners Bill today.

Not a word of apology, no sense of responsibility and not even a shred of shame. The reality is that while people in Britain feel more and more unsafe, the right hon. Member seems to spend all his time trying to save his own job and none of his time on his actual job. It is not just me who thinks so—the Prime Minister clearly does not trust him to deal with antisocial behaviour, because he has given that job to the Levelling-up Secretary. The way that things are going, and if reports are to be believed, this might be his last Prime Minister’s questions, so let us look at the highlights: criminal justice on its knees; the largest court backlog on record; rape victims waiting for justice; and through it all, he managed to rack up 24 formal complaints from his own civil servants. Can he say today: will he walk before he is pushed?

One thing never changes: the right hon. Lady always comes with her usual bluster and political opportunism. Let me tell her what I have been doing this week. We have delivered new legislation to support the victims of crime, including rape, and to protect the public. We have delivered a plan to stamp out antisocial behaviour and we have supported families with their energy bills. What has she done? What have Labour Front Benchers done? They tried to block our small boats Bill. That is the difference between them and us. We deliver for Britain; she likes to play her political games.

Q4. It is wonderful to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Thames freeport was recently given the final go-ahead to become fully operational, creating thousands of jobs and attracting millions in inward investment. Will he join me in congratulating the team behind the bid, and encourage businesses and investors from across the south-east—indeed, across the world—to take a closer look at the fantastic opportunities in Thurrock? Will he work with local education providers to ensure that my constituents have the skills needed to take up these fantastic opportunities? (904380)

I thank my hon. Friend. I certainly do support and pay tribute to all those who have made the new Thames freeport possible, with its potential to deliver over 12,000 new jobs. I look forward to seeing the local community, and wider communities, benefit from the tax benefits and custom zones. We will see how these plans progress. Again, I think it is good news to see the communities in Basildon and Thurrock taking full advantage of the Brexit opportunities.

I also wish to send my warm regards to the family of Paul O’Grady, the legendary drag queen, for all he has done for my community.

I congratulate Humza Yousaf as he becomes First Minister of Scotland. He is the first Scots-Asian and Muslim to hold such an office, and I am sure the whole House will send him warm regards.

In recent days, video footage has emerged of the former Chancellor and the former chair of the 1922 committee offering their services for £60,000, on top of their salaries as MPs. The former Health Secretary offered his wisdom for £10,000 a day. When the Deputy Prime Minister is inevitably booted out of office, what will his going rate be?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the Chamber. The system of declarations is there to ensure transparency and accountability. Of course, the Conservatives backed tightening up those rules to make sure there could not be any lobbying.

I also join the hon. Lady in her tribute to the new First Minister of Scotland. The Prime Minister spoke to him last night and we welcome him to his place. The Government want to work constructively with him in the best interests of the people of Scotland.

During a cost of living crisis, as the Deputy Prime Minister’s colleagues eye up barrels of cash from fake companies, it is the people across these isles who have been led by donkeys—and they are sitting on those Government Benches. The former Health Secretary also said that he would impart his wisdom for £1,500 an hour. Most nurses earn little above £15 an hour. Who does the Deputy Prime Minister think is best value for money and for the public?

I am delighted that the majority of the health unions have accepted the pay settlement. We think that is absolutely right.

The hon. Lady raises this issue, and of course we have worked on a cross-party basis to curb the limits on second earnings. I notice that those on the Labour Benches are curiously quiet. Is that because there are 10 shadow Cabinet members who are taking additional earnings? In particular, the shadow Foreign Secretary looks like he certainly does not want to be under the limelight—he has second earnings from 40 different sources, so I do not think they can talk about it. In response to the hon. Lady’s question, we have done everything we can to make sure there is transparency and accountability.

Q6.   It is very good to see you back in this place, Madam Deputy Speaker.It has been announced that Stoke-on-Trent will be one of the levelling-up partnerships, on top of the investment we have already received through programmes such as the levelling-up fund. That has been delivered thanks to Conservatives working together in Government and on the city council, led by the formidable Councillor Abi Brown. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if people want to continue to see the levelling up of opportunities in Stoke-on-Trent, they should vote Conservative in the local elections in May? (904382)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. After years of neglect under Labour, it is now the Conservatives—thanks in no small part to my hon. Friend—who have been levelling up in Stoke-on-Trent, with £11 million from the shared prosperity fund, £12 million from the levelling-up fund and £4 million from the regional growth fund, supporting over 500 jobs, along with £28 million of private investment. That is the difference for the people of Stoke under a Conservative Government.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told us that the Security Service, MI5, had increased the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland to “severe”. Responsibility for dealing with terrorism and national security rests with the Government of the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me and the people of Northern Ireland that the Government will provide the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Security Service with the resources that they need to counter this serious terrorist threat?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course the threat level is kept under constant review and we take into account a range of factors—he will be very familiar with them. It is disappointing that the threat level has gone up, but I think it is worth saying that it has been in significant decline, in terms of the number of Northern Ireland-related terrorist attacks and attempted attacks, since the peak of the violence in 2009 and 2010. None the less, we will of course make sure that all the resource is available to the PSNI. The public are reminded to remain vigilant and report any suspicious behaviour or activity.

Q7.   My recent local survey as to whether Leigh should break away from Wigan Council shows, I am very pleased to say, that so far 90% are in favour, with only 3% opposed—[Interruption.] Please: before calling for a second referendum, let me finish the question. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this, the 50th year of our campaign for our town’s independence, is the year to get Lexit done? (904383)

My hon. Friend campaigns with typical gusto. I think he knows that changing the boundaries at local authority level is subject to an independent process, but I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the Minister for Local Government so that he can further discuss the aspirations for Leigh.

Q2. Despite Royal Mail posting record profits, management are threatening to put it into administration. What conversations are the Government having with Royal Mail? What are they doing to protect the universal postal service? (904378)

It is an incredibly difficult time, and I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Obviously the pandemic has had a particular impact, but we are working very closely to make sure that we can continue the service. I will make sure that she gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss her concerns further.

Q8.   On behalf of the people of Dewsbury, I would like to pay tribute to Dewsbury’s greatest daughter, Betty Boothroyd. She will be sorely missed.This week, I visited Ravenshall School in Dewsbury and Hollybank School in Mirfield, which both do amazing work teaching children with special educational needs and disabilities. However, there is a disparity in SEND standards in mainstream schools in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the teachers and staff at Ravenshall and Hollybank for everything they do? Will he outline how we can ensure that all our children are given the best chance in life, regardless of which school they go to? (904384)

I pay tribute to the teachers and staff at both schools, Ravenshall and Hollybank, for the amazing work they do. It is a very difficult and challenging job and it is incredibly important for the life chances of the children affected. My hon. Friend will know that in March we published the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, with new national standards. That is backed up by increased specialist provision locally, with £2.6 billion going into it. That includes opening 33 new special schools, with a further 49 in the pipeline.

Q3. Although the Prime Minister is absent, I hope he later gets the chance to watch the BBC’s dramatisation of the Brink’s-Mat robbery in the 1980s, when the police team assigned to recover the stolen gold got back only half. That sum pales into insignificance compared with the measly 1% recovered from the £1 billion in business grants lost to fraud under the Prime Minister’s watch as Chancellor. The fingerprints show that this massive fraud now lies at No. 10 Downing Street. To quote the Government’s former fraud Minister, Lord Agnew of Oulton, when will this Government “get their acts together” and step up the recovery efforts on behalf of the taxpayer? (904379)

Tackling fraud has become more complex because of the online incidence, but the hon. Gentleman will have noted the massive increase in funding for tackling it in the recent Budget, and we are confident that will give us the resources we need to deal with this often invisible but very damaging crime.

Q10. As the Deputy Prime Minister will know, stroke is the greatest cause of adult disability in the country and costs our economy some £26 billion a year, let alone destroying lives. Last year I met Dr John Stephens, who was unable even to sit up unaided after a stroke but who, following an emergency thrombectomy, is now back at work as an NHS GP. Sadly, however, only 30% of eligible patients actually have this surgery. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we need greatly to increase the roll-out of thrombectomies, and will he join me, in the run-up to World Thrombectomy Day next month, in visiting a thrombectomy centre to see at first hand the difference that the procedure can make to lives, returning people to meaningful and productive work and enjoyment? (904386)

My hon. Friend has been a dedicated champion for stroke survivors. I know from my own constituency how debilitating strokes can be, and also the impact that they can have on the wider family. NHS England is committed to increasing the delivery of mechanical thrombectomies through, for instance, the expansion of local services and local capital investment. I am sure that we can arrange for a Health Minister to join my hon. Friend on the visit he has requested.

Q5. In a shocking article in Surrey Live last year, it was reported that staff at a GP practice in Walton were left in tears and “crumbling under pressure” owing to the increased workload caused by staff shortages. Is that any wonder, when there are 850 fewer GPs in the country than there were in 2019? What does the Deputy Prime Minister say to patients left in pain and staff left in tears—including some in his own constituency—as a result of the Government’s failed promise to recruit more GPs? (904381)

Any abuse against any GP in any practice anywhere in the country is absolutely wrong, and we must demonstrate zero tolerance of it. I can tell the hon. Lady that there has been a large increase in the number of GP appointments, with 29 million since the start of the year. We are improving access to general practice, with more support staff, and also improving the technology, with more state-of-the-art telephone systems. A record number of GPs are being trained, and we are investing £1.5 billion to create 50 million more appointments a year by 2024.

Q11.   Since 2019, this Government have provided well over £300 million in extra funding for projects in Blackpool. However, there is always room for more. The Bond Street and Revoe areas in my constituency are among the most deprived in the country, and have been long forgotten by the Labour-led council. The Government have already provided £600,000 in funding for a feasibility project, with a view to delivering a £30 million regeneration package for those areas. Will they look closely at the business case to see how this transformational project can be delivered to the local communities? (904387)

Order. Before the Deputy Prime Minister answers that question, will everyone else with a prepared question cut it in half? Just ask the question.

There is no more tenacious a campaigner for Blackpool than my hon. Friend. I saw that at first hand when I visited his constituency with him. I am pleased that we delivered, with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the £40 million of funding to relocate the magistrates court and allow the county court complex to be moved, and I know that the Secretary of State will want to work with my hon. Friend on regeneration aspirations for the future.

Q9. A little girl in my constituency, only nine years old, developed a bacterial infection just before Christmas. Thereafter, very distressing symptoms occurred, such as obsessive compulsive disorder and intrusive thoughts. She has not washed, dressed or properly eaten since Christmas. We believe this to be PANS and PANDA—paediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome and paediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcus. Although health is devolved and I am seeking support for her, part of the reason for the lottery and the antipsychotic medication that is often given for this condition—despite the fact that broad-based antibiotics have been proven to work—is that no part of the UK has implemented the World Health Organisation’s ICD 11. Will the Government commit to looking at this, so that other children across the UK do not need to suffer in such a way? (904385)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising what seems like an awful case. My heart goes out to the family involved. If she would like to write to me about it, I will make sure that she gets a full answer and a meeting with a Minister if that is required.

Q12. Georgia Harrison is an incredibly brave young woman who only got justice when she was a victim of revenge porn because she could prove that the perpetrator intended to cause her distress. Most victims cannot prove that, and perpetrators are using platforms to use revenge porn for financial gain. That is not covered in the legislation. Will my right hon. Friend commit to looking at the case studies Georgia has compiled and to reviewing the legislation to strengthen it and make it more effective? (904388)

I thank my right hon. Friend for all that she has done in this area. There have been a considerable number of changes to the Online Safety Bill, not least because of her forensic attention to detail. They will include the creation of a new base offence of sharing intimate images without consent that does not require proof of an intention to cause distress. The Government also support the revenge porn helpline, which offers free and confidential advice. If there are any further changes that she thinks need to be made, I would be happy to look at them with her.

I do not know whether the Deputy Prime Minister ever met Lily Savage or whether he has ever spent a night out at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. I can take him sometime if he wants to go—[Interruption.] I think that was a yes, actually. Lily was performing there at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1987 when police officers raided the pub and arrested her, among others. They were wearing rubber gloves because, supposedly, they were protecting themselves from contracting HIV by touching gay men. Lily, amazingly, said at the time, “Oh, lads, you’ve come to do the washing up! That’s great!” Her alter ego, Paul O’Grady, campaigned acerbically and hilariously for elderly people and care workers and against oppression of every kind. Is it not time that we in this country celebrated our naughty, hilarious drag queens and comics of every kind who inspire us to be a better and more generous nation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I totally agree with him. Paul Grayson was an incredible comic, but he also—[Hon. Members: “Paul O’Grady!”] Yes, Paul O’Grady. In terms of Lily Savage, some of that comedy broke glass ceilings and boundaries in a way that politicians would struggle to do, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. I also think it shows how we need greater, more rambunctious free speech and how we need to avoid the wokery and the limitations on comedy, which, I am afraid, both of them would have had no time for.

Q13. I would like to associate myself with the words of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant). Paul O’Grady was a great champion of animal welfare as well. The biggest cause of death for children under the age of 14 in this country is cancer, and I have been calling for a childhood cancer mission to radically change how we detect, treat and care for children with cancer, covering everything from genome science for detection right the way through to seven-day-a-week play facilities in children’s wards. The Health Secretary has been brilliant—he has met me and been really positive about this—but will the Deputy Prime Minister restate the Government’s support for a childhood cancer mission? (904389)

I certainly will. The suffering that any child must go through when they get a condition such as cancer at such an early age is difficult to believe, and the pressure on the families is incredible. I thank my hon. Friend for her work on this. The Department of Health and Social Care will publish a major conditions strategy to look at improving outcomes and experiences for all cancer patients, including children in particular. I cannot pre-empt that, but I know that it will draw on previous work, including submissions from the various childhood cancer charities, and I pay tribute to the work that they do.

My six-year-old constituent Daniel has cerebral palsy and mitochondrial disease. He has received palliative care from the Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice, which was forced to close temporarily last year due to staffing pressures. It also has ongoing concerns about rising bills. Will the Deputy Prime Minister reassure Daniel’s family that he will receive the palliative care he requires, as and when he needs it?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important case. I do not know all the facts, but if she writes to me I would be happy to look at it. We will make sure that the resourcing and the care are there. As I say, if she writes to me, I am sure we can arrange for a meeting with the relevant Minister.

Q14. The inclusion of the west midlands as a hotspot trailblazer police force area in the antisocial behaviour action plan is really good news. Will my right hon. Friend outline how communities on the periphery of the west midlands, such as those in my constituency, will see and feel the positive difference this will bring, so that we do not simply see the Labour police and crime commissioner redirecting our valuable resources into other parts of the west midlands? (904390)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. The antisocial behaviour action plan will help us to crack down on antisocial behaviour and to make sure that those who are responsible for antisocial behaviour undertake repairs within 48 hours by, for example, cleaning up litter and graffiti. I am delighted that the west midlands enhanced hotspot will get additional funding. She is right that it is for PCCs to determine the precise allocation of funding, but I am sure she will make representations in her usual powerful way.

After announcing her retirement, North Tyneside-born Sarah Hunter MBE played her final game of rugby at the opening women’s Six Nations match at Kingston Park last Saturday. Sarah is the most capped international rugby player in the world, a true professional, a great ambassador for her sport and an inspiration to many. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me, the whole of North Tyneside and this House in thanking Sarah for all she has achieved for the country and for her beloved sport of rugby?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I pay tribute to Sarah’s trailblazing record. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch the England female rugby team, and I was blown away. We look forward to Sarah and England going on to bigger and better things.

Q15. Will the Government require that East West Rail publishes a full business case before the allocation of any more taxpayers’ money to the project? (904391)

This is a hugely important project with all sorts of opportunities, such as jobs and education, and with a projected increase in economic output of over £100 billion by 2050. My hon. Friend is right that the project needs transparency and scrutiny, and the first stage is already under construction on time and under budget. I am told that the subsequent stages will go through full and transparent scrutiny as part of the planning process.

The Prime Minister has previously said on camera that he does not have any working-class friends. When the Prime Minister is not taking luxury helicopter rides and splashing about in his private pool, will the Deputy Prime Minister recommend that he befriends somebody from the working class?

I am not sure I got the full extent of the question. The reality, as the hon. Gentleman can see with the energy price guarantee, the free childcare and the national living wage, is that we are supporting everyone in this country, particularly those in the lowest paid jobs.

This week, Rutlander Andrew Osborne solo-sailed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic ocean, taking 78 days and raising £142,000 for Cardiac Risk in the Young, after his daughter Amy died in her sleep aged 25, being discovered by her sister the next morning. Twelve young people a week die of an undiagnosed heart condition. What are we doing to increase the diagnosis of heart conditions in children and young people?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this question. Our heartfelt condolences go to Amy’s family. Likewise, our congratulations go to Andrew on his incredible feat. We all want to see an end to 12 young people a week dying of undiagnosed heart conditions. There is more resource and research going in, and I will arrange for a meeting between my hon. Friend and the relevant Minister.