Tuesday 6 June 2023
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Unleashing Rural Opportunity
Growing the economy is one of our Government’s five priorities. Growing the rural economy is key to that, and to continuing to make our countryside a vibrant and thriving place where people want to live and work. The countryside is rich in human and natural potential, with strong communities and entrepreneurial businesses. Recent experience during the pandemic has shown beyond doubt that rural communities and businesses are adaptable, resilient, and full of energy and drive. We recognise, though, that rural communities can face challenges, including those connected with sparsity and distance from key facilities. We want to go further in unleashing the inherent potential that exists and supporting people living and working in the countryside to have a prosperous, sustainable future.
That is why we are launching “Unleashing Rural Opportunity”, in which we set out four broad priorities that are key to rural communities being able to thrive; set out new initiatives; and consider what we are already delivering to make this happen. The Prime Minister also chaired a discussion on delivering for rural areas at Cabinet this morning.
Connectivity: We will continue to deliver gigabit broadband and mobile coverage in rural areas and increase access to public transport. New measures announced today include providing £7 million to test new ways of bringing together satellite, wireless and fixed line internet connectivity in remote areas across the UK. This will help support farmers and tourism businesses in those areas to access lightning-fast, reliable connectivity for the first time, and will help rural businesses in trial areas to make the most of new technologies. We are also today announcing the appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) as our rural connectivity champion, to drive innovation and investment in advanced wireless technologies in rural areas across the UK.
Growing the rural economy: We will support rural areas so they can prosper, in line with the Prime Minister’s key priorities for the country as a whole. Today we are announcing new measures to help them do so, including consulting on changes to permitted development rights to support rural diversification. This will look at whether there should be changes to the current rules in England, cutting red tape to make the planning process more straightforward for farmers so they can more easily improve their redundant agricultural buildings, helping to make their businesses more productive.
Homes and energy: We will facilitate the building of more homes for local people to buy where local communities want them and we will provide secure and resilient energy supplies. New measures announced today for England include funding of £2.5 million for a network of rural housing enablers to boost the supply of new, affordable housing by identifying development opportunities, supporting site owners and community representatives to navigate the planning system, and engaging with local communities to help shape developments. We are also providing local authorities with new powers to manage the impact of holiday lets on local communities—recognising their contribution to the tourism sector—and we will consult on making it easier for farmers to change their redundant agricultural buildings into family homes.
Communities: We want rural communities to continue to be places where people want to enjoy living. We will improve access to high-quality health care and take further action to tackle rural crime. New measures include the imminent publication of a dental plan for England that will help improve provision in rural areas. We will also put in place legislation this summer to increase fly-tipping and litter penalties, and intend to ringfence those penalties to tackle this blight on the countryside. We are also supporting the National Police Chiefs’ Council to establish a new National Rural Crime Unit to support police forces across Great Britain in their response to rural crimes. In addition to additional funding from the Home Office, DEFRA will fund a post within the National Rural Crime Unit to tackle fly-tipping across Great Britain.
“Unleashing Rural Opportunity” complements our annual rural report, to be published later this year. It will be published on gov.uk today and a copy will be laid in the Libraries of both Houses.
Electronic Travel Authorisation
The Government’s No. 1 priority is keeping the UK safe. In order to further strengthen our border security, the Government are launching an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) scheme in October 2023.
The ETA scheme will be implemented in a phased manner, on a nationality basis, by the end of 2024. Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will be the first countries to benefit from the ETA scheme. The Home Office will provide further details about which country will be next to benefit from the ETA scheme in due course.
However, today I am announcing that the Home Office intends to charge £10 for an ETA application during the initial roll-out period. This fee level is competitive with that of equivalent systems run by other countries, and will ensure that the Department’s costs in delivering the scheme are effectively covered across a range of volume scenarios.
In order to support the charging of this initial £10 fee, I am today laying an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Order 2016 to introduce the necessary enabling provisions, including a maximum chargeable fee. I will then lay regulations before Parliament in the autumn to amend the Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2018 so that the initial fee of £10 will be established from October 2023.
The Home Office will review the fee charged for ETA applications in advance of further roll-out of the scheme across 2024, including to the EU and other non-visa national countries. Details on any further planned updates to the fee level following the initial roll-out period will be communicated in due course.
Chinese "Overseas Police Service Stations"
Last November, I committed to update the House on the response to media reporting of unofficial Chinese “police service stations.” The Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire reiterated this commitment in April.
Reports by the non-governmental organisation Safeguard Defenders claimed that there were three Chinese “police service stations” in the UK—in Croydon, Glasgow and Hendon. Further allegations have been made about an additional site in Belfast.
These reports alleged that, while these “police service stations” are officially set up in countries across the world to conduct administrative tasks to support Chinese nationals residing abroad, they are also used to monitor and harass diaspora communities and, in some cases, to coerce people to return to China outside of legitimate channels.
The police have visited each of the locations identified by Safeguard Defenders, and carefully looked into these allegations to consider whether any laws have been broken and whether any further action should be taken. I can confirm that they have not, to date, identified any evidence of illegal activity on behalf of the Chinese state across these sites. We assess that police and public scrutiny have had a suppressive impact on any administrative functions that these sites may have had.
However, these “police service stations” were established without our permission and their presence, regardless of whatever low-level administrative activity they were performing, will have worried and intimidated those who have left China and sought safety and freedom here in the UK. This is unacceptable.
The Chinese authorities regularly criticise others for what they see as interference in their internal affairs, yet they felt able to open unattributed sites without consulting the UK Government. It is alleged that this was a pattern repeated around the world.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has told the Chinese embassy that any functions related to such “police service stations” in the UK are unacceptable and that they must not operate in any form. The Chinese embassy has subsequently responded that all such stations have closed permanently. Any further allegations will be swiftly investigated, in line with UK law.
I hope that this clarifies what we know about these alleged “police service stations” and the action that we have taken. The 2023 Integrated Review Refresh makes it clear that we want to engage and partner with China on key issues where it is in our national interest to do so. However, the UK will always put national security first.
Let me be clear: any attempt by any foreign power to intimidate, harass or harm individuals or communities in the UK will not be tolerated. This is an insidious threat to our democracy and fundamental human rights. That is why I asked the Defending Democracy Taskforce to review the UK’s approach to trans-national repression to ensure that we have a robust and joined-up response across Government and law enforcement. Understanding and combating this kind of interference is a key pillar of our taskforce’s efforts.
The National Security Bill, now in its final stages, represents the biggest overhaul of state threats legislation in a generation, and will drastically improve our tools to deal with the full range of state threat activity, regardless of where it originates. The Bill contains provisions that will leave those seeking to coerce, including through threats of violence, for, or with the intention to benefit, a foreign state liable to prosecution in a way that they currently are not. Those convicted could face up to 14 years in prison. I urge Parliament to quickly pass the Bill so that its powers can be used to clamp down on foreign interference and trans-national repression.
I look forward to working closely with this House to further protect our democracy.
Northern Ireland Update
Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019 (“the NIEF Act”) places me under a legal duty to ensure that the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the 2018 report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (“the CEDAW report”) are implemented in full.
I have today laid regulations in Parliament to implement the CEDAW recommendation to
“make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, a compulsory component of curriculum for adolescents, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion in Northern Ireland, and monitor its implementation”.
The regulations will mirror the approach taken in England with regard to education about the prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion. This is provided for in regulation 2(2).
It has always been my preference that, as a devolved matter, the Department of Education in Northern Ireland updates the curriculum. However, nearly four years have passed since the NIEF Act, and adolescents in Northern Ireland are still not receiving comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Today, I am therefore laying regulations that:
Amend the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, and the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 for adolescents, to make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, a compulsory component of curriculum for adolescents.
Place a duty on the Department of Education to issue guidance, by 1 January 2024, on the content and delivery of the education required to be provided.
Place a duty on the board of governors and principal of every grant-aided school to have regard to this guidance.
Place a duty on the Department of Education to publish a report by 1 September 2026 on the implementation of education on sexual and reproductive health and rights in grant-aided schools, and lay the report before the Assembly.
I recognise the sensitivity of this topic and that some parents may wish to teach their child about sex education themselves, or make alternative arrangements for sex education to be provided in line with their religious or other beliefs. In recognition of this, the regulations also place a duty on the Department of Education to introduce a mechanism to ensure that a pupil may be withdrawn from education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, or elements of that education, at the request of a parent. This follows the approach taken in England and Scotland.
Consultation with parents on relationship and sexuality education is already common practice in Northern Ireland and we expect the Department of Education to ensure schools afford parents the opportunity to review relevant materials.
I wish to be clear that educating adolescents on issues such as contraception, and access to abortion in Northern Ireland, should be done in a factual way that does not advocate, or oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception.
While the changes to the curriculum will come into effect from 1 July 2023, there will be a period of implementation and a need for meaningful engagement with teachers, parents and young people. To allow for this, the regulations place a duty on the Department of Education to issue guidance on the content and delivery of the required education by 1 January 2024.
Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022: Implementation
During the passage of the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022, the Government committed to provide updates to Parliament on the implementation of the Act every six months from commencement. I am pleased to share the first such update today.
The Act received Royal Assent on 6 December 2022, upon which part 3 of the Act came into force. Since the passage of the Act, the Government have worked closely with the relevant Northern Ireland Departments on its implementation.
On 22 May, the Government made the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022 (Commencement) Regulations 2023. This brought into force the provision of the Act for the purposes of establishing the Office of Identity and Cultural Expression, the Irish Language Commissioner and the Commissioner for the Ulster Scots and the Ulster British Tradition. This also brought into force the concurrent powers and powers of direction of the Secretary of State in relation to the Act.
In the Government’s view, the Act provides a framework for all of Northern Ireland’s identities, languages and cultures to be accommodated, protected and respected. This includes those who define themselves as “other” and those who form Northern Ireland’s ethnic and newcomer communities, consistent with the vision set out in New Decade, New Approach.
For these reasons, the Government remain committed to seeing the implementation of these New Decade, New Approach undertakings and will continue to work closely with Northern Ireland Departments on these matters. The Government will also continue to keep Parliament updated, in line with the assurances that we have made.