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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
07 July 2016
Volume 612

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Farming Businesses: Resilience

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1. What assistance the Government have given farming businesses to increase their resilience. [905713]

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We have put in place a range of measures to support our farmers and help build their resilience. Government investment in flood defence improvements will provide better protection for 1 million acres of agricultural land. We are investing in innovation, skills and capital items to boost the sector’s resilience, and we are working to introduce a dairy futures market to help farmers manage price volatility.

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Volatility in global markets and weather conditions often dramatically affects farmers’ incomes year on year, sometimes by up to 30%. What steps are the Government taking to help farmers manage that risk?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point and we have acted to deal with that problem. From April this year the Government extended tax averaging for farmers to five years, up from the previous two years, so that they can better offset good years against bad years. In addition, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a number of schemes, such as the time to pay scheme, which means that it shows forbearance to farmers who are suffering cash-flow difficulties.

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Eleven years ago this morning, terrorist attacks were unleashed on our city. We pay our respects today.

As an environmentalist, someone who campaigned in the aftermath of the floods, and a lover of the great outdoors, I am proud to represent Labour as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Many farming businesses depend on trade with the EU. Following the outcome of the referendum, the resilience of farming will be keenly tested. What immediate steps has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that trade relations with EU partners will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future?

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I welcome the hon. Lady and her colleagues to the Front Bench of this diverse Department, and I associate myself with her comments about the terrorist attacks.

Following the decision to leave the European Union, we are holding a number of meetings with officials to plan for our next steps on trade—indeed, we will have a meeting today to hold such discussions. It will be a matter for a new Prime Minister and the Cabinet that they put in place, but early thinking and planning work is going on across the Government.

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I am concerned that resilience was not planned for by the Minister in advance of the EU referendum. Trade and regulations for our food and farming industry are linked to the EU more than in any other sector, yet the Government’s cuts to DEFRA up to 2020 will total a 57%—yes, 57%—reduction in its budget. In the light of that, will the Minister explain how his Department will have capacity to analyse the impact of the EU referendum, build resilience, and negotiate the way forward?

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For the time being we remain in the European Union, and all existing arrangements continue. Only once we have concluded negotiations and left the European Union will we put future measures in place. On capacity in the civil service, some areas and some EU dossiers have a long-term horizon with which we will perhaps be less engaged and involved, and that will free up capacity for some of the planning work that we need for our own domestic policy.

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I record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for providing us with a taste of Colchester yesterday. One of his constituency’s soft fruit farmers emphasised his concern about his resilience, and his dependence on EU migrant labour. Are plans in place to ensure that farmers are supported should migrant labour be reduced?

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As my right hon. Friend will know, I have worked in the soft fruit industry, and I am familiar with the challenges that certain agricultural sectors face with seasonal labour. Ultimately, the decision that she refers to will be for a new Prime Minister, the Cabinet they choose, and the negotiations that they seek. In recent years we have had models such as seasonal agricultural worker schemes, and there are ways to ensure that the required labour is available.

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I tabled five written questions in the past week asking what assessment had been made of the impact of Brexit on a range of DEFRA-related areas, from air pollution to waste, water, rural payments, fisheries, food standards and food safety. I got one answer back that basically said that everything remains in place and the negotiations are up to the future Prime Minister, which to me shows a shocking degree of complacency. DEFRA, almost more than any other Department, will be affected by Brexit, and I am not reassured by what I have heard this morning that that work has started.

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I disagree with the hon. Lady. The Government put forward an assessment of the potential impacts of leaving the European Union, which was hotly debated during the referendum. Ultimately, the British public made an assessment of what they wanted to do, and the assessment is that they want to leave the EU. The job of the Government now is to implement that decision.

Endangered Species: Hunting Trophies

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2. What steps the Government are taking to prevent hunting trophies from threatened or endangered species being imported to the UK. [905714]

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The Government are absolutely clear that we will not allow the import of trophies from critically endangered species when it is unsustainable—tigers, for example. We have also increased the protection and controls on six other species, ranging from elephants to polar bears. We remain absolutely committed to banning the import of lion trophies unless we have significant improvements in lion conservation.

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I thank the Minister for that answer and the general thrust of it. Does he agree, however, that it is morally wrong to kill the most endangered species merely to put a trophy on the wall, and that it would make sense to look to ban more widely the importation of those trophies that come from the most endangered categories?

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I agree absolutely. All hon. Members would agree strongly that, if a species is critically endangered, it is not suitable to be hunted, let alone put on a wall as a trophy. We will look closely at scientific evidence across the range of endangered species. It will be extremely relevant to focus on that, with September and October being the time for the CITES conference in Johannesburg.

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Australia and France have both banned the use and import of lion products. What do they know that the Minister refuses to act upon?

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We are looking closely at what Australia and France are doing. We have been working on a common EU-US position in order to change practices in Africa. It makes a huge difference that we do this together as 700 million people in the EU and the US rather than trying to do it individually.

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Following the EU referendum vote, we have no idea how the EU action plan against wildlife trafficking will be implemented by the UK Government. Is the Minister in a position to provide any assurances to the House today?

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As my colleague the Minister of State has pointed out, the details of our position in relation to Europe will have to be determined by a future Prime Minister, but we played a very active role in drafting that plan and pushing for its contents. The hon. Lady will see in what we are doing in Vietnam our commitment to that plan. I reassure her that, certainly as long as I am in this position, the UK’s position is absolutely unequivocal.

Rural Development Programmes

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3. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on rural development programmes. [905715]

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6. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on rural development programmes. [905719]

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Until negotiations conclude and the UK leaves the EU, all existing arrangements remain in place, including rural development programmes across the UK. It will be for a new Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet to consider the future shape of rural development once the UK leaves the EU.

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The Minister may recall that Scotland voted to remain in the EU in the referendum. Will he commit that nobody in Scotland who benefited from the Scottish rural development programme will lose out on funding?

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As I have said, while we remain in the EU, all existing arrangements remain in place, including our current rural development programmes. Nothing changes until negotiations have been concluded and a new partnership with the EU is put in place.

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Agriculture plays a major part in Scotland’s £14 billion food and drink industry. Following the uncertainty created by the EU referendum result, what reassurances can the Minister give today to ease the concerns that the result has caused among Scotland’s farming communities?

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I can give farmers throughout the UK the reassurance that, for the time being, we remain in the EU, and all existing arrangements remain in place, including all existing support payments, until we leave the EU, and until a new type of partnership and a new domestic agriculture policy are put in place.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on the energy, enthusiasm and intelligence he brought to the leave campaign. Having met farmers in my constituency in Kettering before the vote, it was clear to me that the senior leadership of the National Farmers Union had signed up to “Project Fear” and was trying to scare farmers and rural dwellers into voting for remain. Now that the result has been decided—in Kettering, we voted overwhelmingly to leave—can we make sure that everyone involved in rural communities and farming talks up rural communities and farming, because we have a very bright future ahead of us?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. It is important, now the debate has concluded and the country has made its decision, that we move on and focus on next steps and the future. This week, I visited the Livestock Event and had meetings with many farmers. What I find interesting is that once we get past the initial shock—for some—of the decision, people engage with the detail of what might be possible in the future and become more excited about the potential for our future.

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Does the Minister agree that leaving the European Union will provide us with a tremendous opportunity to develop a tailor-made package of measures designed to support and help UK farmers? In fact, there is nothing to stop us starting to work on putting that package together right now.

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I can reassure him that while no decisions will be made until there is a new Prime Minister who has chosen a new Cabinet, the Department is working on options that might be presented to the new Prime Minister.

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One claim from some leave campaigners was that Brexit would lower food prices. Now that Brexit is the decision the country has made, will the Minister tell us what options are available to deliver them?

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Food prices are driven by a range of factors, most importantly energy prices, developments in weather around the world and exchange rates. Those are the key drivers of our food prices. I have always made clear that while food prices go up and down—they are down 7% over the past two years—they are driven by bigger events than EU membership.

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Many farmers and landowners are about to sign higher-level stewardship contracts, but there is a dilemma for Natural England. Many are 10-year contracts and in these uncertain EU times they are being put on hold. Will the Minister give assurances that these precious pieces of environmental biodiversity will not be at risk and that something will happen to protect them?

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My hon. Friend puts her finger on an important point, which is that there will be areas and elements where we need continuity. We are having discussions across Government about how to ensure we secure that continuity without prejudicing what a future Prime Minister might want to do.

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Meirionnydd is the Sir Nawdd-Feature County at the Royal Welsh agricultural show this month and I hope Ministers will be able to attend. Will the Minister reassure the farmers of Meirionnydd and Wales by explaining what discussions he has had with colleagues in the Welsh Government regarding the funding of rural development and agricultural schemes in Wales?

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I have regular discussions with my opposite numbers in the devolved Administrations. I hope I will be able to meet the new Welsh Administration when I next go to Council in Europe, which is in about two weeks’ time, and discuss these issues in more detail. I also hope to attend the Royal Welsh show this year.

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I welcome the shadow Minister and her team to their place. Will the Minister confirm that his plans to ensure the fair allocation of the convergence uplift are on track? Will he tell us when Scottish farmers should expect to receive increased payments?

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We have always had a commitment to review the allocation of common agricultural policy budgets—the so-called convergence uplift, as the hon. Gentleman refers to it—during 2016. I had a meeting and early discussions with NFU Scotland in January. Now that the Scottish elections are over and we have passed the referendum purdah, I would expect to be able to progress those discussions with the Scottish Government in the autumn.

Data: Public Availability

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4. What progress her Department and its agencies have made on making data publicly available in the last 12 months. [905716]

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Last summer, I set a target for DEFRA of releasing 8,000 datasets. By this summer, I am delighted to say that we have achieved 11,000 datasets, which means that more than a third of Government data is DEFRA data. This is bringing real benefits to people, providing information about air quality, better flooding data and landscape data for farmers and architects.

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As the Calder Valley assesses how to spend the much appreciated funding for flood defences, many community groups want to contribute to alleviating floods—doing things such as planting trees, building dams and upland management, to name but a few. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that information on all water flows held by the Environment Agency and Natural England will be made readily available to help community groups to decide where the schemes should be placed?

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My hon. Friend has done a fantastic job in championing the Calder Valley. I want to ensure that all that information is available so that we can manage whole catchments, including the Calder, for flood defences. What happened over last year’s very difficult floods was that more information was made available to the public. For example, there were 19.5 million hits on our flood information service website. What I want to do is make even more information available to the public.

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Does the Secretary of State keep data on how many scientists are working in agricultural technology and on how much money is spent on agricultural technology and research? Is she not worried that, with ChemChina taking over Syngenta and the amazing Jealott’s Hill research capacity, there is a real danger of our research space being eroded?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that our research base and our agri-tech are vitally important. That is the future of agriculture, with more precision farming and better use of data. I am determined to do all we can to protect and grow that. That is why we are investing £160 million in our agri-tech budget. Of course we need to plan even more for the future.

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Has the Department made available up-to-date data on the effect of the temporary neonicotinoid ban on both agricultural production and the health of bees, especially honey bees? If not, when will that data be available?

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We are looking at further research in this area. More research is due to be published and there are already many published pieces of research. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the decision on the use of neonicotinoids in the UK is made by the independent pesticides committee. It is made by Ministers, but we follow the scientific advice of that committee, whose minutes are fully published.

Regional Food and Drink

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5. What recent steps the Great British Food Unit has taken to promote regional food and drink. [905718]

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7. What recent steps the Great British Food Unit has taken to promote regional food and drink. [905720]

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10. What progress her Department has made on promoting regional food and drink. [905723]

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We launched the Great British Food Unit in January to promote our fantastic British produce around the world. In April, I was in the US working to open the market for beef and lamb, as well as promoting fantastic British products such as the classic gin and tonic.

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That sounds good, but for me it is a bit early for gin and tonic! Food and drink exports, not least the world-famous Cheshire cheese, are very important for the Cheshire economy. Given this country’s decision to leave the European Union, how important is the role of the Great British Food Unit in helping farmers in my constituency and indeed throughout the UK to get the necessary export markets?

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In my opinion, it is never too early for a gin and tonic! I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Now that the British people have made the decision to leave the EU, the Great British Food Unit is even more important. We already have missions planned for the Gulf, China and Japan to open more markets for fantastic British food. I am going to increase the resources going into the Great British Food Unit to make sure that we turbo-charge our efforts to export more British food right around the world.

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Does my right hon. Friend accept that Essex is home to some of the finest food, drink and countryside in the nation? What does she think is the link between food and tourism, and what more can be done to promote it?

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We know that for a third of all visitors, food is a major factor in deciding where to visit. It is hugely important, which is why DEFRA is backing food tourism. We recently backed the “tour culinaire” to Yorkshire, which accompanied the cycle race and featured fantastic Yorkshire products such as liquorice. I would be delighted to discuss with my right hon. Friend how we could do something similar in Essex in respect of fantastic products such as Tiptree strawberry jam.

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The Secretary of State will be delighted to learn that, since she visited Gloucester Services in February, it has been given both a sustainability award and the first Royal Institute of British Architects award ever given to a motorway services station. Famously, while she was there she enjoyed a Gloucester Old Spot sausage for breakfast. I hope that she will now confirm that, during our renegotiations with the European Union, she will seek to extend the protections given to Gloucester Old Spot meat, Single Gloucester cheese, and other great British foods.

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I thank my hon. Friend for a very enjoyable visit to Gloucester Services. I am delighted that its chief executive, Sarah Dunning, has agreed to be one of our food pioneers, promoting Great British food around Britain and around the world. I look forward to talking to my hon. Friend about how we can protect these great products when they are not just a matter for the European Union, but are more widely known around the world.

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I call Nick Smith.

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Cheers, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] I am glad that the food unit is showing success. However, while the Secretary of State boasts about her support for British food, DEFRA headquarters sources almost half its food from overseas, and other Departments are falling even further behind. Why is DEFRA not ensuring that Departments back our great British food?

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We absolutely are ensuring that Departments are backing British food. For example, more than 90% of the dairy products sourced by the Government come from the United Kingdom. There are, of course, some products, such as coffee, that we cannot yet produce in the UK, although now that we are able to produce our own aubergines, tomatoes and chillies, I am sure we are not far away from that.

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One of the items on the Great British Food website is the promotion of the EU protected food name scheme. According to the site, 73 products in the United Kingdom are protected under the scheme. What will replace it once the UK Government have dragged us out of the European Union?

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I think the number of protected food names has risen to 74, but the website may not have been updated.

This is an extremely important issue, and it is one of the issues on which we are working at the moment. However, I hope that we will develop a British protected food names status in the future.

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Armagh apples, Comber potatoes, Irish whiskey and Lough Neagh eels are just some of the protected food names that we have in Northern Ireland. What discussions has the Great British Food Unit had with Food NI to help promote those great foods and drinks throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

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I was delighted to visit Belfast and the huge show there, and to taste some of those products for myself. They are truly outstanding, and I am working closely with the Northern Irish Minister on promoting them throughout the world. They were heavily represented on our recent trade mission to China, and we will certainly be doing more work on that in the future.

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As a Member has just left the Chamber while exchanges on the question to which he contributed were ongoing, may I gently point out to the House that Members should stay in the Chamber until all the exchanges on their question, or the question to which they contributed, have been completed? It is quite an elementary courtesy.

Badger Culls

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8. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of recent badger culls. [905721]

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During 2015, badger control operations in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset were all successful in meeting their targets. According to the Chief Veterinary Officer’s advice, the results show that industry-led badger control can deliver the level of effectiveness that will enable us to be confident of achieving disease control benefits.

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Badger culling in England costs about £7,000 per badger killed. In Wales, the badger vaccination programme costs about £700 per badger vaccinated. Lord Krebs, who is a renowned expert on the subject, has continually said that

“rolling out culling as a national policy to control TB in cattle is not really credible.”

Does the Minister accept that?

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TB is costing the country £100 million a year, and that is why we have to act. The veterinary advice is clear—we cannot have a coherent strategy to eradicate TB without also tackling the disease in the wildlife population. Following advice from the World Health Organisation, the vaccination operations in Wales, as in England, have been suspended because there is a lack of vaccine.

Farmers: Support Payments

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9. If the Government will underwrite basic payment scheme payments at current levels until the end of 2020. [905722]

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Until we leave the EU it will be business as usual; farmers will continue to receive support payments. We are developing options for future domestic policy. Ultimately this will be a decision for the new Prime Minister. I am working very closely with organisations such as the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association, and environmental groups, which will have a role to play in helping us develop these policies.

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I am very pleased to hear that groups such as the NFU and the CLA are going to be involved in finding a way out of this mess. Can the Minister guarantee that the CAP subsidy up to 2020 will be underwritten not just for the basic payment scheme but for pillar 2 schemes—agri-environment schemes?

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As I said, until we leave the EU those schemes will be in place, but when leaving takes place, after article 50 is triggered and the process is gone through, this will be a decision for the new Prime Minister. It is not a decision I can make at this stage.

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It is not only important to keep the basic farm payment going but vital that we get it fixed, because the Rural Payments Agency is still having big problems. Lots of the payments to farmers have not been ratified and not properly made. What is actually happening with the Rural Payments Agency?

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I can tell my hon. Friend that 99.6% of farmers have now received a payment. This year, for the first time, the system has had prepayment cheques to make sure that we did not overpay farmers and then end up having to claw back the money. That means that there will be a reconciliation period when we make the adjustments—that is taking place at the moment—so that farmers who had a problem in their application will receive the extra payment over the next few months. We are fully on track for payment on time next year.

Food Prices

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11. What assessment she has made of recent trends in food prices. [905724]

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DEFRA monitors retail food prices through the consumer prices index. Year on year, food prices have continued to fall, with a 2.8% fall in the year to May 2016. We also monitor trends in household expenditure on food through the family food survey. Following a period of higher food price inflation, retail food prices have fallen by 7% since their peak in February 2014.

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Last week I visited a very successful food supplier in my constituency that told me that it was already putting up its prices because of changes in the exchange rate hitting imports, and predicted food inflation of up to 8% within months, following the leave vote. Clearly there are real impacts now. How will the Minister respond to a spike in UK food prices, which is a crucial issue for consumers?

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As I explained earlier, one of the factors that has an influence on food prices is exchange rates. A number of analysts have been saying that in fact the pound has been unsustainably high against the euro for some time, caused by concerns about the weaknesses of the eurozone, and that the correction we have seen was overdue anyway. Exchange rates go up and down, but the crucial thing is that we have a competitive food supply industry in this country.

Apprenticeships

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12. What recent steps the Government have taken to work with industry to increase the number of apprenticeships in the food, farming and agri-technology sector. [905725]

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The Government are committed to trebling the number of apprentices in the food and farming sector by 2020. I am delighted that the Skills Minister has committed to the apprenticeship levy being used by major organisations such as supermarkets and food manufacturers through the food supply chain, so that they can help small and medium-sized enterprises and farmers to take on apprentices.

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As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on bees, I got a tremendous buzz from welcoming apprentices of British bee farmers who are completing an innovative three-year programme in an industry with sales of over £100 million per year. What steps are the Government taking to encourage more honey providers to take on apprentices?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Honey is an important product for our country, generating over £100 million. As I have said, the apprenticeships that are created through the apprenticeship levy can be found throughout the food chain. DEFRA has its own beekeeper apprentice helping to maintain our hives at Noble House—DEFRA’s headquarters—where we produce our own Whitehall honey.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [905703]

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Two weeks ago, the British people voted to leave the European Union. I will be ensuring that food, farming and the environment have a strong voice in the exit negotiations and in establishing our new domestic policies. Until we leave the EU, it is business as usual for farmers and the environment, and I am meeting relevant organisations to assure them of that. DEFRA’s work continues: we will shortly be publishing the national flood resilience review; we will be continuing with our Great British Food campaign and our work to open up new markets; and we will be developing 14 local environment plans.

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Following the devastating Boxing day floods last year, will my right hon. Friend tell me and my constituents what long-term plans are being put in place to protect low-lying villages in my constituency, such as Methley, Mickletown, Allerton Bywater and Woodlesford?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has been an assiduous advocate of his constituency, ensuring that towns and villages in his area are not adversely affected by flood defences upstream. We will be working on an overall plan for the River Aire catchment, through which we will manage the overall river flow instead of looking at individual places. That will form part of our national flood resilience review, which we will be announcing shortly.

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The horticultural industry is particularly vulnerable following the leave vote due to the high proportion of EU seasonal workers in the sector. How will the Secretary of State ensure that our crops are harvested in this uncertain period by securing continued labour from the EU?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question and welcome her to the Dispatch Box. She was a fantastic advocate for her constituents during the difficult flooding in York, and I look forward to working with her.

As for agricultural workers, my constituency is a great producer of salad vegetables and onions, and I fully understand the importance of EU workers to our agricultural industry. It will be one of the key things that DEFRA will work on, putting the case across Government to ensure that we continue to have that supply of workers.

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It is evident from the Secretary of State’s responses that her Department did not make contingency plans for a leave vote, failing in its duty to protect not only one of our major industries, but those who work in it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that all EU citizens working in farming can remain in the UK, which the vote on yesterday’s Opposition day motion called for, and that she has already made representations to the Home Office?

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It is absolutely clear that it is business as usual while we remain members of the EU and that those workers will continue to work in those areas. The reality is that I cannot make decisions for a future Prime Minister. That is the fundamental issue here and that is why my job over the coming months is to be a strong voice for farming and the environment in the overall negotiations.

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T2. Following the floods in Carlisle, I am concerned that a group of leaseholders will not be able to get insurance under Flood Re. They consist of 68 long leaseholders with a management company as the freeholder with responsibility for insurance. That management company has not been able to obtain insurance so far. Will the Minister look into the issue and consider amending the legislation if necessary? [905704]

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In addition to welcoming the shadow Secretary of State to her position, may I also welcome my friend the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) to his position?

As for the flooding in Carlisle, my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) is a great champion of his constituency. If there is an individual leasehold property, it would be covered with affordable insurance under Flood Re. Unfortunately, when there is a larger number of properties, such as the more than 60 properties that the landlord has in this case, it would be classified as commercial insurance and would require a bespoke, tailored commercial insurance product from the insurance industry. I am happy to look at the individual case, and the British Insurance Brokers Association is also coming up with tailored products exactly to address such commercial risks.

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I am grateful to the Minister for his erudite treatise.

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T4. Scotland’s food and drink industry exports £725 million-worth of produce to the European Union. Given the disastrous Brexit vote, what impact does the Minister believe any restrictions on the seasonal workforce will have on the industry north of the border? [905706]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It shows why we are turbo-charging the work of the Great British Food Unit, to make sure that we open up new markets and get more of our products out into the world, as well as into the European Union. I am clear that agriculture and food has major export growth potential, which is why I am having a meeting today with the Business Secretary to talk about our trade negotiations and making sure that food is a key part of those.

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T3. Our farms have some of the highest livestock welfare standards in the world, so how will that be recognised in upcoming trade negotiations? We will be doing our farmers a disservice if cheap imported food produced with very little regard for livestock welfare comes into the UK. [905705]

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware that we have a manifesto commitment to recognise animal welfare standards in our trade negotiations. That is particularly important in sectors such as poultry meat during Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership discussions, and I can assure him that we make these representations to the European Commission.

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T8. The Government decided against using DEFRA funding to implement a clean air zone in Manchester. Greater Manchester is expected to miss our 2020 air quality targets, because of the high levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter caused by road transport. Will the Government look again at a scrappage scheme for older vehicles and at incentives to encourage the use of hybrid and electric cars? [905711]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. According to our projections, Greater Manchester will hit, by being below, the 40 mg target, which is why it has not been included in the mandatory clean air zones. We are shortly about to consult on those, but the legislation is in place for Greater Manchester to put in that clean air zone if it wishes to do so; I believe in devolution, and surely it is a matter for the local council if it wants to take that forward.

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T5. The recent Environmental Audit Committee report on the important subject of soil highlighted that a significant proportion of our agricultural land will be become unproductive within a generation. Will the Minister therefore meet me to discuss the sustainable management of soils, so that emphasis is put on treating them as ecosystems, rather than as growing mediums? A monitoring scheme would really help. [905707]

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My hon. Friend correctly says that soils are not just for short-term production; they are incredibly important stores of organic matter. There is a lot that we can do, and are doing, on precision farming and shelter belts. Rothamsted Research is also doing work on this issue, but I would be delighted to meet her and to make sure that this is central to our 25-year plan.

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More than half the population of England live within an hour of a national park, but many young people and their families struggle to get to them because rural bus services have been hit by devastating cuts and eye-watering fare rises. This is Catch the Bus week, so can the Secretary of State tell us what discussions she has had with the Transport Secretary about making our countryside accessible by public transport?

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DEFRA takes that very seriously; we have a responsibility for rural affairs. We have very regular contact with the Department for Transport on this issue, and we supported it on developing community bus schemes. There is much more we can do. As the hon. Lady has pointed out, without communications connections, which buses are central to, rural areas will be disadvantaged.

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T6. On 27 April, the Prime Minister confirmed to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) that the Government are working on a flood insurance plan for the many small and medium-sized businesses in flood-risk areas that are excluded from insurance cover. Will the Minister update the House on how those plans are going? [905708]

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My hon. Friend has been an extraordinary champion for his constituency—indeed, he had a late Christmas day celebration a couple of days ago. I saw at first hand with him the devastation for businesses in Calder Valley, ranging from furniture shops to carpentry manufacturers. The problem on commercial insurance is, of course, that different businesses have different attitudes towards interruption payments and excesses. However, that is being addressed through the BIBA process and, most importantly, through the investment in flood defences.

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I fully understand the 2009 cut-off date for Flood Re, of which developers and local authorities should have been fully aware, but what more can the Minister do to make it legally binding to inform purchasers that they will not be eligible for Flood Re? What about properties that are downhill of new developments that have subsequently become more at risk as a result of developments built since 2009?

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Fundamentally, the answer to these issues is to ensure that we have good flood defences and that we build resilience in housing, but it is absolutely correct to say that we need to ensure that transparency is part of that. Somebody buying a house needs to know that it is at flood risk so that they can make an intelligent decision—ideally, it would be not to buy that house.

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T7. The excellent annual Trawden show takes place on Sunday 14 August. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Trawden and District Agricultural Society on organising the event, and does she agree that agriculture shows in communities play a key role in promoting agriculture to a wider audience? [905710]

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Agriculture shows are fantastic. I have been to a large number this year, culminating in the fantastic Norfolk show last week. I want to give my compliments to the Trawden show and wish it all the best for 14 August.

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Literally thousands of EU nationals play an indispensable role in fish processing and agriculture businesses in my constituency, yet this week the Government have failed to give any reassurance that these people will be allowed to live and work here post-Brexit. Will the Secretary of State and her Ministers make every effort to use all their influence with the Home Secretary to provide some certainty at an early stage for these people and these businesses?

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As I said in response to an earlier question, I agree that the EU workers are an important part of both the agriculture and fishing sectors, and we are working on this at the moment.

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Finally and very briefly, Mark Menzies.

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The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a very important visitor centre at Fairhaven lake in my constituency. The Ribble estuary, one of the most important estuaries anywhere in the UK, attracts about 270,000 birds per year. What are the Government doing to ensure that local children are engaging with the RSPB and gaining bird knowledge?

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That is a fantastic result—270,000 birds. The Environment Agency and Natural England are working very closely with the RSPB in the Ribble estuary. Connecting children to nature is absolutely essential. If we are to protect nature for the future, people need to love it. The key is to ensure that children not only access nature, but understand it and respond to it.

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Order. We come now to questions to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), representing the Church Commissioners, and to the right hon. Member for South West Devon—[Interruption.] I mean the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter)—it is only a matter of time—representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Out-of-school Education Settings

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1. What discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on plans to regulate out-of-school education settings. [905693]

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3. What discussions the Church of England has had with the Government on plans to regulate out-of-school education settings. [905695]

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Representatives of the Church of England have taken part in detailed consultations with the Government over the proposals to regulate out-of-school settings. I recently led a delegation of Back Benchers to a meeting at the Cabinet Office and we learned that this policy remains under review. I am hopeful that something will emerge that meets the key concerns that many of us have voiced.

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What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Government regarding the new portionality and the current role of existing regulations, such as data barring service checks, in out-of-school settings?.

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This is important because the Church of England provides 500,000 children with out-of-school education activities, which involves 80,000 volunteers. However, as hon. Members will know, anyone who works with children in out-of-school settings has to be subject to a careful check—the Disclosure and Barring Service check. There is no suggestion that our representations to Government in any way undermine our determination that children should be well protected, but we believe that they are in what the Church of England provides.

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Religious organisations across Pendle, including Islamic education centres in Brierfield and Nelson, and the Barnoldswick Gospel Mission, which currently runs a Sunday school, have expressed concerns that the Government plans will be restrictive and prevent them from expanding their current educational work. In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with Government, has she received any further indications of a time scale for when these proposals may be brought forward?

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I am as anxious as my hon. Friend to have a rapid outcome on this decision, but, until a new Prime Minister is in place, Ministers are saying clearly that the final decision cannot be made. We received an assurance from the Minister for Schools that the Government have no intention of seeking to regulate religion or to interfere in parents’ right to teach children about their faith and their heritage.

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Does the right hon. Lady agree that any Church activities—Sunday schools, Brownies, or Boys or Girls Brigades, to name a few examples—must not be unduly affected by the Government’s plan for out-of-school regulation?

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We impressed on Ministers that the kind of out-of-school activities that the Church provides, which the hon. Gentleman has just cited, are subject to rigorous checking processes within the Church. Indeed, we reminded Ministers that providing such out-of-school education in a domestic setting is governed by childminding regulations.

Human Trafficking

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2. What recent steps have been taken by the Church of England to tackle human trafficking. [905694]

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The Bishop of Derby has been at the forefront of working to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery within the Church. I had the pleasure of serving with him on the pre-legislative scrutiny Joint Committee on the draft Modern Slavery Bill. He has set up and been part of the Santa Marta process to improve collaboration between Churches and police forces in the detection of instances of human trafficking.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. What plans does the Church have to roll out that scheme to the rest of England. With Gatwick in my constituency, I would certainly like to see that.

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We all understand my hon. Friend’s concern because of his constituency’s location. The Church is building on the Bishop of Derby’s work and intends to launch the Clewer initiative against modern-day slavery in the autumn. It will be designed to combat modern-day slavery across England and provide parishes and dioceses with strategies to detect instances of modern-day slavery.

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One of the most powerful ways to get any message across is from the personal testimony of victims. A lot of people are realising that human trafficking is hidden in local communities, so what efforts is the Church making to identify and encourage Christian victims of human trafficking to bear witness in their churches and communities?

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When I served on the Joint Committee on the draft Modern Slavery Bill, the hidden nature of trafficking became apparent, and Churches can lift the lid on the prevalence of trafficking in the society in which we live. It is incumbent on us all to have our eyes and ears open and to ask questions when we suspect that someone may be being exploited as result of trafficking.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Referendum Manifestos

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4. If the Electoral Commission will make an assessment of the merits of requiring lead campaign groups in referendum campaigns to publish manifestos. [905696]

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Thank you for your earlier endorsement, Mr Speaker.

The Electoral Commission is collecting information to inform its statutory report on the EU referendum, and I will pass the hon. Lady’s suggestion to it for its consideration.

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Rapidly after the referendum results, central claims on both sides evaporated—the extra spending for the NHS, the emergency punitive Budget, and the UK being the fifth largest economy—so surely, if we are ever to conduct referendums again in this country, should not the lead campaigns on both sides publish measurable claims in a manifesto, so that truth is not the casualty of the scramble for votes?

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The Electoral Commission has no desire whatsoever—it certainly has no such power at the moment—to sit in judgment on the truthfulness of any claim made in any campaign. The hon. Lady’s idea that lead campaigns should produce manifestos is an interesting one that I will pass on to the commission for its consideration of the referendum overall.

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May I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that the Electoral Commission does not waste its time carrying out such an assessment? Manifestos are for political parties and, by definition, a referendum is on a single issue.

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My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, but the Electoral Commission will carry out an assessment of the conduct of the EU referendum, including a survey of people’s levels of satisfaction of several aspects of the referendum, and that will be produced in the report, which will be made available to hon. Members.

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In advance of the Scottish independence referendum, the Government published “Scotland’s Future”—a comprehensive White Paper and blueprint for how the transition to independence would be managed. The complete lack of a coherent plan from the leave campaign and the chaos that has ensued has highlighted a huge disparity. What is the Government’s position on manifestos for referendums?

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Certainly, prior to 9 September, I do not speak for the Government, and therefore it is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

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As my hon. Friend will know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) pointed out, referendums are about settling a single question, not electing a Government on a manifesto. However, one thing that many people do want is facts. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be worth the Electoral Commission looking at whether a fact checker-style website could be a useful source of information, given the claims made in the Scottish and EU referendums?

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It is important that the Electoral Commission remains independent in our political debates, and it has no desire whatever to sit in judgment on the truthfulness of any claim or counterclaim. It is important, however, that all sides are responsible in the claims they make, and there are various independent means of verifying claims, but that is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

Church Commissioners

Lords Spiritual

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5. If the Church of England will make it its policy that bishops sitting in the House of Lords do not participate in debates or vote on legislation that relates to Scotland. [905697]

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I was slightly surprised by this question. I perfectly appreciate that the SNP is opposed to the House of Lords on ideological grounds, but I was unaware that it had adopted a narrow position on the Lords Spiritual. I expect the irony is not lost on the hon. Gentleman that he is exercising his right as a Member of this House representing a Scottish constituency to scrutinise the affairs of the Church of England—a scrutiny, I would add, that I welcome.

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I would point out that legislation on English votes for English laws means that I, as a Member of this House, cannot vote on issues that pertain to England only. [Interruption.] No, I cannot—my vote is discounted. I would therefore ask the right hon. Lady to reconsider the position on the Lords Spiritual participating in proceedings on legislation that affects Scotland.

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All Members of the other place are able to take part in proceedings on legislation put before Parliament, and bishops take that duty very seriously. They are independent, and they do not take the party Whip, so these things are up to each of them. At least two of them have family links to Scotland, which may give them a reason to have a closer interest. This may be the moment for me to come out in the Chamber as a half-Scot—my maiden name was Cormack, from the Clan Buchanan. I think that demonstrates the point that there are Members in all parties and in both Houses who have a great love for Scotland.

Women Bishops

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6. What steps the Church of England is taking to encourage the appointment of more women bishops. [905698]

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7. What plans the Church of England has to promote women in leadership positions. [905699]

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As the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has assiduously asked me this question on several occasions, I am delighted to be able to inform him that a further six women have been appointed as bishops: the diocesan Bishop of Newcastle, with a seat in another place, and five suffragan bishops—of Taunton, Aston, Sherborne, Repton and Dorking.

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I thank the right hon. Lady for that excellent answer. As she mentioned, this is a bit of a campaign on my part. I want to fill the churches, and one of the ways we do that is by having more women bishops. However, how many are there out of the total number? What is the percentage? There are some very good women who have not been promoted yet.

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This is a campaign the hon. Gentleman is well able to take some credit for, and I am sure my predecessor is too. Some 18 suffragan bishops have been appointed, eight of whom have been women, which is 45% of all appointments.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the new Bishop of Sherborne, Karen Gorham, to her place? Her first official engagement was a confirmation service in Lytchett Minster parish church, at which, I am proud to say, my son was one of the candidates. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that Karen Gorham’s appointment will encourage other women into leadership positions in the Church of England?

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Yes, indeed, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his son’s confirmation. An increasing number of younger women have indeed entered the priesthood. Some 47% of the clergy ordained in 2015 were female, and 22% of the women ordained in 2015 were under 40.

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I hope the whole House wishes to congratulate Tomlinson junior. That is now on the record.

Disadvantaged Communities

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8. What work the Church of England is undertaking to help improve the life chances of people in disadvantaged communities. [905701]

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The Church of England’s House of Bishops recently published a new discussion paper, “Thinking afresh about welfare”, which is intended to help discussion across the Church as it engages with the Government’s life chances agenda.

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The Church of England and other denominations and faith groups have always led the way in helping our most vulnerable people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that faith groups and voluntary organisations are ideally placed to help the Government improve life chances for all, including the homeless, young people and people with disabilities?

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Yes. The diocese of Truro is particularly committed to improving the life chances of children and young people living there, including on the Isles of Scilly. That is lived out principally through the schools, which are committed to building character and improving employment skills. However, I did just notice that there is a homeless breakfast initiative in Penzance, so these efforts are not confined to children, but also extend to adults.

Historic Churches: Toilet Provision

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9. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the adequacy of toilet provision for visitors to historic churches. [905702]

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The Church Buildings Council has been promoting through its “Open and Sustainable Churches” initiative how parishes can adapt their buildings for wider community use. Most schemes for work in church buildings that the Church Buildings Council now see will include installing an accessible toilet if there is not one already present.

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Let us hear the views of Mr Mann on the matter of toilets.

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Mr Speaker, imagine that you came to visit the historic Scrooby church to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers, and, as a modern man, drank tea or coffee on the way, which people did not do when these historic churches were built. It would be easy to be caught short. Many of these great historic churches lack toilets. Should not a fund be created somewhere to allow visitors the comfort break that may be required, given that we live in a modern coffee and tea-drinking era?

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The House is very expectant. We really want to hear this answer.

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I am delighted to be able to say that the Church is making great progress with the provision of the facilities that the hon. Gentleman describes. Currently, 55% of the 31 listed Church of England churches in his constituency have installed new toilet and kitchen facilities.