House of Commons
Thursday 6 February 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Organised Waste Crime
Waste crime blights local communities and our environment and this Government are determined to tackle it. Over the past six years, we have invested £60 million in measures to achieve that. Last month, we launched a joint unit for waste crime, led by the Environment Agency, and including the National Crime Agency, HMRC and the police. This new unit will help us crack down on serious and organised crime in the waste sector.
Fly-tipping in particular is an issue that costs our local councils and landowners hundreds of thousands pounds annually to clear up, with rural communities particularly affected. Just last week, the village of Austrey in my constituency was targeted yet again. What additional resources and powers can we give our local authorities and police to eradicate this scourge once and for all?
I fully appreciate how strongly my hon. Friend’s constituents feel about that issue, as do mine in Barnet. We are giving local authorities additional powers through our Environment Bill to tackle fly-tipping. We have also already enhanced their powers to search and seize vehicles, which may be involved in this menace, and we have granted them power to issue fixed penalty notices, and I encourage them to use those powers.
I welcome the Minister’s answer, but I must tell her that landfill tax fraud is a multi-million pound business. From my experience in the north-east of England, where there is some good co-operation going on between various agencies, the problem is with HMRC, which will not investigate unless a certain threshold is hit. I asked for feedback on prosecutions in one high-profile case that was activated four years ago and found that, to date, nothing has happened.
That is one reason we are bringing together the relevant agencies in this new joint unit. They include HMRC, which is absolutely determined to crack down on tax fraud and evasion of all sorts. The right hon. Gentleman has his point on the record, and I am sure that the issue will be raised in the new joint unit.
Fly-tipping ranges massively from lorry loads of hospital waste to a sofa. Farmers are then expected to dispose of that waste at their own cost. We quite rightly welcome what the Secretary of State says about taking lorries, vans and cars away from people, because we really must stop this crime.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are determined that our new joint unit to tackle this issue will ensure that those who are responsible for waste crime of all sorts, including fly-tipping, pay the price for what they are doing and are held to account.
Fly-tipping is a major issue in my area, not least because of changes in policy from North Lanarkshire Council. One way of stopping such crimes is by increasing the recycling rate and targeting particular sectors, such as the construction sector, which has a particularly bad problem with waste pollution. Will the Secretary of State outline potential areas such as training staff in those sectors to ensure that they are aware of how to recycle properly?
Of course, training in this area is very important. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as far as England is concerned, our new Environment Bill contains an extensive list of measures to improve rates of recycling, and yes, we hope that that will be part of a wider strategy to cut down on waste crime and ensure that more of our waste is recycled, and that all of it is treated appropriately.
Air Quality in London
The Mayor of London is responsible for air quality in the capital and has reserved powers under part IV of the Environment Act 1995 to reflect that. Although the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not had any recent discussions with the Mayor of London on air quality, our doughty DEFRA officials are in regular contact with the Greater London Assembly.
I also wish to welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I know that she is already a strong voice in her area, and is obviously indicating that she will continue to be so.
My constituency has some of the worst air quality in London. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Mayor of London needs to do more to improve air quality, given that currently only 2% of London buses have been converted to electric and only 10% of the 2 million trees that he promised have actually been planted?
My hon. Friend’s question demonstrates how strong a voice she will be in this place. I must reiterate that the Mayor of London is responsible for air quality in the capital and has reserved powers under the 1995 Act to do this work. A great deal of money has been committed to help with that work, especially the retrofitting of buses, but I would not underestimate the challenge posed by air quality in our cities, especially London.
Small and Medium-sized Food Producers
The Secretary of State holds regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the Government’s work to help small and medium- sized enterprises. Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing industry—bigger than automotive and aerospace combined. It is worth more than £100 billion per year and is geographically dispersed, which means it brings wealth to every corner of our nation.
What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that local British foods, which are some of the finest in the world, continue to benefit from a fair, competitive and transparent food supply chain post-Brexit?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Every Member will have examples of successful local food manufacturers. In her constituency, we have of course Samworth Brothers, a highly successful large business, and many other smaller enterprises. I congratulate her on having secured for her area the status of designated manufacturing zone. Government procurement rules encourage the local sourcing of food, and the requirements of some protected food name designations will also require food to be sourced locally.
What is the Department doing, and what discussions has it had, about giving support to those small independent shellfish producers on the west coast of Scotland who, because of Brexit, are about to be put at a huge competitive disadvantage to their Northern Irish neighbours?
I hold regular meetings with the shellfish industry. As the hon. Gentleman will know, my constituency is in Cornwall, where we have a large crab and scallop industry. The political declaration on our future relationship with the EU envisages zero-zero tariffs on all goods.
Last week, the Secretary of State followed in the Minister’s footsteps, visiting Cleethorpes and the neighbouring constituency of Grimsby, where she saw some of the fine seafood processors there. Can I urge her and the Minister to continue the support for that industry and to give it an absolute assurance that fish supplies will continue without any hitch?
I very much enjoyed my visit to the seafood village in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I look forward to visiting that area and Grimsby more generally again in the future. Our fishing industry will have many opportunities as we leave the European Union and depart from relative stability, but for our fish processors in constituencies such as his it is also important that we continue the flow of trade from countries such as Iceland and Norway.
Imported Agricultural Goods
As we set out in our manifesto, we are committed to upholding our high standards of environmental protection, food safety and animal welfare. Now we have left the EU, our high standards, including import requirements, continue to apply. We will not dilute our standards, or put the UK’s biosecurity at risk, in our future trade negotiations.
My constituents benefit from the glorious countryside of Northumberland and County Durham—landscapes shaped by small-scale farmers. Those farmers would be devastated by unfair competition from the American agro-industrial machine, with its lower animal welfare, food and environmental standards. The Secretary of State talks a good talk and reads a good brief, but she will not put anything into law, so will she now unequivocally condemn any Government who trade away our high food, environmental and animal welfare standards?
I can assure the hon. Member that we will not trade away our high standards of environmental protection, animal welfare or food safety. We will make sure that our trade negotiations work for our whole country, including the farmers she mentioned. I met farmers in Northumberland only a few days ago and had those very conversations.
On Monday, the Secretary of State heard from both Opposition MPs and MPs on her own Benches that she had to put our high environmental standards into law to prevent US agriculture from undercutting them in any trade negotiations. Now that a few days have passed since that debate, has she reflected on the fact that there is cross-party support for putting those promises into law and will she do the right thing and put them in the Agriculture Bill?
I reiterate what we said in a debate last week: our high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards are already in law, including legislating to prevent the importation of chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef, and our manifesto commits us to continuing to defend robustly those standards in future trade negotiations.
I am afraid that is not a good enough answer from the Environment Secretary, because unless there is a specific clause in the Agriculture Bill that guarantees that there will be no undercutting of British farmers by imported US agriculture in particular—produce grown to lower animal welfare and environmental standards—no one will believe a word that the Environment Secretary has to say. The Trade Secretary is today publishing a document that will apparently lock those standards into law, so if it is good enough for the Trade Secretary, why is it not good enough for the Environment Secretary to put the same commitment into law?
As I have said, those commitments are already in law, and the Government will defend them in our trade negotiations. There is a cross-party consensus in this House that we value our high standards. We will continue with those high standards; we will not compromise them in trade negotiations.
As I have said, we will ensure that all food coming into this country meets our high sanitary and phytosanitary standards and our high standards of food safety. We will not under any circumstances compromise biosecurity or human health in our trade negotiations.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s and the Government’s commitment to maintaining high food, welfare and health standards, but can she update the House on what plans there are for a food standards commission, as requested by the National Farmers Union of Scotland?
I have discussed that with the National Farmers Union, and there is real merit in its proposal. We continue to consider it, but I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that, whatever the mechanism, we will engage very closely with farmers and other stakeholders as we take forward our trade negotiations.
Can my right hon Friend put the House at ease and confirm that any trade agreement will have to be ratified under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and that this House will therefore have a full opportunity to scrutinise any effect of trade deals on our food standards?
Our manifesto commits us to increase tree planting to a rate of 30,000 hectares a year by 2025 across the UK. Our £640 million nature for climate fund will help us to deliver a massive uplift in tree planting, as part of wider efforts to become a net zero carbon economy.
The Secretary of State will know that many of us are leading on planting plans in our constituencies, working closely with local councils, local wildlife trusts and so on. A good example is the new arboretum at lower Westgate Street in Gloucester, which was planted at the beginning of January. However, does she agree that there is a risk that, however many thousands of trees we plant in our constituencies, somebody will always say that we should have done much more? Is there an opportunity for some independent body to make an objective assessment of how many trees can realistically be planted in urban constituencies such as mine?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about setting appropriate targets. We plan to work closely with local authorities as we drive forward with our commitment to plant more trees. The Environment Bill contains important changes to the planning system—for example, an environmental net gain—that will encourage investment in nature, biodiversity and tree planting.
Does the Secretary of State agree with me and the Woodland Trust that we need to get local councils writing emergency tree plans that identify land for tree planting, and that we need to ensure that developments that come forward from housing developers include a minimum of 30% tree canopy cover?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s ambition for tree planting in his local area. As I have said, changes to the planning system should incentivise investment in tree planting and nature. Programmes such as the urban tree challenge fund could provide a great opportunity for local authorities to play their part in delivering this tree-planting effort.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the pupils of Good Shepherd Catholic Primary School in my constituency, who recently planted 130 saplings in a new eco-area at the school? Does she agree that the new eco-area at the school will be a great educational resource for the students, helping them to learn more about the natural world while also helping to improve the local environment in Coventry North East?
I do congratulate them; it sounds like a wonderful effort. Our Environment Bill provides for local nature recovery strategies that are led by the local authority, but which I very much hope will involve engagement with schools and enthusiastic groups such as the one mentioned by the hon. Member.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the prime purpose of planting trees in the present climate crisis is to provide an effective carbon sink to produce the negative carbon emissions that offset other carbon emissions in a net-zero world? The Committee on Climate Change suggests that that means planting perhaps up to 50,000 hectares of trees per annum up to 2050—perhaps 2.4 billion trees. Does she agree that the present target in the clean growth plan of 11 million trees is tiny—especially as it is currently being missed by 71%—and almost amounts to “greenwash”? When is she going to get real on tree planting and management, and adopt measures that will secure the billions of trees we need and not the millions she is projecting?
Where I would agree with the shadow Minister is that we do need massively to step up our tree planting in this country, and that is what we are determined to do, particularly by working with the devolved authorities as well. I encourage everyone to take the message out to their constituents that they can get involved with these programmes through the countryside stewardship woodland creation grant, the woodland creation planning grant, the woodland carbon fund, the woodland carbon guarantee and the urban tree challenge fund. We will soon be consulting on a tree strategy for England to drive forward further the crucial task of planting more trees in this country.
Glass and Plastic Deposit Return Scheme
In our manifesto, the Government committed to introducing a deposit return scheme to incentivise people to recycle plastic and glass. We are aiming to introduce that scheme from 2023. The Environment Bill that was published recently includes an important section on waste and recycling, and will introduce powers to establish deposit return schemes. A deposit return scheme would include aluminium and steel cans, alongside plastic and glass bottles. The final details of the scheme, including types of drinks containers to be included, are being developed and will be presented in a second consultation.
I thank the Minister for her response. I think the whole House welcomes the introduction of the deposit return scheme in the Environment Bill, but the concern is that it is overly prescriptive, specifying two categories of plastic, rather than creating a framework that could be amended and widened in scope to incorporate more materials that could be recycled in future.
I thank the hon. Member for his comments. I am delighted that he is so interested in the scheme. The first consultation had very wide support and we will have a further consultation. The industries wanting to use the collected recycled materials, particularly plastics, want very pure and well-sorted materials so that they can then turn them into the next products. We are thinking about this very seriously. More will be heard in the second consultation and that will come through in the Environment Bill.
Our clean air strategy sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollution from a wide range of sources. We have also put in place a £3.5 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Our Environment Bill delivers key parts of our world-leading clean air strategy and makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter, as well as enabling local authorities to take more effective action to tackle air pollution in their areas.
I thank the Minister for her response. She will know that incineration is considered to only be slightly better than landfill when it comes to disposing of waste, but Lib Dem-run Sutton Council seems to think that its Beddington incinerator has no harmful effects at all on my Carshalton and Wallington constituents. Does she agree that the council should improve air quality monitoring near the site, tackle congestion and be much more ambitious as regards tackling air pollution?
I am aware that Sutton Council approved the development of the Beddington incinerator as an alternative to landfill, which would have a higher pollution impact. The incinerator is required to operate in compliance with the permit conditions set by the Environment Agency, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows; he has mentioned the incinerator before. We encourage all local authorities, including obviously his Lib Dem-run council, to take action to improve air quality. I urge him to keep pressing it to keep within its commitments.
Birmingham City Council’s planned demolition of the Perry Barr flyover, which feeds traffic from Birmingham into West Bromwich East, will do nothing to tackle the already poor air quality in the area and cause huge traffic problems for my constituents. Does the Minister agree that local authorities have an obligation to ensure that major roadwork projects, especially on busy highways, improve air quality and ease congestion?
Local authorities are required by law to consider the impacts of development on air quality. Local authorities are best placed to take local planning decisions and should take into account a range of factors, including impacts on air quality, the local economy and traffic flow—so my hon. Friend raises a good point—when carrying out roadwork projects. In terms of the wider picture, we are providing financial and expert advice to local authorities to tackle air quality.
Air quality is seen very much as an urban issue, but even in the bucolic rural constituency of Thirsk and Malton we have our problems, including in Malton town centre due to high levels of standing traffic. What support can my hon. Friend offer to the local authority to resolve this issue?
The Environment Bill includes measures to improve air quality that will ensure that local authorities, including in Malton, for which my hon. Friend always speaks up so determinedly, have a clear framework and simple powers to tackle air pollution. The DEFRA and Department for Transport joint air quality unit works with local authorities, underpinned by £572 million in funding, to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances, and DEFRA provides grant funding and technical support via a dedicated helpdesk.
If the Secretary of State has read the unprecedented four reports in the last Parliament by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—chaired by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who is sitting behind her—she will know that a lack of power and resources in local government is a real problem, particularly in two-tier areas, as is the chronic lack of joined-up thinking by central Government. When will those two critical issues be addressed?
This Government take air pollution extremely seriously. We are investing £3.5 billion in air quality and clean transport. We are helping local authorities to tackle air quality through the implementation fund and the clean air fund, with a £572 million budget and a lot of expert advice. I am overseeing many programmes being rolled out, and the right hon. Gentleman will see a great deal happening this year.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Roadside pollution is a key area. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the serious issues tackled under our nitrogen dioxide plan. Local authorities have a legal duty to tackle high levels of pollution on roadsides, which is why we have introduced a comprehensive system to help local authorities to tackle it. We are also bringing down the rate of diesel cars on the market.
In recent weeks, DEFRA has been driving forward the biggest programme of legislation in Whitehall. That includes publication of our landmark Environment Bill, to introduce a new legal framework and demanding targets on matters such as nature, recycling and air quality. We have published our Fisheries Bill, to enable this country to take back control of its fishing waters and end the common fisheries policy. The Agriculture Bill has had its Second Reading, to ensure a brighter, greener future for our farmers. And of course, my team and I have played our part in securing the biggest election victory for the Conservatives in 30 years.
Data published in the recent climate change agreements biennial report showed the dairy industry delivering a 21% improvement on its energy efficiency over the last 10 years—the latest in a long line of sustainability wins for the industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from being a villain in the climate change story, the dairy industry is proving itself a force for good?
I very much agree. I pay tribute to the huge efforts made in the dairy sector to become more efficient and more sustainable. I know that those in the sector have further plans through the pioneering dairy road map, and I wish them well with that. We need to support UK agriculture in the tremendous efforts it is making to be part of the solution on climate change.
This Government have made much of the fact that we are leaving the EU and all its bureaucratic processes, but only to replace it with the catch app, a far more complex system for smaller fishing boats. Will the Secretary of State instruct the Marine Management Organisation to change the new catch app and remove the risk of criminality, which is causing so much anxiety for fishers in our coastal communities?
I have met officials on that matter. The reason we introduced the catch app is that, if we want to improve our management of the inshore fleet and offer fishermen, say, three months’ catch opportunities at a time, or even move to an effort-based regime, we need better, more accurate catch data. Those rules already apply to the over-12 metres and will in future apply to the under-12s as well.
Burdens put on local authorities through the Environment Bill will be fully funded. They will play a key role in helping with biodiversity net gain. They will also play a key role—as will other local organisations—in setting up our local nature strategies, which will inform what we do, and I very much look forward to that.
I will, indeed. Our departure from the European Union gives us the opportunity to introduce a new farming policy—a new system of farm support—that has sustainability and the environment at its heart. We can use that to support our farmers in the brilliant work they already do as stewards of our environment and countryside.
We have a strong focus on these matters. The measures we will be bringing forward in the Environment Bill will help us to set challenging and demanding targets on those issues. Our new system of farm support will also provide support to farmers in reducing ammonia emissions. I know they are determined to do it. I understand completely the importance of delivering on this.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is such a campaigner on this issue. It is a great idea. I believe that one fast-food chain is already considering doing this. It is something I have thought about myself when I am out on my bike and I see all the litter on the verges. Trust me, this Government are doing a great deal on litter, but we need to do more.
One way to reduce food waste is to rebalance the relationships between suppliers and supermarkets. Will the Government therefore commit to expanding the power of the Groceries Code Adjudicator and amending the groceries supply code of practice to better protect our farmers’ interests and reduce the amount of unnecessary food waste that can occur due to supermarkets’ excessively strict requirements?
Our Agriculture Bill has an entire section on fairness in the supply chain, enabling us to introduce regulations that build on what we have started with the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure that there is fairness and transparency in that supply chain.
I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that for many years animal rights activists and welfare activists for animal rights have been calling on Government to stop exporting animals on the hoof, and to let them be slaughtered in our slaughterhouses and go on the hook. Now we have left the EU, can the Secretary of State confirm that that sort of practice will cease?
My constituent, Mr Latimer, after exhausting every avenue to halt the flow of sewage on to the beach behind his very popular restaurant, ended up filing a complaint with the European Commission. The ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union stated that the Government needed to rectify the problem within five years. That was eight years ago. Can he expect any action from this Government?
There are already laws and regulations in place to protect animals used by buskers. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is a criminal offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal, or to administer an injurious or poisonous drug to an animal. If my hon. Friend has specific concerns, if he reported them to the police or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, action could be taken.
As part of her proposals for a deposit return scheme, has the Secretary of State sought to persuade her counterpart in the Scottish Government that the interests of consumers, producers and administrators will be best served by a system that covers the country—the UK—as a whole?
My hon. Friend raises a good point. Scotland introduced its scheme first. We are consulting to ensure our scheme is absolutely fit for purpose. We want ours to completely align and we are very much lining up with manufacturers and processors to get the right system that suits them.
During the debate before the election on restoring nature and climate change, the Minister, who is now in the Lords, told the House that a legislative response to the problem of burning peatlands was being developed. When can we expect to see legislation being published?
We are looking carefully at the issue of rotational burning on blanket bog. We are working closely with land managers to ensure that we see this practice come to an end. We have scrutinised the voluntary mechanisms and in due course we will have to consider whether to legislate in this area.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
LGBT Christians in the UK
Before I answer the hon. Gentleman, I would like to pay a short tribute to my predecessor, Caroline Spelman, who demonstrated humanity, helpfulness and humour, all qualities I will do my best to emulate in this role.
This is a timely question from the hon. Gentleman, in LGBT history month. The Church has worked with Stonewall to produce the “Valuing all God’s children” guidance, which proactively combats homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools.
I thank the hon. Member for his answer and join him in his tribute to the former Member for Meriden, with whom I worked on many issues. I totally agree with the comments he made about her and wish her well for the future; I am sure she has a big role to play in the country. However, the comments that he made do not reflect the pastoral guidance that the Church issued in recent weeks, which the archbishops have apologised for and which suggested that sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage fall
“short of God’s purpose for human beings.”
Does he recognise the great deal of concern within the Anglican communion that this potentially pre-empts the Living in Love and Faith discussions, which are ongoing, and sends a message of non-inclusivity at the start of LGBT history month, which is greatly regrettable?
The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that the archbishops issued an apology for the way that that pastoral statement was issued. He is aware of the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project, which is looking very closely at all these issues and will be reporting later this year.
St Mary's Graveyard, Stoke Mandeville
I recognise the sensitivities in this issue and I can tell my hon. Friend that an agreement has been reached between the Secretary of State for Transport and the Archbishops’ Council about the exhumation of graves and the reburial of remains in consecrated ground. I can assure my hon. Friend that this will be done with dignity and respect.
My constituent Mrs Bradley’s great great grandfather is buried at St Mary’s, Stoke Mandeville, and she was very distressed to learn by accident that the graves were to be exhumed by construction work linked to HS2. How will the Church of England monitor this to ensure that the exhumations are carried out in the way that my hon. Friend has just described, even on deconsecrated land?
I am extremely sorry that Mrs Bradley found out about the exhumation of her great great grandfather by accident, and we will announce the location of reinterment in consecrated ground in due course. I can tell my hon. Friend that in all cases this will be as near as possible to the original grave or graveyard and that the law requires that HS2 put up a memorial for all those who are reinterred.
Public Accounts Commission
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
Leaving the EU: National Audit Office
If you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, having served for 18 years as Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission and the Committee—I am standing down now—I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the National Audit Office, the Comptroller and Auditor Generals I have served with—Sir John Bourn, Tim Burr, Sir Amyas Morse and Gareth Davies—and the whole staff of the NAO and the Clerks who have served the two Committees. It is calculated that, during this 18-year association, we have saved £14.2 billion of public money—I just wish we were on commission.
In answer to my hon. Friend, the NAO’s work programme, which is determined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, is regularly revised to ensure it reflects current issues. The UK’s departure from the EU is of course a major task for Departments. Since 2016, the NAO has published 27 reports on various aspects of the preparations made by Departments. Departments have commented positively on the value of that work in assisting their preparations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his 18 years of exemplary service.
For all the problems of the Brexit process, rarely has a Government Department been set up for a specific defined purpose that is ultimately time-limited, but that is true of the Department for Exiting the European Union. Will the National Audit Office conduct an inquiry into the lessons learned from the establishment of that Department?
Absolutely. I am sure the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is completely independent in what inquiries he undertakes, will certainly want to do a report on the value for money of that Department and, perhaps, of our exit from the European Union in totality.
That is a very good question. Clearly, the NAO, which is not concerned with policy matters but with economy and efficiency, will have its focus laser-like on how we can ensure, both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom, a good exit from the European Union, good outcomes and, above all, value for money. There is no doubt that a very large sum of money could be wasted—for instance, in the recruitment of extra civil servants. We will have to ensure that we look laser-like at getting value for money.
NAO: Overseas Work
The NAO is a leading, supreme audit institution in the international community and works closely with other offices. It believes that it can grow and learn as an audit office by sharing and exchanging ideas with others. It periodically benchmarks itself against other similar audit bodies in other countries.
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend, whose career in the Public Accounts Commission I have followed closely both from the Government Benches and from previously serving as his constituency agent. Does he agree that there is widespread concern about spending on international aid? Will he outline what the NAO is doing to ensure we achieve value for money?
Clearly, there are enormous risks in our overseas aid budget. I will not comment on policy aspects, but if we are linking expenditure with a proportion of gross national product, which can rise every year, there are enormous possibilities in the Department for International Development for waste, incompetence and employing too many staff. I know that the NAO is particularly concerned with ensuring that in our international aid work, which is so important, we concentrate on work on the ground and try to root out waste and incompetence.
We have some excellent institutions, in addition to the NAO, that work towards underpinning our overseas trade and investment, such as CDC and UK Export Finance, but if we are to boost international trade we need to increase our appetite for risk. We need to accept that a higher number of failed projects will be a sign of success. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the NAO’s attitude to risk is too risk-averse or too judgmental of individual project failures, there is a danger it may undermine our international trade objectives?
I assure my hon. Friend that that is simply not the case. The NAO recognises that the civil service, and indeed Ministers, occasionally have to take risks, because that is the only way to learn—you learn from failure. We are not risk-averse, but we expect Departments to evaluate risk. On projects such as the Olympic Games, IT projects, the Child Support Agency and all the things we have investigated over the past 18 years, we expect Departments to evaluate risk and take risks, but get things right in the end.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church Schools and Universities
The Church of England educates 1 million children every day, runs a quarter of all primary schools and operates 4,644 schools in total, 91% of which are good or outstanding. There are also 15 universities in the Cathedrals Group in England, which educate 100,000 students and train 40% of all key stage 2 and 3 teachers.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Church strongly supports investment in further education and the Wolverhampton education quarter is an imaginative proposal to benefit the city. While we are at a very early stage of possible Church involvement, I know that the diocesan director of education and senior local chaplains will be very willing to meet him to discuss the proposal.
Will the hon. Gentleman update us on what strategic national work the Church might be doing with the Department for Education to support local schools that are experiencing changes to school rolls due to population changes? Otherwise excellent schools, such as St George’s and St Michael’s in my constituency, are having to experience differences in their local population. What strategic work is going on nationally to support the local work that is so necessary?
Christians in Nigeria
The Archbishop of Canterbury knows Nigeria well and has visited it on a number of occasions. He is extremely aware of the local tensions and context of this issue. The recent attacks in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram and Islamist militia are a source of profound concern to him and the Church.
I know my right hon. Friend takes a very close interest in these matters. Ten of the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s review have been, or are being implemented, and the others are being worked on. Our diplomats are using the review to engage their host Governments wherever there are abuses of freedom of religion or belief.
The UK hosts Christians from all over the world, from Lebanon to Sri Lanka, and in Lewisham East we have a vibrant Nigerian Christian community. It would be a shame if the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not tap into the knowledge and culture available at home in the UK better to serve persecuted communities abroad.
Regardless of that, I think it was discourteous of the bishops not to inform the Second Church Estates Commissioner. The legislation was passed overwhelmingly in this House with all-party support. It is bad enough that the Church still treats its LGBT+ members as second-class Christians, but to say to the child of a heterosexual couple in a civil partnership that they should not exist because their parents should not have had or be having sex is so hurtful. Will he tell the bishops that unless this nonsense stops serious questions will be asked in this place about the legitimacy of the established status of the Church of England?
I will certainly feed back the right hon. Gentleman’s strongly felt concern on this issue to the College of Bishops. In their apology, the archbishops did recognise that the pastoral statement had jeopardised the trust that has been built up as part of the Living in Love and Faith project, which is intended to discern the way forward for the Church of England on this issue.
Church of England Free Schools
The Church has been a successful partner in the free schools programme since it began. Dioceses work hard to help these new schools to open. The Church is also keen to support new alternative provision and special schools through the free schools programme.
The fantastic Fulham Boys School will finally open at its new site in September, after a 10-year campaign. It is a Church of England-sponsored free school whose co-patrons are myself and Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington. However, the latest wave of free school applications shows very few involving the Church of England. What can my hon. Friend do, in his role, to persuade the Church to sponsor more free schools?
The Church of England educates a million children. It runs a fifth of all schools in England, and 91% of those are good or outstanding, which is just one of the reasons why they are so popular with parents. The Church is the largest sponsor of academies in England, with 900. I am delighted to learn that there has been a happy conclusion to Fulham Boys School’s search for a new site, and I know that lots of parents are very happy with the school.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Compostable Waste from Parliament
It is a real pleasure to answer questions on behalf of the House of Commons Commission. This is the first time that a member of the Scottish National party has answered questions in the House. I pay tribute to my predecessor, Tom Brake, who answered questions diligently and conscientiously.
I thank the hon. Lady for this first and very important question. To ensure that compostable food and disposable materials such as coffee cups and salad trays are composted, Parliament’s environmental sustainability team has set up a process to enable them to be effectively segregated. It covers the first point of disposal in dedicated compostable bins located throughout the estate to the final in-vessel composting facility. This initiative is backed by a wide range of communication and engagement tools to support Parliament’s “Right Waste, Right Bin” campaign.
To the establishment! A knighthood cannot be far behind.
An investigation by Footprint, whose findings were published in July, found that all the compostable packaging collected in the Houses of Parliament between October 2018 and May 2019 was incinerated rather than composted. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that that is not the case, and that no further compostable waste has been incinerated since May 2019? Can he also share some of the challenges involved in trying to introduce composting on such a huge estate with other organisations that are seeking to introduce it?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that Parliament takes composting very seriously, and so far 15.4 tonnes of waste have been successfully composed. However, as she says, there was an issue with the new scheme at first because of the levels of non-compostable waste and the fact that the bins were far too high for the receiving facility to compost the first batch of it. I can reassure her that every subsequent load has been successfully composted as use of the bins has improved.
It is a real honour to be able to ask a question of such a senior member of the British establishment. [Laughter.]. Tempted as I am to ask him how much of this waste is Scotland’s waste and when we are going to get it back—[Laughter]—I prefer to ask him what the parliamentary estate is doing generally to reduce the waste of all types that is produced on the estate.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very sincere congratulations and welcome. [Laughter.] I assure him that Scotland does indeed ensure that it receives its Barnett consequentials when it comes to the waste produced in the House.
Parliament takes this issue very seriously, and the environmental sustainability team works in close liaison with the Commons catering department to ensure that all the procurement specifications have all the necessary certifications. All the composting that takes place in the House has met the very highest standards, both European and world, and I am happy to reassure the House that we are making great progress with this scheme.
I congratulate my hon. Friend—he should be right hon.—on his appointment. Can he confirm that, or find out whether, the signs used in the Division Lobbies to indicate an England-only vote under the EVEL process will be either recyclable or compostable when they are consigned to the dustbin of history?
I find all the welcomes that I have received very endearing. I understand that the signs that were produced earlier this week for the English votes procedure will not be required as part of the scheme as they are likely to be used again, but I think that once they have been binned we will ensure that they are effectively composted and no waste is produced.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church Maintenance: Bosworth
Lowest income communities funding supported mission and ministry in Holy Trinity and St John’s churches in Hinckley in my hon. Friend’s constituency in 2019. Across England from 2020 to 2022, £82.1 million will be allocated by the Commissioners as lowest income communities funding, with a further £82.1 million in strategic development funding to support diocesan plans.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for talking about the repairs that are going on in churches in my constituency and across the country, but churches in Hinckley and Bosworth, and indeed across the country, face the risk of having their roofs stolen. This is an ongoing problem; it has not gone away. I would be grateful for his comments on what the Commission is doing to try to prevent this.
I am exceedingly grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, because it is a real issue for churches up and down the country, many of which cannot get insurance if this happens on a second or subsequent occasion. The Church has asked the Government to review and strengthen the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. Initially, the Act dramatically reduced thefts, but changes to serious organised criminal behaviour have led to increases, and I will be asking what plans the Government have to amend the Act.
BBC Licence Fee
(Urgent Question): At the risk of getting a cold shoulder, I should like to ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to make a statement on the Government’s plans for the future of the BBC licence fee.
I would like to reiterate the words of the Secretary of State yesterday and, first, outline the importance of the broadcasting sector and the value that we as a Government place on it. Globally, the BBC is seen as a beacon of British values. It is one of the most recognised and trusted brands, reaching more than 400 million people around the world every week. However, it is important to acknowledge that the media landscape is changing, as is its content and how we consume it.
Set against that, there remain legitimate concerns that the criminal sanction for TV licence fee evasion is unfair and disproportionate, and indeed an anachronism. As we move into an increasingly digital age with more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, we must revisit the logic of criminalisation and ask whether criminal penalties for consumer choice are consistent with a just and democratic society. We therefore believe it is right to look again at whether the criminal sanction is still appropriate. This is why it is right, as the Secretary of State announced yesterday, that the Government are launching an eight-week public consultation to examine the decriminalisation of TV licence evasion and to share the thoughts on the TV licence model and how it may yet change over time. The Government will consider the results of the consultation when it is completed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this timely and important urgent question. As our public sector broadcaster, the BBC is central to the lives of our constituents: 91% of Britons use the BBC every week, and 26 million households have a TV licence. The future of the BBC as a public service broadcaster is a crucial matter to all of us. Yesterday, the Government announced plans to look into the decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence fee, but decriminalisation was not mentioned in the Conservative party manifesto. Prisons are not overflowing with people locked up for non-payment, and the courts are not overwhelmed with non-payers. Last year, only five people were imprisoned for non-payment, so my question is: why now, when there are so many other pressing matters for Government time, and especially as the Government’s own independent review, carried out as recently as 2015, concluded that the current system was the fairest and most effective way of funding the BBC?
Convicting people through the civil courts could mean higher fines for vulnerable people and greater evasion. The cost of transitioning to a new civil system could cost the BBC at least £25 million in set-up costs and lost revenue. Does the Minister think that that would be good value for money? Does he believe that the Government have a mandate for such a drastic change to the primary funding stream of our public service broadcaster? Have the Government made any assessment of the likely impact on the BBC’s ability to carry out core programming functions?
The Secretary of State said yesterday that the BBC needed to be more transparent and accountable, but does the Minister not think that the Government need to lead by example rather than deciding who may and may not attend press briefings and banning Ministers from appearing on respected news outlets? Can he assure me that this announcement is not part of a deliberate strategy by the Government to undermine an organisation with which they have been at loggerheads?
I absolutely assure the hon. Lady that this has nothing to do with what she mentions. I remind her that this is a consultation on whether criminal sanctions are proportionate and fair, and we believe it is right to look again at whether that is the correct model for licence fee evasion. I hope the hon. Lady does not mind me saying that she has some experience of not paying the licence fee, because I understand that her character in “Coronation Street” went to prison for not paying, and I do not think that that was particularly fair and proportionate. The consultation will run for eight weeks, and many of the hon. Lady’s questions will form part of it. I am sure she will be contributing to it, and I encourage all Members and the wider public to ensure that they make their views known.
I say to the Government, through my hon. Friend, that the question underlying all this is the one identified by the Canadian broadcasting pioneer Graham Spry in 1932:
“It is a choice between the State and the United States.”
If any change to the BBC leads to its disappearance or vulnerability, there will be a great responsibility on anyone who is involved in that process. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that in this consultation we should compare not the disadvantages of the present system with the advantages of the alternative, but the disadvantages of the alternative with the advantages of the present system?
My hon. Friend the Father of House speaks with great experience on these matters, but I gently remind him what this consultation is about. We believe it is right to look again at whether criminal sanctions are the correct model for licence fee evasion. There will need to be a much broader conversation as to whether the licence fee model is the correct model beyond 2027, but the current model is guaranteed until the end of that period.
Many criticisms could be made by politicians and others, but the BBC is more than just its news output. Scotland has the new BBC Scotland channel, which has a budget of only £32 million despite Scottish licence fee payers putting in £311 million a year, with only £249 million spent in Scotland. Despite that austerity budget—the broadcasting equivalent of DIY and ticky-tacky—the BBC has managed to produce some great quality output against the odds, with comedy, culture, “Debate Night” and the well-produced “The Nine”, but it is not sustainable and must be properly funded.
Scotland has already implemented a system whereby no one faces a custodial sentence for failing to pay their TV licence, but there is a clear, unmistakable pattern when it comes to this Government and their attitude towards the media. The BBC is not Netflix. Banning lobby journalists from press briefings, failing to participate in media interviews, and carefully cultivating a group of friendly journalists to pursue their narrow agenda is straight out of the Trump playbook. Many will rightly be concerned that the Tories now intend to use their majority to dismantle the scrutiny of public service broadcasting, having already forced the BBC to adopt social policy. What will the consultation do to ensure that moneys raised in Scotland for public service broadcasting are actually fully spent in Scotland?
Ministers do talk to the public through a wide range of programmes every day, including on the BBC. That has always been the case and will continue to be so, and the lobby meetings happen twice a day, as the hon. Gentleman is aware. I remind him that the media landscape is changing. For example, five years ago a TV licence was not required to watch or download content on the BBC iPlayer. I hope that he raises his concerns about the BBC in Scotland as part of the consultation.
As a Yorkshire MP, the Minister will know the importance of the regional BBC—both local television and local radio—to our constituents and the role it serves in the community. I remember its public service announcement function during the 2007 flooding. What thought has been given to making that function clear in the consultation so that people fully understand what they get from paying their licence fee?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. I have experience of working closely with the BBC regionally, particularly when we also had flooding. It is crucial that we have a BBC that reaches everywhere. The BBC serves our constituents particularly well. I hope she contributes to the consultation, which I remind her is about whether a criminal sanction is fair and proportionate for TV licence fee evasion. That is the remit of this consultation.
One of the arguments being run by the anti-BBC forces is that the magistrates courts are being clogged by the number of cases. Yesterday, the chair of the Magistrates Association said the change would make a minimal difference—less than 1% of the time spent: it would be an insignificant difference and we would hardly notice it. At this early stage of the consultation, will the Minister note that the idea that magistrates courts are overwhelmed by licence fee evasion is simply false?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. My understanding is that over 120,000 people were prosecuted and sentenced for non-payment of the licence fee last year, and the average fine for those who were prosecuted was £176. I am sure that takes a considerable amount of court time.
For the second time today, may I recommend that a Minister reads the most recent Select Committee report on this issue? Chaired by the Minister’s excellent colleague, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Committee considered the evidence in detail before the last licence fee review—I am sure the Minister likes evidence-based policy—and we found absolutely no grounds for doing this.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we had the Perry review five years ago. The landscape has changed, and we believe it is right to look again at whether the criminal sanction remains appropriate. I met many people during the election who asked whether it is fair and proportionate to be potentially criminalised for non-payment of the TV licence fee.
Does the Minister agree that the BBC’s public service broadcasting is at its best in local radio coverage of rugby league, cricket and football? Those sports are not getting any local coverage on commercial radio. Whatever the future funding model, that type of broadcasting must be protected.
The Minister has said several times that the media landscape is changing. Does he agree that for decades the main driving force in that developing media landscape—including iPlayer and Freeview—has been the BBC? By calling for this consultation and saying it will happen, does he appreciate that for a lot of people it calls into question the Government’s commitment to the licence fee and to the BBC as it is today? The concern for many of us is that this changing media landscape is being used as an excuse.
I do not agree on that point with the hon. Lady. The broadcasting landscape is constantly changing—she is right about that—and this is only going to get faster. Ofcom research found that more children recognise the names Netflix and YouTube than they do the BBC, which should be an eye-opener for all of us. Conservative Members believe that the BBC is a beacon of British values, but we should be alive to the changes in the way people are consuming television.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the nub of this is about fairness and proportionality? If we are to have a free and open market in television, non-payment of the licence fee should be treated no differently from that of any other service?
Given the demand that the BBC takes on social policy on the over-75s concessionary TV licence and now this consultation, how can the Government say that this is about anything other than an attack on public sector broadcasting and asset stripping the BBC?
I am not sure I could disagree more with the hon. Gentleman. The Government are very disappointed with the BBC’s decision to restrict the over-75 licence fee concession to those in receipt of pension credit. We absolutely recognise the value of free TV licences for the over-75s and believe they should be funded by the BBC.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) alluded to the BBC being responsible for Freeview, but it is not free. People have to pay the tax in order to access other TV channels that are nothing to do with the BBC. The younger generation, who are not represented very well in this Chamber, do not watch the BBC any more, so why should they pay this tax?
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point, and this is why we are having this consultation, to which he will no doubt contribute. Younger people, especially those I have spoken to in the past year, do not understand why they have to pay for a service that they do not use. It is only right that we look at whether criminalising people for non-payment of the TV licence fee is fair and proportionate.
I do not think the Minister really believes in the licence fee at all, but the truth of the matter is that nothing in life is free. “Gavin & Stacey” does not come for free, and neither do “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Sherlock” or any of the great dramas, comedies or wildlife documentaries on the BBC. None of that comes for free. It comes free to air because everybody pays in and everybody gets something in return. It is a fundamental part of the way we do things in this country. The problem is that if we pull at a snag in a jumper, we end up unravelling the whole thing, and my worry is that that is precisely what the Government intend.
I have an awful lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he is missing the point of what this consultation is about. At the risk of repeating myself, it is about whether criminal sanctions for licence fee evasion are proportionate and fair. I am sure he will be contributing to the consultation, as well as in this House, and I am sure he will do so on many more occasions.
If the BBC is as popular and provides as much value for money as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and others say, surely it has nothing to fear from going to a subscription model, because presumably everybody will be queueing up to pay their subscription as it is such wonderful value for money. The BBC is petrified of abolishing the licence fee because this may emphasise how unpopular the BBC is and how few people want to contribute. I welcome this consultation on decriminalisation, but may I urge the Minister to go further and stop this unjustifiable tax on people, which they have to pay whether they want to watch the BBC or not? It is unsustainable in the long term, because of modern technology. In the meantime, will he make sure that over-75s do not have to pay it?
Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend on his election to the Select Committee. I know he is a huge fan of the BBC. He is right to say that as we move forward into an increasingly digital age, where there are more and more channels to watch and platforms to choose from, it is clear that many people consider it odd that they can be imprisoned for not paying their licence fee. On the over-75s free licence, we believe that is the responsibility of the BBC.
Is it not a fact that the BBC has been great at undermining itself? It tells us that it cannot afford to spend £750 million on licence fees for the over-75s, yet it can afford to pay 493 of its employees above their grade pay band and 129 of them above the highest-grade band, and it can afford to pay only 21 of those in the lowest-rate band above their pay band. When is the Minister going to get this out-of-control broadcaster under control?
The BBC is alive to the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is having to deal with a number of pay-equality cases and I am sure that there will be many more of those cases. Nevertheless, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the BBC is operationally independent from Government.
Surely this is an incredible opportunity for the BBC. The licence fee restricts its paying base to the UK, but if it had a subscription model, it could export to the entire world. As the Minister said, the BBC’s own prediction is that it will have a global audience of a billion people a week by the end of the decade. If just 5% of those people were to take out a subscription to the iPlayer at £6 a month, the BBC would recoup the entire £3.7 billion that it gets from the licence fee, but as export income instead of a tax on the British people.
My hon. Friend makes some good points, but we are talking about the decriminalisation consultation, not how the BBC is funded in future. The current model is valid until 2027 and there has to be a conversation before then about what model is appropriate for the BBC in a digital age.
We have rightly heard about the importance of the BBC’s local and regional coverage, but I remind the Minister of the importance of its international coverage. The World Service is the world’s most trusted news provider and an important part of the UK’s soft power. The Minister has said that the media landscape is changing, and he is absolutely right, which is why public service broadcasting is under pressure. At this time, surely the BBC needs our support more than ever.
The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. The Government strongly support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality and impartial news to a global audience, including some of the most remote places in the world and particularly where free speech is limited. The BBC recently launched 12 new language services, and we very much support its approach in that regard.
Can we not have an open mind and move on? We are no longer in the 1940s, with the whole nation huddled around a single radio set. This whole row about the licence fee for over-75s and this issue shows that we really have to consider other options. Is it fair to impose a poll tax on elderly people just to watch television when there is a whole mass of alternatives—one might say a morass? The same is true for young people. Will the Government please have a genuinely open mind about moving the BBC into the 21st century on a subscription basis?
My right hon. Friend is right to right to ask that question, and that is why we will be discussing how the BBC is funded going forward, but I remind him that the consultation is about whether a criminal sanction is fair and proportionate for non-payment and licence-fee evasion. Of course, we have to have conversations as to whether, in a digital age, the current licence fee model is appropriate.
I fear that if we look beyond the headline about the decriminalisation of non-payment, we see yet another attack from the Government Benches, led by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), on the BBC and the very principle of public service broadcasting. Given the shambles of the licence fee for over-75s, does the Minister agree that power over the licence fee should be removed from Government to avoid such political jiggery-pokery in future?
I welcome this long-overdue consultation on the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence—something that I tried to include in the Deregulation Bill back in 2014, and that at the time had the support of the majority of Members. My hon. Friend will be aware that the non-payment of the TV licence fee is currently managed by the magistrates court. Is he also aware that the Magistrates Association has been calling for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence fee for more than 25 years?
I am not surprised that the Magistrates Association has been calling for that. As I said in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) earlier, more than 120,000 people were prosecuted last year under the current regime, which is why we are having the review and consultation.
As the Minister knows, S4C is largely funded these days via the licence fee, and the BBC itself is the main provider of broadcast news in both of the national languages of Wales. What assurances can the Minister give that these vital public broadcasting services will be adequately resourced well into the future?
The hon. Gentleman is completely correct to raise this matter. S4C, as a public service broadcaster, is currently funded via the licence fee. We will be having conversations about the next settlement starting in 2022. Clearly, funding for S4C will form part of those discussions.
The television licence fee can be a heavy burden to pay for some of the poorest people in our society, so will the Minister please tell me what the Government are doing to make it easier for people to pay, so that they can avoid this enforcement action in the first place?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that matter. The licence fee is expensive for some people on the lowest incomes, so we will be introducing a new, simple payment plan. We have had trials of it, and I can confirm today that, with effect from 1 April 2020, there will be a new flexible payment instalment scheme designed to help exactly the people to whom he refers.
Has the Minister considered that, in this day and age of streaming channels and hubs and the amount of work that independent channels have to do just to exist, it does seem absurd that there should be a state subsidised channel? Does he agree that it is time for the BBC to stand on its own feet and on its own merit?
All of the hon. Gentleman’s questions need to be part of a much bigger conversation once we have done this consultation on whether criminalisation of licence fee evasion is fair and proportionate. We must have a conversation for beyond 2027, when the current deal via the charter expires, about how the BBC is funded in a digital age.
The BBC recently announced that it was shedding 450 staff from the news department, and yet it said that it would still provide a fully comprehensive service. When those reports are seen by my constituents, many of whom find it difficult to raise the funds to pay for the licence, they think that the BBC does need slimming down. Will the Minister assure my constituents that he will keep up the pressure on the BBC to reduce its costs?
I declare an interest in that my late parents met while they were working for the BBC, and that I installed the computer system that is actually used for collecting and verifying the licences. What assessment have the Government made on the increase in the avoidance of paying the licence fee and therefore the increase in costs of catching those people who do not pay, because that all adds to the costs and, indeed, to the implications of the funding?
I am delighted to hear how my hon. Friend came about. We should all be grateful that he is the BBC’s responsibility. This is exactly why we are having this consultation. Of course there will be costs. Huge costs are associated with these levels of prosecutions, and I urge him, especially with his keen personal interest, to make sure that he gets involved in the consultation.
Business of the House
The business for next week will include:
Monday 10 February—Second Reading of the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order 2020, followed by a motion to approve the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2020.
Tuesday 11 February—Second Reading of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, followed by Opposition half day (3rd allotted day—1st part). There will be a debate on migration and Scotland on a motion in the name of the Scottish National party.
Wednesday 12 February—Motions relating to the Police Grant and Local Government Finance Reports.
Thursday 13 February—General debate on matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.
Friday 14 February—The House will not be sitting.
The provision business for the week commencing 24 February will include:
Monday 24 February—Second Reading of a Bill.
Tuesday 25 February—Second Reading of a Bill.
Wednesday 26 February—Opposition day (4th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.
Thursday 27 February—General debate on a subject to be announced.
Friday 28 February—The House will not be sitting.
The House will be aware of the remarks made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor during his statement on the evil attack in Streatham last Sunday. It is the responsibility of politicians from all political parties to play their part in keeping our constituents and the general public safe. To that end, the Government will bring forward the necessary legislation to stop the automatic early release of prisoners convicted of terrorist offences. This legislation will be introduced at the earliest opportunity, and it is with that in mind that I may need to return to the House early next week to make a further business statement.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and for giving me notice, albeit at 10.31 am, of his statement. After the terrible events in Streatham, we think of those who were injured and hope they make a full recovery physically and mentally and again thank our outstanding emergency services who responded so swiftly. The Opposition say that terrorist prisoners should not be automatically released but should be subject to parole board assessment before release, during their sentences. We will look carefully at the Government proposals and work with them, on a cross-party basis and in the national interest, to protect our citizens. I hope the Leader of the House will convey that to the relevant Minister. He says he will find time for the draft legislation. I hope he will also give the Opposition time to look at it.
We have our nominees for Select Committees. The Leader of the House mentioned to me that he was waiting for the Labour party, but he is not; we have all ours in place. I should have mentioned that this was the last time at the Dispatch Box for my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), as he is moving to a Select Committee. We have our Select Committee nominees. We are just waiting for the Leader of the House. Perhaps there will be some fallout from the reshuffle—who knows? When is he likely to introduce the motion on Select Committees? Will it be before or after the recess?
The Leader of the House will know that the European Scrutiny Committee needs to be set up under Standing Order 143. It has a statutory function under section 13A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which was inserted by section 29 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, and that statutory role will continue during the transition. Given that talks start on 3 May, and we need that scrutiny, will he say when it is likely to be set up?
We need more scrutiny, not less, and it is not right what the Leader of the House said last week about the Prime Minister coming to the House for 30 minutes being sufficient. He knows that that is just plain wrong. One Department has already been abolished. Scrutiny is important.
Is the Leader of the House not concerned about the events that took place at Downing Street this week and the way journalists were treated? Despite an urgent question that you granted, Mr Speaker, there was no explanation of whether special advisers overrode the civil service. Did they? Was there a breach of the civil service code, or is there a new civil service code? There was no explanation about who was allowed to stay. It cannot be right that a special adviser can decide whether one journalist is clever enough to take a technical briefing and another is not. It feels like a case of “Four legs good, two legs bad.” The Leader of the House knows more than anyone, with his background, that this is totally unacceptable, so can he find time for a fuller statement on the events that took place around the exclusion of journalists?
More Government shambles; the chief executive sacked and no one to replace Claire O’Neill. Is this the face of global Britain, which we debated last week—an absolute shambles? Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) held a meeting with the Nobel prize nominee Chief Raoni Metuktire and other indigenous leaders from the Amazon. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was there, as was I, but Australia, the Amazon, Bangladesh and the young people in Friday’s climate change strike all understand the urgency. When will the new chief executive be announced for COP26?
The Government may be reducing the amount of information given to journalists, but is the Leader of the House aware that more than 400 local authorities allow at least one third party to track individuals who visit their website? The data includes when people seek help for financial services or even for disabilities. Almost 7 million people are affected when they click on those websites. One data company, LiveRamp, is part of the group that sells profiles to Cambridge Analytica. Council websites perform a specific public service. Can we have a debate on the misuse of personal data on council websites and, if necessary, whether the Information Commissioner requires further powers?
It has been two weeks since Richard Ratcliffe and Gabriella met the Prime Minister to raise the cases of Nazanin, Anousheh and Kylie. Will the Leader of the House say what the purpose of their incarceration is and what will happen next?
Finally, I want to pay tribute to one of the Doorkeepers, Paul Kehoe, who has been here for 40 years. The Clerk of the House has recognised his 40 years’ service, which also gives us an opportunity to thank Phil Howse, the Serjeant at Arms and all the Doorkeepers for looking after us. They do an excellent job.
May I reiterate the thanks to Paul Kehoe? I have been holding roundtables with new Members, and I have said to them all when they have come to see me that if they want to know what is really going on in this Chamber, they should ask the Doorkeepers, because they are always better informed than anybody else— certainly better informed than me and, dare I whisper it quietly, sometimes even the Whips. We are very lucky to be so well served by a fantastic team of endlessly courteous and patient people who take such delight in their service to our Parliament. We are really privileged.
May I also reiterate the right hon. Lady’s thanks to the emergency services for their response in Streatham? I share her concern for the people who have been injured, both psychologically and physically, and thank her for the promise of co-operation in ensuring that the legislation can be brought forward effectively and swiftly. I assure her that the Government wish to work with the Opposition on this and that therefore her offer is received in the spirit in which is in intended. We will make every effort to ensure that the Opposition are satisfied with the way that we respond.
As to Select Committees, the European Scrutiny Committee will be set up at the same time as all the other Committees, which will be done as soon as is practicable. We attach great importance to proper scrutiny.
The right hon. Lady asked me about events at Downing Street and the briefings that have been given, and referred kindly to my antecedents in this area. With reference to my antecedents in this area, it is perfectly normal for journalists to be given different briefings. Sometimes some journalists are briefed, sometimes specific journalists are briefed, and sometimes there is a general lobby briefing. That has been going on since my father joined the lobby in the 1950s, which really is a reasonably long time ago—although not quite as long ago as when my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was referring to in earlier proceedings. What went on was perfectly normal. David Frost is a special adviser, it is routine for special advisers to give briefings to specialist journalists, and that was precisely what was happening.
As for COP26, the Prime Minister is taking a personal interest in this. It is a matter to which he is personally deeply committed. He gave detailed responses yesterday in response to six questions from the Leader of the Opposition, and it would seem, dare I say it, otiose for me to repeat the wise words of the Prime Minister.
I am very interested in what the right hon. Lady said about local authorities and the use of personal data, and I share her concern, although I must confess that I was previously unaware of this issue. Local authorities have a duty to be careful about the personal data they pass on, and I think this is a matter for the Information Commissioner.
With regard to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the junior Minister in the Foreign Office spoke to the Iranian embassy earlier in the week. There is a continued correspondence flow of representations, but we must always remember that the Iranian Government are behaving unlawfully under international law in holding Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We have to keep on pressing, but when a state of that kind refuses to follow international norms, there are limits to what the Government can do. I deeply regret that, but I assure the right hon. Lady that the Government will continue to press, and I hope that the Iranian Government will eventually be shamed into behaving properly.
The Oxford to Cambridge expressway proposal is a hugely controversial issue in my constituency that would devastate the Buckinghamshire countryside, and would achieve little that cannot be achieved through improving existing roads and delivering, for example, a bypass around the village of Wing. During the general election, the Transport Secretary pledged a priority review into this scheme. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on this matter, so that the folly of this scheme can be fully explored?
My hon. Friend’s constituency is exceptionally beautiful and attractive—just for the record, it is not quite as beautiful as Somerset, but none the less—and I understand completely the concerns about the possible implications of development in the Oxford to Cambridge arc, and particularly about proposals for a new road link between Oxford and Milton Keynes. The Government will provide an update in due course on whether the Oxford to Cambridge expressway project should continue, but I recommend that my hon. Friend raises the issue prior to the recess in the debate on matters to be considered before the forthcoming Adjournment, because that is exactly what that occasion is designed for.
I have two questions for the Leader of the House this week. The first is: when can we expect the Government to bring forward proposals to scrap the English votes for English laws procedure, which is now an embarrassment to this Parliament and everyone in it? I ask because this week saw the outrageous spectacle of Scottish Members of Parliament being denied the opportunity to participate at Committee stage in legislation that would have a direct and material effect on the people they represent. The NHS Funding Bill will have an effect on the Scottish block grant, and it will therefore have an effect on the money available for my constituents. As much as the Government may try to laugh it off, this is actually a very serious matter that should be of concern to anyone who calls themselves a democrat.
My second question relates again to the Scottish claim of right. When I last asked the Leader of the House when he would bring forward legislation so that the Government might recognise and deal with the fact that they do not have a mandate in Scotland, he gave me a rather flippant response. In order to understand the Government’s motivation, let me ask him again: does he agree with the concept of the claim of right for Scotland, and does he agree that it is something that continues to exist, after 18 September 2014? I ask that question because not once, not twice, but three times since we last discussed it opinion polls have been published in Scotland that give an indication to the thinking of people in that country, and every single one shows that there is now a majority of people who wish Scotland to become an independent country. I congratulate the Government, because that rise in public opinion for independence is entirely their responsibility and entirely their contribution. I assure the Leader of the House that, when we in the SNP get started on our campaign, that figure will rise even further. If the Government really want to do something about the integrity of the Union, surely it is time for them to recognise the different situation that pertains in Scotland.
With regard to the English votes for English laws issue, I remind the hon. Gentleman that his party did not oppose the programme motion, which led to there being no Report stage, during which it would have been possible to move amendments. However, all Standing Orders of the House are considered and are open to discussion through the Procedure Committee. A new Procedure Committee is in the process of being established—the Chair has been elected—and although it would not be for me to tell the Committee what its business ought to be, this may well be a matter that it would like to look at.
As regards the Scottish claim of right, the decision was made in 2014. The right was debated, the vote was held, and the SNP lost. Sometimes it is hard to accept a defeat, but that is what happened. The people of Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom. Dare I say it, but on the first Opposition day offered to the SNP, did SNP Members go for the subject that they raise all the time, that comes up at business questions week after week, and that they constantly want to discuss? When they get their half day, do they decide to debate the claim of right? No, they think of something else.