Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Tree Planting: England
We are committed to increasing tree planting throughout the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025, and we are working with the devolved Administrations on that, too. We have announced a nature for climate fund to increase planting in England, and we recently consulted on the new England tree strategy.
Across the valley of the River Severn, the River Teme and the River Avon we are grateful for the support we are getting to improve our flood defences. Will the Minister tell the House how tree planting can improve flood resilience across river catchments?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Our new £640 million nature for climate fund will do a lot to drive up tree planting. We will also do a lot of planting with the emphasis on river corridors and floodplains and on nature-based solutions, working with the Environment Agency. In that way, we aim to slow the flow, control flooding and increase tree planting. Lots of plans are in place, and I hope my hon. Friend’s constituency will benefit.
I am absolutely thrilled that the Government-funded National Brownfield Institute will soon open in Wolverhampton North East. Will the Minister tell me how, as we move forward in the Black Country with building sustainable homes on reclaimed land, we can ensure that tree planting is not forgotten in new developments on brownfield sites?
We are very much looking forward to Wolverhampton’s National Brownfield Institute coming to fruition and to all the work it will do on sustainable development. Of course, trees will be an important part of sustainable development. This issue was referred to in our England tree strategy, and we are exploring ways to incorporate trees into the development of brownfield sites.
Air Pollution: Motor Vehicles
Nitrogen oxide levels are rising again after lockdown as traffic levels increase. We continue to take urgent action to curb the impact of air pollution on communities throughout England through our ambitious clean air strategy and the delivery of a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle NOx pollution. The Government continue to engage with local authorities to deliver clean air zones, and through the Environment Bill we will take greater action on tackling air pollution.
As the north-east seeks to reduce its level of air pollution, will the Minister join me in supporting initiatives such as that proposed for the Tyne tunnel, where a new free-flow payment system will reduce carbon emissions from vehicles using the tunnel by a massive 90%? Furthermore, will the Minister commit to working with colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure that orders to implement the system are introduced to the House when available, so that air quality improves in the Jarrow constituency and in the region more widely?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. I am really heartened that she is thinking about the health of her constituents, because air pollution, especially fine particulate matter, is the single greatest health impact that we currently have to deal with. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss any actions. She is absolutely right to point out that her local authority is taking action on many of these measures. The Government have provided a number of funds to support local work on reducing pollution levels in traffic.
I am like a jack-in-a-box this morning, Mr Speaker, with one question after another.
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 £3.8 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The Environment Bill makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter and will enable local authorities to take more effective action to combat pollution in their areas.
Prior to covid-19, polluted air was contributing to more than 40,000 premature deaths each year. It we are to reduce that awful statistic, we must set enforceable targets to bring air pollution down below harmful levels, so does the Minister agree that the Government’s Environment Bill must have air quality targets that follow World Health Organisation guidance and have an attainment deadline of 2030 or before?
The Environment Bill does introduce a duty to set a target for PM2.5. We are committing to ambitious action on this pollutant, which has the most significant impact on health. The Government are committed to an evidence-based policy on this issue. We will consider the WHO guideline levels when setting our targets, but it is imperative that we take all the right advice from all those who are working on the issue before we commit exactly to what we are going to do and how we are going to do it.
This just shows how important this issue is to the people of Lewisham.
New data published by City Hall on 3 October show a dramatic improvement in London’s air quality since 2016 due in no small part to the ambitious measures implemented by Mayor Sadiq Khan. However, air pollution remains a major public health challenge and complacency is not an option, despite the current crisis. Will the Government commit to setting ambitious national targets and give local authorities the powers and the funding that they need to achieve them?
I want to highlight that, through our landmark Environment Bill, we will be delivering on parts of our clean air strategy, which will introduce a target for concentration levels of PM2.5. We will be setting an additional long-term target on air quality, which actually goes beyond the EU requirement. We will also have in the Bill measures that will improve local air quality management frameworks used by local authorities to make them much simpler and easier to use, and all of those measures will tackle the issues that the hon. Lady so rightly raises.
Campaigners, activists and our constituents are all waiting with bated breath for the return of the Environment Bill, which has dropped off the Order Paper for more than 200 days now and counting. When the Bill finally returns to the House, will the Minister commit to including the World Health Organisation’s guideline air pollution limits in it? She has already said today that she wants the evidence base to be in it, but the WHO has done the work, so can we not have a commitment to accept these guidelines?
I thank the hon. Lady for asking about the Environment Bill. As we say constantly, it will be returning very soon, but we do have an out-date for it, which is 1 December, so she can just work backwards from that, and I look forward to seeing her in the Chamber. On the point about the World Health Organisation, she should remember that these are guidelines. We have been praised for our outstanding clean air strategy, which is considered world-leading, and there is an absolute commitment to this. I think she came to one of the evidence sessions where we heard how complicated it is to set the actual target. There are many contributors to this particulate matter, and we have to look at them all before we set the target.
We are committed to tackling plastic pollution. We introduced a microbeads ban and reduced single-use plastic carrier bag usage by 95% in main supermarkets. We are also increasing the single-use carrier bag charge to 10p and extending it to all retailers. We restricted the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds the other day, and we are seeking further powers in the Environment Bill to charge for single-use plastic items, making recycling more consistent, and we will be reforming packaging waste regulations.
It has been suggested that one way of reducing pollution is to make greater use of oxo-degradable plastic. This involves using an additive in conventional plastics that causes them to break down and fragment into microplastics that, in the marine environment, can be digested by organisms. In addition, oxo-degradable material in the waste stream is a contaminant and causes a reduction in the levels of recycling. Will the Minister commit the Government to acting on the call from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and join the EU in banning the use of oxo-degradable plastic?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government recognise that innovative packaging types can help reduce the environmental impact of plastic if disposed of in the right way, and I know that he has a lot of knowledge in this area owing to his constituency connections. However, there is currently only limited reliable published evidence on the environmental impacts of oxo-biodegradable plastics—that is a mouthful. DEFRA and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published a call for evidence last year to better understand the effects of these and compostable plastics on the environment, and we will be publishing the results later on in the autumn.
Of course, that is a question that many people are thinking about, and I thank my hon. Friend for it. The covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in PPE, but we are starting to see businesses rise to the challenge, producing items such as reusable face coverings—we are seeing a whole lot in Parliament—that can be washed and reused, but, obviously, hygiene must be taken very seriously. The Government have published guidance on the disposal of face coverings and other PPE during the pandemic.
I am delighted to give my hon. Friend the Minister a rest from the Dispatch Box after a marathon session.
Within the rich diversity of the English countryside, our existing national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest have the highest status of protection. The Prime Minister has signalled our ambition in this area and is committed to protect 30% of our terrestrial land by 2030. The £640 million Nature4Climate fund announced in this year’s Budget will drive our progress towards this goal.
The Secretary of State will know that he is popular in the House, and he is a very mild-mannered, pleasant chap. I want him to turn into some sort of ravening big beast, because he has been in the job nine months, and we have soil degradation, habitat loss and species extinction, while none of our rivers and streams is fit to paddle in, let alone swim in. When is he going to wake up to the crisis that is facing our countryside and do something about it? It is not, “What’s the plan, Stan?”; it is “What’s the plan, George?”
The hon. Gentleman paints an accurate picture of the environmental degradation that has taken place, particularly in the past 50 years or so. As we think about the future, it is not enough just to protect particular sites; we need to build back nature in some of these areas. We will be doing that through our new environmental land management policy to replace the common agricultural policy, creating new habitats and creating space for nature. We will also be delivering this through the new approach and governance framework outlined in our Environment Bill.
Our familiar countryside is as it is today because of protection and management, but, as we have heard, the Environment Bill that is needed to maintain that protection has gone missing, and financial support for farmers, who of course do so much to manage our countryside, is just weeks away from major upheaval. The Secretary of State talks about sustainable farming initiatives without bringing any detail to this House, and that is a worry for everybody. Come 1 January, will farmers have the financial information they need to make informed decisions, and will the promised Office for Environmental Protection actually be in place and operating properly?
The Environment Bill will be resuming its passage in Committee shortly. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, for instance, that the Government have recently been consulting on our new approach to introduce due diligence in the supply chain to prevent deforestation. There are good reasons why the Bill has been paused while that consultation is considered. In answer to his question, yes, farmers will have all the information they need by next year, and we will begin the transition to the new policy next year.
Water Companies: Leaks and Wastage
I am back—I would like to say by popular demand, but I am not sure about that.
Water company performance data, including on leakage, is already published annually on the DiscoverWater website, and companies provide data to the Environment Agency on water losses. I encourage hon. Members to visit the DiscoverWater website.
This month’s Environment Agency report found that four out of the nine water companies are now rated as poor or requiring improvement—the worst result since 2011. Does the Minister agree that losing 3 billion litres of water a day through leakage is wholly unacceptable? Are her Government reconsidering the privatisation of water companies that have damaged the environment and left customers in my constituency with unaffordable bills?
Our 2018 water conservation report sets out an ambitious target of a 50% reduction in leakage by 2050. The water companies have made progress towards this, but quite clearly, they need to do a great deal more. On water quality, in our 25-year environment plan, we aim to bring three quarters of our waters as close to their natural state as possible. However, there is clearly a great deal more to do. I have met water companies recently to rattle the cage and raise the issues. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is also meeting water companies soon to discuss the same issues.
I thank the Minister for that response, but daily losses through leakage did fall during the 1990s from 4.5 billion litres a day to 3 billion litres. That figure is still too high, and a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee stated that this reduction had been followed by
“a decade of complacency and inaction”.
Does the Minister agree that the Government are failing to hold the water companies to account over their inability to deal with this level of leakage?
The hon. Gentleman raises a pertinent point, but the 2019 price review set out a £51 billion five-year investment package, and water companies committed to reducing leakage by 16% by 2025. They have definite goals and targets to do that, but they do indeed need to do a great deal more. We also have much discussion about reducing the overall amount of water that people use every day, with an ambition to reduce it to 110 litres a person. At the moment, it is about 143 litres, so there is a raft of measures in the water space that need to be tackled.
A study by the National Audit Office shows that some parts of England will run out of water by 2040. Does the Minister agree that the targets set by the Department to cut water leakage in half by 2050 will be too little, too late to keep our taps running?
I have already mentioned that target of a 50% leakage reduction, but that is just one of many measures. There is a whole raft of measures, as I have just explained, that we are working towards. We have the policies in place not just to reduce leakage, but to reduce consumption in an efficient way, always being mindful of consumers’ bills and always looking after the vulnerable. On top of all that, we have our flood policy statement, which looks very closely at the whole water space—where the water comes from, where it is going, where the supply is and where the reservoirs are. The Government are absolutely on the case as far as water is concerned.
Animal Welfare Standards
This country has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. We have modernised standards for dog breeding, pet sales and other licensed activities involving animals. We have introduced a world-leading ivory ban and mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses. Our Agriculture Bill will recognise animal welfare as a public good and reward high standards of animal welfare, and we are also delivering on our manifesto commitments to end excessively long journeys for the fattening and slaughter of farm animals, to ban primates as pets and to introduce new laws on animal sentience.
As a veterinary surgeon, I was absolutely gutted that the amendment to the Agriculture Bill to uphold our high animal welfare and farming standards in trade deals was defeated this week. I am pleased that the Government have reassured us that products such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef will remain banned in the UK, but does my right hon. Friend agree that a practical solution to confirm that, along with bans on other products such as ractopamine-fed pork and those with excessive use of antimicrobials or growth promoters, would be to write those products into animal welfare chapters in trade deals? Does he agree that that makes sense and would make it clear that those products are off the table, allowing other acceptable products to be traded, driving up animal welfare standards around the world?
We will be using a range of tools to deliver on our manifesto commitment to protect food standards and animal welfare in all the trade agreements that we do, and we have three principal tools that we can use. First, we have the option to prohibit sales, as we already do, for instance, for chlorine-washed chicken and hormones in beef. Secondly, as my hon. Friend points out, we can use the sanitary and phytosanitary chapter, which is a feature of all trade agreements, to dictate the terms of access when it comes to food safety in particular. Thirdly, when it comes to issues such as animal welfare, we will use tariff policy to prevent unfair competition for our farmers.
DEFRA is working with officials across government to ensure that the flow of agricultural imports at UK borders continues after the transition period. We will introduce a phased approach to import controls for EU countries, to give businesses impacted by covid-19 time to adjust, while maintaining biosecurity controls.
As the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said in its report, covid-19 has showed that we need to get food through the borders very quickly. We have a just-in-time food system, so getting imports in after the transitional period is exceptionally necessary. I am also very concerned about exports. Imports are largely in our hands, but exports are largely in the hands of the French. In any agreement we get, we must ensure that we have the right veterinary certificates, enough vets to write them and a process that will be recognised and honoured when we try to get exports of lamb and beef into the continent, because there will be a real problem otherwise.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have been doing a lot of work on business readiness with the sector—in particular, with meat processors—to ensure that they understand what will be required of them. Whether or not there is a further agreement with the EU, meat processors will need export health certificates. We have been working with the Animal and Plant Health Agency to ensure that there is capacity in the veterinary profession to deliver those export health certificates, and we are also ensuring that those companies understand the customs procedures that they would need to go through.
It was recently revealed that the UK Government withheld information from the devolved Administrations about the risk of food shortages at the end of the transition period. How was the Department involved in discussions on that risk, and why were such vital assumptions, which the documents acknowledged would impact on devolved Administrations’ planning, hidden from them for so long?
I do not recognise the claim that this was hidden from them. I regularly meet Fergus Ewing and other devolved Administration Ministers to discuss this. They now join the EU Exit Operations Sub-Committee, which is a part of the Cobra Committee, planning for the end of the transition period. The devolved Administrations are fully engaged in all our planning.
Food Production Standards: Trade Deals
Our manifesto was clear that, in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. We have retained in law our existing standards of protection, and we have laid before the House our negotiating objectives, stating that we will uphold them.
The answer is simple: we have all the powers that we need in law to deliver our manifesto commitment already. As I said earlier, we will use a range of tools, including tariff policy, to prevent our farmers from being undermined by lower standards of animal welfare in other countries, and the sanitary and phytosanitary chapter of trade agreements. We do not need new powers to be able to deliver on our manifesto commitment.
Flooding: Grant Schemes
For localised flooding, we expect local authorities to have established contingency measures. In exceptional circumstances, the Government activate their flood recovery framework, which was last triggered following the severe flooding in February 2020. It is designed to support communities affected by meeting immediate recovery needs and comprises the community recovery grant, the business recovery grant, council tax discount schemes and business rate relief schemes. Additionally, the Government may activate a property flood resilience recovery scheme.
I would like to give my hon. Friend every assurance that we have been working extremely hard on this. The Government have doubled their funding in the next flood defence programme to £5.2 billion —more than ever before—which will better protect 336,000 properties. In the summer, we allocated £170 million to shovel-ready flood defence projects, and we have another £200 million for some innovative projects, because we realise that the demands are changing with climate change. That is why the new flood policy statement that the Secretary of State and I have worked on sets out a holistic approach to tackling this changing canvas, and nature-based solutions will be a big part of that.
Pick for Britain and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Schemes
The Pick for Britain campaign generated huge interest—the website has received nearly 2 million unique page views since its launch—resulting in a significant increase in the numbers of UK-based workers filling seasonal roles in horticulture. DEFRA and the Home Office have been working closely to ensure the successful operation of the seasonal workers pilot and to undertake an effective assessment. The evaluation of the pilot is ongoing, and the results will be announced in due course.
Giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee several weeks ago, the Secretary of State claimed that one third of the seasonal horticultural workforce in 2020 was from the UK workforce. Could the Secretary of State provide the evidence to support that claim, and could he confirm what plans his Department has to meet the industry urgently to plan for next year’s labour requirements?
During the last summer season, I had regular dialogue and discussions with a number of companies involved in the horticulture sector. The general picture is that, at the beginning of the season, they did find a reasonably good or significant number of domestic workers who were keen to take these roles, and in many cases it was about a third of the workforce. Anecdotally, the reports are that it then drifted down during the course of the season and was typically below about 20% by the end of the season, but this came from a range of anecdotal evidence provided to us directly by growers.
Next year is a really important year for the environment internationally, with the UK hosting COP26 on climate change in October, but also with the convention on biological diversity taking place, where biodiversity targets to replace the Aichi targets will be agreed. The UK has been working on a leaders’ pledge for nature, which over 70 world leaders have now signed. We are also working to secure better targets on biodiversity and to make nature-based solutions a key part of our approach to tackling climate change.
The world needs to stop the loss of species and endangered species need the conservation work of zoos, so I applauded when the Government announced their £100 million package to support zoos and the vital conservation work they do, but then I discovered the eligibility criterion that they must have less than 12 weeks’ reserves. The trustees of any zoo with less than 12 weeks’ reserves would already have declared voluntary liquidation, so will the Secretary of State look again at the criterion, replace it with one based on percentage of revenue lost and—
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman was making. It is important to note that we had a smaller zoo fund to support small zoos, which was announced earlier. This fund is for the very large zoos, and many of them do have large reserves. It is right that we expect them to use those reserves before they come to us, but they can apply for the fund before those reserves run out, and we have increased it from six weeks to 12 weeks.
There has been a problem for some years in the fact that the levy is collected at the point of slaughter, and Scottish farmers have raised with us a concern that animals crossing the border meant they did not capture all of the levy. We have now put in place the powers to address that, which is indeed very good news for our Scottish farmers.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that he has a plan to let food produced to lower standards in to Britain if a few extra pence is charged on tariffs, meaning that our farmers will still be undercut if tariff protection is introduced as an excuse to allowing lower quality food into our country?
I think the hon. Gentleman perhaps misunderstands the current situation in that it is already possible for these countries to sell us goods at a particular tariff provided they meet our sanitary and phytosanitary standards, and that will not change. However, tariff policy is the best tool in the box to address issues such as animal welfare.
At the end of the transition period, the existing animal welfare regulations and the prohibition on sale, for instance, of hormones in beef will be retained in UK law, but our new Agriculture Bill will also strengthen animal welfare and reward farmers for high systems of animal welfare.
There has been a long-standing arrangement between Norway and the EU under which, broadly speaking, Norway has some access to blue whiting in the North sea and in return the EU—we have a share of this—has some access to Arctic cod. Those negotiations are about to commence again. This year there will be an EU-Norway bilateral to decide these matters.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are aware of this, and it is one of the issues that we are seeking to address at a technical level and through the Joint Committee process for resolving how these finer details of the Northern Ireland protocol will work.
Earlier this summer, we issued a consultation on having mandatory contracts in the dairy sector. That is something that I have long felt is important, since dairy farmers, perhaps more than any others, all too often are price takers. We will be considering that consultation and the responses we received, and we intend to bring forward legislation under the future agriculture Bill. I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s constituent.
We introduced a number of measures to support those struggling to afford food during the initial lockdown and over the summer months. It is the case that, as unemployment rises, we are likely to see more such need, so the Government keep this under review. Obviously, through projects such as FareShare, we do support the redistribution of food to help those people, but we keep all these matters under review.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course I would be happy to meet him to discuss this matter. I think that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), has already met him and others to discuss it, but we are of course happy to meet again.
I used to run a strawberry farm, so I am familiar with this challenge, but everybody needs to be trained at some point to do this sort of work, whether they are a foreign worker or a domestic worker. We are looking at the mix of this and are in discussions with the Home Office about arrangements for next year.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Covid-19: Parliamentary Estate
The House of Commons Commission does not hold data on the proportion of people with permanent passes to the Parliamentary estate who have tested positive for covid-19. Where data is recorded in relation to the House of Commons, a total of 11 positive test results have been recorded for the period March to October 2020.
My hope is that as many Members as possible will take the opportunity to have the flu jab this year. The House of Commons does not collate any particular information on that, but I think all of us in the House would encourage all our constituents and all Members of Parliament to do what they can to secure the flu jab to keep everybody safe.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Church Attendance and Participation
The “A Church Near You” website advertises 17,000 regular Church of England virtual services and events, and those are only a portion of all that is on offer. Weddings and funerals are also often livestreamed, as my own daughter’s was in the summer, and my hon. Friends will be pleased to know that Carlisle cathedral streamed ordinations earlier this month and that St Martin’s, Liskeard will have a drive-in carol service in Morrisons car park on 20 December, which will also be livestreamed.
I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, it has been at first impossible and latterly difficult to enable church congregations to meet physically as they used to. However, churches up and down the land have done amazingly by offering virtual services, prayer sessions and courses such as Alpha courses, meaning that many additional people who had never been to church before are now involved in a church. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking churches of all denominations who have done so much during the pandemic to serve their local communities, ranging from worship opportunities to physical care, food distribution and pastoral support?
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for what he said. Of course, I am delighted to do so. I am sure, in fact, that the whole House would like to thank clergy, staff and volunteers who have risen to the challenge of maintaining worship and meeting need in a magnificent manner. They have been astonishingly present throughout the pandemic.
I can tell my hon. Friend that the Church made a significant investment in a new digital communications team back in 2016. The training has been used by over 4,000 clergy. Over 7 million people have used our daily prayer apps. Nearly 3 million people have watched national online services, with about a fifth of those being people who rarely go to church or do not go at all. The good news is that the Church is reaching more people than ever before.
Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals: Attendance Restrictions
The Government have kept in constant touch with the Church of England, all denominations and all faiths throughout the pandemic. Dioceses, parishes and cathedrals are quickly notified of any changes to law or guidance.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but how can we ensure that we do not put any further restrictions on baptisms, weddings and funerals? Does my hon. Friend agree that those ceremonies must be supported and that we cannot have another six months of cancellations?
Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse
As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, the findings of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse are “shameful and disgraceful” and remind us how badly we have treated and continue to treat victims and survivors. All the recommendations are going to the House of Bishops on Monday for urgent response and action.
Any Church should be a haven for children and young people to be able to grow in Christ but to do so in safety. The report found that 390 clergy and leaders in the Church of England were convicted of child abuse between the 1940s and 2018, but many more will have evaded punishment for their crimes. In fact, in 2018 alone, we heard that 449 concerns were raised about child sexual abuse relating to church leaders, so does the Commissioner agree that historical complaints against living alleged perpetrators must be investigated and justice brought for their victims? Can he outline what action the Church is taking to ensure that those found guilty of offences are removed as a threat to children?
I can indeed. The House of Bishops is urgently and very seriously considering the recommendations, including deposition from holy orders. We will address both practice and culture within the Church and are working on a redress scheme for victims and survivors, and we fully co-operate with all police investigations.
Parliamentary works sponsor body
The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
Parliamentary Estate: Planning Authority
The sponsor body has not assessed the merits of the approach recommended by my hon. Friend, but that was considered by the Joint Committee on the Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill. It recognised that there was no easy way to streamline the process but that engagement is key, and that is the advice that the programme seeks to heed.
I encourage the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body to look again at Parliament creating itself as its own planning authority, as in the past there have been difficulties carrying out parliamentary works when that has involved Westminster City Council, the Greater London Authority and others. I believe that that would create a much easier method for restoration and renewal. Will my right hon. Friend look at this issue again?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, wider planning considerations affecting the parliamentary estate are a matter for the parliamentary authorities rather than the programme itself. I just mention that enacting the change that he mentioned would require primary legislation or an amendment to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019, which, as they say in House business management circles, would have to compete against other priorities.
Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Digital technology offers significant opportunities to engage voters, but the commission’s report on the 2019 general election highlighted significant public concerns about the transparency of digital election campaigns. At its meeting on 24 March 2020, the Committee approved the commission’s interim corporate plan, which includes plans to address voter concerns about digital campaigning. This includes voter awareness work, with a particular focus on digital campaigning, and the commission will also support the UK Government as they develop and implement new requirements for imprints on digital campaign material.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his full answer. Other than an all-out military attack, there are few things that pose a greater threat to our way of life than concerted foreign interference in our election processes. The commission has repeatedly warned of the need for greater regulation of online campaigning, and the Intelligence and Security Committee found that Russia is actively seeking to use social media and other online methods to exert a malign influence on elections in the United Kingdom. What commitments have the commission or the Speaker’s Committee had from the Government that they will take effective action to address these threats before our national and local elections are scheduled for next year?
The commission works to protect the integrity of elections and the public’s confidence in it. There are limits to the activities that it can lead. The legal powers and remit stop at the UK borders. It looks to others to lead important activities outside political finance regulations, such as ensuring that elections are free from foreign interference. It supports the UK Government and security services in that area of work. It has made recommendations to the UK Government that would improve the transparency of digital campaigning, ensuring that voters know who is trying to influence them online, and provide the commission with better powers. This would reduce the risk of interference from overseas organisations or individuals.
Chair of the Electoral Commission
As required under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Speaker’s Committee put in place and oversees the process for selecting candidates for appointment as electoral commissioners, including the chair. The Committee’s duty encompasses the recommendation of candidates for reappointment. There is no presumption in the statute either for or against reappointment. At its meeting on 16 July, the Committee took the decision to commence recruitment for a new chair to replace Sir John Holmes, whose term comes to an end in December. That recruitment process will begin shortly.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and I pass on my best wishes to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who would normally be here but I think is unwell at the moment. I congratulate the Speaker’s Committee on what it has done; it has effectively fired the chairman of the Electoral Commission. Does the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) agree that one of the reasons for firing him was the fact that he oversaw the persecution of innocent people whose only so-called crime was wanting to take part in the democratic process and to ensure that the UK left the European Union?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Yes, it is not unusual for public appointments to end after one term. The Committee is grateful to Sir John for his four years of service in this very important role. The chair, and all commissioners who are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen following a recommendation from the House, work under a strict code of conduct during their time as commissioners. That requires and ensures impartiality and fairness, and is policed assiduously.
May 2021 Local Elections: Registration and Participation
The commission is experienced at driving voter registration across the UK and across demographics. That is delivered through paid advertising, the generation of media coverage, and partnership activity with local authorities, charities and others. Most recently, ahead of the 2019 general election, 2.6 million people were registered during the period of the commission’s campaign. Ahead of the next elections, the commission’s work will include additional public information communications to ensure that voters understand how their experience at polling stations may differ from normal, and the measures that will be put in place to ensure that they can vote safely.
The Minister for the Constitution recently confirmed that no new funding will be available to local authorities for the running of the May 2021 elections. Is the Electoral Commission content that enough funding is available to put in place the necessary measures to ensure that the May 2021 elections are covid-secure?
The commission has been working with colleagues across the electoral community to consider the potential impacts of the pandemic on the delivery of polls in May 2021. It is also liaising with the relevant public health authorities to ensure that its work is informed by the latest analysis and advice. The commission is now preparing to deliver its core functions in relation to public awareness and information for voters, and the provision of guidance to ensure that electoral administrators and campaigners have what they need to ensure that the polls are delivered safely and efficiently.
A key pillar of democracy is that everyone should have access to an equal vote without discrimination based on wealth, class or race. The Minister for the Constitution recently confirmed that no legislative changes would be put in place to enable more flexible forms of voting for the May 2021 elections in the context of covid-19, so what is the Electoral Commission’s view on introducing new innovative ways of voting to reduce queuing and ensure social distancing, such as early voting and drive-through voting, so that people do not have to choose between their health and the right to vote?
The commission will ensure that people understand the full range of voting options available that will enable them to participate safely in next May’s polls, including the process and timelines of how to appoint a proxy or apply for a postal vote. Its priority will be to ensure that voters have all the information that they need to make the right decision for their individual circumstances. Voters at local government by-elections in Scotland can now appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf if they require to do so following medical or Government advice to isolate or quarantine on polling day. The commission recommends that the UK and Welsh Governments should implement similar proposals for elections in May 2021.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Renting of Church Premises
Around 60% of parish income comes from giving, but rental income from halls and other premises has been badly affected, so I would strongly encourage Christians to increase their giving to their local church if they are able to do so, to support our ability to tell more people the good news of Jesus and, critically, to support the 35,000 social action projects helping children who are homeless and vulnerable.
St Mary’s in Aylesbury is a grade 1 listed community treasure that is fundraising for much-needed repair and restoration, but it has lost about 40% of its overall income this year due to coronavirus, notwithstanding the commitment of members of the congregation who are paying by standing order, which is still being done. However, events such as lunchtime concerts, craft fairs and civic services have all been cancelled, so what will the Church do to help parishes such as St Mary’s financially during the current crisis?
I very much recognise the picture that my hon. Friend paints of what is happening at St Mary’s in Aylesbury. I can tell him that, nationally, the Church has provided a sustainability fund to respond to the financial pressures caused by covid, and I also want to thank the Culture Secretary for the £10.7 million for vital repair work for 66 churches and cathedrals, and for what it will do to keep key craftsmen and women in work. I would welcome my hon. Friend’s support in engaging the Government with the Taylor review recommendations to support the maintenance of churches like St Mary’s in Aylesbury in a sustainable and long-term manner.
Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Electoral Commission Impartiality
In its most recent public opinion survey, in February this year, the words most frequently used by voters to describe the commission were “independent”, “important” and “professional”. The commission plays a vital role in maintaining fairness, trust and confidence in our democratic processes, both as a whole and in the nations of the UK. Its work ensures that UK election processes are accepted and that the funding and spending at elections and referendums are transparent.
The Darren Grimes case flagged up some serious concerns about the capacity and ability of the Electoral Commission to prosecute cases. In fact, the trial judge found the Electoral Commission to be at fault for reversing the normal criminal justice burden of proof. Surely this undermines the concept of political impartiality. What steps are being taken to improve the investigative processes of the commission?
The commission’s legal fees in that case were approximately £228,000, including solicitors’ fees of £138,000 and barristers’ fees of £90,000. The commission also paid £535,000 towards Mr Grimes’ legal costs. Significant amounts of money are being spent in campaigning to influence voters, and it is right that the regulator for political finance should investigate and make findings on evidence of concerns. It is also right that the regulator should defend its findings in court. On this occasion, the court did not agree with the commission’s findings, and it accepts that decision.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Church of England Estate: Woodland
In December 2019, the Church Commissioners had 53% of their global land, 27.5% of their UK land and 4% of their English land in forestry, and we also own pooled timber funds in the United States.
The 4% English cover puts it at the very bottom of the list. As I understand it, there are 105,000 acres in England. Why is the figure so low? Is there not a strategy to increase that cover, given that we know how important the role of trees is in natural carbon sequestration? Could the Church of England not do an awful lot better when it comes to England?
Like the hon. Lady, I strongly want to see more trees planted, and can tell her that so far this year we have planted 1.1 million trees in the UK, on top of the 2.6 million last year. We are always looking to plant more trees, but most of our rural estate is high-quality agricultural land, and is held in long-term tenancies to produce food.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Electoral Commission: Political Independence
The Electoral Commission’s independence is established in statute. It is a public body, independent of Government and accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, as well as to Parliaments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Its independence is a vital part of ensuring that it is able to deliver its functions, and its work is integral to maintaining a democratic system that commands the trust and confidence of voters.
Apologies, Mr Speaker. I have only been here 19 years; I am just getting used to it.
I welcome the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) to his place and send best wishes to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for a speedy recovery.
I recently undertook election monitoring training with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. One of the features of any good democratic process is an independent electoral commission, and that is what we have—one that is not afraid to take on the governing party, if necessary, from time to time. I therefore encourage the hon. Member to resist some of the calls from Conservative Members and from the Conservative party to abolish the Electoral Commission, and to ensure, as is required, that the new chair appointed is someone who is not a member of any political party, has not served as an MP, and has not donated to a political party in the past five years.
The independence of the commission plays a vital role in maintaining the legitimacy of our democracy, working across the four nations of the UK. It works closely with Parliaments and campaigners to create a strong culture of compliance, and ensures that the processes of registering votes and casting votes are carried out rigorously and transparently. The commission’s work is integral to those functions.