Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 4 March 2021

House of Commons

Thursday 4 March 2021

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.] 

Business before Questions

Report of the Holliday Inquiry

Resolved,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report, entitled Report of the Holliday Inquiry: inquiry into award of the Magnox decommissioning contract by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, related litigation and its subsequent termination.—(Kwasi Kwarteng.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Bridleways

If he will increase the number of bridleways to improve the safety of horse riders; and if he will make a statement. (912934)

The Government share my hon. Friend’s ambition to improve safety and access for horse riders. Our 25-year environment plan and landscapes review explain how we will help to connect people with nature. Our new environmental land management schemes will include payments to ensure that those goods are delivered.

The Minister will be aware that as more and more building takes place in villages, more traffic is put on the road, which presents a danger to horse riders. Just last year alone, 46 horses were killed and 130 riders were injured. One way in which more access could be provided is by allowing horse riders to use footpaths, for example, and there are many other ideas. Will she work with me and others who are concerned about this issue to try to improve access to bridleways for horse riders?

I would be delighted to do that. I have first-hand experience of negotiating bridleways over motorway bridges and level crossings with two small daughters on their ponies, and I very much appreciate that one of the benefits of improving the bridleway network will be increased safety. The schemes we are introducing will incentivise farmers to enhance public access across the piece.

Scottish Fishing Businesses

What assessment he has made of the effect of the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement on Scottish fishing businesses. (912935)

Under the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement, the UK has secured tariff-free access for fisheries products and a substantial transfer of quota from the European Union, benefiting fishing communities across the UK, including Scotland. The transfer is equivalent to 25% of the value of the EU’s historic catch in UK waters, worth £146 million delivered over five years. All fisheries Administrations will have regulatory control, giving Scotland powers over the largest part of the UK’s exclusive economic zone.

At the beginning of the year, the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box and told Members that difficulties with the UK-EU fishing trade were just “teething problems”, but two months on those problems are still ongoing, and the Government’s compensation fund is clearly insufficient. On Tuesday, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told that in the medium term, we will see a lot more of the smaller companies stopping trade in Europe, and it may ultimately be their demise. That is terrible news for the East Neuk in North East Fife and their fishing fleet. Does the Secretary of State still agree with the words that he wrote in 2016, when he said:

“From the point of view of the fishing industry, the case for leaving the EU is overwhelming”?

Yes, I do still believe that, and we have a 25% uplift in quota as a result of the trade and co-operation agreement and regulatory freedom that we did not have before. It is worth noting that we are now seeing lorry loads of fish clearing border control posts in France typically in under an hour—sometimes a little longer, but it is an improving situation. Volumes of trade are back up to around 85% of normal volumes.

The Prime Minister said a week ago that he thought the fishing industry could be saved if we only ate more British fish. Two months ago, the Leader of the House said that the fish are “happier” because of Brexit. In January, the DEFRA Secretary said the collapse of exports was a “teething problem”. Can the flippancy end now, and can we get some serious answers for the industry? Some Scottish businesses still face three-day waits to get their fresh fish to EU markets. Does the Government not accept that they have got it wrong and that the taskforces and other sticking plasters are not enough? Will they get back to the negotiating table with the EU, eat some humble pie and accept whatever regulatory alignment and other measures are necessary to save the industry?

As I said, volumes of fish exports are currently running at about 85% of normal volumes. Given coronavirus and the lockdown in the EU, we think that is probably about the right level, given the stress to the markets in the European Union. It is an improving situation. Well over half of all consignments now clear border control posts within an hour, and typically in 45 minutes. Over 90% are clearing them within three hours, so we do not recognise the figure that the hon. Lady gives of three days.

Biodiversity

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—Mr Speaker! Goodness gracious me, I am so sorry. Gosh! Apologies.

Biodiversity definitely matters, and it is critical that we act now internationally and at home in this crucial year for nature and biodiversity. In England, our Environment Bill sets out a strong legal foundation for improving the environment, and we have introduced substantial new funding for nature, including the nature for climate and green recovery challenge funds. We have protected 40% of English waters across 178 marine protected areas, and we have committed to protecting 30% of our land by 2030.

Will the Government ensure that nature-friendly farming is at the heart of our replacement for the common agricultural policy, and will securing a global switch to sustainable and nature-friendly farming be a core goal for us at COP26?

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has given me the chance to say that we on the Front Bench—every single one of the Ministers and the Secretary of State—are absolutely committed to nature-friendly farming, and there will be schemes through the new environmental land management system that will reward it. The sustainable farming incentive will support approaches to farm husbandry that will help the environment. That might include propagating integrated pest management and actions to improve soil health and water quality. Local nature recovery will pay for actions that support local nature recovery and deliver local environmental priorities, with farmers potentially collaborating. Finally, landscape recovery will support much wider landscape-scale and ecosystem recovery through long-term change of land use and projects. Internationally, that work continues with our Darwin initiative and many more things, and we will bring all those into COP26.

Office for Environmental Protection

Now that we have left the European Union, we have the opportunity to do things better. We will innovate and improve our environmental and agricultural standards, enabling us to identify where we can deliver better environmental outcomes more effectively and in ways that better align with our regulatory systems.

Apologies, Mr Speaker. Work to establish the Office for Environmental Protection continues at pace. We have appointed the chair and interim CEO, with non-executive directors to follow, and the headquarters will be in Worcester.

Lockdown has highlighted the importance of our environment, with the positive effects of good air quality, access to green spaces and connecting with nature for our health and wellbeing. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on the remit of the new independent regulator and on what the interim Office for Environmental Protection will be able to do to maintain those important protections, as we seek to enhance and protect our natural environment?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The interim OEP will be able to produce an independent assessment of the Government’s progress towards their 25-year environment plan and receive complaints about failures of public authorities to comply with environmental law. It will take decisions on operational matters such as recruitment, accommodation and facilities; develop the OEP strategy, including its enforcement policy; and determine approaches to how the OEP will form and operate.

May I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson)? I am a fellow Greater Manchester MP, and my constituents in Heywood and Middleton also put a very high premium on our natural environment, especially as we are in a city region. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to implement the measures in the Environment Bill ahead of Royal Assent?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although the timetable for the Environment Bill has slipped by a few months, we are working at pace to implement the policies and measures behind it. We have announced Dame Glenys Stacey as the chair of the OEP and Worcester as its HQ, and it will launch on an interim basis in July. We are also progressing work on developing targets. We have already published a policy paper and set up working groups, and we are developing proposals for a consultation. We will launch further consultations on a raft of measures to be brought forward under the Environment Bill, including relating to packaging and waste collection reforms.

Now that we are no longer a member of the European Union, it is vital that all steps are taken to ensure that the UK has the strongest possible protections for our environment. That is why so many of us are confused that the Tories weakened their own Environment Bill in Committee by voting down cross-party amendments that would have strengthened the OEP and made the Bill fit for purpose. Can the Secretary of State finally confirm that, when the Environment Bill eventually comes back to the House, he will support all steps to make the OEP—which was promised to Bristol and the south-west but is now headed for Worcester—fit for purpose and fit for the 21st century?

I believe it is fit for purpose. We have set up an independent Office for Environmental Protection that has powers to investigate. It will have powers to bring a judicial review, and powers to investigate and follow up on any complaints that the law has been broken. Crucially, as well, it has been given some work to develop those targets, and also to comment on progress towards both the targets and our environmental plan.

Flood Re: Consultation

We published a consultation on amendments to the Flood Re scheme on 1 February 2021 on DEFRA’s consultation hub. We drew public attention to this through a press notice to the media, which received positive coverage. In addition, the consultation has been communicated to a range of stakeholders, including members of the property flood resilience roundtable. The consultation will close on 26 April 2021, and I would encourage all interested parties to engage in it.

We have just passed the one-year anniversary of the devastating flooding that hit my community of Pontypridd in February 2020. Sadly, far too many people are still unable to get affordable home insurance, and it is clear that there are serious problems with the Flood Re scheme in its current form. Will the Minister, as part of this consultation, please agree to meet me and some of the residents affected in my community to hear at first hand about the problems with Flood Re?

I thank the hon. Lady for that, and of course, as ever, I have huge sympathy with anyone who has suffered flooding; it is not a nice experience. But Flood Re is doing everything it can to ensure that people can get flood insurance. It was introduced in 2016, and since then 96% of those with prior flood claims were able to get five or more insurance quotes. So this is really moving, but we are doing the consultation because if tweaks need to be made, we will make them. We very much look forward to hearing views. Do input to the consultation—

I am very happy to meet anybody who wants to make suggestions of how the whole system could work more effectively.

Too many people in flood risk areas cannot afford and do not have adequate insurance. Flood Re strongly supports flood cover being a standard part of household insurance, as recommended by the Blanc review. Can the Minister confirm what steps her Department is taking to ensure that this recommendation is implemented, and by when?

I thank the hon. Member for that. It is very important that those who might be susceptible to flooding can get hold of the right insurance. We are doing a great deal of work on this. She refers to the independent review of flood insurance. It was actually a special review taken around the Doncaster area to look at the lessons learned there. It has reported with its recommendations, and the Government are looking at that with a view to taking on board suggestions that may be helpful in this space.

Import Checks: Live Animals and Products

What preparations his Department is making prior to the implementation of checks on imports of (a) animal and germinal products and (b) live animals from the EU in July 2021. (912940)

We are already conducting some checks on live animals, with full documentary checks and physical checks being conducted at the premises of destination. We plan to introduce some documentary checks on products of animal origin next month and then begin some physical checks from July onwards, and also to introduce similar checks on plant products later this year. Recruitment of staff by the port health authorities is at an advanced stage.

On Tuesday, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard from a series of our fish and meat exporters to the EU who are struggling with the paperwork system imposed by the EU and its border officials. One exporter in Brixham needed over 70 pages of paperwork for one consignment of fish. When we start making checks this summer, we could insist on 140 pages of paperwork for EU imports, if we wanted to. However, could we, in our mutual interest, negotiate with the EU a digital system to make it easier for our businesses both to export and to import?

Unlike the European Union, we have taken a pragmatic approach to phasing in border controls, so that we can protect business supply chains and UK consumers, but when we do start to introduce those export health certificates, they will be certificates that are of a similar form to those of the European Union, since they are derived from retained EU law. I understand the point my hon. Friend is making, but we should also remain conscious that the primary focus of these checks is to protect food standards and animal health. Over time, the European Union may diverge from British law or may suffer variable enforcement between member states, and the UK needs the ability to protect British consumers and to operate food safety surveillance of other EU member states.

Flood Resilience

In July 2020 we published a long-term statement setting out our

“ambition to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk”,

and it contained five key policies and over 40 actions to better protect and prepare the country. We are investing £5.2 billion to build 2,000 new flood defences over the next six years; this is a serious commitment and it will better protect 336,000 properties.

I thank the Minister for her response and also for meeting me and the Environment Agency in January to discuss various issues surrounding flooding in Bassetlaw. Can the Minister update us on the progress of the proposed £6.5 million scheme in West Stockwith with local stakeholders?

I was very pleased to meet my hon. Friend and the EA to discuss this issue. He is a great campaigner for his local community. The West Stockwith pumping station evacuates flood water into the Trent at times of flood; elements of the station are at the end of their design life, and the Environment Agency is working with its partners to consider competing water demands in the area to develop an outline business case to replace these. There is a £5.5 million grant-in-aid indicative allocation in the capital programme for 2020-21 to 2023-24 for this work, and, crucially, the work will protect around 68 homes.

Illegal Puppy Trade

What recent discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations on bringing forward legislative proposals to help tackle the illegal puppy trade. (912942)

Puppy smuggling is abhorrent. We operate a rigorous pet-checking regime and work collaboratively to share intelligence, disrupt illegal imports and seize non-compliant animals. Officials liaise closely with devolved Administration colleagues, and they meet fortnightly to discuss developments, although of course often they speak in between these formal meetings as well.

I thank the Minister for that response. Puppy smuggling is a trade carried out outside current regulations and it causes considerable distress and suffering. Does the Minister agree with charities such as the Dogs Trust that we need tougher penalties right across the UK for those caught smuggling puppies, in order to ensure that there is a real deterrent in place to tackle this horrific trade?

DEFRA is considering a range of possible measures, which may result in legislative change. We are listening to a group of stakeholders, including the Dogs Trust, and the recommendations that they and the EFRA Committee made relatively recently will inform our policy making in this important area.

Flood Defences

This month will see the completion of the Government’s six-year £2.6 billion investment programme to deliver over 1,000 flood schemes, better protecting 300,000 homes from flooding. Starting in April, the Government will invest £5.2 billion in a six-year investment programme to deliver 2,000 flood schemes, protecting 336,000 properties from flooding. Alongside this programme, a further £170 million will be invested to accelerate work on 22 shovel-ready projects for defence schemes, and construction on these will begin from March 2022.

I thank the Minister for that response and also for meeting me and the Environment Agency yesterday. As she knows, Bewdley in my constituency has suffered from two once-in-100-year floods in the last 18 months alone. While the western bank of the River Severn is protected by impressive demountable flood barriers, the eastern bank, known as Beales Corner, has been protected just by temporary barriers and by property-level resilience, and this year the temporary barriers collapsed catastrophically and the property-level resilience all but failed. The Minister is very familiar with Bewdley, having kindly visited last year during the flooding, and she knows that the Environment Agency is working up plans to provide a permanent solution to floods at Beales Corner, but can she promise me that she will work with me, the Environment Agency and the residents of Beales Corner to deliver on the pledge made by the Prime Minister when he visited Bewdley last year that we will finally “get Bewdley done”?

As my hon. Friend knows, I was very sorry to hear of the flooding of the 19 properties at Beales Corner on 22 January, when the temporary flood defences failed. He kept well in touch with me on that at the time, and we have since met, as he said, which I was pleased, and always am pleased, to do. I give him an assurance that the Environment Agency is working really hard with the local authority and partners—and indeed with him—to develop the business case for a permanent flood scheme at Beales Corner. He knows that I take a very close interest, from a ministerial perspective, in this and all areas relating to it, including just working out how it will be possible and the funding options. I urge him to keep up the good work that he is doing in Bewdley.

Agricultural Policy: Farmers

Since 2018, we have been working with farmers to build up ideas and gain their insights. So far, more than 3,000 farmers have helped us to develop aspects of our new approach through 72 tests and trials. Our co-design approach includes the sustainable farming incentive pilot, which will open for expressions of interest shortly. We will also be working with farmers on various consultations and on policies, in particular to address the causes of poor profitability.

Last year, I visited a dairy farm near Penistone in my constituency that is using new technologies to increase efficiency and improve yields. That is a great example of innovation in farming that can lead to a bright future for the dairy industry. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how his Department is supporting farmers to remove barriers to adopting new technologies that they need so that they can become more competitive?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Dairy businesses such as the one she refers to in her constituency are embracing technology and innovation, and we want to support them to go further. Over the last three years, we have provided around £75 million to farmers to help them purchase new and innovative technology. From autumn this year, the new farming investment fund will help farmers, including those in the dairy sector, to build on the progress already made by offering them grants. We will also be launching a new approach, with research and development syndicates to support individual farm businesses with research and development of technology.

Untreated Sewage: Discharge

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and other inland waters. (912947)

Water companies are committed over the next five years to a £1.1 billion programme to improve the monitoring and management of sewage discharges. However, I have made it clear to water companies that more action is needed. That is why we have established the storm overflows taskforce, which has agreed to set a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows and is working on plans to start progress towards that goal.

The River Lea, which runs through my constituency, is well used for water sports by many clubs and schools, and it is much loved. Sadly, it is also one of the most polluted waterways in the UK; in 2019 alone, Thames Water spent over 1,100 hours discharging raw sewage into the River Lea. When will the Government finally hold water companies to account to protect our waterways properly?

The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue, and indeed the Department is taking it very seriously. In fairness, as I said, water companies already spend £1.1 billion to improve their monitoring and discharging, but we have set up the taskforce to hold their feet to the fire to come up with some measures for how we can set this long-term goal of getting rid of these sewage outlets once and for all. They will be doing more real-time data checking, so we will have the relevant data that we need soon, and they will be installing more monitoring devices, but the taskforce will report back in the spring on further actions that we may be able to work on.

Fish Products: Standards

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on ensuring that fish products imported from the EU are subject to the same standards and requirements as fish products exported to the EU. (912949)

I regularly have discussions with Cabinet colleagues on this issue, in particular through the Cabinet Sub-Committee dealing with EU exit. Import controls on fish products are being introduced in stages. Imports of most fish products have required illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing documentation since January. That includes a catch certificate. We plan to introduce documentary checks for export health on imported fish from April and some physical checks from July.

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the efforts he is making to iron out the wrinkles in the export of fish products from the UK. However, if these problems persist, why do we not serve notice on our friends in the EU that with immediate effect we intend to treat the import of fish products from EU countries in precisely the same way that our fish exports to EU countries, especially France, are currently being treated—regulatory equivalence? Would that not help to bring people to the table to resolve the current disruption being suffered by our fishing industry?

As I said to the Chair of the Select Committee earlier, when we start to introduce those checks they will indeed be equivalent and similar to the types of checks that the European Union is currently requiring on our own fish exports. At that point, I hope there will be an opportunity for some discussion about how we can each ensure that we have the right safeguards for our respective markets in a way that is more user-friendly and more pragmatic. There are countries in the world that have better and more developed systems for doing this documentation than the European Union.

Topical Questions

When it comes to pesticides policy, the Government apply the precautionary principle. Emergency authorisations are an integral part of the precautionary principle, because they allow restrictions on a precautionary basis for certain products while allowing their use where there is a risk that cannot be controlled by any other means. At the beginning of the year, applying that principle, the Government granted an emergency authorisation for the use of thiamethoxam on sugar beet. Sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and we applied a strict condition, which is that the pest pressure should be assessed over the winter months and that the product should only be used if it were deemed necessary and the pest pressure passed a certain threshold. I can tell the House that earlier this week that analysis was published. The threshold was not met due to some of the cold weather we have had. Therefore, the terms of the emergency authorisation are not met and the neonicotinoid in question will not be used this year.

The fishing and fish processing industry continues to be affected by the closure of hospitality nationwide and the impact of border friction arising from Brexit, which has also weakened sales in key Asian markets such as Korea. Will the Secretary of State volunteer his Fisheries Ministers to meet further with me and affected employees? Can he also confirm that the replacement for the European fisheries fund will also benefit the fish processing sector, as well as the fishermen themselves?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. My ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), was nodding to give her assent to a meeting. Indeed, I would also be more than happy to meet fish processors in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can confirm that the new £100 million fund to develop the fishing industry and infrastructure will be open to fish processors. In addition, those fish processors who have had issues during January, due to the new administrative processes, in exporting to the European Union, are eligible for the fisheries disruption fund and many have already applied.

Fishing boats are tied up and fish exporters are tied up with red tape. Fishing was promised a sea of opportunity, but the reality is that many fishing businesses are on the verge of collapse. Much of the so-called extra fish may not even exist or be able to be caught by British boats. The fishing industry feels betrayed. Is it not now time for the Secretary of State to apologise to the fishing industry for the Brexit deal that his Government negotiated?

I have made it clear all along that the Government had hoped to get closer to a zonal attachment sharing arrangement in that first multi-annual agreement, but the EU has been required to forfeit 25% of the fish that it has historically caught in our waters—a significant uplift—as the price for continued access. That additional fishing quota is worth £140 million.

The pollock quota has gone down in the south-west. There is no apology and no sense of reality from the Secretary of State. He cannot wriggle out on this one—the net is closing in on him. The reality is that fishing has lost trust and confidence in the actions of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. For all the broken promises, fishing businesses have closed and others will follow. Why will the Secretary of State not apologise? What will he do to fix the mess that this incompetent Government have created for fishing communities nationwide?

As I said, we have seen, through the trade and co-operation agreement, a significant increase in quotas—25%, worth some £146 million. As we have left the single market and the customs union, there are some new administrative processes in place. That was challenging for the fishing sector during January, which is why we opened a fund to support it. Looking to the long term, however, we have regained control of regulations in our waters, which enables us to do conservation measures on places such as the Dogger Bank that were never possible as an EU country. It has also enabled us to ban pulse trawling in our waters. These are all things that could not be done while we were shackled to the common fisheries policy.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests stating that I am a trustee of World Horse Welfare. We have heard from my right hon. Friend this morning that lorryloads of fish are clearing the border in less than an hour, but Olympian Richard Davison tells me that horses that are used for dressage are taking between four and 10 hours to clear the border at Calais because of the requirement for equine health certificates. Please will the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to make sure that there is not a looming animal welfare crisis as temperatures increase and grand prix horses are left standing in lorries for hours on end? [R] (912896)

My right hon. Friend is right that the EU has chosen to introduce new import controls on GB livestock, including that they must enter through a border control post. Border control posts will be designed to take account of animal welfare need. The border control post at Calais for equines is one such post. We are working very hard with the European Commission to ensure that any disruption to traffic, especially across the short straits, does not lead to welfare issues. I would be grateful if she could get in touch with me directly with any specific examples and I will take them up.

A recent report by the Disability Benefits Consortium said that many disabled people faced a choice between heating and eating during the pandemic and stated that unless legacy benefits were uplifted in line with universal credit, it would be “discriminatory”. Does the Secretary of State therefore feel that the Chancellor’s refusal to do this has discriminated against disabled people while undermining his job to tackle food poverty? (912895)

I do not accept that. Obviously, the Chancellor has made an announcement in relation to extending the universal credit uplift to help the financially vulnerable through the current situation. We also announced new rounds of funding late last year to support charities such as FareShare in food redistribution and to support other food charities to help those in need.

Over the last year, we have all learned how vital it is to have access to high-speed broadband, whether that is for home schooling, home working, home shopping or keeping in touch with our friends and families. For residents in cities, an internet connection can be taken for granted, but for many residents in the rural or less well-connected villages in Rother Valley—such as Harthill where I live, Netherthorpe, or even Treeton and Wales—connection is temperamental, slow and in some places completely lacking. We have all adapted to new ways of living and working as a result of the pandemic, but what assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that rural communities such as those in Rother Valley will not be left behind? (912897)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. All rural areas need good digital connectivity, including his constituency. The Government have delivered superfast broadband to more than 5 million premises, with 96% of UK premises now able to access superfast speeds. We are investing an unprecedented £5 billion to support deployment of gigabit broadband in the hardest-to-reach areas of the country.

Will the Minister make a very clear statement on the Government’s policy with respect to our peat bogs and recognise that they are an enormously powerful carbon sink as well as being important for water retention in flood prevention schemes? On that basis, will he agree to meet me and one or two colleagues virtually who, particularly in the south Pennines area, have a real interest in this issue? (912898)

I or one of my ministerial colleagues would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and others to discuss this. I completely agree with him that deep peat in particular can be an important store of carbon. That is why we have recently announced new restrictions on burning on blanket bog. Restoration of the hydrology of some of those deep peats is a fundamental part of our approach to tackling climate change.

I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State are fully aware of the problems faced by mollusc exporters from grade B waters, but are they aware of the scale? If we are to introduce innovative solutions, such as creating our own depuration plants, we need to be aware that these are sizeable operations and that businesses such as Offshore Shellfish, based in Brixham, need all the support they can get. Will the Minister take that into account and also meet that business and other organisations in my patch? (912899)

My hon. Friend and I have discussed the current completely unacceptable situation many times, particularly in respect of Offshore Shellfish in Brixham. There is no justification for the European Commission to ban our molluscs from class B waters, and we are seeking an urgent resolution of this dispute. We are willing to provide additional reassurances, but we ask the Commission to recognise the existing high standards and long history of trade between us. I am happy to meet the business as my hon. Friend suggests.

The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan has been condemned by environmentalists as a wish list, DEFRA has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for failing to drive Government policy on the environment, and the Secretary of State’s Environment Bill has been delayed yet again. COP26 is approaching and the UK’s credibility on the environment is close to zero, so can I ask what input he has had into the COP26 ambitions, what the Government hope to get out of COP26 and what he would consider to be a success at the conference? (912900)

I clearly do not share the hon. Gentleman’s caricature of the situation. This Government are the first in the world to make it clear that 30% of our international climate finance will go on nature-based solutions. In answer to his question, what we hope to get out of COP26 are ambitious targets around the world to continue to tackle carbon emissions, but also, crucially, a big recognition of the role of nature in tackling climate change.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Restoration Grants: Churches

To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, how much the Church of England administered in grants to churches for the purpose of restoration in the last financial year. (912854)

The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England has administered £10 million of the Government’s culture recovery funding to 68 churches and cathedrals and about £250,000 in conservation grants. The £300 million additional funding announced yesterday is very welcome, as is the fact that the levelling-up fund specifically includes churches and cathedrals. The national Church does not routinely fund capital works, but it does liaise closely with a wide network of funders who provide support for parish churches and cathedrals.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer. St Michael’s church in Fulwell was closed and in a semi-derelict state when a new church was planted there in 2014. Since then, the committed team have been holding Sunday services and serving their community with no formal heating or lighting. In order to restore this listed building to achieve their vision of being community centred, they have raised over £1.5 million, but they need a further £230,000 to make the church functional. What support might the Church Commissioners be able to offer to help plug that gap for St Michael’s?

I am delighted to learn about the growing congregation and all the good work happening at St Michael’s Fulwell. The commissioners provide strategic development funding to the Church nationally in order to support major change projects that will make a significant difference to mission and financial strength across dioceses. In addition to the culture recovery fund, the National Lottery Heritage Fund has recently launched a new set of funding priorities to support covid-19 recovery and is open to applications now.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Broxbourne, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Covid Security

To ask the hon. Member for Broxbourne, representing the House of Commons Commission, what recent assessment the Commission has made of its effectiveness in making the House of Commons a covid-secure environment. (912855)

The House of Commons Commission has ensured that the House Service has implemented the working safely during coronavirus guidance and is a covid-secure workplace. Measures in place are continuously reviewed to ensure they are in line with any changes in Government guidance. This is further supplemented through the expert advice received from Public Health England and the parliamentary safety team. The Commission receives regular updates from the Chair of the House Service covid-19 planning group.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. He has the big shoes of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) to fill.

We all thank those in the House service for the amazing job they are doing in keeping us safe during the pandemic. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as we return to a new normal the last thing we need is a big bang moment where one day all these practices are in place and the next day everybody is crowded back into the Lobbies, the canteens and the Chamber? Does he agree that that kind of approach might not instil confidence across the community on the estate, and that the best option would be to adapt gradually and continue to act in line with the best advice from Public Health England?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The House services have done a fantastic job in keeping the show on the road, and the Commission congratulates them on that. The Commission also recognises that many members of the House service, many colleagues and the staff of colleagues want to return to the House of Commons, their place of work, and look forward to doing so. However, the Commission also recognises that this needs to be done in as safe a way as possible, as outlined in the road map published by the Government. So the Commission will be working closely, as is always the case, with the trade unions and the representative bodies in this place to make sure that the return to work is a safe one.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Landholdings: Public Transparency

The Church Commissioners have been working through the process of registering their land holdings with the Land Registry, which can be searched publicly. In addition, on page 81 of the Commissioners’ annual report there is a list of the 20 largest real estate holdings.

When I met the Commissioners, I was told that they did not have comprehensive digital maps of their lands that they could publish. However, a recent report from the Archbishop of Canterbury recommended that the Church map all of its land holdings by using the Good Steward Mapping Tool. I note that its website features digital maps of the Church Commissioners’ lands. In the interests of transparency, will the Commissioner make those maps public?

As part of the work of the Archbishop’s housing commission, the Church has indeed commissioned a draft map of the land holdings of the Commissioners, dioceses and parishes, to improve planning and joined-up working between all parts of the Church. This is work in progress, which is currently being trialled by a number of dioceses.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speakers Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Third-party Campaigners: Regulation

If the Electoral Commission will investigate the potential merits of strengthening regulations on third-party campaigners. (912858)

Third party campaigners are a vital part of a healthy democracy and play a significant role in providing voters with information, but it is important that their spending and funding are transparent. The Electoral Commission continues to support the introduction of imprint requirements for digital campaign material and changes that would strengthen its ability to access information quickly about who has placed campaign material online. These changes would help provide transparency for voters and ensure that third party campaigners and others complied with the political finance laws established by Parliament--.

May I ask my hon. Friend to convey to the Electoral Commission, on behalf of a number of us in the House, the need for an urgent, more serious and in-depth inquiry into third party campaigning, particularly in respect of its role in the last general election? Will he refer the Electoral Commission to the report by openDemocracy that exposed groups such as Capitalist Worker and Campaign Against Corbynism, and the roles of Thomas Borwick, the deputy chairman of the Cities of London and Westminster Conservative Association, and Jennifer Powers, a former Conservative intern, who spent large sums on a social media advertising campaign smearing my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) without declaring the source of their funds? This warrants a full inquiry and reform.

The Commission is aware of occasions and allegations in the past where people who might not have been expected to have a certain amount of resource were suddenly able to spend that resource. It assures me that it monitors the activity of non-party campaigners and where there is evidence that the law has not been followed, it will consider the matter, in line with its enforcement policy. I assure my right hon. Friend that I will pass on that message to the Commission.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Persecution for Faith or Belief

What representations the Church of England is making in countries where people are persecuted for their faith or belief. (912859)

7. What representations the Church of England is making to countries where people are persecuted for their faith or belief. (912873)

The Church of England has regular meetings with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about countries where people are persecuted for their faith or belief, so that our Government can raise these vital issues with the Governments of the countries concerned. The Church also engages with our heads of mission, civil society groups and, where possible, with the foreign Governments in question.

Congregants at one of Aylesbury’s churches are deeply concerned about Christian charities in India being forbidden from receiving funds from overseas, amid reports of persecution based on faith. Such organisations often help some of the most vulnerable people in Indian society, so will my hon. Friend tell me what steps the Church of England is taking to help Christian charities and to stop faith-based persecution, both in India and elsewhere?

The Church of North India and the Church of South India seek to comply with Indian law in this respect. Pressure from outside India may make the situation worse for those who receive funds. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should make the Indian Government aware of the impact of such restrictions on Indian citizens. In the past, I have visited the Indian high commissioner in London with a cross-party group of MPs, all of us friends of India, to successfully raise a similar issue; my hon. Friend might like to consider such a visit.

Some 83% of the world’s population live in countries where freedom of religion or belief is not adequately respected. This freedom is essential for societies to secure democratic freedoms, economic development and peace, yet many people, including young people, are unaware of its importance. What is the Church of England doing to help to educate young people about the importance of freedom of religion or belief for all?

It is a great pleasure to reply to my hon. Friend, the Prime Minister’s new envoy for freedom of religion or belief. The Church of England strongly supports educating young people to advocate for freedom of religion or belief for everyone globally. We are working with schools in the Gambia and, indeed, in Pakistan and Bangladesh to do exactly that, to help young people be advocates for freedom of religion or belief in their schools, families and communities.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

BAME Voting

What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to improve voting levels among Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. (912860)

The focus of the Commission’s work is on voter registration, to ensure that all eligible people are able to vote should they choose to do so. Its research has consistently shown that eligible citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely to be registered. In delivering its voter registration campaigns, it therefore targets the work towards under-registered groups, including people from black, Asian and minority backgrounds. The Commission uses advertising, media coverage and partnership work in the delivery of such campaigns.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. How important is the Electoral Commission in preventing malign influence on elections in this country and ensuring that volunteers and ideas lead the debate, not online trolls and fake news?

My hon. Friend raises an essential point. The Commission has been doing work to get online imprints to make sure that people who put fake news and trolling online can be identified, and that any such adverts have to be registered so that the individuals who post them can be identified and, if necessary, held to account. This is a major issue that affects people from BAME backgrounds and all voters, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise it. I shall pass his concerns on to the Commission.

Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—

Restoration and Renewal Programme

What opportunities there will be for Members to contribute to the restoration and renewal programme in the next 12 months. (912861)

The restoration and renewal sponsor body plans a range of opportunities for right hon. and hon. Members to contribute. Consultation is planned on design options that are now in development, to help to inform further work. The Sponsor Body will continue to provide regular updates to colleagues and welcomes the opportunity to hear views. Of course, I am available at any time to hear and convey points, questions and issues from colleagues from all parties.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We all want to see Parliament restored to a good state of repair, but my constituents and I have concerns about the significant costs that have been spoken of. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that before any major costs are incurred or the project proceeds too far, much more time will be allocated for debate and discussion, including contributions from Members elected in more recent general elections who were not present for the debates on the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Act 2019?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very important point. Although the scheduling of House business is somewhat beyond my own domain, clearly debate about the future of our national Parliament is incredibly important, and the debate last year, as he will remember, was oversubscribed. Many newer colleagues have also taken up one-to-one briefings, and 63 MPs made submissions to the strategic review call for evidence. Importantly, it is in the legislation that there must be a vote of this House for the main gate business case decision to be made.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Statutory Election Period

What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the adequacy of the length of time of the statutory election period. (912862)

The Commission recently submitted evidence to the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, setting out the background to the current minimum timetable of 25 working days for UK elections and the administrative and regulatory implications if the timetable were to be shortened. While the specific period is for Parliament to decide, the Commission emphasises that sufficient time must be allowed for campaigners to put their arguments to the electorate, for voters to decide how to cast their vote, and for returning officers to deliver the election process.

I thank the hon. Member for his answer. As he says, this point has been exercising the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, on which I and many other Members of this House sit. Election periods have grown considerably longer over the years, which is not necessarily in the best interests of our constituents and democracy more widely, especially when an election is called to resolve an impasse. Will he be willing to inquire further from the Electoral Commission as to what the shortest potential statutory period that could reasonably adopted is, and then write to me or the Committee?

I will indeed inquire about that. Informally, the suggestion to me has been that the Commission does not particularly want it shortened too much further because of all the administrative burdens and the administrative marker points that electoral registration officers and others would have to go through, but I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s request and ask the Commission to write to him.

Automatic Voter Registration

What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential merits of introducing automatic voter registration. (912863)

The Commission supports electoral registration reform, as it would make it easier for people to register or to update their details throughout the year. This might include adding people automatically from other datasets or other automated solutions that still require confirmatory action by the voter. In 2019, when the Commission investigated the feasibility of such reforms, it found that these were possible from a technical perspective and could be implemented without radically altering the structure of the electoral registration system in the UK. The Commission’s view is that that could help to improve registration levels among some under-represented registered groups, including the youngest part of the franchise. This would ensure that as many people as possible were able to participate in our democracy.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. The Capitol insurrection in Washington, fraudulent elections in Belarus and the military coup in Myanmar provide three very recent and very real reminders of the importance of defending democracy. Does my hon. Friend agree that democracy is sacred, and what better way to protect it than to automatically ensure that everyone is able to take part in the process?

The Commission absolutely sees its primary role as ensuring the smooth delivery of the democratic processes fairly and responsibly across the whole of the UK. It has looked at ways of improving registration and looked at evidence that has previously been given, but ensuring that as many people as possible are able to register to vote and deliver that vote is one of its primary concerns.

Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body

The right hon. Member for East Hampshire, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—

Restoration and Renewal Programme

What steps the Sponsor Body has taken to ensure that local residents and businesses have been adequately consulted on the restoration and renewal programme. (912867)

The restoration and renewal programme has engaged regularly with neighbours and will continue to do so, especially at those moments with most opportunity for meaningful input. To date, it has included group sessions as well as meetings and briefings, including with Westminster City Council. Engagement with local businesses and residents—my hon. Friend’s constituents—will continue, particularly ahead of the submission of planning applications.

Is the Sponsor Body aware that, as well as the restoration and renewal programme, work on the UK holocaust memorial and learning centre will, subject to planning permission, be taking place in Victoria Tower Gardens from 2022 for at least three years? Can the Sponsor Body give assurances that it will seek to ensure that there is minimum disruption to public access to the park from the combined and sequential effects of these two projects on this much loved local park?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Yes, the Sponsor Body is aware of the exceptionally important initiative that she mentions. As plans develop, the R and R programme will, of course, liaise closely with the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, the royal parks and others locally to carefully understand the impact of the different projects on the park, and how those impacts can be mitigated.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

To ask the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment the Commissioners have made of the potential effect on the Church of England of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision to take a sabbatical in May 2021. (912869)

While he is carrying out academic study and writing a book, the Archbishop will delegate some of his duties to the Archbishop of York and other bishops. Study leave is available to all clergy and bishops, and the Archbishop’s two immediate predecessors also both took study leave.

I thank my hon. Friend very much for his answer. It is a concern of many members of the frontline clergy, in the light of press reports, that there will be a reduction in the number of clergy in the Church of England. Given that the Archbishop is going on sabbatical and there is considerable concern about that, will my hon. Friend just outline how the Church of England will protect frontline clergy in the event of any review of Church structure?

My hon. Friend will be reassured that the Archbishop of York told the General Synod on Saturday that the Church needs more priests, not fewer, and a parish system revitalised for mission to tell even more people about the good news of Jesus, building on the amazing work that the Church has done to meet those in need during the pandemic.

Order. I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 8 March will include:

Monday 8 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 9 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Wednesday 10 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be debates on estimates relating to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Cabinet Office. At 7 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 11 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill, followed by consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Contingencies Fund (No.2) Bill, followed by a general debate on International Women’s Day. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 12 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader for the business for next week. I am pleased that, according to the Order Paper, Westminster Hall will be returning on Monday and that the private Members’ Bills are back. Lots of hon. Members have worked really hard to get a consensus on these Bills; I hope they will have a smooth transition.

Our thoughts are with our gracious sovereign and we wish Prince Philip a speedy recovery.

The Secretary of State for International Trade—I thank the Leader for the letter to her—wrote to me in September to say that she would report to Parliament on the Trade and Agriculture Commission. Actually, a written statement has been published—I thought she would have been here in person. In that written statement, she is extending the terms of reference of the commission. She says she wants to put the

“Commission onto a statutory footing and evolving its role to boost scrutiny of new free trade deals.”

I thought it was Parliament’s job to scrutinise trade deals, so I ask the Leader to ensure that she comes to the House. I know she is top of the poll on Conservative Home—how do we get the Leader up that greasy pole? But she needs to come to Parliament. Disregard for Parliament is absolutely outrageous.

So, too, was the trailing of the whole of the Budget; apart from the fact that there was £700 million for cultural activities instead of £400 million, everything else was in the media over the weekend. Mr Speaker, you will know that in 1947—(Interruption.) Not you personally! We all know from our history that Hugh Dalton had to resign when he leaked the Budget.

We have had the worst death toll in Europe, the worst economic crisis, so why is the Chancellor hurting families in the middle of a pandemic and hurting businesses? There is going to be a rise in council tax—in Walsall, an extra £105—a pay freeze for all our millions of key workers; nothing for schools, nothing for maintained nurseries, nothing for our NHS staff, nothing for the police and nothing for the public sector. How soon they forget who supported them in the pandemic—and still there are excluded people.

There was no mention of the child trust funds. HMRC said £1.8 million—it is pounds or young people—have been forgotten. The money is unclaimed. Parents of children with disabilities have had to go to court to try to release that money. That was a Labour Government initiative. The children are now 18. They need to have access to that money immediately, particularly in the light of the pandemic.

In the middle of this pandemic, we have a reorganisation of the NHS. The Government are embarking on yet another reorganisation—fiddling while Rome burns, a massive restructure, so everything is going back to the Secretary of State. It is a power grab. What are we going to see—VIP lounges, VIP fast tracks? And we have had a takeover—in less than 10 minutes, 52 GPs in London were taken over by a United States insurance company. That is absolutely outrageous. While our NHS staff are turning over people in the covid crisis in our A&Es and vaccinating the nation, the very foundations of our NHS have been taken away from them. So can we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on that reorganisation?

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) had an Adjournment debate and a ten-minute rule Bill and she asked the Government to announce the results of their review on how the benefits system is treating terminally ill people. That was first announced in 2019, but there is no date. Time is running out. The Motor Neurone Disease Association and Marie Curie estimate that 6,000 people have died waiting for their benefits. The Leader will have seen the report from the coroner last week on Philippa Day. There were 28 errors. She took a fatal overdose while her payments were cut. They found a letter rejecting her request for an at-home benefits assessment near her. We need an urgent statement from the Department for Work and Pensions on its treatment of vulnerable and terminally ill people.

I know that the Foreign Secretary updated the House, and he said he had met the family of Nazanin and had spoken to the families of all three detained British-Iranian dual nationals, but we have had no more news. Nazanin’s sentence runs out on Sunday, and there is no update on whether Anousheh can speak to his family again—Sherry, Elika and Arian. I pay tribute to Daren Nair, who has had to step down from Amnesty. He has been tireless in his efforts in campaigning. I met him when Richard Ratcliffe was on hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy. We need a further update.

Monday is International Women’s Day and we have the debate on Thursday. It is also Women’s HERstory Month, when we will look back at the history of covid. I pay tribute to the women scientists now: Professor Sarah Gilbert, who designed the Oxford vaccine and led the first trial of the Ebola vaccine, Professor Catherine Green, Professor Teresa Lambe, Professor Katie Ewer and Dr Maheshi Ramasamy. They have all been part of that vaccine.

Finally, on World Book Day, we would like to see tweets of the Leader in his six different outfits as he celebrates it with each of his children.

I begin by joining the right hon. Lady in sending the House’s best wishes to the Duke of Edinburgh while he is in hospital recovering from his operation, and hope that he is restored to full health.

On World Book Day, my children are apparently dressed up today. I think one is dressed as Sherlock Holmes, one is a character from the “Jill and the pony” books, two are dressing up as James Bond, and the third and youngest are dressing up as Harry Potter and wandering round with a wand casting spells on one and all. So World Book Day is being celebrated. Even better, I will be re-showing my podcast of my reading from “Erskine May”, because can you think of anything more joyful to do on World Book Day, or anything more designed to help one enter into happy slumbers, than listening to my somnolent tones reciting from that great work?

To come to the important questions that the right hon. Lady asked, the Foreign Secretary has updated the House on Nazanin. The Government take very seriously the issues of dual nationals held overseas. It is something that I take up with the Foreign Office every week after business questions. The Foreign Secretary is actually going to be here later today with a statement, so there will be the opportunity to ensure that he is reminded of it, if not formally on the Floor of the House, at least in the corridors. But Her Majesty’s Government take it very seriously and have been working on it for a long time.

As regards my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for International Trade, a written statement is a perfectly proper way of updating the House. There is a constant pressure on time in this House; we will no doubt hear later from the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee about how his time sometimes gets squeezed. We simply have to try to ensure that time is used effectively in Opposition days, Back-Bench days, legislation and Budget days, and written statements are a proper way of updating the House.

With regard to the Budget appearing in newspapers beforehand, the main details of the Budget were released to the House yesterday, as is entirely proper, as were the Red Book and the report from the Office for Budget Responsibility. There were general discussions beforehand when things were raised in broad terms, but I do not think that breaks the spirit or the letter of the ministerial code, or indeed of “Erskine May”—although of course as Leader of the House it is my responsibility to remind Ministers that important announcements should be made to the House first.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The right hon. Lady talked about pay increases. It is worth bearing in mind that the majority of public sector workers will receive pay increases. The lowest paid will all get a £250 pay increase, and NHS staff will also get a pay increase, so those who have done the most and who are the least well-off will benefit, even as we try to claw back the huge amount of debt that has been built up in dealing with the pandemic. Some £407 billion of support has been given to the UK economy, spread across the whole of the United Kingdom. I think there is a weakness in the Labour party’s argument—it can only slightly carp at the edges—because the scale of the support is so great that there is no opposition to it.

The NHS reorganisation is a fundamentally important thing to do. We have been through a pandemic and people will have noticed that there are things that could be done better. When something happens, it is human nature to think what we would do better if we were to do it again, and to have a reform Bill—the White Paper has already been issued—is an exceptionally sensible thing to do. It will build on the success of the NHS over the past year in the face of a huge challenge, in which, it is worth bearing in mind, there has been a huge private sector contribution. The right hon. Lady carps about some private sector activity, but the vaccination has been done with and through the help of the private sector. The pharmaceutical industry, which is a profit-making industry, is the thing that has meant that we are leading the world and delivering the vaccine to the British people.

Finally, on the issue of end-of-life benefits, the right hon. Lady raises a point that is extremely complex. That is why the Department for Work and Pensions is continuing to look at it. I have raised it with the DWP recently, in response to questions in the Chamber. There are no easy answers. Everyone wants to ensure that people are looked after at the end of life, but it is not always clear exactly how long people will live for. Again, that is part of the human condition.

One of the issues that blights so many of us is potholes. In my constituency, that includes roads such as Talbot Drive, Mill Hill Lane, Stockbridge Road and Burnham Gate, but I am very pleased that Conservative-controlled Lancashire County Council has made tackling them a key priority. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way in which we can tackle potholes across Lancashire is by supporting our excellent Conservative candidates in the local elections in May?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of potholes. Apparently there is a fantastic new machine from JCB—a remarkable, successful British company—that fills potholes remarkably quickly. I am particularly pleased to hear how good, sound Conservative councils are fixing roads up and down the country. The people of Lancashire clearly made the right choice in the 2017 local elections. They are good at making the right choice for who to represent them.

I think the hon. Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham) should have asked for a debate as well, at the end of his question.

Well, in a manner of speaking, we are having one now, are we not, Mr Speaker, about the enormous success of Conservative councils? That is something to which I always like to devote as much time as possible in this House. We want more pothole-free areas under more Conservative councils after the first Thursday in May.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My extended transition to the role of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) continues. I again make the plea to the Leader of the House to use everything within his gift to encourage some common sense and free the Perthshire One.

Last week the Leader of the House told me:

“We have in this country one of the most honest public sectors of any country in the world.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1096.]

I am sure, therefore, that he will be very concerned at the news that the international community does not seem to be convinced. The Government have been put under review by the Open Government Partnership, a global coalition for transparency and anti-corruption. Will the Government now ensure that time is set aside to debate and demonstrate that criticisms of secrecy over contracts and accusations of cronyism are being taken seriously and not swept under the carpet, to give the public confidence in the Government and remove any suspicion of corruption? Of course, a simple first step would be to back my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill—I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is well aware of that.

I am slightly surprised that we only have one week’s future business, when we have had the luxury of two weeks’ notice or sometimes even more previously. I also hoped that we would have notice of an Opposition day debate for the Scottish National party. Could the Leader of the House update us on when that might be possible and when we might see future dates for Friday sittings for private Members’ Bills?

Finally, I would like to add my comments on World Book Day. I am sure the Leader of the House will agree that books can transform lives, improve our children’s attainment and boost wellbeing. Projects such as Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which has worked with the Scottish Book Trust to provide a free book every month to looked-after and adopted children to the age of five right across Scotland, are an amazing way that we can continue to do this.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on World Book Day. I always like reading P. G. Wodehouse, which may not surprise the House. There is a wonderful new Wodehouse by Ben Schott called “The Leap of Faith”, and if anybody is looking for something to cheer them up as the lockdown draws slowly to its close, I recommend that. It is perhaps more adult reading than the things the children may be attempting to read, including stories by Roald Dahl such as “The Twits”, “Fantastic Mr Fox” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”—all the old favourites that one can safely recommend.

The answer, I am sorry to say, is no.

As regards an Opposition day for the SNP, I will, of course, take that up; I am aware of the Standing Order requirements. In terms of the plea to free the Perth and North Perthshire One, the Government do not have a majority on the Scottish Affairs Committee, so I suggest that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) works with all members of the Committee, so that it may come to an agreement to change the times.

Finally, I admire the hon. Gentleman’s gall in asking for a debate on honesty in public affairs—dare I say, motes and beams, and there is rather a beam in the Scottish Parliament at the moment.

My constituent David Lansley has invested in a regeneration project, the Paradise Golf and Beach Resort in Morocco, which was promoted by the Government there back in 2007, but 14 years later, construction has yet to commence, despite multiple conversations with the British consular in Rabat. The investment of my constituent and many others is still nowhere to be seen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should intervene in this matter? Can we have a debate about the role of the FCDO in supporting British investors who have seemingly been defrauded by state-backed projects overseas?

While the British Government are unable to intervene in individual cases, we raise property disputes with the relevant Moroccan authorities to urge a satisfactory resolution for British investors. We first raised these issues in 2013 and continue to do so regularly at official and ministerial level, although, as Members will be aware, the response to covid-19 has been HMG’s priority this year and last. Morocco has reassured us that it is keen to ensure that investors are treated fairly and to help to find a solution. We encourage UK citizens in a property dispute to seek legal advice by engaging an independent lawyer qualified in local law, who will be best placed to advise on their rights and methods of redress. Although the British embassy is unable to intervene on behalf of those investors involved in property disputes, we will continue to encourage the Moroccan authorities to make progress on this issue.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business, including the Backbench debate on International Women’s Day 2021 next Thursday. We were hoping to have a second debate on Thursday 11 March on Commonwealth Day 2021, which is also celebrated on 8 March, but the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), whose application it was, has agreed in behind-the-scenes negotiations this morning to move that debate to Westminster Hall on Tuesday 16 March, if we can secure the agreement of Madam Deputy Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means, to facilitate it.

May I pay tribute to my director of public health, Alice Wiseman, who has become a bit of a TV star in the north-east of England? I also pay tribute to all our excellent public health, NHS and council staff in Gateshead, who continue to exceed all expectations to shepherd us through this crisis—but goodness, do they need a pay rise.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points he has raised. The early business set down for next Thursday is highly uncontentious and should not take a great deal of the House’s time. However, it is for the Backbench Business Committee to schedule the time that is available, but I note that the Commonwealth Day debate has been moved to Westminster Hall, so I hope that ensures that these important issues are raised effectively.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman wants to congratulate Alice Wiseman, the director of public health in his area. The commitment of public servants over the last year has been absolutely terrific; we are so lucky in this country to have people who have ensured that, in very difficult circumstances, the best has been done for the whole nation.

May we have an urgent statement on antisemitism at Bristol university? Jewish students have demonstrated at the Bristol university campus about the alleged actions of Professor David Miller; he has allegedly described Zionism as “the enemy” and referred to the Union of Jewish Students as an “Israel lobby group” which makes Arab and Muslim students unsafe. It is also alleged that he criticised Jewish students for manufacturing a

“charade of false anti-Semitism allegations”.

The university management cares nothing, sees nothing and does nothing about this; they appear to regard Jewish students as an inconvenience and a nuisance, and refuse to take serious action. Jewish students are clearly not welcome; they do not feel safe or valued at this university, and, sadly, history teaches us where this ends. I have written to the vice-chancellor of Bristol university this week and urge my right hon. Friend to ask the Minister for Universities to intervene.

My right hon Friend raises a deeply concerning issue. There is absolutely no place for antisemitism, and it is appalling to hear that Jewish students have reported antisemitism at Bristol university. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) raised this matter with me last week and I have passed it on to the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister for Universities. We expect higher education providers to be at the forefront of tackling antisemitism, making sure that higher education is a genuinely fulfilling and welcoming experience for everyone. Providers ought to have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law to investigate and swiftly address hate crime, including any antisemitic incidents reported. I say to my right hon. Friend that, in light of the history of the last century, it seems to me that, of all prejudices, antisemitism is the most wicked; it has no place in our society, and universities must be part of ensuring that antisemitism ceases to exist.

The post office is a lifeline in many communities, and that has particularly been the case during the pandemic. I was concerned to learn that the Post Office has paused capital spend for any businesses wishing to take over their local branches, putting post offices in some communities at risk. So may we have a debate, or a statement from the Government on what plans they might have to ensure that the Post Office builds back better and remains a vital service in our communities as we come through these most difficult times?

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely valid point about post offices during the pandemic, and I think of the West Harptree post office as a case in point. It has provided a wonderful centre for the community: it has kept going; it has remained open, continuing to provide a service, and sometimes the post office is the only local shop that has been open in the community. This is very important, and it is very important that we support post offices. I will raise the issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned about the pause in capital spend and try to get a fuller answer.

The levelling-up fund prospectus was published yesterday, and Stoke-on-Trent has been identified as in the highest priority for funding. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate about the fund to ensure that the communities I represent in Longton, Fenton, Meir and Blurton get the investment they deserve?

The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will spend taxpayers’ money on infrastructure that improves everyday life across the United Kingdom, including regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in culture and heritage assets. The fund will operate UK-wide, extending the benefits of funding for priority local infrastructure across all regions and nations. Thanks to the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, Her Majesty’s Government once again has the ability fully to support all areas of the United Kingdom. The fund will be allocated competitively, prioritising bids from places in highest need. The prospectus published yesterday provides guidance for local areas on how to submit bids for the first round of funding for projects starting in 2021-22. Capacity funding will also be allocated to the local authorities measured in highest need in England and to all local authorities in Scotland and Wales, to build a new relationship with Her Majesty’s Government. That will support the relevant local authorities to develop bids and to ensure that spending is targeted where it is needed the most.

Forty-five town deals, 40 represented by Tory MPs; announcements of investment in Teesside, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, but nothing for areas in the northern part of our region such as South Shields—it is no coincidence that we have important elections coming up. Yesterday’s Budget was not a recovery for everyone, just for those who happen to have a Tory MP or a Tory Mayor. May we please have an urgent debate on this Government’s shameful engagement in pork barrel politics?

I mean, really! The reason the money has been allocated where it has is that that is where it is needed. It is worth bearing in mind that a lot of the areas have socialist councils, and it is socialist councils that have let down their areas, which is why they need the money and why these seats are now Tory. A lot of them were socialist not so long ago; they voted Tory because they were failed by the Labour party. It is a fair process, a proper process, an honest process, and it is making up for the failures of the hon. Lady’s party.

May we have a debate on how we can loosen up opening times, as well as other measures, for businesses such as restaurants, pubs, shops and the like, so as to help them maximise their income as well as satisfy the inevitable surge in demand as the pandemic crisis lessens?

May I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend on becoming my right hon. Friend, which I think creates pleasure across the whole House? I am looking forward to that being formalised at the next Privy Council.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have convened a small working group of retailers and local authorities to examine how best to reopen these sectors, so it is being co-ordinated with the business community. Small shops have no limits on their hours, and large shops have no limits on their hours Monday to Saturday.

With regard to restaurants and pubs, there is always a sensitivity about local communities if hours are extended, but indeed it is important that when businesses are back, they are able to operate to re-earn some of the money that they have lost. They will be supported by new restart grants, providing up to £6,000 for non-essential retail premises, and we will continue to provide eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties in England with 100% business rates relief from 1 April 2021 to 30 June 2021, and with 66% rates relief from 1 July to 31 March. Things are being done to help them, and opening hours will be a matter for local decision making.

At the weekend, the Leader of the House kindly proffered some advice to Unionists as to how, in four years’ time, they might get rid of the Northern Ireland protocol. He knows, of course, that in those four years the EU will impose new laws on Northern Ireland, that the Northern Ireland Assembly will have no ability to decide whether or not to implement them, and that, if they do not implement them, the UK Government will be taken to the European Court of Justice.

While we welcome the actions taken by the Government yesterday—we trust that they will not deviate from the short-term measures that they have taken to protect Northern Ireland from the protocol—really, the answer is a long-term solution. I know that the Leader of the House is a fan of P. G. Wodehouse, but we do not need a Jeeves to sort this issue out; there are alternatives that the Government already know and that have been put forward to them. May we have a debate in Government time to discuss those alternatives as a means of replacing the damaging Northern Ireland protocol?

I cannot promise the right hon. Gentleman a debate in Government time, but the issue is unquestionably a serious one, and he will note, as indeed he did in his question, that my noble Friend Lord Frost is taking serious action on this matter. He is extending the implementation period of the protocol by six months to try to ensure the smooth flow of goods between one part of the United Kingdom and another. That is the fundamental point: Northern Ireland is as much a part of the United Kingdom as Somerset and even, Mr Speaker, as Lancashire, and we should recognise that in everything that we do, say and legislate for in this House.

It is World Book Day, as has been mentioned, and I wear my World Book Day badge with pride. It was sad not to see children walking to school this morning dressed as their favourite characters, but I am sure many are at home today, as my right hon. Friend’s children are, enjoying their favourite books. Some 15 million schoolchildren will still receive World Book Day book tokens, which they can spend in a bookshop or on special World Book Day books. Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the joy of reading? Will he share with us his favourite book—perhaps not penned by himself?

I think “Leave It to Psmith” is one of the classic P. G. Wodehouse books. Psmith himself is such a wonderful and engaging character, and I would recommend that book to anybody. Anyone who has not read any P. G. Wodehouse, should start with “Leave It to Psmith” or go for “Psmith in the City”, which is also a great work. If only I wore a monocle, I might be dressing up as Psmith himself.

I so agree with my hon. Friend that reading is one of life’s great joys. Indeed, it has been a small consolation during the pandemic that there has been more time to read because of the inability to carry out normal social activities, and I am sure that has given many people comfort during a difficult period. Children learning to read, beginning to read and beginning to have that pleasure and enthusiasm for words is something that one sees evolve in one’s own children as they develop, and it is greatly to be encouraged with all children across the country.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Education Secretary recently instructed the Office for Students to cut the London weighting from teaching grants awarded to London universities, as part of Conservative plans to level down London. Given the disproportionate impact that that will have on disadvantaged and ethnic minority students in particular, many of whom commute across the city to attend universities such as St Mary’s in Twickenham, will the Leader of the House grant time for a debate on this discriminatory policy, which is yet another attack by the Conservatives on our capital city?

May I agree with the hon. Lady about what a wonderful university St Mary’s in Twickenham is? It is a very impressive institution. The reforms that have been asked for from the Office for Students will ensure that more of taxpayers’ money is spent on supporting higher education provision, which aligns with national priorities. London universities will be able to benefit from the significant uplifts that the Government are making to elements of the grant, including the first real-terms increase in per capita funding for strategically important high-cost subjects, as well as being able to bid for capital investment to support the delivery of strategic subjects. The London weighting accounts for a small proportion of London providers’ income—less than 1% of the estimated total for the 2020-21 academic year. As with all reforms, it is subject to consultation, which the Office for Students will publish shortly. The impact of any changes on providers will be carefully considered, but I would say to the hon. Lady that the policy is to level up the country; it is not a question of doing anything that is the reverse of that. We want every part of the country to be as prosperous as our great bustling metropolis.

Last week, I launched the all-party parliamentary group for one-punch assaults, and I put on record my thanks to all colleagues who took part in that initial meeting to get the group constituted. I launched the group following the experience of my family after the death of my father, but I have been really moved over recent days by the number of people who have reached out to me sharing their own experiences, including Maxine Thompson-Curl, Sandra Munday, Kevin Woodburn, Heidi Cox and Yvonne Henchcliffe, who have all lost loved ones to these horrific assaults. Can we make time in the agenda to get a debate in Government time to discuss the impacts of one-punch assaults and how best the criminal justice system can be reformed to ensure that all victims, or the families of victims, feel fully supported by the system?

I commend my hon. Friend for the work that she has done campaigning on this matter, which I know is very close to her heart and is obviously one of great sensitivity that the Government take very seriously. The sort of assaults that she is describing are senseless, evil acts of violence, which the Government are committed to eradicating, and we are taking steps to do so, including by more efficiently applying the criminal justice system, and with more than 6,000 new police officers already recruited from last year, which is a major step to ensuring that the law is enforced. I will of course raise her specific points with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and the Backbench Business Committee may be a very good port of call for a debate in support of all the people she has got to join her all-party group.

Hull is the country’s fourth most deprived council area, but for some reason it is not in the 100 priority areas for the community renewal fund, which is supposedly based on social and economic factors. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) has just highlighted, a disproportionate 40 of the 45 towns and cities receiving the £1 billion through the new towns deal have Conservative MPs. It seems that with three Labour MPs, Hull is excluded from even being considered. I am sure that the Leader of the House will want to avoid the impression of pork barrel politics and the sleaze that led to his party’s downfall in the 1990s, so can we please have a debate about the criteria for the allocation of these funds to maximise transparency?

I was going to say that I refer the right hon. Lady to the answer that I gave some moments ago, but let me just go back to what I said. The reason we need this fund is because of the failings of socialism—socialist councils and socialist MPs, letting down their constituents—and this Government are putting things right. They are levelling up, and many of the areas that are receiving the money still have socialist councils but, in their wisdom, they elected Conservative MPs to get over decades of socialist mismanagement. That is why the areas in most need now have Conservative MPs. Let us hope that Hull has Conservative MPs, too, and then it will be managed better.

Mr Speaker,

“Have you ever been in the House of Commons and taken a good square look at the inmates?”—

so wrote P. G. Wodehouse, to continue today’s theme. He was less than complimentary about some of the characters, but quite what he would have made of the virtual Parliament is anybody’s guess. Bearing in mind those inmates, will the Leader of the House provide us with an update on when we will be released from this captivity?

If we are going to swap P. G. Wodehouse quotes, a glorious one comes to mind: “The Right Hon.” Gentleman

“was a tubby little chap who looked like he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When.’”

That has always been one of my favourites—[Interruption.] No, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) is my hon. Friend, so it is perfectly safe, and I said the right hon. Gentleman anyway, so any connoisseur of procedure—as my hon. Friend is—would know that I was not referring to him.

We need to get back to normal. We need to get back to the Chamber being full and bustling and Ministers being held to account. Debates with full interventions are much better than debates that are a series of monologues read out that pay no attention to what has been said beforehand, with people just filling the airwaves for three minutes. We want to get back to being a proper Chamber and I hope that we can do so in line with the general road map.

I would just add, to reassure the House, that on the agenda for Monday at the Commission is the road map to take us forward.

Local Government cuts, housing targets and a deregulated planning regime have meant that a lot of councils have had no option but to surrender municipal land for luxury flats. Can we have an urgent debate and Government statement on the “Planning for the Future” White Paper, because the future, no matter what the right hon. Gentleman says, will be different post-coronavirus? There will be virtual working, new strains and yearly jabs. Can he do that by Wednesday, because on that day, the glorious 1800s town hall of Ealing is potentially set to be dwarfed by a series of tower blocks, including one of 26 storeys, if these greedy developers get their way. Fight for us, Leader of the House!

I am not the greatest admirer of tower blocks, it has to be said, but I am not responsible for those sorts of planning decisions, many of which may be with the local authority and the Mayor of London, so the hon. Lady may well want to take it up with him. I cannot promise a debate by Wednesday, as I have just set out the business for next week, but of course the hon. Lady is right that the effects of the pandemic will change many aspects of our life. It is hard to predict exactly how at the moment, but all sorts of areas will need to be reconsidered—office working, the type of places or of homes that people want—and that needs to be taken into consideration. But I would just challenge her on support for local authorities. They have received massive support during the pandemic, including £4.6 billion of un-ring-fenced money so that they can deal with the problems, and their allocation has increased in other areas as well.

Tomorrow, I have a meeting with Highways England, when I will be raising a number of local priorities, including resurfacing the old and worn-out concrete surface of the A180 and the dangers faced by many villages when the main carriageway is closed due to repairs or accidents. Thanks to the excellent news yesterday that Immingham, Grimsby and the Humber ports are to be given free port status, it is even more important that we have an adequate highway network. Like many colleagues, I feel that as elected representatives we lack the necessary influence to determine the priorities of agencies such as Highways England. Can we have a debate about Highways England and how its priorities are set?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. He tempts me greatly, because I hope when he sees Highways England tomorrow that he will ask it on my behalf why it keeps on closing the M3 and the M4 at weekends, both of which are essential routes to the part of the world in which I live. It is extraordinarily vexing, so if he can do me a favour, I hope he will raise that with it. As always, he is the champion for Cleethorpes and for his constituency, and he is right to be concerned about the quality of our roads and ensuring that they are in the best possible condition. Her Majesty’s Government are providing £4 billion of taxpayers’ money for major structural renewals on Highways England’s network up to 2025, so it can meet the road condition targets it has been set. It is of course important that it consults with the public and Parliament in developing a programme for these works, and I will certainly pass on his comments to the Secretary of State for Transport. I encourage him to get good answers from Highways England.

The gender pension gap stands at around 40.3%, more than twice the gender pay gap of 17.8%, representing a differential in pension income of around £7,500 a year. The pension triple lock does not apply to pension credit, discriminating against the oldest and poorest pensioners, who are disproportionately women, and those earning less than £10,000 a year—again, mostly women—are not automatically enrolled into a pension and will not therefore benefit from their employers’ contributions. Will the Leader of the House make a statement as to how he thinks his Government can address the specific challenges of the disproportionate poverty of older women, which was worsened by the acceleration of state pension age equalisation?

State pension age equalisation came about, ultimately, because of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, which said it was discriminatory to have different pension ages. Therefore, the decision was taken 30 years ago, or thereabouts, when my noble Friend Lord Lilley was the relevant Secretary of State, to even the ages, and that has been a fair and sensible policy. The hon. Lady mentions the triple lock. That, again, has been extraordinarily important in raising the level of pensions for both men and women across the country, so it is something that the Government are tackling and we are ensuring that pensioners are protected. If the hon. Lady wants a debate, I would suggest that this is a topic for the Budget debates.

Can I please refer my right hon. Friend back to the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg)? Does he agree that somebody needs to take comprehensive ownership of the road map for a return to a fully physical Parliament, and if so, who should that be?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting question—indeed, a complicated question—because who runs this House is something that I am not sure anybody has ever yet worked out, but perhaps one day we will. It is divided up between various bodies. The House of Commons Commission—very much led by you, Mr Speaker—will have the authority to decide when members of staff can come back, but the House itself determines the procedures within the Chamber. The current procedures continue until 31 March and then there will be an opportunity to decide to renew them, but they cannot be renewed indefinitely without the desire of the House to do it. I would certainly hope that we get back to normal in accordance with the road map, but that will be a decision for Members themselves.

As I did point out earlier, there is a road map going through to the Commission on Monday. Also, the Leader of the House does have a duty of care to the staff, as I do, to ensure that we try to keep in line with Public Health England.

The vaccine roll-out is the most important national mission our country has undertaken in decades. While more and more people are being inoculated every day, I am concerned that there is a lack of a coherent national strategy for distributing oversupplies of the vaccine. Does the Leader of the House agree with me that we must ensure excess vaccines are distributed to those in need, especially in diverse communities like my own in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, where there are significant health inequalities and where, sadly, infections remain higher than the national average in some cases? Does he agree with me that the Government should urgently publish a strategy on this issue which can be scrutinised by this House?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The vaccine roll-out is going extremely well and the best way of doing it is in accordance with the advice the Government have been given by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—on the basis of age and people making appointments. Obviously, it is also sensible to use up any excess vaccine that is left at the end of a session, particularly the Pfizer vaccine which cannot be kept for a long time except at very low temperatures. I do not think, however, that it would be sensible to devise a specific strategy on this, because we want to focus the strategy on the delivery of the vaccine by age group. Therefore, I think it is absolutely right to leave the use of surplus to the discretion of the people who are handing out the vaccine, while accepting her important point that we make every effort, as the Government are, to reach the hard-to-reach groups to ensure that they are vaccinated, but they will all be covered by the age brackets

There has been a 170% increase in the number of dog thefts during the pandemic, a crime that brings immense distress to both owners and their pets. My constituents in Kettering are increasingly worried about that trend and they want to see the problem tackled firmly and decisively. May we have a Government statement on the appropriateness of the penalties available to the courts for convicted dog thieves and on the police response to this rising crime trend?

Her Majesty’s Government understand the high level of public interest in this issue and the undoubted distress caused to victims when their pets are stolen. I know many Members have raised this issue and campaigned on it on behalf of their constituents. It is an appalling crime, and I am sad to hear reports of it increasing over the past year. The theft of a pet is a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968 and carries a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. The Sentencing Council’s guidelines on theft now take account of the emotional distress on the victim caused by any theft offence, including the theft of a pet, meaning that the courts will now take that into account when considering the appropriate sentence. My hon. Friend will know that the Government are committed to recruiting an extra 20,000 police officers and have already recruited over 6,000 to ensure the police have the resources they need to deal with these and other crimes, but he may want an Adjournment debate on this important subject.

The Leader of the House will probably be as aware as anybody of the genocidal attacks on Christians, which are happening on a weekly or daily basis in Nigeria. I represent quite a large, mainly Christian, Nigerian community who are very worried about the situation. The Government in Abuja seem to be unwilling or unable, or perhaps both, to do anything about it or even lift a finger. We have had debates on this issue in the past in Back-Bench time, but would it be possible to have a statement from the Foreign Secretary or the relevant Minister of State on the situation in Nigeria?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. It is a matter of serious concern to Her Majesty’s Government, who have been engaging with the Nigerian Government on it. I happen to know that our exchanges are followed closely by the Nigerian high commission, who I expect will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say, but I will also take it up with the Foreign Secretary to see what more the Government can do. It is extremely serious, and the reports of the kidnapping of children and the attacks on Christians that are taking place are very troubling.

The country is doing incredibly well in terms of the vaccine roll-out. As the Prime Minister has said, it is “going gangbusters”. The infection rate is being driven down, and the country has been given a road map out of the lockdown, which I consider slightly cautious. I would like to see, given the science, that it is speeded up a little. I came into the House of Commons yesterday and, like today, it was sparsely populated, although busier because of the Budget. It was like a ghost town. Can I be reassured by the Leader of the House that the House of Commons will go no slower than the road map out of lockdown that the public will have to follow? If we do, we will look completely out of touch.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. Since 1340, Members have had a right of unobstructed access to this House and to this Chamber. They are entitled to come, and that is a fundamental constitutional point. As the restrictions are lifted, Members may feel entitled—may desire; may want—to exercise that right. I also agree that we should go no slower than the country at large. It seems to me that, if nightclubs are opening on 21 June, which I think are perhaps more her scene than mine—[Interruption.] Perhaps we should go together. We will take the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) with us too. If they are open, for heaven’s sake, the House of Commons should be open properly. We cannot be behind nightclubs, can we, Mr Speaker?

The question keeps being posed, and I want to reassure the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) that nobody is stopping MPs coming. What we are saying is, “Let’s do the right thing by each other”—nothing else. I understand that she may have thought that I want to reopen only in September. I reassure her that that is definitely not the case, hence why I have become involved with the road map to the commission on Wednesday, to make things happen absolutely in line with what is going on there. Of course, I think she and the Leader of the House may enjoy Annabel’s together, but let us move on.

As a member of the BEIS Committee, I was alarmed by press reports overnight that the Business Secretary has, without consultation, axed the Industrial Strategy Council, and that the industrial strategy has been cancelled as a footnote to the Budget, at a time when an industrial strategy could not be more vital, as we rise to meet the challenges of rebuilding after covid, the climate emergency and the post-Brexit landscape, particularly in such regions as the north-west. Can the Leader of the House please advise when the Business Secretary will make a statement to the House for scrutiny of such an important change in policy direction, rather than Parliament finding out about it, as seems to be a recurring theme, through the media?

My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary will open the debate on the Budget on Tuesday 9 March. Nothing is being hidden from Parliament. Unless we were to go back to Gladstonian-length Budget speeches, which ran to over four hours on occasions, it is not possible to include everything that is in the papers issued with the Budget in the Budget speech, but my right hon. Friend will be open for scrutiny next Tuesday.

As the Member for West Dorset and the promoter of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, I am delighted to hear that sitting Fridays will come back this Friday coming. I and fellow colleagues have been particularly diligent to ensure that we are ready and raring to go. We have been through Committee stage, and I very much hope that my right hon. Friend might ensure that we can get in this Friday coming. If, for whatever reason, we cannot quite manage it, would he be so kind as to make further time, to ensure that we can get the Bill through in this Session?

May I begin by thanking my hon. Friend for giving me my Union Jack face mask? He sports a similar one.

I am delighted that a motion to allow a sitting Friday on 12 March is on the Order Paper today. This is intended to allow remaining stages of those private Members’ Bills listed in the motion, including my hon. Friend’s Bill, to take place and I hope that the House will support the motion. There have been a significant number of representations, including from my own constituents, but from MPs as well, to bring these Bills back, so I hope that the motion, the solution, will be welcomed by the House. If the House were to make good progress next Friday, it is my intention to offer a further sitting Friday in order to finalise any of the outstanding Bills listed on the Order Paper and then move forward with Second Readings, if any are put forward. I hope that the Lords will find time to pass these Bills if they pass their Commons stages, but that is, of course, a matter for their Lordships.

The Leader of the House will agree that democracy is very important, if not a quasi-sacred thing, and that when it is violated by the likes of Lukashenko in Ukraine, and, indeed, Donald Trump in America, we are all rightly repulsed. With that in mind, may I ask the Leader of the House a very simple question: if the Scottish people—or indeed the Welsh people, given the polling in Wales this morning—were to vote for independence at the ballot box, would he respect that choice of the Scottish or, indeed, the Welsh people?

I agree, as I do on many matters actually, with the hon. Gentleman. He is much missed in this Chamber and we hope to see him back physically in the not-too-distant future. It is a duller and quieter place without his regular sedentary interventions. He may have forgotten, but there was a referendum in 2014 in Scotland, which settled the issue. It seems to me that, in the midst of sorting out a pandemic, getting the economy back on its feet and resolving some little local difficulties going on with the leadership of the Scottish National party, it would be reckless to be proposing a referendum at this point.

There are 1.2 million stroke survivors in the United Kingdom. It is the largest cause of adult disability in this country. Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House make time for a proper debate on the progress of the national stroke programme, because, two years on, the quality and availability of after-care and rehabilitation services, particularly specialist areas such as physio and speech therapy, remain very variable to the great concern of many families?

My hon. Friend raises a crucial point. The NHS long-term plan, published in January 2019, outlines commitments to improving stroke services, including better stroke rehabilitation services and increased access to specialist stroke units. Stroke services across England continue to provide rehabilitation and post-acute services to stroke survivors and their families and carers during the pandemic. In part, this has been helped by innovative methods of care delivery alongside face-to-face contact. Almost half of stroke survivors have had virtual care since covid began. More than 80% of them reported positive or very positive experiences. There are 20 integrated stroke delivery networks, giving full coverage across England. Integrated stroke delivery networks were established in shadow status in October 2020 and we expect them to be fully operational by spring 2021. Ninety per cent of stroke patients will receive care in a specialist stroke unit and more patients will have access to disability-reducing treatments of mechanical thrombectomy and thrombolysis. This combined with increased access to rehabilitation services will deliver improved long-term outcomes for stroke patients. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue.

Welcome to North Antrim, Mr Speaker. I know that the Leader of the House cares passionately about this Union, and has growing concern about the breakdown of the following relationships: the internal relationships in Northern Ireland; north-south relationships across Ireland; and the UK-EU relationship, as a result of the outworking of the Northern Ireland protocol. Yesterday, during Northern Ireland questions, three Back-Bench Labour Members and one Labour Front-Bench Member expressed hostile and growing concern about the impact that the protocol is having on GB businesses trying to do trade with Northern Ireland. The Loyalist Communities Council wrote to the Prime Minister at the weekend to express concern and withdraw its support from the Belfast agreement. The Leader of the House will know the unanimous position of all strands of Unionism in their hostility and opposition to the protocol. Of course, businesses also tell us daily of the upset in respect of trade.

Will the Leader of the House inform us of when the Prime Minister will come to the House to make a statement about the extension of the grace periods put in place unilaterally by Her Majesty’s Government? What next steps will the Prime Minister take to protect the Union, to protect Northern Ireland businesses and to ensure that the genie does not get any further out of the bottle?

I’ve got to say that questions have to be much shorter and not statements. This is business questions.

I think I see a portrait of William of Orange behind the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). It is always worth reminding the House that the then pope ordered a Te Deum to be sung in St Peter’s in celebration of William of Orange’s victory; Catholics therefore have an interest in a United Kingdom, too.

With regard to the protocol, I have to some extent already answered the question. What my noble Friend Lord Frost has done is really very important and indicates the Government’s commitment to making sure that the protocol works, and that the problems that have arisen are taken very seriously by the Government, which is important. We must get to a situation wherein the whole of the United Kingdom is able to trade freely, as required under the Act of Union 1801.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the impact of living with endometriosis on a person’s mental health? March is Endometriosis Awareness Month, and during an event held earlier this week by our all-party parliamentary group on endometriosis we heard powerful stories of how the psychological impact of the condition can be just as damaging as the physical pain. Integrated mental health support is sadly needed.

First, I convey my sincere sympathies to any women who have suffered as a result of endometriosis and encourage them to seek clinical advice as to what support is available.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines are there to help health and care professionals to deliver the best possible care to all women, based on the best available evidence. Health and care commissioners are expected to take them fully into account, and I urge all clinicians to follow the NICE guidelines on endometriosis and to do all they can to support the mental and physical health of those suffering from this extremely difficult condition.

Plans to develop a women’s health strategy were temporarily paused in the initial phase of the pandemic; however, the Department of Health and Social Care has recently restarted work in this policy area and will be setting out plans shortly. Endometriosis will be considered as part of the upcoming work on the women’s health strategy.

My hon. Friend may wish to apply for a Westminster Hall debate or an Adjournment debate to cover this subject—Mr Speaker is looking his normal benignant self as I suggest an Adjournment debate, so I think my hon. Friend may been in luck.

Let’s hope he is.

I will now suspend the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.

Counter-Daesh Update

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on our ongoing campaign to counter Daesh. The safety and security of our citizens is obviously the Government’s highest priority. It is at the core of our work in tackling Daesh, which remains our most significant terrorist threat both at home and abroad. This month marks the two-year anniversary of the liberation of Syria and Iraq from Daesh’s barbaric rule, but, as we saw on 21 January in Baghdad, Daesh is still able to carry out lethal attacks.

The Global Coalition against Daesh estimates that there are still around 10,000 Daesh members at large across Syria and Iraq. Many terrorists remain in detention facilities, but others are hidden in civilian populations and camps for internally displaced persons, so support for Daesh still lingers in many communities. At the same time, while Iraq and Syria remain Daesh’s primary focus, it also presents a clear and growing global threat, so diminishing Daesh’s ability to operate in other parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, must also be a priority for the international community. We must not allow it to take root elsewhere. Meanwhile, here at home, the threat we face from Islamist extremism is all too clear. The ongoing inquest into the horrific Manchester Arena attack, which killed 23 people, provides a tragic daily reminder of that.

We continue this struggle because we appreciate the real and direct threat it presents to the British people. The UK will continue to be a leading member of the 83-member Global Coalition, providing military support to tackle the remnants of Daesh, delivering essential aid to liberated communities and countering Daesh’s vile and warped propaganda. With that in mind, let me now set out the steps we are taking.

Since the start of the UK’s military intervention against Daesh, known as Operation Shader, t