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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 4 March 2021

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—


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.


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.