Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has one of the five largest science and innovation budgets in Government. It is investing £270 million in innovation through the farming innovation programme to 2029, working with our leading-edge agricultural research institutions across the UK’s four nations to harness the power of innovation.
The advocate-general of the European Union recommended gene editing, but the European Court of Justice opposed it and put it in the same category as genetically modified organisms. Professor Nigel Halford said that
“the decision could set back agbiotech in Europe by another 20 years. We are already a generation behind. Young scientists interested in agbiotech are likely to move to places where common sense and scientific evidence prevail”.
In the name of better productivity, healthier food and scientific progress, when does my hon. Friend expect to see gene-edited crops on the UK market?
The EU has just opened a consultation on the issue, because my hon. Friend is totally right that precision-bred crops are very different. We have already taken steps, starting with the introduction of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, which will go into Committee very shortly. Through its agricultural research institutes, the UK is at the leading edge. There will be overwhelming benefits for climate change, food resilience, pest resistance and so on. I look forward to the Bill receiving support across the House, going through Committee and going on to the other place.
Wet Wipes: Plastic
Like the hon. Member, I am determined to tackle the issue. We have already run a call for evidence to explore policy options for tackling wet wipes, including a possible ban on those that contain plastic. We have also sought views on mandatory flushability standards, mandatory labelling and an extended producer responsibility scheme.
I welcome the Minister’s response. Billions of wet wipes containing plastic are still being used across the country, causing environmental damage and blocking our sewers. The consultation finished in February and there is still no ban in sight. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the next steps towards achieving a ban?
There was a huge response to the call for evidence, and we are working our way through the details. We have to make sure that if a ban is brought in, it does not have knock-on effects that will cause similar problems. Even though other wet wipes might be deemed suitable to flush, they still get stuck in sewers, so we have to be mindful of that. I say to everybody, “If you don’t need to use a wet wipe, don’t—and don’t chuck them down the loo.”
My hon. Friend’s question demonstrates the interest in the issue. I am just as interested myself, but we have to get the science right. We must not jump out of the frying pan into the fire, so we are exploring all options and the science behind them before we make an announcement, but I assure him that it will be made shortly.
My constituent Stephen, who is blind and partially deaf, has an assistance dog called Jodie. Stephen has told me that he is required to pay £160 for an animal health certificate and vaccines each time he takes Jodie to an EU country—
Anyone who has visited a sewage works such as Budds Farm in Havant or Bishop’s Waltham, as I have, can see the impact of wet wipes on the sewerage system. What more can we do now to raise awareness of the issues among the public so that only the three Ps are flushed down the loo?
I am a mother who did not use wet wipes. It is all about comms and education. If one has to flush, one should look for the flushability logo. My hon. Friend is so right, because 93% of sewerage blockages are caused by wet wipes, which then get fat stuck around them, causing fatbergs. The more we talk about not using them, the better.
The Minister will know that when there are overflow discharges into rivers from water treatment works, wet wipes are not filtered out. She will also know that the River Tame has a very high concentration of microplastics. It is of massive concern to me, as secretary of the Friends of the Tame Valley, that the trees along the riverbank are littered with wet wipes. What is the Minister doing, not only to get the message out about not flushing wet wipes down the toilet, but to clean up our riverbanks so that they do not look like a horrific scene from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”?
I can only agree that it is revolting. We are getting sewage overflows more frequently than we need because of blockages with wet wipes. It is slightly extraordinary really, but that is why we are doing all the work and that is why we have done the call for evidence. We will come up with some suggestions for what we propose to do very shortly.
We will spend over £600 million on farm-based innovation over the next three years. Our recent food strategy outlined how we intend to use grant support to help businesses invest to improve their profitability and increase their agricultural output. While we will not tell farmers what to invest in, we will support the investment decisions that they judge to be right for their own businesses.
My farmers are seeing rising production costs, from increases in fertiliser costs, feed prices going up, the price of red diesel agriculture fuel doubling and increasing labour costs because of low availability of labour in the south-west. Those pressures will increase food prices further or see farms go to the wall. What more can be done?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is true that farmers are facing increased input costs, particularly for fertiliser, fuel, animal feed and energy. Some farm-gate prices are also at record highs, and that is helping to mitigate the impact of those increased costs. The Government have already announced a package of measures to support farmers with the availability of fertiliser. To help with cash flow, we have brought forward basic payment scheme payments to July, and we have also announced an additional 10,000 visas through the seasonal worker visa route to help with labour shortages.
Farm incomes have seen a strong recovery since the 2016 referendum. Land prices are running at record highs and the price of milk has also increased. Farm profits have been on the rise in recent years. In the current year, it is true that the increased input costs caused by the spike in gas prices will put pressure on margins, but it is in the context of a successful post-Brexit boom for agriculture generally.
While the other place’s International Agreements Committee report broadly welcomed the Australia-UK trade deal for sectors such as financial services, it was concerned about the deal’s impact on UK agriculture, highlighting that it will allow the importation of beef from deforested land, crops grown with pesticides not permitted in the UK or the EU, and often no protection from copies for products such as Scottish whisky and Cornish pasties. The Committee fears that that will continue with other trade deals that the Government pursue and criticises their refusal to involve the devolved Governments. How can farms and our food and drink sector remain profitable in the face of such free trade agreements? Does the Secretary of State accept that his failure to achieve protections from untrammelled competition for farmers and food producers will ultimately have an impact on their businesses and livelihoods?
In the context of the free trade agreement with Australia, we secured staging protections for the sensitive sectors of beef and lamb for a decade, and then a very strong special agricultural safeguard thereafter, set against volumes. We judged that that would be sufficient to manage any risks to the market. It is important to recognise that Australia cannot compete with the UK on the vast majority of agricultural products, including dairy. In lamb, New Zealand cannot compete with the UK and does not use the quota it already has. Beef is an issue that we are watching, but we believe that we have the right protections in place.
We have a genuine focus on protecting and enhancing our peatlands, because that helps to tackle net zero and add to wider ecosystem services. We have an England peat action plan and a nature for climate fund, £4.8 million of which is to restore 3,500 hectares of blanket bog in the Pennines. That forms part of a bigger initiative working with the great northern bog.
I thank the Minister for that answer. The North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty contains some of the largest areas of blanket peat bog in the UK. Peat can trap up to four times as much carbon dioxide as woodland. The peatland code provides a real opportunity for the voluntary carbon market to show it has quantifiable and additional benefits for the environment. What are the Government doing to highlight that and enable more environmental opportunities for areas of blanket bog peatlands, and ensure that environmental schemes are concentrated on where they can do the most good and not taking up—
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the value that restoring peat can bring to us. That is why we have nearly 100 restoration projects across the UK registered with the peatland code, which he referenced, enabling the restoration of nearly 14,000 hectares of peatland. Through the natural environment investment readiness fund and the peatland grant scheme, we are also developing a lot of pipeline investing projects that will bring forward all the things he is highlighting.
Before answering this question, I would like to take this opportunity to correct the record. In an urgent question to which I replied on 19 May, I stated:
“We are largely self-sufficient in wheat production, growing 88% of all the wheat that we need.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2022; Vol. 714, c. 839.]
In fact, we produce 88% of the cereals that we need and the figure for wheat is a little lower, at 81%.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, let me say that the food strategy has themes that are cross-cutting and have effects on policy in many other Departments. I can therefore confirm that the process of securing collective agreement meant that this issue was discussed exhaustively with Cabinet colleagues and other Departments.
I thank the Minister for that response. Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy was an
“excellent plan to help people escape the ‘junk food cycle’”.
That is what the former Conservative leader William Hague said when he was writing in The Times a few weeks ago. He went on to describe the Government’s U-turn on implanting any of the recommendations in that strategy as
“intellectually shallow, politically weak and morally reprehensible”.
Was he right?
No, he was wrong, because we have implemented new point-of-sale restrictions, which take effect later this year, in October. That is already driving reformulation; so we have put in place policies that deliver on the issues highlighted in Henry Dimbleby’s report. As for advertising and bans on promotions, we do not believe that that is the right thing to do in the context of rising food prices.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for issuing reports on food strategy, but I am still not entirely convinced that we have a long-term sustainable policy on the production of indigenous fertiliser in this country. Will he put into the House of Commons Library additional information for us to share with our farmers on this very important issue? Given the rising costs of fertiliser and the concerns about potential closures of fertiliser plants, may we have these assurances?
On CF Fertilisers, may I thank the Secretary of State for the time he took yesterday to discuss the future of the site? I am pleased to see that there is interest in purchasing the plant. Does he agree that despite the ongoing challenges that the industry faces, with a parent company that increased its dividends by 33% in the first quarter, there is no reason why the plant cannot be sold as a going concern?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman; although CF Fertilisers has chosen to consolidate its UK operations into Billingham, the Ince plant remains viable and the best commercial exit from that plant for CF Fertilisers would be to progress an offer based on selling it as a going concern. There are many skilled people in his constituency who have been working at that plant, and the best outcome for all concerned would be for it to be sold as a going concern.
The Secretary of State has just mentioned that we lack total self-sufficiency in wheat production. Presumably, given the skyrocketing prices in the wheat market because of what is happening in Ukraine, the Government food strategy is more about producing more of our own wheat. I do not ask him to comment on a particular planning application, but what does he think of an application to build a solar farm covering 7,000 acres of good agricultural land in my constituency? I am not asking him to comment on that proposal around Gainsborough, but will he consult his colleagues to ensure that we maximise food production on our farmland?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Some years ago, we changed the planning guidance from the chief planning officer in the then Department for Communities and Local Government to make it clear that there should be a powerful presumption against the construction of field-scale solar on the best and more versatile agricultural land—that is defined as grade 3b land and above. I am aware that there are concerns that in some parts of the country that advice is no longer holding and applications are being approved, and we are discussing that across Government.
Pets: Travelling Abroad
We are clear that we meet all the requirements to gain both part 1 listed status and recognition of the UK’s tapeworm-free status. We see no valid animal health reason for those not to be granted. We are carrying out further engagement to make progress on this issue.
I thank the Minister for her answer and wonder whether she could elaborate. My constituent, Stephen, who is blind and partially deaf, has an assistance dog called Jodie. Steven has told me that he is required to pay £160 for an animal health certificate and vaccines each time he takes Jodie to an EU country. I wrote to DEFRA on Steven’s behalf more than a year ago and received a response that basically said that the change has still not happened. Does the Minister recognise the impact of this slow progress on Stephen and other people who rely on assistance dogs? Could she elaborate further on what Stephen might do?
I do recognise the challenge. There is no change for animals coming from the EU to here and there is no reason why that arrangement should not be reciprocal. We are proactively engaging with the assistance dog community and relevant stakeholders and we are continuing the engagement with the EU to make sure that we can overcome this challenge.
As we have recently heard, we have a high degree of food security in the UK. We produce 74% of the food that we can grow here and we have robust supply chains for the rest. Our food strategy sets security as a goal. We are clearly concerned by the rising pressures on household incomes and are monitoring them very closely.
With studies showing that 9.9 million people across the UK cut back on food or missed meals altogether in April, why are the Government cutting money to FareShare, which, in my constituency, has supplied the equivalent of 63,200 meals to charities over the past year?
We have worked very closely with FareShare, an organisation that I have the utmost respect for, during the last couple of years in particular. Tackling poverty in all forms is a real priority for the Government and the Chancellor has now committed £37 billion-worth of support as part of a package to help families with food costs.
An important part of food security is reducing food waste. I recently visited an amazing organisation in my patch, the Horley Food Club, which is doing tremendous work recycling food waste into the hands of the community, using great food that would otherwise have been thrown away. However, the big supermarkets say that some regulations are holding them back, such as use-by labelling. Will the Minister update the House on what we might be able to do about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this really important question. I am pleased to confirm that the Food Standards Agency has agreed to ensure that there are no more unnecessary barriers to food redistribution through food banks or other types of community sharing organisations. I would be ever so happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further.
The president of the National Farmers Union Scotland, Martin Kennedy, has said that the UK is on the verge of food security concerns not seen since world war two, due to a “perfect storm” driven by covid, Brexit and the Ukraine war, with the 300% increase in the cost of fertiliser impacting food production costs, on top of the rises in feed and fuel costs and the labour shortages affecting the sector. The SNP called for financial support for food producers months ago when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Will the Minister clarify whether the UK Government will heed that call?
As the hon. Lady knows, agriculture is devolved. In England, we have been able to take steps to support our farmers through rising input costs, such as those for fertiliser. On fertiliser, we have been able to bring forward the support payment to July from December to give farmers the confidence to place orders for fertiliser, which is important. We have also made other changes to the guidance on farming rules for water and urea, for example, which really ought to help the movement from chemical fertilisers to biofertilisers.
Yesterday, inflation hit a new 40-year high at 9.1% amid the cost of living crisis. Things seem to be getting worse with each month that passes. Currently, 7.3 million people are living in food poverty, including 2.6 million children. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people who will be in food poverty by Christmas this year? If that assessment does exist, can it be published and put in the House of Commons Library?
We continue to monitor very closely both the cost of food and the effect that this has on household budgets of those who are struggling. The Chancellor, as I have said, has recently added £15 billion to his total support package for struggling families—£37 billion in total. We know that food, while a very important part of household expenditure, is not the largest part in terms of cost for families. It is around 11% in the average family and 14% in more struggling families. We continue to work very closely with a wide range of organisations to make sure that we know what is happening on the ground and that we can intervene where necessary.
The Government’s own food security report relies on the existence of food banks to keep the UK fed. However, food banks cannot keep up today with the rocketing demand. Far from levelling up, what we see in reality is that our northern regions are the hardest hit with the highest levels of food insecurity. Is it not the truth that the Government’s record of low wages, low growth, record tax rises and out-of-control inflation is keeping people skint and hungry, and that the Government just do not have a plan to address it?
I dispute that. We very much have a plan to continue to help people with the pressures on the cost of living. This is a very difficult and sensitive issue. Often, the higher costs are in the housing or the fuel sphere, but it is important that we continue to work with the Trussell Trust and others, with which we have an excellent working relationship after the pandemic. We have all learned to deal in a much more granular way with food supply chains and how to get food to people who need it. It is important that we dial down the political tone on this and continue to help people who need it.
Village halls are at the heart of so many rural communities, and I am absolutely delighted that we have launched the platinum jubilee village hall improvement fund. Just as a mark of how important I think village halls are, let me tell Members that, when our own village celebrated 50 years of its village hall, I wrote a song about it, which I am still being teased about.
I thank the Minister for not sharing that song with us.
As a former chair of my local village hall, I know how important village halls can be in connecting people of all ages. That was particularly evident during the pandemic. Village halls are generally run by small dedicated teams of volunteers who, unfortunately, are continually scraping around for the cash to keep them open. What more can we do to give easier and more sustainable funding to ensure that as many of these vital community hubs as possible can stay open?
My hon. Friend makes such a good point. I congratulate him on his former role, and all those who have been on village hall committees. That included my husband who regaled me with many tales of what was said at the village hall committee. Our platinum jubilee village hall fund will provide for many halls the support they need to modernise, upgrade, and put in new internet and so forth. We also have a grant to support Action with Communities in Rural England to provide support for village halls across the whole country with advice, including on other sources of funding.
We are delivering on our manifesto pledge to crack down on the smuggling of dogs and puppies. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill includes powers to introduce further restrictions. We have recently consulted on these and we will be publishing our report very shortly.
The steps proposed in the kept animals Bill, in our Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on the movement of animals across borders, and in the commercial and non-commercial movements of pets in Britain consultation are desperately needed. I, as a vet, along with charities such as the Dogs Trust, have serious concerns about the biosecurity of the UK’s dogs if smugglers continue to be able to abuse the system. Will my hon. Friend go further and commit to now introducing visual checks on dogs that enter the country and also institute pre-entry health checks and preventative measures such as tick treatments?
My hon. Friend has long taken a particular interest in this matter and he was a very involved member of the Bill Committee. As I said, we will shortly publish the results of the consultation that deals with the matter. I very much look forward, as I am sure he does, to seeing the Bill back on the Floor of the House as soon as possible.
Discharge of Untreated Sewage
This Government are the first to set out our expectation that water companies must take significant steps to reduce storm sewage overflows. Through the Environment Act 2021 we have set a legal duty on water companies to reduce discharges and enhance monitoring, and we have just consulted on the largest programme in history to tackle storm overflows. Sadly, the hon. Gentleman’s party voted against these measures in the Environment Bill.
The Environmental Audit Committee recently recommended that Ministers tackle water pollution by setting a stretching timetable for progressive reduction in sewage overflows. However, under the storm overflow discharge reduction plan, half the storm overflows would still be spilling untreated sewage in 2040. This is totally unacceptable to my constituents, who have every right to expect clean and healthy waterways. Will the Government show some ambition and commit to a target of 100% of sewage outflows in priority areas not causing ecological harm by 2030?
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the storm overflow discharge reduction plan, which we will publish in September. A huge amount of scientific research is informing this, and we have set a revolutionary system in place that will tackle these storm sewage overflows. We also have to be mindful of the cost of this on water bills, but we are certainly tackling the worst areas first—bathing waters and protected sites. We have a very sound system in place to deal with this once and for all, and the water companies have to clean up their act.
Windermere is England’s biggest lake, and the beautiful weather this week has attracted huge numbers of swimmers to its shores, but people are being advised by conservationists not to swim or let their dogs in the water due to the amount of raw sewage being pumped into it by United Utilities. However, the official figures report that the Environment Agency claims that the amount of untreated sewage has reduced and there were no spills last year. Will the Minister admit that the reporting system is broken and take urgent steps to ensure that there is reliable monitoring so that people can enjoy beautiful Lake Windermere?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, but that is why we have a very sound system in place through the Environment Act and through our directions to Ofwat, the regulator, to tackle this area. It is why event duration monitoring will be in all storm overflows by 2023. It is why we have such an important and comprehensive system of monitoring and reporting back on when these storm overflows are being used. It is why we are tackling the water quality above and below storm sewage overflows so that we can demonstrate what is happening and action can be taken—and action will be taken on the water companies; we make absolutely no bones about that at all.
I take this opportunity to welcome the confirmation this week that the UN convention on biological diversity, COP15, will now be going ahead at the end of this year in Canada under China’s presidency. This week, in preparation for that, the UK will lead ambitious calls to protect nature at Nairobi in the run-up to building ambitious biodiversity targets.
This week I met the US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture to discuss many issues around sustainable agriculture and trade. I am pleased to announce today that the UK will join the Sustainable Productivity Growth Coalition convened by the United States. I look forward to working with our international partners in this dialogue on innovation, science and sustainable agriculture.
The wine trade, and particularly wines produced in the UK, plays an increasing important role in Southport’s food and drink industry. Will my right hon. Friend meet some of these businesses to listen to how the proposed duty reforms will affect their trade?
Given the impact covid has had on mental health and wellbeing, for many, access to the outdoors was a vital escape, but the Secretary of State will know that access is not equal. Research by Wildlife and Countryside Link highlights that the poorest communities are twice as likely to live in a neighbourhood without access to nature. What are the Government doing to ensure that every neighbourhood in every corner of England finally has access to a green and pleasant land?
We have set out some detailed proposals on this, both in our response to the Glover review, but also under the Environment Act 2021. Local authorities will be required to have local nature recovery strategies in future, and that will include commitments around public access in particular locations. We have also opened a new farming and protected landscape scheme, which is all about supporting public access to the countryside.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has highlighted, we have witnessed the worst avian flu outbreaks on record in recent months, having sustained 122 cases this year. We will lift restrictions in disease control zones, including those on racing pigeons, as soon as we are able to do so, because of the biosecurity need. This week, we have announced that scientists across the UK will join forces in a major new research consortium to fight against avian flu. I note that my hon. Friend has written to me, so he will get a fuller answer.
I met FareShare recently to discuss a particular proposal it had around trying to ensure that waste on farms was redistributed where possible. We did increase the funding for FareShare temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic, and we continue to support it, but obviously I will look into the specific case he raises.
I am very much looking forward to visiting next Monday, and I reassure the hon. Member that while there is no silver bullet, it is important that we use everything we have available. The innovation that is coming in vertical farms, in greenhouses and so on gives us the opportunity to produce more food in the UK to feed ourselves.
Our landscape review highlighted that areas of outstanding natural beauty are often just as important as national parks to their local communities, as my hon. Friend is demonstrating. We will be working with the National Association for AONBs to better reflect AONBs’ significance through their name and their purposes, and we have allocated additional funding to support that this year. In terms of new AONBs, we are always happy to consider applications from interested parties.
With prices spiking for fertiliser and vital fuels such as tractor diesel, farmers in Lincolnshire face extreme pressure on cash flow. Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving farmers the support and confidence they need to plan for the future is vital to our food security?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is why we have decided this year to give the industry the confidence needed by bringing forward half of the BPS payment to July from December. That will help ease those cash-flow pressures. In the context of Lincolnshire, which has a particularly strong horticultural background, we have increased the number of visas so that farmers can have access to the labour they need.
The hon. Lady raises a sad and tragic case, and our thoughts are with the affected families. On her specific question, she will know that we have introduced legislation to push for due diligence in supply chains; that will require producers in the UK to ensure there is due diligence right through their supply chain, in particular for forest-risk products.
Following last year’s mass shellfish mortality off the Yorkshire coast, the problem has still not gone away: catches of lobster are 50% down despite vessels venturing further out to sea. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has attributed this to algal bloom, but other theories are circulating. Will the Minister publish all the toxicology data available for sediment, sea water and dead crustaceans to independent scrutiny? Is it true that the recent extensive dredging of the River Tees is based on just one silt sample taken in February last year?
My right hon. Friend and the neighbouring MP are very concerned, as am I, about what happened last year, and I have been to see some of the crabs affected. As he said, we are not entirely sure of the cause of the mortality but algal bloom seems the most likely explanation. I have made it clear that we should publish every single piece of information available, and academics must work together on this.
Last Friday I was able to celebrate with the Environment Agency the investment of £45 million into flood resilience in York and the £38 million on the completion of the flood barrier. However, that came with a 17-year warning that unless investment is put upstream we could be here again by 2039. What steps is the Minister taking to address the upland resilience we need for the future?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes that funding on the Foss barrier; it is a tremendous project and well done to everyone involved. She also mentioned upstream work: we are investing £200 million in projects to investigate innovative and creative ways to deal with upstreams so we can stop the water before it gets to where it is causing the problem.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Persecution of Christians Overseas
The murder of 50 Catholics in church this month in Ondo state in Nigeria and the ongoing murders for alleged blasphemy are a stark reminder of why the Church of England stands foursquare behind the implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s review.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s response but the independent review of progress on Truro is due now, as required by recommendation 22. Will he join me in pressing for that? Does he agree that, whatever it says, there will be more work to do on the Truro recommendations and that that must continue as the problem of persecution across the world is getting worse? This year’s Open Doors world watch list indicates that 20 million more Christians than a year ago will be highly persecuted and that across the world a Christian is killed every two hours for their faith.
That is absolutely right, and the situation does indeed continue to get worse, not better, with over 4,000 Christians murdered for their faith last year. To end the work of the Truro review now would be unthinkable. Recommendation 6 calls for the establishment of the special envoy role permanently and in perpetuity, as for example in the United States of America, and the Church of England supports the full and ongoing implementation of recommendation 6.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Political Campaigning: Transparency
The commission’s view is that the digital imprints requirement in the Elections Act will increase transparency by helping voters understand who is paying to target them online. It could provide further transparency if the requirement were extended to cover all digital material from unregistered campaigners, regardless of whether they paid to promote it. The commission has said that other changes in the Act relating to non-party campaigners will bring limited additional transparency, while increasing the complexity of the law.
The Online Safety Bill would include new freedom of speech protections for some campaigning content, but does not include any provisions that would directly affect the transparency of political campaign activities.
Recently, openDemocracy highlighted research that suggests it is difficult to establish exactly what more than £3.6 million was spent on by the Conservative party before the 2019 general election because of unclear or even unavailable invoices. Without that clarity, it is obviously difficult to establish exactly what political campaigning communications resulted from contracts that included £700,000 and £1.6 million to political consultancy firms, or even from the 200 out of 300 local Conservative branches that apparently submitted returns with no invoices. Yet the commission said it was “not proportionate” to take enforcement action. Under what circumstances would the commission be prepared to take action?
The commission reviewed the spending return delivered by the Conservative party following the 2019 parliamentary general election, and is aware that not all the required invoices were provided. Having reviewed the compliance of the return as a whole, it was decided that it was not proportionate to take enforcement action in relation to those missing invoices.
The hon. Member mentioned local associations, and local association campaign spending and accompanying invoices or receipts at a UK parliamentary general election are submitted as part of the spending return from their central party. The commission is required to publish the returns as soon as reasonably possible, whether or not they are complete. When a return is incomplete, the commission will consider what action to take in line with the principles of proportionality, as set out in its enforcement policy.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church of England educates over 1 million children in its community schools across England, including nearly half of the primary schools in the Penrith and The Border constituency. These schools are generally very popular with parents of all faiths and none, and have a vision to be deeply Christian, to serve the common good and to foster a thirst for knowledge across a broad curriculum.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Unfortunately, the educational attainment of children across the country, including in rural areas, can all too often be impacted by poverty and isolation, including food and energy poverty. Would my hon. Friend join me in thanking the Church of England, including its schools in Cumbria and across the country, for supporting those vulnerable families, particularly in the challenging times of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis? Will the Church commit to continue to provide that vital support?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s thanks, and I can reassure him that the Church of England will continue to support vulnerable families wherever possible—for example, by buying school uniforms, providing breakfast clubs for free and paying for school trips. In the village of Shankhill in his constituency, the Church school supports the whole community by acting as a village hall for gatherings, lunches and intergenerational activities.
What assessment has the Church of England made of the impact, particularly on rural Church of England schools, of the dramatic reduction in the number of priests in some dioceses? Does the hon. Member share my concern that money generated by parishes is being increasingly sucked into diocesan administration and projects, meaning that an impossibly small number of priests serve huge numbers of parishes? That threatens the very future of English parish life, including the role of rural Church schools.
I totally understand the point the right hon. Gentleman is making. He will know that the Church of England absolutely holds to its vision to have a Church of England presence in every community. Of course, he is right that if there are not so many incumbents, it can be difficult for them to go in and do assemblies in Church schools and so on, but the Church is really focused on the frontline and putting the parish first.
Church education is quite rightly a priority for our Church, particularly for its leadership, but can my hon. Friend assure me that significant appointments to the Church, particularly to the House of Bishops, demonstrate that the Church of England is actively seeking to represent the breadth of opinion among its members, particularly those of a more conservative theological disposition?
Freedom of Religious Belief: International Ministerial Conference
The Church of England is working closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to support the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief taking place in London the week after next, and very much wants the conference to make a difference. The Archbishop of Canterbury will address the conference.
My hon. Friend is right. Christians are the most persecuted faith, and the Church of England will always stand up for all people who are being persecuted. He is also right that the Church needs to show global leadership by building relationships with the leaders of other faiths and with Governments so that there can be truthful conversations about what change needs to happen. The Anglican communion has great expertise in inter-faith relations, and we will focus on that in the Lambeth conference this summer. He is also right that that needs to be a priority, given that persecution is getting worse.
Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
Protection of Stonework
Following decisions by the House Commissions in February, the sponsor body paused its work on producing a business case for the restoration and renewal programme. The two Commissions have now proposed a new approach for how the programme should be governed and delivered. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that the Commissions recommend that a priority area for the work should be
“Conservation of the building fabric including stonework.”
It is intended that the new proposals will be put to Members of both Houses for debate and decision before the summer recess.
I recently took a restoration and renewal Palace tour and saw historically significant artwork painted directly on to the stone in parts of the building that are at risk of flooding. How it can be ensured that that artwork is not lost for future generations to enjoy and that it is properly protected during restoration works?
That is an extremely good question. As I sit on the sponsor board, I can say that that is an absolute priority for everybody working for the delivery authority. A huge amount of work has already been done in listing and understanding every part of the fabric and every piece of artwork; the hon. Lady can rest assured that, once the works commence, every effort will be made to remove those artworks so that they are not in any way damaged.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Places of Worship: Net Zero Target
The Church of England is trying to achieve net zero by 2030. Examples include solar panels on the roofs of Gloucester and Salisbury cathedrals, heat pumps and underfloor heating in Newcastle cathedral and Bath abbey using natural hot spring water. I even have a vicar coming to see me shortly about a tidal power proposition for his church.
I recently attended a wonderful service at St Mary’s church in Tickhill; it is a beautiful 12th century church and the pride of Tickhill. However, it is struggling to raise finance to replace its dated heating system. If that was to be replaced with a ground-source heat pump, that would cost in excess of £750,000. What can my hon. Friend suggest to help the church? Many of my other churches will face the same issue, including those in Hatfield, Rossington, Bawtry and Thorne, among others.
I absolutely get the scale of the challenge as I have similar churches in my constituency, and I know that the churches that my hon. Friend mentioned in Hatfield, Rossington, Bawtry and Thorne will be looking at the issue carefully. In the first instance, I suggest that they look at the diocese of Sheffield’s green energy audit scheme and the “funding net zero” section of the Church of England website. Emissions savings can be made by, for example, switching from oil to under-pew heating from renewable electricity.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer. Certainly, I have seen lots of activities in churches in my own constituency. We have a lot of mums with children arriving in the United Kingdom and in South Northamptonshire. Lots of them either want to work or are working, but with the summer holidays fast approaching there will be the need for childcare. Can my hon. Friend give us an idea of what the Church can do to provide summer playgroups, so that Ukrainian children can keep learning English and making new friends?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is typically too modest to mention that she is herself host to a Ukrainian family. I thank her, on behalf of the Church of England, for what she is doing.
The point my right hon. Friend makes about summer holiday clubs for children is extremely important. I can tell her that most parishes are now operating such clubs, although we are not quite back to where we were before the pandemic, due to a shortage of volunteers. I will ask the Diocese of Peterborough to let her know the details of all our clubs operating in her area.
May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to June Partington and others at the parish of Christ Church and St George’s in Denton? June and the parish have organised, on behalf of churches across Tameside in Greater Manchester, the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Is that not precisely what the Church of England, having parishes in every community, is about?
Russian Orthodox Church: Ukraine
The Church Commissioners and our pensions board were some of the first institutions to take all practical steps to withdraw from their direct investments in Russia. The Church of England remains committed to a ministry of reconciliation based on love and truth, and will continue to reach out—for example, through the chaplain of St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Moscow, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia.
The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of many freedoms, including the freedom of religion or belief. I am very pleased that Ukraine will be represented at the conference on freedom of religion or belief here in July. What, in my hon. Friend’s opinion, would be a successful outcome to the conference for delegates such as those from Ukraine and elsewhere, where freedom of religion or belief is being violated or denied?
It is a really important question. The bottom line must be a reduction in global persecution, which is going up, not down. Presidents and Prime Ministers need to prioritise this issue. We need better co-ordination with civil society. We need freedom of religion or belief in education and we want young freedom of religion or belief ambassadors.
Parts of the Church of England behaved appallingly in turning away Caribbean worshippers after the war. The Church has paid a heavy price in losing the spirit-filled vitality of those worshippers to spread the good news of Jesus. Work by Lord Boateng and the inspirational Peter Stream, which is drawing ordinands from a wide variety of races and backgrounds, is starting to redress that shameful episode.
I must say to my right hon. Friend that it would not be appropriate for me to comment specifically on an individual candidate for ordination. The period of initial formation for candidates is part of the discernment process, and not every candidate who starts training finishes it or is judged ready for ordination at the end of it. I am informed that, as with all applications for the ministry, this candidate was considered irrespective of Church tradition, political views or race.