House of Commons
Thursday 30 March 2023
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
In February, I announced to the House that Sir John Benger, the current Clerk of the House and Head of the House of Commons service, will be leaving Parliament in the autumn to take up the role of Master of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge. I am pleased to announce that, following a competitive recruitment process, Tom Goldsmith, the current Principal Clerk of the Table Office, has been appointed as the 52nd Clerk of the House of Commons, following the approval of His Majesty the King. I am sure that you will join me in congratulating Tom, who has many outstanding qualities to bring to this important role and will be a distinguished successor to Sir John Benger.
Arrangements will be made for a comprehensive handover period before Tom formally takes up the role in October. Until then, Sir John will continue to work hard and diligently as Clerk of the House—he has a lot of work to do! There will also be an opportunity before then for colleagues to recognise more formally Sir John’s historic contribution to the House and to wish him all the very best in the future.
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Rural Farmers and Communities
The Department’s farm welfare forum brings together England’s largest farming welfare organisations, many of which provide excellent mental health support. In October last year we opened the third phase of our future farming resilience fund. It provides free expert business advice to farmers and supports mental health and wellbeing where appropriate.
We know that farmers are among those at the highest risk of suicide. In light of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry on rural community mental health, and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution report on mental health in farming, what more can we do to support the mental wellbeing of our rural communities and farmers?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area. DEFRA supports community action to tackle loneliness in rural areas via our ongoing funding of Action with Communities in Rural England, and initiatives that address the mental health impacts of social isolation. We have worked with the Yellow Wellies charity to provide advice and information to delivery partners on how to identify potential mental health issues, and tools for addressing them. We also regularly bring together rural community organisations to look into issues around transport connectivity and community in a rural context.
Mental illness among farmers is greatly increasing across the whole United Kingdom. Rural Support has revealed that hundreds of farmers in Northern Ireland are suffering from mental health issues. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs back home in relation to additional support for our farmers? We could deal with issue this better together across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we always have conversations with our colleagues across devolved Administrations. As he identifies, this is a very important issue. Together, we can encourage conversations and support through various charities. Of course, the Government will play their part in those conversations and in supporting of those charities.
Illicit Fur Trade
We currently restrict imports of fur and fur products from cats and dogs, fur from wild animals caught using non-compliant trapping methods, and fur from endangered species. We will continue to enforce those restrictions very strongly.
The Government have boasted of their world-leading record on animal welfare, but they have done nothing to tackle the abhorrent global trade in fur. The last Labour Government banned fur farming in the United Kingdom. Having dropped the planned animals abroad Bill, will the Government commit to introducing legislation to ban the import and sale of fur, and end this country’s involvement in the global fur trade?
The hon. Gentleman is correct: fur farming has been banned since 2000 in England and Wales and since 2002 in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We published a formal call for evidence on the fur trade, and we received around 30,000 responses, which we are currently considering, but we have an incredibly strong record with our plan for animal welfare.
The global trade in fur costs millions of animals their lives every year. The Government’s call for evidence on the fur market in Great Britain closed in June 2021. I thank the Minister for telling us how many responses there were, but since then, there has been no word from the Department on whether the ban on the import and sale of fur will be introduced. Over three quarters of voters support a ban on fur imports. When will the results of the call for evidence be published, so that this country can see what experts really think and we can legislate? Does she agree that fur is best on the back of the animal, not on the back of a human?
We have committed to exploring potential action in relation to animal fur, as set out in the action plan for animal welfare. We have conducted the call for evidence, and we continue to build on our evidence base on the fur sector, which will be used to inform any future action on the fur trade.
Teesside Sea Life
Following a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-led multi-agency investigation last year, I commissioned a further review, which reported in January, regarding the issue that affected crustaceans. It ruled out some of the prevailing theories, including the role of pyridine, and the view of the independent expert panel was that finding something to which we can attribute the cause with certainty is unlikely. However, we have continued to monitor this. In Hartlepool this month there have been anecdotal reports of sudden drops in the number of prawns and Norway lobster. The scale is unknown, but the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science has undertaken precautionary sampling and testing for disease and pathogens.
When 11-year-old Erin-Rose Cawley from Redcar was asked to write a speech for school, she wrote:
“The year is 2019 and our beaches have just received the Blue Flag meaning our beaches are some of the country’s best. Fast forward two years to beaches knee deep in dead, twitching crabs—a die off that was a never before seen phenomenon.”
Will the Minister tell Erin-Rose what the Government are going to do to ensure our dead sea is brought back to good health?
CEFAS has not received any reports of similar crab or crustacean mortality events since what happened in 2021, and a significant review—[Interruption.] A significant review has been undertaken already. I really do not think it is in the best interests to continue to challenge expert scientists who have undertaken that review and ruled out the theory that the hon. Gentleman has been pushing for some time now.
I sat with fishers a few weeks ago, alongside my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), to hear about the impact that the Teesside crustacean die-off has had on the livelihoods of local fishers. Let me tell the Secretary of State what they said:
“We’re finished. There’s nothing left to catch.”
“No-one listens. We’re just fishermen!”
“We’re not asking for a handout. We’re asking for a roadmap to get back on track.”
“Levelling up? They’ve levelled Teesside down”.
Working people—the grafters of this country and the foundation of our food security—are being ignored. It is wrong that public figures, instead of stepping up like true public servants, are acting like Houchen’s henchmen and pound-shop goons, closing down debate and legitimate challenge. Well, it will not work—this is not going away. Will the Secretary of State take a different course and meet Stan Rennie and the North East Fishing Collective with me to finally get to the bottom of this and give them the answers they deserve?
The hon. Gentleman has just, with his words, done that, and I am really concerned about that. This issue is very important. That is why we undertook a further independent review. The chief scientific adviser of DEFRA brought in more people.
The shadow Secretary of State talks about the people who are affected, and I understand that. The impact is such that the fishermen are having to go out to about 9 miles compared with the normal 2 to 3 miles. The inshore fisheries and conservation authority has reported to the Department that there is no particular change in the levels in that area. I am conscious that that may not be the impact for those individuals there. I have met other MPs in the area, and there are funding opportunities available, which might be for reinvestment in equipment to help them go further afield more regularly.
In July 2022, the Government announced their £100 million frequently flooded fund to support communities that have experienced repeated flooding but have been unable to secure all of the funding necessary to progress their schemes. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that his scheme has been approved, and full details will be with him and all those involved in his scheme in Shipley next week.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that. She will know that I lobbied hard for the establishment of this frequently flooded fund for my constituents who regularly get flooded but never met the previous criteria. Clearly, I await next week’s announcement with great anticipation, but if not every part of my constituency has been successful in that bid, can the Minister confirm that this is not a one-off fund but an annual fund, and that any area that misses out this time might have an opportunity to be successful in future rounds?
Yes, my hon. Friend was a doughty campaigner in raising this issue of frequently flooded communities. As I went around the country when communities unfortunately experienced flooding, it was clear that a number of those communities fell out of being able to access the funding, so I assure him that £20 million is going out in this first tranche. Letters will be sent out shortly, with further details next week. This money—this particular £100 million—has been ringfenced, and I give all credit to my hon. Friend for the part he played in highlighting this issue.
The Minister will know that one way of preventing flooding downstream in urban areas is to try to deal with natural watercourses: rewinding, planting more trees and so on. There are other nature-based solutions that would be appropriate in Somerset, which she is very familiar with. Could she tell us what the Department is doing to try to introduce some of those solutions?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for that question, which touches on so many parts of DEFRA’s portfolio: tackling flooding, water quality, biodiversity—we can get all of that by re-meandering rivers. The Environment Agency has already spent £15 million on natural flood management schemes. There is a lot of work going on, and indeed, natural flood management schemes can be part of applications for the frequently flooded fund.
We want to ensure that rural areas and the people living within them are absolutely given the opportunity to flourish. We are supporting rural businesses in communities with £5 billion of Project Gigabit funding and £1 billion of shared rural network funding. We are improving their connectivity to make sure that rural areas thrive.
The new national forest has been of huge benefit to both my former coalmining communities and my rural communities in North West Leicestershire, to the point where many of the villages and communities just outside the forest would like to be part of it. Could the Minister give her advice on this matter?
What a tree-mendous question! Trees have transformed that previously scarred landscape, and I assure my hon. Friend that I also appreciate the lungs of Leicestershire, creating 200 square miles of forest. Some 9 million people visit that area and 5,000 jobs have been created, as have 100 km of cycling tracks. My hon. Friend sets me a challenge, which I relish: I will certainly look into how we can continue to expand the National Forest Company.
Oh, I missed the statement—I am terribly sorry. I am useless; resign instantly. Anyway, I am congratulating him.
It is very important that rural communities look like rural communities. One of the things that we did in the 1945 Labour Government was to insist that people could not put advertising hoardings up along motorways outside towns. Unfortunately, lots of farmers these days are wheeling advertising hoardings along by motorways, which is dangerous for drivers on motorways. Is it not time that we put a stop to it?
According to a rural Scottish business panel survey last month, the impact of the cost of living is damaging rural Scottish businesses, with almost nine out of 10 having financial concerns and three quarters postponing investment plans due to cost increases. Despite what the Minister has said earlier, can she tell me what additional support she can provide to support rural communities struggling with higher costs?
There is a plethora of support, particularly around energy with the household support fund and including from my colleagues in the Department for Business and Trade—the artist formerly known as BEIS. Surely the hon. Lady has seen the announcement this morning on how we are supporting the transition to green energy, too, which will benefit constituents not only in Scotland, but right around the UK.
Public Access to Nature
Connectivity to rural areas is vitally important to us. As I have already set out this morning, we are spending millions on ensuring that rural areas thrive and that people have access to nature.
As the Minister knows, goal 10 of the environmental improvement plan is to enhance engagement with the natural environment. Saving historic footpaths is a vital way of doing that, so it is a bit bizarre, given there is already a backlog of more than 4,000 applications waiting to be processed to save those footpaths, that the Government have reneged on their promise to scrap the deadline in the mapping review, without any plan to address that backlog. Will the Minister rethink that short-sighted decision, so that we do not risk losing 40,000 miles of precious footpaths forever?
Actually, that decision was taken in 2000, and we have extended the date from 2026 to 2031. I remind the hon. Member of the measures that we are taking to improve access to nature with Natural England and the commitment for people to be within 15 minutes of a blue or green area, as well as with the national trails and the designation of the coast to coast as a national trial. The England coastal path is 2,700 miles around England that people can access. In fact, people can access most coastal, common, fell, moorland and heathland areas across the country, but there is a balance between access for the public, the protection of nature and ensuring that the lives of people in rural areas and their livelihoods thrive.
Air pollution has fallen significantly since 2010, and our recently published environmental improvement plan sets out the actions that we will continue to take to continue to improve air quality. They include additional measures to tackle domestic burning and agricultural emissions, continued delivery of the £883 million NOx programme and supporting local authorities to improve air quality more quickly with clear guidance and tools.
The Minister will know that I am really referring to incinerators in my particular instance. The Government have taken steps to improve air quality through the Environment Act 2021. One of the targets is to have an annual mean concentration for PM2.5 levels of 10 micrograms per cubic metre or below by 2040. When determining these targets, the Government considered the World Health Organisation’s own target, which was 10 micrograms per cubic metre. However, it has recently lowered that to 5 micrograms per cubic metre. Will the Government consider lowering their target, so that it is in line with the WHO?
The simple answer is no. Clearly we look at all the World Health Organisation guidelines, but they are only there to inform the setting of standards; they are not ready-made targets. Being realistic, even without man-made emissions and all the measures we have set forward in our groundbreaking targets, PM2.5 concentrations would still exceed the WHO guidelines—even the lower one—because we get these emissions from natural sources and also from other countries. The WHO guidelines would therefore be unachievable. I was heartened by my recent visit to Sweden to launch the Forum for International Co-operation on Air Quality, which shows we have to work together on this internationally.
The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, has just issued a report, with 15 recommendations, that gives a route map on how to achieve these targets earlier, including on indoor air pollution and wood burners. Will the Minister respond to that now, write in greater detail to me as the chair of the all-party group on air pollution, and come to a meeting to explain what progress the Government can make on these 15 objectives, so that we can make faster progress and save more lives sooner?
I thank the hon. Member for that. I have met him many times on these issues, and I commend him for this work, but I have also met Professor Chris Whitty on this very subject. The hon. Member just needs to look at the forthcoming update of our clean air strategy. We are already working on many of the things that Chris Whitty has raised, and we have to get the Department of Health and Social Care to play its part as well.
Agriculture is a devolved issue, and is the responsibility of the Scottish Government. Our farmers produce some of the best food in the world. In England, our environmental land management schemes are now open for them to access, and we will pay farmers to deliver positive environmental outcomes. We will also support the production of great British food, healthier soils and more pollinators.
For the record, may I say how surprised and disappointed I was that the lady who was offered the Rural Affairs job in the Scottish Government turned it down because, as it is reported, it was seen to be a demotion? I was born on a farm. My local farmers and crofters are vital to the economy of my constituency. All over the UK, it is about feeding the nation.
On the subject of feeding the nation, there is increased movement of cattle from Scotland to England. I will not go into the reasons why that is happening, but it is happening, and the Minister will know that. Does he agree that a universal electronic tagging scheme that matches the whole of the UK, perhaps including Northern Ireland, would greatly facilitate this sort of sale of livestock?
I thank the hon. Member for his question. Obviously, I work closely with Mairi Gougeon in the Scottish Government. She will probably be disappointed to have been re-offered her job, despite its being offered to somebody else, but we will continue to have a positive working relationship there.
The hon. Member is right to highlight the fact that co-operation across the Union is best for UK agriculture and best for UK food production. I think systems for moving cattle between Scotland and England need to flow as quickly and as easily as possible, so that that marketplace works efficiently for farmers on both sides of the border.
I recently visited the Quaker Oats site in my constituency, which works very hard with a number of local farmers who provide the site and, outwith North East Fife, works hard on LEAF—Linking Environment and Farming—accreditation, providing sustainability initiatives for local farmers, but they are frustrated. In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), the Minister mentioned the importance of working across the UK and wider sustainability initiatives in the supply chain, such as the extended producer responsibility scheme, so will the Minister provide an update on that scheme and will he commit to re-engaging so that, on a UK basis, we can provide that support?
I thank the hon. Member for that question. Again, she highlights how important this is. I think farming is challenging enough, frankly, without our putting false barriers in place across the border between England and Scotland. We need to co-operate across the Union and make sure that farmers and food producers on both sides of the border have the opportunity to access the market without barriers.
As you know, Mr Speaker, the west Pennine moors have a lot of tenant farmers. Does the Minister share my concern that we are seeing an increasing use of mandatory rounds in relation to development, often for solar or tree planting, to break both business farm tenancies and agricultural tenancies that have inheritance attached to them? If he does share that concern, what is the Department going to do about it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. We have been working with Baroness Rock, who has been doing a review of farm-based tenancies, and we will respond to that review very soon. We want to support tenants up and down this country, particularly in Cumbria, and I hope to visit that part of the country in the very near future to see at first hand what is happening on those hills.
My right hon. Friend will recall that my constituents Andy and Lynda Eadon have done tremendous work in raising awareness of the mental health challenges affecting young farmers in particular in rural areas, in memory of their son Len. Can I thank him for agreeing to participate in the Westminster leg of the Len’s Light tractor relay? Mr Speaker, he is perhaps the only Minister you will allow to drive a tractor anywhere near this historic building. Can I urge him to continue to apply pressure to land-based colleges and other educational institutions to make sure that mental health awareness is part of the educational experience of everyone entering agriculture?
That, actually, Mr Speaker, is a very important issue: “If it’s not red, leave it in the shed” is what I would say.
I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend’s constituents for their support of mental health charities, particularly in memory of Leonard. He has been a huge inspiration to young farmers, certainly across the east midlands, in talking about mental health challenges in that industry.
We have asked water companies to deliver their largest ever infrastructure investment, £56 billion over 25 years. Nearly 800 improvements are under way already, and that is dealing with storm sewage overflows. The Secretary of State and I have asked sewage companies to come up with an action plan for every single storm overflow in England, and water companies will face higher penalties, to be enforced and paid more quickly than ever before. Under Labour the monitoring record of storm sewage overflows was woeful, but by the end of this year it will be 100%.
Labour does have a plan—a much more ambitious plan—to tackle combined sewer overflows, and this would include cutting discharges by 90%, mandatory sewage outlet monitoring, and automatic fines for discharges. Will the Secretary of State enact that plan with immediate effect?
I am glad the hon. Lady has asked me that, because her plan would add £1,000 on to every customer’s bill and we would have to add pipes that would go two and a half times around the world to cope with what Labour is proposing. We are already doing everything that has been called for, and more: we are increasing fines; we are increasing monitoring; we are taking tougher sanctions on businesses; and we have a costed plan and are mindful of the impact on customers.
Investment has already seen an over-50% reduction in storm overflows in North Devon, resulting in bathing water quality being rated good or excellent along the coast. However, this is only tested between May and September. Will my hon. Friend consider extending the testing season for the increasing number of all year round bathers and surfers, or at least look for waters to be tested after a storm overflow has discharged?
My hon. Friend is a great voice for her constituency in this area and I am very pleased to hear about those figures for the improving water. We are using powers in the Environment Act 2021, and under them we require companies to make discharge data available to the public in near real time if there has been a discharge that could have affected water quality, and to monitor water quality upstream and downstream of their assets. This monitoring will be all year round and will come into force at the end of this year, and all water companies will also have to install new flow monitors on more than 2,000 wastewater treatment works.
The Tory sewage scandal is a national disgrace. The waters that run through our communities, the seas that millions look out to, and the quality of life and livelihoods have been turned into an open sewer. The Tory plan means discharges will continue to 2050, 27 years away, and even then there is no delivery plan, and we do not know which communities will benefit first and which could be waiting for decades, whereas our plan will see systematic dumping ended by 2030. Over the weekend The Times reported new data showing 800 discharges every day. Is the Secretary of State familiar with those figures, and if so, given that the Environment Agency has said it will publish by midday tomorrow, will she make a statement to the House before it rises for Easter today?
I will definitely withdraw that, Mr Speaker, but we do have to be careful about what we say to the public, and I have pointed out that the so-called plan the Labour party has put forward is thoroughly unworkable in the cost it would put on the public, the time it would take and the amount of pipes that would be required. It would involve digging up the entire nation, whereas we have a completely costed plan: it is very clear, and we have set targets on when these storm overflow monitors have to be in place—by the end of this year—and all the work on the storm overflow plans must be delivered to the Secretary of State and me forthwith. So we are definitely on top of this like never before.
I am pleased to say that today, alongside the launch of our net zero strategy, we are launching the nature markets framework. We need a healthy and thriving natural environment to meet our net zero goals and build our resilience to climate change. The announcement today on the investment we are seeking, alongside the £4 million we will use to boost that private finance, sends a signal that the opportunities for investing in our farmland, forestry, peatlands and marine areas are great and can offer long-term rewards for both people and nature.
We are very proud that the Canal & River Trust has its headquarters in Ellesmere Port, but like everyone else it has been struggling with increasing costs relating to covid and energy. It is waiting for an answer from the Government about what will happen with its grant funding, so will the Secretary of State give us a date by which a decision will be made and guarantee there will be no cuts to its grant funding?
Food is assessed before it is allowed to be placed on the UK market, and that assessment includes whether it is safe. As with any other food, any producer has to be registered with its local food authority to meet strict food safety requirements. Food derived from or including insect protein must be properly labelled, with ingredients clearly indicated and any warnings, such as the presence of allergens, included on the label.
Last night, Abi Kay of Farmers Weekly posted a piece detailing allegations of a major fraud in the meat processing sector. Her investigation revealed that
“up until at least the end of 2020, a food manufacturer was passing off huge quantities of foreign pork—sometimes tens of thousands of tonnes a week—as British”,
as well as passing potentially unfit food into the food chain. We had hoped that Ministers might make a statement this morning to reassure the public. In the absence of that, will the Minister tell the House what action he is taking, how often he has met representatives of the meat processing sector in the last month, and whether he is confident that adequate whistleblowing and trade union representation structures are in place to ensure that such malpractices cannot go undetected?
As the hon. Gentleman indicates, this is a very important issue. We have not made a statement today because there is an ongoing criminal investigation. I do not want to jeopardise that criminal investigation, because these are very serious allegations. The Food Standards Agency has responsibility in this area. I met the chair of the FSA last week. I continue to meet representatives of the meat industry—I met them this month and do so on a regular basis. We will keep a close eye on the investigation and leave it to the FSA to deliver criminal prosecution.
My first rescue dog was from the Dogs Trust, which is a very important charity. On animal welfare, the hon. Lady will be aware of our good record, including Bills that have been going through this place. Business managers are aware of the manifesto commitments that we want to fulfil, and they are in charge of scheduling Government business. The Leader of the House will announce business in the usual way.
Yes, I absolutely will. I understand the proportionality required on this issue to protect nature and improve the lives and livelihoods of people living in protected landscapes.
The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about the quality of rivers. The Environment Agency is funded through its licensing in order to do the necessary inspections. The Government increased the amount of money available to the Environment Agency to undertake criminal investigations. He should be aware that there is a live criminal investigation right now into water companies and what is happening to sewage.
I was appalled to read in this week’s Farmers Weekly that food labelled as British has actually come from South America or even Africa, and that meat not fit for human consumption has been going into the food chain. The Food Standards Agency’s report makes it clear that it has been misled and hoodwinked by these operators. Is there a case to bring the FSA within DEFRA rather than the Department of Health and Social Care, where it is now?
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries said, the investigation is under way. It is true that the Food Standards Agency is a non-ministerial Department and is accountable to the Department for Health and Social Care, but as my right hon. Friend said, there is active engagement. The machinery of government change that Select Committee Chair proposes is of interest, and I will consider it with the Prime Minister.
I would like to add that in my comments to the Select Committee the other day, I said that I do not read editorials in some of the magazines. I really enjoyed the article in this week’s Farmers Guardian about Angus herd fuel efficiency gains of 41p per kilo, and in Farmers Weekly about the trials of replacing insecticides, a Scottish pilot that was very interesting indeed.
We have regular conversations across the supply chain. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that the supply chain needs fairness to be built into it. There needs to be a sharing of risk, responsibility and reward. We have regular conversations with retailers, processors and primary producers to try to encourage fairness across the supply chain.
Welcome support for farmers in Dorset and across the country would be for the Department and Government as a whole to learn the lessons on trade deals, as pointed out by the Secretary of State’s predecessor but one, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). Can the Secretary of State set out the discussions that she has with Ministers about trade deals, to ensure that UK farmers’ interests, food production and security are at the heart of the discussions?
I assure my hon. Friend that I see my role as Secretary of State as ensuring that we have productive trade agreements, which include exports as well as potential imports. It is important, and it has been a key part of our negotiations, that we not only protect our sanitary and phytosanitary and animal welfare standards but ensure that any impact on the domestic market is sufficient that British farmers continue to grow, and rear, their brilliant British food and livestock.
I know the Government and the Minister, in particular, take a deep interest in fisheries issues, specifically about spurdog fishing; I asked the Minister a question about that some time ago. Will the Minister confirm that the total allowable catch for spurdog will be announced? That will create a significant boost for all local fisheries, especially those in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman demonstrates again how informed he is on this matter. From Saturday, it will be possible to catch spurdog. The statutory instrument has now been laid. That species is now open to fishermen across devolved Administrations and the whole of the United Kingdom to go and catch from Saturday. We will be allocating quota in the very near future.
The Attorney General was asked—
Illegal Immigration Bill: ECHR Compatibility
With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 1, 2 and 5 together. By convention, where the law officers have been asked to provide advice, the contents of any such advice is not disclosed outside Government. That protects our ability as legal advisers to give the Government full and frank legal advice.
I somehow suspected that the answer would be something like that. The Attorney General knows that I am one of her admirers, and long have been so, right back to the days of her maiden speech, when I remind the House she said:
“The European convention on human rights is a masterful document, and we must remain a signatory to it...In this country, the courts are unable to quash an Act of Parliament. It seems we need to re-state that, while our courts should have regard to the decisions of the ECHR, these are on the same footing, and Parliament is sovereign.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1113.]
Will she confirm that that thinking still informs her assessment of these questions? If she can, I think the rest of us can join up the dots for ourselves.
Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the admiration is entirely mutual. I also assure him that I heard very recently the Prime Minister, from this Dispatch Box, assure the House that it is the Government’s policy to remain a signatory to the ECHR.
Articles 12 and 13 of the trafficking convention require states to support a trafficking victim’s physical, psychological and social recovery, including through a rest and recovery period, but clauses 22 and onwards of her Government’s awful Illegal Migration Bill expressly deny trafficking and slavery victims access to such support. I too have a lot of respect for the Attorney General, but she will lose support and respect if she continues to allow that Bill to proceed in blatant breach of the trafficking convention.
As I have said, all lawyers have a duty of confidentiality to their clients and I am simply not permitted to tell the hon. Gentleman, or indeed anybody else, what legal advice has been shared between our office and that of the Government. The use of the Human Rights Act 1998 section 19(1)(b) statement does not mean that the Bill breaches the ECHR. It just means that the Home Secretary cannot state that the Bill is more likely than not compatible with convention rights. If legal challenges are made, we will take all steps to defend our position in court.
Can the Attorney General clarify what assessment she has made of the legality of the amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill that are aimed at sidestepping the convention relating to the status of refugees, as well as ignoring the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights? If those amendments were to be accepted by the UK Government, what does she think it would mean? Does she think it could put the UK’s place on the Council of Europe at risk?
As I have said, I am not able to share my assessment, but perhaps it might be useful for the House to know when a section 19(1)(b) statement has previously been used. It was used in relation to the Communications Act 2003 by Tessa Jowell, who used words very similar to mine just now:
“That does not mean that we believe the Bill to be incompatible…and we would mount a robust defence if it were legally challenged.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 789.]
I have no doubt, and nor has anyone in this House, about the Attorney General’s commitment or that of Conservative Members to the European convention on human rights. Beyond the fact that the section 19(1)(b) statement, while unusual, is not unique, does she agree that it is also important to remember that our whole case law system depends on existing legal precedent being tested from time to time in the light of changing and emerging factual circumstances to which case law or existing statute can be applied? The testing of the legal position is not any kind of illegality or impropriety at all.
I agree wholeheartedly. I feel it is perfectly proper for lawyers—Government lawyers, in this case—to test a novel idea before the courts. In fact, one reason I very much enjoyed my career in the Government Legal Service is that Government lawyers frequently do so. It is one of the main reasons why people ought to apply to join.
Thank goodness I am not a lawyer! We have an excellent Minister, who has spent the whole of this question not answering it. Three questions on the Order Paper, about three completely different conventions, have been grouped together; I have no idea why. It seems to me that what we want is the Minister to answer the question.
May I try a question on the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings? It is clear that people who come across in boats are smuggled. That is not part of the convention, but people who are already here who are forced into prostitution or slave labour should be protected by that convention. Will the Attorney General tell us—please answer!—whether the Illegal Migration Bill will be amended so that those people are still protected? A yes or no will do.
My hon. Friend is a staunch defender of the procedures and the propriety of our activities in this House. I know that he will agree that it is important that the Law Officers convention is upheld. As I have said, I cannot share my advice with this House; I would very much like to do so, but I am unable to. For the Government’s position, I refer the House to the explanatory notes that accompany the Illegal Migration Bill.
Last month, the Attorney General told the Justice Committee:
“It is particularly important that they”—
“work to keep the Government acting properly and within the rule of law”.
The House of Lords Constitution Committee found in January that the Government had
“twice knowingly introduced legislation in Parliament which would…undermine the rule of law: the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.”
This Illegal Migration Bill, even before the Attorney General’s own Back Benchers are finished with it, is a further example of that. When will her
“first duty…as an officer of the court”—
those are her words—trump her loyalty to a lawbreaking Government?
My first duty is to the court and to the rule of law. I have absolutely no hesitation about restating that as often as the hon. Gentleman wishes me to; it is something that I believe very deeply, and I know that the Solicitor General agrees. Our advice on the Illegal Migration Bill is not something that we are able to share with the House. The use of the section 19(1)(b) statement is, as I have explained, unusual, but not unprecedented and certainly not improper.
It is no secret that the Attorney General has reservations about the Illegal Migration Bill, and it is also no secret that those on the far right of her party are intent on rebelling to push the Bill further into breaking international law. Will she do the honourable thing today, and confirm that if the Prime Minister concedes on this, she will make a stand and declare the Bill unlawful?
Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecutions
Tackling violence against women and girls remains a key priority for the Government. We are doing everything possible to make our streets and homes safer for them, not least through our joint national action plan, which has seen a significant increase in the volume of charges for adult rape since January 2021.
Government statistics published this morning show that 29% of Crown court cases have been open for more than a year, and Rape Crisis reports that, according to the response to a freedom of information request, there is a record backlog of sexual assault and rape cases, with trials frequently postponed. What impact does the Solicitor General think that that backlog—the situation in the courts—is having on the ability of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute rape cases?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important issue. It is correct to say that the time between charge and completion is being reduced, but she is right: it is still too long. One factor that will encourage victims to stay within the criminal justice process, which is what we all want to see, is the provision of support by independent sexual violence advisers, and guidance is being put on a statutory footing in that regard.
The hon. Lady may be interested to know that I spoke to her local chief Crown prosecutor in person yesterday, in a neighbouring Bristol constituency, and she is doing an excellent job. Last year, the number of suspects charged for adult rape in the CPS south-west area more than doubled.
I am sure that the whole House wants to see much higher prosecution rates for people who commit the appalling crime of raping women and girls. What impact does the Solicitor General think that the brilliant Operation Soteria will have on the current prosecution rates?
My hon. Friend is right to mention Operation Soteria. There is, in fact, a link with the question from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), because Operation Soteria was founded in her area. It is making a significant difference, and the volume of adult rape suspects charged has more than doubled in the last year.
Fraud and Economic Crime: Prosecutions
We are determined to strengthen our response to all forms of economic crime, including fraud, and the Government will soon publish a new fraud strategy to address this threat. Both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office play an important role in bringing fraudsters to justice.
As the Solicitor General will know, each September the Cambridge International Symposium on Economic Crime, organised by Professor Barry Rider, meets at Jesus College Cambridge, and the issue of establishing a dedicated anti-fraud or economic crime agency is frequently raised. What consideration has been given to that proposal, and what is the Solicitor General doing to promote education about fraud, and prevention and discouragement of it, through effective early compliance?
I am indeed aware of that symposium, because I have been invited to speak at it this year, and I very much hope to see the hon. Gentleman there so that we can discuss this subject even further. As he will know, the National Economic Crime Centre, which was launched in 2018, leads the UK’s operational response to economic crime. As for his wider question, he will be aware of the Government’s fraud strategy, which will be released soon.
Every day that passes, more lives are destroyed by fraud. We urgently need a Government who understand the scale of that crisis and have a plan to tackle it. Five months ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that
“the Government will shortly publish our fraud strategy…to block more scams and better protect the public.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2022; Vol. 721, c. 859.]
The Solicitor General has told us again today that the strategy will come shortly. Do the Government have a different concept of time? What do they mean by “shortly”, and how much longer are we going to need to wait—or is this just another example of the Government making big promises on crucial issues and delivering absolutely nothing?
The shadow Attorney General is not right about that. The fraud strategy will be published. In terms of delivery, she will be pleased to hear that last year the CPS prosecuted over 6,000 defendants where fraud and forgery was the principal offence, and the conviction rate was over 80%. This is a Government that have delivered and will continue to deliver in this area.
People Traffickers: Prosecutions
Last week I met the Minister for Immigration to discuss how we can increase the prosecution rate further for those who engage in this dangerous offending. I am pleased to report that there has been a significant increase in all immigration prosecutions since the end of June last year, with the CPS bringing 260 prosecutions and so far securing 164 convictions.
Increasing prosecution rates is an important way of tackling people trafficking, but another is ensuring safe and legal routes for people seeking asylum. The all-party parliamentary group on Afghan women and girls, which I co-chair, has written to the Government looking for support for those very vulnerable groups. Does the Attorney General accept that her assessment for the Government of the Illegal Migration Bill might be better if safe and legal routes were progressed at the same time?
I thank the hon. Lady for her work on that important APPG; she will have heard my answer to the previous question. The Government need to use every tool available to us to stop these dangerous crossings. One of those tools is prosecution, which is going well. Another tool is working closely with the French Government, and it is important to note that the French have prevented 31,000 crossings this year, which is nearly 50% up on this time last year.
The Government are working flat out to stop people smugglers from continuing their evil trade and to ensure that they are brought to justice. What assistance is the Crown Prosecution Service providing to investigators on small boat pilots and other people traffickers?
The Crown Prosecution Service is working hard on these prosecutions and will not hesitate where people are suspected of immigration offences whenever the legal test is met. It is focusing on the pilots of small boats and also on disrupting the supply chains of people traffickers and organised crime gangs.
Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection
The Attorney General and I meet the Secretary of State for Justice regularly and discuss numerous issues. Where they touch on legal issues and advice, the hon. Lady will know, and will have heard the Attorney General clearly set out, that the Law Officers’ convention applies.
Imprisonment for public protection sentences were abolished in 2012, but that did not apply retrospectively. A constituent of mine whose son is serving an IPP sentence dating from before then has told me how this causes continued uncertainty and disruption for the whole family, and concern about their son’s mental health deteriorating. Can the Minister commit to working to reach a consensus on how best to address these long-standing IPP cases?
The hon. Lady raises a very serious point, and I am grateful to her. IPP sentences were first introduced in 2003, and she is right that they were abolished in 2012, but not retrospectively, nor properly could they have been. Further reforms were introduced last year, but it is right that, by definition, those in prison on IPP sentences have not been assessed as safe to release. However, I will certainly put her in touch with the Prisons Minister to discuss the matter further.
Crown Prosecution Service: Legal Trainees
I am very grateful indeed to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. The CPS has extended its postgraduate qualification requirements to include new solicitors qualification examinations, which opens up the career to a more diverse audience. Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be pleased to know that for the last three years the CPS was ranked No. 1 in the Universum rankings as a highly attractive employer to law students. I commend to my hon. Friend, and indeed to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a visit to your local chief Crown prosecutors to find out more and to encourage law students to sign up to the CPS. I addressed the CPS leaders conference in Bristol yesterday, and they are very keen to meet us all.
Antisocial Behaviour: Prosecutions
We know the serious impact that persistent antisocial behaviour can have on both individuals and the wider community. Those who commit antisocial behaviour will face swift and visible justice, increased fines and enhanced drug testing as part of the Government’s new action plan.
As the Attorney General says, antisocial behaviour has a terrible impact on communities such as Winlaton in my constituency, so I am glad that the Government have finally seen the light and increased sentences. Does she regret that the Government allowed the use of community sentences to fall by 62% between 2010 and 2021, and that the sentences became so much weaker?
I know there has been a particular problem with antisocial behaviour in the hon. Lady’s constituency. As a result, Northumbria police will receive trailblazer funding for both immediate justice and hotspot policing. I think it is important that the courts are able to use the wide range of sentences available to them.
Ynys Môn has received more than £695,000 from the safer streets fund, and I am delighted that some of the money is being used by Môn Communities Forward for first aid courses and by North Wales police for free boxing sessions for women and girls at the canolfan in Holyhead, which the Attorney General is welcome to attend. Can she confirm to my Ynys Môn constituents that, in addition to making Anglesey’s streets safer, this Government are committed to cracking down on antisocial behaviour?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituency. The plan unveiled this week will have a real and visible impact on antisocial behaviour around the country. It will be interesting to see the learning we get from the areas that have been targeted because there are particular problems. I think the impact will be swift.
Junior Doctors’ Strikes
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for his question. I know that colleagues and constituents will be concerned about the planned 96-hour walkout organised by unions representing junior doctors.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the impact, and we know that during the previous walkout by junior doctors earlier this month, 181,000 appointments had to be rescheduled. The disruption and risk will be far greater with this four-day walkout, not only because it lasts longer but because it coincides with extended public holidays and Ramadan, with knock-on effects on services before and after the strike action itself, and because a significant proportion of junior doctors will already be on planned absence due to the holiday period.
NHS England has stated that it will prioritise a number of areas, including emergency treatment, critical care, maternity care, neonatal care and trauma, but—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked the urgent question, so he might want to hear the answer. NHS England has been clear that it cannot fully mitigate the risk of patient harm at this time, which is concerning and disappointing. Patients should not have to face such disruption again, and I have invited the British Medical Association and the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association to enter formal talks on pay, with the condition that they cancel strike action.
The BMA’s junior doctors committee’s refusal to engage in conversations unless we commit to delivering a 35% pay increase is unacceptable at a time of considerable economic pressure and suggests a leadership that is adopting a militant position, rather than working constructively with the Government in the interests of patients. None the less, we remain determined to find a settlement that not only prevents further strike action but, equally, recognises the important work of junior doctors within the NHS, just as we have done with the “Agenda for Change” trade unions in their dispute. We will continue to work in good faith, in the interest of everyone who uses the NHS.
More than 300,000 operations and appointments have been cancelled due to industrial action in the NHS since December. The strikes planned for next month will be longer than any previous ones, with no derogations planned and they will be coming off the back of the bank holiday weekend. Patients are worried sick and consultants have written to me to say they are terrified for patients’ safety—they fear that patients will die as a result. So when is the Health Secretary going to get junior doctors back in for talks, take them seriously and stop these catastrophic strikes from wreaking havoc on patient care?
First, the Government failed to learn the lessons of the nurses’ strikes and refused to speak to junior doctors until the last minute. Then, instead of treating junior doctors with respect and sitting down for proper negotiations, Ministers took to Twitter for a mud-slinging match. The British Medical Association accused the Secretary of State of misrepresenting the truth when he tweeted that its pay demand was a “pre-condition”. The BMA has since said that it is a “starting point” for negotiations. Will he today clarify which side is correct and who was spreading fake news?
Since the beginning of these disputes, the Government have acted like a bystander when patients needed action. Never was that clearer than when the Prime Minister said that he did not want to “get in the middle” of them. We have a Prime Minister whose idea of leadership looks more like cowardice. He talks about delivery, but the NHS is still waiting. These strikes come at a time when the Government are failing to cut the NHS backlog. But it is not only the backlog that they have built up—a plethora of plans were trailed in the press in recent weeks but on the final sitting day before recess none has emerged. There is no sign of the NHS workforce plan, when the NHS is short of more than 150,000 staff. There is no sign of the general practice plan, when patients are finding it impossible to see their GP. There is no sign either of the review of integrated care services or the social care update, which reports suggest contains a stealth cut of £250 million to the social care workforce. So can the Secretary of State say whether the Government are planning to get the bad news out over recess and avoid scrutiny in this House, or is it less sinister and they just do not know what they are doing?
The urgent question was on the junior doctors—[Interruption.] I am sure I will quote—[Interruption.] There is a rare point of agreement between us. The hon. Gentleman is chuntering, but let me go through the list of things that he did raise pertaining to the junior doctors’ dispute. He said that the Government should get the junior doctors committee in for talks; we have done so—his third question made reference to the fact that we have. We have had the junior doctors in for discussions—[Interruptions.] I will run through the questions.
The hon. Gentleman questions whether there are preconditions attached to those discussions. I have checked the minutes of the meeting and there was a list of conditions —a pay restoration of 35%, and a range of other factors that were put on the table— that were preconditions that the Government had to commit to. The point is that he has said in the media that he does not support those preconditions. He says that 35% is unaffordable, so what is his position? One minute he says that he supports the junior doctors and that they should not go on strike, yet the next minute he says that he does not actually support the precondition that the junior doctors have said is the requirement for them to enter into discussion.
The reality is that the Government have taken a constructive and meaningful approach to trade union negotiations. That is why we have reached agreement with the “Agenda for Change” trade unions. It is why the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, the GMB and the Royal College of Midwives are all recommending the agreement that has been reached, covering more than 1 million staff across the NHS, to their members. The junior doctors have set a precondition on those talks which the hon. Gentleman does not agree—[Interruption.] That is a precondition. He does not seem to understand the terms the junior doctors—[Interruption.] He asked the question, he is getting the answer and the fact that it points to the contradiction in his own position is one that he seems to be having trouble with. Conservative Members are used to contradictions from those on the Opposition Front Bench. He supports the use of the independent sector, whereas his deputy does not. He wants to nationalise the GP estate, but his shadow Chancellor does not. The Opposition are full of contradictions. The reality is that there is a position in terms of the—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) chunters again. There is a position in terms of precondition. The shadow Secretary of State asked me to confirm at the Dispatch Box whether it was a precondition of the junior doctors. Ahead of the urgent question, I checked the minutes—[Interruption.]
The Opposition do not seem to like their question being answered. The shadow Secretary of State asked me to confirm the position, for the avoidance of doubt, at the Dispatch Box. That is exactly what I am doing. I have checked the minutes. I have spoken this morning with officials to confirm, before I made the statement to the House, that it was a precondition of the talks. We were told, in terms of the pay erosion of 26.1%, that that needed to be restored at 35%, alongside other things. The reality is that he does not support that. He is facing both ways, wanting to support the junior doctors, but not actually willing to support the pay that they are demanding.
What does it do for a respected profession that, when one visits a hospital, one is confronted by a rabble chanting like a schump of rudies, particularly when they have not co-operated with hospital authorities to minimise the impact of their absence?
I would draw an important distinction between a militant group that appears to have taken over the junior doctors committee and the vast majority of junior doctors who do a hugely important job within the NHS. We recognise in Government that they have faced considerable pressures from the pandemic, and we stand ready to work constructively with them. There are, on the other hand, some within the BMA junior doctors committee who appear to have a more political agenda. Indeed, I refer hon. Members to the statements of members of that committee, who have said that they want to move the BMA to more traditional trade union activity and to pursue a more overt political agenda.
This is an urgent question, but I do not get a sense of urgency from the Secretary of State that he wants to resolve the dispute. I am afraid that standing at the Dispatch Box and traducing the junior doctors for their approach will not help to resolve this matter. I urge him to drop any preconditions on any future meetings, because the only way that this can be resolved is through negotiation. Will he do that now?
First, there is absolutely no traducing going on. In my last answer, I praised the junior doctors and recognised the fact that they have faced huge pressure from the pandemic, which is why we stand ready to work with them. Some on the BMA junior doctors committee have a different agenda, but we stand ready to work very constructively with that committee. The hon. Gentleman suggested that I drop the precondition. It is not I who set the precondition; it is the junior doctors committee that did so. I remind the House that it includes restoration to 2008 levels of all elements of pay, not just basic pay; parking fees and exam fees; and “radical” reform of the Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration. It is the junior doctors committee that set those preconditions, not the Government.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the way in which he and his team have worked to find solutions with other trade unions, particularly the nurses. None the less, the 96-hour walkout is a significant period of disruption. Can he confirm that he is doing everything he can to ensure that those needing urgent healthcare in Warrington will be able to access it despite the industrial action by the BMA?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Yes, the Department is working very closely with colleagues in NHS England and across the NHS to mitigate as best we can the impact of the junior doctors’ strike. He is right that we had meaningful and constructive talks with the staff council representing “Agenda for Change” staff. I am very pleased that, as a result of the constructive engagement we had, the NHS staff council was able to recommend that pay award to its members. He is right that that points to the constructive approach that we have taken. We stand ready to have that constructive engagement with junior doctors, recognising the real pressures that the profession has been under. We will mitigate as best we can, but, given the timing over the Easter period, obviously, there is a risk in terms of patient harm. We will do all we can to mitigate that.
The latest figures from January 2023 showed 7.21 million people waiting for NHS treatment. What impact does the Secretary of State think this strike will have on the extremely hard work that has been done across the NHS to reduce those waiting lists, and what plans does he have to address the impact that the strike will have on waiting lists, if he does not plan to take any action to avoid it?
I think we can see what sort of impact it will have from the previous strike, which was over three days and impacted 181,049 appointments. We can see there will be a significant impact. On mitigations, as part of our electives recovery plan, we are doing a range of things, including expanding community diagnostic hubs and the fast-tracking of surgical hubs. The NHS is responding brilliantly with things such as super Saturdays, where teams process higher volumes of treatments, particularly in certain areas. We have the Getting It Right First Time programme, led by Sir Jim Mackey and Professor Tim Briggs, which is looking at how we embed best practice. Having hit the first interim milestone of our recovery plan in the summer, the two-year wait, we are now focused on the 78-week wait target and working our way through that.
The British Medical Association’s pay demands are more than four times the size of the private sector average pay increase. Does my right hon. Friend agree that inflation is the enemy, making everyone poorer, and that public sector pay rises of over 25% will only drive inflation even higher?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do both: we need to get inflation down, recognising that has an impact across the whole workforce, including for those working within the NHS itself, and we need to recognise the real pressure that junior doctors and others within the NHS have faced. That is why we stand ready to have meaningful and constructive talks with junior doctors, in exactly the same way as we have had with midwives, nurses and others within “Agenda for Change”. We must balance the wider issue of inflation and what is affordable to the economy against recognising the real pressures the NHS has faced and responding to that, including for junior doctors.
The Secretary of State cannot blame the Opposition for his mess. Nearly every day I retweet ads from the local NHS trust, which is trying desperately to recruit doctors and other staff. Does he accept that pay is a key factor in the large number of vacancies within the NHS, and will he do something to sort that out?
I accept that pay is an important factor. It is not the only factor—the estate and technology are also important. There is a range of issues. That is exactly the conversation I had with the trade unions representing “Agenda for Change”. We discussed with them both changes to pay and the non-pay measures. There are a range of factors, and we stand ready to have those discussions with junior doctors. However, they have chosen to take a more political, militant stance, in contrast with the approach that other trade unions have pursued.
I also feel that the Secretary of State’s attitude and language from the Dispatch Box this morning are not very helpful in negotiating with such a key group of people. The BMA accused the Secretary of State of misrepresenting the truth when he tweeted that its pay demand was a precondition. Does he now accept that the BMA has said its 35% demand is a starting point? Will he therefore sit down and negotiate an affordable settlement, without delay, and can he clarify which side is correct?
I have already answered that question twice, but I am very happy to repeat at the Dispatch Box the fact that I checked with my officials in the Department this morning—with people who were in the room—and have also checked the minutes. That was the position that the junior doctors set out in terms of a precondition. Indeed, they have repeatedly stated in the media that they expect a 35% pay restoration—and not simply that, but additional things such as exam fees, parking fees, reform of the DDRB and so forth. That is the position the junior doctors have set out. I repeat that we want to work constructively with junior doctors. We recognise that the profession has faced huge pressure through the pandemic and we stand ready to work constructively with them in the same way that we have with the GMB, the RCN, Unison and many other trade unions.
Junior doctors are the backbone of the NHS. I would never describe those whom I have met as “militant”; they are hard-working and of all ages. Somehow, this is the second strike that junior doctors have staged in the last 13 years—there was none in the previous 13 years, under a Labour Government. Will the Secretary of State confirm: has he not set out his own precondition, and that is that he will not meet them until they call off the strikes?
There are two different things there—one on which the hon. Gentleman is correct and one on which he is not. He is correct that we have said that a precondition for meaningful and constructive talks is that the trade union suspends strikes. That is a precondition that the other trade unions were more than willing to accept, and it is applied in other sectors such as education. We have been clear on that.
The hon. Gentleman is not correct on my point about militancy, which referred to the junior doctors committee specifically. We stand ready and recognise the real pressure that many within the junior doctors community have faced. The NHS has been under significant pressure coming out of the pandemic. We recognise that there are issues on which we want to work and have constructive engagement with them. It is just regrettable that some in the junior doctors committee of the BMA want, as they have said in media interviews, to take a more overt political agenda, rather than work with us to focus on the real issues that many junior doctors are concerned about.
I note that the Secretary of State is trying extremely hard to try to find settlements. The settlement with the Royal College of Nursing and the nurses is an example of just that, although it took a bit of time—I would have liked to see it happen sooner. Will the Secretary of State outline what support is available for junior doctors who need greater support from registrars and consultants to restore confidence—that is the whole point of the F1 and F2 process—so that they are not left to drown under the pressure of handling entire wards on the worst shift patterns possible, wondering, when they go home, whether the decisions that they have made are the wrong ones? Will the Secretary of State ensure that financial and wage negotiations will be constructive, as he did when it came to the RCN and the nurses?
I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman reassurance about our desire to have that constructive engagement, exactly as we had with colleagues on the NHS staff council. There are a number of issues on which we are keen to work with junior doctors: rostering; which he mentioned; holidays, which are sometimes cancelled at short notice—a range of issues have been raised with me. When I go on visits to hospitals, as I do frequently, staff raise a range of issues, and I am very keen to work through them with junior doctors. I think that people can see from the approach that we took not just with “Agenda for Change”, but with the pension changes that were announced in the Budget, that the Government are working constructively with the NHS to address those issues. We stand ready to have exactly that meaningful and constructive engagement with junior doctors.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 17 April will include:
Monday 17 April—Second Reading of the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill.
Tuesday 18 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance (No. 2) Bill (day 1).
Wednesday 19 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance (No. 2) Bill (day 2).
Thursday 20 April—General debate on international trade and geopolitics, followed by general debate on human rights protections for Palestinians. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 21 April—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 24 April includes:
Monday 24 April—Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating Bill.
Tuesday 25 April—Remaining stages of the Illegal Migration Bill.
Wednesday 26 April—Opposition day (14th allotted day). Debate in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced.
Thursday 27 April—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 28 April—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business. It is good to be stepping in for the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), this week. I want to start by wishing everybody across the House a very happy Easter, or Pasg hapus in Welsh, including all our staff who work so hard not just for us but for the people we represent and all those in the House service who help us and allow us to get on with our jobs every day.
I congratulate the Government on making it through a full term with the same Prime Minister. He is just about still standing, seemingly with a full set of Ministers too—what an achievement for the Government! It is a true triumph for the Tories, given their recent track record.
Easter is the perfect time for a spring clean. The Government clearly agree, because today they have dusted off 17 written ministerial statements, but are the Government planning to allow MPs to ask Ministers questions in the House on any of them? I note the Prime Minister’s statement on the machinery of government. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether that includes plans to publish an updated list of ministerial responsibilities? It is essential that MPs’ staff and our constituents have a clear understanding of who is responsible for what and how best to contact them.
I wonder whether the Department of Health and Social Care is also planning a clear-out this recess. Perhaps it could go in search of the NHS workforce plan. After repeatedly calling for it from the Back Benches, the Chancellor finally promised that he would deliver it in the autumn statement. Then he said at the Budget that it would be published “shortly”. Where is it? Do they actually have a plan at all? Can the Leader of the House tell us whether Ministers plan to publish their missing plan in recess, when Parliament is not sitting? Perhaps they think that that way, they will not be held to account.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) highlighted in a point of order this week, the UK Statistics Authority has debunked the claim made by the Minister for Immigration that the asylum backlog when Labour left office was in the hundreds of thousands. It was in fact 18,954. Under the Tories, it is 166,261—eight times higher than in 2010. The shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), has called out claims that the Government are recruiting extra police officers. In recent years they have hollowed out neighbourhood policing, as we have all seen. In the spirit of Easter and new beginnings, could the Leader of the House get the appropriate Ministers to correct the record? Will they wipe the slate clean and commit to sticking to accurate figures in future?
The Leader of the House has announced the remaining stages of her Illegal Migration Bill. Perhaps she could learn some lessons from the year 5s at Lliswerry Primary School in my constituency who I met last week, who have been studying the Bill and shared their wise insights on it with me. Of course, we must stop these dangerous boat crossings that are putting lives at risk, but the people of Newport East know that this is not the way to do it. They support Labour’s plan to crack down on criminal gangs instead.
Why is the Leader of the House happy with such a poorly worded Bill? It has a number of inconsistencies, meaning that it will not even work as the Government say it will. It is not just morally wrong; it is impractical too. Can she explain what the Government will do with someone who, after appeal, cannot legally be deported but would still be barred from claiming asylum? They would be in legal limbo, would they not?
Finally, the shadow Leader of the House has tried three times in a row to get the Leader of the House to tell us when the Government’s impact assessment on the Illegal Migration Bill will be published. The Government failed to provide one on Second Reading or in Committee. Will we get it before the remaining stages? What are they hiding? What is the cost of the Bill, and what is the Government’s current detention capacity? The Leader of the House is clearly unwilling to tell the shadow Leader of the House when the impact assessment will be published, so today, can I have a go too?
I start by joining the hon. Lady in wishing everyone in this House and all of our staff a very happy Easter recess. I will pass on her kind words to the Prime Minister—I thank her for mentioning that—and I also place on record my congratulations and thanks to not just our new Clerk of the House, who will be taking over later this year, but all the excellent candidates who put themselves forward for that post.
Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for questions: standard Department Question Times, the ability to ask for urgent questions, and of course Ministers make statements to this House on a regular basis. We always publish the list of ministerial responsibilities. It is an incredibly important tool to enable Members of this House to address any concerns they have to the appropriate Minister, and I will certainly make sure that that is done in a timely way.
Turning to the hon. Lady’s questions about the impact assessment on the Illegal Migration Bill, I am the Government’s representative in Parliament, but I am also Parliament’s representative in Government. Members have made very reasonable requests about impact assessments and having sight of them. I take those responsibilities very seriously, and I have made representations to the Home Office, both to the Home Secretary and through my officials speaking to the permanent secretary. It is very important that we send this Bill to the Lords in a good state, and I have heard what Members of this House have said about the level of scrutiny of the Bill.
We are producing this legislation at pace: it is a priority for the Prime Minister that we get the statute book to give us some powers to tackle this very serious problem. The hon. Lady knows the reason why we are facing increased illegal migration: it is a global phenomenon. That trend will continue, which is why it is really important that we have these new powers to deal with it, and to ensure that the international rules are able to deal with these new challenges. I urge the Opposition to support us in those efforts to modernise the rules and processes, so that we can direct resource to the people who really need that support.
I am very pleased to welcome the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) to her place today, although we miss the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire). We understand that she is launching Labour’s local government campaign today. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see the central plank of that campaign being the brilliant idea of saving taxpayers money off their council tax bills by subsidising them with taxpayers’ money. That perfectly illustrates Labour’s approach: since 2010, council tax has risen by 36%. Under Labour in the same time period, it rose by 110%, and what was true then is true now: Labour’s councils deliver poorer services for more of your money. If your council is Labour, on average, you will be paying £80 more for those services. If your police and crime commissioner is Labour, your chances of being burgled double, and you are 44% more likely to be a victim of knife crime.
Labour-run Slough is increasing council tax by 10%, having bankrupted the local authority. Sandwell is raising its council tax by a mere 5%, but is hiking additional waste collection services, and Westminster has decided that in a time of public sector pay restraint, its councillors ought to have a 45% pay increase—10 times what its hard- working staff will get. In contrast, Conservative councils keep tax low while maintaining and increasing services, and some are even reducing council tax bills for vulnerable families: North Lincolnshire is doing so for 7,000 households. That is public service to be proud of.
Further business will be announced in the usual way.
It is high time that we had a debate about parental choice in education. Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council is holding a consultation on withdrawing the funding for parents who choose to send their kids to school outside the borough, particularly those whose children attend Walton-le-Dale, Turton or Canon Slade schools. This is deeply distressing for those parents who are having to consider pulling their kids out of school and making alternative plans. Does the Leader of the House agree with me, Councillor Rick Moore, Councillor Lilian Salton and Councillor Jean Rigby that, with the spending power of its budget having gone up by 33% in the past five years, Blackburn council should back local parents who want to make a choice to send their children to faith schools outside the borough?
My right hon. Friend raises a depressing situation. I think sometimes people look at numbers on a spreadsheet and they forget about the impact that cuts to such services have on families. It will affect education and where people go to school, and people really rely on those services. That is why we have committed £3 billion for bus transformation. Why that local authority would target these basic services, particularly against the backdrop of its budget increasing, is beyond me. I urge it to reconsider, and I congratulate him and his council colleagues on what they are doing to try to retain the service.
May I start by congratulating our new SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf? Very movingly, he paid tribute in his victory speech to his grandparents, who emigrated from Punjab 60 years ago. It is such a strong message that neither the colour of someone’s skin nor their faith should be a barrier to reaching the highest office.
Was it not therefore ironic and deeply sad that in the same week, this place was debating the so-called Illegal Migration Bill? We were told that people seeking refuge and asylum were “breaking into Britain”, as if they were thieves. That line no doubt played well with Conservative party focus groups, and it was regurgitated by the Government’s Minister for Immigration. No doubt as the Government rev up their culture wars, we will hear it again.
The Leader of the House describes herself as Parliament’s representative in Government, but this House was not given the opportunity for line-by-line scrutiny of this rushed Bill, as would have occurred in a Committee Room upstairs. It is feast or famine with this lot. It is either weeks of filler debates or frantically pushing through controversial Bills such as this without time for proper scrutiny or debate. Is it not part of the Leader of the House’s job to organise the business of this House? As Parliament’s representative in Government, what is her excuse for this latest boorach?
Shamefully, we still have no real detail on what measures are being put in place to safeguard children and young people, despite so many of them still being missing from existing hotel arrangements. Can we have a debate examining the protections for these minors before the Bill returns to the House?
Lastly, we expect a veritable avalanche of written statements on green issues today, most of which will be, fittingly enough, recycled announcements. It is clear that after decades of Westminster Governments squandering Scotland’s immense energy resources, both Labour and the Tories are once again greedily eyeing up our potential, this time as a clean energy superpower, and even lecturing the Scottish Government for their supposed failure on renewables while visiting a wind farm operated by that very same Government.
We are being told that the UK’s energy revolution is being made in Scotland, powering up Britain with Scotland’s clean, green energy—funny, I thought Scotland was a basket case that was too poor to survive without the UK. Plus ça change. When will there be a debate finally in this place on Scotland’s green energy revolution, so that we can see how the track record and future plans of the different parties truly measure up?
I will start with the hon. Lady’s last point. I am sorry she does not welcome the announcements today on energy security. Our track record over the past decade on increasing renewables, strengthening the diversity of our energy sources and decreasing our reliance on other nations is very important, and I want to see that commitment matched by the Scottish Government. They have still not made the investments they said they would in this area, and I encourage them to do so. I cannot keep up with the changes to the SNP’s energy policy, but I think roughly it is against all forms of energy, except perhaps hot air. It is not Scotland that is the basket case; it is the SNP.
The second point the hon. Lady raises is one I personally take seriously, which is in regard to illegal migration. Like many Members from all parts of the House, I am hosting a Ukrainian refugee. Prior to that, I offered my home for Afghan refugees, and prior to getting into this place, I was an aid worker. I take these matters very seriously. That is why this Bill is needed, because unless safe nations such as the UK can have the powers they need to run effective systems—systems that do not just rely on someone’s ability to get into a country illegally in order to get a chance of help—we will not be able to continue the generous history we have in this nation of being somewhere that people can gain sanctuary. I urge her, in all seriousness, to reflect on that and to engage with the Illegal Migration Bill as it makes its passage through this House.
Finally, I want to welcome the First Minister. It is, as the hon. Lady points out, an historic moment. It will be an inspiration to many and send a strong message that, if people have the skills and the will, high office is open to everyone. I wish him and his new team well. Along with the rest of my Government, I want to work constructively with him. I am sorry to see that, on day one, we had a cancellation of the South Uist ferry service. It is going to be unavailable in April and May, due to the fragility of the service and the lack of substitute vessels. I know the First Minister wanted to build on his predecessor’s record, but I had hoped it would not be quite like that. I hope he will focus on the issues that matter to the people of Scotland and be a First Minister who fights for causes that matter, not just causes fights.
Can we have a debate on the expansion of the ultra low emission zone, so that I can explain how unfair it is for the Mayor to say that public transport is a viable alternative to his £12.50 a day driving charge, when he is doing nothing to restore the routes of the 84 bus and the 384 bus for the people from whom they have recently been removed?
I thank my right hon. Friend for continuing to raise this issue. This tax is having a devastating impact not just on people in London, but on those from the surrounding area and trades from further afield. It is vital that we have actual genuine options for people to make good environmental choices, and that includes public transport, by ensuring that bus services are maintained and that people can rely on public transport because it is not on strike all the time. It also means investing in the technology needed to make that transition. This is not working. The growing volume of dissent about this approach, which is just adding to businesses’ and households’ bills, has to cease and the issue has to be re-evaluated.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Back-Bench business for the week after the Easter recess. I give her advance notice that we intend to put on two debates on Thursday 27 April—one on NHS dentistry and the second on reducing plastic pollution in our seas and oceans.
Could I remind Members across the House that they can apply for BackBench Business debates? They can pick up a form in the Table Office or email our Backbench Business Committee Clerks. Quite often, Members like to put in applications for commemorative days. If they are interested in any of these subjects, a number of commemorative days are coming up in May and June, such as United Nations Global Road Safety Week, World Bee Day, World No Tobacco Day, World Blood Donor Day and International Asteroid Day. If Members are interested in any of those subjects, I ask them please to pick up a form and send in an application to the Backbench Business Committee.
Speaking as the Chair of the Committee, I do not like to get overtly party political, but having spent 27 years in local government as a councillor prior to coming into this House, I was struck by the Leader of the House’s comments on council tax. I would just point out to her that Labour councils, particularly those in the north of England, on average have a much lower council tax base than the national average, and the band D national median is totally meaningless. Having a low council tax base means that they rely much more heavily on the revenue support grant, and when that revenue support grant is unilaterally withdrawn but nothing is done to compensate for it by reforming council tax, it leaves local authorities in dire straits. My local authority in Gateshead has lost £170 million per year since I was deputy leader of the council in 2010. I am afraid to say that we really do need a debate in Government time about the reform of council tax.
With that, Madam Deputy Speaker, can I wish you a happy Easter? I wish the Leader of the House, Members and staff across the House a happy Easter. I hope they have a very restful recess.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very helpful advertisement for forthcoming Backbench Business debates and for encouraging Members to apply for them. I also have some good news for him with regard to a previous matter he and other Members have raised on the complexity of the many energy support schemes that the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero is overseeing. These are complex schemes, and he has had some casework related to them. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that that Department will commence weekly surgeries for Members and their case- work teams on energy schemes. They will begin from the first week back after recess, either on a Tuesday or a Wednesday to maximise the chance of Members being able to attend. They will be in person in Portcullis House and officials will be on hand to deal with the complex areas of the schemes with which Members need help.
I shall not get into a further fight about local government efficiencies and who I would rather have running my local authority, except to say that those who have a Conservative council are likely to be paying £80 less for the services they receive.
Was the Leader of the House as appalled as I was about the scenes of celebration in the Ugandan Parliament when legislation was passed to further criminalise LGBT members of the community and those who support them? Will she ensure that, when the House returns, the Foreign Secretary makes a statement on what representations this Government are making to the President of Uganda on that legislation, which further undermines human rights, and on what steps we are taking to support those brave people who promote the rights of the LGBT community in Uganda?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this incredibly important matter, which I know many Members will be concerned about. As he knows, there will be Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions on 2 May, but given that that is a little way off, I shall make sure that the Foreign Secretary has heard his concerns today. I know the Foreign Secretary and his Ministers and our network overseas take many opportunities to raise their concerns about these matters and other human rights abuses, which is what this legislation is. We also recognise the impact it has on other areas for that country, including its economic development. It will stifle investment in that nation; companies will not want to invest or set up businesses there under that kind of environment. It is an incredibly serious matter.
I am glad the Leader of the House has pledged to publish the list of Ministers, but there is no point in publishing it if they do not reply to correspondence. I wrote to the Culture Secretary on 7 September last year as chair of the all-party group on music about our report “Let the music move” and never got a reply. After much prompting, I finally tabled a written parliamentary question on 8 February asking when Ministers would reply to my letter. The answer came on 20 February saying that they would reply to the correspondence “as soon as possible.” Does the Leader of the House think there is any chance I might get a substantive answer—even now I still have not had one—some time this decade?
I have no argument with the hon. Gentleman’s point. Correspondence should be timely; sometimes on rare occasions there are reasons why it is slightly delayed—most Members want substantive answers as opposed to just timely ones—but the situation he has described is not appropriate. I will be very happy to follow up on his behalf in getting the answers he needs.
Will the Leader of the House consider providing Government time for a debate on the importance of local crime and antisocial behaviour plans? In the week the Government launched their own action plan for England, I published my own crime and antisocial behaviour plan for the Westminster part of my constituency, with five points including more police on the street and a zero-tolerance approach to drug dealing and drug taking. Thousands of people responded to my survey. It is really important that we debate local crime and antisocial behaviour plans in this place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work, which is a clear example of her wanting to respond to the concerns of her constituents. The report she published is timely, given that we have just published our antisocial behaviour plan. It will introduce tougher punishments, cracking down in particular on illegal drugs; increase police and uniformed presence; and introduce higher fines and some new tools to enable law enforcement to have a good programme to crack down on antisocial behaviour. She is right that there are additional challenges in London, with crimes rates higher under the Mayor of London’s scheme, but I am certain that her plan will help her constituents.
I, too, wish everybody across the House a happy Easter recess, including those who have local elections in their patch. Happy door-knocking!
Opening a new oilfield at Rosebank would fly in the face of the UK’s climate commitments. It would produce 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and most of the oil will be destined for export, so it would not even contribute to the UK’s energy security. Despite that, The Times reports today that Rosebank will clear a major regulatory hurdle today. Can the Government please be open and transparent about this? Will the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero make a statement to the House about the progress of the application, including how it would sit alongside the UK’s climate commitments?
I encourage the hon. Lady to make use of the next available questions, which are on 18 April. She will know that we have published a new strategy on energy security. We are looking to meet our net zero commitments as well as to ensure that the nation is as resilient as possible. That includes a greater focus on nuclear power. I encourage her to look at that very detailed document, which sets out how we will achieve those twin objectives.
I have been requesting a debate on the World Health Organisation post-pandemic treaty for several months, so I am delighted that we will be having one on 17 April. It was secured only after a successful public petition obtained more than 156,000 signatures. Even more concerning than the treaty itself, which requires a vote of both Houses to be binding, are proposed changes to the WHO international health regulations, which will not require a vote. May we therefore urgently have a Government statement on the proposed changes, which look set to hand over huge powers to an unelected, unaccountable and discredited supranational body, which is hugely funded by the same people who fund big pharma?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. A debate has been secured and he will know how to raise concerns about such matters with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and other Departments. It is incredibly important that we have the facts in the public domain—whether on such treaties or about vaccines and so forth. I would just again caution the hon. Gentleman, who this week has been inviting us to “join the dots”, promoting that Anthony Fauci created covid in the United States and then offshored that operation to Wuhan. Also, in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions prior to this session, he started a new campaign to tell the public that the Government and their international network of World Economic Forum stooges are encouraging everyone to eat insects. Those are outrageous conspiracy theories that the hon. Gentleman is promoting on his social media and, more frequently, on the Floor of the House. I urge him to check his behaviour.
Parkinson’s UK estimates that 5,360 people live with Parkinson’s in the Greater Manchester health and social care partnership area, and 630 people a year are expected to be diagnosed. Shockingly, there is only one nurse supporting people in my constituency with Parkinson’s, and one left some time ago. The post has been advertised several times over the past few months, but has yet to be filled. This is deeply concerning, given the ageing population and the increase in the prevalence of progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s, the fastest-growing neurological condition in the world. We were promised an NHS workforce plan in the autumn statement but it is now long overdue. World Parkinson’s Day is on 11 April this year. As such, will the Leader of the House grant a debate in Government time on how the forthcoming NHS workforce plan will meet the needs of people with complex progressive conditions such as Parkinson's? Will she urge the Health Secretary to finally publish the long-awaited NHS workforce plan?