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.