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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 19 October 2023

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Canal & River Trust Funding

We have had many discussions with the Canal & River Trust over the past three years on the review of its funding, and we are providing it with more than £400 million of additional funding between 2027 and 2037. When the trust was created in 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the trust signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing that the trust would have to move increasingly towards alternative sources of funding.

In Ellesmere Port, we are proud that the Canal & River Trust has made its headquarters there, but we are concerned about the implications of the funding decisions, which amount to a £300 million cut in real terms over the next decade. Clearly that will cause the trust real problems, so I urge the Minister to think again about these decisions and to engage with the trust about how that gap can be bridged.

We all recognise the important work and benefits that the Canal & River Trust brings, but the £300 million cut in funding asserted by the trust is not correct, because that includes adjustments for inflation. Government funding does not provide for that. We should also remember that an investment portfolio of over £1 billion was transferred to the trust, and it gets the benefits of the investments and the funding that accrues from them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the waterways, I share concerns about the future of our canal network, but I am conscious of the fact that 15 years ago when the trust was set up, the aim was for it to be self-financing. Richard Parry, the chief executive, has discussed with me and Ministers in the past the possibility of receiving a lump sum, rather than a sum over 10 years. What progress has been made on that?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the valuable work he does in that capacity. That subject is still under discussion.

American Bully XL

2. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on introducing the proposed ban on American Bully XL dogs. (906484)

The Prime Minister made a decision about introducing the proposed ban on American XL Bully dogs, recognising the horrific consequences of recent dog attacks and the disproportionate amount of those being undertaken by such dogs. We are working at pace on the legislation, and importantly on how it will be put into practice, and I hope to say more on that soon.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. As a veterinary surgeon, I strongly agree with the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State that we need to ban the dangerous American XL Bully dog as soon as possible to keep people and other animals safe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in parallel to this necessary urgent action, we need to undertake important work with the public on responsible dog breeding, responsible dog ownership and better training and socialising of dogs as part of a holistic, long-term solution to dog attacks?

My hon. Friend has great credibility in this field, given his professional experience as a vet. I understand that many owners of XL Bully dogs are passionate about their animals—their pets. That is why we are working at pace, but taking our time to get right the definitions and the transition period that we anticipate. It is important that all dog owners work to make sure that their dogs behave and have appropriate training. That is why we established a taskforce that includes dog welfare charities. We expect it to respond to us by the end of the year, and we will potentially take forward some of its recommendations.

As someone who has had a pet dog all my life and still does, I am conscious that some of those who own American XL Bully dogs think that their dogs are integral and safe, but many in the general public see them as a danger and have fear. Is the Secretary of State’s intention, as this process goes forward in Westminster, to engage with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the police, in particular, to ensure that the law and the recommendations that come out of this place can be shared with them?

The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise owners’ concerns where they believe that they have very good dogs. That is to some extent accommodated already in the legislation that has evolved since 1991. On working with other nations, the law—the primary legislation—will apply in both England and Wales by default, but we are working with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Administration on potential moves to make this a UK-wide approach.

I listened carefully to the answers the Secretary of State gave to both hon. Members, but I am still not reassured that she has the planned legislation in place to ban XL Bully dogs effectively. Is she satisfied that we have the kennel space across the UK, enough vets to make assessments, and clear rules and legislation in place to make the ban effective?

The hon. Lady asks a fair question. The legislation has evolved since 1991, with amendments made to the primary legislation in 1997 and in the Dangerous Dogs Exemption Schemes (England and Wales) Order 2015. In that, there is a combination of work with the police in particular and with local councils and, of course, the judicial system. We have been working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire to take the matter forward. I want to ensure that the legislation is right. I am expecting to present two statutory instruments to make it effective, with one bringing the ban into effect and the other providing the transition element and some of the finer details that still need to be completed.

Resources and Waste Strategy: Extended Producer Responsibility

3. Whether she plans to publish a new timeline for key milestones on (a) extended producer responsibility for packaging and (b) other measures in the 2018 resources and waste strategy for England. (906485)

In July, we announced the deferral of the producer payments under the extended producer responsibility scheme, moving them to October 2025. I must say that that was at the request of industry, which asked for more time so that it could prepare. We remain fully committed to delivering the programme to the timeline. The Government continue to deliver obligations set out in the 2018 resources and waste strategy, and we recently published “Maximising Resources, Minimising Waste”, which is England’s waste prevention programme. On 1 October, we also expanded our ban on certain single-use plastic items.

I am grateful for that comprehensive answer. No one should underestimate the critical role of recycling, but, as I am told by the Green Alliance, it is critical that it is economically viable for the industry, which is worried about the increased costs of waste separation in the Government’s proposals. I accept what the Minister said, but will she confirm whether her Department’s upcoming simpler recycling proposals will retain commitments for recycling to be separated at home?

Details of the simpler recycling system will be announced shortly, but I can tell the House that it will mean that all local authorities will collect the same materials. Of course, as we have always said, food waste will have to be collected separately. It will also be flexible. This has all been discussed with local authorities.

Food System: Health and Sustainability

The Government’s food strategy set out longer-term measures to support a resilient, healthier and more sustainable food and farming system. In May, the Prime Minister’s farm to fork summit built on that with a focus on how we can work together to support a thriving UK food and farming industry. The summit focused on innovation, skills and labour, and on rolling out the new farming schemes to ensure fairness across the supply chain to boost exports and support energy and water security, as well as to reduce red tape.

Every year, post-farm gate, 9.5 million tonnes of food that could have provided more than 15 billion perfectly edible meals is wasted. That also has a massive carbon footprint. Given that DEFRA’s impact assessment concluded that mandatory food waste reporting would result in

“financial benefits to business and significant environmental benefits”

and is backed by many retailers, including Tesco, why have the Government dropped their plans?

We are working closely with retailers to try to reduce food waste and will continue to do that. The hon. Member will recognise that a vast amount of food waste occurs within the domestic home, and we can do more to help and support consumers to make the most of the food they purchase. We will continue to work with primary producers, retailers and consumers to reduce food waste wherever we can.

Sustainability is top of our agenda in the New Forest, and the national park authority is keen to discuss opportunities for it with the Minister. I have sent him an invitation—will he come?

I am excited to have an opportunity to visit the New Forest. As soon as my diary allows, I will hot-foot it down there to meet my right hon. Friend.

To maintain that healthy, sustainable food system, farmers need a level playing field, so when the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) made his recent comments about the benefits of importing hormone-injected beef, it sent a shudder through the industry. This time last year, he was at the very top of Government, alongside the Secretary of State. Given the Minister’s long experience in Government, can he tell us how many others at the top of his Government privately harbour that view?

The gentleman at the top of Government —the Prime Minister—has been absolutely clear and explicit that we will not accept hormone-produced beef at any point in the future, nor will we accept chlorinated chicken. He has the backing and support of British farmers, and he will do everything he can to help and support them.

Water Companies: Water Pollution and Overflows

5. What steps her Department is taking to require water companies to help reduce water pollution and unsatisfactory overflows. (906487)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has asked that question, because no Government in history have taken a more comprehensive approach to tackling water pollution. This Conservative Government are delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to tackle every source of water pollution. Under our storm overflows discharge reduction plan, £60 billion is targeted at cleaning up storm sewage overflows. Thanks to our monitoring, we know what is happening and we are able to take action. Let me remind Members that there was virtually no monitoring under the Labour Government. This Government are setting the record straight.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The Liberal Democrats pretend that we can fix storm overflows in 48 hours and Labour has an undeliverable sewage plan, so it is unsurprising that sewage is discharged more often in socialist-run Wales. Can my hon. Friend confirm that it is only the Conservatives’ plan for water that is credible, costed and comprehensive?

As ever, my hon. Friend is right on the button. We are the only party with a costed, credible plan to tackle this issue, and we uncovered it. If Labour had a plan, it would be using it in Wales. We have just heard how serious the illegal sewage discharges are in Wales. We have discovered that not only has Natural Resources Wales not carried out any enforcement, but it has not issued any fines at all on this subject—nothing. And the Liberals do not have any plans.

Order. We will get through these questions. I have to get to a certain number and I have not yet called the Chair of the Select Committee, and you are not helping me.

Like many of my constituents, over the summer I took advantage of the relatively warm temperatures in the North sea to enjoy swimming off our coast. Should my constituents and I worry about the quality of the water due to the practices of water companies? Is it not time for Labour’s plan for automatic fines for discharges?

Ninety three per cent of bathing water around our coast is good or excellent. It is a tremendous record.

Scarborough’s South bay is included in the 7% of bathing water without a blue flag. North Yorkshire Council recently convened a taskforce of local politicians, the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and others, including academics from Durham University, to look at the problem. It became clear that it is not as simple as many people think. Discharges come from further north around the bay, and pathogens were picked up not only from human effluent but from sea birds, dogs and ruminants. Will the Minister take a personal interest in that work, because lessons learned in Scarborough may well apply around the country?

My right hon. Friend highlights that the issue is not as simple as people think. That is why our plan for water takes a holistic approach to tackling all sources of water pollution. It is also why we launched our £34 million slurry fund to help farmers reduce the pollution that they may inadvertently put into watercourses.

I have never heard such codswallop in all my time in the House. I was born by the Thames and I love the rivers, and I have to say to the Minister that I have seen no Government in history who have put more sewage into our streams, rivers and oceans than hers since the privatisation of water.

I had a meeting about the Thames tideway tunnel yesterday. That amazing project has already increased wildlife so extraordinarily at the end by the Lee tunnel that there are kingfishers, otters and all kinds of other creatures there. When the tunnel is finished, it will be the biggest single means of cleaning up the Thames that has ever been put in place. It is this Government, through a special tool of private-public funding, who are enabling that.

Last year, this Government oversaw record levels of illegal sewage discharges into our rivers and waterways after they cut enforcement, and then they let the water bosses reward themselves for that failure with nearly £10 million in bonuses while hiking bills for consumers. Labour believes that the polluter, and not the consumer, should pay. Will the Government adopt Labour’s plan and give the regulator the power it needs to block water bosses’ bonuses if they keep illegally pumping toxic filth into our rivers?

I have already said that Labour has not costed its plan, which has no credibility whatsoever. We have already changed regulation and the tools that Ofwat and the EA can use. No dividends or bonuses can be paid out at all if there is any environmental damage, and there are more fines than ever before. There were no fines under the Labour Government; indeed, they were taken to court by the European Commission for polluting water, and they did nothing about it. This Government introduced the monitoring, and that is why we know what is happening and why we have the biggest criminal investigation in the history of water under way.

Fishing Communities

The Government are supporting communities by opening new fisheries for spurdog and bluefin tuna, accelerating action to protect valuable non-quota stocks through the first fisheries management plans, and protecting stocks by better controlling fly-seiners, and we have brought about increased benefit through reform of the economic link.

Off the coast of beautiful Hastings and Rye, fishermen are suffering the impact on their fishing of a growing seal colony. Due to the nature of the fishing—small boats leave their nets in the water—sound systems to deter seals are not appropriate. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the presence of seals does not result in the decimation of our fishing communities, let alone the fish?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a tenacious campaigner for her fishing community. We are working alongside the Marine Management Organisation to assess non-lethal seal deterrent options to keep seals away from fishing catches, and we will publish an evidenced report on targeted acoustic startle technology later this year. We are also considering the next steps, including for net fisheries, under our Clean Catch programme. The special committee on seals provides formal scientific advice to the Government on behalf of the Natural Environment Research Council on the management of seal populations under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 and the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. Its reports include seal population data based on extensive regional surveys and form the foundation for monitoring our UK marine strategy.

I wonder whether the Minister has seen the video footage that is doing the rounds of the recent incident involving the Spanish longliner Antonio Maria trying to ram the Shetland whitefish boat Defiant; in fact, it put out a rope to foul its propeller. The footage is truly shocking, but the real scandal is that this is not the first time it has happened; it is at least the third documented incident in recent times. This will keep happening unless something is done to stop it, so will the Minister speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport and the Foreign Office to make sure that France, as the flag state with enforcement powers in this case, takes its responsibility seriously?

I have seen that footage. It is truly shocking. This was a deliberate act to try to sabotage a UK fishing boat. It was outrageous behaviour. As the right hon. Gentleman identifies, enforcement is difficult, because the incident involved a Spanish boat under a French flag, but given the seriousness of the event I will most certainly raise it with my ministerial colleagues.

Community Farming Projects

We welcome community farms in England, because they give local communities a chance to become involved in the countryside. Like any other farm, they may be eligible for a variety of grants enabling smaller farms to be supported more fairly. We have introduced a sustainable farming incentive management payment, and we have also extended the farming in protected landscapes fund until March 2025. The fund is open to farmers in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, allowing them to deliver projects to support nature, climate, people and places.

Figures from a social return on investment study show that every £1 invested in a community farm is worth £9 of community benefits through food production, new skills and community resources. In my constituency, for instance, Lauriston Farm is investing in a community orchard and gardens, outdoor learning and a community kitchen to help people pick up new skills and produce affordable food. Does the Minister agree that in a cost of living crisis it is critically important for people to have access to such facilities, and that more needs to be done to help small community projects to maximise their potential?

I pay tribute to those who are involved in that community project. As the hon. Lady will know, agriculture is devolved to the Scottish Government, and I hope they will use some of the £620 million a year that they are given to support Scottish farmers. I am sure she will be a tenacious campaigner in holding the SNP Government to account.

Flood-risk Areas: Rural Communities

The Government’s six-year £5.2 billion flood investment programme benefits both urban and rural communities. Approximately 40% of schemes and 45% of investments are being directed at rural communities, which have benefited from our frequently flooded fund, our natural flood management fund and our flood and coastal innovation programmes.

The Minister has visited Shrewsbury a number of times at my invitation, and has heard at first hand from the River Severn Partnership, which is trying to find a holistic solution to the problems of managing Britain’s longest river rather than just creating flood barriers which push the problem downstream. When can give us more information and an update on the resources being afforded to the partnership to support landowners and others who can be part of that solution?

I thank my hon. Friend for the great work that he does with the partnership. Both the Secretary of State and I have visited his constituency. There are funds available: the £25 million for natural flood management schemes may be of interest to farmers, and the environmental land management schemes include provisions for temporary storage capacity on farms.

In the autumn, storm overflows are inevitable, and my constituents are holding their breath as they wonder whether their homes will be flooded once again. I understand from speaking to residents that it is very unclear whom they should call when that occurs, so will the Minister look again at setting up a national flood line that can be called at any time, and ensure that it is connected to a local flood centre that will be accountable for a response from local services?

I have visited my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I know that she has done a great deal of work on the issue of flooding. The Environment Agency works in partnership with the Met Office to provide an online “checking for flooding” service, which is operating today to deal with Storm Babet. Members of the public can check the flood risk, find advice and guidance on how to prepare for flooding, and sign up for warnings on the site.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s response, and I noted that she did not mention the National Infrastructure Council’s report, commissioned by the Government a year ago, which stated that an extra 190,000 homes were at risk of flooding—not because of climate change, but because of the Government’s failure to maintain existing flood defence assets. When the Government cannot even get the basics right, how can anyone possibly trust them to have the answers to the ever-increasing flood risk that our country faces?

That is exactly the Environment Agency’s duty, and it works very hard on the asset management side of our flood assets, which are a very large proportion of our £5.2 billion fund.

Sewage Discharges

9. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the steps taken by her Department to prevent sewage discharges. (906493)

We have gone further and faster than any Government in history to drive down sewage discharges. Last month we published our £60 billion plan, which sets stringent targets to reduce sewage discharges. Those targets will prioritise action at target sites. What did Labour do? It did nothing when it was in power.

Water companies need stable finances to make improvements. In December 2022, Ofwat outlined concerns about the financial resilience of several water companies. What has the Minister done to mitigate the risks, and what will she be doing in future?

The Ofwat report on sewage discharges, published in September, was extremely disappointing. I have written to all the water companies that were highlighted as lagging, and I have written to all the CEOs to say that I want to meet them in person. I have also written to the CEO and chair of Ofwat to ask how they will hold these water companies to account.

This Government introduced monitoring, so we now know the state of the problem. The water companies are now engaging and Ofwat has powers to put financial pressure on them. Given that only 4% of sewage overflows in Scotland are monitored, does this not show that we are progressing it in the right way and that the nationalisation of water companies is not the way to go?

Food Affordability and Inflation

In September 2023, the consumer price index was at 12.2%, down from 14.8% in July. Industry analysis expects that food price inflation will continue to decrease over the remainder of 2023. The Government are providing an average of £3,300 per household to support them with the cost of living this year and next.

The West Lothian food bank in my Livingston constituency does an incredible job, just like food banks across the UK, but the reality is that it should not even have to exist. Folk are struggling more than ever, which is why the SNP has called on the UK Government to control supermarket price gouging, amid record profiteering, by introducing a price cap on staples such as bread and milk. Will the Minister help all our constituents by getting on with doing that?

If the hon. Lady compares the price of a shopping basket around Europe with the price here in the UK, she will see that the free market is doing a lot of work to suppress food inflation. We have a cheaper food basket than they have in France and Germany. She is, in effect, advocating communism. She should look at how that works around the world. Controlling those markets does not work.

Prior to the Westminster crisis that has been inflicted on us all by the Tory party, a loaf of wholemeal bread cost £1.01. Even after a slight drop in food prices, the price is now 20% higher. We know the farmers are not benefiting from these price increases. The price of milk in supermarkets today is almost twice what we pay the farmers for their product. Why will the Government and the Secretary of State not consider price caps to stop the supermarkets profiteering and to help ensure that basic essentials are not beyond the reach of many people?

We have done an enormous amount of work in this area to help to support primary producers and farmers. We will legislate in the dairy sector to help to make sure those contracts are fair, and to make sure we have fairness across the supply chain. The hon. Gentleman is advocating the control of market prices, which would have exactly the opposite effect of what he wants to achieve. It would drive up prices across the country, and we would end up in a far worse place.

Topical Questions

The Met Office has issued various warnings. Indeed, as the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), pointed out, we are preparing for potentially significant storms, which is why the Environment Agency has mobilised its emergency operations centre and why temporary defences are being lined up in different parts of the country. We continue to encourage households to register for flood alerts and warnings and to take action, where appropriate.

Ball Corporation has invested £200 million to create Europe’s largest and most modern aluminium drinks can manufacturing plant in Burton Latimer. Will the Secretary of State be kind enough to meet the company to explore her plans to support drinks can producers against potentially unfair market distortions as a result of the decision to exclude glass from the deposit return scheme?

I decided not to proceed with glass in the DRS because of the complications that would bring to its introduction; I would have thought his local company would benefit from that. However, I know that the chief executive recently had a constructive and useful meeting with the recycling Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who will take away the comments from that for further consideration as we finalise our policy.

T2. I have received a host of emails from constituents, many with respiratory problems, who are rightly complaining about poor air quality. The smoke in the air was caused by heather burning on the moors, which resulted in a spike in poor air quality to levels that were four times the legal limit. Will the Government finally do the right thing and bring in an outright ban on these practices, which are affecting not only my constituents’ health, but the natural environment and the climate? (906503)

The hon. Lady will be aware of the action that has been taken—that Ministers required Sheffield City Council to take—to accelerate measures to improve air quality. On the wider measures that she talks about, we are not seeking to ban important practices, but of course things continue to evolve. Air quality is improving and she should be grateful not only to her local councils but to the Government for making that happen in her constituency.

T4. Dunstable downs rotary club is paying for 4,000 trees to be planted at Chute wood, on Dunstable downs. Will the Minister commend this action and commend other organisations to do likewise, given the crucial importance of tree planting in combating climate change? (906506)

That was worth the wait! I will absolutely commend Dunstable downs rotary club, and the work that this Government are undertaking, because trees are essential. They are the larder and the shelter for our wildlife. They are vital for our ecosystem. They protect us from flooding, prevent us from overheating and are at the forefront of this Government’s plan for the environment. That is why we are rolling out local nature recovery strategies to support more good volunteering in our local authorities.

Work is ongoing on avian influenza. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have suffered two years of catastrophic effects of that disease. Animal and Plant Health Agency vets are working round the clock with primary producers to protect their flocks. I do not want to jinx myself, but at the moment we are making good progress. We will continue to work hard with the sector to protect it and ourselves from that terrible disease.

As the Secretary of State knows, my constituency is chalk stream central, with the headwaters of the celebrated River Test, the Bourne rivulet and the River Anton, which runs through Andover. What can the Government tell me to reassure my constituents that the unique ecology of chalk streams is uppermost in their mind as they work to enhance our rivers across the country?

As my right hon. Friend knows, I know that area well. I used to live in Whitchurch, which has the River Test flowing through it. We are making progress with our chalk stream action plan, but he will also be aware of the amendment that the Government agreed to work with Viscount Trenchard on and which is now part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which I hope will become an Act very soon.

Some of the finest seed potatoes are grown in the north of Scotland. Right now, the seed potato farmers are worried sick, because a lot of their crop is below water. That also poses a question mark over the supply of seed for next year. I know that this matter is devolved, but as the Minister is a farmer will he put the maximum encouragement in the direction of the Scottish Government to please help the farmers?

The hon. Gentleman has done that with his question. I do not diminish the effect that the rain is having on the seed potato crop; once seed potato is under water for more than a week it will probably be destroyed. Scottish seed potatoes are some of the finest seed produced anywhere in the world and I encourage him to seek contact with the Scottish Government to get them to help.

Kirklees Council is looking to invest in its food waste recycling strategy, in line with the Environment Act 2021, but it is still waiting for full clarification and details that support that legislation. Will the Minister advise as to when that will be sent to councils?

That clarification will be coming very soon and within it the new simpler recycling approach will include mandatory collection of food waste.

Publicly owned Scottish Water has invested £668 million since 2010 in improvements and committed another half a billion pounds between 2021 and 2027. That is why Scottish Water has had its product—the waters around Scotland—classified as being in “good ecological condition”. Why do English bill payers pay the most and get the mankiest water?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. There is a lot of chatter about water; we should never undermine the cleanliness of the drinking water that people enjoy. The interministerial group is working on different ways of measuring ecological status across the United Kingdom and we are looking to see what we might do about that. We made the change in 2016, which other parts of the United Kingdom did not, and we continue to work together as responsible Governments. I remind the hon. Gentleman, only 4% of storm overflows in Scotland are monitored—they would be better off getting on with that.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

1. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of the Crown Prosecution Service’s written responses to complaints. (906610)

Although progress has been made, the CPS acknowledges that there is more to do to ensure that every complaint gets a high-quality response in a timely manner. I will be discussing this very issue with the Director of Public Prosecutions at our next meeting.

I am sure the Solicitor General will be aware that the CPS Inspectorate recently conducted an investigation into the response to complaints from victims of crime. It found that almost half were below standard and only a third were “adequate”. Do victims of crime not deserve better?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her serious and important question. It is of the utmost importance that victims are well supported by all parts of the justice system. Improvements need to be made. It might be worth pointing out that in the Inspectorate’s report, the complainants were looked at, from victims, defendants, witnesses, the police and others. There is clearly some way to go, but the CPS has accepted each and every one of the recommendations.

Russia: International Accountability

2. What recent steps she has taken to establish international accountability for Russia’s actions against Ukraine; and if she will make a statement. (906611)

8. What recent steps she has taken to establish international accountability for Russia’s actions against Ukraine. (906619)

We are supporting my counterpart in Ukraine, Andriy Kostin, and Ukraine’s judiciary with an ongoing package of practical assistance. They have opened over 100,000 files into alleged Russian war crimes. There is a growing body of evidence that serious crimes have been committed. Together, we will ensure that allegations of war crimes are investigated robustly and independently.

While the House is naturally focused on what has happened in the middle east and the Hamas attack against Israel, the war in Ukraine continues. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the abduction of young children from Ukraine to Russia?

Forced deportation of children is particularly abhorrent. In July, the Foreign Secretary announced 40 new sanctions against Russian officials who have been involved in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children and the spreading of hate-filled propaganda. We continue to work closely with the Ukrainians. I am seeing Andriy Kostin in person again next week, and we remain involved at all levels, from the International Criminal Court to local prosecutions.

In the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, what steps is the Attorney General taking at international judicial level to ensure the rule of law is upheld?

At the end of last month, I was honoured to appear personally before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. I made the UK’s submissions in the case against Russia concerning the genocide convention. It was an important moment for the international rule of law. I fear this will be a long process, but we will pay our full part.

I thank the Attorney General for her response and understanding of our requests. Unfortunately, one thing that is not mentioned much about Ukraine is that when east Donbas was invaded and Crimea was taken over, many Baptist pastors went missing. They were abducted, kidnapped and killed, and nobody has been held accountable. Will the Attorney General intervene in that situation and help to give accountability to those families who have lost loved ones?

The hon. Gentleman always speaks so passionately, particularly on behalf of those involved in helping others with their religious beliefs, making sure that they are not persecuted around the world. I have heard what he has said.

The Attorney General has rightly said that international accountability for Russia’s actions in Ukraine is very important. She will also be aware that some deep concerns have been expressed that Russia may be exploiting the very volatile and fragile situation in Israel and Palestine, with its reportedly close links with Hamas and accusations of facilitating international terrorism. Does she share those concerns, and what efforts does she think the international community can take to counter that?

The UK has a strong track record of supporting international law, and we ask that our friends and partners do the same. It is clear to us that all parties should abide by international law. It was very much brought home to me in that room in The Hague that Russia and Ukraine have not been in many rooms together during the past 18 months, but a courtroom brought them to the same place, and that shows the power of international law.

Crown Prosecution Service: Access to Justice

3. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (906612)

6. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (906616)

The Government are committed to ensuring that victims are treated fairly and compassionately. We know that joined-up working across the criminal justice system works, and we know that supporting victims makes a real difference. That is why we are spending four times as much on victim support as was the case in 2010.

There are victims of crime in our country who have had to wait years for their cases to come to court, who have bravely given testimony to ensure that the criminals who robbed or attacked them are convicted, and who, this week, will have to watch those criminals be bailed rather than jailed, because the prisons are too full to pass sentence against them. What message would the Attorney General like to send to those victims?

The message that I want to send to victims today is that they are very important to this Government. We want them to come forward and we want to investigate and prosecute the crimes of which they are the victims as well and as expeditiously as we can. I listened to what the Lord Chancellor had to say on Monday and I was impressed that he is putting those prison places in the right part of the system, focusing on those serving time for longer, more violent and more worrying offences, with those at the other end of the prison system—those on that revolving wheel of going in and out of prison—being treated in a different way. We want and he wants—it was clear to me that he feels this very strongly—to reduce crime, and he is making sure that the whole of the criminal justice system and the prison system works to achieve that aim.

Shockingly, according to the latest figures, more than 6,400 Crown court cases have been waiting more than two years to be heard. That is up more than two thirds on last year alone. What does the Attorney General have to say to the victims, who, to their despair, have found that their lives have been put on hold while they are waiting for justice? And what does she say to those who can no longer cope with any more delay even if that means having to let their case collapse?

I am happy to say that the hon. Gentleman and I share a local Crown prosecution area in Thames and Chiltern where the local victim attrition rate is well below the national average. It is running at about 13%. Any attrition is too high, and we want to make sure that we support victims to enable them to continue to bring their cases. That is why we have put in place about 800 independent sexual violence advisers to help those victims feel supported and able to go to trial.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a series of very distressing break-ins to small owner-manager businesses in Leighton Buzzard High Street. I know that the owners and Bedfordshire police were disappointed in the response of the CPS. Would it be possible to get the CPS together with those business owners to try to improve things in the future?

I am sorry to hear about those distressing cases. Of course, either the Solicitor General or I would be delighted to meet our hon. Friend to discuss this further.

Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting the brilliant Women’s Budget Group in Parliament for the launch of its report on gender gaps in access to civil justice. Across the board, from employment and benefits to domestic violence and housing, the report found too many women reaching crisis point before they got the help that they needed, as well as increasing numbers getting no help at all and having to represent themselves in court. Will the Attorney General raise those findings with the Justice Secretary and look at how the Government can address the disproportionate impact on women of our country’s legal aid deserts?

The right hon. Lady makes an important point. I read with interest some of the work that she had been doing with others for whom I have enormous respect in this important area. I know that she is very capable of raising those matters herself with the Justice Secretary, but I reassure her that the access of everybody to justice is very much at the top of my agenda and his.

Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecution Rates

4. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (906613)

9. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (906620)

We are committed to tackling violence against women and girls, and have introduced new specific offences to target those crimes. We are steadily increasing the number of rape prosecutions. We are working on new ways to recognise the relationship between rape, domestic abuse and stalking. Close working across the system is the key to effective prosecution.

At Labour’s recent conference in Liverpool, my right hon. Friend the shadow Attorney General highlighted the shocking statistic that it is 200 times more likely for a woman to be a victim of stalking in this country than it is for her stalker to go to jail. Does the Attorney General agree that it is time that we started treating stalking with the seriousness that it deserves, including giving victims of online stalking a right to know the identity of their stalker?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue, and I reassure him that the Government are absolutely committed to helping stalking victims to bring their cases to prosecution. The Lord Chancellor has made that something of a mission during his time in the House; I remember my many years with him on the Justice Committee when he talked of little else. We are working in the CPS on new ways of ensuring that the complicated relationship between rape, domestic abuse and stalking is properly considered across the system.

Prosecution rates for violence against women and girls remain low, and that simply is not good enough. Next month, we will mark White Ribbon Day, when men show their commitment to ending violence against women and girls. What discussions has the Attorney General had with colleagues across Government about White Ribbon Day, and what more can be done to increase prosecution rates and eradicate violence against women and girls once and for all?

A great deal of work is going on across Government to tackle violence against women and girls, and I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that a great deal of really good work is happening in her area in Wales. When I visited the Cardiff office earlier this summer we had some very productive discussions about the implementation of the new CPS charging model. I encourage her to meet Jenny Hopkins, who is the chief Crown prosecutor for her specific area, to hear more about how that hard work has brought some really positive results.

Just before the recess, the then Director of Public Prosecutions gave evidence to the Justice Committee and highlighted the specific areas of work being done to improve the victim experience in relation to rape and serious sexual offences. While there is more to do, would the Attorney General accept that there has been real progress from the position even, say, 10 years ago? What is the latest position in relation to the key targets that were set from the end-to-end rape review?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and for reminding me that I should pay tribute to the outgoing DPP, Max Hill, for his five years of excellent work on our behalf prosecuting crime. I am sure that all of us across the House would like to wish him well in the next stage of his career.

On my hon. Friend’s specific question, the rape review set challenging targets. We have worked very hard across Government—the Home Office, AGs and the Ministry of Justice—on three of those targets in particular, and we are exceeding them considerably. We are in a much better place. Many more cases of rape are being prosecuted and rapists are being convicted. We need to continue to build on that progress—we will not rest on our laurels—but there has been real improvement. If anybody is a victim of rape, I encourage them to come forward. We will support them, and we will prosecute.

Solicitors: Civil Society

5. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the contribution of solicitors to civil society. (906614)

As my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor agrees, solicitors and, indeed, all legal professionals play a vital role in upholding the rule of law. As Solicitor General, I take this opportunity to thank Government Legal Service lawyers for their exceptional work every day, often under pressure, on some of the most high-profile cases in the country.

That is all very well, but the Justice Minister denounces lawyers for parading their politics, while the Home Secretary believes that there is a racket of “lefty lawyers” undermining the law. Does the Attorney General not agree that, instead of deflecting blame from the serial ineptitude of a broken Home Office decimated by her colleagues, she should stand up for the profession as impartial arbiters of the rule of law?

The Attorney General and I often meet legal leaders across the profession both to celebrate their achievements and to hear their concerns. It is right to say that lawyers acting in the best interests of their clients should never be criticised for so doing. But it is also right to say, as the Lord Chancellor has also said, that it is the strong tradition of lawyers in this country that they simply act for their client without fear or favour and do not necessarily associate themselves with the cause. I agree 100% with the Lord Chancellor.

Mr Speaker, you have heard about the “law tour” that the Attorney General and I recently entered into. We met some lawyers in Welshpool and heard from high street solicitors about the importance of their practice, not only in Wales but on the Welsh borders. My hon. Friend should look out for more details about the law tour.

Serious Fraud Office Director

7. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the appointment of the new director of the Serious Fraud Office. (906617)

The Attorney General and I met the new director, Nick Ephgrave, yesterday and discussed the SFO’s priorities, including continuing to deliver its day-to-day mission and driving forward lasting improvements to its operations.

I have been contacted by constituents who have been victims of financial scams carried out by large organised criminal gangs, which often target the more vulnerable in our communities. What steps is the Solicitor General taking to end the scourge of these frauds and scams, and will it be a priority for the new director of the SFO?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the SFO announced a criminal investigation just last week into a suspected fraud at Safe Hands Plans, a funeral plan provider with 46,000 plan holders before its collapse last year. My hon. Friend has raised this very point during an earlier debate, and I am grateful to him for that. I am sure that he will agree that the announcement of the SFO’s investigation is a significant and welcome step.

Will the new head of the SFO take the job very seriously and look again at some of the big fraudsters and at the penalties? Will the Solicitor General ask the new director why Bernie Ecclestone did not go to prison for massive fraud against the tax system?

The hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the new director. He is the right candidate for the job. He brings a wealth of experience. He will listen to what the hon. Gentleman says and to what we all say in this Chamber. He has expertise in leading large, complex and multidisciplinary law enforcement organisations, and we look forward to supporting him in his work.

His Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate inspects not only the CPS, but the SFO, so it was remiss of me earlier not to pay tribute to the inspectorate and to the chief inspector for his work.

I join the Solicitor General in welcoming Nick Ephgrave as he takes on one of the most difficult jobs in law enforcement. His arrival in post was announced by the SFO abandoning the three long-running and expensive prosecutions of Rio Tinto, Eurasian Natural Resources, and the Alpha and Green Park group. That follows a chain of failed cases, from G4S and Serco to Unaoil. With permanent staff vacancies of around 25%, and a case load that has fallen by half in recent years, why should the new director think that this lame duck Government will make the SFO a hawk in the world of financial crime?

I will ignore the snide comment at the end but I will address the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which he is right to ask. It is also right to say that it is always disappointing when cases are closed, but criminal investigations that no longer meet the public interest test, as he well knows, simply cannot continue. That is the code that Crown prosecutors take, and he will understand why that is the case. It is right to trumpet the SFO’s achievements; it is also right to challenge it. I know that staff recruitment and retention will be one of the priorities for the new director.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Question Time, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that air quality in our country was improving. There is no evidence for that statement and, although I do not believe that she meant to, she misled the House.