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House of Commons

Thursday 5 November 2015

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

business before questions

Transport for London Bill [Lords]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the promoters of the Transport for London Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2010-12 on 24 January 2011, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of Bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Hon. Members: Object.

The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Monday 16 November.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Farm Produce (Fair Practice)

1. Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): What steps she is taking to ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their produce from retailers. [902017]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): First, I welcome the new shadow Front-Benchers to their positions. I am sure they will find DEFRA to be a fascinating and rewarding, if somewhat unpredictable, brief to be involved with.

In the last Parliament, we introduced the grocery code adjudicator to enforce the principle of the grocery supply code relating to fair practice in contracting arrangements. In addition, we have encouraged large retailers to offer contracts with prices linked to the cost of production. Many of them now do so for their liquid milk, and such contracts are popular with farmers.

Dr Cameron: What steps is the Minister taking to alleviate the severe cash-flow pressures on our farmers, and will he consider placing a floor in the market to protect the dairy and lamb industry?

George Eustice: We have worked hard with the European Commission to get a support payment. The Rural Payments Agency is processing that now—for Scotland, England and all other parts of the UK. We aim to get that out in

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the first week of December. That will offer some support to dairy farmers with their cash-flow problems. In addition, we are working hard in England to ensure that we can get the basic payment scheme payments out to farmers on time.

Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response to last week’s debate on the impact of the living wage on fruit farmers. As he knows, fruit farmers in my constituency support the living wage, but they are worried that supermarkets will not pay them a price that recognises the increased cost of production. What steps is he taking to support the fruit farming industry on this issue?

George Eustice: My hon. Friend is right that we had a good debate on this issue last week. As a former strawberry farmer, I can say that supermarkets pay a premium for English fruit—the quality is superior and we have better varieties. It commands a premium over both Dutch and Spanish fruit.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The English Christmas could not exist without Stilton cheese, yet the Minister is refusing to allow the name Stilton to be given to the only English cheese made in the traditional way—Stilton cheese—because of some bureaucracy from DEFRA and him. An entire herd of cows in my constituency survives because of real, traditional unpasteurised English Stilton, with 45p a litre paid, keeping the dairy farmers in good profit. Will the Minister accept a full Stilton cheese to give to the Cabinet, and perhaps provide the biscuits to go with it, so that they can understand the price we pay by denying England its true traditional English cheese—and rethink?

George Eustice: I think that the company to which the hon. Gentleman refers is called Stichelton. It produces cheese using raw milk, and as a high-quality product it commands a premium over Stilton. Every single Stilton producer opposed changing the protected food name status for Stilton, and we believe that there should be some sense of consensus before changes to recipes are imposed on producers.

Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con): Dairy farmers in my Eddisbury constituency, who are on non-aligned contracts, are suffering from the volatility in world dairy prices. What is the Minister doing to assist in making them resilient to that market volatility?

George Eustice: My hon. Friend makes an important point. One of the key long-term aspects we are looking at is developing a dairy futures market so that farmers can help to mitigate and manage the risks of price volatility. Such a market works quite effectively in the United States, and the European Commission is setting up a high-level group to look at how to develop such a scheme in the European Union.

Calum Kerr (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (SNP): I, too, welcome the new shadow Front-Bench team. The failure of the market to provide a fair price for what farmers produce means that, for many of them, common agricultural policy payments make the difference between bankruptcy and continuing in business.

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The Secretary of State has been repeatedly asked to confirm whether those payments would continue in the event of a Brexit. Simply batting that question away is no longer acceptable. What will happen?

George Eustice: The RPA is making emergency payments worth about £2,500 to help the average Scottish dairy farmer through this difficult period. We are doing our bit to ensure that Scottish dairy farmers are helped.

Edward Argar (Charnwood) (Con): Farmers can be helped to obtain a fair price for their produce if they act as retailers themselves through, for example, farmers markets and farm shops such as the excellent Roots in Barkby Thorpe and Cook’s in Newtown Linford, in my constituency. What assessment has the Minister made of farm shops as a small part of the way in which producers can be helped to sell their produce at a fair price?

George Eustice: I should declare an interest. My family run a farm shop, and I can add to my hon. Friend’s list Trevaskis Farm in Cornwall, which is one of the best farm shops in the country.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In the last 15 years we have seen a huge surge of interest in food provenance—people want to know where their food comes from—and a significant rise in the turnover of farm shops, which are a good way of enabling farmers to protect their margins.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): There is a perception among the dairy farmers whom I represent, and particularly among small farmers, that they are being individually picked off by some of the big supermarkets. What can the Government do to encourage and support the development of producer organisations and real collaboration between individual farmers?

George Eustice: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have been trying to foster the development of producer organisations, and Dairy Crest runs one that is very successful. We provided funds to support the development of dairy producer organisations through the most recent rural development scheme. As the hon. Gentleman says, ensuring that farmers can negotiate collectively is key to enabling them to deal with the fact that they are small and fragmented.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The number of dairy farms and dairy cattle in Northamptonshire has fallen by more than a third since 2001, largely because the common agricultural policy is rigged in favour of the French dairy industry. Other countries have negotiated early payments from the CAP this year. Why have we not done the same?

George Eustice: This year we decided to issue the full BPS payments as quickly as possible and as early as possible in the payment window. About 60% of the entry level and higher level stewardship payments have now been made. We are working on the dairy crisis fund, and we aim to issue the majority of basic payment scheme payments in December and the vast majority by the end of January.

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Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Given that farmers are struggling, may I ask by what date the last farmer will have received this year’s cheque from the Rural Payments Agency?

George Eustice: As with all years, the payment window runs from 1 December until June. In each year there are some highly complex cases—typically involving non-governmental organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which run large schemes and do not receive their payments until later—but, as I have said, we expect to issue the majority in December and the vast majority by the end of January. We hope to issue the payments in respect of common land during February, because those cases are more complex.

Flood Plans (Gloucestershire)

2. Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): What assessment she has made of progress on flood plans for Gloucestershire; and if she will make a statement. [902018]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart): There are two forms of flood plan that affect Gloucester. The Gloucestershire county council plan was agreed in 2014, and the national plans from the Environment Agency will be in place for the Severn and the Thames by next month.

Richard Graham: The Minister will know how vulnerable Gloucester is to flooding. I am delighted to assume from his answer that the Environment Agency will have plenty of funds with which to establish a robust flood protection scheme, but does he see a role for other partners, such as Severn Trent Water? If so, will he tell us how that might work?

Rory Stewart: There are three elements in my hon. Friend’s question. First, I entirely agree that Gloucester is particularly vulnerable, because of its combination of fluvial and tidal flooding. Secondly, there is money in place for Gloucester: £5 million, with a six-year guarantee from the Treasury. Thirdly, I met the chief executive of Severn Trent two days ago. We are always interested in the role that other partners can play in ensuring that we have effective flood protection at a reasonable cost.

Food Waste

3. Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab): What progress her Department has made on meeting the UN target of halving food waste by 2030. [902019]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart): Britain is a leader in addressing the problem of food waste. We have managed to reduce household waste by 15% and retail waste by 7.2%, and the figures for 2014 suggest a further 3.2% reduction, but that will be dealt with mainly through the Courtauld 2025 agreement.

Holly Lynch: We know from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s documentary “Hugh’s War on Waste”, which was shown earlier this week, that supermarket practices such as unnecessarily strict cosmetic specifications for products are contributing to the huge amounts of waste in the

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supply chain. What is the Minister doing to ensure that supermarkets take much more responsibility for reducing food waste in their supply chains?

Rory Stewart: The supermarkets and retailers in general are a very important part of the Courtauld agreement. I pay tribute to some of the retailers: Tesco has made progress on bananas, and there has been progress from the Co-op on potatoes with the Marfona range, which reduces potato waste by 30%, but I absolutely agree retailers have to play a larger role in reducing food waste in general.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Does the Minister agree with me that consumers have a role to play, too? What is wrong with an over-bent banana? What is wrong with a particularly twisted turnip? They can still taste just as good. We have got to educate the consumer. What will the Minister do about doing just that?

Rory Stewart: The records of Ministers and shadow Ministers walking around with strange-shaped fruit is not always very positive. However, in order to encourage this I would be delighted to be seen eating a wobbly banana.

Mr Speaker: Notably in the company of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant).

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Will the Minister give the House some details of what discussions he has had with supermarkets in relation to food waste, and will he welcome the announcement by KFC who have done a deal with the Salvation Army to help hand out food so it is not wasted?

Rory Stewart: There have been a number of discussions. I absolutely welcome that move and pay tribute to that work with the Salvation Army. We should also pay tribute to Tesco, which now has a new app running with FareShare, and Morrisons, which has announced it will be putting all the food within the sell-by date over to charitable purposes. This is a really good lead and it is showing that a voluntary approach is working.

Tree Planting

4. Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): How many trees the Government plan to plant during this Parliament. [902021]

9. Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): How many trees the Government plan to plant during this Parliament. [902027]

12. Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): How many trees the Government plan to plant during this Parliament. [902031]

14. Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): How many trees the Government plan to plant during this Parliament. [902033]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Elizabeth Truss): We are committed to plant 11 million trees this Parliament. That is in addition to

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the 11 million we planted in the last Parliament, which is contributing to the highest woodland cover in Britain since 14th century.

Andrew Bridgen: The new national forest that covers much of my constituency has seen 8.5 million trees planted in the last 25 years, with another 126,000 planned for next year alone. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not all about quantity—quality is also important and these woodlands need managing so that the trees thrive for future generations?

Elizabeth Truss: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The national forest has been a fantastic achievement. We are celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It was put in place by the John Major Government in 1995. It is an incredible boost to tourism, but I completely agree that we need to see a mixed variety of woodland being planted, including many of our important native trees such as the oak, the ash and the beech. We also need to make sure those woodlands are managed, and thanks to the Grown in Britain campaign we are seeing more of our woodland under management.

Jack Lopresti: Does the Minister share my view that it is important for planning guidance to recognise the inherent interest in maintaining ancient woodland, and veteran trees in particular?

Elizabeth Truss: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Ancient woodland is of huge historical value to our country. It also provides very important soil that we will never get back if we lose it, as well as a huge variety of trees, and we are committed to protecting it in the planning system.

Jeremy Quin: The Secretary of State will be pleased to hear I represent the most biodiverse constituency on earth given the presence within it of the millennium seed bank at Wakehurst Place. Will she join me in congratulating Wakehurst on the work being done on the UK national tree seed project, testing the resilience of our native species?

Elizabeth Truss: Wakehurst Place is a fantastic national asset and is part of the Kew group, which is the jewel in DEFRA’s crown. Not only do we have the millennium seed bank and the important work it provides; we also have the world’s largest database of plants, which we are now digitising so we can benefit everybody in society.

Bob Blackman: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answers thus far. The importance of a well-maintained, well-managed woodland capability is clearly dependent on demand for timber. What role is there for Grown in Britain to manage that demand, and what extra role can it fulfil in future?

Elizabeth Truss: Grown in Britain is a fantastic campaign that is bringing together people from right across the timber supply chain to ensure that more of our buildings use British wood, perhaps by adjusting building standards, and that more of the furniture that we buy uses British woods such as oak and beech. Thanks to the Grown in Britain project, we have seen an 8% increase in domestic timber production between 2010 and 2014, and more of our woodland is now under management.

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Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): But may we have a note of realism from the Secretary of State? Until recently, her Government wanted to sell off those jewels in the crown. They wanted to sell off our national forest. Is it not a fact that more trees are dying of disease than are being planted? When will she take on the great estates of this country that have owned our land and exploited it for hundreds of years—[Interruption.] No, some of us remember, because we like John Clare, that there was something called the enclosures. Is it not about time that those great estates were made to do something positive, rather than just seeking planning permission for residential building?

Elizabeth Truss: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are taking positive steps. We want to put our woodland in trust for the nation. I have just announced an extension to the Yorkshire Dales national park and the Lake District national park that will create the largest area of almost continuous national park in our country. We are building up Kew as a fantastic organisation and using our expertise to benefit countries around the world. I am incredibly proud of what we are doing in this area, and I wish that the hon. Gentleman would take more pride in it as well.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): The Secretary of State said a moment ago that ancient woodland needed to be properly protected in the planning system, but it is the clear view of the Woodland Trust that the planning protections that are in place are not good enough. What representations will she make to the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that planning protection for ancient woodland is improved and made robust?

Elizabeth Truss: I think we have excellent protection for ancient woodland in our planning system.

Angela Smith indicated dissent.

Elizabeth Truss: We absolutely do. What is more, we have just launched our 25-year plan for the environment. We are looking at natural capital and at the value of woodland. We also want to ensure that trees are planted in the right place, because where we plant them makes a tremendous difference. We must ensure that we build for the future.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Will the Secretary of State outline what plans the Government have, aside from the planting of new trees, for protecting and developing arboretums, which can contain some fine indigenous species as well as trees, flora and fauna from across the world, particularly in landed estates, which are a tourism asset?

Elizabeth Truss: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I have mentioned Wakehurst Place, and I also have a fantastic arboretum in my own constituency, the Lynford arboretum. We are making sure that all the elements of DEFRA work much more closely together so that we can get the data out there to enable people to understand about our natural heritage and so that we can protect that heritage for the future.

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Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The Woodland Trust is doing a significant amount of tree planting across the whole of the United Kingdom, and this Saturday a centenary wood will be planted near Limavady. What discussions are the Secretary of State and her Department having with the Woodland Trust to ensure that lots of woods and trees are planted in this centenary year?

Elizabeth Truss: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; the Woodland Trust is a fantastic organisation. We are working closely with it and with other voluntary organisations as part of our tree-planting programme.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I very much welcome the progress that the Secretary of State has mentioned, but the industry is still predicting a shortage of home-grown timber by the 2030s. Confor estimates that the UK needs to plant 12,000 hectares of productive woodland a year for the next 25 years in order to maintain supplies and preserve the tremendous contribution that trees make to our environment. Will she tell the House how she proposes to close that gap, to secure the land required and to help farmers and other landowners to play a greater role in developing new forests?

Elizabeth Truss: First, may I welcome the new Opposition Front-Bench team to their places? I am looking forward to meeting them over the Dispatch Box in the coming months.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have a burgeoning timber industry in this country. We now have more demand for our native woods, which is important. It is important for biodiversity to bring more of our woodlands and forest under management. As part of the 25-year environmental plan and the natural capital approach, we will be looking at things such as how we can use the planting of trees to help flood defences. Last week, I went to see “Slowing the Flow” in Pickering, which is using the woodland—putting trees upstream—to help slow the flow downstream. There are a lot of opportunities to look at the environment more holistically so that we can both plant trees and help address our other environmental priorities.

Air Quality

5. Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What progress she has made in consulting on her Department’s draft plans to improve air quality; and when she plans to respond to that consultation. [902022]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Elizabeth Truss): Our consultation on plans to improve air quality in our towns and cities closes tomorrow. Plans will be submitted to the commission by the end of this year. This builds on £2 billion of Government investment since 2011 on measures to improve air quality.

Kate Osamor: I thank the Minister for that response. What action are the Government taking to address the fact that 7,000 Londoners a year are now dying prematurely as a result of toxic air?

Elizabeth Truss: We have launched a consultation on putting clean air zones in place across the country. This is the first ever national network of clean air zones, which

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will help to address our target of getting to compliance by 2020 in other cities and by 2025 in London. We are working closely with the Mayor to make sure that we introduce the ultra-low emission zones to help deliver that.

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Is it not the case that 27 out of 28 member states in Europe are non-compliant with the air quality directive? Does my right hon. Friend see this proliferation of clean air zones as one very good way in which the UK could comply with those standards?

Elizabeth Truss: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that she did a lot of work on this when she was Secretary of State. Our plans have been modelled and will achieve compliance by 2020 in cities outside London and by 2025 in London. Of course we need to work at a European level to make sure that we have real driving conditions reflected in the tests and that we have a coherent framework that reflects both air quality and car tests. There is still some way to go on that front.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Two Government decisions in the past week will have a dramatic impact on air quality. One was the decision to support a watering down of the tests that the Secretary of State has just referred to in Brussels. The other was the decision to announce half a billion pounds of taxpayer subsidy to a generation of diesel generators to plug the energy gap. Was she consulted on either of those?

Elizabeth Truss: On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, this is the first time at a European level that we have agreed that the lab tests do not reflect the reality of what vehicles are emitting, and we have put in place a process to get to real-world conditions. This country has been pushing for that for some time and last week we succeeded in getting a path to achieving it. That is major progress, which will help us to deliver our air quality commitments.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I welcome what the Minister has said and what the Government are doing. More generally, does she agree that climate change must be partly responsible for changes to air quality?

Elizabeth Truss: We need to look at both carbon dioxide emissions and nitrogen oxides emissions to make sure that we are delivering reductions in both. That is exactly what our air quality plans are about.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): The truth is that the Secretary of State launched her air quality consultation only after she was forced to do so by the Supreme Court ruling in April. As we have heard, there are now big question marks about the reliability of vehicle emissions modelling, particularly for the newest cars. Does she really care about the clean air crisis or is this something she is just trying to pass off to local authorities? Is the consultation just a cosmetic exercise to get ClientEarth and the Supreme Court off her back?

Elizabeth Truss: We are clear that the clear air zones that we have modelled use the very best data, so we acknowledge that there is a difference between laboratory

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tests and real-world performance, and that is factored in to our plans. In our consultation, we are considering incentives to ensure that what we want happens. I am absolutely determined to deal with the issue of air quality and to ensure that we are in compliance by the dates that I outlined earlier. We are looking at the incentives at the moment—that is part of the consultation—so that we can submit those final plans to the European Commission by the end of December.

Urban and Rural Areas: Inequality

6. Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab): What steps she is taking to reduce inequality between rural and urban areas. [902023]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart): We are focusing on rural productivity, and we have 10 main priorities: mobile broadband, transport, communications, investment in education and skills, investment in apprenticeships, houses, affordable childcare, making sure that we have in place everything that we need for businesses, rural enterprise zones and the localism to underpin all of that to deliver rural productivity.

Christian Matheson: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I am pleased that he mentioned rural broadband. In the village of Saughall, in my constituency, residents are being told to pay an extra £7 a month in premium to access fast broadband because they live in a rural area. Ofcom is acquiescing in that, but I remind the Minister that there are large amounts of public and European money to develop those networks. Will he please make representations to Ofcom to stop this discrimination, which is increasing the inequality?

Rory Stewart: I would be very interested to meet the hon. Gentleman and to hear more about this matter. That does seem an unjust situation. I would be interested to know the identity of the provider and why they are charging in that way. It certainly seems an important issue for rural areas in general, so I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.

16 [902035]. Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am also delighted to hear that the Minister is conscious of this issue. Some of the houses in about a third of the villages in my constituency do not have access to superfast broadband. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that broadband generally is as fast and as effective in rural areas as it is in urban ones?

Rory Stewart: I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend for the meeting that she held in South East Cambridgeshire last week, with more than 20 parish councils, British Telecom and Broadband Delivery UK. It is a really good example of how local MPs—and this is true across the House—can lead this kind of progress. There are new technological solutions that we are putting in place. We are very proud that, by the end of this year, the universal service commitment of 2 megabits will be available, but that will not be enough for the future, which is why I would also like to draw her attention to the Fell End build and benefit model where the Government, the Department for Environment, Food

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and Rural Affairs, BT and local communities are finding out how to deliver fibre to the most remote rural communities.

Food Security

7. Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): What estimate her Department has made of the number of households affected by lack of food security. [902024]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): The factors that affect household food security are complex and difficult to measure. However, a recent report comparing OECD countries found that a proportion of those who said that they are finding it difficult to afford food went down from 9.8% in 2007 to 8.1% in 2012.

Debbie Abrahams: One million people relied on food-bank meals last year, which is an increase of 38% on 2013. In Oldham, 5,000 people, including 1,500 children, relied on Oldham food bank. Given the Resolution Foundation’s estimate that an additional 200,000 children will be pushed into poverty as a direct result of the social security and tax changes that this Government are intending to implement, what is the Minister doing, working across Government Departments, to address the issues of food insecurity?

George Eustice: Let me point out a number of things. First, food prices have fallen for the first time in around 15 years. They went down by 2.3% over the past year. In addition, since 2010, we have seen an increase in household disposable income; it is up by around £900 according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. Finally, we must bear in mind that the way to get people out of poverty and to tackle poverty is to get people off benefits and into work. That is exactly what our welfare reforms are doing.

Regional Food and Drink

8. Chris Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to promote regional food and drink. [902026]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Elizabeth Truss): This week, we launched the great British food campaign with some of our most talented food and drink pioneers across the country, including the Welsh Venison Centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The year of great British food will be 2016, and it will include trade missions, fantastic events and an incubator space at DEFRA.

Chris Davies: Welsh lamb and Welsh water are key ingredients in the recipe of our economy’s success, so will my right hon. Friend commend the Radnor Hills water company in my constituency for investing in a new £7 million production line, securing the future of production and jobs? With lamb prices so low, will she also assure farmers in my constituency that she is doing everything she can to ensure that Welsh lamb remains on the menu for generations to come?

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Elizabeth Truss: It sounds to me like my hon. Friend’s constituency is a food powerhouse and I congratulate him on the success of the Radnor Hills water company. We are the No. 1 exporter of lamb in the world and Welsh lamb is an important part of that success. I will be in China next week, trying to open that market for lamb, and I will continue to push the case here in Britain.

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Lamb aside, and without being too specific, is there not a possible policy conflict between promoting some regional foods and the Government’s anti-obesity strategy?

Elizabeth Truss: I believe in everything in moderation.

Food and Farming Industry: Productivity

10. Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to use science and data to increase productivity in the food and farming industry. [902029]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): The Government are investing £90 million in centres for agricultural innovation to ensure that our world-leading science is improving farm productivity. Just last week, I visited the Rothamsted research institute to launch a new agrimetrics centre that will develop the use of modern data analysis and management.

Chris Green: I understand that the Minister is working on a 25-year food and farming plan and that many farmers and businesses in the north-west have been involved in the discussions. How central will data and technology be to the plan and what benefits will it bring to farmers and food producers in the north-west?

George Eustice: We held a workshop in Manchester as part of our food and farming strategy development and I am delighted that some of my hon. Friend’s constituents were able to contribute. Data and technology will form a crucial part of our food and farming plan. We are using the way in which we can harness data to improve plant health, animal health and crop yields, for instance. It is therefore vital to the future of our agriculture.

Flood Defences

11. Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): How many flood schemes are due to begin construction in 2015 under the Government’s six-year flood defence programme. [902030]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart): The Government planned to launch 161 schemes in this financial year, providing extra protection for 70,000 households. As this is the Environment Agency’s flood awareness week, let me take the opportunity to remind everybody living in risk areas for flooding that there is a very important personal responsibility to remain in touch with the Environment Agency, particularly through the winter months.

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Mark Menzies: I thank the Minister for the work that the Department is doing with the flood protection schemes in Fairhaven in my constituency. Fylde also suffers from inland flooding, so will the Department consider schemes to alleviate the flooding impacting on high-quality farmland in Fylde?

Rory Stewart: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am glad that he recognises the work that has already been done along the Fylde coast, which is one of the top six projects for the Environment Agency. Nearly £80 million has been spent on protection along the Fylde coast. On farmland, the Dock Bridge pumping station and the work that my hon. Friend has done with farmers in situ are extremely important and I look forward to meeting him and the Environment Agency.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Insurance companies are suddenly ignoring the £23 million flood defence system in Morpeth in my constituency, telling residents that it is “irrelevant”. Christine Telford, who has lived in the same property for 21 years, has just been quoted between £3,000 and £4,800, with an excess of £7,500. What will the Minister do to put pressure on insurance companies to give affordable and realistic insurance premiums?

Rory Stewart: This is a very important point. With the Government spending a record amount of money on flood defence—about £20 million in this case—it is important to have a standard that flood insurance companies recognise so that when we make the investment householders can benefit from it. I am happy to consider the individual case.

17 [902036]. Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I was pleased to welcome the Government’s investment in repair work for the Barbourne brook culvert in my constituency last year, but investigations have since found significant deterioration in that culvert and there might be a need for some extra support. Will the Minister convene a meeting with the Environment Agency and Worcester City Council to discuss the issue?

Rory Stewart: Again, I shall be delighted to do so. Worcester is a special case, as it is on the Severn, like Gloucester. Much of the flooding there has affected assets, such as road assets. That culvert is central and I am happy to sit down with my hon. Friend and with the Environment Agency in order to address the challenges of that culvert.

Topical Questions

T1. [901997] Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Elizabeth Truss): This week we launched the great British food campaign to grow more, buy more and sell more British food. We will be harnessing the expertise of pioneering chefs, entrepreneurs and farmers to build the UK’s reputation as a great food nation. In the new year we will be establishing the great British food unit to bring together DEFRA exports and UK Trade and Investment into a single team to support great British food companies. [Interruption.]

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Mr Speaker: I think we are all aware that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is still chuntering away from a sedentary position about Stilton. We have heard what he has to say about Stilton.

Mr Bone: On 22 January I expect to get a Second Reading for my private Member’s Bill—it is not a Government hand-out Bill, but I hope it will have Government support—abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is, I understand, keen to have the energy element. Would the Secretary of State like to have the climate change section in her Department? I think the Government are looking favourably on this Bill.

Elizabeth Truss: Our Department already has a strong responsibility for climate change—climate change adaptation, which is baked into everything we do.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): DEFRA’s budget was slashed by a third at the last spending review and it is in line for cuts of up to 40% this time, yet the Secretary of State does not seem to be fighting her corner to protect her Department. What is she doing to convince a Chancellor who is notoriously dismissive of environmental concerns and a Prime Minister who pays only lip service to them that DEFRA’s work on flood defences, marine conservation, biodiversity and much more matters, or which of those Tory manifesto commitments will she ditch?

Elizabeth Truss: DEFRA is a crucial Department. We respond to animal disease outbreaks, we are responsible for flood defences and we represent the largest manufacturing industry, the food industry, which I think has tremendous growth potential. But that does not mean that we cannot do things better. Today we have been talking about how we can digitise our records and help digitise such things as our farm inspections. We can do things more efficiently so that we can spend more money on the frontline, which is what I want to do.

T2. [901998] Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I very much welcome the Secretary of State going to China to promote great British food that is being produced to high welfare standards. What more would she like to do in co-operation with UK Trade & Investment to liberate more exports of great British food?

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Stilton.

Elizabeth Truss: Of course, we will be promoting Stilton in China, alongside other British cheeses. It looks as though the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) would like to accompany me on the visit. It is not too late, if he gets in touch with my office. We are linking up UKTI and the DEFRA export—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I am all agog. I want to hear the rest of it.

Elizabeth Truss: What I want to say is that we are creating a one-stop shop so that any food business—a cheese maker, a pork producer, a “gin-trepreneur”—can have a single point of contact to deal with the Government, and get their products overseas as soon as possible.

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Mr Speaker: Who knows, we might have a statement to the House subsequently about the Secretary of State’s visit. I am sure the House would be extremely interested.

T4. [902000] Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP): To aid reduction in our carbon footprint, from 2018 it will be unlawful to grant new property leases with an energy performance certificate rating below E. What progress are the Government making on ensuring that as many of these properties meet that rating before civil penalties are introduced, and what encouragement are they offering to landlords to ensure that they bring their properties up to the highest possible EPC rating, rather than just making the necessary improvements to take them up to the minimum standard?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart): I am afraid that I do not have a great deal of detail on that issue now, so I will be happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and discuss it further. Climate adaptation is baked through our departmental policy. It sounds to me as though this is something we need to discuss with the hon. Gentleman, communities, local government and, in particular, the housing taskforce.

T3. [901999] Victoria Atkins (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): “Water adds value.” That was the conclusion of the Canal & River Trust when it studied the economic, social and environmental benefits of waterways restoration projects over the past 20 years. Will the Minister join me in praising the hard-working volunteers of the Louth Navigation Trust, who for the past 30 years have been working hard to restore the Louth canal to its full glory?

Rory Stewart: I pay real tribute to the work of the Louth Navigation Trust. We are at an exciting moment with the Louth canal, with the potential removal of the Phillips 66 pipe. If we are able to deal with some of the land ownership issues and, in particular, work with my hon. Friend to talk with Merton College, Oxford, which appears to control access to the canal, then we can get what she and the Louth Navigation Trust have fought so hard for. I thank her for her interest.

T6. [902002] Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Among my constituents there are real concerns that the recently approved Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal in east Greenwich will have a detrimental impact on already dangerously high levels of air pollution. Can the Minister outline how the forthcoming air quality strategy will protect my constituents from the noxious emissions that berthed cruise ships will generate at the site?

Elizabeth Truss: Of course, all emissions are factored into our air quality plans. We are working closely with the Mayor of London to ensure that London is brought into compliance by 2025, but we will look specifically at this issue, which was also raised in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

T5. [902001] Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): As a beekeeper, I recently met the British Beekeepers Association, with which I am keen to restart the all-party

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parliamentary group on bees. One of our prime objectives is to bring together farmers, scientists and environmentalists with the common aim of improving the nation’s bee colonies. Is the Minister willing to offer support and encouragement to such a move?

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I am absolutely delighted to offer my hon. Friend that support and encouragement, and I will be more than happy to attend the all-party group. We have a new pollinator strategy in place, and around half the expressions of interest that we have received for the new mid-tier countryside stewardship schemes include pollinator packages. I can also report that our own DEFRA beehives are doing quite well and that we harvested our first honey this year.

T8. [902004] Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): This Government are all over the place on the issue of fracking in national parks and protected areas. Having vowed to ban it in January, they last week proposed to allow it, and now they say that they want to ban surface drilling inside those areas again. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether fracking will be allowed under national parks and protected areas, and what effect that will have on noise, light and air pollution?

Elizabeth Truss: I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the extra protection that the Department of Energy and Climate Change has put in place. Let us be clear that under the Environment Agency we have the best possible protection for the environment, to ensure that any fracking is done in a safe and environmentally friendly way.

T7. [902003] Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): South Essex is home to many small and medium-sized food businesses. What progress has been made since the launch of the 2013 food and drink international action plan to help those businesses export more?

George Eustice: We run a food export forum with industry, which I chair, and we are making progress. We have now helped around 4,000 companies to export overseas, which is four times more than we intended to in the initial strategy.

T9. [902005] Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP): There seems to be a vast gap between the Government’s ambition for forest and woodland planting and reality. Yesterday, Confor and the Woodland Trust proposed at the all-party group on forestry a target of 7,000 hectares of planting a year. If it is planted sensibly, that could mean 15 million trees a year, but the funding currently available will help deliver only between 2,000 and 2,500 hectares a year. How will the Government work with Confor and the Woodland Trust to achieve more?

Elizabeth Truss: We are planting 22 million trees over the period 2010 to 2020. In the natural capital work that we are doing at the moment, we are looking at the value of trees in the natural environment and the contribution they can make to the economy, through

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the timber industry, and to things like flood defences. I am sure that that means there will be more in future as well.

T10. [902006] Ben Howlett (Bath) (Con): Bath residents will welcome the consultations in the Department on air quality, given the high levels of air pollution in the city, as the Secretary of State will know from her visit earlier this year. Will she confirm that this will help cities such as Bath to introduce low-emission zones?

Elizabeth Truss: I remember standing with my hon. Friend by the roadside in Bath and breathing in the fumes. The clean air zones that we are introducing provide, for the first time, a national framework that local authorities can adopt and put in place in their area to address air quality issues, so I hope that Bath is looking at that.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Given that Heathrow already breaches legal maximums for nitrogen dioxide, what advice is the Secretary of State giving to her Cabinet colleagues pondering the decision on the Davies commission report, and can we still expect that decision before Christmas?

Elizabeth Truss: The decision is clearly a matter for the Airports Commission, which is looking into this issue. On London air quality, the plans that we are putting in place, and have modelled very carefully, will bring London into compliance by 2025, which is well before the date for the airport.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. We have overrun, but I want to accommodate a couple of colleagues very briefly. I call Mr James Heappey.

James Heappey (Wells) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The dastardly EU has moved the goalposts on bathing water quality, and this morning we have found out that Burnham-on-Sea in my constituency has fallen short of the new standards. This will be of great concern to many in my constituency, particularly those involved in tourism. Will the Minister reassure us that all will be done to improve standards before next year’s readings?

Rory Stewart: This is an extremely important issue. I underscore the fact that these are advisory notices; they do not prohibit people from swimming in the water. In relation to Burnham-on-Sea, 250 missed connections have been identified by Wessex Water, which will invest £36 million. I have every hope that through its Streamclean initiative we should be able to bring Burnham-on-Sea back into compliance.

Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the vital work being carried out by the National Wildlife Crime Unit. With its current funding ending in March 2016, will the Minister take this opportunity to reassure it, and the public, that the Department, alongside the Home Office, will ensure that funding is maintained beyond 2016?

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Elizabeth Truss: I am very happy to discuss that issue further with the hon. Gentleman.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, I call Mr Henry Smith.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I congratulate the Government on last year starting the national pollinator strategy. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the establishment of small bee habitats, particularly in urban areas, as set out by the BeeWorld initiative?

Elizabeth Truss: We are leading the way at DEFRA because we not only have beehives on our roof that have produced their first honey, but have established a pollinator-friendly garden with plants that attract pollinators. Putting in these pollinator-friendly plants is something that anybody can do, at school or at home.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: I am sorry to disappoint remaining Members but we really must now move on.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Women Bishops

1. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the effect of the introduction of the first woman bishop to the Lords Spiritual on the Church of England; and if she will make a statement. [902007]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): I am delighted to be able to share with the House that the first female bishop, the Bishop of Gloucester, was introduced into the House of Lords on 26 October. The Church would like to put on record its thanks to my predecessor and to many hon. Members, including the hon. Lady, who have campaigned long and hard to see this day.

Diana Johnson: I am delighted that in July I was able to go along to the installation of the Bishop of Hull, Alison White, the first woman to hold that position, and of course we now have a woman bishop in the House of Lords. Will the right hon. Lady comment on whether the Church has an objective as to when we will see parity between male and female bishops in the House of Lords?

Mrs Spelman: There are already seven women bishops. The next Bishop of Newcastle, to be introduced into the Lords on 26 January, will also be a woman. There are currently three vacancies in Oxford, Leicester and Lichfield, all of which are eligible seats in the House of Lords and which may be filled by women. The legislation passed this year enables these vacancies to be filled by female bishops in a quest to get a much better gender balance.

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Public Accounts Commission

The hon. Member for Gainsborough, representing the Public Accounts Commission was asked—


2. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What discussions the commission has had on the potential extension of the scope of the National Audit Office’s auditing of the BBC as part of the BBC charter review. [902008]

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The commission has had no discussions on the potential extension of the scope of the National Audit Office’s auditing of the BBC as part of the BBC charter review. However, it is aware of the Government’s recent consultation on framing the new BBC charter, particularly the question of whether the NAO should be given statutory access to BBC accounts. The commission notes that the BBC’s own response to the consultation acknowledged the value of the NAO’s value-for-money studies of the BBC. Statutory access would give the NAO the right to audit the BBC’s annual report and accounts, and strengthen its scrutiny of value for money. I understand that the Government are considering the outcome of their consultation.

Michael Fabricant: Although I am quite a fan of the BBC—I do not expect any cheers for that—I believe that no organisation should be its own judge and jury. Given my belief that Ofcom should have greater powers over the BBC, similar to those it has over commercial broadcasters, what is my hon. Friend going to do about making sure that the National Audit Office has full powers of investigation into the BBC?

Sir Edward Leigh: That is an excellent question. I am proud that when I was Chair of the Public Accounts Committee we forced the BBC to accept, for the first time, that the NAO should do value-for-money accounts. There has been no complaint since then that the PAC has ever involved itself in any editorial decision whatsoever. The fact is that the BBC is a public body. It taxes everybody and has to be held to account. The Comptroller and Auditor General must be given full financial powers to go into the BBC and hold it to account for value for money.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I beg the hon. Gentleman not to get carried away with the vendetta against the BBC that is being carried out by the Murdoch press and members of the Conservative party? The Public Accounts Committee has an honourable heritage of being fair minded, and I hope it will keep to that.

Sir Edward Leigh: May I say absolutely clearly that the PAC will not get involved in any “vendetta” against the BBC? This is simply about value-for-money inquiries. For instance, the Comptroller and Auditor General, who certainly is completely outside politics, has expressed in public his concerns about the current arrangements. He does not have a statutory right of access to information. His staff are entirely dependent on what information the BBC chooses to give them in answer to their questions. His reports are badged with the BBC logo and they are

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always prefaced by a preamble prepared by the BBC Trust. The fact is that the BBC is a public body. It must be like other public bodies and held to account for value for money.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Long ago I used to do auditing of companies, and it seems to me that the BBC would be a prime target for that. Is not my hon. Friend surprised that the BBC has not requested that the National Audit Office gets involved?

Sir Edward Leigh: It is not for me to question what goes on inside the mind of the BBC. All I can say is that there is general consensus that we must move forward into the modern age and the BBC must be like all other public bodies, and that this Parliament, through our Public Accounts Committee, must have full financial oversight so that we have a well-run organisation that uses public moneys efficiently.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Funeral Charges

3. Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effect of funeral poverty on fees paid for funerals. [902010]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): The clergy witnesses at first hand the trauma when a family feel unable to give due recognition to a loved one. The Church does all it can to keep funeral costs down. A simple funeral in a Church of England parish church would cost a family between £200 and £300, depending on the style of burial.

Valerie Vaz: I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer and welcome her to her place. Is she able to provide an estimate—if not now, in writing—of whether the write-off that some parishes are able to make for funerals is going up or down?

Mrs Spelman: I do not have the details, but I am more than happy to write to the hon. Lady.

Jeremy Pemberton

4. Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): How much the Church of England has spent on the employment tribunal involving Jeremy Pemberton; and if she will make a statement. [902011]

Mrs Spelman: I am unable to answer the question about the cost of that case, because it is still litigation in progress and we are currently in the period when the claimant may appeal the tribunal’s decision.

Mr Bradshaw: I very much hope that the claimant does appeal. Do we not have a right as members of the Church of England to know exactly how much our Church has spent in our name to persecute this excellent priest? He has been stopped from being a hospital chaplain, a job which by all accounts he did superbly,

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because of the discriminatory approach of the Church of England. Particularly when we are celebrating the democratic election of the first openly gay, married priest to the General Synod, this is a ridiculous situation.

Mrs Spelman: I come back to my point that the litigation is still in progress, and at the moment there is therefore no definitive sum that I can make transparent in the House. This is an ongoing matter. The Church Commissioners do not seek to incur legal bills, but the action was initiated by the litigant in this case. It is important to say that there will be a variety of views in the Church of England on the doctrine of marriage, and the Church has encouraged a conversation within the Church about that.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): The Church of England has made many strides forward in the acceptance of gay unions among its clergy, especially in the acceptance of civil partnerships. As we have heard, despite that evolution, there are clear discrepancies in how the Church treats gay clergy who enter into a civil marriage. Will the right hon. Lady therefore speak to Church leaders to resolve such matters so that gay clergy do not feel discriminated against when it comes to practising their faith by devoting their life to God, while also marrying the person they love.

Mrs Spelman: In respect to the specific case referred to in the question, the employment tribunal’s findings are known: it did not find in favour of Canon Pemberton. As I mentioned earlier, the important point is that the bishops themselves have initiated a two-year process of conversations about the Church’s approach to human sexuality. That process is underway, and it is for all of us to be involved with it.

Public Accounts Commission

The hon. Member for Gainsborough, representing the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Kids Company

5. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the work undertaken by the National Audit Office on the charity Kids Company. [902012]

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The Public Accounts Commission’s role is to assess the overall effectiveness of the NAO, not that of individual reports. I note, however, that the NAO conducted this investigation very rapidly—in about six weeks—to support timely parliamentary scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee of this important subject earlier this week.

Mr Hollobone: What did Ministers do wrong in relation to Kids Company, and how will the lessons learned be applied in future?

Sir Edward Leigh: As Chair of the Public Accounts Commission, it is not my job to sit in judgment on Ministers. I would say, however, that the Public Accounts

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Committee and the NAO have moved very rapidly on this matter. They have had records from Departments going back 15 years, and they are producing a report as quickly as they can. Sadly, Kids Company has gone into receivership, so the NAO has not had access to any of the records held by it.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Carbon Footprint

6. Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): What progress the Church Commissioners have made on their commitment to reduce the Church of England’s carbon footprint by 40% by 2020. [902014]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Mrs Caroline Spelman): Five years ago, the Church of England made a commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 80% by 2050, which is the same as the Government’s objective. Its interim target is 40% by 2020, and that has almost been reached already.

Dr Cameron: The director of investments of the Church Commissioners has co-signed a letter to the Chancellor outlining concerns about future renewables investment resulting from unsupportive Government policy. What steps are being taken to address those serious concerns?

Mrs Spelman: The Church Commissioners have applied an ethical investment strategy to all their investments. As a result, the Church has withdrawn from investment in tar sands and other polluting forms of fossil fuel. The Church believes you must practise what you preach. In talking to the Government, it is itself demonstrating its commitment to tackle climate change.

Memorial Service: Civilians Killed in World War 2

8. Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Whether the Church of England plans to introduce an annual national memorial service to honour British civilians killed during the second world war. [902016]

Mrs Spelman: As we approach Remembrance Sunday, this is an excellent time to remind hon. Members that during the remembrance service on Sunday, which we will no doubt all attend, there is a prayer that specifically relates to the suffering of civilians in the war. Coventry Cathedral is a national entity for recognising the suffering and loss of civilians, and other churches around the land recognise the loss particularly of civilians during the second world war.

Robert Neill: My constituent George Taylor, who attends the Church of the Annunciation in Chislehurst, lost his mother and his young brother among 160 people killed when a V2 bomb fell on a shop in south-east

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London. It is perfectly right that we remember civilians on Remembrance Day, but equally, we want a special day to remember our armed forces and their dedication in all wars. Could we consider putting the work being done in individual churches and with the prayer on a more systematic basis, and could we also consider some further physical memorial in which the Church might play a part?

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Mrs Spelman: I invite my hon. Friend to look at the example of a church in Kennington Park, Lambeth, which unveiled a memorial in 2006 to those who had died in the blitz. In a single bomb attack, 100 people died. Perhaps his constituent and the churches in New Cross could look at whether they can achieve something similar in memoriam.

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10.35 am

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab) (Urgent Question):To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the release of political activists and human rights ahead of the elections in Burma on 8 November.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (James Duddridge): I thank the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for raising this matter at this important moment for Burma. Burma goes to the polls this very Sunday, which is possibly the most important democratic opportunity for the country in over 50 years. Credible, inclusive and transparent elections would represent a huge step in consolidating Burma’s transition towards democracy, but we are under no illusions that the elections will be perfect. More widely, the human rights picture remains extremely troubling.

As the hon. Lady’s question suggests, political prisoners remain a great concern in Burma. We have welcomed the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners under the Burmese Government’s scheme, following President Thein Sein’s commitment in 2012 here in London to release all political prisoners. However, that commitment remains unfulfilled. We are concerned about the continued arrest, detention and sentencing of political activists in the lead-up to the elections on Sunday.

We are concerned about the estimated figure that a minimum of 96 political activists remained behind bars at the end of September 2015, according to the most recent statistics we have, and that 460 more people have been detained under repressive laws and are awaiting trial following their arrests throughout 2014 and 2015. As the hon. Lady will be aware, they can campaign politically while undergoing a trial procedure. The arrests of activists and candidates for engaging in peaceful protests and social media posts—people such as Patrick Kum Jaa Lee and Chaw Sandy Tun—raise particular concerns over the freedom of expression in the lead-up to the elections.

More widely, we continue to have many serious concerns about the human rights situation in Burma, particularly the appalling situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine state. Thousands of people remain housed in supposedly temporary camps following the violence in 2012, when they were forced from their homes. The situation in the camps is desperate and worsening. We will continue to hold the Burmese Government to account. Most recently, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), raised these concerns with the Minister of the President’s Office when he visited Burma in July.

There has been an incredible amount of engagement on this issue, including the hon. Lady’s recent debate. I am happy to be in the House to add more flesh to that debate, particularly given that the elections are happening on Sunday.

Valerie Vaz: I thank the Minister for coming to the House and welcome him back. I appreciate that he is stepping in for the Minister of State, who told me that he would be in Luxembourg.

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The Minister mentioned that there are political prisoners. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based advocacy group, believes that there are many political prisoners and that more than 450 other people are awaiting trial. It says that the Burmese Government’s actions have intensified ahead of the polls, with the authorities continuing to lock up activists in the months leading up to the election. It stated:

“It is a great opportunity for the government to release all remaining political prisoners ahead of the election so that these people can participate in the historic polls… If the government really wants to move forward to democracy, no political prisoner should be behind bars.”

Father Thomas Htang Shan Mong, the director of the bishops conference’s justice and peace commission, has said that locking up activists contravenes basic social justice principles. He stated:

“Scores of political prisoners remain behind bars”.

He went on to say that

“the country has yet to move forward to democracy”

and that

“civil society groups…need to push for amending the draconian laws that attempt to silence activists.”

The Minister helpfully mentioned the case of Patrick Kum Jaa Lee who was arrested because he shared a photograph of a man wearing a Kachin-style longyi and stepping on a portrait of Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing. A woman was detained after she shared a satirical picture on social media, comparing Burmese army uniforms to a feminine longyi used by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Will the Minister say whether, ahead of these apparent free and fair elections, all activists awaiting trial and political prisoners are still in prison? He mentioned 96 prisoners, but perhaps he could update the House with another figure.

Large parts of Christian-majority Kachin state effectively remain in a state of civil war. More than 100,000 people have been displaced as a result of clashes, and they remain in temporary camps in Kachin and Shan states. The conflict shows that the Government have failed to deliver on their promise to end armed clashes in Myanmar before the vote on 8 November. In fact, only eight of 15 groups who participated in the national peace process were involved in the 15 October agreement. A Yangon-based political analyst said the fact that only some of the country’s armed ethnic groups have signed the agreement shows that it is more of a “cosmetic political show” than a historic benchmark, and stated:

“The peace process must be inclusive of all ethnic armed groups and the Government has not allowed some ethnic groups to be involved in the cease-fire agreement.”

Will the Minister update the House on whether the ceasefire agreement included all the ethnic groups, and will he say whether it is still in place ahead of the supposed free and fair elections on 8 November?

The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma said that the restrictions on rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association—including arrests and excessive force against protesters—put genuine elections at risk. Yanghee Lee said that there were worrying trends of undermining the democratic space, and a clear need for continued legislative and constitutional reform to bring the country’s legal framework in line with international human rights laws and standards.

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Given this country’s incredible investment in Burma, that is a matter of public policy. On Tuesday, Ben Rogers and Mark Farmaner updated us with their concerns about what is happening during the election, ahead of your historic round-table discussion in Speaker’s House, Mr Speaker.

Will the Minister ensure that he supports the United Nation’s call for all actors to work together to support further reforms in Burma? Given that a third of the population are from an ethnic minority background, internally displaced people and disenfranchised Rohingya people must all be part of that peace process to build a new nation that will encompass everyone after 8 November. Finally, will the Minister report back on this issue to the House?

James Duddridge: I thank the hon. Lady for those questions. It is totally unacceptable to imprison people in the run-up to the election, even if they are then freed, and particularly given that they cannot campaign under Burmese law. It is concerning that such things have happened, given that in 2012 the President asserted that political prisoners would be freed. Much progress had been made since that visit to London, but things have gone backwards recently. Getting precise numbers out of Burma is difficult. The figures that I gave in my opening remarks were the most recent, but they are on the low side and cover the people we know about. Anecdotally, we are receiving reports that more people are being arrested, and the trend is getting worse.

I believe that eight out of 15 or 16 groups have signed up to the ceasefire, and that the ceasefire is broadly still in place. If I have any more information, I will return to that issue. We will continue to work closely with the UN and the special rapporteur on Burma, both in country and in New York. On parliamentary engagement, over the past few months oral questions have been raised and the hon. Lady secured a debate in Westminster Hall. More than 60 questions have been tabled in this House and the other place, and we must maintain that communication and highlight the issue. Her Majesty’s Government will continue to report on this issue, in particular following the elections on Sunday.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): You very kindly hosted a round-table meeting on Burma earlier this week, Mr Speaker, to which the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) has already referred. In that meeting, I was shocked to hear of the wholesale disenfranchisement of the Rohingya people from the elections. Will the Minister update us on what representations have been made by Her Majesty’s Government on this specific issue?

James Duddridge: I thank my hon. Friend for his long-standing advocacy on this issue. When the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, visited Burma, he went first to Rakhine to look at the situation of the Rohingya people. They are oppressed and, in relation to the election, are being denied a democratic voice. The UK Government are deeply concerned about this issue. We have raised it on a consistent basis with the current Burmese Government and will continue to do so with any future Government.

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The position of the Rohingya people is unacceptable in the modern democracy Burma aspires to be and which we want to see.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for her urgent question, which follows on closely from her excellent debate on progress in securing better human rights and better elections in Burma. There is an enormous amount of interest across the Chamber and in the other place on this important question.

The people of Burma have faced decades of brutal oppression. In a few days’ time, they will have their first openly contested election in 50 years. This progress should be widely welcomed. The release of thousands of people, as part of a presidential prisoner amnesty in July, was an important step, too. In the previous prisoner amnesty that took place in October 2014, when thousands were released a few weeks ahead of Burma’s hosting two major international summits, there were reports of an upsurge in arrests and harassment of peaceful activists. Amnesty International states:

“Myanmar’s authorities have a track record of announcing prisoner amnesties...at politically opportune times. The government must prove that this is more than an empty gesture to curry favour ahead of the November elections”.

Will the Minister set out what steps have been taken by the UK and the international community to ensure that this will be a lasting amnesty?

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has criticised the electoral process, saying it has been less than totally free and fair and that the electoral commission has failed to deal with certain irregularities. Does the Minister share her concerns and has he raised them with the Burmese Government?

The Minister will be aware—it was raised in the urgent question—that the Rohingya and some Christian minorities are experiencing harassment and persecution. The Muslim minority are not classified as citizens and will not have a vote. Does the Minister agree that it is wrong that their voice will not be heard in this election? What efforts are being made to encourage the Burmese authorities not to follow this election, whatever the outcome, with arrests and harassment of peaceful activists who have been campaigning?

On Sunday, it will be for the Burmese people to decide their election. The whole House will be watching, looking on with hope that the election will be fair and free and that there will be a peaceful outcome that works towards greater human rights.

James Duddridge: The eyes of the world and this Chamber are certainly on the elections to try to ensure they are free and fair. The hon. Lady’s comments were very balanced, reflecting not only the fears that things might go wrong and the fact that we should flag up any issues with the election, but the optimism that this is arguably the biggest opportunity for free and fair elections in more than 50 years. It has been a brutal, brutal decade. I congratulate all Members, some of whom are in the Chamber today, and organisations such as Amnesty International, which she mentioned in her question, that have worked so tirelessly.

The Rohingya have no voice and cannot be heard. They do not have the vote that we take for granted. I suspect it troubles all hon. Members that so many of

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our constituents do not vote in elections, but they do have a voice indirectly. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, visited and spoke to the Rohingya, and we will continue to press, in the strongest possible terms, for their democratic participation. Sadly, it is too late for Sunday, but we can, I hope, build on a strong election this weekend and move towards future elections that include the minority Muslim Rohingya population, so that Burma can proudly say that its election results represent the whole population, not just the vocal majority.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a real pleasure to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box.

Burma has been of considerable interest to the whole House, including you, Mr Speaker, for many years. I think that hon. Members can be congratulated on what they have done. Will the Minister say how we actually influence what happens in Burma? How do the Government go about influencing change?

James Duddridge: Diplomacy is incredibly complicated. One thing I have learned in my short time at the Foreign Office is that sometimes softer diplomacy—the sort that you have exercised in relation to Burma, Mr Speaker—is among the most effective. When change does happen, as with the promise to release political prisoners in 2012, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly what was done and by whom. It is rather a menu of activity, including by campaign groups outside this place and individuals within this place.

From a ministerial viewpoint, it is important to raise the subject consistently and not to let short-term interests, be they regional or British, get in the way of our firmly raising an unacceptable situation. At the same time, however, other things carry on. The approach is about getting the right balance, focus and message, and it is having some success. It is encouraging to see the elections on Sunday, but we have concerns, and clearly we all need to do more.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): I thank the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for raising this important question at such a timely moment.

SNP Members, too, believe that this weekend’s national elections in Burma must be free and fair, but we have concerns about human rights and all citizens having a vote. Human Rights Watch yesterday identified concerns about the electoral process being

“undermined by systematic and structural problems including the lack of an independent election commission, ruling party dominance of state media, the reservation of 25 percent of seats for the military, discriminatory voter registration laws, and mass disenfranchisement of voters in some parts of the country.”

It also noted:

“Election observers planning to monitor polls are challenged by limits on resources and training. Civil society monitors have been active only one year and will cover less than one-third of all townships.”

Given these serious concerns, we urge the Government to press the Burmese Government to engage in progressive electoral reform and to take every opportunity to raise these important issues in their communications with them.

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James Duddridge: I very much support the hon. Lady’s comments about encouraging greater progressive electoral reform. It would be anathema to us in this House to think that 25% of the seats in this Chamber might be filled by military generals. This is not something recognised as part of a modern democracy. While we have issues with our media in the UK, it would be fair to say that Burma needs to do a lot more in that regard.

On the structure of the elections and the election commission, again more work could be done on future elections, but the EU did deploy an extensive election observer mission—more than 100 people went there, some on a short-term basis and some, crucially, on a long-term basis, to witness the preparations and understand exactly what was happening in the run-up to the elections. The deputy chief observer is a British national, which is something we should be proud of.

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con): I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) took this opportune moment to raise this important question. I also welcome the Minister back to this House; it is fantastic to see him here.

We have talked about the influence that Britain can bring to bear. A Facebook message I posted on the Burma Campaign UK has been seen by 147,000 residents of that country. It encouraged the people of Burma to go out and use their votes, despite their concerns about whether the election would be free and fair. Does the Minister agree that whatever the human rights situation in Burma, the only way to effect change in that country is to go out and vote as the people see fit? That is how to effect change and how Burma can move to becoming a more democratic country.

James Duddridge: I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me back to the House; I do not think I had the courtesy to welcome him to the Commons, but it is a pleasure to do so now. After hearing about his social media experience in relation to Burma, when I leave the Chamber I am immediately going to tweet a copy of my speech. It is clear that social media are picked up differently: people are not poring over their copy of Hansard, which might have been sent to them several days later, as some hon. Members might recall from their youth; social media allow people to access information speedily. I look forward to my hon. Friend re-tweeting me.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I wish the Minister well in getting 147,000 views for his speech! More seriously, he may want to respond now or perhaps in writing. In relation to the UN Human Rights Council universal periodic review recommendations, will he advise us what progress, if any, has been made on ensuring the independence of the judiciary; prohibiting the use of torture; ensuring that clear information is provided about the arrest and charging of political detainees; and ensuring that they have access to legal representation?

James Duddridge: I am more than happy to raise these issues with the UN special rapporteur—I understand it is not the only forum through which they can be raised—and will update the right hon. Gentleman on the success of that lobbying. As was pointed out earlier,

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this is a multi-pronged attack to try to improve the situation in Burma, and engagement with the UN is an important part of that.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): My hon. Friend said a little earlier that Burma has regressed from 2012. I am wondering what travel advice the Foreign Office gives to people considering going to Burma from the United Kingdom for holidays and recreation.

James Duddridge: I would advise anyone thinking of travelling to look at the Foreign Office website for travel advice, particularly if they are going to places such as Burma where a significant event is happening on Sunday. Travel advice can change very quickly around the world. I spoke to consular staff yesterday on a number of issues, and I know that our consular support is some of the best in the world. The advice provided on the website is bang up to date and easily accessible; if things change on an hour-by-hour basis, that is the right place to look.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I, too, welcome my very good hon. Friend back to this place. I very much look forward to working with him on Zimbabwe, in which, as he knows, I have a very keen interest. As you may know, Mr Speaker, the Minister’s parents-in-law used to live in my constituency and one was a councillor in Plymouth.

On my way to work this morning, I heard on the radio that the military in Burma was suggesting that if Aung San Suu Kyi should end up winning this election, it would not allow her to become President. Will my hon. Friend comment on that? He may not have heard this news.

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James Duddridge: I thank my hon. Friend, whose lobbying on Zimbabwe knows no bounds. He has raised the issue with me five times in four days, Mr Speaker, and now he raises it on an urgent question on Burma—and gets away with it! That is great advocacy.

Aung San Suu Kyi stood as a Member of Parliament in 2012 and was elected. She is standing again in the election on Sunday, just as a Member of Parliament would do here before taking a position in government. The Government in Burma will need to be formed by February. There are constitutional bars that will make it difficult for her to take up the role of President—specifically, the constitution states that anyone with any offspring who maintain non-Burmese passports cannot be President. That provision was inserted specifically to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from taking the presidency if she were democratically elected.

Normally, the United Kingdom Government strongly support the constitutions of sovereign nation states, but in this case the constitution simply does not follow the democratic principles that we should be encouraging the people of Burma to move towards. I do not know whether a balance can be found between 8 November and February, but I noted Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement that she intended to govern if she was victorious and if the National League for Democracy had a workable majority. I think that, regardless of the constitution, people should take note of the democratic will of the people in Burma.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Minister for his response to the questions—and, indeed, for his initial statement—and I join colleagues in warmly welcoming him back to the House. I also thank all colleagues for taking part in that series of exchanges.

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Human Rights (Egypt)

11 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)(Urgent Question : To ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on the visit of President el-Sisi of Egypt and the human rights record of his Government, and, in particular, their use of the death penalty.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): The Prime Minister invited President Sisi to the United Kingdom because it is in Britain’s interest to help Egypt to succeed as a stable, prosperous and democratic country, and to boost our strong commercial relationship. The Prime Minister will meet President Sisi today and will discuss a range of issues, including how to combat terrorism and counter-extremism in Egypt and the region, and how best to help Egypt to succeed as that stable, prosperous and democratic country.

It is no secret that we want to see more political progress in Egypt. We want to see better protection of Egyptians’ constitutional rights, freedom of expression, and more space for non-governmental organisations and civil society. These rights and freedoms are essential to Egypt’s long-term stability. However, megaphone diplomacy is not the way for us to succeed in putting our views across effectively. Instead, we need to treat each other as real partners, and to have frank and honest conversations. This visit gives the Prime Minister an opportunity to emphasise his desire to see more political progress in Egypt, including progress on human rights and political freedoms, which are essential foundations for long-term stability.

We welcome Egypt’s current parliamentary elections as an important step towards the restoration of its legitimate institutions. By representing the Egyptian people, legislating, and holding the Government to account, the new Parliament should have a vital responsibility in building a more secure, prosperous and democratic country. Through our own conflict stability and security fund, we are working with officials from the Egyptian Parliament to help prepare it for the new session, and look forward to continuing that co-operation after the elections.

Since President Sisi was elected in May 2014, we have raised concerns over a number of human rights issues, including the large number of death sentences and the prosecution of international journalists. The United Kingdom respects the independence of the Egyptian judiciary, but we remain concerned about judicial processes that result in mass sentences, and by reports of a lack of due process in Egypt’s courts in some cases. Those factors damage the reputation of Egypt’s judiciary, and undermine international confidence in the fair application of law. The United Kingdom opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, as a matter of principle.

We have raised concerns, and will continue to do so, at ministerial meetings and in the United Nations Human Rights Council. We hope that this visit to the United Kingdom will provide an opportunity for us to hold an open dialogue on all issues, and to develop a programme of practical co-operation for the future.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for that statement.

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The Minister will be aware of a range of human rights concerns in relation to Egypt—he has mentioned many of them today—including the detention and condemning to death of ex-President Morsi and the fate of Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, a student from Cairo sentenced to three years in prison for announcing on Facebook that he was an atheist, thereby “insulting Islam”.

The UK Government’s position on human rights also appears to be weakening. Asked whether human rights was now one of their “lower-priority activities”, Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the FCO, replied:

“Well, answering as permanent secretary, I say that although it is one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities…I would not dispute that right now the prosperity agenda is further up the list”

of priorities. Will the Minister take this opportunity to confirm that the UK Government are not downgrading human rights in favour of trade ?

Will the Prime Minister raise directly with President el-Sisi the case of Ibrahim Halawa, the Irish teenager who may be subjected to the death penalty? My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) met his sisters yesterday. Will the Prime Minister raise the cases of the different faiths suffering persecution in Egypt, including the Coptic Christians, for instance, who are experiencing kidnappings, arson and attacks on their churches? Finally, will the Prime Minister have that frank and honest conservation with President el-Sisi today and press him to commit to an end to the death penalty, political detentions, mass trials and torture in Egypt?

Mr Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman raises a number of very important issues and many of them will be raised by the Prime Minister and when I have the opportunity to meet the President and Foreign Minister Shukri. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned up front the question of the priority Britain places on human rights, so let me clarify the remarks of Simon McDonald. It is now our view that we raise human rights as a matter of course—it is not instead of; it is part of the package. It is part of the process, so that every time I—or the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) —go into a meeting, we raise these matters. They are part of the broad area of concerns that we raise, along with the prosperity agenda.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the trial of President Morsi. We have raised concerns about the legal process in that case, along with others that I have mentioned. The legal process is yet to be complete, but as I said in my opening remarks, we have concerns about the roll-out of these mass trials and the need to meet international standards.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned specifically Ibrahim Halawa. Foreign Office officials have raised the matter this summer. The Irish Government are taking the lead, but we are in touch with them.

Let me end on the importance of the prosperity agenda. In order to ensure that countries are able to take the necessary steps of reform, and particularly after the decade of turbulence that Egypt has endured, it is important that there are jobs, as that provides stability and denies the space for extremism to flourish. It is absolutely right that we press human rights matters,

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but we are also very forward-thinking in our work to assist Egypt in a variety of sectors. Indeed, the largest company operating in Egypt is a British company: Vodafone.

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I agree with the Minister’s definition of Britain’s interests in our relationship with Egypt, but conducting diplomacy often requires some rather ugly compromises of our values. I accept that practical engagement with Egypt is essential; it is the largest country in the Arab world by some distance. Some would claim that in 2013 the then General Sisi and the military reclaimed stability and security for Egypt by removing President Morsi and his Administration from office, but no one should be in any doubt about what the price has been. Possibly thousands of people were killed when the squares were cleared, 40,000 are in prison, we have seen death penalties being handed out in batches of several hundred, and many of us will have heard first-hand testimony of people being tortured in the Egyptian justice system. I am not entirely sure that inviting President Sisi to the United Kingdom is wholly appropriate until such issues are properly addressed and there is some accountability for the conduct of the operation of 2013 and of policy since.

I accept that it is absolutely necessary for us to engage with the Egyptian Government in policy terms, and to try to give them advice privately about the possible danger they are presenting to us through the scale of the suppression, which could have the effect of widening the insurgency they face and increasing support for the most extreme Islamist jihadism in the region. It has been reported that the Foreign Office was not exactly enthusiastic about this visit, and that the decision was taken in No. 10. I wonder whether the Minister would like to comment on all that.

Mr Ellwood: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his statement. I am not sure whether he was speaking as an individual—in fact, I hope that he was speaking as an individual and not as the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, because I am not sure that the Committee would be in synergy with everything that he has said. On his last comment, I can tell him that the Foreign Office is very much in support of the visit.

My hon. Friend began by explaining the difficulties that Egypt is facing at the moment, and I absolutely agree with him. Egypt is in a very difficult neck of the woods, given the problems that we are facing in Libya and in Gaza. He also mentioned that Egypt was the largest Arab country in the region, and where Egypt goes, other countries often follow. It is therefore important that we help it to take those important footsteps towards being an open, democratic place. The Prime Minister invited President Sisi to this country precisely so that we can have a frank dialogue on a range of issues, including the very matters that my hon. Friend has just raised. We want to encourage a prosperity agenda, but we also want to emphasise the importance of political reform. That is the way in which we can help Egypt to succeed in taking steps towards being a stable, prosperous and democratic place.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for raising this important issue.

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I should also like to thank the Minister for his response, and in particular for setting out the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s current approach to human rights. When the original demonstrations took place in Tahrir Square in January 2011, the Egyptian people had a great sense of hope and expectation for a better future. Events since then have dashed those hopes, but we all want to see stability in Egypt and the wider middle east.

The House will be only too aware of the terrorist threat in Egypt, given the possible cause of the Russian plane crash, but does the Minister think that security will be furthered by the mass arrests and trials that we have seen since President Sisi seized power? Amnesty International assesses that tens of thousands of people are currently being detained in a crackdown on dissent that has targeted alleged supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood as well as human rights activists, journalists and perceived opponents of the Government. Has the Minister received assurances that British and other journalists are free to operate in Egypt?

Mass trials have resulted in courts handing down death sentences, including on former President Morsi, and long prison sentences. What assessment have the Government made of the fairness of those trials, given the concerns that have been expressed about the lack of proper legal representation and the wholly inadequate opportunities to present a defence? There are also reports of torture being used against those being detained, including the use of sexual violence against women. Has the Minister seen those reports and, if so, what representations have been made to the Egyptian Government?

The Minister said that the Prime Minister would be raising a range of issues with President Sisi today. Can he confirm that the Prime Minister will raise all those specific human rights issues with the President during their discussions? Will those discussions also cover the status of the Muslim Brotherhood in the United Kingdom, and if so, can the Minister tell the House when the review carried out by John Jenkins will be published?

Mr Ellwood: May I thank the hon. Lady for her observations and questions, and welcome her to her place? I look forward to further dialogue and exchanges. Her opening remarks contained much on which we can agree. First, we want to see a stable Egypt, and huge concerns have been expressed about the terrorism situation that the country faces, which has been underlined, not least, by the Russian plane incident—a statement and more detail will follow on that. She mentioned the concerns about the mass arrests, and my opening remarks showed that I concur with her. We are concerned about two laws: the protest law, which we do not want to see used to limit freedoms of expression and the rights contained in the new constitution; and the anti-terror law. Egypt is facing a terrorist threat, but the law must not be used to limit the rights and freedoms of normal people wishing to express themselves. She asked about the Muslim Brotherhood report, and I can tell her that its key findings will be published shortly. Finally, on the question of the agenda of the meeting with the Prime Minister, all I can say is that nothing is off the table.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): As Chairman of the all-party group on Egypt, along with the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), may I fundamentally

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disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and say to the Minister that we warmly welcome President Sisi’s visit? We think it is a tremendous opportunity for the United Kingdom to engage, for all the reasons that the Minister has set out. Does he agree that Egypt is an ally of ours and that it is a key component in bringing about regional stability, not least in the work it has done in trying to bring about a solution between Israel and the Palestinians? Does he agree that it is very important that the British Government provide their expertise in counter-terrorism, because Egypt is under serious threat and although human rights and democracy are of course vital— nobody in this House would disagree on that—stability in the region and stability in Egypt are nevertheless unquestionably a precondition to human rights?

Mr Ellwood: I very much welcome my hon. Friend to his position as chair of the all-party group on Egypt—

Sir Gerald Howarth: I am the chairman, not the chair.

Mr Ellwood: I stand corrected—I welcome him as the chairman of the all-party group on Egypt. I was personally involved in making sure that he and I, and other members of the all-party group, will have the opportunity, as parliamentarians, to meet President Sisi in order to raise many of the important issues that have been brought up today. He speaks appropriately about Egypt’s wider regional role and the responsibility it is taking to bring about peace and bring together parties. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), who is in his place, and I attended a meeting in Cairo as part of the Gaza donors conference to look at the humanitarian support—that was an initiative on the part of President Sisi. Finally, we are providing expertise to assist Egypt in defeating terrorism in the Sinai peninsula and elsewhere.

Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP): I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for bringing this important question to the House and the Minister for his answer. A stable Egypt is important for that country and is of course vital for the wider region, but we cannot support stability at all costs. We do not just have a humanitarian responsibility to the people of Egypt to stand up for human rights in their country; we also have an interest in promoting a fair and just country, because a fair and just Egyptian Government will create an inherently more stable Egypt. What assurances can the Minister give that the importance of human rights in Egypt will remain on the agenda for the discussions between the Prime Minister and the President today, given this morning’s reports that the UK Government’s decisions to suspend flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh will mean that the Egyptian Government are likely to be less receptive to discussions on wider issues of concern?

Mr Ellwood: I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her knowledge, interest and expertise in this area, but, as will become apparent when the statement is released—without wishing to take away from that statement—two separate issues are being conflated. There is an urgent security threat that affects flights, which is why flights

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have been temporarily suspended. That is quite separate from our commitment to encouraging advances in human rights laws and the prosperity agenda. I hope that the urgency of our having to deal with British citizens abroad and ensuring that they are secure does not affect the importance of the visit that is taking place.

Helen Whately (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that we need stronger relationships with countries in the middle east and that it is right that we are engaging in dialogue with President Sisi, as it is providing us with an opportunity to raise our concerns about human rights? As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said, stability in Egypt is vastly preferable to chaos both for people in the region and our own security.

Mr Ellwood: My hon. Friend articulates the exact question that many Governments have to ask themselves—how best do we influence and exert change in those countries that need encouragement to take steps forward to a more open and democratic space. One way of doing that is by shouting from afar in the hope that we can exact change. The other way to facilitate change is by engaging with those countries, having private conversations with them and providing assistance and expertise. I am afraid that that way is not so open or overt, but it is, I believe, a better way to achieve change than by shouting from afar.

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): I, too, commend the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for bringing this matter to the Floor of the House. In his comments, he suggested that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office may believe that democracy and respect for human rights are less of a priority than financial prosperity and stability. Does the Minister not accept that those priorities are the wrong way round? Any Government who are founded on democracy and respect for human rights will see that stability and prosperity inevitably follow. A Government who are founded on oppression and denial of human rights will never be stable and will never govern a prosperous country. Will the Minister assure the House that the FCO will review its priorities and will, in all cases, put democracy and respect for human rights at the top of its list of priorities?

Mr Ellwood: At the beginning of this year, I had the honour of taking 50 companies on a delegation to Cairo, and we visited the new Suez Canal as well. It was during the private meetings there that we were able to raise many of those issues. Companies will not invest in places if they do not feel secure and that there is an advancement in human rights, the rule of law and the judicial process. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I make it very clear that I never shy away from any opportunity in any country to raise concerns on human rights. It will not necessarily make the front pages of the local newspapers or even here, but I can guarantee that these matters are raised by us, by the Department for International Development and, where appropriate, by the Ministry of Defence.

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): Stevenage is home to the Coptic cathedral in England, and I am very concerned about the plight of Coptic Christians in

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Egypt. In the frank exchange of views that the Minister referred to earlier, will he ensure that religious freedoms and the plight of those Coptic Christians being kidnapped and murdered is raised with the President?

Mr Ellwood: I had an opportunity to visit one of the Coptic churches in Cairo, and I raised that very important matter of the minorities in Egypt. It will also be raised during President Sisi’s visit in the next couple of days.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): In July 2013, after the military coup, the then Foreign Secretary said that

“we cannot support military interventions in democratic processes.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 385.]

The new regime in King Charles Street seems to be taking a completely different tack. What has happened since that time is that the human rights record in Egypt has plummeted. The Minister knows that there was a trial in which 520 death sentences were issued after one hour, and 683 death sentences were issued without a single defendant being present. We do not hear about it, because 125 journalists are locked up. Does the Minister not understand that appearing to endorse President Sisi is likely to make people more engaged with radical terrorism than the other way round?

Mr Ellwood: I do not agree with the hon. Lady. President Sisi was elected and has had a referendum as well. The first round of parliamentary elections took place in October and the second round will take place on 23 November. That will provide additional scrutiny of what the Executive are doing. We take every opportunity to raise the issue of the mass arrests, as I said in my opening remarks; perhaps the hon. Lady did not hear that, but I am happy to send her a copy. In December 2013, 20 al-Jazeera journalists were arrested and we took every opportunity to make it clear that we had

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concerns about the manner of the arrests, not least because two Britons were involved. They were convicted in absentia and we are encouraging a full pardon to ensure that their names are cleared.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): What assessment has the Minister made of how effective the parliamentary elections in Egypt will be in tackling human rights and will the Prime Minister raise that in his discussions with President Sisi?

Mr Ellwood: The elections were well overdue and we are pleased that the first round has taken place, as I have just mentioned. This is a new Parliament. There is an awful lot of work to be done as it takes its infant footsteps in understanding how it, as a legislature, needs to hold the Executive to account. I am pleased that the Arab Partnership scheme and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and funds from the FCO will provide financial assistance to help train the Parliament and ensure that it is as effective as possible in holding the Executive and the presidency to account.[Official Report, 16 November 2015, Vol. 602, c. 4MC.]

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for all the work he is doing in this area, and I particularly encourage him to raise the question of human rights on every possible occasion. Will he also thank the Egyptian people, through their Government, for the hospitality they are giving to so many thousands of refugees from Syria? Egypt is not often mentioned in that context, but it is doing vital work in that respect.

Mr Ellwood: I concur with my hon. Friend. The work that perhaps goes unnoticed is the effort that Egypt is making to combat ISIL and terrorism in its own backyard; Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is a terrorism group in the Sinai peninsula that has pledged its allegiance to ISIL, making matters ever more difficult in that area. Egypt should be congratulated not only on its work to combat terrorism but, as my hon. Friend points out, on taking on numbers of refugees as well.

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Business of the House

11.27 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Grayling): The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 9 November—Remaining stages of the Scotland Bill.

Tuesday 10 November—Remaining stages of the Trade Union Bill.

Colleagues will wish to be reminded that the House will rise for the short November recess at the end of business on Tuesday 10 November and will return on Monday 16 November.

The business for the week commencing Monday 16 November will include:

Monday 16 November—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee. To follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

Tuesday 17 November—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [Lords] (day 2).

Wednesday 18 November—Opposition day (10th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 19 November—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee

Friday 20 November—Private Members’ Bills.

I remind hon. Members that Parliament week, which this year runs from 16 to 22 November, is a programme of events that seeks to connect people across the UK with parliamentary democracy. Organisations from across the UK are taking part and running talks, debates, walks and exhibitions in support of Parliament week. I know that Members on both sides of the House will wish to support activities in their constituencies as well as the institution as a whole.

Chris Bryant: On Sunday, we shall all stand with our heads bowed in memory of the fallen. I shall be in Ferndale, where the cenotaph had one name added just three years ago, that of former miner Private John Murray of 16th Battalion the Welsh Regiment, who enlisted in 1914 aged 17 and was killed in action along with 4,000 or so other Welshmen at Mametz Wood at the Somme two years later. We owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude, as we do to today’s serving personnel and veterans.

Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government’s plans to cut working tax credits will leave a level 1 private in the British Army, with two children, earning £18,000 a year, even including the increase in personal allowance and the free childcare, £2,000 a year worse off? Is it not a disgrace that the Government are letting down 28,000 of our soldiers like this? The Prime Minister yesterday and last week pointedly refused to guarantee that nobody will lose out when the Chancellor revises his plans on working tax credits on 25 November, so may I repeat my request for a three-day debate on the autumn statement so that we on the Opposition Benches

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and those on the Government Benches who are unhappy with the Chancellor’s proposals can properly scrutinise his plans?

This is national trustees week, so may we have a debate to celebrate the enormous contribution that so many people throughout the country make to the 10,000 or so local and national charitable trusts? I know that many right hon. and hon. Members do their bit for charities as well. The Leader of the House is an ex officio trustee of the National Portrait Gallery and we look forward to his portrait appearing there soon. Apparently, there was massive public demand. Five Members ran the London marathon this year, and I gather that the shadow Home Secretary is running next year. I have run three times, for Mind, for prostate cancer research and for the Army benevolent fund. The last time I ran, just as were getting to the final moments outside Buckingham Palace, I was rather depressed to be overtaken by two men dressed as custard tarts. It is probably not the first time an MP has chased a tart down the Mall.

That brings me to Movember, when we raise awareness of men’s health issues, including prostate and testicular cancer. I have mentioned this to the hon. Member concerned: has the Leader of the House noticed that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) has sprouted a nasty—sorry, natty; no, actually it is pretty nasty —moustache and is beginning to look like an extra in a 1970s Mexican porn movie? That is according to the hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly). I personally have never—well, maybe I have.

Earlier this week driving instructors in Pontypridd were informed that the local driving test centre is being closed by the Government, though so far not a single Government Department has managed to answer a question on this. Can the Leader of the House assure us that at least some driving test centres are going to stay open? I am beginning to worry that Ministers do not know the difference between an elegant three-point turn, a hasty U-turn and an illegal hand-brake turn. After all, on the issue of Channel 4 the Culture Secretary said categorically on 26 August:

“The ownership of Channel 4 is not currently under debate”,

but yesterday the Prime Minister made it clear that he is considering selling it off. Does he not realise that the only way Channel 4 would be worth selling is if it were stripped of its entire public service remit, and that would be a profound mistake?

That brings me to fracking in our national parks. Last week the draft Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations were considered in Committee, and eagle eyes have been trained on the Order Paper to see when they might appear for a vote of the whole House. These measures, I believe, will harm our world heritage sites and national parks, such as the north moors and the south downs, and will endanger drinking water protection zones and important wildlife sites, so will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a proper debate in the House? Will he tell us where the measure has disappeared to? Will he explain why the Department yesterday announced publicly a consultation on the very subject that is theoretically mid-passage through this House but did so without even bothering to tell this House?

On secondary legislation, have the Government learned nothing? They are pushing through enormous welfare changes via the Universal Credit (Work Allowance)

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Amendment Regulations, which will slash the work allowance from £9,000 to £5,000 and will provide a real disincentive to work for more than 12 hours a week. These regulations will not even get a 90-minute debate unless the Leader of the House allows it, so will he do so now, following on from early-day motion 620 tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and others?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Universal Credit (Work Allowance) Amendment Regulations 2015 (S.I., 2015, No. 1649), dated 7 September 2015, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10 September, be annulled.]

I know that the Government are tempted to emulate Guy Fawkes by blowing up the House of Lords, but can he clarify that these measures are not in a money Bill and could not be in a Finance Bill, and that therefore their lordships are perfectly entitled to vote on them, even if we are not allowed to?

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), have been campaigning to end the scandal of gay conversion therapies. As the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) said in the debate he secured on the subject in Westminster Hall earlier this week:

“Being gay is not a disease, it is not an illness...Not a single medical body supports the concept of a ‘gay cure’.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2015; Vol. 601, c. 300WH.]

Will the Government please now move to end conversion and aversion therapies?

Incidentally, I urge the Leader of the House personally to backtrack—whether a hand-brake turn, a U-turn or whatever kind of turn, but turn he must—on something he said last week. Speaking about the Freedom of Information Act, he said: