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Westminster Hall

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2006

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 28 June 2006

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Antisocial Behaviour

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]

I thank Mr. Speaker for granting this debate on the important issue of antisocial behaviour, which continues to affect the lives of many of our constituents up and down the country. The Government are to be congratulated on making it clear from the start, in 1997, that antisocial behaviour would be tackled with the utmost determination. My concern—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but I gave a commitment before the start of proceedings that I would alert hon. Members to the fact that Mr. Speaker has given a dispensation for male Members to remove their outer garments while sitting in this Chamber during this term of Parliament. That dispensation will be annulled once we return to the original Chamber for these proceedings after the summer recess. Those who wish to divest themselves of their outer garments may do so now. I apologise again to the hon. Lady. Perhaps she should start her speech again.

Thank you very much, Mr. Cook. I am pleased to see evidence of the relentless progress of modernisation.

My concern is to examine how we can take preventive action to tackle the root causes and how to use antisocial behaviour orders most effectively. We need not only to be tough on antisocial behaviour but to address its causes.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his lecture in Bristol last Friday, rightly emphasised the importance of putting rehabilitation at the heart of the law and order system. He said that offenders should be

“given not just a sentence but an appropriate process for sorting their life out”.

The earlier that process begins, the better. It is much better to prevent someone from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

Effective intervention at an early stage to change the behavioural patterns of some of our young people and prevent their behaviour from escalating into a life of crime is essential. An integrated approach to the problem—a mix of care and control, carrot and stick—to improve the outcomes for both the young person and the community in which they live is necessary. Before I was elected as an MP in 1992, I worked as a social worker with children and families. Agencies have always taken that dual approach to the behaviour of dysfunctional families. There have always been, and there always will be, debates about how much care and how much control there should be, but both are essential.

I fully support antisocial behaviour orders as a method of controlling persistent antisocial behaviour, which can have a devastating effect on the lives of communities and put young people themselves at risk. As my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, most ASBOs—54 per cent.—are applied for and issued on criminal conviction. At that point, a pattern of criminal behaviour has often been well established. Criminal behaviour such as taking and driving cars and burglary is almost always accompanied by antisocial behaviour, so applying for and issuing ASBOs at that point is the right course of action.

Today, however, I shall concentrate on stand-alone ASBOs—the other 46 per cent. Those applications are made specifically to deal with antisocial behaviour, although the offenders may already have previous criminal convictions. With proper intervention accompanying the control offered through an ASBO, there is an opportunity to prevent young people from embarking on a life of crime.

The hon. Lady raises an issue that is important to all MPs, so I congratulate her on securing the debate. She has talked about identifying the causes of antisocial behaviour and about early intervention and prevention so that the kids do not go down the line of hard criminal activity. Alcohol is a major cause of antisocial behaviour on the streets and bad behaviour in children. Police can use the under-age drinking laws introduced in 1997 to take the alcohol from the children, but those laws also allow the police to involve the parents at that stage, so that they know what behaviour the children are getting involved in and can intervene if possible. We know that some kids do not have two parents, and that is a problem. Would the hon. Lady encourage police forces not only to take the alcohol from the children but always to bring the parents in, make it uncomfortable for them and ensure that they know about their responsibility to take early action so that their children do not get into the criminal justice section in the first place?

I entirely agree. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the earliest possible intervention. Of course, if the first agency to become involved in cases of alcohol misuse is the police, it is important that they then involve other agencies to stop that alcohol misuse from becoming a persistent problem.

If we go beyond the informal intervention that the hon. Gentleman was talking about, I would argue that intervention should also be by the use of individual support orders—ISOs—which are designed to tackle the underlying causes of a young person’s antisocial behaviour before they begin to offend or to offend persistently. ISOs have the authority of the court, agencies have to provide the intervention detailed in the order, and the young person is aware that there are penalties for non-co-operation, unlike with the informal acceptable behaviour contracts.

ISOs were created under section 322 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 for 10 to 17-year-olds who are subject to ASBOs. They are civil orders and became available on 1 May 2004. They can be attached only to stand-alone ASBOs, not to ASBOs that are applied for and issued on criminal conviction. ISOs are intended to supplement the prohibitions of ASBOs with targeted positive requirements. For example, the order can require counselling for substance misuse or behavioural problems. Orders may last up to six months and can require a young person to attend up to two sessions a week. Breach of the order without reasonable excuse is a criminal offence.

I must declare an interest as a member of the supplemental list of Coalville magistrates court. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is she a little disappointed by the number of individual support orders that have been used since May 2004, given that courts have a duty to use them in appropriate cases if they believe that they will head off further antisocial behaviour? That might be related to training, and I am pleased that the Judicial Studies Board is reviewing the training of magistrates to ensure that they are aware of their powers. When I was on the bench, people used to criticise the magistrates, and would ask why they did not do x, y and z. The training was not always up to date. Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, and does she hope to see the wider use of ISOs as the months and years roll by?

I entirely agree that for the take-up of ISOs to improve we must make all agencies aware at a local level of their value, but we must also, when a civil ASBO is applied for, encourage magistrates to consider carefully whether an ISO should also be attached. I hope that the Minister will encourage that when he responds, and will suggest how he will make magistrates more aware of the orders and how that will be incorporated in their training.

The making of an ISO is mandatory when the court considers that the criteria for doing so are met. The criteria are that an ISO would be desirable in the interests of preventing further antisocial behaviour, that the defendant is not already subject to an ISO and that arrangements to implement ISOs are available in the local area. There is no formal procedure for applying for an ISO. The court can decide to impose one, or the complainant might request one in conjunction with an ASBO. It is disappointing that of the 789 stand-alone ASBOs issued on application between May 2004 and the end of September 2005, only 31 had an ISO attached—that is only 4 per cent. Given that the ISO is a constructive measure, imposing on a young person positive conditions that tackle the underlying causes of their antisocial behaviour, it is difficult to see how the conditions for making an ISO were met in only 31 of the 789 cases. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on why ISOs are not being applied for more frequently, when the making of an order is mandatory.

When talking to people about this, I have received the impression that there is some confusion about the criteria for an ISO. Some believe that it cannot be applied for if a young person is already the subject of another order, which might explain the low numbers. Many of those subject to an application for a stand-alone ASBO might already have existing orders, such as a referral order, as a result of criminal convictions. Will the Minister confirm that the existence of another order does not mean that an ISO cannot be made?

It is interesting to examine where ISOs have been issued and how they have been used. In great swathes of the country, including major cities such as Bristol and Birmingham, no ISOs have been attached to ASBOs. Of the 146 stand-alone ASBOs issued in Greater Manchester to children aged between 10 and 17 between May 2004 and September 2005, only four ISOs were attached. In London there have been only four: two in Camden, one in Newham and one in Southwark. The area that has issued the largest number of ISOs is Great Yarmouth, where there have been six.

Examining one of the case studies from Great Yarmouth gives some idea of the positive value of ISOs. It involved five unruly boys from two families, who constantly disrupted neighbours by screaming, shouting and playing football on the balconies of their flats. They shouted at neighbours when challenged and banged sticks on neighbours’ windows and doors. Residents endured that for a year, and the boys were eventually given ASBOs with ISOs attached. The local council’s housing department, the police and Norfolk youth offending team, which devised and administered the ISO, worked together. The order was successful and consisted of four two-hour sessions with the group of boys, held over the course of a month. The aims were to develop listening skills and victim empathy to help the boys understand the impact of their constant shouting and banging on them, their immediate family and their neighbours. The sessions also included social skills games, and discussions on leisure time activities and contact with youth groups. The Norfolk team was pleased with the result, and the situation has improved. Some of the boys took up recreational activities and found new ways to be active and entertain themselves. I am sure that, having heard that case study, hon. Members can understand the implication for resources.

I am not alone in being perturbed at the low take-up of ISOs. Both the social exclusion unit and the Home Affairs Committee have expressed concern, and many other organisations have called for ISOs to be used more readily. In November last year the social exclusion unit produced a report entitled “Transitions: Young Adults with Complex Needs”, which stated that

“the use of ISOs has been severely limited”

despite the fact that courts are obliged to grant one

“if they take the view that it would help prevent further anti-social behaviour.”

The next section of the report is worth quoting in full, as it raises the idea of making ISOs automatic in order to overcome that poor take-up.

Are there not three other reasons for the low take-up? One is the that the length of ISOs is capped at six months, and some aspects of diversionary training and support need longer. Secondly, local authority social services departments do not always provide sufficient resources to contribute towards the funding. Thirdly, there is the attitude of the middle-market tabloids towards anger management or communication skills courses, which are dismissed as soft options and as the creation of social workers, without any understanding of their potential. Does my hon. Friend agree with those points?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and in particular with his point about tabloids not understanding the value of anger management courses and counselling in overcoming dysfunctional behaviour patterns that affect the person concerned and everybody with whom they come in contact. In fact, I sometimes think when I read the papers that anger is held up as something to be admired, rather than something that in many ways is a negative quality if used inappropriately.

The next section of the report says:

“More needs to be done to publicise and use ISOs as a means of addressing the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour, and consideration needs to be given to making the attachment of ISOs to ASBOs more automatic for young people. They are not a ‘soft option’—they sit alongside an ASBO and help to make sure that it works. Compelling the individual who is subject to an ASBO to attend services that can address the underlying causes of their anti-social behaviour will give the ASBO more of a chance of succeeding and provide a more sustainable solution to the anti-social behaviour.

An additional benefit of making sure that ASBOs are more often associated with preventative work would be to engage more local voluntary and community sector bodies in helping to support the drive against anti-social behaviour.”

I have been listening to the hon. Lady with considerable interest. I congratulate her not only on securing this debate but on the manner in which she is presenting her arguments. Does she agree that it is important not only to get volunteers to assist in the retraining—if that is the word—of people who are offending in the ways that she described but to have an audit afterwards to ensure that they have not regressed to the same bad old ways? She gave the example of the children on the balcony. I wonder whether six months later she would receive the same complaints again if she were the MP for the area.

I entirely agree that it is important to evaluate the outcomes of ISOs. I hope that the Minister will touch on that in his reply. It is important to know that legislation is successful in its intention, otherwise why bother?

The Home Affairs Committee report on antisocial behaviour published in April 2005 welcomed the introduction of ISOs and said that they usefully complemented the aims of ASBOs in preventing antisocial behaviour. The Committee was disappointed that take-up was not matching expectations.

Many organisations said that ISOs were potentially of great benefit. For example, the Magistrates Association said that they should be granted as a matter of course if magistrates are satisfied that they will help prevent repetition of the behaviour. The Local Government Association “warmly welcomed” them, arguing that the approach

“fits firmly with the LGA vision to reducing anti-social behaviour.”

The Committee expressed disappointment that social services departments and other key players such as local education authorities, the child and adolescent mental heath services and youth services were often not fully committed to antisocial behaviour strategies. It stated:

“Given the concerns expressed by the ADSS”—

the Association of Directors of Social Services—

“amongst others that the Government’s ASB strategy is too punitive, we are somewhat disappointed that social services are not making greater efforts to…support measures such as ISOs and Parenting Orders.”

I hope that the directors of the new children’s services that are being set up by local authorities will have a more positive approach.

Funding is a key issue. There was no initial funding for ISOs, and many organisations, including the Home Affairs Committee, complained that lack of cash was a barrier to take-up. A ring-fenced £500,000 was eventually made available in June 2005, more than a year after ISOs were introduced. I understand that the take-up was poor, but that could have been for a variety of reasons. The money came late, and often it takes time for knowledge about funding streams to spread. The ISO is new and we must remember that the use of ASBOs was slow to begin with, but has sped up in the past two years as their value has become fully appreciated.

In view of the criticisms of funding that the ring-fenced money for ISOs addressed, I am disappointed that it has proved short-lived and that the funding arrangements have changed. Funding for this financial year, and from now on, will be available through the £45 million uplift given to the Youth Justice Board as part of its prevention budget. That means that it now comes from a general pot of cash. Youth offending teams have been asked to submit plans to the Youth Justice Board for how they will spend their allocations from the preventive money.

I believe that the latest funding arrangements for ISOs will not help to increase their use. Because the money is not ring-fenced, ISO money will be in competition with other preventive work, much of which is informal and does not have the force of a court order behind it.

Given, I believe, that youth offending teams have not fully appreciated the value of ISOs as a preventive measure, it is likely that they will not see it as one of their preventive tools and will prefer to use the money on other projects. That seems to be borne out by the fact that of the 156 YOTs in the country only six have applied for specific money to resource ISOs.

If, for example, a court decided that it was appropriate to have an ISO that involved one-to-one counselling sessions with a trained therapist on an aspect of a young person’s behaviour, and funds had not been set aside, the resources would have to come from another part of the budget. That might not be a serious barrier to an ISO, if it cost about £1,500 to £2,500, especially at the beginning of a financial year. However, it might become a barrier as funds are used for other purposes.

Of course, nobody is happy about applying for orders that carry no resources, and indeed take from existing ones, be it those of the YOTs, the children’s service or the local primary care trust. Indeed, that argument, between local and national Government, is well-worn and has gone on down the years.

Furthermore, housing associations and other social landlords can apply for stand-alone ASBOs, to which courts can attach an ISO. It is likely that those applications will increase from social landlords under pressure from tenants to deal with antisocial neighbours and behaviour on their estates. If one of the criteria for granting an ISO is that the magistrate be satisfied that arrangements for implementing the order are available locally, how can he or she be satisfied if specific money has not been set aside and there is no transparency in the availability of that money?

This will be my final intervention.

My hon. Friend mentioned housing associations and registered social landlords. She might be interested to know that a very successful positive futures programme has been developed in North-West Leicestershire on the Agar Nook estate, a housing association area, and on the Greenhill estate, formerly a local authority area. Could courts not be obliged to divert young people in front of them on to those programmes, which are not always used by those young people who are at the greatest risk of antisocial behaviour? That is the problem. We need to make the two work together more closely.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the barriers to that is that the housing associations do not have specific resources and rely on those provided by other agencies. That is one of my arguments for how valuable ISOs are, because they mean that the other agencies have to provide the resources to support good projects such as those that he mentioned. Ring-fenced money nationally would have made that simpler, in the absence of ring-fenced money locally. I understand the arguments about local flexibility, but I am not very sympathetic when local flexibility creates a barrier to the implementation of excellent policies such as ISOs.

In each area of the country, there is a minority of young people who are the cause of most of the problems for themselves and others. Significant improvements could be brought about by changing the behaviour of that small number. That is where properly funded ISOs could play a far greater role. The impact of antisocial behaviour should not be underestimated. I receive many complaints from constituents, and only yesterday received an e-mail that said:

“How sad is it that our twins now ask us on a regular basis if ‘the yobs’ came last night. In actual fact they know that they have been on many occasions due to the large amount of beer bottles and cans that they see littering the area in a morning and are on some occasions woken up by the noise from the gangs of youths.

I know I speak on behalf of all the local residents when I say that we approach the Summer months with some considerable degree of trepidation (although the issues are by no means confined to the Summer months), knowing that to some degree or other we are going to experience this anti-social behaviour.

Our quality of life has been significantly eroded by what we are experiencing.”

I am sure that, having read out that e-mail, the hon. Lady will none the less accept that the vast majority of children in our constituencies are good kids, honourable and dignified children, with a great future, and the picture is spoiled by a small minority of yobs.

Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. It is also true that the small minority of youngsters who cause the problems are also at risk of being drawn into drugs and crime by other young people who prey on those more vulnerable than themselves. When we talk about antisocial behaviour, we should not forget that it is often caused by some young people against other young people. We should be aware that the problem is not an age thing. All of us who bring up children worry about who they will meet outside when they get to a certain age and start to be more independent. That is one of the reasons we want to make the community as safe as possible for everybody.

The children’s charity Barnardo’s has written to me to say it believes that the guidance for magistrates should be strengthened, with a presumption that an ISO should always be made. Barnardo’s says that courts should have to state specifically why an ISO would not be applicable. That is an attractive proposition. The charity also wants a legal requirement that any application for an ASBO on a child should be preceded by an assessment of their circumstances and needs that would be conducted by either a YOT or the relevant children’s services department. Barnardo’s has said:

“Of course we would rather see preventative measures used where possible to ensure that children do not go through a court process. However currently this is not always possible, and where supportive measures are available, such as the ISO, we would like to see them used.”

The Government are already doing much to support and protect the most vulnerable families. I recently visited the new children’s centre in Adswood and Bridgehall in my constituency and was impressed by the huge range of interventions that are being made by all agencies to improve the life chances of children in one of the most deprived areas in Stockport. For those young people in the area who have not received such early interventions and are at risk of becoming the prison population of the future, it is even more essential that preventive measures such as ISOs are used to their fullest potential.

I would therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do all in his power to encourage the use of ISOs, including reviewing guidance to magistrates and local authorities and, if necessary, sending a special letter to the YOTs to remind them of the value of ISOs. I would also like consideration to be given to making the ordering of an ISO automatic, which is an idea that Barnardo’s and the social exclusion unit have floated in the past. I would like close monitoring of the new funding arrangements to evaluate their effectiveness in encouraging a better take-up of ISOs. In particular, there should be evaluation of the difference in use in areas with and without specifically earmarked funds for ISOs in their current business plans.

If the take-up of ISOs is still disappointing next year, I would like the Minister to consider making some ring-fenced money available nationally. This is an excellent initiative and policy widely welcomed by a range of organisations that have both community safety and the interests of children at their heart. Let us work together to do all we can to support it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this morning’s debate. I shall be speaking as one of my party’s spokespersons on home affairs, but I also speak as a neighbouring Member of Parliament to the hon. Lady and a fellow Stockport borough MP.

I also compliment the hon. Lady on what we probably all thought was the thoughtful and considered approach she took in the speech while outlining her concerns. I do not think she will find much substantive difference between us as I support her general contention. I sympathise with her concerns over the issue for various reasons.

First, I am all too aware that in the hon. Lady’s constituency and in mine issues relating to antisocial behaviour are a key quality-of-life factor and local people care passionately about them throughout the borough of Stockport, which in addition to the her constituency includes both the Cheadle and the Hazel Grove constituencies and, indeed, part of the Denton and Reddish constituency. It is true to say that although the borough itself is a relatively safe place in which to live and work, we still have some way to go before any of us can be totally satisfied that we have the problems fully under control.

Secondly, I sympathise with the hon. Lady because, in her efforts to find and promote better ways of dealing with antisocial behaviour and people who participate in those activities, she has tacitly recognised the limitation of many Government policies in that area. Although ASBOs, around which so much Government policy and rhetoric seem to be based, have their place, it is clear that there is a problem with the huge failure rate—just under 50 per cent.—and continuing public concerns that they are at best a limited weapon in the fight against the nuisance of antisocial behaviour.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that dealing with antisocial behaviour both starts and ends with the parents?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and agree with that comment. We all need to do what we can to support parents to take more responsibility for and interest in the activities of the children when the children are not at home.

I shall take this opportunity to clear up an urban myth that has been cultivated in certain places, namely that the Liberal Democrats have never supported and still do not support ASBOs in principle. As I have said, they have their place and the hon. Member for Stockport will be aware that if we did not support them the local Liberal Democrat-controlled council in her area would not have issued more than 40 in recent times.

We have argued consistently as a party that ASBOs should always be used selectively and in conjunction with other methods of intervention to tackle the causes of the offenders’ behaviour. I fully support the hon. Lady’s position and support orders and the theory and rationale behind them. My party and I have been arguing for some years that Government policy has not adequately addressed the underlying causes of antisocial behaviour and that it has not dealt with the long-term issues. That is precisely why we have advocated, and indeed used, alternatives to stand-alone ASBOs, in particular acceptable behaviour contracts, commonly known as ABCs.

The hon. Lady will know that her local council has issued well over 100 ABCs, and in Stockport and beyond they are proven to have a higher success rate than ASBOs. I believe this success is down to the fact that they address, or at least attempt to address, the causes of antisocial behaviour. They are a more genuine attempt at rehabilitation than ASBOs and that is why they are more effective in dealing with offenders’ patterns of behaviour.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that ABCs are usually a contract with young people who do not have such an extensive history of antisocial behaviour, while ASBOs tend to be served on people after intervention with an ABC has been attempted? It is not a question of either/or but of having them all as tools that can be used to intervene at every level. ABCs are a good way of dealing with things, but, sometimes, with a small minority of young people they are not successful.

Yes indeed. It is important that the full range of these measures is utilised as and when appropriate. My point is simply that all these measures have a place, including ISOs, which I support. I am also talking about the attitude that prevails in certain councils—happily, not the one encompassed by my constituency and that of the hon. Lady—where there is almost an instinctive reaction to reach for ASBOs as the first measure to introduce in these situations. That probably is not terribly helpful.

It is in that respect that I believe Stockport has succeeded—at least partially—in tackling these issues. Indeed, the key reason that our local council has not applied for funding for ISOs is because it never issues an ASBO without also putting in place measures to deal with the underlying causes of an offender’s behaviour. I would, however, welcome the opportunity to join the hon. Lady in a campaign to try to ensure extra funding for Stockport’s community safety unit so that it can put into practice an even more comprehensive package of measures to intervene with offenders, particularly young people, to deal with the root causes of these problems.

I appreciate that this debate has not been called solely for us to discuss local, Stockport issues although I could happily do that for the remainder of the time available.

Before the hon. Gentleman finishes talking about Stockport, I have to say that I do not want to get into a discussion about whose responsibility it is, but I could equally argue that one of the issues locally may be that there needs to be increased awareness of the value of ISOs. Stockport made the decision about the resources it could allocate to them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the YOT in Stockport does an excellent job. I should also like to congratulate Steve Brown, the community safety officer, on his very good work.

Indeed, I would be pleased to pass on the hon. Lady’s congratulations to my constituent for his good work in Stockport and I accept her points entirely.

It is both interesting and sobering to note that only around 30 ISOs have been issued nationwide so far, despite being launched with the usual Government fanfare. The hon. Lady has probed the reasons why take-up has been relatively poor and she is right to do so. All the evidence I have seen, though, points to the fact that for ISOs to be more widely used, they should be applied to all types of ASBOs. Again, we are in substantive agreement there.

Early intervention is absolutely crucial and I support efforts being made to that end. In addition to early intervention, it must be clear to all agencies involved in the process that ISOs are an option that should be seriously considered and I would welcome any ministerial assurances this morning that magistrates, police, local authorities and social services are all aware of the possibility of putting orders like this in place.

However, we should not confine ourselves either to ASBOs or ISOs. Schemes associated with mentoring, involving members of the wider community in some sentencing, and more effective ways to combat bullying and truancy are all vital if we are serious about making a difference to our communities

Will the hon. Gentleman add to that list the need to provide facilities for young people of all age groups? Borough and local councils have a responsibility to ensure that there is a decent range of facilities for youngsters to enjoy so that they do not have to gather in massive groups on street corners at night, as happens in Canvey Island in my constituency.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. In fact, I shall move on to that issue swiftly.

If we are serious about dealing with antisocial behaviour and social exclusion, it is vital to tackle all the issues I have mentioned. By offering a less prescriptive minimum curriculum entitlement, as my party has suggested, schools could develop more imaginative programmes for young people, who would then remain within the school system, rather than being excluded from it and thus being tempted by antisocial and, in some cases, criminal activities.

For too long, youth services in local authorities have been treated as Cinderella services. We are now reaping the results of that neglect. We need to work more closely with young people to develop the right services for them and not concentrate solely on excluding them, as the Government sometimes appear to do.

Is the hon. Gentleman, like me, pleased that, as part of the youth matters agenda, money is being made available to each local authority in the land—including, I think, £500,000 to Stockport—over the next two years so that projects are developed that young people want? That work will be very much from a young person’s perspective; young people will be asked what projects they want to develop. It will help to provide an alternative for young people who say that there is nothing to do.

The hon. Lady again makes a reasonable point. She will know, as a fellow MP for the area, that Stockport borough council welcomes any extra grant it can get its hands on, and I am sure that it will put the money to good use.

If we are serious about reducing the fear of crime in our communities, we need a greater commitment to visible policing and more police officers on the beat. The hon. Lady will be all too aware of the funding crisis afflicting Greater Manchester police. According to the chief constable, we face the prospect of losing front-line officers. Our local situation highlights the fact that all the legislation in the world, including positive schemes such as the one we are talking about, is meaningless without the officers to enforce the laws.

It is important also to put on the record the fact that the overall strength of the police force in Greater Manchester has increased and an increasing number of community support officers are being employed. Brinnington is about to have four extra community support officers. I would not like the hon. Gentleman to give the impression that police officers are being taken off the streets when in fact the overall strength of the police force is being increased. Community support officers have been widely welcomed because they provide visible policing.

I again welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. She made her point in her usual effective way, but I note that she did not contradict my point that the chief constable of Greater Manchester police says that he faces the prospect of having to cut front-line services.

I would like to confirm the hon. Lady’s point. I had grave reservations about CSOs when they were introduced, but I accept entirely that I have been proved wrong. I am delighted with the effectiveness of those officers in my community. I am also delighted with the neighbourhood policing moves and the fact that we now see policemen back on bicycles. That is fantastic. However, I am still deeply concerned about the fall in the number of special constables. The Government should take more action to recruit more specials. The numbers have been halved over the past few years. We should make a particular effort in that respect, too. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and I agree with his point. I have not referred to PCSOs, but as the subject has been raised I will say that I recognise their valuable role. It is only one part of the core debate, but I say to the Minister that in the eyes of the community at large there is a credibility issue about PCSOs compared with straightforward police constables whom people know and recognise in the traditional sense. The Government need to do a little more—

I will give way to the hon. Lady for the last time, as I am close to finishing what I have to say.

It may be more of an internal issue within the police force, as I know that some police officers did not welcome PCSOs. It was very much a professional matter. From the community’s point of view, it is difficult to see the difference on the street between a police officer and a community police officer, because they are both in uniform. One has to look very carefully to see whether someone is a community police officer or a police officer.

I again welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention, but in my constituency residents seem to have no problem distinguishing between traditional police constables and PCSOs, as they wear distinctive badges on their uniforms. The frequent cry of some local residents is, “Well, we might see those”—PCSOs—“but we never see proper policemen.” As I am sure other hon. Members do, I try to explain that PCSOs are proper and legitimate officers making a valuable contribution.

I would be very happy if the PCSOs whom the hon. Gentleman’s constituents do not welcome were transferred to my constituency, where people do welcome them.

The hon. Lady makes her final intervention in a humorous fashion. I must make it absolutely clear that my constituents did not say that they saw them very often; nor do they ever see them on bicycles.

I reiterate my support for the hon. Lady’s cause. She displays a more thoughtful approach on these issues than some of her colleagues in the Government. All the evidence points to early intervention and support as key factors in ending the destructive patterns of behaviour in young people. ISOs can play an important role in that respect and I wholeheartedly welcome moves to extend their use.

On the whole, this has been a pretty consensual debate, with only one or two little controversial elements, which put this Chamber in an excitable mood.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on initiating the debate on the subject of ISOs, which we all agree are a very good idea. She wants the Government to take up initiatives to ensure that ISOs are effective, which is particularly important. I wait with considerable interest to see how the Minister responds in that respect.

The hon. Member for Stockport mentioned the Prime Minister’s Bristol speech. Once again, it was a fine example of good intentions, but delivery is all-important and this debate is about the delivery of ISOs. They are a very good idea, but how can we make them work?

As we heard, ISOs were introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. They allow positive conditions to be attached to ASBOs for 10 to 17-year-olds for up to six months, and they are designed to help to address the underlying causes of unacceptable and damaging behaviour by imposing preventive conditions on troubled young people.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) said, we are talking about a minority of young people. Years ago, I worked with the BBC in Northern Ireland during the troubles and it struck me then that only about 4 to 5 per cent. caused the troubles. The vast majority of people wanted a quiet life, which demonstrates what a thin veneer society can be. It needs just a few troublemakers—whether those involved in gangsterism or terrorism in Northern Ireland, or children causing a noise on an estate, as the hon. Member for Stockport described—to ruin the lives of many.

At this stage, I would like to make a general point. We are talking about ISOs this morning, but, in talking about antisocial behaviour, which we have been doing in a general sense, we should try not to demonise young people and remember that more than half of all ASBOs have been granted to adults. They are responsible for antisocial behaviour as well.

The Minister makes an important and interesting point that I hope people will note. It is indeed not just young people who are involved, but older people too. Again, however, it is a minority of adults and younger people who do not wish to ensure that society remains calm and do not have the respect for others that we expect. The other point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point made, is that parents also have a responsibility, and we should never forget that. He made that point in a number of telling interventions.

The principle behind ISOs is valuable. We should be tackling the root causes of disorderly behaviour, not just the symptoms. Both sides of the debate will agree with that principle, and we have heard that today. With that in mind, I would like to be able to say that the Government have made good use of ISOs since their introduction. However, as we have heard, that has not been the case.

As the hon. Member for Stockport said, only 31 ISOs have been issued since May 2004. That point was also made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). Over the same period, 789 ASBOs were issued to persons aged between 10 and 17. That means that ISOs were issued in only 4 per cent. of cases, which is a startlingly low take-up.

We have again heard some reasons for that, and the hon. Member for Stockport made some good suggestions on how to deal with the problem. I note, too, that she has been consistent on the issue, which she raised during Home Office questions last month. Following the somewhat lacklustre response from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, she said:

“It is disappointing…that so few applications have been made for stand-alone civil antisocial behaviour orders with individual support orders attached.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2006; Vol. 446, c. 688.]

Today, she has repeated that view, which gets to the heart of the matter. Until now, the take-up rate has been too low and too slow.

Under the guidance that the Youth Justice Board has produced since May 2004, a magistrates court making a stand-alone ASBO is obliged to impose an ISO where three conditions are met. The first is that doing so is

“desirable in the interests of preventing any repetition of the kind of behaviour which led to the making of the anti-social behaviour order”.

The second is purely technical, but the third, which is quite interesting, is

“that the court has been notified by the Secretary of State that arrangements for implementing individual support orders are available in the area”.

In other words, it is up to the Government to give the support that the courts need to make a difference.

I really cannot have the Government being blamed for that. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, all the YOTs in the country were asked to bid for the prevention money. What they bid for was down to them. Although I have issues with the Government for not ring-fencing the money, I do not argue that it was not made available. I query the use to which some of the YOTs have put that money.

The hon. Lady makes an important and interesting point. I would say that the amount of money available was finite, but it is like the lottery—people often complain that they have not had lottery money in their area, but it turns out that they never applied for it, so that has to be done first.

One cannot help wondering whether it is the lack of support from the Government that is responsible for the low take-up of ISOs. I take the hon. Lady’s point: the number of ASBOs has increased over recent years, so why have we not seen an increase in the number of ISOs? I know that the Minister will address that point when he replies.

The issue has not merely come out of the blue. A report was issued in November last year by the social exclusion unit that warned that although ASBOs are common, little use is being made of ISOs, which are intended to address the causes of poor behaviour. I do not want to pick on the poor Minister, but what has his Department been doing since the social exclusion unit made its report?

It is not all doom and gloom. The Home Office recently increased the funding available in 2005-06 to the Youth Justice Board to fund ISOs. That is a welcome step. There will also be a new training programme for magistrates this year—about time, too—which will include the important issue of ISOs. That, too, is a step in the right direction.

I worry that there is broader story behind all this. There is little point in having such measures if they are not taken up and used by the courts and the authorities on the ground. We have had not only an avalanche of law and order legislation since 1997, but countless headline-grabbing initiatives and quick fixes. The Government propose gimmicks and then abandon them with alarming regularity. ISOs are pretty good; I hope they will not abandon them. Cash point fines for yobs and night courts are two prominent examples of gimmicks that were brought in and then abandoned. ISOs are worth while. They are worth pursuing, and I hope that the Government will do that.

If the Home Office carries on with quick gimmicks, we will run the danger that measures such as ISOs, which try to address the real causes, will get lost in the storm. It is not only me who believes that; I am afraid that the former Home Secretary seems to believe it too.

I have listened carefully to the debate and I note that one area has not yet been fully addressed. May I encourage my hon. Friend and the Minister to comment on it?

When the terms of ISOs and ASBOs are breached, that needs to be taken extremely seriously by the courts, otherwise those instruments will fall into disrepute and become ineffective very quickly. Are the Government interested in issuing clearer instructions to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Courts Service so that breaches of ISOs and ASBOs are taken extremely seriously?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point that chimes with my intervention on the hon. Member for Stockport, when I said that it is important that we monitor the effectiveness of ISOs. We do not want a great deal of resources to be put into the training, or re-training, of offenders only to find that within six months or a year they have relaxed back into the same bad old ways.

I was going to make this point in my remarks, but given the question asked by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), it is opportune to do so now: 58 per cent. of ASBOs are not breached, which means that 42 per cent. are. Of that 42 per cent. of people who breach their ASBO on one or more occasion, 55 per cent. received immediate custody on the first or a later occasion, and of the young people, 46 per cent. received immediate custody. Those are important figures, because they show that there is a criminal sanction for people who break an ASBO and that that is treated severely by the courts.

I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention, which shows not only that our courts exercise their authority, but that there is good monitoring of people’s behaviour so that the breaking of ASBOs is noted. In some instances—not in the example of ASBOs, but in others—courts have a power, but do not know when an offence is committed. The Minister’s point is reassuring and I am grateful to him for making it.

To conclude, underlying problems—family breakdown, hard drug use, binge drinking, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy—cannot be addressed with top-down national initiatives. If I may quote the leader of my party, we need “patient, personal support” to get at the causes of disorder and antisocial behaviour.

ISOs offer a really good step in the right direction, and it is time for the Government to make proper use of them. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to my points and, perhaps even more importantly, those made by the hon. Member for Stockport.

I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on her speech, which a number of us have said was a thoughtful, measured contribution to an important subject, about which I know she feels passionate. She has spent much of her time in Parliament contributing to the debate on what to do about antisocial behaviour, calling for tough enforcement of the law alongside measures that support young people and communities. I congratulate her not only on her work in her constituency but on her contribution to the national debate.

Antisocial behaviour is a major issue for the Government and in many of our communities. It is clear that where the law is enforced effectively alongside neighbourhood policing, including police community support officers working with residents’ associations and local voluntary organisations, and where people work together and stand together, joining in to try to make a difference, real progress is made in communities up and down the country. That is one of the most important messages to be taken from the debate. The tools and the laws are there, and they should be used to make a difference in our communities. People should not abandon hope; they should be optimistic and challenge what is going on, and things can improve.

I do not want to get into party political banter, but there are record numbers of police officers on the street, and police community support officers have been extremely effective in contributing to efforts to tackle antisocial behaviour. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised the matter of specials. Only last week I was at an awards ceremony giving awards to special constables who had made a particular contribution in their communities. Again, that demonstrates the fact that the Government have tried to ensure that the valuable role of specials is recognised. We have also ensured that the number of specials recorded on the books is that of active specials. In some cases that has meant that the number of specials has gone down, but the number who are actually active and on the streets has increased. That has happened in my area and, I am sure, in many others. Specials do a fantastic job.

I am reassured to some extent by what the Minister has said about specials. However, the fact is that the number of specials has halved in the past eight years or so. Will the Government have a campaign to increase their number back to the number that were in place when they took power in 1997?

We run recruitment campaigns for specials all the time—there are poster campaigns and adverts all over the place because we are trying to increase their numbers. However, we are determined to have active specials on the books, instead of there being just a number on paper, because specials make a great contribution to policing in our communities.

Individual support orders were introduced under section 322 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and have been available since May 2004. They are civil orders that can be attached to antisocial behaviour orders made against young people aged between 10 and 17. They can last for up to six months and they impose positive conditions on young people. They are designed to tackle the underlying causes of antisocial behaviour.

ISOs are available for stand-alone ASBOs, which are made only in magistrates courts. Legislation sets out that when a magistrates court makes an ASBO against a young person, the court must also make an ISO if it considers that an ISO would help to prevent further antisocial behaviour. ISOs are not available for orders on conviction if it is expected that sentencing will address the underlying causes of the criminal offence. If a court declines to make an ISO, it must give reasons why it considers that it is inappropriate to do so. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), and perhaps when he reads my response, he will be reassured.

ISOs contain positive requirements that are tailor-made to suit the individual needs of each young person. They are based on a needs assessment of the young person in question. Examples of such requirements include treatment for alcohol and substance misuse, attendance at counselling sessions for anger management, and extra support in school. ISOs are not mandatory, although we want to see many more being used by the courts. To clarify an point of confusion, an ISO can be made even if another order is in place.

I should like to mention an example from Norfolk that shows the value of ISOs—I believe in using practical examples to show how policies can make a difference. The example shows how an ISO has been used to turn around the behaviour of a group of boys who had brought misery to residents for more than a year. The police and the housing office worked together closely on the case and discovered a pattern of nuisance, largely based on the playing of rowdy games on a shared landing between two flats. PCSOs and the estate manager mediated between the families and their neighbours. When mediation failed, joint visits were made to warn the families of their continued antisocial behaviour. The boys were given formal warnings that spelled out the consequences of their actions in terms of potential ASBOs and possible loss of their parents’ tenancy. When all the warnings had failed, a multi-agency team obtained an interim ASBO against the five boys to put an immediate stop to the nuisance. Evidence provided by the PCSOs and by the estate manager was used at the hearing, and interim orders were granted.

Minor breaches during the Christmas period were reported by witnesses between the interim and the full hearings, which strengthened the case for the ASBOs at the full hearing. Witnesses who were previously fearful of giving evidence were willing to testify at the full hearing when the ASBOs were granted. Importantly, an ISO was attached to each ASBO to tackle some of the underlying causes of the behaviour. If that can be done in one area, it can be done in many other areas too.

The main benefit of the ASBOs was the relief brought to the neighbours, who felt that they had been supported through the process by the police and the housing office. The ISO that was devised and facilitated by the north Norfolk youth offending team consisted of sessions aimed at helping the boys to develop an understanding of how their antisocial behaviour—their constant shouting and banging—impacted on themselves as a group, on their immediate family, and on their neighbours. The advantage of the ISO was that it gave the boys an opportunity to understand the effects of their rowdy behaviour on themselves and on others. As a result of the order and the interventions of the youth worker, the boys took up recreational activities and found constructive ways to spend their spare time.

I am interested in that example. I believe that it is the same as the one given by the hon. Member for Stockport, but fair enough. I do not know when those events happened, but I am curious to know whether three months, six months or a year on, the boys have relapsed, or is the situation still okay? Does the Minister know?

So far as we are aware, things are still okay. I repeated the example that my hon. Friend gave to emphasise that if it is possible for Norfolk YOT to do something, it is perfectly possible for other YOTs throughout the country to do exactly the same thing. We use such examples as a good practice guide to show people what they can do and what they can use. I shall certainly be talking to my local YOT about it. It is something that I have become more aware of, and sometimes it is a matter of raising awareness and informing people of what is possible. What the example shows is that if all the agencies take action and work together, the community rediscovers a sense of purpose, a sense of hope and a belief that something can be done—and in fact, something is done. The message must be to work together and stand together. We do not have to put up with such behaviour and we can make a difference. Overall, the intervention package was a great success for that community and for the families themselves. It is an excellent example of the effective use not only of ISOs, but of all the tools available to tackle antisocial behaviour.

As we are focusing mainly on young people, let me reiterate an important point, which is that other young people also want something to be done about antisocial behaviour by groups of young people who are causing problems. When I meet young people, they tell me that they do not want to feel threatened on their street, that they do not want yobs—or whatever we want to call them—hanging around, threatening them and making them feel unsafe. Young people demand that something is done about the problem as well. It is not just old fogeys in council offices or in Parliament who want something done. The majority of decent young people in our communities also want something to be done, and they often contribute to the solution by coming up with examples of what the council should do to help—perhaps by providing services, additional drop-in facilities, and so on. They suggest the sorts of things that could be done to tackle antisocial behaviour. We should involve young people in the solution and not just brand them as the problem. As the hon. Members for Castle Point and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, it is only a minority who are causing the problem. It is up to us to deal with it through effective use of the laws that we have.

As has been mentioned, 31 ISOs were made between their introduction in May 2004 and the end of September 2005. We analysed the cohort of potential recipients, and although we accept that interventions might already be in place for many young people, the figures remain much lower than we would have expected. The low take-up by antisocial behaviour practitioners is disappointing. I am therefore grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport for highlighting the issue and providing the opportunity of this debate, which I hope will challenge people to make more use of ISOs.

We carried out investigations of local areas for blockages in the system but they proved inconclusive. They suggested that a more strategic approach was needed to unpick and resolve a range of minor problems. We therefore identified four areas where we would expect higher use of ISOs, based on the current use of stand-alone ASBOs for juveniles. Those areas are Manchester, Lancashire, Leeds and London. YOT and court representatives from those areas have been engaged in round table discussions over the past three months with the Home Office, the Youth Justice Board and Her Majesty’s Courts Service, which is part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, to establish where the problems lie and what needs to be done to overcome them. As my hon. Friends the Members for Stockport and for North-West Leicestershire said, part of the solution must and will include training for magistrates, and that is in process.

When we first examined the reasons for low take-up, we were told that YOTs’ reluctance to use ISOs stemmed from their misgivings about the affordability of the programme. We responded promptly to those concerns by giving £500,000 to the Youth Justice Board in June 2005; the Youth Justice Board then wrote to all YOT managers to notify them about the extra funding and a subsequent letter was sent from Rod Morgan, chairman of the Youth Justice Board. Unfortunately, that has failed to generate many more ISO applications. Of the £500,000 made available, only £62,000 was spent. When funding is made available, it is not always used, but given how worthwhile the orders are, we expected greater take-up. The Youth Justice Board analysed the small number of applications that it received and found that in 29 out of the 31 recorded cases the risk of the young people reoffending was reduced. That is evidence of the value of the orders.

We know that YOTs have concerns about future funding and we have responded to make the longer-term position more secure by including it in the Youth Justice Board’s £45 million uplift for preventive measures. Seven YOTs have included specific ISO intervention schemes in their plans for the use of that prevention budget for the period up to March 2008. All YOTs are required to support ISO intervention, whether or not there is a specific scheme. Such support might be delivered through another programme funded by an allocation from that budget, such as youth inclusion programmes or youth inclusion and support panels, or through an existing programme.

It is clear that money is available to maintain and increase the ISO programme. We will review and monitor the programme where necessary; it will be an ongoing process. We agreed with the Youth Justice Board and the Department for Constitutional Affairs a joint action plan to boost take-up with a strong focus on communication. Many hon. Members made that point during the debate. That joint action plan is based on providing information and encouragement to sentencers, court staff, YOT managers and antisocial behaviour practitioners. We publicised ISOs in relevant publications, on websites and at events and conferences. For example, we ensured that the TOGETHER ActionLine promotes ISOs when giving advice about ASBOs and updates its website with appropriate prompts to ISOs from the ASBO pages.

The Youth Justice Board website also carries information on ISOs for practitioners. In addition to the joint Home Office, Youth Justice Board and Association of Chief Police Officers guidance to YOTs on their role in dealing with antisocial behaviour, the forthcoming “Bigger, Better, Bolder” guidance on ASBOs contains advice on issuing ISOs and promotes a success story.

Our aim is to guide YOTs to ask for and provide ISOs, and to request the courts to order them in appropriate cases. Again, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport that we intend to write to all YOTs to inform them of our desire for progress. Other Members raised the importance of pressuring YOTs to look at why the measure is not being used as much as it should be. I assure my hon. Friend that a letter will go out to all YOTs, including those in Stockport.

The practitioners in the areas visited when research on low take-up was conducted spoke enthusiastically about ISOs. In Manchester, YOTs, courts and antisocial behaviour practitioners have set an example to others by working in partnership. They promote good communication between themselves, and the YOT has even been proactive in preparing a leaflet for its local courts to advise them on their ISO procedures.

Practitioners attending the respect academies currently in progress are also very positive, although, unfortunately, we continue to experience difficulties in shifting negative perceptions in some quarters. We still hear anecdotally that sentencers have insufficient knowledge of ISOs. I hope that my hon. Friend’s debate helps to raise the profile of ISOs so that we can start to address the issue.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some cases there was confusion about how ISOs were supposed to be used when they were introduced. Now the YOTs, ASB practitioners and courts have all the necessary guidance and funding in place to make them work. There is no reason for not using them where they are needed.

In other areas, however, blockages remain and, despite the best efforts of the Youth Justice Board to inform local YOTs, there is a continuing misconception that ISOs are centrally underfunded. We intend to maintain a strong momentum in delivering the positive messages to practitioners on ISOs to step up their use. Every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate said how important they think the use of ISOs is. I hope that message is heard loud and clear throughout the country.

We are in a position to take stock of the information gleaned from the nationwide meetings and some of the useful discussions with practitioners at the respect academies, and we are considering further proposals for the future. We must ensure that young people get all the support they need to tackle their antisocial behaviour. The Government want tough enforcement of the law and appropriate action taken against people who are causing problems, but alongside that we want the necessary support.

Again, we always get into the debate about either/or, but in a modern social policy there should be both. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport is one of the toughest proponents of enforcing the law on the streets, but she also recognises the need for support alongside that tough approach. In my own communities, people want a tough approach, but they want young people to be supported too. The Government are very keen to do that.

We are continuing to have meetings at official level between the Home Office, the Youth Justice Board and the Department for Constitutional Affairs to consider short, medium and long-term actions. In the longer term, that includes considering the prospect of making legislative changes to strengthen the use of ISOs. In the medium term, we need the best efforts of the Youth Justice Board to monitor and provide guidance on their use, and we are discussing with it how best to do that. Of course, we would rather not be having this dialogue at all. We are looking at legislative change, but no decision has been made about that yet.

As I said earlier, all YOTs in England and Wales have recently received additional funding until March 2008 to establish or enhance local prevention programmes. We know that many YOTs linked new and existing prevention services directly to ISOs. The delivery of 110 youth inclusion programmes, 220 youth inclusion and support panels, and expenditure of £9.5 million on parenting initiatives with that funding is designed to tackle the underlying causes of antisocial behaviour.

The hon. Member for Castle Point will be pleased to note the parenting initiatives, which will try to make some parents more responsible for the actions of their children. As we know, the vast majority of parents are responsible. We have a problem with a minority and we need, where possible, to see these parenting initiatives alongside greater use of parenting orders.

The Minister has been more than generous in giving way. I am sure that he will accept that alcohol is a key driver in antisocial behaviour among young people, and he knows that the police are using their powers under the Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act 1997 in every constituency virtually every day of the week.

Where the police are falling down is the fact that they are not following the law through to its conclusion. The law gives them not just the ability but the duty to involve the parents on every occasion when the alcohol is removed from the young person. Officers should not simply take the alcohol and pour it down the drain, but ensure that the young person’s parents are involved and informed so that they can intervene at an early stage. Will the Minister consider giving further instructions to the Association of Chief Police Officers and other bodies to ensure that the police understand their duty in that respect?

We are working closely with the police and with trading standards departments to tackle the problem of under-age drinking. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the figures, he will see a huge increase in the number of test purchases made through trading standards to tackle the problem. There has also been a big increase in work with schools to try to educate on alcohol. Of course there is a problem, but the Government are taking major steps to tackle it. Discussions on what more we can do are ongoing and will continue over the next few months.

The funding provided by the Youth Justice Board has generated local partnership funding in excess of £30 million. All YOTs are required to support interventions using ISOs whether or not there is a specific scheme in operation. Such support may be delivered through a programme funded by an allocation from the prevention budget or through an existing programme.

As an example, youth inclusion and support panels aim to prevent the committing of offending and antisocial behaviour by children referred to them. Such panels are made up of representatives from a variety of organisations, which can include YOTs, the police, social services, housing services, probation, education, Connexions, the voluntary sector, antisocial behaviour units and the fire service. That is not an exhaustive list—it can be tailored to local circumstances. The panels meet regularly to consider referrals made to them and devise an integrated support plan, which I shall explain.

Each young person referred to a YISP is given a comprehensive assessment, which highlights such things as risk factors, a history of offending and antisocial behaviour, and protective measures that need to be maintained or built upon. From the information gained, an integrated support plan is tailored to, and agreed by, the young person in question and their family.

Inclusion and support panels seek to ensure that children have access to mainstream services, identify the extent of key worker involvement and direct service delivery needed, and inform the extent to which the panel will have a commissioning role. Panels regularly review each inclusion and support programme, which is expected to last between three and six months, to ensure its effectiveness. Any involvement with a YISP is voluntary and therefore requires the written consent of both a young person and their parents, which again shows the crucial role that parents can play. If parents evade their responsibility, we need to take measures to ensure that they do not continue to do so.

The respect drive is a cross-Government strategy to tackle bad behaviour and nurture good, helping to create a modern culture of respect. It builds on strong progress in tackling antisocial behaviour, but goes further and deeper to prevent the next generation from becoming involved in such behaviour. It does so through action on poor parenting, problem families and bad behaviour in schools.

An action plan was published in January 2006, setting out a comprehensive programme to promote positive behaviour and bear down uncompromisingly on antisocial behaviour, tackling its causes and strengthening the local accountability of public services. Programmes will be targeted in the most deprived areas to ensure that help goes where antisocial behaviour and lack of respect are experienced most.

The key priorities are a new approach to tackling problem families, a wide-ranging programme to address poor parenting, strengthening communities through more responsive public services, improving behaviour and attendance in schools, and constructive activities for young people. Significant progress has already been made since January; the pace of delivery is being maintained across those Departments responsible.

As hon. Members will know, the respect agenda is an important part of the Government’s drive to tackle antisocial behaviour. We all know that such behaviour is a problem and that tackling it is about not just passing laws, but changing the culture and attitudes. The Government are working hard to deal with the problem.

ISOs are playing their part in the wider battle to combat antisocial behaviour and promote positive behaviour. They have proven potential to help young people to turn around their lives and move away from antisocial behaviour and offending. I share the enthusiasm for ISOs of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, and I hope that she and other hon. Members will encourage local agencies to make more use of such a highly effective intervention tool.

In the few seconds remaining, I say to hon. Members—

Men’s Health

The evidence of men’s and boy’s poor mental well-being is all around us. Some 75 per cent. of people who kill themselves are men, most of them young men, among whom suicide is the commonest cause of death. One man in eight is dependent on alcohol and 72 per cent. of male prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders, while boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls.

Alarming numbers of men are unhappy, anxious, stressed and depressed. The results of a recent YouGov survey for the Men’s Health Forum show that more than 18 million men in the UK could be affected by common mental health problems. The survey found that men in the UK experience very high stress levels, with nearly half—46 per cent.—suffering from moderate or extreme stress in a normal week. Just over half— 51 per cent.—said that they felt down, stressed, depressed or anxious at least once a month, while one in 10 felt that way a few times a week or even every day. Up to 76 per cent. of men have experienced depression or anxiety in their lives. The study also shows that while mental health is a major problem, nearly one fifth of men suffer in silence and do not turn to anyone for help.

What causes such men to feel stressed, depressed and down? Some 48 per cent. of men blame work or study as the key trigger for mental health problems, while 44 per cent. blame financial worries. Fast-paced living was mentioned as the cause by 27 per cent. of men, and relationship problems by 25 per cent.

Earlier this month, during national men’s health week, the all-party group on men’s health, which I chair, held a meeting with the all-party group on mental health. We heard from experts in the field of men’s and boys’ mental well-being. David Wilkins, from the Men’s Health Forum, presented a new report on the issue, “Mind Your Head: Men, boys and mental well-being”, which argues that although women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder, problems in men are massively under-diagnosed.

According to the report, in many cases that is simply because we do not fully understand the differences between how mental health problems manifest themselves in men and women. The report concludes that

“men’s mental well-being as a whole is poorly understood and seriously undervalued.”

That conclusion is at odds with the importance given to mental well-being by the general public. The publication of the White Paper, “Our health, our care, our say”, followed an extensive consultation programme, in which a focus on mental well-being was ranked second on the general public’s list of priorities for the NHS. Only regular preventive health checks were considered more of a priority.

Specialists recognise that importance too. The National Institute for Mental Health in England is explicit about the benefits to the nation of working to enhance mental well-being. In “Making it possible: improving mental health and well-being in England”, the institute wrote:

“The skills and attributes associated with positive mental health lead to improved physical health, better quality of life, reduced crime, higher educational attainment, economic well-being and personal dignity.”

At the meeting of the all-party groups, we also heard from Dr. Phil Timms of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who told us that men tend to like being in control, which can prevent them from seeking help. However, if that can be turned around so that men see that they are taking control of their own health, it might be positive.

Men’s mental health problems are often missed by GPs and friends because they are covered up. Dr. Timms also spoke about a friend of his who committed suicide while at medical school and had not spoken to anyone about his feelings. He also noted that that is not uncommon. Instead, men start drinking, take risks and become angry or complain of headaches, rather than admitting that they are feeling distressed or depressed.

National men’s health week looked at men’s mental well-being. At national level, the Men’s Health Forum worked closely with 40 other organisations to make the week a success and to show what can be done to improve men’s mental well-being. I shall not list all 40 organisations, but partners in the week included the Royal Mail, which is the country’s biggest employer of men, the TUC, and charities such as the Mental Health Foundation, the Samaritans and the Afiya Trust. The Department of Health and NHS organisations were also partners. They all did some great work, showing what can be done to improve men’s mental well-being.

The partners also worked with Haynes Publishing to produce the “Brain Manual”, which was compiled by a good friend of mine, Dr. Ian Banks. He is not only president of the Men’s Health Forum, having done a huge amount of work in support of men’s health, but has recently been appointed as one of only two professors of men’s health in the country. About 2,000 local events took place in national men’s health week too. These events—run by NHS professionals, voluntary groups and occupational teams—undertook an extremely broad range of activity in an even broader range of settings. Activities ranged from display stands and father-and-son days to a five-a-side football competition and everything in between.

In my constituency in Dartford, the primary care trust health promotion team worked with pharmacists on a leaflet that they could either give to clients as a takeaway or use to prompt conversations on health issues. The overall aim is to engage men in promoting activities in ways that are local and flexible. Pharmacists, as we know, are both local and flexible. I am delighted that my local PCT and local council were able to get involved in men’s health week.

I had the good fortune to chair a recent men’s health supported conference on men’s mental well-being, at which the Minister also spoke. That conference and the “Brain Manual” received financial support from the Government, for which I know the Men’s Health Forum was extremely grateful. The Government were also supported by the Mental Health Foundation and the Football Association.

The wide range of factors that positively and negatively influence a man’s mental well-being were explained and discussed at the event. The Football Association highlighted how sport can help to improve mental well-being. It has announced that it has appointed former England captain Tony Adams as a new football for all ambassador, with specific responsibility for mental health.

The FA’s Simon Johnson also called on the mental health practitioners at the conference to become involved in the new football for all project, which uses football as a tool to help service users. That is clearly a welcome development. As the conference was supposed to have taken place in the new Wembley stadium, the FA could have spoken also about its experience of managing workplace stress.

Many gay men in particular face challenges to mental health well-being. There is still widespread homophobic bullying in schools, for example, and many mainstream religions regard homosexuality as sinful. Homophobia results in depression, anxiety, fear, apathy, mistrust and other mental health problems. There is also an impact on heterosexual men who might fear being labelled gay. That limits personal expression and creates fear of closeness with other men.

The conference held workshops run in London by PACE, which is London’s largest gay and lesbian organisation. Evaluation shows that 96 per cent. of participants found the workshops useful, 71 per cent. felt more assured and 40 per cent. felt less unhappy about being gay.

Many of the lessons of that work could be used to help men in general. The “Mind Your Head” report from the Men’s Health Forum is heavily influenced by Professor Richard Layard’s work on happiness. A key area here is the effect of work on well-being. Far more men than women work full-time, and experiencing satisfaction at work is an important predisposing factor for positive mental well-being in men.

We usually associate higher earning power and higher status for men at work as representing a disadvantage for women, but this is a double-edged sword. The traditional role of breadwinner brings its own stresses, and long working hours can harm good family relationships, which are crucial for the mental well-being of future generations.

Lack of job satisfaction, work-related stress, the pressure to work long hours and unemployment are all damaging to mental well-being and, for numerical reasons, more likely to affect men than women. Men in the UK work the longest hours in Europe; 27 per cent. of men with full-time jobs in the UK work more than 48 hours a week, and 11 per cent. do more than 60 hours a week.

According to the TUC, 5 million people work more than seven hours of unpaid overtime every week. Most of those are likely to be men. The TUC work on this suggests that almost half the UK work force want to work fewer hours, with 10 per cent. willing to accept a pay reduction to do so.

Perhaps that has an influence on some of the other statistics highlighted by the YouGov survey published during men’s health week. For example, stress, anxiety or depression are causing a third of sufferers to drink more alcohol. A further 18 per cent. start or increase smoking, and 4 per cent. admit to using illegal drugs in a bid to make themselves feel better. Nearly a fifth say that that makes them feel more aggressive.

We also know that 73 per cent. of adults who go missing are men. Let us remember that the reverse of that issue—unemployment—is also a common factor in poor mental well-being. Last year, the Health Development Agency reported that

“there is a strong association between unemployment and psychological and psychiatric morbidity... Upon re-employment, there appears to be a reversal of these effects.”

Just last week, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported that the stress caused by job loss in the over-50s doubled their chances of suffering a stroke or heart attack.

As I have said, understanding and valuing of men’s mental well-being are low, but the position is even worse when it comes to ethnic minority men. There is little awareness among health care professionals of how to engage effectively with black and minority ethnic men. Young African-Caribbean men are much more likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 and less likely to be offered psychological treatments. Asian men have high incidence of compulsory admissions to psychiatric institutions and low uptake of aftercare services. Irish men have a particularly high suicide rate, while Chinese men are generally reluctant to express emotions or to seek help with emotional problems.

Black and minority ethnic organisations, including Destigmatize and SIRI Counselling, were also partners in national men’s health week. I am particularly pleased that the Men’s Health Forum is continuing to work with those organisations and others on a project on the mental well-being of BME men. It is good news that the Department of Health is providing the majority of the funding needed for the project, and I hope that a sponsor can soon be found to provide the remainder.

I know that the forum has had a long relationship with Professor Kamlesh Patel, chair of the Mental Health Act Commission and director of the ethnicity and health unit at the university of Central Lancashire. In fact, I would like to congratulate Professor Patel on his recent appointment to another place, and I look forward to welcoming Lord Patel of Bradford to meetings of the all-party group on men’s health.

There are isolated examples of innovative work going on in Kilburn. Brent council, the local child and adolescent health service, and the charity Corum Family run the boys2MEN project, which aims to give young African-Caribbean men healthy relationships with men when many do not have a father figure in their household. Last year, they won an award for that work.

Another groundbreaking project is CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably. CALM has been successful in working with the music industry in clubs and local radio. Its telephone helpline and website also allow young men to talk about problems and find local support.

I urge the Minister to ensure continuing and increasing support for such projects. Those charities, councils and local NHS bodies are helping young men to avoid alcohol abuse, suicide and aggression. Others have had success too. Dr. Phil Timms has noted that in New Zealand, 10 to 12-year-olds are taught about mental well-being. That is proving very successful.

The Men’s Health Forum survey identified relationship problems as troubling a quarter of men. It is often claimed that men will not seek help for such problems, but the national Mensline scheme in Australia shows that that is simply not true. By offering a male-friendly, male-specific service, it has attracted 400,000 callers since 2001 in a culture internationally known for its macho men. That suggests that with a little encouragement and by respecting men’s maleness, we might help large numbers of men suffering marital breakdown. That would have knock-on effects, helping men and women to tackle some troublesome problems of relationship breakdown that can be so damaging for children.

I think I have shown that on a range of measures men’s mental well-being is poor, and that despite the successes of isolated and small-scale initiatives, no one really knows how to tackle things comprehensively. As the Men’s Health Forum told the all-party groups on men’s health and on mental health:

“Men are less likely to be diagnosed with depression because male specific symptoms may not be taken into account.”

We need to understand that. We need to tackle it. We need to stop men’s physical health, those in relationships with them and society at large suffering through men’s poor mental health.

The first step must be a detailed investigation of levels of male psychological distress in all its manifestations. I believe that the Government should fund and start that work now. Specialists at the National Institute for Mental Health in England should examine the key risk factors, establish good practice and make recommendations for new and more flexible male-friendly services. They should also consider how we deal with the significant inequalities such as those affecting gay men and those from BME communities.

I hope that the Minister can announce progress on that important work. Such a gender-sensitive approach will soon be mandatory, when the new gender duty, introduced by the Equality Act 2006, becomes operational next April. I am also concerned that the public sector as a whole, not least the NHS, is not yet preparing for its new responsibilities, even though they have the potential dramatically to improve service delivery for men and for women.

We must avoid at all costs a society in which chronic poor mental health, as well as its effect on other areas of health and society, is endemic in men and repeated from generation to generation.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) on securing this extremely important debate and on all the work he has done with the all-party group on men’s health. It is vital to use whatever platform we can to raise these sensitive issues with the wider public and in Parliament.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is increasing focus, certainly in Government, on well-being and mental health. If we are to tackle some of the basic problems, it is important to consider how mental health issues can affect different parts of society. We have talked about issues in men’s mental health, but as my hon. Friend said, there are additional mental health issues in respect of people from black and minority ethnic communities.

If we are to tackle the overall issues in dealing with mental health problems and mental well-being, it is vital to ask why certain groups suffer disproportionately and why some people do not come forward and access services. I was pleased that there was a national men’s health week and that the Men’s Health Forum put together a conference on mental health where the “Brain Manual” was launched. I am delighted that the Department was able to support it. I spoke at the conference and I was incredibly impressed by people’s commitment and dedication in raising the issue, and I asked for feedback from the conference.

We want to look in even more detail at other comments, but one issue, especially, that was raised was that of opening hours for GPs’ surgeries, as men find it difficult to take time off work to go to the GP. We must ask whether there is a barrier at that first stage and find out how to make it easier for people to gain access to health care services.

My hon. Friend set out some of the very real challenges in men’s mental health and drew attention to some shocking statistics: three-quarters of those who kill themselves are men; 73 per cent. of adults who go missing are men. Too high a proportion of men suffer from mental health problems, and instead of seeking help they are more likely to turn to drugs, alcohol and smoking to try to alleviate those problems.

It is important to raise awareness of men’s mental health problems and to have programmes to tackle in a broader sense some of the stigma and discrimination that goes with mental health in general, but especially in men who perhaps feel that they have some kind of weakness that cannot be talked about. How do we overcome that and say, “No, this is a common health problem that we need to be open about”? People should not feel stigmatised if they have to seek help.

As my hon. Friend said, we must assist men to acknowledge mental health problems and encourage them to seek help and support. The conference had the support of the Football Association, which appointed Tony Adams as its ambassador with specific responsibility for mental health. That will promote mental health issues positively. Too often, coverage of such issues is completely negative. We have to talk about the positive aspects of the services available and the advantages of coming forward and, with the Football Association, emphasise the importance of physical exercise in helping mental health problems, and in particular reducing the stress that my hon. Friend talked about.

The Department has set up the shift programme to help to tackle the way in which the media and the wider public approach and perceive mental health issues. It is heartbreaking sometimes to see how the media deal with some of these issues. Sometimes they do so in a deeply unsympathetic way. We have to bring home to people the fact that mental health problems are a common health problem and it is important that they are approached constructively and positively. We also want to develop an anti-stigma code that can be adopted by employers.

Creating an understanding of mental health issues and promoting mental well-being are vital. As my hon. Friend said, the Men’s Health Forum’s policy report considered six aspects of that. It may be common sense, but mental health promotion strategies need to address the aspects of life that impact most on how people feel about themselves, including those that my hon. Friend talked about, such as bullying, homophobia, racial discrimination, family conflict, employment and feeling isolated. We need good partnership working at national and local level to tackle some of these issues. This relates to the whole public health agenda. We are bringing together at local level—through, for example, local area agreements—local government, health care, trusts, voluntary organisations and Jobcentre Plus to consider what all the aspects of an individual’s life are and what impact those are likely to have on their mental health.

My Department is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Health and Safety Executive on our health, work and well-being strategy. The aim is to get employers engaged in the debate and considering what they provide and what support they give. How can we ensure that Jobcentre Plus is working closely with employers? This is not only about helping people to remain in work. Too often, people feel that they cannot go to work because of the stigma and discrimination and because others do not understand how to deal with the issue. Managers and work colleagues are frightened of it. How do we say, “No, that is the wrong approach”? I have seen many good examples. My hon. Friend mentioned Royal Mail, and BT is another good example of a company where I have seen good support given to people. It is not just about helping people back into work, but about helping people to remain in work.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about giving men control of their own health. That is what the direction that we take in the White Paper towards the individualised care approach is about. How do we ensure that care is more convenient for people, that it is closer to their homes? We are talking about more choice and information, and simple positive steps that people can take to improve their own well-being. He is right to say that that is one of the keys, particularly when it comes to mental health issues.

My hon. Friend talked about problems, particularly in the BME communities. This year, we conducted the count me in census. We asked people to consider in particular racial background in mental health in-patient care. That means that we now have a baseline whereby we can measure progress, which we have set out through the delivering race equality programme. I believe that that will make a real difference, particularly in terms of reaching out to BME communities.

As my hon. Friend said, it is important that we understand the reasons behind some of the statistics that we have discussed today. The overall suicide rate is now at its lowest recorded level, but until recently the suicide rate among young adult males had been rising. The death rate in this group is still far too high and is much higher than in the general population. We have introduced measures through our national suicide prevention strategy that are starting to have an impact, but we certainly need to redouble our efforts in that direction to ensure that we encourage young men to look after their mental well-being and, crucially, to seek help when they need it. We need to understand the reasons why men are unwilling to engage with services and to admit problems, and we need to devise policies to tackle them.

My hon. Friend mentioned some of the risk factors associated with young men. They include psychological factors such as depression, low self-esteem, and substance misuse, as well as social factors such as unemployment and family problems, but when we began to develop our suicide prevention strategy, there was little evidence about what works in promoting good mental health with young men. We wanted to find out why men find it more difficult to talk about their problems, why they are more likely to resist health promotion messages, and why they are reluctant to ask for help when they are in distress.

That will become even more important as we consider how to expand some of our programmes. My hon. Friend mentioned Richard Layard’s work. In our manifesto and in the White Paper we said that we would extend access to psychological therapies. That is vital and is something that might help men who are reluctant to come forward. We need to get behind those issues and to extend our programme of psychological therapies.

That is why at the conference it was pleasing to be able to launch the evaluation report of the reaching out pilot scheme, which examined how we can encourage young men to seek help earlier and identify some of the barriers that discourage them from seeking it. The evaluation report set out the lessons learned by those pilots. One lesson was that involving service users in designing the care required is vital. Yes, this is a message that goes across all the health care services. It was particularly important in this area. Young men responded much more positively if we talked about mental well-being as opposed to mental health problems. That is an interesting lesson. All the evidence will help local providers to improve the way in which they engage young men and develop their services.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is vital that local organisations think about this, as they will have a duty under the Equality Act 2006 to tackle these issues. We need to lead this from the centre and to ensure that the message is going out loud and clear. I hope that we will continue to work with the all-party group on men’s health, the Men’s Health Forum and all the other organisations that are contributing to building the momentum around this area. I hope that we will be able to work closely together. Frankly, if we can engage in such partnership at national and local level we can do a lot to improve men’s mental health, which is vital to the future of our society.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

Red Squirrel Population

It might help right hon. and hon. Members if I inform them that this morning I exercised Mr. Speaker’s dispensation for male Members to divest themselves of their upper garment if they feel incapacitated by the temperature. I shall do so myself.

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the debate, because it gives us an opportunity to revisit the threat to the red squirrel, which is one of the most treasured features of our native wildlife. I initiated a debate on the subject almost 10 years ago to the day, but since that debate not a lot has happened to help the red squirrel and its position remains as bad as it was when I first highlighted it, which is a great pity. After the previous debate my office received about 500 letters, every one of which condemned me as a cruel and evil man who wanted to exterminate grey squirrels, which, as hon. Members will know, are the main cause of the red squirrel’s decline. Interestingly, what has improved since then is public opinion on the matter. The European Squirrel Initiative, whose help in this debate I very much appreciate, has found in recent opinion polls that the public have—as a result of better information, I think—realised that the grey squirrel, which they, quite reasonably, find attractive, is causing the destruction of the red squirrel.

I do not know why, but the red squirrel inspires particular affection in many people’s minds. Perhaps they read Beatrix Potter when they were young, or they admire the red squirrel’s grace and elegance as it moves through the tree canopies of the broadleaf and conifer woods that it so likes, or they admire its habit of squirreling away its winter food supplies. The red squirrel is held in high regard. The curious thing about that admiration is that, despite its being an iconic animal, many members of the public have never seen a red squirrel. In London and the south-east, one probably has to be over 60 years old to have seen a red squirrel, because red squirrels were replaced in this part of the country by greys many years ago.

Only a loose definition puts the Isle of Wight in the south-east, but on the island one does not have to be over 60 to have seen a red squirrel.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for attending the debate, because, as I well know, the Isle of Wight is an important reservoir of red squirrels. It is fortunate in being separated from the mainland by a stretch of water, which I think is why red squirrels have been saved there.

The grey squirrel was introduced in the 19th century as an ornament to estate gardens. No doubt that was thought to be a good idea at the time, but since then the grey squirrel has spread and now it is causing or is likely to cause an environmental disaster for our native red squirrels. The issue of alien species has come to the fore in recent years. Throughout the world, there are a number of examples of what we have seen happen in this country. Apart from the grey squirrel, we have the American mink, which has caused considerable damage to our rivers, and foreign fish and shellfish species have also been introduced. Not the least among the vegetation that has been introduced into this country is the humble rhododendron, which many people admire hugely. One admires rhododendrons when one sees them in formal gardens, but in parts of the west of Scotland, as I am sure the Minister knows, they are spreading and causing great problems. The problem of alien species is not unique to the UK; it occurs all over the world. The Australians are trying to eliminate European foxes, which were introduced to develop fox hunting in Australia. That puts me in a slight quandary, as I am rather fond of fox hunting, but I can understand the reasons for what the Australians are doing, because European foxes have done a lot of damage in that country. In another example, the New Zealand authorities are making a substantial effort—quite successfully, I believe—to eliminate the possum from the New Zealand countryside.

I apologise if I am unable to stay for the whole debate, but it might be helpful if those who wrote to the hon. Gentleman understood that we are where we are and that no one is proposing the extermination of grey squirrels throughout the United Kingdom. Our aim is to safeguard areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and the area that I represent in Northumberland which still offer havens to red squirrels, which are under serious threat. Somehow we need to devise ways in which to protect some terrain on which the red squirrel can survive.

I agree with my right hon. neighbour, whose constituency, like mine, has a large number of red squirrels. In fact, the Hexham constituency contains 80 per cent. of the red squirrel population in England. There are other healthy populations on the Isle of Wight and on Brownsea island off the south coast, for many of the same reasons. There are a few in Thetford forest, at Sefton in Merseyside and in Cumbria, as well as some populations in central Wales, the Scottish borders and the Scottish highlands. However, their numbers are shrinking. That is the problem that we face, and the problem on which I shall focus.

Not only is the grey squirrel a pest and a threat to the red squirrel, but it does considerable damage to forestry interests. In addition, the cobnut growers of Kent estimate that they lose about 50 per cent. of their crop annually because of theft by grey squirrels. Just the other day, I was in Kensington Gardens on an all-party horticultural trip. The park authorities find that the grey squirrel is a particular menace to trees and flowerbeds and they are desperately trying to discourage people from feeding them, which I can well understand.

The news has been bad so far, but the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) touched on some good news for the red squirrel. There has been a substantial new initiative in the north—in Cumbria and Northumberland and on the Scottish borders—to preserve what we have. That is our first priority: we must save what we have and stop the remorseless advance of the greys. Kielder forest is an ideal habitat for red squirrels, and the Forestry Commission and others have formed an organisation, Red Alert, which represents all sorts of interests in the area. About a year ago, it had a meeting in Newcastle and determined a new strategy to create 16 reserve areas mainly in the north. They will be guarded and a buffer zone—a cordon sanitaire—will created around round them in which everyone will make an effort to stop the spread of grey squirrels. All the legal methods available will be used to control the populations in that area and stop the squirrels mixing, which is important.

The 16 areas are mainly in Northumberland and Cumbria, but there is also one at Widdale near Hawes and at Sefton in Merseyside. The partners in the scheme will band together and take every possible action to protect the red squirrels within the cordon. Recently, there was a pleasant announcement that the campaign will receive a little more than £600,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will be added to the £500,000 that the partners in the Red Alert squirrel campaign have raised themselves. I particularly appreciate the Heritage Lottery Fund and its chairman, Liz Forgan, for being so imaginative and providing funding for that purpose. It will be put to good use. Lord Redesdale, a colleague of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, is putting together a campaign to link farmers and landowners in the area better so that the control of the grey squirrel can go ahead.

That is good news in the sense that the Scottish authorities are co-operating. In the past, Scotland has tended to do its own thing. It has its own problems with grey squirrels introduced in the central belt, which are advancing down into the borders and up into the highlands. From a selfish point of view, those in the borders worry us most of all because they are coming down south and could invade from that side. We need the co-operation of the forestry interests in Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and others to make the circle round Kielder forest and the forests on the borders tight and complete. That is the good news.

The bad news is something called squirrel pox virus, which is an affliction to which grey squirrels are immune, but to which the reds are not. Not all grey squirrels have it, but the problem is that some of those that do are in Cumbria, and they are beginning to cross the border and spread out into Scotland. That could bring them into contact with the protective buffer zone around the squirrels in Kielder forest. We are concerned because two red squirrels were recently found within two miles of my home in Northumberland, and examination showed that they had died from the squirrel pox virus. So the virus is spreading in Northumberland, which is particularly bad news.

Generally, when grey squirrels invade an area, the reds disappear slowly—it is a gradual erosion. Many experts who are listening will know better than I, but I believe that it happens largely because the grey squirrel is about twice the weight of a red squirrel and eats a lot more than the red squirrel. In addition, the densities of squirrel populations vary—the density of the red squirrel population is estimated to be slightly more than one per hectare, whereas the density of the grey is about eight per hectare. There is therefore much more pressure on a piece of woodland where the grey squirrels are present, yet the greys and the reds are competing for the same food supplies. We believe that lack of food and perhaps lack of breeding space causes the reds’ physical condition to deteriorate, so that they die over the winter or fail to reproduce because the females’ fertility is affected by their poor physical condition. When squirrel pox virus starts to spread, however, the decline becomes 20 times greater and the population crashes very quickly. It is an immediate and serious threat to the future of the red squirrel.

The argument is not simply a UK-centric one. The red squirrel is common throughout Europe and, I believe, in part of Asia. Red squirrels are all slightly different but they are all red, though some in parts of Germany they look black. They are part of the European wildlife scene, whereas greys were introduced into the UK and Ireland—where they are also a problem. They were introduced into Italy just after the war, in 1948, and they have spread so that it is estimated that there are now some 8 million in northern Italy. There is a danger that they will spread northwards into and over the Alps—like Hannibal—and once they achieve that they will be present in France and Switzerland and throughout Europe. The Italian Government had not done a lot about the problem, but the European Squirrel Initiative tells me that following a helpful meeting the Italian Government have decided to take action against the spread of greys. As with everything in life there is usually a commercial interest involved. The advent of the greys in part of Italy where there is a large hazelnut industry has concentrated minds, because the industry regards them as a threat to an important crop in the Italian economy. It is good news that Europeans are taking an interest.

I do not wish to become a bore, but there are some slight complications with which the Minister may be able to help. One way forward that we have identified is to get some European money to help to fund research projects that will benefit the squirrel population in Europe and the UK. The Berne convention protects the European squirrel—European squirrels are listed in appendix 3 of the convention. For reasons that we do not understand, however, the 1992 habitats directive, which introduced the Berne convention into European domestic legislation, does not list the red squirrel in its annexes. The Berne convention and the habitats directive put an obligation on national authorities to safeguard endangered species and to tackle introduction of alien species. If the Government could persuade the European Commission to add the red squirrel to the European directive, we could consider the issue on a European basis, which could have helpful repercussions for research funding.

The Government can help in a number of respects—some small, but others more important. The first—the most important and most immediate—relates to Government help with funding for research into the squirrel pox virus. The problem is that we do not know how the virus is transmitted, and there is only circumstantial, rather than positive evidence about how it affects the red. We know that it does affect the red, because the red population crashes, but, scientifically, there is no link. We know from tests that greys have antibodies to the virus, so we can see that they have had it but not been affected. However, no one knows where in the animal’s body the virus is kept, how it is translated—perhaps it is at feeding sites—or how it has moved from the grey to the red.

I am pleased to say that considerable research is going on at the Moredun research institute in Edinburgh and at Liverpool university. The problem is that the researchers are on short-term contracts, and if we do not get research funding, there is a danger that those contracts will run out before any progress has been made. I therefore make a plea to the Minister to see whether we can find some funds—they will not be extensive—so that those research programmes can carry on and find out much more about the pox virus. Once we understand how it is translated from the grey to the red, we can start to do research on developing a vaccine to help the red squirrel, which would be of great interest.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could also help through its woodland grant programme. It currently gives out woodland grants which, in areas where there are red squirrels, make allowances for grey squirrel control. The difficulty is that the grants are cash-limited, so there is no guarantee that somebody who has a grant now will get continue to get one; that will depend on how much money there is in the budget in the next round. Of course, it was always thus in government, but hon. Members will understand that that would lead to a break in the continuity of grey squirrel control. In addition, small woods—those covering less than 3 hectares, although I might be wrong about the size—are not included in the woodland grant schemes. However, grey squirrels use small broadleaf woods as a stepping stone into new territory, and it would be extremely helpful if the Minister could see whether there was any way of giving some of the grant money for grey squirrel control to owners of small woodlands.

I mentioned listing the red squirrel in the habitats directive, but I hope that the Minister will also give us more support in our search for the holy grail—a method of restricting grey squirrels. I am not advocating a complete cull or slaughter of grey squirrels, which would be totally pointless, given the size of the population. One could not exterminate them using normal means of control such as shooting and trapping. Scientists across the world who deal with introduced alien species are trying to find an immuno-contraception method—a way of interfering with the fertility of the animal. If they can develop such a method, it would be the answer to the problem of the grey squirrel population. We would not be slaughtering the greys; instead, they would slowly die out in the areas where we used that technique. That would allow us to pick areas that were suitable for the reintroduction of the red and then to carry a gentle programme of humane eradication of the grey squirrel population there.

Work was done on that system at Sheffield university, and much was made of it 10 years ago when I had a debate on this issue, but that work came to an end. However, the Central Science Laboratory in York, with the help of some DEFRA funding, is looking again at the system. The Australians have been trying for years to introduce it among rabbits, but without success. It is something that science needs to pursue it if we are to get rid of the alien species that cause so much damage to our native species.

We need to make a real effort to save the red squirrel. The new sanctuaries around the country will be our last chance. If they are invaded and the march of the greys continues, the gloomy prediction of some scientists, that the red squirrel population in this country will have died out within 20 years, will be realised. I think that we would all say that that would be a great tragedy.

I commend the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on his persistence, coming back to the subject 10 years later to point out that the situation has become worse in the meantime, with the invasion of greys into the areas of red squirrel population, which were once more widespread in Northumberland than they are today. I well remember often seeing red squirrels in the Tyne valley, for example, where I believe that greys are now to be found. We hope that Kielder forest will remain a major sanctuary, and across the north of Northumberland there are a number of smaller woodland areas where we still have red squirrels. We do not want to see that territory taken over by greys.

Grey squirrels are a feature of the landscape of much of the United Kingdom, and clearly it would be neither possible nor popular to remove them entirely. In many parts of the country, they are quite natural. They are the only squirrel that people see, people enjoy seeing them and they are fascinating creatures. However, in those areas where we still have red squirrels it is vital under any interpretation of biodiversity that we retain them. That will require tough action, such as the rigid maintenance of sanctuary areas and the buffer zones around them, and definite action to ensure that any arrival of greys into those areas is dealt with quickly. Research such as that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman offers us considerable possibilities for the future. Finally, we need urgently to find some way to deal with squirrel pox. What a bitter blow it was when the news came to those in Northumberland who have made such assiduous efforts over long periods to try to preserve the habitat of the reds that there was another threat to their survival.

I hope that the population in the Isle of Wight, represented here by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), can be sustained. Species have crossed stretches of water before now, although I am not sure whether there have been serious grey sightings on the island. Keeping species out is that much more difficult when the only barrier is a land barrier.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Hexham has secured this debate again. I welcome the continued efforts of volunteers and volunteer organisations and the part that they are playing, and I plead for Government recognition of the problem and for Government support, resources—not enormous resources but enough to help with the essential research needs—and a willingness to support the decisive action that will need to be taken where greys directly threaten those few remaining sanctuary areas that we must keep for red squirrels.

I had not intended to make a speech in this debate, but I see that there might be a moment or two to spare and I thought that I would mention one or two courses of action that I cannot recommend to every part of the country but that we have found useful on the Isle of Wight.

The first, of course, was the beneficial effect of global warming, when the island was separated from the mainland of the United Kingdom. That is not a course of action whose use I advocate in other parts of the country, but it has meant that we have had some immunity from other diseases. Bovine TB, for example, is much less prevalent on the island and, thankfully, foot and mouth did not come to the island during the most recent outbreak because people were very vigilant. The red squirrel has been protected by the stretch of water that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned.

I would also like to congratulate and place on the record my appreciation of the Wight Squirrel Project—note the spelling, in case the colours should get further mixed up. The project keeps a close eye on the welfare and well-being of red squirrels on the island. All my constituents want the red squirrel to continue to thrive and they are worried by any report that grey squirrels have been seen. The sighting or putative sighting of a grey squirrel is a matter of great concern: it is reported in the local papers and people make a great effort to find the offending animal. Recently, an acquaintance of mine was successfully prosecuted for spreading rumours about the importation on to the island of grey squirrels—the New Labour equivalent of spreading alarm and despondency. We take the matter very seriously.

The only specific point that I want to make is about habitat. He may have done so, but I did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mention in particular what habitats are more likely to support red squirrel populations than grey squirrel populations. My understanding is that coniferous forests are more likely than deciduous forests to support the grey squirrel. I hope that any further work of the Government and the Forestry Commission will give appropriate provision.

It is the other way round. The red squirrel likes conifers. They appear to prosper in conifers, perhaps because they are smaller than greys and are able to extract seeds from spruce trees and such, whereas the greys are bigger and perhaps more clumsy. The reds seem to do better with conifers, which is why Kielder forest, for example, is going to be a reserve.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That probably explains why I—or, rather, my dog—have found them in Northwood park in Cowes. I am pleased to say that squirrels are faster than terriers. There are a number of excellent species of coniferous conifers in Northwood park.

Red squirrels are widespread throughout the island, easy to see both in daylight and on reasonably light evenings. They are a great tourist attraction. If you want to see a red squirrel, Mr. Cook, I recommend that you, or any hon. Member, come to the island. You would not have to walk far from a convenient hostelry to see one.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing the debate. He has been involved in a number of occasions in the past and, more recently, in the other place where there was a debate on the issue.

The issue raises a fundamental question of biodiversity within the United Kingdom and with a species in which we clearly have a considerable interest. Estimates that I have seen suggest that there may be as few as 160,000 red squirrels left within the United Kingdom, with somewhat upwards of 2 million grey squirrels competing for the same sorts of habitat. We have already heard a clear description of the means by which the red squirrel is gradually being chased out of traditional habitats within the UK, notably the pressure on resources—in particular habitats—but also the parapox or squirrel pox, which has the unfortunate effect of causing skin ulcers and lesions on the red squirrel but to which the grey squirrel has immunity.

The introduction of the grey squirrel from north America at the end of the 19th century has an exact parallel with other transatlantic migrations. We wrought havoc in America with human diseases and the invasion of Cortez. In the other direction, there is a direct parallel in agriculture, for example, with the importation of the phylloxera beetle into France and the destruction of the vineyards. With the exception of one small area of France, every French vine now grows on American root stock because of its immunity to diseases and particularly to the phylloxera beetle.

An excellent way forward would be to develop an immunity to the parapox virus or some means of ensuring that the red squirrel was better protected. Realistically, however, I fear that the time scale for research is inevitably uncertain, although I hope that we can do more to support the research that is being conducted into the problem.

I note that other suggestions have been made. Despite its robust animal welfare traditions, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has not entirely set its face against the need for selective culling in order to protect areas for the red squirrel. I am afraid that that is something we have to do to protect habitats and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, establish buffer zones and sanctuaries for the red squirrels. We also need to consider the habitats directive and provide what protection we can for the red squirrels in that context.

There is a real sense of urgency. The hon. Member for Hexham is one of the few remaining MPs who, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, represents an area in which the red squirrel is still extant in England. As has been mentioned, if more radical action is not taken to protect the red squirrel, there is a chance that within 20 years we will see a steady spread of the grey squirrel and a steady pushing out of the red squirrel from these islands altogether, with the possible exception of sanctuaries such as the Isle of Wight, which, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) rightly pointed out, has so far managed to preserve its peculiar advantages in that respect.

I hope that this debate serves as a wake-up call for the Government to take action along the lines that I have suggested in improving the research commitment and habitat protection, including selective culling where necessary, perhaps with a premium or bounty offered to foresters, in order to protect areas for the red squirrel so that it may thrive.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing this important debate. It has been 10 years since his Adjournment debate that called for the control of grey squirrels and, I believe, two years since the last Westminster Hall debate on the matter.

Although some progress has been made, it is such a pity that the Government have not done more during that period. Indeed, the present Administration have quite a sad record on wildlife management. I hope that the decline of the red squirrel will be removed from the catalogue of errors that has included the increase of tuberculosis in wildlife. Moreover, the Government have failed to get the red squirrel included in the habitats directive, but that does not mean that it should not receive the same level of protection.

It would also be helpful if the Minister could update us on developments in the research into immuno-contraceptive vaccines for grey squirrels. I am curious to know how much of the £1 million the three-year fertility control project has devoted specifically to squirrels. I understand that the Government have been encouraging landowners to cull grey squirrels in certain areas where they pose a critical threat to red squirrels, but I am curious about the fact that the proposed measures, which include giving the grant to woodland owners, will be rolled out for only three years. Thousands of red squirrels could have disappeared from England by then, and the measures could prove to be too little, too late. Can the Minister let us know what information he has on the extent to which private landowners are managing the grey squirrel population?

It is difficult to see how we can save the red squirrel without some control of the grey squirrel population, as the latter has two distinct advantages that are causing the red squirrel to decline. The first is the survival of the fittest, and the second the fact that the grey squirrel is a carrier of the parapox virus, which we have heard about in this debate. We know that the dreadful parapox virus has played its part in the demise of the red squirrel and that the grey squirrel is immune to its deadly effects.

There is an especially urgent need to learn more about the virus and how to fight it, because there are reports that it is beginning to penetrate the red squirrel’s heartlands, in the Kielder forest. If the virus should become endemic to the area, there would be a serious and possibly irreversible decline in England’s red squirrel numbers. I am consequently keen to hear from the Minister what studies are being carried out into these differences and into the mode of transmission and whether there has been any progress in searching for a parapox cure. I am aware that the Moredun research institute is doing a lot of work in this area and I would be interested to know whether the Government intend to commission it to continue and to conduct further research.

We have much to learn from existing research, but there is far more work to be done if we are to save the red squirrel population. We are running out of time and it would be a terrible tragedy if the Government did not get it right. The red squirrel evokes considerable emotion among the public, not just because of its underdog status but because of its iconic status immortalised by Beatrix Potter. I have very young children, and it is probably worth mentioning briefly that Squirrel Nutkin, who is a red squirrel, is not a particularly good squirrel compared with Timmy Tiptoes, the grey squirrel, who, although greedy, is a better behaved squirrel.

I also note that in April the Heritage Lottery Fund contributed £626,000 of the £1 million going into the “Save Our Squirrels” project as part of the Red Alert North England partnership. Will this be sufficient to halt the decline? The red squirrel is an essential part of England’s heritage and to lose it would send out all the wrong signals and be a disaster for conservation, as well as for our heritage and for our biodiversity. Over our own lifetimes, I am sure hon. Members have noticed how increasingly unusual it is becoming to see red squirrels, even in their few remaining most populous pockets. Clearly, the challenge and way forward now is to find and develop effective conservation methods, many of which have been raised in this debate, if the red squirrel population of England and Wales is to avoid its predicted fate.

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the introduction of grey squirrels into Britain and with that the beginning of the slow decline of native red squirrels. Who would have thought back in 1876 that the handful of greys from north America, introduced into the woodlands of Cheshire, and subsequent introductions would have placed the red squirrels in the position of peril and near extinction that they face today? Indeed, three years ago a DEFRA report stated that the extinction of the red squirrel in England and Wales was likely in the foreseeable future. I am sure that this is something that nobody wishes to see.

While it is estimated that the red squirrel population throughout the UK is 160,000 and in England stands at around 20,000 but could be as low as 12,000, the greys have flourished with their numbers heading swiftly upwards towards the 3 million mark. With such a contrast in fortunes, we must do what we can primarily to maintain, and then if possible increase, our red squirrel numbers. There are so many species that are native to Britain which were once abundant and are now threatened with extinction, but I hope that it is not too late for the red squirrel.

With that in mind, I mention that back in 2004 in a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), confirmed that there had been no assessment made of the changes to the red squirrel population over the last five years, and English Nature stated that the population knowledge was poor. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether that is still the case. I will be disappointed if it is, as there are no precise figures for the red squirrel population although there are for some of the other biodiversity action plan priority species.

Aside from Scotland where the majority of reds in the UK live, the Isle of Wight, northern England, Anglesey and Brownsea island can also boast a reasonably strong presence. However, to preserve these strongholds we must see stringent measures adopted. In this respect, I broadly welcomed the “Grey Squirrels and England’s Woodlands: Policy and Action Statement” announcement on 22 January which aimed to manage the risks presented by the grey squirrel.

Nevertheless, I was curious to know why the Government decided only this year to encourage the Forestry Commission to focus its efforts on disrupting the grey squirrel population. Only back in April 2003 did the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), say that the Government’s emphasis is on protecting current red squirrel habitats, rather than interfering with the grey squirrel. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that change in Government policy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing this debate on the red squirrel. Perhaps appropriately, the species’ greatest stronghold, Kielder forest, lies in his northern England constituency. The decline of red squirrel numbers was the subject of a debate in another place about three months ago. I share the widespread desire expressed then and today in this Chamber to see the red squirrel maintained as part of our native wildlife, although, as was acknowledged by Earl Peel and others, it is unrealistic, at least in the foreseeable future, to envisage the eradication of the grey squirrel to enable the red squirrel to re-establish itself across its original range.

Although the red squirrel is certainly not at risk in continental Europe, its decline here over the past 50 years means that it is at risk in the UK. That is why the red squirrel is offered strong protection in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence intentionally to kill, injure, take or sell the animal, or to destroy, damage or obstruct access to its breeding place. It is also the subject of a species action plan as part of the UK biodiversity action plan. I say that in response to a number of suggestions by hon. Members this afternoon that because it is not listed in the annexe to the habitats directive, it is not protected to the same degree as species that are. In fact, it is afforded such protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act within the UK. I hope that that provides some reassurance to right hon. and hon. Members.

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. There is a feeling that if the red squirrel were put into the annexe, that would trigger a greater interest in Europe in its future survival. As he says, the species is not endangered at all in continental Europe, except in Italy. People campaigning for the red squirrel believe that that would be a useful thing to do, and would help to raise funds.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. In fact, the Commission has signalled a review of the directive’s annexes to update them, based on the latest scientific evidence, over the next few years. It may well be that that is an appropriate opportunity to get Europe more engaged on the matter. I certainly share the hon. Gentlemen’s sentiments.

Can the Minister therefore give us an assurance today that he and, if he is not in post, his successors, will ensure that the red squirrel in included in the habitats directive?

What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we shall do absolutely all that we can to ensure that the red squirrel is protected and preserved. If the opportunity should present itself within the revision of the annexes, and if that proves to be an efficient way of achieving the objective that everyone in the Chamber this afternoon shares, it is of course something that we should, and will, consider.

What we are talking about now, however, is how we can safeguard and preserve those remaining viable populations of red squirrels. In England, there are two areas where viable red squirrel populations remain: in the south, on the Isle of Wight, as we have heard, and Poole harbour islands, and in the forests of northern England. In both regions, partnerships involving private landowners, local authorities and conservation bodies are working together to try to save the red squirrel. The Government play a key role in such partnerships, as a land manager and funder and by providing expert advice. On the whole, the debate this afternoon has been extremely good natured and focused on the same aim, although I was somewhat disappointed that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) said that the Government needed a wake-up call. In fact, the Government have been heavily engaged in the issue and earlier this year, as he may know, launched their action plan in January on the red squirrel. The Government have not been standing idly by, as he and the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) might have suggested.

In both regions, the partnerships involving private landowners, local authorities and conservation bodies working together to save the red squirrel are critical. The Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Forum, led by Isle of Wight council, has led a wide range of initiatives including the monitoring of the red squirrel population. It has prepared contingency plans for dealing with any incursion of grey squirrels, and those plans have already successfully been put to the test, albeit, fortunately, by a false alarm. The contingency plan sprang into action and there was an invasion of people with the appropriate measures for dealing with a grey squirrel incursion before it was found that there was no threat.

Grants totalling £735,000 have supported the creation of 210 hectares of new woodland by landowners on the Isle of Wight. The new woods link areas of existing woodland, much of which is managed by the Forestry Commission to favour red squirrels. The links have increased red squirrels’ ability to move around, as they are a species that prefers to keep to the trees rather than travel on the ground. They have also been helped by the introduction of rope bridges to cross busy highways.

The work to maintain red squirrels on the Isle of Wight is a good illustration of what can be done through co-operation between local communities and organisations and national bodies. Co-operation between a wide range of bodies is equally key in the north of England, where there is no water barrier to protect the reds and where the greys have advanced inexorably through mixed woodland in the past 20 years. Research by Newcastle university has shown that the best chance for red squirrels to survive is in large coniferous forests that are unsuitable for greys. The Red Alert North England partnership has brought together private landowners’ representatives, the wildlife trusts, national park authorities, DEFRA, English Nature and the Forestry Commission to work together to preserve the remaining red squirrel population.

Based on research evidence the partnership has produced the north of England red squirrel conservation strategy, which identifies 16 red squirrel reserves where it believes the red has the best chance of long-term survival. Those reserve areas and the surrounding buffer zones now have management guidelines to help landowners and managers to conserve red squirrels.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Research is under way to identify likely grey squirrel incursion corridors. It will provide a scientific base for targeting grey squirrel control measures. The scale of management already under way reflects the severity of the situation. In Kielder forest, the largest of the reserves, which extends to an area almost 1.5 times the size of the Isle of Wight, large-seeded broadleaf species such as oak, which favour the grey squirrel, are no longer being planted. Felling and replanting take the red squirrel’s needs into account, and Norway spruce is being planted so that red squirrels need not rely solely on the cone crop from Sitka spruce.

The Red Alert partnership has been successful in its bid by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust to the Heritage Lottery Fund, to which hon. Members have alluded, for £626,000 to help to deliver its £1.1 million three-year project plan. One of the plan’s key elements is the recruitment of a team to help and encourage landowners in the buffer zones to undertake habitat management and grey squirrel control. The project manager has been appointed and further staff are being recruited. Delivery of the partnership’s plans will proceed in earnest in early autumn.

We are also helping with support provided by the Forestry Commission through the English woodland grant scheme. There has been a healthy demand in the north-east for the £30,000 available under the woodland improvement grant, which provides up to 80 per cent. of the cost of conservation work in red squirrel reserves and buffer zones. In response to the questions of the hon. Member for Hexham about future funding, I am pleased to tell him that next year’s budget for such grants in the north-east and north-west will total £50,000. Alongside that, the woodland management grant can contribute to the cost of woodland management to favour red squirrels.

The Rural Development Service in the north-east has received an application for assistance under the rural enterprise scheme for a red squirrel protection group, which will be considered soon. Although the application was made independently, the Red Alert partnership has been working with the applicant to co-ordinate their efforts, and it supports the application.

It is impossible to consider the red squirrel without considering the grey, which in one way or another appears largely responsible for the red’s displacement. In another place, Lord Inglewood gave DEFRA Ministers an invitation to dine on grey squirrel in a hotel in the Lake district. Even if his offer still stands, I would find it difficult to say that I am tempted. I understand from the hon. Member for Leominster that squirrel was Elvis Presley’s favourite dish, but it would certainly not be mine and would probably put me off his music for a long time.

At the risk of a further 500 letters, I have to say that I have actually tasted grey squirrel—they eat it in America. Although there is not a lot of meat on it, to say the least, it tastes rather like chicken and is quite palatable.

The hon. Gentleman began the debate by saying that a decade ago 500 of his constituents had written to him saying—

Five hundred people from across the country wrote to him saying that he was a cruel and evil man. I cannot imagine what his postbag will grow to now.

I understand that Gordon Ramsay has cooked grey squirrel and offered it to the public, but, as Minister responsible for biodiversity, I do not feel able to promote eating a grey squirrel to save a red one. The relationship between red and grey squirrels is not straightforward. It is not simply the case that greys drive out reds, as they have been known to live in the same area for up to 50 years. However, it appears that, in the end, greys do displace the reds.

Some grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus, as has been mentioned by hon. Members this afternoon. Although they appear to be unaffected themselves, the virus can have a devastating effect on the red squirrel population and accelerate the red’s displacement by up to 20 times, as the hon. Member for Hexham said. The squirrel pox virus is a worrying development and the Forestry Commission organised a workshop to develop ideas for further research, which funding agencies are examining closely.

The Forestry Commission and DEFRA are collaborating on research into the use of the immuno-contraception as a method of controlling the grey squirrel population. That is part of a larger DEFRA-led project looking at fertility control methods for a range of problem species. The work on squirrels is based on methods recently developed in the United States where a single-dose vaccine remains effective for a number of years. For a number of years in the USA, that vaccine has been administered successfully by injection, but of course injection is not an option for squirrels. We are looking therefore at oral delivery systems, which also are being developed in the United States.

Obviously, we need to ensure that drugs are fully tested and trialled before they are put into a context in which UK wild animals might come across them, that they are effective on the target species and that they can be administered safely without adverse effects on other wildlife and of course humans. One problem is that the vaccine is not species-specific so initial work is concentrating on identification of the best carrier bait and the means to prevent access to the bait by other animals, including red squirrels. It is hoped that sufficient progress will be made for enclosure trials between 2006 and 2008. Clearly, however, it is a difficult problem and we would be foolish to act precipitately, before we are absolutely sure of the science.

As I said earlier, our policy for the control of the grey squirrel in woodland prepared by DEFRA and the Forestry Commission was published on 22 January. It sets out a framework for controlling grey squirrels so that populations are held at a level that does not threaten our native woodlands and priority species. The policy articulates a comprehensive policy and action programme, recognises the wider impact of grey squirrels on priority species and woodland habitats, develops a framework and rationale for targeting action where it will be most effective, and promotes new areas of research. Those new research areas are of particular interest. Scientists from DEFRA and the Forestry Commission are following new developments overseas, particularly in the United States where they have been looking at those matters carefully. They are now investigating fertility control agents for managing wild animal populations. Work will continue on that, but we will not see success overnight.

Previous work on immuno-contraception involving the university of Sheffield ended without success, but demonstrated the difficulties of delivering an effective vaccine in sufficient quantities to wild animals. Non-lethal population control measures alone are not guaranteed to be an effective control and most likely we would need lethal control to reduce numbers before non-lethal methods were used to maintain populations at a reduced level.

Looking a little wider, responsibility for red and grey squirrels in Scotland and Wales lies with the relevant Administrations. However, as squirrels can and do move across borders, I can assure the House that experts in the field work in close co-operation. The hon. Member for Hexham spoke about dangers from the north, which have been a feature of life in Hexham for 1,000 years or more, but dangers from the north are very real to the population of red squirrels. A costed action plan is being prepared in Scotland to implement the Scottish squirrels strategy, which aims to maintain viable populations of red squirrels across their current range in Scotland. In Wales, there has been considerable success in saving and expanding the red squirrel population on Anglesey. That has involved the culling of more than 6,500 grey squirrels, but the greys remain and continued vigilance and control will be required to keep them in check.

Preservation of red squirrel populations is not something that the Government can achieve on their own, but we are taking a lead and will continue to do so. Many people love grey squirrels, but the reality is that they are a problem for some of our most threatened native species, such as the red squirrel and the dormouse. It is not realistic, practical or even desirable to eradicate grey squirrels completely, but we must effectively control them if we are to preserve our population of reds and the biodiversity that they represent.

Sitting suspended.


First, I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise the important issue of the availability of dental appliances under the new national health service contract. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the legitimate concern of the dental laboratories profession that the new contract is damaging their industry and, equally importantly, the service provided to patients on the NHS.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is at an early stage in his comments to the House, but on that point about patient service, does he agree that NHS dentistry is already in great difficulty, with residents in many constituencies such as mine being unable to obtain an NHS dentist, and that any further obstacles are likely to have catastrophic consequences for NHS dentistry in those areas?

I agree. I am well aware of the problems in Cheadle, because a number of my constituents used to access NHS dentists there and are now unable to do so.

I shall focus on three points: first, the impact of the new contract on the availability of certain treatment on the NHS, dentists’ decisions to provide cheaper and less effective treatments, and the knock-on effect on dental laboratories; secondly, the influx of cheaper dental appliances from abroad; and finally, the lack of information given to patients about their entitlement to certain dental work.

There are about 2,700 laboratories in the UK, providing dental appliances to dentists in the NHS and in private dental practices. Seventy per cent. of all dental appliances produced in UK laboratories are made for the NHS, so it is fair to say that any Department of Health decision on dentistry will affect the laboratories and their employees.

The sector employs about 10,000 technicians and a further 11,500 administration and support staff, and the industry operates in one of the few remaining UK manufacturing sectors that still compete against imports. However, the new contract and the threat from overseas competition make the future of the industry look bleak.

The new dental contract aims to simplify the charging system through the use of three bands: diagnosis, treatment and provision of appliances. As such, all work prepared by the dental laboratories falls within band 3. The cost of each appliance to the dentist varies dramatically, but some dentists pick the least expensive items available in band 3, instead of the most appropriate appliance for a patient’s dental needs.

The patient is treated and the dentist gains their required unit of dental activity target, but at a minimum cost. For example, many patients requiring a crown, which perhaps costs £80 from the dental laboratory, are instead being offered single-tooth dentures, which might cost only £20 from the laboratory.

A survey carried out in May of 200 members of the Dental Laboratories Association discovered that orders for single-unit crowns had decreased by 44 per cent. compared with the same month last year, while the amount of one-tooth denture work had increased by 61 per cent.

It is widely accepted that, when feasible, a crown is more appropriate than a single-tooth denture, but there are significant health benefits in avoiding a denture. Although the denture might provide the aesthetic appearance of a natural tooth, it has many more potential complications: the patient may be unable to keep it in their mouth, or it may cause speech problems, compromise other teeth or strip gum tissue away from healthy teeth.

The overall results from the new contract have been startling and prove pretty conclusively, I would argue, that certain dental appliances are not being provided by some dentists under the new contract, and that more people are being forced to go private to receive the treatment that they require.

The May survey showed that NHS denture work had decreased by 79 per cent., and private denture work had increased by 52 per cent. NHS chrome work had decreased by 91 per cent. and private chrome work had increased by 21 per cent. NHS bonded crown work had decreased by 79 per cent. and NHS precious bonded crown work had decreased by 86 per cent. Veneer work had decreased by 73 per cent. and yellow gold metal work had decreased by 38 per cent. in the NHS. Non-precious metal crown work had decreased by 61 per cent. Private bonded crown work had increased by 17 per cent. The number of dentists still providing NHS denture repairs had decreased by 34 per cent.

The Minister cannot argue that she was not warned that that would happen, because in December 2005 she received figures from a survey carried out in the pilot area in September that year. They produced pretty similar results.

One of the core problems with the new contractual arrangements is the significant balancing act that dentists must carry out to ensure that their monthly payment covers the cost of providing a comprehensive NHS dental service while still providing a profit for the practice and a salary for the dentists.

The laboratory fee is a substantial element of a dental practice’s budget, so it is in the interest of the dental practice to shop around for the best deal. However, the best deal often means sourcing appliances abroad. In fact, over the past four years, the market for overseas dental appliances has grown substantially. Estimates are that 10 per cent. of UK dental appliances are supplied by overseas laboratories.

In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency allows dental appliances made overseas to be supplied to the UK as long as they have come via a laboratory in Europe that is registered to comply with the medical devices directive. The process is not one of proactively seeking to ensure that overseas dental appliances are being made in accordance with the directive. Without assessing the individual laboratory and checking the materials that were used at the time of production, a laboratory that receives dental appliances from an overseas laboratory cannot prove that the device has been made in accordance with the directive, so patients are potentially at risk. They could be supplied with dental appliances on which there was no information about the materials used or who produced and supplied them.

It is imperative that we ensure that patients are aware of what treatment they are entitled to, and what they are receiving. It is important that patients should be made aware that a crown is available instead of a single-tooth denture. If a dentist tells a patient that they need a single-tooth denture, most will assume that that is the most appropriate treatment. I know that if I were to go to the dentist, and if the dentist told me that that was the most appropriate treatment, I would assume that that information was correct. However, some dentists are making decisions based not on clinical need, but on financial considerations.

There is also a lack of awareness about payment for treatment. I have heard of several cases in which patients have had some work done and there have been significant delays in carrying out the rest of the work. Appointments have been made for three months later, so patients have incurred a charge a second time, even though there was a perfectly good reason for doing the work on the first visit or within the three-month time scale.

The new contract encourages dentists to offer cheaper alternatives and to drag out treatment time, rather than to provide the most appropriate treatment as quickly as possible. I therefore hope that I shall receive some assurances from the Minister on raising patient awareness, and some commitment to assessing the impact of the new contract on the provision and availability of dental appliances under the new NHS contract.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) on raising this significant issue. Dental health is an important part of our public health strategy. There have been major improvements in oral health in recent years. Between 1978 and 1998, the proportion of adults with no natural teeth, who need full dentures, declined from 37 to 11 per cent. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, a reliable supply of well-made dental appliances remains essential to the delivery of high-quality dental care, which is where the dental laboratories can make their contribution.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there are about 2,000 dental laboratories in England, which manufacture dental appliances, including dentures, bridges and crowns, to a dentist’s prescription. Last December, I met members of the Dental Laboratories Association, which represents most of those laboratories, and we discussed the reforms in some detail. Following that, I invited the association to join the implementation group that I have established to review the new commissioning arrangements and to help to ensure that they are achieving their objectives.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the new contract and the result of it. In his constituency, only one contract was rejected, which represented 0.7 per cent. of NHS activity. The point about the new system is that the money that would previously have been given to a dentist who did not take up the contract is now available for recommissioning locally, so his local primary care trust should be using that money to recommission dentistry. We saw from the pilots that over a longer period it is often possible for freed-up capacity, resulting from the new ways of working, to be used to take on extra people, so that more people can see an NHS dentist.

It is a fact that only one contract was not signed, but it is also a fact that constituents of mine still have real difficulty in accessing an NHS dentist. I have had to deal with a number of cases in which, despite following all the normal procedure, people have not been offered a dentist, and it has taken the intervention of their local MP to find them one.

I know that in the past there were big problems with the ability to access NHS dentistry in some parts of the country, but the changes mean that if a dentist leaves the NHS, that money can remain at local level and be used for recommissioning. In the past, the money would have disappeared from the area. Because of the new ways of working, there will be extra capacity so that more people can see an NHS dentist.

I am anxious to make progress, given that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington initiated the debate and we have only 30 minutes for it. I want to respond to some key issues that he raised about the impact of the new commissioning arrangements on dental laboratories.

Under the new arrangements, PCTs commission a defined annual level of NHS services from dentists, in return for which dentists receive an agreed annual contract value, paid in monthly instalments. I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that, previously, a dentist was paid only for each intervention. The new arrangements put the system on a much more stable footing. A dentist is paid to look after the individual needs of his or her patient. The annual level of service that dentists must provide is measured in terms of courses of treatment, rather than individual items.

In recognition of the fact that some courses of treatment are more complex and costly than others, the system divides courses of treatment into three broad bands, each with a different weighting—units of dental activity, as they are called in the regulations. The bands are the same as those that determine a patient’s charge, and the hon. Gentleman will know that there are three such bands: £15.50, £42.40 and £189. The highest band, band 3, covers the most complex procedures involving the prescription of dental appliances such as crowns, bridges or dentures. Such treatment carries 12 units of dental activity to compensate for the additional time and laboratory costs.

Inevitably, in an averaging system, dentists will find that some band 3 courses of treatment are more costly and complex to provide than the average while others are less costly. However, averaged over a year, the cost to dentists should be lower than in the past. There should be no financial deterrent to dentists to provide the full range of dental care required by a patient with complex treatment needs.

Let me make this point. It is important to remember that NHS dentists are contractually obliged to provide all the dental care and treatment that their patients require. We expect the great majority of dentists to behave professionally in that respect and we trust them to provide the proper care to patients. There is remuneration for that care and it is no longer calculated on each individual service provided. Dentists are now paid monthly to look after a set number of patients, and the UDAs that they accrue in complex procedures reflect the fact that those are more costly.

If there were evidence that some dentists were failing to provide the necessary care, patients could complain to their PCT, which should take the matter up with the dentist. We would expect it to do so. PCTs can monitor a dentist’s activity and they have a duty to investigate if it appears that he is providing fewer treatments than his patient profile suggests are necessary.

I thank the Minister for giving way a second time, but does she not agree that the fact that dentists can provide a cheaper alternative is an incentive for them to do so? The figures provided by the Dental Laboratories Association suggest that some dentists are doing just that.

I reiterate that cases such as the hon. Gentleman described, of patients having appliances fitted that fell out or made their gums bleed, are unacceptable. If he and the Dental Laboratories Association have evidence of such cases, they should put it to the local PCT and make a complaint, which is the required course of action.

I do not accept that dentists would give in to an incentive and get a few bob more by providing the wrong appliances. That would be unacceptable, and we would need to be firm about it. As I have said, there are mechanisms for the individual patient to complain and for the PCT to monitor dentists. If treatment patterns change, the PCT should investigate. Dentists are professional people and we expect them to behave professionally.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that unscrupulous dentists are breaking up courses of treatment so that they cover more than the two-month period in which patients can return for corrective treatment without incurring a new patient charge. There is no financial benefit from such bad practice to dentists under the new system. Under the old system, the number of patient charges collected by dentists was one determinant of their income. Under the new system, dentists contract with PCTs to provide the totality of patients’ dental care, with an agreed contractual sum that is not affected by the number of treatment courses that patients undergo.

I hope that patients will become increasingly alert to any attempts at sharp practice. We have gone to great lengths to publicise the new charging arrangements. We have distributed leaflets and posters to dental practices and other health service premises, and to public libraries and citizens advice bureaux. There is also information on the Department’s website and on the websites of bodies such as the British Dental Association and the British Dental Health Foundation.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned imported dental appliances. I agree that proper regulation is needed—that is something that we have considered before. The European Community medical devices directive is enforced in the UK by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, and it meets that requirement. Under the directive, appliances prescribed by UK dentists from a laboratory outside the European Community must be approved by an authorised representative working in the UK. That representative could be a dental technician working in a laboratory registered under the directive or a registered dentist who—if satisfied with the quality of the appliance—is required to issue a certificate of compliance with the directive.

However, to strengthen the requirement further, we have ensured that the new general dental service regulations require the contractor’s patient records to include the certificate of compliance for any dental appliance provided. That means that all the information about an appliance will be readily available for inspection by the PCT. So, if there are complaints, the mechanism exists to ensure that the PCT can examine what has been supplied and satisfy itself that the appliance meets the correct standards.

I intend that the effects of the reforms should be monitored. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the previous personal dental services pilots. The evidence from them was that, in some areas, overall activity lessened, which is why we have introduced measurement by UDA. That will allow us to ensure that any spare capacity is used to allow more people to have access to an NHS dentist and that activity is maintained. The evidence from the pilots showed a certain drop in activity at first, but as they progressed, activity increased, as I have described.

That is true, but activity levelled out over the period of the pilots, and over the full period of the pilots there was a significant overall decrease. Does the Minister agree that the figures from the recent May 2006 survey suggest that the new contract has not resolved the problems that appeared in the first few months of the pilot?

I do not agree. I do not believe that, as the new system to monitor activity beds down, there will be a vast falling off over time, because there is the ability to look at both the prescribing of appliances and the patient profile.

It is important to put all those things together and say that we should pay the dentist to look after the holistic needs of the patients, not just for each filling and so on. Dentists should look at the patient and decide what is best. If what is not clinically appropriate is prescribed, that is wrong. We should be prescribing what is clinically appropriate, including appliances. That, combined with the monitoring, through the UDA system, of the work that dentists are carrying out should ensure that the same number of appliances are prescribed.

However, I have been keen to monitor the effect of the reforms. That is why we have established an implementation group to ensure that the new commissioning objectives that we have set out are met. The Dental Laboratories Association is on that review group, which will be given information on prescribing patterns since 1 April as soon as we have sufficient data to establish any trends. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman was referring to in relation to May—with the new contract coming in, there would not have been enough time to notice any difference by then—but we expect to have something by September.

If the data show that dentists are not prescribing all the dental appliances for which their patients have a clinical need, we will be able to obtain further information from patient inspections conducted by the dental reference service, which is an important part of the protections that the hon. Gentleman seeks. The DRS is a team of experienced dentists who are charged with ensuring that NHS dental treatment is necessary and carried out to satisfactory standards.

Each year, DRS dentists examine more than 80,000 randomly selected patients. The DRS might be asked to target patients who have undergone extensive courses of treatment under band 2 to see whether an appliance such as a bridge or crown has been clinically indicated but not given, or patients in band 3 to ensure that an appliance has been appropriately prescribed.

That gives a measure whereby we can say whether there are any indications that the prescribing of appliances is not taking place as we think it should be. That is another measure—this time at the national level—to ensure a check. So, there is a check at the patient level, the PCT level and the national level.

I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman made. I hope that I have reassured him that we have not taken the representations from the dental laboratories lightly.

Will the Minister briefly address my comments on the lack of access to NHS dentists, which is an increasing problem in many constituencies?

As the hon. Gentleman will remember, I addressed that issue when I said that, overall, the reforms that we have put in place mean that, whereas previously there was no money left at the local level to replace dentists who left the NHS, that situation has been turned round. Investment in dentistry in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency has increased by 23 per cent. over the past few years.

I hope that I have set out the safeguards that we have put in place, which the implementation review group will want to monitor closely. If there is any evidence of an inappropriate decline in the prescribing of dental appliances, we have the resources to investigate the problem and a forum for devising remedial action.

Wood Panel Industry

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue. First, congratulations are in order to the Department of Trade and Industry and the Government on giving such high priority to energy issues and the question of Britain’s future energy provision. In this era of increasing emissions and climate change, taking steps now to reduce the negative effects of our energy consumption has never been so important.

Today, I want to draw attention to an aspect of our energy policy that I believe has been overlooked and which has the potential to inflict serious damage on one of the greener industries in the UK. The renewables obligation, introduced in 2002, requires all commercial electricity suppliers to generate a specific and increasing proportion of their energy from renewable energy sources.

A supplier can demonstrate compliance with the obligation by the redemption of renewables obligation certificates, which are issued to accredited generators for each megawatt-hour of eligible generation. Alternatively, suppliers can pay a buy-out price, originally set at £30 per megawatt-hour but subsequently adjusted in accordance with the retail prices index. Renewables obligation certificates can be traded and provide a financial incentive for generators to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. It is laudable that the renewables obligation is stimulating the growth of the renewable energy market and encouraging Britain’s more conventional electricity generators to consider alternative technologies and methods as well as contributing financially to their development. I understand that the renewables obligation has been particularly successful in driving the development of onshore wind technology.

An unintended consequence of the obligation and the financial support that it offers to electricity generators is that it threatens the survival of the UK’s wood panel industry by introducing subsidised competition for the same timber resources that are the lifeblood of that industry. Panel producers use as raw material timber-based materials including sustainable forest products, sawmilling products such as chips and sawdust and post-consumer recycled wood to produce chipboard, oriented strand board and medium density fibreboard, or MDF, which, as you might remember, Mr. Cook, was popularised by the BBC’s “Changing Rooms” in the DIY boom of the late 1990s. On the other hand, you might not remember.

Aside from DIY, the main markets for the industry’s products are furniture production and construction, and with a turnover of more than £650 million the UK’s eight manufacturing facilities produce nearly 3.5 million cu m annually. Together, UK wood panel manufacturers supply between 70 and 80 per cent. of our national market. It is a high-volume, capital-intensive industry, and it directly and indirectly employs about 7,000 people, several hundred of them in my constituency at Kronospan.

Next to the sawmill industry, wood panel manufacturers are the largest consumers of wood raw materials sourced from UK sustainable forestry and reprocess some 90 per cent. of available recycled wood into boards, promoting carbon storage while preventing a reusable resource from going to landfill. Those timber-based raw materials are in greater demand than might be imagined since the introduction of the renewables obligation. Some UK generators have turned to the same timber products as a valuable source of biomass fuel. In fact, I was on a Welsh Affairs Committee visit in Aberthaw power station when we were considering energy in Wales, and I saw mounds of perfectly clean sawdust being burned in the power station, mixed with coal.

Other fossil fuels can also be used in conjunction with wood and sawdust. In return, the power stations get renewables obligation certificates that, as I described earlier, can be sold on to other electricity providers at a higher price than producing the electricity itself offers. It is a profitable way of generating electricity and the UK energy industry has caught on. The award of renewables obligation certificates to coal-firing generators has risen by 392 per cent. in the past two years and now represents one fifth of all certificates that have been issued.

The point is not the use of fuel, which has gone on since mankind inhabited caves, but the provision of financial support for the use of a raw material that is known to be essential for use in product manufacture by a generating technology that is not new and in which relatively little investment is required for co-firing. The issue, therefore, is about scale and the potential for wood-supply distortions as a consequence of co-fired power stations moving towards an increased use of UK-sourced wood.

One study funded by the Minister’s Department shows that, with the aid of subsidy, co-fired power stations have acquired the potential to outbid the panel industry in the price that it can economically pay for its wood raw material. That potential also exists with purpose-built, biomass power stations, but to a lesser degree. Such competition has the effect of forcing up the price, which on the one hand may provide a needed benefit for forestry, but which equally erodes the competitiveness of wood processing industries.

The wood panel industry operates on low margins and is subject to significant foreign competition, so its ability to pay more for that resource is therefore limited. It is also struggling at the moment with energy prices, as are many energy-intensive industries. If the wood panel industry and, potentially, other wood-processing industries were to be forced out of business, the consequences for the forest-based supply industry and downstream users could be severe.

Timber supply is not something that can be quickly or easily increased. I am informed that on paper there should be more than enough wood available in the UK to supply both the existing industries and the developing wood fuel market. Much of the potential biomass is not, however, either economically or physically available due to ownership, terrain and infrastructure issues. Furthermore, most combustion plant is restrictive as to the specification of fuel that can be burned.

The statistics that we have on wood availability show that there is already tightness in the supply of sawmill product. As a consequence, price rises have been incurred and wood panel producers are reporting lower than average availability of small roundwood. In that context, it is worth noting that Drax Power, for instance, has been sourcing wood from the Kielder forest, a key source of supply for wood panel producers. There is little scope for the amount of wood types quoted earlier to expand in the present climate, and importing wood for wood panel manufacturing is not an option. We will end up importing wood panels, to the detriment of our industry and our balance of payments.

I understand that co-firing has been supported in order to stimulate the development of the energy crop market, which is an extremely commendable aim but, unfortunately, to date it has been less than successful. In the absence of significant volumes of energy crop on the ground, and with questions being asked about the sustainability of importing biomass fuels for co-firing, what biomass fuel would generators turn to?

The wood panel industry fears that, as suggested by the terms of reference of the co-firing review, if co-firing were to be encouraged further to provide a greater contribution towards renewable energy objectives, the potential would be there for the rapid demise of the wood panel industry because there would be a period before sufficient energy crop was available when demand for timber would outstrip supply. It is an esoteric point, but it is essential that the Government grasp it because of the dire consequences for the industry if they do not.

I will not dwell on the environmental case, but although co-firing with biomass might be more environmentally sustainable than sole reliance on fossil fuels, it still pollutes more than alternative sustainable technologies. Co-firing is also extremely inefficient, with combustion efficiencies only 33 to 37 per cent. when co-fired with coal. Co-firing is marginally cleaner than reliance on fossil fuels, but not so green that UK energy policy can afford to turn the lights out on a responsible and environmentally conscious industry such as the wood panel industry.

On support mechanisms, the renewables obligation had an objective to support the development of new technologies, which is surely not a claim applicable to co-firing. Although it is understood that the RO has failed in a number of respects, I ask whether it is an appropriate mechanism for the support of co-firing, especially as the energy sector could receive substantial benefit from carbon credits awarded under the EU emissions-trading scheme. To compound the problem, in the future if the large combustion plant directive encourages co-fired power stations to convert to 100 per cent. biomass, demand for UK wood waste supplies could far outstrip supply. Without substantive action taken now, the wood panel industry’s days are numbered.

The current strain placed on the wood fibre market could be alleviated considerably by reducing the general obligation for biomass combustion in co-firing, and at the same time removing barriers and further incentivising energy crops such as short-rotation coppice or miscanthus. More energy crops would mitigate against the potential crisis faced by the wood panel industry and further incentivise existing energy generators to convert to sustainable sources of biomass. It is clear that energy crops must be encouraged if energy generators and the wood panel industry are to co-exist.

There are a great many possible solutions to the problem that would allow the renewable energy sector and the wood panel industry to flourish alongside one another. Providing push incentives for the supply side of the equation as well as pull incentives is worthy of consideration. In terms of broader biomass policy, I am told that many millions of tonnes of biomass currently go to landfill, and I wonder what consideration is being given to using that discarded material as a fuel.

As I said, one of the UK’s leading wood panel manufacturers is based in my constituency. Kronospan employs 670 people in very good jobs and has the largest single site in the UK. In 1999, it won the Queen’s award for environmental achievement in industry and during the past five years improved its own energy efficiency by 20 per cent.

The impacts are beginning to be felt. Indeed, for the first time since the company has been at the site—some 29 years, I believe—it had to stop for four days over Christmas. Normally, it is a 365-day operation. Although there may be technical or other reasons why decisions may be made that some co-fired generators will not burn wood, there is no restriction in policy terms to prevent the scenarios that I have alluded to from occurring. Without a thorough examination of the issues and a review of the co-firing rules in the renewables obligation, the Minister’s undertaking to minimise the potential for a negative impact on co-firing and other industries that use biomass as feedstock is not achievable, and the 670 jobs at Kronospan might well be lost, along with 6,500 others nationwide. That is as needless as it would be regrettable. What is most evident is that whatever the Government do, they cannot do nothing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate on behalf of his constituents. I know that he has pursued the issue with great vigour and has had meetings with Ministers and officials in my Department about it.

The debate highlights the tensions and potential conflicts that can arise when we pursue priorities for energy policy and sustainability alongside what I have responsibility for, which is maintaining and encouraging the continuation and development of our manufacturing base. I shall try to respond to some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised, particularly the concerns that the wood panel sector has about the impact of co-firing on the cost of its raw materials. We must consider those issues in the context of the tension between our broader sustainability agenda and our manufacturing policy.

The wood panel industry is important. In preparing for the debate today, I learned a great deal about it. Its contribution is growing, because it provides a sustainable solution to many of our problems. Wood panels are used in a range of the Government’s capital projects, whether housing, hospitals or schools, and as individual consumers we use wood panels in our homes. We therefore want to maintain the British base. The wood panel industry has undertaken a great deal of good work in modernising its construction methods, and we want to hold on to that. For example, it has been involved in initiatives such as prefabricated building modules for housing, which now make a considerable contribution to the housing market, accounting for an 8 per cent. share. The timber frame sector is helping to produce housing more quickly and at a better cost using the engineered beams to which my hon. Friend referred, which are made from chip and oriented strand board and offer structural components that can compete directly with steel and concrete. That is all good stuff that we want to hang on to. Combined with chipboard decking, that offers an off-site manufactured flooring solution, which is becoming increasingly popular and is now the material of choice for carpeting, flooring, decking and shuttered applications, so a lot of good stuff is going on.

Let us consider the wood panel industry in the round. It makes a significant contribution to the United Kingdom economy. Its turnover is nearly £1 billion, with a gross added value of £275 million. My hon. Friend said that 7,000 people are employed in the industry; the figure that I have is 6,000, but the number of people involved is certainly substantial. We are conscious that increasingly the industry is having to compete. We import more than we export—we import about £800 million worth of goods and we export £100 million of goods. That gives us some idea that the cost pressures arising from reasonable developments in sustainable energy can have a big impact and provide a genuine threat. I recognise that from what my hon. Friend has said.

Why are we in the present situation? Our drive to ensure a sustainable economy has led us to look for new ways in which to provide sustainable energy. We are striving to achieve not only a sustainable innovative and productive economy that delivers high levels of employment and manufacturing activity, but a society that promotes sustainable communities and personal well-being. We want that to be delivered in ways that protect and enhance the physical and natural environment and use our resources and energy as efficiently as possible. We need to reconcile those competing objectives and build them as interlinked ambitions.

Economic growth is obviously as vital today as it has always been, but we face new environmental challenges. They become particularly potent in the global world as many other countries expand their industries at a time when the global environment is struggling to cope with the impact of existing economic and manufacturing activity. In that context, undoubtedly our consumption of natural resources throughout the world is unsustainable. We need to be more far-sighted in respect of the solutions to the environmental challenges that we face.

In that context, recycling inevitably plays a major part in the solution. Wood is a versatile product. It has economic value; it is used in buildings, where the panel industry plays its part; and, when it is finished with, it can be recycled, re-used or burned and the energy recovered. In addition, the wood industry sustains jobs. We are therefore considering competing uses of jobs, wood as a source of sustainable energy and wood providing the products that we want and need.

Let me draw attention to our commitments under “Kyoto and Beyond” in respect of the threats of environmental change. As my hon. Friend will know, we set ourselves the tough target of reducing carbon emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. In our 2003 energy White Paper, we flagged up the important role that biomass can play in that. We expect that it may become one of the largest contributors to our renewables generation mix. Through our policies, that is what we are hoping to use to meet the target of 20 per cent. of electricity produced from renewables by 2020. In our response to the report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on biomass as a renewable energy source, which was published in 2004, we agreed that biomass has the potential to make a significant contribution to the reduction of carbon dioxide levels, if it is substituted for fossil fuel in the generation of heat and electricity.

How can we achieve those objectives and reconcile them? We need to expand the biomass industry. We have set ourselves targets and, to achieve them, we need to increase the amount of energy cropping by as much as 125,000 hectares, not including crops that might be developed for transport use—biofuels, biodiesel and the like. With colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we are actively encouraging the development of biomass crops and directly supporting the planting of short rotation coppices using willow and miscanthus—a species of woody, perennial grasses that came from Asia. The Government agreed with the royal commission that an integrated approach is needed to ensure that our industrial, agricultural and environmental policies cohere effectively to ensure maximum, optimum benefits from our biomass energy.

The renewables obligation, to which my hon. Friend referred, was introduced in 2002. It provides a substantial market incentive for all eligible forms of renewable energy by providing support for biomass in the form of renewables obligation capital grants for biomass heat and power generation, planting grants for establishing energy crops, set-up costs for producer groups to harvest and market biomass, and certificates that can be claimed under the renewables obligation if biomass is co-fired with coal. By the end of 2004, generation from renewable sources eligible under the renewables obligation stood at 3.1 per cent. of the UK’s electricity supply. In the 2003 energy White Paper, we committed to review the obligation in 2005-06. That review is not a fundamental rethink of our renewables policy but an opportunity to look at amendments to improve the effectiveness of the obligation in certain areas. We published a preliminary consultation document, setting out the Government’s proposed policy, on which we sought stakeholders’ views in March 2005. We followed that with a statutory consultation document, published in September 2005, in which we set out our proposed policy and sought views on the specific changes.

One outcome of “Renewable Obligations”, the DTI review, was the lowering of the biomass purity requirement from 98 to 90 per cent to bring more waste woods, which are currently sent to landfill, to be burned. That seems wasteful—my hon. Friend said that he had seen clean materials going into landfill—but I am told that biomass material goes to landfill because it is too contaminated for either processing into other products or burning. However, I shall look again at that matter, because it is an important means by which we could try to make progress. As my hon. Friend knows, interest in co-firing has exceeded the 10 per cent. cap that came into effect in April this year. There is also growing interest in clean coal and carbon capture and storage, which form a significant part of our long-term generation mix. We are looking again at co-firing as part of the ongoing energy review. We are focusing on the potential contribution that it can make to our energy policy goals and the level of support that it will require. I am conscious that that may create additional problems for my hon. Friend and the industry that he seeks to support in the debate today.

We understand the importance of investor confidence in the renewables obligation. We have said that a careful assessment of the impact of any changes on other renewable technologies and other biomass-using industries will be a key factor in that review. I can give him that commitment. When we have published the energy review, which is on course to be published in July before the recess, we will make a high-level statement on co-firing. If we decide to propose changes in respect of co-firing or any of the other matters, we will have a full consultation. I urge my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further with the Minister for Energy.

The Wood Panels Industry Federation has made a significant contribution to the energy review and representatives have met the Minister for Energy. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South has also met and consulted officials from the renewable policy and development section of the Department of Trade and Industry and voiced the concerns that he has expressed today about co-firing. Those views will certainly be taken into account. We are trying to take a tough set of decisions to reconcile our objectives, as I hope he appreciates.

We are also talking to our colleagues at DEFRA in a biomass taskforce and trying to put together what is described as a biomass action plan, to grow that industry. We hope to publish that document next year. Clearly, if we can improve that part of our policy, that will help us to reconcile the manufacturing and the sustainable energy objectives for which we are striving.

DEFRA has also been looking into the use of non-food crops for more sustainable improved homes; it will publish the findings of that study in November. There will always be a conflict, as I am sure my hon. Friend appreciates, between balancing all the aspects of our economic, social and environmental ambitions. It would be unreasonable to prejudge the outcome of the consultations, but I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that the concerns raised by the industry, many of them through him, are being listened to. I assure him then we come to implement policies flowing from the energy review, the effects on the wood panel sector will be taken into account. I hope that in that context, my hon. Friend can engage with the Department, and with relevant Ministers, to ensure that he can continue to protect an industry and a factory in his constituency that undoubtedly makes an important contribution not only by providing local people with jobs, but by providing more modern ways of construction, which are themselves sustainable, so meeting one of our objectives.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Five o’clock.