Wednesday 23 May 2012
[Mr Lee Scott in the Chair]
Hot Takeaway Food (VAT)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Jeremy Wright.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Scott, and to welcome so many hon. Members. I place on the record my personal thanks to Mr Speaker for allowing the debate, which was originally slated for the day of Prorogation and so fell from the order of business. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing it to take place today instead.
There is much to welcome in the Budget announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, particularly the lifting of more than 2 million of the lowest paid out of paying income tax and the additional tax burden placed on those fortunate enough to be among the wealthiest in our society. However, I would not be doing my job as a Member of Parliament if I welcomed only the good news from the coalition Government and turned a blind eye to Government proposals that had a significant negative impact on my constituents and the country. The proposals for the extension of VAT to hot food, and in particular how they relate to baked goods, fall into that category.
I am, however, grateful to the Minister and to other colleagues in Government for the constructive way in which they have handled this issue and the concerns raised by me, my hon. Friends and the industry. I found them willing to listen and receptive to alternative solutions. It is surely in the best tradition of Government to recognise that none of us has a monopoly on wisdom. Their constructive engagement with me and others has been welcome.
I support the overall aims of the Government. It is right to seek to simplify the application of VAT rules on hot food, to close anomalies that have been exploited by supermarkets and others and raise revenue from those flouting the rules, to help tackle the national deficit and create a level playing field as between bakeries and other sellers of hot food, such as fish and chips. However, we have to do so in a way that actually creates simplicity, is enforceable by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, is deliverable by businesses across the country, and, crucially, is understandable for consumers. The effect of the Government’s current proposals on the baking industry fall short in all four of those tests.
I would like to set out the practical problems and concerns with the Government’s proposals, and the likely economic impact on the baking sector if the proposals are not altered, and then present an alternative way forward that I hope will achieve the Government’s aims without any negative impact. I am not proposing, however tempting it is, to stand here and argue for an exemption for the Cornish pasty or the baking industry. I want to set out a framework that delivers the Government’s intention of consistency and simplicity.
I am delighted to have the support of my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Andrew George), for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), and for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), and that of many other hon. Members from across the House and the country, including an alliance, however unlikely, with Devon.
It is understandable that the Government should seek to move away from the current situation in respect of VAT on hot food, where the basis of the test rests on the intention of the supplier. That is subjective, and has led to considerable inconsistency of application. In recent years, a plethora of case law tribunals have established significant anomalies—for example, two hours for zero-rated food, a position exploited by supermarkets in particular.
In place of that subjective and contestable test of intention, the Government’s proposals attempt to move towards a more precise test that centres on ambient air temperature, but that simply replaces one set of anomalies with another when it comes to baked products—pasties, sausage rolls, meat and potato pies and all the other savoury staples in our high street. There is little doubt that the ambient air temperature test will become the subject of significant dispute between bakeries and HMRC, with the potential for litigation. Why is that? The ambient air temperature is constantly changing. As the temperature of a naturally cooling baked product is also constantly changing, it raises the possibility of a pasty or pie at the same temperature being subject to different VAT rules in different parts of the country at the same moment. That is clearly a nonsensical position that will cause considerable difficulties in establishing a consistent ambient air temperature for every bakery in the country, a duty unlikely to be welcomed by HMRC. It will place an additional difficulty for the businesses concerned in deciding when to charge the customer VAT.
The proposed changes would be open to challenge in terms of legal certainty, and could tie up the industry and the Government in the courts for some time. The changes are contrary to the stated intention of the consultation—to simplify current rules and reduce uncertainty and costs for both businesses and HMRC. The ambient air temperature has already been found wanting by the courts. In the Court of Appeal, during the Pimblett case in 1988, Lord Justice Parker said:
“The test is a precise one. It involves a remarkable result that frozen food would be regarded as hot if the ambient temperature was one degree lower than freezing. A praiseworthy attempt to produce precision does not, in this instance, appear to me to have advanced clarity one whit”.
To an extent, that view seems to be shared by colleagues in the Treasury. In my discussions with them, it seems that the Government’s intention is not even to enforce the letter of the proposed rules, but to make a number of assumptions based on the quantity of each bakery’s products that should be standard-rated. That is untenable.
Any apportionment scheme cannot override the basic rules on supply, consideration and liability. That is even recognised in HMRC’s guidance. Any agreement based on the temperature of cooling products will be impossible, given the size and variation in bakeries and the fact that a reference point for ambient air temperature cannot be established.
There are a number of other practical difficulties for businesses. When do they issue a VAT receipt if requested to do so by customers? They will have to re-write till software systems and determine the price on which VAT would be charged, all set against the unworkable backdrop of legislation that will be prone to confusion and challenge.
Another issue relates to products sold on a seasonal basis—perhaps we can add mince pies to the list. At what point would HMRC agree with bakeries on the apportionment scheme for seasonal products such as mince pies? I doubt whether that would be able to be done in a timely way, and it shows that the Government’s tests are unworkable. If agreement on an apportionment scheme cannot be reached, the industry will have to fall back on legislation, which would be problematic at the very least.
The Government’s current proposals are unenforceable by HMRC and undeliverable by the industry. They will be confusing to customers and open to challenge in the courts.
My hon. Friend has ably demolished the Government’s primary claim that the measure is a means by which they can resolve an anomaly. The Treasury knows that wherever a line is drawn, even a new line, a new anomaly is created. Does my hon. Friend agree that under all Governments the Treasury tends to use sophistry when arguing that it is resolving an anomaly and that that is simply a way of increasing tax income?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on the Treasury’s intention, but I will demonstrate that the negative effects of the measure make it unlikely that any net additional revenue would be raised, when the damage to jobs, business rates and so on is taken on board. He is right to say that the Government expect to raise money from this measure—their impact assessment suggested that £50 million would be raised in the first year, rising to £120 million annually in subsequent years—but at what cost would that be to the baking industry in particular? I am afraid that it will cost jobs and investment in an industry that we want to see more of, not less, on our high streets.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Surely there has been unfairness in the takeaway industry, with the fish and chip shop up against the supermarket selling hot chickens, as he has already mentioned. There has to be a clear definition of what constitutes takeaway food, because that is lacking at the moment.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. There needs to be a level playing field. I shall say how I seek to achieve that for the Government, but with a simpler test. He is right to say that there is confusion between different takeaway outlets and types of takeaway food. That is also reflected in planning law, in which takeaways selling fish and chips are in a different category from bakeries.
It has been estimated that some 2,000 jobs throughout the UK are at risk and 300 bakeries on our high streets are at risk of closure. With the impact of the ongoing recession and the significant supply side inflation of recent years, the baking industry is unable to absorb the imposition of the standard rate of VAT, and price increases are inevitable. Research from YouGov shows clearly that this proposal is unpopular with the public—69% of people have said that they do not support it—and that is also demonstrated in a petition signed by more than 50,000 people, which hon. Friends and I gave recently to Downing street. That research also suggests that the measure will change people’s behaviour, with up to one in three people saying that they will stop buying baked savouries. Consumers being able easily to swap to cheaper zero-rated alternatives will impact on the entire supply chain, but with no net additional receipts to the Exchequer.
As I said, the National Association of Master Bakers estimates that some 2,000 jobs will be lost nationally, many hundreds in Cornwall. Bakeries will close on our high streets, creating more empty units at a time when, through the Portas review and other measures, the Government are seeking to boost the high street. The overall economic costs created will undermine any additional tax from the baking industry.
Cornwall Food and Drink estimates that at least 100 businesses in Cornwall contribute to the production of more than 170 million Cornish pasties each year. The total turnover of the industry is thought to be more than £280 million, double the estimates of 2005. It is a growing industry. At least 25% of the turnover is spent in the local economy; the industry is thought to be worth £72 million indirectly, with £15 million going to Cornish farmers.
Pasty production produces other socio-economic benefits as well as purely economic ones—supporting village shops in rural communities, for example. It is a vital part of the Cornish economy, which still languishes on European aid.
In 2011, the university of Exeter showed that keeping retail prices down while suffering strong increases in input costs, particularly fuel and other costs, would seriously affect margins in the Cornish food and drink sector. The industry is clear that it cannot afford to absorb the potential increase in VAT, which will be passed to consumers.
What does that mean for my constituents? The impact will be devastating. The producers, retailers and suppliers will lose more than £100 million a year, an estimated 1,100 jobs will be lost and scores of high street bakeries will close. These proposals come at a time when retailers, including food-to-go shops, have already been hit by an additional £350 million business rate bill this year and when the sector overall already contributes £5 billion a year in VAT—some 9% of the total VAT take—despite accounting for only 5% of gross domestic product. The British Retail Consortium tells us that consumer spending is falling and household incomes are shrinking.
Sadly, there is no evidence that HMRC has considered the impact on the cost of welfare payments resulting from job losses, the reduced amount of corporation tax that the Revenue will receive, the loss of income tax and national insurance revenue as a consequence of the bakery industry’s contracting, and the high street supply chain’s being hit, including the loss of business rate revenue to local authorities.
There is also the socio-economic consideration, pointed out by the Association of Convenience Stores, among others. This change will hit the least well off the most. The poorest households spend almost one fifth of their net household incomes on VAT, but the richest spend only 9%. The measure will compound that, hitting the lunch of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country.
What is the alternative? The Cornish Pasty Association, the National Association of Master Bakers, Greggs, the West Cornwall Pasty Company and others have suggested in their responses to the Government’s consultation that we need to return to the original intention. VAT was first extended to hot takeaway food in 1984 by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, who said in his Budget speech:
“Most food is zero rated, but food served in restaurants is taxed, together with a miscellaneous range of items including ice cream, confectionery…Takeaway food clearly competes with other forms of catering, and I therefore intend to bring into tax hot take-away food and drinks”.—[Official Report, 13 March 1984; Vol. 56, c. 303.]
That relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) ably made about the need for a level playing field.
The then Chancellor elaborated that statement in a written response to the former Member of Parliament for Leeds South, Merlyn Rees:
“The VAT extension to hot take-away food which I announced in the Budget applies to food and drink which has been deliberately heated so that it can be consumed whilst still hot. It does not apply to food and drink which has cooled to room temperature by the time it is sold, or to things like pies and pasties which are sold warm because they happen to be freshly baked, and not to enable them to be consumed while still hot.”
I could not have put it better myself. That is the fundamental difference between a meal cooked to order in a fish and chip shop—or a curry or a pizza—and a baked product, which is simply hot as a result of its production, but cools naturally over time. The former Chancellor recognised that baked products are hot or warm by virtue of being baked, not because they are made to order and hot for consumption in the same way as curry or fish and chips are. His position has not been challenged by subsequent Governments and it is my view, and that of my hon. Friends, that it should be upheld while we seek to clarify the additional anomalies that have arisen since 1984.
To put it crudely, we can hit the £280 million rotisserie chicken business and provide the level playing field with fish and chips, but we must maintain the additional principle of food being hot at the time it is provided to the customer, recognising the differences that the former Chancellor recognised many years ago. The additional principle should be that baked goods are zero-rated, except where they are kept hot for consumption.
In short, we seek to amend the Government’s proposals to include the provision that VAT on baked goods should be charged only if they are kept in heated cabinets or if other paraphernalia are used to keep them hot for sale, in the same way that battered fish and chips are kept hot for sale in a cabinet in fish and chip shops. That would not interfere with the Government’s proposals to charge VAT on hot food cooked to order and provided hot to the customer for consumption.
I am sure that the Minister will want to consult Treasury counsel on the exact wording of any change and that he has a mountain of responses from the consultation to wade through. However, my view is held not only by me, but my hon. Friends and the industry. In practice, our suggestion would mean that a pasty sold in a fish and chip shop that is currently standard-rated, because it is kept hot for sale alongside some pre-cooked fish or a battered sausage, would be on the level playing field sought by the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
The alternative would mean that any pasty kept hot for sale in a bakery would also be standard-rated, achieving the level playing field that the Government want in a way that is enforceable by HMRC. By closing the loopholes exploited by the supermarkets, the measure would raise at least £56 million per annum, which is equivalent to the vast bulk of the Government’s expected revenue from the changes.
The alternative provides a simple test for business: VAT on baked goods that are kept hot artificially, and no VAT on those that are hot simply as a result of their cooling process. It avoids the legal uncertainty and likely challenge to HMRC, it delivers to the customer a clear and understandable difference in pricing—VAT on a product that is kept hot, no VAT for a product that is not—it allows flexibility for businesses to adapt their models accordingly and, crucially, industry suggests, it would have none of the damaging effects that I outlined earlier.
My view and that of my hon. Friends is that the Government’s proposals are unenforceable, are undeliverable by business, replace one set of anomalies with another, are likely to be heavily contested and will do significant damage to the Cornish economy and to high streets throughout the country. By contrast, the alternative proposal put forward by me and my hon. Friends is clear and consistent, is enforceable by the Revenue, closes the loopholes exploited by the supermarkets—therefore raising the vast bulk of the revenue that the Treasury wishes to obtain—and creates the level playing field with the fish and chip shops that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly demands. It is deliverable and would be publicly welcomed by the baking industry. I hope that the Minister will say in his remarks that he is actively considering our alternative as the consultation proceeds.
Thank you, Mr Scott, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing the debate and on his accurate description of the problem that the Government have got him into. I appreciate his panic, because with this betrayal of Cornwall one almost expects Mr Sacha Baron Cohen to appear at the door.
For 100 years, the Liberals have been out of power, then the first time that they can get into a real argument and debate it is on the destruction of the core Cornish industry. One could not make that up. Of course we know why it has happened. When I asked my innocent question of the Chancellor in the Treasury Committee, he was somewhat stumped by the fact that there might be a problem. The reason he was stumped is that he is not a man who pays any attention to detail—that has been proven time and time again. Ask him a factual question, he gives a vague answer. That is a problem for someone who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer meddling with detail. There is good reason why no Chancellor has meddled with such details since 1984—because the detail is so complex that whatever rules they come up with, it is possible to find a way round them. I shall explain some likely scenarios in a minute.
What has been the Government’s stock response, fed to their loyal Back Benchers over the past month or so? Fish and chips. Yet, coming from the country’s heartland of fish and chips, I do not recall anyone in my lifetime who eats fish and chips cold. Unless the Government surreptitiously intend to continue to spread VAT to include cold foods, in which case the nation would like to be informed of the plan, they need to reverse the absurd decision that was made.
Let me give some examples, because it is not only Cornwall that has been betrayed—England has been betrayed. I mentioned Bakewell pudding in the Finance Bill Committee yesterday, and Ministers started muttering about almonds. Attention to detail is everything for Treasury Ministers. When I talk about the Bakewell pudding, I am not talking of a processed derivative created by a Mr Kipling, sold in supermarkets with almonds on top and bearing no comparison to the traditional English Bakewell pudding. The Bakewell tart is an entirely different product and, because it is cold, is zero-rated. No, I am talking about the Bakewell pudding, the quintessential English product made as it has been for many centuries, using traditional methods, of which Prince Charles and many others, myself included, would wholly approve—doing things in the traditional way, passing on the skills needed to create the product. Now, solely because Bakewell pudding is made in the traditional way, it will be taxed at 20%. If the manufacturers of the Bakewell pudding were to use processed ingredients, they would be able to concoct a product—vastly inferior, but in some way with the same name; as I pointed out, a major manufacturer has already done so—which would be zero-rated, but we lose the English tradition, we lose the real food. There are other such examples.
By definition, the businesses involved are small businesses. Those traditions, kept in the traditional way, cannot be transported into some mass-produced product sold in supermarkets throughout the country and the world. That is the point and that is what we will lose if those traditional producers are disadvantaged by being charged 20% VAT under this cack-handed measure.
Let me give another example. There has been a rush to eat pasties among senior politicians, including the Chancellor. The Prime Minister allegedly once ate a pasty on Leeds station—a station I know extremely well, coming from Leeds—but from a shop that had closed two years previously, so it was a time-lapsed pasty which, by definition, must have gone cold in the time. But he ate the pasty.
Let us take a railway station such as Knutsford—let us assume that there is a station there, although I have not been to the Chancellor’s constituency—or think of our own stations. We might have a traditional English baker outside the station, baking away, producing Cornish pasties and the rest. Currently, those products are VAT-free, but they will now have the 20% applied, although the Government are still looking at how to define their new criteria. Inside the station we have a café; the baker passes the baked products on to the café, which sells them, and the Government might say, “Ah, hot product, it has got to be VAT-ed.” But how do we do that? It has been passed on and is no longer baked on the premises, so it must be zero-rated. We must make sure that there is no anomaly.
What about seats? If there are seats, we might apply VAT because it is a café. Yet it is in a railway station, and the railway station decides in this beautiful temperature to have some seats outside the café. The Government have their test of ambient temperature, so we have ambient temperatures inside and outside the café—I hope that hon. Members will go to Bakewell and see the on-street seating available for those who wish to purchase Bakewell puddings there. So, inside and outside, there are different ambient temperatures—ah, clever Government! We might therefore ensure that all the chairs are incorporated inside the café, but it is a railway station and Network Rail has put a couple of benches outside. Will we have different temperatures between the railway bench and the café seats, and between the café seats inside and outside? There is also the baker who serves inside and the baker who has a little hatch and serves outside. Such examples show precisely why since 1984 the concept of ambient temperature has been ducked, as Treasury officials have tried to persuade every single Chancellor since then to extend VAT. Of course, now that has happened, although things could get worse.
I know that the Chancellor likes his football, and the nation groaned during the Champions League final. People support their own team, but the Prime Minister, who is allegedly an Aston Villa fan, was cheering Chelsea. That is a contradiction. As the cup was lifted, the Minister for Sport and the Olympics was, rightly, in his place, and who was alongside him? The Chancellor, the new Chelsea supporter. When politicians are having problems, they pretend to support a football team that is winning. If it loses, they disappear into the hospitality room, but if it wins, they are there, beaming. I know what the nation said when it saw him on their telly screens. The Chancellor’s local team is Macclesfield Town, and I happened to be there for a match in January.
I am about to do that. Macclesfield Town’s stadium, like every football stadium, has a pie shop, but the Chancellor does not know that. When he goes to a football match, he is in the corporate hospitality room, so VAT is not an issue because he does not pay, just as he does not pay for his ticket or his travel, but that is another issue. The Chancellor does not pay for corporate hospitality, so whether something is VAT-ed does not matter to him. But I was stood there, hungry, having gone to Macclesfield to watch a cup match between Macclesfield Town and Bolton. I went to the pie stall, where pies are heated up on the premises. Will they be VAT-ed or not? If I buy a takeaway, will it be VAT-ed or not? If I heat it up in a microwave in the corner, will it be VAT-ed or not? If the shop staff heat it up in the microwave, will it be VAT-ed or not? Will there be a fancy process to avoid the VAT? It is fairly obvious how that can be defined.
The Government could introduce criteria for seating, so that if I sit down in the nice seats—there are not many seats at Macclesfield Town—I might pay VAT, but not if I stand up, as I did. Those anomalies will arise whatever way the Government move. My appeal to this out-of-touch, anti-English, inept-on-detail Treasury team and Government is to do their friends the Liberals a favour. They are up 4% in the north of England, and 2% in recent elections in my area, but the Government should give them a fighting chance in the south-west, and do the decent thing for England: get rid of this nonsense, and introduce a system that the country wants, which is no VAT on pasties, and no VAT on Bakewell puddings. Keep things as they are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Lee. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who made a passionate speech in defence of the Bakewell pudding, which I hate to say I have not sampled, but I will remedy that. Hon. Members may be surprised when looking at me to learn that I enjoy the occasional baked goods from establishments—[Laughter.] I know that that is hard to believe, and that they expect me to go to salad bars, but now and again I like to support the baking industry.
In my maiden speech in the House, I took the opportunity to talk about the campaign for protected geographical indication status for the Cornish pasty, a battle that was fought and won. One can buy pasties with many interesting fillings throughout the country, but Cornish pasties can be bought only if they have been made in Cornwall, no matter where they were baked. That is a serious point, because it protects jobs, and the quality of the traditional recipe. In Cornwall, we are proud of the Cornish pasty, and if someone is eating one, we want them to eat a proper one. “Proper” is an important word in Cornwall, and that campaign successfully delivered the mark of quality.
Businesses in Cornwall that invested in making that hand-made product, which is now sent throughout the country and baked locally, have created a huge number of jobs. They have created permanent jobs, part-time jobs, particularly during peak times in the summer, and even jobs for students. I am aware of that because when I was a student, I spent a summer making proper Cornish pasties in Bodmin. I had the glamorous job of going in at 5 o’clock in the morning to peel onions until about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and the pasties were ready for the next day. I am delighted that, the business having grown, the onions now come already peeled. That saves someone from having yellow hands, but the job provided valuable support for me when I was a student. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) said, the industry now employs a huge number of people in Cornwall, as does the retail side elsewhere in the country.
I followed what the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said. I would be delighted to pop to a station in my constituency to talk through the issues he raised but, sadly, I do not have any stations in my constituency. It is a mere 500 square miles, and there is no room for one, but I hope that the Government, who, as the hon. Gentleman said, take a close interest in Cornish affairs, will remedy that situation which, sadly, was not remedied under the previous Government.
The importance of the matter in the Budget has been questioned, and even in Cornwall people have said that many issues need to be dealt with: the state of the economy; sorting out public services to ensure that they are the most efficient and best delivered; and the inequality in funding. Cornwall receives lower school funding, and so on. It is right to raise such matters, and I, with my hon. Friends throughout Cornwall, will do so.
An issue should not be put to one side and allowed to go through unexamined, untested and unreformed just because it affects a specific group of people. Although it might affect a smaller group of people than some broader problems, it is incredibly important to those it does affect in terms of the economic impact and, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said, traditional skills. I was only peeling onions, and I was not let loose on crimping pasties, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) is very experienced in that, and could give a demonstration if visual aids were allowed during debates.
The Budget measures that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay welcomed include the increase in the income tax threshold, the biggest pension increase, and the commitment to the pupil premium—on Friday, with the Deputy Prime Minister, I talked to the head teacher at a local school about how that is having an effect. Those are good news stories, and it is good to hear from people how they are benefiting from them. However, we must not ignore the smaller issues that are incredibly important to some people.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay pointed out the wonderful anomaly whereby when the ambient temperature is below freezing, a frozen pasty would have to be sold, with VAT, as hot food. That sums up the huge problem and a further anomaly. I suppose the Treasury could create an arbitrary cut-off point, but we are not going to the heart of the problem, which is a sensible, cogent system. We come, therefore, to the proposal that my hon. Friend and others have advanced: if a hot cabinet is used to keep something warm, it falls into the same category as fish and chips and other foods that are kept warm to the point of sale. That is easily seen, and easily inspectable by the poor employees of HMRC who may have to do spot checks, and there would not be negotiation about the proportion of hot and cold food sold in every shop.
If the Government adopt that sensible position, we might find that those who represent the industry making hot cabinets call for a debate in this Chamber. We had lots of petitions last night on behalf of the caravan industry, and wherever the Government turn, employers will be affected. However, there is a simple cut-off point, and people who want to buy hot food, wherever it is sold, can have that option and accept that they will pay VAT on the takeaway.
Bakeries are different. As my hon. Friend pointed out, if people are asked whether they want another takeaway in their town centre, the answer will probably be no. Many already exist, and we have heard about different use classes, which are appropriate in many locations. Bakeries belong in the heart of town centres. Nearby shops would love to have a bakery there because it increases the footfall and the sense of local provenance of the goods on sale. Bakeries give a very different feel to a town centre or a village—we do still have, clinging on, a few villages that contain bakeries.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady.
In conclusion, I wish to add a little extra plea for the Cornish pasty. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay was generous, and hands have been stretched across the river Tamar between Cornwall and England as people have spoken about their respective products that they value and support. In Cornwall, however, there is a feeling that the Government are taxing something that people might eat instead of a sandwich or some other cold product that they would find elsewhere. There is a cultural element to that. People love a pasty; it is what they grew up with and what their mums, grannies or aunties made at home. Everyone has a favourite shop to go to, and that is part of what it means to grow up in Cornwall. Furthermore, we are a very low-income part of the country.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech. Does he agree that the pasty was originally created for miners going to work? Nowadays, people around the country who are not able to have a plated meal often have a pasty or another baked product as a substitute. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that this tax discriminates against those people as it may not allow them to have a proper nourishing meal at midday?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and having been educated in Cornwall, he knows all about the importance of the pasty. As he said, the pasty was designed for taking down the mine and has a crust that can be left behind after being held with a dirty hand. It would have been baked hot, taken down the mine and consumed cold, as it was unlikely to still be hot by the time the miners got to it. Many other people will buy something hot from a bakery and eat it later in the day, which is different from the cold fish and chips that we have been hearing about.
To return to the Cornish perspective, the feeling is that there is a lack of recognition of a strong sense of identity and of Cornishness. To mention another visual aid, when the last runner with the Olympic flame left Cornwall and set off across the Tamar bridge, he held in his hands a Cornish flag that was sadly confiscated by the police who were running alongside. To many in Cornwall, such things send out a signal that English, Welsh or Scottish identity is fine, but we do not really want to know about Cornish identity. I know, however, that that is not the case in the Treasury, which understands the issue. As a Scot, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury understands that sense of Celtic identity, and I know that the Treasury will listen sympathetically. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, and other hon. Members, I urge all Treasury Ministers to look at the sensible alternative that has been proposed. It has a clear cut-off point and is enforceable, and I hope that the Treasury will respond positively to the consultation.
May I say “Well done” to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), who I will call my hon. Friend, for securing this important debate? He has made an exceptionally intelligent contribution to a significant discussion.
I will speak only for a couple of minutes, but I want to register my concerns about the tax under discussion, and touch on the impact that it will have on the high street and hard-working families. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) pointed out, it is possible that 300 shops will close as a result of this proposal. The current rate of retail vacancies in shops across our high streets stands at around 14%, and I cannot help thinking that this proposal will have a further impact.
As has been said, we want more bakeries and a diverse range of shops across the high street, yet this proposal puts at risk retailers such as Greggs and Greenhalgh’s in my constituency, as well as independent shops such as Wells bakery on Oldham road in Rochdale, which is a fantastic bakery that makes the best meat and potato pie that people can get their hands on. We want a retail mix and vibrancy, but this proposal creates a real problem and puts a burden on those businesses. It comes on top of the 5.6% increase in business rates—the largest increase in 20 years—that retailers and other businesses have experienced since it was brought in last September and applied this financial year, and we are adding further taxes to that.
In the context of diversity, one point that has not yet been raised is the impact of this tax on other segments of the retail mix, in particular Asian sweet centres. A number of such places in my constituency, particularly on Milkstone road, sell not only Asian sweets but samosas and pakoras. Will the Minister say whether this tax burden will also apply to those products? I have no doubt that my constituents will be interested to hear whether this is also a samosa tax, as well as a pasty tax.
Finally, let me look at the impact of this tax on hard-working families, because I get the impression that the Government do not understand ordinary working people’s lives. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about snobbery in education, but I believe that snobbery is also attached to pies, pasties and samosas.
Members might be aware of a lady from Rochdale called Gillian Duffy who challenged my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) during the last general election. Gillian is a very good friend of mine, she occasionally bakes me a cheese and onion pie, which I enjoy. For some unknown reason, The Guardian newspaper got hold of that information and ran a story about it, ridiculing me for eating Gillian Duffy’s cheese and onion pies, as though that was in some way inappropriate. People are snobbish about the fact that people, perhaps in northern towns or in Cornwall, like and enjoy pies and pasties.
That’s right; absolutely. In reality, pies, pasties and samosas are part of the staple diet of ordinary people, and we should not forget that. The Government are placing an additional burden on hard-working families. People in Rochdale I speak to think that this tax is absolutely absurd. They laugh at the Government and find it peculiar that such a tax would be applied. It feeds the public perception that the Government just do not get it and are on a different planet, and I urge them to drop these proposals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott, and I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing this debate.
As the granddaughter of a Cornish baker, nobody knows more than I what it is like to make a pasty. Yes, I know the ingredients, and yes, I can crimp a pasty. Today, I speak on behalf of my constituents in South East Cornwall who are all exceptionally concerned about the proposed VAT on hot baked food, although of course that is not restricted to the pasty.
The only time that I lived away from Cornwall was when I spent some years in Stoke-on-Trent, where the meat and potato pie was very popular. However, the pasty in particular is a big part of the famed Cornish heritage and history, of which we are all so proud. I will be discussing my deep concerns about the introduction of VAT on pasties and other hot foods, because this tax will affect many small businesses such as traditional bakeries in my constituency and will no doubt have knock-on effects on the already struggling town centres. In South East Cornwall, there are six very small town centres, which are seeing the life drained from them. If we see the bakeries decline as well, we will be going completely against the principle of what Mary Portas has been trying to do.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the unintended consequences—I believe that they are unintended—is that small bakers will be further hit by this tax applying to freshly baked products such as scones, doughnuts and muffins? They happen to be warm because they have just been baked, but are a whole category of food that clearly is not intended to be eaten hot. The tax will further penalise those bakers as against supermarkets.
That was an issue that I intended to come on to, because where is the definition of baked food? Will we find that we are paying VAT on hot bread that comes out of the oven? I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider all these implications.
I feel uneasy about how the tax will be implemented with the highly ambiguous term “ambient temperature”. That is variable and therefore very difficult to enforce. Thirteen businesses in my constituency are members of the Cornish Pasty Association. That is just over a quarter of the whole membership. Many of those are small businesses and they are mostly family-run businesses. They have spoken to me and to my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who would have loved to be here today.
I shall point out one particular case. Mr Richard Rice is the director of Dashers Pasties, a pasty shop in my local town of Torpoint. He spoke to me about his concerns. It is a small business, with an annual turnover of about £160,000 a year. Torpoint boasts two supermarkets, and Mr Rice is concerned that the supermarkets may be able to afford not to pass the VAT on to the consumer, whereas local businesses such as Dashers will have to charge 50p or 60p more per pasty, which is a massive increase in the price of the product. Bakers are already having to absorb ever-increasing utility bills and the rising cost of ingredients. They believe that the only winners will be the supermarkets, which have the ability to keep their prices low.
My hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth and for Camborne and Redruth also met people from Rowe’s bakeries, who gave them a similar message. That sentiment was shared by the chairman of the Cornish Pasty Association, who led the demonstration earlier this month
“to raise awareness of the greater implications”
of this tax. A petition has gained 500,000 signatures. That roughly equates to the population of Cornwall. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister can see the knock-on effect that the tax will have and how people will clearly be disadvantaged.
When considering how the Government will implement the changes, we meet a whole series of problems—things that need to be simplified. “Ambient temperature” is a dependent variable and very difficult to enforce against. It would result in products being taxed based on the weather and heat retention, as we have heard from many other hon. Members. That could lead to significant legal action while tax inspectors and local hard-pressed pasty makers argue over the tax due.
I believe in a much simpler distinction—that a baked product is VATable only when an effort has been made by the vendor to keep the product hot. I signed an amendment to the Bill expressing that sentiment after the Budget was announced. The tax code is complicated enough. I hope that the Chancellor will consider that proposal as a serious alternative to deciding whether VAT is chargeable based on the ambient temperature. On 28 March, I wrote to the Chancellor, outlining my views and saying:
“Surely the last thing we need is to employ an army of thermometer wielding tax inspectors poking our pasties to see if they have cooled enough”.
I still believe in that sentiment and I hope that the Chancellor will consider what I have said today.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing the debate. Those of us with a history in taxation wish that every new tax measure could be the subject of an hour and a half of detailed debate. I suspect that we would make much better law if that were the case.
This is an interesting situation. I think that we all agree that tackling tax avoidance and sorting out anomalies is something that the Government should do, but when they come forward with proposals, there is a huge outcry about them, because trying to sort out some of those anomalies is much harder than people think. The reason why this anomaly has lasted for nearly 30 years is that it is incredibly hard to sort out. I jokingly wonder whether, if the Government had called this a fat tax, it would have received a lot more support, but I am not sure that that is a road I would like to encourage them to go down.
Like many other hon. Members, I am concerned about the impact on high street bakeries, especially the small local ones that are a real attraction on the high street. I am talking about those shops on the high street that drag people in to shop there because they like the better-quality product, the choice and the service that they get, compared with the standard, bland products that they might think they get from a supermarket.
I can list many bakeries in my constituency. There is Luke Evans, which has a factory shop that has been in existence for 200 years. There is the Birds chain of bakeries, which I suspect the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) will know well; it is a big chain in the area. It has just opened a new shop on Heanor high street, and given that Heanor is a high street with some challenges, anyone opening a new or revamped shop there is very welcome.
I have real sympathy for such businesses. Their shops sell a wide range of products. Pasties and sausage rolls are a sizeable part of that range, although nowhere near the majority of their trade. They are one very useful way of getting income and dragging customers in. However, they are clearly craft bakeries, selling freshly baked products. That is how they make their money. They are not trying to be a disguised takeaway or to flout the law. They are trying to run a perfectly sensible, viable and valuable business of long standing that we desperately want to support in our high street.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent speech. Does he agree with my constituent Jonathan Grodzinski who runs Grodzinski’s bakeries, a business that has been in his family for well over 120 years, who says that the difference between his products and supermarket foods is the quality, which my hon. Friend has already mentioned? Mr Grodzinski’s concern is that customers will decide that they would rather buy cold food and that that will mean that they are buying food that is less than fresh, compared with when it first comes out of the oven.
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention. The last thing that we want to do is to encourage people to buy horrible cheap food with only processed ingredients. That is much less healthy for us than buying proper quality stuff. I therefore have some sympathy for my hon. Friend the Minister in his predicament. It would be useful if he could set out what has tipped the Treasury over the edge into making the change. Was it a case of having to get the train home and thinking, “I’m a bit hungry. It’s been a long day in the Treasury. I can’t face the Chancellor’s bowl of jelly. I’ll have something from the station on my way. If I go to McDonald’s and buy a burger, I pay VAT, but if I go to that nice-looking pasty stand, which seems to be selling only hot pasties, for some reason there is no VAT”? Is that the contrast that tipped him over the edge or is it the fact that supermarkets are selling things that clearly should be VATable but they are manipulating their way around that? Is that what tipped the Treasury over the edge? It would be interesting to know.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking my intervention, particularly as I missed the first part of the debate. He is very generous. Since I have been an MP, I have been approached several times by fish and chip shop owners. Perhaps unusually for an MP, they are the only approaches I have had—and I have had a lot—complaining bitterly about unfair competition, because people are selling pasties and using a microwave to heat them up after they have been sold. I understand exactly why people are concerned, but if we are challenging the whole concept of VAT on pasties, we need an answer—I certainly need one—on that issue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The point I was trying to make was about a craft baker on the high street who is not trying to be a takeaway in disguise for VAT planning, which is in contrast to what looks like something trying to be a takeaway, but is in fact something different. That is perhaps one of the things that has tipped the Treasury over the line. It would be interesting to know what mischief it is trying to fix. Which bad guys are we tackling? I honestly suspect that the bad guys are not the high street craft bakers who will be dragged into this. Their staff will be in a horrible situation.
I went to a couple of bakers in my constituency to see what the measure will mean. The sausage rolls are out of the oven and slowly cooling down in the very much non-heated—I was careful to check—displays in the shop. I guess that if they have been there for 20 minutes, they will still be hot, and therefore there might be VAT. If they have been there for 30 minutes, they might be on the border. If they have been there for 40 minutes, perhaps they are cold enough for no VAT. I have a horrible picture of the member of staff having to poke their finger into my sausage roll to check whether the one they are selling me is cool enough not to charge VAT on or still too hot.
There is a practical issue of how the shops will know day to day that the products sat cooling have cooled long enough for me to get a 20% discount, or have not cooled so the customer has to pay VAT. I suspect that such shops will put VAT on everything and put the prices up by 20%, and they will get a nice windfall for the bits that they can convince the Revenue are not VAT-able. In practice, they will not want to charge separate prices depending on whether someone buys a product marginally above or below the ambient temperature. That would be an unfeasible and rather strange situation for everyone to get into.
With his expertise in the intricacies of tax law, the hon. Gentleman makes good points. I suspect that the windfall he mentions will be offset by any decline in trade due to the 20% increase in the cost of the product, set against cold products such as sandwiches.
I suspect that that is probably right. This will put people off buying some products entirely. I was trying to say that I suspect that the customer will end up with a 20% price rise on all products and it will be down to the baker to match that loss of sale with the income that they get to keep on non-VATable stuff.
The Government need to produce coherent, understandable and enforceable rules. The suggestion that a product would definitely be VATable if any effort was made to keep it warm, by putting it in a heat-retaining bag, under a hot lamp or on a heated rack, after it had been baked would lead to an understandable and clear situation. I am not sure that it would tackle all the mischief that the Government seek to tackle, which is why it would be helpful to understand exactly what problem they want to solve. It would not stop something that looks a lot like a takeaway pretending to be a bakery, which I suspect is something that they would like to deal with.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s tax knowledge, from which we are benefiting on the Finance Bill Committee. Does he agree that there is an EU law that requires changes in taxation to be clear and precise? From his knowledge, does he recognise that the Government could be challenged under EU law owing to the complexity of the potential change?
I spent many years in practice looking at areas where UK tax law could be challenged under EU law. As the years went on, the European Courts became a little more sensibly in favour of the tax authorities rather than the taxpayer, so I never like to predict what a challenge under EU law could achieve. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point; as taxpayers, we are entitled to expect clear tax law that can be sensibly enforced.
Can the Minister think of other ways to tackle the mischief he wants to tackle without putting staff in every high street in a situation where they have to finger all the products they sell? I am not suggesting that they will literally do that; they will have to have some kind of technical probe or something.
Could the Minister find a way to exempt businesses in which the sale of hot baked products accounts for no more than half their turnover? Clearly they are not in the business of selling hot food, but are trying to sell cakes and bread, so such products are but a small part of their trade. That suggestion will not fix the problem for my hon. Friends from Cornwall, who are looking at businesses based entirely on pasties, but it would take away the worst position for high street shops, for which there are definitely unintended consequences. I fear that otherwise we will end up with a measure that will not work, will clobber the innocent, and those who flout it will find a way to redesign their businesses to get out of it. That is the worst situation—innocents caught in the crossfire. Some people have pushed the whole system too far.
We all know that thirty years ago, Lord Lawson tried to exempt bakeries that produced freshly baked goods. We have a picture of bakers putting things in ovens at 5 o’clock in the morning and customers queuing to buy hot bread, and that clearly should not be VATable. That is not really what happens in most high street bakeries, where the goods are baked in a central bakery and appear in the shop early in the morning. It is unlikely that I would get hot bread, unless I was in the shop nearest to the central bakery very early in the morning. We need to get away from that quaint image that probably applies only to a factory outlet bakery of the type that Luke Evans has. I do not think that most of the baked products I buy are hot, except for those that are carefully baked on site, and they tend to be the products that the customer wants to have a chance to eat hot. That is the line we need to work around.
What exactly are we concerned about? What mischief are we trying to fix? What are we trying to protect? The proposals the Government are consulting on will not get them to where we all want them to be and will need some careful revision.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I thank the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) for securing the debate. It was intended to take place prior to Prorogation and I am glad that it was rescheduled for this morning.
We have had an extremely interesting debate, with some very intelligent and well thought through contributions and suggestions on which the Government can act. A thing that struck me on this virtual tour of the UK—via train stations, football clubs and various forms of hot snack—is how much unites, rather than divides, the different parts of the United Kingdom. In this instance, most of us, at least, are united in support of the industries based in our communities. In this instance, the bad guys—to quote a term used by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills)—are the Government, but bad guys always have the opportunity to redeem themselves. I am sure that as we go through the Finance Bill, the Government will look at the suggestions made today and try to do so.
I want to cover a few points made by hon. Members. In his opening speech, the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay highlighted the real issues about the ambient temperature test and the potential problems in identifying what an ambient temperature is in different parts of the country. As those of us in the northern parts of the country know, we have yet to see any form of spring, never mind summer. Not only do we have geographical variations, but we could have different ambient temperatures on different days of the week.
How will the Government devise the system? Will people come round using thermometers, as the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) said, or probe with a finger, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) suggested, to see whether hot snacks are above the ambient temperature? That seems to be nonsense.
During our deliberations on the Finance Bill Committee yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) gave a useful exposition on the difference between a Bakewell pudding and a Bakewell tart, which I confess is something that I had not previously understood. That only goes to show that we learn something new every day. Indeed, I learned today that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall and I have a shared heritage, because I, too, am a baker’s granddaughter, although I am not from Cornwall and could not begin to explain how to crimp a pasty.
The issues raised this morning are similar to those raised when we discussed the matter on the Floor of the House. I sensed a sharp intake of breath when the hon. Lady asked what hot food had to do with football. I am a football supporter and have supported my local team, Kilmarnock, since I was a child. I certainly did not choose to do so on the basis that they were likely to win trophies, given that during my lifetime they have won something on only three occasions: 1965, 1997 and this year, when they won the Scottish communities league cup.
As a vegan, I confess that the delights of some of the pasties that have been mentioned have passed me by, although, as I said during the debate on the Floor of the House, my son is an avid eater of the Greggs steak bake and my husband often chooses, as a vegetarian, to enjoy the Greggs cheese and onion pasty at lunchtime. I do not necessarily partake of such delicacies, but when my local team played at this year’s cup final, a local bakery in my constituency decided that I should not lose out on the experience by not being able to eat a Killie pie—the Kilmarnock football club pie, which is reckoned to be the best in Scotland—and made me a vegan Killie pie.
I have still not received an answer to one of the questions that I asked during the debate in the main Chamber. If I buy two freshly baked Killie pies from my local Brownings the Bakers—should it choose to continue the production of that wonderful vegan pie—and decide to eat one there and then and take the other away so that it will have cooled down later, would one be VATable and the other not? That is an example of one of the dilemmas and anomalies that have been thrown up again by a number of Members during this debate. Members have also identified that any system of taxation and of collecting VAT needs to be understandable, enforceable and workable. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay pointed out during his opening speech, the proposals do not meet any of those tests.
I want to address some other points that have been raised. The second time that I sensed a sharp intake of breath and felt a shiver run down my spine—“shiver” seems to be the word of the week in relation to the economy—was when my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) suggested that samosas or pakoras could be taxed. Notwithstanding the popularity of the Scottish bridie, there are parts of Scotland for which samosas or, indeed, pakoras, have become more or less part of the staple diet. Thousands of constituents would be extremely concerned if there was an additional tax.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she agree that one of the interesting things about this debate is the fact that the scope of concerns has widened rather than narrowed? I have mentioned mince pies, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has mentioned Bakewell puddings and the hon. Lady is now talking about samosas. Muffins, doughnuts and other products have also been thrown into the mix.
Indeed. That highlights the powerful case that, initially, the Treasury may have viewed the proposal as something that could be taken off the shelf, dusted down and presented as a way to correct some anomalies. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale has argued, it did not consider the detail and the issue has become a problem. It has become a problem in relation not only to pasties—I am aware that we cannot deviate too far from the issue under discussion—but to the proposals for VAT on work on church buildings, on which there has been some movement.
Moreover, last night, multiple petitions were presented in relation to the caravan tax, and yesterday, I, along with a number of other Members, met representatives from the newly formed—it was formed in response to Government proposals—UK Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance, which has pointed out that some of its members’ products do not appear to fall under the categories for which VAT was originally intended to be charged.
This series of Government proposals do not seem to have been properly thought through. Their impact on our high street has not been considered. That is important. We want to see people shopping on their high streets and spending what cash they have on local businesses in particular, and to ensure that our high streets continue to thrive. When the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and the whole range of organisations that represent the baking industry, as well as ordinary people, think that the Government have got it wrong, it is time for the Government to think again.
I will not speak for much longer, because I want to allow the Minister as much time as possible to respond to the debate, but I want to return to the widening scope of things affected by the proposals. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay suggested during his opening speech that the Government were prepared to listen, but I am disappointed to say that I have not found that to be the case. We have raised the issue on the Floor of the House and have continued to raise it and a number of other issues in the Finance Bill Committee, but on every occasion—no matter what the subject—when we have asked the Government to go away, make another assessment, come back with a report and consider the implications, they have not done so.
I understand the importance of consultation, but consulting on something that will happen after the fact—when the Government say that they are going to do something and then ask people about it—is not necessarily the best way to do it. Those representatives of sports nutrition companies whom I met yesterday told me—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong or have misunderstood—that no one from that industry was consulted when the impact assessment was done.
There are issues to address. I am trying not to make this an attack on the Government, but I am disappointed at the lack of movement. I understand that consultations are important and hope that the Government will listen and consider making some of the changes that have been asked of them today. The torrid headlines that the Government had to endure when their proposals were first announced should make them realise that the country wants them to do something and change their plans. My favourite headline read: “Half-baked Tory tax a mistake-and-bake”. It was indeed a mistake—let us try to fix it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on securing this debate and on his thoughtful and constructive speech. I thank all those who have contributed to the debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), whom I congratulate in particular on her expertise on the matter. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for providing his expertise on tax, rather than on pasties. I also thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who gave a characteristically passionate and, at times, entertaining speech.
Since the Budget, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has been running a consultation on addressing a range of VAT anomalies, including the treatment of hot takeaway food. I am well aware that the changes that we have announced to the VAT treatment of hot food have attracted a considerable amount of attention. Indeed, I have had meetings with my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay and for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and representatives of the Cornish pasty industry.
The definition of hot food has caused much uncertainty, not least for Auntie Anne’s pretzel company in my constituency, which I visited last week. The company has put on hold quite big expansion plans because having to charge VAT would put it in competition with a whole new set of fast food outlets. The pretzels are baked on the premises from a dough mixture, and the company needs some clear guidance from Her Majesty’s Treasury that it will not be liable to VAT so that it can get on with its growth plans and with creating jobs in the local area.
I am grateful for that intervention. There is a carve-out in this measure that relates to bread. My hon. Friend refers to pretzels made from a dough mixture. HMRC will provide guidance on the definition of bread, so that matter will be covered once final decisions have been made.
Before I turn to some of the arguments against the proposal, I should like to step back and remind hon. Members of why we have proposed this change. As I announced to the House on 18 April, we extended the consultation period until last Friday in the light of the responses received and I have, of course, been listening to the contributions to this debate and will ensure that they are taken into account in the Chancellor’s decisions.
Ensuring that VAT will apply to the sale of all hot food—to the extent that it does not already do so—is one of a series of VAT measures announced in the Budget designed to make the VAT system fairer to all traders, and to make it easier to administer and comply with.
The current rules on the VATability of hot takeaway food have been made particularly complex and unfair by a patchwork of different legal decisions over the decades, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay pointed out. VAT has always applied to food consumed on the supplier’s premises, notably in restaurants and cafes, and was extended to hot takeaway food in 1984. The definition of hot takeaway food in the 1984 legislation is that the food
“has been heated for the purposes of enabling it to be consumed at a temperature above ambient air temperature”
and that it
“is above that temperature at the time it is provided to the customer.”
There have been repeated efforts since the 1980s to chip away at this boundary. A number of businesses have argued in litigation that, although the food they provide to their customers is hot and is taken away, it should not be taxed as “hot takeaway food”, but it should instead be zero rated.
Some have argued that, in heating the food, their intention was not to provide their customers with food to be eaten hot, but to follow rules of hygiene, to finish the cooking process, to provide evidence of freshness, to create an aroma, or to improve appearance, crispiness or texture of the product. Such arguments have not always been successful, but where they have been, they have allowed some businesses to secure VAT-free treatment for a range of hot food products such as hot rotisserie chickens, meat pies, pasties and panini. However, other businesses have continued to apply VAT to the similar hot food products that they sell. They have accepted, or the courts have ruled, that their intention is to heat their food products so that their customer can eat them hot. Under the current rules, the VAT rate applied to hot takeaway food depends on the particular supplier’s purpose in heating the food.
In reference to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), a small independent fish and chip shop will have to charge 20% VAT on its hot chicken, but a major supermarket will argue that its rotisserie chickens are zero rated. One baker who keeps his sausage rolls in a hot cabinet to provide his customers with a hot snack will charge tax, but the baker next door who also keeps them hot and argues that this is to maintain an appealing aroma will claim that they are zero rated.
The current situation is unfair, and it is right that we seek to change it. There was some agreement on that point from at least some hon. Members. That is why we are introducing new rules to ensure a level playing field. We have proposed the removal of the subjective element of the zero-rate definition, which has led to these anomalies, to provide more consistency in the taxation of hot food. As I mentioned earlier, we are adding a simple carve-out that bread, irrespective of its temperature, will not be liable.
On that point, our proposal is that if food is sold at above ambient temperature, it is standard-rated, which is the same as takeaway food from Indian restaurants.
We have heard a number of arguments about why businesses will find it difficult to apply the test on ambient temperature. The test to determine whether takeaway food is hot is not new; it has been in place since 1984. However, I accept that, in many cases, suppliers do not need to ask themselves that question because they accept that their takeaway food is meant to be eaten hot and thus they pay tax even if, on a handful of occasions, the food may not actually be hot. They may make use of one of the other arguments about the purpose of the heating, and thus do not pay tax, even if the food is hot. However, the test is reasonably straightforward and will be policed in a pragmatic way.
Some hot food will have been kept hot or provided straight from the oven and will obviously be standard-rated under our proposals. In most other cases, people know when something is hotter than the air around it. A leading high street bakery chain, which has campaigned against these changes, said on its own website that customers who want a hot sausage roll should test whether the sausage roll is hot enough by feeling the temperature through the bag.
It is important to inject some common sense into this potentially trivial debate about food that at one moment is hot and at another is at ambient air temperature. We are not expecting staff to take detailed temperature readings every time they sell a pasty. HMRC will take a pragmatic approach and provide businesses with guidance, taking into account businesses’ responses on how to implement the change.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way as he sets out the Government’s thinking behind this matter. I hope there is room, following the consultation, for that thinking to develop. On the specific point of temperature, we have heard that many pasties are sold outside or through hatches and so on. Will the Minister tell us what would happen if the outside temperature is freezing or below freezing? That is the sort of issue that our constituents are raising with us.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall not start taxing food as hot if the outside temperature is 40°C and the item is warm only because of the air around it, or hot because the temperature is freezing. Existing simplification schemes are already available that allow businesses to calculate their VAT liability by reference to a fixed percentage of their turnover, without requiring staff to consider the temperature of every product sold. Pragmatic approaches to apportionment are, and have always been, a common feature in VAT.
Let me turn now to the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay. I am aware of the strength of opinion on this question, and I hear the proposal that he has made. The consultation was genuine. As it is also complicated, it would be premature of me to make a knee-jerk response to it within a few days of it closing. However, we are considering his and other constructive suggestions closely, and we are aware of the difficulties in operating a test based on ambient temperatures. As I said earlier, such a test has been in place since 1984, and it is no more than a legal definition of “hot food”. At present, it is rarely applied because businesses that accept that their food is heated in order to be eaten hot accept that it is taxable hot food, and those that argue that their food is heated for other reasons can escape VAT, even if the food is hot.
There are problems with my hon. Friend’s proposal, which potentially risks bringing hot pizza into the zero rate—I suspect that is an unintended consequence. However, it is one of many suggestions that we are considering, and we hope to be able to respond in the near future.
It has been suggested that this change could lead to business closures in the baking industry, and would disproportionately affect businesses in Cornwall, and that it should be delayed until there is stronger growth. However, it does ensure that businesses of all sizes and in all locations receive the same tax treatment for similar products and that that preferential tax treatment does not go to those with the most ingenious arguments, or the best lawyers, to support zero rating.
I accept that all taxes have an effect on growth and jobs, but VAT as a whole is less damaging than many other taxes. I hope that my comments today have provided more information on why the Government have made this proposal. The changes are designed to introduce new sensible objective tests that are less open to abuse and provide a level playing field for all businesses supplying their customers with hot food. I also hope that I have explained that we have undertaken a genuine consultation and will respond as soon as possible, and that we are listening closely to all the arguments.
Thank you, Mr Scott, for calling me to speak; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am pleased to have secured this debate, as it is on a subject of huge importance to thousands of families across the UK. It is also a subject that is close to my heart.
This debate was originally scheduled for the last week of the previous parliamentary Session. However, the cause of Prorogation it was cancelled, so I am particularly lucky to have been drawn again so quickly. Whether that was because of pure luck or the Speaker’s Panel taking pity on me, I do not know, but I am grateful none the less.
As it happens, the timing for this rescheduled debate could not have been better, because last week we established the all-party group on pancreatic cancer. It is chaired by Lord Patel, the Cross-Bench peer, who has huge experience of the medical profession, and it has a most fantastic treasurer in the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who is here in Westminster Hall today. The all-party group aims to work with Pancreatic Cancer UK, Cancer Research UK and others to increase awareness of pancreatic cancer, and to help campaign for better care and treatments, which will lead to improved outcomes.
The simple fact is that we need better care and treatment. The number of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is rising. In 2008, around 8,100 cases were diagnosed—about 22 cases a day. Compared with other types of cancer, those numbers are quite low. However, there is a very poor prognosis in pancreatic cancer cases, with only 3% of patients surviving for five years or more. In my own particular case, my partner survived for only seven weeks after being diagnosed.
Despite advances in technology and improvements in survival rates for other forms of cancer, that figure of 3% has remained unchanged for 40 years, which is quite incredible. There are also wide regional variations in UK survival rates, the so-called and much cited problem of “the postcode lottery”. On a national level, that survival rate—only 3% of pancreatic cancer patients in the UK survive for five years or more—is the worst in the developed world. To put it into context, it is half the survival rate of the US, Australia or Canada. Those countries’ survival rates are obviously still low, but they are much better than the British survival rate.
There have also been reports from people with pancreatic cancer that the care provided in the UK has fallen below expectations. The 2010 NHS national cancer patient experience survey found that pancreatic cancer patients fared significantly worse than patients diagnosed with other cancers. That needs to change. Some things will be easier to rectify than others. For instance, improving the patient experience seems an obvious and relatively easy thing. However, we can and should work on improving awareness, diagnosis, treatment, care and—ultimately and most importantly—the survival rate across the board.
One can look at the impact of the advertising to increase awareness of bowel cancer, which is a difficult cancer to deal with. We are looking to achieve a similar impact in terms of increasing awareness of pancreatic cancer. Increasing awareness is vital, because too often pancreatic cancer is diagnosed at far too late a stage. Although symptoms may have manifested themselves for several months, many people do not visit their doctor until it is too late and the disease is quite advanced. In fact, 50% of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed only as a result of an emergency hospital admission and more than 80% of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed only once the tumour is inoperable. Those are startling, sobering and depressing statistics.
Let me refer again to my personal situation, in which the pancreatic cancer was diagnosed only after a series of what were just stomach aches, and tests were carried out only after those stomach aches and after a number of visits to the GP.
For the record, the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be quite vague and varied. They can include weight loss and pain in the stomach, which both appeared in my particular experience of the disease, as well as back pain and jaundice. But if someone does not have any knowledge of the disease—neither I nor my partner had any such knowledge at the time—how would they realise that, because one is feeling tired every day there is something particularly wrong, until the stomach aches develop? Even then, in my personal experience the stomach aches were not significant in terms of pain. We had no awareness that that feeling of tiredness was anything to do with cancer.
We need to ensure that doctors are making the right diagnosis. Nearly 30% of pancreatic cancer patients will have visited their GP five times or more before being properly diagnosed; that was true in my situation. So we need to make sure that GPs are provided with the proper tools and training to recognise the symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Moreover, we need to ensure that GPs are able to refer their patients swiftly to hospitals for further tests when they suspect a case of pancreatic cancer.
As part of that process, Pancreatic Cancer UK is holding an early diagnosis workshop next month. Hopefully, that workshop will help to come up with more concrete actions that could be taken. I understand that the Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), has agreed to support that workshop, which is an encouraging sign.
Put simply, late diagnosis means that the few treatments available might not be an option, so it is absolutely imperative that we improve awareness and diagnosis.
Let me turn to treatments. The uncomfortable fact is that few options for curative treatments exist. One of the reasons why survival rates for pancreatic cancer are so low, compared with those for other types of cancer, is that pancreatic tumours are relatively highly resistant to chemotherapy. Having said that, I note that Cancer Research UK has said that it believes there is some kind of breakthrough in terms of a new class of drugs, details of which it announced in April; that new class of drugs looks quite promising in terms of being able to improve treatment.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a very important issue; every one of us will have constituents who will be affected by it. Does he share my concern—and, I suspect, the concern of many people—that pancreatic cancer is the fifth most deadly cancer in the whole of the UK and yet only about 1% of cancer research is on pancreatic cancer? Also, does he feel that it is now time for the Minister to work with all the regional bodies across the UK—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly—to introduce a UK-wide strategy to reduce deaths from pancreatic cancer?
The hon. Gentleman can obviously read minds, because that point about research is in my next paragraph. His other suggestion about a UK-wide strategy is a really interesting and positive one, because pancreatic cancer obviously does not respect any boundaries, or any devolved Government or national Government. So he makes an interesting point, which the all-party group can perhaps consider.
Effective cures for pancreatic cancer remain stubbornly elusive, but we need to try to find ways to prolong patients’ lives and to ease their pain and suffering, while always remembering that, with cancer, it is not only the patient who is affected but the people around them, including their family. Cancer affects not just one person; its effect spreads to other people. I had not entered the cancer world before my own personal experience—I call it a separate world, because it is like entering a separate universe that has never been experienced before. Patients’ loved ones also experience suffering.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I know how personal this issue is to him. Linked in with the point that he has just made, does he agree that this issue shows why it is so important that we have a strong hospice movement in our country? That is because hospices have the expertise and are able to treat conditions such as pancreatic cancer with a holistic approach, so that it is not only the patient but the extended family and loved ones who receive support—support that they need, too.
My hon. Friend represents Pudsey, a Yorkshire constituency, so he says it like it is. I will go on to say something about hospices; what he said about them is true. In a sense, for a lot of families cancer is almost like the end. With pancreatic cancer, proper treatment is vital and nobody should underestimate the work of the hospice movement. As I say, I will go on to say a couple of things about hospices.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important and timely debate. I also pay tribute to his passion for this issue and to the personal experience that he brings to this debate; he brings real understanding. In addition, I pay tribute to Pancreatic Cancer UK, which is doing excellent work, and to campaigners such as Maggie Watts, a campaigner in my constituency. She has direct experience of this issue and is driving an e-petition forward on it.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that we need more support from the Government in the area of research into cures? Only 1.6% of research funding is spent on pancreatic cancer, and the Government can move things forward here.
I thank my colleague from the all-party group for his intervention. Like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), he seems to have a copy of my speech—my next paragraph is about research funding. We are all in this together, as it were, particularly on this one.
The point that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe makes so well is that more research into the cancer is absolutely imperative, to find new and more effective treatments. Pancreatic cancer receives just 1% of cancer research funds, despite being the cause of 5% of cancer-related deaths. More research funding will help us discover why this type of cancer is so resistant to treatments that can cure other forms of the disease, and identifying early markers will help to establish screening programmes and lead to earlier diagnosis.
In addition to funding new and expanded research programmes, it is key that we increase patients’ take-up of clinical trials. According to the National Cancer Research Network, fewer pancreatic cancer patients enrol in trials than people with other cancers. I do not know whether that is due to the poor survival rates, but it is fundamental that we encourage more of those patients to take part if we are to get the research we need.
Finally on the subject of treatment, we desperately need to find out why there are such regional variations in survival rates. I am sure that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe will agree that the amazing thing at last week’s inaugural meeting of the all-party group was the personal evidence from three survivors from different parts of the country.
One survivor in particular had had to push doctors and fight to get the treatment, and he ended up—I think he came from the midlands—in Reading or somewhere in the south. That was due to his own perseverance, however, and it should not be like that, because once there has been a diagnosis of cancer everything goes to pieces for the family and friends. That man’s will was the most powerful thing about that meeting; he is living evidence that something can be done. We need to ensure that GPs learn from successful parts of the country and that effective procedures are copied wherever possible. That will need top-down leadership, and I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on how that matter is being addressed.
Treatments, including surgery, for pancreatic cancer are few and difficult, but that is no excuse for poor patient experiences. The 2010 NHS national cancer patient experience survey found that pancreatic cancer patients fared significantly worse than those diagnosed with other cancers. For instance, nearly a third of pancreatic cancer patients said that they felt their diagnosis should have been communicated more sensitively, compared with 18% of all survey respondents. The survey also showed that 41% of pancreatic cancer patients were not given information about their cancer when it was diagnosed, compared with 27% of all respondents.
Although I was given a great deal of support, for which I pay tribute to Homerton hospital in Hackney—I will come on to talk about cancer specialist nurses; we had a brilliant one—when coming back from surgery to relieve some fluid, my partner, who was slightly drugged up from the operation, asked the doctor, “How is it?” and he simply turned around and said, “It’s terminal.” That was the first time that either I or my partner had been so informed.
I do not know why doctors find it harder to explain things to pancreatic cancer patients than to other cancer patients—perhaps it is because of the low survival rates—but although effective treatment might not always be possible, we need to do more to improve the patient experience and, as I keep saying, that of family and friends. Other than by way of better information being more sympathetically delivered at the point of diagnosis, that can be done through the support and care provided by clinical nurse specialists. We were lucky, because there was a cancer specialist nurse in the hospital, who guided us through what was going on. The national cancer patient experience survey, which is proving to be a fundamental part of my speech, also found a link between positive patient experiences and access to a clinical nurse specialist. Is the Minister able to comment on that?
I should state that although there can clearly be improvements in patient care, with such low survival rates much of the care can end up, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has said, being provided in hospices. My experience of St Joseph’s hospice in Hackney was for only two days and two nights, but it was unbelievable, and I pay tribute to everything in the hospice movement. The treatment is holistic, with the family and everyone involved.
As some kind of conclusion, I want to place on the record how grateful those of us who have personal experience of this dreadful disease are to charities such as Pancreatic Cancer UK and Cancer Research UK, which drive the case for change and generally help to give people hope that the situation will improve in the future. Also, we should all pay tribute to the doctors and nurses who provide care and treatment for sufferers, especially in their last days, and I again praise the hospice movements. Their efforts and attitude help to make an extremely difficult time for patients and their friends and family a little more bearable—if it is bearable.
With my personal situation, the biggest thing I would underline is my description of going along in life and assuming that everything is okay and then entering this kind of cancer world, with cancer specialists. The support from other people who are going through the same thing as well is unbelievable, but in 2012, with an NHS of which we are all so proud, why is there such variation, and why has there been no improvement over 40 years in dealing with this virulent form of cancer? I would be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say.
It is a first, and a pleasure, for me to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) on securing this important debate. It was very moving to listen to his speech. His real knowledge and personal experience made it more powerful than many of the speeches one hears in this House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment as secretary of the newly formed all-party group on pancreatic cancer, and congratulate all the other Members and people from outside this House who have an interest in this particularly nasty and difficult disease and who have recognised the need to set up such a group. I know that my ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), will watch the work of the group with interest, and no doubt the Department of Health will await with eagerness any reports or investigations that the group pursues in the coming years of this Parliament. All contributions, whether from the voluntary or charitable sectors, or from within the Department or the NHS, or at a parliamentary level, are important, because, as my hon. Friend has said, this is a very difficult disease which, sadly, can be extremely swift-moving. Far more needs to be known about it, so that one can address the alleviation of the symptoms and the longer-term management of the condition—if that is possible. Sadly, as my hon. Friend said, during the course of his experiences, time regrettably was not on his side.
We in the Department recognise that we need to do more to bring cancer survival rates up to the standards of the very best. The cancer outcomes strategy sets out our ambition to halve the gap between England’s survival rates and those of the best in Europe, saving an additional 5,000 lives every year by 2014-15. To achieve that, we must tackle common and less common cancers. We know that later diagnosis is a major reason for variation in cancer survival outcomes, and our strategy prioritises early diagnosis. To assist the NHS in achieving earlier cancer diagnosis, the strategy is supported by more than £450 million over four years. That funding is part of more than £750 million in additional funding for cancer over the spending review period.
To improve awareness of rarer cancers such as pancreatic cancer, we are considering piloting a symptom-based awareness campaign covering multiple cancers. Feedback from rarer cancer charities suggests that as a possible approach to improving public awareness. We are considering the results of discussions in order to find the best way forward. I hope that that addresses one of the important points raised by my hon. Friend.
We also need GPs to recognise symptoms and, where appropriate, refer people urgently for specialist care, as my hon. Friend said. A range of support, such as referral guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, is available to help GPs assess when it is appropriate to refer patients for investigation of suspected cancer. However, we can do more to support GPs. Cancer Research UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and the National Cancer Action Team are working together to develop a broader GP engagement programme for the coming years, including by working with the senior leadership of the Royal College of General Practitioners on a strategic initiative.
I commend the pancreatic cancer charities for the work that they do to support patients, raise awareness, promote research and identify how we can improve the survival rates of people affected by pancreatic cancer. They do a tremendous amount of excellent work, and we welcome that work and congratulate them on their commitment. We are determined to work with them and others to help minimise the problems highlighted by my hon. Friend.
As I said, we must tackle rarer or less common cancers alongside common cancers. That is why our cancer outcomes strategy set out a commitment to work with rarer cancer charities. Officials have held meetings with numerous rarer cancer charities, including Pancreatic Cancer UK and Pancreatic Cancer Action, to assess what more can be done to encourage appropriate referrals to secondary care for early diagnosis of rarer cancers. The discussions will inform the Department’s future work in the area.
Pancreatic Cancer UK, as my hon. Friend said, is hosting an early diagnosis workshop in June, which will be attended by national cancer director Sir Mike Richards and my ministerial colleague the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. The workshop will examine practical steps that can be taken to help GPs and secondary care health professionals diagnose pancreatic cancer at the earliest possible stage. We look forward to receiving the workshop’s findings. As my hon. Friend rightly said, the earlier the diagnosis, the better it is for addressing individual patients’ problems. That is the nub of the challenge facing us all.
Pancreatic Cancer UK’s survival study 2011 confirms what we already know about regional variations in survival rates. “Improving outcomes: a strategy for cancer” makes it clear that reducing variations and tackling health inequalities is essential if we are to improve outcomes and save 5,000 additional lives by 2014-15. To support the national health service in tackling regional variations in cancer survival rates, we are supplying data to providers and commissioners that will allow them to benchmark their services and outcomes against one another and identify where improvements need to be made, so that they can move forward on making the improvements that we all desperately require and seek.
In December 2010, we published the report of the 2010 cancer patient experience survey, which recorded the views of more than 67,000 cancer patients treated across 158 trusts. The results enabled providers to assess the experience of cancer patients locally, benchmark performance against other trusts and identify areas for improvement. It also showed that cancer patients supported by a clinical nurse specialist had a better experience of care overall. My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of ensuring sufficient numbers of clinical nurse specialists. We expect the NHS to consider that in developing policies to improve patient experience. Field work for the 2011 survey is now complete. We will look closely at the results when they are published in summer to see where improvements have been made and more are needed.
The Department is fully committed to clinical and applied research into treatment and cures for cancer. The percentage of cancer patients in trials in England is now more than twice that in the United States. The UK now has the world’s highest national rate per capita of cancer trial participation. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.
In August 2011, the Government announced £6.5 million in funding for the Liverpool biomedical research unit on gastrointestinal disease. About half that investment will support pancreatic cancer research. It forms part of this Government’s total yearly spend of more than £200 million on cancer research. Patients and clinicians can find out about trials in all therapeutic areas, including pancreatic cancer, on the UK clinical trials gateway website.
On the important issue of clinical audits, I reassure my hon. Friend that we are committed to extending national clinical audits across a much wider range of conditions and treatments, and to developing their role as a driver of quality improvement. Following a call in early 2011 for new topics for national clinical audit, the National Advisory Group on Clinical Audit and Enquiries provided advice to the Department on new topics to be included as part of the national clinical audit and patient outcomes programme. A proposal for a pancreatic cancer audit was considered as part of that process, but the advisory group’s view was that elements of the proposal should be taken forward as part of the existing bowel cancer audit when it is retendered during 2012. We will ensure that that option is considered when the Department reviews the existing arrangements for the bowel cancer audit later this year.
I reassure my hon. Friend, other hon. Members and the all-party group that, although the challenge of preventing cancers and improving diagnosis and treatment is huge, we are committed to it. Our cancer outcomes strategy, published in January 2011, set out how we will deliver health-care outcomes as good as those anywhere in the world. That is our commitment. The first annual round of the strategy, published in December 2011, highlighted our priorities for this year, which include providing benchmark data to the NHS as a lever for improvement.
Of equal importance is the commitment of the many charities and campaigning organisations that provide vital support to thousands of people with cancer and—as importantly, but sometimes forgotten—to their families. However terrible it is to suffer from cancer, we must not forget the knock-on effects that it has on the emotions of families and friends, who must do so much to support patients through difficult health conditions at a time when they themselves are in a fragile emotional position. They also advocate on behalf of family members and friends suffering from cancer. That is a crucial role, and one that we must not forget.
The contribution of the charitable and voluntary sector to our recent cancer strategy has been invaluable, and I trust that we can continue to count on its help in delivering our aims and objectives. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing up this important issue. As he made clear in his remarks, because relatively few people suffer from pancreatic cancer, it may not always get as much attention as more common cancers such as breast cancer and lung cancer. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to outline the Government’s position and assure him that we continue to work towards achievement.
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
This debate was born out of an incident that probably lasted all of 30 seconds, but sadly such things happen every single day. In November 2010, I was a keen, young MP and decided to go campaigning with my campaign team. I walked down the street with a load of leaflets in my hand, went to a house and did the one thing that people are told not to do when they first join a political party and learn how to leaflet—I put my hand right through the letterbox. Without a word of warning, I felt something clamp on my hand and a low growl made me realise that a dog had me. When I pulled my finger out, I noticed what I thought was a small cut, but it developed into a deep gash that spurted blood out everywhere. I had to go to hospital and the treatment my finger received resulted in five stitches and a one-inch scar on my middle finger, which I will not raise, in case I am called to order by you, Ms Dorries. I had become one of the more than 100 people a week in the UK who suffer injuries so severe from a dog attack that they are admitted to hospital.
Of course, I was one of the lucky ones: my treatment amounted to a trip to A and E and a course of antibiotics. However, many people are not so fortunate. Sadly, some well-publicised cases have seen people severely injured or maimed by a dog. Having been bitten through a letterbox, I have sympathy with the 10,000 postal workers who have been injured by domestic dogs. The most upsetting statistic is that seven guide dogs a month are attacked by out-of-control dogs.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early on in his speech. I have a partially sighted constituent whose guide dog was attacked and who is now afraid to set foot outside his door. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is completely unacceptable that blind and partially sighted people should feel like prisoners in their own homes? Does he not agree that the Government should heed Guide Dogs’ words about microchipping as soon as possible?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. I did a lot of research before this debate and one of the most harrowing things I found was a video on The Sun website, in which some sort of a dog had hold of a guide dog and the owner was kicking him to try to get him off. It was harrowing to see the guide dog’s reins. I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituent will have the confidence to go out in future and enjoy life once again.
I want to make it clear from the very beginning that I am pro-dogs. I would even say that I am a dog lover. I have been lucky enough to own dogs all my life. Anyone who has owned a dog will say how much they enrich life. I have great memories of a border collie cross called Pep that I grew up with. He lived until he was 19 and we all cried when he passed away. Moreover, when I arrive home from this place, I know that my dog will always be there, wagging his tail and happy that I am home—at least somebody at my house is happy when I arrive home.
I pay tribute to a number of animal charities and organisations that work tirelessly to raise awareness of the many problems with our current dangerous dog legislation. Groups such as Battersea dogs home, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Dogs Trust, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and the Communication Workers Union are all long-standing campaigners on the issue. Each in its own way does a tremendous amount of work promoting responsible dog ownership. In my constituency earlier this year, the Dogs Trust ran a three-day centre in Risca and provided free health checks. It also offered to neuter and chip dogs for just £10. The event was a major success and about 70 dogs were booked in to be neutered and chipped. Across Wales, the Dogs Trust has neutered more than 13,000 dogs and microchipped 46,000. Such work makes a real difference to responsible dog ownership. Speaking to charities and groups on the front line makes me realise how our dangerous dog legislation is just not good enough.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. A local newspaper of mine, News Shopper, is running a shop a dog campaign, which seeks to highlight the fact that we should primarily be targeting irresponsible owners, rather than the dogs themselves. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?
That is the main thrust of my debate. This is not a dog-only issue; often it is a social and anti-social issue. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to carry on with my speech, I will develop that point further.
A couple of months ago, I visited Battersea dogs home and as I wandered around and heard about the problems it faced re-housing stray dogs that have been abandoned and often abused by their owners, I realised that our legislation for dangerous dogs must change. It made me realise that one of the biggest failures of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is that it is breed-specific. Despite banning types of dogs such as the pit bull, the law has not reduced their numbers, which have exploded. The Act simply taught us that demonising certain breeds makes them more attractive to the wrong types of people, who will not think twice about flouting the law.
The previous Labour Government’s 2010 consultation revealed that 78% of people wanted new legislation to promote the responsible ownership of dogs. Shockingly, it has taken two years for the current Government to respond and publish their own plans. In that time, I was one of the 5,000 patients admitted to hospital for injuries caused by dog attacks in England and Wales.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He says that it has taken us two years to produce new measures to tackle this scourge, but, while it is true that the previous Government introduced a consultation right at the end of their time in office, nothing was done in the preceding 13 years, so it is ungenerous to suggest that we have taken too long.
The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point about the fact that the Act has not worked because irresponsible people have ignored it, and that those who continue to breed dangerous dogs are outside the law. Why would action by the Government have any effect whatever on those thugs and criminals who are ignoring the law?
I welcome the Government’s guidelines to crack down on such people, who are completely outside the law. To respond to the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), yes, we had 13 years, but two years is too long and the Government have a responsibility. We are where we are.
On average, 12 postal workers are attacked by dogs every day. Many do not return to their job because of the physical and psychological effects of the attack. Even Members of this House have been victims of dog attacks. When I came in with a big bandage on my hand, a number of people told me that they knew of party workers who had been chased or bitten by dogs. Everybody I spoke to had some experience on the doorstep of being chased by dogs, although I do not know whether the dogs were Tory or Labour. A recent RSPCA survey underlined that fact and found that more than half of MPs had been bitten or chased by dogs while delivering leaflets over the past five years, while almost 80% of Members have seen one of their constituency team bitten or chased. Perhaps it is unsurprising that, according to the same survey, more than half of MPs believe that the current dog legislation is ineffective.
To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), we often talk about dangerous dogs in the context of being bitten or chased, but the cost of dangerous dogs cannot be underestimated. Last year, police forces in England and Wales spent £3 million kennelling dogs seized under the 1991 Act. My concern is that, after two years of waiting for worthwhile legislation, the Government’s proposals do not go far enough. Frankly, they are a missed opportunity and we must wonder how much of a priority tackling irresponsible dog ownership really is. However, we have to be careful—it is no good blaming the dogs. In many cases it is often not so much problem dogs, but problem owners. Although it is important that we enforce new, more effective legislation, it will only work if a number of steps are taken to influence owners and better educate the public.
I appreciate and support the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the need to control dogs and want to add another important reason for doing so. I have been a sheep farmer for most of my life and the impact of irresponsible dog owners has been terrifying. Thirty-five of my sheep were killed one night—they were turned over and torn apart. That is a common occurrence. The hon. Gentleman is listing some of the many reasons to control dogs, and the impact on the livestock industry is another one.
I come from the south Wales valleys, where I am surrounded by farms. I know a local farmer, and the hon. Gentleman’s point is a massive issue. Dogs chasing sheep was always a feature of my life when I was growing up. The most important thing I was told when I first had a dog when I was very young was that I needed to keep him under control around livestock. That is very often overlooked. We often think of dangerous dogs as a city or urban problem, but it is also a serious problem in rural areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
On my visit to Battersea dogs home, I learned that some 72% of the dogs that it looks after do not have a microchip, which makes it impossible to track down the owner. The Government have recently announced plans to combat that and have proposed the compulsory microchipping of puppies. However, in Battersea dogs home, I saw hundreds of dogs without a microchip who had been abandoned by their owners. It is no good the Government microchipping puppies when stray dogs are roaming the streets abandoned and neglected, with no hope of being reunited with their owners.
Battersea dogs home tells me that only 20% of the 6,000 dogs it homed in 2011 were microchipped and that one third even had the wrong details. Therefore, when the owner went along and asked for their dog, very often the dog had been rehomed. That demonstrates the scale of the problem. Microchipping is a start, which I welcome, but unfortunately that is all it is. It will take years to affect all dogs and will make little difference to the thousands of strays already wandering our streets.
I had an extraordinary case in my constituency that runs parallel to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I would like to highlight the case and am fascinated to hear what he has to say about it. A mother, father and small girl were asked to a tea party at a private residence next door. They went and the child, who was aged five, offered something to a Scottish terrier who jumped over the child’s hand, latched on to her face and tore half her face off. The eyeball had to be surgically put back and God knows what else, but because that happened in a private house, apparently the law cannot intervene. What does the hon. Gentleman feel can be done, if anything, in that sensitive area of the law?
That is an absolutely harrowing case. I cannot think of anything worse happening. The hon. Gentleman says that the dog was a Scottish terrier. That is why we need to look again at the dangerous dogs legislation. We also need to ask a very important question in relation to the complicated issues surrounding dogs. We have a problem there. A number of people buy dogs for guarding purposes. When they take out a burglar, that is good; but when they are attacking a child, that is bad. We need to be very careful when framing such legislation.
I hope that we can have a debate on that matter because there is a grey area. On the one hand, if a person walks in and trespasses on someone’s property, the dog would be celebrated as a hero. On the other hand, the hon. Gentleman has mentioned an absolutely tragic and terrible situation. I hope that the family is returning to a semblance of order. I know that when I was bitten on the finger, I found it quite traumatic. I was a bit nervous around other dogs. I cannot think of anything worse.
As I said, the owners of dogs that are abandoned and demonised need to be held accountable. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly has taken the lead on the microchipping of dogs and is currently consulting on the compulsory microchipping of puppies and on whether the ownership and information about a dog should be recorded on an approved database. The idea is that owners with microchipped dogs will be encouraged to put the welfare of their dog first, as well as to take more responsibility for the animal’s behaviour.
In Northern Ireland, the microchipping of dogs will become a compulsory condition of someone being issued a dog licence. What is more, the compulsory microchipping of all dogs has widespread public support. Not only do groups such as the Dogs Trust, Battersea dogs home and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health support the measure, but a recent Dogs Trust survey found that 83% of the UK population believe in compulsory microchipping. If the Government want to introduce worthwhile dog legislation, they have to extend microchipping beyond puppies.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I quite understand that compulsory microchipping might help with stray dogs being rehomed and returned to their owners. However, I cannot imagine what possible connection there is between the compulsory microchipping of dogs and either the Scottie dog that very tragically attacked a child or, indeed, a perfectly normal dog that is microchipped and attacks a canvasser sticking leaflets through a door. What relationship is there between microchipping and controlling these dogs?
That is a different case. When I was bitten through a letterbox, I did not know who owned that dog. I could not track that person down. I knocked on the door and there was no answer. Somebody’s dog bit me and I do not know who owns it. If we are going to introduce major measures, we need to know who owns these dogs.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. I would like to highlight the information I was given by the Hampshire police dog unit to assist him with that point. One of the biggest problems it has after a dog attack has occurred is identifying which dog did it. As a very experienced dog handler of many years said to me, one brindle Staffie-type dog looks very much like another. He went as far as to say that if he looked at Hampshire police dog unit’s entire dog stock, he would struggle to identify anything other than his dog and that it is very difficult indeed to tell the other 11 apart.
I absolutely agree. That is exactly what I have experienced. When I walked around Battersea dogs home, I felt that if I had seen one Staffie, I had seen a thousand. To be honest, I could not tell the difference between them.
Another element of responsible dog ownership not tackled in the Government’s proposals is the rise of what is known as status dogs among gangs and young people, contributing to antisocial behaviour and illegal activities. Sadly, the victims of those gangs tend to be Staffordshire bull terriers. In 1996, Battersea dogs home took in 380 Staffies. Last year, that figure rose to 1,869, which accounts for 37% of all dogs at the home. It tells me that, between 1996 and 2009, the number of Staffordshire bull terriers at the home increased by 850%.
Battersea dogs home is now seeing a trend towards different breeds, such as the Siberian husky. The number of Siberian huskies at the home has increased by 28% in the past year. Those dogs are often taught to be violent and as a consequence struggle to be rehomed. The problem is made even worse by the rise of backstreet breeding and the sale of dogs over the internet. Such dogs are often abandoned and become stray.
Some 40% of all the Staffordshire bull terriers taken into Battersea dogs home are two years old or younger. Many of those dogs are labelled as pit bulls when they are nothing of the sort. The thing I found most interesting when I finally came face to face with a pit bull terrier was that I realised I did not know what a pit bull looked like. When I thought about what a pit bull looked like, the dog I was thinking of was an American bull dog, which is a far bigger dog and a different breed.
The online quick sale of puppies often takes place, and many of those sold online are banned under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Those negative aspects of dog ownership are not tackled in the Government’s proposals. It is highly unlikely that a puppy that is bred illegally and sold over the internet will end up in the hands of an owner who will make the effort to microchip them.
There has been success in recent years with the introduction of dog control orders, which prevent the movement of dogs on certain areas of land. Those orders are particularly helpful in safeguarding children’s play areas and parks from overly playful dogs that may scare or injure a child. However, dog control orders are at the discretion of the local authority, and there are playgrounds across the country where dogs are still allowed to roam.
When I spoke to Battersea dogs home about the issue of dog control orders, it told me that it was important for a balance to be struck. Of course, it is important that parents can take their children to parks without fear that they may be approached by a dog. However, at the same time, parks are obvious places for dog owners to walk their dogs.
In Hackney, three new dog control orders were introduced as of 1 April. Does my hon. Friend agree that the challenge is having the resources to police those orders? Although they send out a signal, without the dog wardens on the ground, they do not have as much value as we may think.
Absolutely. Unless dog control orders can be enforced and policed, they do not mean anything.
Therefore, instead of dog control orders, the Government could have followed the example of the Scottish Government who have introduced dog control notices. The Northern Ireland Assembly has also introduced control notices as a way of monitoring the behaviour of dog owners.
Is the challenge not that, under the Government’s current proposals, microchipping will happen only to new puppies and, therefore, millions of dogs will not be microchipped? We will have to wait years until the entire British dog population has a microchip.
That is why it is important that we follow the Northern Ireland example and have compulsory microchipping.
From speaking to groups such as Dogs Trust, it is clear that their favoured way of introducing legislation is as a preventive measure. They believe that improvement notices should be issued to dog owners rather than notices being linked to pieces of land. Such notices work preventively to ensure that owners take certain steps to control their dog in public, and allow local authorities to force owners to use a muzzle or lead if there is a risk to public safety. A breach of a dog control order is an offence that risks a fine of up to £1,000 and disqualification from owning a dog, but there was nothing about that in the Government’s recent proposals.
Stray dogs are an important issue in any discussion of dangerous dogs legislation, as they are linked directly with dog attacks. Despite that, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs considers the control of strays as a local authority matter. With local authority budgets feeling the strain and more local services being cut, the budget for animal welfare is not high on many councils’ list of priorities. Some have merged their animal welfare function with pest control, while others claim that they have no budget at all to deal with stray dogs. The issue has not been dealt with adequately by the Government.
All those major problems still exist despite the Government’s recent proposals. The charities concerned with dangerous dogs legislation that I speak to have been left frustrated by the reluctance of the Government to go further. This was a chance to reform the legislation on dangerous dogs and include preventive measures to stop dog attacks before they start. By introducing compulsory microchipping of all dogs, recorded on a single national database, owners will be encouraged to take responsibility for the behaviour of their dogs. Banning the sale of dogs in newspapers and on the internet and introducing a list of approved breeders would help to prevent the illegal breeding of dogs. With more than 5,000 people hospitalised due to dog attacks in the past two years, it is time the Government realised that the law must change. Sadly, the Government’s proposals look like a missed opportunity.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
As you know, Ms Dorries, the press can sometimes be very cruel. A few years ago, one of my dogs, a pug, won the Westminster dog of the year competition. The Times showed a photograph of the pug and me, and said that the pug was the one on the right. I thought that that was pretty cruel in the circumstances, but I was consequently invited to join the Kennel Club. I think I am one of the few Members of Parliament to be a member of the Kennel Club, so I feel an obligation to speak on this subject.
I agree almost entirely with the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), with one exception. Clearly, we need action to ensure that dogs do not attack people on private land. We need to ensure that it is an offence for dogs to attack other dogs, such as guide dogs. I think that everyone agrees about microchipping. Every organisation—the Dogs Trust, the Kennel Club and so on—is agreed on that. The only issue is whether microchipping will be compulsory for every dog, or whether to start with puppies and move up. All I ask of those right hon. and hon. Members who say that it should be compulsory to microchip every single dog immediately is that they reflect on the number of cases in each of our constituencies of elderly constituents who will say, “The trauma of taking my elderly dog to be microchipped will be too difficult.” Having every local newspaper carrying such stories about that will soon undermine confidence. I think I am one of the few hon. Members who was here during the progress of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. It fell apart like a two bob suit soon after it was implemented because of all its internal contradictions.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising an issue that I missed in my speech. I should have said that if we are to go ahead with compulsory microchipping we should consider some sort of scheme for the elderly, for whom dogs provide great companionship—access to free microchipping, or something similar to the Dogs Trust scheme, which charges £10. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I must apologise for not mentioning it in my speech.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. Nobody has mentioned the legislation introduced by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which makes provision for elderly people who cannot afford to have their dogs microchipped. Perhaps the Northern Ireland example will be cited by the Minister, who is very knowledgeable on this issue, as a way to bring everybody on board and to not make people feel disadvantaged financially.
Of course. We will come on to a number of points on Second Reading or in Committee about exemptions and exceptions to compulsory microchipping of the entire dog population.
Universal, compulsory microchipping is not the immediate panacea that it appears to be. There are complexities that need to be teased out during the course of debate on any Bill. I hope that whatever legislation is introduced will be more enduring than the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991—I think everyone agrees on that. If we start microchipping puppies, because they are easy to identify and so on, there is nothing to stop local authorities and other organisations, such as the Dogs Trust, encouraging people to microchip their own dogs. Indeed, if strays are taken in, they might be given to owners on the understanding that they undertake to microchip them immediately.
I think the whole House agrees on the need to take action to prevent dogs attacking people on private property, and to stop them attacking guide dogs. I think that everyone agrees on the need for microchipping. However, having gone through all the difficulties of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, we need to ensure that we get the next piece of legislation right. That will require us to work hard on the detail of any Bill that is introduced.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
I welcome the debate and come to it with a number of interests. As a criminal defence solicitor for more than 14 years, I have defended many a so-called dangerous dog and have seen for myself the failings of the legislation. The winners are either the lawyers or the animal experts who deal with the not so simple issue of whether a pit bull is a pit bull. I have employed the wisdom of many such an expert in many a long trial. The legislation often fails the victims of the attacks that we have heard so much about.
I have a more immediate interest in the debate, as two weeks ago my Labrador was attacked in our local park by a Staffordshire bull terrier. My Labrador ended up in the local animal hospital. My family were around at the time. Thankfully it was only the dog who was attacked, and no one else. I have great respect for Staffies, which are great family pets, and I do not wish to demonise them. Indeed, it is important not to demonise breeds—sadly, a result of previous legislation. The owner of the Staffy had said, “He may look ferocious, but he is a lovely family pet and no problem at all.” No sooner had he said that then his dog set upon our Labrador.
The owner was shocked that his dog was capable of the attack, which reminds us that the heart of the debate is responsible dog ownership. Any dog is capable—given the moment, time or provocation—of causing injury. There needs to be particular responsibility for some breeds, such as some terriers and Staffies. That is why this issue goes far beyond legislation into our culture and attitude towards dogs. We all know that in many cases we are dealing with a dangerous owner rather than a dangerous dog, and we need to find ways to tackle the issue.
I also speak on behalf of my constituents. Increasingly typical in the constituencies represented in the Chamber, particularly in London, are a growing number of so-called status dogs roaming around parks without proper responsible ownership. Many of our constituents, whether families with young children or responsible dog owners, will not go into parks because they are worried about being attacked. That is unacceptable and we need to do something about it.
I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to some work done by the Dogs Trust over the past few years encouraging responsible dog ownership, improving education and particularly working with disadvantaged young men to encourage them to have their dogs neutered and microchipped, and to learn how to handle them. Better education has a massive role to play.
I pay tribute to the work of the Dogs Trust, which works locally alongside owners, housing associations, police, schools and across the board to carry out projects, including pilots that need to be extended. In Enfield, in the Parkguard project, two dedicated parks officers make it their business to encounter intimidating-looking dogs—and intimidating owners, probably—and work with them to try to encourage them and teach them how to handle their dog properly. More of that needs to happen.
We need a change in legislation. As a lawyer, I welcome the extension to the definition of private places, having argued the case over whether a place is private or public. I heard recently from the council leader in Enfield that, during the London elections, a German shepherd opened a door into a yard and attacked a canvasser, seriously injuring their arm. That change is needed and makes sense, as does microchipping. The measures must be dealt with proportionately but carefully. Local discretion needs to be inbuilt to enable more dogs—not just puppies—to be chipped.
This is a good start. As a lawyer, I know that identity is a key issue. Many an argument has been had about who really owns a dog and we should not underestimate that issue. However, it is important to go beyond legislation, into prevention. That is why local projects are good. We can develop a general culture about how we handle our dogs carefully.
This is still a nation of dog lovers. However, we must recognise that the nation has changed over the years, especially in London, with different cultures comprising our metropolis. In my patch, for example, many people in the Turkish community have a particular view about dogs, which are not traditionally regarded as pets. We need to show respect and develop people’s education early on, so that they understand how to look after dogs carefully and own them, so that we can truly be a nation of dog lovers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans)on securing today’s debate, which is timely given the Government’s recent announcements. I apologise, Ms Dorries, because I will not be able to stay for the end of the debate; I have to leave early to attend a meeting with a Minister on a constituency matter.
All hon. Members in this Chamber know about irresponsible dog ownership: we see it at first hand in our constituencies. The British Medical Journal estimates that every year in the UK, 250,000 people are bitten by dogs. Since 2006, six children have tragically lost their lives in dog attacks, including the tragic death in 2009 of John Paul Massey in my constituency. Some 400 telecoms workers and more than 6,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every year in the course of their work.
It is not just people who are victims. Hon. Members have mentioned dogs attacking other dogs. Some 100 instances of guide dogs being attacked by other dogs were reported to the Guide Dogs charity last year, affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. I shall ask the Minister three questions in the light of the recent announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and of the announcement by the Home Office yesterday on antisocial behaviour. First, I welcome DEFRA’s statement on extending the law to cover attacks on private property. With 70% of dog attacks taking place in a private home or garden, it is important that the law is extended. However, I am keen that the Minister should say when those measures will be put into force. Will we have to wait until the consultation on microchipping has ended before the law is extended to cover private property? The Government should not wait. I should like them to act now.
I am keen that the Minister should lay out a timetable for the coming into force of the proposals announced yesterday by the Home Office and say what steps he will take to ensure that that proceeds with all urgency. It is vital that, having made such commitments, they are brought in as soon as possible. Every day, we read newspaper stories about attacks in the UK. Delay leaves the public at further risk.
Secondly, with regard to resourcing, including cuts to policing, I am concerned about how effective the DEFRA announcements will be without proper enforcement. Changing policy and giving enforcement agencies the powers that they should have had for a long time is one thing, but it is equally important that the police and others have the resources to enforce the law and deliver results on the ground. Under the 20% police budget cuts, some 16,000 police officers will be taken off our streets. In Liverpool, that will translate to 350 police officers by 2015, which will leave our police force in Merseyside stretched.
What is the Minister’s, and his Department’s, assessment of the impact of police cuts on the enforcement of the new dangerous dogs legislation? What work has the Department done with the Home Office to ensure that, despite the cuts, police forces will still be adequately equipped to tackle irresponsible dog ownership? Thirdly and finally, on compensation to victims, I hope that the Minister is aware that the Ministry of Justice proposes to end criminal injuries compensation scheme payments to dog attack victims in cases of irresponsible dog ownership. Only in cases where the dog is purposefully set upon a victim will CICS claims be allowed in future. That means that in cases where the dog owner is uninsured and has no money or assets, postal workers and children who suffer horrific injuries will receive no compensation from any source. Will the minister confirm that this is so? If he cannot, will he engage with colleagues at the MOJ on that?
Does the hon. Lady know about the recent and welcome criminal justice legislation, which gives a presumption of compensation for all victims of crime that will extend, particularly in respect of the legislation to cover private property, to most people who are victims of dog attacks? We must prosecute these people and get them before the courts, then people will receive the proper compensation.
As I said earlier, I welcome the Government’s extension of the legislation to cover private property, which hon. Members from all parties have been calling for for a long time. However, if such an attack happens and the owner does not have any assets, under the new proposals advanced by the Ministry of Justice, they will have no recourse to compensation, except in the specific instance where a dog is purposefully set on a victim, as outlined in the document. I am concerned that, under the proposals, someone who sustains an injury—a child or a postal worker—will not be eligible for any criminal compensation, even if there is a prosecution. That text is buried right at the end of the document. I can share a copy of it with the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, if he would like to see it. I hope that the Minister responds to the specific points that I have made about the timetable, about the police being able to enforce the new legislation, and about criminal injuries compensation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this stimulating debate and on the measured, thoughtful way in which he introduced the topic.
I cannot compete with some of the horror stories that have been mentioned, but no politician is far from this issue. This year, I was accosted by two amiable Alsatians that did not quite wish me to canvass the house that I had intended to visit. In my constituency this year, a councillor has been bitten and a caseworker has lost part of a finger. Hon. Members might like to speak to my good friend the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr Benton), who to this day bears the marks of a serious attack by dogs.
Fundamentally, the problem is dogs’ bad behaviour, but that is associated with the problem of neglect and poor training, which is worsened a great deal by the contemporary cult of the status dog, which people use as a potential deterrent or threat. Hitherto, the resolution, which has been fairly straightforward, has been to ban so-called uncontrollable, savage dogs that are naturally disinclined to behave themselves in a civilised fashion. The view has also been that owners of dogs that are out of control should be charged by the courts, and guidelines have been issued in that regard over time. There is general consensus that such measures are not sufficient and that more is needed.
All hon. Members have acknowledged the fact that we cannot legislate for the genuinely unpredictable. Occasionally, even well-behaved dogs go beserk and do strange, unpredictable things, even if owners wish them not to do so. Hon. Members are probably aware of such cases. However, much of what people are anxious about is, sadly, predictable. The fundamental drive behind all our contributions today is the desire to see dog owners made more genuinely responsible for their dogs. Otherwise—something suggested to me by police dog handlers—there ought to be some restriction on who can own certain sorts of dogs. That idea was put to me seriously by a man who has had a lot of experience breeding dogs and working with the police with dogs. If we do not allow someone with a criminal record of some length to own firearms and the like, why would we allow him to own a dangerous or potentially dangerous dog?
That is a separate point from the drive to increase owner responsibilities, and I have no particular view on which of a number of different suggestions along that line would be best. I favour microchipping, but one might want to look at insurance, which has not been mentioned so far; at obliging owners to muzzle or keep dogs on a lead; and at neutering certain dogs, if they are to be owned in certain circumstances, almost as a precondition of sale, although none of that gets around the issue that is dogging the whole affair, which is the problem of genuinely irresponsible owners. They do not even shoulder their current responsibilities and, if asked to do more, will discard the animals that they have taken on. There seems to be a lot of evidence that that is happening—a large number of Staffordshire bull terriers end up in pounds throughout the land and are destroyed. The other day, the average life expectancy of a Staffordshire bull terrier was cited as about four years, because people take them on but discard them when they become troublesome.
I am genuinely convinced that the threshold for the ownership and breeding of dogs needs to be raised, either generally or for specific breeds, but that will only be an effective remedy if coupled with sensible plans for realistic enforcement. Without enforcement, no proposal will be worth while, but there is the question of how enforcement will be funded, which drives us back to the issue of whether a licence is a viable idea.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries—for the first time, I believe.
It is almost exactly two years since I made my maiden speech to a half-full Chamber—or half-empty, depending on how we look at it—and one of the issues that I highlighted was that of dangerous dogs, largely because as a candidate in the few years running up to the election so many cases had been brought to my attention.
Two years on, we seem to be making some progress, which I am delighted about, but we are not there yet, and I welcome some of the measures that the Government are at last proposing. Top of the list has to be extending protection to private land, with appropriate exemptions if dogs are protecting property from illegal forced entry or whatever. For far too long, many of our hard-working postal workers, delivery staff, carers and health visitors—the list goes on—have not been protected by the law from dog attacks if those occur on private land.
As I pointed out in a previous speech, it is patently ridiculous that at the moment, if a hand puts something through a letterbox and gets bitten by a dog on the other side, that would not attract any prosecution but, if it was the owner of the house who was sitting behind the door and bit the hand, that would. Such a situation seems rather ridiculous, but is at last being remedied, although I understand that we are still awaiting a change in the law to allow such prosecutions to take place. I hope that that will happen soon—it cannot happen too fast, in my view.
I am also pleased that we are consulting on microchipping, and I have listened with interest to some of the remarks about that. We need to find the right balance; there is the issue of pushing for full implementation to further the cause of responsible ownership, but I do not want to see elderly grannies with their 14-year-old poodles being marched down to wherever it is and told that they must get their animals microchipped at that late stage. I hope I am making clear my point about the need for balance.
The most sensible course is to start with young pups that are taken to vets for early health checks. A decent percentage of people already microchip their animals, but there will always be that law-ignoring minority who will simply take no notice. We can get our numbers up, however, by encouraging early microchipping. Local authorities could do something to help by using their tenancy agreements to insist that animals living in council properties are microchipped.
The most difficult problem to tackle, but also one of the most urgent—certainly in my constituency—is irresponsible owners who use their dogs to menace their local community, hanging around in parks or on streets. Police are often reluctant to intervene, unless there is a clear-cut case of an unprovoked attack in which someone is badly injured. Even attacks on other pets do not seem to be a reason for police to interfere.
I want to make a point salient to the issue of people who hang about in parks with dogs. Another such issue is with gangs who hang about with dogs, and a multiplicity of people with dogs is a real threat—if we see them, right away we are fearful. Do we now have the chance to address that?
That absolutely needs addressing. Often, too, drug dealers use dogs to protect them in their trade. Yes, indeed, we need to look at how we can break such gangs up. In fact, I was about to say that the Home Office is bringing forward some new measures that can help.
First, I like the suggestion of an acceptable behaviour order, which could enable the police or other agencies to require someone whose dog is proving to be a menace to sign up to certain conditions, such as muzzling the dog, having it on a lead or accepting some education from, for instance, the Dogs Trust or the RSPCA about proper dog ownership; if the owners do not fulfil what they sign up to, they are left open to further penalties. We would be getting involved with such people early on, hopefully before serious injuries happened. I like the early intervention possibilities and how owners are put on notice that, if they do not start looking after their dog properly, they could be in trouble.
We are also looking at something called the community trigger, which allows concerned residents to insist that the police or other agencies take action after three complaints. Again, that could involve people who are consistently worried about a gang of people hanging around with a threatening dog in a particular park. There are also criminal behaviour orders, which I understand could be attached to those convicted of certain crimes, including violence, and which could in certain circumstances ban someone unsuitable from being in control of a dog in a public place. That will all help, and the tougher sentencing guidelines are also welcome, although belated.
Finally, I want to flag up something that can make a difference in the medium to long term: local authorities getting much more involved in enforcing housing tenancy agreements, which seek to control pets in council properties. Wandsworth has led the way, and my own local authority of Ealing has also been setting up new agreements, although I am told that those are yet to be properly enforced; I have raised the issue with the council and been reassured that it is being looked at. Obviously, it makes no sense to adopt a new policy if it is not then implemented. I would like to see London councils and the Greater London assembly do much more to push those new housing tenancy agreements, which could make a real difference.
In conclusion, real progress is being made at last, which I welcome, but there is more to do, in particular to ensure that new measures are properly implemented and enforced. We need to remember the dreadful attacks on young children, as well as on many others such as postal workers, that go unreported. There are no guarantees, but we should be minimising the chances.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate.
I simply wish to echo some of the points made by my colleagues from London who have spoken already, in particular about gangs and dogs used as weapons. I quote from one of the e-mails that I have received from a constituent:
“I no longer come across normal breeds now”—
this is his impression—
“just staffies and pit bull types. They are everywhere! In the parks where small children play, the dogs are hung on to the trees to strengthen the jaws. They are walked around by intimidating owners and quite frankly it is an epidemic.”
That is only one e-mail, but in the time that I have been an MP I have had a number of constituents contacting me, in particular people who are fearful even of going out of their front door, let alone into a park, because of the aggressive behaviour of some owners, with their deliberate training of dogs to be aggressive and weapon-like.
Hackney council has sought to deal with the problem in a number of ways. It, too, has introduced some controls into the tenancy agreement on the number of pets that people own, although that alone is not a solution. Any irresponsible owner will find ways around most of those measures, which is a point that we must all bear in mind.
As a result of situations such as the one I cited, Hackney council has introduced three new dog control orders, which came into effect from April. One is a dog exclusion order, which enables the council to stop dogs entering certain areas, including children’s playgrounds, sports courts, multi-use games areas and marked pitches when games are in play.
A second order requires dogs to be on leads and prohibits owners from exercising their dogs off the lead on roads, in small parks and gardens, on the canal towpath and in car parks and churchyards. That is an example of how irresponsible dog ownership has affected responsible dog owners. Many dog owners are quite able to control their dog on the canal towpath or in churchyards, for instance, without causing a problem for children at play or other adults. Hackney has felt the need to introduce the orders because of the fear factor and some irresponsible dog owners. We will see how that plays out, but it is a worry to me that we must go that way. I still welcome the move, however, at this point.
A third order requires dogs to be on leads when a request is made to owners. That gives officers the power to request that dogs should be put on leads if they are not under appropriate control or if they are causing damage or acting aggressively. That latter point is the most important, but the key issue, of course, with the new or even with existing powers, is enforcement. We already have the powers in Hackney to issue fines for dog fouling in public, for instance, but when I talk to constituents about that there is a certain cynicism about the likelihood of enforcement. Some of the people who are intent on using their dogs as weapons will not be where the dog wardens are. If they see the dog wardens, they will tend to disappear.
Good dog owners will do all the things that are required anyway. I am in favour of microchipping and think that the arguments have been well put today. Microchipping is a good thing. On its own, it is not a solution; it is something that good owners will do, but the bad owners, who breed and sell, will not play that game.
There have been proposals about exclusive dog breeders, and about being able to buy only from some licensed dog breeders. I would be wary of that approach, which it seems to me would create a sort of cartel. It would be difficult to control what happened, especially in rural areas where dogs are born without being, shall I say, planned and bred in the same way as elsewhere. I mean that I know farmers here who tell me that one in seven dogs is likely to become a sheep dog; they do not know which, when they are born, so of course they tend not to keep them all.
I welcome the fact that Hackney has taken on such important powers; however, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has made some sensible and reasonable points about what Parliament needs to do. There is clearly cross-party support for some measures, but we need to work, as the hon. Gentleman said, on ensuring that the Bill is put together properly. We have seen what seemed like the benefits of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. There was a lot of support for it. The danger is that we chase the headlines and pick up the bad examples, without thinking of the consequences.
We need to tease through every consequence to see what the impact will be on different areas of our constituencies, and on our constituents. It may be early for the Minister to reflect on this, but there can be a danger of including in primary legislation things that can be changed only with further primary legislation. The legislation may need to be adapted for the future use of dogs, and we need it to enable minor changes to be made through regulation, once the basic principles are established. That will give the Government and Parliament the freedom to change the law and adapt and adjust it as new breeds come to fruition, or as people try to use dogs in new ways. I feel strongly about that. We cannot wait for primary legislation if we do not get things right, or the situation changes.
I welcome the points that the hon. Lady has made, about things that affect London communities as well as the rest of the country.
The Government have made a proposal about kennelling costs, and ways to make the action that is taken proportionate. I know as a solicitor how long dogs effectively await trial. The cost of that, just in London, is £2.75 million. If we can deal proportionately with dogs that will not be a risk, that must be welcome. If dogs are a risk they need to be on bail conditions, so to speak, of muzzling and a lead, and so forth.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was just about to move on to the issue of the cost of kennelling. Responsible owners—and irresponsible ones—can contribute to that, but it is a cost to Londoners, and I think the money would be better spent on enforcement. We need to consider all the consequences. At the moment, because of the breed-based nature of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, it is difficult for the police to establish what they need to, and it takes them a long time. In my constituency there are higher priorities for police funding than kennelling, so we need to think about how the issue is tackled.
We clearly have a cross-party consensus and agree that we want to proceed positively. I hope that the Minister will take our suggestions in good part, and work with me and others who have an interest in ensuring that responsible dog owners can enjoy their dogs, and that other people will not be made afraid because of those who are irresponsible.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing the debate.
It is good to have the Minister here. We are all very much in favour of microchipping, and I want to ask him about the database in particular. Microchipping is all very well, but the database must be right and it must work. The information must be correct. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched its inquiry at Battersea yesterday, and we found out that for a third of microchipped dogs the information is not accurate or up to date.
It is right to make sure that we have an accurate database. When a puppy is sold, the first owner or breeder must be responsible for ensuring that the information about where the dog then goes is correct. Thereafter, somewhat as with the licensing of a car, it is possible to follow the dog through its life. Otherwise it will disappear off the database. The idea is also good from a breeding point of view. It will make it possible to be sure that the breeding is correct, without in-breeding or the breeding of bad aspects into a certain breed of dog—so that the buyer gets a healthy dog. From all those points of view, the proposal is a good thing.
People always say, however, that the law works for the law-abiding, and we must be careful that we do not just make it more onerous for the law-abiding to get their dogs microchipped. We need to be able to tackle the other dogs out there, whose owners will never want to have them microchipped.
As to problems with postal workers and social workers, if someone is inviting someone to push a letter through their door and knows that their dog is likely to bite the person who puts it through, they are responsible for the dog and should take action so that that does not happen. The same is true if a social worker comes into their house. That is a key point. As a farmer, I know that occasionally—and this would be more difficult in law—a dog that has never turned before will turn suddenly. That will probably make for interesting cases, and we cannot get everything right, although we must try to.
I want to mention status dogs, quickly. Having looked around Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, it is clear to me—in relation to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991—that breed-specific legislation does not work, for the simple reason that, as we were told, some of the cross-bred dogs that are now being bred weigh 8 stone. We can imagine that once a dog of that kind has been trained to be vicious, it will be a hell of a weapon. To be blunt, that is what some criminal elements do: they breed those dogs in the back streets, and train them to be vicious weapons. The other problem is that if they abandon those dogs, most of them are so vicious that they cannot be rehabilitated and rehomed: there is a death sentence on those dogs, because of the way they are brought up.
It is not often the dogs that are to blame—it is the individual or gangs who bring them up. That is probably the most difficult aspect of the measures to get right. There is currently law enabling the police to act in relation to dangerous dogs. We need to be able to allow the RSPCA and others to take up the cudgels. We need to act when a dog is obviously starting to get vicious, when that is obvious from the way that it is being taken around—whether the owner is hanging around the parks with it, or whatever they are doing—and from the behaviour of the dog and the people around it. Even before the dog has viciously bitten anyone, that is the time to pounce on it, and at least try to get it microchipped, so that a link back can be traced. In films where gangs use such dogs as weapons, the one great advantage that they have is the fact that the dog cannot be traced back to an individual member of the gang.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that if aggressive behaviour is witnessed by the police they should have the power in law to enforce microchipping of the dogs? I would support that; it might tackle some of the irresponsible dog owners that we agreed about.
That is exactly what I am suggesting, because we must try to take action. If someone has been bitten, or a dog has been used as a weapon—as an attack dog—we have failed. If we get hold of the dogs before that happens, and link them to their owners, those owners who want to use them as a weapon will be much less likely to be able to do so. We must send a clear message to those people that the situation cannot continue. It destroys not just our society, but many healthy dogs who should not have ended up as they did. I strongly believe that in most cases it is the fault not of the dog, but of the way in which it was brought up. That is why we must pin the dog to those who perpetrate the problem.
I know that it is difficult to get everything right, but I urge the Minister to ensure that we have an accurate database that will continue into the future, that we target not breeds but the behaviour of dogs, and, most importantly, that we make sure that when dogs are used as a weapon we use all the powers we have to link them back to their owners so that they can be properly prosecuted. That will send the message to everyone else.
I am the organising secretary of the Communications Workers Union group of liaison MPs, and I am proud of that. I compliment the CWU’s Bite Back campaign, which has put some steel into the issue since 2008—particularly Dave Joyce, who is the health and safety officer. Trade unions do good work for people.
Some 23,000 postal workers have been attacked by dogs in the past four years, and 6,000 go to hospital for treatment every year because they have been seriously attacked by dogs. Twelve deaths have been recorded in the UK since 2005—seven children and five adults. Nothing that we do is good enough if another life is lost. I have here a photograph of Lena Gane, a postman who was attacked by a dog in Bristol on Thursday 3 May 2012, and whose hand was almost severed. That is not uncommon for postal workers and other direct-contact public workers.
The union’s assessment of the present consultation is that it is yet another fudge, and a missed opportunity. A two-year consultation has just finished, and there are no proposals other than to consider extending the legislation to dogs on private property.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned microchipping. If people were compelled to microchip and insure their dogs, they would think twice about buying a dog and the responsibility involved. The Dogs Trust says that too many dogs are given as presents and then abandoned. Some, having not been controlled and trained, become a problem for the owner and the public, but many are kept on as family pets. I have seen someone in the park across the road from where I live releasing a dog—an Alsatian or German Shepherd—when children were playing in the small child’s play park. I quake when I see that, because no one knows what that dog will do, no matter how good the owner is.
It is important to put on the record the measures that the Bite Back campaign wants. Until they are granted, the Government—any Government, because the campaign started in 2008 under the previous Government—will be under pressure from those who want the problem solved. The campaign says that those measures should include UK-wide consolidated and strengthened dog control legislation, not tinkering, to prevent attacks on children and the general public, postal and telecom workers, and other public-contact workers who may go to places where there is a dog.
There should be dog control legislation that applies everywhere, including on private property. Preventive dog control notices, which exist in Scotland, should be introduced. The fudge of a wrap-around general control order will not do. The notices must be specific, as in Scotland and, I believe, Northern Ireland. All dogs should be compulsorily microchipped, so that people who take on a dog know that that will be recorded. I accept the good points that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made about the database being kept up to date and compulsory. That happens for cars, and if someone forgets to make a statutory off road notification, they are fined. I know farmers who have been fined for having cars abandoned in their fields, because they forgot to register that they had been abandoned.
There should be compulsory third party insurance cover for dogs and better criminal compensation orders. The Government must reverse their appalling proposal that people will not receive criminal injuries compensation if they are attacked by a dog when someone has been proven to be irresponsible with the dog. There should be good local authority dog wardens with powers for them and the police to intervene immediately if they think a situation needs investigation, and to have the dog removed.
There should be harsher sentences by the courts for irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs. There should be better information and education, but the question is how much should be spent to get that education. It should be compulsory for people to train and control their dogs. There should be large public information campaigns to persuade people not to take on dogs if they are not willing to be responsible for them in every situation, and to generate compliance.
The Bite Back campaign is supported not just by the postal workers, but by all law enforcement agencies, the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Kennel Club, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Veterinary Association. That is a large body of opinion. Some 250,000 people are bitten by a dog every year. That means a lot of dogs that are not controlled. Some of the bites are severe, as we heard from the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax)—he has now left the Chamber—who told us about a young girl who was bitten in the face. The problem is common and endemic, and the Government have a duty to do something about it.
It was wrong to make the existing legislation breed specific, and I have said that time and again. We must do better, do it right, and do it all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on relating to us in graphic and harrowing detail the incident that inspired him to apply for this debate. It is rare to hear a contribution that warrants an 18 certificate.
The debate provides a timely opportunity to discuss the Government’s policy on tackling irresponsible dog ownership and strengthening dog control. It is worth saying at the outset that if the Government get this right, they will have our full support. It may be appropriate to mention briefly a former colleague. Until 2010, Joan Humble was the Labour MP for Blackpool North and Fleetwood. Last month, while campaigning for a Labour candidate, the tip of her wedding ring finger was bitten off when she posted a leaflet through a letter box. I know that the House will want to send its best wishes to her for a speedy recovery.
I note from a report on the BBC news website that the esteemed Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), began her political career by being bitten by an Alsatian during an early campaign, but I am sure that she has now recovered from that.
The Government announced their proposals to tackle dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership on 23 April. Before speaking about them in more depth, I want to pay tribute to the work of two organisations that have already been mentioned and which have done some outstanding work in this field. First, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association spends up to £50,000 to train a single dog to a high enough standard to serve a blind person, yet every week those animals are subject to vicious attacks by aggressive dogs on the public highway, often dogs that are nominally under the control of their owners. Those attacks frequently result in the guide dog being injured, and even retired. By nature and training, they are passive animals, and their first instinct is to protect their owners, not themselves. Yet criminal sanctions against irresponsible dog owners are very rare, leaving guide dogs and their owners constantly at risk without the protection of the law. I hope that in his response the Minister will give a commitment to address that injustice.
Secondly, I pay tribute to the Communication Workers Union, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) has already referred, and to the Bite Back campaign spearheaded by its national health, safety and environment officer, Dave Joyce. The union has welcomed the recently reviewed sentencing guidelines for dog attacks, but makes the serious point that in future the law must apply to private property as that is where 70% of dog attacks on postal workers take place. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 does not cover attacks that take place on private property, which means that traumatised and vulnerable victims are forced to seek recourse through the civil courts. Like Guide Dogs for the Blind, the CWU is concerned at the low level of convictions as a result of attacks. If the Government intend to extend the law on that issue—and I understand that they do—I hope that there will be no further delay.
In government, Labour recognised that there were problems with the existing legislation on dangerous dogs, and in March 2010 we began a consultation on tightening the law. We worked with the police, veterinarians, canine and animal welfare groups and trade unions on a range of powers needed to tackle dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners. That consultation ended in June 2010, but it took nearly two years for the coalition Government to respond. During that time, more than 5,000 patients were admitted to hospital because of injuries caused by dog attacks in England and Wales, and nearly 10,000 postal workers were injured by domestic dogs. Each month, more than seven guide dogs have been, and continue to be, attacked by dogs that are out of control. Those figures are startling enough, but over the past year, police forces in England and Wales have spent more than £3 million on kennelling dogs that have been seized under the 1991 Act.
Between 2004-05 and 2010, the number of out-of-control dogs seized by the Metropolitan Police Authority rose from 27 to more than 1,100. Scotland and Northern Ireland have already implemented their own dog control laws, and Wales is reviewing the issue—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn is taking a close interest. There have been many traumatic and violent attacks over the past two years, most recently the case of five Metropolitan police officers who were savagely attacked by a dog, curiously enough named “Poison”, as they attempted to arrest its owner. My hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) heard at first hand a horrifying testimony from the father of a little girl from Chingford whose ear had been chewed off in an unrestrained dog attack in a public park.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk pointed out, about 20 organisations, including the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Kennel Club, the CWU, the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers, want the Government to live up to the Prime Minister’s promise to target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs. Labour, and all those affected by dog attacks, also want to see that promise fulfilled. This is about promoting responsible dog ownership and tackling irresponsible, incompetent and sometimes outright dangerous owners, as well as about the dogs themselves.
On 14 March 2012, my shadow ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, wrote to the Secretary of State stating:
“I can assure you that Labour will support any measures that support animal welfare charities, unions, the Police and others in preventing unnecessary dog attacks and tackling the scourge of irresponsible dog ownership.”
Sadly, however, the proposals announced last month fell overwhelmingly short of expectations, and there were few who welcomed them with any vigour or delight. We have noted the announcements in the White Paper on antisocial behaviour, and I will return to that shortly.
Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, summed up the mood perfectly when he questioned why there was another delay caused by yet another consultation. He said:
“We’ve had a comprehensive consultation, there’s cross-party support, now we need action.”
The chief executive of the RSPCA, Gavin Grant, said that the proposals “lack bite”, although I do not know whether the pun was intended. Claire Horton, chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, said that the proposals were a “wasted opportunity”, and Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive of Dogs Trust, claimed that the Government are
“just tinkering round the edges.”
We welcome the extension—albeit delayed—of the law to cover attacks on private property, and the Government are making the right noises about a phased introduction of microchipping. However, the fact that we are to have more consultations has been criticised heavily, not least in the debate today, and there is no clear timetable for the implementation of the proposals. Furthermore, there is nothing in DEFRA’s proposals to help prevent dog attacks.
I have a series of questions for the Minister. I shall try to be brief and I hope that he will address these points today. If not, I hope that he will make a commitment to write to me with the answers. A new and additional consultation on microchipping has been announced. When will that end and when will the proposals be put into action? It is only right that the Minister makes clear the timetable for implementation. There are four existing microchip databases. Will the Minister explain how it will be made easier for law enforcement agencies, vets, animal welfare charities and dog wardens to cut through that confusion? Will the databases be streamlined, and will there be any compulsion for bodies to co-operate and share information?
As we know, information currently stored on dog microchips is often out of date. Owners have passed away or moved on and not informed the database, or else they simply deny that the dog is theirs. What measures will the Minister introduce to ensure that microchips are updated on a regular basis, and that the last recorded owners take responsibility for their dog? If the legislation is not tightened up, then short of being useful for restoring dogs to responsible owners, the database will do nothing to tackle irresponsible owners.
What discussions has the Minister had with animal welfare charities and others to make microchipping low-cost or zero-cost, and to make it apply beyond registered breeders, thereby driving programmes into other areas where the benefits of and need for microchipping and wider animal welfare advice are clear? What effect will the proposals for microchipping puppies from legitimate registered dog breeders have on the wider issue of unregistered or back-street breeders, surplus puppies from accidental litters, and the sale of puppies on the internet? Does the Minister accept that a large part of the ownership problem, and the tide of untraceable dogs that wash up in animal welfare charities, is unlikely to be affected simply by microchipping the products of registered puppy farms? The proposals are a welcome development, but how will they deal with the wider issue? The extension of the law on dangerous dogs to cover private property will require changes to primary legislation. When and how will that be done? We need certainty and clarity, neither of which has been forthcoming in ministerial announcements or in the Queen’s Speech.
The broad coalition of groups to which I have referred made a specific demand for measures that will prevent attacks from taking place. Such measures would reduce the costs of kennelling and euthanasia, thousands and thousands of NHS treatments in A and E units and GP surgeries, as well as days of work lost by front-line workers. Part of that is to do with early intervention and educating owners about responsible ownership. The limited programme that the Minister has announced is welcome but it is pygmy-esque given the scale of intervention required.
The Home Office White Paper on antisocial behaviour includes proposals that are aimed at tackling irresponsible dog ownership. The Home Office has rejected any dog-specific power, but stated that it will continue to work with relevant groups, including the police, in finalising proposals that will be of maximum benefit in dealing with dog-related antisocial behaviour. We are studying the proposals closely, but will the Minister guarantee that they will not become a dodgy doggy ASBO to be flouted and ignored? Many people want to see specific dog control notices. Does the Minister know why the Home Office rejected that idea?
What discussions has the Minister had with Home Office colleagues about these proposals, and does he know how acceptable behaviour order and community protection notices will be enforced? Has he made any assessment of what impact the proposals will have in preventing dog attacks? Does he know how many attacks will be prevented, and can he assure us that Ministers across his Department and the Home Office are working collaboratively to tackle out-of-control dogs and irresponsible dog ownership? In short, are Ministers barking up the same tree? [Interruption.]—Yes, I apologise.
We need joined-up government to make safety on the streets a reality, and I urge the Government to listen to the views of those who have come together to promote responsible dog ownership. Most importantly, I urge the Minister to get on with implementing the measures and put them in place as soon as possible.
It is a great pleasure to respond to this excellent debate and there have been some good contributions. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for raising this important issue with such commitment, and for continuing an ongoing dialogue on the issue. I entirely recognise the points that he raises. I pay tribute to the many organisations to which he referred: Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Communication Workers Union, the Dogs Trust and, of course, Battersea dogs home, which he recently visited.
There were other very powerful contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) pointed out the limitations of what many people—some of our constituents and some Members of this House—see as a panacea for solving this problem. Microchipping is only a partial solution. As was said in a number of interventions, it does not deal with the fact that unfortunately there will always be some people who fail to comply. The law can go only so far in catching them.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who informed hon. Members that she had to leave the debate to go to a meeting, which of course we understand, asked some specific questions that were also asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris). Incidentally, I should have started by congratulating him on his position and saying that I look forward to working with him. This issue is not my primary responsibility—it is, of course, Lord Taylor of Holbeach’s responsibility—but I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on it and many others. The hon. Lady asked when the measures would be brought in, as did the hon. Gentleman. The introduction of microchipping would involve secondary legislation—an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The elements of the measures that have been announced that would see current controls extending to private property and that relate to the requirements for kennelling and a number of other areas would involve primary legislation. I have no date for when those measures could be brought in, but we consider them urgent and hope that they can be brought in as quickly as possible.
The hon. Lady also raised the question of police resources. I can only say that these are local priority issues and will undoubtedly feature in the work of the new police and crime commissioners. When my neighbouring MP was Boris Johnson, we conducted a campaign with Thames Valley police on dog theft. We got that horrible crime treated as much more of a priority by the police force. It allocated resources and has done good work. A similar approach is being taken by other police forces. I know that hon. Members are still working hard with certain police forces to try to move this issue up the scale of their priorities. There will continue to be a debate and it will happen locally.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) is a long-standing campaigner on this issue, and I pay great tribute to her. She is pleased about what is being done, but quite rightly there is an edge to what she says. She wants to push the Government, and I will ensure that we continue to work with her.
There was an excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). One very telling point that she made was about the irresponsible dog owners affecting responsible dog owners. That is entirely right. There are law-abiding people who are dog lovers or who do not have anything to do with dogs but whose lives are made hell by the irresponsible dog owners. Of course, that must remain a priority for us.
I will try to deal with as many points as I can in the few minutes that I have left. I certainly commit to writing to hon. Members if I fail to answer any of the questions put to me. Let us be clear: the announcement of 23 April set out a number of proposals. One is to extend to all places the criminal offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control. That deals with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and a number of others about the terrible attacks that happen in the home and elsewhere that currently are not covered by legislation. The other proposals are: to remove the mandatory requirement that suspected prohibited-type dogs must be seized by the police for at least the duration of the court case; to require all puppies to be microchipped; and to increase the fee to have a dog added to the index of exempted dogs. The proposals are subject to consultation, and we welcome people’s views before the consultation period ends on 15 June. We want to take action as quickly as possible after that.
In addition to the proposals that I have set out, we are taking forward other work that we consider will help to tackle the irresponsible ownership of dogs. A number of initiatives are currently undertaken at local level. Some have been referred to in the debate. Those initiatives are designed to promote more responsible ownership of dogs. The Government welcome that. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been giving great leadership to some of those local initiatives. We want to foster more of those projects and we feel that those who may be interested in setting up projects need to know what works well and in what circumstances. To enable that to happen, DEFRA is funding innovative projects in London and in dog hot spots outside London to provide learning that can be applied more widely.
In the past, one criticism has been a perception that enforcement of the law can vary between police forces, with some forces performing better than others. To redress that, we have already provided funding towards the training of more dog legislation officers—police officers specially trained in the law on dangerous dogs. That can make an enormous difference to a police force that is trying to tackle a problem but does not feel that it has the resources to deal with it. Those additional specialists will help police forces across the country to deal with dangerous dog incidents.
We also provide guidance to the courts, the police and the public on dangerous dogs. We are examining whether that guidance needs to be updated and have started to work with partners to see what changes need to be made.
On 15 May, the Sentencing Council published a new guideline for judges and magistrates on sentencing for dangerous dog offences. For example, the top of the sentencing range for the offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control and injure someone has been increased from six months to 18 months. The Sentencing Council states:
“The new guideline will mean more offenders will face jail sentences, more will get community orders and fewer will receive discharges.”
The new guideline will come into effect on 20 August 2012.
As has been said, the Home Office has published a White Paper—it did so yesterday—containing proposals to simplify the antisocial behaviour toolkit. We have worked closely with the Home Office to ensure that the new antisocial behaviour measures cover irresponsibility with dogs. That includes people who deliberately use their dogs to intimidate other people and those who allow their dogs to stray and cause a nuisance—precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch. The Home Office is determined that those types of problem will be dealt with effectively in its proposed changes to the antisocial behaviour toolkit. The Home Office fully recognises the need to ensure that action can be taken to tackle antisocial behaviour problems proactively before they degenerate into more serious incidents, when action may have to be taken under existing dangerous dogs legislation. Many hon. Members have referred to the fact that certain dogs are used as a cover for other forms of criminality. That is of course a very big driver for the police and other law enforcement agencies.
I realise that a number of people wanted to see proposals such as the introduction of dog control notices. I can see why dog control notices may be viewed as a positive and preventive measure. However, I hope that I can reassure everyone that anything that could be achieved through such notices could be achieved through the new antisocial behaviour measures proposed by the Home Office. I see no reason to introduce dog-specific notices. They would not add value to what is already out there.
I hope that hon. Members will take the time to read the White Paper. It sets out a range of ways in which practitioners could use the new powers to deal with irresponsible dog owners, from using informal measures to deal with problems early, to taking proactive action through a community protection notice to tell an irresponsible owner exactly what he needs to do or else, and using the crime prevention injunction or criminal behaviour order to deal with more serious cases.
I understand that there is considerable support for microchipping to be applied to all dogs. Our consultation on microchipping includes four options, but our preferred option is to microchip puppies as opposed to all dogs. The Government consider that there should be a balance between linking dogs back to breeders and not imposing a burden on all existing dog owners. Many points were raised about the data and where they are held. There will be a real onus on the vendor of a dog to ensure that the data are changed. There will also be an onus on the purchaser. No one wants liability to remain with them. It is like selling a car.
The Government remain absolutely committed to resolving this problem as best they can. Let us face facts. There will still be dog attacks. Whatever legislation the House introduces, there will still be appalling incidents, but we must do everything that we can to provide the necessary protection to innocent people, who are currently too often the victims of appalling crimes and attacks by dogs that are not managed responsibly by their owners.
It feels a bit strange to be standing here once again to address the prospects for the Scottish regiments, which we now have to refer to as the Scottish-recruited units. I remember standing in this self-same spot in the first of two debates that I managed to secure to put the case for Scotland’s historic regiments, when the previous Labour Government introduced their amalgamation plans. I remember some of the fantastic speeches and really passionate contributions from Members on both sides of the House, who recognised the incredible community links and associations that our local then regiments had with all our communities and constituencies.
The regiments brought heritage, culture and traditions to our constituencies and communities. More than anything, people recognised the admiration and respect that we all felt towards our regiments for the almost unimaginable task that they did on our behalf and the pride and respect that we had for them for fulfilling their function and making this the best Army set-up anywhere in the world.
In 2004, the Labour Government were the villains. They pushed through their amalgamations in the face of total and overwhelming opposition. I remember the rallies, the demos—the Edinburgh demonstration in December 2004 and the rally in Dundee. People came together to oppose Labour’s amalgamation plans. There were petitions. Usually, if an MP has a petition and is out on the high street, people are reluctant to sign it, but people were queuing to sign the petition to save their local regiment.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the issue goes back to the 1960s? One of my great-grandfathers was a pipe major in the Gordon Highlanders and one of my grandfathers went through the whole of the first world war in the Highland Light Infantry. Both those cap badges have long since disappeared. They were great regiments with great traditions, but their disappearance was not the end of civilisation as we knew it. We have seen amalgamation and changes to cap badges in the Scottish regiments for nearly 50 years.
It is with great regret that we have lost some of those fantastic regiments. There are ways to do it. Our regimental system is admired across the world, and we mess with it at our peril. We were not successful in retaining the historic Scottish regiments. They were amalgamated and the Royal Regiment of Scotland appeared. We acknowledge that with much regret.
One thing that we secured, an important concession that everyone recognises as valuable, was the idea of a golden thread that would allow the past to knit to the future and allow the former regiments some sort of identity and home within the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
When my hon. Friend speaks about the golden thread, it is not mere history or sentiment. It is essential to recruitment and retention into those geographically recruited units, such as the Black Watch, when recruits come from that area. It is vital for recruitment and retention into units such as that.
My hon. Friend is spot on. It is more than history, tradition and culture; it is about community association and links. He and I share a local regiment—the Black Watch. He and I recognise the value and importance of those community links, which are lost at our great peril.
We were not successful in preventing the amalgamation plans. We had the golden thread. Some of us were sceptical: we feared that it might be lost in the greater tapestry of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and that once it was up and running it would develop a history, tradition and momentum of its own. There was also a very great and real fear that some future Government and new Secretary of State for Defence would come along and decide that the golden thread was not worth keeping and do away with it in a new defence review. We have come close to that in the past few weeks.
We have heard all sorts of remarks from the Defence Secretary. He tried to suggest that the golden thread was not valuable or important and that things such as names, cap badges and other insignia associated with the regiments are not worth what we say they are. He said something important:
“The ancient cap badges have largely gone, they are attached in brackets to some unit names”.
With those remarks, he was attempting to say that the legacy of our former regiments was somehow a burden that needed to be addressed and conveniently disposed of in favour of mere numbers. With one stroke of a Whitehall pen, these famous names would cease to exist and be no more.
I do not think that the Defence Secretary understood or appreciated the attachment that we have to our local regiments in Scotland, but after the furore of the past few weeks, he kens noo, as we say in Perthshire. The proposition that the names, cap badges and insignia should be done away with has been received with overwhelming hostility by every sector in the defence community.
It is the same in Angus, which has a strong attachment to the Black Watch. It is about not only the current members of the regiment, but about thousands of my constituents who have family connections with the regiments that they hold very dear. Part of the thread that ties our regiments to our community is threatened.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I cannot remember the number of veterans we have in Scotland, but it was revealed recently—somewhere in the region of 80,000. There are certainly substantial numbers—all of them determined to protect their former ancient regiments, and quite right too. He is right: the regiments bring history, tradition and culture into the new regiment, and that must be worth maintaining.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also about national identity? In Wales, we face potentially losing the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, which recruits, almost uniformly, from Wales and the borders. A regiment’s national identity is also important in giving a coherent community and regional identity.
The hon. Lady is correct; there is national identity. The Scottish regiments are called “the Jocks”—it is an affectionate, not demeaning, term. Maintaining national identity within the regiments is important and we must hold on to it.
My local battalion—my Scottish-raised unit—is the Black Watch. The regimental headquarters are in my constituency in Perth. They are currently being developed, Ms Dorries, and I am sure that you would like to know that we will have a fantastic new museum. Come up and visit us. It is a magnificent place.
The Black Watch has just returned from its tour of duty in Afghanistan. Thankfully, this time round, there were no fatalities or casualties, and we are all grateful for that. When the Black Watch returns to Scotland, all sorts of homecoming parades are organised across the recruiting area. There were parades in Dundee, Forfar, Kirkcaldy in Fife and, of course, a huge one in Perth. The streets were thronged. Hundreds of people turned up to show their admiration and respect for the Black Watch, which had come back safely. We organised a civic reception for it in the evening; I will not tell you what happened after that, Ms Dorries, but I will just say that it was a particularly good evening.
There is a connection between the people of Tayside and Fife and the Black Watch. It is an important and cherished connection that must be maintained. The Black Watch was raised in Aberfeldy in my constituency on the banks of the Tay in 1740 to keep watch on the lawless highlands. Thankfully, it no longer has to fulfil that task—I could refer to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy)—but it had an important task in those days.
It must have been in 2005, when the Black Watch was amalgamated into the new regiment of Scotland, that there was a march through Aberfeldy. It came to the fantastic Black Watch memorial—a kilted soldier looking down on the very place that the regiment was mustered. I remember speaking to an infantryman that day who had served in the Black Watch many decades ago. He gave me the clearest understanding of what it is all about. He said that it is not about Queen and country, important though they are, but about your pals—the pals who you have shared the same town with; the pals who you might have gone to school with; and the pals who you know you can rely on when the going gets tough.
That is the greatest ever description and explanation of why the regimental system works, and it cannot be put any clearer than that. That day, back in 2005, was very poignant. I remember seeing brave serving soldiers crying because it was the end of the Black Watch as an existing regiment.
I have never been a soldier and neither has the Minister. The most dangerous thing that I have ever faced was a sea of excitable fans when I was a rock musician. Listening to the testament of former soldiers and seeing what they have been through is a very important lesson.
I do not need to tell the Minister that these suggestions and proposals have been met with the most incredible hostility and opposition. According to The Sunday Times, even the Prime Minister is opposed to them. What we need to hear from the Minister today is absolute clarification on the matter. When the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) raised a question in the House, all we got was total equivocation from the Prime Minister. We need a clear answer. When the Minister gets to his feet, he must say without any equivocation that regimental names will continue to exist within the Royal Regiment of Scotland and that there will be no diminishing of the golden thread. In fact, he could say, “We value the golden thread; it is important and instead of diminishing it, we will enhance and develop it.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. I am also proud to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Regarding the Black Watch, my mother and sister are today attending a ceremony at the Black Watch memorial at Powrie Brae, just outside Dundee. The hon. Gentleman mentions the British regimental system—and he did say “British”—but given his party’s aspirations, would a Black Watch still exist?
Without any shadow of a doubt it would continue to exist. We have a firm, clear commitment that the existing battalions will be not only maintained but developed. [Interruption.] If it is an independent Scotland, the battalions are unlikely to be British, but they will be maintained and continued.
Everything the hon. Gentleman has said in relation to the golden thread applies also in Wales. There have been suggestions that a political decision will be made not to remove the Scottish regiments for fear of influencing the devolution debate. The reverberations of that in Wales would be tremendous. Some 9% of the British Army are recruited in Wales from 3% of the population. I am talking about some 10,000 people.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. It is good to see that the cause of Scottish independence is securing support and could have an influence on the recruitment of units in Wales.
I hope the Minister will clarify some matters for us today, because that is the intention of this debate. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State himself is not here today, but I appreciate and respect the fact that we have the Minister here. In even the darkest days of the amalgamation debates of 2004, Geoff Hoon always turned up. He always took the flak and got incredible respect for that. We really needed to have the Secretary of State here today to address our points unequivocally and end this damaging uncertainty.
There has been a suggestion, which has a degree of credibility, that this debate on our names and badges is a smokescreen and masks the Government’s true intention, which is to get on with the job of brutally decimating the Scottish defence footprint.
My hon. Friend mentions the defence footprint. He will be aware that Scotland contributes about £3.3 billion to the defence pot, but only gets back about £2 billion of the spend.
Those are the points that I want to make. Securing this regimental identity is important, but so too are the boots on the ground. There is this multi-billion pound spending gap between what the taxpayers in Scotland contribute to the Ministry of Defence and what is actually spent on defence in Scotland. I want the Minister to respond to some of this.
All we have left are four regiments in the British Army from the Scotland units. We have the Royal Regiment of Scotland with its five regular battalions and two territorial battalions. There are the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Scotland’s only remaining cavalry regiment, the Scots Guards and the 19th Regiment Royal Artillery, the Highland Gunners. We lost the 40th Regiment Royal Artillery, the Lowland Gunners, a few weeks ago. We now have only 11,000 service personnel in the Scottish infantry, which is fewer than in Ireland. The Government should be ashamed of that.
Moreover, we have seen a further 600 jobs cut in Scotland. We were grateful to the then Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), for conceding to the Scottish Affairs Committee that between 2000 and 2010, the total reduction in service jobs in the UK was 11.6%, and that the reduction in Scotland was a massive 27.9%. That disproportionate cut is incredible. It is equivalent to 10,500 defence jobs and a £5.6 billion underspend in Scotland.
Only four of the 148 major regular Army units are based in Scotland. There is massive under-representation not only in unit numbers but in Army capabilities. At present, there are no regular artillery units, no regular signals units, no regular logistics units, no regular engineering units, no intelligence or special forces and little or no presence of combat services.
On top of that, we have the ridiculous situation, outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), in which we contribute some £3.3 billion to the defence pot and only secure £2 billion in return. There is a structural multi-billion-pound defence underspend in Scotland, disproportionate base closures and disproportionate cuts to service personnel and to Scottish regiments and battalions.
As all that is happening, we learn that the MOD has given the go-ahead to spend £350 million on designs for the next generation of Trident. Talk about skewed priorities! Spending £350 million on a weapon of mass destruction that will never be used while the regular units are being undermined, diminished and under-resourced shows us everything about the Government’s priorities.
The Scottish people will have a choice to make. They can continue to go down this particular road of underspend and of diminishing the Scottish Army footprint and resource, or they can decide that these decisions can be made in Scotland—by the Scottish people, for the Scottish people. That is the choice they will be presented with in 2014 when we have the independence referendum. I am absolutely certain and confident that when they are presented with information such as this, with the run-down of our regimental units and resources, the Scottish people will make the right choice and we will determine these issues in our own country.
I completely understand the concern and interest that have led the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) to seek this debate, and I commend him for doing so. Necessarily, the answers that I am able to give to some of his questions will be only tentative because decisions in respect of the future structure of the Army have not yet been taken. Let me set out the national security context in which those decisions will be taken.
All Members present will agree that it is the first duty of any Government to ensure the security of the country, and that requires decisions to be based on a realistic assessment of a number of factors in the short and long term. We live in an increasingly uncertain world with complex and unpredictable threats, so our armed forces, must of necessity, be flexible and adaptable into the future. We must also accept that the decisions about defence that have been made since the general election must start from the position of clearing up the economic legacy that we inherited. That is a strategic imperative, because it is the only way we will be able to afford to project power of any sort, to protect our national security and to ensure that our troops have the equipment they need. The strategic defence and security review addressed the balance between our national policy ambition, available resources and real-world commitments. It did so by making reference to the national security strategy, which set out the principal risks to our security, and to the national security tasks, which we need to fulfil.
Implementing the SDSR was always going to be an ongoing process and not a single event. We are now working through the programme to ensure that it is fit to support the capabilities required by Future Force 2020. We are going through a process of rapid change, but we have identified clearly to the public—throughout the UK, including in Scotland—our strategic aiming-point and what we believe our future force requirement will be in 2020.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate. Regarding the decisions to which he has just referred, the Minister will understand the great anxiety felt in Fife, around the Leuchars and Caledonia bases, about whether the British Army will be arriving and the Royal Air Force will be leaving. Although I appreciate that he is keen to get that decision correct, will he give serious consideration to updating the communities concerned on when the decision about the Army and the Air Force at the Leuchars and Caledonia bases will be taken?
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Of course, there was a statement to the House last July, but some of the announcements made that day have been, in a sense, superseded by the current review of Army structures. To the extent that I am able to communicate with the communities that were named in last year’s statement and that are therefore working on that basis, I will give them an update as soon as I can, when the Army restructuring work nears a conclusion.
As I say, we are working towards Future Force 2020 as our defined end-point. That process includes the statement from last July and the more recent statements made by the current Defence Secretary. Specifically, we are planning to make a progressive adjustment during the remainder of this decade to the balance between regulars and reserves in the Army. By 2020, we envisage a total Army force of about 120,000 troops, made up of 82,000 regulars and 30,000 trained reservists, with a margin for 8,000 reservists in training. As we withdraw from combat operations in Afghanistan, that shift offers a major opportunity to reconfigure the Army in a way that will maximise adaptability and flexibility for the future. The Army has been undertaking a major study—Army 2020—to determine how we will achieve these changes, and we will announce to the House the outcome of that study as soon as decisions have been taken.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire rightly paid a warm and full tribute to the achievements and historic heritage of the famous Scottish regiments. I am sure that many hon. Members in Westminster Hall today who represent areas with a serious military footprint know only too well the pride that local populations take in such glorious histories. I add my own tributes to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Scots Guards, the Royal Regiment of Scotland in its current configuration, and indeed to the Highland Gunners and the Lowland Gunners, and to their personnel who have deployed on operations in recent years. We all owe a great deal to the members of our armed forces; we owe a great deal to those who hail from Scotland, just as we do to those who hail from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, from across the Commonwealth. I pay tribute to their courage, commitment and professionalism.
In 2006, I visited America and met General David Petraeus. I believe that he was at that time the supreme commander of the allied forces in Iraq. He was certainly an authority on the history of the Black Watch and very much an admirer of the regiment. Does the Minister agree—I hope he does—that names such as the Black Watch and regalia such as the red hackle should remain within the British Army? As General Petraeus said to me, the American forces were very envious of the fact that British regiments and battalions had such names and regalia.
Let me say that I fully recognise—as do the Government—the power of that heritage, and the strength of the identity that derives from cap badges, and to think otherwise is to completely misunderstand the piece of work that is being carried out. I will come specifically to one of the questions that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire put to me. What we are looking at is the future structure of the Army. If it serves to give him any reassurance, I will say that there is no intention as part of that work on Army restructuring to remove from the battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland the historic names that form such an important part of their heritage.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that, because it is a very important statement. Is there anybody within the Royal Regiment of Scotland or within the British Army who is agitating to have such types of insignia—the names and the cap badges—removed? Is there anybody who is asking for that and, if so, who are they?
I am not aware of anybody agitating to that end. Removing such insignia does not form part of the restructuring work; it is not one of the things that we are considering. We have a great respect for these issues of historical heritage. In the Royal Regiment of Scotland in particular, the historic names bring with them a great tradition that is respected around the world, and not only in Scotland or the rest of the UK. I am very sympathetic to the points about heritage that the hon. Gentleman has made in this debate.
As the Minister has given that assurance, can we be equally assured that any decision about Army restructuring will not be based on the politics of the rest of the UK’s relationship with Scotland and any future plans regarding devolution? The Sunday Times ran an article at the weekend suggesting that the Prime Minister had intervened to say that Scottish regiments must be protected and that perhaps the Welsh regiments could be looked at instead. Can I have an assurance from the Minister that no political interference is coming from No. 10 to protect Scottish regiments because of a fear of devolution?
The hon. Lady has been involved in politics too long to believe what she reads in Sunday newspapers. This restructuring is a piece of work that is being undertaken by the Army, and the Army will put its proposals forward when its review is complete. Reducing the size of the Regular Army from 102,000 to 82,000 will inevitably mean a reduction in the overall number of units that are available, and a number of critical criteria will inform the decisions about which units will be affected.
We must maintain the right balance across different capabilities—the Royal Armoured Corps, the infantry structure and the roles that different units will perform. We must also balance geographically because of the recruiting pattern; that has always been an important part of the British Army and it will continue to be in the future. We recognise that factor and it will inform the decisions that are taken. Indeed, we will also take account of previous decisions on mergers and deletions, so that we can ensure that there is a fair solution across the generations, as well as between the different branches and different geographical lay-down of the Army. Our aim is to sustain optimal capability. There are issues about basing. We cannot go to a final basing blueprint yet; that blueprint will follow hot on the heels of the current piece of restructuring work that I have described.
Although the focus of this debate has been on Scottish Army units, it is important that we take a holistic view. The Government are committed to the defence of the United Kingdom and each nation and region within it. In addition to its Army regiments, Scotland has one of our three naval bases, which in the future will be home to all our submarines. One of the three main RAF operating bases will be in Scotland. Scotland is also the home of Quick Reaction Alert North. As was made clear last summer, there will also be an Army brigade in Scotland, along with thousands of reserves and cadets. We have set out a clear vision for the armed forces across the United Kingdom, with a very significant footprint in Scotland, as part of a realistic and well thought-out national security strategy.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made the point that Scottish voters will be invited at some point in the future to take a decision about Scotland’s status. They have a clear understanding of where the UK Government are steering defence in Scotland. They have yet to gain any such understanding of where those who advocate independence for Scotland are trying to get Scottish defences to, and that will be an absolute necessity to inform a realistic and balanced debate.
The armed forces are at the core of the UK’s security. They make a unique and vital contribution, for which I hope all of us—whatever part of the UK we come from—are grateful. We will make the decisions that I have talked about—decisions to ensure that the armed forces are sustainable for the future—in the interests of everybody in Scotland and across the UK as a whole.
Petrol and Diesel
It is unusual to have this many Members present for a 30-minute debate. If everyone wants to make an intervention, Mr Halfon will not be able to speak. The Economic Secretary will have 10 minutes to wind up, and I ask Members to keep interventions to a minimum because Mr Halfon probably has a 20-minute speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Chairman, and I appreciate what you have said. I have cut my speech down to allow for more interventions. The number of people here shows just how important the issue is, and I thank Members from both sides of the House for coming along.
I want to start by knocking something on the head. I welcome, as I am sure everyone here does, the fact that in the past few weeks petrol prices have come down a few pence, but families in my constituency still spend more on petrol than on food. The price of petrol is at an historic, all-time high. In Harlow, it costs more than 140p a litre, and that hits the poor twice as hard as the rich. People say that the price has come down, but it is a bit like a burglar taking £100 out of your pocket and giving you £5 back.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when a few pence comes off the price of a litre and the foot comes off the neck of the economy and of hard-working families, it is the wrong time for the Government to put that foot back again and squeeze the life blood out of the economy?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He supported me in the debate last year in which we managed to get the Government to postpone the January tax rise, and he will see from my remarks that I do not disagree with him.
Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco has said:
“Filling up the family car has gone up 70% in two years, causing what was a steady recovery to go sideways.”
I and most fair-minded people recognise that the Government have made significant progress, abolishing the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, scrapping the planned hikes in 2011 plus a 1p cut in duty, with a partial fuel stabiliser and the freeze in fuel duty that I mentioned, in January this year. I firmly believe that the Chancellor shows an understanding of the matter, and that the Government must get credit where they deserve it, but we face considerable problems.
The first problem is the planned tax rise in August, which I ask the Government to reconsider. Secondly, we need a serious inquiry into the lack of competitiveness in the oil market, and possibly even a windfall tax on oil firms, to cut prices. Thirdly, there is the problem of the banks speculating on the price of oil.
I support my hon. Friend’s campaign. I represent the least densely populated constituency in England. In Northumberland, fuel is a key issue, as I am sure it is everywhere else. I suggest that there should be an Office of Fair Trading examination, much like those we have carried out so successfully in remote communities into other forms of heating and other oil.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. That matter is an important part of my argument.
On the August rise, the Automobile Association says that a 3p rise in petrol prices will switch £1.8 million a day out of the economy and into petrol costs, draining money away from high streets. At the same time, a report by the respected Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that cutting duty by 2.5p would create 175,000 new jobs. The RAC Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies—both very respected—show that revenues from motoring taxes are set to collapse by between £10 billion and £13 billion a year over the next decade, as people are driven off the roads by economising on fuel. That is why I urge the Government to think again.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the very good campaign that he has carried out on this issue. We all appreciate it. With our fuel costs rising and it costing more to fill a car or heat a home than to buy groceries, does the hon. Gentleman feel that now is the time for a windfall tax on the oil companies that are making exorbitant profits?
Yes, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his incredible support all through this argument. I recognise that there is no magic money tree, so to cut prices at the pump the Government need seriously to consider another windfall tax on the oil companies, not necessarily on North sea production but on the companies as a whole.
Not enough emphasis is put on my second point which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) says, is that we need competitiveness in the oil market. Not only the Government but businesses and the oil companies have a responsibility. There are four complaints. The first is that pump prices are always quick to rise, but that it feels as though a court order is needed to get them down. Evidence shows that from May to August 2011, oil prices fell by about 5.5%, adjusting for exchange rates, but petrol and diesel prices stayed high, falling by only 1.5%.
The second complaint—the debate comes in the wake of this—is about the OFT’s interim decision not to investigate the UK oil market, despite a dossier of evidence from Brian Madderson, who represents the UK’s independent forecourts, which shows that British motorists are being fleeced and that oil firms active in the UK are under formal investigation by the Federal Cartel Office in Germany as a result of similar complaints.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on an excellent campaign. Does he agree that my constituents who live in the most rural areas face an additional penalty in that they pay much higher prices, and that prices can be many pence higher in garages only a few miles apart?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I am grateful for her support. People in rural areas face fuel deserts, in essence, because of the uncompetitive nature of the oil industry. People have to travel further, particularly in rural areas, to deal with the cost of fuel.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so generously, in an excellent debate. Rural areas such as Norfolk are affected, but does he agree that it is not just about rural areas? Places that focus heavily on the tourism industry, such as Great Yarmouth and other coastal towns, are adversely affected if fewer people are able to afford to travel there, which has a knock-on effect on our economy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a hidden consequence of all this is to be found in the voluntary sector? People who do things such as meals on wheels and those who are voluntary carers—the pillars of our society—are beginning to wonder whether it is all worth while.
I am a passionate believer in the big society because it is about people power, social capital and helping social entrepreneurs, and the price of petrol and diesel stops people in their charitable work and harms communities. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.
This month, Germany decided to initiate fuel price regulation and to limit price rises. Austria implemented similar measures last year, and the AA has noted their impact in keeping prices down.
I will in a minute. Because of where they are sitting, I am concerned that two of my colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), have joined the other side—I hope not. The Office of Fair Trading has not investigated the UK oil market since 1998, despite the fact that British petrol and diesel prices are among the highest in Europe, so we need a proper investigation.
My hon. Friend makes a great case for a reduction in petrol and diesel prices. Oil companies, I believe, take far too much. When crude oil prices go up, they immediately put up their prices, but when the crude prices come down they take for ever to bring their own down. We need a thorough investigation into the oil companies.
My hon. Friend is exactly right, which is why I am arguing that the Government should force the Office of Fair Trading to launch an investigation into the uncompetitive nature of oil companies.
The third issue is the problem of local variation in petrol prices, especially in rural areas and towns such as mine. In Harlow, fuel is always 4p to 5p more expensive than it is a couple of miles down the road. I have complained to the OFT. Its letter was a classic Sir Humphrey reply, giving a lot of sympathy and a whole load of reasons why nothing could be done.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I pay tribute to his work on this campaign. On local areas and price differences, does he not agree that any OFT investigation should consider the lack of filling stations? Owing to the huge reduction in their numbers over the past 15 or 20 years, there is a distinct lack of price competition in local areas.
My hon. Friend has read my mind; I was about to come to fuel deserts. Britain has gone from 20,000 forecourts in 1990 to 8,500 today, a drop of nearly 60%, turning huge areas of the UK into fuel deserts where motorists must drive to fill up. There are examples in Cornwall, where a hypermarket sold fuel at below cost price until all the other petrol stations went bust, after which its prices rose considerably.
From the Labour Benches, I, too, offer support to the hon. Gentleman’s campaign. Earlier, I went to a petrol price comparison site. Would it surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that although the situation is bad in Harlow, it is even worse in Oxford? He will enjoy the support of my constituents in winning his campaign.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. The next time I get my many e-mails from Harlow residents, I will pass them on to him so he can help me to respond. I am grateful for his support. It shows the Minister that this is an all-party campaign, because the issue affects everybody.
As always, my hon. Friend makes a powerful case. The point about the price differential from area to area is particularly important in my constituency, where Immingham is a major centre for the haulage industry. Increased haulage prices trickle down into the economy generally. Does he agree that it is particularly important that any investigation take note of the impact on haulage businesses?
My hon. Friend is completely right. Before I answer that, I should say that although I have received a lot of credit for working on the fuel campaign in Parliament, he is deputy chair of FairFuelUK and has done an enormous amount of work to help me behind the scenes. I must give credit where it is due. Haulage firms all over the country are closing down. Transport firms are closing.
Southampton is in close proximity to Portsmouth ferry port. One big challenge faced by hauliers in the south-east is easy access to the continent and European lorry drivers coming over with much cheaper tanks of fuel.
Again, we need to consider that, as well as considering the charging of foreign lorries that come here. I recognise that the Government have made some progress, but those lorries must be charged a lot more. The playing field is not level. Why should our people suffer because foreign lorries have an unfair competitive advantage?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so generously every three or four words. We are all taking over his speech. I have two points. Does he agree that not only is fuel dear in rural areas, but rurality makes it far more necessary to have a car, so the impact of fuel prices is far greater there? Also, in High Peak we produce the finest limestone in the world, which is more often than not transported by road, meaning more costs.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. We worry about the cost of petrol and diesel, particularly on the island, where prices are higher than everywhere but the most extreme places such as the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides and the northern islands. Does my hon. Friend acknowledge the additional cost of transporting fuel to such places?
Before the hon. Gentleman moves off rurality, can I make the issue real? A 10p difference per litre is nearly 50p a gallon or £5 a tank. For someone commuting and filling their tank twice a week, that is hundreds of pounds a year. I hope that he will take the opportunity to reinforce to the Minister that for ordinary working families who are struggling in this austerity period, that extra few hundred pounds makes a huge difference.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As I will say in my conclusion, statistics show that motorists in my constituency on average earnings pay one tenth of their income just filling up the family car. The Government say that people face fuel poverty if they spend one tenth of their income on fuel. People are forced to use their cars, and in my constituency—and, I am sure, elsewhere—they are paying one tenth of their income to fill up the family car.
I will make a brief point about the banks; I am nearly done. Last year, western Governments tried to release oil to cut pump prices, but banks bought up at least £1.6 billion of it. There is evidence that a lot of it was stored in silos at sea rather than entering the market, keeping prices high. America is introducing tough new penalties for market manipulation. I urge the Government to do the same in Britain. If Governments around the world do the right thing and release oil stocks, we cannot allow banks to buy it up, keep it at sea and hurt the struggling motorist.
What is to be done? I am a realist. I do not believe in “Charge of the Light Brigade” politics; I much prefer the battle of Agincourt. I accept that we do not have a magic money tree, but the big oil companies are not struggling. In the first quarter of this year, Shell had profits of $7.6 billion, BP $5.9 billion and Exxon Mobil $9.4 billion. It is a similar story at Chevron and ConocoPhillips. At the end of 2011, those firms had $58 billion in cash reserves. In order to find the money to stop price rises and help hard-pressed motorists, the Government could consider a windfall tax to fund cheaper petrol at the pumps. A windfall tax was imposed before, but on North sea oil in particular. I am asking the Government to consider a windfall tax on oil companies in general.
We must remember that motorists are not a lobby group. They are mums driving to school, children on buses and pensioners hit by inflation. When the cost of road haulage rises, the price of everything else rises too.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity. To declare an interest, I should say that I am a qualified transport manager and have run a considerable haulage fleet. One major anomaly in the haulage industry is that we compete against foreign competition, but diesel is priced considerably higher than petrol in the UK, whereas on the continent it is considerably cheaper. Perhaps we could explain that anomaly. It is extremely important in my constituency, because more than one third of private sector jobs there are in distribution or are distribution-related. As we have no railway stations in my constituency, a vehicle is not a luxury; it is essential.
I agree entirely. We must look at the price of diesel too, because it has risen hugely. Prices are much higher. People often quote unleaded petrol prices but forget to quote those for diesel.
As we have agreed, petrol prices are crushing businesses and families and creating a poverty trap, and evidence from the London School of Economics and elsewhere shows that they are adding to Britain’s dole queues. As I have said, I believe that the issue is not whether people can afford a car, but whether they can afford not to. I urge the Minister to reconsider the August tax rise, launch a tough investigation into the oil market through the OFT and elsewhere and consider a windfall tax to cut prices at the pumps.
Before I end, I should say that we are here today not just because of MPs representing their constituencies but because of the work of FairFuelUK, which has done much to bring the issue to the public’s attention, especially through The Sun newspaper’s “Keep It Down” campaign, which has done an enormous amount to highlight it. Both The Sun and FairFuelUK have campaigned tirelessly.
We face a petrol crisis in our tax system, our oil companies and our banks. Everyone seems to benefit except hard-pressed motorists in Harlow and the millions of hard-working people throughout our country who have no choice but to drive their cars.
I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate. We are all aware of the passion with which he and other Members who have spoken campaign. So many have contributed to this discussion that I will struggle to name them all, but I shall endeavour to address the breadth of the debate.
I shall start by saying, as my hon. Friend did, that even though average pump prices have fallen by about 6.5p over the past month, there is little doubt that the price of petrol and diesel remains a very difficult issue and a concern to many families and businesses throughout the country.
Since we came to office, the Government have listened to those motorists and the many others who are concerned about high pump prices. Motoring is an essential part of everyday life for many households and businesses. Fuel costs affect us all in various ways, and the Government recognise that the rising price of motoring fuel is a significant part of day-to-day spending.
I will give a little historical context by noting that in 2009 the previous Government introduced a fuel duty escalator, which was a time bomb that involved planning for seven fuel duty increases. That could have resulted in average pump prices being a whole 10p per litre higher than they are at present. The previous Government would then have introduced further above-inflation increases in 2013 and 2014. None of those planned increases were subject to either oil price or pump price movements, unlike the fair fuel stabiliser that we have introduced.
We know that high oil prices are causing real difficulties in ensuring that motoring remains affordable. It is important to remember that pump prices are affected both by world oil prices and by duty rates, as I know all Members present will understand. It is important that a responsible Government are able to consider their actions and take them in that context. Although the Government cannot control world oil prices, they can control duty rates, which is what this Government have done. We have acted by providing £4.5 billion-worth of relief on the burden for motorists between 2011 and 2013. Indeed, VAT and fuel duty last rose in January 2011.
The Minister is right to say that the Government cannot control oil prices, but they can stop the European Commission attempting to frustrate the development of the Canadian oil sands, which has the potential to offer billions of barrels of oil to the US market, which will help bring prices down.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the complexity of the global market and its relevance to this debate. I suspect that there is a much broader debate to be had about where we might look for energy security and breadth of supply in the future, but he is right to raise that point.
On the impact of what the Government have been able to do, duty at the pump has been frozen for 16 months and pump prices are now 10p lower thanks to this Government’s actions. To put that into pounds, as other hon. Members have endeavoured to do in their contributions, a typical Ford Focus driver will be £144 better off as a result of those actions, and a haulier will benefit by £4,400 on average.
I understand why the August duty increase is one of the main points that has been raised. I am well aware of the burden caused by the rise in the international oil price and the concern it creates for businesses and families. This is, after all, a time of real uncertainty and instability from which no country can be immune. Britain has been comparatively stable in recent weeks. Only yesterday, the International Monetary Fund said that our approach is right and that we have earned Britain credibility again in our economy. Families and businesses benefit from that earned credibility, through lower interest rates.
Calls for the August increase to be scrapped raise an important question, because we would need to consider how to replace the £1.5 billion it would cost. That money would need to come from higher taxes or lower spending elsewhere.
The Centre for Economics and Business Research report that has been cited today has a couple of weaknesses. Its analysis is not straightforward. For example, it makes no mention of the relationship between oil prices and pump prices. It does not