Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this issue, Mr Deputy Speaker. I did not expect to be called to speak so early, but the Whips of both main parties ensured that I was here on time.
I am country sports enthusiast and proud of it, as those who follow such issues will know. As we all know, Members of Parliament work in a stressful environment and it is essential that we have a release valve for that pressure. For me, that is country sports, and I take part whenever the opportunity arises. It does not arise as often as it did in the past, because I am in London. In my maiden speech, I said that the pheasants and ducks of my constituency would have two to three days a week when I would not be chasing them and they were probably more than gratified to learn that.
It is good to be out in the fields, pursuing country sports. That was how I grew up. I remember my cousin, Kenneth Smyth from County Tyrone in the west of the Province, giving a new meaning to the phrase “pigeon post”. When I was a young boy, he would send wood pigeons to me in the east of the Province in Ballywalter. They took two or three days in the post—they came first class—and although sometimes they were not palatable, they were okay when cooked. I survived. That is the truth, and “pigeon post” for me clearly meant a dead pigeon coming from the west of the Province to the east.
I have been eating shot pigeon for years, and pheasant and duck, too, and it has never done me any harm. However, I am prepared to accept the lead shot ban and wait until all the information has come in and been assessed by the lead shot working group. Members might therefore be wondering why we are having this Adjournment debate, and I have secured it because we need to present a balanced view given how the issue is portrayed by certain papers and magazines across the country. There are those who have created a scare without waiting for the full results to come out and I wanted to ensure that the House heard both sides of the argument. I have therefore been in touch with shooting sports organisations as well as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and I am prepared to give a balanced review of the issue. I state again that there is no final result yet, but we need balance in the debate and in the argument and we must ensure that all points of view are heard.
The use of lead shot is being considered because of issues that have been raised about environmental and human health effects. As they are in question, I support any investigation. I would not want to be like those doctors who backed cigarettes in the past, saying that they were good for people’s health when the reverse is patently true. However, neither would I like to be like those who jump in with two feet, causing a needless fuss and a scare. A balance should be struck between those two reactions and it is that balance that I seek to provide to the House today.
Regulations across most of Europe prevent lead from falling in wetlands and shooters support that. Some shooters were perhaps not all that pleased when lead shot was banned and they had to turn to steel, but they did it successfully, honestly and truthfully. Steel shot is now the preferred choice of many. Many bird watchers are also bird shooters and understand that sustaining a good environment is essential for both sports. I have been informed, however, that there is little evidence to suggest that lead, when used outside wetlands, causes any significant damage to bird populations.
The unique way that certain water birds feed means that some species are susceptible to ingesting lead if it is deposited in their feeding area and that has been highlighted as a source of poisoning for some wildfowl species, including several migratory birds. It important to consider all the factors that affect migratory birds, however, as the ingestion of lead might have happened not in this country but in other countries. To address that problem, the African-Eurasian water bird agreement, or AEWA, aimed to reduce the amount of lead ammunition used in wetland areas where such wildfowl feed. The feeding habits of non-wetland birds are very different, as they are not affected by lead in the silt layers of wetlands.
However, in order to comply with the AEWA, we have rightly prohibited the use of ammunition containing lead for the killing of certain species in specific areas. In England and Wales—we are here in the mother of Parliaments representing the four regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—the use of lead shot is prohibited below the high water mark of ordinary spring tides, over specified sites of special scientific interest and for the shooting of the following species, regardless of where they occur. The species are mallard, widgeon, gadwall, shoveler, teal, pochard, pintail, tufted duck, and golden eye and the four species of goose—greylag, pink-footed, white-fronted and Canada—but also golden plover and coots and moorhen. In Scotland and Northern Ireland the use of lead shot is prohibited over wetlands, which are defined there as any areas of foreshore, marsh, fen, peatland with standing water, regularly or seasonally flooded fields and other water sources whether they be natural or manmade, static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt. I am trying to make it clear that legislation exists to protect water birds from this very threat. Action has been taken here at Westminster and in the regions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Reading through the report, however, there appear to be many inconsistencies and inferences are made from the testing of a very small number of birds. Perhaps work has not been done on the large number of birds that would amount to true evidence for the case.
The Countryside Alliance would say that many of the wildfowl tested in the study are migratory species—that is its opinion; many of us would agree with that—and as such have travelled many miles from different locations. Although the Wildlife and Wetland Trust provides assurances that these birds ingested the lead in the UK, with respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, there is simply no way of proving that. Moreover, lead poisoning can come from many sources, as previous research has shown that birds from urban areas have higher levels of lead in their blood. Lead can be got from the water and from other things. This is not acknowledged, and perhaps it should have been.
For those species that are non-migratory, it must be asked how the birds, which were tested only from wildlife and wetland trust reserves, obtained the lead shot while resident on the reserves. As the reserves are not shot over, the most probable explanation is that the lead was dropped in those areas before any legislation was introduced.
Sir Peter Scott was the founder of the Wildlife and Wetland Trust and a very keen wildfowler—indeed, one of the greatest wildfowlers that we have ever had. I have read some of his books, and they are most interesting. A bust of Sir Peter Scott is displayed at Castle Espie in Comber in my constituency of Strangford. It was put there in recognition of his good work and his contribution. He would have used lead ammunition in his day, long before the legislation was changed and lead shot was banned. This is further evidenced by the fact that no evidence of any other shot type was found in the birds’ gizzards. After 10 years of use of steel shot, would there not be some steel shot in the gizzards of the birds? There does not seem to be, but given that alternatives have been widely used for more than 10 years, this would be expected, and it further confirms that birds obtained the shot from the reserves. However, the Countryside Alliance has informed me that it is upholding the ban and will read the final report in full before making any representations.
I have been contacted by the Wildlife and Wetland Trust regarding its fears about the effects of lead on the animal and human body and, for the sake of parity I, like others, have carefully considered its point of view. It states:
“Lead is toxic to all animals including humans. Even low levels of exposure affect animals and no threshold has been identified below which the effects of lead cannot be seen. The vast majority of shot fired from shotguns falls into the environment, and thus, in the case of lead, causes long term cumulative contamination. Wildfowl, and other birds, ingest lead shot that has been deposited in their feeding areas (such as wetlands and terrestrial habitats including agricultural land), probably mistaken for grit or food.”
It is really nothing new, to be fair. Lead poisoning from shot ingestion has been known to kill wildfowl for more than a century. It has happened for more than 100 years and long before that. In Europe it has been estimated that approximately 1 million wildfowl from 17 species and just short of 9% of the wildfowl population could die every winter from eating the lead that is already in the seashore and the sea.
Although some of the information on which the estimate was based is old, and shot ingestion rates may now be higher or lower in some species, none the less mortality is high. Not only does lead poisoning cause considerable avoidable wildfowl suffering and mortality, concern has been expressed about its potential to contribute to the decline of certain common wildfowl species; for example, the pochard and the pintail, both of which are amber-listed. They are BOCC—birds of conservation concern—to use the correct terminology.
Lead poisoning is known to be a serious threat to certain globally threatened European wildfowl, in particular the white-headed duck. It also causes sub-lethal effects in many other birds and represents a significant welfare problem. We are not walking away from that; we are trying to address the issues and make a balanced argument.
In recent times, a body of evidence has been accumulated detailing lead poisoning in terrestrial birds, including upland game birds, which ingest spent lead shot when feeding in shot-over habitats, and the raptors that prey on or scavenge game species, thereby ingesting lead fragments from ammunition. Eight of the non-wildfowl species documented as ingesting lead or suffering lead poisoning from ammunition sources in the wild breed regularly in the United Kingdom, and are red or amber-listed as BOCC. Clearly it is important to avoid or reduce mortality in those species from all causes.
The negative human health impacts from lead are well established and have resulted in policies to reduce exposure, such as its removal from paint or petrol. The potential risks associated with consuming game shot with lead ammunition have received more attention recently, following an international conference held in the USA by the Peregrine Fund in 2008. As a small proportion of the lead from gunshot fragments is invisible to the human eye, consumers of game may inadvertently eat small lead shards or particles.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that even in the most pessimistic estimations a normal human being would have to eat a colossal amount of game even to register in the danger zone? May I offer a crumb of comfort? I suspect I am one of the few Members of Parliament who actually carries 15 bits of lead in my left knee. It was shot there when I was 15 and does not seem to have had any ill effects on my health.
I read the hon. Gentleman’s excellent article in the Shooting Times and Country Magazine last week. It shows his commitment to country sports over the years. The lead in his leg has done him no harm, just as the lead in the pigeons, ducks and pheasants that I have eaten has done me no harm.
Research in the United Kingdom showed that a high proportion of the game sold for human consumption had lead concentrations exceeding the European Union maximum. We are well aware of the issue. The European Food Safety Authority expert on contaminants published a scientific opinion on lead in food and has stated that other animals in the food chain—sheep, pigs and poultry—carry lead too. The report details the potential health risks that may be associated with a diet rich in game, but people would need to eat a lot of pheasants or venison every year before they were affected, or in my case, a lot of wood pigeons. They would have to eat a dozen a day.
I thank my hon. Friend for getting this important subject on to the Order Paper. It is important that the House is aware of the issues he is raising. Does he agree, however, that there could be a self-created crisis by elements in various agencies who want to justify their existence? They point to potential problems if we eat too much of something, but by definition too much of anything is bad for us.
It is good to put things into perspective. Too much wine is bad for us. Too much chocolate is bad for us. Too many chips are not always that good for us either. As someone who ate plenty of sweet stuff and is now a diabetic, I know that the sweet stuff I ate over the years was not good for me. Many in the land have to look at those things too; my hon. Friend’s words put things into perspective.
An article I read last week also helps to put the issue into perspective. It referred to the Food Standards Agency, and there was an important reply:
“There is lead in all foodstuffs and we should see the purported risk of lead in game meat in a sensible perspective…There is no evidence of harm to those of us who eat game less than once every week. Compared with other meats wild game is low in fats and entirely natural, representing a healthy option to intensively reared products.”
That certainly makes for interesting reading. There is no better stuff to eat than game. If Members have not eaten a pheasant this year, they should try one. If they have not had duck, now is the time. If they have not had wood pigeon, they should go down the shop and buy one. They will enjoy it; it is excellent. If they are lucky enough to be able to afford venison, that is good, too; I recommend it to everyone in the House.
The body set up to deal with the issue, the Lead Ammunition Group, is taking the matter seriously. It is not ignoring people’s concerns, but it is putting things into perspective. I am sure that the report that will come out will address the subject. I was given a report by the European Food Safety Authority that clearly shows that although game has a higher lead content—we accept that—it is not seen as a contributory factor to having too much lead in one’s diet. Bread, tea, tap water and potatoes provide a significant amount of lead in the diet and they are all things that we sit down and consume on a Sunday, and eat and drink regularly; they have an impact on us, too.
That is one reason why I believe that although there is no need for a knee-jerk reaction, there is cause for investigation. The Food Standards Agency recently issued advice to high-level consumers of game, and I have already quoted what it said. Perhaps that will put the danger into perspective. I stress that the advice is aimed only at those who eat large amounts of small game—more than 100 or 120 pheasants, partridges or ducks a year—and large game, such as venison, is not included. Even the most fervent game-eater would never consume that much, and even if they did, the rest of their diet keeps things in balance.
Now that the advice has been given, small game is added to a list of many other foods, including oily fish and tuna, that the FSA suggests should not be eaten more than twice a week. It also joins the myriad foods that woman are advised to avoid while pregnant; there is no one present in the Chamber to which that would apply. According to data from the European Food Safety Authority, which provided the bulk of the evidence for the report that I am referring to, eating the suggested daily minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables and drinking one litre of tap water provides enough dietary lead to exceed the threshold for young children by a factor of two. If a person eats their five a day, and drinks water, they will already be over the limit, before game is added. Other foods, including chocolate and mushrooms, have a very high level of lead; some chocolate has more, weight for weight, than pheasant. The EFSA rates many everyday foods as being among those that contribute most to lead levels in the average diet, and game is not among the ones that Europe is looking at.
Game is enjoyed by many people across the country as a lean and flavoursome alternative to other meats, and I recommend it. I have been consuming game for many years, and I am not aware of any person who suffers health-related issues as a result of consuming game shot with lead ammunition; neither is any shooting body with which I have spoken. In addition, data from the NHS hospital episode statistics show that there is a very low number of lead poisoning cases, compared with cases of poisoning caused by other toxic substances. To put this into perspective, between 1998 and 2011, 19.6 people a year on average were admitted for treatment for the toxic effects of lead. By comparison, 125 people a year on average are admitted for the toxic effect of soap and detergent, 982 for the toxic effect of ethanol, 69 for the toxic effect of ingested mushrooms, and 40 for the toxic effect of snake venom. That puts the issue of lead poisoning and lead’s presence in game into perspective. In the vast majority of cases, those admitted to hospital for treatment for the toxic effect of lead were male and in their late 20s and early 30s, which perhaps suggests that occupational hazards involving lead are the greatest risk factor in UK poisonings.
Investigations must take into account butchery and cookery methods involved in processing any game meat shot with lead ammunition. It is usual for wound channels to be removed when processing meat; I know many butchers who do that. Best practice may mitigate any risk and ensure that levels are consistent with those in conventional meats.
There are serious concerns that alternatives to lead ammunition, especially tungsten, could have serious implications for human health—and environmental health, for that matter, because this is an environmental issue—that have not been thoroughly explored or studied. It is important that the Lead Ammunition Group is given time to complete its study. Such studies must be completed before any widespread move is made to any alternative form of ammunition.
There is a real threat that the most recent leak to the media will subvert the work of the Lead Ammunition Group, which follows a clearly established process and is assessing the issues surrounding lead ammunition. I am hoping to prevent that from happening by showing both sides of the argument. We should rely on the scientific data and research that the group has collated as well as taking on board the views of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, the Countryside Alliance and many other bodies. It is clear from correspondence from all bodies that until the Lead Ammunition Group publishes its results and recommendations, the lead shot ban will be actively upheld and even promoted by everyone involved in shooting sports. It is essential that the LAG is given the respect and time that it needs to reach its conclusions, free from pressure from any side, and from media hype, which is extremely unhelpful. I, for one, look forward to receiving the report and until then, despite my own firm belief about the effects of lead shot, I will withhold judgement. I urge everyone to give the LAG the ability to carry out the job that it was created to do and to cease media hype and scares in the meantime.
Country sports are an essential part of our economy. Health and safety, too, are an essential consideration in any decision that is made.
In conclusion, country sports contribute £45 million to the Northern Ireland economy. Some 70,000 primary and secondary jobs across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland depend on sporting shooting. Every year, £2 billion is created in goods and services across the United Kingdom by sporting shooting. Some £6 billion is generated by shooting and country sports in the United Kingdom, including money from people who pay for shooting. We cannot underestimate the incredible contribution that country sports make to the economy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Shooting also provides £250 million a year for conservation: the sport is committed to shooting, but it is also committed to conservation. It is my belief that we can and will find a way forward on the issue, where safety is paramount and country sports can thrive and remain a way of life.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) not only on securing this debate on an important subject but on the admirably balanced way in which he presented information to the House. I am glad that he finished by stressing the importance of country sports, particularly shooting, to the economy and the conservation of our landscape. He said that he was a regular shooter, and he is not alone. He is one of 480,000 people who regularly shoot live quarry. I am just glad that I do not appear to be his quarry today: I think his targets are elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress that this is a complex issue—it is not a question of black and white. He is concerned to make sure that health and safety and wildlife issues are paramount, just as he is keen to make sure that the opportunities for sport and relaxation persist both in his part of the country and across the country. There are lots of interrelated interests that we have to balance.
I shall try to deal with some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. He mentioned in particular the recent report by the Food Standards Agency. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for his intervention, which highlighted the point that the hon. Gentleman was making. Let us be clear: lead is not a terribly good food additive. It is a dangerous substance; it is toxic. We do not want people to eat it. I remember something from my own history. As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, Somerset is known for drinking cider, and a study undertaken many decades ago discovered that the practice of making cider, which is acidic, in vats lined with lead, was probably not the best way to secure the public health of the county of Somerset. Eventually, we stopped using lead lining for the vats—historically, lead had been used for that purpose—and our public health improved as a consequence.
It is important that the Food Standards Agency does its work and highlights any concerns that it may have. People who are very high consumers of game birds, if such people exist, should be aware that they may be exposed to a risk. However, we should stress that people would have to eat an awful lot of pheasant or duck on a daily basis to get near the dangerous level. It is important that we stress that it is not dangerous to consume lead shot game occasionally, which is what most people would do, despite the hon. Gentleman’s exhortations to eat wildfowl more frequently, especially wildfowl that he personally has shot. For most of us, wildfowl is a limited part of our diet.
Reducing lead exposure remains a high priority for the Government. We, like successive Governments, want to reduce exposure to lead wherever possible, for both humans and wildlife. That is why I am keen, as is the hon. Gentleman, to wait for John Swift and his team in the Lead Ammunition Group to report in spring 2013. They have been looking at the key risks to wildlife from lead ammunition and the levels of those risks, and they intend to explore possible solutions if those risks prove to be significant. They will also report on the options for managing the risk to human health from the increased exposure to lead as a result of using lead ammunition, if measures need to be taken. I am confident that the group will take a balanced and measured view on the basis of evidence. That is why I am looking forward to that report. I think the hon. Gentleman shares that view and is concerned that there may have been early misrepresentations of what is likely to emerge.
The hon. Gentleman titled his debate “The EU directive on lead shot”. May I reassure him that the Government are not aware of any proposals for an EU directive on lead shot? Should one be forthcoming, of course we will look carefully at any proposal to ban lead shot. We will carefully assess whether there is clear evidence of a genuine risk and, if there is, whether any proposal to control the risk is appropriate and proportionate. Again, I will look to the Lead Ammunition Group’s report to inform our position. I repeat that there is no immediate prospect of an EU directive on lead shot. There are various activities within the European Union that are relevant to lead, but not in the form that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about. There may be some misunderstanding about that.
The concerns that we have are about the EU’s attitude to lead in general. As parliamentarians concerned about the impact of Europe, we are worried that the EU may try to introduce regulations on that. We are greatly encouraged to hear the Minister say that that will not happen.
I believe that to be the case. There is a European regulation for the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals. We know that Sweden has indicated its intention to bring forward by April next year a proposal to restrict the use of lead and lead compounds in consumer products, but that does not include lead shot within its scope. There may be an informal view that Sweden would wish to extend that, but that is not on the table at present. I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, but obviously we will watch carefully and if proposals come forward, we will look at them on their merits in due course.
Let us deal with the real concerns that lead shot may harm our wildlife. We are clear that ingesting lead is probably not good for birds, animals or humans. It is important that we ensure that the right steps are taken to conserve our wild birds, particularly our water bird species. It is not yet entirely clear what risks the use of lead shot might pose for the conservation of our wild birds, but the existing restrictions on its use need to be respected, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out.
The research that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in 2010, to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention, highlighted some concerns about compliance with the Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) (England) Regulations 1999. I entirely accept his point about the provenance of any lead appearing in the ducks, but the fact is that 70% of the ducks examined were found to have been shot with lead, which is a cause for concern. Even advocates of hunting game recognise that any clear evidence of non-compliance is a matter for concern. We will be looking at that carefully, but we will also take into account the points he has make, because it seems to me that some of them are balanced and valid.
I stress again what I think the hon. Gentleman was at pains to say throughout his contribution: what we need is balance. We must weigh up the arguments and the evidence, and not in isolation. We must look at matters in the round. I think that at the heart of the debate there is more that unites the various interests than divides them. We all want to see healthy wildlife, a well-managed countryside, thriving communities and a sustainable rural economy. Therefore, we need to ensure that the evidence is looked at carefully by the experts in the lead ammunition group and that we understand the risks so that we can respond in a measured and sensible way. That is why the Government will not rush to any premature conclusions. We will look at the evidence and will not move to any snap judgements. We will evaluate the results of John Swift’s report and consider the evidence it adduces and its recommendations in due course.
I can give an absolute assurance that we understand the importance of shooting, both in the rural economy and as a form of relaxation that the hon. Gentleman and many other people in the country enjoy—it is not simply an economic matter—so we will balance that with the need to protect our wildlife and ensure that its health is preserved, as is the health of the wider population. We will consider the evidence and base our judgments on what strikes us as the best balance between wildlife conservation, supporting traditional jobs and industries, enhancing sustainable economic group and, of course, doing what is best for our health.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for the points he raised. We will certainly take careful note of the points he raised on behalf of his constituents and of a much wider constituency across the country. This has been a most valuable debate and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to set out the Government’s case.
Question put and agreed to.