House of Commons
Thursday 25 October 2012
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on families of recent trends in food prices. 
13. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on families of recent trends in food prices. 
My Department actively monitors retail food prices and their impacts on household expenditure. We know that some households are seeing the amount that they spend on food increase. The Government provide safety nets through welfare to support those on low incomes and out of work. We also provide a number of schemes, such as Healthy Start, to help the most vulnerable in our society afford and have access to nutritious food.
The Minister will be aware that the Department’s own book of statistics states that there has been a 12% increase in food prices, and that people are going without fruit and vegetables. The Netmums website states that one in five women are going without food to feed their children. What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that families can feed themselves?
I do not in any way minimise the hon. Lady’s point, but I talk not about food poverty but about poverty. The fact that food prices have gone up means that people are finding it more difficult to make ends meet. We need to continue to talk to colleagues in the DWP and others to ensure that we provide as much support as possible. We also need to do what we can with manufacturers, processors and retailers to ensure, for instance, that vegetables that are perhaps not the best quality are available at a lower price that people can afford. If we do all those things, we can help people through what is undoubtedly a difficult period.
I am pleased to hear the Minister talk about waste within the supply chain. I was much involved in a project called Ugly Food. Can we ensure that we do not just target retailers, who say that they have no waste within their system, but increase waste in the supply chain at the producer and consumer end?
The hon. Lady touches on an important point. Ugly veg is still tasty veg, and there is absolutely no reason it should not be sold. We need to bear down on waste at all points in the food chain. The Love Food Hate Waste campaign is dealing with exactly that and looking at whether we can improve products and practices right the way through the system, to ensure that we minimise waste and get the best possible value for the consumer.
Ebbw Vale food bank fed more than 1,000 Blaenau Gwent families last year, and each month my office issues more and more food vouchers. I am alarmed that low-income families are struggling to put food on the table. What representations has the Minister made to the Chancellor and the Work and Pensions Secretary about growing food poverty and the impact of universal credit?
The hon. Gentleman should recognise that, as I said earlier, what we are talking about is poverty. One thing that I have always stressed is that poverty exists right across the country, in rural areas as well as urban ones, and we need to deal with it. The Government have been taking action to help protect the most vulnerable, and we will continue to do so.
What message would the Minister give to my local authorities, which are taking land out of food production to develop on the green belt when there are perfectly adequate brownfield sites available in the borough?
Order. That is tangentially related indeed to the question, which is not to be encouraged. I am bound to say that a brief reply of a sentence will suffice.
I certainly was not going to touch on the planning issues involved, but I will say that food security ought to concern all of us.
Does the Minister accept that the Government’s plans for minimum alcohol pricing will make alcohol more expensive for hard-working, moderate, responsible drinkers while doing nothing to tackle problem drinking and the problems associated with it? It will also be devastating for the west country cider industry. Will he make representations to his ministerial colleagues to scrap that ill thought out scheme, which is not based on any evidence whatever?
I do not think I need any lessons on the west country cider industry, and indeed I was at apple day in Kingsbury Episcopi only last weekend.
I do not think this matter is directly related to the question asked by the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), but of course there is a continuing debate on the issue, which will involve the Home Office and the Department of Health.
We know that the spending power of hard-working families is being hit by the Government’s flatlining economy and wage stagnation. Shoppers are using self-imposed rationing, putting products back at the checkout and skipping meals to feed their children, yet the Secretary of State has urged shoppers to tackle his so-called “dessert deficit” by eating more UK-produced ice cream. Does he ever feel that he is living in a parallel universe?
This may come as news to the hon. Lady, but there are people in this country who still eat ice cream, and on the whole it is better if they eat British products rather than those imported from overseas. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely right.
The Minister’s right hon. Friend is in danger of becoming the Marie Antoinette of the Cabinet, but perhaps I should move on.
Last week, the Secretary of State announced the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, and the Minister has spoken about the existence of poverty, in particular rural poverty. More than 1,000 workers in the Secretary of State’s constituency will be worse off as a result of his decision, and his own impact assessment states that abolishing the board will take £238 million of pay over 10 years from rural workers and the rural economy—
Order. I must ask the shadow Secretary of State to relate her question to food prices, not wages, and in a short sentence.
The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will take money out of the pockets of workers and put it in those of their employers. On the Opposition Benches we believe that the person who picks the apple should be able to buy the fruit. Why does the Minister not agree?
The national minimum wage is doing a good job of putting a floor under wages in this country, and I see no reason to have extra bureaucracy on top of that.
2. What steps his Department is taking to support the dairy industry. 
The Dairy Supply Chain Forum and the Dairy 2020 initiative are focused on the future of the industry and opportunities to boost growth and exports. After months of hard work, not least by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), the many beneficial terms of the industry code of practice can be translated into contracts. Implementing the EU dairy package will provide new opportunities for innovation and collaboration, and £5 million of additional funds from the rural development programme for England are available for high-quality projects from the dairy industry.
Dairy farmers in my constituency are facing high feed costs. Consumers are paying enough for milk, but not enough of that end price goes back to the famer. What more can we do?
I am optimistic that with the voluntary code we have for the first time the basis to be fair to producers, processors, retailers and consumers. I want to make that stick, and I believe that it can make a real difference. As I have said all along, if the voluntary code is not successful, we have the opportunity to bring forward a statutory code, and I will consult on that later this year if necessary.
Further to our discussions last week, what discussions has the Minister had with ministerial colleagues in the devolved institutions about the introduction of a similar voluntary code for the dairy industry in Northern Ireland, where prices are particularly volatile?
That is a matter for the devolved Administrations who have responsibility for agriculture and for what they feel is appropriate for their own jurisdictions. The Government will offer any support and help they can, and provide advice to further the objective of a voluntary code, is that is what is wanted. The Department maintains contact and has conversations with counterparts in the devolved Administrations, and will continue to do so.
In consulting on the European Union dairy package, will the Minister take into consideration the wish of dairy farmers to set up producer organisations to strengthen their hand in the milk market?
I am very aware of that issue, and once we have the final agreement and settlement, I hope to proceed in that area with the utmost possible speed.
Environmental Protection (Home Security)
3. If he will make it his policy to intervene when measures introduced by the Environment Agency or Natural England to enhance the natural environment threaten the safety and security of people’s homes. 
15. How much his Department spent on flood alleviation schemes between (a) 2008 and 2009 and (b) 2010 and 2012 to date. 
There are times when legal requirements to protect the environment could make it more difficult or expensive to protect people’s homes, such as properties at the top of eroding cliffs that are protected for their natural character. However, such cases are rare. If there is a conflict between meeting a requirement to protect the environment and protecting people, there are clauses that allow things to go ahead for imperative reasons of overriding public interest if there are no other solutions.
I do not know how well my hon. Friend knows the West Sussex coast, and the Pagham coast in particular, but over the past few years, a build-up of shingle and sand, known as a spit, has developed at the mouth of the Pagham harbour nature reserve. That spit is causing scouring of the beach through the action of the waves and the seawater trying to escape, and that is eroding the beach by up to several metres a year and beginning to put people’s homes at risk. One solution would be to carve a channel through the spit, but both the Environment Agency and Natural England are resisting that approach. Will the Minister come to Pagham so that I can show him at first hand the problem we are facing?
I had a premonition that Pagham might be mentioned, and therefore yesterday at some length I consulted Natural England and the Environment Agency. They assured me that there are no environmental reasons why solutions cannot be found on that part of the coast; I know that the coastline is extremely dynamic in that part of the country. I am keen to assist my hon. Friend, and I would gladly make such a visit if that would ensure that local people’s fears were allayed, and so that nothing done by any Government agency will be taken as a measure that puts people’s homes more at risk.
When places face flooding, it is important not to ignore the human cost. Fortunately, the floods in York a month ago were not as bad as 12 years ago, but I have once again visited constituents who were hacking plaster off the walls in their homes. They will be out of their homes for months to come and must pay for very expensive renovations. One café owner had to throw out tonnes of food. Can the Environment Agency take responsibility for providing advice to local authorities and for getting the insurance companies to move quickly?
I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The residents of Water End in his constituency have waited long for a scheme, and it is due to start in the new year. I have huge sympathy for everybody who was flooded throughout the summer. I can assure him that the Environment Agency and any other Government body will take what steps they can to make life easier, including by providing advice to residents through the local authority or directly.
4. What recent steps his Department has taken to promote farmers markets. 
I welcome and support farmers markets. I and other DEFRA Ministers have been visiting local communities across the country and encouraging people to eat and drink local produce. I have recently visited a farm near my hon. Friend’s constituency, where I saw farmers produce wonderful food. In buying and eating local food, consumers will support rural jobs and help rural economies to grow. Farmers markets are an excellent way of bringing local producers and consumers together.
Farmers markets are very important to both rural and urban communities, and provide an opportunity for local people to purchase excellent local produce directly from source. The markets also provide a valuable opportunity for independent retailers to access new customers and help them to compete with their larger rivals. Will the Minister consider working with local authorities to champion the importance of farmers markets and promote awareness to people throughout the country of markets in their area?
I welcome what my hon. Friend says. The first successful farmers market was established in Bath in 1997, not a million miles from my constituency. There are some 750 regularly occurring farmers markets in the UK. The National Farmers Retail and Markets Association—FARMA—brings them under a membership organisation. I encourage local authorities to establish farmers markets wherever there is local demand. They make a valuable contribution to local choice, and to the vitality of our town centres.
5. What recent progress he has made on flood insurance. 
The availability and affordability of insurance in flood-risk areas is an important issue for this Government. We are in intense yet constructive negotiations with the insurance industry on a range of approaches that could succeed the current statement of principles. In the meantime, the Government are continuing to invest in managing the risk of flooding. We are on course to exceed our target to provide better protection to 145,000 households by March 2015.
The statement of principles expires in June next year. It is extremely important that households and small businesses in my constituency get insurance cover and household insurance. They will find little comfort in the Secretary of State’s answer.
I am sorry the hon. Lady is disappointed. Within two days of taking office I had a meeting with Otto Thoresen, the head of the Association of British Insurers. We are engaged in detailed discussions, which I obviously cannot reveal, because we do not negotiate in public. However, I reassure the hon. Lady that the Government take this matter very seriously. We know that the statement of principles runs out next year and that it must be replaced—I hope by something that is more comprehensive and effective.
About 450,000 homes and properties in the country are at risk of flooding. People will find it increasingly difficult to obtain flood insurance, particularly for properties that are built on functional floodplains. Will the Secretary of State take a lead, with his colleague the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to end house building in totally inappropriate areas? Builders leave, developers go away and home owners are left with no insurance.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is aware that it was agreed in the national planning policy framework that there would be no more building on floodplains. She is quite right that it is absolutely idiotic to build houses in such inappropriate places. However, I reassure her, too, that the Government take this matter seriously. We want to find a solution that follows from the statement of principles, but that is better and more comprehensive.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new role as Secretary of State and to his first DEFRA questions. When he took up his new position, was he briefed by his civil servants that the number of schemes deferred had risen, that spending on defences had fallen, that climate change meant that flood risk had risen and that this announcement was dangerously overdue?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my new post.
We are spending £2.17 billion on flood defences. I have visited Nottingham and was in Northwich recently, and there is real value in these schemes, which is why, despite the difficult financial circumstances we inherited from the last Government, these schemes saw only a 6% reduction. They are really good value.
Many residents in Halesowen were badly affected by flooding in 2008 and are concerned about whether they will be able to obtain appropriate flood insurance in the future. Will the Secretary of State reassure them, as I think he already has, that they will be able to obtain appropriate flood insurance and that the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that they can do so?
I would like to reassure my hon. Friend emphatically that we are determined to arrive at a solution to this problem that—I repeat—provides availability and affordability to those who might suffer from floods.
6. What steps he is taking to ensure that rural areas have access to reliable and high-speed broadband. 
I recently met my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to discuss speeding up the roll-out of the £530 million rural broadband programme. Together, we are determined to deliver this quickly in order to provide 90% of premises with superfast broadband at 24 megabits per second and elsewhere with standard broadband of at least 2 megabits per second by 2015. The Government’s £20 million rural community broadband fund helps extend superfast broadband in the most rural locations.
Many of the good people of Bracknell and Finchampstead have long had to suffer from poor broadband access despite my constituency being close to the heart of the UK’s IT industry. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that the Government make the right decisions so that all my constituents can take full advantage of the digital revolution?
I entirely sympathise with my hon. Friend. If he thinks it is bad in Bracknell, he should come to North Shropshire. This is an absolute priority for us. At one bound, broadband overcomes the centuries-long disadvantage of working in a rural area. We are determined to roll it out, which is why I am working closely with my Cabinet colleagues and why we have relaxed the planning constraints for five years—to get this through and done.
No, Secretary of State: come to Rathlin Island—the situation there is absolutely abominable. It is an island off an island that requires reliable broadband so that people who require medical scripts and everything else can get them quickly. I hope that he rolls out the new broadband service across the whole of the UK, including Ulster and Rathlin Island.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for inviting me to Rathlin Island. He will be pleased to know that I was there a few months ago, in my previous post—it has the most wonderful puffin reserve, which is well worth visiting. He touched on health, which is an important element. We all think about the business angle, but there are real advantages in delivering health care in rural areas. Another key element is helping elderly people, for whom it is a boon, when they are isolated, to be able to contact their relations, shop online and stay in touch with the real world.
As we are undertaking a Cook’s tour, we might hear about broadband in Cornwall.
I am happy to focus on broadband across rural areas, Mr Speaker.
Will the Secretary of State ensure that all the programmes that the Government are funding, such as the one in Cornwall, which involves European Union structural funds, prioritise the areas that are still on dial-up? I am concerned that we are concentrating on superfast broadband—areas that some companies would have got to in a few years anyway—when we need to prioritise those still on dial-up.
I entirely sympathise with my hon. Friend’s comments about the problems in rural areas—I have already touched on the problems in my constituency. It is an absolute priority for us to get functioning broadband that works right across the country by 2015.
This week I met representatives of the Federation of Small Businesses, who were almost as eloquent as the Secretary of State in expressing the desire of small businesses in rural areas to play their part in reviving the rural economy. However, they cannot do so because of a lack of rural broadband. Will the Secretary of State admit that abolishing Labour’s universal broadband pledge—a pledge to bring broadband to everybody by the end of this year—was a huge mistake?
I am happy to accept the hon. Lady’s comment on my eloquence, but I do not accept her criticism of what we are doing. We think that what we are doing is going to work. We are working closely with the European Commission, with local government and with BT and the other providers. We have to get this done. We have a plan and we are going to deliver it.
7. What steps he is taking to support rural businesses in Staffordshire. 
A £165 million package of measures to support rural economic growth is being rolled out across England. Of that, £100 million of rural development funding is targeted at improving rural businesses, with 38 projects in Staffordshire already receiving funding under the farming and forestry improvement scheme and seven projects being actively considered for rural economy grants. Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent local broadband plan has also been allocated £7.44 million from the Government’s £530 million rural broadband programme.
Halfpenny Green vineyard in my constituency has over the past 30 years been producing some of the finest quality English wines. It has become an important local employer and is a perfect example of the importance of farm diversification. Indeed, Mr Speaker, the wine is so good that I am sure I would even be able to provide you with a bottle—if I was able to get called earlier in statements. [Interruption.] Maybe even two bottles. Can my right hon. Friend explain what steps he is taking to encourage rural diversification for farmers?
The hon. Gentleman may wish to develop his thoughts at greater length in an Adjournment debate.
I am only mildly piqued that I have not been offered a bribe. I can assure my hon. Friend that this Government are serious about offering encouragement. For years, Ministers have been telling the farming community that it has to diversify its business, but then, in other directions, they have been putting up barriers to that. We are doing that work with highly focused grants, such as the ones I have described. We are also providing broadband, which is a key deliverer, and support across a range of other measures to ensure that businesses precisely such as the one that my hon. Friend describes can function and are economically effective.
8. What research his Department is conducting on the means by which honey bees are exposed to agricultural pesticides. 
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs fully appreciates the importance of honey bees and other pollinators. We need to understand the possible threats in order to tackle them. To that end, we continue to fund a number of research projects on the potential impacts of pesticides. That will enable us to develop the way in which such risks are assessed and regulated. In addition, DEFRA contributes to the insect pollinators initiative, which supports research into the main threats to insect pollinators.
My hon. Friend will know that research at Stirling university has recently found that exposure to even low levels of neonicotinoid pesticides can have a serious impact on the health of bumble bees. Given the importance of bees, both to our farmers and to all those who are interested in pollinating crops, does the Minister agree that his Department needs to look again at the use of these pesticides?
Yes I do, and we are. The Health and Safety Executive’s chemical regulation directorate, along with the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the European Food Safety Authority, have looked in detail at Stirling university’s research. They believe that it is interesting and adds to the debate, but that on balance the risks do not require a ban of neonicotinoids. However, in DEFRA we have commissioned further research, through the Food and Environment Research Agency, using expertise from Stirling university, which provided the original piece of research, because we want to make absolutely sure that we are getting this right.
The Minister will be aware that the Environmental Audit Committee is undertaking an inquiry into hive collapse, bees and pesticides. Will he undertake to ensure that his Department supports the inquiry to the best possible extent and also responds at the earliest possible date to its outcome?
I hope that in the reply I gave to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) I showed the seriousness with which we are looking at this issue. We know that pollinators benefit our economy by around £450 million a year. That is a service that nature provides. We want to make absolutely sure that we are protecting that, and we will work with any organisation that is doing research of that kind.
9. What recent assessment he has made of the potential risks of a badger cull. 
11. What recent assessment he has made of the potential risks of a badger cull. 
12. What recent evidence he has considered on the effects of badger populations on dairy herds. 
The badger culling pilots, which we now plan for next year, will test the effectiveness, safety and humaneness of controlled shooting. Our plans for an independent expert panel to oversee the design and analysis of the data collection have not changed. Monitoring will include field observations and post-mortems. If monitoring indicates that controlled shooting is an acceptable technique, the policy will be rolled out more widely.
Obviously, I am aware that there will be a major debate on this subject later today, but may I ask the Secretary of State why DEFRA got the number of badgers living in each pilot cull area so wrong? Why did he undertake a survey only last month, weeks before the cull was due to start?
The answer is that we did not get the numbers wrong: we got them accurately and in a scientific manner, but the National Farmers Union, which had geared up for a lower number, requested that we postpone the culls. We and the NFU are following the science rigorously.
But if we do not proceed with the culls next year is not the risk that the impact on farmers’ livelihoods and mental health will continue? This is a dreadful disease and it is extremely distressing to farmers that they have to cope with it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is not just the trauma of the appalling loss—26,000 cattle last year—but every time a herd is tested it is difficult for farmers. Some animals become violent, and the disease, not just the culling, is causing regular stress. It is essential that we go ahead with the culls next summer and prove that they work, so that we bear down on disease in wildlife and in cattle.
If the cull does not go ahead, what is the risk that the Secretary of State will be sued by farmers for the losses they will incur, and what will the chaos cost the taxpayer?
I have every intention that the culls will go ahead.
Will my right hon. Friend explain why circumstances next year will be different from those this year, enabling the culls to go ahead and reduce the incidence of bovine TB and not spread it?
I explained at some length in my statement the other day, in which I spoke for, I think, 90 minutes, that certain circumstances led to the NFU’s decision to request that we postpone. There will be time to prepare. There will be no hitches next year: we will deliver this policy.
The Minister might be aware that I made myself very unpopular among Labour Members when I voted against the ban on hunting with dogs. I therefore know what it is like to make an unpopular decision, but the badger cull is wrong: it is wrong because these wonderful creatures roamed this country before we did and it is wrong because it would destroy tens of thousands of living animals. There is no scientific evidence that it would do any good, so the Secretary of State should stop listening to farmers and listen to the great British public and Mr Brian May.
I respect the hon. Gentleman for his independence of judgment but—I am sorry—we disagree. The science is clear: after nine years there was a 28% reduction in the culled area. If we look at New Zealand, Australia or the Republic of Ireland—I talked to a farmer in France on Monday—we see that there is not a single country that is struggling with TB in its cattle industry that is not bearing down on wildlife and cattle, and we will do that.
The Secretary of State blames the NFU for stopping the cull and the media blame No.10, but either way we can all understand the Secretary of State’s reluctance to take responsibility for this setback. May I ask him, on a scale of one to 100—I know that is a risky prospect, as arithmetic is not his Department’s strongest suit—how likely it is that the cull will go ahead next June?
I am not blaming anybody. I have been working very closely with the NFU since I took office. I have been studying this issue since I was the shadow spokesman and put down 600 questions, taking a serious, detailed interest in it. This is the right policy. It is the policy pursued by every other country, as I have said. Unlike with the vapid pronouncements we have had from the Opposition, this Government will take on a deadly disease, which is a zoonosis, so if we do not get a grip on it, it will prove a risk to human beings.
In view of that and of my right hon. Friend’s answer, it is important to base things on sound science. If he has read the science and understands the answers he has received to the 600 questions, he will know that the 12% to 16% reduction has to be viewed against a rise elsewhere. It will not rise as much as it would have done otherwise, but it is still a rise in bovine TB. Does he not accept that?
No, I dislike disagreeing with the hon. Gentleman, with whom I used to work closely on the EFRA Committee and when I was the shadow spokesman. The evidence is absolutely clear: there was a 28% reduction in disease after nine years in the cull area. That is why we are going ahead next year.
10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Financial Reporting Council in respect of mandatory carbon reporting. 
Officials are in discussion with the Financial Reporting Council ahead of the introduction of mandatory carbon reporting to ensure effective enforcement of this new requirement.
In a recent written answer, the Minister estimated that the benefits of mandatory carbon reporting stood at £741 million over 10 years compared with just £28 million in compliance costs. Given the clear economic, social and environmental benefits of mandatory carbon reporting, with he give the FRC the teeth it needs to crack down on companies that continue to flout the law?
My Department does not have responsibility for the Financial Reporting Council—the hon. Lady will understand that—but it has proved very effective at ensuring that legislation that applies to carbon reporting is upheld. We recently held a consultation on the draft regulation, which closed on 17 October, and we received about 100 responses. We will look very carefully at them.
I remind Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members alike that topical questions and answers are supposed to be brief. We have a lot to get through; let us be brisk.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
I begin by paying tribute to the great work done by my right hon. Friends the Members for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice). I want to build on their efforts over the past two years by galvanising the rural economy while improving the environment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome this morning’s growth figures. We should not all jump at one set of figures, but growth of 1% is significant, and I really want the rural economy to play a part in future growth. Abroad, I will represent the United Kingdom in the European negotiations and I will promote British exports at every opportunity.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new responsibilities. Does he know that in my constituency the big water users such as textiles and brewers are now in decline—and many have disappeared—with the consequence that the water table is rising? Will he meet me, representatives from the city of Nottingham and the Local Government Authority to discuss sustainable urban defences against flooding? Would he please meet us soon?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Happily, I was in Nottingham during my first week in office, looking at a £45 million flood defence scheme. I thought it was brilliant, not only in protecting 16,000 houses but, more importantly—I did not realise this until I went there—revealing 500 acres of previously blighted land that is now open for development by the private sector. I am interested in what he has to say. I will work on this issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is the big expert, so it might be better for him to meet the hon. Gentleman.
T2. I was encouraged by the Secretary of State’s earlier comments on fixed line broadband, improving accessibility, reducing red tape and speeding up the planning process. Will he reassure me that that action extends to mobile communications in rural areas, as we need to extend the mast size and reduce red tape in this sector, too? 
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is dealing with this matter at Cabinet level. This is vital to the roll-out of the broadband scheme. We have already made a decision to relax planning for a five-year period to make sure that nothing can get in the way of the roll-out of broadband 2 for the most remote rural communities.
T6. In response to the recent statement on the badger cull in the House of Lords, the noble Lord Krebs urged Ministers to gather together scientific experts and rethink the Government’s strategy altogether. Why does the Secretary of State not do just that? 
We have been over this ground on several occasions during the last few days. We are absolutely clear about the fact that the scientific analysis of the trials conducted by the Government that the hon. Lady supported show a 28% reduction in the culled area. That is the information that we are going on, because it is scientifically based.
T3. What steps is the Department taking to deal with ash dieback disease? 
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. There were reports on the radio this morning about the horrific danger to our 80 million ash trees. We have already launched a consultation on the ground, involving a detailed investigation into whether the disease has taken root in the country. The results of that consultation will be reported to me tomorrow, and I shall discuss it over the weekend with the head of the Forestry Commission. However, on the basis of the evidence that we have seen so far, I intend to introduce a ban on imports and tight restrictions on ash movements in Great Britain on Monday.
T7. We were told that the Government would help local authorities with the costs of the floods. Now we have been told that those in Newcastle do not count, and that the city council will have to find £10 million from a budget that is being halved by the Government. Why is it that in Newcastle we have the wrong sort of water? 
An improved scheme called the Bellwin scheme kicks in when spending related to flood damage hits a certain threshold, enabling local authorities to apply to the Government for extra funds. If the hon. Lady wishes to raise specific concerns with me, I shall be happy to consider them, but the Bellwin scheme has been accepted for many years.
T4. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the impact of onshore wind farms on local environments such as Frodsham Marsh in my constituency? Plans for a wind turbine farm there have just been confirmed.
Along with the Department for Energy and Climate Change, we are conducting a review of policies relating to onshore wind. I hope that my hon. Friend will contribute his concerns and those of his local community to that review, because we want to ensure that local communities work with the Government and do not feel put upon by them when it comes to renewable energy systems.
T8. In 2009, the Minister said :“any weakening of the Agricultural Wages Board or its abolition would further impoverish the rural working class, exacerbating social deprivation and the undesirable indicators associated with social exclusion”.What has changed, and how would he explain that change to the 1,020 workers who were previously protected by the board in his constituency? 
I think I know rather more about workers in my constituency than the hon. Gentleman. I am aware of the circumstances in the agricultural industry, and I am also aware that there are now many protections for low-paid workers. I would not be proceeding with the consultation unless I was convinced that this was in the interests of those who work in my constituency and throughout the country.
T5. Forty-eight animals have been slaughtered in the port of Ramsgate owing to the resumption of live animal exports. What procedures have been introduced to deal with the crises that we have been experiencing in Thanet? 
As my hon. Friend knows, the circumstances in Ramsgate—about which we have spoken—were entirely unacceptable. I want to make that absolutely clear. I immediately asked for a report to be drawn up by officials who were working on animal health regulation, which they will submit to me shortly. I shall be happy to share their findings with my hon. Friend.
We have no power to ban live exports, but I do have powers to ensure that the regulations that are in place are enforced strictly and rigorously, and I shall do so.
When I introduced my Food Waste Bill earlier this year, I thought that I was making good progress in convincing the then Minister in the House of Lords of the need for legislation to protect good-faith donors of food to charities from criminal and civil liability, but I now have the impression that DEFRA is trying to hide behind EU food safety standards. What are Ministers doing to move things forward?
On the day I was appointed, the hon. Lady very kindly twittered that she did not like me. However, I shall put that aside and say that I shall be happy to discuss the background to her Bill with her if she wishes, and see if the Department can do anything to help.
Several hon. Members
Order. So that the Minister does not feel sorry for himself, I should point out that the Speaker likes all hon. Members. I call Mr Bob Blackman to ask Question 9. He is not here.
T10. Although Thurrock is an urban constituency on the edge of London, a large proportion of it is rural and lacks decent broadband provision. In light of the Minister’s previous answer, can he confirm that villages such as Bulphan, Orsett and Horndon-on-the-Hill will be in line for improved broadband provision? 
My hon. Friend might like to encourage those villages to apply for the third round of the rural community broadband fund. That will be running from January, so there is time for his communities to get their bids in. He makes a good point: instead of talking only about the most remote communities, we must remember that there are rural communities close to urban areas that have appalling broadband, too.
Towards the end of last week I met a constituent whose new insurance premium has gone up by some 8%. She lives in an area that has occasionally been flooded, and the massive increase plus the excessive excess means this lady will have to abandon her home. Does the Minister know how many businesses and residential properties are now being abandoned because people cannot afford flood insurance?
The hon. Gentleman makes a highly pertinent point. The statement of principles is not working at present, and affordability is a key part of that. I have meetings coming up shortly with the Association of British Insurers and I will establish its latest figures, but we want to resolve this: we are determined to get to the bottom of it, because I totally sympathise with people such as the hon. Gentleman’s constituent.
Can the Minister confirm that the moneys available in the rural community broadband fund that come from the European Union will not be subject to European state aid rules?
We hope in the next few weeks to make an announcement about satisfactory conclusions in respect of negotiations with the European Commission. That will be a major step forward.
The Secretary of State should have banned the import of ash seedlings the minute disease was found in nurseries in this country. He will not be forgiven for any delay by the people of this country, who so value the ash trees. Will he ensure that the Forestry Commission has all the resources it needs to be able to confront this terrible threat?
I think the right hon. Lady is being pretty unfair. The minute we heard about this, we launched a consultation. That will report tomorrow. On the basis of evidence—[Interruption.] All the right hon. Lady’s colleagues are shouting at me about evidence and science-based information, and from tomorrow evening I will look at the evidence, and if it is sensible to ban imports, I will take that decision and make restrictions on Monday.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his Department’s announcement last week of the launch of an agricultural science strategy. Does he agree that British agricultural science has the potential to boost our great industry and support emerging markets around the world?
I very much welcome the initiative, which is a joint venture between ourselves and our colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I believe we have an enormous amount to offer in both growing our own industry and offering technology which is of value across the world in dealing with issues of food security.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Diocese of Leeds
1. What annual savings the Church Commissioners expect to make from the creation of the Diocese of Leeds? 
Before I answer the question, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Sir Stuart Bell, who served as Second Church Estates Commissioner for some 13 years, the longest period anyone has served in that post since Parliament created it in the mid-1830s? He did so with considerable diligence and sensitivity. He will be much missed, and may his soul rest in peace.
Following consultation on its initial draft reorganisation scheme for the dioceses of Bradford, Ripon and Leeds and Wakefield, the Church of England Dioceses Commission expects to publish a revised draft scheme on 29 October. Accompanying its report will be a statement on the effect of the proposals, if implemented, on the mission of the Church of England and a detailed estimate of their financial impacts.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. We all appreciate that savings need to be made, but with the proposed abolition of the Bradford diocese and its incorporation into a larger Leeds diocese, what steps will be taken to ensure that the communities across the Bradford district will not be given less priority in the Church of England?
May I suggest to my hon. Friend that he discuss his concerns with the Bishop of Bradford, who I am sure will be able to reassure him that the Christian and Church of England mission in his constituency will in no way be diminished by these proposals? One of the greatest threats to the Church’s mission in his constituency is the continuing theft of lead from churches. No fewer than six churches in his constituency have had lead stolen from their roofs—St Peter’s church in Shipley has had lead stolen on four separate occasions, notwithstanding protections such as SmartWater. So may I take this opportunity to entreat my hon. Friend, as I know the Bishop of Bradford and the Archbishop of York will, not to frustrate the Third Reading of the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill when it comes before the House soon?
2. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the likelihood of the Church of England making a decision on women bishops in 2012. 
3. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with Church of England bishops on the Women Bishops Measure. 
The General Synod will resume on 20 November the final approval debate on the legislation to enable women to become bishops. I will be voting for the Measure, and I hope and pray that at least two thirds of the members of every house of the General Synod will vote to ensure that, at last, we can have women bishops in the Church of England.
May I associate myself and my colleagues with the thanks and the tributes to Sir Stuart Bell for his service in this area?
The message I hope this House will send via my hon. Friend to the Synod is that not only do we want the Synod to make a final decision this month that clearly says women can be bishops in the Church of England, as a legacy of the outgoing archbishop and as a tribute to his work, but we need the Church of England to catch up into the 21st century if it is to do a good job for everybody. I hope that there is no more shilly-shallying, that the Synod gets on with it and that we get a clear decision so that we can move to having women bishops.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. May I commend to his attention, and to that of other right hon. and hon. Members, an article written by the Archbishop of Canterbury in last week’s Church Times, which is available in the Library? He stated that
“a Church that ordains women as priests, but not as bishops, is stuck with a real anomaly, one that introduces an unclarity into what we are saying about baptism and about the absorption of the Church in the priestly self-giving of Jesus Christ.”
We have been waiting far too long to enable women to become bishops in the Church of England—now is the time to take action and resolve this issue, once and for all.
In his conversations with the bishops, will the hon. Gentleman tell them that just because House of Lords reform has been abandoned they should not feel any less pressure to do this and that a failure to agree a Measure that gives women bishops equal status with male bishops would still lead to a severe constitutional crisis between Church and state?
In fairness, I think that the House of Bishops recognises that, and when it met last it amended the Measure in a way that should commend support. Indeed, the bishops took a lead on that from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in the same article, made it clear that he thought the ordination or consecration of women as bishops was good for the whole world. He said:
“It is good news for the world we live in, which needs the unequivocal affirmation of a dignity given equally to all by God in creation and redemption—and can now, we hope, see more clearly that the Church is not speaking a language completely remote from its own most generous and just instincts.”
There is clear leadership from the House of Bishops and from the archbishops that we now need to consecrate women bishops.
May I say how much Sir Stuart Bell will be missed by all in the House?
I hope that a strong message will go out from this House that we support women bishops and that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be drawn from the widest possible church in this regard.
I am sure that that message will be heard by the General Synod.
I wish to associate myself with the comments about Stuart Bell, who is very badly missed.
The Church has spent many years avoiding this issue, so if the Synod fails to do the right thing, what does the hon. Gentleman think the consequences will be for the future of the Church of England?
I think that the consequences for the Church of England will be very grim indeed. I hope that the General Synod, and those who might be tempted to vote against this Measure in it, will reflect on that point.
4. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the contribution of Church of England cathedrals to the UK’s cultural and spiritual life. 
The evidence of a recent report shows a 30% increase in attendance at cathedral services in the Church of England over the last 10 years. The Church of England’s figures estimate that 12 million people visited an Anglican cathedral or royal peculiar, such as Westminster abbey, last year. A recent report confirms that finding by stating that more than 27% of England’s adult population made such a visit in the last 12 months.
I assume my hon. Friend is referring to the recent Theos report, “Spiritual Capital: The Present and Future of English Cathedrals”. Does he agree that cathedrals are much more than vital tourist destinations and play an important role in building social and spiritual capital? They act as a hub to connect communities through social action work, such as that of street pastors or homeless projects, and also allow many people to feel, as the report states, that
“the cathedral gives me a greater sense of the sacred than I get elsewhere”.
I entirely agree that cathedrals are centres of spirituality, reflection and history. Some 300,000 children visited cathedrals last year and 15,000 people are regular volunteers at cathedrals. They are a fantastic resource for England and are much to be celebrated.
5. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the potential Church sites available for the reburying of King Richard III. 
10. What discussions the Church Commissioners have had on laying to rest the remains of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral. 
The remains that are thought to be those of Richard III are at present with Leicester city council’s museums department and the university of Leicester’s archaeological department, which are carrying out tests to see whether it can be demonstrated that the remains are indeed those of Richard III. Once those tests are concluded, the nature, place and marking of any reinterment will need seriously to be considered.
Will the hon. Gentleman let it be known to the warring factions of York and Leicester and to the Church Commissioners of the Church of England that the great priory of Worksop, which is halfway between the two cities at the end of the road through the forest, and which is at the centre of the kingdom of Richard III, can provide the most appropriate final resting place for the king?
I can see that there will be quite a lot of competition. If there is conclusive evidence that these are the remains of Richard III, the tradition would be that they would be reinterred in the nearest Christian church or cathedral, which happens to be Leicester cathedral. In such circumstances, I hope it would be possible to arrange a meeting with the dean of Leicester to see how that could happen.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I am sure that Worksop has many fine qualities, but given that it was the Grey friars who took the body of Richard and buried him at what was then the Greyfriars church—a site just a stone’s throw from Leicester cathedral—and that he has been in Leicester for 500 years, is it not most appropriate that he should be finally laid to rest at Leicester cathedral?
I understand that point of view, and once we know the provenance of the remains I shall seek to use my best offices to arrange a meeting with the dean of the cathedral and others to ensure that this can be done in a proper and timely way.
I was concerned about how many other kings might come up, as I never thought my career would involve the question of how we might bury kings. I am glad to say that the Church can account for all of them. I am afraid to say that the head of Charles, king and martyr, is still separated from his body, but they are both at St George’s, Windsor. The only one still missing is Henry I, who seems to have got lost somewhere in Reading after the dissolution of the monasteries. I can account for all the other kings and queens being properly and Christianly buried.
That is greatly reassuring both to the House and, I am sure, to the nation.
I must say to my dear and hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that it is not 500 years but 527 years since Richard was killed. Despite that passage of time, he is still very well regarded in York. [Laughter.] We have a museum to Richard III—
Is he still on the electoral roll?
My hon. Friend should not tempt me down that path.
We respect Richard III enormously. But to argue on the Floor of this place over his mortal remains is more like medieval cathedrals fighting over saints’ relics. I do not think it is appropriate. I have heard what the spokesman for the Church Commissioners says, and they are wise words.
That is very wise advice from the hon. Gentleman.
6. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to prevent metal theft from war memorials in church grounds. 
The theft of metal from war memorials is a distressing and despicable crime and an affront to the memory of those who gave their lives to the service of this country.
The Church of England has been active in its support of the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill, which will shortly have its Third Reading in the House. At a local level, the Church of England continues to offer advice and support to help churches to implement security measures that will make the theft less attractive while allowing the public to visit memorials without hindrance, and the Church is also working at local level with communities and the War Memorials Trust to preserve the names recorded on memorials and to clean, renovate and repair memorials in advance of the centenary of the commencement of world war one.
All of us welcome the Scrap Metal Dealers Bill to deal with this heinous crime, but does my hon. Friend agree that the churches themselves need to engage with local scrap metal dealers so that there is not the repetition of this offence on a local basis?
Yes, and dioceses and churches are already doing that. Responsible scrap metal dealers should be conscious of their responsibilities in that regard as well.
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
8. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to increase voter registration (a) in general and (b) among young people. 
The commission runs public information campaigns before elections and referendums to encourage people to register to vote. The campaigns are targeted towards groups less likely to be on the electoral register, including young people. The commission also provides guidance and sets standards for awareness to be raised locally by electoral registration officers, for which it has provided a range of resources to help them to do this, including template posters, press advertisements and press releases. Where underperformance is found, the commission provides EROs with targeted support.
I am aware that many initiatives focused towards young people involve the use of social media, and I can twitter with the best of them, but will the hon. Gentleman give me the assurance that these social media tools will not be used as a replacement for more practical ways of getting young people to sign up to vote?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is important to target public awareness campaigns towards young people in a way that is most likely to attract their attention, for example, by using TV and radio advertising, but on channels that they are likely to watch, which you and I, Mr Speaker, are probably not likely to watch.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
9. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the potential support which they can provide to Christian communities in Syria. 
Lambeth Palace and the Church of England are in regular contact with Christian development and mission agencies as to how best the Church might support vulnerable communities in Syria. However, the nature of the conflict in Syria means that it is proving incredibly difficult to give support to those communities in most need. The Archbishop of Canterbury remains in regular contact with religious leaders in Syria as well as with religious leaders from neighbouring countries.
The Christian community in Syria is one of the oldest in the world and one of the largest in the middle east. Indeed, was it not St Paul himself who was converted on the road to Damascus? Is there not a very grave danger that if the wrong people come out on top in the present conflict in Syria there could be a bloodbath of Christians on a biblical scale?
Yes, and that is why the Church of England is using such influence as we have to talk to the Russian ambassador and others here and in other countries around the world to present humanitarian concerns arising from the conflict in Syria and to encourage the Russian Government to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict to try to seek to avoid a bloodbath of Christians and others.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 29 October—Second Reading of the Public Service Pensions Bill.
Tuesday 30 October—Second Reading of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill.
Wednesday 31 October—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Local Government Finance Bill, followed by a motion to approve European documents relating to EU budget simplification and the multi-annual financial framework.
Thursday 1 November—A debate on a motion relating to the beer duty escalator, followed by a debate on a motion relating to air passenger duty. The subjects for these debates have been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 2 November—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 5 November will include:
Monday 5 November—Second Reading of the European Union (Croatian Accession and Irish Protocol) Bill.
Tuesday 6 November—Second Reading of the HGV Road User Levy Bill, followed by a motion to approve European documents relating to banking union and economic and monetary union.
Wednesday 7 November—Opposition Day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. The subject is to be announced.
Thursday 8 November—A debate on a motion relating to the medium-term financial plan for the House of Commons administration and savings programme. The subject for this debate has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 9 November—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 8 November will be:
Thursday 8 November—A debate on regulation of claims management companies.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. We welcome the fact that Britain has finally emerged from recession, but we should never have been in a double-dip recession in the first place. It was a recession created in Downing street by a part-time Chancellor who cut too far, too fast.
The Jimmy Savile case has rightly caused widespread disgust. There are serious questions for the BBC to answer, questions that were not answered during the director-general’s unsatisfactory appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, but the issue goes much further. As happened in the Rochdale scandal only this year, it appears that in the Jimmy Savile case victims’ complaints were not taken seriously. We need to learn these lessons and, for the sake of the victims, uncover the truth. An independent inquiry is needed, so may we have an urgent statement from the Home Secretary?
I have been keeping a list of the occasions when Ministers blame the weather for the omnishambles. So far, the Government have blamed the poor performance of the economy on the snow, before deciding that the reason was in fact too much rain. Then the Immigration Minister blamed the chaos at Heathrow border control on the wrong type of wind. Now the Environment Minister has blamed too much rain for the U-turn on the badger cull. We have seen the badger U-turn, the Energy Bill shambles, the west coast main line fiasco, plebgate, and only today it appears that Ministers have got their sums wrong on tuition fees. It is not the weather that is to blame; it is the Government’s incompetence. Ministers need to get a grip, so may we have an urgent statement on what has gone wrong from the man who is meant to be in charge of Government competence: the Deputy Prime Minister?
The abolition of child benefit for higher earning taxpayers was one of the Government’s first shambles. The complex rules introduced by the Chancellor mean that from January an estimated half a million households will have to complete self-assessment tax forms for the first time. Many people have raised concerns that, weeks away from this change, Revenue and Customs has not written to families to warn them. There are those who have suggested that the Government’s reluctance to send out those letters might have something to do with the upcoming elections for police and crime commissioners. May we have an urgent statement from the Chancellor setting out how his Department will let families know of impending child benefit changes?
Only a few weeks ago, following the Prime Minister’s botched reshuffle, at business questions I paid tribute to the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), saying:
“Over the years, he has surprised political pundits with his Lazarus-style tendencies, and perhaps even this time he is merely on a sabbatical and will be back.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 383.]
And he is back! It is a miracle. Given my predictive powers, the House might be interested to know that my tip for the 4.25 at Doncaster tomorrow is Flashman. I also predict that there will be another omnishambles along soon.
May we have a statement from the Transport Secretary on fare dodgers? Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the conductor on the Virgin train service who refused to let the Chancellor have a free ride? The hapless part-time Chancellor was bundled out of the goods exit at Euston to avoid the waiting media, and it was left to the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) to bat for the Government. His explanation was that “train tickets are so confusing it is easy to get into the wrong carriage.” No wonder this Government have gone off the rails.
This week the man in charge of crisis management in No. 10 emerged from the bunker, blinking into the light of day, to offer his own explanation for the shambles. In a bizarre interview, he said that
“you’ll get surprised by what’s going on”
and that he was
“surprised on a day-to-day basis”.
But Government Back Benchers will be pleased to know that Mr Dowden—for it is he—has a strategy:
“the first thing I do in the morning”,
he said, is to
“turn on the Today programme and hear what’s going on”.
So two and a half years into office, the Government are divided, Back Benchers are in revolt, and Government policies are unravelling daily, and the best strategy that No. 10 has come up with is to listen to the “Today” programme. We just can’t go on like this.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House; I enjoyed that. I am not a betting man, but if I were I would never bet against my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—that’s for sure. It is a pleasure to have him back among our colleagues, although I have always valued my right hon. Friend the former Chief Whip as a colleague and pay tribute to his time in Government. We should all reflect on what a tremendous contribution he has made around the world as International Development Secretary.
To pursue the hon. Lady’s analogy, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, indeed, the Government are on the right track. The figures published this morning for quarter 3 growth, to which she referred for about 12 seconds, are a reflection of the right approach being taken by this Government. I understood her to say that we should not have been in this position; indeed we should not. We were in this position because we inherited an economy that was close to bankruptcy from a Government who had spent without thought and put us into enormous debt. The debt has been at the heart of this, and Labour Members seem never to learn. They never seem to understand that the answer to this country’s problems in resolving the deficit and the debts is not more borrowing.
What the shadow Leader of the House said was entertaining, but, when it comes down to it, it was, frankly, trivia. What really matters is what is actually happening in this country, and she neglected that. This morning’s growth statistics are very encouraging and illustrative of the progress that is being made. The Chancellor said at an early stage that the recovery would be choppy, and indeed it has been, but these figures illustrate where we are going.
Another illustration of our being on the right track is that the employment situation is so much improved. The latest statistics show that there are over 1 million more people in private sector employment since the election, that youth employment is improving, that the number of people on out-of-work benefits is down, that inflation is down, and that new company creation in 2011 was the best ever, with over 1,230 new companies being created per day.
Beyond the economic sphere, the latest figures show that crime rates are down by 6%. In the NHS, which is of course closest to my heart, waiting times are among the very best we have ever seen, including a reduction in the number of those waiting over a year for their treatment in the NHS, which was some 18,000-plus at the time of the last election and is now down to nearly 2,000. I hope that the shadow Leader of the House will reflect on the realities across the country rather than on Westminster trivia.
The hon. Lady made an important point about the investigations relating to Jimmy Savile. Independent inquiries are being undertaken by the police, as a criminal investigation, and by Kate Lampard on behalf of the NHS, and there are two BBC inquiries led by Nick Pollard and by Dame Janet Smith. All those inquiries are independent and I see no reason at this stage for us to think that there would be any merit in seeking to overturn those inquiries, which are making progress. We must simply make sure that, as I know they will, they all respect and understand the fact that the police’s criminal investigation must take precedence.
The shadow Leader of the House also asked about business relating to—[Interruption.] Actually, perhaps she did not ask any other questions, so I will leave it there.
Several hon. Members
Order. A very large number of hon. and right hon. Members are, as usual on this occasion, seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that business under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee will follow. There are two pieces of such business, both of which are of intense topical interest. The second piece is a debate and I can tell the House—because I have the list—that it is extremely heavily subscribed. If I am to accommodate colleagues now, within a limited time frame, brevity from Members on the Back and Front Benches alike is essential. We will be led in that by Caroline Nokes.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will no doubt be aware of the announcement by Ford today of the closure of the Transit factory in Swaythling in my constituency, with the loss of 500 manufacturing jobs and potential further losses in the supply chain. Will he please find time for a debate on this serious matter, which affects not just my constituency, but the surrounding constituencies of many right hon. and hon. Members?
I am sure that the whole House will share my hon. Friend’s regret at the loss of any jobs, particularly those in a major plant in her constituency. She will know that Ministers will be focused, as they have been elsewhere, on trying to provide whatever help and support they can. She will also know that this is in the context of many very positive announcements in recent months by the motor vehicle industry, including that this country is a net exporter of cars for the first time in many years, and of investments at Honda, Nissan, BMW and Jaguar; but that does not take away at all from the distress that today’s announcement will no doubt have caused in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I undertake that Ministers will respond and keep the House informed on action to support the staff affected.
May we have a debate on early-day motion 607?
[That this House notes that Ministers have recently repeated the claim that the lives of British soldiers should be put at risk in Afghanistan to counter the alleged Afghan Taliban terrorist threat to the UK; believes that there is no truth in this claim and that the lives of British soldiers should not be sacrificed when no threat to the UK exists; and calls on the Coalition Government to adopt an independent foreign policy.]
Canadian and Dutch soldiers have returned to their own countries from Afghanistan with their heads held high after large sacrifices in blood and treasure. We have heard today the dreadful news of two further deaths of British soldiers. There will be many tributes to them that will be sincere and heartfelt, but will not history judge that their epitaph should be, “They died to protect the reputation of cowardly Ministers”?
The House knows not only that we will pay heartfelt tribute to service personnel, including the two who it was announced yesterday have tragically died in Afghanistan, but that the people of this country and this House will take the view that they have died in defence of the interests of this country and to protect this country and that we are in Afghanistan to combat a terrorist threat and, alongside that, to help put in place in Afghanistan a sustainable and more democratic country for the future. That is why they are there and we should honour and value the contribution that service personnel make.
May we have a debate on the £1 billion-plus of losses in derivative trading by Network Rail? Some of us would like that money spent on trains and bridges over railway lines instead of in a second-grade investment bank.
I do not have an immediate opportunity for a debate on that subject, but if I contact my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, he may well be able to give a reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood).
After nearly 11 years of being held without charge or trial, British resident Shaker Aamer is still in Guantanamo Bay, in spite of the fact that both US and UK authorities have said that he can be released. May we have an urgent debate to try to understand what the obstacles are to getting this man released and make that a real priority?
I know that hon. Members of all parties have taken a close interest in the situation of those who are at Guantanamo Bay. The hon. Lady may care to consider raising the matter at Foreign Office questions next Tuesday, but it also seems to me to be a subject on which she might like to seek a debate on the Adjournment.
May we have a debate on the independence of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority? You will recall, Mr Speaker, that in February I established through a written question that Ministers had met IPSA on nine occasions in the previous four months. I suspect the dead hand of the Treasury, because I asked a question in September, and the answer given this Monday at column 636 of Hansard refused to give information on the number of occasions on which the Treasury and Treasury Ministers had had discussions with IPSA.
I can tell the House that I have met IPSA since becoming Leader of the House, and nobody at that meeting would have regarded it as in any way compromising IPSA’s independence. I regard it as my responsibility to be fully informed, not least as a member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, so that we can express views to IPSA. Members have rightly taken the view that there should be independent scrutiny of their pay, pensions and terms and conditions through IPSA. It is important that having established that independence, we make it real.
The Government’s council grant cuts, housing benefit cuts, welfare benefit cuts and health funding cuts are having the worst effect on the poorest families and individuals. May we have a debate on the overall impact that all the Government’s cuts are having on the poorest families and communities?
The hon. Gentleman should recognise that our policy is about the reform of the benefits system. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is making clear today, if we can encourage people into work, that is the best route out of poverty. The benefit reforms will change the culture for good.
May we have a debate on university technical colleges? They have been a great success story, and Members have not had an opportunity to examine what drives that success so that we might see more and more of them.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many Members might envy the position that I am in, because a university technical college is being established in Cambridge, which is enabling many young people to come forward and acquire training in skills that will support the life sciences industry. That is a tremendous step forward, and I pay tribute to the Baker Dearing Educational Trust and those who have taken the initiative forward. I hope that many Members, like my hon. Friend, will encourage UTCs in their area. She might like to raise the matter with our colleagues at Education questions on Monday.
In 2010, the Government decided to defer a decision about sport on free-to-air television, because they were waiting until digital TV came fully into operation. It is now fully operational, but Culture Ministers have told us that there will not be a discussion on the matter. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate? After all, top sport should be for the masses, not the few.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I must say, I was struck last week at business questions—perhaps it will be true again this week—that there is a lot of interest in sport, from governance through to the Olympic and Paralympic legacy and on the point that he raises. That might make it appropriate for issues related to sport to be debated in the House at some point. Perhaps those of us who timetable business can discuss that.
May I ask my right hon. Friend a question in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner? The Scrap Metal Dealers Bill will soon have its Third Reading debate. It has had two years of hard work put into it, with consultation with Home Office officials and other Departments, and there is support for it throughout the House. If it is frustrated and talked out on Report or Third Reading by just one Member, will he undertake to find Government time for it to complete its passage through the House? Churches, communities and the transport system up and down the country cannot allow Back-Bench filibustering to prevent the Bill from passing into law.
I heard what my hon. Friend said when he responded to questions on that matter on behalf of the Church Commissioners. He knows that the Government fully support the Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). Members throughout the House will know, as I do from my constituency, of the damage, distress and expense caused by metal theft. That is true not only in relation to churches but perhaps particularly in relation to the theft of metal from memorials in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday. I cannot give him the undertaking that he seeks, not least because I am hopeful that the Bill will attract the House’s support on the day in question.
Has the new Leader of the House seen the Chartered Management Institute’s commissioned report on the quality of management in Britain, which shows that 38% of managers—public and private sector—are awful, and that only 40% of managers in our country have any training at all? Does he find it worrying that very few of those GPs who will be running clinical commissioning groups have any management training?
The hon. Gentleman may like to look at the composition of clinical commissioning groups with great care. They combine managerial and clinical expertise, and he should not diminish the importance of clinicians being directly involved in the commissioning process. Securing the right medical and clinical services for patients in an area is not simply a managerial task; it is both managerial and clinical.
May we have a debate on equal pay for women? That request arises first out of yesterday’s landmark decision on the issue by the Supreme Court, but also because county councils up and down the country are facing a problem caused by a failure to pay the women they have employed over the years. In Northumberland, for example, hundreds of my constituents face a five-year delay to be paid.
The Government very much support equal pay—yesterday’s decision seemed a bit of a “Made in Dagenham” moment, did it not? Although the circumstances of that case are particular to it and relate to time limits and jurisdiction, I hope that it conveys a message about how to ensure equality and equal pay in every work force, which should be in every employer’s mind.
May we have a debate on plans by the NHS in south-west England to introduce regional pay? Those plans are opposed by south-west MPs from all political parties, and we are still waiting for a delegation to see the Minister. I have asked for a debate several times, and we need to have one urgently.
I attended Health questions earlier in the week, and thought that that issue was ably responded to by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). What he said is clear: the Government support the “Agenda for Change” framework and, like NHS employers, we support the reform of that agenda to provide the flexibility that employers are looking for, so that it can be achieved within a national framework. That is what we are looking for.
Given today’s excellent GDP figures, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on whether plan B is now redundant?
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, the debate scheduled for next week on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will no doubt afford an opportunity to demonstrate that the Government are on the right track, as demonstrated by the GDP figures. Quarterly figures have been, and will be, choppy, but it is important to establish the right framework for the longer term. That is about achieving investment in infrastructure, and instilling confidence so that we can see that investment coming through. It is about deregulation and ensuring that business has a lower-cost environment, and recognising that we are in a global race and must ensure we are competitive in terms of tax, regulation and skills. The Government are making positive progress on all those things.
The children and families Bill will be a significant piece of legislation in a complex area, and I fully support its aims. Will the Leader of the House ensure that when it reaches Report, sufficient time will be made available so that hon. Members who may not have been on the Bill Committee have a full opportunity to discuss the legislation’s complex provisions?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, since the election we have been able to timetable more opportunities for debate on Report, and I pay tribute to my predecessor and the Whips for ensuring that. Often, not just one but two days have been allocated for the Report stage of major Bills. As the hon. Lady says, the children and families Bill is very important. It has not yet been introduced, although we look forward to that.
May we have a debate on the issues faced by older people who are seeking to save money for retirement? The all-party group for ageing and older people has just launched a report on older savers which shows that £13 billion is lost through poor advice and a failure by banks to switch accounts.
I take note of what my hon. Friend says. People feel strongly about that very important issue. We will of course look at the business, and no doubt the Opposition and the Backbench Business Committee will also consider the matter. It could be considered in the context of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and the approach taken by banks to their customers.
Will the Leader of the House investigate the delay in publishing the results of the pilot scheme on recording Atos assessments, and ensure that they are published as soon as possible?
I cannot answer the hon. Lady’s question at this moment, but I will ask my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to respond to her.
With the economy growing, inflation lower than expected, public borrowing lower than expected and more people in work than at any time in our history, I am sure the Opposition will use the next Opposition day to talk about the economy, but if for some inconceivable reason they do not, will the Leader of the House ensure that Government time is made available?
Yes; I reiterate my hon. Friend’s extremely good point and commend it to the shadow Leader of the House when she considers the business on—I believe— 7 November, when the Opposition will no doubt take the opportunity to debate the latest positive figures on growth, employment and the reduction of inflation, and the simple fact that since the Government came to office, we have cut the deficit we inherited by a quarter.
I understand the Leader of the House used to have an interest in health. In that case, will he use his influence with the current Health Secretary to persuade him either to have a debate, or at least to make an oral statement, on access to radiotherapy? There was an announcement at the Tory party conference, which the Health Secretary mentioned in question time, but it would be a courtesy to the House if we were allowed to understand the detail. The issue is about not just capital, but revenue.
The hon. Gentleman might like to know that the Leader of the House still has an interest in health, and I was at Health questions this week. He is right that the Health Secretary made it clear that he has made an announcement relating to a new radiotherapy innovation fund, which will support hospitals to ensure that patients have intensity-modulated radiotherapy if it is appropriate for them and that there is more access to stereotactic ablative therapy, both of which the hon. Gentleman has asked for and both of which this Government are now supporting.
Northern Lincolnshire has had some promising announcements recently to boost the local economy, but yesterday Kimberly-Clark announced the closure of its factory at Barton-upon-Humber in my constituency with the loss of 378 permanent jobs and 120 others. Will the Leader of the House find time for a statement to give details of additional Government support that might be made available to benefit the local economy?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), that is further evidence of the choppy waters through which the economy is moving, which are a consequence of global competition. The investment that is coming to this country, which is positive, and contrary announcements that cause us considerable regret, are both a consequence of global competition. Our job is to ensure that, whenever we can, this country is the best possible place for investment. This is about rebalancing the economy, which is bringing additional investment into manufacturing. Rebalancing is important, but I entirely take my hon. Friend’s point that it will also mean that we ensure we give support to individual businesses to maximise their activity in this country—as we are doing, through, for example, the regional growth fund and local enterprise partnerships. I will ask my hon. Friends in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to respond on the issues my hon. Friend raises.
May we have an early debate on the emergence of two-nation Britain, because, although the figures are good for London and the south, according to House of Commons figures given to me today, in Barnsley unemployment is up 6% on last year, in Bradford 9%, in Leeds 3% and in my own constituency 1%? We are now seeing an emerging disconnect between the north and the Tory and Liberal Democrat shires of the south. We need a one-nation Government, not this Government of the south, by the south, for the south.
As a one-nation Conservative, I believe that we are a one-nation Government. If the right hon. Gentleman wanted any more evidence of that, he would have paid more attention to the announcements made by the Deputy Prime Minister last Friday, I think, on regional growth 3, which will support the kind of innovative investment in the north of England that is integral to its economic development.
Not only has the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in Stafford fallen by 14% since April 2010, but we have just had the welcome news that a record 272 new companies were formed in the first six months. May we have a debate on how to support these new companies, so that they create the jobs and pay the taxes we need?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am happy to say that those figures are reflected in many constituencies across the country. Stafford is clearly working well, and I applaud what they are doing there. Yes, I hope we will have the opportunity, not least in the debate on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, to see how we are creating that kind of environment. I would draw particular attention to the work being done through the youth contract and apprenticeships to ensure that young people are finding the kinds of jobs with skills training attached that will enable them to support industrial development in the future.
May we have an urgent debate or statement from a Minister to explain why the Minister with responsibility for welfare reform, Lord Freud, has agreed that in Northern Ireland payment of housing benefit directly to landlords will continue, while in the rest of the country payment must be made directly to tenants—despite all the problems, highlighted by many people, with that—and to explain the unique circumstances for this decision?
I will of course talk to my hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions, so that they reply specifically to the hon. Gentleman, but my understanding is not that the changes to universal credit rule out the possibility of direct payment, but merely that it is important that they be assessed and examined to ensure they are appropriate. Wherever possible, we want those in receipt of universal credit to feel like they are in work. We do not want to change the sense of that, so that they get their pay and it is their responsibility to live within their means.
Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Glasgow. One issue discussed was that of marine and renewable energy. It appeared that few people were aware of the role that the south-west was playing in delivering that. May we have a debate on this important issue, so that we can promote the south-west and its contribution in this area?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not least for attending the BIPA, which I know is valued on both sides of the Irish sea. I hope that we will have the opportunity for that debate. He might want to look to have it when we consider the Energy Bill. The Government attach considerable importance to this matter and have invested more than £17 million in testing and academic facilities for marine energy in the south-west, and are encouraging the region to become the first UK marine energy park. I am sure he will want to illustrate that contribution to our future energy requirements and security during our debate on the Energy Bill.
Last week, the quiet rituals of Friday afternoon in west Cardiff were shattered by a series of hit-and-run incidents that left a young mother dead, her three children motherless and many more injured and traumatised by the events. Will the Leader of the House find a slot where I can put on the record my thanks to the emergency services—the police, the fire service, the ambulance service and the NHS—whose swift and well-co-ordinated actions undoubtedly saved many lives?
I am sure that the House will join me in expressing our sincere condolences to the family and friends of the young lady who died and in extending our best wishes to those who were injured. We were all shocked by what happened. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to express appreciation for the emergency services. We in this House should do so every time we have the opportunity, because these terrible, shocking moments illustrate how much we depend on their prompt and effective action.
Will my right hon. Friend support the planting of a Red Windsor apple tree in honour of the Queen’s diamond jubilee by Mr Speaker on Speaker’s Green next Wednesday at half-past 2? Will he attend the planting and will he encourage Members on both sides of the House to do so too, to support the Woodland Trust, among others, which is planting 6 million trees for the environment of this country this year?
Yes, I do indeed support that. I and the Deputy Leader of the House look forward to being there, and I think the shadow Leader of the House hopes to be there too. I am sure that that is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House and look forward to the Speaker joining us in expressing our appreciation to Her Majesty on her diamond jubilee.
Will the Leader of the House find time to remember Noor Inayat Khan who was an operative in Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive? May I express my thanks to the Speaker for helping in the campaign and to Members of the House who signed early-day motion 109?
[That this House congratulates the Memorial Trust of Noor Inayat Khan set up to honour and to recognise her extraordinary bravery; notes that Noor Inayat Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross as one of only three women in Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive and was also awarded the Croix de Guerre by France; recalls that under the code name Madeleine she was the first female radio operator in occupied France in 1943; further notes that despite being tortured she remained silent and her last word was Liberté; further notes that she was executed in Dachau at the age of 30; welcomes the permission given by the Vice Chancellor of the University of London for a bust to be installed in Gordon Square, near the house where Noor lived and from where she left on her fatal mission; further notes that the majority of the funds needed to fund the statue has already been raised by the Trust; congratulates the donors; encourages further donations to the Fund; and looks forward to the unveiling of the first memorial to a British Asian woman when the sculpture by Karen Newman is completed in Autumn 2012.]
May I also thank the university of London, which agreed to my request to place a memorial to Noor on its land in Gordon square? The sculpture by Karen Newman will be unveiled on 8 November. Noor was executed in Dachau concentration camp; this will be an opportunity for us to remember a true British heroine.
I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Lady, especially at this time of year, for drawing attention to the courage and example of the men and women of the Special Operations Executive, and of Noor Inayat Khan in particular. The House will also recall early-day motion 109 in that respect. I hope that the memorial to her—the sculpture to which the hon. Lady referred—will constantly remind people of the remarkable courage of those in the Special Operations Executive and the contribution they made.
The leader of Cambridgeshire county council recently wrote that global warming “may not exist” and that if it does, it is
“not caused by human activity”.
He described it as a theory espoused by “bourgeois left-wing academics”. Does the Leader of the House join me in condemning this irresponsible and anti-scientific position, and will he find time for a debate about evidence-informed policy?
I will not join my hon. Friend in that respect, although that does not mean that I agree with the leader of Cambridgeshire county council. We are all allowed our views, and he is allowed his. My hon. Friend and I will have talked to many of the scientists at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. When one does so, it amply illustrates the character of climate change, what is really going on and the threat it poses.
Will the Leader of the House offer a helping hand to Scotland’s First Minister, who recently mislaid some important legal advice on the future of an independent Scotland in the EU? We have searched everywhere for it. It may be under the sofa; the First Minister may have left it on a bus; his dog may have eaten it—we just do not know. It could have been mislaid in the Foreign Office—and it is the Foreign Office, not the Scottish Government, that has responsibility for external relations with the European Union. Will the right hon. Gentleman implement a cross-departmental hunt for the advice? It must exist; the First Minister says so and the only alternative is that he is a liar, and that would be unthinkable.
To be honest, in this context I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would be better to instigate a search for the credibility of the First Minister in Scotland, because as far as I can see, earlier in the year he was saying that he had legal advice, but then it turned out that he had not even asked for it. As the Prime Minister quite rightly said yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, that just exposes the lack of credibility of the arguments being presented by the Scottish National party for the break-up of the Union.
My Twitter feed is often packed with comments from Opposition Members whenever there is negative economic news, but today it is remarkably empty. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the economy so that we can discuss today’s data as well as recent positive data?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Although parliamentary time is tight, it is awfully tempting to arrange a debate on the economic figures—on growth, employment, inflation and borrowing. I fear, however, that we might not be able to do so. I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell): as the Opposition have time available in the week after next, perhaps they might like to debate the issues.
Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the Clerks and staff of the House, including Hansard, on their enabling us to make a smooth transition to our earlier sitting hours? Will he quash the ugly rumours that this is a mere experiment and confirm there are no plans to review the earlier hours?
I of course share the right hon. Lady’s appreciation of the way in which the Clerk and staff of the House assist us in our business. The House was invited to make a decision and a decision was made.
May we have a debate on the creation of the excellent new Blue Collar Conservatives group last week? As the Labour party has abandoned the working classes and appears to want to stand up only for people who do not want to work and appears to believe in suppression rather than aspiration, would not such a debate show that the natural political home for anyone in the working classes is the Conservative party?
Yes, I share my hon. Friend’s view. We are now in a coalition Government, but the Conservative party has always been most successful when it has reached out to all the nation. That is why I am a one-nation Conservative and why in the 1980s more trade unionists voted Conservative than voted Labour. They were right to do so and our country has consequently been transformed. It continues to be my ambition and that of my party that we continue to be a home for people of aspiration, wherever they come from.
On the theme of aspiration and working people, may we have a debate and statement on why the Government regard people doing unpaid work experience as being in employment?
I shall gladly ask my friends at the Department for Work and Pensions to reply on how the statistics are calculated. The latest figures show an increase of more than 50,000 in the number of young people in employment and a decrease in the number of people on out-of-work benefits, and he should celebrate that.
My local council, Kirklees, is going through the latest stage of its consultation on the local development framework. May we have a debate on the five-year land supply and the scrapping of the regional spatial strategy housing targets to ensure that development is sustainable?
I know from my own circumstances of the importance that was attached to abolishing top-down housing targets set under the regional spatial strategy, and why the local development framework is so important. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that the local development framework must meet the test of providing locations for sustainable housing sufficient to meet an area’s need for a number of years ahead. To help my hon. Friend, I shall ask my right hon. Friend to write to him.
The Foreign Office is due to publish its landmark strategy on business and human rights any day now. Will the Leader of the House talk to Ministers about exactly when the strategy will be published and ensure that time is found for a ministerial statement to the House to accompany its much-awaited publication?
I know that my colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are well aware of the hon. Lady’s points, but I shall draw their attention to them. She might like to bear it in mind that an opportunity to ask that question will arise at Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday.
E-petitions have garnered considerable public interest and attention, so may we have a debate on their impact?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. It is worth our making the point in our constituencies and to our constituents that Parliament is connecting with the public in a way that has never happened before. Fourteen e-petitions have crossed the 100,000-signature threshold, and we and the Backbench Business Committee have enabled debate to be held on all of them. In addition, the Government will respond to every petition that passes the 10,000-signature threshold. On behalf of the Government I am putting the responses on the website, and some 20 will have gone up by now. I hope to complete the process of responding to all those that have passed the 10,000-signature threshold in the next few days.
Improving home energy efficiency is essential to combat fuel poverty. The Insulation Industry Forum has just told me that there will be 16,000 job losses in its sector soon. May we have an urgent debate to help prevent this loss of key skills, given that investment in energy efficiency is so important?
It is tremendously important, and it is the green deal, which began its implementation at the beginning of October, that will make such a difference in enabling that to happen. The green deal support, the largest such programme we have ever seen, is specifically designed to support some of the measures, such as insulation, that will make the biggest difference to energy efficiency. I hope that exactly that will happen as we get behind this programme.
Unemployment in my constituency is now at a lower level than it was at the general election. May we have a debate about how the Government can make it easier for small charities, such as Black Country Foodbank and Loaves and Fishes in my constituency, to take on jobseekers on work experience without those jobseekers fearing that they will lose their benefits?
I share with my hon. Friend the feeling of encouragement that we get from the employment figures, as they show the number of people in work and reflect the support we are giving them. I will, of course, ask my hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions to address the specific point he raises.
In the Harrogate area, this year is on track to be the record year for the opening of new business bank accounts. Last year saw a record half a million new businesses created in the UK. Before coming to this place, I was involved in starting businesses, and I am sure they play an important role in our economic recovery. May we have a debate to recognise the progress made and to explore what more could be done to make the UK the best place to start a business?
As my hon. Friend says, the progress is tremendously encouraging. The rate of new business creation in 2011 was the highest ever at more than 1,230 a day. Along with my colleagues, I will try to encourage debate on this issue and take advantage of whatever opportunities we can. New business formation is vital. As we know, the support we can give for small business—including finance for lending and small business lending—and the initiatives we have announced will make a considerable difference, but we are looking tirelessly at how we can stimulate effective lending to businesses to enable those businesses that are being created at an unprecedented rate to go on to grow and expand.
International Development Committee Report (Afghanistan)
We now come to the main business. I would like to remind the House that the first piece of business under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee relates to the publication of a Select Committee report. This is not a debate; it takes the form of a statement by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), who chairs the Select Committee. There will an opportunity to intervene on him, but we also have a very heavily subscribed debate to follow. I know that Members, including the right hon. Gentleman, will wish to take account of that important fact in tailoring their contributions.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the publication of the Sixth Report from the International Development Committee, on Afghanistan: Development progress and prospects after 2014, HC 403.
I am happy to accept interventions, while taking Mr Speaker’s restrictions into account.
It is worth recording that, since 2001, approximately $30 billion has been spent on development and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and $243 billion on security. Our own Department for International Development has spent over £1 billion since 2001 and currently spends £178 million a year in Afghanistan.
Sadly, the report has been published on a day on which two more British service personnel have been killed. A total of 435 men and women from our forces have lost their lives in Afghanistan—along with thousands of Afghan people—to enable the country to reach its current position, and the main thrust of our report is that we must not abandon it now.
The Committee visited Afghanistan in June. We thank our adviser, Ashley Jackson—who is a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute—and we commend the dedication of DFID’s staff, including those recruited locally, on their commitment in difficult and challenging circumstances.
My right hon. Friend will recall our visit to the hospital of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was doing incredible, innovative work with amputees who had been injured in land mine and other accidents. He will also recall the workshop next to the hospital, where false limbs were being manufactured. All the people working there were amputees, demonstrating very effectively the possibility of returning to work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that was a really good example of part-funding by DFID and that we should encourage the Department to increase its funding to ensure that more people are helped?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Contrary to what Members might think, our visit was truly inspirational in terms of what it told us about amputees’ recovery and recuperation. The Red Cross runs seven such centres throughout Afghanistan, and its valuable work is supported very effectively by DFID, but it could indeed benefit from further support.
Our main concern is that we cannot predetermine where Afghanistan will go after 2014. There will be elections, but we do not know who will be elected. There will also be security challenges. Threats to security and development potential will vary and may fluctuate across the country. We recommend that DFID’s engagement should be flexible according to the prevailing circumstances at any given time. That may mean acknowledging that delivering development assistance may be more achievable in some provinces than in others. There are provinces in which virtually no violence has occurred, but not all of them are receiving the aid and support that they need.
Given the current security situation, especially in Helmand province, it is much harder for DFID officials to get out and about and supervise and quality-control DFID projects than it was during the Committee’s earlier visits. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important for us to maintain the ability to carry out development work in that province—particularly given the loss of so many British lives in Helmand—and that it might be sensible to appoint more Afghan staff to manage DFID projects in the more conflicted areas of the country, given that they have less difficulty in getting out and about for security reasons?
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on a very important point. We acknowledge that Helmand will present difficulties, and we accept that DFID has decided that it will not be able to maintain an office there once the troops have been withdrawn. However, I agree with him that, given that the British forces’ engagement in Afghanistan has focused on Helmand, it would be a total negation of that if we could not deliver projects in that province. As he says, we need to find local partners who can probably operate much more effectively than armed foreigners.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the Committee’s report. What role does he see for non-governmental organisations in the delivery of DFID’s aid in Afghanistan?
NGOs will have a substantial role. We recognise that a limited number of very effective NGOs—some international and some local—can operate in circumstances in which foreign Government agencies cannot. The fundamental reason for that is their ability to reach an accommodation with local leaders and to defuse situations that international organisations would sometimes appear to provoke. We argue that we need to develop links of that kind much more effectively in the future.
The British public are owed honesty, and the media have rightly reported today on whether the development efforts in Afghanistan are worth the sacrifices that are being made. Does the Select Committee Chairman agree that when Committee members visited Afghanistan we witnessed the problems that our aid efforts were having with full military support, so logic dictates that when that military support is drawn down the current problems will, at best, remain the same, and at worst there is the potential for the situation to deteriorate further?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but the point is that we do not know what the situation will be. Our argument is that we need to be flexible. We should make a fundamental commitment to continue to provide support where we can, although we might have to find different ways and mechanisms.
May I begin by joining in the expressions of sadness about the deaths of the two British service personnel? We value enormously the role played by our military in Afghanistan. We simply would not be able to operate without the support that they provide.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we welcome his Committee’s valuable report, to which we will reply formally in due course. No one is suggesting that Afghanistan is a fully viable state yet, but, as his report says, DFID’s efforts have made a big difference to a lot of people by helping to improve basic services and support economic growth. We completely agree that our focus should be on the position of women and girls, and that will remain a key focus of our development work in Afghanistan, so the report’s recommendations in this critical area are very welcome. I assure the House that our commitment to that desperately poor country will continue for many years to come.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that very constructive intervention. Although we are suggesting changes in priorities, our main point is that the UK Government and DFID need to be flexible in what is a very challenging situation.
Of course the Committee would wish to see Afghanistan functioning as a normal state in due course—we certainly do not want it to be a rogue state—but we are a little sceptical about whether a British Government fund of £178 million a year can itself achieve a viable state. The danger is that if that aim becomes the overriding focus, it might be at the expense of delivering material, practical progress in terms of livelihoods, the rights of women and health and education. We are asking the Department to balance those aspects in a way that does not compromise what has been achieved.
We have articulated the view that the post-2014 litmus test on the extent of the changes in Afghanistan and whether improvements have been secured and are progressing will be the status of women. It is about the worst country in the world in which to be a woman, but progress has been made. If that progress is reversed, we will be able to assume that the condition of all Afghans is deteriorating—and if that progress is continued, we can assume that the situation of all Afghans has improved further. The status of women will be the best indicator of whether everyone’s quality of life is improving.
The entire House is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee for adding a dose of reality to the myths that have surrounded this topic. Our efforts have been well-intentioned but ludicrously over-ambitious in that we have tried to change a 13th century society into a modern state. Is not the message of the report that we cannot win hearts and minds with bombs and bullets and that we must do our best not to raise hopes—particularly for women—that will be sadly and cruelly dashed in the future? We should see what we can do not as soldiers and a military force, but as people offering aid, to rescue what we can from the wreckage of the past 11 years of failed policies.
I accept part of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not entirely accept his apocalyptic version of events. Real progress has been made; we should not underestimate that. Although Committee members’ opportunities to travel and engage were limited, we were impressed that people, especially women, told us, “Please be in no doubt that what you’ve done has dramatically improved the quality of our lives, and please don’t abandon us when your troops withdraw.” That is a crucial point.
As co-chair of the all-party group on Afghanistan, may I welcome the report and the Minister’s comments? I have been visiting the country regularly since 2005 and am worried that the improvements to security that we have seen have not been matched by advances in sustainable economic development and governance. Afghan fatigue seems to be setting in. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, once the US elections are over, the international community must redouble its efforts to assist Afghanistan in preparing for the situation post-2014, when the international security assistance force finally withdraws?
I absolutely agree. It is important that we say to our taxpayers and to the people of Afghanistan that we have no intention of seeing a curtain come down in 2014, which means that we have withdrawn. There will be a transition, a change and something different.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and the International Development Committee on this excellent report. I wish to pick up on his point about the UK Government talking a great deal about women’s rights in Afghanistan but not following up with substantial action. Does he agree that the UK Government need to place a much greater emphasis on women’s empowerment and human rights? Those things need to be at the heart of the development agenda. There are concerns that the idea of development and poverty eradication is too narrow in the Minister’s mind and that rights and women’s empowerment are not fully understood.
We argue that there is not enough evidence in DFID’s programme that the rights of women are central to its objective, and we suggest that DFID should prioritise those. I am sure that Ministers will say that a lot of what they are doing is beneficial to women, but it is not clearly focused in that direction. ActionAid, which I cite merely because it is an evidence base that we had, said that only one out of 92 listed DFID projects had
“an explicit commitment to gender or women’s issues.”
Of course we do have a female Secretary of State for International Development, whom we met yesterday, and a female Under-Secretary—I say that with no disrespect to the Minister of State, who I am sure will share their commitment. I think that we can be assured that women’s rights will be central to the future commitment.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend’s Committee on making the central point that, unless a significant part of our aid budget is devoted to projects designed to empower women, women will lag behind and the whole development effort will suffer. What assessment did the Committee make on its visit of the capacity of the NGOs that represent women, such as Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan? How strong is the women’s NGO sector’s capability to deliver on some of the DFID programmes in the future?
A number of NGOs have a strong commitment, and there are some powerful female voices in Afghan society that speak out for women. However, there is real fear that they will be pushed back after 2014, and they need continued support. There is also a recognition that international NGOs are sometimes compromised because they are seen to be interfering in a traditional culture. So it is important that we develop civil society in Afghanistan, and support those women in Afghanistan who can fight for themselves and ensure that they know that they have extra support outside. I take the view that not only in Afghanistan but across the world the key to development—the single most important thing—is the development of women’s rights. That is the most transformational thing that we can do.
There is no question but that corruption is a real problem in relation to the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan and other places. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the UK has put in place enough safeguards to ensure that UK taxpayers’ money is being used for the purposes for which it was intended?
The answer is no, it has not. There is no evidence that money has been misspent, but the Independent Commission for Aid Impact has said that the proactive mechanisms are not strong enough. The Department is taking strong action to deal with that, and rightly so. Afghanistan is an extremely difficult place in which to operate. As David Loyn of the BBC said in evidence, it is a rentier society, and where a lot of foreign money is swilling around, all kinds of people try to get in on the action, by whatever means they can. We have to be aware of that and be rigorous, but we also have to recognise that we can spend the money effectively. We can make a change, and the job of the Committee, the independent commission and the Department is to ensure that that is precisely what we do.
I welcome this valuable report, which comes at a crucial time in the run-up to 2014. On maximising the effort as regards the money going into Afghanistan, what role is DFID taking in ensuring that the other donor nations recognise the need to work beyond 2014?
DFID has played an active part in the Chicago and Tokyo conferences, and we have of course made our own commitments beyond that period, so we set an example. Ironically, DFID’s ability to provide leadership might be strengthened post-2014, when we are freed from engagement in military activity, as it will become apparent that the UK Government’s overwhelming priority is to provide development support. That will help the leadership provided by DFID across the world.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that because the Committee tries to be realistic and pretty sober about the situation in Afghanistan, we sometimes receive the response that we are suggesting that nothing has been achieved? After our last visit, the front cover of our report featured a picture of some girls who would not have been in school were it not, in part, for the efforts that have been made. It is important that we focus our activity where we can have an impact. That does not mean that we should focus on areas that are easy; empowering women is not easy in Afghanistan. It is important that we do not oversell or over-claim and that we target our efforts on crucial areas where we can make an impact.
I absolutely agree, although I would add a word of caution. We visited the same school in June as we did five years ago and we were unable to visit a girls’ class, because that was thought to be inappropriate. That shows the negative changes, but at least the girls were still being taught, which is important. We also visited Bamyan, where we were told that there was a rising number of undergraduate women at the university and that fathers were actively pushing their daughters to take university education. That demonstrates that the situation is patchy, with progress in some areas and push-back in others. The job of DFID and the international community is to support the progress and to help resist the push-back, in co-operation with Afghans themselves.
In conclusion, it is important that people understand that the evidence that we have received shows that most Afghans do not want the Taliban back. They want a better Afghanistan that they have some ability to determine, and people need livelihoods and to be free from violence and extortion. Our report says that now that we have gone so far, walking away prematurely, as some people suggest, would be a betrayal of the sacrifice of our armed forces, as well as of the Afghan people. Having intervened, we have a moral and practical obligation to walk beside the ordinary people of Afghanistan, as long as we can improve their quality of life on their terms.
Question put and agreed to.
Apart from the hon. Member who will move the motion, 36 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As a consequence, I have imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. That limit will take effect after the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) has made her speech to move the motion, and she knows that she should not exceed 15 minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the e-petition on the planned badger cull, which has gathered more than 150,000 signatures; and calls on the Government to stop the cull and implement the more sustainable and humane solution of both a vaccination programme for badgers and cattle, along with improved testing and biosecurity.
The motion is supported by a wide-ranging cross-party group of MPs and let me make it clear that I and, I am sure, all those who support the motion do not in any way underestimate the hardship and distress that bovine TB causes to farmers. Indeed, it is because we recognise the urgent need to address the problem that we are anxious to ensure that we have a scientifically robust and cost-effective strategy that actually works.
Although Tuesday’s announcement that the pilot cull will be postponed until next summer was very welcome, it does not amount to a change of policy. Today’s motion calls on the Government to stop their ill-judged, unscientific and deeply unpopular culling policy for good, not just for a few months. The motion is about an abandonment of the cull, not just a postponement, and that is why it is so important that today’s debate goes ahead. That is what the majority of the public want and it is what the science demands. Public opinion overwhelmingly opposes a badger cull, including in those regions where the pilots were to take place. More than 163,000 members of the public have signed the e-petition launched by animal campaigner and Queen guitarist Brian May. I pay tribute to all of them, to Brian himself, to Team Badger and to all those individuals who played a role in mobilising public opposition to the cull.
Might the hon. Lady accept my paying tribute to the late Peter Hardy, a great Rotherham MP, who introduced the first Badgers Act in 1973, which is why I am proud to stand here in his memory, and honour his dedication to the cause, by voting with her and other hon. Members on this important issue, so that we say no to badgercide?
I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He rightly reminds me of the precedence in this House of previous battles that have tried to ensure that we do not have a misguided badger cull as a response to the serious problem of bovine TB.
The Government say that they support an evidence-based approach, so let us look at the evidence. Bovine TB cost the taxpayer £91 million in 2010-11 in testing, in the slaughter of animals and in compensation to farmers. The scale of the problem is such that it is deeply irresponsible and unfair to gamble, as the Government are doing, with farmers’ livelihoods and with the future of one of our best loved wildlife species.
The hon. Lady mentions farmers’ livelihoods, but has she seen the NFU briefing, which makes it clear that it regrets the need for culling and says that other methods, such as cattle controls and vaccination, are being deployed? But it says that culling is a vital component and misleading and emotive campaigns that play on sentimental affection for badgers and unfair depictions of farmers threaten to undermine the chance that we now have of getting on top of this horrendous disease once and for all.
I have seen that briefing, but I would say that the emotion is coming from those on the Government Benches. The science is with the Opposition, and I refer the hon. Gentleman to what Lord Krebs said in the House of Lords just a few days ago, which makes it absolutely clear that quite a lot of misinformation is unfortunately being spread by the NFU and others about the seriousness of the issue in terms of how effective a cull can be. It is clear that the best that a cull can achieve, under strict conditions—not the conditions of these pilots—is a 16% improvement.
Several hon. Members
I will take interventions in a moment.
The planned pilots would not have got anywhere near to that 16%, because they did not follow the rigour of the randomised badger culling trial and other Krebs reports.
Several hon. Members
I will give way when I have made a little more progress.
The independent scientific group on cattle TB conducted the most thorough and rigorous study of bovine TB in the UK to date—the randomised badger culling trial. That trial took place over nine years, cost the taxpayer £50 million and destroyed 10,000 badgers. The report on the trial is described by Professor Denis Mollison, the independent statistical adviser to the RBCT, as “painstaking, expert and balanced”, and I commend it to Ministers as an exemplar of how to bring high-quality science into public decision making. The consultation from the coalition Government said of this RBC trial that it was the only one that was conducted as a rigorous scientific trial. The conclusions of that ISG report for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, published in 2007, are well rehearsed, but they are worth repeating. It states:
“Detailed evaluation of RBCT and other scientific data highlights the limitations of badger culling as a control measure for cattle TB.”
It goes on to recommend
“that TB control efforts focus on measures other than badger culling”
“In contrast with the situation regarding badger culling, our data and modelling suggest that substantial reductions in cattle TB incidence could be achieved by improving cattle-based control measures.”
That is precisely the approach that today’s motion advocates.
The hon. Lady easily reads out what the report says, and she is right that it says “substantial reductions”. But is she not interested in more than substantial reduction, which is elimination of this awful disease? If so, does she agree that even Professor Bourne, who headed the study, has said that it quite clearly cannot be eradicated without eradicating it in badgers?
Were we to eradicate every single badger, we would certainly eradicate bovine TB, but we would also eradicate a very important species.
The ISG concluded that
“badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain.”
That is the conclusion of what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs itself says is the most scientifically robust trial that has ever taken place in the UK. We want policy to be based on the science, which is why we should be looking at what the ISG says.
If we are to talk about eradicating bovine TB, it is important that we go back to the science and try to put emotions aside, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) mentioned a moment ago. The trials clearly showed that the best possible outcome would be a 16% reduction, but that is a reduction in the context of an increasing incidence of TB. Indeed, the Secretary of State has talked about the incidence of bovine TB doubling in 10 years. In those circumstances, all a cull would do is reduce the increase. It will not result in a reduction in bovine TB.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that it is worth reading what Lord Krebs said in the House of Lords, because it is exactly the point the hon. Gentleman identifies. He said that
“the long-term, large-scale culling of badgers is estimated to reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by 16% after nine years. In other words, 84% of the problem is still there. To reflect on what that means, this is not a reduction in absolute terms”,
as the hon. Gentleman rightly said,
“but actually a 16% reduction from the trend increase. So after nine years there is still more TB around than there was at the beginning”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 October 2012; Vol. 740, c. 148.]
That is the key point that Government Members are not taking on board.
Several hon. Members
I will make a little more progress before giving way again—as you have pointed out, Mr Speaker, this is a heavily oversubscribed debate.
A number of eminent individuals have also spoken out in opposition to the Government’s proposed course of action. Significantly, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir John Beddington, has refused to back the cull. In a letter to The Observer on 14 October, more than 30 scientists wrote that
“the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it… culling badgers as planned is very unlikely to contribute to TB eradication.”
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I rather suspect that in Brighton Pavilion there are few dairy famers, if any, so will she agree to come to Shropshire and spend the day meeting my dairy farmers and the local NFU to hear their perspective on the crisis and how they believe it should be tackled?
Even coming from Brighton Pavilion does not stop someone reading the science. I would like the debate to be based on the science, not on emotional calls from the Government Benches. Professor Lord Krebs, who devised the randomised badger cull and is firmly opposed to the cull, has said:
“I have not found any scientists who are experts in population biology in the distribution of infectious diseases in wildlife who think that culling is a good idea… People have cherry-picked certain results to try to get the argument that they want.”
The hon. Lady is being extremely generous with her time, for which I am most grateful. The arguments about which scientists said what should surely be answered by a paper that was produced by DEFRA following a meeting, held by the Department on 4 April 2011, of the key scientific experts, including Lord Krebs and many other eminent scientists. Its No. 1 conclusion was:
“The science base generated from the RBCT shows that proactive badger culling as conducted in the trial resulted in an overall beneficial effect compared with ‘survey only’ (no cull) areas”.
Scientists at DEFRA were in agreement and came to that conclusion. That is a Government paper. Surely we should move on from going backwards and forwards on which scientists said what. There is some benefit to be had from a cull. It is not the only answer.
Order. Before the hon. Lady responds, I remind Members that she is due to speak for 15 minutes or thereabouts and has already taken several interventions. I gently encourage Members to be economical with interventions. Many Members wish to speak in the debate. The more interventions, the longer we will take, and you can bet your bottom dollar that people will be queuing up to complain and ask, “Why didn’t I get called to speak in the debate?” Answer: the time was taken up earlier. Let us get on with the debate.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. In order to do so, I go back to what I said just before the hon. Gentleman intervened, which is that Lord Krebs himself is saying that people are cherry-picking certain aspects to try to get the result they want. If the hon. Gentleman looked at the full set of recommendations from the document instead of those that he cherry-picked, he would see that in fact the vast majority of the evidence is that culling does not make a significant contribution.
I will not give way; I want to follow what Mr Speaker said and make some progress.
The case against culling on the grounds of efficiency and effectiveness is overwhelming. That approach is also potentially entirely counter-productive. The independent scientific group initially found a decrease in the disease of approximately 23% in the centre of the culled area but an increase of approximately 29% on neighbouring land outside the culled area. Those results can be explained partly by what has been termed the perturbation effect. That has been studied by Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London, who has also found that repeated badger culling in the same area is associated with increasing prevalence of the BTB infection in badgers.
The objective of the Government and the NFU is healthy cattle and healthy badgers. I agree with that, but how does culling improve badger health? Professor Woodroffe states unequivocally that it does exactly the opposite and that
“all the evidence shows that culling badgers increases the proportion of badgers that have TB”.
Yet the Government’s approach ignores that evidence. As with the ISG trials, conditions have been imposed to try to limit the effects of perturbation, such as identifying natural barriers to badger movement, but these have generally been less rigorous than those recommended, with farmers essentially being encouraged to develop a “not in my back yard” approach to cattle TB without any real thought for the long-term impact on rates of the disease elsewhere.
Earlier this week, the Secretary of State warned that the cost to the taxpayer of tackling bovine TB will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked. I agree that that is a very alarming prospect. That is why it is crucial that on this, as well as on the scientific evidence, he listens to the experts who, let me remind him, have concluded:
“The financial costs of culling an idealized 150 km2 area would exceed the savings achieved through reduced cattle TB, by factors of 2 to 3.5.”
DEFRA has tried to keep the costs down by allowing licensed farmers to do the culling in its planned pilots and allowing for the licences to permit shooting, but by cutting corners in that way it undermines the very effectiveness that it claims for a culling strategy.
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s giving way on this important and passionately felt issue. I speak as a member of the British Veterinary Association, which states in its most recent report, first, that culling is necessary, and secondly, that there is no available vaccination that can address the reservoir of the disease within the wildlife population of badgers. Is she aware that this year 30,000 cattle will have to be slaughtered because of bovine TB? What are we going to do about that problem?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. In fact, a vaccine is a lot closer to being developed than he and others suggest, so there are alternatives to culling. Earlier in the week, the Secretary of State made much of saying that there no alternatives. The tragedy is that there are alternatives but this Government seem extremely reluctant to bring them forward.
On tackling cattle-to-cattle transmission of the disease, the ISG report states:
“Movement of cattle from infected herds in the periods between routine herd tests has long been recognised as a cause of new herd breakdowns, and it is generally accepted that most of the sporadic herd breakdowns in relatively disease-free areas of the country result from movement of infected animals.”
The evidence suggests that focusing on the role of badgers in the spread of bovine TB is a distraction and that priority should instead be given to preventing the spread of the disease between cattle. That is why the motion calls on the Government to introduce a programme of vaccination, which eminent scientist and former Government scientific adviser Lord Robert May points to as an important tool in tackling TB. He says:
“What is particularly irritating is that we have the vaccines in the pipeline, but the commitment to really go in and test them is…not there”.
DEFRA confirms that. A statement on its own website reads:
“BCG…is the most suitable cattle TB vaccine candidate in the short term. Experimental studies show that BCG vaccination reduces the progression, severity and excretion of TB in cattle…and field studies show that it can reduce transmission of disease between animals.”
Does the hon. Lady agree that farmers’ voices are not unanimous on this issue? I have been contacted by Gloucestershire dairy farmers who support the vaccination model being developed by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and, in the short term, the model of meticulous biosecurity that has been advanced successfully by Gloucestershire farmer Steve Jones, who has managed to contain bovine TB despite the fact that his farm is in the very centre of the bovine TB area.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He is absolutely right that farmers are not speaking with one voice on this issue. Many of them recognise that we need an effective strategy but that culling is a costly distraction from achieving that.
Several hon. Members
Let me make some further progress.
DEFRA cites the EU prohibition on the vaccination of cattle against TB as the reason why studies to date
“cannot provide a definite figure for vaccine efficacy when administered to cattle under field conditions in the UK”.
Vaccinated cows can test positive for TB when using the current tuberculin skin test and the gamma interferon blood test, making it impossible to differentiate an animal that has been vaccinated from one that has the disease. However, a complementary test called the DIVA—differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals— has been developed, which confirms whether a skin test positive result is caused by vaccination or by TB infection. That is what should be validated and certified by the end of the year, according to the DEFRA website. It has the potential to open the door to a change in EU regulation. This Government should go to Europe now—they should have done so years ago—and prepare the policy framework to allow us to use the DIVA test; yet there are precious few signs that DEFRA or, indeed, the Government are pressing aggressively for the legal framework in which a cattle vaccine could be widely deployed. I echo the sentiments of those many Members who earlier this week urged DEFRA to stop hiding behind the excuse of EU law and to step up its efforts to change it.
A 2008 DEFRA paper on options for vaccinating cattle against bovine TB was endorsed by the NFU and concludes that
“BCG based vaccines will need to be used in conjunction with a DIVA test and that such a programme of vaccination could be cost-effective.”
It identifies the most significant barriers to use as legal and resultant trade implications. That was three years ago and we really should have made more progress than we have to date.
As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) has said, biosecurity is a very important issue. Vaccination needs to go hand in hand with excellent biosecurity. According to Professor John Bourne, former chairman of the ISG:
“Despite some improvements, the government is still going nowhere near far enough with biosecurity”.
He went on to say:
“It is not badgers that spread the disease throughout the country; it is cattle”.
The most recent European Commission inspection of England’s biosecurity in September 2011 uncovered a catalogue of failures, including missed targets in the rapid removal of cattle infected with TB and
“weaknesses in disinfection at farm, vehicle, market and slaughterhouse levels”.
A belated crackdown has resulted in a slight improvement, but we need to go much further.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Steve Jones, a farmer who is deeply concerned about biosecurity. He says:
“Water troughs are a reservoir for TB because they are rarely cleaned out. It’s not uncommon for trough water to be left stagnating through the winter, collecting dead birds, rodents and various bacteria, only to be drunk by cattle in the spring. Badgers also use these troughs but it’s unfair to isolate badgers when the culprit is the bacteria soup itself. Making troughs badger-proof is not rocket science, but more fundamental is the adoption of better hygiene standards by the agricultural industry.”
Recent DEFRA data indicate that improving biosecurity would cost famers an average of £4,000, compared with £27,000 to deal with the TB herd breakdown. That is why the motion has a very strong focus, alongside its other measures, on comprehensive national biosecurity policy.
It is important to recognise the wider context in Gloucestershire. One of the trials was going to take place in my constituency and farmers are very disappointed that it cannot go ahead for the moment. One of the first ministerial meetings that I had in this House 15 years ago was with the then Agriculture Minister, Jeff Rooker, and nothing has happened since. Does the hon. Lady not understand the frustration of farmers, including those in Gloucestershire? Does she not accept that, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has said, the British Veterinary Association says that the disease is being spread by badgers and that a trial cull is necessary?
Order. A lot of Members want to get in and interventions will slow us down. I am sure that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) will want to get to the end of her speech very quickly.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s reminding us that farmers are deeply concerned about the matter and feel frustration, but that frustration is because we have had years and years of inaction. Suddenly pulling a badger cull down from the shelf is the wrong way to respond to that frustration. The Government should have gone to the EU and made the case for the DIVA test so that we could get on with vaccination. All the evidence suggests that vaccination, combined with biosecurity, better hygiene and better husbandry, is a much better way of eradicating this horrible disease. No Member is complacent about the seriousness of the disease, but we differ on the most effective way of addressing it. The science is on the side of those who oppose the cull, because it shows that it is not the most effective way forward.
As I said, modern husbandry practices place chronic stress on intensively farmed animals, and a number of scientists are also pointing to the way in which cattle have been inbred for many years as a significant contributor to why cattle do not have the resistance to cope with such a disease.
I want to say a few words about vaccinating badgers. I agree that vaccinating wildlife should be given proper consideration, alongside the vaccination of cattle, yet the coalition Government have slashed funding for the badger vaccine deployment project. Only one of the six original five-year trials to learn how best to address some of the practical difficulties of vaccination is still under way. If those projects had gone ahead as planned, we would have been much further along the road towards finding a solution by now. That is exactly why farmers are frustrated. Instead, two years on, nothing more has been done.
I agree with much of what the hon. Lady is saying. Will she explain for a layperson such as myself why, although a third of the land mass of the United Kingdom is in Scotland, Scotland has not taken the decision to do what is being done in England? Wales has also withdrawn from the cull, so we are arguing about an English thing, not a British thing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which brings me neatly to the situation in Wales, about which I know something. The Government there have used the same scientific evidence as DEFRA and have begun a five-year badger vaccination programme, starting in parts of Pembrokeshire. More than 700 badgers have been vaccinated since the start of that programme, which is about halfway through the land that it needs to cover. That part of the programme is on track to be finished towards the end of October. I hope that England will be able to learn from Wales and elsewhere to see how the problem can be tackled most effectively.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that until there is an oral vaccine, it is totally impractical to try to vaccinate the badger population? First, they have to be caught. Secondly, the person doing the catching has to be licensed by Natural England at huge cost, and thirdly, the cost is estimated at £2,250 per square kilometre.
Trying to kill badgers is also extremely difficult. The original randomised badger culling trial was about killing badgers by capturing them in cages first, but the Government have dismissed that as too expensive. In doing so, they have reduced the likely effectiveness of the policy. It will lead to people trying to shoot badgers, which are difficult to kill outright because of their shape and size. That is extremely costly, and crucially it also spreads the disease even more widely. Vaccinating badgers is not easy, but it is a lot easier than shooting them in the way that the Government propose. It is also an awful lot more effective in stopping the spread of TB. That seems to me a good argument for not going ahead with shooting.
Will the hon. Lady give way again on that point?
No, I have given way to the hon. Gentleman.
Rather than pursuing an approach that is widely discredited, should not the Government invest in studies to determine exactly how and whether badger vaccination can work on a larger scale, in co-operation with organisations such as the National Trust and the wildlife trusts, which are already taking a lead in carrying out vaccine trials?
I am coming to the end of my speech, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I can see that you are looking a little perturbed. Even were all that I have said about the science, the alternatives to a cull and its lack of effectiveness to be discounted, the Government’s proposals remain deeply flawed. Although the pilot culls in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset have been postponed, I am sure that other Members will want to raise concerns that the specific licensing criteria that were set out would not have been met. They will also want to raise concerns about the degree to which the Government’s current policy deviates from the conditions of the RBCT, despite advice from experts that the more a future culling policy deviates from the conditions of the RBCT, the more likely it is that their effects will differ and that there will be variability in outcomes between areas. Professor Bourne, chairman of the independent scientific group, claims that the key differences between his team’s methodology and the Government’s pilot culls—including a very different killing method and much longer killing period—are “significant”. Although he has been mentioned by those on the other side of the argument, he stated that the cull,
“could make TB a damn sight worse.”
The news that badger numbers are higher than anticipated suggests that methods used by Natural England to set the minimum and maximum number of badgers that can be killed across licensed zones are inaccurate.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not.
That inaccuracy makes it impossible to guarantee that local extinctions will not occur. I welcome the fact that the Government and the NFU have concluded that the pilot culls cannot take place this year. They must now look again at other problems that have been identified, and abandon their culling policy altogether.
Order. An eight-minute limit on speeches has been imposed, but we want to try and get everybody in. Fewer interventions will ensure that everybody will be able to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on initiating this debate so eloquently, and it is an honour to follow her. Although I note that the petition has 150,000 signatures, I firmly and passionately believe that a silent majority in the countryside care strongly about controlling bovine TB and believe in the need for an eventual cull, as well as in other measures such as those called for by the hon. Lady. I am not convinced of the need for Team Badger or a team cattle; I believe there should be one team, one nation and one countryside. I hope that the House will send a message this afternoon that we are convinced there can be both a healthy badger population and healthy livestock.
I will restrict my remarks to the positive role that I believe the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee can play. Only two hon. Members who served on that Committee during the previous Parliament remain—my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) and myself—[Interruption.] And, indeed, another survivor, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). The Committee stated:
“We also recognised that under certain well-defined circumstances it was possible that badger culling could make a contribution towards the reduction in incidence of the disease in hot spot areas. However, we acknowledged that badger culling alone would never provide a universal solution to the problem of cattle TB.”
The point is this: we will never eradicate or control the spread of TB by vaccination alone; we need a controlled cull.
Does the hon. Lady accept that if the vaccine were available, there would be no need for a cull? I think some Government Members want the cull regardless.
The hon. Gentleman will hear what my right hon. and hon. Friends say when they speak on this issue with some passion.
May I commend the work of the Food and Environment Research Agency, based in Ryedale in my constituency of Thirsk and Malton and, in particular, its work on progressing vaccinations for badgers? I note that it is already undertaking badger vaccines. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) asked about the cost of those individual vaccines, and it would be helpful if the Minister would confirm that.
In the pause before an eventual cull, I believe that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee can make a major contribution precisely on the vexed issue of vaccination, which was raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. Not only do we have the cost and difficulty of vaccinating badgers, but there is currently no effective test to tell the difference between vaccinated and infected cattle—the wider issue raised by the hon. Lady. It is, therefore, impossible to identify clean animals from infected animals for the purpose of export.
I am sorry to intervene so soon, but that is not correct. The test to differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals—the DIVA test—exists and is ready to be used once we get permission from the EU. The obstacle to the problem is getting that permission—there has not been much effort on that—not that the test does not exist.
I am afraid that is a point of disagreement, which is why I believe there is a role for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to examine the state of the science. Members of that Committee can use their role to encourage the Government to use good relations with the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, and colleagues in the European Parliament who have co-decision, to make plans to lift the ban on exports. That raises the wider issue of how we can encourage FERA to develop the badger vaccine, and encourage the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency to look fully at developing the efficiency of a cattle vaccination.
There is one issue that I regret the hon. Lady and Team Badger do not accept. Government Members recognise the issue of badger welfare, but I would like to see the whole House rise up and agree that it is unacceptable that almost 60,000 cows in calf—they were carrying an unborn calf—were slaughtered in 2010 and 2011. My hon. Friends have already alluded to the human grief suffered by farmers, and this year everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. We have seen a rise in fuel costs for transporting animals, and in the cost of feed. There has been bad weather; the potato crop is going wrong and pig farming is going wrong—everything is going wrong and farmers are battling with the elements.
We are talking about herds of cattle that have been raised by generations of farmers, and when a herd is slaughtered, that lifeline can never be regained. The contribution of such herds to the rural economy should not be underestimated, and they will be lost and gone for ever. I would like the House to unite to show that we care for the loss suffered by farmers, and that we recognise that this broader wildlife and countryside issue goes to the heart of the rural economy and farming in this country.
I have the honour of representing two livestock marts—that in Thirsk is the largest, or joint-largest, fatstock mart in the country. Farmers who produce those animals live in fear of one rogue beast coming into the herd.
My hon. Friend is right to stress the human effects of the difficulties in which farmers now find themselves. Robert Davies, a farmer in my constituency, is an owner-occupier who has a closed herd on one farm. Over the past few years it has been shut for months on the trot, and nearly 400 animals have been tested every 60 days. Let us imagine the pain, suffering and difficulty experienced by him and his family, and the welfare of those animals.
I could not have put that better myself, and I hope the House will unite and recognise the contributions that farmers make to the economy. In terms of health and diet, nothing could be more nutritious than milk, dairy produce, beef and other meat products that are the lifeline of hill farmers in the north, and lowland farmers across the country.
No other country in the world has been able to control the spread of and incidence of TB in cattle without a controlled, limited cull. I bitterly regret the circumstances in which the NFU, Natural England, FERA and particularly the Government, have found themselves by postponing the cull. Farmers in my area and across the country will look for a controlled cull, and we should examine the results of that. Let us use this pause to examine the science—including the vaccination of badgers—and establish the cost and efficacy of that. Most importantly, we should look for a vaccination that will not only control levels of infection in cattle, but allow our meat and dairy products to be accepted across the EU and the world. Let us rise as one nation, one team, and one countryside.
I challenge Government Members’ attempts to portray this subject as an urban against rural issue, as they did with fox hunting. I am a west country MP. Admittedly, I represent an urban constituency, but I occasionally venture outside Bristol. I know from representations made to me from people in south Gloucestershire and the Forest of Dean area, Somerset and around the west country that there is widespread opposition to the badger cull, including opposition from people in rural areas, from farmers who do not want the cull on their land, and from people across the board. It is totally wrong to say, “Only townies who don’t understand the country or farming are opposed to the cull.” It is incredibly patronising to say that the many people who have written to me and MPs who represent rural areas do not understand the science. I have looked at the science.
The Chair of the Select Committee, a Conservative, spoke of one nation and one countryside. Does my hon. Friend agree that the device of dividing the country between town and country is unhelpful?
That device is completely unhelpful. I have taken an interest in food policy in my time in Parliament—I introduced a Food Waste Bill. Food policy is about farming only to an extent, but people eat food, including in urban areas. Food policy is also about food distribution networks and supermarkets. It is completely ludicrous to portray the issue as one that is just for farmers.
I will take one more intervention.