House of Commons
Wednesday 5 June 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What steps she is taking to promote co-operation in the development of renewable energy between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. (157233)
Both the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to encouraging a clean and diverse portfolio of domestic energy supply which includes renewable energy sources to meet economic, social and environmental needs.
A huge amount of work is going on. Indeed, I was at Belfast docks recently observing the fabrication of new types of offshore wind farm technology. I should add, however—wearing my former Shipping Minister’s hat—that while of course we need offshore technology and connectivity, we must ensure that, as we introduce it throughout the United Kingdom, we protect our shipping lanes.
One of Northern Ireland’s attributes is its beautiful countryside and rural setting. As we pursue renewable energy sources, it is important for us not to end up with the blight of windmills throughout our countryside. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind as he co-operates with our neighbours in the Republic.
I am curious to know—as, I am sure, is the whole House—whether the Northern Ireland Office has had any discussions with the Irish Government about the possibility of fracking in Northern Ireland, and the use of shale gas. Please do not tell me that this is a devolved issue; I want a response from the Northern Ireland Office.
There is no evidence that fuel fraud is rising in Northern Ireland. Published tax-gap figures show a long-term downward trend. Tackling fraud is a joint priority for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Northern Ireland Executive, along with tobacco smuggling.
I am surprised by the Minister’s response, because that is not the information that we are being given in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. There is a huge issue involving not just the breaking of tax laws, but the criminal activities that lie behind it, and the potential support for terrorism. Will the Minister look into the situation? Does he accept that as long as two separate types of diesel are being sold the potential for fraud will continue, and will he consider an arrangement whereby those who use straightforward white diesel are given a rebate and those who do not are subject to sanctions?
I hope that I did not mislead the House by suggesting that there was any complacency about fuel smuggling, which is a serious matter. However, the original question related specifically to whether it was increasing. We are very conscious—as are the Treasury and HMRC—of the need to establish where the profits from fuel smuggling go, but the taxation issue is clearly a matter for a different Department, and I shall ensure that the relevant Minister is made aware of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
It is well over a year since the Select Committee recommended that HMRC should, as a matter of urgency, introduce a new marker in order to prevent fuel smuggling and laundering. Will the Minister meet representatives of HMRC and demand why it is saying that the marker cannot be introduced for at least another 18 months, and will he make it very clear that such a time scale is unacceptable?
I have had meetings about the matter, and I have been pushing for the introduction of such a marker. Believe it or not, criminals have technology that enables them to remove new markers very quickly, so we must ensure that whatever new marker replaces those that we have at present does the job that it is intended to do. However, I will press my colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that we introduce it as soon as possible.
I pay tribute to members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and their colleagues for the excellent co-operation that has taken place between police forces throughout the United Kingdom in relation to security arrangements for the G8 summit. Another issue that we need to tackle together is serious and organised crime—including, of course, fuel fraud—but, alarmingly, that cannot be done on a UK-wide basis, because the National Crime Agency will not operate in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister explain how we have arrived at this point, and what the consequences will be for Northern Ireland?
I completely agree. I, too, pay tribute to the mutual aid that is coming into Northern Ireland for the first time in such quantities, with almost 3,800 British policemen volunteering to come to Northern Ireland to assist with G8 security. That sends an important message to the rest of the world about the normalisation of policing in Northern Ireland.
I completely agree not only that the National Crime Agency is an issue, but that the profits from crime must be dealt with. This is a matter for the devolved Assembly, however. The Government would like to see the same approach apply across these matters, but that has to be decided in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. We will continue to push them so that we can clamp down on the sorts of crime to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
The point is that it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that they reach an agreement on the NCA with the Northern Ireland Executive. Worryingly, the Serious Organised Crime Agency has been abolished, yet the Government have utterly failed to get agreement for the NCA to operate in Northern Ireland. What exactly are the Minister and Secretary of State doing to resolve this situation, so that we can tackle fuel fraud and serious and organised crime across the UK as a whole?
I know the hon. Gentleman very well and he, like me, is very proud of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. We must do everything we can to help them, but at the end of the day these decisions have to be made by them. Fuel smuggling is a matter for HMRC and the police, but the NCA issue has to be agreed by all the political parties in the five-party coalition. We are pushing as hard as we can, but we cannot and will not take away the devolved Administration’s powers, because we want to move forward, not backwards.
May I follow on from earlier questions and ask whether the Secretary of State is fully aware of the seriously high level of fuel fraud? There are some estimates that up to one third of diesel is laundered diesel. Is he aware that at least £70 million of illicit profit is being made from fuel laundering across Ireland? The estimate is that that is split half and half between north and south; it used to be nearly all northern. There is also £100 million-worth of tobacco fraud. Can the Secretary of State give us any words of comfort, because the level of corruption is frightening?
The Secretary of State and I are very aware of that, and we have regular ongoing discussions about it. This is, of course, a criminality issue for the police to address, but where the profits go is also an issue, and we all know that some of the profits go into terrorist organisations. We must do everything we possibly can to clamp down on this, to stop that money getting into those organisations.
Further to the question from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), the Minister will know that a decision with regard to HMRC has been delayed yet again. The Committee understands that there is a marker out there that can do the job, resolve the issue and save the general taxpayer millions of pounds. Someone somewhere is dragging their heels. We need the Minister to intervene and get this resolved quickly.
I will again intervene on this matter and speak with my colleagues in HMRC. At the last meeting I had, which the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland also attended, we understood that the marker was imminent. What those involved are worried about is introducing a marker that is not sufficiently robust. There are also dangers with regard not only to money getting into the wrong hands, but to the chemicals going into the environment after the markers are removed in the laundering process. That is very dangerous to both individuals and the environment in Northern Ireland.
I last met the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on 29 April in Belfast at an event to mark the progress made in Northern Ireland in the 15 years since the Belfast agreement. At that event we set out our views on the importance of addressing sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland and building a shared society.
Given the importance of cross-border co-operation for security, particularly in the light of the upcoming G8 summit at Lough Erne, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital for the people across the whole of the island, as well as for people in the United Kingdom, that we have closer relationships with Ireland?
I entirely agree. The working relationships between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana have never been closer. This highly effective co-operation has been saving lives in Northern Ireland and combating terrorism and organised crime, and it is also playing a significant part in our plans to deliver a safe and secure G8 summit.
Further to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) made, is the Secretary of State able to give a date by which she can assure the Irish Foreign Minister that the National Crime Agency and the asset recovery scheme will operate in Northern Ireland, because this affects both sides of the border dramatically?
As my hon. Friend the Minister of State has emphasised, a legislative consent motion on the NCA is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive. We are disappointed that they have not taken up our offer for the NCA to operate in devolved spheres. I can reassure the House that the NCA will be able to operate in relation to matters that are not devolved, including HMRC matters and fuel fraud.
Further to the supplementary question asked by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), can the Secretary of State tell us how many Army personnel, if any, are going to be deployed for the G8 summit, in addition to the 3,800 volunteers from other police services in the United Kingdom? How are the security costs being met, in terms of Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly?
The vast majority of the costs of the G8 summit will be met by the Government, although a small amount may fall to the Executive to meet. We are doing our very best to ensure that that is kept as low as possible, and we believe that the G8 summit will have a very significant positive economic benefit for Northern Ireland. The military are providing a number of specialist services to support the security effort. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I am unable to give details of operational matters of that nature, but these services are routine for events on this scale and previous G8-type events.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer.
On her discussions with the Irish Foreign Minister more generally, she will be aware, as will the House, of the serious attacks mounted against Police Service of Northern Ireland officers recently in Dunmurry and in my constituency, where police officers came within inches of death at the hands of republicans. What is her assessment of the current strength of these republican groups now operating against the police? What numbers are involved? What steps will she take further to strengthen the PSNI in its battle against them?
I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the seriousness of the terrorist threat from dissident republicans. There have been eight national security attacks this year, but the better news is that there have also been 68 arrests and 32 charges for terrorist-related offences and DR-related crime. We are doing everything we can to support the PSNI with the £200 million we added to its settlement in this comprehensive spending review. We continue discussions with the Treasury on adding to that funding in the next CSR period. The threat continues to be severe, but the UK Government are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to counter terrorism, both domestic and international.
This Government are reforming the welfare system to ensure that work always pays, in order to help lift people out of poverty. About 2.8 million low-income to middle-income households will be better off through the introduction of universal credit.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the relative rate of child poverty, taking into account all of this Government’s tax and benefit changes, will be 6% higher in 2015 than the rate this Government inherited in 2010. Does that not demonstrate that the communities that suffered the most during the troubles are being the hardest hit by this Government’s indifference to poverty now?
The whole scheme of our efforts to reform welfare is about lifting people out of poverty to get them into work and end a cycle of people spending a lifetime in dependency. We are fixing welfare to ensure that work always pays. Unbelievably, the Labour party chose to vote against our benefit cap; the Opposition think that non-working households should be able to get more than £26,000 a year on welfare benefits; someone would have to earn £35,000 to get that if they went out to work.
Northern Ireland’s Minister for Social Development has managed to get some flexibility to mitigate against the worst circumstances of welfare reform as it affects child poverty. Does the Secretary of State agree that what would help even more is if we could maximise inward investment as a result of the G8 summit, to ensure that children are lifted out of poverty across Northern Ireland because of private sector investment there?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that some very important flexibilities have been secured by Minister Nelson McCausland, and I know that some good discussions are continuing about further assistance that could be given to Northern Ireland. I absolutely agree that a key way to lift children out of poverty is economic prosperity, which is one reason why the G8 coming to Northern Ireland is very great news indeed. We are looking forward to the event.
Peace Process (EU Contribution)
Many around the world, including in Europe, have played a valuable role in supporting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Successive PEACE programmes, part-funded by the European Union, have directed funding to worthwhile projects aimed at community reconciliation.
Almost €330 million in funding through the PEACE III programme helped more than 450 projects across Northern Ireland. Those projects help to build a shared future and break down barriers between communities. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that she and the Government are giving full support to the implementation of a PEACE IV programme so that such good work can continue?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are very supportive of a PEACE IV programme and were delighted that funding for it was included in the multi-annual financial framework to the tune of €150 million. We hope that we might be able to provide a top-up for that fund from our territorial cohesion allocation and we hope that it will focus on those key shared society projects that are so important in Northern Ireland.
That was rather a strange question and I would have hoped that the Secretary of State would have said very little in reply, as surely the people who have helped the peace process are the people of Northern Ireland themselves led by courageous politicians from Northern Ireland, many of whom are sitting in this Chamber today.
My hon. Friend is right; the real credit for the huge achievements in the political settlement in Northern Ireland goes to the political leadership of Northern Ireland and the courage its members showed. They received welcome support from around the world, but it was their achievement and we should give them the credit for it.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that as well as the positive effects of EU funding programmes, including the PEACE programmes, the common experience of Britain and Ireland as members of the European Union brought British-Irish relations on to a new plain and created the context for the peace process? It has also delivered a situation in which the border is less intrusive in the economic and social life of the island, and those are positive factors that need to be weighed up in any consideration of the UK’s future in the EU.
There are many reasons why the relationship between the UK and Ireland has improved so dramatically over recent years, but certainly the background of the European Union has provided some assistance. Of course, that matter will be weighed up carefully in the ongoing debate about the future of our relationship with Europe, but it is important for everyone to recognise that if people want a say on the future of Europe and a referendum on it, they need to elect a Conservative Government.
The Secretary of State has already said that the peace process in Northern Ireland was helped immensely by our membership of the European Union, through the PEACE money and in other ways as well. Does she not agree that our continued membership of the European Union, reformed as it would be, is vital for the people of Northern Ireland and in the continuation of the peace process?
I believe that it is vital that we should seek to reform and renegotiate our relationship with Europe so that it is focused on the trade, investment and commerce that is good for the whole UK, including Northern Ireland. I believe it would then be right to put that new deal to the British people in a referendum.
Sometimes the mention of Europe in this Chamber engenders the same reaction as occurred this morning at a magnificent Ulster fry breakfast when somebody asked for the vegetarian alternative. From the perspective of a former very distinguished Member of the European Parliament, the Secretary of State must recognise that Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from the UK’s membership of the EU. Will she outline briefly how she sees that relationship developing in coming years?
As I have said, I think it is crucial that our relationship with Europe changes so that it is no longer focused on ever-closer political union, which is something that the people of this country never have wanted and never will want, but focuses on the commercial and trade opportunities that people thought they were voting for last time we had a referendum on the EU.
Territorial Army (Recruitment)
Naturally, this is a matter for the Ministry of Defence, but both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I take a keen interest in the military across the board in Northern Ireland. We meet regularly our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and with 38 Brigade, as well as talking to the reserve forces and the cadets.
They never had to conscript the people in Northern Ireland to join the Army; they were volunteers, in both the British Army and the Territorial Army. Numbers of recruits to the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland are at their highest ever. It is important that the numbers are maintained so that others continue to have the opportunity. What steps is the Minister taking to work with employers and employees to ensure that that happens?
Encouraging employers and employees to join the Territorial Army in Northern Ireland has never been really difficult, to be fair, and individuals from Northern Ireland disproportionately represent themselves, proudly, across the United Kingdom armed forces. Nearly 20% of deployments come from Northern Ireland, and on Sunday I will be at the medals parade for 204 Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Army, when they return from Northern Ireland.
I have done my bit in the past couple of weeks by becoming honorary colonel of 2nd Battalion the Royal Irish Cadets—something I was very proud to take on.
8. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Northern Ireland. (157242)
While the threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe, progress has been made. Excellent co-operation between the PSNI and other agencies has resulted in a number of arrests and charges over recent months.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. She has spoken about the security issues in her interview in The Independent this morning, and she knows that when the G8 comes to County Fermanagh later this month, there will be significant security implications. In response to the question from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), she said that the vast majority of those costs would be picked up by the UK Government. Will she reassure and confirm to the House that if there are any unforeseen additional costs at the end of the process, those will be picked up by the UK Government and not left for the PSNI? [Interruption.]
Order. There are far too many noisy conversations. Ministers on the Treasury Bench can scarcely hear the questions. I remind the House that we are discussing the security situation in Northern Ireland. Some basic manners and displays of respect would, I think, be appreciated, not least in Northern Ireland.
I can confirm and reiterate that we will ensure that the PSNI is not disadvantaged in resource terms as a result of the G8 summit. We are committed to ensuring that it has the resources it needs, and that we minimise any potential burden on the Northern Ireland Executive.
The preparation for the G8 summit is going well. Around 3,600 police officers from England, Scotland and Wales are now in the course of arriving to assist with venue security and public order. G8 events inevitably come with certain security risks. We will be vigilant on the terrorist threat and we will, of course, make appropriate preparations to handle public order issues as they arise.
As well as the G8 summit, Northern Ireland will be hosting the world police and fire games in August. Can my right hon. Friend say something about the extra policing for that event and the extra training that will have to take place? Will her office be involving the Garda Siochana in the policing of those two events?
The relationship between the PSNI and An Garda Siochana is an important part of keeping both those events safe. Planning is at an advanced stage on the world police and fire games. It will not require a similar effort to the G8 in terms of mutual aid officers, but I can assure my hon. Friend that all mutual aid officers operating in Northern Ireland will have appropriate training in the special procedures and approaches used by the PSNI.
The Secretary of State recently forecast that the dissident republican threat
“is severe and…likely to continue”
“years to come.”
Such a bleak assessment is totally unacceptable to my constituents. Therefore, what urgent additional security measures can be taken to defeat this republican conspiracy and rid our Province of the curse of terrorism?
9. What assessment she has made of the co-operation between the UK and Irish Governments on tackling organised crime. (157243)
Organised crime in Northern Ireland is naturally devolved, but we work very closely with the Irish Government, and so do the devolved Assembly and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Organised criminals account for 10% of the cigarettes imported into the UK from the island of Ireland. What discussions has the Minister had with Departments here in the UK and with his counterparts in the island of Ireland, and what impact, if any, would plain packaging have on the illicit trade?
Like fuel smuggling, cigarette smuggling is a serious problem, not least because of where the profits go—we know that some go into terrorist activities. I work closely and meet regularly with HMRC and we will meet again soon, but at the end of the day we must make sure that when we get the smugglers, they are prosecuted correctly and get the right sort of sentence.
Is the Secretary of State telling the House today that she is content with the delay in the implementation of the invitations to make submissions procedure between Customs and Excise in the Republic and HMRC in Northern Ireland? The delay is frustrating the security services, putting billions of pounds into the hands of criminals and, importantly, assisting organised crime. What is she going to do about it?
Speaking on behalf of the Secretary of State in answering this question, let me say that we are doing everything we possibly can. Are we frustrated? Yes, we are. Are the police frustrated? Yes, they are. But we have to make sure that the system is robust and legal, and we will get there.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Three years ago, we said that we would cut the deficit and we have cut the deficit by a third—that is what has happened. On the subject of what people said a few years ago, the very first time the Leader of the Opposition came to that Dispatch Box, he attacked me for taking child benefit away from higher earners, yet today we learn it is now Labour’s official policy to take child benefit away from higher earners—total and utter confusion. Perhaps he can explain himself when he gets to his feet.
I am thrilled and delighted that the Government have revived plans for a right of recall. Instead of a proposal that would mean politicians sitting in judgment on politicians, can my right hon. Friend make it clear that a recall mechanism will include a recall ballot—a yes/no chance for constituents to make the final decision before an MP is removed?
First, let me say that I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on issues of direct democracy and has considerable expertise in such matters. I think that the right approach, and the one we put forward before, is to say yes, of course there should be a constituency mechanism, but before that, there ought to be an act of censure by a Committee of this House for wrongdoing. I think that is the right approach. I know we will not necessarily agree on this, but we will make our proposals.
On the subject of recall, I hope the Leader of the Opposition will recall his attack on child benefit when he gets to his feet.
Two years ago, during the Prime Minister’s listening exercise on the health service, he said:
“I refuse to go back to the days when people had to wait for hours on end to be seen in A and E…so let me be absolutely clear—we won’t.”
What has gone wrong?
Not a word about what the right hon. Gentleman said two years ago, the very first time he stood at that Dispatch Box, totally condemning and attacking in the strongest possible terms what now turns out to be Labour policy. What complete confusion and weakness from the Leader of the Opposition.
The right hon. Gentleman asks about accident and emergency and I will deal with the question very directly. The fact that people need to know is that we are now meeting our targets for accident and emergency. There was a problem in the first quarter of this year, which is why Bruce Keogh, the medical director of the NHS, is to hold an investigation, but the crucial fact is this: 1 million more people are walking into our accident and emergency units every year than were doing so three years ago. We must work hard to get waiting times down and keep them down, but we will not do it by following Labour’s policy of cutting the NHS.
What a complacent answer from an out-of-touch Prime Minister. The independent King’s Fund says that the number of people waiting more than four hours in A and E is higher than at any time for nine years. Can he explain to the country why A and E waiting times fell under Labour and have gone up on his watch?
The fact is we are now meeting our targets on A and E, but the right hon. Gentleman has to answer this question. In England, where this Government are responsible, we are meeting our waiting times; in Wales, where Labour is responsible, it is not meeting its waiting times. Perhaps he can tell us, when he gets to his feet, the last year in which the Welsh met their waiting times under a Labour Government.
The Prime Minister may have had six weeks away, but he has got no better at answering the question. He has got to do better than this on the A and E crisis. The College of Emergency Medicine says there is “gridlock” in emergency departments, the Patients Association says that we are “reaching crisis point”, and we have a Prime Minister who says, “Crisis? What crisis?” It is not good enough. As well as the nine-year high, the number of people held in the back of ambulances has doubled since he took office. The number of people waiting on trolleys for more than four hours has doubled, and there are now more cancelled operations than for a decade. Does not the scale of those problems show that, on his watch, there is a crisis in A and E?
The answer to the question is that the last time Labour met its targets in Wales on accident and emergency was 2009. It has not met a target for four years, under Labour. Under this Government, we are meeting targets. The right hon. Gentleman asks what is happening in our national health service; let me tell him what is happening in our national health service. Under this Government, in-patient waiting times are lower than at the election, out-patient waiting times are lower than at the election, and the rate of hospital-acquired infections is at a record low. On the number of mixed-sex wards, they have almost been abolished under this Government. There are 400,000 more operations being carried out every year and, crucially, there are 5,700 more doctors. Let me tell him what would happen if we followed Labour’s spending plans on the NHS—there are new figures out today. There would be 43,000 fewer nurses and 11,000 fewer doctors. We decided, because we value the NHS, to spend more. That man there, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), said it was “irresponsible”; he is wrong.
There are people all round this country waiting for hours and hours in A and E, and all they see is a complacent, out-of-touch Prime Minister reading out a list of statistics not about A and E. People want to know about the crisis in A and E happening on his watch. Now let us talk about the causes of this. In the Government’s first two years in office, more than a quarter of NHS walk-in centres were closed. If you close NHS walk-in centres, you pile pressure on A and E departments. That is obvious to everyone else; why is it not obvious to him?
The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the causes of the problems in A and E; I accept that in the first quarter of the year, there were problems, and we need to get to grips with them. One of the problems is the GPs’ contract that was signed by the last Labour Government. They signed a contract that basically let GPs get out of out-of-hours. If he wants evidence of that, perhaps he will listen to the Labour Minister for the NHS at the time. Fortunately, he lost his seat in North Warwickshire to a Conservative, but this is what he says:
“In many ways, GPs got the best deal they ever had from that 2004 contract and since then we have, in a sense, been recovering.”
That is what happened. There are a million more people coming through our doors. There has been an excellent performance by doctors and nurses, but they were let down by the last Labour Government.
The Prime Minister has been peddling this line about the GP contract for some months now, but let us just understand this. What happened to A and E waits between 2004 and 2010? They fell dramatically. That was after the GP contract. Clare Gerada, the president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, is absolutely clear. She said:
“I think it’s lazy to blame the 2004 GP contract. They’re blaming a contract that’s nearly 10 years old for an issue that’s become a problem recently.”
That is the reality about the GP contract.
Now let us turn to a problem that even the Prime Minister cannot deny. The chief executive of the NHS Confederation recently said that these A and E
“pressures have been compounded by three years of…structural reforms”.
In other words, the top-down reorganisation that nobody wanted and nobody voted for. Why does the Prime Minister not admit what everyone in the health service knows—that that top-down reorganisation diverted resources away from patient care and betrayed the NHS?
What the right hon. Gentleman has to realise is that I am not peddling a line about the GP contract—I am quoting the Labour Minister responsible for this, who pointed out that this was part of the problem. If people want to know what went wrong with the NHS under Labour they have only to look at the Mid Staffordshire hospital. If they want to know what is going wrong with the NHS under Labour now they need only look at Wales, where they have not met any of their targets, and where they cut the NHS by 8%. That is the effect of Labour in Wales.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about reorganisation. The fact is, we have been scrapping bureaucracy and putting that money into the front line. That is why there are 18,000 fewer administrative staff, but there are almost 6,000 more doctors. That is what the Government have a record on—he would cut the NHS.
It is under this Government that the number of doctors has gone up; the number of operations is up; waiting times are down; waiting lists are down—that is what is happening under this Government. Is it not interesting that in the week that was meant to be all about Labour’s economic relaunch they cannot talk about their economic policy? They told us that they wanted to keep winter fuel payments; now they want to scrap winter fuel payments. They told us that they wanted to keep child benefit; now they want to scrap child benefit. They told us that they were going to be men of iron discipline, yet they said:
“Do I think the last Labour government was profligate, spent too much, had too much national debt? No, I don’t think there’s any evidence for that.”
On the economy, they are weak and divided, and they are the same old Labour.
Q15. The people of Epping Forest want to have a referendum on our relationship with the European Union. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the private Member’s Bill introduced by our hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), which would require a referendum by 2017? Will he enthusiastically encourage members on both sides of the House to vote for it when it is debated on 5 July? (157115)
I certainly welcome the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton). I think that it is absolutely right to hold that in/out referendum before the end of 2017. The interesting thing about today’s newspapers is that we read that half the members of the shadow Cabinet now want a referendum too. Hands up, who wants a referendum? Come on, don’t be shy—why do you not want to let the people choose? Ah, the people’s party does not trust the people.
Q2. Thatcher said that her greatest achievement was new Labour. Given the treacherous decision to commit to Tory spending plans, is the Prime Minister’s greatest achievement one-nation Labour? (157102)
I have never been someone who wants to stand against the House having a say on any of these issues, and I have always been early on making sure that Parliament is recalled to discuss important issues. Let me stress, as I did on Monday, that no decision has been taken to arm the rebels, so I do not think that this issue arises. However, as I said, I supported holding the vote on Iraq. In my premiership, on the issue of Libya, I recalled the House as soon as I possibly could and allowed the House to have a vote. As I said, this issue does not arise at present because we have made no decision to arm the rebels.
Q3. Yet again we have no answers from the Prime Minister, who blames everyone but himself and denies that there is a crisis in A and E. Let me give him one more chance to try to give an answer. Why does he not admit what everyone in the health service knows—his £3 billion reorganisation has diverted attention and resources from patient care and he has betrayed his promises? May we now have an answer? (157103)
The abolition of the bureaucracy that this Government have brought about will put billions of pounds extra into the NHS, but the point that the hon. Gentleman has to take on is that this Government made a decision, which was not to cut the NHS. We are putting £12.7 billion extra into the NHS. That decision was described as irresponsible by his own shadow Secretary of State. If Labour were in power, it would be cutting the NHS. How do we know that? Because that is exactly what it is doing in Wales, where it cut the NHS by 8%. The hon. Gentleman may not like his own policy, but that is what it is.
I know that I have been the one on holiday in Ibiza, but the Opposition have been the ones taking—how can I put it?—policy-altering substances. Last week they were in favour of child benefit; now they are against child benefit. They were in favour of winter fuel allowance; now they want to abolish winter fuel allowance. Only this morning we find out that they may not go ahead with this policy of scrapping child benefit. I think the truth is that the Leader of the Opposition is allowed to make coffee for the shadow Chancellor, but he cannot tell him what the policy is.
Q5. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the prospective Bill on lobbying will include a ban on people paying £50,000 to dine in Downing street? (157105)
What the Bill on lobbying will do is introduce a register for lobbyists, which has been promised and should be delivered. What the Bill on lobbying will also do is make sure that we look at the impact of all third parties, including the trade unions, on our politics.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the actions of the European Court of Human Rights in seeking to frustrate the will of the British people to rid ourselves of terrorists illustrate the extent to which that Court has betrayed its original principles? Will he update the House on what actions he proposes the Government will take? Has he read the comments of the president of that Court, who said that if we were to secede, it would put our credibility in doubt? In fact, it is the credibility of the Court that is in doubt because of the way it is treating the British people and this Parliament.
I completely understand and share much of my hon. Friend’s frustration. We should remember that Britain helped to found the European Court of Human Rights and it has played an important role in making sure that Europe never again suffered the abuses that we saw in the first half of the 20th century, but 50 years on it is clear that that Court needs reform. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the former Justice Secretary and now Minister without Portfolio, led that process of reform and we have achieved some changes, but it is quite clear to me that we need further changes and we need the Court to focus on real human rights abuses, not on overruling Parliaments.
Q6. The north-east has renewable energy industries ready to invest, but they need certainty. Yesterday MPs from all parts of the House voted for a decarbonisation target. Given that the Prime Minister’s majority was slashed to just 23, will he show some leadership, think again and back British industry and green jobs? (157106)
I understand completely the point that the hon. Lady makes and I agree that businesses need certainty. That is why we have given them the certainty of a levy control framework of over £7 billion. That is why we have given them the certainty that if they sign contracts now, they get the renewables obligation for 20 years. We have given them the certainty of a green investment bank, but does it make sense to fix a decarbonisation target now, before we have agreed the carbon budget and before we even know whether carbon capture and storage works properly? It does not work and the businesses that I talk to say that it is not their priority.
There is obviously in our country a very important separation of powers, and politicians are not allowed to comment on individual judges, although sometimes we might like to. We should not—it would be a very dangerous road down which to go—but we have clear laws in this country about how serious Parliament thinks offences are, and judges should pay heed to those laws.
That is not the thinking. Of course we want a process whereby constituents, through a petition, can call for the recall of their MP. But because the main way that we throw MPs out of Parliament is at an election, there should be a cause for the recall to take place. That is why we have a Standards and Privileges Committee. That is why it now has outside members and why it has the power to suspend Members of Parliament and to expel them. I believe, but we can debate and discuss this across the House, that before we trigger a recall there should be some sort of censure by the House of Commons to avoid vexatious attempts to get rid of Members of Parliament who are doing a perfectly reasonable job.
Q8. Some of us on the Government Benches believe that Government plans to replace 20,000 regulars, including the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, with 30,000 reservists will prove a false economy. The present Territorial Army mobilisation rate of 40% suggests instead that we need 50,000 reservists, and financial incentives will mean that an ex-regular reservist will be on a better scale of pay than a serving brigadier. Given that we have already raised this matter with the Secretary of State, and further to our letter to the Prime Minister on 9 April, will my right hon. Friend meet us to discuss this and other concerns, including the wisdom of this policy in this increasingly uncertain world? (157108)
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss these and other issues. In the spending review, we produced £1.5 billion to provide the uplift for the Territorial Army that it requires. I am absolutely convinced that it is right to have a different balance between regulars and reserves, as other countries have done, but obviously it is absolutely vital that we get that new recruitment of our reserve forces. That is why the money is there.
On the wider issues of defence that I know my hon. Friend cares about, we will have some of the best equipped forces anywhere in the world. We will have the new aircraft carriers for our Navy, the hunter killer submarines, the joint strike fighter and the excellent Typhoon aircraft, and the A400M will soon be coming into service. Our troops in Afghanistan now say that they are better equipped, better protected and better provided for than they have ever been in our history.
Q9. The Prime Minister’s pledge to lead against hunger at the G8 and in the UN is welcome. Will it also extend to EU negotiations on the future of the misdirected 10% directive on biofuels, which basically burns as fuel for Europe what should be food for the poor? Does the Prime Minister recognise that that mandate is driving land grabs and rising food prices, compounding hunger and adding to carbon emissions? (157109)
I am delighted that we are bringing the G8 to Northern Ireland. I hope that it will provide a boost for the Northern Irish economy, and we can discuss some of these issues at that meeting. I agree that we should not allow the production of biofuels to undermine food security. We want to go further than the European Commission’s proposed cap of 5% on crop-based biofuels, so there is considerable merit in what the hon. Gentleman says.
The weekend before last, there was a community swim off the coast of Southwold, which could have become a tragedy were it not for the brave efforts of our emergency services, and in particular the volunteer coastguards and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking our volunteer coastguards, in particular helmsman Paul Callaghan and crewmen Paul Barker and Rob Kelvey, for pulling 56 people from the water and averting a tragedy?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in that. The Royal National Lifeboat Association does an extraordinary job for our country. It is really one of our emergency services and should be treated as such. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this case, and I join her in paying tribute to those brave people.
Q10. I wonder whether the Prime Minister can assist me with a question that the Treasury has been unable to answer for the past two months. Will British taxpayers’ money be used to guarantee the mortgages of foreign citizens who buy property here? (157110)
Q11. I recently visited my brother in hospital in Doncaster only to find that using the television stationed above his bed would cost him £6 a day. Can the Prime Minister justify why it costs hospital patients £42 a week to watch the television when it costs prisoners only £1 a week to do so? If he cannot justify it, can he tell us what he is going to do about it? (157111)
As someone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals, I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s frustrations. It was the last Government who introduced these charges on televisions in hospital in the year 2000. I have spent many an hour battling with that very complicated telephone and credit card system that people have to try and make work. I am afraid, though, that these are devolved decisions that local hospitals can now make for themselves.
In terms of prisons, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is doing something. He is taking the unacceptable situation that he inherited from the Labour party, whereby people could take out a Sky subscription when they were in prison, and saying that they cannot do that any more. He is also making sure that prisoners pay if they use the television.
First, everyone in the House has to recognise that we need to grapple with the legal aid bill. Even the Labour party, in its manifesto at the last election, said that it was going to look at the cost of legal aid. The fact is that we spend £39 per head of the population, whereas New Zealand, for instance, with its common law system, spends £8 per head.
The total cost to the taxpayer of the top three criminal cases in 2011-12 was £21 million. At a time when we are having to make difficult spending decisions, it is absolutely right to look at legal aid. We put out a consultation and the responses have now been received. We can consider those responses carefully, but we need to make reductions in legal aid.
Q12. A loan of £50,000 from the regional growth fund through the mutual Black Country Reinvestment Society, of which I am a member, has helped create 12 jobs in just six months in manufacturing start-up Lordswood Architectural in Stafford. With the manufacturing purchasing managers index at a 14-month high, can I encourage my right hon. Friend in his determination to restore the UK as a manufacturing powerhouse? (157112)
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. There has been some more welcome news about the economy continuing to heal. We saw the services figures out today, the construction figures out yesterday and the growth figures in the economy. We are making progress, but we have to stick to the plan and the difficult decisions that we are taking and avoid the complete chaos and confusion being offered by the Labour party.
Q13. We know that before the election, the Prime Minister said that there would be no more top-down reorganisations in the NHS and that he later went on to say that he would not lose control of waiting times in A and E departments. Why does he keep making promises that he just cannot keep? (157113)
A and E staff shortages do not develop in just three years. Will the Prime Minister look into why the downgrade of Cheltenham A and E is going ahead without the outcome of the public consultation being considered in public by either the clinical commissioning group or the health and wellbeing board?
Of course, any reorganisation or reconfiguration of a hospital has to meet the tests that the Health Secretary very carefully set out, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is no one, single cause of the difficulties that we faced in A and E. Clearly, 1 million extra patients is a huge amount over the past three years. We have increased the funds going into our NHS, but there are big challenges to meet. The questions are: will we meet them by cutting the NHS, which was Labour’s policy? Will we meet them by another reorganisation, which is Labour’s policy? No, we will not. We will deal with this problem by making sure that we manage the NHS effectively, and continuing to put the money in.
The hon. Gentleman conveniently forgets to mention the Labour peers. We do have a problem in Parliament with the influence of third parties, and we need to deal with that. Clearly, all-party parliamentary groups, which are a matter for the House and for Mr Speaker, need to be looked at. As we promised in the coalition agreement, we will be bringing forward a lobbying register, and also some measures to make sure that the trade unions behave properly too.
May I commend my right hon. Friend’s strong, unambiguous support for the continuation of the British nuclear deterrent? Now that the alternatives to Trident study has concluded that there are no alternatives cheaper or more effective than Trident, what are the reasons for delaying a maingate decision so that the matter can be settled in this Parliament?
We have set out clearly the steps that need to be taken before the maingate decision is made, but my hon. Friend knows that I am strongly committed to the renewal of our deterrent on a like-for-like basis. I think that that is right for Britain. Obviously, in the coalition a study has been carried out. My view is very clear, and I looked at the evidence again on becoming Prime Minister. I believe that if we want to have a credible deterrent, we need that continuous at-sea posture, and a submarine-based deterrent that is based not on cruise missiles but on intercontinental ballistic missiles. I believe that is the right answer, and I think all the evidence points in that direction.
The family of Drummer Lee Rigby live on the Langley estate in my constituency. I visited the parents last week, and they were very appreciative of everything that has been said in support of the family, particularly by the local estate residents. A memorial service was held in the town centre. It was greatly attended, and local Middleton people were able to pay their respects. Will the Prime Minister join me in commending the people of Middleton for their very strong but sensitive support for the family during this very sad time?
I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in what he says about the people of Middleton and the great respect, support and solidarity they have shown for the family of Lee Rigby. His death was an absolute tragedy and there are many lessons we must learn from it, as we discussed in the House on Monday. I think it is another moment for everyone in this House, and this country, to reflect again on the magnificent services that the men and women of our armed forces give to our country.
Today my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) was awarded a World Health Organisation medal to mark World No Tobacco Day. Will the Prime Minister congratulate him on that great achievement and his work on that issue, and support his campaign for the plain packaging of cigarettes?
I am afraid I missed the beginning of the question, so I did not quite hear who got the medal—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Gentleman who gave a magnificent introduction to the Queen’s Speech, and I commend him for his medal. On the policy, we know that issue.
[1st Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House believes the badger cull should not go ahead.
We begin with a question: is culling badgers the most effective way to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis? Labour Members believe that it is not. The consensus among scientists who are not on the Government payroll is also that it is not. They call it a “costly distraction” and a “crazy scheme”, and they urge the Government to change course. Labour Members will be led by those scientists; we were in government and are now in opposition. This is a cull based on hope, not on science. We have warned the Government for two years that the cull will be bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife. In government, we were open to the idea. Having asked the question, “Will culling work?” we conducted a 10-year-long, £50 million randomised badger culling trial, which concluded that it will not work. If it will not work, the alternatives, however difficult, must be explored.
I want to begin by explaining why this cull is bad for farmers affected by bovine TB—the biggest animal disease challenge that this country faces. It is bad for farmers because the cull would cost them more than it saves them; bad for farmers because the science does not stack up; and bad for farmers as tourists holiday somewhere else having decided that the sound of gunfire and protest is not conducive to vacation relaxation. I know the toll that this terrible disease takes on farmers and their families personally, emotionally and financially. Controlling it is imperative to protecting farmers’ livelihoods. The European Union requires us to have a national strategy for eradication.
Badgers carry TB. They transmit it to cattle, but the infection also passes among cattle, from cattle to badgers, and among badgers. We know this because during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, when no testing was carried out on cattle, TB in badgers increased by 70%. The Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB and four scientists from the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency say that that was due to a substantial transmission of TB from cattle to badgers. The roots of infection and transmission of the disease are still poorly understood.
This cull is bad for farmers because of the large costs and the small benefits.
I understand the desperation that farmers are in. However, the Government have presented culling as the silver bullet—the thing that will stop this disease—and it is not. I will explain why it presents further risks later in my speech. This is not just about the cull; it is about what happens when the cull stops.
I hope the whole House would agree that in an ideal world we would want healthy badgers, a healthy countryside and healthy cattle. The hon. Lady and I have got on very well over many years on animal welfare issues, but I have to say that there is a sense of political opportunism in the Labour party’s position. If the previous Government had invested more in trying to find a vaccine, the difficult decision that is having to be taken in the House, and, more importantly, by those outside the House, would not need to be taken. Vaccination should have been the route, but it should have been undertaken years ago.
In government we spent £20 million on delivering a vaccine. That contrasts rather unhappily with this Government’s investment. In 2009-10, under Labour, investment in a cattle vaccine was £3.7 million and investment in a badger vaccine was £3.2 million. By 2014-15, that will fall to £2 million for a cattle vaccine and £1.6 million for a badger vaccine. I am not going to take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman about the investment needed in vaccines given that we spent that money. We have delivered the badger vaccine; his Government have cancelled five of our six badger vaccine trials. If they had not been cancelled, we would now be a lot further down the road of understanding how that badger vaccine works in the field.
I want to make some progress.
The cull method—free shooting—is untested. The number of badgers removed may be lower than that in Labour’s RBCT. Nobody has shot a badger legally in the UK since 1973, so it is an untested method. If it happens, it risks making TB worse.
We do not know how much this cull is actually costing the farmers involved, so we rely on the Government’s cost-benefit analysis. Culling makes TB worse by spreading the disease in the first two years. The benefits across the whole culling area appear only after year 3, but in the ring area—the edge of where the cull is carried out—there are never any benefits. Do the farmers whose land lies alongside the cull zones realise that? I think not.
Labour’s culls showed that culling badgers is estimated to reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by 16% after nine years—84% of the problem is still there. Sixteen per cent. is the best-case scenario based on the TB rate being twice as high in the cull area as it is in the land outside. However, if background TB rates are constant across the whole area, that benefit reduces to just 12%. Moreover, this is not an absolute reduction; it is a 16% reduction from the trend increase. Therefore, after nine years there will still be more TB around than at the beginning. There is 16% less than there would have been without a cull.
I want to look at how that 16% reduction is achieved. The cull depends on killing at least 70% of badgers in the cull area, yet last year the Secretary of State was about to start the culls without knowing how many badgers needed to be shot. His officials started counting the badgers only in September, just weeks before the cull was due to start. They relied on farmers to count the setts, and that did not work.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I remind her that, as a result of the destruction that the disease is causing in Shropshire, I set up the all-party group on dairy farmers during the previous Parliament. It became one of the largest all-party groups, with a membership of more than 250 MPs, 70 of whom were Labour Members. We all worked constructively on a report that stated the need for a cull. It will be very interesting to see how many of those Labour MPs change their minds this afternoon, but there was a consensus among them at that time that a cull was the only viable option.
I know it is about vaccines, but it is extraordinary that it does not mention the Government’s main control strategy.
I want to return to the badger numbers. Last year, the farm industry estimated that there were 1,800 badgers in west Gloucestershire and 2,700 in west Somerset. The Government’s figures then rose: they estimated that there were between 3,000 and 4,000 badgers in west Gloucestershire and between 3,000 and 5,000 in west Somerset, and that is why the culls stopped.
This year we have a different set of figures: it is estimated that there are between 2,500 and 4,000 badgers in west Gloucestershire and roughly between 2,000 and 3,000 in west Somerset. If we are dealing with ranges of figures, that causes a problem. We are licensing people to kill 70% of the badgers, but if the numbers are at the lower end of the range, the licensed marksmen could kill 100% of the badger population and still not meet their licensing criteria. That is a really difficult position to put farmers in.
Is it not the case that free shooting is being adopted because it is simply the cheapest way to kill? If the Government are committed to a culling strategy, there are more effective alternatives. Free shooting is cheap—we are getting killing on the cheap.
That is right. The free shooting method is being adopted because cage trapping and shooting is much more expensive—it is 10 times more expensive. Of course, there is a risk to the taxpayer if anything goes wrong in the cull areas. A bond has been laid, but we do not know how much it is. We are completely in the dark about the risk to the taxpayer should the Government have to step in to conclude the culls.
I commend the approach of the Welsh Assembly Government and I am glad that the preliminary results look very positive.
I want to return to the 16% or 12% reduction. The cull depends on killing 70% of badgers in the cull area. When I asked about badger numbers in July 2011, I received the answer that
“there is no precise knowledge of the size of the badger population”.—[Official Report, 17 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 815.]
That was a year before the culls were stopped last year. Why did Ministers not ask that question? Will they say in their speeches how confident they are of the current numbers, given the risks of localised extinction in the cull areas?
Ministers state that reductions in TB will result from following the RBCT method, yet that method was totally different because it used caged trapping and shooting, not free shooting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) mentioned. The Secretary of State used the 28% reduction figure in October last year when he announced that the culls would be delayed. That is another example of him cherry-picking the data and it ignores the perturbation effect.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am going to explain perturbation, so I will get that over with if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
Perturbation is where badgers are displaced by the shooting and leave their setts, spreading TB to neighbouring areas. Labour’s trial culls revealed that culling increases TB in badgers by a factor of 1.9 because of perturbation—that is 90%. Ministers affirm that the cull will have hard boundaries to avoid perturbation, but they ignore the fact that the RBCT also had hard boundaries where possible.
The hon. Lady has skated over the reason why farmers, contrary to her assertion, are strongly in support of the policy: the number of reactors has increased by a factor of eight in 10 years. That is driving some farmers in my constituency close to suicide. Does she not understand those central, crucial human issues?
I do not know whether there is just one. I am assuming that there are more than one.
The farmers have given me permission to read out the letter. It states that the consultation by DEFRA’s Animal Health and Welfare Board and
“the published reports from these events show no consensus for a badger cull. They also show that farmers are concerned about the indiscriminate shooting of large numbers of badgers”.
There is also a letter from the British Veterinary Association in The Independent today that criticises the support for the cull. I think that it is fair to say that the veterinary community is also divided on the issue. That is problematic, because it is never good to have a policy that divides the country so bitterly.
I will make progress, then I will take some interventions.
There is huge concern among scientists over the lack of rigour in the design, implementation, monitoring and efficacy of the culls. The proportion of badgers that are infected with bovine TB is not, as the Secretary of State claims, significant. In the RBCT, it was one in nine or about 12%.
I come now to another significant difference between the pilot culls and Labour’s RBCT.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and apologise for missing her opening remarks. She is right that perturbation is a key issue, but she is not right to say that the Independent Scientific Group trials were based on hard boundaries. The fact is that the areas had to be exactly 100 sq km, otherwise they would not have been comparable. The boundaries therefore had to be accepted largely as they were. The difference with the current culls is that they do not have a maximum size, so the zone can be chosen to meet whatever good hard boundaries can be found and steps can be taken to minimise perturbation. The net benefit should therefore be much higher than was achieved in the ISG trials.
My hon. Friend knows that I am a great campaigner for the countryside, but following the points made by Conservative Members, let me say that there are many people in this country, as well as farmers, who love our countryside and care about our farm stock, but who care about the animals that have lived in the countryside for thousands of years. We do not have the evidence for this cull, and that is what those people resent. As Chair of a Select Committee, one’s watchword is, “If possible, build policies on the evidence.” This policy is not based on any evidence.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
Let me come back to the perturbation side of things. My understanding from the scientists who conducted the cull is that hard boundaries were used where it was possible. We all know that badgers can swim through rivers and cross roads, and we know that the biggest impact on the badger population is being run over on roads. Again, the efficacy of the hard boundaries has yet to be proven.
Labour’s culls took place over eight to 12 days; the proposed culls will take place over six weeks. That matters, because when Labour’s culls took place over more than 12 days, the level of TB in badgers increased by a factor of 1.7, showing that slow culls, which this Government are licensing, increase TB in badgers. If the methodology changes, so too do the predicted results. These culls risk making TB worse. Slow culling makes TB worse in badgers, and perturbation makes TB worse in cattle on neighbouring farms.
The Government say that the cull will work, but they have downplayed the risks of making things worse, and I think they have downplayed the risks to neighbouring farmers, too. If the culls are marred by protests, culling is likely to be driven under ground and become more localised, which will make bovine TB in cattle worse, as the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) mentioned. If it is driven underground and happens on a localised basis, the one thing we know is that it will drive the badgers away and increase the problem for the neighbouring farm. That is why illegal killing of badgers is so incredibly selfish of farmers, because it is effectively spreading the infection around the neighbourhood. Farmers are frustrated; I understand that. They believe that this cull is the solution, but they also want a science-led solution. This is not that solution. That is why the badger cull will be bad for farmers.
Let me deal now with why the badger cull will be bad for the taxpayer. What has been the cost to the taxpayer so far? It has been over £300,000 for licensing activities carried out by Natural England, while sett monitoring has cost £750,000. An independent expert panel to monitor the cull has cost £17,000, and surveying the reserve site in Dorset will add to the total. Since April 2012, six DEFRA staff have been working on the cull. This cull has already cost the taxpayer well over £1 million—before it has even started.
What will be the costs to the taxpayer if the cull proceeds? The estimated cost of humaneness monitoring is £700,000, and badger post-mortems another £250,000. The policing costs for each cull area are put at £500,000 a year. There is a strong steer from the police that they will need to send armed officers to police any night-time demonstrations, taking up scarce police resources.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me that the true cost to the taxpayer has nothing to do with these small costs that she mentions, but relates to the fact that 189,500 cows have been killed unnecessarily which costs the taxpayer up to £1 billion a year in compensation to farmers?
The Secretary of State said at the weekend that he wants to roll out a further 10 areas a year for the next two years. He, for one, has already made up his mind on the efficacy and humaneness of these so-called pilots. Assuming he gets his way, that is £5 million a year for the police alone. I think that the police costs are material—
No. Police costs are material, because at a time when the police face 20% cuts, asking armed response vehicles to go out into the countryside will take further resources away from the cities, where there tends to be more gun crime, for example, than there is in the countryside. Monitoring all this is very problematic for police forces. When I spoke to someone from the Devon and Cornwall police, I was told that they had only a tiny number of response vehicles to monitor the area from the end of Cornwall all the way up to Exeter, yet they are already facing a huge challenge.
I am going to make some progress.
If farmers pull out of the cull and the bond does not cover the cost of completing it for four years, the taxpayer will pay once more. The Government talk about the costs of TB, as did the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), but in a parliamentary answer to me in September 2011 the then farming Minister, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), who is in his place, said that the cull would lead to five fewer herd breakdowns a year in each cull area. In 2010, there were more than 2,000 confirmed herd breakdowns in England. If the cull were rolled out with 10 cull areas a year, it would prevent just 50 herd breakdowns a year. The taxpayer costs of culling will not be recouped by a reduction in the costs of bovine TB, so this cull will go on being bad for taxpayers until Ministers cancel it.
Absolutely; there is no place for illegal activity. It is interesting that the Government are ignoring the advice of the scientists—not animal rights extremists—who went out, faced down those animal rights extremists and stood in isolated fields across the country to deliver this cull. The scientists did that in the name and the cause of science—and they have said that this cull will not work. They are not in any way soft about this issue, and it is worth re-emphasising that point.
I understand that the Government are rightly insisting on vaccination on land adjoining the culling areas, but the hon. Lady has not mentioned the costs of that. To do that job properly, this will have to be rolled out over at least four years.
That is right. Vaccination has to take place every year because of the life cycle of the badger. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. I know that a fund was made available for vaccination, but it is not clear how much of it has been spent. I think it was supposed to be match funded by farmers. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on that.
I want to make some more progress before giving way again.
Let me move on to deal with the effect on badgers. The so-called pilots were supposed simply to test the humaneness, safety and effectiveness of the free shooting of badgers. No information has been made public about how wounded animals that retreat underground to die can be included in the humaneness assessment. We do not know what proportion of badger carcases will be collected for post-mortems to see whether they were killed quickly. Observers will measure the animals’ vocalisations and the time between shooting and death to measure that humaneness. As we know, however, the Secretary of State has already made up his mind that culling is the way forward, so that is a purely academic exercise.
I have mentioned the letter in today’s edition of The Independent, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has seen it. I am not sure that those bodies are four-square behind the policy. The Government themselves do not know whether culling is humane. That is why the pilots are allegedly about humaneness. The hon. Gentleman’s Government do not know whether culling is humane.
If the Government’s numbers are wrong or marksmen kill more badgers than they are licensed for, badgers could be wiped out locally. If too few are killed—under 70%—TB will increase. I have talked about the range of badger population numbers; localised extinction could happen. The police’s national wildlife crime unit raised concerns back in 2010, as I know from freedom of information requests, that the publication of maps detailing badger setts could be used for “badger persecution”—their phrase, not mine—and that pesticides for poisoning badgers could be misused. There has already been one report of alleged pesticide misuse in Gloucestershire, which I understand the police are investigating. Will Ministers confirm whether the cull will proceed in Gloucestershire if wildlife crime is found to have been committed?
I have the highest regard for the hon. Lady and we have worked well together in Yorkshire on a number of issues, but I am concerned about the Opposition’s negative argument. If the badger cull does not go ahead, we would like to know the alternatives. Our Select Committee report, published today, speaks for itself.
My hon. Friend has correctly identified an issue about which hundreds of my constituents have written to me, namely animal cruelty. Given the lack of evidence and the absence of consensus on the matter, and in the light of the huge public concern, the cull surely cannot go ahead. It is extraordinary that Government Members have not reflected the concern felt by their own constituents.
I know that there is a great deal of public concern. Any policy must be socially, environmentally and politically deliverable, and the Minister’s decision to pursue the cull will test the limits of those requirements.
In Gloucestershire, the police and crime commissioner is against the cull and the county council has said that culling will not take place on its land. Serious practical difficulties are posed by free shooting near footpaths and camp sites with bullets that can travel up to two miles. If the cull goes ahead, it will not end well. It will be bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife.
Twenty Members wish to speak, so I want to make some progress.
If it is not the most effective way of stopping TB, why is the cull going ahead? There is a very simple answer: it is a simple solution to a complex problem. The alternatives—stricter controls on cattle, faster and more TB testing, and more restrictions on cattle movements—promise yet more hardship and expense for hard-pressed farmers, and for the Government. The Government believe that vaccinating badgers—the approach taken by my colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government—is too expensive, but owing to the high cost of policing the expected protests against the shoots, the expense of the cull now exceeds that of vaccination.
The UK’s top badger expert. Professor Rosie Woodroffe, has analysed the numbers. The Government estimate that badger vaccination would cost £2,250 and that the cull will cost £1,000 per square kilometre per year, so at first sight the cull is cheaper than vaccinating. However, when the Government’s estimate of the cost of policing the cull—£1,429 per square kilometre per year—is added, vaccination becomes the cheaper option. What a pity for farmers that DEFRA Ministers cancelled five of Labour’s six badger vaccination trials. Early results from the remaining site near Stroud show a 79% reduction in TB transmission to unvaccinated badger cubs, which means that they are almost certainly less infectious to cattle and to other badgers. Two or three years of vaccination would give badgers full immunity as the old badgers died off.
The hon. Lady has given us a tremendous number of statistics, for which I am grateful. Will she now tell us how many farmers she has consulted, and will she give us a few statistics relating to the number of cattle that have already been destroyed?
I am in touch with farmers all the time, and I have had a meeting with the National Farmers Union. I have met farmers in Derbyshire and, indeed, all over the country.
The wildlife trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust are all vaccinating badgers on their land. The Zoological Society of London and the wildlife trusts are pushing for volunteer involvement in badger vaccination, which would greatly reduce the costs. According to a report published today by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for which I pay tribute to the Committee and its Chair, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh):
“The vaccine has been available for 3 years but the government should now produce a clear strategy for using it.”
That is a pretty damning indictment of what the Government have been doing for the past three years. As a result of Labour’s investment, we now have a cattle TB vaccine and a DIVA test to differentiate infected and vaccinated cows.
The Select Committee report is critical of the Government’s approach to cattle vaccination. It says that the debate on cattle vaccination is unclear, and that
“the government must accept a great deal of the blame for this”.
“The quality and accuracy of the information that Defra has put into the public domain has been insufficient and inadequate.”
The Government have delayed field trials of the cattle vaccine after misinterpreting EU rules, and they must now undertake those trials as soon as possible.
I must make it clear, however, that neither a vaccine for badgers nor a vaccine for cattle will work on its own. We need a coherent policy framework to tackle all aspects of this complex disease. The Independent Scientific Group has suggested several key principles that could form the basis of such a framework. Page 175 of its report states that
“the movement of TB infected cattle...poses the greatest threat to the disease security of uninfected farms and particularly so in the case of farms in low disease risk areas”.
According to the report, cattle movements
“are also likely to make a significant contribution to the local spread of infection in high risk areas.”
Page after page of the report lists different control strategies for low-risk and high-risk areas, some of which were implemented by the last Government and some of which are now being adopted by the present Government.
We welcome, for instance, the risk-based trading strategy on which the Government have embarked. There must be transparency in the marketplace to prevent farmers from unknowingly importing infected cows into their herds. However, the Government have not investigated, for example, the 40% of farms in high-risk areas in the south-west that have consistently avoided bovine TB. What are those farmers doing to protect their farms? How are they trading, what is their biosecurity, and what are their husbandry practices? Can they be replicated? What can we learn? Until we get to the bottom of that, we will not find a solution.
As I think the hon. Lady is beginning to make clearer, it is not a case of either vaccinating or culling. The Government have introduced a package of measures, including security measures. At the heart of the vaccination question, however, is the challenge of how to persuade 26 other European Union member states to import the meat from vaccinated cattle when there are questions to be answered about the efficacy of the BCG vaccine and the efficacy of the skin test.
We now have the DIVA test, which enables us to differentiate vaccinated and infected cattle, and we know from the Select Committee’s report that its efficacy rate is 65%. Our priority must be to stop the spread of infected cattle into low-risk areas, and the spreading of the disease. The Government are about to embark on a risky and untested cull which, as I have said, will be bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife.
My hon. Friend has made the important point that even in infected areas there are farms that manage to remain disease-free. We need to learn lessons from that, but some Government Members have clearly made up their minds already. They are not interested in the facts; they just want a cull.
I agree with my hon. Friend. There is nothing more dangerous than an idea if it is the only idea you have.
This so-called science-led cull has been disowned by the scientists who faced down animal rights protesters to bring us the randomised badger culling trial and a world-class scientific result. The cull will cost more than doing nothing. If it works at all, its effect will be marginal. It carries a real risk of making TB worse in both cattle and badgers. The original Independent Scientific Group said:
“Concentrating solely on the badger dimension in what is clearly a multidimensional and dynamic system of disease spread would be to fail to learn the lessons of previous experience .”
No, I will not. I am about to end my speech.
Any solution will require us to work closely with farmers. It will need to be technically, environmentally, socially and economically acceptable, and it will require the consent of taxpayers. Complex problems require complex solutions, and this cull is not the solution.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes that bovine tuberculosis (TB) has, as a consequence of the lack of effective counter-measures, spread from a few isolated incidents to affect large parts of England and Wales, resulting in the slaughter of 28,000 cattle in England alone in 2012 at a cost of £100 million to the taxpayer; is concerned that 305,000 cattle have been slaughtered in Great Britain as a result of bovine TB in the last decade and that the cost is expected to rise to over £1 billion over the next 10 years; recognises that to deal effectively with the disease every available tool should be employed; accordingly welcomes the strengthening of bio-security measures and stringent controls on cattle movements; further welcomes the research and investment into both cattle and badger vaccines, and better diagnostic testing, but recognises that despite positive work with the European Commission the use of a viable and legal cattle vaccine has been confirmed to be still at least 10 years away; further notes that no country has successfully borne down on bovine TB without dealing with infection in the wildlife population, and that the Randomised Badger Control Trials demonstrated both the link between infection in badgers and in cattle and that culling significantly reduces incidence; looks forward to the successful conclusion of the current pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset; and welcomes the Government’s development of a comprehensive strategy to reverse the spread of bovine TB and officially eradicate this disease.”.
Today’s debate is about getting to grips with Mycobacterium bovis, a bacterium that can affect all mammals including humans and has proved to be extremely resistant to all manner of attempts at eradication. It is a subject on which, over many years, there has been a great deal of agreement between the political parties. That was certainly the case in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when a combination of political consensus and concerted action meant that we had the disease effectively beaten. In 1972, tests revealed only 0.1% of cattle in the country to be infected. I very much regret that as the issue has become politicised our grip on the disease has weakened, with the result that more than 60% of herds in high-risk areas such as Gloucestershire have been infected. The number of new cases is doubling every 10 years. I hope we can all agree that bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem facing this country. The significance of the epidemic for our cattle farmers, their families and their communities cannot be overstated.
The statistics show that the spread and increase in the United Kingdom is almost unique. Does my right hon. Friend attribute anything to the fact that we were, for very good reasons, the only country to have given the badger protected status in the 1970s—no other EU member state did so—so its natural predator has not been able to control the increase in numbers and the potential spread of disease through the badger population?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for her question, and I thank her for her report published this morning. We are the only country that I know of with a significant problem with TB in cattle and a significant problem of TB in wildlife that does not bear down on the disease in wildlife. Section 10(2)(a) of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 allows the removal of diseased badgers for protection and to prevent disease.
This disease was once isolated in small pockets of the country, but it has now spread extensively through the west of England and Wales. Last year TB led to the slaughter of more than 28,000 cattle in England, at a cost to the taxpayer of almost £100 million. In the last 10 years bovine TB has seen 305,000 cattle slaughtered across Great Britain, costing the taxpayer £500 million. It is estimated that that sum will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked. We cannot afford to let that happen.
If we do not take tough, and sometimes unpopular, decisions, we will put at risk the success story that is the UK cattle industry. The UK’s beef and dairy exporters have worked hard to develop markets, which were valued at £1.7 billion in 2011. Our dairy exports alone grew by almost 20% in 2011. We cannot afford to put such important and impressive industry performance at risk.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he is in close touch with the farming community, and we appreciate that it is under great pressure, which is why we are determined to introduce measures that will, we hope, reduce the disease in high-risk areas and, crucially, stop it going into low-risk areas.
The Secretary of State has highlighted the costs to the individual farmer and the taxpayer, but does he recognise that having disease-free cattle is important to the agri-food industry—a multi-billion pound industry in the United Kingdom that is especially important to economies such as Northern Ireland’s?
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the potentially very serious impact on the agri-food industry if we do not get a grip on this disease. We are determined to work on this policy, and to learn the lessons from the experience of the neighbouring state of the Republic of Ireland and other countries.
The task of managing bovine TB and bringing it under control is difficult and complex, but that is no excuse for further inaction. This Government are committed to using all the tools at our disposal and continuing to develop new ones, because we need a comprehensive package of measures to tackle the disease. International experience clearly shows that controlling wildlife species that harbour the disease and can pass it on to cattle must be part of that package.
I have written to the Secretary of State on this matter. I asked about the impact of a cull in the context of the whole package of measures. I received a reply from one of his ministerial colleagues, which referred to the fall in badger TB rates in New Zealand, saying that was
“a result of rigorous biosecurity, strict cattle movement controls and proactive wildlife management.”
I have asked for clarification, however. How much of that success was attributed to the cull? The other two steps taken may well have contributed significantly. I hope the Secretary of State will expand on such details for the benefit of those of us who are torn over this matter.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, in which she raises one of the most pertinent points: there is no single solution. Removing wildlife alone is not the solution. There has to be parallel, and equally rigorous, work on cattle. There must be a mixture of both measures. That is the lesson to be learned from the countries I have recently visited, as I was just about to go on to explain.
In recent months, I have been to Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, and when I was in Opposition I went to the United States of America. All those countries have made great progress in dealing with very similar problems to ours by dealing with the wildlife reservoir and bearing down on the disease in cattle.
In Australia, a national eradication programme spanning almost three decades enabled official freedom from bovine TB—an infection rate of less than 0.2% under OIE rules—be achieved in 1997. Its comprehensive package of measures to tackle the disease in domestic cattle and wildlife included rigorous culling of feral water buffalo. Australia’s achievement is even more impressive when one considers the difficulty of the terrain and the size of the area over which such an extensive programme of testing and culling took place.
After my visit to Australia, I went to New Zealand. Its comprehensive and successful package of measures to eradicate the disease has focused on the primary wildlife reservoir of brush-tailed possums. As a result of its efforts, New Zealand is on the verge of achieving BTB-free status. The number of infected cattle and deer herds has reduced from more than 1,700 in the mid-1990s to just 66 in 2012.
The Republic of Ireland, too, has a comprehensive eradication programme, which includes the targeted culling of badgers in areas where the disease is attributed to wildlife. From massive problems in the 1960s—160,000 cattle were slaughtered in 1962 alone—the Irish authorities have turned things around to the extent that the number of reactor cattle has reduced to just 18,000 in 2012, a fall of 10,000 in the last 10 years. On their own figures, herd incidence has fallen to just 4.26%—a statistic we would dearly love to have here.
My right hon. Friend is explaining the Government’s policy very well indeed. Does he have any idea what proportion of badgers culled in the Republic of Ireland were carriers of TB? No one wants to see badgers culled unless there is no alternative, but many of them are diseased and will in due course die and suffer great pain.
That is a very helpful question. On first analysis, the estimate was about 16%, but the Irish have done a huge amount of work on this, and I admire the scientific manner in which they have gone about it, and on detailed analysis and after careful autopsy the proportion can be seen to be three or four times higher than that. That shows why this disease is so difficult to deal with: it is difficult to identify in both wildlife and cattle.
Section 4.5 of the Krebs report had some important things to say about the Department—then called the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—and mathematical modelling, which is a hugely important tool that is not used as widely as it could be. What is the Secretary of State going to do to help drive forward that part of the work, which is clearly needed, so we get a better understanding of what is happening, with or without the cull?
That is an interesting question. We are following on from the Krebs trials—the RBCTs or randomised badger culling trials—and going to the next logical step, by learning the lessons from them and improving on them. One of the lessons was that 100 km is not a big enough area. We will extend it to nearly 300 km, so we have clear, definitive geographical boundaries. We will also be doing more analysis of the impact. These are two pilots, but the broad lesson to be learned from the countries I have mentioned is that we have to bear down both on disease in cattle in a very rigorous manner, as we are doing, and on disease in wildlife.
When I was in opposition, I went to Michigan and saw its stringent cattle and wildlife controls, which have enabled significant progress to be made, with a lowering of the prevalence of the disease in white-tailed deer in the endemic area by more than 60% and breakdowns in livestock averaging just three or four a year from 2005 to 2011. I could go on at great length, but I know we are short of time.
The Secretary of State is giving a lot of international examples, but I would like to know what lessons he is learning from the vaccination project in Wales, which shows that there clearly is an alternative. I have read the results of the project closely, and I would like to know what lessons he has learned.
The Secretary of State has talked about how he has been around the world to look at all these approaches, but the science we are looking at is the science in the UK. Clearly, as even those in favour of a cull would agree, the actual progress it will make is very small, even if progress is taken as a fact. We need a combination of measures. As some Government Members have said, culling will make only a small difference and it will not eradicate the disease.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman quite listened to what I said. If he makes comparisons with the countries I have mentioned, he will see that where there are strict cattle controls, movement controls and biosecurity, and countries bear down on the disease, the disease is reduced. The experience of the Republic of Ireland is spectacular and we should be humble enough to learn from it.
Let us consider other European countries. Badger culling is undertaken in France; there have been reports in just the past week or so of problems in the Ardennes, with infected badgers being culled. Deer and wild boar are culled in the Baltic countries, Germany, Poland and Spain. So we cannot ignore the lessons from such countries, which are so clearly presented to us.
The Secretary of State is drawing on these European comparisons, so why does his own amendment talk about “stringent” movement controls, given that we have the loosest movement controls in the European Union, with about 40% of our cattle being moved annually? Surely he should start by doing something about that. Is that not a comparison he should recognise?
I do not think that is a very accurate statement. We have very strict movement controls and our farmers find them difficult to adhere to; they put real pressure on farmers.
If we are to tackle bovine TB, we must not only maintain rigorous biosecurity and strict cattle movement controls, but bear down on the disease in wildlife.
My right hon. Friend will recollect that the randomised badger control trials studied not only the effects of culling on the badger population and the prevalence of TB, but the actions of homo sapiens, and their capacity to intervene and to disrupt trials. Such actions were a factor in the trials and are a factor particularly prevalent in the UK but not prevalent in many of the countries he has named.