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Westminster Hall

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 11 December 2013

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 December 2013

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I asked for the debate today because of public concern about immigration levels. We all know, not least because Members now in opposition have admitted it, that the previous Government had a deliberate policy of encouraging uncontrolled immigration. The right hon. Members for Blackburn (Mr Straw), for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) have been queuing up to blow the whistle on the Labour record. Lord Mandelson told us in May that they even sent out search parties to find people to come and live in this country, seeking to fulfil their key political aim of making the UK truly multicultural, by encouraging mass migration.

The annual net immigration figure under Labour rose from 48,000 in 1997 to 198,000 by 2009. Between 1997 and 2010, net migration into Great Britain totalled 2.2 million people—more than twice the population of Birmingham. It is no wonder we had a crisis. Members on both sides of the House know that immigration is not just a population problem; it is also an NHS, education and welfare problem. Government figures cited in The Sunday Telegraph last week show that, on average, each immigrant costs the taxpayer more than £8,000 a year in health care, education and benefits. That applies whether they come from inside or outside the European Union.

The hon. Gentleman lists the downsides of immigration. Does he accept that there are also huge benefits and that immigrants contribute substantially to the economy, the NHS and many other aspects of the life we enjoy in Britain?

If the hon. Gentleman listens a moment or two longer, he will find that I come to those points.

No one ever thought to ask the British people whether they wanted what happened. Plans and policies were concealed, and mass immigration happened by stealth. One can only speculate whether Tony Blair would have been swept to power had he gone into the 1997 general election saying, “I will oversee an unprecedented increase in immigration.” Perhaps not—but now we must deal with the consequences of his policy.

Other hon. Members and I sit in our surgeries listening to tales of people living in overcrowded social housing or being on the waiting list for years with no hope of ever getting a home. It is no coincidence that with high net migration, from 2002, there was an increase of more than 60% in social housing waiting lists. Foreign nationals now occupy 8.4% of the housing stock, and among those aged 16 to 40 the figure is 12.6%. On the Isle of Wight we have a relatively small immigrant population, and overwhelmingly those residents work hard and make an important contribution to the community—indeed, they are an important and integral part of it. However, that is not the case everywhere.

I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that they moved to the Isle of Wight because they no longer recognised the places where they grew up; that now, in streets where their grandparents lived, no one appears to speak English; and that they moved to get away from ghettos where they felt they no longer belonged. The effects of mass immigration, mostly into our cities, are felt even in rural areas such as the Isle of Wight. We must recognise that.

I am thankful that the Government have begun to make a difference. They have made progress in cutting immigration from outside the EU. They cracked down on the abuse of student visas, unjustified family visas and—I am glad to say—bogus marriages. However, they have been unable to close our borders to a huge influx of EU nationals who can come whether or not there are jobs and homes for them, schools for their children or doctors and hospitals to care for them. Many British people believe that that must come to an end.

I have recently, in the words of one of my staff, joined the 21st century: I have signed up to Twitter and exchanged views with the intriguingly named Wight Car Tipper. I tweeted that we should extend transitional arrangements for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals and that our Government should have control of our borders. Wight Car Tipper asked me whether I thought his daughter, who has a French passport, should be able to live in the UK and retain the rights she currently has. I replied that it depends on the circumstances. Presumably, with the fine name of Mr Wight Car Tipper, her father is British, and in that case I think that she should be able to come and live here. However, I do not believe that foreign nationals from the EU or elsewhere should have the same rights as a British citizen, and I strongly believe that our Government must have the right to decide who can live and work here.

There is a fine British principle of fair play—of not getting something for nothing, and of making a contribution to society before being entitled to benefit from it. That principle must be applied to those who come to the UK. Someone who has only just arrived cannot have contributed to society. Some people claim that we need more immigrants to pay the pensions of an ageing population. That, of course, glosses over what happens when the immigrants get old—it is simply an argument for an endless influx of new migrants.

I am grateful to see the Minister here to respond to the debate, and extremely pleased that the Home Secretary has recognised at least part of the problem. She has suggested that free movement for future accession countries could be controlled, and that future member states should reach a certain economic threshold before full free movement is allowed. However, that would not deal with the current treaties that we have signed, or the issues that we will face in only a few weeks.

The Government are seeking to deal with some of the problems—the things that attract those who want to come to the UK to take advantage of our generous welfare system—but that approach does not deal with the basic right of so many foreign nationals to live and work here. They have those rights regardless of how overcrowded our island becomes, or how many of our own people are unemployed.

How many British citizens live and work in Europe at the moment, and how many of them would be affected by the proposals that the hon. Gentleman contemplates?

What would happen to those individuals if the policy that the hon. Gentleman suggests—of immigrants not having the right to live and work in this country—were applied to British citizens in France, Spain or elsewhere in Europe?

That is entirely up to the Governments of those countries. I feel that they should have the right to determine that issue for themselves, just as we should for our country.

The Government must try to deal with the concerns of many British people and, indeed, many settled and integrated migrant communities—those who recognise that we simply cannot retain an open-door policy for all current EU citizens. We need a more nuanced policy that is controlled by our elected Government and that works in the interests of the British nation.

In 1973, we signed up to the treaty of Rome, which established the free movement of people across the then common market. Let me be frank: it was a rich man’s club, and the number of people coming to the UK was small. In 1975, net migration was 3,000. Since then, the club has expanded to places such as Croatia, where the average wage is a 10th of that in the UK. It is hardly surprising that people there want to move to the more prosperous parts of the EU.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, which I am following closely and enjoying immensely. Is he as concerned as I am that large numbers of non-EU citizens are now entitled to EU passports and therefore entitled to come to this country? Up to 3 million people from Moldova, for example, can access Romanian passports and will be able to come here from 1 January.

I did not know about that, but I certainly believe it.

Figures published just last week show that net migration unexpectedly jumped to 182,000 in the year to June 2013, due in part to a rise in prospective workers coming from Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.

People cannot be blamed for wanting a better life. Let me be clear that I do not blame them; I blame the outdated rules of the EU and the previous Labour Government, who sent out the message that anybody and everybody could and should come to the UK if they want. Britain, however, simply cannot provide a better life for everyone who wants to come here. We do not have the infrastructure or jobs to do that.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. Has he received or been able to obtain any estimate of the number of Bulgarians and Romanians who are likely to come to the UK when the labour market restrictions are lifted on 1 January?

I have not seen any information from the Government. I do not blame them, because they cannot guess. How could they? There is a range of figures that go all over the place. I am interested in sorting these things out once and for all. Whether we get the changes through by January or later, we continue to work on the matter.

I want to pay tribute to the role that so many foreign people have played in our history and still play in our society today. In 1942, the Polish destroyer ORP Blyskawica saved Cowes from Luftwaffe bombs; every year, we from the island commemorate that event and the brave Polish crew. The NHS employs many EU-born and non-EU-born doctors and nurses across the UK—indeed, it could not function without them.

Those are just two of many examples, but shared history and our reliance on skilled workers cannot mean that everybody in the EU has the right to live here. We cannot provide places for people from overseas while less-educated people from the UK cannot find a job. The treaty of Rome was a product of its time. The unfettered, free movement of people is no longer appropriate and polls show that, for the majority of people, it is no longer acceptable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) recently suggested a five-year extension to the restrictions. That would be a good start, but there is an even better answer: the one recently proposed by the European Scrutiny Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).With unanimous support, the Committee believes, as I do, that we should legislate to restore our country’s sovereignty. We should make provision for the British Parliament to disapply EU laws and give British courts the duty to uphold British laws.

The time is overdue for us to stand up to the EU and tell it that this Parliament takes precedence and that we will make our own decisions about who can live here, work here and benefit from our welfare state. The time is fast approaching when the calls for change will be so many and so loud that they can no longer be denied.

Order. It should be possible for everybody who hopes to speak to do so. That does rely, however, on people exercising some restraint. If they do not, I may decide to apply a time limit on speeches.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak. Although I speak from the Opposition Benches, I am not in the business of defending everything that the previous Government did in relation to immigration, but frankly, the suggestion by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) that the decisions that we made about the A8 accession countries—which we recognised were a mistake, and perhaps arose from listening too closely to the calls of the business community and its desire for free movement of labour into the UK—were some sort of ideological plot to transform the nature of our society is perhaps something that is better placed in the pages of the Daily Mail.

Let me describe a personal experience. Last Friday, when I was conducting one of my regular advice surgeries, I was talking to a Romanian citizen currently living in the UK. She is a student and is making a significant contribution to our local economy in Sheffield. She was volunteering for AIESEC, which is a student society committed to promoting business, finding business placements, developing skills in an industrial and commercial context and growing global-minded entrepreneurs. She was enthusiastic when she came to Britain, but she was deeply depressed by the public discourse around Romania and Bulgaria and their citizens, which made her feel unwelcome. I think we need to take care how we debate the issue, not only for her sake and others’, but also for the sake of all those UK citizens who have raised concerns, of which all hon. Members have experience, about immigration. They deserve proper leadership from us as politicians, which means being honest about the facts and coming up with the right solutions to the real problems.

I have some sympathy with the Minister. He was right a couple of weeks ago to talk down the fear of a mass influx of Romanians and Bulgarians. He will not be surprised, however, that I have only some sympathy. Much of the problem has been created through the Government talking up the problems of migration for political advantage. We need an honest debate. We have heard a lot of noise, some of which was reflected in the speech by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, about benefits for newly arriving EU migrants. The impression being given is that EU migrants are freeloaders who come simply to claim our benefits and to exploit our generosity. However, all the evidence, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, suggests that EU migrants make a net fiscal contribution.

A study was published last month by the centre for research and analysis of migration—CReAM—at University college London, which is one of our country’s greatest universities and one of the world’s leading universities. It concluded that recent immigrants—those who arrived after 1999, who constituted 33% of the overall immigrant population in 2011—were 45% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than UK natives. Over the same period, recent European economic area immigrants have on average contributed 34% more in taxes than they have received in transfers. By contrast, over the same period, the total of UK natives’ tax payments were 11% lower than the transfers they received.

We welcome the most talented migrants. In 2011, 32% of EEA immigrants and 43% of non-EEA immigrants had university degrees. The estimated net fiscal contribution of immigrants increases even more if we consider that immigration helps to share the total cost of fixed public expenditure among a larger pool.

The main reasons for the large net fiscal contribution of recent EEA immigrants are their higher average labour market participation than UK natives and their lower receipt of welfare benefits. Professor Christian Dustmann, the director of CReAM and the co-author of the study, said:

“Our research shows that in contrast with most other European countries, the UK attracts highly educated and skilled immigrants from within the EEA as well as from outside. What’s more, immigrants who arrived since 2000 have made a very sizeable net fiscal contribution and therefore helped to reduce the fiscal burden on UK-born workers. Our study also suggests that over the last decade or so the UK has benefited fiscally from immigrants from EEA countries, who have put in considerably more in taxes and contributions than they received in benefits and transfers. Given this evidence, claims about ‘benefit tourism’ by EEA immigrants”—

that myth—

seem to be disconnected from reality.”

Another example of the Government talking up the migration issue but introducing measures that damage the economy by targeting the wrong issue is on the issue of international students. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me speaking about that again. I agree that the Government are right, as were the previous Government, to clamp down on bogus students who not only are exploiting our system, but are themselves in many cases exploited by bogus colleges. However, overall, international students bring huge benefits to the economy.

Oxford Economics conducted research on behalf of the university of Sheffield, which looked at the students’ net contribution after all costs to public services—such as traffic congestion and everything else it could think of. The survey was published in January 2013 and showed that during the previous academic year the 8,000-plus international students at our two universities made a net total contribution of more than £120 million to the Sheffield economy. Probably about 6,000, 7,000 or 8,000 local jobs depend on those students. Furthermore, the net benefits generated by the indirect supply chain advantages were assumed to account for approximately an additional £22 million to the local economy. International students obviously bring further external benefits, such as boosts to demand as a consequence of increased familiarity with locally produced goods and the potential for our status as a city and a country to be boosted by the relationship that they build while they are in the UK.

International students are a growing market internationally. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has calculated that by 2020 the market could double. Instead of being worth £8 billion to our economy, it could be worth £16 billion; instead of 6,000 jobs in Sheffield, it could be 12,000 jobs. Currently, international student numbers are flatlining, while our competitor countries are taking advantage of some of the measures that this Government have put in place. We should be concerned about that.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight expressed concerns about things that are happening in the labour market. My concern is that he did not focus on the things that can be done to address issues in the labour market. The Minister for Immigration made a useful contribution before the Home Affairs Committee this week when he was challenged about a statement from the head of Domino’s Pizza about why it was unable to recruit sufficiently from within the UK domestic work force. The Minister rightly made the point that the company should perhaps look at its employment conditions and wages. It would be helpful to consider positive labour market interventions that can create the sort of level playing field that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight seeks.

To be clear, it is worse than the hon. Gentleman suggests. The chief executive of Domino’s Pizza was not arguing that he could not recruit in the UK alone. He was arguing that he could not recruit enough people from the whole EU labour pool, and that we needed to start importing low-skilled workers from outside the EU in order that he could keep low wages in his business. That is why I said he perhaps ought to reflect on the terms and conditions. So he was arguing that we should have an unrestricted free-for-all, but I do not think it is the role of Government policy to let multinationals keep wages low when, frankly, they should pay their staff a little more.

I agree entirely with the Minister on that point. We should ensure that multinationals pay wages that will attract people to do the jobs. We should also ensure that companies do not recruit exclusively from eastern Europe, as they seek to do. Jobs should be available to local workers in the market. We should also do more to ensure that companies that flout the minimum wage rules are prosecuted. The number of businesses that are fined for employing illegal workers has halved, plummeting from more than 2,000 in 2009 to a little more than 1,000 in 2012. We can talk positively about those sorts of labour market interventions to address many of our concerns.

I will conclude by commenting on something that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said about a constituent, who is concerned about the way in which their community has been transformed by the influx of migrants. I am sure that if we look back in 50-year snapshots, we will find that people have always expressed such concerns. I am sure that they expressed concerns about my wife’s family, who came across from Ireland to supplement the work force in the UK. I was brought up in Sheffield in the 1960s and it was a relatively monocultural city. The city in which I have brought up my son in the 1990s is stronger, richer and better for having welcomed people from around the world—some to build better lives, some fleeing persecution. I am proud that we are the country’s first city of sanctuary.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to follow such an excellent introductory speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner).

I would say to the Romanian constituent of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who sounds like an excellent citizen, that the hon. Gentleman rather misses the point. This country should be able to say to someone like her, “Yes, we want you to be an immigrant to our country, because you offer us skills that we don’t have enough of.” The problem is that this country does not have the right to select her; this country has been told by the European Union that it must accept as many Romanians and Bulgarians as apply to these shores.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he spoke for far longer than he should have done, given the number of Members who want to contribute. The problem for his constituents is that their concerns are not being properly reflected by him in the Chamber today, because they are very concerned indeed that there will be far too many Romanians and Bulgarians heading to Sheffield from 1 January next year. The concern is not that those individuals are Romanians and Bulgarians; it is about the number of people who can potentially come to this country.

British citizens are concerned that immigration from the European Union is on far too large a scale. It is not about the colour of somebody’s skin or the skills that they can bring, but about the numbers of people. How on earth has this country got itself into the situation where we are opening our borders to all and sundry with absolutely no control at all over the numbers who can potentially come to our shores? That is the concern of the British people.

I am afraid that this esteemed House of Commons is out of step with public opinion. The fact that fewer than 15 out of 650 hon. Members are in this Chamber this morning suggests to me that far too many of our colleagues are not listening closely enough to their constituents. The big issue in the country, about which people are talking every day of the week, is immigration.

My constituency, Kettering, has had a very welcoming attitude to immigration on an appropriate scale and to individual immigrants. But the view of my constituents is that our country is full—we have taken far too many people in and far too many of the immigrants coming to our shores do not have the skills that our economy needs. All my constituents want is for this country to be able to decide how many immigrants we should take, deciding who can come in on the basis of the skills that they can offer. What my constituents do not want us to do is open our doors so that anyone can come in.

I have to say that it is a dereliction of duty on the part of Her Majesty’s Government not even to attempt an estimate of the numbers of people who may come in from Romania and Bulgaria on 1 January. I can understand politically why the Government have decided not to publish an estimate: they do not want to make the horrendous mistake of the previous Labour Government, who said that the number of immigrants from the A8 eastern European countries would be only 13,000 a year. I understand that the population that has come in is 1.1 million and climbing. If people from Romania and Bulgaria come in at the same rate, we will be looking at a figure of 425,000 Romanians and Bulgarians—a number with which, I would suggest, our country cannot cope.

The big magnet for many people from the EU and outside it is London. We often forget that London is the biggest city in western Europe, the second biggest in the whole of Europe, second only to Moscow, and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But London is full. For my sins, in my spare time I am a special constable with the British Transport police. This weekend I was on duty on the London underground network; on Saturday night I was on duty outside Piccadilly Circus underground station. Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Green Park underground stations were all shut at 7 o’clock in the evening, because too many people were using them. That was not peak time on a Saturday night—it was 7 o’clock.

As the population of this country is driven ever upwards by immigration, 43% of all new house building comes from immigration. That affects not only areas such as London but places such as the Isle of Wight and Kettering, where green fields are being built over to provide the homes that we will inevitably need if we fail to stem the influx of people to our shores. As my hon. Friend said, the issue is not just immigration. It is the NHS, schools— far too many primary school children do not have English as their first language—and all the pressures on our local public services. Frankly, those services need to be guided by Her Majesty’s Government as to how many people they can expect from the new entrant EU countries.

I am therefore concerned that Her Majesty’s Government have ducked the issue. I shall take no more time, because I know that many hon. Members want to contribute, but I would say that this House and this Government are not listening carefully enough to the concerns that my constituents—and I believe a big majority of the country—have about immigration.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who I thought made an excellent case for investment in public transport. I hope the Transport Secretary was listening to him.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one other issue: when I talk to businesses in my constituency of Cambridge, immigration is one of the issues they raise most often. They have huge concerns about the processes and about the times when it is harder to get people in—for example, when it is hard for people to whom those businesses wish to sell in the US to get into the country because they are Chinese nationals. That is hitting our economy, and we need to work on it as a priority, to make sure that we can get people into this country who will benefit the economy. I thank the Minister for coming to talk to a small handful of such people recently. There have been some improvements.

Overall, immigration is a good thing: it benefits us socially, culturally and economically. There are associated problems—it is not an unalloyed triumph—and there are constraints in terms of housing needs, schools and many other matters. But when we net it all together we find a substantial benefit from immigration—I am not talking about a completely open border but well-managed and well-controlled immigration. It is a huge positive.

There is much we could do to reduce the associated problems. For example, we could run more programmes to make sure that people are able to learn to speak English. It is a shame that the Government cut back English classes for some new immigrants a few years ago, although work is going on now to remedy that. It would be good for people to be able to communicate in our language: it would help them and would also help the state. There are also concerns about people in the UK not being able to find employment. We should therefore be training people in the UK better. I agree completely with that, but it does not mean that we should not also have immigration.

The way the rhetoric on this issue has been going is a real danger. It scares people—I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are so concerned when he and so many others tell them they ought to be. But it does us harm when we use that rhetoric: when people overseas are looking for where to invest and where the best and the brightest should be going—where people pay huge amounts of money to study—they will look at the rhetoric on this issue in the UK and they will be worried. We are in danger of appearing isolated and closed off, and so missing out on all the benefits we could have.

Yesterday at the Home Affairs Committee I asked the Minister about the balance of competences report into freedom of movement. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) that there is a lot of evidence—the best I am aware of is the UCL study he cited—showing that we have seen over £20 billion of net benefit from EU migration. I am sure the numbers are not exact, but that is a very substantial contribution. I would love to hear from the Minister—slightly more accurately than in the masterful answer he gave yesterday—when that report will come out.

This debate feels a little like a rerun. Many of us have been in such debates many times: the Immigration Bill Committee; the Select Committee yesterday; and indeed in this Chamber on 22 October, when the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) played the role the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) is playing today. Many of the comments were the same; my first intervention was almost exactly the same then as the one I made today, and was made for the same reasons.

I do not think that the previous Government got everything wrong, but they did not get everything right. There was too much abuse and too many loopholes, student migration being an example. I agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central that student migration is important, but we definitely saw people coming through to bogus colleges. The previous Government also did not do enough to control the people I blame for many of the problems we face, namely rogue immigration advisers—people who give dud advice. That shows how complex the system is, which is another issue we have to work on.

I say to the Minister today as I have many times before that the most important thing he can do has nothing to do with changing any laws or with anything in the Immigration Bill: it is to get the UK Border Agency, now within the Home Office, to work better. He will be well aware of all the criticisms and problems and the amount of work that has to be done. I also know that he intends to deal with the matter; no Minister would want to run an organisation with such a huge number of problems and complaints. Some 92% of complaints made about the Home Office to the ombudsman are upheld, and they are almost all to do with the workings of the UK Border Agency.

Dealing with the Border Agency will do more than anything else that has been suggested could do. For example, landlord pilots have been suggested—we rehearsed the arguments about those in the Immigration Bill Committee. I disagree with them. The Bill Committee compromised on having a single pilot, although the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) wanted to have five, helpfully listing Lambeth, Derbyshire, Flintshire, Glasgow and Belfast, as he thought that was perfectly acceptable. We disagree on that but we have rehearsed those arguments, and it will be interesting to see the results of that one pilot.

In the Bill Committee we also rehearsed the arguments about child detention. It is a source of great shame for the previous Government that more than 7,000 children were detained in the last five years of their time in office, one of them for 190 days. I argued in the Bill Committee that we should put a measure on the statute book about child detention—I hope the Minister will continue to deal with the issue in the helpful manner of his previous comments. I was surprised to hear the former Labour Minister, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), defend child detention; she said that some of her constituents would be “envious” of the conditions at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, which was a rather surprising comment.

Much more can be done, but ultimately it comes down to the basic question: how do we get things right? How do we make sure that we do not spend hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to remove an ill man—again, the Minister was questioned about this case yesterday— such as Isa Muazu? Surely we can think of better things on which to spend such sums. We should try to promote international business, so that people who want to try products made in Britain can get into the country to do so and find out whether they want to buy them.

We should promote students and do what we can not to make it easier for other countries to compete. I talked to the Minister about charging for the NHS. He is right in saying that other countries charge students more to use their health service than we do here, but any marginal step that makes it easier for other countries to compete will make it harder for our students. I hope the Minister will reconsider.

We must change some policies, principally the operation of our visa and immigration system, to ensure that the right people can get in and the wrong people cannot. Those decisions should be made quickly and promptly. We must ensure that our rhetoric shows that we are welcoming to those who should be coming to this country, and that we will not engage in a rant about foreigners.

I am delighted to be here on what I believe is the first occasion I have spoken on immigration. We do not have an immigration problem in Braintree, which is very much a British, white, working-class area, as are many in Essex. However, the fear of immigration seems to grab people’s attention. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) hit the nail on the head in his many reasons why. I congratulate him on an excellent speech.

Immigration is a highly emotive subject, but we must not forget that we are a nation of immigrants. Since Roman times we have had wave after wave of immigrants: from Angles, Jutes and Norsemen in the dark ages to Normans, Jews and Huguenots in the middle ages, to Italians and Irishmen in the 1800s, to West Indians, Ugandan Asians—

—to Indians and Pakistanis in the 1900s, to north Africans and others in the past decade. Indeed, the star of the London Olympics was Mo Farah, a Somali immigrant.

This House has many sons and daughters of immigrants, including the hon. Members for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz); my hon. Friends the Members for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and for Witham (Priti Patel); and Mr Speaker himself. We must not forget my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), who now holds the seat of the late, great Enoch Powell.

Immigrants come here because they want to contribute to our society. They tend to fill a skills gap rather than simply replacing British workers. The City, the arts and sports are full of immigrants who contribute to our society, as is education and the health service. Our national dish today is as much curry as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or fish and chips. So what went wrong?

Unfortunately, at some stage during the previous Government’s tenure, we lost control of our borders. That resulted in the largest migration in our history and the system broke. There was huge pressure on housing, health care and even education. Something had to be done, and the present Government have grasped the nettle and cut immigration by one third. The Prime Minister announced recently that EU migrants will have to wait before claiming benefits and there will be tests for those who want to do so. Newly arrived jobseekers will not be able to claim housing benefit without a minimum period of residency.

We are tightening up on immigration not because we are little Britain, but because, in the words of the Minister:

“Hard-working people expect and deserve an immigration system that is fair to British citizens and legitimate migrants and tough on those who abuse the system and flout the law…We will continue to welcome the brightest and best migrants who…contribute to our economy and society and play by the rules.”

I say, “Hear, hear” to that.

I am an immigrant. I moved here with my family when I was nine years old. I have always contributed more to society than I have taken. I have built up a successful business, paid my taxes, raised my family and now have the privilege of representing my country and my community in Parliament. The vast majority of individuals who come to the United Kingdom do so, like me, because they want a better life for themselves and their families. They want to make a contribution to society. Let us therefore continue to welcome those who wish to contribute to our society, but let us also toughen up on those who seek only to take advantage of our generous benefits system without giving anything back. This Government are seeking to get the balance right, and I welcome their initiatives on immigration.

Order. Two more Members want to take part in the debate, and I intend to call the Front Benchers at 10.30. Members can do the maths so that there is time for both to speak—[Interruption.] The Front Benchers have indicated that they would be willing to take a little less time, so if the two remaining speakers exercise a little restraint, there should be time for everyone to speak.

It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to serve under your chairmanship again. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) on securing this timely debate. He described the change that has taken place in this country, on which the British people were not consulted. I refer particularly to the free movement of labour under the European Union.

I am old enough to have taken part in the 1975 referendum when, thankfully, I voted no—I say “thankfully”, but it came to nothing of course. I do not recall that free movement of labour ever played a significant part in that debate. Indeed, had it done so, I am sure that it would have been glossed over by the leaders of all political parties at that time; they assured us that the United Kingdom would have a veto and that we had nothing to fear. Clearly, we were misled, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, the British people fear that their political leaders are not taking note of their concerns.

My part of the United Kingdom has a small immigrant population. The two local authority areas that make up my constituency have 5% and 3% non-British populations. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 7% of those in north Lincolnshire and 4% in north-east Lincolnshire were born outside the UK. Those figures are remarkably low compared with many parts of the country, but that does not alter the fact that immigration is the No. 1 issue on the doorstep.

People are concerned. To say that they fear change is putting it too strongly, but they are certainly concerned about change. One role of the political process is to manage change, and one reason why people believe the political process is failing them at the moment is that change is coming so quickly that Governments throughout the world find it extremely difficult to manage that change.

My constituents are not opposed to all immigration, and they recognise the important part that existing communities play in voluntary and charitable organisations, churches and the work force. Spanish nurses have recently been recruited at our two local hospitals. People recognise that they bring a skill and can see the value of that. They may regret that we do not have enough trained nurses in our own work force, but they see an obvious advantage in recruiting Spanish nurses, so they are prepared to accept it.

However, my constituents can also see the tensions only 50 miles down the road in Boston. They are reported on regularly on the regional television news and that causes concerns. We as politicians and as Governments in particular bury our heads in the sand if we do not recognise that we are not serving the best interests of those we represent if we allow unlimited immigration into our provincial towns and cities. Places such as Boston and other provincial towns find it much more difficult to integrate than a large multicultural city does. London is the exception, but the point can equally be applied to, say, Birmingham or Manchester.

Public opinion is clear in this country and if we go by media reports in France, Germany and elsewhere in the EU, populations there are equally concerned. Perhaps the political systems in some other EU countries—where there are list systems and national lists, inevitably making the politicians somewhat more remote from their electorate— allow Governments, as it were, to get away with the fact. Here, however, we have a very close contact with our voters, which is something we are all grateful for.

As I mentioned, it is clear that areas such as north and north-east Lincolnshire are more remote from large-scale immigration, but there is still concern. The Government do people a disservice if they do not recognise that and take appropriate action.

I pay tribute to the Government and to the Minister, who was good enough to visit my constituency in July. We saw then the Border Force’s excellent work and looked at how the considerable container traffic that comes in through the port of Immingham was scanned for potential illegal immigrants and so on. It does great work. We are not a soft touch, as many of our critics would have us believe, but that does not take away the concerns of those we represent. We have a duty to articulate those concerns.

The transition period that expires on 1 January with regard to Bulgarians and Romanians has put the issue under the microscope. Let us be honest: our electorate—I suggest that this applies in Cambridge and Sheffield just as it does in Cleethorpes, Immingham and the towns that I represent—would like that transitional period to be unilaterally extended. I suspect that the Minister will not stand up in a minute or two’s time and say, “Yes, we entirely agree with that and that is exactly what we are going to do,” but we must have more robust action, otherwise the Government and we politicians collectively will pay the political price.

As your namesake, Mr Howarth, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for curtailing their speeches to enable me to make a contribution.

I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), not only for securing this important debate, but for the significant points that he made. As he said, this is the most important issue facing our constituents. My constituents in Aldershot are constantly raising the issue of immigration with me. They feel that nobody is speaking up for them and that they are on their own. Indeed, they preface all their remarks by saying, “I am not a racist, but—”. They then go on to express opinions that are denounced by our opponents as racist, so they have felt intimidated from expressing their perfectly legitimate and perfectly honourable concerns about how they see their country has been transformed.

Yes, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) rejoices in being an immigrant; I rejoice in tracing my roots to nowhere else but into the soil of this kingdom. What my hon. Friend needs to understand about the wave of migration, which has so upset the people of this country, is that between 1066 and 1950, we had about a quarter of a million migrants to this country. We have now seen a massive change, with something like 8 million people coming into this country. The numbers are what is upsetting people. It is not necessarily the colour of people’s skin, although, of course, that brings different cultural challenges. It is the numbers—that is what Enoch Powell was trying to draw attention to in 1968, for which, of course, he got roundly traduced.

Of course, it is now okay to talk about immigration. It is extraordinary—apparently, the Leader of the Opposition has declared that it is all right to talk about immigration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, we have had successive former Labour Ministers, including the right hon. Members for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), apologising for the mistakes that were made. Of course, it was Andrew Neather, a speechwriter for the Labour party, who let the cat out of the bag when he said that it had been a deliberate act of policy to encourage mass migration—the 2.2 million that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight mentioned. It was a positive decision, as Andrew Neather said, in order to

“rub the Right’s nose in diversity”.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what adds to the frustration of the people of the United Kingdom is the unwillingness and inability of the Parliament and Government that they elect to deal fundamentally with opinion and the decisions that they should make about who comes to this country and who does not?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; that point has been made by my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), so I think there is unanimity here about that.

There is a feeling in this country that we are full up. We accept that many people wish to come to this country; it is a most fantastic country—the most fantastic country in the world. I do not blame people for wanting to come here, of course not. I can perfectly see why they want to, but it is adding enormous pressure to our way of life, and there are other changes to which I wish to refer in a moment.

However, I am not suggesting that all immigration is bad for this country—quite clearly, it is not. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree is clearly one of the most outstanding examples of why we should accept migration into the country—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree say “Hear, hear!” He is never short of confidence in his own opinions, which is encouraging to see in a politician.

I say to the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) that he is absolutely right about overseas students. I could not agree with him more. I was the Minister for international security strategy, with responsibility for defence exports. The most fascinating thing about going around the world was finding people who had been trained in the United Kingdom.

Take, for example, Prime Minister Najib, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who went to the university of Nottingham. I do not think there is a more enthusiastic supporter of the university of Nottingham than the Prime Minister of Malaysia. That has been of huge benefit to the United Kingdom, and that is repeated all round the world. I can see the merit in that, but the fact is that our people are concerned about the practical and cultural effect.

Let me touch briefly on the practical effect. As MigrationWatch has pointed out, there is massive pressure on housing and services. We are constantly reading in newspapers that house prices are going up. Of course they are—there is a shortage of supply and an increase in demand. Where are all these 100,000 Somalis going to be accommodated? Where will all the incoming people from Romania and Bulgaria be accommodated?

We are not building houses, and why not? In part, because our constituents feel that we are already full up in our communities, so there is a massive challenge there. As MigrationWatch has said, we will need to build the equivalent of eight of the largest cities outside the capital in 15 years. For the next 20 years, we will need to build a new home every seven minutes, night and day, just for the new migrants and their families, because it calculated that the UK population will reach 70 million in the next 15 years. Parliament cannot allow itself to ignore those massive pressures on our country.

My second point is about the cultural considerations. I do not know when I was ever given the opportunity to vote on diversity. Everybody said, “What a wonderful thing diversity is.” Personally, I happen not to like curry, but I understand that many people do. Indeed, I represent the garrison town of Aldershot—I am proud so to do—and the Army seems to eat nothing but curry. That makes my visits to the Army slightly tricky, but there we go.

Diversity has been a mask to distract attention from people’s concerns that their own way of life has been changed. One of the interesting things about the latest wave of migration is how those new migrants to our country are not content simply to accept our way of life, our customs or even our laws. That is wholly contrary to the practice adopted by previous waves of migration to this country—most of which, of course, one has to say, have been from other European countries.

We now have the problem—it is a problem—of Islamic fundamentalism in this country. These are people who are demanding that we change our laws—that we have sharia law. I read in the newspapers that in parts of east London, people are challenged not to adopt certain practices—not to drink and not to show affection in public—because “This is an Islamic area.” In the House of Commons, we need to wake up to what is going on in our country. I freely accept that it is not happening in Aldershot, but it is happening, it would appear, in other parts of the country.

We also have the graphic account being given in court at the moment of the complete savagery—there is no other way of describing it—of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Listening to the proceedings in court at the moment, I hope that the whole nation is completely shocked by the savagery—the brutality—that is happening in our capital city. We cannot in Parliament ignore these issues.

The assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police said last week that in the last two years there have been 400 arrests for terrorist offences, with 80 people charged. He was very fearful for the future of this country, and I do make the connection that this is associated with migration into this country. We have a growing threat to our way of life. There is a man called Anjem Choudary whom I have denounced in this House for the last 15 years. He seems to be able to act with complete impunity, advocating hatred of our way of life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering has done a marvellous job in proposing a Bill to ban the burqa. That is something that I find deeply offensive—that women are wandering around in our country and we cannot see their faces. It is contrary to our culture. I have asked my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to ban it. She has said that she will not, but I think that there is a very strong case that the wearing of the burqa should be banned in courts and where people are encountering officials. After all, if a young lad goes into a shop these days, he is told to take off his hoodie; that does not seem to me to be any different in principle.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree again—my hon. Friend the Minister is doing a sterling job in this field, and it is a massive challenge. The Home Secretary was in Brussels last Friday, arguing the case for the kind of changes in the migration rules within the EU that are necessary. I warmly welcome that, but I say to the Minister that I find two things in my constituency surgeries.

One involves the women who have been inveigled into marrying a foreigner, generally on holiday, principally in north Africa. They get back here. The guy is given leave to remain, and then he sugars off. Can we get them deported? No, because we get told that this is all about data protection and all the rest of it. I say to my hon. Friend that that has to stop.

The second category of people is those who come to my surgery with a litany of appeals that have been rejected. Why are they still here? Why are we not deporting these people? I am perfectly happy to name them and to help my hon. Friend to remove them from this country. The failure of the Government to remove these people is itself undermining the Government’s stand on immigration.

Mention has been made of the contribution that immigrants have made, and we have all seen that the Poles and other east Europeans work incredibly hard. Our country is suffering from a lack of aspiration among our young people. I am not the first to have said that. Our education system has to do a great deal more to teach our young people the five R’s—reading, writing, arithmetic, right and wrong—to prepare them for a world that is becoming, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister says, extremely competitive.

We need only go to countries such as India and Malaysia to see and feel the palpable sense of aspiration. When we talk to a publican who cannot get anybody even to turn up for an interview to come and work in his pub, our people have to start accepting that they have to do some of these jobs, that they have to have more aspiration in their lives, because otherwise, I am afraid, the prospects for the country are grim.

I will leave the House with this reminder. In 1960, the population of this country was 52 million, in 2010 it was 62 million, and in 15 years’ time it will be 70 million. There are practical and cultural considerations that the House must not and cannot ignore.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) on allowing us one and a half hours of parliamentary time to debate a very important issue. You will have seen, Mr Howarth, that it is clearly a complex and multilayered issue. We have had discussions about the importance of integration and of the impact of European migration, but we have also heard very strong contributions about the need for business, for students and for tourism. We need to reflect on all those in any positive response to the debate that we are having today.

I start by echoing what the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) said in what I thought was—I hope I will not upset him by saying this—an excellent contribution: that immigration has benefited the United Kingdom over many centuries. People have come here to build our biggest companies, to create our national health service and to win our sports prizes. I am struck by the fact that we are meeting just off Westminster Hall, which was built by William Rufus, the son of an immigrant, in 1098. I say to the hon. Gentleman that we have a proud history of contribution from immigration, but I also say that we need to examine the fact that real concerns and tensions are caused by some of the issues that have been raised and accepted here today.

I hope that I can help to assuage the fears raised by the hon. Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), for Braintree and for Isle of Wight by saying that, yes, mistakes were made by the previous Labour Government. If I may say so, however, I do not think that it was as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said. There was no mass plan for increasing multi- culturalism, but I think that there was a willingness and a wish to ensure that we had a positive approach to eastern Europe.

Under the communist yoke, that part of Europe was not free, not engaged in free-market economies, not trading with us and not developing some of the economies in which we are going to invest resources for the future. That was the case for many years, so I think that there was a willingness. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others have said that there was a lack of transitional controls that should have been, potentially, put in place, and that that has created some community tension. But let us not say that it was in total a bad thing, because I think that we do have some very positive benefits from migration generally.

I can look at my own constituency. The biggest employer there makes aeroplane wings with contributions from French, Spanish, German and British workers. Only last week, there was a £30 billion order for aeroplanes for my constituency. The neighbouring constituency has the site of the Toyota factory—a Japanese factory managed in my area by Japanese staff, creating employment for people in my constituency. Kimberly-Clark in my constituency is also a major employer in my area. That is an American-based company with American staff helping to invest in that company. Immigration brings wealth, prosperity and businesses, but it also brings challenges, as has been expressed.

Particularly in view of the potential for Romanian and Bulgarian immigration from 1 January—like the Minister, I do not know what that figure will be—we must look at labour market issues associated with the exploitation of those who come to this country to work. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) touched on those issues as being important.

I want the minimum wage to be strengthened to stop exploitation. I want local authorities to step up enforcement, and I want fines for non-compliance to be increased. The Prime Minister and the Minister have alluded to the potential for a move in that direction. It is not acceptable for wages to be forced down in this country by immigration from eastern Europe. I want gangmaster legislation to be strengthened and extended to areas such as catering and tourism, which it does not cover at the moment.

The right hon. Gentleman is making some fair points. The question that he has not yet answered—he has another five minutes in which to do so—is whether those decisions should be made here in the UK or there in Europe.

I am a believer in a wider Europe, and I do not think we should retrench into the position that the hon. Gentleman has set out. We might look at what changes are needed, but our position in the European Community is a strong one for our markets. We may disagree on the matter, but that is my view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned recruitment agencies. As we discussed in the Immigration Bill Committee, there are websites on which people try, in contravention of the Equality Act 2010, to recruit staff solely from eastern Europe or, increasingly, from southern Italy. I do not think that that is fair or right, and we should look at measures to outlaw such recruitment. In my constituency, local people cannot access vacancies in certain factories because staff are recruited solely from eastern Europe. That has to be wrong, and we should deal with that labour market issue.

We must strengthen and enforce housing legislation. I believe that the Minister agrees, because he has mentioned beds in sheds. We need to end the practice of shifts of people in the same accommodation sleeping for eight hours, working for eight hours and spending eight hours on the street, as happens in my constituency and in many others. We must take action to tackle that, because it undercuts the UK labour market and exploits those who come here legitimately for work.

We must also focus on the positive aspects of immigration. I have had representations from businesses—I even met some this morning—through London First and others. They tell me that, as the hon. Member for Cambridge and my hon. Friend have said, we need to attract people from the student community abroad, to ensure that they not only bring fees and spending power to the country but carry the good will of this country with them into their future work. The Prime Minister of Malaysia, or the future chairmen or chief executives of businesses abroad, will look back on their time in the UK with fond memories. That is an unseen export that we should contribute towards.

In addition to attracting students, we must also focus on tourism. I discovered last week that Chinese tourism is worth £103 billion to the rest of the world, but in this country we benefit from only £300 million of that amount. We need to increase our share of that market. To give credit where it is due—I try to be fair—the Prime Minister has tried to do just that. We must not ignore the fact that immigration is not only about eastern Europe; it is about opening our borders to allow people to get in for tourism purposes and to spend their money. I agree that we also need to look at business issues, which are important. If someone wants to come here to invest £1 million or £2 million in creating a business, we must allow them to.

I share the view of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes that integration is extremely important. In many of our towns and cities, including my constituency, the sudden influx of people speaking different languages in supermarkets and on the streets has created tensions, which I hope will ease with time. We must look at how we can maximise the benefits of Europe while having fair and appropriate immigration controls.

That leads me to say that we must ensure that we have strong borders. The report “The Border Force: securing the border”, published yesterday by the Public Accounts Committee, raised some criticism. No one says that the problem is easy to deal with; it was not easy when we were in charge and it is not easy now. We need to look at strong border controls. We need to ensure that those who have been through the system and have failed the residency test are removed from the United Kingdom in a fair way. We need to ensure that people who come here integrate and speak English and that we have a proper and effective immigration system.

I do not think, however, with due respect to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight and some others who have spoken today, that closing our borders in the way they have described by repatriating powers would be a good thing. I do not think that putting up a “Britain is shut” sign will help the economy or the residents of the country, however long they have been here, in the long term.

We have had a useful debate, and discussion of the matter will continue. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to the points I have raised. There are real steps that the Government could take, but are not taking, to deal with labour market issues, which would assuage some of the concerns that have been raised today.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth, and it is a rare treat to have two Howarths in the Chamber at the same time. I suspect that you are at rather different ends of the political spectrum—although you, as Chair, are completely neutral.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) for securing the debate. As the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, it is always good to have one and a half hours of valuable parliamentary time to talk about issues that are of concern to all our constituents. Some are concerned, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) said, about attracting the best and the brightest. Others are worried about the numbers of people coming here and whether they are all making a contribution.

I am also pleased to see that the right hon. Member for Delyn has some friends today. Last time we debated immigration, he was completely by himself with no Labour Back Benchers to support him. Today, however, one Labour Member spoke in the debate and another is in the Chamber, so the right hon. Gentleman’s powers of oratory are clearly attracting a wider audience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight was right to highlight the failure of the previous Labour Government, and one can argue about whether that was the result of a conspiracy or a cock-up. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) leans towards the view that a “spectacular mistake”, in his words, was made. A significant number of people came into the country when the previous Labour Government were in power, which is partly why people have concerns. It was partly to do with the fact that at the time of the eastern European accession, we were the only major country to have no transitional controls, so most of those who left their own countries to work came to Britain.

It is worth remembering, however, that eastern Europe was not where the largest number of people came from. During the Labour party’s time in office, more than twice as many migrants came from outside the European Union. Although the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), was presented with that information in a clear graphical format during a recent edition of “Sunday Politics”, and she was sitting right in front of the screen, she denied that it is true. I am afraid it is, however. Although the Labour party may argue that it made some mistakes on eastern European migration, in an area in which it had complete control over who came to the United Kingdom, it failed. That is behind many people’s concerns, so we have tried to demonstrate that we are able to take tough decisions to reassure people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said that even in an area such as his constituency where immigration is low, people see significant numbers of migrants from eastern Europe in neighbouring towns, such as Boston in Lincolnshire. People are concerned about the numbers of people who have immigrated in a relatively short space of time and how successfully they have integrated. That is why we have to address those concerns.

We have made progress. Several Members have referred to the fact that net migration is down by nearly one third since its peak. We are building a system that works in the national interest. Immigration from outside the EU is now at its lowest level for 14 years, and almost back to the level it was when the previous Conservative Government left office.

The good news is that we are being more selective. According to the latest figures, there is a 7% increase in students coming to our excellent UK universities. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has made that point before and I am sure he will make it again, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. We welcome international students coming to our excellent universities, and both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have more than one excellent university in their areas. It is important that we welcome students who come to Britain to study. Most will leave, some will stay, some will start businesses and some will help create economic growth, and we very much welcome them. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) was being slightly unfair earlier—the “hear, hears” when he congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) were coming not from him but from the rest of us. He made an excellent speech focusing on those who are going to contribute. People who come here and contribute are important.

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said about numbers, which was also a concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. Two things are worth remembering. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering was concerned that we will see a repeat of what happened in 2004, but the situation now is different, because in 2004 we were the only country to have no transitional controls. This time, we have had such controls and at the end of September, the controls of eight other European countries—including large countries with successful economies, such as Germany—will expire at the same time as ours. We are not the only country that will have a policy change. Secondly, 48% of immigrants come from outside the EU, 36% come from within the EU and 15% of the people coming to Britain are British citizens who have lived overseas for more than a year who are returning home or who have never lived here. It is worth putting the numbers into perspective.

Most hon. Members talked about employment. We have made a difference, which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight put his finger on when he talked about our immigration policy, our welfare policy and our education and training policy. The difference is in the combination of the three—a tougher immigration policy; a tougher welfare policy that encourages people to work and contribute; and an increase in the number of apprenticeships and more rigour in schools. In the five years to December 2008, under the previous Government, when there was economic growth and jobs were being created, more than 90% of the increase in employment was accounted for by foreign nationals. That is probably what provoked the comment of the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), about

“British jobs for British workers.”

Since the second quarter of 2010, under the current Government, more than three quarters of the 1.1 million new jobs in the economy have gone to British citizens, which is of benefit. Talented people are still coming to Britain to fill gaps in the labour market and contribute, but the growth in employment now benefits British citizens. That is, first, what we are in business to do in Parliament, and, secondly, very welcome.

We are committed to continuing to bring net migration down. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot referred to removing people who have no right to be here. The Immigration Bill currently before Parliament contains measures to reduce the rights of appeal and make it easier to remove foreign national offenders, for example, from the UK when they have no right to be here, which is welcome.

I salute the Minister for what he is doing. My point is not so much that further measures, which I welcome, are being taken, but that many people in this country have already exhausted the extensive appeals procedures and have still not been removed. Despite people like me writing to say, “Why aren’t they being removed?”, officials do not seem to take action.

I agree with my hon. Friend. We will certainly give ourselves the powers to take action. Since we split up the UK Border Agency earlier this year, there has been a change in the culture of the two new parts. The immigration enforcement branch now feels that it is a law enforcement organisation and its job is to deal with those who break our immigration rules.

On the subject of those who break the law and want to come to the UK, I would like to make a bit of a public service announcement. I noticed in media coverage this morning that Mike Tyson, who wants to visit the UK, is not able to come here because we changed the immigration rules for those guilty of serious offences. A column in The Sun says that he received a “knock out blow”—the first time I have ever, in effect, got in the ring with a boxer. Mr Tyson is a convicted rapist. If people have been convicted of an offence for which they have been sentenced to a period of imprisonment of at least four years, we will refuse them entry to the UK. I say that because his publisher, who organised his UK book tour, said:

“There was a change in the UK immigration law in December 2012 of which we were unaware.”

That is a fault on their part. I will say in Parliament, therefore, to make the position clear, that we have toughened the immigration rules and people who are criminals who want to come to the UK will not be able to if they are guilty of serious crimes. The measure is welcome and has been welcomed by many who support victims of violence. The child protection campaigner, Sara Payne, said:

“I think the Home Office got it right.”

I savour those words; I do not often hear people say them. She said:

“The rules don’t change just because the offender is famous.”

That is an important point. People have to obey the law. The Government make no apology for toughening up the rules in 2012, and those rules will apply to people equally, whether they are famous or not.

Before I move on, I shall pick up on the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot. The Immigration Bill will reduce the number of appeals and tighten up the rules on article 8, putting them in primary legislation. People who have no right to be here, for example a foreign national offender we are trying to remove, will have fewer opportunities to argue that they should be able to stay, and we will be able to remove them more effectively. I hope my hon. Friend welcomes that.

There was much discussion about labour market rules. The right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned advertisements that aim to hire only foreign nationals, which are unlawful already. I said during a debate on the Immigration Bill that I would draw such advertisements to the attention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is the regulator and enforcement body in that area, and I have done so. It wrote back to me and, to paraphrase a relatively lengthy letter, it is on the case. I will be able to update hon. Members when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House.

My hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes and for Braintree referred to what we are doing as we move towards the end of the year. We are preparing for the transitional controls expiring. Last week, I signed an order, which we laid before the House on Friday, amending the European economic area regulations, to take steps to restrict access to benefits, guard against the abuse of free movement and prevent individuals who are removed from the UK for not fulfilling the requirements of the free movement rules from coming straight back again. Those changes will be helpful. A number of them come into force on 1 January. Those we remove for begging or rough sleeping, for example, will not be allowed to come back unless they can demonstrate that immediately on re-entry they will be exercising a treaty right, coming back to work or study, or that they will be self-sufficient.

I am pressed for time and I want to deal with the other issues my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight raised. We will restrict access to jobseeker’s allowance to six months for foreign nationals who become unemployed. This week, the Department for Work and Pensions is rolling out a toughened habitual residence test to increase the range and depth of evidence collected from benefit claimants to ensure that they are entitled to be here. The Home Secretary has consistently raised that issue at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, and she did so again last week. She received support from a number of member states and, I note, robust support from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot.

The Government are taking the tough measures necessary. We are bearing down on numbers, but also ensuring that Britain is open to those who want to come to contribute, to put something back and to make our country wealthier. We have the balance right. I want to continue to make changes and I am confident that hon. Members on both sides might even support them.

Corruption (International Business)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Howarth. I am pleased to have been granted this debate, which I secured as co-chair of the all-party group on anti-corruption, a role that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar). I am pleased that a number of other members of the all-party group are present today.

We are here to highlight the United Nation’s international anti-corruption day, which took place on Monday this week. Citizens and parliamentarians have been marking the day right around the world, and I am pleased that the United Kingdom is playing its part, too. It is very appropriate that legislators in this country should highlight international anti-corruption day, because we are in a particularly good position to do something about it. Many of the tools that allow corruption to happen are within our control. I therefore hope that today’s debate, albeit brief, will contribute to the momentum of calls for change.

When we speak about corruption, we think about malevolent characters in places far removed from the UK, such as Nigeria, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While those might be the sites of theft and where the devastating consequences impact on people, the deals themselves might be taking place just down the road from Parliament, in our capital city. In truth, corrupt officials in developing countries would find it much harder to steal from their citizens if they were unable to use the tools provided by international business, which includes UK citizens, UK-based companies and those listed on the London stock exchange. Those are all elements over which we can exercise some control. We are rightly proud of our aid spending in this country, and I strongly welcome the Chancellor’s confirmation in Budget 2013 that the Government intend to meet and build on Labour’s legacy, which was to set the UK’s historic target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid.

It is time, however, to take that a step further. We must ensure that resources are provided in a broader context that ultimately reduces developing countries’ dependence on aid. To do so, we have to look in our own backyard at how domestic business legislation can have a major impact on international poverty. Western business frameworks facilitate illicit financial flows out of Africa. Shockingly, those flows outweigh the amounts that those countries receive from aid and foreign direct investment. We have the power to prevent that, but until we do so, we will effectively keep giving with one hand and taking away much more with the other.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on the hard work that she does in her all-party group, as well as on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. Does she agree that, while it is important that we strengthen business connections across the whole world, those businesses must be transparent and accountable? Does she agree that the UK ambassadors in those countries could act as a catalyst to make change happen and to prevent corruption?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and I am interested in what the Minister will say in responding to this debate. As the Government, they could exercise their influence to ensure that UK ambassadors play their part in tackling international corruption, which we know damages developing countries.

It is important to recognise the context in which we are speaking. Today is 11 December, and on this day, 800 women will die unnecessarily in childbirth, 29,000 under-fives will die from preventable causes, 67 million children are not in school when they should be and almost 1 billion people will go to bed hungry. The money to remedy that appalling situation is entirely available but is often being stolen for private gain.

Since the creation of the Department for International Development by the previous Labour Government in 1997, the UK has played a leading role in tackling these problems, and we should celebrate that important work and recognise that it is very much being continued under the coalition Government. It is vital that we continue to provide targeted, efficient and comprehensive aid where we know it will have a significant impact on the life chances of our fellow global citizens. However, those citizens are not simply asking us for direct assistance; they are asking us to look at how the conditions that we regulate continue to make and keep poor people poor.

To consider the role of western countries in this scandal, let us take a hypothetical example. A corrupt Minister tenders the mining rights to his country’s substantial mineral wealth. A multinational company guarantees winning the tender by sweetening its application with a large bribe. It most likely does so using a shell company to provide anonymity and an almost total guarantee that the money will be unrecoverable by officials. Alternatively, perhaps the Government sell the mines directly to a recently registered company with no employees, premises or registered activities. The Minister oversees the sale of the assets at as little as 5% of their market value, and the company then sells the assets on for a hefty profit, making sure that the corrupt Minister is well compensated personally for his generous deal. The shell company hides the often overly close relationship between the individual buying the assets and the person selling them, and corporate vehicles essentially render owners unaccountable for their actions.

After the deal, both the Minister and the company have illegitimate wealth from which they wish to benefit, and that is where the second element implicating international business comes to the fore: the laundering of ill-gotten gains through western financial institutions. To access the global marketplace, individuals need reputable banks in countries with strong property rights, such as our own. Without banks willing to take their cash, criminals would be unable to reap the rewards.

Shell companies and money laundering are two major tools provided by western businesses that facilitate devastating global corruption. Before I go on, it is worth commenting on the scale of the problem. Deals very similar to those that I just described lost the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a country at the very bottom of the UN’s human development index—more than its total annual health and education budget combined. In Nigeria, General Sani Abacha stole an estimated $1.3 billion while in power from a country where the national income is just $260 a head.

I suspect that the Minister, who is from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is wondering what he is doing here, or is slightly concerned that he has arrived to respond to the wrong debate, because much of what I have discussed so far relates to the Department for International Development. However, many of these deals, such as the lost funds in the Abacha case, are alleged to have been laundered through British banks, and it is our own country’s role in this global scandal to which I turn.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does not the point that she just made highlight the fact that this issue needs a cross-governmental approach? It is not about one Department looking at this, but a joined-up approach that includes the Department for International Development, the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Through that, we can ensure that the UK continues to be a gold standard when it comes to its relationship with the world.

My hon. Friend makes the case very well and I thank him for his work in the all-party group promoting these issues. He succinctly highlights the key message that we want to convey to the Minister. He can work with other Departments, which will help us do what we can to bring an end to some of the corruption that is causing devastation in developing countries.

Our role is in part a consequence of the sheer scale of our financial services, which undoubtedly play a major role in the nation’s economy. The UK accounts for 18% of cross-border banking and houses 251 foreign banks—more than any other country. London has been voted the most attractive financial centre for asset management and is the largest currency trading centre in the world. However, we are also implicated through our links to British overseas territories and Crown dependencies, which, together with the UK mainland, account for one third of all shell companies. A number of thefts from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, were routed through the British Virgin Islands.

Thirdly, and on a very positive note, we are also linked by our potential international leadership on this issue. Since 1997, the UK has proved itself at the forefront of international development work and has recently taken steps to lead the world in global transparency too. We very much support the steps that the Government have taken in relation to transparency, particularly the recent Lough Erne declaration, after the G8 summit there.

I just wanted to comment on the benefits that the Government have introduced through the G8 open data charter and getting agreement to have more transparent company ownership and more transparency about those who control companies. I just wonder what the hon. Lady thinks about beneficial company ownership registry. We have agreed that it will be open, but there is an awful lot that we can do in the way that companies are formed in this country to ensure that this problem is sorted out and that Companies House helps to do so.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. In fact, I was just coming to that point about what we can do on the issue of shell companies and beneficial ownership. I very much welcome—we all do—the steps that the Government have taken to date. Indeed, I personally called for those steps to be taken in my role as shadow Treasury Minister during the consideration of this year’s Finance Act. We have become the first country in the world to commit to developing a public register of beneficial ownership, but it is vital that we implement it effectively. Above all, it must achieve its fundamental purpose of identifying the individuals who benefit from and control a company.

Like my colleagues, I congratulate my hon. Friend on her success in securing this debate and on her work with the all-party group. As she says, the Government’s commitments in relation to making public the register of ownership are very important, but we have to be absolutely clear that the register will extend to trusts, because trusts in particular have been used to hide ownership, not least—as she said herself—in some of the overseas territories and Crown dependencies.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The key is that this register of beneficial ownership cannot be used as a smokescreen to hide the identities of companies and the individuals who control them. It must be part of the solution to ensure that we have greater transparency, and it must have the effect that I know the Government want it to have.

It is important that beneficial owners are required to provide information such as a passport number or date of birth, so that the register provides a unique, verifiable identifier for every person listed. It is also important that the information goes through some means of verification by Companies House. For example, it could be cross-checked with other registers, such as those of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or the passport authority. Where company ownership is not direct, individuals should be asked to explain how they exercise control, and when control changes it should be noted within a reasonable time period. Lastly, it is important that the information is published in line with the principles outlined in the G8 open data charter, to which the UK is a signatory, and on a very practical note, it must be machine-readable and searchable, because the amount of information contained will be vast and it is of no use if it cannot be searched.

The UK Companies Registry already requires changes of names of directors to be made within a 14-day period, so it should not be difficult to require other changes, particularly as something like 98% of companies that are registered with the UK Companies Registry are actually private, small, family businesses, where the ownership is terribly clear already. It is only the very small percentage of companies that are trying to hide things that we need to get to.

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. This register of beneficial ownership should not be an onerous burden on business. It should not only make it as easy as possible for banks’ due diligence officers, civil society groups, investigative journalists and foreign law enforcement officials to use the information on it, but for companies themselves to register the relevant information with the necessary authorities. The more people who are able to access this information easily, the more we can guarantee its accuracy.

It is vital that the register is fit for purpose, so the eyes of parliamentarians from across the House will be on the Government as they implement their own pledge next year. I and other members of the all-party group on anti-corruption will make sure that the Government make every effort to introduce the legislation to make that happen.

Money laundering has been much discussed in recent days, during the passage of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill. Noble members, including former members of the respected Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, not least the Archbishop of Canterbury, have been calling on fellow legislators to take this opportunity to tighten up our anti-money laundering regulations, because our current checks are inadequate. In 2011, the Financial Services Authority found that 75% of banks, including the major ones, had inadequate checks in place and a Treasury report published just last month described the common failures as

“fundamental Anti-Money Laundering/Counter-Terrorist financing obligations... that all firms should be aware of.”

The new banking standards created by the Bill present an ideal opportunity to embed anti-money laundering compliance, both at the very top and throughout the culture of British banking.

Finally on the subject of money laundering, it is worth noting that this week is the anniversary of the imposition of a $1.9 billion fine on HSBC for transacting with Mexican drug lords, terrorist financers and those in countries subject to sanctions, including Libya, Burma and Iran. As a result of the deferred prosecution agreement that HSBC signed in order to avoid more serious punishment, its compliance with anti-money laundering laws is being independently monitored for five years. HSBC will be monitored not just in the United States; the Financial Conduct Authority will also be monitoring HSBC’s compliance with UK laws during the next five years. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on whether those monitoring reports should be published.

There are some general anti-corruption steps that the Government should consider taking. I draw to the Minister’s attention a Transparency International report on asset recovery that was released this week. Clawing back the money stolen in the type of deals that I have talked about is vital, but at present it is extremely rare. Currently, 99% of illegally obtained money flows undetected through the financial system. The seizure rate could be as low as 0.2%. How many people would steal millions of pounds if they had a 99.8% chance of keeping it?

The report suggests that there should be a new law against corrupt enrichment, which would allow suspicious assets that vastly outweigh the declared wealth of a politician or public official to be seized until proven legitimate. That would shift the burden of proof to the individuals wishing to invest, and away from businesses, which are already under significant obligations. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on this proposal.

It is also important to stress the important work of law enforcement in this area. As legislators, we are often very quick to add to the statute book, but of course it is vital that existing laws are enforced. The all-party group on anti-corruption was recently briefed by the head of the Metropolitan police’s proceeds of corruption unit. The unit, which is funded by DFID, costs just 2% of the amount of money that it has recovered, and just 0.3% of the amount of money that it is currently investigating. A £50 return for every pound of investment seems to be a pretty good deal.

The overseas anti-corruption unit, which sits within the City of London police, is also funded by DFID and since its creation in 2006 it has investigated more than 155 cases where corruption or bribery were alleged, resulting in more than 115 suspects being investigated and in the arrest of 80 individuals involving a number of sectors, including energy and natural resources, security, humanitarian aid, construction and engineering, and publishing. For every pound invested in that unit, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs retrieves between £10 and £30 from the clutches of shell companies and returns it to the UK public purse. In times of austerity, the Government should clearly be prioritising areas of work that provide such good value for money.

I will conclude by turning once again to those who suffer the impact of these devastating crimes. I would like to relay the words of a Zambian nurse quoted by ActionAid in one of its reports about the alleged abuse of shell companies. She describes what her hospital would do if it received the money that was owed to it. She says that

“maybe that money would be access hard to reach places.”

She goes on to say that at present the hospital staff can only reach

“surrounding areas which we are able to walk to.”

The President of Equatorial Guinea’s son purchased a Gulfstream jet with suspicious funds, so he could probably solve that problem for them. However, I doubt that he will do so on his own. Instead, let us take the opportunity that we have here in the UK Parliament to do it.

This is an important topic and I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this debate. The trade and investment White Paper, published in 2011, stated:

“Bribery and corruption are barriers to trade and growth. They hinder development, distort competition and perpetuate poverty.”

That is the Government’s view.

The hon. Lady paid tribute to the United Kingdom’s strong reputation for tackling corruption. Earlier this month, the respected non-governmental organisation Transparency International released its latest corruption perceptions index, which ranks 177 countries and territories around the world on the perceived levels of public corruption. Of those 177 countries, the United Kingdom was ranked 14th. Transparency International’s 2011 bribe payers index ranks 28 of the world’s largest economies according to the perceived likelihood of companies from those countries paying bribes abroad. The United Kingdom ranks joint sixth, alongside Australia, Canada and Singapore. We are ahead of the United States and France.

In its “Exporting Corruption: Progress Report 2013”, which assesses enforcement of the OECD convention on combating foreign bribery, Transparency International recognises the United Kingdom as one of only four active enforcers of foreign bribery. That is the challenge. Beyond the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland and the United States, enforcement effort is poor or non-existent.

The United Kingdom is a signatory to the United Nations convention against corruption and the OECD bribery convention. Those conventions require the signatories to criminalise the bribery of foreign public officials by individuals and companies. Transparency International believes that 20 countries, accounting for about a quarter of the world’s exports, including major exporting nations, such as Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Russia, Mexico, Brazil and Turkey, do little or no enforcement. Enforcement in France, Canada and Argentina is limited.

To be effective in tackling corruption and bribery, both the demand and supply of bribes must be addressed. That means that we cannot address the problem alone; it requires a concerted and co-ordinated effort, and other countries must contribute more equally to tackling corruption. The reality is that the risks of wrongdoing being discovered and of being prosecuted around the world are uneven. To address that, we are increasingly leading the international agenda on these issues.

When we held the G8 presidency earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister championed an agenda of tax, transparency and trade, and put tackling corruption at the heart of the G8 agenda. At Lough Erne he secured landmark agreements on tax transparency, transparency in the extractives industries and transparency of company ownership and control. That is in the interests of British firms, and those across the world, that play by the rules. It is about ensuring a level playing field for companies, so that trade delivers the benefits that it should for both rich and poor countries.

We are now taking forward those commitments, including establishing a central registry of company beneficial ownership information, and will be ensuring that the other G8 countries meet their obligations, too. We are working actively with our international partners in the fight against foreign bribery. UK law enforcement departments and agencies have provided training and technical assistance to a wide range of overseas law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies, including the Afghan Attorney General’s Office and Bangladeshi prosecutors, and we have participated in a number of joint investigations.

One of the strengths of the OECD convention is that 40 countries have signed it: more than just the OECD members. Through the OECD bribery working group, the monitoring body of the OECD bribery convention, countries are held to account for their efforts to tackle corruption through peer review. We are fully committed to the OECD bribery convention and we make a full contribution to the working group, which is meeting in Paris at the OECD this week and includes a review of the position in Ireland, in which the UK is a lead reviewer.

I apologise for taking the Minister back slightly, but he somewhat glossed over the register of beneficial ownership. I welcome the Government’s making a verbal commitment—he said that they are working on producing that register—but will he comment on the specific requirements that I proposed about the detail in respect of how it will be produced? He must accept that it is not enough simply to have a registry that is titled “Beneficial Ownership” but has no practical function, as such.

The hon. Lady knows that we are about to publish our formal response to the “Transparency and Trust” discussion paper and we will take forward primary legislation to implement a publicly accessible central registry, as soon as we find parliamentary time to do so. I will, if I may, respond to the hon. Lady in detail in writing on her specific point about monitoring.

The working group on bribery has not been shy about shining the spotlight on the UK. In 2008, it made a point of criticising the UK for having prosecuted no legal persons. Today only nine of the 40 signatory countries—Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, Switzerland, the United States and the UK—have sanctioned a company for foreign bribery. Italy’s first corporate sanction was a temporary ban on public procurement. The German corporate sanctions have all been administrative fines. Our first corporate conviction for foreign bribery in July 2009 may well be the first in the European Union.

The Bribery Act 2010 provides the legal foundation here. In that Act, we have a modern, effective law against bribery that is second to none. It encourages and supports the establishment of ethical standards that are meaningful in the commercial world and society generally. The offence in the Act of failure to prevent bribery reflects the best practice from the working group, in terms of an effective model of corporate liability for foreign bribery. That has better equipped investigators and prosecutors to tackle bribery in the 21st century. Alongside the Act, investment in dedicated anti-corruption police resources has seen a dramatic increase in the number of investigations into allegations of foreign bribery by UK nationals and companies—up from just four investigations in 2006 to more than 20 live cases currently.

Foreign bribery offences are complex and demand considerable international co-operation, and can take years to investigate and bring to court. Consequently, although there have been several domestic bribery convictions using Bribery Act offences, we have yet to see a foreign bribery prosecution using those same offences.

The Serious Fraud Office also continues to pursue foreign bribery cases under the law that preceded the Bribery Act. In August, it charged four individuals with the first Bribery Act offences in relation to corporate behaviour.

Our ambition is to go beyond minimal technical compliance with the various UN and OECD conventions and to maintain a leadership position through best practice legislation that provides a fully effective deterrent to rogue traders. That means ensuring that we have the right tools. The Serious Fraud Office was given new legal tools to investigate foreign bribery allegations and confiscate the proceeds of crime through civil recovery. Earlier this year, we consulted on the introduction of deferred prosecution agreements for use in cases of economic crime, including Bribery Act offences, by corporate offenders. A new scheme for deferred prosecution agreements is provided for in schedule 17 to the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which received Royal Assent in the spring. We intend to implement that legislation in spring next year.

It is understandable that businesses will want to know how they can best comply with the law. We have published advice and guidance on UK Trade & Investment’s overseas business risk website, to ensure that businesses do not spend unnecessary time on disproportionate measures.

The issues that we are debating today are important for the well-being of our economy and the global economy, and for the standing of British businesses across the world. We are committed to ensuring that the UK leads the fight against practices of bribery and corruption. We have come a long way, but we are not complacent. Many points made in this debate challenge us to go further.

Sitting suspended.

Badger Cull

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir.

I make it clear for the record that I am a long-standing trustee of the League Against Cruel Sports. I want the cull to be abandoned because I do not believe there is any justification for its continuation. Indeed, prior to the recent cull, there was a debate in the main Chamber in which we implored the Government not to proceed. We made it clear that there is no evidence to support a cull. I said that the cull was likely, according to the scientific evidence, to make matters worse.

The hon. Gentleman says that there is no justification for the cull, so why is it that the Republic of Ireland only got control of tuberculosis once it started culling badgers? This is about badgers infecting cattle with TB, and we need to react strongly. I entirely reject what the hon. Gentleman says.

I will develop my argument, but the hon. Gentleman is misquoting the statistics relating to Ireland. If we dig a little deeper into the situation in Ireland, it is pretty clear that north of the border, where I believe culling has not taken place, the situation improved considerably more than it did in the south of Ireland.

Order. Quiet in the Chamber. A lot of people want to speak in this debate, so I ask for quiet and for short interventions.

Does not the evidence show that, even with the cull, the targets cannot be achieved? More importantly, would it not be better to use the Scottish system?

Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate is on so-called control of mainland badgers? Will he please address the intervention by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)? This is about scientific evidence; the scientific evidence from Lord May and the breadth of scientific opinion in this country are against the cull.

May I develop my argument a little further, because I have only just started? I have read only the first couple of lines of my speech, and I have already had five people seeking to interject. Please let me develop my argument before making further interventions.

As I was saying before I was intervened on, the Government disregarded the scientific evidence and my and other hon. Members’ assertions that the cull would make matters worse. They disregarded public opinion. The scientific views of a range of eminent individuals have been completely disregarded by Ministers; we have been confronted by Ministers who from day one have simply been gung ho for the cull and determined to proceed, irrespective of the evidence. It seems to me that Ministers are impervious to reason. Disregarding scientific evidence and public opinion so cavalierly is no way for a Government to make policy.

May I carry on a little longer?

As we know, the cull has been a dismal failure. The policy is an absolute shambles. Instead of accepting the Government’s mistake, we have seen the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs indulging in shameless propaganda to try to justify the unjustifiable. The Independent reports him as saying:

“These lovely black and white creatures you see on the telly and you put in your newspaper. They don’t relate to these miserable, emaciated sick animals spewing out disease.”

There is no evidence for that.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on 10 October, the Secretary of State said that

“some of the animals we have shot have been desperately sick—in the final stages of disease”.—[Official Report, 10 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 281.]

In a written answer to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), the Minister said:

“The Secretary of State’s comments about sick badgers relate to the comments made to him by contractors and farmers during the culls.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 714W.]

So there is no evidence at all. We are simply getting scaremongering nonsense from the Government. The cull has been a very costly failure.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate.

Scotland is virtually clear of TB in cattle. Is there not an awful lot to be said for the argument that the Government down here, whose experiment has been a folly, should look at the Scottish situation instead of continuing a cull that nobody recognises as being of any use?

My hon. Friend is right that the Government should look at evidence from elsewhere in the United Kingdom—and, indeed, listen to the expert scientific evidence.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentioned my parliamentary question, but does he also share my concern that the Government appear to have done so few post-mortems on badgers that we do not know what the results are? Does he further agree that, in light of the shambles around the current culling policy, there is a real danger that the Government will go down the route of gassing? Gassing is incredibly inhumane. The real answer, which is also cheaper and more effective, is to vaccinate badgers. That is what we should do.

I will carry on before taking a few more interventions.

What I find so scandalous about the whole process, apart from the fact that the Government have disregarded scientific and public opinion, is that the Government have withheld information about the humaneness of the cull. We were assured by Ministers that of course the cull would be humane. We had crocodile tears from Government Members in the debate earlier this year, when they said how concerned they were about animal welfare and that of course the procedure would be humane.

I will give way in a moment.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is withholding information about the criteria on which the humaneness of the cull has been based. Surely if the Government have nothing to fear, they will release that information—but of course they have been singularly unwilling to do so.

Public safety has been compromised by the cull. Monitors who are there to watch over the cull have been intimidated by some of the people employed to do the culling. Shots have been fired over the heads of monitors—shots have been fired in the United Kingdom over the heads of people going about their lawful business of monitoring the activities of a cull set up by the Government. They have had shots fired over their heads! That is appalling and disgraceful, and it should be condemned by Ministers, but we have not heard any condemnation from the Government. On at least one occasion, people monitoring the culls have had their vehicle rammed by people who favour the cull.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there is some scientific evidence in favour of a cull, as well as strong arguments against a cull? Is it not the case that the Labour party in Wales, which is now in government, was in favour of a cull when it was in coalition with Plaid Cymru? It was only when they won an overall majority that they changed their mind and ceased their battle in the High Court. Why is the hon. Gentleman trying to politicise the matter when his colleagues in Wales were determined to fight in the High Court for the right to go ahead with a cull? What has changed since then?

The fact is that the Welsh Government rejected any suggestion of a cull and are going ahead with a vaccination programme, which I hope this Government will accept for England. It seems a more appropriate way forward, rather than proceeding in the current manner. I am about to come on to some of the scientific evidence, which clearly refutes the assertion just made by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies).

Public safety has been compromised and costs have spiralled out of control, but the Government say that the policy is based on the previous randomised badger cull from, I think, 1998 to 2006. The conclusions of that cull showed that, far from actually making things better, it actually resulted in a 29% increase in the incidence of TB outside the cull area. I will quote from paragraph 9 of the independent scientific group on cattle TB’s final report, which is a weighty tome that runs to some 200 pages:

“After careful consideration of all the RBCT”—

randomised badger cull trials—

“and other data presented in this report, including an economic assessment, we conclude that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the…control of cattle TB in Britain.”

There we have it. The scientific evidence from the randomised trials could not be clearer. It is there in black and white. I invite the Minister to read it. It was actually produced for the Government, and I simply do not understand why they have been so unwilling to take account of the evidence before them.

The cull has been utterly unsuccessful. It was supposed to kill 70% of badgers, but it has managed only 39% even though it was extended from six to 11 weeks. Cattle have been put at greater risk. Ministers say they are standing up for the farming community and that they want to eradicate this terrible disease, but they are embarking on a programme that is making matters worse. They knew it would make matters worse, because the evidence from the scientific report told them so.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He mentioned the science and scientific assessment, and he will be aware that Lord Krebs, in the Grand Committee debate on Monday, described the trials as a “complete fiasco.” There is a critical question that the Minister needs to be asked today. Without prejudging the findings of the independent panel, which was charged with assessing the cull’s effectiveness and humaneness, if it finds that the cull was neither effective nor humane, would the Government stop the cull?

One would certainly hope that the Government would. I am going to refer to Lord Krebs in a moment, and I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Professor Woodroffe, who is a leading expert in such matters, said:

“It’s very likely that so far this cull will have increased the TB risk for cattle inside the Gloucestershire cull zone rather than reducing it.”

Scientific evidence from a few years ago and contemporary scientific opinion both say that the cull is making matters worse. Yet the Government still want to proceed with more culls.

The hon. Gentleman is making a most impassioned speech, albeit one with which I do not entirely agree. Leaving aside the substance of his arguments, perhaps he could address one particular question. One criticism of the trials in Somerset and Gloucestershire is that, according to his argument, insufficient badgers were killed. Had a larger number been killed, would he be congratulating the Government on their success?

I have fundamental objections to the cull. All the evidence demonstrates that it is likely to make matters worse. Even if the 70% target had been reached, scientific opinion suggests that a cull is not the way to proceed. I urge the Government to follow the route taken by the Welsh Government and to embark on a programme of vaccination.

The Secretary of State seems deluded. Even though the scientific evidence stated that the cull would make matters worse and even though only 39% of badgers, rather than the 70% that was claimed necessary to have the required impact, were killed, the Secretary of State said in a written statement:

“The extension in Gloucestershire has therefore been successful in meeting its aim in preparing the ground for a fully effective four year cull.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 34WS.]

It is unbelievable. The Secretary of State is absolutely gung-ho. The evidence does not matter; he will simply argue that the cull has been a success when, even by the Government’s own terms, it has been a catastrophic failure. The target was culling 70% of badgers, but only 39% was achieved. That is barely half.

The culls are making matters worse, and yet Members are straining at the leash to intervene to support the badger cull. I will give way to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), whom I know is an inveterate supporter of killing badgers.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. The hon. Gentleman gives the impression that the evidence is completely one-sided. Does he accept to some extent the evidence of the British Veterinary Association? We have accepted its evidence in other debates, such as on circus animals. It is concise and focused on this. Does he accept that there are at least some scientists out there who take a contrary view and that the matter is not as one-sided as he maintains?

I of course concede that some small percentage of individuals—pseudo-scientists, some might call them—[Interruption.]

On a point of order, Mr Weir. The British Veterinary Association has just been referred to as a group of “pseudo-scientists”. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman may like to withdraw that statement.

That is not a point of order. Interventions as points of order are not going to help matters. Many people want to speak in this debate, so I urge hon. Members to control themselves.

I actually said that some might say that they are—[Interruption.] I urge hon. Members to check Hansard, where they will find that I said that some might refer to it as pseudo-scientific evidence. Irrespective of the fact that some veterinary surgeons argue that the badger cull is justified, many other vets actually take a different and contrary view.

I will not give way at the moment.

I wonder what on earth the Secretary of State is doing. I am reminded of Einstein’s definition of madness, which is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Lord Krebs, to whom the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) referred earlier, seems to agree with me. He oversaw the randomised badger culling trials in the 1990s and has labelled this cull a “complete fiasco”, saying that it has been “even crazier” than anticipated. After the schemes in Somerset and Gloucester missed their targets, he said that

“there is no point in doing something if it is the wrong thing.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 December 2013; Vol. 750, c. GC144.]

It could not be clearer. I am not saying that the Secretary of State is mad, but he is deluded if he thinks he can pull the wool over the British people’s eyes. The cull in Gloucestershire failed to meet the Government’s target of a 70% kill rate—it only managed 39%, as we know.

I wish to take up the hon. Gentleman’s point about doing the same thing over and over again. My guess is that there are about 365,000 badgers in this country, and they would need to be vaccinated annually. I would like to support vaccination, but how on earth will we vaccinate 1,000 badgers a day just to keep the population healthy?

The hon. Gentleman is exaggerating slightly. That will be necessary only in the hot spot areas. However, I will explain in a moment why vaccination is a far better and less costly route.

The Secretary of State’s attitude to the badger cull is deluded. We know that the Government’s cull has failed, we know that it makes matters worse, we know that it is cruel and inhumane and we know that vaccinating badgers is cheaper and more effective. The vaccination of badgers in Wales seems to be working. How it will work in the future remains to be seen, but we think it will work better than the cull.

The magazine Farming Monthly National said:

“Out of nearly 1200 badgers caught in Wales for vaccination, none showed any signs of illness.”

That is revealing, given that the Secretary of State said that badgers are “spewing out disease”. When he was probed on that claim, it turned out to be anecdotal hearsay from the National Farmers Union, which represents only 18% of farmers, and the people who were employed to do the culling. There is no evidence for his claim.

In a written answer to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, the Government said:

“TB testing in culled badgers is not being undertaken as a routine procedure”.

They went on to say that

“the numbers of badgers found to be carrying TB is not known at present.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 714W.]

They do not even know whether any of the badgers that they have killed so far were carrying TB. They are ignoring all the evidence. It seems that the Government are blind to this matter.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is a moot point whether badgers are responsible for infecting cattle with TB. Vaccination is a far better route, with biosecurity measures and restrictions on movement.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I am about to conclude my remarks. I simply say that I hope that the Government listen to the debate.

The hon. Gentleman has been generous in taking interventions. I want to make one quick point. During his opening remarks, he presented the issue as a red versus blue one, but it really is not. It is a black and white issue, not a red versus blue one, as many Government Members feel as strongly about it as he does.

The case against vaccination has always been based on its cost as much as anything else, but the cost of policing the cull has spiralled to four times the original prediction. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cost of not vaccinating looks increasingly serious?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I am delighted that Government Members are as passionate as I am about wanting to—

I will not take any more interventions, as I know other people want to speak. I know that some Members on both sides are passionate about this issue. It is important that we have cross-party support, and I hope the Minister will listen to Government Members.

On the cost, there is considerable evidence making it clear that vaccination is a less expensive way of dealing with this problem. When we take into account the cost not only of culling, but of policing the cull, which would obviously not be necessary in a vaccination programme, we see not only that the cull is useless and failing, given the context in which it was introduced, but that it is an expensive failure and much more costly than vaccination.

I hope the Minister will give us an assurance today that, having listened to the scientific evidence, public opinion, parliamentary opinion and Government Members, the Government will abandon the cull. If he will not give that commitment, I hope he will, at a bare minimum, give a commitment to do what I am about to set out. Given the controversy over the cull, I call on the Government—

If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish on this point, he will, I hope, be able to come in before the end of the debate.

I hope the Minister will support an independent and systematic review by the likes of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons or the Royal Society. Such a review could evaluate all the scientific, social, economic, ecological and ethical aspects of the Government’s policy. If Ministers are so sure—

I am about to conclude.

If Ministers are so sure of their position, they should have nothing to fear from a thorough appraisal of this controversial policy. Such an appraisal would provide the evidence base on which policy decisions could subsequently be based, and it would certainly command public confidence. That is something the Government should consider seriously, and I hope that, when the Minister responds to the debate, he will at least give an assurance on supporting such a review, if he will not give the assurance that the overwhelming majority of the British people want and abandon the cull altogether, as the overwhelming majority of scientific opinion urges.

Order. A very large number of Members are seeking to speak in the debate. I do not know whether we will manage to get everybody in, but in an attempt to do so, I am imposing a four-minute time limit from now on.

It is a delight to be able to speak in this Chamber again, having emerged from my sett. I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on introducing the debate. The last time I spoke in this Chamber, I rather thought it was designed to encourage rational debates and to take some of the heat out of our arguments. Speaking as someone who might even be veering slightly towards the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, I have to say that we sometimes have to try to take the passion out of these things, although I know it is difficult.

The hon. Gentleman declared that he is a member of the League Against Cruel Sports. We are not talking about sports, and if we were talking about blood sports, my voting record would show where I stand. I am a member of four wildlife trusts, and I have been a keen wildlife conservationist all my life. I watched badgers from an early age, and I read the seminal work on badgers in the New Naturalist series by Ernest Neal. Generally speaking, therefore, I am a badger fan. However, the debate is not about whether badgers are great creatures; it is about a terrible disease that is causing misery for many farmers and that is affecting their livelihoods and communities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue is not only the misery of farmers and the impact on their livelihoods and families? There is also the misery of other sentient beings—cattle. Some 35,000 cattle are destroyed every year, more than half of which are dairy cows. I do not know whether the solution should be culling badgers, but we do need a solution.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I did not oppose the cull when it was first proposed, simply because the arguments on both sides are very strong, and the reason for setting up the trials was to find out whether culling works. From what I have seen, the trials have not gone according to plan, for a variety of reasons, which other colleagues will go into in more depth.

I am not sure about the issue—I disagree slightly with the hon. Gentleman, who initiated the debate, on this—because I think there is scientific argument on both sides. That is why it is difficult for lay people such as me and for the public to get to grips with this issue.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Lay people do not necessarily get the information, because the Government do not give the facts out. Is that not the case?

I could not possibly comment, and the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to. I have not looked into that issue. I trust the Government to give out all information properly. Occasionally, if they do not, they need a bit of a nudge. If there are nudges to be given, perhaps they are listening. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need all the facts, but it is difficult to give us all the facts, because everybody’s opinion seems so polarised.

Reluctantly, I did not oppose the cull. I say “reluctantly” because, although I represent a suburban seat—there are badgers there, and a lot of other wildlife—the cull is not something I particularly wanted to happen. However, despite the beard, I am not a bunny hugger just for the sake of it, and there are times when we have to control wildlife.

I want to find out how the culls have gone. I want to be sure that they are assessed properly and that we have all the facts. If they have not been successful, I would propose that no further culls take place. However, if it is proved that the culls have been effective, I may, reluctantly, have to let them proceed again. On balance, I do not think there is necessarily a need for further culls, but I am waiting to be convinced.

None of us in this room or outside must ever forget what this issue really means for individual farmers, their families and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said, cattle. This is an incredibly difficult subject, and we cannot just rush into things on the basis of sentiment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate.

There is agreement in the Chamber that bovine TB is a major issue, especially for farmers. I acknowledge that TB in badgers is part of the problem, and no one has ever denied that it is—it is the Government’s response to that problem that is in dispute.

As we all know, the previous Government spent a significant sum on scientific research, and the overall conclusion from the randomised badger culling trials was that the culling of badgers could have no meaningful impact on the incidence of bovine TB. The pilot culls recently completed were not, therefore, supported by scientific evidence.

I thank the hon. Lady for generously giving way. On the point about scientific evidence, the debate is, in a sense, slightly premature, because we await the outcome of the independent expert panel report, which will assess whether the culls were safe, humane and effective. In the event that the panel concludes that they met all three of those tests, will the hon. Lady accept, as I do, that the culls should proceed?

The scientific evidence I was referring to was the 10-year, £50-million project, which is the fundamental basis for any science relating to the cull.

The pilot culls recently completed were not supported by scientific evidence. The justification for them was that they were to

“test the assumption that controlled shooting is an effective method of badger removal, in terms of being able to remove at least 70% of the starting population in the area, over the course of a six week cull.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2013; Vol. 561, c. 70W.]

Thus, the pilots were designed to test not the science, but whether controlled shooting could achieve the crucial target of removing 70% of the badger population in the cull zone, that figure being key to achieving even a modest reduction in bovine TB.

Therefore, my first question to the Minister is, what percentage of badgers was culled in the two pilot zones? Furthermore, will he confirm the scientific advice, which indicates that if there is an underachievement of the 70% target, culling is liable to make the incidence of bovine TB worse because of the impact of perturbation? Given that the current performance in the pilot zones could only be improved by the use of cage trapping, surely the Minister will agree that the pilot has failed in its testing of the assumptions I referred to. That is the key point: the pilots were testing controlled shooting against cage trapping.

It is generally accepted that vaccination presents an effective method of disease control; yet we are often told that the cost of badger vaccination is too high. However, as has been mentioned, according to a written answer from the Minister for Policing, the cost of policing the two pilot culls was around £1.6 million. Does the Minister acknowledge that if an effective cull requires cage trapping, it is more cost-effective to tackle TB in badgers by vaccinating than by killing? I should have said earlier that a greater problem is the incidence of TB in cattle. Will the Minister acknowledge that the Government need to focus more on securing an approved cattle vaccine?

The previous Government’s response to the trials was to authorize six badger vaccine trials, which, combined with the vaccination programme in Wales, offered the opportunity to measure the effectiveness of the approach scientifically over time. The coalition, however, announced in June 2010 that

“it would be reducing the number…from six to one in view of its intention of reviewing policy on badger control, and the need to reduce spending.”

Will the Minister now agree that it was short-sighted to destroy the opportunity of making a rigorous scientific assessment of the effectiveness of vaccination in the field? Will he review that decision?

It is clear from scientific briefing that in Britain, badger behaviour is tightly defined territorially, which means that TB in badgers is to some extent contained by the animals’ social structures; so it is hard to fathom why the incidence of bovine TB has climbed so rapidly in recent years. One can only conclude that there is a need to focus on cattle movement and biosecurity to work out long-term solutions with a view to eradicating the disease.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North in calling for a review.

I shall be brief, and stick to practical concerns including one or two claims that have been made about practical matters, rather than talking about the science, which I shall leave to the Minister.

There are four myths that I want to discuss. The first is the ineffectiveness or otherwise of shooting. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) said, we need to be careful about leaping to conclusions before the independent expert panel reports, but it is worth factoring into the investigations how much of a bearing the quite high level of animal rights activity had on the effectiveness of the shooting exercise. If it emerges that protest activity—whether those involved were innocently exercising their right to protest, which is fine, or were more strident, active and militant—had a negative impact on the exercise, that should be reported in full. The report should cover the question of what the result would have been without that activity.

As I mentioned in the debate that we had in the main Chamber, I detect a little hypocrisy in arguments about the effectiveness of shooting. The same organisations that now claim that shooting is an ineffective method of controlling or destroying a mammal of the size in question said something else on the subject of foxes, in a different debate only a few years ago. The RSPCA said:

“Shooting is widely held to be a humane method of control in skilled hands”.

The League Against Cruel Sports, the organisation that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) is associated with, said:

“Culling should be carried out by the most efficient and humane methods available. In practice we believe this means the use of high velocity rifles by users who have passed a competency test or by humane trapping”.

It seems odd to me that the method that was deemed to be the answer to all the queries a few years ago is now deemed inappropriate.

I know that the hon. Gentleman said he would leave the science to the Minister, but it would be good if he knew a little of it. There is a vast difference between culling badgers and culling foxes, and if he had availed himself of yesterday’s briefing by a scientist who works in this field, he would have seen that those animals act differently, so such a correlation cannot be made.

I am grateful for the lesson on countryside management. Actually the method of control is similar and the activity of the animals is very similar. If the hon. Lady had, as I have, spent many hours studying how they behave at night, in the lights of a vehicle or the lights used by an expert, she might reach another conclusion. Perhaps that is a debate for another day.

Surely it would have been most sensible to mark the ammunition used in the pilot, so that the public could be assured about whether the bullets that were fired reached their target. There has been no such marking of ammunition, so it is not possible to be certain that it did not damage and wound badgers. I have mentioned the issue time and again, and I do not understand why the Department is so loth to do it, so that we know exactly what happens.

The Natural England licensing conditions are clear about the sort of ammunition and weaponry that should be used, and the degree of expertise to be deployed. We all need to wait to see if there was any wounding—let alone what the rate of that was—so I shall not answer the question and I do not suppose the Minister can either.

Opponents of the cull have quite reasonably pointed out that cage trapping can be more effective; but they have also said that it is ineffective, or less effective than it could be. I find that odd. If it is ineffective for the purpose of removal, why should it be effective for the purpose of vaccination? If we can learn anything from what has been said, it is that it is very difficult to trap wild animals, whether to dispose of them with a weapon or to inject them with a vaccine. I do not say that it is not possible. I live almost next door to the vaccination operation that is going on in Wales, and am well aware of the practical difficulties that are being encountered; but we cannot say that trapping badgers to shoot them is ineffective, but trapping them to vaccinate them is effective. That does not wash.

The third myth is that public safety has been compromised. There does not seem to be any evidence. Perhaps the hon. Member for Derby North can come up with hard and fast evidence. Before we bandy scare stories around we need examples. I mentioned the endorsement given by animal welfare organisations in the past few years to the use of high-velocity weapons for the control of other mammals in Britain. It is odd: if it does not pose a public safety issue to put fox control into the hands of someone with a high-powered weapon who knows what they are doing, why should it pose a safety issue when someone engages in precisely the same activity to control badgers, with the same weapon, ammunition and training, in the same place? If someone can answer that question I should be grateful.

The fourth myth is that the cull has increased police costs. The history of the hon. Gentleman in the animal welfare movement is perfectly reasonable, but I venture to suggest that had it not been for animal rights activity—violence, intimidation and damage—carried out in or around the cull areas, there would have been no need for any policing costs. The only policing costs are to do with policing animal rights activity. They have nothing to do with the cost of the cull itself.

It is nice of the hon. Gentleman to take pity on me; don’t cull me.

The only body that has been sanctioned for its activities in connection with the issue is the RSPCA, which has today been accused by the Advertising Standards Authority of being alarmist because of what it has said.

My hon. Friend makes a good point.

I have 21 seconds left, so I shall say that farmers do a fantastic job. They have been through hell in the past 20 or 30 years, and animal welfare organisations have been involved only in the past few years. To my mind, for my family, in my area and for my constituents, farmers are the celebrities we should listen to.

I add my congratulations to those given to the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate. It is critical that MPs should be properly involved in future decisions about the control of TB, and that those decisions should be voted on by the House.

The pilot badger cull can be judged only a spectacular failure, including against the Government’s own terms of reference. No one is leaping to premature conclusions because some of the figures speak for themselves. The policy specified that a minimum of 70% of the badger population should be removed within a single six-week period but, as colleagues have said, contractors are estimated to have removed 65% of the population in the Somerset zone after nine weeks of culling, and less than 40% of the Gloucestershire population after 11 weeks and two days.

We know that killing too few badgers over an extended time frame not only risks further reducing the already modest long-term reduction of new herd TB incidence in cattle that the Government were predicting, but crucially is likely to make things even worse for farmers because of perturbation of the remaining badger populations leading to increased prevalence of bovine TB infection among badgers.

The pilots were also supposed to determine the humaneness of controlled shooting as a method of culling badgers, but only 155 badgers have been subject to post mortem examination during the pilot culls—almost 100 fewer than the low number that DEFRA originally said would be examined. There are no guarantees that all the badgers will have died as a result of shooting. Like me, hon. Members will have heard reports of contractors picking up badger carcasses from roadsides, for example, to meet their quotas.

I have asked the Minister how many of the badgers submitted for post mortem examination were killed as a result of free shooting. He assures me that any cause of death other than shooting would have been identified, but he has so far been unable—perhaps unwilling—to give me the numbers. The issue is important because it impacts on whether we have sufficient evidence to judge the humaneness of controlled shooting. I hope the Minister will provide the information today.

I am anxious that any assessment of humaneness should take account of badgers shot and wounded but not immediately killed. DEFRA has not released details of the exact criteria that the independent expert panel will use to determine humaneness. Having observed the shambles in the pilots to date, I have no confidence that the remainder of the process will be scientifically robust.

The pilots have proved conclusively that shooting is ineffective in removing the number of badgers required if there is to be any chance of reducing the incidence of bovine TB. We know that contractors resorted to cage trapping, which has been more effective than shooting and which any badger expert could have told DEFRA about before the start, but it is more expensive and ineffective overall compared with the alternatives to culling.

I want to make two key points. First, vaccination is a far better way forward.

Does the hon. Lady agree that newer approaches to vaccination are emerging and could reduce the cost significantly? Is she aware of the work of the Sussex badger vaccination project, which has a team of volunteers who want to vaccinate? Such organisations should be given a chance to demonstrate their work.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. I agree with him absolutely, and I am familiar with the Sussex badger vaccination project. As he rightly said, it is a service run by volunteers to offer landowners and farmers in East Sussex the chance to vaccinate badgers at very low cost, thereby providing a humane and less controversial method of tackling the disease. It has said that there is strong evidence that a programme of badger vaccination, combined with a robust cattle control programme, will produce better medium and long-term results than culling in eradicating bovine TB. It has many volunteers on hand to do that. It is just one example of how we could, with the right political commitment, take action that would make real gains in reducing bovine TB and its terrible consequences for our farmers.

The cost of the culls has spiralled out of control when the increased cost of cage trapping and expenditure on policing is taken into account. Based on analysis of DEFRA’s estimates, badger vaccination would cost the equivalent of £2,250 per sq km per year compared with the estimated £2,400 price tag per sq km for the pilot culls. Vaccination is the cheaper option and many other figures show that culling is even more expensive than the DEFRA figure that I cited.

My second reason, and the last point I want to make, is that vaccination works. It reduces the probability of infection by 70 to 75%, even allowing for the fact that not all badgers will be reached and that vaccination needs repeating year on year to include new cubs. It is still more effective and more cost effective than shooting, not least because vaccination allows the badger population structure to remain in place, granting considerable benefits for disease limitation.

My plea is that the Minister should focus on vaccination and rule out gassing, which is inhumane and ineffective. I have asked questions about that, and I am concerned about the responses. Investigation of a cattle vaccine should be a priority to provide some chance of getting rid of the disease.

I am grateful to you, Mr Weir, for allowing me to catch your eye. I grew up on a dairy and pig farm where my father lost his entire pig herd to swine vesicular disease and my mother was frightened that she would lose her entire dairy herd to foot and mouth disease. I can therefore empathise with my farmers in Gloucestershire whose cattle have had to be slaughtered because of this dreadful disease, which causes a painful death for badgers and other wildlife. Last year, 28,000 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered because of their susceptibility to TB. The cost to taxpayers has been £500 million over the last five years and it will be £1 billion if nothing is done over the next five years.

My constituency is fairly close to the cull and the preliminary results are that it has been successful on two counts: humaneness and effectiveness. If the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who proposed the debate—he is laughing—has a serious accusation about shots being fired above people’s heads, he should report that to the police. They will investigate and if anyone did that, they will have committed a criminal act and should be prosecuted. Let him produce the evidence before he makes such statements.

The real answer is an oral vaccine. The trouble is that it has been around the corner for the 21 years that I have been a Member of Parliament. It solved the rabies problem. An oral vaccine fed to foxes on the continent now renders it sufficiently rabies-free for us to take our pets there.

Much nonsense has been uttered in this debate about the cost of trapping and a licensed injectable vaccine. The realistic figures from the Welsh trial show that that costs about £3,900 per sq km. If that is extrapolated to the Gloucestershire trial alone, the figure each year would be a staggering £1.170 million; I expect that the policing costs of the cull would be less than £1 million. Those who are against the trial cull—I emphasise that it is only a trial cull—should bear that in mind.

Nowhere in the world has a significant reduction taken place without elimination of a significant TB reservoir in wildlife. We saw that in relation to possums in New Zealand, to deer in Australia, and in America.

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the social structure of the badger population in Britain is completely different from the social structure and behavioural habits of possums in Australia and New Zealand?

Having watched badgers, I know that when a badger gets TB it goes into the bottom of the sett, dies slowly over a long time and infects other badgers. That is a fact. The disease is painful and must be eliminated one way or another. Surely we can unite around that. It is not something we want in our wildlife or our cattle.

In closing, I want to make one or two points. A lot of nonsense has been talked about the safety of shooting. If it were not safe, we would have seen more incidents in Gloucestershire. My information is that there has not been unsafe shooting and that there has been humaneness. I do not know of any cases of a badger going away to die. Again, if the hon. Member for Derby North, who represents the League Against Cruel Sports, can produce evidence, I would be interested in seeing it. He made many exaggerated claims in his speech.

We must do something about this dreadful disease. Our farmers have to use one of the strictest biosecurity devices in the world to ensure that their cattle are free of TB, and it costs them a great deal of money.

I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.

If we keep imposing those costs on our farmers, vast areas of the south-west—the hon. Lady’s constituency area—will have no beef cattle. We will then import more and more beef into this country and we will lose jobs. That has happened in the pig industry, and it will happen in the beef industry.

Many farmers in my constituency have an enormous problem with DEFRA and its agencies in respect of taking cattle off farms when they have been proved to be infected according to the criteria. If cattle are waiting on a farm, not isolated, for 21, 22 or 23 days before they are removed, how on earth can we say that biosecurity is at a high level? That is not the case.

Nobody would condone any farmer or anybody breaking the biosecurity regime. In fact, the Government, as no doubt the Minister will tell us this afternoon, have tightened regulations still further so that they are some of the toughest in the world. They are imposing a great deal of economic strain on the farmers who have to implement them.

In closing, I simply say that if we want to import more and more of our food, let us get rid of our cattle industry in the south-west by not doing something about TB. For goodness’ sake, let us do everything that we can with the armoury in our box to see if we can at least reduce it, if not eliminate it.

I, too, would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate. I, for one, think that he can be very proud of his many years of activism on the animal welfare front.

My hon. Friend quoted Lord Krebs as saying that the “crazy scheme” of badger culling had got “even crazier”. As we have heard, the two pilots carried out in the west country have been a complete shambles, and the worst thing is that that was utterly predictable. The aim of the pilots was to kill 70% of the badger population in the chosen areas, but in Somerset, only 58% had been killed at the end of six weeks, while 64% had been killed at the end of the extended cull period. In Gloucestershire, it was even less successful: 30% had been killed at the end of the six-week period, and 39% had been killed at the end of the 11 weeks and two days after it was extended.

Those figures are based on the figures that the Government came up with after the pilots had already started, when they dramatically revised down the estimates of the number of badgers in the cull areas. Somewhat mysteriously, the number of badgers estimated to be in the Somerset area had fallen from 2,490 to 1,450, and in Gloucestershire, from 3,400 to 2,350. That simply looks like pure guesswork, yet back in October 2012 when the pilots were postponed due to uncertainty over badger numbers, the Secretary of State said:

“It would have been quite wrong to go ahead when it was not confident of reaching the 70% target and could have made the position worse.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 847.]

Why was DEFRA so convinced that it had got the figures right this year, and why did it get them so wrong?

That was not the only time that the Government moved the goalposts. We saw an extension of the time limits to which I have already referred, and we saw a move to cage trapping when shooting proved to be a shambles. As we have heard, extending the culls beyond the original six-week time frame could be very dangerous for farmers. We have heard about perturbation and the fact that if less than 70% of the population is killed, traumatised badgers will be moving out of cull areas. The longer the pilot culls and the shooting are going on, the more likely badgers are to do so, and potentially they could spread TB to surrounding farms that were previously TB-free.

As David Macdonald, chair of Natural England’s science advisory committee and one of the UK’s most eminent wildlife biologists, said at the time of reviewing an extension of the pilots for Gloucestershire:

“Perturbation has undoubtedly been caused in Gloucestershire already and an extension by six to eight weeks is likely to worsen the perturbation even more.”

I also want to talk briefly about the comparative costs of culling versus vaccination. The Somerset badger group’s volunteer-led vaccination programme works with farmers who would prefer to vaccinate badgers on their land. They have vaccinated 140 badgers, which works out at £83 per badger, of which the group charges £25 per badger to the farmer. The group said that if DEFRA is prepared to cage-trap the badgers, it will cover the cost of vaccinating the badgers at a cost to the group of £14.50 each for the vaccine. Is the Minister prepared to consider that offer?

Finally, I pay tribute to the many activists who have protested against the culls and maintained vigils. I met many of them at a demonstration in Bristol a couple of weeks ago. It is quite shocking that people such as the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) described the protesters as “malingerers and scroungers”. I was contacted by a constituent who said that she was deeply upset by that description. She had cared for her husband for five years when he was suffering from dementia. I would also like the Minister to confirm that not one protester has been arrested, and that the Secretary of State’s referring to a small minority who resorted to widespread criminality in their determination to stop this was wrong.

Order. There are still a lot of Members trying to speak. I want to call the Front-Bench Members at five minutes to 4 to give them time for a reasonable summing up, so I am going to reduce the time limit from now on to three minutes to try and get everybody in.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) for securing the debate; he managed to achieve what an early-day motion signed by about 170 Members from across the House could not. I want to ask the Minister today why the matter has not been brought back before the House. Several other Members who seem to be in favour of the cull have said, “This is only a trial. It is only a pilot.” Yes, it is. It is what the House voted for. I abstained from the vote because I had not had badger incidents in my constituency, and I knew that there was a great strength of feeling about farmers.

I have had my eyes opened since then—I have moved from being neutral to being opposed. I thank my constituent, Mr Cotton, who brought to my attention the dodginess of some of the science that was being referred to, but I will not explore that now, because we do not have the time. Why is the issue not coming back before the House? I am sure that many hon. Members at the time lent their support to the Bill out of sympathy and a real feeling that something needed to be done, but only if it was science-based, and only if it was a trial. This has all the makings of something that will roll on, regardless of the outcomes of these particular trials. I am very concerned that it seems we can move from controlled shooting, which is what the pilots were supposed to be looking at, to caging, which would be achieved if we were going to be using vaccines, and yet we do not say, “Hang on a sec, let’s stop what we are doing. Bring it back before the House and see if the House would rather explore those options.”

Some people have said today that shooting a fox is not particularly different from shooting a badger. Well, one is a protected species and the other is vermin, but also, as I have been reliably informed by people who are very knowledgeable about such things, a badger has a particularly strong head structure. It is very difficult to shoot a badger. It has to be shot in a particular way—potentially down its side or under its arms—and that makes the controlled shooting of badgers difficult. I do not know why it is being said one minute that the pilots are a success, and the next minute, that we are going to evaluate them.

The Secretary of State seems to judge them as a success. I had a letter from him today, which I asked for in October. He said that he believes that there has been a success:

“The extension…has therefore been successful in meeting its aim in preparing the ground.”

Success keeps being referred to. That does not speak to me of an open mind. It sounds to me like a Minister who may consider just rolling it out.

Bring the issue back before the House. It is what Members want. They have made their views clear, and I think the public will understand the concerns of people such as myself, who have moved from neutral to negative. I am sure that if the matter came back before the House now, there would be a very different vote unless the proposals were very different. Please will the Minister listen to the views of Members and the public? It is not all about hugging cuddly creatures; it is all about deciding whether a protected animal should be treated in this way or in another way that may deliver the same result that we all want, which is protecting farmers but ensuring that we are dealing with the problem in the most humane way possible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing what is evidently a very popular debate.

The Government’s badger cull policy has been described as nothing more than a fiasco from the start to the finish, which this will hopefully be. Truly, it can be described as a shot in the dark at trying to eliminate the disease. We have clearly seen what has come out of the cull: nearly 2,000 badgers have been killed, millions of pounds have been spent and communities have been divided. Unbelievably, the Government are still considering rolling out the policy of slaughtering badgers in 10 new areas next year.

We call on the Government to cancel their killing plans once and for all, and to focus instead on improving cattle welfare, controlling cattle movements, increasing biosecurity and developing badger and cattle vaccination. I welcome the announcement that the badger cull pilot trial has been stopped after marksmen failed to meet the Government’s target of a 70% kill. Remember that that trial was extended by some weeks after DEFRA confirmed that marksmen had only killed 39% of badgers.

Still, DEFRA Ministers pressed ahead with the cull, despite scientists warning against that untested and risky approach. Instead, what we need is a science-led policy to manage cattle movements better and a vaccine to tackle TB in cattle. The Government have now been warned for more than two years that the badger cull was bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife. However, the cull has not helped to resolve the issue at all. Based on recent evidence, culling clearly does not work. Culling risks spreading the disease further, it costs more than it saves and it increases the risk of wildlife crime and of wiping out local badger populations.

It is clear to me that the Government’s policy does not make sense. Instead, they should be implementing a science-led strategy in the fight to reduce bovine TB, including the use of vaccination. In contrast, the Government, I believe, are still proposing to shoot free-moving badgers as the main method of culling. The Government say that the vaccine is not ready. Why is that? It could be because one of the first acts of the Government in 2010 was to cancel five of the six vaccine field trials commissioned by Labour. Also, DEFRA has cut funding for the research and development of a badger vaccine and a cattle vaccine. It seems that the Government still believe that bullets cost less.

I will finish now, because many other hon. Members still wish to speak, by asking the Minister to pause, cancel the culls for good and initiate a robust and genuinely independent scientific review of what went so badly wrong with these pilot culls.

My primary concern as I approach this subject is for the lives and livelihoods of livestock farmers in my constituency that are affected by bovine tuberculosis. Until people see the impact that it has, they do not fully understand why it is such a significant issue for livestock farmers, particularly in my part of the world, where the number of reactors has been very high.

I am extremely passionate about evidence-based policy making and in 1998 I strongly backed the randomised badger culling trials, which have been mentioned, and that was the right approach at the time. In my view, the evidence has been used rather selectively to advise on the way in which policy should be rolled out by the Government. The worry that I had when the Government came up with their proposal was that it ran the risk of making the situation significantly worse.

In view of the fact that in the Penwith area, where there was a proactive cull, there was only 50% co-operation among farmers and there was a large element of activist intervention as well, it was clear that we would never get a licence there. It was on that basis that I went to the Zoological Society of London, and Professor Rosie Woodroffe and I came up with a proposal to establish a vaccination programme that was community-led, volunteer-led, using the big society approach, across the Penwith area. I am pleased that DEFRA is supporting us—it is doing so in a rather minuscule way, I am sorry to say, but at least it is a start—in providing the vaccine ampoules during the whole programme, up to 2019. This is across 200 sq km of Penwith. We have strong buy-in by the local community. The farmers are coming on board. We have undertaken a pilot in the area. Indeed, I have been out to oversee that and I can confirm, as a result of having been in the field and seen the badgers moving the goalposts and doing various other things in the countryside, that even slimy politicians do not seem to have a perturbation effect on badgers when they are being vaccinated.

I raised one of my questions for the Minister earlier. It relates to what the independent expert panel will conclude. Of course, there has been the “what if” question. What if it finds that, on all three counts, the trials are effective, humane and safe? But what if it finds that they are not effective? It is not even there in terms of judging whether the cull is effective in controlling bovine TB, because it would take years to undertake that. Also, I understand that the independent expert panel has been given only a six-week window; it is looking only at the six weeks. I hope—I have asked the Minister this already—that it will be given an extension to the full 11 weeks or more to review the effectiveness, safety and humaneness of the cull, but I cannot see that there is any sense in allowing the cull to continue.

I appreciate your stewardship of the debate, Mr Weir. I want to make three brief points and try to give other hon. Members an opportunity to speak as well.

I am a member of the British Veterinary Association and I think that the aspersions cast on the British Veterinary Association today—the character assassination that was attempted—were wrong and shameful. The many Labour party-supporting vets up and down this country will, I am sure, be very concerned at the way in which they were character-assassinated today by the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson). I think that he should consider what he said, because his passion in the debate does not give him a right to character-assassinate members of the British Veterinary Association, who have the interests and welfare of all animals in this country at heart.

When I intervened earlier, I mentioned the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and I was concerned that its advertising campaign is the only thing that publicly, by an independent body, has been described as “alarmist” in terms of how it has tried to suggest that the only thing to do is vaccinate or exterminate. I wish that we could vaccinate our wildlife in this country and protect it all, but we have to be realists and to make a judgment call about what is more important: sacrificing a few wild animals to ensure that our beef and milking herds up and down this country are protected from a pernicious and nasty disease that ruins lives and ruins many thousands of our cattle in this country, or not doing that. We have to face reality.

The rant from the hon. Gentleman today was very disappointing, because he failed at every opportunity—

No, not to take an intervention; I do not care if the hon. Member for Derby North does not want to hear an intervention from me. He failed to take the chance to support our bovine herd and our farmers and basically tried to portray a picture of it being either them or us. We are all in this one; we have to find a solution to it; and we have to recognise that if an animal is carrying a pernicious disease, it needs to be put down, not only for its own welfare, but for the welfare of the bovine herd.

This is a very difficult, complex, sensitive and not straightforward issue, but despite all that, I have always been in favour of a targeted pilot cull; I just need to explain why. Perhaps it will be helpful if I describe a bit of the context from which I come. Before I entered public life, I was a livestock farmer; that was my occupation. We lambed the sheep out on the hills, and nothing ever gave me more pleasure than seeing a badger. It was a rare sighting 30 or 40 years ago and a great thrill. I have always been very proud of the fact that we had badger setts on my farm and we protected them. I do not farm those animals any more, but I still insist that the badger setts and, indeed, all wildlife are protected.

Another aspect of the context in which I speak is that I have always had a huge interest in wildlife. I was a trustee of the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust before coming here and retain an active interest in developing diversity and balance in our wildlife.

The aspect of the context in which I speak that is perhaps most relevant to today’s debate is that I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales for eight years until 2007, and for most of that time I was the Chairman of the rural affairs Committee—it had one or two different names. During that period, bovine TB and the control of it was a huge issue for the Welsh Government. In fact, we went to Ireland on a fact-finding mission. We met the various bodies in Ireland, including the badger protection association. When we came back, it was interesting that one of the members became a Minister in the Labour-led Government in 2007 and introduced a piloted cull. It was complex at that stage to introduce a law in Wales, and they made a mistake in the legislation. The intention of that Government for four years was to introduce a targeted piloted cull in Pembrokeshire, and that is what would have happened, only they made a mistake in the legislation.

In 2011, a new Minister took over and decided to introduce a system of vaccination. There is now another new Minister. If I had been allowed to intervene on the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), that would have been the question that I asked: what discussions have there been in terms of the view that he was taking and the Welsh Minister? To me, this is crucial. If vaccination would work, everybody would be in favour of it.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the advice of the chief vet in Wales to the former Government in Wales was exactly the same advice as she gives now to the current Government, which is that a cull is the best way forward?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, principally because it gives me another minute. I actually welcome the fact that there is a different process involving vaccination taking place in Wales, because a number of people are saying that it would be much preferable to move to a system of vaccination, and how could I not agree? But ever since I have been involved in this issue, which is probably about 40 years, I have always been told that an effective vaccination is probably about 10 years away, and the situation is not much different today. It is possible to vaccinate badgers; I am told that in Wales, it costs about £662 per vaccination. Every badger has to be caught every year. All the discussions I have had suggest that what is happening in Wales will not work, will not be cost-effective and probably will not be repeated.

One or two Members have referred to different types of vaccinations. I think they are great, and I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is open to all such suggestions. We want a way of dealing with a hugely complex issue that causes the death of huge numbers of perfectly healthy animals, which disrupts and causes massive distress to a huge number of farming families, and which disrupts and causes disease among our wildlife. We need a way of dealing with this. In the short term, I think we need a targeted pilot cull to make certain that we know that going down the cull route is the best way to deliver what we want.

It is great to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I will have to rattle through some of my points to try to deal at speed with many of the issues that have been raised. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) for securing the debate. I would like to single out the contributions from my hon. Friends the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), and the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for St Ives (Andrew George).

I would also like to mention the contributions of others of various parties who made significant points in favour of vaccination. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), who made it clear that she had changed her mind based on the evidence. She made a passionate contribution, demanding that the matter should be brought back to the Floor of the House of Commons, debated in full in Government time and put to the vote. As she said, I think the outcome of such a vote would be very different from the previous one.

The Government’s badger culls have been an expensive failure for farmers, for taxpayers and for wildlife. For the Prime Minister and DEFRA Ministers to pretend otherwise is to ignore the evidence. In 2012, the culls had to be abandoned because the number of badgers had been counted wrongly, which is a pretty fundamental mistake. There were too many badgers. This year, the badgers have been miscounted again. This time there were too few, but with no satisfactory explanation, which conveniently allowed the Government to revise the targets downwards. That numbers problem should not have been a surprise to Ministers, because in November 2012, 30 leading scientists wrote to the Secretary of State objecting to the culls and noting:

“Setting such minimum and maximum numbers is technically problematic, especially when local estimates of badger numbers are very imprecise.”

The Minister’s estimates of badger population numbers for the first two culls have been repeatedly wide of the mark. For the Secretary of State to add insult to injury by talking nonsense about badgers moving the goal posts was ridiculous. That is not good enough, when there is a risk of spreading tuberculosis by culling too few badgers or eradicating an entire local population by killing too many. The first two pilots, failures as they have unarguably been, have at least taught us one important lesson. We can have no confidence whatsoever in the accuracy of badger population estimates. That knowledge reveals a risk of perturbation or of localised extermination. On that basis alone, until sound population baseline analysis is undertaken, we cannot proceed with these culls, let alone the further 40 that the Government desire.

After last year’s cull cancellations, the Secretary of State told us in October 2012:

“Evidence suggests that at least 70% of the badgers in the areas must be removed.”

That was one of his fleeting dalliances with the concept of evidence. He added:

“It would be wrong to go ahead if those on the ground cannot be confident of removing at least 70% of the populations.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 836.]

The postponed culls were rearranged for 2013. They spectacularly failed to meet the Secretary of State’s targets, which had also been transposed into the essential guidelines set by DEFRA for Natural England stipulating that 70% of badgers had to be culled in six weeks to avoid an increased risk of perturbation. At that point, the Government should have stopped, in accordance with their own guidance and the Secretary of State’s words. There was no grey area, but they turned their backs on the science. They extended one cull by 42 days and another by 93 days. Four of the nine members of the Natural England board expressed concerns, including the chair of Natural England’s science advisory committee, who went on public record in November with his concerns:

“I fear there will be two tragic losers, the farmers who are paying the crippling bill for extending this trial”—

that was the Gloucester trial—

“and the badgers whose lives may be lost for little purpose.”

Professor Rosie Woodroffe described the extension of the Gloucester pilot from six to 14 weeks as “uncharted territory” and added that the additional time risked increasing perturbation and the detrimental effects of the cull. The Minister’s cull policy may have increased the risk of TB in pilot areas and surrounding areas.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a bit of a cheek for the Government to say that the pilot culls have been a success, when those of us who are anti-cull have been told not to leap to conclusions until the independent panel has concluded?

That is absolutely right. I do not have time to cover everything, so I will write to the Minister on some issues.

I turn to the meat of the matter. Will the Minister agree to examine the evident problems with baseline badger population analysis and bring forward proposals for more accurate population counts? In the interests of good science and evidence-based policy, will he support a vaccination trial in the south-west of England and compare the results with the cull pilots to establish whether it will be more effective, and more cost-effective, to vaccinate instead of shooting or gassing?

In the interests of transparency, will the Minister agree to publish the full taxpayer and landowner costs of the extended culls, including the cost per badger culled—we anticipate that that will be at least £2,200 per badger—and place a report on the full costs in the Library of this House? Will he agree to strengthen the membership of the independent expert panel to provide additional scientific expertise, and will he be open to suggestions for the composition of that strengthened panel from Labour and others? Will he agree to strengthen and clarify the remit of that panel to ensure that its original task of monitoring humaneness, safety and effectiveness deals adequately and separately, as needed, with the original cull period, the extended cull period and, specifically, the later weeks in which humaneness and effectiveness may have been especially compromised?

Will the Minister publish in full and without delay the transcripts of the independent expert panel, together with any evidence presented, so that full and transparent scrutiny of the decision making by scientific and other peers can take place? Will he also publish in full a report by the independent expert panel? Will he halt any further culls and postpone any announcements on further culls until that report from the independent expert panel has been debated in Parliament with the Secretary of State answering questions? Will the Secretary of State, who has not come to Parliament to answer in full the debate on the extended culls, put any further culls to a vote in Parliament and test the democratic legitimacy of the culls in the country? There has been no vote whatsoever on the extended culls, which is an affront to parliamentary democracy on so controversial an issue.

The numbers attending the debate and the lack of time available for speakers demonstrate the need for the Secretary of State to come to Parliament in Government time to debate the issue, instead of hiding behind repeated written statements. We all accept that we have to eradicate TB for the good of our farmers, but we have to do so in a way that is based on evidence. That is where the Government have failed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing what has been a lively debate. I welcome the opportunity to outline to hon. Members the Government’s strategy to eradicate bovine tuberculosis and the role that a targeted badger cull can play in that strategy. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) set out, we should first recognise the huge impact that the disease is having on the farming industry. Our farming communities continue to suffer as a result of the spread of bovine TB. In the 10 years to 31 December 2012, more than 305,000 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered as a result of the disease. Statistics published only today show that a further 24,600 cattle were slaughtered up until the end of September, solely as a result of bovine TB. Over the past 10 years, the disease has cost the Government more than £500 million, and it is estimated that it will cost taxpayers another £1 billion in the next decade if we do nothing.

Let me start by saying that no one, least of all me, wants to kill badgers. I recognise the sentiment that many people feel towards the animals. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) said, that feeling is shared by many people in the country, and we recognise and understand that. If there were an easy way to tackle bovine TB, we would have done it. There are no easy answers when it comes to reversing the spread of bovine TB, and there is no example in the world of a country that has successfully tackled TB without also dealing with the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. In Australia, a national eradication programme spanning almost three decades enabled the achievement in 1997 of official freedom from bovine TB and an infection rate of less than 0.2%. The comprehensive package of measures included a cull of feral water buffalo. The comprehensive and successful package of measures to eradicate the disease in New Zealand focused on the primary wildlife reservoir of brushtail possums. As a result of those efforts, New Zealand is on the verge of achieving bovine TB-free status. Closer to home, the Irish Republic has also had a comprehensive eradication programme, which included the targeted culling of badgers in areas where the disease is attributed to wildlife. Since 2000, there has been a 45% reduction in TB breakdowns.

I will make some headway.

A number of European countries that have a known problem with TB in wildlife are tackling that reservoir of disease. Badger culling is undertaken in Switzerland and France, and deer and wild boar are culled in the Baltic countries, Germany, Poland and Spain. International experience clearly shows that one part of a coherent strategy to tackle the disease must include tackling it in the wildlife population.

The Minister makes the case with international comparisons, but he must acknowledge that the structure of badger populations in Britain is different from that in southern Ireland and across Europe, which makes the case for culling in Britain unsustainable.

I do not accept that, because the randomised badger culling trial, cited by many hon. Members today, showed that culling contributed to a significant reduction in disease in the areas where it ran. It also showed that, even in those areas that had a slow start, where less than 40% of the badgers were culled in year one, there was still a significant reduction in the incidence of the disease provided the cull was sustained in subsequent years.

The Government have developed an ambitious and comprehensive plan for containing the spread of the disease through our 25-year strategy. It has several components, but at its heart is a recognition of a simple and unavoidable fact: there is no magic solution and no one measure will eradicate the disease on its own. TB is an incredibly difficult disease to fight and we need a range of different measure to tackle it.

Some, such as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), have suggested that vaccination is an easy answer. I wish it were that simple, but it is not. Members will remember that last year, there were concerns about the Schmallenberg virus, a disease that affects sheep. It was relatively straightforward to develop a vaccine that was virtually 100% effective, and the disease is now fully under control. TB is not a simple virus. It is a complex bacterial disease. The bacteria reside inside the cell walls of the host, which makes it incredibly difficult to develop an effective vaccine. As a result, the current BCG vaccine provides only limited protection in about 60% of cases, and even then, the level of protection given is variable. Notwithstanding those difficulties and limitations, we are nevertheless investing large amounts of money in developing methods of deploying vaccine to both badgers and cattle, because, although vaccination is not a solution on its own, it could have a role in creating buffer zones or containing the spread of the disease.

Since 1994, more than £43 million has been spent on developing the cattle vaccine and the oral badger vaccine. We have committed to investing a further £15.5 million in vaccine deployment over the spending review period.

I pay tribute to the Minister for the work I know he has been doing on this subject. Farmers know where the badgers are. Does he agree that if we could roll out the vaccine programme to the farming community, it would help all concerned and stop anguish in all parts of our communities?

We have a badger vaccine deployment fund of approximately £250,000 a year. Uptake has been slightly disappointing so far. We must also recognise that vaccination does not provide protection to all badgers, even once they are vaccinated. In Northern Ireland, a trial has been discussed, described as, “Test, Vaccinate and Remove”, meaning that the badgers are first trapped, then tested, and the ones that are not infected are vaccinated and released and the ones that are infected are culled. That test is only 50% effective, so for every infected badger that is culled, another is pointlessly vaccinated and released back into the wild to spread the disease further.

My constituents are deeply concerned about the issue, as everyone knows. We have to explain to farmers why someone is taking away the cattle, but doing nothing about the badgers at the end of the field. What progress is the Minister making on a DIVA test?

We are working on a DIVA test, but, as hon. Members pointed out, it will probably take eight to 10 years to get a licensed vaccine for cattle.

We are constantly refining cattle movement controls, which a number of Members have mentioned. In 2012, we introduced tough new controls on cattle movements and TB testing. In January this year, we significantly expanded the area of the country that is subject to annual testing and further tightened cattle movement controls, including the conditions that need to be met before TB breakdown herds can restock. Last month, we launched the risk-based trading scheme to encourage farmers to share details of the bovine-TB disease history of the cattle they sell, and to encourage buyers to act on that information. Less than two weeks ago, we went further.

Gary Dunne

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise a constituency issue in Westminster Hall. Gary Dunne was tragically murdered on 3 March 2006 in Benalmadena on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain. He was attacked by 12 men and stabbed to death with a machete by Victor Posse Navas. For his family, nothing will bring Gary back. Every day, they remember him as a son, a partner and a father. Although nothing can be done to soften the horror of the tragedy for the family, much more could have been done, and still can be done, to make life that bit easier for them.

Our British consular staff deal with thousands of deaths of British nationals around the world, often in difficult, traumatic and complicated situations. They deserve praise for their work. More often than not, the support from consular staff is of the highest standard. In this case, however, the Dunne family were left vulnerable; they felt alone and received little help. In the midst of dealing with the news of the cruel murder of their son, they were told that they would have to pay to bury him, not in Liverpool, but in Andalucia in southern Spain, due to local legal restrictions about hygiene. The Spanish authorities said that before Gary could be brought home to Liverpool, he would have to be cremated in Spain. The family received no assistance from the Spanish police and were not met by liaison officers.

Mr and Mrs Dunne had to endure three years of campaigning simply to ensure that their son’s body could be repatriated and buried at home. In 2009, Gary’s parents were finally able to bury him. The intervention of the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), helped enormously. He made personal representations to the then Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, which resulted in progress being made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his incredibly important campaign. I also congratulate the Dunne family on all the work they have done. What happened to them could happen to any of our constituents. Does he agree that the ordinary citizen would expect the EU to ensure that everyone has decent treatment in such appalling circumstances?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention; I agree with him entirely. Further on in my remarks, I will talk about the work that the excellent MEP for the North West, Arlene McCarthy, has done to support the Dunne family and to raise the broader issues.

The Prime Minister played his part. The community and people of Liverpool were a constant support to the Dunne family. A petition lobbying for Gary’s body to be returned home was signed by more than 40,000 people. When his body was finally returned for a funeral in Liverpool, hundreds of well-wishers turned out in the streets to applaud. It is not often that civilian funerals are held at Liverpool cathedral, but the dean agreed to host the service there. Everton football club provided Goodison Park as a venue for the wake. No family should have to face the trauma and struggle that the Dunne family have had to endure—waiting for years before they could finally have a funeral and bury their son. There are lessons that we must learn.

My constituents, Gary’s parents—Stephen and Lesley—have worked tirelessly to ensure that no other family has to suffer such an ordeal. In 2010, I raised their case at Prime Minister’s Question Time with the current Prime Minister. He agreed to meet Mr and Mrs Dunne, who emphasised the need for changes at a European level, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) rightly said, to prevent apparently obscure local rules stifling a family’s ability simply to bring their loved one back for a funeral.

I remain grateful to the Prime Minister for meeting Mr and Mrs Dunne and for his support in that meeting. What progress have the Government made since then? Do the Government see any way in which we could ensure that the system of repatriation does not cause even more suffering and agony to grieving family members?

The Spanish authorities had insisted that due to rules related to their hygiene laws, Gary’s body could not be repatriated for at least five years. However, since then, the Dunne family have discovered that other families who suffered tragedies in Andalucia were told that they did not have to wait such a long time. Will the Government look into why there seems to be an inconsistency in the application of the rules? If the rules indeed state that a body can be repatriated only after five years unless it is cremated, will the Minister make the case, through the appropriate channels, both directly with the Spanish and through the European Union, for reform of what seem to be unreasonable and unfair rules?

After all that, the tragic saga still goes on for Gary’s family. The Dunne family were not informed by the Spanish authorities when the murderer was caught; they had to find that out through a friend phoning them. Owing to their frustrations with the Spanish legal system, the Dunne family tell me that they still do not know whether the killer is still in jail, and if so, when he will be released. Will the Minister make representations on behalf of the family to ensure that their case is brought to the attention of the relevant Minister in Spain? It is critical that the Government of Spain undertake the responsibility to keep the Dunne family informed of developments as and when they occur.

While the process up to this point has been handled atrociously by the local and national authorities in Spain, there is still a lot more that they can do. Gary’s partner, Ashley, and his young son, Kieran, have struggled to receive any compensation. The Spanish court has ordered the perpetrator to pay €125,000 in compensation, yet so far, only €1,500 has been received. Payments stopped some time ago, and the small amount that was paid was of little comfort, as it had to be used simply to pay court costs.

Stephen and Lesley have spent time themselves in Andalucia, at their own expense, fighting for justice for Gary. Due to a legal error during the formalities of applying for the money from the Spanish Government, the Dunne family were only receiving €100 a month from Gary’s killer, which came from the wage that he gets from his work in the prison kitchens. Now even that has stopped. Neither the killer nor his family has significant assets, and they are apparently unable to pay the compensation.

With the support of Arlene McCarthy MEP, the Dunne family have been lobbying the relevant Spanish authorities. In December 2011—two years ago—Arlene McCarthy wrote to the Spanish Minister who leads on this area of policy, but she has not even received the courtesy of a reply. Will the Minister look into that issue as a matter of urgency and make representations on behalf of the Dunnes?

I got to know Mr and Mrs Dunne well, as their constituency Member of Parliament. I have known them now for six years. Their focus has always been on the fight for justice for Gary and his surviving partner and child, but also, more broadly, on trying to ensure that no other family has had to endure what they have endured. However, the court in Spain had ordered compensation of €125,000. Although the issue of compensation has never been the one that the family has asked me to prioritise, I feel that I owe it to them, as their MP and a friend, to say that it seems to me a basic minimum that the compensation should be paid out to the family as a matter of urgency.

Finally, will the Minister assure me that more is being done to ensure that standards are maintained and improved in our consulates around the world? The Foreign Secretary has said that the Foreign Office is always seeking to improve the consular support and assistance in such tragic circumstances. Will the Minister set out what measures are being or will be taken to fulfil that? It seems critical that the staff who are involved in what is by its nature delicate and sensitive work are equipped fully to do their job professionally and compassionately.

I am aware that the Foreign Office has signed an agreement with the national homicide service run by Victim Support to provide the same level of support to families who lose a loved one as a result of a murder or manslaughter overseas as they would receive if the crime had taken place in the UK. That is a welcome commitment on the part of the Government and Victim Support. Will the Minister tell us how that new service will work and whether the Government have reached their goal of offering the level of service that one would expect in the UK for families who find themselves in such tragic circumstances abroad?

Gary’s family have suffered terribly for almost eight years now. They have lost a son, a partner and a father; they have battled for three years just to have a proper funeral for Gary; and they are now trying to receive the compensation that a court has ordered should be paid to them. It is a great tribute to them that they continue to campaign for justice for others, as well as wanting justice for themselves. I believe that they have been let down, and they deserve more from the relevant authorities. I urge the Government to do everything in their power, both bilaterally with Spain and through the European Union, to help us take the matter forward.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for securing a debate on this case. I also thank the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) for his intervention.

May I add my own condolences to the family and pay tribute to their unwavering determination in the face of their loss? The death of a loved one is always distressing, and the grief of Mr Dunne’s family has clearly been compounded by the circumstances of his death and the procedural difficulties they faced thereafter.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is committed to making the process for those bereaved abroad as simple as possible. Providing consular assistance to British nationals who are the victims of serious and violent crimes overseas and their next of kin is a priority and a central function of our embassies and posts around the world.

Before I address the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I would like to outline the involvement of the Foreign Office in the case to date. Following Mr Dunne’s death, British officials were in close contact with the family to provide consular assistance. When, as the hon. Gentleman said, the family experienced difficulties in bringing Mr Dunne home to Britain, consular staff did all they could to help. However, it became clear that under local law, the possibility of a further autopsy during the trial process prevented an individual’s remains from being repatriated, cremated or embalmed. The only option therefore was a local burial until the trial was complete. After that, exhumation before a period of five years had passed would only be permitted if an immediate cremation within the cemetery was arranged.

Representations were made to the director general for the Costa del Sol health district in November 2007 and to the provincial delegate of Andalucia’s health district in February 2008, to see if an exception could be made to these requirements, based on the compelling compassionate circumstances of the case. While sympathising with the family’s wishes, both the director general and the provincial delegate explained that, because Mr Dunne was a victim of murder, his case was considered a judicial one.

Understandably, Mr Dunne’s family continued to fight for his return and in July 2008 they petitioned the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). In October 2008, the right hon. Gentleman raised the case with the then Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Zapatero, and secured an agreement from the Spanish authorities to allow Mr Dunne’s repatriation without a cremation, on exceptional humanitarian grounds. So, with guidance and support from consular officials, Mr Dunne’s family made an application for his exhumation. As we have heard, three years after Gary Dunne’s murder his family and friends finally held the funeral, at home in Liverpool, which they had long sought. Later that year, Mr Dunne’s family contacted the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to express their gratitude for the assistance they had received.

I now turn to the points the hon. Gentleman raised in his speech. First, I will address the question of whether EU-wide procedures for repatriation could be agreed, to prevent other families from facing the horrifying and distressing situation the Dunnes faced. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, this is a difficult and complex issue. The power to act lies with other Governments, and the ability of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to intervene in domestic matters—such as the variations in Andalucian law on repatriation, burial and cremation, which the hon. Gentleman outlined—is limited. However, it is clear that, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said when he met the Dunne family and—I think—the hon. Gentleman in 2011, we should do all we can to prevent other families from facing the suffering endured by the Dunnes.

Therefore, I have asked that, as a matter of urgency, officials follow up with the hon. Gentleman and the Dunnes’ MEP, Arlene McCarthy, on who has done what following the Downing street meeting, so that we can collectively agree appropriate next steps. Secondly, I know that the hon. Gentleman and the Dunne family are deeply concerned about the apparent inconsistencies in the application of the rules governing repatriation. The advice we have received from the Andalucian authorities consistently made it clear that an unembalmed body can only be exhumed and repatriated after five years, unless it is cremated. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there may be factors at play in the other cases that he mentioned that we are not aware of. Exceptions can clearly be made if the grounds are sufficiently strong, as indeed they were in the Dunnes’ case. However, as I have said, I have asked officials to provide a progress report on efforts to establish common practices across those parts of Europe that currently require delays in repatriation.

The hon. Gentleman also highlighted the lack of support that Mr Dunne’s family felt they received from the Spanish authorities, and indeed the authorities’ level of support continues to fall short of the family’s expectations when it comes to their being kept informed of the current status of the perpetrator of this terrible crime. It is important that the Spanish authorities keep the family informed of any developments in the case, either directly or through their legal representatives. I have asked my officials to contact the relevant authorities in Andalucia to see if lines of communication can be re-established. For his part, I urge the hon. Gentleman to consider raising the matter directly with the Spanish ambassador.

On the issue of compensation, I am aware that, as the hon. Gentleman said, although an award of €125,000 was made by a Spanish court to the family, they have only received €1,500 to date. I am conscious that that can only add to the distress they have already suffered. However, the British Government cannot interfere in another country’s judicial process or direct the Spanish courts to enforce payment, particularly when the offender may not have assets with which to pay the outstanding compensation, which I understand to be the case in this instance. Therefore, I am afraid that our consistent advice to Mr Dunne’s family has not changed. Their Spanish lawyer is best placed to help them pursue this issue through legal channels and to advise them on applying to the Spanish state for payment of the outstanding compensation.

Also, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, with whom the hon. Gentleman has been in communication about this tragic case, has previously provided him with information on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, which Mr Dunne’s family may wish to approach for advice—if they have not already done so—about whether they can submit a separate application for compensation from the Spanish authorities.

Our consular staff often have a difficult and frustrating time, but on the whole they carry out their job—as the hon. Gentleman was kind enough, and right, to say—with patience, dedication and a great deal of tenacity. I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman will join me in commending their efforts.

Having said that, I assure the House that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is not complacent. We continually review our consular policy so as to provide British nationals with the best possible service. As part of that work, we have put in place a number of processes to ensure that high standards of consular assistance are provided to British nationals. Our new consular strategy for 2013-16 focuses on doing more for the most vulnerable, including victims of violent crime overseas and their families. Consular teams also undertake regular complex case reviews to ensure that we are providing the most appropriate and effective service in particularly complex and long-running cases, and we employ professional specialists, such as legal advisers and social work advisers, to provide expert advice. In addition, early next year we will undertake a review of the methods used by similar organisations to see how we can develop our own quality control and audit processes.

Cases such as that of the Dunne family highlight the extra support that is needed by those who have lost a loved one to murder or manslaughter overseas. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Victim Support’s National Homicide Service, which in part was set up to address the problems encountered by families such as the Dunnes. Since 2010, the Foreign Office has provided funding to Victim Support so that it can offer such families a dedicated caseworker and give practical support to help with the added trauma, complications and costs that a murder overseas can cause. Those bereaved by murder or manslaughter are now entitled to identical levels of support whether the crime was committed in the UK or abroad, and since 2011 many bereaved families have already benefited from this enhanced support.

In conclusion, I again thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. I am aware of the very great support for the Dunne family that has been demonstrated by the people of Liverpool. This is a tragic case that has been compounded by the anguish that Mr Dunne’s family had to endure in order to bring him home to Britain. I hope they have been able to find some degree of comfort and closure in his return. I also hope that, through their legal representative, they are able to seek the full amount of compensation that is due to them.

Order. The Minister who is responding to the final debate today, which is due to start at 4.45 pm, is not present, so I shall suspend the sitting until 4.45 pm.

Sitting suspended.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

Children’s Centres (Dudley)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and to see my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) present for the debate. I suspect that he, like myself, is here because he was deeply concerned last month when proposals to cut by 40% the budget for children’s centres in Dudley were published by Dudley metropolitan borough council. I was outraged further because three of the seven children’s centres earmarked for closure were in my constituency. Virtually half of the centres earmarked for closure were to come from a quarter of the borough.

That there was no reasonable basis for the proposal ensured its early demise, and I am pleased and relieved that Dudley council withdrew the proposal two weeks ago. Undoubtedly, a major reason for the council’s change of heart is the excellent work of our children’s centres and their ability to galvanise hundreds of parents, together with the wider community that they serve, to communicate in no uncertain terms just how vital is their contribution to families and communities not only in my constituency, but across the metropolitan borough of Dudley.

Three weeks ago, I held a meeting with the principals and parents from Hob Green, Quarry Bank and Peters Hill, the three main children’s centres that were to be closed by the proposals. I was tremendously impressed by their commitment, excellence and the breadth of work undertaken on the behalf of families and communities.

The council’s proposal, albeit withdrawn, has unnerved everyone involved. A will therefore now exists to ensure that the role of children’s centres and the value that they provide are properly understood. It has also been recognised that, as with all public services, there is a need constantly to assess service delivery and value for money in ways that work ever more efficiently in future. For those reasons, I am pleased to be holding this debate today.

Children’s centres provide many new parents with a structure of support that is a lifeline to them and their children. To help new parents and babies get off to a good start, they offer antenatal classes, breastfeeding support, baby massage, maternal mental health support and other such classes. Maternal mental health support can be absolutely crucial to women suffering from post-natal depression and other mental health states that can impact so negatively on babies and small children.

As babies grow into toddlers, a social divide can start to open up, but children’s centres are doing outstanding work to counter it. Parenting classes, help with behaviour, healthy eating and educational play sessions form the bedrock of support for families with toddlers. Since Hob Green children’s centre opened in 2008, the percentage of children attaining the standard expected at the early years foundation stage has increased from 78% to 88%. That is an increase of 10% in only four years.

Dawn Swingler, the foundation stage manager at Hob Green primary school, in whose premises the children’s centre is sited, said:

“It is very apparent when children join the nursery if they have attended sessions in the Children’s Centre. If they have, they arrive ready to engage, happy to leave their carers and ready to learn. If they have not then we as a staff have to devote time to settling children in, building trust and relationships from scratch, all of this takes time and for these children learning cannot begin for many weeks, sometimes months. Whilst we are happy to do this, the knock on effect is that our range of activities for all children is diminished as staff are involved in this crucial work with individual children.”

Although it is right that children’s centres should help families that are deemed hard to reach, the needs of babies and families with young children do not always correlate with their socio-economic status. A single parent who uses our children’s centres told me of her struggle to get off benefits and into work, but she said that she felt strongly that her children are not deprived. That is true of many parents in similar positions. There are many families who struggle on low incomes and benefits, but whose children cannot be described as deprived or disadvantaged. Conversely, there are families on average or above average earnings whose children are seriously disadvantaged.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She is making an important point about disadvantaged backgrounds. Does she agree that the Government’s provision of free nursery care for two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds is extremely valuable? Does she also agree that central and local government should look at ways of using the new funding to offer a package of holistic support for two-year-olds and their families, and that children’s centres are often an ideal place to provide support, because they have the benefits and services that she described?

I strongly agree. I was not implying that we should disregard socio-economic status. I merely meant to point out that it is just one factor that we should consider. I support the Government’s decision to increase the support for disadvantaged two-year-olds by providing 16 hours a week of nursery care. Children’s centres are an ideal place for some of that learning to take place.

There are also families on above average earnings whose children are victims or witnesses of domestic violence or some other horror. Although those children do not fit neatly into a disadvantaged sector by socio-economic standards, they are seriously disadvantaged by any other measure. Domestic violence is not defined by socio-economic status, yet it is a substantial indicator of deprivation among the children of families who are affected by it. The same can be said for alcoholism and drug addiction.

The Government’s classification of wards by socio-economic data, which labels some areas as deprived, is a useful indicator of need but it is only one of many indicators. In isolation, socio-economic analysis is too limited to be the sole driver of policy at a local level. The original proposal to close our children’s centres in my constituency was determined almost entirely by that one measure of socio-economic advantage or disadvantage.

My hon. Friend is making a very important point. In my constituency, the centre that was proposed for closure at Tenterfields was deemed to be not serving a disadvantaged community. In reality, the people living in the Highfields estate in Halesowen who used that centre would have had to travel 2 or 3 miles down the road to other service providers, had the centre closed. The whole of the Dudley proposal was predicated on a nonsensical analysis.

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. I completely agree. The Hob Green children’s centre, which I mentioned earlier, covers a huge area. When Hob Green was started in 2008, a similar proposal to start a children’s centre approximately 2 miles away was dropped. The Hob Green centre therefore covers a huge area, which takes in many different communities with different levels of socio-economic advantage. The strength of our children’s centres is that they serve a wide community and bring together people of different backgrounds, who get on together and learn from each other. That cannot be done if children’s centres are confined to narrow disadvantaged communities.

If any thought had been put into the proposals that we are discussing, the number of children under the age of five years might have been considered as an additional factor relevant to the decision-making process. If the constituencies of Dudley North and Stourbridge are compared, for example, we find that 5,508 children under the age of five live in Dudley North, while 8,020 children under the age of five live in Stourbridge. It is illogical to propose the closure of three children’s centres in the area with many more under-fives while proposing to close only one in the area with far fewer children under five.

Having made the case for the vital importance of children’s centres and the work they do, I will conclude by looking to the future. According to a survey undertaken this year by the charity Action for Children, which runs the excellent Stourbridge children and families centre, more than 1 million families are now using children’s centres nationwide. That is an increase.

I am pleased that the Government have increased the total funding for early intervention from £2.2 billion in 2011 to £2.5 billion in the current year. In addition, there is a national fund of £70 million held by the Department for Communities and Local Government to help local authorities reconfigure services. Does the Minister think that the children’s services department of my local authority should be encouraged to apply to access such funding to bring in more joint working between health and education?

Ideally, children’s centres should act as gateways, so that families can receive the support they need, whether for parenting, health services or child development and early learning. On the health side, I am delighted that many children’s centres are acting as hubs for the increased number of health visitors that the Government have deployed. If children’s centres act as gateways for such services, it is far better that they take a joined-up approach. More can be done locally as well as nationally through the greater integration of health and education. That not only means that families will get a better, more holistic service; it also means that those services will be delivered more cost-effectively.

In conclusion, local authorities now have responsibility for public health and additional funding for social care that has been assigned directly from the NHS budget. There is also now a separate funding stream for disadvantaged two-year-olds for 16 hours a week of nursery education. There is therefore a diverse array of funding sources that a fully integrated children’s centre service can now access. It seems quite wrong to be looking at cutting great swathes of our children’s centres just at the time when the focus nationally is on children’s centres doing more, not less, and accessing more funding streams to enable them so to do.

On behalf of all the parents and children in my constituency, I congratulate children’s centres in Stourbridge and across our borough on the excellent and incredibly valuable work they do on a very modest budget. Long may that work continue.

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Stourbridge (Margot James) and for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) on their excellent work, first, in securing today’s debate on this important topic, and secondly, in stopping the closure of those children’s centres in Dudley. My hon. Friends’ work seems to have had the desired effect, so parents and children in Dudley will continue to benefit from the excellent services of local children’s centres.

Children’s centres provide a vital service to parents and families. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge pointed out, even though our financial position is not good due to our inheritance from the previous Government, we have increased funding for early intervention over the period of this Government. In Dudley we have been able to increase the level of investment in early intervention from £12.7 million to £13.1 million. We have done that because children’s centres and the associated early years services that local authorities provide are so important.

The early intervention grant comes from the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and money for funding for two-year-olds comes from the direct schools grant. We want local authorities to use that money as flexibly as possible to make sure that the maximum amount of funding gets through to the front line to provide services in the way that parents and children want.

My hon. Friend made some interesting points about types of support given by children’s centres, and the idea of universal support versus targeted support. It is important that all parents feel that they can access a local children’s centre. That is the only way we are going to identify families that might have a particular need. She pointed out that although that could be because of socio-economic reasons, there are other reasons why such services might be useful.

Children’s centres are also a useful way of linking a whole community. As a young mother—well, perhaps not so young—I attended the post-natal group at my local children’s centre and found it a really useful way to meet other local parents. Many people have been through similar experiences and really value them.

The Department for Education has recently issued guidance to local authorities, making it absolutely clear that they should ensure that

“a network of children’s centres is accessible to all families with young children in their area”,

and that

“children’s centres and their services are within reasonable reach of all families with young children in urban and rural areas, taking into account distance and availability of transport”.

The guidance also states that

“together with local commissioners of health services and employment services”,

local authorities should

“consider how best to ensure that the families who need services can be supported to access them”.

On the subject of statutory guidance, local authorities are under a statutory duty to consult on matters such as these. In the case of Dudley there is a peculiar situation whereby the leadership of Dudley council has withdrawn the original proposal but is continuing to consult on it. One concern is that the council might use the results of that consultation to revise the proposals. Does the Minister agree that it is important that if Dudley council comes back with a revised proposal, it should have to consult again, and should not be able to use the contents of a consultation that is still going on, despite the fact that the council is saying it is withdrawing the proposal?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I will look into the specific position of Dudley council. We are clear in our guidance, however, that the starting point should therefore be a presumption against the closure of children’s centres. That is an important part of our guidance, because having a wide network is important, so that parents are able to access a children’s centre near their home. Other research by the Department for Education suggests that parents are not willing to travel great distances for early years services, as obviously, with young children it can be difficult to travel long distances. That is why we have a presumption against the closure of children’s centres. In fact, less than 1% have been closed since the start of this Parliament, and new centres have been opened.

I also commend the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge on joined-up services and how important it is that families and children have a joined-up service and experience. Too often, people have to go to different locations for antenatal classes, health checks or parenting classes. Would it not be better for all those services to be on a single site? I went to see some excellent children’s centres with my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) recently. We saw an on-site midwife who was able to give people advice pre-birth, and stay-and-play sessions and parenting classes were taking place on the same site. Other centres have also done birth registration on site, which is often far more convenient than going to the registry office and helps parents to access a children’s centre. That is something local authorities should be looking at. I am speaking to the Local Government Association about that at the moment.

Some children’s centres provide child care on site, although that amounts to less than 1% of total child care in the country. Centres also provide access to child care through other routes, such as local schools and school nurseries, which provide 30% of child care, as well as private and voluntary sector providers and local childminders. I am pleased that children’s centres are involved in our new trial of childminder agencies, and are providing some training to and support for childminders. We want to see more locally integrated networks of services, so that parents who go to children’s centres have a clear steer on what is available locally and where they can get support and help—a one-stop-shop vision.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is supportive of that vision. It has created a £75 million transformation fund, to which local authorities can submit bids. When I met my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government recently, he said that there had not been many applications for children’s services, but we want more integration between health and children’s centres. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge said that in 2015 more of those responsibilities will be devolved locally, so that seems an ideal opportunity for local authorities to consider co-locating services and making them much more integrated and parent-friendly.

Does the Minister agree that the more that services are co-located and brought together, the more sustainable the whole children centre model is in the long term?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point and she is absolutely right. She mentioned the Hob Green primary school and its improvement in outcomes from having a children’s centre on site. Some 50% of children’s centres are located on school sites and we are encouraging schools and children’s centres to work more closely together. That, again, is an excellent model.

Children’s centres can be based in schools and health services. That will vary according to area, but we give local authorities freedom to decide exactly how the configuration might work. Services in rural areas where there may be more child minders, for example, may be different from those in densely populated urban areas. The overall idea is that children’s centres should be accessible for local families and provide a gateway to other services.

A record number of parents—more than 1 million, for the first time—use children’s centres. That shows their popularity and massive success, which we should celebrate. My hon. Friend referred to the early years foundation stage and said that she has seen improvement in outcomes as a result of children’s centres.

Another major focus for the Government is the quality of early years provision overall. This year, we have seen a record number of people going into the early years teacher programme—a 25% increase on last year—and that is good news. All those programmes are about improving the attainment gap and outcomes for children. We have a large outcomes gap in this country between children in lower and higher income families, and we know that much of that gap has developed by the age of five. These services are vital and combine to create the best outcomes for children.

We want local authorities to be creative in developing services and thinking about the parent and child being at the centre of services rather than in the configuration of different parts of the health and education system. Services must be parent-friendly. Children’s centres have shown that they are parent-friendly and the fact that more than 1 million families use them is fantastic news.

I am keen to discuss further with my hon. Friend and her colleagues how we can help councils such as Dudley put together applications for the transformation fund, how to look at best practice throughout the country—centres in York are registering births at children’s centres, for example—and how to spread those best practice models more widely.

The Government have funded the Early Intervention Foundation, which is looking at research into best practice so that that can be disseminated more widely across children’s centres and we can ensure that all children’s centres understand the best way of working with parents and improving outcomes for children.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her interest in the subject, and the clear progress she has already made in Dudley. It sounds from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis that more can be done under the current proposals. Let us ensure that as much as possible of the Government’s funding is spent on high-quality, front-line professionals working with parents and children.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.