Tuesday 4 November 2014
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Animal Slaughter (Religious Methods)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), to his place. I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me time for this vital debate. It is good to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), here.
When the all-party group on beef and lamb, of which I am honoured to be the chairman, decided to conduct an inquiry into the welfare of animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, I knew we were entering a highly polarised and often poorly understood area of public discourse. Discussions in the media have often produced more heat than light, and I hope the group’s report and today’s debate will provide more of the latter.
There are no easy solutions to what is legally, scientifically and culturally a complicated set of circumstances. However, given the legitimate concerns of the public, animal welfare organisations and religious communities, it is worth having the debate in a calm and transparent way. For that reason, the group proceeded on the basis that the inquiry’s ultimate aim should be to improve animal welfare at the time of slaughter. Throughout the inquiry, we were careful to make distinctions between halal and shechita, the different methods of non-stun slaughter and the species being considered. We took evidence, in writing and in oral evidence sessions, from a wide range of stakeholders, including industry experts, Shechita UK, the Halal Food Authority, veterinary professionals, the Minister and the European Commission.
European law requires that all animals are stunned before slaughter. However, a derogation permits member states to allow non-stunning in the case of slaughter in observance with religious beliefs. That is an important point. By law, animals have to be stunned before slaughter to ensure they suffer as little pain as possible, and the relevant laws were informed by scientific and veterinary evidence. Halal and shechita methods of slaughter are exempt from those scientifically established regulations not because they meet a different set of animal welfare standards, but because they are a matter of freedom of religious and cultural expression. In an ideal world, I would like all livestock to be stunned before slaughter, but that must be reconciled with the United Kingdom’s proud record of religious tolerance and our history of allowing communities to eat meat prepared in accordance with their faith.
The report has identified several areas where greater research is needed, and I hope the Government take our recommendations on board when considering regulations on food labelling and welfare at the time of slaughter. As we move forward, it is particularly important to note that, under the halal method of slaughter, the animal must be killed as a result of a sharp blade cutting its jugular vein, so that death is caused by bleeding out. The way the animal dies is important, and there is much diversity of opinion among UK Muslims on whether stunned slaughter is halal. Some in the Muslim community believe that there is a danger that stunning the animal will result in its being killed by the stunning rather than by bleeding out, and that stunning is therefore not halal.
About 90% of lambs and 88% of chickens slaughtered under halal are stunned before slaughter, so the likelihood and duration of pain at the time of slaughter is likely to be much less. However, that still leaves a large number of animals that are not stunned before slaughter. It is estimated that 3% of cattle, 10% of sheep and goats, and 4% of poultry slaughtered in Great Britain are not pre-stunned. One estimate is that 114 million animals are killed annually in the UK using the halal method, while a further 2.1 million are killed under the shechita method. The value of the halal market is estimated at between £1 billion and £2 billion.
Being able to prove that the stun is recoverable and will not kill the animal, but will instead render it insensitive to pain, is vital if we are to increase the number of animals stunned before slaughter. Some witnesses we took evidence from will accept no stunning during the slaughtering process, while others, including the Halal Food Authority, will permit some, but not all, methods of stunning.
We took evidence, for example, on the use of post-cut stunning—stunning immediately after the animal’s neck is cut. Although it is not as desirable as pre-stunning, evidence from studies in New Zealand shows that post-cut stunning reduces the duration of pain at the time of slaughter, while ensuing that the cause of death is bleed-out, making this method of stunning halal-compliant.
I pay tribute to the work the hon. Gentleman did in chairing the all-party group. Some of the evidence we received showed that New Zealand has developed a process called “stun to live”. An animal that has been stunned is used to demonstrate that if it is not slaughtered, it will regain consciousness and continue to live. That is satisfactory to some Muslim people.
That was exactly what we heard. The crux of the matter is that any stunning that takes place under a halal system must be recoverable to be seen as halal-compliant. Not all in the Muslim community agree with that, but many do, and I would like the Government to do more research on that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
The inquiry highlighted that the majority of studies have been about halal slaughter. There is therefore a deficit in our veterinary understanding of the shechita method of slaughter in the Jewish community, which permits no form of stunning. In its evidence, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it had sought to include the shechita method of slaughter in its studies, but that it had not yet been successful in doing so. I therefore urge the Government to carry on that work and to look at the shechita method.
I declare an interest in the agri-food business. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate him on the work he has done on the issue. Does he accept that those who export meat right across the world are put in a difficult position? They want to ensure the welfare of the animal, which is vital, but they are forced to go down a certain route when they export. They also have to look after their employees. In order to win contracts, therefore, they sometimes have to change their methods.
There is a balance to be struck. New Zealand exports a lot of meat to the middle east. It still does partial stunning, and the Muslim community seems largely to accept that. Work can therefore be done on the issue. There is also an argument that stunning in the slaughterhouses makes things easier and safer for the slaughtermen. There are therefore issues about the welfare not only of the animals, but of those doing the slaughtering.
I add my congratulations on the way my hon. Friend chaired the work on this fairly balanced report. One of the issues that we did not get to the bottom of, certainly in the meetings I attended, was the sheer scale of mis-stunning. That was raised by Shechita UK. Nowhere did there seem to be any particular figures on how much mis-stunning there is.
Yes. I am hoping that in a moment the Minister with responsibility for farming will give us more figures. I think we should have closed circuit television cameras in all slaughterhouses, whether they are using shechita or halal methods, or stun systems for the general meat trade. I think that the amount of mis-stunning is sometimes exaggerated. On the other hand, mis-stunning of animals should not happen. It is very bad animal welfare, and we need to stamp it out. We need to be certain how big the problem is. If the system of stunning in a slaughterhouse is not correct, it should be replaced. I have no time for mis-stunning.
I know that my hon. Friend works closely with the British Veterinary Association, for which I am sure we all have the highest regard. Is it the case that if an animal is stressed, that is reflected in the state of the meat? Is that not damaging for the market?
Yes; my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, makes an interesting point. We believe that if an animal is stressed, there will be an effect on the flavour of the meat. It is in the interest of not only the animal but the industry to make sure that it is as little stressed as possible when it comes through the slaughterhouse, but of course, the act of slaughter is in itself very difficult.
The revelations of horsemeat contamination in 2013 highlighted the importance that consumers place on the origin of their food, and the trust that they place in retailers to guarantee that. When that trust is broken, it is felt across the industry. An animal passes through a number of stages from the farm gate to the fork. That is why it is important that the meat should be properly labelled to allow consumers of all faiths to make informed decisions when they buy their meat. It is the all-party group’s belief that labelling should be considered, and it should be on the basis of stun or non-stun methods—not halal versus kosher—because consumers are thought to have a sufficient understanding of what the terms “stunned” or “non-stunned” mean. The group believes, however, that more work can be done to clarify, for consumers of halal and kosher meat, and the wider public, what the terms entail, specifically. That applies particularly to halal, where there is disagreement about the permissibility of stunning, as I mentioned earlier.
The report also makes a recommendation for research to be reviewed and new research to be undertaken where necessary to determine the effect of stunning on the residual blood content left in meat, in comparison with that produced from slaughter without stunning.
I was very pleased by the all-party group’s conclusion that meat should be labelled as stunned or non-stunned. That will give consumers greater understanding. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the hospitality trade—restaurants and pubs where meat is served—it is sometimes very difficult for traceability to be established for consumers?
That is a good point. The labelling system is more difficult in the case of restaurant meat, processed meat, and meat products. We need to remember that quite a lot of meat from animals slaughtered in the halal system and the shechita system—the kosher system—does not land up in that particular food chain. Quite a lot of it goes into the general meat trade. That is an issue that requires us to think seriously about labelling.
In addition to existing research, a report has recently been published by Colin Brewer, an academic psychiatrist, and Peter Osin, a consultant pathologist, comparing halal and kosher beef with ordinary beef and a piece of venison from a shot deer. Microscopic slides revealed that they all retained similar amounts of red blood cells. Their report concluded:
“If ritual slaughter not only causes levels of avoidable pain and distress to meat animals...but also fails in its stated purpose of removing as much blood as possible, compared with other methods, then it becomes more difficult to justify and defend”.
There are measures that the Government can introduce in the short term to help improve the welfare of animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites. First, the Government should review whether compulsory CCTV in abattoirs should be introduced to make sure that there is oversight and that guidance is being followed for all—I emphasise that I mean all—methods of slaughter. There must also be a review of the current guidance available to operators conducting religious slaughter. There is some guidance available, but during the inquiry we were concerned about the lack of guidance that we found on the actual methods of cutting the neck of the animal. Providing greater guidance would undoubtedly minimise the risk of mis-slaughtering and reduce the duration of pain felt.
The Food Standards Agency does not publish information on the number of mis-slaughtered animals, and holds details only of when mis-cuts have occurred—not of whether the associated slaughter was carried out using a stun or non-stun process. That makes it hard to judge its effectiveness and how it compares with different stunning methods. What is clear is that there are gaps in our understanding of the slaughter process. Our inquiry identified several areas where more research is needed, such as on the measurement of pain in animals at the time of slaughter and on demonstrating the recoverability of certain stunning methods to reassure religious communities that they are compatible with their religion.
There is a danger that an outright ban on religious slaughter would not improve the welfare of animals at the point of slaughter. At the moment about 80% of the halal meat produced in this country has been stunned. Driving our halal and shechita meat industry abroad to countries without our robust animal welfare standards and our supply chain traceability might result in more animals being slaughtered without stunning.
I want to thank Weber Shandwick, which is retained by EBLEX, the organisation for beef and lamb levy payers in England, to act as the all-party group’s secretariat. I thank all the individuals and organisations who submitted written evidence and who appeared before our oral evidence sessions, as well as the other members of the all-party group. My particular respect goes to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), who attended all our meetings. We conducted the inquiry in a pretty cool, calm way, and took some good evidence. I hope that the Minister will take many of our points on board. We present our report as a serious piece of work. I should like there to be some animal welfare benefit, and to be able to deal with our Muslim and Jewish communities to find a way forward, so that more animals will be stunned at slaughter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate. I particularly welcome his opening comments that the debate should be conducted calmly and transparently, as he did in the presentation of his case, and it is important that that approach is maintained. I want to draw attention to some issues relating to shechita, Jewish laws on slaughter methods. Muslims have similar concerns, but I will confine my remarks to Jewish methods of slaughter and kashrut.
My first point is that this issue is very important to the whole Jewish community. It recognises its rights as part of British society as well as enabling individual Jewish people who observe the laws of kashrut to eat meat and poultry. Any interference with their ability to do so would be a gross infringement of civil rights. The Jewish laws of kashrut are part of a wider concern for animal welfare. Shechita is carried out by trained, licensed experts. Animals are killed by a single cut to the throat in a prescribed way from a special surgically sharp knife that is regularly inspected. Blood flow to the brain is immediately cut off with consequential inability to feel pain and subsequent rapid death. There are too many other rules of kashrut to enumerate here, but it is important to point out that they are all related to enhancing animal welfare.
Criticism of Jewish methods of slaughter, of shechita, claims or often assumes that other methods of slaughter are more humane. Those other methods include stunning by penetrative bolt or by electrocution. They include chickens being shackled by their ankles and dipped into a weather bath and electrocuted, and pigs herded into a room and gassed. None of those methods are pleasant.
What are the facts about allegations of cruelty in Jewish methods of slaughter compared with other methods? It is important to recognise, as has happened in this debate, that mechanical stunning has a high failure rate. Many more animals suffer because of inadequate stunning than are killed altogether by shechita. The report of the EU Food Safety Authority stated that failure rates for penetrative captive bolt stunning may be as high as 6.6%—2 million cows. It also reported that failure for non-penetrative captive bolt stunning and electric stunning could be as high as 31%—10 million cows. In comparison, the total number of cattle killed by shechita in any one year is 20,000. It is clearly accepted, and has been by hon. Members this morning, that there are many cases of failed stunning and it is extremely important to register that. It is sometimes assumed that that is a superior method to shechita.
In addition to that report, a more recent one from Animal Aid, “The Humane Slaughter Myth”, recorded the results of filming in three random slaughterhouses in 2009. Among other things, it found pigs, sheep and calves inadequately stunned by electrocution and recounted horrific scenes of those animals trying to escape, howling and thrashing around. It reported injured animals who were then slaughtered and ewes watching their young killed. It is important to note that both practices are specifically prohibited under a range of intricate Jewish laws that prohibit cruelty to animals and make them not kosher and not able to be eaten by Jews observing kashrut.
I thank the hon. Lady for her sensible and calm approach to this matter. One of our concerns when we took evidence was that not all animals killed by the shechita method were found to be of kosher standard or quality and had to go into the general meat trade. Can anything be done to ensure that only animals that will be suitable for kosher meat are killed by the shechita method?
Some parts of animals are prohibited from being eaten by people who observe the laws of kashrut and they are often sold in other parts of the food chain. That is part of the system. I know that there are issues about labelling slaughtering methods. I do not think that labelling would be objected to in principle, but it should apply to all types of killing and all situations in which killing takes place.
I am grateful for the calm way we are debating this matter. We found from the evidence presented to us that in some big slaughterhouses not all slaughtering is necessarily checked by the Jewish community and some animals go through the system and end up in the normal food chain without going through the shechita system. There is a way to tighten up on that. The issue involves not just parts of the animals but whole animals that go through the system and are not fully checked. We could do more about that.
I accept that further steps could be taken, but my essential concern is about a preserving the rights of the Jewish community as part of British society to maintain its traditions and religious laws that are all designed to enhance animal welfare. I am greatly concerned about the often unstated assumption that stunning is more humane and that animals that are not killed according to Jewish laws do not suffer. The evidence simply does not substantiate that.
Shechita is humane. It is part of a body of Jewish laws designed to improve animal welfare and is vital to the Jewish community. The debate will continue and it is important that it does so calmly, recognising the rights of animals to the highest welfare standards and also recognising the rights of all communities within the United Kingdom.
On 16 January, the other place debated religious slaughter, showing a high level of scientific, practical and religious expertise. For example, Lord Winston and Lord Sacks gave scientific and religious justifications of shechita slaughter that I would recommend to anyone who is interested. I appreciate the non-emotive tone used by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) said, let us be under no illusions about how emotive the issue is for the Orthodox Jewish British community. In the event of a ban on non-stunned meat—I appreciate that that has not been recommended by my hon. Friend—they would either have to import their meat or move to a place where they could eat it and maintain their civil liberties.
The report of July 2014 by the all-party group on beef and lamb, chaired by my hon. Friend, set out areas for future debate and asked as many questions as it answered. In particular, it accepted that concerns over shechita slaughter are not supported by scientific evidence and called for more research. I note the report’s statement that it is worth debating
“whether the right to Freedom of Religious Expression outweighs animal welfare considerations”.
However, that is not the right starting point from a Jewish point of view, which is that a single knife cut stuns, kills and exsanguinates in a single act. Accordingly, the Jewish view is that shechita is the most humane and animal welfare friendly method of slaughter and is not to be weighed against or bargained with freedom of religious expression.
A conceptual problem is that modern slaughter practice, including stunning, is based on mechanised, mass market, cheap food requirements. That is not the starting point for shechita, where the quality of and respect to be given to each animal is key.
Another issue relates to whether or to what extent the animal feels pain during slaughter. The report acknowledges that there is a “knowledge deficit” about whether a neck cut is painful or not. That issue was raised by Lord Winston in the other place, who said:
“I emphasise that what has been said about pain is another assumption. Of course animals may move after the brain is severed but the brain itself does not perceive pain if it is damaged and, in fact, none of the organs below the skin has pain fibres. You have some pain fibres in your trachea but they are very small. The evidence that animals suffer severe pain after one cut with an extremely sharp knife is extremely arguable. The truth is that, once you are unconscious, nobody knows what the perception of death or pain is.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2014; Vol. 751, c. GC200.]
I should point out that many other academics see shechita as just as humane as other slaughter methods. Moreover, it is certainly considered to be more humane than what happens to the chickens that are hung and electrocuted, the pigs that are gassed, and the cows that can be mis-stunned before the second, later act of slaughter takes place. All that avoids the issues surrounding the trapping of animals or the shooting of game from a distance, which is why many Jews and Muslims ask why shechita and halal should be looked at in isolation.
That question also attaches to the issue of labelling. Jewish rules were, of course, the first to initiate labelling, and all meat consumed as kosher needs to be labelled as such. However, it is then asked why kosher and halal meat in general—say, put in dog food—should have to be labelled, when meat slaughtered or stunned by other means need not be. Moreover, are we not missing the broader point? Namely, would the consumer not be as interested in knowing how the animal lived as in knowing how it died—for instance, what drugs it was given or what density of population and conditions it lived in? Should those issues not also be included in the labelling debate? Personally, I think that they should, and that the all-party group report should be looked at in that wider context.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing the debate and the hon. Members who took part in the production of this report. I follow on from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) in welcoming not only the atmosphere of calm in this debate and the transparent way in which it has been conducted so far, but the overall tone of the report produced by the APPG. It feels better to have this type of debate, rather than the one we had earlier in the year, followed by extensive media reporting, which was deeply divisive and caused a great deal of upset and pain to religious communities, who felt that their religious freedoms were under attack in an atmosphere of misinformation and sensationalist media reporting, which we should all do our best to avoid.
I am a practising Muslim, so the issues relating to access to religious slaughter matter to me personally; they also matter to many thousands of my constituents who are also Muslim. I represent a constituency with a large Muslim population, but I also represent other communities who have spoken to me about issues relating to religious slaughter—in particular, the Sikh community in my constituency, who worry that they are inadvertently consuming meat that, according to their religious laws, they would not be allowed to consume. That is why I will focus most of my remarks on the key issue of labelling, which is very important in order to give religious communities—people of practising religious faith—the opportunity to access meat that is in accordance with religious belief, and for those who wish to reject that meat, either on grounds of views on the humaneness of the method of slaughter or because of other religious views. They should also be protected.
I just say that I absolutely fully support this country’s current legislative framework, which allows religious communities to have access to meat that has not been stunned prior to slaughter. I think it is an important protection for religious freedom in our legislative framework and it should be retained. If it was not, as the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, religious communities would be forced to import meat or consider their long-term future in this country, and that would be a big and important moment for religious minority communities in our country.
The report says a great deal about labelling, much of which I support. As a person of practising religious faith, it is important to me that when I am buying meat, I am able to know whether that meat is halal and whether it has been stunned prior to slaughter. I was a bit troubled by some evidence given to the APPG by the Halal Food Authority in particular, which was uneasy about labelling, because it felt that if people knew that the meat had been stunned prior to slaughter, it would lead to a rejection of halal meat that had been stunned. I think that is a misunderstanding both of what is happening in our communities today and of the essential rights of consumers to know what they are buying. We should not be trying to hoodwink communities into accepting practices that result from mass production and mechanised processes, when, if people knew about those, they would utterly reject and feel very strongly about them.
I agree with the point made by Shechita UK and the Association of Non-Stun Abattoirs about the extent of labelling. Let us say the starting position is the belief that consumers should know what has happened to meat—whether it has been slaughtered in accordance with religious principles and about the method of stunning. None of those is a particularly pleasant way to treat animals. Sometimes I think we feel that we can sanitise the whole process of eating meat. At the end of the day, an animal is being killed, and, for people of religious faith, the killing of an animal is a really big deal, which is why so many Muslims and Jews, in particular, are so wedded to the methods laid down in their holy books for the killing of an animal. A life is being taken and therefore, it can only be done in the precise way that God has ordained, according to God’s law, and that is why that matters so very much. When there is mass production and so much meat being produced in a mechanised way, it is difficult to stick to the principles laid down in the holy books, and some kind of further understanding of what happens in those processes is really important. However, we cannot take away from the fundamental act that is being done, and it is important that consumers understand that more. It is not just a nicely packaged pink bit of meat that we buy in the supermarket; something happened to it before, and the more information that we can give people, the more we can shine a light on practices in the industry, and actually, sometimes shining a light puts pressure on industry to look at better methods that would be more acceptable to the public.
Labelling is something that we should all support, but we should not just go for the basic level, and we should not just say that the burden on industry would be too great if we gave more information. That sounds to me almost as though we are trying to hide from the public what really happens in some abattoirs. We should be totally open and transparent, and labelling should not just extend to whether the animal is stunned or non-stunned; we should look at the method of stunning as well as the method of slaughter, and we should seek to educate the public as much as possible. That would matter a lot not only to people of religious faith, but to people who have no religious faith but want to know how an animal has been treated, and ultimately, how it died.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), not only on the report, but on the way he has conducted this debate, as others have as well, because it is an emotive subject and it is very important that we tackle it in a calm, collected way.
It will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that I do not agree with everything that he said, but the truth of the matter is that my constituents and I—I only eat kosher meat, as he knows—believe passionately that the welfare of the animal is vital. To that end and after earlier debates, I thought, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), that it was necessary to visit an abattoir and see the process at first hand. We did that—I visited kosher and non-kosher abattoirs—and I am going to be very honest: as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) said, anyone who says that there is a pleasant way of killing an animal is kidding themselves. There is not a pleasant way of killing an animal.
We must also consider the wider aspects of the issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) said, what happened before the animal was killed is also important. Was the animal living in terrible circumstances? It could be killed in the most humane way possible, but if it lived its whole life in terrible circumstances, that is also not a pleasant thing to think about.
What is shechita? Shechita is the Jewish religious humane method of animal slaughter for food. It is the only method of preparing meat and poultry in accordance with Jewish tradition—meat and poultry that an observant Jew can eat. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman)—I call her my hon. Friend even though I should say “the hon. Member”—shechita is carried out by a trained person called a shochet, who has been trained for many years before taking up the profession.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that the shochet holds two licences? One is issued by the Food Standards Agency and the other by the Rabbinical Commission for the Licensing of Shochetim. That rabbinical commission is a statutory body established by Parliament under the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995.
My hon. Friend is perfectly right: that is the case.
The chalaf is the surgically sharp instrument that is used, and the incision made cuts off the blood supply to the brain straight away. Shechita conforms to the EU definition of stunning. Immediately, the brain is inactive and the animal feels no pain—to the best of our knowledge. With any form of killing at an abattoir, we do not know exactly what an animal might go through.
Let me move on to labelling. The Jewish community is not against food labelling; in fact, we invented it. The hechsher, which is on every piece of kosher meat to prove that it is kosher so that the community can eat it, has existed since time immemorial; it has always been there. However, it would be inappropriate if meat was labelled in a way that was purely of a religious nature. If it is to be labelled, every aspect has to be covered. We have heard about some of the methods of killing animals or stunning animals, such as gassing and electrocution, and we have heard a lot about mis-stuns. There are reports that the figure could be as high as 20 million. We do not know how many animals are mis-stunned. That is perfectly true, but we should know. That should be recorded as well, because if we are to start recording, if we are to start labelling, that has to be across the board.
I believe that one of the great things about our country is the freedom of people to practise their religions and live according to their holy books as they believe they should. I believe that it is vital that that be allowed to continue, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton rightly mentioned, all that would happen if it was not would be that meat was imported from areas that are perhaps far less stringent than we are in the United Kingdom.
They were not from my own constituency, but I received e-mails before this debate in which people said that they were concerned not about how the animal was killed, but about whether a religious prayer had been said over the animal. I do not think that that has any role to play in this whatever. We are talking about how the animal is treated—the welfare of the animal. I believe that whatever side of the debate we come from, we all want the same, which is for the animal to have the best possible life and the least pain possible when it is killed, and I believe that shechita does meet that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to hear so many great speeches. In my constituency, I have two significant groups to which the issue of food labelling causes great concern: the Muslim community and the Jewish community. I speak mainly from the Jewish perspective, as I know more about shechita than halal meat production, but I also speak as someone who passionately believes in animal welfare and, having been a vegetarian for the last 35 years, I think that my actions demonstrate that more than my words.
As I said, I am more informed about the production of kosher meat through the shechita method. That is the only method of preparing meat and poultry in accordance with Jewish tradition. Both the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) went through the technical aspects of shechita, but one point that I want to clarify is that under the shechita method, the blood supply to the animal’s brain ceases immediately. Consciousness is irreversibly lost and, with it, the ability of the animal to feel pain. I believe that it is quick, effective and safe, and it ensures that the animal is not subjected to any avoidable pain.
That is in contrast to conventional mechanised slaughter, which uses industrial methods that I do not believe members of the public would be very enthusiastic about if they witnessed how an animal was incapacitated before its death. In conventional mechanised slaughter, a high throughput of animals must be maintained for commercial reasons. That creates many animal welfare issues, such as workers using cattle prods or kicking or pushing animals to usher them quickly along the production line.
However, the main difference between shechita and conventional mechanised slaughter is in the way in which the animals are stunned. I believe, as do other hon. Members, that shechita conforms to the EU definition of stunning:
“any intentionally induced process which causes loss of consciousness and sensibility without pain, including any process resulting in instantaneous death”
by causing immediate cerebral perfusion. Mechanical methods, on the other hand, may include captive bolt shooting, gassing, electrocution, drowning, trapping and clubbing. This is where I have a problem with the premise that mechanised slaughter is preferable to other methods, such as those termed as religious slaughter. Mechanised methods frequently go wrong, leaving the animal in great and prolonged distress.
Many people are unaware that mechanised methods were originally conceived by large-scale factory abattoirs to speed up the process and stop the animal thrashing around at the point of slaughter, so that the production line could move more quickly. Acceptance of the use of such methods has been adopted by those who express animal welfare concerns in order to allay their own conscience. The use of evidence on mechanised methods in support of the animal welfare benefits is inconclusive and—this is the crux of my concern—I consider the failure rates to be unacceptably high.
By contrast, the shechita process has to be slow and methodical. Any animal or bird that is even slightly harmed before slaughter is not considered suitable for kosher consumption. Special care is taken to ensure that animals are well treated and calm ahead of slaughter, not only because that is mandated but because any other approach would make kosher meat production near impossible.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, mentioned the European Food Safety Authority’s 2004 report on the “Welfare Aspects of Animal Stunning and Killing Methods”. That identified a failure rate of up to 2 million cows for penetrating captive bolt stunning in conventional mechanical slaughter and, with non-penetrating captive bolt stunning and electric stunning, it can rise as high as 10 million cows, so we are looking at 12 million to 14 million cows being mis-stunned each year.
In the Jewish community, the number of cows consumed through the shechita method is just 20,000, so I have to ask why there is this great concern about the 20,000 cows that pass through the shechita and kosher process when 12 million cows are possibly mis-stunned each year. No one seems to like to answer that question. Recently, the FSA was asked that very question.
I think that my hon. Friend is mixing his figures. I think that he is taking the 20,000 cattle in the UK that are slaughtered under the shechita system and probably taking a European-wide figure for mis-stunning. I would not think the figure was anywhere near that for mis-stunning in this country, so that ought to be corrected. It is nowhere near 14 million; I hope to God it is not.
That helpfully illustrates my next point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. Statistics produced by the Food Standards Agency on the number of mis-stuns are a requirement under legislation and—recent parliamentary questions have asked about this—they show that an unrealistically low number of mis-stuns have been reported in the UK. For example, in 2011, just six cattle were officially reported as having been mis-stunned. My hon. Friend will accept that that is an unrealistic number, too. Following a series of follow-up questions to the Department, the previous Minister conceded that those statistics may not be complete and may represent only a fraction of the actual numbers. I look forward to the Food Standards Agency reviewing its reporting methods.
Many researchers believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North said, that shechita is at least as humane as other methods, if not preferable in light of the animal welfare benefits, although others, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), believe that conventional animal slaughter is preferable. However, there is agreement that making any assessment of the pain felt by an animal is incredibly difficult. As a result, the Government’s position has always been that the scientific evidence in this area is inconclusive. No study has ever replicated shechita in a laboratory environment, and therefore no accurate scientific assessment of shechita has ever been carried out. It seems incongruous to me to presuppose that consumers do not have a right to know that an animal has been slaughtered by mechanical methods, or mechanically stunned prior to slaughter by one of the legal methods that I have mentioned. All of those, including the mis-stunnings, as I have said, are supposed to be recorded in slaughterhouses but are not. Labelling a meat product as not stunned before slaughter suggests that no stun takes place at all, when shechita in fact incorporates an effective stun at slaughter.
Some Muslims accept stunning as being consistent with halal, provided that the stun only renders the animal unconscious but does not kill it. That means that the animal will be alive but unconscious at the point of throat cutting. It will die from loss of blood, not from the stun. It is crucial for Muslims that the stun does not kill the animal, so they want to be assured that the stun is recoverable—that if the stun was not followed by throat cutting, the animal would recover consciousness.
I believe that labelling meat as not stunned before slaughter is pejorative and discriminatory, because it effectively places religious slaughter methods in a second-class category. I call on the Government to end the constant criticism of religious practices by introducing comprehensive food labelling, or rather by producing religious food labelling. The EU strategy on animal welfare from 2012 to 2015 states that the Commission plans to study the issue of labelling meat that comes from animals that have not been stunned before slaughter. The study is likely to be published shortly. I urge the Government to seek the introduction of a fully comprehensive food labelling scheme, and not simply to use the half-truth about “meat from slaughter without stunning”.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for the report and for securing the debate. I read the report and was pleasantly surprised, because it was not what I was expecting. It is balanced, although I take issue with several points in it.
Before I took a view on religious slaughter, I thought I would go and see for myself. I am not sure how many hon. Members have visited a slaughterhouse, but my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott) and I ventured out to Witney, of all places, so that we could see for ourselves. I have to say that from the cows’ point of view, there is no such thing as a good death. From what I saw as a layman—I am not an expert—of both types of slaughter, the work of the shochetim in the religious slaughter appeared to be more humane than a bolt through the head. Let us not dance around the niceties—we are talking about a bolt fired at pressure through the centre of a cow’s skull. As hon. Members have already said, all forms of slaughter are unpleasant. We must remember that one is not nice and fluffy while another is cruel.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The campaign against religious slaughter is remarkably narrow. If someone is against slaughter, they should be against all slaughter, because neither method is humane from the point of view of the cow, lamb or chicken.
Before we saw the slaughter, I spent some time learning who does the work of the slaughter. The shochetim are highly trained and have to train for many years. From some reports of religious slaughter, one might think that a shochet was a knife-wielding maniac who had wandered in off the street to slit the throats of cows. Shochetim have to undertake years of training and sit exams to prove that they are of a high calibre. Not only are they highly trained, but they are not allowed to operate unless they are at peace and centred. If they have had a car accident or a row with their partner on their way in, or if they are out of sorts that day, they are simply not allowed to practise. A great deal of time and thought is put into ensuring not only that the animal is calm and uninjured, but that the person who uses the blade is equally calm and unperturbed. The process is calm on both sides—for the animal that is being slaughtered and the person who undertakes the slaughtering.
From what I saw, the person who operates a bolt gun undertakes far less training than the shochet who uses a blade. It is almost the case that a person could apply to a slaughterhouse, and within days and with minimal training they could be operating a bolt gun on a cow. I reiterate that the use of the bolt is not humane, and we need to bear that important factor in mind when we compare the two types of slaughter. As the report says, the evidence is inconclusive about the pain experienced by an animal in the stunning involved in religious slaughter compared with stunning by a bolt through the head.
It is important that we use the term “religious slaughter”. The word “rite” is used too glibly, and we are not talking about a rite. Religious slaughter is not like dancing around the maypole; it is not something that we did in the past and from which we can now move on. It is an integral part of being Jewish or Muslim. It is not an option. If someone wants to practise their faith as a Jew or a Muslim, they have to keep kosher or halal. It is not something that they can choose to do on a Monday but choose not to do on a Tuesday. Religious slaughter is not a rite; it is an integral part of the faith.
Perhaps we should simply label meat. I am not fundamentally opposed to labelling, but why does the labelling have to say “stunned” or “not stunned”? In my view, that is an emotional response, not a factual one. It is discriminatory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) has said, to pick out one or two factors. If we are going to label meat, it is important for the consumer to know whether a piece of meat was stunned or not stunned, gassed or electrified, drowned, trapped or clubbed—or indeed whether two, three or four attempts were required with a bolt through the brain before the animal was killed. If we are going to label, let us label honestly and not try to mislead the public.
I think that the report was a good one, and I fundamentally agree with the statement in the conclusion on page 16 that
“it is to the benefit and pride of the United Kingdom that religious freedoms allow communities to eat meat prepared in accordance with their religious rites.”
I prefer to use the word “beliefs”. In my view, the Government and the House should leave the matter there.
I apologise for not having been present at the beginning of the debate. Along with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and the Minister, I was attending an event to celebrate the great British sausage, at which the maker of the best British sausage was awarded a prize. We were engaged in some of the issues that have been debated this morning.
I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton for chairing the all-party group and for the way in which the inquiry was carried out. I felt some trepidation when we set out on the inquiry, because I was afraid that emotion might cloud reality. However, I think that the evidence was taken in such a way as to allow us to concentrate on knowledge and scientific evidence.
There has been a suggestion that how animals live is more important than how they die. I do not think that anybody would disagree with the belief that animals should be kept in the best conditions and should die in the best conditions. We have free-range eggs, for example, and they are often labelled as such so that consumers can see how the animals were kept and reared. I support the all-party group’s conclusion that meat should be labelled “stunned” or “not stunned”. The Minister has expressed a view on that, and I understand that there are some European problems with going down that route, but perhaps he can explain how we can move towards that situation.
As well as having different methods of stunning and slaughter, we know that slaughterhouses are not always run in the best way. A lot can be done for animal welfare by improving slaughterhouses so that whichever method they use is used in the best possible way. During the inquiry one of the things that amazed me was the amount of scientific work on this subject. I thought the debate was based on anecdote or impression rather than evidence, but there has been a lot of work, which was taken into consideration when we came to our conclusions.
Evidence was given about how the anatomy of cattle differs from the anatomy of sheep. The shechita, or the cut, in cattle is less likely to reduce blood flow to the brain than in a sheep, which would lose consciousness very quickly. There is work to be done on that, too, and everyone acting in good faith will be able to reach a conclusion on how things can be improved. Indeed, one of the report’s main conclusions is that this is a subject that needs to be understood, and one of the benefits of the report is that the public will now better understand some of the issues and that, across the industry, there is a commitment to animal welfare throughout an animal’s life and at the point of death.
I once again thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton for chairing the all-party group. He has done a great service both to the religious communities in this country and to the general public, who want to know how and in what conditions their food has been produced, including at the point of slaughter.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken, particularly the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), for conducting themselves with real intelligence, insight, clarity on detail and compassion for the many interested parties in a fascinating but sensitive debate. I also thank the all-party group on beef and lamb and the hon. Gentleman, its chairman, for producing a genuinely thoughtful report on meat slaughtered in accordance with religious rites. Every member of that group—some of them are here today—is a thoughtful and insightful individual. I declare my interest as a member of that all-party group.
I congratulate the APPG on bringing light to this debate in place of heat. Some people have tried to use the subject of halal and kosher meat as a proxy for a generalised attack on Muslim and Jewish communities. The report rejects that dark populism and rightly focuses instead on animal welfare and informed consumer choice. The report also attempts to take an evidence-based approach, which will not be welcomed by some who have firm positions either in opposition to or in support of the methodologies underpinning the production of halal and kosher meat. It is worth saying that the two methodologies differ in their detail.
The report is the right way to advance our understanding and to encourage sound policy making. Although I welcome the report, I do not think it is the end of the matter. This is a notoriously difficult subject not simply because of the religious and cultural sensitivities but because of some of the technical detail and gaps in scientific certainty. The report, however, is a worthy attempt to understand the matter, and it makes some useful recommendations. The religious and cultural sensitivities deserve our full consideration, and they must of course be set against any legitimate, if contested, concerns about animal welfare and the desire for informed consumer choice expressed through labelling. The report addresses all those matters.
The facts are important in this debate, as sometimes the tabloid hyperbole can overtake the reality. Although shechita slaughter prohibits any form of stunning, more than 80% of halal animals are pre-stunned. The Food Standards Agency estimated in 2012 that 3% of cattle, 10% of goats and sheep and 4% of poultry were not pre-stunned as part of halal slaughter—let us get the facts on the record. Religious slaughter has strict oversight by official veterinarians from the Meat Hygiene Service, and there are strict regulations governing meat hygiene and animal welfare and statutory regulations in each food business operator. The official veterinarians can give written or verbal advice on improvements, issue warnings and recommend prosecutions where necessary.
Of course, several organisations have now come to the conclusion that slaughter without pre-stunning compromises animal welfare. Those organisations include the British Veterinary Association—of which I am delighted to be an honorary member—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, the Humane Slaughter Association and others. They have presented strong evidence to support their case for a ban on such slaughter. But equally, as we have heard, organisations such as Shechita UK contest that evidence and have presented powerful counter-arguments and evidence. Of course, shechita meat could not be produced if there were a requirement for pre-stunning before all slaughter, and there have been some well made points on that today.
The organisations that advocate a complete ban on slaughter without stunning also advocate an alternative way forward if there can be no ban. They propose working with religious communities to enhance the enforcement of existing welfare-at-slaughter legislation where non-stun slaughter takes place; to introduce immediate post-cut stunning; to ensure time and facilities for the official veterinarian to be able adequately to monitor welfare where non-stun slaughter takes place; and to educate consumers.
The shadow Minister is absolutely right. One of the problems with shechita is that the Jewish authorities just will not accept any post-stunning. I can understand the need for an animal to be conscious at the time of cut, but post-stunning would be very useful for large animals.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why we need to work on both the religious and cultural differences and methodologies to find a way forward that, as he rightly says, does not stamp on the liberties that come with the absolutely right and long history of not only tolerance but acceptance of those differences within UK society.
Will the hon. Gentleman say what a future Labour Government, if one should ever happen, will do? I hope that, like us, a future Labour Government would continue to allow religious slaughter, but there is one area that worries me. What happens to the beef, in particular, that is rejected? Does it not just go back into the food chain? Everybody else is therefore buying non-stunned meat without necessarily knowing.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will fully lay out our position. I appreciate that he came late, but that was covered earlier in the debate. I will cover it in my speech.
The proposals on an alternative way forward include educating consumers about animal welfare at slaughter—hon. Members have already addressed that point—and giving people confidence when they buy meat or meat products by providing reliable explanatory information about food labels or logos of assurance schemes that require stunning before slaughter so that people can make informed choices. The final proposal is the introduction of a simple logo for packaging to indicate meat obtained from non-stunned animals or the promotion of labelling from existing farm assurance schemes that require stunning before slaughter, such as the red tractor scheme. Those are reasonable and sensible proposals that focus not on the religious element of slaughter but on animal welfare and informed consumer choice. Do such suggestions meet with the Minister’s approval? How will he act upon them?
An issue raised by some organisations that has attracted much attention is increasing informed consumer choice through clear labelling. The Labour party, of course, supports informed consumer choice and has been a champion of clearer food labelling for a range of issues, such as nutritional information. However, in the context of meat slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, the question becomes what the label should say. Should meat be labelled halal or kosher? That was roundly and rightly rejected by parliamentarians of all parties when a private Member’s Bill to that end was presented to Parliament last May. Should all different types of slaughter be labelled for the consumer? In that case, make room on the label for “slaughter by electrical current”, or by carbon dioxide, inert gas, captive bolt pistol, gunshot or free bullet and so on. Some advocate doing so, as we have heard in this debate, and it would certainly satisfy the need for transparency, although it could reasonably be argued that it is not currently being demanded by consumers.
The hon. Gentleman sets out clearly some alternative methods of stunning, but one hon. Member who spoke in this debate—I am sure it was by mistake—included clubbing as a method of pre-stunning. We should put it on record that clubbing can in no way be seen as a legal method of stunning in this country.
The hon. Gentleman has corrected the record appropriately. I am not aware that clubbing is a legitimate method sanctioned within UK slaughterhouses, so I am not sure where it came from. The methods that I listed are legitimate, sanctioned and overseen by veterinarians, the Food Standards Agency and others.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that on record.
To return to the issue of labelling, how it could be done and the difficulties involved, should labelling focus on the issue of stunning or the absence thereof? That seems to be the crux of the consumer argument as well as the animal welfare argument. If that or any alternative labelling proposals are to be taken forward, Labour believes that any implementation of proposals affecting meat slaughtered in accordance with religious rites must involve full engagement with the faith groups affected, as well as with other interested parties. But—this is a significant “but”—surely that is best done at European level. I ask the Minister for an update on progress in European discussions on the issue. I will be raising it in my discussions with European colleagues this evening and tomorrow in Brussels, and it would be helpful to know what progress, if any, has been made.
The Minister will want to respond in detail to the points raised and to the recommendations in the report. I draw his attention to a couple of specific points. Recommendation 5 relates to concerns about the accuracy of recording of mis-stunning and mis-slaughtering in slaughter practices unrelated to religious slaughter. A written answer to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton on 24 March 2014 revealed that under the FSA recording procedures, in the whole nation only nine cases of cattle mis-stunning were recorded for 2013-14, as well as one duck, three pigs, three sheep and one turkey. The Minister told the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on 1 April this year that a study into the accuracy of the data was unnecessary, but when pursued by me and others in written questions, he responded to me on 26 September:
“The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is due to complete a review into its monitoring and reporting of breaches of welfare legislation by the end of October. Previously”—
this may explain things—
“only major and critical breaches were recorded, along with the actions taken to correct these. The FSA review is now also looking to strengthen recording of minor breaches.”
I look forward to the results of that review, as many people look at the figures with disbelief.
I say to the Minister that if the principle is animal welfare, that principle must extend across all forms of slaughter, not simply slaughter done in accordance with religious rites. We look forward to hearing the results of the FSA review and what actions might follow.
Finally, what work has the Minister carried out to assess consumer awareness of the issues raised in this debate, such as meat slaughtered in accordance with religious rites or stunned and non-stunned meat production? It cannot be left to the tabloids or rabble-rousers to set the agenda. We must have, as we have had today, a well informed and calm public and policy debate that proposes appropriate solutions that apply the highest animal welfare standards, provide clear and appropriate information for consumers and recognise and respect the cultural and religious practices of our diverse communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this important debate. As many Members have said, this issue is complex and sensitive. I had the pleasure of giving evidence to his all-party parliamentary group, and I thought that the report was engaging and got to grips with the details. As many hon. Members have said, it addressed the issue calmly and dispassionately, focusing on the evidence. I welcome his approach. Over the last six months or so, I have met representatives from all sides of the debate, including from Shechita UK, halal meat processors and Compassion in World Farming, to ensure that I have the fullest perspective of everyone’s views on the issue.
I will start by setting out a little of the historical and international context to the debate. Like many debates, it has been running for a long time. Today, European and domestic regulations apply to the welfare of animals that are to be slaughtered, requiring that all animals be stunned before slaughter. However, as every hon. Member here knows, there is a derogation to allow slaughter without stunning in accordance with religious rites for the production of halal or kosher meat only. The aim of the regulations is to ensure that animals are spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering at the time of killing.
However, our current national requirements on religious slaughter have a long history. Government first set down powers to prevent cruelty in slaughterhouses in the Public Health Act, which was as long ago as 1875. Byelaws made under that legislation required that animals be “effectually stunned”. After that, in 1904, a Committee was set up to ascertain the most humane practicable methods of slaughtering animals. The Committee’s report recommended that all animals to be slaughtered, without exception, should be stunned.
Following that report, the Local Government Board issued a circular proposing that the Committee’s recommendations should be implemented, but that stunning should not be obligatory where slaughter was carried out by a Jew licensed by the Chief Rabbi, provided that no unnecessary suffering was inflicted. Interestingly, a similar requirement for shechita slaughter—that it is carried out by a Jewish slaughterman licensed by the Rabbinical Commission for the Licensing of Shochetim—still exists in our current national legislation.
The first national legislative requirement in England and Wales for stunning before slaughter was in the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, which also retained an exception from stunning for religious slaughter by Jews and Muslims. Over the years, the national rules governing religious slaughter have developed to provide protection to animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites.
Our existing national rules on religious slaughter provide greater protection than those contained in the European regulation. For example, there are requirements for how cattle can be restrained. In particular, we prohibit inversion during slaughter, and require bovines to be restrained only in approved restraining pens. The requirements for bovine restraining pens are set down in national legislation. Other national rules concern so-called standstill times for cattle, sheep and goats; following the neck cut, the animal cannot be moved until at least 30 seconds have passed and the animal is unconscious, in the case of bovines, or at least 20 seconds have passed and the animal is unconscious, in the case of sheep and goats. The standstill times are aimed at providing protection from avoidable pain, suffering and distress caused, for example, by unnecessary movement while the animal is still conscious after its neck has been cut.
I turn now to what other countries are doing, to make some international comparisons. European legislation allows for national rules on religious slaughter, so there are differing rules across Europe. For example, in Germany abattoirs have to prove the “religious needs” and define the number of animals to be slaughtered so as to satisfy the needs of the religious community concerned before they are granted a licence. In the Netherlands, all animals must be stunned if they have not lost consciousness within 40 seconds of the cut being made. In France, there must be a post-cut stun if cattle are still conscious after 90 seconds. Other countries, such as Finland, Denmark, Austria, Estonia and Slovakia, go further by requiring immediate post-cut stunning. Further afield, under Australian law stunning at slaughter is required, but there is an option for a state or meat inspection authority to provide an exemption and approve an abattoir for religious slaughter without prior stunning for the domestic market, but post-cut stunning is still required for these animals.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who was here earlier, mentioned the potential impact on exports and the concerns that some people have about what might happen to exports if we place additional restrictions on religious slaughter. I completely understand that argument. However, last year I met a farmer from Australia, who said that all Australian sheep are effectively slaughtered in accordance with halal requirements, because they are exported to some very important Muslim markets in Asia, but those sheep are also stunned post-cut.
The reason I highlight both the historical and the international context of this issue is that there has been a long-running debate about it, which legislators have wrestled with for well over a hundred years. I am not sure that we will resolve all the issues here today in this debate but we have had a very calm and insightful debate, which has certainly helped.
I will pick up on the points that some hon. Members have made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton pointed out, one of the issues with halal is that there is no single definition of what constitutes “halal”. Often in the case of halal meat, the relevant Muslim authorities are content that the animal is stunned. Where that stunning is carried out during the course of religious slaughter, the stun must be effective under the legislation and the animals must also be stunned using a lawful stunning method. As was pointed out by a number of hon. Members, the majority of halal meat is stunned; around 88% of poultry in the UK is stunned.
Also, the EU welfare at slaughter regulation allows for “simple stunning”, which is sometimes referred to as “recoverable stunning”. Simple stunning does not kill the animal but renders it unconscious and insensible to pain and, if it is used, it must be followed as quickly as possible by a procedure that causes death, such as bleeding.
I will pick up on some of the issues that other hon. Members have raised. First, however, I will underline the Government’s position today, which builds on the long-standing position we have adopted in this country. Our position is that we would prefer that all animals are stunned before slaughter, but we recognise and respect the needs of religious communities, so we have always maintained this limited exemption, which is to be used only for meat produced for Jewish and Muslim communities. Last year, the Prime Minister made it very clear in a speech that the Government have no intention of abolishing religious slaughter in this country. However, it is equally important to note that none of the derogations that we have in place, which are set out through the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, exempt anyone from the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which requires all abattoirs to avoid causing an animal avoidable pain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and a number of other hon. Members questioned the evidence that non-stunned slaughter causes more pain and suffering to an animal. I understand the arguments that he made; I have met representatives of Shechita UK and heard those arguments from them. However, that is not a view that is widely shared in the scientific or veterinary community.
Put bluntly, the situation is clear from most of the evidence. There are a number of reports. The Farm Animal Welfare Committee issued a report in 2003, which concluded that there was significant pain and distress where there was not stunning before slaughter. Likewise, in 2004 the European Food Safety Authority issued a similar opinion, maintaining that there was more pain and suffering if there was no stun. There was also the EU Dialrel report and project, which was conducted in 2009 and looked at the neurological behaviour of animals once they are slaughtered. That report, too, reached a similar conclusion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, and more recently there has been research in New Zealand, which reached the same conclusion. So there is a large body of research that concludes that it is better for the welfare of the animal for it to be stunned, and it is for that reason that the Government would prefer it if all animals were stunned.
It is important to make that point, because although the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that we have no intention of banning religious slaughter, we must understand the basis on which that is done. It is not that we believe that there is no difference between the two types of slaughter, nor that we believe shechita is a more welfare-friendly method of slaughter, but because we respect the rights of religious communities. That has been the long-standing position of every UK Government, going back some 100 years.
A number of hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), raised the issue of labelling. The European Commission is conducting a study on labelling at the moment; we expect it to conclude in December. Initially, it was planned that the study would be published this summer, but as usual—because this is a very contentious issue—it has taken the Commission rather longer than it thought. Nevertheless, we hope that the study will come by the end of the year, or perhaps the beginning of next year.
A number of hon. Members made the point that it would be wrong just to label meat as “stunned” or “unstunned”, and that a fairer way would be to list all the different methods of slaughter. The only thing I would say in response is that, from the EU perspective, “stunned” has a clear legal definition in the legislation, and it is simply that an animal is rendered insensible to pain almost immediately. As I say, that is a clear definition and the scientific evidence does not support the argument that a cut without prior stunning achieves that. In addition, it would be complicated to list all the different methods of slaughter and, as the hon. Member for Ogmore said, I am not sure that there would be a huge consumer appetite for us to try to differentiate between all the different methods of slaughter.
I know that previously people have said that perhaps we should label meat as being “halal” or “kosher”, so that people know what they are buying. However, there are also difficulties with that, in that there is no single definition of “halal”, as many hon. Members have said, and a further complication is that not all meat slaughtered by kosher methods is deemed “kosher”; for instance, the hind quarters of an animal are not deemed “kosher”, even though the animal is slaughtered by kosher methods. As I say, there are complications in the area of labelling, but we await the report from the European Commission and look forward to following it up.
I will also cover mis-stunning, which many hon. Members have mentioned. I can confirm that the Food Standards Agency has reviewed the way that it approaches mis-stunning. Previously, it only reported critical breaches that were observed by the official veterinarians in the slaughterhouse. We always accepted that that would not pick up every single mis-stun. Following representations that have been made, which is proof that this Parliament works when people ask questions of Ministers, I can confirm that we looked at this issue again and in future the FSA intends basically to monitor and record all breaches, whether or not they were critical.
The important thing to understand is that just because there is a mis-stun, that does not necessarily mean that the welfare outcome for the animal was dire. On occasions, and this usually happens with bovine animals, what a mis-stun means is that the first shot taken by the captive bolt did not quite achieve the intended task, and within seconds—almost literally—a second bolt is fired, which finishes the job. So it is wrong to equate mis-stunning with dire outcomes from an animal welfare point of view. Nevertheless, we are concerned about mis-stunning and will therefore monitor it.
I will finish by referring briefly to a few other points. CCTV in slaughterhouses is an issue; the FAWC is looking at it. The last time we had a consultation on it, we ruled out its use, on the basis that we did not think it would necessarily identify where there were problems, but we keep the issue under review.
Also, when it comes to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton made about consistency of approach, I have asked the FSA and our vets in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to consider the approach they take to these issues, to ensure that there is consistency.
Finally, I will finish on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) made, namely that there is a difference between animal species. We know that sheep and chickens lose consciousness relatively quickly but sadly the same is not true for bovines, which can take up to 1 minute 20 seconds to lose consciousness.
I thank all Members who took part in that important debate. If they are not staying for the debate on broadband in Cheltenham, will they be kind enough to leave the Chamber quickly and quietly? They no doubt have plenty to chew over as they leave. We now move on to the important subject of broadband in Cheltenham, in the name of Mr Martin Horwood.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. You will have to forgive me taking a moment to catch my breath. After a three-hour journey, I had to run across New Palace Yard to get to the Chamber on time—but I am here.
The origins of the problems in Cheltenham date back a long time. We have an unusual telephone exchange lay-out, with a single exchange to serve a town of 120,000 people. The further one gets from the central exchange by copper wire, therefore, the worse the telephone service is. In the 1960s, as the exchange developed, that lay-out did not make a massive difference; voice call quality was simply slightly worse in the outlying areas of town. Today, it makes a huge difference, because internet broadband speeds drop off the further one is from the exchange, so even if some parts of town have a decent basic broadband service of about 2 megabits per second, in outlying areas such as Up Hatherley and Springbank speeds can be as low as 0.5 megabits per second.
I have raised this issue over many years, including with the Minister’s predecessors in the previous Government, but we were told that the digital revolution was coming and that we need have no fear, because given the commercial roll-out and the gap-filling exercise that the Government rightly prioritised—the Broadband Delivery UK programme to subsidise hard-to-reach areas—all would be well. Indeed, the Government have put more than £100 million for England into BDUK to reach those areas that are not commercially viable. BT told us that it would be able to supply most parts of Cheltenham with a commercial service, and that other operators would be playing their part.
It looked as though the Government’s targets, which are ambitious, would be met as far as Cheltenham was concerned. The targets are to achieve 90% availability of superfast broadband, with speeds as high as 25, 30 or more megabits per second, and for everyone to have the basic 2 megabits-per-second broadband service, whether they had upgraded to superfast fibre-optic or not. It seems to me, however, that the real risk is that neither of the targets will be met in Cheltenham, and if they are not met in an urban area such as Cheltenham, they are unlikely to be met nationwide.
Today that matters, because we are talking about something used not only for entertainment or casual purposes, but by people working from home who need access to documents. One computer programmer told me it took three days to download a programme on the broadband speeds available to him. Children have to access their homework; my kids access their school intranets to file their homework and to access homework materials. People also do their banking, respond to Government consultations and apply to university via the internet. A basic internet service is no longer a luxury, but something that people expect. People certainly expect that when they buy new houses, but we have people moving into an almost brand-new estate only to discover that they do not even have 2 megabits per second available on their broadband service, which is clearly unacceptable. We need to ask why that is happening.
The commercial roll-out has proceeded and BT has done a pretty good job. It is reaching about 88% of the homes in Cheltenham, but that leaves a gap of at least one in 10 homes. Other commercial operators, including Virgin, are active in the town and are filling some of that gap, but far from all of it. We hoped that the Government-subsidised programme would then step in and fill the remaining holes, but that does not seem to be happening.
The Government-sponsored programme in Gloucestershire is called Fastershire, and it tells me that for various technical reasons it simply cannot fill the gaps. Its 2011 open market review did not identify the specific gaps; it was given information by the commercial suppliers on a postcode basis, but the supply is actually provided on a cabinet, street or even premises basis, so Fastershire had an inaccurate picture of where broadband would be provided commercially. Fastershire also states that BT and some of the other commercial operators have changed the boundaries and the areas in which they are operating. Given how Fastershire is set up, it must apply for state aid exemption to subsidise particular postcode areas, and it cannot undo that approval to fill in gaps that emerge over time.
I hope that the Minister’s broadband service is good on his mobile phone, which he is checking at the moment. I also hope that what I am saying is sinking in, in terms of the seriousness of what is happening in Cheltenham.
My hon. Friend is inviting me to intervene. I am happy to do so, and to start responding to him now. Obviously, I am aware of all the points that he is making, and I am pleased that he managed to make it to his own debate.
The problem that people face is that they are falling between the gaps. Fastershire is providing a roll-out programme that is overwhelmingly geared to rural areas, but even after the open market review had shown that there were gaps in urban Cheltenham, it has not identified an immediate way in which to deliver a decent broadband service or access to superfast broadband in the areas that have been left out. We are finding increasing numbers of such areas, in Benhall, The Reddings, Up Hatherley, Springbank and Battledown. Only last week, I discovered a new area in the St Paul’s part of town, where a brand-new estate is without decent broadband services.
New estates, or those filling in between older areas, seem to be one of the key problems, and where the service has not been provided. That might be an historical pattern of some sort—perhaps no dedicated BT cabinet, or a cabinet used to serve a smaller number of premises—but whatever the reason, people find it extraordinary that they are moving into brand-new homes in which the developers have not bothered to ensure broadband services. People then find that they fall between the gaps, with BT or other commercial operators saying that such a service is not commercially viable and Fastershire saying, “Sorry, guv, it’s nothing to do with us, you’re outside our approved area.” Fastershire is conducting a new open market review, but if some of those problems of communication between it and the commercial operators persist—if we repeat the problem of information being provided by postcode, when services are provided by cabinet, street or individual premises— we might find yet again that gaps emerge and households are left out.
I have a few things to ask the Minister to have a look at. First, on planning and building regulations, if we are so ambitious as a Government to deliver superfast broadband across the country, it seems wrong that we are allowing new estates to be built without the provision of proper broadband services. That is something that could be tackled. I know that councils are wary these days—with due reason, in some cases—of imposing restrictions on developers and conditions on planning consents that might be seen to be unreasonable or threaten the commercial viability of a housing development. I would like the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see whether we can reassure councils that it will be regarded as reasonable, and that they will not be challenged, if they insist that those developing new developments have to put in decent broadband services and, if necessary, pay BT to connect the local cabinet to the option of superfast broadband.
The second thing is for the Minister to go, at national level, to BDUK and the various commercial providers —mainly BT, but also Virgin, EE, TalkTalk, Sky and others—to try to resolve these issues about communication, and about the basis on which the maps are drawn that decide what is commercially viable. It would be reasonable to knock some heads together and say, “Listen, it is completely unacceptable that you all have the information, but each side is blaming the other when it comes to how the information is provided.” Fastershire in Gloucestershire told me that it was provided with information by BT and the others only on a postcode basis, so that was the only basis on which it could draw its maps. BT insists that Fastershire has all the information it needs to fill the gaps. They cannot both be right. The Minister needs to sit down with BDUK and the commercial providers to knock heads together and find out why Cheltenham and, presumably, other urban areas right across the country have so many gaps in the roll-out.
We need to offer a bit of challenge to some of the commercial operators. At least behind closed doors, we need to remove the cloak of commercial confidentiality and ask exactly on what basis they are judging whether an area is commercially viable. On some occasions, the operators have suggested to people that if they could raise the money themselves—that would effectively add a subsidy through the community—they could have the option of connecting to superfast broadband. If a community is willing to raise that money to subsidise superfast broadband, presumably they would be willing to pay the premiums required to upgrade to it, which implies that it would be commercially viable to go into that street or estate. I am still not clear whether the poor service that some areas get is part of the consideration, or whether BT is doing a tick-box exercise using the area’s demographics, house prices, topography and so on. The decisions seem to be fine judgments in some cases.
There are a few bits of good news. For example, BT and Fastershire have been prepared to talk about these issues and, I think in both cases, are generally committed to removing the embarrassing gaps in the programme. There are some good news stories where community effort has resolved the issue. Cabinets 124 and 214 in Cheltenham are, in different ways, good news stories. In one case, the community persuaded the developers of a new estate to underwrite the cost of putting superfast broadband into their local cabinet, so that cabinet should be okay. In another case, the community persuaded BT to shift the cabinet, apparently to make the viability more commercially promising. BT is therefore including that in its roll-out plans.
We still have a number of other cabinet areas that have been left out. I am notified weekly of new streets where people are getting poor service. Going back to the original problems with the centralised exchange, poor service is particularly hard to take for those who live in the areas that were most distant from the old exchange. In some parts of Cheltenham, people in one street have a service of 0.5 megabits a second, which is an unconscionably slow service, while only yards away people can get 25 to 30 megabits a second and have a service that is 60 times better. That is pretty hard for people to understand and accept.
I do not expect the Minister to have an instant solution. I realise that there are complexities around state aid rules and the planning of these programmes over many years, but I do not think we are likely to meet our ambition as a Government to supply at least 90% of the population with access to superfast broadband by next year, and to supply everyone with a service of at least 2 megabits a second or better, if areas such as Cheltenham are not meeting the targets. I would like him at least to recognise the problem, and to promise to get the commercial providers, the roll-out programme for BDUK and programmes such as Fastershire in Gloucestershire together to try to establish what information can be shared on a rolling basis, so that we can ensure that these gaps do not continue to emerge in the delivery of broadband.
The Government have rightly prioritised the issue. The calculation is that superfast broadband could be worth £400 million to the Gloucestershire economy alone. To the country as a whole, it is economically vital. It is part of our future and our competitiveness as a 21st-century nation. We have to do better for some of my constituents.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he addressed the House this morning, and in particular on starting the debate by demonstrating what the human form of superfast broadband might look like. For one dreadful moment, some of us thought that he might be the replacement for the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) in the Home Office, but I am delighted that he has managed to be here. His constituents should know that he made his whole speech without referring to any notes. Having listened to a lot of his speeches, may I say that he speaks rather better without notes than he does with brief supplied to him?
It is a pleasure to appear before you this morning, Mr Hollobone, with my prepared speech typed out for me by my officials, which I intend to refer to constantly through the next 15 minutes. I join you in congratulating my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) on his superfast appearance at this morning’s debate. At 10.59 am, I wondered whether he was going to make it, but he arrived right on cue, although his initial remarks were characterised by a certain breathlessness. For those of us who aspire for our appearances in the House to be broadcast on “Today in Parliament”, I have some concerns that the BBC will perhaps decide not to broadcast the beginnings of the debate in case it gets complaints from its listeners about heavy breathing. When at one point he stopped dead in the middle of his speech, I was worried enough about him that I was forced to intervene to ensure that he had recovered appropriately.
My hon. Friend has covered a number of important points to do with broadband in his constituency and some national issues. He fairly made the point throughout that this is a flagship programme for the Government. On a national level, we are investing something like £1.7 billion in superfast broadband roll-out. That is money direct from Government and from local authorities. It includes some European money—forgive me for mentioning that, Mr Hollobone—and some private sector money from BT. My hon. Friend highlighted examples in Cheltenham, and many of the specific issues that he raised are ones that I have had to grapple with over the past four and a half years.
As my hon. Friend mentioned the national picture on several occasions during his remarks, I begin by reminding the House of the successes we are seeing with the national broadband roll-out. Superfast broadband coverage in the UK is very high, at 78%. We outperform the other four big European economies. On the world stage, we perform well in access to superfast speeds and in price, which is important when looking at access to broadband. We have a competitive telecoms market in the UK and accessible prices. I am often told that in such-and-such a country, people can access speeds of, for example, 100 megabits per second, but no one ever completes the sentence by saying that it costs the equivalent of £80, £90 or £100 a month, or perhaps even more. Price is important. We have passed the 1 million mark in premises covered since all the contracts were signed, and we are now covering something like 40,000 additional premises every week.
My hon. Friend referred to the need for commercial providers to do more in urban areas. I am pleased that, partly as a result of discussions with the Government, BT has set aside an additional £50 million for broadband in cities and that Virgin Media, under its new leadership, is also looking to extend its footprint, which it has not done before. We therefore expect some half a million additional premises in cities and towns to benefit from the commercial deployments of BT and Virgin Media. Overall, thanks to our superfast broadband programme, some 4 million additional premises will get coverage.
Turning to the local issues raised by my hon. Friend, the Fastershire project, covering Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, will see central Government investment of some £29 million and total investment of over £55 million. I appreciate that this does not relate specifically to his constituency, but the programme has already reached more than 32,000 homes and businesses and will reach almost 146,000 over the next three years, meaning that Herefordshire and Gloucestershire will see 93% of their premises enjoying the benefits of superfast broadband. My hon. Friend’s constituency of Cheltenham is projected to see coverage of some 96%, with 48,000 out of 50,000 premises covered by the commercial deployment. Of the 2,000 that are not covered, some 625 should be covered by phase 2 of our broadband project.
I would be interested to know where that figure of 96% comes from, because I am not familiar with it. BT tells me that it is delivering commercial broadband to 88% of the town, but neither it nor Fastershire can tell me how much of the remainder is being supplied by companies such as Virgin Media. As it stands, at least one in 10 households in Cheltenham will not be included and will not have the advantage of that commercial roll-out. The Minister does not have to provide the information now, but if he could write to me to explain where that 96% came from, I would be grateful.
I will certainly set out the details for my hon. Friend. BT is responsible for setting out only what its own coverage will achieve in Cheltenham, but we are able to access an overview of total coverage, including that provided by Virgin Media, for example. Thanks to local loop unbundling, Cheltenham residents, like residents all over the country, are able to take advantage of other providers, such as Sky and TalkTalk, using the network.
My hon. Friend mentioned state aid. It is a difficult issue that we have resolved as far as rural broadband is concerned, but it is difficult in towns and cities, where state aid is deemed to distort free markets because of high levels of commercial investment. It may be that the commercial investment case is not as clear as we believe, but we should make every effort to support commercial investment before investing state funds. The criterion for public investment is that the area must not have current or planned supply of services within three years, and we must test that through market reviews such as the open market review to which my hon. Friend referred. That takes time, planning and resourcing. In places such as Cheltenham and similar towns, the case for public investment is not straightforward, and we must tread carefully.
The Fastershire project ran a market review in 2011, and areas that were reported to be without provision or plans for it were included within the scope for investment under phase 1 of the programme. The belief at the time would have been that many areas outside the scope of the local programme would be covered by commercial plans. However, sometime plans change for unforeseen reasons, and there will another opportunity under the current open market review of phase 2 of the programme to consider including those areas in local plans.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. One problem with the initial open market review process is the basis on which information was exchanged about which areas were commercial and which were not. The open market review was conducted on a postcode basis, whereas actual delivery has been cabinet by cabinet, street by street or premises by premises, so gaps have emerged within postcodes. For example, Fastershire might say that it cannot act as a postcode was deemed commercially viable, but people within the postcode might be told by BT that it is not commercially viable. Will the Minister knock heads together to get such issues resolved?
There are many local issues to consider. The viability of enabling some cabinets and premises is not straightforward. We do go down to six and seven-digit postcodes, but I am happy to consider specific examples that my hon. Friend wants to bring before me. Other factors that come into play include local infrastructure and buildings, such as the locations of cabinets, planning permissions, railway lines and street furniture, all of which can cause problems. Where suppliers cannot connect cabinets due to such obstacles, we work closely with them to provide solutions. The open market review in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire should resolve some such issues, but I will be delighted to look at any specific examples that my hon. Friend would like us to consider.
While talking about the Fastershire project, I must say that the area has a number of providers offering a different range of technologies and solutions. Companies such as Loop Scorpio, Airband and Cotswold Wireless all provide services in different parts of the two counties. We have also announced eight pilot projects with alternative providers to look at getting to the most hard-to-reach areas.
The second issue that my hon. Friend raised was provision to new builds, which is a frustration that I share. We considered regulation in 2010, but it was decided at the time that it would be inappropriate. Over the past few months, it emerged that a number of large developments were being constructed without proper broadband provision. It is possible for local councils to make it clear when giving planning permission that they expect developers to provide superfast broadband, but by engaging with BT, Virgin Media and several other providers, such as Hyperoptic, it became clear that we needed a much better system of developers working together with such organisations.
Following two meetings with me as Minister and a series of meetings with BDUK, we instituted a forum through which developers can contact telecoms providers with their plans for new builds, so that superfast broadband can be provided at the appropriate time for ducts to be laid and so on before proper building commences. I am also pleased that Openreach is in the process of hiring an additional 1,500 engineers in order to meet such demand. We will work with house builders and telecoms providers to continue to develop an action plan to ensure that new developments have access to superfast broadband. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that it is completely unacceptable in this day and age for somebody to move into a new home to find that superfast broadband is not ready to be connected.
Forgive me for reading a significant proportion of my speech, Mr Hollobone, I will now go into improvisation mode and will try to avoid hesitation, repetition or, indeed, deviation in summing up. The Fastershire project has been a great success so far, with 32,000 premises covered out of almost 150,000 planned, and some £15 million invested. I am familiar with the problems relating to urban development highlighted by my hon. Friend in his excellent speech without notes, and it is difficult to get appropriate state aid in order for us to subsidise broadband roll-out in urban areas. People find it hard to believe, but there are urban areas that some telecoms companies deem uneconomical to supply. I will certainly consider any specific examples that my hon. Friend wants to provide and will, as he instructed, knock heads together—metaphorically—to see whether we can make some progress.
Badger Culls (Assessment)
[Martin Caton in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Caton. We should not, however, be having this debate, because the cull actually flies in the face of scientific opinion. Furthermore, having the cull takes no notice whatever of public opinion and blatantly disregards the will of the House. Only earlier this year, on 13 March, after a debate in the main Chamber, the majority in favour of abandoning the badger cull was 218, yet the Government are ploughing on regardless. They seem to have forgotten that they are elected by the British people, and not by the National Farmers Union.
The hon. Gentleman draws our attention to the vote in the House. I do not think that he was in Parliament at the time, but the House voted in favour of the Iraq war, which then proceeded, even though the people were against it.
That may be true, but on badger culls scientific, parliamentary and public opinion are at one, yet the Government are completely disregarding all those areas of clear opposition to their direction of travel on the issue.
As I was saying, the Government and all of us present are elected by the British people and not by any single issue group. Ministers seem to be behaving as if they were the parliamentary wing of the National Farmers Union. The NFU, however, does not even represent the vast majority of the farming industry. According to the NFU’s own website, it claims some 55,000 members—
I will give way in a moment. According to a document published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “Agriculture in the United Kingdom”:
“The number of commercial agricultural holdings in the UK has remained stable between 2010 and 2013 at 222 thousand”.
So just under 25% of the farming industry is represented by the NFU, yet the Government, or Ministers at least, seem to be doing the NFU’s bidding, even though it represents only a minority interest in the farming industry.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come on to that and explain why I am referring to the NFU. Despite public, parliamentary and scientific opinion, the NFU is clearly the only interest group to think that the badger cull is a good idea. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government seem to prefer the views of a pressure group that represents a small proportion of the overall farming industry to the views of science, the public and, overwhelmingly, the House of Commons.
To be clear, last year’s cull was a catastrophic failure. It failed to reach its target within the specified six-week timetable, so what did the Government do? They extended the timetable. The cull still failed to reach its target, which was for some 5,000 badgers to be killed, and it only managed to kill 1,861, making matters worse.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. Does he agree that one of the most dismal scenarios that we can have is that of the Government setting their face against the evidence? They not only do not look at the evidence, but try to close it down. On this occasion, for example, they got rid of the independent expert panel that might have been able to tell them whether their cull was being successful.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about that point, and I will be coming on to it.
As a consequence of not reaching the target of 5,000 badgers, the Government are likely to have made matters considerably worse because of perturbation, about which they were warned. DEFRA has not only failed in its own terms on effectiveness, but certainly failed on the test of humaneness as well. The independent expert panel, which the Government disbanded, as the hon. Lady said a moment ago, said about year one of the pilot badger cull:
“It is extremely likely that between 7.4% and 22.8% of badgers that were shot at were still alive after 5 min, and therefore at risk of experiencing marked pain. We are concerned at the potential for suffering that these figures imply.”
When it was clear that the cull was failing on every possible measure, the previous Secretary of State, unbelievably, blamed the badgers for “moving the goalposts”. In truth, the Government have moved the goalposts and Ministers are behaving like the three wise monkeys. The DEFRA independent expert panel confirmed last year that the cull was unsuccessful in terms of humaneness, as I have mentioned, and ineffective. The figures speak for themselves. The chief scientific adviser to Natural England also made negative comments about the cull, describing it as an “epic failure”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. No one should be in any doubt that farming communities are suffering as a result of bovine tuberculosis, but is his case not simply that the evidence does not support this method of trying to eradicate bovine TB?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in his summary of the position. Of course bovine TB is a dreadful illness, but the way in which the Government have gone about tackling it is precisely the wrong thing to do and is likely to be making matters worse. I do not understand why they are ignoring the overwhelming scientific view that the badger cull should be abandoned and a different approach taken.
I was referring to the opinion of the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, who described the cull as an “epic failure”, and was about to ask, what did DEFRA do in response to such overwhelming criticism? It simply changed the methodology. That was described by one badger expert, Professor Woodroffe, as “very crude”. She went on to say that the Government targets
“are all rubbish because they are based on rubbish data”,
“with the data that is being collected, it will be impossible to know how effective this year’s culls have been.”
The Government did not like the conclusions of their independent expert panel, so they moved the goalposts again by disbanding it, but the new Secretary of State says that the outcome of the latest culls will determine whether there will be a roll-out across the rest of the country.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is he aware that the BBC is reporting today that a journal of the British Ecological Society has offered to assess the trials independently, in the light of the fact that the independent panel has been disbanded?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. It is important that there is independent assessment of the culls, as there is a real fear of a lack of trust if there is no independent assessment of their effectiveness. We cannot leave it to the Government to determine whether culling has been effective because, as we have seen, they simply ignore the wealth of evidence put before them.
I am following closely what the hon. Gentleman is saying. On the subject of assessment, is his conclusion that the cull should not have proceeded or that it did not take place on the right criteria? The public would like to hear what he and his right hon. and hon. Friends propose for controlling a vicious disease that has an impact on wildlife and domestic animals, as well as a huge impact on cattle, which I am sure many hon. Members will go on to discuss.
I do not think the cull should have started in the first place, because of the wealth of scientific opinion that I have already outlined. I will come on to the alternative way forward.
I ask the Minister, where is the transparency? The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been talking about the importance of transparent Government, but there is no transparency whatever in this process. Ministers and the National Farmers Union need to get real. The main route of transmission of TB is cattle to cattle. That has been independently verified by numerous experts. Ministers need to end this wild goose chase. To respond to the hon. Lady, we need mandatory annual and pre-movement testing for all cattle, and should impose significant movement restrictions. There also needs to be rigorous biosecurity for dairy farms around the country. That has happened in Wales, where the Welsh Government have gone further and have introduced badger vaccination, a move that the Government would do well to adopt, to address the dreadful disease of TB.
I have a number of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer when he responds. The public would like to know—it is in the interests of transparent government that they do—who monitored the latest cull; perhaps he will take a note of that question and respond to it. Will he also say when details about the cull will be published and by whom—will it be Natural England or DEFRA? How will humaneness, safety and efficiency be assessed? Those factors were assessed in the first year of culling.
Will a decision on a third pilot be reserved until after the results are assessed, or has that matter already been decided? Again, it would be helpful if the Minister could come clean on that. Indeed, will there be a third pilot or will the Government go straight to a roll-out? We need to know that as well.
Were any badgers tested for TB during the latest cull? If so, how many tested positive? Last year, a relatively small proportion of badgers killed tested positive. What proportion of badgers killed in this year’s culls were cage-trapped? We need to know that, because, as I understand it, part of the rationale behind the cull was to determine the effectiveness of free shooting.
Why was a different methodology for calculating the number of badgers used in year two from that used in year one? Why does the methodology applying to Somerset differ from the one applying to Gloucestershire? That just does not make sense—how can there be different methodologies from one county to the other? Surely that calls into question the bona fides of the Government’s process.
Finally, does the Minister agree with his own Department’s guidance to Natural England that the badger culls need to remove at least 70% of the local badger population within six weeks to avoid the risk of increasing cattle TB rates? If he does, can he explain why the targets set for this year’s pilot culls have been changed?
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on keeping up the impetus on this difficult subject.
Across the House, the majority of Members believe that we should tackle TB humanely and effectively. That includes the issue of how we deal with what is seen to be a contributory factor to the problem, namely the spread of TB by badgers. I am a convert to the cause and was pleased to lead the debate in March that showed overwhelmingly that the will of the House was to come up with a better way of controlling TB. I do not think that the House ever intended to control it by inflicting cruelty on another species, while potentially making the problem worse.
On 7 July I chaired a panel discussion with members of the Badger Trust and Care for the Wild, the director of the Humane Society International, an ecologist and habitat and species specialist, and Dr Tim Coulson, a member of the independent panel of experts. The IEP was unhappy that it could not continue with its work. On top of that, Dr Coulson said that he had asked Whitehall officials about a meeting with the Secretary of State but that request was not followed up.
On 16 July I wrote to the Secretary of State asking her to meet the IEP. The Minister replied on 16 August—over a month later—stating that meetings would be considered on a “case by case basis” and that the Department was
“in dialogue with leading vets and scientists”.
Why has it not, as far as I know—unless the Minister corrects this—met the IEP? Anecdotally, Dr Coulson has told me that the Secretary of State replied to his request by saying that she was terribly busy and unable to find a date. Has the Department still not been able to do so?
How can the public have confidence in the Government if the culls are not independently monitored? As I pointed out in my intervention on the hon. Member for Derby North, there has been a kind offer of independent monitoring by the British Ecological Society. Will the Government consider taking that up? I would like to hear an answer to that today. I gather that there would be no cost to the Government. If the Government are to have confidence that they can take the public with them on this subject, which polarises opinion and creates strong passions, they should be able to explain their actions in a way the public understand. The public could then at least find a reason to support those actions, even if in their hearts they do not support the idea of some animals having to be killed to control the disease.
I apologise for having come to the Chamber very recently, Mr Caton; I have been chairing a committee on prison education.
In DEFRA questions last week I saw a glimmer of light, as the Secretary of State said that she absolutely believed in the appliance of science to most of the topics we were talking about, including losing our birdsong in this country. If we apply that to the situation with badgers, there is a small possibility that someone at DEFRA might be waking up to the idea that we need science and proper independent evaluation.
I hope that I am correct in interpreting what the hon. Gentleman says as meaning that if the Secretary of State was listening to the science, the Government would take a different route. Unfortunately, the science—the results of the trials—does not bear out the hope that there was when the trials were agreed. It is important that we do not have a roll-out based on two failures. We should not consider rolling out any Government policy on the basis of two test runs, whether it is a proposed benefits package or something like the poll tax. Surely we should learn from our failures and not roll out a failure elsewhere.
I am most grateful for that tremendous compliment. I suspect that if the NFU had its way, the schemes would not be pilots but would be rolled out into all areas where there is a high incidence of TB. If the science is so important—I suspect that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) feels it is—will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to condemn the people who are sabotaging these experiments?
I absolutely condemn anyone who sabotages experiments, and I condemn anyone who puts any of our armed forces, police or anyone else involved, including protesters, in any danger. However, my hon. Friend must accept that passions are running high because logical arguments are being made in various debates and by panels that I have chaired, but people are not listening. If we are to prevent sabotage, which is obviously a last resort for some people, we must ensure that genuine concerns are listened to.
I went down to Somerset recently to meet some of the people monitoring the culls. They are there not to sabotage them, but to ensure that the rules are obeyed and that badgers are not shot and left wounded to die slowly and painfully. They are there to ensure that the rules are kept. I met a farmer who did not want to take part in the cull pilot, but wanted to vaccinate her cattle. She had to stand guard at midnight at the gates to her farm to stop people coming on to her land and trying to shoot badgers. It is wrong to categorise anyone who protests against and monitors the culls as trying to sabotage them. They are just trying to ensure fairness.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. Other hon. Members want to speak, so I will not labour the point, but my constituents, who have written to me in their hundreds, have lost confidence in the rationale and the way the problem is being tackled. No one is disputing that there is a problem, but we still do not know how many badgers were killed after having been cage-trapped, when that was expressly excluded originally.
I do not believe that the Government’s method of choice will deliver what the farmers and the Government want, so we must look at the matter again. I for one, and hundreds of people in St Albans who care about the humaneness of the approach, believe that the Government are foolish not to listen to two failures. I do not accept that activists have ruined the trials; I suspect that the badger does not wish to comply with the trials, that the marksmanship has not been up to the job, and that the original premise of using free shooting instead of cage shooting was never a realistic means of dealing with the problem. We must come up with an alternative proposal, and I suggest that cattle movements, vaccination and other methods that do not inflict cruelty on another animal species are the way forward.
I thank the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) for securing this important debate. I have several questions and concerns about this year’s cull, as well as long-standing concerns about the culling policy.
First, the Government said that they plan to use the results of this year’s culls to decide whether to roll out culling to new areas, but they have cut back massively on the data collection and expertise that they need to make an informed decision. They have scrapped independent oversight and the methods recommended by their independent advisers for assessing the humaneness and effectiveness of culling. In so doing, they have undermined their ability to make a well-informed decision. Their chosen methods seem to be completely inadequate, and they have undermined public confidence in a future roll-out decision, not least by fighting two legal battles to avoid independent scrutiny.
My views on the cull are well known. I have always argued that we need to take an evidence-based approach, so it is deeply disappointing that DEFRA has ignored the facts before it and, this year, has even done away with the independent panel, presumably because it did not like its conclusions last time round. I appreciate that the Secretary of State has expressed the view that independent auditing is sufficient, but I stress that that is not the same as peer review. The audit explicitly concerns adherence to DEFRA’s chosen methods, rather than the robustness of the methods themselves. Peer review would have taken that much broader perspective.
This year, there has been no attempt to count badgers in the cull areas, either before or after the culls. The time taken by badgers to die was not recorded, and there has been no oversight by independent scientists. Instead, the effectiveness of the culls has been judged on key data collected by the marksmen. Let us remind ourselves that in 2013, the data they collected were so unreliable that they were considered unusable by the independent expert panel. Available information suggests that any future claim that the 2014 culls have reduced badger numbers sufficiently to control TB will be baseless. Moreover, it will be difficult to believe any claims that this year’s culls are safe, humane and effective, based on the available evidence.
In that context, it is welcome that the British Ecological Society has offered to check the Government’s badger culling trials, as the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said. I would be interested to learn from the Minister whether DEFRA will accept that offer, and the reason for its decision.
I hope that DEFRA will make every effort to be completely transparent about the information it has gathered on this year’s culls. To that end, I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the humaneness of the culls. A non-governmental organisation in Somerset carried out a post-mortem on a badger that had been shot and wounded and showed that it would have suffered for many minutes after being shot. Yet the Government are not issuing any report this time round on the humaneness of their culls. That is a scandal and means that we have no proper means of assessing whether the culls are humane, despite that long being one of DEFRA’s stated objectives. I would like clarification of the number of badgers culled in Somerset. Was the target reached, and is the Minister satisfied that it was the right one, given that the methods used to calculate it have been described by Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London as “very crude”?
I understand that officials estimate the Somerset population by counting setts and multiplying by a fixed number. That estimate suggested that the target should be between 316 and 1,776 badgers killed. Perhaps not surprisingly, DEFRA chose the lower figure. In Gloucestershire in 2013, 39% of the target was met. This year, we understand that it is 41%, according to information that has come out. Will the Minister tell us whether DEFRA expects any increase in bovine TB in the edge areas around the Gloucestershire cull? Given all we know about perturbation in areas where less than 70% of badgers are culled, how will they monitor that?
We know that ineffective culling can make a bad situation worse. By failing to collect the evidence needed to evaluate future policy, DEFRA is failing farmers, taxpayers and wildlife. I hope that the Government will at long last stop blaming the badgers for moving the goalposts and admit that it is time for a complete rethink of their so-called strategy for tackling bovine TB.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a farmer, although I do not keep any stock so I have no financial interest in this debate.
We have again found ourselves having a debate about an incredibly important scientific issue before the scientific evidence has been fully analysed and published by the Minister’s Department. The debate is premature and speculative and will be incompletely informed. The second year of the culls ended on 20 October, and we have not yet seen the results of either of the trials in Somerset or Gloucestershire, so how can we have a reasoned and fully informed debate assessing those trials? I suspect that the debate will be centred on rumour and uninformed results.
The Government have said that that they will fully audit the results. When they are fully audited and analysed and properly published, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and others will want to examine them in great detail and return to the House with comments.
One point of fact is the dreadful disease that bovine TB is and the pain it causes to badgers, cattle and farmers. Significant attention has been given to the relatively small number of badgers being culled in these trials, but less attention is given to the 314,000 cattle that have been slaughtered in the last 10 years at a cost of £500 million to taxpayers. Indices of TB in cattle show that it increased ninefold between 1997 and 2010 in England, which now has the highest incidence of TB in the whole of Europe. The cost will rise to more than £1 billion over the next decade if nothing is done to eradicate TB from our communities.
It is important to remember that culling is simply one aspect of the Government’s comprehensive strategy to eradicate TB within 25 years. I hope that no one speaking in the debate will disapprove of that.
My neighbour and hon. Friend and I share a concern for Gloucestershire farmers, and I am sure we share the ultimate aim of seeing both cattle and badger populations healthy and TB-free. Does he agree that preliminary data that seem to be emerging in the press, and which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to, suggest that less than half the target number of badgers were killed in Gloucestershire this time? If those data are correct, we may worsen the risk to Gloucestershire cattle because of the perturbation effect.
That is speculation, but even if it proves to be true, we will need to have a debate over what the target numbers were, and I shall come on to that later in my speech. We will begin after this second year, and certainly in the third year, to be able to analyse some of the results and see what is already known through some anecdotal evidence, which is that some farms that have had TB reactors for six or eight years have, this year, for the first year in those six or eight years, had no reactors. That may be anecdotal evidence, but it begins to point to the fact that the culls are having a beneficial effect.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that during the course of the randomised badger culling trial there were 472 new confirmed breakdowns to TB in the proactive culling areas? Would he therefore argue that the culls did not work in those instances?
I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but I think she is drawing a false analogy, because the numbers removed in the randomised badger culling trial per square kilometre were considerably lower than the numbers removed per square kilometre in either of these two trials. Let us give the trials a chance—[Interruption]—instead of chuntering about it. These trials are trials—they are exactly that. What we need to do is evaluate the science and see whether it is in favour of the trials or not. I think that would be a constructive way forward.
The cost will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if nothing is done to eradicate TB from our communities. I ask the hon. Lady what her party’s policy is going to be: is she just going to let this disease continue to spiral out of control? Does she want our farmers to continue to slaughter cattle, and does she want to continue to have to pay more taxpayers’ money in compensation? Her public statements so far—I am happy to let her intervene if I am wrong—suggest that she would discontinue the trials, so we will have gone through all the pain, yet we will not have the scientific evidence to be able to evaluate them properly.
With great respect to the hon. Lady, it is too early to say. If she will not begin to take some of the anecdotal evidence of people on the ground who have to make their living from farming with cattle, I do not know what else I can say to her. Let us let these trials go ahead and evaluate them. Instead of setting our face against them, let us give them time and see if they work, and then let us hope that we can begin to eradicate this dreadful disease. I repeat what I have just said: this is part of an overall policy to eradicate TB in this country in 25 years. I will allow the hon. Lady to intervene again on me—does she agree with that aim or not?
The hon. Gentleman draws our attention to the public cost of this illness, but the cull that is now taking place is actually at the farmers’ expense. Does he agree that if there is no improvement or if, in fact, it makes things worse, farmers will not be willing to pay for something that acts against their interests?
I am extremely grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman must have been reading my notes, because I make that point very well. As he said, these two trials are entirely at the farmers’ expense, and there would be very little cost in policing them were it not for the activity of the protesters. If we set the cost of culling against the cost of what the farmers are providing, there is no doubt about it: this cull is very considerably cheaper than the cost of vaccination, which is not yet proved to be working either. I would be interested to know, when the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) speaks, whether she thinks vaccination is working in Wales.
The reality is that the Labour Government in Wales fully recognise that they cannot measure the impact of vaccination yet, and what reduction there is of bovine TB in Wales is just the same outside the vaccination area as it is inside, so the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) can point to no evidence that the alternative Labour method is working in Wales.
I had better make some rapid progress, Mr Caton, or else you will call me to order for not making my six-minute deadline. Let me make one or two brief points.
As I said, it is welcome that vaccination is taking place in certain parts of the country to try to prevent the further spread of this awful disease, but the simple fact is that vaccination does not work for an already infected badger. If it does not work, that infected badger, by going to the bottom of its sett, continues to infect the whole of that sett. It also must be remembered that vaccination generally works better on young badgers. Young badgers do not emerge from their sett for six months or so, and therefore do not get vaccinated for that first vital six-month period of their life when they are likely to be infected by the infected badgers. The other point to remember about vaccination is that badgers have to be vaccinated every year for five years before it is effective.
I have referred to some anecdotal evidence about how the trials have worked, but I can also give the House some actual evidence of where vaccinating is not working. On the Killerton estate in North Devon, where TB is a huge problem, the National Trust has been vaccinating badgers at an annual cost of £45,000 for the past four years, and there have recently been as many as six additional herd breakdowns due to TB, which seems to show that vaccinating alone is not the solution.
Many people cite vaccination in Wales as an example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) mentioned, but that is not the whole story. Although TB has been reduced in Wales, the current vaccination programme is only being conducted in 1% of the country and it is only in its second year. It is therefore difficult to see how the Welsh experiment—as he said, the Labour party in Wales does not think it is working—has led to a 25% reduction across the whole of Wales, where other factors must be at play.
Therefore, culling must be part of the solution. No less than the president of the British Veterinary Association has said:
“Badger culling is a necessary part of a comprehensive bovine TB eradication strategy”.
I really hope that the Labour party will think carefully about what one of our foremost experts in the country said about that. Vets are the very people who want to see a humane strategy for tackling this disease, because they of all people know what suffering the disease causes to badgers.
Nobody wants to see animals culled. I am an animal lover. Farmers are animal lovers. This is not an enjoyable solution, but it is a necessary one. Clear evidence tells us that no country in the world has got its TB problem under control without removing it in the reservoir of the wildlife. We have seen that in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, all of which are now virtually BTB-free.
On top of that, evidence also tells us that every time there has been a culling programme in this country—any of the six previous trials, including the Krebs trials— there has been a reduction in bovine TB. I accept that in some of the Krebs trials the reduction was relatively small, but that was related to the number of badgers that were taken out. The higher the number of badgers in an area that are taken out, the higher the reduction in BTB, and that, I think, has been fairly well scientifically proven.
In conclusion—because I think I have exceeded your patience and my allotted time, Mr Caton—it is too early to tell whether the culls have been successful. Anecdotal evidence tells us that they are beginning to have some success. Let us hope, for the sake of the farmers who are affected by this dreadful disease and the cattle that will have to be culled, that they are having some effect. The culls will be rolled out only in the very worst areas of BTB. I am all in favour of ring vaccination around those really bad areas, but let us see it as part of a comprehensive strategy. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government for being steadfast in their desire to eliminate this dreadful disease.
I am delighted to contribute to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing it.
There is a lot of common ground among Members here this afternoon, in that we recognise that TB is a huge problem—both bovine TB and potentially, the spread of TB in wildlife. We are talking about assessing a pilot scheme in one particular reservoir of wildlife, but heaven forfend that it enter into deer or other aspects of wildlife as well. It is not that long since people suffered from TB, and it is only due to the medical science developed in the last century that that has been controlled. The dangers of TB are, therefore, very real.
On animal welfare, there has to be some balance in the argument. We surely have to accept that, if 314,000 cattle are slaughtered, that in itself is something of a potential animal welfare crisis. What we are all trying to achieve is a healthy badger population living alongside a healthy cattle population.
I would like to know about the science. We are the only country in the European Union, and I believe in the world, that has protected badgers. Has that led to the increase that we have seen in the badger population? Has that, in itself, contributed to the spread of TB in the badger population?
I would now like to raise one or two questions for the Minister to respond to. In the previous Session, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee looked at what the cull’s parameters should be, and I applaud the fact that the Government’s pilot scheme seems, to all intents and purposes, to be following those that we laid down. I should add that I welcome the Minister to his place, and I look forward to his summing up the debate.
If we are to tackle the vaccine situation, we need to deal with a number of remaining issues, and I would welcome the Minister bringing us up to date on them. I applaud the work of the Food and Environment Research Agency, which operates in my constituency and other parts of the country. In Wales, the cost of an injectable vaccine for badgers was estimated at about £662 per badger in 2012. An injectable BCG vaccine has been available for use since March 2012, but there are obviously challenges in using it. To be cost-effective, deployment would have to focus on areas where the vaccine would have the biggest impact. The cost of injecting badgers with vaccine is huge. An oral baited vaccine for badgers, which can be laid at setts, is likely to be cheaper and more practical. I would be interested to know whether the definition of such a vaccine has moved on and whether we are closer to that taking place. Furthermore, from the evidence it received, the Select Committee understood that the current skin test to detect TB in cattle would miss one in four infected cows. Liver fluke, Johne’s disease and even pregnancy may have an impact on the result of a skin test.
How much progress has been made, since the Committee adopted its report, on allowing the vaccination of cattle under European law? That is a vexatious issue. How welcome is vaccination among our friends and allies among other European countries? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) that the treatment and control of TB has not been achieved anywhere unless TB has been tackled in the wildlife population. In the long term, vaccination—particularly of cattle, but also of badgers—would be a good way forward, but will the Minister let us know where we are on the vaccination of cattle under European law and how close we are to rolling out field trials in this country, as required under EU law?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate. However, I must start by saying that, as a Conservative who voted against the badger cull and who has been consistent in my opposition to it, I thought it was rather unfortunate how politicised he made his comments on the NFU. Those of us who oppose the badger cull have enormous sympathy for farmers who find they have bovine TB in their cattle stock and who have to have their stock completely removed, with the suffering they face as a consequence.
I have spoken to the NFU in my region about my opposition to the cull, and it asked me specifically why I opposed it, to which my answer was, “To stop you guys getting it.” My fear about the cull and the science behind it is that they are wrong and it will lead to perturbation, which will spread the disease wider. When I talk to Kent farmers, who, I can tell Members, are not a wing of the local Conservative party, I am therefore opposing the cull as much in their interests as for my own personal reasons.
The hon. Gentleman’s comments distracted us from the real issue, which is that the science does not stack up. The perturbation effect is real. Last year’s culls failed many of the tests that had been set out. They failed on effectiveness, and the pilot came nowhere close to reducing the badger population by 70%. It also failed on humaneness. That is what happened in the first year, but we are having a debate about assessing the second year, without any of first year’s outcomes having been properly considered.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech very much. Does she agree that if the first year had failed comprehensively because of perturbation, we should see a huge increase in the number of TB reactors in the area around the pilot schemes? I am surprised she has not mentioned that if that is what is going on.
Three tests were set out for the first pilot culls: humaneness, effectiveness and cost. As we know, the costs were extraordinary, effectiveness was not achieved, because the cull did not reduce the badger population in the way that was set out, and humaneness was not adhered to. Those are tests the Government set out. I fear, therefore, that progressing with the second year was a mistake. I voted against it. The Government might think they have a legal mandate to continue with the culls, but they have no political mandate whatever, and I fear they do not have the widespread support of the population.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, but I am bound to point out that, in some countries where culling has taken place in wildlife, it has been successful in controlling TB in wildlife and in cattle. The obvious example is New Zealand.
We keep on hearing about the New Zealand experiment, but it had other aspects, such as improved movement and better biosecurity measures. We need to ensure that we have such things as part of a whole package.
I am personally opposed to the badger cull, and I think we should look at other ways, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said, of dealing with the issue, such as vaccination, which is what is happening in Wales. We are seeing a reduction in bovine TB; indeed, I read somewhere, although I cannot find the precise source, that there has been a reduction of 48%. We have to look at these issues. However, the cull was not the right way forward, and it is not the right method now.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not, because other people want to speak.
One concern I have with assessing the effectiveness of the culls is that we keep changing the methodology. For example, we had one estimate of the badger population in the first year; now we have another estimate of its size, and that will interfere with a proper independent audit. The large downgrade in the population estimates for last year’s cull has been followed by estimates suggesting that this year’s cull numbers are set to be met in Somerset, but not in Gloucestershire, due to the different methodologies used to estimate badger numbers in the two areas. In Somerset the method involved multiplying the number of setts by a fixed number and taking the lowest figure from the estimated range, a method described by the ecologist Professor Rosie Woodroffe as “very crude”. She said that
“the targets are all rubbish because they are based on rubbish data...with the data that is being collected, it will be impossible to know how effective this year’s culls have been”.
I would argue strongly that that is making it nearly impossible to compare or measure success. How, then, can we measure the key levels of success by the Government’s own indicator, if we cannot agree on the population size in the first place?
Others have mentioned the independent expert panel. I was going to say that it is disappointing that it has been disbanded, but I do not think that it has been disbanded, technically; it has just not been reinstated, so it will not meet again. It is incredibly disappointing; the panel was important for close monitoring of the culls. It is also disappointing that not all the data have been published, and an independent audit is now taking place. I would like the Minister to outline who is undertaking that audit. I do not think that any of us fully understands precisely what is being done. Will the audit involve monitoring of the culls? I understand that the British Ecological Society has offered to take on the role but has not been taken up on that. We need another, proper, debate in the House of Commons. If there is to be widespread culling a full-scale discussion in the Chamber is needed, and the Minister needs the political will of the House to go forward. I do not think that he has that. A number of my hon. Friends who originally voted for the culls are now sceptical, following the pilot culls. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans that if the policy is not working we must address the issue again, and not continue absent-mindedly through fear of looking weak.
I am a strong supporter of the Government, but we have not seen the results from the culls that the Minister may have wanted, in the initial tests. We need to consider what happens in Wales and not to be so sceptical about the different approach being taken there. We also need to re-examine the issues of cattle movement and rigorous biosecurity on farms. Farmers from high-incidence areas have contacted my office—so I assume they have contacted the Department—to say that they are willing to be trial farms and be involved in vaccination tests as opposed to pilot culls; so I think there are farmers out there who want to consider other methods of tackling bovine TB. I remain absolutely opposed to the badger cull and I hope that the Minister will explain how he will properly assess the results of the second year of badger culls and publish that assessment.
I declare an interest as a member of the National Farmers Union, the Farmers Union of Wales, and the Country Land and Business Association. Indeed, I still own and keep some cattle. A couple of weeks ago we had a clear TB test, but we have only seven cattle on the farm, now. We used to have well over 200, but because of the difficulty of managing them, as a result of TB, it was decided to get rid of them. We are not the only farm that has taken that decision.
Bovine TB is a very dangerous disease, for cattle and for badgers. It is a zoonotic disease, and it affects humans as well as animals. That, indeed, is why in the 1950s and 1960s there was a great move to rid the country’s cattle herd of bovine TB. Many human beings were infected by drinking raw milk. If the Government did not believe that TB was still a matter of public health, they would presumably wash their hands of it and let farmers get on with things on their own. However, it is still a very serious disease not only for animals but for human beings.
In about 1971 the infection link between badgers and cattle was established and in 2007 the report of the randomised badger culling trials—I am not quite sure whether Professor Krebs or Professor Bourne was in charge at the time—said that between 40% and 50% of cattle infections resulted from transmission by badgers. That was established in an entirely independent assessment. Little mention has been made of DEFRA’s 25-year TB eradication strategy and what it entails—[Interruption.]—I am sorry if I have not paid attention. It is being rolled out at the moment and includes more frequent—yearly—testing in areas where there is bovine TB, more movement restrictions, increased biosecurity, and vaccination at the edge of areas of spread of the disease.
The disease is out of control, spreading northward and eastward at an increasing rate. We must try to hold it back, to protect areas that are still free of bovine TB. The Government have decided to do that through a vaccination strategy, because they realise that culling in an edge area could lead to perturbation and increase the incidence of the disease. However, in areas where it is well established, and where other ways of controlling it have proved ineffective, they have introduced a pilot culling scheme. That approach is based on the randomised badger culling trials, which said that if culling were to be effective it would have to be on a bigger area with, if possible, hard boundaries to prevent perturbation. Perturbation in those areas, however, will not have much effect, because the disease is already well established. Probably up to 40% of the badgers are infected, so the movement of badgers will not make much difference there.
We cannot really assess the success of the culls at the moment, because we need at least four years’ information to find out. That is another thing that the randomised badger cull trial showed: results would not be obtained for about four years. However, it showed that even when those culls had stopped there were improvements in the cull areas and those surrounding them.
We must do more work on oral vaccines for badgers, vaccination for cattle, and the polymerase chain reaction that provides a possible test for infection in badgers. With that, we could trap and test badgers; the healthy ones could be vaccinated and released, and the infected ones disposed of, as vaccination could do them no good. There is a huge amount of work to be done, but I still believe that the pilot cull trials that the Government have instigated are an important part of that work in the heavily infected areas.
It is great to follow the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). I concur with many of his remarks, if not all of them. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to learn that I completely oppose the whole idea of stopping the badger cull: I will explain exactly why.
Between 1999 and 2010, the number of cattle with TB in this country rose from 6,000 to 33,000. That was the period when Labour Members were in control of government in this country. Let us look at the same period in the Republic of Ireland. There were 40,000 reactors to TB in 2000, but by 2012 the number had dropped to 18,500 and it is dropping further now, so the number of cases in the Republic of Ireland more than halved in that period, whereas ours went up by four times.
In the Republic of Ireland, there are badgers and there is virtually the same cattle testing regime as we have, so of all the countries in the world that we look at, the Republic of Ireland is the best one to take an example from. In that case, what was different about the Republic of Ireland in the period to which I am referring? It took the difficult decision—it is a difficult decision; we all respect that and I respect hon. Members in this Chamber who have different views on badger culling—to cull badgers and it is reducing the disease dramatically. If we are to eradicate TB from our cattle, we must tackle the reservoir of disease within badgers.
More than 6,000 reactors a year are taken out of the county of Devon alone. There, we have a real hot spot of TB, and where we have a hot spot of TB in cattle, we also have TB in the badgers. There is a higher percentage of TB in the badgers because they catch it from the cattle, and then the badgers reinfect the cattle. I have made this point many times before. If we are going to test our cattle and test them more vigorously, as the hon. Gentleman said, and take out the infected animals, it is absolutely pointless then putting the cattle back into a field where there are badgers with the disease, because they will just reinfect the cattle all the time.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me on this point? Certainly in my part of Somerset, a number of the farmers have declared that they have cattle with TB, but the cattle are not removed from their farms with any level of speed whatever, so it both causes a great deal of distress to the farmers and has the potential to keep the infection level going.
Yes. The hon. Lady raises a point that my hon. Friend the Minister might well like to deal with. The quicker we can get a reactor off a farm the better, because it is infectious while it is there.
While there is a reservoir of disease in the wildlife and particularly in badgers, we have to cull, and we have to cull in the areas where the badgers have TB and the cattle do. That is why the hot spots are where we target the culling. That is why we targeted Gloucester and west Somerset. That is absolutely right. We will be able to use vaccine in other areas, because in other areas, where there is little TB in the cattle, there is likely to be little TB in the badgers also. Therefore, vaccinating badgers in those areas could well be very successful. The point has been made many times that if a badger is infected with a disease, we will not cure it by vaccinating it. That is why we have to take the very difficult decision of culling infected badgers.
I congratulate very much the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who may have been lambasted by many, but who actually stuck his neck above the parapet and said, “Yes, we will do the thing that is necessary, which is to cull badgers in infected areas.”
The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) opposed the policy from the beginning, so he would oppose it whether or not it was successful. That was never an issue with him, because he has opposed the whole thing, but what do we say to my constituent, David, who is at Ennerleigh farm in Washfield? He has been farming there for generations. Over the last 10 years, he has lost 350 cattle that have had TB. It has been a slow decline all the time—more and more reactors. He needs the pool of wildlife that has that infection to be dealt with, as do farmers across Devon, across the west country and in Wales, because, as has been said, the disease is spreading. If we do not deal with it in those hot spots, we will, in the end, have to cull more badgers, for the simple reason that the disease will have spread, the badgers will get it, they will then disease the cattle and the whole thing will get worse and worse. We cannot go on like the last Labour Government did—prevaricating and prevaricating and doing absolutely nothing.
The current Government have taken the difficult position. We have looked at the cull areas. We have looked at hard boundaries to ensure, as far as possible, that we use major roads, rivers and so on to try to prevent as much perturbation as possible. The system is not perfect. We would accept that and we have learned lessons from last year as far as the humaneness is concerned. As for traps, it is absolutely within the rules for traps to be used, and as for those activists who go out and trash the traps so that we cannot catch the badgers, that is absolute madness, because if we want to cull a badger in the most humane way possible, getting it in a trap so that we can dispatch it at point-blank range will always be the best method of culling.
We have worked so hard to get this going, and the farmers of this country, who keep the cattle, deserve to have the disease brought under control, because this is not only about the meat that we eat and the milk that we drink. It is about the countryside that we see out there and the cattle out in those fields. If we do not get rid of the disease in the wildlife, those cattle will have to stay indoors because it is too dangerous for them to go out, and I do not exaggerate. That is why this Government are making the right decision. I look forward to these pilot culls being successful. We are, again anecdotally, seeing the disease reducing, reactors reducing and outbreaks of TB in Somerset in particular—
No. You want me to finish by 20 to four, Mr Caton, so I will keep going.
We have seen, anecdotally, a reduction. If we can hold our nerve and ensure that we carry out the culls in a humane way, we will reduce the number of infected badgers in the countryside, in those areas with a high number of TB cases. If we use traps wherever necessary, carry out controlled shooting and ensure that we carry out the cull properly, we will see TB, first, reduce in this country and, eventually, we will eradicate it. If we do not take this action, we will never eradicate the disease. Farmers need to see a good future not only for them, but for their families. Farming is about generations of farmers, generations of cattle and generations of breeding of cattle. That is all being destroyed by this disease, and unless we take this firm action, we will not eradicate the disease.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate. It has been an excellent and passionate one on both sides of the argument. I would like to be clear about the Labour party view of the pilots. It is appalling that the badger culls have gone ahead for a second year when year one was described by David Macdonald, the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, as an “epic failure”. The Government should today commit to abandoning any attempt to continue these unscientific, inhumane and ineffective badger culls. They must instead work with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to get the problem of TB under control. That is what Labour would do in office.
I accept that bovine TB is a scourge on our countryside. I have spoken to farmers whose herds have been affected and I have seen at first hand how it can destroy livelihoods as well as the communities that depend on them. I do not think that there is an argument about that. There is no doubt about the fact that the spread of bovine TB is a serious problem in need of a solution.
No. We hear, and we have heard today, that the last Labour Government did nothing to address the problem. That is simply not true. We spent 10 years and £50 million on a large-scale trial in the areas worst affected by TB to develop a credible plan to tackle the issue based on the best available science. That work included testing the case for badger culling. The conclusion was that culls make no meaningful contribution to eradicating TB, and that small-scale, localised culling, which had been the policy of the previous Conservative Government, actually worsened the problem. It may be worth noting that the real rise in the spread of bovine TB began in 1979. Far from doing nothing, the previous Labour Government put in place the evidence base that was needed effectively to tackle that scourge.
In a manner so typical of the Government, they have decided that to pursue prejudice-based policy, with no regard to the scientific evidence, is the way forward. The badger cull pilots are one more example of that disregard for evidence. The culling has nothing to do with piloting or learning anything. Indeed, the Government have just fought two legal battles to preserve their right not to learn anything, and I am not the only person who thinks so. Professor Lord May of Oxford, the former Government chief scientific adviser, has said that the approach to the badger culls has shown that the Government
“are transmuting evidence-based policy into policy-based evidence.”
In other words, the Government have selectively used evidence to give the illusion of a scientific underpinning for the policy.
The guidance provided to Natural England ahead of licensing the original culls made it clear that the target for culling must lead to the removal of at least 70% of the badgers in the total land area in the application over a period of not more than six consecutive weeks. The two areas where culling took place, Gloucestershire and Somerset, were each granted two extensions in the first year. On timing alone, therefore, both culls failed. In 2013, an independent expert panel was appointed to monitor the culls to assess the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of the pilots. The panel came up with a scientifically robust method for assessing the effectiveness of the culls, which included hair traps and sample testing to provide the best estimate of the local badger population. The results of the IEP monitoring could not have been clearer. The badger culls were ineffective and inhumane. The culls failed.
I would support a policy that worked. The evidence demonstrates that a cull has to take 70% of the local badger population out in six weeks, otherwise it will be ineffective. In Somerset, only 48% of badgers were removed, and in Gloucestershire that figure was 39%. That is far too few to make those culls effective.
The IEP was only allowed to cover the first six weeks of the culls. The equivalent figures at the end of the extended time were 50.9% in Somerset and 55.7% in Gloucestershire. The extra time taken is likely to have increased the perturbation effect and hence made the spread of BTB more likely. On humaneness, the IEP reported:
“It is extremely likely that between 7% and 22% of badgers that were shot at were still alive after 5 minutes and therefore at risk of experiencing marked pain.”
Not only were the culls ineffective, but they caused unnecessary suffering for badgers. What was the Government’s response to that unwelcome advice from the experts? It was simple: cut out the experts and carry on with the culls. That sums up the Government’s approach. Instead of listening to the science, they decided to do away with it. That, I believe, is why there is not widespread support in the general population for the policy the Government are pursuing. The new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in last week’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions that she believes in science and evidence, but in her first week in the job, she announced her intention to press on with the culls in defiance of the scientific evidence. She missed a clear opportunity to leave prejudice-based policy behind and to place science firmly at the head and centre of her Department’s policy, and I believe that her decision speaks volumes.
The Government also changed the methodology that was used for the second year of the culls. Tim Coulson, a member of the IEP, which the Government have not used this year, in a recent article for the Journal of Animal Ecology commented:
“A change of protocol half way through an experiment reveals such a limited understanding of the scientific method that I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane. They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.”
That, I am afraid, is my view as well.
We know that the badger culls are not being conducted in the name of science. We can only assume that to go ahead with them is the easiest way for the Government to claim that they have a solution to the problem of bovine TB, despite the conclusion of badger ecologists and scientific evidence that culling makes the problem worse. The Government’s decision to ignore scientific evidence and best practice has not been justified by the Secretary of State. The existing evidence makes it clear that culling is not the solution.
The 2013 targets were based on estimates of badger population size derived from capture-mark-recapture using genetic signatures from badger hair snagged in barbed wire. For 2014, there was no such field estimation of badger numbers. In the second year of the culls, the Government have not only departed from the original methodology but used two different methods to set cull targets for Gloucestershire and for Somerset. Why? For Gloucestershire, the Government relied on last year’s estimate, minus the number of badgers killed last year, plus a fudge factor to account for breeding and immigration. For Somerset, they threw out last year’s estimate and multiplied an estimate of the number of active badger setts by another fudge factor that was meant to indicate badgers per sett. Badgers per sett is a meaningless concept, however, because most badgers use more than one sett, and sett use is likely to change as culling disrupts the badgers’ social system.
The cull targets for the second year of the pilots are apparently derived from numbers that have been plucked out of thin air or worked out on the back of an envelope. Those crude methods for estimating badger populations provided a range for the cull target in Somerset of between 300 and 1,700 badgers, which is rather a wide range. DEFRA chose the lowest figure. Analysis by Professor Rosie Woodroffe, which has been referred to during the debate, has shown that there is a 97.5% chance that the cull will fall short of the 70% mark that the evidence shows would give it a chance of being effective.
Will the Minister tell us what assessment he has made of the comparability of the methods used to assess the effectiveness from year one and year two of the badger culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset? Will he also clarify the reason why different methods of estimating badger population were used in Gloucestershire and Somerset to determine the numbers of badgers to be removed in year two of the pilot culls? Why did the methodology used to calculate the number of badgers to be culled change from year one to year two?
Will the Minister, in recognition of the importance of having a credible and agreed evidence base, agree to an independent scientific peer review of the methodologies used for determining the humaneness and effectiveness of the second year of the culls? Today, in an open letter from the senior editors, the Journal of Animal Ecology has offered its services
“critically to appraise the methods used and their power to determine the success of this year’s cull”,
and to provide
“a transparent and independent review of the available evidence using our extensive international network of reviewers, comprising scientists with acknowledged expertise in wildlife population monitoring and management, as well as expert statisticians and modellers.”
What possible reason could the Minister have for turning down such an offer? Will he, therefore, accept it? In DEFRA’s calculations of badgers per sett as a means of estimating badger populations, what account was taken of the movement by badgers between setts and the effects of perturbation? Can he confirm that Natural England’s audit addresses only adherence to DEFRA’s chosen methods? As we have seen, those methods are crude, vague, different in Somerset and Gloucestershire and different in years one and two of the culls? Are there any plans to extend badger culling beyond the pilots in Gloucestershire and Somerset ahead of next year’s general election?
What is the Government’s view of evidence from Wales, where there has been no badger culling but where there has been a crackdown on cattle-to-cattle transmission, improved farm biosecurity and a reduction of 18% in new incidents of bovine TB? As hon. Members have mentioned, the Government have continually pointed to international examples of controlling bovine TB in Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland to defend their decision to cull badgers. Do they not appreciate that comparing totally different situations will not yield the insights required for proper evidence-based policy making? Why should data from New Zealand or Ireland be more relevant to England than data from England? Not only are the culls an epic failure, but they are estimated to have cost more than £4,000 per badger killed, according to research undertaken by the Conservative Bow Group. Labour has consistently pledged to put evidence at the heart of policy making, working with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to get the problem of bovine TB under control. We need to introduce stricter cattle measures and prioritise badger and cattle vaccinations, but the culls are not the answer.
In March 2014 I wrote to the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), offering to work with him on the development of an evidence-based, cross-party programme. Rather than engaging meaningfully in the search for a proper long-term solution, he ignored scientific evidence, made a decision based on his own prejudice and then offered retrospectively to tell me and other hon. Members what the policy was, expecting us to agree. That is no way to address a disease that will take many years to eradicate. These disastrous culls should be abandoned now, and we should work together across parties to develop an alternative that works.
I welcome the opportunity to respond to today’s debate and thank all hon. Members for their contributions, which have covered a wide range of issues.
This year’s culls finished as planned after six weeks, and we are now analysing the data collected over that period. The data are being independently audited in the same way as last year’s. When the analysis is complete, the outcomes of this year’s cull will be published, so I will focus on our approach to collecting the data and assessing populations this year—issues to which many hon. Members have alluded. That is directly relevant to this debate.
We published our approach to monitoring before the culls started, and I confirm that we carried out the planned number of field observations and far more than the planned number of post-mortem examinations—figures that were both set last year. A lot of information has been collected. The processes used for collecting data are also currently subject to independent audit. We are taking the same approach as last year to ensure that our data are robust.
In August 2014 we published a detailed document setting out our precise methodology, “Setting the minimum and maximum numbers for Year 2 of the badger cull”, and before the cull started we published that guidance to help Natural England set this year’s minimum and maximum numbers. We set out clearly how this year’s numbers were derived for each area, and the paper describes in great detail—it runs to 34 pages—the basis of the estimates and any assumptions made. The approach was agreed by the chief scientific adviser. Estimating wildlife populations is subject to uncertainty, as the independent expert panel acknowledged in its report last year. It is important that we use all valid sources of information, giving particular weight to up-to-date evidence about numbers of active setts, based on repeated observations across the whole cull area.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the somewhat unscientific outburst by Professor Rosie Woodroffe. I like Rosie Woodroffe—she hails from Cornwall and even went to the same school as my sister—but she needs to compare the approach taken in the randomised badger culling trials with the methodology we have used this year. The reality is that there was no hair-trapping at all in the RBCTs, on which all our assumptions in the fight against this disease are based. In fact, no assessment of the badger population was made at the start of the culls. Instead, once four years of culling were finished, there was a retrospective attempt to estimate what the population might have been at the start—to back-calculate what the populations were. People have talked about the methodology that we adopted being crude, but how is that for crude? The RBCTs did not even assess the population before they started, and then they retrospectively tried to estimate what the population was.
Compare that with the approach we took this year, which is set out in great detail on pages 10 and 11 of the guidance. We took the end point of the population last year as this year’s starting point. We followed the IEP’s advice and used the cull sample matching method to try to predict the end population after last year’s culls. We then used a number of models, which are set out in detail, to take account of population growth. Those models are largely rooted in long-standing population measurements in places such as Woodchester park over many years—there are 20 years of data—to establish how populations change over a given winter. At the end of that process, as with the RBCT, which is all the IEP had to go on, we finally submitted the population to method 4, which is where one looks at the real activity on the ground. There were sett surveys and sett sticking. We have looked at the latrines and measured actual activity in badger setts. That is a kind of reality check, to check whether our data models are giving the right information.
The shadow Secretary of State highlighted the fact that different approaches were taken in Somerset and Gloucester, and asked why. We set that out in great detail on pages 12 and 13 of the guidance. In Gloucester, there was greater consistency in what the models were telling us about the population, so it was easier to meet that condition. In Somerset there was a conflict between some of the models, so it went with the most reliable model, which used real data in real time on real activity in setts.
We are making progress. In fact, we have been talking to an accreditation organisation about whether we could get farmers to sign up to a package of measures to improve biosecurity, including keeping badgers away from their farmyards, for example, to try to reduce the spread of the disease.
There is a misunderstanding about the IEP. Last year, the IEP was not out in the field in the middle of the night with binoculars to observe the culls. That was done by Natural England staff last year, and they did it again this year in the same way. The IEP did not carry out the post-mortems on badger carcasses last year. It was done by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, both last year and this year. The IEP had a one-off role last year in informing us of how we should treat the raw data that came from AHVLA and Natural England. The IEP was not in the field; it was a desktop exercise. The IEP completed its work, and we do not need to repeat it this year. Do we need the British Ecological Society to repeat what the IEP did last year? No, we do not, because that job was done and completed last year, and this year we have a process that will be audited. If the British Ecological Society has an opinion, it can express a view on this very detailed, 34-page report. People like Professor Woodroffe say that they do not agree with the report, but they have yet to explain why.
I will not give way, because I want to get through as many other points as I can. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and others highlighted the situation in Wales and the limitations of vaccination. He is right that it is wrong to read too many conclusions into the fall in incidences of the disease in Wales. The vaccination trials in Wales cover only about 1% of the land area. We are running our own vaccination trials in the edge area. I have met a number of wildlife groups to discuss taking that project forward to check the spread of bovine TB, so vaccination has a role in fighting this disease. Vaccination is part of the Government’s strategy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) mentioned the inaccuracy of the skin tests. We know that the test is only about 80% effective, but where we have a serious breakdown, we often use it in conjunction with the gamma interferon test, which has fewer false negatives but a few more false positives. We can use that where we deem it necessary. The shadow Secretary of State mentioned that the RBCT proves that culling does not work, but that is not the case. The RBCT actually proves that, at the end of the four-year cull period, there was an improvement in the number of breakdowns.
I finish by reminding hon. Members that we have the worst bovine TB situation in the developed world. We cannot let that continue if we want competitive, productive and profitable beef and dairy sectors. Other countries that have faced similar problems, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) pointed out, have demonstrated the route to long-term disease freedom. They show us that addressing the risks posed by wildlife must be part of any coherent and comprehensive approach to tackling this disease.
We now have a very clear strategy for achieving our goal of official TB-free status in England. The approach includes deploying tighter cattle measures, strengthening biosecurity, and vaccinating badgers to prevent the disease from spreading from the TB high-risk area to the edge area. Unlike the Opposition, we are clear that any coherent strategy to eradicate TB must include measures to address the disease in wildlife in TB hot spots. We will continue to use all options available to us today to fight this dreadful disease, which has been out of control for 20 years. Doing nothing is no longer an option, which is why we intend to stick with this strategy.
Ovarian Cancer (Gene Testing)
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and I am grateful to have secured this vital debate on ovarian cancer, and more specifically on the implementation of genetic testing techniques for every woman diagnosed with the illness. Ovarian cancer affects more than 6,500 women in the UK each year, making it the fifth most common cancer among women. In fact, more than 150 women a year are diagnosed with the disease in Northern Ireland alone. It is most common in women—
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I am pleased that the Minister is here to respond on this delicate, critical and vital issue for women.
Ovarian cancer is most common in women who have had the menopause, but it can affect women of any age. Notably, the symptoms can be difficult to diagnose, as they are common to many other less serious ailments. Sadly, that leads to many women not getting the treatment they need quickly enough. It is the most aggressive gynaecological cancer. Only about 40% of women are still alive five years after being diagnosed, according to research in the British Medical Journal.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. As she knows, I do a lot of work in my constituency with the Mandeville cancer unit. When I visit it, I see a lot of younger women who have the disease. Hospital staff tell me that early intervention is one of the ways that it can be resolved, so I fully support the hon. Lady in her bid today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman his intervention. I agree that it is all about early diagnosis. Women who are diagnosed in the early stages of ovarian cancer have a 90% chance of surviving the next five years, but if the cancer is found at a later stage the five-year survival rate is reduced to 22%—quite a startling statistic. Clearly, early diagnosis and treatment is vital.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important issue to the House’s consideration. Some 39% of women carry the harmful BRCA1 gene and up to 70% carry the BRCA2 gene. Does the hon. Lady think that those with a family history of the disease should be tested earlier to ensure they have regular check-ups and screenings? Does she also think that those outside that 39% should have checks?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is the key for women.
UK survival rates for ovarian cancer are among the lowest in western Europe, with one woman dying every two hours from the disease. Sadly, according to the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, survival rates for the cancer have not improved significantly since the early 1990s. Dr Miriam McCarthy of the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland pointed out at a recent hearing in Stormont that the northern European and Scandinavian countries have five-year survival rates above 40%, so we could clearly do more to combat the cancer.
Anybody who has personal or familial experience of this dreadful illness knows the devastating impact it has. In Northern Ireland, a lady called Una Crudden courageously documented her fight with the disease and inspired many others to do the same. I know of a young lady, a teacher in my constituency called Oonagh Carson, who died last year shortly after diagnosis, which took her a long time to get.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. My aunt died of ovarian cancer some years ago.
One of the areas that I am sure the hon. Lady wants to highlight is the role of genetic testing for ovarian cancer and the BRCA gene. Is she aware of the work that is being led by the Institute of Cancer Research in conjunction with the Royal Marsden on mainstreaming genetic testing in this area? That programme has already produced a free-to-access pathway that has already enabled 200 women to be tested and could be rolled out to other hospitals. It has been shown not to cost any more, but it can save many lives.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his useful intervention, which highlights the need for genetic testing and the good pilot work that is being done at the Royal Marsden. It is a pity that that work cannot be rolled out in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. We must not forget that such work has already been executed in Scotland.
By better informing the public and GPs and implementing modern genetic testing techniques we can prevent many more women and their families having to live through the trauma of ovarian cancer. I want to focus on genetic testing techniques that have become available and will have a key role in the battle against this dreadful disease. Genetic techniques have rapidly moved out of the realms of science fiction and are having a significant impact on the way we approach and treat illnesses. Without overstating scientific advances and promising miracle cures, we have a responsibility to utilise those groundbreaking new techniques in everyday medicine. As we learn more about the genetic basis for diseases and certain cancers, this becomes not only a medical issue but an issue for society as whole.
There is an onus to manage and develop new information in a responsible, morally sound way that informs people, rather than distressing or panicking them. The public have been made more aware of those techniques by high-profile figures telling their stories. For example, Angelina Jolie has spoken about the tragic death of her mother from ovarian cancer and her decision to have preventive surgery. Mainstream awareness can only be a good thing, but we must harness it positively to empower women to make informed choices about their treatment. Speaking about her experience of genetic testing and of dealing with the illness, Angelina Jolie said:
“Wherever I go, usually I run into women and we talk about health issues, women’s issues, breast cancer, ovarian cancer. I’ve talked to men about their daughters’ and wives’ health. It makes me feel closer to other people who deal with the same things and have either lost their parents or are considering surgeries or wondering about their children.”
In the same way, women in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK who have or are at risk of the disease are desperate to have access to the information that advanced genetic testing can reveal. The genetic testing normally involves having a sample of blood or tissue taken. The sample will contain cells containing DNA, which can be tested to find out whether someone is carrying a particular mutation and is at risk of developing a particular condition or illness.
Specifically, BRCA1/2 gene testing, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), has emerged as the leading genetic test related to ovarian cancer. We all have these genes, but a mutation on them can increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer from one in 54 to approximately one in two. Evidence shows that one in five women with non-mucinous epithelial ovarian cancer, which accounts for 70% of all cases, carries the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, which dramatically increases their risk of developing the disease. The BRCA gene test at a time of diagnosis offers patients the best guidance for their treatment and should be a matter of priority to ensure that the optimal treatment pathway is selected, whether that is drugs or preventive surgery.
Critically, a BRCA test at a time of diagnosis can change the management of their treatment and save the lives of relatives, who can also be guided toward taking the test. Women in possession of this knowledge are able to make better decisions on their own treatment, as can their close relatives. They can make better informed decisions on surgical and drug treatment options. Indeed, the presence of the mutation points to a form of the disease that responds better to PARP inhibitor drugs, such as the new drug Olaparib, on which the European Commission is considering a recommendation for approval. Dr Sadaf Ghaem-Maghami, senior lecturer and honorary consultant in gynaecological oncology at Hammersmith hospital in London, has stated:
“PARP inhibitors are more effective at killing cancer cells and shrinking tumours in patients with BRCA 1/2 than those without. They are particularly important for BRCA1/2 patients who have a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and for whom there might not be many options.”
In short, I contend that it is clear that we need to implement a system across the UK and Northern Ireland where women diagnosed with ovarian cancer automatically receive a BRCA gene test and have the option for close relatives to take that test as well. I have no doubt that that would save lives and put women in a position where they can make decisions based on all the available scientific evidence. What is the Minister’s position on that?
On cost and commissioning, such techniques have unfortunately not received the attention or funding they deserve from NHS commissioners or the Department of Health in England and Wales or the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland. Despite qualifying under National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines and despite the introduction of mandatory testing in Scotland, the tests are not uniformly available across the UK. It is also evident that clinicians and practitioners in Northern Ireland and England are unclear who is responsible for commissioning BRCA testing. Can the Minster provide clarification on those arrangements and confirm that testing qualifies under NICE guidelines?
BRCA testing has been highly selective and based largely on family history, which risks missing out on three out of four people with the gene, according to the charity Ovarian Cancer Action, which I commend on its work. It published a report some time ago and has been at the forefront of this campaign. It argues that all women with non-mucinous epithelial ovarian cancer should be considered for the test on diagnosis. It should be clarified and reiterated that the procedure is already in place in Scotland. Trials at the Royal Marsden hospital, which were referred to by the right hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), show that such testing could be extended in a cost-effective manner to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to emphasise that point. The research evidence shows that productivity is increased by doing the testing as part of an oncology appointment, rather than as something separate. The trials are delivering that in a way that is not costing the NHS more, and it is having huge benefits.
I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is estimated that a BRCA1/2 gene test for someone already diagnosed with ovarian cancer costs the NHS between £600 and £850. Associated counselling can cost between £250 and £500. Together, that can amount to approximately £1,000 a patient. Some 15% to 20% of those tested are likely to receive a result that shows they have the gene mutation. There are likely to be additional costs for resulting tests on close family members, but the early diagnosis and treatment of those individuals will be especially beneficial. The evidence shows that BRCA gene testing is cost-effective in other countries. Modelling conducted in association with NICE guidelines on familial testing suggested that BRCA1/2 gene testing versus no gene testing was particularly cost-effective in women aged 35 to 55.
In conclusion, this disease is one of the most prominent threats to women’s health. It is particularly difficult to diagnose and treat early, and it is obviously devastating and very sad for sufferers and their families, but we are on the cusp of being able to treat it more effectively. Through the introduction and implementation of genetic testing on diagnosis, we can make a significant impact on survival rates and familial guidance. Will the Minister inform us what the Department’s position is on automatic BRCA gene testing for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer? What discussions has she had with NHS Scotland about its existing programme? What discussions does she plan to have with counterparts in Northern Ireland and Wales about such measures? It would be welcome if she could provide clarification on who is responsible for implementing BRCA testing, as there is a degree of confusion over the current arrangements.
In bringing forward modern genetic testing techniques, we can improve survival rates for this terrible and sad illness and put us, as women, in a more empowered position where we can make the best informed decisions on our treatment and the well-being of our close relatives. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the various issues I have outlined.
I thank the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) for bringing this important issue to the House today. She has a long-standing interest in health issues and she has made the case very well for why we need to look closely at this important disease. I will come back to her after the debate on any point that I am not able to respond to now, particularly the technical aspects. I want to give the House a bit of the picture on what else is happening on ovarian cancer, as well as addressing the specific issues that she raised.
As the hon. Lady said, ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cancer for women in the UK. The current five-year survival rate is 44%, but we know that if we get the critical early-stage diagnosis, up to 90% of women survive for at least five years. We know that we could save 500 additional lives each year if we matched the best European survival rates. The debate comes at a poignant time for me, because I lost a very dear friend to ovarian cancer less than three weeks ago. I am well aware of the pressure that the disease brings to bear on the families of those affected. We are investing an additional £750 million over four years in England to improve early diagnosis, and I will discuss the details of that and of treatment later.
The hon. Lady’s speech focused on testing and the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. As she rightly said, a family history of cancer is one of the most important risk factors for ovarian cancer, with about one in 10 ovarian cancers being caused by an inherited faulty gene such as the two to which she referred. Incidentally, the genes also increase the risk of breast and prostate cancer. We know that women with a mother or sister diagnosed with ovarian cancer have three times the risk of ovarian cancer of women without such a family history.
NICE’s most recent guidelines recommend offering genetic testing to people with a 10% risk of carrying a BRCA mutation, which is lower than the 20% risk previously recommended. I remind hon. Members that NICE clinical guidelines represent best practice and that we expect NHS organisations in England to take them fully into account when designing services to meet the needs of the population. As a result of their complexity and the different states of readiness for implementation in the NHS, clinical guidelines are not subject to the same statutory funding regulation as technology appraisals. Clinical guidelines therefore have a slightly different status, but it is none the less important that NICE has revised them. NHS England is considering the new recommendation in developing and publishing a single national clinical commissioning policy to confirm the routinely funded NHS threshold for testing.
Like the hon. Lady, I thank Ovarian Cancer Action for all its work in this area. The recently released report on BRCA testing raises important issues, some of which were aired in the hon. Lady’s speech and in interventions. NHS England has said that moving to routine testing at a 10% risk would require a significant capacity and funding investment in genetic testing, diagnostics, counselling and treatment. NHS England is currently considering the potential for funding a revised 10% testing threshold in 2015-16 as part of its annual funding prioritisation process. I will draw NHS England’s attention to the strength of feeling in this debate and to the interesting points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) and the hon. Member for South Down made about cost-effectiveness. I will also stress that Parliament continues to have considerable interest in the subject.
The hon. Lady touched on groundbreaking techniques, which provides me with an opportunity to refer to the 100,000 genomes project. We can see the potential of genomics to understanding cancers and rare illnesses and finding new treatments. In 2012, we launched the 100,000 genomes project, through which 100,000 whole genomes from NHS patients will be sequenced by 2017. The project will focus on patients with a rare disease and their families, as well as patients with cancer. Ovarian cancer is in the programme’s scope, and it will hopefully enable us to continue our record of groundbreaking cancer research here in the UK.
I will update hon. Members on the two major screening trials for ovarian cancer taking place in the UK. The first is looking at two possible techniques: trans-vaginal ultrasound and a blood test for cancer antigen CA125. Both of them are being tested as part of the UK collaborative trial of ovarian cancer screening. The study is being funded by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK, with the Government funding the NHS costs of the study. The first phase of results was promising for both techniques, and the final results are due in January 2015. The UK National Screening Committee, which advises the Governments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on screening matters, is preparing to assess the results of the trial against its internationally recognised criteria for a screening programme and to make a recommendation on that basis, which could be a significant move forward. A second study, the United Kingdom familial ovarian cancer screening study, which began in 2005, is also looking to develop an optimised screening procedure for ovarian cancer in high-risk women, such as those to whom the hon. Lady referred.
Returning to early diagnosis, there is cause for encouragement, but we must continue to consider early diagnosis at every possible moment. The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the impact of early diagnosis on survival rates. The Government have committed £450 million to achieving earlier diagnosis and improving survival. The funding supports improved direct GP access to four key tests, including non-obstetric ultrasound, to help with speedier diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Those tests are being used; in June 2014, GPs requested more than a quarter of all tests that may have been used to diagnose cancer under the direct access arrangements. The test with the highest proportion of GP referral was ultrasounds that may have been used to diagnose ovarian cancer, 46% of which were requested by GPs.
I also want to update the House on the “Be Clear on Cancer” preventive work in England. We want to improve outcomes for women, which is what Public Health England is working towards. With the Department and NHS England, it ran a regional “Be Clear on Cancer” ovarian pilot campaign early this year to raise awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Like other cancers with poor survival rates, many of the early symptoms can be similar to those of benign conditions, making early diagnosis difficult. The next step is to assess thoroughly the data from the regional pilot, which will help us make informed decisions about which cancer and symptom-awareness campaigns to take forward in 2015-16.
On research, the National Institute for Health Research’s clinical research network is currently recruiting patients to more than 30 ovarian cancer clinical trials and studies. In partnership with Cancer Research UK, the NIHR is also funding 14 experimental cancer medicine centres across England, six of which have a focus on ovarian cancer. A good amount of research is ongoing.
In addition to giving some sense of where NHS England is on BRCA testing, I hope that I am also providing a rounder picture of what else is going on in the field, including screening, diagnostics and awareness campaigns. It is important that the matter gets this level of attention.
Although the decision is one for NHS England, the debate has highlighted the fact that interesting work is going on in Scotland. The scale of the challenge is smaller in numerical terms, but I am interested in finding out more about what is going on. I will certainly initiate a conversation to understand what is going on in the four countries of the United Kingdom. I have regular conversations with Health Ministers from other nations for other reasons, as the hon. Lady knows. It may not be possible to raise this specific issue in those conversations, but I will ask for more information to see whether lessons can be learned and to understand the points identified in studies about the cost-effectiveness of early testing, in order to ensure that we have bottomed that out.
I hope that this short debate has served to highlight the issue’s importance. I am always grateful for an opportunity to discuss such important issues and to ensure that the House expresses its interest in making better progress on cancers with the poorest survival rates. I hope I have also updated the hon. Lady and other interested Members on what else is going on to try to improve outcomes for family and friends and to achieve better results in future. I thank for bringing the debate to the House today.
Dangerous Driving Offences (Sentencing)
Order. We can now move on to the final debate of the afternoon, which is on sentencing for dangerous driving offences. The Member leading the debate has already indicated that many hon. Members would like to intervene, which is entirely in his gift. I will only say that we do want to hear the Minister as well, because the questions that are asked need to be answered. I ask everyone to bear that in mind during the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, in this incredibly important debate on sentencing for dangerous driving. The fact that so many hon. Friends and colleagues have turned up for the debate demonstrates the strength of feeling across the House on the issue. I want to highlight the case of my constituents, John Morland and Kris Jarvis, who were killed by a dangerous driver. I also want to press for a change in the law to toughen sentences for dangerous driving.
The case of John and Kris is incredibly tragic. They were cycling in my constituency on 13 February and were hit from behind by a car driven by a man called Alexander Walter. He had stolen the car, was disqualified from driving, and was two and a half times over the alcohol limit. In the 24 hours before the accident, he had taken cocaine, and it emerged afterwards that he had already made 14 court appearances and had 67 convictions, one of which related to him phoning Heathrow airport to make a bomb hoax only days after the 9/11 tragedy. Walter walked away from the wreckage without a scratch. John and Kris did not; they died at the scene due to their appalling injuries.
John and Kris were family men, and as a result of the accident seven children lost their father; parents lost their sons; brothers and sisters lost their siblings; and the fiancées of John and Kris, who are present and are listening to the debate, Hayley Lindsay and Tracey Fidler, lost the love of their life. I was particularly touched by a point that Tracey made in the local paper: since the age of 17, they had never spent a day apart. I pay tribute to the courage, bravery and strength of character of Tracey and Hayley. They have spent months trying to rebuild their shattered lives and dreams. They are very grateful to their friends and families, who have helped them, but the reality is that those families started a life sentence on 13 February.
I congratulate my hon. Friend most wholeheartedly on securing this vital debate. I pass on my condolences to the families he mentioned. I have enormous sympathy for their case. A year ago yesterday, two teenage girls from my constituency were mown down by a gentleman driving at more than twice the speed limit on a cocktail of drugs, for which crime he received a nine-year prison sentence, which amounts to less than 4.5 years per life. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is completely inadequate for the life sentence that that man inflicted on those families?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will make the case for changing the law, but she has set out clearly that at the end of the day we are talking about families and justice. That is what we are all fighting for in this House. As I said, the families started a life sentence—a life without their loved ones—on 13 February. By contrast, Walter got 10 years and three months for killing two innocent men. He committed what I understand from the Crown Prosecution Service guidance to be a level 1 offence. He was also responsible for just about every aggravating factor listed in the guidance that anyone could think of. Perhaps the Minister will comment, but why on earth was the maximum tariff of 14 years not levied against that man?
I commend my hon. Friend for taking up this serious issue. Will he join me in requesting that the Crown Prosecution Service considers charging with manslaughter far more often, rather than charging with death by dangerous driving? If a person causes someone’s death by behaving in a grossly negligent or reckless manner anywhere else in society, they are charged with manslaughter. If that happens on the road, however, they are not; they are charged with death by dangerous driving. There is no legal reason why that should be. If a person is convicted of manslaughter, that gives the sentencing court far more powers, and a maximum possible sentence of life, rather than 14 years.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a timely debate. I started the campaigning group PACTS, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, many years ago, because I saw two people lying by the side of the road dying. My passion has always been to stop such needless deaths. Does he agree that we want evenness of justice in this country? Wherever in our land that ghastly offence of death by dangerous driving occurs, there should be the same penalty with the same severity.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on raising again this most emotive issue. I draw the attention of the House to my constituent, 18-year-old Olivia Flanagan, who was killed last December by Luke Sykes. Mr Sykes was over the drink-drive limit and had hit a number of cars before ploughing into Olivia’s car. He was driving at a blind summit on the wrong side of the road, and Olivia happened to be coming the other way. The man had 15 previous driving convictions and had only recently got his driving licence back. He had also ticked a box on the licence stating that he did not suffer from mental illness, although he had a history of such illness.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes the important point that we must have a punishment that fits the crime. We have a justice system that sometimes has much more regard for the criminal than the victims—not only the victims who are killed, but their families and friends who are left behind to pick up the pieces.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the point that he is making is particularly relevant to motoring offences? Until the legal system—the courts and the police—treats people who get behind the wheel of a car as being in charge of a lethal weapon, and until those people realise that they are in charge of a lethal weapon, his constituents and the constituents of all of us who have experienced such terrible losses will never feel that justice has been done.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I agree with everything that he has said so far. Another element is that the CPS, when looking at such cases, sometimes chooses to go for the lesser charge of careless driving. That is what happened in the case of my constituent, James Still, who was killed on new year’s eve 2010, and whose family I am supporting. May I also bring my hon. Friend’s attention to the round-table meeting that I am setting up with MPs and victims’ families? All hon. Members are invited to meet with the families. I will ensure that anyone who has not already had an invitation gets one.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I was aware of the meeting and will of course attend, as I am sure everyone present will. Despite the grief that Tracey and Hayley have to live with every day, they want justice for John and Kris. They want to ensure that the lives of their loved ones were not lost in vain. They are asking for a change in the law. Despite all the problems that they face as a result of the loss of their fiancés, they have had the courage to put forward an e-petition, which was prepared with the help of a fantastic local campaigner in my constituency, Teresa Colliass, and is now on the Government website. The petition calls for drivers to receive a maximum sentence of 14 years per person who has been killed.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Tragically, there was a similar case in my constituency last year, when Ross and Clare Simons, riding a tandem bike, were mown down by a dangerous driver who was disqualified and had many previous convictions. Ross and Clare’s families, and the campaign, “Justice for Ross and Clare”, today back Tracey, Hayley and their families in a common cause: 14 years should be 14 years per person killed. We should not have concurrency—sentences being served together. My offer is that we and those families work together to get the law changed urgently.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: families want to make sure that we have not concurrent but consecutive sentences. If Walter had been given 14 years for each death, he would now be facing 28 years behind bars rather than being out in what will probably be a lot less than 10 years.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. We all agree on the importance of the review of sentences for driving offences. I am sure that like everyone else here, he would be grateful for clarity from the Minister on when that review will happen.
I am sure the Minister will address that point in detail.
I put on the record my thanks to the Reading Post and The Reading Chronicle for publicising the case and the petition. I also thank The Sun, which has done so nationally, and many others for helping to publicise the petition. So far, 25,000 people have signed. Both I and the families want to see a lot more signatures.
I do not believe that 10 years was a long enough sentence for what Walter did. The families affected do not believe that, and, so far, 25,000 people across our land do not, either. We have heard today that Members of Parliament representing many, many people across our country do not believe that that was right. I would like us all to sign the petition, which should influence the review, and to bring about a change in the law.
There are a number of specific things I want to hear from the Minister. I understand that he cannot predetermine the review. But does he understand the strength of feeling there is in the country about this issue and that Members of Parliament, members of the public and families who are affected by such tragedies want to put victims first? Does he have sympathy for the petition’s aims? The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) talked about the ongoing review on all driving offences. How can members of the public influence the review? Will there be a public consultation?
I want justice for John and Kris, as do their families. Hon. Members want justice for the families of constituents who have been affected by this crime. When it comes to dangerous driving, the punishment must fit the crime. It is high time we had a change in the law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing this debate, which I welcome. My thoughts and prayers are with his constituents’ families, and all those who have been mentioned today. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), a former Road Safety Minister, is in his place to listen to the debate. I pay tribute to him, and will refer back to the work done on this issue over the years, not least the work that he and I both did in our former occupation.
Far be it from me to nudge my colleagues into going before any Committee, but given the absolutely understandable strength of feeling here today, the petition may well get 100,000 signatures, and no doubt should. It should go before the Backbench Business Committee, as we need a much longer debate on the matter. I do not mind whether I respond to that debate or the Road Safety Minister does, but the House should hear more about the effects on Members’ constituents, including my own—Ministers should never forget that we are still MPs, and I know my constituents will support many of the comments made today.
Nothing I say today will bring back Kris and John. As an ex-fireman, ex-paramedic and ex-Road Minister—I have lots of ex-careers—one of the most poignant jobs I have ever had was going to what used to be called, inappropriately, road traffic accidents and are now quite rightly called road traffic collisions. I pay tribute to all our blue-light responders: our police, ambulance and fire crews, and representatives of local authorities, who are now often there. They do a fantastic job for us every day. Going to an incident is enormously difficult, as responders can see what has been done to an individual or individuals by someone who should never have been driving the car in the first place because they were disqualified—as in this case—who should not have been behind the wheel because they were drunk and who had no regard for another person’s life.
Far be it from any parliamentarian, including me, to tell a judge what they should do in their court—we do not have that system in this country, thank goodness—but it is absolutely right and proper that Parliament decides the punishment for a crime. It is then for the judges to interpret that. In this particular case the judge interpreted the law and decided that the sentence would be 10 years and three months. The offender and his legal team appealed against that sentence, but thank goodness we saw common sense.
For this offence it falls within the capabilities of the prosecuting team to appeal to the Attorney-General against an unduly lenient sentence. I do not know what the Attorney-General might have decided, but that option was certainly within the capability of the prosecution. As a Back-Bench MP, I appealed against lenient sentences on many occasions, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) touched on the issue of what the CPS looks at. I am not a lawyer—there are many in the House—but the problem with the law as it stands is the issue of intent. It is a question of whether the driver intended to go and do what they did. That is why the CPS tends to hold back from prosecuting for murder or manslaughter. It is entitled to do that, however; that is within the regulations.
I turn now to what we are going to do—and not only because of the debate, the petition and the ongoing review. There are a couple of matters I will touch upon.
I will not. I know that sounds very rude, but I spoke to the Chair before the debate, and because so many people have intervened—that is why I would like a longer debate on the issue at some later point—I will not get through all the points I want to raise if I do. If I get through all the points that I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West I would raise in my response, I will then give way.
The review is massively important, in that it will look not so much at the offences—those are within a different brief—but at what the penalties should be. I will not pre-empt the review but I agree that we need to look carefully at whether the punishment fits the crime. We should look at the difference between driving a car and killing somebody—when drunk, or without insurance, or a licence, or any of those things we know people should have—with the intent to do that and killing a person with intent in any other way. That will be part of the review.
We will consult extensively. I know that families are listening to me—not only those who are here today because of the debate but families across the country—and I want everybody involved in that consultation. It is vital that not just judges, prosecutors and politicians, but the families of the victims themselves—I would say that as the Victims Minister—are involved.
We can make some changes while the review is going on. For instance, I find it completely perverse that the driving ban that that gentleman—I use that word in inverted commas—was given in court is running while he is serving his sentence in prison. I have never understood the legislation on that. That situation will change, outside of the review. The ban will start when they come out.
If I give way to the right hon. Gentleman I will have to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). I will do that if I can, but in a moment. I know the exact time that I have, and if there is time left I will give way.
It is also important that when someone gets this type of sentence there is openness and honesty about why it was given. I have been talking extensively to judges about that recently. Although the courts, quite rightly, must be independent, guidance from Parliament tells them what the will of Parliament is—that is what judges are supposed to look at—when such abhorrent offences take place. One area where we can give the courts and certainly the police more help is in matters such as the terrible incident that occurred in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), which was drug-related. At the moment, it is difficult to prosecute someone for drug-driving for myriad reasons, not least that some drugs leave the system quickly. That is why we intend to introduce roadside drugalyser testing—I started the process when I was the Minister responsible for roads—and in-station drugalyser testing.
I have often attended RTCs, and I know from experience, as does the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who is another former Transport Minister, that someone who has been involved in an accident, often when someone has died, may have been under the influence of drugs. However, if they are breathalysed that may not show up enough to prosecute them, even though we all know that that person is under the influence of something. We must, morally, do something about that, and I have been working on it with other countries.
As I have made good progress, I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and then to the right hon. Member for Exeter.
Yes, and that is important. We are tight on people who have been banned for drink-driving, and they are often required to get a medical report saying that they do not have a drink problem. Anyone who ticks the box to say that they do not have a mental illness or mental health issues when they have such problems breaks the law.
The key is to work with the insurance companies. That may be a strange way of looking at the issue, but they are interested in what offences have taken place because they insure the risk. That was why, when I was at the Department for Transport, I gave insurers access to Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency data so that insurers knew whether someone had been banned and whether they had points on their licence when applying for insurance. Such people often lie about that, as the person that my hon. Friend mentioned did. That person was subsequently involved in an incident and was not insured.
Well, at the end of the day, when someone has served their sentence I want them not to be a burden on the state but to work. In rural parts of the country, such as that which the right hon. Gentleman represents, that might exclude someone from working. I am willing to look at the suggestion, but it is not as simple as just saying “tough”.
The Minister is being incredibly patient in giving way. I strongly welcome what he said about looking at changing the rules so that a driving ban runs from the end of a sentence. That has been the biggest slap in the face for the families of Olivia and Jasmine in my constituency—the gentleman concerned was given a seven-year driving ban despite getting a nine-year jail sentence. That was utterly disgusting.
We talked earlier about the punishment fitting the crime. What is the logic of giving someone a driving ban when it will be over when the offender comes out of prison?
It is poignant for the families to know that their petition works, and that so may colleagues from throughout the House have come to this debate. It is important that there should be a much more open debate on the Floor of the House, and I am sure that the Backbench Business Committee would be amenable to that, because there has been cross-party support in the Chamber today.
As the review goes forward, nothing should be ruled out, which is what I think my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West was alluding to in his comments to me. There will be some natural concerns from the judiciary and colleagues, which is fine. Let them put that into the mix, but the most important people who need to be part of the consultation are the families of the victims. No one can replace their loved ones, but if they have the courage of those who have come here today saying this should not happen to anyone else, perhaps we can make this country a safer place.
Question put and agreed to.