I beg to move,
That this House has considered lead shot ammunition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in my first Westminster Hall debate.
An important petition is posted on the Parliament website and thousands of people from across the country have signed it, including eight in my constituency. The language is fiery and impassioned and the argument is clear: it points to an issue that concerns the House and has done for 100 years. I refer to the petition to keep all lead ammunition. About 20,000 people have signed the call to keep using lead in their guns:
“Lead ammunition has been used for hunting and shooting since the first guns were manufactured over three centuries ago. Never has there been a recorded death through lead ingestion.”
I take the matter seriously. I have constituents who hunt and shoot, as do other Members—in particular those who represent rural areas—and I recognise that sport shooting is a tradition and part of people’s way of life. Done sustainably, it can make a real contribution to the local economy and to the countryside. It is right to consider the future of the sport.
There is also another, quieter petition on the Parliament website in support of banning the use of lead ammunition in favour of non-toxic alternatives. Fewer people have signed it—about 3,000 to date—but that is the petition I commend to the Minister and to the House.
The case for using non-toxic ammunition is clear. Non-toxic alternatives to lead are effective, affordable and safer for wildlife and people. We have known the dangers of lead poisoning for thousands of years. The phrase “crazy as a painter” was coined centuries ago to express the awful effects that lead-packed paint had on people’s minds.
I have already given you my apologies, Mr Davies, but I might have to leave early. Does my hon. Friend agree that given that the known negative health effects of lead are well established and that, to minimise risk, lead has been removed from paint and petrol, it seems a tad ironic that lead remains in the shot used for killing birds that might be for human consumption?
I wholeheartedly agree. I hope to set out in the course of my contribution why that is such an important point.
Some people have even explained the fall of the Roman empire as having been caused by the Romans’ use of lead in pipes and cosmetics. More recently, the World Health Organisation, the Food Standards Agency and the Oxford Lead Symposium have all highlighted the toxicity of lead. Its negative human health impacts are scientifically established, even at the lowest levels of exposure, and lead poisoning is also a big problem for wildlife.
Much of the lead shot misses its target and builds up on the ground. It is then eaten by birds, which gobble up grit to grind up their food. The lead shot is dissolved in the digestive system and absorbed into the birds’ bloodstream. Scientists at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 wildfowl die of lead poisoning every year in the UK, along with many more game birds and birds of prey. Members might ask, “Where are all these dead birds?” but lead is known as the “invisible killer” because the poisoning is slow and distributed.
I am sure my hon. Friend was as shocked as I was to discover that the existing regulations have a poor rate of compliance. In 2013 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a study that showed that 70% of ducks sampled had been killed with lead shot. The study was repeated in 2014 and showed that compliance had not improved, with an increased number of 77% of ducks sampled being shot illegally with lead.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which illustrates how the existing arrangements are unsatisfactory and in some cases ineffective, which is why they need to be updated.
Birds die gradually from lead poisoning, but die they do. The WWT found that one in four migratory swans seen at post mortem had died of lead poisoning. Other leading conservation organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trusts have also highlighted lead poisoning as a major issue for UK wildlife. Yet we continue to spray about 5,000 tonnes of lead out over the countryside each year.
Why have more people signed the petition to keep lead? I could argue that it is a classic case of small interest groups rallying around to defend their privileges. I could blame the shooters for looking after their own interests to the detriment of wildlife and the general public. People are rarely vocal about long-term environmental consequences, or about widespread public benefits. By contrast, it is easy to portray the proposal to ban lead as an attack on country life, prompting a rush to oppose any change—but this is no attack on the countryside. The irony is that it is surely rural communities who would benefit most from a change in the law to phase out the use of lead ammunition.
Some people will point out that most of the lead that the public consume comes from vegetables. That is true, but people who eat game meat are far more exposed. It is not only the shooters themselves; we must also consider their families and the increasing number of people who eat game. Many game birds sold for human consumption have lead concentrations far exceeding European Union maximum levels for meat from cows, sheep, pigs and poultry. No maximum levels have been set for game.
Simply removing lead shot from the meat does not solve the problem, because particles of lead too small to be seen often break off or dissolve and are left in the meat.
During the remainder of my contribution I hope to address the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
Simply removing lead shot, as I said, does not solve the problem, because traces of lead can be left in the meat. In the UK, as many as 12,500 children under eight eat game once a week in the shooting community alone. In children, less than one meal of wild-shot game a week could result in blood lead levels associated with a decrease in IQ.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the shooting of birds with lead shot has been going on for many centuries. Where is the public health crisis to which he alludes? It would be news to many colleagues, because we have not had people coming to our surgeries or writing to us with any experience of a problem with eating lead-shot birds, whether personally or in their families.
It is not a case of the vast majority of members of the public speaking out on an issue such as this, but the studies are out there. I have outlined some in my contribution and will outline more.
The Food Standards Agency has also highlighted the risks to pregnant women. Of course, no one has died of lead poisoning from eating game, but nor would any serious scientist dispute that lead is a poisonous metal. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set up a new Great British Food unit and game is increasingly being sold as a healthy, local option. What better way to improve that brand than to ensure that the meat we eat is safe and lead-free?
Progressive countryside organisations such as the Sustainable Food Trust are backing the call to phase out lead as part of a modern countryside economy. Non-toxic alternatives are better for the image of the shoot, the economy of the countryside and the health of the shooters themselves.
In advance of the debate I talked to a number of clay pigeon shooting grounds in and around my constituency, and their problem with steel shot is that it ricochets. If lead shot is banned, all those shooting grounds will be put out of business—not just in and around my constituency, but across all Members’ constituencies. Has the hon. Gentleman thought about how that could be tackled?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but there are alternatives that could be looked at. We are asking for this matter to be properly looked at and investigated, with a timescale to phase out lead.
As I said, there are good alternatives to lead on the market such as tungsten, bismuth and steel, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Many shooters in the UK will say that alternatives to lead are not as effective and argue that wounded birds are a welfare issue. Of course, that takes absolutely no account of the welfare of thousands of birds that suffer from lead poisoning. What is more, such evidence is entirely anecdotal.
Ballistics studies and blind trials have shown that alternatives such as steel are just as effective as lead. In terms of prices, steel is now competitive with lead and although other alternatives such as tungsten are more costly, they still represent a fraction of the overall cost of shooting. Some guns will need retrofitting, which is a process that can cost £50, and a few may not be compatible with lead at all, but surely those costs are small compared with the benefits of cleaning up the industry.
In Denmark, a ban on lead shot was introduced 20 years ago and the hunting and shooting sector has not been affected. What should be done here in the UK? The time for voluntary initiatives is surely over. The use of lead shot over and near wetlands is already restricted by law. Shooting groups have repeatedly encouraged members to respect the law, yet 45% of shooters admit that they have not complied with it and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) mentioned, three quarters of ducks sampled in 2013 had been killed with lead shot. What is more, we know that the problem is not restricted to wetlands. Many vulnerable species feed on lead all across the countryside. Quite simply, the law as it stands is insufficient and ineffective, so the Government must take sensible steps.
The UK is party to the convention on the conservation of migratory species, which last year agreed guidelines calling for the replacement of lead with non-toxic alternatives in countries where migratory species are at risk from poisoning. Back in 2010, DEFRA set up the Lead Ammunition Group to identify risks and solutions. Its chair, John Swift, submitted the group’s work and his report to DEFRA on 3 June 2015. Its results were definitive:
“regulations restricting the use of lead shot in wetlands and for shooting wildfowl are apparently not achieving their aim and are insufficient for dealing with the wider risks.”
The science and the politics are clear and the time for reflection is over. Thirty years ago, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution advised the Government that they should legislate to ban any further use of lead shot where it is irretrievably dispersed in the environment.
The question of lead ammunition is not a debate that could or should be decided by petition. It is a question for the House, DEFRA and the Department of Health. Back in 1983, Willie Hamilton MP summed it up in a debate on lead in petrol:
“Whatever the technical arguments may be and however much it is said that lead can be produced in the body by other means, that is no reason for saying that we should leave everything alone and not tackle the problem. We must tackle this problem and it can be solved and eliminated”.—[Official Report, 21 January 1983; Vol. 35, c. 632.]
The same is true today. We can quibble over exact numbers and fuss about the precise costs of steel shot, but the basic message is clear.
We have banned lead from pipes, petrol and paint, but it still ends up on our plates. We have tried to protect wildlife by restricting the use of lead over wetlands, but the rules are too partial and too easily ignored. The Government have evidence from the Lead Ammunition Group and power in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, so I hope that, in the public interest, the Minister will show that the Government have the sense to act on the science and commit to phase out lead shot ammunition.
Order. For those who are new to one-hour Westminster Hall debates, it might be helpful to say that the format is that the Scottish National party spokesman and the Labour spokesman get five minutes each and the Minister gets 10 minutes at the end. I will therefore be going to the Front Benchers no later than 5.10 pm. Four Members are seeking to catch my eye, which gives them about six minutes each. I will not set a formal time limit, but I hope that people will be mindful of each other’s opportunities and will look to speak for about six minutes each.
May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and also to the fact that I am probably the only Member who has been shot by a lead cartridge? It was about 35 years ago and I still carry 20 lead pellets in my left knee as testimony to that—colleagues will judge whether that has affected my physical state or indeed my mental state.
This is not a new discussion. When I was chairman of the shoot summit nearly 10 years ago we discussed it and came to the view 10:1 that the evidence was lacking—to some extent it is still lacking—that the risk of lead was either significant or unmanageable, or that the alternatives, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), posed less of a risk. That was in the context of both food consumption and environmental concerns. That fell into the hands of the Lead Ammunition Group, which was set up by DEFRA.
I am grateful for that intervention. I have not yet said, and I am not sure that I will say, that there is no toxicity issue at all. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman will hear me and other colleagues out, he may get the answer he requires.
The Lead Ammunition Group was set up to come to a unanimous view on steps forward for the Secretary of State. However, it has failed to do that. Nearly half of its members resigned, which meant that its final report was submitted without input from those valuable sources. The report, which was based on evidence that was and remains disputed, reached conclusions outside the terms of reference set by the Secretary of State in the first place. Therefore, when coming to conclusions about what all of this means, I hope that the Minister will recognise that, for whatever reason, the Lead Ammunition Group has failed in its objectives.
Food concerns were mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). The advice given so far does not need any alteration. That is key, because if we look at it in the context of other food scares and consumption habits, there is no evidence to suggest that the danger posed by lead is any greater than that of any other food substance that we might arguably eat to excess. That is the point: we can point to any number of foodstuffs and say, “If you ate this foodstuff to excess, you might come across a health problem.” The advice given is quite contextualised, which has not been the case in the debate.
The contribution I want to make to the debate is to give a word of caution about the Lead Ammunition Group’s findings. They are not definitive; they are disputed and the evidence it relied on is hotly debated. Finally, if the problem was as great as one or two Members suggest, it would have emerged as a health scare long before now. We therefore need to treat what we are hearing with caution, assuming that it is evidence. It is nothing new.
I am listening closely to my hon. Friend. Will he address my concern that steel shot ricochets, which will cause the closure of many shooting grounds, and that tungsten, bismuth and Hevi-shot cost five to seven times as much as lead? That would be a significant part of most people’s shooting budget.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have to consider all these things in the round. It is no doubt very easy to find reasons to argue in favour of a general phase-out of lead, but unless we have applied the same rigorous test to the alternatives—whether it is about the cost, humaneness or toxicity—there is no reason to believe we will go from a bad place to a better one, so I take his points entirely on board.
I hope the Minister will be robust in making a careful examination of this so-called report, because it does not meet the terms of reference that his own Department set.
It is a pleasure to speak about this issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing the debate. Unfortunately, I do not hold the same opinion as him; I want to make that clear at the outset. I want to raise important issues that I feel need to be put on the record.
There are potential risks of lead shot ammunition—I admit that, and the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) referred to them—but it is always possible to manage, control and reduce them to negligible levels through the enforcement of existing regulations and careful monitoring. I have shot wildfowl and wild birds and eaten them regularly since the age of 18—that is not yesterday—and it has not done me any harm that I am aware of. The bird I like most is probably the wood pigeon, and I look forward to wood pigeon meat on any occasion.
Restrictions on the use of lead shot are already in place across the UK, and I will comment on restrictions in the four regions. Some environmental groups are campaigning for further restrictions or a total ban on lead ammunition. They argue that lead shot poses such a serious and unmanageable risk to the environment and human health that new legislation is required. Scaremongering about lead has become a useful way to attack game and sport shooting for people who are fundamentally opposed to shooting in general. With great respect to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, some people are simply using this issue to attack shooting, so we need rationalism in the debate.
Shooting is hugely important to the rural economy and of great benefit in terms of wildlife management and conservation. Unscientific restrictions could have serious implications for the gun trade, the rural economy and the natural environment. Without lead, many shooting activities could be substantially curtailed. The vast majority of the evidence presented to decision makers in support of further restrictions on lead ammunition has failed to pass rigorous academic scrutiny. The Countryside Alliance believes that those attempts are unjust and unfair, and highlight the way in which science can be used and manipulated to suit a political agenda. I declare an interest: I have been a member of the Countryside Alliance for a great many years.
In truth, the true impact of lead ammunition has yet to be scientifically proven, and any current findings are not as significant as some opponents claim. I accept that lead is toxic, and we should take all opportunities to continue monitoring its potential impacts on the environment and human health. If it is proven that lead ammunition poses a significant and unmanageable risk, we should consider mitigation measures, further regulations and phase-outs in that order before any ban is taken forward. At present, however, there is insufficient evidence to justify changes to the existing regulations, and any attempts to do so are in no way based upon science or evidence we have at this time.
The majority of the evidence used to justify increased restrictions or a complete ban on lead shot ammunition is outdated and heavily reliant on research undertaken in other countries. No studies have been carried out in the UK on blood lead levels and the impact of lead shot ammunition, so that is something the Department might wish to do before proposing any legislation on this issue.
In England, there are already some controls. The use of lead shot has been prohibited for all wildfowl, with further restrictions below the high-water mark of ordinary spring tides and over sites of special scientific interest. In Scotland, there are similar controls on the use of lead in wetland for shooting activity, with wetlands being based on the Ramsar definition. In Wales, there are some restrictions on the use of lead shot for wildfowl, with further restrictions below the high-water mark of ordinary spring tides and specific SSSIs. The constituency that I represent—Strangford—is renowned for its wildfowl shooting across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, we have the same prohibition of the use of lead shot in any area of wetland for any shooting activity. For the purpose of the regulations, wetlands are based on the Ramsar definition, as in Scotland.
It is clear we already have appropriate legislation to mitigate the negative impacts of lead shot use, so why are we seeking to add more laws and red tape? We cannot ignore the value of shooting activities. Some 600,000 people in the UK shoot live quarry, clay pigeons or targets every year, and shooting is worth £2 billion to the UK economy. Conservation goes hand in hand with shooting, and those who shoot spend some 3.9 million work days on conservation—the equivalent of 16,000 full-time jobs.
The impact of a ban would be enormous for shooting, conservation, the rural economy and the natural environment. A ban on lead shot ammunition would have a seriously negative impact on the shooting industry, because most of the guns made by historic British gun makers, and many guns made abroad, are unsuitable for use with economically comparable alternatives to lead.
Denmark led the way in banning toxic materials a way back. It also banned steel shot in forest areas and tungsten in 2014 because of the carcinogenic properties of some of the binding properties used. Norway banned lead ammunition in 2005 but changed its mind after nine years and repealed the ban, because it felt a ban was wrong. We must look at what is happening elsewhere.
Lead shot is preferred as ammunition because of its excellent ballistic performance. It would be unwise to pursue a lead shot ban at this time. The evidence is not conclusive, and the scientific information is not there. There is some dispute among shooting organisations and those who are involved in this field. We need this, as shooters. Securing a humane and clean kill is surely the aim of every shooter of live quarry. I am totally against a lead shot ammunition ban.
I begin by reminding Members that I am the chairman of the all-party group on shooting and conservation, which enjoys wide membership from both sides of the House. Secondly, I draw attention to my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I participate in shooting sports.
Shooting and conservation are highly important to the UK economy, contributing £2 billion to GDP and supporting the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs. Members of the shooting community spend £250 million a year on conservation. Most importantly, they actively manage 2 million hectares for conservation as a result of shooting.
Lead shot ammunition has long been used due to its superior ballistic qualities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, and I am disappointed by calls to ban it. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s calls for such a ban seem to derive from the Oxford Lead Symposium’s report and the Lead Ammunition Group’s submission to DEFRA, which I understand is still being considered by the Government. I will not say too much about that group—the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) already referred to it—but it had two arguments against lead shot ammunition: in game meat, it damages human health, and it poisons birds exposed to it in the environment. I would like to deal briefly with both arguments.
With regard to the assertion that lead shot damages human health, there has been significant scaremongering without a full review of the facts. Lead is found in all food types at a variety of levels. The threat from game meat specifically is extremely small. The European Food Safety Authority has stated that lead from game meat represents 0.1% of average total dietary lead exposure—significantly less than other groups such as beer and substitutes, which expose the average European consumer to 62% more lead than game meat. When game meat is consumed in high quantities, the threat of lead poisoning naturally increases. However, only 0.1% of the British adult population consumes game meat at higher levels than the Food Standards Agency’s guidance. The FSA’s guidance on lead is the same as for other food groups such as oily fish and tuna. Indeed, further evidence shows that removing damaged tissue from lead shot game meat can reduce its overall lead content by 95%. That is the current advice in Sweden.
The group’s second argument is that lead shot ammunition damages the environment. There are claims that between 50,000 and 100,000 birds die of lead poisoning each year, although there is no evidence of any population-level impact on species. It is accepted, however, that lead has potential environmental risks—for example, due to the way certain water birds feed, some species are susceptible to ingesting lead if it is left within their feeding area. However, there are international agreements and UK legislation to protect areas where those migratory and water birds exist. I agree with the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney that our compliance levels with that legislation are not good enough and that we should all condemn those who shoot duck with lead shot in prohibited areas.
The report used by campaigners against lead shot ammunition—the one that comes up with the 50,000 to 100,000 figure for birds—was produced by the Oxford Lead Symposium. However, it uses data from research that was carried out between 1960 and 1983, before the current restrictions on lead shot were introduced, so it is clearly not a rigorous piece of academic work.
In conclusion, I see no reason to support a ban on lead shot ammunition. There is no clear alternative, as those that do exist are either more dangerous to human and environmental health or significantly more expensive. The claims that lead shot is damaging to human and environmental health are exaggerated and based on inaccurate data, and do not take into account the restrictions that already exist on shooting with lead shot in protected areas.
Finally, the impact would be significant on the current contribution that the shooting community makes to the UK economy and conservation management, which I outlined at the beginning of my speech and which is very significant in rural areas. I hope that Members across the House realise that a move to ban lead shot would be counter-productive and would not produce the significant human or environmental health benefits that the hon. Gentleman claims.
When most people think about shooting, the picture that they have in their heads is often all too clear: they imagine old-fashioned men in old-fashioned outfits, with old-fashioned accents. However, I stand in this Chamber today as the representative of a rural community for whom shooting is not a quirk of history, or something from another century; for my constituents, it is an industry that creates real businesses, real jobs, and real investment in our landscape. It is an integral part of our community.
Today, we are here specifically to consider lead shot ammunition. I would like to make three simple observations. First, to echo the comments of previous speakers, there is limited evidence of the need for further environment regulation of lead shot. Secondly, as it relates to humans, game meat is a tiny source of our exposure to lead. Lastly, in considering regulations on this industry, we should appreciate the vital contribution that shooting makes both to our economy and our countryside.
Nobody denies that there are environmental risks associated with lead ammunition.
That is why there are already restrictions on the use of lead shot in all parts of the UK, to address international obligations and proven environmental concerns. Many of the figures that we heard earlier relate to the supposed risks to water bird species, but those data were collected before the legislation was passed in 1999. That legislation made it an offence in England to shoot lead shot over wetlands or for the purpose of hunting wildfowl. Not only that, but almost all wildfowl species are migratory, so it is very hard for the studies to know exactly where the lead collected has been picked up.
Internationally, it is worth noting that earlier this year, Norway’s Parliament overwhelmingly repealed a ban on lead shot. Meanwhile, after considering the matter, Austria has stated that it will no longer be pursuing a ban on lead ammunition. My firm belief is that we need to collect evidence on the regulatory action that we have taken before we rush into yet more legislation.
I turn to the human exposure to lead. It is clear that game meat is a tiny source of our lead consumption. Lead is no doubt a toxic element, but, as we have heard, it can be found in all types of food at a variety of levels. The comprehensive study conducted by the European Food Standards Agency concluded that lead from game represents just 0.1% of the average dietary exposure to lead. In fact, as we have heard, the average consumer is exposed to 60% more lead from their consumption of beer. It may interest colleagues to learn that products contributing more lead to our diets than game meat include potatoes, coffee, and even everyday eggs. Simply put, all studies carried out to date show that eating game meat in moderate quantities has no effect on blood lead levels.
Lastly, shooting is vital to the economic and environmental well-being of our countryside. Shooting and conservation go hand in hand. We are often told about the importance of rainforests—well, heather moorland is even rarer than rainforest and, as a result of conserving and nurturing that moorland for grouse shooting, 75% of the world’s heather moorland is found right here in the UK. On walks around my north Yorkshire constituency, I have witnessed at first hand the unique biodiversity that the moorlands hold. From seeing beautiful curlews to scampering voles, I am sure you would agree, Mr Davies, that our moorlands are not only a Yorkshire treasure, but a national treasure. No less than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has said that “management for grouse shooting” has
“created and shaped the moors as we know them today.”
As well as helping to preserve our nation’s landscape, shooting is also a key driver of our rural economy. As we have heard, it supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and contributes over £2 billion annually to the economy. In my area, however, it is still more relevant. Everyone knows the difficult time that farmers are going through at the moment. Prices are low, so when we talk about the economic benefits of shooting, it is important to consider who we are talking about. In my constituency, it is very often the farmers’ families who go beating at weekends to top up their incomes so that they can make ends meet during what is a very difficult time. For them right now, the shooting industry is an economic lifeline.
No one in this country is more passionate about preserving rural Britain than the people who live there. It is rural communities who, day in, day out, balance the welfare of our animals, the beauty of our landscape and the security of our food supply. It is clear to me that any changes to the use of lead shot ammunition would damage that balance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to be acting as picker-up for this debate.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) certainly has not just walked up to the issue; he has done a lot of research. In his speech, he made the case that we should see more non-toxic ammo and said that there are indeed traces of lead in food. He talked about the risks to pregnant women, saying that alternatives are available. In his view, time is up for lead shot and he put the ball firmly in DEFRA and the Department of Health’s court.
The hon. Gentleman also flushed out a number of interventions, which went side by side, in terms of for and against. We heard that lead is banned in petrol, so why should it not also be removed from shot? However, we also heard that more detailed environmental studies are required and about the rebound problems from using alternatives such as steel shot. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) talked about the danger from lead and meat being no greater than any other foodstuff eaten to excess. He said that this would have emerged as a food crisis, had there been any serious issue. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about this being scaremongering from those opposed to shooting in general and he discussed the implications for the rural environment. If it was proved that there was a problem, he believed that there should first be mitigation and then some further regulation, and that it should then be phased out.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the different regulations in the nations of the UK. This issue is of course devolved, and the regulations are separate in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In Scotland, the Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) (Scotland) (No.2) Regulations 2004—that is quite a handful to say—prohibit the use of lead shot in wetlands. The regulations are taken very seriously and seek to meet the highest standards to protect wildlife. However, it is fair to say that the Scottish Government will consider all the evidence and the conclusions of DEFRA’s Lead Ammunition Group on that matter. What is undisputed is that, as we have heard from around the Chamber today, lead is clearly a poison and more research must be carried out to get to a definitive position on the health risks.
The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) talked about the importance to the economy, and he was backed up by the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), who talked about the fact that this industry is worth £2 billion to the UK. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds said that lead shot research had been exaggerated by the Oxford Lead Symposium. It is important to reflect on the fact that, according to the Oxford University research in 2015, around 100,000 birds are killed by lead poisoning and discarded lead ammunition. According to the report, consuming game with traces of lead ammunition affects human health too. Lord Krebs, emeritus professor of zoology of the University of Oxford and a former chair of the UK Food Standards Agency, said there was an overwhelming body of evidence that lead in hunting is a risk to both humans and wildlife.
Finally, the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) mentioned the effect of wildfowl migrating, which would cause difficulty with research. He said that the average person consumes up to 60% more lead from drinking beer and that eating game has no more effect than any other foodstuff. We have had an interesting debate on some of the challenges facing the Minister in taking this forward. We have to ensure that we have detailed research on the effects. I hope he will work closely with DEFRA to make sure that that research satisfies those who are for and those who are against the position on lead shot.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing the debate on this important matter. It not only relates to the health of wildlife and the environment, but has ongoing ramifications for humans if it is not dealt with. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—it is one of my favourite parts of my homeland and I very much enjoy spending time there—for his comprehensive summary of the debate so far.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was, of course, right to mention our long-standing recognition of lead’s toxicity and to highlight the plethora of bodies that have issued warnings on this matter. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s assessment of that advice in due course. Unlike other trace metals, lead plays no physiological function in the human body. Instead, it acts as a neurotoxin. Even at low levels of exposure, the damage that lead triggers can be significant: impairment of the developing brain and nervous system, increased incidence of hypertension and stroke, and weakening of the immune system. Worryingly, some of these impacts appear to be irreversible.
We have heard some emotive points this afternoon from all parts of the House. Indeed, I was fascinated to hear my hon. Friend give the etymology of “crazy as a painter”—the origin was lost on me before now—and anecdotal explanations for the fall of the Roman empire. The risks from lead poisoning must be taken seriously and the importance of a strong evidence base in assessing them cannot be overstated. The evidence is clear that there is no safe level of exposure, which is why the World Health Organisation has been clear that all forms of lead are toxic, and food safety agencies across Europe have highlighted the risk to health of eating game shot with lead ammunition.
Under food regulations, there are limits on the amount of lead in lamb, pork, beef and other products, but they do not apply to game. Is it not time to bring it into line? Lead is without doubt one of the best-studied contaminants in the world and there is overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating its toxicity to multiple physiological systems in humans and other vertebrate animals.
The hon. Gentleman said that there is no safe level of tolerance for lead, but we have heard this afternoon that lead is present in many foods that we all consume, and in alcohol and beer, so clearly there must be some level of tolerance or we would all be dropping down in the streets.
Just because there is a level of tolerance does not mean that it is not dangerous. Somebody may smoke over a lifetime and then suffer deterioration or a specific condition, and that can apply in this case too.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified inorganic lead as being “probably carcinogenic to humans”, while no safe blood lead level in children has been identified below which negative health effects cannot be detected. In March 2013, a group of 31 eminent scientists signed a consensus statement on the health risks from lead-based ammunition in the environment. Based on “overwhelming evidence” and “convincing data”, and alongside the availability and suitability of non-lead alternatives, they recommended the eventual elimination of lead-based ammunition and its replacement with non-toxic alternatives.
Just last month, the Oxford Lead Symposium published research further confirming what we already broadly knew about lead and the risks to humans, wildlife and the natural environment. The Lead Ammunition Group, which the Government set up, submitted its draft report this summer and I would welcome confirmation from the Minister of the date this evidence was received along with a timeframe for the release of its findings and recommendations.
The hon. Gentleman makes a great point: I cannot provide that particular piece of evidence, but what I am told by health organisations and others is that ingestion of lead over a period can be quite dangerous. As others have said, as a responsible society that recognises the inherent dangers, we have already taken action and regulated to cut lead from petrol, paint and water pipes, so most exposure to lead in the general population now comes from diet. However, despite the evidence and our previous moves to regulate other sources of exposure, we have not yet completely banned the use of lead by shooters. Instead, we have stopped short, although in response to the UK’s obligations under the African-Eurasian migratory waterbird agreement to phase out the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands, it has been illegal to hunt certain wildfowl over certain wetlands since 1999. The long and short of such patchy regulation is that lead continues to find its way into the food chain and on to our dinner plates. Compliance with regulations is sporadic at best, and most consumers are simply unaware of the contamination risk to themselves and wildlife.
My hon. Friends have alluded to studies showing that 76% of game bought from supermarkets, game dealers or game shoots have lead shot fragments present. Indeed, a DEFRA-commissioned study found that 70% of ducks sampled were illegally shot with lead. If that were not enough, almost half of respondents to a British Association for Shooting and Conservation survey admitted that they did not always comply with the law. To top it off, a repeat study in 2013-14 showed that compliance had not improved, revealing that 77% of sampled ducks had been shot illegally with lead. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no primary prosecutions and only one secondary prosecution for non-compliance with the regulations. That is a law that is not working in this land, so we need a change.
The hon. Gentleman is quoting evidence, but the crucial point is that if he wishes the Government to introduce new restrictions, he must surely come up with evidence indicating that people who consume game in this country have contracted some illness or died prematurely as a result—not in another country; we are talking about UK consumption habits. Unless he can come up with that evidence, he is doing nothing more than making mischief.
I am certainly not mischief making. I support the countryside and everything else. As I said to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), I cannot point to anyone who has died as a direct result of lead consumption; the point is that various organisations are saying that lead is a danger in diet. We need debates such as this. It might be that we just say, “Okay, we need to further explore the issues,” but it appears from the organisations that I have been speaking to that we need to act now.
I encourage the Minister to outline his assessment of the compliance problem over wetlands. Given the demonstrable disregard for current restrictions, I would welcome his acknowledgment that a complete phase-out is a proportionate means to secure legal compliance. Why have the ban if we are not going to do anything about it, and if there were no danger to wildlife and, ultimately, people?
I draw attention to resolution 11.15 of the convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals, which was adopted last year and calls for lead ammunition to be phased out by 2017 in countries where there is significant risk of poisoning to migratory birds. Let us not forget that, on top of that, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded a little over 30 years ago that
“the Government should legislate to ban any further use of lead shot and fishing weights in circumstances where they are irretrievably dispersed in the environment”.
We have already heard this afternoon that lead-based ammunition continues to be one of the greatest sources of lead in our environment. As much as 6,000 tonnes of shot is discharged every year and at least 2,000 tonnes of shot used for game and pest shooting is irretrievable. I would therefore be pleased to hear whether the Minister agrees with me that, in the light of the evidence on the numbers of wildfowl killed each year, there is a significant risk of poisoning to migratory birds from lead ammunition in the UK. While other nations, including Denmark and the Netherlands, are actively dealing with the matter, the UK seems content to look backwards and turn a blind eye to those who flout the current regulations.
To avoid the real risks that exist, we need positive actions to close the existing regulatory gaps, rather than passivity. It is high time that we stopped ducking the problem and took a common-sense approach to regulating lead ammunition. With softer restrictions on the use of lead ammunition having been widely flouted, the time has come to embrace the growing body of evidence and for all lead shot and bullets to be replaced with non-toxic alternatives. Like so many other hon. Members taking part in the debate—
Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing the debate. He showed the passion that he feels on this issue in his opening remarks. As we all know, lead is a noxious substance with potentially fatal impacts. This is therefore an issue that it is right for the House to address.
I pass on the apologies of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who has responsibility for this issue. Hon. Members will have noticed that he has been otherwise engaged in Cumbria in the past couple of days in his role as floods Minister. I am therefore responding to the debate on his behalf.
Government practice is to obtain and use the best possible evidence when taking decisions. That is why, almost six years ago, our predecessors chose to set up the Lead Ammunition Group, commonly known as the LAG—and I think one thing we can all agree on is that there was a time lag in that group’s concluding its work. The LAG began work in 2010. Although a creation of Government, it was deliberately set up as an entirely independent group, formed of experts who would approach the evidence from their various perspectives and provide clear advice on whether and what risks might be posed by lead ammunition and how they could be managed. The potential risks that it was asked to assess related both to wildlife, which is a DEFRA responsibility, and to human health, which is the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency. I hope that hon. Members will find it helpful if I set out the subsequent history.
First, the LAG was established in 2010 for an initial 12-month period, after which progress was to be reviewed. However, its final report was not presented to Ministers until June this year. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), asked when it was presented. That was on 3 June. Secondly, by the time the LAG reported, only five of its 10 members remained in place. The remainder had resigned, with four of those submitting a different set of recommendations.
We are therefore in a position in which we have no expert consensus about the impact of lead ammunition on wildlife or on human health. Nevertheless, we must start from where we are, so it is important that we look at the report that the LAG produced and the material that it contains. Even if that report has the support of only half its members, it is nevertheless a substantial document that represents several years’ worth of work. We must therefore consider it carefully, which is exactly what the Under-Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have been doing since DEFRA received the report in June.
Subsequently, as a number of hon. Members pointed out, there has been the minority report from those who resigned and the report arising from the Oxford Lead Symposium, which was organised by opponents of lead ammunition. I realise that hon. Members and others outside the House are anxious to have our response to the LAG report, but it is important that we take the time to get this right and weigh up all the other comments, views and evidence that have been submitted to us. The time that it has taken to review that evidence reflects the fact that it is a serious debate and that my ministerial colleagues are looking at the issue closely.
Let me remind the House of the action that Government have already taken. Lead shot has been prohibited for wildfowling since 1999 by the Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) (England) Regulations 1999. Those regulations introduced a double restriction. First, lead shot cannot be used, on any game, in certain areas—namely, over the foreshore or over a list of named sites of special scientific interest. Secondly, lead shot cannot be used anywhere for shooting certain species—namely, ducks, geese, coot and moorhen. In passing, I will mention that the general supply of lead weights for angling was ended in 1986.
The 1999 restrictions reflected the resolution made that year through the African-Eurasian waterbird agreement, to which the UK is a party. It was agreed that members would work to phase out the use of lead ammunition over wetlands, reflecting the clear evidence that waterbirds can and do scoop up spent lead when feeding and suffer health consequences from doing so. We delivered on the resolution through our regulations of the same year.
There is of course nothing to stop those who shoot from choosing, of their own volition, to use alternative forms of ammunition. Although no other material has exactly the same combination of malleability and density as lead, a number of alternatives have been available, and used in the field, for some time. Those include steel and tungsten for shotgun cartridges and, for bullets for rifles, copper and copper alloys. Use of an alternative is compulsory for wildfowling, but the alternatives can also be used more widely. I understand that some shooters have made the switch, although others have not.
I was going to come on to that. The hon. Gentleman highlighted a DEFRA study that did show—he is correct—that the level of non-compliance was up to 70% in certain areas. I will simply say this: it is the law. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) pointed out, we can all condemn those who are using lead shot where they should not be, against the law, and it is a matter for the police to enforce those existing regulations. Where the law is being broken, it must be enforced, and we are keen to work with stakeholders and others to ensure that we raise awareness of the 1999 regulations—the regulations that already exist. The key point made by a number of hon. Members was that the starting point should be to enforce the regulations that we have, rather than jumping to introduce new regulations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) made a very important point about the impact on clay pigeon shooting and the danger of steel ricocheting. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) mentioned that some countries—notably, Norway—had introduced a ban and then reversed it. I understand that in that case, it was for the somewhat surprising reason that steel bullets were getting embedded in trees and that was affecting the machinery of timber merchants. That shows that all sorts of unintended consequences can come from these things. My hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds and for Richmond (Yorks) highlighted their view that some of the data used in the reports were out of date, particularly in relation to the Oxford symposium, and predated the 1999 regulations. I think that is probably a fair point, although other hon. Members have made an equally strong argument that the 1999 regulations are not being enforced as effectively as they could be at the moment; that is also very valid.
In conclusion, I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said: this is a very important issue. The contributions in the debate show how complex it is and how strongly felt views are on both sides. That is why the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State are right to take their time to weigh up all the evidence carefully before submitting their response to the LAG report.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions in this important debate. I mentioned during my speech that this is not an attack on the countryside. It is not about shooting or the rural economy; for me, it is very much a health issue. Risks have been identified by health organisations, and even small risks deserve to be considered and removed, because there is a detrimental effect on birds and, as we have heard, potentially on humans through the food chain. That needs to be considered and action taken.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered lead shot ammunition.