Tuesday 7 February 2017
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
Serious Fraud Office
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding of the Serious Fraud Office.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. The Serious Fraud Office owes its origins to the work of the fraud trials committee, set up under the chairmanship of Lord Roskill in 1983 after a series of failures to secure convictions in relation to high-profile City of London scandals. The SFO began its work in 1988.
I know from previous discussions on the SFO in the House that the Minister values its work very highly. He said in one debate that the Roskill model on which the SFO operates is
“essential when it comes to this type of offending. It works and it must continue to be supported.”
He also said:
“It is important that we give our full-throated support to the work of the SFO”.—[Official Report, 2 July 2015; Vol. 606, c. 1610.]
I very much agree with the view that he expressed and I hope it will be shared by other hon. Members contributing to this important debate. It was in the spirit of wanting the SFO to do the best possible job that I applied for this debate on how it is funded. However, it is worth just revisiting at the outset the case for the SFO, because the model has had its detractors, including the current Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary, so the case needs to continue to be made and the arguments need to be spelt out.
The SFO is unique among UK law enforcement agencies. Under the model recommended by Lord Roskill at the conclusion of the fraud trials committee in 1985, it is both investigator and prosecutor of the cases that it handles. A string of failed City of London fraud cases undermined public trust and inspired the recommendation and decision to break with the usual division between those two roles that we see in most of the rest of the English and Welsh legal system. I want to return to the issue of public confidence that justice will be done in fraud cases when arguing that the Government need to look again at the mechanisms by which the SFO is funded.
Legal cases are often complex, but the cases that the SFO deals with are frequently an order of magnitude more complex than others. They involve thousands of documents and a huge amount of complex financial data. The SFO requires multidisciplinary teams working under its case controllers: they are made up of lawyers, investigators, forensic accountants and so on. Those multidisciplinary teams ensure that legal scrutiny is applied to investigations from their commencement.
The Roskill model also ensures that there is no hand-off point, when specialist knowledge and insight developed by investigators and accountants who have been studying a case may be lost as it is transferred to the barristers. That does not happen in the SFO model. Institutional memory and continuity are very important in the prosecution of complex fraud cases, and I am concerned that that important virtue of the Roskill model might be being undermined by the way the SFO is funded at the moment.
The Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary, tried in 2011 and again in 2014 to bring the SFO into the new National Crime Agency. The Financial Times reported on 5 October 2014 that she was
“to revive plans to abolish the UK’s main anti-fraud and corruption agency and bring it into her new FBI-style national crime force, according to officials familiar with the situation.”
I am glad to say that that move was resisted. The director of the SFO from 2012 to the present, David Green, QC, was clear in his statement that it would
“distract and destabilise the SFO in a really bad way at a time when”
it was “grappling with what” was
“probably its heaviest-ever workload and making real headway.”
He was not alone in making the case against abolition of the office. Bond, the umbrella organisation representing 370 international development organisations, which sees the impact of corporate corruption at the sharp end, with millions lost to public services and community wellbeing in developing countries, co-ordinated a letter to the then Prime Minister in 2015 from seven charity chief executives, in which they suggested three key tests for the Government on bribery and corruption. First, they stated:
“Investigation and prosecution teams should be combined in the same agency.”
The Roskill model achieves that requirement, and a number of observers think that moving the work into the NCA would probably end that beneficial arrangement. Secondly, the letter stated:
“Corruption must be a top priority for that agency, and not simply one amongst many.”
Thirdly, it stated:
“There must be specialist corruption teams”
in the agency.
The current arrangements for the make-up of the SFO meet those requirements, and as a result the UK is one among only four countries that are officially recognised as “active enforcers” of the OECD’s anti-bribery convention. I hope that maintaining that status will be an important concern of the Government and the Minister. Moving the anti-corruption role of the SFO into another agency would undermine UK leadership in this area. I agree with Transparency International UK, which says that it
“strongly opposes the abolition of the SFO unless an alternative is proposed which is demonstrably better. We believe that is highly unlikely given the SFO’s recent success, the instability and damage to caseload that would be caused by abolition, the detailed analysis that went into the creation of the SFO, and the lack of expertise and track record in any other government agencies regarding prosecutions of corporate corruption.”
I therefore hope that the model will be maintained, but how well is the current SFO doing? It is quite difficult to assess its effectiveness. Its case load is deliberately small: under David Green, it has focused its attention, taking the most serious and complicated cases through to prosecution. However, we can say that over the four-year period, 2012-13 to 2015-16, it had a case conviction rate of 81%, although that goes up and down from year to year, and since then it has achieved some important successes, including the first individual prosecutions for LIBOR rigging, which are welcome, and the recent landmark deferred prosecution agreement with Rolls-Royce, which resulted in a fine of £671 million, which was equivalent to the company’s entire operating profits. The SFO is undoubtedly making an impact. The question is whether it is as effective as it could be and as we would all wish it to be.
I declare an interest as someone who has previously been appointed to the SFO’s “A” panel of counsel. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in looking at the SFO’s achievements, it is right to focus also on the sums recovered under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 through confiscation? Its track record on that is certainly better than that of equivalent agencies.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I certainly do not want to argue that the SFO has not been effective; there is good evidence that it has been. The question is whether it is as effective as it could and should be, and that is why I now want to come to the numbers and my concerns about the way it is funded. It receives its funding as a mix of core costs and what is termed “blockbuster” funding.
Blockbuster funding can make up a significant amount of the total funding for the SFO. Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the lack of transparency around the process for blockbuster funding, which will inevitably cover the most serious and complex cases?
Yes, I do share concerns about that, and I will come to it in a moment. I hope the Minister might tell us a bit more about how the process works and how decisions are made about whether blockbuster funding is provided. I noticed that in the exchange between my hon. Friend and the head of the Serious Fraud Office in the Select Committee on Justice, he made the point:
“I would like to move to less dependence on blockbuster funding and more core funding”.
I think he is on to something and I want to explain why, in my view, that shift would be worth making.
Blockbuster funding is additional funding allocated on a case-by-case basis where individual, high-profile cases are likely to cost more than 5% of the SFO’s core budget—those costing more than around £1.5 million. To access that funding, the SFO has to apply directly to the Treasury. As I understand it—I hope the Minister will tell us a bit more about this—applications bypass the Attorney General’s office. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) has pointed out, the basis on which they are approved or denied is not transparent. I certainly do not know—I would be grateful if the Minister could shed some light on this—what the criteria are for allocating the funding. I know the system was renegotiated by Mr Green in 2012.
Yes, it inevitably does. We have seen a big shift over time away from core funding towards blockbuster funding. That inevitably means fewer permanent staff at the SFO and more temporary staff. That raises a serious concern about how the SFO is able to function. In 2008, core funding was £52 million. In 2015-16, the total budget was about the same, but core funding was only £34 million. For each of the last three complete financial years, the blockbuster funding element was large: £24 million in 2013-14, £24.5 million in the following year and £28 million in 2015-16. In 2015-16, the blockbuster funding was more than 80% on top of the core funding. The SFO’s total expenditure has been as much—perhaps rather more—in recent years as it was in 2008, before core funding started to be reduced as part of the Government’s efforts to cut public spending, but a big slice of the funding today is in the form of this one-off, exceptional Treasury grant. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the fact that, as a result of that, a large proportion of those working at the SFO are temporary staff brought in for a particular case and then laid off when it is concluded.
I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on whether that is an effective way to run an organisation as important as the SFO. Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate certainly thinks that it is not. In its view, the current model is not satisfactory, and I think it has an important point. In its 2016 report, it stated:
“The blockbuster funding model is not representing value for money and it prevents the SFO building future capability and capacity. Temporary and contract staff are often more expensive than permanent staff and managing surge capacity is a constant drain on Human Resources (HR) and other staff. Increasing core funding would provide the SFO with the ability to build capacity and capability in-house and lead to less reliance on blockbuster funding.”
That is the case that I want to press upon the Minister this morning. The evidence is on the inspectorate’s side. At the time of the inspection, 21% of SFO staff were temporary. As of March 2016, 106 of the 510 staff were there on an agency basis and another 35 were there on a fixed-term basis. That level of instability and impermanence would damage any major organisation.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful and important speech; however, the real question is whether the surge that we have seen in demand, which has given rise to the need for blockbuster funding, is likely to be sustained. Can he shed any light on whether that is perceived to be a likely outcome?
It certainly has been sustained over a lengthy period, although I think I am right in saying that in the most recent year the funding sharply reduced. For me, that accentuates the problem, because once the funding is sharply reduced, a large number of people get sacked or their employment at the SFO ends and the expertise and experience they have built up is dissipated. It seems to me that we should aim to hang on to that expertise and build up the capacity and skills that the SFO can deploy for its future work.
I am not saying that the 106 people who were there on an agency basis in March 2016 were second-rate or anything like that. I am sure that they were talented people, doing good work. However, as temporary staff they are more expensive than permanent staff and the additional expense does not make sense when the blockbuster funding is consistently high over an extended period—not permanently, but consistently over a long period. Temporary staff will build up skills and expertise during their work with the SFO, which will then be lost as soon as their contracts expire and they leave. That raises concerns about an inability to ensure consistency across the entire duration of a case and build institutional knowledge in the longer term, which was precisely the aim of setting up the Roskill model in the first place 30 years or so ago. Surely we want the SFO to build up its expertise, and having so many people on temporary contracts makes that a great deal harder. At a time when the Government are, for very good reason, pushing for the public sector to spend less on expensive agency staff in areas such as education, Ministers can surely see that the same considerations apply—I suggest even more powerfully—to the SFO.
Managing the human resources implications of blockbuster funding makes it harder, as the inspectorate points out, for personnel staff to do the other things they ought to be doing. The SFO is the only one of the Law Officers’ departments with fewer than half of its staff positions held by women and it has less than half the proportion of disabled people working for it than the civil service does as a whole, at only 3.6% of employees. We know that delivering diversity requires focused human resources effort, but with such high levels of turnover and agency staff at the SFO, HR attention is perhaps inevitably turned elsewhere. That weakens the organisation.
I am sure that the Minister will argue in his response that the director of the SFO has spoken favourably about the blockbuster funding system in the past. To an extent, that is true. Last October, he told the Justice Committee in the evidence session that I referred to:
“There are pros and cons to it.”
The SFO’s submission to the Committee prior to the session stated:
“It is a workable mechanism which allows the SFO to respond flexibly to a demand-led workload.”
That may well be the case, but “workable” is not the same as “optimal”.
I am not arguing that we should not have any blockbuster funding. I entirely accept that such a mechanism can enable the department to cope with fluctuations and ensure that it does not have to turn down a case on the basis of cost, but we have funded getting on for half the SFO’s budget for the last three or four financial years in that way. As a result, it has not been possible to build the expert, permanent workforce that I think we all want to see, so the balance must surely be wrong. Judging from the director’s comments to the Justice Committee, that appears to be his view as well.
There is another important issue. In requiring the SFO to ask the Treasury for additional funding on a case-by-case basis through a pretty opaque process, it is impossible to demonstrate independence about decisions on which cases are prosecuted. I do not want to make too much of that point, but being seen to be independent is important. Making the SFO dependent, case by case, on a Treasury sign-off does not provide that all-important assurance. That problem could be greatly reduced by making core funding a bigger proportion of the overall SFO budget. Another risk presented by the level of blockbuster funding—other Members have raised this matter in the House—is that justice may be delayed if an unnecessary layer of bureaucratic delay is added to the office’s work by its having to apply for blockbuster funding.
The model under which the SFO operates has established the UK as a global leader in tackling corruption, fraud and bribery. That is an important achievement, which we all want to maintain, and I commend the director of the SFO for his progress in focusing the organisation on its core purpose. The recent inspectorate report, however, was right to point out that over-reliance on blockbuster funding makes the SFO less effective than it should be. Will the Minister therefore commit this morning to looking again at the proportion of the SFO’s funding that comes from the blockbuster mechanism? Will he also look again at whether the SFO could do a better job, building up and maintaining better expertise more effectively in the long term, with more permanent staff, if a larger proportion of its funding was in its core budget?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on initiating the debate. I listened to him with great care and gratitude, because he spoke as a critical friend of the Serious Fraud Office. As he gently pointed out, when the current Prime Minister was Home Secretary, she was perhaps not a friend, even if she was critical, of the SFO. Possibly—who knows?—one reason I remained a Law Officer for two and a half years, but no longer, was because I fell out with the Home Secretary over the independence of the Serious Fraud Office.
There is a misunderstanding among politicians about the Roskill model and its value. However, before I go on further, I declare an interest—as must be obvious—in the SFO and all that it does. I also declare an interest in that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), the SFO instructs me from time to time as a member of the private Bar. One of the most recent cases that I have been instructed in was that of Rolls-Royce, which the right hon. Member for East Ham spoke about. Although I do not want to talk too much about my wonderful case load, I want to use the case of Rolls-Royce to illustrate the successful way in which the organisation deals with criminal activity at the corporate and most complex level.
It is a given, certainly among those who know anything about the Serious Fraud Office, that the Roskill model of having a joint investigating and prosecuting system in the organisation works. Although plenty of people criticise the SFO—as the right hon. Gentleman said fairly, it is not beyond criticism, and there are things to be said about the blockbuster system and so forth—it is remarkably successful, given the limited resources under which it has to operate.
When I was shadow Attorney General in the lead-up to the 2010 election, I made quite a study of the way in which the Serious Fraud Office operated, not least because it was one of the most important aspects of our prosecuting system that came under the supervision of the Attorney General and the Solicitor General. When I got into office in 2010, it was clear that the comprehensive spending review that the new Government introduced would have a pretty direct and possibly damaging effect on the SFO’s ability to carry out its important work. That persuaded me that we needed to find other pragmatic ways of allowing the SFO to get on and catch villains, both human and corporate. I was particularly concerned that we were underperforming on—that we were inhibiting—the prosecution and conviction of corporate crime.
Of course we were, and still are, beset by the Victorian identification principle: in order for a company to be convicted of a crime, a directing mind of sufficient seniority has to be able to be identified in order to fix criminal liability on the company. That was fine in the 1860s, 1870s or the 1880s, when companies had a board of two or three and operated within a town or a county—or possibly even within the country as a whole—but the vast international conglomerates that there are now, with offices in several jurisdictions and boards, sub-boards, national and international boards, make it extremely difficult for the Serious Fraud Office to attach criminal liability for a crime to the company. Individual financial directors, country directors, or country managing directors can be prosecuted, as the SFO has—we have seen that happen in a number of the cases that the right hon. Gentleman referred to—but that has proved difficult when dealing with international companies that misconduct themselves.
That is why—this is a slight diversion, but an important one—this House and the Government should develop the “failure to prevent” model. Under section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010, it is a criminal offence for a company to fail to prevent bribery by one of its associated people or bodies. The first deferred prosecution agreement—in which I appeared, as it happened—dealt with the failure of a bank to prevent bribery by one, or a number, of its staff in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Under the terms of the deferred prosecution agreement, that brought in from the errant bank about US$25 million in costs and penalties.
As the right hon. Gentleman correctly identified, the Rolls-Royce case brought in something in excess of half a billion pounds sterling, which will be paid by that company over the next five years. Beyond the penalty, it will have to pay interest on the delayed payment. More importantly, as far as funding the Serious Fraud Office is concerned, part of the deferred prosecution agreement is that the respondent company pays the SFO’s costs, which, at the time of the announcement of the agreement before the President of the Queen’s Bench division, Sir Brian Leveson, 10 or so days ago, amounted to about £13 million. Sadly, that £13 million did not go into the Edward Garnier special holiday fund; it went into reimbursing the Serious Fraud Office for what was essentially the biggest investigation that it had ever done since its inception. That investigation required huge international co-operation with the United States Department of Justice and with investigators and prosecutors in a number of other jurisdictions—the criminal allegations against Rolls-Royce covered the company’s activities within seven jurisdictions.
While the Rolls-Royce matter was being brought to an end a fortnight or so ago in this country, it was also being brought to an end in the United States and in Brazil, where the company had to pay the authorities about $176 million and $25 million respectively. That illustrates how the Serious Fraud Office can be pragmatic, efficient and effective now that it has the deferred prosecution agreement model and can use its money wisely to bring international companies to book for international criminal conduct.
Now that the SFO has more tools at its disposal, including the DPA model, does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that its workload will increase? Does that make the case for a larger underlying capacity, as the right hon. Member for East Ham indicated?
Yes. The DPA system is a new tool—there have been three DPA cases—but if the Serious Fraud Office is to carry out its international investigative work at the highest and most complex level, it will need a bigger budget. That was clear to me when I became Solicitor General in 2010 and it remains clear to me now. In 2010, as I understood it, the revenue budget was about £40 million and was set to go down over the course of the Parliament, under the comprehensive spending review, to something like £29 million.
When I went to the United States to discuss international corporate crime and learn from American prosecutors about the system for prosecuting corporate crime there, one of the federal prosecutors in Manhattan asked me how much our budget was. I said, “It’s about £40 million, going down to just under £30 million.” He laughed and said, “Is that just for one office?” I said, “No, it’s for the entire jurisdiction: England and Wales, and Northern Ireland”—unusually for a prosecuting agency in this country, the Serious Fraud Office covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland. The American prosecutor found it unbelievable that one of the centres of the financial world had a serious fraud office that ran on that amount of money. He went on to joke that he spent more than that on flowers at home; I do not think that that was quite true, but I would not be at all surprised if he lived pretty well. Good luck to him.
What I want the House to understand is that there is no perfect way to sort this out. The right hon. Member for East Ham is entirely right to say that there are uncertainties and, to some extent, an absence of transparency—or at least prospective transparency—in how the blockbuster system works. There is retrospective transparency, because the Justice Committee, Parliament, the National Audit Office and non-governmental organisations such as Transparency International—to pick one organisation at random—can delve into the SFO’s financial workings. I accept that although the blockbuster system works up to a point, it is not ideal, but the best is often the enemy of the good; I would rather the SFO could apply to the Treasury for blockbuster funding than its being constantly in danger of having its budget slashed and slashed again. The SFO is unusual and not very well known and therefore not terribly politically popular. Obviously its work is often private, because if its investigations are not conducted in privacy, the villains get away—I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about that.
To assist the SFO in its complicated and difficult work, we need to think hard about how to nail corporate misconduct. Will we be brave enough to move to the American system of vicarious corporate liability, so that when an employee commits in the course of their work a crime that has a benefit for their company, the company should be liable in criminal law—just as it would be in civil law for the negligence of one of its drivers, for instance? If not, we will have to extend the failure-to-prevent model. The Criminal Finances Bill that is going through the House at the moment will enact a failure-to-prevent tax offence; I have tabled some amendments that would extend the list of failure-to-prevent offences to a far wider collection of financial crimes. My amendments will not be agreed to, but Parliament needs to debate the issue. I look forward to co-operating with the right hon. Gentleman, who not only has experience as a Treasury Minister but can no doubt see the City of London across the road from his constituency office. I hope that the question of developing the criminal law to meet the increased sophistication with which business is done internationally will be cross-party and non-partisan.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about staff, I agree that any form of threat to any organisation from the promise or threat of change is distracting and destabilising. Now that the SFO is doing good work and building on its record of success with LIBOR, with the three deferred prosecution agreements and with the cases against Barclays bank, GSK and others, the one thing that it does not need is to be subjected to further interference. That would be destabilising and cause the employment equivalent of planning blight. Imagine a bright young lawyer in a City firm who thinks that it might be good to go and work for the Serious Fraud Office for a while. It would be, and it is, but if they know that the Government want to pull up the pot plant every 20 minutes and have a look at the roots, the SFO is not going to seem like a very stable place to go and work.
I want to see people from the private sector—the big City firms that have expertise in dealing with corporate crime, mergers and acquisitions and the highly complicated banking law that is sometimes involved—coming to work for the SFO for two or three years. I also want permanent members of the SFO staff to go into the City firms and other banking organisations, so that there is proper cross-fertilisation. What I do not want is for the current Whitehall fascination with sticking things with nice initials into great pots of alphabet soup to destroy David Green’s valuable work or distract him from it. I am proud to say that he is a personal friend of mine; he and his organisation have a proud record of demonstrating to the Government that it is worth every penny it gets and that it ought to get yet more money, so that it can catch more and more villains.
The reputation of our country is to a large extent built upon our financial services industry. Our corporations that sustain that industry—be they banks, be they insurance companies, be they whatever—and the people who work in it need to know that if they step beyond the line of honesty and acceptable behaviour, there is an investigating prosecuting authority that will not only come and get them but will make sure that they are convicted. That is what our constituents want. They want a vibrant financial services industry, but they also want an honest one, which attracts business, taxation and employment to our constituencies, whether they are in East Ham or Harborough.
Mr Owen, thank you for your patience. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General can give me the reassurance that the SFO is safe from interference and distraction, and that we can look forward to another period of success, and well-funded success, for this most impressive organisation.
In congratulating the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing this overdue debate on the workings of the Serious Fraud Office, I register my concern that the regular reliance of the SFO on special funding facilities from the Treasury lays it open to the charge that it lacks full and proper independence.
As we know, we live in financially straitened times for those agencies that depend on the public purse. Nevertheless, the sight of the SFO repeatedly having to go cap in hand to the Treasury for supplemental income opens up the Government to the potential accusation that they at least have the ability to close down what might be politically sensitive inquiries by the simple expedient of refusing the SFO funding.
I am not suggesting for one moment that the Government are behaving improperly. However, they must see that there is an inherent conflict of interest, which will persist unless and until the SFO’s funding is placed on a more sustainable and arm’s length basis.
Is it not important in this debate to keep a measure of context as well? The sums of money that we are talking about, while not insignificant, need to be set against a wider context. They are less in total, even including blockbuster funding, than the cost of one joint strike fighter and, given the ability of the SFO to protect British interests at home and abroad, that context is worth considering.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, although in the comparison he draws he also possibly makes a point about the expense of defence procurement.
Those of us of a certain age cannot help but be transported back in time when we learn of the SFO’s requests for so-called blockbuster funding to pay for major investigations. Some Members will know that I am a keen pop music fan, and it is exactly 44 years ago today that the glam rock anthem “Blockbuster” by The Sweet was at No. 1 in the UK charts. Now, I am not sure that the 17-year-old future right hon. Member for East Ham was a great glam rock fan, but I am sure that his hair was fashionably longer back in 1973.
The cost of funding the SFO’s blockbuster investigations now invariably takes the SFO well beyond the Treasury’s year-on-year allocation of funding, as we have heard from other Members. Last year, the SFO’s spending reached some £65 million, which was a 12% uplift on the 2015 figure. Blockbuster funding has been applied for, not on an exceptional basis but for four of the last five years, so presumably that form of funding is here to stay permanently, at least in the eyes of the Solicitor General. I would be interested to hear what he has to say about that.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) has pointed out, at the end of last year the SFO successfully secured funding to pursue criminal investigations against the Monaco-based Unaoil, which stands accused of securing complex corrupt contracts for a range of multinationals, including Rolls-Royce. I understand that the ongoing investigations over Barclays in Qatar and a range of potential fraud cases involving foreign exchange may yet have to be subject to special blockbuster funding appeals. Although I accept the Government line that that sort of mechanism allows the SFO great flexibility in the allocation of work, I trust that, as large and complex investigations become the norm, a serious re-evaluation of the pros and cons of the funding system for the SFO will be carried out.
I have to say something else, which I know will lead to my parting company with my right hon. and learned Friend in his paean to how wonderful the SFO is: I deeply regret that the reform of the entire workings of the SFO is overdue, and I believe that was yet another missed opportunity for the coalition Administration who were in office between 2010 and 2015.
For my part, as long ago as the autumn of 2009 I wrote two essays for the ConservativeHome website in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, setting out what I regarded as a proposed blueprint for the SFO. Then as now, I contend that an effective financial enforcement system requires the promotion of deterrence and competition, in order to boost consumer protection. Even at that time, a year after the financial crisis began, it seemed clear that, despite grandstanding galore from politicians, there was—indeed, there remains—a growing unease at the paucity of substantial change in the aftermath of that crisis.
Nowhere did that feeling resonate more than in the field of enforcement, where the prospect of adopting US-style powers to prosecute alleged wrongdoers in financial services has of course been dashed. Although over the past year or so the SFO has finally secured LIBOR convictions, it is in all honesty a body that I am afraid has long lacked clout and the respect of those who are most engaged in the financial industry.
As the right hon. Member for East Ham has said, the SFO has been operational since 1988 and the Roskill reforms. It is responsible for the detection, investigation and prosecution of serious fraud cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although it is operationally independent—as it should be—the SFO comes within the remit of the Attorney General and is given the power to bring criminal prosecutions directly. In contrast, the FCA is able to impose civil sanctions and launch criminal cases on matters such as market abuse, working in tandem with the City of London police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
There are some lawyers—perhaps those who are less close to the SFO’s workings—who continue to lament the difficulties associated with securing convictions for fraud, especially given the collapse of a number of highly complex jury trials. For that reason, many people feel that the introduction of a system of plea bargaining similar to that in the USA would not work. No one will risk blowing the whistle or turning themselves in when the likelihood of a successful prosecution being brought is—at least in recent years, as we have seen—so slim.
The SFO’s problems are not necessarily personnel problems; I agree with what was said earlier. However, having spoken to experts in this field, I have come to believe that one of the organisation’s main problems is in finding cases to investigate. Only when the police or the Attorney General have firm cause to believe that a criminal act has occurred is the SFO permitted to get involved. Moreover, when a case does get under way, its prosecutors routinely face months of battling defence lawyers before they can even get to trial. Of course, the defence has a strong incentive to engage in a war of attrition, in order to derail a prosecution on legal technicalities.
As a result, I think we have faced this task of reforming the financial services system and inculcating in the minds of its participants that sense of right and wrong, with an “umpire”—the SFO, in this case—that too often has lacked the tools or the respect from the market to do its job properly. I am not making any personal criticism of David Green, who, while at the helm, has developed a number of improvements to the SFO in the last three or four years.
Instinctively, I support a more robust economic crime policy, which would place the promotion of commercial competition at the heart of a new code of enforcement designed to deter fraudulent, anti-competitive or criminal activity. Such a policy should centre upon a new agency in place of the SFO, which would combine the SFO and the FCA’s enforcement division.
It is perhaps incongruous that the SFO stands under the jurisdiction of the Attorney General, although I very much appreciate that the right hon. Member for East Ham put that arrangement into some sort of historical perspective. Nevertheless, we should now look to place the SFO’s responsibilities within the remit of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so that the SFO would work alongside the Competition and Markets Authority. By associating consumer protection with fraud and trust-busting, we would give competition its correct place as a central priority in the future commercial landscape.
Is it not a problem to place the supervision of a prosecutor with a spending Ministry—a political Ministry? Obviously, the advantage of leaving the SFO and the CPS where they are—that is, under the supervision of the Attorney General—is that, in that respect, the Attorney General and the Solicitor General are not politicians, but protectors of the public interest. As soon as a Cabinet applies pressure upon a political Secretary of State, and we have seen this recently with the—
I very much take on board what my right hon. and learned Friend says, and I understand his concerns. He made a powerful point towards the end of his speech about the importance of there being public trust in the financial services sphere if it is to be the success we all hope it will be in the post-Brexit world.
To effect the necessary sea change in attitude and create a body with the powers of its US equivalent, we would need to be able to impose substantial fines on wrongdoers. Such fines could play a role in covering the costs of any new organisation. Clearly, there would be a need for some legislative changes, but measures would also need to be put in place to protect whistleblowers and offer genuine immunity to those who were aware of anti-competitive practice when they came forward.
I understand the point about moving away from a criminal more to a civil standard of proof. This is a back-of-the-envelope-type suggestion. I am just putting a few broader proposals forward because, as has been referred to elsewhere, the power of deferred prosecution is very much a positive step in the right direction. As Members know, deferred prosecutions will enable proceedings in a criminal case to be delayed for a given period, subject to certain conditions being met by the company in question. At the end of the set period, if all agreed conditions have been met—often, that includes paying a substantial fine along the lines of the one that Rolls-Royce had to pay—charges can be dismissed and the judgment of conviction can be entered. It is a more pragmatic prosecution-related process.
I could go on and on, but I know that at least one other Member wishes to speak and that we all want to hear from the Front-Bench spokespersons. Let me just say this, if I may: the incentives provided by healthy competition and the deterrent of stiff punishments should have formed the backbone to the new era of banking and business in the aftermath of 2008. The past two Administrations have missed the boat in restoring both the confidence of market professionals and the trust of the British public in our financial institutions. I very much hope that in addition to addressing the important issues raised in the thoughtful contributions made by the right hon. Member for East Ham and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, the Government will use this opportunity to take a fresh, broader look when it comes to the overall workings of the SFO, as well as its funding, and ensure that it has its rightful place within the enforcement sphere in the years to come.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I remind Members that I will call the Front-Bench spokespersons at half-past 10. In calling you, Mr Shannon, I point out that it did not escape my notice that you were six minutes late joining us. That is discourteous to the Member leading the debate and to all other Members present. A less generous Chair would have gone straight to the Front-Bench speeches and ignored you. You are running out of excuses, but I ask you to be brief and finish at half-past.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on making a very good case with lots of knowledge. His immense knowledge has been tremendous to have.
The role the Serious Fraud Office plays is essential and the House should ensure that it continues. The SFO initially had a financial threshold for its cases of £1 million, which was increased to £5 million. However, such thresholds soon became outdated, and the current director has published a statement of principle to make clear the main factors he takes into account when considering a case. We all know what those are: whether the apparent criminality undermines UK plc commercial or financial interests in general and those of the City of London in particular; whether the actual or potential financial loss involved is high; whether the actual or potential economic harm is significant; whether there is a significant public interest element; and whether there is any new species of fraud.
Current cases include, as other Members have said, investigations into the manipulation of the LIBOR rate; the recapitalisation deal by Barclays bank with Qatar at the height of the financial crisis; alleged bribes paid for the award of contracts relating to Rolls-Royce; alleged false accounting relating to Tesco; alleged bribery of public officials relating to Alstom; and alleged bribes paid to induce customer orders relating to GlaxoSmithKline. The list goes on and on.
Members have mentioned whistleblowing, and I myself have referred a whistleblowing incident to the SFO. Although it did not reach the aforementioned level, it was passed on to the financial regulatory authority. There must be a way to deal with the big firms; the individuals—the whistleblowers of this world—cannot take on such cases themselves. The SFO is essential in helping to take on the big firms. We have all watched or heard of the film “Erin Brockovich”, in which the David is able to take on the Goliath, but that is not the norm. The norm is that litigation costs are out of this world and, as a consequence, wrong is allowed to take place.
I fully support the SFO and hope I have made that clear. Indeed, its ability to look into cases should be much wider, and should include the case that I referred to it, which was of major importance at the time. However, there must be value for money and accountability for public spending, and the public must rest assured that there is no way to deal with those issues other than with the funding that is required.
Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about how the core budget can be supplemented by blockbuster funding, and the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) mentioned that song from many years ago. He referred to hairstyles; I can refer to the days when I had hair. Indeed, I suspect that you remember those days as well, Mr Owen.
It is always good to look back and remember what we had in the past.
The core budget can be supplemented by the blockbuster funding—that is clear—but if we are still recovering those large amounts of money, can that money go to the centre and can those recoveries be publicised, Minister, to show value for money? It is all about how the system works and how it works best.
I agree with the report from Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service, which found that the blockbuster funding model does not represent value for money and prevents the SFO from building future capability and capacity. I understand the reasons and the thinking within that. Temporary and contract staff are often more expensive than permanent staff, and managing surge capacity is a constant drain on human resources and other staff. Increased core funding would provide the SFO with the ability to build capacity and capability in-house and lead to less reliance on blockbuster funding. I agree with that reasoning, and I think that other Members have expressed that also. Minister, I look forward to your addressing those issues to our satisfaction.
In a previous life, I worked as a local councillor—for some 26 years—and often queried the use of long-term temporary contracts for staff supplied through agencies because of the cost increase, often going through the pros and cons of the issue. Although I understand the rationale of needing to grow or shrink depending on the size of the case, a larger base to begin with could—would, I believe—save money and provide job security for those with the specialised know-how. There must always be the ability to access blockbuster funding for cases such as LIBOR, which was an extremely transparent case, but there should not be a standard top-up that excuses the need to do what every Department from Health to Work and Pensions has done—cost-cut, look at efficiency measures and see whether staffing arrangements are adequate.
In conclusion, and ever mindful of the timescale that you set me, Mr Owen, I do not believe that what I have just set out is happening in the SFO. I put on record my wholehearted support for the body, but I believe that it must learn to cut costs like the rest of us. I agree that that can be done through a larger core budget—that is where we start, and the Minister might refer to it—and through the ability then to apply for blockbuster funding in exceptional cases, not just as a matter of note or opportunity. Thank you, Mr Owen.
I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing the debate and for the very considered way in which he approached the topic. In fact, all the speeches we have heard have been considered and thoughtful on the question of how we should move things forward.
The right hon. Gentleman highlighted the complexity and depth of the work of the Serious Fraud Office, and I was pleased that he highlighted the prosecutions for LIBOR rigging. I was also interested in his comments and those of other Members on whether the funding mechanisms allow for the best recruitment of appropriate staff. The right hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) made a number of useful points relating to that, as did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), who made me smile by admitting to a love of glam rock. I entirely agree with him on that. I hope he will agree with me that the SFO has a vital role in prosecuting complex fraud and tackling corruption. I hope he will also join me and the Scottish National party in calling on the Government to increase funding to the SFO to show their commitment to fighting fraud and corruption—adding clout, as he would have it.
The UK Government have indicated that they seek to move towards more of a tax haven economic model, which rings serious alarm bells for combating fraud. The right hon. and learned Member for Harborough spoke about reputation, which is key here. The SNP calls on the UK Government to respond to the findings in the report by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate and ensure that future funding arrangements ensure that the SFO provides the very best value for money. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman pointed out, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service is Scotland’s sole prosecution service, so the SFO does not have jurisdiction to prosecute in Scotland, although its powers may be used to investigate serious or complex fraud that is prosecutable in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. The SFO works with Scottish authorities on UK-wide fraud. I am interested in this issue because it has relevance for some cases that I am dealing with.
As Members may be aware, I have recently taken on chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on the Connaught Income Fund. As happens with many cases of its kind, the Connaught case has disappeared into an extended limbo as investigations take place. To the astonishment of many, those investigations are being conducted by the Financial Conduct Authority and not by the SFO or even by the City of London police. When I read the subject of this debate, it set me wondering about what we should expect from the SFO as part of its core funding. Why was the Connaught case not quickly elevated to the SFO for investigation? Why has it been dealt with as a matter of regulation, rather than of potential criminality from the start?
The Connaught fund was set up in 2008 and collapsed in 2012. A related case, Connaught v. Hewetts, was heard in the High Court in July last year. Evidence in that case indicated that Connaught had all the hallmarks of being a dishonest enterprise from the start. Instead of gathering funds from a range of investors and lending them on to a wide range of borrowers, the fund made all its loans to a single group of companies, the Tiuta Group. Tiuta immediately started to use the Connaught loans to pay off existing loans and to bankroll dubious projects already sitting on its books. Early in 2011, a very clear allegation of fraudulent behaviour was made to the Financial Services Authority by George Patellis, the newly arrived chief executive of the Tiuta Group. Despite that, Connaught and Tiuta were allowed to continue their activities for many more months, before finally going into liquidation in 2012. It is not even clear if the case was raised with the SFO, which raises the question of just what we are funding the SFO for.
Since I arrived in the House, the Connaught case has been raised on a number of occasions, both in debate and in questions. Ministers and the Financial Conduct Authority have given assurances that the police have been informed of the activities around the fund, but to date there have been no prosecutions. I have written to the City of London police’s economic crime unit, seeking assurances that a police investigation is under way. I will let Members know the outcome of that correspondence when I receive a response.
The reason for raising the matter today is that when I looked at the briefing, I decided to return to the question of why the Serious Fraud Office was not at the heart of the Connaught inquiry. The director of the SFO has helpfully provided a statement of principles he uses when considering a case, and I have compared the Connaught case with the factors contained within that statement. If Connaught meets the criteria for cases that the SFO should look into, that suggests that the organisation’s core funding should cover at least exploratory investigations in this situation.
The first criterion the SFO uses is whether the actual or potential financial loss involved is high. With more than £100 million lost by investors, the Connaught case clearly meets that threshold. Is it any surprise that investors are surprised that the Connaught case has languished for so long, instead of quickly being elevated to the SFO?
The second criterion used by the SFO is whether the actual or potential economic harm is significant. In this case, it is. Many Connaught investors were looking for an unexciting but steady rate of return on their capital, with no expectation of risk. Indeed, when the fund was launched, it was called the “Guaranteed Low Risk Income Fund”. Not surprisingly, many of the people attracted were looking for a low-risk income fund. Immense damage was caused to the life plans of many. If the core funding of the SFO is not intended to protect such investors, perhaps the Solicitor General can explain why.
The third criterion for SFO involvement is whether there is significant public interest in a case. Again, with Connaught, for many reasons there has been huge public interest and significant public sympathy for those who have lost money. There is also a great deal of interest in the failure of the regulatory system to prevent harm in response to the whistleblowing by Mr Patellis. The information he provided appears to have been simply ignored by the FSA for many months. In a recent report on a complaint by Mr Patellis, the Complaints Commissioner referred to an internal memo within the FSA, acknowledging that there was an opportunity here to prevent harm, rather than simply clear up afterwards. There is a great deal of public interest in why the FSA failed and whether its replacement, the FCA, is any more likely to succeed and if not, why not. Surely the SFO would not be so ineffective in its handling of this kind of complaint.
The last component of public interest is the role of Capita, which is one of the major players in the UK’s financial services sector and a supplier of services to many levels of Government. As the initial operators of the fund, Capita gave Connaught an aura of credibility that it clearly never deserved. People want to know who in Capita knew what and when about the Connaught fund. Is such post-financial disaster investigation not the role of the SFO?
As a prosecuting authority, the SFO clearly has the power to demand papers, but so do the FSA and the FCA. In at least one instance, Connaught’s auditors were asked for papers and responded that it was beyond their remit to produce them. Astonishingly, the regulator simply dropped the request. Would the SFO or the City of London police have reacted in the same way? If there are multiple agencies in the field, yet not one of them seems able to impose on those suspected of economic crimes the level of disclosure that is routine in other kinds of investigation, what are we funding all these agencies for?
The fourth criterion for SFO involvement is whether it is a new species of fraud. Well, I am no expert, but I gather that the rules regarding the promotion of unregulated collective investment schemes, such as Connaught, have been changed. That suggests that some new form of fraud was seen to emerge in this case, and steps were taken to cut it off.
The final criterion used in assessing SFO involvement is whether the apparent criminality undermines UK plc commercial or financial interests in general or the City of London in particular. Now, that is tricky. Many of those involved in the Connaught case are suspicious that the lack of action six years after Mr Patellis blew the whistle is because of the damage that full and early revelation of information in the course of a fraud trial might have done to the reputation of Capita and the wider financial services sector. My point in this debate is that after reviewing the rationale for the SFO’s work, I see Connaught as something that should have been accommodated in the agency’s core funding. I am told that an agreement is in place between the FCA and the police to prevent overlapping investigations. Having looked at the protocol between the Attorney General and the directors of the prosecuting departments, including the SFO, I was surprised to see no reference to that agreement, at least not explicitly, within the protocol.
Many are concerned that the delay in concluding the Connaught investigation will lead to any criminal charges that emerge being challenged on the grounds of delay. I am not sure whose interests are served by having such a wide number of agencies with apparently overlapping and sometimes clashing interests. It would certainly be in the interests of justice to ensure a great deal more clarity and security of funding for whichever agency is on the frontline of trying to protect the public from deceptions, frauds and scams—the kind of thing perpetrated on Connaught investors. I look forward to hearing from the Solicitor General about the issues of the SFO and, in particular, the Connaught fund.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, for what I believe is the first time. I refer to my relevant entry in the register and the fact that I am a non-practising door tenant at Civitas Law in Cardiff. I pay great tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for his measured, carefully phrased contribution. Whenever I listen to him, he always adds a great deal to the quality of the debate, and that has to be said about his contribution this morning. I thought he set out extremely well the emergence and creation of the Serious Fraud Office in the 1980s and the importance of the Roskill model, with investigatory and prosecuting functions under one roof together with all the other necessary skills, including forensic accountancy. He set out the SFO’s history extremely well: its emergence from the fraud trials committee and its creation under the Criminal Justice Act 1987.
The contribution from the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) was extraordinarily erudite, if I may say so. He set out extremely well the complexity of the cases, not simply in terms of their scope and scale but in terms of the law itself. We are not in a position where vicarious liability has been extended into the criminal corporate sphere in the UK. We are therefore left with the directing mind concept, which, as he pointed out, was originally devised in the mid-Victorian era, when companies were different from how they are today. Of course, there is the ongoing importance of the failure-to-prevent model under section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010.
The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) put his finger on one of the key issues in this debate: transparency of the funding model. It was put well by the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough when he talked about prospective and retrospective transparency. Although I am not for a moment suggesting there has been political interference from the Treasury, the truth is that the model lends itself to the appearance of a potential conflict of interest in the way it is set up. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) put it quite well when she talked about the public interest in these cases.
I give the Solicitor General great credit for recently providing a letter requesting additional funding. Transparent though that is, the content of the letter illustrates the complexity, because in fact the parliamentary timetable means that the SFO cannot expect to have access to any additional funding from the supplementary estimates until the third week in March, so there has to be a cash advance from the Contingencies Fund to keep cash flowing until then, which is not the clearest of situations to be able to explain to the public.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out very well the importance of value for money, which is what I want to direct my remarks to. Clearly, everyone in this room is united by the desire to see good corporate conduct, and the Serious Fraud Office is an absolutely essential part of that. However, on the funding model, I would press the Solicitor General to look at the balance between core and blockbuster funding and whether we have that precisely right.
It is difficult at times to judge the performance of the Serious Fraud Office. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough, in that we are always looking to improve. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham was described as a critical friend, and I would put myself in the same category. Looking at prosecution and conviction rates is not the easiest thing to do. In 2015-16, at one point it was down to about 31%. Objectively, that does not look like a good figure, but, looking at the director’s evidence to the Justice Committee, it came about because there were two defendants who ended up not being fit to stand trial, which severely affects the statistics, because we are dealing with such a small number of cases.
Similarly, although the confiscation rates are important, they do not show appreciation for the fact that not every case is as cash-rich as another might be, so even they are not necessarily an essential yardstick. I ask the Solicitor General to look more generally at that and at transparency, which is important, particularly in relation to the use of deferred prosecution agreements and when they are thought appropriate. Cases should be monitored because of the situation I have described of defendants being too ill to stand trial. That may not be within the control of the SFO, but where there can be careful monitoring of whether it is realistic that something will ever come to trial, that should be considered. Over time, we need to look not only at the number of acquittals, because that is not always the best indicator, but at whether, over a long period, there were cases falling at half-time in the criminal courts, which would be a cause for concern.
We could also look at international comparisons. America has a very different legal framework and different corporate culture, but we should still look around the world at how other agencies perform and at how economic crimes are tackled to see whether there can be improvements in that regard.
On the specific model, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham quoted the director of the Serious Fraud Office at the Justice Committee in October last year. He said:
“I would like to move to less dependence on blockbuster funding and more core funding.”
Indeed, the investigation by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate concluded that it was not necessarily providing the best value for money. When the Solicitor General comes to address the matter, I am sure he will mention the issue of unused capacity if the budget was set too high for too long. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we may be preventing the Serious Fraud Office from building future capability and capacity if, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham pointed out, we have staff who build expertise in a certain area and are then, in essence, lost to the SFO. There is also the issue of large surges of temporary staff. Not only does that create a burden on human resources management, but temporary staff are often more expensive than permanent staff.
I appreciate the flexibility of the blockbuster funding model, but I am directing my remarks to the balance between core funding and the additional funding that is available. In some years, such as 2015-16, the blockbuster funding nearly matches the core funding at the start of the year—I think it is £33.8 million versus £28 million. That may be only one year, but it is illustrative of what can happen.
I have a series of questions to pose to the Solicitor General. Could a greater core element of funding increase the in-house capacity and be of benefit to the Serious Fraud Office? Can it enhance the depth and quality of expertise available in-house? Could it increase value for money? In addition, could it increase diversity? The Solicitor General may have more up-to-date figures, but as of 31 December 2015 the Serious Fraud Office was the only one of the Law Officers’ departments with far more men than women. All the others had more women than men, but not the Serious Fraud Office.
There is also the issue of what I have described as the Treasury veto. Is that system necessarily the best sustainable long way forward? Can the Solicitor General look at ways in which that might not be necessary? For example, could there be a contingency fund, with Law Officers having far more authority over additional funds? Is the Treasury necessarily needed to give that specific assurance or permission?
In conclusion, the Serious Fraud Office plays a vital part in good corporate governance across the United Kingdom. Everyone who has made a contribution to this debate today wants to see that, but of course we want to see the Serious Fraud Office, even with its achievements, improve. I look forward to hearing what the Solicitor General has to say about that.
It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank and pay tribute to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for securing this debate, which has been wide-ranging and well informed. Perhaps we should expect that when we have a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the room and one of my predecessors as Solicitor General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier). Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) also has long expertise in and knowledge of combating financial crime.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) raised a specific case. I am grateful to her for raising such a serious matter. She is right to say that from the layperson’s point of view, it can be—to borrow a phrase from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough—a bit of an alphabet soup when it comes to the investigation of serious crime. I have not had notice of that particular issue. I make no criticism of the hon. Lady for that, but my advice would be to write directly, if she has not already, to the director of the SFO, copying in the Law Officers, so that we can have full and up-to-date knowledge of the serious case she raises.
I will do my best in the 10 minutes or so that I have to answer the questions posed by the right hon. Member for East Ham. I come straight to blockbuster funding. I have to confess that I am too young for glam rock, and perhaps that is a good thing. In my mind, the word “blockbuster” conjures up the golden age of Hollywood. I do not know whether that is an appropriate metaphor, because we are dealing with an independent prosecutorial authority that, for the best part of 30 years, has worked in a particularly specialised way, bringing together investigators and prosecutors from the outset. That is the Roskill model to which right hon. and hon. Members have referred. To be scrupulously fair to the right hon. Gentleman, he conceded—I think properly—the point that some element of blockbuster funding is desirable and, indeed, appropriate. When he was in the Treasury, I am sure the same rules were applied to the SFO. The question is not one of principle therefore, but of degree.
I come back to the age old question of balance and how to maintain that from year to year. The particular criterion that is now used by the Treasury was set out back in October 2012, when the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury came to an agreement with the director in relation to the funding of very large cases. Blockbuster funding is applied for when it is expected that costs to investigate and potentially prosecute a case will exceed 5% of the SFO’s core budget, which, at present, are cases likely to exceed £1.7 million. The ability to have recourse to funding for very large cases is a model that the Law Officers fully support. The SFO has to present a business case to the Treasury, but I reassure right hon. and hon. Members that it is not the Treasury’s function to perform the role of gatekeeper and assess the legal merits of a particular case. That is not its function at all. As the right hon. Member for East Ham will well know, its function is to make sure that the case is sound and that there is evidence on which to base that application; that the SFO has demonstrated that there is a real need for the money based on specific investigations or day-to-day needs. It is on that basis that we would see an advance being made.
The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) rightly refers to a written ministerial statement that I am laying today to outline the position. I agree with him that it might seem rather inelegant, but, when it comes to the need to be flexible and to recognise the ever-changing demands on the SFO, I am afraid a degree of inelegance is a price worth paying for the practical effect of making sure that the SFO has fleetness of foot for dealing with a case load that varies dramatically year on year.
The hon. Gentleman is right to bring me back to balance. From year to year, it is very difficult to predict. There will be times—he cited a year—when the amount of blockbuster funding exceeds the core funding, but there are other years when that is not the case. That underlines more eloquently than I can the essential fluidity of the system.
In replying to the right hon. Member for East Ham, I would deal with the question in this way. It would be troubling if either the Law Officers’ Department—there was once a suggestion that our Department should be the gatekeeper—or the Treasury acted in some way as a second opinion, second-guessing the professional judgments of members of the SFO. That would be wrong and is not what happens when it comes to blockbuster funding. No application for blockbuster funding has ever met with a refusal. That is a very important point to hold on to when it comes to the Government’s understanding of the reputational importance that the fight against economic crime has not just for the Government, but for the United Kingdom generally.
The Solicitor General made a statement on the instances of refusal by the Treasury. I was going to come on to that. Has there been a refusal on the degree of blockbuster funding? It might not have been about the overall amount, but has there been a sense of haggling between the SFO and the Treasury over the amounts that should be given for particular cases?
My right hon. Friend invites me down a course that I am perhaps not fully qualified to talk about. There will of course have been discussions about the amounts, but at no time—this is again very important—has funding been a bar to the proper investigation of cases that are brought before the SFO and meet the criterion that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) set out. Previous Law Officers, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, and current Law Officers have made it clear that funding issues will never be a bar to the prosecution of serious fraud in this country. That is why the reputation of the United Kingdom, to which organisations such as Transparency International have attested, is as one of the leaders in the field for the prosecution of economic crime.
In response to my earlier invention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster conceded that his interesting ideas, which I very much hope will be fed into the Cabinet Office review of economic crime, must acknowledge the fact that we are dealing with not a regulatory but a prosecutorial authority. The tests, with which most hon. Members are familiar, of reasonable prospect of success and the public interest, as well as remembering the high standard of proof that needs to be reached, are vital when it comes to the criteria for an independent prosecutorial authority.
Right hon. and hon. Members will know that the Ministry of Justice is conducting a call for evidence on corporate responsibility. The Government have an excellent track record in that area, having supported and brought into force the Bribery Act 2010, particularly section 7, which created a failure to prevent bribery offence. A similar offence in the field of tax evasion is in the Criminal Finances Bill and the Government will seriously consider the outcome of the forthcoming consultation when it comes to failing to prevent economic crime.
I think the question of the attitude of the director to blockbuster funding has been adequately covered. I have described the system as inelegant, or imperfect. Although the director works within the system, at no point has he felt under any improper pressure from the Government, or the Treasury, on applications for funding. That is very important, bearing in mind the current director’s record in improving and enhancing the role of the SFO in our public life. In paying warm tribute to David Green, I also commend him for the creation of a chief operating officer post, which I think will go a long way to dealing with some of the human resources points raised by hon. Members.
On diversity, I am glad to say that when it comes to new starters at the SFO, 51% are female. I accept the diversity figures. However, before I sit down to allow the right hon. Member for East Ham to conclude the debate, I would say that it is tempting to seek to create a permanent cadre of staff at the SFO who might be able to build up expertise, but each large case stands very much on its own facts. The context of each case can vary widely. Therefore, the continuing need for flexibility in employing specialist agency staff who might be familiar with a particular scenario will not go away. I make no apology for the fact that flexibility of funding is important in terms of year-to-year demand, and employing and engaging agency staff can be of real benefit when it comes to the prosecution of specialist crime.
I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to the debate. Sadly, I do not think I have time to discuss glam rock. I want to ask the Solicitor General if he will reflect on the fact that everybody who spoke in the debate before him—I think I am right in saying that—agreed that the current heavy reliance on temporary blockbuster funding for the SFO is not the optimal arrangement. He accepted that it was not elegant, but it is not really the elegance that is the concern—it is the fact that it is an expensive way to pay for the SFO’s work and undermines its ability to build up a cadre of long-term, committed expertise.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered seagulls in coastal towns and cities.
It is a delight to move the motion, especially under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to have not only a neighbouring MP in the Chair but another of my neighbours, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), acting as the Minister’s excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary. It is truly a team effort from Devon and parts of Cornwall. I thank the House of Commons authorities for granting me the debate.
I am pleased to have secured this timely debate on seagulls and coastal towns and cities, which gives me an opportunity to talk about an issue that has plagued many people not only in my inner-city constituency but throughout the UK. For context, my constituency houses the city centre, the Barbican and the Hoe, where Smeaton’s tower is situated. Thousands of tourists flock to our city every summer to see the historic place where the Mayflower ship set sail 400 years ago to found the American colonies. Indeed, in 2020 Plymouth will be at the centre of commemorations. American tourists do not need to come to Plymouth only to be plagued by sweeping and aggressive seagulls.
I am concerned that increasingly aggressive seagulls could put off more tourists from coming across the world and visiting Plymouth and other coastal towns and cities such as Looe. They are not content to just take to the skies over my city; there is even a Twitter account called @PlymSeagull. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who has fought a long and hard campaign against nuisance seagulls, and Fiona Kerslake of Eco Environmental, based in my constituency. She gave me an excellent briefing note on the topic.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that one of the most important elements is access to food? If seagulls are denied access to that, they will often go elsewhere. Therefore, the very holidaymakers he refers to have a role to play: they should be encouraged not to feed seagulls when they are on the coast. We should also encourage local businesses such as takeaways to have seagull-resistant forms of waste disposal.
I have a strange feeling that my right hon. Friend might have had sight of my speech. I will come on to that point. He makes a relevant and worthwhile case.
I would also like to praise Nigel Eadie, who owns the Original Pasty House in Plymouth, who first brought this issue to my attention in the last Parliament. Last night, as right hon. and hon. Members were walking through the Division Lobbies, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) informed me that while Brexit is an extremely important ongoing issue, he had been inundated with communications from constituents expressing their support for this debate and suggesting what action the Government should take. The debate is particularly timely as we approach the spring and therefore the breeding season. By May, eggs will be hatching and the gulls will become even more aggressive as they seek to protect their young. As we head into the summer, we could very well see gull wars on our high streets!
My office mate, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall, who is doing a brilliant job as PPS, told me the old saying that each seagull carries the soul of a fisherman who died at sea. As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary fisheries group, I have had a few messages from people asking whether the common fisheries policy has been slightly to blame for the rise in aggressive urban seagulls as we seem to have overfished our waters. However, I will leave the Minister to address that point if she wishes.
In the past 200 years, most species of gull have learned that they no longer need to migrate north or south. That is because the UK holds a variety of relatively mild climate conditions throughout each season and food is readily available from a wide selection of sources, as my right hon. Friend mentioned. Like all wild animals, seagulls have an ingrained will to survive. Much of that comes down to the fact that they are scavengers looking for food scraps wherever they can find them. Indeed, last year a group of psychology students at the University of the West of England launched a research project to study the psyche of the gull, focusing on the nesting of the birds, their feeding habits and how humans interact with them. When my hon. Friend the Minister sums up, I very much hope she will confirm that she has followed that research. When it is published, will her Department respond to it?
Over the weekend, it was widely publicised in the local and national press that the reason I applied for this debate was because my friend had a chip taken away from him by an overly aggressive seagull. We were campaigning in the Torbay mayoral election at the time. He put his fish and chips to one side and a gull swooped down and took them away. I am afraid he did not finish his lunch.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this important matter here. Is he aware that not simply chips are at risk? A pensioner was hospitalised by a seagull in Barrow within the past two years. This is a real public safety risk for the people of our coastal towns.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Indeed, I will give some examples of where that has happened elsewhere. As I said, a very aggressive seagull came down on my friend’s fish and chips. Yes, that happened, but no, that is not the reason why I sought the debate. I did so because I have been contacted by a whole series of people. A number of constituents have contacted me regarding over-zealous and aggressive seagulls. This is not a vendetta; it is an opportunity to ensure that shoppers, residents and tourists feel safe when they are outdoors.
Even my local newspaper, the Plymouth Herald, ran a story last summer titled “Plymouth will belong to seagulls this summer—but this is how you can avoid them”. We see photos in the press of a pensioner with a large cut to her scalp. We read stories about a diving seagull killing a pet dog. Things have become so bad and so widely publicised that our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that he wanted a “big conversation” about murderous seagulls.
Earlier today, I received an email from my constituent, Graham Steen, who tells me that a few years ago he was attacked by a pair of gulls that were nesting in his chimney. The gulls used their claws and beaks to attack the top of his head, causing a large amount of damage and pain. The gentleman has a bald head, so we can imagine what he was encouraged to go and do.
Real-life cases such as that have brought together Members from across the country to discuss this topic. Despite the anti-seagull sentiment, I am not advocating or supporting a cull of the species. Given the political surprises of the last two years, we should be very wary of polls. However, in 2015, YouGov surveyed more than 1,700 people on their support for a cull of seagulls and, according to the poll, 44% of people support one, while 36% oppose one. In beginning a cull of seagulls, I believe we could set a worrying precedent, especially as herring gulls are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I am therefore against the cull.
While we are on the subject of protected wildlife—I hope you will indulge me for a moment, Mr Streeter—Members may know that I have been running a national campaign to save the hedgehog by making it a protected species. I know the Minister will have heard me speaking about that several times over the last year; I realise that I have got quite a reputation around the country for it. I want to ask her this: how can it be that an aggressive bird such as the herring gull is protected when the small, timid hedgehog, whose population has declined by 30% in the last 10 years, is not?
My right hon. Friend is quite right. I very much hope that that will be included in the Brexit Bill when it comes forward, so that we can protect our wildlife and, I hope, improve upon it, because that is important.
Back in September, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) tabled a question to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asking whether it had made an assessment of the potential effect of removing the protected status of seagulls in urban areas.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. There is not only a contradiction between the lack of protection for hedgehogs and the protection for aggressive seagulls. Governments of all colours in the past have agreed to onshore and offshore wind farms, which randomly kill many seabirds. Does he agree that there is a huge contradiction between seagulls being protected, when we could save people from attack, and killing them randomly with wind farms?
I quite understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but I have always been a keen supporter of renewable energy. I have always thought that the more we can do to use tidal and wave technology, the better, but he makes a fair point.
The Minister replied to the written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, stating:
“The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 already allows for the control of gulls…in the interest of public health and safety or to prevent disease.”
I cannot see how a seagull attacking a pensioner, leaving her with a huge and bloody cut on her scalp, is not seen in terms of public health and safety.
My hon. Friend brings a really important discussion to the House for debate. In Berwick-upon-Tweed, the most northerly town in my constituency, we are plagued with the seagull problem, to the point where last summer someone took it upon themselves to institute their own cull. While that was appreciated in some quarters, there is a risk that people are having to take the law into their own hands to deal with these difficult and aggressive birds, which means there are people wandering the streets of Berwick with firearms who really should not be doing so. The impact of that frustration is very real.
I would most certainly advise my constituents to ensure they do not seek to break the law.
There are a number of things that the Government can do to make the position much better. Will the Minister consider amending the 1981 Act so that it is easier to control the gull population when such attacks are happening? I also firmly believe that we need greater flexibility in protecting very different species. If population growth occurs, especially to the detriment of another species, it should be made easier to change the list of protected species, but very much on a regional basis.
Just before the last general election, the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), earmarked £250,000 for a study into the life cycle of the urban seagull. Unfortunately, that was scrapped three months later by DEFRA. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister could speak to the Treasury to try to get the money for that study back. I know that many Members who represent coastal towns and cities would be delighted if there were some movement on this, as many of our constituents’ lives are being blighted on a daily basis by seagulls.
Of course, this does not only affect coastal towns and cities; towns such as mine and the quality of my constituents’ lives are seriously affected. Given that we managed to clear pigeons from Trafalgar Square in a humane way, does my hon. Friend agree that it ought not to be beyond the wit of man to do the same for seagulls, which are such a menace to my constituents?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. When I was a child, I always believed that if there was a bad storm at sea, the birds had a tendency to come inland. I do not know whether that is still the case.
Studies show that between 2000 and 2015, the number of urban gull colonies in the UK and Ireland doubled from 239 to 473. Indeed, the number of gulls could have quadrupled in that time, as colonies are now larger than they were 17 years ago. The £250,000 study could mitigate our knowledge gap when it comes to gulls.
As you may know, Mr Streeter, I am the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment. I therefore take a deep interest in how we can use our buildings to combat the scourge of angry seagulls. I believe we can use our built environment to tackle this problem. Commercial buildings should be proofed or built differently when redeveloped. Indeed, there are a number of bird deterrent systems. Bird nets are an effective deterrent system, providing a discreet and impenetrable barrier that protects premises without harming birds. Nets are one of the most effective and long-lasting ways of bird proofing, particularly for large open roofs, and can be used for commercial and industrial buildings such as warehouses.
Alternatively, a pin and wire system could be used to prevent perching without damaging the aesthetics or construction of the building. That system is almost invisible and is widely used across the UK for that reason. By preventing perching, the system makes it much more difficult for a gull to nest and eventually lay eggs.
The most well-known deterrent is spikes, which are used to deter not only gulls but pigeons and other birds. In built-up urban areas such as Plymouth, spikes would be helpful because they would make it very difficult for the birds to land, particularly in high-infestation areas. It has also been suggested to me that councils could paint eggs red, so that gulls think they are on fire and will not sit on top of them to incubate them. From what I understand, gulls see in black and white and not in colour—perhaps because they bought the wrong TV licence.
In terms of what can be done on the ground, there is an element of social responsibility, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) said. Takeaways must take much more responsibility to keep their local environment clean, as overflowing bins and fish and chip wrappers are extremely attractive to gulls. Local authorities also need to be more proactive in keeping their streets clean and ensuring that litter bins are free from takeaway boxes and polystyrene containers. Those simple steps could help to take away one of the best sources of food for these birds.
In the 1970s, Restormel Council in Cornwall encouraged residents to leave out their black plastic bags, which were then picked at by the gulls in the local area. Residents would put blankets over the top of the bags to hide them from the gulls. I urge local authorities to use bins with secure lids, so that it is much more difficult for gulls to get into the bins and pick at the bags. I also encourage local authorities to continue their weekly bin collection, especially over the breeding season. I must confess, however, that my own local authority has just proposed a change to fortnightly bin collections.
Another form of contraception could be to replace eggs with dummy or fake eggs. Studies show that gulls welcome dummy eggs into the nest and will try to incubate them. I think that my own local authority in Plymouth used that method for a little while.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate such an important issue, which transcends constituencies and affects hundreds and thousands of people across our coastal towns and cities. I hope that the Minister will listen to not only my concerns, but those of many of my constituents and many other Members of Parliament and their constituents. This is an important matter, and I hope that the Government will act before someone is really hurt yet again by an aggressive seagull. As you know, Mr Streeter, I represent a naval constituency, so in that great tradition we should pay tribute to the words of Horatio Nelson: we need action this day.
May I, too, say what a pleasure it is to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Streeter? It is also a pleasure to be able to contribute to this timely and essential debate—passions have already been stirred by the opening contribution from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). I agree with so much of what he said. I will just add a few thoughts from the perspective of the blighted and besieged people of Barrow and Furness, who have dealt with this threat for many years. I mentioned in my intervention the example of a pensioner, 72-year-old Brian Griffin, who was attacked on the way to the library in Walney and ended up having to be hospitalised.
There is a rather gruesome video on the North West Evening Mail website—I do not recommend that you click on it, Mr Streeter. It shows a very large herring gull feasting on a pigeon. There is another example of a gull popping into Greggs on Dalton Road to help itself to the produce. I have with me a photo that I took on my walk to the office a couple of weeks ago. You have rightly reminded me that it cannot be used as a prop, Mr Streeter, but let me take a moment to describe it. It shows, in one of the back alleys in central Barrow, a wheelie bin whose lid has clearly been left ajar, and the rubbish bags that are on show have become a feasting site for—well, I will not count them now, because that would not be a valuable use of time, but there are at least a dozen seagulls there. This is not just an inconvenience for people; it is a proper health and safety risk to our citizens.
In the four years since I was able locally to bring people together for the Barrow and Furness seagull summit and we instituted a three-point plan to deal with seagulls, there has been some effect. The measures that we all agreed to back then were pursuing contraception for seagulls where that was possible; removing the space where seagulls unfortunately too often congregate and nest in our town; and clearing out waste. There has been some sporadic progress.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his summit and for trying to achieve solutions locally, but does he agree that there is an opportunity for central Government to try to co-ordinate what might be best practice, potentially underpinned by a study, so that we are not having to reinvent the wheel in every location to work out what best practice is? We should know that from the centre.
Absolutely. That is an excellent idea, and I will come on to what more I think the Government could do in relation to individuals. I, too, was disheartened by the cancellation of the £250,000 project. I am sure that the former Chancellor took inspiration from one of my former employers, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in taking a personal interest in what might otherwise seem insignificant amounts of money at Budget time. That project clearly would have been welcomed in the towns blighted by seagulls. It is a real shame that the Chancellor cancelled it.
Would it not also be a good idea if local authorities were to work with other local authorities around them that have a similar issue? That could also save costs, and I am acutely aware that local authorities are finding it very difficult to make ends meet at the moment.
Absolutely. These are trying times. We have had the Barrow and Furness seagull summit. Perhaps the time has come for a national seagull summit, so that the blighted populations along our coasts can get together and discuss the issue, perhaps in comparative safety at an inland venue, for their mutual convenience.
BAE has taken action, which reduced many of the nesting sites in our town, and a number of years ago the council distributed a leaflet, but there is still a really significant problem. Certainly in the perception of most citizens in Barrow, Ulverston and across the area, the blight is pretty much as it was. That is not to say that we do not value the South Walney nature reserve, where the seagulls ought to be living their lives, but unfortunately they come into town too often because food supplies are too readily available there. There are clearly things that individuals and businesses can do to lock up those supplies, but I wonder whether there is a limit to the effectiveness even of those measures.
I am very interested in what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport says about the potential for reinstating a cull once the United Kingdom has left the European Union. Amid the flurry of worry and concern about downsides, that is possibly one thing that we ought to keep in mind as a real step forward for an independent UK. We will be able to make our own decisions about whether herring gulls, which are hugely preponderant in Barrow town centre, could be taken off the protected species list.
I will finish with a further suggestion as to how the Government could get involved. It is true that herring gulls are on the protected list, so the ability that is available in relation to other species, if they prove to be a health and safety concern, does not exist for gulls, but too often that leads individuals to believe that they can do nothing. Actually, if people go to the Natural England website and read the provisions of its general licence, that makes it clear that someone can take action against a herring gull by removing its nest and taking away its eggs if they are a property owner, there is a clear health and safety danger from failing to do that and other measures have proved ineffective. Many homeowners or managers of public buildings would clearly meet those criteria in the Furness area and, I imagine, in other towns.
Indeed, but let me explain what I strongly believe the provisions of that licence say. Perhaps the Minister will be able to clarify this. I can share with her the terms of the licence if her staff do not have this information and that would be helpful. I am not sure that it requires an elderly person to do the deed themselves. I think that they may be able to employ someone else to do it. Let us hope that there clearly is a role for local authorities. There is a long established role in vermin control. Someone can bring in people to help if they have a rat or mouse infestation. I think that there clearly is a role for local authorities, but where either the local authority or the Government could really make the difference would be in enabling citizens to know what their rights are in these situations.
Two things: first, citizens need to know what their rights are; secondly, we need to enable citizens to know what is most effective. All of us— individuals and local authorities—have limited resources and limited time. We need to target resources effectively.
Absolutely. People need to know they can take action. Yes, they need a licence to take action against herring gulls, but they can obtain the licence by going on the internet and printing it out for themselves. Does the Minister agree that there could be a case for, as I like to put it, mobile licensing awareness points around coastal towns? We would simply need desks with printers and bits of information to tell people what their rights are and to empower them to take back their communities against the blight of seagulls, which so often spoil our towns.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on securing this important debate and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock).
I represent St Austell and Newquay in mid-Cornwall, and the issue of seagulls has long been a hot topic in my constituency, particularly in places such as Newquay, Mevagissey and Fowey—coastal towns that rely heavily on tourism. We have seen the growing nuisance of seagulls in recent years. That nuisance is to do with noise and droppings that can damage car paintwork, as well as gutters blocked by nests, which then cause gutters to overflow. There is also the nuisance of rubbish strewn across our streets every time there is a waste collection in the community.
Seagulls are not only a nuisance. Increasingly, there is an issue of danger. We often laugh at tourists in our seaside towns who have their pasty or their ice cream stolen by a sweeping seagull, but too frequently that results in injury. Our local A&E in Cornwall reports that every late spring/early summer our seagulls become more aggressive and several people visit A&E as a result of being injured by a seagull.
In 2015, there was the well-publicised case, which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned, of a family dog in Newquay being killed by a seagull. That drew a lot of media attention and was directly responsible for former Prime Minister David Cameron commenting that we needed to have a big conversation about seagulls. Sadly, we never got to have that big conversation. The issue went away, as it does most summers, and we have never really come back to address it in the way that I believe we need to.
I am grateful for that comment from my hon. Friend. However we do it, we need to keep returning to this issue until it is addressed in such a way that seagulls no longer blight our seaside communities. Whether it is an annual debate or whatever the mechanism is, we need to keep focusing on the issue until something is done.
My observation is that we have almost two species of seagulls in this country. The gull we most often refer to is the herring gull, which is a large bird. I understand it can grow to about 55 cm, although now that we are leaving the EU we are allowed to say 22 inches. That bird is the most common cause of nuisance and attacks. As I said, it is now almost two species, as there are the birds that live out on the clifftops as nature intended them to live—by eating from the sea and living in the wild—but increasingly we see the urban seagulls that come into our towns becoming a very different species from those that live in the wild.
We do the seagulls no favour by drawing them into our towns. One of the facts that I discovered when I looked into this matter was that the average life expectancy for a gull that lives in the wild on the clifftops is more than 30 years, but for a gull that has come into the town and lives by scavenging off human waste it is 12 to 15 years. Gulls live more than twice as long when they live in their natural habitat than they do in our towns. By removing them from our towns, we would do the gulls a favour and help them to live the long and pleasurable lives that nature intended.
Increasingly in our seaside towns in Cornwall the gulls are seen as nothing more than flying rats. They scavenge from our rubbish bins and seek to steal food from us whenever they can.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned stealing food. I am sure he is aware of the video of the Aberdonian seagull shoplifting a packet of Doritos in Aberdeen. Seagulls cause real problems for residents, businesses and tourists. Will he join me in welcoming Aberdeenshire Council’s “Survivor’s Guide to Living with Urban Gulls” to deal with these issues?
I am grateful for that intervention. Indeed, I am aware that many local authorities across the country, including Cornwall Council, have issued guidance to residents and businesses on how to minimise the impact of gulls. All that is most welcome, but we are reaching a point where perhaps more direct action needs to be taken. Part of the process is about education and increasing awareness. The point already made by some hon. Members is that a lot of the problems are caused by people feeding gulls or leaving their food waste in such a way that it is easily accessible for gulls. Educating people to minimise that is one of the best ways to reduce the impact of gulls.
I was formerly the Cornwall Council cabinet member responsible for waste management. I am proud of the fact that during my time in the cabinet I introduced seagull sacks across Cornwall, which we made readily available through the local authority at a nominal cost. Residents can put their black bin bag rubbish into seagull-proof sacks. The seagulls cannot access the rubbish within. Encouraging residents to take such practical steps will minimise the impact that seagulls have in our communities. However, more needs to be done.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned, it was regrettable that the Government cancelled the study on seagulls and their life cycles and habits, because we need to make informed decisions. There have been calls for a cull, although I am not convinced that is the answer. I do not completely reject some other measures that have been mentioned, such as taking eggs and such things. All those could work, but we need to make informed decisions about how we tackle this menace. A comprehensive study of and report on seagulls, their impact and their life cycle would help us to form an action plan to address the issue for the long term and help us to minimise the impact that seagulls have.
I would certainly welcome the Minister’s comments and views. Is she prepared to support a call for a new study to be done on how seagulls impact on our coastal communities—as we have heard, increasingly this is not only a coastal issue—so that we can have comprehensive knowledge of the issues and then make informed choices about how we address the problem?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for initiating the debate as this is an important issue that many of our communities and constituents want to see us address. I hope this can be the start of not just a big conversation, but some action that might go somewhere and help us to address the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) for introducing the debate. It is quite nice to be in a debate where we all agree about what the problem is, and about the fact that we must find some way through it. Indeed, we all agree that seagulls are a menace to our towns and cities, thriving on litter and behaving aggressively towards other birds, and to pets and people. They are increasingly problematic.
I particularly want to speak because seagulls are a problem for the seaside town of Largs, in my constituency. I recommend Largs to those hon. Members who have not yet been fortunate enough to visit—it is a beautiful and picturesque town with much to offer residents and visitors—but the presence of seagulls is a constant challenge. That challenge can range from a simple nuisance to a downright menace. As hon. Members have mentioned, some people have been quite badly injured; others have escaped with just being terrorised.
I think that there has already been mention of the first important instrument that should be used to tackle seagulls in coastal areas, which is for the public to stop feeding them. Feeding only attracts more gulls and builds up their expectation that the food is there for the taking. As we know, seagulls hover in the sky waiting to snatch food from local people who are eating fish and chips on the prom. They have even been known to plague Largs residents sitting in their gardens some distance from the shoreline. It is important for day trippers in seaside towns such as Largs to appreciate that they should not feed seagulls. Largs welcomes thousands of day trippers every year, at high season. If someone took their child there on a visit and the child was viciously attacked by a seagull, it seems logical that they would not choose to return.
The world-famous Largs ice cream outlet Nardini’s has even warned its patrons not to eat the ice cream outdoors, as seagulls will soon appear to claim it as their own. Indeed, nothing can really be safely eaten on the shorefront without risking life and limb at the hands, or should I say beak, of a vicious seagull. I can top the story told by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) about the snatching of a packet of Doritos in his constituency. In my constituency, a seagull was bold enough to snatch a £20 note from an unsuspecting visitor’s hand, only to deposit it some distance down the street when it realised that it was not particularly appetising.
The problem of seagulls is not confined to town centres and the sea front, however. They breed and nest on the flat roofs of houses; they squabble with each other; they squawk incessantly at all hours of the day or night, creating a nasty racket; they bombard and soil windows; and they soil washing. That noise and filth, which can only be a health hazard, constitute a serious challenge for residents of even the most picturesque towns, such as Largs.
Largs, however, has been trying to think creatively about the issue. One idea that was mooted, which I do not think has been mentioned today—perhaps there is good reason—is the deployment of birds of prey to control the number of seagulls. That would mean using hawks as a deterrent, working the seagulls away to a much less densely populated area and letting them congregate elsewhere. I understand that that solution has worked in Anglesey, so why not in Largs or other seaside towns? It would also be important to provide a feeding station elsewhere, to move the food source and to keep the seagulls in a designated zone. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned, that would be good for the seagulls’ health and lifespan.
Assistance has been sought from local councils, and in Largs that has led to the use of solar seagull-proof bins. The bins in Largs are often filled to overflowing, given the high turnover of visitors in summer. When the town is packed with visitors the bins start to overflow very early in the day, but solar seagull-proof bins were installed on the seafront last summer. As well as having improved capacity, they compress the waste and alert the council when they need emptying. That innovation has been warmly welcomed by visitors and residents. I can take no credit for lobbying for those bins; the credit must go to the local MSP. In the interest of family harmony, I should say that that happens to be Kenneth Gibson, my husband.
I hope that the hon. Lady can help me; I am somewhat confused. We have devolved Assemblies, including the Scottish Assembly. What role does the Scottish Assembly play in all this? Is it a reserved matter for the Westminster and Whitehall Government or is it also a policy issue in the Scottish Parliament?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the matter is ultimately the responsibility of local authorities, but support and guidance on the treatment of species is given by the Scottish Parliament. He may well ask—I suspect, perhaps unfairly, that this is at the core of his question—what I am doing here today. I will enlighten him: it is to share good practice. I came here hoping that his pearls of wisdom would cascade down to me and that I could report some innovations back to Scotland. I hope that, similarly, I can help him.
I was genuinely concerned to know how the whole thing works. I served on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, and every time there was an issue that was thought to be Northern Irish, a Committee member would remind me that it was a reserved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and nothing to do with us in Westminster. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Lady for taking some time to explain the constitutional impact.
I am delighted to be of service to the hon. Gentleman.
How we deal with seagulls and their interference with the town and residents is a long-standing issue. Further measures are needed, and we have not solved the problem yet. Wild birds are protected by law in Scotland, but—the hon. Gentleman anticipated my remarks—local authorities and authorised persons are allowed to control and manage certain birds for the protection of public health and safety, and to prevent the spread of disease. If the problem is believed to have become unmanageable, and it is thought that public health is in serious danger, local authorities can take further measures.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we need to continue to monitor the situation. The public and residents of coastal areas—but not just coastal areas—need protection from this menace. We must work towards a more permanent solution to this difficult issue and continue to seek innovations. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say and what pearls of wisdom she can offer, so that I can rush back and share them with the people of Scotland, who will be most interested. I hope that I have provided some enlightenment to the good Members here today who do not have the privilege of representing anywhere in Scotland.
I would love to mention my wife, Mr Streeter, but she does not have much to do with this.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. There is no shortage of material from St Ives that I could talk about with reference to seagulls, and their welfare—it is not just about their being pests. St Ives’s fame comes most recently, as many in the House will know, from its neighbourhood plan. Hon. Members can talk to me about it later, if they are interested; it hit the international headlines. St Ives is also famous for Barbara Hepworth, the Tate Gallery, beautiful beaches, and seagulls. In fact last July an 18-year-old girl was airlifted to hospital having fallen off a 15-foot wall because of an incident involving a seagull and an ice cream.
This is a very tricky public debate, as I learnt without even contributing to it. At the same time as David Cameron was making his comments last summer, I was having a surgery in a local pub in Longrock. I came out of the pub with the landlady and she asked me to do something about a seagull that had been injured. It was there by her doorway, causing a problem to people coming in and out of the pub. I bundled it up, put it in my MG, drove it home and gave it some care and attention in our chicken run. After I got into my house having done all that, I opened my email inbox and had a whole host of emails wanting me to be removed from the planet because of our attitude towards seagulls. I am aware how tricky this public debate is, so my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is a very brave man for raising it—this is an emotive issue.
There is no disputing that seagulls are beginning to behave badly. We have mentioned most of the issues today. There is a safety issue for both humans—as I mentioned—and animals; we know of stories in Cornwall of pets and other wildlife being attacked by seagulls. There is also an issue for tourism. Interestingly, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) referred to the noise that seagulls make, but when I am in my constituency on the phone to anyone anywhere else in the country, they always refer to the lovely sound of seagulls in the background. Many people come to Cornwall because of the contribution that seagulls make.
The truth is that seagulls are getting a bit out of control; however, this is no new problem. My hon. Friend also referred to the work that he did on Cornwall Council to try to solve the problem of seagulls distributing people’s rubbish wherever that rubbish might be on bin day. I was a member of Penwith District Council—we used to have six district councils in Cornwall before we went to a unitary system—and we were the only council to introduce wheelie bins to solve this problem. We had to do that because of our tourism and our local economy. The risk to health was a real problem. People would put their rubbish out late one night and in the morning it was everywhere but where it was intended to be, so wheelie bins were introduced. It is of great concern in other parts of Cornwall that Cornwall Council refuses to distribute them.
To pick up my hon. Friend’s point, and I have some knowledge of this, part of the problem in places such as Cornwall is that in a lot of our very small coastal villages wheelie bins are completely impractical because people do not have the space outside their properties to store them. That is why, when I was a cabinet member, we introduced the sacks, which are a lot easier to store.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Again, that is exactly the problem in St Ives; I have elderly residents who have had their bins removed for that very reason. We need to understand how to manage the problem of seagulls and other wildlife distributing our rubbish. That is a big debate—perhaps the subject for another Westminster Hall debate.
When my hon. Friend has the opportunity to go on that programme, I suggest he try to correct that, but I will not go into it.
There are things that we can do and there is some human responsibility in this. First, we really must stop feeding seagulls. There are people in Mousehole, where we have a particular problem, who have their own pet seagulls—or believe they do—and feed them every single morning. People try to explain the situation to them, but they continue to feed the seagulls. There are some really lovely people who think that they are caring for these beautiful birds, but actually they are not being caring at all. We need to get the message out to these people somehow that feeding the seagulls is not good for all concerned—including the seagulls themselves, I believe. We also need to address how we secure our bins and look after rubbish because, again, that is obviously a key tension.
There is some conversation about how we provide contraceptives for seagulls. Rather than cull them, which I assure hon. Members would be a very difficult and unpalatable thing to argue in my constituency, there must be a way that we can introduce contraceptives to seagulls to reduce their ability to reproduce. I imagine that if we did that for three or four years, it would have a significant, positive impact on the number of seagulls. I would not personally be willing to offer to do a drug trial, but I am sure that I can suggest ways that a contraceptive for seagulls can be trialled in that area. I know that it already exists.
Finally, we could remove eggs. I was in the building trade and when I did my apprenticeship I used to go up on high street roofs—mainly those of banks. A colleague of mine, who was considerably older than me and more responsible, would have a yard broom and would wave away the seagulls that were intent on knocking me off the roof because I was removing their eggs. That was part of my apprenticeship in the building trade. We used to go up on roofs at this time of year and a bit later to remove eggs because that was the only way that we could control the problem back then. I understand that we are still able to do that, but there are obviously some safety implications and we need to support communities to do it. In fact, in my building trade I spent a lot of time and lots of people’s money on creating all sorts of nets, wires and the various things we have discussed. We even looked at creating ways of spraying water on seagulls, because apparently they do not nest on roofs if they are sprayed.
There are lots of people out there who are trying to resolve this issue, but I completely accept that we must avoid having to come here every year to have a discussion about seagulls—although that is important until we resolve this issue. We need leadership from Government, support for councils and local communities and an honest debate about not how we cull and get rid of seagulls, but how we keep communities safe, protect coastal communities and tourism and look after the welfare of these magnificent birds.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I really appreciate it that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has brought this issue to us for debate. I want to start by talking about Aberdeen and the reasons why I feel it is important for me to be here. I was reading the Library briefing—those briefings are really useful for a lot of debates—and about the number of gulls that are apparently in the United Kingdom. Apparently there are 45,000 herring gulls in the United Kingdom. According to the city council’s website, there are 3,500 pairs in Aberdeen. That means we have 15% of the UK’s herring gull population in our city. That seems quite unbelievable, but it comes from the figures provided. Look up internet memes on seagulls—the Aberdeen seagull is the size of a large dog. It is absolutely ginormous and it regularly gets mentioned; people who come to uni in Aberdeen from Glasgow or elsewhere in Scotland or England are shocked at the size of these creatures. They are not like normal seagulls; they are ginormous. We mostly have herring gulls, although we also have some lesser black-backed gulls.
The hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) talked about gulls beginning to behave badly, but he went on to say that we have been grappling with this problem for a long time. I grew up in Aberdeen and during my entire lifetime there has been a plague of these creatures. In Aberdeen we introduced wheelie bins and on-street bins as well because we have a huge number of tenement properties in the city. There is a huge number of places where people cannot have wheelie bins. We now have a really good on-street bin system with large bins on the streets. Residents have to put up with a slight loss of parking as a result of those big bins, which have big lids on them. The birds cannot access the bins, so they have been pretty successful in deterring the birds’ access to food.
As for the issues caused by seagulls, stealing food and aggression have been mentioned, as has the fact that they used be on land really only between April and September, but increasingly are beginning to winter in cities and towns rather than going out to sea. That causes a real problem because we continue to have these issues throughout the year.
There are a couple of issues that have not really been mentioned, such as noise. A huge amount of the correspondence that I get from constituents on this subject is about the problem of noise. It is about the concern that they are being woken at 3 o’clock in the morning by seagulls fighting with one another. I used to live on the Gallowgate in Aberdeen. There are several multi-storey buildings there and we were on the 13th floor of flats. Without fail, throughout the breeding season, we would be woken throughout the night by the noise of seagulls and that was a real problem.
Gulls cause significant damage to buildings, around chimney stacks, for example. They cause damage to people’s roofs. They cause damage to business buildings. Again, that has not really been mentioned. There is a financial cost associated with this problem, as well as the issue of people being scared of coming into town because of the aggression.
Seagulls also carry diseases. According to a piece of literature from our local authority—it is also called a “Survivor’s Guide”; I think Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council got together to compose these survivors’ guides—they can carry salmonella and TB. It is pretty concerning to know that we have these creatures roaming about our city, carrying diseases that can badly affect human beings.
Those are all the issues, and my mailbox indicates that seagulls are never far away from the minds of my constituents. When people come in the door to talk to my office staff, they often mention in passing the problems that they have faced with seagulls. In fact, I wrote to the Scottish Government Minister last September following a spate of emails that residents had sent raising concerns.
It strikes me that there are a few things that can be done and a few things that could be done better. In Scotland, taking action by removing eggs, for example, is licensed by Scottish Natural Heritage. Companies can exercise that option, which ensures that the action is taken humanely and only in circumstances where there is no alternative. Action cannot be taken when spikes could be put up. However, gulls are increasingly managing to navigate a way around spikes. They have more of a problem with nets, but nets cannot be put on all roofs.
I absolutely agree. One thing about gulls is that they learn from one another, so if one gull manages to find a way around something, they all do, because they observe one another and learn. Such things as removing eggs and oiling eggs work, as does poking holes in them. Dumfries and Galloway Council did a study on the efficacy of those methods, and the results showed that they work.
Other studies have previously been done in Scotland. In 2010, the Scottish Government commissioned a study on using falcons and birds of prey, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned, so they have specific details on that. That 10-week study was not quite as successful as it could have been, but the Scottish Government learnt a lot and have a huge amount of recommendations for people. For example, we do not want to have falcons flying around at the same time each day because the gulls get used to it and stop being scared of them. A huge number of useful recommendations came out of the study. Using such things as distress calls, kites, pyrotechnics and lasers was also suggested.
I appreciate having a chance to speak in the debate. To wind up my comments, an issue we face in Aberdeen is that although the Scottish Government have overarching responsibility for the matter and local authorities are then responsible for specific areas of nuisance, the local authority is clear that individual building owners have to take the action. As we see when we are trying to get lights replaced in tenement buildings, it is sometimes very difficult to get owners to take action. If the council is not the majority owner in a property—for example, a tenement building—and we are trying to get eggs removed from it, it is very hard to get that to happen. Although sharing good practice is a good idea and we should do more of it, there is an issue with who is responsible and the lack of compulsion on landlords and property owners to take action. If they are not willing to take action, the noise made by the birds affects everybody around. Again, I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for securing the debate.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) on securing this debate on an ongoing issue that is familiar to all of us who represent coastal communities. He made an excellent speech with some really important points for consideration. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) spoke passionately about how the problem affects his constituents, and there were well informed and important contributions from the hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for St Ives (Derek Thomas).
Gulls are clearly a real problem in many parts of the country, particularly when they are breeding, but it is also clear that there is no quick-fix solution. We need to understand bird behaviour before deciding on a final course of action. As we have heard, gulls are problematic, particularly when they are breeding and nesting. They are often doing what any parent would do if they felt threatened: they are protecting their young. Urban gulls are often just looking for a nesting site that they see as safe from predators and with a good food supply. They do not know that they are sitting on top of somebody’s house or business.
We have heard that gulls enjoy a protected status in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which means that they cannot be intentionally killed or their nests intentionally destroyed. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, of which I am a member, notes with concern that the British gull population is in decline, so we have to look at what we can do to solve the problem without contributing to the further decline of the species.
Although there is marginal support for culling gulls, I support the RSPB’s position—and, it seems, that of the majority of hon. Members in the debate—that that should not be the immediate way forward. We should instead look at non-harmful deterrents as a priority. As Natural England has said, many problems associated with gulls can be avoided by taking preventive measures. Hon. Members have talked about the nets and wires that can be installed to deter nesting on buildings, and the need for better food storage and waste facility areas so that the food waste is kept secure and away from gulls. The public also needs to be discouraged from deliberately feeding them.
Gulls live for a long time and are intelligent and have good memories, so they have quickly learned that humans are a reliable source of food. We need to ensure that food is not just dropped and left—people need to be encouraged not to litter. We also need to ensure, as several hon. Members from Cornwall have mentioned, that there are secure bins or sacks in which food can be disposed of.
This problem has been going on for an incredibly long time, and although we could have an annual debate, we just need to crack on with tackling it. It is time that the Government gave councils that are dealing with this problem the resources that they need to manage the gull populations and solutions properly.
We have also heard about noise. Some areas have trialled high-frequency noise emitters—they are not too dissimilar to the Mosquito devices that have been used in areas with high levels of anti-social behaviour—but the results have been mixed. Local residents who can hear the noise have complained that their lives have been blighted and made a misery, so that solution clearly cannot be used everywhere.
As mentioned by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, one way of potentially deterring gull populations is through the use of birds such as hawks or falcons. In 2009, an interesting study was conducted by the Scottish Government in Dumfries, just across the Solway from my constituency. I am sure that hon. Members are aware of the Harris hawks that we use on the parliamentary estate to keep down the number of pigeons. It seems that peregrine falcons could play a role in combating certain species of gulls, not by attacking or killing them, but simply by scaring them away. A humane system of deterrence such as that should be encouraged.
As we have heard, this is a serious health and safety issue. Last summer, in Maryport in my constituency, residents were surprised to see a notice come through their door saying that their post could not be delivered due to seagulls.
My understanding is that the seagulls were extremely aggressive. I do not know how the postman managed to get the notice through the door. That is an extremely good question, and I shall have go back and find the answer—perhaps he put it in a different box. Anyway, the Royal Mail in Maryport managed the problem by getting a local falconer, Mike Morrison, to offer up his services and his hawks and successfully scare the gulls off so that the postmen could return and deliver the local mail.
Meanwhile, we have also had a problem with dive-bombing gulls on an industrial estate in Carlisle. Local businesses have got together to deploy an army of fake hawks to stop the gulls from nesting on their roofs. They report that it is working so far, so perhaps local councils could support that approach, providing that the Government give them the funding that they desperately need to buy the fake hawks.
Does the Minister agree that a cull is not the way forward and that we really need to look instead at non-harmful deterrence methods? Much has been said in this debate about the role that local authorities play in managing the problem, but they will only succeed if they are given the funding that they need to implement whichever method they believe is right for their area. We have heard a lot of good ideas that could solve the problem, but as we know, councils are seriously strapped for cash at the moment. Residents and businesses are being left to fork out their own money or put up with the situation.
I would really like to hear from the Minister how the Government plan to ensure that local authorities are given the financial support they need to tackle the problems caused by gulls. We have heard that the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion of a way forward was a big conversation, but I reiterate other Members present in saying that now is the time for action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
A flock of seagulls can be a very frightening sight for many people when they anticipate being dive-bombed or attacked. Some may have thought that this would be a light-hearted debate, but hon. Members have been assiduous in raising genuine concerns and in painting a vivid picture of the problems caused by the high density of gulls in our coastal towns and cities as well as some places inland. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) is well known in the House as the saviour of the hedgehog, but now he will be known as the scourge of the seagull.
The Government recognise that gulls can be problematic when found in high densities in urban areas—my hon. Friend mentioned the problems recently experienced in Plymouth. I fully understand that gulls can be a serious nuisance. Sensible and proportionate action should be taken by using the range of measures already available and by raising awareness about what works locally. We have heard many good examples of solutions today, but local councils especially will know best what works in their areas. A falcon may be suitable in one part of the country, but in other places we may need certain kinds of bins or sacks, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) pointed out—and as I experienced recently when I holidayed not in his constituency but in Salcombe, where we had certain kinds of waste to deal with.
This debate was headline news today. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) asked what we can do to raise awareness of the issue. Well, it has made “BBC Breakfast”, so that has raised some awareness. People may watch this debate live or on catch-up and headlines may follow in the media to make people realise what they can do.
Does the Minister agree that it would be totally unacceptable, cruel and messy for people to adopt the solution that has been circulated on the internet of using bicarbonate of soda and bread? That is a completely unacceptable way of dealing with the seagull menace.
I completely agree. An hon. Member whom I will not name raised that idea with me this morning and I told them off, because it is not acceptable to endorse such a cruel way of tackling the issue.
Hon. Members have referred to gull behaviour and to the fact that the urban gull is starting to display unacceptable characteristics. A build-up of gull populations is often the result of a readily available food supply and the availability of attractive sites for roosting or breeding. Herring gulls and occasionally lesser black-backed gulls roost and nest on buildings, where—as we have heard—they may become aggressive, particularly when incubating eggs and rearing young. Their protective behaviour can result in attacks on members of the public who are in the street or who need access to roofs for maintenance purposes.
I understand that gull behaviour can have a negative impact on people’s lives in coastal towns and cities, including inland—we have heard about Cheltenham, for instance. However, by using common sense, we can deal with the issue effectively through existing legislation and practical local action. I am particularly keen to draw attention to examples of local authorities taking such positive action to manage gulls, but I first want to set the context of the conservation status of gulls.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport will understand that although lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls may cause problems locally, there are serious concerns about their conservation status at a national level. As has been pointed out, gulls, like all wild birds, are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Despite their appearance of thriving in urban areas throughout the UK, breeding populations of the herring gull have declined sharply and populations of the lesser black-backed gull have declined at a number of important sites. The UK herring gull population fell by 55% between 1970 and 2002, despite increases in some urban populations. As a result, the herring gull is listed as a species of principal importance and has been red-listed as a bird of conservation concern, while the lesser black-backed gull is a conservation priority and is amber-listed. The great black-backed gull is a scarce breeding species in England, with a breeding population of less than 1,500 pairs and wintering populations also in decline; it now meets the qualifying criteria for amber-listing as a bird of conservation concern.
Is the Minister aware of a point that I made earlier? Part of the problem is that a gull living in a town has less than half the life expectancy of a gull living in the wild, and that is one of the reasons for gulls’ diminishing numbers. Getting them out of our towns and back where they belong is one way that we can address the declining population.
I agree that that is the outcome we want, but we cannot just wish the issue away by saying, “Let’s get them out of towns.” I also agree that this is a man-made problem, because people are feeding and have lost control of the situation. The messages that we are sending today and that are being sent by councils are important, because we need to get it across to people that by feeding these birds they are worsening the problem, rather than making their “new best friend”, which is how they might see it—it probably does not help that Hastings adverts make seagulls look cute.
We want to see these wonderful birds in their natural habitat, rather than in an urban habitat. When we see large numbers of them in certain urban areas, it may be easy to forget that their conservation status is under threat at a national level. I am sure that hon. Members will understand that, given the decline in breeding populations and the pressures on them, there are no plans to change the legal protection afforded to gulls.
There has been some discussion about research—my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport referred to the University of the West of England. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs looks forward to reading the university’s findings, and I am sure that we will comment on them in due course, if appropriate. As for the £250,000 grant, I am sure that my answer will disappoint my hon. Friends, but I do not believe that such research is currently necessary, because a wide range of tools are already available. However, DEFRA has commissioned research, which is still at an early stage, on the use of immunocontraceptives in a range of species, including birds. There are also possible evidence projects with Natural England, including a key project on gull life that aims to deliver special protection area site action and a full survey of urban nesting gulls. We are waiting to find out whether our bid for EU funding has been successful; we hope to hear by the end of March. A studentship has begun, led by Exeter University in partnership with the British Ornithological Trust and Natural England, and this summer fieldwork will commence that aims to understand differences in the urban and natural breeding populations of urban gulls. Research is already ongoing.
The Minister is being generous in giving way, but either we want these gulls in urban areas or we do not—and we are clear that we do not. She is clear on that as well, so is she interested in exploring the idea of a regional protected status for gulls that applies only outside urban areas where they are a menace and are not wanted?
It certainly will not be possible to do that until we leave the European Union, and I am concerned that opening up elements of regional protection might make the law unworkable. Nevertheless, let us consider that when the opportunity is there, in due course. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will return to this subject, although I am also sure that he will try to ensure that we never again have to debate these measures, by getting on with things.
Specifically on the studies, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), who spoke from the Labour Front Bench, and I both mentioned the study undertaken in Scotland in 2010. I would appreciate it if the Minister had a look at that. I would also appreciate it if the contraceptives study that DEFRA is undertaking, which she has just mentioned, could be shared with the Scottish Government when it comes out.
I am quite sure that that research can be made available, and the research the hon. Lady refers to is well established and available for anybody to see.
The current legislation provides sufficient powers to take appropriate action to tackle the problems caused by gulls. It provides a range of methods that those authorised can use to manage birds humanely, and it permits population control, nest clearance and egg control. I assure the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness that landowners can employ competent others to act under a general licence. While there are no provisions within current legislation to allow the control of birds specifically for the purpose of relieving nuisance or damage to property, the legislation allows for the control or disturbance of certain wild birds for particular reasons. Those most relevant to urban gull issues are if such action is taken in the interest of public health and safety, or to prevent disease.
Natural England’s general licence allows those authorised to kill or take lesser black-backed gulls and to damage or destroy the nests or eggs of lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls to preserve public health or safety, or to prevent the spread of disease or serious damage to livestock and crops. These general licences have a very low regulatory burden. Those authorised do not need to apply to Natural England to make use of them, provided they comply with the licence conditions. These conditions include making sure that non-lethal methods are ineffective or impractical, and users do not need to report any action undertaken to Natural England.
Where an individual cannot undertake the control required under a general licence, it does not mean they cannot take action, but they would need to apply for an individual licence to do so. Natural England commonly issues individual licences to permit the control of gulls for health and safety purposes. On average, it issues 17 individual licences for herring gull control for health and safety purposes annually, and it grants most of the applications that it receives. Indeed, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 also provides for action to be taken without a licence if the action in question is urgently necessary, such as preserving public health and safety. This allows a person to take action in a genuine emergency without fear of committing an offence, where it would not have been possible for them to have predicted the issue and to have acted under a licence. I understand that between 2014 and 2017, Natural England issued 10 individual licences in Devon to permit the control of large gulls, in addition to the general licences.
While licensing control of birds populations can help to control the number of gulls, we should not rely solely on a licensing approach to control gull populations. We should look at other measures to manage the problem in a sustainable way. Local authorities, businesses and individuals are able to take a range of actions to manage urban gull populations. We encourage all local authorities and businesses to help to address the problem by, as has largely been pointed out, removing sources of food such as fallen fruit and accessible household waste, using bins with secured lids, ensuring that domestic animals are not fed outside, using birds of prey to scare gulls, and providing local education measures. In all cases, individuals and local authorities concerned about the effects of gulls are recommended to seek advice from Natural England’s wildlife licensing unit, which offers free advice to those experiencing problems with gulls. Local teams have the knowledge and expertise to help.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is aware of some of the excellent practice across the country. In his own county, East Devon District Council has introduced a range of current control measures—I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) is in his place, I think for the next debate. These measures include using litter bins in seaside towns with secure openings to prevent scavenging, displaying posters in seaside towns and distributing them to local food businesses—
No, I am afraid that I need to make progress. I know that I am pointing out great things that East Devon, rather than Plymouth, has done; nevertheless, I feel I need to say it.
Posters in seaside towns can inform residents and tourists of the risks of feeding seagulls. Other control measures include offering targeted advice to property owners on methods of protecting their own buildings. In addition, East Devon’s seaside towns have their refuse collected earlier in the day during the summer—I say that to answer a point made by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). Those towns have their refuse collected earlier in the summer, which successfully reduces littering caused by seagulls.
I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning what East Devon is doing. Of course, we have problems in Exmouth, Sidmouth and other seaside holiday towns. Does she think that other local authorities would do well to learn from what East Devon is pioneering?
That is a fair point. I also point out the example of Herefordshire, which is not too far away from my right hon. Friend’s constituency. Herefordshire County Council has taken sensible and effective steps, such as removing gulls nests and eggs from April to August, which has meant that the number of pairs of breeding gulls has dropped considerably, from 500 in 2008 to approximately 200 in 2015.
The Local Government Association is well placed to share best practice on this issue. However, I must disappoint the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) by saying that central Government cannot provide additional resources on this matter. Having said that, it so happens that one of my councillors from Suffolk Coastal Council, Councillor Andy Smith, is chair of the coastal special interest group at the LGA, and I will ask him to consider this matter. I will also make sure that he invites councillors from inland towns as well as from coastal towns to contribute.
I am grateful to all Members for debating this issue and raising their constituency concerns. I encourage local authorities to continue to work together to share examples of methods and techniques that successfully deal with the issue of gulls in seaside towns and cities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport referred to “Desert Island Discs”. I insist that he has a record from that excellent Liverpool band, A Flock of Seagulls. My particular favourite is “The More You Live, The More You Love”, but he can refer to my contribution to find more song titles that he might wish to know about.
I hope that my hon. Friend understands that, although this issue is important, a lot of the action to deal with it must be taken locally and individually, and we must strike a balance between protecting species such as gulls and also fulfilling our international commitments, while mitigating the impacts of such species in our towns and cities.
I am sure that many hon. Members will be able to go back to their councils and their constituents over-brimming with the ideas that we have heard about, including those from over the border in Scotland; we heard some great examples from there. In fact, a professor from Leeds University has said that Aberdeen was getting this matter right, including flying a bird of prey around one of the local sports stadiums before matches, such is the prevalence of gulls and the risk of their attacking. So there is plenty of good practice to share.
Mr Streeter, I hope that we never again have to debate this matter. Nevertheless, I am sure that we will return to it. As we have heard, these gulls are clever creatures, but I am sure that we can defeat this menace.
Thank you very much, Mr Streeter, for chairing this debate so well; I am incredibly grateful to you for doing that. I also thank the hon. Members who have participated in this debate; I thank them all very much indeed. I especially thank the Scottish National party Members, for—quite rightly—giving some lectures on how the devolved responsibilities fit in.
I am grateful that the Minister has taken very seriously this whole matter of gull wars; in fact, if I was reapplying for this debate, I would call it a “gull war” debate, rather than necessarily one about seagulls.
A number of issues still need to be addressed. Evidently, we need quite a large amount of research to be done, and I encourage the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take this matter up and hold an inquiry into it. There is a lot of knowledge out there about what we should be doing.
I just say to my hon. Friend the Minister that although Plymouth is in the county of Devon, it is a unitary authority. Consequently, it is very independent of what takes place in Exeter county hall. Finally, could the Minister consider having a page on the DEFRA website that says what people can do to try to deal with this issue? We need to bring together a lot of the information that people have talked about today, so that we can have best practice and get the LGA much more firmly engaged. I am quite keen to ensure that we continue to monitor this issue and hold the Government to account, and I hope to apply for another debate on it next year, when we can see what progress has been made. I also thank my researcher, Stuart Pilcher, who has done an enormous amount of work on this issue and helped me to write my speech.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered seagulls in coastal towns and cities.
Flood Defence Projects: South-west
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered management of flood defence projects in the South West.
I am delighted to be working under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the Minister for responding to two debates in a row—seagulls and flooding. There is a sort of synonymy to that. I am grateful for this debate. It is a short one, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) wishes to contribute.
Three years ago, almost to the day, I stood in the Somerset levels in waders, in floodwater, fighting for Government action. We witnessed the most appalling and predictable natural calamity when rain began to fall. It was a relentless season of downpours, and many of my constituents were stranded and made homeless as the riverbanks burst.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is present, and I would like to let the Chamber know that at this precise moment there are three battalions in England, one in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland on stand-by for flooding. This is a critical time to have those people, and I am thankful for the work they did last weekend. The work they did in my patch was absolutely phenomenal. I know that they are ready to go.
Returning to what happened in my constituency, some of the sewers gave way and the landscape began to vanish under a feisty, filthy water. At the time, I was very critical of the Environment Agency and its then chairman, Lord Smith. I described him in a couple of TV interviews as a coward for failing to visit the stricken area. When asked what I would do if he turned up, I replied that I was tempted—and I was—to flush his head down the nearest water closet. Forgive my straightforward turn of phrase; they were tense and difficult times as 17 miles of my constituency had become an inland lake. Lives had been ruined. Tempers were at breaking point.
All that is happily behind us, but there is a saying about things destined for the water closet: Lord Smith may have been flushed out of the Environment Agency, but he remains afloat as provost of a Cambridge college and chairman of the Task Force on Shale Gas. How apt and rather sardonic. The good news is that the Environment Agency is in much safer hands these days and plays a far more proactive and constructive role in protecting us from the ravages of flooding. For that, the Government deserve a great deal of credit, and I thank them.
The Minister represents a constituency with flooding challenges of its own, so she fully understands the subject from personal experience. Because of her hard work and the efforts of her predecessors, Bridgwater and West Somerset can now breathe much more easily whenever we hear raindrops.
After the crisis of 2013-14, a new era of flood defence was born, with the creation of the Somerset Rivers Authority. The idea was simple and sensible: take back control of flood defences from the centralised Environment Agency and base it locally with people who live and work in the area. The agency would use its technical skills to get the job done and the authority would set out the important tasks to be tackled. There were big battles to be fought, of course. There had to be muscle to ensure that the then Prime Minister came up with enough money to pay the large sum we wanted for the initial remedial work, but, with determined arm-twisting, David Cameron delivered. At this point, I must pay tribute to the Minister for her efforts in pushing forward the legislation to secure the SRA future funding. We are all very grateful.
Now I would like to reveal one or two skeletons, unfortunately. It has not been easy getting the SRA set up and running. The authority was designed to bring together all the experts from the old river drainage boards and Somerset’s local authorities. The Government provided starter money, but the deal demanded local authority contributions too, some of which were easier to obtain than others. Without doubt, the worst offender was Taunton Deane Borough Council—my neighbour.
When it comes to alleviating flooding, Taunton Deane could not be called a big spender. The local authority has failed to deal properly with flood risks in Taunton over many years. It skimps. It calls for consultants’ reports. It sits on the results. But when the waters rise in Taunton the rivers burst in my constituency, not in that of Taunton Deane. The River Tone snakes its way right past the centre of Taunton and ends up joining the overworked River Parrett down in the middle of the Somerset levels, as the Minister is aware. That is where the worst flooding happened three years ago. Since then, the neighbouring Sedgemoor District Council has worked tirelessly, along with the Government, to get the important parts of the River Parrett properly dredged—grateful thanks again. Much of that great and important job has been done, but it is absolutely pointless if your next-door neighbour leans on his shovel and does next to nothing. I am sorry to report that that is precisely what has been happening in Taunton for almost 60 years—it ain’t new.
I hope that the House will forgive me for offering some of the background to this sad state of affairs. Records of flooding in Taunton go back to the late 19th century. Since then, we have been seriously flooded in 1929, 1960, 1968 and 2000, and, of course, more recently. Without a shadow of a doubt, the worst incident was in 1960 when, as the river overflowed, 500 properties in the town were washed out. Some parts of the town were 3 feet underwater. It was a soggy mess. Plans for a relief channel were suggested after that. The old Bridgwater to Taunton canal could have been used, which, in engineering terms, made perfect sense, but the estimated £1.7 million cost was considered prohibitive. So the cheap option was chosen, and the riverbanks were upgraded just a bit, but by the early 1990s it was obvious that more needed doing. The banks had to be built up again, and this time a guarantee was given to safeguard everyone for 200 years.
Rule one: never take a guarantee at face value. Barely a decade later, the River Tone flooded the town, and there have been more recent floods in 2004, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013. That gives Members the general idea: too little, too late, too cheap. It is the same old Taunton story repeated time after time.
Today, just as for the past eight years, Taunton Deane is led by Councillor John Williams, a builder with an extravagant plan for the future. By now, I think he probably believes he can walk on water and, if he is not too careful, pretty soon he will have to do just that. Mr Williams wants to grow Taunton by building. His dream is to put up 17,000 new houses by 2028. That is unbelievable growth, higher by a margin of 70% than the average Government prediction for new houses anywhere. It is absolutely impossible. Last year, with the help of Mr Williams’s mates in the local building trade—firms such as Summerfield, which seems to own an awful lot of land around there—Taunton Deane Borough Council presided over the construction of just 883 new houses, and that was a record then. If the council carries on at that rate, by the end of 2028 it will be way short of the insane target of 17,000 houses.
But, say what you like about Councillor Williams—a lot of people do—he is nothing if not determined. His absurd new building target was set in 2010 and he is sticking to it. There is a faint chance, and I sincerely hope it is a faint chance, that he might even get the Government to put in money to help him on his way. Mr Williams has tarted up his plans and submitted a bid for Taunton to build a new garden town. What his glossy documentation fails to point out, however, is that all this manic building will take place on some of the wettest and flood-prone land in the United Kingdom. The much-trumpeted Taunton garden town could well turn out to be tomorrow’s Atlantis. The builders might need aqua-lungs and flippers. Does Summerfield employ frogmen? Perhaps Wrencon—Councillor Williams’s personal building firm—does.
Those who follow parliamentary affairs will know that I take a dim view of some of Mr Williams’s activities. It is wrong for any elected councillor to accept a private building contract on his own patch without declaring it, but Taunton Deane has no rules about that. Even the council leader is immune. That is not just strange; it is downright wrong. It undermines the confidence we deserve to have in local government leaders at any level. No wonder people in Taunton have become highly suspicious of this leader and his empire-building plans.
Before I came to Westminster Hall this afternoon, I took a hard look at the Environment Agency’s flood maps for the Taunton area, and I ask the Minister to do the same. The blue bits represent risk, and the blue bits are almost everywhere. I have also read detailed reports compiled by flood experts on behalf of Taunton Deane. They do not go as far as to say, “Stop before it’s too late,” but they never minimise the threat and they urge absolute caution unless flood defences are radically improved. Let me quote from one of the latest reports, completed in 2014:
“The town centre and many existing properties rely heavily on the degree of protection resulting from the existing flood defence embankments and structures. The condition of these… is very variable, many will need to be replaced… None of the defences will provide an appropriate standard of protection… and they do not include a ‘safety margin’… which is essential… where so much property and business could be affected by small changes in the predicted flood water levels.”
As chair of the all-party group on flood prevention, I am undertaking a routine check on all areas throughout the United Kingdom. I started in Tadcaster last week, and I hope to complete some areas over the next five or six weeks. Is the hon. Gentleman minded to allow me to visit his area to gather some information?
I would welcome the hon. Gentleman. The Minister has been down to look not just at the flooding, but at Hinkley Point nuclear power station—she has Sizewell. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon is one of my near neighbours and we welcome anyone coming to look at the flooding. It was a disaster for us all. The Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), is a Cornish MP and therefore knows how much flooding affects our area. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman and personally host him.
I will continue as I have a little bit to go and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon wishes to have his say. This is what the flood experts had to say on Councillor Williams’ building bonanza:
“The proposed new development in the town centre and other sites will increase the volume of water discharging to the Levels and Moors”.
That was the clearest warning that Taunton’s building bonanza could spark floods next door. The report said that
“doing nothing is no answer”.
The only way to tackle the issue is with a new water storage facility costing around £15 million, but will it ever happen? I checked the National Rivers Authority programme for the coming year and there was no mention of it. Apart from some maintenance on French weir in the centre of town, Taunton is not scheduled to do any serious flood defence work in the foreseeable future, yet the council leader is boasting that he has the money in next year’s budget to deal with floods. How much? Slightly less than £2 million. That does not make sense. It is not enough.
Once again, Taunton is cutting corners, and it is not using its own cash either. Councillor Williams intends to spend the new homes bonus, which is a grant he gets from central Government, as the Minister is well aware. It is sleight of hand—trickery—and it is cheating the public. Everyone knows that flood prevention costs serious money. We know that. Everyone knows that budgets are tight. That is agreed. Everyone would understand if Taunton simply could not pay, but the council is prepared to spend money like water on totally pointless things.
Last night, the council voted to borrow millions of pounds—you are not going to believe this, Mr Pritchard—to refurbish its office. The Deane House is the council’s headquarters and it is 30 years old. The council would get about £2.5 million if it sold the place. Its advisers said it was not worth a penny, but Councillor Williams, the jobbing builder, intends to fork out £11 million to do it up. For that kind of cash, looking across the Atlantic, he could install gold lifts, marble walls and champagne fountains. Eat your heart out, President Trump; look what President Williams has got! A short step down the street is Somerset County Council’s headquarters, which the Minister knows. Taunton could have moved there to a brand new office for a fraction of the cost. It was offered a building. Does that sound like a good idea? I know a man who thinks so:
“If Taunton Deane moves to County Hall the Council will form part of a gathering of other public sector services, to create a one-stop shop for our community.”
The writer is none other than the leader of the council: John Raymond Williams, to use his full name. The words are on Taunton Deane Borough Council’s own website, but like the author, they are slightly out of date.
The reputation of any council depends on leadership and management. I do not have to tell anyone here that. Taunton Deane has a leader with bizarre territorial ambitions. He is trying to swallow up West Somerset Council, in my patch. He has an absentee chief executive with the worst sickness record of any local government officer in the whole of England. I am sorry to say that I would not trust either of them to run anything. Least of all, I cannot and will not trust them to look after the flood prevention measures that affect my constituency so badly.
I am most grateful to you, Mr Pritchard, for allowing me to take part in this short debate. I cannot aspire to maintain the drive and momentum of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), but I want to use this opportunity to raise one specific issue with the Minister. To date, I think she is unaware of it.
I want to talk specifically about a number of properties on The Green in Whimple that are adjacent to a local river and a train line. I have been following the issue for a number of years, not least because one of my councillors, Councillor Peter Bowden of Devon County Council, lives in one of the affected properties. The problem is that for a number of years, his property and the surrounding properties have been beset by flooding. We have identified the solution to the problem, which is clearly to replace the culvert under the railway line. There is some funding in place for that work, but Network Rail is unfortunately preventing that crucial work from being carried out. I draw this case to the Minister’s attention because I suspect that it is not the only place in the country where there is a stand-off between the different agencies involved.
I have had meetings on site with representatives of Network Rail, but they have made it clear that in the event of works to replace the culvert overrunning, my local authority, East Devon District Council, could be liable for a fine of £4,000 per minute, which is clearly ridiculous and unaffordable. The theory behind that, presumably, is to ensure that the works are carried out quickly and efficiently so as not to disrupt train times, and I have sympathy with that, but how can a local, hard-pressed district council possibly authorise such a project to be undertaken if it incurs a potential liability of £4,000 a minute? That is the reality.
As I said, I suspect that that situation is not unique. Indeed, I can cite another example. In the neighbouring constituency of Tiverton and Honiton is the village of Feniton, and it is affected by the same problem. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister is aware of problems elsewhere in the country. It requires ministerial involvement at this stage. We have tried all the different agencies. We have brought them all together. We have come up with a resolution, but it is impossible for my constituents to be exposed in this way to flooding that will happen time and again until the situation in Whimple is addressed.
Will the Minister please look at this particular situation again and, if necessary, bring all the interested parties together, including Network Rail, the local authority, the Environment Agency and anyone else she wishes to finally resolve this situation? I know that my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who is in his place, would very much welcome a meeting with the Minister, if we can have one, to hear how the situations in Whimple and in Feniton, which I know he cares so desperately about, can be resolved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate on the management of flood defence projects in the south-west. He has spoken passionately on behalf of his constituents and the wider area. I note with concern his comments on Taunton Deane Borough Council and his long-standing concerns about its performance in regard to flooding. I also note his other specific concerns about possible sites for development. I am sure those words will have been heard clearly in Taunton Deane. He will understand that I am not going to take direct action, but I am sure that in moving forward, those concerns will be taken on board.
My hon. Friend may not be aware of this, but I hope he will join me in acknowledging the dedicated work of the Environment Agency’s flood and coastal risk manager for Wessex, Nick Lyness, who sadly passed away last month. Nick worked for the Environment Agency and its predecessors for more than 30 years. In that time he made a huge impact in helping to better protect the country from flooding. Nick had a personal hand in the Somerset flood action plan. He never lost sight of the fact that we are here to serve the communities and to ensure that we make things safer and better for them. Thousands of people have benefited from his tireless work even though they may not realise it. I am sure that those present today would also like to acknowledge the commitment that Nick made to the management of flood risk in the south-west.
I am aware of the impact that flooding can have on a community. I have supported my constituents in Suffolk following flooding in recent years. My hon. Friend has already acknowledged that I am absolutely committed to reducing the threat of flood risk. He will know that the Government continue to play a key role in improving protection for those at risk of flooding. We are investing £2.5 billion in more than 1,500 flood defences to better protect the country from flooding. That will protect more than 300,000 homes by 2021. We have increased maintenance spending in real terms over this Parliament to more than £l billion.
In the south-west of the country, the Government spent £169 million in the previous Parliament, providing better protection to more than 15,000 homes. Within our current programme of work to 2021, we are investing £176 million, which will provide better protection to more than 26,000 additional homes. I recently saw some of that good work on a visit to Exeter last December, where a new flood defence scheme is being constructed. It will provide better protection for more than 3,000 homes, and includes Government investment of more than £24 million.
My hon. Friend’s constituency is made up of a diverse range of watercourses and coastline, from the fast-flowing rivers and streams that start on Exmoor and in the Quantock hills, to the tidal River Parrett, which makes its way up to the Somerset levels, and the long length of coast from Porlock to the Steart peninsula. As he said, there is a history of flooding in the constituency, including the devastating flood that took place nearby in 1952, when 34 people lost their lives at Lynmouth and a further 420 were made homeless, and the more recent coastal flood in Minehead, in 1990. Everyone is particularly aware of what happened in the winter of 2013-14, when communities on the levels experienced widespread flooding, particularly within the Parrett and Tone river catchments. The Environment Agency estimates that there were 100 million cubic metres of floodwater covering an area of 65 square kilometres.
Following those floods, the Government provided more than £20 million to support actions in the Somerset flood action plan, which included the need for a new locally funded body to bring local flood risk management bodies together to work in partnership and undertake additional flood risk management work. The Somerset Rivers Authority was established in January 2015, bringing together partners to give real control over flood risk in the area. Supported by £1.9 million of start-up funding, the local authorities in Somerset were given the ability to continue to fund the SRA through additional council tax flexibility. We are working with the SRA on its long-term funding arrangements; my hon. Friend knows that I am working hard to make sure that, when parliamentary time allows, we will progress that legislation.
Some of the work that has already been led and carried out by the Environment Agency on behalf of the Somerset Rivers Authority includes improvements to the resilience and operation of both Northmoor and Saltmoor pumping stations and the preparation of an outline design to improve the capacity and flow of the King’s Sedgemoor Drain and the River Sowy, which will help to alleviate the pressure on the River Parrett and across the levels. A project that finished last autumn, adding two new culverts and weirs at Beer Wall, allows for better management of flood levels.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that in the last Parliament, the Government invested £25 million in protecting homes. The current planned investment up to 2021 is more than £17 million. The regional flood and coastal committee, which has a majority of local authority members, decides the schemes to prioritise, making local choices and agreeing the final programme, which allows for local input into decisions on where investment should be prioritised.
I want to point out that there have been several other investments, including the Steart managed realignment scheme, the Cannington Outfalls project, the King’s Sedgemoor Drain and planned investment in the Parrett Estuary Cannington Bends project, the Cannington flood defence scheme, and the Curry Moor reservoir. The Environment Agency has also been making good progress looking at the different options for a potential tidal barrier on the River Parrett near Bridgwater. Local consultation has taken place with stakeholders. Once a preferred option has been chosen, public consultation is expected to start this spring. A barrier would help to ensure that Bridgwater is better protected from the tidal influences of the River Parrett. If the business case gains final approval, it is expected that the barrier will be constructed and in operation by the summer of 2024. We forecast that, if the business case allows, our investment will be £25 million. I hope my hon. Friend is assured that we take his constituency very seriously.
It is also right to point out that the Environment Agency has successfully implemented some natural flood management measures on the National Trust’s Holnicote estate within the Horner Water and River Aller catchments of my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is also supporting the Hills to Levels partnership project, which is endorsed by the Somerset Rivers Authority, the Royal Bath and West of England Society and led by the south-west’s farming and wildlife advisory group. That project is considering the potential for natural flood management measures to slow the flow in some of the tributary catchments of the Rivers Parrett and Tone and west Somerset rivers and will be delivered over the next four years.
New flood defences only form part of the picture for the management of flood risk and the flood action plan for the Somerset moors and levels and dredging has happened along the Rivers Parrett and Tone. In 2016, the Environment Agency dredged a further section of the River Parrett on behalf of the SRA. As a consequence, since 2015, 99 km or 60 miles of desilting was carried out in Somerset by the Environment Agency, jointly with the SRA and the all-important internal drainage board. Although dredging assists in providing some additional relief from high river flows, it is not a solution in its own right and will always be considered carefully with other elements.
I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) here and am grateful for his interest with regards to work on protection. On the national flood resilience review, it is worth setting out on the record that we continue to follow up on the actions of that review—we were certainly better prepared over this winter to deal with the risks. We continue to invest in mobile flood defences and pumps. As has already been said, 1,200 troops have been on standby if councils need their help, and they were recently deployed in Lincolnshire and Norfolk.
With regard to Bridgwater and West Somerset, the Environment Agency has undertaken a robust assessment of the locations that are suitable for using temporary barriers. It assessed the practical implications such as road closures and flood risk benefit as well as ensuring that they do not make the flood worse. A temporary defence deployment plan is currently being prepared for Croscombe, which was hit by flooding recently.
A key part of the national flood resilience review was having infrastructure providers reviewing the resilience of their key assets. They identified and protected their assets with temporary defences this winter while longer-term solutions are implemented. We have also continued to work with the private sector to develop a new flood resilience action plan, which illustrates to homeowners and business owners some straightforward measures they can take to improve the resilience of their property to flooding, as well as enabling them to get back in far more quickly if they are unfortunately flooded. Those can be simple measures, such as air-brick covers, or more substantial works, such as installing a pump, having solid floors or installing wiring so that plug sockets are higher up the wall.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) referred to the situation in Whimple in his constituency. I understand that he met representatives from Network Rail and the Environment Agency last summer to discuss the issues. I am aware that the project currently under consideration is eligible for £600,000 of Government investment under the partnership funding policy. There is currently a shortfall, which will be required to be secured. I note that the regional flood and coastal committee has provisionally offered to help with a contribution of about a third of that amount from their local levy fund, and I am sure that he will continue to work with local partners to raise the additional funding required.
My right hon. Friend referred to a specific issue with the railway line and the discussions with Network Rail. I will ask the rail Minister to look into this matter with Network Rail. I have been advised that if the construction method chosen avoids the need for a track closure, the threat of the fines is no longer there. I recognise, however—as many of us who deal with Network Rail will do—the challenges of what we think of as common sense getting tied up in bureaucracy. I assure my right hon. Friend that I will refer the matter to the appropriate Minister, who I believe will be able to cut through some of the evident red tape.
This has been a very useful debate to consider the particular situation in the south-west and especially in this very special part of Somerset. I hope I have been able to show my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset that plans are under way to address flooding issues. I thank him for his praise of the Environment Agency. I recognise and agree that it is a different beast from what it was several years ago, when I first became an MP. A lot of that has to do with local leadership, which will now sadly be lacking due to Nick’s unfortunate death, but it also stems from the leadership of Sir James Bevan and his team, including people such as John Curtin, in addressing the issue.
That is why the Government are standing behind the Environment Agency. Although the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did not entirely welcome our response, I believe that when there is good leadership getting on with the job, disruptive change is unnecessary when we are trying to do our best to protect more homes and more residents, especially when my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset recites examples of where he feels that local action could be better than it is and impacts on his own constituency. I assure him that the Environment Agency will continue to work with him and hon. Members from all parties to reduce flood risk and to work collaboratively to help deliver projects in the area.
Question put and agreed to.
Armed Forces Recruitment: Under-18s
I beg to move,
That this House has considered recruitment of under-18s into the armed forces.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. This is an emotive and controversial issue, and I recognise the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate. For that reason, I will preface our discussion by saying that I want this to be the beginning of a dialogue on which we can build consensus and uncover the rational facts that should underpin any good policy.
Fundamentally, I sought the debate because I am concerned about the welfare of young people who join the armed forces—in particular, the Army. I have a professional background of more than 20 years of working in the education of young people aged between 14 and 19. The last group I taught were taking level 2 public services at Coleg Menai, many of whom had their sights set on joining the Army. I wish them all the best in their chosen career.
Some of my colleagues appear to believe that any questioning of the armed forces or Ministry of Defence policy is somehow an attack on the institution as a whole, so I would like to emphasise that nothing could be further from the truth. It is not attacking the Army to express the desire that soldiers be treated well and fairly, and that their short and long-term welfare be considered priorities in the recruitment and training process. I do not believe it is a threat to national security to seek the highest standards of welfare and educational attainment for all young people in this country. As we can see all too clearly in the world today, it is essential for the healthy functioning of a true democracy that Government institutions and the policies they make are continually exposed to scrutiny and challenge.
The purpose of the debate is to seek answers from the MOD regarding numerous concerns about the recruitment of young people under the age of 18 to the armed forces and to press for a thorough and independent review. Dozens of religious, military, legal and policy organisations, alongside unions and trusted military professionals, have expressed concerns about this policy. They include the Select Committee on Defence, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Commissioners for all four nations of the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, UNICEF and many more. They seek to ensure the same fundamental standards of welfare and protection that are taken for granted for that age group in any other sphere of life, but the MOD has not yet provided a detailed response to assuage those concerns.
We have heard from the MOD many general assertions about the wider benefits to the individual and society as a whole of early enlistment, anecdotes about individual recruits who have achieved remarkable things, and apocryphal stories about the lad who would have been dead or in prison if he had not joined the Army at 16. We have also heard from many senior Members of the House about their own happy experience of military service—sometimes decades ago, sometimes more recently. Although I respect the insights drawn from the personal experience of many Members, possibly including some in this Chamber, the plural of anecdote is not facts. I and many others want to hear from the MOD hard, objective, empirical evidence and analysis that demonstrates a carefully thought through policy, taking into account both the recruitment requirement of the armed forces and the welfare of those who enlist.
The UK is unique in the developed world in enlisting 16-year-olds into its armed forces. That is not standard practice, it is not a necessity, and it is not a policy shared by our military allies and peers. It does not make me proud to say that our colleagues in this matter are North Korea and Iran.
It is my understanding that we are indeed the only NATO member and the only standing member of the UN Security Council to do so.
This is a well-rehearsed argument—forgive me—but it is worth reminding the House that 16-year-olds cannot buy a kitchen knife in a shop, although they can be taught to kill with a bayonet. They can enlist and train in the Army, but the law states that they cannot play “Call of Duty” on an Xbox or watch the Channel 5 documentary series “Raw Recruits: Squaddies at 16”. To watch it online, they would have to tick a box to confirm they were over 18. If it were not so serious, it would be laughable.
Our respect for the armed forces as an institution and for the individuals who represent it makes it easy to treat the institution as beyond question, but I propose strongly that that is dangerous and wrong. There has been no thorough review of the enlistment of minors since at least the time of Deepcut, and I hope today that we can restart that conversation to ensure the welfare of our soldiers and young people across the country.
On the matter of education, I am sure we agree that the educational opportunities that we afford our young people must aim to achieve a common baseline, no matter what their background. The armed forces are, however, exempt from the Department for Education’s standard minimum target for all 16 to 18-year-olds of GCSEs in English and maths at grade C or above. I hope the Minister will be able to explain why our young recruits are not provided with those qualifications, which are deemed essential by all educational employment experts.
The MOD claims that the qualifications it offers—functional skills for numeracy and literacy—are equivalent to GCSEs, but they have been labelled as suffering from major and fundamental flaws by the Department for Education’s own expert review of vocational education, the Professor Wolf report. That finding holds true for all young people, including those who are not academically inclined in any traditional sense and are pursuing vocational, rather than academic, education. I am sure my colleagues agree that young soldiers deserve, as a very minimum, the same educational opportunities as their civilian friends, and certainly nothing less.
The MOD frequently refers to the apprenticeships that young recruits undertake, but closer examination of the curriculum and the content of those courses reveals that, although those apprenticeships may be excellent training for a military career, they are of little value for future civilian employment. Let us bear it in mind that soldiers may be with the infantry until their early 30s, but those young people will need to find work until they are 67, so they need those skills for their long-term welfare.
Those courses consist of modules such as “Tactical advance across battlefield” and “Use of light weaponry”. Young veterans have repeatedly stated that those qualifications were effectively useless in finding employment after they were discharged. That has been borne out repeatedly by Royal British Legion studies on unemployment among ex-service personnel, which show that young veterans are significantly more likely to be unemployed than their civilian peers, and that the lack of qualifications and skills that are transferrable to civilian life is a major factor in that. I hope the Minister will explain how young veterans, the majority of whom are trained for combat roles, not technical ones, can use those highly specialised military skills in future civilian employment.
The MOD has frequently asserted that the Army provides a constructive alternative to young people who otherwise would not be in employment, education or training, or worse. That is an appealing argument, and it would be quite persuasive if there were robust data to support it, but researchers working on my behalf have found none. I regret to say that MOD data indicate quite the opposite.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one of the problems appears to be that if the Army recruits at 16, it does not have access to the complete pool of 16-year-olds? In fact, there is now a presumption in public policy that education and training should continue beyond 16 to 18. Therefore, the only people available for recruitment at 16 are, to put it mildly, the ones the system has left behind. That gives rise to statistics such as the fact that three quarters of 16-year-old recruits have a reading age of 11 or less. Does that concern her?
It does concern me. I would like to emphasise the long-term welfare of those young men and women, who need to be equipped to leave the armed forces. If they are serving their country, it is our duty to equip them as well as we can with the skills they will need in future life. They may well be working until they are 67, so literacy and numeracy skills are particularly important to that cohort, which I have taught.
More than a third of under-18 recruits drop out of initial training, and 40% of infantry soldiers who enlisted under the age of 18 are discharged within four years as early service leavers. Having left education early to enlist and without having achieved GCSEs in the Army, those young ex-service personnel will be significantly less qualified than their civilian peers and at increased risk of long-term unemployment and social exclusion.
Such findings are again borne out not by anecdotes, but by British Legion studies. According to a major 2012 study of education in the Army by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, recruits who enlisted at a young age and who had previously been excluded from school were more likely to drop out of the Army than those with a more positive academic record. The same BIS study showed that 48% of recruits who trained at Army Foundation College Harrogate, the junior entry training site, had left the Army within four years.
Without doubt, individual positive anecdotes exist and will always inspire, but there is scant evidence that, as a rule, the Army can turn around young people who have not engaged well at school. Will the Minister provide any data to support the hypothesis that enlisting disadvantaged adolescents in the Army is an effective way to secure their long-term engagement in education and employment? Will he provide any analysis of how cost-effective that strategy is in comparison with, for example, greater investment in specialised education and social-support services for at-risk young people? We have other institutions such as further education colleges and other training centres to help those young people, who may as well be in the cadets at the same time as receiving a decent education to equip them for future life.
On combat roles and the channelling of the youngest recruits into the most dangerous roles, I intended to discuss the MOD policy to seek under-18s “particularly for the infantry”, which has the highest fatality and injury rate of any major branch of the Army. In the interests of time, however, I simply ask the Minister to explain on what basis his Department decided to restrict the choice of roles for the youngest recruits to frontline combat roles only, rather than giving them the opportunity to enlist in the full range of technical roles.
Following a damning report in October last year by medical charity Medact, I want also to touch briefly on the long-term health impacts on young people recruited under the age of 18. The report revealed such recruits to be more vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, self-harm and suicide. There is a 64% increased risk of suicide among men under the age of 20 in the Army as compared with the wider population.
Many in the House and in the country are deeply proud of the armed forces and supportive of the institution as a whole. We would be failing in our duties, however, were we not to hold up their policies to scrutiny. The overwhelming majority of nations worldwide enlist from the age of 18 or above. Welbeck College in Loughborough provides an outstanding residential sixth-form college that, without the burden of formal enlistment before 18, educates young people intending to pursue a military career, with evident advantages to the students and to the institution.
I hope that the debate will open the door to a fruitful, frank and detailed discussion of how improvements can be made to policy. It is not in the interests of young people or of the Army to continue assuming that the status quo is the best possible model without a thorough examination of the evidence and consideration of alternatives.
Only 52% of the population voted to leave the European Union, but today Parliament is acting on it. In 2014, according to a nationwide Ipsos MORI poll, 77% of respondents who expressed a view supported raising the minimum enlistment age to 18 or above. Will the Minister respect the wishes of the population and the recommendations of child rights, health and education experts, and commit to a thorough independent review of policy?
I thank the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for bringing this important debate to the House. The Minister is probably having a moment of fear that, because I am standing up to speak on military matters, I might not be entirely in support of Government policy, but he could be no further from the truth. I am an advocate of the armed forces covenant as a real and engaged process throughout our nation.
Recruitment to and training of our young people in the armed forces from the age of 16 can be a hugely positive experience, as the hon. Lady mentioned, and we do it very well and in a variety of ways. In my constituency, the Military Academy at the Kirkley Hall campus of Northumberland College was set up precisely for those young people whom the hon. Lady was thinking of. They not only were in vulnerable family environments and have not been able to make best use of their previous schooling environments, but were not even capable of living the sort of disciplined and ordinary life that joining the Army might provide. The Military Academy has, however, created a framework in which those young people who wish to participate in society and have an interest in the armed forces can develop those basic skills of discipline, leadership, teamwork, communications and personal self-motivation to understand what decisive thinking and such skills can mean for building them up as individuals.
Does the hon. Lady not share my concern that basic literacy and numeracy skills are what we need to equip young people with for their lives as adults? Functional skills as a curriculum method does not appear to be sufficient. It was described by Professor Wolf as “fundamentally flawed”.
The reality is that school has failed for some young people, and their literacy and numeracy skills are not where we would like them to be—they have not been able to benefit from such a development.
For example, one of my caseworkers spent 25 years in the Army and is now running my association office in Berwick. He left school at 15 functionally illiterate. He was severely dyslexic and throughout his school career he had been told that he was thick, useless and pretty much not good for anything. He joined the Army and within one week it was clear that he was none of those things, but simply dyslexic. That was some time ago, so I hope we are even better now with young people coming into the Army—perhaps the Minister will confirm that.
That new recruit was given intensive tuition to assist his literacy, which improved dramatically, as so often with dyslexic children who need a different way of learning, and he had a fulfilling career in the Army. He represents one of those anecdotes to which the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd referred. We need to understand that those young people who choose to join the Army early in their lives, after leaving school where they have often had a poor experience, want to be doing something positive. The framework offered by the armed forces provides that opportunity.
The Medact report to which the hon. Lady referred is clear that 16-year-olds are not exactly being press ganged into our armed forces. After they have spent six weeks on the initial training course, young people may step off. After up to six months, they may again step off, if they feel that that career option is not right for them. Also, up to their 18th birthday, they may step off with three months’ notice. That is pretty similar to an employment framework that one might find after taking a job in a supermarket or on the factory floor. The implication that young people are somehow sucked into the armed forces against their will and cannot develop is wholly unfair to the armed forces and the incredible work of the training programme.
I am sure the Minister will be able to confirm such details, but a 16-year-old who chooses to leave school and go into employment and training elsewhere is still in charge of their own destiny. I am the mother of an about-to-be-16-year-old and an 18-year-old, and if they choose to step into the workplace, that would be their commitment to take on the responsibilities of adult life. Having supported them to make whatever their choice was, I would be very comfortable with them continuing with their choice. That is what growing up and taking adult decisions is all about.
Those under 18 cannot go out and serve in frontline roles, as was mentioned earlier, but they can participate in what we call national resilience activities. Over the past few years when we have had flooding problems in the north-east, on a number of occasions I have met some really energised and enthusiastic young men and women helping out with the flood defence crises, both in Morpeth in my patch and over in Cumbria. That highlights the many good qualities that joining the armed forces can give to young people—that sense of belonging and of learning to work in a team, which they so often have not had in their own lives.
The report highlights the statistical imbalance in post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems for those who have joined young and come out the other side, but that is a chicken-and-egg argument.
The hon. Lady makes quite a compelling case about the benefits of early recruitment for 16 and 17-year-olds themselves, some of whom, as I said, may well have been let down by the system elsewhere. I do not choose to dispute any of her examples of those benefits, but I worry about whether that is the Army’s proper role or, in fact, a distraction from providing a good and efficient security service. If the Army waited until those individuals were 18 and other agencies had had the opportunity to try to improve their lot, it might recruit much better and more able people.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that because some people might join at 16, others would not join at 18. One does not negate the other. The Army in particular offers young men and women who do not want to be in the education system any more because they found that it failed them—perhaps because they had poor teachers or they have dyslexia, or perhaps due to other issues—a framework within which they can really develop and thrive. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd that we need to ensure the welfare of those young people and that the covenant supports them as they develop skills in what can be a demanding and stretching environment, but that is part of the challenge, and so many of them really take that up.
I turn to the mental health issues of people who come out of the Army, who so often joined up early. There is a lot of work going on in that field, which I am involved with. Those young people would probably have been unable to find secure long-term employment had they fallen out of school and become NEET; they would have struggled through the system. They had the opportunity to take up an extraordinary career. I have the most enormous respect for anyone who joins the armed forces. It is a choice. To defend our nation and be part of a team of people who will put themselves in harm’s way to protect us and our families is an extraordinary thing to do. We must always bear that in mind.
I was interested in the report by Medact, which promotes disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons more broadly. I know quite a lot about that—my father was the leading journalist and specialist in the area in the 1960s, so it is a subject that I grew up with—but we cannot just wipe everything away and say, “Let’s no longer have armed forces. We want the world to be a happy and peaceful place.” I can think of nothing I would like more, but the reality is that we need robust and resilient armed forces, and we have some of the best in the world. Those young men and women, who join earlier than people who go to university and therefore come out of education at higher levels, do so because that brings them the opportunity to be part of a team that they can be proud of, and we can be proud of them.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate—this will be my first expedition into Welsh—the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), who put forward a good case. I spoke to her before the debate, and she knows where I am coming from; my opinion is similar to that of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan). Although the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd clearly set the scene for the issues that she wishes the Minister to respond to, I will give a slightly different opinion about where we are. However, I concur with her request for an uplift in education. I have absolutely no doubt that the Minister, who has a special interest in the issue, will respond with positive steps for the way forward.
I joined the Ulster Defence Regiment at 18 and served in it for three years. I then joined the Royal Artillery in the Territorial Army, which I served in for 11 and a half years. I believe that that helped to shape and mould me as a man. Whether that is to everyone’s liking only the people can answer, but they elected me twice, so I suspect that they like what they see.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I think it should be clarified for others in the room that people could not join the Ulster Defence Regiment before the age of 18, because it was always on operations. We should perhaps pay tribute to it for that.
I thank the Minister, who is knowledgeable about this subject.
I am the Democratic Unionist party’s representative at Westminster for the Cadet Force. I am proud to hail from Strangford, which has a proud and strong record of military service, including in the Special Air Service—Blair “Paddy” Mayne was born and bred in the constituency’s main town, Newtownards. With that in mind, hon. Members may be able to see where my comments are leading. Joining the armed forces is a vocation, not simply a career. A career does not demand of people what is expected of our soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel; a vocation does. That calling is felt from a young age. I will give three examples of people who joined at an early age and excelled greatly in their choice of service.
A young lady from my area went to the Army-run youth camp at the age of 15 and on her return decided to join the Army, which she did at 16. She trained up and has completed three tours, some of them in conflict areas. She is now a sergeant. She met and married her husband, who is also a sergeant and lives here on the mainland serving Queen and country. Michelle’s family are so proud of her, as indeed we all are. She was equipped for her life as it is now by the life that she had in the Army at an early age. I know her, so I say that in all honesty.
A young lad from my area was the youngest person ever to be wounded in action on duty in Afghanistan. He was only 18 on his first tour, and he had joined the cadets as a young boy. I had the privilege of meeting him again at the remembrance service just across the road at Westminster Abbey in November last year. He had recuperated quickly from his injury and was raring to get back into uniform. He is no longer a boy; he is now a young man, and he is maturing greatly. I laid the wreath on behalf of the DUP, and it was an honour to see that lovely young fella, who was made in the British Army. The Army has moulded him well, and his family life has been exemplary, too.
The list is endless, but we must also note young Channing Day, who gave her life for Queen and country in the Medical Corps, as the Minister and other Members who were in the House back in 2010 will know. Those of us who know that family know that she always wanted to be in the Army. She was a cadet from a very early age, joined the Medical Corps and served her Queen and country. Her family and her town of Comber were inspired by her.
Although those young adults are indeed young, they have a passion and should be allowed to follow that passion. Let me make it quite clear, by the way, that I understand that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd does not say that they should not. She says that their qualifications and education standards must be lifted, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point. I remind Members that there is protection to ensure that young people cannot be sent on tours until they turn 18. To me, that means they have an additional two years’ training to ensure that they are safe and secure in what they do and how they do it.
The major issue is the length of the contract that young people sign, which can last until they turn 22. If they join at 16, that is six years, which is a major commitment. That is a massive concern for people who are so young, but I remind the House that for under-18s in the Army and everyone in the Navy and Air Force, the discharge as of right period is between 28 days and six months of service. After those six months are over, an unhappy junior in the armed forces may be discharged at the discretion of their commanding officer. There are several stages at which someone can get out if they so wish. I believe that that discretion is applied as needed, and I understand that the Army in particular tightly controls, monitors and regulates it. If there are issues to address, those must be addressed.
Some 2,180 under-18s were serving in the armed forces in October last year, of whom 170 were female and the other 2,010 were male. Those are people who made the choice to join at a young age, and I believe that that should be encouraged and allowed. The MOD also has apprenticeships, which the Minister no doubt will deal with, too. Those enable young people who join the services at an early age to achieve good educational standards, which is important, and then go beyond uniform into civilian life, as many do. We all know of those who have come through the cadets, gone into the Army at an early stage, served in uniform for a great many years and are now retired.
I understand the argument that no other UN member allows under-18s to join the armed forces, but we lead the way and should not be ashamed of that. We lead the way on many fronts, and there is a reason our armed forces are the best in the world. The US army, which is perhaps the second greatest army in the world after ours, allows recruitment at 17 with parental consent; we are not alone in allowing under-18s to join. And this is not child labour; it is training.
The ability to leave should be protected, but the young people whom I know personally in my constituency are glad that they had the option to join. Other young people should be allowed to make a career and serve Queen and country. I understand fully what the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd is putting forward, but I think it is important that we recognise the benefits to those who join at an early age and what they can do. I have mentioned just three of them—there are many more—and they have been exemplary. They have done well, and the Army has helped to build them as people.
Order. Let me provide guidance for Members. We have two speakers left, and I want the winding-up speeches to start at about seven or eight minutes past 5, so it is up to Scottish National party colleagues to share the remaining minutes if they wish to do so.
I am grateful for the chance to speak and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. The SNP’s position is that we recognise persons who have reached the age of 16 as old enough to leave school, marry, work and pay tax, and, despite scepticism from the other parties in Scotland before the independence referendum, we believe and have long believed that they have the right to vote as well. I am glad to say that we have won over the doubters on that particular campaign and I look forward to that example being followed down here.
Fundamentally, the SNP position on this issue reflects our ambition to empower young people—to trust them with responsibility in these areas and trust that they will take that responsibility seriously. It also reflects the legal position in Scotland under the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991, which determines that a person has full legal capacity from the age of 16. For those reasons, my party backs the current position on recruitment age for the armed forces for those who are 16 or 17 and choose to serve their country.
The minimum age at which an individual can enlist is set down in the Armed Forces (Enlistment) Regulations 2009. In summary, the current MOD policy is that service personnel under 18 are not deployed on operations outside the UK, except where the operation does not involve personnel becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. Humanitarian operations, for example, might qualify. In addition, in line with current UN policy, service personnel under 18 are not deployed on UN peacekeeping operations. As has been mentioned, age restrictions also apply when it comes to Northern Ireland.
It is important that there is recognition that a special duty of care is owed to under-18s who choose to serve in the armed forces—not because they are not old enough to make that decision and take that action, but because inevitably they have less experience in the world of work and in life.
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to mislead the House unintentionally and I may have misled him. The only unit in Northern Ireland that could not do what we are discussing—it has been disbanded now—was the Ulster Defence Regiment, because it was permanently on operations. There are recruits of 16 and over from Northern Ireland serving in the armed forces today.
I am grateful for that clarification—I am skipping through my speech rather quickly, because I do not have the time that I thought I would have.
As I was saying, we have a special duty of care to these young people because of their lack of experience of work and of life in general. Whenever that has been discussed in Parliament before, Ministers have been very clear that they accept that and that safeguards are in place.
I can attest to the excellence of the practice that I witnessed in this area when I visited RAF Halton last year. I was able to meet young recruits, hear about their experiences in initial recruit training and see them being put through their paces by the officers. The recruits were developing a range of practical and problem-solving skills that were no doubt essential for the career in the Royal Air Force that they hoped to pursue, but also transferable skills that could assist employers in other sectors in the future. My visit to RAF Halton and particularly the conversations with those recruits were a very positive experience. I am assured that the welfare of our youngest recruits is taken very seriously.
A number of safeguards are built into the recruitment process for 16 and 17-year-olds. First, parents and guardians are positively encouraged—in fact, required—to be part of that process, and their consent is sought. Once accepted into service, under-18s have the right of automatic discharge at any time until their 18th birthday. It is not in the interests of either the armed forces or the individuals themselves for people to be there if they do not want to be. I welcome the provisions allowing for early discharge if that is appropriate.
MOD policy is not to deploy personnel under 18 on operations. That is absolutely correct. Service personnel under 18 are not deployed on any operation outside the UK, except where the operation does not involve their becoming engaged in or exposed to hostilities. However, there is a recommendation, I think, that has not been actioned since the 2005 report of the Defence Committee, on armed guard duty. Perhaps that is something we could look at again. My understanding is that that is still allowable.
Finally, I will offer a few thoughts on the Medact report “The Recruitment of Children by the UK Armed Forces: a critique from health professionals”. For the reasons that I have outlined I do not agree with the use of the word “children”. We have taken a decision as a country—certainly in Scotland and, I think, down here too—that 16 is the age at which we consider young people to have moved from adolescence to adulthood. If that is the case, I would argue that it should apply across the board. We choose to draw that arbitrary line at 16. However, it is entirely right that we should ensure that there are safeguards for those for whom the armed forces are not the right choice, or who may not be ready at 16 or 17, and that those safeguards should be taken seriously by commanding officers. That was my experience from visiting the RAF base.
I am open, however, to considering whether more can be done to improve the duty of care for under-18s—I have already mentioned guard duty. I am also open to any review that looks at educational attainment, as has been alluded to. Where we can demonstrate that better outcomes could be achieved, we must build on what there is, and make sure that those outcomes are realised. I would also welcome further consideration of the messages that the Ministry of Defence uses in recruitment drives, so that in addition to the many positive opportunities offered by the armed forces, the reality of the danger that serving can entail is clear and understood. It is because of the danger that members of the armed forces put themselves into on our behalf that we owe them the respect and gratitude that they have from us.
Order. Mr Sheppard, I do not expect any backchat from you. You intervened twice in the debate; you have had your say. I said to the hon. Gentlemen that they could split the time between them. Mr Paterson chose to give a longer speech than perhaps Mr Cowan would have liked, but that was his decision and their decision. Do not question the Chair, or you might not catch my eye next time. The SNP have had their say.
It is a pleasure to be here to discuss this important topic under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I must thank the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for bringing the matter to the House. We have a great deal in common in many of our positions—and that is largely so in the present case, although perhaps not entirely.
I was struck by the focus on the duty of care that came through in all the speeches today. I think that all hon. Members, whether they spoke or not, will have reflected on that particularly. We might want also to reflect on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) about how serious the decision to join the armed forces is for anyone. I agree with the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd about the need for transparency, facts and education, which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) also touched on.
It is important that we should fully consider how countries around the world recruit, in considering that issue. Of course there are different approaches and age thresholds. Some countries conscript and some do not. I am glad that we do not. From my alphabetical list I think that the situation is somewhat more complex than we have heard; that is just from looking at Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia and Cyprus at the beginning of the list. However, it is a mistake to focus too narrowly on that. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, at 16 people can vote, in Scotland; they can marry and pay tax, and make their own choices.
I am going to run through this, if I may.
It is particularly important for those under the age of 18 who choose to pursue a military career that we understand the impact on them. We have heard about the impact on young people from challenging backgrounds; that is important, and in considering it we should examine the entirety of those backgrounds. Young people should have the opportunity to choose as widely as possible as they move forward in their lives. For some people, joining the armed forces may be a positive choice. However, of course it is not the same as other jobs. It is therefore vital that full information is provided, that full discussions are had and that those are open, honest and transparent. For instance, it is vital that every opportunity is given for a recruit to change their mind and leave the forces. I know there have been many positive changes in recent years to allow people to leave more easily, particularly at that young age, which is hugely important. I would like to hear more from the Minister on that.
I would also like to hear from the Minister on what new measures he would propose to achieve greater post-service employment for young early-service leavers. The figures are not positive there, as I am sure he knows. I would also like to hear more from him on training, transferable skills and qualifications, because a recruit in the armed forces under 18 is essentially training, and it is important that we see that from that perspective.
As well as developing those skills, it is important to be clear on what under-18s must not be doing. They must not be deployed, and it is our position that there must not be any flexibility or room for manoeuvre on that. There cannot be any of the margin of error issues of the past; that would be quite unacceptable.
May we focus on welfare, which is the key issue I have heard today? That must be a key focus, because physical and mental health and pastoral care-wise that could not be more important. I would be interested to hear more from the Minister on the review that my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd referred to. What are its parameters, what is its aim and when will it report? In the interests of transparency and aspiring to make the best progress for young recruits, full detail on that would be welcome.
We support the continued ability for 16 and 17-year-olds to make this choice if that is an informed, positive and open choice. However, it must be based on transparency. There must be a culture of improvement, training and aspiration and an openness to ongoing discussion about how we do the best we can for all our young people.
I thank the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for initiating this important debate. I have always had a positive attitude towards the recruitment of young people—16 and 17-year-olds—to the armed forces, and the Army in particular. I come from and represent a valleys community in south Wales, and I recognise only too well that many young people are drawn to the armed forces. By and large, they have a positive experience, which sets them up well for a future life in civvy street. However, as the hon. Lady rightly said, various concerns have been raised by a raft of organisations for some time—including recently—and it is only correct that we have a proper debate and dialogue about the appropriateness of such recruitment as we have in this country. I therefore look forward to the Minister’s response to the many points that have been raised.
It is a fact that the British armed forces recruit about 2,000 16 and 17-year olds each year, and 80% of them are recruited by the Army. I suggest it is significant that fewer than 20 countries throughout the world allow direct recruitment of 16 and 17-year-olds. The United Kingdom is the only member of the United Nations Security Council that does that, the only member of NATO that does that and the only member of the European Union that has such recruitment. It has been said that although the Ministry of Defence says that it wants 16 and 17-year-olds, particularly for the infantry, and although minors are no longer routinely deployed to war zones, over their military career they make a disproportionate contribution to frontline combat roles.
It is often said that recruits come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it is not as straightforward as that. In fact, enlisting at 16 leads to a higher risk of unemployment because of the large drop-out rate among 16 and 17-year-olds. That is a fact. I also want to express concern about the relatively weak safeguards around parental consent. Yes, it is correct to say that recruits need the consent of their adults. However, I suggest that for such a big commitment as joining the armed forces at 16 or 17 there should be an obligation for a face-to-face meeting between the armed forces concerned and the parent whose consent has to be obtained. It is important to have that ongoing dialogue so that the parents, as well as the young person, are fully aware of what is being signed up to.
At a time of austerity, let it be said, this is also a very expensive way to recruit to the armed forces given the relatively high drop-out rate. This country is not that different from many other countries. I suggest that we have the same demographics as many other countries and the same factors apply to like-minded countries and the United Kingdom in terms of the pressures.
I also want to make this broader point. This Government, like all Governments in recent times, have a proud record of being steadfastly opposed to the deployment of child soldiers. That is a reprehensible practice that takes place in some countries, and this country has always been adamant and forthright in its condemnation of it. It has been suggested that the argument we put forward is weakened to some extent because we rely so heavily on 16 and 17-year-olds ourselves. Although I do not consider them to be children, they are nevertheless not fully fledged, mature adults. That is something we ought to be careful of.
My final point is that the Defence Committee prepared a very thorough report in 2005 that made a number of recommendations to the Ministry of Defence. Several of those recommendations have been acted upon, but others have not. I would like to know from the Minister precisely what the Government intend to do next to ensure that they fulfil their rhetorical commitment to improvement.
As usual, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I know what it feels like to get stuck within the time—we have all been there—and why the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) probably does not feel great. We are where we are, but we have all done that.
It is a pleasure to discuss this for many reasons, as I will explain, and to see the—near enough—wide support for the young servicemen and women. I understand the concerns, particularly following Deepcut, for those of us who are interested in the armed forces, as I have been for many years. Lessons had to be learned from the terrible situation out in Deepcut, but we must not in any way look at Deepcut as what is happening in 2017.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) about facts, but we cannot get away from some anecdotes, and I will use some anecdotes and some facts. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, someone can serve in the American armed forces at 17; at 17 and a day they can serve with their parents’ consent. It is not true to say that there are no young servicemen in other NATO countries—they are there.
It is also very important to look at some of the figures as to why the armed forces invest so much time and money in recruiting young adults. Probably one of the most obvious ones, which goes completely against some of the evidence given by the hon. Lady, is that of those who were under 18 on enlistment between 2007 and 2013, 60% made warrant officer level 1—senior NCO. That is 60% of those who came through. It is also not true to say that the majority, in percentage terms, are from the infantry, or even from the Army, because the numbers are different. We have to look at this in context. As of October ’16 there were 32,500 personnel in the Navy and 8% of them were former junior servicemen. In the Royal Air Force on the same date, there were 33,270 and 5%. In the Army it was 8.7%, because the Army is much larger and thus the proportion is different.
Let us have a bit of anecdote. In 1974, a young man of 16 had been told by his headmaster three or four years earlier that he was too dim to take his 11-plus. He struggled enormously at school and came from a socially and economically deprived area of London. His father and grandfather had served in the armed forces—most of my generation’s grandparents had served in the second world war—and he applied to go into the Army. He struggled educationally when he went for assessment at Sutton Coldfield, but got into the Army and went as a boy soldier to Pirbright.
At the time, there were junior leaders and apprentices, and junior guardsmen, as there were junior infantry in other units. At no time did that junior soldier do armed guard. At no time did he do anything different in military terms from when he was in the cadets. He went on the ranges and thoroughly enjoyed it and went on exercises and thoroughly enjoyed them. At 16, that young person who had been written off by society did the dispatch rider’s course and got a full motorbike licence. In civvy street, the age for a motorbike licence was 17, but at 17 he got a full car licence and was sent on a medic course—not just a first-aid course, but as a battlefield runner. He was still not available for operations, but was gathering skills.
The hon. Lady interrupted many times and she can sum up at the end of the debate.
The young man was gaining life skills. He was not a great soldier and did not make huge rank, but he fell in love and left the Army after four years, which was the term for adult service, not boy’s service. At 18, he had to sign to stay in. His parents signed for him to go in early, and at 18 he went before his Adjutant, who gave him the option to leave the Army or to sign up for three, six or nine years. After four years, he fell in love and bought himself out of the military—people can opt to leave now—but did not settle and went back into the Royal Army Medical Corps. He went on several other courses, which subsequently helped him to get into the fire service when he left the armed forces. That person went on to be the MinAF—the Minister for the Armed Forces; the person standing here now.
The Army gave me a home, a trade, aspiration and a chance to get on in life after being written off. I have been on several journeys in my career, not least as a journalist here, and in the fire service. What was interesting was my welfare. Why did I struggle when I was in the armed forces? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), I am dyslexic and it is not something I hide. When I was at the Department for Work and Pensions, I outed myself as dyslexic, but at no time when I was at school did anyone pick that up and say, “We know why you have problems; you have learning difficulties.” Within weeks of me joining a boy soldier, a Royal Army Education Corps officer picked it up, got me on the relevant courses and helped me to become a journalist here, a politician and the first MinAF from the ranks, which I am enormously proud of. The earlier we can train people with apprenticeships and the skills we need throughout our armed forces, the better, without a shadow of doubt. We can utilise that time for that person to feel fulfilled, aspirational and to get the skills—
No, I will not give way. The hon. Lady will have three minutes at the end and she has intervened quite a lot.
No one gets things perfectly right and there have been mistakes, but I believe passionately that it is wrong to say to a young person of 16 that they cannot go into the armed forces because they will become a trained killer. Tell that to the medics who are training as I was. I am proudly wearing a 23 Parachute Field Ambulance tie, which was presented to me by the regiment only a couple of days ago. Medics are there to save lives and their training is worth while. We are also desperately short of qualified Marine and RAF engineers. We need people with those skills, and the sooner we start to train them, the better. Of course, as I said earlier, if they want to leave at the age of 18, they can. As for the leaving rate, the figure of four years has always been there—it was about four years when I was in the armed forces many years ago, and it still is today.
I went to RAF Halton only the other day. It is the shortest journey that I have done as a Minister, because it is right on the edge of my constituency. What a fantastic facility for training young people, building them up and showing them what they can do! A lot of those young people will go on to be cooks, chefs, medics or firemen. They are not being trained as killers; they are being told, “We value you in our armed forces and we are giving you skills that can be used when you leave.”
I am absolutely passionate about ensuring that we never have another Deepcut or anything like it ever again, but as the hon. Lady said, we must use facts. I am afraid that, on some of the so-called facts that she gave earlier on, I will have to write to her specifically about the points she raised.
We continue to review how we do this. Ofsted inspects all the premises, which is important. We make sure that welfare support is there for those young people at a vulnerable age. For instance, I admit that when I was a young 16-year-old soldier, I went to see the lady from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service regularly, because I wanted the comfort of talking to a mature lady who was not my sergeant, my warrant officer or one of the other officers. Those services are still there—I was at Pirbright the other day, and the facilities are there. Nor must we forget the work that the padres do, particularly at a junior level, because no matter what faith someone belongs to or whether they have no faith at all, having that comforting facility is crucial.
I am passionate that we need, and should have, a junior entry. These are young adults whose aspirations and life skills we can build so that they can actually get on in life slightly, as I myself have done—rather than writing them off, as some people seem to want to.
I appreciate the hon. Members who have contributed today. There has been a general agreement that a duty of care is owed to our young recruits and that welfare and educational attainment is important to us all.
I am disappointed by the Minister’s response. I expected more of an answer to the specific questions I asked, although I welcome his offer to write to me. Although I was interested in his personal history, I have to bear in mind that as Minister he is also the person who is chiefly responsible for the welfare of young recruits.
I will end with the words of an early-day motion from 2005:
“That this House notes that those currently entering the army at the age of 16 years are committed for four years beyond their eighteenth birthday; welcomes the recommendation of the Defence Select Committee that the Ministry of Defence consider raising the age of recruitment into the armed forces to 18 years; further welcomes the finding of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the UK Government’s declaration on ratifying the UN Optional Protocol to the Rights of the Child is overly broad, thereby undermining the UK’s commitment not to deploy under-18s in conflict zones; and urges the Government to withdraw its declaration and to raise the age at which young recruits can be enlisted into the armed forces to 18 years and thereby set an example of good practice internationally.”
The Minister signed that early-day motion in 2005. When did he change his mind?