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Westminster Hall

Volume 697: debated on Monday 21 June 2021

Westminster Hall

Monday 21 June 2021

[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Grouse Shooting

[Relevant Document: Written Evidence: Transcript of a conversation between a member of the Petitions Committee and Chris Packham, on driven grouse shooting, reported to the House on 23 June 2020, HC 546.]

Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of a debate in Westminster Hall, and they are expected to remain for the entire debate.

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Members attending physically who are in the later stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available. Members can speak only from the horseshoe, where there are microphones. I call Tom Hunt to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 266770, relating to grouse shooting.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. My role on the Petitions Committee, which I take very seriously, as does every other member of the Committee, is to ensure that petitions with more than 100,000 signatures get debated, and that the arguments put forward by the petitioners are heard and the issue thoroughly debated. That is what I am charged with doing today. As a Member of Parliament for an urban constituency, grouse shooting is not an issue that I know a huge amount about. Not only is it not an activity in Ipswich; it is not an activity in Suffolk, because there are no grouse in Suffolk. However, I am here today.

I thank the 111,965 people who signed the petition. It has taken a while to get it debated, but we are here. The petition calls for a ban on driven grouse shooting, stating that

“Wilful blindness is no longer an option”.

Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery from Wild Justice

“believe that intensive grouse shooting is bad for people, the environment and wildlife. People; grouse shooting is economically insignificant when contrasted with other real and potential uses of the UK’s uplands. Environment; muirburn impacts negatively upon climate change and drainage leads to flooding and erosion. Wildlife; the wholesale culling of all predators and Mountain Hares has a disastrous effect on the ecology of these areas and the industry is underpinned by a criminal tradition of raptor persecution which shows no signs of abating. It’s time to provide an opportunity to implement immediate, legislative and meaningful measures to address this abhorrently destructive practice.

That is what the petition calls for. For those different reasons, they want grouse shooting to be banned.

There was a debate on this issue in October 2016—I have read the debate in Hansard. To be honest, I do not think the issues seem to have changed much. Probably today we will hear the same arguments put forward from those who want to ban it and probably the same arguments from those who wish it to continue. I appreciate that many colleagues here feel strongly about this issue, which is much more live in their constituencies. I will open the debate and facilitate what I hope will be a scintillating discussion about the issue, but I feel less able to inject personal experience and understanding into it because I have never been grouse shooting and it does not happen in my constituency.

I thought it was only fair to read out the call from Chris Packham and the others who set up the petition, but many people put forward different arguments. Many make economic arguments about the benefits that grouse shooting brings and about the moorland management, effort and expertise that go into preserving these complex habitats. Of course, many of the landscapes are very pleasing to the eye and generate significant amounts of tourism. My understanding is that the North York moors alone often have more than 8 million visitors a year. That does not seem to be an insignificant economic benefit.

My understanding is that grouse moor owners spend more than £50 million a year on preserving these complex environments. Some 42,500 work days every year are generated through this activity, and 1,500 full-time jobs are tied to it—about 700 directly and about 800 indirectly. It is also worth bearing in mind that these are isolated upland communities, so one has to wonder what else would generate that number of jobs. There is that economic benefit, and from my research it also seems that grouse moors often bring people together, so there is a social impact to the economy. Levels of loneliness in isolated rural areas where grouse shooting happens are lower than in other areas.

I did not come across any evidence that said that an alternative use would promote better natural capital than the unique environment that we are dealing with here. I do not really hear what the alternatives would be in those areas, apart from grouse shooting. If rewilding were suggested, we could have pumas, lynxes and honey badgers running wild in these areas. That would be quite an interesting spectacle, so perhaps tourism would continue to be popular, because people would like to see how that happens.

My hon. Friend is making a very good point. Lots of people think that woodland is a habitat for lots of wildlife, but that is not always the case. Coniferous woodland is almost devoid of wildlife. People point to the reforestation or forestation of these areas, but that actually increases the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by four to six times per hectare, compared with moorland.

That is as very good point from somebody who clearly has as level of understanding of this topic that I could only wish to have. Looking at the issue from my perspective, it seems that there are environmental arguments for and against, but the economic argument is unchallengeable, in terms of the tangible benefits that the activity brings to the lives of thousands of people in those areas.

I look forward to this debate. I understand that many people feel strongly about the issue. I do not know whether the debate will really advance things much. I predict—I might be wrong—that it will go in much the same direction as the one five years ago. I am pretty sure that we will be back here again in two or three years’ time, because it seems as though there are some individuals who are incredibly motivated to stop this practice. I fear that, for some, this is more about a dislike of perceived posh people having fun more than about any logical arguments about the pros and cons, and we would not want that kind of class warfare. I open this up to the Floor, and I look forward to the debate.

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I took part in the 2016 debate, which I think it is fair to say was not the best-natured debate that we have had in this place—it is an issue that arouses strong feelings. I thank the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for at least trying to do justice to both sides of the argument. I wrote to both Mr Speaker and the then Chair of the Petitions Committee after the last debate, because I felt that the person supposedly speaking on behalf of the petitioners sneered at them and spent the whole time rubbishing their arguments. To be respectful to the petitioners, a Member who takes on the role of speaking ought to do a neutral job in outlining what a petition is about. The hon. Member for Ipswich did that. He slightly spoilt it at the end with the argument about posh people, because that is something that was wrongly levelled at opponents of foxhunting. I do not think that is the case, and certainly the people involved in Wild Justice are absolutely passionate about conservation and are genuine in their concerns about the impact of driven grouse shooting.

The petition was interrupted by the 2019 general election. Just after that election, I joined the Petitions Committee for a few months. We were trying to get the petition debated—I think we even had a date in the diary—but covid put paid to any possibility of that. It was a good move by the Chair of the Petitions Committee to ask me to interview Chris Packham instead, and there is a transcript of my putting questions to him that we perhaps could have debated back then, which people can read on the House of Commons Petitions Committee website. I will refer to quite a bit of what Chris says in that interview during the course of my speech.

Chris has had a huge amount of abuse for speaking out on these issues—from dead animals tied to the door of his house, to death threats and so on. Whenever I speak about shooting issues, I get abuse on social media. There was a guy who sent me pictures of bacon sandwiches and spare ribs every day for 11 days—he got bored because I was not paying any attention to him. It does get quite nasty, and Chris has been on the receiving end of a lot of that, which I think is very unfortunate. He has done brilliant work with young naturalists, particularly those from neurodivergent backgrounds, and I pay tribute to him for that.

In the interview—as I said, the transcript is available—Chris started by talking about the fact that we are now facing dual climate and ecological emergencies. People are increasingly worried about what he describes as catastrophic biodiversity loss, and driven grouse shooting produces a very unhealthy landscape. That is the background context to the concerns. I asked him what he thought of the Government response—when the petition gets to 10,000 signatures, there is a brief written Government response—and he said he would be polite, but then he described it as “pathetic and derisory” and said it

“showed a depth of ignorance and wilful blindness that we didn’t want or expect.”

If that is him being polite, I would love to see what he really thinks.

In the written response, he said, “At least the Government acknowledges the importance of the peatlands and moorlands habitat. Our uplands have 75% of the world’s remaining moorland and about 13% of the world’s blanket bog.” People do not actually realise how unusual the UK is in having that as a natural resource, and we should be managing this precious habitat not for the dubious benefits of grouse shooting, but in the interests of biodiversity and ecosystem services—as valuable carbon sinks, offering flood protection and so on.

I might go on to say why it is problematic in the way they are managed. One of the problems that the campaigners supporting the petition have had is that they have got to the point where they are saying that the only answer is a ban on driven grouse shooting, because the people who manage the moorlands have not been prepared to meet them halfway and to address some of the issues—for example, the hen harrier persecution, the burning of the heather and so on.

On hen harriers, is the hon. Lady aware that there were 50 hen harrier chicks in 2006, zero in 2013 and 60 last year? It is really important that we look at the evidence and do not move to emotive arguments, and it is really important that we look at the facts. Does she not accept that there is work going on to improve hen harrier breeding?

There is work going on, but the hen harrier population declined across the UK and the Isle of Man by 24% between 2004 and 2016, with just 575 pairs remaining. Estimates suggest that there is sufficient habitat and food availability to support a population of over 2,650 pairs. We know that in England there is available habitat for more than 300 pairs, yet we are down to a very small number.

That is the point: the numbers did decline from 2006 to 2013, but now they are on the rise again. It is really important that we look at the positive work that is going on in these areas rather than just thinking that it is all about the way that moors are managed.

The figures are nowhere near where they should be, in terms of what we could support, and it is not just—

The hon. Member says that the numbers are going up, but they are going up from a very small base. As I say, the figures are nowhere near where they should be.

However, the fact is that raptor persecution is illegal and should not be happening, but it is happening on the grouse moors. Regardless of what the numbers are, the death of even one hen harrier is illegal and it should not be part of grouse moor management. That is the point that we should not lose sight of. It is not just a conservation measure to protect these birds; it is illegal to kill them.

Protecting this habitat could allow it to act as a valuable carbon sinks, offer flood protection and so on. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) might have something more to say about its role in flood protection. When I went to those areas after the floods of 2015-16, and when I have spoken to people after the more recent floods in those areas, I found real concern about the impact that the management of the moorlands is having.

As Chris Packham says, a healthy upland habitat should be covered with trees, blanket bog and deep layers of sphagnum moss that act like a great sponge, with deep peat storing all the water. However, the management of grouse moors directly militates against this, with the burning of the heather, the illegal raptor persecution that I have mentioned and the extermination of mountain hares. Chris Packham also spoke about weasels and stoats being caught up in spring traps, crows caught in cage traps, foxes caught in snares and endangered protected species also accidentally being caught up, and about the use of medicated grit and the leeching of toxins from lead shot into the groundwater. The bottom line is that all these measures to protect the grouse are not in the interests of conservation; it is just so that the grouse can then be shot.

Just as I do not accept the conservation argument, I do not accept the economic argument either. As Chris Packham says, the Government have never quantified this matter. The lack of data and the lack of transparency mean that we cannot say with any degree of accuracy how much money is going where, who is benefiting and who is not benefiting.

Chris Packham says that in Scotland a bit more information has been released. Nevertheless, if Scotland was thought to be the size of Ben Nevis, the economic benefit from grouse shooting there would be the size of a small banjo. That seems to be the official interpretation. I do not know why banjos have been brought into it; I do not know the difference between a small banjo and a large banjo. He is saying that, given that the area of land given over to grouse shooting in Scotland is between 12% and 18% of the total land, something far more worthwhile than the equivalent of a small banjo, in terms of economic benefits from that area, could be produced.

I am not sure about banjos, but the premise that the hon. Lady gave before was that grouse management is there for shooting birds. I would say that that is not the case. Shooting is part of the environmental process that is going on. People who engage in grouse shooting involve themselves in environmental management. Just to kill all the grouse would mean, very simply, that there would be no grouse next year. The process has to be managed for the environment.

I do not accept that. If we look at the way the moors are managed, we see that it is to create the largest possible number of grouse, it is to avoid anything that might be a threat to the grouse, including natural predators, and it is destroying a lot of other wildlife at the same time. All that is not so that people can stalk through the undergrowth with their gun, in the way that we might think of the country sport of shooting. It is so that busloads of people can come in, stand there and just shoot, shoot, shoot—it is very much a numbers game. I would not say that has anything to do with conservation.

The birds would not be there in those numbers if they were not being artificially managed, in the same way that we get the imported pheasants and partridges when it comes to that form of shooting; they are there to be shot. As I have said, the way that is managed is related to that intensity and the sheer number of birds that people want to produce, rather than it being about any concern for conserving the natural habitat. As I said, we just do not have the numbers. I do not know whether the Minister will come up with numbers to tell us who is benefiting from this and what contribution it makes.

The hon. Lady asks who is benefiting, but that is quite clear. There are gamekeepers in my constituency and hundreds of people are employed in the broader hospitality sector supported by shooting. Those people are benefiting. If the hon. Lady would like to meet some of the people who benefit economically from this activity, I would be delighted to host her in my constituency, where she could actually meet some of the people involved in the industry.

I suspect they are not benefiting to anything like the same extent as the people who own the land, many of whom are extremely wealthy. They are raking in money from this: I have seen the amount charged for some of the packages for people to come to these areas and take part in shooting days, and I suspect that not an awful lot of that trickles down to the local economy.

We need to see more action from this Government. It is very disappointing that they refused to accept Labour’s amendment to the Environment Bill on the burning of heather and peatlands—again, I think we will hear more about that from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam. I do not believe the measures introduced by the Government on 1 May go far enough. I note the comments of the Climate Change Committee in its latest report, which was released last Wednesday: that there is an increasingly urgent need to restore degraded upland peatland and manage it more sustainably. I would be interested to hear what the Minister thinks can be done, because obviously, that comment from the Climate Change Committee came after any action that has been taken by the Government to date. I hope that in light of what the Committee has said, the Minister will consider talking to her colleagues in the Lords and strengthening the Environment Bill to address that concern.

Order. A great deal of Members wish to speak in this debate. If you make and take interventions, some of those people are going to be excluded—and we hope to get everybody in. We also hope to keep a good atmosphere in this debate, and not to replicate what I understand happened during the last debate on this issue.

May I say at the outset that to ban grouse shooting would be an act of environmental, ecological and economic vandalism—not to mention a gastronomic disaster for many people in this country? Two thirds of the North York Moors national park is in my constituency—my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) has the bulk of the rest—and 79% of the North Yorkshire moors and the Pennine special protection areas are grouse moors, so these habitats are recognised officially as needing protection.

When the North York Moors national park was delineated in 1952, why was it chosen? Not because it was some environmentally devastated area that needed changing, but precisely because it was the way it is now; the management of that national park over the years has been to preserve it in that way. Part of that has been the way in which the uplands are managed for grouse and the other species that benefit.

The habitat on heather moorland—dry heathland moorland, which much of the North Yorkshire moors are—is very fragile. It is rarer than rainforest, and 75% of Europe’s heather moorland is in the UK. Grouse cannot be reared in the same way as we might rear pheasants and partridges and release them: the only way we can get grouse to breed is by creating the environment for them to breed, and that fragile ecosystem needs management to ensure that not only the grouse, but other red-listed species such as the black grouse, the lapwing, the skylark, the curlew and the UK’s smallest bird of prey, the merlin, can breed and survive. Merlin numbers have doubled on grouse moors over the past 20 years; elsewhere in the country, they have halved.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned hen harriers and other raptors. One hundred years ago, there were no hen harriers in the UK at all, but the latest survey—in 2016, I think—showed that there were 545 territorial pairs. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton has said that last year, 60 had fledged. I turn to other raptors. In 1963, there were 360 pairs of peregrines, but there are now 1,750; 20 years ago, there were 160 pairs of red kites, but there are now 4,400; and there are 75,250 pairs of buzzards—a sixfold increase. Recently in my own area, there were 13 buzzards circling in the sky because of the way in which the countryside has been managed and because of the legislation that has outlawed the persecution of raptors.

Why are so many species affected? The Minister and I spoke about lapwings and she remarked that she did not see many in August. The lapwings come and breed in the spring and then go back to their coastal areas, so it is important that we have these areas for birds to breed. Why is that so important? We need to control predators such as foxes, but we also need to ensure that the way the moorland is managed through rotational burning prevents the outbreak of wildfires. Indeed, on Saddleworth moor, there were 10 days of fires. A parliamentary question asked by my noble Friend Lord Botham in the other place received the answer that 72 times more CO2 was emitted over the past five years than previously, with 294,000 tonnes of CO2 resulting from wildfires.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) said at the start, grouse shooting is very important for the rural economy—not just for the gamekeepers and those involved in it, but for the hospitality that supports people when they come and the money that they put into the rural economy. Furthermore, were it not for the mixture of tall and short heather and succulent young heather, sheep farming would become increasingly difficult on the uplands.

Finally, game is a sustainable food. In fact, the other day we found a grouse at the bottom of our freezer, which we very much enjoyed. One problem during lockdown has been that the demand for game has plummeted, which has meant that, for example, the requisite number of deer have not been culled this year. There are 3 million deer in the country, and that is causing a real threat to the forestry industry in Scotland. It is important that we have this low-fat, healthy, natural food produced in an outdoor environment, which is certainly better for the environment and people’s health than a chicken reared in a very intensive broiler house.

In conclusion, the only way that we can protect the environment, the ecosystem and the rural economy is to support grouse shooting and the benefits that it brings.

First, may I apologise, Ms McDonagh? I was presenting a Bill in the Chamber so I could not be here beforehand. I ran the whole way over. Forgive me—I am a wee bit short of breath. I am not as young as I was, so running is difficult.

It is a privilege to speak on this issue. The last time we had a debate on this in Westminster Hall, the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) and I spoke, and it is a real pleasure to be back again. I should declare an interest: I am a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Countryside Alliance Ireland and Country Sports Ireland. I am a country sports enthusiast and also a conservationist. Indeed, I believe that one cannot be a country sports enthusiast without being a conservationist because they both march hand in hand to deliver what we want. That is why this matter is an important one to speak about.

There is no doubt that degraded peatlands emit carbon. However, it is estimated that 94% of UK peatland emissions come from lowland peatlands, not grouse moors. There is a distinct balance between what happens on grouse moors and what happens on our peatland. In fact, drainage and agricultural practices cause most peatland emissions. Grouse moors are estimated to store up to 35% of the UK’s peatland carbon, meaning that their emissions are well below other land uses. We see a far greater biodiverse habitat of species on a managed grouse moor than on other areas of moorland that are not actively managed.

I have never been on a grouse moor in Scotland. I have never shot a grouse, although I have often wished that I had the opportunity; perhaps some time that will come my way. However, one way or the other I am here to support those involved in grouse shooting. I feel very strongly about it, which is why I wanted to be here to support our shooting comrades.

There are 2,592 full-time jobs in England, Scotland and Wales on the moorlands, with 1,772 actively managing the moors. The economic value per year is worth £67 million. Then there are those who come for tourism—those from the EU and America who come to shoot on the moors and take advantage of that. There are very successful grouse shooting moors across England, Wales and Scotland.

I was interested to learn that the University of York’s peatland study, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for five years, is now funded by over 20 organisations, including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Yorkshire Water, United Utilities and the Moorland Association. I am pleased to see the Minister in her place, as I always look forward to what she says. I know her response today will be well worth listening to and taking on board, and will answer many issues and address the concerns that some people have.

On the pros and cons of different types of management, there is a strongly presented argument against a burning ban on blanket bog. It outlines that burning should remain part of the overall toolkit, and is concerned about the negative impacts that mowing may cause, including increased methane emissions. Over a 20-year time frame, 1 kg of methane warms the planet as much as 96 times more than 1 kg of carbon dioxide. Those facts have to be considered in relation to this petition. It is important to get the balance.

I understand concerns about upland fires, but in my opinion we need more research on the data. Controlled burning causes 68% of upland wildfires, yet only 10% of upland fires have precise data on the cause of fire. Again, that poses a question. A Natural England report specifically states:

“Care is needed in interpreting these findings given the small proportion of overall fires where a specific cause was assigned and potential bias and subjectivity in these assessments”.

According to the same report, only 8% of all upland wildfires occur in the autumn months, when the bulk of controlled burns are undertaken. I commend all of those who are involved in the management of moors for the controlled and cautious way in which they work. Some 92% of wildfires occur during the spring and summer months.

The study calls for a universal categorisation method and better recording, and I support that because it is important that we get this right. Controlled vegetation burning to reduce the fuel load and protect peatlands from wildfire is an essential tool used across the globe. Recent research from the USA shows that controlled burns can reduce wildfire risks on peatland across the globe. The evidential base supports the controlled burning of parts of the moor, so that the moor can regenerate and provide necessary food for wildlife in that area.

The BASC and the Moorland Association are part of the England and Wales Wildfire Forum. Gamekeepers play a key role in preventing and tackling wildfires, with their local knowledge and specialist equipment. When fires happened a few years ago in parts of England, it was the local gamekeepers and those involved in the management of the moors who came to the fore to give the support needed. Some of them worked 24-hour shifts and should be commended for what they did.

We all have a part to play in making the most of our grouse moorlands and it is right that questions are asked, but it is also right that we heed the research work that has been done, to ensure that we are doing our best to conserve and make the most of the phenomenal natural habitat that we have been granted. We are holding the habitat and the wildlife in trust for those who come after.

It is my reasoned belief that controlled moorland management is an intricate part of this. I support those who shoot on the moors, as well as those who manage them and those who ensure that the potential £67 million per year of tourism income is harnessed and delivered safely. Almost 3,000 jobs are involved, and they are very important, as is that potential money from tourism. I support those who ensure that the grouse moors will live on long after this auld boy is away, and maybe after my children and grandchildren.

For the record, I declare my membership of the all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation, although, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I have never personally been grouse shooting.

The constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner has no grouse moors, but it is home to many people who have an interest in animal welfare and to a business that supports residents who enjoy shooting as a recreation, albeit with no live animals involved locally. As a consequence, I have had the opportunity hear from constituents on both sides of the debate today.

Humans have shaped our environment enormously over many centuries. As a consequence, all of us living today have a responsibility to protect and enhance our environment whether or not we approve of what previous generations did or of what future generations might have planned for it. Whether our moorlands or many of our fishing rivers, our natural environment has been shaped by human activity over generations. The biodiversity around us today is a result of those actions.

One of the issues cited most often is that of heather burning. That habitat management is required if we want the habitat to continue to prosper. There are clearly two major benefits from the burning. First, it promotes the new growth of heather and grass, which supports a wide range of wildlife in addition to grouse, including curlew, lapwing and golden plover, as well as deer and hares.

Even more important from a human perspective is the prevention of wildfires, as a number of Members have mentioned. Back in 2003, for example, a wildfire on the National Trust’s Bleaklow destroyed more than 2,000 acres of rare habitat and all the heather on the neighbouring 2,500-acre moor. The sad reality is that the CO2 levels—a climate change issue—being released from wildfires has increased dramatically in the last five years. If we want to prevent and reduce those emissions, controlled firebreaks are a necessary part of our toolkit. The practice has many different names depending on where we are in the country, but the idea behind prescribed burning is that it is a quick burn that removes the canopy and does not affect the underlying peat or soil layer that is so important to the biodiversity of our environment.

The other theme running through the debate is our feelings about animal welfare-related issues and the distaste that many people feel about the idea of killing live creatures for fun. Although I share that sentiment, I also recognise that in the UK and throughout the world, different forms of hunting are not just an essential part of good husbandry of nature; they also underpin the funding that enables conservation and biodiversity efforts to proceed, both in the United Kingdom and across the world. Where we humans have created an ecosystem, we have a responsibility to manage it. Those who are proposing bans on the actions that they personally dislike need also to consider who will undertake and pay for the husbandry of those animal populations, so that familiar problems such as parasite infections and out-of-control predation do not simply replace one unpleasant fate with another.

Put bluntly, the ecosystem that we have created requires the management of animal numbers. In my view, it is much better to do that in a way that supports the economy of that ecosystem so that animals killed with a purpose are being eaten, contributing to the conservation and welfare of that animal population, rather than abdicating our responsibilities to the detriment of biodiversity and animal welfare at home and aboard.

To conclude, we need to consider the net effect of our decisions on our environment. It seems clear to me that the proposed ban is likely to produce a net disadvantage to our environment and our biodiversity, and must therefore be opposed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), who made an argument that I entirely agree with far more eloquently than I could. I am also a member of the all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation, of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and of the Countryside Alliance.

Before I get into my main points, I associate myself with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) about the value of game meat as a healthy food choice. Although a grouse that has been lingering at the bottom of his freezer for some years is not the best way to be introduced to the wonderful taste of grouse, I heartily encourage everybody who has not tried that tasty, wonderful meat to do so.

Those who understand grouse moor management and the benefits that it brings know full well that the real evidence shows that a ban on driven grouse shooting would make life worse, not better, for the wildlife that the opponents of shooting purport to want to protect. This issue needs to be debated on the facts, not on accusations motivated by a wider anti-shooting agenda. As Members have said, shooting is an integral part of environmental management and conservation. It is the gamekeepers employed by shooting estates who make that happen. It is gamekeepers who maintain the habitat and control predators, which benefits threatened species of ground-nesting birds.

Grouse moor management has played a key role in maintaining our upland landscape and sustaining some of our rarest plants and wildlife. Far from being the baron landscapes that I have heard described by some, grouse moors are incredibly important wildlife havens. Moors managed by gamekeepers support up to five times more threatened wading birds such as the curlew. Merlin numbers have doubled on grouse moors over the last 20 years, and 2020 was the best year for hen harrier breeding in England for two decades, with 60% of their nests on land managed for grouse shooting. I could go on with many more conservation success stories as a result of grouse moors that are well managed by gamekeepers, but time is tight.

It is not as if grouse shooting is not already heavily regulated and controlled. There is extensive legislation in place that has an impact on almost every aspect of grouse shooting and grouse moor management. Licensing requirements are in place across the board. Any additional legislation would add to the cost and bureaucracy of grouse moor management, leaving our moors in a worse condition.

It is important to recognise the economic benefits that shooting sports bring to rural communities. Grouse shooting in the United Kingdom has a direct estimated value of £100 million, creating the equivalent of over 2,500 full-time jobs. Between 60% and 80% of direct spending from grouse moors is within the local area of that moor. It is of greater significance to the local economy and community retention than any other form of activity. Because grouse moors are managed largely through private investment by their owners, they offer the most cost-effective model of upland management to the taxpayer. I genuinely wonder how those who want driven grouse shooting to end would fund and manage those vast moors, staff their management and pay for it.

Grouse shooting brings the rural community together in areas that can struggle with social isolation and lack of employment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) said. In addition to those who are shooting, a day’s driven grouse shooting involves a large number of other participants, bringing together up to 50 or so members of a local community of all ages and backgrounds. It underpins the social life of many communities and helps tackle rural isolation.

Let us be really clear: grouse shooting is good for jobs, the environment, species conservation and attracting high-quality tourism to remote rural areas—all without being a drain on the taxpayer. Those who are pushing for it to be banned have made no assessment of the ecological, social or economic costs. The evidence shows that the real conservationists are not those who call for grouse shooting to be criminalised; they are the hard-working gamekeepers who manage our moorlands day in, day out. Those calling for a ban on driven grouse shooting need to set out a viable alternative—an alternative vision for our uplands. Our heather moorland is internationally important, and it is widely recognised that grouse shooting has helped preserve it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I will try to be a little briefer than I planned, because lots of Members have made great contributions already, and I do not want to reiterate what they have said.

I am very concerned about the petition and the circle of destruction it would cause for the rural communities in my constituency, both economic and environmental. I am afraid I could not disagree more with the petitioners, mainly because of the huge economic value that grouse shooting has to my constituency. It is not just about the shooting itself and the gamekeepers; it is the huge amount of part-time jobs in the season and the huge amount of trade that comes with the industry, particularly for my hospitality sector. That sector has been absolutely hammered by covid over the past couple of years, and we are trying to push domestic tourism, especially in places such as the north Pennines and County Durham. We are not quite as well known as where my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) is, down on the North Yorkshire moors, but we should be. This is a real area of growth for us, and something we want to capitalise on, so it is important that we do not start to cut the legs off from under the sector, just as we are recovering from covid.

Another point to make is that almost all our landscapes in the UK are managed to a greater or lesser degree. As hon. Members have said, the danger of non-management is that huge increase we have seen in wildfires. That is the real danger, which comes from the release of carbon into our atmosphere. Heather burning is an issue. When a wildfire catches in deep peat, that really is an issue, and something with which proper management by gamekeepers and the communities in my upland areas is really helpful.

Another issue that is a major concern is over-management, as we have seen in the past. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) wondered whether there might be more productive things we could do with the uplands. Well, we tried that back in the 1950s, when we put grips into the peat moorland to drain it for sheep grazing. We saw an ecological catastrophe, with millions of tonnes of peat washed down the rivers and off the moors over the succeeding decades. Peat is one of the biggest carbon capturers and stores in the country. In January last year, I was lucky enough to have the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs up in my constituency, seeing some of those grips being filled in, so now we have peat returning as a massive natural carbon capture and storage facility.

Recently, I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) to see some well managed moorlands, and the lapwings and the oystercatchers there. It shows a degree of ignorance of the facts when, clearly, so many communities are involved and so many gamekeepers work on these estates. One of the secondary things that states are increasingly looking to do is to support birding—people doing birdwatching and that sort of thing. That is a major driver locally for a lot of people to come to the north Pennine moors.

I will pick up on something that a couple of my hon. Friends mentioned, which is the game itself. Obviously, we need to make more positive moves—steel shot is part of that—to increase the reusable meat. However, we also need to sell it properly, and that is something that we as parliamentarians could definitely be involved in, including here in Parliament.

From Muggleswick to Wearhead in my constituency, I support those in my villages who work on the moors, whether full time or during the season, and I support my local hospitality sector in North West Durham, which benefits from that. I ask the petitioners and those who support them to think again about the actual economic and environmental impacts of what they propose on communities such as those I represent in the north of England.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh.

I do not accept that we should ban driven grouse shooting, and nor do I accept that there is a wilful blindness to the issues. I point out to the petitioners that, although I am sure their concerns are earnestly expressed, there is a blindness in some quarters to the positive impact on the people, economy, environment and wildlife of these areas from our management of grouse moors.

To take matters in turn, I think the petition says grouse shooting is “bad for people”. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) referred to our constituencies jointly covering the beautiful North York Moors, and I fail to see how it is bad for people that tens of thousands of them enjoy the beautiful purple and green-carpeted North York Moors, which for their wellbeing alone must have huge value. The landscape would simply not look like that if it was not managed in that way.

I have been up to the moors with the gamekeepers on a number of occasions, looking at different parts of the moors in my constituency. The parts that are being managed are green and purple; the areas that are left unmanaged as trials have increased canopy, and they are very grey and very poor in terms of wildlife—it is completely different. Left unmanaged, the moors just would not look like they do today, and visitors would be far less likely to come.

Of course, that would affect the farming communities, which are deeply embedded in the world of conservation. In my view, the people who understand conservation more than anybody else are the people who have lived in these areas all their lives, not necessarily the people who are opining on this stuff from further afield. The point has been made that leaving the moors unmanaged would be tremendously bad for the people who work in the supply chain and all the businesses.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made a fair point: perhaps those people would find other jobs. I really do not see where they would find other jobs in North Yorkshire to the level that they have. A huge number of people are employed in the hotels and restaurants and as caterers, beaters or gamekeepers. People from all different social strata are involved in the whole economy around the grouse moors and grouse shooting. As pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), the sector provides £2 billion to the UK economy and 1,500 full-time equivalent jobs. There are huge benefits to people in constituencies such as mine in terms of the wider economy and their wellbeing, so I do not accept that grouse shooting is bad for people.

I also not do accept that grouse shooting is bad for the environment. The point has been made that the moorlands are rarer than rainforest, and they host a huge amount of flora and fauna, but also wildlife. Again, I saw two patches when I went up to the North York Moors. In the patches that have been managed, there is a proliferation of curlews, golden plovers and lapwings literally teeming round the moors. In the areas that are deliberately not being managed as a trial, however, there is very little wildlife. The moors are very conducive to wildlife, and I think the statistic is that there are five times as many rare birds in the managed areas as in the unmanaged ones.

The estates in my constituency are Snilesworth, Bransdale and Spaunton. As has been mentioned, they have an important role to play in preventing wildfires, which can be hugely damaging. The Climate Change Committee commented on this issue only this month in a report on climate risk. It highlighted the prospect of increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, stating:

“we can manage habitats actively to improve their resilience, for example through…the removal of…fuel loads that risk wildfire.”

That is what happens when a canopy gets too big. The canopy then burns and burns the peat. What the people who manage the moorlands do is called cool burning, which takes away the canopy without burning the peat. That is absolutely critical. It is carbon-neutral, because the new growth absorbs the carbon that has been emitted, but there is no release of carbon from the peat layer, which is hugely important.

The other point about CO2, which we are all obviously increasingly concerned about, comes from a report by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on alternative uses for the moors, which states:

“Peatlands managed for cropland, grassland, forestry (for example afforestation of moorland) or fuel harvesting emit many times more at around eight to 39 tonnes CO2 per hectare per year”

versus 2 to 5 tonnes on moorlands, so it is clear that there are climate change benefits here as well.

On wildlife, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby is absolutely right. When I was child, we never saw buzzards. I do not remember ever seeing a buzzard as a child, even though we spent most of our time outdoors. Now, there are a huge number always circling in the sky. Some relevant statistics come from Spaunton Moor and George Winn-Darley, who is the representative of the North York Moors to the Moorland Association. In a single year, there have been 1,552 sightings of birds of prey, including 10 hen harriers, three white-tailed sea eagles, 70 merlins, 193 kestrels, 16 short-eared owls, 163 barn owls, 84 peregrines, 14 marsh harriers, one osprey, 50 red kites, 57 tawny owls and 726 buzzards—I could go on. Extrapolated across the whole moor, that would be 25,000 sightings of those very rare birds. As I mentioned, the number of hen harriers is on the rise.

The hon. Member for Bristol East is absolutely right that we should work together to clamp down on wildlife crime against birds of prey and any kind of crime against wildlife, but the incidence is very low. No incidents at all were reported in 2018-19.

Order. I apologise for interrupting, but I must highlight to the hon. Gentleman that there are two more Members who wish to speak, and we are attempting to get to the winding-up speeches at 5.30 pm.

I will conclude on this point. It is absolutely right that we should clamp down on any wildlife crime, including against birds of prey. Wild Justice was responsible for some changes to general licences that make it much more difficult to control other types of birds, such as gulls, which have a devastating impact on chicks—grouse chicks, lapwing chicks and curlew chicks. We have to ensure that we take steps carefully, and they must be evidence-based.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. Thank you for giving me permission to be excused at the start of the debate—I was in the main Chamber speaking on a private Member’s Bill.

The petition states:

“grouse shooting is bad for people, the environment and wildlife”,

while arguing that it is “economically insignificant”. I am afraid I must dispute that in the strongest terms, and I will outline my reasons. Just last year, Professor Simon Denny and Tracey Latham-Green of the Institute of Social Innovation and Impact at the University of Northampton concluded an economic study looking at the social effects of integrated moorland management, including grouse shooting, on moorland communities, and I want to share some of their findings.

First, on the positive impact of grouse shooting on the rural economy, the direct economic benefit of grouse shooting to rural communities is estimated to be £67.7 million per annum. The direct impact is thought to be as high as £2 billion to the country. In England, grouse moor management is responsible for more than 1,500 full-time jobs, of which 700 are directly involved in grouse moor management, and a further 820 are in related services and industries. That has a huge impact on remote rural communities, which would otherwise have limited economic opportunity.

Research has shown that the associated spin-offs of grouse shooting in the north of England are worth an estimated £15 million a year and benefit a raft of rural businesses, including game dealers, the hospitality industry, equipment suppliers and transport operators, many of whom are based in the most remote areas. As one of the joint authors of the report concluded,

“grouse moor management is part of an integrated system of activities”,

including a whole range of things benefiting health, wellbeing and the economic prosperity of local communities.

That brings me to my second point, on the positive impact on moorland management of grouse shooting, and on wider conservation measures, which include peatland restoration, carbon sequestration and improving habitats for many other ground-nesting birds. More carbon is stored in peat in UK moorlands than in the combined forests of Britain and France. Therefore, careful management of moorland as part of grouse moorland management is essential to preserve the carbon that is locked up in the underlying peat. Grouse moorland managers have been actively working on a number of projects, including revegetating bare peat and blocking up moorland drains to raise water tables to encourage the growth of sphagnum moss, which helps the flow of surface water and filters out any discolouration. In the north Pennines alone, I know from my own experience that grouse moor managers have blocked more than 2,500 miles of drain ditches, and 300 acres of bare peat have been revegetated, with plenty more still planned.

Research has shown that where moors are managed by groundkeepers, ground-nesting birds, such as curlew and lapwings, are three and a half times as likely to raise a chick to fledgling. A survey of upland breeding birds in parts of England and Scotland has found that the densities of golden plover, curlew, redshank and lapwing are five times greater on managed grouse moorlands than on unmanaged moor. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) said, the mosaic of species of flora and fauna is widely known on managed grouse moorland. All of that is possible only where moorland is carefully managed, with the income gained from grouse shooting put back into helping to cover the costs associated with managing the land, protecting that carbon storage.

To conclude, it is vital to take a wide-lens approach to grouse shooting, rather than look at it from a headline political point of view. It creates jobs and is good for the rural economy, the environment, conservation and carbon storage.

Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I declare my interests as they appear in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a game shooter and as a member of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

This has been a good-tempered and interesting debate, but it is unfortunate that the premise of the petition lacks the understanding—or perhaps the willingness to acknowledge—that grouse shooting is all about working with the environment. Specifically and directly on the moors, where the game birds live and breed, grouse are not imported. They are natural to their moors, and great respect must be given to maintaining that environment. That is why they are magnificent parts of the country to visit. The environmental care of grouse shooting is very strong, and it seems that to argue otherwise is more about being anti-shooting than pro-environment.

The problem with the premise of the argument of the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is that I think she said something about rich people maximising the number of birds to be killed for profit. Actually, very few grouse shoots are run at a profit. They are run by people who are passionate about their sport and about managing the environment. It is about peat, other species, local jobs and preparing the ground for walkers and tourists. It is simply untrue to say that this is just about shooting game. It is about preserving for future generations some of the finest environments in the UK by effectively managing them.

Thank you for making this a bit easier to chair, Mr Djanogly. I think I am right in suggesting that the next speakers can have nine minutes each, leaving one minute for the summing up. I call Dave Doogan of the Scottish National party.

Thank you, Ms McDonagh. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I am happy that this debate has received a substantive airing and am grateful to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for advancing it in his role on the Petitions Committee. I understand and respect the fact that he had no control over the title of the petition, which personally I find a little troublesome, because it gives the sense that if I do not see things in exactly the same way as others see them, I am somehow wilfully blind. That is not a very appropriate start to such an important and nuanced debate.

Turning to legislation, in a whole host of ways the UK’s bureaucracy and Executive trail in the wake of Scotland’s dynamism under 14 years of SNP Government. Members can take their pick from policy areas, including net zero targets, social care reform, tuition fees, rate relief, tree planting—the list goes on, and it includes the ambition for grouse moor management. By contrast, the dead slow and stop approach by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the challenge is unacceptable and does not benefit anybody on either side of this challenging debate.

In Scotland, the independent grouse moor management report, which is also known as the Werritty report, was published at the end of 2019. It took a comprehensive and consultative evidence-based approach to key issues surrounding the management of grouse moors in 21st-century Scotland. After careful consideration of the report’s recommendations, the Scottish Government will look at implementing a licensing regime for grouse shooting, providing a framework to the sector that will assist it in combating illegal persecution of raptors and related wildlife crimes. Grass moor estates found to be non-compliant—those that practise the types of behaviours that nobody wants to see—would face the prospect of not having a licence, whereas those that uphold the very best practices would be endorsed and licensed as undertaking a legal and productive activity. Those changes are designed to apply an achievable balance; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked at length about the importance of a balance, and other hon. Members have discussed the need for evidence.

This approach is designed to apply that achievable balance on protecting wildlife and natural habitats, while ensuring that business adheres to the agreed standards on grouse shooting. Importantly, the report did not recommend that grouse shooting be banned, consistent with the remit to ensure that grouse moor management continues to contribute to the rural economy of Scotland, but it did recommend that heather burning be subject to increased legal regulation applicable to all moor burning, not just grouse moors.

As with all good debates, there are pros and cons; positives and negatives. Scottish Land and Estates will maintain that raptor persecution on Scottish grouse moors has been addressed in recent years. Police-recorded crimes are at their lowest level ever. It will cite evidence that predators such as foxes and crows are managed on grouse moors to maintain a favourable balance with their prey, and that is scientifically proven to save rare and declining birds such as the curlew, lapwing, golden plover and black grouse, as well as mountain hares. Many hon. Members, especially the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Robert Goodwill), cited the recovery of some of those important breeds.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation will definitely share the views of a Scottish Land and Estates. It will share its view that muirburn supports other species and prevents larger fires from occurring. Both would contend that in moorland areas, grouse shooting is one of the most economically significant land uses, bringing in full-time permanent jobs and supporting local communities. I know that to be true.

As cons, the League Against Cruel Sports would claim that driven grouse shooting depends on creating artificially high numbers of grouse in order to make it commercially viable. That is achieved by large-scale elimination of natural predation and the engineering of environments in their favour. The petitioners will highlight what they suggest would be significant public support for an end to shooting of game birds such as grouse for sport. I have seen a figure of 69% of the British public in favour of a ban. Those questions need to be nuanced and contextualised for the consequences, not just the broad and bare ambition and aspiration. Finally, on the cons, the annual “Birdcrime” report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that in 2009, four of the five worst areas in the UK for raptor persecution over the previous 10 years in Scotland were the highlands, the Scottish Borders, Aberdeenshire and, I am afraid, Angus.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) highlighted the lack of a UK Government economic impact assessment. That same absence is not evident in Scotland. The economic impact of the sector in Scotland was set out by research commissioned by the Scottish Government and published in autumn 2020, “A summary report of findings from research into socioeconomic and biodiversity impacts of driven grouse moors and the employment rights of gamekeepers”. The case study used in that published research showed that grouse shooting can generate a significant economic impact for communities, with impacts being generally localised.

Reflecting on my own constituency, I know very keenly how important employment on the estates is for communities in the Angus Glens—for the schools, hotels, shops and the petrol station. The total absence in those communities of alternative employment means that the number of potential job losses is not as important as the effect of those job losses on those communities.

We must not let anyone kid themselves that this is an issue of just one job here or another job there; it is about the living viability of very fragile, very rural communities and economies. No sector can operate in isolation, indifferent to the public opinion or the evolving nature of society and the division of standards of normative behaviours. An honest assessment would identify the fact that the industry has made improvements to its operating model, as has been set out. That must continue, especially in the light of the challenges around muirburn, lead shot and losses to natural predation, particularly aviation predation. Any demand for outright bans on established economic models, with the jobs and livelihoods of my constituents at risk, leaves me very concerned. Reforms, if required, need to be evidence-based and founded on consensus.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I thank hon. Members for their excellent contributions to a good-natured debate on a hot topic. I thank the petitioners for signing the petition and the Committee for arranging time for us to discuss this important issue.

I have lived near the moors all my life and I recognise that they are special places, particularly given my Yorkshire heritage. They have inspired great works of literature, songs, and so much more. We have heard many Members speak passionately about how the moors matter to them, including the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is really clear that they are rich environments that people are keen to see protected.

It is perhaps obvious to say as a starting point to any sensible policy on grouse shooting that grouse moors are not natural landscapes. They are a form of managed land, and how they are managed has consequences for how we deal with the twin emergencies of nature and climate. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Protecting biodiversity, halting the decline of nature and restoring habitats and wildlife are a priority, not just because they are key to tackling the climate emergency, which I will talk about shortly, but also because it is intrinsically important to protect species and ensure that wildlife can be enjoyed by everyone.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of DEFRA on crime, the persecution of birds is still a huge issue. As a hen harrier champion, I feel obliged to highlight the fact that the hen harrier is one example of a species under threat in the UK. As we have heard from many Members, between 2004 and 2016, the hen harrier population dropped by nearly a quarter—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for highlighting that. Natural England has shown that hen harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear on grouse moors—that needs to change—and found that 72% of birds that were tagged were either confirmed or extremely likely to have been killed illegally.

Although chick numbers have been increasing, unfortunately, moorlands are still described as black holes for certain species. Since the 2018 launch of the controversial brood management scheme, which involves removing chicks from their nests, a further 56 hen harriers have been killed, or their satellite tags have stopped working with no evidence of malfunction, mostly on or next to driven grouse moors. The illegal killing of protected wildlife, especially birds of prey and other predators, seems to be routinely linked to areas where there are grouse moors. We need to ensure that we take more action to prevent those crimes, which I think is a sentiment that has been shared throughout the debate.

This is not just about hen harriers. A Scottish Government study found that a third of golden eagles fitted with satellite tags disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Those are just a few examples of lost biodiversity because the land seems to be managed to eliminate predators to provide more fertile grounds for grouse. That is illustrative of how illegal habitat management can damage the abundance of a species.

As I said, the nature and climate emergencies go hand in hand. Last week, the CCC report was clear that protecting our peatlands is a precondition for meeting our net zero obligations and mitigating the effects of the global heating that we already see. There is a huge amount of work to be done, and there is therefore a huge opportunity for jobs in conservation in our uplands. The majority of our peatlands are in poor condition, even in sites of special scientific interest, and as the CCC says, the effort required to restore them all will be huge.

Post-war draining and burning over the years have also had a huge impact on flooding. It is rare to observe healthy peatlands that store water effectively. Rewetting our peatlands would not only be good for other species, such as curlews, but would help with flood prevention. That is why we must see an end to heather burning being used to create a suitable habitat for grouse. I must say that a number of colleagues who have spoken today seem to be a bit behind their own Government on this issue, as the Government have introduced a ban, although it has limitations that I will come on to later.

We have seen huge amounts of carbon being leaked into the atmosphere over the years, with increased burning year on year. Burning releases roughly 260,000 tonnes of carbon per year, but that is compounded by the damage to the peatland that follows. Our degraded peatlands release 10 million tonnes of carbon per year. Not only does heather burning make the climate emergency worse but it makes the effects of the climate emergency more dramatic.

We have seen that the damage to sphagnum mosses on peatlands causes water to run off the uplands, taking peat with it and affecting the quality of our water, which we have to spend a lot of money on to clean up. Species loss, peatland degradation and higher flood risks are just three costs of managing the landscape artificially. Despite that, however, the shoots remain almost completely deregulated. There are few mechanisms to encourage good behaviour and there is very little to discourage bad behaviour, and the criminal activity does not seem to be ending.

Although Labour has pushed in the Environment Bill for a fuller ban on burning, alternatives such as rewetting and cutting must be supported more fully to reach their full potential, economically and environmentally. In addition, I think the idea that the grouse are ending up on our plates is quite misleading. Only a very small number ever end up entering hospitality settings, unfortunately, and the use of lead is questionable, with even low levels of exposure to lead being linked to health problems. Indeed, even those just using lead shot can develop health conditions.

That is why today I ask the Minister whether she will introduce licensing for grouse shoots in England, as is Labour party policy. Licensing would provide another method to ensure that these habitats are managed responsibly and that the system is more regulated. I also ask her what the plans are to phase out the use of lead shot in grouse-moor shooting. What plans are there to protect valuable non-bird species as well as bird species, such as mountain hares, and if there is to be no licensing, what steps will the Government take to ensure that those who illegally kill protected species and other birds of prey and predators are brought to justice? One issue that has not been mentioned is the steps that the relevant regulatory authorities will take to ensure that residues of other medications used for the rearing of grouse do not get into the wider upland environment, particularly as much of it is in drinking-water catchment areas.

Finally, I make a plea to the Minister. When she responds to the debate, rather than rattling off a list of initiatives that are loosely connected to peat—we have read the peatlands action plan—I would specifically like to hear what the Government will do about the 60% of peatlands that remain unprotected from burning under the so-called ban that was recently brought into law. I thank Members for the way in which they have conducted this debate today; I know that it is a very emotive topic.

This matter comes under my portfolio. There seems to be a little bit of confusion, but I am Rebecca—just in case there is any confusion about that. I see that Minister Prentis’s name was written on the details for the debate. Anyway, that is the least controversial of the issues that we are discussing today. Having said that, I thank all hon. Friends and hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), who made a very clear and balanced opening speech.

Clearly, there is a great deal of strong feeling about this issue and people approach it from different perspectives. However, I think that everyone agrees that we want to protect our uplands, the wildlife that thrives there and indeed the people who live there. Grouse shooting, which is what we are talking about today, takes place in one of our most iconic landscapes—the uplands. The uplands are composed of multiple habitats: dry heath; wet heath; and blanket bog.

Blanket bog is rarer than the tropical rainforest and we have a very large proportion of it in the UK, with 13% of the world’s total. The uplands are very precious and accommodate a wide range of activities, which we have heard about today: hiking, all forms of tourism, shooting grouse, grazing sheep, and many more. Blanket bog provides a rich habitat for many species and sequesters carbon, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) mentioned, filters out drinking water and helps us with our flood control. The grouse shooting that many people inevitably get involved in attracts people to these treasured habitats. They are engaging with nature, which I see as a good thing.

The activity of grouse shooting does indeed bring jobs to the area, and we have heard different numbers—from 1,500 to over 2,000—from different colleagues. It also brings investment to some of the remotest areas of the country, particularly in the north of England. That was mentioned by many Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), who has a great deal of experience, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The matter is devolved, but it is the same issue. It was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), particularly with respect to the wider tourism element, and my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who summed it up so well. It is about close working between land managers and stakeholders to ensure that the landscapes in those areas are protected both for conservation and for shooting, and that they can work together for a sustainable outcome.

One of the ways in which moorlands have been managed for grouse shooting is by burning vegetation, which has been touched on by many Members. The Government have always been clear about the need to phase out rotational burning on protected blanket bog and to move to a regime of cutting. There has been a lot of debate and discussion about that with stakeholders, and they are clear about that now. It is about conserving habitats on the protected sites of blanket bog. There is established scientific consensus that burning of vegetation on such sites damages the environment in a variety of ways—hence the move to cutting. The Heather and Grass etc. Burning (England) Regulations 2021 came into force on 1 May and represents a crucial step in meeting the Government’s nature and climate change mitigation and adaptation targets, including the legally binding commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

We are of course aware of the Climate Change Committee’s views, as flagged by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I want to give assurances that we are taking extremely seriously peatland restoration, as flagged by the Committee. We had already allocated £10 million between 2018 and 2021, which will lead to the restoration of 6,500 hectares of peatland, but we have also committed to a further 35,000 hectares of peatland restoration under the new Nature for Climate Fund. We have just allocated the first tranche of that £50 million to be spent over the next four years on peatland restoration, and it will happen in lots of the areas that we are all talking about. That will be by 2025, so we have made a very serious and clear commitment. It will also have benefits for carbon sequestration, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley. As has been alluded to, there are a few specific and narrowly defined areas where burning may be permitted on protected sites. We have published guidance and are still working on it closely with everybody involved because we need to get this right for a sustainable future.

The issue of wildfires was rightly raised by many Members on both sides of the House, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, the hon. Member for Strangford and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds). The Government are of course acutely aware of the wildfire risk presented by the dry conditions on moorlands. Some of the clearest evidence points to the fact that improving the resilience of our peatlands to wildfire, by ensuring that they are wetter and in their natural state, is one of the ways to control wildfires. Our recently released peat action plan encourages all landowners and land managers to have good-quality wildfire management plans in order to look out for that risk. Under the regulations, the Secretary of State may grant licences where he is satisfied that it is absolutely necessary or expedient for the purpose of preventing wildfires, with the very careful management required should that take place.

I want to talk a bit more about the peat action plan, which was published in May and sets out our long-term vision for the protection, management and restoration of our peatlands. That is there for all to see, and it is very clear about what our ambitions are. That action plan also contains strong measures on delivering nature-based solutions so that lots of the activities we do on peat will work towards this whole nature restoration move. Obviously, there will be an important emphasis on rewetting and working with hydrology so that we get our moorlands back to their natural state.

By managing those moorlands to create the optimum habitats for grouse, land managers can play a really important role in conservation, particularly for ground nesting birds, as has been referred to by many Members. Heather moorlands are important habitats for some of our most iconic birds of prey, such as hen harriers, and there has been an increase in hen harrier numbers. That has been clearly highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and for Buckingham (Greg Smith), and by a number of other Members. We have also seen an increase in the numbers of a whole range of other bird species, including buzzards and peregrines.

That is not to say that there are not issues of persecution. We are aware that those issues exist, and the Government take wildlife crime extremely seriously. Since 2016, DEFRA and the Home Office have contributed £300,000 annually to the National Wildlife Crime Unit. I campaigned for that as a Back Bencher, and the Government have listened. We are still funding that work, and it is really important. Under the regime, the police are working very hard to protect our birds and prevent the illegal killing of birds of prey. I hope that the hon. Member for Bristol East welcomes that funding. The five species identified as of particular concern are the golden eagle, the goshawk, the hen harrier, the peregrine, and the white-tailed eagle.

Turning to the issue of wider biodiversity, our aim is to address the overall decline of species in England. We will therefore amend the Environment Bill to include an additional legally binding target that aims to halt the decline of species by 2030. We will also introduce, through the Bill, a new species conservation strategy to help with that, as well as a Green Paper setting out our framework so that we might better deliver species protection in the round. I am sure that all hon. Friends and Members will welcome that. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee is working on that issue right now and will make recommendations towards the end of this year.

To touch on the Werritty review, mentioned by the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), we do not have plans to introduce similar measures, but we are watching Scotland closely. We can all learn lessons all round in whatever we do, and we will be watching to see how that proceeds.

There are strong views on either side of this debate, and I welcome the fact that it did not get really heated today. We need to have understanding on either side, and I hope that, as the Minister, I do have that understanding. We need to look after and protect the environment, while looking after our rural communities and enabling them to survive and thrive. That is so important. For me, the key word in all of this and, indeed, almost everything I do in DEFRA is sustainability. I will conclude there, and thank everyone who has taken part.

I thank the Minister and everyone who has contributed to this debate. Well, there we have it: with respect to the petitioners, there is clearly not support in this House for the petition. In fact, there is probably less support than there was four years ago. What is not clear is that banning driven grouse shooting would be good for the environment: in fact, I think that, on balance, it would be harmful. What is very clear is that banning it would seem to provide very little gain for a great deal of pain, and from what I can see the pain would be in those isolated rural communities. The people paying the greatest cost would not be the richest; they would be the very people who, right now, we should be thinking about helping. After quite a balanced opening, and having listened to everything, I would like to say that as an individual Member of Parliament, I oppose this petition.

I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate for helping me ensure that everybody could speak.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 266770, relating to grouse shooting.

Sitting suspended.

Government Contracts: Covid-19

[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice, to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate.

I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and that they are expected to remain for the entire debate. I remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room.

If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks on Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 328408, relating to Government contracts during the covid-19 outbreak.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. Some £31.2 billion has been spent on contracts in response to the outbreak of covid-19. It might be more now, but that was the figure I found last week. Anyway, what is a couple of million quid between mates? I say “between mates”, as a huge amount of money has been channelled into lining the pockets of the pals of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Prime Minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings and others. I have been an MP for slightly more than four years now, and I am slightly disappointed that I have had nothing offered to me. I do not move in those circles, unfortunately—or, fortunately.

When researching for this debate, I uncovered some great investigative work. I am grateful to all the journalists, lawyers and campaigners who have shed some light on the deals that have been struck over the past 17 months or so. I encourage people who want to know more about what is going on to look at the Good Law Project website or Sophie Hill’s My Little Crony project.

Transparency International has produced a scathing report about the state of procurement during the pandemic response. I quote its findings when I say that the evidence shows that the UK’s procurement response to the pandemic was beset by

“opaque and uncompetitive contracting…a suspiciously high number of awards to those with political connections…the system designed to triage offers of PPE supplies appears partisan and riven with systemic bias.”

I thank the petition creators and its signatories, who have enabled this debate to be held in Parliament. Those campaigners have shed some light on the contracts that have been awarded by the Government, and I would like to give a short taste of what has been happening behind closed doors while our frontline workers have battled to keep us safe from the disease.

First, there is the £560,000 to Public First, a communications agency run by old mates of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office and Dominic Cummings. The High Court ruled that the contract was unlawful and tainted by “apparent bias”. Samir Jassal, former No. 10 adviser to David Cameron and twice a parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives, was handed a £102.6 million contract for personal protective equipment. To be fair, at least the company in this case, Pharmaceuticals Direct, seems to have a history in providing medical equipment, given its appropriate name. However, the contract was again awarded without tender. What is more, even after the Prime Minister insisted in the main Chamber that all covid contracts were on the record, no details of that one were revealed until after the Good Law Project wrote to the Government about it. They were nine months late in providing those details.

A contract for nearly half a billion pounds was given to Randox with no tendering process. In fact, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire, who was paid £100,000 a year by Randox, was party to a call to the Health Minister in the other place, Lord Bethell, when the contract was extended. That extension came after 750,000 tests had to be recalled because they were not sterile.

There was also a contract with a jeweller. One part of the reported £250 million-worth of contracts is most interesting—namely, the £70.5 million contract to buy sterile gowns, almost all of which could not be used because the contract did not request the double packaging used in sterile settings. The jeweller, Michael Saiger, based in Florida, used a middleman to arrange logistics, and he earned over $16 million from the deal. Again, the contract was published unlawfully late.

A £425 million contract was handed to Edenred to supply free school meals, again without a tendering process. This is a company that the National Audit Office said showed “limited evidence” of its capacity to deliver meals to children in need. In fact, the families who waited nearly a week to receive vouchers would probably say that there was absolutely no evidence that it could deliver meals.

Sticking with school meals, will the Minister confirm whether any due diligence was carried out before a contract was signed with Chartwells to provide those meals? A quick search might have raised some questions even before a food parcel of a few pieces of fruit, a tin of beans, two carrots, a malt loaf, a block of cheese and a loaf of bread were delivered. I know it is difficult for some people to imagine having to survive on such meagre rations, but when some are able to secure contracts and cushy jobs, I cannot imagine they will want for much at all.

The head of Test and Trace for the UK, Baroness Harding, a chum of David Cameron, has overseen much of the maligned scheme, which has so far cost £37 billion. That is enough for five Mars Rover missions, which is incredible. Where has the money gone? Well, we have been paying thousands of private sector consultants, most on well over £1,000 a day and some even over £6,000 a day. The Public Accounts Committee was pretty scathing in its assessment of the whole thing and found that the system does not seem to have made much of a difference to the spread of covid-19.

Some people might want to raise the issue of apparently cosy contracts, the lack of a tendering process and the inability to declare contracts, but who would they turn to? Perhaps they could approach the Government’s own anti-corruption champion, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), although he might not be open to receiving complaints as he is married to Baroness Harding.

We all know that the Minister who has come to defend the Government against such claims is part of the Cabinet Office scene, and we know that her boss, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is at the centre of many of these dodgy, questionable deals. I expect we will hear the same old lines trotted out: “We were in a crisis and we needed things delivered quickly. The Government will do whatever it takes. The Government have nothing to hide,” and so on. We all know that we were in the middle of a crisis. We were there, too, and no one would ever say that we did not need to respond quickly to plug the gaps left by the Government’s woeful underfunding of the NHS and social care sector, but the public have a right to question the validity of giving hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to shipping companies with no ships, PPE manufacturers who do not make anything, and a pub landlord who happens to know the Health and Social Care Secretary. People deserve to know whether they have got value for money. They need to know whether we can recoup some of the money we have spent on useless PPE.

These are serious matters that just cannot be brushed aside by the Minister. She needs to ask herself some very serious questions before parroting the lines given to her by her boss. Is she happy with the way in which the Government have spent the money of her constituents in Hornchurch and Upminster? Are they happy with it? Emergency demands urgency, but emergency is not an excuse for cronyism.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate. I wish to make a declaration that family members, friends and constituents are employed by or have an interest in companies that carry out work for Government contracts.

On this occasion, I wish to speak about my constituent Samir Jassal, who is also a local councillor in Gravesham. The hon. Lady referred to the company, whose name I cannot remember—pharma something—but there is an absurd narrative that he got more than £100 million-worth of business because of links to the Conservative party. I know him quite well, and it is utterly preposterous to say that because he stood twice in unwinnable parliamentary seats, because he twice managed to get himself a photograph with David Cameron, because he twice managed to get himself a picture with Boris, because he once gave four thousand quid to the Gravesham Conservative Association, and because he is the councillor for Westcourt ward, that somehow buys him calls from the Health Secretary, whose honour is also impugned in this. The idea that the Health Secretary rang him up because he had given four thousand quid and had a few photographs taken, with an, “Oi, mate—want to make a few hundred grand next week on PPE?” is utterly preposterous.

According to Trump, the CIA was scouring China at a time when this equipment was in globally short supply. There was global competition for this stuff. We all remember the hospitals and care homes in our constituencies screaming for this stuff. I remember getting a video from one of my friends, who is a nurse in the local hospital, showing a store cupboard and the sell-by dates of some of the PPE in there, which was a couple of years old—it did not actually matter, apparently. There was this awful tension. It was a ghastly situation. This was a national emergency and a time of huge global competition for the very same boxes of equipment sitting in Chinese warehouses or waiting to come off their production lines.

If we had just relied on the state sector or our existing suppliers, that equipment would have been shipped elsewhere in the world. Entrepreneurs such as Samir Jassal and the civil servants who worked with them are actually heroes, and the BBC, some hon. Members and the so-called Good Law Project should have the humility to accept that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, in this important debate, brought to us by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) from the Petitions Committee.

Our constituents expect two things from Government procurement: first, for the Government to be careful with public funds; and secondly, for Ministers to undertake their duties honestly and with integrity. Sadly, those two requirements appear to be severely lacking in our current arrangements. The Government’s approach to contracting has been marred by waste, cronyism and a deep disrespect for our NHS heroes. They spent more than £22 billion—I believe my hon. Friend said it is £37 billion—on the Test and Trace system, which appears to make only a marginal difference, but only £3.50 a week extra on our nurses. They spent £7,000 a day on management consultants while withholding a much-needed pay increase for our NHS heroes. The values are all wrong.

The Government approach has lacked transparency from the start and, as the High Court ruled, they acted unlawfully on transparency and publishing contracts in a timely manner. The Prime Minister brushed off that suggestion, saying that the Government had published a few PPE contracts a fortnight late. Many contracts were not for personal protective equipment, but for management consultants and other services, and many remain unpublished. Some were published as late as 97 days after the recommended deadline.

The Prime Minister also said that the outstanding contracts were

“there on the record for everybody to see.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]

But it recently emerged in a court order that 100 contracts were still waiting to be published, one of which dated as far back as March 2020. The Government must take urgent action now to ramp up transparency rapidly and stop the huge waste to the public purse. They must publish the outstanding contracts and the companies in the VIP fast lane now. It is not good enough that people are able to write to a Minister in the House of Lords they happen to know in order to fast-track their company for a contract.

The emergency procurement powers should be wound down immediately, and money should be clawed back on contracts that have not delivered. If there is money to be clawed back, given that there appears to be largesse in Government, who are spraying money around on some of those contracts, instead of hiding the available money, why not make it available for staff who do not get sick pay and therefore cannot self-isolate, thereby spreading the virus? That would be a very good use of that money.

Recently, explosive emails were revealed about Public First, which had a strong connection with Mr Cummings and another member of staff from No. 10 Downing Street called Lee Cain. It appeared to be getting work to do focus groups. To the mind of my constituents, that is an utter waste of money at a crucial time when we should focus resources on our NHS. The High Court ruled that the Health Secretary acted unlawfully on transparency and publishing contracts on time. Those are damning revelations. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us what the medical regulator has said about the Health Secretary’s pub landlord, who won a lucrative contract after a WhatsApp message exchange but appeared to lack the relevant experience.

We need to do things differently. In the next minute I will conclude my remarks with what I think needs to be done. First, we need to re-examine whether the instinct to immediately contract out is, in fact, the best way to run public services. Surely we should have a properly funded health service to directly provide public services for our health service. Secondly, are our freedom of information requirements and practices sufficient to cope with the requirements on them? Are the private companies that are successfully awarded contracts subject to freedom of information requests? I do not believe that they are. We, as MPs, want to know the information. We want to know whether the money is being spend in a transparent way.

As a Parliament we need to demand that the Government make the UK a world leader in transparency again, which we used to be, by introducing a genuinely independent anti-corruption commissioner, which the hon. Member for Gower mentioned. An independent anti-corruption Minister should not be married to an individual who is in charge of an operational contract. That does not look right; it does not appear to be transparent, and that must be changed as soon as possible, regardless of who the individuals are. It is simply inappropriate for a spouse to purvey the corrupt or not corrupt practices of a Government.

Finally, we need to establish an integrity and ethics commission that will cover a number of different Government functions ranging from the Electoral Commission. I believe from reading the papers over the weekend that the Prime Minister wants to water down any provision to punish MPs who may be doing the wrong thing. That goes against what our constituents actually want. An integrity and ethics commission could lay out the Nolan principles, which appear to be being ignored, with individual MPs, Ministers or companies taking our contracts. We must have the highest standards in public service and public life. I thank you, Ms Fovargue, the Petitions Committee and every single petitioner who is watching this debate, for bringing this issue to our attention.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for leading this debate and, of course, everyone who took the time to sign the petition. The Government’s approach to procurement during the pandemic has been marred by rampant cronyism and huge wasting of taxpayers’ money. They have shown a consistent track record of handing out contracts to their mates and even breaking the law along the way. Although it was apparent that the Government had to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly to meet demand, that is no excuse for the serious levels of cronyism and corruption that are now becoming apparent.

The National Audit Office investigation into Government procurement showed that the Government awarded £18 billion of contracts, using emergency procurement regulations, to buy goods, services and works to support their response to the pandemic. Some £10.5 billion was awarded directly without any competition, and £6.7 billion was awarded directly to pre-approved suppliers, even though they were not necessarily pre-approved for the products that they were selling. Only £0.2 billion was awarded using a competitive process.

That approach to procurement naturally led to issues of quality. The 50 million face masks bought in April last year, for example, could not be used in the NHS because they did not meet its specifications. More than £2 billion-worth of those contracts were awarded to firms with links to the Tories, and Cabinet members personally intervened to help their associates win lucrative contracts.

Just under two weeks ago, the High Court ruled that the Minister for the Cabinet Office broke the law by acting with “apparent bias” when a £560,000 contract was awarded to Public First without the tender going out for competition. Public First was found by the High Court to be a company with close links to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and former No. 10 aide Dominic Cummings.

In February of this year, the Government’s legal department stated that the cost of defending that case reached £600,000. That was more than the original contract was worth in the first place. It is shocking that the Government used taxpayers’ money to cover up their own lawbreaking, while frontline workers were not adequately protected with the high-quality PPE that they needed, our NHS staff could not be afforded a decent pay rise, and the Government are managing to invest only 20p per child per day in their so-called catch-up plan.

I hope that the Minister will tell us the total amount of taxpayers’ money that has been spent by this Government to cover up the fact that they acted unlawfully in awarding that contract to Public First. Will she tell us what the Government are doing to recover the taxpayers’ money that was handed out to Public First?

The National Audit Office investigation into Government procurement also found specific examples of insufficient documentation being produced on key decisions or on how risks, such as perceived or actual conflicts of interest, were identified or managed. In addition, several contracts were awarded retrospectively or have not been published in a timely manner. The lack of adequate documentation meant that the National Audit Office was unable to give assurances that the Government had adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases.

There is no doubt that that has severely diminished public transparency and public confidence. We can see the public feelings from the number of people who have signed the petition. Does the Minister agree that the use of emergency procurement powers needs to be wound down, and that all contracts awarded using such powers must be published, with an assumption against redactions and in favour of uploading all contract documents? Let us be clear: none of this has happened in isolation. It is a case of the wealthy elite being given priority, to become wealthier from the pandemic. That is wrong on so many levels.

We know that an independent public inquiry will be held in spring 2022, with the exact scope of the review yet to be determined. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s approach to public procurement during the covid-19 pandemic must be explicitly examined as part of the public inquiry into the handling of the crisis? As the 127,000-strong petition states, there must be a public inquiry

“to ascertain whether contracts had been procured fairly and represent value for money for tax payers.”

The public have a right to know if their money was spent wisely and properly, and they have a right to wider scrutiny of the Government’s response to the pandemic.

I want to talk not just about contracts that have been awarded, but about contracts that have not—particularly contracts to UK manufacturers and the UK diagnostics sector. The Prime Minister repeatedly tells us he wants to build back better, to level up, to invest in global Britain and so on. However, with regard to lateral flow devices, the Government have signed an undisclosed contract, for an undisclosed sum of money, which I have been trying to get to the bottom of for some time, for Innova lateral flow test devices.

Back in November 2020, I was passed a copy of the test’s data sheet, of the type that comes with any medical device or product. It clearly states that these tests are unsuitable for asymptomatic subjects. In other words, we would be using them for a purpose for which they are neither designed nor licensed. I raised this with the deputy chief medical officer in a briefing on 17 November 2020, and I was assured that they had gone through validation. I was also promised a copy of the information that supported that validation, but it never arrived.

Later that month, in front of the Select Committee, I asked the Secretary of State about his media appearances in the weekend prior to that where he announced the use of lateral flow devices as being almost 100%—“99.6%”—accurate. I asked him about that because there were growing bodies of evidence and opinions in The British Medical Journal—not some rag that was subject to speculation—that these tests were unsuitable for the purposes for which they were about to be employed. I was seriously concerned because there was a possibility that not only would a false positive be incorrect, but a false negative would be incorrect. In-field data suggested that this could be as low as 50%. In other words, the test result was effectively the flip of a coin. It was no more or no less certain than that.

Over time, I have continued to explore this and have tried to hold the Secretary of State to account on this matter. I would reflect on one comment that was made in The BMJ at that time, which was that the Government’s approach to covid testing was an

“unevaluated, under designed and costly mess”.

The Secretary of State’s response to that was that his

“assessment of that description is that it is wrong.”

Fast forward to June this year, and the Food and Drug Administration of the United States—again, not some fly-by-night outfit—said that the covid test kits used in Britain fall under

“Class 1: A situation in which there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a violative product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.”

The example I used with my staff to try and explain to them why I was so interested in this was quite simple. Using these tests as a gatekeeper for someone who then has a false negative to be allowed into a care home to visit a relative, allows that person, who may be asymptomatic and whose viral shedding it would be difficult to know about, to be among the most vulnerable people.

Accompanying that decision was footage, shown on the BBC, of a relative hugging and kissing their elderly parent in the day room of a care home full of other vulnerable people. I know the Government have tried to be as optimistic as possible throughout this pandemic, and in some respects I congratulate them on that, because it is important to lift the mood of the population at a difficult time. However, it is simply unacceptable to say that something provides reassurance when that is simply not the case.

I could go on to give various other examples, but this was no surprise to the Secretary of State or the chief medical officer. These points were raised repeatedly in the Select Committee. I raised them directly with the chief medical officer. I asked about the concerns, and he admitted that he was an expert in the use of lateral flow devices, but—this relates back to the point that I have just made—he also said:

“If what they are used for is to reduce risk, lateral flow tests have a very substantial benefit. If, on the other hand, they are used to increase risk, so that people start doing in a very risky way things they otherwise would not have done”—

such as going to a care home to visit a relative—

“it becomes a lot more complicated.”

In other words, the tests become quite deadly.

I could give lots of examples, but I have hit as many of the targets as I really want to. However, there are serious issues here, because there are UK providers that have been touted—not by the markets, but by Lord Bethell himself—as being in line for contracts and that are now, again, waiting for those contracts to be honoured. The Minister has announced today that those contracts will now be given to another Chinese provider, Orient Gene. There is something wrong. If the Government truly want to level up the country and expand global Britain, how can it be that Chinese providers of tests that the FDA says are deadly are continuing to be offered contracts, while UK providers are going empty-handed? There are a series of serious questions that need to be answered, and they need to be answered by the Government soon.

Why have the public been led to believe that the tests are reliable, when there have been serious doubts about their usefulness since at least November 2020? Why are the tests repackaged in the NHS branding, and what are the legal implications? Is the NHS taking ownership as the manufacturer? Why has the UK continued for a further two months to use tests that are deemed dangerous by the FDA? Why has there been an extension to the exceptional usage agreement, when we know they are deadly? It is absolutely crazy. Why are UK manufacturers of perfectly useful tests being sidelined for worthless tests?

I would also like to know when the contracts for the tests were signed. Were they signed before the Government knew that they were not licensed for the purpose for which they were going to be used? Who was the Minister who authorised that? These are very serious questions, and I would underline a point that was made by an earlier speaker: an anti-corruption tsar needs to be appointed. Someone needs to come in and have a very hard look at the Government’s action on contracting throughout this pandemic—not just at what has been awarded, but at what has not been awarded.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank the petitioners for signing this very important petition, which has led to this extremely important debate.

I will begin by mentioning a few of the Members who have spoken so far, particularly the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). I commend her for a truly shocking start—shocking, in that she laid out for us a litany of what was, at very best, an overly relaxed approach from the UK Government to normal procurement processes. On behalf of the public, she asked where the money has gone, which is really key to the debate. She also asked whether the anti-corruption champion of the UK Government will take up this issue, but perhaps not. Perhaps it will be the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but perhaps not. Perhaps it will be the Health Secretary or the Prime Minister. Trust in these politicians, I am afraid, is severely lacking. I loved the line that the hon. Member for Gower finished with: “Urgency is not an excuse for cronyism,” which is a statement I heartily endorse.

I note the contribution from the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway). I gently say to him that national emergency does not disqualify the Government from proper examination of what look to the public like questionable decisions over very large amounts of public money.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) asked some excellent questions, in particular about the accountability of some of the private businesses that the Government have so hastily entered into contracts with. She mentioned the inappropriate connections between key players, as did the hon. Member for Gower, and called for an integrity and accountability executive, in particular in light of the UK Government’s apparent intention to have prosecution powers removed from the Electoral Commission.

Everyone recognises that governing in a pandemic is not the same as governing in calmer times. In such times, decisions need to be made that are well out of the ordinary. No one would argue that a normal procurement process would be appropriate or timely enough. Perhaps a case could be made that stocks of disposable items should have been higher or contracts should have been in place to secure additional stocks at short notice and at standard cost—those are likely to be issues that the inquiries after the pandemic will look at and make recommendations on—but we can still look at what happened, how the emergency aspects were handled and where the money went, because it is important. We should also be certain that the awarding of contracts was fair.

The terms of this petition are important, the action that the petitioners ask of us is equally important, and the responsibility of any elected politician to answer properly to the electorate is paramount. My own queries of the Government have been less than enlightening. Back in early September last year, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate in Government time on contracts awarded without tendering. I received no such commitment —perhaps you are not surprised to learn that, Ms McDonagh—but I did receive an assurance that did not reassure me: that it was through our “free press” and an “outspoken House of Commons” that we had

“such an honest and un-corrupt country”.—[Official Report, 3 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 317.]

In March this year, I asked how much was paid out under the contracts in advance of delivery, how much had been clawed back for services or products not delivered and how much the Government were still to pursue in repayments. The Minister replying said that the Government were

“undertaking a stocktake and an audit.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 670.]

I will be pleased if the Minister updates us on the progress of that stocktake and audit.

Back in April, however, a written question of mine asked how many contracts were issued without tendering, what the total value of those contracts was, how many of those contracts required advance payments and how many times the supplier failed to fulfil the contract. I was told that 1,151 contracts, worth an estimated £19 billion, were published by 1 April, the majority of which were let using a direct award. I was told that a number—an unspecified number, but a number—of PPE contracts had advance payments, but that, since different teams within one Department handled different contracts, the information about performance and reclaiming money already laid out was not available and could be gathered only at disproportionate cost. It is interesting to see how costs become disproportionate sometimes, isn’t it? I also got a “disproportionate cost” answer when I asked for the diary of the executive chair of Test and Trace. Perhaps that diary uses a very complicated system.

We have all seen the documentary reportage, in which suppliers of PPE and other equipment spoke about being unable to get through to the Government to offer what they already had, while contracts were being handed out to all and sundry, including chocolate makers and companies that never existed before securing a contract. We heard of the VIP line for people recommended by Ministers. We read the stories of WhatsApp messages with pub landlords. We heard about equipment arriving that was not fit for use, and we heard plenty about shortages causing problems.

We do not need ministerial excuses. We do not need lame explanations or finger-pointing. We just need to know what went on and whether it was all above board, and we need an independent and unbiased review of it. That is why the Government should agree to this very specific inquiry, so that we can see what went on. Furthermore, the Government should be opening up the filing cabinets. Let us see the Cabinet minutes on covid and how decisions were made about securing adequate supplies of PPE, sanitiser, ventilators, drugs, beds for the pop-up hospitals and so on. Let us see the memos and the notes of phone calls made, the emails sent and the directions given to civil servants. Let us see all of that and compare it with what Ministers were told was needed and with what needed to be done to keep people safe and alive.

A disgruntled former employee has recently been dribbling out selected bits of conversations with the Prime Minister and other little snippets. I am sure that reporters have enjoyed covering that, but it is no way to do things. The bitter revenge of a man who proved inadequate does no one any good, so the Government should just do us all a favour: a commitment now to an inquiry into the covid contracts would be good. It should be a full inquiry by an outside source. The Government can make that a judge or an ex-judge, if they want—Lady Hale may well be available. Give her a wide remit and a support team of experts. Ask her to report as early as she can. Give her full access to all documentation and all the resources that she needs to do the job.

When this pandemic passes, it will be important that people can have confidence in their Government again. Scotland will be independent soon and it will not matter so much to us, but for the people of England it will matter a great deal. For once, this Government can do the right thing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for leading this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Above all, I am thankful to all the people who signed the petition and to those who created it, because it means that, whether it is welcome or not, we must have this debate in the House, albeit on a Monday evening and in a small room. It should be happening on the Floor of the House of Commons, but the Government do not seem too keen to have it there, so we are having it here instead. Nevertheless, I thank all those who took the time to sign the petition, because this debate is not going away.

As my hon. Friend said, over 125,000 people have signed this e-petition, which shows the strength of feeling across the country about this issue. And those people signed it last year; if the petition had stayed open, we would have had a lot more signatures. That is because this situation did not stop when people were signing the petition; it has carried on and is carrying or now. There are questions to be answered.

Quite rightly, the British public do not like a cover-up. However, even the first response to this petition by the Government had to be sent back by the Petitions Committee —I thank the Committee for that—as the Government tried to dodge the question and did not really answer it. They had to resend in their homework; eventually, it was a bit better, but it is still not good enough.

Labour has been calling for months for this independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the covid pandemic, and the Government’s contracts must form a part of such an inquiry. That is what the public are asking for in this petition, and that is what we need to see. My hon. Friend eloquently outlined all the many different contracts about which there are questions to answer: contracts for PPE, contracts for free school meals and contracts for other things. We need to have an inquiry into all of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) was right to say that the public want the Government to be careful with money, they want to know how that money is being spent and they want to see the details published. There are key questions about Government appointments and standards of ethics that we want answered. I am sure these questions would be key recommendations of any inquiry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) rightly went through the shocking costs of some of the contracts. They are not shocking in terms of their costs; this money needed to be spent urgently, to save lives. However, there was potential waste behind those contracts. There are also concerns that public confidence has been eroded because of the way that the contracting was carried out.

It is important to have an inquiry, because there are clearly questions to be answered, and lessons need to be learned rapidly. To be honest, I am concerned about leaving all those questions to the public inquiry. The questions about the contracting that is happening now need to be answered now. So a rapid-fire inquiry, which would also be part of the public inquiry, would be the best response to the questions being asked.

This is so important. Today could have been the day that has been termed “freedom day”. Who knows? With a correct track and trace contract, properly administered so that we could have confidence in it, we might not have had to rely only on the vaccine roll-out, which is impressive. Good test and trace could even have enabled us to have completed the opening-up today. That is how important this issue is.

The Government’s reply to the petition referred to the Boardman review, but that is not an independent and unbiased review, and just adds to the lack of transparency. It looks more and more as if the Conservatives are set on glossing over the cronyism in their ranks so that they can carry on as if nothing has happened. The Government have promised a covid inquiry “at the appropriate time”, but the appropriate time to look into these contracts is now. The next pandemic could arrive tomorrow: it is an ever-present threat, and the next one could be bigger and more deadly than covid. The Government cannot kick this inquiry down the road, because a moment of crisis is when our contracting should be better than normal, with higher standards than normal and more reliable than normal, not with more questions and more concerning, “given out to my mates” contracting.

The questions that I, many colleagues here and the public need answers to today are these. How did the urgent scramble to procure resources we needed to get us through the pandemic descend into corruption, waste, cronyism and secrecy? Why is this emergency contracting still going on? What has changed? Is anything better? It did not have to be this way; it should not have to be this way; and it cannot be this way when the next pandemic hits.

In the past 12 months, the Government have ordered £280 million of masks that did not meet the required standards. They have spent over £100 million on gowns without carrying out technical checks, and they could not be used. These were purchased by PestFix, a company that specialises in pest control products and that, by the Government’s own admission, was dormant in 2018 before being referred by the VIP channel. As the Good Law Project uncovered last month, officials at the Department of Health and Social Care were aware that PestFix’s agent may have been bribing officials in China. Most concerning of all, the Government have awarded almost £2 billion in covid contracts to friends and donors of the Conservative party.

The hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) raised those points, and he said that there is nothing to see here, but I think he made a good argument for an inquiry.

I have no objection at all to an inquiry. I was just trying to point out how absolutely preposterous it is that one of the key pillars of this whole argument that there has somehow been corruption is that a bloke in Gravesend gives four grand to the Tory party, as well as the other things I listed, and suddenly has the Government giving multi-million-pound contracts.

I say in response to the hon. Member that there is too much here to be answered. It is not just the odd small company here and there; there has been a real pattern of corruption.

But this is one of the main planks, and it just does not stack up. Do you really think Matt Hancock is going to give a £103 million contract to somebody because they were once a parliamentary candidate and they edged in in a picture with Boris? It is absurd, and it is one of your main planks.

The hon. Member has made my case for me. If there is nothing to see here, let us have an inquiry. Members of the public have signed this petition in their thousands because they do not have confidence in these contracts, and they want there to be an inquiry. If everything is above board and all was fine, we will find that out through the inquiry, but it is public concern that has brought us here today. There are questions to be answered, there is a pattern of cronyism that the public are seeing, and that is why an inquiry would be the right response.

It is not good enough for Ministers to say, “We needed these items urgently back in March”—no question there—“so stop complaining about how we did it.” Of course we needed them. Of course systems had to be used to get our NHS staff all the safety equipment they needed then and there, but all checks and balances did not need to go out of the window. Ministers should still check their family connections, and they should still register interests. The best companies should not be overlooked in favour of Tory party donors. These emergency systems should not still be in place so long after they were needed.

Last year, 126,000 people signed this petition, and yet we are still uncovering more issues like those they were concerned about. They are right to feel ignored, and a public inquiry would listen to their concerns. Only a few weeks ago, it emerged that the Home Secretary lobbied the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on behalf of a healthcare firm trying to get a Government contract. She wrote to him expressing disappointment that the Government had not bought face masks from a company that had links to someone she knew. That glaring and flagrant breach of the ministerial code needs to be investigated.

Then, of course, there are the hundreds of millions of pounds handed to Serco to run the national Test and Trace system. Some £37 billion was earmarked, and it is reported that £277 million has been signed by now. Why is there the discrepancy here? What were those contracts for? Where did they go to? Will we get money back for the contracts that were not delivered?

The Local Government Association found last year that local contact tracing systems have a 97.1% success rate at finding close contacts and advising them to self-isolate. That is considerably better than a centralised system, so although rushing to go to the private sector would in many cases have been the right thing to do, was it always the right thing to do? Incidentally, only last week, Serco upgraded its profit forecast by £15 million thanks to its Test and Trace work.

It is not just Opposition MPs making these points. Transparency International has identified 73 contracts worth more than £3.7 billion—equivalent to 20% of the covid-19 contracts signed between February and November 2020—that raised one or more flags for possible corruption. It concluded that there was a systematic bias towards those with connections to the party of Government in Westminster. It found that 72% of the covid-related contracts awarded in the sample period

“were reported after the 30 day legal deadline, £7.4 billion of which was reported over 100 days after the contract award.”

In comparison, it took the Ukrainian Government on average less than a day to publish information on 103,000 covid-19 contracts after they were awarded during the same period.

On that point, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at least owes us a statement to Parliament setting out where the UK has not complied with its legal transparency obligations, how they are being rectified and how these issues will be prevented in the future. When the Minister comes to respond, she will no doubt tell us that the Government and markets faced unprecedented global demand for PPE, and that in a short space of time the Government procured billions of items of PPE. That just does not wash anymore, which is why the public wanted this debate. The months preceding the first lockdown are a sorry tale of complacency and missed opportunities, leading to the scramble for PPE. There should never have been a shortage in the first place.

We need an inquiry to answer questions about what happened and to make strong recommendations about what to put in place in the future. It should assess the performance of companies that went through the emergency contracting procedures, such as Ayanda, Randox and PestFix, which other Members mentioned. It should speak to the companies affected and to the CEO of the UK Fashion and Textile Association, which represents 2,500 companies and first engaged with the Government on 18 March 2020. He said that the domestic procurement operation had been slow to grind into gear and failed to tap into industry expertise. Companies waiting to deliver the much-needed PPE were overlooked.

An inquiry must look into why the Government sidelined companies such as Arco, which had extensive experience of providing health-grade PPE prior to the pandemic. It provided PPE during Ebola, swine flu, avian flu and foot and mouth, but it secured only £14 million-worth of contracts over the past year during the pandemic. It could have fulfilled far more, and it is at a loss as to why it did not get into the VIP lane.

It will no doubt be argued in a moment that the VIP lane was a perfectly reasonable, rational solution to the mass of offers to supply equipment at the start of the pandemic. However, the opposite was true. We have seen evidence presented in recent High Court hearings showing emails in which civil servants raised the alarm that they were drowning in VIP requests from political connections that did not have the correct certification or did not pass due diligence. For us as outsiders, it does not seem that the VIP lane worked. It should not be used in any future emergency contracting and should not be used in a future crisis, but an inquiry would tell us more and give us those recommendations.

As the Good Law Project puts it:

“This is the cost of cronyism—good administration suffers, efficient buying of PPE suffers.”

I, Members here, the British public and the petitioners want answers from the Minister on four key questions. Will there be a rapid-fire inquiry and will the covid contracts be part of the major covid inquiry? Secondly, what is her Department doing to claw back the cash from companies that provided the Government with millions of items of unsafe, unusable PPE at a time of unprecedented national crisis? What options do the Government have in the contracts—we cannot see them—in terms of clawback? It is important that we know.

Thirdly, will the Government finally, as the Opposition have been demanding for months, deliver full transparency on the VIP lane, including publishing the names of the companies awarded the contracts via the channel and who made referrals to it? Were there any conflicts of interest to be identified and addressed? It is important to know, otherwise the information will just keep dripping out bit by bit and we will find out partially what is going on. If there is nothing to see here, open up the light and let us know.

Finally, will the Minister commit her Department to auditing in detail all the contracts that have raised red flags and to publishing the outcomes of the audit? Given that her Department is formally responsible for improving transparency and ensuring better procurement across Government, we expect the Cabinet Office to take responsibility for what happened, to learn the lessons so that this never happens again, and to ensure that, if there is a future crisis, we have the best contracting facilities for the best companies to deliver what we need immediately. That is what the British public want to know.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this evening’s e-petition debate for their valuable contributions. I also thank the petitioners for initiating it. The public are absolutely right to demand that we spend money with care when we procure vital goods, services and works; I agree with the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and others on that. I have always set out to be open about the challenges that the Government had to navigate at the height of the pandemic in procuring goods and services in the most urgent of situations. We were required to move at great speed and in an incredibly complex operating environment.

I was on maternity leave in the first half of 2020 as covid took hold, so I began my ministerial role only this time last year. My time in office in relation to procurement, therefore, has been spent not only going back to understand what happened during the early stages of the pandemic, particularly in relation to PPE, but on how we can improve our future response to urgent challenges. I want to assure hon. Members that a huge amount of work is either under way or already completed, which should reassure members of the public who would like an inquiry. I agree with the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) that we do not want to wait to learn lessons.

The work includes an external, independent and unbiased review by the National Audit Office, two internal Cabinet Office reviews that have now been published, the commitment to a public inquiry into covid that starts next spring, and—of particular interest—a new procurement Bill that my ministerial colleague Lord Agnew and I are drafting, which will provide commercial teams with many more extensive options in a crisis between direct award, which raises understandable transparency concerns, and full-fat procurement, which takes far too long to turn around. The fastest turnaround under the dynamic purchasing system is six to eight weeks to contract award, and on an accelerated basis the very quickest possible process would be two weeks. But that would assume that all bid documentation was in place at the start, so it can be seen that in urgent situations this presents a real challenge.

On that first aspect of my work, I stood in Westminster Hall last year and shared a candid account of my findings for the House, particularly in relation to the procurement of PPE, a subject raised this evening by the hon. Members for Gower, for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and for Jarrow (Kate Osborne). Those matters have been scrutinised by this House in many other forums. I will go over some of that context again because it is incredibly important to understand the actual challenges that were faced. I am afraid I cannot address all of the other items raised, particularly in relation to some of the education contracts, because I have not personally investigated those, but, as I described at that time, from conversations with officials, the Government had to work at pace in a very competitive international market to secure unprecedented volumes of essential supplies in order to protect frontline workers. That required a colossal upscaling effort.

Some 450 people from across Government were moved into the Department of Health and Social Care to become a stand-up virtual team to assist with securing PPE. That team is normally only 21 people strong. In many ways, this was a really impressive feat, with a hell of a lot of people who did not know each other working remotely on a range of different IT systems. We all assume that the Government are one entity, but Departments work in very different ways, often with different IT systems. It can be difficult to move people around the system and to make those systems compatible with each other. They were dealing with a product they were not familiar with in a very highly pressured market. That led to lags in contract publication, as paperwork has been very tricky to join up across systems. That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock).

Facing exceptional levels of global demand, the usual vendors in China who service the NHS’s central procurement function very quickly ran out of supply, and the world descended on a few factories in that country to bid for available items. In that market context, the Government needed to procure with extreme urgency, often through direct award of contracts, or risk missing out on vital supplies. I pay tribute to officials for what they achieved, because it was quite remarkable in the circumstances. The Government never ripped up procurement rules. Regulation 32(2)(c) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which predates the pandemic, explicitly allows for emergency procedures, including direct award. In a situation of genuine crisis and extreme urgency where offers had to be accepted or rejected in a matter of hours or days, it simply was not viable to run the usual procurement timescales, even by taking advantage of accelerated processes.

There was concern about the level of PPE that might be required to deal with covid. The Prime Minister put out a call to action, as many Members will recall. With huge commitment and energy, the British public and business responded. But that also meant that, in very short order, commercial teams were dealing with more than 15,000 offers of help. Frankly, leads were coming in much faster than they could be processed. When they were rejected, or if they were delayed, people started chasing through their MPs. To manage that influx of offers, a separate mailbox was set up to handle this area of work, and to sift credible offers.

The most important thing to note is that all PPE offers, no matter from where they came, went through the same eight-stage checks. The PPE team compared prices to those obtained in the previous two weeks, to benchmark the competitiveness of those offers. Separate approval and additional justification were required for any offers that were not within 25% of an average considered for possible approval. It is also important to note that of the 493 offers that came through that priority mailbox, I understand that only 47 were taken forward—in other words, 90% were rejected. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) highlighted the absurdity of some of the claims of impropriety being made.

On Samir Jassal, the supposedly important pillar of corruption, I remember running into him and him telling me that he had offered some PPE, when we were screaming for it. I think he had spent over a month being triaged to see whether it was suitable stuff. This is really preposterous.

It is interesting to know that. The hon. Member for Gower mentioned the company Arco, and I appreciate her for raising that. It was raised by the MP for Arco’s constituency, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), in a Westminster Hall debate to which I referred earlier. If the hon. Member for Gower and I swapped seats, I wonder whether I would be suggesting that it was improper to put that forward. People were in very difficult circumstances; if she had been told that there was a company that could support the national effort, would she not have put it forward for review? We have to ask ourselves that question.

The focus on those early procurement challenges secured some tremendous successes under pressure. We have established one of the largest and most diversified vaccine portfolios in the world. We have ordered 32 billion items of PPE and provided more than 15,000 ventilators to the NHS. It is important that we do not obscure those achievements with some of the understandable concerns that have been raised about transparency. None of us wants to sit here answering questions about cronyism. The challenges I cited about the recording-keeping across Departments are real ones that we are trying very hard to address. I understand why people ask questions; I have asked many of them myself, and I have been reassured by the answers that I have received from officials.

The Minister at the time did not answer my questions about record-keeping between Departments and trying to establish costs that were being clawed back from contracts that had not worked out. Is the Minister suggesting that that is being worked on and that we will be able to ask those questions in future and get some understanding of where the Government have pursued costs that have been inappropriately awarded to companies that have not come up with the goods?

I believe there are cases where that is happening. I would have to go away and double-check, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady.

We have always made it clear that there would be opportunities to look back and analyse, and to address some of the shortcomings that I have listed on all aspects of the pandemic. As hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister has confirmed that an inquiry will be established on a statutory basis, with full formal powers. That will begin work in spring 2021. As I said earlier, however, procurement during the pandemic has already been extensively reviewed, and Members will be familiar with the NAO report published in November, which I spoke about previously.

I would like to ask for the Minister’s view on whether there is a perceived or actual impropriety in the way some of the contracts have been handled. I will read you the information that has just come out from the Good Law Project:

“Uniserve Limited is a logistics firm controlled by Iain Liddell. Prior to the pandemic, the firm had no experience in supplying PPE, yet the firm landed a staggering £300m+ in PPE contracts from the DHSC and an eye-watering £572m deal to provide freight services for the supply of PPE. The company shares the same address as Cabinet Minister Julia Lopez MP and is based in her constituency.”

Does that not give you a sense that there might be something in this? The whole issue around conflict of interest is not whether it is real, but whether a member of the public might assume that there is a concern.

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions should be shorter and that “you” refers to the Chair.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s raising that contract, because it has been a challenge to me as a Minister. As I said earlier, I began this role only in June 2020. I had not been allocated a private office, and I had not been given a portfolio. Then I found myself in a procurement role, and questions are being asked about the company from which I rent a constituency office. As I say, I was not actually in post at the time that that was being decided. The challenge is that questions have been raised that I cannot fully address, because I do not have all the information. I was not party to the contract, so it is a considerable challenge. It is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham also raised.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern about perception, but it should actually be about fact. I am happy to address any concerns that he has. I find it extremely challenging to have people raising questions about my integrity in this space, when I do not feel that I have done anything improper. I am happy to get back to him on any questions that he might have, which I have also tried to address in other forums.

We have made it clear that there are opportunities to come back, analyse the situation and conduct reviews. Government procurement during the pandemic has already been extensively looked into by the National Audit Office. The report recognises that the Government needed to act with extreme urgency. The NAO found no irregularities and potential conflicts of interest involving Ministers in the awarding of contracts. The report underlined the importance of transparency in the Government’s procurement activity.

The Government take such matters extremely seriously, and we remain committed to continually improve our processes. To that end, as I mentioned earlier, we have had two independent expert reviews carried out by Nigel Boardman. They were initially internal reviews, but we have published them fully. In the first, he focused on a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service and made 28 recommendations, 24 of which have already been implemented. The remaining four will be met by the end of the calendar year.

I have been tracking progress on this issue, including the publication of contracts, very closely. Better training of contract managers and commercial and communications staff has begun and there is now a requirement, at the point when a contract recommendation is made, that senior civil servants, special advisers and Ministers declare any interest that is either real or apparent. In his second, wider review, Mr Boardman has identified 28 further recommendations for improvements to procurement processes across Government. Progress is under way to begin the implementation of those, and a full update of progress will be provided to the Public Accounts Committee by July 2021. We are very grateful to Mr Boardman for his ongoing work. That review sits alongside a wider programme of work to reform public procurement, which I am leading.

In December, the Cabinet Office published our Green Paper on this issue, which sets out radical reform to our procurement regulations that will drive much better value for money for the taxpayer. The proposals, which have long been in development, address several areas highlighted in the NAO report, especially mandatory transparency requirements that would ensure that processes and decisions can be monitored by anybody who wishes to do so. The proposals aim to simplify complicated processes, reduce bureaucracy and create a fair, open and competitive system. They will strengthen transparency through the commercial life cycle, from planning and procurement to contract award, performance and completion. We also intend to clarify the rules on procuring in times of extreme urgency or crisis, learning from the difficult experience of this pandemic. The Green Paper consultations resulted in more than 600 responses, which are now being analysed in detail.

It is already Government policy to adopt and encourage greater transparency in commercial activity. Central Government buyers must publish all qualifying tender documents and contracts with a contract value of more than £10,000 on Contracts Finder, but we recognise and regret, as I have expressed already, that there have been delays to publishing some contracts, as raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. Teams continue to work on publishing all contracts as soon as possible.

Since the High Court’s judgment in relation to the DHSC’s failure to publish some contracts, it has made significant progress. It has now published all known contract award notices and the contract documents for all historical covid-related contracts. As the permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office confirmed to the Public Accounts Committee earlier this month, all Cabinet Office contracts that related to the regulation 32 procedure on direct awards have been published.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) raised very important points about the onshoring of critical manufacturing capability. Project Defend in the Department for International Trade has done a lot of work in that area. Some of the testing specifics I will need to take away and raise with my ministerial colleagues.

I would like to address some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow, who discussed the recent High Court judgment in relation to the public contract awarded by the Cabinet Office to Public First. I looked back in my role, to better understand the context in which that was contracted, because I received some early questions, when I was first in my ministerial role, that I personally wanted to investigate as well, and I think it might be helpful if I set out a little more of the context.

Back in March, there was no vaccine, no test and trace, and very little knowledge of how best to manage this novel disease. Strong messaging of the kind that could alter behaviours was, at the outset of the pandemic, one of the few tools that we had in our arsenal in the battle against transmission. It followed that the Government Communication Service needed rapidly to assess which messages would have the greatest impact. We needed to turn campaigns around in lightning-quick time, and teams had to be surged to deal with the unprecedented demand for effective comms material. In dealing with such an unforeseen set of circumstances, few officials knew which messages would be sufficiently hard hitting to influence and, most importantly, to change public behaviour.

It was in that context that rapid decisions were made on comms contracts, including the one that was challenged in court. That was for Public First, a research and policy company. It was taken on, alongside BritainThinks, as one of two companies in the market deemed to have the scale, expertise and experience to provide focus-group testing in March. They were both rapidly diverted from existing work to take a snapshot of public reaction. That allowed us in government to test things such as the contain strategy, the early “Stop The Spread” campaign and the “Stay Home” message, which was deemed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green in earlier comments to be a waste of money.

A legal challenge was brought against that contract, on three grounds: urgent procurement without competition; the proportionality of its award for six months; and inclusion of non-urgent work. We did not use money, as was suggested by other hon. Members, to cover up, but actually to find out what had happened, so that we could respond to that legal challenge. The judgment found in favour of the Government on two grounds: first, we were entitled to rely on the emergency procurement regulations because of extreme urgency; and, secondly, the terms of the contract, including length, were proportionate in the circumstances. The court ruled that the Government were entitled to award the contract on grounds of extreme urgency, in response to an unprecedented global pandemic. It recognised the very complex circumstances that we were operating in. It also recognised that a failure to provide effective comms would have put public health at risk.

On the one remaining ground of “apparent bias”, the judgment makes it clear that the decision to award the contract was not due to any personal or professional connections, although consideration should have been given to other research agencies, and the process followed should have been more adequately demonstrated when it came to the objective criteria used to select the supplier. The judgment none the less makes it clear that there was no suggestion of actual bias.

We have done a lot of work to address some of the procedural issues that were raised by this case and which I have mentioned, because I had my own concerns about it. Our implementation of the Boardman recommendations, which I have already discussed, has addressed several areas raised in the judgment. I agree with the hon. Member for Jarrow about winding down the use of regulation 32 in comms, and I have done a lot of work in this area.

Ms Fovargue, I apologise for the length at which I have responded to some of the issues raised. These are important issues and ones that I personally want to ensure that the Government are addressing proactively. I am very keen that we also provide greater context for some of the criticisms and challenges brought. It is absolutely fair that the public would have questions on this, and I want to try to address some of those. I am very grateful for the valuable points raised by hon. Members in the course of this debate, but I want to assure people that the Government are taking decisive action to improve transparency around procurement, alongside a full inquiry into the covid pandemic next year.

I thank all my colleagues for their contributions and the Minister for her response. The sheer number of examples of deals that have been raised go some way to explaining the depth—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I will take it from the top. I thank all my colleagues for their contributions and the Minister for her response. The sheer number of examples of deals that have been raised go some way to explaining the depth of the issues that worry many of my constituents and, obviously, the constituents of many colleagues.

The hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) made a doughty defence of his constituent, who I am sure is very grateful for it. Unfortunately, if someone benefits from public contracts that are granted without a robust tendering process, and they have a photo gallery containing pictures of the Prime Minister and former Prime Minister, they have to expect people to examine their contract.

By that narrative, civil servants must have been leant on by Ministers to give contracts to Samir Jassal. Does the hon. Lady think that those civil servants have also been caught up in this web of corruption, all for £4,000 and a few photographs?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point, and we might think to ourselves, yes, perhaps. However, it happens once, twice, then three times—it is not just the odd case. He talks about £4,000 not being a large sum of money compared with what he made. The Government have to be transparent and say, “Okay. We’ll take it on the chin. Let’s have an inquiry and look at it properly.” That is what the people who signed the petition want.

As predicted, we heard from the Minister a lot of excuses that we were expecting about the emergency. We know that it did not have to be that way, and I want to shine a light on it. According to the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, the costs of PPE and Test and Trace in Wales were around half of that spent in England. We know why that is: the Welsh Labour Government did not divvy up contracts with their mates; they gave them to local authorities and those with public health expertise who were responsible for the test-and-trace system. What happened in Wales was transparent, and I am proud that a Welsh Labour Government delivered that. They did not have call handlers sitting around with nothing to do despite the contracts for them costing hundreds of millions of pounds.

A failing track-and-trace system, unusable PPE, and the millions spent on communications will undoubtedly come out in an inquiry. The SNP spokesperson, the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) uttered one of my favourite phrases that the Government use when they do not want us to find out the true scale of an issue: “the disproportionate cost”. What is disproportionate is spending huge amounts of money on equipment that cannot be used. What is also disproportionate are the deaths of 130,000 people who have left behind loved ones and who will never see the answers that they truly deserve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) raised an important question that the Minister should have addressed: how much money have the Government spent on defending themselves in court on the unlawful decisions that have been made? How much, Minister? It is important that we know. Transparency is important, and we have not seen it with this Government. Nurses are offered very little in pay rises, but entrepreneurs who have made a lot of money are seen as heroes. That is not right—it does not sit well with us—and many other people believe that, too.

I absolutely think that nurses and everybody are heroes, but at a time of global emergency, entrepreneurs were heroes because the public sector and the usual suppliers were not getting that equipment, but the entrepreneurs were.

I believe that if we had planned for this better, we might not have had to been in this situation.

I will finish with the fact that 128,000 people have lost their lives. This has been mishandled and there must be an inquiry. I send my love to all those who have lost someone during covid-19. It has been a terrible and horrific time. We need that transparency—it has got to be done—and we will continue to fight for the truth for everyone.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 328408, relating to Government contracts during the covid-19 outbreak.

Sitting adjourned.