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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
14 November 2017
Volume 631

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 14 November 2017

[Ian Austin in the Chair]

International Men’s Day

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered International Men’s Day.

It is a privilege to lead this debate. I thank the Members of all parties who have shown their support for it by being here today, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has led debates about International Men’s Day in the last two years.

International Men’s Day, which is on 19 November, is now marked by 70 countries around the world and has been part of the annual events calendar in the UK since 2010. Its objectives, which apply equally to all men and boys, include the promotion of role models, a focus on male health and wellbeing, the improvement of gender relations and gender quality, and the creation of a safer world for us all. In the UK, International Men’s Day takes a gender-inclusive approach and therefore believes in ensuring that issues affecting women and girls are resolved, too. The themes in the UK this year are: making a difference for men and boys, and how we can give men and boys better life chances.

I stress that International Men’s Day is international. Although I am sure we will speak a lot about matters in the UK, we should not forget the challenges affecting men and boys around the world, which include boys having to be soldiers and the targeting of men, which we have seen in the conflicts in the middle east. That is not at all to forget what happens to women and girls. We must remember what is going on around the world, but I will concentrate on the situation in the UK. There is so much to talk about. All I can really do is skirt across a number of issues, but I know that hon. Members will go into other areas in more depth, and I welcome their remarks.

I will start with role models. I would like to recognise the huge number of men in the UK who work positively every day for their families and their communities, and who actively promote equality not just in their words but in their actions. People often ask, “Where are the male role models who can inspire other men and boys?” The answer is that they are in every community, but they often need to be encouraged to share their experiences—their difficulties as well as their successes. By their very nature, good role models are often reticent to speak about themselves and often do not even recognise themselves as role models. They think they are just doing their best, often in difficult circumstances. I think of a close friend who, as a leader of an organisation that works with hundreds of young people in north Staffordshire, is a great role model. He would be the last person to recognise himself as a role model, but he is, including to me.

How can we support such people? I suggest that promoting people publicly as role models is not necessarily the best way, and it is certainly not the only way. Everyone has their failings, and some of the media like nothing better than to raise someone up only to knock them down when they turn out to have feet of clay, as we all do. However, supporting the work of genuine but often unassuming role models who have a positive influence on men and boys and on women and girls can be really effective.

It is not difficult to identify them. Ask most local councillors, community workers, police officers and police community support officers, and they will know people who are great role models on the ground. We should see how they can be supported in their work, and perhaps supported to expand it. I have seen great and lasting work in my constituency and elsewhere by people in the scouting and guiding movements, boxing clubs and Duke of Edinburgh’s award groups, as well as by open youth groups run by committed professionals and volunteers.

The Government’s answer to problems is often new initiatives involving new organisations, which are given substantial sums of money but fold when that money runs out. In my opinion it is much better, where possible, to help existing people or organisations that have a proven track record over many years, but they are often the last to be considered for support.

I turn to health and wellbeing. Men are more likely than women to die prematurely; one in five men dies before the age of 65. Mortality under the age of 75 from cardiovascular diseases is twice as high among men as women, and it is three times as high among men for diseases that are considered preventable. Mortality before the age of 75 from cancer is almost twice as high among men as women, and it is 17% higher in cases of preventable cancer. There is so much more work to do to improve men’s health.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the issues is improving male awareness about health? If the television breaks down, we men get the TV repair person in; if the lawnmower is not working, we take it to the gardening shop; and if the car breaks down, we take it to the garage, but we seem to be reluctant to go to our GP when we are suffering from a mental or physical health issue. We need to ensure that everybody—but particularly men, who have been reluctant to deal with personal health issues—goes to their GP or to the relevant health professional when they have such issues.

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I totally agree; the hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was about to say. As he says, there is clear evidence that men are less likely than women to seek help when they are sick. That is certainly true of me. I have sometimes been reluctant to go to the doctor in case it turned out that I had something serious, as if the very act of seeking help would make it more serious than it was. I do not think it is just me. I did not want to confront the possibility of having a serious illness.

Good public health work has been done to ease people’s fears of seeking medical help if they think something is wrong—I think the NHS recognises that—but there is a greater need for health education, starting at school, to promote healthy lifestyles and to encourage people to consult their doctor early if they believe something is not quite right. I have recent personal experience; a close friend, who was not yet 50, had his cancer caught too late because, due to the nature of his job, he understandably attributed the symptoms to work-related stress when they were in fact much more serious.

Men should not worry that they will waste valuable NHS resources by going to their GP because they have unusual discomfort in their stomach, a persistent cough or problems passing water. Any NHS professional would prefer to allay their patient’s fears by showing that the problem is not serious—or, if it is serious, to catch it early and hence greatly improve the prospects of cure.

We have a serious problem with mental health among men and boys. Some 76% of all suicides in the UK last year were among men. That is 4,287 lives lost to suicide—more than two and a half times the number of deaths on the UK’s roads. The suicide rate has fallen in the last 35 years, and I welcome that, but the fall has been greater among women than men; it has fallen by 50% for women, which is wonderful, but only 14% for men. Suicide is the leading cause of death of men between 20 and 49.

The Samaritans commissioned research on the issues surrounding male suicide, which I will go into in some detail because they are so important. It found that men from the lowest social class who live in the most deprived areas are up to 10 times more likely to end their lives by suicide than those in the highest social class from the most affluent areas. This is undoubtedly a matter of inequality. Men in mid-life are most at risk, which surprised me. Men compare themselves against a masculine gold standard, to which having a job and providing for the family are essential, especially for working-class men. Men—I speak here from personal experience—are far less positive than women about getting formal emotional support for their problems, and when they do it is at the point of crisis. There is also a well-known link between unemployment and suicide; unemployed people are two to three times more likely than those in work to die by suicide, which is why combating unemployment is an absolute moral mission.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. I am sure that he agrees that more needs to be done about the mental health of not just older men but young men. In my constituency, suicides have risen dramatically. The youngest person to commit suicide was 12, and one was 15. More needs to be done to help young people, especially those from deprived areas, who have social difficulties.

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I absolutely agree. I will read all six of the Samaritans’ recommendations, because they are so important. The first is to recognise and take on gender and socioeconomic inequalities in suicide risk—to follow the evidence, not the preconceptions. The second is to ensure that suicide prevention policy and practice takes account of men’s beliefs and concerns, and the context of what it is to be a man. The third is to recognise that loneliness is, for men in mid-life, a significant cause of their high risk of suicide, and to enable them to strengthen their social relationships—frankly, women are usually better at doing that than men. The fourth is to ensure explicit links between alcohol reduction and suicide prevention strategies, because often the two are taken apart when they should be much more closely linked. The fifth is to support GPs to recognise the signs of distress in men and ensure that those from deprived backgrounds receive a range of support, not just medication—it seems that men from poorer backgrounds are often given much more medication than counselling and other support. Finally, and very importantly, the sixth recommendation is to provide leadership and accountability at local level, and I congratulate councils who are taking this seriously up and down the country.

I would like to hear from my right hon. Friend the Minister on how he believes we can all work together to tackle suicide in all people, and particularly the tragically high rate of male suicide. I have not gone into great detail on some of the excellent initiatives, whether sports initiatives or peer communicators, which perhaps others or the Minister will refer to, but it would be good to hear more about that.

I turn to the access rights of fathers and children. One of the saddest things I have to confront, on an almost weekly basis, in my surgeries, as I am sure all colleagues have, is the fallout from partnerships and marriages that have gone wrong. The problem is almost inevitably one of two: either a father is neglecting his responsibilities to contribute to the maintenance of his children, or father and children are denied access to each other. The causes are complex, especially in cases of the latter, and I am no expert. However, I have no doubt that, in some I have seen, there has been a deliberate attempt to use all means possible to prevent the father from seeing a child or children, just as I have seen cases in which fathers have used all means possible to avoid their responsibilities to contribute to child maintenance.

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My hon. Friend is touching on an important issue. Is he aware of the growing number of examples of parental alienation, in which one parent deliberately turns children against the other parent in order to stop access, even when people are contributing to their children’s upbringing?

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Sadly, yes. I have seen that on several occasions, and I remember one in particular in a surgery a few years ago that was just devastating; a father had lost access to all four of his children. It was very sad indeed. As I say, we need to be balanced in the debate, because there are many cases of fathers who have totally neglected their responsibilities. Both issues have to be addressed.

We must be more determined to stop people ignoring or playing around with agreements or court rulings. Such actions deny parents and children the financial support they need or the access to each other that is so critical to the development of both parents and children. I know this is a difficult area. When families have to resort to law, there is already great sadness, but when they do so, the law needs to uphold the rights and demand the responsibilities of all involved. I understand that a Green Paper on family justice will be published in the coming months and I hope that that will tackle these issues.

I turn briefly to education, on which I am sure others will speak. There is so much more for boys and men to achieve in education. In 2017, the average attainment 8 score for boys in state-funded schools was 43.4, compared with 48.7 for girls—the equivalent of about half a grade lower per subject. Only 39% of boys achieved the highest grades in both English and Maths—grades 9 to 5 in the new system—compared with 45% of girls. When it comes to higher education, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report that identified higher drop-out rates and lower degree performance for males. However, there were other indicators where males were doing better, so the picture in higher education is not clear cut.

There are no straightforward answers to the discrepancies, as I am sure the Minister, who probably has more experience in this area than anyone in the Chamber, will appreciate. The best answer is to seek to improve attainment for all children—all students, whether male or female—but we cannot ignore the discrepancy. I would like to hear the Minister’s analysis and his proposals to address it. Technical education and investment in that area is incredibly important. It is lacking at the moment, and we need to do more in that area. There is no doubt that technical education is often more attractive to boys than some of the education that they are given and expected to complete. I know that the Government are looking at that area, but we need to take it much more seriously.

We also need to encourage more men into the teaching profession, just as we need to encourage more women into engineering. In England, 26.2% of teachers are male: 15.2% in primary and 37.6% in secondary. I spoke earlier about role models, and teaching is just about the best profession in which to be a role model. What is being done to ensure that the fine profession of teaching is introduced as a great career option to all students?

There are so many other areas we could touch on, such as rough sleepers, of whom 88% were men in 2016, and domestic abuse, which is particularly horrible for women, but can affect men as well, which is sometimes forgotten.

We have just concluded the poignant remembrance season, which brings me to a cause for great thankfulness. On Sunday, in Stafford I saw the hundreds of names of men and boys on the war memorial as I stood waiting to lay a wreath. That is not happening to our men and boys at the moment. Later, I joined the Penkridge Anglo-German Remembrance Day Association for its service at the main German military cemetery in my constituency, in a beautiful wooded vale on Cannock Chase. More than 5,000 German men—basically boys as well—lie in peace there. Finally, I went to Colwich parish church, where the names of all the men—and, again, boys, as some of them were boys—from that village and Great and Little Haywood who died in the wars of the 20th century were read out by the lychgate; sometimes two from the same family.

I and my generation, and my children’s generation, have not had to experience the horrors of a world war. That is a huge advantage. We pay tribute to the great professionals—men and women—in our armed services, who keep us safe at great personal risk. Most of us, unlike our fathers and grandfathers, have not had to spend years of our lives fighting. That gives us an opportunity and responsibility to contribute positively to our families and communities, to work for peace, to look out for the interests and welfare of others and help to build a better world. I have pointed out many areas in which we can all work together to improve the life chances, health and wellbeing of men and boys, but we can also be thankful for how much life has improved for most of us in the past 100 years and ensure that those improvements are within the reach of all.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this important debate, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on introducing it and all Members who supported the subject being heard. It is the first time during which I have been an MP that we have had a debate on International Men’s Day. I was not in Parliament for the previous two occasions, so I am delighted to be able to take part. I hope this debate will become a firm annual fixture in the Commons, perhaps even taking place in the main Chamber in future years. These issues are important and deserve to be properly explored.

Gender inequality is endemic right across society. The stereotypes, assumptions and rigid constraints on behaviour affect both men and women, girls and boys, but our focus is often on how women and girls lose out from gender inequality. It is right that we explore those issues, but as we have already heard and will explore in the debate, it is absolutely the case that men and boys are also negatively affected by gender inequality. That is why gender equality is good for everyone. Sometimes in the media these issues are portrayed as men pitted against women, as if there is some battle of the sexes going on. In fact a world that is more gender equal would be good for everyone, and it is one that we should be able to join forces to create.

Healthcare, particularly mental health for men and boys, is a huge issue. Such problems can start very early on. In the opening speech, we heard statistics about how men are more likely to commit suicide, and indeed that is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45. That prompts us as a society to take a step back and consider what services we provide for men who find themselves in trouble. There is also an element of stigma, which we are starting to break down. In recent years there has been a welcome move towards talking more openly about mental health, and I know that hon. Members from across the House have spoken movingly in the Chamber about their own battles with mental health problems. That is to be welcomed, but no one would suggest that we are there yet when it comes to breaking down that stigma.

Importantly, we must also ensure that the services are there. For too long, mental health has been the Cinderella of the health service. It should be given parity with physical health problems, but mental health provision for individuals who need that support does not yet exist in our communities. Given that it is more difficult for men to seek help in the first place, if those support services are not there when they do, that is a double whammy.

In my constituency I am aware of an interesting project that has been set up specifically to help men with mental health difficulties. It is called Brothers in Arms, and when I spoke to its founders I was interested to hear their concern that not enough specialist services cater specifically for men and recognise some of the difficulties that men might have in coming forward. Such organisations—I know there are many others, particularly south of the border—and many strong campaigners and advocates are raising these issues and putting them on the agenda, but we must ensure that that is supported and progress accelerated.

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The hon. Lady raises a good point about men’s mental health projects. Does she agree that that disparity is even greater for men in ethnic minority communities? Does she welcome projects such as the Reach project in my constituency, which tries to address those issues with the ethnic minority population?

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Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes a good point, and we must ensure that we reach out to groups who are less likely to come forward. It is important that services recognise all the different reasons why that might be and the intersectionality of the different challenges that people face. I am sure that we all have stories from our own constituencies of services that are run by excellent individuals, some of whom might be paid, but many of whom volunteer. That is to be supported, but resource is also vital.

When considering why it is difficult for men to come forward, we need to start early and consider the stereotypes that are placed on boys from the earliest months and years of their lives. We say things like, “Boys will be boys,” or “Boys don’t cry,” and people get told to “man up”, as if showing emotion is a sign of weakness. The hon. Member for Stafford spoke about a masculine gold standard and the pressure to be the breadwinner. Obviously, anybody who loses their job will be thinking from a practical perspective about how they will pay the bills, but if layered on top of that is the view that because of their gender it is specifically their job to get the money to pay those bills, that adds a layer of additional pressure. It is 2017 and we should be able to share that responsibility. Different couples will have different ways of working out who might work, or whether both will be working, but we are not in the 1950s and we do not need to cling to the old stereotypes that state that it is always the job of the man in a heterosexual couple to go out and be the breadwinner. Such stereotypes lead to far too many men suffering in silence and are really damaging for boys and young men.

Over the summer there was a fascinating television programme on the BBC that some hon. Members might have seen. It was called, “No More Boys and Girls”, and it went into a school and spoke to seven-year-olds. It explored gender issues and how, even at that early age, they were already being embedded. In addition to the stuff about girls lacking confidence and underestimating their abilities, one thing that struck me was a test to understand where boys and girls stood on different issues. They asked them how many words they could use to describe different emotions, and the boys had far fewer words than the girls—there was a really marked difference between the boys and girls—with one exception: the boys had plenty of words to describe the emotion of anger. Consider what that says about seven-year-olds. It shows how such differences are starting early.

We must put in place mental health services, but we must also consider how we are parenting and the messages that young children receive which, I would argue, are even more gendered now than they were when I was growing up in the 1980s. Today it is much more segmented: pink for the girls and dark sludge colours for the boys. As the mother of a young boy, I go to buy clothes and toys, and it is clear what is supposed to be for girls and what is for boys. It is as if liking rainbows and butterflies excludes liking buses and dinosaurs. My nieces love dinosaurs, and my little boy loves butterflies. Why should we say to children, “This is only for one gender or another”? It starts with that stuff, which some people say does not matter, but it means that girls and boys are told what their role is very early on. When they read books they see that more of the characters who go to work and have a job are boys and men, and that is one reason why boys and young men grow up thinking that it is their job to be the breadwinner, and the pressure is piled on.

We should be as worried about the gender gap in education, in schools, as we are about it in the workplace. They are different gender gaps. In education, we should be just as worried about the fact that boys are reading less than girls—not only fewer books, but reading less thoroughly—as we should be about the fact that girls tend to drop out of science or physical education in their teenage years.

The flipside of having roles such as breadwinner and so on is how we value men’s role as fathers in our society, because that incredibly important role has often been dismissed and undermined. Look at some of the stereotypes in popular culture, such as the Homer Simpson stereotype of dads being a bit hapless and not up to the job. Men are just as capable as women at being parents. There is a myth that somehow women are naturally better at parenting but—breastfeeding aside—there is nothing that women do as parents that men cannot do. It is not about women being naturally better at it; it is who spends more time doing it. Practice makes—well, perhaps not quite perfect as I do not think perfect parenting exists, but it is about experimenting, practice and learning, and we should recognise the role that men play.

Why is it so important that men are involved as fathers? We know that it is good for children because they do better with social and language skills, and their mental health is better if their fathers are actively involved. Amazingly, the intensive involvement of a father is a better predictor of whether a child will have high academic achievement than their income—it is that important to a child’s development. It is also good for men, who are happier, healthier, more productive at work and live longer if they are involved fathers and close to their children.

Finally, we must break down the cultural barriers. When I was a Minister I was delighted to introduce shared parental leave—that is my proudest achievement from my time in government, as it helps parents to choose how to spend time looking after their children. That was a great first step, but it needs to be built on. A review is due next year, and we must consider how shared parental leave can be extended to all parents, such as the self-employed, and at how we can have more dedicated time for fathers. We must also look again at pay, to make it easier for dads to take up that leave. I have been delighted to contribute to this debate, and I am interested to hear what other Members have to say.

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I shall call the Front Benchers to speak at about 10.30, so it would be helpful if Back Benchers could keep their remarks to about six minutes.

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It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing it, and am delighted that International Men’s Day is getting more recognition. It is important that we take a moment at least once a year—hopefully, perhaps, more often than that—to focus on and think about the challenges that men face today. The theme of this year’s day is celebrating men and boys, and the aspect of it that I want to focus on is the role of fathers. I believe it is essential for the country, today and in the future, that we do all we can to help dads be better dads, and to support them in their role. If we do that, not only will it help those men who are dads, and their children; the whole of society will benefit.

One of the reasons why I am particularly interested in the subject is that I had the honour, in the early 1990s, to be the first father working for Barclays bank to take paternity leave and request, and achieve, a change to my working pattern to help me balance my life—to balance my work responsibilities with those of being a new dad. Today that is not remarkable, and many big companies like Barclays make such provision; but it was quite unusual more than 20 years ago. There has certainly been progress in that area, but more needs to be done to enable dads to balance the many pressures and challenges that they face today, and get a work-life balance. Change has happened in this area, as the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) described, but we need to go further in changing workplace culture to support and respect the role that fathers play.

Britain has an appalling record on family breakdown generally, and that has an impact on childhood life chances. Children whose dads play an active role in their lives have better attitudes at school and enjoy school more. They have higher educational expectations, and they make better progress at school. I am sure that the Schools Minister, who is present to respond to the debate, would particularly like to comment on that issue: I believe that the more we can do to help dads play a positive, active role in their children’s lives, the better those children’s educational outcomes will be.

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Will the hon. Gentleman also stress that those of us from single-parent families parented by men sometimes get on in life quite well?

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I am happy to acknowledge that. We must acknowledge that families today come in all shapes and sizes, and that single parents work incredibly hard and, in many cases, are heroes in view of the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears that they put into raising their children. However, that should not mean we do not say that more often than not the best outcome for children generally is when they have a father and mother playing an active role in their life and upbringing.

The extent of fatherlessness in the UK is, I believe, a little-known statistic. According to the Office for National Statistics there are 2.7 million dependent children who have no father figure at home; that is roughly one in five children. When fathers are absent from children’s lives, levels of deprivation and poor economic and social outcomes are measurably worse, which has an impact not only on the children but, more widely, on society. One shocking statistic is that 76% of all male prisoners come from households without a father figure in the home. Boys with little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to become offenders as boys with highly involved fathers. Those statistics should cause us concern and prompt us to take action.

We are, at last, increasingly understanding the impact of fathers in families. We do not really have a family breakdown crisis in this country; we have a crisis of fatherhood. I am hugely passionate about the work of the all-party group on fatherhood—I am one of its vice-chairmen—and about ensuring that we talk about families. We should do that much more in our political conversations. In doing so, we should not forget the vital role that fathers play. Dads today are often misunderstood and are seen within an out-of-date stereotype. The biggest stereotype of them all is that dads simply do not care, or do not want to be active dads.

Recent research by the University of Plymouth suggests that fathers face a negative bias, and suspicion from managers, when seeking a better work-life balance or applying for part-time working. That has been branded the fatherhood forfeit. Last year I did some work with the Centre for Social Justice on a small piece of research. We interviewed 50 working fathers about the challenges that they faced in balancing work and family life. What struck me was the strong emotional response from every single one of the fathers we interviewed. We found that all 50 interviewees were trying hard to be dads and in many cases they were making significant amendments to their working lives to accommodate time with their children. The stereotype of dads who do not care is out of date.

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I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised concern about the stereotypes, which have always been around. In my constituency several years ago, Scotland’s national male cancer charity, Cahonas Scotland, did a piece of research called “Men, Masculinities and Male Cancer Awareness”, highlighting what happens when men are asked about services and their experience, and getting a breakdown of the reality of their everyday lives, especially with respect to parenthood.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes a good point.

As I have said, we want to be an equal society—we want equality to be at the heart of society, including in the workplace. If we are to achieve that we must seriously consider a positive approach to fathers. We need to get to the stage where employers actively seek to have father-friendly workplaces. We can achieve that, and if we do it will not only be dads who benefit but children, mothers, families and the whole of society.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. It is a privilege to speak in the debate. My wife would say that every day is men’s day; I would argue that it is a woman’s world, and they just let us live in it.

Joking aside, I am honoured to be a part of this International Men’s Day debate, because it is simply promoting and raising awareness of health and other issues. A friend recently called into the constituency office, and I was surprised to see this usually clean-shaven gentleman looking slightly less so. I was not going to probe into the reasons, until one of the girls in the office asked, “Gary, did you lose your razor?” We all laughed, and he explained that he was taking part in Movember, which he is involved in every year. As I look around the Chamber I can see three people with beards; I am not sure whether that is for Movember. If so, then well done; and if not perhaps they might consider shaving them off and raising money for the charities concerned. I have had a moustache since I was 18 years old. It was not all that good at that age. My mother told me to get the cat to lick it, but we had no cat so I could not do that. It eventually grew anyway, and it is good to be able to participate—a moustache is a way of provoking people to remark, and to begin the discussion.

Awareness is important and men—especially those in the older age bracket—are reticent about problems and symptoms. We need to break the cycle and train our young men to know that there is nothing wrong with talking about health or issues that may be slightly awkward. The International Men’s Day website has a very eye-catching first paragraph:

“We know that Men’s health is worse than women’s in almost every part of the world. Recent World Health Organization (WHO) data shows that, globally, male life expectancy at birth in 2015 was 69 years; for females, it was 74 years. Women on a worldwide basis live 5 years longer than men. We know that over 95% of work place fatalities are men and that 99% of combat deaths are men.”

It is past time for us to stop being so reticent about discussing things and to begin to realise that, to quote the old phone advert, “it’s good to talk”.

The sad fact is that six people commit suicide every week in Northern Ireland. I mention that specifically, because it is important that we focus on the suicides and the reasons for them. Despite more than £7 million spent on suicide prevention in the Province every year, the deaths of 318 people in 2015 were registered as suicides, the highest annual figure since records began in 1970 and a 19% increase on the number recorded in the previous year. That is something we are really concerned about back home in Northern Ireland. In Ballynahinch in my Strangford constituency the local churches came together to raise suicide awareness and to bring people together, particularly young people, because we had a very high level of suicides in the town. Some of that good work has reduced the number, and has made people perhaps more conscious that, when they are depressed or under pressure, someone is there for them. It works, and the churches in Ballynahinch deserve credit for that.

Of the suicide deaths registered in 2015, 77% were male and 23% female, and 132 of the deaths involved young people, aged between 15 and 34, while five were aged 75 or older. We should not think that those who get to the age of 70 do not feel loneliness and depression as well. I understand there is a debate in this Chamber at half-past four tomorrow on loneliness, when there might be a chance to reiterate that. The issue was starkest in the capital, with 93 people taking their own lives in the Belfast Health Trust area, almost one third of the 2015 total.

The stats are shocking, and awareness-raising events such as International Men’s Day are important because it is essential that we use such days to point people to the fact that there are places to go for help and people available to talk about anything from health to feelings. It is important for us men, who perhaps do not always express ourselves in the way that we could. It is also important that people do not characterise this day as a day when men are encouraged to go to their man cave, drink a beer and play a video game—quite the opposite. It is a day when we want to encourage men to get together and talk. They can talk about football if that is what the conversation is, or just talk about their feelings. We have an advert in Northern Ireland, which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) will be aware of, showing a bubbly person who is the life and soul of the party, but once he goes home and closes the door he is a different person. We should not always think of the person who is the life and soul of the occasion as a person who does not have their problems.

We must ensure that all young men feel a part of this. That is why I am so pleased that today is about celebrating the diversity of men and boys, and letting young men see how much older men have come through and are still standing. Wisdom is gained through years of experience and learning from others. We are never too old to learn. It is passed down from generation to generation, and the event should be a way of connecting people and moving past generational or cultural boundaries to where men are men and can share and help each other along.

“No man is an island” is a saying we often use, but it is true, and more people need to take it on board. The sight of my unshaven friend on that morning reinforced the fact that all of us can and should play a part in starting those conversations and taking them to a place that puts awkwardness aside and ends in sharing life experiences and problems for the benefit of our entire community. I welcome International Men’s Day on Sunday as a conversation starter, and also a friendship starter, across the world.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing the debate, and other hon. Members on participating in it. Like the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), I too hope that next year we will see the debate restored to its rightful place in the main Chamber, where there is more time to cover some of these important issues.

It is fair to say that I am often pilloried for arguing that men and women should be treated equally. I do not see that there is anything particularly controversial in that, but it never ceases to amaze me how often I am accused of being a misogynist, sexist, or some other term of abuse, merely for saying that men and women should be treated equally before the law. That is a principle I was brought up with as a child and maintain today. What seems to have happened is that in many cases, militant feminists have tried to close down any talk about men and women being treated equally. To try to close down the debate, they hurl abuse at the people who raise these issues, in the hope that people will not listen any more to what they say, that they will stop saying those things and that other people will be deterred from standing up and saying those things.

The people who do that to me clearly to not know me, because I am certainly not going to be bullied or intimidated in that way. I am delighted that other people are finding the courage to raise issues that affect men too. I do not think that anything I have ever said should be seen as controversial in a normal world, but somehow saying that men and women should be treated equally seems to be controversial.

We have had some successes. A few years ago, I said that men were being treated more harshly in the criminal justice system than women were. It is worth reiterating that at the time, the exact opposite was being said in this Chamber. In a Westminster Hall debate that I held once, it was asserted that it was the other way round, and even Ministers claimed that. I am delighted to say that that is one battle that has been won, and now people accept that men are treated more harshly in the criminal justice system than women. Even the research carried out in the course of the Lammy review concluded:

“Males were independently associated with approximately 83% higher odds of being sentenced to imprisonment, compared to females.”

We can have victories for common sense; we just need some more. Men are increasingly getting a bad press, and it needs to be challenged. It seems bizarre to me that those who apparently fight discrimination, injustices and stereotypes are often quite happy to perpetuate all those things against men.

In thinking about International Men’s Day, let us remind ourselves that there are men who are victims of unequal pay, discrimination and harassment. We would not think so when we see all the headlines about equal pay gaps, which only mention women. They do not mention male part-time workers who are paid less than their female counterparts. For various reasons, in my view, the overall pay gap is not a result of widespread discrimination, but if they say it is, surely they should be equally outraged about the pay gap in part-time pay, where men are the losers. Surely the logic is that those men must be the victims of discrimination too, although that is unlikely to happen, because it seems that in the eyes of some people only men can be sexist.

There are also certainly men who are victims of domestic violence. Men are far more likely to be victims of violence generally. Men are victims of sexual assaults and rapes. Men are victims of stalking and controlling behaviour. Men are victims of so-called honour-based violence too; yet we would not necessarily think it if we were to pick up a paper, see the news, or hear about strategies for only tackling violence against women and girls. Every single victim of a crime is important, and preventing those crimes against anyone, male or female, should be a priority. The focus solely on women and girls is serious. To give one example of how dangerous it can be, a serious case review led to Bradford Council and the police apologising for letting down a 14-year-old boy who was groomed by dozens of men. Phil Mitchell of the BLAST Project in Bradford said:

“I think the fact he was a boy was an issue. If the police had got a call that a girl was planning to sleep with an older man then I think officers would have responded with more urgency.”

People, not least the leader of the Women’s Equality party, have said that I am a proponent of the idea that we achieve equality by treating everyone the same. If that is supposed to be a criticism, I am stumped, and I will certainly plead guilty to it.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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I will not, because other people want to speak and I know that time is at a premium. I am coming to a close.

Why should male and female murderers not be treated the same? What possible justification could there be for treating them differently just because of their sex? Those who think the sexes should be treated differently in the eyes of the law are the ones who are truly sexist. They are the ones with the problem. Men and women are different, but that is perfectly compatible with their rightly being treated the same in the eyes of the law. Some people have said that every day is men’s day, but if anyone looks at the facts, that is certainly not the case. I would rather, as I have said before, that there was no need for an International Women’s Day or an International Men’s Day, and that men and women happily co-existed without tension or people stirring up issues with their own agendas. I hope that this year International Men’s Day provides an opportunity to focus on the negative stereotypical portrayal of men and the unjustifiable attacks on those who do not support the politically correct, militant feminist approach to things. I hope men and women can agree that that is not right, and join forces to ensure that the minority trying to do such damage do not succeed.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I approached today’s debate with mixed feelings. When I was walking to Westminster Hall, on the way to the debate, there was a group of young schoolkids, and I observed a young girl looking at the statues that are all the way along St Stephen’s Hall. That reaffirms the point that sometimes in this House every day is men’s day. None the less, I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and want to use my speech, however brief, to talk about men’s health, both physical and mental, the important work done by Men’s Sheds, and locker-room banter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on initiating the debate.

Last week, alongside Councillor Michelle Ferns, I had the pleasure of visiting Shettleston Men’s Shed in my constituency. It is run by William Smillie, who clearly has a passion for the project and has invested considerable effort and time in getting it off the ground, in conjunction with Shettleston Housing Association. The Men’s Shed supports approximately 60 guys, who come together twice a week to play darts and pool and do woodwork, among other activities.

During my visit on Friday, I met Billy Thomson, who was attending the Men’s Shed for the first time. Movingly, Billy told me about his struggles with poor mental health, and the support afforded to him by Parkview health centre, which signposted him to Shettleston Men’s Shed. I was struck by Billy’s candour when he said that, just three weeks ago, he was in a very dark place and was considering whether he even wanted to be alive any more. Fast forward three weeks and Billy is sitting in a Men’s Shed, talking openly about his mental health. That is very powerful.

However, there is a legitimate point to be made about the funding for such groups, because it is often sorely lacking. I do not want to be a politician who simply pays lip service without banging the drum for more funding, particularly to support the running costs of an excellent project that is undoubtedly saving money for the national health service. I think that that should be put on the record.

I want briefly to address what has been dubbed locker-room banter, which has been a topic of conversation in recent days as light has finally been shone on this building with regard to the abhorrent way in which some men view, talk about and act towards women. We know all too well the comments made by President Trump in 2005, when, in talking about women, he said:

“Grab them by the pussy.”

Later, when trying to defend the indefensible, he suggested that that had been just “locker-room banter”—a soft phrase that seeks to play down the seriousness of a conversation that would rightly turn the stomach of most men. As legislators and leaders in our communities, we all have a responsibility to challenge the culture of locker-room banter that still exists, not least within this building, as events in recent days and weeks have shown.

In the time remaining to me, I want to talk about mental health and suicide. I am particularly grateful to Craig Smith from the Scottish Association for Mental Health for providing me with an excellent briefing and some statistics, which make pretty distressing reading. Much has been said in this debate about suicide, and I want to offer a few thoughts from a Scottish context. In 2016, 728 suicides were registered in Scotland, compared with 672 in 2015. That is the first increase in deaths by suicide for six years, which is absolutely shocking and should cause real alarm to those of us who are Scottish politicians and, indeed, to the Scottish Government.

When it comes to general health and wellbeing, we know that, in one year, more than twice as many females as males consulted GPs for depression and anxiety. That is why I was pleased to learn that SAMH, in partnership with the Scottish Professional Football League and Hibernian football club, has recently launched a new programme, The Changing Room, to promote men’s mental health and wellbeing. The aim is to increase the social connectedness of men in their middle years and to deliver a programme of activity that will reduce loneliness and ultimately improve their mental health and wellbeing. That is a good thing and should be commended in the House of Commons.

I want to conclude with a personal story, Mr Austin, so I hope that you will indulge me for a moment. A couple of weeks after being elected to the House in June, I got a phone call from my mother to tell me that my older brother had been admitted to the psychiatric unit at Wishaw General Hospital. My brother is five years older than me and considerably better looking. He and I have always had quite a jovial relationship; I must confess that, perhaps because of the age gap, we have never really had the kind of relationship that provokes deep emotional conversations. I left Westminster and flew home to Scotland, and as I was driving to Wishaw General Hospital, I was pondering how to approach Ross, how to talk about the situation. I thought to myself, “Should I just retreat to the comfort zone of the jovial, humorous approach of telling him to man up and just get on with it, or should I step out of my comfort zone and actually have a conversation with him about our feelings and thoughts?” I am glad to say that I did the brave thing and we had that conversation. It was very brief, but it was probably the most significant conversation that we brothers have ever had in our lives; and in retrospect it shows that, for men, it is important that we sometimes step out of our comfort zone if we are truly to step up.

For fear of getting emotional, I want now to conclude by saying that, after my visit to Shettleston Men’s Shed and what happened in the summer, I was drawn to a piece of scripture in the Old Testament that says:

“As iron sharpens iron,

So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.”

Those of us in this House would do well to read and reflect on that.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) in his similarly excellent speech, I want to talk about the importance of promoting active fatherhood to help to improve children’s life chances, particularly among the least advantaged.

Supporting young men to be active, engaged fathers is, I believe, a matter of social justice, in which the Government should be engaged. Evidence clearly shows that it helps to reduce inequality. Children from low-income households with an active father are 25% more likely to escape the poverty that they grow up in. Time prohibits me from explaining further to colleagues, as I would like to have done, the evidence on this issue, but it can be seen in the research from the Fatherhood Institute entitled, “Fathers’ impact on their children’s learning and achievement”, which is on its website—fatherhoodinstitute.org. It can also be seen in the work of Dr Gary Clapton, who says, interestingly, that active fatherhood is linked to girls’ better educational engagement as well as boys’.

All the indicators are that children who grow up with active fathers in their lives have better life chances, so what can the Government do to address this issue? At the most extreme end of the spectrum, as we have heard, 76% of all male prisoners come from households without a father figure, and boys who have little or no involvement with their fathers are twice as likely to become offenders. There are many practical ways to address the issue, and I am delighted that the Ministry of Justice is committed to doing so

Following the recent release of the Farmer report, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), has committed the Department to helping men in prison to maintain an active relationship with their children. Governors are now encouraged, where they can, to house prisoners closer to their families and to have available family rooms, where children can be helped with homework. In some prisons, prisoners can record bedtime stories that their children can listen to at home. In general, arrangements are being made to facilitate a strengthening of father-children relationships, so that, when prisoners exit prison, there is a family life that they can, hopefully, return to and that has even been strengthened.

That is just one way of addressing the issue; the Centre for Social Justice has many other suggestions. Again, time prohibits me from going through them all, but to promote more active fatherhood, the CSJ suggests that best practice on this in local authorities across the country should be co-ordinated; there should perhaps be a champion to do that. It suggests that we have a national campaign to mirror the Scottish Year of the Dad, which was last year. I understand that the previous Minister, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), agreed to look into that during a Westminster Hall debate this year. It linked attitudinal changes in relation to fatherhood with practical interventions at local level.

The CSJ says that we need to change outreach among public services such as children’s centres, maternity wards, health visitors and early years providers to ensure that they really do promote engagement with fathers and measure that. As has been mentioned, we could look again at shared parental leave to see how fathers could be encouraged to take that up more. New fathers say that they want better social and emotional support; only 25% feel that there is enough. I also encourage the Minister, as well as looking at the CSJ’s recommendations, to read the “Manifesto to strengthen families,” which I know he has a copy of. It is now supported by around 60 Back-Bench Conservative MPs and sets out a number of policy suggestions to Government, to directly improve the situation of fathers. For example, maternity services should maximise the chances of including fathers at an early stage, and fathers should be invited to antenatal appointments and fatherhood preparation classes to help them to support their partners. There is one south London hospital where a small fatherhood charity holds weekly preparation classes for fathers to be. That is very important because we know that those early years in a child’s life, from the age of one to three, is a period of great strain on family relationships and, unfortunately, of great break-up.

Hospitals should collect information about fathers’ experiences and about the importance of the NHS friends and families test, focusing their services on supporting the whole family. Similarly we should ensure that the Government finally bring into force schedule 6 to the Welfare Reform Act 2009, which requires all fathers’ names to be included on birth certificates, with appropriate exemptions. As well as improving the payment of child maintenance, that would enable local authorities to identify almost all fathers in their local area and ensure support could be offered to them at an early stage. Sceptics might say, “Well, we already register most fathers,” but it is often those who are most in need of help who disappear.

As the CSJ says, parenting classes should not just be a “middle-class preserve,” which sadly they are at present. In closing, the CSJ also says,

“The consequences of a father falling out of a child’s life are hugely significant, and any Government that is serious about tackling social mobility and improving the life chances of our children needs to take fatherhood seriously.”

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Before I call Mr Clark, let me say that I will call the Opposition spokespeople at about 10.35 am. If Mr Day and Ms Sherriff speak for about seven minutes, we should be able to get to the Minister at about 10.50 am, so, Mr Clark, we will be moving on at about 10.35 am.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I will do my best to keep it very brief. Thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing this debate.

International Men’s Day raises some important issues, as we have heard from other hon. Members. I will try not to go over them again. I am a father of two little boys, so I declare an interest. I attended both their births and the prenatal classes, so I have done my best to start off well.

Equality should mean tackling discrimination issues for both genders, yet there is still too little recognition of the important contribution that men and boys make to our society and that they often face more social pressures than women do. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, that is not necessarily fair. This can lead to extreme levels of stress and anxiety, and in the worst cases a feeling of failure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford explained, four in five suicides are by men—I am staggered. It is the biggest killer of men under the age of 35. It does not just happen in deprived areas. The downturn in the oil and gas industry in my own constituency in Aberdeenshire has created huge pressures on families and the main breadwinner. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire said, that may be a stereotype, but I am afraid that is the consequence.

Raising awareness about men’s wellbeing also means talking about their own physical health and recognising that men are more likely to die of cancer or heart disease. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has said, the figures on that are available to us all. As we have heard, 95% of workplace fatalities are men. In my Gordon constituency, where we have had traditionally male-dominated employment—primarily oil and gas, agriculture and fishing—they have gone an awful long way in trying to reduce that. Particularly the fishing industry, which had a bad track record, is trying to improve that. Oil and gas now has a tremendously good track record. More women, of course, are going in to oil and gas, and there may be some correlation with improving safety.

In Scotland, men’s life expectancy is five years less than women’s. In all the statistics, that is true all over the world. Having said that, the aim of International Men’s Day is not to promote one gender over the other. It is not about who faces more discrimination, but calling for a more balanced approach to gender equality.

Hon. Members have spoken about personal cases in their own constituencies. I was recently contacted by the sister of an acting police officer—a man. She wrote to me telling me about his plight. His marriage had broken up. He was struggling to pay maintenance and keep a roof over his head. The most tragic issue for him was not seeing his children. While reading the email I realised that I actually knew him and I had absolutely no idea how much he was struggling with life—similarly to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who spoke about his own personal circumstances.

We must promote positive male role models and hardworking men to the benefit of all. Promoting that role model is important to males and females. I was delighted to see at the Remembrance Day in Inverurie how many youth organisations have men—and women—still running them, and to see that youth organisations are now pretty well gender neutral.

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Mr Clark, I hope your speech is coming to an end.

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I am definitely coming to an end, Mr Austin.

Quickly, to shoot ahead, International Men’s Day improves gender relations, but it also creates a safer and better society, where each individual regardless of their gender is able to reach their full potential.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing this debate on International Men’s Day, which will take place on Sunday 19 November. I am grateful to him for his detailed presentation and for reminding us that it is an international event. It is a pleasure to recognise that it is now promoted in over 80 countries.

There are many issues which disproportionately impact upon men. However, in addressing these, it is important that we do not detract from the work done to address institutional bias against women. The main themes from today have been male vulnerability and wellbeing, and there are clearly many facets to this situation, and poverty and deprivation are two of the key components, as is fatherless families. Fatherhood has been well covered by the hon. Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning the Scotch Year of the Dad. I would like to take this opportunity to praise publicly my own father, Ron, who has been an absolutely great role model in my life. It is a reminder to everybody that children are children at all ages. As I arrived here today for this debate I got a message from him updating me about the cat, which he is looking after, and the car, which he is getting sorted at the garage. I thought it was a message from the Whip. The Whip is sitting behind me, but I did not get any message from the Whip, so I think I have free rein to say what I like.

Perhaps the crux of the problem for me is that men are much more likely to be roofless than women are. The Scottish Government found that in 2014, 81% of those sleeping rough were male. This is partly due to the fact that men are much less likely to seek help for issues such as mental health or substance abuse. I remember a housing slogan from the 1990s—I cannot remember which charity had it, but we had it on car stickers at the time—which said, “Build a home; build a life.” That was true then and it is true now. Scotland has some of the strongest legislation in the world on rights for the homeless. All homeless people have the right to temporary accommodation immediately, and if unintentionally homeless, to settled accommodation, with a commitment to invest more than £3 billion over the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament and to deliver at least 50,000 affordable homes, and the most important component of that for me is that 35,000 of those are to be for social rent. That builds on the work of the previous Parliament, where they exceeded the target of delivering 30,000 affordable homes.

Then we come to perhaps the most frightening part of this debate: the issue of suicide and early death. There are around 12 male suicides a day in the UK, representing 76% of all suicides. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted this issue very clearly, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who amplified the situation in Scotland, which has seen an increase for the first time in the last six years—truly frightening and shocking.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) advised that the life expectancy for men is five years lower in Scotland than for women. I always tell people that my constituency is a great place to live—and it is. In my area the life expectancy is only three years lower for men. That is still a problem we need to address and tackle, but it is compounded further by inequality. It is not an even three years across all social classes.

The majority of children in care are boys. In 2015, 53% of the looked-after children in Scotland were male. How can the educational attainment and outcomes for these youngsters be summed up? It is just not good. Only 6% of them go on to university and nearly half suffer from mental health issues. Staggeringly—this statistic is appalling—a young person who has been in care is 20 times more likely to die before the age of 25 than someone who has not been in care.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East spoke of mental health and the impact of projects such as Men’s Sheds. He also spoke of his own personal experience, and it highlights that many are in that situation.

Half the adult prison population are people who lived in care growing up. Last summer—a year and a bit ago—I visited Shotts Prison. It was a very interesting experience. It is an interesting place to visit, but not somewhere I would like to live. It is not often that I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), but today I do. Some 95% of the prison population are male. It was shocking to learn that they are more likely to be sent to prison and to receive longer sentences than women for the same crimes.

The increased attention being paid to mental health issues in NHS Scotland, and now in England, will hopefully help to reduce this problem. The Harry’s Masculinity Report, produced by University College London, found that the main factor in mental positivity for men was job satisfaction. Having a direct impact on the success of a business was also important, with autonomy cited as a main reason for increased job satisfaction. Self-esteem is critical. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) spoke of stigma, which I also want to comment on. I asked 1st Step, a local charity from my constituency, about its experience. I have mentioned it before, and it deals with issues that particularly affect men developing addictions to alcohol or drugs. The charity deals with addicts in recovery and two thirds of its clients are male. It finds that drug addiction is associated with unemployment, while alcoholism is more often associated with stress at work, and both are associated with self-esteem issues. The major issues for males in addiction are shame and guilt, with men frequently in denial about their problems and feeling useless or suffering from depression. Fortunately, in my area 1st Step is there to offer activities supported and managed by those in recovery, providing additional opportunities to develop skills and enhance self-esteem, and it really has made a difference to many of my constituents.

Equality, including equality for those of any gender, is thankfully a core value in our society and I welcome this debate as an opportunity to highlight those issues today.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Austin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing this debate and on his very thoughtful and constructive speech. He gave me some food for thought regarding initiatives that I may want to explore further in my own constituency. I would also like to take this brief opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) for talking about his own personal family situation. It takes a huge amount of bravery to do that and it was incredibly powerful, so I genuinely thank him.

I note that this is the third consecutive year that a debate has been held for International Men’s Day. For the previous two years, as is the case this year, the male suicide rate has been an important point of discussion. I think that we can all agree that it is particularly poignant at this time, given the tragic death of our Welsh Assembly colleague just a few days ago. It concerns me though that we do not appear to be much further forward in tackling the causes of male suicide, and that this could merely turn into an annual discussion instead of a platform from which we can seek to make change.

Although we know that the suicide rates in Great Britain fell slightly in 2016, that slight decrease is not enough and more action needs to be taken. Some 76% of the suicides in Great Britain last year were male, and just 24% were female. It is reported that approximately 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental health condition, either diagnosed or undiagnosed, and that suicide is still the biggest single killer of men under 50. A number of hon. Members made points about issues in social classes, and that is something to be explored further. All local authorities are expected to have a multi-agency suicide prevention plan in place by the end of this year, but I worry that, in these times of austerity and cuts to local authority funding, that will be no more than a tick-box exercise with no new money available to implement any of Public Health England’s guidance on reducing risk in men.

The hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Glasgow East paid tribute to the many different charities that strive to tackle suicide prevention. Those include Andy’s Man Club, State of Mind Sport, Campaign Against Living Miserably, Mind, Samaritans, Time to Change and It Takes Balls to Talk, to name just a few. Those charities, and many more like them, do phenomenal work across the country. I remember listening, as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on rugby league, to State of Mind rugby as ex-rugby players who had been involved in serious accidents or injuries talked about going into schools to encourage young boys in particular to open up about their mental health and to try to remove the stigmas. Many of these charities attempt to challenge traditional stereotypes to encourage men to be much more open about their feelings, but there is still societal pressure on men to be strong, independent, competitive, tough and masculine. Studies have found that those traits have been linked with mental health issues in men.

International Men’s Day UK says that the focus remains on how we can make a difference to men and boys. We can challenge male stereotypes from a young age to ensure that boys are more comfortable in their own skin and are not constantly trying to prove themselves; that there is less language along the lines of “man up” and “boys don’t cry”; that boys are told it is okay not to join in conversations with their peers that seek to undermine women and create division and mistrust among the sexes; that boys can talk to each other about their feelings and it does not matter if someone is gay, straight, bisexual or transgender because there is not a one-size-fits-all catch-all and our differences are what make us interesting, even in these days.

We can encourage boys to talk about their health problems and not to suffer in silence. We heard from the hon. Member for Stafford that men are far less likely to seek medical treatment for both mental and physical health problems. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women’s health, I would like to see an equivalent group set up to discuss men’s health and to help to remove taboos around diseases such as testicular and prostate cancers. The latter took my grandfather. In last year’s debate, I mentioned a point that is still very relevant now: it is recognised that a reticence remains among some men to visit a doctor and catch problems early. We also have to consider diversity in advertising campaigns. When we see campaigns on things such as strokes and heart attacks, it is always a middle-aged, white, straight man involved in them, and we absolutely need to broaden our outlook.

We can support work to reduce social isolation among men, who are far less likely to socialise than women. Loneliness among men is an increasing issue, often causing depression and feelings of worthlessness. In a bid to combat male social isolation a growing number of Men’s Sheds projects are opening across the UK. These projects offer workshops, known as “sheds”, where men can go to work, share ideas and projects or simply talk. Activities vary enormously but include wood working, gardening, model making, art, metal work and engineering projects. I am very proud to support one that has recently opened in Denby Dale ward in my own constituency, and was delighted to see at first hand the difference it is making to the lives of those using the facilities.

Age UK’s recent research found that almost a third of older men in England who have long-term health problems are lonely, and that number is set to rise by 65% by 2030. To help combat that, Age UK continues to work on a number of projects, including Kitchen Kings, which helps older men learn how to cook and serves the dual purpose of a skills-based class and a lunch club, and Eat Well Live Well, which is a local project that aims to improve the health and diet of older people, as well as tackle social isolation.

Education is often key to improved life chances, so it is concerning that boys are still consistently behind girls in educational attainment. According to a study by Save the Children, boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to fall behind by the time they start school, with deprivation being a huge factor. Girls have consistently outperformed boys at GCSE for many years and UCAS also reports that men are falling behind women in our universities, with 36.8% of young women entering higher education compared with 27.2% of men.

Some people will inevitably try to frame this debate around, “Who has it worst, men or women?” That is, without a doubt, juvenile. In a grown-up world where most people genuinely want progress toward equality, we must recognise that to set this up as a battle of the sexes can only detract from the opportunity that International Men’s Day offers to address the issues that solely affect men. I am a proud feminist but that does not mean that I am ignorant or unsympathetic to issues of inequality between genders where women fare better than men. I believe strongly that where inequality exists it is our duty as parliamentarians to seek to change that and to create a more just and equal society.

The issues that I have raised today are only a few of those that should be debated as we approach International Men’s Day this Sunday, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on the steps he proposes to take to combat these inequalities.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on leading the debate and on a typically thoughtful opening speech.

The Government are committed to tackling gender inequality in all its forms. Building a more equal society in which men and women do not find their choices and behaviour limited by their gender will benefit everyone, no matter what that gender is. The issues raised today go far beyond this debate—they go right across government—and even in 2017 the UK has not yet reached full gender equality. We all need to work together—Government, Parliament, business and society—to address some of the specific and deep-rooted problems.

An essential part of that is tackling harmful social norms based on gender: the unwritten rules that prescribe how men and women are expected to behave. Men and women can too often feel held back by what society expects of them, with people prevented from taking opportunities and fulfilling their potential. Men stand to benefit just as much as women from addressing harmful gender norms, whether that means fathers who want to spend more time with their children without feeling as though that will hold them back at work; men and boys suffering from mental health problems who are afraid to seek help because of the stigma attached; or male victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault who are worried they will not be taken seriously. All those issues were raised by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson).

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford started by talking about the importance of male role models and asking how we could do more to support them, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark). Historically, men have not been short of role models. For decades, the majority of politicians, business leaders and prominent artists were all male, but we have lacked role models who celebrate the diversity of ways to be a man. I am pleased that increasingly, young boys who may be LGBT, BAME or from working-class backgrounds can see people who look like them in public life, and that more men are speaking out about traditionally taboo issues, such as mental health or sexual harassment. The Women’s Business Council recently partnered with Management Today to create the first power list of men as change agents, recognising 30 vital male role models.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford went on to talk about tackling health inequalities—an issue that was also raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, as well as other Members. Male life expectancy continues to be lower than female life expectancy. However, life expectancy is higher than it has ever been both for men and women and is generally increasing in most areas, and the gender gap is closing. However, we are aware that men are less likely to seek help, especially with their mental health, and we are working to address that stigma. The Government fund the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign, which has improved the attitudes of more than 4 million people to mental health. I welcome its recent In Your Corner campaign, which is aimed at encouraging men to talk about mental health.

Hon. Members have rightly spoken about the high number of men and boys who suffer from mental health problems. The Government are committed to achieving parity of esteem for mental health, and I am proud that we have invested more than ever in mental health, with spending now estimated to reach about £11.6 billion. We have introduced the first waiting time standards for mental health to ensure that more people receive timely treatment.

The Government have also announced additional investment of £400 million to improve mental health crisis resolution services in the community, but the Government cannot do this alone. To end the stigma around mental health, we all need to do our part to create an environment in which men can talk about mental health struggles and feel confident that they have the support they need. I therefore welcome the work that organisations such as CALM—the Campaign Against Living Miserably—Time to Change and Men’s Health are doing to open up conversations about mental health.

Hon. Members raised the issue of suicide in our society; it is the leading cause of death in men under 50. Deaths by suicide are highest in middle-aged men— aged 40 to 55—and in 2015 there were 1,207 deaths by suicide in men aged 40 to 55. We updated the cross-Government suicide prevention strategy earlier this year to strengthen delivery of its key areas for action, including the better targeting of high-risk groups such as middle-aged men. I am encouraged that the suicide rate decreased in 2015 after years of steadily increasing. Provisional statistics show that the number of deaths by suicide in 2016 may have decreased significantly—by about 5%—but every death by suicide is a tragedy that has a devastating effect on families and communities. That is why we are spending £25 million on suicide prevention over the next three years and are committed to reducing suicides by 10% by 2020-21. We are also ensuring that every local authority has a suicide prevention plan in place by the end of the year. We are working with local authorities to support them in quality-assuring their plans.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred to loneliness as a key contributor to suicide. We recognise that social isolation and loneliness can affect someone’s wellbeing and lead to depression. We support many excellent organisations that provide community interventions for men in settings that are comfortable and accessible to them, including organisations such as the Men’s Sheds movement, which the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) referred to in a very moving and informative speech, and State of Mind, which reaches out to men through sport.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford pointed to the different attainment rates of girls and boys at GCSE. As he knows, the Government are determined to deliver an education system that works for everyone and ensures that all pupils, regardless of background, ethnicity or gender, have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. We are therefore unapologetic about setting high expectations for what pupils can achieve. Our curriculum and qualifications reforms will ensure that pupils receive a rigorous academic education that prepares them for further study and, ultimately, success in employment. My hon. Friend is also right to point to the importance of technical education, which is why we are introducing high-quality T-levels and are committed to a further £500 million in funding for post-16 technical education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) spoke about fathers being denied access to their children. We recognise the devastating impact that parental conflict can have on families. Recent evidence shows that children exposed to frequent, intense and poorly resolved conflict can experience a decline in their mental health and suffer poorer long-term outcomes. The Department for Work and Pensions will launch a new programme on reducing parental conflict to help local areas to improve their support for families. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) was right to point to the importance of involving fathers in family life.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire raised the issue of media perceptions, citing Homer Simpson. She is right; the media can undoubtedly shape our perceptions. We have all seen adverts showing hapless men who are incapable of doing the dishes, who need a woman to step in and take over. Although these adverts are light-hearted, they can reinforce damaging stereotypes that affect how we view men’s and women’s roles and abilities in the real world. She is also right to take pride in her role in the Government’s decision to introduce shared parental leave.

International Men’s Day offers us a good opportunity to remind ourselves of how far we still have to go to achieve equality in the workplace and in wider society. As we have heard, we still need to do more on a range of issues to improve outcomes for men and boys. Tackling harmful social norms will benefit both men and women, and both boys and girls. By working to improve gender equality, this Government are seeking to build a more equal society for the benefit of all our citizens.

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I am grateful to the Minister and to all my colleagues who have spoken today, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for suggesting that we have this debate. It is vital that these debates are not just words; that we see action come from them. I very much look forward to having a debate this time next year and seeing that real progress has been made. Perhaps we can all look at our constituencies and see what we can do locally, as well as encouraging national leaders to take many of these issues forward nationally, and I hope that this time next year we have a debate in which we can point to real progress in a number of areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered International Men’s Day.

District Councils (England)

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the long-term future of district councils in England.

It is delightful to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I am incredibly proud to represent the smallest district council in England, now in danger of abolition if the proposals currently before the Secretary of State are approved. It would be merger most foul. I am absolutely determined to stop it. Local democracy is too valuable to lose, and I want to protect the rights of my 35,000 constituents in West Somerset to hire and fire members of their own district council: people whom they know, neighbours with knowledge and councillors who are local.

I understand why town halls want to co-operate; there are often sensible economies to be made. It is quite another matter to start demolishing democracy, which I am afraid is exactly what West Somerset’s greedy neighbour, the rotten borough of Taunton Deane, is trying to do, using the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, which I suspect was designed to encourage local elected mayors. When the House passed the Bill, we had no idea that it would allow town hall bosses to dodge the normal scrutiny of the Boundary Commission and fix mergers on the sly. There is already an unseemly rush to use the new Act, as it sanctions local authorities to do pretty well whatever they like. As a result, the face of local government in England is gradually being changed, and there does not seem to be much that we in Parliament can do.

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The hon. Gentleman is expressing a specific concern about his local area, but I would like to widen it to make a more general point about the effects of the cuts in central Government funding. Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, funds will have decreased by 51% in Labour-controlled Ashfield. This is not a party political point; Broxtowe has suffered similar cuts. He is absolutely right to say that local people with local knowledge are best placed to take many local decisions, but the impact of central Government funding cuts is making that more difficult than ever.

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I do not know the hon. Lady’s local situation, but she has made her point eloquently, and I am certain that the Minister has heard it. I thank her for her intervention.

We are all being completely conned. Only last week, the Secretary of State announced that he was “minded” to accept a controversial plan for nine councils in Dorset to shrink to become one big new authority. There are other plans in East Anglia, Devon and beyond. In every case, the councils avoid holding fair referendums by saying that it would cost too much. That is a cheapskate attitude and, in my view, deplorable.

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Has my hon. Friend taken into account the point that many district councils have struggled hard to put in place their five-year housing land supply, and that merging district councils into much larger councils may well result in the loss of that across the whole council?

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I agree totally with my hon. Friend, with whom I have worked on many issues. The problem is that bigger is not always better; in fact, it is horses for courses, whatever part of the country might be involved. It does not matter whether the council area is controlled by Labour, the Conservatives or the Scottish National party; one size does not fit all, and that is what I think is happening subliminally.

Two years ago, Parliament passed the Trade Union Act 2016, which demands that at least half of all union members must cast a vote before any strike ballot can be valid. However, we also passed the flawed Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which permits councils to get away with not consulting properly with anybody. To save money, councils hire pollsters to do quick telephone surveys and offer residents the chance to fill in questionnaires. Some consultations are obviously better than others. Most try to give a reasonable indication of public opinion. All consultations must be conducted before councillors make any decision—all, that is, except the one in Taunton Deane, the rotten borough, whose dismal efforts at consultation produced only 500 responses out of 120,000 residents of Taunton Deane and West Somerset. That is less than half of a measly 1%.

Most of the responses were dead against a merger, as the Minister is well aware, but everybody knew that it was a sham consultation, because councillors had approved the plan months beforehand. The No. 1 rule of best practice is to ask people what they think at a formative stage, before any decision is taken. Taunton Deane broke that rule wide open. For that reason alone, the Secretary of State should be “minded” to dispose of the proposal and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, to put it crudely. He knows, because I have told him face to face, that there are many other reasons why the rotten borough of Taunton Deane must be avoided like the plague.

I have said it before and I will say it again: this council is bent. Its revenue department is under investigation by the district auditor; the fraud squad is waiting for a full report; the council leader, whom I should perhaps call the supreme leader, pretends that there is nothing wrong, and has ordered a multi-million pound refit of the tired old council buildings, for which my constituents will pay. He runs his administration with a cabinet of weak yes-men. Frankly, he would not be out of place in Pyongyang.

The council leader sends council orders from his email account at Wrencon, the builders, his personal company. That cannot be right. He has a passion for bricks and mortar, a far too cosy relationship with the big developer Summerfield and an ambition for—believe it or not—17,000 new houses, an absurd target greatly exceeding anything anywhere else in the country. The only advice that he takes is from an economic advisory board financed by the rotten borough, which meets in secret and never publishes agendas or minutes. That is a strange state of affairs in these days of open government.

The economic advisory board advised the supreme leader to build more houses and create a garden town. It also advised him to build a brand-new industrial site on the east side of the M5 at junction 25. It probably advised him that a new industrial estate wholly owned by—guess who?—Summerfield could be sneaked through the planning system with a local development order, avoiding all those annoying planning hurdles.

It is only right and proper that the Minister should get to know some of the key members of this curiously undemocratic body, because it is important. Mr Nick Engert, from the law firm Clarke Willmott, works for a number of companies and landowners. Summerfield is one of his biggest clients, and his Taunton office is on an industrial estate developed by Summerfield; what a coincidence. It would be wrong of me to fail to mention that Mr Engert is on the secretive economic advisory board only because of his membership of the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership. Pull the other one. Mr Engert is also on the board of Taunton racecourse, alongside another director of—wait for it—Summerfield. Ching—they’re off!

I now introduce Mr Nigel Pearce, a Taunton architect and honorary president of Taunton chamber of commerce. His executive committee includes, of course, the managing director of Summerfield; how handy. Mr Andrew Maynard, a property consultant for Alder King, a large local estate agent that some may have heard of, was closely involved in Summerfield’s Westpark development at junction 26. He will undoubtedly be looking forward eagerly to helping Summerfield to find clients for Nexus 25, the new development at junction 25.

Everybody is happy, including the chairman of the economic advisory board, Jonny Clothier. He keeps himself to himself, but has made shed loads of money from Clarks, the shoemakers, and Rohan, makers of upmarket outdoor clobber. He also heads an interesting charitable trust near Street. I wonder why he put a senior surveyor from Summerfield on the charity board. There is a bit of a fuss going on about plans to build 300 houses on land owned by the trust. There could not possibly be a connection, could there?

If I sound distrustful, it is not surprising. Summerfield is in the business of making money by building houses, and is far less bothered about the impact of its projects than about the size of its profits. Summerfield wants to build houses in the lovely seaside town of Watchet in my constituency—far too many for a place like that. I am relying on the common sense of West Somerset district councillors, but I almost forgot to say that the Taunton economic advisory board wants to get rid of most of my councillors. Its members submitted a letter singing the praises of the supreme leader’s merger idea that was sent to the Secretary of State; talk about working on false evidence. They are mates with Summerfield and lapdogs of the supreme leader.

The supreme leader also attends secret advisory board meetings with his ever-faithful chief executive, on the rare occasions when she bothers to turn up. I could mention that Taunton Deane Borough Council moved its direct labour organisation to expensive new premises that were built, of course, by Summerfield. The supreme leader appears grinning with Summerfield’s top brass in so many of its publicity photos that I wonder who is working for whom. There are many dots and they all join up. It is more than suspicious; it is obvious. Even the notorious price-fixing estate agents Greenslade Taylor Hunt are happy to take Summerfield’s shilling, but at 2% a go I suspect their bill will be very much more than that.

It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is not in her place. She is understandably an enthusiast for Taunton’s garden town status, for Nexus 25 and for everything else the supreme leader touches, yet I have heard a tape recording of a public meeting during the election campaign at Priorsfield church in which she describes Taunton as “an absolute dump”. She is spot on. The town has been allowed to fester under an incompetent, corrupt council. There are sites in the centre that have been lying derelict for 14 years. In the drive to put up ever more houses, the council has ignored vital infrastructure and has deliberately broken many of the planning rules.

The proposed new business park on the eastern side of junction 25 is a prime example. It should never be allowed. Development on that side of the motorway was meant to be impossible, until Summerfield bought 25 hectares of farmland and, completely impartially, the Taunton economic advisory board said it was a jolly good idea. Summerfield also bought up an extra 100 acres of land. I have it on the best authority that the mortgage documents are in Companies House. I am told that every single field in the area is now under an option to buy from a range of different developers. So much for the garden town: Taunton Deane Borough Council wants to concrete it over.

Greenslade “2%” and partners must be having a field day. First, Taunton Deane Borough Council breaks its own planning rules and then it tries to use local development orders to speed up the process. It is all plain wrong. LDOs were designed to get brownfield sites back in use. Developers need incentives to get them interested—we understand that—but Summerfield must be laughing all the way to the piggy bank. It bought green fields and most of the expensive planning will be paid for by the council itself—whoopee!

Today, there is a meeting of Taunton Deane Borough Council’s community scrutiny committee. Its members will discover that Summerfield has offered £40,000 to ensure the local development order goes its way. I cannot think anything other than that this is bribery. The total cost will reach almost a quarter of a million pounds and the bulk will come out of council funds—that is documented.

In order to be successful, Nexus 25 needs excellent road access, but there is a huge problem. Highways England announced yesterday that it will re-run all its consultations on improvements to the A358—I wonder why. It originally suggested a bad route and then made a pig’s ear of the consultations. Where have we heard that before? Now Highways England must start all over again but sensibly, for once, it has said it will not do so until the new year. Unfortunately, delays cost money, and the price of a decent road will go way over Highways England’s budget. I would not place a bet, not even a shiny Greenslade 2%, on that scheme happening any time soon, which leaves Nexus 25 looking like a stranded whale—a mammoth scheme deprived of essential infrastructure.

Taunton has quite a few such schemes. The latest is a giant extension at Staplegrove, where 1,600 new houses are supposed to be part of the green town dream. It squeaked through the planning process, but has left a foul stench. Public opinion was openly ignored and councillors say that they were bullied to support it. Taunton now needs a relief road to take all the extra traffic, but guess what? The council is already begging for money and trying to extract grants from the Government from the housing infrastructure fund. That is rich coming from a council that has spent £11 million to tart up its HQ and plans to borrow millions more to buy redundant business sites. It has £3 million sitting in its new homes bonus account doing nothing and it could raise at least £10 million more from the community infrastructure levy when the new Staplegrove houses are completed.

I appeal to the Minister and his colleagues to see these crooks for what they are and, for God’s sake, not to give them a penny. They have already received £725,000 in grants to produce more artists’ impressions of their blessed garden town. They have become addicted to public money. The supreme leader is a funding junkie, a bent builder and a bully. I repeat the exact words of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane: the town is “an absolute dump”. I gave a clear warning to the Secretary of State personally and promised that he will live to regret taking Taunton seriously. He knows that I will go on to expose more. If he backs their mad plan to take over West Somerset Council, he risks losing not just my support, but that of a lot of people in my area. I understand that the Minister is quite serious: he said that I had to talk to my councillors. I agree. Unfortunately, bullying is a very nasty thing, as hon. Members discussed in the previous debate. Secretary of State, do what the anti- drugs campaigners always recommend: “Just say no”.

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It is the first time I have had the opportunity to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for calling this important debate. He may be aware that there is another debate tomorrow on district councils. It is a bit like buses—he waits an entire parliamentary career for a debate, and two come along at the same time. On behalf of my Department and all hon. Members, I also thank councillors on all the different kinds of district councils. Theirs is often a thankless task, but they are a deeply committed group of men and women who go out to serve their community every day. We cannot find enough occasions to thank them for the enormous amount of work they do and the huge support that they give to their communities, regardless of the political party they represent or where they are located.

I will start by setting out the different types of district councils, of which there are effectively three. First, there are metropolitan district councils, including Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. They are single-tier large authorities that are normally formed around a large urban area. They have the full gamut of powers delegated to local authorities, including social care, transport, housing, planning, waste collection and licensing. Secondly, below those, there are unitary district councils. I have the privilege of representing the Blackburn with Darwen Council. Bedford and Cheshire East are two other examples. They have the same powers as other large unitary single-tier authorities such as the metropolitan districts. Thirdly, there are the shire district councils that my hon. Friend spoke about today in places such as Lancashire, Somerset, Cambridgeshire and Hampshire. They deliver key local services such as planning, waste collection and council tax collection, but have an upper-tier county authority that is often responsible for social care and transport.

The different types of local authorities show the wide nature of our local government family in the UK. For example, Oxford has a population of about 160,000 covering 3,500 square kilometres, while West Somerset, the constituency of my hon. Friend, has a population of just 35,000 covering a mere 725 square kilometres—although I am sure that every square kilometre is important. Given those great differences in the local authority family, it is not surprising that many of them are looking at their governance structures to see how they can deliver services more effectively.

In some areas, local authorities have decided that they want to move to a single-tier large unitary authority. They tell the Government that two-tier authorities can be confusing for residents, who often struggle to understand which services are provided by the two councils that cover them. In other areas, that approach has not won local support and two, three or four district councils are contemplating merging to create a super district council that will keep the two-tier structure, or to become a combined authority to deliver services more effectively. District councils have worked for many years on transformational programmes to share their top teams and co-commission the services they deliver. They are always looking to achieve greater sustainability and efficiency for the taxpayer; those programmes have already delivered large savings. They believe that merging, or finding new ways of working may be the next natural step in their sustainability programme.

My supreme leader—the supreme leader of my Department—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced last week two initial decisions to merge councils. He announced the merger of district councils in Suffolk to form a large district; he is also looking to implement a scheme that will create two unitary councils in Dorset. It is particularly helpful for this debate that, in those “minded to” decisions, the Secretary of State set out a road map for local authorities to follow if they wanted to merge local authorities to deliver more efficiency, wherever they find themselves in the local government family.

The road map has a three-tier test. First, are the changes likely to improve the local area’s governance? That must always have better service delivery and value for money for the council taxpayer at its heart. Secondly, do the proposals command a good deal of local support? In particular, the proposal must have gone through full council meetings in the local authorities and have successfully passed that hurdle—that is a red line. Thirdly, does the geography of the new structure make sense? We do not want any local authority reorganisation to create a patchwork quilt, with local authorities coming together perhaps on political lines rather than focusing on service delivery. We need adjacent councils to come together and merge to create a larger authority, if that is what they desire.

The motivations behind the mergers proposed to Government are different. Some councils wish to improve financial resilience, but all have set out a programme to increase efficiency and deliver services better for the people that they serve. Some shire district councils already share many services and look at becoming a single-tier entity because that is the next natural step in joint working.

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Is it not true—it is certainly my experience—that where district councils have merged, they have struggled with the democratic deficit that has arisen? What we have seen replacing them has effectively been the same as district councils, with local areas in which local people can hold councillors to account.

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I started off by putting my thanks to local councillors on record, which I am sure is a reflection of everyone’s views, although it is unfortunate that there is no one here from the Opposition to put their thanks on record; I will do it on their behalf. Local councillors are a fantastic link with the community. Whether we have all-out elections or yearly elections, we get our opportunity to fire them if they stop doing a good job. Regardless of the size of the local authority—metropolitan borough, unitary or district—we must ensure that we do not break the link between the local community and the local councillor, because it is their job to be the voice not just of the borough but very specifically of the ward, the street and the area they represent in that local council. As long as proposals retain that strong local link for councillors to go out there and be champions for the local area, that should be considered, if it is widely supported.

I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset referred in a previous debate to a “merger most foul” rather than a “murder most foul”. In relation to his very specific allegations, if he believes there is evidence of any criminal activity whatever, he must make those allegations to the police. I know he has talked openly and widely about them in the House today, but any criminal behaviour is intolerable in public service and in local authorities and I would urge him to report the allegations to the police as quickly as possible so that those people who have committed criminal offences can feel the long arm of the law reach for them, rather than the long arm of this place talk about it.

The Secretary of State is currently considering the proposal for Taunton Deane Borough Council to merge with West Somerset District Council. The councils have let the Department know that they wish to merge and become a large district council. The Secretary of State is carefully considering the proposal, together with representations made to him by all parties, including those made by my hon. Friend, and the further representations he has made in today’s debate. I will draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the content of today’s debate in his considerations. What I can say is that the auditor for the area has made it clear in his report about the merger that it forms an important element of West Somerset’s future financial viability.

I want to set out the next steps in the process. First, the Secretary of State will make an initial decision, as soon as practicable, when he has had the opportunity to consider all the representations. After that decision, whether it is a “minded to implement” decision or not, there will be a period of representation, during which my hon. Friend and all members of his community, including the local authority, can make representations to the Secretary of State about whether the proposed merger is appropriate. Once the Secretary of State has considered all those representations, he will make a final decision. If that final decision is to implement the proposals, we are then required to come to the House of Commons to seek the permission of Parliament to pass secondary legislation.

In conclusion, I repeat that local areas owe a responsibility to the people they represent to find as many ways as possible to deliver value to the taxpayer and improve services. Their priority, in all areas of the country, must be to ensure that local government is effective, efficient and financially sustainable. They have a duty and an obligation to deliver core services. I know that those councillors we have referred to today have the wellbeing of their residents at heart and must continue to hold their local authority to account to ensure that those services are delivered to the residents they represent.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Marine Environment

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK’s role in the degradation of the marine environment.

It is a pleasure to be given the opportunity to lead a debate on this issue. I do not think that I have secured a Westminster Hall debate for two or three months. It is a great pleasure to secure one on this particular subject. I do not know whether anyone in Westminster Hall today thinks I am a latecomer to the subject, but when I was a very young lecturer at Swansea University I had the privilege of listening to a distinguished professor, Ernst Schumacher, just after he published a book called “Small is Beautiful”, and being introduced—as a traditionally trained LSE economist—to the notion of sustainable development and sustainable economies rooted in small, local communities. That started me on a lifetime of social enterprise and a lot of enterprises that were about the environment and sustainability.

Therefore, I am not a latecomer. I have not just read The Times 2 section, which, rather serendipitously, today is all about the plastic found in our marine environment, or just been influenced by that wonderful—what do we call him?—“saint of the environment”, David Attenborough; I saw “Blue Planet II” last night. He has become very much associated not only with such wonderful research but with wise advice, based on the research and good evidence about the dangers to the planet in general and to the marine environment in particular.

So I am not a Johnny-come-lately. Indeed, I was a founding member of Friends of the Earth in the United Kingdom. Many years ago, I started a group called the Socialist Environment and Resources Association, or SERA, a left-wing environmental organisation. On environmental urban mines, we believed that, instead of digging holes in the Earth’s crust and taking out virgin material, we should recycle and reuse material, including the waste that flows from towns and cities. I say that just to prove that I have some interest in and a record over the years of involvement in these subjects, and the desire, as a social entrepreneur, to do something about those issues in communities, both national and local.

The fact is that our marine environment is at risk, in a way that we have not previously thought it was at risk. I woke up to the issue a couple of years ago. I suppose I always knew how bad the marine environment was becoming. We had all heard of these vast islands of floating, semi-submerged plastic, which nobody knew how to deal with or tackle and which were getting bigger. The Environmental Audit Committee has done excellent work recently on microbeads. So I was conscious of the impact of that. I was also interested in recycling, what we did with waste and where waste ended up, as well as sustainability. All that came together, I suppose, when I reread an old favourite of mine by the man who created the term “the dismal science” for economics. Thomas Malthus predicted that, eventually, the population would outgrow the food supply and that we would all perish, unless two wonderful things happened—war or pestilence. That was Malthus’s way of suggesting that there would be a natural ability of the economy and society to renew themselves as we ran out of food.

The old counter-argument to Malthus was that human beings were clever, innovative and creative. They would discover new forms of science, applied science and engineering. Agriculture would become highly sophisticated in how it treated the land and grew crops, and we would become so much more productive.

The critics of Malthus were absolutely right, but the fact is that, although humans are creative, clever and innovative, they are also greedy, careless and exploitative. That is the truth. I said to one of my staff yesterday, “It’s not the sort of thing you run round your constituency saying to your constituents”. I do not pick on the British people particularly, but humans are clever, careless and exploitative, and they are in danger—one species—of destroying this planet through climate change and global warming and what we are doing to the oceans of the world, let alone what we have done to the poor species that we have shot, eaten, killed and driven into extinction.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I had asked him before the debate if he would take an intervention. Does he agree that it is not only essential that we preserve and protect our marine environment but that fishermen are not prevented from sustainable fishing in areas that they know? Does he agree that science has proven to be fully capable of handling sensible fishing, as was done through the common fisheries policy? Does he realise that there are many who can sustain a business and that fishing is one of them, and that the environment will not be harmed by it?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to bring up the issue of fishing. With your permission, Mr Owen, I will come back to fishing a little later, including that specific point. Of course there are better ways and worse ways of fishing. When we have Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, if anyone mentions bottom-scraping, everyone giggles, but the fact is that there are ships that do scrape the bottom of the ocean, taking everything. That is a savage and unacceptable form of fishing.

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I am really enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s brilliant speech so far. One of the problems is that it is very hard for consumers to know whether or not the fish they buy is sustainable or not. The one thing that we can rely on, or think we can rely on, is the label provided by the Marine Stewardship Council. However, new research by the On the Hook campaign shows that the MSC has been awarding certification to fleets that on one day use sustainable tackle but the next day use completely rapacious and unsustainable tackle; it is certifying some of the worst operators in the world. Given the MSC’s near-monopoly status in the world, in terms of providing that certification or assurance, does he agree that the Government should be encouraged to work closely with the MSC to ensure that it raises rather than continues to weaken the science, at the cost of our world’s oceans?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I agree with every word he says. I will also put that issue on the backburner for a moment, because I want to talk about how we move forward. Anyone who saw the last David Attenborough film knows that it offered one little chink of light. Viewers get to the stage where they are feeling quite suicidal about the future of the marine environment, and then suddenly David Attenborough mentions that, actually, there is some possibility of the oceans renewing themselves in some areas, although not as well as we might hope.

Let me talk about the purpose of this debate. There has been a slow awakening to the peril the marine environment is in, but now is the time that we must act. David Attenborough says that we have 50 years to save ourselves, but I think that he is being generous. I think that we have to act much more quickly and decisively, and have the right kind of organisations. I am afraid that the only political things that I will be saying today are about what I believe to be the real strengths of the European Union over a number of years in helping us to co-operate across nations to tackle some of the great problems of the environment.

I remember meeting Surfers Against Sewage in my early days in the House. Mr Owen, you will remember what the seas around Swansea were like a few years ago. They were full of sewage—dreadful conditions. So many of our coastal towns used to pump sewage, in a pipe, out into the sea and, of course, back it would come. There has been a remarkable change because of European regulation on discharge to the sea. We rapidly cleaned up our seas and beaches, and also those right across Europe, so that when holidaying there we would know how clean the environment was; there is a standard and a system of flags.

I also remember the tiny amount of recycling that was done in our country in my early days in the House. Local authorities were at 14% recycling. The rates across the country have since zoomed up. Why? Because we took on board European regulations that meant the payment of a levy on any waste that was put in a hole in the ground. What a society we used to be, not long ago, putting all our waste product in holes in the ground. It is still there—a great treachery, a misspent youth. For 150 years, going back to the Victorians, we threw everything we had finished with into holes in the ground. That was a disgrace, and it was only European regulation and landfill tax that turned it around. We now have a much better—but not perfect—situation. Funnily enough, only recently I asked how much each local authority in Britain pays in landfill tax. I have not yet had a reply; the Government are very reluctant to give me the information, saying, “It is so difficult to collect. Inland Revenue cannot provide it”. It is, however, a very good indicator of how effective the authorities are in their recycling.

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The hon. Gentleman is very gracious in giving way a second time. It is the new generation of young people who are very much into recycling; the older generation must learn to get into it. Does he agree that, when it comes to educating and thinking ahead, it needs to be at primary and secondary school levels, so that the next generation coming through can continue what has been and even do it better?

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I hope we are not going to agree on everything here, but again, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will know that I was the Chairman of what is now the Education Committee for years and I am chairman of the John Clare Trust, which, in the name of our great English poet, who lived between 1793 and 1864—probably our greatest poet of the environment, in my opinion—has a centre where we specialise in getting young people to come to the countryside to learn about the rural environment, and so to love it. If young people in our towns and cities do not visit the countryside, we will not get them to love it at all.

We have expanded that work into my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) will know that we have a charity called Greenstreams, through which we try to clean up the rivers and streams in our part of Yorkshire. In the industrial revolution, the rivers were terribly polluted and the fish were killed; the colours of the dyestuffs would flow into the rivers and make them red, blue, whatever—very patriotic—killing everything. Now the water is clean again and we take children down there to show them that if they lift a stone they will see wiggly things that the trout eat, which are then eaten by the kingfishers—the cycle of life. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is very much on the ball. We must start in schools, and the earlier the better.

I want to cover four things: plastics, overfishing, oil and petrol, and then come back to the big picture of climate change. We are sometimes too polite, aren’t we? If we look back over 400 years, we in Britain, as the earliest industrialised nation, with the greatest sea power, have not been good at keeping the global environment clean. I think we chopped down most of our trees to build warships. The biggest problem today is that as China is the most polluted country, followed by India, and then the United States, if we do not work with those large countries, everything we do in the United Kingdom will be of much less value. We need international co-operation, but not in a colonial way, pitching up in any country—even in Russia, which is a great polluter—and saying, “You should do what we do”. They would point to us and say, “Well you don’t have a very good record. You’re a late convert”. We are late converts, but we know a great deal now about how to change the environment in which we live and make it more sustainable.

Let us quickly look at one of the inspirations of recent years: the United Nations sustainable development goals. Goal 14 is about conserving oceans and protecting them from the adverse impacts of climate change, overfishing, acidification, pollution and eutrophication. At United Nations level, it is very important that every country sign up to the goals and make them happen.

My other interest as a Back Bencher is transport safety. Many years ago I introduced seatbelt legislation and my first private Member’s Bill was on children in cars. I have just recently been elected chairman of the Global Network for Road Safety Legislators. That relates to a different United Nations sustainable development goal, but that package of measures, globally driven by the United Nations, is, at the end of the day, what we must look to—international co-operation.

I was on a ship recently, and its environmental officer explained to me just how tight the fleet’s regulations were, and how stringent its rules were, on recycling, including dropping off metal at one port and plastic at another. Her fiancé, however, worked for a commercial firm in Alaska, where they basically threw everything overboard—no rules, no regulation and, it seems, no conscience.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He talks about the need for international co-operation. Does he agree that, if recent reports are to be believed and we unfortunately have up to 8 million tonnes of plastic pollutants in our seas and oceans across the globe, there needs to be an awful lot more international co-operation if we are to minimise that?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for—

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Order. Before the hon. Gentleman goes on, I want to say that he is making detailed opening remarks and taking a number of interventions but we are taking the Front-Bench spokespersons from 15.30. So that everyone can get in, I ask Members to make short interventions. I also ask the sponsor of the debate to be a little quicker.

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I was coming to the conclusion of my remarks, but I want briefly to skate through some points. There is a danger that we get obsessed only with the plastics. The broader pollution is much greater. We know, as does anyone who has been following the science, that it is the acidification of the marine environment and the warming of the temperature of the seas and oceans that is taking its toll. That is what we must tackle, and on a global level. It is all right blaming the Chinese, the Russians or the Indians, but we must start at home, spreading good practice and sharing innovation and good science, in the most co-operative spirit possible.

Members probably know—they certainly will if they follow me on Twitter—that I am a passionate anti-Brexiteer. I know that might upset one or two people in the Chamber, but I very much value the way in which we have done some amazing things across Europe in improving the environment. However, we must go much further. According to Sky Ocean Rescue, a rubbish truck’s worth of plastic is dumped in the ocean every minute. Some 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced in the past 60 years, and 91% of all plastic made since the 1950s has not been recycled, according to Greenpeace. That is the truth of the matter.

In a study last August by Plymouth University, plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish. Cod, haddock and mackerel were all affected. Only one third of plastic packaging used in consumer products is recycled each year. Two thirds is sent to landfill or incinerated. In terms of tap water—the water we drink in this place and in our constituencies—72% of water samples were contaminated with microplastics. Sixteen million plastic bottles are thrown away every day in the UK. Yes, that means we need regulation and international co-operation, but we also need individuals to change how they live their lives.

I have no commercial interest in Unilever, but anyone who has seen Paul Polman talk about the company’s vision to reduce its environmental impact and improve sustainability must have woken up to the fact that all companies need to look at their own products and supply chains and insist that everything going through their system of commerce should be of the highest standard. If everyone is at that standard, we will get there.

Before I finish, I want to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, who is leading a very successful campaign, the “Final Straw for Waste Plastic”, which aims to end the daft use of plastic straws in every café and pub. That is a sign we are moving in the right direction. We also have a campaign for a deposit return scheme for bottles and the microbead ban could go further, but they are not enough.

I want to give some balance, because marine conservation is not all about plastic. It is also about fishing; the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned that. More fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. Some 90% of the world’s fish stocks are fully or over-exploited by fishing. Several important commercial fish populations, such as the Atlantic bluefin tuna, have declined to the point where the survival of the species is threatened. That is the truth. Recommendations are coming through. We need marine conservation zones. We need an environmental audit body to create more need to stop trawling. That method scoops up all the fish and simply returns the ones not wanted to the sea, dead. The European Parliament has been working positively in this area. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said, the Marine Stewardship Council is not perfect, but it is moving in the right direction.

I will end my remarks by saying this. I have been involved in this area of activity all my adult life, from that early inspiration, “Small is Beautiful”, right through to the present day, when some lone voices can say, clearly and distinctly, with all the research at their fingertips, that if we do not act now as individuals, communities and countries working together, we will not survive on this planet.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will now call Steve Double, followed by Kerry McCarthy. If Members can stick to five minutes, we should get all the speakers in.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate on an important issue.

As an island nation, the UK has always had a strong connection to the seas. Although it is probably no longer true to claim that Britannia rules the waves, that connection with our maritime environment is still strong. I speak as an MP representing a part of the world renowned for its coastline and one of only three constituencies that boasts two coastlines. I understand just how important it is that we preserve the wellbeing of our marine environment not only for our fishing fleet, as we have heard—we are hoping to see a revival in it once we leave the European Union—but for our tourism, which is so connected to our coastline. It is also important that we preserve it for future generations. We want to leave the planet in a better state than we found it.

In recent years we have seen growing awareness of the damage we are doing to our seas through the way we live and how we dispose of our waste. We have seen a change from the attitude that existed before, whereby we could just throw rubbish and anything we did not want any longer into the sea and forget about it. There is increasing awareness of the damage that that has caused over many decades and probably centuries. I am proud to say that the Government in recent years have started to take some positive action to address some of the issues, and we have seen good progress.

The current Secretary of State and the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), have taken the issue seriously. Along with the Minister who is here to respond to the debate, we have a team of Ministers who have started to take some decisive action to address this important matter after years of talking about these things. The 5p charge on plastic bags has reduced the number of plastic bags thrown away by billions. Many of those plastic bags would have ended up in our seas and on our coasts. We have seen that dramatic change in public behaviour as a result of something as a simple as a 5p charge.

The Government have introduced a ban on microbeads in cosmetics, which will stop hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of plastic ending up in our waterways. The Government are now taking action to introduce a deposit return scheme on single-use plastic bottles, which will dramatically reduce the number of plastic bottles that end up being thrown away. All too often, they end up in our seas and on our beaches. We are making good progress, but we are all aware that huge challenges remain that we have to address.

I will give some of the statistics that the hon. Member for Huddersfield highlighted. Globally, 8 million pieces of plastic enter the oceans every day. I am sure we have all seen the videos online of islands of plastic bottles floating in some parts of the world. The visual impact of that brings home just what we are doing. The statistic that hit me—I always go back to it—is that if we do not take decisive action, there will be more plastic than fish in our seas by 2050. We have to carry on addressing the issues and taking decisive action.

As the chairman of the Protect Our Waves all-party parliamentary group, I am honoured to work closely with the Cornish-based charity Surfers Against Sewage. For many years it has addressed the pollution of our seas. I have been working closely with the charity since I have been here in Parliament. Other members of the APPG are here, and I invite Members who are not part of the APPG to join us and work with us to ensure that we continue to address these issues in Parliament.

Surfers Against Sewage is a formidable organisation that has worked tirelessly on sea pollution. It has lobbied Government to bring about change. I joined it just a few weeks ago to present a petition signed by 270,000 people to the Prime Minister at No. 10. The petition called for the introduction of a deposit return scheme as part of the charity’s “Message in a Bottle” campaign. Throughout the year, it mobilises tens of thousands of volunteers in beach cleans to remove the rubbish and waste that ends up on our beaches. It is not just about collecting the rubbish; it is a huge awareness campaign to make people more aware of the damage we are doing. We are making good progress, but there is much more to do and by working together we can do it.

I will make one final point, to which I hope the Minister will respond. We need some further action on combined sewer outflows, which continue to discharge untreated sewage into our seas too often when we have heavy rainfall. We are all aware that we are getting heavy rainfall more often. We particularly suffer from that in Cornwall because of our geography, our ageing sewer system, and being at the brunt of storms that come across the Atlantic. We need to start taking more action to put pressure on water companies to get rid of combined sewer outflows, so that we can stop untreated sewage from being discharged.

We are moving in the right direction on those issues, but there is much more to do. The UK must continue to take a global lead in preventing pollution of our oceans, and cleaning them up wherever we can.

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It is pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Owen. The UK, through its overseas territories, is responsible for the world’s fifth largest marine area, amounting to nearly 2% of the world’s oceans. We are therefore a major player, with a major responsibility to act.

We have heard how the health of our oceans is under threat, and degenerating faster than anyone had predicted because of the cumulative effect of a number of individual stresses: climate change; sea water acidification; widespread chemical pollution; plastic pollution; the effect of drilling for oil; and gross overfishing. The world’s oceans are facing an unprecedented loss of species, from large fish to tiny coral, comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory. If we are serious about helping oceans to recover and rebuild, helping fish stocks to replenish, and giving marine ecosystems and coastal communities some breathing space, we need to get serious about creating marine protected areas.

It is true that the UK has shown real leadership on ocean conservation through the action of various Governments. John Kerry and President Obama were also very good in the lead that they took; I hope that the issue has not completely dropped off the US’s agenda now that they have left office. It was encouraging to hear the Foreign Secretary at a recent event in Parliament reassert the Government’s commitment to creating a blue belt of marine reserves in the overseas territories. I would like a response from the Minister on South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. An MPA was created there in 2012, but it provides a minimal level of protection. It is not enough just to tick a box and say, “Well, we’ve got protection there.” We need a fully protected marine sanctuary. The marine environment there is near pristine, and full protection would safeguard it against what is an uncertain future, because of a changing climate and other threats.

I also want to say a little about Antarctica. “Blue Planet II” has already been given a glowing mention by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). I would like to point out that the BBC’s natural history unit is based in Bristol and cannot be over-praised for its amazing work. Anyone who has seen the images of fish with feet, huge fangs, or transparent heads will agree that what the unit is doing to bring that world to life for people, and to make serious political points about the need to conserve our ocean and marine ecosystems, is just phenomenal.

The ocean around Antarctica is also the lungs of the deep, with its waters among the most oxygen-rich on our planet. Much of the life-giving oxygen in deep waters across the world begins its journey there in Antarctica, but the pristine marine environment is threatened by climate change and expanding commercial fishing interests. Marine life there, for example, is totally dependent on krill, but Russia, Norway and China are all said to have krill-fishing interests in the region. That is not something that the people of Russia, Norway and China need, but it is something that the marine ecosystem in that area absolutely needs for its survival. Greenpeace and others are currently pressing for an Antarctic ocean sanctuary. The UK Government can play a vital role in creating this, as part of the Antarctic ocean commission, but as I understand it, the UK has yet to throw its full weight behind negotiations. I hope the Minister can reassure us today that the UK will put real diplomatic effort into that.

The last key point I want to make is on UNCLOS—the UN convention on the law of the sea. More than 64% of the ocean is beyond the jurisdiction of any one country—the so-called high seas. Although UNCLOS provides the legal framework, the current structure is highly fragmented and has huge governance gaps. We need an agreement under UNCLOS to assist in the creation and management of marine reserves, to set a framework for environmental impact assessments, and to co-ordinate the highly fragmented structure of regional organisations that currently regulate human activities. I understand that there is a draft resolution for starting negotiations on the UN oceans treaty that Governments are deciding on this week, which is really great news. I hope that the Government will throw their weight behind agreeing a treaty by 2020.

Finally, I want to reflect on something my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said—something that very much chimes with my way of thinking and that we do not hear often enough in this House. I was the lead shadow Minister on the Deep Sea Mining Bill a few years ago. I found it incredibly depressing that some people speaking in those debates took the view that all the world’s resources are there to be plundered and exploited, and are put there for our benefit, with little need for concern about protecting our precious natural environment. Episode two of “Blue Planet II” featured hydrothermal vents, which I spoke about in Committee. I had no real understanding of what they were and why it was so important to protect them; I just knew that I did not want deep-sea mining going on in tiny miniature ecosystems at the bottom of the sea. Now that I have seen “Blue Planet II” I realise just how wonderful and amazing they are.

The “Keep it in the ground” campaign asserts that 80% of the fossil fuels that we currently know of ought to be kept in the ground if we are to meet our climate change commitments. That means that we should not be drilling for oil in the tar sands, or in the Arctic. We should not look down, at deep-sea mining and the hydrothermal vents. I want to pay tribute to what my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said. I am entirely with him on this: the world is not ours to exploit; it is ours to protect.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing today’s debate.

The Government have a good record on dealing with pollution in our seas, and I congratulate not only the Minister, but the Secretary of State on all the fantastic things that they have spoken about over the last few months that will make a big difference. The ban on microbeads is very welcome indeed, as is the consultation on single-use plastics, the ongoing work to clean up our coastal waters, and the responsibility that the Government have acknowledged to take a lead in making sure that we have responsible fishing at home and abroad. I want to speak about those last three matters briefly today.

Last month, I joined a beach clean at Burnham-on-Sea, and was struck by the incredible amount of plastic that had been washed up. There were bottles, earbuds, drinking straws, packaging—all sorts. The Government should be as concerned as I was about the amount of plastic that was there, but they should also take great heart and credit for the significant reduction in plastic bags that are being washed up on our beaches compared with three years ago, which is the direct result of the charge that they have made for bags in supermarkets. It just goes to show that if we can attach a value to plastics, we can change people’s behaviour.

We can encourage consumers and businesses to use different materials. Wetherspoons should be congratulated on using paper straws rather than plastic ones. Increasingly, the plastic buds that people use to clean their ears are being switched from blue plastic sticks to paper sticks. Things like that make a difference, and where we cannot lean on manufacturers to change packaging, we should look at a deposit return scheme, so that we attach a value to the plastics and drive down their usage.

The Government, the Prince of Wales, Sky News—with its excellent ocean rescue campaign—and, of course, the brilliant “Blue Planet II”, which we are all watching on Sunday evenings at the moment, have shown real leadership. We should all agree that single-use plastics are absolutely avoidable. The UK is already taking a lead in how they can be avoided, and we should be behind the Government in continuing that effort.

On fishing, Brexit is clearly a great challenge. We should beware the siren calls that may come from some in the fishing industry to eschew EU regulation and let the UK fishing industry be great again. I think that that is a false narrative. If we adopt the best practice from EU regulation into UK waters, we can support a thriving UK fishing industry, while making sure that marine life in and around the United Kingdom can also thrive.

We should also, of course, expect the very best practices from fisheries overseas. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) in supporting the On the Hook campaign. When they buy fish in our shops, consumers want to know that the blue tick on the tins or on the packaging for their fish is something they can rely on. The Marine Stewardship Council is responsible for the blue ticks and it has been deeply concerning to see evidence from On the Hook that that blue tick is being applied to fish products that were absolutely not caught in a sustainable way, particularly from the Parties to the Nauru Agreement fishery in the Pacific. One might question why on earth we should worry about that, but a lot of that fish ends up on shelves in UK supermarkets, and UK consumers have every right to expect that what they buy, if it has a blue tick on it from the Marine Stewardship Council, is legitimate and that that blue tick is justified so that they can purchase with confidence.

Finally, I want to raise with the Minister, as I have done with her predecessors, the bathing water quality of Burnham-on-Sea, which, it has been announced today, has fallen short of the standards we should expect. There is a good news story underneath that. There have been significant improvements in bathing water quality at Burnham-on-Sea over the past few years. Wessex Water is to be congratulated on the huge amount it has spent in improving the sewerage systems throughout the catchment, and we are seeing that reap dividends as the results have improved this year.

There is also improved behaviour from local residents, businesses and the council. There are better bins, so there are fewer seagulls, and we see good practice with dog walkers on the beach. All of that sort of thing is happening, which is great news. However, we still do not understand which farms within the enormous catchment are having the most impact on bathing water quality. I have been pushing Natural England and the Environment Agency to understand that for some time now. Some ministerial support might be useful in ensuring we do a full and accurate audit so that we understand exactly which farms contribute to the bathing water quality challenge and so that we can target the grants for improving farmyards and waste-water run-off in a way that directly affects bathing water in Burnham-on-Sea, rather than simply rewarding the farms and farmers who are best at applying for grants.

Our oceans are vital to the health of our planet. The levels, the temperature and the life of and in our seas are absolutely vital. The Government are doing some brilliant work. It is quite incredible when George Monbiot starts to write complimentary things about a Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment. The Government are to be congratulated on all they are doing. They have my full support. If we could get the bathing water in Burnham-on-Sea improved, I would be very grateful indeed.

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I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this debate. As we have heard today, we do not own the, seas; we are simply caretakers of them. It is important that we bequeath a rich and healthy marine environment legacy to future generations, and do so to the best of our ability. Some progress has been made. The UK and Scottish Governments are working together, as we heard earlier, to deliver on a commitment to implement a ban on microbeads in personal care products to tackle the scourge of microbead pollution.

Marine protected areas have now been established in waters around the United Kingdom with the Scottish marine protected network covering around 20% of the seas around Scotland. Those protected areas are important since this means that any proposed development or use of such areas will have to take into account the need for recovery.

Scotland’s seas are a vast and rich natural resource. It is our sacred duty to keep them healthy and protected for current and future generations. Much of our coastline and surrounding seas are globally important habitats for many bird species, providing food, a place to rear young, and winter refuge. The future of our marine environment must be sustainable for our precious yet vulnerable marine habitat. The national marine plan in Scotland was adopted in March 2015 and provides a framework for consistent decision making that takes account of the marine environment. Work is now ongoing to implement marine planning on a regional scale.

Marine protected areas provide additional protection to important locations in our seas, and the network covers 20% of our marine area. The marine protected area monitoring strategy monitors and surveys some of Scotland’s most vulnerable marine habitats. It ensures that detailed information is collected from the marine protected area network to create a more accurate picture of the health of marine environments. In addition, the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s first ever marine litter strategy for Scotland, which details almost 40 new actions to minimise coastal and marine litter. Yet the challenges we face are ongoing.

The fish farming industry has admitted that it has to discard significant numbers of its stock because of disease. Some are now calling for a shift to a closed containment system that would protect the fish and the marine environment. The same demand has been made by the wild fish campaign group, Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland. That seems at least worth examining. Fish and shellfish farming contribute £620 million to the Scottish economy every year, supporting more than 12,000 jobs. We have a duty to protect Scotland’s marine environment, and the health and welfare of farmed fish is of utmost importance to the industry. The Scottish Government are committed to working with the aquaculture sector to develop a strategic health framework that ensures we make progress in tackling major problems, including emerging disease. That is essential for the future and sustainability of our marine environment.

There is also concern about the need to protect vulnerable habitats from scallop dredging. Indeed, an investigation by the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage into claims that the vulnerable habitat in Loch Carron had been damaged by scallop dredging has confirmed that damage to the flame shell beds was consistent with the impact of scallop dredging. Subsequently, the endangered sea bed habitat of the north-west coast was designated as a marine protected area by the Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham MSP. The investigation found there was a viable prospect of recovery because part of the bed had survived and another bed had thankfully remained intact. It is right, as I mentioned in the House today, that such matters are investigated comprehensively and that all options are considered to militate against such an occurrence in the future, in the light of the damage and marine devastation it can cause.

However, the marine environment does not recognise borders or boundaries. It is essential that all Governments across the United Kingdom work together co-operatively to ensure that the health and sustainability of our waters and marine life are secured. Our marine environment is extremely important. We must be able to enjoy the benefits that the sea offers us, but we must also respect the need for sustainable use. We owe that to future generations.

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The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) spoke of his love of the poet John Clare. He was a great poet whose poetry is uplifting to read, but he could at times verge on the pessimistic. He once said,

“I am the self-consumer of my woes.”

That is a particularly apposite quotation for this debate because we—humankind—are the self-consumer of the woes we have created in terms of our management of the seas. There is a massive lightbulb moment going on around the world. We are seeing at last, as the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Huddersfield pointed out, marine conservation on a global scale, which is something to applaud.

I was extremely pleased to see President Obama with John Kerry, his Secretary of State, at his side announcing a marine protected area around Hawaii. It was fantastic that they did that. By comparison, Britain announced an area the size of India, vastly larger than the United States marine protected area, but it was sort of put out as a press release on a Friday night when no one was looking, as though it was the love that dare not speak its name.

Blue Belt is an outstanding policy that we should all be hugely proud of. I am glad that senior members of the Government, including the Foreign Secretary, came to the launch of my pamphlet, “Blue Belt 2.0”, which shows that the Government have at last grasped the fact that they have in their hands something really extraordinary. We can create a gift to the world from our imperial past; a necklace of marine protected areas around our overseas territories—or the confetti of empire, as somebody once called them. We can be extraordinarily proud about that.

I do not have time to go into all the many recommendations in “Blue Belt 2.0”, but it suggests to the Government how they can take things further, and address issues affecting the South Sandwich Islands. Britain is responsible for a quarter of the world’s penguins. That is a bit of information to win a pub quiz with. There are problems with what we are doing in areas such as Ascension Island. Our ambitions must keep in parallel with the innovation we have seen with the Catapult system that monitors those overseas marine protected areas. Then we can really succeed in the delivery of a proper marine conservation.

More than that, as with President Obama, what we do can be more than an act of environmental responsibility; it can be an act of global leadership. We can start to re-engage, post-Brexit, in organisations such as regional fisheries management organisations, from which Britain has had to withdraw, because the EU—rather badly—takes part in them. I have the scars on my back from the International Whaling Commission. I had to sit in EU co-ordination meetings, where I found that Britain’s very pro-whale conservation measures were watered down so that there could be a single EU view. Now we can open our shoulders like a batsman at the crease, and start to make a difference to the delivery of marine conservation.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) about the On the Hook campaign. The Marine Stewardship Council is the only show in town in terms of accreditation of sustainable fisheries. It is a UK-registered, UK-based charity, so we are right to hold it to account. It has messed up, and there is a good chance that it could re-accredit an unsustainable fishery. That must stop, and I applaud colleagues who are taking part in the On the Hook campaign; we must continue to raise that.

There are many other areas where we can and should do more. The clean growth plan recently announced by the Government, with its real understanding of the need for a proper circular economy, addresses many of the issues that we have concerns about. It is vital to encourage industry to be innovative and to create markets that do not currently exist for recycled plastics in particular, but also for other manufactured products that end up in the oceans and the food chain, destroying the quality of the marine environment and our health. Government must nudge industry to deal with those things, and to get an understanding of what a circular economy is.

My final point is to ask, please, in the remaining months for which we are in the EU, that we hold it to account to make sure that pulse fishing is banned. It is a bottom trawling system using electrical pulses and is not at all selective. I applaud the Bloom Association and other NGOs that are campaigning hard on it.

I shall finish where I started, with John Clare. He said,

“I found the poems in the fields

And only wrote them down”.

He was saying that the natural world can influence our cultural and societal beliefs and values. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the oceans.

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It is interesting to follow the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has always considered John Clare to be an early socialist; but we will return to that theme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield mentioned “Small is Beautiful”. I of course remember the publication of Schumacher’s book, but of course the ocean is also beautiful, and very large. The problem is that for decades we have believed it to be effectively infinite, but it is not and we have now reached its capacity, or perhaps beyond it. I applaud and agree with the steps taken by the Government to reduce plastic use, which is important; but there is in reality no one-nation solution. We are not unilateralists as far as the protection of the marine environment goes. Threats to the marine environment cannot be solved in one country, whether they are littering, plastic pollution, fertiliser run-off or bottom trawling. I agree with the right hon. Member for Newbury that pulse fishing should be banned, but the validity of any bottom trawling has to come under consideration, because of the damage it does. Acidification is another major issue. It is right, as one country, to extend the role of marine conservation areas. We must do considerably more on that, as I hope hon. Members present for the debate would agree; we must press on with real action. However, even those efforts will be undermined if we do not do something about the overall quality of the oceans.

I want to speak briefly about coral reefs. They represent only 0.25% of the ocean floor, but they house probably half of marine life. An astonishing amount of ocean life lives on coral reefs—not only the romantic warm sea corals, which people are aware of, but the cold sea corals. They are fundamental to life in the ocean, and probably they are important to life on the planet as a whole, because of the impact on the food chain. Preserving coral reefs is vital. Bottom trawling destroys soft and hard coral, but perhaps the biggest threat is acidification. Half the carbon dioxide in the world disappears into the seas. They are becoming not simply warmer but more acidic, and we do not know what the impact will be on sea creatures with calcium-based shells; but we must operate on the precautionary principle. The position is critical for oceans now. If we get things right, there is a really exciting possibility that, as well as protecting the shoreline, coral may have medical research potential, which could be unlocked for humans in the future. That would be a more rational exploitation of the sea than some of the things that have happened so far.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) that we need a different international legal framework. The law of the sea is massively important, but we must transcend what it has done. It must be global and must have an impact on the things that are threatening not only marine life but probably life as we know it on the planet. The Government are well placed to take such international action—including within the EU, for the remaining time we are members of it. Who knows where we will end up, but internationalisation of the process must be fundamental, and I look to the Minister to say how the Government will approach the international agenda.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman and all the Back-Bench speakers for their self-discipline in sticking to their timings. I am sure that after the Front-Bench speeches the Minister will allow the hon. Member who moved the motion time to make some concluding remarks.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has secured a vital debate today on marine degradation and the threat to our seas. We have heard many good points about how marine environments and resources are being threatened, degraded or destroyed locally and internationally.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield made some excellent points about sustainable development and mentioned the sage advice of David Attenborough. I think we all thank goodness for that man, because the world actually listens to him. The hon. Gentleman made us aware of his longstanding association with social entrepreneurship; his concerns about plastic and microbeads are shared by all those in the Chamber, and his passion was not lost on us. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), in an intervention, made an important point about the Marine Stewardship Council tick—something that leads us all to assume that ethical, approved practices are in place. Real doubts are now emerging about whether the MSC awards the blue tick to questionable fishing areas.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a point about recycling, and about educating people from primary school children through to older people such as me, to think about what we do with our purchases, and how we dispose of them. His point was well made and much appreciated. International co-operation was also mentioned, and I will refer to that later in my speech. Again, the point was well made and much needed.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) shared his concerns about the future of his beautiful area, and expressed his views on the plastic throwaway culture. It is good that the Government are trying to help as much as they can, because we all share the same concerns. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) shared her knowledge and concerns about marine protected areas and the threat to the marine environment in her constituency. Her consistency on these matters throughout this Parliament has been well noted. The hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) mentioned his awareness of the amount of plastic bags being washed up on our beaches, and through the tributaries and along the river networks that lead to them. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) made excellent points about marine planning, of which she is a great champion. She described the positive steps that the Scottish Government were taking to address those problems, and said how valuable our seas were to us all.

The right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) made an interesting observation on the lightbulb moment throughout the world on MPAs in general. That was much appreciated, although I do not know the poet to whom he referred—perhaps I will try to research him a bit later. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) pointed out the need for global co-operation on action that needs to be taken, and I totally agree with him.

The principal threats are climate change, marine pollution, unsustainable resource extraction, and the physical degradation of marine and coastal habitats and landscapes. Such transnational problems can be solved only by international co-operation. Globally, humans are exerting multiple pressures on 41% of the marine area, and we harvest 40% of the ocean’s productivity. Some 30% of global fish stocks are recognised as being overfished, and the quantity of predatory fish has halved in 40 years. The world’s seas have already absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide emissions for which humans have been responsible. Although that has been a valuable carbon sink, it has reduced the pH of the oceans from 8.2 to 8.1, with the possibility of a decline to 7.8 by 2100. That reduces the concentration of calcium and other minerals in sea water, threatening shellfish and coral species. Such acidification hinders the ability of marine ecosystems to absorb carbon, and it is thought to be one of the reasons why the marine absorption of carbon has slowed since the year 2000.

Melting sea ice has caused a global average rise in sea levels, and the rate by which it is rising is increasing. Local tidal variations and the effects of post-glacial rebound mean that rises are higher in the south of England than in Scotland—southern England is subsiding by about 1 mm to 2 mm per year; Scotland is rising by a similar amount. A 50 cm rise in relative sea level would endanger 200 km of England’s coastal flood defences. That represents 20% of the total length of those defences, and their destruction would nearly triple the number of properties at high risk from coastal flooding—a very concerning and worrying trend for those communities.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, Scotland has a massive fish farming industry, which we recognise is not without its problems. The salmon industry in Scotland, Norway, Canada and elsewhere is under investigation for its impact on wild fish and marine ecosystems. I am sure that the House will welcome the inquiry into the environmental impact of fish farming that will be carried out by the Scottish Government early next year—they have not shied away from their responsibilities.

It has been estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic enter Europe’s oceans every year, which represents an extraordinary and insidious threat to the health of our seas. In light of the findings of an inquiry into microplastic pollution, which was carried out by the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, I ask whether the “renewed strategy” on waste and resources that was promised by the Secretary of State will include effective measures to tackle the origin of most marine litter, which is litter on land. We should work with and follow the Scottish Government in establishing a strategy to tackle marine litter, and support efforts to reduce the escape of pre-production plastic pellets—I have here some nurdles. We should praise the efforts of the charity Fidra, which is raising awareness of this awful problem in Scotland, and hopefully we can ensure that the upcoming ban on microbeads extends to all consumer products.

I had a lot to say about the Chagos islands and various other things, but I shall now conclude my remarks because of time. As a wealthy maritime country, the UK has more opportunity than most to show leadership in the fight to safeguard the future of our oceans. However, as we have heard, there is a long way to go before that is achieved in reality as well as on paper. Today we welcome this debate, and we hope that the Government will now deliver the political will to follow through on what we have discussed and debated today.

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As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) who, as he said, has long been a passionate champion of these issues. I thank him for the detailed and passionate speech that he gave to kick off this debate today.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, there is nothing particularly new about some of these issues, but there is real urgency about where we are today. This debate is timely because latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggest that the amount of litter in our seas has increased, and research this week indicates that carbon dioxide emissions are set to increase by 2% by the end of this year. In addition, many of us will have seen recent images of the sea covered in plastic waste. With that in mind, it is thoroughly welcome that there is renewed public awareness of the issue, largely as a result of David Attenborough’s “Blue Planet II”, which is watched by more than 10 million people. I am sure that hon. Members, and anyone who has seen the programme, will agree that it is a visually stunning showcase of all that is important in our marine environment. It gives us a sense of why that environment is so precious and how important it is to protect it.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) represents a particularly beautiful coastal community, and he shared some examples of best practice from his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has an outstanding track record of campaigning on these issues. I join the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) in welcoming the charge on plastic bags, which he rightly suggests has shaped consumer behaviour and attitudes. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) highlighted, very much from a Scottish perspective, the importance of addressing marine and coastal litter, and the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) enlightened us with some poetry, and also gave us some hope about all there is to look forward to—there is more that we can do on these issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) stressed that no one-nation solution is available, and that we must consider all ways we can work internationally to address this issue. I am pleased to see the Minister here today, and I am hopeful that she can provide a positive response to some of the issues raised in the debate.

Our seas and oceans face a changing climate, and a long-term, strategic approach will be essential. Research this week suggests that, disappointingly, global carbon dioxide emissions appear to be increasing once again, after a three-year stable period. Our oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with knock-on effects such as inadequate shell growth in marine animals, and a variety of risks to coral reef ecosystems. Temperature rises are already having an impact on marine life around the UK. For example, reports suggest that squid, anchovies and bluefin tuna are being drawn into our waters by the warmer temperatures, while other species are being driven north or deeper as the seas warm.

Earlier in the year, I visited the US, and Congressmen and women who represent districts on the west coast told me about the impact that the so-called “warm blob” has had on their fishing communities. This mass of unusually warm water in the north Pacific ocean was first detected in 2013. It is nutrient poor and has had a detrimental impact on marine life in the area. Although a significant distance from our shores, it is a stark reminder of the fragility of our oceans. According to UN figures, 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal resources for their livelihood.

As already mentioned, the public are more aware of plastics in our oceans than ever before. That has generated a real appetite to do more to reduce all pollutants, such as heavy metals, oil, radioactive materials and plastics, including microbeads. We welcomed the recent announcement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that he supports a deposit scheme for plastic bottles, yet there is still much more that could be done to tackle the problem of single-use plastics.

Non-recyclable disposable plastic waste, such as straws and takeaway coffee cups, generally ends up in one of three places: incinerated, in landfill or littering our natural environment. How can we ensure that consumers and businesses share the responsibility of limiting our use of such items? My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield already mentioned the campaign, and I am grateful to him for his kind words: in September, I wrote to the top 20 bar and restaurant chains in the country, urging them to adopt a “straws on request only” policy, and asking them to stock only biodegradable straws. Plastic straws are designed for a single use, lasting for a matter of minutes, yet once thrown away, they will litter our planet for centuries. They have become ever-present in our bars, pubs and restaurants. It is not unusual to order a drink that comes with one or two straws, whether we have asked for them or not.

Millions of people have viewed the difficult-to-watch video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril. The straw had to be removed, causing a great deal of distress to the animal. That is at the extreme end of the impact of the estimated 500 million straws that are thrown away every single day. I am pleased to say that there has been a very positive response so far to my request, with a number of major chains, which operate thousands of outlets, committing to join the movement. I anticipate that another of our biggest chains will be making an announcement on that soon, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of straws from finding their way into our oceans.

I would be grateful if the Minister, in summing up, would take the opportunity to update hon. Members on the microbead ban, to assure us that there will be no loopholes and that the legislation will be tight enough to deliver the ban as intended, setting the standard and removing unwanted microplastics from our waters.

One of the proudest achievements of the previous Labour Government was the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which created a system for improving the management and protection of our precious marine environments and coastal ecosystems. The Act allows the Government to designate marine conservation zones in our territorial waters to prevent further deterioration in marine biodiversity, while promoting recovery and supporting healthy ecosystems. The intention was, and remains, to achieve a coherent network of well-managed marine protection areas. We very much hope that the Government deliver that as they begin the consultation on the third round of marine conservation zones in English waters next year.

Labour remains committed to building on our proud record on conservation, and I am sure that the Minister would be disappointed if I did not at least touch on one or two causes for concern under the current Government—not least, the fact that the “polluter pays” and the precautionary principles are currently missing from the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I urge the Government to think again and adopt the amendments that have been tabled to correct that omission.

The reality is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has suffered the largest cuts of any Government Department. The Minister will be well aware of the impact that has had on staffing levels at a time when expertise is so essential as we leave the EU. To deliver our aspirations for a healthy and pollutant-free marine environment, we must have the resources and the know-how to plan, deliver and manage environmental protections effectively. The Secretary of State is the man who once claimed that the people had had enough of experts; that cannot be a healthy attitude in a Department that relies heavily on science, evidence and research to determine how best to protect our climate and our seas.

On the wider issue of the Government’s strategy for environmental protection, I imagine that many Members are keen to find out if the Minister can shed any further light on when we might see the Government’s 25-year plan for the environment. Ministers initially signalled that it would be released last summer, and although I appreciate being invited to a discussion about the plan several weeks ago by the Minister, I am concerned that after a series of delays, we are still no nearer to understanding what the plan will mean for the marine environment, or the environment more broadly. Environmental groups have grown impatient, with Greenpeace urging the Secretary of State to get on with publishing the plan. The Green Alliance has said there is now an urgent need for it. I urge the Minister to reflect on the need for as much certainty as possible as we leave the EU. I hope that she can provide us with a date for the publication today, or, at the very least, an update on its progress.

Although some of the Government’s work in this area is certainly welcomed, I think we would all like to see efforts going much further. I have high hopes for our post-Brexit fisheries policy, but only with healthy, thriving and protected marine environments will we be setting the foundations for a science-led, sustainable fisheries policy. With fewer people at DEFRA than ever before, and the stalling of progress on both the 25-year plan and the Brexit negotiations, I am looking to the Minister to allay our fears, commit to fighting for our stunning marine environment, and take the boldest possible steps to combat the pollution of our precious seas and oceans.

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It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Owen. As I represent a coastal constituency, I can assure hon. Members that the marine environment is very important to me.

Dare I say, when I first saw the title of today’s debate, I was slightly surprised: the UK’s historic role in the matter would perhaps have been more appropriate. I hope to inform the House today—I thank Members for what has already been said about the progress that has been made—about the leadership role we have taken in enhancing the marine environment around our coastline, in the north-east Atlantic and throughout the world, especially through our overseas territories. The United Kingdom has an excellent track record on protecting the marine environment and we will certainly continue to do so after leaving the EU. We will continue to honour our international obligations and note the importance of UN sustainability goal 14 in that respect. That is why we will continue to pursue local and global alliances to protect our rivers, seas and oceans.

We all know that there are increasing global pressures on our marine environment. That is true in terms of managing the different uses of the sea, whether that is fishing and aquaculture, maritime, energy or other uses of the seabed. In the United Kingdom, we have a comprehensive set of measures in place to ensure that we protect and enhance our marine environment and ensure that it is managed sustainably.

The UK’s marine strategy—our current maritime plan—sets out our overall approach to managing the marine environment around our seas. We have nearly 300 marine protected areas and, by 2020, we will deliver an MPA network that will cover 25% of the United Kingdom’s exclusive economic zone. We are on track to provide 4 million sq km of protected ocean across our overseas territories by 2020. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) said, together that provides a substantial blue belt for our seas and oceans. We will continue to work globally on marine protection and are committed to establishing a new UN agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of the marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, which will deliver MPAs across the world’s oceans.

We are also making our fisheries sustainable. We have a well-developed approach of evaluating stocks alongside ways to monitor how practices are impacting the marine environment. That is successful. The United Kingdom continues to make significant progress in achieving maximum sustainable yield, with 29 stocks that are of UK interest in line with that standard in 2017, compared with 25 last year. The actions that we are taking are working, and the 2016 “State of Nature” report showed that the change in abundance of marine species overall has increased by 37% since 1970. But we do not hide away from the challenges of what is affecting the marine environment, including marine pollution. We know that we all need to work together to stop that pollution at source, in transit and at its landing point.

There are various sources of plastic entering our seas and oceans and, unfortunately, a lot of that is due to human behaviour. It is estimated that 80% of the plastic in the ocean comes from land. Active pursuit of our litter strategy, which the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) mentioned, will help to address that. We want to continue to recycle more of our plastics at home and in the business environment. As has also been pointed out, the 5p plastic bag charge has cut the use of plastic bags by more than 80%, or 9 billion, in just over one year. All four nations have that levy.

Our microbead ban will be one of the toughest in the world. We are using the information gathered from the consultation on the use of plastic microbeads to identify what further action is needed to address marine plastic pollution. In terms of an update, we had to notify both the World Trade Organisation and the European Commission because of a potential single market restriction. We have had clearance from that perspective and are now finishing our final bits of regulatory process in preparation for laying the appropriate legislation before the House. We have taken evidence in our consultation and are making sure that it will be the toughest ban in the world.

We have a call for evidence on reward and return schemes for plastic bottles, but I should point out to the House that, although bottles and caps are often found on our beaches, we still need to tackle other issues of litter, such as wrappers, fishing gear and other plastics. We have also signed up to Operation Clean Sweep, which focuses on eliminating plastic pellets—or nurdles, as the hon. Member for Falkirk said—from the environment. We have ring-fenced 10% of our litter innovation fund for the marine environment, but it is clear that, despite those efforts, we cannot prevent all litter from reaching the sea, although we will try. It does not sit still; this is a transboundary issue. As hon. Members said, we literally see waves of plastic circulating around the seas.

Managing the marine environment is a global issue. The United Nations sustainable development goals set the global targets for the sustainable use of the marine environment. The Government will use the forthcoming Commonwealth summit to further co-operation to deliver those global goals. In June, the UK joined the UN Clean Seas campaign, which aims to connect individuals, civil society groups, industry and Governments to transform habits, practices, standards and policies. The G7 adopted its marine litter plan in 2015, and we continue to work on that. More recently, we joined the Global Partnership on Marine Litter and the Global Ghost Gear Initiative—an alliance of the fishing industry, where non-governmental organisations and Government agencies work together to solve the problem of lost and abandoned “ghost” fishing gear, which can trap sea life.

We continue to work with the International Maritime Organisation. One of its conventions, MARPOL, is one of the most important international maritime and environmental conventions. It seeks to eliminate pollution by oil and other harmful substances completely and minimise the accidental spillage of such substances from sea vessels. MARPOL is regularly updated and forms part of UK law.

Thinking further afield, we are providing £10 million to support key marine initiatives abroad. We have allocated £4.8 million to drive forward the creation of the blue belt across the overseas territories, and £5.2 million to marine projects in the two most recent rounds of the Darwin Initiative and Darwin Plus grant schemes, which help to protect coral reefs and increase coastal communities’ resilience to climate change. However, as I said earlier, there is more we can do, which is why the UK Government are committed to the UK agreement on protecting more parts of the world’s oceans.

The risk of global CO2 emissions is a greater threat. As hon. Members highlighted, there has unfortunately been a change in the output of China and India. To tackle that issue, we need to work together globally. We need to save ocean life and the very planet we all inhabit.

The oceans are key to generating oxygen and are directly responsible for every other breath we take. Climate change is having a direct impact through ocean acidification, which threatens the very basis of the marine foodweb itself. As has been pointed out, corals vital to biodiversity, fisheries and tourism are threatened by the twin threats of acidification of the seas and the continuing rise in water temperature. That is why this Saturday, in Bonn at COP23 on the United Nations framework convention on climate change, I signed the “Because the Ocean” declaration on behalf of the UK, which links us directly to the Paris agreement. In the UK, we brought scientists, Governments, their agencies and NGOs into the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership, which has just published a study entitled “Marine Climate Change Impacts: 10 years’ experience of science to policy reporting”.

Earlier this year, we published a synopsis of our UK ocean acidification research programme. Based on current projections, cold water corals will be 20% to 30% weaker, causing reef disintegration and losing the rich biodiversity that they support. Such linkages have been further developed by the UK’s active engagement internationally on ocean monitoring and observing.

We have world-class marine science in the UK at several universities and research facilities, including Government bodies such as the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. We intend to work internationally to address the challenging scientific questions that remain, and we will continue to invest.

I was delighted that the National Oceanography Centre has just been awarded £19 million from the industrial strategy challenge fund, which will help it to develop autonomous underwater vehicles with sensors measuring nutrients and seawater carbonate chemistry, again extending our knowledge in that area.

I am sure the House recognises the amount of work that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) has done through his all-party group. He wanted me to mention combined sewer overflows, which prevent sewage from backing up into homes and businesses. I assure him that we are working with South West Water and local councils in Cornwall to help to prevent discharges from combined sewers at times of heavy rainfall by reducing the amount of water entering the sewerage system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) referred to the issues affecting Burnham-on-Sea. I am happy to talk to him further about that matter to see what we can do to work with local farmers to reduce the amount of run-off. He is right to point out that there are many readily available alternatives to plastics, including cotton buds and a deposit-return scheme. The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) talked about reducing the number of straws in circulation. I agree—straws suck. We need to work together wherever we can.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) asked a series of questions. The Government of the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands produced a 2012 plan for a marine protected area, which is working. They are undertaking their first review of it. Working with the Satellite Applications Catapult and OceanMind, we are using technology to ensure that monitoring and enforcement are more effective than ever before, but I am aware of the wider calls for that.

On the Antarctic, the Government are absolutely committed to working with other nations. In 2009, the UK proposed the South Orkneys marine protected area, and it was accepted. Last year, the Ross sea MPA was finally created—it is about the size of the UK and France put together. We continue to support further MPA proposals. On the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, I am aware of the draft resolution, and we are actively engaged on that matter.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury was right to highlight the blue belt, which we want to continue to make effective. I will raise his concern about pulse fishing with the Minister with responsibility for fisheries.

I hope I have addressed the issues that have been raised. I assure the hon. Members for Falkirk and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) that we will continue to work with the Scottish Government, but they will take their own action to tackle the issues that have been raised.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does listen to experts. That is what he did when he listened to the Expert Committee on Pesticides and voted for further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids, which I am sure have been welcomed across the House. The 25-year environment plan is still being formed, but as I pointed out, the UK marine strategy, which has been widely welcomed, is already in place. The principles to which the hon. Member for Halifax referred are very important. They were originally set out in the Rio declaration, and we will continue to put them into effect in our environmental legislation.

I hope I have been able to address most of the other points that were raised. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) was right to talk about recycling. I encourage Kirklees Council to get its recycling rate up from 28.5%. I know he will lead by example.

I commend hon. Members’ concern for the marine environment. It seems that we are all avid watchers of “Blue Planet II”. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we are not complacent about this issue, which is why we are taking a proactive leadership role. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate to the House exactly what leadership actions we have taken.

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This has been a cross-party debate; it has not been too political. It has certainly been stimulating. I just want to remind colleagues that this is about what we do as Members of Parliament. We often think about the next election, whether we are going to hold our seats, whether we are going to form a Government and all that. We are discussing in the main Chamber today the future of our country in Europe and the Brexit question. Even in this debate, we have to think about that sacred trust we have for our constituents—the sacred trust to keep this planet in a decent condition for the sake of our constituents and the ensuing generations.

This debate is not just about the Minister, who made a good speech. It is also about this House and Members of Parliament taking their responsibilities seriously. I would like to see a cross-party commission on the future of the marine environment in the House so that we can take evidence and do some work cross-party on this issue.

I am very worried about the fact that, at this very moment, many nations are looking inward, being nationalistic and do not want to collaborate with other countries. That is very damaging, given the environmental challenges and the issues relating to the maritime environment.

I believe that we must take this message to our constituents—the citizens of this country. They are consumers. They have children and they want to preserve this planet for future generations. We must energise those people. It is our sacred duty as Members of Parliament to do that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the UK’s role in the degradation of the marine environment.

Coventry Green Belt

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on the green belt in Coventry.

You and I have known each other a long time, Mr Hollobone, so perhaps we do not need to go through the formalities, but thank you anyway. I also thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate.

Time and again we hear the same lines from the Government promising to fix the housing market in this country and that they will provide affordable homes for everyone, yet after seven years of this Government and their predecessor it is no secret that we still have an enormous housing crisis. That is a direct result of policies undertaken by this Government and the previous coalition Government. Last year the number of affordable homes built in this country fell to its lowest level for 24 years. To me that does not look like the housing market being fixed. It is the same story throughout the country—housing needs are not being met.

In 2010, the Government abolished the national housing and planning advice unit. It helped to ensure a standard way of assessing housing need, which translated into housing targets. Does the Minister agree that it was a mistake to abolish that unit, especially in the face of overwhelming evidence to suggest that the Government’s planning targets are not fit for purpose?

As we all know, similar debates are being had up and down the country, but I will focus on the city that I represent, Coventry, and in particular on the Government’s housing policy, including the national planning policy framework and the national planning practice guidance. The new policies have weakened the previous Labour Government’s brownfield first policy, which actively prioritised building on brownfield sites over building on green-belt land.

Under this Government, at July this year 425,000 homes were planned for green-belt land. That marks the biggest year-on-year increase of proposed building on green-belt land for two decades. That is simply unacceptable, and it flies in the face of the Government’s manifesto commitment to protect that land. The Government’s Housing and Planning Act 2016 clearly fails to get to grips with the crisis of home ownership, especially for young people and families on ordinary incomes, and in many areas this will only make the housing crisis much worse.

Since 2009 only 16% of houses built on green-belt land outside local plans were classed as affordable. It is simply no good trying to twist that around and place the blame on those in local government, because if that were the case, the Government would not have approved Coventry’s local plan.

Coventry City Council, like so many other councils, is being forced to put a plan in place to stop speculative development. As a result, councils have to undertake a strategic housing market assessment. Usually that means expensive private sector consultants preparing a lengthy document. In Coventry, it has meant the council having to produce a plan for home building for the next 15 years. In effect, that has forced the council into developing designated green-belt land.

Before I carry on, I must make the point that the targets for the number of homes that councils must build are imposed by central Government, rather than being produced by a council itself. That is a crucial point, which cannot be emphasised strongly enough. In effect, this Government have found a way to absolve themselves of responsibility for local plans while still imposing their targets and policies on councils.

The area in my constituency that is causing concern and that I will talk about is King’s Hill, which is located just outside the city boundaries of Coventry, to the south, between Finham and Kenilworth. It is designated as green belt. We have consistently heard this Government say that they want to protect green-belt land for future generations, but because of their policies Coventry City Council’s hands are tied.

With regards to the local plan in Coventry, the number of homes that needs to be built is calculated according to the Government’s formulae and figures. In the latest housing White Paper, however, the Government stated that they think there is a better way of calculating housing figures and that the existing system lacks transparency. According to the new plans, even more homes will need to be built each year.

Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means opposed to building homes. It is worth pointing out that under the previous Labour Government 2 million more homes were built and 1 million more households owned their own homes, but under this Government the number of homeowners aged under 45 has fallen by 900,000 since 2010. Labour also made the biggest investment in social housing for a generation. Since 2010, on average, Labour councils have built around 50% more homes than Conservative councils.

I am aware of the argument that Coventry City Council has used an incorrect formula, or got the number of houses that need to be built wrong, but if that were the case the Government would not have approved the plan, unless they are going around approving incorrect local plans—in which case, we have the serious issue of a Government who are not fit to govern. Something that is beginning to emerge as a mantra for this Government is that a bad plan is better than no plan.

It is not enough simply to sit back and say that more homes must be built. We must look at not only the number, but the type of houses being built. In this country we have an abundance of houses that are simply not fit for purpose. In my constituency, residents of Finham, led by their parish council, and those on Cromwell Lane, led by the Cromwell and Duggins Lane Residents’ Association, have made clear their concerns, which include housing numbers, green-belt development and the development of King’s Hill by Warwick District Council.

For many years I have spoken in defence of the King’s Hill area and, in particular, about its beauty and history. I have probably been campaigning for it to retain its present status for a good five or six years, so I do not come late to the issue. I have been involved with it for a long time, and on many occasions I have raised the protection of green-belt land with the Government. But I have not got very far so far.

The new housing White Paper will not provide much comfort to my constituents, who could end up with even more homes being required to be built and even more green-belt land taken for housing as the Government provide different formulae and figures. In Coventry, for example, their figures make huge assumptions about students. I am proud that we have two world-class universities in my constituency, and students contribute greatly to our local economy and city, but the idea that such students all stay in Coventry to live after university is simply not true, so the number of houses that the Government believe Coventry needs will not be accurate. Meanwhile, as a result, the council is forced to develop on protected land.

Nationally, developers are sitting on hundreds of thousands of plots of land with planning permission. The big four developers account for more than 75% of those. It is far more important to get developers to build on the sites for which they already have permission, rather than allocating yet more land to them.

The Government need to go further than what is set out in the housing White Paper. Firmer consequences are needed for developers who are land banking. Developers’ existing commitments must be met before further land, including green-belt land, is released. Incentives should be introduced to put an end to slow build-out rates. The use of viability assessments by developers to undercut their affordable housing requirements must also be stopped. Developers must start building the homes that are needed by communities. With the potential to deliver more than 1 million homes, the Government should reassess the possibilities that brownfield sites offer, especially because nearly three quarters, or 70%, of the housing proposed on land to be released from the green belt will be unaffordable for most people living locally.

The housing crisis is real and action must be taken: homelessness is rising and home ownership is falling under this Government. Simply blindly allocating more and more land, lots of which is protected green-belt land, to build more homes is just not the answer. It has been said so many times before: it is not just about the sheer number of houses being built, but the type of housing and whether it is fit for purpose. The Government need urgently to look at their housing policies and they must act now to protect green-belt land for future generations, not just in Coventry but across the country. They must also act now to ensure that this generation has the homes that they deserve. I reiterate that I am not against building houses, but we should start with brownfield sites and sort out this matter.

Finally, I have asked the Minister on one or two occasions for a meeting with him and one or two residents, in London, so that they can put forward their views on this situation. I hope that he will agree to that.

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It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate. He raised a number of issues around the housing market and the White Paper, which I will address, but first perhaps it would be useful for me to focus on the green belt, a subject that he raised and that many Members of Parliament regularly raise.

From the outset I want to be clear that we, the Government, are committed to maintaining the strong protection that the green belt enjoys. The hon. Gentleman talked about a local plan; he will know from his experience that the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system. That means that, unfortunately, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of the Coventry local plan or indeed to discuss local decisions. While I understand that the inspector found the plan to be sound, it is now for the local authority to decide whether to adopt it; it is a local decision. I add at this point only the comments from Councillor Linda Bigham, the Labour cabinet member for housing at Coventry City Council, who noted in the Coventry Telegraph on 2 November:

“I’m delighted to see the Local Plan approved, subject to being approved by cabinet and full council.”

However, it would be appropriate for me to set out our national policy and talk about what more we will do to protect our natural environment.

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned Councillor Linda Bigham; he is quite right that she did say that, but may I point out that I am only talking about my constituency in Coventry?

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The hon. Gentlemen’s point is on the record.

The fundamental aim of green-belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by protecting the openness of the green belt. It is a national policy but one that is applied locally, with green-belt land defined and protected by local planning authorities. That protection is enshrined in the national planning policy framework, which makes clear that permission to build on green-belt land should be refused except in “very special circumstances”. These circumstances do not exist unless the potential harm to the green belt is clearly outweighed by other considerations. That is by no means an easy bar for developers to clear: the percentage of land covered by green belt has remained at around 13% since 1997, and since 2014 the change in total green belt area has been less than 0.5%.

As the policy is implemented locally, it is possible for a local authority to re-draw a green-belt boundary, but only in exceptional circumstances and, even then, only after consulting local people and submitting the revised local plan for formal examination. The inspector then has to consider whether the plan is sound and will find it sound only if it is properly prepared, justified, effective and consistent with policy in the national planning policy framework.

It is important that local authorities plan effectively for the new housing required in their areas. Local plans should be drawn up by the local planning authority in consultation with the community. This process should begin with a clear understanding of the number of homes needed, but I should stress that although calculating need is an essential first step, it is not the only stage in the process. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the local housing needs consultation that just closed on 9 November; I want to make it clear that that consultation is not about imposing top-down targets from central Government, but about local areas making an honest assessment of their housing need.

Local planning authorities then need to determine whether there are any constraints—including green belt—that prevent them from meeting the housing need. Where constraints exist, local authorities are under a duty to co-operate with other planning authorities to establish whether housing need that cannot be met locally could be met over a wider area. If we are to ensure that more homes are built in the right places and at prices that our constituents can afford, we need to make sure that enough land is released strategically and that the best possible use is made of that land. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on that.

The Government want to retain a high bar to ensure that the green belt remains protected, but we also wish to be transparent about what this means in practice so that local communities can hold their councils to account. The national planning policy framework is clear that green-belt boundaries should be amended only “in exceptional circumstances” when plans are being prepared or revised, but it does not define what those circumstances are. The housing White Paper published in February—the contents of which I will speak more about—sets out proposals to clarify that such circumstances will exist only when local authorities can demonstrate that they have fully examined all other reasonable options for meeting their identified housing requirements.

The White Paper proposes that the options could include making effective use of suitable brownfield sites and the opportunities offered by estate regeneration; the potential offered by land that is currently underused, including surplus public sector land; optimising the proposed density of development; and of course, fully exploring whether other authorities can help to meet some of the identified development requirements. We are currently considering the responses to the housing White Paper and we intend to consult on a revised national planning policy framework, to clarify those points early next year.

Of course, not all the green belt comprises the rolling countryside that the phrase often conjures up. Public access can also be limited, depending on ownership and rights of way. For that reason, the housing White Paper also proposes that, if land is removed from the green belt, local policies should require the impact to be offset by compensatory improvements to the environmental quality or accessibility of remaining green-belt land.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points that challenged the Government’s house building record. Over many decades, Governments of all political hues have not built enough houses—that is a starting point that we should all agree on. The housing White Paper is a really good blueprint of how to get more houses built. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for more focus on build-out rates—we set out much more transparency in the housing White Paper. I also agree with him on issues related to viability assessments, which we consulted on in the local housing needs assessment consultation that just closed.

The hon. Gentleman talked about affordable homes; I point out that since 2010, 333,000 affordable homes have been delivered. He is aware that in the last few weeks, the Government made several announcements that have been hugely welcomed by the social sector. First, an extra £2 billion has been announced for affordable homes funding, taking it up to £9 billion; and they have given certainty on rent from 2020, with rent increases of up to consumer prices index plus 1%, which is something that the sector has been looking for in terms of certainty. In addition, the Prime Minister announced that there will be no local housing allowance cap for the social sector. Those elements in combination have been hugely welcomed by the sector. I encourage the hon. Gentleman not just to listen to me but to talk to housing associations and councils in his area to see whether they share that view. They have certainly said to me that as a result of these changes they will be able to build more affordable homes and social homes, and to bring forward the building that they had planned. We should all welcome that.

On the number of homes being built, let me set out for the record that net additions have increased in the past couple of years; there were almost 171,000 in 2014-15 and almost 190,000 in 2015-16. The figures for 2016-17 will be published shortly. However, although we have made some progress, I acknowledge that more needs to be done. That is why we are putting a focus on housing, and why the Prime Minister has clearly set out that it is her mission to ensure that housing is a top priority when it comes to domestic policy.

It remains for me to thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this valuable debate. I repeat that we will maintain strong protections for green-belt land in national policy and that a local authority may choose to amend its green belt only in exceptional circumstances.

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I may have misunderstood the Minister, but I asked whether he would meet me and one or two residents to discuss the situation. I know that there are certain things he cannot talk about.

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I have not finished yet. I hope to give the hon. Gentleman some comfort on that point.

The Government have a bold and ambitious agenda to build more homes. I am proud of that and we make no secret of it, but that does not mean that we will concrete over the beautiful landscapes for which our country is well known throughout the world. Building more homes and protecting our landscapes can go hand in hand. The Government are fully committed to our pledge to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we inherited it. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about whether I will meet him and some of his residents is: of course I will.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

UK Bee Population

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We come to an important hour-long debate on the UK bee population.

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK bee population.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I know that the House and indeed the country is engaged on the great issue of Brexit, an issue on which of course everyone has a great deal to say. I called for this debate because, now more than ever, we need to have a public conversation about the kind of country we want to build for the future. What does the Britain of 20 years hence look like? Does it have stronger environmental protections or weaker ones? We need to lift our eyes beyond the latest parliamentary skirmish and say a little about that.

Before I turn to the specific issue of bees, I want to say a little about the wider environmental narrative. There are many on the Government Benches who make a direct link between conservatism and conservation. I believe, as I know many of my colleagues do, that generational justice must be about more than simply leaving a strong economic legacy to our children. It must be about a strong environmental legacy, too: a birthright that is richer, more diverse and more sustainable. As the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said, we have “not a freehold” on our planet but “a full repairing lease”.

Although there are many aspects to that responsibility, from improving air quality to cutting the use of plastic and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, a key priority must be to improve the diversity and sustainability of native animals, from the largest mammal to the smallest invertebrate. We have seen great progress on that score, with the important announcement on ivory sales that was part of a package of measures that led a leading charity to declare in October

“a fortnight of incredible news for animal welfare in the UK”.

To turn to bees, well, what a difference a week makes. When I originally applied for the debate, it was in a bid to urge the Government to listen to the latest scientific evidence, put the welfare of bees first and ban neonicotinoids. Then, lo and behold, the Government have done precisely that. On 9 November, just a few days ago, the Secretary of State indicated that he supports further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids due to their effects on bees and other pollinators. That was a bold and clear decision. In doing so—if I may be impish for a moment—he has shown that rigorous scientific evidence will underpin the Government’s approach to the environment. While some might have had enough of experts in 2016, I am delighted that, in 2017, they are back with a vengeance.

Why do bees matter? First, they are exceptional animals in their own right. Although there are over 250 species of bee, including 25 species of bumblebee, they have some remarkable characteristics in common. For example, a bee can navigate in an astonishingly sophisticated way by a combination of using the angle of the sun, counting landmarks and exploiting electrical fields. Remarkably, they can exchange information with other bees about the precise location of the perfect flower. Some evidence suggests they do so using movements known as a “waggle dance.”

Beyond their own intrinsic value, bees play a vital role in the broader environment. That role was summarised beautifully by the poet Kahlil Gibran:

“To the bee, a flower is the fountain of life.

And to the flower, the bee is a messenger of love.”

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I apologise that I will not be able to stay for the duration of it. As he is saying, bees are massively important for the production of crops and for the health of our ecosystems. In my constituency, there is a real interest in beekeeping. We have Wirral honey on sale in West Kirby farmers’ market and we have Flourish, a community environmental initiative based at Ford Way, Upton. Does he agree that such initiatives should be supported, promoted and indeed celebrated?

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I agree and am grateful to the hon. Lady for that helpful contribution.

The point being got at, whether by a poet or a scientist, is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of food worldwide, 70 are pollinated by bees. Bees, as we know, transfer pollen from anthers to stigmas, frequently over long distances. Seeds are produced, but, crucially, genetic diversity, so vital to the health of many plant species, is promoted. That service, which perhaps we take too much for granted, is worth in the order of £600 million a year through increased crop yield in oilseed rape and the quality of various fruit and vegetables.

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on an important point. He has spoken about the ban on neonicotinoids. I wonder how we will ensure that whatever replaces them is equally safe. My farmers have already made the point that what may follow may not be any safer.

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As always, my hon. Friend makes a critical point. The issue is this. The Government have put a line in the sand, which is that anything that is to go on our crops must pass the test of rigorous academic and expert scrutiny. That applies to neonicotinoids, so it must apply to anything that comes next. Nothing should go on our crops unless it can be shown to be safe. That must be the rule of thumb that we apply.

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I declare an interest as a beekeeper. We should bank this move, which is a good thing, but it does not answer all of the problems for our bee population. My hon. Friend will be aware that the National Bee Unit has identified the Asian hornet in Devon. It poses a real threat to some of our colonies. Does he agree that the Government should do more to support the National Bee Unit in countering that scourge?

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My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point first to pay tribute to the National Bee Unit and to raise the issue of the Asian hornet. The landscape is not entirely clear for bees just because neonicotinoids are off the horizon. We should never let down our guard, such is their importance to our environment. I entirely endorse the point.

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I should also declare my interest both as a beekeeper and as the daughter of a farmer of oilseed rape. Is it not always important to remember that farmers do need to control pests on their crops? The Government must look carefully, as my hon. Friend said earlier, at the evidence available at the time. Can we not elide the debate, for example, about glyphosate with that about neonics?

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Of course. This is not a zero sum game. It is not the case that a product that is bad for bees is therefore good for farmers or the other way around. It is not beyond the wit of our scientists to come up with products and pesticides—by the way, pesticide is not an evil word—that can be sprayed on to our crops without causing the collateral damage that we want to avoid.

It is the points made already that lie behind an apocalyptic quote attributed to Albert Einstein—of course, it may well be entirely apocryphal. He is alleged to have said:

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years left to live.”

That may be a little apocalyptic, but it does make the point that bees play a crucial role in our food supply.

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The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech. I would like to go back to the point about the alternatives. I wonder whether he saw the observation by the excellent Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which said that

“many other non-neonicotinoid pesticides can and do cause harm to bumblebees and other pollinators, and we must ensure that neonicotinoids are not simply replaced by equally-problematic equivalents.”

Does he agree that there is a danger of a switch back to dangerous pyrethroid-based pesticides and that we equally need to guard against that?

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We must not move from the frying pan into the fire. It seems that the Government have been absolutely robust in showing that it is only those products that can show they do not cause that collateral damage that will get through the net. That principle must be maintained, because pollinators are in decline worldwide.

This is not purely a UK situation or indeed a European one. The trend is not uniform, but an independent review of the evidence on the status and value of pollinators published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs back in 2014 drew attention to the large losses caused by the varroa mite in the early 1990s. Since then, there has been, as has been said, the Asian hornet. Indeed, the loss of flower-rich habitat is another important cause of the recorded decline in diversity of wild bees and other pollinating insects. If I may be parochial just for a moment, that is just one of the reasons why I am so delighted that Cheltenham Borough Council was persuaded to rethink its plans to rip up the vibrant and diverse floral displays that nourish local pollinators in the town.

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I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. There are a lot of bee-friendly crops that we can grow, which can help to enhance the bee population. That must be done. I also say to our farming Minister that it is important to have the means to grow the crops. When we no longer use neonicotinoids, we must ensure that we have alternatives that are safer and that we can safely grow those crops. It is absolutely essential that we have both bees and good, bee-friendly crops.

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I agree with that. It is also vital that we have happy farmers, because farmers are crucial custodians of the countryside. It seems perfectly possible to have a thriving farming community and a thriving community of bees and pollinators too.

In the vanguard of the fight to support bees and pollinators are our nation’s beekeepers; I am pleased to say that their numbers are growing. In 2013, according to the National Bee Unit’s database, there were over 29,000 beekeepers in England, managing around 126,000 colonies. That is nearly double compared with 2008. I pay tribute to the Gloucestershire Beekeepers Association in Uckington near Cheltenham, which does such excellent work.

I am proud too of the Government’s role in this field. It is good news that the Government have spent between £1.5 million and £2 million on protecting honey bees in each of the last five years. That has included tackling disease outbreaks and monitoring for exotic pests such as the Asian hornet. An enormous amount of good work is being done via the national pollinator strategy, launched in 2014, which is a 10-year plan to

“improve the state of our bees and other pollinating insects”.

That includes working with farmers and the public to expand availability of food and habitat resources and so on.

In the time available, I will turn to the neonicotinoid debate, which has been a difficult one. In December 2013 the EU restricted the use of three neonicotinoids on a number of crops attractive to bees, including oilseed rape, following concerns that queen bees exposed to the pesticide were 26% less likely to be able to start a new colony. However, at that stage the science was rudimentary at best and the UK did not follow suit. Since then, the evidence base has grown dramatically. A pan-European study in June 2017, which covered a crop area equivalent to 3,000 football pitches in the UK, Germany and Hungary, found that increasing levels of neonicotinoid residues in the nests of wild bee species were linked with lower reproductive success, and that exposure to treated crops reduced the overwintering success of honey bee colonies.

When, earlier this year, the European Commission proposed further restricting the use of those pesticides to plants that spend their entire life cycle in permanent greenhouses, the expert advisory committee backed its decision. As I have already indicated, it is important to take account of the impact on farmers. I was pleased to note that, in the first year without access to these seed treatments, UK oilseed rape yield increased by 6.9%, according to Friends of the Earth.

As we prepare to leave the EU, I believe that now is not the time to roll back measures to protect our bees. Instead, we should enhance them. As I have already indicated, there is already a strong platform to build on, but we must go further. The national pollinator strategy, which currently supports pollinators through the mandatory and incentivised common agricultural policy measures, can be made to operate more widely still. Farmers and growers across pastoral, mixed and arable farmland are ideally placed to improve the quantity and quality of flower-rich habitats. Let us use our new freedoms to make full use of that potential. Agri-environment schemes such as buffer strips, hay meadows and wild flowers can and should make a huge difference.

As we look to the future, we must create a country that cherishes and promotes biodiversity. We must recognise that quality of life is measured not purely in pounds, shillings and pence but in the quality of our environment and the richness of the plants and animals we encounter on a walk down the Honeybourne railway line in my constituency or high up on the Cotswold escarpment. Let us continue to do everything we can to reverse the decline of our pollinators. If we carry on with that vital work, we can ensure that the broad, sunlit uplands that we all want future generations to inherit will echo to the sound of the bumblebee.

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The debate runs until 5.30 pm. I have to call the Front-Benchers at 5.07 pm, and the recommended speech limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then we will hear from Mr Chalk for three minutes summing up at the end. That means we have 22 minutes and four speakers; if I impose a time limit of five and a half minutes, you should all get in.

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Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on bringing the debate to the House. The fact that we are all here is an indication of our interest in the welfare of bees. It is good to see the Minister in his place since he has a special understanding of that, as indeed does the shadow Minister.

The intensity of the issue may surprise some who are not from rural constituencies, but the issue also involves urban locations and constituencies. When I first came to this place, I used to stay in St Ermin’s hotel, which has a fantastic bee population on its roof. The hotel produces its own honey. That can happen in urban areas as well, so it is good to know that, although we in the countryside perhaps have control over this, there are many examples in urban areas, including central London not far from where we are now, that are producing excellent honey.

Some people may not have fully considered the essential nature of bees in our rural economy. I have spoken about that many times in my time as an elected representative. Many in my constituency are probably watching the debate, because we have many beekeepers, and their numbers are increasing, just as they are in the area of the hon. Member for Cheltenham.

As a young boy—it was not just yesterday—I took my holidays in Strabane and Clady in County Tyrone in the 1960s and 1970s. My aunt Isobel kept honey bees, and as a child I was taught about the fragile nature of the ecosystem and the crucial role that the humble bumblebee has to play in that, alongside the honey bee. There are 18 true species of bumblebee in the UK, many of which are threatened by habitat loss and other changes in the countryside that the hon. Gentleman clearly indicated. Six species remain relatively common, while others have declined to varying degrees.

I know some hon. Members are into bumblebees. I have had a number of occasions when bumblebees were into me and I got stung. There was a process of learning to be wary when they were about. I am fortunate that I live on a farm and we have bumblebees regularly on our farm every year. The habitat suits them, and we try to ensure that that happens. Some hon. Members will be aware of the two species, the yellow bumblebee and the shrill carder bee, which are of particular concern as their populations have been almost completely decimated. As I said, I have a large number of beekeepers in my constituency, and an active beekeepers association. When I was able to have the honey, it was great. I am a diabetic now, so I am unable to have the lovely clear beautiful honey that the beekeepers make, but it does not take away my longing to have it. I suppose that is the attraction of it, but as long as I do not touch it I will probably be okay.

Bees are the major pollinators of most of our wild flowers, and if they continue to disappear, those plants will set fewer seeds. There is a fragile ecosystem that we are trying to maintain. My aunt Isobel taught me in Clady and Strabane, many years ago, about that fragile ecosystem and how we all come together to play our part as cogs in the wheel of what happens. Some of the sweeping changes to the countryside, which may come to be dominated by a different range of plants, could mean the countryside losing its colour if rare plants disappear. That is a fact; it is not made up. There is evidence that the process is already under way, which is why the motion the hon. Member for Cheltenham has moved today is so important. Those changes will have catastrophic effects on the wildlife that depends on those plants.

At home, we try to set aside and maintain habitat land for birds, flora and bees. As a shooting man and a conservationist, I am very interested in that. Bumblebees are of enormous commercial importance; many arable and horticultural crops depend on bumblebees for pollination to varying degrees. Oilseed rape can set adequate seed without bumblebees, but other crops such as broad, field and runner beans and soft fruit need them. They are important for honey production and for the balance they help to maintain.

The total value of Europe’s insect pollinators is estimated at some €14.2 billion, which cannot be ignored, because we have active organisations that produce honey. Crop yields are already falling in parts of the countryside, so it is essential that we conserve our remaining bumblebee populations and, if possible, restore them to their past abundance. That should be our target: not to retain, but to produce more. It is important that we understand how the bumblebee and the honey bee work. To support a healthy population, large tracts of land must be managed sympathetically, and UK nature reserves are too small in isolation to help as they should. There has been a collapse in the numbers of bumblebees and honey bees in the United States; some beekeepers have lost up to 90% of their population, while the bee population has fallen by 30% in other parts.

We need to invest in our farmers and encourage them to adopt the appropriate agricultural and environmental schemes to support the replanting of hedgerows. We need to recreate the hay meadows and the flower-rich grasslands and use wild flowers and traditional cottage garden plants in gardens nationwide. We need to take action. We look to the Minister, as we often do, to take those steps to protect the bees, and consequently, our entire ecosystem and the crop system that feeds us.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing the debate. The health of Britain’s bee population is of great concern to a number of my constituents, including members of Havering Friends of the Earth.

I must declare a personal interest in the debate. It is particularly close to the heart of my father, who 10 years ago fulfilled a boyhood dream to become a beekeeper. The two hives at our family home now produce award-winning local honey, and dad has become an active member of his local beekeeping association and a minor bee celebrity with his beekeeping advice column in the local paper. On seeing the debate on the Order Paper, I fired off an email demanding that dad produce me a briefing. In the interests of transparency, I confirm that he acted as an unpaid intern in that assignment.

The threats to UK bees have been eloquently outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, so I shall not repeat them. However, it is worth noting that, if our national cow herd or chicken flock were declining at as astonishing a rate as the bee population, there would likely have been emergency Government action many years ago. I very much welcome the work that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and his team are now doing to back further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids and to continue the national pollinator strategy. However, I have a number of questions about that work that I should be grateful if the Minister answered.

First, we are now three years into that pollinator strategy. Will the Minister advise whether he believes it is working and is adequately funded? Beekeepers want to ensure that the strategy truly deals with the major threats to bees, such as varroa mite. Local beekeeping associations do what they can to fund research into the mite, such as sponsoring PhD students.

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I am following what my hon. Friend is saying very closely. Does she agree that another thing we need to carefully look at and do more research on, particularly as winter is approaching, is colony death in winter?

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Absolutely. I cannot claim to be a bee expert, but I know that my dad often gets very concerned about the winter months, and I agree with what he says.

Beekeepers feel that part of the answer when it comes to varroa mite is to have as many people keeping bees as possible, rather than treating bees with varroa-control chemicals, and then allowing natural selection to produce varroa-resistant bees. We therefore need the next generation to become beekeepers, and to try to promote bees to young people. However, that can be wrapped up in bureaucracy, such as beekeepers who want to go and talk to schools requiring Criminal Records Bureau checks. What plans do the Government have to help education in schools, and is sufficient research being funded into the effects and control of varroa mite?

Secondly, as we know, the next big threat is the use of pesticides, and I reinforce colleagues’ comments that there is no united opinion on the damage being done by these pesticides. Some beekeepers see existing scientific research as inconclusive and fear that, if these pesticides are banned, farmers may go back to using more harmful spraying chemicals. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister expanded on the Government’s current view on whether better research is required into the potential unintended consequences of the ban. Finally, the Asian hornet has been found in the UK and our Government have launched a destruction policy. Does the Minister believe that that policy is working and is properly funded?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham for raising this important subject, which is central to the proper functioning of any future environmental policy. I am really excited by the energy and vivacity of the ministerial team and its desire to set out such a positive and ambitious post-Brexit environmental agenda. If we are to ensure that there is depth and credibility to that agenda, bee health must surely lie at its heart.

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I also thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing the debate. This is an important debate and it comes at an opportune time, as has already been said. I must declare an interest as a member of the British Beekeepers Association and as a supporter of the Bumblebee Conversation Trust.

I say to those following the debate that there is good news: the conversion of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the position on neonicotinoids has been important. He said that he is following the scientific evidence, and I think people applaud that. I do not want to sound as though I am giving doom and gloom following that good news, but it is set against the knowledge that pollinators in general, and honey bees in particular, are under massive pressure. Some of these things have already been discussed.

I will return to the theme of the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), who rightly talked about the need for more research. We know that, all over the world, honey yields, for example, are in decline—not universally, but significantly. We also know that, across the world, winter colony collapse, which was referred to by Conservative Members, is important. A lot of the evidence suggests that that happens to colonies already weakened by some of the things we have already identified. These are massively important issues.

As we have already heard from the hon. Member for Cheltenham, the role of pollinators is fundamental to our agricultural way of life. Frankly, it is in the interests of producers—farmers—as well as those who have an interest in pollinators that we get this done together. One in every three mouthfuls of food that we have depends on pollinators, so it is fundamental to life, or at least to the way in which we do life, that we preserve our pollinators.

Obviously, the question of pesticides is fundamental, and I can only applaud what has been said: it is important that we do not jump, to quote the hon. Member for Cheltenham, from the neonicotinoid frying pan into other destructive pesticides and the problems they may cause. I urge the Minister to recognise that there is a need for fundamental research into what really makes a difference. Pesticides can play a legitimate role—we all want to see sustainable food crops—but they have to be used with the principle of making sure that we do no harm in the way that we develop those things.

Members have already referred to a number of other issues affecting our pollinator population, and some of those clearly lie under national control. The question of whether we use destructive pesticides is a national issue that we can move forward on, and we can begin to look at habitat loss at a national level. Those are important issues, but some of the issues are frankly more than just national issues. The varroa mite almost certainly came to Britain from Asia, almost certainly carried by beekeepers who wanted to bring in different strains of bees to improve the European and British bee strain. The hive beetle comes from Africa, and where Asian hornets migrated from is obviously self-evident. All of that indicates that we cannot protect the British pollinator population simply by pretending that we can create some kind of wall around the United Kingdom. This is not an argument about Brexit but actually about looking at what research can do.

We need to make sure that we now establish a research framework that is radically different from that which has existed in the past. The amount of money spent on research into pollinators is trivial, frankly, compared with the amount of money we spend as a nation and a world on research into other areas of agricultural production. That has to change if we are to recognise the central importance of pollinators. It is not only the flowers and the fruits that depend on our pollinators; it is cucumbers, cauliflowers, cabbages and many of the things we take for granted.

I urge the Minister to recognise that need for fundamental research. That would obviously be a UK thing, but we need to work with those around the world, because whether it is the United States, Australia, the rest of Europe or other parts of the world, the issues of colony collapse, colony decline, the decline of honey and the decline of pollinators more generally are held in common. Research is easy to call for, but we need practical application, with the scientific integrity the Secretary of State has fortunately followed in the case of neonicotinoids, so that we can begin to resolve the other issues that weaken our pollinator population.

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I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing this important debate. He is the vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for bees, which I am very proud to chair. We came together to set the group up because one of the surprises on being new entrants here in 2015 was that we received more correspondence from constituents on bees and pollinators than perhaps any other political issue. It is fair to say that Brexit has now somewhat overtaken that, but that struck a chord. This is an incredibly important issue for our constituents and people across the country, and it is one that Parliament could do more on.

Politicians can talk a good game, but I have walked around this estate with ecologists from Kew, and a cursory glance shows that Parliament is an appalling place for bees and pollinators to thrive and survive in. One of our aims is to host a colony of bees on site and to try to turn some of this bare concrete barren land into a more natural habitat for bees. We would then not only talk a good game about the importance of bees and pollinators but demonstrate to our constituents when they visit that this is a place where pollinators can thrive.

That is particularly important, because we have seen in the last 20 years a 54% decline in the honey bee population. We should look beyond honey bees and, indeed, bees. We have also seen since the 1960s a 62% decline in the moth population. We know that pollinators are more prevalent on the non-bee side than the bee side. Without wishing to widen the debate too far, we should look at pollinators as a whole, not just bees and honey bees.

I am particularly grateful that the Government have listened to the science when it comes to neonicotinoids. The APPG for bees had taken quite a nuanced position, similar to the British Beekeepers Association. I think many people are excited by the advent of neonicotinoids, which mean that rather than having to spray seven times a year during the season when pollinators are most active, there is the opportunity to coat a seed. However, the science has been out; it seems to suggest that neonicotinoids have an impact on the productive system and nerve cells of bees as well as the flea beetle larvae that they were brought in to repel. The issue was that the lab-based studies were not particularly conclusive with regard to absolutely ensuring they reflected what was going on in the field.

Things changed over the summer. The two scientific studies to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham referred—one from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology focusing on the UK, Germany and Hungary, and the other a Canadian study—demonstrated that there were issues with respect to survival over winter and reproduction of bees. Again, we must look at the science. It was incredibly interesting that the UK colonies were largely being wiped out, but in Germany, there was no impact at all.

We should be very careful not to be complacent with this welcome change. I agree with the Government; the science now shows that neonicotinoids do have an impact, and there should therefore be further controls. I welcome the controls being brought in by the Government. However, in Germany, the habitat is much richer than in the UK. This is where I suggest we focus our next set of impactful tasks. Modern farming, the varroa mite, the wax moth, global warming, food fashions, habitat loss—particularly with regard to hedgerows—and the rush of beekeepers, for which I blame myself, mean that we have a much wider expanse of areas we need to look at. I welcome the Government’s change of approach—indeed, the APPG will be changing its approach, because we also agree with the latest science—but I ask them not to consider this as job done.

I gave statistics from the ’60s and from 20 years ago, but that was before neonicotinoids were brought in. The population of bees and pollinators has been declining because of not just neonicotinoids but the other issues I brought forth. I would like to see the Government focus more on those areas.

I maintain that farming in particular has grown more towards embracing the environment, and incentives for farmers in terms of production are based on that.

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I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing the debate. I too have had more emails about this subject than anything, bar Heathrow and Brexit.

In the light of the comments my hon. Friend just made about the changing nature of agriculture in our country, does he share my concern about the behaviour of the National Farmers Union? It continues to trash the science in relation to the decline in pollinators, which has become incredibly clear, and also to scaremonger about the impacts of this ban in terms of yields, despite the fact that farmers have seen record yields over the last three years, when the ban has been in place across Europe. Does he share my concern that the NFU, which exists to speak for farmers, seems more inclined nowadays to speak for vested interests—for the pesticide firms and for agribusiness—and not for the farmers that it exists to defend?

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My hon. Friend makes a key point. I would perhaps use the APPG’s position change to advocate that the NFU comes with us.

Friends of the Earth was most annoyed, quite frankly, that the APPG was not tending absolutely to the view that neonicotinoids are bad and should be banned conclusively. Our view was that we should wait for field-based research to conclusively show that that is the case. I believe that such field-based research has now come through with these two studies, and therefore it behoves the NFU to take the same approach. As has been pointed out, the farming industry is worth £100 billion. Farmers should embrace the need to protect pollinators, because they effectively are the start of production. It is time the NFU came with us.

It is also right that we continue to follow science and see if there is any scientific evolution with regard to neonics to fix the bad impacts that currently exist. We should never close the door to that, but it behoves the NFU to get behind the latest viewpoint and move forward. That would delight Friends of the Earth.

I should also say, in the 20 seconds remaining, that I am the champion for one of the solitary bees that is alive and well in Gatwick. I am not sure that that will further the cause of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park in terms of which airport should be expanded, but I am sure that bee will continue to survive in Gatwick.

I welcome the Government’s change of approach, and the APPG is very much with the Government’s change of direction.

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We now come to the first of the Front-Bench speeches. I call John Mc Nally for the Scottish National party.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing this debate on the importance of bees and other pollinators. I learned today that he has an impressive knowledge of the subject and a keen awareness of how important bees are. I compliment him on his genuine interest and wide personal understanding of the importance of pollinators and the waggle signal, which certainly will require further investigation by me; I have no idea what he was talking about, so I will have a look at that.

The National Bee Unit has identified the Asian hornet as a serious threat—a point well made by Government Members. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) made an excellent point on replacements for pesticides, which have to be stringently tested for the safety of our pollinators. I agree with most of the concerns raised. Likewise, I have received many emails from people who are concerned about the threat to our bee population. Contributions today have been excellent, and I hope mine is up to the standard of other Members.

At least 1,500 species of pollinator insects live in the UK, including more than 250 species of bee. It is estimated that those pollinators add between £430 million and £603 million per year to the value of UK food crops, making an essential contribution to our food industry. Without doubt, they are essential for the survival of wild plants and natural ecosystems.

The health and strength of individual colonies has declined, making them more susceptible to disease and environmental pressures. It appears that overall, populations of wild pollinators have been in decline for the last 50 years. The generalist species of bumblebees and solitary bees—those that can feed on a wide variety of plants—are thought to be maintaining their numbers and distribution, but the specialist species, which depend on specific plant species or nesting conditions, are thought to have declined and, in turn, populations of plant species that rely on specialist pollinator species have declined.

What are the threats to our pollinators? There seems to be no single factor responsible for pollinator decline. Instead, research points to its being driven by a combination of different pressures—mainly habitat loss, disease, climate change and pesticides—but how the effects of those pressures interact and how they affect individual bee species is poorly understood.

Pollinators, especially bees, rely on their ability to remember and navigate between nest sites and food sources to survive, so anything that disrupts those cognitive functions, whether pesticide exposure, disease or malnutrition, has survival implications. In relation to habitat loss, changes in land use and agricultural practices have reduced the abundance of both flower-rich habitat and nesting sites. Recent research in Germany and England suggests that the abundance of flower-rich habitat on agricultural land is now so poor that pollinators are surviving better in urban areas than rural ones.

However, pests and diseases are the foremost threat to managed bees. The varroa mite is the world’s most devastating bee parasite. If a honey bee were the size of a human, a varroa mite would be the size of a dinner plate. Even a single mite feeding on a bee’s blood is a significant drain on its health. However, it is the diseases carried by the mite that kill bee colonies.

Climate change is changing weather patterns and the flowering times and geographical distribution of pollinator food plants. Although devastating for some species, climate change is allowing others to extend their range. However, extreme weather events threatening colonies and their food sources are becoming more likely than ever. Wetter, more changeable weather in the spring and early summer limits population sizes and increases the risk of starvation.

The news that the Secretary of State intends to ban neonicotinoids should be welcomed, but this Opposition will be watching the implementation closely. If it is not an all-encompassing ban on this pesticide class, the danger is that users will merely switch to other neonicotinoids. The Government have argued in the past that the precautionary principle should be applied to economic risks alongside environmental ones. We totally agree with that.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on initiating the debate, in which we have heard excellent contributions. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) for bringing his serious expertise to the debate; it is much appreciated.

We have heard that scientific evidence about the harmful impact on pollinators and the persistence of the pesticide in habitats has been growing for some time. In 2012, DEFRA said that England had seen the greatest decline in the diversity of wild bees anywhere in Europe. We have also heard that, in June, the results of the field study on the impact of neonicotinoids were published and that that has provided the most conclusive evidence yet of the impact of neonicotinoids on pollinators. We know that farmers had concerns that decisions were being based on lab tests rather than field tests, so it is good that the recent studies were field tests and have put that argument and those concerns to rest.

We also know that when neonicotinoids are used on one crop, residues of the pesticide can be found right across the wider habitat. That contaminates pollinators’ food sources and not only the specific crops where the neonicotinoids are used. Wider investigations have shown that neonicotinoids can persist in soil for many years. The pesticide is taken up by flowering weeds or flowering crops, which can cause even more damaging exposure for the pollinators.

I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s support, now, for a total ban on the use of neonicotinoids. A ban was in the Labour party’s 2017 manifesto, and we are proud to have led the way on this critical issue. Earlier this year, I wrote to the Secretary of State requesting clarification as to why Conservative MEPs were frustrating votes at EU level on a ban on neonicotinoids. Can the Minister provide a guarantee that the position announced by the Secretary of State is confirmed and that Conservative representatives at EU level will now hold that position and not undermine any further votes on neonicotinoids?

It is clear from this debate that we are all in no doubt about the importance of pollinators to our food supply, biodiversity and economy. We need to do more to encourage people to take up beekeeping and to have more interest in that. We have bees on our land. They are not ours; we do not look after them, but because we have the land and the right conditions, we have encouraged others, who have the time and the interest, to come and look after hives on our land. We could all encourage more of that.

We could also encourage local authorities to do more work. In Plymouth, the then Labour council introduced city-wide bee corridors. That simple act has helped bee numbers to increase in the city. It involved sowing grass verges with wild flower seeds. The different British wild flowers produce fabulous roadside views for people who go down there, but also the habitat that bees need. That is an example of the creative interventions that local authorities can make.

Over the weekend, the Secretary of State highlighted the economic contribution of pollinators, citing estimates of £400 million to £680 million being added every year to agricultural productivity. However, we need to take into full consideration the importance of pesticides for farmers. Farmers have to protect their crops and livelihoods from threats throughout the growing season. How do the Government propose to work with farmers to develop and invest in alternatives to neonicotinoids? We know that it is not just pesticides that pose a risk to pollinator populations, but temperature changes and increased extreme weather incidents caused by climate change. I am therefore delighted that the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has today announced Labour’s intention to factor climate change into financial forecasts and policy making. That should enhance the future sustainability of farming and safeguard future pollinator populations.

I would like to finish with a quote from Professor David Goulson of the University of Sussex:

“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth”,

but

“there has been some kind of horrific decline. We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects…everything is going to collapse.”

The case for a permanent ban is now unassailable, and I welcome the developing political consensus on the matter.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing this debate on such an important issue. I also commend the work that he does in the APPG on bees. He gave a very uplifting speech. As he said, we Conservatives believe in conservation; we want to leave an environmental legacy, and our pollinators are incredibly important to our environment.

Often in debates on this issue there is a focus on pesticides, but as a number of hon. Members—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman)—have pointed out, a big role is played by loss of habitat. In fact, a lot of analysis suggests that loss of habitat has been the key driver of the decline in our pollinators. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, declines have taken place since the 1950s—long before neonicotinoids were invented.

There is no doubt that our bees face many pressures. However, the population data are complex. Many species of wild bee and other insect pollinators have declined over the last 30 to 50 years. A few have increased, but the net effect has clearly been negative. Three of our native bumblebees have been lost from the UK—the apple bumblebee in the 1800s, Cullum’s bumblebee in the 1940s and the short-haired bumblebee in the 1980s. On a positive note, that last species is currently being reintroduced to Kent and has become a real focus for conservation and land management action.

Similarly, there has been a decline in the number of honey bees kept since the 1950s. Again, however, there has been better news more recently. I am referring to the renewed interest in beekeeping over the last decade, with membership of beekeeping associations and the number of registered colonies on the rise. The number of colonies registered with the National Bee Unit increased from just over 100,000 in 2009 to 195,000 this year. Often, those are amateur keepers with a couple of hives in their garden. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle called for Parliament to have some beehives. DEFRA is already doing its bit: we have two beehives on the roof of our building—Nobel House in Smith Square.

Nevertheless, we should not be complacent. Wild and honey bees continue to face many challenges and we must maintain our efforts to help all our pollinators. The area of wild flower habitat on farmland, as well as the presence of clover leys in our rotations, declined substantially after the second world war, as farmers responded to our need for food. Many of the insect pollinators that have seen the greatest declines are those that are strongly associated with these habitats. On our protected sites and through countryside stewardship, we are putting these habitats back into the countryside and I am keen that we continue to do this as we develop our new environmental land management measures outside the European Union.

I turn now to the action the Government have taken in relation to this matter, first, our national pollinator strategy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) highlighted. This strategy sets out how the Government are taking a leading role in improving the status of the 1,500 pollinating insects in England. It sets out how Government, beekeepers, conservation groups, farmers, researchers and individuals can work together to achieve common goals. It builds on current policies across DEFRA, which support pollinators, including habitat creation and public engagement.

On 9 November we published a progress report detailing the positive progress we have made. I am pleased to report that this included the valuable creation of new habitats for pollinators and improvements in our understanding of the status of pollinating insects. We have supported the reintroduction of species such as the short-haired bumblebee, whose conservation we know to have additional benefits for other species. Over 95% of our sites of special scientific interest and almost two thirds of the total area of our resource of wildlife-rich habitats are now in good condition or have management plans in place to restore them to it.

Secondly, I want to consider farm measures. We have introduced a pollinator and wildlife package to our countryside stewardship scheme, to help landowners provide year-round habitat such as flower-rich field margins. Since 2011, we have established more than 100,000 hectares of land that we are restoring to flower-rich habitat, principally through those agri-environment schemes. Forty per cent. of all 2016 countryside stewardship mid-tier agreements are delivering the pollinator and farm wildlife package. Last year, countryside stewardship applications increased by almost 45% and requests for mid-tier application packs are up this year. We have worked with farmers to make it easier and simpler to apply for the scheme and will continue working to improve it and make it simpler as we go forward.

Thirdly, on the Government estates, the Ministry of Justice planted over two miles of native hedgerows and created over 20 hectares of wild flower meadows in 2016. The Ministry of Defence has collaborated with organisations such as Plantlife, National Parks, the Wildlife Trusts and its own tenant farmers to set up suitable areas for pollinators to thrive, including through the creation of wild flower meadows.

Fourthly, in addition to supporting our pollinators with habitat creation, we have put in place measures to improve our understanding of the status of pollinators in our environment. We have established a monitoring and research partnership with research institutions and volunteer organisations. This partnership will allow us to gather further data on the status of our pollinators and the challenges they face.

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I do not want to introduce a disagreeable note, but if the Minister compares, for example, the amount of money we have spent, under all Governments, as a nation, on issues such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or bovine TB, with the amount of money we spend, or do not spend, on research into protecting our pollinators, what can we look forward to from this Government to significantly increase those research efforts?

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First, I mentioned the countryside stewardship schemes. That is a £3 billion programme going to those environmental stewardship schemes during the course of the financial perspective that the EU looks at. That is a large amount of money, and, as I said, a lot of that is focused on those pollinator packages. Specifically on research, we have supported the Insect Pollinators Initiative, a £10 million research programme, which still produces high quality science papers that help us to understand the importance of pollinator populations to UK agriculture.

Awareness raising is also important, as several hon. Members pointed out. It is a key feature of our national pollinator strategy. We have established a “Bees’ Needs” campaign, including public events, talks, best practice advice and award ceremonies to demonstrate and acknowledge people’s work to provide suitable habitat for bees and other insects. This year, my noble Friend Lord Gardiner presented 17 awards to individuals and groups who have shown best practice in all areas of pollinator work. Winners included honey-bee keepers, community groups, farmers and schools.

As a number of hon. Members pointed out, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster, we also have to address the effect of pests and disease on our pollinators. As part of our support for pollinators, we continue to protect our honey bees through the healthy bees plan and the work of the National Bee Unit. Our team of bee inspectors visited over 6,000 beehives last year, looking for harmful pests and diseases. It is through the hard work of our inspectors that endemic diseases such as the foulbroods remain at low levels. They provide advice on good husbandry practices to thousands of beekeepers to help them manage other important pests like varroa. It is pleasing to observe the collaboration between beekeepers and the National Bee Unit. Registration of beekeepers on the National Bee Unit’s voluntary database is on the rise. It has gone up from 20,000 in 2009 to over 40,000 today. To support these beekeepers, we continue to aspire to educate and improve husbandry standards right across the country. This year, the National Bee Unit provided talks at 190 beekeeping events reaching some 9,000 beekeepers.

I want to mention the Asian hornet. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) highlighted this in an intervention. The training we have done has been of great value in detecting the Asian hornet. In 2016, we witnessed their arrival in the UK in an outbreak in Gloucestershire and Somerset. We also, as he pointed out, saw a separate outbreak in Devon earlier this year. Both incidents were reported by beekeepers and, through the sterling efforts of the Animal and Plant Health Agency, both nests were destroyed and no further hornets have been seen.

I want to turn finally to the issue of pesticides. As several hon. Members acknowledged, last week we announced our support in principle for further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides. There has been additional evidence in the last two years that they are harmful to bees and other pollinators. We have always been clear that we will follow the science on these matters. The advice from the UK Government’s advisory body, the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, is that the evidence now suggests that the environmental risks posed by neonicotinoids—particularly to our bees and pollinators—are probably greater than previously understood.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said that we were initially sceptical in 2013, as a Government, about the initial restrictions that were brought in. That is correct. Our chief scientific adviser’s advice at that point was that he did not believe the doses bees were likely to get would be a problem, but he was always clear that there should be further field trials. The first of those field trials was carried out in Sweden by Rundlof and others, and that concluded that there could be some impacts, particularly on bumblebees, and on that basis we moved to supporting the existing restrictions. However, in the light of subsequent, more recent proposals from the Commission, we asked the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides for its view. In particular, it looked at some evidence from Woodcock and others that concluded that there may be a persistence of neonicotinoids in soils, and that that may therefore have wider effects beyond the immediate impact on pollinators. As a precaution, we have decided to act on that. The committee was clear in its recent advice, which we have published, that the evidence is not that clear at the moment, but it is, it believes, reason to extend the restrictions further and that is why we have taken our current position.

Many hon. Members have talked about some of the unintended consequences and we must be mindful of those. There will more use of pyrethroids—greater use of those applications—which can also have environmental impacts and lead to growing resistance to the dwindling number of synthetic pesticides that we have left. It is also the case that we have seen an increase in the use of neonicotinoids in winter cereals, partly because other products, such as pirimicarb, were withdrawn from the market. This is a complex area. In the long term, we need to look at integrated pest management, with a wider range of approaches to tackle crop protection.

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This has been an excellent debate. From Strangford in Northern Ireland, to Falkirk in Scotland and to Bexhill and Battle in the south of England, I think there has been a joint position across this House. Everyone has spoken with authority and eloquence. There are three key points I wish to draw out. First, bees and pollinators are not just nice to have, but a vital part of our food chain. Secondly, science and nothing else must underpin our approach to the environment. Thirdly, if we maintain the interest and energy that has been shown here today, I am convinced that the tide can be turned and the future for our bees can be bright.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).