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Mr Jim Cunningham: The issue is not only about child protection; abusive language or threats of rape are also matters of concern.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is right; I agree that the agenda is broader. The Commonwealth IGF started by looking at child protection, but behaviour is the big issue.

The development of a co-operative model for internet governance has developed quickly and positively. However, compared with the exponential growth and the mind-boggling levels of innovation that the internet has unleashed, that development looks, and feels, slow. That is why we in Parliament must be more ambitious, more impatient and better connected in every sense of the word.

To improve the quality of debate in Parliament, those involved informally in the work of relevant all-party groups have tried to bring everyone together to serve Parliament better. It is fair to say that for several years the cross-party architecture that focuses on internet and communications issues has been in a state of flux, with a proliferation of groups. Companies found it increasingly difficult to determine which meetings to attend and which groups to engage with. Equally, many MPs found the complexity and diversity of cross-party structures very challenging to digest. In fact, in the last two Parliaments, most MPs chose as the simple solution non-engagement, rather than struggling to get their heads round an ever-expanding ecosystem of interwoven groups and associations. I pay tribute to the 2010 intake of new Members, who have provided refreshing input from both sides of the House. That encourages me to believe that we can make a difference nationally and internationally in the future.

The online world and the associated technologies and patterns of use are constantly evolving at breathtaking speed. Without a cohesive and continuous commitment from parliamentarians to be connected with and informed about current developments in this sphere, Parliament will quickly fall hopelessly behind.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and I share his hope that Parliament will debate the internet at least once a year. On the point about the internet’s fantastic speed of innovation and the changes that it has made to our everyday lives, does my right hon. Friend agree that it was unfortunate that following the unrest—the riots—during the summer, a number of parliamentarians on both sides of the House were seen to react by condemning aspects of social media that enable people to communicate with one another, while not equally recognising the tremendous support that the internet and social media give civil society? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that we need to ensure that parliamentarians are champions of the internet and the innovation that it brings, while obviously recognising the dangers?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend, who is one of the exciting group of 2010 new Members to which I referred, makes an excellent point. In the Internet Governance Forum, it was rather worrying to find that a large number of participants from across the world “knew” that the UK had tried to close down social networks. We had quite a battle to make it clear that the UK had not done that. Fortunately, the European Commissioner,

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Neelie Kroes, took the opportunity to dive in and endorse what we were saying. Given the pressure from the media to do something about something as cataclysmic as the riots this year, it was understandable that all Members of Parliament representing relevant constituencies felt under pressure to say something and, indeed, that the Prime Minister felt under pressure to say something when he arrived back in the country. Fortunately, common sense prevailed.

Immediately after the Home Secretary said that she intended to call together representatives of the social networks and give them a good talking-to—I paraphrase slightly—I wrote to her on behalf of the group, having spoken to some of the officers, and offered our help. I said, “There are Members of Parliament who take an interest in these issues. Can we help and can we engage our industry members in order to make a constructive contribution?” That was welcomed by the Home Secretary—we had a very good response—so it is another example of how the creation of a coherent, single group in Parliament has the capacity to help Government and properly inform public debate.

That is an example of exactly the point that I was making—the need for parliamentarians to be coherent and to work together on these issues. I said that without a commitment from parliamentarians to be connected with and informed about current developments in this sphere, Parliament would quickly fall hopelessly behind. That would be a great disappointment to those of us who know that knee-jerk legislation is not the answer to most or indeed any of our emerging technological challenges. As Gibbon said in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, laws rarely prevent that which they forbid. That is even more true about the internet than it was some 150 years ago, when those words were written. Legislation is a blunt, unwieldy and ultimately retrospective tool, incapable of the speed and flexibility required to regulate such a rapidly evolving system. That is why we, as parliamentarians, need to be quicker on our feet, more joined-up and more immediate in our response to events.

However, reluctance to legislate does not mean that we should not seek to regulate online activity. The point is simply that we will not achieve the results we want by enacting laws that would be out of date by the time they hit the statute book. The time scale for a new technology coming in or a development that moves people on from Facebook, or whatever the current means of communication is, means that legislation will be well out of date by the time it is enacted, so flexibility is required.

Mike Weatherley: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. Would he like to clarify his position? We all accept that things such as the IGF are a good talking-shop and that these issues should be discussed at length by the various countries and parties involved, but is he saying that no legislation is worth having, not even legislation to set out the principles relating to intellectual property rights and so on, which would not be out of date once it was enacted?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I want legislation that is based on values, sets out broad principles and is technology-neutral. It is the

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behaviour that is bad, and it is intellectual property that we need to protect, rather than getting too deeply into detail. We need to go back to the legislation that set down broad principles and to go back on the excessively prescriptive and detailed legislation that removes flexibility. Essentially, I am arguing for us to concentrate on fostering a climate in which Parliament, Government, industry and civil society share perspectives, best practice and expertise to deliver a more adaptable and responsive regulatory approach, based on partnership and co-ordination, rather than top-down legislation. In other words, we need underpinning legislation for a coherent, co-operative style of governance.

Chi Onwurah: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way to me a second time. May I respond to the very good point made by the hon. Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley)? Is it not also the case that there is a lot of existing legislation that applies as much to the internet as to any other form of communication and behaviour, whether it takes place in the real world or the virtual world—for example, libel laws—and that new legislation is often not necessary if the existing legislation is properly applied?

Alun Michael: Indeed. This is about good legislation, rather than the internet. I take great pride in certain legislation with which I was associated, such as the Ragwort Control Act 2003, the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, because properly framed legislation will stand the test of time. In the examples that I have given, it was a case of using capacity that already existed and simply providing underpinning legislation that would allow the real mischief to be tackled. The real mischief is the behaviour, rather than the technology.

On the issue of parliamentary representation and how we bring people together, Mr Speaker kindly hosted an event last year for representatives of different parliamentary groups engaged with internet-related issues, along with those concerned with international issues, particularly the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and those who serve the House through PICT—Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology—and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. That gave us the impetus to link the informal work undertaken by parliamentarians in partnership with industry to the mainstream and formal work of the House, so we have merged the long-standing Parliamentary Information Technology Committee, or PITCOM, and a relative youngster, the all-party group on the digital economy, to form the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum, which is an associate parliamentary group.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk for the work that he has done to ensure that Parliament has a well-informed and vibrant all-party group that benefits from the solid and senior engagement of both MPs and representatives of business and industry. We are delighted that Mr Speaker has agreed to be the president of the new group to signal the importance of that development. We are adopting a new and innovative model, with parliamentarians in the lead. Individual officers of the new group, across parties, some of whom are present, are taking responsibility for different parts

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of the work, which will include ordinary meetings, as held in the past by PITCOM. Lively discussions have been brought into the new group by members of the former group. We have continued the successful primary schools competition, “Make IT Happy”, with which many parliamentarians have become increasingly engaged and which was endorsed by the Minister in the House only last week.

We have a CEO forum, at which a strong representation of chief executives—no representatives or delegations are allowed—and of parliamentarians debate big issues with experts. For instance, on Monday, we were joined by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and by Professor Ian Hargreaves, whose work will be familiar to the Minister and whose recent report deals with intellectual property, which is important to our economy. Past discussions focused on a range of important issues, from cloud computing and cyber-security to the growth agenda and the boosting of UK technology skills; I know that the Minister has taken part in one of the discussions.

Mr Donohoe: While this question is not necessarily for my right hon. Friend to answer, has he secured, as a right, attendance by a Minister at least twice a year to that body? Would that not make all the difference?

Alun Michael: We have not needed to. We have had three Ministers this year by mutual agreement, and I am pleased by that response. Ministers have been prepared to come to meet us and industry representatives. The fact that Ministers and parliamentarians are at the table brings chief executives there, and the fact that chief executives come complements the other meetings that we have, in which people with more technical or detailed knowledge are able to take part. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire prompts me to note that I had missed out a reference to the British-American Parliamentary Group, another of the distinguished band of organisations that are important in the work.

I have already referred to the fact that the arrangements are already working in relation to our communications with the Home Secretary. In response to the request for comment, we have received responses from a number of parliamentarians, including my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), the hon. Members for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and others who were more frequently involved in the all-party group’s work. Key points were made that the riots were not a breakdown of society as a whole, but isolated incidents of unrest followed relentlessly by the 24-hour media, and that the internet and online social networks were a channel for a widespread outpouring of positivity and reconstructive effort after the riots. That must be considered in balance with the use of the internet by some people to organise some of the activity. In the case of the police in Manchester, when people tweeted to say where the next activity was going to take place, the police tweeted back to say, “Thanks for telling us. We will be there too.” Therefore, it is not all one way.

Part of PICTFOR’s role is to raise our game at the international level, persuading more parliamentarians to engage with the IGF, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the IPU, and directly with members of overseas Parliaments, particularly the Americans, whom

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we are engaging through an annual internet event in Congress. The most important aspects are to use the partnership between MPs and industry representatives to inform Parliament in the mainstream rather than at the periphery, to ensure that we continue to punch above our weight in protecting the concept of an open, co-operative and multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance, and to fight off attempts to impose a centralised and bureaucratic approach to managing the internet, whether in terms of critical infrastructure, online behaviour or the exploitation—in a positive sense—of the internet’s potential.

We are bringing together opinions from industry and Parliament. I wish I had some time to enumerate the comments that have come in. We had hoped for a longer debate, but we are grateful for the opportunity today to raise these issues. We intend to summarise all the issues and provide them to both the Minister and MPs to inform future debates.

Just to pick up one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, there will be one debate a year to look at the overarching issues with the internet. The internet touches on so many issues that there are bound to be debates on Bills and on the Adjournment regarding specific issues, including those that have been raised by some hon. Members in their interventions on me.

My message to parliamentarians and to business is that, although good governance may sound boring, it is essential. Banking governance was boring, until the failure of governance in the world’s banks brought the international financial structures to collapse. Let us avoid such a debacle online by fighting for good co-operative governance of the internet now.

At a time of massive constraints on the public purse—I will not go into the discussion about whether they need to come so fast or cut so deep—it is not just tempting to use the efficiency of the net to deliver public services, but right and essential. However, that would involve a massive improvement in the quality of public procurement, of which I had some experience as a Minister. It is vital to recognise that some 40% of those who are not online at the moment were shown in recent research to be so resistant to going online that they would not do so even if they were provided with free broadband and a free computer. Some may be resistant or even perversely reluctant; others may simply be unable to cope. That latter group includes some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It follows that the exploitation of online delivery options by the Government needs to be costed in a way that ensures the availability of services to those who do not go online, which might involve paying for facilitation, perhaps at local libraries or in post offices. However, if it is not built into the Government’s model, it will bring online delivery into disrepute and widen the digital divide into a chasm, ultimately creating a problem that will involve even more expense to solve than building in the solution at the design stage.

Cloud computing is often highlighted as a challenge to public services, but in many ways, it is already with us. The challenge, in my view, is good management, including good data management, rather than major issues of principle. Security of infrastructure and our national security are enormously important, and they are given considerable emphasis by the Government. However, it is also important to deal with the low-level

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crime and nuisance activity that face people every day. I am pleading for a broken windows approach to the internet. Having succeeded in local crime reduction, that approach would be able to help us in the online world.

I am also a little concerned about the language that is creeping into the discussion. I challenged some police officers who talked about “cyber” as if it were a term of art to describe a discrete chunk of reality. They responded by saying that the police were merely reflecting the language of Ministers. If that is the case—I am not sure that it is—we need to change the language. Internet-related crime is not entirely about technology; indeed it is mainly about human behaviour and criminal activity. The use of the internet is relevant only in the same way that a burglar uses a motorway or footpath to reach someone’s house to break in.

Chi Onwurah: Regarding the police’s attitude to cyber-crime, does my right hon. Friend agree that all serving police officers should be knowledgeable of the way in which the internet can be used for crime? Does he also agree that to criticise those serving in the back offices of the police and to imply that we can tackle crime by being only on the physical front line does the police no service and may reduce the possibility of tackling virtual crime?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is part of the discussion that we have been having in the Select Committee on Home Affairs on what constitutes the front line and the back office. Protection against the use of the internet for organised crime, as well as some of the issues that have already been raised, is extremely important.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): A friend of mine has recently become a special constable. When people are recruited to become special constables, it is very much about being on the front line, patrolling the streets. However, in the cyber-age, we should perhaps also invite people to become special constables to work on issues such as cyber-crime and on using the internet as a tool for policing.

Alun Michael: The Minister’s comments reflect something I said a while ago in the presence of some people from the Metropolitan police. They included Charlie McMurdie, who said afterwards, “Yes, it’s a good idea—we’re already doing it.” The Minister is absolutely on the ball, and some police forces are very much up to date, but others are not enabling staff on the front desk to tell people what they need to do when they wander into the police station and say, “This has happened. What should I do?” We therefore need to improve communication and to make better, more focused use of Get Safe Online, as I said.

The more we use language that emphasises the human damage, rather than the technology, the more likely we are properly to inform public policy and to reassure the public. That is why I am a bit dubious of using the word “cyber” as if it identified something different and discrete from human behaviour.

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Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that most cyber-crime, so to speak, is conducted by sophisticated organised criminals, who, in effect, have their own cyber-crime divisions? The only way we will tackle cyber-crime is by getting the message out there that we have to tackle these massive organised gangs.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is right. Actually, the police are getting on top of tackling criminal activity by organised gangs, and it is perhaps right that they do not talk too much about how they do that, because it is not far distant from the work they do in combating terrorist activity. What does affect public confidence are the low-level things, and we probably need more engagement with Get Safe Online and more public information in that respect.

I was about to apologise for taking rather longer than I had intended, but I have taken quite a large number of interventions. Given the need to focus on internet governance and the report from Nairobi, I have had time to touch only briefly on some enormously important issues. However, I hope this is only the first such debate, and I look forward to hearing from other Back Benchers and the Minister.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should tell Members that I propose to commence the winding-up speeches no later than 3.40 pm. I hope that contributors to the debate will keep that in mind.

3.12 pm

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on securing the debate, on the great work he continues to do on this issue and on his role in helping to establish the Internet Governance Forum. I fully appreciate that he kindly took a large number of interventions, so I shall skip through my remarks at speed to let other Members participate in the debate.

The forum tries to answer the impossible question of how we regulate the internet, which is a global information resource used by more than 1 billion people. The Minister showed great leadership in attending the sixth conference in Nairobi, because he has allowed Members to become collegiate and to work almost on a cross-party basis in trying to tackle the issues before us.

The forum has done great work in establishing transparency and an acceptance that the internet is too important, and evolves too quickly, to be left to the traditional models of regulation and to international treaties. It focuses on developing an understanding of emerging challenges, pulling together a vast array of stakeholders to tackle them.

Underpinning the work of every group and every one of the 125 nations involved in the forum’s sixth meeting in Kenya was the desire to build safety into internet access, whether to protect vulnerable children from exploitation or nation states from cyber-attack. The challenges we face on the internet are so wide-ranging that they encompass everything from cyber-bullying—the UK Council for Child Internet Safety does excellent work on that—right the way up to the possibility of cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure by terrorists or rogue nation states.

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Today, I want to focus on the mobile internet, which has probably been the fastest growing technology in history and has changed how we as a society interact with the internet. First, however, I want briefly to say something about the riots, because there was some talk about them earlier. Everybody has talked about social platforms and social networks, but they are not what causes the fear. As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, Manchester police were probably grateful for the tweets telling them where the next riotous behaviour would take place. What people are concerned about, however, is BlackBerry Messenger and the fact that the information on it is encrypted. That is the type of area where we need to think about regulation. How do we regulate an organisation whose information is encrypted on servers that are not based in this country? That is the issue we need to tackle, and I would be interested to hear any comments the Minister has.

To return to the mobile internet, the UK now has 1.3 mobile devices for every man, woman and child. A real explosion in data traffic is under way. Ofcom’s analysis shows that data usage increased by 3,700% between 2007 and 2010, and independent analysts estimate that network traffic over mobile networks will increase sixfold by 2014. Internet-based traffic globally will grow by more than 2 billion usages, 85% of which will involve a mobile device.

The new smart phones have led the way in enabling customers to access new digital applications and services. More than 50% of all teenagers now have smart phones and use them to surf the internet, send e-mails and use social networking sites. I am slightly older than a teenager—in fact, I am almost twice as old—but I pop my laptop on only once a week, and I use my smart phone to do my internet banking, to deal with my e-mails and to do everything else. A huge number of teenagers no longer have laptops; instead, they have smart phones, iPads, tablets and other such devices. We are therefore moving away from needing to regulate what we might think of as the wired internet and towards needing to regulate the mobile internet, and there was some discussion at the IGF about whether we needed different regulations for the wired internet and the mobile internet.

High-performance mobile capability has the potential to allow services and speeds significantly to increase, compared with what we know today. For example, there has been huge debate about providing access to broadband coverage in rural areas, and mobile internet gives us the opportunity to do that.

Other benefits of the increasing use of mobile broadband applications include increasing access to, and lowering the cost of, health care by using solutions that remotely monitor patients and provide real-time data to clinicians. Online health e-systems, which all the mobile phone operators are developing, touch on an issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman: which Department is responsible for regulating such things? Is it the Department of Health or the Home Office? Furthermore, how do we regulate something that pervades and touches every aspect of our lives?

Mobile-enabled machine-to-machine technologies are supporting the roll-out of smart energy grids via smart meters in premises. Analysts suggest that this segment of the UK economy will grow by 30% per annum over

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the next five years. Is it the responsibility of the Department of Energy and Climate Change or another Department to regulate such things?

Another benefit of the increasing use of mobile broadband is the ability to mobilise and empower citizens through e-government, e-learning and e-volunteering. Getting involved in that way encapsulates what is meant by the big society.

Mobile broadband is crucial in supporting universal access to broadband across the UK and to delivering digital inclusion. It will be the technology of choice for many because of its convenience and the wide geographical access it allows. It will deliver broadband access to many rural areas that have never had mobile or fixed broadband.

However, Ofcom must structure next year’s auction of 4G mobile broadband spectrum so that it rebalances competition in holdings of spectrum ownership and supports competition in coverage. Spectrum policy is vital to maintaining competition in the delivery of mobile broadband coverage. At issue is the allocation of wireless spectrum, the lifeblood of mobile and wireless networks.

The potential for a severe spectrum crunch looms over the next decade, and even international regulators have started to point out that substantial amounts of new spectrum will be needed to drive the continued growth of the mobile wireless industry. Will the Minister consider reviewing the process for allocating spectrum so that we can give it to those who can use it to generate economic growth?

3.19 pm

Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on obtaining the debate, and on his leadership of the new group, the Parliamentary Internet Communications and Technology Forum, of which the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) is also a member. PICTFOR is making good strides towards getting people from different places around the table for a series of debates, to which the internet is central.

I shall be as swift as I can, Mr Benton, so that another hon. Member can speak. I want to reflect quickly on the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, which the Minister attended. Several other colleagues were there too, and I should make the same declaration as my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth with respect to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and Nominet sponsorship. It seemed to me that there were interesting thematic divides at the forum that reflected discussions and debates that we have—or often do not have—here. It is clear, as has already been alluded to, that some Governments see the internet primarily as a threat, whereas others see it as a benefit, but with substantial caveats. The rest of us—although we are not perfect in any respect—tend to see the internet as best advanced through collaboration, common sense and a multi-stakeholder approach. Although the divide is not unbridgeable, in some respects it creates very different perspectives. A society that is not open at the best of times will have some difficulty with the way it manages the internet. That is not to be critical of emerging countries, which have their own challenges,

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but we hope we can help them to come to a benign or constructive impression of how the power of the internet can be harnessed to everyone’s benefit.

In this place we tend to discuss technicalities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned the Digital Economy Act 2010 and relatively few hon. Members engaged with that, although more would do so now, since last year’s intake. The reason relatively few engaged with the issue was largely that not a great deal of party politics was involved. It is a bit annoying that the Government insist on being commonsensical on most of the issues; we would rather it were different, as it would make our job as party politicians a lot easier, but it behoves us all to look at the intelligent arguments for pursuing one or another course of action. Of course, there are conflicting ideas about how to approach matters such as copyright, which was mentioned earlier, and freedom of use. I shall not bang on at length, but the Hargreaves report on intellectual property rights seems to me to be an intelligent step forward. It is super that the Government have accepted all 10 of Professor Ian Hargreaves’s recommendations. We must be aware that in the coming years it will be a constant—battle is probably too strong a term—contest, perhaps, to ensure that the multi-stakeholder approach that we are calling for endures, and we do not end up with an over-regulated internet. As with anything else, over-regulation would damage it and it would fall apart. That was one of the significant themes I identified.

A couple of my colleagues made interventions earlier in the debate, which were perfectly understandable and intelligent, and the kind of things that our constituents raise with us all the time, about bad things that might happen on the internet. An academic called Dr Vicki Nash, who was also at the IGF, said on the UK IGF Network:

“We spend a great deal of time balancing risks, identifying potential harms or assessing trade-offs in key values which does little to convince those who are ambivalent about getting online. Isn’t it time we redressed the balance?”

Through no fault of ours—well, who knows; perhaps it is our fault to some degree—there is an awareness in society about potential risks, but less of an awareness of the enormous benefits of the internet. We often think about internet issues through the prism of fear. It seems to me that it would be good if, over time, partly through the leadership of this place and the kind of language we use, we were to try to move beyond that. I suspect that to some degree it boils down to theories of human nature, if that is not too grand. On the whole people will use new things to do good things. We must do what we can to prevent the bad stuff, but inevitably bad stuff will happen, and we must minimise that. However, if we continue to think about the internet and its governance through the prism of fear, we will end up over-regulating it.

It is worth referring to a couple of other observations that were made by some of us at the IGF, which were helpfully referred to on the ukigf.org.uk website. One was that some emerging economies or developing countries are concerned about EU blocking practices. I do not mean to say that the practices they have in mind are wrong, with respect to the examples I heard in Kenya,

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but they see it as a restrictive practice. Lots of stuff coming out of Nigeria gets blocked automatically, because of the country’s reputation—deserved or otherwise—for economic crime on the internet. I have never replied to an email by giving my bank account details in the hope of getting the $10 million lodged in my account, so I am not sure how much of what is said is fear-mongering and how much is real, but nevertheless it has led to some emerging countries having their country domain names blocked. That is a pity and I hope that over time the Government, in conjunction with other Governments around the world, can do something about the relevant perceptions and practices.

I had not come across the Internet Society before I went to Nairobi. It is a very good organisation, with a good website, showing a series of models of how the internet could evolve. One model is called the common pool: that is, generally, a bit of tussle and roughness along the way, with, in the end, people stressing the collaboration, competition and sound evolution of the internet. There are other models, showing the risks of over-regulation. Governments might over-regulate because they fear the consequences in their own countries—if they fear freedom of speech, for example. Over-regulation might come about because large commercial interests demand that walls are put up for their commercial reasons. We must guard carefully against that and I recommend looking at those models on the isoc.org website.

I have been reading a book called “The Revolution Will Be Digitised” by Heather Brooke. Many hon. Members will know who she is. I do not see her around here much; perhaps that is for her own protection. She has written a pretty good book, actually. It is a romp through things that have happened—particularly, from the past year or two, WikiLeaks. She mentions the Icelandic modern media initiative, and that pooling of different legislation together for good use is quite interesting. I do not say that it is necessarily the exact model for the future, but it will be interesting to watch it as it evolves in the Icelandic Parliament.

Ms Brooke raises an issue that is a core aspect of another of the divides in our discussions of the internet, and the WikiLeaks phenomenon is central to it. There is a trend among some people to laud the release of information for its own sake, and to see that as reflecting a sound, open internet. I am currently a member of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, and it is my opinion that a balance must be struck between such openness and privacy. I am not as negative as some hon. Members about the Pirate parties, because I see them as putting a polemical argument that can be deconstructed and can be seen to have some valid points. The clash of ideas is important. It is necessary to listen to those parties’ lines of argument, make sense of them and break down some of their assumptions. I have found that they will often accept an argument, and they are a useful addition to the mix—not that I am encouraging any kind of piracy, obviously. The important thing is that we will have to find a balance between privacy—and everyone, including the pirates, stresses the importance of that—and the free flow of information. I do not propose to present the full solution in the next 30 seconds, but it is an important theme, which came out at the IGF.

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When the IGF was held in Nairobi the Kenyan Government did a super job and flew the flag very well for emerging economies. I took the opportunity, while I was there, to have a long meeting with the Rwandan Foreign Minister. As the Minister knows, this Government have followed the path laid by the previous Administration and formed close contacts with the Rwandan Government. They have also provided strong budgetary support. Rwanda is not a perfect regime, but it is a progressive and positive force. One of things that it has done of which it is proud is to install fibre optic cables across Rwanda. Clearly, it wants to be at the forefront of the internet age, which is a big challenge for such a poor country. I have a particular interest in Rwanda and have found that people refer to Rwanda in all sorts of ways; sometimes they say good things and other times not such good things. When it comes to the internet though, Rwanda is making a genuine effort to bring the benefits of the internet to an impoverished, developing country—albeit one that will hopefully reach middle-income status in the next nine years, which would be a remarkable feat.

I encourage the Minister not to see the internet through a prism of fear, cyborgs and men in shiny suits. We are not talking about the silent footfall of the mad cyborg axeman. He should look at the whole area in a constructive way and accept that the divides that exist can often be overcome by intelligent discussion and debate, as I have found in recent discussions with corporate stakeholders and ISPs. The Minister should perhaps reflect on that fact. It behoves all of us to remember the enormous potential benefits that mobile networks and mobile access will bring to Africa.

3.31 pm

Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on securing the debate. As members of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee, now the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum, we have attended some fascinating discussions over the past year on many of the areas under discussion today. The IGF in Nairobi covered a wide area and was entitled, “The Internet as a Catalyst for Change: Access, Development, Freedoms and Innovation.” In my short speech today, I should like to focus on just one area—access, which has already been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). This one topic includes many elements, covering traditional wired access, the mobile internet, accessibility to the internet and the right of access of many people to the internet.

The most readily understood element of access is the wired access provided by phone lines and fibre-optic cabling. This country has a relatively strong position in that area. My home city of Edinburgh is among the best. According to a recent Ofcom study, it has an average maximum broadband speed of 10.1 megabits per second. Only 4.5% of people receive less than 2 megabits a second. I think that we can guess who represents all of them. Many rural and urban areas still lag behind. Kirkliston, a village barely 10 miles from the centre of Edinburgh, has speeds on its copper infrastructure of generally less than 1 megabit a second. Such speeds make real functional access for both individuals and businesses nigh on impossible.

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I welcome the £68.8 million pledged by the Government as a contribution towards upgrading Scotland’s infrastructure. However, that money now sits in a bank account waiting for a strategy from the Scottish Government to emerge some time next year, which is not a great help to my constituents.

To be honest, the problem, or indeed the opportunity, is not really wired access but the mobile internet, a technology whose growth has outstripped all others and which, worldwide, will transform how the internet is accessed and, therefore, governed. Today, about half of all internet users, and a seventh of the world’s population, have already moved to mobile internet. A recent industry survey estimated that mobile broadband subscriptions would reach 3.8 billion or about half the world’s population by 2015. Another report predicted that by 2015, traffic from wireless devices would exceed traffic from wired devices. To date, the mobile internet has possibly been the fastest growing technology in history, but even that takes us only partially towards the access envisaged by the title of the IGF debate this year.

Everything I have talked about so far deals merely with the pipes and not with what comes out at the end. By that I mean the obvious difference between access and accessibility, which in itself covers many areas. There is an urgent need to consider how information is presented on the internet. There was much talk at the IGF of a move to a more multilingual internet and one that looks to put all users of the internet on an equal footing. Taking that down to local level, I am having a new parliamentary website designed with the help of the plain English campaign. In doing that, I have to take into account accessibility for users with varied needs. That is something that many companies and Departments need to spend a great deal more time on.

Equality of access across the world raises even more basic questions. The UN rapporteur on human rights has called for access to the internet to be a human right, giving individuals, as it sometimes does, their only access to an unfettered flow of information and a right to freedom of expression. That poses an interesting question for me, sitting as I do on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and on PITCOM; I am straddling both those strands.

In the past, many countries, Kenya included, have faced challenges to shut down or limit access to the internet. The internet in general and the social networks in particular have heightened our awareness of many such issues. For example, they were used to co-ordinate many of the uprisings in the Arab spring and the riots in this country.

We must stand by free, unlimited internet access in this country and abroad. The internet is fast becoming one of the key engines of economic and social transformation and growth across the globe. The internet governance framework will be an important way of ensuring that we focus not only on physical access but on access to freedoms of expression and association. I hope the Minister will rapidly do all he can to push forward both sides of that access agenda.

3.37 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Benton. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for

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Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) on securing this extremely important debate. Ironically, when the Minister and I were debating one of the world’s oldest technologies this morning, this place was packed out. Now, we are at the cutting edge of technology and there are far fewer people, which is perhaps not the best reflection on parliamentarians.

What has emerged this afternoon is the complexity of the issues and how difficult it is to get the balance right. I was struck yesterday by the impact that the net is having on business development in this country. Despite the recession, net-based firms are expanding at a phenomenal rate and are completely bucking all trends. We are also aware of the positive role that the net and mobile devices have in developing countries. They enable people to know which markets to take their produce to and to save time on travel when travel links are not very good. It is clear that there are many positive benefits to be had.

Children and young people’s capability on the net and their capacity to use it for positive purposes are way ahead of the rest of us. Politically speaking, we have seen in north Africa and the middle east the huge impact of the net on enabling people to communicate. That had two benefits: access to ideas, which was not previously available to people there, and the facility for communicating swiftly, which was undoubtedly significant.

At the same time, however, there are risks and we need to consider the public policy aspects of the internet. One public policy aspect that I shall be interested to hear about from the Minister is whether the internet service providers or the owners of the technology are themselves competing in a proper market. Because the technology has emerged very quickly and because some firms have grown very speedily, I wonder whether there is both monopolistic and monopsonistic control of some parts of the market. We need to think about that issue, because obviously a firm such as Google, which has grown very quickly, is technology-based. In a way, one could almost say that it is a happy accident that Google has been so successful. One can imagine that similar market power held by other companies might not be quite so beneficial. We need to address that issue.

Labour endorses the report by Ian Hargreaves on intellectual property. We look forward to the implementation of many of his recommendations.

My hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) spoke about crime on the internet. There are many dimensions, but I want to say something about child safety online and online harassment. A major piece of work is being done at the moment by some colleagues about online stalking, which is emerging as a significant problem. I wonder whether people take online stalking seriously enough and realise how terrifying and harassing it can be. We hope for some developments on that issue.

One of the things that I have noticed in the short time that I have been in the job of shadow justice Minister is that for many of the proposed protections people are supposed to engage in self-protection. For example, I went to a meeting last week where I was told by BT that it was quite simple for people to organise online protection for their children on their home computer; it was supposed

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to be perfectly straightforward. I went home, tried to do it and could not make the computer work for the next 24 hours.

Earlier this week, I visited another company and we discussed the use of cookies. I do not know how much you know about cookies, Mr Benton, but it was extremely interesting to learn how much information can be gathered through their use by the ISPs or whoever it is—I am not sure who it is, which reveals the shallows of my knowledge. Anyway, I was told once again that it is quite simple for people to go on to the internet and edit their own entry, to control the information held about them. Again, I tried to do that and again I completely failed. If we are to have a safe internet, it must be safe for people who are not technologically sophisticated. Going down the line that everyone must have a DPhil in physics to be able to protect themselves is not the place to go.

I reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth: it is important that we discuss different aspects of the issue in different parts of the House and think about the different elements of behaviour that impact on people. It is also important that we take understanding of the internet, its implications and its governance beyond people interested in the technology involved, because as my right hon. Friend said we cannot simply have technological solutions.

It is clear that there is a group of people who think that the internet should be like the forest in the 14th century—a place where outlaws can run free and unrestrained. That is not realistic and it is not what any of us who are here for this debate want. I respect my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), but we have learned that piracy is not a very good idea. From the 16th century to today, we have had increasing developments in the international law of the sea.

Eric Joyce: I was not suggesting that piracy is a good idea and I was not referring to Somalia. I was simply saying that it is good to listen to polemical arguments sometimes, because sometimes they are made with considerable force. I would also caution against situations where some interests—I am not being negative about corporate interests—will sometimes use the internet to extend their control, such as was the case when someone wanted a book loan in the past but were not able to pay to file-share.

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend makes a good point—I was only teasing him. However, the fact is that we have been told on a number of occasions that we cannot control things that are problematic on the internet because it is international; that was the first set of responses when people were raising concerns about the internet. Well, what that tells us is that we must have international governance arrangements. I am very pleased that so many of my colleagues, from all parties in the House, were in Nairobi to look at the international governance arrangements.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is making a very good point indeed, but there is more connection between what she is saying and what my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) said than might immediately appear. One of the problems is getting two groups of people who take a diametrically different view from each other into the same room to have a debate. We have

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seen that in relation to intellectual property and exploitation of the internet. In that sense, my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk is right to say that we must not close anyone out of the argument, even if we ultimately reject the case that they are making. We must have a joined-up approach so that as far as possible everybody is in the room having the debates and understanding each other’s point of view.

Helen Goodman: Of course. My right hon. Friend speaks with experience and good sense about the need to take account of different perspectives. I also thought what he said about the nature of rules is important. He said that they need to be values-based, outcomes-based and technologically neutral. That is absolutely the right approach. Privacy offers an important example. It is no more acceptable to invade a person’s privacy using one technology than it is using another. Everybody must understand that, but sometimes we behave as if it is not the case.

That point raises another issue, which is whether different technologies tend to encourage different sorts of behaviour. If I were to tell you something quietly in the corridor, Mr Benton, and said, “Please don’t repeat this to anybody”, I am absolutely certain that you would not repeat it. Equally, if I was to go to my doctor and tell him something, and he wrote some notes down in handwriting and put them in a safe place, I would not be worried about them being leaked. However, in my mental health trust recently somebody took a memory stick out of the office, dropped it in the local car park and all the mental health records of everybody in County Durham became widely available. That kind of casualness or casual behaviour is more prevalent in the zone of computers. Although the values we use should be neutral in relation to the technology, I do not think that people’s behaviour is quite so neutral.

In conclusion, I hope that we can have further debates about this important issue in this Chamber.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I welcome the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) to her position as Labour spokesman on communications and creative industries.

I pay a heartfelt tribute to the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), not just for securing this debate but for his leadership on this important issue, both as a Minister and since leaving post. In the spirit of co-operation that I think has characterised the debate, let me put on record how helpful he has been to me as a new Minister, in establishing myself in the post and finding my way around it. His co-operation and knowledge sharing has helped me to get up to speed and to continue, I hope, to represent the UK effectively in these important debates. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), who was with us at the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, is now following these matters very closely, and will be an important contributor to debates on this issue.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) for his contribution on broadband, and I shall briefly touch on that issue now before

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turning, in the main part of my response, to internet governance. On the issue of the spectrum, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), we obviously know that the internet is very important. At lunchtime, I was at a retail store with people we were encouraging to get online—there is a campaign called “Give an hour”, run by Martha Lane Fox. Pat Harran, Mohammed Mir, Errol Hall and someone called Pitchit were there to get online, and I promised I would mention them so that they could look up


online. Showing them how to find a


debate on the Parliament website on an iPad was instructive because it was almost impossible; there is a message there for the parliamentary authorities.

I learnt an interesting statistic today that marries my two responsibilities in culture and communications. During the Frieze art fair, which lasted just four days and had 60,000 visitors, 1 terabit—a trillion bits of information—was downloaded. Incidentally, 85% of visitors were using an iPhone or an iPad, which shows the dominance of Apple, at least in trendy circles such as contemporary art. In 1993, 100 terabits was the entire amount of information transferred across the internet—I was virtually middle-aged then—so we can see how things have changed in a short time. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage and the hon. Member for Edinburgh West are entirely correct to focus on the spectrum, and it is vital that Ofcom gets the auction rules right and that we are able to auction the 4G spectrum as soon as possible, because otherwise it will become more and more difficult to use the smart phone gadgets on which we all depend.

Turning to the substance of the debate, which is the Internet Governance Forum and the multi-stakeholder approach, I shall recount a short anecdote for the benefit of the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. The Foreign Secretary does not like the term “multi-stakeholder”; indeed, he has said that it is an ugly term, and at the London conference, which begins next week, I think he plans to use “co-operative governance”, which is a bit of a mouthful for a Conservative—he might even stretch to “mutual governance”. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary’s power will shift us away from “multi-stakeholder engagement,” but that is the term that people across the world understand.

The conference in Nairobi was very useful. I went because of the persuasion of the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, and I am grateful that people said it was good to see a Minister there. It was certainly worth my while, and I will continue to go as long as I hold this job, because it is important to have a presence there and engage with not just stakeholders but Government representatives who might have a different approach. The multi-stakeholder model is not universally accepted, and different models have been put forward. The right hon. Gentleman knows that moves are afoot to transfer responsibility for internet governance to the International Telecommunication Union—the ITU. The UK Government does not support that, and so in answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, we will continue, I hope, to lead on this issue and support the multi-stakeholder approach.

There is a proposal from India, Brazil and South Africa, known as the IBSA model, to set up a new global body within the UN system, but I think that that would be an unravelling of the world summit on the information society—WSIS—principles that were

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established, thanks to the right hon. Gentleman, in Tunis in 2005. In addition, China and Russia have submitted to the UN General Assembly a proposal for the international management of the internet.

I subscribe to the multi-stakeholder model. The internet was built from the ground up. It is an innovative medium, and not just Governments but other stakeholders, civil society groups and business all must have their say if it is to remain so. One reason for the debate in this area is the continued role of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Recently, there have been concerns about ICANN’s approach regarding the .xxx domain name, but I am glad that as a result we have had significant reforms of the corporation and a more coherent role for its Government Advisory Committee—GAC—and are now well placed for the corporation to move forward, particularly as it releases more generic top-level domain names from next year.

We also have the re-letting of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority—IANA—contract, which is currently operated by ICANN under the auspices of the US Government. It is absolutely clear that the US Government take their responsibility in that regard very seriously, as a steward for the global internet. People who suggest that they would somehow seek to turn off the internet are completely wrong —there is even an untrue anecdote that they cut off Syria four or five years ago. It is important, however, that the US recognises such concerns, and I think that it does. For example, when the IANA contract is let, it might go to ICANN or it could go to another body, and that will be seen as a global body, although it will be registered in the US. Local law will apply to the country that owns the domain name, so .uk will continue to be subject to UK law. In any dispute, the relevant domestic law of the domain name will prevail.

In consideration of new generic top-level domains, there will be a requirement for community support for IANA to amend the root and thus add a new domain—.scot for example—to protect us against controversial root domain names coming forward. The operator of IANA will also have to introduce enhanced transparency so that a request for root zone changes can be tracked through the system. I hope that people who feel that somehow a UN or an ITU route would be better—in that it would reduce the influence of the Americans—

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understand that the Americans do not seek to influence the governance of the internet and that they regard themselves very much as stewards.

I have very little time left, but I am glad that I have covered the main points: support for the multi-stakeholder approach; concern about the two proposals that I have mentioned; contentment that the issue between GAC and ICANN has, I think, been resolved and moved forward; and the United States Government’s recognition and addressing of the concerns about the re-letting of the IANA contract. We have the important London conference on cyberspace next week, and I hope that some of the Members present will be able to attend. If not, I ask them to please let me know. I am sure that they will be able to attend if the problem is at our end.

Let me make a couple of other points. There is the importance of internet protocol version 6. We have run out, as it were, of domain names and need to move to IPv6, and I want to use this opportunity to call on industry, particularly the internet service providers and the mobile operators, to support 6UK, which is the business body charged with raising awareness of IPv6. So far, support has not been forthcoming, and it now needs to come from the people who will reap the main benefit—the ISPs and the mobile operators. On the philosophical approach—if I may put it that way—that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland took, there is potentially common ground between us. I am interested in her monopolistic and mons—

Helen Goodman: Monopsonistic.

Mr Vaizey: I will not even try to say it. I will not give any views on that approach because I do not want to set any hares running.

There is also the self-regulatory approach to try to protect people from inappropriate content on the internet, and I welcome the ISPs’ code of conduct on active choice, which is designed to do precisely what the hon. Lady says, to give parents easy tools with which to protect their children. My approach with these businesses is to say, “This is the policy problem. You have the technical knowledge, so help us to solve it. Don’t simply say, ‘It can’t be done’.”

3.59 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Fuel Poverty

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

4.13 pm

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Alan. This is the second time that I have secured a debate in Westminster Hall on fuel poverty. The first time was last January, when we had just had the coldest December on record and, as we spoke, many of us continued to feel the effects of the cold. I called for that debate because I was troubled and concerned about the number of constituents who had contacted me to tell me that they were feeling the effects of the terrible cold weather. I said then, as I say now, that fuel poverty is a black mark on society. It is up to us to do something about poverty anywhere, whenever anyone is impoverished. I say that not from the point of view of the Government or as a politician, but as a human being.

I was heartened and encouraged by last January’s debate. After listening to the response of the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), I really felt that we got it. However, I find myself talking about the subject again today. Ten months later, the average annual bill for a dual fuel customer is £1,293, or 6% of median household income, compared with 3.3% in 2004. That means that an average family on an average income are edging ever closer to the disastrous figure of 10% of their income going on fuel bills.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. My constituency in Devon, which is a rural community, has low income and great rurality. There is a higher percentage of pensioners in Devon than in any other part of the country. Many members of my rural community use fuel oil, as opposed to gas, and it is twice the price, so I share his concern about this problem.

Chris Evans: I thank the hon. Lady for raising that concern. Rural communities are harder hit because, as she has said, they use oil, the market price for which is out of control. Something needs to be done. I will not mention that too much during the debate, but I hope that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), will touch on it when he responds.

If an average family is being put into fuel poverty, we have serious problems. We talked about fuel prices in the main Chamber last Wednesday and it was evident that the Government need to review their energy policy. I am not going to talk today about how bad the energy companies have been—I mentioned that enough during my contribution to last Wednesday’s debate—but there needs to be root-and-branch reform. If I started going on about that today, I do not think that it would add to the debate in any respect, because, at the end of the day, fuel poverty is a matter of life and death for so many people and so many of our constituents. It means making the heart-breaking decision between eating a meal and heating their house.

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I could cite a number of examples of older people who only put on one bar of their fire, or who heat only one room, to reduce their fuel costs. As I said in the Chamber last week, constituents have said to me, “I sit in the living room with my coat on, because I can’t afford the heating,” and, “I go bed at 8 pm, because when I’m in bed I don’t use heating.” It is absolutely terrible.

It is in vogue at the moment to blame the Labour party for everything. When buses are late or trains do not turn up, I am sure that, somewhere along the line, somebody will blame the Labour party. Despite such brickbats, I am proud that the previous Labour Government did all they could to address fuel poverty and improve the energy efficiency of homes.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend find it deeply worrying that this Government’s only answer to rising fuel bills is to tell people that they are to blame for not shopping around?

Chris Evans: As I said during last week’s debate, it is all very well to tell people to shop around but, if all the energy companies are putting up their prices across the board, how can people shop around? I also said that energy is not a luxury item—people have to have it. It is not possible to have superfast energy in the same way as it is to have superfast broadband. How can people shop around? It is a failure of the market. If we are going to ask people to shop around, the Government need to encourage more entrants into the market.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On the failure of the market, energy prices in Scandinavia—in Sweden and Denmark—are higher than those in the UK, possibly because the UK has a more free market. In Scandinavia, however, they make a more comprehensive effort to make sure that they are energy-efficient, which makes a real difference in terms of fuel poverty, because their prices are actually higher.

Chris Evans: I still believe that the only way to drive down prices is to have more competitors. We have only six companies as competitors, they all seem to be pushing up their prices together—I am not saying that that is what they are doing, because a number of inquiries have said that they are not—and the regulator does not seem to be doing anything about it. I do not agree with that situation. We need to look at ways to bring in more entrants into the market. As I have said, however, that is not a debate for now.

The introduction of winter fuel payments, central heating programmes and the energy efficiency commitment have all played their part in easing the pain that people have felt in meeting their energy costs. However, I cannot talk about fuel poverty or pensioners in my constituency without mentioning the cut to the winter fuel payment.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the Floor of Westminster Hall. Today, I met a group of about 20 people from Age Sector Platform in Northern Ireland. They indicated that approximately 770 people died from the cold in Northern Ireland last year. Does he share my

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concern that the changes to the winter fuel payment will contribute greatly to more people dying because they are not able to get the correct money?

Chris Evans: I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. In Wales, 1,700 people are dying from the cold every year. As I have said, in this day and age, what does it say about us as a society when people are dying from the cold? It is absolutely terrible. I cannot put into words the shame that we all should feel if somebody dies from the cold.

On the reduction in the winter fuel payment, the Chancellor and Government Members have said, “It was only ever a temporary increase and we stopped the increase because Labour put it up.” It is all very well saying, “Oh, it was a temporary increase,” but once someone has got used to that money coming in, they tend to feel the pinch when it has gone. The Government need to reconsider that terrible decision.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the number of pensioners dying from the cold in Northern Ireland. In my constituency of Islwyn, there were 41 winter deaths. If we get nothing else from the Minister today, I hope that he will make a commitment to do all he can to ensure that nobody else is added to that tragic statistic.

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): My hon. Friend represents a Welsh constituency. Some 26% of Welsh households are said to be in fuel poverty. In Scotland, that figure is 32.7%. We are expecting a cold winter. Does he agree that there is a crisis and that the Government need to consider introducing measures to ensure that we do more to help people with their heating costs?

Chris Evans: Absolutely. I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. Scotland and Wales have a lot in common. We are Celtic cousins, as is the hon. Member for Strangford. We share the same problem of fuel poverty and something needs to be done as a matter of urgency. I hope that we will hear something from the Minister about that.

Today, I want to talk about a group of people who are hardly ever mentioned. I want to pay tribute to Macmillan Cancer Support, to which I have spoken about cancer patients. This is a very important issue. Anyone who has had the heartbreaking news that they have cancer or who knows someone who has cancer does not need to be told how hard life can be. They are faced with months of treatment, heartache and worry, and the last thing that any family of a cancer patient should worry about is whether they can pay their energy bills.

Cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to plummeting temperatures and rocketing fuel bills. Many will be faced with fuel poverty because they have increased energy needs at a time when their income has dropped dramatically. Since getting involved in this campaign, I have heard many harrowing stories that underline just how hard people living with cancer feel the effects of high energy bills. The following story stood out. One woman said:

“My immune system is so weakened that I am very prone to colds and infections but I can’t afford to keep warm all the time. I cover myself in blankets and hot water bottles to help keep my

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joints warm. I am always in debt and behind with payment to the energy companies, even during the summer. It makes me panic. I try and give them £10 whenever I can, but to be honest I’d rather be in debt than get even more ill. I wish the government would realise that it’s not just the old who get cancer and suffer the cold.”

During treatment, 70% of cancer patients under the age of 55 lose, on average, 50% of their household income. That is why fuel poverty disproportionately affects those with cancer, and why one in four cancer sufferers also suffer from fuel poverty. Despite evidence that living in fuel poverty has a negative impact on the health and well-being of people with cancer, one in five cancer patients turn off their heating during winter because they are so worried about their bills. The problem is made worse by the fact that people living with cancer spend longer at home when they recuperate and as a result may be less active. They also have a higher use of appliances, such as washing machines and tumble dryers. The effects of chemotherapy may also make cancer patients more susceptible to the cold. As I have said in the past, one way of combating fuel poverty is by increasing the income of those who find themselves struggling with bills.

Jim Shannon: Is the hon. Gentleman concerned, as I am, that stress over financial issues adds to the health problems of people with cancer? It is important for those people to have money to get through such hard times.

Chris Evans: As I said, when someone has cancer, the last thing they need to worry about is money, paying the bills or meeting any other financial obligations. The top priority of someone with cancer and of their family should be to get better and beat that evil disease.

Cancer patients do not receive the support they need. For instance, the winter fuel payment is only paid to those who are over 60. Only 7% of cancer patients in fuel poverty are on a social tariff, and only those on certain benefits linked to low income are included in the carbon emissions reduction target super-priority group. People affected by cancer who are under 60 are not entitled to that support, even though roughly one in four cancer patients have not yet reached their 60th birthday. If this debate achieves anything, it is my sincere hope that the Government will give serious consideration to extending the winter fuel payment to particularly vulnerable groups, such as those with a terminal illness, the disabled or those undergoing treatment.

Cancer patients are poorly served by the Government’s schemes to reduce fuel poverty. Many rely on additional sources of financial help to pay high gas bills and, as a result, risk falling into debt. The warm home discount scheme is run by energy companies and provides certain groups of fuel poor energy customers with an annual rebate of £130 off their energy bills. That rebate can be provided either automatically or to other vulnerable groups as defined by the energy companies. Cancer patients will only be able to apply for support if they fall within the categories set by the energy companies. It is my fear that, unless the Government provide tighter guidance to energy companies regarding the eligibility for the WHD, vulnerable cancer patients will miss out. For instance, under the social tariffs set by energy companies, only 7% of cancer patients in fuel poverty

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receive support. I therefore hope that the Minster will say he will look again at the eligibility criteria of the warm home discount if it becomes apparent that it is not reaching the most vulnerable people.

One of the major problems with fuel poverty is that the people who are suffering from it are not always aware of the issue. I shall give an example. Many years ago, when I was working for my predecessor Lord Touhig, we secured a fuel poverty debate in Westminster Hall. At the time, he was president of the National Old Age Pensioners Association for Wales. He asked me to speak to the secretary. I phoned him up and said, “Ralph, Don is doing a debate on fuel poverty tomorrow and he is wondering whether you have any examples of it.” He said to me, “Well, the problem is that most people do not realise that they are suffering. Energy bills are a way of life. If we get cold, we put on an extra pullover or we put an extra bar on.” People do not seem to know that they are suffering from fuel poverty, which is a major problem when it comes to discovering other groups in fuel poverty, such as cancer patients.

The English housing survey currently used by the Government to calculate fuel poverty figures in England does not include questions related to a person’s cancer diagnosis, despite including questions about other disabilities. The Government must start collecting that data if they are to successfully target resources at those most in need. We need to consider targeting the winter fuel payment at the terminally ill. The Government should consider changing the English housing survey to include a question about cancer, alongside questions about other disabilities. Only by doing that will Government data give an accurate depiction of the number of cancer patients suffering from fuel poverty.

It is clear that more must be done by the Government to proactively prioritise people with long-term health conditions in fuel poverty who require support. The Government have acknowledged that the green deal will not work for fuel poor households as they are likely to be under-heating their homes and will be unable to take on debts or make significant savings. The Government have made provision to address that with the energy company obligation, which will subsidise energy efficiency measures for fuel poor households. However, I am concerned that the money available under the ECO will not be large enough to help all fuel poor and vulnerable households. Many cancer patients will not be able to access the support if eligibility is restricted to certain groups on very low incomes or qualifying benefits. That is why I am looking for assurances from the Minister that those diagnosed with cancer will be able to access support when the ECO comes into effect.

Energy companies are seemingly increasing their prices at will, and we are faced with the difficulty that people will fall into fuel poverty as soon as energy prices rise. My predecessor as Member of Parliament for Islwyn, Lord Touhig, was fond of quoting James Maxton, whose words have a special meaning now. He said that poverty is man-made and therefore open to change. If anything, fuel poverty is man-made, and with the political will we have the tools to do something about it.

4.29 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the

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debate, and his continued and tenacious advocacy of action on fuel poverty. We all admire the way in which he is pursuing this agenda on behalf of his constituents, and I assure him that the coalition shares his concerns about those living in fuel poverty. It is a disgrace in the 21st century that so many people are cold in winter. For example, we know that it is very likely that each winter more people will die of fuel poverty than will be killed on the roads, which is a shocking statistic.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials and I regularly meet with a wide range of consumer groups and other stakeholders, including not just Citizens Advice but Macmillan Cancer Support, which is taking this issue to heart, and Carers UK, which is doing a great job of speaking up for the most vulnerable in our society. I particularly recognise the issues that those living with cancer may face because they spend more time at home and need to keep warm. Through our policies, those people living with cancer on a low income should be able to access assistance to keep their homes warm more affordably.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are committed to protecting those who need help most, and committed to making change where change is needed. That is why we have asked Professor Harrington, the independent reviewer of the work capability assessment, and Macmillan to look at how the WCA assesses people who are receiving treatment for cancer and whether it can be improved. Professor Harrington and Macmillan have now submitted their report to the Government. We are considering the report and will come forward with proposals soon.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the fuel poverty statistics make depressing reading. While I do not seek to blame the previous Labour Government for slow-running buses, between 2005 and 2009, during the third term of the previous Labour Government, the number of fuel-poor households across the UK more than doubled. It did not do so from a small base; it went from 2.5 million to 5.5 million people. Of those, 4.5 million were in vulnerable households. The elderly, families with young children, the long-term sick and the disabled were all caught up in this rising epidemic of fuel poverty. The latest figures from the Welsh Assembly Government estimate that of the 1.34 million households in Wales, 332,000 households were in fuel poverty in 2008. If we are going to reverse this iniquitous trend something big has to change. We need to completely rethink, redesign and re-engineer our policies.

In order to find the right solutions, we need to make sure we ask the right questions. That is why we invited Professor John Hills, of the London School of Economics, to undertake an independent review of both the fuel poverty target and the definition. He has been asked to look at fuel poverty from first principles—what causes it, its effects and how best to measure it.

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Will that review include off-grid customers, those whom my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) spoke about in relation to domestic heating oil? They have seen prices go up by 90% in the past year and are looking to the Government to help them to avoid falling into the problems that the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke about so eloquently.

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Gregory Barker: Absolutely. The rural fuel poor are the hardest hit of all. In the last years of the previous Labour Government, they saw, in real terms, the cost of heating their homes increase by 130%—absolutely iniquitous.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that fuel poverty has been rising in the past 18 months as well. We had one of the coldest winters, and external factors contributed to that. With regard to off-grid, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) conceded that he would meet with myself and other hon. Members. Is the Minister saying that he will look at the possibility of Ofgem, the regulator, giving the same protection to people who are off-grid as it does to those who are on the gas mains? They need that protection against fuel suppliers, not competition and regulation.

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Protection in this area is overseen by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has that portfolio responsibility. I am sure that he will be pleased to meet with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to discuss this matter, because we are concerned about fairness and practices that have been going on among the heating oil distributors. I know that my hon. Friend takes this issue very seriously.

The independent report being prepared by Professor Hills focuses on whether fuel poverty is distinct from poverty and why measurement is important. It provides an assessment of the current definition of fuel poverty, and identifies and analyses possible modifications and alternatives to the existing definition. I do not wish to be frivolous, but it has been pointed out that under the current definition of fuel poverty Her Majesty the Queen would be in danger of being tipped into those defined as fuel poor, because it takes more than 8.9% of the royal grant to heat the historic royal palaces. We have to ensure that the definition captures those who are in genuine poverty, rather than the more well-off who are making lifestyle choices in spending their income on such things. We have to ensure that we focus our precious resources on those who are genuinely the most vulnerable.

Tackling fuel poverty will be a huge challenge and a key part of the solution is undoubtedly to address the thermal efficiency of the UK housing stock. Britain has some of the oldest, leakiest and most expensive homes to heat in Europe. We urgently need to address this issue. We do not have the highest energy costs; we have among the highest energy bills, because we have to waste so much heating to actually keep warm. Both the carbon emissions reduction target and Warm Front, measures started under the previous Government are continuing, with work being done in the homes of some of those most at risk. However, we recognise that if we were to just continue with these measures, specifically with Warm Front, it would never get us close to meeting our statutory target of eliminating fuel poverty. In fact, Warm Front would take approximately 80 years to get close to dealing with fuel poverty.

We need a game changer and that game changer is the green deal. The coalition flagship Energy Bill, which contains the green deal, has now received Royal Assent. That is a significant milestone on the journey to launching

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the most ambitious home-improvement programme since the second world war. We expect to commence a public consultation shortly on secondary legislation to develop the precise design and scope of the scheme. We are working closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the green deal can be rolled out at scale, really ambitiously, right across Great Britain.

The green deal is necessary to deliver our objectives, but on a dramatically more ambitious scale than anything that has gone before. We aim to retrofit 14 million households by the early 2020s. Assistance for the fuel poor and targeting the most vulnerable will be at the forefront of this action. The domestic green deal is an opportunity for all householders, whether in the private sector, social rented sector or private rented sector, to improve the energy efficiency of their homes at no up-front cost. It will help protect people against price rises in the future through greater energy saving now.

However, there are drawbacks and we appreciate the particular needs and constraints of the most fuel poor. Green deal installations are paid for through future savings, and we realise that they may not be the full answer for all households. As the hon. Member for Islwyn pointed out, it is no good projecting savings on heating a whole house if the widow living there is only able to heat one room. We recognise fully the need for a substantial element of subsidy for the most vulnerable and fuel poor. That is why we will also introduce a new energy company obligation. Integrating the green deal and the ECO will provide further support for those homes that need it most.

We want to ensure that everyone who wants to can access high quality energy efficiency measures, so that they can cut their emissions and heat their homes more affordably, as well as creating a warmer, more comfortable and liveable home environment. The ECO will assist the poorest and most vulnerable households to an affordable warmth target, providing up-front support for thermal performance measures to help households to heat their homes more affordably. In developing the green deal and the ECO, we are removing the barriers to take-up, raising awareness and showcasing benefits to make energy efficiency a no-brainer for everyone.

We are aware that the long-term solution to the iniquity of fuel poverty is to renovate the UK’s building stock. However, we also need solutions to keep people warm this winter, and the coalition is requiring suppliers to provide a rebate of £120 to some of the poorest pensioners through the new warm home discount. We are also providing winter fuel payments and, if we get the anticipated cold snaps, cold weather payments. We recognise that energy prices are hitting many households hard at a difficult time, and understand consumers’ concerns about rising energy bills. That is why we have obtained a voluntary agreement with the suppliers, who will be writing to 8 million customers to advise on how to save money by changing to a cheaper tariff and will place a cheaper tariff signpost on the front page of most bills. Bills are far too complicated, and they need to be simplified and send much clearer messages to vulnerable and general consumers about how to save money.

Albert Owen: I support energy efficiency measures and Ofgem’s recommendations for simplifying bills, but does the Minister agree that it is perverse how many

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energy companies currently charge low users more money? Low users are often the vulnerable people mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn. Was that issue raised at the Downing street summit so that the companies got a clear message that they should not be punishing those low users?

Gregory Barker: The Secretary of State was at the summit, but unfortunately I was overseas. I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman to summarise the key issues discussed, but I can assure him that such issues are at the forefront of our minds when we are making policy.

This is the first year of the warm home discount, and we will assist around 2 million vulnerable households. Many will be low-income pensioner households—exactly the sort of constituent discussed by the hon. Member for Islwyn—who are in receipt only of pension credit guarantee credit. We expect to find more than 600,000 of them and to provide them with a £120 rebate off their bill. Most will receive a rebate without even having to claim, a major benefit to such vulnerable people who might struggle with forms or not realise that they can make a claim. The data-matching process to identify automatically the recipient low-income pensioners for this winter is currently under way, and the call centre is now open to take general enquiries regarding the scheme. Over the four years of the scheme, it will be worth up to £1.1 billion which, at a time of widespread budgetary pressures, is a significant increase in funding on the previous voluntary agreement that also assisted many households under the previous Government.

Fuel bills in the winter months can account for around 60% of the year’s total fuel bill. By working with other Departments, we can ensure that we are reaching the most vulnerable with the assistance that they need. The Department for Work and Pensions provides winter fuel payments of £300 to those over the age of 80 and £200 to those over 60. Those payments provide assurance to older people that they can keep warm during the colder winter months, knowing that they will receive significant help with their fuel bills. In addition, the Government have permanently increased the cold weather payment from £8.50 a week to £25 a week, providing real help to those most vulnerable to the cold. Last winter, we made 17 million cold weather payments, worth an estimated £430 million of direct help to low-income vulnerable households when they need it most—

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. That concludes the debate.

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Seagulls (Coastal Towns)

4.44 pm

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I am pleased to have secured the debate, which gives me the opportunity to raise an issue that in recent years has affected the lives of many residents in my Waveney constituency, in particular in Lowestoft, as well as around the country, in coastal towns and further inland. In Waveney, there has been a problem in Beccles, some 10 miles from the coast, while problems have also arisen in such places as Bath and Birmingham.

Seagulls are part of the fabric of seaside Britain. Historically, other than following the plough, they have kept themselves to the coast. However, in recent years they have moved inland, nesting, feeding and breeding in buildings and on roofs, and in doing so causing considerable nuisance, stress and anxiety to nearby residents. In Lowestoft, much of the current problem centres around Waveney drive and the adjoining streets, and residents have been disrupted in a variety of ways.

Gulls are powerful birds, with a wing span of almost 5 feet, and they have messy habits. They have been known to tear apart refuse sacks and scatter the contents of litter bins in their search for food, making a mess and distributing litter, which has the potential to attract other, more conventional vermin.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Is my hon. Friend also aware that gull faeces cause a risk to the quality of bathing water in towns such as Teignmouth in my constituency? The Environment Agency is having to look at ways of preventing the birds from nesting on roofs and by the pier.

Peter Aldous: I welcome my hon. Friend’s drawing that fact to my attention, as it illustrates the number of environmental issues that arise. Seagulls are indiscriminate defecators, with the ability to expel significant quantities of runny faeces on the wing. The consequences are most unpleasant for residents in their gardens and for anyone else out and about in the open. Householders cannot hang out their washing, and windows, cars and garden furniture are continually fouled and have to be cleaned. One household I know has stopped holding their annual family barbecue. Relaxing in the garden is no longer possible, while soiled clothes, sheets and towels have to be thrown away. There is an additional burden on local authorities’ cleaning duties. Noise nuisance is also a factor. Gulls have a distinctive, prolonged, piercing and very loud laughing call. For many people, a good night’s sleep is a thing of the past.

Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the issue. He has mentioned some places in England, but even Cardiff in Wales has a massive problem. Because of the noise factor mentioned by my hon. Friend, my constituent, Mr Paul Harvey, has started a campaign in Wales on the issue, but the council tells us that national legislation is needed and that there is none that can be used at the moment.

Peter Aldous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I will be coming to that subject. He is correct; at the moment, nuisance as such is not

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something that enables one to take appropriate measures. It might be appropriate to change the law, and I will come to that point.

As I said, gulls make a distinctive, piercing sound, and in certain areas, people find that they can no longer keep their windows open on warm summer nights. During the breeding season, nesting birds have a tendency to dive-bomb people they perceive as a threat to their nests or offspring. That can be extremely alarming for the elderly and the young. In one incident, riggers putting up a TV aerial were attacked and had to return on another date to complete their work.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on raising an issue that has stretched many miles from the sea all the way up the Gloucester and Sharpness canal to the historic city of Gloucester, where seagulls are as much a pest as they are in his constituency. Does he agree that the only way to solve the problem of those birds almost of mass destruction is, on the one hand, for those of us who have tips to close them as fast as possible so that the gulls do not have access to a great food source and, on the other hand—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans)—that the Government need to consider whether they should authorise more action by councils to co-ordinate the clearing of gull nests?

Peter Aldous: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point; I am aware that the problem is acute in Gloucester. We need to look at a variety of measures and I will certainly raise the two points he mentioned.

People are no longer able to enjoy their homes; there is an added health risk and a negative knock-on effect on the saleability and value of houses. Why and how has the problem arisen? It appears that the situation has become significantly worse in the last five to six years. Residents who have lived in their homes for 32 and 52 years respectively have told me that until recent years there was not a significant problem.

There is a need for research to accurately establish the causes, although anecdotally and based on feedback I have received from around the country, I suggest there could be a variety of reasons. First, the decline of the fishing industry that has taken place in Lowestoft and around the British coast may have removed more traditional food sources, thereby forcing gulls to move inland in search of other forms of sustenance. Secondly, the availability of discarded fast food and overflowing waste may encourage birds to move into new areas. On the seafront in Lowestoft, feeding the seagulls may seem like a good idea, but one household now has them breeding on its roof and dive-bombing householders as they leave home. Thirdly, it is possible that the encroachment of traditional natural breeding habitats may have forced seagulls to look for alternative nesting-places. Indeed, off Waveney Drive, the presence of a now empty timber processing factory, with many thousands of square feet of roof, has provided an ideal breeding-ground.

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): My hon. Friend makes powerful points about fisheries and so forth. In Brighton and Hove, we quite like seagulls. Indeed, their image

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adorns our wonderful new stadium. In relation to points made earlier about bins and destruction, we have changed some of the collection methods so that there is less destruction and less mess. In large numbers gulls can cause distress, but does my hon. Friend agree that a change in our behaviour can often alleviate the problem, and that is better than simply removing the seagulls?

Peter Aldous: I agree with that point, too. We have to look at ourselves as people as well as considering other forms of control.

In looking for solutions, there is no easy answer and no silver bullet. There is a need for more research so that we can obtain a better understanding of the ecology, biology and migrating habits of herring and black-headed gulls. We need a range of preventive measures. Where the problem is acute, there may be a need to consider additional means of controlling the gull population. I would be interested to know if any research has been carried out to find out what happens in other countries. Gull colonies can be very mobile. They move over a wide area stretching from the Atlantic coast in Portugal to Scandinavia and across to Siberia. By all accounts, the problem is not as acute in Norway and Sweden. We need to know why this is the case.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): I add my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The menace also afflicts the people of Barrow and Furness up in Cumbria. On preventive measures, has the hon. Gentleman given serious consideration to whether gull contraceptives could be an effective way of limiting the burgeoning population in urban areas?

Peter Aldous: If the hon. Gentleman means by gull contraception something that deals with the eggs, I have considered that. If he has other proposals, it would be interesting to hear further details.

A variety of preventive measures is necessary, including regular litter-picking and road cleaning, the provision of gull-proof bins that are emptied regularly and discouraging the feeding of gulls—in some towns fines are being imposed. There is also a need, as we heard earlier, to reduce the amount of food waste and organic matter that goes to landfill sites. Commercial buildings that may be suitable for nesting and roosting should be proofed. When sites are redeveloped, preventive measures should be incorporated in redevelopment plans.

The wholesale culling of gulls is not an option and I do not advocate it. Quite apart from the logistics and questionable ethics, the European population of herring gulls is very mobile, and minor gains achieved by removing a local population will invariably be cancelled out by natural migration.

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): My hon. Friend has done well to secure this debate and he is making an excellent speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) is right to point out that it is not about wide-scale culling of gulls, but about individual responsibility when people discard their rubbish. In spite of that, particularly in seaside towns such as Lowestoft, Brighton and Hove, which have active night-time economies, people will still discard their rubbish in antisocial ways. No matter how

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much we like or dislike it, there is an onus on councils to address that problem and ensure that rubbish and litter are collected in a timely manner to avoid the problems we are talking about.

Peter Aldous: I thank my hon. Friend for those observations. I agree that that is one of the ways forward that we should consider.

To address the very worst problems, where people’s lives are being made a misery, consideration should be given to changing the existing licensing controls in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to allow owners of large sites where significant numbers of birds are causing, or are likely to cause, a legal nuisance, to apply for a licence to take measures to prevent or deter the colonisation of land in their occupational control. At present, someone cannot apply for a licence to deal with a nuisance. They can apply for a licence to prevent serious damage to agriculture, to preserve public health or air safety and to conserve other birds. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether adding nuisance to that list is something that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has considered or will consider.

Consideration also needs to be given to legislation allowing local authorities to require land owners to take preventive or remedial action to deal with actual or likely noise, smell or other nuisance caused by gulls colonising land or structures in urban areas. The problem is not easy to solve. Indeed, there might be a temptation to put it to one side in the “too difficult” category, but that would be wrong. As we have heard, many thousands of people from all around the country are being affected, and we owe it to them to come up with a range of measures to make their lives more tolerable.

4.57 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the natural environment and fisheries. He would normally reply to this debate, but he is otherwise engaged. I am happy to stand in for him, especially as I was born and brought up in a seaside town lower down the Suffolk coast than Lowestoft, so I am familiar with the raucous cries of gulls.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) because gulls are a major feature of seaside towns. As always, it is an issue of balance and getting the populations right. I recognise that high densities in urban or coastal areas can cause serious problems for the people who live and work there. Sensible and proportionate measures need to be taken to mitigate those problems.. A range of measures are already available, including, where necessary, lethal control and the destruction of nests and eggs. Those measures are regularly employed across the country to manage our urban gulls.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned the problems in Beccles. I understand that those problems were managed at least in part by the removal of nests and by deterring the gulls, and that Natural England has worked with local residents to find ways of managing the gulls that have caused problems.

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Before we consider management, we must look at the conservation status of gulls. They are wild birds to which we offer protection, and our obligation under the EU birds directive to conserve the wild bird population is fulfilled in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

UK breeding populations of herring gulls have declined by 72% since 1969, and winter populations by about 50% over the past 25 years. As a result, the herring gull is now a biodiversity action plan priority species, and has been red-listed as a bird of conservation concern—the answer to my hon. Friend’s point about nuisance can probably be found in those statistics. Other gull species, including the great black-backed gull and—perhaps more importantly—the lesser black-backed gull, have also seen a decline in population, and although we sometimes see large numbers of gulls in certain areas, we may be forgiven for not realising that their conservation status may be under threat nationally. Although the population of some gull species has risen in urban areas, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of gulls found in their natural habitat.

I recognise the genuine concerns of my hon. Friend and other colleagues about gulls in their constituencies. Although the Wildlife and Countryside Act provides protection for all birds, it allows people to apply to Natural England for a licence to control problem bird species if there are no other satisfactory solutions—he saved me from having to read out the list of reasons that people can use to apply for such a licence. That licence would be granted on an individual basis, but some issues are covered under a general licence provided by Natural England that is available to anybody in the country and for which one does not need to apply—in theory, people are supposed to download information from the internet, but in reality culling is allowed under certain circumstances on the basis of the problems described by my hon. Friend. If someone believes that that general licence has been used for a different reason, the onus is on them to prosecute the case. That has happened in the past because these matters are not always easy; for example, if someone acts simply because they do not like gulls, they will clearly be breaching the terms of the general licence and be open to prosecution.

The general licence allows for the lethal control of the lesser black-backed gull where there is need to preserve public health and safety, or to prevent serious damage or the spread of disease. Many of the issues raised by my hon. Friend fall under those headings. Herring gulls have a more threatened status, but under the same general licences it is possible for an authorised person to remove and destroy their nests and eggs— I understand that that was one measure taken in Beccles. Licensed controls will therefore be necessary in some circumstances and, particularly in the breeding season, the removal of eggs and their replacement with dummy eggs—obviously under licence—can reduce the urban gull population if done for a long period. In the short term, such actions also reduce the likelihood of attacks from gulls.

Although licensed controls exist, they should not automatically be the first port of call and we should look at other measures to manage problems such as those to which my hon. Friend referred. There is no doubt that food supply is a major factor because gulls tend to increase in number and cause problems when

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there is a readily available source of food, especially if that combines with suitable habitats such as timber sheds.

The licensed control of gulls can prove effective in the short term, but we must look at the issue more widely. Access to food is the single most important factor controlling the gull population, and if food is denied they will go elsewhere and the problem may be resolved without recourse to other measures. It is a matter for individuals and local authorities, and I urge all local authorities to address the problem by using gull-proof methods of waste disposal such as rubbish sacks or—probably better—bins, and by reducing access to local landfill sites. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) suggested closing tips, but that would simply shuffle the problem elsewhere. Although the Government eventually intend to phase out landfill sites altogether, proven methods of deterring gulls without having to close a site and inconvenience constituents include the use of fireworks, visual deterrents, netting in some circumstances, and birds of prey. There is no single solution, but some methods have been proven to work.

Local authorities—indeed, all of us—should try to avoid spilling foodstuffs or leaving material around, keep food storage areas secure and bird-proof and ensure that disposal and waste facilities are kept clean and tidy. They should also try to stop people feeding the birds. The use of deterrents on our buildings is familiar to all of us in the Chamber because we live surrounded by them. In London the problem is pigeons, but proofing buildings with netting, metal spikes and so on could also be a way to address the problems caused by gulls. The fundamental answer to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, and many others, is that eliminating those things that attract gulls will reduce the problem. In other words, we should get rid of their feed and prevent them from using the facilities and buildings that they see as a habitat or nesting area.

In September, the Minister with responsibility for the natural environment met my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who has taken a great interest in this subject, and they discussed the merits of further research into the behaviour and ecology of urban gulls. Research, both completed and ongoing, has been carried out into managing urban gulls, and the Food and Environment Research Agency has investigated the movements of urban gulls, focusing on their movements between urban centres and landfill sites. It has also undertaken work funded by the Landfill Communities Fund to develop practical guidelines about deterring gulls from landfill sites. Those guidelines are in use by the Environment Agency. Studies funded by airport interests and water utility companies have examined methods to deter gulls from roosting in those areas, and such methods have been properly applied.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney referred to reservoirs. That is a crucial issue, but one to which all measures that I have referred to can be applied. In addition, I am advised that hand-held laser torches—

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I think it says laser, although it could be taser; I am reading my notes out because I have difficulty believing this—have been used at reservoirs with some success. I will leave my hon. Friend to work out exactly how.

A PhD study is examining the use of egg control to limit local breeding production in gulls. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who referred to contraception, is not in his place, but hon. Members will be aware of the idea of using contraception to constrain populations of all sorts of wild species. In some places, that is used; in others, it is being researched. I do not know of any research relating to gulls, but clearly it is an interesting point and perhaps we should consider it. That said, I assume that the only way to administer the contraception would be in feed and we do not really want to feed the birds—that would be a double-edged sword.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney understands that there is a range of existing tools that can be used to manage gulls. Where there are issues of public health and safety, methods such as the removal of nests or eggs or of the gulls themselves—the lethal control of gulls—may be relevant.

At the meeting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath, the Minister undertook to consider whether there was merit in taking forward more research on urban gulls, and we are examining that now. We can consider further research to help us to develop a greater understanding of urban gull behaviour, but we want to ensure that any such work delivers practical solutions.

In the meantime, I repeat that it is, as several hon. Members have said, for us as individuals and particularly for local authorities to use the quite considerable range of tools available at the moment to tackle the conflicts to which my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney so eloquently referred. He has used the opportunity afforded by Westminster Hall to raise genuine local concerns. Clearly, the problem cannot be dealt with in a few days. It requires concerted action by the community and by local authorities, working together over a sustained period, to take away all the things that attracted the birds in the first place. That is the bottom line, and we need to make concerted efforts to do it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue and, quite properly, raising constituency concerns, and for allowing me to give the Government’s opinion. We have heard from other hon. Members, so clearly the issue is not unique to Lowestoft. I think that all of us have in some way witnessed the problems. I hope very much that what I have said is helpful to him and to his constituents and that sooner or later they will be able to sleep at night.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Congratulations to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), to the Minister and to all the other hon. Members who have participated in what has been a most informative debate.

Question put and agreed to.

5.10 pm

Sitting adjourned.