Jackie Doyle-Price: It is my understanding that applications from overseas students to Oxford university have gone up by 22%. Is the right hon. Gentleman not

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mis-characterising the objective of the policy, which is to cut down on bogus student applications while still allowing our higher education sector to thrive?

Mr Smith: The problem is that not enough is being done to encourage it to thrive. As was pointed out earlier, Universities UK takes issue with some of the figures, but however we characterise them the current position is pretty flat. For a global market that is expanding so quickly, it simply is not good enough.

Of course the closure of visa factories masquerading as colleges is a good thing, not least because of the impact on applicants, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed out. They damage the reputation of UK education as well as undermine legitimate immigration control, but it is important to understand that the way the Government and UKBA have gone about their wider changes have hit legitimate universities and colleges that are an enormously important source of intellectual capital, jobs and prosperity, both now and for the future, that is worth tens of billions of pounds.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) mentioned Oxford university. Its briefing for this debate points out:

“The cumulative and frequent changes to Tier 4 policy guidance over the last few years have created increased anxiety amongst our current and prospective student body especially when some of the rule changes were applied retrospectively.”

It goes on to say:

“We have received feedback and comments from prospective students and institutions overseas about the numerous UKBA rule changes over the last few years that indicate it may be a determining factor in students choosing to study elsewhere.”

The Government have to understand that those damaging effects have an impact at a time of intense international competition, in particular for the highest calibre of undergraduates, post-graduates and researchers. The funding shortfall for postgraduates, especially compared with the United States, makes it an increasing challenge to recruit and retain the best. Oxford university makes it clear that it supports the recommendations of the Select Committee reports referred to in the motion.

Let us also recognise that the damaging impact of Government policy has not been confined to universities and university students. Indeed, the effects have been even more serious for independent colleges, whose educational and economic contribution rarely gets the credit it deserves, and seems to be totally ignored by this Government. It is deeply ironic that a Government with an ideological obsession about liberating schools for home students from state control are hammering private colleges that support thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of overseas earnings.

Nicola Blackwood: As a fellow Oxford MP, the right hon. Gentleman will know that I share some of his concerns about student reforms, but it is important that the debate continues with factual information. The 22% figure quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) is based on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and is used in both the Universities UK and Million+ briefings. The points that he was just making are important, because the falls we have seen are in the FE college and private college sectors. The main concerns from the university have

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been about the frequent changes to student visas, which are much more of a difficulty for both students and the university. Perhaps he might like to comment on those issues, as they are the main challenges that are actually faced by the university’s students.

Mr Smith: I will take those comments as warm and strong support for the points I have made about the damage the changes to the visa regime have done.

The Government are denying independent colleges a level playing field and disadvantaging them in a number of respects. These include: the 2011 two-year cap on international student numbers; all the uncertainties of the twice-yearly Highly Trusted Sponsor renewal application; the denial of part-time work for students either in term time or holidays; student exclusion from the new post-study work schemes for PhD and MBA graduates; and the fact that unlike university students, PhD students at independent colleges are not exempt from Tier 4’s five-year time limit, so they cannot do a first degree in the UK before their PhD.

It is little surprising that international student enrolments on higher education courses at independent colleges fell by over 70% between 2011 and 2012, with a fall of 46% in college sector visas for the year ending March 2013. This has destroyed tens—possibly hundreds—of college businesses, cost thousands of jobs and resulted in a loss of income to the families accommodating students and to the local businesses and communities within which they spend their money.

I strongly support the motion. I hope that the Government will listen to the Select Committees that have come to the same view and take international students out of the migrations statistics used to steer UK immigration policy. I hope that Ministers will remove the unfair penalties imposed on independent colleges, work in partnership with them to develop longer-term, highly trusted accreditation and promote the contribution these colleges make. I also urge them more generally to think further and positively about how to encourage, not discourage, overseas students at all levels who want to come here, as those students invigorate universities and other education institutions and generate lots of overseas earnings, jobs and economic demand, which people here desperately need. Doing so would rebuild Britain’s reputation in the world as somewhere that welcomes international students and researchers and recognises their enormous potential contribution to our culture and economy—which, let us remember, is to the benefit of us all.

2.1 pm

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): In the media, international students at our universities are generally seen though one of two lenses: the positive one is that they are a cash-cow, premium product that historically has cross-subsidised domestic students in our universities; the negative one is that, because of this, they might end up getting too many places at our universities, thus keeping out some of our home-grown talent. Both are completely the wrong way of thinking about international students. This is a huge growth market in the world and vital to our economic growth.

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Education ought to be for us a focus sector, alongside life sciences, advanced manufacturing, the digital and creative industries, professional services and tourism. It is also a market in which, thankfully, we have strong competitive advantages. We have some of the best brand names in the business: Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Birmingham, Manchester, Queen’s Belfast, the London School of Economics—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I can name check others, if anyone wants me to.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Leeds.

Damian Hinds: Thank you.

All in all, about one fifth of the top 100 universities and about one fifth of the top 50 business schools in the world are ours, and of course we have that great asset, the English language.

The sector has other advantages. The first and most obvious is export earnings and the jobs it supports in this country, but it is also important in the battle for talent, in bringing into the country the people we need to help our economy succeed. It also helps with what people have called soft power—or, as I would prefer to describe it, the promotion of Britain abroad and the fostering of business and cultural links throughout the world.

The sector has several secondary advantages. For one, unusually among the key growth sectors, its employment and economic growth prospects are well distributed throughout the UK, not concentrated in one place, such as London. Secondly, university rankings depend on having a certain proportion of foreign students at a university, because international rankings consider that if a university is not good enough to attract foreign students, it is probably not very good. Thirdly, having a vibrant, cosmopolitan HE sector helps to reinforce several other growth strategy objectives, particularly to bring forward research and development in key sectors and to make this country the headquarters location of choice for multinationals.

As many hon. Members have said, this is a growing world market. In 1980, about 1 million students were enrolled in institutions outside their country of origin, but by 2010 that figure was 3.3 million. We know that more recently the compound annual growth rate trend—obviously it has moved a bit in the last couple of years—has been about 7%, which is a strong growth rate for an attractive industry. According to the McKinsey report on the seven long-term priorities for the UK, if we can hold our share—grow it as the market grows—and harvest just half of the benefit, it would be worth an additional 80,000 jobs in the country by 2030.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that holding that share is becoming more difficult, because of the challenge from countries such as Australia and Canada, and that the Government should be strengthening our universities’ ability to attract overseas students, not making it more difficult, as they are doing at present?

Damian Hinds: The hon. Lady brilliantly anticipates my next point. Of course, she is absolutely correct. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) said, we are, to coin a phrase, in a global race,

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and we are not the only ones who have spotted that this is an attractive sector and who are doing things differently, as we will continue to do in order to protect and grow our own share. The most obvious competitive set are the Anglophone countries, led by the United States, but including Canada and Australia. Increasingly, however, non-English speaking countries are offering English-speaking courses. The third competitor is potentially the biggest, and that is the choice of staying at home. In China, India, Nigeria and elsewhere in the world, there is a big business opportunity in attracting students from those countries to stay in institutions there. So, yes, we have to redouble our efforts all the time in order not only to forge ahead, but just to hold our own.

We should be talking always about quality higher education, pre-higher education preparation and certified colleges. These institutions should not be selling visas; they must be selling education, and we know that there have been recent substantial abuses. The National Audit Office says that in 2009 up to 50,000 alleged students were here primarily to work, rather than study. We had this cadre of serial students who were forever renewing their visas without showing any substantial progress in their studies. Clearly, if we are serious about curbing immigration in what has become a chaotic situation and about reducing the numbers and getting rid of abuse, we have to tackle the student visa route.

Jackie Doyle-Price: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the abuses under the old system, but there are two sides to tackling the problem—tightening up the rules for people coming in, and removing those abusing the system—but the NAO concluded that not enough was being done in the latter department. Does he agree that the Government need to make that more of a priority?

Damian Hinds: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It must indeed be a clear priority.

I welcome the action that the Government have taken. I do not think that everyone would agree, but I welcome the removal of the blanket two-year right to work for all graduates, because it looked a bit too much like a bribe to sweeten the degree. There is a role for it, however, in certain circumstances and categories, such as in subjects where there is a shortage—we talked about STEM subjects earlier—and for MBA students, who, by definition, will already have worked for several years and have done their first degree and who are valuable and mobile students.

I welcome the removal of the right to work for private college students, the requirement to show real academic progress and, of course, the closure of bogus colleges. I also acknowledge that the Government have put in place a sensible and proportionate regime for student visitors. A lot of people have thrown statistics around, but overall it appears that the falls in the numbers have been concentrated primarily in those sectors and parts of the market where abuse was most prevalent. I also welcome the fact that there is no cap on the numbers of people coming to university. It is right that the Prime Minister goes out and gives that message, as we saw him doing recently at the KPMG offices—I think—in India, but it is a constant battle against possible perceptions. For example, the message on

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MBA student blogs in India is that Britain is not as welcoming a place—or not welcoming at all—as it once was.

Nicola Blackwood: Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason for that ongoing perception might be the efficiency, or lack thereof, of in-country UK Border Agency officials? With the expansion of credibility interviews, that will only increase. Some of the reports that I have heard about the reasons for people being turned down at interview—those where the decision was later overturned at appeal—are concerning. Does he agree that if we are to increase the caution with which we agree to visa applications, we should also increase the efficiency of UKBA in-country?

Damian Hinds: As always, my hon. Friend makes her point clearly and well. I do not have enough knowledge about the interview to comment, but overall, with or without a cap, and whatever happened last year or this year—we know that there is no cap, and we know that the figures look broadly okay—it nevertheless remains the case that, given the intense scrutiny to which immigration numbers will rightly be subjected, how students are treated in those statistics must inevitably affect the extent to which we as a country seize this market opportunity in the years ahead.

In one way it is blindingly obvious, but it is worth saying that not every student adds to immigration. In the steady state, so long as we are reasonably good at counting people leaving as well as those coming—

Chris Bryant: That is a big “if”.

Damian Hinds: We took over from Labour.

So long as we are reasonably good at that, it is only growth in the numbers that will add to immigration. However, I would ask the Minister to look again and consider counting people towards net immigration only at the point at which they settle. The key counter-argument—in some ways it is quite strong—is that a student is a human being like any other, and if there is a net increase in their numbers, that is an increase in net immigration, which will lead to the same strain on housing, public services and so on as with any other type of immigration. I would argue that that is not quite true. I do not want to sound trivial about it, but one could argue, with some sense, that students do not take up quite as much residential living space as others and, being younger on average, they are—[Interruption.] I do not mean that students are smaller. I myself was thinner as an undergraduate—that is history—but I was thinking more about housing. As younger people, typically, students are probably less likely than the average person to make demands on the national health service, places at primary schools and so on.

Chris Bryant: It is an absolute pre-condition of any student visa that that person is unable to make any claims on the taxpayer or, therefore, the NHS.

Damian Hinds: I am conscious of the time and I do not want to get into a long debate about this, but any person in this country will be consuming public services to some extent—for example, roads—and is financed by the rest of us. In any case, broadly speaking we are making the same points.

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We could also mitigate those effects. Given that housing is a particular issue, we could do that by requiring universities that want to expand to provide additional accommodation. Local areas that want to benefit from such economic growth should also have to be willing to accept the provision of extra accommodation, over and above residential housing.

The truth is that there are downsides—additional strains and calls on public resources and residential accommodation—to having more people in the country. It is not without cost; it is a choice to be made. We have to weigh up the costs and downsides against the benefits that so many people have talked about—the revenues, the export earnings, the jobs that are created, the talent we can bring to this country and the strengthening of our links around the world. If, having made that calculation, we decide that this should be a focus area in contributing to our economic growth—I think the case is very strong —we must be bold in seizing that opportunity.

2.14 pm

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) on opening this important debate, and I congratulate him and others on securing it.

The wording of the motion says it all. Five parliamentary Committees—the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Public Accounts Committee in the Commons, as well as the Science and Technology Committee and the EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education in the other place—have all arrived at the same conclusion and the same recommendation. They are united in their belief—it is a considered belief, based on the vast amount of evidence they have taken—that including students in net migration numbers is the wrong thing to do, for a number of reasons, and that the Government should reverse that decision. The reason for that belief is obvious. The students we are talking about are not migrant workers. They have paid to come to the UK to study. They have chosen to invest in the UK and are sponsored to remain only for the period of their studies.

I speak as an MP for a constituency that benefits from the positive contribution that overseas students can make to university life and the wider community. According to the University of Sunderland’s annual review, more than 2,600 overseas students were enrolled in taught undergraduate or postgraduate courses last year. What does that mean for the university and the wider city? Those students are paying their fees, which are crucial to the university as a means of investing in the facilities and opportunities they can provide to all students, particularly as grants are repeatedly cut, but there are wider benefits too. Those students need places to live and therefore pay rent to local private landlords, usually through local letting agents. Those students need to eat and therefore spend money in local shops and restaurants. They probably need coats and gloves—they have probably also needed wellies over the last couple of years—to deal with the harsh north-east weather, and they will obviously buy those in local shops. Those students will also want to have a good time, as do

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students the world over, spending money in local cinemas, bars and clubs, and going to gigs, football matches and so on. They might even need books and stationery, which they will buy from local bookshops and stationers.

According to evidence that the university submitted to the Home Affairs Committee when it considered this issue in 2011, overseas students bring an income to the university of £15 million in tuition fees and £1.5 million in accommodation fees. The university estimated the additional income to the city to be around £10 million a year. That figure is probably a conservative estimate, given that it amounts to only £385 a month or so for each student, and we know that many international students who come to the UK are from pretty wealthy families—after all, how else would they afford the large up-front fees that they have to pay? That is probably reflected in the revised estimate that I recently received from the university, of £37 million of total benefit.

When international students come to the University of Sunderland, they do not just bring their wallets; they bring a wealth of culture, which adds to the diversity of the university’s campus. That can be seen in the development of the various student societies—they include the Hong Kong and Malaysian society, the Nigerian society, and the middle east and north Africa group, to name but a few—but it is a two-way street. The university encourages international students to experience the culture that the north-east has to offer, such as Washington old hall in my constituency, which has an obvious attraction for students from the United States, and the various other cultural and historical activities that the city of Sunderland and the whole region have to offer.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend is making an important point about students in the north-east adding to diversity—a diversity that would not necessarily exist without them. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of new entrants—particularly new international student entrants—is reducing. Does she agree that the Government are being a bit complacent and are not factoring in the positive contributions that students make to areas such as ours?

Mrs Hodgson: That is exactly the nub of the matter. We have to factor in those extra elements, including the contribution that such students make to the local economy, as well as—I will come to this point—the long-term benefits from those relationships and links in the years to come.

Another great project at Sunderland university is the international buddying programme, in which students at the university pair up with international students to provide them with advice on what they can experience in the region. The programme enriches the experiences not only of the international students but of their buddies from this country. When the students are visiting regional tourist attractions such as Washington old hall or Durham cathedral, they inevitably spend money in the local and regional economy.

I understand that some programmes run by the student union have involved international students volunteering with local community organisations such as Age UK. This all contributes to giving students a great experience while they are over here, which means that they will develop an affinity with the UK, and with the city and region in which they stay. We have to remember that

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many of these students come from well-connected families, and that among them will be the political leaders and captains of industry of tomorrow. It is therefore crucial to our long-term diplomatic and economic relationships with their home countries that we warmly welcome these young people, rather than making them feel unwanted, as this Government are undoubtedly doing at the moment.

That is particularly important in the north-east, where international links and trade and exports are fundamental parts of the economy. The independent “North-east Economic Review” recently commissioned by the local enterprise partnership and authored by my noble colleague Lord Adonis reported that the north-east is one of the leading exporting areas of the UK, with over 1,500 companies exporting goods. In 2011 and 2012, it was the only region in England to achieve a positive balance of trade in goods, with figures of £2.5 billion in 2011 and £4.8 billion in 2012. So we do well, but we are reliant in many ways on orders and investment from overseas companies. The role that our universities play in keeping and creating those relationships is crucial.

One country that often comes up when we talk about the need to get more people over to the UK is China. The University of Sunderland works hard to attract Chinese students, as do other higher education institutions. I was lucky enough to visit China in September 2011. I visited the offices of the University of Sunderland in Beijing, where I was able to talk to the local staff there about the work they do. Their biggest concerns by far were the new visa requirements, coupled with the way in which some Chinese students they had recruited were treated at customs when they arrived here in the UK.

Both those factors are a source of humiliation to students. What will happen when word gets out that the UK does not want them and that it will put them through that kind of experience? Students who would have come to the UK, and who might well have come to Sunderland, will go elsewhere in the world. They want to learn and develop their English, and they will go to the USA, Australia, New Zealand or Canada, all of which exclude students from their migrant figures and are currently welcoming them with open arms. Those countries are benefiting from our loss.

While I was in China I also visited Suzhou, where the University of Liverpool has established a joint campus with a local university, with the aim of providing opportunities for UK students to visit an economically and culturally significant area of China as well as providing a form of embassy or advert for its UK institution. I met a young man from Suzhou who had been studying computer science at Liverpool and is now doing his postgraduate qualification at University College London. That shows that the process definitely works. The development of more such partnerships and recruitment drives in a country with which we desperately need to build links is surely at risk, given the way in which this Government’s attitude towards overseas students is now seen in that country, and undoubtedly in others.

The University of Sunderland posed two questions to me, which I believe cut to the heart of this debate. I would be grateful if the Minister could address them in his response—if indeed he is listening to what I am saying. First, can the Government meet their net migration targets without reducing the number of international students coming to study at British universities? My suspicion is that they probably cannot, and are therefore

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knowingly and willingly accepting the devastating economic impact that this policy will have on localities and regions, particularly those with a track record of success in global enterprise.

Secondly, what is more important to this Government: economic growth and sustainability or a falsely painted picture of immigration and immigrants that includes those who choose to come and invest in the UK and bring substantial short and long-term economic and social advantage to our country? I am sure the Minister will say that it is the former, but actions speak louder than words, and the actions of this Government firmly suggest that their priority is political headlines, rather than what is right for our higher education sector and for the country.

Of course we must tackle bogus colleges and bogus students. Everyone agrees on that. I am afraid, however, that such action is being used as a smokescreen to justify this damaging and short-sighted policy. Well, the Government are fooling nobody. We all know that this is about using overseas students to reduce the net migration figures in order to fulfil a promise made by the Prime Minister that he would otherwise be unable to fulfil. That is a disgrace, and it must stop. I hope that this debate will spur a change in policy and a more grown-up and thought-through approach. This Government are well-practised in the art of the U-turn, and I hope that we will see one being performed on this issue sooner rather than later, before too much more damage is done to our universities and our international reputation.

2.26 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I am pleased that we are having this debate, as it will enable us to draw attention to a number of issues relating to overseas students in this country. We should start from the premise that the students who come here to study and work are a big help to our economy, to local economies and to the experience of UK students in our higher education institutions.

London First, in calling for the removal of students from the UK migration target, states:

“Taking students out of the migration target would be the strongest positive message that the government could send out but, if this remains too politically difficult, then a more measured and consistent approach to addressing applications for visas would be a good first step.”

Many of us have met students in other countries who are considering coming to the UK to study, and discovered that they are put off by a number of factors. One is the complication and cost of applying for a visa, as well as the delays that often occur in that process. I know that the Minister is aware of those problems, and I look forward to hearing his response to this point. Those students are also put off by the image that has been created by the treatment of overseas students here.

I am not going to defend the bogus colleges that purported to teach the English language to people in London and other cities. They often short-changed their students, many of whom ended up as victims of a particularly nasty system. It is right to prosecute those who were perpetrating that fraud against those students, but we should have more sympathy with those genuine students who came here thinking that they were going to be taught English only to find that their college was a

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sham. They lost out, and some of them were deported even though they had done nothing wrong. Behind every statistic lies a human story, and we should look at the human story as well as the overall statistics when we deal with these issues.

The National Union of Students has pointed out in its advice on this debate that, following a perception study, 40% of respondents to an NUS survey of 909 international students carried out last year said that they would not advise a friend or relative from their home country to come to the UK to study. We cannot afford that perception to be spread abroad. This debate is therefore important, and the Minister’s response to it and the way in which he handles this issue are possibly even more important. It we want to remain a place to which students want to come, we will have to ensure that they are treated properly and that they are allowed to work at the end of their course, particularly if they pursued a semi-vocational or professional qualification. If they cannot complete a period of work at the end of their course, the prospect of studying here will be less attractive and the prospect of studying elsewhere will become more so. The UK loses out as a result.

As I said in a couple of interventions, I represent a constituency that includes London Metropolitan university, which has been put through the mill in media treatment and with funding problems like no other university in this country, so I would like to say a few things in its support. As a university, it is an amalgamation of many institutions, as most of them are, and it has given many people the huge opportunity to become the first in their family history to get into higher education. It has an unprecedented record of bringing in students from minority ethic communities and diverse backgrounds, and it should be applauded and complimented for that.

Although the name is relatively new, London Metropolitan university is an amalgamation of a number of local institutions in north-east London that started serving the community in 1848. It is not exactly a Johnny-come-lately, although of course the situation has changed a great deal. Two things have happened. First, the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided some years ago to fine the university a great deal of money, but after a lot of representations, that money is now being repaid and the university is coping with that.

Secondly, on 29 August last year, it had revoked its tier 4 licence and highly trusted status required to recruit non-European Economic Area students. That placed 2,000 international students at risk, including the current student union president and members of the student union executive. A survey done by the United Kingdom Border Agency claimed that there was a lack of attendance and monitoring, insufficient English language testing and overstaying of student visas. The students concerned were told that they had 60 days to find another institution or they would have to return to their own country. That resulted in a great deal of debate, including an urgent question in this Chamber and statements from the Government. The university sought High Court action against UKBA and was granted a hearing last September, when Mr Justice Irwin granted an order allowing all current international students to stay at the university until the end of the academic year 2013; judicial reviews are still continuing.

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Since then, there has been a great deal of discussion and negotiation between UKBA and the university, and procedures have been put in place. My concern was that a lot of wholly innocent international students were put under a great deal of stress and pressure. The university was not allowed to recruit international students for the forthcoming academic year, and that obviously has an impact on the local economy and on the university itself. I hope that the Minister can provide us with some hope—if not here today, perhaps by correspondence—that the negotiations will result in the revocation of the original ban on recruitment and that a number of overseas students can be recruited in the forthcoming academic year.

I would be grateful if the Minister would answer some brief questions. A number of students who transferred to other institutions last September—nine months ago—still await a decision on their visa applications even though they were submitted in good time. Two additional cases, where students who completed their studies in February 2013 and put in applications for visa extensions, are still pending and have not been answered. That is a very long time to wait. In addition, there are many students who are no longer in contact with the London Met university, yet the Home Office was supposed to establish a casework team in Sheffield to deal with applications from both current and former students of London Met. I would be grateful if the Minister would explain exactly what has happened about that; is the Home Office still in touch with those students?

I want London Met to be a successful university. I want it to be able to recruit international students as it did before, and I want those students to benefit from the experience of living in north and east London while they are studying there. I also want to highlight all that they bring to the university and all that they—and, indeed, the local economy—gain from it. The damage done to the international reputation of higher education by the handling of London Met is pretty serious indeed, on top of all the other problems that the Select Committee has rightly pointed out. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me how many students have actually been removed from the country as a result of the decisions concerning London Met.

The Home Office uses the words “probationary licence granted” for the restoration of tier 4 status, but there is nothing in legislation that talks about probationary licences. An institution either has tier 4 status grade A or a most-trusted status, which we obviously hope will be restored. I do not know where the word “probationary” comes from. Is a new point of law being introduced?

Finally, will the Minister provide assurances that the 20 London Met students who submitted passports nine months ago and who now wish to leave the country will receive an answer in the next 28 days? In all fairness, those students spent a great deal of money coming to this country, many of them are from poor families who scrimped and saved to send them here, and they had to go through a dreadful experience. We want to move on. We want international students back at the university and the university to be thriving and providing good-quality education. That is the message I want to give. Our local community benefits from that university, and it frequently benefits from the community when community events and many other things are held there. We want it to be a good place of learning. Every colleague who represents

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a constituency with a university or a higher education institution in it wants that for those institutions. It is up to the Minister to ensure that we continue to recruit overseas students and that they benefit from their learning experience in this country.

2.36 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Let me first pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and all other Members who signed up to ensure that we had this afternoon’s debate. It is perhaps a sort of irony that the quality of the debate has been high, with an enormous degree of unanimity on the issues. I suspect that if the Chamber had been fuller, the debate might have been more partisan and there might have been less unanimity, but the debate we have had is a tribute to the way in which the argument has been advanced in several Select Committees and through the Select Committee process itself. Sometimes if we just look rationally at the facts, it is easier to reach a cross-party position.

I studied abroad. I did part of my primary education in Spain; I studied theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Argentina; so I understand the complications and difficulties of studying in other countries. I note that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), of whom I am particularly fond, referred to Erasmus, talking about what has happened since Erasmus came here in the 16th century. It is interesting, because when Erasmus first came here to study at Cambridge university in 1506, he did not complete a whole year so I do not think he would have been included in the net migration target. When he came again, in 1511, staying until 1515, he taught as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge university. In that case, he would have come here under the tier 2 visa, which would have been completely different and not the subject of this afternoon’s debate.

Mr Andrew Smith: Does my hon. Friend think that the Home Office still has Erasmus’s passport?

Chris Bryant: That is a point well made.

Another hon. Member—I cannot remember who it was—referred to the fact that many Heads of State from around the world have studied in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] It was the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who speaks sanely and sensibly on many of these issues. As he said, some studied at Sandhurst, as many have been military leaders as well. It must surely be good, in terms of our soft power, that the Heads of State of Denmark, Portugal, Iceland, Norway, Turkey and many other countries have studied in the United Kingdom.

I would also point to those who have had a more courageous political career, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, and, for that matter, to the large number of people who have come to the United Kingdom, studied here, stayed on and ended up teaching here, gaining Nobel prizes in classic instances such as Sydney Brenner, César Milstein and Aaron Klug. Perhaps most interesting of all, T S Eliot, now thought of as the quintessentially British poet of the 20th century, was originally born in the United States of America, came to study here at the beginning of the first world war and ended up staying

6 Jun 2013 : Column 1736

here for the rest of his life. Perhaps it was because he had the experience of being a migrant student that he ended up writing so much about travelling and the difficulty of living in other cultures.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): The hon. Gentleman just mentioned Sandhurst, and I ask him not to forget the royal naval training college at Darmouth and the RAF training college at Cranwell, which I attended. During my flight officer training we often thought it was the Omani officer, with the overseas costs, who actually funded the training costs of the British RAF officer cadets.

Chris Bryant: Indeed, that is an important point. If we look at the number of people from Latin American militaries—air force, navy or army—who have historically had the Prussian tradition of military and then come to the UK to train in a British environment and completely changed their attitude towards democracy and the way in which the military operate in a democratic society, we see another positive aspect of people coming from other parts of the world to study here.

Many hon. Members have rightly referred to the economic benefit of international students coming to study in this country. The Government estimate in 2009, produced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was that this country’s higher education exports came to a value of some £8 billion and could rise to £16.9 billion by 2025. That is one of the most significant areas of growth potential in the economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, the University of Sheffield has produced an important report on the economic benefits that can arise from international students coming here. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) referred to the importance to the north-east of not only people studying and paying for their courses—many British people do not understand that international students pay fully for their course and, indeed, pay over the odds compared with British people, doing so in advance—but all the other benefits that come to the local economy. According to the University of Sheffield’s study, the relevant figure for Sheffield is £120 million a year.

In addition, we need to consider the wide range of subjects studied. Some people want to say, “It is just about the brightest and the best coming to the United Kingdom.” I wholly agree with those who have said that it was absolutely right for the Government to deal with issue of bogus colleges, but it is not just university degrees at Oxford and Cambridge that we should be concerned with; this is also about postgraduate studies at many different universities and the English language. I would prefer people who are learning English around the world to learn about taps, not faucets, and about pavements, not sidewalks, because I would prefer them to have a British understanding of the English language and get it from the horse’s mouth.

Many schools and universities have valued enormously exchange students coming to the United Kingdom, and they are important in relation to the shorter-term student visitor visa. There is not only an economic advantage to consider, but a social advantage, in terms of, the quality of the education students are able to get. If they are studying international politics or history and people

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come with completely different experiences from elsewhere in the world, that enlivens, informs and improves the quality of the education of British students in universities and colleges. Also, this is about ensuring that we provide the strongest possible opportunity for overseas students to develop their understanding of what it is like to be in Britain and to do business in Britain. We hope that they will then do greater business with us further in the future.

I would also point out that, as many hon. Members have said, this is an area of migration—if we want to term it as such—that is warmly welcomed and accepted by the British public. Leaving aside the matter of bogus colleges, where foreigners were exploited and not given a proper education, and British taxpayers were exploited because proper controls were not in place, it is warmly accepted in this country that international students are important for our economy. If we are to prosper in the future as a country that is in “a global race”, to use the Prime Minister’s term, we have to be able to compete for international students—for that market around the world.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that not only have we had bogus colleges, but quite a lot of colleges have provided relatively low-value courses, be they in business, accounting or IT, where the incentive of being able to work part-time, stay on to work afterwards, bring dependants and potentially stay on has been much of the reason why international students have stayed, and that the Government have been right to crack down on that?

Chris Bryant: I want to see more evidence of precisely what the hon. Gentleman mentions. I believe he has been in his Committee all afternoon, so I understand why he has not been able to take part in the whole of this debate, which is a shame. I merely wish to cite the Government’s own Home Office paper from this year, “The Migrant Journey”, which showed that just 1% of students who came here in 2006 were permanently residing here five years later. So those myths that have sometimes grown up of—[Interruption.] There are others who are still studying and who have gone on to study other courses, but according to the Home Office’s own report only 1% are permanently residing. Some of the myths that have been mentioned in previous debates about 20% or 30% of students staying on afterwards are misguided.

I wish briefly to discuss the Government’s record. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) referred to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Its figures showed, contrary to the figures often provided by the Government, that the number of first-year, non-EU, new-entrant students at universities was down by 0.4% in 2011-12. In particular, the number of postgraduate new entrants has gone down from 105,195 to 103,150, which is potentially a worrying trend that we need to examine for the future because it is the first time there has been a fall in those figures for a decade—in effect, for all the time that similar statistics have been available.

As several hon. Members said, the number of students coming from India has fallen by some 8,000. That number may have been made up for by the number coming from China, but, as my right hon. Friend the

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Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said, it was a sign of the Government’s “forked-tonguedness” or two-facedness that the Prime Minister actually had to go to India to say that there is no cap on international students coming to the United Kingdom. There may not be a legal cap, but it certainly feels as if there is a cap, and the Government have to address that. As the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said, if this is a growing market, we need to be holding our market share, and that means advancing and not stepping backwards. I would like us to increase our market share, because we have a unique and very valuable offer, and this would be good for the British economy. I worry that the way the Government’s immigration target is crafted has made that more difficult for us to achieve.

All the estimates show a significant fall in Britain’s attractiveness as a place for study, while Australia and Canada have seen dramatic improvements in their attractiveness. One Australian who works in this business told me recently, “I am delighted at what your Government are doing, because you are giving us lots of business.” That should really worry the Government.

I wish to raise one other minor point, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned and which relates to the number of overseas students who come to study degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths. That is the area in which we saw the most significant drop—8%—in 2011-12 in the number of non-EU new-entrant students coming to the UK. That must worry us, because it will affect our future competitiveness and productivity.

I now want to ask the Minister about London Metropolitan university. On 3 September 2012, while responding to an urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green)— the Minister’s predecessor—said that more than 60% of students at London Met were involved in the “problems” of dubious education and were not proper students. He added:

“It was not a small, isolated number of students; the sampling showed significant systemic problems throughout.”—[Official Report, 3 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 26.]

I should have thought that if that had been the case, a significant number of people would have been removed from the country.

That one bovver-booted intervention, made at a time of the year—the autumn—when many people were coming to study in the United Kingdom, sent a message around the world that Britain was not open for business. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us precisely how many students from London Metropolitan university were deemed to be “not proper students” and have been removed from the country. If he cannot do so now, perhaps he will write to me.

In his report on tier 4 visas, John Vine said:

“We found a potential risk of non-genuine students opting to apply for Student (Visitor) visas”,

which, he said,

“are not subject to the same stringent rules that are applied to Tier 4… The Agency needs to be alert to this to ensure that this route is not exploited in the future.”

The dramatic increase in the number of people applying to study shorter courses is almost in direct proportion to the fall in the number applying for tier 4 visas. I fear

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that a displacement activity may be taking place, and I think there is a danger that unless we impose far more significant controls on shorter-term visas, they will be open to abuse.

2.50 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and others who signed the motion asking for the debate. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for deciding that it was an appropriate use of time in the Chamber. It has been a very good debate.

Let me start, in an unashamedly positive way, by quoting from the letter that the hon. Member for West Bromwich West received from the Prime Minister earlier this year in response to his own letter.

“The UK has a fantastic offer for international students. Those with the right qualifications, enough money”

—obviously they would need enough to pay for their courses—

“and a good level of English can study here, with no annual limit on numbers. University students can work part-time and do work placements during their studies. When they finish they can stay, providing they get a job paying £20,000”

—now £20,300—

“a year or more, or as a Graduate Entrepreneur, under the first scheme of its kind in the world.”

The Prime Minister confirmed:

“The number coming to our universities is up.”

He also confirmed, importantly—and, to be fair, a number of Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged this—that there was no cap, and that there would be no cap, on the number of students coming to the UK.

Paul Blomfield rose—

Mr Harper: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I finish this point before I give way to him. I think I know what he is going to say, because I took careful note of what he and others said earlier. Let me deal with what I think he is going to say, and if I am wrong I will give way to him later.

I believe that we have a very positive story to tell. I know that newspapers do not always report a positive story, but Ministers try to convey a positive message and, indeed, Members on both sides of the House have tried to do that today.

Dame Joan Ruddock: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: Let me make some progress first.

The Government have been clear about the need to bring control to the immigration system, but we have also been clear about our wish to welcome those whom we want in the country. A common view, which many Members will share, was expressed particularly well by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who said that his constituents had voiced no concern either about those who come here to study at our excellent universities, or about those who come here to do highly skilled jobs in business. I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why we have deliberately designed our system to attract people like that, and to deter those who are not coming to work in skilled occupations, or who are coming for other reasons.

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The statistics show that we have achieved that selective balance. The number of university students and the number of people working in skilled jobs have risen. However, as my hon. Friend said, it should also be borne in mind that our constituents are anxious for us to have some control over the system. We must design a system that attracts the best and the brightest—to use the buzz words—from around the world to study, and appeals to global companies based in Britain that want to import some of their engineers and senior managers for a certain period to run their businesses, while also deterring those who will bring no benefit to the United Kingdom.

As Lord Mandelson has said, the previous Government did not have a controlled system. Indeed, they had a completely uncontrolled system: they just went out grabbing people from around the world. We have been determined not to overreact to that, but also to ensure that we have a system that focuses on the right people coming to Britain.

Paul Blomfield: I was expecting the Minister to anticipate my question and respond to it, but as he has not, let me ask it. It is about the cap. Is it not disingenuous, and the sort of misuse of language that brings no credit to this House, when we say on the one hand that there is no cap on the number of students coming, and on the other that we have a target to reduce the number of people coming and students are included in that?

Mr Harper: I do not agree, for the following reason. The point was best made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). There are two aspects to this. First, over a period, international students who come here to study and then go back to their home country make no contribution to net migration at all, because they come to Britain and then leave. In a steady state, therefore, they make no contribution to net migration at all. My hon. Friend is right, however, that in a growing market, as a consequence of the difference between those coming in a year and those leaving in that year, there will be a gap, but it is only the gap that contributes to net migration, not the total number.

One of the complexities here is that the data on those leaving are not brilliant. The Office for National Statistics, which is independent and which measures the numbers of people coming to and leaving Britain, measures those coming to study, but does not currently measure those who were studying and left. One of the improvements it has made to its system is that it is now starting to do that, and we will get the first of those statistics in August, I think. Coming back to a point that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made, that will give us a much clearer picture of how many students do leave each year, and we will then get a much clearer idea of the impact of student numbers on net migration. It is worth remembering that a lot of genuine students are still in the UK quite a considerable time after their arrival. According to one study quoted by Opposition Members, about 20% of former international students are still in the UK although they might not have decided to settle here permanently.

The other important point shows why we need a robust system. The NAO study has been quoted several times. In the past there were significant numbers of purported students who were not here to study, but who

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were working in low-skilled jobs, and significant numbers of students were renewing their visas over a period of time without any academic progression at all. It does no credit to our immigration system or our genuine academic institutions that such abuse is possible. We must deal with that, as well as welcome those we want to welcome to Britain.

Dame Joan Ruddock: I want to relay to the Minister my experiences and those of my constituents in respect of those moving from one course to a higher course who need to renew a visa. It is taking at least three months, and during that time the student has no access to their passport and cannot travel for academic or personal reasons. Is the Minister really satisfied that that is good enough? Will he put more resources into this whole area of endeavour in the Home Office?

Mr Harper: The point the right hon. Lady makes about in-country performance is absolutely right; it is true that the performance in the last financial year of what was the UK Border Agency was not good enough, as I know very well from conversations and correspondence with Members. Out-of-country performance has remained very good, however. Part of the reason why the Home Secretary made the changes she has made to the border agency was to fix the problems in the UK visas and immigration part of the business. The good news is that we have put a lot of resource and effort into turning that around, and the performance of the Home Office for in-country operations—which used to be a UKBA responsibility—has got immeasurably better. The latest figures are much better. It has taken some time to do that, but I ask the right hon. Lady to let me know of any specific outstanding cases, and I will look at them and see if there is anything we can do.

Chris Bryant: The Minister slipped in the words “academic progression”. I fully understand why, in the vast majority of cases, someone would want to go from an undergraduate degree to a postgraduate degree and so on, but there are cases, in particular for vocations and some STEM degrees, where a student who had first done an undergraduate degree in their home country might want to come to the UK to study for another undergraduate degree, which would not count as academic progression. I worry that people might therefore be being excluded who would be perfectly decent and sensible to have studying here.

Mr Harper: I was referring to people who, as I have seen when we have removed them, have been in the UK for a decade or more, perpetually renewing a student visa and clearly making no progress. That is an abuse of the system. We were talking about that, not about trying to micromanage someone’s academic career.

Let me do something that I cannot always do and give some positive news to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about London Metropolitan university. I will not rehearse the past in great detail, but I have put a lot of work into this—it happened just about the time at which I was given this job and at which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) became the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice—and I am absolutely convinced that

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the UK Border Agency, as it was, took exactly the right decision to revoke London Metropolitan university’s sponsor licence. It was not fulfilling its responsibilities by any measure. Nobody in the sector has defended it and its behaviour was, I am afraid, well known.

The positive news, which shows that the system works, is that we have worked closely with London Metropolitan university and it has made significant improvements to its system and to the administration of how it delivers on its requirements. It has now been awarded an A-rated sponsor licence, which means it can sponsor international students, and it has 12 months to build up a track record and apply again for highly trusted sponsor status. That is very positive. The Home Office has worked very closely with the university—[Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Rhondda is asking how many students there are. The university can recruit only 15% of the number it could originally have while it is an A-rated sponsor.

The hon. Member for Islington North asked me about this subject first. I do not have the specific details of all the students that were there and what has happened to them, but we have those data because we wrote to every single one. I will write to the hon. Gentleman, since the university is in his constituency, and I will put a copy of my reply in the Library—[Interruption.] I will also send a copy to the hon. Member for Rhondda and I will include the details of how many have left the country.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am grateful for that information and look forward to receiving the Minister’s letter. Does this mean that students who started their second year last September will now be able to complete the third year of a three-year degree course and that we are back on track towards getting highly trusted status restored in a year’s time?

Mr Harper: It might be more sensible if, rather than trying to answer a lot of specific questions, I set out the detail about the university when I write to the hon. Gentleman. As I said, I shall copy the letter to the hon. Member for Rhondda and will put it in the Library so that other Members can see it. The story is positive, as the university has started to deliver on its compliance requirements.

The Home Office is now working closely with universities and Universities UK on a co-regulation initiative to set out their responsibilities clearly for them. We have had a number of workshops with those universities and they have found that very helpful. I have certainly had positive feedback from UUK, the Russell Group and individual universities I have visited, and they have seen a change in their relationship with the Home Office. It is important that we continue to improve that and I have asked the Home Office to continue to do so.

Jason McCartney: On the theme of positive news, will the Minister join me in welcoming the good news from the award-winning Huddersfield university, which saw its number of international students increase from 1,430 in 2010-11 to 1,845 in the last academic year, an increase of 29%? It is an award-winning university and it contributes massively not only to Huddersfield but to growth and enterprise in the whole of Yorkshire and the north of England.

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Mr Harper: That is a helpful point, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members—for example, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) told us about sharp increases in the number of international students at her local university.

As my final point—I do not want to test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker—I will touch on the student visitor visa route, on which the hon. Member for Rhondda expressed two slightly different views. First, he said he was pleased that international students are coming here on shorter courses, but then he voiced some concerns. I hope he noticed that yesterday we published some detailed research that I think makes it clear that the visitor route is being used exactly as intended. It is attracting high-value, low-risk migrants who contribute positively to economic growth; in large part, they attend institutions that are accredited by bodies approved by the Home Office, and most are doing English language programmes or university exchanges. There is literally no evidence of displacement from tier 4 into the student visitor route. The number of students from countries where we have seen abuse under tier 4 and where we have cracked down on that abuse is rising in single figures—fewer than 10—so there is no evidence of further abuse, which I think is very positive. It is perfectly proper that the hon. Gentleman raised the question, but the evidence shows no risk at all.

In conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker—

Mr Andrew Smith: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: Yes; I think I am allowed to give way briefly.

Mr Smith: Before the Minister concludes his remarks, will he tell the House how he intends to respond to the Select Committee recommendations and his reasons for that response? He has not yet done so.

Mr Harper: The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have responded to the Select Committee reports and to each of the Select Committees. The clearest response is this: we do not have a cap on student numbers, and I do not think our net migration target means that we will have to take action that damages universities. Universities were originally concerned that having a net migration target and counting student numbers, as all our international competitors do, would drive the Government to take decisions on future policy that would damage universities. The fact that we have stated clearly that not only do we not have a cap but we are not going to have a cap—that was stated not only by me but by the Prime Minister—should reassure universities.

We will take every opportunity to communicate that positive message about our excellent offer for international students, and we will work in partnership with our excellent universities to continue to increase the number

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of international students who come here from around the world. In that, I think I can say that I speak for every right hon. and hon. Member who participated in the debate.

3.7 pm

Mr Bailey: Conscious of the time, I will be brief. I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. When I applied for it, my objective was a debate that was constructive in tone and would enable us to discuss issues and to present facts and figures that are not normally publicised to the extent that they should be. In its own way, the House today may have helped to change the perception abroad by making it clear that this House recognises and understands the contribution that international students make to our economy and welcomes them.

My second point, however, is that the Minister has not really resolved the contradiction at the heart of current policy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, it is contradictory to say that bona fide students are welcome and there is no cap on numbers and, at the same time, to say that there is a target to reduce overall immigration to fewer than 100,000 and student visas should be included in the numbers. The Minister exercised some fairly sophisticated arguments in justification, but I put it to him that, were he to undergo a credibility interview on that point, he would find it hard to persuade Members and would-be international students in foreign countries that what he said is the case.

Lastly, I remind the Minister that the consensus that has emerged during the debate is reflected more widely. Although I did not anticipate the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills coming to the House to vote for the motion, his public utterances have made it clear where he stands on the issue. The Mayor of London—it shows how passionately I feel about it that I quote the Mayor of London—has also made public statements in favour of the arguments set out today, and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) has made similar statements. When we get three such representatives across the political spectrum, I hope the Minister will accept that there is an enormous and growing consensus in favour of the recommended course of action.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes the recommendations of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Home Affairs Select Committee, and the Committee of Public Accounts, together with the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the EU Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, Health and Education, for the removal of students from net migration targets; and invites the Home Office to further consider the conclusions of these Committees in developing its immigration policy.

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Pollinators and Pesticides

[Relevant document: Seventh Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2012-13, Pollinators and Pesticides, HC 668.]

3.10 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of pollinators and pesticides.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate. Despite the fact that there are so many conflicting events going on outside the House, we have a healthy number of MPs here who wish to participate. I am grateful to everybody for attending.

The debate today is especially appropriate given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Silent Spring”, Rachel Carson’s seminal work on the environmental cost of pesticides such as DDT. It is right that we should revisit the important issue of ecology and the relationship of plants and animals to their environment and to one another.

The Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, conducted an inquiry on pollinators and pesticides from November 2012 to March 2013. We extended it because there were so many new developments as we carried on with our inquiry. We received 40 written submissions and we held seven oral evidence sessions. I thank all the witnesses to the inquiry. It was a unanimous report and I thank members of the Committee, some of whom are able to be present today and some of whom have sent their apologies. I also thank the Committee staff, who did a phenomenal amount of work helping us to compile our report, and put on record my thanks to Chris Miles of cdimagesanddesigns for his generosity in allowing us to use his photograph, “Pit stop” to grace the cover of the report. We are often told how accessible or otherwise House of Commons reports are, and we feel that thanks to him, the cover on our report is fitting. Bees like to go to bright, colourful flowers and we thought we would have the same for our report.

The EAC report was published on 5 April. In normal circumstances we would have been content to wait for the Government response to our report, but given that the European Commission took significant regulatory action in this area on 29 April, shortly after its publication, we felt that a debate was urgent and timely, and on behalf of the Committee I sought the opportunity to hold the debate today.

Let me put on record the favourable response that we have had from many who care about nature and wildlife. I thank Buglife, which affirmed that our report provides robust recommendations for the future of pollinators and the agricultural industry, and Friends of the Earth, whose recent reception in the House was attended by well over 100 MPs, although I was not able to be there myself. That testified how much support there is in our constituencies all around the UK for its bee action plan. The all-party group on agro-ecology welcomed our support. It, too, welcomes the recent decision by the EU to ban three types of neonicotinoid pesticides. The all-party group believes that to be the right decision, and calls for decisions on our food supply and environment

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to be based on science and not on extreme lobbying and scare-mongering by those who have an immense vested interest.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I compliment my hon. Friend for the report and her work on this issue. While I welcome the decision on particular pesticides, does she recognise that there is a wider question of eco-diversity that we have to address? If we do not, that will be something else that kills off the bee population in future. We must have a different approach to our natural environment in relation to agriculture.

Joan Walley: I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. Our report clearly states that there is no one solution and that we need, as he rightly says, a whole new systemic approach. The core of our report is that we need to get the balance right between scientific evidence and the precautionary principle, but there are very many issues that relate to all this.

We have had further support from many members of the general public and concerned interest groups, not least Bedfordshire Beekeepers Association, which said:

“Your work has been an inspirational example of democratic scrutiny in action…we hope that you will be able to hold government to account and influence policy making both at national and EU level.”

This is exactly what we are doing today and intend to continue doing. This debate is by no means our only follow-up to the report. We are raising the issue today to see how the many things that need to be done can get done, with the direction of the Government.

The Committee decided to conduct our inquiry because the available evidence indicated that insect pollinators have experienced serious population declines in the UK in recent years. For example, we heard—this is quite shocking—that two thirds to three quarters of insect pollinator species are declining in the UK. Indeed, the 2013 report “State of Nature” assessed 178 bee species in the UK and found that half were in decline. For the benefit of the House, I should explain that insect pollinators include not only honey bees and wild bees but other insects such as hoverflies, moths and butterflies. At the moment, the honey bee is the sentinel species for all insect pollinators, which means that most scientific studies involve bees, but given the biological differences between the various insect pollinators, it is vital that the Government monitor a wider range of species. I hope that this is an uncontroversial point on which the Government will agree with my Committee.

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath) indicated assent.

Joan Walley: I am very pleased to see the Minister nodding. I refer him to our recommendation 13: “Defra must”—I stress “must”—

“introduce a national monitoring programme to generate and monitor population data on a broad range of wild insect pollinator species to inform policy making.”

We felt that that is the bottom line and the starting point of what now needs to be done. As we went through our deliberations and came to reach our decisions, we endeavoured to find as much common ground among members of the Committee as we could before we turned to the issue of neonicotinoids.

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Let me move on to the question of why insect populations might be declining. I want to make it clear at the outset that the health of insect pollinators is defined by a range of factors, including not only pesticides but urbanisation, loss of habitat, agricultural intensification and climate change; obviously, weather patterns affect things as well.

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that the Government intend to issue—shortly, I believe—planning guidance on biodiversity. Does she agree that councils need to be encouraged and given the impetus to protect and restore bee-friendly habitats in their own neighbourhoods, which would make a real contribution to addressing the point she is making?

Joan Walley: I thank my right hon. Friend; she makes exactly the right point, and I absolutely agree. We need safe havens for wildlife, especially in urban areas, although it is not just about urban areas. The planning system underpins the whole issue of our natural capital and biodiversity. If we do not have guidance on how we protect and enhance our natural environment, the bees do not stand a chance.

Throughout our inquiry, the Environmental Audit Committee acknowledged the importance of sustaining agricultural yields, controlling pests effectively and maintaining food security. Indeed, those concerns were reflected in our final report. Equally, we were mindful of the value of insect pollinators as an ecosystem service to UK agriculture. I think that Members will be aware of the various estimates of the agricultural value of insect pollination, ranging from £500 million to £1.9 billion, depending on whether one takes into account the cost of replacement hand pollination. We felt that those issues ought to be given a value and taken into account.

In case anyone thinks that our report is just about a moratorium on certain neonicotinoids, I hope they will have a chance to read it in full and make themselves aware of the cross-cutting nature of our work and the importance that we give to using the common agricultural policy control to help British farming move as quickly as possible to integrated pest management.

As I have said, the Committee considered a range of factors that affect insect pollinators, but we were driven to scrutinise the effects of one family of insecticides—neonicotinoids—by the weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence. For Members who are not familiar with neonicotinoids, I should say that they are a class of insecticide derived from nicotine. Following their introduction in the mid-’90s, they have been widely used in the UK on oilseed rape, cereals, maize, sugar beet and crops grown in glass houses. The body of evidence indicating that neonicotinoids cause acute harm to bees grew appreciably in the course of our inquiry, as new studies were published in heavyweight journals such as Science and Nature. In this case, harm to bees includes increased susceptibility to disease and reduced foraging and reproduction. If Members are interested in the particular scientific studies, I refer them to the Henry, Whitehorn and Gill experiments.

We heard that 94% of published peer-reviewed experiments on the effects of neonicotinoids on bees found evidence of acute harm. The Department for

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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the agri-chemical industry argued throughout our inquiry that the dosage used in those laboratory experiments was too high. In response it is worth pointing out that those studies used dosages derived from the best available data on the concentrations of neonicotinoids that bees encounter in the field.

The agri-chemical industry also likes to cite its own tests as proof that neonicotinoids cannot harm bees. However, the industry studies by which neonicotinoids were licensed for use in the European Union were not peer reviewed and are not open to scrutiny due to the supposed commercial sensitivity of the data. Furthermore, we found evidence in relation to the licensing of imidacloprid which calls into question altogether the rigour of the testing regime.

Against that background, we went on to consider the precautionary principle. By definition, insecticides kill insects. The precautionary question is whether neonicotinoid insecticides have an unsustainable impact on insect pollinators. The 1992 United Nations Rio declaration on environment and development states:

“Where there are threats of serious and irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

That internationally agreed definition of the precautionary principle was later enshrined in the Lisbon treaty and it underpins much of the work that has been done on sustainable development, including when the work of the Rio conference was built on at Rio+20 only last year in Brazil.

Throughout our inquiry, DEFRA used what it identified as a lack of full scientific certainty as an excuse for inaction. For example, at one stage the Department stated that it would require unequivocal evidence of harm before acting on neonicotinoids.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): In medical research, there is a huge issue with drug companies not publishing inconvenient data. Does the hon. Lady feel that that is a serious problem with neonicotinoids?

Joan Walley: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point about commercial confidentiality and the lack of transparency. We hear a lot at the moment about lobbying and related issues, but if the agri-chemical industry wishes to make claims about the value of its products, it must open up the evidence to full scrutiny. There is no case for hiding behind so-called “commercial confidentiality”. That prevents the open, transparent and informed policy making that is so badly needed. I agree with the hon. Lady and her point relates to one of the recommendations in our report.

When the weight of peer-reviewed evidence rendered untenable DEFRA’s position on the need for unequivocal evidence, it claimed that it would commission the Food and Environment Research Agency to conduct a realistic field study to resolve the matter. That study was not peer reviewed and it was, as one witness to our inquiry presciently pointed out, clearly too small to provide conclusive results. It was undermined by fundamental errors in its execution, such as placing the various hives that were used in the experiments outside on different days of the year.

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Our view on the study, which was that we should not accept it, was confirmed by the European Food Safety Authority on Tuesday, when it identified the same weaknesses as we did.

Mr Heath indicated assent.

Joan Walley: I am glad to see the Minister nodding his head. The conclusion was that there was no reason for EFSA to change its view.

DEFRA told us that its pesticides policy was underpinned by the precautionary principle. I fear that in this case, that statement of intent has not been matched by DEFRA’s actions. Interestingly, the private sector appears to be more willing than DEFRA to implement precautions. In the course of our inquiry, we heard that major do-it-yourself chains such as B&Q, Wickes and Homebase were withdrawing neonicotinoids from sale for domestic use, and supermarket chains such as the Co-operative have prohibited their suppliers from using neonicotinoids in anything other than exceptional circumstances. I also welcome the press release from Waitrose, which states that it is looking to do the same in respect of flowering crops.

As our report was taking shape and we were having involved discussions among ourselves, we had to extend the length of our inquiry to take account of developments elsewhere, because it was clear that we were being overtaken by events such as the European Commission’s regulatory action. Although the growing weight of published scientific research did not impress DEFRA, it led the EC to take action. The EC is responsible for licensing chemicals for use in European agriculture. It instructed EFSA to draw up new risk assessments for neonicotinoids in relation to bees. The revised risk assessments led the EC to propose measured regulatory action, with a two-year EU-wide moratorium on the use of three of the five neonicotinoids on crops that are attractive to bees.

The EC proposal was put to a qualified majority vote on 15 March. As we all know, the vote was inconclusive and the UK abstained. The hung outcome of the vote allowed the EC to implement the appeal procedure, which led to a second vote on 29 April. I understand that between 15 March and 29 April, there was intensive lobbying and negotiation in Europe. Indeed, I went out personally to present our report to the European Commissioner. Finally, the EC amended its initial proposal. It recognised the need to delay the introduction of a moratorium to allow the seed supply chain time to adjust, which was a recommendation of our report. That is an example of how my Committee focused on the practical outcomes for the agricultural sector. We did not want to make any knee-jerk recommendations and we wanted there to be time for the matter to be properly understood and acted on.

In the second vote, on 29 April, the UK shifted from abstention to active resistance by voting against the proposed moratorium, despite the concessions made by the European Commission. However, countries such as Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands all voted for the moratorium, which will consequently be introduced across the EU on 1 December 2013.

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What effects will the two-year moratorium have on UK agriculture? First, I want to highlight that when neonicotinoids were banned for use on maize in Italy, there was no negative effect on yield. Secondly, the moratorium will prevent farmers from using neonicotinoids on

“crops that are attractive to bees”,

which of course excludes sugar beet, crops grown in glass houses and winter wheat; it is quite a proportionate measure. Thirdly, neonicotinoids are a relatively recent innovation. Oilseed rape, for example, was a viable UK crop before the introduction of neonicotinoids in the mid-‘90s.

Some have argued that a moratorium on neonicotinoids will lead farmers to spray greater quantities of other more environmentally harmful pesticides, such as organophosphates and pyrethroids. However, it is open to DEFRA to ensure that that is not the case. It is clearly in the interests of the environment, food security, minimising resistance among pests and maximising agricultural incomes that the least possible amount of pesticides is used in agricultural production. Indeed, in talks I have had with different bodies they have said that such a moratorium will mean that there must be a focus on what to do and what alternative proposals to come up with, so that we incentivise a more healthy approach to crops.

To that end, integrated pest management is a broad approach to plant protection that minimises pesticide use and encourages natural pest control mechanisms. By 1 January 2014, all pesticide users will be required to adopt IPM under the European directive on the sustainable use of pesticides. If UK farmers practise IPM, the argument that a moratorium on neonicotinoids will lead to unfavourable environmental outcomes does not hold. I believe that was very much a deciding factor in the Committee’s reaching its unanimous decision.

DEFRA does not appear to have prioritised compliance with the directive on the sustainable use of pesticides. The directive states:

“Member states should adopt…quantitative objectives, targets, measures and timetables to reduce…the impact of pesticide use on the environment.”

However, a DEFRA official dismissed such targets as “meaningless”, which sits uneasily with the Department’s stated commitments to integrated pest management. Indeed, our report was halted or delayed because the Government were slow to make a full response to that European directive.

Other than the recommendations on the moratorium of certain neonicotinoids, the importance of monitoring the health of pollinators and the introduction of integrated pest management, many other detailed issues arise from the Committee’s report that relate to risk assessment and risk management. Those include reforms involving the European food safety authority, where our Government, should they wish to, could take the lead, CAP reform and recognising the importance of less secrecy and greater transparency in the risk assessment trials undertaken by the agrochemical industry—the point raised by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). I am disappointed that the Government have chosen to delay their response to our report, which was due this week, but I look forward to their detailed response on the work we have carried out. For now, however, events have moved quickly and DEFRA did not take our advice when the issue was raised by the European Commission.

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In conclusion, I have three questions for the Minister. First, I believe DEFRA has said it will commission further field research on neonicotinoids and bees. Will that research be published in a journal and be peer reviewed? Will the Minister consider commissioning the British scientists who participated in the Gill and Whitehorn studies, rather than FERA, whose previous report was discredited? Is it DEFRA policy to reject all laboratory studies—and, by extension, scientific method—as a basis for action? Secondly, how will DEFRA ensure the effective implementation of the sustainable use of pesticide directive? Thirdly, will the Minister explain what changed between the first EU vote on 15 March, when the UK abstained, to the second EU vote, on 29 April, when the UK voted against a moratorium?

The UK public are concerned about bees and pollinators. When I raised this at Prime Minister’s Question Time, he stressed the importance of the precautionary principle. As we look forward to the summer, people’s minds will be on gardening and planting, and farmers’ minds will be on planting and harvesting. It is critical that we hear from the Government on how they will respond to the EU moratorium.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. May I suggest each speaker takes around 10 minutes?

3.35 pm

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, not least because I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee. I thank our Chair for the excellent leadership she has provided with this report and others. She is right on the importance of establishing a broad agreement, which the Committee did in its report—we have always achieved such agreement in previous reports, too. That is a good illustration of the Committee’s effectiveness, which I hope will continue, because we will do important work on investment in the green economy, which will result in a thought-provoking and important report.

I am a former farmer, so I am familiar with the pesticides argument. I was principally a livestock farmer, but I could not escape other types of farming. I fully support the report’s recommendations. It is important that we recognise that bees are essential to our environment and to successful farming. That is well illustrated by my constituency—Stroud is recognised as world bee place. We have done a huge amount of work to promote the protection of bees, including wild bees, which are also at risk. I am extraordinarily proud of my constituency’s bee protection reputation.

It is important to recognise that there are more threats to bees than pesticides. We have heard about bee starvation and bee diseases such as varroa—I hope I pronounced that correctly; as a Northumbrian, I sometimes get my vowels slightly mixed up. We also know of a variety of other threats to bees. We should recognise that the Government see the problem and are taking action with the bee protection plan. I hope the Minister outlines how extensive that plan is, because we need to demonstrate that the coalition Government are determined to protect bees.

It was disappointing that the UK did not vote in favour of the moratorium on neonicotinoids, but the moratorium is in place. As our Committee Chair correctly

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noted, that reflects the concerns and interest the Committee has spelt out. We had a lengthy debate on the seeds supply chain, and recognised that, for any moratorium to be effective, it would have to start later than we envisaged, which is right. It is good that Europe noticed that as well. The changes our Chair outlined are extremely welcome. It is good that the Government, through the field studies we have heard about, are determined to recognise the importance of the impact of neonicotinoids.

Transparency is critical. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) noted, there are too many occasions when one wonders how much we really know about what is being discovered or being hidden, so this matter would benefit from true transparency. I urge the Minister and the Department to consider the transparency of field studies, so that we know exactly what is going on and what the tests reveal. As the Chair noted, maize in Italy did not really suffer as a result of neonicotinoids being banned, but that is just one example. Everybody would benefit from more study and a more comprehensive understanding, including pesticide manufacturers. One problem that has to be borne in mind is that banning one type of pesticide might mean that other pesticides are used in an uncontrolled way. We have to monitor the use of all pesticides, especially when withdrawing neonicotinoids, as using different pesticides might make matters considerably worse. I am sure the Government are minded to do that.

On the wider question of the common agricultural policy and overall farm management, as we move towards a reformed CAP it is important to recognise good work, such as that done by the Environmental Stewardship scheme. I would like to see more farmers using such schemes, and for those schemes to become more tailored towards the kind of issue we are debating today.

Dame Joan Ruddock: The hon. Gentleman speaks about further reform of the CAP. I am sure he is aware that recent reforms to the CAP have given national Governments discretion to switch subsidies to agri-environment schemes, which could bring in much more bee-friendly habitats. Does he agree that the Government ought to be taking that step, rather than going on so much about what might be done in the future? Let us use what we have got now.

Neil Carmichael: The Government are a Government of positive action. We are a coalition Government. We benefit enormously from having Conservatives on one side and Liberal Democrats on the other, and I am certain that that combination will bring about exactly what the right hon. Lady says.

The right hon. Lady raises an interesting point about what amounts to the devolution of the CAP. From its inception, its impact has been characterised by either dominant nation states promoting certain types of produce, or, as in this case, by policy filtration, with different levels of government influencing outcomes by changing the nature of the policy. That was particularly prevalent in the early days in certain Mediterranean countries with regard to olives and so on. We should recognise devolution, but it is a double-edged sword. We in this country are able to do the right thing, but can we always guarantee that that will be the case in other countries that might have other priorities? I welcome those changes in the CAP, but urge the Government to do as the

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hon. Lady suggests. Indeed, I would go further and argue that we need to amplify the CAP’s impact environmental protection. It needs to be understood more clearly by the wider public. If people understood its more positive implications and outcomes, we could generate greater support for the CAP.

To sum up, I think it is right to have the moratorium on neonicotinoids and that it was postponed to allow the supply chain to adjust. It is necessary, however, to maintain a weather eye on neonicotinoids, so I welcome the Government’s commitment to field studies. It is important that they be conducted transparently and that their outcomes be made transparent. It is also important to recognise the value of good management and the impact that the reformed CAP can have. I would like more farmers encouraged down that path. In broad terms, we should celebrate the fact that many organisations—including those in my constituency I mentioned—are doing a lot of good work for the protection of bees. We should be supporting and welcoming those local solutions. Gardeners, too, have a responsibility, because in the past they have used neonicotinoids. It is important to recognise that all of us—I indulge in a spot of gardening myself, though I do not use neonicotinoids —should promote good practice wherever it is necessary, and it is necessary in our gardens, as well as on our farms.

3.46 pm

Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who is a fellow member of the Environmental Audit Committee, and I join him in paying tribute to the leadership of our Committee Chair, not only on this vital inquiry, but on all our inquiries.

I strongly support all the conclusions and recommendations in our report, but my interest in what is happening to our pollinating insects goes back quite a bit further than last November, when we started taking evidence. In fact, it probably dates back more than 40 years to when I was at agricultural school and undertook a course in apiculture. The certificate I secured at the end remains a treasured possession. More recently, about three years ago, that interest was further spurred by a 2009 report produced by the organisation Buglife, which our Chair has already mentioned, and the Soil Association. It was a review of the scientific literature on a group of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids on non-target insect species.

Although the combined evidence in the report was not conclusive, even at that time it rang serious alarm bells that should have received an urgent response from the Government. I secured a Westminster Hall debate on the subject, which a surprising number of Members from across the House attended to express their shared concern about the potential threat posed by these pesticides to a vital group of invertebrates—pollinating insects. Since that debate, thanks to intelligence supplied by Buglife and other environmental organisations, I have tried to keep track of further research and, when significant, have drawn it to the House’s attention through early-day motions and other parliamentary means.

As our Chair said, last autumn, the Committee decided to conduct what has turned out to be a major inquiry taking evidence from the organisations she mentioned.

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The first thing the Committee had to recognise was that many of our pollinating species appeared to have been in decline for some time. Of course, when we look at pollinators—especially any threats to them—the first focus is usually honey bees. That has been particularly the case in Europe and the USA in recent years, with alarming reports of what is sometimes called colony collapse on an international basis.

As a result of their economic significance, honey bees attract far more scientific attention than any other pollinator. Their decline has been ascribed to a range of causes—pests and diseases, such as the varroa mite, which has been mentioned, along with weather conditions, poor nutrition, poor husbandry, urbanisation, agricultural intensification, habitat degradation and the use and misuse of pesticides. However, honey bees are not the main pollinators in the UK—far from it. Ninety per cent of insect pollination is done by the thousands of other, wild pollinators—other bees, hoverflies, butterflies, carrion flies, beetles, midges, moths, and so on. These other pollinators are not monitored or studied like honey bees, so we do not know exactly what is happening to them. However, we received disquieting evidence from some witnesses of how, as the Chair has said, two thirds of wild pollinator species are declining, including moths, butterflies, hoverflies and bumble bees. We were told that of the 25 UK bumble bee species, two or three—no one is sure because the research has not been done—have already become extinct, while probably 10 others have suffered large range decline.

We were advised that DEFRA has a bee unit that does a good job of monitoring honey bees. There are 70 Government scientists dedicated to researching honey bees, but just part of one scientist looking at the health of wild bees. That has to change. We cannot afford to remain ignorant about our wild pollinators. That is why we call in the report for DEFRA to introduce a national monitoring programme to generate and monitor population data on a broad range of wild insect pollinator species. If we do not really know what is going on, we cannot make the right policy decisions to halt decline.

Most people looking at pollinator decline would come to the conclusion that, at least in most cases, multiple factors are at play—those that I have listed for honey bees and perhaps others. Most of our witnesses who addressed the wider picture accepted that there were probably a range of causes. However, the representatives of mainstream farming and especially the agrichemical industry were absolutely adamant that the decline had nothing to do with pesticide use and especially not the use of neonics. Our Chair has described how neonicotinoids work, which I will not repeat, but I will add that they are systemic, which means that they get into every part of the plants that are treated with them. Pollinating insects absorb them and carry them back to their nests or hives, even though they are not the target species.

Dame Joan Ruddock: My hon. Friend is making some interesting points. Does he think, as I do, that the Government perhaps need to rewrite their national pesticides action plan? There are methods other than the use of chemicals. They ought to be encouraged so that farmers and horticulturalists do whatever they can to reduce the chemical pressure on the environment and the pollinators.

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Martin Caton: I completely agree, and I am coming to the Government’s pesticides action plan, which is actually an “inaction plan”—to be quite honest, it is a disgraceful document.

We looked at the pesticide approvals regime at EU and UK levels, and found a system flawed at both. Put simply, it works like this. The chemical company puts together the scientific data to support its application and submits a dossier to the regulatory authority in any EU member state. That authority’s experts make their own assessment, which is set out in a draft assessment report. That is then reported to the European Food Safety Authority, which conducts a peer review by experts from other EU countries. Its conclusions are sent to the Commission, which makes a proposal—for approval or not—to the Council of Ministers. After approval, companies can apply to the regulatory authority in any member state for permission to market their product. The regulatory authority in the UK is the chemicals regulation directorate of the Health and Safety Executive. The CRD prepares a scientific evaluation, which is considered by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, which is a statutory, independent body that advises Ministers on whether approval should be given.

On the face of it, the whole thing sounds quite rigorous, but we found significant flaws. First, as our Chair said, the pesticide manufacturers that commission the research to submit to the regulators keep control of that research. In practice, that means that the data on safety under which a chemical is licensed are not put into the public domain, denying effective academic access and, therefore, independent criticism. In contrast, some of the academics who gave evidence to us reported that their research was openly published, which meant that where it showed a link between pesticide use and pollinator decline, defenders of the agrichemical industry would go through their work with a fine-toothed comb looking for a way to rubbish it, sometimes deliberately misinterpreting it to do so. We believe that it should not be beyond the wit of humankind to ensure maximum transparency without threatening genuine commercial sensitivity.

Another problem with the process is that, up to now, the EU approval system has explicitly addressed only the risk to honey bees. That probably would not be too bad if the honey bee were one of the more fragile and sensitive pollinators. If that were the case, and it survived exposure to a product, it would be likely that other, tougher pollinator species would be fine. In fact, we heard evidence that the honey bee is probably the most robust of the pollinators when it comes to pesticide exposure. Bumble bee research, for instance, shows the clear detrimental impact of neonicotinoid use. Some pollinators, such as hoverflies, have very different life cycles from any bees, and therefore have different exposure routes. Such pollinators remain unconsidered at present. We urge DEFRA to introduce a representative range of sentinel pollinator species in UK pesticide risk assessments, and to work for the same arrangements across the EU.

We also came across an example that showed that, however good the approval system might be in theory, it can fall down badly in practice. The neonicotinoid imidacloprid had to be re-evaluated in 2006. Germany’s regulatory authority produced the draft assessment report. One of the properties to be assessed was the propensity of the pesticide to accumulate in soil and water, and the

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assessments were carried out in two trials here in the UK. The results of the tests were misreported in the draft assessment report, however. It concluded that

“the compound has no potential for accumulation in soil”.

That is exactly the opposite of what the trial evidence showed. When the European Food Safety Authority conducted its peer review of the German assessment, it identified the pesticide’s apparent tendency to accumulate, and concluded:

“The risk assessment to soil dwelling organisms cannot be finalised because the assessment of soil accumulation is not finalised.”

This formed part of the text of the EFSA peer review sent to the Commission, so one might have expected that body to refuse approval until the accumulation question had been answered.

The European Commission Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health considered EFSA’s report and, astonishingly, gave imidacloprid its approval, stating that it presented

“no unacceptable risks to the environment”.

There was no mention of accumulation in soil. That was a clear and dangerous failure of the assessment process. We argued that the process needed to be tightened up by empowering EFSA to include in future peer reviews action points that the Commission must address.

We looked at the growing body of evidence linking neonicotinoid use with pollinator decline. This was taken seriously by a considerable number of academics, but dismissed by the agrichemical companies, mainly for two reasons. First, they claimed that the trial doses were higher than would be used in practice. Secondly, they stated that the experiments had been carried out in the laboratory or only partly in the field, and claimed that they could trust only field trials. That Orwellian mantra, “Field trials good, laboratory trials bad”, was repeated often during our inquiry.

DEFRA’s real underlying attitude to assessing the risks of pesticide use was inadvertently given away in a 2012 document, “Neonicotinoid insecticides and bees: the state of the science and the regulatory response”. As our Committee Chair has said, the Department stated that it needed unequivocal proof in order to support a moratorium.

Joan Walley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making these points. This sums up the flawed basis on which permissions were being given throughout the whole regulatory procedure. We are now presenting the Government with the opportunity to take a leadership role, and we want them to follow up exactly on the recommendations in our report.

Martin Caton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will now conclude my speech, as I have gone over the 10 minutes you suggested, Mr Deputy Speaker.

3.59 pm

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): It is true to say that very little of what is discussed in this Chamber is beyond dispute. Indeed, only on Tuesday, a scientific hypothesis that has been shown to be supported by 97% of scientists writing about it in a review of 12,000 papers—namely, anthropogenic global warming—was nevertheless merrily being debated by hon. Members as though that near certainty did not exist. Questions

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concerning what is happening to bees and pollinators, what the causes are and what role pesticides may or may not play in the problems that we have heard this afternoon are occurring with bee populations are far less certain than that. It is thus potentially a matter for a great deal of dispute.

I want to reflect on the related problem that we as legislators have in addressing those issues and deciding how best to take action on them. The Select Committee’s work on this issue was an exemplar of how to go about that when the members themselves are not experts. Interestingly, however, as we have heard, the Environmental Audit Committee has rather more experts on it than one might think in respect of those who hold a certificate in apiculture. Also, several members are active or former farmers who have a great deal of knowledge and information about how these things work in general. The Committee did not go about its business in any kind of sensationalist manner. It operated carefully, quietly and at some length, seeking a large range of thoughts, opinions and experts in order to shed some light on what is a very knotty problem.

The problem was well summed up in a book published recently by the Canadian author, Douglas Coupland. He posited as a starting point of his novel that bees had been declared extinct. Then, across America, five people were found who had been stung by bees, and they were all arrested and immediately investigated by scientists on the basis of that apparently counter-scientific fact relating to the continuous existence of bees. Douglas Coupland was, I think, a little unscientific in setting out a world in which there were no bees, without taking account of the large number of other pollinators that exist alongside bees.

We know from the evidence produced before the Select Committee that the problem is not just about honey bees; in fact it is not just about bees as it is about all the pollinators that operate in our environment in such a fundamentally important and basic way to ensure that our ecosystem continues in a recognisable way. If the sort of declines that the Committee heard about are to continue at the same rate over the same sort of period, not just several bumble bee species but large numbers of bumble bees will be extinct.

The Committee was told that 600 solitary bees can pollinate as well as two hives containing 30,000 honey bees, so it is not just about honey bees. As our Committee Chairman mentioned, they are a sentinel species, but it is nevertheless the case that hoverflies, butterflies and all sorts of other pollinators are in steep decline. We were told that 66% of larger moth species in the countryside are declining, as are most of the bumble bees—we were told that six species had declined by at least 80% in recent years. As we have heard, hoverflies are declining, and 71% of butterfly species are declining at an alarming rate. We do not have data on the vast majority of the other pollinators, and we have to take some of those sentinel species as indicators for those other species, but we certainly do know that something is beginning to go seriously wrong with the species that pollinate our crops, flowers and food.

So I do not think the Committee had a choice in the conclusions it might reasonably draw from the material presented to it, given that, as legislators, we have to

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make choices when we are not necessarily complete experts in a subject. We are responsible for what happens and we have to take the best shot we can in terms of getting the best evidence available to inform our judgments. The evidence that came before the Committee demonstrated clearly a strong relationship, not only where neonicotinoids were used, but, for example, where crops were routinely dusted. Farmers cannot purchase oilseed rape seeds in this country that have not been dusted. Whether or not they think there is a problem with their crops, they simply have to plant those crops, which have, systemic within them, the effect of the neonicotinoid with which they have been dusted.

The Committee heard about the various studies done by Henry, Whitehorn and Gill, which demonstrated a strong causal link between neonicotinoids and an effect on bees in a laboratory. We also heard about the continued difficulty in conducting adequate field trials. One person who contributed to our evidence suggested that getting scientific certainty from field trials would cost about £20 million and take 10 years, if that is what one wanted to do. So we cannot deal in absolute scientific certainty on these things and, in terms of decision making, nor should we. The conclusions that the Committee reached on what should be done about neonicotinoids are absolutely right, given what we, as legislators, are charged with doing. I continue to be a little dismayed about the extent to which it appears that this is not quite the route the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking in its representations on pesticides, pollinators and bees.

I welcome the notion that further, and, we hope, much less flawed, field trials will be carried out urgently, which can get further indicators to the fore. I also welcome the idea that we should try to ensure that integrated approaches are brought to the fore in the future management of pesticides. It has been implied—the Committee unanimously felt that this was not the case—that there are no alternatives to neonicotinoids if they are taken off the roster of usable pesticides for those plants. I hope that we can use different methods of pesticide management and ensure that the crops are well maintained, with advice and assistance from DEFRA, in a way that a number of people say is not possible to do.

We remain in a world in which there is an enormous amount that we do not know. I hope that DEFRA will monitor developments involving non-bee pollinators much more closely, will keep them well to the fore in the views that it expresses and the action that it decides to take, and will continue to look at the evidence that is being produced about elements that are thought to be having an impact on colony decline. I hope that its consideration will bring together such issues as varroa mite habitats, food availability, husbandry, and, indeed, climate change, in order to create a more complete picture of what is going on.

Let me emphasise again that we do not know the details of what is going on. We do not know what is the prime cause of decline. What we do know is that there is a decline, that it is very serious, and that we can do things about it. That is the essence of what the Committee is saying in the report. It does not seek to provide all the answers; it does not look for a silver bullet; but it does suggest that there is a strong case for taking action. I hope that DEFRA will take precisely the sort of action

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that we need, in order to ensure that our pollinators are healthier in the future and our ecosystem revives as a result.

4.11 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): The debate about pollinators and pesticides tends to be seen as a debate about bees and the decline of our bee population, but, in fact, more than 250 pollinating insects are threatened with extinction, including more than 50% of all wild bee species. A third of European butterfly species are in decline, with about 10% at risk of extinction. Over the last 70 years two species of bumble bee have become extinct in the United Kingdom, and six of the remaining 24 are listed as endangered.

I was recently told by a constituent who is a county moth recorder for Gloucestershire that, according to “The State of Britain’s Larger Moths 2013”, produced by Butterfly Conservation and Rothamsted Research, Britain’s moth population has declined seriously in the last 40 years, and more than 60 species have become extinct since 1900.

There are about 400,000 species of flowering plants. While some rely on wind to move pollen and a much smaller number rely on water, the vast majority—about 90%—depend on animals and insects to transfer pollen between flowers. The considerable decline in pollinators to which some of my hon. Friends have referred today poses several risks, but in particular it poses a risk to our food supply. Bees are thought to be responsible for the pollination of about a third of the food eaten by the world’s population. Twenty per cent. of the UK’s cropped area is made up of pollinator-dependent crops, which include most fruit and vegetables.

I must confess that, as became clear when I met representatives of Friends of the Earth to discuss their campaign, I tended to think of bees as flower pollinators, and had not really thought about the food chain. However, almost all blueberries, grapefruits, avocados, cherries, apples, pears, plums, squashes, cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and macadamia nuts, along with many other products—I think that cabbages were mentioned—depend on the foraging activities of bees. Moreover, pollination is responsible not just for the quantity of food but for its quality, in terms of both taste and nutrients. Watermelons that are visited more frequently by pollinators tend to have darker fruit with a richer flavour. It is estimated that without bees, the availability of vitamin C could drop by 20%.

The decline in pollinators also poses an economic risk. Their value to the UK Government is conservatively estimated to be £430 million per annum. Unless we halt the decline in British bees and other pollinators, our farmers might have to rely on hand pollination, which could cost farmers £1.8 billion a year in labour and pollen alone. That is increasingly happening in China, causing food prices to rise.

There is also a risk to the environment. Pollinators are important for the quality of our gardens, parks and countryside. Their decline gives us a worrying early warning indication about the health of our environment. Tony Juniper says in his book, “What has nature ever done for us?”:

“While governments would not consider neglecting our spending on power networks and transport infrastructure, the ‘green infrastructure’ was taken for granted.”

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He goes on to say:

“We clearly possess the means to keep the world’s pollinator populations strong and robust, if we want to. All we have to do is invest in the many practical and often simple steps that will take us in that direction.”

What are the remedies? I have received hundreds of e-mails from constituents, many of whom are gardeners, witnessing the decline of the bee population. They are also helping to create bee-friendly gardens and habitats to help bees to thrive. Unlike some rural areas, which can be a monoculture in terms of pollination potential, Bristol’s parks, gardens and even buildings are being used as rich sources for flowering plants. Cities have great potential as places for restoring habitats for bees.

The Welsh Assembly is leading the way in taking action. It is currently consulting on its draft “Action Plan for Pollinators for Wales”, published in April. I have been urging the Bristol council member responsible for the environment, communities and equalities to adopt a pollinator action plan for Bristol along the same lines, given the importance of this for the Bristol area. A range of decisions taken by the current mayoral cabinet, from planning issues to management of public spaces, could have an impact on bee numbers. Indeed, local authorities could take proactive action to protect and create habitats for bees and other pollinators.

Bristol is an ideal city to take the lead in reversing bee decline. We have been shortlisted alongside Brussels, Glasgow and Ljubljana to become European green capital for 2015, and we will find out next week whether we have won. We have a well-deserved reputation as the most sustainable city in the UK, with organisations including the Soil Association and the Environment Agency based in the city, and with our growing number of innovative green businesses and community-led initiatives. We were one of the first cities to set up a food policy council, which is driving sustainable food policies for the city, including by increasing the amount of land available for allotments, and Feed Bristol is running its “get growing” garden trail this weekend; the public can visit 27 sites and be inspired to get growing.

I am delighted that a project to plant flower meadows across the city has won the mayor’s genius award for its efforts to transform the urban environment for pollinating insects. This urban pollinators project, led by the university of Bristol and working in partnership with the city council’s “meadow Bristol” project, is planting flower meadows in Bristol’s public parks and at schools, turning them into a haven for pollinating insects, as well as a beautiful display that everyone can enjoy. On 17 June in Bristol there will be a seminar called “bees, blooms and Bristol”, at which Professor Jane Memmott of the university of Bristol and others will be talking about how we can make Bristol even more pollinator-friendly. I hope that when the Government issue their planning practice guidance on biodiversity, which is expected soon, they will work with councils and the Welsh Assembly, giving them the guidance and impetus they need to protect and restore bee-friendly habitats.

Finally, I want to turn to the issue of pesticides. It was remiss of me not to congratulate at the beginning of my speech the Environmental Audit Committee on its work. Scientists have stated conclusively that neonicotinoid pesticides pose unacceptable levels of risk to honey bees. I hope the Government will adopt the Committee’s recommendation that they should rewrite

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their national pesticides action plan to incentivise farmers to use non-pesticide methods of pest control and set out a route for reducing overall pesticide use. There needs to be a real shift towards more wildlife-friendly farming in the UK.

I was pleased that the Committee investigated the use of pesticides both on agricultural seed and on plants and seeds sold by garden centres. One constituent, a secondary school teacher who has been planting a wild meadow in the school where she works, recently wrote to me when she was appalled to discover that the plants she was buying to attract insects could actually be harming them. I am pleased to learn from the report that many of the UK’s largest gardening retailers, including B&Q, Wickes and Homebase, have voluntarily withdrawn non-professional plant protection products that contain neonicotinoids, but I urge the Government to accept the Committee’s recommendation that we should implement a full ban on the sale of neonicotinoids for public domestic use, to help create an urban safe haven for pollinators.

My final point is about the EU vote. As we have heard, the UK Government were one of eight Governments who voted against a ban, but thankfully the vote was carried by a narrow majority and the UK will not be able to opt out. The press has carried reports of intense secret lobbying by British Ministers on behalf of chemical companies in the run-up to the vote. In a letter released to The Observer under freedom of information rules, the Environment Secretary told the chemicals company Syngenta that he was “extremely disappointed” by the proposed ban. He said that

“the UK has been very active”

in opposing it and that

“our efforts will continue and intensify in the coming days”.

We know that the Government said that they opposed the ban because they felt that there was insufficient scientific evidence from field trials to justify one, but I would be grateful if the Minister explained why the Government went beyond that in working so closely with chemical companies to oppose this moderate two-year suspension while further tests are carried out.

I congratulate the Environmental Audit Committee on its report. Out of all the Committees in the House, it has produced some absolutely fascinating reports, such as its report on protecting the Arctic and the report on green investment that is coming up. This has been a very interesting debate.

4.20 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), and her team on the very thorough work they have done in this report. I also want to take the opportunity to express my concerns about the Government’s commitment to reversing bee decline, particularly in the light of the decision to vote against an EU-wide ban on neonicotinoid insecticides.

The need for action to reverse bee decline is highly urgent. All species of bee in the UK, including wild bumble and solitary species as well as managed honey bees, are suffering steep decline. In the last century, the

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UK has lost 20 species of bee and 47 surviving species are considered to be vulnerable or endangered. Such a rapid decline in bee populations, not just in the UK but across the world, poses a serious threat to global food production, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has just mentioned.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that about a third of all plants or plant products eaten by humans are dependent on bee pollination. The vital importance of bees to our environment and economy has long been known to the experts, but the critical role of our natural pollinators is only beginning to gain a wider appreciation.

Imaginative national campaigns, such as the Friends of the Earth campaign for a bee action plan, have had an impact in informing people about bee decline and gathering momentum for a comprehensive strategy from the Government. It is clear that the importance of the issue has also hit home in countries such as France and Italy. Italy is not always known for its interest in the environment, but it has led the way in banning certain types of pesticide before the moratorium was voted on by the EU.

For those of us who have been waiting for the Government to step up to the mark and action a comprehensive plan to reverse the ruinous decline in the UK’s bee population, the recent decision by Ministers to vote against the EU ban on neonicotinoid insecticides came as a blow. Thankfully for the bee population, the weight of support for the ban among other EU member states enabled the European Commission to proceed with a two-year moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids, but the UK’s action confirmed the Government’s fundamental misunderstanding of their responsibility on the issue and betrayed a worrying lack of insight into where their priorities should lie.

DEFRA Ministers are hiding behind the need for what they call “clearer proof” of harm to bees caused by neonicotinoids. Indeed, they attempted to discredit the findings of the European Food Safety Agency, which concluded that the insecticides represented a “high acute risk” to honey bees and other pollinators, by pointing out that they were based on the results of lab tests rather than “field evidence”. There were those that hoped that by capitalising on the difficulty of obtaining field evidence they could get away with maintaining the status quo.

The UK field study cited by DEFRA Ministers as proof that neonicotinoids did not pose a risk to bees was pronounced hopelessly inadequate by EFSA. The bumblebee hives intended as controls in the experiment had been contaminated by neonicotinoids, and the study was found to be deficient in a large number of other ways. EFSA also expressed pointed concern about the manner in which the authors had

“elaborated and interpreted the study results to reach their conclusions”.

Needless to say, the study was brushed hastily under the carpet and Ministers were forced to stop touting it as sufficient proof that a ban was unnecessary, but the disregard for suggestive evidence that neonicotinoids cause harm and the massaging of scientific evidence to suit current policy causes real concern. Most troubling is that the Government have completely missed the point: in this situation, given the potential truly devastating

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effects of bee decline, it is the Government’s duty to act with appropriate caution—a duty they have utterly failed to recognise. In other words, DEFRA Ministers must apply the precautionary principle, as set out in the 1992 United Nations Rio declaration and the Lisbon treaty. It is not for the Government to entertain a value-based preference for false negatives—a desperate willingness to conclude that neonicotinoid pesticides are safe when they might not be. As the Environmental Audit Committee report states,

“economic factors should not blur environmental risk assessment and risk management, where the protection of people and the environment must be paramount.”

The sense of disappointment in the Government’s actions on bee-harming neonicotinoids is compounded by the fact that this is exactly the sort of issue—one that has far-reaching and potentially devastating environmental and economic implications—that we expect the UK to champion. We of all countries have always had a reputation for thorough scientific research, real concern for the environment and respect for the precautionary principle, and that the Government did not decide to take a proactive leading role in tackling bee decline related to pesticide use reflects very poorly on our nation’s attitude to environmental issues and severely damages the UK’s reputation for diligence and responsibility regarding the environment. The Government have not lived up to expectations. They should have had the foresight to lead; instead, they have allowed themselves to be beaten around by the big companies—a point my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East made clearly—and left us trailing behind.

Now the Government must seize the chance to make a fresh start. The two-year moratorium on the use of three neonicotinoid pesticides on crops attractive to honey bees will provide an opportunity for DEFRA Ministers to carry out careful and impartial monitoring of the effect on bee populations of the removal of pesticides. That will be a positive action that demonstrates the UK’s appreciation of the seriousness of bee decline and its commitment to working to reverse it. It will also demonstrate the UK’s support for the work of the European Commission, which also plans to use the two-year suspension period to review new scientific evidence on how pollinators are faring more generally.

The Government must also overhaul their national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides. It was necessary to take legal advice on whether the action plan complied with the minimum standards of the EU directive, which strongly suggests that the Government failed to see the directive as an opportunity to address the wider issue of pesticide use. In fact, UK use of insecticides on crops pollinated by bees remains on a steady upward trend. The Government must abandon their irresponsible, lacklustre approach and rewrite the action plan to incentivise farmers to use non-pesticide-based methods of pest control, making sure to include targets, measures and timetables for the reduction of pesticide use overall.

The Government must also recognise their duty to apply the precautionary principle. Given what is at stake, DEFRA must commit itself to erring on the side of caution in matters relating to bee decline and in future complex matters relating to the protection of people and the environment. The Select Committee observed:

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“There is no compelling economic or agricultural case for neonicotinoid use in private gardens and on amenities such as golf courses”

and said that that might provide DEFRA Ministers with an immediate opportunity to prove their commitment to the precautionary principle.

It is time for the Government to turn themselves around and to move away from their disappointing behaviour on neonicotinoid insecticides by accepting the European moratorium with grace and applying themselves to tackling the harm caused to bees by pesticides. They also need to look more widely at their policy on bees and work to formulate and introduce a comprehensive bee action plan to save threatened habitats, promote bee-friendly farming and construction practices, and guide councils and the public on how they can protect our nation’s vital pollinators.

On pesticides and on all these measures, the UK Government must take the lead. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that a UK-wide moratorium on the three neonicotinoid pesticides is fully in place by the deadline of 1 December? Will the Minister prove his commitment to countering the bee decline by setting quantitative targets for the reduction of all pesticide use and working hard to encourage the use of alternative pest management methods, as the EU directive requires? Will the Minister follow the example of the Labour Welsh Government’s draft action plan for pollinators, which sets out measures to help all bee species across all policy areas, including farming, conservation and planning? If so, when will he implement a UK-wide bee action plan? I very much hope that the Minister will be able to provide some answers this afternoon.