“If either party does not wish to put their father’s details in the Register or they do not know who their father is, you should not put ‘unknown’ or leave the column blank. You should put a horizontal line through both columns to show that no information was given.”

Although that would reflect in some ways my constituent’s wishes, it would also mean that there would be no mention of her mother, who understandably had to act as both mother and father to her during the very difficult circumstances of her upbringing. I feel strongly that a marriage certificate should recognise such a scenario.

Christina Rees: There is a rare exception by which a mother’s details can be included; it is if she has been authorised by a court as the sole adopter. Then a couple can make a special request to have her details put on the register and in the certificate. The other way that it can be done is via a loophole, whereby the mothers’ names can be included if the mothers are witnesses, but that is the only other way I can see round this problem.

Victoria Prentis: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Sadly, this matter involving my constituent never came before a court, so it is not possible to resolve it in that way. It is now important that we move forward to reflect the fact that families do not look how we once thought they always would.

Julian Knight: My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech and I was greatly interested in her significant point about survivors of abuse and their involvement in this situation. In that regard, is it not, frankly, just a bit of a farce that we have to look for loopholes in order to recognise women on a marriage certificate? Would she like to reflect on that?

Victoria Prentis: I could not agree more. Personally, however, I am not sure whether including the mother’s name on a certificate goes far enough. In the speech that I referred to earlier, the Prime Minister also set out his plans to make adoption by same-sex couples more straightforward. That is important because increasingly we are seeing same-sex couples with children who will eventually want to get married themselves. In such circumstances, they will not have a “father’s name” and a “mother’s name” to note on the certificate, but might have two fathers or two mothers.

I wonder whether this is the moment to go one step further and provide two fields on certificates for “Parent 1” and “Parent 2”, or whatever terminology we see fit to use, after consultation. It seems to me that that would cover most scenarios. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what consideration has been given to such a suggestion.

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Of course, any change is a step in the right direction. It must be possible, given that the mother’s name, surname and occupation are already included on a civil partnership schedule, to include those details in wedding certificates. I simply add that, given it has taken us this long to get this far, I hope that we will not have to wait a similar length of time before we recognise different forms of parental relationship.

3.5 pm

Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Streeter.

The arguments for changing marriage certificates have already been well articulated by several Members today and I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), for securing such an important debate. She joins other Members who have gone before us in trying to make changes, in this place and in their own way, for gender equality.

For many of us, the reason for wanting to rectify the situation is deeply personal. I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a home with two loving parents, who had different impacts on me in different ways. Although my politics has been formed by my life in England, a lot of my cultural background and history has been shaped by my mother’s experience of being a political asylum seeker who came to this country in the 1970s and settled in the constituency that I now represent here in Westminster.

Strangely enough, I actually got married here in Parliament, with my mother next to me, and yet I could not put her name on my marriage certificate. That was a great shame: in the most democratic institution in the world, I still could not put my mother’s name on the marriage certificate.

Putting the gender issue aside, families such as mine—families with complex histories or histories that we want to be reflected on what is the most important day of our lives, other than being elected of course—want to put the mother’s name on the marriage certificate. We want to account, in official documents, for the way we travelled to this country.

Wayne David: This issue has a long history, but there can be absolutely no doubt about where public opinion is on it. I simply cite the example from back in 2002, when the then Labour Government issued a White Paper and there was a consultation. One of the things that came across clearly back then was the overwhelming support among ordinary members of the public for the change that we are discussing. Does my hon. Friend agree that what was true then is even truer now?

Tulip Siddiq: I absolutely agree.

I have also found that men and women who are interested in family history often find it very difficult to trace it through a family line and official documentation. It is about time that situation changed.

However, my main reason for raising this issue in Prime Minister’s questions is the sheer number of my constituents from Hampstead and Kilburn who have written to me about it. In particular, I will highlight the case of a single mother who wrote to me recently. She was brought up by her mother and has had no contact whatever with her father. She told me that she was

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devastated to learn that the outdated practice that we are discussing is still a requirement of marriage. She said:

“When I get married, I will be expected to put my absent father’s name and profession on my marriage certificate whilst my mother who brought me up will not be included.”

It puts a dampener on this important day in someone’s life—when they are getting married—if they cannot acknowledge the person who raised them.

We must remember that our discussions today reflect the deeply held anxieties of the people we represent in our various constituencies.

Dr Huq: I want to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to TheDaily Telegraph, which is not normally sympathetic to the Opposition—it has been known as the “Torygraph”. Its Wonder Women section backs a campaign on this issue, and a report in the paper in October included a quote that sounds very similar to the one my hon. Friend read out. Someone who is interviewed in the report says:

“I cannot believe it that in a developed country such a primitive reality would stare me in my face in the UK. I am deeply distressed”.

Tulip Siddiq: Well, if the Torygraph says it, we must agree with it. I agree with my hon. Friend, who puts a lot of hours into managing her life and her son—he is 11 years old and a delight.

I should point out that my constituent’s case is not a stand-out case. As my hon. Friend pointed out earlier, there are now 3 million lone-parent families in the UK—an increase of 500,000 over the past decade. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are now 2.5 million lone-mother families, compared with 437,000 lone-father families. The number of families with single mothers is therefore significantly higher than the number of families with single fathers. Although circumstances will differ from family to family, we need to bear those figures in mind while we fight to rectify the injustice we are talking about.

When I spoke to colleagues about marriage certificates and other issues, several of them—particularly one from London—talked about the large amount of correspondence they receive about certificates in general. Although the issue I want to raise is slightly different from the subject of the debate, I want the Minister to be aware of it.

It is virtually impossible to put fathers on birth certificates if they die before the birth of their child. Such cases are for another day, but I would like the issue to be reviewed. In one case, a father died a month before his child was born, and the mother is having to go to court to put his name on the certificate. She is having to deal not only with her grief following her bereavement, but with the fact that her child’s birth certificate will not mention her partner’s name. Will the Minister meet me and my London colleague to discuss the issue and see whether the Government will launch a comprehensive review into the various injustices that seem to occur with official documentation as a whole?

We operate in a political culture where policies do see U-turns. Earlier today, I was pleased that our Justice Secretary said that the criminal courts charges will be

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reversed. We also have the example of tax credits. If those polices can go through U-turns, almost on a whim, is it not possible to implement a policy that has been talked about endlessly? Early-day motions have been tabled, and questions have been asked at Prime Minister’s questions and at other times on the Floor of the House. We do not want the public to think that gender equality is not among our top issues. We must make sure that this change in policy gets through.

This is not the first injustice the Government have been slow to correct. However, there is something rather surreal about the Prime Minister demanding a change, and that change still not happening.

Mrs Spelman: Of course we can make this party political, but is it worth it? We have waited two centuries for this change, during which time the Labour party has been in power and had ample opportunity to make a change, and my party has finally also got into power, after a long wait. Could we not just drop this party political approach? That is what annoys people about politics. I am just saying, “Come on. We can do this as private Members. Let’s do this. Let’s do it differently.”

Tulip Siddiq: I do not want to make things party political, but I do want to put pressure on the Government to change this policy. If putting pressure on them is the way to do that, that is what we need to do. The debate is not just about correcting a bureaucratic policy; it is another step in the fight against the gender discrimination that still blights Britain today. If it is possible to put pressure on the Prime Minister and the Minister sitting in front of me, I would like to take the opportunity to do that.

This is not party political. In the country we live in, there is still a deeply entrenched gender pay gap. There is still violence against women, and that is a major cause of death every year. Women are still disproportionately hit by cuts to local government budgets. That is the reality of the situation—it is not party politics.

Valerie Vaz: I suppose I should declare an interest as well, as the mother of a 21-year-old daughter. However, to pick up the point about party politics, I should add that the civil service is independent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, there was a White Paper somewhere in the bowels of the civil service, and change was about to be made to the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. However, the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) is now on the table, and it has cross-party support. Therefore, this debate did not have to happen—the machinery, the process and the legislation are already there.

Tulip Siddiq: I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Meriden for calling the debate, because this is an important issue. I am pleased that men and women from different parties are here today, which reflects how passionately we feel about this issue.

Finally, I have a few points. This issue may seem simple when compared with other issues.

Mrs Spelman: To be clear, there is nothing in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) about the practicalities—certainly from the clergy’s

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point of view—and the electronic registration process. I was just trying to put the practitioners’ view, and that is why I am not suggesting that we simply take the hon. Lady’s Bill off the shelf. There is also the wrinkle that the Bill is very specific, with its reference to the mother. If we do things by regulation, as I suggested, we can deal with all the subsequent changes in family composition. I was genuinely trying to put those points across in holding the debate.

Tulip Siddiq: I will not speak about the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees), but I am happy to let her intervene if she wants to.

Christina Rees: The point is that regulation can be changed at any time; if these things are put in primary legislation, they cannot be. As I said, I welcome discussion, and we can change my Bill in Committee. The Bill will have its Second Reading on 22 January, and it addresses the main points. I think we should move forward with that.

Tulip Siddiq: I thank my hon. Friend.

I will just make a few final points. It is worth noting that countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, Spain and France have already changed their laws so that mothers can be included on marriage certificates. Mothers’ names are already included on certificates in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which brings home the injustice for all of us. I want to make sure that changing the policy on this issue forms part of the patchwork of equality I hope all of us will champion in Parliament.

If my daughter gets married—she has the choice of whether to get married—she can have just her father on her marriage certificate if she wants, or she can have her mother on it if she wants. However, I want the option to be there, because if she cannot have her mother on her marriage certificate, she will have to write to her MP—which is me.

3.18 pm

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): It is a great pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. Let me congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) again on bringing forward this subject for debate and on the expertise she has shown as the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

My right hon. Friend is my neighbour, but there is another lady in my life I would like to pay tribute to: my mother. My mother brought me up as a lone parent—my father left when I was very young. She often worked two or three jobs to keep a roof over our heads and to ensure that I was clean and ready for school. Despite all the hours she worked, she always made sacrifices in that regard. My politics were formed very much by my mother’s hard work and self-reliance. She is a great example in my life.

When I was married last year—rather late in the day—I had the great pleasure of my mother being there as a witness. She had a fantastic hat, whose dimensions were such that I imagine it could be seen from space. It was a great sadness to me that her name could not appear on the marriage certificate. I was completely unaware of that. I was involved in politics, but in local campaigning and not in the minutiae of legalistic matters that I am involved in today. Until I arrived at the wedding I was completely unaware of the situation, and

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although obviously I did not make a fuss or a big deal out of it, I just thought it was a ridiculous anomaly that the person who had played the greatest role in my life should not, on my special day, have her name appended to the record of the event.

Christina Rees: I had a similar experience when I got married many years ago. My father died when I was a young teenager and my mother brought me up. The father of my husband-to-be had also died many years before. The two mothers came to the ceremony but their names could not be on the certificate. That was when I realised it was a great injustice. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about someone being confronted with that on the happiest day of their life.

Julian Knight: That shows the importance of the Bill that the hon. Lady has introduced. We bring a lot of our own experiences to this place, and from that negative thing she has made something very positive. I welcome the private Member’s Bill, and perhaps the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, in her capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner and with her tremendous expertise, can come together to discuss and make progress with the matter. My right hon. Friend, with the Church, speaks with compassion about this matter.

We have been here before, with the 2002 White Paper. I believe that the idea was to make the change without primary legislation, and that it was decided that it could not happen by what I believe would have been a statutory instrument—I am still getting used to the terms. It was very unfortunate that that never came about. It would have been good to pass legislation then, although it would still have been happening many years later than it should have. Regardless of who is in power and of whether there is any party political aspect to the matter, I ask hon. Members to put those things behind us and focus on the issue now.

I welcome the review. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration has been discussing the matter and I look forward to hearing the response to the debate from the Minister who is present today. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) made a significant point about survivors of abuse, and I have a constituent who is in a similar position. She is in a serious relationship and looking towards marriage, but in her background is an abusive father and there are issues about what that person’s place is in her life. We need to be sensible of that issue—and the idea that we can get rid of it with two broad strokes of the pen across the paper is ridiculous.

We must work together across the parties, with expertise. Let us have the change that would, frankly, get us into the 20th century and, with civil partnerships and the recognition of same-sex relationships and marriage, move things forward into the 21st century.

Mr Graham Brady (in the Chair): We have about 35 minutes, which should be plenty of time, I hope, for three Front-Bench winding-up speeches and a moment or two for the right hon. Member for Meriden to respond.

3.24 pm

Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP): It was Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, who wrote:

“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,

The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings”—

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there is more of it, and I could give Members all of it if they want, but I will not. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] I will just get to the good bit—or the interesting bit; it is all good:

“Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,

The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”

I am delighted to offer my wholehearted support to those looking for gender equality on marriage certificates. I commend those in the House and outside it who have campaigned on the issue for many years now, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) on leading the debate.

I did not feel that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) was being particularly party political. There is a general acceptance in the Chamber that the situation we are debating has existed for 178 years, in which time there have been Governments of different hues. Everyone has played a part in that, and we are all now playing a part in doing something about it.

In Scotland, as has been mentioned, there is space for both parents to sign the wedding certificate. That has been the case since registrations began in 1855. In fact, the certificates also list the occupations of both parents and allow for the possibility of same-sex parents. All of that is sensible and is a reminder that Scotland, with a distinct church and legal system in the years after the treaty of Union, also had distinctive features with regard to marriage. It was customary in earlier times, as is becoming increasingly fashionable in the 21st century across the UK, for Scots brides to retain their original surname—I hate the term “maiden name”—instead of taking their husband’s. I am not claiming that in Scotland we are always ahead of the times—most of the time we are; I simply make the point that we would do well to remember that customs and their attendant paperwork are not set in stone. The current certificates are simply a poor reflection on our Victorian forebears.

Why, then, am I, a Scottish Member, speaking today? Clearly there is nothing to stop my constituents getting married and registering that marriage in England, and many of them do. More importantly, the issue is about equality of status for men and women, and that is of course a universal issue. It is clear to all right-thinking people that the recording of paternal names but not maternal ones on marriage certificates is an anachronism that has survived far too long. At best it speaks of the patently sexist Victorian view of the man as the head of the household, and at worst it treats women as little more than property to be transferred from one household to another. Then again, if someone who states publicly that the best place for a woman is on her back can be shortlisted for BBC sports personality of the year, perhaps we have not moved on quite as much as we should like to think since Victorian times.

I confess that when I saw the debate coming up I wondered whether it really merited a full 90 minutes—simply because it is about something that should go without saying—but I was wrong and I think it does deserve the time. The issue may seem relatively minor to some people, but it says something about attitudes to women. The fact that this practice is still going on is insulting and hurtful. It is another example of women being written out of history. We are invisible. We exist,

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but we are not important enough to be remembered or acknowledged. Historians and genealogists support what the right hon. Member for Meriden is calling for today. They tell us that it has historically been harder to track down female bloodlines because of this anachronism.

It is bad enough that women who achieve great things on a large scale are not as well acknowledged or remembered as men who do the same—or not, as the case may be. I was delighted to read yesterday that at long last the funding has been secured to erect a statue in memory of a hero of mine, Mary Seacole, the self-taught Jamaican-born nurse of Scots Creole descent who set up the British Hotel, where she nursed thousands of wounded soldiers in the Crimean war. That has been a long time coming and it is bad enough that it took so long, but there are thousands of women—some would call them ordinary women—whose achievements have affected fewer people but who have been the lifeline for their families or their communities. Those are the women who sacrifice everything to support their husbands’ careers, and the mothers who put aside all selfish thoughts to concentrate on building a secure life for their children. We have heard many Members referring to those things today.

Jenny Chapman: On behalf of ordinary, average, not brilliant, fantastic mothers everywhere, I want to say that sometimes our children love us too and might want us on their marriage certificates, along with their fathers.

Anne McLaughlin: That is exactly the point I was coming on to. The idea that mothers who bring up the doctors, plumbers, teachers and joiners of the future, and the community campaigners who give hope to their neighbours by refusing to stop caring about their neighbourhoods, are treated like they never existed when it comes to their children marrying is not acceptable. Women are not less important than men; they are equally important. An anachronism it might be, but it is time to sort it out, and we have agreement across the House.

As has been mentioned, in August last year the Prime Minister said:

“it’s high time the system was updated”,

and in January of this year the Immigration Minister said:

“We are continuing to develop the options that will allow mothers’ names to be recorded on marriage certificates as soon as practicable.”

We have heard some explanation today as to why it is taking so long, but I still gently ask: how difficult can it be?

We are all aware of the emotional and financial investment that people put into their wedding days. Weddings are full of symbolism, and are a public statement of commitment, but what does the symbolism of such blatant inequality say about our society? I remember my dad talking about giving me away—incessantly talking about giving me away. My disinterest in marriage was frustrating to him, but it allowed him to regularly tell people how he would be happy to give me away to whoever wanted to take me. I laughed, obviously—I had no choice—and I always knew that, for his sake, should I ever give in and get married, I would allow him to give me away. In the back of my mind, though, I always felt uncomfortable with the suggestion that I was his—or anyone’s—property.

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Mrs Spelman: My sister reminded me on Sunday that as early as the 1960s Church of England ministers saw the light and began to allow a mother to give her daughter’s hand in marriage if the father was not there. There are human ways, therefore, of addressing the patriarchal tendency to see the act as a man’s privilege.

Anne McLaughlin: Interestingly enough, my father passed away a number of years ago and it fell to my mother to remind me that my sister had allowed her to give her away. I suppose my point is that no one is anyone else’s property, but there should be equality if someone is someone else’s property and they have to be given away. I do not feel comfortable with it at all, but it is simply a tradition and one that many are happy to go along with. Not allowing the mother’s name and occupation to appear on the marriage certificates of her children is a different matter, and I cannot understand why it has to be so complicated.

I again congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden on securing the debate and I look forward to hearing from the Minister. I hope that he will do what I believe the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn suggested, and just get on with it.

3.32 pm

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Brady.

I, too, start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) on securing this important debate, and I take heart at her repeated emphasis of the fact that she wants to work collaboratively. I agree with her. The debate has shown that there is cross-party agreement and support, but we need to consider how to make the legislation reflect the intention. I urge the right hon. Lady to work collaboratively with my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) because we have the prime opportunity of the Second Reading of her Bill coming up on 22 January.

It was interesting that the right hon. Member for Meriden elaborated on the practitioner’s view and on some of the practical problems. I appreciate that she was looking to move the debate forward from the gender point, but as that is where we are at the moment I will stick with it as the theme.

The current system of marriage registration asks for the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom, but not those of the mothers and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) stated, it has been Labour policy to end that unacceptable inequality since 2002. The then Labour Government released a White Paper proposing wide-ranging reforms to marriage registration, including the adding of mothers’ names to certificates. That is still our position today, and I want to set out why it is so important that the reform is finally implemented.

Inequality in marriage certificate details is a 19th-century anachronism, as our marriage registration is still based on the 1836 marriage registry system. That is a slightly different date to the one that the right hon. Member for Meriden gave, but I take heed. It goes without saying that marriage today is very different from what it was then—whether it was 1836 or 1837. I think we can all agree that society has changed for the better: women are

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no longer forced to hand over their property to their husbands; divorce is no longer the exclusive preserve of men; and women are no longer forced to surrender their right to consent, or not consent, to sex with their partners. In short, the past 200 years has seen great emancipation for married women and some of the grossest gender inequalities within marriage have been eliminated.

Ultimately, the current system of marriage certification is a symbol of another unseemly aspect of the 19th-century idea of marriage. Marriage then was considered to be a transactional, and indeed a financial, relationship between the father of the bride and the father of the groom. That is why, historically, the fathers’ names appear on the certificate. That is as outdated as the dowry. Thankfully, we no longer see marriage in transactional terms, although, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) said, the language of fathers giving their daughters away is still around. Marriage in the 21st century is a choice that both partners freely make to spend their lives together, with both partners equal in the relationship, and it is important that our marriage certificates reflect what we now think marriage is about, rather than the misogynistic morality of the 19th century.

I ask the Minister to consider a specific issue that highlights some of the problems we have. Unfortunately, the current marriage certification system can encourage the use of the divisive and judgmental language of Victorian morality. On the Government’s Passport Office website, in the section explaining the details of various legal documents, there is an annotated picture of a standard marriage certificate. The box about the father states:

“These details are vital for checking you have the right certificate. No name would suggest illegitimacy.”

It is not appropriate for a Government publication to describe a family without a father as illegitimate, and I hope that the Minister will look at that.

A person’s wedding day is one of the most important days of their life, and sharing the moment with their entire family is one of the things that makes it so special. A lot of brides and grooms are surprised, and disappointed, when they find out that the marriage certificate they sign, at what can be a really special moment in a wedding, does not include their mothers’ details. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) and my hon. Friend the Member for Neath who beautifully and powerfully spoke about how the blocking of the most important person in their life—their mum—on their big day affected them. I also pay tribute to the mums, for all they have done—and to their hats. We have to work together to get rid of the inequality.

The situation is particularly hard for brides and grooms who have primarily been brought up by single mums. Their guardians and most important loved ones are arbitrarily excluded from an important moment of the wedding, and the signing of the certificate can act as a reminder of absent fathers—some Members have spoken of the kind of father people do not want to remember on their big day—and that just cannot be right.

When I was researching my speech, I came across a moving testimony that made exactly that point. A young woman who signed a petition to Parliament on the issue wrote on the petition website:

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“I have just got engaged, and having been brought up by a single mum I am devastated to learn that this outdated practice is still a requirement of marriage. When I get married, I will be expected to put my absent father’s name and profession on my marriage certificate whilst my mother who brought me up will not be included.”

The current system is letting down that young woman badly. As has been said, the issue affects millions of people, as one in four children are now brought up by single parents.

Changing marriage certificates should not be a difficult reform to achieve. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) pointed out, the mother’s name, surname and occupation are already included on civil partnership certification, and on marriage certificates in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The reform to marriage certification in England and Wales is long overdue.

In August 2014 the Prime Minister promised to address the matter about the certificates:

“At the moment, they require details of the couples’ fathers, but not their mothers. This clearly doesn’t reflect modern Britain - and it’s high time the system was updated.”

I could not agree more with what the Prime Minister said then—18 months ago—but it is now more a year later, and we are still waiting. The Immigration Minister—I googled him; he is the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire)—stated in January that the Government are

“continuing to develop the options that will allow mothers’ names to be recorded on marriage certificates as soon as practicable.”

I hope the Minister puts me in the right place on this, but it appears that no progress has been made over the course of the year, which is disappointing to say the least.

In the absence of Government action, it has fallen on Back Benchers to take the initiative. Early-day motion 446 was tabled in September this year by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and it expressed many of the sentiments that we have heard today. Members from all major parties have signed the motion. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Neath, who currently has a private Member’s Bill before Parliament that would deal with the issue legislatively. Members from across the House have supported that Bill. Second Reading is scheduled for 22 January 2016, and I hope the Bill will move forward to Committee. It will certainly have the full support of Opposition Front Benchers.

As important as Back-Bench initiatives are, we all know they need Government support and backing if they are to bring about the necessary change in the law. My hon. Friend’s Bill will need proper parliamentary time to make progress, and I urge the Minister to facilitate that. He has indicated that implementing changes to marriage registration is also likely to require a new IT system, as we rely on a paper-based model. If the Government seriously back reform, the Home Office needs to show that it is willing to provide those resources, or at least to consider whether changes can be made to the paper-based system without having to implement a new IT system. Also, the Government have access to experts in legal drafting, who should support Back Benchers with any technical issues that need to be cleared up.

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If the Government do not offer serious support, it will be just another issue on which they are willing to talk about supporting equality, but are not willing to take the necessary action to bring it about. Unfortunately, thus far all we have seen is delay and warm words from the Home Office. All the people who feel excluded by the current marriage registration process deserve better than that, and I hope the Minister will give them reassurance.

3.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees (Richard Harrington): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I may be competing with the Division bell shortly, but I leave such matters to your judgment. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) on securing this debate, but I will get to the point. Many Members have raised good points, and everyone is right: the Prime Minister made a commitment in his speech to the Relationships Alliance summit. It is obvious to anyone that it is high time that the system was reformed, and reformed quickly. I do not think there is any dispute about that. The system was established the year that Queen Victoria came to power. It was also the year that Rowland Hill decided that we might be able to fold up paper and put letters inside and post them. It is now 2015 and it is absurd that the system has not changed.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) made a point about there being no private Members’ Bills, apart from Government ones, that had become law in her time. Respectfully, there are good exceptions to that. One of the main ones came from my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White), who is in his place behind me. His Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 was enacted in the last Parliament. Putting that to one side, there is a good precedent in this field with the Marriage Act 1994, which started as a private Member’s Bill. It allowed homes and hotels to be used for marriages.

Jenny Chapman: I am delighted to hear what the Minister is saying. It is news to me. Does he mean that we can assume that the Government will give a fair wind to any of the private Members’ Bill before the House on this topic? Will they give them Committee time and not use any of the techniques well known to the Minister to prevent the Bills from becoming Acts?

Richard Harrington: As the hon. Lady will know, I cannot speak for every private Members’ Bill. The 1994 Act was brought forward by Gyles Brandreth, then a very well known MP. I had better make progress.

There is no question but that the Government want to see the issue remedied. The question is whether the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) can be, as many have suggested in this Chamber and elsewhere, the piece of legislation that is needed. I point out that many Members here seem to have children of marriageable age who are currently unmarried: I have two boys aged 24 and 21. I am pleased to say that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is a good personal friend of mine, and I think we should discuss the matter outwith the Chamber.

Getting back to the important point, can the private Member’s Bill be adapted? I would very much like to say yes. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to

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consult and then to make regulations setting out the marriage register entry, including the mother’s and father’s name, but it does not reform the whole registration process. It would simply require the replacement of tens of thousands of books at a cost of £3 million. The Bill does not take account of different family circumstances, where there may not be a mother and father. Members have mentioned many particular cases relating to that. It also does not give flexibility for the future. After we have amended the law, the matter may not be again for another 100 or 200 years, so we have to get things right.

Christina Rees: Will the Minister work with me to make the private Member’s Bill cover the things he mentions better? Can we work together to move it forward on 22 January?

Richard Harrington: I cannot pledge to work with the hon. Lady on the Bill, because I am not convinced that it is the right way to deal with the matter, although many of the points and sentiments in it are right. What we need—I assure her that this will be progressed quickly—is a vehicle that will transform the whole system of marriage registration for the digital age, so that all the points and everything that is changing in society can be taken into consideration. I assure her that that is not in any way meant to be disrespectful to what she is trying to do. I am not against any of the sentiments or saying that anything within the Bill is wrong, but we need a comprehensive solution. I assure her that this is not Government waffle. We have to deal with the matter for once and for all, quickly and properly. I would like to be able to say that her Bill is the vehicle for that, but I do not believe that it could be. A combination of the hon. Lady, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden and some of our discussions could get to a vehicle that could deal with things quickly—I have every reason to believe that.

I would like to say that it makes sense to have a simple amendment of the current marriage register. Like so many of the things that we get involved in—I find this when speaking to constituents—we think that the matter is simple and that we know the solution, but this matter is much more complex than that. We do not want to have to change the system again and again. We want a comprehensive solution with a framework for the modern digital economy, where—we hope everything will be transformed in this way—people will get a certificate quickly with all the relevant details and where there will be no need for replacement certificate stock to be sent to thousands of different churches and other institutions.

Also, the solution should minimise the public protection risk of marriage registers being held in some 30,000 different religious buildings. Every year criminal gangs steal registers and certificate stock for all sorts of different purposes, and it is time that the system was modernised for once and for all. It would cost up to £3 million simply to replace the materials. A simple solution of just filling in the empty box was suggested, but that would lead to all sorts of mistakes and inaccuracies. While the suggestion is perfectly well-intentioned, I do not think it is very practical.

As the shadow Minister mentioned, we have to make the necessary IT changes with the correct resources. It is not a question of trying to save money with the new

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system, although once it was set up, it would probably save a lot of money and be much more efficient over the decades. Costs would be incurred. It is not just about making the system more cost-effective, although it will be over the longer term.

I want to mention some of the contributions made by various Members. The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) made a point that, although not specific to the debate, surprised me. She asked me to look into the subject of illegitimacy on the Passport Office website. I will do that and I will respond as quickly as I can. I was astounded to hear what she said.

There have been so many good contributions, although I disagree with what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said about the Prime Minister’s feminism, because he is very much a feminist. However, the point that she made about the deceased father on the birth certificate is valid and I will write to her on that subject when I have had a chance to look into it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) talked about a constituent and what form the marriage certificate should take, but it is not a simple matter. At the moment, our officials at the Home Office are working with key stakeholders to ensure that the needs of all different types of families are met. It is not simply a case of making a one-off change to include the mother. The matter affects different types of families, and the change needs to be done properly.

I smiled when the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) mentioned Seacole, the Scottish lady, and explained her background. A big chunk of the Home Office is named after Mary Seacole. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has visited, but she is welcome to come and look at the plaque. Of course, she is right. We are not talking about the contributions of women to society, because that is taken as read and is obvious. The concept of property in Victorian times would be laughable if it were not so serious, because it blighted women’s development for centuries. If we explain that to our kids, they simply cannot understand such concepts. I have shown children and visitors from my constituency the pictures in the Committee rooms of men—all men—in Parliament, but they cannot imagine such a situation. I can only say that what the hon. Lady said is absolutely right.

The serious point to make is that the Government are not simply playing with the issue in order to kick it into the long grass and say, “Well, it is one of those things.” It is very serious. It is absolutely absurd that the law has not been changed before. It is absurd, whether under a Conservative, coalition or Labour Government, that it has taken from the 1830s to today to even look at the matter. I know that people like the tradition of the marriage certificate. I have one, as have many people in this room, but we should keep the best bits of tradition and amend accordingly.

I ask for the brief patience of hon. Members. The issues are sometimes personal to us and our constituents, as highlighted in the debate, but I ask for brief patience because the Government are determined to get this right.

3.53 pm

Mrs Spelman: I believe we have an imminent vote, so I will be quick. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) asked a poignant question:

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did the debate merit 90 minutes? Given that we are right up against the clock, I think the answer is a resounding yes. At the very least, most women and girls have absolutely no idea that they are discriminated against until it is too late. It is a handful who write to us, plus we have the poignant cases that we as Members of Parliament come across and the very telling personal stories of colleagues present for whom the moment has gone. Our mothers have not been able to put their names on our marriage certificates. That grieves us, but in their memory and for ever we want to change that. That is the message that comes out of this debate.

The only difference between the approach that I propose and the approach in the Bill produced by the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees)—I do not underestimate the amount of work that goes into producing a private Member’s Bill, having tried to do so myself three times—is that she is focused on the narrow point about putting the mother on the certificate. Sometimes that is the right approach to change legislation, because it has more chance of succeeding, but my approach has the practitioners’ thoughts standing behind it: are there other things we could do at the same time to ensure that in perpetuity we have a change that does not discriminate against anybody in society in terms of their rightful place on a marriage certificate in the future?

As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, it behoves me to point out that whatever change we make to the law must work for people of all faiths and none in our society. That is incredibly important. It has to be properly thought through. That is why I maintain we should try very hard to make sure we keep this cross-party approach and, in that spirit, I am more than happy to continue working with the hon. Member for Neath and her colleagues on this issue. Together we can put right such inequality, but we are impatient. The Minister begs a little patience of us; very little is what we are prepared to give him. The change needs to be made as soon as possible in the memory of all those we hold dear and those who in future will join our families. This matter needs to be put right. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered marriage registration certificates.

3.56 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Electronic Communications Code

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

4 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered mobile phone coverage and the Electronic Communications Code.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies.

Before I start on the main content of my speech, I shall quote some of my constituents; apparently, that is a part of the kinder politics we now find ourselves in—as if no one had ever quoted a constituent before. I called for this debate because of the ongoing issues with mobile phone coverage in my constituency. Andrew from Rawcliffe said:

“I live in Rawcliffe and can use my phone only from upstairs, hanging out of the bathroom window.”

Gary from Goole said:

“As an employee of the Carphone Warehouse in Goole I’m on the front of finding many customers who struggle to get a decent signal in areas where I would expect to receive a strong signal.”

Mike from the Isle of Axholme said:

“O2 coverage in Epworth has been terrible lately, with no signal for hours on end.”

Sue, also from the Isle of Axholme, said:

“I would just like reception in Fockerby and Garthorpe without a walk in the garden!”

Another of my constituents, Jim from Wrawby, pointed out that in the absence of the roll-out of superfast broadband in his area—it has been generally very good in north Lincolnshire—he has to rely on mobile wireless broadband.

Significant issues remain. At the back end of last year, I secured a debate on this subject following a survey I conducted among 6,500 of my constituents, many of whom responded. Seventy per cent of respondents reported significant issues with access to mobile phone services. That is an ongoing problem throughout east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire.

I do not want to be wholly negative, because some positive things have happened. We have seen big improvements in mobile phone coverage in parts of my constituency, but there is no doubt that there is a lot more to be done. I have met the providers on numerous occasions and they have all promised me that they are going to make improvements, but progress seems to be very slow indeed.

Consistent mobile phone coverage is essential in the modern world. For small businesses to succeed and for families and friends to stay connected, they must be able to rely on the mobile phone coverage to which they subscribe. The issue is very much one of people getting what they are paying for.

Ian C. Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, and I agree entirely on that last point. It appears that individual companies do not give sufficient information about what people will receive in their area. For example, people in Wrexham are not given specific enough information about the quality of service they will receive.

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Andrew Percy: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, although in fairness the mobile coverage checker that has recently been introduced should help people to zone in on where they are and check their coverage. Nevertheless, a lot of constituents in my patch tell me that according to the coverage maps their coverage should be good, but they are literally having to hang out of the bathroom window with a finger in one ear trying to get a signal. That is not acceptable.

The issue is not only about the signal at home. People travel and move around, as we would all expect them to. My constituents are sick and tired of losing their signal. Instead of going to the party conference—in my view, no one should ever attend a party conference—I went to Canada. Over the November recess, I drove from Regina in Saskatchewan to Calvary in Alberta, crossing the badlands of southern Alberta, and there is nothing in between. I lost my 4G signal for all of five or 10 minutes of a six and a half to seven-hour journey. I cannot get on to the M18-M62 interchange in Goole without losing my signal, or use the east coast main line every week without the signal dropping in and out. It is unbelievable that in a country as vast as Canada I was able to get 4G access the whole length of that journey; I have little chance of that at home.

Chris Davies (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is great to hear about his trip to Canada, but in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire we unfortunately do not have those vast expanses between places—we have vast mountains instead. That means we have terrible problems with our mobile phone signals. I have a couple of ideas that I would like to put to the Minister in my next intervention, if I may.

Andrew Percy: I think that was an intervention to ask permission for another intervention, which I am sure the Minister will be happy to accept. In our area we have the opposite: most of my constituency is a fair few feet below sea level. We are as flat as a pancake—a bit lumpy in some places, but generally quite flat—yet the signal is ridiculous. The Isle of Axholme is a prime example. It is largely as flat as a pancake, but the signal in places such as Fockerby and Epworth is absolutely terrible.

In the year or so since I last secured a debate on this subject, there has been some progress, which I want to acknowledge. The £5 billion investment deal that the Government signed with the mobile operators has made some improvements. It will guarantee voice and text coverage from each operator across 90% of the geographic area of the UK by 2017, although we still need more action on notspots, of which there are two in my constituency. Full coverage from all four mobile operators should increase from about 69% to 85% by 2017.

There have, therefore, been some improvements, but although 99% of premises can receive a 2G signal, Ofcom has found that the proportion of the entire UK landmass that is able to receive a signal from all four operators has remained at 55% since last year. Nevertheless, I welcome the Government’s announcement in the comprehensive spending review of £550 million to make the 700 MHz spectrum available over the next five years.

The most recent update on coverage was in Ofcom’s “Connected Nations 2015” report, which found that almost 46% of the country now has 4G coverage from

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all major operators. It would be unfair of me to say that some of the improvements have not affected my constituency, because they have, but we still have significant issues with progress on this matter. I welcome some of the other moves. Voice over wi-fi is a really important way of helping people at home, although in many parts of the country the roll-out of superfast broadband has been disappointing. I exempt from that the north Lincolnshire part of my constituency, where the roll-out out has been incredible, but the roll-out in the East Riding of Yorkshire part can best be described as hopeless—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) will agree. It is all right having voice over wi-fi, but people often do not have access to that at home.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): In many respects, would it not almost be better in some areas to have no coverage or complete coverage, rather than good coverage in one area and bad coverage in another? It is creating a social and economic divide that seems to be getting wider rather than narrower. The Prime Minister’s welcome comments about universal broadband really ought to have been about universal minimum standards throughout the whole of the UK and for mobile phones as well.

Andrew Percy: My hon. Friend makes a valid and important point. I completely agree: the arguments that apply to access to superfast broadband also apply to mobile phone coverage. The two are now indistinguishable. People do the same things on their mobile networks as they do over broadband. They use both for the same thing, whether that is work or keeping in contact with friends and family. Of course, many people now do not have a landline; they simply rely on their mobile.

With your permission, Mr Davies, I want to leave a couple of minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness to comment. I have some questions about the electronic communications code, on which the Government consulted earlier in the year. The networks have expressed concerns that the code has not been meaningfully updated since it was introduced in 1984, and the Law Commission called it “complex and confusing”. According to the mobile providers, reforming the code is the single most important step that the Government can take to reduce the costs of network extension and improve mobile coverage. Before this debate, the operators told me that they can build a new site and put in new kit in about three months, but, because of the complexities of the code, it takes a year to 18 months to complete that work.

I hope that there will be a response to the consultation, but I have a couple of questions for the Minister now. On fair site payments, we need to end the practice of landowners being able to demand ransom rents because the lack of alternative sites locally means a lack of competition. That is a particular problem for rural roll-out.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): Is it not correct that rents on rural phone masts are much lower than those on urban phone masts?

Andrew Percy: I suspect that the situation changes from site to site. The problem with many of the rural masts is getting access at particular times of the year, perhaps because the harvest is on. With landowners in

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rural areas, it can be more complicated and difficult to get access. The average punter expects an outage in the network to be fixed within four hours. At the moment, it takes about 48 hours, and sometimes a lot longer, for the companies to negotiate access.

We want the fair site payment, and we want the sharing and upgrading of sites to be reflected in the new code. Under the current code, mobile operators have to renegotiate rental terms when they wish to make a change, such as to deploy new technology or reduce the number of masts. That is patently ridiculous.

We need quicker access to sites. It is nonsense that it takes 48 hours to gain access. There is a problem with the EE signal in Burton-upon-Stather at the moment, and the landowner has held up access for weeks. It is partly due to the harvest, so there may be legitimate reasons, but it is clearly not good enough that the companies are unable to access the sites when there is an outage. In fairness to the operators, it means that they cannot deliver the service they wish to deliver.

We want better dispute resolution in the new code. There is a disconnect between the main networks and the independent mast operators on the issue of whether they should be covered by the code. I do not plan to get involved in that dispute; it is one for the Minister. [Interruption.] He is nodding away—I can see that he already has the solution.

This is an important issue for my constituents. There have been improvements, but we want the roll-out and the improvements that the networks have promised to happen much more quickly. With your permission, Mr Davies, I will hand over to my colleague.

4.11 pm

Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my doughty colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who secured this important debate. He has been relentless, as he often is—not just conversationally, but in championing issues on behalf of his constituents. What may be a fault in one area of life is very much a benefit in another. It is fantastic that he has taken up this issue with such energy.

Over the summer recess, I wrote to the chief executives of all the major mobile operators to press them on what they are doing to ensure that mobile coverage for my constituents improves. The Government’s agreement on the provision of 90% coverage is fantastic, but the feeling is always that if the percentage is less than 100% it is my constituents and those in rural areas who will miss out. In subsequent replies and meetings, I was pleased to hear about the significant progress and the investment that is going in to meet the 2017 target. We want it to go ahead as quickly as possible, as my hon. Friend said, so that people who are trying to live their normal life, call their girlfriend, do a business deal, run a small business or fulfil the normal obligations of life are able to do so as easily in rural areas as elsewhere in the country. At the moment, they cannot, which is what this debate is all about; it has got a very human dimension to it.

My hon. Friend made the key points, but what can be done to ensure we get this done as quickly and cheaply as possible? Every imposition on those companies will

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feed through into our constituents’ bills. We want to deliver a fantastic and effective mobile phone system as cheaply as possible and without imposing unnecessary burdens and regulations on those businesses, which is why the electronic communications code needs to be reformed. The Minister, who was nodding earlier—not because he was being put to sleep by my hon. Friend, but because he agreed with him—must make sure that happens.

I represent a rural constituency, so many of my constituents own land. Like my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), some are farmers who want to ensure that they get a fair return for any disruptions. There are reasons why the Government might create frameworks that impinge on the exploitation of land by its owners for the maximum return—such is the importance of this utility to our constituents. There are also regulatory issues that are driven not by the landowners but by the rules.

Will the Minister comment on raising the permitted development height for mobile phone masts? Having taller masts is a cost-effective way for operators to increase their coverage without installing and maintaining new masts. There might be a visual impact, and my constituents would be sensitive to that. Vodafone told me that, because of our planning restrictions, its 3G masts in the UK are about 10 metres shorter than its masts in the rest of the EU. It is asking for the permitted development height to be increased from 15 metres to 25 metres so it does not have to go through expensive and protracted planning procedures to get what it needs. Increasing the mast height would have the big effect of increasing the coverage area of each mast by 90%, so although the masts would be taller we would have fewer of them. There is a balance to be struck, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts about how best to strike it.

Chris Davies: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Graham Stuart: I had better not.

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): Oh, go on!

Graham Stuart: I am led, as ever, by my hon. Friend the Minister.

Chris Davies: Although I fully agree with my hon. Friend about the size of masts, big is not always beautiful—that is the philosophy of my life, and the Minister’s, too, I am sure. Small cell boxes can be used in small, rural areas. I would like the Minister to pay attention to the fact that, whether someone is installing a large mast or a small cell box, they still face the same planning restrictions. Perhaps that could be looked at.

Graham Stuart: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the code, mobile operators have to pay about £8,366 per year to rent a site, whereas a pylon costs £283. As well as dramatically high rents, additional payments are levied by landowners in return for access to make repairs, whether or not it impinges on them. Disputes over those charges leave some consumers experiencing network outages for an overly long time. I will not labour that point, but I am interested to hear from the Minister how to strike that balance.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole said, mobile telephony is a basic utility. We have had frameworks in the past to ensure we keep the cost of delivering that basic utility as low as possible to encourage operators to deliver the service as widely and effectively as possible. That is true for other utilities, and it should be true for mobile telephony. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who will doubtless give a brilliant response to all those points.

4.17 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I hope that I live up to the billing given to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for securing this important debate, and I welcome the contributions of my many hon. Friends on this important issue. His speech came through loud and clear. It was not dropped at any stage, it was not interrupted and the messaged reached me without any form of interference, electronic or otherwise.

Earlier this morning, I was reflecting with a colleague about the fact that I seem to spend my life bumping into people who tell me about their holiday experience. They appear to get 1,000 gigabits per second on their mobile phone or computer, wherever they go on holiday. My hon. Friend did not disappoint with his Canadian experience. Far be it for me to compare Canada with the UK, but we are comparing a road trip across a vast expanse of land in a country the size of America that has a population of 30 million—it is one of the least densely populated countries in the world—where land costs are low and planning is easy, with an extremely busy motorway junction in the north of England in one of the most successful economies in the world. I would say that one is perhaps comparing apples with oranges. I also sympathise with my hon. Friend’s experience on a train, but I remind him that a train is a Faraday cage and that it is difficult to get a signal. We are working with the train operating companies—which is not unlike herding cats—to get a solution for mobile on trains, because it is an important part of the mix.

I say to my hon. Friend—and, indeed, to all my hon. Friends who appear regularly in broadband debates—that I have been working on the issue for quite a long time, and I intend to work on it for many more years to come, to deliver for them the kind of connectivity that they would expect. In return, I hope that when they rise to their feet in future debates, they acknowledge some of the progress that we have made. In Brigg and Goole, for example, some 25,500 premises that would not have been able to have a broadband connection can now connect to superfast broadband should they so wish, thanks to this Government’s highly successful broadband roll-out scheme.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): Will the Minister give way on constituency progress?

Mr Vaizey: If my hon. Friend has a positive point to make, I will give way.

James Cartlidge: We had three masts in South Suffolk under the mobile infrastructure project and the experience was mixed. I am not directly blaming the Minister, and

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the problem was with local communities in many respects. I am interested in what will be done to encourage investment, given that the publicly subsidised project had mixed results. Does my hon. Friend see changes to the electronic communications code as one way of bringing more investment into rural areas through the private sector?

Mr Vaizey: I will take that as a positive point, because it helps me to make some of the arguments that I want to make. I remind hon. Members that mobile operators are private companies making private investment. Indeed, they contributed some £2 billion to the Treasury’s coffers in the last 4G auction, and we now have the fastest roll-out and take-up of 4G in the world. They are to be applauded for their achievements. It is also true, however, that the Government can help.

A recent report by the International Telecommunication Union saw the UK rise from 10th place in 2010 to fourth place in 2015 in terms of connectivity, much of which was driven by mobile coverage. I should also point out that one thing we never take into account when considering mobile coverage is how cheap mobile contracts are in this country compared with many other places. We also do not take into account that the modern smartphone is actually not that great at receiving telephone calls, due to its short antenna, which contributes to the difficulties that people have with calls.

The key thing that the Government can do is to work with mobile operators to increase coverage. We are here celebrating the first anniversary of a landmark agreement on mobile operators’ licence obligations brokered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), then Culture Secretary, now Business Secretary. One operator has a licence obligation to achieve 98% indoor coverage by the end of 2017, but that is 98% of premises, which does not equate to 98% of the landmass. We therefore changed the licence conditions so that, by the end of 2017, all four operators will achieve 90% coverage of the landmass.

That will make a massive difference to coverage, particularly in constituencies with a rural expanse, where people drive between villages in a relatively rural area, such as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole. This is an important, landmark agreement. About 6% of the East Riding of Yorkshire and 1.2% of Lincolnshire have been affected by notspots. As a result of the agreement, we will eliminate notspots altogether. Just 0.2% of north Lincolnshire and less than 1% of the East Riding of Yorkshire will have partial notspots, which is when just one mobile operator provides coverage. Therefore, 99% of east Yorkshire and almost 100% of north Lincolnshire should have coverage from all four operators. That will make an important difference.

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vaizey: If my hon. Friend has a positive point, I will give way.

Nigel Huddleston: I think this could be positive. I agree with the Minister that massive progress has been made on notspot coverage, but will he confirm how those notspots are being recorded and reported? There

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is some confusion about accuracy. The Government are making progress, but can he confirm how the reporting is done?

Mr Vaizey: We work with Ofcom to record what we regard as a notspot or partial notspot. We have an agreed signal strength with the operators, and we have had a robust debate about whether it should be -83 dBm or -98 dBm, but Ofcom provides the imprimatur, as it were, of what we regard as a notspot or a partial notspot.

That brings me neatly on to the mobile infrastructure project, with which we have had some difficulties. Not enough Ministers acknowledge when projects have problems and difficulties, but I freely acknowledge such difficulties because the MIP was pioneering and we can learn from some of its failures. One thing we discovered when we announced the project was how difficult it is to measure a notspot, because the efficacy of radio waves can differ depending on climatic conditions or how many people happen to be using their mobile phone at the time. It has been a huge learning experience.

The other learning experience has been working with planning authorities. I am pleased to say that we have erected some 15 masts and hope that, by the programme’s end next March, we may have got as far as 75, but I freely acknowledge that we have not got as far as we wanted. I have also been slightly astonished that organisations such as the National Trust have point blank refused to have masts on their land and planning authorities have turned down applications for masts despite local communities wanting them. Some members of local communities have even put concrete blocks in front of the generators provided for mobile masts. We have had some astonishing examples, where one part of the local community has actively tried to stop a mobile mast when the rest of the community wants it. My message to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole is that we can work together with landowners to provide them with better coverage as long as they are prepared to support mobile masts and not see them as cash cow or simply oppose them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness talked about changing the size of masts. I have been passed a note from my officials that says:

“Details on permitted development. However, you cannot announce them.”

So we are negotiating within Whitehall. We know exactly what we want to do, but we have to have Whitehall clearance and we have to pass secondary legislation.

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We want to increase the height of masts, to increase the height at which cells can go and to increase the time in which operators are allowed to take emergency measures to repair masts, because my hon. Friend is quite right to point out that the size and length of masts is important. I have a huge mast on the top of the ridge literally half a mile from my home. It is unsightly and ungainly. Would I prefer it not to be there? Of course I would. Does it provide great mobile coverage around the area? Yes, it does. I think that is a compromise worth making.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole quite rightly focused on the important reform of the electronic communications code. It has been like wading through treacle. It is extremely complicated. It has been in place for over 30 years, regulating the relationship between mobile masts and landowners and that between mobile operators and the wholesale operators, such as Arqiva and Wireless Infrastructure Group, which provide something like a third of masts. We want to revise the code and to change it to support the roll-out of broadband while protecting the rights of landowners. We will be bringing forward proposals next year to achieve those reforms.

I say in every debate, whether it is about mobile or fixed broadband, that we are conducting an engineering project. I sometimes compare it to Crossrail. When I am jammed on the tube with my nose against a stranger’s armpit, I do wish that Crossrail would open earlier so that the tube was emptier, but because I can physically see that tunnel, I know that it will not open until 2018. However, I am looking forward to using the new Tottenham Court Road station on Thursday, on my way to say farewell to Neil MacGregor, the brilliant head of the British Museum, who is retiring. This is an engineering project, and we will complete the roll-out of phases 1 and 2 of broadband over the next two years, achieving 95% superfast broadband coverage for the entire United Kingdom, which is an astonishing achievement.

We will also see the fulfilment of our agreement with the operators for 98% indoor premises coverage and 90% geographic coverage, and we will do that by supporting them with the electronic communications code. I also want to revisit the MIP, because we have made such astonishing progress in the past 12 months that we could have a phase 2 in which we take all the learnings from our mixed initial programme and take them forward to make meaningful progress. The electronic communications code, the licence changes, a potential further MIP and taller masts should all make the difference that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole is looking for.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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Lead Shot Ammunition

4.30 pm

Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered lead shot ammunition.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in my first Westminster Hall debate.

An important petition is posted on the Parliament website and thousands of people from across the country have signed it, including eight in my constituency. The language is fiery and impassioned and the argument is clear: it points to an issue that concerns the House and has done for 100 years. I refer to the petition to keep all lead ammunition. About 20,000 people have signed the call to keep using lead in their guns:

“Lead ammunition has been used for hunting and shooting since the first guns were manufactured over three centuries ago. Never has there been a recorded death through lead ingestion.”

I take the matter seriously. I have constituents who hunt and shoot, as do other Members—in particular those who represent rural areas—and I recognise that sport shooting is a tradition and part of people’s way of life. Done sustainably, it can make a real contribution to the local economy and to the countryside. It is right to consider the future of the sport.

There is also another, quieter petition on the Parliament website in support of banning the use of lead ammunition in favour of non-toxic alternatives. Fewer people have signed it—about 3,000 to date—but that is the petition I commend to the Minister and to the House.

The case for using non-toxic ammunition is clear. Non-toxic alternatives to lead are effective, affordable and safer for wildlife and people. We have known the dangers of lead poisoning for thousands of years. The phrase “crazy as a painter” was coined centuries ago to express the awful effects that lead-packed paint had on people’s minds.

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): I have already given you my apologies, Mr Davies, but I might have to leave early. Does my hon. Friend agree that given that the known negative health effects of lead are well established and that, to minimise risk, lead has been removed from paint and petrol, it seems a tad ironic that lead remains in the shot used for killing birds that might be for human consumption?

Gerald Jones: I wholeheartedly agree. I hope to set out in the course of my contribution why that is such an important point.

Some people have even explained the fall of the Roman empire as having been caused by the Romans’ use of lead in pipes and cosmetics. More recently, the World Health Organisation, the Food Standards Agency and the Oxford Lead Symposium have all highlighted the toxicity of lead. Its negative human health impacts are scientifically established, even at the lowest levels of exposure, and lead poisoning is also a big problem for wildlife.

Much of the lead shot misses its target and builds up on the ground. It is then eaten by birds, which gobble up grit to grind up their food. The lead shot is dissolved in the digestive system and absorbed into the birds’

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bloodstream. Scientists at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 wildfowl die of lead poisoning every year in the UK, along with many more game birds and birds of prey. Members might ask, “Where are all these dead birds?”, but lead is known as the “invisible killer”, because the poisoning is slow and distributed.

Carolyn Harris: I am sure my hon. Friend was as shocked as I was to discover that the existing regulations have a poor rate of compliance. In 2013 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a study that showed that 70% of ducks sampled had been killed with lead shot. The study was repeated in 2014 and showed that compliance had not improved, with an increased number of 77% of ducks sampled being shot illegally with lead.

Gerald Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which illustrates how the existing arrangements are unsatisfactory and in some cases ineffective, which is why they need to be updated.

Birds die gradually from lead poisoning, but die they do. The WWT found that one in four migratory swans seen at post mortem had died of lead poisoning. Other leading conservation organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trusts have also highlighted lead poisoning as a major issue for UK wildlife. Yet we continue to spray about 5,000 tonnes of lead out over the countryside each year.

Why have more people signed the petition to keep lead? I could argue that it is a classic case of small interest groups rallying around to defend their privileges. I could blame the shooters for looking after their own interests to the detriment of wildlife and the general public. People are rarely vocal about long-term environmental consequences, or about widespread public benefits. By contrast, it is easy to portray the proposal to ban lead as an attack on country life, prompting a rush to oppose any change—but this is no attack on the countryside. The irony is that it is surely rural communities who would benefit most from a change in the law to phase out the use of lead ammunition.

Some people will point out that most of the lead that the public consume comes from vegetables. That is true, but people who eat game meat are far more exposed. It is not only the shooters themselves; we must also consider their families and the increasing number of people who eat game. Many game birds sold for human consumption have lead concentrations far exceeding European Union maximum levels for meat from cows, sheep, pigs and poultry. No maximum levels have been set for game.

Simply removing lead shot from the meat does not solve the problem, because particles of lead too small to be seen often break off or dissolve and are left in the meat.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I am struggling to understand why the hon. Gentleman thinks that the existing regulations are not sufficient to deal with the problem. Would he back more detailed environmental studies to work out what the real effect on the community is?

Gerald Jones: During the remainder of my contribution I hope to address the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

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Simply removing lead shot, as I said, does not solve the problem, because traces of lead can be left in the meat. In the UK, as many as 12,500 children under eight eat game once a week in the shooting community alone. In children, less than one meal of wild-shot game a week could result in blood lead levels associated with a decrease in IQ.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): As the hon. Gentleman said, the shooting of birds with lead shot has been going on for many centuries. Where is the public health crisis to which he alludes? It would be news to many colleagues, because we have not had people coming to our surgeries or writing to us with any experience of a problem with eating lead-shot birds, whether personally or in their families.

Gerald Jones: It is not a case of the vast majority of members of the public speaking out on an issue such as this, but the studies are out there. I have outlined some in my contribution and will outline more.

The Food Standards Agency has also highlighted the risks to pregnant women. Of course, no one has died of lead poisoning from eating game, but nor would any serious scientist dispute that lead is a poisonous metal. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set up a new Great British Food unit and game is increasingly being sold as a healthy, local option. What better way to improve that brand than to ensure that the meat we eat is safe and lead-free?

Progressive countryside organisations such as the Sustainable Food Trust are backing the call to phase out lead as part of a modern countryside economy. Non-toxic alternatives are better for the image of the shoot, the economy of the countryside and the health of the shooters themselves.

Mr Charles Walker: In advance of the debate I talked to a number of clay pigeon shooting grounds in and around my constituency, and their problem with steel shot is that it ricochets. If lead shot is banned, all those shooting grounds will be put out of business—not just in and around my constituency, but across all Members’ constituencies. Has the hon. Gentleman thought about how that could be tackled?

Gerald Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but there are alternatives that could be looked at. We are asking for this matter to be properly looked at and investigated, with a timescale to phase out lead.

As I said, there are good alternatives to lead on the market such as tungsten, bismuth and steel, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Many shooters in the UK will say that alternatives to lead are not as effective and argue that wounded birds are a welfare issue. Of course, that takes absolutely no account of the welfare of thousands of birds that suffer from lead poisoning. What is more, such evidence is entirely anecdotal.

Ballistics studies and blind trials have shown that alternatives such as steel are just as effective as lead. In terms of prices, steel is now competitive with lead and although other alternatives such as tungsten are more costly, they still represent a fraction of the overall cost of shooting. Some guns will need retrofitting, which is a

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process that can cost £50, and a few may not be compatible with lead at all, but surely those costs are small compared with the benefits of cleaning up the industry.

In Denmark, a ban on lead shot was introduced 20 years ago and the hunting and shooting sector has not been affected. What should be done here in the UK? The time for voluntary initiatives is surely over. The use of lead shot over and near wetlands is already restricted by law. Shooting groups have repeatedly encouraged members to respect the law, yet 45% of shooters admit that they have not complied with it and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) mentioned, three quarters of ducks sampled in 2013 had been killed with lead shot. What is more, we know that the problem is not restricted to wetlands. Many vulnerable species feed on lead all across the countryside. Quite simply, the law as it stands is insufficient and ineffective, so the Government must take sensible steps.

The UK is party to the convention on the conservation of migratory species, which last year agreed guidelines calling for the replacement of lead with non-toxic alternatives in countries where migratory species are at risk from poisoning. Back in 2010, DEFRA set up the Lead Ammunition Group to identify risks and solutions. Its chair, John Swift, submitted the group’s work and his report to DEFRA on 3 June 2015. Its results were definitive:

“regulations restricting the use of lead shot in wetlands and for shooting wildfowl are apparently not achieving their aim and are insufficient for dealing with the wider risks.”

The science and the politics are clear and the time for reflection is over. Thirty years ago, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution advised the Government that they should legislate to ban any further use of lead shot where it is irretrievably dispersed in the environment.

The question of lead ammunition is not a debate that could or should be decided by petition. It is a question for the House, DEFRA and the Department of Health. Back in 1983, Willie Hamilton MP summed it up in a debate on lead in petrol:

“Whatever the technical arguments may be and however much it is said that lead can be produced in the body by other means, that is no reason for saying that we should leave everything alone and not tackle the problem. We must tackle this problem and it can be solved and eliminated”.—[Official Report, 21 January 1983; Vol. 35, c. 632.]

The same is true today. We can quibble over exact numbers and fuss about the precise costs of steel shot, but the basic message is clear.

We have banned lead from pipes, petrol and paint, but it still ends up on our plates. We have tried to protect wildlife by restricting the use of lead over wetlands, but the rules are too partial and too easily ignored. The Government have evidence from the Lead Ammunition Group and power in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, so I hope that, in the public interest, the Minister will show that the Government have the sense to act on the science and commit to phase out lead shot ammunition.

Several hon. Members rose

Philip Davies (in the Chair): Order. For those who are new to one-hour Westminster Hall debates, it might be helpful to say that the format is that the Scottish National party spokesman and the Labour spokesman get five minutes each and the Minister gets 10 minutes at the

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end. I will therefore be going to the Front Benchers no later than 5.10 pm. Four Members are seeking to catch my eye, which gives them about six minutes each. I will not set a formal time limit, but I hope that people will be mindful of each other’s opportunities and will look to speak for about six minutes each.

4.45 pm

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and also to the fact that I am probably the only Member who has been shot by a lead cartridge? It was about 35 years ago and I still carry 20 lead pellets in my left knee as testimony to that—colleagues will judge whether that has affected my physical state or indeed my mental state.

This is not a new discussion. When I was chairman of the shoot summit nearly 10 years ago we discussed it and came to the view 10:1 that the evidence was lacking—to some extent it is still lacking—that the risk of lead was either significant or unmanageable, or that the alternatives, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), posed less of a risk. That was in the context of both food consumption and environmental concerns. That fell into the hands of the Lead Ammunition Group, which was set up by DEFRA.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): If toxicity is not a problem, why does the Food Standards Agency advise frequent eaters of lead-shot game to reduce their consumption for health reasons?

Simon Hart: I am grateful for that intervention. I have not yet said, and I am not sure that I will say, that there is no toxicity issue at all. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman will hear me and other colleagues out, he may get the answer he requires.

The Lead Ammunition Group was set up to come to a unanimous view on steps forward for the Secretary of State. However, it has failed to do that. Nearly half of its members resigned, which meant that its final report was submitted without input from those valuable sources. The report, which was based on evidence that was and remains disputed, reached conclusions outside the terms of reference set by the Secretary of State in the first place. Therefore, when coming to conclusions about what all of this means, I hope that the Minister will recognise that, for whatever reason, the Lead Ammunition Group has failed in its objectives.

Food concerns were mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). The advice given so far does not need any alteration. That is key, because if we look at it in the context of other food scares and consumption habits, there is no evidence to suggest that the danger posed by lead is any greater than that of any other food substance that we might arguably eat to excess. That is the point: we can point to any number of foodstuffs and say, “If you ate this foodstuff to excess, you might come across a health problem.” The advice given is quite contextualised, which has not been the case in the debate.

The contribution I want to make to the debate is to give a word of caution about the Lead Ammunition Group’s findings. They are not definitive; they are disputed and the evidence it relied on is hotly debated. Finally, if

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the problem was as great as one or two Members suggest, it would have emerged as a health scare long before now. We therefore need to treat what we are hearing with caution, assuming that it is evidence. It is nothing new.

Mr Charles Walker: I am listening closely to my hon. Friend. Will he address my concern that steel shot ricochets, which will cause the closure of many shooting grounds, and that tungsten, bismuth and Hevi-shot cost five to seven times as much as lead? That would be a significant part of most people’s shooting budget.

Simon Hart: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have to consider all these things in the round. It is no doubt very easy to find reasons to argue in favour of a general phase-out of lead, but unless we have applied the same rigorous test to the alternatives—whether it is about the cost, humaneness or toxicity—there is no reason to believe we will go from a bad place to a better one, so I take his points entirely on board.

I hope the Minister will be robust in making a careful examination of this so-called report, because it does not meet the terms of reference that his own Department set.

4.50 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak about this issue, and I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing the debate. Unfortunately, I do not hold the same opinion as him; I want to make that clear at the outset. I want to raise important issues that I feel need to be put on the record.

There are potential risks of lead shot ammunition—I admit that, and the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) referred to them—but it is always possible to manage, control and reduce them to negligible levels through the enforcement of existing regulations and careful monitoring. I have shot wildfowl and wild birds and eaten them regularly since the age of 18—that is not yesterday—and it has not done me any harm that I am aware of. The bird I like most is probably the wood pigeon, and I look forward to wood pigeon meat on any occasion.

Restrictions on the use of lead shot are already in place across the UK, and I will comment on restrictions in the four regions. Some environmental groups are campaigning for further restrictions or a total ban on lead ammunition. They argue that lead shot poses such a serious and unmanageable risk to the environment and human health that new legislation is required. Scaremongering about lead has become a useful way to attack game and sport shooting for people who are fundamentally opposed to shooting in general. With great respect to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, some people are simply using this issue to attack shooting, so we need rationalism in the debate.

Shooting is hugely important to the rural economy and of great benefit in terms of wildlife management and conservation. Unscientific restrictions could have serious implications for the gun trade, the rural economy and the natural environment. Without lead, many shooting activities could be substantially curtailed. The vast majority of the evidence presented to decision makers in support of further restrictions on lead ammunition has failed to pass rigorous academic scrutiny. The Countryside Alliance

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believes that those attempts are unjust and unfair, and highlight the way in which science can be used and manipulated to suit a political agenda. I declare an interest: I have been a member of the Countryside Alliance for a great many years.

In truth, the true impact of lead ammunition has yet to be scientifically proven, and any current findings are not as significant as some opponents claim. I accept that lead is toxic, and we should take all opportunities to continue monitoring its potential impacts on the environment and human health. If it is proven that lead ammunition poses a significant and unmanageable risk, we should consider mitigation measures, further regulations and phase-outs in that order before any ban is taken forward. At present, however, there is insufficient evidence to justify changes to the existing regulations, and any attempts to do so are in no way based upon science or evidence we have at this time.

The majority of the evidence used to justify increased restrictions or a complete ban on lead shot ammunition is outdated and heavily reliant on research undertaken in other countries. No studies have been carried out in the UK on blood lead levels and the impact of lead shot ammunition, so that is something the Department might wish to do before proposing any legislation on this issue.

In England, there are already some controls. The use of lead shot has been prohibited for all wildfowl, with further restrictions below the high water mark of ordinary spring tides and over sites of special scientific interest. In Scotland, there are similar controls on the use of lead in wetland for shooting activity, with wetlands being based on the Ramsar definition. In Wales, there are some restrictions on the use of lead shot for wildfowl, with further restrictions below the high water mark of ordinary spring tides and specific SSSIs. The constituency that I represent—Strangford—is renowned for its wildfowl shooting across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, we have the same prohibition of the use of lead shot in any area of wetland for any shooting activity. For the purpose of the regulations, wetlands are based on the Ramsar definition, as in Scotland.

It is clear we already have appropriate legislation to mitigate the negative impacts of lead shot use, so why are we seeking to add more laws and red tape? We cannot ignore the value of shooting activities. Some 600,000 people in the UK shoot live quarry, clay pigeons or targets every year, and shooting is worth £2 billion to the UK economy. Conservation goes hand in hand with shooting, and those who shoot spend some 3.9 million work days on conservation—the equivalent of 16,000 full-time jobs.

The impact of a ban would be enormous for shooting, conservation, the rural economy and the natural environment. A ban on lead shot ammunition would have a seriously negative impact on the shooting industry, because most of the guns made by historic British gun makers, and many guns made abroad, are unsuitable for use with economically comparable alternatives to lead.

Denmark led the way in banning toxic materials a way back. It also banned steel shot in forest areas and tungsten in 2014 because of the carcinogenic properties of some of the binding properties used. Norway banned

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lead ammunition in 2005 but changed its mind after nine years and repealed the ban, because it felt a ban was wrong. We must look at what is happening elsewhere.

Lead shot is preferred as ammunition because of its excellent ballistic performance. It would be unwise to pursue a lead shot ban at this time. The evidence is not conclusive, and the scientific information is not there. There is some dispute among shooting organisations and those who are involved in this field. We need this, as shooters. Securing a humane and clean kill is surely the aim of every shooter of live quarry. I am totally against a lead shot ammunition ban.

4.56 pm

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I begin by reminding Members that I am the chairman of the all-party group on shooting and conservation, which enjoys wide membership from both sides of the House. Secondly, I draw attention to my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I participate in shooting sports.

Shooting and conservation are highly important to the UK economy, contributing £2 billion to GDP and supporting the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs. Members of the shooting community spend £250 million a year on conservation. Most importantly, they actively manage 2 million hectares for conservation as a result of shooting.

Lead shot ammunition has long been used due to its superior ballistic qualities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, and I am disappointed by calls to ban it. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s calls for such a ban seem to derive from the Oxford Lead Symposium’s report and the Lead Ammunition Group’s submission to DEFRA, which I understand is still being considered by the Government. I will not say too much about that group—the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) already referred to it—but it had two arguments against lead shot ammunition: in game meat, it damages human health, and it poisons birds exposed to it in the environment. I would like to deal briefly with both arguments.

With regard to the assertion that lead shot damages human health, there has been significant scaremongering without a full review of the facts. Lead is found in all food types at a variety of levels. The threat from game meat specifically is extremely small. The European Food Safety Authority has stated that lead from game meat represents 0.1% of average total dietary lead exposure—significantly less than other groups such as beer and substitutes, which expose the average European consumer to 62% more lead than game meat. When game meat is consumed in high quantities, the threat of lead poisoning naturally increases. However, only 0.1% of the British adult population consumes game meat at higher levels than the Food Standards Agency’s guidance. The FSA’s guidance on lead is the same as for other food groups such as oily fish and tuna. Indeed, further evidence shows that removing damaged tissue from lead shot game meat can reduce its overall lead content by 95%. That is the current advice in Sweden.

The group’s second argument is that lead shot ammunition damages the environment. There are claims that between 50,000 and 100,000 birds die of lead poisoning each year, although there is no evidence of any population-level impact on species. It is accepted,

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however, that lead has potential environmental risks—for example, due to the way certain water birds feed, some species are susceptible to ingesting lead if it is left within their feeding area. However, there are international agreements and UK legislation to protect areas where those migratory and water birds exist. I agree with the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney that our compliance levels with that legislation are not good enough and that we should all condemn those who shoot duck with lead shot in prohibited areas.

The report used by campaigners against lead shot ammunition—the one that comes up with the 50,000 to 100,000 figure for birds—was produced by the Oxford Lead Symposium. However, it uses data from research that was carried out between 1960 and 1983, before the current restrictions on lead shot were introduced, so it is clearly not a rigorous piece of academic work.

In conclusion, I see no reason to support a ban on lead shot ammunition. There is no clear alternative, as those that do exist are either more dangerous to human and environmental health or significantly more expensive. The claims that lead shot is damaging to human and environmental health are exaggerated and based on inaccurate data, and do not take into account the restrictions that already exist on shooting with lead shot in protected areas.

Finally, the impact would be significant on the current contribution that the shooting community makes to the UK economy and conservation management, which I outlined at the beginning of my speech and which is very significant in rural areas. I hope that Members across the House realise that a move to ban lead shot would be counter-productive and would not produce the significant human or environmental health benefits that the hon. Gentleman claims.

5.1 pm

Rishi Sunak (Richmond (Yorks)) (Con): When most people think about shooting, the picture that they have in their heads is often all too clear: they imagine old-fashioned men in old-fashioned outfits, with old-fashioned accents. However, I stand in this Chamber today as the representative of a rural community for whom shooting is not a quirk of history, or something from another century; for my constituents, it is an industry that creates real businesses, real jobs, and real investment in our landscape. It is an integral part of our community.

Today, we are here specifically to consider lead shot ammunition. I would like to make three simple observations. First, to echo the comments of previous speakers, there is limited evidence of the need for further environment regulation of lead shot. Secondly, as it relates to humans, game meat is a tiny source of our exposure to lead. Lastly, in considering regulations on this industry, we should appreciate the vital contribution that shooting makes both to our economy and our countryside.

Nobody denies that there are environmental risks associated with lead ammunition.

That is why there are already restrictions on the use of lead shot in all parts of the UK, to address international obligations and proven environmental concerns. Many of the figures that we heard earlier relate to the supposed risks to water bird species, but those data were collected before the legislation was passed in 1999. That legislation made it an offence in England to shoot lead shot over wetlands or for the purpose of hunting wildfowl. Not only

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that, but almost all wildfowl species are migratory, so it is very hard for the studies to know exactly where the lead collected has been picked up.

Internationally, it is worth noting that earlier this year, Norway’s Parliament overwhelmingly repealed a ban on lead shot. Meanwhile, after considering the matter, Austria has stated that it will no longer be pursuing a ban on lead ammunition. My firm belief is that we need to collect evidence on the regulatory action that we have taken before we rush into yet more legislation.

I turn to the human exposure to lead. It is clear that game meat is a tiny source of our lead consumption. Lead is no doubt a toxic element, but, as we have heard, it can be found in all types of food at a variety of levels. The comprehensive study conducted by the European Food Standards Agency concluded that lead from game represents just 0.1% of the average dietary exposure to lead. In fact, as we have heard, the average consumer is exposed to 60% more lead from their consumption of beer. It may interest colleagues to learn that products contributing more lead to our diets than game meat include potatoes, coffee, and even everyday eggs. Simply put, all studies carried out to date show that eating game meat in moderate quantities has no effect on blood lead levels.

Lastly, shooting is vital to the economic and environmental well-being of our countryside. Shooting and conservation go hand in hand. We are often told about the importance of rainforests—well, heather moorland is even rarer than rainforest and, as a result of conserving and nurturing that moorland for grouse shooting, 75% of the world’s heather moorland is found right here in the UK. On walks around my north Yorkshire constituency, I have witnessed at first hand the unique biodiversity that the moorlands hold. From seeing beautiful curlews to scampering voles, I am sure you would agree, Mr Davies, that our moorlands are not only a Yorkshire treasure, but a national treasure. No less than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has said that “management for grouse shooting” has

“created and shaped the moors as we know them today.”

As well as helping to preserve our nation’s landscape, shooting is also a key driver of our rural economy. As we have heard, it supports hundreds of thousands of jobs and contributes over £2 billion annually to the economy. In my area, however, it is still more relevant. Everyone knows the difficult time that farmers are going through at the moment. Prices are low, so when we talk about the economic benefits of shooting, it is important to consider who we are talking about. In my constituency, it is very often the farmers’ families who go beating at weekends to top up their incomes so that they can make ends meet during what is a very difficult time. For them right now, the shooting industry is an economic lifeline.

No one in this country is more passionate about preserving rural Britain than the people who live there. It is rural communities who, day in, day out, balance the welfare of our animals, the beauty of our landscape and the security of our food supply. It is clear to me that any changes to the use of lead shot ammunition would damage that balance.

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5.6 pm

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to be acting as picker-up for this debate.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) certainly has not just walked up to the issue; he has done a lot of research. In his speech, he made the case that we should see more non-toxic ammo and said that there are indeed traces of lead in food. He talked about the risks to pregnant women, saying that alternatives are available. In his view, time is up for lead shot and he put the ball firmly in DEFRA and the Department of Health’s court.

The hon. Gentleman also flushed out a number of interventions, which went side by side, in terms of for and against. We heard that lead is banned in petrol, so why should it not also be removed from shot? However, we also heard that more detailed environmental studies are required and about the rebound problems from using alternatives such as steel shot. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) talked about the danger from lead and meat being no greater than any other foodstuff eaten to excess. He said that this would have emerged as a food crisis, had there been any serious issue. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about this being scaremongering from those opposed to shooting in general and he discussed the implications for the rural environment. If it was proved that there was a problem, he believed that there should first be mitigation and then some further regulation, and that it should then be phased out.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the different regulations in the nations of the UK. This issue is of course devolved, and the regulations are separate in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In Scotland, the Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) (Scotland) (No.2) Regulations 2004—that is quite a handful to say—prohibit the use of lead shot in wetlands. The regulations are taken very seriously and seek to meet the highest standards to protect wildlife. However, it is fair to say that the Scottish Government will consider all the evidence and the conclusions of DEFRA’s Lead Ammunition Group on that matter. What is undisputed is that, as we have heard from around the Chamber today, lead is clearly a poison and more research must be carried out to get to a definitive position on the health risks.

The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) talked about the importance to the economy, and he was backed up by the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), who talked about the fact that this industry is worth £2 billion to the UK. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds said that lead shot research had been exaggerated by the Oxford Lead Symposium. It is important to reflect on the fact that, according to the Oxford University research in 2015, around 100,000 birds are killed by lead poisoning and discarded lead ammunition. According to the report, consuming game human with traces of lead ammunition affects human health too. Lord Krebs, emeritus professor of zoology of the University of Oxford and a former chair of the UK Food Standards Agency, said there was an overwhelming body of evidence that lead in hunting is a risk to both humans and wildlife.

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Finally, the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) mentioned the effect of wildfowl migrating, which would cause difficulty with research. He said that the average person consumes up to 60% more lead from drinking beer and that eating game has no more effect than any other foodstuff. We have had an interesting debate on some of the challenges facing the Minister in taking this forward. We have to ensure that we have detailed research on the effects. I hope he will work closely with DEFRA to make sure that that research satisfies those who are for and those who are against the position on lead shot.

5.10 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing the debate on this important matter. It not only relates to the health of wildlife and the environment, but has ongoing ramifications for humans if it is not dealt with. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—it is one of my favourite parts of my homeland and I very much enjoy spending time there—for his comprehensive summary of the debate so far.

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was, of course, right to mention our long-standing recognition of lead’s toxicity and to highlight the plethora of bodies that have issued warnings on this matter. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s assessment of that advice in due course. Unlike other trace metals, lead plays no physiological function in the human body. Instead, it acts as a neurotoxin. Even at low levels of exposure, the damage that lead triggers can be significant: impairmentof the developing brain and nervous system, increased incidence of hypertension and stroke, and weakening of the immune system. Worryingly, some of these impacts appear to be irreversible.

We have heard some emotive points this afternoon from all parts of the House. Indeed, I was fascinated to hear my hon. Friend give the etymology of “crazy as a painter”—the origin was lost on me before now—and anecdotal explanations for the fall of the Roman empire. The risks from lead poisoning must be taken seriously and the importance of a strong evidence base in assessing them cannot be overstated. The evidence is clear that there is no safe level of exposure, which is why the World Health Organisation has been clear that all forms of lead are toxic, and food safety agencies across Europe have highlighted the risk to health of eating game shot with lead ammunition.

Under food regulations, there are limits on the amount of lead in lamb, pork, beef and other products, but they do not apply to game. Is it not time to bring it into line? Lead is without doubt one of the best studied contaminants in the world and there is overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating its toxicity to multiple physiological systems in humans and other vertebrate animals.

Mr Charles Walker: The hon. Gentleman said that there is no safe level of tolerance for lead, but we have heard this afternoon that lead is present in many foods that we all consume, and in alcohol and beer, so clearly there must be some level of tolerance or we would all be dropping down in the streets.

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Alex Cunningham: Just because there is a level of tolerance does not mean that it is not dangerous. Somebody may smoke over a lifetime and then suffer deterioration or a specific condition, and that can apply in this case too.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified inorganic lead as being “probably carcinogenic to humans”, while no safe blood lead level in children has been identified below which negative health effects cannot be detected. In March 2013, a group of 31 eminent scientists signed a consensus statement on the health risks from lead-based ammunition in the environment. Based on “overwhelming evidence” and “convincing data”, and alongside the availability and suitability of non-lead alternatives, they recommended the eventual elimination of lead-based ammunition and its replacement with non-toxic alternatives.

Just last month, the Oxford Lead Symposium published research further confirming what we already broadly knew about lead and the risks to humans, wildlife and the natural environment. The Lead Ammunition Group, which the Government set up, submitted its draft report this summer and I would welcome confirmation from the Minister of the date this evidence was received along with a timeframe for the release of its findings and recommendations.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Can the hon. Gentleman point to any evidence of any premature deaths caused by lead poisoning? Indeed, on the contrary; I have known many people who have eaten game regularly and lived to a ripe old age.

Alex Cunningham: The hon. Gentleman makes a great point: I cannot provide that particular piece of evidence, but what I am told by health organisations and others is that ingestion of lead over a period can be quite dangerous. As others have said, as a responsible society that recognises the inherent dangers, we have already taken action and regulated to cut lead from petrol, paint and water pipes, so most exposure to lead in the general population now comes from diet. However, despite the evidence and our previous moves to regulate other sources of exposure, we have not yet completely banned the use of lead by shooters. Instead, we have stopped short, although in response to the UK’s obligations under the African-Eurasian migratory waterbird agreement to phase out the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands, it has been illegal to hunt certain wildfowl over certain wetlands since 1999. The long and short of such patchy regulation is that lead continues to find its way into the food chain and on to our dinner plates. Compliance with regulations is sporadic at best, and most consumers are simply unaware of the contamination risk to themselves and wildlife.

My hon. Friends have alluded to studies showing that 76% of game bought from supermarkets, game dealers or game shoots have lead shot fragments present. Indeed, a DEFRA-commissioned study found that 70% of ducks sampled were illegally shot with lead. If that were not enough, almost half of respondents to a British Association for Shooting and Conservation survey admitted that they did not always comply with the law. To top it off, a repeat study in 2013-14 showed that compliance had not improved, revealing that 77% of sampled ducks had been shot illegally with lead. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, there have been noprimary prosecutions

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and only one

secondary prosecution for non-compliance with the regulations. That is a law that is not working in this land, so we need a change.

Simon Hart: The hon. Gentleman is quoting evidence, but the crucial point is that if he wishes the Government to introduce new restrictions, he must surely come up with evidence indicating that people who consume game in this country have contracted some illness or died prematurely as a result—not in another country; we are talking about UK consumption habits. Unless he can come up with that evidence, he is doing nothing more than making mischief.

Alex Cunningham: I am certainly not mischief making. I support the countryside and everything else. As I said to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), I cannot point to anyone who has died as a direct result of lead consumption; the point is that various organisations are saying that lead is a danger in diet. We need debates such as this. It might be that we just say, “Okay, we need to further explore the issues,” but it appears from the organisations that I have been speaking to that we need to act now.

I encourage the Minister to outline his assessment of the compliance problem over wetlands. Given the demonstrable disregard for current restrictions, I would welcome his acknowledgement that a complete phase-out is a proportionate means to secure legal compliance. Why have the ban if we are not going to do anything about it, and if there were no danger to wildlife and, ultimately, people?

I draw attention to resolution 11.15 of the convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals, which was adopted last year and calls for lead ammunition to be phased out by 2017 in countries where there is significant risk of poisoning to migratory birds. Let us not forget that, on top of that, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded a little over 30 years ago that

“theGovernment should legislate to ban any further use of lead shot and fishing weights in circumstances where they are irretrievably dispersed in the environment”.

We have already heard this afternoon that lead-based ammunition continues to be one of the greatest sources of lead in our environment. As much as 6,000 tonnes of shot is discharged every year and at least 2,000 tonnes of shot used for game and pest shooting is irretrievable. I would therefore be pleased to hear whether the Minister agrees with me that, in the light of the evidence on the numbers of wildfowl killed each year, there is a significant risk of poisoning to migratory birds from lead ammunition in the UK. While other nations, including Denmark and the Netherlands, are actively dealing with the matter, the UK seems content to look backwards and turn a blind eye to those who flout the current regulations.

To avoid the real risks that exist, we need positive actions to close the existing regulatory gaps, rather than passivity. It is high time that we stopped ducking the problem and took a common-sense approach to regulating lead ammunition. With softer restrictions on the use of lead ammunition having been widely flouted, the time has come to embrace the growing body of evidence and for all lead shot and bullets to be replaced with non-toxic alternatives. Like so many other hon. Members taking part in the debate—

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Philip Davies (in the Chair): Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that the time has also come for him to conclude his remarks?

Alex Cunningham: I am on my last paragraph, Mr Davies. Like so many other hon. Members taking part in the debate, I urge the Minister to join me in supporting the call for the UK to meet our international commitments and phase out lead ammunition by 2017.

5.20 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing the debate. He showed the passion that he feels on this issue in his opening remarks. As we all know, lead is a noxious substance with potentially fatal impacts. This is therefore an issue that it is right for the House to address.

I pass on the apologies of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who has responsibility for this issue. Hon. Members will have noticed that he has been otherwise engaged in Cumbria in the past couple of days in his role as floods Minister. I am therefore responding to the debate on his behalf.

Government practice is to obtain and use the best possible evidence when taking decisions. That is why, almost six years ago, our predecessors chose to set up the Lead Ammunition Group, commonly known as the LAG—and I think one thing we can all agree on is that there was a time lag in that group’s concluding its work. The LAG began work in 2010. Although a creation of Government, it was deliberately set up as an entirely independent group, formed of experts who would approach the evidence from their various perspectives and provide clear advice on whether and what risks might be posed by lead ammunition and how they could be managed. The potential risks that it was asked to assess related both to wildlife, which is a DEFRA responsibility, and to human health, which is the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency. I hope that hon. Members will find it helpful if I set out the subsequent history.

First, the LAG was established in 2010 for an initial 12-month period, after which progress was to be reviewed. However, its final report was not presented to Ministers until June this year. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), asked when it was presented. That was on 3 June. Secondly, by the time the LAG reported, only five of its 10 members remained in place. The remainder had resigned, with four of those submitting a different set of recommendations.

We are therefore in a position in which we have no expert consensus about the impact of lead ammunition on wildlife or on human health. Nevertheless, we must start from where we are, so it is important that we look at the report that the LAG produced and the material that it contains. Even if that report has the support of only half its members, it is nevertheless a substantial document that represents several years’ worth of work. We must therefore consider it carefully, which is exactly what the Under-Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have been doing since DEFRA received the report in June.

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Subsequently, as a number of hon. Members pointed out, there has been the minority report from those who resigned and the report arising from the Oxford Lead Symposium, which was organised by opponents of lead ammunition. I realise that hon. Members and others outside the House are anxious to have our response to the LAG report, but it is important that we take the time to get this right and weigh up all the other comments, views and evidence that have been submitted to us. The time that it has taken to review that evidence reflects the fact that it is a serious debate and that my ministerial colleagues are looking at the issue closely.

Let me remind the House of the action that Government have already taken. Lead shot has been prohibited for wildfowling since 1999 by the Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) (England) Regulations 1999. Those regulations introduced a double restriction. First, lead shot cannot be used, on any game, in certain areas—namely, over the foreshore or over a list of named sites of special scientific interest. Secondly, lead shot cannot be used anywhere for shooting certain species—namely, ducks, geese, coot and moorhen. In passing, I will mention that the general supply of lead weights for angling was ended in 1986.

The 1999 restrictions reflected the resolution made that year through the African-Eurasian waterbird agreement, to which the UK is a party. It was agreed that members would work to phase out the use of lead ammunition over wetlands, reflecting the clear evidence that waterbirds can and do scoop up spent lead when feeding and suffer health consequences from doing so. We delivered on the resolution through our regulations of the same year.

There is of course nothing to stop those who shoot from choosing, of their own volition, to use alternative forms of ammunition. Although no other material has exactly the same combination of malleability and density as lead, a number of alternatives have been available, and used in the field, for some time. Those include steel and tungsten for shotgun cartridges and, for bullets for rifles, copper and copper alloys. Use of an alternative is compulsory for wildfowling, but the alternatives can also be used more widely. I understand that some shooters have made the switch, although others have not.

Alex Cunningham: I am intervening simply on the point about lack of compliance in relation to shooting wildfowl over wetlands and the use of lead shot in the killing of ducks. Will the Minister respond on the huge level of non-compliance?

George Eustice: I was going to come on to that. The hon. Gentleman highlighted a DEFRA study that did show—he is correct—that the level of non-compliance was up to 70% in certain areas. I will simply say this: it is the law. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) pointed out, we can all condemn those who are using lead shot where they should not be, against the law, and it is a matter for the police to enforce those existing regulations. Where the law is being broken, it must be enforced, and we are keen to work with stakeholders and others to ensure that we raise awareness of the 1999 regulations—the regulations that already exist. The key point made by a number of hon. Members was that the starting point should be to enforce the regulations that we have, rather than jumping to introduce new regulations.