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I strongly supported the RBCT in my constituency, which involved a proactive cull on the Penrith moors, and faced down the very strong campaign against the line I was taking just over a decade ago in support of the trials because I believe in sound science being the basis by which we take forward policy to bear down on TB. In a climate where the science might encourage legislators to prevaricate, to recognise dilemmas and perhaps to see only the need for further research and not to take action, the Government should ensure that they do not make the situation worse. We say that policy making must be evidence based, but as the Government former chief scientist, Lord Robert May, said in The Observer just a couple of weeks ago, the Government risk transmuting evidence-based policy into policy-based evidence.
There are a number of knowns in the science, one of which I put to the Secretary of State at DEFRA questions today—that some of the figures from the RBCT have been exaggerated or cherry picked to justify the policy. For example, there is the argument that TB in culling areas was reduced by 30%. The research itself showed a reduction of somewhere between 12% and 16% in the net impact. Overall, this resulted in reducing only the increase in TB infection.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that two of the other knowns are the recent breakthrough in the DIVA test, which could lead to it being put forward for licensing, and a 60% efficacious BCG vaccine for cattle, which could also lead to licensing, although it would require the Government to negotiate with the European Union for field trials within the UK?
Andrew George: There are certainly significant gathered knowns now that were not available 10 or 15 years ago. To go forward, we need to build a policy on a sound foundation—not simply on selective evidence.
In his summing up, I hope that the Minister will deal with the evidence in support of the Government’s policy. Will he recognise that the 12% to 16% reduction in incidence of infection for herds within culled areas in the randomised badger culling trial is not an absolute reduction, but a net reduction, which means only that the incidence is increasing at a lower level than it would have been without the cull. It would be helpful and reassuring if the Government were to acknowledge that.
Let us use the opportunity provided by the pause to go back and speak to the many scientists who are still saying that the Government have got this one wrong. Instead of having a war of words through the media, let us make sure that those scientists—the majority behind the ISG—are brought in. I believe that they should be involved.
Finally, I hope that the Government will accept that we should go to Europe, as was implied by the hon. Member for North East Somerset and, indeed, by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) in his intervention. These matters are not, after all, pre-ordained by God; these are decisions taken by human beings in Europe. We need to take a strong case to Europe in order to sort out the regulations and advance the testing of the vaccine and the DIVA test. That should allow us to come to a solution that is generally workable and does not make the situation worse.
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Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I rise to oppose the motion. Farming is an industry vital to the economy of Cheshire. It is an industry that has had difficult times over recent years. In 2001, it was ravaged by foot and mouth disease. More recently, we have seen dairy farmers struggling to sell milk at a price that covers the cost of production, let alone one that provides them with a modest profit.
A few short years ago, farmers told me of their concerns about bovine TB travelling towards Cheshire. Now, it is very much there, and it is causing massive problems across Cheshire East, impacting on dairy and beef farmers and infecting our wildlife. Let me quote some statistics. The National Farmers Union says that in 2006 there were 108 TB reactors slaughtered in Cheshire; in 2011, there were 641. Just last week, on 19 October, the whole of Cheshire was classified as an annual testing region, reflecting the increased incidence of the disease. All cattle must also be pre-movement tested.
“That Cheshire East endorses measures to halt the current high incidence of Bovine TB with the ultimate aim of both healthy wildlife and cattle population, never mind vital protection of the economic, social, wealth, health and wellbeing of our rural community. In so doing Cheshire East supports early liaison with both EU and DEFRA to ensure infected areas within the Borough are tackled speedily.”
“We cannot sit back and do nothing. This insidious disease is causing massive problems for the farming community.”
“All options need to be reviewed.”
“the cull should be allowed…in order for it to provide…evidence of its effectiveness”.
“It is a public health issue…Cheshire is on the edge of the disease spread as it progresses northwards and whilst any cull may assist with problems in the southwest, we need to take action here in Cheshire to halt the relentless movement further north.”
“Culling diseased badgers is the only option.”
“If we dither, our livestock industry will disappear…Society has to accept that the only predator to badgers is man and disease and since government protected the species, disease is now doing its best to control its population and polluting the countryside in the process.”
“TB is spreading across the county… wildlife infection has been cited…as contributing to the spread of the disease in…Nantwich and Macclesfield…which is illustrated by infection being detected
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in herds where no cattle have been brought in…Cheshire and Greater Manchester are key to stopping the spread of TB as they are in the periphery of the area of infection…The Science is clear that a well-managed cull will reduce the levels of Bovine TB.”
“levels of the disease in the county grow and Cheshire will end up in the same situation”
“no country in the world has ever successfully controlled TB in cattle without culling infected wildlife.”
He says that the suffering caused to badgers by TB will be prevented by culling, and that the public need to know that compensation for the animals that are slaughtered is far less than the replacement cost and the full losses of farmers.
“However unpalatable it may be, there really seems no other option to culling.”
“from a wildlife point of view”
“Badger numbers have increased dramatically in recent years, often at the expense of…hedgehogs and bumble bees.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) shares my concern for the welfare of farmers in our area, and my concern about the distress that the disease is causing to our farming community. I could give many other examples, but shortage of time prohibits me from doing so.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): We have heard a range of passionate and fairly well-informed contributions to this debate on a very difficult subject. I was pleased to hear from the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), and I look forward to the Committee’s report.
Today’s debate certainly forced all of us to view the issue at a much deeper level. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) spoke of the weaknesses in on-farm biosecurity. We heard passionate speeches from the hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for Central Devon (Mel Stride), the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) and the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). They all spoke about the devastating impact of the disease on farmers.
We heard alternative views from my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who spoke of the risk that bovine TB would spread in the short term as a result of
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a badger cull. The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) criticised the design of the Government’s cull. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made a thoughtful speech from an international perspective, drawing attention to the costs of the cull. The hon. Members for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Southend West (Mr Amess) suggested other options, as did the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who gently punctured some of the Secretary of State’s claims to expertise in this matter.
We were privileged to hear from former Agriculture Ministers, including the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice). My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who is in his place, also struggled with these issues when he was in government, and my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) described what happened under the Labour Government. It is important to put on the record that so far only a Labour Government have actually carried out a badger cull and tested the science in the field. I strongly predict that we will remain the only Government to carry out a badger cull in the field. I will explain why I make that prediction shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) coined a new word: the ineptocracy, which will be on the record in Hansard. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) described the heartache of farmers, and the hon. Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) talked about the effect of perturbation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate and on making sure such a wide range of perspectives was expressed. The existence of this motion and debate—and vote—have certainly contributed to the Government’s decision to drop the badger cull. The Opposition have warned the Government for two years that the cull would be bad for farmers, taxpayers and wildlife. It would be bad for farmers who have to deal with this terrible disease. I also know the toll the disease takes on farmers and their families, both personally and financially, but the Government’s own cost-benefit assessment said the cull would cost farmers more than it would save them.
We saw in the last six weeks that farmers were moving away from the free shooting of badgers and moving towards the cage trapping of badgers, yet the Government’s statistics show free shooting is 10 times cheaper than cage trapping. Will the Minister tell us the true costs of this to the farmers? I would also like to hear from the Minister about the size of bond that the two farm companies had lodged with Natural England. So far we have heard no mention from Ministers about how much farmers are required to pay up front to cover the full four-year costs of this cull. If there is a move to cage trapping and shooting, what training has been given to those responsible for carrying that out, because that is a different skill from free shooting? We know that the people involved in free shooting had to go on a badger anatomy course so as to get a clean kill when shooting badgers. Pistols are used for cage trapping and shooting,
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so that is a totally different technique. Will the Minister tell us whether that training has been given, because it certainly seems from the evidence on the ground that that was what was planned?
There has been a lot of talk in this debate about the science, and we heard a good exposition from the hon. Member for St Ives. It is important that we go back to John Krebs. I do not advocate that we go back to 1997 as the Secretary of State does. I am disappointed that he is not in his place, and I am disappointed about his earlier remark in the House that he “couldn’t take any more.” He has only been in the job six weeks. I have been studying the issue of the badger cull for 18 months—as have other hon. Members, along with farmers out there in the community who are living with this problem—and I think the Secretary of State will have to show a little more backbone.
Professor Lord John Krebs instigated the randomised badger culling trial, and took part in the review of the evidence with Sir Bob Watson last year. Lord Krebs stressed the fact that culling badgers makes TB worse at the beginning by spreading the disease. He stated clearly in the Lords on Tuesday that the badger cull would reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by 16% after nine years, leaving 84% of the problem still there. He said that
“this is not a reduction in absolute terms but actually a 16% reduction from the trend increase.”
In other words, as the background trend is going up, BTB still increases but not by as much as it would have done had the cull not been conducted. This cull is not the silver bullet the Secretary of State makes it out to be. The eminent zoologist Lord John Krebs continues:
“The number is not the 30% that the NFU quoted; that is misleading—a dishonest filleting of the data.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 October 2012; Vol. 740, c. 148.]
Disappointingly, it appears, judging by his response to the debate in this morning’s DEFRA questions, that the Secretary of State has not read the Hansard record of that Lords debate, where the scientists were sitting there. He persisted in misusing a snapshot figure—the 28%—instead of using the one figure that the scientists are agreed on, which is the 16% figure. The Minister is looking puzzled. I hope that he is still not confused, because he is going to get a lambasting from the scientists. The Government are cherry-picking the data. Perturbation increases bovine TB, in the perimeter areas, by 29%, but I have chosen not to use that figure in any of the rhetoric or debate on this matter because it represents a snapshot; those perturbation increases happen in the early stages and are not borne out by the reduction that occurs afterwards.
Well, that is a relief. I do not know why the Minister has not told the Secretary of State that, because he is reported in Hansard as saying that she is a he. [Interruption.] He appears not to have read his own Hansard record or corrected it. He obviously has not spoken to the scientists, who faced down the animal rights activists during Labour’s badger cull in order to
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carry out the Labour Government’s research into culling badgers. We are not talking about some animal rights activists; these are scientists in the field wanting to get the right outcome for farmers and for the nation.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State’s comparing the research on a vaccine to Sisyphus, who, as you doubtless know, Mr Speaker, rolled a rock up a hill only to watch it roll down again for all eternity, demonstrates not only a complete lack of understanding of the scientific method, but contempt for scientific research? We can have no confidence in the promotion of a vaccine under the Secretary of State’s leadership.
Mary Creagh: The Secretary of State got his Sisyphus mixed up with his Tantalus. I think he will find that he has undertaken the labours of Hercules in DEFRA—I will not go any further on that, but the Augean stables spring to mind. I agree with what my hon. Friend said, because I am concerned that the scientists are being ripped to pieces on this, and the situation is difficult. She rightly says that there is a scientific method: the scientists are paid to come up with solutions, and then we try to roll them out and test them in field conditions. That is what needs to be done.
I have asked a lot of parliamentary questions. The Secretary of State asked 600, but perhaps some of his data are less than fresh. My data are pretty fresh. Last year, I asked the Government how many cattle herds breakdowns would be prevented over nine years if the cull went ahead. The answer came back that using a 150 km area, 47 cattle breakdowns would be prevented over nine years. So if we double the cull area and if it was to go ahead in a 300 sq km area, 94 herd breakdowns would be prevented. That, again, is not a fantastic result for the huge investment involved in this cull.
There has been huge concern from the scientists about the lack of Government rigour in the design, implementation, monitoring and efficacy of these culls. We know that there would be no post-mortem testing of whether the badgers had bovine TB, but there would be post-mortem testing to see whether they had been shot cleanly. So those who are interested in science, and who want to know how much of a vector in this disease the badgers are, will again have to go back to Labour’s cull, which showed that only 12% of the animals actually carried the disease.
Sir James Paice: I want to challenge the hon. Lady again on these figures. I did not dispute, in my speech, the 16% figure, and I do not believe anyone else has done. That is the figure agreed by all the scientists. I want her to confirm that that 16% is the net overall figure, and that if we could reduce or even eliminate perturbation, the net figure is bound to be much higher than that. That is part of the objective in the design of these pilots.
The scientists gave a range of between 12% and 16% if the cull was carried out under exactly the same conditions as Labour’s RBCT. The cull that the right hon. Gentleman proposed differed significantly, as it would have taken place over six weeks rather than two and would have involved free shooting rather than cage-trapping and shooting. As any GCSE science student
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knows, as soon as we depart from the methodology, we immediately increase the range of the differentials in the results. That is why the scientists were concerned.
The lack of rigour in the methodology was shown in Tuesday’s announcement. A cull that depends on killing at least 70% of the animals was about to begin with no reliable estimate of how many needed to be shot. On 19 July 2011, I asked a question in Parliament on that exact point, because it had occurred to me, a mere humble member of Her Majesty’s Opposition. I received the answer
“there is no precise knowledge of the size of the badger population”.—[Official Report, 19 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 815.]
That prompts the question of why Ministers did not ask that. Why did they not start the count then so that farmers could plan properly? Instead, they allowed the farmers to submit their own estimates of the numbers, thought, “Mm, that looks a bit low,” and left it until September to go out into the field and conduct the analysis that should have been done a year ago. I want Ministers to tell us whether those numbers were calibrated to test their accuracy. It seems clear to me that they were not.
We also warned that the cull would be bad for taxpayers. What are the taxpayer costs so far? A freedom of information request to the Badger Trust reveals the cost of the big society badger cull. To date, licensing activities by Natural England have cost £300,000. The sett monitoring that only took place right at the very end of the process in September has cost £750,000. The independent expert panel that is meeting to oversee the two pilots has cost £17,000. Since April 2012, there have been 6.5 full-time equivalent staff working on the cull. This cull, which I confidently predict will not take place, has already cost taxpayers well over £1 million. We can add on £500,000 per cull area per year for policing. Let us not forget that all leave has been cancelled for the police in Gloucestershire until Christmas. Although I am sure they will be relieved to have their leave uncancelled, how much has that cost the police? Again, the Secretary of State said on Tuesday that he would write to let us know
What about the future costs? Humaneness monitoring will cost £700,000. Badger post-mortems will cost £248,000. My parliamentary question to Ministers, however, about the net reduction in compensation and testing were the badger cull to go ahead received the answer that it would save just £2.9 million over 10 years in each cull area. That is just not good enough. It will carry on costing taxpayers until Ministers cancel it definitively.
The writing is on the wall for this badger cull. The costs to farmers and taxpayers will continue to stack up if Ministers continue to pretend that the cull will go ahead. We need to ensure that any solution works closely with farmers and I hope for their sake that the Minister will drop this charade that the cull will go ahead. Any solution will also require the consent of taxpayers and we must ensure that we get the best value for them, too.
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Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister of State has the remainder of the time available. If there is a minute or two for the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) to wind up, there will be a winding-up speech. If there is not, there will not.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): In my previous ministerial role, I instituted the e-petition concept and also introduced the Backbench Business Committee. This is a perfect example of why that was a very good idea, because Back Benchers were given the opportunity to debate matters of real importance that ought to be discussed. I was the first person to say that this matter should be debated in the House. Of course, the Government have only legislative time, so this is the right mechanism to use.
There are some issues on which most of the House will agree. Bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem in the UK and the importance of the epidemic for our cattle farmers and their families and communities cannot be overemphasised. I hope that we can also agree about the geographical spread, although I was slightly worried by what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said at one point. This was once a disease isolated to small pockets of the country, but it has now spread extensively through the west of England and Wales, and the number of new cases is doubling every nine years. So I do think that it is spreading like wildfire, and one has only to look at the map to see that that is the case. Someone mentioned rather hyperbolically the prospect of a massacre. Well, there is a massacre going on: it is the slaughter of 26,000 cattle last year at the cost of nearly £100 million, and we cannot afford to shy away from tackling the rampant spread of bovine TB throughout our cattle herds. If we do not take the action needed now, this disease could cost us £1 billion over the next 10 years. That is the answer to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). I will accept that he, within the parameters that his Government set, took action to try to deal with it, but the fact is that it has not worked. The problem has carried on getting worse and worse, and that is why we are determined to do better.
I hope that we will also agree that bovine TB is transmitted from cattle to cattle, badger to badger, badger to cattle and cattle to badger. The task of managing bovine TB and bringing it under control is difficult and complex. I resent a little bit the caricature that we are blundering into an approach not based on evidence; that we are blind to obvious alternatives and guaranteed to make things worse; and that we have failed to understand the science. Ministers do not make decisions in this way, certainly this Minister and the previous Minister did not.
Plenty of people have told us that the cull will not work and what we should not be doing, but none of them—not the critics, the scientists or the politicians—has come up with a single workable alternative to the cull that would give us the positive impact that we need right now. Nobody wants to kill badgers, but no one can deny that they are a significant reservoir of the disease, which is contributing to the spread of TB. All the experts agree that we cannot hope to tackle the disease without addressing the problem in wildlife. That is why we are
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determined to use all the tools at our disposal, and continue to develop new ones, as a package of measures to tackle the disease. Some people say that the cull not the silver bullet. No, it is not the silver bullet, but it is not the only thing that we will do. This will not cure the problem, but it will contribute to curing the problem. People say that it will only be a 16% net reduction. Well, if I were to say that we were reducing cancer incidence in this country by 16%, people would say that it was a very good policy indeed. Let us be clear about that.
Cattle controls have been in place for many years and are vital. In high-risk areas, herds are tested annually, any cattle that test positive are slaughtered and infected herds are placed under movement restrictions. Restrictions on cattle movements have been further strengthened to reduce the chance of disease spreading from cattle to cattle. Only last week, we announced plans for a new surveillance testing machine and stricter cattle movement controls. We also continue to look at ways of improving the testing of cattle for TB, and—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston)—PCR testing to identify infection in wildlife is also important. However, despite the robust use of cattle measures over many years, TB has continued to spread. We need to accept that we are at the point where cattle measures alone are not enough to prevent the spread of disease in the worst affected areas. That is why the Government support a policy of badger control as part—I stress, as part—of a package of measures to tackle bovine TB.
Mark Pritchard: I am unsure whether the matter will be put to a vote, but on the principle of whether people are for or against a cull, will the Minister put on the record that the Government will respect the will of the House?
Mr Heath: We will of course listen to what Back Benchers have to say. As a member of the Government, I will not have a vote today because we do not believe that the Government should be taking over the views of Back-Bench Members. We will listen to Members of the House; that is the purpose of this debate.
The eradication of the badger was mentioned. That is utterly ridiculous. No one is talking about that. I think the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) referred to the Bern convention. We have now had a categorical response that we are not in breach of the convention. Just like every other legal challenge, we have won categorically.
Let us go back to the science and consider what we can do. There has been much discussion about how evidence underpins the policy. Research in this country over the past 15 years has demonstrated conclusively that cattle and badgers transmit the disease to one another. That is what Professor Krebs found in the randomised badger control trials. It has also been demonstrated—there is no getting away from this—that culling badgers can lead to a reduction of the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time. That is why we designed the pilots in the way we did, with hard boundaries. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said that the hard boundaries are not rigorous enough. I do not know what she thinks would be more rigorous than the Bristol channel.
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Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): The Minister referred to Professor Krebs. What does he have to say about the fact that Professor Krebs described the work the Government are doing as a crazy scheme? Surely he also ought to listen to him on that and stop this crazy scheme.
Mr Heath: I listen to a range of scientific opinion and take the evidence that was revealed by Krebs and Bourne in their trials. It shows that a cull would reduce the incidence of the disease by 16%, which the Government believe is a worthwhile objective. Through a range of measures that we can take, we can finally start to bear down on the disease, and not a single country has ever successfully borne down on the disease without dealing with the reservoir in wildlife. The decision to cull badgers has certainly not been easy and has not been made lightly, but we have to take action and get on top of this devastating disease.
The vaccines that we all hope will be part of the solution are still years away, despite what some people would have us believe. It is not as simple as jumping on a plane, going to talk to an official in the European Union and getting the vaccines ready for use. More research is needed. We are demonstrating our commitment to vaccines by investing a further £15.5 million in vaccine development over the next four years. Let us remember that £43.7 million has been spent since 1994.
So that Members understand the process, I will explain what is needed to get a vaccine into use. Six tests have to be passed before we have a usable cattle vaccine. We first need in-principle agreement from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate to a market authorisation for the vaccine. That is what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said had appeared on the DEFRA website: the use of the BCG—hardly a new development—which has been partially successful in dealing with cattle, with a 60% to 70% success rate. That is the stage we have reached.
We have to get international validation of the test to differentiate infected from vaccinated animals—the so-called DIVA test. That is quite difficult to substantiate because we must demonstrate that the vaccine is efficacious, which we cannot do in this country because vaccinating cattle here is illegal. Only after that is done can we discuss with the European Commission a joint application to the European Food Safety Authority for an opinion on cattle vaccination. We then need to secure the agreement of member states to remove the vaccination ban. Only then can the Commission remove the ban and will the Veterinary Medicines Directorate be able to grant marketing authorisation, which enables the vaccine to be manufactured and deployed.
If anyone thinks that will be done in a week or so, they are sadly deluded. I would like to have a vaccine that had been shown to be efficacious and that we could use legally in this country, but we do not have such a vaccine—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) says that the cull will not start until June. The vaccine will take years, not months.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): A reduction of between 60% and 70% sounds pretty good when compared with the 12% to 16% reduction that a cull would yield. The problems the Minister identifies are largely bureaucratic. Surely the Government could take a more robust approach with the European Union and just get on with it.
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Mr Heath: I wish it were that easy. I wish we could ignore all the regulations and precautionary measures that are taken for the licensing of vaccines and just go to the EU and say, “Sort this out. Do it tomorrow,” and then come back and start using the vaccine. However, it is not that easy. We cannot put at risk several billion pounds-worth of produce from this country by implementing something that is illegal. Last week we saw a lot of nonsense in the newspapers about people going over to the European Commission to sort it all out because we stupid Ministers could not quite bring ourselves to do it. We have had an announcement from the Commission; it was mentioned earlier. It said that the Commission was disappointed to see an article by Brian May in The Mail on Sunday on 21 October, that some of the quotes were out of context or inaccurate and therefore misleading, and that vaccination of cattle against TB is forbidden under current EU rules agreed by all member states. That is very clear.
I will happily arrange for those who are genuinely interested in this issue and who want us to develop a vaccine, as we do, to speak to Glyn Hewinson at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency—our chief scientist who is working on this—and he will tell them directly, as he told me only two weeks ago, the exact state of play with vaccines. I want a vaccine to be in position at the earliest opportunity, but I have to face facts, and wishful thinking is not going to get rid of bovine tuberculosis in this country. We must have programmes and measures that work, and we must use all the tools in the box.
Dan Rogerson: I am glad that my hon. Friend has set out the Government’s intention to persist, with determination, with vaccines but also to look at the testing regime, which is crucial in allowing the whole process to work in future. In the meantime, I am pleased that he is also continuing to pursue pilots to ensure that the science is further improved so that we are completely ready and have all the arguments at our fingertips.
Mr Heath: Let me be absolutely clear: we will use every tool in the box to bear down on bovine TB. That is why we are not going to reject something that has been shown by experimental evidence to be efficacious as part of the answer, as some would have us do. That is why we will continue to put a lot more money into research and push ever further on the research into vaccines. That is why we will continue to do everything we can on controls for the movement of cattle and on biosecurity. If the question is, “Will you not do the cull and will you lock up every cow in the country in a shed to prevent them from having contact with badgers?”, the answer is no.
The Government are determined to tackle bovine tuberculosis by all the means available to us. Having looked at all the evidence over many years, I am utterly convinced that badger control is the right thing to do. Indeed, the higher than expected badger numbers only serve to underline the need for urgent action. I remain fully committed to working with the farming industry to ensure that the pilot culls can be delivered effectively, safely and humanely next summer.
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There is much that we agree on. We agree that bovine TB is a terrible disease that is inflicting huge amounts of harm on people in our farming communities around the country. However, this is not about a split between city and rural or farmer and non-farmer, and it certainly is not about a split between those who want a cull and those who want to do nothing. Those of us who are against the cull are against it because we do not believe that it is the right way to protect cattle.
The House divided:
Ayes 147, Noes 28.
Amess, Mr David
Anderson, Mr David
Bailey, Mr Adrian
Bain, Mr William
Barron, rh Mr Kevin
Begg, Dame Anne
Benn, rh Hilary
Benton, Mr Joe
Betts, Mr Clive
Bottomley, Sir Peter
Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben
Brady, Mr Graham
Brown, Mr Russell
Buck, Ms Karen
Burley, Mr Aidan
Campbell, Mr Alan
Cunningham, Mr Jim
Doran, Mr Frank
Eagle, Ms Angela
Francis, Dr Hywel
Godsiff, Mr Roger
Goggins, rh Paul
Hamilton, Mr David
Harris, Mr Tom
Hodge, rh Margaret
Howarth, rh Mr George
Jones, Mr Kevan
Jones, Susan Elan
Jowell, rh Dame Tessa
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Lammy, rh Mr David
Love, Mr Andrew
MacShane, rh Mr Denis
Marsden, Mr Gordon
McFadden, rh Mr Pat
McKenzie, Mr Iain
Meale, Sir Alan
Miliband, rh David
Morris, Grahame M.
Mudie, Mr George
Murphy, rh Mr Jim
Raynsford, rh Mr Nick
Reed, Mr Jamie
Ruddock, rh Dame Joan
Russell, Sir Bob
Sanders, Mr Adrian
Skinner, Mr Dennis
Slaughter, Mr Andy
Smith, rh Mr Andrew
Spellar, rh Mr John
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Thomas, Mr Gareth
Timms, rh Stephen
Umunna, Mr Chuka
Watts, Mr Dave
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Winnick, Mr David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Wright, Mr Iain
Tellers for the Ayes:
Meg Munn and
Baldry, Sir Tony
Cox, Mr Geoffrey
Garnier, Sir Edward
Herbert, rh Nick
Hollobone, Mr Philip
Howarth, Sir Gerald
McIntosh, Miss Anne
Paice, rh Sir James
Robertson, Mr Laurence
Spencer, Mr Mark
Stuart, Mr Graham
Wallace, Mr Ben
Wollaston, Dr Sarah
Tellers for the Noes:
Bill Wiggin and
Question accordingly agreed to.
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25 Oct 2012 : Column 1180
That this House notes the e-petition on the planned badger cull, which has gathered more than 150,000 signatures; and calls on the Government to stop the cull and implement the more sustainable and humane solution of both a vaccination programme for badgers and cattle, along with improved testing and biosecurity.
Mary Creagh: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May we have an indication from the Minister that the Government will go back and look again at the whole policy of the badger cull, and respect the democratic voice of this Parliament?
Mr Speaker: The hon. Lady has made her point with force and alacrity and, as she will know, it is on the record of the House. As she will also know, that is not a matter for the Chair; it is not a point of order although it will have been heard by the Minister on the Treasury Bench.
Mark Pritchard: I am sure you will guide me if it is not, Mr Speaker. For clarity, is it still the case, as has been the tradition over centuries in this place, that a vote carried in the House of Commons is binding on the Government?
Mr Speaker: The answer to that, in short, is no. Only legislation binds. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the response, as will other hon. Members. The House has voted and offered its view. I will leave it there. That is as pithy an encapsulation as I can offer to the hon. Gentleman.
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Mr Speaker: Before I call the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff), I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who, however unaccountably, are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so affording the same courtesy to the hon. Gentleman as they would wish to be extended to them in similar circumstances. Therefore, the consultation of notes and BlackBerrys and conversations that might be taking place between hon. Members—for example, on the penultimate Government Bench between the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless)—could usefully cease, so that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green can make progress.
I should like to place on record that the overwhelming majority of staff who work in Birmingham’s housing department are dedicated and provide a caring service for their customers, but the case that I shall describe raises serious questions about certain individuals, as I shall explain.
My constituent is called Nicola Shipley. She is a young lady who is seeking to carve out a career for herself by working in a very demanding job. She lives alone, having bought a house in Jakeman road, Balsall Heath. That road consists of terraced houses. Most of the properties are owner-occupied and some are owned by housing associations. She bought her house in 2006.
Nicola Shipley lived happily in the house in Jakeman road for five years until October 2010. The property next door to her was owned by the Moseley and District housing association, and she had excellent relations with the tenants, as she did with her other neighbours in the multi-ethnic community living in Jakeman road. In 2010, a new tenant moved into the house next to her. The tenant had formerly been a council tenant who had effected a mutual exchange from his former property in Billesley.
Mutual exchanges within social housing are commonplace, as the Minister well knows. Tenants wishing to exchange need the approval of their respective landlords. On the form that is used by Birmingham city council, the tenant is required to provide certain information, and there is a section headed, “For Office Use Only”, where a housing officer carries out a check of the tenant’s housing file to ascertain whether there are, for example, rent arrears or breaches of any tenancy conditions, such as antisocial behaviour. The form is then signed by a housing manager and the tenant is advised of the decision.
Since the new tenant moved into the property next to Nicola Shipley in October 2010, her whole life has been turned upside down. I shall quote from the letter that she sent to me in December 2011, when, in desperation, she made contact with me having tried for a year to get
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her concerns addressed by the housing association and Birmingham city council’s housing department, which was the new tenant’s former landlord. She said:
“I am a homeowner and had previously lived peacefully and quietly in this respectful family community and neighbourhood for five years. Since October 2010 I have felt unsafe, vulnerable, harassed, intimidated and threatened in my own home. The constant extreme noise from the playing of loud dance band music and intimidatory and anti-social behaviour has severely affected my quality of life and those of my neighbours”.
What is scandalous is that that pattern of behaviour was known to the tenant’s previous landlord—Birmingham city council—but the officers in the housing department who approved the transfer deliberately and wilfully conspired to ignore the council’s mutual transfer procedures and did not tell the housing association about his past appalling record. The council officers knew that the housing association would not have allowed the transfer to proceed had it known—the housing association has made that clear to me on many occasions. In essence, certain officers in the Birmingham’s housing department dumped this problem on the housing association by omitting to tell them the true facts, wrecking the life of a young woman in the process.
As I have said, since October 2010, Nicola Shipley has had to experience constant noise throughout the night until 4 or 5 am. The police have been involved, individuals have been arrested at the property during continuous all-night parties and the tenant has had his children taken into the care of the council. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been involved with the dogs kept at the property. There have been numerous complaints about the condition of the property’s front and back gardens, but neighbours are fearful of the consequences if they collectively complain or offer themselves as witnesses in court. Furthermore, on 13 July 2011, the individual was sentenced to an 18-month community order and £100 costs for having an offensive weapon and neglecting his two children.
My constituent is left scared and fearful of living in her own home, but she cannot put it on the market for sale or rent because she would be obliged to divulge the behaviour of her next-door neighbour to any prospective buyer or person wishing to rent her property, otherwise she could be sued. These problems were not caused by the young lady and her neighbours. They were caused because certain officers in the council’s housing department, including the housing manager who signed the transfer form, conspired to get rid of their problem by deliberately withholding information about the tenant’s past behaviour, which had resulted in the council taking him to court in August 2009.
On 17 August 2009, it was reported in the Birmingham Mail under the very bold headline, “Loud music made Birmingham neighbour’s life hell” that a Birmingham dance fan made his neighbour’s life a misery for seven months by playing loud music into the early hours. It reported that
“the noise coming from Lee Sinclair’s”—
“flat made the victim’s kitchen vibrate and although at one point he found his equipment had been confiscated it did not stop him”.
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“You have caused your neighbour so much stress, anguish and worry”.
The article in the Birmingham Mail details the fact that the first complaint about Mr Sinclair’s behaviour was made by his former neighbour in November 2008, and that the city council obtained an abatement order on 9 January 2009. That had no effect on Mr Sinclair’s playing of extremely loud dance band music and a warrant was eventually obtained by the city council to remove the recording equipment, including a CD player and television speakers. Again, that had no effect on Mr Sinclair’s behaviour, and after the council had investigated further complaints made by his neighbour, another warrant was issued. Mr Sinclair’s newly purchased sound equipment was again taken away.
That is surely clear evidence that the tenant breached his tenancy agreement with the council and that his antisocial behaviour towards his neighbours went way beyond an occasional occurrence and was part of a lifestyle whereby he had no regard for anyone else. Those serious breaches of his tenancy agreement ought to have resulted in Birmingham’s housing department pursuing a course of legal action to have him evicted from his property, but instead it allowed a mutual exchange and kept quiet about his background.
When Nicola Shipley first wrote to me, I pursued the matter with Moseley and District housing association and the city council. I wrote to the director of housing, Elaine Elkington, asking for an explanation of why the mutual exchange was sanctioned and why the housing association was deliberately not told about Mr Sinclair’s case history, which was in the public domain.
Elaine Elkington passed the matter to Sheila Espin, the head of landlord services, who then involved a Tracy Radford, the head of integrated services for landlord services. So began a game of pass the case, which went on until eventually I received a letter from Sheila Espin, dated 1 February 2012, in which she offered apologies on
“how this case was managed,”
and said that she had written to Moseley and District housing association and Nicola Shipley to apologise for the distress caused. There was, however, no explanation of why the mutual exchange had been agreed or who had approved it. The letter also contained a patronising reference to
“a number of learning experiences regarding policies, procedures, systems and Birmingham City Council relationships with external partners regarding such matters”
I then had a meeting with Sheila Espin, Nicola Shipley and the communities manager for Moseley and District on 4 April, at which I was advised that the events leading up the approval of the mutual exchange were still under investigation. However, despite repeated requests, no explanation has been given since that time, over six months ago, of why the mutual exchange was authorised; why Moseley and District was not told about the council’s problems with Lee Sinclair, despite the fact that there was nothing confidential about them; or which officers had discussed the mutual exchange and agreed that it should go ahead without the true facts being made known to the housing association. No one has held up their hands and taken responsibility for what has happened, least of all the person who was responsible for the housing department.
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Moseley and District has tried to assist Nicola Shipley by taking the matter back to court. Earlier this year, the court ruled that Lee Sinclair should give up possession of his property in Jakeman road, but that the possession order will not be enforced if the defendant complies with seven conditions and four undertakings. The order lasts for two and a half years, but since that time Nicola Shipley has reported continual breaches of the order. Eight months on, she is still suffering, as are other local residents, who are terrified of the consequences of appearing in court to support their witness statements.
Let me conclude. I said at the beginning of the debate that there are many good people working in Birmingham’s housing department. There are also, I regret to say, people who were involved in this case who put their own self-interest and desire for a quiet life before their duties as housing officers and public servants. Those people ought to suffer the full consequences of their actions. However, the fact that no information has been forthcoming about the council’s internal inquiries leads me to the conclusion that senior officers, right up to the director of housing, seem to be more concerned with covering their backs than with seeking the truth of this disgraceful episode and trying to put right the grievous wrong inflicted on the young lady.
Elaine Elkington should have involved herself in the case by taking disciplinary action against those members of her staff who conspired to keep the truth about Lee Sinclair quiet and authorised the transfer exchange. She should have looked at innovative ways to help Nicola Shipley, who is trapped in her own house because she cannot move. Elaine Elkington could, for example, have made the council offer to buy the property and add it to its list of housing resources. She could have authorised compensation to Moseley and District housing association for the costs incurred in management time and for court costs, but she has instead presided over a cover-up, with no one being held responsible and accountable, because Lee Sinclair is no longer a council tenant. Elaine Elkington should take responsibility for what has gone on in her department, and I believe she should go.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) on securing the debate, although I suspect he wishes it had not been necessary. I bet he wishes that his constituent, Nicola Shipley, had not had to face such appalling antisocial behaviour over so many years. I hope he will pass to her my very best wishes and my hope that she will shortly enjoy the peaceful life she should have been entitled to for many years.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I am unable to comment in detail on the specifics of the case, but it might help if I set out a few of the areas in which the Government are acting, which I hope will ensure there will be fewer cases of the type Mrs Shipley has had to endure. He will know only too well as a constituency MP that, sadly, all Members have similar cases, albeit that the one experienced by Mrs Shipley was particularly extreme. She has my best wishes for a more peaceful life.
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It is important that the Government do all they can to reduce the pain, fear and damage caused by antisocial behaviour, whether it is caused by or inflicted on owner-occupiers or by tenants in the private or social rented sectors. Let me emphasise that antisocial behaviour is not simply a problem that occurs within the social housing sector. The Home Office's White Paper, “Putting Victims First—More Effective Responses to Antisocial Behaviour”, produced in May, sets out what we will do to turn our commitment into practical action, working across Government, but in the end it is the quality of responses locally to antisocial behaviour, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that will change things on the ground. The White Paper moves us from the top-down, centrist approach of the past and instead takes as its starting point the impact antisocial behaviour is having on victims, how they can best be supported and how they and local communities can best hold local agencies to account.
Equally, local agencies need flexibility and the right tools and support to tackle antisocial behaviour. The White Paper proposes replacing 19 existing powers, some of which have proved slow and ineffective, with six simple, flexible and adaptable new ones. My Department is leading on the proposals in the White Paper that make it quicker and easier for landlords to evict their most antisocial tenants. Eviction for antisocial behaviour should remain exceptional: the loss of one's home is a serious sanction and eviction may simply displace the problem rather than provide a long term solution. That is why eviction for antisocial behaviour is used sparingly: there have been only about 2,000 evictions annually by social landlords in the context of around 4 million social homes in England.
Prevention and early intervention, which would have so helped in this case, should be at the heart of all landlords' approaches to tackling antisocial behaviour. One of the Government's initiatives to reduce antisocial behaviour is the troubled families programme, through which £450 million has been made available to provide expert help to local agencies to turn around the lives of the country's most troubled families and make a positive change to those who live alongside them. We know that up and down the country social landlords are engaged in creative and innovative work to provide diversionary activities for young people, to ensure that tenants understand the need to respect their neighbours and to nip antisocial behaviour in the bud before it becomes a problem. Sadly, that did not happen in this case.
There are many good examples of work that is being done. South Essex Homes, one of the 54 arm’s length management organisations that manage between them about 50%, or roughly 800,000, of council properties successfully uses what it calls community circles to bring together residents, perpetrators and relevant agencies to seek solutions to problems identified by the community in areas where antisocial behaviour is an issue. But we know, and this case illustrates it well, that where landlords turn to possession as a last resort in order to provide respite to neighbours and communities that process can take far too long. Landlords face delays because, for example, defendants do not turn up or turn up unrepresented, because further evidence is required, or because there are difficulties in finding court time for a trial that may last over a day.
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As happened in this case, the court may decide to grant a suspended rather than an outright possession order, meaning that the landlord has to go back to court yet again if the terms of the suspended order are broken. The possession process itself is likely to come after many months and sometimes years during which neighbours and communities have suffered from continued antisocial behaviour. So we are proposing to legislate to provide a faster route to eviction for the most serious criminal or antisocial behaviour, to bring relief to victims and communities more quickly.
Currently, when a landlord seeks possession for antisocial behaviour, the court has discretion in deciding whether or not to grant possession. We are proposing that where serious, housing-related antisocial behaviour or crime has already been proven by another court, the landlord could instead choose to apply for possession on an absolute ground. Where they do so, the court will be required to grant possession, provided the landlord has followed the correct procedure and, in the case of public sector landlords, subject to considerations of proportionality. The discretion of the court to suspend or postpone a possession order would also be limited.
We think this new absolute ground for possession has the potential significantly to expedite the eviction process in the most serious cases of antisocial behaviour. Instead of leading to a potentially lengthy trial, perhaps following adjournments many months after initial hearings have taken place, an absolute ground should significantly increase the chance that the case can be determined quickly in a single hearing. The court will need to establish only that the criteria for awarding possession are met, rather than having to undertake a fuller consideration of the case.
Although we think the absolute ground for possession should help speed up the eviction process, I want to make it absolutely clear that it is not our intention to increase the number of evictions—nor do we think it will do so. Consultation responses to our proposals received from landlords support the view that the availability of a faster, more visible sanction might have a positive effect on changing behaviour, thus reducing the antisocial behaviour or nipping it in the bud. Of course we need to respect the rights of those faced with losing their homes, but we need to focus more on the rights of those victims whose neighbours’ behaviour has made their homes places where they live, as Mrs Shipley did, in distress and fear. We must, as the White Paper says, put victims like Mrs Shipley first.
We also need to do more to identify vulnerable victims earlier, assess risks and provide joined-up responses. Some good work is already going on. Community harm statements are being used by a number of social landlords as a way of better demonstrating to the court the damage that the antisocial behaviour of an individual is having on those living in the neighbourhood.
Across the country there are examples of landlords doing good work to support victims and witnesses before, during and after the court process. In Newham, for example, a charter setting out minimum standards for witnesses has been agreed between the local partners, including 22 local housing providers. I am aware that Moseley and District has a witness support group that works with affected residents. Although there is a lot of good practice locally and although we are ensuring local agencies have better tools and powers to tackle
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antisocial behaviour effectively, we also need to ensure that when they do not take action, victims and local communities can hold those agencies to account and secure redress. The hon. Gentleman has shown the need for that very clearly.
That is why the White Paper includes proposals for what we have called a community trigger. The trigger would give victims and communities the right to demand that agencies that had ignored repeated complaints about antisocial behaviour take action. The duty could be activated by the public when their complaints reach a certain threshold—I suspect that threshold would have been met many times over in the case raised by the hon. Gentleman—although we think it right for that to be determined locally and not nationally.
Relevant authorities at district council level or above will be required to decide and publish the thresholds, criteria, processes—including a single point of contact—and the reporting mechanism they intend to use locally. The
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police and crime commissioner will have a role in ensuring that there is democratic accountability. Local pilots to test the trigger on the ground are taking place in Manchester, West Lindsey and Boston, Brighton and Hove and Richmond.
I hope that my remarks have given the hon. Gentleman a sense of what the Government are doing with the aim of ensuring that fewer people and communities have to endure the type of antisocial behaviour that his constituent endured over such a long period. More particularly, I hope that as a result of the highlighting of this case and the hon. Gentleman’s advocacy on Mrs Shipley’s behalf, effective action will be taken locally, very soon, to bring the misery that she has been experiencing to an end.