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T8. [213053] Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware, as I am, of the worrying speculation about an impending famine in Ethiopia and its consequences. We have all seen this before. How are the Government and other players preparing to ensure that we do what we can either to
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avoid the famine or to deal with the lack of food so that the people of Ethiopia do not suffer?

Dr. Howells: I visited Addis Ababa last week and tried to discover what I could about the preparations that have been made to meet that impending catastrophe. As far as I could judge, it certainly does not look as though it will be on the scale of 1984. I was told that there are adequate food supplies and that the systems are in place to get that food to the people. I hope that that is right. The Secretary of State for International Development has been keeping a close eye on the matter and our aid agencies in Ethiopia are working very hard to ensure that those systems are used to the full and that starvation does not occur.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the tragic and disturbing case of my constituent, Scarlett Keeling, who was brutally murdered and raped on a beach in Goa. What steps has the Secretary of State taken to review the advice to visitors to Goa? Will he meet her mother, my constituent Fiona MacKeown, who is extremely anxious to meet him?

Meg Munn: All our travel advice is reviewed regularly, to take account of changes in the diplomatic situation and of examples such as the tragic case that the hon. and learned Gentleman has cited. I am sure that the whole House will want to send our condolences to Scarlett’s mother. Ministers will of course meet any family who have experienced such a tragedy, and I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown will be happy to meet Ms MacKeown.

T9. [213054] Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Ministers may be aware of an organisation called the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is funded out of taxpayer’s money by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What is the organisation’s purpose, how is the money spent, and what parliamentary accountability does it have?

Meg Munn: The Westminster Foundation for Democracy facilitates links between political parties around the world to help build democratic skills. We all know that training people and strengthening Parliaments and political parties at national and local level are very important to ensuring transparency and effectiveness. The FCO provides grant aid for the foundation, whose board includes six independent governors and eight governors from the Westminster political parties.

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Protection of Bats and Newts

3.35 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I beg to move,

I should at the outset declare an interest, as I have been a member of the World Wildlife Fund, now called the World Wide Fund For Nature, longer than I have been a member of the Conservative party.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Shocking!

Mr. Robathan: It is not shocking at all.

I am very fond of bats and newts and it still thrills me when I see them. As a child, I used to catch newts when doing what is now known as “pond dipping”. Like Ken Livingstone, I like newts and, on that basis, I would name this Bill the “Livingstone Mayoralty Memorial Newt Bill”.

Although there may be some amusement here, this is a very serious issue. What links great crested newts and bats is that they are both European protected species—EPS—and that gives strict protection under the European habitats directive.

I shall illustrate but two of many recent cases that explain the problem. First, last summer Mr. and Mrs. Histed, who live near Chippenham in Wiltshire, were flooded out of their house by 3 ft of water when a ditch blocked. Repairs to the house cost a quarter of a million pounds and, not unreasonably, they wished to unblock the ditch. However, they were refused permission by the Environment Agency, which ordered a “newt search”, forcing this pensioner couple to remain in a caravan.

Secondly, on the edge of my constituency, the Earl Shilton bypass was delayed three months after it was believed that great crested newts might be on site. The council spent £1.2 million erecting special newt fencing and traps, but it never found a single great crested newt.

That is hardly surprising, as anyone who knows anything about the life cycle of great crested newts will know that they can move 1,000 yd or more from their breeding sites. One might think that this newt must therefore be rare but, according to the Government, there are 66,000 great crested newt breeding ponds in England alone, and the Secretary of State for the Environment said in a letter to me that

Furthermore, the decline in these newts results from changed farming practices, which have caused ponds on farmland to be filled in. May I suggest that creating new ponds would be cheaper and more effective than expecting the Leicestershire council tax payer to fork out £1.2 million for nothing?

Bats—which are so beautiful flying at dusk—are also an EPS under the habitats directive. They are wild creatures whose natural habitat is roosting in caves or rotten trees. They existed long before man built houses and churches. Bats in the belfry may be a longstanding joke—of sorts!—but it is no joke in many churches.

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I should like to draw particular attention to St Nicholas church in the hamlet of Stanford on Avon, 100 yd outside my constituency in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). The 14th century church is filled with the most marvellous monuments in alabaster and marble. There is an organ case from the chapel royal in Whitehall palace that was sold after the execution of King Charles I. Simon Jenkins gives the church four stars in his book, “England’s Thousand Best Churches”, but if the mediaeval stained glass had been in situ rather than being restored, he might easily have given it five stars. The church is part of our national heritage, and deserves to be preserved. I was there on Sunday, sitting next to a 16th-century tomb of a knight and his wife. The tomb was restored at great cost, which was partly met by taxpayers through English Heritage and the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Bat droppings are stuck all over the intricate tracery and writing on the tomb and can also be found all over the walls and often on the altar. That is very unpleasant and is a hygiene risk during communion.

Much worse is the damage being caused to another fine marble monument, which has been under a bat roost. The urine, which contains ammonia, has stained and scarred the marble and the monument itself is sometimes completely covered in piles of droppings; I am talking about not one or two, but bucketloads of droppings. I have a photograph that I am happy to show any concerned Member.

The church’s tiny congregation is unable to take any action because of the habitats directive. Natural England has not been helpful. It has suggested ludicrous gazebos over the monuments; I wonder how that approach would work with wall paintings similarly at risk in other churches. Helpfully, Natural England charged the church warden £525 for its useless advice. The taxpayer funds the restoration of churches through one Government body, but another Government body insists that they cannot be preserved from damage by bats. Even worse is the fact that the diocesan advisory committee for Coventry and Leicester wrote that the parochial church council

because of the infestation. I shall be writing to the bishop.

Bats, of course, will live elsewhere. According to the Bat Conservation Trust,

no mention is made of boring sermons in church. One can assist bats by putting up bat boxes and by leaving rotten trees to stand, and we should do such things.

My problem with both the EPS issues that I have mentioned is that the entire approach is disproportionate. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tells me that it advocates a proportionate response regarding great crested newts, but I note that last year Taylor Woodrow was fined £2,000 for damaging a newt site in Essex.

If anybody doubts the ridiculous bureaucracy surrounding this issue, they should look at the way in which Natural England thinks one should deal with great crested newts. It recommends completing a “method statement” on an Excel-format spreadsheet template. There is not much common sense in that.

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Furthermore, the Government’s Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has made disturbing or handling the animals arrestable offences—someone could get a six-month jail sentence for pond dipping. Why is there not a proportionate response? The House might know that there was a derogation under the original legislation in 1994. Members might wonder what the European Court of Justice does, and now I can tell them: it judges these matters, and it overturned the proportionate approach and the derogation. It transpires, I regret to say, that this ridiculous situation is all down to the wicked European Union. [Interruption.] It is true.

Mankind can and should be able to live in harmony with the animal kingdom, including bats and newts. We should have a balanced approach so that, without harming newts or bats, people can get on with their lives. Our natural heritage, which I wish to see enhanced, can co-exist happily with our national heritage in churches in Norfolk, Stanford on Avon and elsewhere. It is ridiculous that some very intelligent, highly paid civil servant in Brussels, or indeed in Whitehall, should be laying down such detailed and foolish laws. In this case, the law really is an ass.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): It’s batty!

Mr. Robathan: Indeed.

My Bill would ensure that Ministers insisted on the reform of the European habitats directive and set up a more pragmatic, balanced approach, conserving our natural heritage of great crested newts and bats without the adverse consequences that I have illustrated.

Hon. Members may know act IV, scene i of “Macbeth”:

The issue is not about putting bats and newts in cauldrons, but there is toil and trouble. Let us have some common sense instead.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Robathan, Sir Patrick Cormack, Christopher Fraser, Mr. Tim Boswell and Robert Key.

Protection of Bats and Newts

Mr. Andrew Robathan accordingly presented a Bill to permit the disturbance of bats and newts for specified purposes; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 17 October, and to be printed [Bill 125].

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Opposition Day

[15th Allotted Day]

Cost of Living

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that in both debates I have selected the amendments in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.45 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): I beg to move,

The cost of living is back at the top of the political agenda and on the front pages of all our newspapers. When I first became aware of political debate in my early teens, the economy dominated the agenda and the battle to control inflation dominated the economic policy debate. It influenced almost every aspect of that debate; it toppled Governments and shaped our national institutions. Indeed, for many of us, it shaped our perceptions for half a lifetime. Then, after the Conservative Government introduced inflation targeting in 1992 and the incoming Labour Government reinforced that move in 1997 by creating the independent Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, it ceased, for a decade or more, to be an issue on the political radar screen.

How tempting it was, therefore, to believe the rhetoric of the then Chancellor, our Prime Minister, that the dragon of inflation had really been slain—that the sunlit uplands of endless economic growth, low interest rates and appreciating asset values had been reached without the unwelcome spectre of inflation spoiling the view. Indeed, the Prime Minister built his entire reputation on the claim to have been the man who delivered economic stability—who ended boom and bust. Well, not any more.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the former Chancellor built his reputation on the independence of the Bank of England, which the hon. Gentleman’s party did not support at the time, and that that has been a major weapon against inflation?

Mr. Hammond: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me say a few moments ago that inflation targeting was introduced by a Conservative Government and reinforced by independence of the Bank of England, which we, in turn, are now committed to reinforcing still further in a way that this Government have resisted.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend remember that, far from creating an independent Bank of England, the Chancellor gutted
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and filleted it, taking away debt management and nationalising it into the Treasury, and taking away day-to-day banking supervision, so that the Bank was blind and deaf in the money markets when the credit crunch hit? Is not that a major problem?

Mr. Hammond: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As he will know, we have been arguing for some time that the responsibility for rescuing a failed bank under the proposed new system must lie with the Bank of England, not the regulator. We are delighted that the Chancellor appears at last to have come round to accepting the logic of that position.

The former Chancellor’s reputation is unravelling before his eyes. The man who rode the Asian tiger of imported deflation bleats that what is happening in Britain today is all someone else’s fault—from the credit crunch, to the fuel price at the pumps, to the soaring cost of food and spiralling home heating bills. He was the lucky Chancellor whose good fortune was to preside over the greater part of what the Governor of the Bank of England has called the NICE—non-inflationary, consistently expansionary—years, and whose misfortune is now to have his legacy exposed as a sham, because when the wind blew the economic house that Gordon built turned out to be made of straw.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman calls the former Chancellor the lucky Chancellor, but when we set his record beside those of Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen as Finance Ministers of the Republic of Ireland, we see that the growth that he achieved was only half what they achieved. He was not that lucky or that golden—in fact, I would contend that he was a bit rusty.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman makes a point. By “lucky Chancellor” I simply mean that he was riding the crest of a wave of imported deflation, which created many of the conditions upon which he built his claimed reputation. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out that UK economic growth, like UK productivity growth, has been poor over the past decade compared with many of our competitors.

The economy is firmly back on the agenda. Inflation is booming on the high street and the Prime Minister’s reputation for economic competence is bust. The cost of a shopping basket of groceries has rocketed by 12.6 per cent. according to The Grocer—that well-known authority on grocery prices—while fuel and domestic energy prices are up 17 per cent. and 9 per cent. respectively, with a further increase of at least 40 per cent., or around £400, for an average household predicted in domestic gas prices for the coming winter. Worse than that, the cost of a basket of 40 essentials has increased by 19.8 per cent. over the last year, piling the pressure on the most vulnerable consumers—those on low and fixed incomes. Bread is up 29 per cent., eggs are up 48 per cent, butter is up 30 per cent. and transport costs are up 16 per cent. The Daily Mirror’s cost of living index shows most people faced a rise of 11.6 per cent. over the last year, not the official 3.3 per cent. I think that even the Government are likely to agree that that is unlikely to be a Conservative plot.

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