Previous Section Index Home Page

5.45 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): We have had an interesting, at times thoughtful, sometimes amusing and sometimes vitriolic debate this afternoon. I shall first mention a few of the contributions that we have heard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who welcomed the support in the Budget, particularly to prepare for the upturn, gave many examples of companies in his constituency that are preparing for just that. He also rightly pointed out our determination to lead in environmental technology.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), who always makes thoughtful speeches, particularly about retired people, talked about loan sharks and banks in the same breath. We all share her desire to see the standing of financial services and UK banks return from its present point to somewhere reasonable. She also wanted cuts in taxes on investment income, which is a feature of what we hear from the Opposition. They scaremonger about the size of the debts that face us after what is a global shock and then complain about anything that we do in terms of fiscal consolidation to try to raise money and restore the sustainability of the public finances. They always make the basic argument that the deficit is too large and then complain when we try to raise money to shift it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) again demonstrated her commitment to and experience in housing, and she particularly welcomed the fund that will allow local authorities to build. She emphasised the importance of housing—we share that view—and particularly wished to ensure that we deal with some of the existing shortages. The Budget contains modest but important measures in that regard, despite the problems that we are experiencing in the public finances.

The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) made his usual robust speech. We have shared many years of experience serving on the Treasury Committee and I continue always to enjoy his contributions. He talked about the structural problem of debt, but when we have had a shock of the sort that we have seen in the global financial system, which, without being predicted—my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) mentioned that point in her extremely good, thoughtful and interesting presentation—shifts our tax receipts in such an unprecedented way, it is not surprising that a structural deficit occurs. We have to think very carefully about how to restore some of that
23 Apr 2009 : Column 465
tax funding, and I believe that the approach that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor took in his Budget will begin to do that.

The hon. Gentleman, in line with a lot of his party, said that the public sector was too big and has to be cut, but he did not explain quite how he would like to see it cut. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North made much more interesting comments on the efficiencies that can be driven through the public sector—we have made a beginning on that with the operational efficiency programme—and how collaborative procurement, shared services and a different way of delivering public services are beginning to give us the chance to transform how our services are used. She described this as a “flatter” public service, more driven by its users than providers, and she offered us some important and interesting insights into what the future will be if we can do that in an appropriate way, while protecting front-line services. That is the important difference between the two sides, it seems to me. The question is whether we should slash and burn in the middle of a recession, or take a careful and focused look at how we can deliver real service efficiencies while protecting those on the front line.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) at least admitted that the Government have put in effect policies that might have—I am quoting him—averted a recession—

Adam Price: A depression.

Angela Eagle: Indeed, a depression. After that, his contribution went downhill. We probably do not agree on much more. He is at least in favour of a fiscal stimulus, and we had some discussion about the size of that. Of course, that puts us on the same side of the argument, against those who said that we could not afford a fiscal stimulus. The Opposition voted against the fiscal stimulus that was a centrepiece of the pre-Budget report. They would have put us in a position where we would have been unable to bring forward the £3 billion of investment that was already planned, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced. We would not have been able to stimulate the economy in order to support people now.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) made his usual trenchant remarks. I hope to see him in the Committee on the Finance Bill, so that we can carry on our jousts there. Naturally, I do not agree that the Labour Government have destroyed the economy. He needs to take into account what is going on outside the country. We have had a massive unexpected global banking shock, which has created the first synchronised global downturn and decrease in world gross domestic product since the first world war— [ Interruption. ] It does not say that anywhere; I am just describing what is happening in the world economy.

I know that it suits the Opposition to pretend that all these problems and the sudden huge shock in our financial services have somehow been generated internally in this country, leading to the deficits that the Opposition go around the country trying to scare people about, but the circumstances of the credit crunch and of events in the global international financial system are unprecedented. Inevitably, those circumstances have had a big effect on all economies in the world, both advanced and developing,
23 Apr 2009 : Column 466
and we face major economic challenges as a result. I would have thought that, just once, an Opposition Member might acknowledge that that is going on, instead of peddling the view that all the problems were internally generated in No. 10 and No. 11 Downing street—that we could all have foreseen them somehow and that we have deliberately got ourselves into a situation where we have to deal with a borrowing requirement of 12 per cent. of GDP. If the Opposition were being more honest, rather than talking in their slogans for the forthcoming general election, they would acknowledge that we have been affected by an unprecedented global situation and that we have to recover from that.

It is important that we acted to shore up the banking system. That was essential, but it was done at a cost. Initially, the Opposition opposed our action, then they were in favour of it, then they opposed it again. Their thoughts on what we should be doing to save the global banking system seem to change from one day to the next. They spent years acknowledging that financial services were a major part of our economy and that we are an open and trading economy, but they now blame the Government for the fact that the global downturn is having a greater effect on our economy than on some more closed economies. That is true, because ours is an open economy that had a comparative advantage in financial services. That is why we have been hit more severely than some economies. Japan and Germany, neither of which have large financial sectors in the same way as we do, have been hit even harder because they manufacture and export. They are being hit by the same sort of global slow-down—the stalling of the economic engine—that was the result of the credit crunch.

We have to get the world economy through the present problems, and we have to get this country through the challenges that we face, so we acted to shore up the banking system, despite the Conservatives’ less-than-helpful approaches. That was essential, but it had a cost. We acted in the pre-Budget report to provide real help for people and businesses, and that included the fiscal stimulus that the Conservatives voted against. A tax cut for the 22 million basic rate taxpayers will go into their pay packets this April. The Conservatives have to explain to the people of this country why they voted against it. They have to explain why, when things are so challenging and difficult, their priority for expenditure is to spend £1 billion on giving £200,000 each to the 3,500 richest estates in the country. Our priority is giving a tax cut to 22 million basic rate taxpayers. They have to explain why they refused to change their mind about that when they had the chance to do so—the shadow shadow Chancellor, in his usual way, suggested that perhaps they should change their mind about the policy. They have to explain why it continues to be their priority.

The Conservatives also have to explain what they will do about the increase to a tax rate of 50 per cent., which we have had to introduce to deal with the unprecedented situation that we are in. They have to explain why the Mayor of London today announced that he was against it and that the Conservative party should vote against it, when the Conservative Front Benchers are being rather coy about their view. The Conservatives have had much fun talking about potential leadership challenges in our party—they even tried to provoke my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who is doing a fantastic job where he is, to join
23 Apr 2009 : Column 467
the next leadership contest—but the Mayor of London is stalking the leader of the Conservative party before the latter has got anywhere near the gates of No. 10. He announced that he might not even bother to stand for a second term as Mayor, and that he might be looking for a seat in this place, so that he can see whether he can cause a leadership election in the Conservative party.

Angela Browning: I am sorry to take the hon. Lady away from Boris, but could I bring her back to inheritance tax? We have repeatedly heard from Ministers this afternoon about the £1 billion that the Conservatives would spend on inheritance tax, but if she looks in her Red Book she will see that on the back of the announcement that her Government made following the Conservative party conference, in which they set out their own change to inheritance tax, tax revenues and receipts to the Treasury have exceeded £1 billion. That is the result of her party’s policy.

Angela Eagle: The interesting point is that the Conservatives’ stated priority—indeed, it has been restated, including last night by the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury on “Newsnight”, despite the attempts of the shadow shadow Chancellor to get the party to ditch the policy—is to give £1 billion of revenue, at a time when fiscal consolidation is really important, to 3,500 of the most well-off people in the country. It is truly a Conservative millionaire’s manifesto, and they keep confirming the policy.

The Budget prepares the economy for the recovery. It ensures that we will be able to protect investment at this
23 Apr 2009 : Column 468
most difficult time, so that when recovery comes, we will be best placed to make gains as rapidly as possible, and to restore the prosperity and the balance of our economy following this unprecedented global economic shock. We will always seek to protect the most vulnerable, which is why we announced policies worth nearly £3 billion to protect the unemployed and give a jobs guarantee to 16 to 24-year-olds. We will do those things. We will protect investment. We will be able to rebuild our economy and our public services on a firmer, fairer footing. The alternative, as we have seen—

6 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Monday 27 April.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation




23 Apr 2009 : Column 469

Controlling Urban Seagulls

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Chris Mole.)

6 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): Given the current financial crisis, using even a small amount of parliamentary time to debate the problems caused by urban seagulls might seem bizarre. However, while we rightly devote much of our time to the financial crisis, we should not lose sight of other issues, especially ones that cause significant problems to many people and cost individuals, businesses and local councils a great deal of money.

I am particularly grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity to raise the issue. I pass on huge thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who is not in the Chamber because, as he has explained to me, he is on important departmental business. I am, however, delighted to see on the Treasury Bench the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who I am sure will be a worthy substitute.

I have received numerous complaints in my Bath constituency about urban seagulls. Mr. Henry Brown, chairman of Bath Residents Associations, wrote to me recently about the serious health and safety problems caused by seagulls in Bath. He referred to faeces deposited on tables, chairs and other furniture outside catering premises creating a health hazard; stone pavements and steps rendered slippery by freshly deposited faeces creating safety hazards; aggression towards pedestrians in public spaces and gardens, which is extremely frightening; and the pecking open of refuse sacks, which leaves debris and encourages other vermin, creating further health problems.

A search through local newspapers across the country shows that Bath is not alone. For example, in August last year, the Daily Mirror reported:

Such results from a bird attack might seem exaggerated, but with a wingspan of four and a half feet, an adult body weight of about 2 lb, a long, vicious beak, a flight speed of 40 mph and sharp claws that are swift to draw blood in an attack, each bird represents an impressive threat as it hurtles through the sky.

The newspapers have hundreds of similar stories—from attacks on people carrying food to birds swooping on bike riders, causing accidents. The headlines illustrate the problem: “Raging Gull”, “Pensioner’s Horror At Gull Attack”, “Hitchcock’s Vision Rapidly Becoming Terrifying Reality” and “Vicar Has To Wear Hard Hat To Church After Seagull Attack”.

As well as the birds attacking people, urban communities increasingly have to deal with their ear-splitting noise, the mess gulls’ excrement makes on rooftops, pavements, cars and windows and the damage they do to buildings—even pulling away lead flashings. It is no wonder that in January the Daily Mail ran a story with the rather lengthy headline, “They’re noisy, filthy, violent...and
23 Apr 2009 : Column 470
they’re moving into a street near you. No, not marauding teenagers, but the seagulls invading Britain’s inland towns by their thousands.”

Before world war two there were no urban seagulls, but the growth of urban landfill sites offered a whole new source of food, especially after the Clean Air Act 1956 put a stop to landfill operators burning rubbish on site. With so much edible waste going into landfill, the large gulls were quick to take advantage. Plenty of food meant plenty of offspring, and previously small, wild populations grew rapidly to the tipping point where their colonies were overgrown. The overspill came to our towns, which have fewer predators and little disturbance. Towns are 4 to 6° C warmer than the surrounding countryside, and street lighting enables gulls to scavenge at night as well as during the day. Gull expert Peter Rock wrote to me, saying:

10 years’ time—

In my constituency, our seagull colony has doubled in size in just six years, and we now have more than 850 breeding pairs. When non-breeders are added, it means that we already cope with 2,500 seagulls, and the numbers continue to increase rapidly. Other places are in an even worse position. With gull populations expanding rapidly, the problems, previously perceived as little more than an irritation and often with a great deal of mirth, have, instead, become very costly indeed. Repairs to damage, clearing up fouling and mess, nest clearance and so on are obvious areas of expense, but gull noise elicits the vast majority of complaints, affects tourism and the resource from it, causes sleep deprivation in the work force and distresses hospital patients. Attacks from aggressively protective parent birds deter shoppers, with obvious effects on local economies.

A plethora of pest control equipment and deterrence systems has been deployed during the past decade, involving very large sums of money. Looking across the roofs of any town where gulls breed, we see nets, strings, spikes, tensioned wires and even plastic models of owls and helium-filled balloons, and we hear loudspeakers broadcasting distress calls. Birds of prey are sometimes flown, as they are over this Palace, to try to deter nesting, but, despite those interventions, populations have grown rapidly. The gulls have taken everything thrown at them in their stride, and even more recently developed methods do not seem to be working.

Some councils are deploying the method that Peter Rock suggested some years ago, whereby eggs are coated in oil to prevent hatching. Bristol city council, for example, is spending £30,000 a year on certain measures. But, while egg oiling and, latterly, egg replacement can help calm sensitive areas, it does not seem to reduce populations. Rock now says:

23 Apr 2009 : Column 471

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that the solutions that have been tried so far merely move the problem somewhere else. My local council spends thousands of pounds each year on such measures in Bath city centre, but it admits that

In short, we seem no nearer to an effective solution than we were a decade ago.

The Government have a responsibility to ensure that appropriate research is conducted to help identify solutions. After all, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is spending £2 million on the urgent eradication of the ruddy duck. Should it not also research some effective means at least to ameliorate the seagull problem? We certainly know a great deal about the biology of gulls, but most of our knowledge comes from studies of wild colonies. We know which species of fish that they prefer, but that casts no light on the situation in our towns. We know almost nothing about what makes urban gulls so successful, so, if we are to manage this issue properly, we surely need to find out.

We also need to know about issues such as site fidelity, breeding success, foraging strategies, foraging distances, time-energy budgets, chick growth rates, dispensing with migration, survival rates and much more. Most of all, we need to know about how and where urban gulls get their food, what it is and what, in particular, they provide for their offspring. Knowing how and where urban gulls obtain food will enable appropriate and efficient control of food supplies.

Experts are ready and willing to do the work. I know that Bristol university, for example, can be ready to take on preliminary work this season and start fully in 2010. But despite the urgent need for research, at the beginning of this month the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) saying:

Next Section Index Home Page