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I do not think that hon. Members will be surprised to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who made a thoughtful contribution to the debate, has not been delegated responsibility for writing our party's manifesto for the forthcoming election. However, if he wants to appoint me to the position of "Minister for Peace", I think that that would be a really exciting opportunity.
I want to make the serious point that the all-party and consensual nature of the debate has been very healthy and positive. However, there was one discordant note. I say to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) that any party that is unable to get above 40 per cent. of the vote at this stage of the electoral cycle should not be so sure of assuming power at any general election.
I will move on to the issues that have been raised in the debate. I want to deal with why conflict prevention matters and how we are responding to conflict issues, as well as trying to respond to some of the points that have been made.
Why does conflict prevention matter so much? Every day, the terrible effects of armed conflict are felt by ordinary people around the world. Although human beings who are killed, wounded or have to flee for their lives might be the most visible and emotive consequences of conflict, the effects of conflict go far wider and deeper. Conflicts devastate economies, promote instability, impede development, promote illegal migration, contravene human rights and frequently fuel terrorism. Conflict prevention is therefore of direct relevance to our national interest.
As well as the moral imperative of reducing the suffering caused by conflict, concerted action to prevent and resolve conflict is essential to allow the benefits of economic prosperity to spread, to allow democracy and good governance to take root and flourish, and to allow the rule of law to be established and promoted.
Conflict prevention is at the heart of what we regard as an integrated cross-government approach. Joint policy making and programmes have enabled us to strengthen our civilian capabilities, including on the ground, and we are working with international partners and organisations to deliver earlier and more effective international responses to crises and conflicts.
In a difficult and challenging fiscal environment, we have had no option but to prioritise activities. We have preserved funding for a range of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peace-building activities, but it is right to focus our efforts where the risk and impact of conflict is greatest and where our activities add most value.
Defence and military spending supports defence diplomacy and security co-operation, which make a significant contribution to conflict prevention and peace-building. Whitehall Departments are identifying options for further investment in those activities.
Following the Prime Minister's announcement in March 2008 that we would create a pool of 1,000 trained UK civilians who would be readily deployable overseas, we are today-very appropriately-launching the new civilian stabilisation group at the Royal Geographical Society. We will continue to deploy the right people to the right place at the right time to help to rebuild countries recovering from conflict.
There are a number of ways in which we seek to prevent conflict. We do so through the conflict pool, which several hon. Members mentioned, and through working with international institutions such as the United Nations, which the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked about. In response to his question, we think that the UN is getting better, but there is a long, long way to go. Regarding the Commonwealth, which he also mentioned, we work alongside Commonwealth countries when it is appropriate to do so. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that we should consider whether there is more that can be done regarding the Commonwealth. I also agree entirely that, with regard to conflict in Africa, the long-term sustainable peace that we seek in Africa depends on building institutions within that continent, so strengthening the capacity of the African Union in the future will be crucially important.
The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), during his very thoughtful and well-informed speech, raised the issue of improved or early warning, which is another important issue-arguably the most important issue-in conflict prevention. We need to intervene as early as we can and we require the capacity to make such assessments. There is also a responsibility to protect, to build capacity and to ensure that we, as the United Kingdom, have adequate capability in the area of conflict prevention, so there is a range of ways in which we seek to respond to this challenging agenda.
I now want to turn specifically to the points that have been made by hon. Members during the debate. First, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey raised a number of issues related to resources. I will try to address some of them, but if I do not address them all, I will write to him.
It is true that we set aside increased resources for conflict activity in 2009-10, which is a significant symbol of how much importance we attach to this issue. However, it is also true that we are faced with competing demands. We do not have the resources to fund everything that we would like to fund. A projected rise in the UK's assessed contributions-they are obligatory contributions-to international peacekeeping missions means that we must rigorously prioritise our discretionary budgets. We have an international legal obligation to pay our bills for international peacekeeping. Unfortunately, that means that there is sometimes less money available to pay for other important activity. As for 2010-11, we are continuing to assess the amount of resources that we will have available, and I assure hon. Members that we will make an announcement to Parliament in due course on that specific issue.
Several hon. Members raised the link between conflict and development. A very important step forward in the 2009 cross-government White Paper "Building our
Common Future", which was led by the Department for International Development, is that it recognises the importance of peace-building and state-building in countries affected by conflict and instability. I think that the tangible, important change in that White Paper is that it commits to spending at least 50 per cent. of new bilateral country spending in those states that are identified as "fragile". That is a very important recognition of where we increasingly need to shift our resources to.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey also raised the issue of effectiveness, asking how effective our efforts in preventing violent conflict are and how we measure their effectiveness. It is not easy to measure their effectiveness. As several hon. Members have said, conflict prevention is a long-term and major challenge-there are no quick fixes. However, we review progress against delivery on public service agreement 30 targets on a six-monthly basis, using both statistical data and qualitative reporting from posts. We therefore attempt to assess impact and effectiveness, and I can provide hon. Members with further information on that issue in writing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) will know that I have visited eastern Congo on two occasions. He is absolutely right about the importance of MONUC and ensuring that we get its mandate renewed. However, it is also important that we ensure that MONUC, working with FRDC and others, is as effective as it needs to be.
I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) who made the point that in situations such as that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the role of development is very important. There has to be a peace dividend alongside security solutions, and where there has been conflict for a long time, people have to see economic and social progress as quickly as possible, after moving in with a civilian response. That is absolutely crucial.
Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), raised the issue of women in conflict prevention. I have two things to say about that. First, in those countries that come out of conflict, it is often women who play the most important role. They do not sign the peace treaties, but it is often women, both in local communities and at a national level, who are the biggest and most powerful advocates for peace. However, it is also women who are often the greatest victims of the dreadful violence that occurs in places such as eastern Congo, so the role of women must be central, not an add-on or marginal issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud also raised the important issue of our diplomats and the tremendous contribution that they make. In short, we need to bring together security with governance and development, if we are to tackle these issues effectively.
Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I hope that this debate will be enlightening for you, Mr. Amess. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) highlighted in a similar Adjournment debate last year, there is far more to the issue than meets the eye. I hope that people will realise the importance of this debate; I have had a couple of days' leg-pulling about it. A few colleagues have asked, "Is that really the title of your Adjournment debate?"
"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea".
Perhaps Eric Cantona had a better understanding of seagulls and their behaviour than the rest of us, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and our local authorities. As any aficionado of debates on this subject will know from the remarks of the hon. Member for Bath last year, the problem is a serious and growing one for many of our town centres and, increasingly, for our suburban communities, for reasons that I will flesh out with evidence.
Good research has been done locally by Julie Wight and Gill Ragon of Gloucester city council, to whom I pay tribute for their help and support in pulling information together. Health and safety and aggression were two issues discussed by the hon. Member for Bath during his debate. Both are pertinent when we consider the effect of seagulls on businesses in Gloucester city centre.
Gloucester has about 2,800 breeding pairs of seagulls. Urban seagulls did not really exist before the second world war. Landfill has made a difference, as has the birds' desire to find somewhere warmer, and cities and towns are 3° to 6° C warmer than their natural rural habitats. They are also light in the evenings, giving birds the opportunity to feed and scavenge at night-time.
"A terrified woman in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire was left drenched in blood after a seagull protecting its young dive-bombed her. Jean Wemyss, 68, had to have a one-inch gash in her head glued after the attack. 'It felt like someone had hit me with a rock.'"
Seagulls have a 41/2-foot wingspan when fully grown, weigh 2 lb and can reach speeds of 40 mph when they dive-bomb. They are a threat, and they are becoming braver and bolder in their activities. As seagulls' numbers grow, many cities throughout the country are having the same problems as Gloucester. Bird droppings on the pavements of our city centres cause hazards and cleaning costs, and mess on tables has hygiene consequences for bars, restaurants and outdoor dining. Scavenging is also a problem. Birds regularly tear up bags, open bins and make a mess and run away with food when they can find it. Sometimes they actually take food from plates. Aggressive behaviour is also a problem.
We believe that Gloucester has two colonies of seagulls. One is centred on Hempstead tip, close to the city centre, although those in the know at the local authority believe that in addition to those, a lot of other seagulls
are migrating to the city centre. We are also struggling with another flock of seagulls in an area adjacent to the Bristol road, a more suburban location. A number of businesses have been in touch with me.
I went down to the area some months ago with a sense of incredulity, not knowing more than anybody else what to make of it. I visited the Cotswold Motor Group, which sells BMWs and Minis, to see the impact of seagulls on that business and surrounding businesses. It costs the Cotswold Motor Group £500 to re-spray a car. The seagulls in that area, particularly when they are roosting or have young, attack vehicles as they come into the forecourt.
I never knew until I had a biology lesson down at the Cotswold Motor Group that seagull droppings become more acidic as seagulls grow more upset. Droppings on cars must be removed within a couple of hours or they can erode paintwork, which costs a lot of money. The owners of the garage have considered moving elsewhere to get away from the seagulls, as they must employ people to wash their cars every day. Keeping the premises clean has an impact on them and surrounding businesses.
Why have thousands of seagulls flocked to the area? Having been on the roof of that business's premises and looked down on the other buildings in the estate, I can only imagine that the old-fashioned stone-clad buildings resemble seagulls' natural habitat of cliffs. Perhaps that is part of the reason why they are living in the area.
We need more research to understand why the seagulls are coming to the area. The expert Peter Rock has been in touch with a number of MPs and local authorities about the issue. He tells us that there are about 130,000 to 150,000 breeding pairs of seagulls in this country in urban and, increasingly, suburban areas. That could increase to more than 1 million over the next 10 years. It could have a massive impact on local businesses as well as residents in terms of mess, droppings and the shrill noise that the birds make.
What should we do about it? First, we must do more research, which needs a little investment by the Department. I will encourage my hon. Friend, who is a good listening Minister, to tackle his officials, whom I know had a good meeting a couple of months ago to discuss the issue with the Government office for the south-west, DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Natural England and some local authorities. However, from my feedback at that meeting, it seems that they never got beyond the subject of research.
Several universities, including the university of western England and Bristol university, are interested in conducting research on the subject. A few tens of thousands of pounds' investment would help us understand better the birds' habitats, why they come to urban areas and what methods work to tackle the nuisance. I am not proposing a cull or asking my hon. Friend to find money for local authorities to do clean-up work. In my area, the officials whom I mentioned have been involved in about £7,000 to £8,000 of work every year-the problem is growing, so they probably need more-but if they knew exactly what would work in the first place, thanks to a little research, they could save money and help business.
What solutions have been mooted? There are a range of them, and it has been an education hearing about some. The traditional method of bird-scaring is falconry,
but I understand that most veteran seagulls these days are not intimidated by falcons, not seeing them as genuine birds of prey that will kill or attack them. Falconry has had a limited effect. Even where it has worked, it has merely moved the problem from one urban area or suburb to another. There has been some success with using loudspeakers to imitate distress calls to encourage the birds to move on. However, that solution simply moves the problem to another area.
Egg removal and egg oiling have been tried. Egg oiling has had some success in Gloucester city where 1,100 eggs were oiled last year so that the chicks did not hatch and become fully grown seagulls. Despite that work, the number of seagulls has grown massively year on year. Caging and proofing have been tried. Proofing work includes putting up nets and spikes. The pedestrianised area in Gloucester city centre is awash with nets and spikes above shops, which is rather unsightly. The measure has been tried for a number of years, but we still have the recurring problem. More exotic solutions have been tried such as helium balloons and plastic owls. You will be sorry to hear, Mr Amess, that the plastic owls have made no difference whatsoever.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds must have been spent across the country. From Gloucester and the Minister's constituency down the road, to Aberdeenshire, this is a growing national problem. As I mentioned, Peter Rock's figures suggest that there could be 1 million urban and suburban seagulls within a decade.
If the solutions I have mentioned are not the right ones, what are? The officials at Gloucester city council tell me that research could aid and assist them. One imaginative solution being pressed at the moment is laser torches being flashed at seagulls when they are roosting. That stops them from settling on the eggs so that the eggs go cold and the next generation of seagulls does not hatch. Before we invest in that, we need to know whether it is likely to work. That goes back to the important point of funding a little research.
The council tells me, and I am sure it is right, that partly because of the availability of food and partly because of night-time light and temperatures, urban gulls produce about three eggs a year, whereas in the wild gulls produce just one egg every three years. That is a stark difference. We need to understand the nature of the problem better.
What seems on the surface to be a rather jokey and amusing subject for an Adjournment debate impacts on the lives of a lot of residents in my constituency, on local authorities and their funds, and on local businesses. I do not want Cotswold Motor Group or other businesses in the suburbs and town centres to move away. At the same time, I am an animal lover and am not calling for culls. We must know what we can do to restrict the size of these populations and ensure that the behaviour of gulls is not as aggressive as it has become.
"When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea".
I do not know whether that is true and I suspect that the Minister does not know either. Perhaps he could commit to a little investment in the matter. He may not be able to make the commitment today, but I hope he will have a good conversation with his officials. I have had
encouraging conversations about the meeting between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government office for the south-west that happened a couple of months ago, but there is a feeling that they need to go further. We must invest in the kind of research that will make a difference for the long term.
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