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9 Feb 2010 : Column 240WH—continued

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) on securing this debate. As Minister with responsibility for rural affairs, I welcome this opportunity to discuss the impact of urban gull populations on business. This is not a joke, but a serious issue. The impacts that he describes exist and they can be distressing and concerning for those who are affected.

I recognise that gulls can be problematic when found in high density in urban areas, such as in Gloucester, Bristol, Bath, Taunton and Cardiff. This is a widespread problem. I also recognise that measures need to be taken to mitigate such problems in an appropriate and proportionate manner.

We must have regard to the conservation status of gulls because some species are protected. It is interesting that despite the appearance that gulls are thriving in urban areas, UK breeding populations of herring gulls have declined by 69 per cent. since 1969 and winter populations have declined by more than 50 per cent. in the past 25 years. As a result, the herring gull is listed as a biodiversity action plan priority species and in the latest British Trust for Ornithology report, it meets the qualifying criteria for red listing as a bird of conservation concern. The great black-backed gull is a scarce breeding species in England with a breeding population of fewer than 1,500 pairs. With wintering populations declining, it meets the qualifying criteria for amber listing as a bird of conservation concern. Although I understand my hon. Friend's point, there is a decline in some gull species.

Mr. Dhanda: I appreciate the Minister's statistics and am sure that they are well sourced. I had a conversation just this morning with the hon. Member for Bath, who fears that some of the statistics being used by officials in the Department relate more to the rural gull population and are out of kilter with the experience of local authorities. Perhaps it would be possible to look again at this matter. We could send the Minister information in writing so that his officials can take a closer look at whether the statistics are accurate.

Dan Norris: I would be happy to receive anything my hon. Friend wishes to send. I spoke to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) briefly yesterday to say that this debate was taking place and receive his input. Unfortunately, he cannot be here today.

As a member state of the European Union, the UK has an obligation to conserve wild bird populations. As my hon. Friend will be aware, that is fulfilled through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which protects all wild birds. However, as I said, I recognise his concerns about gulls in Gloucester in the Bristol road area and the city centre. In specific circumstances, the 1981 Act allows people to apply for a licence from Natural England
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to take action to control bird species where they cause difficulties and there are no other satisfactory solutions. Action may be taken if Natural England grants a licence for purposes such as preventing the spread of disease, preserving air safety, which my hon. Friend mentioned, conserving wild birds and preserving public health and safety.

A build-up of gull populations to problem levels is usually the result of the presence of readily accessible food and the availability of suitable habitats for roosting or breeding. Those are the two key components. There is often food in excess of what gulls would find in the wild and places for them to live. Although licensed control of bird populations can provide temporary relief, efforts must be maintained to remove the food and the access to the habitat that attracts them.

Access to food is the single most important factor in boosting gull populations. If it can be denied, the problem may be resolved without recourse to other measures. I urge all local authorities and businesses to help address this problem by avoiding the spillage of foodstuffs, keeping food storage areas secure and bird- proof-that is easily said, but it is what needs to be done-making sure that disposal and waste facilities are kept clean and tidy, and limiting or preventing the deliberate feeding of birds by the public, which still takes place in many areas. I have heard that local authorities in Devon and Cornwall, for example, have had good results by using hessian sacks for rubbish disposal, which deters gulls from accessing the food. Obviously, gulls can peck through plastic bags more easily than hessian ones.

Natural England can provide advice on other deterrents, such as proofing buildings-my hon. Friend referred to that in Gloucester-and installing netting or metal spikes on buildings to discourage roosting and nesting. Although I accept that such measures are not the whole answer, they are a significant part of the solution. It is only by eliminating the things that gulls find so attractive in our towns and cities that we can hope to find a longer-term solution. The reality is that gulls live for a long time-many can live as long as 20 years-and they are not unintelligent animals, so they learn and modify their behaviour when we put up plastic owls or whatever it might be. Gulls are able to realise what is genuinely a threat to their way of life and what they can ignore.

In addition to controlling the availability of food and preventing roosting, I understand that licensed control methods have been effective. I completely share my hon. Friend's concern for animal welfare. We are not advocating something that is cruel and unkind, but there may be situations in which, as a last resort, it might be necessary to take other lines of action. I stress that the licensed control system should be considered only if earlier attempts to manage problems have been shown to be ineffective.

General licences that are used for activities that carry a low risk for the conservation or welfare of the protected species can be issued. Personal licences may also be issued for certain other controlled activities. The licensing authority-Natural England-must make sure that the licences it issues are appropriate and take account of

the risk of the activities licensed and the conservation status of the species concerned. For that reason, in January this year, following consultation, Natural England
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amended the relevant general licences and removed the herring gull from almost all general licences. However, it has continued to allow the destruction of nests and eggs of herring gulls to preserve public health and safety. Lesser black-backed gulls may still be controlled for a number of reasons, including to prevent serious damage to livestock and crops and the spread of disease, or for air safety reasons. That reflects the need to mitigate the problems that the herring and lesser black-backed gulls can cause in certain situations and to provide a licensing regime that is not over-burdensome.

For great black-backed gulls, a general licence is now available only for the purpose of preserving air safety. I stress that, although there has been a reduction in the available general licences, it is still none the less possible to apply for an individual licence to control those species where they are causing problems. Natural England has struck a sensible and proportionate balance between protecting species and recognising the issues that can arise in areas where species may be over-abundant.

However, occasionally it is clear that licensed controls will be necessary. For example, in the breeding season from April to August, removing eggs under licence and replacing them with dummy eggs can reduce urban gull populations if deployed over the longer term and, in the short term, that can reduce the likelihood of attacks from aggressive gulls. My hon. Friend rightly highlighted that in his opening remarks. Those methods have had some success in urban areas, including, I believe, in Gloucester.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, my officials in DEFRA's Bristol office recently met officials from local authorities in the south-west, including Gloucester, to discuss the issue. Natural England also attended that meeting. I hope that experiences can continue to be shared and best practice developed to address the problems sometimes caused by urban gulls. If there are lessons to be learned-no doubt there will be some-about alternative techniques that are successful, I encourage local authorities to share that information between them. However, we must not rely on a licensing approach to control gull populations that will provide only a temporary solution to the problem.

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend is being assiduous and thorough in his response. I would like to probe him on the issue of the academic research that might help us to ensure we get the best bang for our buck from the investment that local authorities make. Will he consider having further discussions with his officials about looking into academic research? The other key area is local authorities coming together. A forum is up and running, but what other support can the Government provide to ensure that it is a success?

Dan Norris: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I can certainly say to him that, in general terms, we do not feel that additional research is necessary. We feel that we know quite a lot about the subject. That is certainly sufficient to highlight the two key areas that I pointed out in my earlier remarks: excess food being available to gulls, and places to live, roost and so on. However, his point about laser torches is interesting. I will talk to my officials about that, because it is something I would like to explore further. Any information that he can provide about that would be useful. The only obvious
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hazard with laser torches is that they may affect aircraft. He will be aware that there have been well-documented cases of people deliberately trying to distract pilots using powerful laser instruments. That matter needs proper consideration and I thank him for raising it with me.

As I was saying, lessons need to be learned about alternative techniques and we need to encourage local authorities to share best practice when they find it works in their areas. The issue requires local authorities to work collaboratively and over a sustained period. That can be helped greatly by limiting the sources of food and making adjustments to buildings, so that gulls do not find such a warm welcome in cities such as Gloucester, as well as other cities and areas across the country. I thank my hon. Friend for initiating this important debate.

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend, his officials and I may differ in that, although I understand what he is saying and it is common sense to suggest that the gulls will gravitate to areas where food is available, that confuses the matter with regards to the Cotswold Motor Group and the industrial estates around there. Those are not the best places for gulls to gravitate to for food, yet they have done so, which implies that we need to understand more about their behaviour if we are going to be able to do more to help those local businesses.

Dan Norris: I hear clearly what my hon. Friend says, but my officials feel that we have a lot of information about the nature of gull behaviour. We still keep coming back to the factors of food source and places to roost. I do not know enough about the particular instance he cited to say whether that is applicable. If he could drop me a note, I will certainly look at the matter and talk to my officials. I will also ask them to consider the laser torch idea that he proposes, because that sounds as if it has some merit and should be given due consideration.

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Alcohol Fraud

12.57 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): It is a pleasure to be able to speak under your chairmanship once again, Mr. Amess. I would like to thank Mr. Speaker for granting me the debate, and the Federation of Wholesale Distributors for supplying me with much of the background to the growing problem of alcohol fraud.

In recent years, supermarkets have been rightly castigated for selling cheap alcohol at below cost price. The impact on public health of people buying excessive amounts of cheap alcohol is well documented. However, what is more pernicious is the growing problem of local shops and off-licences selling cheap alcohol, which is made possible because duty has not been paid on it. There is growing evidence of the impact that that is having on the ability of under-age drinkers to access alcohol, including in my constituency of Rochdale.

In reply to a written question that I tabled, the Minister admitted:

for beer-

If the losses for spirits are included, which the Exchequer estimates at between 5 and 6 per cent., a conservative estimate of the total loss to the Exchequer is more than £1 billion a year. No estimate has been provided by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs for losses of duty and VAT on the sale of wine, but I am sure that they, too, are likely to run into millions of pounds. Given the state of the public finances, the Government can ill afford such revenue losses. There is also grave concern about the likely link between those involved in alcohol fraud and serious and organised crime.

Alcohol fraud is being carried out in several ways, and it is a significant problem at the wholesale point in the supply chain. Alcohol, after manufacture, is sold either direct to retainers, or via wholesalers for onward sale to retail outlets. The majority of wholesalers are legitimate traders who pay taxes and dues correctly. However, a growing number of fraudulent wholesalers are adopting methods to avoid paying the duty and VAT that is due. Those illicit traders are then able to sell cut-price alcohol, or to sell it at full price and reap greater profits.

The methods used by the fraudsters include claiming back duty-it is known as drawback-direct from the UK Government. They are doing that by claiming that the duty has been paid in another country, where no duty has been paid, and then diverting the products within the UK market, or alternatively by exporting the goods abroad-to France or the near continent, for example, where a much lower rate of duty is paid-with the goods then immediately diverted to the UK without the payment of the higher UK duty.

Some of the results of that fraud can be seen in the prices at local off-licences. Indeed, the FWD has estimated that up to 40 per cent. of beer sales through such outlets are illicit. It has identified several wholesalers that appear to be openly selling alcohol at prices far below those that federation members can match. Those include wholesalers in my constituency, Bradford, Manchester
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and Walsall, and several other companies that trade on the internet. I do not know whether those companies are selling illicit alcohol, but I will give the list to the Minister after the debate and I hope that she will agree to investigate them as a matter of urgency.

I shall give some examples of the wholesale prices at which those companies are selling alcohol, as they are prices that no one can match. Cases of Tennent's Super are being sold for £22.99, while the best price an FWD member can offer is £28.25, with a duty payable of £17.79. Cases of Carlsberg Special Brew are being sold at £18.49, while the FWD member price is £26.80 and the duty is £17.79. Kestrel Super is being sold for £19.99, while the FWD member price is £27.50 and the duty is £17.79. There is a similar situation for wine: Jacob's Creek is being sold at £1.40, which is cheaper than the best FWD member price, and Gallo sauvignon blanc is being sold at £2.90 below the best FWD member price. Those are matters of concern.

Despite evidence of growing alcohol fraud, the Attorney-General has admitted that only seven people were prosecuted in 2008 for crimes relating to alcohol fraud and that the number of prosecutions has fallen by almost 50 per cent. since 2006. I ask the Minister to provide further information to explain why there has been that fall in prosecutions at the same time as fraud has been increasing.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party wine and spirit group.

The issue of fraud is extremely important, and I urge the Minister to look at what greater efforts HMRC can make with regard to personnel and having the correct people to prosecute some of the very unpleasant individuals involved in that trade. Not only is the Exchequer losing more than £1 billion a year, but the trade has a knock-on effect that distorts the market. The supermarkets have to compete below cost, which in turn has a knock-on effect on the Government's alcohol strategy, because the products are being sold below market price. I wholeheartedly endorse what the hon. Gentleman is saying and urge HMRC to make a stronger effort to recover that money.

Paul Rowen: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. To return to my previous point, are those figures for prosecutions a result of a reduction in action by HMRC, or of a reduction in the resources that the Government are targeting in that area?

Last April, at the time of the Chancellor's Budget, the Government published their alcohol fraud strategy, which set out several measures designed to tackle fraud involving alcohol duty. I welcome the publication of that strategy and its implementation. However, according to the FWD, the impact of the strategy has been limited. Although figures for assessing the scale of alcohol fraud for beer and spirits have been provided, no figures have yet been given for wine. Is the Minister proposing that a similar estimate will be provided-I appreciate that that is more difficult-to set out the likely scale of fraudulent wine sales?

Given the estimated scale of alcohol fraud, its effects on legitimate business, to which I referred earlier, and the effects of cheap alcohol on health, what estimate
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has the Minister made of the effectiveness of that strategy? Have HMRC and the UK Border Agency been set targets for alcohol fraud reductions and, if so, will she enlighten us on those targets? Given that I have mentioned those companies that are causing concern, I would welcome her assurance that swift action will be taken throughout the supply chain when fraud is reported. I am aware that she has not met representatives of the FWD, although she has met representatives of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. Will she therefore agree to meet representatives of the FWD to discuss their concerns?

Will the Minister provide an update of the preventive measures that have been put in place as a longer-term solution to limit such fraud? For example, what processes does HMRC have in place, and are they being developed, to track the movement of alcohol to ensure that goods are sold through legitimate channels with the duty paid?

According to HMRC, there is a massive over-supply of beer under duty suspense being sent to the near continent, and that cannot be for legitimate sale. Given that there are a limited number of product types of beer that are at risk, surely it ought to be possible for HMRC to keep tabs on where the brewers supply it in the EU, and to whom, and on all UK suppliers of duty-suspended goods to third parties in bonded warehouses.

Have the Government considered limiting fraud by imposing robust controls on the export of some high-risk products? For example, there is strong evidence that large quantities of American wines are being exported to France, where there is evidently no market for them. Surely it would make sense for those exports to be at least temporarily banned while we see what effect that has on the sale of such illicit wine on the UK market.

The Government are repaying fraudsters through the drawback regime. As I said, fraudsters either claim that the duty has been paid in another country, or say that the goods are going abroad but then divert them back. Will the Minister provide an update on the checks that are undertaken prior to the repayment of drawback, and a reassurance that appropriate and thorough checks are made, including checking that documentation has not been produced fraudulently?

In a response to a written question that I recently tabled, the Minister stated:

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