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Peter Aldous: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, which I shall come on to, as I want to set out the issues that need to be addressed for neighbourhood planning orders to be successful. There is a need for capacity building in neighbourhoods, and for communities to have access to advice, training and funding. With that in mind, the ending of support to Planning Aid from March appears short-sighted and I should be grateful if consideration were given either to reviewing this decision or to putting new arrangements in place. It is also important to ensure that all communities participate, not just a few. I should welcome further information on how it is planned to promote neighbourhood planning in those deprived areas where it is most needed.
There is a concern, too, that that some developers might hijack the system. For example, a house builder might offer an enticing planning gain package in a particular neighbourhood, which might appeal to that particular community, but which could have a negative knock-on effect in surrounding areas. How is it intended to guard against such a scenario? Finally, to pick up the point that the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) made, there is no doubt that local planning authorities will incur additional costs in overseeing and promoting neighbourhood planning, and I hope that their funding settlements will ensure that they are not out of pocket in doing so.
The history of levies such as the proposed community infrastructure levy is not a good one. The betterment levy and development land tax resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of land coming forward for development. That is something that the country cannot afford at the current time. I think, however, that the new levy could be different. First, the money will be spent locally and will not be siphoned off by the Treasury. Secondly, much of it will be spent on infrastructure, which most people recognise is badly in need of improvement. Thirdly, an independent examiner will ensure that levies are not set at too high a level. I should welcome clarification from the Minister of why he and his colleagues did not go a step further and abolish section 106 agreements. They have, after all, often been abused over the years. All infrastructure and affordable housing needs could instead be funded out of one easy-to-administer roof tax, which would provide house builders with much-needed certainty.
I am concerned about funding the provision of infrastructure through such a levy, as the dynamics of the development process are such that there may be plentiful funds available for infrastructure improvements in high-value areas, but not in less affluent places, where projects are less profitable and less money is generated for works that cost approximately the same wherever they are built. I would be grateful for clarification of how the Minister will address that concern. The regional growth fund has a role to play, but it is only part of the solution.
The Localism Bill covers a lot of ground, and its objectives are to be commended. It has the potential to change planning in Britain for ever and to re-engage with many who have come to feel disenfranchised. However, the devil is in the detail, and for the legislation to achieve its objectives there are a number of issues that need to be addressed in Committee.
Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing this debate. Although I recognise that the debate so far has been exclusively about housing, its title is "Property Market" and I hope to raise a point about commercial property, when my declaration in the Register of Members' Financial Interests will become relevant.
My hon. Friend and other Members are quite right to draw attention to the failure to build new homes at a time when our country needs additional housing. I want to talk about the factors involved, particularly those that relate to the planning system, and to raise the issue of price. My hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention to the link between the planning system and the supply of land for development. We know from a report that came out earlier this month that less land is being approved for development than before. As elected representatives, we all know about the fundamental contradictions that exist within planning. We know that individuals are generally conservative with a small c. They like the environment they live in and they do not want to see change; indeed, they fear change, so we often find communities that are inherently anti-development and which oppose proposals for development at the first opportunity. At the same time, those very people are often looking for places for their children, so that their children can remain within their community, and they are often looking for smaller residential units, too, where they might retire, and which they know in turn will free up family homes for their children in future. Part of the planning system is about the challenge to reconcile those competing influences.
The abolition of the regional spatial strategy was one of the very first acts of the new Government and it is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Watford has concerns about whether enough land will be made available for development. However, I think that local authorities have thrown off those shackles as a completely natural reaction, as they were imposed on them by those at the top. If somebody demands or insists that a local authority do something and the local authority then does it with great reluctance, as soon as that demand ends there is an incentive for the local authority to say, "Well, we're not going to have anything more to do with that, we are going to control our own destiny and take things forward in the way that suits us best".
However, I believe that there are two measures in particular that will allay my hon. Friend's anxieties. The first measure, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) has referred, is the new homes bonus, whereby councils will retain the council tax for six years. It is not a simple concept. It has taken local authorities a great deal of time to work out how they will benefit financially from taking that action. I am delighted that my local authority in Rugby has made the calculations and recognised the benefits that will accrue to it from taking a progressive and positive attitude to the new homes bonus. I think that, as people look in detail at the proposals, more and more communities will say that this idea for dealing with development will mean that the community will benefit and the new homes bonus will start to make a great deal of sense.
The second measure is in the Localism Bill. Like many of my hon. Friends who are in Westminster Hall today, I would have loved to have discussed that Bill last week but I did not have the opportunity to do so. I want to discuss the effective consultation proposals in that Bill, which demand that developers undertake consultation with local communities before introducing development proposals. We know that good, sensible developers, who want to achieve what is best for the communities they want to work with, are doing that anyway. It is in their interests to do so; it is in the interests of a good developer to get the community working on the same side as them.
An example of a developer taking a proactive approach before the Localism Bill becomes law is the developer who is introducing proposals for 6,200 new homes in my constituency on the radio mast site in the west of my constituency. Many Members will be familiar with that site, because anybody travelling up and down the M1 will see the radio mast, with lights on it, which tells them that they are about an hour from London if they are driving south. The site is a sustainable urban extension, and the local authority continues to introduce plans that, in general, are supported locally. There is some immediate local opposition to the site, but I think that one reason why the ideas are making progress is the very effective consultation that the developers undertook in 2009. They held a detailed design inquiry lasting five days. Stakeholders were there for two days, but the weekend was allocated exclusively to the general public. People in the town and communities most likely to be affected by the development were able to talk to the developers about their vision for the site-what they wanted to see on the site and how they saw its future development.
A big part of the consultation was about learning lessons from recent developments in the town. One reason why people have a negative attitude towards development is that they can identify poor development that has taken place, which is often development that has been rushed through without effective consultation. Poorly designed road structures and poorly thought-out houses are built, leading to people being negative about development.
Another feature included in the design inquiry was respect for the site's heritage. Signals were sent from the site to the British Navy in times of war, so its heritage is important and links into Rugby's industrial heritage. That will be respected through the retention of existing buildings on the site. A significant issue for local people was the infrastructure and the ability of people in the add-on development, at the extremity of the urban centre, to find their way into the town centre. That was important if the development was to be seen in positive terms as contributing to the development of the town. Businesses will be attracted to our town because of the additional spend from people living in the new homes.
Local people have had their say. I might add that the time taken up in working on the proposals has been beneficial. In fact, the delay in bringing things forward caused partly by the state of the housing market means that we will get better planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) argued for speedier planning decisions. I think that we want better planning decisions, not necessarily faster planning decisions.
The price of land is a key factor in providing housing-in the rate at which housing is made available-because it is a very significant proportion of the eventual selling price of housing. An anxiety that may prevent land from being made available forward and about which my hon. Friend the Member for Watford may be concerned about is that, in many cases, developers have built up land banks at times when prices were rather higher than they are now. That acts as a disincentive to use the land for development now, because if prices are expected to rise in the future, the land value will be a smaller proportion of each house price than if development were undertaken now. It is a perfectly natural reaction for developers to hold on to their land bank in the hope that things will get better.
In respect of demand, reference was made to the uniquely or characteristically British view of home ownership. Homes are seen as an investment, as something to put one's money into to add to one's pension, rather than as somewhere to live. We have seen a massive growth in home ownership, to a peak of 71% of UK homes being privately owned by 2003.
Mr Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem with registered social landlords not developing more schemes for shared ownership is that the existing business model is one with a constant stream of housing benefit income-and that has been the case for a number of years-while the Government's reform of housing benefit will use the market mechanism to develop more innovative ways of getting people into shared equity?
Mark Pawsey: My hon. Friend makes a very sensible point. Shared equity offers a real opportunity. I like to see variable rates of shared equity, so that people may start with a 25% equity stake and increase that as their circumstances change. That is not happening as often as it should.
Points were made about the availability of finance. People's ability to buy homes is very much driven by their ability to borrow, and there are real uncertainties in the market because of the current FSA proposals, which have been described as draconian. The harder we make it for people to get the level of finance they require, the less demand there will be for housing, and that will provide a disincentive for people to bid at a higher price, which in turn will lead to a further reduction in supply.
I wish to make a quick point on the supply of commercial property, because there is a specific measure that the Government could introduce to provide an additional supply of commercial property which, as we move out of recession, will be increasingly important, at it applies to the non-domestic rates for commercial property that have been in effect since April 2008. For decades before that date, Governments helped struggling businesses through the application of empty property rates relief as an incentive to bring empty commercial property into use; my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) raised the issue of bringing empty housing into use.
If there is insufficient activity in the economy, it does not matter what the rent is, because very often the commercial property will not have a use. That leads to two things: the demolition of commercial buildings, and the fact that there is no speculative building of new
commercial premises, because if someone constructs a building they end up with an immediate liability for non-domestic rates on an empty building; they have an outflow before there is any inflow. As the economy recovers, it will be important to ensure that premises are available for our businesses to use. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Watford on introducing the debate, and I look forward to the Minister's response.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): I need to draw Members' attention to the entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests under the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), because he is my partner.
This issue is of real importance, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate, on developing a strong case for action, and on raising concerns that the Localism Bill will not do what it says on the tin. I look forward to the Minister's response to the hon. Gentleman's well-argued policy points.
House prices are falling and are projected to fall during this year in most regions. The Office for Budget Responsibility has significantly downgraded the prospects for house price growth throughout this Parliament. In December, there was a further fall in mortgage lending of 6% from the previous month, and money market rates are rising, which will have an impact on existing borrowers and create a potential for higher mortgage arrears and repossessions.
Some Government Members spoke with optimism, albeit muted, about the prospects for the housing market. Many raised concerns about the mix of the market, and asked genuine questions about the new homes bonus and the conflict between people not wanting new houses in their neighbourhoods but understanding that their children and grandchildren need housing. The hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) raised those issues. The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) reinforced, with some expertise, the points that he made in the Second Reading debate on the Localism Bill, and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) spoke with passion about the planning system, land assembly and, interestingly, the importance of design, a sentiment with which I concur. The importance of growth in sustaining the economy and the housing market was obviously mentioned, and Opposition Members will clearly be worried by the comments of the outgoing director general of the CBI, who said that the Government are not doing enough to encourage growth and that decisions are being taken for political reasons.
Politics in the housing market perhaps does not work well, and I suspect that previous Labour Governments learned that lesson too. Stability in house prices depends on a balance between supply and demand, complemented by a financing system that matches the aspirations of people who want to own their own homes and has the capacity to provide finance. We are not building enough homes to meet the demands of the population, and that goes for homes in the private market, homes for shared ownership and subsidised social rents. We are likely to see fewer additional affordable homes built than during the previous Parliament, when the housing industry
was hit as hard as any sector of the economy from 2007-08 onwards, first by the credit crunch and then because of the recession. According to the Minister's figures-they were confirmed in a written answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) who, unusually, is not here as he is in Committee-in the previous Parliament, 199,800 additional affordable homes were built. In this Parliament, the Government are aspiring to build only up to 150,000, which is not particularly ambitious.
The Government tell us that development will be driven at a local level via the new homes bonus. The hon. Member for Watford raised concerns here. However, according to the analysis I have seen, if the new homes bonus will work anywhere, it will work in the south-east-not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) has on many occasions said, in the north. I share the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Peterborough that perhaps impact assessments should have been done prior to the policy being brought forward, so that we really understood where housing needs existed. That reinforces Labour Members' arguments that the Government are moving too far too fast and that they are not looking at the evidence.
Only last week, the Conservative leaders of 21 councils in the south-east wrote an open letter to the Minister in which they declared their serious concerns. They said that they did not see how the new homes bonus scheme provided enough of an incentive to communities for them to welcome development. Again, those concerns were reinforced by Conservative Members. I am also a little surprised that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, is not riding shotgun for the Minister today to ensure that he says all the right things and to protect his back from his own side. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on the right hon. Gentleman's contribution to his Government's housing policy-the secret review.
The supply of social homes is also relevant to preventing a build up of pressure on an already squeezed private rented sector, tempering rents and allowing potential first-time buyers in the private sector to build up a deposit. The Minister has overseen a process whereby the budget for building new homes has been more than halved and he has placed his faith in the intermediate rent model, which will see social rents charged at up to 80% of the market rent in a given area. In the rest of the country, there is considerable unease that the 80% model will fail to deliver the necessary homes, because for housing associations to move to that model will require a change in their entire business model and therefore necessitate a restructuring of their borrowing with the banks. That will drive up costs and make that method of financing home building unpalatable at best and unworkable at worst. Housing associations are, of course, important contributors to the low-cost home ownership market and shared-ownership markets.
We have noticed, housing experts have noticed and local government leaders have noticed-we have therefore now been told that Downing street has noticed-that the shine is coming off the Minister's policies. In addition to the developing crisis of supply, we have a similar situation with demand, which will also be affected. I
disagree to an extent with the hon. Member for Watford. Unemployment is rising, wages across the public sector have been frozen, mortgage interest rates are already increasing and, with inflation pushing higher because of the hike in VAT, I doubt it will be long before the Bank of England considers that an increase in the base rate is on the cards.
The FSA's review of the mortgage market, which many hon. Members have mentioned, has mortgage providers and house builders on tenterhooks. Although the Minister's press team made sure that we were all aware that he would be meeting the FSA-I have also met the FSA-I have not heard very much from the Minister about the meeting's outcome or what he would like to see out of that review. What did the Minister press Hector Sants to do? Did he ask him to tighten regulation, so that the market stagnates and prices remain low? Or did he argue that regulations should be loosened to encourage more people into the market to stimulate it? Which was it? A stable housing market is a noble aspiration, but it requires concerted action across the sector to deliver the homes we need. I look forward to the Minister's comments.
The Minister for Housing and Local Government (Grant Shapps): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing the debate, to which there has been an absolutely terrific response. There has been a great deal of support, particularly from Conservative Members, for the subjects being discussed. As my hon. Friend mentioned, I did not just go to school in Watford; I was born and brought up there. As I said, it has been a good and intelligent debate. I will try to address as many of the points made as I can, but I put hon. Members on alert that because some of them went into quite a bit of detail, I will study the transcript of the debate and get back to hon. Members on some of the specifics raised if I run out of time. I am particularly thinking of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who raised a series of detailed points that I do not think I will have time to cover.
Alison Seabeck: Will the Minister provide that correspondence to other hon. Members who are present?
Grant Shapps: Yes, by all means. I have no objection at all to making this a completely open exercise, and my officials will have noted my comments.
As to what we know about the old system, several Members mentioned that it had completely and utterly failed. We did not get to the lowest house building levels since 1923 under the new system, but under a top-down, almost Stalinist approach, which said that we would be able to build the top number of homes that we had set out in the 10-year plan. The pledge was to build 3 million homes by 2020, but the number built crashed through the floor.
The problem was not just the total number of homes being built, but the number of affordable homes, which was derisory, and I know that the Opposition housing spokesman, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), agrees. Concern was expressed about the amount of affordable housing that would be built under our plans, but despite the £17 billion pumped
into affordable house building over 13 years by the previous Government, the impact was a net loss of 45,000 affordable homes. I can assure the hon. Lady that the coalition Government will do better than that every single year.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Will the Minister not accept that one reason for the net loss in housing is the right to buy? Is he at all interested in the steps being taken by the Scottish Parliament to restrict the right to buy with a view to increasing supply?
Grant Shapps: I cannot answer for the 13 years of the Labour Government, but they had adequate time to make whatever changes they wanted on that front. However, the argument about the right to buy is very much yesterday's argument; it is literally about the '80s and '90s. This year, no more than 2,000 people nationwide are likely to exercise their right to buy. The issue is not the right to buy, but the pathfinder schemes-the housing market renewal that destroyed homes and neighbourhoods. It was partly responsible for our ending up with fewer homes than we started with after 17 years.
I want now to make some progress and to answer the substantive points raised in the debate, which were really about whether the new homes bonus will be sufficient to ensure that we get out of the hole we were left in and back to a world where we can build a sufficient number of homes to look after our population. I accept the comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford that the new homes bonus will not be enough. Before I address that, however, I want to point out how powerful an incentive it will be.
The new homes bonus represents nearly £1 billion, which is funded through the spending review programme. It will ensure that, wherever a home is built for the next six years, the same amount as is collected on the average council tax band there will be paid to the local authority. Where an affordable home is being built, an additional £350 is proposed in the consultation document, which is currently in front of me and which I am considering. The new homes bonus is therefore potentially an incredibly powerful incentive to get out there and build homes.
For the first time, there is some real benefit for the community of the individual authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned a potential development that I went to see a few years ago. That development could build homes, bring money and facilities in for local people and be a win-win. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who is not called Peterborough's champion for nothing, rightly said that housing can have a dramatic and important influence in terms of improving an area if it is done in the right way and not imposed from the top, but not if it is driven by a regional spatial strategy that takes no account of local needs and requirements.
The new homes bonus will be a powerful incentive. As my hon. Friend said, the billion will run out at some point, so the answer is to go and build homes and use as much of the money as possible now. It will then be top-sliced from the formula grant. That, in itself, will be an important incentive to ensure that areas are not left behind as their neighbours develop.
In my constituency, we have 2,500 empty properties. The new homes bonus will not benefit us when the top-slicing comes in. I did not really want
to go down this road, because the debate is about under-supply, rather than over-supply, but the housing market renewal pathfinders, which the Minister has just described as disastrous, removed empty properties where few people were living in areas with an over-supply. Will the Minister briefly comment on that?
Grant Shapps: The hon. Gentleman and I have regular discussions on this subject in the Lobby. I can assure him that the new homes bonus will in no way disadvantage a community that finds it is having a net loss of population. In other words, it does not penalise it when its council tax base reduces from one year to the next, but it massively aids and helps when the base increases. Let us take, for example, a constituency in which a number of homes have been empty for a period of time. Sefton borough council, which I recently visited, has an area in which there are about 450 empty homes. When those homes are rebuilt and reoccupied, it will be able to claim the money from the new homes bonus. As that will be a guaranteed income stream for six years, it can borrow against that potential income and regenerate an area for which, I am afraid, the housing market renewal money has now dried up. It is possible, therefore, to use the new homes bonus in constituencies in the more heated parts of the country, which are perhaps not the most obvious locations.
In the remaining few minutes, let me return to the central theme of today's debate, which is that the new homes bonus is not intended to be the be-all and end-all. There is a whole variety of other mechanisms by which we intend to ensure that the housing market and the housing supply are increased. Let me take a few moments to list them. First, and most critically-the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View raised this herself-mortgage finance has been incredibly restrictive. If we look at the root of the problem of housing undersupply and oversupply, or rather of a heated-up market, we would find that between 1997 and 2007, there was no one calling time on the banks. They continued to lend even after they no longer had the balance sheets to sustain such activity. We can pin the blame on a number of factors. One factor in particular that has to be included is the moment at which the Bank of England was given control over interest rates while nobody was given control of regulating the banks. We need to ensure that the supply of credit from the banks is available. At the moment, it has gone completely the other way. The hon. Lady referred to my conversations with the FSA. I can tell her that I say exactly the same thing to the FSA that I say to this House and to the public, which is that there needs to be an adequate supply of lending, particularly to first-time buyers who are the motor that drives this whole issue and who are particularly relevant to housing supply. House builders are unable to build their product and sell it to anyone if there is no competition in the market place. Mortgage availability, therefore, is a very big issue.
Planning reform is another very large area. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned the importance of reforming it. Let me reassure the House that the Localism Bill intends to do precisely that. There will be sweeping reform of planning rules. We will no longer have a system in which we go backwards and forwards and in which local communities are overridden by a planning inspectorate. Instead, plans will be put in place by the local community. Let me give one example.
The local development frameworks were only filed by 20% of councils because they were too complicated and they did not have local consent. Once local consent is built in to the heart of the system, there is every opportunity for planning decisions to be made much more quickly.
Let me refer to an intervention made by the hon. Lady with regard to whether this Government will be pro-development. The answer is that we will absolutely be pro sustainable development. We have never said that such an aim would be in the Bill; it would be the wrong place to put it. We have always said that it will be in the planning policy framework and that will make it absolutely clear that this Government are in favour of sustainable development. In fact, that is the default assumption.
The changes will create a new attitude towards planning. It will not be us against them-the developer against the local community. It will be people working together to try to improve their local communities through neighbourhood plans. We barely touched on the issue of community right to build, but local communities will be putting forward plans to develop their local areas. Ideas such as affordable rent and reform of the social housing market will help attract private sector finance for the first time. Ideas such as affordable rent and reform of the social housing market will help attract private sector finance for the first time. There is a whole range of options; I wish that we had more time to investigate them in greater detail. I will certainly write to all Members present with detailed answers to the points raised. I congratulate my hon. Friend once more on raising this important issue.
Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Williams, ably chairing this debate as always.
One of the vital prerequisites of a Government-initiated inquiry is that it should be utterly independent and devoid of any conflicts of interest that might undermine its credibility and the veracity of its conclusions and findings. I shall detail why I have grave misgivings about the independence of the Chilcot inquiry, and why I believe that the inquiry process may be flawed and even compromised from the beginning. I realise that those are grave allegations, but I do not make them lightly.
Before I detail the problems as I see them, I should mention that about three years ago, some documents were dispatched to my office from an unknown source, bearing a note saying that they were top secret. Some were British in origin; others may well have been from other intelligence sources. They showed that in 2001-02, active discussions were taking place on how to move in against Saddam Hussein using overwhelming military force. The term "regime change" appeared. The documents proved beyond doubt that the UK Government were on course for war even then.
The documents must have been copies of authentic documents, as two senior officers from the Metropolitan police visited me and questioned me and my colleague Adam Price about them. At the time of that visit, the documents were not physically in our possession. I decided to leave them where they were and not disclose them to anyone. I could not tell the police officers who had leaked them, as I simply did not know, and neither did Adam Price.
When the Chilcot inquiry was set up, I decided that I should surrender the documents to the inquiry. I took them to the inquiry's office in Victoria street and handed them to Mrs Margaret Aldred, the secretary of the inquiry. I said that I had evidence that might be of assistance to the inquiry and asked Mrs Aldred if the inquiry would write to confirm whether I would be called to give evidence. I told her that I had no intention of politicking if I were called. The response was an icy stare and the words "I should jolly well hope not."
Months went by. I wrote on two or three occasions asking for a response, but no response was forthcoming until last autumn, some nine months later. I concluded that either the secretariat was not very orderly and professional or my letters had not been passed on to the chair of the inquiry, who eventually responded. I had been discreet. As a Member of Parliament for 19 years, I thought that I should have had the courtesy of a reply one way or the other within weeks rather than months.
I began to think that something might be amiss in the secretariat, and I made various inquiries about the process of appointing the secretary. I knew that the appointment fell under the civil service code, whose key values are openness, honesty, integrity and accuracy. Recent legislation has placed those values on a statutory basis. I then tabled some parliamentary questions, and I shall refer to two of them.
"(1) what skills and experience were identified as being required for the role of Secretary to the Iraq Inquiry; how many candidates were identified as having such skills and experience; and on what basis the successful candidate was selected;
(2) what steps were taken in the process of appointment of the Secretary to the Iraq Inquiry (a) to identify potential conflicts of interest and (b) to ensure that any such conflicts did not affect the independence of the inquiry."
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr. Hurd), responded:
"The Cabinet Secretary decided to nominate the Secretary to the Iraq Inquiry and agreed the appointment with the Chairman of the Inquiry. Both the Cabinet Secretary and the Chairman of the Inquiry agreed that the Secretary to the Inquiry should be a senior individual in the civil service ideally with previous involvement in Iraq issues."
The Chairman of the Inquiry has told the Cabinet Secretary that, in agreeing to the appointment, he was aware of the candidate's role in the Foreign and Defence Policy (formerly the Defence and Overseas Policy) Secretariat in the Cabinet Office from November 2004, and, given the professional standards of the senior civil service, saw no potential conflict of interest with her appointment as Secretary to the Inquiry that would, in his view, affect the independence of the Inquiry."-[Official Report, 1 December 2010; Vol. 519, c. 882W.]
It was, therefore, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, who put Mrs Margaret Aldred's name forward for appointment as the secretary to the inquiry, and it was accepted, nem. con., by its chair, Sir John Chilcot.
On 3 September 2009, Dr Chris Lamb, who has been very concerned about this issue, wrote a freedom of information request to the Cabinet Office asking for the precise details of the manner of the appointment. On 2 September 2010-one whole year later-a letter, signed off by Sue Gray of the propriety and ethics team of the Cabinet Office, was sent in response. It stated:
"The Cabinet Secretary himself decided to nominate Margaret Aldred, and agreed the appointment with Sir John Chilcot, shortly after Sir John himself had accepted his role as Inquiry Chair. Both the Cabinet Secretary and the Inquiry Chair felt that the Secretary needed to be a senior individual with the right experience and skills for the task. Her previous involvement in Iraq issues was balanced against that criteria, and the view taken was that it would be possible to manage any potential conflicts of interest. Margaret Aldred was assured of that position by the Cabinet Secretary from the outset. She took up the appointment full time on 1 September last year."
The appointment did not follow the procedures outlined in the civil service code-it appears that no other candidate was considered by Sir Gus O'Donnell, and the process could not be described in any way as open and transparent. I will repeat what I believe to be the letter's key phrase:
"Her previous involvement in Iraq issues was balanced against other criteria, and the view was taken that it would be possible to manage any potential conflicts of interest."
Unsurprisingly, Dr Lamb was totally unsatisfied with the answer. He made a complaint to the Information Commissioner, and it was dealt with by Jonathan Slee, a senior case officer, who concluded in a letter dated 26 October 2010 that there were two possible scenarios. The first was that the Cabinet Office had no recorded information
"concerning the discussions in question. That is to say, such discussions took place orally (as opposed to in writing) and no written record of them was ever created. If this was the case presumably the narrative description of these discussions/deliberations which is included in the internal review was based purely on individuals' recollection of them."
On the second scenario, he wrote:
"Alternatively, the Cabinet Office did hold recorded information evidencing the nature of these discussions. The most obvious format for such recorded information would presumably be letters/emails exchanged between the Cabinet Secretary and Inquiry Chairman regarding Margaret Aldred, although such recorded information could obviously extend to meeting notes/memos/records of telephone conversations."
The letter goes on to discuss another individual before noting:
"If this is the case, I suggested to the Cabinet Office that such recorded information was presumably used as the basis to provide the narrative description of the discussions which was included in the internal review. However, for the reasons set out above I suggested that Cabinet Office would not have not fulfilled your request simply by describing the content of these recorded discussions. Rather the request would only be fulfilled by provision of the recorded information about the discussions themselves."
The pre-penultimate paragraph of the letter concludes:
"However, I appreciate that the manner in which the Cabinet Office has handled this request will no doubt have proved frustrating. I therefore intend to formally write to the Cabinet Office in order to highlight its errors in terms of handling this request, notably the failure to correctly determine whether it held information falling within the scope of the request when issuing its refusal notice; the very significant delay in conducting an internal review; and the fact that the content of the internal review was somewhat ambiguous in inferring that Cabinet Office did hold some recorded information."
Despite the best efforts of a very experienced researcher using the Freedom of Information Act 2000, it appears that there is no paper trail relating to the appointment or that, if there is, the Cabinet Office resolutely refuses to disclose it, for whatever reason.
We are left with the appointment of the deputy head of the Cabinet Office's foreign and defence policy secretariat, Margaret Aldred, as secretary to the inquiry that is inquiring into actions taken by her department during her tenure as its deputy head. So integral was she in policy development that she gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence in June 1994 about whether weaponised biological agents were present. She was part and parcel of all the planning for Gulf war I. She regularly chaired the Iraq senior officials group, which co-ordinated Iraq policy across the Government.
The appointment process was unusual and unacceptable, and the irony will not be lost on the public. The process resurrected one of the worst features of sofa government, which was so criticised by the Butler inquiry, of which Sir John Chilcot was, sadly, a member. The inquiry secretary, who has a key role, is a Cabinet Office insider and was appointed because of her extensive previous involvement in Iraq policy. There is therefore a glaring conflict of interest. Some might say her position is untenable because the inquiry is looking into the period when she was active in Iraq policy, as I said.
The very same Cabinet Office has most to answer for over Iraq. The Cabinet Office, and Mrs Aldred's section in particular, drew up plans for regime change-an unlawful concept in international law. The Cabinet Office-the Joint Intelligence Committee and its staff-produced the discredited Iraq dossier, one of the least persuasive documents in recent political history, which is of dubious provenance and even more dubious veracity. Can the inquiry be independent, or is it a Cabinet Office subsidiary? Mrs Aldred's involvement and that of her section makes it difficult to know where the Cabinet Office ends and the inquiry begins.
Sir John Chilcot is leading an inquiry that is tasked with examining allegations that the previous Government was duplicitous towards Parliament and the public. Surely, when Sir Gus O'Donnell suggested his close colleague, so enmeshed as she was in the whole Iraq debacle, Sir John should have seen the obvious conflict of interest? Has Mrs Aldred played a part in the protocol that has limited the inquiry's scope? What steps have been taken to manage the conflict of interest? What steps could be taken to manage her glaring, obvious and painful conflict of interest?
During the period covered by the inquiry, the section of the Cabinet Office where Mrs Aldred worked was pivotal in the Government's policy towards Iraq. Margaret Aldred was deputy head of that section for four and a half of those eight years. The inquiry has not published a single document originated by the Cabinet Office. In July 2002, a briefing paper by the same part of the Cabinet Office expressed the hope
"that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject".
In September 2002, Mrs Aldred's predecessor at the Cabinet Office wrote to Sir John Scarlett, then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, suggesting that the Iraq dossier and qualifications in the original assessment were to be removed. That document was not disclosed to the Hutton inquiry and the Cabinet Office spent years trying to prevent its disclosure. In passing, I remind the House that it was Sir Gus O'Donnell who recently denied the Chilcot inquiry permission to publish the correspondence between President Bush and Mr Blair, despite the fact that both men were happy to refer to the correspondence in their respective autobiographies.
To conclude, Mrs Aldred routinely chaired the Iraq senior officials group; she met US officials in October 2008 to discuss Iraq; she was implicated in or knew of the rendition policy; she had the leaked document showing that she was copied in with respect to the rendition policy; and she flew to Washington for discussions with counterparts three weeks before the inquiry was announced. The following questions must in my view be answered. It may be difficult for the Minister to do so today, but clearly if he can write to me in due course that will suffice. I do not want to put him on the spot.
Is Mrs Margaret Aldred's role at the inquiry as central as her role in Iraq policy at the Cabinet Office? Did Sir Gus O'Donnell detail Mrs Aldred's involvement in Iraq policy precisely to Sir John Chilcot, and when she was appointed and the appointment was announced why was there no mention of her previous experience with Iraq policy? She is the gatekeeper to the inquiry. Does she advise on lines of inquiry? Does she liaise with the Government about evidence? We know that she liaises with the Government about the publication of information. Was she involved in the drawing up of the protocol that has stymied the process? It was published a month after she took up her role. Is she likely to draft the report?
Obviously, justice must be seen to be done. Transparency and openness are paramount. They are concepts that are signally absent from the inquiry process. I regret that one conclusion that can easily be drawn is that the inquiry process is flawed and compromised from the very beginning.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): Mr Williams, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I know that my being English will not count against me in what would otherwise be a Welsh affair.
It is also a pleasure to respond to an important debate. The recent Iraq conflict, as we saw last week, stirs powerful emotions. We should recognise that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) has been one of the leaders of the debate on the legality of the war. He should be congratulated on his part in the democratic process. It is surely in the interest of all of us that the Chilcot inquiry should be conducted with impeccable impartiality and integrity. The hon. Gentleman obviously believes-and I listened to him carefully-that the process is, to use his words, flawed and compromised, principally by the process of appointing Margaret Aldred to the secretariat of the inquiry. As the hon. Gentleman was the first to admit, those are serious allegations, and should be responded to in like manner, not least for the sake of the reputation of the individual concerned, who cannot be here to defend herself.
I will simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman, not least because the chairman of the inquiry and his committee appear to be satisfied with their procedures, but I am happy to respond to the points that have been made. It might be helpful to provide some additional background context to the Iraq inquiry, in relation to the appointments that we are discussing.
The Iraq inquiry was launched, as the hon. Gentleman will know well, on 30 July 2009 with a remit to examine the United Kingdom's involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish as accurately and reliably as possible what happened, and to identify lessons that can be learned. The committee is made up of Privy Counsellors, is chaired by Sir John Chilcot and has four other members: Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne and Baroness Usha Prashar. I think that it is generally accepted-I certainly accept it, but I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman shares my view-that each committee member is independent, non-partisan and committed to undertaking a thorough, rigorous and fair inquiry.
Mr Llwyd: It is no part of my view that any of the inquiry members should be impugned. I have no wish to denigrate them. I am discussing a conflict of interest specifically.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for placing that on record and making it entirely clear. I am pleased that he has done so. Obviously, to some degree, their reputation and integrity are on the line, as the procedures for which they are responsible are being called into question. I am sure that they would take very seriously indeed any suggestion of mismanagement of a potential conflict of interest. As he says, it might undermine the integrity of the processes to which their names are attached. As I understand it, they have placed on record the fact that the committee and the secretariat work collectively. The committee is satisfied that its procedures are capable of dealing with any potential conflict of interest. The Privy Counsellors are supported by a secretariat staffed by civil servants who share their
commitment and are governed by the values of the civil service code, which I will address at the end of my remarks.
Having provided the background and context, I will address the role of the secretariat and the process of appointing the secretary, which is the crux of the hon. Gentleman's argument. The secretariat supports the chair of the inquiry and its members in carrying out their tasks. Its duties are varied and wide-ranging and include making logistical arrangements, requesting statements and papers and preparing papers for consideration by the committee.
The secretariat operates independently of the Department and is currently staffed by 16 civil servants drawn from seven Departments: the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Government Communications Headquarters, the Department for International Development, the Northern Ireland Office and the Serious Fraud Office. There are also two suitably cleared temporary support staff members supplied by a recruitment agency. Those appointments to the Iraq secretariat were made in line with Cabinet Office human resources procedures, which are similar to those used by other Departments to provide staff for inquiries. I understand that they were used most recently in relation to the Gibson inquiry. It is regular practice.
I will explain more. When the Government decide to establish an independent inquiry, the timing is such that it must often be done as a matter of priority and with a degree of urgency. Decisions about the chair and members of an inquiry are matters for the Government. It is usual for an inquiry secretariat to be staffed by civil servants on loan or secondment from Departments. Decisions about the secretary to an inquiry will normally be for the chair, and the secretary will then recruit the supporting team in consultation with the chair.
When considering individuals' suitability for secretariat roles, a number of factors are taken into account, ranging from availability to relevant skills and experience to the potential for any conflict of interest. I can confirm that that process was followed for the Iraq inquiry secretariat. The posts were not initially advertised, as they needed to be filled urgently. The secretary and the Cabinet Office human resources team worked with colleagues in other Departments to identify individuals considered suitable for the various roles, taking into account their availability, skills, knowledge, experience and any identified potential conflicts of interest. After the individuals had been agreed, the moves were made through the Cabinet Office human resources managed move policy.
Moving on from general recruitment, I will focus on the specific position in which the hon. Gentleman is interested, that of inquiry secretary. It is clearly a crucial role. The Cabinet Secretary discussed with Sir John Chilcot the experience, skills and background knowledge required and agreed that the secretary should be a senior individual in the civil service, ideally with previous knowledge and experience of defence and foreign affairs. The Cabinet Secretary proposed Margaret Aldred, who had been the deputy head of the Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat-formerly the Defence and Overseas Policy Secretariat-in the Cabinet Office since November
2004. Sir John, after considering with others Mrs Aldred's background and experience, agreed. He did not call for more choices or more alternatives. He agreed with the proposal from the Cabinet Secretary. Given the professional standards of the senior civil service, he and the Cabinet Secretary concluded that there would not be a potential conflict of interest with her appointment, and it would not affect the independence of the inquiry. We strongly support his view.
Regarding Mrs Aldred's previous involvement in Iraq issues, which is the issue that concerns the hon. Gentleman, the inquiry has papers from the Cabinet Office covering the whole period of its terms of reference. Those include papers produced by the foreign and defence policy secretariat, in which Mrs Aldred was previously employed. In addition, it has heard evidence from the Prime Minister's foreign and defence policy advisers for whom Mrs Aldred worked.
Sir John and other committee members are fully satisfied that the secretary is discharging her role efficiently and effectively and with the highest levels of professionalism. Mrs Aldred is a highly experienced member of the senior civil service, with a deep understanding and knowledge of defence and foreign policy issues. Her previous work on Iraq has been handled by the inquiry in a way that is fair and open and avoids conflicts of interests. Again, I stress that the committee is satisfied that that does not have any negative impacts on the inquiry and does not call into question the independence of its work. It would be wrong to suggest otherwise.
Let me conclude by talking briefly about the civil service code and its values, because the hon. Gentleman suggested that this process cut across the bow of that code. The code and its values are clearly important in gaining a full appreciation of how they apply in relation to the secretariat to the Iraq inquiry. Let me start by covering the values. As civil servants, the inquiry secretary and other members of the secretariat are required to carry out their duties and responsibilities in accordance with the requirements of the civil service code, including integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. They are also required to comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice. While working for the inquiry, the civil servants will be accountable to the inquiry for their work and actions.
To conclude, I have no doubt at all, if things are as the hon. Gentleman said, that some things should have been done better, not least in terms of the courtesy that should have been extended to him, and the length of time that it took to respond to the FOI request. I am sure that the people involved in that will think on it. But in terms of the core issue-the integrity and professionalism of the secretariat to the inquiry-I am pleased to have the opportunity to place on record my appreciation of the work done by the inquiry, which I am sure is shared by the House and the general public. I am also pleased to be able to put it on record that both I and the independent committee of Privy Counsellors who constitute the Iraq inquiry, and whose reputation and integrity are on the line in this process as well, are confident that the inquiry secretary and the other civil servants are providing impartial and objective advice to the inquiry in a way that upholds the impartiality of the civil service and preserves the independence of the inquiry.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In a speech recently, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly observed that one of the generators of new jobs in the UK would be tourism. Tourists come to the UK for many reasons. I am glad to report that Bicester village in my constituency is now the most popular destination for Chinese tourists coming to the UK. However, the fact is that many tourists and visitors to the UK, while they are here, want to appreciate and experience our heritage, and of course heritage is also important for all of us, because historic heritage has helped to shape what each of us thinks and feels about where we live-our sense of place.
An important part of our heritage in England is our historic houses. Historic houses provide character and distinctiveness, and help to create pride in the places where people live. When people talk about heritage properties or historic houses, they understandably immediately think of the National Trust and English Heritage, which are in charitable and public ownership respectively. What many of us fail to realise fully is that, out of the historic houses open to the public, those that are privately owned, managed, and funded outnumber the total of those belonging to the National Trust and English Heritage put together.
My particular interest in initiating the debate is because, just outside Banbury, we have Broughton castle, which is a moated castle of considerable history that has been lived in by numerous successive generations of the Fiennes family. Something that most people-indeed, people from all corners of the world-know about my constituency is the traditional nursery rhyme:
"Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady on a white horse".
It is generally believed locally that the "fine" lady was, indeed, a "Fiennes" lady and that the nursery rhyme relates to the Fiennes family at Broughton castle, otherwise known as the Saye and Seles.
Broughton castle has been a distinctive part of the history of north Oxfordshire throughout the centuries and was a parliamentarian stronghold during the civil war. Numerous Fiennes were, on different occasions, my predecessors as Members of Parliament for Banbury. The present Lord and Lady Saye and Sele have been exemplary over the years in their commitment to the community in which they live. Both have been very active deputy lord lieutenants and have always been incredibly generous in allowing the community to use the castle and grounds at Broughton for community events. There has been everything from traditional church fêtes to charity fund raising pop concerts. Broughton castle is a local jewel. The whole community benefits not simply from the public access that is afforded to Broughton, but from the numerous and various spin-off benefits the castle provides to my constituency more widely.
Nat and Mariette Saye and Sele have been extremely generous to the extent that they have allowed Broughton to be used in aid of many local charitable and community purposes. However, the stewardship of a building as large and as old as Broughton must be a struggle. I sometimes think that there must be a risk that owners of historic houses become something of a captive of the
house in which they live. For a stretch of nearly 15 years, one part or another of Broughton castle has been shrouded in scaffolding as the Saye and Seles have methodically maintained and repaired the castle. Indeed, any such historic house requires constant maintenance that never ends. Although the Saye and Seles at Broughton are exemplary stewards of an historic house, they are clearly not alone in what they do. Across the country, many such privately owned houses play a pivotal role in contributing to the local economy and supporting the local community.
The economic and social benefits of historic houses are considerable and quantifiable. Recently, the Heritage Lottery Fund published a report entitled, "Investing in Success: Heritage and the UK Tourism Economy." That report made clear the scale of the heritage tourism industry in the UK, estimating that its gross domestic product contributed some £20.6 billion to the UK economy. Indeed, the research established that the sector makes a bigger contribution to the UK GDP than, perhaps surprisingly, the advertising or film industries or even car manufacturing. Indeed, the heritage tourism sector directly supports an estimated 195,000 full-time equivalent jobs. Four in 10 incoming visitors or tourists to the UK cited heritage as the primary motivation for their trip to Britain, which was more than any other single factor. Of course, a considerable amount of spending on UK heritage comes from UK residents on holidays and day trips. It is not surprising that the most recent report of the Historic Houses Association shows that the possibilities provided by historic houses are endless and range from ghost hunts to sculpture gardens, from art exhibitions to music festivals and from bat walks to an international jesters' competition.
So why have I initiated the debate? Simply because, as I have indicated, it is a continuous struggle to find the money to ensure that many historic houses are properly maintained and repaired. The owners of historic houses in no way wish to be rentiers on the state, but in consideration of the fact that they continue to provide public access to their homes, and of the broader community and national benefit of historic houses, we all have an interest in trying to get the balance right.
I emphasise that what I am talking about here are historic houses that are open to the public and are regularly open to the public. For example, Broughton castle is advertised as being open to the public 50 days a year. In addition, it has booked groups on a further 50-plus days. Moreover, schools and other groups can book by appointment on pretty much any day of the year. These are historic houses that are regularly and frequently open to the general public.
Over the years, successive Governments have made honest attempts to provide support for historic houses. Heritage maintenance funds have been developed, the thinking behind which is straightforward and sound. The proposition is that it is not sufficient to protect designated heritage property from capital taxation if the supporting assets that are essential to maintain that heritage property are themselves whittled away by successive bites of capital tax.
The Finance Act 1976 provided that assets dedicated to supporting a designated heritage property, both in terms of maintenance and of the provision of public access to it, could be ring-fenced and settled in a heritage maintenance fund, which would itself be conditionally exempt from inheritance tax.
Comparatively few-135 or so-heritage maintenance funds have been set up over the past 30 years. The problem is that very few of them provide income and capital proceeds to support the maintenance and repair of historic buildings and land designated by the Treasury as being of national importance and usually with a public access condition. Very few are actively being used, and very few new HMFs are being created.
That is because income generated within HMFs is taxed at the trust rate, which is now 50%; capital gains generated within HMFs are subject to capital gains tax and there is now no indexation; and, as an unintended result of drafting of tax legislation in 2006, the active use of HMFs is effectively frozen for six to seven years every time there is a resettlement of the HMF. For every HMF in which the historic house is taxed as a business under case 1, schedule D, a resettlement is needed each time there is a transfer of ownership. It is estimated that about a third of HMFs are currently caught in this trap and many more will be sooner or later.
HMFs are not working as they were intended to work. That matters because HMFs were designed to help owners of nationally important heritage to maintain that heritage in the public interest. It is estimated that the owners of historic houses as a whole are putting £139 million into the maintenance of their own houses every year. That is a considerable amount of money, but not enough to stop the build-up of a backlog of urgent repairs worth some £390 million. An additional £20 million of maintenance a year is necessary just to keep up. All that happens is that the backlog of urgent repairs continues to grow, which is unsustainable.
The Historic Houses Association estimates that with some fairly modest improvements in the tax treatment of HMFs, one could generate an additional £12 million in maintenance each year, thus making significant inroads into the annual maintenance shortfall. Such a scheme would cost the Exchequer only about £6 million a year. The suggestions are to reduce the tax on income generated in HMFs to the basic rate, currently 20%, recognising that HMFs can be used only in support of the maintenance of the designated historic property; to exempt disposals of assets within HMFs from CGT so long as the proceeds are used for maintenance of the historic property, or reinvested in assets within the HMF; and to correct the drafting of the tax legislation so that HMFs would not be frozen each time there was a resettlement.
The cost to the Exchequer of the first two would be no more than £6 million per year, and the third- the technical correction-would be cost free. No CGT is being collected from HMFs caught in the trap because no disposals are being made.
Put shortly, HMFs have been on the statute book for more than 30 years. They need to be made workable and to fulfil the purpose for which they were intended-to provide a reasonable mechanism to enable owners of historic houses to maintain their houses and keep them open to the public. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister's Department, as the sponsor Department for heritage and tourism, will work with officials in the Treasury and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to ensure that HMFs are made to work properly.
Will the Minister's Department have an overall look at how it is possible to reduce the regulatory burden and red tape on historic houses? Indeed, shortly after coming to office the coalition Government pledged to review
and reduce regulation. Five areas have been highlighted in which action would be relatively simple to take at little or no cost to the Exchequer, and which would bring worthwhile benefits not only to those promoting historic houses and tourism, but to the wider economy. The first is licensing and the implementation of the 2006 Elton review recommendations, which called for changes to the fee structures for larger events; permission for historic rural venues to host occasional events; and for a de minimis approach when the licence or activity is small in relation to the overall activity taking place.
The second area is tourism signage and the hope that it would be possible to develop a policy to encourage the use of brown signs not just to manage traffic, but to promote tourism. Even under the current policy, there are inconsistencies in Highways Agency and local authority interpretation, resulting in some historic houses not being allowed tourism signs, or even losing their signs.
Thirdly, on planning, we need to promote a more flexible approach to the way in which planning applications for temporary structures, such as marquees, are handled. Marquees house special events that can significantly enrich the experience of visitors to historic places without compromising the historic value of the site. Indeed, the Palace of Westminster has had temporary permanent marquees on the Terrace for as long as I can recall, but they are, by definition, temporary and reversible. For some reason, some local authorities treat marquees as though they are permanent developments.
The fourth area is the application of fire safety rules to listed bed and breakfast accommodation. While recognising that fire safety is, of course, paramount, one needs to ensure that the application of fire safety regulations recognises the peculiarities and realities of historic buildings. Finally, we need to rethink the application of health and safety regulations in circumstances involving natural hazards, because, at present, it is undermining voluntary efforts to open the countryside for public access.
Historic houses are not just stone and mortar. They should be living places. The soul of a historic house is the family who live there. Those families are the most committed, responsible and, dare I say, cheapest curators of these parts of our national heritage. May I therefore urge the Minister to note that modest changes to heritage maintenance funds can bring long-term benefits at a relatively tiny annual cost to the Exchequer? Moreover, will his Department please do what it can to tackle excessive regulation?
Historic houses are inspirational places. They brighten our lives, whether through a day out, an educational visit, attending a wedding or a concert, or even through enjoying the setting of "Downton Abbey". Historic houses are there to be enjoyed, but they require constant maintenance and repair, which are heavy costs. It is only fair that there should be some sensible compact between the community as a whole and the curators of such houses for the provision that they make of them to the community.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (John Penrose):
It is pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Williams, for this important and timely debate. I congratulate my hon.
Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on raising the issue. He clearly has a strong personal interest and, as he has made clear, a strong constituency interest in the issues that he has raised, which I will try to address point by point.
I am the Minister with responsibility for tourism and heritage, and I think that the Government accept that there is a very close and entirely appropriate link between those two elements of British life. I accept and agree with my hon. Friend's central principle that heritage is a tremendously important part of British national life not only from a tourism perspective, but because, as he has rightly pointed out, heritage assets-be they houses, museums, prehistoric monuments or any of the things that we are lucky enough to have in this country-create a sense of place and convey the individual history and sense of character of a particular village or town. They are an essential part of what makes us us. We would be the poorer if we tried to pretend that that was not so, and it would be foolish to ignore what is one of our most central and important national assets.
My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that heritage is one of the most frequently cited reasons for tourists to visit Britain in the first place, and it would be perverse of us to ignore or downplay that. He is, therefore, absolutely right to put the issue front and centre, and I could not agree more with the central principle that he is enunciating.
My hon. Friend is also right to applaud the work of the Historic Houses Association, which represents about 1,500 owners of historic houses up and down the country. Those owners are incredibly careful and committed stewards of the properties for which they are responsible, looking after them for themselves and for future generations of not only their own family but the communities in which their houses are located and the wider public in general, because, as he has rightly pointed out, many of those houses are open to the public, either permanently or periodically, giving us all a chance to enjoy one of the things that makes Britain unique among countries.
The HHA does some tremendously good work and its members are tremendously important, particularly because-as my hon. Friend has pointed out-it is easy to assume that heritage is just something that the state or government do. I am pleased to say that nothing could be further from the truth. We are lucky in this country to have a variety of different types of ownership and stewardship of our national heritage in its various forms. First, there is public ownership of some essential assets. English Heritage's properties, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, are a good example of such assets. Secondly, there is ownership by charitable or third sector-the voluntary and community sector-organisations. The National Trust is the biggest, most prominent and certainly the most famous of those organisations, but there are dozens-indeed, probably hundreds-of other charitable trusts and other such organisations that run other parts of our national heritage, and they all do extremely good work. Thirdly and finally, as we have already mentioned, there is of course private ownership. It is instructive-is it not?-to note that all three of these types of stewardship or ownership
have extremely strong advocates and that all three perform tremendously good work in looking after our nation's heritage.
So there is not a preconception that only one system of ownership will work. In the UK, we are lucky to have a mixed economy-if I can call it that-in this sector and long may that continue. It is an essential part of ensuring that we do not have all our eggs in one basket and that our heritage is properly looked after in a number of different ways.
My hon. Friend made a series of points, and I will try to address them one a time. He began by explaining the background to heritage maintenance funds and some of what I think is their noble purpose. He said that a central theme underlies them, which he believes is, "Sensible is good sense," and I agree with him on that. However, he also pointed out that there is a fair degree of frustration, not only in the membership of the HHA but more broadly in the heritage world, about the limitations of HMFs and the fact that they are not necessarily working as many people would like them to.
I must say that, as the Minister with responsibility for tourism and heritage, nothing would give me greater pleasure than being able to turn around and promise my hon. Friend that all those issues concerning tax and the other details of HMFs can be dealt with by the wave of a magic wand or the stroke of a pen. Sadly, however, given the state of the national finances in particular, I cannot make that promise here today, although I suspect that my hon. Friend did not really expect me to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to note the concerns that he has rightly identified and outlined for us in the Chamber today.
It is also important to note some of the constraints on HMFs. It is worth while pointing out, as my hon. Friend did, that there are only 135 extant HMFs and that not all of them are active. Even if we were able to wave the magic wand that I have mentioned and remove some-or perhaps even all-of the constraints that he has pointed out, most estimates are that only another 40 or so HMFs would be established in the next five years. Given that the members of the HHA are responsible for 1,500 houses, we are talking about a comparatively small proportion of houses that would be affected, although some of them are tremendously important national assets-indeed, some are among our most famous and well recognised national assets. Nevertheless, the HMF scheme is quite a narrow one, as it currently stands. Therefore, there are many other assets-many other heritage properties-that are managing well without using that particular mechanism.
It is also true to say that the Treasury is rightly cautious about some of the proposals from the HHA. That is not because it dislikes the notion of heritage or trying to support it, but simply because it is concerned about the wider budget questions that this entire Parliament will be remembered for trying to grapple with and about the major issues that we face on the national deficit. It also needs to be clear that it cannot necessarily create a special deal for heritage charities, funds or trusts, because that might create the thin end of a rather larger wedge for other classes of asset.
The Treasury is interested, it is listening and it is concerned to address the issues that the Historic Houses Association has raised. I have spoken with the association, which has come to see me at the Department for Culture,
Media and Sport. I understand that there are also ongoing discussions between the association and my opposite numbers at the Treasury. I want to make it clear that my Department and the Treasury are also discussing these issues. A great deal of conversation is therefore going on, but it is subject to some fairly severe financial constraints, as I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand. Although, we both, I suspect, wish that those constraints did not exist, they are real, and it would be remiss and wrong of us to pretend otherwise.
Some of the proposals that the association suggests would be at least fiscally neutral are probably slightly easier for the Treasury to view more favourably than others, but I need to leave that to the Treasury, as I am sure my hon. Friend will understand. I am afraid that I cannot commit the Treasury in this debate, and there would be fairly serious repercussions if I tried. None the less, discussions are ongoing, and I hope that the association understands that it is being carefully listened to and that its audience is, wherever possible, being receptive to its concerns.
My hon. Friend has mentioned two issues concerning the broader deregulation agenda. One is licensing, particularly of live music and entertainment events. He gave some good examples of the great breadth of entertainment that is frequently provided by owners of historic houses up and down the country. The creativity and range of those events is continuously growing, and we can all cite examples of the events being held at historic properties in almost every constituency around the country, which is all to the good. The fact that such events take place is superb, because it provides a sustainable reason for many of these properties to continue to exist. It will make sure that they are living and thriving and that they are not just museums or mausoleums, but have a current purpose, which is excellent.
The second issue that my hon. Friend has mentioned is heritage signs-brown signs, as they are frequently called-on our motorways and other roads. In both cases-licensing and heritage signs-policy ideas are being discussed in my Department. I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend a categorical promise at this stage, because the discussions are ongoing, and there would have to be sign-off all around Whitehall in the usual Cabinet government collective responsibility fashion, as I am sure that he understands as a former Minister himself. However, I promise that both ideas are under active discussion.
In the case of the licensing regime, a great many people have concerns. Musicians' unions, for example, are calling for deregulation. My hon. Friend will understand that if one chose to go down that route, it would be important to make sure that there were no unintended consequences. There are real risks associated with live entertainment of one kind or another, simply because it can involve a large number of people in a comparatively small space. There are therefore concerns about health and safety, the disturbance caused by people arriving at and leaving a venue, public order and so on. All those issues have to be dealt with, so the devil in deregulating, or reducing the amount of regulation involved in, the licensing of entertaining is very much in the detail.
I am, however, happy to reassure my hon. Friend that we are in the middle of discussions. I hope to have something to announce in due course, but that will rather depend on collective responsibility. My hon. Friend will understand that other Whitehall Departments
are concerned to ensure that the right things are done on, for example, health and safety legislation or public order. The Department for Work and Pensions would be involved on health and safety, while the Home Office would be involved on public order. They have to sign off and approve these things, which have to be carefully and properly considered so that everybody is sure that we are not creating an unintended consequence.
My hon. Friend also mentioned his concerns about the red tape surrounding fire and health and safety regulations. He is absolutely right that due to dramatic changes in building styles over many centuries, historic buildings often create and deliver a unique set of complexities and difficulties for fire and health and safety inspectors. Because they are, by definition, unusual and rare, they present issues that are not necessarily common or frequently encountered in modern buildings. Therefore, a degree of sensitivity is required on the part of health and safety and fire inspectors. A fire regulation solution that might be normal, natural and fairly straightforward in a modern building might be deeply antithetical to a historic building and fundamentally undermine its essential historic character. An approved and appropriate set of solutions to many problems commonly encountered in historic buildings is increasingly widely available.
Of course, it is not sufficient to say, "Well, there's one answer that suits historic buildings and one that suits modern buildings." The sad and difficult point is that an answer to the problem of fire doors and so on in a 19th-century building could be completely inappropriate for an 18th or 17th-century building, and a timber-framed building would need a different set of solutions again. It requires an in-depth understanding of heritage issues and of the available solutions, but a widely understood range of solutions is increasingly being developed. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would not hurt for those solutions to be more widely known, simply because it is easy otherwise for an individual inspector to fall out with the owner or heritage guardian of a historic house, which is unhelpful for all concerned.
Increasingly, there is a trend toward a risk-based approach to fire and health and safety inspections. Five, 10 or 15 years ago, some parts of the country had a rotational system where everybody was inspected every year, two years, three years or whatever, whether the property in question was well or badly run. Nowadays, I am pleased to say that there is a move in many parts of the country-I am told that it is spreading steadily-towards a risk-based approach. For a property that is known to be well-run and can be checked as such, perhaps a longer time can pass, whereas a property that causes grave concerns should perhaps be inspected more frequently and regularly. Such a flexible approach, particularly toward many of our excellently run heritage properties, is entirely sensible and appropriate.
I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend and given him answers to some of the issues that he has raised. I repeat that he is absolutely correct that heritage is crucial to this country. It is one of the things that makes us what we are and distinguishes us from any other part of the world. I know that he and I are both committed to ensuring that our heritage assets are kept in good hands for future as well as current generations. I am sure that he will hold me to account for how we do so as ably as he has done in the past half-hour.
Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): Over recent years, there has been an alarming worldwide reduction in bee numbers. In the UK, similar declines have occurred in wild pollinators such as bumblebees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies. The causes of those losses have been much debated.
When I wrote to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last month, Lord Henley replied to say that, in Britain at least, the combined factors included poor spring and summer weather, the varroa mite and other husbandry issues. My letter to the Department had been about the possibility that a group of systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids, and similar products, were contributing to the demise of bees and other pollinating insects. In response, Lord Henley said:
"In the UK, neo-nicotinoid insecticides are used primarily in commercial agriculture and horticulture production. Only a very small proportion is used in home garden products so the potential risk to bees, if any, from this type of product is negligible".
He also assured me that the UK pesticide approval regime was robust and adequate.
I sought the debate today to urge the Government to be prepared to take a step back from that position and to look again at what is happening to the small creatures that contribute so much to our environment and food production. In particular, I ask them to examine, first, the growing weight of science that shows how neonicotinoid use and invertebrate losses are likely to be linked and, secondly, the evidence that the pesticide assessment regimes in Europe and the United States, as applied to systemics and the potential for environmental damage, are inadequate in identifying what is really going on.
In 2009 the British charity Buglife-The Invertebrate Conservation Trust conducted a review of all the available scientific literature about the effects of neonicotinoids and the Bayer product Imidacloprid in particular on non-target insect species. The report referred to 100 scientific studies and papers, and highlighted some real concerns that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and other pollinating insects. It also identified a particular problem of insects ingesting tiny doses on repeated visits to treated plants. The testing methodology of the Imidacloprid draft assessment report under EU regulations was not sufficiently sensitive to detect that.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. He brings terrific expertise to the subject. Does he agree that, if there is any doubt about the adequacy of the regulatory regimes in Europe and the United States-and this is a classic instance-the precautionary principle should be applied? Given the crucial importance of bees and other insects in the ecosystem, it is a risk that we cannot afford to take.
Martin Caton: I go a long way with my right hon. Friend, but I do not think that the precautionary principle should be applied regardless of the degree of doubt; I shall come on to that a little later. However, if there is substantial doubt and good scientific evidence to give rise to doubt, the precautionary principle certainly should kick in.
Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for obtaining the debate, because like him I believe that the issue of bees and pollination is extremely important, particularly in the west country where we have had problems with colony collapse. Does he agree that the evidence, circumstantial though it may be, to some degree, from France, Germany and Italy, where the substances have been banned, with a subsequent increase in the bee population, seems to point to a significant problem?
Martin Caton: I do agree. The evidence of increases is largely anecdotal, but I shall quote the president of the Italian Association of Beekeepers, because in the Po valley a ban was introduced. He said:
"On behalf of bee-farmers working in a countryside dominated by maize crops, I wrote to the Minister of Agriculture to confirm the great news, for once: thanks to the suspension of the bee-killing seed coating, the hives in the Po Valley are flourishing again."
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that in European countries the initial licensing for such controversial pesticides is done by way of a draft assessment report organised by the manufacturer? Shockingly, the DAR for the commonest neonicotinoid used in Europe was put together by Bayer, who, surprise, surprise, did not find a problem with it. Does he agree that there is a problem with metholodogy?
Martin Caton: The hon. Lady has taken me to a point in my speech where I was intending to say the same thing; I may not have to say it now, thanks to her.
On the basis of its findings, Buglife called on the Government to reconsider the position of neonicotinoids, and to suspend existing outdoor approvals for the products pending the findings of a review. It also called for the development of international methodologies for assessing the effects of systemic pesticides and sub-lethal impacts on invertebrates.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): There are a large number of beekeepers in my constituency, many of whom have contacted me about the issue, so I am pleased that the debate is happening, and grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing it. It is important that the chemicals regulation directorate is encouraged to think about these issues and, if necessary, to research the health of bees in general. I certainly encourage the Minister to respond to that.
Martin Caton: That is a fair point. It is useful that the president of the British Beekeepers' Association issued a statement just a couple of days ago. Traditionally, that organisation has not been at the forefront of trying to get action taken, but it is now realising how serious the situation is and it is calling for an urgent review. We are all beginning to sing from the same hymn sheet.
The Government asked the chemicals regulation directorate to look at the Buglife report. In a letter to Buglife and the Soil Association, Lord Henley said that the Advisory Committee on Pesticides had conducted a further review. However, earlier this month, someone contacted the ACP to ask for a copy of the report and she was told that the ACP had not conducted a review of the Buglife report and that only the CRD had conducted the review. That same person then asked the
CRD for a copy of the review and she was told that it was not quite finished, as the directorate still needed to look at some data.
Even though the review was clearly not completed, Lord Henley felt able to tell Buglife that its report had highlighted a need in the risk assessment process for data on the impact of these pesticides on over-wintering bees and that the matter was being addressed. That was clearly a welcome step. However, he did not respond to the main thrust of that report on environmental damage, nor did he answer the main recommendations that I have just outlined. Buglife and the Soil Association have asked the Minister to supply a copy of the full report from the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, but that could be difficult because the report simply does not exist.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting case. Given that the problems of colony collapse and bee decline did not happen at the last general election and that the previous Government agreed welcome investment that went into research into the causes of colony collapse, has his research identified any evidence provided by DEFRA through the work that it has undertaken in examining the causes of colony collapse in the UK?
Martin Caton: Most of the research that I have looked at for this debate has been new research done by academic institutions that leads to further worries about the use of this particular group of systemics. I will come on to that in a moment.
Without a completed review of the report, DEFRA decided not to accept Buglife's interpretation of the current science and continues to maintain that
"We have a robust system for assessing risks from pesticides in the UK"
that is based on evidence. DEFRA goes on to state:
"current evidence shows that...there is not an unacceptable risk to bee health"
from these products. That statement was made as recently as last month. But how robust is a risk assessment regime that takes 16 months to deal with a report? That worries me because things have moved on considerably since the production of the Buglife report. Further scientific evidence has been produced over the past 15 months that strengthens the case. Four significant pieces of published research have emerged during that time. The first is a paper in Ecotoxicology by Nils Dittbrenner. It demonstrates a damaging impact on earthworm growth and activity at field level use of Imidacloprid. Secondly, work by the toxicologist, Dr Henk Tennekes, shows that low-level exposure to neonicotinoids by arthropods over a long time is likely to be as damaging as high exposure over a short time and hence more harmful than had been thought. Thirdly, work done by James Cresswell of Exeter university published in Ecotoxicology makes the case, from various pieces of lab work done by others, that a 6% to 20% reduction in honey bee performance is associated with the use of neonicotinoids. However, none of the field studies used to assess the impact of systemic pesticides would be able to detect a change in performance at that level.
Fourthly, a paper by Cedric Alaux of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research published in Environmental Microbiology demonstrates a clear
link between neonicotinoid exposure and increased susceptibility to fatal nosema infections that could threaten pollinators. In addition, there is unpublished work that adds to the picture. One piece of work from the Netherlands shows widespread contamination of water bodies in that country and raises concerns about the impacts on the health of freshwater invertebrate populations. The other, from the USA, was the subject of the lead story in The Independent last Thursday under the headline, "Poisoned Spring".
In an exclusive, Michael McCarthy, the environment editor of The Independent, revealed work from the US Department of Agriculture's bee research lab, showing that neonicotinoid pesticides make honey bees far more susceptible to disease-even at tiny doses. Therefore, they have to be in the frame when we consider the causes of the colony collapse disorder that is having a devastating effect on bees around the world.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Everyone in this Chamber, I think, agrees that bee health is a very important issue for the whole environment and for the environmental cycle. He has mentioned a number of factors that affect bee health and he has talked about pests and diseases. Does he not think that we should look at bee health as an overall issue and the impacts that are riding on that, rather than just focus on specific issues?
Martin Caton: That is exactly my case. The evidence against the neonicotinoids now is that they make bees and other pollinating insects more susceptible to diseases, so it is not just one factor. We cannot rule out the effect of these systemic pesticides. That is the mistake that has been made so far.
Dr Jeffrey Pettis and his team at the US Department found that increased disease infection happened even when the levels of the insecticides were so tiny that they could not subsequently be detected in the bees, although the researchers knew that they had been dosed with it. Those findings are completely in line with some of the other research that I have already mentioned. That research evidence from the other side of the Atlantic follows hard on the heels of the "leaked memo" from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is about a newer neonicotinoid called Clothianidin. It is highly critical of the risk assessment process used in the US. It states:
"Information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoid insecticides, suggest the potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects."
Alarm bells should be ringing by now. Neonicotinoids are a group of relatively new compounds that mimic the insect-killing properties of nicotine. They are neurotoxins, attacking the central nervous system of the invertebrates. They are systemic, which means that they get taken into every part of the plant, including the pollen and nectar. In turn, that means that bees and other pollinating insects can absorb them and carry them back to their nests or hives.
In 2008, total neonicotinoid use in Britain involved more than 2.5 million acres-some quarter of the arable cropland in this country-and they are big earners for
the chemical companies that produce them. According to the article in The Independent, the German company Bayer earned more than £500 million from the sale of its top-selling insecticide, Imidacloprid, in 2009, which fits in with the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). As she said, there is no independent monitoring of the process of gathering and assessing results by the manufacturer. When that is the foundation of the approval system, is it any surprise that we find disparities between the findings of subsequent independent research on this systemic pesticide and the research in its own 2005 draft assessment report?
We need to look again at the approval mechanism for crop protection. In doing so, we should be employing the precautionary principle.
Caroline Lucas: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that DEFRA seems over-complacent about the issue of the ill health of bees? In 2005, I asked the European Commission to comment on cuts that were being made that would halve the number of seasonal bee inspectors. Given that it has been estimated that beekeeping contributes £165 million a year to the UK economy in direct costs and unquantifiable value to the health of our ecological systems, one would have thought that keeping a high number of seasonable bee inspectors would have been a good precautionary measure.
Martin Caton: I would not disagree with that. That leads me on to my next point. We are not just talking about honey bees. I am sure that all our hearts go out to beekeepers in these very difficult times, but only 8% of insect pollination is from honey bees; other pollinators contribute enormously to our food security and to the quality of our ecosystem.
As I have given way so many times, I will not be able quite to complete my speech, but I would like to make some points for the Minister to respond to. If he cannot do what I would really like him to do, which is to suspend the use of all new neonicotinoids from tomorrow, I request that he commit today, or in writing as soon as he can, to reviewing the new research that I have referred to, and to reconsidering the licences that have been granted. I request that he withdraw the licences that allow neonicotinoids to be used on plants that produce nectar and pollen until the evidence is clear that they have no impact on the environment, and that he establish a national monitoring system for pollinators and pollinating rates. I ask him to produce a formal response to the scientific papers to which I have just drawn attention, stating what concentrations of neonicotinoids are found in UK water bodies and whether the levels are routinely monitored. I also request that he ask the Environment Agency to work with other agencies to undertake a review of those levels, commissioning research that would be scientifically robust enough to clarify any link between the pesticides and UK populations of wild pollinators.
A Government who aim to be the greenest ever cannot ignore a hugely significant threat to arguably the most important tier of animal life on this planet. They need to act; now is the time to wake up and smell the coffee.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton) on securing the debate. I say that seriously, despite the fact that I am in the position of having to reply.
None of us, as MPs, is unaware of the widespread concern, which has existed for a number of years, about our bee population. As the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, colony collapse disorder is not something new. Soon after the Labour Government were elected in 1997, I took part, in my earlier incarnation as Opposition spokesman challenging the Government, in a debate about bee health, on the specific issue of varroa. Unfortunately, the Government took no notice at all, and the varroa mite is now widespread-some would argue endemic-with the real long-term impact unknown.
The issue to which the hon. Gentleman has specifically drawn our attention-neonicotinoids-has recently returned to the headlines, and he is absolutely right to raise it. I certainly do not want to portray any suggestion of complacency on the matter. I will not go over the points, which we all fully understand, about the importance of honey bees and other non-vertebrate pollinators to our agricultural crop and horticultural industries. We must not be complacent; we must take things very seriously.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was running short of time, but he concluded his speech by rushing off a long list of questions, which I am afraid I did not have time to write down. I will happily undertake to respond to them when I read them in Hansard, but forgive me if I do not reply to them all now. One thing that is probably blatantly obvious, but which underlines all this, is that all pesticides are toxic. Even the naturally occurring ones that are approved in organic farming are toxic at some level. The question is about the level of usage, the accumulation and the other factors that determine whether that toxicity is a threat. Of course we accept that neonicotinoids, as much as any other pesticide, are toxic at certain levels and in certain doses.
Martin Caton: The fundamental point is that we have very strong evidence that even in tiny doses those particular systemic pesticides contribute to the demise of invertebrate populations. That has to be of great concern, and it often cannot be picked up in field trials, on which, understandably, most of our assessment is based.
Mr Paice: I have taken the hon. Gentleman's point on board. I understand it and will try to deal with it as best I can, because I certainly do not want in any way to imply that I am ignoring it or, to use his words, that the Government are being complacent about it. As he and others have said, the Government take pesticide regulation very seriously. All pesticides are rigorously assessed before they are approved for use, although I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that much of that information comes from the industry that developed them. However, the matter is open to public scrutiny after that by the advisory committee and the regulators, so if there were any implication that somehow those trial results were distorted intentionally, it would quickly come to light.
The conditions of use of a pesticide are set so that pesticides do not pose an unacceptable risk to people or to the wildlife in the countryside, which, of course, includes bees and other pollinators. I emphasise that there is a statutory code of practice about guidance to people who use pesticides on minimising the exposure of bees, including notifying local beekeepers 48 hours before their use.
We continue to fund research on pesticides and pollinators and in relation to monitoring the real-world impact of pesticides on bees. It is being considered as part of the wildlife incident investigation scheme, and we are adding those neonicotinoids that are not already covered to the programme of residues monitoring for honey.
The hon. Gentleman has rightly and understandably referred to the 2009 Buglife report. As he has said, Buglife basically took all the information that was available and reviewed it before publishing the report. The then Government fully reviewed that report and took advice from the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides, and all the key research references were scrutinised and the implications considered. That involved drawing on the regulatory data set and any other publicly available information. The conclusion drawn at that time was that the Buglife report did not raise new issues-it would have been surprising if it had, given that it was simply going over all the information already held-and that it did not require changes to pesticide approvals.
Martin Caton: Is the Minister not concerned that we have discovered this month that the chemicals regulation directorate of the Health and Safety Executive, which was given the job, on behalf of the Government, of assessing the Buglife report, has still not completed its report and has not even completed collating the data? If we are really serious about dealing with this problem urgently, that is an appalling record. I do not blame the current Government alone-it is a failure of government.
Mr Paice: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the detail. His assertion is news to me, and I shall have to take it away with me. As he obviously appreciates, this is not my normal portfolio; I am covering for my noble Friend Lord Henley, who normally deals with bees.
What the Buglife report did do-there is no question about this-was indicate a gap in our knowledge on the effects of neonicotinoids on over-wintering bees. The point about that was right. We have supported the addition of studies on that issue to the European data requirements for pesticide regulation.
We continue to work with other regulators and to consider all the new evidence that emerges. We have discussed with James Cresswell of Exeter university his work on sub-lethal pesticide doses and bees, especially in relation to over-wintering. That is of interest, but as he himself fully acknowledges, questions remain about the environmental relevance of predominantly laboratory-based results. That is particularly relevant to the work to which the hon. Gentleman has referred by Henk Tennekes.
We are also, of course, aware of the work by Jeff Pettis in the United States, which is the origin of the article in The Independent to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. However, we have to recognise that Dr Pettis
himself has challenged The Independent publicly about some of the assertions that it made. He has published the points on a website on that newspaper's ownblog. Forgive me, Mr Williams, but I think that I need to read out some aspects of that. Dr Pettis has stated:
"I noticed in your article that there is an implication that my research findings are perhaps being suppressed by the chemical industry. As the author of this study, I can tell you that the truth is that the review process on the paper has simply been lengthy, as is often the case, due to various factors, but that no outside forces are attempting to suppress this scientific information. The findings of an interaction between low level pesticide exposure and an increase in the gut pathogen Nosema were not unexpected; many such interactions are likely within the complex life of a honey bee colony. It is not possible to make a direct comparison with a lab study and what might occur in the field. Lab studies can give us insights into what may be occurring with beehives but we have yet to make this link. Honey bee health is complex and our findings support this. They do not provide a direct link to CCD colony losses but these results do provide leads for further study."
I say that not to reject what has been claimed, but to put it into proportion. Even the work's author rejects some aspects of the article that has caused so much understandable public concern recently.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): Will the Minister give way?
Mr Paice: I am afraid I cannot give way any more.
The author has repeatedly said that finding such an interaction does not tell us what might happen in the field. Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Gower has rightly said, it causes us to think about what further work needs to be done.
The European Commission is developing proposals for bee health, including research, surveillance and measures to understand and tackle the decline of wild and managed bees. Only yesterday, we discussed the issue at the Agriculture Council in Brussels, where I publicly supported the need to develop such measures. In particular, I raised the issue of neonicotinoids, which must be researched on a European basis. As several hon. Members have said, the situation is not unique to this country and applies elsewhere in Europe. In that respect, I need to correct the assertion made by several hon. Members that those products have been banned by some of the countries that have been mentioned. Germany, France, Slovenia and Italy have introduced various restrictions, but none has totally banned the use of those products. We will work with Europe heavily on this issue.
The insect pollinators initiative will provide £10 million-that was decided by the previous Government-to look at the decline of pollinators. DEFRA is contributing £2.5 million to that work, which will include a project run by Dundee university to look at the effect of sub-lethal pesticide exposure on the brain and behaviour of bees during navigation and communication. DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly launched the healthy bees plan in 2009 to protect and improve the health of honey bees over the next 10 years. As part of that, DEFRA recently announced funding to train beekeepers to protect colonies against pests and diseases. The National Bee Unit, which is part of our Food and Environment Research Agency, has also announced scientific research in conjunction with Aberdeen university on varroa.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, because it is important that we have had this opportunity to debate the issue. The fact that so many of my colleagues from all parts of the House have been present for a half-hour Adjournment debate underlines the fact that this is a matter of interest across the House. I will undertake to answer all the questions that the hon. Gentleman raised in his concluding remarks. I must stress that we are certainly not complacent, and I would be very angry if there were any implication that we were. From my perspective as the Minister with responsibility for agriculture,
I fully recognise the importance of bees to food production in this country. The last thing that I want to do is to jeopardise the role of bees in any way.
I will take away the hon. Gentleman's remarks and am grateful to him for raising this issue. I hope that I have been able to give him some comfort that we are taking the issue seriously and that a number of actions are in play. Clearly, however, we still need a lot more information.