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“culling predominantly by shooting free-ranging badgers would result in an increase in perturbation leading to an increase in herd breakdowns. This opinion was based on the assertion that shooting free-ranging badgers would be an ineffective method of control and that in practice farmers would not carry out the systematic, sustained and simultaneous cull that the RBCT proved was necessary to have a beneficial effect…A lack of hard boundaries and a robust means of ensuring compliance with licence criteria were key weaknesses raised with the Government’s preferred option”?

When the Minister answers that question, will he address the concerns of some that a lack of rigour in the methodology he prescribes under licence could actually be to the detriment of farmers and their herds? As the ISGC succinctly put it in its conclusions, it would be

“likely that licensing farmers (or their appointees) to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease in space”.

What science and evidence does the Minister now have that contradicts that scientific evaluation of the increased risk of spreading the disease?

Linked to that, what assessment has the Minister made of the risk of farmers abandoning culling, especially if discouraged by an initial increase in the disease through the effects of perturbation, or as a result of farm abandonment, a change of ownership or many other scenarios? Assuming the Minister would wish to see the cull completed and would perhaps ask others to step in, what legal advice has he received on the ability to enforce a cull on privately owned land once it has commenced and been abandoned by the landowner? Would a group of farmers have to come forward collectively as a legal entity to be able to enforce a cull against the wishes, or following the withdrawal, of one of its members?

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, among others, noted the desirability of vaccination buffer zones around highly infected areas to assist in controlling the spread of the disease. It added that this

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“may require the Government to incentivise the process so as to ensure a high enough level of participation.”

What assessment has the Minister made of the necessity for, and cost of, such buffer zones? He will not want to say that he will not know until we have a licence application on the table, because that would be Humphreyesque. He and his officials must have examined the need for such buffer zones and the likely cost implications, and it would be useful for Parliament to have that on the record.

Sir David King wrote an article in July, entitled “If we want dairy farms, we must cull badgers”. The ISGC responded by saying that it

“contributes little scientific insight to the debate on controlling cattle TB. Defra has proposed that badger culls be initiated and funded by farmers themselves. Having overseen a decade-long programme of independently-audited and peer-reviewed research on this topic, we caution that such culls may not deliver the anticipated reductions in cattle TB. King previously agreed with our conclusion that—because of the way culling affects badgers’ ecology—only large-scale, highly coordinated, simultaneous and sustained culls could have positive impacts. Delivering and maintaining such culls would raise substantial challenges for farmers, with a risk of increasing, rather than reducing, disease incidence. Defra’s own assessments suggest that participating farmers will lose more, financially, than they gain. King asserts that shooting free-ranging badgers—Defra’s preferred culling method—‘would be an effective and considerably cheaper alternative’, but there are no empirical data on the cost or effectiveness (or indeed humaneness or safety) of controlling badgers by shooting, which has been illegal for decades. If the government decides to proceed with this untested and risky approach, it is vital that it also instigates well-designed monitoring of the consequences.”

I have some sympathy with the Minister, because the issue has been long debated, and the arguments have been heated and the science disputed. There has, for instance, long been disagreement between Sir David and the ISG. When the original ISG report was published in 2007, Professor John Bourne, its lead author, noted that Sir David’s response and subsequent recommendations in favour of a cull were not consistent with the scientific findings of his report but were

“consistent with the political need to do something about it”.

Why does that sound eerily familiar? Ah yes: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it,” says Jim Hacker, in “Yes Minister”. It is not only animal welfare groups such as the Badger Trust and the RSPCA that demand answers; it is the general public. However, it is also on behalf of and in the best interest of farmers that I ask the Minister to answer the questions as fully and directly as possible. They need to be sure that they are not being sold a pup—a very expensive, incontinent and unruly pup that could do a lot more damage than good.

12.21 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I shall try to answer most of the questions of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and, indeed, other hon. Members. I offer apologies to any hon. Member whom I do not answer fully. However, the answers to several of the hon. Gentleman’s questions are in the documents that we have published. He has asked me questions the answers to which he can discover, if he has not already read them.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon). I have several times appeared before the Select Committee of which she is a member, and I recognise her commitment to the issues. She began with a superb explanation of the situation, and said that levels of TB are unacceptable, and that badgers are widespread and densely populated, which is perfectly correct. Arguably, that population density is the kernel of the problem. She referred, as other hon. Members have done, to the random badger control trials and the independent scientific group. I should emphasise, of course, that it was the previous Conservative Government who appointed Lord Krebs to look into the issue. The setting up of the trials by the Labour Government was the result of his recommendation—it happened in a cross-electoral period.

Despite the jibes of the hon. Member for Ogmore about Jim Hacker—and I remind the hon. Gentleman that he went on to be Prime Minister—I do not believe that doing nothing should be an option. The hon. Member for North Tyneside rightly referred to the comment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that if we do not do anything, the problem will cost us £1 billion in 10 years. That is the reality, but worse than the costs is the continued spread of the disease into parts of the country where currently it does not exist. That is the fundamental issue, which has not been addressed by anyone. The hon. Lady also referred to other countries, such as New Zealand and the United States; she did not mention Australia, where the same point is true: they are all working on vaccines. However, they have all culled the wildlife that was a reservoir of the disease.

Much has been made of the issue of the science and the ISG. I am sure that time will stop me going through all the detail, but let us be clear: the figure of 16% that has been mentioned has been signed up to in the document on the Government’s website. That is signed by Lord Krebs, Professor Christl Donnelly, Lord May and a number of other eminent scientists. They all agree about it. The document contains a clear statement about what happened in the cull zone. That is after nine and a half years, so, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) about there being no new science, there is new science, because we have measurements from beyond the end of the period in question, and beyond the point when the previous Secretary of State made his decision. The new science shows that the incidence of TB in the culling zones fell by up to 34%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned, the incidence in the perturbation ring went up, but then went down and reverted to the norm. That is the new evidence we have.

It is perfectly true, as the document states and as has been repeated today, that we are not proposing simply to replicate the ISG approach, because we propose shooting, and we propose that farmers, while not literally doing the work themselves, should be responsible for having it done. The two are variations, and some scientists suggest that what is envisaged might not be as effective, but that is why we are conducting two pilots. We have announced—although we have not made the final decision yet—our proposal to conduct two pilots, to establish

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effectiveness: whether it is possible to cull 70% of badgers in a six-week period; and whether it is humane. I cannot remember which hon. Member challenged me on who would check what is going on; but there will be independent monitors on site, watching badgers being shot. There will be post mortems, so we shall examine the effectiveness and humanity of what happens, and of course safety. Those are the variations from the ISG, and that is why we should seriously consider conducting two trials.

The argument keeps coming back to the science, and the science is the results from the ISG. Everything else since then is conjecture, whether from Lord Krebs, me or any hon. Member. To answer the question about empirical evidence, there is no empirical evidence—but we are trying to find it. That is why we propose two trials. Lord Krebs has no more basis for his conjectures than I do.

Huw Irranca-Davies rose—

Mr Paice: No, I am sorry; I cannot give way.

I must emphasise to those hon. Members who challenged on the shooting issue that shooting wildlife, whether they agree with it or not—and let us not get into the emotions of it—is a common practice. Foxes and deer are commonly shot, and the surrounding animal communities are not shot in the process.

Angela Smith rose—

Mr Paice: No; I am not giving way.

Secondly, we propose that badgers be attracted to a baited area where it would safe to shoot, and trained marksmen—not trained by farmers, as one hon. Member said, but trained and authenticated by external bodies—would do the shooting. There is a lot of emotion involved. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who has left the Chamber, spoke a diatribe of nonsense about this issue.

On perturbation, the ISG rightly based its conclusions on its studies, from which two fundamental points arose. First, we have addressed the costs issue by proposing that farmers do the work; it is up to them. The decision whether it is worth it for farmers is not for the Government to make; it is for the individual farmers. Secondly, we have clearly stipulated that we will expect those groups of farmers to tell us what they will do to minimise perturbation.

There are several issues. First, we believe that the applications will be for a much bigger area than 150 sq km and that it is more likely to be 300 sq km. That means that the perturbation zone will be proportionately smaller, which helps considerably. Secondly, we will encourage and expect farmers to bring forward hard boundaries that badgers cannot cross. They will be able to use buffer ring vaccination, if they choose to do so. As an aside, I should say that we wholly support vaccination, using the current methodology, if people want to do it.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) made a sound speech, although I did not agree with all its conclusions, but the issue of borders is clearly dealt with. Tuberculosis is not an issue for Scotland, which does not have it. There is virtually none in the north of England; so we can forget that. The issue for Wales has been clearly set out. The document

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that we have already published states that if there is a zone that goes within 2 km of the border with Wales, the Welsh Environment and Countryside Department will have to be consulted. I suspect—although this should not be taken as gospel—that it is highly unlikely that a trial would happen so close to the Welsh border.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) about biosecurity, more stringent testing and overdue testing. We propose to reduce or abandon compensation where farmers are overdue. She asked me about numbers, and I agree with her that the figures she extrapolated are well out of sync. We anticipate that about 1,000 to 1,500 badgers would be killed, as a total over the four years, for every 150 sq km area.

I suspect, Mr Chope, that I have just about run out of time to address the key issues, although I hope that I have covered them. The subject is important and I have tried to deal with it without emotion. It is easy for both sides of the debate to get emotive. If there are any points I have not covered, I ask hon. Members to write to me and I shall do my best to answer.

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Steart Point

12.30 pm

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): It is nice to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Chope, and I am sure that you will keep your hands warm.

I am grateful for the chance again to debate Steart in my constituency, although I am actually also disappointed that we are debating the matter again. In January this year, I stood, I think on this very spot, to deliver a robust speech on the shortcomings of the Environment Agency, the body responsible for many things in my constituency, including flood prevention. At the time, the agency had concluded a ridiculously expensive consultation exercise to try to convince local people of the merits of a long-term plan. It basically wanted to flood Steart peninsula and create a new habitat for visiting sea birds, and it intended to spend a shed load of public money—roughly £28 million—to do that. I believed then, as I do now, that that would be the wrong thing to do.

For a while in the aftermath of the original debate, and prompted by the common-sense attitude of the Minister, there appeared to be an outbreak of sanity and a chance for a sensible conclusion to the matter. Just a few weeks ago, the Minister kindly wrote to me and two of my colleagues who represent neighbouring constituencies—my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). He had quite rightly called in the Environment Agency to discuss the concerns about the Severn flood risk management project, of which Steart is a part. In the letter, the Minister said:

“The Environment Agency is now reflecting on the response to its public consultations and reviewing its initial proposals”.

That was a great relief to the three of us. The meaning of a review, which the Minister referred to quite clearly, is crystal clear in my book—it means a fresh look. However, just a few days later, a briefing note was sent to me directly from the agency, which seemed to completely contradict the Minister’s words. It said:

“Steart Peninsula is not a location which is under review”.

The author had even underlined the word “not”. That is extraordinary, and it prompts a number of serious questions about the credibility and trustworthiness of the agency.

My constituents need and want to know what is going on. I am forced to conclude that the Environment Agency is suffering from delusions of grandeur. It regards itself as guardian of the planet—we know that anyway—with its dangerous mixture of King Canute and old mother nature, pushing back the tide and issuing pompous decrees all the time. It is, as the Minister knows, unelected, untouchable and, in many cases, unloved. It does not seem to take any notice of Ministers, and I am afraid that it is not just the Minister here, but former Ministers. Perhaps it has a hotline to God? I do not know. It certainly has a hotline to Brussels, which of course you, Mr Chope, are a fan of. Brussels has vested it with enormous legal powers to flood perfectly good land. The agency behaves rather like Judge Solomon. It thinks that if natural coastal erosion is to be stopped in one place, territorial sacrifices must be made in another, and it decides whose fields go under water.

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What worries me more than anything is the methods that the agency uses. The plan to flood Steart is not new—it has been on the cards for well over a decade—and the agency has got thus far by a relentless drip, drip, drip process. For nine years, it has argued that Steart should be returned to the sea. It operates on the principle that if it keeps saying the same thing, sooner or later someone will believe it.

Hon. Members may be surprised to learn that the Environment Agency is also a fearsome land-grabber, quite capable—I say this advisedly—of using dirty tricks on unsuspecting victims. Several years ago, the agency started buying up real estate in and around Steart, which is fair enough. One farmer was approached and warned that if he did not sell up straight away, there would be a compulsory purchase order later. That has now gone from one farmer to a few farmers. In my book, that is sharp practice, bordering on—again, I say this advisedly—blackmail. At the time, the plans were not even finalised and there had not been proper consultation. Yet the agency made threats and bought people out at a fraction of even today’s prices. I only wish that those people had approached me, as their MP, before they signed up.

I have never seen a compelling scientific argument for flooding Steart, and I doubt whether one exists. The agency makes all sorts of woolly comparisons with how the coast is being protected on the Welsh side of the Severn estuary to justify letting in the tide to do its worst beyond Otterhampton and Stockland. It calls that approach “realigning defences”, which in Steart’s case means not bothering to defend anything. I fear that the Steart peninsula has been picked because it is under-populated, low-lying and has a history of getting wet. It is the sort of place that the agency thinks that it can get away with quietly drowning. Well, we have some news for the Environment Agency, because Steart is not going under without a struggle.

There is another player in this strange tale of mystery, myths and half-truths, which is the Bristol Port Company. Bristol is 40 miles north of Steart, but the firm that runs the port is now pouring cash into Steart, and one might be forgiven for wondering why. The port has big ambitions. It wants to attract huge container vessels, and it needs to build a deep-water terminal to load and unload them—there are no problems there. However, the Bristol Port Company has had an eye on European law and directives. It will need to remove a section of the Severn estuary coastline, which the law says must be replaced by flooding some other unsuspecting place. Therefore, the Bristol Port Company rolled into Steart, with —I say this openly—cheesy grins and cheque books at the ready.

The Environment Agency did not mind, because having the company on board seemed to help its case a little. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wetlands Trust, and even Natural England jumped on board, promising a brave new world for Bristol’s homeless buff-breasted sandpipers. “Come to sunny Steart,” they squawked. “All you need is a beak and a few feathers.”

Unfortunately, locally, the argument does not hold much water. The Bristol Port Company may have secured planning permission to dig up the sea shore for its new deep-water terminal, but it has not raised the vast sums of money needed to pay for the work. The company

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does not own Bristol port, but leases it from the city council. Do not tell anyone here, but now is not a good time for raising capital on the scale the company is going to need. Most investors require a firm guarantee of returns, and a leased port is not good.

There is a clear question mark hanging over the new development. If that question mark remains in Bristol, there must be serious questions about Steart, too. The case for flooding Steart depends on scientific evidence, which the Environment Agency cannot produce, and on the loss of a wetland habitat in Bristol, which has not been lost, because the container port will be built on a man-made structure. In other words, the Steart flood plan is based on protecting birds that have not been evicted at all.

I have two words for the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port company: get busted, the pair of them. If Steart were flooded, it would drive away rare, large birds. The great bustard is one of our locals. The birds were once hunted—we were talking about badgers just now—to the point of extinction and were reintroduced only seven years ago. Now there are bustards that winter on the Somerset levels and drop in and out of Steart from time to time.

The Environment Agency believes that it has a legal obligation to flood Steart because of coastal erosion elsewhere. The only thing that the Steart plan has in its favour is the fact that it has been dressed up to look like a plan—and a bad one at that. The agency admits:

“Without this scheme we will not be able to develop measures to manage flood risk to people and property elsewhere around the Severn Estuary.”

In other words, it will be up the Parrett without a paddle if it does not flood Steart. However, I find it hard to believe that there are no viable alternatives, which brings me back to where I began. The Minister believes that the agency is reviewing its plans, but the agency believes that it is doing no such thing—certainly not with Steart.

There is a worrying lack of clarity, which I gently urge the Minister to address. The Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company intend to apply to the district councils of Sedgemoor and West Somerset for permission to flood Steart. We already know that the Agency intends to spend roughly £28 million on its share of the operation. Remember, we are talking about public money here, and this is at a time when all other public money is rightly subject to the most clinical accounting procedures. Why on earth has the agency escaped the axe on this proposal? The scale of expenditure is far too high at a time when the nation is feeling the pinch.

Somerset is already losing libraries, and some of my local schools really need refurbishing, which we cannot do. We also urgently need a new hospital and a road to take construction traffic to Hinkley Point, which is our nuclear power station. I am sure that this is not the right moment to embark on flooding Steart.

I also invite the Minister to address the subject of planning gain. That is part and parcel of the planning process in which authorities such as the Environment Agency are obliged to provide compensation to communities. What will local people get out of the scheme? The agency has said:

“Creating wetland habitats will provide benefits, not only for people who live on the peninsula but also for birds, fish and other wildlife.”

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Such a twee vision would have made more sense coming from the lips of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La-La or Po. The agency, which trots out such drivel, is meant to be staffed by experts. In reality, the only thing that Steart will get out of the flood plan is a huge pile of bird droppings and, hopefully, an invasion of twitchers.

The Environment Agency has bullied landowners and it is now contradicting the Minister. Its reputation in my constituency is not good at the best of times. The danger is that some of the mud will rub off on my hon. Friend the Minister, because there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding. I invite the Minister to think about his response. Many people in my constituency are worried about where this will end. I ask him to clarify what is happening at Steart peninsula. Both the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company should be aware of what the Government want rather than the Environment Agency just telling us what is going to happen.

12.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing another debate and on making a number of good points.

The Steart scheme is an essential project with many positive points. I have to tell my hon. Friend that I have looked at the matter from every angle and I believe it to be the only viable way in which the Government can continue to provide defences and secure access to the village while also meeting our environmental objectives for the estuary.

The Severn estuary is an important wildlife area as well as a great economic asset. It has more than 200 km of coastal defences, which will provide, over time, benefits in excess of £5 billion to more than 100,000 residential and commercial properties. The shoreline management plan highlights the need to maintain and improve most of the defences. However, as a consequence of that there will be a substantial loss of internationally designated inter-tidal habitat.

Our investment prioritisation process is focused principally on protecting people and property and that is where the vast majority of our money is spent. However, we also have obligations under the EU habitats directive to maintain or restore natural habitats and the population of species of wild fauna and flora at a favourable conservation status. Together with the birds directive, it is a key element in the EU’s commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity within the EU by 2020.

Despite the impact on the natural environment, we will continue to invest in the defence of the Severn estuary. There is clearly an imperative reason to do so. Such work is permitted under the habitats directive as long as appropriate compensatory habitat is secured. Our plans to manage and improve the defences depend on sufficient compensatory habitat being secured before the protected habitat is lost due to flood defence construction works. There has already been a loss in the Severn estuary and, without the Steart scheme, such losses mean we are failing to maintain the integrity of the protected Natura 2000 site.

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The Environment Agency has consulted on the Severn estuary flood risk management strategy and, in the light of the responses received together with the latest scientific advice on climate change, it has decided to review the initial proposals within the strategy—that was the point of the letter to my hon. Friend. That was a response to the very serious and genuine concerns that have been raised not just in his neighbourhood but right up the Severn estuary. I urge him to look at the difference between that macro policy and the micro issue that exists around the Steart. The scheme has been in development for three years, and has involved the local community throughout its development. It is not part of the review of the wider strategy, because it is needed urgently and it has strong local support. Beyond the short term, it is unlikely to be economically viable or sustainable to maintain the existing defences for Steart, which are in poor condition. To do so would cost in the region of £1 million per property. Therefore, it is of benefit to the local community if this project is implemented as soon as possible.

I have received many letters from people in the area in support of the scheme. Mr Barry Leathwood, the chair of Otterhampton parish council, said:

“The Agency has consulted extensively with the Otterhampton Parish Council which includes the villages of Combwich, Otterhampton and Steart and also with the various individuals and organisations in the area for a prolonged period of time. The project is overwhelmingly supported by the residents and this Council. It is our wish that the project be developed without delay.”

Andrew Darch of Brufords farm, Steart, said:

“Although under the EA’s proposals there is a large amount of agricultural land that will be converted to saltmarsh, this farmland would become very vulnerable to regular flooding without the schemes, devaluing the land considerably.”

I have also heard from Mike Caswell. He said:

“The consultation work carried out by the two companies”—

the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company—

“has been first class and they have always, without fail, responded to a request for a meeting with either groups or single individuals.”

I have seen letters to the local press from Dr Phillip Edwards, the chair of the Steart residents’ group, and from Otterhampton parish council. There seems to be a head of steam from local people who want this scheme to go ahead. There may be others who do not. Clearly, my hon. Friend sees dark forces at play. He sees the Environment Agency acting as the malign and evil arm of some secret service from the European Union making life miserable for his constituents, but that is not a view that is shared by the majority of his constituents—or at least by the ones who have written to me or to his local press.

I want to unravel the concerns of my hon. Friend. Undoubtedly, there is a problem here. The scheme is not about flooding the area, although that may happen over time with rising sea levels. The land has been purchased by the Environment Agency. If I were to put a blue pencil through the whole scheme, as my hon. Friend wants me to do, we would have to find new buyers for the land, which would be at some cost to the taxpayer. This is a good scheme that has been consulted on and carried through and I am at a loss to know why my hon. Friend continues with this concern.

The shoreline management plan has considered the issue and highlighted the Steart peninsula as somewhere where the managed realignment of the defence provides

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the best option for continuing to protect the village and its access as well as creating habitat to offset the environmental impact of flood defence work elsewhere in the estuary. Indeed, Steart has been identified as the most cost-effective place in the estuary for habitat creation without causing geomorphological side effects, such as adjacent erosion. That is a major factor.

The twin objectives of the Steart scheme are, first, to create habitat and, secondly and very importantly, to protect the village of Steart and its access. The scheme forms a vital part of an integrated and sustainable coastal management solution for the Severn estuary. It will provide the only foreseeable opportunity to improve flood protection to Steart Drove, which is the only access route to Steart village. It will also help to maintain the existing standard of protection, and the new defences can be expected to last far longer than the current defences.

The Steart scheme combines the creation of a substantial area of compensatory habitat in the most cost-effective way with better flood defence for the community. These factors make the scheme an integral part of whatever decisions are taken on the wider Severn estuary flood risk management strategy, which as my hon. Friend knows is under review. That is why the Steart scheme cannot be taken as part of that review. I hope that I have helped to clarify for my hon. Friend the importance of managing flood risk in a way that not only protects people and property, and delivers good value for money to the taxpayer, but meets our environmental obligations.

I am quite well aware of the concerns of many hon. Members—indeed, I share them—when directives that are created many miles from here impact on people’s lives at a very local level. I can assure my hon. Friend

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that I do not take lying down the words of directives. If I can find a way around them, because I feel that they are having a malign effect on the taxpayer or on his constituents or my own, I will take a very robust view on that. However, in this case I believe that the scheme is in the best interests of the people who live in Steart and of the wider estuary. I also believe that it has been properly consulted on and has local support. Therefore, I hope that we can now progress the scheme and that my hon. Friend’s constituents can be reassured that those people who live in Steart have a future, that their access to their community will not be cut off and that we are carrying through a scheme that they have been consulted on and that they fully understand. Our emphasis has always been that we must work with nature, wherever possible, to reduce the risks to people, while also meeting social and environmental objectives.

I can find no evidence that the Environment Agency has threatened people or behaved in a way other than the normal consultative process involved in trying to find a willing agreement to sell land. The threat of compulsory purchase is just not part of how the agency does business. The agency does not resort to compulsory purchase unless it cannot establish who a particular landowner is. Its purpose is to reach agreement and to reach a price that should reflect market conditions. If a compulsory purchase has to be made, the price is calculated by the district valuer and it has to be a market value at the time. If people feel that the price that they negotiated with the Environment Agency was wrong, they can find a market value. I understand that in this scheme that market value was achieved.

I hope that we can put this matter to bed now and that the Steart scheme can go ahead.

12.53 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Renovation of Empty Property (VAT)

1 pm

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.

I wanted to secure this debate because of the pressure to build on the green spaces and the green belt in Sefton and elsewhere. Sefton council is consulting on its core strategy and, using the figures in the regional spatial strategy, it says it needs 480 new homes each year. To achieve that target, the council has suggested three options, two of which imply significant incursion into the green belt. The draft national planning policy framework does not continue the brownfield-first policy, and councils are not allowed to include windfall development sites, such as the Maghull prison site in my constituency, which would deliver several hundred homes. In addition, empty homes cannot be counted towards a council’s target, and so the 6,000 such properties across Sefton are not included in the figures. All that means that councils need an alternative strategy for building the homes that we—especially our young people—need. Affordable housing is in such short supply. A sustainable policy is needed, and a cut in VAT on the renovation and refurbishment of empty properties would contribute significantly to delivering the housing targets at the same time as protecting the green belt and important urban green space.

The VAT regime perversely incentivises new build on greenfield land because it attracts 0% VAT. A cut in VAT to 5% on the renovation and reuse of existing buildings would allow greater emphasis to be placed on urban regeneration, on which VAT is levied at 20%. The “Cut the VAT” campaign has a wide coalition of support; it is run by the Federation of Master Builders and supported by many organisations, including the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the Federation of Small Businesses. There would be many benefits to reducing VAT on building repairs and conversions, and there are strong environmental, economic and social grounds for doing so. In general, subjecting repairs and conversions to VAT is damaging, because it acts as a deterrent to urban regeneration, the proper maintenance of buildings and our caring for the historic environment.

The differential between VAT rates on new build and on repair creates a perverse incentive to leave properties in a state of disrepair or to demolish sound buildings, rather than encouraging their effective use and maintenance. The differential adds to the cost of bringing buildings back into use through repair, renovation or conversion, and contributes to a cycle of decline, because run-down areas are generally a less attractive proposition for investors and developers, even though they might present significant opportunities. I believe that the Government would agree with that analysis. I am looking for the Economic Secretary to nod—she is not doing so.

The additional cost that VAT adds to repairs and refurbishment distorts the market in favour of new build over reuse and refurbishment, which means that developers are incentivised to bring forward new development on greenfield sites before attempting to bring existing resources back into useful occupation. As well as assisting regeneration, making productive use of existing buildings can play an important role in conserving scarce resources such as the land, energy and building

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materials bound up in the properties, and such an approach also contributes to reducing waste. Government statistics indicate that there are more than 750,000 empty houses in England, and there are many other empty and underused buildings. That is an enormous waste of resources, and a reduction in VAT on refurbishment to create a level playing field between refurbishment and new build would, therefore, make a lot of sense.

Historically, it has been argued that a VAT reduction is not possible because of EU laws. However, the European Commission’s Economic and Financial Affairs Council agreed in March 2009 to allow member states to reduce VAT on housing repair and maintenance, so that barrier appears to have been lifted. The cut in VAT on renovation is now an option that would promote regeneration, bring empty buildings back into use and minimise the use of greenfield land.

Turning to the impact on the construction industry, a VAT cut from 20% to 5% would reduce rogue traders’ competitive advantage and help rescue many legitimate local firms from the brink of collapse. Dozens of small and medium-sized businesses would benefit considerably from a VAT cut on home repair, maintenance and improvement work, and that is why the campaign I mentioned has the support of the Federation of Master Builders. Given these tough economic times, a cut would make a huge difference to many small firms, certainly in constituencies such as mine. It would also make important home repairs more affordable, and help protect consumers from cowboy builders who currently flourish by evading VAT. It is a logical step to help boost the economy, and I call on the Government to take it as a matter of urgency.

The UK economy is facing a weak recovery from the recent recession. Output in the construction industry shrank faster than the economy as a whole during the recession, and recent forecasts suggest there will be no significant sign of recovery in the industry until 2014. Successful trials in a number of EU countries strongly suggest that a cut in VAT on home repair and improvement work would reap economic benefits for the UK. Independent research by Experian, based on a standard VAT rate of 17.5%, suggests that the total stimulus effect of reducing VAT in the sector would be in the region of £1.4 billion in the first year alone.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 249,000 work force jobs have been lost in the construction sector alone since 2007, and that has had a big effect on the Government’s finances as well as a considerable human impact. We know from independent research that a cut in VAT on home repair and improvement work would create thousands of new jobs in the construction sector and the wider economy. Again, independent Experian research based on a standard VAT rate of 17.5% suggests that 24,200 extra construction jobs could be created in the first year alone if VAT on home improvements was cut to 5%. According to the same research, such growth in the construction industry would also lead to 31,000 new jobs in the wider economy.

Those significant job losses—249,000—risk creating a major skills shortage in future years, unless the industry can recruit and train sufficient numbers of people now. The number of construction apprenticeship starts fell by 4,010 between 2008-09 and 2009-10. Almost 1 million people under the age of 25 are currently unemployed, but when the construction industry returns to more sustainable levels of growth there will not be a sufficient

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number of people equipped with the right skills to meet demand. It will be difficult for employers to make more apprenticeship places available unless there is an increase in construction activity.

We are building fewer than half the number of new homes needed to match the rate of household growth in the UK, and it is therefore shocking that there are up to 750,000 empty homes. Many of those homes require considerable repair work before they can be lived in, and the high rate of VAT makes that a very costly activity for private owners, landlords and local authorities, who could otherwise renovate more existing properties to help ease the pressure on housing supply. Making home repair and improvement work more affordable would encourage the use of existing structures, rather than continuing the urban sprawl and the possible building on green belt land.

Existing homes contribute about 27% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions, and there is a vast amount of work to be done if the UK is to meet the legally binding emission-reduction targets. A simple, single cut in VAT on home repair and maintenance work would help millions of households to upgrade their homes and make them more energy efficient. Without help to reduce energy use, the number of households living in fuel poverty will continue to grow, as they struggle to protect themselves against rising fuel prices.

According to trading standards organisations, rogue traders steal a staggering £170 million each year from unsuspecting home owners across Britain, and cause significant damage to law-abiding businesses. Rogue traders flourish by evading VAT in order to offer a cheap deal. However, all too often, the deal comes without a proper written contract or any kind of paperwork, making the enforcement of consumer rights almost impossible if something goes wrong.

Again, a simple, single action to cut VAT to 5% on home repair and improvement work would protect consumers and legitimate businesses by significantly reducing rogue traders’ competitive advantage. By charging 20% VAT on all home repair, maintenance and improvement work, the Government are exacerbating numerous serious social, economic and environmental problems. Introducing a reduced rate of VAT for all home repair and improvement work is a simple plan to relieve the country of many of those problems.

Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): May I give our newest Minister a warm welcome from the Chair?

1.10 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Chloe Smith): Thank you, Mr Chope. I am grateful for your warm welcome. I thank the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing this debate. I acknowledge some of the good arguments that he made, but I believe that his proposal is not the right tool for achieving economic growth. I shall deal with some of his specific points, including a note on apprenticeships, a little on energy supply and some remarks on green opportunities for householders.

The hon. Gentleman made some sensible arguments regarding the reuse of empty properties. Of course, we would all like existing housing stock to be put to good

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use; I know that from my constituency, as I am confident he does from his. He also made good points about the need in the current economic situation to support small businesses as best we can, and about evasion. I shall come to those points, but I will begin with a few words about the Government’s policy on empty property in the round before discussing the specifics of how VAT applies to empty property. I reassure you, Mr Chope, before I veer anywhere near being off-subject, that tackling the country’s 700,000 empty homes is a priority for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, as promoting growth and apprenticeships are for all my other colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman will know that in this year’s Budget, the Government announced £180 million for up to 50,000 additional apprenticeship places over the next four years. That is real action, and I am sure that hon. Members agree that it will meet some of the concerns raised in this debate.

On 20 September this year, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced more powers for community groups to bring empty homes back into use. Community and voluntary organisations will be able to bid for a share of £100 million in Government funding to pioneer housing schemes to help ensure that empty properties are lived in again. That will also help to provide more affordable housing, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman welcomes.

Bill Esterson: I welcome the Minister to her role. I do not know whether this is the first debate that she has responded to, but I congratulate her on her appointment. She mentioned the £100 million available to community groups. How many homes are expected to be brought back into use as a result?

Miss Smith: I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a specific figure, as I do not have it with me. However, as I will discuss—this goes straight to the heart of the issue—incentives also exist for councils to bring empty homes back into use by including them in the new homes bonus, which he will know about. I think this figure will reassure him: after just one year of the new homes bonus, 16,000 previously empty properties have been brought back into use.

The Department for Communities and Local Government will also consult in due course on plans to allow local councils further discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their area that have been empty for more than two years. That will provide a stronger incentive to get those homes back into productive use—an aim I am sure the hon. Gentleman and I share, as do other colleagues—and remove that blight on local neighbourhoods.

It might be helpful to the hon. Gentleman if I explain how VAT applies to empty property. He might be unaware of some reliefs that go a significant way towards meeting the demands of the “Cut the VAT” campaign. The VAT system already provides for numerous reliefs from the standard rate of VAT, as he will know, but some reliefs particularly encourage new housing supply and the bringing of empty properties back into use as homes. The first sale of a new domestic property is zero-rated for VAT, as are most supplies of goods and services used in the construction of a new build, as he acknowledged. However, he might not be aware that the renovation or

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alteration of residential premises that have not been lived in for two years benefits from a 5% reduction in the rate of VAT. He mentioned European constraints. The 5% reduced rate of VAT exists, and is the minimum available, under long-standing EU VAT legislation. The reduced rate also applies when properties are converted from non-residential to residential, and when the occupancy of existing residential property is increased.

Wide relief already exists for the renovation and conversion of empty properties. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that that goes some way towards meeting the valid concerns that he raised about the homes in which his constituents might live. He might not be aware that the “Cut the VAT” campaign’s report makes it clear as early as page 5 that

“the many and varied exceptions that exist within the housing RM&I VAT regime…can easily lead to confusion as to what attracts VAT at the standard rate and what attracts a reduced rate.”

The report goes on to provide a helpful table summarising the available reduced rates, including for

“Renovation or alteration of empty residential premises”.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a keen supporter of the campaign, as are those on the Opposition Front Bench. For the most part, the VAT reduction for which he asks specifically for the renovation and refurbishment of empty homes is already available.

Bill Esterson: I am aware of those points. I have a copy of the campaign document, as does the Minister. Is she also aware of the Prime Minister’s commitment to the Federation of Master Builders? He agreed to write to Treasury Ministers to consider the case for cutting VAT on home repair and improvement work. Does she know whether he has done so, whether he has received the response and what it might be?

Miss Smith: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have just spent my first two days at No. 1 Horse Guards. I shall of course ascertain the location of that letter. However, I will suggest a few things that I have absolutely no doubt the Prime Minister will bear in mind as he considers the issue.

Wider VAT reduction risks a serious impact on public finances. I know the hon. Gentleman will be aware of that, despite some of the comments that he made this morning to the Formby Times. For example, if the rate of VAT on residential property renovation and refurbishment were reduced to 5%, it would cost £2.2 billion in the first year alone. If the rate were reduced for five years, it would cost £2.4 billion each year. If it continued for a decade, the cost to the Exchequer—to his constituents and mine—would rise to £2.9 billion for every year of that period. To put those figures in context, that would cost more annually than the entire budget for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and double the budget for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

I therefore do not accept the claim that cutting the VAT rate for the home improvement sector would lead to a net increase in jobs across the economy as a whole or pay for itself over several years. Although the impact could be positive, we know the real likely impact. If we made such a cut, the revenue shortfall would have to be met from additional taxation elsewhere, which would lead to job losses that would offset any job gains in the

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building sector. Alternatively, we would need to meet the cost through additional borrowing, which would risk increasing interest rates. As the hon. Gentleman will know, higher interest rates would have an adverse impact on families and small businesses, including businesses in the building sector. I am afraid that there is no such thing as a free pass without effects elsewhere in the economy.

The Government want to provide support across the entire economy for businesses and households.

Bill Esterson: I had anticipated the Minister’s comments, because this morning I received a written answer from her colleague, the Exchequer Secretary. I understand the Treasury analysis, but the answer mentions

“in the absence of behavioural change”.

Such behavioural change would include the impact on cowboy builders and the economic benefits of people spending money in the sector and being able to afford home improvements, so there is a balance. I also mentioned earlier the £1.4 billion impact on the economy that Experian anticipated under the old VAT regime. Will the Minister comment, either today or in due course, on the assessment of the impact of behavioural change, and not just of the figures that she has quoted in isolation?

Miss Smith: Let me first deal with behavioural change in relation to rogue trading, because it is important to put this on the record. I do not accept that a reduced rate of VAT would suddenly cause the illegitimate trade to become honest. I do not believe that behaviour changes in that sense—5% can be as attractive, in many ways, as 20% to a crook. There are many other factors—this is key—beside cost that cause a customer to use the informal economy, and a trader to operate in it. It is unlikely that a reduction in the rate of VAT, which is only one factor, would have an impact on rogue trading and purchasing.

On the wider point of evasion, the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is investing £900 million to tackle avoidance and evasion and attacks by organised criminals, and that relates to the construction industry. A reduction of the VAT rate alone would not create a level playing field between legitimate businesses and those operating in the informal economy. I fear that his concerns about behavioural change, in that sense, do not go to the heart of the matter.

I will be happy to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specifics of the Experian report. I am afraid I do not have the figures to hand, so I cannot respond on the spot.

To return to the points that we need to take into account in the wider economy, we need to be aware that households face difficult times. That is exactly why, only yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change met energy suppliers to discuss how to bring down customers’ energy bills. It is also why this Government have increased the personal allowance, cut fuel duty and will reduce corporation tax year on year, which will assist businesses, including those that have signed up to the “Cut the VAT” campaign.

It is important that the Government continue to explore their options for credit easing, with which the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be familiar. We should try to inject money directly into parts of the economy

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that need it, especially small businesses, which are the driving force for economic growth.

Doing those things will not only boost demand in the short term and, indeed, change behaviour, but help to tackle long-standing UK problems associated with the supply of credit to small and medium-sized businesses. That is vital. The Chancellor will announce further details on 29 November.

To finish on the broader point, Labour, I am afraid to say, may have been content to spend beyond its means, but such costs are unsupportable in the current economic climate and simply cannot be reasonably entertained. We need sound public finances to make sustainable growth possible. Over the past decade there has been an increasing reliance on an imbalanced economy, which drove ever greater problems throughout. That model has proved unsustainable and what we have needed in the meantime, as set out in the Budget 2010, the spending review and other work, is a credible plan to tackle the unprecedented deficit that the Government inherited—and that the hon. Gentleman, no doubt, is about to jump to his feet to defend.

Bill Esterson: Until 2008 and the financial crisis, the Conservative party in opposition supported the spending levels of the then Government. It was the financial crisis and the bail-out of the banks that caused the deficit to grow to the level it reached. On the balance between quantitative easing and proposals such as the “Cut the VAT” campaign, which has the support of 49 business organisations, many prominent and highly regarded economists think the latter a far more direct way to get money into the economy to stimulate growth and demand, which I know the Government are in favour of. If we disagree on the means, we certainly agree on the need to do it, whether that be via quantitative easing or cuts to VAT on home improvements. We need to take either one action or the other. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that economists have strong views that such VAT cuts are another way of addressing the issue.

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Miss Smith: I shall say three things in response. First, on the argument for such a VAT cut, many different sectors make the same argument for their own cuts. It is not clear why this particular cut is the one that should triumph, even if money was available. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman may think that this Government have gone off plan, but his shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), is already £27 billion off the Darling plan this year alone, and the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) has already stated that anyone without a credible economic policy is simply not at the races. Thirdly, our approach to building a credible economy via a credible plan to tackle the deficit has been endorsed, as the hon. Gentleman will know, by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the European Commission, the rating agencies and UK business organisations beyond those that deal in installing bathrooms. The difficult decisions that this Government have had to take have made Britain a safe haven in the sovereign debt storm, and that is exactly what we intend to carry on being.

Of course, there are concerning signs. I acknowledge that the recent employment statistics make very tempting calls such as the hon. Gentleman’s on behalf of the construction industry. Those signs, however, show more than ever why the UK must stick to its course. We need stability and confidence in the economy, and we need to hold down the costs of borrowing for businesses and home owners.

The hon. Gentleman’s plan risks putting Britain back in the firing line. It could lead to rising interest rates and falling international confidence, which would undermine the recovery in his constituency, the country and internationally. In that context of a recovering economy, fiscal consolidation is what is most important, not only to ensure stability but to provide the conditions for the private sector growth that we all seek. It needs to provide the conditions for investment and hiring. Any suggestion of cuts to VAT for the construction or any other industry, or of extensions such as that proposed by the hon. Gentleman, on top of the relief that already exists to tackle his concerns, adds up, I am afraid, to calling for the wrong thing at the wrong time.

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Bomber Command (Campaign Medal)

1.28 pm

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I called for this debate because we are approaching that time of year when we remember and honour those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defending our freedoms and liberty. I also wish to pay my own personal tribute to the contribution made to that freedom by Bomber Command. I pay tribute in particular to my constituents Stan Franks, Jack McCorkell and Jim Gooding—all veterans of Bomber Command, all stalwarts of the Grays RAF Association club, all now in their 80s, and all teenagers when they risked their lives defending our freedoms. The contribution of Bomber Command was significant, and the bravery of its members was crucial in bringing the second world war to an end. The failure to recognise that contribution with a dedicated campaign medal is a snub, and it is a snub that they feel personally.

Although many years have passed—obviously, I cannot hold the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) responsible for decisions taken many years ago—it is not too late to celebrate and recognise their contribution, just as we remember the fallen every Armistice day. The Minister will be aware that a memorial to Bomber Command is under construction. Will the Government consider whether completion of that memorial offers an opportunity to right this wrong and for the Minister to consider what we can do to recognise the contribution that Bomber Command made and honour those brave pilots who are still with us?

To make the case for this honour, I would like to remind hon. Members of a few facts that illustrate the very real contribution that Bomber Command made to victory in the second world war. For example, in 1940, Bomber Command played a pivotal role in the evacuation of Dunkirk, allowing the escape of 218,000 British troops. Although Fighter Command was at the forefront of the battle of Britain, Bomber Command also played its part by taking the fight to Germany and preventing German bombers from ever arriving here. While the battle of Britain raged and RAF Fighter Command fought off the Luftwaffe, Bomber Command repeatedly attacked the advance of German troops and German shipping. However, its contribution to the battle of Britain still goes uncelebrated because the pilots from Bomber Command are not eligible for the battle of Britain Bar.

In the closing days of the war, Bomber Command’s raids ensured that Germany was unable to strike terror campaigns against mainland Britain and that ultimately victory was secured. It was then that Bomber Command’s contribution seems to have been sidelined, if not ignored. In the spirit of celebrating peace, the then Government chose not to celebrate Bomber Command’s contribution, which was a decision that I believe was wrong.

It has been suggested that to celebrate Bomber Command’s role is to condone the civilian casualties that ensued as part of its raids. However, that is to ignore the fact that we were at war. Awful things happen during war. Many people in this country were killed in the blitz, so to fail to recognise the contribution of these pilots is to diminish their courage and loyalty to a

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country that they risked their lives to save. The risk to life was very real. On just one night during the battle of Britain—13 August 1940—82 squadron was sent on an operation to occupied Holland. Of the 12 Blenheims sent on that mission, only one returned. That was not unusual. Of the 125,000 men and women in Bomber Command, 55,573 lost their lives. More than 10,000 aircraft were lost. A further 11,000 men were made prisoners of war. Those figures are even more remarkable when we consider that Bomber Command was made up of all volunteers who had an average age of just 22.

It is clear that we owe those people a great deal and I am pleased that work has finally commenced on the memorial, which has been funded by private donations, including a very generous donation by the Bee Gee, Robin Gibb. He is currently undergoing hospital treatment and I am sure we would all like to wish him well. When the memorial opens next year, we should take the opportunity to honour the 3,000 bombers who are still with us as a way of honouring the 55,000 who never came back and right the wrong committed by our previous political leaders. The real point is that the decision to bomb was made at a political level. As early as July 1940, for example, Churchill wrote to the Minister responsible for aircraft production, urging him to increase the production of bombers as it was the only means of defeating German military power. That decision was also supported by Roosevelt. The reality is that air power offered the only military means of striking back.

Some might say that too many years have passed since that decision was taken to reconsider the matter, but I would like to remind hon. Members that there is a precedent for issuing a campaign medal so long after the second world war. In 2005, it was decided to recognise the service of the Arctic convoys. An award was given to eligible veterans that included an emblem that could be worn alongside other medals. We should take advantage of that precedent and show some pride in Bomber Command’s achievement. These people are our heroes. Each time they got into a plane, those young men took their lives into their hands—and they were young men. My constituent, Stan Franks, was just 19 years old. He flew 31 missions and was the youngest flight engineer to complete a tour. As he says,

“I lost many friends. I didn’t want to kill. I just wanted to fly and defend my country—all I want is recognition for what we did”.

We should also remember that getting in those planes was not like getting into today’s high-tech fighter jets. While flying at altitude, frostbite and asphyxiation were very real risks. Arguably, Bomber Command won the war. It took the battle to the enemy and we should honour its bravery. There is real support for doing so outside this place and within it. More than 100 Members signed an early-day motion on this subject last autumn. Let us end the hurt we have perpetrated on these honourable men. They served their country with pride and courage at great personal risk to themselves. It is time that we finally awarded them a campaign medal.

1.35 pm

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing today’s debate. The issue has been raised on a number of occasions in both Houses with the support of many hon. Members, yet

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Bomber Command veterans and their families are still fighting for the recognition that they most certainly deserve, which they earned in the most desperate and ferocious of situations.

My right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for veterans has confirmed on a previous occasion that the campaign for medal recognition of Bomber Command personnel is currently being considered as part of the Government’s wider review into medals, which is expected to report shortly. Like many others, I am looking forward to the review’s findings, but I warn the Minister of the deepest disappointment—indeed, resentment—that will be felt by veterans, their families and many others if Bomber Command is overlooked for the seventh decade running.

Let us always keep in the forefront of our minds that these young people—some just boys—made extraordinary sacrifices doing their duty. Their acts of bravery and dedication certainly shortened the war and we should be eternally grateful to them. I would like to declare a personal interest in these matters and explain why I feel as strongly as I do. My grandfather on my mother’s side served in Bomber Command. He was born in southern Ireland, so he did not have to serve because Ireland was a neutral country. However, he emigrated at the age of 17 from Tramore in Waterford and enlisted as an air gunner. A few months later, he was a rear gunner over Germany on operations night after night.

After operations over Germany and then the Mediterranean, my grandfather fought against the Japanese, where he was shot down over Malaysia and found several weeks later in the jungle suffering from malaria. Let me help to put that into perspective. My 19-year-old son Dominic is older than my grandfather was when he started his service. As much as I trust Dominic—I hope that he forgives me for saying this—I would not be happy leaving him the keys to my car let alone imagining him flying a bomber above Germany at such a young age.

As my hon. Friend said, aircrew had no say over strategy, target choice or their mission. They just did their duty. A large number of aircrew came from further afield than even my grandfather did and they too should be recognised for their bravery and loyalty. In fact, one in four Bomber Command aircrew were from overseas. They came from Australia, New Zealand, Poland, free France, the United States, Norway, Jamaica, Rhodesia and India. Of the 55,573 Bomber Command pilots and crew who were killed, including 91 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, 15,661 were from overseas. Some 9,887 of that number were from Canada, which represents nearly 60% of the Canadians who flew with Bomber Command. Those young people from the dominions showed true loyalty to our nation in its time of greatest need. They were volunteers who answered the call out of kinship, a strong sense of duty and shared values. If successive Governments continue to fail in recognising the huge contribution that Bomber Command made in defending our nation, they dishonour not only our own veterans, but those who came from overseas.

The aircrew of Bomber Command faced incredible challenges on a daily basis. Whatever the statistics, the cold reality was that in 1942 less than half of all heavy

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bomber crews would survive their first tour and only one in five would make it through a second. In 1943, only one in six bomber crews would be expected to survive their first tour, and only one in 40 their second. In the face of their achievements and bravery, how can we let restrictions and protocol, or breaking precedent, deprive Bomber Command personnel of a campaign medal for their service to our nation?

In 2008, 209 hon. Members signed an early-day motion calling for a campaign medal for Bomber Command personnel; surely a demonstration, if one was needed, of the depth of this wrongdoing. The policy of not instituting medals more than five years after the campaign can be overturned. Exceptions to King George VI’s intention not to award any further world war two medals post-1948 can be made again. Yes, the pilots and aircrew were eligible for other medals, such as the France and Germany star, but what about the ground crew? They kept the aircraft flying and made the missions possible. In total, 1,479 ground crew were killed in the line of duty. Should their sacrifices not be recognised?

There are other reasons given, including the reluctance to give awards to specific military units and to those who served the war inside the UK. Neither of those reasons is insurmountable, but again they demonstrate the lack of political will. Successive Governments have failed to address the issue, but where there is the will there is always a way. I urge the Minister to let this Government be the one to right this grave injustice. During the war, the men and women of Bomber Command were unanimously regarded as heroes. As Churchill himself declared in 1940:

“The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory”.

Churchill’s bombers did not fly or crew themselves. Let us now acknowledge the contribution of those that did, and made that victory possible.

1.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing this debate on the very brave men and women of Bomber Command, and their appalling sacrifice, which she has described, during the second world war. I will cover this in more detail, but there are two issues here. One is the respect and admiration that we should have for those very brave people who gave up their lives in many instances in service to their country in incredibly difficult situations. The second issue is how we should recognise their bravery and continue the world’s knowledge of what they did, 66 years after the end of the second world war.

If I may recap, more than 8,000 aircraft were lost. Out of 125,000 air crew, 55,573 were killed. Statistically, a Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in world war one. Some 19 members of Bomber Command received Victoria crosses. I can assure everybody here that the Government maintain a deep appreciation—a real appreciation and admiration—of the courage and sacrifice of all those who served in Bomber Command during world war two. We owe them a great deal. My own view is that every schoolchild should know what they did, and I fear that they do not. Everybody in this country should

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understand that one in six UK fatalities in the second world war were in Bomber Command—a staggering number.

Aerial bombardment was not new in 1939. Indeed, the first recorded example of aerial bombardment took place in the summer of 1911 when Italian aircraft, sent to north Africa to fight the Turks, dropped modified grenades on to an enemy camp near Tripoli. Damage was slight and world reaction insignificant, but it was a significant development in air power. World war one firmly established this new role. Between 1914 and 1918, two distinct types of aerial bombardment emerged. The first, practised eventually by all combatants, involved the fairly simple concept of dropping high explosives on to enemy rear areas, hitting lines of supply, command networks, fuel dumps and military concentrations. This became known as tactical bombing or, if it entailed isolating enemy forces from their own support echelons, interdiction bombing. Exactly where close support and ground attack ended and tactical bombing began was, and often still is, a debatable point.

The second form of aerial bombardment was the concept of strategic bombing. The founder of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, had postulated that the bomber was a potential war-winning weapon, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock suggested. If raids could be sustained, industrial plant would be destroyed and civilian morale undermined to the extent that the enemy would be unable to continue the war. So persuasive were those arguments by 1939 that it was a widely held fear, particularly in Britain, that city areas were doomed to destruction within days of the outbreak of war.

The RAF went to war organised into four separate command units: Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Coastal Command and Training Command. My hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock and for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) will need no reminding of the feats of Fighter Command during the desperate days of the battle of Britain, but it was then, at least, primarily a defensive force. Bomber Command’s great asset was that it could take the fight to the enemy—an all too precious occurrence in those early war years. However, by the time he took over as head of Bomber Command in February 1942, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris had become disillusioned with the effects of precision bombing and was turning to area bombing. This technique required the assembly of very large bomber fleets, up to 1,000 or more, and the inundation of whole areas with high explosives and incendiaries. The aim was to use statistical probability rather than selectivity to destroy military targets, and to make a direct assault on German civilian morale. At the time, it was considered a proportionate response to the terrible damage inflicted on London, Coventry and many other British cities during the Blitz and the later V-bomb attacks.

I do not think that there should have been any guilt felt then, or now, because this was a war to the bitter end. I certainly do not believe that anybody who was involved in Bomber Command should believe that they were doing anything other than furthering the British war effort between 1939 and 1945. Debates may still rage about the strategy, but there is no doubt about the bravery and integrity of those who took part. Night after night, these brave volunteers risked giving their lives—indeed, many gave their lives. The danger was

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enormous: enemy night fighters, anti-aircraft fire, mechanical failures, extreme navigational challenges, and the prospect of imprisonment for those who managed to bale out in time. Sorties could take eight to nine hours and brought with them a mental as well as a physical ordeal, the intensity of which would be unfamiliar to their colleagues in uniform on the ground or at sea.

I recommend that hon. Members visit the RAF museum in Hendon, look at a Lancaster and see how the whole crew had to get out of a hatch in the front, no bigger than one of the chairs in this room, while wearing a parachute. That is, of course, one reason why so many did not get out, which is a terrifying prospect. Bomber Command pilot Mike Lewis described the experience thus:

“We went in under an absolutely cloudless sky. We were literally over the harbour when the next thing people started reporting was that fighters were climbing up. The German pilots...turned in and just sat blasting away at us and blowing us out of the sky until eventually they ran out of gas and had to go home themselves. If there had been more gasoline I think none of us would have reached our home. We were sitting ducks. It was terrifying.”

Let us not forget the absolutely crucial role of the ground crew and the in-flight engineers—more than 100,000 of them. Without them, Bomber Command would not have been able to carry out 364,514 sorties, drop more than a million bombs, and tie up vast amounts of scarce German resources that would otherwise have been used elsewhere in their war effort.

The dedication and sacrifice of those who were part of Bomber Command is not in question; the debate has always been about how best to recognise it. Those who served in Bomber Command during the second world war were eligible for one of the stars instituted for campaign service: for example, the 1939-45 star. In addition, a series of campaign stars were created for participants in particularly hazardous campaigns—this was certainly one—and many Bomber Command personnel qualified for the much-prized Air Crew Europe star or the France and Germany star.

The case for awarding a medal to those who served in Bomber Command was also considered by the relevant Committee at the time, 66 years ago. However, it was decided that this would not be appropriate specifically for service in a particular command. There is no other example that I can think of, of a particular command getting a medal. That decision was made with the benefit of evidence from all interested parties at the time—something the present Committee does not have the benefit of now.

It should be clear that these brave men and women were not overlooked. They were considered at the time. In 1985, Lady Harris awarded an unofficial medal and began a campaign historically supported by the Daily Express. Both my hon. Friends have said that there is a huge body of opinion supporting this; actually, although there is a great deal of sympathy and a huge amount of respect for those who served in Bomber Command, I have not seen the evidence of a huge weight of opinion that says that we should institute a medal now.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I wrote to the Minister on 13 August last year on this very point, and included a copy of a letter from Mr Henry Pam, who served in Bomber Command. He made the point:

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“The Air Crew medal was not presented to those of us operating after the invasion of France etc. in 1944. Why?”

Many of those gentleman—and ladies perhaps, but mostly gentlemen—who served in Bomber Command are no longer alive. It seems mean-spirited not to consider what is happening to those who remain and to the families. We should grant some recognition by way of a medal.

Mr Robathan: I am just coming to recognition, but I point out to the hon. Lady that, if we were to institute a medal, that medal should go to every person who was killed in the second world war, or their descendants, and indeed to all those who served in the second world war. It would not only be the survivors; everyone would deserve a medal. If people were killed in the first or second world war, their campaign medals were still awarded. That is how such things are done. People who served and were killed certainly deserved their campaign medals, which were given to their descendants. That is right and proper and still happens today.

Tessa Munt: Were those particular gentlemen not extraordinary in their courage and bravery? As the Minister wrote in his letter to me, Mr Pam had received the 1939 to 1945 star, the France and Germany star, the defence medal and the war medal for 1939 to 1945. The peculiar situation in which Bomber Command found itself should surely be a prerequisite for handing out some sort of medal in recognition.

Mr Robathan: The hon. Lady is of course entitled to her opinion. Those people were incredibly brave and I in no way wish to detract from my admiration for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke referred to his son, and yet the even younger men of Bomber Command did things one can hardly believe—but then, so did those who served in Fighter Command, and they did not get a medal, and nor did those brave men and women in the Special Operations Executive who parachuted into occupied France, the majority of whom were executed when they got there. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is saying that the people of Bomber Command were brave, and I believe that we recognise their bravery—we should do so, and we pay tribute to it—and that is what I am coming on to.

Since I became a Minister, I have been involved with the Bomber Command memorial. The Bomber Command Association is establishing a national memorial and has even cut the turf—I went to the turf-cutting ceremony in the summer. In October 2008, the Prime Minister, while in opposition, said:

“I have always believed that the 55,000 brave men of Bomber Command who lost their lives in the service of their country deserve the fullest recognition of their courage and sacrifice.”

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I believe the same.

The Ministry of Defence is pleased to chair the Bomber Command memorial funding campaign, which is moving ahead with pace, and that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. A construction contract has been awarded and the Bomber Command memorial will be located in Green park, opposite the RAF club on Piccadilly. We are aiming at a completion date in 2012. I am actively supporting the memorial and was meant to be having a meeting in a little over an hour with Malcolm White of the Bomber Command Association. Unfortunately, we had to cancel that meeting, but I shall be meeting him shortly to discuss how to facilitate the memorial, as well as various issues that have been in the newspapers. That will be the best and most fitting memorial, which will last long after we have all gone, reminding people of the sacrifice of our forefathers.

On the medal review, in the coalition’s programme for government it set out its intention to review the rules governing the award of medals, as a part of the commitment to rebuild the military covenant. A draft review was produced to enable us to consider the various views, and we sent the draft report to the campaign groups, including the Bomber Command Association, along with an invitation to submit comments. That review has now been carried out and the closing date for responses from the campaign groups has now passed. The formal responses we received have been carefully considered, but it is worth noting that the Bomber Command Association offered no comments on the medals review. The review will be published in the not-too-distant future.

There is no doubting the bravery and sacrifice of all those involved in the thousands of sorties made by Bomber Command over occupied Europe during the second world war. They made a real difference to the outcome of the war. It is equally clear that that difference was a crucial one, recognised by the other side. Hitler’s armaments Minister, Albert Speer, who more than anyone else in Europe knew about the true effect of the bombing campaign and the ability of the Germans to maintain the war, summed it up thus:

“It made every square metre of Germany a front. For us, it was the greatest lost battle of the war.”

In a sense, there could be no more convincing testimonial.

We support the erection of a fitting memorial to those whose courage made such a critical contribution to the successful prosecution of the air campaign in the second world war. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is right when she says that it is not too late to honour the brave men and women who took part in Bomber Command. We are honouring them next year with the erection of the memorial, which I applaud.

Question put and agreed to.

1.55 pm

Sitting adjourned.