This is still a nation of dog lovers. However, we must recognise that the nation has changed over the years, especially in London, with different cultures comprising our metropolis. In my patch, for example, many people

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in the Turkish community have a particular view about dogs, which are not traditionally regarded as pets. We need to show respect and develop people’s education early on, so that they understand how to look after dogs carefully and own them, so that we can truly be a nation of dog lovers.

3.1 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans)on securing today’s debate, which is timely given the Government’s recent announcements. I apologise, Ms Dorries, because I will not be able to stay for the end of the debate; I have to leave early to attend a meeting with a Minister on a constituency matter.

All hon. Members in this Chamber know about irresponsible dog ownership: we see it at first hand in our constituencies. The British Medical Journal estimates that every year in the UK, 250,000 people are bitten by dogs. Since 2006, six children have tragically lost their lives in dog attacks, including the tragic death in 2009 of John Paul Massey in my constituency. Some 400 telecoms workers and more than 6,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every year in the course of their work.

It is not just people who are victims. Hon. Members have mentioned dogs attacking other dogs. Some 100 instances of guide dogs being attacked by other dogs were reported to the Guide Dogs charity last year, affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. I shall ask the Minister three questions in the light of the recent announcement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and of the announcement by the Home Office yesterday on antisocial behaviour. First, I welcome DEFRA’s statement on extending the law to cover attacks on private property. With 70% of dog attacks taking place in a private home or garden, it is important that the law is extended. However, I am keen that the Minister should say when those measures will be put into force. Will we have to wait until the consultation on microchipping has ended before the law is extended to cover private property? The Government should not wait. I should like them to act now.

I am keen that the Minister should lay out a timetable for the coming into force of the proposals announced yesterday by the Home Office and say what steps he will take to ensure that that proceeds with all urgency. It is vital that, having made such commitments, they are brought in as soon as possible. Every day, we read newspaper stories about attacks in the UK. Delay leaves the public at further risk.

Secondly, with regard to resourcing, including cuts to policing, I am concerned about how effective the DEFRA announcements will be without proper enforcement. Changing policy and giving enforcement agencies the powers that they should have had for a long time is one thing, but it is equally important that the police and others have the resources to enforce the law and deliver results on the ground. Under the 20% police budget cuts, some 16,000 police officers will be taken off our streets. In Liverpool, that will translate to 350 police officers by 2015, which will leave our police force in Merseyside stretched.

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What is the Minister’s, and his Department’s, assessment of the impact of police cuts on the enforcement of the new dangerous dogs legislation? What work has the Department done with the Home Office to ensure that, despite the cuts, police forces will still be adequately equipped to tackle irresponsible dog ownership? Thirdly and finally, on compensation to victims, I hope that the Minister is aware that the Ministry of Justice proposes to end criminal injuries compensation scheme payments to dog attack victims in cases of irresponsible dog ownership. Only in cases where the dog is purposefully set upon a victim will CICS claims be allowed in future. That means that in cases where the dog owner is uninsured and has no money or assets, postal workers and children who suffer horrific injuries will receive no compensation from any source. Will the minister confirm that this is so? If he cannot, will he engage with colleagues at the MOJ on that?

Mr Burrowes: Does the hon. Lady know about the recent and welcome criminal justice legislation, which gives a presumption of compensation for all victims of crime that will extend, particularly in respect of the legislation to cover private property, to most people who are victims of dog attacks? We must prosecute these people and get them before the courts, then people will receive the proper compensation.

Luciana Berger: As I said earlier, I welcome the Government’s extension of the legislation to cover private property, which hon. Members from all parties have been calling for for a long time. However, if such an attack happens and the owner does not have any assets, under the new proposals advanced by the Ministry of Justice, they will have no recourse to compensation, except in the specific instance where a dog is purposefully set on a victim, as outlined in the document. I am concerned that, under the proposals, someone who sustains an injury—a child or a postal worker—will not be eligible for any criminal compensation, even if there is a prosecution. That text is buried right at the end of the document. I can share a copy of it with the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate, if he would like to see it. I hope that the Minister responds to the specific points that I have made about the timetable, about the police being able to enforce the new legislation, and about criminal injuries compensation.

3.7 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this stimulating debate and on the measured, thoughtful way in which he introduced the topic.

I cannot compete with some of the horror stories that have been mentioned, but no politician is far from this issue. This year, I was accosted by two amiable Alsatians that did not quite wish me to canvass the house that I had intended to visit. In my constituency this year, a councillor has been bitten and a caseworker has lost part of a finger. Hon. Members might like to speak to my good friend the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr Benton), who to this day bears the marks of a serious attack by dogs.

Fundamentally, the problem is dogs’ bad behaviour, but that is associated with the problem of neglect and poor training, which is worsened a great deal by the

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contemporary cult of the status dog, which people use as a potential deterrent or threat. Hitherto, the resolution, which has been fairly straightforward, has been to ban so-called uncontrollable, savage dogs that are naturally disinclined to behave themselves in a civilised fashion. The view has also been that owners of dogs that are out of control should be charged by the courts, and guidelines have been issued in that regard over time. There is general consensus that such measures are not sufficient and that more is needed.

All hon. Members have acknowledged the fact that we cannot legislate for the genuinely unpredictable. Occasionally, even well-behaved dogs go beserk and do strange, unpredictable things, even if owners wish them not to do so. Hon. Members are probably aware of such cases. However, much of what people are anxious about is, sadly, predictable. The fundamental drive behind all our contributions today is the desire to see dog owners made more genuinely responsible for their dogs. Otherwise—something suggested to me by police dog handlers—there ought to be some restriction on who can own certain sorts of dogs. That idea was put to me seriously by a man who has had a lot of experience breeding dogs and working with the police with dogs. If we do not allow someone with a criminal record of some length to own firearms and the like, why would we allow him to own a dangerous or potentially dangerous dog?

That is a separate point from the drive to increase owner responsibilities, and I have no particular view on which of a number of different suggestions along that line would be best. I favour microchipping, but one might want to look at insurance, which has not been mentioned so far; at obliging owners to muzzle or keep dogs on a lead; and at neutering certain dogs, if they are to be owned in certain circumstances, almost as a precondition of sale, although none of that gets around the issue that is dogging the whole affair, which is the problem of genuinely irresponsible owners. They do not even shoulder their current responsibilities and, if asked to do more, will discard the animals that they have taken on. There seems to be a lot of evidence that that is happening—a large number of Staffordshire bull terriers end up in pounds throughout the land and are destroyed. The other day, the average life expectancy of a Staffordshire bull terrier was cited as about four years, because people take them on but discard them when they become troublesome.

I am genuinely convinced that the threshold for the ownership and breeding of dogs needs to be raised, either generally or for specific breeds, but that will only be an effective remedy if coupled with sensible plans for realistic enforcement. Without enforcement, no proposal will be worth while, but there is the question of how enforcement will be funded, which drives us back to the issue of whether a licence is a viable idea.

3.11 pm

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries—for the first time, I believe.

It is almost exactly two years since I made my maiden speech to a half-full Chamber—or half-empty, depending on how we look at it—and one of the issues that I

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highlighted was that of dangerous dogs, largely because as a candidate in the few years running up to the election so many cases had been brought to my attention.

Two years on, we seem to be making some progress, which I am delighted about, but we are not there yet, and I welcome some of the measures that the Government are at last proposing. Top of the list has to be extending protection to private land, with appropriate exemptions if dogs are protecting property from illegal forced entry or whatever. For far too long, many of our hard-working postal workers, delivery staff, carers and health visitors—the list goes on—have not been protected by the law from dog attacks if those occur on private land.

As I pointed out in a previous speech, it is patently ridiculous that at the moment, if a hand puts something through a letterbox and gets bitten by a dog on the other side, that would not attract any prosecution but, if it was the owner of the house who was sitting behind the door and bit the hand, that would. Such a situation seems rather ridiculous, but is at last being remedied, although I understand that we are still awaiting a change in the law to allow such prosecutions to take place. I hope that that will happen soon—it cannot happen too fast, in my view.

I am also pleased that we are consulting on microchipping, and I have listened with interest to some of the remarks about that. We need to find the right balance; there is the issue of pushing for full implementation to further the cause of responsible ownership, but I do not want to see elderly grannies with their 14-year-old poodles being marched down to wherever it is and told that they must get their animals microchipped at that late stage. I hope I am making clear my point about the need for balance.

The most sensible course is to start with young pups that are taken to vets for early health checks. A decent percentage of people already microchip their animals, but there will always be that law-ignoring minority who will simply take no notice. We can get our numbers up, however, by encouraging early microchipping. Local authorities could do something to help by using their tenancy agreements to insist that animals living in council properties are microchipped.

The most difficult problem to tackle, but also one of the most urgent—certainly in my constituency—is irresponsible owners who use their dogs to menace their local community, hanging around in parks or on streets. Police are often reluctant to intervene, unless there is a clear-cut case of an unprovoked attack in which someone is badly injured. Even attacks on other pets do not seem to be a reason for police to interfere.

Jim Shannon: I want to make a point salient to the issue of people who hang about in parks with dogs. Another such issue is with gangs who hang about with dogs, and a multiplicity of people with dogs is a real threat—if we see them, right away we are fearful. Do we now have the chance to address that?

Angie Bray: That absolutely needs addressing. Often, too, drug dealers use dogs to protect them in their trade. Yes, indeed, we need to look at how we can break such gangs up. In fact, I was about to say that the Home Office is bringing forward some new measures that can help.

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First, I like the suggestion of an acceptable behaviour order, which could enable the police or other agencies to require someone whose dog is proving to be a menace to sign up to certain conditions, such as muzzling the dog, having it on a lead or accepting some education from, for instance, the Dogs Trust or the RSPCA about proper dog ownership; if the owners do not fulfil what they sign up to, they are left open to further penalties. We would be getting involved with such people early on, hopefully before serious injuries happened. I like the early intervention possibilities and how owners are put on notice that, if they do not start looking after their dog properly, they could be in trouble.

We are also looking at something called the community trigger, which allows concerned residents to insist that the police or other agencies take action after three complaints. Again, that could involve people who are consistently worried about a gang of people hanging around with a threatening dog in a particular park. There are also criminal behaviour orders, which I understand could be attached to those convicted of certain crimes, including violence, and which could in certain circumstances ban someone unsuitable from being in control of a dog in a public place. That will all help, and the tougher sentencing guidelines are also welcome, although belated.

Finally, I want to flag up something that can make a difference in the medium to long term: local authorities getting much more involved in enforcing housing tenancy agreements, which seek to control pets in council properties. Wandsworth has led the way, and my own local authority of Ealing has also been setting up new agreements, although I am told that those are yet to be properly enforced; I have raised the issue with the council and been reassured that it is being looked at. Obviously, it makes no sense to adopt a new policy if it is not then implemented. I would like to see London councils and the Greater London assembly do much more to push those new housing tenancy agreements, which could make a real difference.

In conclusion, real progress is being made at last, which I welcome, but there is more to do, in particular to ensure that new measures are properly implemented and enforced. We need to remember the dreadful attacks on young children, as well as on many others such as postal workers, that go unreported. There are no guarantees, but we should be minimising the chances.

3.18 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate.

I simply wish to echo some of the points made by my colleagues from London who have spoken already, in particular about gangs and dogs used as weapons. I quote from one of the e-mails that I have received from a constituent:

“I no longer come across normal breeds now”—

this is his impression—

“just staffies and pit bull types. They are everywhere! In the parks where small children play, the dogs are hung on to the trees to strengthen the jaws. They are walked around by intimidating owners and quite frankly it is an epidemic.”

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That is only one e-mail, but in the time that I have been an MP I have had a number of constituents contacting me, in particular people who are fearful even of going out of their front door, let alone into a park, because of the aggressive behaviour of some owners, with their deliberate training of dogs to be aggressive and weapon-like.

Hackney council has sought to deal with the problem in a number of ways. It, too, has introduced some controls into the tenancy agreement on the number of pets that people own, although that alone is not a solution. Any irresponsible owner will find ways around most of those measures, which is a point that we must all bear in mind.

As a result of situations such as the one I cited, Hackney council has introduced three new dog control orders, which came into effect from April. One is a dog exclusion order, which enables the council to stop dogs entering certain areas, including children’s playgrounds, sports courts, multi-use games areas and marked pitches when games are in play.

A second order requires dogs to be on leads and prohibits owners from exercising their dogs off the lead on roads, in small parks and gardens, on the canal towpath and in car parks and churchyards. That is an example of how irresponsible dog ownership has affected responsible dog owners. Many dog owners are quite able to control their dog on the canal towpath or in churchyards, for instance, without causing a problem for children at play or other adults. Hackney has felt the need to introduce the orders because of the fear factor and some irresponsible dog owners. We will see how that plays out, but it is a worry to me that we must go that way. I still welcome the move, however, at this point.

A third order requires dogs to be on leads when a request is made to owners. That gives officers the power to request that dogs should be put on leads if they are not under appropriate control or if they are causing damage or acting aggressively. That latter point is the most important, but the key issue, of course, with the new or even with existing powers, is enforcement. We already have the powers in Hackney to issue fines for dog fouling in public, for instance, but when I talk to constituents about that there is a certain cynicism about the likelihood of enforcement. Some of the people who are intent on using their dogs as weapons will not be where the dog wardens are. If they see the dog wardens, they will tend to disappear.

Good dog owners will do all the things that are required anyway. I am in favour of microchipping and think that the arguments have been well put today. Microchipping is a good thing. On its own, it is not a solution; it is something that good owners will do, but the bad owners, who breed and sell, will not play that game.

There have been proposals about exclusive dog breeders, and about being able to buy only from some licensed dog breeders. I would be wary of that approach, which it seems to me would create a sort of cartel. It would be difficult to control what happened, especially in rural areas where dogs are born without being, shall I say, planned and bred in the same way as elsewhere. I mean that I know farmers here who tell me that one in seven dogs is likely to become a sheep dog; they do not know which, when they are born, so of course they tend not to keep them all.

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I welcome the fact that Hackney has taken on such important powers; however, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has made some sensible and reasonable points about what Parliament needs to do. There is clearly cross-party support for some measures, but we need to work, as the hon. Gentleman said, on ensuring that the Bill is put together properly. We have seen what seemed like the benefits of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. There was a lot of support for it. The danger is that we chase the headlines and pick up the bad examples, without thinking of the consequences.

We need to tease through every consequence to see what the impact will be on different areas of our constituencies, and on our constituents. It may be early for the Minister to reflect on this, but there can be a danger of including in primary legislation things that can be changed only with further primary legislation. The legislation may need to be adapted for the future use of dogs, and we need it to enable minor changes to be made through regulation, once the basic principles are established. That will give the Government and Parliament the freedom to change the law and adapt and adjust it as new breeds come to fruition, or as people try to use dogs in new ways. I feel strongly about that. We cannot wait for primary legislation if we do not get things right, or the situation changes.

Mr Burrowes: I welcome the points that the hon. Lady has made, about things that affect London communities as well as the rest of the country.

The Government have made a proposal about kennelling costs, and ways to make the action that is taken proportionate. I know as a solicitor how long dogs effectively await trial. The cost of that, just in London, is £2.75 million. If we can deal proportionately with dogs that will not be a risk, that must be welcome. If dogs are a risk they need to be on bail conditions, so to speak, of muzzling and a lead, and so forth.

Meg Hillier: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was just about to move on to the issue of the cost of kennelling. Responsible owners—and irresponsible ones—can contribute to that, but it is a cost to Londoners, and I think the money would be better spent on enforcement. We need to consider all the consequences. At the moment, because of the breed-based nature of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, it is difficult for the police to establish what they need to, and it takes them a long time. In my constituency there are higher priorities for police funding than kennelling, so we need to think about how the issue is tackled.

We clearly have a cross-party consensus and agree that we want to proceed positively. I hope that the Minister will take our suggestions in good part, and work with me and others who have an interest in ensuring that responsible dog owners can enjoy their dogs, and that other people will not be made afraid because of those who are irresponsible.

3.24 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing the debate.

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It is good to have the Minister here. We are all very much in favour of microchipping, and I want to ask him about the database in particular. Microchipping is all very well, but the database must be right and it must work. The information must be correct. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched its inquiry at Battersea yesterday, and we found out that for a third of microchipped dogs the information is not accurate or up to date.

It is right to make sure that we have an accurate database. When a puppy is sold, the first owner or breeder must be responsible for ensuring that the information about where the dog then goes is correct. Thereafter, somewhat as with the licensing of a car, it is possible to follow the dog through its life. Otherwise it will disappear off the database. The idea is also good from a breeding point of view. It will make it possible to be sure that the breeding is correct, without in-breeding or the breeding of bad aspects into a certain breed of dog—so that the buyer gets a healthy dog. From all those points of view, the proposal is a good thing.

People always say, however, that the law works for the law-abiding, and we must be careful that we do not just make it more onerous for the law-abiding to get their dogs microchipped. We need to be able to tackle the other dogs out there, whose owners will never want to have them microchipped.

As to problems with postal workers and social workers, if someone is inviting someone to push a letter through their door and knows that their dog is likely to bite the person who puts it through, they are responsible for the dog and should take action so that that does not happen. The same is true if a social worker comes into their house. That is a key point. As a farmer, I know that occasionally—and this would be more difficult in law—a dog that has never turned before will turn suddenly. That will probably make for interesting cases, and we cannot get everything right, although we must try to.

I want to mention status dogs, quickly. Having looked around Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, it is clear to me—in relation to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991—that breed-specific legislation does not work, for the simple reason that, as we were told, some of the cross-bred dogs that are now being bred weigh 8 stone. We can imagine that once a dog of that kind has been trained to be vicious, it will be a hell of a weapon. To be blunt, that is what some criminal elements do: they breed those dogs in the back streets, and train them to be vicious weapons. The other problem is that if they abandon those dogs, most of them are so vicious that they cannot be rehabilitated and rehomed: there is a death sentence on those dogs, because of the way they are brought up.

It is not often the dogs that are to blame—it is the individual or gangs who bring them up. That is probably the most difficult aspect of the measures to get right. There is currently law enabling the police to act in relation to dangerous dogs. We need to be able to allow the RSPCA and others to take up the cudgels. We need to act when a dog is obviously starting to get vicious, when that is obvious from the way that it is being taken around—whether the owner is hanging around the parks with it, or whatever they are doing—and from the behaviour of the dog and the people around it. Even before the dog has viciously bitten anyone, that is the time to pounce on it, and at least try to get it microchipped,

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so that a link back can be traced. In films where gangs use such dogs as weapons, the one great advantage that they have is the fact that the dog cannot be traced back to an individual member of the gang.

Meg Hillier: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that if aggressive behaviour is witnessed by the police they should have the power in law to enforce microchipping of the dogs? I would support that; it might tackle some of the irresponsible dog owners that we agreed about.

Neil Parish: That is exactly what I am suggesting, because we must try to take action. If someone has been bitten, or a dog has been used as a weapon—as an attack dog—we have failed. If we get hold of the dogs before that happens, and link them to their owners, those owners who want to use them as a weapon will be much less likely to be able to do so. We must send a clear message to those people that the situation cannot continue. It destroys not just our society, but many healthy dogs who should not have ended up as they did. I strongly believe that in most cases it is the fault not of the dog, but of the way in which it was brought up. That is why we must pin the dog to those who perpetrate the problem.

I know that it is difficult to get everything right, but I urge the Minister to ensure that we have an accurate database that will continue into the future, that we target not breeds but the behaviour of dogs, and, most importantly, that we make sure that when dogs are used as a weapon we use all the powers we have to link them back to their owners so that they can be properly prosecuted. That will send the message to everyone else.

3.31 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I am the organising secretary of the Communications Workers Union group of liaison MPs, and I am proud of that. I compliment the CWU’s Bite Back campaign, which has put some steel into the issue since 2008—particularly Dave Joyce, who is the health and safety officer. Trade unions do good work for people.

Some 23,000 postal workers have been attacked by dogs in the past four years, and 6,000 go to hospital for treatment every year because they have been seriously attacked by dogs. Twelve deaths have been recorded in the UK since 2005—seven children and five adults. Nothing that we do is good enough if another life is lost. I have here a photograph of Lena Gane, a postman who was attacked by a dog in Bristol on Thursday 3 May 2012, and whose hand was almost severed. That is not uncommon for postal workers and other direct-contact public workers.

The union’s assessment of the present consultation is that it is yet another fudge, and a missed opportunity. A two-year consultation has just finished, and there are no proposals other than to consider extending the legislation to dogs on private property.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned microchipping. If people were compelled to microchip and insure their dogs, they would think twice about buying a dog and the responsibility involved. The Dogs Trust says that too many dogs are given as presents

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and then abandoned. Some, having not been controlled and trained, become a problem for the owner and the public, but many are kept on as family pets. I have seen someone in the park across the road from where I live releasing a dog—an Alsatian or German Shepherd—when children were playing in the small child’s play park. I quake when I see that, because no one knows what that dog will do, no matter how good the owner is.

It is important to put on the record the measures that the Bite Back campaign wants. Until they are granted, the Government—any Government, because the campaign started in 2008 under the previous Government—will be under pressure from those who want the problem solved. The campaign says that those measures should include UK-wide consolidated and strengthened dog control legislation, not tinkering, to prevent attacks on children and the general public, postal and telecom workers, and other public-contact workers who may go to places where there is a dog.

There should be dog control legislation that applies everywhere, including on private property. Preventive dog control notices, which exist in Scotland, should be introduced. The fudge of a wrap-around general control order will not do. The notices must be specific, as in Scotland and, I believe, Northern Ireland. All dogs should be compulsorily microchipped, so that people who take on a dog know that that will be recorded. I accept the good points that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made about the database being kept up to date and compulsory. That happens for cars, and if someone forgets to make a statutory off road notification, they are fined. I know farmers who have been fined for having cars abandoned in their fields, because they forgot to register that they had been abandoned.

There should be compulsory third party insurance cover for dogs and better criminal compensation orders. The Government must reverse their appalling proposal that people will not receive criminal injuries compensation if they are attacked by a dog when someone has been proven to be irresponsible with the dog. There should be good local authority dog wardens with powers for them and the police to intervene immediately if they think a situation needs investigation, and to have the dog removed.

There should be harsher sentences by the courts for irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs. There should be better information and education, but the question is how much should be spent to get that education. It should be compulsory for people to train and control their dogs. There should be large public information campaigns to persuade people not to take on dogs if they are not willing to be responsible for them in every situation, and to generate compliance.

The Bite Back campaign is supported not just by the postal workers, but by all law enforcement agencies, the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Kennel Club, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Veterinary Association. That is a large body of opinion. Some 250,000 people are bitten by a dog every year. That means a lot of dogs that are not controlled. Some of the bites are severe, as we heard from the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax)—he has now left the Chamber—who told us about a young girl who

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was bitten in the face. The problem is common and endemic, and the Government have a duty to do something about it.

It was wrong to make the existing legislation breed specific, and I have said that time and again. We must do better, do it right, and do it all.

3.36 pm

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Dorries. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on relating to us in graphic and harrowing detail the incident that inspired him to apply for this debate. It is rare to hear a contribution that warrants an 18 certificate.

The debate provides a timely opportunity to discuss the Government’s policy on tackling irresponsible dog ownership and strengthening dog control. It is worth saying at the outset that if the Government get this right, they will have our full support. It may be appropriate to mention briefly a former colleague. Until 2010, Joan Humble was the Labour MP for Blackpool North and Fleetwood. Last month, while campaigning for a Labour candidate, the tip of her wedding ring finger was bitten off when she posted a leaflet through a letter box. I know that the House will want to send its best wishes to her for a speedy recovery.

I note from a report on the BBC news website that the esteemed Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), began her political career by being bitten by an Alsatian during an early campaign, but I am sure that she has now recovered from that.

The Government announced their proposals to tackle dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership on 23 April. Before speaking about them in more depth, I want to pay tribute to the work of two organisations that have already been mentioned and which have done some outstanding work in this field. First, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association spends up to £50,000 to train a single dog to a high enough standard to serve a blind person, yet every week those animals are subject to vicious attacks by aggressive dogs on the public highway, often dogs that are nominally under the control of their owners. Those attacks frequently result in the guide dog being injured, and even retired. By nature and training, they are passive animals, and their first instinct is to protect their owners, not themselves. Yet criminal sanctions against irresponsible dog owners are very rare, leaving guide dogs and their owners constantly at risk without the protection of the law. I hope that in his response the Minister will give a commitment to address that injustice.

Secondly, I pay tribute to the Communication Workers Union, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) has already referred, and to the Bite Back campaign spearheaded by its national health, safety and environment officer, Dave Joyce. The union has welcomed the recently reviewed sentencing guidelines for dog attacks, but makes the serious point that in future the law must apply to private property as that is where 70% of dog attacks on postal workers take place. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 does not cover attacks that take place on private property,

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which means that traumatised and vulnerable victims are forced to seek recourse through the civil courts. Like Guide Dogs for the Blind, the CWU is concerned at the low level of convictions as a result of attacks. If the Government intend to extend the law on that issue—and I understand that they do—I hope that there will be no further delay.

In government, Labour recognised that there were problems with the existing legislation on dangerous dogs, and in March 2010 we began a consultation on tightening the law. We worked with the police, veterinarians, canine and animal welfare groups and trade unions on a range of powers needed to tackle dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners. That consultation ended in June 2010, but it took nearly two years for the coalition Government to respond. During that time, more than 5,000 patients were admitted to hospital because of injuries caused by dog attacks in England and Wales, and nearly 10,000 postal workers were injured by domestic dogs. Each month, more than seven guide dogs have been, and continue to be, attacked by dogs that are out of control. Those figures are startling enough, but over the past year, police forces in England and Wales have spent more than £3 million on kennelling dogs that have been seized under the 1991 Act.

Between 2004-05 and 2010, the number of out-of-control dogs seized by the Metropolitan Police Authority rose from 27 to more than 1,100. Scotland and Northern Ireland have already implemented their own dog control laws, and Wales is reviewing the issue—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn is taking a close interest. There have been many traumatic and violent attacks over the past two years, most recently the case of five Metropolitan police officers who were savagely attacked by a dog, curiously enough named “Poison”, as they attempted to arrest its owner. My hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) heard at first hand a horrifying testimony from the father of a little girl from Chingford whose ear had been chewed off in an unrestrained dog attack in a public park.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk pointed out, about 20 organisations, including the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Kennel Club, the CWU, the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers, want the Government to live up to the Prime Minister’s promise to target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs. Labour, and all those affected by dog attacks, also want to see that promise fulfilled. This is about promoting responsible dog ownership and tackling irresponsible, incompetent and sometimes outright dangerous owners, as well as about the dogs themselves.

On 14 March 2012, my shadow ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, wrote to the Secretary of State stating:

“I can assure you that Labour will support any measures that support animal welfare charities, unions, the Police and others in preventing unnecessary dog attacks and tackling the scourge of irresponsible dog ownership.”

Sadly, however, the proposals announced last month fell overwhelmingly short of expectations, and there were few who welcomed them with any vigour or delight. We have noted the announcements in the White Paper on antisocial behaviour, and I will return to that shortly.

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Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, summed up the mood perfectly when he questioned why there was another delay caused by yet another consultation. He said:

“We’ve had a comprehensive consultation, there’s cross-party support, now we need action.”

The chief executive of the RSPCA, Gavin Grant, said that the proposals “lack bite”, although I do not know whether the pun was intended. Claire Horton, chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, said that the proposals were a “wasted opportunity”, and Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive of Dogs Trust, claimed that the Government are

“just tinkering round the edges.”

We welcome the extension—albeit delayed—of the law to cover attacks on private property, and the Government are making the right noises about a phased introduction of microchipping. However, the fact that we are to have more consultations has been criticised heavily, not least in the debate today, and there is no clear timetable for the implementation of the proposals. Furthermore, there is nothing in DEFRA’s proposals to help prevent dog attacks.

I have a series of questions for the Minister. I shall try to be brief and I hope that he will address these points today. If not, I hope that he will make a commitment to write to me with the answers. A new and additional consultation on microchipping has been announced. When will that end and when will the proposals be put into action? It is only right that the Minister makes clear the timetable for implementation. There are four existing microchip databases. Will the Minister explain how it will be made easier for law enforcement agencies, vets, animal welfare charities and dog wardens to cut through that confusion? Will the databases be streamlined, and will there be any compulsion for bodies to co-operate and share information?

As we know, information currently stored on dog microchips is often out of date. Owners have passed away or moved on and not informed the database, or else they simply deny that the dog is theirs. What measures will the Minister introduce to ensure that microchips are updated on a regular basis, and that the last recorded owners take responsibility for their dog? If the legislation is not tightened up, then short of being useful for restoring dogs to responsible owners, the database will do nothing to tackle irresponsible owners.

What discussions has the Minister had with animal welfare charities and others to make microchipping low-cost or zero-cost, and to make it apply beyond registered breeders, thereby driving programmes into other areas where the benefits of and need for microchipping and wider animal welfare advice are clear? What effect will the proposals for microchipping puppies from legitimate registered dog breeders have on the wider issue of unregistered or back-street breeders, surplus puppies from accidental litters, and the sale of puppies on the internet? Does the Minister accept that a large part of the ownership problem, and the tide of untraceable dogs that wash up in animal welfare charities, is unlikely to be affected simply by microchipping the products of registered puppy farms? The proposals are a welcome development, but how will they deal with the wider issue? The extension of the law on dangerous dogs to

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cover private property will require changes to primary legislation. When and how will that be done? We need certainty and clarity, neither of which has been forthcoming in ministerial announcements or in the Queen’s Speech.

The broad coalition of groups to which I have referred made a specific demand for measures that will prevent attacks from taking place. Such measures would reduce the costs of kennelling and euthanasia, thousands and thousands of NHS treatments in A and E units and GP surgeries, as well as days of work lost by front-line workers. Part of that is to do with early intervention and educating owners about responsible ownership. The limited programme that the Minister has announced is welcome but it is pygmy-esque given the scale of intervention required.

The Home Office White Paper on antisocial behaviour includes proposals that are aimed at tackling irresponsible dog ownership. The Home Office has rejected any dog-specific power, but stated that it will continue to work with relevant groups, including the police, in finalising proposals that will be of maximum benefit in dealing with dog-related antisocial behaviour. We are studying the proposals closely, but will the Minister guarantee that they will not become a dodgy doggy ASBO to be flouted and ignored? Many people want to see specific dog control notices. Does the Minister know why the Home Office rejected that idea?

What discussions has the Minister had with Home Office colleagues about these proposals, and does he know how acceptable behaviour order and community protection notices will be enforced? Has he made any assessment of what impact the proposals will have in preventing dog attacks? Does he know how many attacks will be prevented, and can he assure us that Ministers across his Department and the Home Office are working collaboratively to tackle out-of-control dogs and irresponsible dog ownership? In short, are Ministers barking up the same tree? [ Interruption. ]—Yes, I apologise.

We need joined-up government to make safety on the streets a reality, and I urge the Government to listen to the views of those who have come together to promote responsible dog ownership. Most importantly, I urge the Minister to get on with implementing the measures and put them in place as soon as possible.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): It is a great pleasure to respond to this excellent debate and there have been some good contributions. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for raising this important issue with such commitment, and for continuing an ongoing dialogue on the issue. I entirely recognise the points that he raises. I pay tribute to the many organisations to which he referred: Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Communication Workers Union, the Dogs Trust and, of course, Battersea dogs home, which he recently visited.

There were other very powerful contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) pointed out the limitations of what many people—some of our constituents and some Members of this House—see as a panacea for solving this problem. Microchipping is only a partial solution. As was said in a number of interventions, it does not deal with the fact that

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unfortunately there will always be some people who fail to comply. The law can go only so far in catching them.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who informed hon. Members that she had to leave the debate to go to a meeting, which of course we understand, asked some specific questions that were also asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris). Incidentally, I should have started by congratulating him on his position and saying that I look forward to working with him. This issue is not my primary responsibility—it is, of course, Lord Taylor of Holbeach’s responsibility—but I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on it and many others. The hon. Lady asked when the measures would be brought in, as did the hon. Gentleman. The introduction of microchipping would involve secondary legislation—an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The elements of the measures that have been announced that would see current controls extending to private property and that relate to the requirements for kennelling and a number of other areas would involve primary legislation. I have no date for when those measures could be brought in, but we consider them urgent and hope that they can be brought in as quickly as possible.

The hon. Lady also raised the question of police resources. I can only say that these are local priority issues and will undoubtedly feature in the work of the new police and crime commissioners. When my neighbouring MP was Boris Johnson, we conducted a campaign with Thames Valley police on dog theft. We got that horrible crime treated as much more of a priority by the police force. It allocated resources and has done good work. A similar approach is being taken by other police forces. I know that hon. Members are still working hard with certain police forces to try to move this issue up the scale of their priorities. There will continue to be a debate and it will happen locally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) is a long-standing campaigner on this issue, and I pay great tribute to her. She is pleased about what is being done, but quite rightly there is an edge to what she says. She wants to push the Government, and I will ensure that we continue to work with her.

There was an excellent contribution from the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). One very telling point that she made was about the irresponsible dog owners affecting responsible dog owners. That is entirely right. There are law-abiding people who are dog lovers or who do not have anything to do with dogs but whose lives are made hell by the irresponsible dog owners. Of course, that must remain a priority for us.

I will try to deal with as many points as I can in the few minutes that I have left. I certainly commit to writing to hon. Members if I fail to answer any of the questions put to me. Let us be clear: the announcement of 23 April set out a number of proposals. One is to extend to all places the criminal offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control. That deals with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and a number of others about the terrible attacks that happen in the home and elsewhere that currently are not covered by legislation. The other proposals are: to remove the mandatory requirement that suspected prohibited-type dogs must be seized by the police for at least the duration of the

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court case; to require all puppies to be microchipped; and to increase the fee to have a dog added to the index of exempted dogs. The proposals are subject to consultation, and we welcome people’s views before the consultation period ends on 15 June. We want to take action as quickly as possible after that.

In addition to the proposals that I have set out, we are taking forward other work that we consider will help to tackle the irresponsible ownership of dogs. A number of initiatives are currently undertaken at local level. Some have been referred to in the debate. Those initiatives are designed to promote more responsible ownership of dogs. The Government welcome that. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have been giving great leadership to some of those local initiatives. We want to foster more of those projects and we feel that those who may be interested in setting up projects need to know what works well and in what circumstances. To enable that to happen, DEFRA is funding innovative projects in London and in dog hot spots outside London to provide learning that can be applied more widely.

In the past, one criticism has been a perception that enforcement of the law can vary between police forces, with some forces performing better than others. To redress that, we have already provided funding towards the training of more dog legislation officers—police officers specially trained in the law on dangerous dogs. That can make an enormous difference to a police force that is trying to tackle a problem but does not feel that it has the resources to deal with it. Those additional specialists will help police forces across the country to deal with dangerous dog incidents.

We also provide guidance to the courts, the police and the public on dangerous dogs. We are examining whether that guidance needs to be updated and have started to work with partners to see what changes need to be made.

On 15 May, the Sentencing Council published a new guideline for judges and magistrates on sentencing for dangerous dog offences. For example, the top of the sentencing range for the offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control and injure someone has been increased from six months to 18 months. The Sentencing Council states:

“The new guideline will mean more offenders will face jail sentences, more will get community orders and fewer will receive discharges.”

The new guideline will come into effect on 20 August 2012.

As has been said, the Home Office has published a White Paper—it did so yesterday—containing proposals to simplify the antisocial behaviour toolkit. We have worked closely with the Home Office to ensure that the new antisocial behaviour measures cover irresponsibility with dogs. That includes people who deliberately use their dogs to intimidate other people and those who allow their dogs to stray and cause a nuisance—precisely the point made by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch. The Home Office is determined that those types of problem will be dealt with effectively in its proposed changes to the antisocial behaviour toolkit. The Home Office fully recognises the need to ensure that action can be taken to tackle antisocial behaviour problems proactively before they degenerate into more serious incidents, when action may have to be taken under existing dangerous dogs legislation. Many hon. Members have referred to the fact that certain dogs are

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used as a cover for other forms of criminality. That is of course a very big driver for the police and other law enforcement agencies.

I realise that a number of people wanted to see proposals such as the introduction of dog control notices. I can see why dog control notices may be viewed as a positive and preventive measure. However, I hope that I can reassure everyone that anything that could be achieved through such notices could be achieved through the new antisocial behaviour measures proposed by the Home Office. I see no reason to introduce dog-specific notices. They would not add value to what is already out there.

I hope that hon. Members will take the time to read the White Paper. It sets out a range of ways in which practitioners could use the new powers to deal with irresponsible dog owners, from using informal measures to deal with problems early, to taking proactive action through a community protection notice to tell an irresponsible owner exactly what he needs to do or else, and using the crime prevention injunction or criminal behaviour order to deal with more serious cases.

I understand that there is considerable support for microchipping to be applied to all dogs. Our consultation on microchipping includes four options, but our preferred option is to microchip puppies as opposed to all dogs. The Government consider that there should be a balance between linking dogs back to breeders and not imposing a burden on all existing dog owners. Many points were raised about the data and where they are held. There will be a real onus on the vendor of a dog to ensure that the data are changed. There will also be an onus on the purchaser. No one wants liability to remain with them. It is like selling a car.

The Government remain absolutely committed to resolving this problem as best they can. Let us face facts. There will still be dog attacks. Whatever legislation the House introduces, there will still be appalling incidents, but we must do everything that we can to provide the necessary protection to innocent people, who are currently too often the victims of appalling crimes and attacks by dogs that are not managed responsibly by their owners.

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Scottish-recruited Units

4 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): It feels a bit strange to be standing here once again to address the prospects for the Scottish regiments, which we now have to refer to as the Scottish-recruited units. I remember standing in this self-same spot in the first of two debates that I managed to secure to put the case for Scotland’s historic regiments, when the previous Labour Government introduced their amalgamation plans. I remember some of the fantastic speeches and really passionate contributions from Members on both sides of the House, who recognised the incredible community links and associations that our local then regiments had with all our communities and constituencies.

The regiments brought heritage, culture and traditions to our constituencies and communities. More than anything, people recognised the admiration and respect that we all felt towards our regiments for the almost unimaginable task that they did on our behalf and the pride and respect that we had for them for fulfilling their function and making this the best Army set-up anywhere in the world.

In 2004, the Labour Government were the villains. They pushed through their amalgamations in the face of total and overwhelming opposition. I remember the rallies, the demos—the Edinburgh demonstration in December 2004 and the rally in Dundee. People came together to oppose Labour’s amalgamation plans. There were petitions. Usually, if an MP has a petition and is out on the high street, people are reluctant to sign it, but people were queuing to sign the petition to save their local regiment.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the issue goes back to the 1960s? One of my great-grandfathers was a pipe major in the Gordon Highlanders and one of my grandfathers went through the whole of the first world war in the Highland Light Infantry. Both those cap badges have long since disappeared. They were great regiments with great traditions, but their disappearance was not the end of civilisation as we knew it. We have seen amalgamation and changes to cap badges in the Scottish regiments for nearly 50 years.

Pete Wishart: It is with great regret that we have lost some of those fantastic regiments. There are ways to do it. Our regimental system is admired across the world, and we mess with it at our peril. We were not successful in retaining the historic Scottish regiments. They were amalgamated and the Royal Regiment of Scotland appeared. We acknowledge that with much regret.

One thing that we secured, an important concession that everyone recognises as valuable, was the idea of a golden thread that would allow the past to knit to the future and allow the former regiments some sort of identity and home within the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): When my hon. Friend speaks about the golden thread, it is not mere history or sentiment. It is essential to recruitment and retention into those geographically recruited units, such as the Black Watch, when recruits come from that area. It is vital for recruitment and retention into units such as that.

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Pete Wishart: My hon. Friend is spot on. It is more than history, tradition and culture; it is about community association and links. He and I share a local regiment—the Black Watch. He and I recognise the value and importance of those community links, which are lost at our great peril.

We were not successful in preventing the amalgamation plans. We had the golden thread. Some of us were sceptical: we feared that it might be lost in the greater tapestry of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and that once it was up and running it would develop a history, tradition and momentum of its own. There was also a very great and real fear that some future Government and new Secretary of State for Defence would come along and decide that the golden thread was not worth keeping and do away with it in a new defence review. We have come close to that in the past few weeks.

We have heard all sorts of remarks from the Defence Secretary. He tried to suggest that the golden thread was not valuable or important and that things such as names, cap badges and other insignia associated with the regiments are not worth what we say they are. He said something important:

“The ancient cap badges have largely gone, they are attached in brackets to some unit names”.

With those remarks, he was attempting to say that the legacy of our former regiments was somehow a burden that needed to be addressed and conveniently disposed of in favour of mere numbers. With one stroke of a Whitehall pen, these famous names would cease to exist and be no more.

I do not think that the Defence Secretary understood or appreciated the attachment that we have to our local regiments in Scotland, but after the furore of the past few weeks, he kens noo, as we say in Perthshire. The proposition that the names, cap badges and insignia should be done away with has been received with overwhelming hostility by every sector in the defence community.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): It is the same in Angus, which has a strong attachment to the Black Watch. It is about not only the current members of the regiment, but about thousands of my constituents who have family connections with the regiments that they hold very dear. Part of the thread that ties our regiments to our community is threatened.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I cannot remember the number of veterans we have in Scotland, but it was revealed recently—somewhere in the region of 80,000. There are certainly substantial numbers—all of them determined to protect their former ancient regiments, and quite right too. He is right: the regiments bring history, tradition and culture into the new regiment, and that must be worth maintaining.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also about national identity? In Wales, we face potentially losing the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, which recruits, almost uniformly, from Wales and the borders. A regiment’s national identity is also important in giving a coherent community and regional identity.

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Pete Wishart: The hon. Lady is correct; there is national identity. The Scottish regiments are called “the Jocks”—it is an affectionate, not demeaning, term. Maintaining national identity within the regiments is important and we must hold on to it.

My local battalion—my Scottish-raised unit—is the Black Watch. The regimental headquarters are in my constituency in Perth. They are currently being developed, Ms Dorries, and I am sure that you would like to know that we will have a fantastic new museum. Come up and visit us. It is a magnificent place.

The Black Watch has just returned from its tour of duty in Afghanistan. Thankfully, this time round, there were no fatalities or casualties, and we are all grateful for that. When the Black Watch returns to Scotland, all sorts of homecoming parades are organised across the recruiting area. There were parades in Dundee, Forfar, Kirkcaldy in Fife and, of course, a huge one in Perth. The streets were thronged. Hundreds of people turned up to show their admiration and respect for the Black Watch, which had come back safely. We organised a civic reception for it in the evening; I will not tell you what happened after that, Ms Dorries, but I will just say that it was a particularly good evening.

There is a connection between the people of Tayside and Fife and the Black Watch. It is an important and cherished connection that must be maintained. The Black Watch was raised in Aberfeldy in my constituency on the banks of the Tay in 1740 to keep watch on the lawless highlands. Thankfully, it no longer has to fulfil that task—I could refer to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy)—but it had an important task in those days.

It must have been in 2005, when the Black Watch was amalgamated into the new regiment of Scotland, that there was a march through Aberfeldy. It came to the fantastic Black Watch memorial—a kilted soldier looking down on the very place that the regiment was mustered. I remember speaking to an infantryman that day who had served in the Black Watch many decades ago. He gave me the clearest understanding of what it is all about. He said that it is not about Queen and country, important though they are, but about your pals—the pals who you have shared the same town with; the pals who you might have gone to school with; and the pals who you know you can rely on when the going gets tough.

That is the greatest ever description and explanation of why the regimental system works, and it cannot be put any clearer than that. That day, back in 2005, was very poignant. I remember seeing brave serving soldiers crying because it was the end of the Black Watch as an existing regiment.

I have never been a soldier and neither has the Minister. The most dangerous thing that I have ever faced was a sea of excitable fans when I was a rock musician. Listening to the testament of former soldiers and seeing what they have been through is a very important lesson.

I do not need to tell the Minister that these suggestions and proposals have been met with the most incredible hostility and opposition. According to The Sunday Times, even the Prime Minister is opposed to them. What we need to hear from the Minister today is absolute clarification on the matter. When the hon.

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Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) raised a question in the House, all we got was total equivocation from the Prime Minister. We need a clear answer. When the Minister gets to his feet, he must say without any equivocation that regimental names will continue to exist within the Royal Regiment of Scotland and that there will be no diminishing of the golden thread. In fact, he could say, “We value the golden thread; it is important and instead of diminishing it, we will enhance and develop it.”

Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this debate. I am also proud to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Regarding the Black Watch, my mother and sister are today attending a ceremony at the Black Watch memorial at Powrie Brae, just outside Dundee. The hon. Gentleman mentions the British regimental system—and he did say “British”—but given his party’s aspirations, would a Black Watch still exist?

Pete Wishart: Without any shadow of a doubt it would continue to exist. We have a firm, clear commitment that the existing battalions will be not only maintained but developed. [Interruption.] If it is an independent Scotland, the battalions are unlikely to be British, but they will be maintained and continued.

Mrs Moon rose

Pete Wishart: I have very little time, so I will take a quick intervention.

Mrs Moon: Everything the hon. Gentleman has said in relation to the golden thread applies also in Wales. There have been suggestions that a political decision will be made not to remove the Scottish regiments for fear of influencing the devolution debate. The reverberations of that in Wales would be tremendous. Some 9% of the British Army are recruited in Wales from 3% of the population. I am talking about some 10,000 people.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. It is good to see that the cause of Scottish independence is securing support and could have an influence on the recruitment of units in Wales.

I hope the Minister will clarify some matters for us today, because that is the intention of this debate. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State himself is not here today, but I appreciate and respect the fact that we have the Minister here. In even the darkest days of the amalgamation debates of 2004, Geoff Hoon always turned up. He always took the flak and got incredible respect for that. We really needed to have the Secretary of State here today to address our points unequivocally and end this damaging uncertainty.

There has been a suggestion, which has a degree of credibility, that this debate on our names and badges is a smokescreen and masks the Government’s true intention, which is to get on with the job of brutally decimating the Scottish defence footprint.

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Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): My hon. Friend mentions the defence footprint. He will be aware that Scotland contributes about £3.3 billion to the defence pot, but only gets back about £2 billion of the spend.

Pete Wishart: Those are the points that I want to make. Securing this regimental identity is important, but so too are the boots on the ground. There is this multi-billion pound spending gap between what the taxpayers in Scotland contribute to the Ministry of Defence and what is actually spent on defence in Scotland. I want the Minister to respond to some of this.

All we have left are four regiments in the British Army from the Scotland units. We have the Royal Regiment of Scotland with its five regular battalions and two territorial battalions. There are the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Scotland’s only remaining cavalry regiment, the Scots Guards and the 19th Regiment Royal Artillery, the Highland Gunners. We lost the 40th Regiment Royal Artillery, the Lowland Gunners, a few weeks ago. We now have only 11,000 service personnel in the Scottish infantry, which is fewer than in Ireland. The Government should be ashamed of that.

Moreover, we have seen a further 600 jobs cut in Scotland. We were grateful to the then Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), for conceding to the Scottish Affairs Committee that between 2000 and 2010, the total reduction in service jobs in the UK was 11.6%, and that the reduction in Scotland was a massive 27.9%. That disproportionate cut is incredible. It is equivalent to 10,500 defence jobs and a £5.6 billion underspend in Scotland.

Only four of the 148 major regular Army units are based in Scotland. There is massive under-representation not only in unit numbers but in Army capabilities. At present, there are no regular artillery units, no regular signals units, no regular logistics units, no regular engineering units, no intelligence or special forces and little or no presence of combat services.

On top of that, we have the ridiculous situation, outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), in which we contribute some £3.3 billion to the defence pot and only secure £2 billion in return. There is a structural multi-billion-pound defence underspend in Scotland, disproportionate base closures and disproportionate cuts to service personnel and to Scottish regiments and battalions.

As all that is happening, we learn that the MOD has given the go-ahead to spend £350 million on designs for the next generation of Trident. Talk about skewed priorities! Spending £350 million on a weapon of mass destruction that will never be used while the regular units are being undermined, diminished and under-resourced shows us everything about the Government’s priorities.

The Scottish people will have a choice to make. They can continue to go down this particular road of underspend and of diminishing the Scottish Army footprint and resource, or they can decide that these decisions can be made in Scotland—by the Scottish people, for the Scottish people. That is the choice they will be presented with in 2014 when we have the independence referendum. I am absolutely certain and confident that when they are presented with information such as this, with the run-down

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of our regimental units and resources, the Scottish people will make the right choice and we will determine these issues in our own country.

4.17 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): I completely understand the concern and interest that have led the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) to seek this debate, and I commend him for doing so. Necessarily, the answers that I am able to give to some of his questions will be only tentative because decisions in respect of the future structure of the Army have not yet been taken. Let me set out the national security context in which those decisions will be taken.

All Members present will agree that it is the first duty of any Government to ensure the security of the country, and that requires decisions to be based on a realistic assessment of a number of factors in the short and long term. We live in an increasingly uncertain world with complex and unpredictable threats, so our armed forces, must of necessity, be flexible and adaptable into the future. We must also accept that the decisions about defence that have been made since the general election must start from the position of clearing up the economic legacy that we inherited. That is a strategic imperative, because it is the only way we will be able to afford to project power of any sort, to protect our national security and to ensure that our troops have the equipment they need. The strategic defence and security review addressed the balance between our national policy ambition, available resources and real-world commitments. It did so by making reference to the national security strategy, which set out the principal risks to our security, and to the national security tasks, which we need to fulfil.

Implementing the SDSR was always going to be an ongoing process and not a single event. We are now working through the programme to ensure that it is fit to support the capabilities required by Future Force 2020. We are going through a process of rapid change, but we have identified clearly to the public—throughout the UK, including in Scotland—our strategic aiming-point and what we believe our future force requirement will be in 2020.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate. Regarding the decisions to which he has just referred, the Minister will understand the great anxiety felt in Fife, around the Leuchars and Caledonia bases, about whether the British Army will be arriving and the Royal Air Force will be leaving. Although I appreciate that he is keen to get that decision correct, will he give serious consideration to updating the communities concerned on when the decision about the Army and the Air Force at the Leuchars and Caledonia bases will be taken?

Nick Harvey: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Of course, there was a statement to the House last July, but some of the announcements made that day have been, in a sense, superseded by the current review of Army structures. To the extent that I am able to communicate with the communities that were named in last year’s statement and that are therefore

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working on that basis, I will give them an update as soon as I can, when the Army restructuring work nears a conclusion.

As I say, we are working towards Future Force 2020 as our defined end-point. That process includes the statement from last July and the more recent statements made by the current Defence Secretary. Specifically, we are planning to make a progressive adjustment during the remainder of this decade to the balance between regulars and reserves in the Army. By 2020, we envisage a total Army force of about 120,000 troops, made up of 82,000 regulars and 30,000 trained reservists, with a margin for 8,000 reservists in training. As we withdraw from combat operations in Afghanistan, that shift offers a major opportunity to reconfigure the Army in a way that will maximise adaptability and flexibility for the future. The Army has been undertaking a major study—Army 2020—to determine how we will achieve these changes, and we will announce to the House the outcome of that study as soon as decisions have been taken.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire rightly paid a warm and full tribute to the achievements and historic heritage of the famous Scottish regiments. I am sure that many hon. Members in Westminster Hall today who represent areas with a serious military footprint know only too well the pride that local populations take in such glorious histories. I add my own tributes to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Scots Guards, the Royal Regiment of Scotland in its current configuration, and indeed to the Highland Gunners and the Lowland Gunners, and to their personnel who have deployed on operations in recent years. We all owe a great deal to the members of our armed forces; we owe a great deal to those who hail from Scotland, just as we do to those who hail from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, from across the Commonwealth. I pay tribute to their courage, commitment and professionalism.

Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): In 2006, I visited America and met General David Petraeus. I believe that he was at that time the supreme commander of the allied forces in Iraq. He was certainly an authority on the history of the Black Watch and very much an admirer of the regiment. Does the Minister agree—I hope he does—that names such as the Black Watch and regalia such as the red hackle should remain within the British Army? As General Petraeus said to me, the American forces were very envious of the fact that British regiments and battalions had such names and regalia.

Nick Harvey: Let me say that I fully recognise—as do the Government—the power of that heritage, and the strength of the identity that derives from cap badges, and to think otherwise is to completely misunderstand the piece of work that is being carried out. I will come specifically to one of the questions that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire put to me. What we are looking at is the future structure of the Army. If it serves to give him any reassurance, I will say that there is no intention as part of that work on Army restructuring to remove from the battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland the historic names that form such an important part of their heritage.

Pete Wishart: I am very grateful to the Minister for that, because it is a very important statement. Is there anybody within the Royal Regiment of Scotland or

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within the British Army who is agitating to have such types of insignia—the names and the cap badges—removed? Is there anybody who is asking for that and, if so, who are they?

Nick Harvey: I am not aware of anybody agitating to that end. Removing such insignia does not form part of the restructuring work; it is not one of the things that we are considering. We have a great respect for these issues of historical heritage. In the Royal Regiment of Scotland in particular, the historic names bring with them a great tradition that is respected around the world, and not only in Scotland or the rest of the UK. I am very sympathetic to the points about heritage that the hon. Gentleman has made in this debate.

Mrs Moon: As the Minister has given that assurance, can we be equally assured that any decision about Army restructuring will not be based on the politics of the rest of the UK’s relationship with Scotland and any future plans regarding devolution? The Sunday Times ran an article at the weekend suggesting that the Prime Minister had intervened to say that Scottish regiments must be protected and that perhaps the Welsh regiments could be looked at instead. Can I have an assurance from the Minister that no political interference is coming from No. 10 to protect Scottish regiments because of a fear of devolution?

Nick Harvey: The hon. Lady has been involved in politics too long to believe what she reads in Sunday newspapers. This restructuring is a piece of work that is being undertaken by the Army, and the Army will put its proposals forward when its review is complete. Reducing the size of the Regular Army from 102,000 to 82,000 will inevitably mean a reduction in the overall number of units that are available, and a number of critical criteria will inform the decisions about which units will be affected.

We must maintain the right balance across different capabilities—the Royal Armoured Corps, the infantry structure and the roles that different units will perform. We must also balance geographically because of the

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recruiting pattern; that has always been an important part of the British Army and it will continue to be in the future. We recognise that factor and it will inform the decisions that are taken. Indeed, we will also take account of previous decisions on mergers and deletions, so that we can ensure that there is a fair solution across the generations, as well as between the different branches and different geographical lay-down of the Army. Our aim is to sustain optimal capability. There are issues about basing. We cannot go to a final basing blueprint yet; that blueprint will follow hot on the heels of the current piece of restructuring work that I have described.

Although the focus of this debate has been on Scottish Army units, it is important that we take a holistic view. The Government are committed to the defence of the United Kingdom and each nation and region within it. In addition to its Army regiments, Scotland has one of our three naval bases, which in the future will be home to all our submarines. One of the three main RAF operating bases will be in Scotland. Scotland is also the home of Quick Reaction Alert North. As was made clear last summer, there will also be an Army brigade in Scotland, along with thousands of reserves and cadets. We have set out a clear vision for the armed forces across the United Kingdom, with a very significant footprint in Scotland, as part of a realistic and well thought-out national security strategy.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire made the point that Scottish voters will be invited at some point in the future to take a decision about Scotland’s status. They have a clear understanding of where the UK Government are steering defence in Scotland. They have yet to gain any such understanding of where those who advocate independence for Scotland are trying to get Scottish defences to, and that will be an absolute necessity to inform a realistic and balanced debate.

The armed forces are at the core of the UK’s security. They make a unique and vital contribution, for which I hope all of us—whatever part of the UK we come from—are grateful. We will make the decisions that I have talked about—decisions to ensure that the armed forces are sustainable for the future—in the interests of everybody in Scotland and across the UK as a whole.

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Petrol and Diesel

4.30 pm

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): It is unusual to have this many Members present for a 30-minute debate. If everyone wants to make an intervention, Mr Halfon will not be able to speak. The Economic Secretary will have 10 minutes to wind up, and I ask Members to keep interventions to a minimum because Mr Halfon probably has a 20-minute speech.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Chairman, and I appreciate what you have said. I have cut my speech down to allow for more interventions. The number of people here shows just how important the issue is, and I thank Members from both sides of the House for coming along.

I want to start by knocking something on the head. I welcome, as I am sure everyone here does, the fact that in the past few weeks petrol prices have come down a few pence, but families in my constituency still spend more on petrol than on food. The price of petrol is at an historic, all-time high. In Harlow, it costs more than 140p a litre, and that hits the poor twice as hard as the rich. People say that the price has come down, but it is a bit like a burglar taking £100 out of your pocket and giving you £5 back.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when a few pence comes off the price of a litre and the foot comes off the neck of the economy and of hard-working families, it is the wrong time for the Government to put that foot back again and squeeze the life blood out of the economy?

Robert Halfon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He supported me in the debate last year in which we managed to get the Government to postpone the January tax rise, and he will see from my remarks that I do not disagree with him.

Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco has said:

“Filling up the family car has gone up 70% in two years, causing what was a steady recovery to go sideways.”

I and most fair-minded people recognise that the Government have made significant progress, abolishing the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, scrapping the planned hikes in 2011 plus a 1p cut in duty, with a partial fuel stabiliser and the freeze in fuel duty that I mentioned, in January this year. I firmly believe that the Chancellor shows an understanding of the matter, and that the Government must get credit where they deserve it, but we face considerable problems.

The first problem is the planned tax rise in August, which I ask the Government to reconsider. Secondly, we need a serious inquiry into the lack of competitiveness in the oil market, and possibly even a windfall tax on oil firms, to cut prices. Thirdly, there is the problem of the banks speculating on the price of oil.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Halfon: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris).

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Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): May I propose that my hon. Friend add a fourth suggestion to the list—that we consider a proper price stabilisation mechanism, rather than a fuel duty one? At the moment, the tax can go up, but it never comes down.

Robert Halfon: As so often, my hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. We need a fair fuel stabiliser that looks at prices at the pump, so that when the international oil price goes up tax at the pump goes down. That really would be a fair fuel stabiliser.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I support my hon. Friend’s campaign. I represent the least densely populated constituency in England. In Northumberland, fuel is a key issue, as I am sure it is everywhere else. I suggest that there should be an Office of Fair Trading examination, much like those we have carried out so successfully in remote communities into other forms of heating and other oil.

Robert Halfon: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. That matter is an important part of my argument.

On the August rise, the Automobile Association says that a 3p rise in petrol prices will switch £1.8 million a day out of the economy and into petrol costs, draining money away from high streets. At the same time, a report by the respected Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that cutting duty by 2.5p would create 175,000 new jobs. The RAC Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies—both very respected—show that revenues from motoring taxes are set to collapse by between £10 billion and £13 billion a year over the next decade, as people are driven off the roads by economising on fuel. That is why I urge the Government to think again.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the very good campaign that he has carried out on this issue. We all appreciate it. With our fuel costs rising and it costing more to fill a car or heat a home than to buy groceries, does the hon. Gentleman feel that now is the time for a windfall tax on the oil companies that are making exorbitant profits?

Robert Halfon: Yes, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his incredible support all through this argument. I recognise that there is no magic money tree, so to cut prices at the pump the Government need seriously to consider another windfall tax on the oil companies, not necessarily on North sea production but on the companies as a whole.

Not enough emphasis is put on my second point which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) says, is that we need competitiveness in the oil market. Not only the Government but businesses and the oil companies have a responsibility. There are four complaints. The first is that pump prices are always quick to rise, but that it feels as though a court order is needed to get them down. Evidence shows that from May to August 2011, oil prices fell by about 5.5%, adjusting for exchange rates, but petrol and diesel prices stayed high, falling by only 1.5%.

The second complaint—the debate comes in the wake of this—is about the OFT’s interim decision not to investigate the UK oil market, despite a dossier of evidence from Brian Madderson, who represents the

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UK’s independent forecourts, which shows that British motorists are being fleeced and that oil firms active in the UK are under formal investigation by the Federal Cartel Office in Germany as a result of similar complaints.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Halfon: I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis).

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on an excellent campaign. Does he agree that my constituents who live in the most rural areas face an additional penalty in that they pay much higher prices, and that prices can be many pence higher in garages only a few miles apart?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is exactly right, and I am grateful for her support. People in rural areas face fuel deserts, in essence, because of the uncompetitive nature of the oil industry. People have to travel further, particularly in rural areas, to deal with the cost of fuel.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Halfon: I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth that I would allow him to intervene.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so generously, in an excellent debate. Rural areas such as Norfolk are affected, but does he agree that it is not just about rural areas? Places that focus heavily on the tourism industry, such as Great Yarmouth and other coastal towns, are adversely affected if fewer people are able to afford to travel there, which has a knock-on effect on our economy.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is exactly right, and that is why I am proposing some of these things today.

Several hon. Members rose

Robert Halfon: I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and then I will carry on a bit more.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that a hidden consequence of all this is to be found in the voluntary sector? People who do things such as meals on wheels and those who are voluntary carers—the pillars of our society—are beginning to wonder whether it is all worth while.

Robert Halfon: I am a passionate believer in the big society because it is about people power, social capital and helping social entrepreneurs, and the price of petrol and diesel stops people in their charitable work and harms communities. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.

This month, Germany decided to initiate fuel price regulation and to limit price rises. Austria implemented similar measures last year, and the AA has noted their impact in keeping prices down.

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Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Robert Halfon: I will in a minute. Because of where they are sitting, I am concerned that two of my colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), have joined the other side—I hope not. The Office of Fair Trading has not investigated the UK oil market since 1998, despite the fact that British petrol and diesel prices are among the highest in Europe, so we need a proper investigation.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend makes a great case for a reduction in petrol and diesel prices. Oil companies, I believe, take far too much. When crude oil prices go up, they immediately put up their prices, but when the crude prices come down they take for ever to bring their own down. We need a thorough investigation into the oil companies.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is exactly right, which is why I am arguing that the Government should force the Office of Fair Trading to launch an investigation into the uncompetitive nature of oil companies.

The third issue is the problem of local variation in petrol prices, especially in rural areas and towns such as mine. In Harlow, fuel is always 4p to 5p more expensive than it is a couple of miles down the road. I have complained to the OFT. Its letter was a classic Sir Humphrey reply, giving a lot of sympathy and a whole load of reasons why nothing could be done.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I pay tribute to his work on this campaign. On local areas and price differences, does he not agree that any OFT investigation should consider the lack of filling stations? Owing to the huge reduction in their numbers over the past 15 or 20 years, there is a distinct lack of price competition in local areas.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend has read my mind; I was about to come to fuel deserts. Britain has gone from 20,000 forecourts in 1990 to 8,500 today, a drop of nearly 60%, turning huge areas of the UK into fuel deserts where motorists must drive to fill up. There are examples in Cornwall, where a hypermarket sold fuel at below cost price until all the other petrol stations went bust, after which its prices rose considerably.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): From the Labour Benches, I, too, offer support to the hon. Gentleman’s campaign. Earlier, I went to a petrol price comparison site. Would it surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that although the situation is bad in Harlow, it is even worse in Oxford? He will enjoy the support of my constituents in winning his campaign.

Robert Halfon: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. The next time I get my many e-mails from Harlow residents, I will pass them on to him so he can help me to respond. I am grateful for his support. It shows the Minister that this is an all-party campaign, because the issue affects everybody.

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Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): As always, my hon. Friend makes a powerful case. The point about the price differential from area to area is particularly important in my constituency, where Immingham is a major centre for the haulage industry. Increased haulage prices trickle down into the economy generally. Does he agree that it is particularly important that any investigation take note of the impact on haulage businesses?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is completely right. Before I answer that, I should say that although I have received a lot of credit for working on the fuel campaign in Parliament, he is deputy chair of FairFuelUK and has done an enormous amount of work to help me behind the scenes. I must give credit where it is due. Haulage firms all over the country are closing down. Transport firms are closing.

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): Southampton is in close proximity to Portsmouth ferry port. One big challenge faced by hauliers in the south-east is easy access to the continent and European lorry drivers coming over with much cheaper tanks of fuel.

Robert Halfon: Again, we need to consider that, as well as considering the charging of foreign lorries that come here. I recognise that the Government have made some progress, but those lorries must be charged a lot more. The playing field is not level. Why should our people suffer because foreign lorries have an unfair competitive advantage?

Andrew Bingham: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so generously every three or four words. We are all taking over his speech. I have two points. Does he agree that not only is fuel dear in rural areas, but rurality makes it far more necessary to have a car, so the impact of fuel prices is far greater there? Also, in High Peak we produce the finest limestone in the world, which is more often than not transported by road, meaning more costs.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is completely right. My argument has always been that it is not whether people can afford to have a car—we have a great car economy—but whether they can afford not to.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. We worry about the cost of petrol and diesel, particularly on the island, where prices are higher than everywhere but the most extreme places such as the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides and the northern islands. Does my hon. Friend acknowledge the additional cost of transporting fuel to such places?

Robert Halfon: The Minister will have heard what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that the fact that so many people are here today making similar points will not be lost on the ears of a Minister who we know listens.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): Before the hon. Gentleman moves off rurality, can I make the issue real? A 10p difference per litre is nearly 50p a gallon or £5 a tank. For someone commuting and filling their

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tank twice a week, that is hundreds of pounds a year. I hope that he will take the opportunity to reinforce to the Minister that for ordinary working families who are struggling in this austerity period, that extra few hundred pounds makes a huge difference.

Robert Halfon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As I will say in my conclusion, statistics show that motorists in my constituency on average earnings pay one tenth of their income just filling up the family car. The Government say that people face fuel poverty if they spend one tenth of their income on fuel. People are forced to use their cars, and in my constituency—and, I am sure, elsewhere—they are paying one tenth of their income to fill up the family car.

I will make a brief point about the banks; I am nearly done. Last year, western Governments tried to release oil to cut pump prices, but banks bought up at least £1.6 billion of it. There is evidence that a lot of it was stored in silos at sea rather than entering the market, keeping prices high. America is introducing tough new penalties for market manipulation. I urge the Government to do the same in Britain. If Governments around the world do the right thing and release oil stocks, we cannot allow banks to buy it up, keep it at sea and hurt the struggling motorist.

What is to be done? I am a realist. I do not believe in “Charge of the Light Brigade” politics; I much prefer the battle of Agincourt. I accept that we do not have a magic money tree, but the big oil companies are not struggling. In the first quarter of this year, Shell had profits of $7.6 billion, BP $5.9 billion and Exxon Mobil $9.4 billion. It is a similar story at Chevron and ConocoPhillips. At the end of 2011, those firms had $58 billion in cash reserves. In order to find the money to stop price rises and help hard-pressed motorists, the Government could consider a windfall tax to fund cheaper petrol at the pumps. A windfall tax was imposed before, but on North sea oil in particular. I am asking the Government to consider a windfall tax on oil companies in general.

We must remember that motorists are not a lobby group. They are mums driving to school, children on buses and pensioners hit by inflation. When the cost of road haulage rises, the price of everything else rises too.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Robert Halfon: Very quickly, but this is the last intervention.

Andrew Bridgen: I thank my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity. To declare an interest, I should say that I am a qualified transport manager and have run a considerable haulage fleet. One major anomaly in the haulage industry is that we compete against foreign competition, but diesel is priced considerably higher than petrol in the UK, whereas on the continent it is considerably cheaper. Perhaps we could explain that anomaly. It is extremely important in my constituency, because more than one third of private sector jobs there are in distribution or are distribution-related. As we have no railway stations in my constituency, a vehicle is not a luxury; it is essential.

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Robert Halfon: I agree entirely. We must look at the price of diesel too, because it has risen hugely. Prices are much higher. People often quote unleaded petrol prices but forget to quote those for diesel.

As we have agreed, petrol prices are crushing businesses and families and creating a poverty trap, and evidence from the London School of Economics and elsewhere shows that they are adding to Britain’s dole queues. As I have said, I believe that the issue is not whether people can afford a car, but whether they can afford not to. I urge the Minister to reconsider the August tax rise, launch a tough investigation into the oil market through the OFT and elsewhere and consider a windfall tax to cut prices at the pumps.

Before I end, I should say that we are here today not just because of MPs representing their constituencies but because of the work of FairFuelUK, which has done much to bring the issue to the public’s attention, especially through The Sun newspaper’s “Keep It Down” campaign, which has done an enormous amount to highlight it. Both The Sun and FairFuelUK have campaigned tirelessly.

We face a petrol crisis in our tax system, our oil companies and our banks. Everyone seems to benefit except hard-pressed motorists in Harlow and the millions of hard-working people throughout our country who have no choice but to drive their cars.

4.49 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Chloe Smith): I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate. We are all aware of the passion with which he and other Members who have spoken campaign. So many have contributed to this discussion that I will struggle to name them all, but I shall endeavour to address the breadth of the debate.

I shall start by saying, as my hon. Friend did, that even though average pump prices have fallen by about 6.5p over the past month, there is little doubt that the price of petrol and diesel remains a very difficult issue and a concern to many families and businesses throughout the country.

Since we came to office, the Government have listened to those motorists and the many others who are concerned about high pump prices. Motoring is an essential part of everyday life for many households and businesses. Fuel costs affect us all in various ways, and the Government recognise that the rising price of motoring fuel is a significant part of day-to-day spending.

I will give a little historical context by noting that in 2009 the previous Government introduced a fuel duty escalator, which was a time bomb that involved planning for seven fuel duty increases. That could have resulted in average pump prices being a whole 10p per litre higher than they are at present. The previous Government would then have introduced further above-inflation increases in 2013 and 2014. None of those planned increases were subject to either oil price or pump price movements, unlike the fair fuel stabiliser that we have introduced.

We know that high oil prices are causing real difficulties in ensuring that motoring remains affordable. It is important to remember that pump prices are affected both by world oil prices and by duty rates, as I know all Members present will understand. It is important that a responsible

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Government are able to consider their actions and take them in that context. Although the Government cannot control world oil prices, they can control duty rates, which is what this Government have done. We have acted by providing £4.5 billion-worth of relief on the burden for motorists between 2011 and 2013. Indeed, VAT and fuel duty last rose in January 2011.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The Minister is right to say that the Government cannot control oil prices, but they can stop the European Commission attempting to frustrate the development of the Canadian oil sands, which has the potential to offer billions of barrels of oil to the US market, which will help bring prices down.

Miss Smith: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the complexity of the global market and its relevance to this debate. I suspect that there is a much broader debate to be had about where we might look for energy security and breadth of supply in the future, but he is right to raise that point.

On the impact of what the Government have been able to do, duty at the pump has been frozen for 16 months and pump prices are now 10p lower thanks to this Government’s actions. To put that into pounds, as other hon. Members have endeavoured to do in their contributions, a typical Ford Focus driver will be £144 better off as a result of those actions, and a haulier will benefit by £4,400 on average.

I understand why the August duty increase is one of the main points that has been raised. I am well aware of the burden caused by the rise in the international oil price and the concern it creates for businesses and families. This is, after all, a time of real uncertainty and instability from which no country can be immune. Britain has been comparatively stable in recent weeks. Only yesterday, the International Monetary Fund said that our approach is right and that we have earned Britain credibility again in our economy. Families and businesses benefit from that earned credibility, through lower interest rates.

Calls for the August increase to be scrapped raise an important question, because we would need to consider how to replace the £1.5 billion it would cost. That money would need to come from higher taxes or lower spending elsewhere.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research report that has been cited today has a couple of weaknesses. Its analysis is not straightforward. For example, it makes no mention of the relationship between oil prices and pump prices. It does not recognise the range of factors that go into pump prices. As such, its proposed fuel duty cuts could be totally offset by increased oil prices, which means that there may not be any reallocation of spending elsewhere in the economy. It is important to place that point about this frequently cited report on the record. We really need to consider the volatility of global oil prices. Any Government action would have to be taken against that backdrop. It is not certain that cutting fuel duty would have a positive effect on families or businesses.

Instead, the Government have taken action to help in areas in which we can be sure of a positive impact: supporting businesses through cuts in corporation tax

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and helping families through increases in the personal allowance threshold, which means pounds back in the pocket.

Stewart Hosie: On the CEBR report, the Minister is right that there are multiple inputs into the pump price, but surely she is not saying that that is a reason for doing nothing.

Miss Smith: The hon. Gentleman will have heard me explain over the past few minutes that the Government have done something and that there are many other ways in which this Government need to consider what they do through the economy.

On the recent Royal Automobile Club report, which has also been raised today and in which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow is interested, the Government announced in the Budget that they will consider whether vehicle excise duty should be reformed to support the sustainability of public finances and to reflect the improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency. The Government will, of course, seek the views of motoring groups before taking any decisions.

My hon. Friend also asked questions about the competitiveness of the oil market. As I think he knows, the Office of Fair Trading is undertaking research on pump prices on the Scottish islands, which are no doubt of interest to the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie). That work will help inform what further action, if any, may be appropriate elsewhere in the UK.

Several Members have asked whether other island and mainland areas could be included in the rural fuel rebate pilot scheme. It is a pilot scheme and nothing beyond its boundaries has been ruled in or out, but I have listened to what Members have had to say.

Mr MacNeil: I want to put it on the record that the pilot scheme seems to be working well. Indeed, I hope that it will be rolled out further and be made a permanent scheme in the future.

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Miss Smith: I note the hon. Gentleman’s views and am grateful for his support.

Members have also raised the issue of banks speculating on the price of oil and potential market manipulation affecting oil price. The UK, along with other European Union members, is currently negotiating revised market manipulation rules for commodity markets, which the UK welcomes.

In conclusion, we have recognised the impact that high pump prices are having on motorists, families and businesses. The previous Government, I am sad to say, had no credible plan to deal with the debts that they created and no creditable plan to support motorists. We have listened and responded during our time in office to date. We have cut fuel duty and scrapped their fuel duty escalator. We have ensured that there will be just one inflation-only increase in fuel duty this year. We will have kept fuel duty frozen for 16 months and we will continue to support motorists with our fair fuel stabiliser. The Government have a fair and credible plan to support motorists.

I shall end on this final point. We seek to support motorists in their daily role not only as drivers—I have outlined a few ways in which we have endeavoured to do that—but, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, as mums, pensioners and all the other daily roles that they have to undertake. We as a Government and as responsible parliamentarians need to consider the breadth of daily roles undertaken by the public, whether they be workers benefiting from the personal allowance, mortgage holders benefiting from the low interest rates that we have earned in this country, or, crucially, taxpayers who know that we must deal with our debts and spend public money wisely.

Question put and agreed to .

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.