“the information was so specific and it contained in effect operational information that wouldn’t have formed anything other than a police record.”

We have to do something about this: the job is not done.

As hon. Friends have said, some protection against blacklisting was introduced in the Employment Relations Act 1999, although unions warned at the time that it was wholly inadequate. However, the raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office triggered a new regulation, which led to Ian Kerr, the chief executive of the Consulting Association, being fined £5,000—not exactly a king’s ransom—for breaking data protection laws. That is the price we put on the destruction of the lives of individuals and their families, for causes unknown to them, by this individual and his pals at the Consulting Association. However, Ian Kerr could not be punished for blacklisting employees, because it was not illegal to do so.

As many colleagues have made clear, there is still no positive right not to be blacklisted. Additionally, the burden of proof is placed on workers who suspect they have fallen foul of this odious practice. It is unreasonable to expect workers to prove in law what is, by its very nature, a covert practice. How on earth do they know it is going on? How, then, can they prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is happening? That is unreasonable.

The Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into blacklisting pointed out that blacklisters do apologise and do seem to be sorry, but only when they are caught, and only when it is revealed, in the light of the public gaze, that they have transgressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) has pointed out that claims against blacklisting can be brought only through an employment tribunal or a county court, which can cause problems. For example, claims can be presented at a tribunal only within three months of the offence taking place, but it is often difficult, even years later, to find proof that an offence has taken place.

The professor of public law at King’s college, Keith Ewing, has been in touch with my office. He noted that there is still a tremendous gap in the new legislation that was put in place after the raid on the Consulting Association.

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John Cryer: My hon. Friend mentions Keith Ewing, and it is his report “Ruined Lives”, which was commissioned by UCATT, that has been responsible for much of the attention, including the press coverage, that has been given to blacklisting over the past three or four years.

Mr Allen: My hon. Friend has been assiduous in investigating this issue, and I bow to his knowledge of it. He is absolutely right about Professor Ewing’s work.

Professor Ewing has written that there is no automatic compensation for being blacklisted and there are no criminal penalties for blacklisting. Protection from blacklisting applies only to trade union activities, which we might think is reasonable. However, given the way the law works, that protection does not apply to trade union-related activities—work that one out. That means the courts will decide whether unofficial action is caught.

On 30 October 2012, UCATT exposed the activities of two leading blacklisting firms—Sir Robert McAlpine and Skanska—while giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee. Both companies were undertaking high-profile projects, including motorway construction and work at the Olympics, while they were blacklisting workers. Giving evidence, UCATT’s general secretary, Steve Murphy, revealed how, in the Consulting Association’s final year of operation, Skanska had paid more than £28,000 for blacklisting checks, while Sir Robert McAlpine had paid £26,000. Skanska admitted it was using the Consulting Association to vet workers and supplying information to the list, yet it escaped without penalty or sanction.

The steps taken in Wales show how we can do something on this issue. The Assembly and the First Minister have made great efforts to move it forward. New procurement guidance issued to all Welsh public bodies has outlined the steps that can be taken through procurement to help end blacklisting and encourage redress and compensation for victims. It makes it clear that companies proved to be involved in blacklisting can be excluded from bidding for contracts. It also sets out the steps companies need to take to avoid being excluded, such as offering proper redress for victims and introducing personnel and organisational measures to ensure that blacklisting no longer takes place.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes some very salient points. Does he accept, as many unions have said, that the argument that procurement contracts cannot take account of blacklisting activities is a fallacy? In fact, there is a risk of litigation should we choose not to take account of blacklisting and award contracts to companies involved in it. That is why I think the Welsh Government are showing the way forward.

Mr Allen: The Assembly in Wales is less dominated by the Executive than we are in this place, but, even so, we should draw comfort from the fact that legislators can make a difference and take these things forward. If Wales can set an example, I very much hope that England can follow suit.

I ask the Minister and her shadow to make it clear that there should be a positive right not to be blacklisted and that workers who find themselves on blacklists should have an automatic right to compensation, without the burden of proof being placed on them. The retroactive compensation scheme that has been mentioned should

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also be established to compensate blacklisted workers. Furthermore, protection should be extended clearly to include trade union-related activities, as well as just trade union activities. Above all, blacklisting should be a criminal offence, and companies that use blacklists should be open to persecution.

I will skip over the issues you warned us about, Sir Alan; perhaps we will come back to them on another occasion. Suffice it to say that the scheme the industry is creating involves only eight of the 44 major construction firms that have been implicated in blacklisting. That is not good enough, and I hope the Minister will take up the suggestion that all those who have been on a blacklist should be written to and that all those who have blacklisted others should be written to and clearly asked to join the scheme. I doubt this will be the last debate on blacklisting, but the day grows closer when those who have blacklisted others and those who have been on blacklists will get the justice they deserve.

3.19 pm

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) on securing this important debate. Frankly, it is shocking that we are having a debate in 2013 condemning the continuing practice of blacklisting. It is simply a disgrace that blacklisting is still going on in 21st century Britain. We might have been aware, perhaps, from rumour or experience in our own employment, that blacklisting existed. We might have had evidence: managers leaving notes about employees for other managers, and even human resources services that operated a two-file system—one accessible and the other for their eyes only—so it is not surprising to learn that blacklisting is practised by some large, well-known companies.

Blacklisting affects people’s livelihoods, security and well-being. It is a nasty, underhand and vicious practice. The most extreme example of blacklisting to have been made public is one that we can all recall, from the United States. I am of course speaking of the McCarthy era, which we have already heard mentioned—one of the most destructive, harmful and insidious episodes in that country’s history. Talented people fled the United States during the McCarthy witch hunts, to places such as Britain, where they must have thought that blacklisting did not exist, or at least not at the level that they had experienced.

Blacklists have a history of being built on rumour, inaccuracies and downright fabrication, and that still applies to the way they are compiled today. As many as 44 companies in the UK subscribed to the so-called Consulting Association, the successor of the Economic League—none of them questioning or caring how the lists were compiled. We need to take blacklisting extremely seriously, and I call on the Government to take decisive action to stop the blacklisting of workers and to prevent the blacklisting scandal from ever being repeated.

A full investigation of blacklisting allegations is essential, and it should include the allegations of blacklisting in major public projects. Blacklisting is a national scandal. People’s livelihoods were destroyed, their reputations were tarnished and, in some cases, their families were torn apart, just because, for example, they raised health and safety concerns or were an active member of a trade union.

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Unbelievably, in this country there are secret files held on thousands of workers in the construction sector, with the result that those people are denied employment. That secret construction blacklist was used by more than 40 of the UK’s largest construction firms, and some construction firms confirmed that they had conducted blacklisting checks even on people seeking work at Olympic venues. It is unacceptable that public money was used on projects where such checks were carried out. It would seem that there was even blacklisting for the construction of Portcullis House. How many people and Members of Parliament knew that at the time?

The majority of the people who were blacklisted still have no idea that they were included in the secret construction blacklists uncovered by the Information Commissioner’s Office in a raid in 2009. It is vital that the ICO should make every effort to inform every individual victim of blacklisting, so that they can seek compensation. However, questions still remain to be put to the ICO, including why its officials did not seize a huge volume of other documents found at the scene of the original 2009 raid. As a former member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, I recall that evidence that it took included serious allegations about the origin of the intelligence used to compile the blacklists.

We need further tightening and extension of the civil regime against blacklisting set up by Labour in 2010. Blacklisting should be a criminal offence. Recent revelations have demonstrated that sanctions do not go far enough to protect workers. The Government cannot sit on the fence any longer. Blacklisting must be made a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The Government should ensure that no one is excluded from seeking redress because there is no direct employment relationship between the worker and the company who used blacklisting. They must also ensure that anyone found to be blacklisted in future has adequate support to bring a civil claim and that non-trade union members enjoy equal protections.

In additional evidence submitted as part of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into blacklisting, there was confirmation of the existence of a separate blacklist on environmental activists—also operated by the Consulting Association. That separate list was said to include as many as 200 environmental activists. The Government should fully investigate that as well.

Given the hugely detrimental impact on those affected by blacklisting, we welcome the current proceedings to seek compensation from firms that have used the Consulting Association lists. I welcome the fact that the ICO has taken steps to work alongside trade unions by sending a list of names and dates of births to four trade unions—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, Unite, GMB and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—so that they can check the names of blacklisted individuals against their membership lists.

I know that other Members want to speak, so I shall conclude by saying that blacklisting is a national disgrace. It ruins lives and devastates families. It is crucial that the Government should fully investigate blacklisting and prevent that cruel practice from ever happening again.

3.25 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): I shall be brief, as we want to hear the Front-Bench spokesmen.

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It is somewhat ironic that on the same day that we are debating blacklisting in Westminster Hall, zero-hours contracts are being debated in the House. That gives some indication of the progress that workers have made over the years. People are kept out of work by blacklisting, and even when they get some work their wages are cut as much as possible. That is progress for you, in the modern United Kingdom.

Perhaps I can reflect on my own experience of blacklisting. As a young man, I never realised what it was. I did not really get involved in trade unions, either, but my family was involved. It was only because of that that I was blacklisted for three years—unemployed with a young family. It was very difficult to get benefits; it was difficult to exist.

I went for an interview as a porter at Erskine hospital—in Erskine, which is in my constituency. The matron told me, “No problem, Jim. You’ve got the job, but we’ll send you official notice in the post in the next couple of days.” I did get something in the next couple of days, telling me, “Unfortunately, Mr Sheridan, you have been unsuccessful on this occasion.” I still did not know that I was on the blacklist, but some time later I met the matron and she told me that I had got the job, but that a name check had been done with the Economic League, and it showed that my family were involved in trade union activities, which meant I could not have it. That is the kind of thing that we are talking about today.

That experience is what brought me into politics—to change that kind of thing. That is why we need people from a working-class background in this place, because they understand what people go through and what it means to be told, “You are inadequate; you are a danger; you are a threat from within”. It was Mrs Thatcher who used to call us the enemy within. Those things brought me into politics, and they are why I stay in politics.

My other passion is for health and safety in the workplace. I chair the all-party group on occupational safety and health and I come into contact with many members of the public. The issues include such things as asbestos-related mesothelioma. I recall, in the shipyards in Glasgow, seeing the white flakes of asbestos dust falling through the sunlight. It was a Tuesday afternoon and sunny in Glasgow, and that is how I remember it.

I could see the flakes floating through, and said to the gaffer, or supervisor, “That’s asbestos, and we’re swallowing it.” “Don’t be silly, son,” he told me. “Nothing wrong with it. It won’t do you any harm. Just go home. A pint of Guinness will wash it all away.” That was the kind of ignorance and arrogance that was around in those days. If anyone dared ever question the employer about safety statistics or safety measures, they were dealt with. The only way they could deal with me—they could not sack me, because my father was a yard convener—was by discriminating against me by not offering me overtime or jobs that were going around.

I am reminded that I sent a letter earlier this year to the Minister with responsibility for employment relations and consumer affairs—the very good Minister present today—who replied that

“there has been a lot of accusations, but we have not yet received any evidence”

about blacklisting.

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I sincerely hope that the Minister heard today that there is clear evidence of blacklisting. We now need to know what the Government intend to do about it. I do not want to hear any more warm words, even from our previous Labour Government. I have been to far too many funerals of people who have died from mesothelioma and other industrial diseases. We now need to ensure that blacklisting stops, that it stops now and that people get compensation, and, more importantly, ensure that the companies are exposed and not given Government contracts, on which they depend.

3.30 pm

Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): I am possibly the only Member here who has had access to all the Consulting Association files and records. I had that access, on condition of confidentiality, in my capacity as Chair of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. I am glad that the coming out of the minutes has focused people’s attention on activities such as the involvement of the police.

There are two sides: one looking backwards and one looking forwards. Looking backwards, first, we need to be absolutely clear that there is a role for Government in ensuring that those on whom cards and information are held are identified. I refer Members to the correspondence that the Scottish Affairs Committee recently had from the Information Commissioner’s Office about the difficulty it is experiencing in taking matters forward.

Secondly, we want an apology from the firms involved. Thirdly, we want compensation. Fourthly, we want to know all the firms involved, not just a few. I welcome the apology from some of the firms involved, but we must recognise: first, that that does not include all the firms who participated in blacklisting; secondly, that the negotiations and settlement will be exceedingly complex; and, thirdly, that a solution cannot be imposed unilaterally by the companies, but must be the subject of negotiation with the unions involved and those representing people who have been blacklisted. There must a negotiated settlement, rather than imposition.

Looking forwards, we now recognise that there must be legal changes. It has been conceded that there was blacklisting on Crossrail, and yet the law on blacklisting was not broken. That leaves us in the position where something clearly must be done. I hope the Minister accepts that and takes the matter forward. We must find a way to ensure that when a new construction site is established and a work force taken on, there is a review after the event to identify whether there is evidence of blacklisting. We need wider acceptance that companies that have not apologised or compensated can be and should be kept off public and private sector contract shortlists. There must be a code of conduct for firms when dealing with employees in these matters.

My final point looks further forwards to the question of an inquiry. I hope that the actions that we in the Scottish Affairs Committee identified and I have commented on today do not have to wait until a full public inquiry. The nature of public inquiries is that they look backwards and take years. Many of the people involved are now elderly and, in my view, require compensation. Those who are not elderly require assistance in getting back into the industry, so that they can have adequate compensation and employment for the working time they have left. We need further inquiries into the role of

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the police and state security services. The Government have not been unhelpful in pursuing some of the issues, but, as they would expect, I do not believe that they have been helpful enough.

3.34 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson), who put forward her argument with her usual high levels of eloquence and passion. I share a birthday with my hon. Friend; I only wish she would share some of her skills and talents with me.

I also want to thank all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed in this important debate. They did so with genuine and heartfelt concern and shock that the secretive and insidious practice of blacklisting has been ongoing, and will still be ongoing, in modern Britain. More widely, the manner in which this important issue has been raised and campaigned on has been positive and welcome. I particularly pay tribute to Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and the unions—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, the GMB, of which I am a proud member, and Unite—for their tireless and professional work in exposing the shady, scandalous and disgraceful practices.

There are many things to be proud of in the UK construction industry, but blacklisting is not one of them. It shames the country and undermines the reputation of the industry. Today demonstrates that the House is fully united in its complete condemnation of such a practice, which, as we heard several times this afternoon, is more reminiscent of McCarthyite witch hunts than a modern and progressive construction industry that values its work force and considers health and safety to be not a bolt-on or troublesome and tiresome, but integral, as it should be.

Such practices are symptomatic of a race to the bottom, with lower employment rights, the undermining of health and safety and a general belief that cutting corners and getting rid of troublesome staff who dare to raise workplace safety are the best ways to raise profit margins. That is not how this country should earn its money in the 21st century.

Today, we heard that many thousands of people have been denied work that they were skilled in and qualified to undertake due to discrimination, and as a result they could not get jobs in their own industry or feed their families. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn and other hon. Friends said in the debate, the practice involved compiling information about individuals on a vast and systematic scale. It was done through a shadowy organisation called the Consulting Association, but has involved many other groups and companies. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) said, The Observer reported this Sunday that the Independent Police Complaints Commission has stated to those affected that the police colluded in the practice of blacklisting:

“it is likely that all special branches were involved in providing information”.

The degree to which the practice permeated through the construction industry is truly shameful and shocking. According to work from the Information Commissioner, 44 construction companies were members of the Consulting

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Association in 2009 and half of the 20 largest construction companies and all their subsidiaries in this country were involved. For £2.20—not 30 pieces of silver, but £2.20—a construction worker’s livelihood and chance of securing employment could be dashed by the company if they were on the blacklist. Many construction companies are trying to claim ignorance of the practice, but given the amounts of money involved—in a three-year period alone, companies paid the Consulting Association £500,000 for blacklist checks—it is inconceivable that senior management were not aware of it and its endemic nature.

The House is united in its shock and condemnation of blacklisting. I hope that it is equally united in its determination to ensure that the practice is never allowed to happen again. There are practical steps, and we heard some of them this afternoon, that can be put in place to ensure that the practice is ended for good and that those workers unfairly affected are provided with justice.

It is important that we know the full extent of blacklisting. That comment has been made many times and I fully agree. I have focused, as have other hon. Members, on the construction industry, but does it really happen only in construction? Given the endemic nature of the practice, it is probably implausible that it is confined solely to that industry. How does bogus self-employment in the construction industry impact on blacklisting? We can only know those answers and get evidence if we have a full inquiry into the practice.

Will the Minister pledge to put in place a full and thorough investigation of the disgraceful practice? If not, why not? The shadow Business Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), has pledged that a future Labour Government will, but to make progress now, will the Minister today pledge to? Following the completion of such an inquiry’s work, I hope that the House would be united and non-partisan in considering how the law could be tightened, employees protected and tough sanctions against unscrupulous companies deployed. Will the Minister give any indication of the Government’s thinking on how the law can be tightened? We have heard about blacklisting as a criminal offence, but there are other practical steps and means by which the law can be changed.

I was disappointed that the construction industrial strategy, published in the summer, did not contain a single reference to the practice of blacklisting and gave only scant mention—three paragraphs—of health and safety. I would have liked the strategy to have shown how the Government emphasise a skilled and safe work force as one of the industry’s comparative strengths. Why was that not mentioned?

One of the effective levers that the Government could pull to help eliminate blacklisting is the effective use of public procurement. The Government could exclude firms that use blacklisting from tendering for contracts. They could request information about the practice and find real evidence through the tendering process of how a particular company has used blacklisting. That could include seeking evidence that the practice has ended and that the workers affected have secured appropriate compensation and are back in the employment market. The Government could alter standard terms and conditions in contracts to make it explicit that any such contract would be immediately ended, without compensation to the firm, if it was found that blacklisting was used by the company and its subsidiaries.

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The Welsh Government, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), have been at the forefront of using procurement as an effective tool. They have provided a useful policy advice note to local authorities in Wales on the practical steps that can be taken on eliminating blacklisting through procurement. What is Whitehall doing to achieve the same thing? What discussions has the Minister had with other Departments, in particular the Department for Communities and Local Government, to ensure that the elimination of blacklisting is being actively encouraged—not only through central Government, but across local government?

Several hon. Friends have mentioned the development this week in which eight construction companies involved in blacklisting agreed to compensate some of the 3,200 workers affected. The setting up of the construction workers compensation scheme is welcome. We will scrutinise the progress and terms of the scheme to ensure that it provides proper redress to victims in a swift manner. What help and support are the Government giving to the scheme? I know that the Minister cannot provide a running commentary on negotiations, but can she give a time scale for the scheme to be finalised and provide compensation?

As we have heard, some of those affected by blacklisting are elderly. What level of proper compensation is the Minister pushing for from the companies, given that these people—these workers—have endured years of unemployment as a result of blacklisting? They have lost out on tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds of income. We have heard that only eight of the 44 companies have signed up to the compensation scheme, so what pressure is she putting on other companies who were part of the blacklisting scandal to be involved in the scheme? Finally, how does she intend to keep the House informed of progress, so that hon. Friends who have a passionate interest in this issue can scrutinise the proposals?

My hon. Friends have spoken passionately today and said that this is a national scandal, which shames the construction companies involved. It should never be allowed to happen again and those who were discriminated against, often for decades, should be provided with swift and appropriate justice and compensation. I hope that the Minister agrees with the tone of the debate and will set out in detail how the Government will ensure that the practice of blacklisting is ended and compensation provided.

3.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) on securing the debate and opening it in her typically powerful style, with a degree of conciseness, which other Members have managed to emulate. That has meant that we have heard from a good number of Members today, which is positive. I know that a range of Members from all parts of the House have been working on the issue. We discussed it in January, we are discussing it now, and, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) said, I am sure it will be not the last

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time we discuss it. It is important for the House to return to the issue, to be updated on it and to ask further questions on it. As the Minister, I am more than happy to be part of that.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn clearly set out at the beginning of the debate that “the practice of blacklisting” is an innocuous form of words, but that what we are talking about is abhorrent and illegal. All Members who have spoken have rightly echoed those sentiments in their various ways, talking about their experiences in their constituencies or, in some cases, such as that of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), their own lives.

The Government’s position is the same: this practice is not acceptable in any way. No responsible company should be involved in blacklisting, whether that is providing information for a blacklist, using a blacklist, consulting a blacklist or using information from a previous blacklist that was in operation before the regulations were introduced in 2010. That is not the behaviour of any responsible or law-abiding company or any moral individual. People should be appointed to roles based on their merits and whether they can do the job. If they are independent-minded and involved enough to be able to flag up issues, such as health and safety problems in the workplace, or if they want to give more to their workplace through involvement in trade union activities, that is to be commended. Any employer worth its salt will recognise the positive nature of having an engaged and involved work force that are actively interested in ensuring that their workplace is safe and effective for everyone. The experiences that we have heard about have been not only abhorrent, but hugely counter-productive, as many hon. Members have mentioned, on issues such as workplace safety records. We want to encourage an atmosphere where people can raise issues if there are problems without fearing that that will impact on their future employability.

As hon. Members know, there are significant powers in place to deal with blacklisting, but I entirely understand the frustration. I think it was the hon. Member for Nottingham North who mentioned the case of the Consulting Association and Ian Kerr, the £5,000 fine and the lack of ability to take any kind of serious action against the individuals responsible, because the framework was not in place at that time. That situation rightly needed addressing. The previous Government addressed that issue with the consultation on and implementation of the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010, which mean that someone is looking at a £500,000 fine instead of a £5,000 fine. That might not be the unlimited amount that some hon. Members have called for, but no one can deny that it is a serious amount. There is data protection, but there is also the ability to award maximum compensation of some £65,000—the minimum is £5,000—through the employment tribunals system. We are in a better position on the legal framework.

Mr Davidson: Does the Minister accept that the existing legislation must be flawed if someone can be blacklisted on Crossrail without the blacklisting legislation being broken?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed the issue informally around the House on a few occasions, and I very much welcome the work that he and his

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Select Committee have been doing on it. I look forward to reading the Committee’s report. We are, of course, willing to look again at whether there are any gaps in the legislation as a result of any evidence that his investigation discovers.

On Crossrail, at the beginning of September the two parties involved—I think it was Unite and BFK—announced that blacklisting had not taken place. A further statement was issued by Unite some days later. I am happy to look at that and hear from the hon. Gentleman and Unite whether there are specific issues there, particularly with contracting, which may be partly why that issue arose. I am happy to liaise with him as his Committee continues its investigation with a view to producing a report.

Mr Meacher: Is it not clear that at the moment it is illegal to compile or maintain a blacklist, but not to use a blacklist, to supply information or to be supplied with information by someone else? Such matters need to be made illegal, so that all the problems we have heard about today are covered.

Jo Swinson: As I have said, I will happily look at the specific regulations, which include provisions on supplying information for blacklists. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will write to me if he has any further points, particularly if there are more details that I can study. It is clearly not appropriate for anyone to create a list or to supply information for such a list, or to blacklist workers, because that would quite rightly leave them open to employment tribunal claims or to possible action for breaches of data protection. The protections were put in place in 2009.

As I mentioned, we made a series of commitments about blacklisting in a debate in the House in January 2013. We promised to investigate any evidence provided about the continuation of blacklisting, to look carefully at the Scottish Affairs Committee’s findings about blacklisting that happened before 2010 and to review the legislation if the Committee identified evidence that the practice was continuing.

We are honouring those commitments, and I want to inform the House about our actions since that debate. In February, the Independent Police Complaints Commission began an investigation into allegations that the police may previously have provided information to the Consulting Association blacklist, a point that various Members have made. I suspect that you would not be happy, Sir Alan, if I commented on a live IPCC investigation, but we will of course be interested to see its outcome. If anyone has concerns about allegations that are not currently under investigation by the relevant authorities, I encourage them to take such allegations to the IPCC or, for data protection breaches, to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The Secretary of State met the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, in April to make sure that he is ready and able to investigate any new evidence that comes to light. In July, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) and his Scottish Affairs Committee announced that there was new evidence and information about the continuation of blacklisting. Within 24 hours of that communication, we alerted the Information Commissioner’s Office, which began an investigation. I understand that the ICO is in touch

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with the Select Committee to ensure that the ICO is provided with the information it needs to further its investigation. I know that the Scottish Affairs Committee is very keen to work with the ICO, for which I thank the hon. Gentleman.

I should tell the House that despite the significant debate on the issue—I am glad that it is a high-profile one, because people will therefore be aware that we are open to new evidence—the Scottish Affairs Committee was the first body to get in touch with new information about the continuation of blacklisting. Significant amounts of evidence have been presented about blacklisting in the past, but the Committee’s evidence is the only piece we have received since the regulations came in and, therefore, the only information that we have been able to act on. We will of course carefully consider both the Scottish Affairs Committee’s report and the outcome of the Information Commissioner’s investigation into its evidence.

Some hon. Members have called for a public inquiry, but while those two investigations are ongoing, it makes perfect sense to await their outcome before jumping to an additional inquiry. The issue is currently being explored through those two avenues, and we should wait to see the reports.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) asked a question, which was echoed by other Members, about ensuring that the victims of this abhorrent practice are made aware of that fact. I very much enjoyed his comment that he was the first Conservative MP to write for the Morning Star, which I am sure its readers appreciated. That earned him a kind offer from the hon. Member for Nottingham North to give him information about how to join a trade union. Perhaps my hon. Friend should be careful, but I note that no Conservative Whips are in the Chamber, so perhaps we will not tell them.

My hon. Friend’s very fair question was about proactively contacting people on the database. It is important to say that there is a fast-track service, so anyone who suspects that they are on the list can find out whether that is the case and get a copy of the information. For anyone who is interested—hon. Members may wish to pass this on to constituents who are concerned about the issue—the helpline number is 0303 123 1113. So far, 3,919 people have contacted the helpline, of whom 446 have been identified on the Consulting Association blacklist.

The ICO is trying proactively to contact individuals on the list in other ways. It has made sure that union lawyers can access some of the information, so that they can write to any of their members they identify on the list, and invite them to get in touch with the ICO. The ICO has undertaken a project with Equifax to check whether address information in the files is up to date. As a result, it has written to 103 individuals, of whom 27 have contacted the ICO to make a subject access request. The ICO has also worked with the Department for Work and Pensions to determine whether up-to-date addresses can be identified from a national insurance number when that is included in the information held. The ICO hopes shortly to write to individuals for whom it has obtained up-to-date addresses.

I understand Members’ frustration, but I would say in the ICO’s defence that such processes are not straightforward. The information is not contained in a

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snazzy database; much of it is on paper or in card files, and some of it is very scant, with sometimes only a first name and surname. If the name is John Smith, that is almost meaningless, for someone trying to contact the person, without address details and other information. The range of actions that the ICO is taking to piece information together—working with unions, the DWP and credit reference agencies—is certainly very positive. I repeat that anyone who is concerned should contact the helpline.

Mr Meacher: The Minister is making a case for the ICO’s efforts to contact people. The obvious question that remains is whether the ICO is under instructions to correspond with or contact everyone for whom it has information that is adequate enough to enable it to do so. That is the key point. I understand that if the name is one like John Smith, that person cannot be traced, but when the ICO can contact someone because it has a name, a telephone number or anything else, is it under instructions to contact them?

Jo Swinson: The ICO is making every effort to contact people. It is not a body sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but we have discussed the issue with the ICO, and that is exactly what is happening. We recognise that there are some cases in which the process is difficult, but the ICO is determined that when it can contact people, it absolutely is doing so.

Mr Iain Wright: The Minister is quite rightly focusing on the construction industry, but hon. Members have mentioned other sectors. What active steps are the Government taking to find out whether there is blacklisting in other parts of the economy?

Jo Swinson: I have outlined the investigations that are ongoing. We do need something to go on: there is much speculation about and many suggestions of blacklisting taking place, but the relevant authorities need somewhere to start to look for it. That is why in the debates earlier this year and today I have reiterated that if anyone has information, concerns or suspicions—they do not need

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to have firm evidence, because it is a challenge to produce bona fide evidence when, by definition, the activity is clandestine—we will of course happily look at such evidence, as the Select Committee has done.

John McDonnell: To make it clear to the ICO, will the Minister state that she expects it to contact everybody on the list?

Jo Swinson: I absolutely expect the ICO to contact everyone on that list, where that is possible, practical and feasible, but I also recognise that the information is incomplete in some cases, and that its attempts to do so may not therefore be successful. I hope that the House recognises those basic practicalities.

Mr McKenzie: Is the Minister aware of the TUC’s campaign to make blacklisting a criminal offence, and will she support it?

Jo Swinson: I am obviously aware of the campaign. A range of civil and criminal offences exist, including in employment or health and safety legislation. Criminal offences are much less common, but some breaches of data protection carry a criminal penalty, so blacklisting would be a crime in those cases. However, that does not apply to a wide range of offences, such as unfair dismissal, causing detriment to whistleblowers or discrimination.

3.59 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

4.13 pm

Jo Swinson: My final point was about procurement. The Welsh guidance has been referred to, although that guidance just restates how existing legal provisions already apply, and we look forward to the procurement Bill in the Scottish Parliament, which I understand we may see more details of next week. Of course, the Cabinet Office has general guidance, covering a range of issues affecting procurement, which of course means checking that contractors are adhering to practices that comply with the law—

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order.

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Living Standards (North Wales)

4.14 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I rise today to discuss the living standards in north Wales—the dropping living standards in north Wales.

The TUC reckons that Wales has the lowest levels of disposable income in the UK and has experienced the highest falls in living standards in the UK. There has been a drop in living standards for 38 of the 39 months that this Tory-Lib Dem coalition has been in power. In constituencies in north Wales, the impact has been severe. Between 2007 and 2012, in Flintshire the average pay packet for a 40-hour week dropped by nearly £3,000 and in my own county of Denbighshire it dropped by more than £2,000.

The outward sign of the drop in living standards is, of course, the food banks—the food banks that many Conservative Ministers and MPs refuse to go to when they are repeatedly asked to do so in the main Chamber. I have been to food banks in my constituency and I praise the work of people who volunteer at them; they do a sterling job. I have visited the Wellspring centre in my constituency and shared soup with the people it provided food for. The citizens advice bureau in Denbigh set up a food bank; in fact, it is an award-winning food bank and I congratulate the CAB in Denbigh on it.

The Conservatives say, “Oh, food banks increased by tenfold under Labour.” They did, from 3,000 to about 34,000. Under the Conservatives, however, they have increased from about 40,000 to nearly 400,000—another tenfold increase. The food banks under Labour were peripheral; as I say, there were 34,000 of them, at most. Under the Conservatives, food banks are central. Since 2011, the Government have given instructions to jobcentres to refer people who have no money to food banks. Food banks are part of official Government policy—dare I say official Government philosophy? It is charity versus the state; charity taking the place of the state. It is the big society, or, as I call it, the “beg society”, where soup kitchens are here in the 21st century, having last been seen in the 1930s. As I say, I have shared soup with the people using them.

Will there be a return to the workhouse, the alms house, the deserving poor and the undeserving poor? The language coming from certain sections and certain MPs on the right—I do not include the Minister here today in that group—is disgraceful. I will give a case in point. The Education Secretary said that the people who visit these food banks

“are not…able to manage their finances.”—[Official Report, 9 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 681.]

Could the Education Secretary himself “manage” his finances on £56 a week, if he was a young person, or on £71 a week, if he was over 25? I think not—that money would hardly cover the price of a bottle of Moët. The Government have the wrong priorities—while they are forcing people to use food banks, they are giving a £44,000 handout to people earning £1 million a year.

Of particular interest to people in my constituency and the other constituencies in north Wales is the issue of public sector workers, who are another group vilified by the Conservatives. There are huge numbers of public sector workers in certain constituencies in north Wales. The number of people who reside in my constituency, the Vale of Clwyd, and work in the public sector is

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10,200—35% of the work force. In Ynys Môn, the figure is 10,100; in Clwyd West, where the Secretary of State for Wales resides, the figure is 9,000. Those public sector workers are not only vilified by the Conservatives but have had their wages frozen until 2015-16. There is no help to rebalance the economies that have been reliant on public sector jobs; there is no specific help or guidance from the UK Government for those constituencies.

Who are the losers from the drop in living standards? It is the young long-term unemployed. There are more than a million of them in the country. In an 18-month period from early 2009 to 2010, in my home town of Rhyl in my constituency we put 450 young people back to work through the future jobs fund, under a Labour Government. That scheme was abolished almost as soon as the Conservative Government entered office.

Children are big sufferers from the drop in living standards. An excellent Daily Post article from 18 July calculates that 24,400 children in north Wales are living in poverty and that the state will pay an extra £265 million a year in additional school costs, benefits and NHS costs. We are even seeing the disease of rickets creep back into the UK, for the first time since the 1950s. I have tabled questions about this—[Interruption.] I see the Minister huffing and puffing.

The disabled have also suffered because of a drop in living standards. This group has been vilified, as well. Disability is the only one of the five or six hate crime categories, which include sexual orientation, religion and ethnic origin, that has increased in the past year. The elderly are the other group to have suffered because of the drop in living standards. They are on fixed incomes. When their fuel bills increase by 8% or 7%, they have no way of paying them, except by cutting back on food or other necessities.

In north Wales, 8,178 people will suffer because of the bedroom tax, but there are not 8,178 single-person units in the whole of north Wales to look after them.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Last week I heard about a case of a man, in a couple, who was disabled and on whom the council spent a small fortune creating a wet room downstairs. This couple is to be moved to a one-bedroom place. The council will, no doubt, have to spend money converting that and ripping out the stuff from the previous place. It makes no sense.

Chris Ruane: It does not make social sense or economic sense. The state will be paying £60 a week rent for many people living in council houses. If such people are moved into houses of multiple occupation in my constituency, the state will be paying £85 a week. The conditions in HMOs are far worse than on council estates.

Some 420,000 households in Wales are living in fuel poverty, 84,000 of them in north Wales alone. Household fuel bills have increased by £300 since the Government have been in power. Those who suffer most are on pre-payment meters. I was brought up in a household with pre-payment meters; we put a pound in the “leccy” if the lights went out. Those people will be paying an extra £50 a year, because they are not on direct debit. Every which way, the poorest are hit the most.

Fuel bills went up by 7% last year. In this current season, the first energy company out of the blocks is going to increase its prices by 8%, at the same time as

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chief executive officers in energy companies are having golden handshakes of £15 million or £13.5 million.

Under Labour’s home energy efficiency scheme, the energy efficiency of 127,000 households in Wales was improved, cutting down people’s bills and their carbon footprint. The great green hope from the parties in Government was the green deal, What a failure that has been! At the top of the green deal figures for the whole of Wales is Alyn and Deeside, where 19 households have been checked; at number two is Delyn, with 16 households; third is Wrexham, with 13; and at number four is Clwyd West, with 13. In the Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney, six households were assessed for the green deal. This policy was going to rescue those living in fuel poverty, but it has done nothing for them.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will remember that the Arbed scheme—the insulation scheme that he mentioned—was part of a programme from the “One Wales” Government and was the responsibility of, and was launched by, Jocelyn Davies, the then Housing Minister. Does the hon. Gentleman share my disappointment that Labour’s energy price freeze does not extend to coal, liquid petroleum gas and oil? What can he do, in his party, to ensure that it does extend to those?

Chris Ruane: Fuel poverty is being looked at. It is on the political agenda because our Labour leader put it there during conference season. Labour is dictating the agenda on living standards. That aspect should be looked into.

I shall now talk about those in work. When Labour came into power, the proudest political moment in my 16 years in Parliament was the night, the day and the day after we introduced the minimum wage. The Conservatives kept us up for about 28 hours. They hated it and said that it would cost 3 million jobs and be devastating for the economy. It did not cost 3 million jobs; it created another 3 million jobs. Their prediction was 6 million jobs out. The minimum wage put a floor in for those who are paid poor wages.

The issue today is zero-hours contracts. I have tabled some 50 questions about those.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. When talking about living standards in areas such as north Wales, the cost of travel, particularly in rural areas, should be considered in addition to food inflation and energy prices. The Government are considering areas in Wales that may benefit from a discount, but does my hon. Friend agree that hard-working families are suffering because of the great distances that they have to travel, to work and to take their children to leisure facilities?

Chris Ruane: Absolutely. That is a particular problem in rural areas. I represent the Vale of Clwyd, a rural seat. This is just one of many ways in which ordinary working families are being hit by the parties in government.

Earlier today, I attended the zero-hours contracts debate in the main Chamber. Statistics are scarce. The Office for National Statistics claims that 240,000 people are on zero-hours contracts, but some trade unions

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reckon that 5 million people are on them. Either way, those are huge numbers and they are having a devastating effect. It is costly to the state, because if companies do not pay the going rate for the job, the state has to step in and subsidise that; it is also a cost to taxpayers.

The issue is also costly for individuals, because they cannot plan their future. They cannot get a mortgage on a zero-hours contract, cannot save up and get Christmas presents and cannot plan for holidays. The working week, including taking children to and from school, cannot be planned for properly. These contracts have an impact on people’s well-being and mental health.

The issue is costly for the companies implementing the contracts, because they will not get loyalty, good will and commitment from a work force on zero-hours contracts—they are pinging and ponging back and forth to work and can be sacked at a moment’s notice. It is also costly for companies paying a proper wage, because they are undercut by those who use zero-hours contracts. Overall, it is a costly business. The Labour party in opposition has shone the light on these dark practices and got the political ball moving.

To combat the drop in living standards, we need a living wage. I congratulate Councillor Joan Butterfield, leader of the Labour group in Denbighshire, who is pushing for that. The local churches in my constituency—Catholic and other churches—led by Father Charles Ramsay, my parish priest, are also pushing for a living wage.

Living standards are crucial. Labour had a good record on that in government and looked after the poorest of the poor, with, for example, Bookstart, child care credits, nurseries for everybody, Sure Start, the education maintenance allowance, child trust funds and the future jobs fund. We dropped VAT from 20% to 15%. All that helped people’s living standards.

Let us look at what has happened to child poverty under the Conservative-Liberal Government. The latest figures on child poverty, on which there is a two-year delay, show that the trough peaked under Labour and that child poverty will rise again under the Conservatives. The Prime Minister is for ever vilifying the Welsh Government and saying, “Look at Labour in practice, look at their bad practice here and their bad practice there.” Let me give MPs a taste of what the Labour Government are doing in practice in Wales.

In England, the education maintenance allowance was scrapped—the allowance was an opportunity to keep 16 to 18-year-olds in school so that they could get their A-levels, go on to college and get a good job. In Wales, it was not scrapped. In England, tuition fees went from £3,000 to £9,000; in Wales, they were capped at £3,500. In England, there were cuts to council tax benefits; in Wales, the Welsh Government allocated £22 million to stop those cuts.

Last week, £17 million was announced by Alun Davies, a Minister in Wales, to combat fuel poverty over a two-year period, which is equivalent to a UK Government allocating £1.5 billion to address fuel poverty. The Welsh Government are doing an excellent job of helping to buffer the Conservative-Liberal coalition’s negative effects on living standards.

The Conservative party has tried to get rid of its nasty reputation. The Home Secretary described the party as the “nasty party,” and the Conservative leader

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went to the Arctic to hug a husky and to Manchester to hug a hoodie. As has been said today, instead of hugging a husky he is now gassing the badgers. The mask has slipped: Flashman is back in charge.

In the 1980s, the Conservatives atomised, alienated and broke up society. They were out for 13 years, and now they are back to their old tricks—look at the language being used. The Education Secretary says that people are not able to manage their own finances. The Conservatives have the wrong priority in giving money to millionaires. They are allowing £15 million golden handshakes to chief executive officers of energy companies. They are reintroducing soup kitchens. We have beggars in the street for the first time ever in Prestatyn. The number of homeless people in Rhyl has doubled, and we will see people from the inner cities of England driven out to the UK’s coastal towns, including in Wales.

All that does not bode well for the future, and I am pleased that my Labour party and my Labour leader have put living standards at the heart of political debate.

4.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing this debate.

Listening to the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues, I am struck by the negative picture they paint of life in north Wales. We are debating living standards and quality of life in north Wales. I am not from north Wales—many of the Opposition Members here today are—but let me be the first to say this afternoon that north Wales is, remains and will continue to be a great place to live, a great place to work and a great place for businesses to invest.

At this time, as the economic recovery starts to gather pace in Wales, what should be seizing all of us with an interest in north Wales, on both sides of the House, is how to maximise the opportunities that are coming for Wales, so that we ensure that the economic recovery is a recovery for the whole of Wales and that north Wales is front and centre of that recovery.

Albert Owen: Will the Minister give way?

Stephen Crabb: Forgive me, but I will not give way because I have not been left with much time.

This afternoon we have heard Opposition Members talking down north Wales and the Welsh economy and not recognising many of the great things that are happening in their own constituencies that we should be celebrating and promoting.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, for whom I have a huge amount of time and respect, finished his contribution with a rather crude political attack on my party and my Government. Of course, it was his party that said it was “intensely relaxed” about people becoming filthy rich. His party was intensely relaxed about abolishing the 10p tax band, which hurt the lowest-paid workers the most. His party was intensely relaxed about soaring petrol prices and soaring council tax. The Government are not relaxed about such things, which is why we are doing everything that we can as the economic recovery gathers pace to ensure that people on the lowest incomes

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are the ones who benefit and are given incentives to move into work and be at the front and centre of maximising opportunities from the economic recovery.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be a Minister in the Wales Office, and I have the opportunity to go around all parts of the Principality. I see many of the exciting things that are currently happening in the Welsh private sector, and I have to tell Opposition Members that much of that is happening in north Wales; it is happening in their own constituencies. Unemployment is falling in most north Wales constituencies. Unemployment is not falling everywhere, and we are not complacent about that. We want unemployment to fall in every parliamentary constituency, but the hon. Gentleman cannot stand there and say what he said without recognising that unemployment in his constituency is lower today than when his party left office. I remind him that, under the previous Labour Government, in the five years between 2005 and 2010, unemployment increased in his constituency by more than 100%.

Chris Ruane: The top-line unemployment statistics look okay, but the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance for 12 months or more was 215 in 2010, and it was 516 in 2012. The underlying trend is that the number of people who are long-term unemployed, who are the most difficult people to get back to work, is going massively upwards and there is no room for complacency.

Stephen Crabb: I am the last person to be complacent. I recognise that a huge amount of work still needs to be done, but the latest figures today confirm that the overall employment picture in Wales is positive. Unemployment is falling across Wales. Overall employment levels are increasing, which we should welcome and want to see more of.

At the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, he talked about the decline in real wages between 2007 and 2012 in Denbighshire and Flintshire. We can go through the figures later if he wants more detail, but the vast majority of the decline in real wages happened in the last three years of the previous Labour Government, when, as a result of the economic trauma that they visited upon this country, there was an enormous destruction of wealth and real wages fell. We are now seeing a recovery in wages, including in Wales, but there is a long way still to go before we are back to previous levels.

On income tax, I recognise that many families are facing difficult financial circumstances. That is why we are putting cash back into those families’ pockets by taking the lowest-paid workers out of income tax altogether. We have now cut income tax for more than 1.1 million working people in Wales by increasing the tax-free personal allowance. We are lifting 130,000 of the lowest-paid workers in Wales out of income tax altogether by increasing that allowance to £10,000. Some 324,000 taxpayers in north Wales will benefit from that increase in the personal allowance.

Employers in north Wales are also benefiting from the fact that we are implementing in full all the recommendations of the independent Low Pay Commission. The hon. Gentleman talked about Conservative opposition to the minimum wage, but I for one never opposed the minimum wage, which has benefited the lowest-paid workers. This year, we are able

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not only to implement all the Low Pay Commission’s recommendations but to go further: the commission recommended freezing the apprentice rate, but we are not freezing it; we are increasing it, and we can do so because we have taken difficult decisions to restore discipline and order to our national finances and to put our house in order, which has given us the capacity and the resources to do things such as increase minimum wages.

One thing that we are committed to freezing, however, is fuel duty, and we have now seen fuel duty frozen for nearly three and a half years. This year, the average motorist will save £7 each time they fill up their fuel tank. I remind Opposition Members that, had Labour been elected in 2010 and implemented its detailed financial plans in full, as it had intended, the price of petrol would be 13p a litre higher than today. That is an example of the Government putting cash back into the pockets of hard-working people and hard-working families. Again, we can do that only because we were able and willing, and had the strength of purpose, to take difficult decisions at the start of this Parliament to put our national finances in order and to restore some sanity to national budgeting.

Albert Owen: I wish to put on record that I very much admire the resilience of the people of north Wales. We were not talking down north Wales; we were giving an honest picture. On fuel duty, will the Minister tell us what negotiations the Wales Office has had with the Treasury and others on the rebate scheme and how it will be implemented in Wales? I am talking about not only asking businesses, but providing leadership from the Wales Office.

Stephen Crabb: I can write to the hon. Gentleman with further details, but we are in close discussion with the Treasury on the implementation of that scheme in Wales. I have personally written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about the scheme, and we want as much of rural Wales as possible to benefit.

We are also committed to freezing council tax in England. Let us remind ourselves that council tax more than doubled under the previous Labour Government. The council tax freeze, of course, does not apply to Wales, as it is a devolved matter. We have provided the Welsh Government in Cardiff with both the opportunity and the resources, but they have so far refused a freeze. If Opposition Members are genuinely concerned about standards of living and the financial pressures on families in Wales, they should be rapping hard on the doors of Welsh Ministers in Cardiff, wanting to know why they are not implementing a council tax freeze in the same way that we are doing in England.

There was some discussion of energy prices. Let me put it on the record that I have not heard one thing from an Opposition Member, or even from the Leader of the Opposition, about a commitment to freezing energy prices that has a shred of credibility. When the Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, energy prices in this country soared. [Hon. Members: “They went down!”] Opposition Members cannot seek continued investment in energy infrastructure to deliver lower prices in future and to keep our lights on, while making irresponsible and crude promises that they can somehow freeze energy prices.

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Housing benefit reform and the overall programme of welfare reform have been mentioned on a day when we again see unemployment in Wales fall. Opposition Members cannot be on the side of falling unemployment, while opposing welfare reform. Welfare reform is a vital ingredient in tackling worklessness at source, which is what we are seeing in Wales.

Hywel Williams: Will the Minister tell the House what assessment the Government made of the elasticity of the housing market before ending the spare-room subsidy? Will the market be able to respond to the increased demand for one and two-bedroom properties?

Stephen Crabb: We have had many opportunities to discuss the availability of certain types of housing in Wales. The housing stock differs between different areas, and I do not deny that shortages exist in certain parts of Wales. That is why we are making more than £7 million available to Welsh local authorities through discretionary housing payments to ease the transition to the implementation of our housing benefit reforms. [Interruption.] Opposition Members may want to chunter and mumble as we discuss such matters, but I am yet to see one of them stand up and give me a credible plan for how they will bring order back to our housing benefit expenditure, while tackling the unfairness of tens of thousands of people in Wales living in overcrowded accommodation or waiting for access to social housing while many people—let me absolutely blunt about it—are able to live in houses with extra space and more rooms than they strictly need.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned food banks and was absolutely incorrect to say that Conservatives have refused to visit them. I regularly visit my local food bank. In fact, I was a trustee of the charity that runs it, so I know exactly what food banks do. I know what they do well and what they do not do so well. From speaking to colleagues right across the House, I know that Conservatives have no fear at all about going to visit food banks. He made the point that Jobcentre Plus has been referring people to food banks since 2011, but what happened before 2011 under the previous Labour Government? They banned jobcentres from advertising the availability of food banks. They tried to cover up the fact that food banks were increasing in number on their watch. They did not want to acknowledge that food banks existed and were growing. We are not taking that approach. We see food banks as a vital part of the social economy at this difficult time, and we are working in close partnership with them.

In conclusion, I have the huge privilege of being able to get out and about around Wales. I see so many good things happening in north Wales. I will say it again for the record that north Wales remains a fantastic place to live, work and invest.

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Before we move on to the next debate, I want to remind hon. Members of the rules. If Members want to make a speech during a half-hour debate, they should seek the permission of the Member who secured the debate and the Minister. Members can, however, make interventions as long as the initiator or the Minister is willing to give way. I urge hon. Members to keep that in mind. Members are also supposed to write in before speaking in such debates,

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but so far only one Member has done so. I mention those rules because the attendance showed this topic to be extraordinarily popular, but the debates are only 30 minutes long, so please bear with us.

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Badger Vaccines

4.45 pm

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I am delighted to have secured a debate on the important subject of badger vaccinations to prevent bovine TB. I am also delighted that so many hon. Members are here today. I hope that the debate will be measured and grown up, because the subject is truly apolitical and everybody in the room will have an opinion on how best to proceed. Everybody wants to see TB being reduced while the badger population is preserved.

Before I start my speech, may I welcome the Minister to his new role? I have known him for some time and I am elated about his new position. I have always had the utmost respect for his abilities and he will do a huge amount for rural communities such as the Lune valley, which I represent.

We are all acutely aware of the controversy around the ongoing cull and the desire on both sides of the debate to control bovine TB with the minimum disturbance to wildlife. Both sides have offered compelling arguments and I voted in favour of the cull as an interim measure ahead of work on a viable, deliverable and safe vaccine. I hope that the Minister will update us on the progress of the research and development of the oral vaccine. I also want to ask him what steps are being taken with groups such as the Badger Trust towards bringing in volunteers to help with any future vaccination programme.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that any vaccination proposals should be accompanied by improved measures relating to biosecurity on farms and more adequate controls on cattle movement?

David Morris: I totally agree. Later in my speech, I will explain some of the technicalities behind what the hon. Lady has just articulated.

I pay tribute at this point to the work of Team Badger in highlighting the need for vaccinations. The group is led by Dr Brian May, CBE, and I know how much time, effort and money he puts into humanitarian and wildlife issues.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I spoke to him beforehand, Sir Alan, and asked his permission to speak.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing the debate, but on supporting the cull. I support the cull, as do many others in the House, but many others do not. Does he recognise that bovine TB costs dairy and beef farmers millions of pounds? Should that not be the first reason for trying to continue the cull and for ensuring that badgers are eradicated?

David Morris: There is a cost to the issue, as there is with anything of this nature, but as I will explain later in my speech, there is a funding situation that can be annexed to involve Team Badger and various other badger projects.

Today’s debate comes during the badger cull and following the Opposition day debate on 5 June, in which a wide range of hon. Members participated. I believe that 5 June was the start of the process of bringing both sides together, to which I hope today’s debate also contributes. It is pretty easy for all of us to understand

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the opposition to the cull, but we must not characterise those in favour of it as being cruel. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and farmers have the best interests of the countryside and the agricultural community at heart and want to help in the best way possible and protect badgers at the same time, but they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the spread of bovine TB will be significantly reduced if we cull 70% of badgers in the cull zones. That said, the last major cull from 1997 to 2007 was not deemed to have dealt with the problem to the extent that was hoped and cost £50 million.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recognise that one of the benefits of vaccination versus a cull is that vaccinations have no perturbation effect?

David Morris: I agree totally. Vaccination increases herd immunity, while culling increases the spread of disease.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): For the record, I am a member of the British Veterinary Association. May I ask the hon. Gentleman two questions? Does he agree that a vaccine does not cure an infected beast and that, if a beast is infected, it must be culled?

David Morris: Despite a massive cull in southern Ireland, of 97,000 badgers, the rates of TB in the north, where there were no culls, are still the same. If a badger with TB is vaccinated, it will not be cured, but if it reproduces, its young will be immune.

Ian Paisley: It is important that people understand what the vaccine does. The beast is trapped and tested: if it has the disease, it is culled; but if the test is not positive and it is free of the disease, it is injected. However, it has to be injected for the next five years—caught every year and injected—and that costs about £3,000 per beast.

David Morris: I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I understand his argument. In the culling at the moment, however, badgers are being trapped and shot—there is only one sentence for them, if caught, and that is to be killed.

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): On the points made by the previous two Members who intervened, the whole debate needs to be centred on the evidence base. Perturbation is of concern—the evidence is that perturbation exists when culling takes place.

David Morris: I totally agree with my hon. Friend.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): On the potential for the Government’s policy to make the situation worse, that is likely to happen if the cull levels are as low as they are reported to be. I have to congratulate the Government, however, on their support for a proposed community-led badger vaccination programme on 200 sq km in my constituency, in the Land’s End peninsula, Penwith. The first year of vaccination on

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contiguous farms is going ahead with the support of Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London.

David Morris: I would like to see similar programmes rolled out nationally.

I must make some progress. The latest parliamentary report was published by the all-party group on dairy farmers, which was established by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). The group had 250 members, of whom 70 were Labour MPs, and the report recommended a badger cull. Research done under the previous Government suggested that the cull will reduce bovine TB by 16%. Obviously, that is a good thing, but we must work towards eradicating TB completely. From what I can see, a vaccination programme for both cattle and badgers is the only way to ensure that. I do not want to dwell on the need to vaccinate cattle and the problems that that would raise, but it is worth flagging up that, if we can do that in a cost-effective manner, we should.

A BCG is available for badgers, which is not unlike the injection most of us had at school. The concern about it is that the need to trap and tag badgers in order to deliver it effectively can make it expensive, as we have discussed. There seems to be widespread agreement, therefore, that we need an effective oral vaccination, and I again invite the Minister to comment on research and development and the progress in that field. It is worth pointing out that, this week, a National Farmers Union briefing was fully in favour of work on vaccines, while DEFRA is undertaking a survey of the number of badgers in the UK, which shows that there is common ground between both sides, even if that is not obvious at first.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab) rose

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con) rose

David Morris: I shall give way to the hon. Lady and then to my hon. Friend.

Nia Griffith: Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the Welsh Government on the work that they have done to date on introducing badger vaccines? Will he urge his colleagues in the Government to work closely with the Welsh Government in order to make such progress?

David Morris: That is a helpful intervention, and I shall do so at all opportunities given to me.

Caroline Dinenage: My hon. Friend has been incredibly generous with all the interventions, so I shall be brief. He mentioned that cost is often cited as the a reason for vaccinations not taking place, but does he agree that, if the cost of policing a badger cull is included, the cost difference is almost negligible? Furthermore, if the good will of all the volunteers who have been campaigning on behalf of badgers were harnessed, and they were turned into vaccinators or those aiding vaccinators, much of the cost difference could be mitigated overnight.

David Morris: That is the spirit of the debate—how we proceed and eradicate a problem that has blighted our countryside.

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As I said, the DEFRA survey of badger numbers shows that there is some common ground. On the subject of badger numbers, I have heard huge variations in the estimates, which range from 150,000 to 350,000. It is vital to understand how many badgers there are, and I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for their work on solving the problem. We cannot understand bovine TB and badgers’ effect on it until we can say for certain how many badgers there are.

The problem will not be solved by Government alone. We must have dialogue between DEFRA, the farmer and Team Badger and its affiliates. Together, they can work to ensure that we never need to consider a badger cull again. Vaccines are expensive, but most of the cost of the vaccination programme is in manpower. I dream of a world in which DEFRA trains volunteers from Team Badger to administer vaccines, while farmers play their part by facilitating the volunteers.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Most people in the Chamber fully support the principle of vaccination, but when talking about funding, do we not have to be realistic? An oral vaccine is the only long-term solution to the problem, so is that not where all the money and funding need to be targeted by the Minister and his team, rather than on the injectable vaccine, which is not really a long-term solution?

David Morris: I am all for whichever means of administering a vaccine is found. Yes, its development will cost a lot of money, but, as I shall explain, the way ahead might be a measure that empowers members of the pro-badger community to go into match funding with DEFRA. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

Funding streams for working on better vaccines for animals are available in DEFRA, and Team Badger has indicated that it would be willing to raise money to match what DEFRA puts in. In fact, ahead of any proposed scheme, Team Badger has already set up a website to raise funds and opened applications for volunteers. That represents real progress, but the stumbling block is the cull—it is hard to get people around the table as long as it is going on.

My plea to all sides today, across the political divides—we are all sensible and human—is for us to open genuine dialogue on bringing forward a viable and deliverable vaccination scheme. We are all agreed on our desire to create a viable vaccination programme in order to avoid future culls, so let us concentrate on doing that. People will still disagree about the rights or wrongs of the present cull, but for the purposes of this discussion I hope that we can put our differences aside. That is not to say that people will not vigorously argue and debate it, but ensuring that we are in a position to avoid culls in the future is the bigger issue and what must be fixed.

We are in an age of the big society, with Government determined to bring more volunteers and charities together with Departments. In the case of badgers, we have some amazingly well organised and professional charities and lobby groups. It is vital that DEFRA makes full use of those groups, which could be the magic wand that enables us to deliver a vaccination programme cost-effectively. Furthermore, if the lion’s share of research and development, and of delivery of the programme, is undertaken by groups such as the Royal Society for the

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Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Team Badger, the taxpayer will be in a much better position. When the Government do not have the budgets that they once had, this must be welcome.

To recap, here are the questions that I hope the Minister will answer. How far are we from a deliverable oral vaccine? Can we work on a cattle vaccine without falling foul of European Union rules? Will he commit to creating a dialogue around those things that we agree on? Will he support fundraising efforts by groups such as Team Badger and others? Is DEFRA open to the idea of a big society badger vaccination programme undertaken by volunteers?

I appreciate that the issues are easy to flag up, but much harder to address. I firmly believe, however, that with the right work, public will, dialogue and effort on all sides, we can do this. We must remember that the prize at stake is that none of us would have to go through the heartache and division of further badger culls again.

4.59 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I welcome this debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) called for. The number of people here today suggests that we could do with more than half an hour to debate some of the issues. I welcome the tone with which my hon. Friend approached the debate. He is right that some people take different views about whether we should pursue a cull strategy, but we all agree that there is a role for vaccination of both cattle and badgers.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to consider the matter in detail in my recent role as a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government’s response to its report was published earlier today and shows that we share a significant amount of common ground on the issue.

Bovine TB is the biggest threat to the livestock industry in England—I was going to say Cornwall, where it is also a threat, as the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) knows. Having lived and worked in the farming industry in Cornwall, I know how difficult the problem is. My family run a herd of pedigree south Devon cattle and in the late 1960s, before my time, they had an incident of TB that wiped out more than half the herd and had a devastating impact on the family farm. My father still talks about it.

By the 1980s, we had almost eradicated the disease, but in the last 10 years there has been a severe deterioration. It has cost the country more than £5 million so far to fight the disease. Last year, we had to slaughter some 28,000 animals. Bovine control is not under control. In Lancashire, the county of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale, we have seen an increase in the number of herds under restriction and the number of cattle slaughtered in the last year.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): The Minister says that bovine TB is spreading more, and that is exactly why people are saying that culling is not the answer. Scientists involved in a randomised badger culling trial between 1998 and 2005 have shown that culling has not contributed meaningfully to a reduction in the

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disease and, if anything, has increased it because as the animals are shot, they run away and carry the disease with them.

George Eustice: It is generally accepted that, after the initial conclusions of the randomised badger culling trials, there was a significant reduction of some 16% in the cull area in the following years. On perturbation, which other hon. Members have also raised, there was an increase in TB in a ring immediately around the trial areas as a result of perturbation, but the incidence then dropped. Overall, there was a reduction. I point the hon. Lady to evidence in other countries, such as the Republic of Ireland, which has had a cull policy since 2000 with a reduction of around 45% in the incidence of the disease, and the number of cattle having to be slaughtered has halved.

There is no magic bullet and no single policy that can change the situation dramatically. Vaccination of badgers and cattle has a role; wildlife control has a role; dealing with the reservoir of TB in wildlife has a role; and routine testing, movement controls and better biosecurity all have a role. But none of them alone is the entire solution.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Part of the trial is taking place in my constituency. My first ministerial meeting when I was elected 16 years ago was with Jeff Rooker on this very subject, and only now is any meaningful action taking place. The Minister is absolutely right to say that a whole range of measures is needed to counter the disease, but it has been increasing and farmers have been suffering. We must get a grip on it.

George Eustice: I agree with my hon. Friend. I have painted a picture of how bleak the matter is. The disease is spreading and we cannot ignore it any more; we must take action.

Returning to vaccination, which is the subject of the debate, I think it is worth noting that successive Governments have invested more than £43 million on vaccine research and development since 1994. The coalition Government will have spent at least a further £15 million. I say “at least” because the figure excludes what is likely to be sizeable expenditure on the necessary work on cattle vaccine field trials.

Tracey Crouch: Is my hon. Friend aware that the response to a recent freedom of information request on 22 September shows a significant reduction in the amount of departmental investment in the oral vaccine particularly, but also in all other research into injectable vaccine and cattle vaccines? Spending on the oral vaccine will fall from around £2.5 million to £312,000 in 2015. Should that not be dealt with “drekly”, as the Cornish might say?

George Eustice: It seems that the word “drekly” is catching on in the House. I will deal with oral vaccination later. Right now, only the injectable BCG is available to tackle bovine TB and it does not fully guarantee protection. Some animals will be fully protected, some will benefit from a reduction in the disease, but some will get

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no protection. That is a shortcoming of a vaccination policy, but it would be a useful addition to the toolkit and we will use it to tackle the disease when we can perfect it.

Angela Smith: I welcome the Minister to his new role. He has mentioned the words “toolkit” and “all the tools in the box” more than once. Will he rule out one tool that most hon. Members believe is unacceptable—the gassing of badgers in any future cull?

George Eustice: We have made it clear that we would never use gassing as a means of controlling the badger population if we thought it was inhumane, but it is in the consultation for research. That does not mean that we will use it, but we will consider further research in this area.

The research is not on animals. It involves laboratory situations and simulated setts to work out how to get gas to go through a sett. The concern is not the gas itself, but the ability to deploy it throughout a sett. I assure the hon. Lady that that is the sort of research that was alluded to in the strategy. There is nothing new about it; it was in our published strategy in July.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

George Eustice: I want to make some progress or I will not get to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale.

Laboratory studies have demonstrated that vaccinating badgers with BCG can reduce the risk of infection and transmission of the disease. A four-year safety field study of wild badgers showed a statistically significant indirect protective effect in unvaccinated cubs born into vaccinated social groups, but vaccinating a large enough proportion of badgers to reduce transmission of disease and bring about a reduction of TB in cattle would take time to achieve and be costly to deliver, at between £2,000 and £4,000 per sq km per year.

In practice, it is inevitable that not all badgers in an area will be trapped and vaccinated. There is no evidence that vaccination protects already-infected badgers, and there is a risk that badgers from neighbouring unvaccinated areas may act as a constant source of infection. Nevertheless, computer modelling indicates that sustained badger vaccination campaigns could be beneficial in lowering TB incidence in cattle, but quantifying that contribution is likely to need a large-scale field trial, and it would take some years to collect the results.

David Morris: I would like to put it on the record that should what I am proposing come together, I would like my constituency to be its first trial area.

George Eustice: That has been noted, and we will take it on board—[Interruption.] I do not want all hon. Members asking for their constituencies to be a trial area. Vaccination is a potential additional tool to reduce geographical spread of the disease, particularly on the edge of areas. My hon. Friend’s constituency is in not an edge area, but a low-risk area.

Vaccination could complement badger culling by providing a buffer to limit the impact of perturbation. It may also form part of an exit strategy from culling—for

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example, by vaccinating remaining badgers with the aim of establishing herd immunity in previously culled areas.

Albert Owen: I welcome the Minister to his place on the Front Bench. Will he assure the Chamber that his Department is working with the Welsh Government so that we can have some data on their trials, share information and eradicate the problem in the whole United Kingdom? His responsibility covers only England, but such co-operation would help both England and Wales.

George Eustice: We are keen to learn lessons from around the country and around the world, so we are looking at the work going on in Wales. I have to say that it is not that encouraging at the moment; a vaccination-only strategy is not seen to be working particularly well, but we will study the results closely. I am also interested in following what is going on in Northern Ireland, where they are trapping and then vaccinating badgers that they believe are not infected and culling those that are. We are also keen to learn lessons from countries such as Australia, which has pursued policies similar to ours.

Ian Paisley: I welcome the Minister to his new role. With regards to the vaccine for cattle and cows, which he touched on at the beginning—the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale also asked about this issue—will the Minister take the opportunity to make it abundantly clear that if a vaccine is given to a cow, it makes the cow test positive? That makes it indistinguishable from an affected beast when it is tested, which leads to one conclusion: the cow is slaughtered. We have to get away from pursuing the idea that there is some sort of magic bullet, or magic pill, that can be used to vaccinate a cow and not lead to its being slaughtered.

George Eustice: I do not want to get drawn too far into cattle vaccination, but the hon. Gentleman is right that we need to perfect the so-called DIVA test that differentiates between the two. It is clear that it will take some time. The European Commission has put a time frame of 10 years on getting to that stage. I would like that to be quicker, but we have to be realistic—there is a lot to be done.

I come back to supporting badger vaccination. DEFRA operates a badger vaccination fund; in the current year, that has prioritised support for vaccination in the “edge area”. The fund offers start-up grants of 50% to fund the first year of vaccinations. Having said that, it is true to say that applications this year have been a bit disappointing. We are now looking to understand precisely why that is, so that we can get it right next year. Coming back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member

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for Morecambe and Lunesdale, we are keen to work with all those groups, including voluntary groups, who would like to participate, and to work out how we can get them engaged in that.

I also intend to discuss a plan that the hon. Member for St Ives has on the issue—I have promised to meet him and Rosie Woodroffe. The Department has made a modest commitment to support some vaccination in that regard and he has some ideas; we are keen to pursue that option and look at it.

Andrew George: I put on the record my gratitude to DEFRA for the initial funding of the pilot, which is proceeding this week. The intention is to cover the whole 200 square miles of the Land’s End peninsula, and we are increasingly gathering the co-operation of farmers in the area.

George Eustice: I know that, and I look forward to discussing the matter further when I meet the hon. Gentleman. The training scheme has become more popular since, as part of the DEFRA-funded badger vaccination fund, we have offered grants of 50% to voluntary and community sector volunteers to train as lay vaccinators. That is another area that we would like to look at.

Finally, I want to say a few words about our work on developing an oral badger vaccine. A badger vaccine could be administered orally through baits. It would be more practical and potentially cheaper, which is why DEFRA continues to fund that. It is not true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) said, that we have cut expenditure on that. We are, as I say, still spending about £4 million a year in total on developing cattle and badger vaccines.

There are things that we would need to resolve when it comes to the development of an oral vaccine. We would need to work on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine formulation and make sure that we can deploy the bait to attract the maximum number of badgers. One of the problems is that badgers will not take the bait that is used, so it is important to have the right bait.

Another problem can be that one badger might eat all the bait and another badger might not get any, so there are challenges. We also have to deal with the potential impact and safety for other wildlife. There is still further work to do, but we are committed to taking it forward, and we are clear that that ongoing work will play a role in our strategy.

5.14 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(13)).