Another issue is the resources of local authorities. I am not making a partisan point, but we know that money is tight for councils. Wolverhampton city council

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has one animal welfare officer, who works part time. She is responsible for pet shops, domestically kept animals, the few farms in the city council area and the huge issue of abandoned or illegally tethered horses. I spoke to her earlier today, and by lunch time she had had three reports from the public of concern about abandoned horses. To expect her, on her own and working part time, to deal effectively with the issue alongside her other responsibilities is clearly absurd, and it will not work.

Even for officers who have enough time, another issue is at play, which we should be honest about: fear. Although the horse owners may not want to declare themselves, those involved in removing horses fear reprisals by them. It cannot be right that those who are empowered to deal with the situation, albeit on an imperfect and incomplete legal basis, should be inhibited from carrying through their powers by fear of reprisals. We would not tolerate that state of affairs in other walks of life, and we should not tolerate it in the one we are debating. The effect of what I have outlined is a problem that has gone on for years without a proper solution and without anyone getting a proper grip on it. It is a significant animal welfare problem that causes the public disturbance and distress. We cannot go on as we are.

What, then, is to be done? The current law is inadequate. There is a right of removal under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but only if the horses are in poor or severe condition, which is not always the case. Different provisions apply to public and private land, and there are different approaches for the highway or common land. All that needs to be straightened out and simplified. I do not know whether what the Welsh Assembly Government are doing is perfect, but at least animal welfare groups, landowners and the general public have welcomed it. The Minister should endeavour to clarify and simplify the law to make it easier to remove the animals.

The simplification should include introducing easier powers of removal from common land; minimising cost and delay in dealing with some of the issues that the hon. Member for East Hampshire raised; and removing the problem of proving ownership—in fact, why not reverse the burden of proof and ask those who claim ownership of the horse to prove it, rather than charging local authorities with running around trying to find out who owns it? The changes should also include improving animal welfare and giving confidence to the public. The problem is growing, and may grow further because of what has happened in Wales. The fact that solving it has been too difficult so far should not prevent us from putting our heads together and trying to come up with a better system.

3.29 pm

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) on his contribution. This is a huge issue of not only welfare—bordering on criminality—but antisocial behaviour. We need to look at both aspects if we are to come up with a solution.

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I first came to terms with the subject when a constituent came to me in despair, having found a number of horses in a field that she owned and been told by the local authority that there was nothing she could do to remove the horses; that there was no way of identifying whose they were; and, what was more, that she was now liable for the welfare of the animals, with third-party liability should anyone be injured crossing her land on which the horses now resided. She was quite rightly extremely upset that that should be the case. I looked into it further and found that it was not an isolated problem, even in my own area—I was told, anecdotally, that one gentleman owns 80 horses, but not one square foot of land on which to graze them, so was using everyone else’s land—and throughout the country.

As has been suggested, the situation has been exacerbated by what to some extent has been a crisis in horse ownership. The recent difficulties in the economy have meant that an awful lot of people who bought horses with the firm intention of looking after them properly now find that they are unable to do so, so a lot more horses and ponies are either abandoned or sold cheaply than would normally be the case. Had I any doubts about that, they would have been dispelled by visiting the Glenda Spooner farm in my constituency, in Kingsdon, near Somerton. It is run by World Horse Welfare, which has already been mentioned and does a superb job of looking after abandoned animals and getting them back into shape so that they can be rehomed. I applaud its work.

I was trying to address the issue when I was in the Minister’s position, and it is not without its complications—I will not pretend otherwise. It boils down to a number of clear areas in which the Government could perhaps have an effect. First, on intervention, the Government can help to prevent animals from entering the stream, as it were, by supporting horse charities and perhaps by considering what they can do directly to help people who get into difficulties to find a new home for their horses.

Secondly—a lot of the debate will be about this—there is the possibility of new powers. I discussed that at length with the Home Office, which assured me many times that the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill would be capable of remedying the nuisance. Potentially it will be, through the injunctions in the Bill and community protection orders, but we need guidance to be issued to local authorities and others as to how they can use the powers in the Bill to provide help in the area we are discussing. I hope the Minister will help me with that. Failing that, we need to look at the Welsh proposals. I spoke to Alun Davies, the Minister in Wales, some months ago about the subject, because I knew that he was working on his proposals. What is being suggested in Wales—providing a range of disposals to local authorities and others—seems to have an awful lot of merit.

Thirdly, I want us to consider liability, which I remember discussing many years ago during consideration of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, when it became clear that people had an absolute liability for animals on their land. That cannot be right. If it is not their animal, they did not ask for it to be there and they do not want it to be there, how on earth can they be liable for its actions? Yet that is the situation in law.

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Lastly, we need to deal with identification. Microchipping needs to be enforced, of course, but that applies only to horses under four years old. There is a misconception about the national equine database, which was abolished by my predecessor, in that it did not provide traceability. We need a hugely better passporting system that ensures that we can trace a horse back to its owner. Serious discussion was going on with the Irish and French Governments on the issue, and I wonder whether the Minister can bring us up to date on where precisely we are.

I wish to raise a final, not uncontroversial, issue, which I remember discussing with the Irish Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney. I am not betraying any confidence, because he has since discussed it with his Select Committee in the Dail, but he told me about the possibility of widening hugely the euthanising of horses in the Republic of Ireland, because of the overpopulation. We have to give serious consideration to that. No one wants to kill horses, any more than anything else, but if we have huge overpopulation, we will never get to grips with the welfare issues. We first have to reduce the population, bringing it back to the sort of level where we can find enough good, careful and sensible owners to look after the horses.

3.35 pm

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is somewhat poorer since he left as a Minister, but we have had the joy of hearing his words of wisdom today. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who is a good friend of mine, on securing the debate, for which the whole House has come together. Like many Members, I have received a great many representations from constituents who have expressed concerns about fly-grazing, and 10 of them asked me to attend the debate specifically because of horse welfare.

Fly-grazing of horses is illegal, but the legislation makes it difficult for landowners to remove horses from their land. Fly-grazing poses risks to people when horses wander the roads, going through school grounds, digging up sports fields or damaging nature reserves. In June 2013, animal welfare charities released “Left on the Verge”, which reported that more than 7,000 horses were at risk of needing rehoming or rescuing.

This issue was recently brought home to me by a constituent, Mr William Jenkins, who grazes his horses on Manmoel common, in the heart of my constituency. He relies on common-land grazing to feed his stock in the spring—more so than ever this year. However, when he turned his flock on to the common in May, after one of the harshest winters he can recall, there was little grass to graze, because it had already been eaten by dozens of abandoned ponies—unsurprisingly, many had already perished in the prolonged freezing conditions, dying of starvation or exposure. This has been an issue on Manmoel common for a number of years—although not only there—robbing farmers of their historic rights to graze the common, an important food source for livestock.

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In a recent case, more than 100 horses were destroyed after being kept in detrimental conditions. They were among 400 horses found in a neglected state by RSPCA inspectors. In another recent case, a breeder was sentenced to 10 weeks in jail and banned from keeping horses for 10 years after being found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering when nine horses had to be put down and another 51 placed in sanctuaries.

There are a number of reasons why fly-grazing throughout England and Wales is increasing—primarily, the economic downturn combined with too many horses being bred. The result has been a horse market in which horses at every level have dropped in price. At the lowest end, they are being sold at auction for as little as £5. Farmers may advertise a horse and sell it after 14 days to cover their costs, but if the pony has no passport or microchip, that animal cannot be sold, costing the farmer more than the cost of raising the horse. There are also reports of some dealers cutting the cost of animal welfare and disposing of their horses by abandoning them on other people’s land when the horse has no further value to them.

The issue is made worse by the confusion about who has responsibility for fly-grazed horses. Is it local authorities, landowners or animal welfare charities? The Government need to take action to clarify the situation. Dealing with abandoned horses is a problem further complicated by rescue centres being under severe pressure and close to capacity, local authorities struggling with the numbers of horses left on their land, and landowners having to engage in costly legal action to have abandoned horses removed safely.

Another reason for the proliferation of fly-grazing is that the mechanisms in place for prosecution are insufficient and perpetrators are finding it easy to get away with—the benefits to them far outweigh the cost. The present law is insufficient, as it makes pre-emptive action impossible, and is insufficient when attempting to trace horse owners. Indeed, the inability to trace ownership is the fundamental reason why current laws do not work. Fly-grazers do not comply with horse identification legislation, and horses are often not microchipped when they should be.

The problem comes down to the complex mix of legislation relevant to removing fly-grazing horses. It includes the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Animals Act 1971, the common law of lost or abandoned property, the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, the Highways Act 1980, the Equine Identification (Wales) Regulations 2009 and the Horse Passports Regulations 2009—makes sense that, if you are a farmer or a horse owner, Mr Hollobone. All situations are different and require different elements of legislation to resolve them. Enforcers such as the police and local authorities will get involved only in incidents that violate criminal law.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): On local authorities, is my hon. Friend aware of the situation in places including Bassetlaw where, when the local authority takes action for good reason, the horse owner simply moves the horse to a non-local authority-owned piece of land, and if the owner of that land takes action, they move the horse back to the local authority land? In other words, they can never be nailed down under the law.

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Chris Evans: My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Horses are being moved round in a cycle. People are wise to the law and know that unless a criminal act has taken place there is no violation.

As a Welsh MP, I think we should look to the Welsh approach. As the hon. Member for East Hampshire said, that approach might not be perfect, but it is at least a start and is getting a grip on the problem. Wales is now taking action to rectify the problem. Ministers there are introducing a new Bill to tackle fly-grazing, the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill, which will take effect from early 2014. Conservative estimates are that 3,000 horses are being fly-grazed in Wales and 2,500 in England. Given the tough approach being taken by the Welsh Government, the Westminster Government need to highlight what measures they are taking to ensure that those 3,000 horses in Wales do not simply become England’s problem, which follows on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Fly-grazing is also a cross-border issue. My constituent, Mr Jenkins, supports the Welsh Government and has said:

“I think the new legislation will go a long way to help stop the problem, it will make people think twice about fly-grazing. The legislation is not perfect, a lot more could be done, but it is a step in the right direction and something we can work off moving forward.”

That is the issue.

The Westminster Government need to take action on the issue of fly-grazing, which has been getting increasingly worse over the past two to three years. They must simplify the legislation dealing with fly-grazing, whether they opt to make small amendments to existing legislation, such as the Animals Act 1971, or introduce new legislation, as the Welsh Government are doing. While streamlining the existing legislation, the Government also need to enforce the equine identification legislation, including the requirements to microchip and register horses.

There are several key areas that need to be addressed in any action taken by the Government. The first is easier removal of horses. It should be possible to remove horses immediately and dispose of them after seven days if the owner does not come forward. Secondly, we should reverse the burden of proof of ownership. Owners should have to prove ownership of horses they have sought to claim, which would reduce costs and the time currently spent by local authorities. Thirdly, we should make it easier to dispose of horses. Currently, horses can only be sent to auction or sold at market. Authorities should authorise options such as rehoming or, in worst-case scenarios, disposal.

I have two key questions for the Minister. We have seen in Wales that to enforce the legislation we will need multi-agency co-operation between local authorities, the police and charities. What support will the Government give to enable forward planning and the prioritisation of resources? Secondly, will the Government provide guidance to landowners and local authorities on how to handle cases of fly-grazing so that costly legal advice need not be taken to determine exactly which of the seven or eight pieces of relevant legislation apply?

3.42 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate.

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My hon. Friend may remember that I secured a similar debate back in July last year, on the connected issue of illegally tethered horses and the steps we need to take to clamp down on that problem. I said then that the problems that my constituents face on the edge of York with fly-grazing and illegally tethered horses are not restricted to York or the Yorkshire region. The problem is found throughout the country, predominantly —although not exclusively—in rural areas. I hope that the number of Members attending this debate has sent a clear message to the Minister about how important the issue is to constituencies around the country.

It must be remembered that fly-grazing not only blights the lives of the horses that are subjected to it, but impacts on farmers who grow crops that are destroyed and puts road users in jeopardy when animals stray on to the highway. I have had various meetings with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the local National Farmers Union and constituents about the issue of fly-grazing, and the message is clear: no one group can solve the problem alone. It is essential that we all work together on this growing crisis. The only way we can do that is with the support of the public, the Government agencies, the police and local authorities. If we all work together, we can stop the abuse once and for all.

At the core of the issue is a simple but profound point of principle that I believe in: no one should be above the law. Nor should people’s lives be negatively affected by those who have little regard for such laws. This is a horse crisis. That is exactly how the charities concerned regard the issue, in the excellent report “Left on the Verge”. The RSPCA, Redwings horse sanctuary, the Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld and the British Horse Society have all reported an increase in the number of cases of neglect and abandonment that have been brought to their attention.

Chris Kelly: Local newspapers are also reporting huge numbers of cases of tragic horse deaths. In my constituency, the Express & Star, the Stourbridge News and the Dudley News are regularly filled with stories about horrific cases of horse death and neglect. Has my hon. Friend had a similar experience?

Julian Sturdy: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Those sorts of issues have been reported regularly in local media in my area. Also, there have been reports of issues on the highway, with cases of horses that were illegally tethered or were being fly-grazed on the highway escaping on to it and causing serious road accidents. We have to remember that this issue has a wider impact than just illegal fly-grazing.

My understanding is that ever since the horsemeat scandal, which devastated our confidence in the EU’s food safety process, the price of horsemeat has plummeted. Notwithstanding that collapse, irresponsible dealers have continued to buy, breed and import horses as the market has become saturated. As has already been mentioned, a horse can now be purchased for as little as £5, although it can often cost in excess of £100 a week to look after it properly. Irresponsible dealers are importing horses from France and Ireland under the tripartite agreement that allows for the free movement of horses without health checks.

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As the market for horsemeat in mainland Europe is depressed, dealers are left with a surplus of horses, much of which, sadly, can been seen along the roadside and in other people’s fields, or even in people’s gardens. One particular case from my postbag, which I would like to touch on briefly, highlights the vast amount of damage that fly-grazing can do and the way it affects farmers. My constituent, Mr David Shaw, farms land in Osbaldwick that is located in close proximity to the local Traveller site. Mr Shaw’s land has been regularly overtaken by horses belonging to the Traveller community, which has caused a great deal of damage to his fences and crops, and to the land itself. Just recently, in October, Mr Shaw found approximately 14 horses in his fields. He turned them out, repaired the fences and spoke to the Traveller who owned them, requesting that he keep them off his land, but l5 minutes later the horses were back in his maize field again.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): To me, that sounds like intimidation of landowners, so I wonder whether my hon. Friend and neighbour has had similar experiences to me. A constituent of mine came to one of my surgeries in tears because he had found horses in a paddock that he owns, with a sign asking him to ring about them. When he did, he was told that if they did not stay on his land for a certain period, he could be in trouble. The police should surely take serious action about that sort of intimidation.

Julian Sturdy: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and neighbour. That is a worrying development; indeed, I now want to talk about some of the intimidation that my constituent has suffered from.

The following Sunday, Mr Shaw again found the horses in his field. He spoke to the owner once more, and it turned out that the owner was banned from keeping animals, following a previous cruelty case brought against him. Mr Shaw was subjected to the most horrific verbal abuse. Despite that, he carried on. He removed the horses and mended the fences. That evening, he again found them back in his field again. This exhausting exchange continued for a further four days, in which Mr Shaw spent well over 12 hours of his time dealing with the issue, all the while trying to run his dairy business. He removed the horses from his field a total of nine times and mended the fences the same number of times. That is a lot of expense for a problem that the council can do little to help him with.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire touched on the problems of the existing law. He also touched on the need for an equine database, and I entirely agree with that. The action that the Welsh Assembly is taking has been well rehearsed. I start from the simple principle that fly-grazing should be a criminal offence, to ensure that action can be taken swiftly and offenders brought to justice. The culprits are too often simply banned from keeping horses for a period, but the easy way round that is for animals to be transferred into the ownership of a relative. When horses are starving on the roadside, justice dictates that a custodial sentence should be brought to bear for such a horrible abuse.

It is essential that horse traceability is improved, because rules are routinely flouted, with few if any sanctions for non-compliance. It is important for everyone locally—the police, the local authority, animal welfare

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charities, the NFU and Traveller representatives—to work together for a long-term solution. I intend to hold a round-table meeting in my constituency in the new year to add impetus to the issue. Sadly, fly-grazing affects and touches many people in different ways—

Mr Philip Hollobone(in the Chair): Order.

3.51 pm

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this important debate.

I am secretary of the all-party group for the horse, which is well aware of the extent and depth of the equine crisis. It has been caused by the cost of keeping horses, which has increased at a time when many family incomes have come under pressure, with people finding themselves less able to look after their horses and ponies properly. The people involved in fly-grazing are many and varied. Some keep horses commercially and their incomes have decreased. Rather than disposing of their horses responsibly, they have tried to keep them irresponsibly. There was a terrible example in Wales of someone who kept many coloured horses and bred from them, but slaughtered every colt foal, keeping only filly foals. It was one of the worst examples of animal welfare abuse I have come across.

Some people who keep horses for personal or recreational purposes can no longer afford to keep them. However, because they cannot afford to put them down—doing so responsibly is quite an expensive affair nowadays—they let the horses out on any available ground. That ground is variable, as we have heard. Sometimes the land is owned for proper purposes by the local authority, on verges beside roads, and sometimes it is owned privately—we have heard examples of that. However, one example we have not heard about—although the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned this—is that when people cannot afford to keep horses and ponies, it has sometimes been the practice in south Wales to turn them out on common land. That land is often extensive and remote. If a horse is turned out there, it is out of sight and out of mind, but it will suffer greatly, particularly as winter approaches.

Some commoners’ associations act responsibly, and at this time of year will gather all the horses and ponies from the common and establish who owns them and whether they are fit enough to go back on the common for the winter. Welsh mountain ponies are bred to survive difficult conditions and are fed only when conditions are extreme and there is snow on the ground. The commoners will bring in all the horses and dispose of them humanely if they cannot establish who an owner is. I congratulate commoners’ associations that act in that way—I have experience of one common, the rights of which are owned by the Duke of Beaufort, who acts responsibly.

The problem is not the fault of the horse or the pony, and dealing with the horses or ponies is not the way to ensure that such practices stop. Therefore, we must take action against the owners. I know the difficulty—many hon. Members have rightly emphasised the need for a proper identification process, so that we can establish

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who is responsible—but action must be taken against owners who have caused or are likely to cause harm to the horses.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) spoke about people who are already banned from keeping horses who are then found to have committed the offence again, but suffer very small penalties. As far as I am concerned, there is only one penalty for anyone who is banned from keeping animals but then found to be doing so without looking after their welfare properly and responsibly, and that is imprisonment. If that was the case, the message would go out that people cannot abuse horses or any animals in their care, and the situation would improve. However, only when magistrates courts understand the severity of such actions will such people be sent to jail.

3.57 pm

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, in this important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) not only for securing it, but for introducing it, covering the issues and touching on some sensitive matters in a way that brought all the parties together.

The problem is significant in Wales, and exceptionally so in the Vale of Glamorgan. Just two weeks ago, the BBC reported on the network news that 45 horses were tragically destroyed as a result of animal welfare issues. That case involved the excellent work of charities such as Redwings and World Horse Welfare. I pay tribute to those organisations for the compassionate work they conduct in difficult circumstances. However, a constituent contacted me to say that it was not just 45 horses destroyed, but ultimately hundreds. That demonstrates the scale of the problem just two weeks ago.

Over the last year alone, hundreds of horses have regularly been moved, throughout my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies, and on scores of occasions. The police recently reported to me that they were involved in 1,500 horse-related incidents in the last 13 months alone. Animal welfare must be our driving focus in this debate, but we must bear in mind the significant financial cost. The police estimate the cost to be around £1.2 million, and they can point to £745,000 spent directly by them, the local authorities and the RSPCA. One example, from a range of services that have to spend money to protect themselves and ensure safety, is Bryntirion comprehensive school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). That school had to spend £61,000 on a fence to protect children in the playground because horses were so regularly breaking the boundary fence and grazing on the playing fields. Not only were they breaking the fence, but they were causing damage to the school and preventing children from participating in physical education and using those facilities. Landowners also face significant costs. The average farmer in my constituency will face a cost of between £1,000 and £1,500 if he is involved in fly-grazing in any way. Some 56% of farmers responded to a survey saying that their land had been involved in fly-grazing.

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I can cite those factual data, or accurate data, because of a co-ordinated effort led by the police force. In particular, I pay tribute to South Wales police and Superintendent Paul James, who worked extremely closely with the local authorities in Bridgend, the Vale of Glamorgan and Gwent, where Operation Thallium led to a focused approach to ensure that every organisation, including the charities, were co-ordinated in trying to bring about an end to the problem throughout my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies.

I remember that Superintendent Paul James said to me this time last year, “Unless we resolve the problem on this occasion, I simply don’t know where we can go next year”. That was because of the resources being taken up. It was not only about the financial issues that I have highlighted, but about the time, which would not be costed into the figures that I mentioned, that he and all his colleagues had to spend trying to bring an end to the problem. There was one prosecution, but I fear that we are entering a situation in which the problem is simply being moved from my area to other areas.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I have a similar issue in some parts of my constituency, which may surprise people. In Bedfont, a number of residents have approached me about similar situations. Does the hon. Gentleman share the growing concern of charities, which now say that they are running out of resources to help horses and other animals that are being neglected?

Alun Cairns: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention and support her in that. She has also highlighted that it is not only rural areas that are affected. The problem has become so great that it affects urban areas and particularly urban fringes, where horses end up close to towns whose large populations are put at risk because of the problem.

Operation Thallium, a joint effort by the police and the Welsh Local Government Association, identified three key themes. One was about the identification of horses and the need for proof, and how difficult that makes things. The second was the delay that the landowner, having identified the horses or ended up with horses fly-grazing on their private land, experiences before they can act to dispose of the horses. People end up being almost forced or encouraged, on some occasions, to contribute to the problem. Scores of horses can be found on domestic properties, and strictly speaking, according to the law, people should be looking after the horses according to welfare standards, rather than driving them out on to the road to move the problem forward.

It is a shame that I cannot expand much more on that, but I want to underline the third theme, which is how the horses are handled thereafter and their disposal. The delay that I touched on is significant, with the current legislation restricting the agencies to acting in a humane, responsible way and considering the auction obligation. However, the euthanasia issue also needs to be addressed. I pay tribute to the Welsh Government and the way in which they are approaching the legislation. It is an important start—it is not perfect, but I hope that the Department will take it on board.

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Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman cannot carry on, but we have now reached the end of speeches from Back-Bench Members and the start of the contributions from Front-Bench Members. The debate is due to end at 4.26 pm.

4.4 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): It is great to serve under your stewardship again, Mr Hollobone. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for securing this timely debate, and I want to thank all the other Members who have spoken. I will not be able to note their contributions in full, but I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). I shall turn to the Vale of Glamorgan in a moment. It has been a very good, wide-ranging debate with expert thought and analysis.

I also thank the organisations that have campaigned long and hard on the issue to force the growing crisis—and it is a crisis—of horse and pony fly-grazing up the political agenda. Those organisations include the RSPCA, Blue Cross, World Horse Welfare, HorseWorld, the British Horse Society and Redwings, which came together to produce a damning report called “Left on the Verge: In the grip of a horse crisis in England and Wales”. It catalogued appalling neglect and animal welfare abuses in London and Gravesend, Tyne and Wear and Blackpool, County Durham and Norfolk, and Bristol and Leicestershire —in short, in all parts of the United Kingdom.

I also thank the local authorities such as Durham, Cardiff and Bridgend and the coterminous police authorities who have taken a positive lead in developing joint-working protocols and memorandums of understanding to tackle the problem. I pay tribute to the leadership shown by the Labour Government in Wales and the National Assembly for Wales, who, as we speak, are fast-tracking new legislation as an early Christmas present. Where Wales leads in tackling fly-grazing, we hope that England will follow.

The past three years have seen a crisis develop in fly-grazing in the UK. Horses are suffering and dying in increasing numbers. Local authorities, police and highways agencies are navigating through legislation that is, frankly, out of date and not fit for purpose. Farmers, conservation bodies, other landowners and commoners are seeing their land trashed. Horse and animal welfare organisations, along with the public, are dismayed at the seeming inability of authorities to act promptly and decisively. However, their hands are tied. Minister, we must seek to resolve this issue in Parliament and in Government, and in collaboration with those affected.

It is worth saying that there are many good horse and pony owners, including many in the travelling community and others for whom responsible horse ownership and trading is an integral part of their way of life and culture. We should remember that. However, this debate is not about the good owners or even about some romanticised valleys culture, as portrayed in the quite wonderful series, “Stella”, in which the neighbour in the

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terraced house opposite keeps a horse in the house as part of the family—I am not sure whether the RSPCA would approve of that. It is also not about whatever the equivalent is in Tyneside or Gravesend.

The issue is about the increasing horse welfare problems associated with fly-grazing and the tethering of horses. It is about the dumping of those horses in the light of over-breeding, the drop in the value of horses and the lack of passporting and micro-chipping or easy identification of horse ownership. It is about the complexity of outdated legislation, which allows frankly unscrupulous owners to dance, at great taxpayer expense, around the authorities and the enforcement agencies. It is also about criminality.

The Equine Sector Council for Health and Welfare notes the rapid rise in reported incidents over the past three years as the cost of responsible care and disposal of horses has outstripped their commercial value; the 20% rise in calls to the RSPCA for tethered horses in 2011; the rise in welfare concerns to Redwings over fly-grazing, from 160 reports in 2009 to 500 in the first six months of 2012; and the huge rise in reported incidents to local authorities. That crisis has grown remarkably in the past three years and has shown, as it has grown, the legislation to be sorely wanting.

My constituency of Ogmore in south Wales includes the local authority of Bridgend, which, along with neighbouring authorities such as those in the Vale of Glamorgan, represented by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan, has seen some of the worst excesses and abuses of horse and pony welfare in recent years. Labour-run Bridgend county borough council and the neighbouring coalition council in the Vale of Glamorgan are to be commended for their strenuous efforts alongside South Wales police and animal welfare organisations to resolve the situation, although it has been tortuous and unnecessarily complex and costly due to outdated legislation.

In January this year alone, South Wales police reported nearly 500 calls from the public about nuisance, damage and animal welfare issues because of fly-grazing. Much attention centred on one individual and his family, a well known horse trader in south Wales, who regularly denied responsibility and ownership. That lengthened the time-consuming and costly farce for taxpayers, local authorities, and police and animal welfare agencies with those responsible ducking and diving to evade their responsibilities.

In such cases, public areas such as school playing fields, which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan mentioned, and common land are trashed. Private land becomes temporary corrals for apparently ownerless horses that appear there overnight through broken fences and disappear just as quickly when enforcement measures are eventually taken. There are risks to public safety and to highways—and all the time, horses and ponies suffer and die through wilful neglect. Outdated and ill-fitting legislation and enforcement powers allow criminals to pirouette through their responsibilities and evade justice, and the horses suffer, as do the public, private landowners and commoners who find themselves enmeshed in this cruel and unnecessary tragic farce.

The individual whom I mentioned, Thomas Tony Price of Wick, was found guilty in June of 57 offences of causing unnecessary suffering and failing to meet the needs of 27 horses. His two sons were also found guilty

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of related offences. RSPCA Inspector Christine McNeil, commenting on the 12 horses found locked in a barn with no space and no access to food and water—she believed they had been left there to die—said:

“These horses turned out to be the most poorly and diseased horses I have come across.”

She then turned her comments to the wider, UK issues. That individual is now in custody, but that is not the end of the matter. The RSPCA, which was intimately involved in the original case, now fears that the estimated 2,000 to 2,500 horses in the family’s care—I use the term “care” advisedly—that have historically been moved from location to location anyway, may have been steadily relocated across Offa’s Dyke to England, where the enforcement agencies may not be as prepared, in anticipation of the law’s being strengthened in Wales.

In short, parts of England are being seen as the softer option, and Wales’s problem may now be being exported to add to the existing problems in England. Horses that may be related to the south Wales case have already been appearing in the Surrey and Hampshire areas and elsewhere, causing the same problems and concerns.

That is just one sad postscript to the story in south Wales. As of last week, despite the best efforts of the RSPCA, the Vale council, the Redwings sanctuary and the police, just over 100 horses had been euthanised at a site in the Vale of Glamorgan. Thankfully, others have been rehomed. Our thanks go out—I know that the thanks of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan do—to all those involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of the animals and to resolve this tragic saga.

Labour is urging the Government immediately to follow the leadership of the Labour Government in Wales and National Assembly Members, who will bring forward new legislation within weeks, or to update, at least, existing legislation to the same effect. Otherwise, what is good news for Wales could result in the 3,000 Welsh horses becoming England’s problem overnight, adding to the 2,500 already in England. We call on the Government urgently to consult on new or revised legislation and other measures to tackle fly-grazing in England and to bring forward proposals at the earliest opportunity.

The coalition of horse and animal welfare charities that produced the report “Left on the Verge”, which I have referred to, have also produced the blueprint for the way forward. With new legislation—the Welsh Government model—or with amendments to existing legislation such as the Animals Act 1971, the changes would remove the barriers that currently prevent timely action against fly-grazing. The changes would include: the ability to remove fly-grazed horses immediately and, if rehoming and all else fails, to dispose of the horses within seven days; making it easier to dispose of the horses by rehoming them or, when all else fails, by euthanising them, rather than sending them, in a costly process, to auction; reversing the burden of proof on ownership and so reducing the financial and time costs to local authorities of proving ownership; and improving enforcement and joint working in a wide range of ways.

I know that “unions” is normally a dirty word for this Government, but I ask the Minister to listen to the words of at least one union, the National Farmers Union, which is demanding that the Government match

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the legislative changes in Wales or risk more horses being abandoned in England, or to the words of the coalition of horse and animal welfare groups when they say in their report that Wales is taking action—England must, too. We will support the Minister and the Government in bringing forward the necessary legislative changes at the earliest opportunity, but if the Government are minded to resist, we will make the necessary changes when we return to government.

4.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate. I, like many other hon. Members, have received lots of e-mails from constituents imploring me to attend the debate. I have been able to reply to them and say, “I’ll see what I can do.” It is a delight to be here to respond on behalf of the Government.

We have heard a little today about the scale of the problem. Although there are no official figures, the charities concerned have estimated that almost 7,000 horses are at risk. The welfare charities, in their report “Left on the Verge”, which has been cited by numerous hon. Members, have also identified a growing trend in welfare cases involving equines. Incidents of fly-grazing appear to be on the rise. Clearly, that is wrong and both a burden and a source of concern for the landowners affected.

I want to pick up on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) made about the stress that the practice can cause landowners. He makes an incredibly important point. We are talking about people who care deeply about animals and livestock, and it can be very distressing for them to find abandoned on their land horses that have not been cared for—that have been neglected, maltreated or underfed. They may have been left in fields where there is ragwort, for instance, which could affect their health. Sometimes the field is not sufficiently secure to keep the horse within it. I was very struck also by the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) about the school that had to spend money to put up fences to keep horses off its land as a result of this problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome also talked about the cost borne by the landowners in these cases, and it is true that that is a feature. I point out that sections 4 and 7 of the Animals Act 1971 give powers for landowners to recover that cost, but I completely accept that, as with all these things, the difficulty is in the landowners being able to bring a case to get the money back.

Let me say a little more about what laws are currently in place, or we have in the pipeline, that could be used to tackle some of the issues described today. It is important to note that quite a lot of powers are already available. First, section 7 of the Animals Act 1971, which applies in England and Wales, allows horses to be taken into the landowner’s possession, provided that certain conditions are met. After 14 days, the horses may be sold. The landowner may also claim any reasonable costs from the owner of the horses for the upkeep of the horses or any damage that they do until they are either returned to the owner or sold at market.

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Secondly, as a number of hon. Members have highlighted, the Highways Act 1980 can also be used and is often used by local authorities. That Act makes it an offence for horses to stray or lie on or at the side of a highway. The police have powers to remove the horses, and reasonable costs can be recovered from the owners in doing so.

Thirdly, as we have heard today, horses that are simply abandoned or neglected are often in a poor state of welfare. I was particularly struck by the appalling anecdote told by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly) about horses that were literally dying on a tether in some instances and by the case cited by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) involving someone who had dozens or hundreds of horses that were being neglected.

It is important to recognise, though, that in such circumstances it is possible to use section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to fail to provide for the welfare needs of an animal. The DEFRA statutory code of practice for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids provides clear advice on how to meet the requirements of the Act. Although failure to abide by the code is not in itself an offence, it can be used in a court of law as evidence of neglect, and frequently is.

Mr McFadden: I thank the Minister for giving way; I know that he has limited time. He cites all this legislation. We know that it exists, but it is not working. Does he believe that it is? If it is, why do we have this problem?

George Eustice: I will address that point in a moment. I just want to make this point about new powers in the pipeline. Clearly, the act of leaving a horse or horses on another person’s land is an example of antisocial behaviour. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is currently before Parliament and, when enacted, will provide enforcers with new and much more flexible powers to tackle antisocial behaviour in all its forms, including the act of leaving a horse on someone else’s land. Indeed, there have already been some instances in which the existing antisocial behaviour orders—ASBOs—have been served on perpetrators of fly-grazing.

The new antisocial behaviour measures will make it even easier for enforcers to use such powers to tackle these problems. For example, if a person is identified as having left their horse on someone else’s land without permission, the local authority or police could issue a community protection notice requiring the individual to do anything reasonable to address the antisocial behaviour.

In the case of fly-grazed horses, the notice might require the individual to remove or even to sell the horses. Failure to abide by a community protection notice is a criminal offence, and anyone who does so may face a fine or other sanctions. The provisions give the authorities power to impose a forfeiture order on any item, including an animal, used to breach a community protection notice; in this case, that would be a horse.

Several hon. Members have alluded to the frustration of those who complain to the authorities about such problems but no action appears to be taken. If a complainant is dissatisfied with a local authority, either because it has not responded to their concern or because they consider that it has not dealt with the concern

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effectively, it may be possible to use the new community trigger. Under the community trigger, the police, local authorities and other organisations can be required to review their response if a resident or group of residents have complained about the same problem three or more times and are not satisfied with the response.

In applying all those antisocial behaviour measures, it is necessary to know who the culprits are. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that we can tackle the problem without identifying and tackling irresponsible owners. If authorities can pool their intelligence and information, it should be possible to identify the leading perpetrators of fly-grazing and take appropriate action. If the problem is acute in certain areas—looking at the charts, Wales appears to be particularly badly affected—it should be a priority for the authorities to do whatever is necessary to deal with it. The tools are there, and we need to ensure that they are enforced.

One of the problems in dealing with fly-grazing is identifying the owners. As we know, identification of the owners of the horses involved is one of the key issues in enabling the authorities and those with whom they work to tackle fly-grazing.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Will the Minister give way?

George Eustice: I will press on, otherwise I will not cover all the points.

Revised horse passport regulations have been in force since 2009. They require all owners to obtain a passport for each horse that they own and all newly identified horses to be fitted with a microchip. We and other member states are currently considering EU Commission proposals to improve and strengthen the horse passport regime in response to the horsemeat fraud incident earlier this year.

Several measures are under consideration, including stricter standards for passports and a requirement for all member states to operate a central equine database, to which several hon. Members have alluded. DEFRA officials are working closely with the equine sector council strategy steering committee on the matter. As we have heard today, however, horses associated with antisocial behaviour are frequently not identified, so although we welcome the strengthening of the horse passport regulations, we recognise that it is not a solution in itself.

I wanted to touch briefly on another point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the tripartite agreement between France, Ireland and the UK. The Government are committed to protecting our equine industry from the threat of disease from overseas. European statute requires that horses that move between EU member states must undergo a veterinary inspection 48 hours prior to movement, and that they must be accompanied by a passport and health certificate. Any movement must be pre-notified to the competent authorities.

However, the existing tripartite agreement applies a derogation from those rules for horses moving between the UK, France and Ireland, on the basis that the three countries share the same health status for equines, and it seems reasonable that that should continue. We have, therefore, managed to avoid imposing unnecessary costs and burdens on horse owners.

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Following considerable work with the equine sector and the member states concerned, I can confirm that a new tripartite agreement has been signed, which limits the derogation from EU health controls for intra-EU trade to groups of horses with a demonstrably higher health status. That will come into effect in May 2014. Those new changes will apply only to movements between the UK and France, and Ireland and France. The situation regarding movements between Ireland and the UK remains unchanged, because we are satisfied that on disease control grounds—bearing in mind the aims of the relevant EU directive—there is no additional risk. The new agreement between the UK, France and Ireland will hugely benefit the sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) highlighted the importance of co-ordination. We have been particularly struck by the protocols introduced by councils in Wakefield and York, which give guidance to local practitioners about the steps they should take to deal with the problem of fly-grazing, citing all the laws at their disposal. I emphasise to local authorities that they can use existing and future antisocial behaviour legislation to tackle that problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire and others have asked whether it would be possible to provide further guidance, and we are looking at that. In the case of tackling dangerous dogs, for instance, we issued specific guidance to councils so that they understood the implications of the new measures. We are keen to learn from Wakefield and York councils about whether further work can be done in the area.

On the Welsh proposals, there are a couple of limitations. My biggest concern with what is proposed in Wales is that it introduces no new powers beyond those in the Animal Act 1971, but it shortens the time scales. There is a danger of our putting the onus on local authorities to deal with the problem, rather than on tackling irresponsible owners. We could end up imposing costs and additional burdens on local authorities—

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I thank all those who took part in that important debate and ask those not staying for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly.

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Cycling (London)

4.26 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): As one who was knocked off his bike in London many years ago, I am delighted that Mary Macleod is leading this debate.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): It is wonderful to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This timely debate on safe cycling in London is about saving lives. Just recently, there were six deaths in just two weeks in London, which forced attention on the issue. Two collisions occurred on the same day, which was particularly poignant. Our thoughts are with those who have died on London streets, and with their families. Most recently, Brian Holt, Francis Golding, Roger William De Klerk, Venera Minakhmetova, Khalid al-Hashimi and Richard Muzira have died on the streets of London on their bikes.

As well as highlighting the whole issue of safety for cyclists in London, the recent spate of fatal accidents has raised serious concerns about roundabouts such as Bow, where Hounslow resident Brian Dorling died in 2011. I have a personal interest in the matter because I, too, sometimes cycle into work and around my constituency. Every time I do, I feel as though I am taking a risk, even though I abide by the rules of the road. Even cycling around Parliament square, which is right outside, it feels as though I am taking my life in my hands.

I want to encourage cycling, because it is good for health, well-being and the environment, but we need to find a way to make it safer for everyone on the roads. Some 70,000 cyclists took to the streets of London in August for the Prudential RideLondon festival, and the Barclays Boris bikes have expanded across London. I want to encourage the inspiration created by the Olympics and the Tour de France, which will come to Yorkshire in 2014. Individuals such as Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy, Chris Froome, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott, Lizzie Armitstead, Jason Kenny and others have inspired a whole nation of cyclists, which has to be good.

The number of journeys made by bike more than doubled between 2000 and 2012 to more than 540,000 a day in London. The central London cycling census conducted by Transport for London in April this year calculated that bicycles accounted for up to 64% of vehicles on some main roads during the peak morning period, a time of day that recent incidents have shown to be particularly dangerous. More bicycles than cars travel across London, Waterloo, Blackfriars and Southwark bridges during that time, a setting that presents enhanced safety hazards to cyclists. In pure numbers, however, there were fewer cycling fatalities in the past six years than in the previous six. Reading the figures in a different way shows us that in London in 2012, 22% of all casualties on the road were cyclists, whereas in 2006 10% were, so there has been an increase in the percentage.

Across the country, 2012 saw the highest number of cycling fatalities, with 118. For me, that is far to many. In London specifically, there were 10 deaths in 2010, four of which involved HGVs, and 14 deaths in 2012, five of which involved HGVs. This year, we have had 14 deaths so far, nine of which involved HGVs. There is

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absolutely a case for doing something. Fourteen deaths in the capital so far this year is 14 deaths too many. We should be doing something about it.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Lady for bringing an important topic to the House today. As a fellow Hounslow MP, I am sure she will join me in congratulating the Hounslow cycling campaign on its work in promoting road safety for cyclists, making roads safer and increasing the number of women cyclists. I am sure she will come on to this point, but does she agree that there is concern over the Mayor of London’s comments that seemed to suggest that irresponsible behaviour on the part of cyclists was disproportionately contributing to the problem? We need roads to be safe and we need those driving large vehicles, as well as cyclists, to drive safety.

Mary Macleod: I thank my neighbour in London for that intervention. London councils have made an effort to create a safer environment for cycling, but I always push them, because when we have deaths, it shows that there is more to be done. The Mayor certainly stressed that there were issues with cyclists, but there are also other matters to consider. He has published “The Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London”, so he is addressing the serious issues. Everyone on the roads has a responsibility. Whether we are motorists, cyclists or lorry drivers, it is important that we take responsibility. There are things that we can all do improve safety.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that in this important debate we should stress that someone is more likely to be killed walking a mile than cycling a mile, and also stress the health benefits? Our overall life expectancy is increased if we cycle and lead an active, healthy life. We should ensure that we stress the benefits of cycling for well-being, as well as the dangers, and make it safe for those who cycle.

Mary Macleod: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We want the debate to be positive, and we want to say that cycling is brilliant for everyone to participate in and has amazing benefits. I want more people to cycle, so we must make it safer for everyone.

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. I am pleased that she has secured this important debate. My constituency has thousands of cyclists, who are fortunate to benefit from an integrated cycle network, so they feel safe cycling. My constituency is close to London, and over the past few months, as these unfortunate deaths have occurred, we have seen a huge increase in the number of cycles left in the cycle racks at Stevenage station, because those cyclists are now scared of cycling in London.

Mary Macleod: My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. There is a fear of cycling in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) pointed out that it is important to stress the positives, but we also have a responsibility as MPs to protect people and allay some of the fears.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I occasionally cycle in my constituency in Plymouth. Safety is not only an issue for cycling in London. We

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have a big problem in Plymouth with potholes, some of which are incredibly deep, and I suspect that the situation might be the same elsewhere.

Mary Macleod: I agree that many issues need to be addressed. There were 118 deaths across the country last year, so we must look at what we can do to make cycling safer in every area.

This year, the Mayor appointed London’s first cycling commissioner, who with the Mayor created “The Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London”. There are many great ideas in that paper, which is intended to build on the Olympic legacy for all Londoners and make the roads safe for people who want to take up cycling, as I did after many years of not being on a bike. I take great pleasure in using my Brompton bicycle, which was made in my constituency. Brompton Bicycle Ltd in Brentford is a great local company.

We want to encourage more people to cycle safely. Earlier this year, city hall announced almost £1 billion in improvements over 10 years to make cycling safer. I push the Department for Transport to work closely with the Mayor, because he has responsibility for only a certain number of roads in London. More communication, co-ordination and partnership would be good, with all the stakeholders involved sitting together and working out a vision and strategy that will help everyone.

Several schemes are certainly helping. We have already heard about what is happening in the London borough of Hounslow, and there are also various initiatives such as Bikeabilty training for beginners, advanced cyclists and children. We must see whether more can be done. The police recently played their role in cycling safety with Operation Safeway, whereby 2,500 Metropolitan police officers were posted at junctions in London to advise on the increased road safety problems caused by the high volume of traffic.

There have been several petitions through which we can see that the public are behind us: the “Save our Cyclists” petition has 35,500 signatures; the “Get Britain Cycling” petition has 72,000 signatures; and the “Better road driving test” petition has 17,900 signatures. The public want movement. We do not need a knee-jerk reaction to the deaths, but we must have a response. That is why there is an urgent need to have measures in place before there are more deaths on the streets. I would like a co-ordinated plan for the initiatives and ideas that are coming forth on better and safer cycling, which all stakeholders can sign up to, so that we know that things are happening.

There are a lot of options to make cycling safer, such as better safety equipment on lorries—side guards, proximity sensors and side cameras. Given the number of deaths involving HGVs, the complete lack of visibility in HGV drivers’ blind spots is a grave issue that I want us to take seriously. When I cycle in London, I try not to go anywhere near a lorry if I can help it, and I stay well behind them at junctions. We could be slightly more radical and ban HGVs during rush hour, as they do in Paris. Deliveries in London during the Olympics were made at night, so it could be possible to do that again. We may need to tighten up driving tests for van and lorry drivers. We have talked about having more Trixi mirrors at road junctions—big mirrors that allow better visibility, especially for lorry drivers. In some areas of London, and elsewhere, where there are very wide

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pavements, there could be safe sharing of pavements to allow cyclists to travel more safely. It is important to crack down on cyclists breaking the rules of the road, and perhaps helmets should become a requirement.

Oliver Colvile: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. If someone decides to use a Boris bike—a wonderful initiative—they are not offered a cycle helmet at the same time. I am not suggesting for one moment that people should be forced to wear them, because I am a Conservative and I believe in a moderately liberal approach, but they should be offered them, particularly helmets that have lights attached, so that people can see where they are going.

Mary Macleod: My hon. Friend obviously knows my shopping habits. I recently bought a new light for my helmet, because I did not feel that I could be seen clearly enough from behind, even with a high-visibility jacket. That is important.

In this short debate, I would like to get a feeling from my hon. Friend the Minister about some of the things that must be considered as a matter of urgency. The first is a cycle safety summit, for want of a better term, to get all the London stakeholders around a table to discuss the vision, strategy and plan of action going forward. That would include, of course, the Department for Transport, the Mayor’s office, Transport for London, the Metropolitan police and each of the London boroughs, which all have roads for which they are responsible. It would also involve the cycling safety campaign groups, and maybe even the all-party group on cycling. It would be a conversation around a table about a joint approach and a plan of action to get things moving.

The second issue that we need to consider is continuing to improve the safety of road junctions, whether with Trixi mirrors or safe cycling routes. Transport for London has increased its budget for safer junctions from £19 million to £100 million, but how far will that stretch across the key London junctions that need to be sorted out? Can TfL also address some of the other junctions that might not be its responsibility?

The third issue is better safety equipment on lorries. I feel strongly about that issue, given the scale of deaths from HGVs; nine out of the 14 deaths so far this year have been linked to HGVs. Side guards are critical to prevent people from being dragged underneath, as are close proximity sensors to let drivers know whether someone is around and side cameras to help with blind spots. Maybe we will have to prevent HGVs from entering central London unless they have safety features. If they do not, maybe the Mayor could impose a levy or fine.

The fourth issue to consider is the importance of clamping down on all road users who break the law, with on-the-spot fines for dangerous driving or cycling. Those who use the roads must respect each other; I say that as both a driver and a cyclist. I think that being a cyclist has helped me be a better driver, and I encourage everyone to try it. We might consider a fixed penalty for going into the cycles-only box at junctions. I would also like those cycle boxes and the advance stop lines extended a bit. At the moment, they are about 5 metres out, which is very close to traffic queues, especially during the morning rush hour. Maybe that could be extended to 7.5 metres.

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My fifth point concerns further training for children and adults. London boroughs and the police have been reasonably good at giving support on cycling safety, and there are also videos about how HGV drivers have blind spots. Adults returning to cycling after many years, in particular, may need a refresher. Another option is changing the driving test for drivers of all vehicles, including taxis, HGVs and cars, and including cyclist awareness and safety. I have mentioned considering a rush-hour HGV ban or a levy on HGVs not fitted with safety equipment.

This debate is important because it is about saving lives in our capital as well as elsewhere around the country. We want to do something as soon as possible in order to prevent more unnecessary deaths. It will help create a better, happier, safer city in which we can all live, and will hopefully save a few lives in the process.

4.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) for securing the debate, which comes after a series of fatal accidents involving cyclists on the capital’s roads in recent weeks. I offer my sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives.

Such incidents are a sobering reminder of the dangers that road users can experience on our busy urban streets, but equally, they should not discourage people from getting on their bikes. Cycling is still generally a safe activity. Indeed, the number of fatalities in London dropped from 21 in 2003 to 14 last year. Sadly, we have already reached 14 so far in 2013, including six in the past couple of weeks.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) pointed out, we must not forget that the health benefits of cycling greatly outweigh the risks, but as the Minister with responsibility for cycling and road safety, I am determined to make cycling even safer. Since February last year, we have made an additional £159 million available to support cycling and boost safety, including £20 million to improve the design and layout of road junctions at 78 locations around the country. A further £15 million is being targeted specifically at dangerous junctions in London. More recently, we have announced £77 million to help eight cities across England realise their ambitious 10-year plans to increase cycling and make it safer.

Those investments are crucial as the number of cyclists on our roads continues to rise. After the heroics of Team GB in the Olympics and Paralympics and the success of our riders in the Tour de France, thousands of people are catching the cycling bug. Although I got the habit nearly a decade ago, I am also a Brompton rider, and I very much enjoy riding the vehicle, which was made in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth.

Dr Wollaston: The Minister is another Brompton rider in the Commons. I am grateful to him for pointing out the welcome boost to funding, but is he aware of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling report, which recommended that long-term stable funding is what

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makes the difference? At least £10 a head for the whole population, rather than for the seven cities, is what is needed if we are to make the great strides that we have seen on the continent and allow for infrastructure improvements, particularly separation at junctions and on our most dangerous roads.

Mr Goodwill: The Government have certainly announced long-term funding pledges for transport infrastructure that will, with reforms to the Highways Agency, enable planning year by year, unlike the stop-go investment that we have had.

I will be on my Brompton again on Friday morning as I cycle from King’s Cross station to Westminster. My officials have devised a route for me that will allow me to experience both the worst and the best of cycling roads in London.

The trend back to cycling is particularly noticeable among young people. British Cycling, the national governing body, has seen membership of under-18s soar by 42% in just a year. However, money is only part of the answer. We are also working in other ways to improve cyclist safety. For instance, we have made it simpler for councils to put in place 20 mph-limit zones, and we have encouraged local authorities to implement such limits in areas where cyclists and pedestrians are most vulnerable. Reducing traffic speeds can make roads safer and improve the local environment.

As we have heard, a high proportion of cyclist fatalities involve large vehicles, so we have given English councils the power to install Trixi mirrors at junctions. We have also made it easier for councils to install contra-flow cycling and signs saying “No entry except cycles”. Awareness of other road users is paramount, particularly in big cities, so we welcome initiatives such as TfL’s “Exchanging Places”, in which cyclists can sit in a lorry cab and watch for a police cyclist riding up on the left side of the vehicle.

Several new driver certificate of professional competence courses now take cyclists into account. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth will probably know, truck drivers must now undertake five days’ training, and then one day’s training every year, to achieve the certificate. The training may even require the driver to experience what it is like to be a cyclist on busy urban streets. As someone who has driven HGVs, I know where their blind spots are, and I hope that those who participate in the scheme will too.

We are investing £11 million a year in Bikeability training to help a new generation of cyclists to get the skills they need to be safe on our roads. That training is not just for children; it is for adults too. On top of the Government’s funding, some local authorities provide free or subsidised training.

One of the most effective ways to make our roads safer is to change people’s driving habits through hard-hitting marketing and advertising. That is why we continue to develop new campaigns through our award-winning Think! brand. In October, I launched a new Think! cyclist campaign, targeting Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and Cambridge, on top of the activity already launched in London. That built on a similar campaign last year that was based around the message, “Let’s Look Out For Each Other”.

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In August, the Prime Minister announced a major programme of work to cycle-proof new trunk road projects so that they can be navigated confidently by the average cyclist. That includes a £20 million investment from the Highways Agency to fund significant junction upgrades and other improvements to remove barriers to cyclists. We also expect local authorities to up their game to deliver infrastructure that takes cycling into account from the design stage.

The delivery of the Mayor’s “Vision for Cycling” could also help to make cycling safer in London. There will be a new network of better cycle routes in London, including a “Crossrail for the bike”—a fast, segregated east-west super-highway. The Mayor’s plans also include prioritising major and substantial improvements at the worst junctions, and making significant improvements to existing cycle super-highways, such as the one that I use every morning when I cycle in to Parliament.

Clearly, however, if we are going to improve cycling safety in London significantly, we will have to reduce the threat of trucks where full segregation is not possible. Cyclists are no more likely to be involved in a collision with a lorry than with any other type of vehicle, but when it does happen the outcome is all too often a tragedy. In September, we set up a taskforce with Transport for London to raise awareness of safety among HGV drivers and to take targeted enforcement action against the small minority of potentially dangerous operators, drivers and vehicles.

I understand that last Monday, on the first day of the Metropolitan police’s new road safety enforcement campaign, 70 lorries were stopped and 15 penalty notices were issued, for offences such as vehicles not being fit for the road. In addition, about 100 cyclists were advised of a range of road safety measures that they can take, such as wearing hi-vis jackets or helmets, or fitting their bike with lights. A number of cyclists were also stopped for riding on the pavement. Indeed, only this morning I witnessed a cyclist dangerously running a red light in this part of London.

New standards for mirrors on the passenger side of lorries have recently been agreed at international level, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), recently wrote to the European Transport Commissioner urging him to ensure that those standards are mandated by the necessary regulatory change within the EU. Such mirrors are crucial, as they improve drivers’ visibility and make it easier for them to see cyclists on the passenger side, particularly when turning left at junctions.

The Department for Transport continues to work with international partners through the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, particularly to allow camera technology that further improves driver vision. From 29 October 2014, all new goods vehicles will have to comply with revised European rules—for example, with regard to side guards—that will permit fewer exemptions than the current legislation does.

In August, the Prime Minister also announced that we will be publishing a cross-Government cycling delivery plan. We will work with stakeholders, including TfL, on drafting the plan, which will set out how we will deliver on our vision of more people cycling more safely and more often. It will be supported by Departments across

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Whitehall and will include a commitment to work together to deliver a cycling infrastructure that will make Britain a cycling nation to rival our European neighbours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth suggested that there should be a cycling summit. That is a very good idea, but I have to say that I am ahead of the curve, because even before the most recent tragedies on our roads I met Chris Boardman, British Cycling, the Cyclists’ Touring Club and the charity Sustrans to discuss the issue. Indeed, I have a meeting in the diary for tomorrow with TfL to discuss some cycling issues, and on 4 December the Mayor is coming to the DFT to discuss cycling and other issues. It is important that we work together with all the stakeholders involved, including the cycling campaign groups and the all-party group on cycling, of which I used to be a member.

We can also look at other areas where we can make improvements. Mention was made of advanced stop lines, but a contribution could also be made by having early start signals, to allow cyclists to get away first before the lorries set off.

There is a huge amount going on to improve cycling safety standards in London and across the country. Our challenge is to ensure that an increase in the number of people riding bikes on our roads does not translate into more casualties. We are already making progress. Cycling in London has trebled over the past decade, yet fatalities of cyclists have fallen by 17% during the past five years. However, as the past few weeks have shown, there is absolutely no room for complacency. We have to continue working with our partners and continue delivering the investment. We must focus on key areas of threat, to continue raising safety standards for cyclists.

We should also examine some other ideas, such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned today. However, I have reservations about proximity sensors down the side of vehicles. They can often be set off by roadside furniture or other obstacles, and could actually distract a driver on some occasions. But it is absolutely imperative that we see what we can do about side guards. There are a number of vehicles that are currently exempt from having to have them, such as skip wagons, refuse wagons and some tippers, and it is important that we consider what we can do to improve the design of those vehicles, and to ensure that more and more vehicles are fitted with side guards.

As a Government, we are absolutely committed to doing what we can to improve road safety. I have considered the issue of having a ban on lorries in London. However, it must be borne in mind that in Paris the area covered by the ban is only about the size of the zone 1 area in London, so there is not an extensive ban in Paris. Of course, there are also communities in London that would resent deliveries being carried out at night as a routine measure, as that may—

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. I am very sorry to interrupt the Minister, but we have come to the end of our time for this debate. I ask all those who are not staying for the next debate to leave Westminster Hall quickly and quietly.

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Company Boards

4.56 pm

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

In recent months, we have lived through difficult times in relations between employees and management. Grangemouth was a black mark on industrial relations in this country, and showed the work force there being exploited and totally taken advantage of by aggressive management. In the past year, my Labour colleagues and I have also been fighting for the rights of thousands of workers who have been blacklisted and blocked from working by immoral construction companies. The Government’s moves to bring in a Bill that will make being a member of a trade union all the more difficult will do nothing to improve relations. As chair of the Unite the union’s parliamentary group, and with plenty of trade union experience before coming into this place, I can truly say that I am saddened by the low that we have come to and the distrust and anger that we see on all sides.

I have come to Westminster Hall today to propose not a new idea but what I think would be a productive and collaborative way to allow constructive dialogue between managers, workers and shareholders. We need to find a way to work together for the sake of the British economy and the livelihoods of our hard-working constituents.

Our economy is too shareholder-focused. The pursuit of quick profit leads to short-term thinking and a lack of investment in our companies, and our focus on shareholders means that cultural barriers may further hinder investment. In 2010, 41.2% of investors in British companies came from outside the UK, and it must be true that a shareholder in a company who has investments all over the world takes less of a direct interest in that company than an employee of that company would. It leads to examples of bankers hedging their bets and putting people’s lives and jobs on the line. It also leads to a lack of training for staff and a lack investment in infrastructure, meaning that companies will last for the next few years but not for the next 40 years.

Our company structures are not good for the economy. They lead to a lack of stability and to unequal distribution of gains from growth. We know that there is a public outcry at this system in the economy, and not just from the left. It seems to me that giving workers more of a say on our boards could be a key way of improving our broken economy. People want the next boom to benefit everybody, and a responsible Government will ensure that that happens. The Leader of the Opposition has rightly pointed towards “responsible capitalism”, and I hope that my proposal will form part of that under the next Labour Government, hopefully in 2015.

Of course, having worker representatives in a position on the board is good for employees, including those who feel downtrodden or that they have no job security, but who could contribute to the running of a company much more productively than people who do not know the shop floor. In a survey of workers’ representatives in other EU countries, one Swedish representative said:

“We think of the employees who other board members sometimes forget.”

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The issue is a moral one about what we want a 21st-century UK business to look like. Do we want to return to Dickensian scenes in which profit overrides everything and workers have no rights, no pride and no say in the job in which they spend so much of their time? Or do we want management to remember that those working for them need to be considered when they make changes to the company?

Whether employees are simply forgotten or neglected when decision are taken is irrelevant. What we need is someone championing their needs, in the same way that those of shareholders and of management are put forward. It is important to remember that many employees, unlike shareholders, cannot just walk away. They have trained for that job and so cannot diversify themselves as easily as shareholders can. They are key stakeholders tied to the company, and their issues need to be heard.

Having workers’ representatives on boards is good for business. The use of labour representation has been found to increase the value of firms. Employees have a detailed knowledge of the shop floor and of operations, so they become an important source of information for those making long-term decisions. In other countries, the proposal has been found to make a company more efficient. In a study of representatives, they remarked that their key knowledge of everyday business and employee matters made them specialists on the board, in the same way that other board members were specialists in, for example, accountancy or strategy.

The proposal would be good for business also because it would improve relations between the work force and management. It is telling that even Mr Ratcliffe of Ineos compared Germany with the UK and commended the good working relationship between unions and companies in Germany; this is the same Mr Ratcliffe who partly caused the problems at Grangemouth. I think a key part of that is the fact that workers in Germany sit on boards and can negotiate on issues before they get too far down the line.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on putting this important issue on the agenda; he is making a powerful case. Does he agree that, although worker representation on boards cannot and will not be a substitute for collective bargaining, it ensures that such bargaining takes place in an atmosphere that is more like a partnership, which is constructive? I have seen the benefit of that in my constituency at Cowley, where I can contrast the industrial relations in BMW with how they were in Rover and British Leyland previously.

Jim Sheridan: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I can only use my own experience before I came to the House, when I worked for Thales, which was a progressive company. It downsized during the defence cuts, cutting thousands of jobs, but it did so by talking to the trade unions and workers’ representatives. In Scotland and Portsmouth, BAE Systems is talking to its employee representatives in a progressive way and treating people like grown-ups. We can contrast that with what happened at Grangemouth.

In times of poor performance, employees are likely to be more aware of the troubles of their company and may offer concessions. Equally, they will expect returns when the company is doing well. Importantly, having a

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representative on the board offers an opportunity for early consultation. A recent survey found that, in such cases, both sides tended to be more realistic about the issues at hand.

Financially, the proposal works well, with fewer days lost to strike action. Germany lost 3.7 days to strikes for every 1,000 employees in 2008, whereas the UK lost 28 days in the same year. That is not a one-off: in 2007, Germany lost 8.1 days, while the UK lost 38 days. No worker likes to go on strike; it is always the very last option and a huge deal for all involved. The contrast shows how much more effectively Germans manage differences between employees and management. They come to more compromised agreements that suit everyone early on, and negotiations with the unions much less frequently result in strike action. I cannot see how companies, or indeed the Government, could disagree with a way to reduce days lost to strike action in the UK.

Directors like the system, with more than 60% of directors and 70% of chairpersons surveyed in Sweden finding the experience “very positive” or “rather positive”. Martin Gilbert, the outgoing chairman of FirstGroup, one of the few companies that use the system in the UK, said:

“The presence of employee directors on the FirstGroup board is invaluable. The few drawbacks are greatly outweighed by the benefits and having this two-way channel of communication has positively impacted on the running of FirstGroup.”

The proposal is popular, with 76% of UK employees in favour, according to a Survation poll. People are beginning to recognise that we get better results if a company board is representative of its work force. I think we are all in agreement that we need more women on boards, and we all see that it would be good for employees and the work force. The difference between the situations of women and employees in general, however, is that employees will never be at board level unless we change the rules.

I propose that we follow our European colleagues and make it mandatory to have employee representatives on boards. The Minister might say that we should not model ourselves on such countries, because the UK is different. However, the responsibilities of German supervisory boards are similar to those of British and American boards. We can therefore look at the German success story and follow suit. We even have a UK FTSE 100 company, FirstGroup, to model the idea on.

The proposal is not in direct contrast to what the Government have proposed. They are keen to encourage John Lewis-style employee-owned companies through tax breaks. There is appetite on both sides of the House to give employees more of a stake in their company—their livelihood. That is especially true with regard to executive pay, with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills proposing to make boards and remuneration committees more diverse, following a cross-party Treasury Committee report in 2009 calling for more employee representation on those committees. Extending that to boards as a whole, which would make decisions more directly applicable to employees, does not seem to be much of a stretch.

I am sure Members have heard arguments on the issue from friends in the corporate world. There is a lot of resistance to the idea from UK directors. They say that it might move the objective of a board away from

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maximising shareholder value towards maximising the payroll. I question whether that is really a bad thing. In these years following a financial crisis, we should be looking to make companies less short-term focused and more rounded. We want UK companies that stand the test of time and that are good for communities. A board looking to do that would be focused not only on dividends. Also, we are talking here about some employee representatives, not 50:50 representation of directors and employees. The proposal would just give employees a voice and give the board a fresh perspective.

Members might also talk about the additional burden that the proposal would bring. They might say that it would make boards bigger and therefore less efficient, with members preparing less before meetings. There is indeed evidence that smaller boards are more effective, but evidence from Swedish employee representatives shows that corporate leaders and representatives are capable of co-operating in a way that is of benefit to all. Any inefficiency would be outweighed by the benefits of greater understanding of the company’s operations and more co-ordinated decision making.

Members might have been pressed about the risk of confidential information being leaked. However, we are first looking to improve relations between employees and the board, so I am confident that employees would respect the additional responsibility. Evidence from other countries shows that they are rarely tempted to whistleblow; if they are tempted to do so, does it not suggest that the company is up to no good?

British businesses are wary of employee representation, but that is because we do not have a culture of it, and because it would be likely to reduce ridiculously high executive salaries. For example, the boss of Volkswagen in Germany, Martin Winterkorn, saw his bonus for 2012 cut by 20%. Most directors are comfortable with high pay, because they are detached from reality. What they need is people on their board who can bring them back down to earth. There has rightly been scandal after scandal about bonuses and million-pound salaries. The Labour party supports having employees on remuneration committees, but I think it would be much more effective if we put them on boards, right at the top.

I understand the difficulties of forcing the proposal on to companies, but I do not understand why we cannot encourage those with whom we do business to adopt the approach. We could ensure that, in a tendering process for public services, more weight was given to companies that had adopted this collaborative approach to their board system. For companies regulated by Ofgem, Ofcom or Ofwat, we could ensure that part of the regulation was a better deal for employees through employee representatives. I am convinced that there would be wide public support for a measure that ensured that profits were spent on the right things, rather than on shareholder dividends or executive salaries and bonuses.

We can change the culture of the corporate world little by little, and employee representatives could be a first step. It would be a good deal for business, a good deal for consumers and, most of all, a fair deal for employees.

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5.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate, which is a helpful opportunity to discuss employee representation on the boards of UK companies. There has been a recent report by the Trades Union Congress on the topic.

I agree with much, although perhaps not all, of what the hon. Gentleman says. I may have to disappoint him on some issues, but I agree with much of his sentiment and many of his points, particularly on the positive role that the trade unions can play in industrial relations. It is sometimes far too easy to demonise trade unions without remembering that we have historically low levels of industrial action. The hon. Gentleman is right that we always want to do what we can to reduce industrial action even further, but the vast majority of trade unions work constructively and positively with employers in the workplace. Thankfully, examples such as Grangemouth, where industrial relations are in a much less positive sphere, are the exception rather than the rule.

I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the downsides of pursuing short-term profit above all else, which the Government also recognise. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary commissioned the Kay review to consider the matter, because we agree that long-termism is in the interests of the UK economy and, indeed, individual companies, but sometimes the models that we have in place reward and incentivise the pursuit of short-term goals, rather than long-term goals.

I take seriously the concerns of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North on the abhorrent practice of blacklisting, evidence of which the Government are very open to receiving. Of course, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs recently held an inquiry into that practice.

The benefits of employee engagement within the workplace are significant and well proven, and we definitely want to encourage such engagement. I would make the case that the only way to do that is through worker representation on company boards. I think it would be desirable if more workers were represented on boards, and there is nothing in law stopping companies from having such representation.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the FTSE 100 company First Group, which of course has such representation on its board. He read out the company’s powerful testimonial on the consequent benefits to its operations, and many companies may want to consider such representation by looking at the experience of First Group. Ultimately, it is better if the decision is taken by companies, rather than being mandated across all firms, not least because choosing to do so probably means there is much more chance that a company will actually engage with the real issues and view the engagement positively than if it was forced to do so through Government intervention.

Mr Andrew Smith: Is there not an argument that the companies that are most reluctant might be the ones that need worker representation and could benefit from it the most?

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Jo Swinson: That argument is always made on a range of issues, but we are trying to change the culture. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North rightly referred to that towards the end of his remarks, and it could be done in a variety of ways. I argue that sometimes mandation and regulation are not necessarily as effective as other methods of encouraging businesses to recognise the benefits of particular forms of behaviour. Whether on employee engagement or diversity, we need to consider what is the right tool to get the result that we want.

Further, there are a number of reasons why mandating that companies must have worker representatives on their boards would not be desirable. Part of that is because of the way in which our board system is structured. Our board system is different from other European countries that have been mentioned. We have a unitary board system, which means that anyone sitting on a board or a board committee is a director with the same responsibilities and duties as other directors, and is equally accountable to shareholders for decisions.

There is no legal distinction between different types of director, whether or not they are representing employees. All directors have a legal duty to have regard to the interests of employees in promoting the success of the company, and we need to be slightly wary of the danger that, if we force an employee representative on to boards, it could have the perverse, unintended consequence that the other directors on a board might take less seriously their existing duty to have regard to the interests of employees. We want all directors on boards to be thinking about that, rather than having it siloed into one individual position.

Jim Sheridan: Does the Minister agree with the comments of the now infamous Mr Ratcliffe that the events at Grangemouth would never have happened in Germany simply because there would be workers on the board who could have flagged up the problems earlier?

Jo Swinson: I am not sure whether I will take up the tempting offer to agree with Mr Ratcliffe, but better discussion and dialogue between workers and management is always the best way to avoid disputes. The vast majority of cases, thankfully, do not get to the stage that Grangemouth did—there were horrendous consequences, the worst of which were thankfully averted. None the less, it was difficult even to get to where we did, which is a far from ideal situation.

We must encourage such dialogue. Obviously, one way to do that could be through worker representation on company boards, but I disagree that that is the only way in which that dialogue could happen. Indeed, I suggest that employers can do a great amount, even without such representation, to ensure that they properly engage with their work force, address issues as they arise and have mechanisms in place to pre-empt difficult challenges.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his experience at Thales, which is not far from my constituency and is still an appreciated employer. Many of my constituents work for Thales in Glasgow, but I do not know whether there is worker representation on the company’s board. Even if there is not, such representation is not necessarily what drives positive engagement. As hon. Members would agree, there are many companies out there that

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do not have worker representation on the board but that, none the less, manage to have very positive workplace relations, which is to be commended.

On directors, it is perfectly possible in UK law for a director to be responsible for ensuring that the views of employees are heard by the board, but having a director with a specific, legally defined responsibility for furthering employees’ interests may be unhelpful because it could risk directors pursuing competing interests, rather than coming together as a board to set common objectives for the company.

It would not be fair to portray the UK as having poor employee participation, and I have mentioned that many companies are good examples of such participation. Indeed, studies and research back that up. The latest report on employee involvement by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions shows that employee participation is high in the UK—across the EU, only the Scandinavian countries score higher. That backs up my point that formal legislative mechanisms are not the only means of achieving effective employee engagement.

Indeed, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently supported a business-led initiative called “Engage for Success,” which outlines the benefits of employee engagement and provides practical best practice that businesses, large and small, may employ to improve the engagement levels of their work forces. Only one in three employees feels properly engaged in the workplace, so there are huge productivity gains to be realised. If the figure could be increased even to two in three, the UK economy would experience a significant boost. I encourage hon. Members to look at the “Engage for Success” website.

Engagement with employees is to be encouraged and promoted, but I would not go as far as prescribing that all companies should have worker participation on their board, which is perhaps not workable and not the best way to achieve the goals that we share.

Other EU member states have different board structures and systems of corporate governance, so we need a solution that works for the UK and our particular system of corporate governance and industrial relations, rather than a one-size-fits-all policy. The approach in Sweden and Norway, for example, is based on far greater levels of detailed negotiation and collective bargaining between employers and employees at all levels of company decision making. It is therefore simplistic to assume that we could just apply one element of such a system to the UK system.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North is right to raise the issue of pay, because many hon. Members have been concerned about increased levels of executive pay in recent years. It has been excessive in many cases and the ratio between the earnings of those at the top versus those on the shop floor is also concerning. Directors’ pay in particular has ratcheted upwards, but, importantly, it has not been linked to performance. In a sense, there is nothing wrong with somebody being rewarded for a specific success, such as growing a company, providing new jobs or creating wealth for the economy, but where that reward is given when the company has not necessarily been experiencing particularly fantastic results, that needs to be questioned. Excessive pay for failure or for not bringing significant success damages the long-term interests of business.

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We brought forward reforms, which came into force on 1 October, to create a more robust framework for the setting and reporting of directors’ pay. They will boost transparency, so that people can clearly and easily understand what those at the top of companies are paid. Importantly, the reforms will empower shareholders to hold companies to account through binding votes, creating a stronger, clearer link between pay and performance. We have already seen shareholders flexing their muscles in a much more welcome way on issues such as executive pay. It will take some time to see the full impact of the reforms, due to the voting and engagement patterns of investors, but there are already good examples of constructive dialogue between companies and investors.

More widely, the Government is committed to tackling short-termism through the recommendations of the Kay review. Earlier this month, the Government’s response to the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills set out the progress made on this important agenda. Of particular help are our reforms, now in place, of narrative reporting and the governance of executive pay. We have also secured changes to EU law to end mandatory quarterly reporting by companies and will soon implement that reform in the UK.

The Financial Reporting Council updated the stewardship code last autumn to emphasise that investors should be focused on long-term company strategy and not just on governance arrangements, but more may need to be done. The FRC is undertaking a further review of the stewardship code with a view to strengthening its application and ensuring that it enhances engagement between investors and companies focused on long-term value creation. We have seen various initiatives from investment industry groups to develop good practice on stewardship, which we hope will continue, and on the disclosure of costs and charges in the investment chain. We have committed to publish next summer a full progress report on the delivery of the Kay review’s recommendations.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned women on boards, and I agree that it is an important issue. Having more women on boards is important not only from the point of view of women

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or equality, but also in the same way that having more diversity of ethnicity, background and discipline is important.

One would not want a board comprised solely of accountants, lawyers, men or people who happen to be white. People bringing a diversity of views and experiences to a board can stop group think and make it a much stronger group that can really drive a company forward. Worker representation can lead to such diversity, but we should not necessarily mandate it. We want a mix of talents and experiences on boards to encourage higher performance. We are making good progress on gender diversity through the proposals put forward by Lord Davies in his excellent review.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Government’s work on encouraging employee ownership, which is another way of encouraging employee participation in business. Last week, I launched the “The Nuttall review of employee ownership: one year on report”, which follows up on the recommendations of the Nuttall review. Many businesses are discovering that employee ownership can be an excellent model of governance that works incredibly well and that encourages an engaged and motivated work force.

The success stories include not only John Lewis, although it is obviously a great example, particularly given its increased sales at the moment, which can partly be put down to the rather fantastic bear and hare advert, but also Arup and the Baxi partnership—now Baxendale Ownership. A whole host of small companies up and down the country are showing the benefits of this particular model. It is perhaps not right for every business, but it is an important part of the mix, which is why we are supporting it further through tax breaks that we will announce more on shortly.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we could promote employee representation through Government procurement or regulation, and we are open to further thinking about how to encourage that. Last month, the Government asked Professor Chris Ham of the King’s Fund to conduct a wide-ranging review of how best to encourage wider employee participation in health.

5.26 pm

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