“To me, this was just business.”

Such stories are truly shocking, and the figures are mindboggling. If we do not take action soon, wild species and their communities face irreversible damage. Once they are gone, we will never get those species back.

It is encouraging that the level of commitment to this issue by Governments, enforcement bodies and NGOs has increased hugely over the past 10 years, and I commend the UK Border Force for its work on the seizure of illegal ivory, particularly last year when 80.7 kg of illegal ivory was seized at British airports. The UK Government are truly leading the way in tackling international wildlife crime, and we should be proud of that. The report released today by the Government entitled “The UK commitment to action on the illegal wildlife trade”, and the upcoming summit, are a testament to the Government’s commitment.

I hope that the conference acts as a monitor of current progress on the implementation of commitments, and ensures that sufficient action is taken to improve enforcement, reduce demand for illegal products, and support sustainable economic development. To ensure that, however, we must invest for the long term and I encourage the Government to do even more. They have already pledged £10 million to end illegal wildlife trading, but I hope they are prepared to do even more.

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I was happy to see today that the Government have announced continued support and funding for the work of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, as well as a commitment to fund the national wildlife crime unit until 2016—splendid news. However, it is important to guarantee long-term sustainable funding for the NWCU, to ensure real stability and certainty post-2016. Will the Minister comment on that?

To be more effective in tackling international wildlife crime, collaboration is vital within and between Governments, as it is with NGOs and enforcement bodies. Because so many related issues are involved with international wildlife crime, many different Departments are required to collaborate The establishment of a cross-departmental taskforce on wildlife trafficking is very much a step in the right direction. I hope that the group encourages and co-ordinates activities to tackle the issue both nationally and internationally, leading to an eventual cross-governmental action plan for which it would then be held accountable.

On prosecution, it is important that illicit wildlife trafficking is treated with the same level of consideration as other transnational crimes, and that targets are set. I hope that the Ministry of Justice and the Crown Prosecution Service can commit to that. Will the Minister assure the House that tough maximum penalties are available to tackle wildlife crime? For prosecutions for such crimes to be conducted more effectively, the judiciary must be strengthened through greater awareness. Therefore, the Sentencing Council should introduce sentencing guidelines for the judiciary on wildlife crime, and the Magistrates’ Association, which is very important on this issue, should implement training for magistrates.

Joan Walley: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many of the recommendations in the Environmental Audit Committee’s report touch on the points he is making and, if implemented, could take us even further down the road? There are recommendations that the Government still have not taken on board, and they still need to be taken on board.

Mr Amess: I absolutely acknowledge the work of the hon. Lady’s Committee and I am aware of the point she makes. I am sure my right hon. Friend has heard what she has said.

The review and update of the control of trade in endangered species regulations announced today is a positive step and has been a long time coming. However, from the document the time scale is not clear, so I wonder whether my right hon. Friend might say something on that.

In conclusion, it is clear that we are starting to make some progress in tackling international wildlife crime, and we have come a long way since the ten-minute rule Bill I tried to introduce 12 years ago. However, there is still more that we can do and we need to ensure long-term funding, and tough and effective prosecution. We need to continue to adopt an ever-greater collaborative and joined-up approach to tackle this issue. This conference provides a wonderful opportunity to do so.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before I call the Front Benchers to respond I feel that Members are entitled to an explanation. We have reached

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the winding-up speeches a little faster than I had anticipated because some Members indicated that they wanted to speak and then left the Chamber. That just shows the difficulty of the Chair trying to be fair to everybody. I am sure that both Front Benchers will be generous with interventions, should further points need to be made.

4.26 pm

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this very important and timely debate. I also congratulate the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), on all the work that she and her Committee have done. I am mindful of the warning from the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) about ex-Ministers and their briefs, so I will try to confine my remarks in that respect.

We have heard some excellent speeches on how wildlife crime is a threat to important species and habitats both in the UK and around the world. The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into wildlife crime, published in September 2012, welcomed the significant progress made since its predecessor Committee’s recommendations in 2004. It also made key recommendations on the steps that must be taken if the UK Government’s international leadership on wildlife crime is to be maintained and extended.

Unfortunately, I do not think we have seen enough progress in responding to that very clear and coherent set of recommendations. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, the Chair of the Committee, is on record as having described the Government’s response as “a missed opportunity'” that showed

“the Government have not considered the matter in the cross-cutting way that is now needed given the urgent threat to endangered species.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 148WH.]

At this point, I must welcome the Minister for Government Policy. He is from the Cabinet Office, which shows some of that cross-cutting responsibility. By my reckoning, however, eight of the 11 recommendations made by the Committee on enforcement have still not been accepted.

Joan Walley: I can see a reaction among those on the Government Benches, but the important point is that the Committee’s inquiry showed that this is a cross-cutting issue. We cannot just have a response from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Home Office: there needs to be a joined-up response. When we made the application to the Backbench Business Committee, we requested that a member of the Cabinet be here to ensure an all-inclusive, coherent approach from the Government, and I welcome the fact that the Minister is here today.

Barry Gardiner: I hope the debate provides the spur to action that is needed. I hope that in his closing speech the Minister will set out in more detail what further action the Government intend to take to address specifically the recommendations in the EAC’s report, and to ensure that the UK is playing its full part in the fight against international wildlife crime.

The task ahead of us remains significant. In the past two years alone, more than 1,600 rhinos have been slaughtered by poachers, according to reports from the

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Wildlife Conservation Society, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and other organisations. Moreover, about 1,000 park rangers have died in the past decade defending these animals, and I pay tribute to the

Daily Mirror’s

campaign this week highlighting the sacrifices of rangers and their families.

Illegal wildlife trade continues to generate an estimated $20 billion each year for the criminal gangs and terrorist groups who perpetrate this evil, and that does not even include the products of the illegal timber trade or illegal fishing. Those figures should give a sense of urgency and timeliness, not just to this debate but to the Government’s response. I am proud that the previous Government made important progress in helping to shape the international effort to tackle wildlife crime. As a Minister, I had the privilege of releasing two white rhinos back into the wild in Kruger national park in 2006. It was a wonderful, if—I confess—a slightly scary moment. Close up, they are enormous.

The following year, I represented the UK at CITES CoP—conference of parties—14, in The Hague, where we resolved to strengthen national legislation and penalties to deter illegal wildlife trade; to strengthen public understanding of the benefits of sustainable international trade and of the negative impacts of illegal wildlife trade; and to increase the provision of financial resources for the operation and implementation of CITES. CITES trade regulations now apply to about 35,000 species, about 3% of which are prohibited, which is significant progress, but the fact remains that many species traded internationally play an important role in the provision of ecosystems services and in supporting local livelihoods, so ensuring that the use of, and trade in, these species is legal and sustainable has many and much wider benefits for the local communities and countries of which they are such icons.

I am proud that, alongside our international work, the previous Government set up the national wildlife crime unit in 2006, which is now responsible for assisting with the enforcement of wildlife law and the prevention of wildlife crimes. It is important to understand that its work does not stop at the UK’s borders, and that it has a vital role in reducing the demand for the products of wildlife crime and in targeting UK citizens involved in the international trade.

Despite these steps forward, however, as the Environmental Audit Committee has said, there is a risk that further progress will not be made without clear action from the Government. It is vital that there be no let up in our efforts. Wildlife crime in Africa poses a clear threat, not just to internationally important species but to the whole security of the region. Some of the comments from hon. Members about al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and others reinforced that point. The UK must, therefore, continue to meet its obligations to clamp down on the trade in the products of wildlife crime, including elephant ivory and rhino horn. Poaching remains a serious problem in Africa. It has strong links to drug and human trafficking and terrorism, as hon. Members have said.

The London conference on illegal wildlife trade, hosted by the Prince of Wales, is, as everyone has acknowledged, a tremendous opportunity to gather together international experts to work together on this issue. I echo the remarks by the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee about how fortunate we are to have, in the Prince of Wales, someone showing the leadership that he continually

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does on these issues. The conference is a perfect opportunity for some key pledges to be made. It is time to build on the UK’s strong international reputation, achieved—I hope the Minister will agree—thanks to the diplomatic efforts of previous Governments.

My experience of the international negotiations on wildlife crime is that the countries with the credibility required to improve global law enforcement and to reduce global demand are those that walk the walk. It is the job of the Minister for Government Policy to ensure that our commitment to tackling international wildlife crime continues to have real substance. The substance will not come simply from hosting conferences, important as the London conference clearly is; it will come from delivering. I hope that the Minister will answer some specific questions about how that delivery will be achieved.

The Government’s decision to make the need to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products one of the main goals of the conference is very welcome. Will the Minister tell us what the Government aim to achieve in terms of the strengthening of CITES trade regulations? As has already been said today, the Government’s response to these challenges requires a co-ordinated approach across Whitehall. Does the Minister accept the Environmental Audit Committee’s finding that the Government are failing to work effectively because Departments are not co-operating? Can he describe the conversations that he has had with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Home Office and the Foreign Office about improving the Government’s co-ordinated, joined-up response? What, specifically, does he intend to do to ensure better, outcome-focused joint work between DEFRA, the MOD, the Foreign Office and Home Office to ensure that that improvement takes place?

Richard Benyon: Does the hon. Gentleman, like me, welcome the fact that there is now a Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Foreign Secretary, which draws together DEFRA, the Department for International Development, and other Departments to deal with precisely the issue that he has identified? That has been a real game-changer in helping to develop the different approach of which I spoke earlier.

Barry Gardiner: I do welcome that. It is vital that such sharing take place across Departments, but it must be focused on action and enforcement. That is why I mentioned the Select Committee’s 11 recommendations, only eight of which, I believe, have been accepted by the Government. There is more work to be done. I accept that cross-cutting work is now beginning to take place, but it must focus on action.

The challenge of international wildlife crime also requires a co-ordinated response across the European Union. Does the Minister recognise that, whatever we are dealing with—from illegal fishing off the coast of Africa to the effect of new consumer demand for illegal rhino poaching—the UK will have the greatest effect when it works as part of a European community through initiatives such as CITES?

The Select Committee has made a strong case for bringing together existing disparate pieces of law governing the protection of wildlife. What progress does the Government expect to make, before the election next year, on the Law Commission’s review of wildlife law?

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Zac Goldsmith: The hon. Gentleman has just mentioned illegal fishing in Africa. Does he acknowledge that, just as there are undeniable links between the ivory trade and terrorism, there are clear links between overfishing by illegal vessels in African coastal waters and the rise of piracy and terrorism? The rise of piracy in Somalia is linked almost exactly with the collapse of the country’s fish stocks, and the same now seems to be happening in Senegal, where 50,000 fishermen have warned their Government that if foreign vessels continue to deplete their oceans, they will adapt as the Somali fishermen have adapted, and become pirates. It is a security issue as well.

Barry Gardiner: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I enjoyed his collection of all that information, and his presentation of it to the House. He is absolutely right: when we look at Somalian piracy, we see that the conflicts in the horn of Africa have been driven constantly by environmental degradation. If only a fraction of the money spent by our Navy, and the navies of the world, on policing vessels that pass through the straits there—the costs of increased insurance for ships, for instance—were invested in resolving the environmental problems, we should be in a much better position.

Richard Benyon: May I ask whether the hon. Gentleman also welcomes one of the steps taken at last year’s CITES meeting? A number of maritime species were listed for the first time, including several shark species, in particular the hammerhead shark. I hope that that process will continue at future CITES meetings.

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman speaks with great knowledge of and authority on these matters. He has thrown his own cautionary tale to the winds by continuing to intervene, but he is very welcome to do so. He has made a very good point, and I absolutely agree with him. I know that if my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the shadow Foreign Office Minister, were here now, she would have made some comments about that. She was speaking to me only last night about how the practice of illegal shark-finning needs to be addressed. I wholeheartedly endorse what the hon. Member for Newbury has said.

The Environmental Audit Committee has made a strong case for bringing together existing disparate pieces of law governing the protection of wildlife. What progress do the Government expect to make on the Law Commission review of wildlife law before the election? What is the Government’s view of the specific recommendations in the Law Commission’s interim statement on wildlife crime? There are specific issues involved, including the updating of species listing and the substitution of “deliberate” for “intentionally”. The Law Commission intends to produce draft legislation alongside its final report this summer. Will the Government enable pre-legislative scrutiny of that draft legislation? It would be really helpful if the Minister could answer those questions this afternoon.

There are real concerns that the national wildlife crime unit, set up by the last Government, has been undermined by decisions taken by Ministers. The Environmental Audit Committee specifically warned that the lack of a long-term funding agreement was making it hard for the unit to recruit, retain and develop the specialist staff required to detect and prevent wildlife

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crime. The Minister should be aware of the claims that the unit has found it difficult to appoint a wildlife crime internet researcher precisely for that reason.

I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), in his place on the Front Bench today. In a Westminster Hall debate in October last year, he agreed that the Government needed to

“reach a decision on the future of the unit as soon as possible.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 145WH.]

I welcome the fact that the Government managed to reach a decision before this debate. I also welcome the fact that they managed to publish the decision before the debate, albeit at 5.30 yesterday evening. Given the Government’s record, a gap of five months between a Minister calling for a decision and a decision being published might be the best we can expect. The decision is welcome, none the less.

This shows the value of Back-Bench debates and the power that the Backbench Business Committee has to get the Government to address an issue. I see the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), who sits on that Committee, nodding in agreement. Without the deadline of this debate—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Is the hon. Gentleman about to conclude his remarks? At this rate, we will not hear the Minister.

Barry Gardiner: I am concluding my remarks, Madam Deputy Speaker. You had indicated that the time available had expanded—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I was not indicating that the hon. Gentleman’s time had expanded. I was explaining to Back Benchers, in this Back-Bench debate, that they might have had a little more time if some of their colleagues were courteous and said that they were not going to participate in the debate. The time constraints might then have been different. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could conclude so that we can hear the Minister.

Barry Gardiner: I will indeed. I was simply about to afford the hon. Member for Southend West the opportunity to intervene, as you had suggested.

This important debate follows an excellent report by the Environmental Audit Committee. The Government’s formal response to that report did not provide clear answers to the issues raised, but I hope that the Minister for Government Policy will do that today, as well as answering the clear questions I have asked and addressing the many excellent points made in contributions from both sides of the House during the debate. I again congratulate the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs on initiating the debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

4.43 pm

The Minister for Government Policy (Mr Oliver Letwin): It is a pleasure to participate in a debate in which there is considerable consensus. I am enormously grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), my hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and

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South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) and my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) and for Southend West (Mr Amess) for illustrating extraordinarily well the issues before us. In every case, they did so with personal commitment and passion, and also with some charm. It is notable that so many Members wished to participate in a debate of this kind.

I also very much welcome the contribution of the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley). She and others pointed out that is was an auspicious day on which to hold this debate, given that it is the day on which France has joined China and the United States—in anticipation, we think, of Hong Kong—in destroying stocks. We should be very glad that is happening, but we still face considerable danger. Many points were illustrated beautifully in the speeches made, but one did not emerge and everyone in the Chamber is conscious of it: the appendix II countries are prohibited from further sale only up to 2017 and, as we saw from the one-off sale in 2008, that presents a significant risk. I understand that there are some 300,000 elephants in appendix II countries, so this is a serious issue.

Everyone who spoke in the debate is aware, as I suspect are many hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, of the extent of the impoverishment of our world that occurs as biodiversity reduces. We are not just talking about some striking animals; we are in serious peril of major extinctions. Rhino extinctions may happen very soon, but even elephant extinctions may not be too far off if we do not act properly. So it is right that the Government, the European Union and the world should take action, and those are the three levels at which we are trying to act.

As for cross-government participation in trying to solve this problem, an issue that has come up repeatedly, the first point to make is that this Government have, for the first time, established the right kind of machinery, with the inter-ministerial group, to which attention has been drawn. This is not just any old ministerial group; it is chaired by the Foreign Secretary, and relevant Secretaries of State serve on it. We are systematically going through all the issues that emerge, and it is out of that group that the idea of the international conference was carried forward by the Government. Many hon. Members have rightly paid tribute to His Royal Highness and to the royal family as a whole. They are, of course, an inspiration on this, but it is through the inter-ministerial group that the Government have taken the idea in hand and organised what will be a major conference.

It is also through that group that we are monitoring the activity of government in the domestic sphere. I will deal with that first and then return to the issue of the international conference towards the end of my remarks. The great bulk of the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations have already been responded to positively. That is the case, above all, on the funding for the unit in the Home Office and, indeed, the recreation of an internet monitoring post within that unit. I take the point made by several of my hon. Friends, the Chairman of the Committee and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), that the unit needs to be a permanent feature of the scene. I am personally committed to that view, although I cannot commit the next Chancellor of the Exchequer to it. I do not know who that is going to be, although I very much hope it will be the current one, but I cannot commit

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whoever that is to what happens post-2016, nor can anybody else in this House yet. However, I can certainly say that wherever I am sitting in this House and whatever I am doing at that time, I shall be arguing for a continuation of that unit. I rather suspect, having listened to the remarks made by hon. Members from across the House, that that is a matter of some consensus, so I guess that whoever is in the next Government will continue that unit, and I certainly think they need to do so.

A great many questions have been asked about the consolidation of the various laws. That comes in two parts, the first of which is the Law Commission activity. That is the easy bit, for us here at least, because the Law Commission is in charge of that, not the Government. As everybody in the House will be aware, the Law Commission intends to complete its work by the summer, and it would be an impertinence for me to say anything further than that that is what we have been told. I can certainly give the Opposition spokesman the undertaking that once it has produced its recommendations, we will seek to find a means of those being subject to proper pre-legislative scrutiny. That is a sensible thing to do with a Law Commission product.

The second part falls to us, as the Government, to conduct, and I refer to the consolidation of regulations. The Select Committee rightly drew a good deal of attention to that, and it is part of the red tape challenge. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and I were both involved in the debate on the Deregulation Bill just a few days ago. I have spent a good many hours of my life in the last few years pursuing the red tape challenge, and one part of that is the consolidation of these regulations. We intend to pursue that. I am applying some gentle pressure on my colleagues in DEFRA to proceed with that at pace and I hope that we will be able to issue a consultation paper in the spring. I fully intend that we should complete the process by Christmas. I can therefore give the undertaking that the Opposition spokesman seeks—that we will seek to complete the process by the end of this Parliament.

It is also strikingly important that we continue to work on these issues of domestic enforcement and regulation across all Departments. As my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have said, every Department of state has to participate in that effort in different ways. The point of the inter-ministerial group is to ensure that happens.

I turn now to the international conference, the international leadership that this country is demonstrating and the question of what we hope to achieve. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park, in a characteristically charming and vivid presentation, rightly said—echoed by others—that we should not assume that a conference is enough. Of course it is not, and nor would a series of conferences be, although incidentally I hope that the conference will become an institution and happen year after year, in parallel with the CITES conferences of parties. Nevertheless, the conference can, if we are both lucky and active, become a major watershed. We can achieve things by ending the conference with some clear statements of ambition and intention on the part of the very wide set of countries attending. It is not a conference of a few countries—many are coming and at very senior levels.

What are we seeking to achieve? As several hon. Members have said, there are three parts to this and I shall dwell briefly on each. The first is better enforcement,

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which has to be done on a global scale. We are contributing significantly to what I might call the war effort. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet described the extraordinary courage of some of the people involved in enforcement. It is not an easy thing to do—I think someone mentioned that around 1,000 law enforcement officers in this area have been killed. It is not a pleasant kind of policing. It requires money, political will and activity on the ground. We very much hope that the conference will bring together all those elements and take us forward into a better, more permanent enforcement, which should also include the permanency of limitations or bans on trade. That is what we want to see.

To make that work, the two other elements have to be in place. I was gratified that I was unable to discern any disagreement between hon. Members on either side on this point. We have simultaneously to achieve some significant and lasting reduction on the pull side—demand—and a serious-minded, sustainable alternative for indigenous populations that rely at present on this trade, in one way or another, for a large part of their income, with all the ghastly consequences that have been so well sketched by many hon. Members today.

The question of demand reduction is extraordinarily sensitive, especially for us, because it is not in the UK that the demand exists. It is not for us to lecture other countries about how to conduct their affairs, as that would not be right or productive, but we do have to show some leadership. We hope to work with other countries that are demonstrating increasing concern in this field and come up with solutions acceptable to countries where the demands are greatest and that therefore can be sustainable. I certainly do not want to prejudge how that will look—we are not in a position to do so—and I am sure that this conference will not be the end, but will be the beginning of a process that leads us there. I am very hopeful that over the course of the next few years we will get to the point where, by one means or another, demand reduction is baked into the future.

That brings us to the most difficult and most important thing of all: the provision of sustainable alternatives. Many years ago my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park and I found ourselves in Brazil talking about the Amazon with the amazing Mr Unger, then Minister for the Amazon, who I think rejoices in being the only Minister for the Amazon who was also a leading Harvard political theorist—and, I may say, a leading Harvard political theorist who would be a delight to the father of the current Leader of the Opposition and who disagrees with me on just about every aspect of political philosophy I have ever come across. Nevertheless, the Brazilians were serious in this pursuit and my hon. Friend and I were there to work with them on that question, and to understand better what they were up to. The point Mr Unger made repeatedly and very effectively to us was that it is all very well telling the population in the Amazon that they cannot cut down so many trees, but the truth is that that is how they feed themselves and unless we offer an alternative route to their feeding themselves and leading a halfway decent life, we cannot expect them to stop. The same is true in other contexts.

There are two routes to the achievement of what we seek. One is the route of trying to find alternatives—other

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forms of activity which have nothing to do with animals. The second, which was beautifully illustrated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, is to find a way of placing a value on the living animals and offering an economic prospect for those who help the living animals to live rather than causing them to die. We need to go through both those routes and we need to try to forge an international consensus about how to carry those goals forward, which also will involve money, which is why I so welcome the fact that this Government have upped the ante by giving a total of, I think, £18 million in this domain. It is part of the Darwin initiative, and because of our immense commitment through a very large and growing DFID budget we can participate and show leadership in raising money around the world to deal with this issue.

The elements are all in place, therefore, and the last comment I want to make is that it seems to me that we have an extraordinary opportunity as a country. We are leading the charge in having this conference. We are a country that has had a long tradition of involvement in this area. We have the greatest stars globally that we can offer, namely the royal family, up front. We have a clear vision of what we are trying to achieve and we have budgets that can support the activity as well as a co-ordinated approach from Government. It would therefore be a terrible shame if we were not over the next two, three, four or five years to make use of all of that and build on it to lead the world in solving a problem that if it is not solved will very much diminish our globe.

4.58 pm

Nick Herbert: We have had a good debate, albeit a relatively short one, and although floods and the future of the United Kingdom are, of course, pressing issues that command a great deal of concern, so too is this one. That is evidenced by the fact that there were many excellent contributions from concerned Members of this House. I think all of us have recognised that this is not just a matter of animal welfare or concern for species conservation, but that it is also a matter that spills over into other areas—international development, protection of the livelihoods of the poorest in the world and security. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, for co-sponsoring it. I thank the seven Members on my side of the House who took part, evidencing continuing Conservative concern for environmental matters. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy for coming to this House and responding to the debate, thereby demonstrating the fact that the Government take this very seriously and the cross-cutting nature of the response that is necessary. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who has been present throughout, demonstrating DEFRA’s concern.

Perhaps hon. Members should reflect that there may be an opportunity to take our collective concern on this issue forward, possibly even by creating an all-party group to pursue it.

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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Mrs M. Barnes (NHS Treatment)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Foster.)

5 pm

Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to raise this subject in today’s Adjournment debate. I understand that he makes the decision on a Thursday afternoon.

I wish to discuss the treatment of a constituent of mine, Mrs Monica Barnes, who lives in the village of South Anston. I have been dealing with her over many years now, regarding different aspects of her health care, but my reason for wanting to speak today has to do with what has been recorded on her patient records at the Kiveton Park medical centre and the effect it may have had on her clinical treatment.

Mrs Barnes wrote to me on 5 July 2002. She said:

“Whenever I have attempted to obtain treatment some reference to litigation past or present has shown itself in my medical records and/or in letters of referral from the GP. This clearly shows there to be discrimination in my case. This time reference is made in the Patients Summary to the court case. See copy sent to me in very small print, enclosed.”

I have indeed got the patient’s summary. It is dated 18 January 2001. On the bottom, it says “await judges ruling”. My constituent contacted the Information Commissioner, and a letter was sent to the practice manager on 5 September 2002. It contained the patient’s summary and the court case entry. It said:

“In order for me to assess the practice’s compliance with the First Principle, I would be grateful if you could confirm whether individuals are made aware that personal data about them may be disclosed to other health professionals in the course of their care and treatment and the extent of such disclosures. In particular, could you please confirm whether such data as were disclosed in Mrs Barnes’ case are disclosed to other health professionals as a matter of routine, which of the conditions in the Schedules the practice is relying upon in order to make any such disclosure and whether individuals are made aware of the disclosure. Given that Mrs Barnes did not expect this, I would also welcome confirmation of these issues with regard to her case. If there is no legitimate basis for holding and disclosing the data in question when Mrs Barnes did not expect such processing, it is likely to be in contravention of the requirements of the First Principle.”

Mrs Barnes received a reply from the Information Commissioner on 6 March 2003. I have to say that the Information Commissioner had to write to the practice on 16 December to remind it of the letter it had been sent on 5 September 2002 about what was held on Mrs Barnes’s record.

Mrs Barnes received a reply from the Information Commissioner. It said:

“I understand that having considered its relevance to your patient summary records, the practice has removed the entry which states “court case”. (I have requested that the practice ensures that this does not appear elsewhere in your medical records).”

That was dated 6 March 2003. Presumably, my constituent would have been quite happy with such a positive reply. The letter went on to say:

“Consequently, on the balance of probabilities it does seem that the data in question is not relevant and is excessive for medical purposes. It is also our view that on the balance of probability it does seem that it was not necessary for the practice to disclose the details without your consent, when you did not expect this.”

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That is a pretty firm statement that the Information Commissioner felt that it was wrong for the records to have been kept in such a way.

In the autumn of 2010, Mrs Barnes decided to join another practice in central Rotherham that had been built in the walk-in centre that had been opened. Her medical records were requested by the South Riding Health Services Support Agency, an organisation that I had never heard of in my 20-odd years as an MP, and they were sent on 3 November before being sent on to the new practice in Rotherham town centre. When Mrs Barnes visited her new doctor in November 2010, the practice had her medical records but on her next attendance her new GP said that he did not have them. Mrs Barnes told me that she was prompted to investigate their whereabouts.

In 2011, Mrs Barnes asked me to write to the chief executive of NHS Rotherham, who wrote back to me on 11 March saying that he had had the case investigated by his complaints officer who confirmed that the notes were sent on 3 November. The chief executive went on to say:

“However, I am informed that shortly after forwarding the medical records…the…practice received a letter from the Information Commissioners office advising them that the amendments were to be made to Mrs Barnes’…records. In order to comply with the Commissioners advice, the notes had to be retrieved from Mrs Barnes’ current GP via the SRHSSA. Whilst it is acknowledged that the Kiveton Park practice had Mrs Barnes’s medical records for several weeks, it is important to note that implementing the Commissioner’s advice was onerous.”

The chief executive wrote to me on the basis that the submission from the Information Commissioner had come in around November 2010, when my constituent was moving to another GP’s practice.

I then received a letter from NHS Rotherham on 1 June 2011, which accepted that the Information Commissioner’s advice was given in 2003 and not more recently, as mentioned in the chief executive’s letter. That was the reason for the retrieval of the records from her new GP, as it was felt “prudent” that the medical records should be reviewed for absolute accuracy. The two doctors concerned verified that the removal of information as advised by the Information Commissioner had been carried out.

Mrs Barnes referred her case to the ombudsman. She wrote to me in October 2011 setting out a number of instances in which she believed discrimination might have taken place and said in that letter:

“When I assessed my medical records at the Sheffield Northern Hospital in June 2011, I discovered that reference to court case etc, was still to be found in my patient summary.”

It seems clear to me that the advice of the Information Commissioner given in 2003 was not adhered to. The instruction was to remove that reference from her medical records in the practice and anywhere else it might appear.

I got involved with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman on Mrs Barnes’ behalf and corresponded with the office in December 2012. The ombudsman had earlier refused to investigate the case until the medical practice had the opportunity potentially to offer Mrs Barnes some compensation. That did not materialise, for whatever reason. My understanding was that the insurers might have wanted to consider the case and decide whether to take any action. In a letter to me

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in December 2012, the ombudsman asked Mrs Barnes for further clarification in three areas. The first was whether she had considered taking a legal remedy and why she might not have chosen to do so. The second was the level of compensation she hoped to recover. The letter said:

“The Ombudsman does not operate a tariff system and we are very much guided by what people hope to achieve. The levels of financial redress we may be able to recommend are modest when compared to sums that could be recovered by legal action and it is helpful for us to know whether we would be likely to meet the financial outcomes a complainant has expressed. This helps to ensure that they can be quickly directed to the most appropriate route to consider their concerns and helps to avoid complainants being dissatisfied at the outcomes we may be able to offer.”

The third point related to how Mrs Barnes felt that she had suffered damage as a result of the practice’s failings.

Mrs Barnes came back to me on this matter and we discussed in some detail how she should respond. In March 2013, I wrote to the assessor at the health service ombudsman saying that Mrs Barnes and I continued to be unhappy with the handling of her case. I reminded them that a letter I had received from them on 28 March 2012 stated that

“the Ombudsman will not normally consider a complaint unless the NHS organisation concerned has had a reasonable opportunity to resolve the complaint”.

I then went on to say that in relation to their letter dated 11 December, Mrs Barnes did not wish to go down the legal route because of the potentially high costs involved.

In relation to the ombudsman’s comment about the compensation that Mrs Barnes would wish to recover, as I have already pointed out, I said that

“she cannot risk going down the legal route because of the cost. Consequently, she feels the only route she has open to her is to go through the Ombudsman”.

I then said that I would appreciate it if they could be more specific about what level of financial redress they may be able to recommend if they were to settle the case for her. They told me that they had no tariff, which I quite understand.

On the third point, I reiterated that Mrs Barnes had previously provided them with information on how she felt about the damage suffered as a result of the practice’s failings. It was not just the one incident; there were many other incidents in the letter that I received from Mrs Barnes at the time.

Further correspondence took place between Mrs Barnes and the ombudsman, and in a letter to them, no doubt in her frustration, she said:

“I refuse to involve clinical negligence solicitors due to my having taken legal action against a particular hospital in the past with no outcome.”

Hence, presumably, the reference on her patient record. She went on to say:

“The only people who seem to benefit from litigation are the solicitors themselves. I refuse to further fill their pockets and barristers’ pockets with taxpayers’ money.”

That quote was used in a letter sent to me dated 18 June from the ombudsman’s office. Also in that letter it was stated:

“Mr and Mrs Barnes complaint correspondence referred to a number of other interactions with NHS Care that did not involve the practice since around 1990 and were not part of our considerations”.

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That is an important point, and I agree with it. This complaint was about the issue of what was on Mrs Barnes’s medical record and how it may have been used by others if they had seen what was on that.

After further correspondence, I received a letter from the director at the ombudsman’s office in August 2013 after a review had taken place of the action/inaction of the ombudsman’s decision not to progress the complaint. That letter stated that when I wrote to the ombudsman on 24 June 2013 I had said that Mrs Barnes was unhappy with the decision because she did not have the money to take the case to court. It was said that Mrs Barnes had previously told the ombudsman that she was not prepared to put money into the pockets of solicitors and barristers, but not, so far as I can see, that she could not afford to take legal action.

The letter continued:

“However, while a person’s ability to pay legal costs is relevant in cases such as this, it cannot be the sole factor. Mrs Barnes is seeking damages for personal injury that she says she has sustained at the hands of a number of clinicians over more than 20 years and her claim arises from an action for which the law provides a specific remedy. In the circumstances we agree with our original decision that the matter is properly for the courts and is not one we should investigate.”

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): This is a very complicated case and I just want to be sure that I understand exactly what the ombudsman is recommending. My understanding is that the ombudsman is recommending that a lady who has had a lot of trouble because she once previously went down the legal route should, instead of pursuing a complaint about that with the ombudsman, go down the legal route all over again. Have I got that right, or am I missing something?

Kevin Barron: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. What gets me about the last two letters more than anything else is the fact that they are completely contradictory. The first states:

“Mr and Mrs Barnes’ complaint correspondence referred to a number of other interactions with NHS care that did not involve the Practice since around 1990 and were not part of our considerations”.

The last letter basically states, “No, we aren’t going to pursue any action at all. We’re not going to look at it.” It then states—I am sorry to repeat this, but I think that it is important—that

“Mrs Barnes is seeking damages for personal injury that she says she has sustained at the hands of a number of clinicians for more than 20 years”.

They are completely contradictory.

It seems to me that the parliamentary ombudsman, which is also taxpayer funded, has not only made contradictory statements, but handled Mrs Barnes’ case in a negative way. As we discussed when she and her husband visited my office, which they did on several occasions, this was not about what had or had not happened to her with the medical professional over the years; it was about what had been held on her personal records. In 2003 the Information Commissioner said that that was wrongly done and suggested it should be removed. We then found out that in 2010 the records were scooped back in again when they moved to another practice. I can only assume that the chief executive of NHS Rotherham did not know about the Information Commissioner’s decision at the time, because the second letter I received from the chief executive stated that it

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was more recent than he had been led to believe and that the records had been brought back from the new practice because they had just received information from the Information Commissioner that they had to change them.

I am deeply concerned about the situation. My constituent has effectively been railroaded into a situation she does not want to be in, and that she should not have to be in. Indeed, the British taxpayer has been railroaded into a situation that I do not think it should be in. My constituent said, not with my blessing—I give it my blessing now, though—that far too many people are forced into litigation in this country, at taxpayers’ expense, rather than following common sense by sitting down, looking at the problem and deciding what should be done sensibly, not feeding the law courts.

I have to tell the Minister that I am deeply disappointed that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman—I know that it is not directly a part of Government—can be run in that way and make those contradictory decisions. It seems to me that its decision is this: “We don’t have to do anything, so we’ll force her back to litigation if she does not want to go. That’s the end of the matter.” That cannot be correct, and I would like to know whether the Minister agrees.

5.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr Daniel Poulter): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) on securing the debate and commend him for all the work he has done on behalf of his constituent, and for the work he did in the previous Parliament, before I was a Member, as Chair of the Health Committee. I know that he has a long and distinguished record of fighting on health issues in the House, for his constituents and more generally. I also congratulate him on his recent knighthood. I am sure that the House will echo those congratulations.

We can all agree that good-quality patient care is expected, regardless of which part of the country we live in, and that all patients should expect it. I pay tribute to the NHS staff in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency for the work that they do.

I am sorry to hear about the difficulties that Mrs Barnes has experienced and that she is dissatisfied with the quality of the care she has received. It is never acceptable for a patient to receive anything less than the very best treatment and service from our NHS. However, I am sure that all hon. Members will appreciate that the provision of local health care services is a matter for the NHS locally and that the Department of Health and Ministers do not play a role in directly investigating individual localised health care complaints, which should, quite rightly, be investigated without political interference to ensure that there is no question of bias. There is an NHS complaints procedure to resolve concerns and to help local NHS organisations to learn from the experiences of their patients. On the anniversary of the Mid Staffordshire scandal and the Francis inquiry, it is right that we reflect on the fact that we have to learn from things that have gone wrong in our health service and make sure we put them right for the benefit of future patients.

I understand that, as the right hon. Gentleman outlines, Mrs Barnes has been pursuing this matter for many years and has made use of the NHS complaints system, up to and including the health service ombudsman, on

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a number of occasions. I also understand—this is an important point in the context of the ombudsman and other issues—that a number of the concerns that Mrs Barnes raises about her care relate to events involving non-NHS health care. I should make it clear that what I say relates to the NHS, and not to health care providers working outside the NHS with whom Mrs Barnes may have decided to undertake treatment.

It is relevant at this stage to say a few words about how the ombudsman system works.

Kevin Barron: I accept, to some extent, the Minister’s point about the wider issues, which were not a matter of referral to the ombudsman. However, a constituent might often go to the private sector needing to get things done because they are in pain, for example, and might then see a consultant they could also see under the NHS. Often the staff are the same people, and there is no great difference between the clinicians they meet. Does he agree with that?

Dr Poulter: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is difficult, in terms of the care pathway, for any patient to draw these distinctions. However, the NHS complaints procedure relates to NHS care, and the ombudsman’s role is as a public sector ombudsman. That goes to the heart of some of the difficulties we are talking about.

If a complainant is dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaint locally, they have the right to take it to the health service ombudsman, whose office was set up under the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993. When complaints are escalated, it is important that they are investigated independently, free from the political process, to ensure that there is no question of bias. The health service ombudsman is completely independent of the Department of Health, the Government, and the NHS. It is therefore difficult for me to comment on the ombudsman’s decisions directly.

If a complainant is dissatisfied with the ombudsman’s decision, they may make use of her own complaints process. The recourse open to anyone after the ombudsman has made a final decision is to seek a judicial review. During the entire complaints process, we assume that patients would take legal advice whenever they think it necessary. That is in their best interests and, in some cases, it is often important that patients have advice from a completely independent source.

If, on the basis of the legal advice received, patients decide to commence legal action against the NHS, that is, of course, to be expected. The House will understand that I cannot comment on legal advice given to patients, including Mrs Barnes, as that is entirely a matter between the patient and her lawyer. Complaints about lawyers are not a matter for the Department of Health or the NHS, nor for this House to consider in this context. I am aware that Mrs Barnes has exhausted all the legal remedies open to her. Her case has been considered by a number of courts, including the Court of Appeal, and has on each occasion been rejected. It goes without saying that these matters will have been considered carefully by the various judges involved, and I should not and will not cast any doubt on their judgments.

Dr Julian Lewis: I was not familiar with this case until I heard it outlined in such detail, but as I understand it the pointed issue is not about the merits or otherwise of

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this lady’s original arguments with the health service. I think I am right in saying that the only pointed issue is that the Information Commissioner’s Office directed that certain data should be removed from the record. They were not and she complained to the ombudsman, who does not seem to want to say whether it was right that they were left on her record or whether they ought to have been removed.

Dr Poulter: My hon. Friend will be aware that patients have open access to their records and can request to see them, but it is not for a patient forcibly to remove relevant clinical information from them. I am not sure whether that was the case in these particular circumstances, but I hope to be able to reassure the right hon. Member for Rother Valley.

It is worth pointing out that, during the long line of litigation, in 2007 Mr Justice Simon said, following a hearing, that

“this is not a case of professional conspiracies by the medical or legal professions; it is a case where the balance of the evidence before the Court fell decisively and conclusively in favour of the defendant”,

meaning the NHS. There is a long history of legal rulings that make that point clearly. Indeed, I understand that the NHS Litigation Authority obtained cost orders in its favour for that case, although it was unable to recover its costs. I reassure the right hon. Gentleman, however, that I shall look into the issues he has raised about the ombudsman and the Information Commissioner and write to him about them.

Kevin Barron: I appreciate that. I know that there is some history to the case of Mrs Barnes, but in my humble view—I understand that the ombudsman and politicians should not get mixed up—this specific issue is not about what happened in the courts. It is about what did or did not happen at the request of the Information Commissioner. My reading of the situation is that it could have been managed and handled by the health service ombudsman and compensation could have been paid. In my view, the ombudsman sat back,

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possibly because of the history to which the Minister has just referred, and thought, “It’s got to go to litigation and that’s it.” When other avenues were closed off, the ombudsman’s office could have managed the situation, but it seems to me that it backed off, looked at the whole history of the case of Mrs Barnes and said that it had to go to litigation. I think that is unfair and that the ombudsman’s office could have handled things much better and smarter on behalf of my constituent.

Dr Poulter: I note what the right hon. Gentleman says. I have committed to looking further into the issue and to writing to him, and I hope that will reassure him further about the processes that have been followed in this case.

As I said at the outset, I am very sorry to hear that Mrs Barnes is unhappy at the care and treatment she has received from the NHS. I am also aware that, over the years, she has been seen and treated in a private capacity on a number of occasions, which, as we have discussed, complicates the issues, because it can make it difficult to establish whether the responsibility sits with the NHS—as part of either the ombudsman’s process or the NHS complaints procedure—or elsewhere. Her case has also been considered by the courts on a number of occasions and I have alluded to their conclusions.

I understand that Mrs Barnes made full use of the various NHS complaints processes, but remains dissatisfied, which we have discussed in detail today. Accordingly, she has involved the health ombudsman, but the outcome has not been as she would have wished.

As I have said—this is worth repeating—the ombudsman is independent of Ministers, the Department of Health and the Government. An option open to anyone dissatisfied with the ombudsman’s actions is judicial review, but it is not to be embarked on lightly and those considering doing so should ensure that they take legal advice.

I wish Mrs Barnes well and I appreciate the intentions of the right hon. Gentleman and his strong advocacy of her case.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

House adjourned.