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House of Lords

Tuesday, 7 November 2006.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Squirrels: Predation

Lord Rotherwick asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, there is some evidence that squirrels prey on woodland bird nests, but the true extent of any impact on the bird population is unknown. This issue is being looked at by the UK Woodland Bird Group, but it is difficult to design a study that would give a definitive answer.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I am surprised by the Minister’s reply. The papers that I passed to him show that Professor Roy Brown has looked at more than 115 areas for up to 30 years and that, according to his research, mammal predation accounts for between one-third and three-quarters of all songbird predation losses. Therefore, having read Professor Brown’s report, does the Minister agree that it is clear that mammal predation is one of the most important factors in the decline of our songbirds? Will the Government put forward and fund their own research once they have got over the funding shortcomings that they have at present?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is not all the fault of squirrels; I would think that pesticides have something to do with this issue. We note the report that the Songbird Survival trust has produced and are grateful for its contribution to the debate. We would encourage the trust to share any unpublished evidence and research with the scientific community. Of the 15 species covered in the report by the trust, only three species were identified as being affected by grey squirrel predation: blackbirds, robins and whitethroats. These results are not consistent with the findings of the repeat woodland bird survey of 2005.

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while there may be some dispute about the effect of grey squirrels on birds, there is no dispute about the effect of grey squirrels on our native red squirrels? Does he accept that the carrying of squirrel pox by the grey squirrel has wiped out most of our red squirrels, which are now found only in the far north of England and one or two

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isolated pockets? As a matter of urgency, will he ask his officials whether they will commission scientific research to try to discover a vaccine that would allow red squirrels to survive this terrible squirrel pox?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we all want the red squirrel to survive over the grey squirrel. My noble friend is right to say that this has been a serious problem. It is all the fault of the import from America of the grey squirrel some time ago. The red squirrel is now found only in the north of England in 16 separate reserves, and of course on the Isle of Wight. No grey squirrels are on the island and, if any turn up, we will deal with them and they will not come back again. We have a plan to maintain the 16 areas in the north of England and the Isle of Wight as red squirrel reserves with 5-kilometre buffer zones where action is taken against the grey squirrel to protect food supplies and to protect against the other factors that lead to problems for the red squirrel.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, has Defra consulted the Forestry Commission over a plan to control grey squirrel numbers by using contraception instead of by humane killing? Is contraception still Defra’s preferred method of control?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I asked about this yesterday because I had to have immunocontraceptives explained to me. I asked, “How do you know whether you are giving them to the boy grey squirrels or the girl grey squirrels?” I am told that it is a bit of a problem out in the wild. It is true that the Forestry Commission and Defra are collaborating to investigate the potential of such a vaccine, if I can call it that. If everything goes according to plan, it will be 10 years before a usable fertility control method is available for grey squirrels. I have to say that, as it has been for former Defra and MAFF Ministers, every vaccine that is meant to solve a problem is always 10 years away.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that grey squirrels can decimate oak trees? I planted some 300 oaks and virtually half of them have been destroyed. We are allowed to use only a very few of the poisons now available to try to deal with this problem.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am not knocking the grey squirrel, because it is very popular with people in urban areas. When the grey squirrel turns up in their gardens, they like it, so we have to be careful what we say about them. There are some very good public relations out there. But grey squirrels are not as nice to look at as the red ones—and I have seen only one red squirrel in my whole life. The fact is that grey squirrels cause incredible damage to forest trees. There are means to deal with them, as the Forestry Commission does. Equally, as people know when they plant their bulbs, if they are not careful the grey squirrel will dig them up within a few hours. While all this is annoying, we have no plan—I shall repeat this because I do not want any letters—we have no plan to eradicate grey squirrels.

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Baroness Byford: My Lords, does the Minister accept the findings of the report to which my noble friend referred in the first Question as good evidence on the research side? The evidence falls into two parts, the first being the problem with regard to farmland and the other being the problem with regard to woodland birds themselves. What research is being done on both accounts?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the last thing that I want to do is to knock the report by Songbird Survival, but the fact is, by implication from my first and second responses, we do not accept all the science in it. We have asked the trust to share any of its unpublished evidence with the scientific community. There is a problem here, but songbird populations are on the up. Since 1995, an increase of 6 per cent has been measured on the index of woodland birds, although the current level is only around 60 per cent of the 1970 figure. Nevertheless, as I say, it is on the up. We believe that the number of songbirds may have dropped to the bottom and is now starting to come up again. This is in part due to changes in farming practices. Over a six-year period in the 1980s and 1990s, farmers were paid to dig up the hedgerows. We lost 25 per cent of the hedgerows in this country, which is bound to have affected birdlife. Today we are paying farmers to put the hedges back again and we can see birdlife populations increase because of different, environmental farming practices.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, there is no question but that the grey squirrel does a lot of harm, and I cannot agree with my Front Bench about contraception. I think that a more practical way of controlling grey squirrels, one which does work, is to pay a substantial sum for every squirrel tail handed in.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have to say that that is a very old-fashioned approach. It did not work, it is not cost-effective or value for money, and as a policy it was abandoned in 1958.

NHS: Clostridium Difficile

2.45 pm

Baroness Masham of Ilton asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My Lords, we have an extensive programme of measures to counter healthcare-associated infections. We recently published a new code of practice on the prevention and control of healthcare-associated infections. The Healthcare Commission will assess compliance with the code and use its powers to issue an improvement notice to those not observing the code properly. These arrangements cover Clostridium difficile, for which we will also be introducing quarterly publication of mandatory surveillance data.

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Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Is he aware that several trusts are not adhering to the guidelines? Is he further aware that a hyper-virulent strain came from Canada in 2004 and that more than 30 people died at Stoke Mandeville hospital? Does he agree that infection control is so important that its budgets should be ring-fenced?

Lord Warner: My Lords, we are aware that this is a serious condition in a number of hospitals. We have made very clear what the NHS needs to do in this area. We know, in particular, that isolation of patients with C. difficile diarrhoea and good infection-control nursing procedures—such as hand-washing and wearing gloves and aprons—are absolutely critical. We now need the whole of the NHS to get behind the guidance issued by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nursing Officer to try to control infection within its hospitals.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the present strain of Clostridium difficile is very susceptible to antibiotic resistance and can transmit this resistance to other pathogens such as salmonella and staphylococci, which, of course, are different organisms from Clostridium. What is the extent of Clostridium difficileantibiotic resistance in the country and what research is being done to control it?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord, who has a great deal of knowledge in this area, an exact figure. There are two antibiotics, one of which is Vancomycin, that are effective and alternative antibiotics are being investigated. I can write to him with more details.

Lord Winston: My Lords, following on from the previous question, is not one of the problems the increasing resistance of the new strain of Clostridium difficile bacteria, which is often caused by wanton antibiotic usage? Our current methods of recording antibiotic prescribing are not very good in hospitals. The CDC in America has pointed out that we need more research in this area. Should we not consider the lack of support for academic microbiology in the United Kingdom?

Lord Warner: My Lords, my noble friend is right. One of the key elements in the advice that has been given to the NHS by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Nursing Officer is about prudent antibiotic prescribing to reduce the use of broad spectrum antibiotics. Again, it is down to people at the local level—doctors, nurses and everyone—working together to adhere to that guidance and to make sure that this infection is controlled in the hospitals where it exists.

Baroness Neuberger: My Lords, we know that hand-washing and other hygiene measures are probably the most effective intervention we can make at the moment for Clostridium difficile. What are the Government doing, particularly NHS Estates, about guidance for ward and hospital design, given that doctors and nurses are saying that getting to basins to wash properly is proving remarkably difficult?

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Lord Warner: My Lords, this does not apply only in relation to this particular infection. The issue of good design in hospitals is taken seriously by NHS Estates and a great deal of information and guidance has been given to the NHS in this area. The same concerns apply to other cross-infection issues. It is down to people when they redevelop their hospitals to follow the guidance that has been issued.

Lord Turnberg: My Lords, we rely very heavily on the Health Protection Agency to trace and record cases of Clostridium difficile infection. Can my noble friend give us any idea whether the HPA has invested sufficient resources in its regional laboratories and regional detection centres to do all this vital work?

Lord Warner: My Lords, this gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the sterling work of the HPA in this area. My understanding is that it has the budgetary requirements it needs, but these things are kept under review as the agency takes on new duties.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, what is the policy on disinfecting beds and lockers between occupation by different patients?

Lord Warner: My Lords, all hospitals are expected to clean their wards thoroughly and take account of the need to avoid cross-infection when there is a change of patient in a bed.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, how is cross-infection among patients in nursing homes being monitored? What are the levers against nursing homes with a poor record on cross-infection?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the clinical advice I have received is that Clostridium difficile is largely and overwhelmingly a hospital-based infection; it is part of the mandatory surveillance introduced by the Government in 2004. If I have any more information in this area, I will write to the noble Baroness.

Railways: Cross-country Franchise

2.51 pm

The Earl of Mar and Kellie asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the invitation to tender for the new cross-country rail franchise was issued on 31 October. Cross-country services will continue to serve the Scottish destinations which they serve currently. Pending commercial negotiations, services from Scotland to Birmingham and Manchester via the west coast may move to other operators. This does not represent a downgrade of the service, nor does it leave any Scottish destination disconnected.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which shows that it is too late to do anything about the proposed new franchise without withdrawing the franchise process.

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Glasgow is a rail market worth 31 million journeys per year, and Edinburgh is worth 13.6 million journeys per year. Why is it a good idea to disconnect Glasgow from 45 railway stations in the south and south-west of England, particularly when we are trying to encourage rail substitution for domestic air services? What advice does the Minister have for rail travellers in Glasgow seeking to go to south-west England? Should they make their way to Edinburgh to change trains, which is quite easy but leads to longer journeys, or should they go to Birmingham New Street, which is awkward, congested and about to be rebuilt? What wisdom is there in this franchise reorganisation?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the intention behind the franchise change is to enhance, improve and extend the services, not to restrict them or to cut off any market. That would scarcely be in anyone’s interests. The noble Earl is right that we are also seeking to tackle the problem of congestion at Birmingham New Street, but some aspects of the service will clearly improve. Subject to commercial considerations, transfer of some of these parts of the franchise will be to Virgin West Coast, which will use the west coast mainline and greatly speed up communication from Glasgow to Manchester and Birmingham.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that any trains currently on the west coast cross-country route between Birmingham and Scotland via Preston will terminate at Birmingham so that anybody wishing to go beyond Birmingham southwards to Brighton, Bournemouth or the West Country would have to change in Birmingham, as is my understanding? Surely that will increase the congestion of people in the rather nasty Birmingham station we have at the moment rather than reduce it.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am not prepared to have Birmingham New Street defined as a nasty station, but lines are congested there and through-trains produce difficulties for timetabling. However, I draw to the attention of the House the fact that the average daily number of passengers making journeys from Preston beyond Birmingham to Plymouth is only nine, and to Bristol it is only 10. So we are not talking about hundreds of passengers being inconvenienced by this proposal. By increasing the capacity at Birmingham New Street and making sure that certain lines are kept free, we are guaranteeing that the trains will run on time, which is of great importance to the passenger.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, the Minister mentioned low numbers of passengers on some lines, but he must be aware of overcrowding at particular times and on particular routes on the cross-country network. In many cases, we have magnificent, new, state-of-the-art trains, but there are not enough seats. Is a commitment to trying to alleviate some of the overcrowding included in any of the terms of the new franchises?

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