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House of Lords

Wednesday, 23 January 2008.

The House met at three o'clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Manchester): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.


Lady Saltoun of Abernethy asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, since 2006, Natural England has issued licences to the following organisations: four wildlife rescue centres, five RSPCA centres and three universities. Under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, details of individuals are not publishable because it could affect public safety. Records of the type of land that grey squirrels are released on are not kept. However, the Forestry Commission has not released, or permitted anyone else to release, any grey squirrels on its land.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, why on earth did Natural England issue the licences? Does it not realise that grey squirrels are pests, that they do infinite damage to woodlands, orchards and gardens, that they raid birds’ nests and steal the eggs, that they gnaw through electricity cables and, above all, that they are responsible for driving the native red squirrel population out of large areas of this country, so that there are only a very few small areas where they still exist?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, no licences are issued to release grey squirrels in any areas where there are red squirrels or buffer zones for red squirrels. The population of grey squirrels is estimated to be more than 2 million: the number of squirrels released under licence since 2006 is six.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, which receives £148,000 from Defra. As of today, we have slaughtered—sorry, dispatched—11,441 grey squirrels in the past year. We have cleared two-thirds of Northumberland and, by the end of the year, hope to have cleared the whole of Northumberland of grey squirrels. But we have a problem: the public perception is that grey squirrels are being released by Defra in the north of England. What efforts are being taken to inform the public that the release of grey squirrels is not taking place in the north of England?

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Lord Rooker: My Lords, as I just said to the House, licences have been issued to those bodies and six grey squirrels have been released—out of a population of more than 2 million. There are lots of rules about where they can be released—roughly within one kilometre of where they were captured. They are taken only on welfare grounds and, notwithstanding the difficulties of the red squirrel, I do not think that six is a problem.

We have to remember that the grey squirrel is the only wildlife that most urban dwellers see in their gardens. The fact that it is a pest and is driving the red squirrel out is a serious problem. However, the issue of grey squirrels being released is not a factor, because they are not allowed to be released in areas where the red squirrel lives. We know where they are: on the islands, in the north of England and in the buffer zones. While I am on this topic, the Red Alert North England partnership has 16 forest areas in the north of England where there is the greatest chance of maintaining the red squirrel. I want to announce that Forestry Commission woodland improvement grants are available to support red squirrel conservation work. The application for those grants closes on 29 February. Red squirrel conservation work is currently undersubscribed.

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission. Will the Minister confirm that the red cannot coexist with the grey and that 85 per cent of the existing English red squirrels are in the Kielder Forest? Will he further confirm that Natural England will not issue licences for the release of any grey squirrels in the northern counties, and will he look again at extending that to include the northern part of Lancashire, which is very near some of the buffer zones in the Craven district of North Yorkshire?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am more than happy to look at that. We are incredibly sympathetic to protecting the native red squirrel. However, I have to go with the facts I have. As I said, licences are very restrictive about who can release. As I also pointed out, in the only year for which we have release data available, six grey squirrels were released under licence out of a population of more than 2 million. I cannot claim that is a serious problem. They were released under very restrictive licence conditions. However, I shall be happy to look at the Lancashire border zones, as my noble friend asked.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, why were licences issued at all? The Minister has not given the reason. If you give licences for six squirrels, presuming that three are male and three are female, in no time at all you will have 60 squirrels. After that, my mind boggles. The Minister has not given a reason for the issuing of the licences.

Lord Rooker: I apologise, my Lords. The grey squirrel is listed in legislation. Under Section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it is illegal to release grey squirrels into the wild in England unless

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licensed to do so by Natural England. It is the responsibility of landowners to control grey squirrels on their land. There is a set of rules about capturing grey squirrels and where they can be released. As I said, they are taken only on welfare and similar grounds and only six have been released under licence. I cannot keep saying that.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, why are any licences granted? Why are those taken for welfare purposes not dispatched immediately, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, they are released in areas where they are no threat to the red squirrel. Red squirrels have disappeared from much of our country, as the noble Lord said. We know where they all are. They are dispatched humanely in areas where a licence cannot be issued. However, six—I emphasise “six”—were allowed to be released into the wild in places where they posed no danger to any other species.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, whose welfare are we talking about?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we are talking about the interests of biodiversity. It is a pity about what has happened to the red squirrel population due to grey squirrels having been introduced from the United States. Some European countries are now having the same experience as us; by overprotecting the grey squirrel, they are losing their red squirrels. They have not learnt the lessons that we have. But we are considering the interests of biodiversity where release of the grey does not pose a threat. I am not against red squirrels, but only six greys have been released under a very strict licence issued by Natural England on wildlife grounds.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what it is, apart from a bushy tail, that makes a grey squirrel a more desirable bit of wildlife than a brown rat?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I was always told that the grey squirrel was a rat with good PR. There are a lot more greys than reds, of course. Greys also live at much greater density, hence their prevalence in urban areas. There are up to 18 per hectare as compared with an average of one per hectare for red squirrels. Moreover, greys are more able to recover from environmental impacts and disease, so they are much more immune in that sense than the red—hence the demise of the red. People like to see squirrels in their gardens. However, I should add that not everybody likes them in their gardens. I am trying to cut down on the letters and e-mails.

Parliament: Broadcasting

3.09 pm

Lord Vinson asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord’s Question is no. Under our current broadcasting arrangements, responsibility for what is broadcast on television and radio rests with the broadcasters and the organisations that regulate broadcasting—Ofcom, the BBC Trust and the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority. They are independent of the Government and are responsible for safeguarding the public interest in broadcasting.

Lord Vinson: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. I believe that he will share the concern of many in this House about the increasing disconnection between Parliament and the people. There are specialist programmes, not least on the BBC, but you have to turn them on especially to listen to them and the routine day-to-day work of both Houses seldom gets a mention. My simple and costless idea would constantly remind the public, both consciously and subconsciously, of where the governance of this country springs from, or at least where it ought to spring from. I hope the noble Lord agrees that we all too easily take democracy for granted and that ideas such as this one surely give it a helping hand.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course I agree with the sentiments that the noble Lord has expressed. As he will appreciate—we recently discussed a similar Question—it is a very big step indeed to move from seeking to make the public more aware of Parliament’s work and this House’s responsibility, which this House is increasingly discharging, to giving instructions to broadcasters, when we pride ourselves on the fact that broadcasters are independent of government.

Lord Soley: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a problem with the legislation or the instructions on this? Did he notice the speech the other day by the director-general, who talked about doing some very creative things on covering Westminster, the regional Assemblies and local politics? It would be no bad thing if the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, and others wrote in to raise the point with the director-general, who is open to some creative thinking. What is rather more worrying is the decision by the independent television authorities to restrict coverage in the regional areas of Britain. It causes me some concern.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the director-general has suggested initiatives and we should welcome them because it improves our democracy if our nation is more understanding of Parliament’s work and how we conduct democracy in this country. I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing attention to the director-general. On the other point, my noble friend will recognise that independent television has obligations for the provision of news. Certain aspects

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of regional news are being reduced but it is still very extensive coverage. As with the BBC, independent television news is expected to reach very high standards.

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords, I declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company. As I think I said when the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, asked this Question in October, is not part of the solution to give broadcasters, and through them the public, greater and easier access to what goes on in this place? Should we not be following the Scottish Parliament by welcoming broadcasters in and saying “Come on in”, rather than hiding behind rules and regulations that tend to make what comes out of this place rather dull, and which therefore do not encourage reconnection with the public?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that that is a question for the House authorities to address. It will also be appreciated how much progress on broadcasting the House’s work has been made in recent years. There are, as we know, not only specialist channels but very extensive coverage which leads the night before on what will be happening in Parliament the next day. However, it is for the House, not the Government, to decide how to be more welcoming to broadcasters and more open in those terms.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, can the noble Lord think of anything more likely to disconnect a sensible member of the public from Parliament than being subjected every day to a recitation of the order of business when he is trying to listen to the news?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, a by-product might be that we presented the business in a sharper and more focused way and in a more comprehensible fashion for the nation as well as for noble Lords and Members in the other place. However, the noble Lord is right: merely listing the business is unlikely to awaken the enthusiasm of the nation as a whole.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, will the Minister take a bet with me that the only item from your Lordships’ House’s business today that will be broadcast this evening is that relating to squirrels?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, nothing could prevent the broadcasters taking an interest in what my noble friend Lord Rooker has to say on that subject.

Children: Poverty

3.15 pm

Lord Giddens asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, we remain absolutely committed to meeting our target. Our policies so far have made a considerable impact, but we recognise that there is more to do. The measures announced recently in Budget 2007, the Pre-Budget Report and the Comprehensive Spending Review will assist in that, as will the DWP taking forward its plans to support more parents into work.

Lord Giddens: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and I commend the Government for having put the reduction of child poverty so high on their social agenda. However, at least two big problems remain. One is investment. Most observers calculate that £4 billion extra per year will be needed to reach the 2010 target. The other is that government policies have simply not reached the children of the in-work poor, or the working poor. What will the Government do about that?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, my noble friend is right to acknowledge the progress that we have made. In 1997, the UK had the highest rate of relative child poverty in the EU. Between 1998-99 and 2005-06, the UK saw the biggest child poverty reduction in Europe. Six hundred thousand children have been lifted out of relative poverty and the number of children living in absolute poverty has more than halved, from 3.4 million to 1.6 million, a fall of 1.8 million children. My noble friend is right to point out that there is an issue concerning the so-called working poor. The new PSA that the departments have published focuses on that. The problem is one of low pay; the national minimum wage has helped with that, but there is more to do around skills and encouraging progression in employment.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, let us see whether we can get the broadcasters to report on something other than red squirrels tonight. A hero of the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said in 1999:

Well, if you believe Tony Blair, you will believe anything. The Minister quoted European figures. Does he accept that, according to the most recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, only three countries are worse than Britain for child poverty—Italy, Portugal and Slovakia—and that Scandinavian child poverty rates are less than half our own? Does he accept that, after 10 and a half years of Labour government, the rich have had a bonanza and the poor have had pennies?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: No, my Lords, I do not accept that, and I deprecate the manner in which the noble Lord asked his question. The Government have made significant progress on child poverty, and we are determined to beat our commitment to eradicate it within a generation, which is why we are focused right across government in a holistic way on dealing with all the issues that need to be addressed, in terms not

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only of income and employment but of all the other things that impact on material deprivation. We need to deal with this not only for the current generation but in order to break the cycle of deprivation.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester: My Lords, given the close association between child poverty and disability of both children and parents—for example, 25 per cent of all children in poverty have a disabled parent—will the Government invest further in initiatives along the lines of the Think Family agenda to ensure that all service providers take every opportunity to signpost families to the disability living allowance? Will they consider extending DLA entitlement periods for disabled children with non-fluctuating conditions?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, our general approach to helping disabled people into employment and out of poverty is that work is the best route out of poverty for families. The Government have introduced and funded a number of programmes. Access to Work is a particularly successful one, which helps and sustains disabled people in work. There are other initiatives, including the local employment partnerships and city strategies, which all focus on the most disadvantaged in the labour market. We want to make sure that the benefits available are properly accessible and that we promote them as actively as we can.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we are wrestling with a very difficult issue? Child poverty is a relative measure, based on children below 60 per cent of median average earnings. This means that, as earnings rise by average wage rates but benefits rise only by prices, if the Government do nothing at all, even though the country is getting wealthier, the number of poor children must increase. Therefore, does my noble Friend agree that we must not only ensure that poor children of lone parents get maintenance and that lone parents get back into the labour market, but recognise that half of all poor children are in large families in which the parents are often in work? We may need to rebalance the tax credit system away from supporting the first child and rather more towards supporting the later children, as most of Europe does.

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