Schedule 11 - Other measures relating to animals, food and the environment

Deregulation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 11th March 2014.

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Question proposed, That the schedule be the Eleventh schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General 3:45 pm, 11th March 2014

The schedule amends the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932, as applied by the Grey Squirrels (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order 1937. The order requires occupiers to report the presence of grey squirrels on their land to facilitate the eradication of that species. However, it is no longer considered feasible to eradicate grey squirrels, so the requirement to report their presence on one’s land is no longer useful or observed.

The schedule will enable the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers to make or amend an import or keeping prohibition in respect of destructive non-indigenous mammalian animals, without first needing to be satisfied that it is desirable to destroy all such animals. It will be enough for them to be satisfied that it is desirable to keep the possibility of their destruction under review. They will no longer have to fulfil the precondition that they are minded to eradicate every specimen of the  species at large; it will be sufficient for the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers to be satisfied that there will be an ongoing management review. The schedule also amends the Grey Squirrels (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order 1937, so people will no longer be required to report sightings of grey squirrels on their land. It will remove the offence of their failing to do so.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I thank the Minister for this interesting clause. What discussions has he had with the shooting and sporting bodies, the National Trust and the National Farmers Union about the fact that red squirrel numbers are being disadvantaged by the increase in the number of grey squirrels? Will the change decrease red squirrel numbers by allowing grey squirrels to thrive?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

The organisations and landowners concerned are making excellent, co-ordinated efforts to protect red squirrels in the parts of the country in which they still exist. However, the use of this power is not thought necessary or helpful in that process. Nevertheless, if following the reform it was thought that making a destruction order would be useful in a particular part of the country, the Secretary of State will still have that power. However, at the moment nobody is suggesting that it would be helpful.

There have been a lot of discussions. There is no question but that this matter is important to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The red squirrel is an important native species and the grey squirrel is a powerful competitor. There was a working group on this important issue in 2003, and there have been many other reports.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I want the Minister to recognise the fact that red squirrels are still present in Northumberland—I understand that it is the only English county in which there are still red squirrels in significant numbers. What discussions has he had with stakeholders in Northumberland on the impact of the measure?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

There are still red squirrels in two parts of the country. The hon. Lady rightly says that Northumberland is one of them, and I believe that there are still red squirrels in the Lake district—

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

And in Lancashire, I hear, but basically they are in the north of England and Scotland.

There have been a lot of discussions. There is a policy on grey squirrels, entitled “Grey Squirrels and England’s Woodlands: Policy and Action”, which sets out the Forestry Commission’s approach. It was supported by DEFRA and was heavily consulted upon. The Secretary of State recently asked the Forestry Commission to review the grey squirrel control strategy. It has looked at methods to control the greys in woodlands: the grant scheme, the red squirrel conservation approach, the governance and co-ordination measures, research looking at particular parts of the country and particular illnesses, and the EU regulation on invasive alien species. That work is part of a strategy that is continually updated.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Some time ago, a well-spoken lady who was a constituent of mine telephoned to ask my office whether Mr Hopkins could get rid of the squirrels from her garden. Will the changes have any bearing on MPs’ ability to get rid of squirrels from constituents’ gardens?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

It has to be said that, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows, my constituency is a hotbed of black squirrels, and we are keen that they should get a fair go as well. [Interruption.] Black squirrels, yes—there are such things around Letchworth and over the border in Bedfordshire, and they are widely supported and much loved in my constituency.

In addition to the Forestry Commission’s efforts, the English woodland grant scheme for grey squirrel control is an important part of the picture. There are buffer zones surrounding the red squirrel reserves, including, apparently, on the Isle of Wight, and there is an important, if small, budget for that purpose. I believe that there is popular support for the proposal on grey squirrels, and I hope that there are no fears to be assuaged.

Part 2 of the schedule, on the Farriers Registration Council, is really just about bringing matters up to date. Five named organisations appoint the lay members of the council, two of which have had changes. The Jockey Club has passed its responsibilities to the British Horseracing Authority, which should therefore be the appointing body, and the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas is no longer with us and therefore cannot appoint. The changes in the schedule recognise that reality.

Joint waste authorities were provided for but have never been used by local authorities, which have found other ways of co-operating, so the schedule abolishes the power to establish them.

The schedule also removes the provision for what is known as a further assessment in relation to an air quality management area, because such assessments slow up the process of actually doing something about air quality.

Finally, only two noise abatement zones are actively managed, and it is thought that they are no longer necessary given the wide powers that are now available to local authorities to tackle noise, so it is proposed that they should be repealed.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will be suitably brief. I was slightly surprised that part 1 of the schedule did not mention the muskrat, which of course was the original reason for the 1932 Act. The grey squirrel was added later, I believe in 1937. I am slightly disappointed that we have not had an opportunity for a full and thorough debate on the merits of the muskrat in England, but I hope there will be such an opportunity in due course.

On part 2 of the schedule, I am slightly disappointed that it has taken 26 years, by my reckoning, for the civil service to catch up with the fact that the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas has been abolished. I guess that Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister when the council was abolished—has the civil service moved with its customary speed in taking 26 years to bring forward the provision?

Parts 4 and 5 of the schedule are reasonable tidying-up measures. As I think the Committee knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) is  leading an excellent campaign on improving air quality, which is a problem for too many people in urban constituencies. The Opposition will therefore support anything that speeds up the process of managing it, so we do not oppose those measures.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

Would the hon. Gentleman not say that muskrats have been eradicated?

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I did not say that they had not been eradicated; I was simply surprised that no comment had been made on the history of the muskrat. I think the hon. and learned Gentleman misspoke when he says that it has been eradicated. It has perhaps been eradicated in England, but it is certainly alive and well in other parts of the world. The world does not begin and end in England. The muskrat is still going in some of our former colonies. My point was that we did not have a debate on the muskrat when we really should have done.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

I rise to make a brief speech. I find myself in the rather curious position of agreeing with the Solicitor-General, which must be a first in this Committee—and probably the last. I suppose that the law of averages dictates that the Solicitor-General will occasionally get it right, and, on this occasion, he possibly has.

I want to respond to the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford, who implied that the decline of the red squirrel was in some way related to the introduction of the grey squirrels back in the Victorian era. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the grey squirrel is responsible.

Andrew Bridgen rose—

Jim Shannon rose—

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

I will give way in a moment.

The red squirrel population was already in decline, which had more to do with loss of habitat, disease and modern farming practices, rather than the grey squirrel.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

We will have to disagree here. There is a great deal of evidence to indicate that grey squirrels have had a direct impact on red squirrels. They carry a pox that red squirrels can catch and succumb to, so their numbers have decreased as a result. Grey squirrels are aggressive and tend to want everything for themselves—much like some people in this room. Whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, those are the facts.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

I accept the point about the pox carried by the grey squirrel, but I reject the suggestion that grey squirrels, because they are somewhat more aggressive, attack the red squirrel. There is no evidence for that whatsoever. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at the evidence, he will find that what I am saying is correct.

Before I give way to the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire, it is worth saying that it is also correct that an eradication programme to kill the grey squirrel population simply would not work. We know from other efforts that population numbers of wild animals is determined by other factors, such as the availability of food and habitat, pollution and intensive farming methods, which can have much more serious implications.

Although I agree with the Solicitor-General on this point, I do not know whether he is developing a compassionate streak. I look forward to his support if Conservative Members attempt to vote on the Hunting Act 2005 and to his joining us in the Lobby to protect the Act from any appeal or amendment.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

My degree is in biological sciences and I support the intervention of the hon. Member for Strangford, which was completely correct. The grey squirrel is an alien species and has had a severe impact on the ecology of natural England and our indigenous species. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Derby North does not support British trees for British squirrels.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

Of course I support British trees for British squirrels, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the grey squirrel was responsible for the decline of the red squirrel, so I think we agree on that point. We also in agreement that the introduction of the grey squirrel has had an impact on the ecology of the United Kingdom, but the cat—or the squirrel in this case—is out of the bag. The grey squirrel is part of the British countryside—and, indeed, the urban scene. Efforts to control it by shooting, trapping or whatever else are doomed to fail. The Solicitor-General has acknowledged that.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:00 pm, 11th March 2014

The Solicitor-General’s point about the muskrat in Great Britain shows that an animal can be eradicated by shooting, so I do not think my hon. Friend and I agree on this point.

Photo of Chris Williamson Chris Williamson Labour, Derby North

We will have to agree to disagree. There have been efforts to eradicate species over the years, and the evidence tends to support my proposition that the decline of animal species is, by and large, down to the availability of habitat and food. We have seen efforts to persecute foxes in this country over the years and, far from having any impact on numbers, the population has remained static and, in some circumstances, increased. We can debate these points until the cows come home. I simply wanted to say that I am delighted that, at long last, the Solicitor-General and I are in agreement on at least one point, and I look forward to other circumstances where we may be in agreement, although I doubt there will be many of them.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

We have had a lively debate again. Research work is happening on the squirrel pox virus at the Moredun research institute. Although it is thought to be some distance away, it is working on a vaccine that might be of use on the virus. It is perhaps also worth mentioning, although I hope it will not put anyone off, that the red squirrel is listed on appendix III of the Bern convention, which means that it has an element of European protection. The populations on Anglesey, Isle of Wight and the Poole harbour islands are subject to local action plans. The populations in northern England are under threat by the advancing grey squirrel. I apologise to the hon. Member for Derby North for that.

It is worth mentioning, however, that Red Squirrels Northern England is a partnership project between the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, Natural England, the Forestry  Commission and the Wildlife Trusts. It is focused on seven red squirrel strongholds in the north and has Government funding and is doing a good job. A project manager has been employed by the Red Squirrel Survival Trust to strengthen efforts and there is the Forestry Commission’s English woodlands grant scheme, so we are doing our bit for the red squirrel.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

If the Solicitor-General had the information in front of him, it would indicate that red squirrel numbers are increasing where direct action is being taken by a number of organisations. Their methods include the shooting, trapping and eradication of the grey squirrel.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his own way. I mentioned a whole range of different actions that are being taken. It is certainly true that some of those actions were ones that he mentions, but they were not the only ones.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Solicitor-General got so excited about the various merits of shooting at other forms that he did not answer my question about part 2 of the schedule. It has taken 26 years for the civil service to catch up with the law change. Is it an example of the civil service showing great speed, or is it an example of where the civil service could go a bit faster in the future?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

I am a bit shocked that the hon. Gentleman is attacking the civil service. They work extremely well for the coalition and, no doubt, they did their best during the 13 years of the previous Government. The change was not made in that period and here we are, a few years into the coalition, and already we have legislation to make the change he so desperately wants.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sorry, but by my maths—unfortunately, my education was under Mrs Thatcher, so it was not as good as it might have been—there have been more years under a Conservative Government since 1988 than there have been under a Labour Government. Given that the Solicitor-General does not have the answers at his fingertips for a change, we see no point in dragging this out any longer.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

I would just make the point that if Mrs Thatcher had ever known about this matter, no feet would have touched the ground before it had been amended.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 11 accordingly agreed to.

Photo of Gavin Barwell Gavin Barwell Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

That was a debate on squirrels that I will never forget—I was not entirely sure whether the red squirrel was a metaphor for socialism.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Gavin Barwell.)

Adjourned till Thursday 13 March at half-past Eleven o’clock.