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Commons Chamber

Volume 202: debated on Tuesday 21 January 1992

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House Of Commons

Tuesday 21 January 1992

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Health

Sunderland General Hospital

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many beds were available at the intensive care unit at Sunderland general hospital in (a) December 1990 and (b) December 1991.

Five beds were available at the intensive care unit throughout both of the months named.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, for most of last year, only four of the seven beds in the Sunderland intensive care unit were operating, that five are now operating, although there is a staff shortage, and that the future of the fifth bed is not clear? Is he aware also that during that time scale many seriously ill patients had to be turned away and had to go to other hospitals and that patients using the unit had to be taken out of it prematurely so that others more seriously ill could take their place? How does that square with the repeated claim that the national health service is safe in Tory hands?

It is true that, on occasions last year, there were staff shortages in the intensive care unit at the hospital. The health authority has made it clear that it is initiating an inquiry to establish the levels of staffing and back-up staffing that are necessary to ensure that there are no shortages. I am advised that there were no serious repercussions for any patient at Sunderland general hospital last year.

Is my hon. Friend aware that Sunderland general hospital will receive an investment of £19 million this year, of which £11 million is to be spent on a new acute ward block? That is part of Northern regional health authority's largest-ever capital investment, and it has been brought about by the Government.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the local example in Sunderland of the greatest-ever capital investment programme taking place in the national health service. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) might have mentioned that the local health authority has committed itself to eliminating all waiting lists of more than 12 months by the end of this calendar year.

Hiv Infection

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make provisions comparable to those made to haemophiliacs to non-haemophiliacs infected with HIV as a result of national health service blood or tissue transfers.

We have every sympathy with the plight of those infected with HIV as a result of NHS blood or tissue transfer. However, we have not been persuaded that it would be right to extend the special provision which has been made for the infected haemophiliacs.

How can the Minister justify the Government's callous attitude towards those who become HIV positive as a result of national health service treatment? Surely she accepts that the Government were right to provide compensation for haemophiliacs who became infected through contaminated blood factor 8. Surely she must appreciate that there is no logical or moral case for making a distinction between haemophiliacs and non-haemophiliacs in this respect. That is the view of the Haemophilia Society and of the vast majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Will the Government think again on this matter?

Frankly, I find it extremely difficult to make judgments about any of the 5,451 AIDS sufferers, let alone the 16,828 HIV sufferers. As the hon. Gentleman of all people will know, we must ensure that we have effective, first-rate services for all those suffering from HIV or AIDS. We took the view that the haemophiliacs were a special case: they were doubly disadvantaged because of their hereditary condition and the onset of HIV, which compounded their problems.

May I press my hon. Friend on this matter? Does she agree that haemophiliacs and others who are given contaminated blood transfusions receive them from the national health service? Does she agree also that we are talking of not one or two people but tens of people? There are more than 1,000 haemophiliacs and nearly 100 others who received contaminated blood transfusions. These major disasters are compounded by the fact that those people believed that the NHS would make them better.

How can my hon. Friend argue that compensation should be given to haemophiliacs because, sadly, they suffered a congenital disease and that a sick person who required a blood transfusion was in a different category? The result is the same—great suffering for the individual and great suffering for his or her family, probably the onset of AIDS and, ultimately, death. In those terms alone, have not the Government and the NHS a moral obligation to do something about the matter?

With respect to my hon. Friend, I do not believe that it is ever possible to cut a hard-and-fast line. Any case in which a patient suffers a medical accident is a great tragedy. However, the House debated no-fault compensation and, like the royal commission involved, took the view that it could not be justified. We made a difficult decision, and provided a generous settlement for haemophiliacs. Although my hon. Friend makes persuasive and powerful arguments, I cannot accept that they are convincing reasons for moving the line.

The Minister will be aware from her files that two of the 62 cases are my constituents. Does she accept that it is impossible to explain to them why patients who are haemophiliacs are eligible for compensation but they are not—even though my constituents have the same condition, life expectancy and financial pressures? It is impossible to do that because there is no logic to that argument. If it is difficult to defend where the line is drawn, it may be that the line is drawn in the wrong place and that it should be drawn instead so that it includes all those who were infected because of NHS treatment—not just some.

As the House knows, Labour has no difficulty making pledges that would result in untold expenditure. The hon. Gentleman argues for no-fault compensation. Where it can be established that there has been negligence, of course compensation is payable. It is the job of the national health service to provide health care and treatment and to continue developing that treatment. I cannot convince myself or the House that the hon. Gentleman's argument is right or persuasive. I remind the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) that, this year, £200 million will be earmarked especially for those suffering from HIV or AIDS.

Ec Health Treatment

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will introduce proposals whereby national health service patients could be referred to receive treatment in the EC.

Under current European Community regulations, individual patients may be referred elsewhere in the Community for treatment in certain specified circumstances, with the prior authorisation of the Department.

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of our European partners, with a very high standard of health care, are offering to perform operations for which there is a demand in this country—such as hip replacement—at competitive prices? One health authority is already negotiating with a French hospital, but it is under the impression that it may not yet make use of that facility. Does my hon. Friend agree that such an arrangement would not only broaden the health services already made available to patients but achieve financial savings that could be ploughed back into the provision of other services?

I urge my hon. Friend to examine more carefully the health arrangements in many European Community countries, because Britain is one of the few in which a patient may visit a general practitioner and receive hospital treatment free of charge. That is rare in the rest of the Community. Patients in France are expected to pay 20 per cent. and patients in Belgium up to 25 per cent. of the costs. My hon. Friend should again examine the relative costings. The figures that she gave referred to comparisons with the private sector, not the national health service. I want to ensure that we build on the success of the first six months of NHS reforms so that no one will want to go anywhere but to his or her most immediately available hospital to receive NHS treatment.

Will the Minister make the point that, rather than look for treatment to be provided elsewhere in Europe, the Government should provide hospitals in this country? For the past 10 years, my constituency has been promised a hospital, but no progress has been made.

I much regret that such a new Member of Parliament should have picked up the churlish habits of other Labour Members. The hon. Gentleman's constituency includes the South Cleveland NHS trust hospital, which is a first-rate, second-wave trust. As the report produced last week by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, patients are getting a first-rate service from NHS hospitals and ever-improving treatment from the hospitals.

The problem is not just that frequently patients in other European countries have to pay for their treatment. They often receive a far lower standard of care than patients in this country. Is not it a fact that doctors and nurses in France were on strike recently, and that in Italy patients have to ask relatives to bring in food because none is provided by the hospitals? Relatives often have to provide non-medical care as well, and patients have to bring in their own blankets and bed linen. Will my hon. Friend note that I, for one, want to receive the superior care that our patients receive?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I seem to remember being told that the latest policy is to turn water cannon on the nurses; that does not strike me as the most helpful approach.

We do indeed have one of the best health services in the European Community, and my hon. Friend is right to emphasise its strengths. The report that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State produced last week revealed that this year we are due to treat an extra 250,000 patients; we are cutting the number of long "waiters", and creating a service that is responsive to patient needs. Those are all reasons for us to have pride in our health service, rather than denigrating the achievements of all our public-spirited NHS staff.

Mentally Ill People

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of community care provision for people with serious mental illness.

I am today publishing an assessment of the case for hospital hostels for people with serious mental illness. In recent years, we have established the capital loans fund and introduced the mental illness specific grant. My right hon. Friend recently announced that the mental illness specific grant is to be increased by 50 per cent. in the coming year, and he is today announcing that we are doubling the size of the homeless mentally ill programme in London. This programme together provides over £100 million of new money for mental illness services in this country.

There could be no more tragically eloquent testimony to the fact that the Government's community care policies have failed than the sight of mentally ill people spilling on to the streets every moment. Although it comes late, I welcome the comment by the Secretary of State for the Environment that that sight is an affront to society.

May I point out, however, that it is not only for the convenience of passing citizens that mentally ill people should be cleared from the streets? What is required is adequate special accommodation, along with the necessary health facilities. Will the Minister give a commitment that there will be no further discharges of patients from long-term hospitals until places have been found for mentally ill patients? Will he also give an assurance—

Will the Minister give an assurance that mentally ill patients who were ejected before the Government's U-turn will be given a rightful place in society?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in almost every particular. First, he is wrong to assume that the policy to which he refers is espoused only by the Government: until now, there has been a bipartisan commitment to ensuring that mentally ill people receive care and facilities that are properly attuned to their needs.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked for a change of policy that would ensure that, before people were discharged from long-stay hospitals, proper provision was made for them in the community. That does not require a change of policy; it is the Government's policy. It is our policy that no one should be discharged from long-stay hospitals without the existence of a care programme that defines that person's needs—and, furthermore, naming an individual key worker who will be responsible for ensuring that the person receives the care that he requires.

The fact is that the hon. Gentleman cannot support his assertions on the basis of the available evidence.

Order. I remind the House that multiple questions lead to multiple answers and take up time.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's announcement. Does he accept, however, that—sadly—many of those who are sleeping rough in our cities and elsewhere have indeed been discharged from psychiatric hospitals and have slipped through the care package net? Hundreds more are in our prisons, which are the wrong place for such people. Will my hon. Friend ensure that there is a proper care package, properly drawn up, for every mentally ill patient who is discharged from a psychiatric hospital before such patients are discharged? If that cannot be achieved, will he ensure that psychiatric hospitals do not close until the necessary arrangements can be made?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the document that we are publishing today on hospital hostels. I agree with him that they have an important role to play in a fully integrated service for mentally ill people, but the House would mislead itself if it believed that those mentally ill people who find themselves on the streets are drawn from those patients who have been discharged from long-term care in hospitals. The great majority of homeless people who are mentally ill have never been in our hospitals. We need to ensure that the management of community care is improved to meet the needs of those who are discharged from hospitals and, more particularly, of those who have never been long-stay patients in our hospitals for the mentally ill.

I welcome without qualification the Minister's statement and confirm that there is a bipartisan approach to this policy. However, we want that policy to be activated and managed. That is the difference between us. We do not want to stand idly by and do nothing. The Minister's announcement—which again I welcome without qualification—comes six years after the Audit Commission's report on care in the community, which in paragraph 28 highlighted the fact that then, six years ago, there were 37,000 fewer mentally ill and mentally handicapped patients than there were 10 years ago but that nobody knew where those who had been discharged were because nobody had done anything to find out what had happened to them. For six years, the Government have not taken a blind bit of notice of the Audit Commission's report. They have allowed their care in the community policy for ex-mental patients to amount to no more than people drifting within a community of hostels, in which one finds people who have fallen through the safety net and ended up homeless on the streets.

I find myself left wondering, if £100 million of new money is standing idly by, how much an action programme is going to cost the Labour party and when we shall see it properly costed.

Orthopaedic Treatments

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health by what factor (a) hip replacements and (b) all orthopaedic procedures have increased since 1979.

The latest figures for 1990–91 show the number of hip replacements up by 54 per cent. from 28,788 to 44,477. Latest information on all orthopaedic procedures from the hospital episode statistics is for 1989–90 and shows an increase of 18 per cent. from 554,000 to 656,000.

Does my right hon Friend agree that the figures confirm the tremendous advances that have been made in health care since the Conservatives came to power? Does he agree that that is evidenced by the recent successful survey of the national health service? Does my right hon. Friend agree also that the last Labour Government introduced such swingeing real cuts in the health service that, if they were returned to power, it would represent a real threat to those who require advanced orthopaedic treatment?

My hon. Friend is right. That is reflected in the fact that there are now about 100,000 more orthopaedic operations than there were in 1979. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) recently said to the House, rather chillingly, that if Labour were re-elected it would treat the national health service as it did last time. As Mr. Charles Webster, the national health service historian, recently told "Newsnight", that meant a splurge of spending at the beginning that was followed by the most desperate and dangerous cuts ever in the history of the national health service.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that an enormous number of people in Herefordshire are very grateful for the spectacular increase in knee and hip replacements that has taken place in that health authority's area during the past 10 years? It is an astonishingly successful programme. However, with a higher age structure, compared with the national average, demand continues to outstrip supply. In view of my right hon. Friend's waiting lists initiative, will he take special cognisance of that point and balance the distribution of that resource to reflect the age structure?

My hon. Friend knows that one of the changes that we are introducing is much fairer funding of health authorities throughout the land to reflect, among other things, the age structure. It is the duty of health authorities to meet the needs of local people by putting the money where it best serves those local needs.

Eye Treatments

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what plans he has for reducing waiting times in respect of eye treatments; and if he will make a statement.

We are taking vigorous action to reduce waiting times for hospital treatment in all specialties.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, for many years within the referral area of the Plymouth eye infirmary, people have had to wait excessively long periods not only for an initial eye examination but for subsequent treatment? Will my hon. Friend tell us what action is being taken to improve the position in respect of new staff and new facilities and any benefits that might be derived from the new contractual arrangements?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the ophthalmology specialty in Plymouth hospital has had excessive waiting lists. I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the new structures and management priorities of the health service led the health authority to appoint a new ophthalmology consultant last week to provide extra sessions to work through the waiting list. The contracting system to which my hon. Friend referred has made it possible for the health authority to provide extra capacity for the specialty at Exeter hospital which will ensure that the waiting list can be worked off much more quickly than would otherwise be possible. My hon. Friend's constituency experience demonstrates clearly the higher priority now attached to reducing waiting times and the management system that is necessary to deliver that objective.

Is the Minister aware that the new cataract centre at Manchester royal eye hospital is dependent upon private patients to pay the £2 million loan for its refurbishment? Does he agree that that will lead to preferential treatment for private patients and creeping privatisation? Why on earth is his Department so scared of answering questions on this subject?

That question is not for the Government; it is for the hon. Gentleman and his party to explain to his constituents why it is in the interests of the patients of Manchester to remove private patients from NHS hospitals, to deny the NHS revenue that private patients bring and to deny benefits to NHS patients in general.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whether the Opposition like it or not, waiting lists are going down? Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the doctors, nurses and administrators who have made the reforms, the fundholders and the NHS trusts a success? Will my hon. Friend ask the Opposition whether they will continue to embark upon their policy of abolishing those trusts? If they do not give an answer, will my hon. Friend take the Leader of the Opposition out for an Italian meal?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the deafening silence of the Labour party when last week we announced success in reducing long waits for NHS treatment. The House may be interested to know that, because we were seeking to look at the effect of NHS management reforms over the first six months, we did not draw attention to the fact that the number of people who have been waiting for more than one year on in-patient lists is 37 per cent. down on what it was when we took office in 1979.

Infant Mortality

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will state the infant mortality rate for each of the last 10 years.

The rate of infant mortality per 1,000 live births in England and Wales has fallen from 11.1 in 1981 to 7.9 in 1990. The complete figures for the past 10 years will be published in the Official Report.

Although those figures are welcome, is the Minister aware that we do not compare well with our European colleagues and that our declining infant mortality rate is not as good as many of their rates? Also, there are big differences between social classes and regions in this country in terms of the opportunities for children to survive. Does the Minister consider it fair that, if a child is born in East Anglia, it has a far better chance of survival than if it is born in Yorkshire or in my region, where we recently lost five intensive care cots? Is not it right that all children should have access to the latest technology, irrespective of where they live or the poverty of their parents?

I do not think that it is right for the hon. Lady to knock the national health service in that way. In fact, Britain's figures are rather good. Some in Europe are better than ours, but we are better than some others and very much better than the United States. She will also want to welcome the fact given in answer to the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) that the percentage improvement among the poorest groups—what the sociologists call groups 4 and 5—has been greater than that among the higher groups, so the gap is therefore narrowing. That is very welcome.

I recently referred the subject of access to neo-natal facilities to the Clinical Standards Advisory Group, and we recently set up a confidential inquiry into stillbirths and deaths in infancy. We are making steady progress, of which the country should be proud. We should also be proud of the NHS's achievement in that respect.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the improvements made in Shropshire, especially by the maternity unit of the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, where two thirds of the Conway brood were born? Is he aware that that progress has been made not merely because of the skill of the consultants and of the nursing staff but because of the way they work together as a team? Therefore, will he ensure that the district health authority does not break up that team in order to move it to Telford to try to keep an under-used district general hospital busy?

I believe that steady progress is being made, as my hon. Friend says. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) for having tabled the question, which otherwise the Opposition might have accused me of having planted.

Following is the information:

Infant mortality rates per 1,000 live births: 1981–1990 England and Wales

Year

Rate

198111·1
198210·8
198310·1
19849·5
19859·4
19869·6
19879·2
19889·0
19898·4
19907·9

Gp Budget Holders

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the progress of budget-holding general practitioner practices.

The Government's introduction of general practitioner fundholding has been a clear success, a fact confirmed in the independent academic research undertaken by Professor Glennerster of the London school of economics reported today by the King's Fund.

To allow the advantages of fund holding to be enjoyed by more patients and doctors, I am pleased to announce that we are lowering the list size eligibility criterion from 9,000 patients to 7,000 patients for practices entering the scheme from April 1993.

My right hon. Friend's announcement is to be welcomed by GPs who welcome the principle of managing their own funds. It helps the NHS and its patients. Is not it now time that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) apologised to the House for saying that GPs were not interested in fund holding?

It is true that the hon. Lady said in column 687 a couple of years back on 15 March 1990—[Interruption.]—that there was "no support among GPs"—[Interruption.]

She said that that was the position of all general practitioners of fund-holding practices. [Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite must get used to the idea that I shall read out what their Front-Bench spokesmen have said about fund holding. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) associated himself with the sentence:

"I'll be surprised if budget holding does not collapse in the first year."—[Official Report, 13 March 1991; Vol. 187, c. 946.]
He should have the grace to admit that he was wrong and the grace to clear up the muddle that has existed in his ranks since his colleague the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) recently announced that he was going to abolish fund holding. I could not get a straight answer from the hon. Member for Livingston about this. I think that the House needs to know whether he will abolish fund holding in the teeth of opposition from virtually every GP and from the British Medical Association.

Will not the fact that the percentage of GPs who hold their own budgets still remains a very small fraction of the total number of GPs—even after today's announcement—linked to the nature of the block contract system of an internal market, inevitably mean that, if we are to avoid a two-tier health service in terms of patient referrals, either all GPs must hold their own budgets or none should be budget holders? The present two-tier structure is leading to a two-tier treatment of health.

Like those on the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) is out of date. Professor Glennerster and others looked at the allegations and found no evidence of a two-tier structure emerging. Professor Glennerster said that it was clear that the benefits won by GP fund holders were swiftly being transferred to the patients of other GPs, which is what we said would happen. I think that the hon. Member, who belongs to a party that is supposed to believe in devolution, might occasionally support a practical piece of devolution.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that GPs were encouraged to introduce computerisation partly by an offer of Government funds to refund the cost of that process and, in districts such as the Wessex health authority, those funds have not been fully forthcoming? Will he agree to allow a carry-over into next year to ensure that those GPs who have introduced computerisation will be compensated by the Government, in accordance with the Government undertaking?

I have been to a large number of conferences and met many general practitioners, including many from my hon. Friend's district. I have found no such systematic problems, but if there are specific difficulties in some practices, those involved should discuss them with their regional health authority.

Why does the Minister continue to misrepresent the views of doctors? Is he aware that the chair of the local British Medical Association branch in Calderdale recently publicly rebuked local Tories who were saying that GPs wanted to become fund holders? Dr. Whittaker had to say that no doctors in Calderdale had applied to become fund holders in either the second or third wave. Is it not about time that the Minister started to represent doctors' views properly?

I am tempted to quote Oliver Cromwell and to ask whether the hon. Lady could conceive of the possibility that she might be wrong. I am making the extension because of the pressure from general practitioners who have asked me to extend the list size. People are queuing up to join the voluntary scheme.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the fund-holding system has been a spectacular success—so much so that many of the more trendy, intellectual GPs who were initially sceptical of it now welcome it more and more with open arms? Will my right hon. Friend look again at some of the procedures for recording, note taking and keeping records, as some GPs say that the system is a little too cumbersome and bureaucratic?

I am very sympathetic to comments like that. The scheme will obviously be a permanent and beneficial part of health care in this country but is, I am sure, susceptible to improvement and further development, which I shall promote. My hon. Friend correctly records the honesty of many general practitioners, some of whom were sceptical. At his press conference this morning, Professor Glennerster said that, when he started his investigation, he was sceptical, but that he was converted by the evidence of his own eyes, and what he had seen and heard. I only wish that the Labour party had the same openness of mind.

If the Secretary of State does not believe that GP fund holding produces two-tier waiting lists, how can he explain the position in Manchester, where patients of fund holders are given eye treatment in a private wing, while patients of other GPs wait 13 months for an appointment? If that is not queue-jumping, what does the Secretary of State call it? How can he explain the position in Surrey and in St. Albans, where consultants are being placed under pressure by managers to give priority to GP fund holders because they bring extra money? If the Secretary of State does not recognise that as an example of two-tier lists, what will he recognise as such?

I shall answer the Secretary of State's question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is getting in practice and asking the questions to which I give the answers at Question Time, as it is a situation to which he shall have to become accustomed. The next Labour Government will end GP fund holding, because we shall not tolerate a two-tier list system in which the length of time a patient waits depends on the size of the GP's budget. There is a phrase for that policy—double standards. The Labour party will clear it out of the NHS.

I offer the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) my heartfelt thanks for giving what is almost the first straight answer that I have ever extracted from him. I believe that he has, in a single word, delivered to us the votes of the majority of general practitioners in the country, for which I am most grateful. I urge him to study the remarks of Professor Glennerster, who knows rather more about this matter than he does and has laid the two-tier rumours to rest once and for all.

Nurse Prescribing

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what progress is being made towards permitting nurse prescribing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chiselhurst (Mr. Sims) has introduced a private Member's Bill to allow nurse prescribing. It has the Government's full support.

I thank my hon. Friend. As, only a few months ago, she very charmingly killed a similar measure that I had introduced I doubly welcome her support now. Does she now accept that allowing nurses to write prescriptions against a limited range of medical products is a liberalising measure that peels back one layer of the onion skin in the bureaucracy of health care? Would she care to tell the House the costs and benefits of this measure, which will be welcomed so much by doctors, nurses and, of course, patients?

The House and, indeed, the nursing profession are indebted to my hon. Friend, who pioneered this measure in the House. I am very pleased that our hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) is now able to take it forward. We did indeed commission a cost-benefit analysis by Touche Ross. That has been published today, and there is a copy in the Library. It shows that the cost is likely to be about 15 million a year, but the benefits will be improved patient care and a greater ability on the part of community nurses to use their professional skills to the full.

East Cumbria Health Authority

10.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health when he last met the chairman of the Northern regional health authority to discuss the financial budget of East Cumbria district health authority.

I have not discussed East Cumbria's budget with the chairman of the Northern regional health authority. Establishing the budgets of district health authorities is a task delegated to the regional health authority.

Will the Minister discuss with the regional chairman the formula base that is used for the distribution of money to the districts? Is he happy with the fact that one of the deprivation factors that he has used relates to car ownership? Does he realise that, in rural areas such as East Cumbria, many low-paid people need cars because public transport does not exist? Last year this formula robbed East Cumbria and my constituents of many thousands of pounds. Does not the Minister agree that it will be a travesty if the same formula is used this year and my constituents are therefore robbed of much more money that is needed for health in the area?

Some of my hon. Friends will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advocacy of the rural cause. He raises a subject that he has discussed with me. I have told him that I agree that the way in which the region originally proposed to use car ownership raises some questions that have not yet been answered. That is why the Department has written to the Northern region saying in effect, "We hope you will take account of our reservations in the next year's allocations, either in the formula or in tempering the pace of change where you have yet to satisfy yourselves and us that the adjustment you propose is entirely reliable."

When my hon. Friend meets the chairman of the East Cumbria authority, will he congratulate him warmly on the fact that having, since 1982–83, secured a budget increase, after inflation, of almost 15 per cent. and an increase in front-line staff of about 28 per cent., he has succeeded in securing a yearly increase of 42 per cent. in the number of in-patients and an increase of 152 per cent. in the number of out-patients? That is a very remarkable achievement.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the very distinguished record of that health authority. He might have drawn attention also to the fact that the health service is planning to spend £36 million on a very substantial capital scheme at the Cumberland infirmary. The health service in East Cumbria is developing fast, to the benefit of all patients—my right hon. Friend's constituents and those of the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew).

Healthy Eating

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Health how much is spent by his Department on advice to the public in respect of healthy eating.

During the current financial year, some £2.7 million will be spent by the Department and the Health Education Authority on healthy eating advice.

Is it not time that the Government diverted rather more of their enormous advertising budget into advocating the eating of vegetables to promote health? After all, the Minister is surrounded by a large number of them on the Conservative Benches. If she were interested in such a campaign, she could perhaps use as the model for it our own dear Speaker, whose radiant health and youthfulness make him the perfect epitome of a diet based on vegetarianism.

The hon. Gentleman's advice should be warmly taken by members of his own party. May I suggest that he directs that advice to those who think that the right way forward is a £500 roadside snack at the Savoy to raise party funds? It may also be helpful to those who dine at Italian restaurants and seem to suffer from Luigi's syndrome.

Is it part of the Government's duty to advise us all on what we should eat? Is my hon. Friend aware that I have lived for a number of years without any such advice, and I cannot believe that it is really necessary?

My hon. Friend's view is worth having. On the whole, the advice is in favour of a balanced and sensible diet, and I think that the public wants facts and not fads. Mrs. Heal: Why will not the Minister introduce nutritional guidelines for school meals to ensure that the school meals service plays a vital role in child nutrition, as recommended in the Black report a decade ago?

We have had the excellent report of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy, which has been extremely helpful. A great deal of work is being carried out by the Health Education Authority, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that people have simple and effective information about healthy eating, and a great deal is being done on school meals, with the particular help of the wife of our own Secretary of State.

Prime Minister

South Africa

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a further statement on his policies towards South Africa.

I welcome the meeting of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa in December. The Government will continue to encourage all parties to play a constructive role in the reform process. In order to encourage the growth that the South African economy desperately needs, we shall continue to work for the removal of the remaining economic and financial sanctions.

As many United Kingdom citizens live and own property in South Africa, or in other ways invest there, will my right hon. Friend discuss with President de Klerk the increasing violence there, and seek clarification on how the new South Africa can be built without the effective and practical renunciation of violence by all parties?

I agree with the thrust of what my hon. Friend said, and I shall have the opportunity to discuss that with President de Klerk when he visits London early next month. I believe that all parties have a role to play in implementing the peace accord, but of course the South African Government have the primary responsibility for the impartial maintenance of law and order.

Will the Prime Minister throw his full weight behind the proposition that an interim Government should rule South Africa during the transition period to democratic elections? As the situation is so delicate and as negotiations with the CODESA committees are currently under way, will he not—please not—do anything to damage that process by precipitate action on sanctions?

On the latter point, I do not think that precipitate action on sanctions is the point at issue. One of the great difficulties faced by the South African Government and people at the moment is the need to see growth in their economy, which runs at present with no growth, as against a population growth of around 3 per cent. a year. That is leading to very real hardship for all the people of South Africa—most notably those in South Africa who have least—so I think that the progressive removal of sanctions is desirable for economic and social reasons, and I hope that that progressive removal of sanctions will take place.

On the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I wish to see progress made in South Africa. I think that that can best be done through the constitutional conference rather than by remarks from across many hundreds of miles.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 21 January.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is good news that, even in the teeth of an international recession, the Government have achieved reductions in interest rates, which means that the family man with an average, typical mortgage of £30,000 pays £100 a month less? Does not that augur well for the home owner and the property market in 1992?

Yes, I do welcome the reductions in interest rates and, of course, in mortgage rates that we have seen. In particular, I welcome the cuts in interest rates which three more building societies have announced this morning. The background of lower interest rates and a continuing reduction in underlying inflation provide what we most need—the opportunity for steady, sustainable, non-inflationary growth.

Why is the United Kingdom the only economy in the European Community that is in recession?

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that a number of European economies either have been in recession or are moving towards recession at precisely the moment when the United Kingdom economy is poised to come out of recession. The right hon. Gentleman will also know that there is a recession in many other parts of the world as a result of the general world trading conditions.

It is a pity that the Prime Minister did not answer the question that I asked. Perhaps he should refresh himself with the facts. Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland and Italy all have growth rates of over 1 per cent., Spain, Portugal and Holland over 2 per cent., and Germany and Luxembourg over 3 per cent. They are all growing; our economy is shrinking by 2 per cent. Is not that because this country and its people are paying the price for having a Government of unique incompetence?

No, Sir. Almost every country of the industrial world is experiencing economic problems. French unemployment has now reached its highest level. Unemployment in the United States is at its highest level for five years. In recent months, unemployment has risen in every European Community country except the Netherlands. It is higher than a year ago in every EFTA country and in every G7 country except Japan. The right hon. Gentleman cannot live in a cocoon and overlook those facts.

On the subject of cocoons, the Prime Minister should acknowledge that the USA, Japan, Australia and Canada are not actually in the European Community. In this country, under his Government, unemployment is going up faster, investment is lower and production has fallen more than in any other European country. Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question? Why is that happening only in Britain under his Government?

The fact of the matter is that it is not, as I have explained to the right hon. Gentleman on many occasions, happening only in this country. If the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned about unemployment and recession, why does he not acknowledge the impact that his minimum wage would have upon unemployment? Why does he not acknowledge what the £6 billion-worth of cuts in defence would do to employment? Why does he not acknowledge what the impact of his tax on savings would do to investment? Why does he not acknowledge what his strikers charter would do to industrial relations? Why does he not acknowledge what his party's attitude to inward investment would do to jobs in the north-east, in Wales, in Scotland and in many other parts of the country? The policies that the right hon. Gentleman follows will ensure a long-standing and deep recession in this country.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of policy proposals which would introduce a new payroll tax on every job in this country, policy proposals which would reintroduce secondary picketing, and policy proposals which would introduce a minimum wage which would put literally hundreds of thousands of people out of work? Is my right hon. Friend aware that those policy proposals go under the somewhat misleading title of "Labour's help to the unemployed"?

The Prime Minister should answer the first part of that question, but not the second.

We have no plans to introduce any such policies. Industry knows that such policies would be absolutely disastrous to it and knows from what source those policies would come, which is why its hostility to the Opposition's policies is so severe.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 21 January.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Does the Prime Minister recall that, on 26 February 1991, I met him to discuss the case of my constituent, John Hall, who is seriously ill with leukaemia, an illness contracted while he was serving on Christmas island? At the meeting, the Prime Minister told me of his personal knowledge of the suffering of cancer victims and of their families and friends. He also told the Minister of State for the Armed Forces that he hoped that the matter would be expedited as quickly as possible. Almost a year later, nothing has been done. John Hall has spent the last year receiving chemotherapy and blood transfusions in order to stay alive. Will the Prime Minister please show some compassion and award John Hall and the other nuclear test veterans the compensation that the House and the country believe they richly deserve?

I am not sure that the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) renders Mr. Hall's case particular assistance in raising it in this fashion. I cannot go into the details of Mr. Hall's case. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the Government are willing to consider any claim where any evidence can be adduced of exposure to radiation. We are conducting a validating study into the background of this, and as soon as it is complete, we can reach a general policy conclusion. Until then, I simply have no evidence on which to base a response to individual cases such as Mr. Hall's.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 21 January.

Has my right hon. Friend had time to consider the tax implications of an extra £35 billion of spending pledges? If any Government were to bring in these pledges, they would either have to dishonour them and thereby deceive the public, or income tax payers at all levels of income would need to cough up and pay more to fund them. Is it not true that spending pledges such as those made by Labour politicians would mean that nothing would happen?

Order. Before the Prime Minister answers, let me repeat that a Member must ask questions about matters for which the Prime Minister is responsible; he cannot answer for Labour party policies. Answer the first part, please.

The implications of such spending increases are either that borrowing would rise to unprecedented levels, and no doubt interest rates with them, or, alternatively, that taxes would rise to a remarkable extent. It is noteworthy that those who advocate these policies also themselves concede in surveys that they would welcome an increase in the basic rate of tax as well as other tax increases.

Does the Prime Minister recall that the cause of reconciliation in Northern Ireland was tragically set back in the aftermath of the 1974 election? Will he agree that it would be appalling if we were to allow history to repeat itself after this election? Will he therefore support a cross-party approach to Northern Ireland affairs during the election and unequivocally reject any partisan trading with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in a way that would reverse the peace process after the next election?

This party stands four square against terrorism, and we have set out our policies from this Dispatch Box on many occasions. I see no imminent change.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 21 January.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a diabolical liberty for people to suggest that they can increase people's taxes by the underhand method of raising national insurance contributions, as is proposed by the Labour party? Is it not true that the choice for the British people is between our party, which calls for lower taxes and greater spending by the people, and the Labour party, which wants to take people's money and spend it itself? Is not that robbing Peter to pay Paul?

My hon. Friend makes her point in her own individual manner. As I have said before, if people advocate spending and tax increases, they should be prepared to defend them. The Labour party knows that its spending and taxation plans have been rumbled—and they dislike it.

Is the Prime Minister aware that, this morning, the Selby group of the British Coal Corporation announced more than 1,100 job losses at four coal mines? Will he get his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to take action now, as he has been urged to do by the European Energy Commissioner, to stop pit closures in this country, given that we produce the cheapest deep-mined coal in the European Community? How long will the country continue to lose jobs and to lose access to the great national asset of our coal, given that the Government want to sell off British Coal overnight at a cheap price, for the benefit of the Treasury?

I am sorry to hear of the job losses to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but the only secure future for the coal industry or, indeed, for any other industry, is for it to produce something that people want at a price that people can afford. That is the only long-term future for the coal industry.

I ask the House to calm down. I cannot even hear the words, "point of order". I shall take Mr. Andrew Faulds first.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If, in your judgment, Sir, a question is out of order, how can it be in order for the Prime Minister to have a response?

What I said to the Prime Minister was that he should answer that part of the question to him that was in order.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Opposition Members can fully understand why Conservative Members do not want to ask the Prime Minister questions about Government policy, but can you confirm that the purpose and function of Prime Minister's Question Time is to ask the Prime Minister questions about the performance of his Government? Opposition Members would welcome the opportunity to debate Government and Opposition policies during the general election campaign, but, given that the Prime Minister does not have the guts to call an election, can you please ensure that, during the few remaining weeks of the Government's period of office, Prime Minister's Question Time will he used to ask the Prime Minister questions about Government policy?

In my judgment, the election campaign started when we came back from the Christmas recess —[Interruption.] Order. It has ever been thus. If the hon. Gentleman will think back to days gone by, he will remember that such questions have been perennial in the few weeks before a general election. However, I say again to the House and especially to Government Members that they should ask questions relating to the Prime Minister's responsibility—

No, please sit down.

The first part of the question that was asked by the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) was in order, but the second part was out of order, as was the second part of the question asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick).

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely it is in order for Conservative Members to put various policy options to the Prime Minister, and surely what really provoked the rabble opposite to make such a din is that they are embarrassed at the sound of their own policies.

Is it not in order for Back Benchers at least to ask the Prime Minister whether the policies that are being promoted by the Opposition will most emphatically not be adopted by this Government? The Opposition are worried about their own policies.

Points Of Order

3.35 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Bearing in mind the information given by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and the fact that the news did not come early enough to make a Standing Order 20 application today, I wonder whether, if an application is made for one tomorrow, you will give consideration to enabling the House to discuss this important problem in the mining industry?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that for some time now there has been a policy of inspired questions being tabled deliberately with the object of stopping Opposition Members from putting genuine questions? Will you take this up with the usual channels, because it is making a farce of Question Time? You ought to intervene with members of the two Front. Benches to sort this out.

I cannot be held responsible for the questions on the Order Paper, provided they are in order. I have no idea whether they have been planted, and I am not responsible for the answers that are given.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In seeking to maintain the quality of debate in the House in the period leading up to the election, is it appropriate or parliamentary for the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) to intimate that the Prime Minister has not got guts, which is tantamount to calling him a coward? I hope that it is not appropriate and that you consider that it does not lead to good quality debate.

To paraphrase "Erskine May", moderation in language is the keynote to good order in the Chamber.

Now that you, Mr. Speaker, have declared that the election has begun, and as you believe in fairness—your job demands it—I have a solution to the problem of the Tories continually wanting to know all about Labour party policies. We have four Question Times each week. We will have our side on the Tory Benches for two days and their side on these Benches for the other two. Then they can ask as many questions as they like.

That is an ingenious suggestion, but I think that I had better not give my personal views.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) pointed out that 1,100 jobs are to go in Yorkshire. A substantial number of them are in my constituency. Therefore, in view of the fact that we cannot have a debate under Standing Order 20, will you prevail upon the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement so that we can question him on the matter?

I am sure that what has been said about this matter, of which I had no knowledge before 12 o'clock, has been heard by the Leader of the House.

I will take one more point of order. I call Mr. Kevin Barron, since he raised the matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The British Coal Corporation has got it down to an art now. Anything that it says about job losses is always said after 12 noon, when it is impossible to make an application for a debate. Indeed, it announced the closure of the Grimethorpe fluidised bed programme today, and the press release was marked "Embargoed until 1 pm".

Order. Do I understand that the information came out after 12 o'clock? If that is the case, I would certainly consider an application tomorrow under Standing Order 20, but now we should move on.

Representation Of The People (Amendment)

3.39 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law to provide that each parliamentary constituency shall be represented by a woman and by a man; to make a consequential reorganisation of constituency boundaries; and for connected purposes.
I wish to introduce the Bill to enable more women to be elected to the House. It will not have escaped your eagle eye, Mr. Speaker, that the mother of Parliaments consists largely of fathers and that, despite the 64 years in which women have had the vote and the many able women who have put themselves forward for selection as parliamentary candidates, less than 6 per cent. of the Members of the House are women. I do not seek special privileges for women. I simply seek to redress an anomaly in our legislative procedure. That can be done without disturbing the position of any existing Member.

We have women's issues in politics, but we do not have men's issues. That is becuse there is a good number of men in the Chamber who will take up issues relating to men. Because there are relatively few women Members, both political parties pay lip service to the idea of having more women, yet seem unable to achieve that objective.

There is no question but that women make admirable and competent politicians all the way up to the level of Prime Minister. There is no lack of talent among women. In the last decade women have made enormous strides. They are better educated. More of them go to university. They are better trained. As many women as men are now training in most professions. They have better jobs. They earn better salaries and wages. But their representation in the House still does not reflect the fact that half the population are women. In that respect, Parliament is trailing behind public opinion and the reforms which we have seen elsewhere in the community.

My proposal would not mean doubling the number of Members of Parliament, it would not threaten the position of any existing Member, but it would improve the choice for the voter. I propose the introduction of a system whereby each constituency would put up a list of men candidates and a list of women candidates and a voter would have two votes, choosing one from each list. That could easily be achieved by the Boundary Commission amalgamating constituencies so that each constituency would be represented by two Members.

There would be other advantages. If, for example, a person was so small-minded as not to want a woman to represent him, he could still vote for a man. If, on the other hand, someone would rather take up problems with a woman, that person would, under my proposal, eventually have a woman Member to approach. With natural wastage and retirement, it would take three or four elections to achieve that goal.

In Germany, all constituencies have two Members of Parliament, two lists of candidates and two votes. It is common for people in Britain to vote for two or more candidates in local government elections. In the United States each state is represented by two senators, often from different parties, so that there is one Republican and one Democrat. That shows that there is nothing complicated or difficult in what I am proposing.

As I have said, I am not seeking to promote any advantage for women; I simply seek equality. A woman is regarded by many selection committees, for better or worse, as not being the typical Member of Parliament. The image of a Member is still that of a man. We have to overcome that prejudice.

The House should be a mirror reflecting all aspects of society. It should reflect the ambitions, aspirations and concerns of the majority of electors who are women. Although I do not deny that under the Conservative party of the last decade women have made enormous strides, it is still a contentious issue that every time there is an election we have to have special women's areas and policies.

I disagree with positive discrimination. I disagree also with the idea that there should be a Minister for women's affairs. Neither of those matters would be political issues, however, if it were natural for every voter in Britain to have the opportunity on his ballot paper to vote for both a man and a woman. By adopting that approach we would take the issues of women's politics and feminism outside the deliberations of the House.

3.45 pm

I do not wish to make a long speech, but I cannot allow my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) to get away with this nonsense. As a former teaching colleague of mine said, this is just plain daft. In 22 years in the House I have never heard a more silly proposition put before it. In deference to your successors, Mr. Speaker, who will sit in the Chair and decide, if my hon. Friend's Bill is enacted, whether to call the male Member or the female Member for a constituency, to our constituents and to the Parliament that we all seek to serve, we should quickly throw out the Bill without ceremony.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Mrs. Edwina Currie, Ms. Clare Short, Mr. David Amess, who in the circumstances I propose to be my pair, and myself, Sir.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Mrs. Edwina Currie, Ms. Clare Short and Mr. David Amess.

Representation Of The People (Amendment)

Mrs. Teresa Gorman accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law to provide that each parliamentary constituency shall be represented by a woman and by a man; to make a consequential reorganisation of constituency boundaries; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 31 January and to be printed. [Bill 55.]

Orders Of The Day

Asylum Bill

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

3.49 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I note with regret that proposed new clauses 8 and 9 were not selected for debate. New clause 9 dealt with the difficult problem of special care for the unaccompanied children of asylum seekers. That aspect was debated at length in Committee, but was not pressed to a Division after the Minister indicated that he might be having further thoughts.

New clause 9 dealt in effect with the difficult problem confronting London boroughs. About 30,000 asylum-seeking households will come to this country this year, and the majority will arrive in London. That will place a heavy burden on London boroughs. Again, that aspect was discussed at length in Committee, there was no Division, and the Minister indicated that he might have further thoughts.

As those two issues are important, may I have your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as to how one may raise them during today's debate?

They may certainly be raised on Third Reading. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I always examine carefully all amendments that are submitted, and in particular whether any undertakings were definitely given in Committee. I am not required to give the reasons for my selection of amendments, but in the case of new clause 8, new legislation is not required.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There was considerable debate in Committee on the future of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service—particularly in relation to the future provision of advice and representation for those seeking political asylum, but also in respect of broader immigration matters.

Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department met the executive committee of UKIAS. There has been considerable press speculation in the last few weeks about UKIAS's future arrangements. It appears that the Government are seeking to establish an autonomous refugee unit that would remain part of UKIAS, but would put the rest of that organisation on notice that unless it agreed to proposals to introduce a new constitution, executive, and management committee, there would be a clear prospect of no future funding for UKIAS.

I am not aware of all those matters, which are for the Government to consider, not me. Those are the very questions that the hon. Gentleman should seek to raise in the debate that will follow. If the Government have made a decision of that kind, there will be opportunities to debate it on the Floor of the House or perhaps in another place.

I understand that, Mr. Speaker, but I wondered whether the Under-Secretary had indicated to you when he will make a statement about the Government's proposals for the future of UKIAS and of advice and representation. No amendment relates directly to UKIAS, which is a major pillar on which this squalid Bill rests. That pillar seems to be extremely creaky. When will the Minister tell the House what he has agreed with UKIAS, what will be available to those seeking political asylum in terms of advice and administration, and what is the future of UKIAS? That major organisation seems to be in chaos.

I am not aware of any of that, though I am interested from the point of view of my own constituency. Those questions should be addressed to the Minister. The remarks made by the hon. Gentleman under the guise of a point of order will have been heard by the relevant Ministers on the Front Bench—and no doubt the hon. Gentleman will receive an answer to his questions if he puts them during the debate.

I merely want your advice, Mr. Speaker. As you may or may not know, I am a former chairman of UKIAS. I am not involved in any way with the organisation now, but its position is a matter of legitimate concern not only to hon. Members who are in the Chamber but to many others who—as you have said, Mr. Speaker—have advised constituents, or their relatives or friends, to go to that organisation.

It would, of course, be helpful if, during our debate on the new clauses, the Minister referred to the discussions that he had yesterday. I realise that that is entirely outside your control, Mr. Speaker, but it would be rather unfortunate if we engaged in a lengthy debate on various clauses without knowing the Government's intentions.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) said a number of reports have appeared in the newspapers. We do not know whether those reports are accurate, and—like my hon. Friend—I am in no way involved in any form of mischief-making. The position of UKIAS is very important, and it would help the House a good deal if the Home Secretary or the Minister could tell us whether the matter will be dealt with in our initial debate.

Those are not matters for me, but the hon. Gentleman's remarks may serve as a warning to the Minister that they may be raised in the debate.

New Clause 2

Representation And Advice

'.—(1) Within three months of this Act receiving the Royal Assent the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament a report on arrangements made by him for ensuring that persons making a claim for asylum and asylum-seekers (called in this section "applicants") have satisfactory access to advice and representation from advisers and representatives of their choice and where necessary access to independent interpreters.

(2) Such a report shall describe the arrangements made for ensuring that access to advisers and representatives of an applicant's choice is not hindered nor inhibited by the applicant's lack of means, language, age or the fact that the applicant has been detained, and that advice and representation is provided without undue delay.'.— [Mr. Hattersley.]

Brought up and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Access To Legal Advice

'.—(1) A person who is in detention at a port of entry, an immigration detention centre, or other premises and is making an asylum claim shall be entitled, if he so requests, to consult a solicitor or adviser of his choice privately at any time.

(2) A custody record shall be kept for a person who is in detention at a port of entry, an immigration detention centre or other premises, and is making an asylum claim.

(3) A request under subsection (1) above and the time at which it was made shall be recorded in the custody record or record of the interview or the appropriate record of detention.

(4) If a person making an asylum claim makes such a request, he must be permitted to consult a solicitor or adviser of his choice as soon as is practicable.

(5) At any interview or hearing in connection with a claim for asylum a person must be permitted to consult a solicitor or adviser of his choice, and must be informed of this entitlement in advance of the interview or hearing, in the language of his choice.'.

The purpose of the new clause is, or ought to be, wholly uncontentious and wholly unexeptionable. Our intention is simply to ensure that persons seeking asylum in this country are guaranteed adequate legal advice and representation. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could oppose that proposition, or vote against a new clause that literally does no more than lay a requirement on the Government and their successors.

During our previous debate on the Bill, the Opposition took particular exception to many of the legal aspects. The argument was not about the propriety of keeping bogus asylum seekers out of the country; on that, all three parties are united. It was about the legal procedures whereby the process should be carried out.

I am happy to say—this is directly relevant to a measure that concerns legal provision and legal services—that in a number of particulars, all related to the operation of the law, the Government have capitulated over the past few days. The new rules—placed in the Library at midday, I understand, and thus available only to the most perceptive Members and those who read fastest set out a number of the changes in legal procedures for which we called. Let me give some examples.

The period in which an appeal may be mounted has been increased to 10 days. Applicants who arrive without documents—and who, originally, would be assumed to be fraudulent or trying to break the immigration and asylum regulations—will now be able to advance reasonable explanations of why their documents are deficient. Applicants will not find that the actions of other persons are held against them when they apply to remain here. It appears, at least, that oral hearings—about which we said so much on Second Reading, and about which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) said so much in Committee—are to become more regular and more common. They may even take place invariably; no doubt the Minister will interpret the rules.

All those changes improve the Bill enormously. If I did not welcome them, I might even describe them as a climbdown. I have read with some amusement the comments that the Home Secretary made about our suggestions when we made them on Second Reading three months ago. None the less, although these improvements, or capitulations, are very welcome, they emphasise the basic principle that underlies the new clause: the absolute necessity for the applicant who takes advantage of the improved procedures to be provided with the legal services, counselling and representation that meet his or her needs.

To understand the present position, the House must remind itself of the history of legal representation and of the Government's attitude towards it. On 2 July the Home Secretary told the House that he intended to withdraw legal aid from asylum seekers. The green form scheme was to be abandoned for asylum seekers, particularly asylum seekers facing appeal. He said that the work carried out on behalf of many asylum seekers by solicitors acting under the provisions of the legal aid arrangements was to be carried out entirely by the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service—which I cannot bring myself to call "Yewkyass" because it sounds more like a Hittite king than an organisation in Britain in 1992.

4 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and I had the temerity to ask the Home Secretary, after he had made his statement, whether he was sure that that organisation was the best organisation to carry out the work, whether it had the funds to do it, whether it was equipped to do it and whether it was prepared to do it. With typical foolishness, the Home Secretary accused us of casting a slur on UKIAS by even suggesting that it was important to determine whether that was the appropriate organisation to carry out the work.

Today—far from insisting that UKIAS be the sole provider of legal advice for asylum seekers—the Home Secretary proposes to prohibit it from doing any of the work. The Government intend to remove altogether the refugee unit from UKIAS. A letter sent yesterday, and I think also received yesterday, from the Under-Secretary of State to UKIAS is adamant, specific and unequivocal. The grant which covers work done by and for asylum seekers is to be removed. The letter also threatens to transfer all UKIAS grants—that is, for work done with immigration as well as asylum seekers—to a new body.

That new body is not specified in the letter. I understand that the Government have not yet determined what that new body should be. That new body is to be set up, but under what constitution no one knows. All we know is that during the last four months the Government have moved their position by 180 deg. In July, only UKIAS was to be allowed to do the work. Now anybody else, somebody else, an unspecified institution, is to do the work because UKIAS is deficient in every particular.

We have to ask why UKIAS is deemed to be unsuitable to carry out these tasks. I doubt whether the Under-Secretary of State will tell us that it is because of its managerial incompetence, because the chairman of UKIAS is the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for the Small Heath division of Birmingham. I suspect that he will say things that are not over-specific and that he will leave us with the general impression that the Home Secretary and his colleagues are simply dissatisfied with the way in which the work might be carried on.

The truth of the matter is very different. The truth is that UKIAS rightly, in my view, stated within hours of the Home Secretary's statement that it was wholly wrong that one agency should be the exclusive provider of legal assistance to asylum seekers. One might argue that that was very much against its own direct interests. If UKIAS had wanted to enhance its status, or to increase its grant, it might have said, "We will do the work and we shall let nobody else do it." However, UKIAS said—in my view, wholly properly—that in this area it was important that a choice of legal advice should be provided.

Who can argue with the contention that a man or woman, threatened with a return to persecution or death, should have the right to make a choice between different solicitors and different barristers rather than to be allocated legal advice by and from an institution which I very much admire but which in the eyes of many asylum seekers, who have come not from democracies but from tyrannies, is funded by the Government and, therefore, is likely to be biased in the Government's favour? I certainly do not make that accusation against UKIAS. I have had nothing but help from the service in my constituency. The work that it does in Birmingham, the only area in which I have direct experience of its practices, is admirable in every particular.

However, we delude ourselves if we do not admit and understand that when a man or woman comes here from a tyranny or a totalitarian state and applies for asylum, the idea that their case for staying should be argued by an institution that is funded by the Government who are trying to prevent them from staying is a clear deterrent to their accepting the advice and going through the process. That was the view of the Opposition, the Bar, the Law Society and the Commission for Racial Equality. It was also the view of UKIAS, which said simply that it did not believe that it should be given the work exclusively and that the green form scheme legal aid should be preserved. That is why the Government have chosen to take the work away from it.

One option open to the Government was to lose face by admitting that they were wrong in July and saying that, while UKIAS goes on with much of the work, the legal aid green form provision will continue. That would have been the sort of climbdown that the Home Secretary does not enjoy, even though he has become increasingly used to that over the past six months. That, together with the other five capitulations in the regulations, would, I suspect, have been too much for the Home Secretary to swallow. Therefore, the organisation is to have its powers to provide legal assistance for asylum seekers removed and it has been threatened with the total removal of its grant, which would mean that it would virtually come to a halt and be destroyed.

I do not want to detain the House with procedural questions, but there is the question of the letter between the Under-Secretary and UKIAS which was sent yesterday and which will be the subject of some debate as the new clause is discussed. I assume that if the Minister refers to it, that paper, being an official document written by a Minister of the Crown, must be put in the Library and made available to all hon. Members. Anyone who reads the letter will understand that, as was the case in the autumn, the Government are again threatening UKIAS. They are saying, "Do what we require of you, act as our agent, or your grant will be totally removed and your existence will, at least, be threatened, and you will probably be obliterated." That is intolerable for a Government relationship with an agency that spends much of its time arguing against Government decisions on immigration and asylum. The United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service should not be the creature of the Government. Its nature should be independent. That is an example of the standards that are now common under this Government; an agency that they fund has to bend to the Minister's will or its funds are arbitrarily removed.

The Under-Secretary should announce—I doubt whether he will, and it will be left to us to introduce the proper procedures in two or three months—that the Government will bite the bullet and accept the error. He should say that legal aid will continue to be made available to asylum seekers entering this country and appealing against orders for their exclusion. Having made it clear that legal aid will remain, he should then say that UKIAS shall continue to do the work that is freely given to it by asylum seekers who choose the legal route. I do not mind if he also says that he is interested in the central administration of UKIAS or that he wants the Government auditors to keep an eye on how the money is spent. That is a normal, sober and sensible provision when Government grants go to outside agencies. However, the principle is clear: legal aid should remain and a man or woman under threat should be enabled to choose the representation that they think best suits their case.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

The right hon. Gentleman talked about choosing representation. It has never been open to an immigrant appellant asylum seeker under ordinary immigration rules to have representation paid for by the state from legal aid, which is what the right hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting. It has always been that representation before a tribunal would be paid for when it was an immigration tribunal, but only through UKIAS. That was the arrangement when the Labour Government were in office. Has the right hon. Gentleman now abandoned that practice and is he saying that UKIAS will no longer have the monopoly of free representation as it does now, or has he confused himself about legal aid and green forms, representation and advice? It sounds as if he has from what he is saying?

I have not confused myself, but I fear that I have confused the Minister. What I am saying—and what I repeat as my final word—is that we should revert to the system that operated successfully before the Home Secretary's announcement on 2 July. That announcement curtailed the green form scheme, abandoned legal aid—

I am sorry to intervene again and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The green form scheme has not been curtailed. The Home Secretary's statement and the Lord Chancellor's statement contained merely a proposal to the effect that they were considering the idea. It has not been done.

The statement said categorically that it was the Home Secretary's intention to abandon green forms and legal aid altogether in this matter and to concentrate the entire work on UKIAS. If the Under-Secretary wants to pick me up on my tenses, he is right to say that it was not done then, but it was announced then. That is a distinction of such triviality that it does not profit the House to waste its time on it. The statement made it clear—and I shall read it to the Home Secretary if I get the opportunity to intervene again—that that was the Government's firm intention, against which I and my hon. Friends argued. It was an intention which UKIAS resisted, and it is because of that resistance that it is to be disbanded. If the Under-Secretary is saying that the Home Secretary never had any intention of abandoning the legal aid system altogether in this respect, he has only to say that he does not intend to do so now and we shall applaud that decision and expect him to support the new clause.

The Under Secretary's statement was interesting because it seemed to say that the Government are beginning to think again about their express intention to remove the availability of the green form scheme to those who seek to apply for the status of refugee. If that is no longer the Government's intention, that will be broadly and warmly welcomed, not only by the Opposition but by all those outside the House who are concerned about the constitutional implication of the Home Secretary's announcement at that time.

There is an important constitutional issue which should not be forgotten. It should be the right of every person who seeks to avail himself of a remedy available to him in law to have available to him advice that is not only in fact independent but is perceived to be independent. The great problem with what the Government proposed at that time—we look forward to them announcing that they no longer propose it—is that advice from that quarter would not be perceived as being independent. It would not be perceived as being advice on which the refugee or the applicant for refugee status could safely rely.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) made that clear when he referred the Secretary of State and the Minister to the fact that such people are coming from countries in which, very often, the rule of law has been abandoned and where they cannot rely on the protection of the courts or on the independence of the judiciary and the legal system. That makes it all the more important for us with our tradition of respect for the rule of law to be able to offer a service and to hold out a system that guarantees those applicants not only the fact of independent advice but the perception of independent advice. It is absolutely central to our concept of the rule of law and to all that the legal aid system has stood for. To renege on that—to appear to do so—is something that we simply cannot afford, and the House should not allow that to happen.

4.15 pm

Are we to hear from the Minister that we need not fear because, after due reflection, the Government have decided to abandon the proposal or, if not abandoned it, will ensure that the exclusive agency for advice—which particularly relates to the amendment—and/or representation can be relied on as being independent and perceived to be so?

We should be reassured on that issue because to those of us who observe such matters it appears that what is happening to UKIAS is an all-too-clear sign of the fact that when such agencies seek to behave and sound as if they are at arm's length from the Government—giving independent advice and expressing views that are not likely to find favour with the Government, of whatever political persuasion—their grants and functions are at risk—[Interruption.] It is all very well the Home Secretary muttering into what might in other circumstances be his beard but what, in fact, are his whiskers, but the perception of the House and the general public is that UKIAS is being punished for having dared to stand up to the Government when they made the proposal that they now seem to be backing out of—to remove the right of access to the green form scheme for those who seek to apply for refugee status.

The public and House are justified in their view. The green form scheme has served this country well, as it has those who seek to utilise our legal system. It would be a tragedy if it were to be denied any groups.

I hope that the Home Secretary is rising to assure us that that was never his intention and is not now his proposal. If it will assist him if I continue speaking a little longer, I shall happily do so.

The hon. Gentleman earlier claimed that it was the public perception that the Government would cease to fund UKIAS because that organisation did not agree with Government policy. May I make it absolutely clear that it has not been the policy of this Government or any previous Government to undermine the independence of UKIAS and the advice that it gives. All those who have been connected with UKIAS during the past few months will have regretted what has happened to it and its internal difficulties.

I see that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who was formerly chairman of UKIAS, is nodding and I am sure that his view is shared by all hon. Members.

The meeting yesterday of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department with UKIAS was positive. It has been alleged that the proposals are politically motivated, but that is not so. I want to make it absolutely clear that the proposals that the Government put to UKIAS yesterday were fully supported by the United Nations convention on refugees. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will shortly tell the House about those proposals.

The debate is useful and should prompt the Minister to give an early report on the state of play of the continuing discussions that he has had with those concerned about the provision of advice and the representation of asylum seekers. It is a late stage in the Bill's proceedings for us to be left in such doubt about the direction of the Government's thinking.

Some would say that it would be more appropriate not to proceed with primary legislation—changing the law so fundamentally, making a change of such substance—until the Government had a clear idea of the procedures that should be built in for the purpose of protecting applicants from the patently oppressive provisions that the Bill encapsulates. However, that is not the way in which the Government proceed. At least, it is not the way in which the Home Office proceeds. The Home Office announces its conclusions and then proceeds to rewrite them during the passage of legislation—and this is no exception.

What has happened can be explained in terms of the Government's uncertainty about the timing of the election. The initial announcements in July had more to do with the possibility of an imminent autumn election than with the need to bring forward precise legislative proposals. Indeed, when the next phase unfolded, an autumn election—a November election—was still an option, but that, too, was snatched away from the Government. No doubt they hoped that answers to the awkward questions raised by Members on both sides of the House would not need to be given before completion of the earlier stages of the Bill. This is a case study on how not to legislate. Indeed, the Home Office could provide us with many examples.

With regard to the substance of the proposal of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), the Government have a duty to give Parliament full answers to all the questions—questions raised in the Standing Committee and at other stages of the Bill—about the advice that will be available. There will not be an opportunity today to discuss in detail a subject that was debated very fully in Committee. I refer to the representation, advice and care that would be available to children coming into the country. The new clause refers to the age of those seeking such help, and it gives the Secretary of State an opportunity to say what particular consideration he has given to the representations made by the Save the Children Fund, the Children's Legal Centre and many other organisations that are concerned about the relatively small number of minors who come in without assistance, very often having been put on international transport by terrified parents anxious to get them out of danger.

There have been reports—one of them appeared in The Independent today—of an Ethiopian child whose mother was seeking to avoid his conscription to fight against the Eritrean rebels. No doubt the case has been brought to the attention of the Secretary of State. These are real cases. They give rise to great anxiety, and they merit special and separate Government consideration for vulnerable children—the people whom, above all, this House would wish to protect.

I hope that the Minister will be in a position to announce, in response to this debate, the conclusion of the Lord Chancellor following his announcement about the green form. That proposal has certainly met with uniform hostility from all those in this country concerned with the rule of law and with ensuring that the due process of law is followed.

The ability to obtain advice from professional advisers, or such advisers as the person in need of advice wishes, is an integral part of our judicial system and is essential if we are not to have a legal system very different from that which we have enjoyed in the past.

The Lord Chancellor has certainly been deeply concerned about the extent of increased funding required for legal aid, and quite separate proposals on that subject have been considered by the House on one or two occasions. As a result of the Government's decision, the Lord Chancellor has recently become responsible for the operation of these matters in the magistrates courts, and that may have opened his eyes to difficulties that have hitherto rested with the Home Office.

Great though the difficulties flowing from the expanded legal aid fund are, however, we must not allow the Government to whittle away the long-established rights of vulnerable people coming to our shores. We in this country have a record of concern that must not be diminished in the eyes of those who observe our affairs.

I warmly welcome the new clause and I hope that the Government will use the debate to explain in full where we stand before we proceed any further with the Bill.

I must admit that I am attracted by the part of the new clause that says that the proposed report

"shall describe the arrangements made for ensuring that access to advisers and representatives of an applicant's choice is not hindered nor inhibited by the applicant's … age".
Between Christmas and the new year, three unaccompanied Somali children arrived in my constituency. My local social services department has some experience of dealing with both unaccompanied children and Somalis. Somalis make up more than a third of the 89 refugee families, with 216 children, who have recently arrived in Bromley.

The social services department will be hard pressed, however, to find accommodation and adequate medical support for the children. Most of the unaccompanied children who arrive have substantial medical problems which are difficult to diagnose, and distinct linguistic problems arise in their dealings with doctors. There will also be considerable problems in fitting the children into our education system. They have little idea of how to cope with schools and no knowledge of the English language.

While trying to cope with those problems, my social services department cannot possibly hope to provide the children with sensible advice about asylum-seeking procedures. It is important that asylum-seeking children should be assigned special guardians to look after their special needs. If we did that, we would merely be following in the footsteps of our Community partners.

In Denmark, France, Germany, Holland and Italy, unaccompanied refugee children are already allocated a special person who is responsible for looking after their interests, both in terms of care and of asylum procedure. In several Community countries, such as Denmark, France and Holland, all the care and advice expenses of unaccompanied asylum seekers are paid by central Government. In France and Germany, there are special procedures for ensuring that a child's case is dealt with quickly.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to say something about the problem of advice for unaccompanied children. Sadly, the present situation is wholly unsatisfactory. We should follow our Community partners in assigning special advisers to unaccompanied children who arrive on our shores.

4.30 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You, I think, agreed that the letter from the Under-Secretary of State to UKIAS of 20 January, being a document under discussion in this debate and an official Government document, should be placed in the Library of the House of Commons for general observation. That letter is one of a series of letters between the Minister and UKIAS. Do you agree that the entire series should be in the Library for hon. Members' perusal? I am particularly concerned about a letter of 7 October, which actually states in terms that, unless UKIAS accepts the Government's policy, its grant will be withdrawn, which is exactly the threat that the Home Secretary has denied was ever made.

The right hon. Member is putting words in my mouth. I did not make that ruling at all. It is not a state paper; it is correspondence. It has never been the rule for correspondence to be placed in the Library. We have yet to hear from the Under-Secretary of State exactly what the letter contains.

It would have been much better, of course, if we had seen the correspondence over UKIAS, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has said, or if we had had a statement; hence my strong support for the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). If, at the outset, we had had a statement about precisely what the Government intend to do about the funding of UKIAS and the future arrangements of that organisation, we would have been in a better position to debate the subject.

That organisation, with which I was involved—I have already informed the House that I have no involvement at present—has undoubtedly undertaken excellent work since it was set up in 1970. I was very pleased when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook mentioned that he advised constituents to use the Birmingham office. As my constituency is in the west midlands, I follow the same course. I have had no complaint—none whatsoever —about the work that has been undertaken by the Birmingham office of the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service.

UKIAS was started when the appeal system was introduced on 1 July 1970. Some people have queried whether the organisation is independent. They have asked, "If the organisation is funded by the Government, how can it argue against the Government decisions?" There is no dilemma of course. Other organisations are funded by the Government—citizens advice bureaux, for example. No one questions the integrity of the CAB. Indeed, if there were no Government funding, it would be difficult for that organisation to exist.

The UKIAS was publicly funded and brought into operation as a result of the legislation of a Labour Government and continued by a Conservative Government, but its independence is not questioned, certainly not by Opposition Members. As I have often said, if one questions its independence, one has only to go to a hearing and listen to the UKIAS representative argue the case against the Home Office, and let me know whether the organisation is independent.

So we are not therefore querying the independence of the organisation. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook had any doubts at all, he would hardly advise his constituents to go to the Birmingham office of the UKIAS and nor would I. My right hon. Friend has made that perfectly clear and has taken the opportunity today to praise the integrity of the organisation.

As has been rightly argued by Labour Members, however, if UKIAS is the sole agency and if legal aid is abolished in such cases, people could come to a different conclusion. If people are forced to use UKIAS because there is no alternative, because they have not the financial means, the organisation may well be described as acting on behalf of the Government, however unfair that accusation may be.

This is an important point and it is why, in my view quite rightly, the executive of UKIAS, despite all the internal differences and the rest, unanimously came to the view that it was wrong to take on the work as a sole agency: it believed that, if it so did, its integrity and independence would be compromised.

The crux of the matter in new clause 2 is in the words
"representation from advisers and representatives of their choice".
There is no doubt in my mind that, in the large majority of cases in which refugee asylum is being dealt with and in which appeals are to be heard or advice sought on the possibility of making an appeal, UKIAS would be used. But there is a difference between a large majority of people rightly choosing to use UKIAS and a situation in which they had simply no alternative. The statement of the Home Secretary to the House earlier certainly gave the impression that UKIAS would be the sole agency, and that is what we really object to. I hope that the point will be clearly established today that legal aid will be available for people if they so wish.

If the refugee section of UKIAS is not to remain in existence—I have not seen the letter but, as I said earlier, it would have been much better if we knew precisely where we were on this issue—and if there is to be a successor to UKIAS for refugee work, the House is entitled to know what will be the make-up of the organisation, what will be the management body, and what will be its relationship in its fund-raising role with the Government. These are important questions. The reason why UKIAS has had the confidence of most people over nearly 22 years is that everyone has known the position. There has been no secret. It has been funded by the Government—that was made clear from the beginning—and its make-up and internal decision-making has been, as it must be, a matter for the organisation itself.

I deplore some of the disagreements which have arisen in UKIAS. It is not unique: we even have disagreements, so I am told, in political parties from time to time. I deeply regret that some of these differences have come to the fore, and I wish that they could have been avoided. However, that is no reason—I hope that the Home Secretary is listening to my viewpoint—why the organisation should be discontinued. The Home Secretary is nodding.

If we agree that excellent work is being undertaken and that the staff are dedicated people who believe in the importance of their work and who feel an obligation to their clients—otherwise they should not be doing the job in the first place—it would be unfortunate if, because of some internal differences, which I hope will be cleared up—I understand that there is to be a meeting of UKIAS on Wednesday—the Home Secretary came to the view that the organisation itself, leaving aside the refugee section, should be dismantled. I hope that the Home Secretary will make it clear to the House today what he has in mind.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be able to comment on the activities of some of the charities that are concerned with assisting those who are applicants for refugee status. He may have noticed a recent report in the News of the World—[Laughter.]

Opposition Front-Bench Members may laugh, but they should take such matters more seriously.

The article related to a gentleman who, in one of his guises, was claiming to be one of my constituents. His name was Mr. Avedila. He had not only an address in my constituency, but 14 other addresses. So far, it has been discovered that he has a total of 15 identities. In each of those identities, he was claiming the maximum benefits available. It appears that, apart from housing benefit amounting to about £400 per week, he was netting some £790 per week in other benefits—in 15 different names. I have conducted some investigations and have found that it is absurdly easy to do that—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Apart from his anxiety to catch television prime time—perhaps it was an appointment in a television studio that prevented the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) from attending the earlier part of the debate what on earth has his contribution to do with the new clause? If I am correct in thinking that his comments are out of order, am I also correct in thinking that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will shortly advise the right hon. Gentleman that he is out of order?

I must be very careful, but I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is using a particular case to illustrate a general point. So far, I have heard nothing that is out of order.

Having been a Member of the House for 22 years, I am certain that, if the Chair believed that an hon. Member was out of order, the Chair would say so before being advised in general by the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). If you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to advise the hon. Gentleman in a by-line that I have recently returned from my constituency of Chingford, and that that is what delayed me and prevented me from being present earlier.

My specific point relates to an organisation that is called the British Refugee Council which I understand is involved in these matters. Mr. Avedila had 15 letters from the British Refugee Council, all of which held his photograph, in 15 different names. In what I imagine is a standard form, each of those letters states:
"This is to introduce the above-named refugee who has applied to the Home Office for political asylum. In the meantime we would be grateful if you would consider this letter as evidence of our client's identity"—
all 15 of them.

It seems extraordinarily easy to fool both the authorities and the British Refugee Council, because I am sure that that body was being fooled and was not conniving in such a dishonest trick.

As I do not know the cases to which my right hon. Friend is referring, I am not necessarily sure that the organisations were conned. The letters may be forgeries. I am afraid that we come across forgeries in our police and detection work, and that those letters may be examples of it.

In that case, I must ask my hon. Friend whether he will investigate whether those letters were forgeries—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is as capable of reading the newspapers as I am. I should like him to look into this matter and to tell me what steps he is taking to avoid such a matter recurring.

Will my right hon. Friend accept it from me, as a member of the British Refugee Council, that that most honourable organisation would never connive in any form of illegal activity? Clearly, therefore, there may well have been a forgery, but what has happened would certainly not have been with the knowledge of the British Refugee Council.

I am grateful to hear that from my hon. Friend. However, what has happened suggests that it is all too easy to make forgeries and to fool the authorities. Perhaps my right hon. Friends could do something to improve the standard of checking such records.

I think that I can do without the hon. Gentleman's help.

As the House knows, it is extremely easy to obtain false documentation from the authorities. It is extremely easy to obtain false passports or even to have genuine passports issued to people who do not exist.

I am grateful to hear the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) give his hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) the advice that he should speak to the Chair—[Interruption.] Well, what is clearly extremely unwelcome to Opposition Members is the fact that there is a large-scale racket, of which Mr. Avedila is but one example of a so-called refugee who seeks to claim that status.

4.45 pm

No, thank you.

If Opposition Members would like me to elaborate at greater length, I could tell them the story of Mr. Williams, who was recently deported. He had been here illegally for about 18 months, during which time he had found gainful employment in the Department of Employment as an employment adjudication officer. In that role, he frequently adjudicated upon his own claims. He then went round at the weekends to collect his benefits from his accommodation addresses, many of which are quite well known. Those are matters about which my right hon. and hon. Friends should be—and, I know, are—concerned.

First, I must apologise to the House for not being present in the Chamber for some of the earlier speeches. Unfortunately, however, I did hear the speech of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). Given that he served in Cabinet for many years, I should have thought that he would be more objective and would not simply take as his evidence two cases from the front page of the News of the World. The right hon. Gentleman cannot even be bothered to pass on his information to the Home Office or the police, yet he extrapolates from that that there is a massive amount of fraud and a refugee and immigration racket.

For one moment, when the right hon. Gentleman first rose to speak, and given that he will not be standing at the next election, I thought that Daniel had come to judgment and that the right hon. Gentleman was going to show some concern for those who seek asylum in this country and who have fled from oppressive regimes that were supported by the Government of which he was happily a Cabinet member for so many years. Those people have suffered torture and all sorts of indignities and have missing family members.

However, the right hon. Gentleman chose instead to use the race card, which his party is determined to play in the run-up to the election, by extrapolating from those two cases that there is massive fraud in matters relating to refugees, thereby smearing the character of all those who seek asylum in this country, without any thought of the conditions from which they have come.

I might have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would draw the attention of the House to his views on the two new clauses, but I do not recall him even mentioning them. Perhaps he has not read them. Indeed, he does not appear to have a copy of them with him. That seems a strangely ill-prepared way to attend such a debate—without a copy of the Bill or of the Hansard of the Standing Committee, with Mr. Speaker's selection of amendments or copies of those amendments.

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the right hon. Gentleman came with a crucial piece of information—the front page of the News of the World. We all know where he gets his information.

These new clauses are crucial ones about the right to independent legal advice. I should have thought that the right hon. Member for Chingford, who believes, apparently, in freedom of choice in all matters, would have supported the right of freedom to choose independent legal advice. But he does not do that; instead, he supports the Government's curtailment of that right. He supports the curtailment, apparently, of green-form advice, which I believe is largely motivated by the embarrassment which the Government have suffered from a number of very successful cases that have been mounted against Home Office decisions by law centres and legal aid practices throughout the country. That, I believe, is the motive behind what they are doing.

I believe that an important part of the first of the new clauses tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) is the independence of interpreters. While I am not denigrating individual interpreters working for the immigration service or the Home Office, many of whom work extremely hard and do a very good job, it is essential that those seeking political asylum have an absolute guarantee that the person doing the translating is independent, is fully aware of the importance of an asylum application, is fully familiar with the cases and is somebody whose background has been inquired into to make sure that he or she is not in a position to infiltrate the immigration service and pass information back to the regime from which the individual may be fleeing, thus putting their family at risk.

These are extremely serious matters. Anyone seeking political asylum is taking a major step. People arriving in this country for such a purpose have to go through a long interview procedure to process their claims. While that is being done, their families at home, in Zaire, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, or wherever it may be, are in great danger if the authorities in those countries find out that an asylum application has been made in Europe or anywhere else. We need to know that all those who are taken on as interpreters by the Home Office are responsible people and will not pass back that kind of information.

I heard what the hon. Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) said and I share his disappointment and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) that the amendments relating to the rights of the child have not been selected. When a child arrives in this country unaccompanied and seeking political asylum—in some cases, it is extremely obvious why they are seeking political asylum—it is very important that the child is treated properly, as any homeless or friendless child should be treated. We discussed these matters at some length in Committee.

I have had experience of children arriving in this country unaccompanied from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. They are desperately sad cases. They have come from a war-ravaged country where their parents or friends have thought the best thing to do is to get them on a plane to some safer place. That is not an unreasonable thing to do when one considers the circumstances in which they might be living. They turn up on church doorsteps in inner London hoping that the Church will be able to help them out in some way. Then there is a rather unseemly scramble, with London social services authorities passing the children from one place to another until somebody finally accepts our responsibilities under the Children Act 1989.

What we were looking for in Committee, and what the children's legal aid centre was looking for, was a declaration that the Government's signature to the United Nation convention on the rights of the child would be enshrined in the spirit of law in this country and that there would be independent panels that could look after the welfare of the children to ensure that their welfare was the primary consideration. That surely ought to be what we are discussing today.

These two new clauses are important, and the Government should be able to accept them, because they would ensure a right to independent legal advice and a choice of that advice. I am not condemning the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service or the people who work in it. I am saying that, as an organisation, it cannot cope with the work it has to do at the present time. No organisation could expand as quickly as the new organisation that is to be set up is apparently expected to expand to take on all this work.

I know from first-hand experience about the excellent work that is done by a number of legal aid practices and law centres in supporting asylum applicants. It could well be that the right hon. Member for Chingford and others are so offended by the success of those organisations and the ability of those individuals that they wish to curtail the right of people to seek that independent legal advice. That seems to me to be completely wrong. We should be supporting the right to seek independent legal advice in support of an asylum application.

Nobody who seeks political asylum does it lightly. It is a very serious step to take, with implications for the individual, his family and the rest of his life. It is not something that people easily embark upon. I think it is time that the House took the issue seriously and guaranteed the right to independent advice.

I do not support the new clause, but I want to bring one aspect of it to my right hon. Friend's attention. It is the need, when an application for asylum is being considered by the special adjudicator, for a second interpreter. Denmark, which I visited to explore this very subject, uses this process. The Danes have made it quite clear—and I accept the arguments and the evidence that they have produced—that a second interpreter is absolutely necessary in the case of an application for leave.

The application for leave is a much more beneficial ground than most other countries in Europe give; it is a much freer ground. In this respect, we are much more generous in this country. But it is really important that there should be another interview with another interpreter, and that it should be before the adjudicator in the application for leave. I see my right hon. Friend shaking his head, but I hope that he will take into account what I have said.

I, too, wish to apologise to the House for not having been present at the start of this debate. I was attending elsewhere to an immigration problem which was based on a misunderstanding between the Home Office and the Foreign Office. That is why I had to spend the last half an hour intervening and telephoning both Departments to try to deal with the problem.

I want first to say something nice about the Under-Secretary of State and, on the record, to thank him for his decision in the case of Younis Patel, who was in prison in Leicester for a number of months. The case was reviewed by the Minister and Mr. Patel was allowed to stay. That is the only nice thing that I propose to say about the hon. Gentleman. That is the only case of the thousands of cases that I have raised with him to which he has said yes.

Well, perhaps we can count them on the fingers of one hand.

I want to comment briefly on the Government's proposals and to support wholeheartedly the new clauses and amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley).

I believe that it is a fundamental principle that people should have access to independent legal advice. I make no mention of the crisis with the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service, except to say this. I have referred many immigration cases to that organisation. I believe that until very recently it operated perfectly properly. I have no great attachment to solicitors earning large sums of money dealing with immigration cases. I believe that there are many examples of people having to pay large sums to solicitors who are not experienced in immigration matters to deal with such matters. But until we have a system that allows properly resourced public access to organisations such as UKIAS, we cannot have a system that precludes people from seeking independent legal advice from private firms of solicitors.

The right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) may find this surprising, but I deplore the fact that some people who work in counselling services set up those services specifically to rip off people. That is utterly deplorable. If the right hon. Member has the evidence, he should place it before the Home Secretary, the police and other appropriate authorities rather than come here, in the time off that he has from his interviews on Sky, to make wild accusations about everyone involved in immigration matters.

Does not my hon. Friend consider it surprising that the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), who always wants to lecture us about the rule of law although we certainly need no lectures about it from him, comes to the House with, I think, two cases where crookedness was involved? Instead of taking the cases to the police, as he should have done and as any other hon. Member would have done, and certainly to the Home Office Minister, he found it more appropriate to come to the House and read from The News of the World to get as much publicity for himself as he could.

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I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Photocopies or even originals of the News of the World, if they remain from last Sunday, are no substitute for evidence being placed before the Home Secretary so that appropriate action could be taken.

Hon. Members who are present all have a constituency interest in immigration. We know from our weekly surgeries the amount of work that immigration problems generate. In many respects we act in the shoes of solicitors and legal advisers because we have gained great experience in dealing with these matters. Rather than refer them to other people, I find myself, as I am sure my colleagues do too, making the basic applications for citizens who come to me in order to save them time, effort and money.

Has not my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) made a powerful case for the use of fingerprints under clause 2? Was not that the main thrust of his observations? There is a very powerful case when a body like the British Refugee Council could be fooled. Is not the hon. Gentleman concerned that the true asylum seeker should be protected so that he is free to make his claim for asylum unhindered by the illegal actions of others who misuse the process?

We are all here to support genuine asylum seekers; that is why we tabled the new clauses. If the new clauses are accepted, we will make sure that genuine asylum seekers will be treated decently and will have access to proper independent legal advice.

Before I was elected to the House, I worked as a solicitor in a law centre in Leicester where I dealt with many immigration cases. Because of my constituency, since election I have continued to deal with them. The anxiety, hardship and distress suffered by people as they wait for decisions from the Home Office are obvious to anyone. We feel very strongly that people should have access to solicitors who have knowledge of immigration law, and who can protect people by explaining the difficult legislation and regulations dealing with immigration policy.

Over the past 12 years immigration policy developed by the Government has become more restrictive and hurts many people. When the Government introduce complicated legislation, it is only right that people should have access to those with basic information about it. UKIAS or another body should be developed on a national basis, with branches in all parts of the country. Certainly I should like to see a branch in Leicester. I do not see why my constituents should have to go to Birmingham or elsewhere to get effective legal advice. If we had such a network, we would be able to withdraw the support which we currently give to private practitioners, but the Minister knows that we cannot do so at this stage because there is no body of effective legal advice and opinion to benefit people.

I make no secret of the fact that we should have a public legal system in Britain, funded by central Government through law centres. Under that system, which we will begin to have under the Labour Government, we would not have to worry about dispensing public funds to private solicitors.

As to interpreters, I do not speak every language of the Indian sub-continent. I need interpreters in my surgery who can speak Punjabi, Urdu and Gujarati, otherwise I cannot understand fully what my constituents are saying when they have complicated immigration problems. It is only right that we should put forward modest proposals to ensure that there is access to interpreters. I understand that even the The People has started to produce certain pages in Urdu. If that newspaper recognises the importance of doing so, Parliament should recognise its importance and it should be enshrined in the legislation.

I hope that the Minister will realise that we have made sensible suggestions. They would ease his load by giving people access to proper and effective legal advice. If they had access to interpreters, it would enable his Department speedily to deal with immigration cases.

I should like to intervene only for a moment because I have an important constituency interest in that Gatwick, a major international airport, is within my constituency.

I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) about the anguish and anxiety caused to people by immigration problems. Inevitably it takes a great deal of time to go into these cases. It is right that they should he dealt with in a humane and honourable manner. In my view, the steps that the Government have taken, and are proposing to take, will in no way diminish the handling of the cases; indeed, I hope that they will speed it up and make it more effective and efficient.

May I pay a tribute to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), from whom I have always had the greatest courtesy and the most enormous amount of help in dealing with constituency cases. He takes great trouble over a seemingly endless stream of difficulties. I am grateful to him. I do not recognise in what the hon. Member for Leicester, East said about my hon. Friend any vestige of truth. My hon. Friend has been a staunch ally in trying to resolve difficulties as they have arisen for my constituents.

I should like also to pay tribute to the work of UKIAS at Gatwick. I have absolutely no doubt about its independence. I understand that the statistics show that UKIAS ranks ahead of other people in its success rate at tribunals—not that that is necessarily a good or bad indication, but it is fact. The House need have no anxiety about the independence of UKIAS. I understand the concern that people may feel about the proposed change, but I am content that it should go thus.

As to the unfair and entirely predictable venom that was poured on the head of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) a moment ago, it is increasingly impossible to have a sensible talk about sensitive matters without such abuse. My right hon. Friend was correct and was entitled to raise the case that he did in the House just now. We all saw it in the newspaper and there is great public concern. Many constituents write to me regularly, expressing themselves strongly and loudly of the opinion, or in some cases the fact, that there has been serious abuse of the immigration laws. We all know that it goes on.

All of us who have immigrant populations in our constituencies have become more adept at identifying dodgy lobbying. Over the last nine years, as I have dealt more and more with these matters, I have gained more experience. My right hon. Friend was right to air on the Floor of the House a matter which, however specific—no doubt it is being looked into by the authorities and by the police—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. It enables me to say that I was accused of racism by Labour Members although I had not mentioned the race of the individuals in the two cases to which I referred.

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman a little more about the two individuals, if I may, in a brief intervention. One gentleman has fled the country of his own volition, using yet another identity. The other gentleman to whom I referred, Mr. Williams, was deported some little while ago, it being cheaper to deport him than prosecute him for the gross fraud that he has perpetrated against the United Kingdom.

My right hon. Friend makes his own point.

These matters, however disagreeable they may be to raise in an individual context, are discussed in the pubs in my constituency, as they are discussed and debated at the Eton College debating society or the Liverpool polytechnic. Why should they not be aired on the Floor of the House? My right hon. Friend is right to raise in front of the—

We are merely suggesting that if the right hon. Member for Chingford has information he must place it before the appropriate authorities. That is what he should do.

As I have said, I have no doubt that, given the scale of the fraud, the matter is being investigated vigorously. I have no shadow of a doubt about that. I am aware of cases in my constituency—of course they are rare—where the investigating authorities have gone into matters extremely carefully and at great length while being most careful to ensure that there is no publicity that would be likely to lead to prejudice one way or the other. The only point that I seek to make—