Tuesday 13 June 2006
[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Jonathan Shaw.]
There is a certain irony in our having this debate while it is raining outside. Perhaps that illustrates the problem we have in trying to get to grips with this serious matter.
Although I have criticisms to make today, not all of them are laid at the Minister’s door. I am the first to acknowledge that much of the present regime originated under the previous Conservative Government. I shall be critical on the issue of housing and planning, but I do not hold him responsible for everything that happens on this matter.
There is a complexity in that my constituency is straddled by two water companies. Perhaps that has drawn my attention to the random way in which certain measures are being introduced by different water companies at different times. The north of my constituency uses Thames Water Utilities while the south of my constituency uses Sutton and East Surrey Water, of whose activities the Minister will be well aware. I have good relations with both companies. They keep me well informed and I believe that their management is thoroughly competent. I shall discuss the operations of the companies a little later.
The background to the debate is that the south-east is experiencing a drought. There are plenty of estimates about which year the drought is the worst since; I have heard that it is the worst since 1995, 1974, 1933 and 1922. Whichever is correct, the situation is bad. The present shortage of rain started in November 2004, and there have been two dry winters since. In the 19 months up to the beginning of this May, only four had above average rainfall. During those 19 months, there was only 80 per cent. of the normal rainfall in the south-east, compared with 95 per cent. in the UK as a whole. However, October 2004 and, as we well know, May 2006—the two months straddling that period—were very wet, with rainfall of about 180 per cent. of what we would expect. If that is taken into account, rather worryingly, we are talking about the driest period for only 11 years—since 1995.
During that period, river flows have also been below average, although the Environment Agency says that the situation is getting worse. Groundwater levels in southern England are below average. Reservoirs in southern England were in the 83 to 88 per cent. full bracket at the beginning of May. The figure for the rest of the UK was 95 per cent. That is the shortage of water in that region. Two other factors are involved—demand and leakage—to which I shall return.
The response of the Government, the water companies and the agencies, through the regime that prevails, was to introduce bans and orders. That is the correct response. Use must be restrained, because if there is no water, there is no water, and we must accept that.
However, the application of some of the orders is bizarre. There have been a number of different interpretations of how a hosepipe ban is introduced. In any event, as far as I can tell, such bans have been largely ignored. Will the Minister examine the situation with micro-irrigation systems? As he is well aware, under a hosepipe ban, someone may use a watering can to water their garden, but a micro-irrigation system is technically banned although it is more efficient. Will he review that point?
There is also the question of why royal parks are exempt from a hosepipe ban. If there is a shortage of water, there is a shortage of water, so we are not talking about something we can juggle. In my judgment, a royal park has no greater priority than a garden in Croydon, South. We are all grateful to Alice Miles of The Times—I am sure that the Minister has seen the article—who exposed the hypocrisy that No. 10 is technically a royal park and seems to be getting round the hosepipe ban by having a tank of undefined size to water the garden there. If No. 10 can do it, why cannot my constituents do it? I do not expect the Minister to march into No. 10 and demand a halt, but the issue should be examined.
That deals with hosepipe bans, but as we all know, Sutton and East Surrey Water has introduced a drought order and Thames Water Utilities is about to do the same, and that represents a more draconian approach to the matter. Royal parks will be exempt under the drought order. Why will Thames Water Utilities be introducing its drought order so late in the day? It will be introducing it at the end of the one of the wettest months that we have ever had. What had changed from the situation at the beginning of that month by the end of it? The situation surely cannot have been worse. What decision could not have been made at the beginning of May that was able to be made at the end of it? I do not believe that there has been more rainfall in central London than in south London.
In the meantime, the top end of my constituency is subject to a hosepipe ban and the bottom end is subject to a drought order. That means, for example, that car washes may operate in the north of my patch but not the south. There are five golf courses in my constituency. In the north, they may be watered, but not in the south. There is no difference in the situation of the areas, in that they all use the same river basin and they are in the same water catchment area. The patchwork fragmentation of the water regime in the south-east needs to be examined. What is effectively an economic distinction is artificial. We should return to that. Let us not forget that we are not just talking about golf courses. Tennis clubs and bowls greens also face difficulties.
The public are sceptical. Imposing a drought order is a serious matter. Car washes may still operate under a drought order if they use less than 23 litres per car. How on earth can we persuade the public to save water at home if they see a car wash operating during a drought order? If the argument is that we must look after businesses, we must recognise that a darn sight more people are employed in a golf course than in a car wash. Golf courses are big business.
We need a coherent regime and water efficiency strategy, and not patchy implementation throughout the south-east. If we were to look at a map—the Environment Agency’s map is as good as any—of the water companies in the south-east, we would see that there is a complete fragmentation. As we looked north up through the country, we would see that the areas are large and are built primarily around the river basins, such as those of the Trent, Severn and Thames. Why is there a patchwork in the south-east? Well, that is how things are set up. The most fragmented regime is in the areas of worst drought. As I said, I have high regard for the management, but the fragmentation of the regimes is not in the public interest.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that the water framework directive is coming over the horizon. It is one of the few decent bits of European legislation. The UK is obliged, by 2009, to develop a river basin management plan. This is a unique opportunity to review the strategy and to introduce much more co-ordinated measures than we have had in the past.
May I turn to the question of demand, housing and planning? London, of which Croydon is a part, is expecting to have 800,000 new houses by 2015. The south-east is growing by 1 per cent. per annum in respect of demand for water. The Government say that there is no problem in supplying the planned housing expansion with water, and they point to a figure of an increase in water demand of 0.1 per cent.
The excellent report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology described planning of water supply and water management as one of the foremost domestic policy challenges of the day. Paragraph 4.40 refers to the Government’s approach and states:
“Whilst we welcome the Government’s belated attempts to consider the likely impact of increased housing growth upon water use, we are completely unconvinced by the figures produced. Not only is the methodology flawed, but the findings are produced in such a way that even the Minister with responsibility for water issues misinterpreted them. The Government must be more transparent about the fact that their housing growth plans will have a very significant impact on water use in south east England, and focus on ensuring that the necessary preparations are made.”
The report continues in paragraph 4.47:
“It is worrying that the housing growth plans have not in many cases been factored in to the water companies' long-term plans, due to the way in which Government have initiated the planning.”
That report has no side to it—I am not being patronising, but the Lords produce good reports which tend to be non-political—but it goes on to discuss the need for proper consultation. When the Commons Environmental Audit Committee was chaired by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), it said that it was dismayed that water companies had not been properly consulted. That point was picked up by the Lords Committee in paragraph 4.19 of its report, which says that Werner Boettcher, who is not a lackey, but managing director of Thames Water,
“told us that there had been ‘very little consultation with water companies or the water industry’. He added, ‘we have a statutory duty to provide [a] supply of water and the question has not really been asked, where is the water actually coming from?’…Similarly, the company's written evidence stated that ‘the issues were not necessarily related to ‘if’ water could be supplied/managed, but ‘when’…What appears to be missing is a thorough understanding and explanation as to how…land-use planning and water resources planning interact and what the Government policy for this is’.”
Further to the point that my hon. Friend is making about water demand, may I draw the Minister’s attention to paragraph 8.18 of the Lords report, which states:
“It is regrettable that the ODPM failed sufficiently to consult the water industry directly—or to give due consideration to the water management implications—when formulating the Sustainable Communities Plan”.
My hon. Friend is aware that there is a proposal to build 4,000 houses in East Grinstead in my constituency, thus doubling the size of the town—increasing it by 47 per cent. by 2016 without any consultation with the water companies. That will require 6.75 million litres of extra water a day. That is hardly a sustainable development and I wholly endorse the point that he is making. Does he agree that people in East Grinstead who want more affordable housing and know that development is necessary are deeply worried about the sustainability argument and the water, infrastructure and everything that goes with building a modern sustainable society?
My hon. Friend makes the point very well indeed and is far from alone among my Conservative colleagues who tend to have constituencies in the south-east. A substantial number of people have that opinion.
It is not convincing for the Minister to say that the Government have looked at the matter and are satisfied. The body of opinion is that it has not been properly assessed and evaluated and he should go back and look again at the matter. If he is right—I do not believe that he is—the public need to be convinced and persuaded.
Leakage, which is primarily a problem for Ofwat, has been falling. It was 23 per cent. 10 years ago and is now down to 16 per cent. That has been achieved through the pricing mechanism, but in many cases pressing down on prices by Ofwat may have inhibited investment. Sutton and East Surrey Water has been under such a tight regime that although it is currently meeting its water leakage targets, it will take 200 years to replace the infrastructure at the rate that is allowed at present.
Thames Water has, famously, not hit its leakage targets and has failed to do so over the past four years. In my judgment, that is a big test for Ofwat. If Thames Water fails again—it looks as if it may—what fine will Ofwat impose on it when the public are having to make sacrifices? Thames Water has not been fined to date.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate, and I apologise that I cannot stay to make a contribution, because of a pressing session of the Select Committee on Defence.
On leakage, does the hon. Gentleman find it scandalous that 1 billion litres of water—one third of Thames Water’s output—have been lost while it has made record profits? There should be plenty of money to reinvest if Ofwat—this is the case he is making—provided the proper regime for that.
The hon. Lady makes the point well. I have no difficulty with the water company making profits and was heartened by the Minister’s response a couple of weeks ago to a Labour Member who attacked the water companies on an urgent question. However, the matter is in Ofwat’s hands and perhaps the Minister will discuss that with it.
The test for Ofwat is whether it will impose fines on water companies that are missing their leakage targets. That is bound to affect the public’s response. They are asking themselves, “Well, if we’re losing so much water through leakages, what’s the point?”
It is worth noting that the Law Society, for example, is about to be fined £250,000 by its regulator for having missed targets in its first year and looks as though it will not make its targets this year and will be fined £750,000. If regulators want to dispel the notion that they are a soft touch—Ofwat is beginning to get that reputation—they must act.
Water efficiency and conservation is growing in importance. The UK average water consumption is about 150 litres a day, in contrast with Austria, Germany and the Netherlands which use 125 litres a day. The Environment Agency said that to be sustainable—this is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made—that needs to be reduced to 110 litres a day. That is a remarkable statement by the Environment Agency and assumes a number of changes in the approach of households. How will that be achieved?
When Baroness Young of Old Scone—that is a good Labour title—who is the chief executive of the Environment Agency gave evidence to the House of Lords she simply said that there will have to be greater focus on water efficiency and a much higher level of water penetration to achieve lower demand. She also said that we need acceleration in mains replacement, a new reservoir and greater use of desalination. Those are all important points, but why are they coming out of the mouth of the head of the Environment Agency, which is just a talking shop and comes up with strategies but has no powers? The problem needs Government action and the Minister must pull together many loose ends and work with the companies to achieve the objectives that we all want.
There have been several occasions—I do not have the details with me, but can obtain them for my hon. Friend—when Ministers in the House of Lords have given strong assurances that developments will not take place without adequate water supplies being in place. I am afraid that that assurance looks highly unlikely in parts of the south-east.
Again, my hon. Friend makes powerfully his point that the strategy I am urging the Minister to take up does not yet exist.
Water metering must be a key tool of water conservation. Those who do not have water meters have absolutely no incentive whatever to save water. There is simply a reliance on appeals for restraint. People must be responsible for their own actions, and they must be responsible for the water that they consume. I urge the Minister to consider introducing a plan for compulsory metering. Some 75 per cent. of the country is not metered. I know that it is a political hot potato, but in the present climate, if hon. Members will forgive the pun, the mood is for reconsidering water metering. I have installed a meter in my house, and I actually save money, so it is not quite the ogre that it is made out to be. It could go a long way towards reducing demand.
On the issue of a national grid, it is quite easy in the present situation to say, “Why can’t we ship water from one side of the country to the other?” Having considered the idea over the past few days, I am persuaded by the argument that it would definitely be a bigger job than one might think. Immense volumes of water would be needed to supply water from one side of the country to households on the other. Indeed, to make it work, one would in effect need a canal system. Therein lies a possible answer, but that is for another day.
A grid would also introduce an element of competition, and that is really the matter to which the Minister must apply himself. It is worth noting that Thames Water’s drought order does not apply throughout its entire area. It says that it could move water from one side to the other but there are problems. There is not that much more water on one side compared with the other; and there are technical questions, because the water on one side is different from the water on the other, and machinery is geared for a certain type of water. That, again, would cause a problem for a national grid.
I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of an organisation called Waterwise. I am chair of the all-party water group, and tomorrow we are having a meeting entitled, “Is the Country Running Dry? The Need for Efficient Water Resource Management in the UK”.
Yes I have. I looked at that and at what the all-party water group is doing. I find it encouraging—I hope the Minister does, too—that there is a growing consensus about the need to act, to be efficient, and to revisit the water strategy and the question of planning.
On desalination, Thames Water has made an application for a site on the Thames but the Mayor of London is blocking it on the ground that it uses up too much energy. Again, technology must come into play to analyse how we can run such plants using less energy. A thought came to my mind: I gather that the new generation of nuclear power stations run at a temperature so hot that one could actually run a desalination plant on the back of them. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) may laugh, but it is a source of heat that would otherwise go into the atmosphere, and it is not beyond the wit of man to harness that heat for the common good.
In summary, there are many loose ends and much to be done, and only the Government can pull those loose ends together. It is not enough to leave it all to the water companies, and what is needed is a thorough review of water management strategy.
I am very grateful to you, Mrs. Humble, and I propose to speak briefly. I hope that you and the Minister will forgive me, but I have to leave for a sitting of the Standards and Privileges Committee at 10.25 am.
In support of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), I want to speak about linking development with water resources in my constituency. My contribution is intended neither to be as parochial as it sounds, nor to make a constituency point, because what I have to say affects many other constituencies in the south of England. The Minister knows that, because he is wrestling with problems that are not of his making and have existed for a long time, but they are being exacerbated by the Government’s policies.
The point that I really want to make to the Minister concerns the fact that in about 1999 I became aware of plans that might lead to the building of a substantial number of new houses in the south-east. There is clearly a requirement for more affordable housing and for other housing in the south-east—nobody disputes that—but the sheer scale of the proposals is critical for us. He might know that more houses have been proposed in the Gatwick diamond, incorporating Mid-Sussex, Horley, Horsham, Reigate and Crawley, than there are in Milton Keynes. However, the Gatwick diamond does not have the special infrastructure that Milton Keynes has been accorded, so the infrastructure development is impossible. It is impossible to build such a great number of houses merely on the basis of developers’ contributions, and without the Government’s support for the infrastructure. It is not a matter for argument today, but water is an important part of infrastructure.
When I heard about those plans in about 1999, I wrote to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who was a Minister in the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to warn him about them and to explain some of the difficulties. I went to see South East Water, which was then managed by a remarkable woman, Margaret Devlin. She, sadly, has now left her post as managing director to emigrate to New Zealand. Given the scale of the problem that she faced, I do not blame her. She is an outstanding woman, and she did a very good job. The Minister knows her, and she is a loss to the water industry.
I went to see Mrs. Devlin to discuss openly with her the extent of the Government’s consultation with the water companies on the sheer scale of the proposals for my constituency and elsewhere in the south-east. She told me, and I must say that I was surprised, that the water companies were not official consultees. On 26 May 2000, after I had been to see her, she wrote to me, and said:
“South East Water firmly supports sustainable development and has regular contact with East and West Sussex Planning departments on future development plans. However, until water companies become statutory consultees of housing development, it is difficult to see how such planning can be truly sustainable if no account is taken of water resources availability.”
“I make no apology for emphasising the need for water companies to be statutory consultees on housing development. It is important to understand that the request to become statutory consultees in the planning process is not driven by a desire to block development, rather to assist in ensuring that all factors are considered in respect of location, water resources and the environment.”
Subsequent to that meeting, Mrs. Devlin sent me the interesting points and the brief that Water UK submitted to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee’s 1998 inquiry into those matters. Inter alia, Water UK recommended:
“Water companies should be made statutory consultees in the planning process to reflect their statutory obligation to supply”.
It made a number of other important points, too. The Government decided to pay no attention to those recommendations. Their response, as set out by Mrs. Devlin in a letter to me dated 16 March 2000,
“was that as the current informal arrangements work reasonably well, the need does not exist to formalise the role of the water company in the planning process. The key issue here is that whilst informal arrangements can and do work, more often than not by the time the water company enters the planning process it is usually to receive confirmation of the planning details.”
I wholly support all the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, who knows a great deal about the subject and has made a number of important strategic points. Mine is a strategic point, too, but it is linked to a local point. The Government cannot go on willing the scale of development planned without matching the infrastructure to make it happen. The issue is not just water, but hospitals, roads, schools, care for the elderly and everything else; all those things are increasingly underfunded. In the south-east, the Government have stripped money from the shire authorities to give it to the north. At the heart of the matter lies the Government’s policy of sustainability.
I shall end with only a slight jibe at the Government’s expense—tendered, of course, with immense respect, affection and admiration. After my exchanges with Margaret Devlin, I tabled a question for the heroic Deputy Prime Minister, asking him to define sustainability. It was not for urgent answer; the usual space of time was given. The departmental answer was that I would get a reply “in due course”. In other words, the Department did not have a clue what sustainability meant. Three weeks later, I got an answer—a detailed letter—explaining to me what sustainability means. Some of what was in that parliamentary answer has not survived through to today; because of the sheer scale of the developments proposed, the Government’s new definition of sustainability has had to be thrown out of the window.
Part of the definition of sustainability is the prudent use of natural resources, and so say all of us. The Government must will the way, and must enable us to cope with the level of housing and development proposed for my part of the world. There are proposals for East Grinstead and elsewhere in my constituency, where we need housing, and where young people desperately need to be able to buy affordable housing. However, there is also the question of how they are to travel on roads already gridlocked, and there are hospitals already under great pressure with tremendous deficits. The hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) knows all about that, given where she comes from. The proposals are, by the Government’s own definition, unsustainable.
All that I ask of the Minister, who has a proven record of being reasonable, rational and sane on such matters, is to give us some understanding and some hope that the Government will consider with the greatest care the points being made by colleagues from across the south-east. They are not anti-development; I was distressed that when I went to see the Minister for Housing and Planning at the Department for Communities and Local Government, she was extremely aggressive with a delegation from the south of England, which included my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), and my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), and for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). She suggested that we were just anti-housing, and were simply nimbys, but we are not. We want the housing, and we know that we have to have it, but we want it to be proportionate and to scale, and we want sustainable resources that will be used in a sensible and prudent manner.
Again, I apologise, Mrs. Humble, for the fact that I have to go at 10.25, but I shall read with great interest what the Minister says. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, for allowing me to take part in this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on securing this debate on an important issue. The problem, as he said, is stark, and statistics suggest that, in some places, ground water levels and river flows are the lowest on record. We have been experiencing drought since November 2004, broadly, and the Environment Agency says that rainfall has been much lower during that period than during the drought of 1974-76. In some places, rainfall is at its lowest since the 1920s, as the hon. Gentleman said. There has been some respite, due to the traditional English summer solution—May was the wettest that there has been for some time—but that provided only partial respite from the drought.
Clearly, there is a possible connection to the progress of climate change, and what were once extreme environmental phenomena—such as heat waves and floods—are increasingly becoming the norm. The impact on communities and businesses is major, and will get worse with climate change. It will certainly get worse in the south-east and other parts of the country where enormous increases in housing are proposed.
I sympathise with the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on trying to get a definition of sustainability out of the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I tried, too, and I was on the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I did not get a comprehensible answer, either. The ODPM’s approach to housing supply came overwhelmingly from the Barker report, which was a very clever report, I am sure, but was commissioned by the Treasury, and was asked an essentially one-dimensional question about how to tackle house prices through housing supply. I am sure that Kate Barker is a clever woman, but she gave an essentially one-dimensional reply, which was that one would have to increase housing supply by a great amount to make a difference. She was given no particular environmental remit. The lack of consultation on policies that emerged from the Department formerly known as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—its lack of consultation with the water companies has been pointed out—demonstrates the lack of environmental impact assessments in the whole post-Barker process.
I was struck by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report; buried in page 121 of it are comments from Professor Adrian McDonald, who points out that Kate Barker’s report says:
“The analysis suggests that the additional housing supply needed to reach the Government's ambition of 200,000 net additions per annum within a decade would result in a marginal increase in water use.”
Professor McDonald comments:
“This assertion of a very minor increase in water demand is at odds with every other forecast that has been made and with the plans of all water companies in the south east. As yet it has not been possible to trace the origin of the statement to a verifiable item of scientific analysis.”
He mentions an earlier report, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that asserted that
“over the next ten years a huge increase in the demand for water in the south east is forecast.”
The newly named Department for Communities and Local Government needs to do some serious thinking on the environmental impact of the numbers of houses that it proposes for the south of England. I hope that it will look again at those numbers and consider different ways of tackling the issue of affordability, perhaps by thinking about household size and the availability of credit, so that it has a less one-dimensional approach.
On our response to water supply crises, we have various tools at our disposal. The Government approach has essentially been one of regulation and restriction up to now, but all the numbers suggest that the trends are now all in the wrong direction. Let us consider first leakage numbers. I should praise the Government a little; I am not entirely sure what Water UK is—from the name, one can only tell that it has something to do with water and is British—but the Government-introduced report by Water UK is extremely useful in giving us statistics on what is going on in the water industry. Strangely, Water UK has quite different numbers on leakage from Ofwat. The Minister might look into that inconsistency.
Water UK reports that, from the water industry’s total output of about 18,000 megalitres per day, there is a loss of about 5,000 megalitres per day. The comparable figure from Ofwat for the same year is only 3,649 megalitres per day, so there is some inconsistency there. Both the Ofwat and the Water UK reports show a consistent trend since 1999-2000 of an annual increase in water leakage since 1999-2000. According to Ofwat’s figures, from a level of 3,243 megalitres per day in 2000-2001, leakage has increased each year to reach 3,649 megalitres per day. According to Water UK’s figures, it has consistently increased from just over 4,200 megalitres per day in 1999 to over 5,000 megalitres today in 2003-04. The trend is clearly going in the wrong direction.
Ofwat’s response to that trend strikes me as remarkably complacent. It talks of an economic level of leakage, but it does not appreciate the potential impact of the trend going in the wrong direction. There are good guys and bad guys in its analysis of the water companies. Companies such as Wessex, Yorkshire and Dwr Cymru are clearly going in the right direction in tackling leakage and appropriate action is being taken, but companies like Severn Trent and Thames Water are going in the wrong direction.
The charts included in the Ofwat report show that Thames Water’s long-term target for reducing water leakage by 2010 is, in terms of litres per property per day, way above the highest number for any other water company today. Thames Water is a case apart. In Government jargon, it is in need of special measures, or a turnaround team. It needs drastic action and, given its profit levels, it seems inappropriate for it to continue to have such a poor record and such unambitious targets set for tackling leakage.
Demand management is going in the wrong direction as well, according to Water UK’s report. It shows that in the last year for which there are figures, domestic water demand was still increasing, from 149 litres per person per day in 2002-03 to more than 150 litres in 2003-04, and that non-domestic demand is also increasing. Strangely, it shows a slight reduction in total water consumed, which I am slightly confused by, but there is clearly still a problem in demand management. The comparison with approaches to climate change and carbon emissions is quite striking. Part of the solution lies in big infrastructure by tackling leakage and distribution problems, similar to the distribution problems to be tackled in energy supply. There are the big technological fixes—the George Bush approach—such as desalination plants and the like, but I am somewhat sceptical of those.
As in energy efficiency, a large part of the solution must lie in water efficiency and micro-scale solutions to water demand. The House of Lords report includes recommendations relating to what is euphemistically described as “black-water recycling”. It includes examples from Australia of localised black-water recycling. It acknowledges that the “yuck factor” has to be overcome in this respect, but says that there is more to be done provided that—I am reassured by this— sufficiently expert plumbing exists to prevent the confusion of water supplies.
We must also consider the greater use of grey-water recycling and rainwater capture. Even the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is relatively unambitious about that. It suggests extending the remit of the Energy Saving Trust and the Carbon Trust to water, which seems a slightly strange solution. Grants are available for the microgeneration of energy, through what was the clear skies programme and is now the low-carbon buildings programme, but no similar grants are available for rainwater capture technology for householders. I know about that because I am trying to do it myself. There might be potential in the long term to create a resource management agency that takes on the function of the Energy Saving Trust and the Carbon Trust, perhaps incorporating water, which extends to other areas of resource management with ecological implications, such as the use of nitrogen. The Government should be ambitious in this area.
Regarding water efficiency and reducing our “water footprint”, various demand methods are available. The only one used at the moment is the emergency measure—an example of failure—of moving from hosepipe bans to drought orders. Such measures are introduced when all other systems have failed. It is a shame that we have ended up in this situation, but we have done so in many parts of the country. I agree with the hon. Member for Croydon, South: it is important that such measures are applied fairly. There should not be exemptions for royal parks and people should not be able to use water for car washes and swimming pools while the livelihoods of people working in horticulture suffer because of their inability to use water.
We must encourage metering. I support moves to encourage strongly the use of water metering nationwide, and perhaps we might consider alternatives to water rates even for those houses that do not have water metering. For instance, each house could have a home water efficiency rating operating on a different basis to water rating, which uses the rateable value of the house in 1973—an increasingly bizarre basis on which to base water rates. We should encourage a greater understanding of the “water footprint” and impact of water use by households. For instance, Friends of the Earth has suggested that estate agents might quote water ratings so that people buying a house might have a sense of what its “water footprint” is.
The hon. Gentleman makes some hugely important and very technical points. Does he agree that all the information is available, that the knowledge is there and that there are people who know about it? The water companies know all about the matter, they know—by and large—what they need to do and many of them would like to do it. Unless the Government listen to the water companies about the availability and supply of water, unless there is consultation in the true meaning of the word—when the Government and councils consult on planning applications where the water is discussed—and unless the points made in such consultations are listened to, we are heading for a disaster in planning.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman up to a point. Certainly, it is important that water companies are part of the consultation process and are statutory consultees. I entirely support his points in that respect. However, my point is that it is not only a question of big infrastructure and big companies. As with energy efficiency and microgeneration, there is an important dimension to the process that can operate at household level as a matter of individual and community responsibility, and the Government should encourage such activity.
That process could lead to something like the environmental labelling of white goods. When people buy white goods in their local store, they can examine the energy efficiency of those products, so why can they not look at their water efficiency as well? A labelling scheme could show the water efficiency of such goods. Ultimately, we also have to talk about—as the House of Lords report does—catching up with people who are not paying their fair share. The report draws attention to the unacceptably high number of people who are not paying their water bills but who can afford to do so. That is another obvious area for Government action.
We must also consider the new building regulations. There has been much pressure, which I support, to make the code for sustainable building mandatory. It should include the requirement for microgeneration technology to be used, but why not also include rain water capture of grey water systems, too?
The debate has highlighted the fact that when we are talking about Government action on the environment, it is more than a question of carbon. There are other impacts that our lifestyles, society and economy have on the environment. I was struck by one of the submissions made to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, which seems to have gone slightly unnoticed in some of the recommendations, from Milton Keynes Friends of the Earth. Its response to trends in household size and the detrimental impact that they have on housing, land use and water use was not to ask how we accommodate such trends, but to ask whether we can challenge them. Can Government methods and policies be deployed to challenge the trend in household size and encourage greater occupancy levels in domestic properties?
All in all, we need a joined-up approach from the Government to water and to the environment in general, but the current trends do not give great evidence of that joined-up approach being implemented.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on securing this important and timely debate. It is, perhaps, typical that on a day on which we are debating drought and water shortages, the heavens should open and it should pour with rain.
We should not forget that although we face the threat of below-average rainfall over a period of two years or more and the long-term challenge of climate change, we are also likely, with the incidence of drier, even hotter summers, to face increased flooding, because our weather patterns are changing. We are having longer, drier periods, and short periods of intense rainfall. That is dangerous, because when the land dries out and bakes, its ability to soak up rainfall is undermined, particularly when it comes suddenly and in great amounts. As a result, in the summers—possibly this summer—there will be an increased incidence of flooding. That is a real possibility in London if we have storms through the summer during a prolonged period of overall dry weather. Weather patterns are confusing, and we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that just because we get rain every now and again, that is the solution. The problem is much more complex and long term.
The tone of the debate, which was set by my hon. Friend, has been constructive. There is great concern outside the House, and there is a large degree of anger in the south-east at the Government’s housing plans. Overall, people are very reasonable: they know that the weather is one of the few things that they cannot blame on the Government. However, the Government’s insistence on building millions more homes in areas that already suffer from water stress seems perverse to many people. No more new homes should be built until a proper assessment has been made of the availability of water. Indeed, such assessments should be made a condition of planning consent, and all new homes should have water-saving installations fitted as standard.
Many of my points have been touched on already in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) spoke powerfully and with great authority about the overwhelming numbers of new homes proposed for the Gatwick triangle. He is a formidable champion for his constituents, but he also spoke sensibly about a much wider problem which affects more people than just those in his community. He is absolutely right: the owners of those new homes, particularly if they are affordable homes, will not thank the Government if they find, when they move into them, that the area is subject to acute water pressures, stress and shortages, to say nothing of the other strains on social and physical infrastructure. I simply cannot understand why the Government have been so resistant to water companies becoming statutory consultees. I hope that the Minister will update us on that.
That is not just a problem in the Gatwick triangle: the Thames Gateway is one of the areas that is most prone to flooding, yet has one of the scarcest water supplies. That is a real conundrum for the Government to solve, and we look to the Minister for a more sophisticated answer than those that were forthcoming from the ODPM.
If I had to summarise the approach of Labour Governments to water since they came to office in 1997, the first thing that I would say is that they have had a lack of long-term strategic thinking. Water is not a laissez-faire industry: the private sector is dominant, but the Government are ultimately responsible for drawing up and having ownership of the 25-year plans, but we hear little of those plans, which are sketchy and underpowered. New as the Minister is to his job, I would like to hear more about his vision for the long-term direction of the UK water industry in those 25-year plans, and what personal input he will have into shaping those plans so that they are fit for the 21st century.
The second feature that has characterised the Government’s approach is a general lack of ambition to grip the complex problems. A few weeks ago, I had breakfast with the chief executive of Skanska, which is one of the UK’s largest engineering contracting firms. He told me that he was amazed that people are prepared to accept what the water companies say about their ability to make repairs and to progress with updating leakages. He said that it simply is not true that they can go only so far so fast, or that their best is the best that can be achieved. He talked about infrastructure building, in relation to cost, speed, the convenience with which works can be done and the disruption necessary to the public in built-up areas when renewing pipeworks and large infrastructure projects. He compared what his company does in the private sector for many of its clients, particularly in the gas and electricity sectors, with the relatively mundane progress that the water companies are making. What is the Minister going to do to stretch the water companies, challenge their assumptions and encourage them to go further and be more ambitious? What are those companies doing to introduce best practice in contracting and engineering to ensure that the solutions that they are implementing are the most effective for the 21st century?
The third element to the Government’s approach is a lack of national aspiration to match best practice in water consumption to patterns across the rest of Europe. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) said in his thoughtful and sensible speech, a great deal of which I wholeheartedly agree with, water consumption has grown significantly, almost horrifically, in the past 20 years, particularly in the south-east. Our record compares poorly with developed economies elsewhere in Europe, particularly Germany, which has a much better record than we do for saving water. It uses approximately one third of the water per consumer that the UK uses. Why? The answer is that it has far better, much more effective and widespread rainwater harvesting, and widespread utilisation of practical measures such as dual-flush loos. That sounds a bit mundane, but lavatories account for about 25 per cent. of total household demand for water, certainly according to the figures that I have seen for 1997-98. I believe that the figures for the UK have grown since then.
In contrast, according to Ofwat, this year, privatised water companies are losing 3.6 billion litres a day, which is up to 500 pints per home. So, we are not encouraging householders to be more prudent with their water use; we are falling far behind what other countries are able to do with sensible, non-panic measures, and at the same time, the water companies are losing huge amounts of water. That sends a poor signal to the water user.
The German Government have also succeeded where we have failed in raising public awareness of using less water per se. Each person in the south of England uses, on average, 160 litres of water a day—an increase of almost 50 per cent. on 25 years ago and about 10 litres each above the national average for water use. Yet the south-east is the most water-stressed area of the country. We need to work out—and we look to the Government to work out—a joined-up, broad-based water strategy. Those are the sorts of thing that should be happening and that we should be familiar with in a 25-year plan that attends both to the responsibilities of the water companies and to the education of consumers, so that we can begin to change consumer habits. I do not mean that that should happen in a panicky way or as a knee-jerk response, but that we should have a long-term plan to change consumer behaviour.
I shall discuss the issue of the private sector versus the public sector. At the time of the privatisation of the water industry, 15 or so years ago, there was some controversy—particularly in Parliament—but there was also, in the water industry generally, a great deal of excitement and the beginning of a new can-do attitude; it was shaking off the old, municipal public sector administrative ethos. That sense of excitement and expectation gave rise to a huge influx of new investment. Since privatisation more than £55 billion of private sector money has come in to fund large-scale projects. Yet the sense of excitement seems to have been lost. The Government accepted privatisation, but, rather than embracing the possibilities, they seem at ministerial, Government and public policy level grudgingly to have accepted the status quo. They display little ambition and few ideas about how the private sector can best be harnessed and utilised for the benefit of the consumer. I should like to hear from the Minister, as he is coming new to the job, about his vision of how the private sector and public policy can work more effectively hand in hand to grapple with the long-term challenges.
Other hon. Members have mentioned the excellent House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report, and I want to refer to two or three of its conclusions in particular. The Committee recommended:
“There should be wider stakeholder engagement, by means of new regional boards consisting of environmental and consumer interests as well as Ofwat representatives. These boards would determine how resource development, leakage reduction, network renewal and demand management could most appropriately be balanced in each area, with the resulting plans guiding Ofwat’s funding decisions.”
I think that, again, that reflects what I was saying about a lack of holistic, joined-up vision at the top of the water industry. I should be interested to know how the Minister proposes to respond to the first point made by the House of Lords Committee.
The Committee also recommended:
“Ofwat and the Environment Agency should take a realistic approach to the essential development of new resources.”
“To enable the water companies to undertake the necessary long-term planning for new resources, we call on Ofwat to agree indicative water prices for each company for up to 24 years into the future.”
The hon. Member for Cheltenham was right when he said that we must address the issue of Ofwat’s having put so much emphasis on keeping down the cost of water that it is perhaps jeopardising the long-term value of the water industry. We must be prepared to take a broader look at the costs of investment if the water industry is to be fit for purpose in the 21st century. I detect from this morning’s short debate a great deal of consensus, which should make it easier for the Government to tackle difficult issues such as metering and the possibility of water bills increasing in the longer term, to fund investment. However, we shall not have confidence about companies pushing for increases if there is no strategy at the top of the water industry to which everyone can sign up.
Another point that the hon. Member for Cheltenham made was also dealt with in the House of Lords report, which stated:
“Ofwat and the Environment Agency must also work together to ensure that water companies maximise their promotion of water efficiency, and have the necessary resources to do so. We also recommend that the remits of the Energy Saving Trust and the Carbon Trust be extended to cover water efficiency.”
Like the hon. Gentleman, I question whether using those two agencies for water is the best way forward, but the idea that there should be a comparable model for the water industry, taking a holistic approach to consumer education, public information and private sector strategy, is extremely valuable. A water saving trust that could be the repository of grants, information and strategic thinking would be very welcome. That holistic approach is sorely lacking in the water industry.
Finally I discuss once again the issue of development, particularly in the south-east. However we discuss the water industry in the country and whatever reasonable, sensible, consensual discussion we try to have about the long-term challenges that face the industry and about the direction that the Government are taking, the public will never sign up to increases in their water charges or to the idea of getting used to using less water or taking more sensible measures in the home if they feel that the Government are turning a blind eye to the most important issue affecting water demand—massive house building in the south-east. It is essential that the Government not only listen, but demonstrate that they are listening to communities in the south-east who are desperately concerned about that.
Whether the development is on a small scale of a few hundred houses at parish, village or town level, or whether it is the much larger developments that the Deputy Prime Minister is championing in Milton Keynes, the Gatwick triangle or the Thames Gateway, it is essential that the Government should be able convincingly to demonstrate that they are listening to the water industry and environmentalists, and that the homes being built are sustainable not just in name but in nature. So far no one in Parliament has been convinced that the Government’s sustainable homes programme is anything but a good brand for a dodgy product. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs. Humble—and to see it raining outside. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on securing this Adjournment debate on water shortages, which is a matter of significant public concern, particularly in the south-east.
We can all agree on the importance of providing a sustainable water supply system capable of meeting the essential needs of consumers and industry now and in the future. That requirement has been highlighted by the current drought in the south-east, which the Environment Agency considers to be the worst for 30 years and which, if we have a hot, dry summer, could be the most severe for 100 years.
One of the Government’s earliest initiatives on coming to power in 1997 was to hold a water summit, which produced a 10-point plan for action. That plan included actions to reduce leakage, improve water conservation and efficiency and review the abstraction licensing system and drought management. It might help hon. Members if I were to go through some of the framework that has been established under the Water Act 2003. I think that that will answer some of the questions that have been raised in a helpful and constructive debate.
The 2003 Act has facilitated a number of important changes to further the sustainable use of water resources, promote water conservation, strengthen the voice of water consumers and increase the opportunity for competition in the supply of water. The Act makes the provision and maintenance of water company drought plans, which were previously prepared voluntarily, a statutory requirement, and legislation to bring that about was passed in October last year. Drought plans need to balance a water company’s duty to maintain public water supplies with the need to avoid or minimise any potential damage to the environment. They contain various actions that water companies may introduce, depending on the length and severity of the drought. Those actions range from hosepipe bans to drought orders to restrict non-essential uses of water during a drought. Before publishing their final plans, water companies are required to complete a public consultation on their draft plans and to respond to any representations that they receive.
In discussing drought plans, the hon. Member for Croydon, South asked several questions about potential anomalies with hosepipe bans. At the 1 June meeting between the water companies, the Consumer Council for Water, Ofwat and the Government, we jointly agreed to review the scope for hosepipe bans. I appreciate the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman faces, given that there are two different regimes in different parts of his constituency, but I am sure that he will appreciate that both the companies must respond to the different specific circumstances that they face.
In the south-east, most water companies are following their drought plans and have imposed hosepipe and sprinkler bans. As hon. Members will be aware, the Secretary of State has granted drought orders to Mid Kent Water, Southern Water and Sutton and East Surrey Water further to restrict non-essential uses of water. Thames Water has now announced that it is to apply for a drought order. As with the other drought order applications, the company’s case and any objections received will be given careful consideration before a decision is made.
Perhaps it would be appropriate to comment on some of the points that the hon. Member for Croydon, South made about Thames. Obviously, it is for Thames Water itself to decide whether it needs to apply for a drought order. It needs to act on its plan in the light of its perception of water resource issues, and it has now judged that this is the right time to apply for a drought order. We have had several meetings with Thames in recent weeks to discuss its water supply situation.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about imposing fines on Thames Water for leakage. As he will be aware, it is for Ofwat, as the economic regulator, to take action if Thames fails to meet its leakage targets. I should just say, however, that Thames tells me that 3,000 of its 10,000 pipe miles in London date from before 1850, so it faces specific circumstances with regard to leakage. None the less, the company itself has admitted that its leakage rates are unacceptably high, and it is right that there should be a strong focus on its meeting its leakage targets.
I mentioned that I had met the chief executive of Skanska, who has huge experience of large-scale engineering and contracting projects. He was extremely critical of the rate of progress on the technology that Thames is deploying. What has the Minister done, apart from simply taking Thames at its word, to look at the other contracting and engineering options to test the case that Thames is making to him?
I would be interested to hear more about the discussions that the hon. Gentleman has had with Skanska. As the hon. Member for Croydon, South said, there is some quite good management across the water industry, but we need to continue to see whether there are new technologies. Ultimately, it is for the companies and the regulator to agree companies’ investment plans and the most efficient way of implementing them. However, if there is strong evidence that there are better and more effective ways of implementing companies’ resource plans, the Government will be interested to hear further details.
While hosepipe bans and restrictions on the non-essential use of water might be unwelcome, the cost to a water company, and ultimately to its customers, of avoiding the need to have such controls during a prolonged drought would be very high. It is far more cost-effective, and potentially less environmentally damaging, to manage demand and impose restrictions to conserve water through the use of hosepipe bans and occasional drought orders and permits. That is the basis on which the regime works.
During the current drought, it is particularly important that water companies are seen to be doing all that they can to reduce leakage. Leakage reduction is vital across the system, and most companies in England and Wales are operating at the leakage levels set by the economic regulator Ofwat.
Before the Minister moves off the issue of hosepipe bans and drought orders, let me point out that there has been a great deal of comment in the press about the anomalies involved in the various hosepipe bans and drought orders and about people’s concerns at the various ridiculous rules and regulations, which simply do not seem fair and do not reflect the reality of how we live our lives in the 21st century. Does the Minister believe that there is now a strong case for examining all the complex rules and regulations involved in drought orders and hosepipe bans so that we can come up with a fair, simple set of up-to-date regulations that everyone can understand and sign up to?
I cannot quote Water UK exactly, because I have handed its report to the Official Report, but it says that leakage trend rates, which have been increasing, as I said, for the past five or six years, indicate that the economic level of leakages has now been reached. That suggests that, in some ways, we have reached the end of that indicator’s useful life and that we need to go beyond it to look at the environmental importance of reducing leakages and reversing the upward trend. Does the Minister accept the need to reverse that trend?
My understanding is that leakage is projected to fall further. By 2010, the targets plan for a further reduction of 7.6 per cent., compared with 2004-05 levels, so there is pressure to reduce leakage rates. However, we will, as I said, want to keep leakage rates under review, taking into account costs, technology and international best practice.
I was going to comment on the current system of hosepipe bans and regulations, and, indeed, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) encouraged me to do so. There is a case for looking at the system, because there are anomalies in it, some of which were highlighted by the hon. Member for Croydon, South. At our 1 June meeting with the water companies, we agreed that we would want to review the operation of hosepipe bans and the regime, and it is important that we continue that work for the long term so that the general public can feel confident that a fair system is in place.
I move on to the comments that the hon. Member for Croydon, South made about the construction of a national water grid. He will be aware that the idea has been examined and raised many times over the past 30 years, but it has pretty much always been decided that it would be nothing like economically sustainable. Water is a heavy liquid, and the cost of pumping it around the system is significant We should bear in mind that there have been substantial improvements in connectivity between water companies over the past few years, particularly in the south-east. Networks have improved, but not to the extent that the establishment of a national grid is feasible at the moment, and that is the overwhelming consensus of the water companies, the Consumer Council for Water, Ofwat and the Environment Agency.
Since the 1999 periodic review, water companies have prepared 25-year water resource plans. Until recently, they were not required to, and did so only on a voluntary basis. The 25-year plans describe how each company aims to achieve a sustainable supply-demand balance for the public water supply. They are updated annually by companies and reviewed by the Environment Agency for consistency with its own 25-year national and regional water resources strategies.
The big change is that the provision of water resources management plans is to become a statutory requirement under the Water Act 2003. A consultation on proposed regulations relating to the process ended in April this year, and the responses received are being considered. Our aim is for the new regime to come into force by next April.
Like drought plans, water resources management plans will be subject to public scrutiny and consultation. The plans are designed to reflect the best available information on the consequences of climate change, an issue to which the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) referred, and to ensure that the latest research is factored into them on an ongoing basis.
The plans should also reflect the Government’s “twin track” approach to managing water resources, which is based on demand management, developing sustainable resources where they are needed and the implications of demographic change and increasing pressures for housing on the demand for water resources. I shall explain in detail how the system is supposed to work.
The Government recognise that there are concerns that their plans for significant new house building in the south-east might have an adverse impact on supply and demand for water in that area. That additional demand should be factored into water companies’ water resource plans, and it is important for those plans to be updated as more detailed information on housing numbers and locations is provided, to ensure that resources are available to meet any increase in demand. As a Government, we want a two-way dialogue between water companies and planning bodies to ensure that that happens.
During this debate, we have perhaps missed the point that the water companies are statutory consultees on regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks, and that the planning bodies will be statutory consultees on water resources plans. That is an important step forward. However, a question is left in my mind about how individual planning applications should operate, and there is at least an arguable case that significant planning applications should have very clear inputs from the water companies, and that those inputs should be taken into account as part of the planning process.
I am not sure that the water companies themselves would want to be statutory consultees for every planning application, but the fact that they are statutory consultees to the local development framework and the regional spatial strategies is an important and significant point.
I completely accept the Minister’s point and am glad to hear that he is considering the issue, certainly in respect of the larger applications. However, I should like to take him back to my previous point: he probably has to consult more water companies in the south-east than in the rest of the country. That fragmentation concerns me. On the map, one sees that South East Water is separated physically from itself by Southern Water, and then it starts again; then it is over on the Isle of Wight. There is an absolute patchwork of economic interests—all well run; I do not belittle that. Is there some way of putting that lot together into a more cohesive unit?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we are talking about private companies. If the market decides that there is a more efficient way to allocate those resources, market forces will be expected to drive further consolidation in the industry, subject to the normal concerns of regulations and competition. I would expect that to happen.
I make the point back to the hon. Gentleman that there have been significant improvements on connections between companies’ networks. Water sharing between water companies is going on to meet variations in demand. To that extent, the market is deciding that, where it is sensible to join up, that should happen.
The current and future long-term water resources plans identify a range of options for meeting the supply-demand balance. Supply side options include new reservoirs and desalination plants; both are identified in the plans of some companies and will need proper appraisal for the future.
As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said, the additional demand for water from new development will depend also on the extent to which water efficiency measures are incorporated into the new buildings. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government will undertake a joint consultation on options for further regulation to secure improved water efficiency in homes and buildings.
The hon. Member for Croydon, South said that the Government should lead on water efficiency. As he will be aware, in October 2005 we established a water saving group to encourage the efficient use of water in households and help ensure the long-term sustainability of the water supply. The group’s action plan has five different workstreams dealing with targets, the evidence base, best practice, education and policy. I chair the group that includes the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water, Water UK and Waterwise. Each workstream is led by a different organisation, and a great deal of work is going on.
A number of hon. Members raised the issue of water metering, which has been actively considered by the water saving group. Increased water metering can contribute to helping achieve a sustainable long-term water supply and demand balance. Currently, there is water metering in about 28 per cent. of households and, as part of the work of the water saving group, we are looking at ways to enhance the rate of metering in water-stressed areas.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report, which was published last Tuesday following a 10-month inquiry into water management in England and Wales. It is wide-ranging and makes a number of recommendations on improving water management. I do not have time to go into a number of the points raised in this debate, but I should say that as a Government we are doing much to address such issues as the labelling of white goods and the use of grey water, mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. Perhaps I can write to hon. Members to outline our views. Our response to their lordships will be published in due course.
In conclusion, it is clear that to achieve the sustainable use of water resources, we need to introduce a combination of measures—when necessary, through regulation—to balance supply with demand, including the promotion of best practice and advances in technology. A partnership between the Government, the water regulators, the water companies and communities is required, all working together to ensure that there are sufficient supplies of water to meet demand, both now and in future.
Mesothelioma Sufferers (Compensation)
May I say from the outset that I am absolutely delighted to head up this debate on mesothelioma and fairness to victims? I wish to thank several people who have contributed to this campaign, none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who has been at the heart of the campaign. I have been extremely grateful for his help, advice and support. Likewise, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson), who unfortunately cannot make it to this debate, has also been extremely helpful and supportive. The advice and co-operation of the TUC have been exemplary, and I also thank Thompsons, the local solicitor, which has represented a number of the victims and their families during this difficult period.
Current and former shipyard workers such as myself live every day with the fear that the dreaded fibre is inside us. As it can take up to 50 years to manifest itself, people in our communities live in fear that someday they will be struck down by this horrible disease. The only compensation that they can get is the knowledge that their families will be taken care of when they are no longer with us. I for one have been to too many funerals and seen too many families suffer as a result of this terrible disease, mesothelioma.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Here and now, the problem is in the thousands, but it could grow to involve some 100,000 people. I am delighted that he took the opportunity to mention Clydeside Action on Asbestos, which is a voluntary organisation that works for the families, not the victims, in providing help, support and advice at a time when they need it. It should also be congratulated.
To get to the substance of the problem, on 3 May the House of Lords gave a judgment that would slash the amount of compensation that is paid to workers dying of asbestos-induced mesothelioma. In Barker v. Corus, the Lords ruled by a majority of four to one that workers who developed mesothelioma after being exposed to asbestos by multiple employers could recover compensation from the insurers of only those employers that are traceable and solvent, and that the insurers will be liable for only a proportion of the compensation that would otherwise be payable.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It is very important, and I look forward to hearing some positive remarks from the Minister later. I apologise that I cannot stay for the full debate.
My hon. Friend mentioned insurers and insurance companies. Does he agree that there has been a cost to absolutely everyone—the victims, their families and everybody in their community—as a result of this terrible illness, but not to the insurers? Even the health service bears a cost, as it has to look after the people who are suffering from this dire disease. The only people who are liable are the insurers, and they are the only ones who are not paying a cost.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It was quite humbling—excuse the pun, Mrs. Humble—to witness people in hospitals and hospices go through this traumatic period in their life, and to see at first hand the excellent support that they get from our medical staff.
My hon. Friend makes a point about the health service. If I may digress slightly, let me point out that there is medication on the market that does not present a cure for mesothelioma but definitely helps in prolonging someone’s life. If someone has only 12 months to live, prolonging their life for even a month would be extremely helpful. The medication is Alimta, and it would be helpful if the Government were to give it a sympathetic hearing so that it could be offered by the national health service.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister, who is building a reputation for being fair-minded and creative in whatever role he is allocated, could well focus on the dissenting voice of Lord Rodger, who said that the decision would create an enclave of cases that were inconsistent with legal principles and, in respect of the last intervention, that the courts were throwing a lifeline to wrongdoers and their insurers at the expense of claimants? That cannot be allowed to continue, can it?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Like him, I believe that the Minister is building a reputation for being fair-minded, and one can only hope that that will continue today. He is absolutely right about the comments of Lord Rodger. Thank God, someone in the other place is still listening to us.
The Law Lords gave the judgment even though they knew that mesothelioma has a latency period of up to 50 years, during which employers and insurers can disappear, and that victims will have had multiple employers. Anyone who knows people who worked in that industry will know that they moved around on a regular basis, and that to try to keep track of employers would be virtually impossible.
In the 2002 case of Fairchild v. Glenhaven, the Lords recognised the ruling that the family of a worker who died of mesothelioma after negligent exposure to asbestos by more than one employer could recover compensation from any of their employers, even though it could not be proved when the worker had inhaled the fatal fibres. Fairchild was an exceptional decision that was imposed to create fairness. It allowed claimants in limited cases to depart from the normal liability rules whereby they must prove on a balance of probabilities that the defendant’s conduct caused their injury. Scientific knowledge does not enable claimants to prove which exposure to asbestos caused their illness. Putting their claims to a balance of probabilities test would usually disqualify claimants from any compensation, and at that time that was deemed unacceptable by the Law Lords.
However, in Barker v. Corus, almost as if repenting their bold approach after a two-day hearing in March, the Law Lords wiped out much of the Fairchild gain. Giving the lead judgment in three conjoined appeals, Lord Hoffmann said that Fairchild had involved only two employers and that it had been appropriate to fix them both with liability and joint and several damages; that is, both were equally responsible for the whole amount and in practice would share it. It was clear, however, that there would be incremental development of Fairchild through subsequent cases and the Barker appeal raised issues left unconsidered or undecided by Fairchild.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred to Lord Rodger, who said that the real reason for insurers challenging joint liability was the insolvency of so many defenders and their insurers, and that the appeal was their only hope of minimising their liabilities. Lord Rodger could not understand why the courts were throwing a lifeline to wrongdoers and their insurers at the expense of claimants.
The TUC, claimants, lawyers and support groups reacted similarly. Thompsons solicitors, which has acted on behalf of many claimants, described the decision as a massive injustice and a legal technicality that will make sense to no one but the driest of lawyers.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People find the decision incredible, and not only ordinary people on the street, but lawyers who have worked in the industry for a number of years. Likewise, the TUC said the decision was “cruel and unjust” and called for legislation to ensure full compensation for entirely innocent claimants caught in this legal mess.
On the level of support for what my hon. Friend is trying to do and the strength of feeling against the Law Lords’ judgment, what has been his experience of the political parties? Does he share my concern that no Scottish nationalist representatives are present in this debate?
Having had informal discussions with the main political parties, I understand that there is cross-party support for legislation to try to address the wrong that the Law Lords have done. Unfortunately, but not untypically, no hon. Members from the Scottish National party are here, although I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend will be not surprised about that, because they only work part-time anyway.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced in a recent press release his intention to work in partnership with insurers to ensure faster compensation for mesothelioma sufferers and their families, saying:
“As an MP in a ship building area, I have seen at first hand the effects that exposure to asbestos can cause.
Mesothelioma is a particularly unpleasant disease and the time between diagnosis and death is often tragically short.
No amount of money will ever compensate individuals and families for the suffering and loss caused by mesothelioma, but it is doubly important that the process for claiming compensation does not add to the distress experienced by individuals and their families.”
The press release continued:
“The DWP will work with the Association of British Insurers, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and the Department for Constitutional Affairs to urgently identify ways to speed up the settlement of claims. We all believe there is more that can be done to improve the system.
I stress the word “our”—
“is to ensure that wherever possible sufferers of mesothelioma can receive compensation whilst they themselves can still benefit from it, at the same time knowing that their families will be secure in the future.”
Mr Hutton said he would report back on progress made—
Thank you, Mrs. Humble. I stand corrected and apologise if I have caused any offence.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that he would report back on progress made before Parliament rose for the summer. That was an ambitious but welcome statement, and I know that the Minister is also keen to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Likewise, we met the Prime Minister last week, and he was also keen to bring the issue to a satisfactory conclusion.
If we do nothing else as legislators, we should protect those vulnerable people who are suffering as a result of the Law Lords’ decision—I sometimes wonder what planet they are on when they make such decisions, which are seriously offensive to people who are suffering from that terrible disease.
I hope that the Government can find a way forward alongside others. There are moves afoot in the Scottish Parliament to bring forward a private Member’s Bill. That should be welcomed, but if we can sort the problem out at Westminster, we should do it. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this important issue.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating this debate and the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on the work that he has done.
As someone who represents a constituency that had a large asbestos factory, I have been shocked at the Law Lords’ decision, as have other hon. Members. It has caused widespread anger in the community. I have received scores of letters from families who have lost people because of mesothelioma and asbestos sufferers who still face the threat of mesothelioma. For us, as Members of Parliament, that decision must be overturned. That is why we are here—to represent the people who cannot fight for themselves.
The Secretary of State referred to working with the insurers and companies, but such behaviour is typical of how insurance companies have acted in the past. The first Workmen’s Compensation Act was introduced in 1906, but it was not extended to asbestos victims until 1931. I have a quotation from someone talking about workers trying to seek compensation for industrial illnesses that sums up why, in the 21st century, we are still in the position we are in:
“Adequacy of compensation has never been a guiding principle of British workmen’s compensation law. Payments thereunder have always been regarded, with some justification, as contributions wrung from employers, who have collectively and individually insisted upon the principle that the injured workmen should shoulder some part of the loss arising from circumstances which, in most cases, were wholly beyond their control”.
That was written in 1941, but with the judgment that we are discussing, it is as true today as it was then.
From 1931, Turner and Newall, the company in my constituency, employed an insurance company to negotiate down people’s legal entitlement. In 1932, for example, Turner and Newall paid Commercial Union 100 guineas a year for the privilege of doing that job, and in 1931 it noted in its company minutes with some satisfaction that compensation of £254 paid to a victim of mesothelioma was £50 less than what that person was legally entitled to. It is about time we said that this has got to stop.
I agree and would like us to adopt a solution like the coal health claims scheme. We must move away from addressing the issue in the civil courts, and have a common agreement on what is going to happen.
Mesothelioma was first recognised as a disease only in 1956, by a South African, Wagner. What he described on visiting Turner and Newall in 1959 is typical of what we are dealing with:
“We went to lunch...where I was introduced to senior managers…I was questioned on my work and future interest. I explained about the investigations into the possible association between crocidolite and mesotheliomas and the nature of the tumours. They felt further work in this field was unwise, and advised against it…Their final opinion was that I was being foolhardy and wasting my time.”
That sums up the attitude of companies that have used asbestos and enjoyed its economic benefits—so much so that in 1964, when Frank Brooks became the first person in Rochdale to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, his widow was denied compensation because although it was admitted that there were tumours, that was not on his death certificate.
We have to go beyond that. That sort of behaviour has to stop. The last asbestos all-party group heard what was happening in Australia, which is light years ahead of us in what it does to support mesothelioma victims. Lord Rodger is totally right in his dissenting judgment when he says that it is not for Law Lords to rewrite the law; that is a job of Parliament.
What are the options? There has been talk in the press of an amendment to the Compensation Bill, although some people have said that that would be unwise. I hope that the Minister can advise us better about his thinking in this area. I believe that the model should be what has happened for coal miners. A scheme should be set up that employers and insurers have to pay into. The compensation should be taken out of the hands of the court and of insurers, who will fight for their own self-interest. Payments should be timely. They should be made while people are alive rather than when they are dead.
I advise caution because some of the most difficult and long-running cases in the coal industry compensation scheme are those in which employees have worked for a variety of companies and not just for British Coal. Such cases can get bogged down for a very long time, so I advise caution on the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said, but let us be clear. We are talking about mesothelioma, which is not asbestosis; it is not a cumulative disease. We know now that one fibre—one fibre—can lead to this disease, so in my view it does not matter how many employers a person has; they are all negligent. Therefore, the talk about apportioning blame has to stop. Employers did not provide proper protection for workers, so there should be no argument about the level of claim. The point is that workers have been exposed to asbestos and have got mesothelioma.
We have come a long way since 1924, when Nelly Kershaw from Rochdale was diagnosed with asbestosis, but it is sad that we still have not gone far enough and we are still talking about a disease that should have been wrapped up and dealt with 50 years ago.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) for obtaining this important debate. It gives us the opportunity to try to encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to work with other Departments and to propose a solution; I believe that there is a solution to this situation.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) referred to a scheme. I believe that it is time for us to consider introducing a no-fault liability scheme. We could introduce such a scheme without the obstructions to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) referred, which we have encountered with the miners scheme. I think it is fair to say—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that the miners scheme is in the possession of the courts and we report back to the courts three or four times each year.
With a no-fault liability scheme for mesothelioma sufferers, there would be no need to do that, because we could have a scheme owned by the Government and contributed to by the insurance companies. I am aware that the Department of Trade and Industry has substantial numbers of claims to deal with, because they involve British shipbuilders, people who have worked for British Rail and others. If we jointly could develop a scheme involving the insurance companies in private industry, together with the Government, who are the insurer of the industries that I have just mentioned, we ought to be able to provide a no-fault liability scheme for all mesothelioma sufferers.
As we are all aware, there is a real issue about the wives of workers who have come into contact with the fibres as a result of washing working clothes and who develop the disease. Many of these issues came to light in the 1970s around Hebden Bridge, where family members, particularly wives, developed the disease because of contact with clothes on which there were fibres. By breathing in the fibres, they developed the disease, so when we talk about a no-fault liability scheme, perhaps, as the Department for Work and Pensions starts to consider its review of industrial injuries, we could include all people with mesothelioma, including wives who unfortunately and unwittingly have developed the disease. There are real opportunities in that respect, and perhaps the Minister will comment on them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North mentioned the 3 May judgment and rightly pointed out that the law had previously been set by the Fairchild case. I recall the Fairchild case and the decision being made in the House of Lords; in fact, I was in the Gallery when the Lords delivered their decision in 2002. UCATT—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians—financed that case. It set the law, and the law was that compensation awarded within the parameters set by the Fairchild case would be indivisible, so that if there was just one employer, that employer would be responsible for full compensation.
We must return to the position established by Fairchild, because even if we develop a no-fault liability scheme, as I believe we should and could by the end of this year, we will still have to retain the right of each individual who makes a claim under the scheme to go to law if they so wish. We must keep the route to court for the person who wishes to take their case to court, even if we make an offer under a no-fault liability scheme.
Much has been said about the recent decision, which was a disgrace. It has put the families of mesothelioma victims in a very grave position. Lawyers are saying that it will have enormous implications. First, it will slow down the fast-track system in the courts. Secondly, it will impact on the length of time that a case takes. Thirdly, it may impact on the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979. There is some controversy in that respect. Last week, I received a legal opinion from Allan Gore, QC, in respect of the logic set by the Barker case. The Barker case suggested that if all the employers could not be traced, compensation would be reduced accordingly. The 1979 Act provides an avenue for people to be able to make a claim if they are unable to trace their former employer, so if the Barker case says that if an employer cannot be traced, compensation is reduced, it follows that a claim cannot be made under the 1979 Act, and that is the view of some QCs.
However, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), said last Thursday on Second Reading of the Compensation Bill that her view, from advice given to her, was that the route to the 1979 Act, which provides a safety net, would still be open. We need to clarify that, because it is an important safety net and its availability needs to be ensured. Perhaps the Government could say, “Well, whatever the Barker decision, the 1979 route for compensation will be kept open.”
We have an enormous difficulty because of the number of cases that are likely to arise. The number of mesothelioma cases has increased dramatically, from 153 in 1968 to 1,874 in 2003. In this past year there were more cases, and we are now nearing 2,000 a year. The Health and Safety Executive’s view is that those cases will peak in 2015 or thereabouts at between 2,000 and 2,400. They will then plateau and taper away by 2050.
Not all cases will disappear by 2050, because the cases that we are dealing with now are predicted on past exposures. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North referred to the fact that a new drug is available, which is important because we do not have much asbestosis, where the asbestos particles that get into the lungs develop fibrosis, a form of pneumoconiosis, as what tends to happen is that particles enter the lung without forming fibrosis. They stay in the lung and from that presence there is the potential to develop mesothelioma cancer, which is a cancer of the lung pleura that is invariably fatal and is invariably caused by exposure to asbestos. Alimta helps, together with chemotherapy.
The Australians are leading the field in health development. My hon. Friend is right that even if we get the no-fault liability scheme we must have a treatment and care strategy through the Department of Health. We need such a strategy because of the number of people whom we know will develop the disease. It is extremely important that we ensure that victims who develop the disease have compensation before they die. That is why I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that a no-fault liability scheme is the way forward. I had a word with the Secretary of State for Defence, who is on board for a change, and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We need to bring the Departments together.
My hon. Friend mentioned the meeting with the Prime Minister, which was constructive. We hope to move forward and see an amendment introduced in the Compensation Bill that will restore the law established by the Fairchild case. We then need to move towards the no-fault liability scheme.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this important debate.
Other colleagues have referred to the scope and effects of this pernicious disease that is suffered by workers who through no fault of their own were employed to do necessary work and an honest day’s work, only to find many years later that the honest day’s pay came at the highest price: a crippling illness and a premature death rather than the years of retirement to which we all aspire.
I pay tribute to Tony Whitston and the Greater Manchester asbestos victims support group for their tireless campaigning on behalf of the victims and their families and for keeping me well informed. I have constituents who worked for Turner and Newall, which was taken over by Federal Mogul in 1998 and was the subject of an Adjournment debate in 2002 secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), as well as constituents who worked in the old British Steel plant at Irlam, who were devastated by the collapse of Chester Street Insurance Holdings Ltd. in 2001. Asbestos sufferers and their families have had enough upset and uncertainty in their lives; I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that today.
As colleagues have said, the decision by the House of Lords in May this year was that, where two or more companies are responsible for the asbestos exposure and it is not possible to bring a case against them all, the amount of compensation might be reduced. That is outrageous and wholly unacceptable. The upshot of that decision is greater delay, more cost and more uncertainty for sufferers and their families, which is completely unacceptable.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions say at a meeting last month that the Government wanted to speed up compensation for workers suffering from the effects of prolonged exposure to asbestos and from related diseases. One solution that I support, which has been mentioned, is a specific scheme for compensation. I hope that Ministers will work with the unions and the TUC to ensure that the matter is resolved quickly.
I would like to take a moment or two, and to test your patience, Mrs. Humble, to talk about the new drug mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Alimta does not fall within the strict remit of the debate but it is pertinent. It can treat, but sadly not cure, victims of mesothelioma. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is due to report on the drug next month. I have written to the Secretary of State for Health to express my strong feelings. All new patients should have the benefit of the drug if appropriate, as it may increase survival rates by between 23 and 40 per cent.
The Scottish Medicines Consortium has already approved the use of Alimta and it is available throughout Scotland. Patients in Salford and throughout Greater Manchester receive the drug, too, but that is not the case in all parts of the country. Our old enemy the postcode lottery is still in operation. It is estimated that the cost of prescribing the new drug to patients will be £2.7 million in 2005-06 and will rise to £5.2 million in 2009-10, which must surely be affordable.
I shall return to the main thrust of the debate, as the Clerk is looking towards you, Mrs. Humble. It is for the reasons that I have mentioned that I support the all-party group, which is well led by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone, and the mesothelioma charter.
I and my colleagues will do whatever we can at a parliamentary level to ensure that the disease is made a national priority by the Government, that research is funded to improve diagnosis and treatment, that clinical guidelines on best practice are disseminated so that sufferers have access to the best possible treatment wherever they live and that the Health and Safety Executive is tough in enforcing safety regulations.
I send our best wishes to those who suffer from this crippling disease and their families, who give them endless and loving care and support. I say to those families who have lost a loved one and to the medical and other workers who provide treatment and care that we, as parliamentarians, will press our Government to do more to implement the mesothelioma charter in full and to implement a payment scheme as a matter of urgency.
I apologise, Mrs. Humble, for coming in slightly late. I was at a Defence Committee meeting attended by the Minister for Schools, who did not understand that Scotland was part of the UK. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this important debate.
I rise not to talk about the detail that has been put forward in a great way by earlier speakers but to discuss the experience in the mining industry. We should not take what happened in the mining industry as a panacea to resolve some of the problems that we are talking about. There are major problems with compensation schemes in the mining industry, one of which is that lawyers are being paid far too much money and people are not receiving the money to the extent that they should. We also have problems with multiple employers, in an industry that was nationalised until the last few years when new employers came in. Even the mining industry has issues with multiple employers—imagine what it would be like for everyone making a claim under the system, or what we hope will be the system.
There is something that we must clarify, which is that the current miners scheme is not a no-fault liability scheme. My hon. Friend will be aware that, when the Department suggested making lump sum payments, the judge said that he wanted the case to be determined on common-law principles. That is one reason why the scheme has not developed further.
I agree with both of my hon. Friends.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) spoke about those who have died, and the tragedy that it brings to the families. I am old enough to have worked in the collieries in the 1970s, when the pneumoconiosis scheme came into operation. Union officials had the unpalatable job of asking the widows whether a post mortem could be carried out to try to prove that the husband had pneumoconiosis. It was one of the most terrible things that I have had to do as a trade union official. I was relatively young then—honestly—and it makes a mark to have to tell a woman that her husband or her son has died and then, to add to the trauma, to tell them that they will have to go through a post mortem. That was unacceptable, and I hope that it will not happen again.
A no-fault liability scheme, as indicated, is the way forward. It would cover the whole of the United Kingdom, which is important. We must not go down the road of chasing funds. That would be unacceptable; indeed, we could not do it.
I list some of those who would be covered: metal plate workers, including those working in shipbuilding, the builders of vehicle bodies, including rail vehicles, plumbers, gas fitters, carpenters, electricians, construction workers, plasterers, builders, handymen, steel erectors, painters, steel metal workers, welders and merchant seamen. How could such people remember all the companies that they worked for? For example, those who work in the building trade cannot remember who employed them in their earlier years because they will have had so many employers. A scheme has to be put into operation that covers all such people, that recognises the problems faced by their families and that can be developed.
I congratulate the Government on being the first to recognise the contribution that working people have made to our country. I therefore hope that they will overturn the decision taken in the other place. That is imperative. It is imperative also that the Government are seen to be a caring Government who can bring home the moneys to which people are entitled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) mentioned the postcode lottery for medicines. For example, those medicines are available in Scotland. We are talking of extending a person’s life. That person will probably have been told that he has a very short lifespan, so another few months will be very important to allow him and his family to get their house in order before he passes on. It should not come down to the cost of the drugs, which should be available throughout the UK and not only in certain areas.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on initiating this debate. It is an important subject for my constituents. So prevalent is that cancer in Swindon that it is known locally as the Swindon disease, and in my surgeries over the years I have seen many cruel examples of the illness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and others drew attention to the fact that it is not only those who work in such occupations who are exposed to the disease. It can sometimes affect their families in a particularly terrible way, as wives can acquire the disease from washing the work clothes. The sense of responsibility felt by the husband who is left behind can be terrible to witness. As my hon. Friends have said, the problem will be with us for a considerable time.
For generations, those affected by this terrible disease have suffered not only the agonising consequences of living with it but the difficulty of securing fair and adequate compensation for the hazard that they endured as a result of their employment. As has been pointed out, the nature of the disease is such that any exposure to asbestos, no matter how small—just one fibre is enough—can result in the contraction of that disease.
Many of those who I see in my surgeries have worked in a number of workplaces and they could have been exposed to asbestos in each of them, but medical science is such that no one can identify which of them it is. As a result, there has been a long and complex history of legal discussion on how to apportion liability. The lawyers and the judiciary have wrestled, rightly and valiantly, with complex and difficult law, but it has created despair for the families whom we represent. Many of my constituents’ families have been riven by the consequences of litigation in trying to get some compensation for a disease that has been contracted through no fault of theirs. That is cruel and unacceptable.
When the House of Lords ruled on the Fairchild case four years ago, it seemed to provide greater certainty for litigants. It was greeted with almost universal relief. That case seemed to establish that any employer who contributed to the risk of mesothelioma would be liable in full, even though others were similarly culpable who could not be identified or perhaps could not pay damages because they were uninsured—or, more likely, had gone out of business and their insurers could not be identified. To most lay observers, that new departure in law accorded with natural justice and common sense.
The risks of asbestos have been known since at least the 1960s, so the cases emerging now are almost certainly those resulting from exposure at a time when employers knew, or should have known, of the potential risk. Although the nature of the disease makes it impossible to determine which exposure to asbestos caused the disease, it is equally impossible to exclude any employer from responsibility. The Fairchild case seemed to establish that, with such uncertainty, the burden of liability should be shared between employers and not transferred at least in part to those suffering from the disease, which had been the case hitherto.
The House of Lords decision on the Barker case, which is the main reason for today’s debate, seems to reverse that approach. It restricts the potential liability of employers and their insurers to the amount that they are individually likely to have contributed to the disease if others contributed to the chance of the disease being contracted; but, for whatever reason, they are now unable to pay up, so the victim of the disease could be denied full compensation, which they would have received under the Fairchild decision.
The House of Lords rightly drew attention to the exceptional nature of the circumstances surrounding the causation of mesothelioma. As Lord Hoffman said, it sought that the new exception created by the Fairchild case should not be allowed to swallow up the rule on liability. Few would quarrel with that. However, the heart of the issue lies in the question of fairness, which Lord Hoffmann acknowledged was why the Fairchild exception was created. In his view, the attribution of liability according to the relative degree of contribution to the chance of the disease being contracted would “smooth the roughness” of the justice to employers that a rule of joint and several liability creates.
However, in smoothing the roughness of justice to employers, the House of Lords has created a new roughness of justice for those suffering this terrible disease and their families. In effect, some of the burden created by scientific uncertainty has been transferred to the victims. If medical science cannot be precise about which exposure caused the disease, as in the case of mesothelioma, there will always be a roughness of justice. The question is who should suffer such roughness. The last in line should surely be the victims of the disease. As a result of the decision by the House of Lords, that is no longer necessarily the case. Employers and their insurers, who may be entirely responsible, may well escape full liability.
I understand that there is some learned dispute about whether the Barker case overturns the Fairchild decision, or simply refines it and clarifies some outstanding questions. What appears not to be in dispute is that, following the decision, some of those suffering from the disease will now receive less compensation than they would have done before it. Chop this up as lawyers may, that is unjust. It is rough justice for the most vulnerable and least culpable, and that is wrong.
Various approaches to righting the wrong have been suggested, some of which have been mentioned today. Many of them have great attractions. I do not intend to advocate one over another. All I seek from Ministers—I hope that the Minister will reassure all of us about this—is that they will move to put right the manifest injustice that those suffering from this disease should be denied full compensation from demonstrably culpable employers and their insurers.
I know that my hon. Friend does not want to advocate a particular direction that the Government might move in to right this wrong. Will he listen to those who come from mining constituencies? Their experience of the miners compensation process has been that it is laborious and that it has many inequities. People do not understand why one person receives a lot more money than another when the same set of circumstances seem to be involved, and people have died still waiting for compensation. That has all been because of the laboriousness of the process, where lawyers are making a great deal of money. Will he rule out that direction for the Government?
I am happy to do so. Obviously, I have no constituency experience of that particular scheme. My hon. Friend has drawn attention to an important point that I was going to make: any remedy that Ministers bring into place—I hope that they will bring such a remedy into place—should be subject to three things. It should be extremely simple. It should be equitable, and it should be done with great speed. We simply cannot allow the uncertainty to hang over families who are already suffering enough.
The decision by the House of Lords has caused turmoil among some of my constituents. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members in this regard. The Government must move quickly. Of course, they must get things right, but speed is important. As other hon. Members have said, some of the people suffering from the disease do not have long to live and they need the certainty that adequate compensation will be forthcoming, if not for them, at least for their families. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North made some important points, and I am sure that the Minister will take them into consideration.
When science is blind, uncertainty exists, but the costs of that uncertainty should never be paid by those least able to do so and those least responsible for doing so. Yet, in some cases, that is the consequence of the House of Lords decision. That is the wrong that I ask Ministers to put right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing the debate, and on the eloquent way in which he opened it. He drew attention both to this dreadful condition and to the manifest injustice that has been created by the House of Lords ruling.
Obviously, the dangers of working with asbestos may have been largely addressed in more recent years by health and safety regulations, although that has perhaps not yet been done to everyone’s satisfaction. The situation now is far better than it was before. Thankfully, people working in affected professions should not necessarily now face the same levels of illness and risk as previous workers, but the legacy of the past is still with us.
As several hon. Members have said, in particular the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), we have not yet seen the worst of this problem. Some 2,000 people a year die of mesothelioma. According to the Health and Safety Executive, the death rate is expected to peak at 2,500 a year in about 10 years’ time. Many of the cases are clustered in the constituencies of the hon. Members who are present. The constituency of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is also affected, and I know that he has taken a close interest in this matter.
As hon. Members have made clear, the condition does not only affect those who are working in the industries affected; in many cases, it affects family members, particularly wives. I hope that the Minister will address that point in his response. Any compensation settlement needs also to consider it, as well as dealing with the issue of the affected workers themselves.
Understandably, the decision of the Law Lords is causing great distress to mesothelioma sufferers and the thousands of bereaved spouses and families. It is fair to say that under the ruling, compensation will be denied in some cases on a technicality. As every hon. Member who has spoken has said, that is clearly wrong. Those affected want to know that they can receive 100 per cent. of a fair compensation package and that they can receive it in a swift and simple manner. That is far more important than whether the financial liability is ultimately from one or several relevant employers.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the commitment made by the Secretary of State at the recent meeting of the all-party group that deals with this matter to bring forward legislation to address the concerns about receiving compensation in the wake of the Law Lords decision. The Prime Minister recently met a group of Labour MPs, having given an agreement to do so during Prime Minister’s questions. From what has been said, that resulted in some clear signals of steps forward.
It is also worth pointing out that this is not a party political issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) spoke eloquently about those who have suffered from mesothelioma in his constituency. The TUC and the Transport and General Workers Union have campaigned on this issue on behalf of their members, and have done so effectively. There are several support groups for the sufferers of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. Will the Minister confirm that they will all be consulted when legislation is drafted in response to the ruling?
Calls have been made for an amendment to be made to the Compensation Bill, which is due to be read in the House soon, having been considered in another place. As has been rightly said by several hon. Members, this provides a timely opportunity, not least because asbestos victims and their families want swift action and a just outcome soon. We also need to be sure that the right outcome is achieved. A number of different ideas have been put forward during this debate. If a consensus can be agreed on proposals in time for them to be included in the Compensation Bill, so much the better. Equally, we should not rush things and end up with a poor outcome and further rough justice for asbestos victims.
A just outcome would deliver the following: full compensation for the victims and their bereaved relatives—I again pick up the point about family members, for whom the condition has also caused suffering—a simple way of accessing compensation, preferably with a single route to receiving compensation where there are multiple employer liabilities; and crucially, given the speed with which the condition can lead to death, the system that is put in place must be able to work quickly. As has been said by Labour Members, ideally those affected should receive compensation during their own lifetime rather than it simply being compensation that goes to bereaved relatives, as often happens.
The hon. Gentleman’s third point was about speed and simplicity. We could take the Department for Work and Pensions industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme as the start in respect of a no-fault liability scheme, because it is the first point of contact in which mesothelioma is confirmed.
I am grateful for that intervention, although, like the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), I do not wish to lay down a precise scheme for the Minister, in whose response I am interested. The point that has been made is an important one, not least because the suggestion would allow any such scheme to dovetail with an existing programme in the Department. That would perhaps make the scheme more efficient and swift. It might also involve the establishment of less new bureaucracy. I hope that the Minister will consider that idea and address it in his response.
It is worth noting that delays to claims have often resulted from the time taken for the Inland Revenue to provide details of national insurance and tax records. That can take several months. Will the Minister give an undertaking in his response to discuss the problem with his colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can respond more quickly to requests for national insurance and tax records in those cases? As a number of hon. Members have said, time is of the essence and any delay in any part of the system must be ironed out.
There is an issue about who should meet the obligations of companies that no longer exist. If those companies have been bought out, the new owners should not be able to escape the liabilities of the company that they purchased. If companies have ceased to exist altogether, the Government must reach agreement with the insurance industry on how that gap is filled. Going back to the principles that I have set out, it is important that the victims do not lose out or, as the hon. Member for North Swindon said, end up taking an extra part of the liability or risk on themselves. The Government must discuss that issue with the industry.
As has been said, resolving the problem will require the Government to work closely with the insurance industry to achieve the right outcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale and other hon. Members were somewhat sceptical about the insurance industry’s interests in achieving a just outcome. While it is right that it is important for the Government to negotiate with the insurance industry, the Minister must not allow himself to be diverted from the central task that I think all hon. Members agree should be the objective of a swift and fair compensation scheme that ensures that people receive 100 per cent. of the compensation to which they are entitled.
The Secretary of State has committed himself to reporting back to the House before the summer recess on progress to be made. I welcome today's update and any points that the Minister can make in response to the debate, but I trust that we can still count on a statement before the House rises for the summer.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on securing this debate and on the way in which he opened it. Many other hon. Members throughout the Chamber have also made distinguished contributions on this very serious and significant matter.
Such a situation should be broadly uncontentious between parties and we should work together to find a practical solution. No one will argue with the facts. Mesothelioma is a most unpleasant disease. It is insidious and people do not know that they have it or whether they may go down with it, but when they do, perhaps after exposure many decades previously, it inevitably results in extreme distress and death. Such people and their families probably have only a short time—an average of 18 months—to come to terms with the situation. Again, I think that there is agreement between parties that there is an emphasis and premium on us as law-makers to secure rapid and assured action for sufferers and their families. That is what they want, and it has been rightly emphasised this morning, as it was during the debate on Second Reading of the Compensation Bill last week. I believe that we are at one that that is the way in which we want to go.
The Government have a responsibility to respond to the recent judgment of the House of Lords in the Barker case. I interpret that judgment—I am not a lawyer and I do not demonise lawyers—as qualifying the impact of the earlier Fairchild case, which had a certain logic and a degree of imagination in meeting a real problem. In the Fairchild case the House of Lords decided that, notwithstanding that a single fibre of asbestos could be responsible for the onset of the disease and that by definition it was impossible to put the blame unequivocally on a single employer because no one would know whose fibre was involved, it was reasonable to impose a collective responsibility, liability or guilt on all somebody’s employers during the time when they were exposed to asbestos fibres.
The Barker judgment, not illogically, gives some legal proportionality by saying that although those circumstances may apply collectively, the responsibility is not joint and several, but is confined to the proportion of time spent with a particular employer. That has a certain logic to it; otherwise, in theory and in an extreme case, an employer who exposed an employee for one day could pick up the liability for 40 years’ of someone’s working life.
I was not aware of that particular statistic, but the disease is insidious and we must acknowledge that. We need to bring the matter back to the real world and the families involved, and find out how we can meet that liability. What I have said is not in any sense preparatory to suggesting that there is no obligation on the insurers, and I shall come to that in a moment.
We must look at the underlying legal concepts and, at the same time, confront the facts concerning the individuals and their families with this terrible disease. In the light of the judgment in the Barker case, they may believe that they will not receive full compensation. I have experience of a personal injury claim involving a member of my family many years ago, and I know that uncertainty is a huge factor. It is compounded if people feel that money is leaking out in legal fees or that insurers are manoeuvring to avoid responsibility. We must also remember that in the real world there may be a few employers in the line of fire, but the argument is typically about insurance companies’ liabilities.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem in the Barker case is that apart from all the other problems that have been discussed, there is the burden on those suffering from the illness and their representatives of going through the painful process of litigation against not one, two or three defendants, but perhaps tens of defendants? That is an extra burden on people who do not deserve to have it placed on them.
I readily concede that point. The hon. Gentleman made a distinguished speech based on his experience and constituency work. That is exactly the sort of thing that comes into play.
The Government, as an employer, are a major stakeholder in the argument. The estimate that I have seen is that 40 per cent. of exposure may have arisen in people who worked in the public sector. As a good employer, the Government need to respond to the situation. At the same time and in parallel, they must take legal advice on the Barber case and its implications, and then find an acceptable way forward, as hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have said. The Government must take such action before too long because of the nature of the disease. I do not believe that, given good will all round, it is beyond the wit of man to find an acceptable solution. The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), who knows a lot about the matter, suggested a no-fault solution. Other hon. Members have suggested something in that direction. I believe that a solution can be found that is acceptable, manageable and affordable.
During the Compensation Bill debate on Thursday last week, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said:
“We are keen to enter into constructive discussions with the Government on the Barker judgment once they have received advice, but more needs to be done.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 437.]
I want to touch briefly on some of the issues that should come into the debate. They are largely supplementary to points that have already been made.
The nature of the disease—its slow onset but rapid development and inevitable end—should in no way be used to brook or excuse any delay as a tactic for avoiding responsibility either by employers or insurers, or indeed by the political world, in responding to the situation. In my view, it is not reasonable to saddle a single employer, who may be the only one left standing and may have been responsible for only short exposure, with the whole liability. That suggests that to produce an acceptable outcome for the individual, there must be some mutuality in the approach. In addition, the good employers and good insurers with a long-standing record might be more at risk, rather than the people who have gone out of business or whose insurers do not keep adequate records.
I put it to the Minister that there is concern anyway to ensure that insurers are pressed to trace information more effectively. The issue is about reputation. Insurance companies like to pay claims because it develops their credibility as insurers. The insurance industry, the Association of British Insurers and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers need to make the point that to ensure the credibility of the process, insurers must get a grip on this issue and get on with it. I do not mind whether it is done by consent or by Government persuasion, but it has to be tackled.
That is a consideration, and it applies extensively to other areas of personal injury litigation. Forward-thinking people are beginning to approach the issue. One can separate the compensation from the pursuit of liability, and that method reads across into such issues as wider personal injury, no-fault approaches and so forth.
The point has been eloquently made that, in any case and to put it crudely, we must take the legal contentiousness out of the case. Full-scale litigation will take £40,000 out of somebody’s available compensation pot. I would have thought that by the time we had been through the Fairchild and Barker judgments, subject to the advice that the Government receive on the latter, we would have taken as much law out of the issue as we can. The facts would be known and the question of apportioned liability could be determined, and we would then have to get on with the business of delivering an effective compensation scheme. I am sure that the ABI and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers will want to play a part in that. For all that has been said, the whole industry has a strong interest in coming up with a constructive response.
I should add a note of caution to the debate. If we do not respond to the Barker judgment, there will be a problem, because compensation will be partial and uneven, and that will be inequitable. Equally, if we suggest that the only thing to do is reverse the Barker judgment, we must still face the fact that third parties may have gone down with the disease. In such cases, it is difficult to establish direct liability because there was no employment relationship, and in our attempts to deal with the issue, we might not cover the whole case.
This is a complicated area, and I make no excuse about that. However, it is one that the Government need to address. It is particularly important in this instance that we hear a ministerial response that is not unreasonably delayed, but sensitive, full and considered. This is the first time that the Minister and I have debated together, and I welcome him to his new post. I think that he will discharge it well and sensitively, but I hope that today, even if he cannot give us the final answer, he will at least want to indicate to the House his intentions and his thinking about moving towards any future scheme.
I hope that the Minister will consider existing statutory schemes and the way in which they interact. I hope that he will consider whether it is possible to recover some of the costs of statutory compensation from insurers and put that into the pot, and to reduce litigation. Furthermore, I hope that he will use this opportunity to report to the House on the undertaking made by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), when we last discussed statutory schemes. She said that she would consider the entirety of this very difficult issue.
In all seriousness, we know that people suffer and die. Their families are left unheaded and they experience serious financial constraints. Compensation should be paid, and we must ensure that it is joined up with the minimum amount of friction and distress for the families involved. We can do that together and produce a worthwhile and workable solution, and we look forward to the Minister indicating how he wishes to proceed.
I thank you, Mrs. Anderson, and Mrs. Humble, and all those who have participated in and attended today’s debate. Although the attendance will not be reflected accurately in Hansard, it is symbolic of the importance that we place on this issue.
I talk as a Scot and as someone who wants to ensure that their presence is reflected in Hansard.
In my constituency, Clydebank has a proud shipbuilding history, which includes the Queens’ John Brown yard. One of the consequences is that Clydebank now has one of the highest incidences of asbestos-related diseases. I am meeting the Clydebank asbestos group on Friday. It has done a superb job on this issue, and it is looking to the Minister to give a firm commitment to the Barker judgment.
May I also ask the Minister about the no-faults compensation scheme that has been discussed? It has been put to me that individual representation by lawyers can result in greater monetary compensation. Given that background, will he give us the Government’s views about the no-fault liability scheme?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, and I shall refer to his specific points as I progress with my comments, as I am still effectively in my first sentence. I agree with the earlier intervention about the lack of Scots here today from one of the smaller parties in Scotland, but that is for them to justify, rather than us.
I shall make a little progress first.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) on his stubbornness and determination regarding this issue. They are due partly to his commitment and partly to the fact that he, like my father, worked in the Clyde shipyards. From his experience, he has a determination to resolve these matters, as I have from my family’s experience.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). Almost everyone who has spoken today has paid tribute to his work as chairman of the all-party group. I should welcome the opportunity to meet him and other group members formally to discuss some of the points that he and others raised. Many of those points deserve a much more thorough investigation and consideration than the 10 to 12 minutes that we have left today can afford. I shall arrange for that meeting to take place.
I also thank all those who have attended or participated today. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Eccles (Ian Stewart), for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) and for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Mr. McFall), who has now spoken, and my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Mr. Devine), for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) and for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin). I thank the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—a constituency that always sounds like it should refer to more than one hon. Member, although nevertheless it has only one—and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for the measured way in which they made their comments.
It is unfashionable to do so, but I should also like to thank a former Member of Parliament whom many of us got to know, Tony Worthington. He worked tirelessly on this issue, and I am sure that he repeatedly met the Clydeside organisations that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire will meet later this week. Tony Worthington was the first in this place to drum into me the importance of getting the treatment of mesothelioma victims right.
I add to that tribute to Tony Worthington, who still has an informal interest in the issue; he was one of the pioneers behind the Clydebank asbestos group. There is no doubt that on Friday I will pass the Minister’s comments on to Tony, together with my warm wishes.
I thank my right hon. Friend.
We have heard in pretty graphic terms about the terrible nature of mesothelioma, and its effect on sufferers and their survivors. We all know people in our constituencies who have become victims of mesothelioma. Many hon. Members have spoken about its terrible toll on families, and about the uncertainty of financial compensation. That uncertainty has, of course, only been added to as a consequence of the Law Lords’ judgment. In the time available to me, I want to reflect on what the Government are doing about that.
I emphasise again the points made about the nature and scale of what it is fair to call an epidemic: 1,800 people die every year as a consequence of the disease, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone said, by 2015 we should reach a horrible peak of about 2,500 fatalities. At the moment, the dreadful projections are that in total about 90,000 people will lose their lives to mesothelioma. My hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone and for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North are right about the specifics, and about ensuring that a proper care and support package is in place as the number of mesothelioma victims rises to that dreadful peak in 2015. As a consequence of today’s debate, I will have conversations with Ministers in the Department of Health and elsewhere about how we shape that care package and make sure that we get it absolutely right.
I attempted to intervene when we were having some fun about nationality, but in line with the statistics that the Minister just read out, will he acknowledge, as we do, that this pernicious disease recognises no geographical boundaries and is a whole-country issue? It affects the whole United Kingdom, and any solution brought about by the Government should recognise that fact.
My constituency does not have any shipyards or coal mines—in truth, it has very little industry—but it nevertheless has victims of mesothelioma, so my hon. Friend is right that it is a nationwide problem, and we need a nationwide or UK approach to it.
I shall deal briefly with the specific points raised. The Government and I are as disappointed with the Barker judgment as hon. Members are, not only because it adds further uncertainty and difficulty, and puts a further burden on those who have been diagnosed, but because it will lead to unfairness in how compensation is provided and offered. In the Fairchild judgment, the characteristics of mesothelioma were considered; unlike other forms of asbestosis, it can be triggered by the inhalation of a single asbestos fibre, as we have heard.
In respect of the specifics, our worry is that the claimants will have to trace all relevant defendants before liability can be apportioned and compensation paid. The Government find that utterly unacceptable, particularly at the victims’ time of life, and given the position in which they will find themselves. It is important to concentrate on what the Government will do about that.
On speeding up payments, there is of course the mesothelioma court fast-track process, which tries to speed up the delivery of the money to victims, so that they receive it while they are still alive. We are working with stakeholders and others on improving systems to speed up the tracing of employers and reduce the associated costs, including—this is an important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, mentioned—the legal cost.
Despite those efforts, the shocking statistic is that the average time taken to process and pay compensation is still longer than the life expectancy of the victim post-diagnosis. None of us should ever seek to defend that or be satisfied while that is the situation; it would be indefensible for any of us to make that case. That is why we want a much-improved system for paying that compensation.
Although I will not be provoked into commenting, I remain open-minded about the options available to the Government if a voluntary basis—best practice and good will—does not ensure improvement. We are working with many insurers who are alive to the nature of the problem and who, in many cases, are working very hard on it, but if that does not deliver the type of justice that Members of all parties expect, there remain other options, and we are open-minded about them.
I am grateful for what the Minister says, and I think that all of us feel that he is moving in the right direction, but it sounded as though he was suggesting that he would have to wait some time to see whether there would be co-operation. Once that period has elapsed, we hope that the swiftness point that he made with regard to others will apply to the Government.
My hon. Friend, who has also worked tirelessly on the issue, makes a fair point. What I am saying is that the current processes test victims’ patience. Hon. Members from all parties should be equally impatient about the way in which, on occasion, victims have been strung along. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and others spoke about the way in which victims have been let down as a consequence of a long period of tracking down employers, processing and making payments. What I am saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and others is that we remain open-minded about statutory opportunities to resolve the problem.
I want to make some more progress, specifically on Barker—
Before the Minister moves off the point about timing, and as I share the impatience of everyone in the House with this issue, may I ask how long it will take the Government to make a definitive decision on how to respond to the Barker case?
In the short time available, I shall seek to answer that point. In respect of the Barker case, we are looking for the best legislative opportunity to do something about the matter. There are a number of vehicles currently before the House through which we might resolve the problem of the Barker judgment. Of course, the Compensation Bill is one of them; we are actively considering that. Other opportunities have been speculated on, including a stand-alone Bill and amendments to existing legislation before the House. We want an effective, speedy resolution to the problem. This morning, at a conference held by the GMB—my own union—the Prime Minister made a commitment, saying that he regrets the Barker judgment. He said:
“I'm looking at the moment to see the best opportunity for us to change it… If we can change it, we will. I hope to announce something on this in a couple of weeks.”
I have only got a minute left; I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to conclude.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon that the Government share the frustration so eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North and others. We are currently looking across Government at the most effective and speedy way of remedying the gap and the problems created by the judgment. We will continue to hold conversations with hon. Members from all parties. I hope that when we come forward with something, perhaps in the Commons but possibly in the other place—speedy legislation is the most important thing—there will be cross-party consensus on it, so that we can resolve the issue and get a speedy resolution to the issues raised by Barker.
We are absolutely determined to move on the issue and find a legislative solution to the unfortunate and frustrating decision by the Law Lords. We will seek to undertake consultation, as has been requested, but unfortunately time and the speed of developments may not allow that. In closing, I say to my hon. Friends that we will continue this conversation about the best way forward. There is unanimity across the House, and certainly among the hon. Members who turned up here in such great numbers today, on the fact that we must deliver justice, as regards both the timing and the provision of compensation, and resolve the issue of the very disappointing decision of the Law Lords in respect of Barker; act on it, we will.
Agriculture (West Dorset)
It has been my practice once a year, roughly speaking, if I can obtain a slot, to raise with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the concerns of my agricultural constituents, of whom I have a large number. The purpose of these debates has never been to trawl the past, but rather to highlight features of the future that I hope will help the Department to assist those of my constituents who remain hard-pressed.
Clearly, the past year has been difficult for farmers. One of the most difficult parts of the year was the saga of the single farm payments. I am glad to say that, as far as I have been able to ascertain in recent weeks, most of my farming constituents have now received either the 80 per cent. payment or a full settlement. I am grateful for that and I want to put on record that I am grateful for the efforts that Mark Addison has made—as far as I can make out from my correspondence—to improve the situation in the Rural Payments Agency. I have experienced much speedier and more effective responses since he came on to the scene.
There are still outstanding cases that I want to bring to the Minister’s attention, and this is a rare opportunity to get directly into his mind. Perhaps he would convey to Lord Rooker the sort of case that still constitutes an exception. The experiences of a couple in my constituency called Mr. and Mrs. Bugler constitute an extraordinary record of the sort of problem that we face. The RPA initially rejected their entire claim on 26 August 2005. It took six months, until February this year, for the RPA to accept that they had a valid claim. I know that it is a complicated process, especially with all the mapping difficulties that unfortunately occurred due to the IT system. The extraordinary thing is that since February that claim has been accepted, but the Buglers still have not received their payment. It is not a trivial claim—about £13,000—and they are not rich people. Part of my purpose is to hope that the Minister will scurry back to his Department and ensure that Mr. and Mrs. Bugler receive their payment with all speed, but that problem is symptomatic not of anything like the majority—thank goodness—but of a substantial minority of my farming constituents. They are in such a position, and I hope that we shall see action to tidy up those cases rapidly.
I am concerned, however, about 2006 single farm payments for west Dorset farmers. I am grateful for the ability to send in blank claim forms, as I am sure other hon. Members in rural seats are. That has certainly helped some who would otherwise have been stymied by mapping and record problems. It is clear that there is good will in this process on the part of the current management of the RPA, but there is still considerable evidence of confusion.
Without dwelling excessively on this particular set of constituents—although it usually does happen that when something goes wrong one year, it turns into a problem during the next—I should say that since they completed their 2006 application in May, they have since received six letters of acknowledgment. Three were from the customer service centre and three from the operations director, which were dated between 18 May and 31 May. That in itself is neither here nor there: who cares about letters of acknowledgment? But it suggests that there might not be tight administrative control of the 2006 process yet.
I sat through discussions with some of my farming constituents a few weeks ago, during which I was told tales of the difficulties people have had in getting their 2006 forms into reasonable shape, given the uncertainties generated by outstanding problems in 2005. I am extremely conscious of the fact that an organisation hit by endless difficulties is not the one best placed to deal with the difficulty of making up for 2005 and 2006. I hope that the Minister will do everything in his power to assist the RPA in clearing up 2006, by paying further attention to the staffing of the RPA if necessary, so that we do not have a repeat of 2005.
From my constituents’ point of view, that process will be materially assisted if Ministers take steps to change the culture of enforcement in relation to cross-compliance. I shall give the Minister an example of what I am talking about. I have no difficulty with the concept of cross-compliance: it is necessary. However, much depends on the spirit in which it is enforced. I cite the case of Mr. and Mrs. Newman in my constituency. They had a livestock inspection in February 2005. There is nothing wrong with that: such inspections are needed. However, the results were not conveyed until October and there is much wrong with that. People should not experience that sort of delay. It would not normally take more than three months, so an excess of time elapsed before they were told the results.
That, however, is not really the essence of the problem. The essence of the problem was the attitude taken to discrepancies. For example, they had made a mistake in that there was a zero where there should have been an “O” . I accept that zeroes and “O”s are not identical items and that that was a mistake, but when an agency such as the RPA has made the number of mistakes that we have experienced during recent years, it does not behove it to make complaint about a constituent who has placed a zero where there should have been an “O”.
A second complaint was made: the letters “UK” were missed at the start of two tags. That was not the fault of the Newmans. The British Cattle Movement Service had issued the tags incorrectly, but it became a cross-compliance issue. I do not want to continue the tedious litany of the various bits and pieces that afflicted these constituents. When one goes round west Dorset, one hears from farmer after farmer about little irritations of this sort. Such irritations can lead to severe worries, especially if people have not received their single farm payment, or are dealing with bankers who are getting more and more impatient. I know that the Minister is a perfectly ordinary and decent human being from past experience, and if he were in the condition that I have described, he would feel the same. People get irritated, worried and cross because they try to iron things out and they cannot do so.
In this case, my constituents tried to get the problems ironed out from October. They did not even get a reply until March, which rejected the appeal on the ground that these were two genuine defects of cross-compliance. They appealed again and the RPA has now given up on the three ear tags without “UK” on them, but is still insisting on the zeroes and “O”s. However, the RPA has said that there will be no penalty. That is lunacy. It is not the way to run things. There ought to be a culture of acceptance of de minimis problems with cross-compliance and I am afraid that someone somewhere, very close to the top, has quite reasonably given out instructions saying, “This is all very important and we have to have it shipshape. We must not have fraud or impropriety so be very careful that these things are done right.” However, they did not add, “But do please exercise some common sense. Don’t go for the de minimis, go for the substantial things.” I can see from the Minister’s body language that I have made my point so I shall not continue to dwell on it.
My next point is made to me repeatedly by farmers in west Dorset and it concerns a lack of symmetry. Traceability is everything with meats and livestock, and is clearly high on the agenda of DEFRA agencies. My farmers understand why that is; we have all been through enough in the past 10 to 15 years to know why that is. However, in the supermarkets in my constituency, and, I expect, in any other, one finds on the counter meat from Brazil. There is nothing wrong with meat from Brazil—there is nothing wrong with Brazil—but that meat is not traceable. I doubt whether it is remotely traceable. That sort of asymmetry causes real angst for my farmers. I hope that DEFRA will start to consider in more detail whether we are asking so much more of our farmers than of farmers in other parts of the world as to make it an uphill struggle for our farmers to compete, and how we can deal with that.
I draw to the Minister’s attention the extent of the continuing anxiety about bovine tuberculosis in west Dorset. I know that the Minister’s colleague who deals with these matters has recently announced the good news that TB figures throughout the country have, slightly mysteriously, reduced, and we welcome that, although I must say that I do not think that there has been any noticeable reduction in west Dorset. We all understand the reasons for the free movement controls—my farmers are certainly living with them—but there is a continuing sense that action must be taken reasonably speedily to address the causes of the disease. DEFRA needs to take us from the investigation, study and consideration that has been going on for a long while to some specific, well-organised action that involves proper testing. Now that polymerase chain reaction testing is available, we need to see it being used. We need to see effective action being taken, so that my farmers can begin to think that the future will be TB-free. That is of real concern to them.
Unless this issue is pretty speedily addressed, more and more of my farmers, afflicted as they are by the RPA problems, will begin to feel that they do not want to continue, as I fear a lot of them have in the past year, and will continue to sell out. In west Dorset, farming is not a marginal activity; it is central to our agri-industries, tourism and the whole life of the place. That depends not only on the number of acres being farmed, but on the number of farmers engaged in farming. We do not want TB to be a basis for reduced animal welfare and farmers going out of business.
I hope that the Minister and DEFRA understand how far the severe problems of the past few years mask what could be a hugely optimistic set of trends. I hope also that alongside curing the administrative problems, DEFRA will help to advance the positive causes that many of my farmers are queuing up to take part in. There is enthusiasm for local food and organic food, which is reasserting itself in the marketplace, and for non-fuel crops, all of which offer huge potential to west Dorset farmers over the next few years. However, there is little sign at the moment of real, positive encouragement from the Ministry. It is not that Ministers have said the wrong things, but that there is not much sense of them coming forward and preaching the gospel of the trends of our times—of local food, organic food and non-fuel crops. I think that that is because in recent years, Ministers have become beleaguered by all the administrative difficulties.
Goodness knows I can understand how that has happened, but there is an opportunity, if the administration can be got under control, to generate an optimism that will in turn generate a kind of investment and enthusiasm in the industry that could offer us a farming scene in west Dorset that will be much healthier in five or 10 years than it has been for the past 10 years. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will cure the administration problem and stress the optimistic trends.
I am delighted to respond to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). It is three years since the last in the series of annual debates on agriculture in west Dorset, and he has finished his speech today much as he did then, when he said:
“I may be a ludicrous optimist and, indeed, the fact that I am talking about agriculture in the area of west Dorset at all suggests that I probably am, because the pessimists do not believe that it will exist in future.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 100WH.]
Three years later, it is still there, and I take from his remarks a great deal of comfort that many of the issues raised in the five years preceding 2003 have not surfaced again, at least not in the same way, in this year’s debate. That shows that, for all the beleagueredness—he is right to point out the problems that farmers have faced in past years and this year with the RPA—there is beginning to be a sense that in farming generally and, I trust, in west Dorset, there is a sense of direction and purpose, which has resulted from the radical changes that have taken place, which he mentioned in his speeches in 2002 and 2003.
The farming industry in west Dorset represents a key element of the rural economy and way of life. There are nearly 4,000 holdings, which employ 7,200 people. Just as was true last time the right hon. Gentleman raised these matters in the House, we need a thriving and profitable farming industry to do three things: to produce our food; to safeguard and enhance the landscapes we cherish, with which his constituency is so particularly blessed; and, increasingly, to respond to the fundamental issues of biodiversity loss and climate change facing us.
We have taken some big steps forward towards building a sustainable future for farming in the past few years by working in partnership with the farming industry. The right hon. Gentleman has previously paid tribute to the work of Don Curry and the Curry review. The partnership is founded on our joint strategy for sustainable farming and food, which is a long-term plan for the development of the industry, and provides a framework for farmers to succeed in what has always been a fast-changing world. At its heart is the concept of reconnection: reconnecting farmers with their markets, reconnecting the food chain with the environment, and reconnecting consumers with the countryside and how their food is produced.
The strategy remains one of the Government's key priorities, and is backed up by significant new resources—an additional £500 million, at least, in the past three years. It is being taken forward by Government and industry partners in the south-west, and has specifically helped farmers in Dorset through initiatives such as the rural enterprise gateway, which provides free business support for rural businesses in the area, including farmers.
I turn to the new single payment scheme, which is the most important development in agriculture policy in generations. It has reduced 11 bureaucratic common agricultural policy schemes to one payment linking compliance and environmental, public and animal health standards, and it leaves farmers to produce for the market, rather than concentrating on producing for subsidy. It has been assessed that the improved flexibility and reduction in bureaucracy will, once the scheme has bedded down, be worth a potential £100 million in extra income to farmers in England alone.
Of course I recognise the sort of problems that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House this morning. It would be wrong of me to comment on the specific cases. Although I am not in the habit, as he suggested, of scurrying back to my Department, I shall walk at a sedate pace and ensure that the messages are passed on to my noble Friend Lord Rooker.
Payments began, as the Government promised, in February, but they did not flow nearly as fast as the Rural Payments Agency forecast. A number of short and longer-term measures were put in place to help to rectify the situation, including the appointment of a new acting chief executive for the agency to strengthen its leadership. Those measures proved useful in speeding up the full payments, but we could not be certain that all applicants would receive a payment by the end of the regulatory payment window on 30 June. In May, the agency made a significant number of partial payments to a majority of applicants who were yet to receive a full payment.
By close of business on 8 June, the total amount paid to claimants in full or partial payments was £1,331 million out of the total £1,500 million to be disbursed. The RPA is now focused on making payments to claimants who have not received any payment to date and whose claim value exceeds €1,000. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a good deal swifter at mathematical calculations than I am, and will realise that the particular claim that he brought to the attention of the House falls into that category.
Unfortunately, I am not able to give a summary of payments made in west Dorset. Experience has shown that it takes a disproportionate time to retrieve data on regions, and at the moment I am sure the right hon. Gentlemen would not want me—and I certainly do not want—to deflect the RPA effort from its focus on making payments as soon as possible, which we would both agree must be its priority. Looking forward, the Government are determined to learn the lessons from this year to help us to prepare for the undoubted challenges that will arise in delivering the 2006 scheme, with a view to reaching a stable position in 2007. The new ministerial team will, I promise, work extremely hard with the RPA and stakeholders to that end.
I have made a note of the issue about acknowledgment letters that the right hon. Gentleman raised. Although it is perhaps understandable in the present circumstances, it is an irritation and a sign that the system is not yet operating as it should. However, I reassure him that, although most of the RPA’s resources are focused, as I said, on processing outstanding 2005 schemes as quickly as possible, I am confident that it has sufficient staff to undertake data capture and to make a start on validating 2006 scheme claims in parallel with the 2005 scheme activity that is continuing.
Farmers manage nearly 80 per cent. of the UK’s land, and we believe that public money should reward farmers for the landscape and environmental benefits that they provide. It is now just over a year since the launch of environmental stewardship, which is a further key element in our strategy for sustainable farming and food. It enables all farmers to engage in simple yet effective environmental management and offers genuine financial support.
The opening year of the scheme has not been without problems. Nevertheless, more than 20,000 farmers have successfully entered new stewardship agreements, bringing about 2.6 million hectares of land under environmental agreement. In Dorset, nearly 500 farmers have entered the entry-level and organic entry-level schemes, and five higher-level scheme agreements are now in place. To date, more than £18 million has been paid to agreement holders in England, and I am greatly encouraged that we are providing real rewards to those who are prepared to commit to securing environmental gain through their sensitive management of the land.
Of course I recognise that what the right hon. Gentleman I think called little irritations occur in cross-compliance and the monitoring of that. As he said, the process in question—like all processes—needs a common-sense overrider. However, I am sure that he will welcome, as I do, the fact that in the first year of the scheme’s operation a real transformation is beginning to happen in the way farmers are reconnecting with their markets and people are reconnecting with their food and the countryside.
The England rural development programme has had a major impact on rural areas around the country, and about £1.6 billion has been committed to projects over the past seven years. In Dorset, that has helped initiatives such as Local Food Links, an enterprise that aims to support a range of local food production and give local people—schoolchildren in particular—access to the products in question, thus supporting local farmers and growers, reducing food miles and supporting a healthier population. The Dorset “Chalk and Cheese” programme is supported by nearly £3 million of EU and public money under the Leader+ programme and has delivered a variety of community-led projects in the area, designed to support local farming. One of those is an internet-based radio service run by and for small farmers in the area to help producers to add value to their products and to develop sustainable tourism initiatives such as the Wessex ridgeway project and “Chalks and Hawks”—a wildlife tourism initiative integrating species conservation and rural tourism.
We are determined to continue those successes in the next round of rural development funding, starting in 2007. The consultation on the priorities for the next rural development programme in England closed on 22 May, and we received 280 responses, which I believe shows a good deal of interest. We want to use the next programme, which will continue to have environmental stewardship at its heart, to make a real difference in rural areas by safeguarding and enhancing our rural environment and fostering thriving rural communities.
In the time that is left to me, I do not want to miss the opportunity to deal with the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman about bovine tuberculosis, because that is an important issue for farmers—and dairy farmers in particular—specifically in the south-west. It is there that the problem seems to be prevalent. It is the biggest endemic animal disease issue that we face, and I know that it will be of concern to many livestock farmers in and around the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, for the reasons that I have set out.
To help to address the situation we have recently introduced pre-movement testing in England to help to reduce the geographical spread of TB. We have implemented a new system of compensation to prevent overpayment for animals that react to the TB skin test and to speed up the removal of those animals from farms. Following completion of the Krebs trial, we have consulted on the principal method of badger culling to control TB in high-incidence areas of England.
No decision has yet been made on badger culling, but any decision needs to be based on all the best scientific evidence about whether it can be successful in the long term and whether a cost-effective, practical, sustainable and of course humane culling policy can be developed and implemented. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that those are fundamental and essential criteria.
Manufacturing (West Midlands)
First, I thank the Speaker for granting us this debate at short notice. I think that he understands the seriousness of the manufacturing situation in the west midlands. Most people will know that the west midlands—be it Coventry, Birmingham or elsewhere—was famous for the motor car in years gone by. I want to concentrate on the situation with Peugeot in Coventry and particularly on how the company has handled the closures.
Over the past 20 years, the west midlands, and particularly Coventry, have experienced a number of job losses and closures. Only last year, there was the collapse of Rover, with the loss of about 6,000 jobs. About seven or eight years ago, Rolls-Royce in Coventry shed probably well over 1,000 jobs. Three or four years ago, Massey Ferguson closed in Coventry. Many years before that, as people will remember, there was the famous Standard Motor Company, which was also associated with Coventry.
That is to mention only a few of the closures and job losses, which also have a knock-on effect, and most experts suggest that for every direct employee in a motor car company who loses their job, two or three indirect employees are probably affected. We are talking about many thousands of job losses, not just a couple of thousand.
I am sure that my colleagues from the west midlands, in particular, will agree, therefore, that it is about time that the Government had a good look at their industrial strategy. Indeed, some weeks ago, we from the west midlands raised the issue of manufacturing with the Prime Minister. He suggested that he would be having a discussion with the Trade and Industry Secretary to look at the Government’s industrial strategy, particularly in relation to the west midlands, and at what has been happening in the region. Although lots of people tend to forget this, the west midlands is this country’s economic engine. West midlands MPs will therefore agree with me that we cannot just sit back and watch these jobs haemorrhaging without trying to bring the job losses to an end.
As regards Peugeot, this is one of the few occasions that I know of when a company has pulled out when it was profitable. Labour costs in this country are on a par with anything in Europe and the United States, so all the misnomers and red herrings that get drawn into this issue do not really stand up. The situation can be put quite simply: the company is going to the former Czechoslovakia, where wages are a lot lower than in this country.
We must also remember that the work force have done everything that they were asked to do, as the work force at Jaguar did: they were asked to improve quality, and they did; they were asked to run four shifts, and they did; they were asked to take on temporary labour, and they did.
In general terms, the trade unions have a proposal. Again, we must draw attention to how the company has performed, because it has not seriously sat down and looked at alternatives. The trade unions have been quite reasonable and have looked at the possibility of running one shift for the next two or three years to buy time and get a new model into the Coventry plant. Again, however, the company has refused to discuss the alternatives. Instead, it has been through the motions, as we have seen time and time again with employers.
It is not that many weeks since the company pulled out and made its announcement; indeed, it was the week when I introduced a ten-minute Bill on labour rights. I introduced it because we cannot go along with companies arbitrarily deciding that they are going to have a closure, giving people 90 days’ notice and saying that that is it. For some companies in this country, consultation seems to mean, “We’re going to tell you what to do, and that’s that.” Some people think that when a company says that it is going to have a consultation it is all about negotiation, but it is not. The company is just going to tell people what it is going to do, and although they can make representations, the decision has actually been taken.
About two years ago, Peugeot was offered a £14 million grant to modernise the factory in Coventry, but it delayed its decision. Then, just over 12 months ago, we had a debate about Jaguar in the House. I said that it was peculiar that a company that had been trying to get a grant to modernise its factory did not seem to be taking it up. The company gave all sorts of excuses about hold-ups in Europe so on, but the real test was whether it took up the grant. If it did, we knew that it was going to stay in Coventry; if it declined to, we knew that it was not. We then had a statement from one of the executives, who said, “We’ll draw the grant down as we need it,” but that was one of the company’s red herrings, and I remember the articles in the local newspaper.
Now, however, we have had the company’s answer—it never intended to stay in the first place. It has played ducks and drakes with the Department of Trade and Industry. I am sure that the Minister has had discussions with her officials and that they will tell her what I am telling her—that it was always difficult to have any meetings with the company. It is only recently that any dialogue has taken place, and that was about the closures, so we can see the company’s record.
The company still has a presence in Britain, but the point is that it will not be making motor cars here.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He mentioned the other jobs that Peugeot provides in this country, and many of them are in the franchises in and around my constituency. It beggars belief that there is a campaign suggesting that British workers should completely boycott Peugeot. What is my hon. Friend’s attitude to that?
I am not the trade union or its negotiator, and it is not for me to tell the trade union how to organise itself. It is purely for the trade union to decide what sanctions, if any, it will put on the company. It is not wise for MPs to try to tell the labour force how to react, and nor can we negotiate for them—that is the trade union’s job. What we can do, and what we have been trying to do in parliamentary terms, is raise the issues when we can. Ministers are perfectly well aware of that, and I gave some instances, including our meeting with the Prime Minister and my ten-minute Bill.
We are doing what we can to assist the labour force because the closure will have a devastating effect on the workers and their families. People should bear it in mind that, at the end of the day, it is the families who suffer. When Rolls-Royce collapsed in 1971, people did not know whether they were going to have a job, and the families were worried about paying mortgages. Those are the things that drive the problem home to us.
In about 2001, we had the initial problems with Rover. Anybody who went there, as I did with the Trade and Industry Committee, would have been struck by the emotion and by the fact that whole generations of families worked at the factory. Some people ran small businesses, and we could see, five or six years ago, what the devastation was going to be. Eventually, the taskforce was set up to deal with the situation, and it is a useful instrument, but it cannot be a substitute for jobs. Although it finds people employment, we must remember that some of the jobs that might be available will bring in £2,000 or £3,000 less than the jobs that employees have at Peugeot now. That should be borne in mind when people say that there are alternative jobs.
We should also bear it in mind that the company produces about 280,000 vehicles a year, and it certainly has about a third of the market in Britain. We should not lose track of that. The problem, of course, is that the cars will not be made in Britain any more.
Informed opinion suggests that many years ago the company took over what used to be Chrysler only to get a toehold in the British market. Well, it has its toehold now; essentially, it has said, “We’re going to make these vehicles in Czechoslovakia. We want the right both to come into your country and sell them and to treat your labour force in an abysmal manner.” It is also asking the Government to stand back and accept it all. Ministers should look seriously at the situation in the west midlands. Over the years, a number of manufacturing companies, to say the least, have gone to the wall.
We in Coventry are also interested in another issue, on which the Minister could be very helpful. We had a meeting with the Chancellor about the closure and made some suggestions. For the longer term, there is the site near Walsgrave hospital. We have to look for the potential for new industries, and that site certainly has potential for developing what we would call a medical technological park.
People are familiar with the idea that medical science will create new jobs and technologies. We are seeing vast changes in the health service; I shall not go down that road, but there is that potential for new jobs. I am not an expert, but some who are reckon that 5,000 jobs might be created, and that gives us a clue about where we should be looking to create new jobs. Obviously, we have to diversify, and we should look at that area. We hope that Advantage West Midlands will, to use the proverbial phrase, get its finger out and get something done about that site.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate on securing this important debate. He has spoken about the effects on his city, as other Members who represent Coventry would. However, will he bear it in mind also that in the black country area—certainly in Walsall—we have suffered a great number of redundancies in manufacturing? That has continued. In Willenhall—not the Willenhall in my hon. Friend’s city, but the one in my constituency—the lock industry has been substantially reduced for all kinds of reasons; obviously, losses in the motor industry have had an effect on that industry. I hope that my hon. Friend shares my hope that the Minister will speak about the larger and wider aspect of manufacturing in the west midlands.
I totally agree, and that is why I did not confine the debate to Peugeot. I have referred to the west midlands in general terms and said that we should have an industrial strategy and look towards the creation of new industries.
We have to look from a manufacturing point of view at the whole situation in the west midlands. We also have to look at the alternatives to manufacturing and what the new manufacturing industries are going to be. I have given a clue on that today. We must also consider labour law. For a long time, the trade unions have been agitating about how employees in this country are treated totally differently from those in Europe. Those are some of the issues that the Minister should consider. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), who is about to speak, I hope that she can give us encouragement.
I do, Mrs. Anderson; I am grateful to have been called to speak by your good self.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on securing this debate, as we all do, and thank Mr. Speaker for making it possible. This debate is important, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made it clear in his intervention, it is about the whole of the west midlands, although my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South has talked and I will talk more specifically about the situation in Coventry.
This debate takes place against the background of the Massey Ferguson closure, when all the manufacturing was moved to France. The Jaguar closure followed, although fortunately we retained the bulk of the activity in the west midlands, and we are very pleased as Coventry people to see that it remains with us. Most recent, and still a matter of great current concern, is the Peugeot closure, with the work going to the Czech Republic.
We are realists, of course, and recognise the impact of globalisation, which is felt throughout the country and Europe, but on the whole we feel that we do not always do as well as we could, and that is the concern that impelled my hon. Friend to secure this debate.
I have three specific matters of great concern to Coventry to bring to the Government’s attention; I am sure that the Minister will take them on board and that we shall pursue them subsequently through her. Before I come to them, however, I should mention that we should not feel that all is doom and gloom or that all is lost in manufacturing in the country as a whole.
We accept, of course, that those Jaguar, Massey Ferguson and probably Peugeot jobs—although that issue has not been finally decided—will not come back to Coventry and that we shall have to seek newer and different manufacturing outlets. However, in the nation as a whole, manufacturing is 20 per cent. higher than in 1975, despite the dramatic falls in 1979-81 and 1991 under successive Conservative Governments, when it dropped by 25 per cent. and 8 per cent. respectively.
In the past 10 years, despite the impact and the pressures of globalisation, we have broadly sustained our level of manufacturing output. However, in Coventry we have felt the pinch very badly, and we welcome this debate to make it clear to the Minister how we think the Government could help. We are not looking for subsidies, handouts or anything like that, but for what the Chancellor in person has always committed himself to: competitive new ventures with high added value, through which we can be resistant to the pressures of globalisation.
I should like to bring three specific issues to the Minister’s attention. First, I mention investment in the Browns Lane plant, which happens to be in my constituency and with which we have had long-standing good relations. Mr. Peter de la Marche, an entrepreneur of great vision and energy, has taken over the site with a big investment of £50 million and I am sure that the whole House, as well as those in the Chamber today, wish him well in the bold, exciting venture that he is bringing to Coventry. He has a brilliant new idea for modular building, and his company name is pretty eponymous: Delamar Construction.
I understand that some of that project’s issues are yet to be finalised with the Government; there is an application for support of one sort or another, and it would not be appropriate for me to go into the details of that. However, may I lodge with the Minister and, through her, the Department, a request for an early meeting on the matter? I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who I am delighted to see are both present today, wish to join me in that, because we see a huge opportunity for the Government to play a key, unlocking role. Again, I pay tribute to Peter de la Marche himself.
I should also like to raise the issue of the Ansty site, already referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South, which is an extremely important potential development. The hospital trust there has made it clear that it is immensely interested; Yvonne Carter, the dean of Warwick university medical school, and Mr. David Roberts, of the trust, have both made it clear that they see it as something through which we can really play to the inherent strengths of the city.
As far as the trust is concerned, a huge contract is out with General Electric Medical Systems; on the back of that, we hope to build the first investments in the new medical equipment centre that we would like to establish on the Ansty site. I am pleased to say that we have had an initial meeting with Sir William Castell, chairman of the Wellcome Trust. Previously, as I am sure my right hon. Friend the Minister will know, he was chief executive of General Electric Medical Systems and a board member of General Electric. I am pleased to say that he has agreed to visit the hospital and look at the site in August to see what we have in mind and to make key contacts for us with the company.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South said, the project clearly will need support from the Government and from Advantage West Midlands. Most encouraging is that when a delegation of us saw the Chancellor and were briefed on the meeting, he said that he would take a personal interest in it. That would be a great help to us in pushing the matter forward.
We have fixed other meetings with GEMS, and I have also arranged a meeting with the Advantage West Midlands managing director. As my hon. Friend said, that organisation will be vital in getting the project off the ground. Again, would my right hon. Friend the Minister ensure that we secure maximum support from the Department?
The third area—again, it happens to be in my constituency but none of us makes any apology for that—is London Taxis International, which makes all the cabs in London. As my right hon. Friend is aware, it also has various matters outstanding with the Government and is looking for support on key areas of innovation and new development. If she would take those three matters on board—perhaps we could set up a meeting with her, with officials or with whoever is most appropriate—my colleagues and I would be most grateful.
I have only nine minutes to talk about an important issue that is of concern to the many Members who are present here. The best I can do is also to offer the courtesy of a meeting as soon as possible to take forward some of the issues that I know are of real concern. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on securing this debate, short as it is. I can probably make only four or five points, and I shall try to make them briefly.
First, the importance of manufacturing to this country is unquestioned. It contributes one sixth of our gross domestic product, one half of our exports and about three quarters of the money that we put into research and development. It is hugely important, particularly for the west midlands, where it is at the heart of the economy. According to figures that I have been given, there are 23,000 manufacturing enterprises in the region. Most of them are small and medium-sized enterprises, but it is still the case that one in five people working in the west midlands works in manufacturing. One of my jobs as the new Minister for Industry and the Regions is to determine what initiatives we can take to strengthen manufacturing at a time when there are losses in manufacturing jobs, although as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) said, there is also an increase in output from those jobs.
I know that my right hon. Friend is short of time, so I shall be brief and simply say that several points raised by hon. Friends have echoed with me because of what happened at Longbridge. While she is setting up meetings to examine things in greater depth, may I ask her also to meet interested colleagues to review progress since the final report of the taskforce? Economic regeneration of the area around the Longbridge site, building human capital in the area, overcoming training barriers and so on require further discussion.
From my time wearing my previous ministerial hat, I know that my hon. Friend played a key role in these matters. I was able to work with him on all aspects of the Longbridge closure, and I know that he has a particular interest in how the site will now be employed. Of course I will be happy to discuss with him and others our plans for the site.
I want to say a little about the car industry, as there is a tendency to get the bad news in the press and to forget the good news. In the early 1970s, the United Kingdom produced some 1.9 million cars. By the early 1980s, that had gone down to 900,000, but the figure for 2005, which is the latest year for which we have statistics, is up again at 1.6 million. We should be proud of that.
Of course, closures are devastating for the individual families involved, the local communities and the work force, but equally, there is a growing number of good stories. I do not have time to go through them now, but one just has to look at Toyota in Burnaston, Nissan in Sunderland, BMW in Oxford and Honda to realise that we are bringing into the UK manufacturing that was done in the past in places such as Japan and Brazil. There are some good news stories as well.
As far as Peugeot is concerned, I understand entirely what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South said about the devastation that losing those 2,300 jobs will create and the impact that it will have on the work force and their families. He drew attention to the fact that the Government did what they could to support production of the new 207 model by allocating £14.4 million, which was never taken up by Peugeot. We are in close contact with the company and will ensure that it meets its legal obligations.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to the chairman of the Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire Partnership, Brian Woods-Scawen, who brings together all the local stakeholders to ensure that proper support is provided for the workers through the learning and skills council and job centre, for local communities through local authorities and for the suppliers. He works with all the key local partners and has said that he will come to us if he requires more assistance.
My hon. Friend was asked about the boycott, and I would add only one thing to his remarks. We must remember the dealerships, which employ some 5,000 people, and that 73 per cent. of cars produced in the UK are exported. It is a good export industry, and we depend on that world trade.
In the final moments, I shall discuss briefly the Ansty development site, which I know is of great interest to local Members of Parliament. It is a complicated site, and I am told that it must go through complex reclassification and planning consultation, which will take time. According to the time frame that I have been given, it is unlikely that the process will be completed until 2008. Difficult planning and commercial considerations are involved, but I am aware of the interest in that site of my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, South and for Coventry, North-West and others who are present for this debate, and I would like to have further discussions about it.
I, too, congratulate Delamar Construction on the work that it is doing on the Browns Lane site. It could employ up to 2,000 people, which would be a welcome change. To be honest, I am not totally aware of the funding application, but I will try to take it up and review it. Again, perhaps we could discuss it at our meeting.
Similarly, I shall also take up the situation in respect of London Taxis International.
May I say one further thing on trade union rights, which were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South? My previous role as Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform and my current responsibilities as Minister for Industry and the Regions have led me genuinely to believe that the more liberal labour market environment in which we operate has brought huge benefits and many jobs to the UK. Inward investment is as important in attracting jobs as the fear that people have about whether we have rather looser trade union rights. I would challenge people’s fears about looser rights. I do not believe that that is the case. The work that we did in 2000 on the recognition of trade unions and on collective bargaining and in our 2004 legislation to ensure continuous consultation and information, and the trade union rights that exist around redundancies, are all good. I hope that the unions will use the European works councils, which are a new facility open to multinational companies.
We should never forget the benefit of inward investment. The UK is now considered the best place in Europe for inward investment, and with that comes jobs. According to the latest figures, which are for 2004, we had more than 560 new inward investment plans. That was more than any other European Union country. France, which is topical at present, had fewer than 500 new projects for inward investment.
In the brief time available, I have not done justice to the important issues that were raised in the speeches and through interventions. I would be happy to have a meeting—
Order. We now move on to the next debate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have an Adjournment debate on this topic. This debate is timely in a number of ways, given the decision by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that was announced a couple of weeks ago and the fact that this week is national carers week.
Many of those on the front line of dealing with dementia are not the individual sufferers, but those affected by the ripples that it sends out through the family and those who take on the role of informal carers, the consequences of which can be huge in terms of stress and its health consequences. I want to cover two or three issues in this short debate, not least the decisions by NICE, and try to tease out where the Government think we should go from here.
It is about 100 years since Alois Alzheimer first described the disease that today bears his name, at a medical conference in Germany. One hundred years on, there is still no cure and our understanding of the basic biological processes behind dementia remains limited. Dementia affects about one person in 20 over 65 and one person in five over 80. There are estimated to be about 750,000 people in the UK with dementia, and that figure is set to rise to more than 1.8 million people by 2050. There is debate to be had about the veracity of those figures, and there is perhaps more to be done to ensure that we are clear on what the epidemiological data tell us and what the trends really are. However, those figures are generally accepted and they demonstrate that there is a significant and growing financial burden as a result of dementia.
That burden is three times more than that of any other of the major diseases—cancer, stroke and heart disease—put together. That is why dementia is one of the greatest health and social care challenges of the 21st century. It is rated by the public as second only to cancer as the disease of which they are most afraid. There is a taboo about dementia and a fear about losing one’s independence and becoming debilitated, at the root of which is perhaps the fact that there is no cure. Recent events have done little to change that perception and have perhaps even fuelled that fear further.
NICE’s recent decision to restrict or even ban certain Alzheimer’s drugs has come as a blow to patients, carers and clinicians alike. Before exploring that decision, however, I should like to pose some questions about research. The basic science behind dementia is still in its infancy. Investment in essential research has not been made and many in the field of medical research believe that research on Alzheimer’s and dementia is about 20 years behind where it could have been if it had received adequate funding.
Research on treatment and cures for Alzheimer’s receives far less funding than such research for other diseases. As of 2001, research on Alzheimer’s received just £3.7 million of Government research funding, as compared with £33 million for cancer research, and the most recent figures suggest a widening of the gap in research spend. For every £11 spent per Alzheimer’s patient on UK research annually, £289 is spent per cancer patient. I want to make it clear, however, that I am not questioning the investment that has been made in cancer research; I merely point to the unevenness of the research effort.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. Does he agree that one of the effects of the relative underfunding of research into Alzheimer’s is that a burden that would otherwise fall on the taxpayer is placed on carers, often spouses, who are put under enormous pressure as a result?
The hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in such issues for a considerable time and I share his analysis. Costs are shunted away from the formal care system in the health service—that might be accelerated as a consequence of NICE’s decisions—and on to individuals. The costs become hidden, but the consequences return to haunt us in the public domain, because they lead to increased health care costs for those who have taken on the caring burden. The saving is therefore illusory, not real. If a disease costs as much as dementia does, it is common sense to commit more research to find ways of preventing and curing it.
The establishment of the dementias and neurodegenerative disease research network has of course helped to provide much-needed infrastructure and follows the template that has been used for developing cancer research. However, there is a still a need for more fundamental research, because without a better understanding of the basic science behind dementia, the potential of the network is reduced. As one researcher put it to me recently:
“Funding the network is like funding the stage in a theatre, but for dementia we need many more players to put on the show to do the research.”
If Alzheimer’s is a Cinderella in the research world, non-Alzheimer’s dementias are like Cinderella’s poor relations. For example, the Medical Research Council is funding only one clinical trial in dementia and no trials investigating the treatment of non-Alzheimer’s dementias. Even basic treatment questions regarding the use of aspirin or anti-hypertensive treatments in people with vascular dementia, for instance, remain unanswered.
It is not just in research that the Cinderella status comes to the fore. The treatment of dementia was dealt a heavy blow two weeks ago, when NICE published its guidance on Alzheimer’s drugs. Not surprisingly, the decision has provoked a huge outcry from patients and carers groups, clinicians and hon. Members from all parts of the House. Placing strict conditions on when the dementia drugs can be used will have a hugely detrimental effect on patients, families, carers and health care professionals. Having issued positive guidance in 2001, NICE has changed its mind, leaving people with mild Alzheimer’s in limbo, condemned to deteriorate before there is any hope of receiving treatment.
The three anticholinesterase drugs—I will give their proprietary names—Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl, are to be made available only to those who attain a mini-mental state examination score of between 10 and 20 for cognitive ability. The test is a key part of NICE’s recommendations for future access to the drugs, but it is fundamentally flawed. It is based on language skills, but many seniors who begin to experience dementia are from ethnic minority populations and their first language is not English. They revert to their first language in dementia and cannot access the test or demonstrate where they are on the scoring system, so they are discriminated against. People are also discriminated against by the tests according to their level of education.
The test should not be the sole determinant of access to the drugs. There was sufficient recognition in the 2001 guidance of an area of judgment and doubt about such tests, which were regarded as a starting point for determining whether the drugs would be beneficial for those with that sort of dementia, not a finishing point. However, NICE appears to have said, “This is the narrow gateway through which you must pass.” In discussions with clinicians, however, the point has been made to me that the scale is too crude to capture the complexity of the disease accurately and to understand the fine lines to be drawn between mild and moderate dementia. As a consequence, we shall be consigning to ever-growing deterioration many who could benefit from the drugs and should be receiving them.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous in giving way. Does he think that NICE has taken sufficient account of the needs of carers in making its evaluation? In other words, although a drug might have a relatively mild therapeutic impact in the early stages of dementia, its impact in giving respite to hard-pressed carers, who are often elderly themselves, is nevertheless considerable. Does he think that NICE has taken sufficient account of that?
No, I do not. However, the hon. Gentleman should not take just my word for that—numerous patient groups and clinician groups have made the same point. Indeed, I understand that the NICE dementia guidelines group and its chairman wrote to the appraisal committee, urging it to retain a wider, more generous set of appraisal guidelines for the use of those drugs. However, that seems to have been flatly ignored. The guidelines group, which is still charged with delivering guidelines for the treatment and management of dementia, includes in its membership social workers, patients, carers and health care professionals—in other words, the people who have hands-on, direct experience and can therefore bring a more rounded perspective to such decisions—yet the appraisal group seems to have set that completely to one side.
It seems to me to be another weakness in the process that although in NICE the voices of patients are now heard at the table, they are not at the right table and therefore cannot exercise the influence that they should. I hope that the Minister will say a little about that and tell us whether he will look again at whether NICE has adequate arrangements in place to ensure that the patient voice and experience and the carer’s view are adequately taken into account.
I want to ask the Minister about another of my concerns about the NICE appraisal. Why has NICE’s appraisal committee not properly considered, as the Department and the Welsh Assembly asked, the cost-effectiveness of the Memantine drug in treating behavioural symptoms of dementia?
One of my concerns about the series of changes that will flow from the decision if it is not overturned on appeal is that we will start moving back to old patterns of organising to deal with dementia. I remember that when I was first elected to the House in 1997 the level of diagnosis was relatively low. There was diagnostic denial. People were not diagnosed early enough: why diagnose when there is no treatment to be given?
Things have changed. We have seen a whole generation of memory clinics and other services develop to cater for the fact that the drugs exist, and in turn those clinics have led to the development of a host of other services and support arrangements, which are of huge benefit. The concern is that the whole infrastructure is at risk because of the decisions that NICE has made. That is why it is imperative that the Minister should be as clear as he can be today about what the next steps are to address the concerns that many of my constituents and others have about where we find ourselves as a result of NICE’s decision.
It is hard to understand how NICE came to the decision, because 30 clinical trials showed the drugs to be effective, offering patients improved memory, the ability to continue to do normal activities, such as washing and eating, and therefore greater independence. That is a key part of the Government’s agenda—a part that I fully support. The benefits extend to carers, who often report being less stressed and happier while their loved ones are being prescribed the drugs.
There are four other reasons why NICE’s decision is wrong, three of which relate to clinical practice. First, it contradicts the purpose of treatment, which is to prolong the early stages or to postpone the onset of the later stages of dementia—to lengthen normality, thus increasing the patient’s quality of life. Secondly, the decision directly conflicts with the Government’s policy to promote the independence of people of all ages. Undoubtedly, the restriction on the three drugs will curtail patients’ ability to think and act for themselves, thus reducing their quality of life and independence.
The point about quality of life is key. Even the chairman of NICE, Professor Rawlins, in an article in the British Medical Journal in 2004, acknowledged that QALY—the quality adjusted life year—should not be the only basis for making such decisions, yet it appears that that has been the case on this occasion. There is a dearth of quality-of-life data, which need to be taken into account when it comes to such assessments. Will the Minister look carefully at whether NICE has taken on board what its own chairman has said on the record?
The third reason why the decision is wrong is that withdrawing access to drugs in the early stages discourages early diagnosis, and the last and perhaps most damaging reason is the ethical conundrum in which it places doctors. Doctors will be forced to wait for their patients to deteriorate before being allowed to prescribe drugs that they know can help. In no other circumstance of which I am aware would doctors be placed in the position of knowing that something that is beneficial could be prescribed, but finding that their hands are tied and that they are told that they cannot prescribe it. One carer says:
“If people could continue to get drugs in the early stages of their disease, the early stages would simply be prolonged. This is better for everyone…mentally, emotionally and physically. Trust me.”
What of later-stage, more severe dementia, when a patient needs treatment most? Did NICE allow Ebixa, a drug that can help a patient when the behavioural symptoms are at their most distressing? No. The only option for doctors will be to fall back on anti-psychotic medication to manage challenging behaviour, in effect placing a chemical straitjacket on seriously ill people. The decision to prohibit Ebixa will not only adversely affect patients, but have huge repercussions for carers. Carers will be placed under increasing strain of the sort that I have described.
Will the Minister make clear what he and his Department intend to do next? Will they support the appeal that has now been lodged? At what point does the Minister have to satisfy himself that NICE is properly discharging its statutory duty and accounting to him and, indeed, to the House for the way in which it discharges that duty?
I accept that drug treatments are not the be-all and end-all of treatment for Alzheimer’s and dementia. However, drug treatments have been a catalyst for other treatments of the disease. As I said, the development of memory clinics has been accelerated by the availability of drug treatments, and a range of other support services have been provided as a consequence. I hope that the Minister will take this point on board. It might be argued that NICE is saving the NHS money through its decision and that cost-effectiveness is part of its remit. Of course cost-effectiveness is important, but it must be stressed that Alzheimer’s treatments are not expensive. On average, the cost is £2.50 per patient per day, or £800 per patient per year. How can NICE maintain clinical excellence if it is asking doctors to ignore a diagnosis until it is sufficiently bad before a drug can be prescribed?
The treatment of dementia has a large impact on the care of people with the disease. Care of people with dementia raises wider questions about care of the elderly in general and the value that we place on carers. I believe that carers have been overlooked by NICE in its decision and the impact on their lives was not really considered by the panel. Carers have the most contact with sufferers of the disease and experience first-hand the benefits of the drugs on their patients. Surely their input and well-being deserved to be given greater weight before the decision was made; it appears as if that was ignored.
If better care of dementia is to become a reality, better training is needed for staff, not only in the national health service but in the care sector. That would better serve the needs of sufferers not only of this disease, but of many others. By increasing the understanding of staff of the predicament that their patients are in and the potential problems facing them, perhaps we would address some of the concerns that I shall talk to the Minister about later today, which relate to malnourishment, dehydration and nutrition. Again, those are serious concerns. It is vital to ensure that people get the nutrition that they need. Often, older people find themselves in a vicious circle. Inadequately fed, they become confused. As they become confused, the dementia that they may already have is exacerbated, and because of that, their behaviour may be more challenging, which in turns leads to their being prescribed anti-psychotic drugs. Those anti-psychotics cause them to lose memory and behave more bizarrely as well—and it goes on and on. There is a downward slide to dependency and, ultimately, death.
A final point must be made about a potential cure for the disease. We appear to be far away from finding one. That relates to my first point: there simply is not enough funding for research into the disease. We must recognise the impact that dementia will have on our population as its prevalence continues to grow, and use that impact as the impetus to look seriously into curing the disease.
I started by referring to the person whose name is used to cover 55 per cent. of all dementias in this country, and to his work, which was very important. I hope that we can reach a point at which treatments are available and research is extended. I hope that the Minister can give us some sense of the direction now, because many people outside the House feel hopeless and powerless as a result of the decisions that NICE has made.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing this Adjournment debate. I very much look forward to spending the afternoon with him when he comes to meet me in the Department about a separate issue immediately after the debate. He has a long track record of caring passionately about these issues, and I pay tribute to him. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who, appropriately in national carers week, is continuing his campaign to raise awareness of the needs of carers in relation to these challenging issues.
It is appropriate that we acknowledge that dementia is a heart-breaking condition. Of course it has a horrendous impact on the individual directly affected, but it also has an impact on the loved ones who see an older relative deteriorate, often quickly, in a way that is tremendously sad. Relatives do not have to deal only with the practical realities. It is a challenging condition in terms of its emotional impact on those who are closest to the people affected.
It is important to deal initially with the comments made by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam about the NICE process. First, the NICE recommendations are neither the final story nor the final guidance on drugs for Alzheimer’s disease. Stakeholders have until 15 June to lodge an appeal against the recommendations and at that point NICE will convene a committee to hear any appeals. It will publish a report of the appeal on its website.
It is also important to say that the process has been thorough—unprecedented almost.
I am writing to my hon. Friend the Minister about this, but I would be grateful if he did whatever he could to ensure that my constituent, Mr. Joe Culkin, is able to give evidence in that appeal.
It is not necessarily for me to determine who can give evidence, but we can certainly pass that information on to NICE and ensure that it is sensitive to my hon. Friend’s request.
As I was saying, the process has been thorough, with two public consultations on appraisal documents and a targeted call for further data from the drug manufacturers. Hon. Members would accept, I am sure, that the recommendations have changed significantly in the light of new evidence as the appraisal has progressed.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam gave a slightly distorted picture. Many people profoundly disagree with NICE’s recommendations and we understand the disagreement and disappointment with the stage reached by NICE, but I am not entirely comfortable with second-guessing experts and specialists in the field who have a clear remit set by Parliament, and with implying that the hon. Gentleman is in a better position to make judgments than those experts and specialists.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Department of Health would support the appeal. As a Member of this House, he knows full well that it would be entirely inappropriate for the Department to join any appeal to NICE. It is entirely right that having set up NICE the Department should trust it to make reasonable and sound judgments on some of the most sensitive issues that face health policy in this country.
I understand that to a certain degree the Government have subcontracted out certain decisions about the cost-effectiveness and affordability of drugs. However, my point was that the Department submitted through the consultation a series of matters that it wanted the appraisal committee to consider. Is the Minister entirely satisfied that the appraisal committee gave due consideration to all the issues that the Department asked it to consider?
It is absolutely clear what stage we have reached in the process. It is appropriate that we let the process take its natural course and it is incredibly important that we do not undermine the integrity and credibility of NICE. The decisions and recommendations are not final and an appeal can still be lodged, as I have said. It is right that we allow that process to take effect, and the Department of Health’s role is not to second-guess in any way the process that has been conducted or NICE’s next decision-making stages.
I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. I absolutely understand what the Minister is saying about the professionalism of NICE and the remit that it has been given. Is he satisfied that that remit adequately takes into account carers’ needs, which are important in the case of such dementias?
As far as I am concerned, NICE would say that, in reaching conclusions and any ultimate decision, it has a responsibility to take account of the impact on the carers of those with any health condition. That is a part of the process. My hon. Friend knows that NICE has to take into account many criteria and factors in reaching its conclusions. Of course, from an emotional point of view I, like other hon. Members, would like to say that, if it will make carers feel that the situation facing the people for whom they care will be greatly improved, let us give those carers what they seek from the process, but we all know that that is slightly disingenuous because we have a duty to take account of a range of other factors. NICE’s remit, the balancing act that it has to engage in and the different factors that have to be taken into account are laid down transparently and clearly.
We should never diminish the tremendous passion and emotion about the subject or say that they do not matter, but they are one of the reasons that NICE has conducted such an unprecedented process in public policy terms. The public anxiety, emotion and passion and the responsibility to respond sensitively to the needs of carers are the reason why NICE has gone through a process that has never happened in other circumstances and with other conditions. We should not attempt to devalue the genuine work that NICE has tried to do or to imply that NICE has not changed its position. Its position is not the same as in the past. There has been a genuine attempt to engage all stakeholders in reaching the recommendation.
Does the recommendation meet the views of all the experts, users and carers? Clearly it does not. I suspect that unless people are given what they want they will not welcome or accept recommendations or conclusions on the subject. We know how difficult it is for those who are directly affected. I do not say that in a patronising way, but NICE must consider the subject in terms of the criteria that Parliament has laid down for its duties and responsibilities. It is a difficult balancing act and the decisions have not been concluded. There is still the opportunity to appeal and to influence the process and I urge people to take advantage of that. NICE is obliged to take account of those representations.
We have not reached the end of the process. There is still the opportunity for appeal, and I have repeatedly made that point. I expect that there will be an appeal and NICE will have to take account of that. I suspect that one of the arguments that will be advanced in the course of the appeal is that NICE has not taken account of all the factors that it should have. That was the central thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. People who have participated in the project from NICE’s perspective will not necessarily accept that but that is one issue that NICE—not the Department of Health—will have to take into account.
It is important to make one point. The issue is not only prescription drugs and the way in which we treat and manage this dreadful disease, but the relationship between health and social care, the day-to-day practical and emotional support for carers and users, and the changes that we want to make to social care to achieve a more integrated approach. In the past, we had health on one side and social services on another, and we want to bring them together. If we get those issues right, it will significantly improve the quality of life for users and carers.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Two o’clock.