Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
I am pleased to contribute to the debate. It is an opportunity for Back Benchers to raise issues of concern to their constituents. I shall touch on something that I have spoken about in Adjournment debates, including in Westminster Hall, before, and it is the continuing scandal of the compensation for miners whose health was ruined by exposure to coal dust.
The Government can be quite proud of the compensation scheme, which has paid out nearly £5 billion. Many disabled miners and their families in my constituency have benefited from it. In saying that, however, the shameful side of the scheme is the way in which it has been seen as a pot to plunder by not only greedy solicitors, but also, tragically, greedy former trade unions, or organisations purporting to be trade unions.
The reason why I raise the relationship between Durham National Union of Mineworkers and Thompsons Solicitors again is that what has happened since the last time I mentioned it in the House is a scandal. It was bad enough that a former trade union charged its former members and even their widows 7.5 per cent. of their compensation and asked them to pay a £20 fee to join as “associate members” of the trade union, but now the organisation has de-listed itself as a trade union and set itself up as a claims handling company, which is what we all thought it was.
Let me set out the history of the scam, which is what it is. I am glad to say that many former members and their families who have been duped by Durham NUM and Thompsons Solicitors have had their compensation returned after complaints by myself and others. I strongly urge anyone who is still out there who has had money deducted by Durham NUM or Thompsons Solicitors to make a complaint as soon as possible to ensure that they get that money back.
Or by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers in south Wales.
I have no detailed knowledge of NACODS, but I know that it is involved in a similar scam.
The situation publicly is that Durham NUM is like the Durham NUM of 20, 30 or 40 years ago—a proud, working-class organisation. But it certainly is not today. I first raised the issue in a Westminster Hall debate on 23 May 2007 and exposed what was going on. Two individuals, Mr. David Hopper and Mr. Guy, who are president and general secretary respectively of Durham NUM, were getting huge sums from the compensation scheme. The sole source of income of Durham NUM was the 7.5 per cent. that was deducted from people’s compensation by Thompsons Solicitors and passed on to it. I am still asking questions about what they did for that money, but I have never got a satisfactory answer. It is clear, however, that the solicitors confused their role and were acting in the best interests not of their clients, but of Durham NUM. That is why the Law Society has been clear in saying that the money needs to be paid back. The two individuals whom I just mentioned are each drawing salaries, benefits and bonus packages of nearly £70,000, and for doing what? Many people would be shocked by that.
If that process was not bad enough, what has happened in the past 12 months is scandalous and is slowly coming out in the public domain. Durham NUM has de-listed itself as a trade union so that it no longer has to submit accounts, which it had to do in the past, to the certification officer, and has set itself up as something called “an unincorporated association”. It is important to get on the record how the situation has arisen.
As I said in my previous speech in an Adjournment debate, the organisation has assets of nearly £5.5 million. For some strange reason, £680,000 of that is in an offshore bank account, and I have never been given a plausible explanation of why that is so. I accept that the £5.5 million-plus that it has may well have been reduced because it has had to pay money back to people, but the union also has assets in terms of Red Hill and other property assets that it owns.
If there are to be major changes in a trade union, we would expect the members to have a say in what happens to those assets, but if I told you, Mr. Speaker, that the decision to de-list the organisation as a trade union was taken by 10 people, including Mr. Hopper and Mr. Guy and, I think, their wives, you would appreciate that there are a lot of angry people out there. Those people have been members of the trade union for years but have not had a say in what happens to the assets. One of the individuals I mentioned chaired the meeting; the other took part in it. They not only have a connection with the change, but have a direct financial interest in what happens to Durham NUM.
I have secured the minutes of the meeting, which was convened on 19 March 2007. I was pilloried locally when I stood up and said that Durham NUM was no longer a trade union, but a claims handling company. Lo and behold, that is exactly what Durham NUM set itself up as on 19 March 2007. The minutes need a larger hearing. Lo and behold, who is the solicitor who gave advice to the meeting? It is Mr. I. Walker from—you guessed it, Mr. Speaker—Thompsons Solicitors.
The minutes say that the meeting was opened and that the president of Durham NUM explained:
“He and the general secretary had been advised that it no longer met the statutory definition of a trade union as set out in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 because its principal purposes no longer include the regulation of relations between workers and employers or employers organisations.”
I met the certification officer a few weeks ago and have to say that Durham NUM has not met that criteria for perhaps 20 years. It has never negotiated. What has suddenly changed now apart from myself and other hon. Members raising the issue?
The minutes continue:
“Members would recognise that it could no longer do so following the closure of the last pits in the Durham Area”
—that did not happen recently; it happened 20 years ago—
“given that membership was restricted to workers in the mining industry and … ancillary undertakings in the Durham coalfield.”
It was explained that
“the Area’s status had been called into question following”
—this is the funny bit—
“the introduction of the Compensation Act 2006.”
Given Durham NUM’s vehement denial that it was a claims handling company, why should the Compensation Act affect it ? Clearly the Act did affect it, because for the last God knows how many years it has in fact been a claims handling company. It obviously recognised that it would be caught by the new legislation.
The minutes state:
“Mr Walker explained the new draft rules. The first purpose of the amendments is to bring the objects of the Area into line with reality by taking out the references to collective bargaining.”
I do not think that Durham NUM had done any collective bargaining for 15 or 20 years.
“All references to the National Union are also removed to reflect the reality that the National Union no longer recognised the Area as a constituent association… The remaining objects had been tidied up but were essentially unchanged. The result would be that the Area remained in existence, as an unincorporated association, but not a trade union.
Secondly, the structures of the Area had been brought into line with the reality that there were no longer any lodges.”
Since I have been a Member of Parliament I have always found Durham NUM’s language strange, with its suggestion that Durham still contains the mass structure of pits that has not existed there for years. Obviously, if Durham NUM has now emerged from the parallel universe that it has been inhabiting, that is a welcome development.
“Mr Walker then took the members through each of the rules.. He noted that if the new rules were adopted, the name of the Area would revert to ‘the Durham Miners Association’.”
That was clearly intended to give the impression that the organisation was comparable with an association that had been established 100-odd years ago in the days of working miners. Durham NUM has nothing to do with that proud history now; it is a claims handling company. It would have been far more honest to call it “the Durham Miners Association Claims Handling Company”.
What concerns me, and has concerned a number of former members of the union, is who was involved in the decision. Apparently, only full members could participate. I have obtained a copy of the rule book through the certification officer, which confirms that that is the case. I understand that at least two of the people who attended the meeting were women. I am not sure whether women ever qualified for full membership of the NUM; I know that they did in some areas but not in others. Interestingly, one of those attending was a Mrs. C. Guy, no doubt a relation of Mr. S. Guy. A motion was moved by George Simpson and seconded by Alan Johnson, and it was resolved unanimously that the new rules should be adopted.
A number of people who have been associated with Durham NUM for many years have asked me why they did not have a say in what happened to their trade union. I have examined the rule book closely, and it all seems to revolve around the definition of “full member”. It is interesting that the individuals whom I mentioned were the only full members. When I asked people who have complained to me whether they were invited to the meeting and whether any consultation took place, they replied in the negative.
If there is one core thing about a trade union, it is that it ought to represent the interests of its members. That clearly did not happen in this case. A small group of individuals—some of whom had a direct vested interest in keeping this going because they were getting a blooming good living out of it—were making decisions on the assets and moneys accrued over many years by hard-working former members of the union, many of whom are rightly very unhappy.
As if that were not bad enough, what happened next was mind-boggling. It involved retired union members who had been members for many years, including a number of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp)—for example, Mr. F. Smith of Newfield in Pelton and Mr. Ron Wilson of Pelaw. One of them had been a member of the NUM for 50-odd years, since he joined as an apprentice. When he went to pay his annual retired member’s fee of, I think, £20, he was told that he could not be a member of the new organisation. The reason was that he had asked for his money back—his 7.5 per cent. Anyone who had the audacity to ask for their 7.5 per cent., which should not have been taken by Durham NUM in the first place, was barred from membership of the new organisation.
Quite rightly, those two individuals and many other former union members across the county of Durham—not just in my constituency—are extremely annoyed. They include Joseph Orrell, who made the front page of the Sunderland Echo under the headline “Sick miners axed by union”. The newspaper used the word “outrage”, and it is an outrage. What annoys me is that people who set up what is basically a claims handling company are wrapping themselves up in proud traditions and left-wing rhetoric, purporting to be socialists and to be representing the poorest and most disadvantaged members of the community, which they are clearly not doing. They are not representative of those people. They did not ask them whether they wanted the new association to be set up. They have established a small club consisting of those with direct vested interests.
Looking at the rule book, I discovered a technicality whereby retired members should at least have been consulted, which they clearly were not. Another murky aspect of the affair appears in the minutes of the special meeting, and it is something that I have suspected for a long time. The scheme does not have a proud history, given that former trade union officials have been doing deals with claims handling companies. One of those present at the meeting was a Mr.—I presume—A. Mardghum. I think that that is one Alan Mardghum, who used to be the lodge secretary of the Wearmouth branch and is now clearly involved with Durham NUM. He was also involved with an outfit called FreeClaim IDC in Ashington, which was one of the most disgraceful organisations handling claims. In one case, about which I complained to the Law Society, the company took some £3,600 from the compensation awarded to a Mr. Jobe. The relationship between people who seem to flit between different claims handlers while giving the impression that they are representing the interests of the poor and downtrodden is something of a scandal.
Some might ask “Why does this matter?” I think it matters chiefly because the money that has been taken away from retired miners and their widows should not have been taken away, but also because a number of very angry miners who have paid in for many years, such as Mr. Orrell, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wilson, feel that they have had no say in what happens to the assets. Those assets are not inconsiderable. The amount held in the disbursement fund is £1.18 million, and the total value of the investments is £3.7 million. The value of the unquoted investments is £863,000, including—this is in the accounts, in brackets—£687.62 in an offshore bank account, or offshore investments. The total cash assets, according to the last return, amount to £5,563,000, which is not an insubstantial sum. There are also the fixed assets, which are not quoted, in the form of the Red Hill property and other property owned by the organisation.
What should have happened to the money? If the organisation was no longer a trade union, it should have followed the example of other unions that have been wound up. The money should have been given to, for instance, the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, which would at least have reinvested some of the money back into mining communities, and not put it into the pockets of a few individuals—who, since the mines have closed, have had a very good living out of compensation claims for many years. There needs to be an investigation into Durham NUM. I am due to meet the regulator for claims handlers in a few weeks—unfortunately I could not meet him last week—and I shall ask whether some of the issues I have raised can be examined.
There are also broader issues to do with how the assets of such organisations are dealt with. I have spoken with the certification officer. To be fair to him, he was very helpful—and privately appalled by what happened, I think. However, he is limited by legislation in what he can do. However, by that one move, Durham NUM has made accounts that were in the public domain every year—even though it was necessary to go round the houses to find them because those involved were quite clever in hiding the salaries and moneys in the accounts—no longer public. Therefore, basically what has happened is that £5 million and the assets of a former trade union have been squirreled away into an organisation that no longer has to produce any public accounts. Many former miners and their families are rightly very angry about that.
There should be an urgent investigation into the organisation. Although some people are getting their money back—I put on record again that I welcome that, and I urge anyone who has had money taken to contact the legal complaints service because moneys are being given back—this issue will not go away. I understand that I am being pilloried in certain quarters as the villain of the piece. I am sorry, but if what I am doing is exposing people to proper scrutiny, that is my role as a Member of Parliament. I will take no criticism from people who have direct vested interests and have done very well at the expense—this is what really sticks in my throat—of some very poor individuals.
May I touch on a few other constituency issues? I was proud on 15 May when Stanley town council held its inaugural meeting. I have been campaigning for that council, along with local people, for a few years. The turnout in the local election showed that people in Stanley are interested in having a voice, and I look forward to working very closely with the town council—not only Labour members, but independents and others—to improve the town of Stanley.
Turning to health care in my constituency, on Saturday this week I will have the honour of attending the opening of the new Sacriston health centre. It is a former mining village, which suffered badly throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, and a brand new health centre has been built for it, which will be opened by Sir Bobby Robson. I ask people to come and look at the health centre, as it is a carbon-neutral building and a fantastic example of what can be done in a public building both to provide top quality local health services and to protect the environment.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and I have been involved in the campaign to have the Lindisfarne gospels returned to the north-east. That campaign has been well supported by many north-east politicians of all parties, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who cannot speak because of the Whip’s purdah. The campaign is creating some movement, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is now talking to the British Library not merely about loaning us the gospels, but about there being a permanent home for them in the north-east. I also pay tribute to Durham university and the cathedral, which are now actively looking at building a resource and visitor centre on Palace green in Durham, not only as a possible home for the gospels, but to display the university and cathedral’s rich collection of early Christian manuscripts. That would be a great tourist attraction not only for the city of Durham, but for the north-east.
This week’s welcome announcement of the aircraft carrier order will be a tremendous boost to the north-east economy not only in terms of direct fabrication jobs, but in terms of the impact on small and medium-sized enterprises in the area. We hear a lot of doom and gloom at present about the economy, but employment levels in the north-east have never been higher. We have some tremendous organisations: Nissan, for example, is taking on 800 new workers and producing cars not only at an efficient rate in terms of this country, but of world-beating class. In the last 10 years the north-east economy has come a very long way. I look forward to working with the new unitary council in Durham—its inaugural meeting is on Friday—to ensure that County Durham is part of the renaissance, both cultural and economic, that is taking place in the north-east.
One of the pioneers of the work to change the perception of the north-east, to attract jobs and to move the north-east forward was Lord Tom Burlison, former deputy general secretary of the GMB and regional secretary of the GMB in the north-east. Sadly, he died earlier this week. Tom was a great advocate for the north-east. If people want to see the good side of trade unionism, they should look at how he worked in partnership with Dr. John Bridge, the CBI and others to form organisations such as the Northern Development Company. That spirit of partnership was there even in the dark days when we were losing heavy industry throughout the north-east. His passing will be mourned by a lot of people in the north-east, and he will be fondly remembered for the contribution he made.
May I also pay tribute to Tom from the Opposition Benches? He was a fellow member of the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. He was a dedicated member of both bodies and he—and his contributions—will be sadly missed.
As a friend of Lord Burlison, I think I can say that his family will greatly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Unassuming individual that he was, when he was ennobled in 1997 he then took a key role in organisations such as the Council of Europe. He took that seriously, and not only as an honour; as a working peer, he worked very hard. His passing will be mourned by many people of all political persuasions who knew him from his second career in the other place.
May I conclude by wishing everyone a happy recess and a restful week off before returning to the fray in a fortnight’s time?
May I begin by associating myself and my hon. Friends, many of whom will have known Lord Burlison and his work, with the comments of regret on his passing away, and pass on our condolences?
I, too, wish to make a series of constituency points, rather than a Front-Bench speech. This Adjournment debate does not really warrant Front-Bench contributions, because it is about hon. Members putting to the Government the reasons why we should not adjourn for the Whitsun recess as we think there are issues that need to be debated and dealt with. I have three such issues which I wish to put to the Government. The first is the arrangements for commissioning tier 4 mental health services for people with moderate and severe personality disorder. The second is public sector housing finance. The third is the lack of a system for protecting vulnerable adults.
The current system for securing the provision of specialist mental health services in England is not fit for purpose, and I shall give some evidence that supports that view. I have seen this flawed system at work in my constituency, but its impact goes much wider and should be a cause of concern for all hon. Members.
My constituency is home to the Henderson hospital. To most people, it is a little-known, even obscure, small hospital tucked away in Belmont. Among those with any experience of the treatment of personality disorder, however—clinicians or patients—it is a nationally and even internationally renowned tier 4 residential service for the treatment of moderate to severe personality disorder. It offers a practical and challenging route to recovery through personal responsibility and social inclusion. I have met many ex-patients over the past few years, and especially in recent months during the trauma of threatened closure. For those who have received the service, it has been life-saving and transforming. It does not only offer patients a way to manage or contain their mental health problems, but provides treatment for those problems and a way for people to restart their lives. Many of them cannot understand why a service that they prize so highly and that has given them an opportunity to realise their potential could be taken away from the many others who might benefit from it.
The service treats personality disorder, and it facilitates change in people’s lives. Unlike many other mental health services, it is not simply about the management of the status quo or the containment of the threats that those with mental health problems can pose to themselves and in a few cases to others. Research on the Henderson has shown that its approach reduces acute admissions and interventions by the criminal justice system. The number of people in prison who have severe mental health problems is a blot on our criminal justice system and shows that provision does not adequately meet those people’s needs. The service at the Henderson does offer a way to meet some of those needs.
Despite the evidence that the Henderson therapeutic model works, the service has been earmarked for closure and indeed it has already been closed temporarily— as the euphemism has it—pending the outcome of consultation. The Henderson has a 60-year history. Over that time, it has taken from referrals from practically every part of the United Kingdom from Land’s End to John O’Groats. However, in some circles, that history marks it out as old fashioned, out of date and ripe for closure. In truth, the model of care that it offers is a very modern one. It is run on democratic lines, with residents taking personal responsibility for much of the day-to-day running of the service. They make decisions about everything from menus to direct staff involvement in the provision of the service. That is very different from the typical model of mental health services that is still the norm in much of the country.
A few years ago, the Henderson was even asked to replicate the service in two new units, at Webb house in Crewe—events there may be the reason why the Chamber is not especially well populated with Members seeking to contribute today—and at Main house in Birmingham. Webb house has since closed because of funding cuts, and Main house is struggling to keep its doors open.
So why is such a successful service under threat? Until 2005, the Henderson was funded by the Department of Health through the national specialist commissioning advisory group. After 2005, funding passed to a consortium of 128 primary care trusts across London, East Anglia and south-east and central England, so many hon. Members will have constituents who have benefited from the service in the past. It has to be said that this was not a consortium of the willing. Within a year of the change in responsibility for the funding of the service, PCT after PCT took the opportunity to pull the plug on funding.
As a result, the mental health trust that hosts the service, the South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, has been confronted with a growing funding crisis. The clinical need has not changed and clinicians still want to refer patients to the service, but the PCTs are refusing to fund referrals. So the closure is based not on clinical need, but on financial reasons. The NHS and the Minister responsible accept there is a need for tier 4 provision such as the Henderson. Everyone wills the ends, but no one will identify the means to deliver them. The Government’s review of the commissioning of specialist mental health services, the Carter review, found that PCTs are ill equipped for the task of specialist commissioning of such complexity. In a system driven by tick boxes and targets, services such as the Henderson do not fit. So when Ministers say that this is a devolved matter for PCTs and that they cannot intervene, they miss the point. Closure is a direct result of the way in which devolution to PCTs was designed by the Department of Health. It is a consequence of policy, not of individual decisions of PCTs. There are no incentives for the complex regional collaborations necessary to commission specialist services.
I hope that the Department of Health will wake up to that fatal flaw in the system before it is too late. Every day the service is closed, the risk is that the clinical expertise will be lost and, far worse, that the lives of those people who could have been helped will not be changed for the better. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will sign early-day motion 1547 and, if they represent a constituency in the south of England, challenge their own PCT to support the service.
The second issue I want to raise involves housing. In March, I joined a determined group of council tenants from the Sutton Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations and councillors of all parties from the London borough of Sutton to present a petition to the Prime Minister. The petition sought to highlight what my constituents and I regard as a stealth tax on tenants. The tenant tax is known in official Government circles as negative housing subsidy. It means that if the Department for Communities and Local Government determines that a council’s rent account will be in surplus, the Government can cream off some of the money. This is money that tenants pay as rent in the belief that it will be used to pay for the management and maintenance of the local council housing stock, and even—dare I say it—of their own homes.
In Sutton and Cheam, this year tenants will pay nearly £10 million in tenant tax or, to put it another way, tenants will be paying their rent to the Government until mid-August. Until then, not a penny piece of their rent will benefit them. The Government say that the system of housing subsidy and negative subsidy is there to support areas that need the money more, but it means that families on modest incomes living in my constituency and in many others bear the brunt of that redistribution.
What is worse is that the current subsidy regime is headed for a national surplus. In 2001-02, the Government made a net contribution of £351 million. That fell to £252 million in 2002-03, and to £191 million in 2003-04. It is widely believed that the system is reaching a tipping point at which the Treasury will pay out less in subsidy than it receives in negative subsidy from local authorities. At that point, any argument that the negative subsidy is anything other than a stealth tax will fall to pieces.
Indeed, reports in Public Finance magazine suggest that this year the Treasury could be skimming as much as £194 million off rent payments across the country, and that figure will perhaps rise to £500 million within a decade. Tenants have every right to demand to know what the Government intend to do with that money. They have every right to call it a tenant tax and every justification in calling for it to be scrapped. At a time when the Government are reeling from the consequences of their decision to double the 10p rate of tax, it seems remarkable that they would continue to defend a stealth tax of some of the poorest in our country—that is, many of our council tenants.
In March, the Government formally launched a much-delayed review of the housing revenue accounts subsidy system. I have been talking to the chair of the Sutton Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations, Jean Crossby, about the subject. She is working very hard with tenants in the borough and with tenants organisations around the country to challenge this iniquitous tax. She has pointed out that the Government are failing to engage seriously with tenants as part of the review. For example, I understand that here in London a handful of tenants will be involved in the review process. Surely more must be done to ensure that tenants can have a real say about the future financing of public housing. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to give the House some assurances about the extent to which the tenant’s voice will truly be heard in this process and, at the very least, will pass on those concerns to the Minister for Housing.
Finally, I want to raise my continuing concern about the arrangements we have in this country for the protection of vulnerable adults and older people. Over the past 10 years, I have drawn to the attention of the Government and the House the mounting evidence of the abusive and inappropriate prescribing of anti-psychotic drugs to older people with dementia in care homes. In doing so, I have often outraged some care home owners, but I think that it is right to raise these concerns because it is right to draw attention to the academic research evidence, which is becoming compelling.
At any one time, about 100,000 older people in care homes are on those drugs, which are not licensed for the treatment of dementia, have adverse side effects, increase the risk of strokes and even bring on premature death. The prolonged use of those drugs on some of the most vulnerable people in our society is nothing less than restraint by chemical straitjacket.
Change is long overdue. The Department of Health, medicine licensing authorities, the care regulator, the General Medical Council and care providers all have a part to play in rooting out bad practice and protecting the vulnerable. Elder abuse is a serious matter in this country. Government-funded research found that 342,000 people over the age of 66 are victims of one form of abuse or another, including fraud, theft, psychological or emotional abuse, and assault, including the use of restraint. High hurdles had to be clambered over in order to register as a victim of abuse in the study, and many people were excluded altogether, such as those in care homes or those with dementia who live in the community. They were not approached or included in any way in the result.
It must be likely that the study’s figures are a conservative estimate of the scale of the problem and the challenge that we still have to confront. It is a challenge that the Law Commission asked us to confront in 1995. It said that it had no confidence in the adult protection procedures that existed at that time, but although there have been a number of welcome piecemeal adaptations to the system since then, they are not sufficient to meet the concerns that the Law Commission flagged up so long ago.
The Law Commission proposed that social services departments should be given powers to protect vulnerable adults similar to those that exist for child protection and a duty to investigate; that powers should be granted for magistrates to issue entry warrants, temporary protection orders and removal orders; and that an offence should be created of obstructing officers acting on behalf of the courts. Rather than acting on those recommendations, the Government chose to go down the guidance route. In 2000, they issued guidance called “No Secrets”. The evidence is that “No Secrets” has failed to gain the necessary traction and acceptance in local authorities and other agencies, and as a result its implementation has been piecemeal and patchy.
In 2006, Action on Elder Abuse completed a two-year study funded by the Department of Health on adult protection systems. The report stated:
“Protection of Vulnerable Adults work is currently supported by the No Secrets guidance which has Section 7 status but no ring-fenced finances. This has hampered efforts to develop Protection of Vulnerable Adults policies, procedures and systems consistently and coherently. Many of the inconsistencies in practice and procedure highlighted throughout this report can be attributed directly or indirectly to its perceived lack of status, and the lack of priority in the NHS.”
The report went on to recommend that the protection of vulnerable adults be placed on a statutory basis equivalent to that for child protection and domestic violence. The report and its recommendations were produced in March 2006. The fact that the Government funded the research in the first place was welcome, but it took two years for them to come back and announce, as they did in March, that they will have a review of “No Secrets” that will consider the case for legislation. I suppose that that should be welcomed, but it has taken 13 years—and that is not good enough.
When the circumstances surrounding the death of Victoria Climbié emerged, they convulsed the child protection system and galvanised the Government to legislate and to work with others to drive change in the child protection system. Although no system in which humans are involved will ever be perfect, there has been significant improvement in this country’s child protection system. It should not take a similar shock to the adult protection system to achieve long overdue reform and action. I hope that legislative time will be found to enact the Law Commission’s proposals or similar ones. Thirteen years is far too long to wait.
In conclusion, the future of the Henderson hospital is in limbo as a result of a dysfunctional funding system. Council tenants in my constituency are paying 37p of every pound of rent as a tenant tax to the Treasury. The frail and the vulnerable are protected by a system found to be unfit for purpose more than a decade ago. The message from my constituents to the Government is that it is time for dither and delay to end. It is time that the Government put those things right. Although I enter into the spirit of things by wishing all colleagues a good Whitsun recess, I hope that the Government will take advantage of the fact that they do not have business in the House next week to reflect on the concerns held by me and my constituents.
Before I come to the main issues on which I want to detain the House, I want to associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) about the late Tom Burlison, a Member of the other place, who has passed away. I want to couple that with a reference to the late Lord Billy Blease, who is worthy of mention in this House. He was one of only two people, as far as I can make out, who represented the voice of Labour from Northern Ireland in Parliament—and not just in one House.
For a long time, the late Billy Blease headed up the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in Northern Ireland in the most difficult times and circumstances. He trod the fine line of trying to bring together people of different traditions in the trade union movement and he did that with great dexterity. For a long time, he served my party—the Labour party—in the House of Lords, despite the fact that the Labour party then foolishly had a policy of not allowing anybody from Northern Ireland to join it. He had to use enormous dexterity to get around that. I want to place on the record my appreciation for the political life and work and work for the trade union movement of Lord Billy Blease, who also passed away recently. The House and those people who worked hard for successful reconciliation in Northern Ireland should acknowledge his great contribution, albeit it was a discreet one.
There is never a right time to bring up the matter about which I want to detain the House. I am somewhat nervous about doing so. All too often, Members from all parties acquiesce by their silence in a slow undoing of our human rights and civil liberties in this country. We are not sufficiently zealous in fulfilling our role of probing those areas that the establishment in this country would not like us to dwell on. I am referring particularly—as I did earlier, during business questions—to our security and intelligence services.
I think that it is a thundering disgrace and an abdication of our responsibility in this House that there is no parliamentary oversight at all of the security and intelligence services. That is a severe deficiency and a flaw in our democratic institutions. Most of the great democracies have parliamentary committees charged with probing and overseeing their security and intelligence services, but that system does not exist here.
I have challenged successive Ministers about the matter, including the current Prime Minister. They have dismissed my questions by referring to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is hand-picked by the Prime Minister of the day from parliamentarians with whom he or she—and, more importantly, the security and intelligence services—feels comfortable.
One Minister told me, “Mackinlay, this is a distinction without a difference,” but I disagree. Who clerks the ISC? It is clerked by a spook, a member of the security and intelligence services, and not by the Clerk of the House of Commons. When does it meet? We do not know. We do not know the parameters of its jurisdiction, as the term “security and intelligence services” is a generic one: does it include the special branch of the Metropolitan police and other forces, or does it involve just MI5, MI6 and GCHQ? We do not know.
That is a serious abdication on our part, and it is time that it was remedied—with some expedition, as Whips are already coming to me to talk about this business of the 42 days. I have told them—I shall paint it on their eyelids—that there is no way that I am going to support that proposal. There are many reasons for that, but a particular one is the fact that there is no parliamentary oversight of our security and intelligence services.
I enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s robust contributions. He is a credit to this House, but will he acknowledge that there is some parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence services, albeit not enough? Under the National Audit Act 1983, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—who, by convention, is a member of the Opposition—has certain statutory responsibilities for auditing them.
I am grateful to hear it. I do not mean to be disrespectful as I think that that is good, but it is barely a fig leaf. I make no apologies for saying that this place is abdicating its responsibilities, at a time when civil liberties are at stake—and, as I intend to go on to share with the House, when the role of this place is being undermined.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I do not want to interrupt his flow when he gets under way again, so I want to get my point in now. Will he shoot, as it were, a particular fox before it gets up and running? This House is a democratic Chamber, and all sorts of people get elected to it. Among its hundreds and hundreds of Members over many years, there might have been some who were genuinely a subversive danger. Does he accept that there must be some form of screening of the members of any parliamentary committee that has oversight of secret organisations and access to information that properly is held to be secret? Otherwise, the secret organisations will not make secret information available—and they shall be right not to do so.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes, I do accept that, but it is not the issue. The issue is that successive Labour and Tory Prime Ministers have said that there shall not be any parliamentary oversight, and I believe that they have done so because they are weak and craven before the security and intelligence services. The point that the hon. Gentleman raises is addressed in the US Congress, which has a very powerful committee to oversee security and intelligence matters. It does not appoint suspect people, but the pride of Congress—and of this place—is that parliamentary institutions should be able to make judgments of that sort.
I had not realised that I was going to rattle so many cages today, but I should like to finish my thought process on this point. The fact is that the US Congress, France’s National Assembly, Canada’s House of Commons and Australia’s House of Representatives all address this subject: it is a matter of pride for them. They find ways to ensure that the members of their respective committees are suitable and appropriate, but they are appointed not by the head of the security and intelligence services—that is, by each country’s equivalent of the Prime Minister or the head of the CIA—but by their Parliament or Congress.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the idea that Members of Parliament cannot be trusted with what is called “secret information” is sometimes used as an excuse? I have been a member of the Defence Committee for the past seven years, and my experience is that we get access to far more classified information when we go to the US—to an extent that would give civil servants at the Ministry of Defence apoplexy.
I was going to save the story that I am about to tell for my memoirs. They will be the mother and father of all memoirs, and will actually be interesting. When the late Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary, he had to instruct a man called C to meet the Foreign Affairs Committee. I did not know that there really was a guy called C; I thought that such things were confined to films, but there really is one. I remember going down to the MI6 building, and the Committee was made as welcome as people with bubonic plague. It was clear that the then incumbent C deeply resented the fact that the Foreign Secretary had instructed him to see the Foreign Affairs Committee. Frankly, the meeting was not very productive, as the House can imagine.
That story demonstrates the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham made in his intervention. It is something with which we should not put up.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
My goodness! I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I encourage him to bring out his autobiography—everybody else seems to be doing so, and now would be timely. He has intimated that other Parliaments seem to get around the problem without threatening security. Will he be a little more constructive and suggest how we might change the custom by which the Prime Minister makes appointments to the ISC?
Okay. First of all, it should be a parliamentary committee. No doubt, there would always be discussions through the usual channels about the method and modus by which people are selected.
That means that you would not be on it!
I shall come to that in a moment, but appointments to the committee would be a matter for Parliament. I think that people would emerge about whose qualifications all parties were confident. Achieving the sort of committee that I have described really is not rocket science.
Importantly—and this is not merely a shibboleth of mine—the committee’s secretariat should be provided by the Clerk of the House of Commons. At present, as the House knows, the Clerk does handle confidential papers. Without going into too much detail, there are occasions when, rightly, items that require some discretion and security have to be held in this building. Therefore, that is not a problem.
The problem is that there is a cosy consensus among the people who run our political parties. I will not sign up to it, but they are craven before the security and intelligence services. No one is allowed to ask any questions at all, and I shall give an illustration of that very serious problem in a moment. I dismiss the idea that it cannot be resolved, and think that we should pursue it.
As I noted earlier, the parameters of what comes under the generic term “security and intelligence services” are not quite clear. I want to emphasise that I have no doubt that some very dedicated and brave men and women work in those services, as I do not want anything that I might go on to say to be used against me. I will not accept any suggestion that I do not acknowledge the professionalism, bravery and patriotic dedication of the people who work for our security and intelligence services. However, what I do question is the arrogance of the culture surrounding those services that leads them to believe that they should be exempted from any oversight whatsoever of anything that they do, even when that stuff is almost a matter of history.
Soon after we return from the recess, the question of the 42 days will come before the House, but for me it is a matter of trust. Far too many things lately have caused me to reflect about whether I can trust what are described as the security and intelligence services. I regret that, but in any event it is certainly the mood of the very many people in our society who are asking the same question.
I will give one illustration to buttress my argument. I am one of the Members of Parliament who joined in a court case—Lord Alton of Liverpool and others v. the Secretary of State for the Home Department—and my interest in this matter is registered. It went to the Proscribed Organisations Appeals Commission—the POAC is of the status of the High Court—which found against the Home Secretary. In that judgment, it said the Home Secretary’s action in relation to what is known as the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran was perverse. A lawyer friend tells me that the use of the term “perverse” by a court is the nearest that it gets to being rude to one of the parties in a case. The Home Secretary is a bad loser. Off she trots to the Court of Appeal. After a long deliberation by the Court of Appeal, including days when the hearing was in camera and special advocates had to be appointed, the judgment, headed not by a “mere” judge but by the Lord Chief Justice, was conformation that the action of the Home Secretary was perverse. He went on to say that all that having sat in secret for two or three days did was to reinforce his view that the Home Secretary’s action was perverse.
I want to be generous to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary’s view was framed by—guess—this country’s security and intelligence services, which peddle a line, quite confident and arrogant, that nobody is ever going to question their judgment. However, on this occasion they did, and not just Members of Parliament—including Lord Waddington, Baroness Boothroyd, Lord Russell-Johnston, a former Conservative Lord Advocate and many Members of this House—but a court of the level of the High Court and the Lord Chief Justice of England. That is a slight victory, but when there is the damning judgment that the attitude being pursued by Her Majesty’s Government was “perverse”, that shows the need, in my view, for people to be able to explain their position more fully before the high court of Parliament, and to be accountable for their stewardship.
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to move too far away from this point, but has he been given any indication since that ruling was made of when the PMOI will be removed from that proscribed list, as the Lord Chief Justice has asked?
No, but I have a parliamentary question down to that effect, and I want to know the parliamentary procedure; I do not want to deny the opportunity of hon. Members in all parts of the House to say what their view is in debates of at least one and a half hours upstairs.
I want to trespass into one other area that might get Members salivating. A lot has been said about the Freedom of Information Act 2000, even this morning, but the other side of the same coin is the Data Protection Act 1998. This needs to be looked at in respect of our own interests. There must not be a casual disclosure by this House of information relating to hon. Members in which there is a third-party interest under the Data Protection Act. There therefore needs not only to be time for Members to look at any disclosures proposed to be made; but the House authorities and hon. Members have also to be conscious of the fact that what is put into the public domain should be nothing with which another person outside this House has a legitimate interest and protection in relation to data protection. I am surprised that this issue has not been raised before, and I would be pleased to develop it with Members outside this Chamber.
I say this because I have been the victim of an unauthorised disclosure, under the Data Protection Act, by a Government Department. I have kept mute about this for some time. What aggravated me is that when I found out about it, the Government Department concerned initially treated the matter with some levity, and since then, the people responsible for breaking the law in respect of me—and for a disclosure that included a defamatory statement about me—have been promoted. There have been discussions about beefing up the penalties in relation to data protection, and they should be. My personal experience indicated to me how casual and flippant people can be regarding the reckless disclosure of data when there is no real penalty. The point is true of both the public and private sectors.
I find it a bit perverse that the same man responsible for FOI is responsible for the Data Protection Act. Surely these two very different areas should be separated out, and there should be different people in charge of them.
That is a very interesting and valid point but in any event, the existing law places a duty in relation to data protection that is not being addressed by many organisations, both in the public and private sectors. When there is a freedom of information disclosure, the person or organisation making that disclosure needs to be mindful of their other statutory duty and responsibility to people under the Data Protection Act. I have never heard that mentioned during the past weeks and months in relation to the disclosure of Members’ expenses and so on, or to the big controversy about a Government Department’s recklessly disclosing data. This is a serious point that we need to address not only in our own interests, but those of everybody else.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very valuable contribution. One reason why he has never heard that issue being mentioned inside this House is that it is sub judice. Moreover, we have been unable to get it reported outside this House because the people who are determined to have this reckless policy of disclosing Members’ home addresses are equally determined to stifle any public airing of the arguments against the folly that they are driving forward for their own selfish ends.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but may I take the opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to emphasise that I am not raising the Data Protection Act issue in relation to the Members issue? I am using it as an illustration. The fact is that Members in all parts of the House did not raise it when great concern was rightly raised in this House about the disclosure of data by a Government Department. We are too casual about our responsibility as legislators to protect the interests of other people in this regard. Moreover, this is not a matter for us, but if there is disclosure, which there inevitably will be—and, in broad-brush terms, rightly so—of our expenses and interests, there needs to be a reassurance that there is no third-party disclosure. That would be breaking the law.
I raise this issue in the context of the degree of malevolence, in my view, on the part of some parts of our security and intelligence services. There is a great deal of concern about files that are kept, for example, and there is no way of reassuring ourselves about this secret part of our state; that needs to be addressed. People may think that I am exaggerating, but I will go on to buttress my argument. In any event, the maxim comes to mind, “Just because you think I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean to say they’re not after me.”
He is after you.
All that I was going to say is that my hon. Friend’s file is going to get rather larger after this afternoon’s debate.
I have two serious points that I want to share with the House, the first of which I referred to in questions earlier. In the last decade of the South African apartheid regime period, a man called Wouter Basson was the head of the South African equivalent of Porton Down. He was described by journalists writing about the truth and reconciliation commission, in respect of which he had a big hearing, as the Dr. Mengele of South Africa. It is a matter of fact, not conjecture, that he was involved in chemical and biological research, and that he was responsible for the deaths of many people not just in South Africa but throughout the continent and probably elsewhere around the world. For 10 years, he was given access to the United Kingdom. It is not unreasonable for me or any other hon. Member to ask why, and on what basis.
I tabled a parliamentary question this week asking on what basis Wouter Basson was allowed to come to the United Kingdom, and to have either the ownership or tenancy of a house in Berkshire. The Government’s reply was, “We don’t discuss individual cases.” Of course, I would defend that as a general principle, but it is a matter of fact that that man was involved in serious wrongdoing both in South Africa and internationally. He was an agent of the South African apartheid regime. He was involved in chemical and biological weapons. So he must have been in the United Kingdom with the full knowledge and full consent of our security and intelligence services, and I want to know why.
I also want to know whether there was any ministerial cover for that. If there was not, it is a serious matter, and probably criminality could be involved, because of United Nations sanctions, as well as the United Kingdom law that governed such relationships. If there was ministerial cover, there is even more reason why the House should know. That illustrates how the security and intelligence services will use Ministers to not disclose that which should be disclosed, and I challenge the Government to come clean to the House on the relationship of Woulter Basson and his Project Coast.
I made a Data Protection Act request to the Foreign Office in relation to myself. I asked a lot of questions about Woulter Basson and Project Coast, and to summarise, the Minister’s replies were broadly, “There’s nothing in this.” Yet when I made my Data Protection Act request, it was disclosed that
“a handling strategy meeting to deal with Andrew Mackinlay’s questions”
had taken place and that no fewer than 13 officials attended that meeting to give me the reply that there was nothing in it. Being a diligent Member of Parliament, I inevitably asked the next question, “Who were the officials who attended the handling strategy meeting to deal with Andrew Mackinlay’s questions about Woulter Basson and Project Coast?” And they refused to answer, because the spooks were there. That is the truth, and they know that it was true that there was some illicit, probably illegal, involvement by our security and intelligence services with Woulter Basson and the apartheid regime’s chemical and biological weapons research. So they do not like that sort of question.
The other thing that I want to share with the House—I have hesitated about this—is that I, as a diligent Member of Parliament, take an interest in many parts of the world, and from time to time, as other Members of Parliament do, I meet an official from the Russian embassy, to ascertain the Russian Government’s views. We cannot rely on the British press and media and certainly not on the British Government’s objectivity in such matters. In my discussions, I give such state secrets as “I think that Tony Blair will retire probably in 2007” and my firm prediction that there will be no contest for the leadership of the Labour party. That is the extent of it. If those are state secrets, I plead guilty before the House.
What I learn from meeting a diplomat from the Russian embassy approximately three times a year is what Russia’s views are on a range of things—for instance, the Helsinki accords in relation to the controversy about Kosovo. I learn its views about nuclear missile defence. I suspect that many other hon. Members do that. If they do not, they should, because at least if we understand the other guy’s point of view, we can make a good assessment of how we should probe the Government and what we should be arguing and so on. For example, the British want someone extradited from Moscow, but what has not been told in the House is that Moscow would like some people extradited from London to face courts in Moscow—not a wholly illegitimate claim.
In the hon. Gentleman’s next discussions with the Russian embassy, will he get some advice on how the Russians police football matches? I find it quite bizarre that there were more arrests in London for a match that took place in Moscow than there were even in Moscow.
I do not want to go down that road. Although it is a legitimate point, I am in the middle of making a serious point.
I want to share with the House—this is why I raise it as a matter for Parliament— the fact that I was approached very formally last summer by a Minister who said, “I’ve been approached by you know who, who tells me that you’re meeting a person from the Russian embassy.” I was and I remain highly indignant and angry, both in my regard and for Parliament. I found the approach menacing, and bearing in mind that I meet the people from the Russian embassy in this building, it means that the security and intelligence services are monitoring not only the people who come into this building, but the hon. Members whom they meet and presumably what is discussed.
I ask the House a question: is that not an affront to Parliament? Is it not serious that there should be scrutiny of hon. Members talking to people from around the world? My view is that it is important—people have fought battles over this—that any Member of Parliament should be able to talk to whomever he likes, particularly in this building. If oversight of that starts to happen, it diminishes Parliament and is very dangerous politically.
I hate to accuse my hon. Friend of being a bit naive, but does he not live in some sort of utopia and does he not think that those other people might be interested not in what he is up to, but rather in the Russian gentleman whom he meets? Does he not think that the Moscow security services follow British diplomats and other EU diplomats around different parts of the former Soviet Union?
I am not naive about the security and intelligence services around the world. I guess that they monitor officials from a variety of embassies. I object not to that—indeed, I make the assumption that it happens—but to the approach by a Minister warning me off doing such things. That was unacceptable to me, and it remains so. I see it as a breach of my rights and duties to the House and as a Member of Parliament. Of course, I have refused to buckle on this.
I want to share with the House the fact that those conversations I have with the Russians are casual. I have not exaggerated and was not being flip. I will talk about my predictions—for what they are worth—about the United Kingdom political scene over the next few months. What I get in return is Russia’s views, which I do not necessarily accept, but I then understand its views about a range of issues. If we abandon that and if we feel influenced or intimidated, that is a real diminution of our roles as legislators, and I find it intolerable. I hope that other hon. Members share my view.
I am concerned about the mere fact that other people clearly had knowledge of our discussions—times and details. I occurs to me that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham is probably part of the establishment, but I am not and I am never going to be. Basically, there is an attempt to frighten hon. Members, as I was, and they say, “We know that you’re a perfectly good patriot and we have every confidence in you, but it would be helpful if you could let us know next time you’re meeting them, and you might be able to broach one or two subjects.” I think that that is what goes on, and it has been going on in the House for years, and I am not prepared to sign up to it.
I urge hon. Members to reflect on what I have said. We must have oversight of the security and intelligence services. Ministers must be less craven to them. The Prime Minister must be bold and go down in history as saying that he will do what happens in the United States of America, Australia, Canada, the Republic of France and every other democracy, where the legislature has control and oversight of the security and intelligence services.
The hon. Gentleman is poised to intervene. Obviously, he agrees with me, and I hope that hon. Members will reflect on what I say, because I believe that we are ignoring a great danger to our liberties. We should be much more jealous of the rights and privileges of the House, which people fought for and are enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). When he stood up with the back of an envelope in his hand, I thought we would have a short speech. I was disappointed in that sense, but he has injected more passion and—with all due respect to other speakers—more interest in the debate that we might have had otherwise.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on everything, but I have great sympathy with what he says about not trusting the opinion of experts, be they Sir Ian Blair or the spooks, as he calls them, or anyone else. I think the job of Ministers, whom I view as the elected Government, is to make sure that they keep a clamp on the security services and do not take everything they say as the gospel truth.
The hon. Gentleman and I are of not dissimilar ages, so perhaps he was brought up on too many of those 1960s programmes in which there was some conspiracy in the security services to overthrow the elected Government of the country—almost invariably a left-wing Government. I do not distrust the security services, but it is our job and that of Governments to maintain freedom and freedom of information, and to make sure that paid agents of the state, of whatever sort, do as they are told and do not tell the Government what to do. Having said that, I hope the hon. Gentleman will not think me weak or craven, which he suggested one or two Ministers might be.
I hope not to detain the House too long, but there are issues of great concern to my constituents. The first is the eco-town controversy. An eco-town is proposed for a place called Pennbury, which does not exist, in the district of Harborough. I represent about a third of that district. Pennbury is entirely open fields. It is owned largely by the Co-operative and Labour society of the midlands, usually called the Co-op, and partly by English Partnerships, which is a creature of the Government. That is relevant.
Should this town of many thousands of houses be built on a totally greenfield site, contrary to all public policy over a number of years, it will necessitate at the very least a new road between the area and the M1. Although we do not know much about it, that will almost certainly go through the virgin countryside of my constituency. The idea that it is an eco-town is ludicrous. There is nothing ecological about it at all. It is just a town which, I hope, will employ the latest energy-efficient designs.
We need to deal with the demand for housing, which was partly revealed in The Times yesterday by reference to the 1.2 million new citizens of this country in the past 10 years. I am sure they are all excellent people who have come here for understandable reasons, but such an influx is, of course, creating demand. However, the Government have yet to produce any real evidence of need for new housing, apart from the fact that there is bound to be some need. I am sure there will be a need for housing, but it should be properly examined. If the Government proceed with eco-towns, particularly the one that impinges on my constituency, they will encounter enormous opposition and they will have to answer the questions that they have so far not answered at all.
The second issue that bothers my constituents in Harborough district is the future of Lutterworth hospital. That should be of interest to the Government who have said, rightly, that people should be treated closer to home. Yet the agent—albeit at arm’s length—of the Government, the primary care trust in Leicestershire, is consulting, which I think is a euphemism for “planning”, to close the residential beds in Lutterworth hospital. Those beds are used for therapeutic treatment to enable elderly people, typically, to go back to their own homes. If the beds are closed, visitors will have to travel to Rugby, which is at least 8 miles from Lutterworth, or to Leicester, which is 20-plus miles from Lutterworth.
Leicester is perpetually snarled up. There is talk of a congestion charge, although I do not believe that that will materialise. By some delicious irony, when I met the chief executive of the PCT, Catherine Griffiths, at Lutterworth hospital a couple of weeks ago, she was 25 minutes late. The reason was that she had taken an unusual route through Rugby to get to the meeting, and she had met the traffic in Rugby.
I want people to be treated close to home, and I want them to be able to visit their relatives in hospital close to home, and not to have to travel miles, be unable to park, and to get stuck in traffic jams. There is a good hospital in Lutterworth. It may be a little outdated, but as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) said, just because a hospital has red bricks and a Victorian date on the front does not mean it is incapable of being used today. I have been treated in Lutterworth hospital—treated well—and I want to ensure that Lutterworth hospital’s services are not downgraded in any way. I shall fight for my constituents in Lutterworth to prevent that.
Thirdly, in the other part of my constituency, which is in Blaby district, a bypass is being built in Earl Shilton, between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick). There, a report of great crested newts had to be investigated. I happen to like newts. When I was a child I used to catch them, look at them and put them back in ponds, as I am sure we all did. Now, with the ludicrous bureaucratic nonsense that we have, one needs a licence to handle newts. Did hon. Members know that? A licence to pick up a newt, for heaven’s sake.
I hope Ken has one.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there are 66,000 breeding ponds of great crested newts in Britain, yet Leicestershire county council has just had to spend £1.2 million of my money, hon. Members’ money and my constituents’ money on a plan to erect fencing to prevent great crested newts being affected by the Earl Shilton bypass. The newts are not rare. If there are 66,000 breeding ponds, how can they be? I could take hon. Members, if they wish, to a place where I could find 10 tomorrow.
The lifecycle of the great crested newts means that they come out of semi-hibernation in the spring and move to a pond. After they have laid their spawn, in early summer, they move off. Nobody knows where they go. They go up and down the ditches of Leicestershire and elsewhere, and they may be found wherever they feel they want to go. They do a useful job catching slugs, snails and so on. However, the idea that we should spend £1.2 million of taxpayers’ money after a newt was allegedly found—none was found after the fencing was erected—is ludicrous. It is a matter of great concern that we should have reached that point. I shall soon introduce a ten-minute Bill about that. I shall also mention bats.
I like bats. I went on the bat walk organised by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) last summer. We did not see any bats around the House of Commons, but never mind—it was very interesting. The fact that disturbing a bat could lead to a fine of X thousand pounds is ridiculous. Of course we should protect bats, but we should balance that with the needs of the human population. I hope we may be able to examine the matter further.
Finally, I shall deal with a survey that I recently carried out in the only Labour-held county council ward in my constituency. The survey was carried out entirely with South Leicestershire Conservative Association money—no communications allowance, none of that dosh, was taken from the public purse and wasted on my constituents. Unusually, I have had a large number of replies to the survey over the past couple of weeks and they are still coming in.
That is interesting, on the day of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, because Members, particularly those on the somewhat sparsely populated Labour Benches, need to realise, after 11 years of Labour government, how angry people are. The ward, as I said, was Labour-held, not part of the plush, rich, Jaguar and gin-belt set, the sort of place where it might be imagined that people vote Conservative. I shall not quote all the replies, or we would be here until the rise of the House. I asked whether people feel safe. The replies stated:
“No, I do not feel safe in town centres, even during the day”,
“It is not safe on the streets”,
“The police cannot do anything, because of political correctness”,
“I get scared to go out, despite the massive increase in revenue from rates”,
“I never see a policeman”.
I also asked people whether they felt better off. A disabled constituent stated:
“I am extremely careful about using gas and electricity, but I still spend almost 15 per cent. of my annual income of these two things alone. In spring and autumn, I have to keep the central heating off and feel the cold, even though this aggravates my illness.”
I am not saying that we should pay everybody’s gas and electricity bills, but after 11 years of this Government wittering on about fuel poverty—we heard it earlier today at Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform questions—people are still suffering, which is something to lay at this Government’s door.
The other thing that concerns people is the increase in immigration—my constituency is on the edge of Leicester. One constituent stated:
“As a small island, Great Britain cannot sustain the present level of immigration. This is not racist, but common sense.”
That feeling is growing throughout this country. I am bemused as to why the Labour party is undermining the labouring classes, who have only their labour to sell, by introducing a cheap source of labour into this country. Many Labour Members, and perhaps the Government, appear to want to do that, but it undermines the ability of the working classes—if I am allowed to use that expression—to sell their labour. That is what has happened, and that is what my constituents are telling me. In those letters, my constituents tell me—not in British National party fury but in sorrow—that their country has been “overrun” in a way they did not expect. Those people are not racist—well, one or two are, if the truth be known, but most of them are not. I hope that the Government will take note, because they will get the same answer from the good people of Crewe and Nantwich today.
Finally, I want to return to eco-towns, which are of general interest. This is where I might team up with the hon. Member for Thurrock on conspiracy. The Environment Agency is meant to protect our environment, and it issues a magazine, which I am sure that we all avidly read, called Your Environment. Issue 19, which is the responsibility of the Environment Agency director of communications, Adrian Long, covers May to July this year and comments on eco-towns. Whatever eco-towns do, if Pennbury is built—I hope it is not—it is hardly likely to enhance the wildlife of the area, as thousands of homes will be built in the middle of fields, streams and woods. I am sure that the Government will deny that that publication is propaganda, but issue 19 states that
“eco-towns seem a good step forward in terms of modern living. They promise good environmental benefits and a better quality of life for people and local wildlife”.
I am not a biologist, but I think that the local wildlife in this particular case would disagree.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a couple of issues that concern my constituents.
The movement of housing stock from council control to an arm’s length management organisation—or in our case, Welsh housing associations—is a great concern. My constituents cannot understand why the Government will not allow councils to retain their housing stock and obtain funds to regenerate it. The stated reasons include the public sector borrowing requirement and the effects on the economy, but housing associations are allowed to do that.
There is more need than ever before in constituencies such as mine for affordable rented accommodation. House prices and wages are out of sync—the average wage is around £13,000; the average house price is around £100,000. In many cases, rented accommodation is the only option. As and when council properties move over to a housing association, what quality of maintenance and response to need will that housing association provide? Rumours are flying around that rents increase within weeks of an association taking over housing stock. What review has been carried out of the effectiveness of previous transfers to associations? The issue of rent money being held by the Treasury was raised earlier, and the concern is that money from the sale of housing stock, which has gone on for a considerable time, has not been reinvested in housing.
On shared equity housing, how long does a house remain a shared equity property? One can own 70 per cent. of a house, and a housing association can own the other 30 per cent., but does such a house always remain a social house, or does the housing association have the right at some time in the future to sell it off at full price? And how do individuals who own part of a house move on? How will they afford to own 100 per cent. of a house? There is a need for social housing, but it must be balanced against an individual’s ability to live and work.
When the empty business rates tax was first considered in this House I supported it, but with hindsight I think it has caused considerable problems. A number of business premises in my constituency are empty not because the owner does not want to fill them, but because the economy will not allow that to happen. Those owners must now find the moneys to pay the extra tax. Some individuals have been criminalised—they have even been taken to court—because they cannot afford to pay. I agree that empty properties are not what a community needs for regeneration, but to punish individuals who have done their best to run businesses is not the way to do it.
In their advance statement about the Queen’s Speech, the Government announced the possibility of their taking over empty and derelict houses and revamping them to sell on. One of the issues that we have discussed locally—I hope that the Government consider this—is empty business premises. Some shops in parts of my constituency have been empty for some years. I have fought to get grants to allow such shops to be returned to domestic dwellings rather than businesses. There is a huge need for the reintroduction of grants for revamping business premises and domestic dwellings, and I hope that the Government consider the social and regeneration aspects of that point. When premises, whether houses or businesses, are boarded up, it does nothing for the community or the local economy.
Those are the two main issues, and I hope that the Government consider them in detail. I wish the staff of the House and all hon. Members a peaceful and restful week off.
I hesitate to take up the House’s time by further referring to the issue of Members’ private home addresses being published, but this is one of the few opportunities available to me to develop the argument, which I shall do in detail.
Every hon. Member has a few special skills, some of which are more valuable than others. I have very few special skills, one of which is particularly rarefied—I have an understanding of the way in which extremists’ minds work. Were I an extremist, I would be cheering on the freedom of information campaigners who are urging, for misguided reasons, that the private home addresses of Members of this House should be made public in an easily accessible form.
I first learned to be careful about my private home address 31 years ago, when I was involved in a nasty campaign concerning the infiltration of a democratic party in this country by an extremist organisation. It was impossible in those circumstances for my address in the then constituency of Newham, North-East to be kept secret.
A number of things happened in the course of that campaign, including someone tampering with the brakes of my motorcycle, which caused me to sustain a significant injury, and the subsequent hurling of a boulder through my bedroom window late at night. I was fortunate that, as it hit the masonry, only the glass penetrated into the room and on to the bed where I was sleeping, rather than the boulder itself.
A few years after that campaign was over, I believe that it was the investigative journalist Barrie Penrose who wrote an interesting story in The Sunday Times about a firm of investigators called Detectives (Private) Associates, which had, in part of that campaign, been bugging my telephone lines and making use of the political information. Even if I were not concerned about my personal safety, the case raised the question of my right to privacy to campaign, in what I believe was a democratic way, on an issue that was causing great concern to the political parties of the day. It was causing concern not only to the Labour party, with which I was involved at the time, but to anybody who was concerned about the way in which extremism was trying to infiltrate democratic institutions.
Subsequently, a number of other campaigns involved my dealing with organisations of political extremists at home and Governments of a totalitarian nature abroad. I never doubted that if any of those bodies really set their mind to it and made a special effort, concentrating all their resources on it—they might simply follow me late one night—they would eventually be able to find out where I lived. I did not see that then, and I do not see it now, as a justification for making it easy for anybody to be able to dial up, at the touch of a button, where I live. At least if someone is going to have a go at me, let them have to work hard to find out the information as to how they are going to do so.
In those days, I was on my own, but now I live with my partner—at least, I live with my partner at my London address. If people are perhaps to know where my constituency home address is—I shall discuss that point in a moment or two—at least my partner is not exposed to nearly the same level of risk. That is because somebody might decide to have a go at me at, or, more likely, send something through the post to, my constituency home address than to my London home address, where she lives.
As a result of not only those past campaigns and the experience that I have gained from them, but a recent event—I was involved for five years in trying to build up a case against a career criminal who had defrauded my elderly father of thousands of pounds for building work that had not been completed, and my lawyer advised me that it would extremely unwise for any of my addresses to be made easily publicly available— I decided that I would take on this issue.
I did not do so because, as one might think, I felt myself particularly at risk, although I am particularly at risk. I am one of the people most likely to benefit from the exemption that has been laid down all along by the Information Commissioner and by the Information Tribunal appeal ruling of 26 February, paragraph 84(7) of which stated:
“Where a particular MP has a special security reason for keeping the address of his or her main or second home confidential (for example, because of a problem with a stalker, or a terrorist or other criminal threat), that address may be redacted.”
For those who do not understand that term, may I say that it means that whenever any piece of information about our expenses spent on such an address is made public, the actual address should be blacked out. One would have thought that that was a simple enough thing, but it appears to have escaped the understanding of the Information Commissioner and the judges who have subsequently pronounced, in their wisdom, on those questions.
I would almost certainly be able to claim that exemption for myself, but as a result of my experiences, I have felt it particularly important to try to ensure that similar protection is extended to my colleagues, who might not have had my experiences and who might not yet be subject to the same sorts of threats that would entitle them to claim an individual exemption on the same basis as me.
I want to tell the House and the hon. Gentleman that as a result of one of my parliamentary activities, I received 600 threatening and menacing letters—by hard copy, not by e-mail. Leaving aside the matter of their contents, if they had arrived at my home, as, inevitably, such letters will, I would have faced the logistical, practical problem of trying to identify which were my own private mail and which were those hateful, menacing letters. This issue has not been understood.
I welcome that response, which takes me nicely on in my line of argument. I am sure that only a momentary oversight has prevented the hon. Gentleman from adding his signature to early-day motion 1620 on this matter, and I look forward to his doing so. It is not fair to expect Mr. Speaker constantly to have to stick his neck out to defend what the hon. Gentleman previously referred to in another context as the privileges of this House if Mr. Speaker is not made firmly aware of the united opinion of this House when it needs him to defend our privileges or, as some would call them, our rights. This is a matter of rights.
Let us consider the question of mail, which the hon. Gentleman so rightly raised. If I were applying an extremist mind to an extremist cause—I like to think that I apply my mind to moderate causes, such as the defeat of extremism—I know what I would do if I wanted to knock this ridiculous proposal on the head. I would buy a large packet of white soap powder and 646 envelopes, and I would then place a quantity of the soap powder in each envelope, together with a little note saying, “Ha, ha. You have just opened a packet of anthrax”, and send an envelope to each of the 646 private home addresses. Of course, people would not have opened a packet of anthrax, but it would take a brave or reckless MP not to take the trouble of immediately contacting the emergency services in case the envelope of white powder really did contain anthrax, as has happened in a case in the United States.
Are we insane enough to make this sort of information nationally available? If an experienced, professional, terrorist organisation is determined to knock off a particular MP, it will, of course, track that MP and do something bad to him. But why should we make it easy for such an organisation to do the same thing to 645 other MPs at the same time? I could not understand how we reached this state until today’s business questions, when the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said something that I had not known: that when these matters were being argued before the relevant commissions, no professional security advice had apparently even been taken. What on earth did the officials of this House think they were playing at when they omitted to take that basic step?
My hon. Friend is making an extremely interesting speech. Is not his revelation of the failures to take security advice all the more extraordinary in light of the fact that I can remember three Members of Parliament being murdered in my adult lifetime because they were MPs?
I shall jump on a bit in what I was going to say as a result of that excellent intervention; I hope that the House will forgive me if I go back and forth a little in my line of argument. I have come to the conclusion that nothing will concentrate the minds of the judges, the officials of this House or the officials who work for the Information Commissioner more than being put in the position in which they are seeking to put Members of this House. That is why I have, not at all facetiously, put in freedom of information requests asking for the private home addresses of High Court judges in general. Now that we know the names of the three High Court judges who took the decision, my parliamentary assistant has put in a supplementary request for their details to be made public. The grounds on which those judges came to their decision were that if someone really set their mind to it, it would be possible to find out legally and quite straightforwardly where anybody in the public eye lived. If that applies to us, it applies to them.
However, in reality, the argument is a falsehood, as a moment’s reflection will reveal. If somebody wishes to take basic security precautions in respect of their address, it is possible for them to do so. My address has never been on an electoral register, and that is quite legal. Owing to my individual political history, I have explained to the electoral returning officer every time that I would prefer to register under a nom de plume. Anybody can do that. I fill in my electoral registration form with my nom de plume and sign it “Julian Lewis”, indicating that I have used that nom de plume.
It is true that when I stand in elections, my private constituency address has to be published in certain electoral documents; that fact is used as an excuse by the various individuals and bodies to say, “Well, the cat is out of the bag, so all the addresses for which money is claimed—either the London or constituency addresses—should be put in a big list on the internet.”
I have done an experiment. As I said, my private constituency address does not involve my partner and her safety. I have entered that address into the Google search engine with my name. I have had to fill in various forms with that address—I am talking only about my constituency address, not my London one—but despite that fact, no match comes up anywhere on the internet. If somebody is sufficiently evil-minded about it, they will no doubt now make a point of going to New Forest, East, ferreting around, finding the relevant forms and publishing my address in the papers. I have had to take that calculated risk in putting my head above the parapet and raising the issue at all. Good luck to them—they will just prove my point. However, at least my London address, where my partner lives with me, will not be involved.
The people I have been talking about have taken leave of their senses. The problem has been that we have not had the opportunity properly to present the security considerations to those who ought to consider them—namely, the judges and commissioners. Furthermore, as I said in an intervention, we have not had an opportunity to raise the issues outside the House, because the very people who are determined that all this stuff should be exposed are the media themselves. I have no confidence whatever that I will be any more successful at making the public aware of the issues at stake as a result of this debate.
I have tried my best with the media. I had a very long conversation with a journalist from The Times whom I know well and whom I regard as principled. I explained to him at length the issues about the disclosure of MPs’ addresses, particularly in the context of the current terrorist environment. I explained to him what I would do, even if I were only an al-Qaeda sympathiser at home or abroad; I have given one example of what I would do, but I do not want to generate too many free ideas for the extremists out there by giving more. However, I could do plenty more things with my twisted mind; I am sure that the extremists do not need my suggestions anyway. The journalist had no answer to any of my points. He really did not—I am not doing him a disservice or being unfair to him. However, I could tell that he was uncomfortable with the conversation, which ended with him saying, “Well, I’ll have to think about it, Julian.”
I later had a conversation with a particularly experienced and distinguished parliamentary correspondent from one of the tabloid newspapers. He went even further than The Times correspondent. He said, “Gosh! It would be barking mad for those addresses to be published.”
It is the barking mad that we have to worry about.
Indeed. Have any words appeared in that particular tabloid putting our side of the case? Not at all.
I should like to spend a moment considering what the Information Commissioner, supported by the wisdom of the High Court, proposes that we should rely on. I say it again: there is an exemption through which if a particular MP has a special reason for keeping his or her address confidential—because of a stalker, terrorist or other criminal threat—the address may be redacted. Right, let us think about that.
Let us take half a dozen female MPs as an example, and let us imagine that the provisions are about to come in. One of those MPs is being stalked. “Ah! That’s all right,” says the Information Commissioner, “We have catered for that—her address will be redacted.” Fine, so we go to press and the address of one of those half a dozen female MPs is withheld and the other five addresses are published. But hang on a moment—six months down the line, two of the other five suddenly acquire stalkers. What will we do about them? Will we say, “Sorry: general public, please disregard those addresses that we published”? Are we going to say, “Too late now—tough luck.” If we say that, why should the first one to be stalked have had the advantage of not having had her address published, while the others did not? Alternatively, will we say that the lady MPs should be moved and that we will pay for the costs of that? That would involve the public purse, and the issue is supposed to be about the public purse—although it is not, in my humble opinion.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being very generous. Another issue that occurs to me is this: how are we supposed to know in advance that we are about to become a victim of terrorism? I say that very seriously. At about a quarter to 3 in October 1984, I happened to be in Brighton. I walked through the revolving doors of the Grand Hotel to see whether some friends of mine were still there. I sat down and had a chat. About four to five minutes later, the Brighton bomb went off. I did not know that that was going to happen; if I had, I would have been somewhere else.
That is why we can see that not a moment’s real thought has been given to the security implications. I am afraid to make the following proposal, because I know the bureaucratic mind as well as the extremist one—even now, I can see the bureaucrats groping madly for the wrong conclusion. My proposal is that if there are any grounds for withholding any hon. Member’s address because they already face a specific threat, that must be an argument for withholding every hon. Member’s address because we could become subject to such a threat at any time because of the nature of our work.
In fact, the bureaucrats would no doubt say, “Ah! Perhaps we have been too generous. Perhaps we had better say that it is so absolutely vital to be certain that MPs are not fiddling the additional costs allowance—that is the matter of supreme importance—that we had better publish the addresses, even of those MPs who do face a criminal threat or threat of stalking or who have put their heads above the parapet.”
The very hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has put his head above the parapet many times by naming in this House extremist—I would call them unIslamic—organisations and individuals. He has been very brave. He knows that he may well be attacked on account of his bravery, but why should he have the additional concern that his family might be? The whole thing is barking mad, as I said earlier.
I have not signed that EDM so far—I am a bit of a loner in this place—but I will consider doing so. I have asked parliamentary questions on my own initiative, one of which asked whether the addresses of judges’ lodgings will be published. They are demonstrably provided at public expense, and I imagine that the Government, who are craven, will baulk at pressure from the judges and say, “You daren’t do that. These are public buildings.” I want the addresses of the judges’ lodgings.
The hon. Gentleman is irrepressible and, as usual, he is not only irrepressible, but unanswerable. The only way in which the problem will be solved is to force the people sitting in judgment on these matters to consider how they would like it.
I mentioned briefly during business questions a couple of the other early-day motions that have been tabled by other hon. Members—not in any co-ordinated way; I knew about them only when I saw them on the Order Paper. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) tabled early-day motion 1623, which states:
“That this House notes the reasons given by the High Court as to why the addresses of hon. and right hon. Members can be published; and considers in the same spirit of openness and public accountability that the home addresses of High Court judges, who are adult, law-abiding citizens and holders of public office in the public eye”—
he has, of course, taken that word-for-word from their judgment about why our home addresses had to be published—
“should also be published along with a detailed break-down of the expenses which they charge to the public purse.”
He subsequently told me that the Table Office, for reasons that are understandable but nevertheless regrettable, crossed out the words at the end of his original draft, which were
“on the basis that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”
They also charge the taxpayer for their ridiculous clothes.
I am not sure whether I should put that sedentary intervention on the record or not, but I fear that I have just done so.
I also draw attention to early-day motion 1628, tabled by the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale)—a former Minister—that reads as follows:
“That this House notes the High Court’s reasons for why the addresses of hon. and right hon. Members can be published; and in the same spirit”—
gosh, it seems to be the same sort of words—
“of openness and public accountability, the home addresses of High Court judges, chief police officers, fire chiefs, chief executives of local authorities, chairs of public bodies and senior Crown civil servants should also be published alongside detailed breakdowns of the expenses which each charge to the public purse.”
I was not going to raise this point, but that EDM reminds me of a press story that I read recently concerning the fact that certain chief executives of local councils—people whose salaries are between three and four times larger than those of hon. Members of this House—had been receiving what was described as hate mail from members of the public because they were getting such gigantic increases in their salaries. As a result, for data protection and privacy reasons, their increases in salary were no longer to be revealed. I am not sure whether I have that right—
I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees. It was certainly the case that someone would not be able to identify which particular chief executives had received massive salary increases. How would those chief executives like their home addresses to be published? They were so concerned about their privacy and about not getting nasty letters from irate taxpayers, that they did not even want it to be known that they had had such large increases, let alone to receive letters at their home address rather than at their work address.
I sit on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport where I once asked Mark Thompson—
We know how much he earns, but I said to him, “Do tell me how much Jeremy Paxman earns.” He said, “I am not going to tell the Committee because it is confidential.” Everyone is taxed through the TV licence; public money is provided for all BBC journalists, so the same sort of revelations should be made in that case.
This is where I have another confession to make. I am not a very religious man, but in so far as I have a religious hinterland, it goes back more to the Old Testament than the New Testament. I do not take the view that one should turn the other cheek; I take the view that if I am going to go down, I am going to take as many of these people down with me as I can. For that reason, I have not only submitted a freedom of information request for the private home addresses of judges to be published, but I have started tabling questions to every Cabinet Minister—I am up to about 12 Departments so far—asking what their policy would be if they received a freedom of information request asking for the disclosure of the private home addresses of senior civil servants, who correspond to Ministers, and middle-ranking civil servants, who correspond to ordinary Members. I do not want to belabour those points, and I shall move on to newer ground.
I have just been reminded of a case from the Public Accounts Committee. We spent months, if not years, trying to get information on redundancy payments out of the Foreign Office. The amounts in question were not small—in many cases, they were £300,000, £400,000 or £500,000. Retired diplomats were being paid off without the inconvenience of having to continue their employment for five or six years more. It was impossible to get the names of the individuals involved, even though it was public money.
That does not surprise me at all. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, we have an absurd situation in which, based in the same organisation, we have the people responsible for freedom of information requests and those responsible for data protection. Effectively, if there are conflicts, there ought to be two separate bodies to fight the corner of each side of the argument, but that is not the case at the moment.
I shall diverge a little more, as I have mentioned the Information Commissioner. I have a chequered history with the Information Commissioner, and I do not have a great deal of regard for the way in which that office has done its job. In September 2004, I was surprised to receive a summons from the then leader of my party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). He informed me that although my only speciality in life was defence and security matters, as I hope some of the remarks I have made illustrate, he wished me to take on the role, on a temporary basis, of shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. I am sure that he will not mind me mentioning it now the election has been and gone. He was quite blunt about it; he was concerned about the way in which the Freedom of Information Act might be applied—he had a lot of foresight on this—when it came into force. Although it had been enacted in 2000, it came into force only on 1 January 2005 and of course the election was due to take place soon after that.
My right hon. and learned Friend’s concern was that the Act lent itself to being used in a politically partisan fashion. It would be possible to release all sorts of detailed information about why previous Governments, who happened to be Conservative, had taken decisions that had led to all sorts of disasters like Black Wednesday, but it would not be possible to get similar information out about the current Government because it was too current, and exemptions would have kicked in concerning the act of government becoming impracticable if current matters were being investigated. My job, which was given to me on a temporary basis—the promise was that I would go back to defence whether we won or lost the election, and I am delighted that it was fulfilled—was to try to neutralise that threat.
In the course of doing that job, I did two things. One was to table a lot of questions to a lot of Cabinet Ministers that I knew would be rejected, as indeed they were, and thus when old material was brought out, it became a matter of whether the Act was being used in a partisan way. The other thing was something I stumbled across by accident. I tabled a series of questions to every Department, asking how many confidential or secret files had been shredded in the each of the past five years—in other words, since the measure had been enacted but before it came into force. In several cases, there was no discernible change and a roughly equal number of files had been shredded in each of those years. However, in several Departments, including some important ones, there had been a massive increase in shredding files. To my mind, that provided at least a prima facie case that something had been going on and that some Departments had decided to make a bonfire of files before they had to open them. I thought that addressing that was surely what the Information Commissioner and the Freedom of Information Act were about.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman agrees.
To my amazement, Mr. Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, immediately declared that he was unaware of the deliberate destruction of files by civil servants and that Departments were keen to co-operate with him. He said that he would give them all a clean bill of health but that, if I had any evidence that they had been destroying files to avoid the terms of the Act, I should give it to him. Excuse me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I thought that that was his job. I believed that I had established enough prima facie evidence. When an Act is coming into force that requires many files to be opened and there is a pattern that shows files being destroyed steadily and then a sudden massive increase in that destruction, surely that is enough to trigger an investigation. However, he was having none of it.
By contrast, determining whether a bunch of Members of Parliament genuinely live in the houses for which they claim expenses shot to the top of the Information Commissioner’s agenda. Only today, he is at the top of the news agenda—it is the same man; he is doing well. I wonder what his home address is—perhaps I will find out. He is initiating an investigation into how the Tory party gave names, voting intentions and so on to some media. Why does he need to investigate that? We know how it happened—a massive mistake was made. All the people who received the information assured everybody that they have destroyed it. Of course, those in the Conservative party who are responsible deserve a severe reprimand for making a stupid mistake. However, why does the Information Commissioner leap on that and investigate it when there is no mystery? When something happened that genuinely mattered, he flunked the challenge. I do not hesitate to say that I have no confidence in the man as an individual and no professional confidence in him. The sooner he is brought before the House, so that he can be subject to some oversight and answer some questions, the better.
I want to consider the post that comes through hon. Members’ doors—the matter was raised earlier in an intervention. We go to great expense to screen our in-coming mail in the House. What is the point of doing that if our addresses are published en masse? What terrorist or nuisance with half a brain would send letters to hon. Members at the House when they could send them to their home addresses? What shall we do? Are we to institute screening procedures at everyone’s home? Will we save money and do away with the screening procedures here because there is no reason to keep them other than to protect the building, because they sure as heck are not going protect Members of Parliament once the madness that we are considering occurs? If my address were published—I do not believe that that will happen for the reasons that I outlined—I would arrange for all my mail, personal, abusive and professional, to be rerouted to the House of Commons to be screened before it returned to my home address. Is the House prepared to take that on and the expense that it would entail?
There is a problem of privacy with that. Private mail could come in here to be screened. I suspect that my hon. Friend does not open all his own mail and that his secretary or researcher does that. All privacy would go. There seem to be no rights for Members of Parliament.
My hon. Friend is right. I have taken up too much of the House’s time, but I want to mention a final asinine comment by the High Court. If the law was an ass, it has been downhill all the way ever since. There are conventions in the House that we do not attack the judges, but there are also conventions that they should not attack us. They started it and, as I said, I am an Old Testament character. Let us consider the penultimate paragraph of the brilliant judgment by those brilliant men, whose home addresses, not to mention their expenses, I am looking forward to finding out soon.
Paragraph 44 of the judgment states:
“We recognise that if the arrangements for oversight and control of the ACA system were to change, then the issues of privacy and security of MPs and their families might lead to a different conclusion to the one reached by the Tribunal.”
After all the arguments about the cat being out of the bag because we signed various forms and so on, the judges say, “Well, actually, if the ACA system were improved or tightened up, we might not say that they need to publish at all.” There is something slightly wrong there. The paragraph continues:
“The Tribunal was required to act on the evidence available to it,”—
we all know now the quality of that evidence—
“and make its judgment accordingly. If the question were to arise again, the Commissioner, and if necessary the Tribunal, again, would have to make whatever decision was appropriate in the light of the changed circumstances.”
I hope that at least my colleagues, including the 14 unfortunate ones who are already in danger of having their private home addresses published, will read my remarks. Even if they have not thought about what might happen to them in future, it might happen. Frankly, we have reached a sorry state when a so-called privileged Chamber cannot even have in it hon. Members who can be sure that at least postal access to the places where they live with their families has a minimal amount of basic, common-sense security and protection.
I am pleased to participate in this Adjournment debate and to raise several issues that greatly concern my constituents.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who spoke with passion from personal experience in a thoughtful and thought-provoking speech. I congratulate him on that. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who made an interesting speech, and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has always entertained us and made us think deeply about the issues that confront us.
I am keen to concentrate on several issues that I believe that my constituents would like raised. Through my regular surgeries, meetings and constituency visits, I am well aware of my constituents’ views and concerns. However, in the past couple of months, I have been able to talk to many more in canvassing and campaigning during the London elections. We heard at first hand that they feel let down by the Government in so many ways. They feel great disappointment because they are not being listened to. They believe that the Government are out of touch with and unconcerned about the suburbs—my constituency is suburban—and that Labour has let down the suburbs. That was highlighted on all fronts in my area of Bexley and Bromley by the election of 1 May, in which the Conservatives did particularly well and the Labour party did very badly.
People in my area are concerned about several major issues, with crime and antisocial behaviour at the top of the list. The NHS is another issue of concern, particularly downgrades, closures and problems with local health services. Another concern is the closure of post offices and the relocation of one of our main post offices into WH Smith. People are concerned about the cost of living, such as the cost of food, which is increasing dramatically, and utility bills. Those issues are having a detrimental effect on the low-paid and on families and pensioners. Of course, taxation is also of concern. People feel that taxes have gone up, but that the standard of public services has gone down.
Let me address crime and policing first. I pay tribute to our borough commander, Tony Dawson, who is doing a very good job of endeavouring to deal with local problems in our borough of Bexley, such as antisocial behaviour. The fear of crime is a problem, as indeed is fear of the unknown. People are frightened to go out at night because of the gangs of youths that gather; they fear that they will be intimidated, if not assaulted.
Violence against the person has increased across London, but the most important issue is people on drink or drugs, which cause bad behaviour. I am very concerned about that. Figures show that hospital admissions linked to alcohol use have more than doubled in England since 1995, and that alcohol was the main or secondary cause of 207,800 NHS admissions in 2006-07, compared with 93,500 in 1995-96. Those statistics are frightening. I understand that there has also been a 20 per cent. rise in the number of GP prescriptions for the treatment of alcohol dependency in the past four years. The problems of alcohol and drug abuse are causing more antisocial behaviour and crime in areas such as the suburban areas of Bexley.
I also raised this issue in an intervention on the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), but it is an important point. The front page of today’s Evening Standard shows the carnage that took place in Chelsea in relation to the football match in Moscow. However, there were no problems in Moscow. Does my hon. Friend believe that that might have something to do with the proper policing there and the alcohol-free zone around the stadium, which meant that fans could not get tanked up before going to the match?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, with which I agree. I passionately believe that we should go back to having a police force enforcing the law, rather than a police service, which the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, seems to prefer in London. We need to look into that. I am confident that there will be a great improvement under our new Mayor of London, because he understands the issues and wants to deal with them.
I had the privilege of going into one of my wards with the safer neighbourhood team, which has been a great success. I am not here to condemn everything that the Government have done, because they have some good things—just not enough. That is the problem; there has been a bit of complacency. The rolling out of neighbourhood teams and police community support officers has been a good thing. I had the privilege of going out with Ross McKibben, the sergeant of the North End safer neighbourhood team, three weeks ago to see the particular problems in his patch. He and his team have done a good job, but they are undermanned some of the time and they do not work there at weekends, which is a problem.
The team deals with difficult terrain, but it is doing a tremendous job. I met the PCSOs and the team at the Howbury centre, and we went from there to the Frobisher estate, where residents have complained about the tremendous amount of antisocial behaviour, including problems with drunkenness, drugs, vandalism and damage. Residents feel intimidated, and that is not acceptable. If they cannot live in their homes without feeling intimidated every time they go through their front doors, that is a problem. Society must deal with that problem, and the police, the Government and local authorities, working in partnership, must do more about it.
Under the Conservative Bexley council, we have had considerable success in the centre of Bexleyheath with alcohol-free zones and attempts to ensure that police are visible on the streets on Friday and Saturday nights, when such problems occur. I pay tribute to the new council leader, Teresa O’Neill, and her team, which continues to work with community police and the borough commander to make sure that Bexleyheath is a much safer environment for people who want to go out on a Friday or Saturday and enjoy a meal, go to the cinema or go for a drink with friends without feeling intimidated or a problem when they come out at the end of the evening.
Some areas of my borough have improved, but there is an awfully long way to go. We ought to be making it a top priority to have a police force with officers on the beat who can catch criminals, and to have less bureaucracy and paperwork preventing the police from getting out of their police stations and doing the job that they need to do.
A second area of great concern locally is the NHS, and particularly the hospital reconfiguration that the Government are so keen on. Our local accident and emergency and maternity services are under threat, and there will be a downgrade at Queen Mary’s hospital, Sidcup, if the Government get their way. I am worried about that because Queen Mary’s is a good facility. Kate Grimes is the chief executive, and the team has turned the hospital around in so many ways, including financially. Also, hospital infections have been reduced, and the throughput of patients has been increased. I visited the accident and emergency unit at the hospital one Friday night, and I saw how dedicated and passionate its team was about serving the community. Regrettably, however, that hospital is threatened with a downgrade, because in today’s society we have to merge. Queen Mary’s is the only non-private finance initiative hospital in the area, so it is easier to curtail the facilities there.
That is a worry. People are paying their taxes and they expect good local services. They do not want to have to travel long distances to get the health care that they need. The traffic in our area is often congested because of the suburban roads, which could result in lives being put at risk if the A and E unit at our hospital is closed and people had to go further afield—to Lewisham or Bromley, for example, or to the Queen Elizabeth hospital at Woolwich.
People are really concerned about this issue, not because everyone wants their own little hospital, but because of the practical need for a facility that is accessible not only to the people needing accident and emergency facilities but to those using the maternity services. When young mothers go to have their babies and their check-ups, they want their relatives to be able to visit them easily.
A third area of real concern is the post offices. We have raised this issue, along with that of the health service, on many occasions. Our post offices and sub-post offices are being closed, and the service is no longer there for our constituents. The Government always make excuses, but they have reduced the facilities for sub-post offices to be able to provide services, after which the sub-post offices are no longer viable. The real problem is that the Post Office does not listen. It makes decisions purely on financial grounds and then says, “Take it or leave it.” We recently made a good case for our Brampton road post office, which was well used and well located, yet no consideration was given to our arguments and the post office was closed, just as all the others were. That was very disappointing.
Our main post office in Bexleyheath was closed and relocated to the first floor of WH Smith. Smith’s is in the middle of the shopping centre and near the bus stop, so one might think that that was not too bad. However, the new post office was upstairs. When I visited it before the move was implemented, I pointed out that the lift was inadequate for pensioners with walking frames and for mothers with pushchairs, because it was too small. More importantly, it regularly broke down. I was pooh-poohed, and the managing director of Post Office Ltd said that there was no problem and that everything was fine. However, the lift broke down not once, not twice, but three times. Finally something is being done about it, but why on earth could not the Post Office and WH Smith have done something before the relocation took place, rather than afterwards? That shows a lack of care and consideration for our constituents and for the services that they need and value. That is all wrong.
Nobody seems to listen. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is a very nice person, but she does not listen because she is part of a Government who do not listen. She personally might listen, but then she and her colleagues just argue back at us. Even some hon. Members on her own side supported us when we had a debate on post office closures, which we only just lost. The Government’s own Back Benchers felt exactly the same way as we did. Yet it made no difference and the Government steam-rollers on. I hope that they will get the result that they deserve at Crewe later today.
We are always cautiously optimistic; we do not take anything for granted.
I want also to deal with the whole question of the cost of living. The Government are always on about the consumer price index; indeed, the Prime Minister was an expert at doing that when he was Chancellor. That was the great thing, but it is meaningless for most of our constituents, because many of their weekly costs are not necessarily included in that index, whereas the retail price index was slightly more sensible. We still hear from the Government that inflation is at a certain figure, but for pensioners, those on low pay and my constituents who are not wealthy, the cost of living is much greater than the Government will accept or admit. That is disappointing, as the cost of bread and other foodstuffs has increased quite dramatically. That is why the Government are so unpopular; they do not listen, and they are in an unfortunate position— local people know that, and they voted accordingly on 1 May.
People living in my constituency have to commute and use the transport system. We have one mainline service going through to London Bridge and the City. There are three lines, but we do not have an underground. From January this year, the cost of travelling from Bexleyheath to London has gone up by 13.5 per cent. No one’s pay has risen by that amount, but taxes, the cost of living and the cost of transport continue to go up. There is disillusionment. The people in my area want someone to listen, and they want a Government who will listen.
I have tried to highlight the issues that crop up again and again in my postbag, and which my constituents are most concerned about. I very much hope that the Minister will listen to some of the points that have been raised and take them back to her colleagues. It is important that people feel that their Government are not listening; we on the Conservative Benches will make sure that they do.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who focused on a number of subjects that are important to him and his constituents. He mentioned alcohol-free zones. We should look more pointedly at that issue—even in respect of my own constituency, which is a fantastic area—because that sort of minor antisocial behaviour affects the quality of life of many people. On 7 June, I am accompanying a local councillor, Jim Marsh, to the local police station in Coupe Green to meet local residents who have a problem with youths who drink alcohol in the local park where children often play. That affects the quality of life of people living around the area. Alcohol-free zones may well be the answer. Such tools need to be used more effectively, particularly where trouble takes place outside football grounds, for example, often even when there is no football match going on. The antics that some of these yobs got up to last night were absolutely amazing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford mentioned the discontent of different groups of people and the effect of the abolition of the 10p tax rate on the poorest sections of society. A friend of mine phoned me up recently, asking me whether I had heard the Chancellor on the “Today” programme trying to justify what had gone on with the 10p rate, saying that everything would be okay as £120 would be given out to the poorest people. I said that I had heard that. My friend said that the Chancellor attempted to justify why the cost would be greater than originally stated by the Prime Minister—less than £1 billion, when it is now £2.7 billion. The Chancellor said that it was necessary because of food and fuel inflation, which meant that people needed help straight away. My friend said, “Do you realise, Nigel, that the only people who are going to miss out on the food and fuel inflation money are the poorer sections of society?” That was because the £120 simply takes those people back to where they were before the Budget.
The people who benefited from the abolition of the 10p rate and the altering of the 22p rate down to 20p will get an additional £120. They benefited from the Budget and will also get £120 to help them with food and fuel. The poorest sections of society will get not a penny to help them with the inflation on food and fuel that we all see when we go to our supermarkets and petrol stations. It is yet another reason why people get extremely frustrated by the Government not listening and not learning.
I, too, should like to pay tribute to Tom Burlison. He was a former secretary of the GMB and a former professional football player for Hartlepool United and honorary president of the club. I met Tom on several occasions. If ever someone was asked to describe Lord Burlison, they would say that he was hard-working, dedicated, committed and unassuming. That was another thing about Lord Burlison. When I first met him, I referred to him as Lord Burlison. He stopped me, grabbed me by the arm, and said, “Call me Tom.” That was Tom Burlison for you. I know that he will be missed every day by his family, but it will be more poignant when his son, Rob, who recently got engaged, gets married. Everyone who was associated with Tom will miss him too. We will miss him greatly.
Early-day motion 1616 asks the Chancellor of the Exchequer to do away with the proposed 2p increase in the fuel price to be introduced in the autumn. We know that, as a result of the huge increase in oil prices recently, he has a windfall of more than £500 million to date. It has been estimated that if the Chancellor were to postpone the 2p increase further, it would cost him roughly £500 million. It is not as if the idea is uncosted. He did not expect to get that money in the first place, and surely we need some protection. Inflation is already dramatically on the rise, and with petrol at such high prices—£1.20 a litre—we cannot say when it is going to stop. Surely the Chancellor should not be adding to the woes of ordinary families in this country by clobbering them with another 2p increase.
In business questions, I mentioned the plight of public phone boxes, which are now rapidly disappearing throughout the country. I had the privilege of going to Dunsop Bridge in my constituency several years ago when BT unveiled the 100,000th public telephone box in the country. It was opened by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. BT chose Dunsop Bridge because Ordnance Survey says that that is where the centre of the United Kingdom would be if we squashed it all together. All the local school children were there, and they were excited by the opening of the phone box.
I just happened to be in my constituency one Sunday morning when a man turned up asking where certain villages were. We asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’ve come to check your telephone box because it’s due to be taken away.” I had a look at the list of public telephone boxes that are going to be removed from Ribble Valley, and there it was: Dunsop Bridge. The 100,000th telephone box is going to be taken away. [Interruption.] There is no sense of history. I said that it was sad when BT removed the red telephone boxes. I ran a bit of a campaign to get them retained. They are as important to the British character as red buses, and we look forward to the bendy ones going and the traditional ones coming back. Thank you, Boris—and Boris gets another name-check.
There is an important aspect to telephone boxes. Even though a lot of people have mobile phones, they do not work in many rural areas. The life of the batteries is still relatively short, and if a battery is dead, what are we supposed to do in an emergency? It is important that we get at least a proper network of public telephone boxes even if they do not make money. BT has a good community programme and supports a lot of community projects. I would have thought that that would be a tremendous community project. I would not mind if it put in the boxes a message saying: “This telephone box does not make any money. It is part of a community project, sponsored by British Telecom.” I hope that BT will think again, look at the network that currently exists and not take these emergency facilities away from our country.
We have a rather thin House today. I suspect that had we held the debate in Crewe and Nantwich, more Members would have been present. However, I want to raise one more issue. We have discussed a good many taxes recently, but I want to talk about aviation duty, with which the Government propose to replace air passenger duty. It will be calculated on the basis of a combination of an aircraft’s maximum take-off weight and a distance factor determined by the geographical band to which the aircraft flies. Aircraft weighing more than 5.7 tonnes and freight-only flights will be subject to the duty. It will be the first time that freight-only flights have been taxed. The duty will be applied to the aeroplane regardless of the type or number of passengers. Aeroplanes carry out phantom flights now and again, and that clearly needs to be addressed.
Aviation duty will have unintended consequences. This brings us back to the abolition of the 10p rate. The present Prime Minister—the then Chancellor—did not quite realise the consequences of the abolition of the 10p rate and the alterations higher up the band scale. I am sure that he did not sit down with his Cabinet colleagues and ask them “How can we hit the poorest hardest?”, although had he done so, he would of course have ended up with the system that he introduced. What resulted from it was an unintended consequence, however; let us be generous to him in that regard at least.
I believe that aviation duty, as currently planned, with unduly penalise United Kingdom aviation, and will have significant perverse consequences for regional airports in particular. While taxing freight aircraft may seem attractive from an environmental point of view, it seems likely that the economic consequences will be entirely disproportionate. We know why the Government are doing this—it is for environmental reasons—but the unintended consequences will hit the British economy. A balance needs to be struck.
The Secretary of State for Transport has stated that changes to air passenger duty should
“reflect the number of flights rather than passengers, strengthening incentives for airlines to use their planes as efficiently as possible.”
I am sure we would all agree with that. However, in the 2003 White Paper “The Future of Air Transport”, the Government acknowledged that
“Britain’s economy increasingly depends on air travel, for exports, tourism and inward investment.”
That is the balance that must be considered in the introduction of any aviation tax: how to make aviation as efficient as possible without damaging the UK’s national and regional economy.
In its response to the White Paper, South West of England Regional Development Agency said:
“Airports can play an important part in regeneration, especially in areas where it is not appropriate for associated commercial development to take place immediately adjacent to the airport.”
“Air access to London and other European airports is central to the economic development prospects to many parts of the region”.
In that context, Members may be interested to know that airports in the south-west employ about 3,500 people, and generate a further 5,600 jobs in the region.
I recently met representatives from Manchester airport, which many of my constituents use to fly either directly to another country or in transit through to London. From that meeting I gained the distinct impression that aviation duty would distort the international level playing field for UK freight. It is a logical conclusion that if freight departing from the UK attracts a tax that does not apply anywhere else in the world, businesses will go elsewhere. Manchester Airports Group estimates that aviation duty would damage UK competitiveness on a third of goods traded.
It is one thing for aviation duty to be paid on goods coming into and going out of the country, but many companies will be very intelligent about the countries to which they fly. For instance, if they have to fly to Charles de Gaulle airport in France or Schiphol in Amsterdam, they will do exactly that. The freight will then be taken off, and will travel by road. It has been estimated that that would result in thousands more lorries on the roads, transporting goods that would otherwise have gone to a regional airport somewhere or other. At Manchester airport alone, at least 1,144 scheduled cargo flights would become commercially unviable or at risk. That equates to about 220 jobs in the north-west region. I have also been informed that for East Midlands airport, which is the UK’s largest pure freight hub, that figure is likely to exceed 850 jobs.
It must be considered that aviation duty has the potential to seriously undermine long-haul development from UK airports, because both freight customers and airlines can reduce their tax liability by taking an indirect route via another hub. That is exactly what air passengers would do, too. Whereas now many people would fly directly from a regional airport to, for instance, the United States of America or the middle east, if the duty for long-haul flights becomes prohibitive they will look to go via Schiphol or Charles de Gaulle to connect with Air France or KLM to fly the long-haul sector from there as that would reduce their tax liability. For a family of four, that liability could amount to a lot of money.
I am asking the Government to take on board the unintended consequences of this tax. Manchester airport also says that it will be turned into an enormous tax collector for the Government. Current air passenger duty costs are about 9p per £100 collected. Manchester airport estimates that with the new tax it would have to collect about £400 million a year on behalf of the Government and that it would cost it many thousands of pounds to start to collect that money. There could be a huge cost to the regional airports, and that could even damage the prospects of remaining in business for those that are marginally viable.
I also want the Minister to take the message back to the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chancellor that another unintended consequence could be that the new tax raises less money than the current air passenger duty as customers—both passengers and freight—will more intelligently work out how to complete their journeys. I understand the environmental reasons why the Government want to introduce this tax, but it is logical if we are to go down this route not to do it alone. Neighbouring countries would benefit from that—as indeed would the rest of the world, because if we start on this course alone the problems will start shifting around the world and people across the globe will act intelligently and start making different choices in air travel. We need to get everyone sitting down to work out how to have a proper aviation fuel tax that everybody throughout the world will implement, so that we can encourage airlines to be more fuel-efficient and do away with all the phantom flights made just to keep slots open. We would also not be penalising the freight industry in this country; doing so would lead to the loss of a number of jobs, as they would simply move to Holland and France.
Now is the time to do as I suggest. The consultation has just finished, and the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Transport should sit down and take a look at all the representations. Would it not be far better if they were more intelligent about this and came up with a policy that everybody could endorse and that would not have all these unintended consequences, rather than not listen, not learn, introduce this tax, lose all the jobs, lose a lot of taxation as well—they would not even get that tax revenue—and then afterwards have to change the policy simply to ensure that British industry was not damaged? Now is the time to do this. If the Government really are listening and learning, we will hear a change of policy from them forthwith.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I want to raise concerns about management practices at Manchester College of Arts and Technology—better known as MANCAT—and in particular to highlight concerns raised by former members of staff. MANCAT is one of the country’s largest further education colleges, and from August it will merge with its neighbour, City College Manchester, and become even bigger. I am concerned that investigations into management practices at MANCAT have been hampered because MANCAT destroyed auditable documents—the National Audit Office is aware of that—and also reached financial settlements with certain ex-members of staff on condition that those former employees signed confidentiality clauses in their settlement agreements.
I have seen several documents, including some in which staff stated that they were under pressure from the college to falsify student attendance registers and other funding-related forms so that MANCAT could claim extra public money from the Learning and Skills Council. One key witness was planning to explain the extent of malpractice at an employment tribunal where she had been in the process of seeking redress for constructive dismissal. Instead, she was offered a financial settlement, to which she ultimately agreed, that was conditional on her signing a gagging clause. She was an administration manager who had blown the whistle in a letter to MANCAT’s governing body. In that letter, she described in detail the active role she had played over three years in systematically falsifying paperwork at the request of MANCAT’s senior management.
I am aware of three investigations into MANCAT’s affairs, including ones by the National Audit Office and the Learning and Skills Council. None uncovered evidence of systematic fraud. But while the college denies any wrongdoing, it is hard to see how the public can have confidence in such exercises when potentially crucial paperwork has been destroyed and important witnesses have been gagged through confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements paid for with public money.
I fear that such gagging clauses are an all too common feature of employment arrangements when things go wrong. It is something that the Public Accounts Committee has deplored. We are talking about public money and it should not be used to shut people up. Moreover, I question whether such confidentiality clauses are legally valid if fraud, which is a criminal matter, has been alleged. Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, in the provision covering contractual duties of confidentiality, it states at section 43J:
“Any provision in an agreement to which this section applies is void in so far as it purports to preclude the worker from making a protected disclosure.”
The destruction of auditable documents came to light when the Learning and Skills Council’s own investigator referred to it. In an e-mail, he wrote that an internal inquiry into allegations about paperwork relating to individual learners proved inconclusive because
“it was reported that the college destroys all paper records after the ILR audit”—
that is the individual learner record audit—
“and therefore there were no records to review to confirm or refute them.”
He went on to point out that such conduct is contrary to the financial memorandum, which stipulates that such records should be kept for six years. Then, significantly, he added:
“We have also since learned that they told ILR auditors that they do keep records for six years.”
This would appear to be untrue.
The National Audit Office was aware that records had been destroyed, as I discovered on raising the matter in a session of the Public Accounts Committee on 18 April 2007, when the value for money director covering education and skills, Ms Angela Hands, said:
“They were destroying records, and I would have to check with the Learning and Skills Council, but it was quite swift, the destruction of records. I think it was within a year.”
Mr. Mark Haysom of the Learning and Skills Council added:
“I cannot recall whether it was within a year, but it was certainly quicker than is practice today”.
At one stage MANCAT’s external auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers, were called in after another member of staff, a lecturer at the college, raised concerns about the manipulation of registers in the ESOL department—English for speakers of other languages—which teaches basic English to foreigners. He was sacked by MANCAT, but after starting employment tribunal proceedings for unfair dismissal was paid off on condition that he signed a confidentiality agreement, which he did. PricewaterhouseCoopers discovered something that greatly disturbs me, which was that MANCAT’s funding claim to the Learning and Skills Council was based on a centralised set of student registers that had not been produced or signed by tutors. Someone else had created them. And in no fewer than 36 out of 39 cases which PricewaterhouseCoopers examined in the ESOL department, more attendances were recorded on this secondary system than on the originals. It would defy all rules of probability if that were simply down to pure inaccuracy. It sounds much more likely to have been deliberate manipulation to achieve an apparently higher attendance than took place.
In all, the PricewaterhouseCoopers review of documents found 304 discrepancies. Although PricewaterhouseCoopers chose its words carefully, saying that
“the discrepancies do not provide evidence of systematic register manipulation for the purpose of inflating the college funding claim”,
none the less, it became clear that PricewaterhouseCoopers’s dealings with the college were extremely fraught. Indeed, six months later the company resigned as external auditors to MANCAT. The PWC partner involved, Lee Childs, wrote to MANCAT’s principal, Peter Tavernor, telling of strained relationships with senior staff, and stating that
“frankly I don’t believe it possible to audit effectively without trust from both sides.”
I have already raised these matters verbally with the Learning and Skills Council’s chief executive, Mark Haysom. In my view, the Learning and Skills Council and, indeed, the National Audit Office should examine the matter further. They should not be content not to challenge gagging orders in the face of such serious allegations. I also suggest that they have taken too lenient a view of the destruction of auditable documents. They could be far more rigorous in examining the affairs of MANCAT. It is important that public bodies do not believe that such behaviour will go unexamined.
In November 2003, the Learning and Skills Council had the opportunity to interview the principal witness after she first blew the whistle in her letter to governors. It knew of its contents long before she was paid off and gagged. Moreover, further details could still be tracked down by the Learning and Skills Council in a detailed statement that would have comprised her evidence at the employment tribunal, much of it corroborated in a statement from an ex-colleague.
Interestingly, the chairman of MANCAT’s audit committee would have liked an external inquiry but he was overruled by the principal of the college and resigned as a result. It is unfortunate that the Learning and Skills Council allowed MANCAT to conduct an internal inquiry into such serious matters, bearing in mind that senior management were said to be involved. During the inquiry process, the whistleblower said she had learned that the original handwritten documents that she had used to create the falsified records had been “lost”. However, I have seen copies.
Among the documents that I showed Mr. Haysom were a bundle of allegedly falsified student registers that appear to confirm the extent of the operation. They were all in one person’s handwriting and covered a broad sweep of curriculum areas. That suggests that fraud was taking place on an industrial scale. Despite previous inquiries, I believe the public interest has been denied the rigorous investigation at MANCAT that it deserves. The events remain highly relevant both because of their seriousness and because the college’s senior management team has remained more or less intact. Moreover, Peter Tavernor has recently been appointed principal of the new merged super college in Manchester, which will have an annual budget of about £130 million.
I am concerned about the ways in which MANCAT has handled taxpayers’ money in the past. It would be in the public interest to know how much MANCAT has spent on legal costs and financial settlements involving all the ex-staff who made allegations of irregularities. Moreover, it would be helpful to know what MANCAT’s bill was for legal fees and costs in another hugely expensive employment tribunal that stretched over 16 days. That case, which MANCAT lost, involved all five staff of the trade union education department, whom the tribunal ruled were unfairly dismissed for union activity. In my view, running a college on such costly and adversarial lines hardly equates to good value for money.
In conclusion, I believe there should be a thorough investigation of what appears to be institutionalised fraud at Manchester College of Arts and Technology.
I thank all the speakers who have taken part in today’s debate. There were not as many Members as there normally are in debates on the Adjournment, but I suspect that that is probably something to do with the fact that some of our colleagues are in Crewe and Nantwich. That fact did not detract in any way from the quality of the speakers, nor from the variety of subjects that were covered.
We started off with a speech by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). At the outset, let me add to the various tributes that have been paid to Tom Burlison and express my sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.
The hon. Member for North Durham made a very thoroughly researched speech, in which he raised some very serious issues about the Durham National Union of Mineworkers. He also referred to the solicitors’ firm Thompsons, and I wish him well in his attempts to get to the bottom of what is an ongoing problem. I suggest that he might consider making a complaint about Thompsons to the Law Society, as it has a special division that deals with concerns about legal practices.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) made a very thoughtful speech. He put forward a strong case against the closure of Henderson hospital, which has rendered careful service to its community over some 60 years. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will pass on his concerns to the Department of Health. I also hope that she will pass on to that Department his very worrying remarks about the drugs used on vulnerable adults and senior citizens.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made a typically robust and forthright speech, which included a very lively contribution about our security and intelligence services. The fact that he raised some very interesting points was reflected in the number of interventions that he took. At one point, the number of interventions was so vast that I thought that this debate would continue to the usual 6 o’clock deadline, but fortunately they ceased after a while. May I also commend the hon. Gentleman for his excellent good sense in not supporting the proposal on 42 days’ detention about which the Government are bullying everyone else in his party to accept? I hope that he will succeed in persuading a lot of his colleagues that detaining people for 42 days would be far too long.
The hon. Member for Thurrock also trailed his memoirs. I very much hope that publishers out there have taken note and are taking out their cheque books to make an advance payment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) spoke forcefully, as always, on behalf of his constituents. He rightly spoke of their concern about the proposed eco-town in Pembury, and I share his concern over the future of Lutterworth hospital. He also very eloquently summed up the public’s anger with this Government: they say that they are listening, but they do not seem to have heard much so far.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) spoke passionately about his constituency concerns, which included housing and associated matters such as shared equity and housing associations. He also spoke about the very real problems of the empty business rates taxes, and I hope that the Government will take on board the concerns that he expressed on behalf of his constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made a powerful speech about the disclosure of Members’ addresses. His personal experiences serve as a strong warning about the potential dangers that we all face. I for one believe—as I think that most hon. Members do—that there should be the utmost transparency but, while I recognise that we are public figures, I think that we are entitled to some of the courtesies that are due to all citizens. The security of our addresses is certainly one of those courtesies. We are public figures, but we are also entitled to some of the privileges of the ordinary citizen.
It is right and proper to urge transparency when public money such as the additional cost allowance is being spent, but does my hon. Friend agree that transparency about the disclosure of home addresses is a different matter?
I agree entirely: my hon. Friend is right to say that transparency is of the utmost importance—we all agree about that—but that a distinction must be made. Society has become a lot more hostile towards western countries, especially Britain and America, and the security of the people who speak about such matters in debates in this House deserves to be considered very seriously. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East well in his campaign to ensure some sense of secrecy regarding Members’ addresses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) made an excellent speech, as he always does, and spoke with great diligence on behalf of his constituents. He very properly pointed out that crime and antisocial behaviour are linked with the horrendous figures on drugs and alcohol, and presented some startling facts about that cocktail of drugs, alcohol, crime and antisocial behaviour. I agree with him that, with our hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) at the helm of London now, it is to be hoped that—and I am pretty confident that—we will see an improvement in those figures. He is certainly making a start by banning alcohol on public transport in London. That is eminently sensible, and it seems absurd that it was not done many years before. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford also discussed the rising cost of living—an issue that affects not only his constituents but people throughout the country. I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to pass on that message to her fellow Front Benchers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made a very forceful speech and echoed the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford when he spoke about the rising cost of living. He gave some very helpful advice to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who I hope will take it on board. He seems not to have taken on board much from many people so far, but I hope that he will accept that advice, given that he has the recess to think it through. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley that there is a very strong argument for the retention of public telephone boxes. I wish him well in his campaign in that regard.
We concluded with a very measured speech from my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who gave us some disturbing details on the mismanagement of a particular college. The manipulation of figures, the falsifying of attendances and the 300 or so discrepancies picked up by PricewaterhouseCoopers lead to the conclusion that a detailed inquiry is required. I wish my hon. Friend well in trying to get a thorough and detailed inquiry.
On that note, Madam Deputy Speaker, all that remains is for me to wish you a very happy recess, along with all Members and their staff and all the staff who serve us so well in the House. I suspect that, given the enormous footwork that some Members will have undertaken in the previous weeks in Crewe and Nantwich, the recess is very well deserved.
It is of course a great pleasure to take part in this afternoon’s Adjournment debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), who gave his usual clear and urbane speech.
The debate was opened by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), but given that what he said ties in with some things that I want to say about my own constituency, I shall begin by responding to the remarks of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). He began by raising the very important issue of the treatment of people with serious mental health problems, and in particular his concerns about the Henderson hospital. He is right. It is important that the financial management of the NHS produce rational decisions, but I should remind him that 31 per cent. more in the way of resources is going into mental health than was the case in 1996. I also want to reassure him that the guidance to medical practitioners is that anti-psychotic drugs must be used only in appropriate medical circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about public housing and the financial management system in housing departments. I understand that a review of council housing finance is under way and will report in September 2009, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Minister for Housing, so that she can take account of them in the course of that review.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House ask the Minister for Housing whether she will allow SFTRA—the Southern Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations—to participate in some of the working groups that are being set up to consider the issue?
I will, of course, ensure that the Minister for Housing is made aware of that representation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)—
Where is he?
As the hon. Gentleman says, it is—
In the light of what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said and the fact that he is always looking over his shoulder—perhaps at Ministers or even at the Whips, given some of his independent views—will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us whether she knows his whereabouts and at least that he is safe and sound?
My hon. Friend the Whip assures me that the Whips Office has nothing to do with my hon. Friend’s disappearance this afternoon. I am disappointed that he is not here because he linked his concerns about Parliament’s oversight of the security and intelligence services to his concerns about 42 days’ detention. I hope very much that when he reads what I have to say in Hansard, he will be persuaded of why he should vote with the Government on 42 days. He may not be aware of the fact that the Lord Chancellor has made proposals in the context of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill to make a radical change to the way that the security services are overseen and to enable the statutory Committee that does such work to operate differently. In particular, the names submitted in the nomination process will come before the House, before the Prime Minister makes the appointments. That is a significant improvement.
There will also be greater transparency because some briefings will be held in public. The Committee will be able to appoint investigators if it wishes to do so. Debates will be held on the Intelligence and Security Committee’s annual reports in both Houses, not just the Commons, and those debates will be opened by the Chairman of that Committee. So I hope my hon. Friend will feel reassured that we are moving forward, opening up and making accountable the process in a way that is suitable for the 21st century.
My hon. Friend also spoke about the way that the Data Protection Act 1998 operates. I am not sure whether he has had time to look at the Government’s draft legislative programme, which includes a communications data Bill that will help to ensure that crucial capabilities in the use of communications data for counter-terrorism continue to be available, but the powers will be subject to strict safeguards to ensure that there is the right balance between privacy and protecting the public.
My hon. Friend raised the case of Wouter Basson, and I will refer his remarks to the Home Office, which is the responsible Department.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) spoke about a wide variety of issues. He spoke first about eco-towns and the demand for extra housing. He is clearly not aware of the fact that two thirds of the demand for new housing is due to the fact that we in this country are living in smaller households. More single-person households mean that we need to change and grow the housing stock.
I am perfectly well aware of the changing lifestyles of the British people. However, I should like to ask the Deputy Leader of the House—she obviously knows a great deal about this—how many small households and flats are intended for Pennbury in Leicestershire?
Well, I cannot possibly answer that question because, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, there is a consultation going on about all the eco-towns proposed by the Government. From what he said earlier, I am sure he will take part in that consultation.
The hon. Gentleman seemed to have a rather ambivalent attitude towards great crested newts. He asserted that he loved them, but he was not prepared to see the Government take the steps that they must take to implement the habitats directive.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the reconfiguration of hospital beds in his area, and in particular about Lutterworth hospital. My understanding is that the future of the hospital is being developed with a group of local clinicians, staff, PCT representatives, and adult social care, patient and public representatives, so his constituents should have a good opportunity to make their views clear in that consultation.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman told us about a survey of one part of his constituency and reflected back some of the issues that had been raised with him. One of those was fuel poverty, about which he claimed to be concerned. I therefore do not understand why he and the Tory party opposed the introduction of the winter fuel allowance by the Government, and its extension.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of immigration and its impact on low-paid workers. I hope he welcomed the statement from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on temporary and agency workers.
I am grateful to the Minister, who is delivering her speech with great good humour. First, I do not think the Conservative party opposed the winter fuel allowance. Secondly, the point is that the policies are not working. That is why we criticise them. There is increasing fuel poverty, as we heard at DBERR questions only this morning, and immigration is patently out of control, as even the Labour party’s supporters are saying.
The hon. Gentleman is not correct about fuel poverty. There is less fuel poverty now than there was 10 years ago because the Government introduced the winter fuel allowance and lifted 1 million pensioners out of pensioner poverty. That was the group most prone to suffer from fuel poverty. Moreover, the Warm Front programme and the programmes for insulation, new boilers and new radiators are running at an investment rate of £600 million a year. That means that not only are we lifting people out of fuel poverty and saving on their fuel bills, but we are making a sensible contribution to combating climate change.
Finally, on immigration, I hope the hon. Gentleman will support the Government’s points-based system, which is to be introduced shortly.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) spoke about council housing and his desire to see the council housing in his constituency refurbished. He questioned why it was necessary to put the management out to an arm’s length management organisation. Let me take the hon. Gentleman into my confidence. I questioned the policy until I saw the way it operated in my constituency. One of my local authorities, Wear Valley, has an ALMO, and the quality of management and the level of investment have improved out of all proportion. I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the outcomes of the policy and bear in mind the fact that by 2010, 95 per cent. of homes will have reached the decent homes standard in only two years as a result of the policy.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made a serious speech about hon. Members’ rights and privileges. He pointed to the fact that those rights and privileges are given to MPs not as individuals but in their role as Members of this House. He is concerned about the security of individual hon. Members and pointed to the importance of hon. Members being able to speak and vote honestly and according to their consciences without fear for their safety or that of their families. He stated that it is important to consider hon. Members’ security when they are not in the Palace of Westminster and that the security situation of hon. Members is both uncertain and unpredictable.
I am sorry to take up more time, but a number of hon. Members have raised an additional point: the publication of constituency addresses, which will occur in a number of cases, could be described as a burglars charter, because hon. Members spend part of the week in their constituencies and a lot of their week at Westminster. If some bright spark were to collate the constituency addresses, whether as a result of the freedom of information request or any other investigations that they may see fit to pursue, we would be advertising the fact that lots of properties are empty at certain times of the week. I wonder what the insurance companies will say about that when we renew our premiums—perhaps the public purse would have to step in that respect, too.
The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point. The other people who will be affected by the measure are hon. Members’ neighbours, which is also a factor.
The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) made a wide-ranging speech. He discussed post offices in his constituency, the cost of living and alcohol-related crime. I agree that alcohol-related crime is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. In February, we conducted a national confiscation campaign, which confiscated 40,000 pints of alcohol. However, the hon. Gentleman’s remarks were not wholly consistent with his behaviour, because only a few days ago Conservative Members voted against alcohol disorder zones, which the Government are trying to introduce.
The hon. Gentleman made a series of remarks about the cost of living, the interaction between food and fuel prices and the tax system. The tax system is important and concerns all our constituents, so I want to address it thoroughly and seriously. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced changes to the tax system 15 months ago in order to simplify the system. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the basic tax rate is now lower than it has been for 75 years. The offsetting measures that were introduced at that time involved the tax credit system for families with children and raising the personal tax allowance for old-age pensioners. As he knows, that left a large number of people on low incomes who did not fall into either of those categories as losers. As he has said, in the intervening period food and fuel prices have increased. That means that the impact of those changes is different from what could have been foreseen 15 months ago, when the decision was taken. The final package that the Chancellor has announced to raise personal allowances for everybody on the basic tax rate was put together because everybody is under this pressure from food and fuel prices.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned taxes on motoring. I have some statistics on those, although I cannot find them now. I shall write to him, however, because, interestingly, the numbers show that the level of revenue coming to the Exchequer from petrol tax is, contrary to popular belief, lower than it was 10 years ago. Prices are increasing not because the Exchequer is, in some sense, being greedy—that is often the characterisation—but because world prices in the oil markets and the international commodity markets are increasing.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) discussed telephone boxes. I am sympathetic to what he says about them because I, too, have a rural constituency, and I know that it is not possible to use mobile phones everywhere in such constituencies. I shall certainly pass his remarks to my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It would be easier for us to tackle the issue if the telephone industry were in public ownership, but of course, he belongs to the party that privatised that industry. He also rightly said it is important that we structure aviation duty properly and take an international approach to it. That is why this Government have been very energetic in trying to get aviation and shipping into the EU’s trading system, and those negotiations are ongoing.
I have had the pleasure of serving with the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on the Public Accounts Committee. His thoroughness in exposing the particular problem that he detailed is of exactly the sort that makes that Committee one of this House’s most effective. I shall ensure that his remarks are passed to my colleagues in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
I should like to return to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham at the beginning of the debate. He spoke about the miners’ compensation scheme. He and I served together on the Public Bill Committee that considered what became the Legal Services Act 2007, which was introduced to address the problem. It will address many of the issues that he has so energetically been raising over a long period. It is because this Government are concerned about miners who suffer from respiratory and vibration problems resulting from their work in the pits that £3.8 billion has been spent on miners’ compensation. I look forward to seeing him at the Durham miners’ gala on the second Saturday in July, when we can celebrate those benefits.
My hon. Friend also spoke about Stanley town council. The town and parish councils in County Durham of course do excellent work. I would particularly like to take the opportunity to congratulate those involved in building the Sacriston health centre on their carbon-neutral building. My hon. Friend talked about the desire among many in the north-east for the Lindisfarne Gospels to be brought back to Durham; as a Durham Member, I am obviously very sympathetic to that.
Hon. Members could have a very enjoyable time in County Durham during the Whitsun recess. They could see many beautiful and excellent things. For example, there is a very good locomotion museum in Shildon in my constituency. It is where the first steam engine was built. Some 150,000 people a year come to the museum, which offers a great family day out. At the Bowes museum in Barnard castle there is a particularly fine exhibition of the pictures of Alfred Sisley this summer. It is the first Sisley retrospective for 30 years, and hon. Members would enjoy it very much if they came.
May I suggest that if people were unable to get as far as County Durham, they might come to my constituency, where at the Bressingham steam museum they would find one of the greatest steam engines, the Royal Scot, which has been restored with lottery money? They could then go over the border into Suffolk and have a drink at the “Sir Alfred Munnings” pub to celebrate that famous painter.
They could indeed.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham also talked about the development of the economy in the north-east; I agree with him. Sometimes it is difficult for people to see what is going on in the economy. The pattern at the moment is that jobs in large manufacturing companies are disappearing; obviously, that is serious for the people who work in those factories. However, at the same time, other investments, made by small and medium-sized firms, are coming in.
The other significant point is that, as the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was saying earlier, we now have record levels of inward investment in this country because our business climate is so good for investment from overseas. The County Durham Development Company, for example, shows that in the past decade the county has benefited from 181 separate inward investment projects with employers from the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland, Iceland and Germany. All have put money in, and that has created 6,000 jobs over the same period. I wanted to reinforce my hon. Friend’s points.
Finally, I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all the staff of the House and the officials who support me. I wish you, them and everybody else a restful and enjoyable Whitsun recess.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.