House of Commons
Thursday 22 May 2008
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)
Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)
London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)
Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)
Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)
Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time on Thursday 5 June.
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
The Secretary of State was asked—
The purpose of the Bevin Boys badge is to recognise those who, through conscription, served in the pits during the war. Miners who were already employed in the pits made an enormous contribution to our successful war effort, but were not conscripted, as their role was that of a reserved occupation. On that basis, we have no plans to introduce such an award.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s reply, but does he agree that wars are won first by the heroism of our troops and our service people, but also on the home front? The Government have clearly acknowledged that in awarding the Bevin badge to people conscripted into the mines. However, many people already in the mines were prevented from joining the services as they might have wanted because they were in a reserved occupation. As a consequence, there is an anomaly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the men who worked alongside the Bevin boys but have not been recognised regard the situation as an anomaly? Will he or one of his ministerial team meet us to discuss the matter further?
I agree very strongly with what my hon. Friend has said. We were successful in that titanic conflict because the whole resources of the nation were mobilised to defeat the fascist enemy that we were confronting. The miners in the pits made an heroic contribution to the success of that overall war effort and no one should question that. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and others who represent mining constituencies to discuss that important issue further.
I am delighted that the Secretary of State has said that he will meet a delegation. He has just recognised the importance of the miners during the war, so why is there so much intransigence from the Government about giving proper recognition to those miners? We know that they played a valuable role. If everybody had left the mines to join the armed forces, the whole country would have ground to a halt. What is holding the Government back from giving proper recognition to the miners?
I do not accept that this is intransigence on the part of the Government and it should be borne in mind that since the second world war all Governments—Conservative as well as Labour—have taken the same view. There are obvious practical difficulties, of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, including—we should not underestimate this—the issue of accurate records to confirm employment in the pre-nationalised mining industry. As I said, I am happy to have discussions, and if there is a way forward, we should find one.
I thank my right hon. Friend for agreeing to meet a delegation and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) will invite me along. May I remind hon. Members that 5,000 miners gave their lives and 20,000 lost their lungs during that war? My constituent Mr. Abe Moffatt, son of Alex Moffatt, was one of hundreds who tried to get into the armed forces, including the RAF, but could not get in and were dragged back to work in the pits. I believe that their contribution should be recognised in some fashion or other.
As I said, I do not think any Member would be wise to call into question the record of service and sacrifice of our miners in the second world war. I am certainly not doing that; as I have said, they made an heroic contribution. I can only repeat what I said earlier: I am very happy to have further discussions with Members on both sides of the House.
I find myself in a very embarrassing position, because my father was a Bevin boy, as he happened to be the right age at the call-up time and was sent to the mines in his home village. He of course worked alongside many others who did not have the opportunity to be called Bevin boys. That is why I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) for raising the issue. It is an embarrassment to me that my father should be entitled to the badge when so many others in his village and my constituency who did exactly the same work have not been recognised.
My hon. Friend has made a very powerful point, which we need to reflect on. I hope that there is consensus in the House about the importance of recognising the service of the Bevin boys. I had the great privilege of attending the reception in No. 10 Downing street when the Prime Minister made the presentation of the badges to the Bevin boys. There was no question but that there were men in that room who had made history. They decided the outcome of a huge conflict and we have all benefited from that successful outcome. If there is a way forward, we should try to find it; and we should do so in a way that is consistent with the service given not just by the miners, but by those in other reserved occupations, too.
At the moment, of course, it is difficult to estimate what the price of a barrel of oil will be next week, let alone in 2020, as the hon. Gentleman seeks to persuade me to do. Obviously, our Department, while not forecasting oil prices, does publish future price assumptions going forward to 2030. We obviously regularly review these and consult on them, but he will appreciate that the huge increase in the price of a barrel of oil has caught the whole world by surprise and we are in, frankly, difficult and uncharted waters.
It certainly caught the Minister’s Department by surprise, because a parliamentary written answer that he gave me last week showed that his Department thinks it will be $70 a barrel in 2020, so perhaps I can help him with his own figures, which suggest that he may be rather out of touch. Oil consumption is increasing dramatically, not least with China, India and other countries coming on fast. We have more difficulty in getting oil out of the ground—
We make a number of assumptions—we have a number of scenarios—going forward. The hon. Gentleman has quoted one. The day that I have to rely on him for statistics is the day that I go somewhere else for my entertainment.
Notwithstanding that question, there are serious issues to consider, and serious people in the House want to address them. Oil prices are going up for a whole range of global factors—difficulties in Africa, Iraq and so on—and we need to think long and hard about them. We are discussing them with oil producers, as I did recently at the International Energy Forum. These are not easy issues. Frankly, simple questions do not help a serious debate.
My hon. Friend must realise that he can estimate just how much profit the oil companies are making. How much do we expect them to put on to the price of a gallon at the pumps for diesel or petrol when we know that they are exploiting the situation from the cartel position that they have got themselves into? When will we deal with that?
Obviously, considerable revenues go to Her Majesty’s Treasury as a result of those oil prices. I repeat that we are dealing with very difficult global circumstances, and the situation is not peculiar to the United Kingdom or Europe. We are discussing the matter with oil producers. Also, of course, moving forward, it will be an incentive to introduce new cleaner and greener car technologies, which are less reliant on traditional fuels. In a sense, that will be a useful side effect of this difficult situation.
The people of Northampton in particular have been caught by surprise by increasing fuel prices. When we look around the midlands, we find that they are by far the most expensive—more expensive than Nottingham, Leicester, Milton Keynes and Peterborough on average. Indeed, a number of MPs, led by the MEP Chris Heaton-Harris, wrote to the Office of Fair Trading to ask whether it could do anything. I ask the same of the Minister, because Northamptonshire in particular suffers from sizeably high prices. Will he help us to ensure that we can compete fairly on that basis?
My hon. Friend will be aware that oil prices reached $130 a barrel this week. The projection is that by the end of the year they could be $150 a barrel. Given that there is an irrational indexation between oil contracts and gas, so that gas prices are pulled in train behind oil prices, does he agree that it is time to look at how we decouple gas prices from oil prices? There is no rationality for that indexation. All that it does is make huge profits for the energy companies.
I rather agree with my hon. Friend that the whole issue in the gas industry—gas production and gas fields—is often, although not always, different from that in the oil industry. That linkage is not rational, but as he knows, because he has great expertise in this area, it is global and is not peculiar to the United Kingdom or Europe. However, we need to work hard to understand that linkage and to see whether there are ways of decoupling it. At a time of huge increases in wholesale prices for fossil fuels—coal, of course, as well as oil and gas—irrational linkages do not help us.
Yesterday an independent industry expert predicted that the price of oil could reach $200 a barrel over a 10-year period. Will the Minister explain how the Government intend to help businesses that will be severely affected in the short term, while also providing a long-term strategy?
Obviously matters involving tax, which is a factor here, are for the Treasury rather than for our Department, so I will not trespass on that territory.
Globally, we do need increased production, and many of us have had talks about that with some of the key players. Bodies such as the International Energy Forum enable producers and consuming countries to meet. An estimated 80 per cent. of oil resources worldwide are now in the hands of the national oil companies rather than the independent players, and, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, that involves a good deal of difficult geopolitics.
In the long term, we need increased production, and yes, the price of a barrel of oil being sky-high will encourage that. As for short-term and medium-term measures, we must all put more emphasis on energy efficiency in business, in industry generally, and indeed in our own households. We need to work harder to build on the good programme that we have to increase the number of new technologies, so that we can constrain energy demand or even reduce it in the future.
The Government are committed to tackling unscrupulous lenders, including loan sharks who exploit vulnerable people in our poorest communities. In 2004, we established two pilot enforcement teams in Birmingham and Glasgow to track down and prosecute illegal moneylenders. Following evaluation of those pilots, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the provision of some £2.8 million in September for a national crackdown on illegal lending, and to that end there is now a team in every region of Britain.
My hon. Friend is right: the crackdown has helped, and the Consumer Credit Act 2006 does its bit. However, some startling things are happening nowadays. For instance, sell and rent back seems to be gaining popularity with some people. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is probably another example of unscrupulous lending? Does he also agree that Parliament should examine the issue, and that we should not leave it to the Office of Fair Trading to determine whether such loans are right or wrong?
As my hon. Friend says, we must keep in view the way in which the consumer credit market works, both as a Government and as a Parliament. When we know of the existence of unscrupulous lending, we should take the relevant action to deal with it. We need to ensure that the law is effective and is working. To that end, at a consumers’ conference last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a fundamental review of the consumer regime with the aim of introducing further measures, in the first instance to help vulnerable consumers.
Does the Minister think that high street banks are doing enough to help people on low incomes to gain access to mainstream financial services? What measures are the Government taking to encourage the banks to do more than they are currently doing?
We would always encourage high street banks to keep under close review what more they can do to help low-income consumers and those who are in trouble. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Treasury has embarked on various kinds of work with the banks, and, through a growth fund for third sector lenders such as credit unions and community development financial institutions, has provided some £38 million to expand that work. More than 76,000 loans have already been made to financially excluded consumers through growth-funded credit unions, and we seek to invest even more through additional funds that have been provided.
My hon. Friend will recall the Adjournment debate that I led on the tragic death of Mrs. Brazier in my constituency following the actions of debt collection agencies seeking repayment of debt that was not hers. Does he share my alarm that practices including the collection of money by an agency from a person unrelated to a debt who is clearly in distress continue and are, apparently, robustly defended in the industry?
I pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend has pursued the case of Beryl Brazier. He will know from the Adjournment debate that he initiated just before Christmas of the steps we have taken and the conversations that have taken place both with the Information Commissioner and the Office of Fair Trading. He may be aware, too, that as part of a recently completed investigation the OFT has issued warnings to some 13 companies involved in this area of work, telling them how they need to take steps to improve their work.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) raises an important point, particularly at a time when there is increasing consumer debt, which is likely to continue in the period ahead. Does the Minister agree that what is needed is not simply more legislation or even more initiatives, all of which are welcome, but his Department working closely with the police to ensure that some of the very worst practices are stamped out?
I agree absolutely that there has to be effective joint working across a range of agencies. In the case of the illegal moneylending teams of which we are seeing the roll-out, there is effective collaboration not only with the police but, on occasion, with housing associations and housing authorities to help crack down on certain areas. It is frequently the most vulnerable people in our communities who are exploited and targeted by loan sharks. The two teams in Birmingham and Glasgow have had a series of successful prosecutions of often very violent people, helping to get better protection for people in vulnerable communities and to lock away some particularly unpleasant individuals.
It is now three years since consumer credit legislation covering this area was introduced, and it does not sound as if it is working well enough. Does the Minister agree that if there is one area where many people would support the most swingeing powers for Government, it is in cracking down on these dreadful people?
The tools are there, through both the reforms that we have introduced to consumer credit through the Consumer Credit Act 2006 and the illegal moneylending teams that we have established. The successes of the two pilot teams in identifying some 250 illegal lenders in Glasgow and Birmingham have benefited some 2,000 victims and helped to save them an estimated £3.3 million in payments that they would otherwise have had to make. The fact that they have also led to successful prosecutions should give Members confidence that the roll-out across the country of illegal moneylending teams will enable us to continue to bear down on such terrible practices.
The most recent figures show that approximately 2.5 million UK households were in fuel poverty in 2005. Fuel poverty is not measured at individual level. UK figures for 2006 will not be finalised until later this year, when the results of efficiency programmes will be known. I am conscious that there is a time lag in the data because of the methodology required. I am also conscious that fuel poverty is now moving in the wrong direction, partly for the macro level reasons of global energy prices that we were discussing. The Government are committed to doing their utmost to protect the most vulnerable in winter from rising fuel prices.
I am grateful for those estimates. As the Minister’s answer indicates, two or three years ago perhaps 5 million or 6 million men, women and children were living in fuel poverty and the numbers have soared since then. Can he estimate what proportion of them the Budget measures will have taken out of fuel poverty, and given that vast numbers will remain in it, what is his strategy for abolishing fuel poverty, which is his stated policy?
It is our stated policy because it has to be intolerable that vulnerable people, particularly the very elderly who often live in the most energy-inefficient dwellings, can be cold in winter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the Budget the Chancellor increased winter fuel payments by £50 for the over-60s and by £100 for the over-80s. Since 2000, the Government have spent some £20 billion on fuel poverty benefits and programmes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has reached agreement with the six largest energy supply companies to increase their collective level of spend on social tariffs and programmes from £50 million to about £150 million a year by 2010-11. We are also working very hard on other measures.
The Minister will be well aware that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee is conducting an investigation of energy prices. He has mentioned the social tariffs from the big six companies, but many people rely on home fuel oil and bottled gas, especially in rural areas, and they are not subject to any social tariffs. When the Committee asked Ofgem and Energywatch about regulation of that sector, it became apparent that there is none. Will the Minister look into that and will he ask the National Consumer Council, which will take over from Energywatch, to ensure that those people who do not have any protection are included in the energy section for future investigation?
Obviously we are looking into that, and we need to ensure that we have fair trading wherever possible. I have received many letters from Members of Parliament on behalf of concerned constituents about this very question. We have had a programme to connect people to mainstream gas supplies and have made some progress with that, although it is not always possible. We also need to look hard at the contribution that can be made by microgeneration, such as heat pumps, to tackle some of the difficult and important questions that arise in many constituencies.
Is the Minister aware of and sympathetic to the real concerns of pensioners in my constituency about the rising cost of fuel? Is he aware of the Age Concern report that says that more than 150,000 people aged over 65 died in the past six winters? What is his assessment of the current situation?
This Government have taken unprecedented action on energy efficiency and winter fuel payments compared with other Governments—I recall pressing another Government to take action 30 years ago, but only this Government have done so. My assessment of the situation is that, after years of progress because of our action, it is now much more difficult because of rising energy costs. We are therefore redoubling our efforts to ensure that we can tackle that evil problem through better targeting—although there are data protection issues—energy efficiency programmes, enhanced social tariffs and winter fuel payments.
Is the Minister aware that yesterday gas was trading at 57p a therm, but that the forward price for next winter is 94p a therm, an increase of more than 80 per cent. and twice the level at which it was trading last winter? Is he also aware that other European countries are seeing increases in their domestic energy prices of some 40 per cent. and experts here predict that we too may see increases of that shocking magnitude? Does he understand the pressure that that will have on all consumers, but especially the devastating effect that it will have on the increasing numbers in fuel poverty? What steps can the Minister take now to prepare for what will be a very tough winter and ensure that his commitment to remove vulnerable people from fuel poverty by 2010 is met?
We only recently had a meeting, hosted by Ofgem, with all the key Departments, and some announcements of new measures will be made soon. I have mentioned the recognition by the Chancellor in winter fuel payments and the recognition by the energy supply companies, encouraged by us, in trebling the amount that they offer through social tariffs. I am aware of the issues and I am even more interested in practical recommendations, so I would be happy to talk about that with the hon. Gentleman. We need to target our resources better, not least the energy efficiency programmes, and to examine whether new technologies such as microgeneration can make a contribution.
The start and finish dates of the national minimum wage bus campaign, which was part of a wider publicity campaign for the minimum wage, were 9 January and 9 March 2008. During this time, the bus visited 64 locations and received extensive media coverage. The Government also organised poster campaigns, radio advertising and online advertising about the minimum wage.
If we publicise the minimum wage, as we ought to, we must also enforce it. The more we publicise it, the more people want to see it enforced. A constituent who contacted me went to the national minimum wage unit for assistance, and it investigated the complaint, but she reported that it was heavily overworked and that there was a massive backlog of cases. Will my hon. Friend look at ways to strengthen the enforcement team to ensure that people who are entitled to the national minimum wage get it, too?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the national minimum wage must be properly enforced. Over the past year, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which carries out the enforcement work, helped some 19,000 people recover about £3.8 million in arrears. The Government have put extra resources into enforcement and the Employment Bill, which is being discussed in the other place, will strengthen the system of penalties for that small minority of unscrupulous employers who refuse to pay the minimum wage. It will also strengthen the arrears system for people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent.
The review’s first report was published on 6 May. It described the current state of the Royal Mail business and changes taking place in the market. I have asked the review team to come forward with proposals later in the year to improve the efficiency of the service and to ensure that the universal postal service is maintained.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. The interim report concludes that only a handful of the big mail companies have benefited from liberalisation and that
“There have been no significant benefits for smaller businesses and domestic consumers.”
Will he use the interim report as the basis for starting the work in his Department on how a levy might be placed on those operating in the liberalised market that do not provide a universal service in order to support the universal service? If we wait for further conclusions, it might simply be too late.
I will not pre-empt the review team’s conclusions. We should all wait until we see the final recommendations from Richard Hooper’s team. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the principal beneficiaries of the liberalised postal services market have been the big-volume large corporations that have significant amounts of addressed letters going through. His constituents and mine have not seen a significantly improved service at all. We have to consider that very carefully.
Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), the fact is that liberalisation has meant that many companies can cherry-pick the most lucrative parts of the mail system. That is creating the problem for Royal Mail. Since in order to survive businesses rely on Royal Mail’s ability to deliver the last mile, it is essential that they be forced to pay towards maintaining that universal service. Otherwise, it will fall on the public purse to maintain the service so that we can supply mail across the country, and even to areas such as Orkney and Shetland.
We need a competitive regime for postal services that encourages innovation, new investment and so on, and that does so at a price that ordinary consumers can sustain. As I said, I shall not pre-empt the outcome of the report and I certainly shall not commit myself today to taking specific measures. We need to see the outcome of the wider study in which the review team are engaged to which our manifesto committed us.
As one who has always supported the Royal Mail and did not welcome the liberalisation, I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that my constituents, and his, have received a continually deteriorating service. It would be appalling if, having lost the second delivery, we lost the delivery on a Saturday. Will he do everything in his power to ensure that the people of this country get a decent service from the Royal Mail?
Yes, I will. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comment about the importance of a delivery on Saturday, too. I do not think that we will build confidence in the need for the taxpayer to continue to invest significant amounts of money in the Royal Mail—we are putting nearly £2 billion in to sustain the Royal Mail network and to modernise it to meet the challenges of the future—if the price is a constantly deteriorating service to consumers. We cannot build consensus on that basis and on those terms.
Our commitment is to sustain the universal service obligation, and we have made that very clear. As the hon. Gentleman will know, sustaining the universal service is Postcomm’s principal responsibility, according to legislation that this House has passed. We believe strongly in the universal service obligation: it is an essential feature of our country and our civic, economic society that there should be a universal service, accessible across the country at a standard universal rate.
Given that the National Federation of SubPostmasters believes that the failure to keep the Post Office card account will result in a further 3,000 post offices closing, will the Secretary of State now listen to residents up and down the country? They are fed up with post office closures, as he will know from his own constituency, where he is trying to stop a closure. Will he give a firm undertaking that the decision on the card account will be announced in a statement to the House before the summer recess?
The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged from the Opposition Front Bench that there is a consensus in the House that the sub-post office network will need to be smaller. The shadow Secretary of State has made that commitment clear in this House, so I do not know quite what the hon. Gentleman’s point is. He will know that the Post Office card account is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but I hope that an announcement can be made as soon as possible.
I think that I am grateful for that reply. It was one of the shortest I have ever heard from the Minister, but I hope that he will have contact with UK Coal because, as he may be aware, the company plans to mine 900,000 tonnes of coal in my constituency. My constituents are reasonable people, and I hope that I am a reasonable person, too. We accept that coal has a part to play in Britain’s future energy mix, but does he accept that open-cast mining must take place in appropriate locations, and not in areas of outstanding natural beauty?
The hon. Gentleman has a great reputation for being a reasonable man, and that is why I gave him an accurate and reasonable answer, in plain English. I live in dread of Mr. Speaker reprimanding me for giving answers that are too long. However, I know that the issues to do with open-cast mining are controversial and I discuss them generally with the Coal Authority, although not specifically in relation to his county. We see coal as part of the mix, and that includes open-cast mining, although it needs to be undertaken in the most sustainable ways.
The UK is one of the world’s leading locations for pharmaceutical research and development, and the Government are committed to maintaining and strengthening that position.
I thank that Minister for his reply, as employment in the pharmaceutical sector remains a very important part of the business base in my constituency of Basingstoke. However, one of those employers, the Shire Pharmaceuticals Group, has decided to move its tax base from the UK to Ireland. Does he think that that decision was influenced by the fact that corporate tax in Ireland is less than half what the company has to pay in the UK? Does he share the CBI’s concern that the UK’s uncompetitive corporate tax system is spoiling this country’s attractiveness as a place to do business? As the company says, other firms that are internationally mobile—
I am slightly surprised that the hon. Lady did not note in her question that Shire has said that its UK employees will not face job losses or relocation. I recognise the concerns that she says Shire has about its tax position, but the UK has one of the lowest rates of corporation tax in the EU. She will know that the Chancellor has set up a group that will continue to look at tax competitiveness. There is a representative of the pharmaceutical industry in that group.
The Minister said that the UK is a world leader in pharmaceuticals, but my constituency of Slough is a national leader in biopharmaceuticals. However, if residents of Slough are to benefit from jobs in the knowledge economy, we need to have the appropriate skills in the local community. Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills how we can prepare young people better for such high-value jobs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the reasons the pharmaceutical industry continues to see the UK as such a good place to be based is the quality of talent available to work in the sector. As she rightly acknowledges, we cannot afford to be complacent about that skills base, and we do need to put in place a series of further steps. That is one of the reasons, for example, that modern apprenticeships are being brought back. I am of course very happy to ensure that further discussions take place across government—not just with DIUS, but with the Department for Children, Schools and Families—to look at what else we can do in future to ensure that we have the skills that the pharmaceutical industry and other manufacturing industries need to continue to thrive.
Will the Minister accept that it is self-evident that a thriving pharmaceutical sector manufacturing drugs is reliant on a vigorous and successful retail sector? As a result, will he have input into the Department of Health’s current review of pharmacy services, to ensure that the unfair practice whereby supermarkets can force out small, family run pharmacies is put to an end immediately?
The amount of electricity generated from renewable sources increased by 12,500 GWh between 1996 and 2006, to be more than three times the level it was 10 years earlier. It now represents about 5 per cent. of our electricity. The Government will consult over the summer on what more we should do to increase renewable energy use to meet the UK’s share of the European Union 2020 renewable energy target.
Almost everybody wants to see more energy produced from renewable sources, but whenever an application is made for a wind turbine, there are objections and delays and, more often than not, a rejection of a proposal. Last week, I went with the International Development Committee to Germany and Denmark, and both are far ahead of where we are. Does my hon. Friend agree that the planning laws are resulting in millions of tonnes of carbon unnecessarily being pumped into the atmosphere? In fact, they are an ecological and environmental disaster. Will the Government do something about it?
My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) never talks rubbish; it is a perfectly proper question. We are of course reforming the planning laws with the independent planning commission. Although it is perfectly right and proper that we safeguard the right of local communities to voice their concerns, we do need faster access to infrastructure because of climate change. There are a number of projects in the pipeline—renewables that will be built—and various reforms, including planning, will ease our progress.
Empty Property Relief
The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has regular discussions with other Government Departments on matters affecting business. The reform of empty property relief follows the recommendations of Kate Barker’s independent review of land use planning and Sir Michael Lyons’ independent inquiry into local government. The aim is to promote the supply of commercial property by providing a strong incentive for owners to re-use, re-let or redevelop their properties. This will improve competitiveness for all businesses that rent premises, including, of course, small and medium-sized enterprises.
Is the Minister aware that the proposals will have the opposite effect? Small property businesses in Kettering are telling me that they will not invest in property unless they have a client ready to move in on day one. Will that not reduce flexibility for business relocation and actually hinder economic growth?
It surely cannot be right that, as a perverse consequence of business rating, people had no real incentive to let properties, when many small businesses want them. It is not surprising that the Federation of Small Businesses called for empty property rates to be reformed in its submission to the Lyons inquiry. I would have thought that the approach that we are taking is good for business. If people cannot let because rents are too high, they should lower them. We are in favour of competition for small businesses.
As I have said, the Government very much welcome the Competition Commission’s report on the UK grocery market. It is a detailed and thorough piece of work. My colleagues and I are considering the report and its recommendations and will provide an agreed Government response before the summer recess.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. In a debate last week, the Minister acknowledged that, if the major retailers failed to reach a voluntary conclusion on the supermarket code of practice and the establishment of an ombudsman,
“the Government will be asked to step in and legislate.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 13 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 372WH.]
Can the Minister envisage circumstances in which his Department would dismiss the findings and fail to step in?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not try to speculate about a range of different scenarios. The Competition Commission will engage with the retailers next week, as he knows, in the way that we discussed. We want agreed conclusions between the industry and the Competition Commission. If conclusions cannot be agreed between the two sides, we will have to look at the situation on its merits at the time. My understanding is that those conversations are taking place, that they are positive and that both sides are approaching them constructively, and I welcome that.
The central purpose of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is to help to ensure the success of UK businesses in an increasingly competitive world. We promote business growth and a strong enterprise economy, lead the better regulation agenda and champion free and fair markets. We are the shareholder in a number of Government-owned assets, such as Royal Mail, and we work to secure clean and competitively priced energy supplies.
I thank the Secretary of State, but when he goes back to his civil servants he should say that they left out the important words “protecting the consumer” from what he just said. Will he consider legislation to protect the consumer against abuse by mail order businesses, particularly some high-performing, big names in the retail market—Sainsbury’s, AOL and computer firms—so that instead of having to listen to Vivaldi six or seven times, or 100 times, we can get through to a live person for a swift remedy? Particularly disadvantaged are the poorest and most disadvantaged and inarticulate people who want swift remedies from those rogue but big-named retail outfits. Get my drift?
In my answer, I made it very clear that the central purpose of the Department is to support fair markets, and implicit in that is that we look after the needs of consumers. Fair markets do not exist unless there are proper consumer safeguard standards. On the point that my hon. Friend made, we have put in additional resources and strengthened the law to deal with the abuses that he and others have brought to our attention in the House. I reject absolutely his suggestion that we are not bothered about the needs of consumers. We put a very high premium indeed on protecting consumers from unfair trading practices.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, successive Governments have had to deal with the reality of facing the change in postal services. Several thousand post offices closed under the Conservative Government. We have to deal with the fact that consumers are using the Post Office less. We have new technology in the digital age. In fact, people can now download stamps online without needing to go to a post office to buy them. That is the economic reality that we must deal with, so it is an extremely difficult situation.
We understand and acknowledge the importance of local sub-post offices and the support for them that has been expressed up and down the country. We have tried to design a consultation process that extends the maximum opportunity for people to be involved in making what at the end of the day the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have to understand are important decisions that must be made if the post office network is to have a secure long-term future. We are providing nearly £2 billion-worth of subsidy for the Post Office to support a significantly larger network of sub-post offices than would be the case if we were approaching the issue solely on a strictly commercial basis. We are doing our very best to ensure that the changes are made in the most fair and sensible way possible.
Salmon farming is a big employer in my constituency. There are concerns that the minimum import price for salmon might be under threat. What efforts are being made to maintain the minimum import price for salmon, particularly at a European level?
The hon. Gentleman may know that anti-dumping duties have been imposed. A review of anti-dumping duties is currently being undertaken. We have made clear our concerns about continued dumping affecting the Scottish salmon industry. We have had discussions directly with the Scottish Executive and, crucially, made joint representations to the European Commission, in particular to the Trade Commissioner.
My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the considerable concerns in many communities across the UK about the collapse of Farepak and what that means for the prepayments industry in general. He may not be aware that we are in conversation with the industry about the case for regulation, looking at it in the light of the work done by the companies investigation branch. He will know, as a result of the written ministerial statement, that we are taking legal advice following the completion of that report, and we are considering whether further regulation of the industry is needed.
This week an international conference began in Dublin to negotiate a ban on cluster bombs. Given his Department’s review of the Export Control Act 2002, will the Minister commit to a ban on the trade in all such weapons, and will he extend that control to UK persons trading from anywhere in the world?
We are engaged in a major review of export control. We have already announced a number of extra controls, including the extraterritorial role of British citizens in relation to small arms, for example, and MANPADS—man-portable air defence systems. The review is continuing and we are examining that important aspect.
I do not accept the hon. Lady’s allegation that the consultation process was flawed. She will know that the work that was done in defining the terms of the national access criteria included the provision of suitable outreach and mobile postal services. As I said earlier, we are doing our level best to find the most sensible way of resolving the fundamental economic issue that has to be addressed about the future viability of the post office network, and it does no one—the hon. Lady or anyone else—any good to bury their head in the sand when it comes to the fundamental economics that must be addressed.
A former consumer affairs Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), held a series of discussions with the travel industry and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to consider that issue. I am happy to re-examine the effectiveness of the measures that were agreed with the travel industry, because there are ongoing concerns about the travel industry raising prices outside term time.
When considering how best to encourage inward investment into this country, is it not the case that having nine regional development agencies and three devolved Assemblies, all of which are opening offices abroad—often in the same city, let alone the same country—dilutes the UK plc brand and does not effectively deal with our balance of payments deficit?
Last year was a record year for attracting foreign direct investment into the UK, and we are set for another record year this year. If the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that we are not doing enough to attract foreign direct investment, he has got his sums, his maths and his analysis totally wrong.
I say to the Secretary of State that that is exactly what I am arguing. Over the past three years, Germany has more than tripled its balance of payments trade surplus, but the UK has quadrupled its balance of trade deficit. Why have the British Government not introduced a proper policy to deal with that problem?
The hon. Gentleman is confusing a number of different issues. The fundamental issue that he has raised is the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK in attracting investment. I repeat that last year was a record year for attracting new investment into the UK and that we will have another record year this year.
I am sure that businesses in Crawley and elsewhere—great British companies—take corporate responsibility very seriously and do excellent work around the country. The Department encourages that practice both internationally, through UK Trade and Investment, and domestically, through the corporate social responsibility website, which provides good advice on such matters.
Yes, I do. At all meetings at ministerial and other levels, we urge Russia to sign the charter for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and we will continue to press that case. We need a good, business-like, professional relationship with Russia, given its energy importance and given the importance of Europe to Russia as a principal customer.
We all know that the public will always oppose post office closures. I want to put on record my thanks to Allan Leighton, the chairman of the Post Office, who considered an application to abandon the proposed closure of Micklegate post office in York. That closure had been approved at three levels of appeal by Post Office managers, but Allan Leighton considered the facts, which members of the public and I sent him, and turned down the closure, and I thank him for that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I will certainly draw his comments to Allan Leighton’s attention.
No, I do not share the hon. Lady’s view. I welcome the fact that the industry is engaging as effectively as it is with the Department of Health. Those commercially sensitive negotiations are taking place, and we need to allow them to reach their conclusion, so that we can achieve better value for money for the health service and continue to secure the future of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK.
May I ask the Secretary of State whether he will have discussions with the Secretary of State for Health to assess the effect on the nation’s blood pressure of the increase in automated phone calls, to which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) referred? There is nothing more excruciating than being put on hold by a series of Dalek voices.
I shall examine the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, although I am not going to promise that I can take forward that review. Perhaps this holds out the prospect that the Conservative party will do less phone canvassing in Crewe.
Yesterday, the Government got a Second Reading for their plans to create the local better regulation office, which will be staffed by bureaucrats. It will cost £73 million a year, in order to look after other regulators, and will be imposed on local government. If it is such a good idea, could we not have such an office for national Government, and may I suggest that it be called the department of administrative affairs and that the Secretary of State head it?
Order. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), he was on the Front Bench this morning and he cannot now go to the Back Bench. If someone is going to be a journeyman on the Front Bench, they cannot be an apprentice on the Back Bench.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 2 June will be:
Monday 2 June—Remaining stages of the Planning Bill (Day 1).
Tuesday 3 June—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to the promotion of energy from renewable resources, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to maritime policy.
Wednesday 4 June—Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day] there will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 5 June—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on the future of care and support.
Friday 6 June—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 9 June will include:
Monday 9 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning Bill.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 5 and 12 June will be:
Thursday 5 June—A debate on the report from the Environment Audit Committee entitled “Are Biofuels Sustainable?”
Thursday 12 June—A debate on the European Commission’s annual policy strategy.
On the question of freedom of information requests in relation to Members’ allowances, following the High Court’s decision last Friday I can confirm to the House that there will be no further appeal on the applications for information about the allowances claimed by 14 current and former Members. Tomorrow, information in respect of those 14 will be made public in the terms laid down by the High Court. Information in respect of all other current Members will be given out on a single date in the autumn.
On the question of the home addresses of the 14 Members concerned in this case, the information will be made public, subject to individual consideration of security issues. I should like to tell hon. Members that as far as publishing the addresses of all Members is concerned, as Leader of the House, I am determined that hon. Members should be able to speak in this House on controversial issues without looking over their shoulders because their home addresses are in the public domain. We are considering further how we can be sure that the money for Members’ London homes is properly spent, but we must also ensure that the protection needed for Members to speak out in the House remains.
I am sure that the whole House will have welcomed the statement that the Leader of the House has just made, not only on forthcoming business, but on freedom of information. As she has said, our systems need to ensure not only that money is properly spent and that there is transparency, but that hon. Members are not prevented from speaking out as they wish to in the House.
Two significant Bills completed their passage in the other place almost two months ago, but as yet we have been given no dates for their Second Readings in the House. One is the important Children and Young Persons Bill. The other is the Climate Change Bill—a major piece of legislation of real significance for the future. Will the right hon. and learned Lady now tell the House when the Second Readings of those two Bills will be?
The Treasury Committee has accused the Treasury of treating the Bank of England with “contempt” because of the Treasury’s handling of key appointments. The contracts of three members of the Bank’s court of directors expire in two weeks’ time, yet none has been told whether they will be reappointed. Added to that, the deputy governor will be leaving next month and as yet no replacement has been announced. During these times of financial and economic uncertainty, it seems astonishing that the Government should be dithering over those key roles. May we have a statement from the Chancellor in which he tells the House who has been holding up those appointments and whether he will follow the appointments guidelines first proposed by the shadow Chancellor and subsequently adopted by the Prime Minister last year?
It was revealed this week that failures in the tax credit system have cost the taxpayer £10 billion in the past four years; that is an unacceptable sum for the Government to have given out by mistake. Like other hon. Members, I am sure, I hear regularly from hard-working constituency families that repeated such errors have had a serious financial impact on family budgets. Will the Financial Secretary make a statement on what her Department is doing to improve the performance of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?
This week, the chief inspector of schools said that progress in raising school standards has stalled and that one in five pupils are failing to master basic English and maths when they leave primary school. The Government promised “Education, education, education”, yet they are still failing our children. Is it not about time for a debate in Government time on standards in our schools? On the subject of education, may we also have a statement from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families explaining why schools have had to pull out of the Government’s flagship diploma scheme because of inadequate facilities and a lack of training for teachers?
It has been 11 years since the Government promised to end mixed-sex wards. Despite the claim by the Secretary of State for Health last month that the Government were in touching distance of achieving that, we found out this week that in 64 per cent. of hospital trusts, patients still had to walk past patients of the opposite sex to wash. When will the rest of the Government own up and admit, as Lord Darzi has already done, that they have failed on that manifesto commitment? May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the issue, as a matter of urgency?
Yesterday, the centre for crime and justice studies at King’s College university published a report that clearly showed that the Government’s strategy on youth crime is failing. Spending has soared by 45 per cent. since 2000 to £650 million, yet the policy has had “no measurable impact”. The Government promised to make cutting the causes of crime a priority, yet they have failed dismally. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on the issue, as a matter of urgency?
The Government have hit hard-working families. Taxes and prices are up and promises on schools, hospitals and crime have been broken. After 11 years, people feel betrayed and let down. Is it any wonder that they are saying it is time for change?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments in response to my points about the freedom of information issues. We all want to emphasise that we want probity in how public money is spent, but we must also have democracy, in that people must be able to speak up freely in this Chamber. I thank the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), whose early-day motion on this issue is attracting a lot of support.
I am not able to announce the dates for the Children and Young Persons Bill and the Climate Change Bill as part of today’s statement, but they will be announced shortly.
The right hon. Lady mentioned Government appointments in relation to the Treasury and the Bank of England, and she might be aware that we have made quite a lot of progress in involving this House in that process through the Select Committee system and pre-appointment hearings. There was an informal discussion between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Liaison Committee yesterday about the involvement of Select Committees in pre-appointment hearings. With regard to the hearings that the right hon. Lady is talking about, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will give evidence to the Treasury Committee when we return after the recess, and the matter could be raised then if members of that Committee so wished.
The right hon. Lady is always quick to point out any problems with tax credits, but I ask her and other hon. Members to recognise that they are an enormously important support for low and middle-income families, particularly—but not only—those with children. Obviously, we want to do more to cut down on fraud and mistakes, and there is a major programme in that respect.
The right hon. Lady mentioned standards in schools. I remind her that there are fewer failing schools and smaller class sizes in primary schools than when we came into government, and that standards are rising. She can put questions on the diploma scheme to the Secretary of State for children, families and schools, but there is a phased roll-out. It was always going to be a phased roll-out in order to give more choice to pupils in the qualifications that they seek to take.
Hon. Members can take up the question of mixed-sex wards with the Secretary of State for Health. I hope that the right hon. Lady’s comments on youth crime mean that she will be backing the youth clubs programme that we expect to roll out in all neighbourhoods.
I am aware, Mr. Speaker, that in responding to these points I do not want to trespass on the injunction that you gave last week that we should not make business questions a rerun of Prime Minister’s Punch and Judy questions; we should try to make them about the business of the House. I do try to do so, but the trouble is that I feel obliged to respond if the right hon. Lady makes a whole load of party political point-scoring points. I apologise for having to respond, but once again, I have been provoked.
I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1509.
[That this House commends the postal staff in the Palace of Westminster for their continued excellent service, loyal dedication and their willingness to go that extra mile for the benefit of all hon. Members; is alarmed that the House authorities are intending to privatise the post services within the Palace; and calls upon those authorities to reconsider immediately.]
May we have a debate on this issue? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware that a tendering process involving the Royal Mail postal staff in this House has started. Part of the criteria that the House authorities have laid down is that a tender has to be made off site as well as on site. Does she agree that it would be appalling if we lost our Royal Mail postal service and brought in a private competitor that may want to do things more cheaply off site? That would raise all sorts of problems for security and the very good standard of service that we get in the House.
All hon. Members appreciate the postal services made available to us in this House so that we can communicate with our constituents and more widely. My hon. Friend has drawn my attention to her early-day motion, and I will consider it and write to her. If there is anything further to tell the House about the matter, I shall make a written ministerial statement or communicate with hon. Members in some other way. I do not know whether my hon. Friend had an opportunity to raise the matter with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but she may want to speak further about it during the debate on the Adjournment of the House later this afternoon.
At the risk of further provoking the Leader of the House, may I thank her for the statement she made on freedom of information and the decisions that have been made in that case? We look forward to further information on how things will be implemented in the autumn.
The House last debated Zimbabwe in Government time in July 2007, and the last oral statement given on the subject was on 2 April. We now have a date for the second round of presidential elections in Zimbabwe, and given that since the first round of elections, 40 Movement for Democratic Change activists and supporters have been murdered in that country, is it not time that we had a debate in Government time so that the House, on behalf of the whole country, can send the message to Robert Mugabe that murder and intimidation are not tactics to be used in a democracy and that they cannot be accepted? The eyes of the world will be upon him and his party when it comes to the next round of elections.
Secondly, may we have an opportunity in Government time—perhaps through a statement from the Secretary of State for Health—to explore why the Government’s attempts to bear down on hospital-acquired infections have stalled? Indeed, surveys now show that the majority of hospitals are failing to isolate patients found with MRSA and clostridium difficile.
May we have a debate in the light of today’s news that criminals appear to be walking free as a result of the Crown Prosecution Service dropping cases, not because it had no evidence but because it had lost evidence and frequently failed to record it? Another aspect of data management is that millions of NHS patients are seen each year without doctors having access to full medical records. May we have a debate on the Government’s handling of personal data to ensure that lessons are being learned? In that debate, perhaps we can also explore why the incompetent data practices that have become inherent under the Government now also appear to be infecting the Conservative party, which sent an e-mail only yesterday containing 8,000 personal records with financial status data to a local radio station in the north.
May I draw attention to early-day motion 1547 on personality disorder treatment at the Henderson hospital?
[That this House welcomes the decision to hold the largest ever statutory consultation about the organisation and provision of tier 4 mental health services for people with personality disorders; is concerned that the Henderson Hospital personality service has been temporarily closed ahead of the consultation; notes that the Henderson democratic residential therapeutic community model is an effective treatment of complex personality disorder which reduces acute readmissions and interventions by the criminal justice system; is concerned that flaws in NHS commissioning arrangements have put this specialist mental health service at risk of permanent closure; and calls on the Department of Heath and NHS London to take the steps necessary to safeguard the Henderson model and strengthen arrangements for commissioning specialist residential tier 4 mental health services for severe personality disorder in the future.]
May we have a debate on that?
Finally, I would like to ask about the business statement. Why do we get only eight days of business at this point? Surely the Government should know what they are doing at least two weeks ahead. Surely the Whitsun recess should not be a reason for not giving more information on business, or are events so far out of the Government’s control that they do not even know two weeks of their business?
The hon. Gentleman asked when the House will have the opportunity to debate Zimbabwe. I know that hon. Members have raised that matter on several occasions and I have been in contact with Foreign Office Ministers about it. I think that the House will want a debate soon, especially with the elections happening next month. I will report back shortly.
On MRSA, the Government continue to press forward with tackling hospital-acquired infection. The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Health or perhaps in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which immediately follows the business statement.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Crown Prosecution Service and criminals walking free. He will know that there has been an increase in the number of offenders brought to justice in recent years. The CPS has responded to Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate’s important report. It is important not only that there is good working between the police, the CPS and the courts but that files are effectively case-managed. The CPS has responded to the report by saying that it will act on its recommendations.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned personal data. He will know that a communications data Bill was announced in our consultation on the Government’s draft legislative programme. It is important that we have the opportunity to ensure that both counter-terrorist and criminal investigation can take place through data sharing and that there is proper protection and privacy for data. I therefore think that everybody will be dismayed that the Conservative party has sent to the public the names, addresses, phone numbers, financial status and voting intentions of 8,000 people in Crewe and Nantwich. I hope that it will ensure that that information is destroyed.
I fully endorse my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments about security considerations for Members of Parliament. We must be in a position to speak our mind in the House without threats. Otherwise, does she share my view that the High Court decision on our allowances was right and justified, and that whatever money we claim should be known to the public? Would not it also be useful if more were done to explain why we claim the money and that it is essential to carry out our duties? There is no need for apology, because that money makes it possible for Members of Parliament to do their work here and in their constituencies.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, with which I am sure the whole House will agree. It is important for the public that the House of Commons works effectively, and it is important that Members of Parliament work in their constituencies and in Westminster, so they need a home in their constituency and in Westminster and they need to travel between the two. They also need properly staffed offices to deal with the many requests for help and support that we receive from our constituents and to engage with them on public policy. We need to justify the allowances that are available, in the public interest, to Members, and we must ensure that there is public confidence in that. We must therefore do as he suggests and make that explanation clearer.
Of course, in respect of the High Court decision, there is no question. This House makes and passes the law, but the courts interpret the law and we obey it as it is laid down by them. It is in the public interest that the public have the information that they need and have confidence in the allowance, and that hon. Members have the ability to speak freely in the House.
Given that the Government support the closure of 2,500 post offices and the huge public interest in the fact that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is opposing the closure of a post office in his own constituency, will the Leader of the House encourage him to make a statement to the House explaining why he seems to be going against the policy of his own Government?
There will be opportunities for hon. Members to raise questions about the Post Office in several forthcoming Westminster Hall debates. They may also seek Adjournment debates on the issue and table questions to Ministers from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend commend the Prime Minister’s personal intervention in the negotiations taking place in Dublin on cluster munitions? Many hon. Members have long argued that such munitions have no part to play in the protection of our forces, because they do much more damage to civilian populations. If the British Government are saying that they wish to have a full ban on those munitions, let me congratulate them heartily and say what a wonderful campaign there has been.
My hon. Friend will know that this country has led the way in negotiations to end the use of land mines. International negotiations about cluster bombs are under way in Dublin, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will report on any issues that arise from those negotiations.
May I thank the Leader of the House for her statement robustly defending the right of Members of Parliament to enjoy the same degree of privacy and security that any other citizen is entitled to enjoy if he wishes to keep his private address private? May I thank her also for drawing attention to my early-day motion 1620, which has so far been signed by 88 hon. and right hon. Members?
[That this House believes that the home address of any hon. or Rt. hon. Member should not be published if he or she objects to publication on grounds of privacy or personal security.]
May I express my bafflement that the judges and the Information Commissioner do not appear to have appreciated the security considerations in this matter? May I also draw attention to early-day motions 1623 and 1628, which were tabled by a Liberal Democrat and a Labour Member respectively, asking for the release of similar information about the home addresses of judges and senior civil servants?
[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, should also be published along with a detailed break-down of the expenses which they charge to the public purse.]
[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 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 have already made freedom of information requests for that information to be released. What arrangements will be in place for individual MPs to register their specific objections before the release of their addresses? Have any of the 14 MPs concerned been given the opportunity to object to their individual addresses being disclosed in that irresponsible way?
We are in a different position to other people. We have to be subject to the appropriate level of scrutiny because the money being spent on housing, communication, office staff and travel is public money, and the public must have confidence that it is being spent properly. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the points that I have made—indeed, he has made them himself on many occasions—that, above all, it is important that hon. Members are able to speak freely in this House according to their conscience and concerns.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the 14 Members. It is the practice of the House authorities to consult individual Members regarding the handling of freedom of information requests, and that will be the case following the High Court decision. Those Members will be consulted in respect of their individual security situations. However, we will be looking to have a general position on addresses that satisfies the public that there is proper scrutiny of the money being spent on London homes. We need to consider this matter further, so I shall not say any more at this stage, but I know that it is of concern. I invite hon. Members to speak to me and the Deputy Leader of the House about this; we need as much information about and discussion on the issue as possible, and then we need to move forward appropriately.
Considering the depth of damage done to coalfield communities under the Conservative Administration, the Labour Government have made major moves forward in regeneration. Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for a debate to discuss the regeneration of former coalfield areas, so that we can celebrate the work of the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and English Partnerships? I should like to press for further regeneration in the Featherstone town area, which is one of those areas that have not yet been fully regenerated.
I will consider that as a suggestion for a topical debate, but I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the Modernisation Committee will shortly make proposals for regional Select Committees. Regional policies can make a big difference to the development of former coalfield communities through regional development agencies and other agencies, but they need to be held accountable to hon. Members such as my hon. Friend.
Does the Leader of the House agree that the House of Commons was at its best on Monday and Tuesday, in terms of debate, when it debated controversial issues in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? Will she accept my thanks for guaranteeing that there was a free vote on both sides of the House? That was a good thing, despite some people, who lost the vote, showing sour grapes by claiming, without any evidence, that it was not a free vote. Will she guarantee that there will also be a free vote on those issues on Report, if they come up again, and adequate time for the House to debate them fully?
I reaffirm what the hon. Gentleman says. There was a full debate over two days, and on our side there was absolutely and emphatically a free vote on those four issues—and it is right that there was. The Bill will be dealt with in the usual way on Report, and if there are any conscience issues, they will, of course, be subject to a free vote at that stage. I agree that the House was at its best on Monday and Tuesday. Usually, when people say that the House was at its best, I think that it was at its worst, but on this occasion I agree. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the part that he played in the debate.
Further to the question that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked, may I ask for a debate on security issues in relation to MPs? I and other members of the Administration Committee were dismayed this week to hear that no advice on security was taken before the appeal. As part of that debate, may we debate the advice that the Members Estimate Committee gets on such matters, as well as mechanisms to ensure that the head of finance and administration is under proper parliamentary scrutiny and control, rather than taking decisions that, as we heard the other day, are his alone?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the information tribunal did not have specific information about security when it was dealing with the requests for the private London addresses of the 14 current and former Members of Parliament. The tribunal said that it regretted the paucity of information, and that is something that needs to be reflected on. I will take steps in the coming days and weeks to ensure that I get the views, experience, background and circumstances of all hon. Members, so that when a decision comes to be made in the future it can be made on the basis of properly gathered evidence. I think that that is the way we need to go forward.
I am another apprentice.
I had understood that the Government’s so-called, much-vaunted modernisation programme would lead to our having two weeks’ business announced to the House in advance. For some reason, 10 and 11 June have been left out of today’s announcement, and it is rumoured that that is connected with the Counter-Terrorism Bill. Why cannot the Leader of the House announce that now, if she already knows what is happening? Are the Government dithering as usual, while awaiting the outcome of the vote in Crewe?
I apologise; I did not answer the point about announcing business in advance. We have sought to announce more business to the House in advance in order to enable hon. Members to plan. We are about to have a week’s recess, which is why we have announced two weeks’ business today. One of those weeks is the recess and the second is the week beginning 2 June, so really the hon. Gentleman is talking about the third week. We need to strike a balance between ensuring that hon. Members have sufficient notice and having the flexibility to deal with any issues that might arise.
Does the Leader of the House, like me, feel a sense of frustration that so many months after the publication of Baroness Corston’s excellent report on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, there has been no Government-led debate on it and no proper debate on it in this Chamber? Will she do something about that matter urgently?
The Government have been considering their full response to the Corston report and will come forward with proposals very shortly. That might well provide an opportunity for a full debate on the important proposals that Baroness Corston made on ensuring that fewer women go to prison and that those who do are able to be housed nearer their families.
Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the right hon. and learned Lady said that it was important for hon. Members to be given notice of the business of the House. Is it not the case that Government Ministers have been given notice that they should cancel overseas visits on 10 and 11 June? Why are Ministers being kept in the picture while hon. Members are being kept in the dark by the Government?
Bearing in mind the fact that there is no parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence services, and that Ministers consistently refuse to answer any questions on these matters, can we have a specific debate on the relationship between the United Kingdom security and intelligence services and the former South African apartheid regime, and, in particular, with the regime’s Dr. Mengele, Wouter Basson, and Project Coast? The House needs to be able to examine whether there was ministerial cover for that illicit—and, I believe, illegal—relationship. Wouter Basson was allowed to come in and out of this country and to work here during the years of the apartheid regime. It is time that this matter was exposed.
We have taken steps to improve the accountability of the security and intelligence services. There will be further steps in that direction in the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which has been published in draft. As I mentioned in response to an earlier question, there will be a possibility for pre-appointment hearings by Select Committees, which are an important measure of accountability. I have heard my hon. Friend’s points, and I will bring them to the attention of the relevant Ministers.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, when the House debated the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the programme motion tabled by the Government was such that voting on one group of amendments did not eat into the debating time for the next group. The Leader of the House will know that that procedure is not normally followed for Government Bills, and that debates on amendments and on Third Reading are often severely truncated because of voting. Will she apply the regime that operated on Monday and Tuesday to future Government Bills in order that the House may properly hold the Government to account?
That was a Committee stage rather than a Report stage. Of course, whenever a programme motion is tabled, there is an opportunity for Members to debate it and to say whether they think it is appropriate—[Hon. Members: “No there isn’t!”] There is always an opportunity to debate a programme motion, and it has to be agreed by the House.
A series of strikes, blockades and stoppages by French workers in Calais is causing massive disruption to Dover and to Dover’s cross-channel ferries today and over the coming bank holiday weekend. The M20 has been closed again in order to stack up vehicles. My colleagues and I have raised these matters with Ministers and with Kent county council over a long period of time, but progress in resolving this serious problem has been very slow. It is a problem not only for Dover but for the road haulage system generally and for UK Ltd. May we have a debate in Government time to discuss the matter further?
My hon. Friend is a champion of Dover and of its importance not only regionally but nationally. I will raise his points with my ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office and ask them to consider them with the utmost seriousness and to convey their response to my hon. Friend in writing.
The right hon. Lady might be aware of the report in The Times last weekend on the work of the City accountants Grant Thornton, and in particular the work of their excellent economist, Maurice Fitzpatrick. The report showed that Scotland would have a surplus of more than £4 billion if it were independent. The UK currently has a deficit of £40 billion. May we have a debate on Scotland’s big surplus and the UK’s massive deficit?
May I once again raise with my right hon. Friend my serious concern about the complexity of the benefits system? I do not think that any other country in Europe has three Government agencies to deliver benefits. This problem is compounded by a morass of means-testing. I know that the Work and Pensions Select Committee has looked at this issue, but may we have a full debate in which we can discuss, among other things, my suggestion that benefits ought to be brought within one Government agency, namely the Department for Work and Pensions? We should also look at ways to reduce the amount of means-testing.
My hon. Friend has raised a number of important points. He will know that there will be an opportunity to raise the matter on the Monday when the House returns after the recess at Department for Work and Pensions questions. Perhaps he will seek an opportunity to raise those points then.
May I support the request of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for a debate on the Corston report as soon as possible? May I also draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the parlous state of the consultation process on eco-towns that is going on—or rather, not going on—at the moment? In my own constituency, the Government apparently intend to build a town twice the size of Market Harborough in the middle of rural Harborough, yet we have no idea about any of the details of the proposals from the Department for Communities and Local Government or from the developers, namely the Co-operative Wholesale Society and English Partnerships. This will not do. If the Government are going to build a town of 40,000 people in an area of rural England without any infrastructure and with less than 1 per cent. unemployment, I believe they ought to condescend to be rather more candid. May we have a debate on this as soon as we get back?
I need to return to an issue that I have put to the Leader of the House before. May we have a debate on Somerset county council and the corruption that is going on there? Yesterday, 24 hours ago, the county solicitor, David Corry, met the resources director, Roger Kershaw, and agreed secretly to move 500 pages from a crucial contract. That contract now puts at risk hundreds of jobs and more than half a billion pounds of public money. The deal with IBM was signed last September, but the details have never been seen by a single elected councillor in Somerset. I am afraid that what has happened has been uncovered and there is now an attempt to suppress the truth. These matters are, unfortunately, outside the remit of the district auditor, so I believe that the Serious Fraud Office needs to be brought in as quickly as possible. This is a cover-up and corruption at the highest level. May we please have a debate to discuss this important matter?
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there has been criminal activity, he should approach the police and the Serious Fraud Office. It is not appropriate, in my view, to raise this matter with the Leader of the House and to ask me to bring in the police and the Serious Fraud Office. It is not a good idea for hon. Members—although they obviously have to decide for themselves what they say—to use the privilege of the House to make allegations of corruption in respect of individuals who can be identified. That is really quite a serious matter, which the hon. Gentleman should have referred first to the police and the Serious Fraud Office.
The findings of the review on sex and relationship education delivery are due to be published this summer, but I understand that no consultation on them is planned. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House so that hon. Members can express their views on this important matter before any policy changes are made?
Given that Tonderai Ndira, a prominent Movement for Democratic Change activist in Zimbabwe, whom I had the privilege to meet in 2004, was found dead on Tuesday in a Harare hospital mortuary only days after being violently abducted by a group of armed thugs, may I reiterate the pertinent request of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) that the House should debate the escalating crisis in Zimbabwe as a matter of urgency? Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that we are owed that, as the Deputy Leader of the House gave us reason to feel encouraged on that point during business questions on 24 April? We need a full day’s debate in Government time on the Floor of the House in order to determine how on a multilateral basis we can bring the mass murderer Mugabe to book sooner rather than later.
May we have a debate about services in our communities? Members have asked for debates on post offices, rural bus services and even village schools, but BT has announced that it is going to remove 5,500 public phone boxes and is in consultation over removing another 8,700. I thought it was bad enough when the traditional red telephone boxes were replaced with ghastly shower cubicles, but to take them away completely is the wrong decision. I understand that it is a private company, but it has a public responsibility. Not everybody has mobile phones, so in an emergency a public phone box could provide the lifeline that people need. Will the Leader of the House use her best offices to ensure that BT understands its responsibilities to the community?
Yesterday, the “Yes Minister” Bill received its Second Reading, having been debated for two hours and 44 minutes, leaving more than three and a half hours of unused debating time. On the previous day, as the Leader of the House has said, the House was at its best when it considered amendments on abortion in respect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, but that debate lasted for only three hours, with many Members unable to contribute. Was that incompatibility of debating time a deliberate ploy by the Government to curtail debate or was it just another Government cock-up?
We attempted to discuss through the usual channels and with Back Benchers the amount of time necessary for the exceptional debate in Committee on the Floor of the House. There are always going to be demands for more time for debate, but I think we had enough time to air all the issues and for Members to vote accordingly.
May I say how delighted I am to have secured the debate on eco-towns on the Tuesday after the recess? Will the Leader of the House request that the Minister for Housing—I am not asking for the Secretary of State—responds to the debate? Notwithstanding their letters and appeals to the consultation process for information, a number of colleagues are still particularly interested to find out whether the city region will include York so that the site of Skelton in the Vale of York will be included. That is why I want the appropriate Minister to respond to the debate.
Notwithstanding what the Leader of the House said earlier, I ask her seriously to consider finding Government time for a further debate on post offices. My constituents were outraged that 12 of their 42 post offices were consulted on and all were closed. They will be watching very carefully to see whether post offices in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform remain open. It would be completely unacceptable to my constituents if Post Office Ltd were to embark on a further round of closures in the near future. That would be totally out of order; we need a further debate to put that point of view across.
I know that hon. Members feel strongly about this issue. There was an opportunity earlier this morning, perhaps in topical questions, to raise such questions with Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman sought to catch the Speaker’s eye—[Interruption.] I understand that he did; no doubt he got a full answer.
May we have an early debate on Belarus? Does the Leader of the House agree that President Lukashenko needs to engage with Europe rather than confront it? Indeed, Europe wants to engage with him, but he first needs to allow freedom of speech and freedom of religion and to release the political prisoners currently suffering in Belarus prisons.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is raising a point about Belarus, but I would like to pay tribute to his and other Members’ work on the all-party Russia group. I will make sure that his points are brought to the attention of appropriate Ministers in the Foreign Office.
Following the excellent point made by the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), may we have a debate in Government time about the inability of the French authorities to protect the interests of members of the British public caught up on the other side of the channel in French industrial disputes? My constituent, Mr. John Shephard from Boughton near Northampton, who sailed across to France on Monday, and 24 other British vessels have been trapped in Cherbourg harbour because French fishing boats are blockading it with ropes and steel cables and firing flares at any vessels that try to escape. The French police are doing absolutely nothing to protect the interests of British citizens caught up in the dispute. May we have a debate in Government time, and will the Leader of the House urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to get involved at an early stage?
I will bring those points to the attention of colleagues in the Foreign Office. I know that they are already involved, but I will explain the constituency issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) as well as the hon. Gentleman have raised.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and a Measure:
Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Supplementary Provisions) Act 2008
Transport for London Act 2008
Church of England Marriage Measure 2008
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, at column 356, the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern), who is in the Chamber, intervened on his own Minister as a Parliamentary Private Secretary for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Madam Deputy Speaker pulled him up on that and said:
“it is not custom and practice for a Parliamentary Private Secretary to intervene on his Minister.”—[Official Report, 21 May 2008; Vol. 476, c. 366.]
In fact, it is more than that. Paragraph 3.9 of the ministerial code says that PPSs should not
“put Questions on matters affecting the department with which they are connected.”
I wish the hon. Gentleman no ill; I suspect it was a matter of ignorance rather than anything else. However, I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you could ensure that the ministerial code issued by the current Prime Minister, not the last one, is enforced and that the Government take it seriously—they say they do—and inform Ministers, including PPSs, of their responsibilities under it.
This is a convention, and the ministerial code is not a matter for me to interpret. I say to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) was embarrassed, and I do not think that we wish to embarrass him further. He had absolutely no desire to break any convention of the House. After all, we all learn. We learn by listening—[Hon. Members: “They don’t.”] I assure the Leader of the House that the hon. Member for Blaby learns; I help him along from time to time.
I have mentioned apprenticeships. My foreman used to say, “The man who has never made a mistake has done nothing.” We make mistakes.
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.
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.
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?
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.