Wednesday 29 January 2014
[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Karen Bradley.)
Before Mr Kwarteng introduces the debate, may I make a couple of comments? I think that people should know that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on defence and diplomacy in the middle east and north Africa, which I run in association with the Royal United Services Institute. In addition, I would like to report that I visited the Egyptian embassy in London on 13 December for a meeting and lunch with both the Egyptian ambassador and the strategic adviser to the current Adminstration, Dr El Mostafa Higazy. I say that simply for the record, and I now ask Mr Kwarteng to kick us off on our subject, which is the political and economic situation in Egypt.
Thank you very much, Mr Havard; it is a pleasure to speak on this subject under your chairmanship. I am also delighted to see several Members of the House here to take part in the debate. Looking around, I can see that a number of people have a considered and well developed interest in the region.
As far as I am concerned, the developments in Egypt are, in terms of the middle east’s long-term history and development, in many ways the most significant. Why do I say that? Egypt is very much at the centre of the Arab world. Ninety million Egyptians reside in the country and a number of other people—from Saudi Arabia, from all around the Gulf, and from across the Arab world—live in Egypt. As a proportion of the Arab world, Egypt represents well over a third of the Arab-speaking peoples. Historically, it has always been a country in which developments are looked to. Culturally, the Egyptian film industry is dominant in the region, and anyone who has travelled in the region will say that the Egyptian dialect is the most widely understood, simply because of wide media outlets and the popularity of Egyptian film. Egypt is absolutely at the centre of developments in the middle east.
Two weeks ago, I returned from a delegation to Egypt organised by the Conservative Middle East Council. It was the fourth delegation of which I have been a member since the revolution in 2011, when General Hosni Mubarak was toppled. It is only really by going back to the country over a number of years that we managed to develop, I think, an interest, expertise and knowledge of what is going on in a fast-moving, complicated situation. Our aim has been to understand better the historic events that are occurring in the country, and we have spoken to many people in the Egyptian political scene.
Unfortunately, as people will know, the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation at the end of last year and has effectively been outlawed. As a consequence, in our last delegation we were not able to meet members of that organisation, but we have—I can say this openly—met them in the past. We have engaged with many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, with people in the army and the armed forces in Egypt, and with people right across the political spectrum, from the Facebookers, who initiated the first revolution in January and February 2011, to other players in more recent events.
We always thought Egypt was a binary situation—I am talking on behalf of members of the delegation—and felt that the army and the Muslim Brotherhood were by far the two most powerfully organised and structured organisations in the country. It seemed to us at the time—we documented it in our short pamphlet, “Egypt 2011: Revolution and Transition”—that the political future of Egypt would largely be determined by the relationship between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. We saw, in effect, a temporary resolution to that dialogue in the way in which the army stepped in in the middle of last year.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Unlike him, I was not on that delegation but spent time there recently on my own. Does he accept that although the army and the Muslim Brotherhood are the main players, the vast majority of the population, particularly those outside Cairo, have absolutely no interest in the conflict and are totally committed to a resolution and a cessation of any dispute?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Naturally when we go on such delegations, we tend to gravitate towards Cairo, which is the centre and capital of Egyptian life. I might add that as a capital, it is very significant. Twenty million Egyptians live in Cairo, which is a high proportion of the total population. However, he is absolutely right that Egyptians across the country are less interested in the power dispute and are more concerned about economic stability and the future for themselves and their families. I will talk about the consequences of the dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army.
I compliment the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He seems reluctant to describe what happened last year in Egypt as a military coup, which, in reality, it was. Is he not concerned that that is a precedent, and that large numbers of opposition people have been arrested in the same way as many were arrested under Morsi? There is a serious denial of many people’s human rights throughout the country at present.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is undoubtedly the case that the army has been very heavy-handed in dealing with protesters and dissent. There is a new protest law under which people have been put away for three years simply for protesting and being out on the street. I am tentative about describing what happened as a coup, because the army’s view is very much that it was a popular uprising. The army would suggest that—I heard it many times in Cairo—although the events of February 2011 have been described as a revolution, what it feels was another revolution in June last year has been described as a “coup”. We have to be careful about the language we use.
Clearly, it is true that the army flexed its muscles at the end, but there was popular support, with Tamarod and people on the streets, so to describe what happened as a coup does not perhaps get the right tone. Generally, coups around the developing world are led from the top: a general and a few of his associates might seize power for themselves. The army in Egypt would very much contest whether a coup is an accurate description of what happened last summer and no doubt historians, politicians and diplomats will debate how to describe it for years to come. I am very reluctant to use the word “coup”, even though I appreciate that it has been widely used in the media.
The big question at the moment is how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly the army has gone down one route, which is heavy-handed—really the iron fist. Our perception was certainly that the army was willing and ready to deal with, in an uncompromising fashion, any attempts on the part of political Islamists to use violence. It was expressing the view that it had had enough of the Muslim Brotherhood and of trying to accommodate them, and that it would handle any threats from that quarter with a great deal of repression. Those were not the words that the army used, but that was very much the indication that it gave us. There is clearly a massive problem with that, potentially, because—
My hon. Friend is leading on to the point about the co-existence of the two particular factions. Does he also accept the point that was stressed to me on my visit, that the vast majority of all faiths peacefully co-exist, are friends with one another and have no dispute with one another, and that it is only the more extreme elements—for example, of the Muslim Brotherhood—that are necessarily pushing the dispute and the aggression towards the army and towards the alternatives?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The two broad groups that I have characterised—I will talk about secular parties later—are the two most powerful groups, and of course within those groups there is a wide range of views and dispositions. There are extremist elements in the Muslim Brotherhood. There are also some quite extreme repressive elements in the army. My hon. Friend is right again to say that the majority of people are trapped in the middle of those two contending and powerful forces, but I must stress that the fundamental problem with Egypt at the moment, as I see it, is that one side is simply unwilling to reach any kind of accommodation with the other.
Let us look at the elections that have taken place in the past three or four years. The one fact that has come out starkly and undeniably is the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood. I can say, as a member of the delegation that has travelled to Egypt over three or four years, that each time we asked, “How popular is the Muslim Brotherhood?” its support was underestimated; it was never overestimated. People always said 15% to 20%, but then in the elections it always performed much better than anyone had anticipated. Equally surprising was the strength of the Salafis, who got one quarter of the parliamentary seats. Political Islam in Egypt is a powerful force. What I think should draw the attention of this House and Members of Parliament is the fact that the army’s attempt to sideline political Islam is fraught with danger. That is potentially one of the fundamental causes of stress and conflict in the years ahead.
The big question is how the army will deal with acts of terror in the future. Clearly, in the past two weeks we have seen an intolerable level of violence in Cairo. We have also seen sporadic terrorist bombings. Added to that is military repression. We are entering on a particularly vicious cycle, and everyone in the west—politicians, diplomats and everyone else in the outside world—will have to take a view on that. It is obvious to me and to members of our delegation that the army is determined to impose itself as the central player in Egyptian politics. Anyone who doubts that need only look at the referendum that took place two weeks ago.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He says that the military are imposing themselves as the dominant power in Egyptian politics. Does he not agree that they are putting themselves forward as the only power in Egypt’s politics? Now it looks very much as though the general who led the coup will put himself forward for the presidency, putting the country back into a situation in which the military are in charge.
Yes, that is a broad characterisation of where we are. However, we have to accept that the army is supported by a large number of people. That is why I am always hesitant to talk about coups and all that sort of thing. There is popular support for the army, and it is unrealistic and perhaps rather naive of us to think otherwise. It is not a military junta that has suddenly emerged out of nowhere and is seeking to dominate the country. There is a groundswell of support for the army. How big that is and whether it constitutes a majority, no one knows.
However, this is a much more nuanced situation than one in which a bunch of generals have decided to claim power for themselves. If we look at the economic conditions in which Egypt has suffered for the past three or four years—the total collapse of tourism, which constituted between 15% and 25%, depending on different estimates, of the economy—we see that there is a massive and pressing need for stability, and it was in that cauldron that that military regime, if we want to call it that, emerged. That has happened across modern history. Across the world, we have seen situations in which there is a cry for stability and then someone emerges, often from a military background, to try to impose order. That is a very similar situation to the one that we find in Egypt.
The leading indication, the most obvious example, of the army’s determination was the result of the referendum: 98.1% of people voted for the constitution. Those of us who live in democratic countries such as Britain will know that there is not a single issue on which 98% of people would vote one way. I even suggested to one of my researchers that if there was a referendum on what day of the week it was—on a point of fact—we would not see 98% of people agreeing to that. We might see 90%, but there would still be dissent on what is a very palpable and obvious question, so the 98.1% does arouse suspicions about the transparency, openness and fairness of the process. If we look for other examples in the Arab world of 98% mandates—actually, I was told that Saddam Hussein used to get 100% in his elections—we find that there are not that many other examples of people getting 98%.
Absolutely, but 38% is not a disgracefully low turnout. That is quite a large turnout. In our local elections, we would be quite happy to get 38%. That does not invalidate them as exercises in local democracy, so I do not think that the turnout was particularly depressing. It was a reasonable turnout, but the 98% of the 38% does raise legitimate questions.
My hon. Friend has made a number of very pertinent interventions, all of which I agree with. It is absolutely the case that what he refers to is what this whole issue is about, but what we have to consider—I want to deal with this in my closing remarks—is our relationship to incipient democracies, if we want to call them that, and to political governance in the Arab world.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Before he goes on to the other issue, may I put this to him? He mentions the constitution, which has increased provision for religious freedom compared with what there has been recently. However, in relation to ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Christians and Copts, does he not agree that words are fine—the constitution may make provision in certain areas—but the issue is the enforcement of and the abiding by those provisions and the human rights afforded to religious minorities in particular? How does he see the role of our Government in ensuring that those minorities are properly protected?
My right hon. Friend the Minister can speak with more authority than I can on this, but our Government have been absolutely clear about our commitment to human rights and to religious freedoms in Egypt. What the right hon. Gentleman should be aware of is that the Copts—we talked about a coup last year—were very much in favour of the military stepping in. They saw the Muslim Brotherhood as no particular friends to them. Indeed, they felt that the incidence of religious violence and of terror against their community increased dramatically in the brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule.
There are many conflicting issues that we have to deal with. On one side is the protection of minority rights; on the other is the democratic will as expressed by the majority. Often in these cases in the Arab world, those two things are in conflict. One justification for military involvement was on precisely this issue. The army would say—it did say to us—that the Muslim Brotherhood did not look after the human rights of all Egyptians; it was sectional, and it looked merely to its own. In that context, the army has taken on itself the role of guardian of minority rights.
Egypt’s parlous economic situation is the context in which that military strongman, for want of a better term, may well emerge. The budget deficit has risen to $34.8 billion, which is 14% of GDP. To put that in context, our deficit was 12% of GDP in 2010, which was the highest proportion it had been in our peacetime history. Public debt in Egypt is running at about 90% of GDP. Clearly, there has been a massive economic crisis and the country is under a lot of pressure. There are also problems with terrorism and the rule of law. When we first arrived in Egypt in 2010, we managed to drive through the Sinai peninsula on our way to Gaza, but the presence of armed militias and armed forces in the Sinai peninsula, and the battles that rage there, make such a trip impossible today. The country suffers under massive economic pressure and the spectre of renewed terrorism.
The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. Does he concede that the new Government have displayed a disappointing attitude by not opening up the Rafah crossing, which has created further problems and tensions in Gaza? I recognise what he says about the journey across the Sinai; that is a fair point.
In the Sinai peninsula, which has generally been, for the past 40 years, under Egyptian control, the situation is one of relative anarchy. In that context, it would be asking a lot to expect any Egyptian Government to open the border. I cannot see such a development taking place, given where we are today. The army has a real job on its hands in trying to introduce some element of rule of law in the Sinai peninsula.
I conclude by making one or two remarks about our response. We went to our embassy in Cairo, where we received generous hospitality, and we encountered some hard-working and committed diplomats. The feeling that we received from people to whom we spoke in Egypt, at all levels, was that the west had failed Egypt and that we, as one of Egypt’s longest-standing partners, had not fully grasped the nature of the situation. That might be a misrepresentation, but I can only report what I was told. There was a perception that we had been slightly wrong-footed by events. In a fast-changing environment it is easy to back the wrong horse and then find that the winning horse is suspicious of people who have not fully supported it.
For decades to come, we will have to question the operation of the multi-party system. Over the past four years, secular parties have not emerged. The two power blocs of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood are the dominant forces in Egypt, and they may well be for some time to come. The Al-Nour party, which won a quarter of the parliamentary seats, is a Salafist party inspired by political Islam. It is difficult to see how a multi-party secular democracy can emerge in a country in which the army and political Islam, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, play such dominant roles.
In Westminster and across western capitals, we will have to come to terms with that. We will have to reassess the somewhat naive idea that Egypt might become a multi-party system like Australia, for example. If anyone thought in 2011 that that might happen, it was a rather naive assumption. We simply have to describe what we see on the ground and how popular will is expressed. Secular parties have not developed as many of us anticipated, and it is an open question whether we should try to encourage their growth or simply focus our attention on the humanitarian and economic situation in Egypt.
I am grateful for the care and attention with which Members of the House have listened to my remarks, and I look forward to listening to and participating in the subsequent debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing a debate on this important subject. More than 98% of participants in the Egyptian vote in January this year voted in favour of approving a new constitution, and I concede that the turnout was a reasonably respectable 38%. That was, however, slightly lower than the turnout for a similar poll following Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Egypt’s new constitution strengthens the country’s three key institutions—the military, the police and the judiciary—and it appears to give more rights to women and disabled people. However, opposition members and rights campaigners have questioned the integrity of the referendum, saying that it was conducted against a backdrop of fear. Transparency International, an international monitoring group that sent a small delegation to observe the process, has said:
“Government officials openly promoted a vote in favour of the amendments; private and public media provided one-sided coverage in favour of the draft constitution; and the government harassed, arrested, and prosecuted peaceful critics, closing democratic space to promote views and debate before the referendum.”
The referendum process and outcome are clearly mired in controversy. If Egypt is to stand any chance of a more stable, prosperous and democratic future, lessons must be learned quickly. That will not be easy in a society that is being subjected to unbearable economic and other stresses. Under the social contract that bound Egyptians since Nasser, the state guaranteed education, health care, food, energy and even jobs to all citizens in exchange for their unconditional retreat from politics and matters of governance. That contract has been unravelling for decades and is now utterly frayed. The Egyptians, more than others in the region, are right to panic at the thought of persistent instability, fuelled by Egypt’s exclusionary, rudderless, confrontational and highly stressful political landscape. Given that uncertainty, the mounting economic pressure that has given so much violence is not surprising.
The population of the countryside and an urbanised underclass are growing in numbers, but the established elites still enjoy all the levers of power, and the latter are bent on keeping the former in check. Those tensions, which are increasingly manifest in society, have been decades in the making, and addressing them will be neither easy nor straightforward. Sadly, but realistically, it may not be possible to bridge some of the fault lines before things run their course on the streets, but we hope that fear of total collapse will continue to serve as a powerful safeguard. State institutions are dysfunctional but resilient, and Egypt can expect much support, whether benevolent or biased, from sympathetic states in the Gulf and the west. Democratic or not, many Egyptians see the referendum as delivering a constitution that legitimises the army’s powerful and unquestioned position in Egypt today.
Although the authorities maintain that the new constitution is a big improvement that delivers more rights and freedoms and is a crucial step on the road to stability, it would seem to be a version of stability that fortifies the power of a military who allow civilians to be tried in military courts. The constitution gives the military control over the appointment of the Defence Minister for the next eight years, and, most worryingly, it also stipulates that the military’s budget will be beyond civilian oversight.
Critics believe that the constitution favours the army at the expense of the people and fails to deliver on the expectations of the revolution of 2011 that overthrew the long-time military ruler, Mubarak. Egypt is a divided society, and it is in turmoil. Attending protests can result in a three-year prison term; that is part of an escalating clampdown on dissent. Rather than healing the divisions in Egypt, some fear that the new constitution will harden them. It is due to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming months, and it now seems certain that the army chief who led the coup will run for President, possibly putting a military strongman back in charge of Egypt.
Although the authorities are insisting that the country is on a road map to democracy, some are not convinced and are predicting another mass revolt. Instead of rushing to endorse this or that leadership, hailing the political road map and hoping for the best, a constructive policy for the UK would be to combine healthy political scepticism with a more consistent approach to the issue of individual liberties and a clearer economic road map that would tie together Gulf money, western aid, international loans and a much-delayed reform programme.
Without doubt, Egypt’s economy is in serious trouble, with a growing budget deficit, an unprecedented increase in domestic debt, high interest payments and a slowing of the economy. Coupled with political unrest and other factors, that has led to a slow-down in industrial and economic activity in general. We can clearly see that Egypt’s economic health began to deteriorate immediately after the revolution in 2011. The world is now a small place, and communication channels are large, complex and in everyone’s hands. In the past, the world was somewhat blind to such turmoil amid the transition to democracy. Not now. Nightly, on our news channels, we see it, hear it and the world economy feels it.
I pay tribute to both previous speakers and, despite the friendly sedentary intervention of my friend, the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I intend to follow in their footsteps. I congratulate in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on introducing such an important subject. I am pleased that people have not gone automatically into a mode of suggesting that all the good is on one side and all the evil on the other. In Egypt, we are confronted with a choice of which is the lesser evil. I agree with the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) that the correct course to follow is not to rush to endorse what has happened in Egypt. We should ensure that we maintain pressure on whatever Administration or regime emerges to follow a path back to constitutional democracy at the earliest opportunity.
It sometimes bothers me that people think that when a dramatic development occurs, it is automatically to be interpreted in the context of what we have experienced in recent European history. I felt the very coinage of the term “Arab spring” to be inappropriate. I did not feel that the spate of revolutions that took place in one middle eastern country after another should be compared to the attempt by central and eastern European countries, which had been well set on the path to constitutional democracy before they were hijacked by the Soviet empire, to go back to the democratic path. There was no direct comparison between those European countries asserting their right to return to democracy and what was happening in at least some of the middle eastern countries.
In 1941, Churchill was famously teased by one of his left-wing opponents when he spoke up for Russia after it was invaded by the Nazis. After all, Churchill was the architect of British intervention in the Russian civil war, and he famously wanted to “strangle Bolshevism at birth”. He had the right answer to his critic: he said that if Hitler invaded hell, he would at least have a good word to say for the devil in the House of Commons. In other words, he recognised that it was a choice between evils.
It is often thought that when a totalitarian regime emerges, based on a totalitarian ideology, it does so in a coup, with no popular support at all. That is not necessarily the case; in fact, I would say that it is not usually the case. There was certainly popular support for the Nazis, as well as for the communists in many cases where they succeeded in coming to power. The paradox in trying to deal with such situations was that there was a degree of democratic legitimacy to the initial taking over of the country, but once that had happened, the regimes proceeded to dismantle the very framework of democracy—however great or limited it was at the time—that had enabled them to come to power on the basis of some form of popular support. Such popular support was often allied to a specific type of devious perversion of political language when the regime was consolidating its grip on power.
The question that must be faced by democracies looking on as such situations develop is what we do when a group of people come to power, initially with a greater or lesser degree of democratic legitimacy, and proceed to subvert the system so that they will never again have to submit themselves to democratic elections. I suggest that what was happening in Egypt was a movement in that sort of direction. The country was faced with the choice of whether it wished to see Islamism take control, as it has done following what I prefer to call the Arab uprisings, to the disappointment of many of us who were hoping to see constitutional democracies emerge in other middle eastern countries. The issue is what we do about that. Do we simply rush to condemn the fact that Islamists have been ejected from power in Egypt, or do we recognise the real difficulty of the choice that Egyptians have had to make between one extreme situation and another?
The situation in Egypt was even more extreme than that, in terms of the groundwork laid for political Islam. In the parliamentary elections, 50% of the seats were won by the Muslim Brotherhood and 25% by Salafis, so 75% of the seats were won by parties that openly supported political Islam. There was no room for an alternative in that system.
That is absolutely correct. My hon. Friend will put me right if I am mistaken, but I recall that part of the deal at the outset was that the Muslim Brotherhood undertook not to run for the presidency—I think that I am right in saying that. That promise was very promptly broken.
In my time trying to comment as best I can on defence and security-related subjects in Parliament, not too many months—certainly not too many years—go by when I do not have recourse to mentioning one of my favourite political quotations from the late, great, Sir Karl Popper in his famous book, “The Open Society and Its Enemies”. I have quoted it before and I suspect that circumstances will require me to quote it again. The paradox of tolerance is that in a free society, people must tolerate all but the intolerant, because if you tolerate the intolerant, the conditions for toleration disappear and the tolerant go with them. I am sure that this is what the people who ousted the Islamists in Egypt would argue was their justification. Although I said earlier that one must not make simplistic comparisons, I am now probably about to do just that. Those people would probably point to the situation in Germany in the 1930s and say, “Wouldn’t it have been better if the army had thrown the Nazis out, once it became clear that they were going to rip up the constitution and remove any chance of a democratic future, and when it saw what the Hitlerites were trying to do to the German system—which had more or less democratically elected them to power in the first place—using the techniques that we are so familiar with in totalitarian takeovers, to get an iron and irreversible grip on the society?” How would we feel now if the army had stepped in then?
I worry when I hear people use phrases such as moderate Islamism. The description of Islamism is the description of an extreme, intolerant ideology; there is no moderate Islamism, any more than there is moderate totalitarianism or moderate extremism. The reality is that there was a choice in Egypt between an Islamist takeover and the ejection of a group of people bent on destroying any sort of emergent democracy in that country and making a terrible mess of running it in the process.
While the hon. Gentleman is expanding on whether there can be moderate Islamism and the consequence of Islamism emerging in Egypt and other middle eastern nations, might I ask if he shares many people’s concern that religious minorities, including Christians and others, are being systematically purged, not just in thousands or tens of thousands, but in hundreds of thousands, from many nation states right across the middle east?
I endorse that, and pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and his party colleagues for raising this question more consistently and more often than any other group of hon. Members in the House. They are right to do so. We have to try to take a long view of the prospects for the re-emergence of some form of moderate government in Egypt. Those of us who have been in, and aware of, politics for a long time can remember the bad old days of Nasser. I am sure that some people would say, “Ah, but those days are likely to come back,” but I remember that most sensible, pro-democratic people were relieved when Nasser’s successor, Sadat, showed himself willing to moderate the more extreme outlooks of Egyptian politics and to make peace with Israel.
I remember, when Sadat was assassinated by what, today, we would call Islamists, how relieved we were that somebody else came forward who carried on his policies. Nevertheless, as is always the case when people come forward and get a grip, as Mubarak did, and do not want to give it up, corruption became rife and the situation ultimately became unstable. Of course, understandably, the people became fed up with him. However, although it took quite a while for the people to become fed up with that form of dictatorship, it did not take them terribly long to be fed up with President Morsi and his group.
I appreciate the way that the hon. Gentleman is developing his argument. He is outlining the difficulties that we in the United Kingdom have in reacting to what is happening in Egypt, and the difficulties of choosing between two evils, as he termed it. Perhaps he will give us some specific steps that he believes the UK should take to stabilise the situation in Egypt.
I shall try to do so, although I am conscious that I am coming towards the end of my fair share of time. I shall try to make a remark or two along those lines at the end.
I do not hold myself out as being any form of expert on middle eastern politics, so I was pleased to see the comprehensive debate pack assembled for this occasion by Library researchers, who culled many good contributions from national and international media. I was struck particularly by the contribution of Dr Hazem Kandil, who is described as a lecturer in sociology and a fellow of St Catharine’s college, Cambridge, as well as being the author of a book entitled “Inside the Brotherhood”. He says:
“the Brotherhood’s opponents could not have fielded enough protesters to secure the cooperation of the high command had the common folk abstained. It was the Brotherhood’s shocking incompetence at government that drove millions into the streets on June 30. And it was the Brotherhood’s decision to turn a political clash into a religious war that guaranteed the public’s blanket endorsement for brutally repressing them.
The Brothers were ousted not because of their political duplicity, but because they were so bad at it.”
In other words, the people saw through them. He continues:
“they were later hunted down because they never understood that their countrymen preferred to risk backtracking into a functioning secular authoritarianism to the certainty of sliding into incompetent religious fascism.”
If I used those words, I might come in for some criticism, but when a knowledgeable fellow of St Catharine’s college, Cambridge, uses them, we all ought to take them seriously.
In response to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), I simply say that we should have a policy of positive critical engagement with whatever Government emerges. We should at least recognise that the Government who propose to emerge are at least talking the language of democracy, and can be held to that agenda, in a way that the Islamists do not.
My last observation is this. A few days ago, I was listening to the “Today” programme and a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood was asked a simple question by the interviewer: “Will you take part in the forthcoming elections or not?” He could have had plenty of good reasons for saying, “We won’t do it.” He could have said, “We don’t think they’ll be fair,” or “We don’t think we’ll be allowed to campaign freely,” and so on. The fact was that it took the entire interview, with that question being asked over and over, to get any sort of final admission from this man that, no, it does not propose to take part. That reminded me of nothing so much as old debates with Marxists, 25 or 30 years ago: they never gave a straight answer to a straight question, because they were subject to a devious political ideology and had the language to match.
These people are not democrats. They were about to subvert democracy. The people who have ousted them may not be democrats, but we at least have a chance of making them work towards democracy in a way that the Muslim Brotherhood would never have wanted to do.
I thank the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for securing this debate and for the remarks he made in introducing it.
The situation in Egypt is dangerous and sad. The abuse regarding the right of protest and the abuse of human rights has been continual in Egypt for a long time. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) correctly pointed out that the military are back in control of government, as indeed they have been in control or supportive of government for most of the period since the second world war, if not longer. The army is the big factor in Egypt. We also have to recognise that all of Egypt’s constitutions, including the latest constitution that has just been voted through by yet another referendum, which is the third in three years, gives a unique and special place to the army in society and gives it a degree of independence—way beyond any sense of parliamentary control—that nobody in this country or in Europe would accept. Indeed, the Egyptian army has its own economy and source of income. Egyptian society is essentially a process of debate with the power of the armed forces, as opposed to anyone else, and we have to recognise that as one of the big factors.
The other big factor, of course, is the events over the past three years since the Arab spring. Everyone who recognised what was happening across north Africa and the middle east always thought that Egypt would be the last place to have mass protests, but eventually there were huge protests in Tahrir square that resulted in the removal and trial of Mubarak, who is still in custody. The protests did not end the power of the army, which during that period was clever in presenting itself as some kind of democratic force on the side of popular opinion. A constitution was produced, which was followed by the election of President Morsi.
Initially, the rest of the world was keen to do business with Morsi. He was due to come to Britain, and somewhere I have an invitation to meet him. He was arrested and imprisoned on a Monday, and our meeting was due on the Thursday. I then got the most peculiar e-mail that I have ever received, saying, “It appears that President Morsi will not be able to attend the meeting.” The e-mail did not give any reason why he was not able to attend the meeting. I believe that you were also due to be at that discussion, Mr Havard. Morsi has been in prison ever since.
I am not a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood—I have many criticisms of many organisations, including the brotherhood—but one has to recognise that it has been an important factor in Egyptian society since its foundation in 1928. The brotherhood has large support, and its leadership and membership have suffered a lot of imprisonment since its foundation. The brotherhood has often been banned—by the British, by various Egyptian Governments, by Nasser, by Mubarak and by many others—so when the brotherhood finally won election it was an important turning point in Egyptian history.
Those who protested against the brotherhood presidency and Government—there were huge protests within a year—rather bizarrely turned to the army for their salvation. I have asked various friends on the left of Egyptian politics where that narrative came from. When people are making democratic protests against a Government and its authoritarian measures—indeed, there were plenty of authoritarian measures under Morsi—where in the democratic alternatives does one turn to the army for salvation? That is the conundrum. The Government that Sisi now leads, and of which he will no doubt become President in a short time, have been as oppressive of the opposition, albeit a different opposition, as the Morsi Government were. Large numbers of people have been killed or imprisoned, and the behaviour of Sisi’s Government towards human rights in Egypt is not good. Although one can understand the degree of opposition to Mubarak, to Morsi and now to the current Government, one should be careful of endorsing a military regime and the oppression of human rights that it is now undertaking.
Is that not the crux of the issue? The commitment to pluralism and peaceful change of Government, recognising that Governments come and go, is crucial. Is not one of the problems that, as the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) mentioned, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood failed on that level of commitment?
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. Under the Morsi presidency and the then new membership of the Egyptian Parliament there was no development of plurality in politics or of a wide range of secular and non-secular political parties. There were a lot of attacks, particularly on religious minorities, which is totally unacceptable.
I have been to Egypt twice, both times en route back and forth from Gaza. I spent some time in Cairo this time last year, and I spent a lot of time talking to people in Tahrir square and meeting various others. I was struck by the level of antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood among people who had voted for it in the election a very short time previously. They voted for the brotherhood on the basis that it was not a continuation of the military governance of Egypt, but they rapidly became disappointed in what the brotherhood was doing. The situation is complicated, and of course there is a degree of polarisation, but there is also a massive abuse of the human rights of religious minorities and others, about which we should be concerned.
This is my last point. Will the Minister undertake to make representations on the position of religious and ethnic minorities in Egypt? Will he specifically make representations on the position of journalists who have been attempting to report what is going on in Egypt? I tabled an early-day motion on the arrest of al-Jazeera journalists on 29 December 2013. Those journalists include: the bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who is a Canadian national; Peter Greste, an Australian national who formerly worked for the BBC; Baher Mohamed; and an Egyptian cameraman, Mohamed Fawzy. One of them has been released, but the others remain in prison. As far as I am aware, they have not been tried, and I believe they are being held incommunicado in prison. Jim Boumelha, the president of the International Federation of Journalists, has presented a statement:
“We join international condemnation of the journalists’ arrest and demand that they are released with immediate effect. These are working journalists who have committed no crime and were simply doing their jobs. By continuing to detain these journalists the Egyptian government is undermining the right to press freedom and freedom of expression in the country and calling into question its attitude towards basic human rights.”
A number of journalists have lost their lives in 2013: Mick Deane, a 61-year-old Sky News cameraman; Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz, a 26-year-old journalist with Gulf News and the UAE-based Xpress newspaper; Ahmed Abdel Gawad, a reporter for Al Akhbar newspaper; and Mosab Al-Shami, a photographer for the Rassd news website. Those journalists lost their lives because they were trying to report the conflict.
Many people, including all of us in this Chamber, would argue about the way in which particular journalists allegedly report things. I have carefully watched how a number of international channels report what is going on in Cairo, including Russia Today, France 24, CNN, al-Jazeera, the BBC and Sky News, and one recognises that all of those journalists are doing their best to report the facts of what is going on. I guess those facts are unacceptable either to the army or other authorities in Egypt, hence the al-Jazeera team has been arrested—al-Jazeera continues to try to report in Egypt. The National Union of Journalists has produced a briefing on behalf of the International Federation of Journalists, and I would be grateful if the Minister would undertake to make urgent representations to the Egyptian Government for the release of those journalists. Will he also undertake that the British embassy will engage as rapidly and strongly as possible with the Egyptian Government on those questions and the questions of minorities and religious freedoms?
Today’s debate has given us an opportunity to try to understand something of the reality of life in Egypt, recognising that it is the largest country, with the youngest population and lowest level of natural resources per capita, in the region. It has some gas, oil and other natural resources, but their value is nowhere near that of what is held by other countries. Young people in Egypt have a thirst for jobs, homes and some success in life. One should not underestimate the level of economic demand behind much of the protest. If those economic demands are not met, the new Government in Egypt will also feel the wrath of the people, who feel they have been short-changed by poverty and corruption for a long time.
It is nice to have the opportunity to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing the debate. I am not the only person to have been horrified by the television reports and by interviews with those who have fled Egypt. When I see the pain and fear in those people’s eyes I sometimes feel that I am not doing enough; and indeed we are not doing enough to alleviate that pain and fear.
I want to speak briefly about how the political strife and economic turmoil affect Christians in the middle east, and particularly Egypt. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) quoted the phrase “incompetent religious fascism”. There has also been concern about Sharia and how it affects those of a different religious persuasion. I want to speak about that.
My parliamentary aide went to Egypt with her husband in June and she came home absolutely raving about it. On her return her mother-in-law told her she had been praying for their safety. My aide had been unaware of what was happening in the rest of Egypt, as she was at a holiday destination. The story has been repeated over and over. Egypt is a beautiful country with tremendous tourism potential, but anyone who has watched the news recently would think twice about going there because of the unrest, which is damaging the economic climate. We have a duty of care to Egypt and I feel that we must do something to help in any way that we can.
My heart goes out in particular to those Christians who again seem to be the focus of many attacks. This morning I received information from some Christian organisations. According to persecution.org there have been numerous attacks on churches and Christians in Egypt this month. Witnesses and sources in Egypt reported to International Christian Concern that although the attacks that I want to catalogue were thwarted, they added to the fear that is regularly experienced by Christians in Egypt.
On Friday 3 January supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood attacked an evangelical church in the Gesr El Suez area of Cairo. The mob attacked in front of the church on Ahmed Esmat street. They began to pelt stones and to verbally abuse Christians and chant slogans against them. Mina Beshay, a Christian in the area, told ICC what happened. Reports indicate that there was no security for the church building and that the attackers operated with impunity.
On Sunday 5 January security forces in Suez disrupted a terrorist cell named “Supporters of Jerusalem”. They arrested the members when they discovered a plot to attack a nearby church on the night of its Christmas celebrations. Among many Christians in Egypt Christmas is celebrated a bit later than ours, on 7 January. On Monday evening, 6 January, a bomb was found in the bathroom of the Three Saints church in Beni Suef city. Police defused the bomb, which had been discovered by a church member. Missa Fawzy, a Christian in Alexandria, told ICC that a few days later, on 10 January, security forces
“arrested a bearded person in possession of four hand grenades in a handbag next to the Church of two Saints”.
On Friday 24 January the civil defence and civil protection forces in Assiut Governorate found explosives inside a car parked behind the church of Al Malak. Sources told ICC that the church, which is located in Al Numies street in Assiut city, was targeted “to be exploded”. There is a catalogue of attacks on Christians and their places of worship, orchestrated by terrorist groups.
My daughter and her family visited Egypt this year and I was concerned when I listened to the news. Does my hon. Friend agree that the people of Egypt voted for a Government in democratic elections, hoping that that would bring freedom, including religious freedom, but that they were sadly disillusioned when instead they got greater persecution, especially of religious minorities, including Christians?
I could not agree more. I also get an awareness of that in feedback from people who have visited Egypt, and people with friends and relatives there or with a deep interest in the country. The people voted in a democratic process and hoped for a better life under the new regime, but it did not happen. As the hon. Member for New Forest East clearly outlined, their hope was lost in the midst of what happened. As the hon. Member for Spelthorne said, there is now a precarious situation of political strife and economic turmoil; but in the middle of that there are religious groups. Christians are targeted for their beliefs, and because of some people’s perception that they have an attachment to western life. That is not the case: Christians want to worship and tell people about God. That is who they are and what they are. It is a sad and serious thing when they are attacked for their beliefs.
On Saturday 25 January security forces in Ismailia security directorate found 26 Molotov cocktails in a bag next to the church of St. Bishoy in the area of Sheikh Zayed in Ismailia City. Witnesses said that the person in possession of the bag of explosives was sitting in a car next to the church, and that
“he fled when he saw the policemen.”
That is another example of persecution directed at Christians, their property and their churches.
The stories go on and because of time I shall not go into further detail, but unrest and upset is being experienced by many, because of the targeting of Christians. There is a duty of care in the House and elsewhere to step in and help all people who are being attacked. It is a sad fact that the heartland of many Bible stories and much Biblical history is now a place that Christians flee from in fear. I worry that the remaining Christian population will leave, as has happened in many middle eastern countries. We share those concerns, as elected representatives, about the effect on Christians in various countries, including Egypt, and about the possibility that ethnic cleansing will be completed if some extreme Muslims have their way.
What is being done to support people and ensure that they feel safe? Can diplomatic pressure be applied, and what is being done to ensure that the aid that is sent also reaches the Christians who are so fearful? Comments often come back to us through churches. My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) would confirm that. The churches tell us that Christians in Egypt do not get the aid they should, and that is of concern to me.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne on bringing the subject of this debate to the fore. I plead, on behalf of my brothers and sisters in Christ in this country, for the eloquence and passion of the debate to be turned into actions that will save lives, restore families and give hope to a country that has so much to offer and so much to give. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) referred in an intervention to how many words are spoken. Verbal reassurance is good, but we also need the Government to provide physical and practical reassurance in what they do. I hope that the Minister can reassure us. If not, I must ask him what he intends to do to help the small group of Christians who are being targeted for persecution. Their plight needs to be considered by the Government.
I shall move on rapidly, to give the Minister enough time to reply. I apologise for the absence of my colleague the shadow Middle East Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who is on a pre-arranged visit to Lebanon, which is of great importance and relevance. I congratulate the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) on securing this timely debate, and on his balanced speech and the way he stressed how important and relevant it is for the House that Members visit countries and gain in-depth knowledge over time. That is sometimes dismissed and misunderstood by the media. I thought he spelled that out very well.
This debate is extremely relevant and timely because it is clear that Egypt matters, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne recognised. Geography alone places it at the hinge of the troubled regions of north Africa and the middle east. It is the most populous country in the region and accounts for well over one third of the Arab world. It has a history and culture stretching back for millennia. It is a major centre of scholarship, media, as the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned, film and debate in the Arab world with a sophisticated, developed and articulate middle class, as we saw particularly in the early days of the Arab spring. As some hon. Members have mentioned, it was in the vanguard of change in the Arab world in the ’50s as well as more recently, and it lies across one of the world’s major trade arteries in the Suez canal, which, incidentally, is also a major source of revenue for the Egyptian Government.
However, we all share the concern about the all-too-familiar picture of a rising tide of violence and disorder with the usual complement of bombings and assassinations. Whatever direction Egypt goes in will have an impact not just on its citizens, but on the wider region and the world. At this crucial time for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, let us remember it was the bold and enlightened leadership of Anwar Sadat that helped to establish peace in the area, for which he paid with his life to those fundamentalists we have been talking about.
I was in Jerusalem and Ramallah last month and I was struck and encouraged by the more positive atmosphere in both jurisdictions, engendered not least by the tireless efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry in trying to bring the talks together. Tribute was fully paid to him from both sides. An absolute precondition of the advance of those talks and a successful outcome is the Israeli need for territorial security and integrity. The stabilising efforts of the Egyptian army in Sinai and its discouragement of Hamas in Gaza are a crucial element of that.
We seek an early return of civilian government in Egypt, and recognise the important role of the military in ensuring the security environment that will allow effective democratic government and economic progress for the Egyptian people. The issue is not just about Egypt, but about the example in the wider region. It is fair to say that in neighbouring Tunisia, the more stabilised environment in Egypt has contributed to the recent encouraging developments and the move towards inclusive government, with the likelihood that elections there will be held later this year on a pluralist basis.
Another key lesson from Tunisia is the way in which the many parties that grew up rapidly during the changes since the start of the Arab spring have started to pull together in a progressive bloc, and will fight those elections in a pluralist society where both sides acknowledge that they will abide by the result and the subsequent change. That is an important change from the more Islamist-inclined party and reflects the outcomes of the less pluralist view of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the consequences.
I hope that we will provide, partly directly, partly through the European Union and partly through the Westminster Foundation—I hope the Minister will speak about this—the sort of work to enable not just confidence building but capacity building in the various parties, particularly the secular parties, in Tunisia and Egypt. The bedrock of a pluralist society is most important and within that is a significant issue. This touches on the point made by several Democratic Unionist Members—the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for South Antrim (Dr McCrea)—about the role of Christian and Coptic minorities, the protection of those religious minorities and the rights of women. They are not necessarily unconnected because there is an additional pressure on those Christian minorities from some extremists to conform to Islamic standards. That is another form of pressure and oppression.
With the European High Representative, Baroness Ashton, we should welcome recent developments in Egypt and the largely orderly referendum, and welcome the fact that the new constitution enshrines fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression and of assembly and women’s rights. We must monitor that to ensure that those rights are upheld. We must also be aware of and concerned about the pressure that extremists place on minorities, particularly the long-standing Coptic and Christian communities and, as was mentioned today, by acquiescence at local level from some of the authorities in some of those actions. The new Government in Egypt will undoubtedly have to address that.
This week saw the third anniversary of the popular revolution in Egypt, and we all hope that we will see the return of pluralist democracy and civilian government as soon as possible. We welcome the passage of the new constitution by an overwhelming majority in the recent referendum, and what seems to be an early announcement of the dates for presidential and parliamentary elections. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) said, it is not necessarily the role of individuals from the military in government that concerns us. For example, in Indonesia, President Yudhoyono was a general, but has clearly been a civilian general and has been able to exert civilian control over the military. That is what we should be looking for in Egypt, certainly not military control. We want effective civilian government and control.
This is only the start. Egypt’s people and especially its very large young population, to which several hon. Members referred, including my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), desperately need economic development, and my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde spelled out some of the economic data. That depends very much on the security environment, especially with the significance to the Egyptian economy of tourism and the need for security to attract tourists, but it also requires the EU to engage directly with the new Egyptian Government, when it is elected, to encourage economic relations and investment to bring back and to expand the aid from the EU that was so crucial in helping to relieve suffering and to promote development in Egypt. We look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government will do about that.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Havard, and I thank you for your declaration of interests. I suspect in common with many other hon. Members, I always find it reassuring to have someone in the Chair who knows something about the subject. It is good to see you here. I know that it is customary in the House not to acknowledge people in the Strangers Gallery but, I am sure on behalf of everyone here, I pay tribute to the work of the Egyptian ambassador in London and his staff. He is a charming and well-informed representative of his country. I am sure we all want to put on record our gratitude for his work.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) for securing a debate on this important issue of the political and economic situation in Egypt. It would be sensible to say at once and on the record that I am sure I speak for everyone in condemning the violence in Egypt over the weekend, when more than 60 people were killed and many were injured. All our thoughts are with the families of those affected. If the report in this morning’s press that the police chief in Cairo was shot overnight is correct, I am sure that again I speak for everyone here in saying that our thoughts are very much with his family and his colleagues in the Egyptian police. As came through in every contribution this morning, everyone wants all Egyptians to resolve their differences peacefully and to refrain from violence.
Egypt is in the middle of a political transition, which began three years ago in January 2011, in Tahrir square. Since then, the Egyptian people have seen three Governments: the military-led Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; a year of Muslim Brotherhood rule; and, since July 2013, an interim Government. This is a crucial time for Egypt’s future and long-term stability. As many have said, the referendum on the draft constitution that was held on 14 and 15 January was an important milestone on the political road map and allowed millions of Egyptians to express their opinion through the ballot box. Egyptians are now looking ahead to see what kind of political process will take shape over the next six months. We expect the presidential election to proceed, followed by parliamentary elections in the summer. Both will be crucial to Egypt’s transition and to the country’s political and economic trajectory for years to come.
I will go through the various contributions and respond, if I can, to the points that have been made My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne—I am delighted that CMEC still takes people to countries throughout the middle east—made a fair and balanced speech. He is absolutely right that the situation is very nuanced and that there is no easy right or wrong. Crucially, he made it clear how important Egypt is to us as a country and to the region. It has an unparalleled place in history, which was a point also made by the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar). Egypt is vital to the security of the region, as the major Sunni state in that part of the world.
This country is Egypt’s largest direct foreign investor. At the height of the tourism boom, in about 2008, some 1.5 million British tourists went to visit Egypt. This country and Egypt have many areas of mutual interest. As many Members have said, Egypt has a young and emerging population, and many of them want to learn English, which is crucial to their economic future. We have also just seen a London football club in the premier league sign a young Egyptian starlet, so I am sure that many more Egyptian fans will be watching English football.
The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), who has left the Chamber, was right to talk about the importance of an inclusive process. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made a good point, which came out when I was in Egypt in the week before Christmas: the problem with the Muslim Brotherhood Government was not one of ideology, but that they were simply incompetent, as a number of people said to me. They almost brought the country to its knees. I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s hope that a democratic Government will emerge.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned something that I will certainly take up. I have not yet seen the letter from the NUJ, but we will look for it when we get back to the office, and I will read it and ensure that those matters are taken up by our embassy in Cairo. I shall come on to the issue of religious and ethnic minorities in a minute, but I thought that the hon. Gentleman was right about the Muslim Brotherhood—he may find it strange my agreeing with him—because by sheer force of numbers it will be an important force in Egypt for many years to come, as it has been for many years already. Finding an accommodation with it will be crucial to the long-term political stability of Egypt. By the same token, however, the Muslim Brotherhood must commit to a democratic process. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that. Until it does, that makes it very difficult for the Government of Egypt.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I often talk about religious things. He is absolutely correct to draw the attention of the House to the plight of Christians. When I was in Cairo in the week before Christmas, we specifically asked to see the Copts. We do not have the facility to ask everyone in the Chamber, but I suspect that if I asked Members how many Copts there were in Egypt they would probably pick a reasonably small number. I was amazed to find, however, that the answer is 10 million to 12 million, which is a considerable number.
The Coptic pope was away from Cairo on travels, but I met a couple of the bishops. We had a positive, delightful, informed and structured talk on the political situation in Egypt. I have to report to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that they were enthusiastic about the new constitution and thought that it was a step forward. As is often the case with senior bishops, the bishop I met was sensitive about the previous Government, but it was clear that life for the Copts had not been easy under the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, I heard that evening how the Ministry of Tourism in Cairo traditionally issues licences for Christmas celebrations, but when it tried to license the first Christmas celebrations under the Muslim Brotherhood Government it was told not to do so. It was therefore unable to license Christmas celebrations over that period. This year alone, 94 or 97 licences—I cannot remember the figure—were issued, so licences are being issued once again. For all the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman correctly drew attention, it was clear from my conversation that the Copts felt that they were in a much better place now than was the case a year before.
The right hon. Member for Warley again made a good and well-balanced speech. I do not worry about the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), because we have tried to ensure that he has a valuable week in Beirut by helping him to get the right briefing. I hope that that is worth while. I join the right hon. Member for Warley in paying tribute to the work of the United States Secretary of State in seeking a wider peace agreement throughout the middle east. The energy and commitment that he has put into that initiative has been second to none and we support those efforts. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to the importance of capacity building. I used to be a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in a previous life, and it and many other organisations will play a crucial role.
If there are no other questions, I will conclude by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne again for securing this valuable and timely debate. For the record, this country’s relationship with Egypt is a long-standing one, and I want that relationship to be constructive and positive. We will continue to do everything that we can to support the Egyptian people in their country’s ongoing political and economic transition, although on occasion we will need to express our concerns about human rights and democratic principles. It is important that the political process is inclusive, and that is what the people of Egypt were looking for three years ago. We continue to believe that that will be the best route to long-term stability, security and economic success in the area.
Thank you, Minister and Members, for your considered behaviour and opinions. While the changeover to the next debate is taking place, I remind people who have entered the Chamber, if they have any electronic equipment that might make noises or otherwise disturb us, to turn it off or put it on silent running. The next debate is on Ofsted and standards in education.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard.
The Minister of State will be relieved to know that I will not be referring to recent press reports about Ofsted. I am not here today to attack its methods or to call for its abolition—far from it. While I have the odd reservation, I am a big fan of Sir Michael Wilshaw and of Ofsted’s work. The issue that I want to focus on is Ofsted’s monitoring of the performance of local authorities in driving up standards in education.
The policy context is that under this Government, more and more schools are being freed from local education authority control. Thanks to the free schools programme and the Government’s dramatic expansion of the academy model, parents, teachers and head teachers are being trusted with the task of driving up standards in the classroom, rather than spending their time answering to local councils. More than half of secondary schools are in the process of converting to academy status, and I am sure that more and more schools and parents will want to take advantage of the freedoms that such status offers.
I can understand why the Government have pursued this policy so vigorously, as the success of privately managed, publicly funded schools is a global phenomenon. The OECD reported in 2012 that
“In general, privately managed schools tend to have more autonomy, better resources, better school climate and better performance levels than publicly managed schools”.
However, local authorities continue to run nearly half of secondary schools, nearly 85% of all schools and, obviously, the vast majority of primary schools. The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said in a newspaper over the weekend that local authorities should continue to have a role “overseeing” free schools and academies. Local authorities will continue to be relevant and important to the standard of education delivered in Britain’s schools. However, that raises some key questions. How can parents and the public know what councils are actually doing to promote high standards in schools? How can the performance of local councils and their officials be assessed and judged? Are they doing the right things? Are they doing enough? Are they ambitious enough on behalf of their young people?
How can people hold local authorities to account? I would contest that that is not very easy. There are tables showing the performance of schools in a local authority’s catchment area, but those performance data can be affected by a number of other factors, such as the socio-economic characteristics of the intake. Issues with performance can also be masked by the performance of particular schools—I will say more about that a little later—including schools that are outside an authority’s control, and by the educational attainment of pupils from outside its catchment area. The questions therefore remain: how can people tell what local councils are doing to improve educational standards? Are they doing the right things? Is it enough, and are the people at the local education authority up to the job?
I was prompted to raise those questions today by the concerns that I and many of my constituents—and now also Ofsted—have about the performance of Reading borough council as the local education authority. I will not skirt around the issues or dress them up; I will just report them as they are. I hope that Reading LEA will listen carefully to my critique, which is based on the facts, and try to engage sensibly, rather than behaving in a knee-jerk, defensive and political way. I am willing to help it to reform and improve if it does the right things. At the end of the day, the key must be to improve the outcomes for children in LEA schools.
Reading has struggled for years to make consistent and long-lasting improvements to educational outcomes, thereby allowing many children to underachieve. Even at GCSE and A-level, for which the results are very good, its real performance has been masked by the excellent results from grammar schools, where around 90% of the children come from outside the borough. It strikes me that there must be something fundamentally wrong with an LEA that allows that level of educational underachievement to continue. Let me explain why.
Just before Christmas, the director of education, adult and children’s services at Reading borough council wrote to the head teachers and chairs of governors at all local schools, admitting that Reading’s key stage 2 results in reading, writing and mathematics had fallen behind those in almost all other areas of England, and were in the bottom five nationally. Reading LEA had the largest drop in the proportion of pupils reaching level 4 and above in the south-east region, and the third largest fall in performance in the country. The achievement of key groups, including some ethnic minority groups, those with special educational needs and those on free school meals, was also extremely poor according to the LEA’s director of education.
Inspection of local children’s centres has found them to be inadequate. In a damning judgment, Ofsted found children’s centres in east Reading to be “inadequate in all respects”, and is planning interventions to bring about improvements. To be inadequate in all respects takes some doing.
Earlier this year, the Minister wrote to Reading LEA, challenging it over the gap that has developed between rich and poor children’s performances, despite the huge Government investment through the pupil premium. Last year, the George Palmer primary school was removed from the LEA’s control and reopened as an academy due to its constant failure to improve its failing performance.
I have put my concerns in a letter to Sir Michael Wilshaw, and earlier this week spoke to Matthew Coffey, the Ofsted regional director. Ofsted has informed me that it was already concerned about Reading LEA’s performance because of the high exclusion rates in a number of schools; in fact, Reading was found to have the highest fixed-term exclusion rate of any local authority in England. The key stage 2 data confirmed Ofsted’s concerns, and on 5 October last year Mr Coffey wrote to the LEA expressing those concerns. Shockingly, Ofsted has told me that 5,000 of 13,000 pupils under Reading LEA control are at schools that are not considered even to be good. Surely a good school is the least that any parent and every child should have the right to expect. The situation suggests that Reading is an LEA that at best is allowing schools to drift, and at worst is failing to challenge inadequate standards properly.
Ofsted met with the LEA on 13 December, when it was made clear that if no improvement was seen, there was the option to carry out a focused inspection of the LEA. Although in reality it had little choice, I am pleased that Reading agreed to share tracking data for key stage 2 and targets for improvement. I also welcome Ofsted’s recent finding of improvement in Reading’s key stage 1 results. A further meeting to try to resolve some of the issues is due in March.
I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s aspiration for every youngster to have a good school. Given that the quality of learning and teaching is a fundamental factor in raising attainment and achievement in schools, how can Ofsted and the LEA monitor that quality, especially where there are non-qualified teachers?
As we all know, a debate on that subject is taking place this afternoon in the Chamber. Unqualified teachers have been used very successfully in both private and public sector schools for many years. I see no reason to try to change the current arrangements.
Let me explain the significance of the poor key stage 2 results I mentioned. Key stage 2 is an assessment of the attainment of primary school pupils. Although six of the eight secondary schools in Reading’s catchment area are now academies, only five out of the 31 primary schools are. Poor performance in primary schools means poor performance in the schools that Reading borough council runs. That suggests that the council, in its stewardship of the schools, is hindering progress, rather than fulfilling its legal duty to promote higher standards. Ofsted is concerned that the attainment gap between pupils receiving free school meals and the rest is getting bigger at primary school level, even though in secondary schools—most of which have left LEA control—the data are getting better and the gap is narrowing.
That situation must not be allowed to continue at the primary school level. I suggest that in the LEA there is a lack of ambition to challenge, and a lack of will and desire to take the decisions necessary to make real and lasting educational change. There is a culture in which failure in local schools is too easily accepted and excused. For a long time now, I have noticed a lack of aspiration for some groups of children, and a lack of will to challenge the notion that some children from difficult areas and chaotic homes are too challenging or damaged to be helped.
The LEA’s poor performance and attitude have forced me into a much more active role regarding local schools than I ever envisaged when I first became MP for Reading East. The local authority has termed that interference, but it would be a dereliction of my duty to my constituents not to intervene. Of course, I was conscious of Reading’s lack of consistent progress in schools when elected in 2005, but I could not immediately put my finger on the reason for it. When I did, the Government were resistant to making the necessary changes and to challenges to the educational orthodoxy.
That changed in 2010, when academies and university technical colleges got rocket boosters, free schools were introduced, changes were made to the curriculum, and help was made available to poorer pupils through the pupil premium—a policy on which I agreed with the Minister long before my party did. That gave me the tools to start bypassing an LEA that was at best coasting and at worst failing. It meant I was able to be a focal point for setting up a new UTC, which challenged other schools to up their game and LEAs to invest where there was inadequate performance.
The coming of that UTC encouraged the neighbouring LEA, Wokingham, to invest in Bulmershe school. Recently I helped another school from the neighbouring authority to get behind setting up a new free school for 11 to 16-year-olds. Maiden Erlegh free school will enable its mother school’s outstanding DNA—the standard that parents want for their children—to be delivered in my constituency. It was announced last week that it will open in 2015.
Because, as I think I have explained, it is failing to take the necessary decisions to ensure that the gap between rich and poor local children is properly closed.
I am disappointed with Ofsted for not noticing what was happening, and for allowing Reading to bump along the bottom for so long, failing a whole generation of children. Ofsted should be a catalyst driving long-lasting change and improvement in local authorities’ performance, as it has been for many schools across the country. Local authorities have a legal duty to promote high standards in schools and among other providers, so that children and young people achieve well and fulfil their potential. It is welcome that Ofsted has restarted inspections of local authorities’ performance, but Ofsted will not inspect every local authority and will not undertake a fixed cycle of inspections; rather, inspections will be made where key indicators give rise to concern.
My questions for the Minister are these. Given that Reading LEA’s lacklustre performance has been apparent to us for many years, is he concerned that there are other LEAs across the country that are quietly failing to meet their responsibilities? Could they slip through the net like Reading? Will he commit to reviewing continually other Ofsted procedures for inspecting local authorities? Are those procedures sufficient and effective? Will he give a commitment that where Ofsted finds that a local authority is not doing enough to promote high standards, its recommendations will have real teeth and the situation will not simply be allowed to continue? With specific reference to Reading, will he give a commitment that he and his Department will keep a close interest in developments in Reading, and make it clear that if there is no developed and credible plan of action soon to improve performance radically in the LEA’s schools, they will ask Ofsted to carry out a full inspection of Reading LEA?
I am a huge supporter of this Government’s academy and free school policies—I believe that they will be seen as being among the signature achievements of this great reforming Government—but we must not turn a blind eye to the hugely important role played by local authorities. They must be subject to challenge, just like schools and teachers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Havard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) on securing this debate and making his points so clearly. I am pleased that he is doing what is important for Members of Parliament: not only acting as a cheerleader for local schools when that is justified and right—it is important to recognise and praise local schools’ success—but serving as a challenger when there is weakness and underperformance. Sometimes it is tempting for Members of Parliament to do the easy bit but not to confront the challenges, which is not always popular or welcome among some people in the schools system and local authorities. What my hon. Friend is doing is right for his constituents and for parents and pupils in the area. I am also pleased to hear about the wider role that he has played in seeking to improve educational opportunities for young people in his constituency.
I join my hon. Friend in putting on record my gratitude to Ofsted for the work that it does in inspecting schools and local authorities. I said a week or so ago at the North of England education conference that I thought Sir Michael was the best chief inspector of schools that we have ever had. All of us in the Department for Education are extremely grateful to him for the work that he is doing and believe that Ofsted is a very professional organisation that should be welcomed by all parties.
There is a systematic process in place for inspection of local authorities. I will come to that later in my speech. For the time being, though, it is right to mention that the authorities on which the chief inspector is concentrating most are those with the weakest performance. Clearly, he could be going to other local authorities, and indeed he would be the first to recognise that spreading best practice is important. That is something that Ofsted seeks to do, but for the time being, it is targeting its scarce resources, which must also be applied to 23,500 schools and lots of early years settings, at the weakest performing local authorities, which I think is the right thing to do.
I would like to say a few things about the national context of underperformance, and then I will talk in detail about the particular issues in Reading that have been raised by my hon. Friend. As I said recently at the North of England education conference, improving our education system is the biggest long-term challenge we face as a nation. We are making progress. Last week, the results for secondary schools were published, and they show that the number of state-funded schools classed as underperforming in relation to floor targets is now 154 out of 3,200 secondaries, down from 195 the previous year. Those figures are a credit to teachers’ professionalism and hard work, and they mean that the number of pupils being taught in underperforming secondary schools has fallen by 50,000 since last year and by almost 250,000 since the coalition Government was elected in 2010.
Nevertheless, there is much more to do, as my hon. Friend has made clear. Attainment in many schools is still too low, and we have a long way to go in narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and other pupils. There is also wide variation between different parts of the country, as he mentioned. Our vision is of a school-led system where improvement is driven from within, with the very best teachers and school leaders modelling excellence in practice and working in partnerships to build capacity and raise standards across the system.
The national leaders of education programme enables head teachers of Ofsted-rated outstanding schools and their staff to use their skills and expertise to support schools in challenging circumstances and improve the quality of teaching and leadership. There are three NLEs in Reading. Alongside that, the local leaders of education programme enables head teachers of Ofsted-rated good schools to work outside their own school to provide support to another head teacher and their school. There are five LLEs in Reading. In addition, the Teach First programme now places nearly 5,500 teachers in schools in challenging circumstances. The programme started in inner London and will, in the year ahead, be for the first time a genuinely national scheme in all regions of the country.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the situation in Reading. I will raise it, as he has done, with the chief inspector when I see him next week for my regular stocktake, and will mention this debate. Reading is currently ranked 111th out of 150 local authorities in Ofsted’s latest table for percentage of pupils attending a good or outstanding secondary school, and 116th out of 150 local authorities for percentage of pupils attending a good or outstanding primary school. The 2013 results for pupils at the end of primary school, in key stage 2, show that Reading has dropped significantly below the national average of 75%. Reading now stands at 69%, a drop from 73% last year. Those figures are disappointing. I note, however, that in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which includes primary schools in both Reading and Wokingham local authorities, the key stage 2 percentage is 73%, which is close to the national average.
I will make a little more progress, and then I will give way.
At key stage 4, the percentage of pupils in Reading achieving five or more good GCSEs rose from 60.7% in 2012 to 63.6% in 2013, which is above the national average of 60.6%. Reading contains two selective grammar academies, as my hon. Friend will know, which have contributed positively to those results, but its non-selective schools, which on the whole continue to improve, have also played their part in that achievement. Reading East constituency averages significantly above the national average for key stage 4, at 75.2%.
The area has five primary academies, three of which are sponsored, representing 18% of the total number of maintained primary schools in the local authority. Most of those have been open or with their sponsors for a year or less. All have deep-rooted performance issues dating from their LA-maintained days. My hon. Friend will know that half the borough’s secondary schools are already academies. I understand that the only sponsored academy is now starting to make good progress following a slow start. Again, that school had many deep-rooted issues that the sponsor had to address when they took it over. In all cases, the Department is working with the sponsors and academy trusts concerned to ensure that rapid improvement is made and sustained over time.
I would like to mention briefly disadvantaged performers and the pupil premium, which my hon. Friend highlighted. In the 2013 key stage 2 tests at the end of primary education, 58.8% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved the expected level in reading, writing and maths, compared with 77% in 2012. Again, those are disappointing figures. For all other pupils, 78.8% achieved the expected level in reading, writing and maths, compared with 77.9% in 2012.
Ofsted looks at 23,500 schools across the country. It has a huge number of early years settings and other, wider responsibilities beyond the schools. It has recently, under Sir Michael’s leadership, taken a far more thorough and proactive approach to local authorities, picking out the local authorities that it is most concerned about and beginning in a proper and proactive way the process of inspection that should have been taking place a long time ago, including under the previous Government.
Results for primary schools in Reading show that the percentage of pupils, both those on free school meals and their peers, who met the expected standard has gone down between 2012 and 2013. The results for free school meal pupils dropped from 54% to 52%, and the results for their peers dropped from 77% to 74%. At key stage 4 nationally, the proportion of free school meal pupils achieving at least five good GCSEs has risen from 34.6% to 37.9% in 2013. The gap between those pupils and their peers has now dropped to 26.7 percentage points, compared with 27.4 percentage points in 2011, which is welcome. In Reading, the picture is of rising attainment but the gap has widened. The percentage of free school meal pupils achieving the standard has risen from 31.9% in 2011 to 35.1% in 2013, but the rise for non-free-school-meal pupils has been greater than that, so the attainment gap has risen from 28 percentage points to 35 percentage points. In our view, that is not acceptable.
Those figures illustrate that although the national picture is positive, all schools and local authorities need to improve so that we can finally start to break the link between poverty and future life chances. To ensure that all schools are equipped to do that, we have spent, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, almost £4 billion on the pupil premium so far, with another £2.5 billion planned for next year. The rate for primary school pupils will rise significantly next year to £1,300 per pupil per year, and the rate for secondary school pupils will rise to £935. I want to ensure that that will be used appropriately and make a difference. Ofsted has a key role to play in ensuring that schools use the pupil premium for its intended purpose, and on an evidence-based basis.
I am pleased to report that this year only one school in Reading received a challenge letter from the Schools Minister urging better support for their disadvantaged pupils based on their recent results. I was able to write to two schools commending them on their excellent performance and encouraging them to support other schools. If my hon. Friend has not seen those letters, I will make sure that he receives copies so that he knows which schools I am talking about. I look forward to hearing how the high-performing schools are helping to spread best practice.
Local authorities have an important role to play, together with national Government, in leading the delivery of our ambitions for improved education. Where local authority maintained schools are underperforming or failing, early intervention and swift, robust action are required to tackle failure. Statutory guidance for local authorities, “Schools causing concern”, makes that clear. I understand that Reading has issued five warning notices to primary schools since 2009 with the aim of securing improvement, and I encourage LAs such as Reading to continue to make full use of their statutory intervention powers where they consider that maintained schools are not doing enough to bring about improvement. The statutory guidance is also clear that academy status with the support of a strong sponsor is often the best way of securing lasting improvement in those circumstances.
In cases such as Reading, local authorities should focus their main school intervention activity on the schools that they are responsible for. Good LAs should work constructively with all local schools, but academies are ultimately accountable to the Secretary of State for Education, and local authorities should raise any concerns that they have about academy performance directly with both Ofsted and the Department for Education.
I am fascinated by some of the things the Minister is saying. Does he agree with my concern that Ofsted tends to look at local education authorities where the failures are right across the board, but it also needs to look at the signals of those that are almost bumping along the bottom? They are not quite at the bottom, as the Minister showed through his league tables for primary and secondary school, but they are in that patch where they are consistently failing in areas of what they are doing. Ofsted really needs to challenge them, and it is not quite challenging them as well as it should at the moment.
My hon. Friend makes a legitimate point in drawing our attention to the need to ensure that it is not only the LAs at the bottom of the performance table that are challenged, which I am sure that the chief inspector would acknowledge. It is relatively early in the process of inspecting local authorities in this way, and over time, I am sure that the chief inspector, who is independent of the Department in these matters, will make sure that he refines the way in which things are done, but does not simply focus on those areas that are right at the bottom of the league tables.
Where there is weakness, local authorities can intervene in many ways, such as by making effective use of data to intervene early; offering direct school support; encouraging schools to form self-improvement clusters; seeking to work constructively with academies; and finding suitable sponsors for underachieving schools. We know that those mechanisms work. The best LAs have reformed in line with the changing landscape and offer ample examples of good practice.
We are keen to see local authorities on the front foot, taking the initiative and not simply waiting to be challenged by Ofsted or the Department about the performance of schools in their respective areas. It is right that the chief inspector is highlighting regional and local disparities in the quality of educational provision through Ofsted inspections of local authority school improvement arrangements. We welcome his plans to ask challenging questions of local authorities, academy trusts and other external parties about their contribution to school improvement. Where the chief inspector reports a less than satisfactory response to his concerns, we will consider, as a Department, what action should be taken to hold those responsible to account. Continuing mediocrity and failure will never be an outcome that we can accept.
I understand that Sir Michael and his regional team have already been looking into specific examples that my hon. Friend has raised and the statistics he has brought to our attention. For example, Ofsted’s regional director wrote to Reading setting out concerns about the drop in key stage 2 results. As I think my hon. Friend knows, that led to a meeting between Ofsted and the director of children’s services in December last year. I am told that a number of actions have been taken as a result, including a new system for tracking exclusions and more close monitoring and tracking of achievement for pupils, which Ofsted will be reviewing shortly. The authority has also set up a conference for head teachers in February and has invited Ofsted to contribute, which I welcome.
I understand that Ofsted’s regional director has discussed some of that with my hon. Friend in the past few days and has written to him. I am confident that if Ofsted considers that Reading is not taking appropriate steps to address the key stage 2 issue, it will use its power to take appropriate action, whether through focused inspection of schools or through an inspection of the local authority school improvement arrangements. My hon. Friend will understand that deciding which local authorities to inspect and on what basis is ultimately a matter for the chief inspector and not for me or the Department.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to these very important issues. The solutions for the underperforming schools in Reading might also provide important lessons for other areas of the country, and he is drawing attention to something that is of great importance, not only to his constituency, but to the Government, for the entire country.
Mesothelioma (Insurance Premiums)
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
It is an honour to open this important debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It would be remiss of me to start my speech without paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the late Paul Goggins, who was such an assiduous advocate for mesothelioma sufferers and their families. I attended his funeral the week before last at Salford cathedral with many other colleagues, and had a conversation with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), in which he reflected on Paul’s innate decency and many wonderful qualities. He summed up Paul’s parliamentary contributions by saying that his arguments were well marshalled and his responses well mannered. I will strive for those high standards today, but I fear I will never be able to emulate such a brilliant parliamentarian.
In essence, this is a mercifully simple matter, but perhaps a few moments spent establishing the background are warranted. We are here to address provisions in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—LASPO—that relate to mesothelioma cases. The relevant background is that changes were made by LASPO to the way in which the generality of legal cases were funded.
I practised for many years as a solicitor with Thompsons, and before arriving in this place in December 2012, headed up a specialist unit looking after those who suffered catastrophic injuries, including brain and spinal chord injuries, and sadly, on too many occasions, cases resulting in fatalities. I also had the privilege of representing members of the armed forces who sustained serious injuries in the service of their country. I never did represent those suffering from asbestosis or mesothelioma, but I had the privilege of working alongside some wonderful colleagues who devoted their professional, and often significant parts of their personal, life to the service and representation of those suffering from this most dreadful of diseases and their families. I pay tribute to the tireless work of my former colleague, Ian McFall, who is not only an international authority in the field of mesothelioma litigation, but has been, and continues to be, a wholly committed advocate of the cause.
With the move away from legal aid support for personal injury cases, and with such state support being removed altogether, the era of the conditional fee agreement came into being. I cannot count the number of conversations I had while in practice over many years, in which I tried to explain that the description of so-called “no win, no fee” agreements was wholly inadequate. The basis of conditional fee agreements, as they are properly termed, was that if a claimant was unsuccessful, he or she would not face a bill for either their costs and disbursements or those of their opponent. Any risk was principally borne by the claimant’s lawyers. Their reward was that when they succeeded for their clients, they benefited from an uplift on their costs—a success fee paid for by the unsuccessful defendant. All that was designed to take account of other cases that were unsuccessful.
The structure was underpinned by insurance: in the event of the claimant not succeeding, wholly or in part, that insurance would provide cover for the unrecoverable disbursements and the defendant’s costs. In the absence of suitable pre-existing, before-the-event legal expenses cover, that policy would be arranged on an after-the-event basis, known as ATE. The insurance premium was borne by the unsuccessful defendants in cases where the claimant won. In successful cases, the defendant bore a success fee and the ATE premium.
All that changed with LASPO. In short, from 1 April 2013, in return for a 10% uplift on the damages paid, the principle of recovering success fees and ATE premiums was extinguished, and those cost items would now be paid by the claimant; that represented a significant erosion of a claimant’s damages. It was argued in this place that mesothelioma cases should not fall foul of those provisions, and that those cases should be exempt. It was entirely right to have those exemptions in that Act in section 44, which concerns success fees, and section 46, which relates to after-the-event insurance premiums, and the reason for that was eloquently summed up in recent times by Paul Goggins:
“An amendment was passed in the House of Lords that exempted mesothelioma sufferers. Hon. Members from both sides will recall our vigorous debates in the House of Commons over the issue and the strong sense that it was repulsive that people who are given a diagnosis of mesothelioma and know that they might have only months to live might have to give up 25% of their damages to pay a success fee to their lawyers and would therefore have to shop around to get the best deal from those who might represent them. The idea was repulsive.”––[Official Report, Mesothelioma Public Bill Committee, 12 December 2013; c. 93.]
The idea remains repulsive, and no case has been made for changing the position. A claimant in these dire circumstances should be focusing on the quality of representation and nothing else. The exemption, securing 100% recovery, allows that to happen.
Section 48 made it clear that there would be a review, in that sections 44 and 46 could not be brought into effect in cases of diffuse mesothelioma until such time as the Lord Chancellor had
“carried out a review of the likely effect of those sections in relation to such proceedings, and…published a report of the conclusions of the review.”
The Government will doubtless point to the consultation launched in July 2013 on mesothelioma claims. The relevant part is chapter 4, which runs to three pages and asks:
“Do you agree that sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act 2012 should be brought into force in relation to mesothelioma claims, in the light of the proposed reforms described in this consultation, the increase in general damages and costs protection described above, and the Mesothelioma Bill?”
With respect, that can hardly be properly described as a review, but more importantly, that chapter dealt with one of many matters consulted on, including fixed costs, secure gateways and new protocols, all of which were abandoned. It simply cannot be properly described as a review; equally, what happened subsequently was not by any means a report.
What we have had is an announcement, by way of a written ministerial statement from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who announced that the Government
“have concluded that they intend to apply sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act to mesothelioma cases”.—[Official Report, 4 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 56WS.]
That cannot by any stretch of the imagination amount to a credible review or report as specified by section 48. Statute says that those things simply have to happen before the relevant sections can apply to mesothelioma cases.
To have introduced a new regime in April 2013 with the exceptions, and then to consult on whether the exceptions should still apply, alongside a host of other matters in relation to mesothelioma claims, in July 2013 was simply ludicrous. There were just three months between the introduction of the new regime in April and the July review; that was simply far too soon for any proper assessment to have been made of the likely effects of sections 44 and 46 on mesothelioma claims. No one can tell at this stage how much clients will be charged by solicitors under LASPO. The situation is developing as the market adapts. The same can be said of the cost of ATE insurance. The Government are jumping the gun. They need to pause and commit to a genuine process of review.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this very timely debate to the Chamber. With regard to the section 48 review, it is generally thought that it is pure poppycock and nonsense, although probably not in legal terms. Would it not be better to abandon the section 48 review and instigate a thorough review of the effects of sections 44 and 46 on mesothelioma claims?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His intervention is apposite. There is only one respect in which I would slightly disagree with him: he says that the review is poppycock, although perhaps not in the legal sense, but we may find that there are legal consequences to it. I am of the view that it does not withstand scrutiny as a proper process. No doubt we will return to that.
Making these changes at this pace makes it abundantly clear that the Government had made their mind up way before April 2013 that these exemptions would not last any time at all. Thereafter, to try, in some tortured way, to create a link between the mesothelioma scheme as laid out in the Mesothelioma Bill and the provisions in LASPO is simply to conflate unconnected matters. If there was one American blues artist who epitomised the approach of the Government on this issue, it would be the inimitable Muddy Waters.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He will be interested to know that on 13 December, while the Mesothelioma Bill was in Committee—I was a member of that Committee—the Minister wrote to me, saying that
“the Mesothelioma Bill is relevant to the timing of the application of sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act to diffuse mesothelioma claims, since we have always intended to implement any such decision in a synchronised manner with other reforms directed to improving the position of mesothelioma sufferers. This was made clear when parliament agreed the relevant provisions in the LASPO Act 2012.”
Has my hon. Friend found any indication of that being made clear to Parliament in 2012? I cannot recall that happening, and I have not been able to find anything that makes it clear to me.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. Her point is absolutely valid: I have seen no evidence of that. We are trying to compare apples and pears, and it simply does not work. There should be no linkage between LASPO and the Mesothelioma Bill. We are dealing with wholly separate and distinct matters. On the one hand, we are talking about the conduct of cases where employers and insurers are known; those cases progress in the ordinary way. On the other, we are talking about a scheme to deal with cases where insurers are not traced. It is simply disingenuous and grossly insulting to sufferers to try somehow to make a link between the two, and to justify changes that will impact on the conduct of civil cases by saying that the “untraced” scheme is being progressed. If someone suffering from mesothelioma can trace an insurer, their case will proceed in the ordinary way. That others who cannot locate an insurer have recourse to a scheme has no bearing whatever on the conduct of ordinary civil cases. It would be refreshing if the Minister could make that abundantly clear when he responds to the debate, as in my view there is no integrity whatever in such an argument.
Without success fees, some cases that should run will not, as they will be too risky. Removal of the exception will result either in those cases not running, or in mesothelioma victims having to pay out of their compensation. That was clearly not the intention of Parliament, and I urge the Government to reconsider.
You have made me feel so special, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to be serving under your chairmanship.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) on initiating the debate. Like him, I shall begin by paying tribute to the work of the late Paul Goggins, who was a fantastic campaigner on mesothelioma. I, too, went to his funeral at Salford cathedral a couple of weeks ago. It was an incredibly emotional yet wonderful occasion, on which people paid tribute to his life. Many things touched me throughout the service, but one thing that happened really made me realise the man he was. Tony Whitston, a long-time campaigner for asbestos victims, came up to me afterwards, and speaking to him made me realise that Paul Goggins had reached out beyond Parliament and beyond his own community to a much wider community. He was very well known for fighting many causes, but this is one for which he and I shared a great passion. It still feels bizarre that we are having a debate in the House on mesothelioma and he is not here. I still keep looking out for him in Portcullis House, as I am sure many colleagues do, wondering what he is going to say and what he is going to contribute on issues such as this.
I am sure that if Paul Goggins were here, he would share my disappointment that we are even having to have this debate today. It should not be needed. It is taking place only because of what I think is a bad decision by the Ministry of Justice, whisked out in the middle of December, on its review. We should pay tribute to the Government, because they are doing some good things on mesothelioma, but to campaigners for justice for victims of this dreadful disease, it often feels as though it is two steps forward and one step back. The Mesothelioma Bill is a really good example of that. It was a good Bill, but not a great Bill. The LASPO exemption under section 48 was a really good compromise that hon. Members on both sides of the House supported, but now we are back having to debate whether sections 44 and 46 of LASPO should be applicable to people with mesothelioma. I think that we should pause for a second and consider why mesothelioma is such an important issue.
Mesothelioma is an absolutely dreadful disease. It is nasty. People die from it very quickly and they contract it through no fault of their own. People can get mesothelioma only through exposure to asbestos—there are no other causes—and they are most likely to have been exposed in their workplace. Let us be clear: this is not just about the industrial classes. This is not just about the ship laggers who were perhaps operating in Chatham dockyard, in my constituency, in the 1960s and ’70s. It is also about professionals, such as teachers. It is about people who worked in a wider environment. I am aware of an admiral who passed away because he worked in a wider dockyard environment. He was not personally working with a hammer and nails; he was not exposed extensively to asbestos, yet he died of mesothelioma. He is one of nearly 3,000 people who die every year from this disease.
Many people seek compensation through the civil claims process, but not everyone does, because the system is so complex. One in seven people who contract mesothelioma do not bother going through the civil claims process, because it is too difficult. I think we should remind ourselves of that complexity. Whether a victim is a lagger or a teacher, they are likely to have had more than one employer, which is why case law such as Fairchild and Barker exists. The previous Government passed the Compensation Act 2006, which reversed Barker, and now we have LASPO. In addition, recent rulings from the Supreme Court make deciding whether the Fairchild rule applies even more complex. An individual who contracted mesothelioma because they worked in industry, worked in a dockyard or lagged a ship has to navigate through a minefield of complex case law, and they need specialist legal help. It is not fair that they should be punished by sections 44 and 46 of LASPO when they receive such help.
I join the hon. Lady in her tribute to Paul Goggins, who was a tremendous parliamentarian and human being, and I agree entirely with what she has said. In my constituency and across Belfast, which has a tradition of heavy engineering in the shipyards, we have many tragic cases. More than anything, relatives and family members want an easier, clearer and speedier process, and they get terribly frustrated by the lack of clarity. I endorse entirely what she has said. The Government need to look at that, and the special exemptions must be maintained.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As a strong campaigner for justice for victims, I found myself in a bizarre situation last year, in that I felt sympathetic towards the pre-action protocols originally proposed in the Government review, because I felt that they might speed up access to justice and make the process simpler for victims. As it happens, the Government ditched the pre-action protocols and will introduce measures that may take away 25% of a victim’s damages to fund the conditional fee arrangements and after-the-event insurance. I want to get as much money as possible to the victim as quickly as possible. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough has said, once people find out that they have mesothelioma, they have little time left in their lives to plan for the financial security of their dependants because, very sadly, they often die quickly and nastily within six to nine months of contracting the illness. They will not be thinking about shopping around for after-the-event insurance or the best-priced legal fees when they are trying to deal with their horrible disease.
There is a slight irony in the fact that I am speaking about mesothelioma from notes written on cards sent to me—and, I assume, all parliamentarians—by Macmillan. This debate gives me a good opportunity to thank those who support victims of mesothelioma, such as Macmillan nurses. They deal with lung cancers all the time, but mesothelioma is quite possibly the worst that they have to deal with. It is an opportune moment to congratulate those who help sufferers of mesothelioma.
I return to LASPO. When the Bill went through Parliament, section 48 granted a welcome exemption from sections 44 and 46. Parliament had its say, and the House of Lords defeated the Government on the issue. Paul Goggins, who worked closely with the then Minister on the matter, and I welcomed the measure, and we sought assurances that if there were to be any change, Parliament would be given a say on it. Lord McNally, the then Minister of Justice in the House of Lords, made it clear that although commencement orders would be introduced by statutory instrument in the usual way and did not require the approval of both Houses,
“The amendment means that the commencement cannot begin on mesothelioma claims until a review has been carried out and a report published on the likely effect of the provisions on mesothelioma claims.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 April 2012; Vol. 736, c. 1824.]
I argue that a proper review has not been conducted, and a report has definitely not been published. It is disrespectful to Parliament that a decision was made in a written statement that sections 44 and 46 would be applied in this way. If that assurance was not enough, I received a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), the Minister’s predecessor, which stated that the Lord Chancellor would review
“the likely impact of the reforms on mesothelioma cases and publish a report.”
We did our very best to secure the exemption for victims of mesothelioma during the passage of LASPO. We did so in good faith, believing that a proper review would take place and that we in Parliament—and those, including the victims, who have real concerns—would see the outcome of that review in a report. We have not yet seen such a report. That is unfair on parliamentarians and, more importantly, victims.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for all the work that she does on this issue, which I know is much appreciated by victims and their families. Does she agree that without such a report, it is impossible to make sense of any changes in circumstances that have occurred since the passing of LASPO? To observers from outside, there has been no reason for the Government’s complete change in direction.
I agree with the hon. Lady. I understand that as part of the mechanism of government, reviews are often carried out, as a consequence of which changes may be made swiftly. When we have been promised a report so that we can assess whether the impact of the changes under LASPO will affect mesothelioma victims, I expect the victims, those who have contributed to the review, and parliamentarians who have spoken about the matter to have access to that report.
Although it might be too early to conduct a proper assessment of the effect of sections 44 and 46, we must be aware that the legal ombudsman has made it clear that the changes are causing considerable stress and excessive loss not only to mesothelioma victims but to other personal injury claimants. Mesothelioma victims are a special case, for reasons that have been outlined. The Government recognised that in their written ministerial statement, and the introduction of section 48 of LASPO indicated that mesothelioma should be considered differently from other personal injury cases.
I want to pick up on the written ministerial statement, which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough has mentioned. It referred to the Mesothelioma Bill, an important piece of legislation for those who cannot trace their insurer, which will be welcomed by the 300 or so victims every year who cannot get compensation through the civil claims process. LASPO is not relevant to the Mesothelioma Bill. LASPO deals with those who are going through the complex civil claims process, but the Mesothelioma Bill is there for entirely different reasons. If we continue to mix the two pieces of legislation—the Minister should listen carefully to this, because it would have a Treasury impact—we may end up providing a disincentive for people to trace their insurer because they find it too difficult to do so through the civil claims process. If they trace their insurer, they may lose 25% of their compensation as a result of sections 44 and 46 of LASPO. We want people to access the scheme for the right reasons, and those measures create a perverse incentive for people to access it for precisely the wrong reasons.
I was going to read the exact quote from the late Paul Goggins that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough used, in order to make the point that people find it repulsive that victims of mesothelioma could be asked to shop around to get the best deal from those who might represent them. However, the hon. Gentleman made that point perfectly adequately, and I hope that the Minister heard it the first time. We must acknowledge the fact that the report has not been published. We are not trying to be difficult with the Minister—I am certainly not. All I want is to put the victim at the centre of the process. To be perfectly honest, it does not feel like that is the case currently.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that over the past few years 15 people have died of mesothelioma in his own constituency. That is the 15 deaths that are registered; it is not necessarily the 15 people who have had secondary exposure, such as the women who washed overalls or the children who hugged their father when he came home from work. Of the 15 people who were registered, statistically two of them would not have bothered to go into the civil claims process because it is too complex. Those who have, I hope, have been adequately compensated for simply going to work and contracting a disease. The danger is that the legislative changes proposed on the Minister’s watch could mean that more people do not get the financial compensation they deserve, either because they do not go through the civil claims process, or because they do and are punished by losing 25% of what they should get to lawyers or insurers.
Our system should be simple, faster and better for victims. We know how many people have died of this disease so far; we do not know how many people will die of it in future. We do know, however, that they will die quickly. We also know that they will want to pass away leaving some sort of financial security for their dependents. I urge the Minister not only to publish the report—it is a moot point as to whether the process was conducted properly or whether the question asked was at all relevant to mesothelioma victims—but to halt the introduction of sections 44 and 46 until much further consideration has taken place.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) on securing this important debate.
Before Christmas, I was a member of the Public Bill Committee that scrutinised the Mesothelioma Bill, and it really was informative. The Labour Opposition and I missed great opportunities to try to get the rightful compensation for people who have suffered greatly as a consequence of mesothelioma. As I look around the Chamber, I see people, including the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who clearly understand how this disease affects individuals. It is as vicious as any work-related condition that anyone could experience. We must never forget the impact it has had on families and friends.
Mesothelioma is one of those diseases where once someone has been diagnosed, the prognosis is basically death within—if they are lucky—18 months. As politicians of whatever party—red, blue, yellow or whatever— we have a duty to look after people whose only crime was going to work in unsafe conditions. At the time they were very much unaware of how unsafe the conditions were. We heard tales of people—young people; apprentices—making asbestos snowballs at work and throwing them at each other, not knowing that in future it could have a dramatic impact on their lives and those of their families. The issue is really, really serious.
I cannot continue without paying tribute, as has each Member who has spoken, to the late Paul Goggins. He made a fantastic contribution to the Mesothelioma Bill Committee and was for a long time a fantastic campaigner on similar issues, particularly those related to cancer. Of course, he was especially dedicated to mesothelioma, and throughout our consideration of the Bill he was at the front, together with the Labour Front-Bench team, fighting for what was right and for justice for these people.
The Mesothelioma Bill was a missed opportunity. Once enacted, it will underpay people who are suffering—the victims. As the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford said, we must at all times “put the victim at the centre of the process.” Too many others have been involved, such as the insurance company that has led things from the front. During scrutiny of the Bill, the Minister in the Committee, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said quite clearly that it was not a case of bringing the insurance companies to the table to discuss compensation; they had to be dragged there. The insurance companies have made fortunes—millions if not billions of pounds—from premiums. We must not forget that premiums were paid. It is not a case of insurance companies looking for finance that was not there: the premiums had been paid by the employers, and the insurance companies have paid out dividends to shareholders instead of keeping the money for compensating dying victims of mesothelioma.
We often forget the families. The cut-off date in the Mesothelioma Bill is July 2012. That means that millions—sorry, I am getting carried away with my figures—certainly hundreds if not thousands of people will miss out on any form of compensation. At best, the individuals affected will receive 75% of damages. It is beyond me why they have to accept that. If someone gets hurt and the employer accepts it, why should the insurance company demand that they get only 75% of what the injury is actually worth? That is absurd and should not be the case for this horrendous disease. At the same time as getting only 75% of damages, the benefits clawback is being pitched at 100%.
These people, who have suffered, are suffering greatly and will suffer in future, are confused. They are confused by our debating LASPO. These people are ill, their families are looking ahead to a lifetime without their loved ones, and they are trying to understand what LASPO and CFA mean. As politicians we should be above that. We should have ensured that the families came first, as the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford said. The families are not aware of what section 44 and section 46 mean. They have not got a clue and, let us be honest, they are not even bothered what section 44, section 46 and section 48 of the LASPO Act mean. What they want is justice for their families and for the person who sadly will be leaving the family within 18 months at best. The review is totally flawed. As I said in an intervention, the Government should abandon the section 48 consultation.
One reason I say that the review is fatally flawed is that the Government abandoned the consultation reforms that were relevant to sections 44 and 46. They conceded that the Mesothelioma Bill really has nothing to do with the effects of sections 44 and 46, but they said that it was always their intention to “synchronise” the section 48 review and the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that must be at best a quite cynical statement? The argument about the Mesothelioma Bill was that a deal was being negotiated with the insurance industry, and that it would not be possible to introduce a scheme to have effect prior to the conclusion of that deal on 25 July 2012. It seems that at the beginning of 2012, when the LASPO Act was passed, Ministers were envisaging a deal that did not exist, as the present justification for saying that the two can be synchronised. They cannot possibly have been waiting to synchronise with a deal that might never have come to fruition.
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head with that important point, which she raised during the progress of the Bill.
The second issue is the fact that the section 48 review did not ask respondents to make the case for the mesothelioma exemption. It asked if respondents agreed with the Government that the exemption should be lifted in the light of the consultation reforms, plus the CFA reforms and the Mesothelioma Bill. Had the Government asked for the case to be made, the recent legal ombudsman’s report on no win, no fee arrangements would have been most pertinent. The report states that the CFA agreements are not simple to understand and contain unclear terms and conditions, and that there is evidence of some lawyers failing to make clear the financial risks of CFA agreements and trying to pass on the risk to customers. That is precisely the situation that the Lords feared and would not tolerate for dying mesothelioma sufferers.
As it stands, the review is not based on the effects of sections 44 and 46 on mesothelioma claims. It is based on a reiteration of the Government’s intention to apply the CFA LASPO reforms to mesothelioma claims. That can hardly be described as a review. Members of Parliament should ask the Government to abandon the so-called review and seek a proper, fuller one.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the whole premise of the review is fatally flawed? It includes the question:
“Do you, agree that sections 44 and 46…should be brought into force in relation to mesothelioma claims, in the light of the proposed reforms described in this consultation”?
Those did not proceed; they were abandoned. Does not that put the skids under the entire project?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend about that—it is question 15 of the section 48 review. It is even more reason for us to seek agreement to the abandonment of the review, and to get to grips with the real problems cutting across the Mesothelioma Bill. MPs should ensure that the outcome of a proper section 48 review is brought before Parliament and not introduced via a commencement order, as the Government probably intend. [Interruption.] Someone has turned my telephone on during the debate, Mr Hollobone: I am sure I switched it off before. I apologise for that.
The legal aspect of the matter seems extremely complicated, and I make an appeal to politicians from across the Chamber. The legislation is not really what I or many other Labour Members wanted, but it is progress. It will mean that individuals can get some form of compensation through the scheme. We must put individuals at the heart of things—the sufferers: people who are losing their lives, and families who will lose loved ones within 18 months. Such things should be cleared pretty quickly, so that families will not be bogged down in legal problems, and will fully understand the compensation procedures they want to embark on. Even if there was 100% compensation for mesothelioma it would not be enough; there cannot be enough compensation for the loss of a breadwinner, father and husband, or mother and wife. There cannot be enough compensation for the loss of someone so important in family life.
I too want to begin by paying my respects to Paul Goggins. As many hon. Members have said, the issue that we are debating was hugely important to him. When I was researching the debate, his name ran through matters to do with mesothelioma like a golden thread—through the LASPO Act and the Mesothelioma Bill, and repeated questions to Ministers at Justice and other questions. Indeed, the last communication that I had with him, by e-mail on 19 December, was proposing this debate, and agreeing that we needed to debate the specific issue, which we had been unable to resolve through the Bill or questions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said, it is most likely that Paul would have introduced the debate. We miss him very much. Nothing sums up as well as the present issue his humanity and his assiduousness as a parliamentarian.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, who set out the case so clearly, and other hon. Members who have spoken: my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who has just spoken, and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). It is not the first time that either of them have taken part in such debates; they have a fantastic track record on such issues. I thank, also, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Many other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), wanted to take part but were unable to be here.
The issue matters to hon. Members of all parties in both Houses. Many of the achievements that got us where we are today came through the efforts of Lord Alton, supported by Lord Beecham and Lord Bach and of course the late Lord Newton. Finally, although he has already been spoken of, Tony Whitston should be mentioned again. He co-ordinates the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum. A huge amount of good work is being done on behalf of mesothelioma sufferers, including support from many claimant law firms, but I am afraid some of the arguments fall on deaf ears.
This debate is slightly different from some Westminster Hall debates, because it is not so much a general discussion as an opportunity to ask the Minister for specific action and to answer specific questions on quite a narrow point. The reason for seeking such a debate was that satisfaction has not been gained through other channels—in the Mesothelioma Bill and repeated questions on the Floor of the House—and through correspondence, as has been stated. I hope that the Minister will answer those questions and tell us when the report, which the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford mentioned, will be available to us.
I do not think I need to talk about the general issue of mesothelioma, other than to say that it is a long-tail disease, the symptoms of which may not show for decades. Once it has been diagnosed, death is an almost certain consequence, usually within months rather than years, and it causes terrible suffering to the victims and to their families. That is why it has been treated as a particular, special case.
Currently, there are about 2,300 deaths per year and that is still rising, although those will peak because of the curve in the mortality that comes from the negligent behaviour of employers over a period of time. The number of deaths has been growing steadily since the 1970s and will peak at the end of this decade, but there are still tens of thousands of people in this country alone who will die from the disease.
The debate pack briefings were principally concerned—not surprisingly, as it has been in the news so much recently—with the Mesothelioma Bill. It has already been made clear that that is a wholly discrete issue from what we are talking about today. I was struck by how important this issue is to the public. The pack contains cuttings from newspapers from all around the country, not just from the old industrial areas. Real anger comes through in the personal case histories, and from commentators, about how the Government have been selling mesothelioma victims short.
I will mention just one case that illustrates the important point that we are debating. The Evening Standard last Friday published the case of Monica Haxton:
“A grandmother whose terminal cancer was caused by washing her husband’s asbestos-laden overalls today described her ‘relief and peace of mind’ after being awarded £700,000 damages in a landmark case.
Monica Haxton, 66, lost her husband Ronald to mesothelioma …caused by his years spent working as an electrician in Balham.
Over the years, she said she spent hours washing her husband’s boilersuit after his shifts at Philips Electronics where he was exposed to asbestos dust while dismantling boilers.
Two years after his death in July 2009, she began suffering the same symptoms and was diagnosed with the same cancer in January 2012.
But Mrs Haxton, from Sutton, was caught up in a protracted legal dispute over the scale of her damages which has only now been resolved in the Appeal Court.
The mother of four said: ‘Ronald and I were married for 45 years and he worked there for 42 years, but the negligence of that company by failing to protect us from asbestos exposure has ruined both our lives.’”
The Standard reported:
“Mrs Haxton’s lawyers helped secure her payout after the company’s insurer admitted full responsibility for her husband’s cancer but refused her a second settlement for negligence over her own terminal cancer.
They claimed that because her life expectancy had been reduced she was not entitled to the extra damages.”
That shows something that insurers often deny: the complexity of some mesothelioma cases—causation often can be an issue—and the lengths to which some insurers will go to defend claims. The point that the insurers made in Mrs Haxton’s case is that, because she was going to die soon because of mesothelioma, she was not entitled to the same amount of damages as she would have received if she were a dependant of her husband who had not been affected and lived longer.
Thankfully, the Court of Appeal ruled entirely in Mrs Haxton’s favour. The £700,000 awarded will perhaps be of some assistance to her family, but it is no comfort to that family that both parents will have died from this terrible disease. That is the type of case we are dealing with and that is why there were arguments with the Government, throughout the progress of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in both Houses, about why that exception should be made.
Votes as well as arguments went on in both Houses. In the other place, votes were successful, in the sense that the Government were defeated. The final defeat of the Government on this issue took place on 23 April 2012, by 205 votes to 214, on a motion on an amendment moved by Lord Alton. Consequently, on the following day in the ping-pong process, the then Minister made this concession:
“I can now give the House the assurance that we will not commence the relevant provisions in clause 43, on success fees, and clause 45, on after-the-event insurance, in respect of mesothelioma claims in April next year. Rather, we will implement the clauses in respect of those claims at a later date, once we are satisfied on the way forward for those who are unable to trace their employer’s insurer. The amendment commits the Lord Chancellor to carrying out a review of the likely effect of the clauses in relation to mesothelioma proceedings and to publish a report before those clauses are implemented.”
Hon. Members from all parties did not entirely accept what the Minister said. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who is rightly sceptical on such occasions, said:
“On the point about the delay until the review has been undertaken, is that merely a delay or is it a genuine review? If it is a review, what will it consider and will he give an indication of its timetable?”
The Minister replied:
“Given the timing of this development, we have not thought through the exact procedures of the review, but it will certainly be undertaken before we move to ending the provisions that remain.”
That, at least was honest.
Other hon. Members made speeches, raising concerns, including the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford and Paul Goggins. The shadow Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), also mentioned the review and was intervened on by the hon. Member for St Ives, who said:
“The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my intervention on the Minister, when I sought to distinguish between a mere delay in the implementation of the policy and a genuine review. I hoped that the Minister would give me some indication that if the findings of a review required the Government’s policy to be amended in some way, there would be an opportunity for a rethink.”
The shadow Lord Chancellor, showing unusual confidence in the Government, said:
“I believe that this will be a genuine review…but the report needs to be based on proper evidence”.—[Official Report, 24 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 831, 837.]
The concession was accepted here and in the other place, in good faith, because it was believed that there would be a proper review and a report. However, on 24 July 2013, considerably later, the consultation paper, “Reforming Mesothelioma Claims”, was published. That consultation was primarily about the proposed pre-action protocol, fixed cost proposals and the electronic gateway. Tagged on to the end of that paper—it really was tagged on to the end, at part 4 of that report—was a heading, “Review under section 48 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.” The Minister was not in post at the time, but I hope that he has read it.
That peculiar document begins:
“This part of the consultation paper”
“the review…The Government believes that other changes set out in this consultation, and the changes to the statutory framework for funding of litigation described above, together with the changes being introduced in the Mesothelioma Bill should make it possible, and appropriate, for sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act to be brought into force for mesothelioma claims at the same time as those other changes.”
It talked about a review but did not appear to be the review. The question that it posed at the end bore no relation to a review taking place. The review, if it claimed to be a review, was flawed. As has been the case throughout, it appears to have been convenient for the Government to muddle through, to let time elapse and to go back to the position they wanted in the first place.
It gets worse, because we then come to the written ministerial statement of 4 December in which the Minister blithely said:
“The Government have carefully considered the responses and have concluded that they intend to apply sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act to mesothelioma cases, as for all other personal injury cases.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 56WS.]
Extraordinarily, the report was not published at the same time as the statement, and it has still not been published, so we do not know what the reasons are. The statement really was a “we are here because we are here” answer. The Minister said, “We are going to do what we were going to do all along,” ignoring all the objections, the votes and the assurances that were given during the passage of the LASPO Act.
Further attempts have been made to ascertain where the Government are on this, and the issue has come up repeatedly at Justice questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston has brought it up. At the most recent Justice questions on 17 December, I raised the issue with the Secretary of State, who replied:
“Of course this is not a new problem, and in many areas we are picking up on things that were not done by the previous Government. We will bring forward a further consultation on these issues shortly.”
I do not know whether that is right, and the Minister will no doubt enlighten us on whether there will be a further consultation, but when Paul Goggins asked the same question later in the same Question Time, the Minister replied:
“We had a consultation, and we have come up with the preliminary report. As was said earlier, we will come up with a fuller report in due course.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 610, 618.]
Again, I do not know what that preliminary report is, and I do not know when the fuller report will come to light, but none of that helps to clarify the situation.
I will not take up much more time, but there has not been a proper review. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck read out the question that purported to be the review:
“Do you agree that sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act 2012 should be brought into force in relation to mesothelioma claims, in the light of the proposed reforms described in this consultation, the increase in general damages and costs protection described above, and the Mesothelioma Bill?”
That is not a proper review, and it is not the review that Parliament was promised.
Two months after the written ministerial statement announced the decision, the report has still not been published. Most importantly, the Government have conceded that their criteria for not making mesothelioma a special case no longer apply. They conceded that point on the Mesothelioma Bill, as they did when they finally answered the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston. A similar response was given to my noble Friend Lord Beecham and Tony Whitston, which made it clear that the only link between the LASPO provisions and the Mesothelioma Bill is that they might happen at the same time, in July 2014. Well, the World cup final is happening in July 2014, so it has as much to do with LASPO as the Mesothelioma Bill in that respect.
The second point that has been made, which I will not labour, is that, somehow, it was right to go ahead with applying sections 44 and 46 to mesothelioma claims because of the other changes that were being made. Under the influence of the Association of British Insurers, as always, the Government were pretending that the pre-action protocol, the gateway and the fixed costs would actually help mesothelioma sufferers. Let us be fair to the Government, because for once they did not go down the route of pursuing the ABI agenda. I am pleased to say that on some issues, such as the changes to the small claims limit for whiplash—with which the Government are not going ahead either—the Government are not slavishly following the insurance industry’s agenda, as they have previously. They are following that agenda most of the time, but not all the time.
Having now resiled from those positions, the Government cannot rely on the changes as a reason for not going ahead with the review and for not persisting with mesothelioma as a special case. All they are left with is the proposed reforms described in the consultation. That is a completely circular argument that takes us back to exactly where we were when the Government tried in the first place to say that the changes to CFAs and ATE premiums should apply to mesothelioma as they do to everything else. All the Government are saying is, “We were right all along. We had to say something to get our legislation through, but we never had any intention of complying with it. We have gone forward.”
Finally, I remind the Minister of the points made by Paul Goggins during our consideration of both the LASPO Act and the Mesothelioma Bill. The problem with the new cost regime is, first, that a successful claimant will pay up to 25% of their general damages as success fees. Secondly, to mitigate that attack on their damages, a claimant will have to shop around for a cheaper lawyer. Thirdly, the qualified one-way costs shifting does not provide a complete defence against costs. It does not address disbursement, part 36 offers or issues where a court decides that a claim has been misconducted. Finally, there are far fewer lawyers who will be able under the new regime to take on such cases. It may be that not only will people have to pay their own costs out of the damages but they may not be able to bring the case at all. That is without going into the problems of complexity and difficulty that, under the most difficult circumstances, mesothelioma claimants already have to deal with, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford have said.
With all those problems, which affect other personal injury and civil claims but which many Members of both Houses believe particularly apply in mesothelioma cases, the Government should honour their commitment to doing a proper review and a proper report explaining why, if they wish to persist with applying sections 44 and 46, they intend to do so. They should not do that in such a flippant and offhand way.
Perhaps the Minister could take the Secretary of State’s hint and go back to consult properly by calling for evidence on exactly what will be the consequences of applying sections 44 and 46. If he did that, he would find overwhelming evidence that mesothelioma sufferers are a particular case and that the Government’s commitments should be honoured. I end on that point, but I ask the Minister to tell us what the Government’s plans are, to justify the Government’s intended actions and to tell us whether he will now go away, properly consider the matter and honour the pledges made by his predecessors when the LASPO Act was considered by both Houses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I echo the words uttered about our former colleague, Paul Goggins. If Paul was with us, there is no doubt that he would have been in the Chamber with us today, expressing his views as passionately as he always did. Paul spoke with conviction and passion on a number of issues, and he will be sorely missed by all of us. He was a true parliamentarian, and a very decent parliamentarian at that. We will all miss him.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) on securing this important debate. I commend him on the passion with which he spoke. All Members from across the political divide have spoken on this important subject with conviction and passion.
A number of issues have been raised, and I hope to be able to address some of them in the time remaining. I refer colleagues to the last sentence of the written ministerial statement of 4 December 2013:
“The Government will publish their response to the consultation, and the report under section 48 of the LASPO Act, shortly.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 56WS.]
The report is not something that is not going to appear; it will appear. I hope that hon. Members appreciate that today’s debate is in response to a request by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough. That request was made before the report was published, but it will be forthcoming.
Other issues were raised. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) referred to comments by the Lord Chancellor. He rightly referred to consultation, and we hope to consult further with stakeholders to try to ensure that we improve the claims process. I will return to that.
I note the final sentence of the written ministerial statement. Presumably the report, which must be in the Minister’s hands by now, offered sufficient information and analysis to enable the Government to make their decision, so will he explain what has held up its publication for almost two months?
I hope the hon. Lady will agree that, given the sensitivity and importance of the matter, it is right and proper that we should make known to the public our broad thrust of thought, rather than people having to wait a further few months before the report comes out. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) secured a debate when there was much agitation about the timing of the review, what it would say and so on. I am sorry if trying to be helpful is now being held against the Government.
Let me say at the outset that the Government recognise that mesothelioma is a terrible disease and has a devastating impact on the families of its sufferers. We take very seriously the plight of sufferers and their right to be able to claim compensation for negligently caused personal injury. The subject is, understandably, emotive, and that has been demonstrated in our heartfelt and thorough debate today, as well as during the passage through both Houses of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Debates on LASPO included consideration of the Government’s reforms to no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, or CFAs, and led to the limited exception of mesothelioma cases, to which I will return shortly.
This debate has highlighted the importance of the issue, and the Government wholeheartedly agree that, given the short life expectancy after the disease has been diagnosed, it is imperative that there is early payment of compensation when necessary. That is why we announced on 4 December 2013 that we will explore whether more can be done to improve the compensation claims process.
I appreciate that today’s debate has been about the Government’s decision to remove the limited exception from no win, no fee reforms in relation to mesothelioma cases. I want to deal with three main issues. The first is why our reforms to CFAs are the right way forward, and the second is the limited exception to these rules in respect of mesothelioma claims and the circumstances in which that exception will end; thirdly, I want to clarify the position relating to the section 48 review and how it was carried out.
I will start by setting out briefly the rationale for our changes to CFAs. Many mesothelioma claims are funded under such agreements. Legal aid has not been available for some time. The previous Government’s Access to Justice Act 1999 removed legal aid for the majority of personal injury cases, including mesothelioma cases, when alternative forms of funding, such as CFAs, were available. As hon. Members will know, the Government have introduced reforms in England and Wales relating to the way that civil cases are funded, and the costs involved in bringing those cases. Those reforms are set out in part 2 of LASPO and took forward recommendations by Lord Justice Jackson, a distinguished Court of Appeal judge.
Hon. Members will be aware that Lord Justice Jackson had been asked to investigate the high costs of civil litigation, and to make recommendations for reform. He found that the arrangements for CFAs were
“the major contributor to disproportionate costs in civil litigation in England and Wales.”
He recommended that the recovery of success fees and after-the-event insurance from defendants be abolished, saying that that would lead to
“significant costs savings, whilst still enabling those who need access to justice to obtain it.”
The Government accepted the recommendations, and they were implemented in sections 44 and 46 of LASPO, with the reforms coming into effect in April 2013.
These important reforms will generally ensure that meritorious claims can still be pursued, but at a more proportionate cost. As part of our reforms, earlier settlement will be encouraged, and damages for non-pecuniary loss, such as pain, suffering and loss of amenity, will be increased by 10%. The Government agreed with Lord Justice Jackson that the level of such damages in England and Wales was generally low, and that a 10% increase could assist claimants in meeting the costs of the success fee and other funding changes. Lord Justice Jackson argued that in the majority of cases his proposals
“should leave successful claimants no worse off than they are under the current regime”.
Those words are relevant.
During LASPO’s passage through Parliament, the Government accepted that the reforms should not be brought into effect for mesothelioma claims until a review had been carried out of the likely effect of those reforms on such cases. That review provision is in section 48 of the Act. If Parliament had intended the LASPO provisions not to apply to such claims at all, it could have legislated to that effect. In the event, mesothelioma claims were exempted, and Parliament legislated to the effect that the provisions could be commenced for claims following the conduct of a review, as set out in section 48. Of course, we must recognise that a review could lead to a number of possible outcomes—to claims continuing to be exempted from the reforms, or alternatively to the exemption not continuing.
The Government carried out the section 48 review as part of the consultation on reforming mesothelioma cases, which concluded on 2 October 2013. That was a 10-week public consultation, and all interested parties had the opportunity to participate. Some 105 responses were received from interested parties and expert stakeholders on both sides of the debate; that is the specific advantage of a public consultation. The respondents included Thompsons, the personal injury solicitors firm to which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough referred when declaring an interest at the outset of the debate.
Some respondents to the consultation questioned the timing of the review and how it was carried out. However, the Government are satisfied that it meets our obligations under section 48. The Act makes it clear that in conducting the review under section 48, the Government are required to consider the likely effect of sections 44 and 46 on proceedings on a claim for damages in respect of diffuse mesothelioma. That is what we have done.
Comments have been made about the Mesothelioma Bill and the timing of the review. As Members will know, the Government introduced the Bill in May 2013. It creates a compulsory payment scheme for victims who are unable to trace a liable employer, or liable employer liability insurer, from which to claim the damages that are rightly due. The Bill has completed all stages in both Houses and is awaiting Royal Assent. It is an important milestone in ensuring that those who were previously unable to claim can do so when the scheme is up and running.
I am coming immediately to the point that I anticipated the hon. Gentleman would refer to. In conducting the review, the Government focused their consideration on matters relevant to claims for mesothelioma that are subject to litigation—in other words, where a solvent defendant is identified. The provisions of the Mesothelioma Bill, however, apply to sufferers who cannot trace a defendant to sue for compensation. If claimants are able to identify a defendant, the Mesothelioma Bill is not directly relevant to their claim, and the Government have carefully borne this in mind.
The Government have not therefore taken the Bill into account in relation to litigated cases in respect of the review. However, the Bill is relevant to the timing of the application of sections 44 and 46 of LASPO, since we have always intended to synchronise the implementation of any decision on this matter with other reforms directed at improving the position of mesothelioma sufferers. This was made clear when Parliament agreed the relevant provisions in LASPO. Much was made of that in earlier speeches, so I refer hon. Members to a debate on LASPO on 24 April 2012. The late Paul Goggins asked the then Justice Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly):
“Crucially, how will the commencement of the relevant provisions of the Bill be aligned with the proposals that the Department for Work and Pensions hopes to publish before the summer recess? I would be happy to take an intervention from the Minister if he wishes to make a clear commitment this afternoon that he will not seek to implement the relevant provisions in the Bill unless and until an improved system of compensation is in place.”
My hon. Friend the Justice Minister replied:
“I do not want to give any binding commitments about the process today, because things have not been finalised. However, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that if the process is to be improved by the Department for Work and Pensions, which we hope it will be—he will have some insight into our proposals from the discussions he has had—that could well require DWP legislation, in which case”—
the relevant words—
“we would look to roll the ending of the provisions into the commencement of the DWP provisions. That is how I foresee the process now, but again, I am not making that a commitment.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 838-39.]
The following day, the noble Lord Alton questioned the Justice Minister in the upper House, the noble Lord McNally. Lord Alton asked:
“First, is the Minister able to assure us that there will be absolute synchronisation between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the mesothelioma provisions in the Bill will not be implemented in advance of the new regime coming into force?”
Later in the debate, Lord McNally responded:
“I can absolutely guarantee that we will work in a synchronised way with the DWP.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 April 2012; Vol. 736, c. 1818 and 1824.]
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) was present at the House of Commons debate. She made a contribution at Hansard column 834—
I accept everything that the Minister has said. Are we to conclude therefore that the connection is simply about synchronisation of timing, and not in any way about synchronisation of approach to treatment of victims, or am I misunderstanding what he is saying?
I hope that I am clear when I say that it is important that we synchronise the timing, so that everyone affected by this terrible illness knows what the position is, whether or not they have a traceable employer or liable insurer. It is the timing that is at issue. That is what was referred to in the debates in both the upper and lower Houses.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he explain something? We have a group of people way over in the distance with one group of problems—in Weymouth, for example—and another group of people in Wolverhampton with another set of problems. If he addresses one situation, how would that benefit the people in the other place? They are not connected; it is just that he is trying to do things at the same time. Does he not agree with that analysis?
It was agreed by Parliament in the debate that there would be a synchronisation of what the Department for Work and Pensions did and what we did. That is what has happened. I trust that Members will now allow me to proceed, because a number of issues were raised, and I want to put the Government response on the record.
The Government have carefully considered the likely effect of implementing the LASPO reforms on mesothelioma claims, including the evidence put before us by respondents to the consultation. The issues raised, however, were generally similar to those in other very serious personal injury cases to which the reforms already apply. There was little explanation of any particular feature of the mesothelioma claims process that would lead to a different or disproportionate effect on claimants’ access to justice, should the reforms apply. Ultimately, in our view, there needs to be a specific justification for the continued difference in treatment between mesothelioma cases and other personal injury cases—most particularly, other serious personal injury cases that have their own tragic features involving, as some do, catastrophic injury and the need for substantial care arrangements for the remainder of a claimant’s life, sometimes when the claimant is very young.
Let me emphasis that we entirely understand that mesothelioma victims face an appalling and fatal disease with which they and their families have to come to terms, while also having to engage with the claims process. Without in any way seeking to minimise the distress that this entails, however, there are many other serious personal injury and fatal claims, to which the LASPO reforms already apply, that produce difficult challenges for victims and families.
On 4 December, we announced that we intended to apply sections 44 and 46 of LASPO to diffuse mesothelioma cases from July this year, when the Mesothelioma Bill is expected to be implemented. When the reforms take effect, claimants will be entitled to a 10% increase in general damages. The average general damages for such cases, as set out in the Judicial College guidelines, is £70,000, so that would be an average additional £7,000 in damages.
Claimants will be liable for any success fee claimed by their lawyer, as in any other personal injury case, but there is no requirement for a success fee to be charged. The amount of any success fee is a matter for negotiation between claimants and their lawyer. Claimants will also benefit from costs protection in the form of qualified one-way cost shifting, to protect them from having to pay the other side’s costs if the claim fails. Additionally, the costs of any after-the-event insurance that claimants feel they need in order to deal with defendants’ part 36 offers—a process of negotiation between parties on a reasonable offer for resettlement—are expected to reduce. If a part 36 offer is unreasonable, a claimant is not at risk for rejecting it. Claimant lawyers tend to know what is and is not a reasonable offer. Claimants are of course liable for disbursements in relation to their case, but the general rule in all civil litigation is that reasonable costs will be paid by a losing defendant.
We announced in December that we anticipate publishing the Government’s response some time in the next few weeks. Colleagues will appreciate that we could have waited until we announced the outcome of the consultation, but we were keen to let stakeholders know the outcome as soon as possible, especially on those issues that we are not currently taking forward.
I want to emphasise that the Government firmly support the right of those who suffer from this terrible disease to be able to claim compensation. Over the past 10 years, significant progress has been made in streamlining the process, including in relation to those matters headed by Senior Master Whitaker. We wish to explore further ways of streamlining the process, and we seek the co-operation of the appropriate stakeholders.
The LASPO reforms are about tackling the high cost of civil litigation, rather than questioning the validity of claims. The Government believe that the reforms should apply to all personal injury cases, including those of the utmost severity. We have conducted the review as required, and as soon as we are able to do so, we will publish our report. In the meantime, my thanks again to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough for securing this debate. It is fair to say that we are united on at least one matter: the great importance of this issue.
Elections in Bangladesh
I am grateful to have been able to secure this Westminster Hall debate. I welcome the opportunity not only to discuss recent elections in Bangladesh but to talk about the lessons of the past few months—I believe that the UK can learn from those lessons—and the opportunities that are open to us as we help Bangladesh to work towards political stability in the coming years.
Bangladesh is a country that has seen significant progress since its infancy. Responding to the millennium development goals, it has reduced the poverty gap ratio from 17% to 6.5%. Investment in children’s health has resulted in a reduction in the mortality rate of under-fives, and the prevalence of underweight children has almost halved. The World Bank recognises the advances that the country continues to make, suggesting that it will become a middle-income country by 2021.
Clearly, what happens in Bangladesh is hugely important for its prosperity and the life chances of the people living there. However, the recent election has seen those advances undermined by the country’s own political leadership. As we all know, on 5 January, Bangladesh held its 10th general election. On paper at least, it demonstrated overwhelming support for the Awami League, which won 232 of the 300 seats. However, the reality of the election was a turnout that was reported as being as low as 10% and a mass boycott by Opposition parties that meant that half of the seats remained uncontested. Schools used as polling stations were burned down and the lives of 21 were people lost.
We celebrate the progress made by Bangladesh since its modern birth in 1971, but the ongoing mistrust between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist party and other Opposition parties points to a dysfunctional political climate in which the prospect of free and fair elections seems elusive.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate and endorse what he has said about the importance of the progress that Bangladesh has made. Does he agree that one of the fundamental problems with the election was the Awami League’s refusal to follow the precedent of previous elections, whereby there had been a caretaker Government to oversee fair process, foreign observers and the rest, and that that failure and the political thinking behind it led to the tragedy that now confronts us?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which has been much debated not just in the House but further afield. The events running up to the election were deeply regrettable. The question whether it was right to press on with the elections will perhaps be left for others to decide—or even for history. Right now, it is vital that the international community takes a lead—as the UK has—in saying that the elections were neither free nor fair and, for that reason, were not right.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing and leading this debate. Like me, he probably has a large number of people from Bangladesh in his constituency. Obviously, they are extremely concerned about what happens back home, to use an expression, because that can have effects here. The absence of an interim Government to oversee the elections was certainly a major setback in a country that is now moving from third-world status and lifting the living standards of its people. Does he agree with me that the United Nations and other international organisations should put pressure on the Bangladeshi Government to stop harassing and jeering the Opposition?
Indeed. In the excellent debate we had in this House a few weeks ago on the political situation in Bangladesh, a recurring theme was concern about human rights abuses and the failure to follow the rule of law adequately in political discussions. It is important to keep that in the forefront of our minds.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done on this issue and for calling for this debate. He has raised a point that has been raised before in the Chamber: there was a real lack of democratic credibility for the elections that took place. That is the past. The question I have for him—and for the Minister—is about how we move forward. Does he agree that the international community needs to work with the current Government in Bangladesh and urge them to work with the Opposition to work out a time frame and a framework for a future election that will have that democratic credibility?
It is an excellent point. What is required in a situation such as this, where there appears to be deadlock, is for the international community to play an appropriate role. I will go on to speak about Britain’s unique role and ability to help in that regard.
We have that role not least because we are a major investor in Bangladesh: in this calendar year, the Department for International Development will spend around £275 million in Bangladesh. Around a third of that will go directly to the Bangladeshi Government, and a significant proportion of the money that will be spent is aimed at boosting political participation and promoting safety and justice. One programme that falls into that category, called Strengthening Political Participation in Bangladesh, holds three clear goals: first, to make political parties more responsive to citizens and their interests; secondly, to strengthen core democratic institutions, namely the Bangladesh Electoral Commission and Parliament; and thirdly, to ensure that civil society advocates effectively for a more accountable and responsible political system. Despite the commencement of that programme four years ago in 2009, the 2014 election was notable for its success in weakening all three objectives.
The ongoing political conflict has a damaging effect not only on empowerment and accountability but on other things. The Centre for Policy Dialogue has estimated a total economic loss of over £3.8 billion as a result of the conflict around the election caused by blockades and ongoing political turmoil. That loss has hit the transport industry, the agricultural sector and the clothing and textiles industry hardest. Those are three sectors in which Bangladesh must succeed if it is to reach its goal of becoming a middle-income country.
It is only right that in this scenario DFID should reflect on the relative success of the programmes that are funded in conjunction with the United States Agency for International Development and amount to aid of over £56 million over a five-year period. Arguably, their success is questionable. The issue is complex—I am not suggesting that the programmes simply do not work, or that they should be junked or the money withdrawn—and DFID Ministers should look urgently at how that money is spent, so that it can be fully effective in engaging and empowering voters across the country.
An internal review of the programmes would be helpful, as through them we have the potential to shape a relatively young country, and shape a structure that is fair and sustainable. That must be done quickly, as tensions remain high and local elections will take place over the coming months. Will the Minister reflect on that in his discussions with the Department for International Development and, in his reply, will he commit the Government to publishing the findings of the DFID review that is already being spoken about? There is scope for reviewing all in-country programmes in Bangladesh, to assess whether they have made an adequate contribution to building political governance and civic society.
There are no easy answers for the international community as to whether it was right to press ahead with elections or to work to maintain an interim or caretaker Government. I reiterate what I said earlier this month during the excellent debate in the Chamber: whatever someone’s view on that question, it was right, as a nation, to issue statements to make it clear that the elections were neither free nor fair. We are not alone in feeling a responsibility to make public our concerns about the Bangladeshi people caught up in this conflict. The elections have not only encouraged a reaction from the UK Government, from Members who participated in a Back-Bench business debate earlier this month and from those who are here today, but they have led to an international response. Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, has called for new elections, stating:
“The government and the opposition must take up their shared responsibility to hold a new, fully contested and transparent election as soon as possible.”
She has also said:
“It is vital that the people of Bangladesh are able to express their democratic will and exercise real choice.”
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the Australian Foreign Minister’s comment that there should be elections “soon”. In Pakistan, for example, General Zia said when he took over as dictator that elections would be held soon, and that went on for many years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to secure a time frame for new, fresh elections, rather than simply saying “Elections will take place soon”, which may mean by the end of the five-year term.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The timetable will come about not by our imposing it from on high but through negotiation with the interested parties. We are talking about the general election, but we are about to roll into a period of local elections in Bangladesh. In whatever we do, we must look first and foremost to the immediate window ahead of us to try to build capacity in the democratic process. If we can build faith in the democratic process through the local elections, that may move through to the other elections.
The hon. Gentleman says that we should move forward and that people should take part in the local elections. Does he really think that the Opposition, who say they have been prevented from taking part in those full and fair elections, will put up candidates in local elections? I believe that that is very unlikely.
We can only go on the statements of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and I am encouraged that the party has confirmed that it will take part in the elections. I sincerely hope that parties can be equally engaged in a fair and democratic process that empowers voters. The hon. Gentleman’s scepticism is completely understandable in the circumstances. We must not be cynical, but it is incumbent on all of us to be sceptical about the statements that have been released. As we know, a series of statements have been put out and rescinded in the past.
The deputy spokesperson of the US State Department has said that
“the results of the just-concluded elections do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people”,
and called for new elections to be held “as soon as possible.” The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on parties to resume dialogue and to demonstrate “calm and restraint”. In Germany, the Federal Foreign Office stated that the election was an extremely poor reflection of the electorate’s will. Even the Japanese ambassador to Dhaka, Shiro Sadoshima, said that
“the political leadership in Bangladesh, regardless of their positions, should immediately initiate serious efforts to provide Bangladeshi people with a voting opportunity for making political choice in a manner that responds to their aspiration.”
Not all countries have been as helpful however; Russia, India, China, Vietnam and Nepal have come out in support of the new Government.
It is right to condemn human rights abuses—a subject that we do not have time to go into today—committed by all sides, but we must not lose sight of the imminent needs of the Bangladeshi people. We must encourage the President to act on the assurances given to work with the 18-party alliance. We must discourage the personal exchanges that have occurred between party leaders, because such actions have enormous implications for their ability to work together in the interests of Bangladesh. We should call for the release of the many political prisoners who have been detained in the run-up to the presidential election and who await bail. That is happening, but clearly not fast enough. I ask the Minister to reflect on that in his response.
We must also celebrate some signs of progress. As I have said, Bangladesh has plans in place for this year’s local elections, and it is incumbent on us to ask what practical support is necessary to ensure that those, and the subsequent phases in March and May this year, happen cleanly. It goes without saying that Britain, where half a million members of the Bangladeshi diaspora live, should continue to play a significant role. Those individuals remind us of Britain’s historical relationship with Bangladesh, our privileged role as a member of the UN Security Council, our position as a key member of the Commonwealth, our relationship with the USA and other English-speaking nations and our seat at the heart of Europe. Working from this place with our partners, I hope that Britain will make the contribution that only it can to help the people of Bangladesh take the step up to the fully democratic system that they deserve.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone—although perhaps not for that introduction, to be honest. May I begin by saying that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) for securing this important debate? I apologise to him at the outset for not being the Minister with direct responsibility for Bangladesh, but I read the Backbench Business Committee debate from 16 January before this debate and I give him a commitment that I will ensure that his remarks today are passed to Baroness Warsi and, in view of the comments he made, to my ministerial counterparts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
It was clear from reading the report of that debate that Members on both sides of the House share a common commitment to the well-being, future prosperity and stable democratic development of Bangladesh, but considerable concerns have been expressed about all three areas. As the hon. Gentleman said, the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh is strong, with considerable ties of history and family. We want to promote a shared belief in democracy, good governance and sustainable development. He is right to say that the recent election in Bangladesh fell drastically short of the ideals we would expect. Our response falls into three areas. First, we expressed public regret at the lack of participation and the scenes of violence. Secondly, we call on Bangladesh’s political parties to begin a dialogue that finds a long-term, sustainable solution, in a way that does not exist at the moment, for the good of Bangladesh’s people. Thirdly, we recognise that a proper functioning democracy, as we would understand it, is vital for Bangladesh’s future security and prosperity. I shall take each of those in turn.
Successive British Governments have believed that peaceful, credible elections that express the will of the voters are the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy. The 10th parliamentary elections, held in Bangladesh on 5 January, were constitutionally correct, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, but the main Opposition party did not participate. Indeed, half the electorate did not get the chance to vote. There must therefore be concern as to whether the will of the Bangladeshi people has been properly reflected and whether the elections met the goals of a true democracy.
In the run-up to those elections, the UK engaged with all political parties in a number of ways, calling on them to ensure full, open and participatory elections. My honourable and noble Friend Baroness Warsi delivered the same message personally to leaders of the ruling and Opposition parties when she visited on 12 December. Her public statement on 6 January expressed our disappointment at the election outcome and condemned the acts of intimidation and unlawful political violence. Those acts are striking: more than 500 people are believed to have lost their life as a result of political violence in 2013; 21 deaths were reported on polling day; and more than 100 polling centres, many of which were schools and colleges in poor rural areas, were burned down. By any standard, that is shocking. The deaths and destruction sadden me, as I know they sadden Members on both sides of the House.
We remain deeply concerned about the deaths and the continued political harassment, and the heightened political tensions that underlie them. However, as the hon. Gentleman said in his well-balanced and fair speech, there have been some positive moves recently. We are pleased that the Bangladesh Nationalist party has condemned the violence and announced a suspension of its enforced strikes and transport blockades. The relaxation of police restrictions at Opposition party offices and the granting of bail for some BNP leaders by the High Court brings some promise, but it is not nearly enough. Further bold moves by all sides are needed if the needs and wishes of the people of Bangladesh are going to be met and put first. As he said in his balanced speech, in the meantime, the UK continues to do what it can to support Bangladesh and its democracy.
We remain absolutely committed to supporting the Bangladesh development goals, as laid out in the millennium development goals. Between 2011 and 2015, as the hon. Gentleman said, our support will lift 1.5 million people out of extreme poverty, provide access to safe water for 1.3 million people and ensure that 500,000 boys and girls complete their primary school education. I am pleased that UK aid is working to improve governance in Bangladesh. It is vital to develop a political system that is more capable, more accountable and much more responsive than it is at the moment. I will ensure that the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made are brought to the attention of DFID Ministers.
The hon. Gentleman briefly mentioned the support that was given around election time. The UK supported the Bangladesh Election Commission and work was done to update the voters register, train polling officials and develop new systems to publish candidates’ details, including declarations of wealth, which I imagine is a controversial topic in that part of the world. Notwithstanding the outcome of the poll, we believe that those improvements will stand the Government in good stead in future elections.
Unless the hon. Gentleman particularly wants to raise anything else, I shall end where I began; by congratulating him on securing the debate and on the tone with which he led it, and by thanking him for his continued interest in the country. It is shared by many across the House. Bangladesh is an important partner for the United Kingdom and we will continue to support its people in their aspirations, as we see them, for a more stable, prosperous and democratic future. In doing that, however, it is important that we never shy away from delivering tough messages to the political leadership to try and ensure that those expectations are fulfilled.
Morecambe Bay Disaster (Aftermath)
First, may I express my mixed emotions about introducing this debate on the cockle picking disaster that took place 10 years ago, in 2004? I have mixed emotions because I am extremely honoured to represent Morecambe and Lunesdale, but the event that we are talking about is a great scar on my community and our whole nation.
Morecambe bay is one of the most picturesque places on earth, but it is also an unforgiving environment that can claim lives in minutes. I have always found it hard to reconcile the sedate appearance with the dangerous reality. In 2004, many people believed that the risks associated with Morecambe bay had been mitigated. After all, we had been offering guided tours under professional supervision for years, warning signs were all around and in any case the amount of onshore fishing had declined. Given that background, it is easy to see why the people of Morecambe felt such a profound sense of shock and sadness when the events of 5 February unfolded.
Before I make any comments on the 10 years since the cockle pickers’ tragedy or what we should do in the future, perhaps it is worth remembering what happened. On 5 February 2004, a group of some 38 illegal immigrants from China were working to collect cockles near Hest Bank, which is the northern part of the bay. Shockingly, they were being paid £1 per kilogram of cockles—a desperately low wage by anyone’s standard. As the day drew on, a team of British cockle pickers tried to signal the Chinese workers and warn them that the tide was coming in. Given the distance, they tapped their watches and tried to speak to them, seemingly to no avail. At about 9.30 pm, the Chinese cockle pickers were cut off by the incoming tide. It is a long-held belief locally that they were waiting for the evening to come, as cockles come to the surface at night.
When it was clear that the cockle pickers were in trouble, they phoned the emergency services for help. Sadly, what followed was fairly confused, for the following reasons. It was quite dark, and a basic description of the location was unlikely to enable emergency services to pinpoint exactly where they were. The cockle pickers were not fluent in English and found it hard to explain their predicament. The phone call was unclear, and the severity of the situation was not successfully conveyed to the emergency services. All of that led to delays that undoubtedly cost lives. In the end, 23 people, mainly from Fujian province in China, lost their lives. Just 15 people escaped. Sadly, one body has never been found.
In the aftermath of the cockle pickers’ tragedy, the gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He had sent a group of people who had little or no experience of Morecambe bay out without any proper guidance or supervision to their deaths. Anyone who knows Morecambe bay will say that sending people out in that way is unforgivable. Indeed, Lin Liang Ren was described in court as a callous man, motivated by money. The men and women he exploited paid a heavy price for that cavalier and greedy attitude. Not only did many die, but all of them had paid enormous sums to be smuggled into the UK in the first place.
In June 2007, the Guardian newspaper reported on the plight of the family of Wu Hong Kang, who was killed on 5 February 2004. His wife and children bear a debt of nearly £20,000 to pay for his transit to the UK, yet their monthly income is just £20. They have no prospect of ever paying off that sum. At first glance, we might say to ourselves that they should not pay the debt. After all, what was done was illegal, so perhaps the authorities could step in. Sadly, the reality is that the gang collected the money many years ago. The debt is to friends and family who put up the money for Mr Wu’s transport, and these are people who cannot afford to write off the debt. I have no idea what it must be like to be paying a crippling debt for something that ultimately killed a loved one.
In 2005, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) introduced a private Member’s Bill that ultimately created the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I want to place on the record the gratitude of the people of Morecambe and Lunesdale for his work on this issue and for the work of my predecessor, Geraldine Smith. Like all bodies, the GLA is not perfect, but the 2005 Act set the groundwork for much of the work that is being done to protect these vulnerable workers’ lives.
Obviously, a range of national and international issues have been raised by this disaster, and the 10th anniversary is the time to review what work has been done and what has yet to be done, but before that, I want to talk to my hon. Friend the Minister about some very localised issues. I take the view that, no matter how much we regulate gangmasters and reduce illegal immigration, and no matter what the salaries we pay to workers, no one should be out in the middle of Morecambe bay unless they are properly trained and supervised and are aware of the dangers of their working environment. No amount of general employment regulation will ever be enough in such an environment. For that reason, I believe we should be licensing people to undertake onshore fishing in the bay. The aim would be not to stop people making a living, but to ensure that when teams go out they possess the proper skills required to work both profitably and safely.
With the right training and knowledge, Morecambe bay need not be a dangerous environment. In fact, tour guides take people out daily with no problems. We must recognise, however, that they can do so because local knowledge and experience are paramount. Teams of onshore fishermen who do not hold such a level of knowledge are endangering themselves, their staff and the emergency services that might have to intervene. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend the Minister update me on the progress of the Morecambe bay hybrid fishery order? I know that it has a number of facets to it, but how does he believe it will protect vulnerable workers in future? Also, when will it be implemented in full, what has happened up until now and what have been the hold-ups? I am sure he will agree that, whatever national issues were faced in the aftermath, we have a duty to get the regulation right for the bay and for offshore fisheries around the nation.
The tragedy raised national and international issues. Nationally, we have the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I know that there have been discussions about what changes might be made to it as we approach the 10th anniversary of the disaster. With that in mind, what lessons have been learned from its first nine years in operation? Does it need any reform or change of scope? What impact has it made in reducing the abuse of vulnerable workers? I should say that I am not tied to any one system; if reform is needed I am happy to work with anyone to look at it. It is important to the people I represent that we feel we are doing all that we can to ensure that we balance protection for employees with a viable system that will not damage the economics of food production.
There is no point in having this debate if we do not touch on the problem of illegal immigration. The cockle pickers’ disaster demonstrated that, at best, illegal immigrants and their families are small cogs in far larger and more sinister criminal gangs. At worst, they are nothing more than victims. Most are from poor backgrounds, forced to leave their home countries due to extreme poverty. We all know that we have a problem with illegal immigration in this country, and I am glad that we are taking steps to deal with it because I believe that it is far worse for the immigrants themselves. As I said earlier, they are forced to pay enormous sums of money to be herded like cattle into container trucks.
There are numerous examples of Chinese immigrants being carried to the UK in appalling conditions. In 2000, 58 Chinese immigrants died of suffocation when they were packed into a consignment of tomatoes. The Dutch lorry driver, Mr Perry Wacker, closed the air vents of his refrigerated truck on the ferry from Belgium to Dover. After he was sentenced to 14 years, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutor Karen Wiseman said:
“The smuggling of humans has become as profitable as drugs. This trade hinges on the promise that at the end of the journey the illegal immigrants are heading for a better life. Tragically for these 58 victims, commercial gain took precedence over human life.”
Only two people survived that incident, and it only came to light because customs searched the lorry. Once again, each person had paid £20,000 for their passage to the UK.
We just do not know whether any similar tragedies have taken place without being detected. The solution is not simple, but what assessment has the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made on the level of illegal labour in the agricultural industry? What steps are being taken both in the UK and across the world to reduce the number of criminal gangs operating in the sector? How are we working to educate people around the world about the reality of what it is like to be transported to the UK and treated in such a manner?
Members from all parties recognise that the matter is complex, and that no single magic wand will resolve the issues around the exploitation of vulnerable workers. That said, I do think that in the past 10 years we have taken significant steps towards making such workers’ lives safer. Enforcement at ports has been tightened up, the GLA has enforced against unscrupulous employers, and the Morecambe bay hybrid fishery order will soon be in place.
Before I finish, I would like to put on the record my personal thanks and those of the whole community for the work of the emergency services 10 years ago, particularly Harry Roberts from the RNLI, a former colleague of my father who led the rescue of the cockle pickers and undoubtedly saved lives.
We are not going to solve the issues of Triad gangs overnight and we are not going to stop people desperately seeking a better life, but we owe it to our community to drive forward enforcement and work on illegal immigration and improvements in the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. We owe it to those who have suffered so much hardship and trauma as a result of the disaster 10 years ago. It must never happen again.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing this timely debate. I thank him and the Minister for allowing me to speak briefly on this important matter.
The hon. Gentleman will know that on that night 10 years ago, the cockle pickers could just as easily have set off from the Furness end of Morecambe bay, had the tides been different. Indeed, those gangs were a regular sight, going on to the sands from the coast road between Aldingham and Rampside. His predecessor, Geraldine Smith, and my predecessor, now Lord Hutton, were strongly involved in establishing the Gangmasters Licensing Authority after the tragedy, to try to ensure that this horrible activity—and the way that these people were being abused and exploited—could not happen again.
Let me, too, call on the Minister to respond on his Government’s commitment to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. It was recommended for abolition in the Beecroft review. I understand that there is a firm commitment from the Government not to enact that recommendation, but it is important that the Minister puts that on record and shows that he understands and hears the calls. The rush to abolish regulations and strip away so-called burdens on business can sometimes target the essential element of safety, and we could also end up with people who want to observe safety standards, as many of our local cockle pickers did and do, finding themselves undercut by these horrible, unscrupulous practices.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing this debate, which is poignant and relevant to his constituency. The 10th anniversary next week of the tragic events in Morecambe bay is indeed an appropriate time to reflect on developments since. As my hon. Friend said, we know that the Morecambe bay sands are no stranger to loss of life over many centuries; it is, as he said, a beautiful yet treacherous place.
On the evening of 5 February 2004, some 40 Chinese workers were picking cockles on the sands, sent by their gangmaster. For him, maximising profits meant cutting corners, ignoring tidal information and flouting basic safety rules. As night closed in, hours after they should have been told to leave the sands, the workers realised the tide had come up too fast for them to escape and they were stranded. The bodies of 21 men and women were recovered from the bay in the next few days. There were two further known victims: one was not found until 2010 and, as my hon. Friend said, one has never been found.
The victims were illegal immigrants, inexperienced, untrained and with poor English language skills. Their gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was eventually convicted of 21 counts of manslaughter, facilitating illegal immigration and perverting the course of justice. In sentencing him to 14 years’ imprisonment, the judge at Preston Crown court said he was motivated by greed to exploit his countrymen shockingly with no heed for their safety.
The causes of the 2004 tragedy stem from the management of the foreshore fisheries at the time and employment legislation that allowed ruthless exploitation of workers and neglect of safety to go unchecked. The Government’s response addressed both those aspects. Following the disaster, the north-western sea fisheries committee and later the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority instituted a raft of measures through a succession of byelaws to regulate access better to the fishery, including tighter permit conditions to improve safety standards. In specific terms, the number of permits issued has been reduced from 2,000 in 2004 to 120 now. In addition and more importantly, in order to be granted a permit to fish for cockles, applicants must now complete a safety course which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is so important.
Those measures and others will be taken forward in the proposed Morecambe bay fishery order, which is due to be consulted on in the near future. I know that my hon. Friend expressed frustration that there is no time scale for that. Beyond saying “in the near future”, I am unable to give him a specific time scale at this point, but after today’s debate, I will ask officials to make inquiries about the exact status of the order and when he can expect it to be introduced, so that it can be signed off and put in place. When in place, the order will allow for more long-term and adaptive management of the entire mollusc fishery, including the cockle beds. Most importantly, safety measures imposed through the proposed order will be more stringent than those that are in place now.
In response to the disaster 10 years ago, the Government adopted a private Member’s Bill, introduced by the then hon. Member for Renfrewshire West, now the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), resulting in the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. That established the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to regulate the supply of labour in the shellfish, agriculture, food processing and packaging sectors. The GLA’s role provides protection to vulnerable workers, including taking action against criminals, while operating an effective licensing regime to ensure that standards are maintained and to prevent exploitation.
Casual labour agencies in the agricultural sector perform an important function. The seasonal nature of harvests in areas such as horticulture means that flexible labour arrangements are crucial. Most operators in the sector are responsible and compliant businesses, and GLA licensing enables the well-regulated supply of casual labour to the sector. We know, however, that there will always be a small minority who ignore the rules.
Since beginning operations in 2006, the GLA has issued more than 2,500 licences, and there are currently just under 1,000 licence holders. In that time, the agency has brought 67 successful prosecutions—43 for unlicensed gangmasters, 23 for using an unlicensed gangmaster, and one for obstructing an investigation—and in the past three years, it has helped to recover some £4 million for casual staff who have either been underpaid or had unfair deductions taken from their pay. The GLA has also revoked licences in 203 cases, where the holder has breached licensing standards on pay, safety and other matters.
Most court sentences result in fines of between £300 and £5,000, community service and probation orders or suspended sentences. It is important to note that that is to be expected since we would want fines and penalties to be proportionate to the breach committed. However, we should also note that there is scope for custodial sentences in extreme cases. In a landmark decision last December, the first custodial sentence was handed down; a man in Norfolk was jailed for seven years for acting as an unlicensed gangmaster. It was an extreme case, involving violence and intimidation, and the individual built up an organised crime group responsible for placing large numbers of vulnerable people from Lithuania in substandard accommodation, demanding high rents and charging for finding them work in local GLA-sector industries. What that case illustrates is that the law can and does provide the powers to deal with a full range of incidents that the GLA encounters, from minor breaches right through to criminal abuse and intimidation.
The Government have made it clear that they want the GLA to focus more on the worst excesses in the areas that it regulates and work more closely with other agencies that tackle crime, while stripping out unnecessary burdens on the majority of compliant businesses. I would say that the GLA is doing that. In September 2013, as part of the round of action to ensure that public bodies remain fit for purpose, a triennial review was announced, which provides an opportunity to test robustly the requirement that the GLA is operating and is organised as effectively as possible.
The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) asked for reassurance on the Government’s intentions regarding the GLA. The GLA has been considered by several reviews in recent years, including the red tape challenge and the 2010 public bodies review. The triennial review, which will be published shortly, provides an opportunity to consider whether we can better organise the authority to address the challenges that we face.
I will shortly publish a statement on the GLA triennial review, but I will outline the main points today because I have been specifically asked about our intentions. The review will conclude that the functions of the GLA are necessary and that the GLA remains the right body to deliver them. We will also conclude that the GLA should remain a non-departmental public body and should continue to deliver reforms already in train to reduce financial and administrative burdens on compliant businesses and to focus effort on enforcement. We believe that reforms to the GLA board should happen as soon as possible to bring about a smaller, better structured board that is able to provide a clear strategic direction for the authority.
The GLA is already proceeding with reforms to remove burdens on the majority of compliant businesses by removing the need for all applicants to receive an application inspection and by introducing longer-term licences. That fits with the Government’s commitment to have safeguards in place to monitor those businesses that are at risk of breaking the law while enabling law-abiding, compliant businesses to get on with business unhindered.
The GLA is not alone in taking steps to mitigate the risks to vulnerable workers. On 16 December 2013, the Home Secretary published the draft Modern Slavery Bill, which would consolidate existing human trafficking and slavery offences; increase the maximum sentence available from 14 years to life imprisonment; restrict the activities of offenders and those who pose a risk to others; and require statutory bodies, such as the GLA, to report all victims of human trafficking to the National Crime Agency, which the GLA currently does routinely.
The draft Bill will now be subject to a period of pre-legislative scrutiny. The answer to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale on what more we are doing to address extreme abuse of vulnerable workers is contained in the draft Bill.
I thank the Minister for giving us those details ahead of the review. The issue will be difficult, and hon. Members will want to be able to scrutinise the draft Bill if it is genuinely to increase the level of protection, rather than simply cut costs. Will he commit to an oral statement in the House when he publishes the review, so that Members may ask questions?
We will publish the review when it is ready, and there will be a written ministerial statement. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have been generous in giving him foresight of the key elements of that review. This debate is an opportunity for us to set out our intentions. The review is a detailed document, and I am sure he will find all the information that he wants. If, subsequent to that, he would like to challenge me in another debate, he has a right to call for such a debate.
In conclusion, the events that occurred at Morecambe bay a decade ago were a terrible yet avoidable tragedy. I hope that I have persuaded hon. Members that lessons have been learned. We are in a better place than we were 10 years ago, but we are not complacent. I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale that much has been done to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated. I will get in touch with him and make inquiries to see whether we can progress the order that he seeks sooner rather than later.
Question put and agreed to.