Tuesday 24 March 2015
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Coffey.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It has not escaped notice that Commonwealth day at Westminster appears to be a little bit late this year, but I am extremely grateful nevertheless to the Backbench Business Committee for finding a slot for this annual debate. I realise that, as we come to the end of the Parliament, there is great pressure on time. One thing I have tried to do while I have been involved in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association at national and international level is to ensure that as many parliamentary assemblies as possible across the Commonwealth should find an annual occasion to debate whatever issues about the Commonwealth or within it were of particular interest to their members. It would have been slightly unfortunate had we, in the rush of business at the end of this Parliament, failed to find that opportunity ourselves. We should say to our colleagues and friends across the Commonwealth that it was by no means an afterthought that we should be holding the debate on 24 March and not earlier.
The debate is a symbol of our interest in the Commonwealth and the fact that, in some ways, it is subliminal among parliamentarians that we take for granted our membership of the Commonwealth and the values that it upholds. It is important that we should, from time to time, make a signal effort to demonstrate our commitment. Talking of symbols, if I may dare to say so, I am modelling the new CPA UK branch tie, which we are launching today. I hope that it will come to be seen as a central part of the wardrobe of Members of Parliament.
This is an opportunity to review certain aspects of the Commonwealth from our perspective. We often regard ourselves in the Commonwealth as a family. We have matters that cause us concern, matters that cause us grief and matters that give us cause for celebration. We feel great concern for the peoples of the south Pacific, particularly in Vanuatu, a small community overwhelmed by natural disaster, to whom our hearts go out. We welcome the return to the Commonwealth of Fiji. At the same time, we are concerned about events in the Maldives, and we hope that the situation will sort itself out without too much difficulty.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that now, or some time in the very near future, might be an appropriate time for the Irish Republic to consider returning to the Commonwealth? That might even offer the opportunity of a combined bid, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, for a future Commonwealth games.
I do not necessarily want to cause diplomatic concern by talking about the possibility of the Republic wishing to return to the Commonwealth, but I have raised that matter during my chairmanship with the Speaker of the Dáil. It seems to me to be a natural thing to do, but it is up to the people of the Republic to decide. They would be very welcome and they would seem natural partners among the 53 nations that are part of the Commonwealth.
I am pleased, having made three visits to Sri Lanka during my international chairmanship, to see that there has been a peaceful change of power in that country, which I think is a great testament to all concerned. It is still a country troubled by the awful battles that were fought, and not all the memory of that has been erased satisfactorily, but the fact that there has been a peaceful election is a step forward.
It would also be appropriate for us to acknowledge the life of Lee Kuan Yew, whose death has just occurred. I have some personal memories of him. As a precocious prospective parliamentary candidate, I was travelling through Singapore for the first time in 1968 and I dared to call on the Prime Minister’s residence. It was amazing to me that he was prepared to find time to meet me on that occasion. So began a relationship that continued over a number of years, and in 1972, when I returned to Singapore as a parliamentarian, I found myself summoned to supper with him and his wife. It was, in many ways, an intimidating occasion to be closeted so privately with people of such distinction and intellect. It made me extremely uncomfortable in my clumsy handling of chopsticks while maintaining, one hoped, a civilised and constructive conversation. Singapore is sometimes described as the Asian tiger, and in some respects that term might be applied to Lee Kuan Yew himself, for his personal vision, his dedication and his forcefulness—let us be honest about it—in ensuring that Singapore became the powerful city state that we now know it to be.
I thought for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman was going to say that the Prime Minister handled the situation very well and got over his nerves about meeting the right hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that is it not only a privilege, constitutionally and in every other way, to be part of the British Commonwealth, but that it brings benefits for inter-trade and for export and import to the United Kingdom as a whole?
Yes, I absolutely agree with that, and I will say a word or two about that in a moment. I have one other reflection on my visit to Singapore. It was famous that so many things were prohibited in Singapore, using the well known sign of a circle with a bar across what it was that people could not do. In those days, my hair was a little longer than it is today. I was rather concerned to be meeting Lee Kuan Yew when I was not sure whether I passed the test so far as wearing long hair in his country was concerned, but our friendship managed to survive that difficulty. I salute his memory and all that he has done for his people.
The Commonwealth has many manifestations, but its reality cannot be taken for granted. I said earlier that the Commonwealth is subliminal for us, or in our DNA; nevertheless, we need to understand that not everybody has it at the forefront of their mind. I am still chilled by a discussion in which I was privileged to take part with the External Affairs Committee of the Lok Sabha in New Delhi, when one of its members said to me, “Well, you’ve got to understand that not many people here in India understand what the Commonwealth is about.” That was a shock to me, coming from a representative of the largest democracy in the Commonwealth by population; but it is true, is it not, that if we went around our towns and cities and asked the first 10 people we met what they understood about the Commonwealth, the answers might be somewhat meagre. The Commonwealth is there, and we take it for granted, but we should not take it for granted; we need to remind ourselves of its values.
Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) about commerce and trade, it is encouraging that the City of London is a partner in establishing the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. The City is a founding father of that organisation, for which much is hoped. The lord mayor, Alan Yarrow, describes himself as a child of the Commonwealth, having been born in Malaysia and educated in Singapore. Undoubtedly, the City of London is playing its part to make a reality of trade and finance among Commonwealth countries.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the Commonwealth theme for 2015, “A Young Commonwealth”, which recognises the contribution and potential of young people, is especially relevant to many countries, such as Pakistan, where a significant proportion of the population is under the age of 30? Thanks to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I recently met a group of young parliamentarians from Pakistan here in Westminster, and their enthusiasm and energy gave me hope for the future development of that country.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. Given the interventions we have heard so far, I am beginning to wonder whether my speech notes have somehow been circulated more widely than I had expected. I will respond to him in just a moment, if I may.
Today, I will mainly concentrate on the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. It is a huge honour to have been the chairperson of the United Kingdom branch, and I could never have guessed that, within a year of accepting that post, I would find myself as the international chairman. I would describe the three-year period that I served in that position from 2011 to 2014 as both a joy and a challenge. The fact that I was welcomed so generously in all those parts of the Commonwealth, small and large, that I was able to visit during the term of my chairmanship was uplifting. I felt that, in a modest way, I was some sort of symbol of what the Commonwealth meant.
However, the governance of the CPA at international level presented a serious challenge, which is ironic because, as much as anything, the CPA is about promoting good governance. We believe that if there are stable systems of government—representative parliamentary democracy— in each Commonwealth country, bound by common principles and standards that have been signed into the charter by Her Majesty the Queen as head of the Commonwealth, it will lead to confidence in the economies of those countries, to investment, to the creation of jobs and to the advancement of their peoples. I am pleased that the Select Committee on International Development has stressed the importance of good governance, and I have always tried to say that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association can be one of the most effective instruments for trying to ensure the improvement of governing practices.
Great work is being done. Wherever one looks, particularly at regional and national levels throughout the Commonwealth’s Parliaments and Assemblies, one will find people who are engaged in that work. The willingness of my parliamentary colleagues here to give time and the willingness of officials is replicated in other countries as well. There is an enormous amount of interchange, training, workshops and so on, because there is always churn—an increasing churn rate in some cases—in members of the respective Parliaments, so there is always someone new who needs to learn the ropes; someone who, having realised their ambition to be elected, suddenly realises that they have these responsibilities and wants to learn how best to discharge them.
Therefore, I found it quite difficult that at the apex of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, in its structure internationally, it was not the best exemplar of good governance. I like to think, somewhat immodestly, that there were some advances during my three years as chairperson. We saw an extension of the Commonwealth women parliamentarians network—it is still not fully complete, but it has advanced considerably. I seem to have persuaded colleagues that the institution of a Commonwealth Youth Parliament should be an annual event, bringing people from all parts of the Commonwealth to an assembly in which they can perform. After one hiccup, when Andhra Pradesh was going to be the host and the state was divided by a decision of the Indian Government—that year it fell through— the Commonwealth Youth Parliament was held last year in the legislature of the North West province of South Africa. The UK delegate, Meera Sonecha, became Leader of the Opposition and even, briefly, Prime Minister following a vote of no confidence. I hope this year’s UK’s representative will distinguish himself or herself to the same degree.
In all my contact with the Commonwealth Youth Parliament, I have been impressed by the young people who are coming through. We can have hope for the future in that respect, provided that we say to young people, who make up such a high proportion of the Commonwealth’s population, that their voice can be heard consistently. If we are listening, they will have confidence in talking to us, proposing their own ideas and, indeed, building their own ambition to take part in the governance of their respective countries. So that was good.
I also advanced the representation of small states of the Commonwealth. We will have an annual small states conference, and I want to see a representative of those small states as an extra person on the executive committee to put their point of view. The small states sometimes feel that they are the poor relations just because they are small—some of them are very small, and some of them are in scattered areas of the Caribbean or the south Pacific. We established a mentoring scheme whereby parliamentarians with long experience can be linked with someone who is new to their Parliament or Assembly so that they can continue the discussion. They do not have to meet people on an occasional basis; they can pick up the telephone or use e-mail to make contact.
More prosaically, we at last managed to implant the principle of internal audit in the CPA structure. Some people had difficulty understanding the principle, although it is actually commonplace in their respective Parliaments and, quite rightly, it needed to be introduced at international level. The CPA’s governance structure does not help it to do the work that it needs to be doing. One of the things that has bugged the CPA for two decades or more is the fact that some members are uncomfortable with the CPA’s legal status as a charity based in the United Kingdom, which I suspect evokes a colonial memory that is unhelpful to what the modern Commonwealth is all about. We have spent a great deal of time trying to find an alternative status that will be acceptable and workable, but of course the whole point of charitable status is not somehow to be degrading; it is a protection against tax. All our purposes are charitable, and therefore it makes sense for us to have that status. However, it was uncomfortable for some. We argued and argued and argued about it, and never found a solution.
The executive committee is the governing body of the CPA internationally. It has nine regions, each of which has three representatives, except Africa, which has six representatives. That gives an idea of how large it is—bigger than the Cabinet of our country and most other countries. It meets not weekly—obviously—but only twice a year, with a rotating membership. In fact, each region’s representatives rotate—they are on the committee for three years and then they go—so there is no enduring memory within that body to ensure that good governance takes place.
Also, there was a resistance to the idea of changing the practice whereby the regional secretaries, who are professional people and often clerks in their own countries, could not even sit in on the meetings that take place. When I pointed out that if messages from the executive were to percolate through to all the 175 branches of the CPA, it would seem essential to put some professional “oomph” behind it, I was told, “Well, no, the regional representatives are the ones who do that.” However, if a regional representative is not at the meeting for any reason, there will obviously be a breakdown in communication: they cannot get the messages back to their home branches. Nevertheless, there seems to have been resistance, up to now, to the idea that the regional representative should do what we normally expect our professional advisers, in the form of our clerks, to do: to ensure that decisions taken are translated into action. That does not happen with the CPA internationally.
Then there has been the collection of a very large sum of money in reserves, which now amounts to about £9 million. Prudent management of the finances is, of course, vital. However, if the income of the CPA internationally is roughly £2.5 million, the reserve that it is necessary to keep to guard against any difficulty does not need to be £9 million. It seems to me that, to some extent, that money would be better dispensed in doing work in the regions to ensure that the network of, say, women’s branches or youth branches is strengthened.
It was rather dispiriting that the last words published in The Parliamentarian by the—alas now deceased—secretary-general of the CPA, Dr Shija, seemed to concentrate on the CPA acquiring new premises in London, with a conference facility, an apartment for the secretary-general and so on. That seemed something of a departure from what the main purposes of the CPA should be. My vision—if I dare use that expression—is that we should build up the position of the small states and that their representative on the executive should be an officer of the CPA, alongside the chair of the Commonwealth women parliamentarians group and the treasurer, the vice-chairman and the chairperson. Similarly, with the youth structure we should see someone becoming the apex of the young people of the Commonwealth, so that he or she can play their part.
I was encouraged by a message I received from the executive director of Commonwealth Youth New Zealand, Aaron Hape, who tells me that a week ago they celebrated this year’s Commonwealth theme, “A Young Commonwealth”, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has made reference. Aaron says:
“I was delighted to see supporters of CYNZ attend many events across New Zealand, and indeed, internationally, to celebrate this important occasion. What struck me was the amount of new faces that were present at these events.”
How many of us can say that about the young people in our country recognising the Commonwealth and celebrating its activities?
The other advantage of an enlarged officer structure is that one would be able to have rotation, so that every region would feel that it had some say at the top table. It is always the Pacific region that seems to have lost out in that regard over the years. It would be easier to have a rotation system whereby every region could expect that within a period of, say, five years, it would have one of the officers of the association.
Those are my reflections. My international term of office ended in October last year. My successor is Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, the Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament. I find her to be a hugely impressive parliamentarian. She has already built upon the role that the CPA has at the Heads of Government meeting, and the Maltese have been very accommodating to the CPA and to the representations that she has made. She is determined to broaden the scope still further of the Commonwealth women parliamentarians group. She represented the CPA at the commission on the status of women in New York and she is also keen to promote the voice of young people.
I believe that there is the opportunity to make the CPA at international level more than the sum of its parts, so that we have all that is best in so many different regions. In the UK, we do a terrific amount of work in promoting good governance and good relations between parliamentarians, and I see that in various other regions of the Commonwealth as well, but it is about bringing it together. From the centre, we should be disseminating best practice, showing that in our own structures we have got it right so far as good governance is concerned and therefore can preach the message with confidence to others, to remind people continually what our Commonwealth means and how we should put its principles into practice. That should be our constant aim, and the more we can put the spotlight on it, the better it will be and the stronger the Commonwealth will become.
Thank you very much indeed. As we are operating under the rules of the Backbench Business Committee, we will get to hear from Sir Alan for two or three minutes at the end of the debate, so that he can sum up the rest of the contributions. Perhaps he can tell us how we can get hold of one of the CPA ties that he is so handsomely sporting today.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to have a chance to contribute on this matter.
First, I thank the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for securing this debate. Whatever time of year this debate happens, it is always good to speak in it, and to remember what the Commonwealth is, what it stands for and what it means to each and every one of us.
I am thankful for this debate not only because it is on an important topic but because it is less of a debate and more of a coming together to celebrate the Commonwealth and all the positives that its existence brings. The Commonwealth is often described as a family of nations and peoples, and that is exactly how I and many other people see it. As I have emphasised on many occasions, I am a firm believer in and supporter of the Commonwealth, because of all that it symbolises, does and stands for.
I believe that to be a nation that upholds the core beliefs that our Commonwealth sets out is a testament to the integrity of that nation and, in turn, the substance of its society. I find it difficult to imagine it possible not to be proud to be a part of an organisation that affirms support for democracy, human rights, tolerance, respect, understanding, freedom of expression and gender equality. However, while that speaks volumes about the merits of member nations, what makes the loudest noise is the success that happens when we pool the abilities, the diversity and the innovation of our respective societies. That is when we are strongest, and it is what this debate is about.
I am very pleased to see the Minister in Westminster Hall today. I have spoken to him on many occasions about the persecution of Christians. Sometimes within the Commonwealth of nations, preventing the persecution of Christians has not been adhered to by some nations; I know that, and I know that the Minister knows it. Perhaps in his response to the debate, he could give us some indication of what he has been able to do through his Department to act within the Commonwealth and to persuade those Commonwealth nations that perhaps do not adhere rigidly or respectfully to the rules about religious freedom to better that situation.
The Commonwealth forms an integral part of our collective identity. We may see it most prominently in the form of our beloved Commonwealth games. Who cannot be impressed by the Commonwealth games? They are one of the most watched events on television, and people are always keen to see the medal tally and how their country is doing. That is one of the good things that the Commonwealth does.
The work of the Commonwealth reaches all corners of the globe. Often, it is not realised that the Commonwealth is not one organisation but an impressive network of more than 80 societies, institutions, associations, organisations and charities that work towards improving people’s lives. Although it provides a powerful symbol of our unity, it is much more than that. The work of these organisations on a vast range of issues, including helping countries with trade negotiations, should be celebrated. The Commonwealth is more than just a commonwealth of nations. For example, it provides an opportunity for trade exchanges and trade negotiations to build our economies, here at home in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and across the world. Those organisations also work on encouraging women’s leadership and building the small business sector and, very aptly in accordance with this year’s theme, supporting youth participation at all levels of society.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned Commonwealth youth. I want to focus on that, too. Maintaining the strength of the Commonwealth is of utmost importance. That is why I welcome the theme of this year’s Commonwealth celebrations: “A Young Commonwealth.” When we leave the scene of time, those who are left—the young people—will have to maintain our Commonwealth. We recognise the advantages this brings to each and every one of us.
The strength of the Commonwealth is in our being united by language, history, culture, and most of all, a shared view of the value of democracy and all that we expect to come with this. Her Majesty the Queen spoke poignantly about what we have worked toward and achieved through co-operation, and what we must do to ensure continued co-operation. It was apt that Her Majesty spoke on the significance of communication, saying that to come together to talk, to exchange ideas and develop common goals, can in itself bring fantastic outcomes, if only those channels of communication are open to us. Our Commonwealth offers us a clear channel of communication, allowing us to make these wonderful things to which Her Majesty referred happen.
The emphasis on partnership in discussion of this year’s celebrations should signal to us—no matter our region—that partnership, co-operation and union is the best way forward. My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned that the Republic of Ireland will, hopefully, join the Commonwealth. That is an aspiration, a wish and a hope. It would be good if it happened.
Although there is diversity in abundance throughout all 53 of our Commonwealth nations, whether in culture or size, we have recognised that in spite of this we hold more in common than not. This commonality and commitment to shared values signals to us that there is great benefit to be found in our continued co-operation, not only for us as nation states and parliamentarians, but for our respective peoples and all the nations together.
Again, I want to adopt a positive tone. It is worth drawing on Her Majesty’s words. She said that co-operation also helps us avoid what a breakdown in communication can bring. Often, if we do not talk there can be problems. Only through open and continued dialogue can we address these dangers. The interests and fears we hold in common now perhaps make this continued co-operation more relevant than ever. The common challenges we face are best met together. We can overcome those issues on the sporting field and the economic field and it is important that we continue to make that happen.
With all the evident positives of co-operation, our choice to celebrate “A Young Commonwealth” shows that we have acknowledged the key to our strong future. Our young people are the future of our Commonwealth. I hold dear the belief that our Commonwealth will stay strong because of the aspirations and commitment of our young people.
Across all our nations we have bright, innovative and passionate young minds. Our Commonwealth relies on this innovation and passion to give fresh, new impetus to all our collective endeavours. I say this in good conscience as I reflect on the young people of Northern Ireland. We in Northern Ireland are proud to be part of the Commonwealth. In fact, the Northern Ireland Assembly branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has participated in Commonwealth day for the last seven years, holding a range of themed events. This year’s theme worked in conjunction with the “Rock the Vote” campaign—there is no better time for such a campaign than around 7 May—and served as a reminder of our own responsibility as legislators, which is to keep our younger generation engaged in democracy and, most of all, to motivate them to vote. The campaign focuses on encouraging young people to participate and get involved in the political process, and it is key to meeting the concerns of a young electorate who are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the political process. We simply cannot let that happen.
The commitment of the Commonwealth to democracy and the rule of law holds legitimacy only when our electorate participate. For this reason, we must reach out to our young voters and soon-to-be voters. These young people will be not only voters, but our legislators, diplomats and parliamentarians. They will be the navigators of the new age of the Commonwealth. In Northern Ireland, these young people will be the navigators of our political landscape and of the complexities it brings. In Northern Ireland, we have moved leaps and bounds in the political process, as the Minister knows, having previously been Minister of State for Northern Ireland. His relationship with Northern Ireland came about not only through Parliament, but, I understand, from his service in uniform.
We in Northern Ireland have moved forward. Our young people will be the politicians of tomorrow and they can meet our future challenges. What is more, and as mentioned in speeches at the Northern Ireland “A Young Commonwealth” event, those born in the post-Good Friday era are reaching voting age. We have moved on in the peace process and those 18-year-olds will be casting their vote. This different generation brings a lot of promise and opportunity regarding how they engage with the political process. We need to challenge the idea that young people do not care about politics and show them that they should care, and that politics is beyond our debating in a chamber, whether or not it is a debate on this subject.
I may speak on a regional level, but I know that what I say will hold gravitas in many other Commonwealth nations. I believe that, if we renew our younger generation’s interest in the political process, our nations have a bright future in which we can move forward together as a Commonwealth. I am sure that the range of Commonwealth day events has been equally impressive across all nations and hope that our youth’s claiming centre stage conveys just how much they matter, now and in future.
I shall quote Her Majesty once more, as her words perfectly summarise the sentiment I am trying to convey:
“We are guardians of a precious flame, and it is our duty not only to keep it burning brightly but to keep it replenished for the decades ahead.”
Wise words, strong words. Commonwealth day reminds us of this flame that we hold in common. The youth of our Commonwealth are the guardians of this flame and I trust and know that they will keep it alight. To maintain the Commonwealth, we must keep that flame and belief in our Commonwealth alight in our young people. The first step to doing this is ensuring their engagement and their belief in our democratic process.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who emphasised the importance of youth within the Commonwealth, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). I want to return to the role of youth, perhaps with a glancing reference to Cakegate in Northern Ireland, the meaning of which may become clearer in respect of the main issue that I want to raise.
First, I pay tribute to the leadership that my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden has given to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I do not know whether his speech was circulated beforehand—I had not seen a copy—so it came as a delightful surprise to discover that we had crossed paths in 1968 in Singapore. At the time, I was seven years old and attempting to learn to swim at the Tanglin Club. My father was stationed as a colonel on the staff in Singapore, trying to organise the withdrawal of United Kingdom forces from their permanent base station.
I was particularly impressed by my right hon. Friend’s leadership of the CPA at the Commonwealth parliamentary conference last October. Although I was elected in 1997, I had not taken the opportunity to attend the Commonwealth parliamentary conference until last year, when—having been freed of the responsibilities of ministerial office by the Prime Minister in 2012—it struck me that the Commonwealth and its institutions provided a suitable vehicle through which to identify and work for one of the causes that I intended to use my parliamentary position to pursue: the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights around the world.
Within that nexus, I was happy to become chair of the parliamentary friends of the Kaleidoscope Trust, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to advancing the cause of rights for LGBT people around the world, and to use the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as a safe place where it ought to be possible to have difficult, sensitive conversations with fellow parliamentarians from the 41 of the 53 Commonwealth jurisdictions where LGBT people are criminalised. That is one of the unhappy legacies. One of the things that brings the Commonwealth together is the British legal system. Many states have on their statute books legislation that was in place in the colonial era, reflecting some of the less attractive Victorian values that were imposed on their societies in a period of British Administration.
In international terms, the Commonwealth is an organisation dealing in soft power rather than hard power and a place where we can bring this extraordinary range of countries and peoples together to discuss issues. As part of that soft support, the CPA is a place where it is possible to speak to one’s fellow parliamentarians to explain the journey that the United Kingdom has been on—from active enforcement of the laws in the 1950s, to a review of them in the Wolfenden report of 1957, to decriminalisation and then to equality in most of the United Kingdom, with the delivery of same-sex marriage.
The organisation is also about making clear to one’s fellow parliamentarians that we are not expecting them to change—it took 60 years in the United Kingdom—in one smooth movement, given that they have to operate within the popular views of societies where the strongly embedded religious organisations and Churches take a very didactic view of these issues. It is reasonable for us to use the CPA to educate, at least in that sense, our fellow parliamentarians and illuminate their experiences.
I commend the leadership given on that issue, not only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden in the CPA, but by the serving secretary-general of the Commonwealth. Only three weeks ago, Kamalesh Sharma addressed the high level segment of the United Nations Human Rights Council in its 28th regular session in Geneva on 3 March. He represents an organisation three quarters of whose jurisdictions outlaw people such as me in their statute books. He said:
“Mr President, a 2011 report, requested by the Council and prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner, documented discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, and how international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations in this area. In September last year, this Council adopted a new resolution on the subject, once again expressing grave concern and requesting the High Commissioner to produce an update of the report with a view to sharing good practices and ways to overcome violence and discrimination. We look forward to the publication of the report. We will be encouraging Commonwealth member states to reflect and act on its actionable recommendations in order to give effect to our shared commitment to dignity, equality and nondiscrimination.”
I salute the secretary-general for the leadership he is taking.
I thank the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Kaleidoscope Trust for their work. They have jointly produced a report called “Collaboration and consensus: building a constructive Commonwealth approach to LGBT rights”, which I commend to all those interested in the advancement of LGBT rights internationally. I particularly commend it to the Minister who has responsibility in this area.
I know that all the Ministers in the Foreign Office have taken a leadership role on this issue. Only last week, I met the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), to discuss informally how to advance the agenda. I met the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), to discuss the issue before the conference last year that the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), held on the wider human rights agenda. That conference got significant attention, as it deserved.
During his term in office, the previous Foreign Secretary was prepared to meet such activists as Dr Frank Mugisha, from Sexual Minorities Uganda. Uganda has been at the centre of the debate. The issue is about giving that level of moral support by being prepared to meet the activists, who are being unbelievably brave. Their predecessors in these countries have been murdered; that has happened not only in Uganda, but in Jamaica. It is about understanding the courage of people standing up for the rights of LGBT people in conditions where popular sentiment is in a very different place from here and violence is incited against them. That demonstration of moral support was welcome, and I thank my right hon. Friend for giving that signal.
There is an extreme set of positions on LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries. In such countries as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada, the legal battle for equality has pretty much been won. Aspects remain, although they are perhaps minor in terms of the whole United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, for example, there is controversy over the same-sex couple who wanted to buy a cake to celebrate their wedding and have something that they thought appropriate written on it. If someone is in the business of selling services, they should be absolutely clear that they cannot discriminate against people who buy those services. That should be utterly straightforward.
The hon. Gentleman mentions a legal case that will be heard shortly—at the end of this month. It may go on for about four weeks, but it would be remiss of me not at least to make a statement on Ashers bakery and the stand that it took. It believes that it exercised freedom of expression and that it had a right to do so. I stand strongly behind the Ashers bakery, as do others.
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to take that position. However, I hope that he will reflect, as the case plays out, on what it means when someone wants to buy a service freely available to everyone else but is told that they cannot have it because they are gay.
That is, in effect, the hon. Gentleman’s position. We want to get parliamentarians from all over the Commonwealth to empathise with what it actually means for someone to be in such a position. People have no control over how they are. We want parliamentarians to find a way to give people the freedom to be as they are and to understand how important that is to them and how unfair it is to have laws on the statute book that discriminate against them.
The question is one of trying to use the institutions of the Commonwealth to educate parliamentarians without confrontation. It is a process of education and understanding, and it is a journey that I have been on. Given the nature of the societies that we all come from and the extraordinary journey that understanding of and attitudes to LGBT rights have made in the United Kingdom over the past 60 years, I make no criticism of colleagues in this place, or parliamentarians in other countries, who are yet to have that level of understanding.
Nevertheless, I say to the Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that despite all the support from the human rights officers in posts overseas and the moral support and leadership shown by FCO Ministers, and despite the leadership shown by the Prime Minister in raising these issues at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, there comes a moment, as in Uganda, when some small demonstration of firm disapproval may be appropriate.
Happily, although the law in Uganda had been made significantly worse by the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the Act was struck down because it was not passed with the required quorum. That has given Uganda an opportunity for a period of reflection about what to do next. In the current circumstances, implementing any kind of sanctions or formal methods of disapproval would be inappropriate.
Nevertheless, if laws are promoted in Commonwealth countries that make discrimination against LGBT people worse, and the situation is made even more difficult and the climate even more uncomfortable for people with a minority sexual orientation, I hope that we would at least contemplate small measures, such as targeted travel bans for those responsible for making the situation worse for a significant percentage of Commonwealth citizens.
Bearing in mind the population of the whole Commonwealth, we are talking about hundreds of millions of people being affected by laws heading in the wrong direction. We must use the Commonwealth to allow laws and their implementation to follow steadily the route taken in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, where we have come to understand that having a minority sexual orientation is not something that people catch but something that they are born with. It is only right and proper that people should have the basic protections from discrimination that are embedded in the Commonwealth charter and the universal declaration on human rights, to which all nations of the Commonwealth have signed up.
In conclusion, I pay tribute again to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden for securing this debate and, much more importantly, for his outstanding leadership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He gave us some small flavour of the challenges that he faced in exercising that leadership. The CPA is obviously but one part of all the institutions of the Commonwealth. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate, which is relatively close to Commonwealth day, and to hearing his review of such an extraordinary institution and the opportunities it presents to advance the rights and status, both economic and social, of all Commonwealth citizens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone—we both learned how meetings should properly be conducted on Bromley council.
I pay tribute to two individuals. First, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), who not only made a distinguished contribution to the debate but has played a considerable role in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—both the UK branch and, as he outlined, worldwide. With his usual frankness, he acknowledged that his work has not been without its difficulties. He has played a significant role in trying to move the organisation along. His work is very much appreciated and I hope that it will steadily bear fruit over the coming years.
Were it not outwith the procedures of the House, I would also draw attention to the welcome presence of the chief executive of the UK CPA, who is listening to proceedings from the Public Gallery. Through you, Mr Hollobone, I thank him and his staff for the enormous amount of work that they do in maintaining the organisation and assisting individual members. They also do great work with the various groups that come here from other Commonwealth countries for valuable exchanges of views and ideas, from which I am sure that those groups benefit and I know that we do too.
I join the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden in paying tribute to the founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, whose death was announced this week. He was a figure not without controversy, but no one can doubt his achievements to the great benefit of his country, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations generally and the wider Commonwealth. It is no surprise that his wise counsel was sought by not only his successors in Singapore, but leaders and diplomats around the world. That has been evident in the tributes paid to him. On Sir Christopher Wren’s gravestone in St Paul’s cathedral is the inscription:
“If you seek my monument look around you.”
Looking around modern Singapore, one can see clearly the monument to Lee Kuan Yew, as well as his ultimate achievement of ensuring a system and progress that will continue after his demise.
A while ago my local council, Sandwell, was on an anti-litter purge, which gained some press coverage. Some busybody organisation that hoped to insult Sandwell dubbed it, the “Singapore of the west midlands”. The high commission here was slightly concerned, but my local council leaders were immensely flattered by the description.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden on the importance of having an annual debate on the Commonwealth to help us to focus, although I think we would hope that future debates do not take place just a couple of days before Dissolution. The debate on the Commonwealth is part of a wider debate about Britain’s position and role in the world. Some want to make us an inward, insular country, bitter at the outside world. That is not in Britain’s history, nor is it in its interests or destiny. In many ways, it is a replay of the old debate of “Little England” or “Great Britain”. That relates to our membership of the most successful defensive alliance in history, NATO; to the largest single market on the planet, the European Union, and to our position as a P5 country at the UN.
No less remarkable was the creation of the Commonwealth out of the end of empire—a multicultural, multi-ethnic body that has overcome so many of the issues of our shared history. Even countries that do not share that legacy are keen to join the Commonwealth, which is a significant tribute in itself—some hon. Members from Northern Ireland mentioned applicant countries for consideration. Without a hint of superiority or arrogance, we should take pride in the institutions and values that we have introduced worldwide, not least the institution of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law with an impartial judiciary. The success of Singapore—and, interestingly enough, of Hong Kong—is testimony to the ongoing strength and legacy of an impartial judiciary, but it goes much wider.
Learning from each other is by no means a one-way street. Debates in Westminster Hall derive from the Australian Parliament: we have a side Chamber with the full value of the main Chamber that allows more subjects to be debated—not only subjects of interest to individual Members of Parliament but debates such as this one.
Part of the Commonwealth’s shared history has been in conflict. Throughout the country, we are currently commemorating many of the events of the first world war, and we are reminded very strongly and deeply of their impact. I have been visiting Sikh gurdwaras around the country, where tremendous work has been done on researching the history and reminding youngsters of the significant contribution of the Sikhs in the first world war. They came to a continent that they had never visited and were faced with dramatically different weather conditions, and they fought bravely and at great cost against German imperialism. They were only one of the communities from the then India who participated at great cost to themselves.
Next month will be the commemoration of the landings at Gallipoli, with services at the Cenotaph and in Westminster abbey. The Minister and I are representing our respective parties at those events. The Gallipoli action not only defined the character of Australia and New Zealand, but deepened the bonds between their countries and ours.
In the absence of the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), it would be remiss of me not to follow up on the comments of the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden about the unique concerns and problems of small states. Had the hon. Member for Romford been present, I am certain that he would have raised once again the position of the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. We need to see how their concerns can be incorporated. Furthermore, on the smaller states, last year I had the privilege of attending a conference of south Pacific states held in New Zealand. That was an excellent CPA initiative. Those states are under considerable pressure from a China that is seeking to expand its influence in the area—they are not hostile but have some concerns—and the ability to discuss the issue within the framework of the Commonwealth was very much appreciated and understood.
As I said, this is not only a Commonwealth of nations, but a Commonwealth of values: parliamentary democracy, free trade, universal human rights and, especially, a commitment to pluralism. To be frank, in some cases—this has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members today—our relations with fellow Commonwealth members can be slightly strained over some issues. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) highlighted a particular one. Will the Minister indicate the actions taken and representations made by the Government on the important concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed? It is right to raise such issues.
Putting that in the wider context of values and the very welcome Commonwealth charter, I have another question. At the Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—CHOGM—there was, as I understand it, much discussion but postponement of a final decision on the report of the eminent persons group. Some of its work is reflected in the Commonwealth charter, but what further work will be undertaken to build on that of the eminent persons group?
The Commonwealth is not simply a static organisation. Maintenance of linkages needs to be undertaken and a particular one is the “Young Commonwealth” theme. Young people make up a significant percentage of the populations of many countries in the Commonwealth. Focusing attention on that for the future of their societies and of the Commonwealth is extremely welcome.
There is also the work between states. I pay tribute to some of that work that the Government have undertaken, in particular by developing relations with India and, significantly, in the valuable connections of the AUKMIN group of Australian and United Kingdom Ministers. The next Labour Government look forward to continuing such initiatives.
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
However, some of this Government’s actions have put relations under strain. Only a week or so ago, a meeting hosted by the Russell Group of universities echoed and amplified the great complaints of the tertiary education sector about the negative impact on them and on British industry, commerce and society of our over-prescriptive visa regime, which has already caused a big decline in the number of students from India, Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries. Real concerns have also been expressed by the Governments of Australia and New Zealand about the declining opportunities for their youngsters, many of them our relatives, to spend time working here, contributing to the British economy and gaining experience to take back to their home countries to develop their growing economies, which, incidentally, are also major trading partners of ours.
Given the large number of countries in the Commonwealth, I can touch only on a limited number of them. Mention has been made of the welcome return to the Commonwealth of Fiji, which is particularly good news for the British Army. I remember officials at the Ministry of Defence telling me that they had had expressions of interest from Fijian soldiers about joining the British Army and asking what we would do about it. We set up some protocols but, with some foresight, I predicted that that would play havoc with the inter-service rugby competition, to the benefit of the Army, although I had not anticipated the havoc in the regimental rugby system, because a number of the Fijians played for some of the previously more minor regiments. It is welcome that Fiji is back in the Commonwealth, following what is generally regarded as a successful election. Obviously we must ensure that such developments continue to make progress, in particular in the field of trade union rights.
Concerns have been expressed widely, if not in the debate today, about the imprisonment in Malaysia of Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has raised the issue. A number of Opposition Members and activists there have been arrested too. Will the Minister indicate what action our Government have taken in response to such concerns?
A number of constituencies have sizeable Bangladeshi communities which, whatever their views or whichever party in Bangladesh they supported, are concerned about the escalating tensions in Bangladesh and about the unnecessary violence and tragic deaths. In the election in January last year, not all the people of Bangladesh were able to express their democratic will fully. Progress can be achieved only through dialogue between all parties. All sides need to call for restraint and an end to violence. The international community should certainly support Bangladesh in that regard.
On the Maldives, concern about due process has been expressed about the arrest, conviction and sentencing to 13 years in prison of former President Nasheed. The Commonwealth has discussed the matter and is providing a measured response. It is important for the Commonwealth to work together to promote democracy and due process.
As the hon. Member for Reigate indicated, equality is a significant underpinning of the Commonwealth, but LGBT equality remains a major omission from the Commonwealth charter. Will the Government pursue the issue with individual countries and more generally in the Commonwealth?
With regard to Sri Lanka, there has been a welcome change as a result of the election. It is also important for the further upcoming parliamentary elections to be free, fair and peaceful. We look forward to the postponed publication of the report of the UN Human Rights Council inquiry, to improvement in relations between the communities in Sri Lanka and in the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law—justice and accountability—and to the country getting back to rebuilding its economy and society.
That is only a small number of the issues facing the Commonwealth today, but they indicate its vibrancy in tackling them, which adds to the ability of the Commonwealth countries to work and trade with each other. In particular in Africa, the attempts to break down customs and other barriers to trade between countries are important and would be to the benefit of the countries, which have huge young populations with a real need for employment. The Commonwealth offers a beacon of hope and a mechanism for dealing with such issues.
On a point of order, Mr Gray. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) stated that the Ashers bakery had refused to bake a cake for a same-gender couple. Let it be very clear that that is not the case: Ashers said that it was unwilling to use the wording that was requested on the cake. The issue is the right of those at Ashers bakery to hold fast to their religious views. Incidentally, according to the latest poll, the vast majority of the population in Northern Ireland—over 70%—supports them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. However, that is not a point of order but a point of information. He believes that something that another hon. Member has said was incorrect. By his intervention he has put his remarks in Hansard, but what he has raised is not a matter for the Chair.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this debate, whether timely or otherwise. I thank other hon. Members for their contributions.
I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend and of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which, as he has outlined so eloquently, has done so much to forge ties and strengthen democracy across the Commonwealth. I associate myself with his warm words about the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. My right hon. Friend’s commitment to the CPA was much in evidence at its recent conference on human rights in the modern-day Commonwealth, at which I spoke. He may have come to the end of his tenure as chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but I, like other Ministers across Government and Back Benchers on both sides of the House, have always valued his immense contribution. I hope we will continue to benefit from his insight and experience on Commonwealth matters—I am sure we will.
I also congratulate and welcome the incoming chair, Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament, whom I met earlier this month. I wish her well and hope she has great success in her new role. I trust that, as her predecessor, my right hon. Friend will feel able to share with her his clear and well argued vision for the association’s future. I am certain she will continue to enjoy the full support of the excellent CPA secretariat.
I share my right hon. Friend’s deep respect and admiration for the Commonwealth. Indeed, the Government have made no secret of our strong support for that unique organisation. Since my appointment as Minister for the Commonwealth, I have worked to uphold our pledge to put the C back into the FCO, not least because, as my ministerial travels have reminded me, we owe our friends in the Commonwealth an enormous debt of gratitude. I have made it a habit to pay my respects where possible at the many memorials across the world that commemorate the names of the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars, fighting to defend the freedoms we enjoy today. I pay tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which has so beautifully maintained those memorials.
The Commonwealth today is about much more than its past, however. It is a global network of 53 equal partners, which offers a wealth of opportunities to work together on trade and on issues such as climate change. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) spoke passionately about extending the network by one member. I will refrain from commenting on that matter, other than to say that it is not a new idea.
To make the most of the opportunities the Commonwealth offers, while never forgetting the shared history that brought us all together in the first place, we must spend more time looking to the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) pointed out that 60% of the Commonwealth’s population is under the age of 30. This year’s Commonwealth day on 9 March rightly celebrated that, with the theme “A Young Commonwealth”. At the Commonwealth day observance at Westminster abbey, I was delighted to see our Commonwealth envoy sitting among the high commissioners. For obvious reasons we do not have a British high commissioner in London, and for too long that has meant that we have not been represented at a senior level at Commonwealth meetings. The new post of envoy ensures, for the first time, that we have a dedicated envoy to represent our views at the Commonwealth. That important institutional change will, I believe, make clear to all the value we attach to our membership of the organisation.
After a successful Commonwealth day, our thoughts now turn to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta, where the theme will be “adding global value”. I am delighted that Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will attend. A future CHOGM is planned to take place in Vanuatu; our thoughts are with all those affected by Cyclone Pam. I have been to Vanuatu, and have been watching with horror the devastation that has been wreaked upon it. I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom is providing £2 million of immediate support to the people of Vanuatu through funding to non-governmental organisations and the United Nations.
I am pleased that, at the next CHOGM, Prime Minister Muscat plans to focus on securing practical outcomes that address the issues that matter most to our members and that look at the challenges we share, rather than the points on which we disagree. We have worked closely with Malta to develop a set of institutional changes to make the Heads of Government meeting more effective. We will also elect a new secretary-general, the successor to His Excellency Kamalesh Sharma, whom I warmly congratulate on all he has achieved within the secretariat. We want to ensure that the best candidate is selected for the role, no matter where they are from. Whoever it may be, those at CHOGM will have an opportunity to give them a clear, focused mandate and a realistic set of priorities upon which to focus in the years ahead.
It was with some passion that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) spoke about LGBT issues. Respect for the values set out in the Commonwealth charter, which was signed by Her Majesty the Queen two years ago this month, is regrettably not consistent across the Commonwealth. Despite the work we have done to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens of the Commonwealth, many, as we have heard, continue to suffer persecution. I actively raised our concerns at the last Heads of Government meeting, and was disappointed that we were one of only a few countries to do so. However, we will not cease from actively promoting the issue and raising it with our Commonwealth partners.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke, as he often does, about religious belief and freedom from persecution. It is worth pointing out that the Commonwealth has members of every major world religion, including 800 million Hindus, 500 million Muslims and 400 million Christians. We believe that tolerance, respect and understanding are Commonwealth values that are set out in the charter.
When discussing religion and LGBT rights, it is perhaps worth reminding all of what the charter says clearly:
“We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
We urge our Commonwealth partners to reread what they signed and to act, in due course, upon it.
We have concerns about political freedoms, too. The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) raised the issue of the Maldives. I met a group of Maldivian parliamentarians only last week. If he has followed the FCO website and my tweets, he will know that I was the first Minister anywhere in the world to comment on the arrest of President Nasheed. We continue to monitor the situation extremely closely, just as we do the ongoing violence and disruption in Bangladesh.
We also have Sri Lanka, whose newly elected Government have re-embraced their place in the Commonwealth, for which we applaud them. They have committed to work with the United Nations to address the alleged human rights abuses of the past.
We cannot force a change in attitudes, and we understand that implementing the charter will take time—it is a marathon, not a sprint. However, we have made it clear repeatedly not only that member states have a moral obligation to uphold and promote what we agreed in 2012, but that it is in their national self-interest to do so. Human rights, democratic values, and safe and just societies are the building blocks of successful nations, and certainly Commonwealth nations. I do not, therefore, accept the widely held view that the Commonwealth should focus on human rights and democratic institutions or on trade, but not on both.
Hon. Members mentioned the movement of Commonwealth citizens and called for us to ease the ability of businesses and students to operate across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth secretariat is looking particularly at the latter question, and we are working closely with member states on it. Despite the fact that the Commonwealth has a young, dynamic population of more than 2 billion people—they are spread across every inhabited continent, and the majority are united by a common language and common legal systems—there remains much that we can, and must, do to boost trade and investment between us. That is why the Prime Minister led a high-profile trade delegation to a number of Commonwealth countries, including India and Malaysia.
The shadow Minister mentioned the arrest of Anwar. I was in Malaysia last month, and I made very clear our concerns. We continue to monitor the situation extremely closely.
However, let me return to trade, which is the reason why we organised the Commonwealth Games business conference in July 2014. It is also why the work of my noble Friend Lord Marland’s Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, and of the Commonwealth business forum at the Heads of Government meeting, is so important, and I warmly applaud the connection with the City of London, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden alluded. The close involvement of those bodies with businesses is generating innovative ideas to realise the Commonwealth’s vast yet largely untapped potential for trade, which the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) rightly mentioned. We must continue to make the most of such opportunities.
Let me restate that the Government remain deeply committed to the Commonwealth. However, in a world where taxpayers rightly expect to know why institutions exist and what they achieve, and where competing bodies and organisations cover every area of international activity, Commonwealth members share a duty to work together to ensure that this great organisation is ready and fit to tackle the challenges, and seize the opportunities, of the 21st century.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to debate these issues. I also thank him for everything he has done for the CPA—for his continuing involvement in it and for his guidance, which I am sure his successor will come to rely on in the years ahead. This is possibly the last debate on this subject in this Parliament, so let me also thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have shown an interest in, and a passion for, the Commonwealth, which is in good shape to meet the demands of an ever-changing, complicated and, at times, extremely dangerous world.
First, I thank colleagues for the kind remarks that have come in my direction. We are all committed to ensuring the continued strength of the Commonwealth.
I am pleased so much has been said about youth and human rights. Much more work has to be done to ensure that that 60% of the Commonwealth population—young people under 30—feel that there is a point to the Commonwealth and representative parliamentary democracy and that their voice can be heard.
We have to wear away at the differences on human rights. This, I think, is where we all believe that soft diplomacy can play its part. If one flings comments back and forth by e-mail or in the press, there is a danger that one simply causes positions to become entrenched. When one meets and talks to people— sometimes in the margin of conferences—one perhaps begins to establish a common understanding, which may, over time, lead to a softening of positions and to greater accord.
That requires people to use part of their parliamentary life to talk with others. One frightening thing about the world in the past was that people did not have the opportunity to travel or to meet others. I think of the dark days of the 1930s, when, had more people from this country travelled in Europe, there would have been greater enlightenment about what was happening, which might have averted catastrophe. Similarly, if more people had had the opportunity to travel to distant parts of the world, as they do today, they would have come away with a better understanding of how interdependent we all are and of how our general welfare can be advanced and the causes of conflict can be reduced.
We have a great role in the Commonwealth, which we must allow to be an exemplar of tolerance, understanding and respect for parliamentary democracy and human rights. The more we can air that view and be practical ambassadors, the better. I hope the media will not trivialise that or suggest that engaging in such things somehow means that we are neglecting our role. What finer role could there be than to enhance understanding across the world or to uphold the values of the Commonwealth? We should therefore stand tall. We should say that there are important missions we must undertake and that we do so with pride under the CPA banner—and even wearing the CPA tie, to which I boldly referred, and which can be obtained, I have no doubt, by applying to the chief executive of our branch in the near future.
Finally, I echo what the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said: we owe a great deal to the staff of the UK branch. Officials throughout our Parliament help us with all this work, and they contribute freely to it. However, the core staff of the CPA UK branch have done an enormous amount of work, which is copied in many other parts of the Commonwealth. We know the amount of work they generate and the expertise they bring to it, and they earn compliments from all our visitors for the way they organise things. That is at the heart of our work in the UK branch, and we must try to ensure that best practice is spread throughout the Commonwealth so that the CPA can do its jobs more effectively in the future. We can then be increasingly proud as the Commonwealth advances in upholding the standards we believe are the right and proper way forward.
Kettering General Hospital
It is a huge pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I, through you, thank Mr Speaker for giving me the honour of debating what is an important subject for my constituents?
I welcome the Minister to his place. He has taken a keen personal interest in the future of Kettering general hospital. The hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) are also here, and I hope they will make many interventions to stress the role they have played in working with me to secure the hospital’s future. Indeed, I am pleased to report that the three of us have been working closely together on a cross-party basis for the past few years, because we recognise that local people want party politics taken out of the future of our local hospital. It is a personal issue for the three of us, because we and our relatives use it, as do local people.
Kettering general hospital has been on its present site for 118 years. Local people have been born there and treated there, and they have died there. It is a much-loved district general hospital at the heart of the community of Kettering and north Northamptonshire. It is a key priority for local people that its future should be secure, so that it can continue to offer the best treatment to the increasing number of people living in the area. Kettering and north Northamptonshire are growing rapidly. Over the past decade the borough of Kettering had the sixth most rapid household growth out of 348 districts in the country, and that population increase is set to continue into the next decade.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about our cross-party working, which our constituents throughout north Northamptonshire welcome. It has helped us in our approaches to the Minister and local health partners, and in bringing them together.
On the point about population, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should emphasise the fact that as well as having, like most of the country, an ageing population, we also have one of the highest birth rates? Indeed, my constituency has the highest, but the birth rate is high throughout north Northamptonshire. There is demand at both ends of the population, as well as, of course, from people of working age.
That is very pertinent. Demographic pressures are hitting us from every angle. There is a high birth rate in Corby and east Northamptonshire. Increasingly, in my constituency as well as the hon. Gentleman’s and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, the population is ageing. Whereas 30 years ago an elderly patient might go to hospital with a particular condition, now it is even older people who are going there, with multiple conditions needing treatment at the same time. Kettering general hospital, like all hospitals, must raise its game when treating such vulnerable members of the community. It is not only population numbers, but the number of young and old patients that creates a challenge.
Although Kettering general hospital has difficulties and challenges, it is raising its game, and that is due largely to the tremendous dedication of the doctors, nurses, ancillary staff, management and clerical staff at the hospital, who are in a joint endeavour to deliver the best care they can. There is extremely good news to report. The Department of Health tells me that in 2012-13 there were 85,497 in-patient finished consultant episodes at the hospital, compared with 84,602 in 2011-12. There has been a focus on accident and emergency waiting time targets, and in the past few years Kettering general hospital has moved from being one of the worst in the country to one of the best. All hospitals in the country have been under pressure this winter, but it would be wrong to give the impression that fewer people are being treated at Kettering A and E. The reverse is true. In 2010-11 76,099 people presented themselves to A and E. In 2012-13 the number was 84,055. Record numbers of people are being treated there.
The hon. Gentleman will have been struck, as I was, at being told that the accident and emergency department was built for 20,000 patient visits a year, given that recent figure of 84,000. I endorse his remarks about change and progress in the past few years. To what does he attribute that? He mentioned the staff, and I agree. There has also been a change in the leadership of the hospital. However, perhaps it is also to do with the way the local health partners and organisations, including the clinical commissioning groups, have come together with the hospital more effectively through the work that we have been involved in with them, particularly with a view to improving A and E.
The hon. Gentleman is right, of course. He gives a tantalising flavour of the climax of my speech, which will be about the urgent care hub proposal for Kettering general hospital, on which he, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough have been working together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Before he moves on to the climax, which we are all waiting to hear, may I mention, in addition to the work of the hospital and its staff, the contribution of support organisations? One of those is Crazy Hats, a local breast cancer charity run by Glennis Hooper, who is a remarkable lady. All three of us MPs took part in the charity walk on Sunday.
Yes—not only have we three north Northamptonshire Members worked on a cross-party basis to secure the future of our local hospital, but we all dressed up in funny outfits on Sunday to walk around Wicksteed park in Kettering in support of Glennis Hooper and the marvellous work she does for Crazy Hats, which raises money for cancer treatment and care for our constituents. I suppose that it is part of an MP’s job on occasion to dress up in a funny costume and look silly for the benefit of constituents, and we are all pleased to do that.
Some further good news about Kettering general hospital, from Department of Health statistics, is that finished consultant episodes when any procedure took place in the hospital—which I think is bureaucracy-speak for the number of operations—went up from 49,638 in 2010 to 53,869 in 2013. I am told that there are 43 more hospital doctors and 55 more nurses than in 2010 and there is a 24% increase in diagnostic tests, a one third increase in the number of people treated for cancer and a 71% increase in the number of MRI scans performed. Of course just two years ago the £30 million foundation wing was opened. It has a 16-bed intensive care unit, a 28-bed cardiac unit and a 32-bed children’s unit. That was massive new investment in our local hospital.
It should not be forgotten—and we three Members of Parliament for the area do not forget—that increasingly Kettering general hospital offers our constituents world-class health care. The latest example of that is the cardiac investigations department, which has received national recognition for its high standards in heart ultrasound scanning. Every year 8,000 of our constituents are patients through that unit, which provides ultrasound scans of the heart. Those can reveal diseases such as heart failure and valve diseases.
That shows what huge progress has been made. A little over 10 years ago, my granddad had a heart attack and had to wait in a bed in Kettering general for six weeks to be transferred to Glenfield hospital in Leicester for a stent. Such operations can now be done as a day case at Kettering general.
The hon. Gentleman is right. That is a good example of the way Kettering general hospital has raised its game to tackle local health needs. Increasingly, our constituents do not have to go to Glenfield, because they can get better care at their local hospital. In the case in question, that is because of the £300,000 investment in three state-of-the-art ultrasound scanners, which can show the heart in three dimensions. The 16-strong cardiac investigations team has been awarded accreditation by the British Society of Echocardiography, which is an affiliate of the British Cardiovascular Society. That accolade is not given lightly. Kettering hospital is one of only 38 in the country to have achieved that accreditation; some specialist centres, such as Glenfield, Papworth, John Radcliffe and Coventry, have not yet attained it.
The £4 million upgrade of the maternity department at Kettering general hospital started in December. An average of 10 babies per day are delivered at the hospital—including the babies of Members who are here today. It is part of an £18 million investment in the hospital.
In coming to the climax of my remarks, I want to talk about the innovative proposal for an urgent care hub at the hospital—my colleagues will appreciate this, because we have been working on it together. Over the past few months, the hospital has been liaising with partners and developing a strategic case for an urgent care hub on the hospital site to tackle long-term, urgent care pressure relating to population growth, about which we have spoken; age and acuity; and increasing public demand for prompt access to urgent care.
In December, the trust shared its strategic case with the foundation trust regulator, Monitor, which is currently considering the proposal. If Monitor approves the case, it will go on to an outline business case and finally a full business case for approval by Monitor, the Department of Health and the Treasury. The key to its success is that the hospital has been working in close collaboration with its health and social care partners. It is developing what is essentially a one-stop shop for our constituents who need urgent medical care.
The aim is to develop a £30 million urgent care hub on the hospital site that will combine secondary care, hospital A and E and urgent care assessment with primary care—in other words, GP services, minor injury care and social and community care services. The proposal has arisen because there has been significant growth in demand for that type of urgent care in the local health economy of our three constituencies, partly due to a 30% population growth over the past 19 years, with another 9% expected by 2020, and a rise in the population of older people, about which we have spoken. There has also been a massive 83% increase in the use of A and E over the past 20 years as a means of accessing urgent care.
My hon. Friend is outlining an exciting new project. The scheme will include a minor injuries and accidents unit at the Isebrook hospital, which will relieve up to 40% of my constituents from having to go to Kettering. It is bang next to a 24-hour GP service, so that is exciting for my constituents, too.
My hon. Friend has rightly made that issue a priority for his constituents, and he has led an effective campaign on it. That facility will be similar to the facility currently in operation in Corby. The idea is to treat people as locally as possible so they do not have to present themselves at Kettering’s A and E department. It is all part of making local health care delivery more efficient and effective, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree about one of the things we have made progress on—particularly through the cross-party campaign and the cross-working of the organisations involved? Although there are sometimes particular interests in individual towns and communities, we have looked at the bigger picture for the whole of our area. There are benefits for individual towns. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I want to build on the success of the urgent care centre, but, in the end, when A and E—in particular, trauma services—is needed, it is going to be there relatively locally for everybody in north Northamptonshire.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Although we want to see far more local delivery of efficient NHS services in particular constituencies, all three of us accept that the vital part of the local health economy is the success of Kettering general hospital. If it were not there—if it were in Northampton, Milton Keynes, Bedford or Luton—local NHS delivery for our constituents would be far worse. We have to make Kettering general hospital a success. We can help it along its way with the innovative establishment of success stories such as the urgent care centre in Corby and the new facility at Isebrook, but the key to success for all our constituents is to make Kettering general hospital a success story for the future.
The hub concept developed by the trust and supported by all three of us is a partnership with the bodies that purchase NHS services, such as the clinical commissioning groups, the Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the social care provider, Northamptonshire county council. If successful, the urgent care hub would effectively provide a one-stop shop for GP services and out-of-hours care; an on-site pharmacy; a minor injuries unit; facilities for social services and mental health care; access to community care services for the frail elderly; a replacement for the hospital’s A and E department, which is now 20 years old; and a new A and E services area, which will provide even better acute emergency care and integrated assessment to ensure that patients see the right specialists right away.
The three of us have been to see the Minister with the hospital and the CCGs, so the Minister knows that we are all as one in believing that the urgent care hub concept is the right one for the health economy in north Northamptonshire. It mirrors the way in which NHS England would like to see pioneering health care delivered in the future. As David Sissling, the chief executive of the hospital, said,
“This integrated approach is also something that NHS England has highlighted is an important principle in its Five Year Forward View for the NHS and it also fits with”
the collaborative programme happening in Northampton- shire.
I hope that when the Minister responds to this debate, in which all three MPs have sung from the same hymn sheet and said with one voice that we need the urgent care hub for the betterment of our constituents’ health, he will reiterate his support for the proposal. Whoever wins the election in our three constituencies and whoever forms the next Government, this important proposal must happen, for all our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. I also commend him and our colleagues in the Chamber—my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford)—for their consensual and cross-party approach to tackling the challenges of the local health economy and addressing the needs of local patients. It is working together, as a group of MPs, that has helped to deliver success for the local hospital. That cross-party consensus is an example of what should be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering is right that good health care is not political; it is about doing the right thing by patients, and that is the approach that hon. Members here today have taken in addressing local health concerns.
A number of the points raised today are ones we have talked about in meetings at the Department of Health. I have taken a keen interest in supporting Kettering in its future ambitions and in supporting my hon. Friend in his strong advocacy of the needs of local patients and his local hospital. As he rightly outlined, this is a part of the country with a growing population, due to increasing housing growth and the plans to increase housing growth in the future. As in all parts of the country, there is increased pressure on medical services from an ageing population with complex health care needs. By 2018, we will have 3 million patients with not one or two, but three long-term medical conditions—it could be diabetes, dementia, heart disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Caring for patients with complex medical needs is a challenge for our whole country, and I know it has been one of the main drivers of increased admissions to A and E in Kettering. The acuity, which is the severity of the illness or medical admission, is a key issue that has been picked up by the A and E consultants and doctors with whom I have discussed the challenges faced locally by the trust. Supporting a better way of caring for people with long-term conditions and the frail elderly is at the heart of the proposals for the care hub that my hon. Friend outlined.
I want to take this opportunity to recognise the outstanding work done by NHS staff up and down the country. On this occasion, it is appropriate to draw attention to NHS staff working in and around Kettering—not only in the hospital, but in general practice, community mental health teams and palliative care teams. The commitment across the board in Kettering to delivering the highest-quality patient care is an example of what the NHS is all about, and it is right to recognise the dedication of front-line staff in the Kettering area.
I want to take the opportunity also to commend formally my hon. Friend for the outstanding interest that he has shown in standing up for the best interests of local patients throughout this Parliament and for his dedication in never missing an opportunity to raise questions in this Chamber and in the main Chamber during Health questions or to raise the case of his constituents in the Department of Health with me as the responsible Minister. It has been a pleasure to do all I can to support him, his constituents and Kettering hospital.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the recent investment in the hospital. That is due in no small part to his advocacy and that of other hon. Members in consistently raising the needs of Kettering hospital and the local population. My hon. Friend will recall that when we met in January to discuss health services in his constituency and the plans that his local NHS has to deal with some of the pressures that it faces, we talked about some promising ideas. I will discuss those in more detail in a moment.
Before I do so, it would be appropriate to say a few words more generally about the pressures that the health service has faced during a difficult winter, how they have been handled and what we have done to support the health service both in Kettering and more generally. We know that parts of the NHS can and have come under pressure because of unprecedented demand, linked to the challenges of our ageing population. Compared with four years ago, every day the NHS sees 16,000 more hospital out-patients, performs 10,000 more diagnostic tests and carries out 3,500 more operations, and there are 2,000 extra ambulance journeys. Every year, 1.3 million more people visit accident and emergency departments.
Despite the extra demand, our NHS is performing well and treating the vast majority of people quickly. It is particularly important that it is dealing with the most unwell patients first. That is possible because we have taken, even in difficult economic times, the decisions that have allowed us to increase the NHS budget by £12.7 billion over this Parliament. Of course, that has allowed us to support Kettering hospital with local investment, which my hon. Friend outlined.
The NHS is also on track to deliver up to £20 billion in efficiency savings over this five-year period. That challenge was outlined by the former chief executive of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, in 2009. Even to stand still and even with increased investment going into the NHS, it needed to make greater efficiencies. As a result of reforms and modernisation, we expect to save £4.9 billion over this Parliament and £1.5 billion a year from 2014 onwards. All of that will go directly back into front-line care in Kettering and elsewhere.
I thank the Minister for generously giving way, especially as the debate was secured by the hon. Member for Kettering. The Minister makes a point about efficiencies, but will he comment on the issue of geography, which we have not really touched on? We have talked about demand, but this is a critical issue for north Northamptonshire. The geography of our area is such that for people to have to rely on a hospital other than Kettering would mean considerable travel time. As someone who represents a rural area, I can say that that is an efficiency that we would not want to make. We would prefer to say, “Look, we want our local hospital. We recognise that there are challenges in sustaining a local hospital, but the geography of our area is such that we want to keep hold of it.”
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important and valid point. As well as improving the way our NHS buys goods and services—improving procurement practice, an issue that we discussed with members of the local health care team from Kettering when they visited me in the Department of Health—improving estate management and taking other measures of obvious efficiency, there is a need, outlined clearly in NHS England’s “Five Year Forward View”, to radically transform the way we deliver care. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering made that point. It is now a priority to care better for frail elderly people through better integrating health services. I am talking about using the hospital potentially as a hub for vertical integration of services, particularly in more rural areas. That will mean that other health services—community health services, general practice and mental health services—can be supported and integrated with the hospital service as a hub-and-spoke model of care.
Crucial to that as well is integrating what the social care service does at the same time and having an approach that joins up what health and social care have to offer. Taking advantage of the better care fund that has been set up at local level, so that the local authority can work more collaboratively with the NHS, is very important. It is often very difficult to define where social care ends and health care begins, because staff are dealing with the same person, with the same care needs, but traditionally a silo approach has been taken to the delivery of care. We need to break down institutional silos and deliver more personalised care. That is at the heart of integrating care—at the heart of the hub-and-spoke model built around Kettering hospital. It draws on the importance of joining up what the local authority does with what the NHS does. That is particularly important in more rural areas, such as the one that the hon. Member for Corby represents.
As I said, I have followed developments in Kettering with keen interest. It is worth saying that since October 2012, when Monitor found the trust to be in breach of its licence in relation to consistently poor A and E performance, considerable progress has been made. That is in no small part down to the work of the local NHS and the local health care teams. To date, in 2014-15—I am now bringing the House up to date—the Department has provided £7.4 million of revenue support and £5 million of emergency capital to the trust. Over the winter, the trust fully activated its winter plans, building on initiatives that proved successful in previous years.
That work included an enhanced weekend discharge team, detailed plans allowing escalation when there was a busy period, and appropriate use of short-stay facilities, including an observation unit and ambulatory care unit. Those short term measures are designed to ensure that services continue in times of pressure, but the intention, quite rightly—building on the point about better integrating health and social care and what happens in the community with what happens at the hospital—is to move to a position whereby there is the ability to cope with pressure all year round and not just during the winter. The urgent care hub has that integrated delivery model at its heart.
The hub, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering outlined, would incorporate existing A and E services and facilities, but also include, for example, GP services and out-of-hours care, an on-site pharmacy, a minor injuries unit, facilities for social services, facilities for mental health care—that is particularly important and sometimes overlooked, but not in this case—and access to community care services for the frail elderly. Those services would facilitate rapid assessment, diagnosis and treatment by appropriate health and social care professionals. Patients would be streamed into appropriate treatment areas to minimise delays and reduce the need for admissions.
The hub’s location is, I am told, still being finalised, but options include clearing and redeveloping existing areas of the hospital or developing a new build on the site. The local NHS envisages that a capital investment of approximately £30 million, as my hon. Friend outlined, will be required. However, that figure will be subject to further detailed assessment as part of the business planning process.
The principle of the hub is absolutely the right way forward for the local NHS. It is the type of integrated care model that we need elsewhere in the country, particularly where the NHS is servicing a broad population. In this case, it is servicing not just Kettering, but a partially rural county and rural area. This is a model that I am sure hon. Members will continue to support and that I will continue to have a keen interest in supporting. I hope the plans will be successful at making the improvements that patients in my hon. Friend’s constituency and the area surrounding Kettering want. There are encouraging signs. The improvements envisaged are significant and would ensure that the local area had a resilient and high-quality health care system to deliver the highest-quality patient care. I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering for securing the debate.
Vaccine Damage Payments Act
[Mr Martin Caton in the Chair]
A few colleagues are here this afternoon, Mr Caton, but our all-party parliamentary group for vaccine damaged people has more than 120 members, so I suspect that some of them will be dropping in and out as the afternoon progresses.
I am delighted to have secured today’s debate and I am pleased that we have been joined by the families of vaccine-damaged people, some of whom have seen their children grow from having been vaccine-damaged in infancy to men and women who are now in their 40s and 50s. However, when I say I am delighted to have secured the debate, after attempting to do so regularly since early January, the fact is that the all-party group, of which I am the chairman, really wanted at some point to meet the Minister, so that she could hear what the families go through on a daily basis with their—it is a bit difficult to say “children”, because, as I said, some of those children are now in their 40s and 50s. However, I want to share some of those experiences and difficulties, and I know that colleagues in the Chamber today will want to do likewise.
The all-party group supports families in their view that the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 is now out-of-date and should be reformed. Let me be absolutely clear: from the very first meeting that I attended in the ’90s of the then all-party parliamentary group for vaccine-damaged children, the families have been resolute in their support for the Government’s vaccination programme, and they firmly believe in the concept of herd immunisation.
The Pearson commission was a major inquiry into civil damages in the 1970s. It recommended that the Government should accept liability to pay full compensation for vaccine injury on the basis that vaccine injury is the very occasional price that society pays for the benefit of defeating disease through national vaccination programmes.
At that time, vaccines were not such a major part of the public health programme as they are today. During the intervening years, vaccines have greatly grown in importance and use. It was always intended to be a temporary measure—a £10,000 payment on account pending the outcome of the Loveday case. Now the award is £120,000, but that is not adequate compensation for someone who is seriously and profoundly disabled.
It is not adequate to say that consumers should sue as an alternative. No civil claim has ever succeeded for vaccine injury in this jurisdiction. That is not because people in the UK are different from elsewhere in the world; it reflects the fact that our legal system is not claimant-friendly. The situation has got much worse since legal aid has been abolished. It is now impossible to take on a multinational pharmaceutical corporation, as the costs of a claim are so high that no one could possibly afford it. Court fees have just been increased by some 600%, so it costs £10,000 just to issue a claim, which has not helped the situation.
It is in the interests of society that the rate of uptake of vaccines is kept high to achieve that herd immunity. That needs an effective safety net, so that consumers are assured that in the event of a serious disablement, they will be looked after. The system needs to be reformed to be more consumer-friendly, so that on close calls on causation, consumers or patients are given the benefit of any doubt, as we see in the USA. In the last four years, no awards of any compensation have been made for vaccine injury, despite hundreds of applications. The system is not working.
I use this opportunity to apologise to you, Mr Caton, and to my hon. Friend, because I have to leave soon to be at Downing street at 3 o’clock to present a petition with people with learning disabilities about things, such as Winterbourne View home, that ought not to be happening. I apologise that I have to leave, but I congratulate my hon. Friend on his wonderful work, and the all-party group. Above all, I congratulate the vaccine victim support group and the indomitable Olivia Price on the fantastic fight that they have conducted over many years. I hope that they get the success and the response that my hon. Friend and this debate invites.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. Those of us who know him realise that he is a champion for those less fortunate in society, and especially for the disabled. I recognise that he has a family member who was vaccine damaged as a child.
Why is the coverage of the scheme so patchy here in the UK? Adults are almost all excluded—why should that be? All seasonal flu vaccines and all hepatitis vaccines are excluded—why? That is not an effective safety net.
Recently, more than 70 people suffered narcolepsy as a result of the swine flu vaccine. That is a very serious condition, but the Department for Work and Pensions has refused to accept that it amounts to a 60% disability and has appealed against a tribunal finding that it is a severe disability. The Department should fight consumers less and support them more.
Awards of compensation for vaccine injury should be available—that is compensation measured by the amount of loss actually suffered, not an arbitrary amount. Reform could be a win-win, in that we could promote social justice and ensure an increase in the rate of vaccination that will benefit society as a whole.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and give my apologies because I, too, will have to leave before the end of the debate. Does he agree that some of the reluctance to reform the current procedures and the Act is similar to some of the reluctance that was there when we tried to uprate it in the first place? These things are complex and there are all sorts of aspects to them, but the first thing to do, surely, is sit down, work through where the problems are and work out what needs to be done. From my point of view, the important thing is that the Minister should meet the families to look at what is going on in practice and what can be done about it.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Today, we are looking at—it is in the debate’s long title—reform of this legislation. As will become clear as I progress through my contribution, we really need to reach a decision on whether this is about reform or about ripping it up, throwing it in the bin and starting again, because we have moved on significantly since 1979.
As I was saying, reform could be a win-win, in that we could promote social justice and ensure an increase in the rate of vaccination that would benefit society. I believe that vaccine manufacturers are strongly in favour of such a change and are willing to contribute to a fund—and, I hope, to discussions.
It is unconscionable to relegate so many people who are disabled to a battle over causation, and for justice, and it undermines rates of uptake of vaccines not to have an effective system. The numbers of those seriously injured are low, so the total cost of full compensation would be affordable and would be self-financed through the increase in vaccination and the reduction in the burden of disease in society.
Towards the end of last year, I met two parents down here in London. They related to me the stories of their daughters, who had both had a reaction to the human papilloma virus vaccine. We dedicated the last meeting of the all-party group, on 14 January, to hearing from some young women who were able to attend, but mainly from the parents of several young women who had had a severe reaction to the HPV vaccine. I think that it is safe to say that the majority of those cases centred on those young women now finding themselves profoundly affected by what can only be described as symptoms similar to those of ME—myalgic encephalomyelitis—or chronic fatigue syndrome. All those girls had been fit and healthy, were doing well academically and had the social life that we would expect any teenager to have.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is exactly right. It was absolutely astounding to hear the heartbreaking stories at our last meeting and to think that a young woman who had been fit and healthy now suddenly finds herself asleep for most of the day and has to be awakened on an ongoing basis to be fed. That is no quality of life at all. Something is seriously wrong. The worlds of these young women have been turned upside down. For some of them, to spend a few hours at school in a week is a major challenge. That issue could probably merit an Adjournment debate on its own. I am aware that the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) held a short debate on the topic back in May 2009. It is worth pointing out that there are serious concerns about the manner in which an individual’s allergic reaction to a vaccine is recorded—it might be better put as “not recorded” in many cases. Where there is an allergic reaction, it is only right that it is properly recorded, so that we can not only determine what is happening to the individual but get a broader perspective.
In October 2011, a proposal paper was produced by the vaccine victim support group—an unincorporated association with more than 300 members—and the all-party group for vaccine damaged people. They came together and were looking for reform of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act, which established in the UK a statutory no-fault system of a single lump sum payment from public funds for cases of proven serious permanent disablement resulting from vaccination. Most developed countries have established such systems. The scheme in this country is administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, with appeals being resolved within Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. We are now 36 years on, and the system has continued, with relatively minor changes only.
The vaccine victim support group and the all-party group contend that reform of the system is highly desirable to deal with anomalies that now exist in the system, to reflect the changing landscape of today, to reassure the public about the safety and efficacy of vaccination, to reduce litigation and to promote and extend the uptake of vaccination to promote health and the elimination of disease. Both groups support the UK national vaccination programme and recognise that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks. Vaccines have significantly contributed to the elimination of disease, the increase in life expectancy and the improvement in public health.
Reform of the UK system of statutory vaccine injury compensation has the prospect of achieving important tangible benefits for the UK that mean that it would be irresponsible not to explore and effect reform through consultation with all relevant stakeholders, which include the pharmaceutical industry, the Department of Health immunisation team, the DWP and, via support groups, affected individuals.
The Act was brought into being by Parliament to put on a statutory footing a system of ex gratia awards of compensation for vaccine injury that had developed during the 1970s, largely as a result of whole-cell whooping cough and smallpox vaccine injury. The Department of Health had made a number of ex gratia awards to individuals who had suffered serious permanent disability as a result of catastrophic brain injury that they had suffered as infants shortly after DPT—diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus—vaccination.
The Government had commissioned Professor David Miller to conduct the national childhood encephalopathy study—NCES—a large-scale epidemiological study of incidents of brain injury and onset of seizure disorders following DPT vaccination. The study, published in May 1981, found a significant association between DPT vaccination and severe neurological injury and death.
The statutory scheme initially required an 80% and permanent level of disability to have been suffered, but later that threshold was reduced to 60%. Awards were initially £10,000. That was increased, in various changes, to £20,000, then £30,000 and then £40,000. The level of payment was largely based on the understanding that that was interim compensation pending the outcome of the litigation against the Wellcome Foundation.
In 1986, the United States enacted the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. That established a system of compensation in the US court of federal claims. Until four years ago, that had awarded compensatory damages in 2,806 cases, of which 1,266 involved the DPT vaccine, use of which ceased in 1996. That involved an outlay at that time of $2.2 billion. The fund to administer the scheme is established from a small tax on each dose of vaccine. That has proved relatively successful in the United States, and our all-party group has wondered for a long time why we do not in the UK, for every vaccine that is given, put into a fund a couple of pence. That is all it would take to deal with this issue. However, that has been rejected not only by this Government, but by the Labour Government in the 13 years for which they were in office. I think that we need to reconsider where we are.
In 1988, the court in Loveday v. Renton and the Wellcome Foundation dismissed the claimants’ claims. The judge found that the claimants had failed to establish causation to the required standard of proof. That was based on his findings of flaws in the data analysis of the NCES. Professor Miller and his NCES team subsequently published a follow-up study, in November 1993, which addressed the judge’s criticisms of the original study. The conclusions of the follow-up study were essentially the same as those originally: on rare occasions, the vaccine can cause severe neurological injury. Then in 2000 the Government decided that the initial awards should be “topped up” to the real-terms equivalent of £100,000.
It had been suggested that anyone deemed to be vaccine damaged was carrying the SCN1A gene. That has been disproved by testing victims: they have all proved negative.
In 2010, the Legal Services Commission agreed in principle to fund a further review of the prospects of success of the surviving DPT claimants. Further litigation is therefore pending in that respect against the manufacturers and/or the Department of Health. The award now made for a successful application for vaccine damage payment is a single lump sum of £120,000. However, the majority of applicants—approximately 750 —have received only £78,000, because they received an initial payment of some £10,000. The payment is invariably made into a personal injury special needs trust, so that it is excluded, by statutory provision, from any assessment for means-tested benefits. That is done to ensure that it is received in addition to means-tested benefits such as incapacity benefit and disability living allowance, including components for care and mobility.
According to information supplied by the vaccine damage payments unit in 2011, a total of 931 awards had been made under the 1979 Act, of which 570 were related to the DPT vaccine. There were 89 applications to the unit in 2010 and 71 in 2011. One award was made in 2010, and no awards were made in 2011. So far, 3,983 applications have been rejected on medical grounds and 814 have been rejected for non-medical reasons—because the application was made either out of time or out of the scope of the scheme. The operation of the system has settled down, and after a flurry of historic awards in the early years, very few awards are now being made. The unit at one point consisted of two part-time members of staff. An appeal against the decision to refuse an award is made to the social security lower-tier tribunal, which is part of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.
The fact that surprisingly few awards are being made probably reflects the withdrawal of the DPT wholesale vaccine, the improvement in vaccine technology and the increased levels of safety and efficacy of vaccination. During the past few years, more vaccines, such as HPV and meningitis C, have been added to the national programme. It is likely that further vaccines—for example, varicella, H1N1, swine flu and hepatitis A and B—will be added in coming years. Many new types of vaccines are likely to become available in future years, because they are being developed to combat many sources of disease, such as malaria, candida, chlamydia, E. coli, genital herpes, hepatitis E, strep, rheumatoid arthritis, various cancers and numerous others.
There have been episodes of public concern about adverse reaction to vaccinations such as DPT in the 1970s, MMR in the late 1990s and early 2000s and, more recently, the HPV vaccine. Those episodes of concern have led to litigation, media sensationalism and public anxiety, and they have significantly reduced uptake of the vaccination, which has reduced the level of herd immunity on occasions and increased the incidence of outbreak of pandemic disease among unvaccinated populations. Those episodes of public concern caused anxiety and confusion to the public and resulted in considerable legal defence costs for pharmaceutical corporations and considerable cost to the UK legal aid purse. Litigation resolved few of the disputes, because hardly any cases reached trial. The public health programme was damaged by falling levels of vaccine uptake, and diseases in some cases were resurgent.
In 2003, uptake of the MMR vaccine fell to only 82%, largely as a result of Wakefield’s discredited autism theory. Even by the end of the MMR litigation, uptake had not fully recovered. In contrast, the United States achieves 98% vaccination uptake, possibly because all claims have to be brought in the federal courts under the vaccine programme rather than against a manufacturer. That shows that a proper safety net can boost the numbers of people who take part in a herd immunisation programme. Other countries have avoided the problem by enabling disputes over vaccine injury to be efficiently and proportionately resolved within a statutory compensation scheme, where individual cases can be thoroughly investigated and adjudicated. The lack of a fully comprehensive system for determining vaccine injury applications in the UK has contributed to the problems we face, so all stakeholders have an interest in reform.
The UK’s vaccine injury compensation scheme, as established in the 1979 Act, contains a number of serious anomalies. Not all vaccines are covered. Vaccines for swine flu, smallpox, hepatitis A and B, and yellow fever are not covered. A separate scheme for smallpox vaccine compensation had to be set up by the Department of Health for workers to encourage front-line health workers to participate in vaccination. The vaccine programme is no longer just for children, as it was initially. Many people in their professional careers need to be vaccinated, otherwise they cannot work.
The influenza vaccine is not covered. The safety net has holes in it, and the vaccine victim support group and the all-party group submit that the gaps should be addressed. We believe that everyone who is resident in the UK and is vaccinated should be able to have recourse to the compensation scheme in the event of a serious adverse effect. The current scheme is aimed mainly at compensating children, although adults are also, on rare occasions, covered. The coverage is therefore patchy and not comprehensive. Given the very small numbers involved, the scheme could easily cover children and all adults.
Children who die before the age of two are not covered. That exception is difficult to justify, because losing a child at 18 months is as tragic and devastating as losing a child six months later, at the age of two. That exception should be abolished. The 60% injury threshold is a real issue. An arbitrary distinction is made in the scheme for injuries that are still significant, but that amount to 59% or lower. The refusal of any compensation for someone with a 59% permanent disability cannot objectively be justified, bearing in mind the very small number of awards that are made. To qualify for criminal injury compensation, the minimum threshold value of injury is £1,000, and a similar level should apply in vaccine injury cases.
The current compensation award of £120,000, rather than compensatory damages, creates anomalies. A child with catastrophic injury resulting from clinical negligence in the administration of a vaccine—in other words, in breach of contra-indication—may receive £3 million. A child with a similar injury resulting from an adverse reaction to a vaccine would receive only one twenty-fifth of that compensation. That means that the burden of caring for the disabled person falls largely on their families. The current vaccine injury award amounts to the cost of care for a seriously disabled person for less than one year. That cannot properly be described as compensation; it is only a token.
I welcome the attention that the hon. Gentleman has brought to this matter, as he has on previous occasions. The root of the problem is the distinction between compensation for negligence, which rightly exists to ensure that a negligent organisation pays a penalty, and the provision of the help that people who have suffered vaccine damage ought to get, even if there is no possibility of proving negligence. The hon. Gentleman has identified that that is a no-fault system. We really need to have such a system, which meets the genuine need of those who have faced such consequences without their having to prove negligence.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The point is the balance of probability, as I indicated earlier in relation to the United States. I know that we do not always like to compare our health service with that in the United States, but theirs is definitely based on the balance of probability. We need to be much more realistic and consider what that could mean for us in relation to vaccination and a vaccination programme. The level of award cannot be justified. Instead, the system should provide common-law damages. The numbers of awards made are such that that would place little burden on the public purse. Similarly, the scheme should also meet reasonable legal costs, so that clients do not have to enter damages-based contingency agreements to fund appeals.
There should be provision in the scheme for some flexibility on the date by which an application has to be made. The current scheme allows no extension of the time limit, even when the applicant does not have knowledge of the scheme or that they have a claim. Earlier today, the families made it abundantly clear to me that if a child suddenly becomes vaccine-damaged, the trauma that runs through the household and the family is such that they probably cannot think straight about what the future holds. It is about recognising the extremely difficult and traumatic time that families are going through. There should not be time bars that mean people get the response, “I’m very sorry, but you’re out of time for any kind of claim.” That just is not the way we should be operating in the 21st century.
The current scheme does not contain any table of injury where causation may, in certain circumstances, be presumed. The absence of such a table leaves open to doubt—and litigation—the question of causation, which makes the system more difficult to administer. The table under the US scheme recognises, for example, that if someone has a severe allergic reaction within four hours of receiving the tetanus vaccine, it is presumed that the tetanus vaccine caused the injury if no other cause is found. That goes back to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and my response—that the absolute probability is that the tetanus vaccine was the cause. The table in the US is periodically revised after independent expert review, such as the reports published by the Institute of Medicine on the causality of injury by vaccines in 1991, 1994 and 2011.
The UK system of vaccine injury compensation has now existed for 36 years. It was created as an interim solution, but it has become a permanent one. There are many anomalies in coverage, and it does not fulfil the safety net function that would promote confidence in the uptake of vaccines. Fortunately, cases of serious permanent disablement and death caused by vaccines are extremely rare. The cost of extending the scheme to give comprehensive coverage and provide compensatory damages would be extremely low. If one award of medium severity is made in an average year, for example, the cost might be in the order of, say, £500,000. There would be some initial additional expenditure in paying a further top-up, in line with the level of compensatory damages, for the 931 cases that received a £100,000 top-up payment in 2000. However, that would mean no further ongoing litigation in respect of historical cases. The current award of £100,000 is difficult to justify in cases involving catastrophic injury and a lifetime of care and loss of earnings.
Vaccines have become safer, but the number of vaccines has grown and is likely to continue growing. The vast majority of adverse effects are mild and/or temporary, and only on extremely rare occasions are they serious and permanent. However, it is likely that there will always be a small number of casualties, and a no-fault safety net of compensatory damages will relieve the unfair burden of care and support from victims’ families and redistribute the cost across society. Crucially, it would avoid the need for litigation, promote confidence in the national vaccination programme and increase vaccine uptake, thereby reducing the incidence and cost of disease.
I hope the Minister will consider the points that she hears today. The timing of this debate might be wrong, but I have attempted to raise the profile of this issue over the past 12 months. In the dying days of this Parliament, perhaps the timing could not be better because, with both the Minister and my hon. Friend the shadow Minister in attendance, the next Government might want to consider this issue more closely. The electorate deserve a better deal than they have had previously.
There should have been significant publicity for this debate, and the families tried to encourage such publicity. They came close to getting support from the BBC, but the plug was apparently pulled at the last minute. The families are becoming increasingly suspicious that people do not want to discuss this issue, but it is an issue from which we cannot run away. The families lead their lives as best they can under extremely difficult circumstances. There is no escape for them. On a daily basis, life can be troublesome to say the least, and I suspect that life can often be very trying indeed. They have fought for decades, and they deserve some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, if that is possible. I gave an indication of this earlier, but is it reform of the legislation that we need or is it now time, 36 years after the original legislation was introduced, that we as parliamentarians sat down with the families and the pharmaceutical companies and asked, “Is there a better way of doing this?”? I honestly believe that we require not reform but a whole new concept of where we are going.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) and I attended a meeting a few years ago when our good former colleague Ian Stewart was chair of the all-party group. We asked for a meeting with the pharmaceutical companies, which brought their legal teams with them. Those who know my right hon. Friend will recognise him as a placid and tolerant individual, but he walked out of that meeting, which he had not previously done in his entire political career. He was so disgusted with what the legal representatives of the pharmaceutical companies were saying that they tried his patience and he immediately left the room. He and, I hope, everyone in this room recognises the challenge that the families are going through. There is a better way of doing it, and I hope that today’s debate can be a starting point for us all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) on securing this debate and on the moving way in which he opened it.
I am here to speak briefly on behalf of constituents. Their daughter was born healthy in 1972, but they noticed a sudden change after she received the whooping cough vaccination. Unfortunately, their daughter had suffered brain damage. They tell me that she was examined by several doctors, including doctors at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool. They have lived with the damage done by the vaccine ever since. They have looked after their daughter for 42 years at considerable cost, both physically and mentally, and they are members of the vaccine victim support group, which is fighting for compensation for all those who have suffered severe adverse reactions after being vaccinated under the Government vaccination programme.
My constituents tell me that, as they are now ageing, they are desperately anxious to provide for the future of their daughter. It must certainly be true that parents now in their 60s and 70s with children in their 40s and 50s will feel the same way. My constituents have sacrificed everything over the past 42 years to ensure that their daughter is loved and cared for by her family, rather than by the state. To date, the family have received only what were purely initial and top-up vaccine damage payments—certainly not compensatory payments—to cover four decades of care. As my hon. Friend said, even the £120,000 top rate of payment under the current scheme would really only pay for one year of care, and my constituents have not even received payments at that level.
My constituents feel that all responsible Governments should have a vaccination programme, but they feel that Governments then have a moral responsibility to care for those whose lives are damaged by vaccination. They referred me to the paper, “Reform of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979”, that was presented to Ministers in October 2011. They point to the recommendation in that paper that any vaccine recommended by Government should be covered by the Act. My hon. Friend detailed a number of vaccinations that were left out of the Act, and they should not be. More modern vaccines, such as the HPV vaccine that was referred to, should be included. Importantly, to avoid expensive litigation, the scheme should cover proper compensatory levels.
We can only imagine the pain endured by my constituents’ having a daughter, the first child of four children, suffering after vaccine damage. My constituents are now in their 60s and very worried about the future of their daughter. They are finding it more and more difficult to give her the time and care that she needs 24 hours a day. Their son tells me that seeing his parents struggle with a 42-year-old daughter, severely disabled as a result of vaccine damage, but not having received adequate compensation, is a total injustice.
My constituents tell me, and I imagine we would all agree, that my hon. Friend has fought tirelessly for their cause, and I thank him for that work. It was only recently that I got to know of the case of my constituents and their daughter through the work of the all-party group, which they recommended I join, and I was happy to do so. I have spoken only briefly, but what I have said on their behalf speaks for the reason why the victims of vaccine damage should get proper compensation and not rely on expensive litigation, which, as my hon. Friend has said, is not feasible.
Four decades of care is a great deal to give—avoiding the care having to fall on the state—but the family members, the unpaid carers of victims of vaccine damage, should be supported. All carers should be properly supported with compensatory payments, and I hope that this debate today has raised the issue so that it will go forward into a future Parliament and that real action will be taken.
I thank the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for setting the scene. He spoke passionately and told us why we need to do better. He said, “Is there a better way to do this?” and I wrote down, “I think there is.” This debate will perhaps give us a chance to have an idea of how we can do better. He and the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) illustrated where the system falls down and how we can improve it. I would like to do something along those lines as well.
It is of utmost importance for us to reflect upon this issue once more, as the quality of innocent individuals’ lives are at stake. We vaccinate to prevent illness, to protect the most vulnerable in our societies and to protect those we care about, whether they are our family, children or constituents. It is very unfortunate when good intentions do not result in their intended outcome, which is to protect and not harm. Unfortunately, harm is what can occur. The contributions so far have shown that harm has taken place. We need to learn how best to deal with that and how Government could respond in a more generous manner.
Although such tragedies are thankfully rare, it is a reality for the few who are affected and we must take responsibility for dealing with the outcomes of vaccination damage. We must take account of individuals who have become severely disabled when they may otherwise have led a healthy life without the burdens of their condition, because of a vaccination that was believed to be medically safe. We must think of their well-being. We must also take account of those who, through their work, found it necessary to have vaccinations, resulting in effects that they had not foreseen.
It is a difficult thought to come to terms with. Affected individuals could not have imagined that these vaccinations would lead to their living with debilitating conditions. We must do our best to aid those families and individuals to deal with the burden as best they can in the circumstances and with the everyday realities that they have to face. We must investigate why, out of 1,483 claims made between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2010 to the vaccine damage payments unit, only 26 have resulted in an award. Why is that? Something must be wrong with the system. Either it is too complex, or the delays are too long, or the questions that are asked are difficult to answer. The system needs to be looked at.
We need to reform the Vaccine Damage Payments Act. It is too outdated to deal with the financial and practical realities of living with the adverse effects of a vaccination, and too outdated to recognise that there is a spectrum of difficulties that those affected face, not only those above the 60% threshold. That is also an issue. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway talked about the 60% threshold, which almost debars people. I always feel that we as parliamentarians are here to help those who need help. We must do it in a good way and make it simple and easy for them to find help. Today’s debate gives us a chance to try to chart a way forward that is easier for individuals to deal with.
The Vaccine Damage Payments Act provides an opportunity to apply for a one-off £120,000 lump sum to meet the burdens of coping with a disability. Whether this is to assist the person who has become disabled as a result of a vaccination, or the family who cares for the person, there are costs to be met. These are costs that individuals and their families would not have foreseen, caused by the adverse reaction to a vaccination that requires them to be met. To be eligible for such a scheme, the individual must be over two years old and must apply within six years of vaccination, or up until their 21st birthday, whichever is the later. This means that if the adverse reaction results in death, but the victim is less than two years old, nothing can be awarded to the parents. That discrepancy must be addressed. Furthermore, it leaves carers to pay independently for the care that is needed until the claimant is eligible at the age of two. The rules simply do not deal with the emotional realities of such situations.
We cannot always mark a family’s problems solely on physical issues. There is the emotional trauma that the family and their relations go through as well. What is even more striking is that not all those affected by vaccination damage are recognised in the current legislation as requiring financial assistance. The requirement that a person has to be 60% disabled to be eligible for a single amount of £120,000 is a very hard and fast rule, and cuts out others who are vulnerable and need compensation to deal with the difficulties that disability brings. To be 60% disabled, or above, has a profound impact on a person’s life, reinforcing that we must change how we deal with payments to those affected. It seems too absolute to have a 60% cut-off when we come to a situation in which a victim may fall below this figure, yet be affected in their life. They can be greatly affected, but, because of the eligibility criteria, not entitled to any assistance.
A range of degrees of disablement can affect an individual’s life and irreparably alter it. For that reason, reform needs to look at assisting all those who have been affected in different ways through vaccination damage, and as a result deviate from the standard fixed sum given on a sliding scale. I hope that the Minister’s response will give an idea of how those suffering as a result of the vaccine can be given better financial assistance.
As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, including in the work of the all-party group, the provisions to deal with adult cases are poor. It would be appropriate for the 1979 Act to be applied more comprehensively to adult cases. The requirement that vaccination must occur before a victim’s 18th birthday, apart from in the exceptions outlined in the Act, means that the scheme’s adult application is far from lucid. There are workers whose jobs mean they must be vaccinated to deal with the dangers of their workplace. Hepatitis B is one such vaccination, but it is not included in the Act. Is it proposed that it should be included? It is important to consider that question.
The workers most affected are doctors, nurses and social workers, but members of other similar professions that revolve around a duty of care are in a similar situation. Those people, in aspiring to fulfil the requirements of their job, have availed themselves of vaccines and that has resulted in their being left without livelihood or career, and with a quality of life that is not as it was before.
The question of access to life-saving or life-changing drugs has also been on my mind, and other hon. Members have touched on it. There was an example in the debate pack of a family who had to leave England for the States to qualify for drugs, which they got free there. I presume that that was because they would also be part of a testing scheme. The drugs greatly improved the child’s life. They moved to California to qualify for drugs that they could not get here, because they cost too much. The Minister and I have previously talked about drugs for cancer sufferers, and so on. I suppose more is possible with a large budget, but I think that something must be done about improving the availability of drugs.
The legislation often makes adult payouts subject to the industrial injuries schemes, with the result that the compensation often cannot come close to what is required to meet the financial challenges of the affected person. We must remember that it is not financial considerations that are at stake, but rather recompense for loss of a career and personal independence, and a reduction in quality of life. I am inclined to argue that those victims should be equally able to obtain the £120,000 payout through the Government’s vaccine damage payment scheme. There is a clear need for hepatitis B to be covered by the legislation.
Although I have spoken of the £120,000 figure and argued for it to be extended to a wider range of cases, that is not to say that the sum is adequate; it is almost speculative in relation to the life expectancy of individuals eligible to meet the requirements of the scheme. That is wrong. We should be doing all we can to extend and make easier the lives of those affected, by giving higher levels of financial support. The fact is that the costs of caring for someone with a disability are high, and in the case of a child the sum offered will not span a lifetime’s care, so families can be left to struggle when money becomes stretched and the pressure is on. Adult cases also involve personal livelihood if the disability becomes debilitating. Inadequate and unrealistic payouts or failure to be compensated at all can make financial considerations an added concern in an already stressful and emotive situation.
Is there a better way? I suggest there is, and I urge the Minister to review the matter.
I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate; I meant no disrespect to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), who has been a tireless campaigner on the issue. I will take only a brief amount of the House’s time, partly because I must again be rude and leave the debate before the end—it is that stage of the parliamentary process.
I want to express my gratitude and that of my constituent. The hon. Gentleman spent two hours going in great detail through the difficulties suffered by her daughter, a 24-year-old girl, as a result of the HPV vaccine Cervarix. The anti-NMDA receptor antibody effect on her is massive. My constituent’s daughter will require financial support for life—disability benefits and a range of other support to get her through her difficulties. Those difficulties result from a reaction to a vaccine that has been an enormous success in this country in protecting young women from a viral condition, but which, in certain circumstances, has the effect I have mentioned. There is more evidence not just in this country but abroad, and there is emerging research.
I hope that the Minister will recognise the circumstances, and recognise also that more needs to be done, including looking at research from abroad. We should understand the difficulties of the individual concerned, who must go to endless meetings that require explanation of a complex medical condition not understood by people in the benefits world—and why should it be? It requires someone with a detailed understanding of a narrow field of clinical work to understand it. It is a question of constantly having to explain it again to someone new, and recognising that the situation will last a lifetime.
Perhaps a miracle cure or a way to reverse the condition will be found, but we cannot say. At the moment we need the Government to recognise—through the benefits delivery networks, as well as in terms of the Minister’s responsibilities—that there are people who acted for the right reasons and who need support. They need support in their battle to get their condition recognised and understood. There is a growing experience across developed economies, where the right measures are taken to protect young people from disease, of people being affected in the wrong way in certain circumstances. I hope that in future the system will permit greater protection for people such as my constituents. I applaud the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for calling the debate.
I will not detain the House for long. I want briefly to raise the case of my constituent Stacey Jones, who suffered life-altering changes to her health following the administration of the HPV vaccine six or seven years ago. For Stacey it has meant seizures and mood swings—severe continuing problems that require treatment to this day. I pay tribute to her brave mother, Julie Jones, who has fought to have her daughter’s condition recognised. She brought it to my attention and that of Ministers and the local medical profession, and she has tried to put the plight of young women such as Stacey on the agenda.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for his work in obtaining the debate, and more broadly on the issue. Although the subject is compensation, I want to put a broader question to the Minister. Does she agree that it cannot be right for young women and their families, such as Stacey and her mother, to be regarded simply as collateral damage for the vaccine programme? That is how the families feel. In a sense, that is a question for my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) as well as for the Minister, because there is an election coming and I am not sure whether the Minister or my hon. Friend will occupy the Government Front Bench in a couple of months. I hope that they both agree that it cannot be right for young women such as Stacey to be regarded as collateral damage of a vaccine programme. If so, how do we change the view of such families, who feel that the Department of Health simply brushes aside their concerns, does not acknowledge them and does not take them seriously?
The health problems that those young women are suffering from are real, but they feel that they are being ignored. I ask the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, to address in their summing-up speeches the question of not just compensation, but the attitude shown to such families, who feel that they are being ignored, so that their plight is taken more seriously whether or not they are entitled to compensation under the law.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for securing this important debate and for his work as chair of the all-party group for vaccine damaged people. His tireless campaigning on behalf of his constituents, and others who have been affected by vaccine damage, is commendable.
I also thank all hon. Members and right hon. and hon. Friends for their contributions throughout the debate, which are testament to the strong feelings about this issue on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) talked about the challenges experienced by her constituents. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a large contribution and I was specifically interested in hearing what he said about the emotional trauma experienced by families. The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) both talked about their constituents’ experiences of the HPV vaccine.
Vaccinations are crucial to our NHS as a way of preventing disease and the spread of infection. The research and discoveries made every day by the scientific community lead us closer to disease prevention that could not have been imagined when the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 was passed. The improvements in vaccine uptake in recent years have resulted in a greater proportion of children being vaccinated now than ever before.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway made clear the purpose of today’s debate is not to question the importance of the national vaccination programme to the health of our population; instead, it is to bring to the House’s attention those occasions on which vaccinations have gone wrong, with deeply distressing and life-changing consequences, and the challenges surrounding the support system in place for those people who are sadly affected.
I recently attended a meeting of the all-party group in Parliament and at another meeting I met a group of parents and their daughters who had been affected by the HPV vaccination. The stories I heard in both meetings highlighted that, in the event of such tragedies, it is vital that people who suffer from vaccine injury can expect to receive support to ease the burden on them and their families. They certainly should not have to battle to get what they are entitled to.
At those meetings, the deep sense of injustice felt by many of the families who live every day with the burden of disability caused by vaccine damage was clear. In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East, I should say that I hope that the parents and people affected believe that I was at that meeting to listen to them. I very much appreciate that they feel that they are not being listened to, on top of the challenges that they have faced over many years.
As we heard, the vaccine damage payments scheme was established under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act in 1979 to provide tax-free lump sum payments to people severely disabled as a result of vaccination against specific diseases. Despite the gradual expansion of support under numerous Governments and some important reforms made in 2000 following a review of the scheme, the system has many challenges today. We have heard many compelling reasons for reform.
Since the scheme was first introduced, the number of payments made has fallen dramatically. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, since 2010-11 no vaccine damage payments have been made at all. That may be down to vaccines and vaccine safety, but it is troubling that, despite hundreds of applications from people whose disability was sufficient for them to be considered to have a strong enough case, not one payment has been made. I hope that the Minister will explain why such a gulf exists between applications for support and actual payments made. I hope she will share her view on why the number of payments has gone down to zero in recent years.
I understand that there is a robust qualification process and that, to qualify for compensation, a person must be assessed to be 60% permanently disabled for life. In considering cases, it is right that medical advisers have regard to whether informed medical opinion suggests that there may be a causal link between the claimed adverse event and vaccination. I appreciate that the line must be drawn somewhere, but will the Minister share with us whether any flexibility is built into the system to allow a person assessed as being very close to the 60% qualification point—perhaps they are 59% permanently disabled—to receive support under the scheme? Surely a person suffering such a level of disability has a substantial need, which the scheme is intended to accommodate. It seems unjust that, by just missing out on the threshold, they would receive no payment at all under the scheme, so it is left to the family to shoulder that burden.
Has the Minister considered the case for reforming the minimum level of disability required for a person to qualify? We have heard today that, even when a person does qualify as having a serious disability, the Government have fought against such decisions. Take the case of people who suffer from narcolepsy as a result of the swine flu vaccine, which we have heard about today. Despite a causal link with the vaccine having been established and a tribunal having concluded that that should be considered a “serious disability,” the Department for Work and Pensions appealed against the decision. Will the Minister share with us why the DWP would go against such a decision? Will she clarify how her Government reach a decision on whether to appeal against a tribunal decision?
As we have heard in the debate, there are many other anomalies in the coverage provided by the Act. I note the recent additions this year of the rotavirus and influenza vaccinations to the list of specified diseases to which the Act applies. Despite that, it does not provide a comprehensive safety net. Will the Minister explain the review process that takes place before a vaccine is included on that list? Why are some vaccines, such as pandemic influenza and hepatitis A and B vaccines, excluded? The current scheme focuses largely on the childhood immunisation programme, but it covers people over the age of 18 for certain diseases. We have heard the word “patchy” used today, which is a fair assessment.
I was concerned to learn that 814 applications had been rejected on non-medical grounds because they were made either out of time or outside the scheme’s scope. The scheme allows for no extension to the time limit, even when the applicant did not have knowledge of the scheme or did not know that they might qualify for a claim. To refuse someone the support they need on the grounds that they have not made the deadline seems inflexible. Does the Minister have plans to build more flexibility into the rules about the time frames in which applications need to be made?
There are other anomalies. In the event that a child under two dies from an adverse reaction to a vaccine, their family are not eligible to receive any payment under the scheme. The logic for that is unclear. Why should the family of a child who dies after their second birthday be more deserving of compensation than one whose child died a day before? I would welcome clarification from the Minister on whether she plans to review that.
In a written answer to me at the end of last year, the Minister said that the Government had
“no plans to make changes”
to the 1979 Act. Has she reconsidered that position since then? If not, does she have any plans to review that decision?
The debate has raised issues that need to be tackled if we are to ensure that we have a comprehensive support system for vaccine damaged people and to promote confidence in the uptake of vaccines. The support scheme put in place by the 1979 Act was of its time and intended to be an interim solution. However, it has become—albeit with some changes over the years—a permanent one.
People need to be assured that, in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, they will be looked after. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway made a powerful case for reform, which I hope the Minister will take away and give her full consideration. I look forward to her response.
I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) on securing the time to discuss an issue that is never easy to discuss. Other Members have alluded to the fact that when I, as a Health Minister, have looked at schemes about population-level health, sometimes there are discussions about the impact on individuals within that population and those discussions are very difficult to have.
I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the tone in which he has conducted this debate and indeed on the way that he has represented families and individuals over some years because, as I say, sometimes these are difficult issues to discuss. He has chaired the all-party group in a constructive way and I am sure that that has been appreciated by successive Ministers.
Also, the hon. Gentleman has said it before in this House, but I was very pleased that today he reiterated his support and that of the all-party group for a public vaccination programme. We are lucky to have a comprehensive and world-class national immunisation programme. I note that the vast majority of people who have concerns about the issue that we are discussing today do not disagree with the need for vaccination programmes of that nature.
Such programmes are a vital way of protecting individuals and the community as a whole from serious diseases. Vaccination is recognised by the World Health Organisation as the most effective public health intervention after the provision of clean drinking water. It has led to the eradication or major reductions in infectious diseases that used to be a serious threat to public health. British parents no longer see their children being crippled by polio, because that disease has been eliminated from the UK and, thankfully, from most of the world. Before measles vaccines were introduced, there were as many as 750,000 cases of measles in England and Wales in epidemic years, and about one in every 1,000 children infected would die.
Vaccinations are now safer than they have ever been, notwithstanding—obviously—the concerns that have been expressed during this debate. However, I recognise that on the very rare occasions when vaccinations can cause severe disability, that places both the person themselves and their families under enormous strain. Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about that most movingly during the afternoon.
Of course, that is one of the main reasons why the vaccine damage payment scheme was introduced. As others have said, it was intended to help ease the present and future burdens of those individuals who are severely disabled as a result of vaccine damage.
I am sure it has been said before, but it is worth clarifying for the House that the VDPS payment is not compensation and it does not prejudice the right of the disabled person to pursue a claim against the manufacturer of the vaccine, although I of course acknowledge the obstacles that many people face in doing that. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, who led the debate, spelled them out. However, such payments would of course be taken into account if compensation was awarded.
The scheme, introduced in 1979, provides a tax-free, lump sum payment—as others have said, it is now up to £120,000—for those who are severely disabled as a result of a vaccination against those diseases listed in the 1979 Act and those that have been specified since 1979 by statutory instrument. It acknowledges that people who are severely disabled early in life have less opportunity to earn and save, and the degree of disablement is assessed on the same basis as for the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme.
The disability threshold is set at 60%. I understand, of course, that there are those who argue that the level of disability should be assessed on a sliding scale. However, such a sliding scale of disability and payments would run counter to the scheme’s principle of providing a straightforward single payment for those who the Secretary of State for Health is satisfied are severely disabled as a result of vaccination.
To qualify for the scheme, a person must have become severely disabled as a result of vaccination. As I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), acknowledged, that causative link is needed for the scheme to be workable, but it does make for some difficult cases and some difficult conversations. I understand that, but that causative link helps us to target public funds properly for people who suffer disablement as a consequence of vaccination.
As with all civil matters, the standard of proof for causation is “on the balance of probabilities”. So, based on the available evidence, does the medical adviser consider that vaccination caused the disability? Notwithstanding the suggestions made to change, improve or even replace the scheme, there would always need to be an assessment of causation and it would always be the case that for some people who had suffered a disability, it would be viewed that the cause was not vaccination. There would always be instances that did not meet that criterion.
The scheme does not require the medical adviser to be certain or sure but only to consider that it is more likely than not that vaccination caused disability. These independent medical advisers are well placed and experienced enough to make that judgment, which is not made by politicians but by people who are carefully trained. For example, doctors who assess claims must be approved to carry out assessments by the chief medical adviser to the Department for Work and Pensions, and that approval is only granted when they have demonstrated full competence. Also, those doctors are subject to strict 100% quality audits until approval is achieved. I say that to make the point that there is a considerable degree of both medical expertise and independence involved in those assessments. I can also confirm that mental health, which I think was mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is taken into account in those assessments of individuals.
The payment scheme is not intended to address all the financial implications of disablement for those affected by vaccines, which we have heard about this afternoon, and, as I have said, there is nothing to prevent people from bringing claims, although I understand that that process is difficult, as has been outlined.
The scheme is only one part of the wide range of support and help available to severely disabled people in the UK. For example, as many hon. Members will be aware, disability living allowance provides an important non-contributory, non-means-tested and tax-free cash contribution towards the disability-related extra costs of severely disabled children.
The VDPS covers immunisation provided in the routine childhood vaccination programme against specified diseases. It also temporarily covered vaccination against pandemic swine flu during the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010. Hon. Members have raised applications to the scheme from individuals who developed narcolepsy and cataplexy following immunisation that used the swine flu pandemic vaccine, pandemrix. I will take this opportunity to emphasise that we appreciate how distressing narcolepsy and cataplexy are, and we understand the concerns of those who have been affected, and the concerns of their families. The DWP administers the VDPS and takes professional medical advice on the degree of disability involved, and obviously the Department of Health is responsible for policy in this area.
Swine flu vaccines were developed specifically for use in a flu pandemic, when the number of lives that could be lost and the number of people who could suffer serious illness would have been enormous. In the circumstances, it was considered by Ministers at the time that it was suitable to extend the VDPS temporarily, but in the circumstances that currently prevail it is inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases; I hope the House understands that.
The Government are advised on all immunisation matters by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is a statutory and independent body. The JCVI is also a departmental expert committee, constituted for the purpose of advising the Secretary of State for Health, and it keeps all immunisation matters under review, providing advice and recommendations to Ministers on all current and potential programmes, and advising the UK health Departments on national immunisation policy, including the safety and efficacy of a programme.
The Department of Health ensures that all its information on vaccination is clear that vaccines may have side effects, which thankfully are usually minor. However, the fact that a vaccine has been licensed shows that the benefits have been assessed as outweighing any known possible side effects. Nevertheless, as with any medicine or health care product, unfortunately a vaccine may cause side effects in some people. We have heard the stories of some of those who have been affected in that way.
Vaccine safety is of paramount importance and, as with all medicines and health care products, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the Government’s independent expert advisory Commission on Human Medicines keep the safety of all vaccines under close and continual review. In response to the concerns that were raised by Members during the time that I have been the Minister with responsibility for public health, I have sought the advice of the MHRA, and had discussions with it, to raise some of the issues that Members have put to me, and to understand in some detail that process of continual review. I was satisfied that it is very robust and based on a continual review of the available evidence, both in this country and internationally.
The UK’s childhood immunisation schedule has been recommended by experts after consideration of a wide range of evidence, which, as I have said, includes evidence about safety reactions. That evidence is both national and international. The vaccines have undergone rigorous testing with large numbers of people before they are licensed, and their safety is continuously monitored to discover and assess any rare side effects. Vaccines are among the safest medicines available and as such, and as I have said before, side effects are rare. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman thinks that reactions are not being captured properly. Again, I asked the MHRA about that. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the yellow card scheme, but perhaps he wants to give me more detail after the debate about reactions not being captured.
On that point, it became abundantly clear, when I met the two ladies whom I mentioned in respect of their daughters and the HPV vaccine, that one of those mothers faced a major challenge in pursuing the local health authority to get the card recording exactly what had happened. There appeared to be some reluctance, although I am not sure what was underpinning all that. Some people have faced a challenge getting it properly recorded.
I am sure it would help the MHRA if the hon. Gentleman sent it details of that example. However, it sounds a little bit more as if there was a problem with a local clinician recording adverse reaction than with the scheme itself. I note what he says.
The UK’s programme has been a considerable success. I know that, in the context of such a debate, it seems hard to assert that, but I think that all hon. Members would acknowledge that generally speaking this country is seen as having a successful immunisation programme. Regarding MMR, which has been mentioned, coverage in England for children reaching their second birthday rose to 92.7% in 2013-14, compared with 92.3% in 2012-13. That is the sixth consecutive year that a rise in MMR coverage has been reported, and coverage is at its highest level since the vaccine was first introduced in 1988.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern that the current level of award may limit the take-up of vaccines, but I am hesitant to accept that as evidence, given the improved take-up of the MMR vaccine during a period when the VDPS has not changed. I am hesitant to accept what he says, but if there is peer-reviewed evidence of the link between the level of the scheme and the take-up of particular vaccines, I suggest he submits that to the Department.
Hon. Members will know that, since 1 May 2014, the VDPS has been the joint responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. As set out in the 1979 Act, the Department of Health is responsible for policy, for example, changes to the list of infectious diseases covered by the Act in line with changes to the immunisation programme. The shadow Minister mentioned diseases added to the scheme. As has been said, the Department for Work and Pensions remains responsible for assessing the claims.
Hon. Members have put on the record the number of claims and awards made. I note concerns about awards made in recent years, but again it is perhaps not entirely right to assume that that is, in some sense, because the criteria have been changed, or anything like that. I have outlined the independent expertise of the medical assessors, and said that vaccines have got safer. Again, the causative link needs to be proved. However, I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and that of other hon. Members, about the lack of recent awards.
The vaccine damage payment scheme has always covered diseases vaccinated against as part of the childhood immunisation programme. That approach underlines successive Governments’ intention that the scheme should help children who are rarely, but regrettably, severely disabled. As I said, changes to and recommendations about that programme are made by the JCVI.
In 2002, the scheme was reviewed and changes were made. The threshold of disability was reduced from 80% to 60% and, as we have said, the payment increased to £120,000.
My sense is that the scheme, which aims to provide proportionate help, has got the balance about right, but I have heard the concerns expressed today. It is worth noting that successive Governments have considered this matter and chosen not to alter the scheme. That consideration would have involved looking at it in some detail. Equally, I note gently that the shadow Minister, analysed the situation and asked many questions, but made no commitments, although she aspires to sit in my place in just a few weeks.
The House will note that many successive Governments of different parties have looked at the scheme and have, I think, drawn the same conclusion, which is that the balance is about right. That is not to say that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns are not listened to: far from it. I have listened to his concerns and will take those away and reflect on them.
There are no current plans to make any changes to the time limits. Again, the hon. Gentleman made his case about that, as did other hon. Members.
I hear what the Minister is saying, but this may be the last chance to comment. I talked about a case where the payments are not in any way compensatory. Previous Governments lifted the level of payment substantially up to £120,000. Can she not give any hope to parents in their 60s who are struggling with care? Care is expensive, and increasingly so under her Government. What can she say to give some hope to parents in that situation, of whom, as we have heard, there are very many, including my constituents?
The challenge is that a number of aspects of the scheme, which has existed under successive Governments, make some individual cases particularly hard. The hon. Lady has touched on some reasons for that in her contribution.
The Government have no plans to change how the scheme is run, as one might expect in the last week before the House rises before the general election, and there are no plans to review it, as I have said. However, we are about to have a new Parliament. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and other hon. Members may wish to return to this subject. The work of the all-party group will continue. The hon. Gentleman has indicated that he wants to raise the reform of the Act in the new Parliament. The shadow Minister has made some points, but no commitments. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway may therefore wish to use the next few weeks lobbying within his own party, if he cannot speak in Parliament, making his case forcefully to his colleague.
I note the concerns expressed today. I am not in a position to say that the scheme will be reviewed. As is the way of these things, all these matters will now be for a new Government to consider. However, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway put his points thoughtfully, as ever, and they have been thoughtfully taken on board and will be considered.
The Shrewsbury 24
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.
I do not intend to rehearse the issues raised during a debate on 23 January 2014, because I think that all hon. Members in this Chamber attended it. However, I shall say that the will of Parliament is being defied by this Government. The will of Parliament on 23 January 2014, by 120 votes to three, was that documents should be released so that people who were locked up in 1973 could have the chance to clear their name.
We were advised and supported by the Minister, who said he would try to help us take this matter forward. He met us in the Lobby after the debate, and he then met us—me, along with Ricky Tomlinson, who was one of those locked up in 1973, and Eileen Turnbull, who works for the campaign—in July last year. We told him then that there were far more documents than he related in his response to the debate—four redacted letters, currently being withheld. We said there were a lot more than that; and, to give credit where it is due, the Minister went away and released an Excel spreadsheet of 2,282 file references being held by the Government.
Out of those 2,000-plus, the campaign team, led by Eileen Turnbull, selected 51 that she believed could have a direct connection to the trials. When she inquired whether those files could be released from the National Archives, she was told that she would have to apply to each respective Department where the files were being held. She has applied for six files from two Departments by way of freedom of information requests. She has been told in no uncertain terms that “None of the above” will be available for public scrutiny. They are being withheld under section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. On asking for a review of those decisions in February this year, she was told on 20 and 24 February that the response to the application for a review was not to release the documents. Therefore, with great respect to the Minister, the words he gave us had no bearing. We have moved nowhere.
Those of us who are involved in this issue are clear that we would like to see a number of files. I will list just six, but that is out of a great big bunch that we could go into. First, we would like access to the relevant un-redacted Cabinet documents and internal police, intelligence and Security Service records for the period from the start of the national strike in May 1972 to the subsequent convictions in March 1974, together with any such files relating to the Shrewsbury pickets beyond those dates. Secondly, we would like access to documents that deal with communications between Departments and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, particularly those involving Sir Robert McAlpine.
Thirdly, we would like access to any documents that deal with the decision to set up a police investigation squad in north Wales led by the chief constable of Gwynedd and the chief constable of West Mercia after the strike in 1972 to collect statements that led to the prosecution of the 24 Shrewsbury pickets. Fourthly, we ask for a copy of the joint report of the chief constable of Gwynedd and the chief constable of West Mercia in 1972-73, which included a statement that, in their view, any violence by pickets was sporadic and episodic and that they did not have the evidence to bring conspiracy charges against the pickets, although those were ultimately levied against them in court.
Fifthly, we would like records of communications between any combination of the following: the Home Secretary and the Home Office, the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Treasury counsel, the chief constables of West Mercia and Gwynedd and Sir Maurice Drake, QC, who was acting for the prosecution in 1972-73. Finally, we would like all documents relating to the decision of the Lord Chancellor to make the practice direction ending the right of the defence to know the occupation of jurors, something that was overturned just before the case. We would also like a copy of said direction. That document, which should be in the public domain, is still unobtainable through the usual sources. That is a short list of some of the things that have been hidden from public view by this Government and by previous Governments.
What we are talking about in this debate is justice, integrity and honour, but we are also talking about real people’s lives—the 24 men who were convicted in 1973: John Carpenter, John McKinsie Jones, John Elfyn Llywarch, Kenneth Desmond Francis O’Shea, Eric Tomlinson, Dennis Michael Warren, William Michael Pierce, John Malcolm Clee, John Gary Davies, Derrick Hughes, Samuel Roy Warburton, Thomas Brian Williams, Alfred James, Dennis Morris, George Arthur Murray, Patrick Kevin Butcher, William Charles Leslie Hooson, Terence Renshaw, Graham Roberts, John Kenneth Seaburg, Peter Alfred Sear, Bryn Thomas, Edward Leonard Williams and Thomas Bernard Williams.
Those 24 men have never had their names cleared. Sadly, four of them—John Carpenter, Des Warren, Alfred James and John Kenneth Seaburg—will never know if their names will be cleared, because they are now dead. Their families are still living with the burden that their husbands, fathers and brothers have gone to their graves as convicted criminals. The youngest of the men still surviving is almost 70 and the oldest is 90. It is 42 years since they were convicted and this Government are holding on to records, transcripts and paperwork that could clear their names. It simply is not right in this day and age. We are constantly told by our Prime Minister that we should let the sunshine in and have transparency. That is all we have asked for in these debates, and it is the one thing we have never had.
With your latitude, Mr Caton, I want to quote from the transcript of the court case. I will quote from the summing up of the case, first from Ricky Tomlinson and then from Des Warren. Everyone knows who Ricky Tomlinson is—he is a national treasure and an icon—but he still clearly regards himself first and foremost as a City and Guilds plasterer who was doing a job trying to protect himself and the men he worked with from working in some of the worst and most arduous conditions in the world. While he was waiting to be sentenced, this is what he said to the judge—the judge did not want to hear it, and I am not surprised. These are just some snippets. He said:
“It was said by Goebbels in the last war that if you repeat a lie often enough it eventually becomes accepted as the truth. This I have observed being put into practice here in this court…I can sympathise with members of the jury because they have been used in this charade in just the same way as myself and my colleagues. We must remember that British justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done…No sentence passed on me by this court, however lenient or however severe, can hurt me more than I have already been hurt. I have been almost continuously unemployed since my arrest and, of course, this punishes my wife and two infant sons to a far greater extent that it does me. During the length and course of this trial my family have been abused by the very people whose duty it is to assist them…The sentence passed on me by this court will not matter. My innocence has been proved time and again by the building workers of Wrexham whom I represent, and also by the building workers from all over the land who have sent particular messages of support to myself and my family and my colleagues…I know my children when they are old enough, will understand that the struggle we took part in was for their benefit and for the benefit and interest of building workers and their families.”
That is true; sadly, they know that their father is still effectively a convicted criminal. He then went on to say these words, which are why we are here today:
“I look forward to the day when the real culprits of these crimes, the McAlpines, the Wimpey’s, the Laings and the Bovis’s, and all their political bodies, are in the dock facing charges of conspiracy to intimidate workers from doing what is their lawful right, picketing.”
He also spoke about the fact that those companies were running building sites in this country where one builder a day was dying. The companies were abusing health and safety legislation, which was there to protect the men and boys working on the sites.
I now move on to the speech made by Des Warren. He was the first to admit that he was a political activist. He was one of the “reds under the bed” that people were terrified of in the 1970s. He never hid away from that, but he was also a proud working man. This is what he had to say:
“I have spent a week in jail, and people in there and various other people, not including my counsel, have told me that it was always a mistake to make a speech from the dock, because whatever you are going to get will be doubled. I tried to explain to them that the system that operates is purely for the upper class, and I don’t expect any leniency or mercy from it, so I’ll continue anyway.
It has been said in this court that this trial had nothing do with politics. Among ten million trade unionists in this country I doubt if you would find one who would agree with that statement. It is a fact of life that Acts of Parliament have been passed and picketing and strikes are looked upon as a political act. It therefore follows that every action taken in furtherance of an industrial dispute also becomes a political act…On the other hand, employers, by their contempt of laws governing safety requirements, are guilty of causing the deaths of a great many workers, and yet they are not dealt with before the courts. Mr. Bumble said: ‘The law is an ass.’ If he were here now he might draw the conclusion that the law is, quite clearly, an instrument of the state, to be used in the interests of a tiny minority against the majority. It is biased; it is class law, and nowhere has that been demonstrated more than in the prosecution case in this trial…Was there a conspiracy? Ten members of the jury have said there was. There was a conspiracy, but not by the pickets…The conspiracy was between the Home Secretary, the employers and the police. It was not done with a nod and a wink. It was conceived after pressure from Tory Members of Parliament who demanded changes in picketing laws…The working class movement cannot allow this verdict to go unchallenged. It is yet one more step along the road to fascism, and I would remind you that the greatest heroes in Nazi Germany were those who challenged the law, when it was used as a political weapon by a fanatical gang for a minority of greedy, evil men.”
This man died as a direct result of the way he was treated in prison. He was treated disgracefully. He was beaten up and given liquid medication that caused him to develop Parkinson’s. He suffered desperately. My sister nursed him in the 1980s and said it was the hardest she had ever done. This man was effectively killed by the state, even if it took 30 years for him to die.
So this is a debate about justice and honour, but it is also about the Minister; because the Minister, if he does not help us today, will again defy the will of Parliament. We all recognise his long track record inside and out of the House of being honest and being honourable—of being a seeker after truth. What we saw in the mid-1970s was a group of men who were set up and who were locked up. Ever since then there has been a cover-up, which has lasted 42 years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate. Does he agree that the only crime that these men committed was to fight for better health and safety on the building sites? During that time, 571 people had been killed in a three-year period and 221,000 people had been injured on construction sites. That, coupled with £30 for 30 hours, was what these people were fighting for. It was a miscarriage of justice of the highest order.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Like me, he worked in the mining industry, which saw some of the most horrific accident and death statistics going back centuries. We fought against that and turned it around in the mining industry. The people in the building industry were trying to do exactly what we did. They wanted to bring to the building sites the sort of legislation and protection that we had achieved, sometimes through industrial action, but also through coming into this place and getting legislation passed to protect people at work. That is what these men were doing. They also wanted a decent living wage, because £30 was not a lot of money in 1972. They wanted a reasonable pay rise, but they were also defending people’s lives and limbs.
May I ask the Minister a question through my hon. Friend? Why is it that the Government are reducing the 30-year rule to 20 years, yet in correspondence on this matter with me the Ministry of Justice has increased the information release date from 30 years to 40 years? My five constituents, who are among the names mentioned by my hon. Friend, cannot get justice until 2022, when many of them will be very old indeed.
My right hon. Friend asks a very valid question, and I hope that we get an answer from the Minister. It beggars belief. We know the context in which this case took place. We had industrial strife in a number of industries and obviously a lot was happening in Northern Ireland. We also know the context of police behaviour in the 1970s, because it is now coming out through things such as the Saville and Hillsborough inquiries, issues relating to the miners’ strike at Orgreave and the behaviour of the security services in relation to the Birmingham and Guildford bombings, for example. We are talking about 24 men among a larger group who went to a picket line. On the day, not one of them was charged, warned or arrested. If they had done something that warranted arrest, they would have been arrested there and then—not five months later, not after a fishing expedition, but on the day.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has assiduously pursued this issue since he came into Parliament. One way in which the trade unions were undermined in the ’60s and ’70s, certainly in the building industry, was through something called lump labour, which kept wages down. Sometimes these things are forgotten in this day and age, but they happened then. Sometimes people were expected to work in appalling conditions, and if someone got blacklisted, it was like a life sentence: they never got another job.
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of that, because what the building employers were doing was not only bad in terms of people’s working conditions; they were actually breaking the law. They were encouraging people not to be paid properly. In effect, those employers were not paying income tax or national insurance contributions, so they were stealing from the public purse, while at the same time coercing the Home Secretary to pressure the police into bringing forward a case against 24 innocent men, whom the judiciary would then prosecute as a warning to others. That is exactly what this is all about, and I am convinced that the papers show that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) asked why the information release date has been extended to 40 years; I am not sure that we will get the answers even in 2022, if we are still around. The sad reality is that some of these men will not be around. That is a disgrace.
I look to the Minister as someone who, I believe, is an honourable man. I know that he does not have much time left over the next few days, but he may be in the same post in eight weeks’ time. Obviously, my colleagues and I hope that it will be someone from our party sitting in his place, because we have pledged to release the papers, and we have said that we will do it no matter what the Security Service or the spooks tell us. We will release them, because we see this as a debt to the people of the country, but we also see it as exercising the will of Parliament. Parliament spoke in January last year; that voice has been blocked deliberately by this Government. I look to the Minister today to try to help us to move that blockage and to move it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson); he knows that I respect hugely his commitment to this issue. I will not repeat myself, but he also knows from the large debate that we had on the Floor of the House in January last year that I am very sympathetic to the cause that was the basis of the dispute. I represented many building workers in the past, and I know that practice in the building industry was often appalling. In the ’70s and earlier, safety was poor, so it was an important campaign for the unions to be involved with. I therefore start from a position of both respect for the people in the unions who were involved and support for the cause that they were campaigning on. I remember the dispute, and I thank the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for continuing to pursue the issue. I will be as helpful as I can. He came to see me after the previous debate, and we discussed how we could make as much progress as possible.
I will try to deal with the issues quickly, but let me first summarise the facts. In 1972, there was a strike by building workers in Shrewsbury. A number of the picketers were then arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and conspiracy to intimidate. Several picketers, whom the hon. Gentleman named, were given prison sentences. That was controversial, partly because of the alleged role of the security services, and the Justice for Shrewsbury Pickets campaign was established with the intention of having the convictions overturned.
In recent years, there has been a renewed push for the release of all Government-retained papers on the issue. I have seen Ricky Tomlinson here. He attended the previous debate and has taken a direct interest, having launched an e-petition for the release of the documents that garnered 33,000 signatures. Another petition was submitted in December 2013 with about 70,000 signatures. Together, they probably crossed the 100,000 signatures trigger line for e-petitions. That led to the Backbench Business Committee granting the debate on the Floor of the House on 23 January last year. The hon. Gentleman is right that an overwhelming majority of the Members who voted in that debate called for the papers to be published, and that included not only Opposition Members but Government Members.
Since then, some of the Shrewsbury 24 have applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission—I discussed that with the hon. Gentleman when we met. Ministers understand that, as part of its ongoing consideration of the case, the CCRC has exercised its powers under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 to access papers relevant to the case. It has not come to a public position on that, but its staff have seen the papers and they have regarded and taken account of them in as much as they wish to do so.
The majority of the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24 were released under the Public Records Act 1958 to the National Archives. Under sections 62 and 63 of the Freedom of Information Act—this relates to the point made by the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson)—a record becomes an historical record 20 years after it was created, so the right hon. Gentleman is right, the Government have legislated to make the 30-year rule a 20-year rule. Gradually we are working our way down so that in a few years all public papers, unless they are exempted, will be released under the 20-year rule. I will come on to the qualification to which he referred.
Under the existing public records legislation, all records selected for permanent preservation must be transferred to the National Archives by the time that they are 30 years old unless—this is the key issue—they are needed for administrative purposes or
“ought to be retained for any other special reason”.
Where that is deemed to be the case, the Department in question must seek the Lord Chancellor’s approval.
Since 1967, successive Lord Chancellors in the three different types of Administration have been satisfied that information related to security and intelligence matters falls within the category of “other special reason”. The approval granted in an administrative instrument signed by the Lord Chancellor is referred to as a security and intelligence “blanket”.
The date to which the hon. Member for Blaydon and the right hon. Member for Delyn referred arises from the current blanket approval given on 19 December 2011 by the then Lord Chancellor, running up to the end of 2021. It is then up to individual Departments to decide whether they wish to rely on the security blanket to keep information from the National Archives.
Papers retained under the blanket should be reviewed for ongoing sensitivity every 10 years. The Cabinet Office has told me, as I told the hon. Member for Blaydon last year, that the process to review the papers held by it is now under way and will be completed by the end of this year, as required under the Public Records Act.
I am aware that colleagues have been in touch with Ministers in the Cabinet Office. There have also been questions to me by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), which I answered in March last year, and by the hon. Member for Blaydon on 9 March this year, which the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General answered:
“A review of these retained papers is under way and will be completed by the end of 2015, as required by the Public Records Act.”
Today I saw that the hon. Gentleman was down to ask an oral question as well.
I have also seen a letter about a constituent to the Minister for Employment from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General dated yesterday:
“Thank you for your e-mail…addressed to the Minister of State for Justice…regarding the release of papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24. The ongoing sensitivity of this material is subject to periodic review and they are being reviewed this year. I am responding as the Minister responsible.
An outline of the material which has been retained was given to Parliament in a statement by Simon Hughes on 23 January 2014. The process to review the papers is under way and will be completed by the end of 2015, as required by the Public Records Act. I can also advise you that the Criminal Cases Review Commission has seen the papers and expressed no interest.”
It is open to the hon. Member for Blaydon, even at this stage in this Parliament, to make a request to the Cabinet Office, whose decision it is, to have a meeting with the Minister whose responsibility it will be as to whether to release those papers this year. I urge the hon. Gentleman to do that. He has pursued assiduously all sorts of approaches to open up what has happened and I hope that, if he has not already done so, he will approach the Cabinet Office Minister directly for a meeting to make the formal request ahead of the decision.
That is the intent of my question to the Cabinet Office, which is down for tomorrow, but I am on my feet to ask a different question. Does the Minister not find it strange that despite what was said in last year’s debate and what I have said today, and despite campaigners out in the public domain attacking judges, police, Ministers, big business and every part of the establishment, not one of them has responded by saying, “You have made all this up”? Not one has said, “You’re wrong, you’re out of order.” Does that not give even more credence to the fact of a cover-up to conceal what people have done, which was deliberately to put those people in jail as a lesson to working men and women?
I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s drawing that conclusion. To be fair—trying to step back for a second—the fact that nothing has been said can be open to interpretation in either direction, but I completely understand the view that if there were nothing to hide, someone might have said that. Legalistically, however, people might rightly have said that they could make no comment.
May I be helpful in two other ways? In fact, I want to say three other things in the remaining few minutes. Four documents are central to the case, so let me put on the record what they are: a Security Service report; a letter from the director-general of the Security Service to the Cabinet Secretary, which was released but for one redacted paragraph; a minute from the Cabinet Office to No. 10 referring to the report, which was released except for a single paragraph; and a minute from No. 10 to the Cabinet Office in reply, which has been released except for a single paragraph. Those are the four documents that we are talking about—the four documents that we know about.
We also know that the bulk of the documents on the subject that are held by the Government have been released. According to the figures I have, of the 1972 records—all records, not only those concerning the builders’ strike—93.5%, or 50,917, are available to the public already; 2,932 are closed at the National Archives; and 1.1%, or 625 documents, are retained by Departments. The assiduous researcher of the hon. Member for Blaydon has addressed herself to those Departments on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf. The Departments have the responsibility to decide whether to release the documents. I do not have the power to order other Departments to release documents. If release is refused, there is a right of appeal under the Freedom of Information Act to the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal. I will continue to be as helpful as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) commented that the Minister was a respected person. I have no doubt that that is the case. Will the Minister tell us what powers he has to progress the matter? He has been in his position for quite some time now and I am wondering whether he has done anything at all.
Within my powers as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice I have done all that I can do. I do not have the power to direct other Departments to release documents for which they have the responsibility. The process is: application to the Department, which the researcher of the hon. Member for Blaydon has made, and, if turned down, a Freedom of Information Act appeal to the commissioner and to the tribunal. My advice continues to be to fight the case, as it were, in the other Department—this is not in relation to the four documents, which are covered by the Cabinet Office secrecy blanket. To see if there is further material, other documents have to be pursued Department by Department.
We do not hold any of the documents in my Department. The reason why I was responding to the debate is in part that I am the Minister with responsibility for freedom of information. I have ensured that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Blaydon know exactly how to use the powers given to them by the law. I cannot take those powers away from them and I cannot tell Departments which information to release if they choose to refuse to do so, but there is a process in law that will take the hon. Gentlemen to the courts in order to have the information released.
May I share one other thing that I hope will answer hon. Members’ questions? I am keen, if possible, for the FOI requests to be accepted and for the information to be released across the Departments, as well as from the Cabinet Office. Under this year’s Cabinet Office process to decide whether to retain the documents, officials look at the material afresh and the test is whether the transfer of the records to the National Archives or any other place of deposit creates a “real risk of prejudice” to national security. That is the criterion they have to judge by. Officials have to make that decision with authority delegated from the Cabinet Office Minister.
The Lord Chancellor looked at the papers in 2012 and satisfied himself that the test was applied, but even that decision—if the hon. Member for Blaydon goes to the Cabinet Office to make the request and the papers are still not released—can be challenged by asking for that information through an FOI request, which has an appeals process, and through judicial review if appropriate. I am happy to put the resources of my Department at his disposal as a seeker after the facts, but it is the Cabinet Office, subject to the courts, that makes the call that will determine whether a document is released. I hope that there can be progress this year and that, for his sake and the sake of those whom he represents, there is therefore the release of the documents. The decision, however, is that of the Cabinet Office Minister.
Property Taxes in London
The so-called mansion tax is a big issue and will continue to be so in London for the next 44 days, in the run-up to the general election. It is not enough for those of us who are against what is proposed simply to oppose it. We—mainly Conservative Members—need to be on the front foot and have our own proposals for a property tax. That is what I want to put forward in this short debate.
As the new year dawned, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) announced that the Labour party would
“tax houses in London and the South East to pay for 1,000 new nurses in the Scottish NHS.”
Although he later clarified that he was referring only to Scotland’s share of any new mansion tax, the coupling of Labour’s mansion tax policy to its battle to the death with the Scottish National party, north of the border, over NHS staffing was doubtless deliberate. The Scottish Labour leader knew only too well that his focus on two targets of Scottish resentment, notionally London and the well-off, would play wonderfully with his audience.
Alas, such messages resonate south of the border, as well. The notion of London and Londoners as some sort of cash cow able to fund all manner of policy promises has gained widespread traction in recent years. The capital city apparently sparkles with success and is brimful of confidence at a time when other parts of our kingdom are struggling. Increasingly people speak of London’s alienation from the rest of the UK, as the metropolis gobbles talent and makes a compelling case for its ever-increasing infrastructure budgets.
Meanwhile, the issue of housing in London itself has become toxic. Boosted by the weakness of sterling and the perception of the UK as a safe haven, foreign money has flooded into England’s prime housing market. As the international enclave expands in the central London boroughs, prices are driven up in the outer suburbs. Meanwhile, rapid population growth, a lack of housing supply and the difficulty of saving for a vast deposit, alongside boosted prices that were already artificially affected by low interest rates and Government programmes, have made it tough even for professionals to enter the property market in our capital city.
As a result, a passionate debate now rages about the possible imposition of a mansion tax, as a means of addressing the resentment felt both by the rest of the country towards its capital and by those Londoners excluded from the apparent property bonanza. Both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have made it clear that they wish to push ahead with such a levy on all properties valued at over £2 million. I appreciate that in a globally mobile world it is increasingly difficult to raise tax income, and so fixed assets such as real estate will inevitably tend to attract higher rates of taxation. But in spite of those parties’ apparent concern for fairness, as they would put it, neither has been receptive to the genuine worries of many of those hit hardest by their plans: people who happen to reside in homes whose value has inflated in recent decades to a level that bears no relation to the household’s ability to stump up large annual cash sums in a mansion-tax type levy—in other words, the asset rich but cash poor.
I suspect a hefty annual mansion tax would drive greater numbers of Londoners from their homes, vacating even more prime central property for the global super-rich. As such, it should be vigorously opposed. Undeniably, however, my own Conservative party risks being left behind in the public debate on the issue if it fails adequately to address the resentments behind the mansion tax’s apparent popularity. The Chancellor has already rapidly raised rates of stamp duty, particularly for homes purchased by companies, non-doms and offshore vehicles. Local authorities in London have also been given the power to remove most exemptions from council tax for empty homes and second homes via the Local Government Finance Act 2012. But the coalition is yet to grasp the nettle on council tax, and it is that prospect that I will raise with the Minister today.
As the Minister will know, council tax was introduced in April 1993 as the primary source of collecting income from local residents by local authorities, as a hybrid personal and property imposition. It came hot on the heels of the ill-fated and short-lived community charge—better known as the poll tax—which had itself replaced domestic rates in England in the spring of 1990. As we know, the levy for councils in England is calculated by allocating a dwelling to one of eight bands, A to H. The allocation is made on the basis of a property’s assumed capital value. But that assumption is based on prices as they stood on 1 April 1991—almost a quarter of a century ago. Newly constructed properties are also assigned a nominal 1991 value, albeit one reflecting national rather than localised variations in value over the past 24 years.
The tax is not even particularly proportionate to property values, as the same amount is levied on all homes valued at over £320,000 at 1991 prices, which is the national band H. That means that about half of all houses in the capital are now placed in the same council tax band, even though their size, location and value are vastly different. A Knightsbridge oligarch, for instance, is paying £1,353.48 in council tax on a £60 million home, exactly the same amount as that levied on properties worth one thirtieth of that sum—properties that would fall within the mansion tax band.
If the current outdated system of valuation seems ludicrous, it can be explained by a concern among politicians that the process and time taken for revaluation would be contentious, difficult and potentially costly to voters. However, there is a solution that is neither overly complex nor anything like as painful as a mansion tax. More important still, it could have a big upside when it comes to the provision of affordable housing.
My central London constituency has one of the highest concentrations of high-value properties anywhere in the country, so my constituents would be particularly vulnerable to the imposition of a new blanket mansion tax along the lines proposed. Indeed, over the past six or seven months I have been bombarded with letters telling me that, in spite of my vigorous opposition to a mansion tax, I should be doing more to stop my political opponents from even talking about one. Many of my constituents simply do not have the thousands of pounds in cash needed each year to pay a mansion tax levied in addition to council tax. They are also concerned that any additional income would go straight to central Government and be distributed elsewhere, along the lines of the promise of the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire to pay for Scottish nurses with Londoners’ money.
Like me, my right hon. Friend has received letters from people who have lived in their houses for very many years, many of whom are now widowed, who face the prospect of being forced out of their homes by this relatively iniquitous tax. It takes no account of ability to pay; it works from a snapshot. Its unfairness is regional and also generational.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have all had heartfelt letters from elderly folk in particular who are worried sick about the prospect. As I say, the perverse impact would be that they would be driven out of their homes and those homes would be more likely to end up in the hands of the very oligarchs that the mansion tax is supposed to prevent from monopolising the London property market.
Many of my correspondents recognise that the current structure of council tax requires urgent updating and would be receptive to the imposition of additional bands to recognise differential property values—something that would, again, disproportionately penalise London. Currently, all banding ratios are set down in statute, but the Government could allow local authorities to set their own for band H and above, with bands A to G remaining at their existing statutory ratios. A ceiling could be set so that council tax would always be limited to, for example, a band J of three times the existing band H charge, to ensure that it would not become a mansion tax by the back door.
The City of Westminster might not be the most typical of local authorities, but obviously it is close to my heart. In that central London borough, a band H property is now likely to be worth more than £2 million; there are just under 15,000 of such homes. However, there is a vast difference between a £2 million flat in Pimlico and a home valued at £60 million in One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge.
Local authorities could be empowered to impose additional bands—for example, a band H for prime properties worth between £2 million and £5 million, a band I for intermediate prime properties worth between £5 million and £15 million and a band J for super-prime properties worth more than £15 million. Crucially, the Government ought to ensure that all additional council tax or prime property tax income over and above the existing band structure is retained by the local authority on the proviso that it is earmarked exclusively for affordable housing in the area. That positive and highly localised proposal could be a far more eye-catching and exciting way of countering the envy-driven mansion tax and tackling perceived housing inequality. It would also chime perfectly with the spirit of the age. As I mentioned earlier, the Government have moved towards a system that gives local authorities discretion over empty property taxes, so we are already empowering local authorities to apply local circumstances to the levying elements of council tax.
Strong currents are pushing us towards a further devolution of central powers. London, in particular, would surely be able to make a compelling case for localised revenue raising—particularly if Scotland becomes ever more autonomous. Meanwhile, the enormous and growing pressure on London’s housing supply will lead to an ever stronger case being made for the money raised in the capital from its prime housing stock to be retained in the city for the provision of affordable housing.
Politically, there is a compelling case to make. Residents in prime central houses are paying about a third of what they were paying in rates, compared with even the 1980s, while the burden for those further down the scale has increased proportionally. Reformers should take up this opportunity with relish. However, the proposal will work only if the additional ring-fenced income is disregarded by central Government when determining a local authority’s funding stream, to prevent councils from being financially disadvantaged by the use of the proposed new bands. That could be achieved through a relatively minor revision to the Government’s annual tax base return—CTB1—to show that each local authority’s tax base calculation for bands H, I and J are along the lines I have proposed and are based on the existing 18/9 band H ratio. That would ensure that the local authority funding streams calculated using the CTB1 tax base data remain unaffected. It would be a relatively straightforward change, as far as the Minister’s Department is concerned.
Although my proposal avoids the complexity of a fully fledged revaluation, it should nevertheless be noted that such complexity is fast reducing with the rise of online property sites, which are able to provide pretty accurate historical and current market assessments. Would it really be that difficult to establish a system of self-assessment, such as the one in France, where there is a wealth tax whereby the worth of the equity of a property is submitted on an annual basis and can be challenged by the town hall if it is thought not to be an accurate assessment of market value?
My party must never give in to the politics of envy and to class war rhetoric, but the wide support for a mansion tax among some fair-minded people is, in part, a reflection of a collective failure to grasp the nettle by comprehensively reviewing property taxes. However, the mansion tax, as proposed by the other two main political parties in England, must not go ahead. It is mooted as fair—whatever that really means—but the real, practical concerns of people in my constituency are simply disregarded as the bleating of the cosseted rich, despite its threatening to ruin many. That applies to Wimbledon as much as it does to the Cities of London and Westminster. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and I are used to heartfelt pleas from elderly constituents, many of whom are sickened with worry about this matter.
The time is ripe to tackle the outdated system of council tax in a way that is fairer and allows for genuine local discretion. Incremental targeting of the highest-value properties could be accompanied by a new localised council tax support scheme that would allow specific instances of individual hardship to be addressed.
It is widely reported that our capital city may just have equalled its peak population, and it is anticipated that 100,000 people per year will be added to this great metropolis. The capital urgently needs more housing of all types, but particularly more affordable housing. If the money from London’s additional council tax bands were to be reinvested directly into the communities whence it came, we could begin to provide the homes that the next generation of Londoners desperately needs. I implore the Minister to look in detail at these issues so the electorate can be presented with a real choice on these matters on 7 May.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I welcome the constructive input of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and his fresh perspective on the topic of council tax. It is clear that a lot of work has gone into developing his ideas, and I commend him for his thoughtful approach. I also commend the London borough of Westminster for having kept council tax levels at the same rate for the past four years. The banding system is set nationally, but council tax levels are set locally, and Westminster’s approach has helped to keep living costs down for hard-working residents.
There are many matters about which my right hon. Friend and I agree. We agree that a mansion tax is not the answer, whatever the question. It would be complex to introduce, involve the re-evaluation of many homes and raise fairness issues about the ability of those liable to pay the tax. We have no intention of introducing a mansion tax.
My right hon. Friend and I also agree about the importance of affordable homes, which is why, despite the fiscal constraints, we have secured capital resources for affordable housing. Almost 217,000 affordable homes have been delivered in England since April 2010. Our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver another 170,000 affordable homes between 2011 and 2015. More than 144,000 homes have already been delivered under the programme.
The Government are now seeking to accelerate the increase in the number of affordable homes. By the end of the next Parliament, we should see 275,000 additional affordable homes built with £38 billion of public and private investment. That means that we will have built more new affordable homes than during the equivalent period in the past 20 years. We have introduced a range of measures to get Britain building again, to fix the broken housing market and to help hard-working people get the homes they want.
We recognise that the process of devolution is positive and necessary, with regard to local government finance. Indeed, the Government have devolved significant responsibility to local authorities, and the reforms are still bedding in. The affordable homes programme, which the Mayor has undertaken, comes with £1 billion of devolved money. There is a real commitment to work with boroughs and councils in London to deliver that package of housing.
My right hon. Friend and I also agree that the re-evaluation process is expensive and complex. However, we differ in that the Government do not support the introduction of a higher council tax band. Council tax is not a wealth tax but a charge for the use of local services. The current banding system reflects the fact that larger homes make a slightly greater use of local services, but it is intentionally not a poll tax or a domestic tax.
I accept that Westminster is relatively exceptional, but the £320,000 limit means that more than half the properties are in the same band, which suggests that the banding system is not working well. Although Westminster is an exception in that regard, I suspect that it is not the only area in London or the south-east in which a significantly disproportionate number of properties are in either of the top two bands.
I recognise the tensions associated with this, but as a former Housing Minister, I have to respond to the idea of taxing people who live in certain houses. As both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) have pointed out, the fact that a person lives in a particular house may not mean that they are cash-rich as a consequence. A set of circumstances may have led to their owning the house, and simply placing a greater tax burden on those individuals does not necessarily produce more affordable homes.
Will the Minister follow that line of logic? Even if he is not prepared to accept part of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) said, perhaps he will be prepared to look at the structure of banding regionally, to give a greater reflection of the differentials in house prices in different parts of the country. The current band structure clearly cannot reflect that, so the case for regional banding becomes even stronger.
I respect my hon. Friend’s comments, but as a Conservative who has had many conversations about the word “regional”, I can tell him that that word does not sit comfortably in the Department at this time. I assure him that we will not be having a “regional” conversation about taxation.
The Government have already taken strong action against owners of high-value property who seek to avoid paying their fair share of tax. We have introduced a number of measures, including the 15% rate of stamp duty land tax, the annual tax on enveloped dwellings, and the extensions to capital gains tax, which target those individuals who “envelope” residential properties by owning or purchasing them through certain non-natural persons, such as companies. Those measures are proving effective. For instance, in its first year of operation—2013-14—the annual tax on enveloped dwellings raised about five times more than the original £20 million forecast. It is expected to raise £110 million in 2014-15.
Two important phrases came out of what my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend said: the “politics of envy” and the “class warfare” element. Both the measures that we have introduced to pursue the individuals who are avoiding tax are about making sure that people who have money and should pay tax do so. That argument is different from the one that the Labour party is making, which instils the politics of envy and class warfare against those who have achieved, rather than supporting those who are ambitious and seek to be successful in life. That is at our root as Conservatives: we will support the individual who wants to aspire to own something, rather than punishing somebody who has achieved those goals and ambitions.
The admirable achievements of successful local authorities, such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, demonstrate the effectiveness of the current council tax system. We believe that the implementation of higher bands would unbalance that system and alter the key principles of council tax, which, after all, is not a wealth tax. Extra revenue has been raised, however, by the taxes placed and targeted on owners of high-value property who seek to avoid paying their share of tax, as I have said. Furthermore, our innovative measures and programmes and a range of products that will meet a range of housing needs, with support from councils, housing associations and the private sector, will continue to deliver and build on the affordable homes programme.
My right hon. Friend raised the issue of foreign investment, and I appreciate that a significant number of people come to this great international city and invest. They have done so for many years, but sometimes people can distort the sort of comments that he made. In my time as Housing Minister, I saw many acres of coverage discussing the issue in many supplements. We should recognise that we are open-minded about people wanting to come to this city and invest in our infrastructure and housing.
Before the Minister concludes, I would like to put it on the record that I very much support the free movement of capital; it is a positive thing, broadly, for London and for the UK as a whole. That said, there has been controversy about the so-called dark lights in large bits of Kensington, Knightsbridge and Belgravia, although I think that is exaggerated to some extent. Quite a lot of the properties that are purchased are rented out to UK nationals or other London residents. A big sea change would be needed if we were somehow to discourage the free movement of capital, and although that might open up matters a bit in the London property market, it could have a very detrimental effect on much of the rest of the British economy.
I completely recognise the huge support for inward investment in the country that my right hon. Friend has promoted and encouraged, and he will continue to, I am sure.
We should put on the record the fact that in 2013, the Bank of England estimated that foreign buyers represented some 3% of the total residential property transactions in London. Savills said, again in 2013, that the current level of sales to overseas buyers is the same proportionately now as it was in 1990. It is important to put things in context, so that individuals do not race away with another idea that some of the issues associated with affordable housing are about foreign people coming to our country. Foreign people are coming to our country and investing in our infrastructure and our housing.
In conclusion, I genuinely appreciate the time taken on this issue by my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will make representations to other parts of Government about his ideas. I reassure him that, from my time as Housing Minister I know that the Mayor of London takes the issue of affordable housing extremely seriously. I am sure that through working with partners such as Westminster and through the leadership that my right hon. Friend has taken on this issue, we can begin to address this need—and there is a huge need—for both affordable and private sector quality houses for the people of London.
Question put and agreed to.