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Westminster Hall

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2015

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 17 June 2015

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Safety in Prisons

Before I call Rachael Maskell to move the motion, it might help colleagues to know that I intend to call the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am at the latest. There are three Front-Bench spokesmen.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety in prisons.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am grateful to have secured this important debate on the growing risks to personal safety in our prisons.

My interest in penal matters was instilled in me in early childhood by my late uncle, Professor Terence Morris. He was a great penal reformer who played an active role in the Longford committee, which advised Prime Minister Harold Wilson on penal reform. Terence Morris’s seminal work “Pentonville: a Sociological Study of an English Prison” transformed the prison service, and he was a leading member of the movement to abolish the death penalty. Beyond being an academic in criminology, to me he was my mentor, and he continued to be so until his untimely death two years ago.

I made my maiden speech on the subject of mental health, due to the rising risks in my local services. For the past five years, I have been representing people who work in our high-security psychiatric hospitals, as Unite’s head of health. I have campaigned alongside members who are challenged by the increased risks they experience due to skill-mix, the rise in pension age, cuts to staff and the threat of other changes to their terms and conditions. Therefore, I am well aware of the physical and mental dangers faced by staff working in such environments.

However, today I will focus on Her Majesty’s prisons and the risks that are increasing as the environment grows ever more dangerous. The changing demographics of our rising prison population—that is taking place against the backdrop of cuts—are escalating the challenges faced by prison officers and staff. I want us to examine why our prisons have become ever more understaffed and overcrowded, resulting in high risk and even violence to prison staff.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election to Parliament and on securing this important first Westminster Hall debate. She will bring huge experience to Parliament on these matters.

The Government say they are providing new prison places, yet today new statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of prisoners forced to share cramped accommodation. More than a quarter of all prisoners now do so. Does my hon. Friend agree that that can lead only to greater tension in prisons and will further put safety at risk?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. Overcrowding is affecting safety in prisons, and I will set out how it is having an impact. The sharing of cells is one of the problems being faced in our prisons today.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that another issue that is increasing risk in prisons is the change to the conditions relating to earned privileges and the crackdown on release on temporary licence? Such changes make prisoners feel more stressed, which affects behaviour and risk.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the opportunities prisons have to rehabilitate people and enable them to reform their lives. I will pick it up later in the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being elected to Parliament and on securing the debate. In 2013, £45 million was spent on redundancy packages, and the staffing of the service is now dangerously low, to say the least. Will she comment on that problem?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. The reduction in prison officer numbers is having a serious impact on safety in prisons. Again, I will return to the subject, because it has greatly contributed to making prisons so unsafe today.

I want us to consider why Labour’s 1997 ambition to be tough not just on crime, but on the causes of crime, is rapidly fading in the ideological drive to cut public services. Urgent investment and resolution are required to bring an end to those unnecessary trends.

Our prison infrastructure, as is the case in all public services, has shifted towards the private sector, which has resulted in a landscape through which to steer change that is fragmented and which forever draws resource from the service into the market. That has particularly failed where private companies have bid for and won loss-leading contracts, resulting in severe cuts to staffing. The Sodexo contract with Her Majesty’s prison Northumberland is one such example, where a staggering 50% cut to staffing has had profound effect. Since 2010, 18 prisons have closed—many of them smaller prisons and some high-performing centres, despite the evidence that demonstrates that smaller prisons correlate to safer environments. New prisons have been built. A Titan prison is being built in Wrexham, which is to house 2,000 prisoners, despite the research on the effect of the size of prisons on safety.

Putting that evidence aside, the issue of overcrowding across the prison estate is now at crisis point and we must seek urgent redress. It is reported that 80 out of 118 prisons are now categorised as overcrowded. For example, Wandsworth prison was running at 177% capacity in 2014—nearly double what it was designed for. Other full prisons are being ordered to make emergency space available for prisoners. Therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said, prisoners are doubling up in cells designed for one person. In some cases, three prisoners are sharing one cell.

There are 20,672 prisoners—more than a quarter of the prison population—living in overcrowded accommodation, and the number is increasing. That is clearly putting a serious strain on our prison infrastructure and facilities. Only half of prisons inspected are achieving “reasonably good” or “good” standards.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As she knows, I have two prisons—a privately-run prison and what we still call a Government-run prison—in my constituency. She may be aware of the death of a prisoner in custody at Altcourse prison. Does she agree that serious incidents involving staff or inmates should be reported to the local MP, so he or she can assure their constituents on the safety of the prisons and address any issues surrounding serious incidents in prisons in their area?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that tragic situation. Of course reports should come to Members of Parliament, because it is important that we scrutinise the environment we are responsible for overseeing in our communities. We are able to raise such important matters and drill down to find out why such incidents are occurring in our prisons and get some real answers. He therefore makes an important point.

With the overcrowding of our prisons, violent tendencies are being exacerbated. Overcrowding is now cited as one of the major risk factors for prison staff and prisoners. The toxic mix of overcrowding and financial and staff cuts is causing the penal system to fail those who are incarcerated, and it also has a longer-term impact on the public and wider society.

Over the past two decades, the prison population has nearly doubled to 84,485. The number of women in prison has also doubled. Since 2010, staffing has been cut by 28%—a staggering loss of 12,530 personnel—and over the past three years resources have been cut by £263 million. The impact of the cuts has been observed not only by Her Majesty’s Opposition, but by the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, who considered it extremely serious and concerning. He said that the system is not coping, and warned that, because of staff shortages, men are locked up together for 23 hours a day, causing huge tensions.

Nick Hardwick also highlighted that extra resources were needed or the prison population would have to be reduced. He said that

“this is a political and policy failure. This isn’t the fault of... staff… the demands on the system have… completely outstripped the resources available to… them.”

The annual report of the chief inspector of prisons at the end of last year highlighted the significant decline in safety and the enduring impact of time spent in custody. The average sentence has risen to 15.5 months or, for those on mandatory life sentences, up to 17 years. Punitive incarceration, which is all that can be achieved through long periods of detention without opportunity for rehabilitation, restoration and the development of skills, worth and value, does not break the crime cycle. That is evidenced by the extremely high, although now fairly static, reoffending rates, which put the public at further risk.

The previous Government had to take a U-turn on banning guitars in prison, and on banning other basic functions, such as being able to take a shower or make phone calls. Banning those provisions dehumanises prisoners, which has consequences. Minimal time out of a cell does not provide a prisoner with sufficient release but instead contributes to the escalation of risk, whether violent or otherwise. Physical, sexual and verbal assault rates remain unacceptably high and the number of violent incidents in prisons has increased. The number of serious assaults last year rose by a third.

The national tactical response group, which deals with serious incidents and riots in prisons, has seen an 89% increase in demand since 2010, with 223 calls in 2014 compared with 129 two years earlier. Only this week, we witnessed a riot involving 60 prisoners at Her Majesty’s prison Stocken. An officer was stabbed and hospitalised. The Prison Officers Association states that prisons throughout the land are on the brink of such incidents due to the dangerous staffing levels and the challenges caused by overcrowding. Substance abuse, the sharp rise in the availability of legal highs and alcohol abuse are challenging safety in prisons, and are now at serious levels in a third of prisons, with a marked prevalence found particularly among women prisoners, leading to negative behaviours and creating risks.

To dwell a little more on staffing numbers, they have fallen dramatically despite the number of those held in custody rising. That has not only put a tremendous strain on remaining staff, but led to an unsafe skills mix. Staff without sufficient competencies are now being required to take on responsibilities beyond their scope. That is not only a failure of the duty of care that prison management have to their staff, but it impacts on safety standards and increases the risk to staff.

The lack of staffing and changes in skills mix has a direct correlation with the number of violent incidents in our prisons. From 2013 to 2014, assaults between prisoners rose by some 14% and have reached the highest level ever recorded. Serious assaults on inmates have risen dramatically by 38%. In 2013, there were 11,397 assaults on prisoners; in 2014, there were 16,196. Serious assaults rose from 1,588 in 2013 to 2,145 in 2014—an increase of a third.

Four homicides took place in prison in 2013. Some 41% of prisoners now feel unsafe in their environment. Incidents against staff rose by a third—including the highest ever level of serious assault—and staff now have an unacceptable level of sickness, averaging 10.8 days compared with the national average of 4.4 days. These are not statistics, but lives being put in danger. Prisoners are being put at risk, as are staff who are going to work and carrying out their duties day by day. We must never forget that.

The number of prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm is at an alarming high. Over the past year, the suicide rate has risen by 69%. Eight of those suicides were carried out by prisoners placed in segregation, four of whom were known to be at risk. The rate has risen significantly for the first time in five years. The proportion of prisoners at risk of suicide—21% of men and 46% of women—is substantially higher than the rest of the population, in which 6% are at risk. A staggering 23,478 prisoners self-harmed last year. The time officers can invest in building relationships has depleted; there is no time to sit down to have a conversation and a cup of tea, and to talk through the stresses and strains on prisoners. Instead, prisoners are turning on themselves in desperation.

Our youth justice system also faces challenge. Because of the shortage of appropriate placements, young offenders are often placed in those dangerous environments.

Before my hon. Friend moves off the point, and as there is a Minister here, the Government know the statistics that she is quoting. The Government have to provide a safe working environment for staff. Does she believe that they are failing in their duty of care?

Clearly, staff working in prisons—officers and other staff—are being failed. It is not acceptable that people are put at risk day by day when they turn up in their duty to serve. Therefore, I call for urgent attention to the issue and for a resolution. It is not acceptable just to read and listen to statistics. We have to take action.

With the right facilities, staffing levels, support and approach, much of the problems can be avoided. The impact of cuts to our public services has led to this perfect storm, failing people who then end up in a life of crime. We have no less than a moral duty to properly resource our services now to ensure that the prison populations fall in the future. Societal and Government failure has led to too many challenged individuals ending up in a life of crime.

Let us look at who the people behind the bars are—we have to look at what is happening in wider society to understand why people are ending up in prisons. Some 39% of the prison population experienced neglect or abuse as a child. Three quarters had an absent father; a third had an absent mother. A third of looked-after boys and nearly two thirds of looked-after girls end up in crime, which I hope is addressed in the Education and Adoption Bill.

Half of women prisoners have experienced domestic violence and a third have experienced sexual abuse. Some 66% of female prisoners and 38% of male prisoners committed offences to buy drugs. Half of all violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. Some 49% of prisoners have anxiety and depression, and 25% of women prisoners suffer from psychosis. Some 20% to 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties and 47% have no qualifications, which emphasises society’s failure—Government’s failure—in providing steps and measures early on, and making interventions that can turn around the life course of those individuals. Those people should not be in our prisons and we have serious questions to ask.

It is a shameful story that the state has not intervened and given those people the hope and the opportunity that many of us have had. The fate of ending up in prison must be addressed. Not providing the right support at the right time is a crime of the state, which is why today’s debate is crucial. If we do not change the course of those people’s lives across the country, the prison population can only rise.

Will the Government stop and appraise the next wave of £30 billion of cuts and address the root causes of why our prisons have become overcrowded and unsafe? I challenge the Minister to resolve the reoffending rates. Such a punitive penal system as we have now, ever stripped of rehabilitation and resettlement opportunities, results in increased uncertainty and diminished hope for prisoners, and in a reoffending rate as high as 45.2% within a year and, for children, 68.2%.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She has touched for the second time on reoffending rates. Does she agree that addressing high reoffending rates—the reason that many of the profound problems that she has outlined continue to prevail in our prisons—is a fundamental part of what the Government need to do?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making an important point. There is a revolving door, with people leaving prison without support and rehabilitation and ending up back in the criminal justice system. That is a failure of our finances and of our investment in the lives of those individuals, who are then marked, with a life of crime ahead of them.

Picking up on that point, too many people are leaving prison without having the support they need, whether incarcerated or on leaving prison. Some 50,000 prisoners who were released last year did not get any support and post-release supervision. I heard from a woman in my constituency who left prison with no discharge support and ended up on the streets, exposed to exactly the same risks that she was exposed to before being placed in jail. She was fortunate to be picked up by the voluntary sector, which was able to address some of those issues. However, the voluntary sector is seriously under-resourced and it could make only a little step towards making her life a little different.

The previous Justice Secretary talked about a rehabilitation revolution, but does my hon. Friend agree that some basic things need to happen for that to take place? If people are to be prepared for a better life outside prison, they need education, including basic literacy and numeracy, and, of course, supported training.

We are not seeing any revolution in rehabilitation. Prisoners are locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day, unable to have chances in life and without the investment they need. The reduction in prison officer numbers is such that prisoners have no alternative opportunities until they reach the prison door and then, of course, people return to the life they knew before, without the turnaround that they desperately need, or the support, that would change the course of their life. We need to address not just that revolving door, but overcrowding, because the reality is that, as people return to the penal system, we are building on the overcrowding crisis.

We must also look at our probation service, which has also experienced severe cuts as it has been taken on its own journey around privatisation and out into the market, meaning that it is not able to integrate fully with the rest of the criminal justice system. We have to ask serious questions about that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The probation service is not just fractured from the rest of the criminal justice system; it is fractured within itself due to an unnecessary, pointless, destructive and quite dangerous separation.

I was talking yesterday to Napo, the trade union representing probation officers, about further cuts that are going to be made to the service at a time when, including in this debate, we are hearing that we need investment rather than cuts, without which we will not be able to break the cycle. This reorganisation of the probation service is yet another that has no purpose or point in respect of feeding into the bigger picture.

Although we understand that there is overcrowding in our prisons, does the hon. Lady not agree that a lot of the responsibility for running prisons has to be at the top, from the governor and management down? She mentioned some investment in a number of prisons. In Northern Ireland it is perhaps slightly different; it is political. For example, some £10 million has been spent on Maghaberry prison in the past four years, because prisoners have damaged it and some infrastructure work has been done. Surely it starts with the management of the prison as well.

This is about not just management, but providing leadership throughout the Prison Service. The Government have an important role to play, as do leaders in prisons, whether directors or governors. There is such churn in the number of governors that they are in post for only about three and a half years before moving on, so they do not build relationships with the organisations they have responsibility for, which has a serious impact on providing leadership for the organisation to follow.

Another big question is why so many people end up in our prisons in the first place. We know that the number of community orders has fallen, despite their effectiveness, and that many people are held in prison while awaiting trial, with 27% not returning to prison afterwards, having been given other sentences.

I challenge our incarceration of so many people who are experiencing mental health challenges or addiction and substance abuse. I question whether it is right for people struggling with health issues to be locked up for 23 hours a day and whether, if that is not the right environment for them, we cannot find alternatives that will really help to address their health issues and issues around reoffending.

There is a clear correlation between safe staffing levels and safety in prisons. That is most evident in the 28% cut in the number of prison staff. The ratio of prisoners to prison officers is 1:4.8, whereas in 2000 it was 1:2.9. Prison officers are carrying so much more responsibility. Therefore, the effectiveness of their interventions is diluted.

Staff are enduring an unacceptable number of assaults, although I must say that all assaults are unacceptable. In 2014, prison staff experienced 3,637 assaults, 477 of which were serious—an increase of a third—and 10,000 working days were lost due to absence, mainly for physical reasons, but also increasingly because of work-related stress. Is it not the worst environment imaginable to fear for your life every day at work? Those 10,000 days lost could be dealt with by increasing the number of prison officers, making the workplace safer, but we also need to think of the real cost of that situation.

Of course, staff have been challenged by the higher levels of violence in their workplace and prison officers have to face risks that few in our population can even begin to understand. The prison population is becoming more violent and dangerous. Violent incidents have risen from 32 to 42 a day, eight of which are to members of staff. In 2012, there were 213 hospital attendances by officers, compared with 170 in just the first two quarters of 2013. These officers are experiencing injuries so serious that they have to be taken into the care of our emergency services.

The hon. Lady mentions the commitment and sacrifice of prison officers. I would like to put on record the assassination of Prison Officer David Black, in my constituency, on the road to Maghaberry prison, by republicans. Some 31 prison officers have been murdered over the past number of years. They have made the supreme sacrifice.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to that tragic situation, where the lives of prison officers are being put at such high risk that many do not return to their families at the end of their working day. That is unacceptable. Early intervention to ensure that people have safe passage to and from work, as well as at work, is crucial for our public servants.

We know that the reward is not great for our prison staff. They are stretched regarding cover and there is work intensification, and they are challenged when dealing with the emotional demands of the work, because they are not able to fulfil their ambitions for those they serve, such are the pressures put on them.

We also hear from the Prison Officers Association that there is a lack of support from management. There are high levels of bullying in an already tense and violent environment. We have seen cuts to pay in real-terms, cuts to pensions and a real fall in morale. The report into health and safety shows that 30% of officers have been physically assaulted in the past four years. Many more experience psychological distress or emotional exhaustion. We know that there are real challenges with recruitment and the retention levels of prison staff. Given the environment I have described, we can see how that can come about. Prison governors are not in one place for long enough. They are moved on before they can provide the stability that staff need and build the relationships of trust necessary to provide that prison with a vision, a sense of purpose and direction.

The Labour party is calling for some clear measures to be taken. Starting with leadership, we need governors to be established in prisons for longer to bring stability and the leadership necessary to ensure that reforms can take place to make prisons safer. We believe that that should be accompanied by better governance by prison boards, rooting jails in their local communities with representatives from councils, charities, the probation service, the police and other organisations. That would provide the opportunity to build the bridge back into community living, which is so important for the future lives of prisoners.

We need to refresh Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, so that inspectors are truly independent of political interference and so that they publish their action plans and demands for the resourcing necessary. We need to see those plans supported so that actions follow. That way, we will not just have action plans, but results coming to fruition from them, and we will be able to scrutinise the process behind that. Above all, by breaking the cycle of crime we can ensure that prisons stop fuelling crime. That will be achieved only by properly resourcing early intervention measures to prevent people from falling into crime in the first place. For those who do fall through the net, we need evidence-based rehabilitation programmes that focus on developing education, training and skills, on improving health, wellbeing and self-worth and on re-orienting prisoners to life after prison, where they will not be exposed to the same risks they faced before their convictions. That will only be achieved by giving prisons the best facilities and adequate staffing levels to facilitate such transformation. Such a programme will secure staff and prisoner safety and cut spending on the prison service in the longer term.

To conclude, we come into politics not just to talk about issues or ideas, but to exercise every moment to bring transformative change to the lives of the people we are sent here to represent. Our prisons are in a very dangerous situation. Is the Minister willing to challenge the system and ensure that the service is made safe and effective? I thank you, Mr Bone, for allowing me this time today.

Order. It might be helpful for Members to know that five Members are seeking to catch my eye from the Back Benches and we have just over 25 minutes until we reach the winding-up speeches. I should have reminded the Minister that the Member who introduced the debate will get two minutes at the end.

It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on outlining the issues so well and in such detail. Issues of staffing, safety and security are not limited to England and Wales, and I would like to give a Northern Ireland perspective to the matter and refer to the Select Committee on Justice’s report in the short time I have available.

The issues in Northern Ireland are no different from those on the mainland. Prison guards feel that they have no ability to restrain or confront dangerous inmates who damage televisions and wantonly break and vandalise equipment that they know will have to be replaced. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to the £10 million that has been spent on repairs and infrastructure. With some inmates, there is a sense of, “They cannot do anything to me. There are no consequences to my actions.” Issues in England and Wales are pertinent to Northern Ireland, and I spoke to the Minister before the debate to make him aware of the issues to which I wanted to refer.

I am not sure whether the availability of drugs in prisons will be touched on, but something is seriously wrong. People who are not addicted when they go to prison become addicted while they are there. How can that be? I have read some correspondence between the Minister and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland. Scanners are being introduced to prisons, but they sit gathering dust in offices. I understand that they are not used because prison staff do not want to offend the people who are smuggling drugs into prison. There has to be a method of change, and that has to start at the top with the governors.

Last week, I intervened in the debate on lenient sentences to say that there is a problem when stronger sentences are not handed down for crimes. Let us be clear: people are in prison for a reason: they have done something wrong. The law of the land has laid that down. We need to ensure that funding is available to staff prisons adequately. It is a vicious circle: we need more officers to staff the inmates and to keep things under control, but we also need a legal system that adequately reflects the seriousness of the issue. I am not in any way asking for a call-back to the days when prisoners were kept in their cells day and night; we should be rehabilitating prisoners, and giving them the skills to turn their lives around in the outside world, but we cannot do that by fostering a gang mentality.

Some constituents told me last week about the situation at Maghaberry prison. The dissident republicans can go outside and have their physical exercise and enjoy the sun, which we do not get very often in Northern Ireland, but the Protestants and loyalists in the other section are on 23-hour lockdown. I know that that issue is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I want to have it on the record, because it has been brought to my attention and I am concerned.

There has to be honesty when it comes to the prison system. I have known some people who had a time in prison due to the troubles and came out changed men. They own their own businesses, take care of their families and have become upstanding members of the community. As the hon. Member for York Central said, prison can change people, if things inside are done correctly. It is important that we rehabilitate and skill people to give them a different focus and direction when they get out.

I want to comment on family visits. Accessibility to prisons is so important for families who are unable to travel as much as they would like. It is only right and proper that the Justice Committee’s report expressed grave concern over the increases in assaults, and the hon. Lady referred to that, but we cannot ignore self-harm and suicide among inmates. I will quote from the background notes. One lady referred to her son, who was a suicide victim. She said:

“The Prison Service has our loved ones and they don’t know how to cope with them, they are not trained properly to deal with mental health and they haven’t got the staff to cope.”

Another lady said:

“I didn't expect them to love him, but I did think they would look after him until he came home to get proper treatment.”

We have to look at those issues. They cannot be ignored, because suicide and self-harm does happen.

We have to address assaults. The report said that evidence gathered from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, the Government’s performance data and other sources

“all indicate a deterioration in standards of safety and performance across the prison estate over the last two years”.

Those issues have to be addressed not only here on the mainland in England and Wales, but in Northern Ireland. I will send the Minister responsible in Northern Ireland the Hansard transcript of this debate and outline the things that we have recognised. The issues are similar in Northern Ireland, and we need to do something.

We also need to recruit more prison officers. We cannot ignore the experienced officers who have left. I am conscious that other people wish to speak, so I will leave this concluding remark: experienced officers have the knowledge and qualities that enable them to deal with things. New officers come in and have to learn how that works. Perhaps more should be done to keep our experienced officers and to ensure that they can mentor and bring on the new officers coming in. I again congratulate the hon. Lady on giving us all a chance to speak on this massive issue, which is important to me, the prison officers I represent, and those who are in prison because of their deeds, but who we hope will come out better people.

I will be extremely brief. I have to leave soon because I am chairing another meeting, so I apologise to the Minister.

Six months ago, we had a debate in the main Chamber on a report by a number of specialist psychologists from the University of Bedfordshire on stress at work for prison officers. The levels of stress and, to be frank, mental health issues were appalling. The Minister offered to meet us at the time, but we have never been able to take up his offer. Can we bring in the experts and have that meeting, so that we can be properly briefed on the issues raised by that report?

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) gave an excellent exposition of where we are at. I was a member of the Justice Committee that prepared the report that has been mentioned, and we documented the chaotic nature of the management of the Prison Service over the past five years. At one point, the Government laid off 800 prison officers, then realised that there were critical problems with officer safety and a rise in assaults, suicides and self-harm, and there were all the problems with security as well. The inspector said of one privatised prison that it was easier to get drugs there than a bar of soap. The chaos was displayed, and the Government realised some of their mistakes and started to recruit again. Interestingly, some of the officers who had been sacked the year before were recruited into a reserve force.

The chaos of the past five years is also reflected in what is happening in the National Probation Service, with Sodexo laying off 600 probation officers. Who will supervise people coming out of prison now? The split in the service, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, between higher-risk prisoners who need supervision and medium to low-risk prisoners is counter-intuitive. There is regularly a shift between medium and high risk, and between low and medium risk. People are not safe inside and rehabilitation is not taking place because of overcrowding and a lack of staff. When prisoners come out, they are supervised in an almost chaotic manner because of a lack of staff and the breakdown of some of the central service provision that was backing up those staff, including, yet again, the failure of computers. In addition, the private companies are trying to maximise their profits by cutting back on professional standards.

We are in crisis again. That is not a party political point—whoever was in government, I would be making the same statement in the light of this evidence, which is coming from front-line staff. They are saying, “We’re not coping with the level of staffing and the pressures on us.” The Minister takes real care in his job. He responded as effectively as he possibly could within the financial constraints under the previous Government; he must now get a grip on the issue and say to the Treasury, “We need the resources to staff these prisons, protect the probation service and enhance the service delivery we are getting from the companies that have taken over.” Otherwise, I fear that there are real risks both inside prisons and when people come out. That risk is not just to prison officers and prisoners, but to the general public as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing this important debate, and I thank you, Mr Bone, for your excellent stewardship.

In April 2013, a young man from my constituency, whom I will refer to as John for the purpose of this debate, was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment at Long Lartin prison. By June that year, he was in excruciating and debilitating back pain. He was unable to move and could not independently use the bathroom or feed himself. As a result, he stopped eating. The pain was reported to medical staff, but despite instructions from a doctor that blood and urine tests should be taken, neither was.

By July, the pain was unbearable, but despite repeated requests for pain relief, pain scoring and examination, none were forthcoming. I am led to believe that not even basic pain relief, such as Panadol or ibuprofen, was made available to him. His repeated requests for hospitalisation were met with scepticism about the validity of his illness. It was suggested that his symptoms were only a malingering tactic and, indeed, a ploy to give him the opportunity to escape.

In August that year, John passed away. A post-mortem discovered a lesion that, had it been tested, would have been shown to be cancerous. At an inquest in January this year, it was determined that John was let down by the prison system: he was denied life-saving treatment and as a result died a very painful and uncomfortable death. The ombudsman stated that it was the worst case of medical negligence he had encountered.

So where are we now? No action was taken against the prison authorities. No one has been held to account for this gross negligence. The family are left in disbelief that this preventable death has occurred. They believe that this is not an isolated case and that similar cases are happening in other prisons—that may well be because of the severe cuts.

John’s safely was jeopardised in the most fatal way, and the consequence is that a 34-year-old young man has died. How can the family of my constituent rest, knowing that his death was probably preventable? He did not receive due respect and protection while in Her Majesty’s custody. Furthermore, he was denied the medical care that was his basic right. I ask colleagues to consider the evidence and join me in pressing the Minster to investigate John’s case in order to bring closure to his deeply saddened and angry family.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on her excellent contribution on this extremely important issue. The Prison Service and the probation service, which has been mentioned by different speakers, are in total and utter chaos. We should not be surprised. I will give a number of examples from HMP Northumberland, which is not in my constituency but is in the lovely county in which I live.

It should not be a surprise that we have this crisis in prisons when we look at how we have sold off the Prison Service to private companies such as Sodexo, which is, after all, a French catering company running prisons in places such as Northumberland. The fact that that type of organisation is running prisons does not inspire any confidence among the public. When Sodexo took over HMP Northumberland, it immediately made one third of the staff redundant. What happened? The prison was in chaos. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, the prison then had to get a bank of people it had just made redundant to make themselves available, and that is still the case. There have been horrific situations at HMP Northumberland. Whose safety are we looking at? Not just that of the staff. I want to put on the record what a fantastic job prison officers do under tremendous pressure. The level of stress-related illness among prison officers is beyond all imagination, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central described.

Look at what has happened because of staff reductions. Throughout the country, a third of the staff has been made redundant. In some prisons, the staff has been reduced by 50%. Are we surprised that there are problems in prisons? Are we surprised that there has been an increase in assaults on prisoners of around 10%? Are we surprised that there has been an increase in assaults on staff of 11%? Are we surprised that serious assaults on prisoners are up 35% and serious assaults on staff are up 33%? Of course we should not be surprised when there is no one managing prisons as they should be managed. I mentioned that there are a lot of people on bank working, if and when they are needed; we have lost a lot of experience in the Prison Service as well.

On 27 January, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, gave a damning report on HMP Northumberland, saying that

“not all prisoners received a thorough initial risk assessment or induction… prisoners said they felt less safe at Northumberland than at comparable prisons… recorded assaults were high and work to confront bullying and violence lacked rigour… there had been three self-inflicted deaths since 2012”—

the list goes on and on. I understand from the way that you are looking at me, Mr Bone, that others want to speak, but that list shows clearly what is going wrong and why there is a crisis in Her Majesty’s prisons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned Sodexo, the French catering company that runs HMP Northumberland. Members of the Prison Officers Association have come to see me to explain what is happening in the prison. If anyone here likes “Porridge”—it is one of my favourites—let me tell them that I have been told that the prison is run on the basis of that fantastic comedy, and that is frightening. Sex offenders who have been put in open wings and had their lives threatened have come to see me, as have prisoners across the board and lecturers and civil servants working there who are afraid. That situation is absolutely unacceptable.

My good colleagues have mentioned lots of figures and I would love to mention lots more. How can those in prison have mobile phones? How can they readily get alcohol? How can they get drugs, when they want them, more easily than they can purchase soap and toothpaste? That is totally unacceptable; that should not be the case.

On reoffending, there has been privatisation of the probation service, which is in utter chaos, to say the very least. In Northumberland, Sodexo runs the probation service and the prison, so for Sodexo it does not really matter if people are rehabilitated in prison, or if it fails to rehabilitate them under the probation service, because there is a merry-go-round of finance, and that company can make a fortune from doing absolutely nothing. It can make a fortune from failure, which must be a conflict of interests. Will the Minister look at that? With increases in the prison population, in overcrowding and in violence and reoffending, it is of major importance that we get this right.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who brought passion to the debate, as he does to every issue we discuss in this House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on her district and analytical speech. It is important that we bring safety in prisons to the fore.

The No. 1 issue for me, as it was when I served on the Select Committee on Justice, is mental health in prisons, which is not being treated properly. I will say something controversial: I do not believe that there is such a thing as an alcoholic or a drug addict—I say that as the son of an alcoholic—but there is an underlying mental health issue that is not being treated.

The figures speak for themselves. In 2013-14 an average of 19,383 prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation, which accounted for 23% of the total prison population. What happens to prisoners with mental health problems? In 2013, 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis, in stark contrast to the 4% figure for the general public, and 26% of women and 16% of men said that they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before they went into custody. With that knowledge, prisons should do more to ensure that prisoners with mental health problems receive appropriate support.

Personality disorders are particularly prevalent among people in prison, with 62% of male and 57% of female sentenced prisoners having such a disorder. Can we imagine how that must affect someone serving a sentence and in life afterwards? Sadly, in my constituency last November, the failure to address mental health issues both in prison and on release came home to me and the small, tight-knit community of Argoed. Cerys Yemm was a young girl on a night out when she met Matthew Williams. As we know, she was brutally murdered at The Sirhowy Arms and he was to die after being tasered by the police.

Mr Williams was said to have had all the symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic. He had been sent to The Sirhowy Arms by Caerphilly Council having just been released from prison. Following his release he was not properly monitored, even though he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia from an early age and he was an habitual criminal. His mother told the press at the time that he was unable to access medication on his release. She said:

“He should have been in hospital. Every time he came out of prison we’d go through the same process. He would be placed in a hostel somewhere with very little supervision and no psychiatric help”.

Even though a serious case review is ongoing, I asked the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to launch an urgent review into mental health in prisons. I will speak to his successor and seek a meeting at which we can talk about mental health and the rehousing of prisoners.

Last night the BBC Wales programme “Week In Week Out” revealed that two men went on to kill and several sex offenders were sent to a bed and breakfast on their release without the landlady’s knowledge. That is banned in England, as is sending 15 and 16-year-olds to B and Bs, yet that is still prevalent in Wales. Even though that is not a devolved issue, I call on the Welsh Government to ensure that that practice is stamped out by its councils.

I see what the time is, so I will try to wind up, Mr Bone. In 2009, Lord Bradley, a former Home Office Minister, called for adequate community alternatives to prisons for vulnerable offenders where appropriate. His report recommended that the Department of Health introduced a new 14-day maximum wait to transfer prisoners with acute, severe mental illness to an appropriate health setting. There has been progress in access to healthcare for prisoners who require special treatment, but the 14-day target has not been implemented. It continues to be vital that we get reform for communities such as Argoed—if the Minister ever wants to visit a community where everyone knows everyone else, he should go there.

The family of Miss Yemm have called for the Sirhowy Arms to be demolished so that it does not become a monument to ghouls like 10 Rillington Place or 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester. I support the family in that, but I hope that the Government will listen to the prison and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, Nigel Newcomen, who said that lessons need to be learned.

Staff working in prisons should actively identify known risk factors such as suicide and self-harm. Violent offences against family members are known risk factors for suicide, and being subject to a restraining order can be a sign of increased vulnerability. All new arrivals should promptly receive an induction, giving them information to help them meet their basic needs in prison. Mental health referrals need to be made and acted on promptly, and there should be continuity of care from the community. Prisoners are most at risk in their first month, but even if someone has served a sentence, they should still be monitored if they are found to have a mental health issue. I urge the Minister, on behalf of the community of Argoed, to take action, and I ask for a meeting at the earliest opportunity to discuss this issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing the debate and I thank her for her thoughtful and erudite contribution. She clearly brings significant relevant experience to the debate and we should all be appreciative of that.

The hon. Lady asked why prisons in England and Wales are so understaffed and overcrowded, and said that that is part of the ideological drive to cut public services and shift to private sector provision. I associate myself with that conclusion. She identified various problems in the Prison Service, such as: how overcrowding exacerbates the risk of violence to staff and other prisoners; the increase in prisoner numbers and the doubling of women prisoners; and the fall in staffing levels, which self-evidently brings about problems. She also mentioned the risk of suicide and self-harm, and noted that that was at an alarming level among female offenders. She concluded that we have a moral duty to resource properly to address those issues. I associate myself with that view, as well as with her call on the Minister to stop and think before the next round of cuts.

Prison matters are devolved in Scotland, and I will say a little about how we have addressed some of them. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) discussed problems in the Northern Ireland prison sector, which are clearly particular because of the history of the Province, and the availability of drugs in prison, which other Members have touched on. Drugs are a problem throughout the prison service in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) described a situation of chaos in the prison system of England and Wales, which is deeply concerning. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) told us a tragic story involving a constituent of hers whose physical health was not, it seems, addressed at all, leading to his premature death. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke about an unpleasant and tragic case that we have all read about, which highlights the need to address the mental health of prisoners and of those we are trying to rehabilitate in the community. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) expressed concerns about privatisation.

The safety of prison staff and inmates is a grave concern. We owe a duty of care to people in our prisons, and in particular to those who are vulnerable—I would especially identify vulnerability through mental health and of female offenders. I have a particular interest because, in my previous career at the Bar in Scotland, I worked for many years as a High Court prosecutor, so I was putting people behind bars. I regret to say that the first woman whom I put behind bars went on to commit suicide in a Scottish prison. Clearly, that is not my fault, but it has always weighed heavily on my conscience, because I felt that the young woman was in need of assistance, which perhaps she did not get in the Prison Service. However, we are taking steps to address that in Scotland. I have also worked as independent counsel for the families of people who have taken their own life in prison.

I will say something about how we in Scotland have tried to address suicide in prisons and female offending, not because we necessarily do things any better and I want to score points, but because I want to give an example of how we are taking things forward. Perhaps other prison systems in the United Kingdom can draw upon it. On suicide and self-harm, the Scottish prison service has something called the “ACT 2 Care” model, which I believe is replicated in the English Prison Service. The model tries to achieve collaboration between all involved—prison officers, the healthcare staff and the families and friends of prisoners—to identify those at risk and to deal with the risk of suicide and self-harm without putting people in solitary confinement, except as an absolute last resort.

I am pleased to report that the rate of self-inflicted deaths in Scottish prisons has reduced in recent years. In the 12 months to the end of March 2014, it was 0.8 deaths per 1,000 prisoners, which is down from 0.9 per 1,000 in the previous year, although that is still not good enough and we have a long way to go. The figures in Scotland compare favourably with the rate in England and Wales which, in the year to the end of March 2014, was 1 death per 1,000, but I do not want to score points on that. I recognise that we have a smaller population in Scotland generally, so it might be rather easier for us to address issues such as overcrowding in prisons.

No account of matters in Scotland would be complete without acknowledging what I touched on in my personal experience. We had a serious problem with suicide and self-harm among female prisoners. The Scottish Government are keen to keep vulnerable groups such as female offenders away from standard prison environments, although the most serious offenders must still be in prison for significant periods. However, the Scottish Government believe that diverting less serious offenders away from prison can lead to more positive outcomes for offenders’ health and wellbeing. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice recently announced a significant increase in funding of an additional £640,000 for female justice projects, as part of what he described as a “radical and ambitious” approach to female offending.

The Scottish Government intend to consult on a plan to provide smaller, regional and community-based facilities for female offenders throughout the country, rather than a national women’s prison. Interestingly, for the record, the Scottish Government were thinking about building a new women’s prison, but agreed to reconsider under pressure, among other reasons, from the feminist movement in Scotland, which has been reinvigorated by the independence referendum and by members of the Scottish Labour party who have raised the issue. Hon. Members may be aware that Kezia Dugdale, the deputy Scottish Labour leader, and I have often shared a platform on feminist issues, and I look forward to doing so again. I wish her well in her bid for the Scottish Labour party leadership.

We have to accept that certain people must always go to prison, but one contribution to be made to the debate is the suggestion that female offenders and other vulnerable groups should be kept out of prison and in their communities, rehabilitating them there, and so addressing the problems that have led them to offend in the first place. In that way, I hope we can make progress.

I again thank the hon. Member for York Central for raising this important issue. I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate. I look forward with interest to hear what the Minister has to say in due course.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

I approach the debate with a heavy heart. The Minister is the fourth prisons Minister whom I have had the pleasure of shadowing since my appointment. Issues such as the one we are discussing have been part of our debates throughout that time. It has never been easy and I have never been able to arrive in such a debate and say, “I am glad that things are improving.” I have never felt so concerned about the situation in the prison system. I would like debates to be more focused on rehabilitation, dignity for victims and work in our prisons, because those are the things that we should be discussing. Instead, we are continually forced by the reality on the ground to concern ourselves with understaffing, overcrowding and, increasingly, violence. The Minister cares deeply about that—he often looks at me, plaintively, as if saying, “I care about this too.” I know that he cares, and I am pleased that he does. Surely the number of Members—including, pleasingly, new Members—who have felt the need to come to this Chamber for the debate shows the level of deep concern in the House. I hope he will be generous in allowing interventions.

I congratulate my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), on her election and on securing the debate. It was a pleasure to listen to her thoughtful opening speech. I look forward to working with her on such issues in the months ahead. Her constituents will be proud of her speech today, as will her predecessor.

The speeches we have heard from hon. Members capture the concern that is felt about the state of our prison system. Violent, overcrowded and understaffed prisons do nothing to challenge offender behaviour or to protect victims of crime. We have heard examples of exactly what was achieved by the prisons policy of the previous Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is no longer in the Chamber, spoke about release on temporary licence and overcrowding. She is completely right. She has great experience of serving as a magistrate in Manchester, and has frequently seen the problems upon release and the difficulties in securing the important staged release. Sadly, that has been mismanaged too often and is now unavailable to too many inmates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) spoke about death in custody, which he cares deeply about. Sadly, he is getting more and more experience of dealing with the relatives who have suffered such a tragedy.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) spoke about governorship. Clearly, there is a problem with resources in the prison system, but the problems faced by the Minister will not be dealt with simply by increased resources, even if were he able to secure them. Governorship is very important. There is too high and too frequent a turnover of senior staff in our prisons. The average tenure is far too short, especially when compared with, say, the length of tenure of a leader in an education establishment. On average, the tenure of leaders in educational establishments is nine years, whereas the tenure in prisons is about three years. That has to change, and it would not require additional money. The Minister could instigate that kind of change very quickly.

We would like boards to be established to provide an opportunity for stakeholders across the community to get their expertise in the running of prison establishments. We have seen that boards can be very effective for colleges, schools and hospitals. It would change completely the way in which an establishment is managed. Prisons should be managed with continuity and expertise and should be inspected rigorously. The Government could make that change quickly and at no cost, and it would be an effective way of changing the culture within our jails. We know that prison culture is important in preventing violent incidents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a good observation about stress at work and the dangerous and monotonous work that prison officers often undertake. We would not tolerate nurses, health professionals or teachers being subjected to violent incidents, but often, precisely because it is a prison officer affected and the incident takes place in a closed environment, the press do not get so agitated, the issue is rarely debated properly in the prison and the Government do not feel moved to do much about it. We need a change in attitude from the Ministry of Justice. It is not tolerable that people should be asked to go to work in such circumstances, and it has gone on too long. The Minister is nodding, but this is not new—we have not suddenly noticed it happening. It is a trend that has been getting worse and worse for a long time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) always speaks with great passion. He quite rightly identified the problem with probation. The chaos and the looming crisis are not restricted to the closed prison estate. We are not resolving issues inside prisons, and so those issues are being left to the probation service, which is under increasing strain and has endured a completely needless and distracting reorganisation in the past two years. It is less and less able to deal with the more difficult problems with which it is confronted.

Rehabilitation is not a light bulb moment—it is not a case of holding one course and then someone is somehow mended. That is not what happens. It is day after day of challenges and problems, of slipping back, then making progress, then slipping back again. When we say, “There will be more courses, we will have work in our prisons and that will somehow solve deeply rooted psychological problems,” it shows that we do not properly appreciate that. We need to get real.

The way to help put people back together is having good behaviour modelled day after day by prison officers, yet more and more they are being shut out of the rehabilitation process. Prison officers are there on the wings when someone’s visit does not take place, or when someone has clearly been taking drugs, or is doing things they should not, or losing their temper. Yes, we need professionals—psychologists, social workers, educational experts—in there as well, but prison officers are there all the time, and should be showing people how to keep their temper, how to treat people with respect or how to deal with difficult conflicts without resorting to violence. However, they are not able to that, because there just are not enough of them, and the ones we have are too often less experienced about prison life than the prisoners they are supposed to be holding. We have learned that from governors and from Nick Hardwick, the excellent inspector of prisons. I urge the Minister to look at that with a great deal more urgency than he or his predecessors have shown to date.

Last week, a report from the prison and probation ombudsman showed a rise in deaths of inmates in segregation units. That was deeply shocking for people who work in the system. I encourage the Minister to think carefully about the impact that working on a wing on which someone has committed suicide will have on that unit’s staff, and to look at the support those staff receive from their employer.

I welcome the Government’s important plans to ban legal highs and prohibit their production. They are a significant and growing problem in our prisons, leading to bullying, intimidation and violence. The inspectorate has found that they are increasingly a great risk in our prisons—it estimates they have posed that risk in around a third of prisons in the past year. Legal highs do not show up in mandatory drug testing and are not being caught in the way they should because of staff shortages. Will the Minister tell us what, beyond all the usual stuff that we have all heard before, the Government are going to do about legal highs inside the prison estate? This is an issue of prison culture. There must be a zero tolerance approach, and we have to mean that—I have been in too many debates in which a Minister has reassured me on just about everything and then nothing seems to change.

On staffing, will the Minister tell us how many prisons are currently reliant on detached duty? Officers on detached duty go into prisons where they are not familiar with the establishment, with the other staff or with the inmates. It is a big, expensive problem that he needs to turn his mind to very quickly.

Most importantly, will the Minister tell us what he is going to do to tackle the rising level of violent assaults on prison officers? It is unacceptable to send public servants into a dangerous workplace, day in, day out, in fear of their safety. No wonder so many are either leaving the service, taking sick leave or becoming ill at work because of stress.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Central for securing this debate, which has given us the chance to put serious concerns to the Minister. I am pleased to see so many Members here. We have given the Minister enough time, so he needs to respond to the questions we have raised. I also hope he will take some interventions.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on a very polished opening speech. She raised a number of important issues, which I will do my best to address in the time I have.

The hon. Lady talked about the importance of probation supervision. The transforming rehabilitation reforms mean that people with sentences of under 12 months now get probation supervision—they did not in the past. She also talked about mental health issues, so I am sure she will warmly welcome the liaison and diversion services that are spreading across the country; they were introduced by the previous Government and we are continuing them. We would all agree with her that prevention is better than cure, and we all want to see fewer people committing crime and going to prison.

The hon. Lady talked about prisoners being locked up for 23 hours a day. That relates only to a very small proportion of prisoners in operational emergencies. Even in planned restricted regimes, prisoners get considerably more than one hour out of their cells.

In a second. I want first to ask the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for York Central to use the term “lethal highs” when they talk about new psychoactive substances. That term is more helpful. We are all determined to try to get those dreadful things out of our prisons, and the language matters, so perhaps we can all agree to call the substances “lethal highs”.

The Minister is quite correct to encourage us to use that term. On the issue of work, he is fond of saying that there is more work in prisons, but, again and again, inspection reports indicate that there is not and that prisons overestimate time out of cells and underestimate time in them. He needs to challenge his officials more on those data. The prisons inspector seems to be encouraging us to question them, so I want to ensure that the Minister does as well.

The hon. Lady is pushing at an open door on work in prisons. The number of such hours has gone up. Do I think it satisfactory? Absolutely not. Of course I want to increase it much more. If prisoners are gainfully employed during, roughly, the hours the rest of the population have to work, that will aid rehabilitation and make them more likely to get employment on release. I want more of that, and I will say more about it if the hon. Lady bears with me.

Reoffending was mentioned. Since 2002, the proven reoffending rate has remained stable, and it stands at 26.2%. For adults released from custody, the rate is 45.2%, and it has remained relatively stable since 2004, although it was slightly higher in 2002 and 2003.

Let me turn to the other excellent speeches we have heard. I commend my hon. Friend, as I often call him, the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on raising the issue of drugs. I share his horror of drugs in prison. Drugs destroy lives in the community and in prison. I will say more about that.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the stress on staff, and I know he cares deeply about that, as I do. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) raised a harrowing case. I did not have warning of it, but I can tell her that the prisons and probation ombudsman’s recommendations are being addressed, mostly by the healthcare provider involved. There is also an ongoing investigation of what happened by the Nursing & Midwifery Council. The hon. Lady might be aware that healthcare in prisons is provided by the NHS, not the Prison Service. If she would like to write to me, I should be more than happy to receive a letter from her.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talked about his concerns over Sodexo. He is right that its parent is a French catering company. I would just say that another Sodexo prison won the Elton prison industries award, which has been mentioned. The prison I recently visited in Salford had pretty low levels of sickness absence among its staff.

The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned mental health. He was absolutely right to do so, not least because of the horrific incident in his constituency. He talked, quite properly, about the need for suitable accommodation for prisoners on release. If he wants to correspond further on that, I would be more than happy to do so.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) told us about the Scottish prison system. I will ensure that National Offender Management Service officials have close contact with the prison service in Scotland. NOMS does things very well, but I absolutely believe we can learn lessons from other parts of the world. I will make sure that that contact happens.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) spoke about the importance of the governor’s role, and I agree. As has been said, this is a leadership issue. She rightly referred to the daily interactions of prison officers, and I will say more about that. She also asked about longer tenures for governors, which is a fair point, and the idea might have merit. I will look into it, within the constraints of normal career planning. We need governors with the right experience, particularly in some of our larger establishments.

One hon. Member—you will have to excuse me, Mr Bone, but I forget who—asked how many prisons still have detached duty. The answer is 15. That is not something we want longer term, because it disrupts prison officers’ lives and costs us more money. I will talk about the success we have had in recruiting more prison officers. We continue to recruit them very actively.

Will the hon. Gentleman let me make a little progress? I am conscious of the fact that I have only six minutes left.

I pay tribute to the many people who work tirelessly in our prisons. Prison officers, probation staff and staff from the health, education, vocational skills and voluntary sectors work day in, day out to improve the lives of people in custody. Each time we successfully prevent an offender from reoffending, we also reduce the number of victims and make our communities safer. That is difficult work that goes largely unseen, and too often it is unrecognised in our public discourse, but it is vital and is making a difference.

The challenges of maintaining safety in prisons are, and always have been, significant. We are working with a challenging and complex population in excess of 85,000 prisoners, and there is a high prevalence of mental health problems. Many prisoners have had negative life events that increase the likelihood of their harming themselves or taking their own lives.

We are also holding—this is important—a more violent prisoner population. The number of people sentenced to prison for violent offences has increased by 40% in the last 10 years. In addition, the illicit use of new psychoactive substances—lethal highs such as Spice and Black Mamba—has been a significant factor in fuelling violence in prisons. Last year alone, staff responded to nearly 26,000 self-harm incidents, and they frequently prevent deaths through timely intervention.

On any given day, staff support more than 2,000 prisoners assessed as being at risk, looking after them under the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process. It is to their credit that, through their dedication and commitment, they continue to improve outcomes for offenders and to prevent many self-inflicted deaths and incidents of self-harm.

Staff and prisoners should no more face violence than should any other person in society. Violence in prisons is wholly unacceptable. We treat any assault extremely seriously. Any prisoner who commits an act of violence can expect to have action taken against them, which may include the loss of privileges, sanctions under the prison disciplinary procedures and, where appropriate, criminal charges and prosecution.

To that end—this venture was introduced by the previous Government—a joint national protocol between NOMS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Police Chiefs Council was published in February to ensure that the referral and prosecution of crimes in prison is dealt with consistently. The protocol sets out the requirement for prisons to submit a prison community impact assessment with each case referred to the police. The assessment will explain the impact an offence has on an establishment and ensure that that is properly understood and taken into account in the cases concerned.

In 2014, due to an unexpected increase in staff turnover and in the prison population, there were delays in bringing staff numbers up to the level required. However, we have exceeded our target of recruiting 1,700 new-entry prison officers by March 2015, and we are continuing to recruit officers and operational support grades across the country. We will focus our efforts particularly on London and the south-east, where there is further need.

Violence is an issue I take extremely seriously, and there have been increases, which have been referred to. NOMS has established a violence reduction project. There is a pilot involving body-worn video cameras across 24 establishments, and I am taking a keen interest in its development.

Two new offences have been introduced through the Serious Crime Act 2015: being in possession of a knife or other offensive weapon in a prison, and throwing items—anything dangerous, such as Spice, or mobile phones—over a prison wall. Both those offences will attract prison sentences. Action is also being taken on new psychoactive substances. In particular, we need a test for them, and we are working hard to bring one about.

I reassure Members that safety is fundamental to rehabilitative work, which is one reason I care so much about it. Without safety, we cannot do the education and the other work.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. They have raised many of the challenges facing our penal system.

As we have heard, there are unacceptable levels of reoffending, but we have not had real answers on how we are going to turn the figures around—they have been static, but they are not coming down. We have heard many shocking statistics about the violence and abuse in our prisons, but I have not heard how we are going to address that.

We have heard evidence of how overcrowding, mixed with understaffing, is the real issue facing our prisons. I am sure no prison officers will take comfort from the Minister’s response, because they will still be at risk when they turn up for work today, tomorrow and the next day. That is the subject of the debate, and I am saddened that we have not progressed the issue.

It is vital that we get the response we need, which is about stable staffing and ensuring staff are safe. It is also about making sure our communities are safe—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

New Nuclear Power

I beg to move,

That this House has considered new nuclear power.

Nuclear power was promised as an energy source that would be too cheap to meter. It is now too expensive to generate. If we were planning a nuclear policy from scratch, would we choose to do a deal with two French companies, one of which is bankrupt, while the other, Électricité de France, has a debt of €33 billion? Would we also collaborate with a country with a dreadful human rights record—China, whose national investment department is coming into the arrangement—and with Saudi Arabia, with its atrocious record on human rights, where people are executed on the street? We are left with the dregs of investment from throughout the world—fragile and tainted. The sensible money deserted Hinkley Point years ago. Centrica had an investment of £200 million, and it abandoned it and ran away, because it saw the project as a basket case.

Still, nuclear power has wide support in this House, from almost all parties except the Scottish National party. I hope that this morning the new Minister, whom I welcome to her new work, can apply her distinguished forensic skills to taking a fresh look at the situation. Many people are gravely disturbed by the prospect of new nuclear power. That is particularly so among Treasury civil servants. We are in an extraordinary situation, where there is still public support in spite of Fukushima. One of the main reasons for that is that the British public were “protected” by a skilled public relations operation from knowing the terrible cost of Fukushima—between $100 billion and $250 billion. Radiation is still leaking four years after the event, and tens of thousands of people cannot return to their homes. Other populations were not protected from knowing about Fukushima by an obedient press. However, former lobbyists for nuclear power appeared as independent witnesses, such as Malcolm Grimston, who was on television every day during the Fukushima events, praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit. There is ludicrous PR spin, to the extent that this week two different people from a public relations agency that works for nuclear power rang me up and offered to write my speech for me. They inquired who the Chair would be, as if that might be important. Those are lobbyists and spinners, presenting a favourable case for nuclear power.

Hinkley Point B is a European pressurised reactor. There are some under construction in Finland, France and China. Not one of them has produced enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp. They are all in serious trouble, so why do we continue with our belief in Hinkley Point C? The EPR in Finland was due to generate electricity in 2009. There has been a series of delays, problems and cost overruns, which have themselves now overrun, and the bill is €4 billion greater than anticipated. The possible opening date has been moved year after year and is now set at 2016, at a cost of €8.3 billion. However, other problems have come up. There is another station under construction at Flamanville. It was due to be completed at a cost of €3.3 billion and now has an overrun of nearly €5 billion. There is a serious problem at Flamanville which will affect all the reactors—the carbon level in the steel for the pressure vessel is too high. That means that the steel is brittle and could crack open, with catastrophic results. That affects the planned reactors in China, Finland, France and of course at Hinkley Point. It is a catastrophic problem and will mean a major delay. There is no way of reconstituting that steel.

The way the deal was done is almost unbelievable. We agreed under pressure, because there were Government promises and political pressure, to do a deal at almost any price to justify Hinkley Point C. We struck a deal for £92.50 per MWh. That is twice the going rate for electricity now, and we said that we would guarantee that deal for 35 years. That was two years ago. Since then, the price of energy throughout the world has gone down a great deal, because of shale gas and the drop in the price of oil. The price we agreed was ludicrous at the time—far too generous. The head of INEOS, the company in Grangemouth, has struck a deal since then with the same company—Électricité de France—for less than half that price. The country was ripped off, and we cannot seem to get out of it. We must do something about the strike price that we agreed.

In the world as a whole, nuclear powered energy generation peaked in 2006. Since then it has been in decline. It has gone down by 10% in Europe. Most energy consultants say that the total cost of the project is indefensible. We omit something from our calculations of historical costs and pretend that nuclear is cheap, when we forget about the cost of waste. In fact we do not know what the cost of the waste from Sellafield is. We are still adding up the bill. The latest estimate for clearing up Sellafield—just one site—is £53 billion. It is thought that the figure will exceed £100 billion eventually. When those costs are added to the historical costs of nuclear power it will not be found to be competitive any more.

Also, we now have alternatives. We are not in a situation where nothing else is available. The world has moved towards renewables, including the clean renewables, to a far greater extent. The Government are to be congratulated on having put forward a package and the money for tidal lagoons in the Severn estuary. An enormous tide of water sweeps up that estuary twice a day. That is vast untapped energy—British, free, eternal and entirely predictable. The technology involved is simple and has been working successfully in France for 50 years, producing the cheapest electricity in the world.

It is a curious thing, but the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the previous Parliament had an impeccable record on energy some years ago, when he launched the Liberal Democrat energy policy under the heading “Say No to Nuclear”, saying that

“a new generation of nuclear power stations will cost taxpayers and consumers tens of billions of pounds”.

That is absolutely right. He went on:

“In addition to posing safety and environmental risks, nuclear power will only be possible with vast taxpayer subsidies or a rigged market”.

That was the man who, when the red boxes and chauffeur-driven car arrived, changed his mind altogether and did a terrible financial deal to get Hinkley Point on the road. We will be paying for that for many years. The cost of Hinkley Point has been estimated as an additional £200 a year for every consumer in Britain. That is billions of pounds in subsidy over 35 years. The Government have guaranteed £16 billion in subsidy for a technology that has not been proved to work and is not working anywhere. Almost any alternative is better than pressing on with Hinkley Point. There are older nuclear designs that we could use, but we are heading into a technological jam where there will be difficulties. We are proposing to invest tens of billions in a system that has not been proved to be effective, and has certainly never proved to be economic.

There have been many problems at Flamanville, near Cherbourg, which are not limited to the pressure vessel. There have also been problems with the valves and the whole cooling system, following a warning in April from the French nuclear safety regulator about an excessive amount of carbon in the reactor vessel. That is not a journalist causing trouble but the head of the French nuclear industry talking about a potential disaster in the making.

What is likely to happen in future? There is a nuclear disaster almost every 10 to 15 years, due to various causes. The result of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima has been great fear among the population. That is what happened in Germany, which felt the full force of the truth about Fukushima and sensibly cancelled its whole nuclear programme. Germany is now going into solar power and many other alternatives that are available to us. Tidal power is not available to Germany, but we have that great opportunity ahead.

There will almost certainly be problems in future. Some hazards today were unknown in the past. I recall going to an exhibition called “Atoms for Peace” as a young boy in 1948, when we believed that nuclear would be the answer, but experience has taught us otherwise. The possible accidents range from simple mechanical errors, such as not having enough carbon in the steel, to the simple human errors that happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Technical faults also occur, but the greatest risk we now face is terrorism. Older nuclear power stations were not built to withstand terrorist attacks by drones and all the means by which people could attack them. Anyone living anywhere near a nuclear power station must be in a state of anxiety about that possibility, because of the accidents and disasters we have seen.

Fukushima was built to withstand a tsunami, but it could not withstand the tsunami and earthquake that came together. Any of these natural disasters are possible. We have not had a tsunami for some time along the Severn estuary, but we had one in 1607 when part of the area that I represent and the area where Hinkley Point now stands was flooded by a tsunami that came up the Bristol channel. It is believed to have come from underwater activity out in the deep ocean, so a tsunami is unlikely but possible there. We cannot guard against it. Why on earth risk a catastrophic accident when alternatives are available?

I am encouraged to see reports that many civil servants in the Treasury are deeply unhappy about the financial situation of nuclear power. There was a story that if Labour had been elected, it would have turned its back on nuclear power. I believe that to be true. There have been reports in The Times and elsewhere—authoritative reports from serious journalists—that groups in the Treasury are saying that it will be a terrible mistake and a financial catastrophe if we go ahead. May I say to those civil servants that it is their job to speak publicly? We know now what happened in Scotland during the referendum debate, when Sir Nicholas Macpherson decided to leak—to publish—a report of his advice to the Chancellor. His reason for doing so was that he thought the likely effects of Scottish independence would be catastrophic for the country and for Scotland. He justified that leak, which was almost unprecedented among senior civil servants, on the basis that it was in the national interest. He was supported by the head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and condemned by a Committee of this House.

Look at the past; look, for example, at the commercial advantages of the steam-generating heavy water reactor, which produced nothing and was useless, but cost £200 million. That was many years ago. There was also the decision to treat Concorde as a commercial venture that would succeed. There were civil servants who quite rightly opposed those, but the ethos of the civil service is the unimportance of being right. The careers of civil servants who go along with the ministerial folly of the day prosper, while the careers of those who are right in the long term wither. It is different now. There is some heroism in civil servants speaking truth to power and saying to their masters, “This should not go on. There are alternatives. The time has gone for nuclear power.” Civil servants who know the new ethos in the civil service should regard it as their patriotic duty to speak truth, not only to power but to the nation, by saying that the time for nuclear power is over.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing the debate. New nuclear is an important topic, and Members’ challenges and questions are very much welcomed. I would particularly like to assure the hon. Gentleman that my fellow Ministers and I listen carefully to civil servants’ views. There is no sense in which they are not allowed to give their opinions, and they very much do so. I hope that reassures him. I note his interest, as demonstrated by his recent parliamentary questions on Hinkley Point C, the geological disposal facility, and safety and security at licensed sites. I hope to reassure him further on those topics, but I will first set the scene for the benefits of a new nuclear programme.

Nuclear energy plays a critical role in the Government’s security of supply and decarbonisation goals. The UK’s nine existing nuclear power plants generate around 20% of our electricity. However, all but one of them are currently expected to retire by 2030. Nuclear power is one of the cheaper forms of low-carbon electricity, reducing pressures on consumer electricity bills, relative to an energy mix without nuclear. Nuclear power provides reliable base-load electricity with lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions similar to those from wind power and much less than those from fossil fuels. New nuclear power is a vital part of the investment needed in our electricity sector that will boost the economy, create thousands of jobs and help to keep the lights on.

As set out in the Conservative party’s manifesto, we are committed to a significant expansion in new nuclear in the UK. The Government have prepared the ground for new nuclear power stations through a package of reforms and regulatory measures that will remove barriers to investment and give developers the confidence to take forward projects that will help to deliver secure, low-carbon and affordable energy. We have also ensured that operators of new nuclear power stations put in place robust plans for the finance and management of their waste and decommissioning from the outset.

We are seeing significant progress. The first new nuclear power station in a generation moved a step closer last year, as the European Commission announced on 8 October 2014 that it has approved the Hinkley Point C state aid case. The Government and EDF are currently in discussions to finalise the contract for Hinkley, which is expected to start generating electricity from 2023. In total, industry has set out plans for five new nuclear projects in the UK for a total of up to 16 GW of new nuclear capacity, providing around 35% of electricity generation.

I would have been grateful if the hon. Lady had left behind her civil service brief, which is the conventional one we know, with much repeated claims. Is it true that the Chinese company is threatening to withdraw its investment unless it has a stake in building Sizewell, Bradwell and Wylfa Newydd? That would mean that the new jobs in nuclear were jobs in China and France, not here, because what it is offering to provide is almost a ready-made nuclear power station, made by Chinese people with Chinese money. We are using investment to create jobs not in this country, but elsewhere.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that each project is taken on its merits. Britain is open for business. We are very keen to see investment from overseas in our new nuclear, but it is very clear that the UK supply chain will provide an enormous amount of the jobs and growth that we are looking for in this country.

I will not give way. I want to go on to answer the hon. Gentleman’s other questions and I will not get the chance to do that if this becomes a debate between the two of us—a conversation between the two of us.

In total, industry has set out plans for five new nuclear projects. The Government are clear that the UK is open for business. We want to see high-quality investment from overseas. The nuclear programme represents a tremendous opportunity to establish the UK as a key nuclear country, with the potential to export capabilities to other countries. That includes capabilities in decommissioning, in which we are already a world leader. This offers us an opportunity to develop our domestic supply chain and to realise economies of scale. It is also an opportunity to make the UK an even more attractive partner for international research and development collaboration.

This is utter nonsense. The person decommissioning at Sellafield is an American company. We do not have any expertise. Will the Minister give us some idea, looking at the historical cost, of what the cost of cleaning up Sellafield will be? It is already admitted to be £53 billion; it is uninsurable, so the taxpayer has to take the risk; and it will probably cost more than £100 billion, which wrecks her argument that nuclear power has ever been good value.

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right to point out that there is an enormous nuclear legacy, which this Government have been committed to sorting out, unlike previous Governments, such as the one that he was part of. The nuclear provision currently stands at £70 billion discounted and £110 billion undiscounted. That is the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s best estimate of the total lifetime costs of the decommissioning mission across the whole estate. Nobody welcomes that cost. Nevertheless, this Government have been determined to get to grips with it and to ensure that the material can be safely, carefully, thoroughly and properly disposed of.

To deliver the ambitious new build programme on time and on budget, a skilled workforce in the UK is essential. The scale of the industry’s new build aspirations, the length of time since the last new build project and the high average age of the existing nuclear workforce mean that it is essential to take action now to prevent skills gaps from developing in the course of the new nuclear programme. The Government recognise that this is a big challenge, particularly with the ongoing need to maintain and decommission existing nuclear power stations, so we have introduced the National College for Nuclear, which will work collaboratively with the wider industry, skills bodies and training providers, and will utilise international best practice to develop an industry-wide curriculum.

Moving on to the vital issues of safety and security, we are confident that the UK has one of the most robust regulatory regimes in the world. As the global expansion in nuclear continues, the UK will ensure that any technology used in this country meets the rigorous safety, security and environmental standards. The importance that we attach to safety is shown through the UK’s independent nuclear regulators—the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency—which ensure, through regular reviews and inspections, that operators are fulfilling their duties and that robust safety and security measures are in place right across the industry.

With plans for 16 GW of new nuclear capacity in the UK, the Government are firmly committed to delivering geological disposal as the safest and most secure means of managing our higher-activity waste in the long term. We need a permanent solution following more than 60 years of producing radioactive waste from various sources, including electricity generation from nuclear power.

The hon. Lady has been very generous to me. I think that she is probably too young to remember the Flowers report in 1968, which said that the nuclear industry in Britain was being irresponsible, because it did not have an answer on waste disposal, and it should not continue. That was 1968. The solution then was to dig a hole and put the nuclear waste in it. In 2015, the British answer is to dig a hole and put the waste in it. There has been no progress on disposal of waste, except at enormous cost.

Let me very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that ever since I was a very small child, nuclear has been an enormous personal priority for me. In fact, it was the reason why I went into politics—I did so because of the threat of a nuclear world war—so I am slightly offended by his presumption that I do not know what I am talking about. I can assure him that a geological disposal facility is not as simple as digging a hole in the ground and stuffing a load of radioactive waste in it.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, a geological disposal facility is internationally recognised as the safest and most secure means of permanently managing our higher-activity waste, and countries such as Sweden, Finland, Canada and the USA are also pursuing that route.

I would like to get on to answering the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He talked about delays at other sites where there are EPR reactors. I can tell him that officials have visited Olkiluoto to get first-hand experience of the build programme there, as well as the other EPR builds at Flamanville in France and Taishan in China. Experience gained through the EPR family—it is a new technology, as he points out—is now being systematically shared between the three current build sites, and Hinkley Point will become part of that arrangement. Experience in Finland and France, particularly in relation to the order in which key parts of the nuclear island are built and how they are fabricated, has benefited the project in Taishan, such that that project is now running to time and to budget.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the strike price potentially being too high in relation to the EDF plant. I can assure him that our estimate of the future price of wholesale electricity is that it will rise into the 2020s. That has been a careful assessment. Nuclear electricity is a key part of our energy mix. He will know that other technologies also involve a very high cost to the consumer right now. The mix is vital, so we believe that this is not too generous. EDF aims to have the plant up and running in 2023. We expect that, with a significant proportion of our power stations due to close over the coming decades, we will need that level of investment to replace that capacity.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about tidal power. Personally, I am as excited as he is about the prospects for marine and tidal power, but again he will accept, I am sure, that this is another new technology, as yet unproven. We have taken the first steps. We expect it to be a big contributor to our energy mix, but not the only one.

I emphasise that, as Energy and Climate Change Minister, I have two priorities: security of supply and keeping the lights on. In securing those priorities, I want to keep bills as low as possible. With new nuclear in the energy mix, I believe we can achieve all those things. Nuclear power is a low-carbon, proven technology that will increase the resilience of the UK’s energy system and, rather than costing more money, the full nuclear programme will, on current projections, save households about £78 on their bills in 2030.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West on his attention to this very important subject, but I want to be clear that the Government believe that developing energy from new nuclear is the right thing to do in the UK.

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman sit down? He may not know the new procedure, but the Question is put. If we reach 11.30, the Question cannot be put. If he wants to have what I would call a Division on this, we have to do it before 11.30, and the Minister quite correctly sat down in time to do that.

There is time left. This is the normal practice. I just want to say that it was a very disappointing response from the Minister, who stuck to a civil service script that had been carefully manicured and presented by her, with a series of platitudes that we all know about. She is not facing up to the crisis that exists in nuclear power at the moment—

Order. Before hon. Members go, I point out that the new procedure asks for the Question to be put. The Minister kindly sat down at the right time, but the hon. Gentleman in charge has talked himself out of that.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.


[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Bangladesh and its future.

This debate about the future and direction of travel of Bangladesh is important, and I am delighted that it is well attended by people from the all-party group on Bangladesh.

It is worth briefly revisiting how and why Bangladesh was born, and why it emerged from the cauldron that was East Pakistan—against a background and prospect of the loss of the official language, Bangla, and against the prospect of greater Islamisation—to become the modern developing country that it is today.

Bangladesh is a young country and it has had to make a long journey in a relatively short time. No one is saying that the journey to independence and democracy has been easy, and it is easy to be too judgmental and see that journey through the prism of our own long-established democratic processes. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh has told me that Bangladesh models itself on our democracy.

It is important to remind ourselves of the dreams and ideals for Bangladesh when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led his people to victory in the battle for independence. It is important that, as friends of Bangladesh, we ask, what is the direction of travel for Bangladesh 44 years later, and what more can be done by the UK to help the people of Bangladesh on their path to fulfilling their potential and delivering a future that upholds the ideals of peaceful secularism, prosperity and political engagement?

It is vital that we, as the biggest bilateral donors to Bangladesh, act as a critical friend and offer help and support where we can. With the most recent figures showing a UK contribution of more than £250 million, it is important that taxpayers’ money is protected from corruption and is spent wisely, transparently and effectively in helping Bangladesh on its journey.

A recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact report on Bangladesh observed:

“Poverty levels have fallen to under 45% as a result of steady growth, industrialisation and greater access to finance, which has led to improvements in a range of social indicators, such as adult literacy, child malnutrition and infant mortality. The agricultural sector accounts for only... 18% of GDP... A number of factors, nevertheless, point to continuing vulnerability. Many Bangladeshis still live under the poverty line—an estimated 77% of the population live on under US$2 a day—and there is marked income and social inequality. Resilience to... shocks cannot be guaranteed.”

It is vital that we help Bangladesh to achieve its millennium goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal healthcare; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. I know that good progress has been made on those goals, and, given the criticisms from some quarters about the largesse of our aid budget, I urge the Minister to consider giving an update to the House some time soon on the progress that has been made in those areas.

However, corruption is rife in Bangladesh, and 34% of aid projects in the countries that we support, and that are scrutinised under the ICAI, are showing amber or red, giving cause for concern. Does the Minister have any updates on how many of our aid schemes in Bangladesh are running on green, and how are the schemes being audited to ensure that we know we are getting value for money for the taxpayer and delivering real benefit in the country that we want to help?

It has been observed on many occasions that Bangladesh was born of blood and suffering, and that no election since has not resulted in blood and suffering or been delivered peacefully. That is a great shame, and I will touch on it later. Over the past few days, many Members will have had the opportunity to meet the visiting Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led the call to arms to fight for independence in his country in his Road to Ramna speech on 7 March 1971. It is worth looking at, because this was the goal that people set themselves:

“I am requesting you, you are my brothers. Do not make this country a hell and destroy it. We will not see each other’s face in the future. If we can solve things in a peaceful manner, we can at least live as brothers. That is why I am requesting you; do not try and run military rule in my country… Hindus, Muslims, Bangalis and non-Bangalis, all those who live in this Bangla are our brothers. The responsibility of protecting them is upon you. Ensure that our reputation is not smeared in any way... If one more shot is fired and if my people are killed again then my request to you is; build a fortress in each and every home. Face the enemy with whatever you have”.

Even then, in the call to arms, he was stating how relevant it would be in an independent country to be secular and inclusive. He went on:

“The struggle this time is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle this time is... for independence”.

It was also the vital struggle for secularism and the wish to live in peace with their fellows.

In December 1971, Bangladesh was born. I know there are disputes and concerns over war crimes from that time and disputes over the persecution of perpetrators of those crimes, but I do not wish to explore those issues. I particularly wish to stress today that whoever is governing Bangladesh, now and in its future, it is imperative that all aspects of human rights are protected and observed, and that freedom of speech is championed. All efforts must be made to ensure forthright and fair political engagement.

I have been concerned about allegations of political harassment and about concerns over malicious destabilisation of the country through acts of violence by groups that do not hold the high ideals that Mujibur Rahman expressed in 1971. No avenues must be left unexplored in supporting Bangladesh’s avowed commitment to secularism, its avowed commitment to ensuring a fair and transparent electoral process, and, most importantly, its role in protecting the rights of religious minorities. Anything the Government could do to help Bangladesh to navigate that tricky path would be most helpful.

It is worth noting that, in October 2010, the High Court in Bangladesh declared:

“Bangladesh is now a secular state... everybody has religious freedom, and therefore no man, woman or child can be forced to wear religious attires like burqa.”

That was a welcome public statement and a well-timed reiteration of Bangladesh’s origins, which were born out of a desire to resist the pull of fundamentalist Islam. In today’s uncertain world, with fundamentalism on the rise, we should applaud and nurture that stance. Too many young people in our own country are heeding the siren call of religious fundamentalism and travelling abroad to support terrorists and join jihad. We need Bangladesh to hold the line in an uncertain world and stand up for secularism and freedom of speech.

Only recently, there have been some widely reported attacks on individuals in Bangladesh, and they are a worry. Four bloggers have been brutally murdered since February 2014. In February of that year, Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed outside his home amid tensions over a tribunal judging war crimes. In February 2015, a Bangladesh-born American blogger, Avijit Roy, was similarly killed with machetes and knives as he walked back from a book fair in Dhaka. In March 2015, Washiqur Rahman, 27, was hacked to death by two men with knives and meat cleavers just outside his house as he headed to work in Dhaka. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das, 32, was killed as he left his home on his way to work at a bank. Four masked men hacked him to death with cleavers. Such atrocities have been linked to freedom of speech and perceived religious insults. The Government have made arrests, but that is a worrying direction of travel. Does the Minister have any views or updates on this?

On the bigger picture, we are all aware that rumbling along in the background of individual incidents is the unhappiness of the opposition parties, particularly the Bangladeshi National Party, or BNP, over the abolition of the caretaker system, as well as their lack of engagement in the current electoral process. It must be said, however, that there has been a history of unhappiness with the caretaker Governments on both sides, depending on who has been in charge, since 1991.

It will not have escaped the Minister’s notice that it has been reported in today’s edition of the Daily Star, widely ready by many of our constituents, that protesters from the BNP were demonstrating outside our own Parliament yesterday against the visit by Sheikh Hasina. The newspaper observed quite fairly that the wings and influences of the BNP and of the Awami League have spread to many countries, and that those parties campaign and protest against each other outside Bangladesh. It is regrettable that such political enmity and unhappiness is travelling so far, and indeed sweeping up supporters in our own country. We need a way forward and we need to help to break this impasse.

Whatever the outcome of any future election in Bangladesh, it is vital that all sides feel they are not excluded from it or cannot take part in it.

I agree with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that the priority for Bangladesh, and for the UK’s relationship with Bangladesh, is to facilitate, in some way and at some point, a peaceful transition of power from one side to the other? Like her, I have talked to many colleagues and supporters on both sides of the political divide in Bangladesh, and the sense of grievance on both sides is legitimate and real. Until there is a peaceful transition of power, the problems will simply go on and on.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I wrote a letter to Baroness Warsi in January 2014 raising that issue. She replied:

“I called on both sides to put a stop to disruption and violence and to focus on political dialogue. They both have a responsibility to ensure a secure and stable Bangladesh. We have always made clear that how this process is managed is a matter for Bangladesh”—

she was referring to the caretaker Government system, or not. She continued:

“I issued a statement on 6 January noting that the UK, like others in the international community, believes that the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy is peaceful elections that express the genuine will of the voters.”

She concluded:

“As an urgent priority, all Bangladesh’s political parties must share a clear and unequivocal responsibility to work together to strengthen democratic accountability and to build the willingness and capacity to hold future participatory elections without the fear of intimidation or reprisals. The UK is encouraging Bangladesh’s political parties to support political dialogue... We will continue to work with international partners including through the European Union to help achieve this.”

I hope the Minister has an update and that there has been progress, because that letter to me was written on 24 January 2014, nearly 18 months ago.

When evaluating Bangladesh in May 2014, the ICAI said:

“Long-running political rivalries have paralysed government decision-making in recent years. Bangladesh is in need of infrastructure upgrades and advances in its public service delivery systems.”

The squabbling and disputes are hampering that, which cannot be good for the country.

The Minister sent me a response in February 2015:

“I share your deep concern about the escalating political unrest and the absence of political dialogue among Bangladesh’s political parties… I raised my concerns about the continuing violence and political harassment when I met Bangladesh’s Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs on 20 January.”

He concluded:

“Together with our international partners, we continue to urge all political parties to work together to resolve their differences through constructive and peaceful dialogue.”

As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) said, this has been going on for a long time, and it must be brought to some sort of conclusion. We must not interfere, but we must somehow help the process.

The Minister said in his letter:

“Our High Commissioner, along with other EU Ambassadors, met Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Mr Mahmood Ali on 14 January to express our collective concern at the ongoing violence”—

this is the phrase that struck me most—

“and the shrinking of democratic space.”

Will the Minister update us on whether there has been any progress in expanding that political space, or has it been contracting even further?

Only on Monday, Sheikh Hasina addressed Members at an event in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association room, and she was warmly welcomed. She made a point of reaffirming her Government’s commitment to upholding secularism and tackling terrorism. She has been praised by Prime Minister Modi of India for her efforts to tackle terrorism, even if he somewhat spoiled the effect with his comment that she was not doing badly for a woman—she was probably damned with faint praise. What more can be done to help her to make further progress against the destabilising effects of terrorism and religious persecution in Bangladesh? What more can be done to encourage and facilitate full participation by all groups in the electoral process? As we know from our own democracy, strong participative opposition parties that scrutinise and hold Governments to account make for robust legislation and fairer government for all.

I have visited Bangladesh five times, so the Minister knows that I take a keen interest in the country. My most recent visit was in 2013 as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I am pleased to see Members in the Chamber who went on that cross-party visit to investigate and report on the Rana Plaza tragedy. That catastrophe led to the deaths of 1,100 people, with many more left crippled through catastrophic injuries. The ready-made garment industry is crucial to the prosperity of Bangladesh. The recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact case study stated:

“Economic growth has mainly come from an abundant source of largely unskilled and cheap labour. The RMG sector has taken advantage of this situation and… now employs around 4 million workers (mainly female) and accounts for 80% of manufactured exports. The recent international attention on Bangladesh’s RMG sector in the wake of safety disasters, such as… Rana Plaza… is proving… a challenge to the Government rather than an opportunity to reform the RMG sector.”

I would welcome a comment from the Minister on that, because our report was keen to see what progress could be made after Rana Plaza and our Government’s big efforts to try to support the country in developing infrastructure resilience and fairer work practices, and to ensure that Bangladesh can be proud of the garment industry, its biggest export, and that the industry has a secure future. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh assured us that much has been done, but have there been any inspections or updates on the aid and expertise we have sent?

I will conclude there, because I know many other Members will raise other issues. I wish Bangladesh well, and I think it has so much to offer. We are friends of Bangladesh, but we are critical friends. We need to ensure that aid money is being well used and well targeted, and, where it is not, that it is redirected. We need to ensure that we follow up on progress. It would help to satisfy many critics of our aid budget if they knew that the money is helping to form, mould and support a country that is independent, secular and a bulwark against the fundamentalist Islamism that is affecting so many young people in our own country today. Bangladesh may need our help, a bit more coaxing and a bit more effort, and I would like the Minister to update us on where we are in the bigger picture.

Order. Before we proceed with the debate, I would like to make one or two announcements. First, I told Jim Fitzpatrick before the debate that I thought it was getting a little warm and that it would be fine by me if Members or the Minister wanted to take off their jackets—I apologise for not making that announcement a little earlier.

We have a full list of speakers, and I hope that everyone can participate in some way. That means we are fairly restricted on time. I intend to call the three Front Benchers —from the official Opposition, the Government and the Scottish National party—from 3.30 pm, and before that we will have the debate among Back Benchers, which means about eight or 10 minutes per speaker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on her measured and considered opening speech, which raised many of the necessary issues. I also congratulate her on her leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I have not been here very long, but she is clearly very well thought of in that role.

I, too, had the privilege of meeting Sheikh Hasina when she came to this place earlier this week. I strongly support her efforts as Prime Minister, in difficult circumstances, to introduce a civil society based on secularism. The hon. Member for St Albans talked about the UK being a critical friend, but we have that role not only with the Bangladeshi Government. Many British and western European corporations are working in Bangladesh and taking advantage of very cheap labour conditions to produce goods at very cheap rates. Those corporations, frankly, have a responsibility to the Bangladeshis and to the Government of Sheikh Hasina to treat their workers decently.

In 2013 more than 1,100 garment workers were killed when the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh collapsed. Many of the clothes made there were destined for the British high street. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to improve the rights, the pay and, indeed, the safety of workers in Bangladesh? Does he further agree that the Government should reverse their decision to cut support for the International Labour Organisation?

Absolutely, and I will develop that argument over the next couple of minutes. ILO standards are basic minimums, and there should not be a problem with our addressing them. Western corporations —in this place, we look at British corporations in particular—are responsible for ensuring that their employees in Bangladesh are treated decently and fairly. As the hon. Member for St Albans said so eloquently, there are siren calls from fundamentalist Islam in Bangladesh that will sound more attractive and fall on much more fertile ground if the ordinary working people continue to see exploitation in the garment industry and other sectors. I support the work of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and I know the Bangladeshi community in Britain does, too.

I was pleased to attend recently a reception at the Chester Tandoori restaurant with my good friend, Mr Abdun Noor. The small Bangladeshi community in Chester was paying tribute to a visiting police superintendent from Sylhet district, whom they had met when they were out there. They were impressed by his work as an up-and-coming police leader—in particular, his work on eradicating corruption. They simply want to be able to work fairly out there, and they want the system to work fairly. At last, the new regime is attempting to eradicate corruption, and he is in the lead on that issue. He introduced a concept and strategy that, for them, seemed novel: policing by consent. He was trying to win support for the police from across society and to develop a structure of civil society. Therefore, there is support for the kind of measures for developing civil society that the hon. Member for St Albans talked about.

Our role in Parliament is to put pressure on British and other western companies to ensure they do not exploit their employees in Bangladesh for short-term profit. The long-term strategic error of allowing fertile ground for extremism will be extremely damaging to those companies and to the UK’s long-term interests. We have a responsibility to the UK to ensure that the companies that benefit from such labour fulfil their responsibilities.

We also have responsibilities. I like a bargain as much as the next hon. Member. When I go to one of the large supermarkets, I feel happy if I can pay a low price for a garment made in Bangladesh, but if the price of treating poor workers in Bangladesh fairly is that we have to pay a bit extra for a shirt or a pair of trousers, it is worth paying if it ensures long-term stability.

As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde will confirm from our visit to Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza collapse was caused by poor building conditions. It would not have mattered how much those workers were being paid. Corruption around the infrastructure that had gone on previously caused those buildings to be unsafe and unstable. We need to work on those two things.

I absolutely accept that, but what the workers are paid is under the control of western corporations, and therefore under our control, because we can put pressure on them.

In the time remaining, I want to talk about my work with the shipbreakers on the beaches south of Chittagong, who are some of the worst-employed workers in the world. They have no health and safety protection and work in some of the most dangerous conditions. If they are lucky, they might have a pair of sunglasses for eye protection when using metal cutters. They are sent on to ships—big bulk carriers and oil ships—and told to cut through pieces of metal, although they do not know what they are cutting. Sometimes they cut into fuel tanks where gasses have built up.

It is common for workers to be killed on the ships. When I was there about four years ago, I was told that there was an average of three or four deaths per week in each shipbreaking yard. Indeed, the week before I arrived, it was reported that five workers had died. In fact, a sixth had been reported dead, but I was told that his body had simply been thrown overboard, so the shipbreaking owner would not have to pay compensation to his family. I hope that since I was last there the shipbreaking owners have become more responsible. Those workers’ conditions were absolutely appalling. When we are being a critical friend of Bangladesh, in the words of the hon. Member for St Albans, we must put pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that they put pressure on the shipbreaking owners.

Child labour is also a problem. I was told by workers in the shipbreaking yards that there is no child labour problem, but I could not understand that as I could see that the young boys in front of me were child labourers. It turned out that in Bangladesh the age of adulthood is 15. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) talked about ILO standards. Young boys of 15 are considered child labourers by international standards. Child labour should be discouraged, and we should support its eradication in those shipbreaking yards, not least because of the huge dangers those workers face.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Rana Plaza. One of the problems is that the garment workers are fractured. There are many unions that cannot see eye to eye, and there is a lot of disagreement. In those circumstances, it is easy for unscrupulous employers to take advantage of the workers. I hope we can help to develop trade unions in Bangladesh, because the best way to improve conditions is for the workers to improve them themselves by joining together and giving themselves that collective strength.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans on securing the debate, and I echo the request for assurances from the Minister, whose response I await with interest.

For the past six years, I have had the great privilege of serving as vice-chairman of the all-party group on Bangladesh under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). There are a lot of ethnic and national groups in my central London constituency, including a significant Bengali population. Some are in the City of London, but a significant number are in south Westminster and Pimlico. I am therefore very much aware of the issues raised in the debate.

I have twice visited Bangladesh—specifically, I have visited Dhaka, the capital, and the Sylhet region in the north-east of the country, from where many British Bengalis come originally. We were promoting grassroots football, and in 2010 we met Sheikh Hasina and the Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia.

Half of Britain’s estimated 500,000 Bangladeshis live in London. That may account for the growing success of that community’s young people, who benefit from the education and job opportunities on their doorstep. Some 61% of Bangladeshis got five good GCSEs in 2014, compared with 51% of the Pakistani population and 56% of the indigenous white British population. I am incredibly struck by the fact that the great majority of Bengalis whom I represent in Parliament live in social housing. Many came here speaking little English and with few conventional skills, but they have a passion for education, and we should be proud of that. That applies to many immigrant populations in this country. It is unique to Britain; the experience in places such as France and Germany is very different. Many of our immigrant populations recognise that the way out of the economic difficulties that they face, and will probably face for the rest of their lives, is educating their children to give them a better life. That is something we should all work hard to encourage.

Bordering my constituency is Tower Hamlets, the heart of the Bangladeshi community in Great Britain. We are all familiar with the sometimes negative press coverage of elements of that borough in recent years, but that is only a very small part of the story of Tower Hamlets—I say that as I look into the eyes of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He knows as well as I do that it is an incredibly vibrant borough, which produces aspirational, motivated young people who go into the tech and banking jobs in Canary Wharf, which is in his constituency and, to the west, crosses the border with the City of London. It is also great to see the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) leading the charge on parliamentary representation from that community. We should be proud that there are now three female Bangladeshis in the Commons representing London seats.

However, major tensions and political problems remain in Bangladesh. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans rightly pointed out, they sadly spill over, to an extent, into this country. We see close at hand some of the factionalism within the main political parties and a group of smaller parties. We particularly have to watch for the creeping influence of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is thought to have founded the Islamic Forum of Europe, which has been promoted in London mosques, in particular the East London mosque down the Whitechapel Road.

Hon. Members will be aware that I have recently been vocal in the House about the persecution of religious minorities in the middle east, particularly the ancient Christian communities such as the 8.5 million Copts in Egypt, and the 2 million Christians who until recently resided in Syria. Many go back to communities that were proselytised by St Paul in the immediate aftermath of the birth of Christianity.

Precious little is said about the situation of religious minorities in Bangladesh. I am afraid that has deteriorated in tandem with the rapid rise of militant Islam and its influence on Bangladeshi politics. I take this opportunity to raise the plight of the 20 million Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and indigenous minorities living in Bangladesh. Since the verdict by the International Crimes Tribunal in February 2013, which handed a life sentence to the leading Jamaat-e-Islami figure for war crimes in 1971, members of Jamaat have responded by destroying many places of worship, and murdering and attacking innocent people for their religious views, as has been pointed out.

That is incredibly depressing, particularly because, with a young and vibrant population getting a much stronger education both in Bangladesh and in our diaspora here, it is a country that should be looking to the future, not constantly harping on the past. Terrible and dreadful things did happen 44 years ago on all sides of the divide. It ill behoves any Government to utilise their position in power and manoeuvres with the judiciary to give a one-sided approach, as has happened. Clearly, justice has to be done, and I accept that an element of reconciliation has to take place. The worry is that this episode will continue in a downward spiral in years to come, with different sets of politicians taking the opportunity to make narrow, partisan points, without looking to the future of the country.

As my hon. Friend rightly points out, the current ruling Awami League is nominally secular and has promised to bring the ageing leaders of Jamaat to justice for their role in the 1971 genocide. However, in the face of violence and the broader band of Islamists, that is no easy task. Attacks on those minority communities in Bangladesh are, I fear, frequent and continuous and may well continue.

I reiterate my hon. Friend’s message about the importance of maintaining that secular society. We are lucky that our relationship with Bangladesh has, to a large extent, kept terrorism at bay, but we cannot be complacent about that, particularly with large numbers of Bengalis in this country potentially being influenced by events in their homeland.

I have been told, although I have no proof, that Jamaat is actively funded by Islamists in Pakistan, to help fund their destruction of Bangladesh. These things are interlinked.

They are. One difficulty, of course, is that we are fighting the battles pre-1971. Because of the upsurge in religious cases, it becomes a downward spiral with an eye on the past, rather than the future.

As everyone knows, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. It is estimated that by 2025 that substantial population will have reached 190 million, of which 43% will be under 30. There is little doubt that many of Bangladesh’s problems relate to poverty and a lack of education for some of its young people, although there are significant improvements. The question of how Bangladesh retains educated professionals and builds a future for them in Bangladesh will be one of the biggest challenges going forward. I hope that this country can play our part, given the passion clearly shown by the large Bengali diaspora here. No doubt we will have many more of these debates, with a sense of friendship. As my hon. Friend rightly says, we must be critical friends at times. Equally, there is so much good to be said about that country, and we want to play our part in ensuring that the world gets to see that.

It is a pleasure to see you, Sir Alan, presiding over business this afternoon. I look forward to hearing the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) respond to the debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh, for leading the group with distinction and enthusiasm. She knew that I was thinking of challenging her for the chair but I thought that would be churlish, given how well she has led us for five years. I probably could not have beaten her, anyway, so that was entirely fatuous on my part. I am delighted she secured this debate and pleased that the title refers to the future of Bangladesh. That is very much what we all want to see, although she also covered the history, as have other speakers.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). He is my neighbour and friend. In this debate we are all friends because we are all friends of Bangladesh. We may be in different parties but we all want the best for that country. I know we all agree, as other speakers have touched on, that it is not our role to play sides in Bangladesh. We are not supporters of the Awami League or of the Bangladesh Nationalist party. Whichever party—BNP or Awami League—has won the support of the Bangladeshi people, I and colleagues have supported the Government of Bangladesh.

The right hon. Gentleman made some pertinent points about some political organisations in Bangladesh, in particular Jamaat-e-Islami. That is the sister organisation of the Islamic Forum of Europe, which has such a bad influence on our young people in the UK. Jamaat has been an ally of the Awami League in previous elections, though in more recent years has been associated with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. That is disturbing because, as has been referred to, Bangladesh has a proud secular history.

Another matter already raised is that of the violence against minority communities. I know the Bangladesh Government want to do more to protect minority communities. We want to see them redouble those efforts because those attacks are deeply disturbing for a country that was founded as a secular democracy. I criticised the Awami League for boycotting the last BNP election victory and I criticised the BNP when it boycotted elections two years ago. Many of us thought the BNP could have won that election and I thought the boycott was completely wrong.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) referred to confidence in the electoral process. The UK, the European Union, the United States and international organisations have a huge role to play in rebuilding the confidence within Bangladesh about transitional arrangements and the confidence in elections. The UK Government played a huge role in validating the electoral roll in Bangladesh, where 80 million voters were registered in 18 months. That demonstrated that we should have confidence in the electoral structures and arrangements within Bangladesh for future elections. There is a lot of pressure to accelerate the elections, and they have got to be timed to have the confidence of the international community as well as of the Bangladeshi people, so that the outcome will be respected internally and externally.

We all know, and reference has been made to the fact, that Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. Although its people are among the poorest in the world, it has had 6% growth for the past five to 10 years—a growth rate we would all bite their hands off for. That is not a criticism of the UK Government’s economic plan, although we all know it is not working that well, notwithstanding what the Conservatives say, but we would all love a 6% growth rate.

One side product of that growth, of course, was the disaster at the Rana Plaza. The acceleration in growth has meant that the regulation and protection of workers, wages and conditions have fallen behind. It was therefore reassuring to read an email this week from GreenGrade, an organisation the hon. Member for St Albans invited to make a presentation to the all-party group last year. GreenGrade, which helps garment workers and garment factory owners to improve the industry’s standing, says that

“Rana Plaza workers will get full compensation”

and that the donor trust fund, which was set up by the ILO,

“has reached its US $30 million target”

this year. Victims and families will therefore get compensation.

Colleagues will know that I am patron of the Sreepur village orphanage, which has been running in Bangladesh for 25 years. I am proud that it has helped a whole number of children who were made orphans by the Rana Plaza disaster. They have been housed, and they are being looked after. Clearly, a lot of good is coming out of a very tragic story.

The hon. Gentleman is being a little too modest: the Sreepur office is run by his wife, who is absolutely fabulous—she came to make a presentation to the all-party group. I pay tribute to the efforts of the hon. Gentleman and his wife in rescuing children from the exploitation they may have been drawn into as a result of Rana Plaza.

It is very generous of the hon. Lady to mention my wife, who is a trustee of the orphanage. It was set up by Pat Kerr, who was born in Scotland and who was a cabin crew member with British Airways. The orphanage now looks after 500 children and 150 destitute mums. It has looked after women and children for the past 25 years, and it is a huge success story. It goes from strength to strength, and it has a lot of support in the House, including from the hon. Lady.

I want to refer quickly to elections. As I said, we need to build confidence in the electoral process. Accusations have been made about corruption and fraud. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster touched lightly on the fact that we in Tower Hamlets are not unused to corruption and fraud—our mayor was recently taken out by the election court. However, it was great to see Sheikh Hasina here this week giving commitments on the drive to rebuild confidence in the electoral process and institutions. Incidentally, it was also great to see her niece, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), make her impressive maiden speech yesterday. She will be a real asset to not only the Labour party, but the whole House in due course. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh is rightly proud of her.

When Sheikh Hasina came over, it was also fantastic to hear the older brother of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) speaking about the wonderful work he has been doing in Bangladesh to extend broadband. However, as we are talking about the future of Bangladesh, will the hon. Gentleman reiterate the point that corruption, fraud and demonstrations such as those that happened here in London at a community event with Sheikh Hasina may hinder progress in Bangladesh unless we get things right over the next few years?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The all-party group, which the hon. Member for St Albans leads so well, has a really important role in helping to bring the two sides together. Lord Avebury has been working on that for many years. There needs to be dialogue. The good news is that, for the past few months, the situation has been quieter than it has been for the best part of two years. If the country is to get back to having a normal political future, that needs to continue.

As parliamentarians, we have great respect in Bangladesh. This debate will, I know, be covered in Dhaka’s Daily Star. It will also feature on Bangladesh TV here in the UK and back in Dhaka and Sylhet. The message we collectively want to send to the Bangladesh Government is: “We are your friends. We are here to help. We want to do everything we can to see continued progress in your country, which has made fantastic progress in the last 40-odd years. We are a resource and an asset.”

When the Minister and the shadow Minister respond—I am sure the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire will reinforce this point—I am sure they will say we are all in the same endgame: helping Bangladesh to move forward. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for securing the debate and for giving us all a chance to put on record our views on the future of Bangladesh. I also thank her for work as the chair of the all-party group. On our last visit, she and I spent a great deal of time on the roads of Dhaka and travelling around Bangladesh. There is no doubt that her commitment is absolutely genuine, and I am pleased to see her continue in her role.

I want to add a few comments to the distinguished speeches we have heard. Bangladesh has a tremendous future and a really important relationship with the UK. The challenges it faces can be overcome, but they need to be addressed, because they are important.

I pay tribute to the British Bangladeshi population in my constituency—we have a substantial community in Hyde. To be honest, I did not grow up with a great deal of diversity; I grew up in a very white working-class part of north-east England, so I was not familiar until my adult life with any sort of diversity. In fact, I acutely remember being at university in Manchester and experiencing Eid for the first time. I lived just at the edge of Rusholme, and everyone came down the road, beeping their horns and waving flags. I honestly thought that there must have been an explosion and that everyone was fleeing to safety. People sometimes take the time to tell us about their faith, background, history or culture and they invite us into their homes to share that experience with us. That is a wonderful part of being an MP, and I treasure it a great deal, although we do not always talk about it enough.

My community has not been without its challenges. Like many communities, we have had situations such as that in 2012, when we had an invasion—that is the word I would use—by the English Defence League. Its members came to Hyde and harassed people, trying to exploit community tensions and to get a foothold in the community. When members of our communities—people of different backgrounds, political views and ethnicities—stand together and say, “We don’t welcome you. In fact we oppose this invasion of our town,” that, too, is a special thing. We are not tough enough on organisations such as the EDL, which come in and tell people who are second or third-generation British citizens that they should not be here. They should not have the right to do that. Of course, they have the right to express their view, but, equally, we must protect our citizens as they go peacefully about their lives.

When we talk in future about the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh, I hope that Bangladesh’s impressive economic performance will have further strengthened that relationship. Despite all the political problems with forming Governments and having peaceful transitions into power, the growth rate in Bangladesh is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, something we in the UK very much aspire to. Given the language and discourse in the UK around India, China and the MINT countries—Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey—the Next 11 countries, of which Bangladesh is one, could become the vogue, fashionable countries that this country wants a relationship with. The links the UK has with Bangladesh could be a tremendous asset, not just to the UK as a whole, but to towns such as mine.

The hon. Gentleman was brave enough to travel the roads of Dhaka. The important thing we saw over there was the power lines draped outside buildings and the roads, which made us feel like putting our hands over our eyes while we travelled on them. If business is to keep investing and trusting in Bangladesh, we need to see infrastructure growth, and I would like to hear comments from the Minister about that. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that infrastructure growth and resilience are important if we are to support growth?

I absolutely agree, and I want briefly to mention three issues we came across when we went to Bangladesh, because they are important for the future.

The first is the context of our visit: the Rana Plaza disaster, which was one of the worst industrial accidents the world has seen—some 1,100 people died. That came just after the Tazreen Fashions fire, which killed 112 people. Clearly, they should be addressed in the context of the development of Bangladesh’s economy. To be honest, when I went there, I perhaps had a predetermined view that the question was primarily one of exploitation, with western companies using the cheap labour rates of Bangladesh to make profits. I still believe that western companies have a duty not just morally but in terms of their reputation and brand to make supply chains transparent and to do what they can.

However, the situation is complex. The standards adhered to by western factories that export to this country are clearly higher than those of the domestic garment industry in Bangladesh. Many of the problems that we encountered were to do not just with the behaviour of western companies, and labour standards, but the whole system of governance in Bangladesh—the need for good governance, and for corruption to be rooted out. Those are central challenges that have been mentioned in the debate, and they lead to my second point, which is on the political culture and political violence in Bangladesh, and the need for change.

I am sure that all of us with an interest in Bangladesh—particularly in Tower Hamlets, I should imagine—have had experience of people wanting to take our photo and get a comment from us endorsing one side or another in regional or national elections, or perhaps in Bangladesh’s historical disputes. I completely understand that there are legitimate grievances on either side of Bangladesh’s political history, but my message to those people is always that there is much to be gained from trying to find a way through to a peaceful transition of power in Bangladesh.

For all the differences between parties in the House, we can honestly say that when one side wins an election—usually the Conservative party—we are willing to give up the keys to Downing Street. I was surprised by the amount of interest there was in that way of doing things when I was in Bangladesh. People were taken aback by the fact that we were an all-party delegation, and could not relate to that. If either side can reach the point of having faith in the central idea of adhering to the rules of the political system, and to the rule of law, perhaps through the mediation and support of countries such as ours, Bangladesh has a huge future, and proceeding in that way is extremely important.

Political violence in Bangladesh clearly continues to be a concern. I asked for figures from the Library. I believe that 120 people have been killed this year in political violence—half of those are believed to have been burned to death. It would be terrible if people took that as indicating the nature of Bangladesh as a whole. It is much more than such statistics. Many people, and not only those with an ethnic or historical link to the country, want to visit it, to have a relationship with it and to do business with it. UK investment in Bangladesh is of huge importance to our economy, just as it is to that of Bangladesh, so it is important to get past the issues I have outlined.

I want finally to make brief mention of climate change. Most people in this country who consider the challenges are aware that Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable. Today, there is a lobby of Parliament on climate change on the theme “Speak up for the love of”. Bangladesh produces 0.3% of global emissions, but it is one of the countries most at risk from rising sea levels. The Ganges delta has 230 rivers, and there are 160 million people living in an almost completely flat area one fifth the size of France. A sense of justice and equity, regardless of what side of the political divide we are on, will tell us that there is a need to do the right thing this year in this Parliament to tackle the situation.

People often ask about the consequences of climate change, and they need to realise that it will affect not only countries such as Bangladesh, but the UK. It will create refugees and problems of food supply and food security. There will be huge knock-on effects for this country as people go to places where they have relatives, or that they have relationships with. That brings us back to the fundamental point that it is in our interest for UK parliamentarians to take the right steps for the UK’s national interest and for the world. I hope that we will do that throughout this Parliament.

I warmly welcome the debate, and the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh, which I agree is extremely important to parliamentarians. We are all friends of Bangladesh and I hope that the relationship will become even more important in future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) for her excellent presentation, and look forward to working with her in future. I am of mixed heritage and have background from Pakistan, which shares issues with Bangladesh. I want to focus on child marriage, climate change, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), and climate justice.

Last Tuesday, Human Rights Watch issued a report called “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away”, ranking Bangladesh fourth in the world for child marriage, and describing the practice as an epidemic. Sixty-five per cent. of young women in Bangladesh are married before 18, and 29% before 15, according to UNICEF figures. Child marriage leads to dangerously early pregnancies, lack of education, and greater chances of domestic violence and poverty—issues that are, of course, of great concern to all.

Meanwhile, however, the UN has praised Bangladesh for meeting other development goals, including on the reduction of poverty, gender parity in school enrolment, and reduction of maternal mortality. If some of the development goals have been met, the question must be raised of what is going wrong on child marriage. Gender discrimination has been mentioned as one possibility in the Human Rights Watch report, along with desperate poverty that means parents cannot afford to feed or educate their daughters, and natural disasters caused by climate change, which force families to adopt survival strategies.

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point about marriage. The Human Rights Watch report made great play of the fact that because of poverty the option for many families is either to find a husband for the daughter, or for someone in the family to starve. It is a difficult choice—whether to keep a girl in the family and keep the family together, or marry her off so she can survive. We in this country could not countenance that situation.

As the hon. Gentleman says, we cannot possibly imagine facing such choices, but people living in Bangladesh make such stark choices daily. The Human Rights Watch report is specific in its comments about child marriage rates in Bangladesh:

“Natural disasters in Bangladesh, and the lack of an adequate government safety net for families affected by them, compound the poverty that drives child marriage. Bangladesh’s geophysical location makes it prone to frequent and sometimes extreme natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, river bank erosion, and earthquakes, which cause widespread loss of life and property damage.”

The report continued:

“Some families interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had made decisions about marriage for reasons directly related to natural disasters—some for example rushed to marry off a daughter in anticipation of losing their home to river erosion.”

Bangladesh is the most vulnerable nation in the world to the impact of climate change, according to the risk analysis firm Maplecroft; 57 rivers enter the country at one side and drain out at the other. The country has no control over the water flow and is particularly vulnerable to rises in global sea level. It is densely populated, with widespread poverty, little capacity to adapt and ineffective governance. The people are powerless in the face of natural disaster.

That leads me on to the matter of climate justice. The poor and vulnerable—often women and children in particular—are always the first to be affected by climate change, and they suffer the most, when in many cases it is the richer countries and populations that have caused the problem. Acknowledging that imbalance is central to climate justice. Climate change threatens basic human rights: to water, food, a home, an education, economic development and life itself. It reverses hard-won progress on human rights and development, and we can see that clearly happening in Bangladesh. Climate justice puts people, and a human rights-based approach, at the heart of decisions on global sustainable development. It means benefiting the environment, alleviating poverty and improving equality.

The Scottish Government are leading the way in the realm of climate justice, with a dedicated climate justice fund, which is possibly the only fund of its type in the world. The £6 million fund currently supports 11 projects in Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Zambia, empowering the poorest and most vulnerable communities to access their rights and to become more resilient with respect to climate change. The fund’s emphasis is on access to clean water, enabling communities to assert their water rights, and sharing best practice in natural resource management. The results have been inspiring. Communities are brought together to work towards a better future, sickness is banished, crops are healthy, and children can return to school.

The Scottish Government have stimulated conversations about climate justice nationally and internationally among businesses and communities, and in academia and the public sector. Glasgow Caledonian University this year launched the world’s first masters programme in climate justice. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recognises Scotland’s pioneering role, stating last December:

“Within the UK, the Scottish Government continues to take a lead in putting climate justice on the international and domestic agendas, with a renewed commitment to the cause of human rights and an announcement of new projects supported through its Climate Justice Fund.”

As Humza Yousaf, Scottish Minister for Europe and International Development, has said:

“We aim to be a world leader and a progressive voice on the global stage—we hope our commitment to helping the world’s poorest will inspire many people, both home and abroad.”

The Scottish National party manifesto for 2015 promised that

“we will call on the UK government to match the approach of the Scottish Government with a dedicated Climate Justice Fund.”

This debate highlights perfectly the need for such a fund, to help countries including Bangladesh, which suffers an endless stream of disaster caused by climate change—a problem not of its own making that leaves millions in deprivation and forces families to give up on their own daughters’ futures, as was shown in the Human Rights Watch report.

Bangladesh, like many other developing countries, is doing its best to make social and economic progress in the face of ongoing environmental catastrophe. We can call on its Government to restore full democracy and call for strong action on child marriage, but as first-world contributors to the global climate crisis, which affects countries such as Bangladesh disproportionately, we have a strong moral obligation to help. Will the Minister promise to take a close look at the Scottish Government’s climate justice policy, with a view to creating a similar fund at UK level?

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate. It is not the first time that we have debated Bangladesh in this Chamber. She has done an excellent job chairing the all-party group and obviously continues to show passion for the country.

We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) about the importance of free and fair elections, which must have the confidence of the international community and the people of Bangladesh—I will mention that—and peaceful transition from one Government to another.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) mentioned the important issues of child marriage and tackling climate change. Many of us will today have been lobbied by constituents on the Climate Coalition’s summer rally. It is important that we highlight the impact of climate change on countries such as Bangladesh when urging the Government to make progress in the talks that will happen later this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) made an interesting speech, with a new take on this topic from the trade union point of view: he spoke about labour standards in the shipbuilding yards and among garment workers. Most importantly, he name-checked his local restaurant, which is always a good move for an MP; there will be free poppadums for him next time he is there, I am sure.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about name-checking, but given that Tower Hamlets is the curry capital of Britain, there are just far too many good restaurants for me to mention.

Perhaps the next time my hon. Friend speaks he will give a long list, and then he will get free poppadums in all of them.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) talked about the plight of Hindus, which I will mention, and about the diaspora community in his constituency and its passion for education. I think that all of us with ethnically diverse constituencies realise that levels of aspiration in some of these communities are extremely high.

The Bangladesh diaspora is an important part of our communities that maintains our strong historical links to Bangladesh, which the hon. Member for St Albans mentioned. The connection between our two countries was reaffirmed this week with the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whom many of us had the opportunity to meet. She was in the public gallery for the maiden speech of her niece, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who has become, as has already been mentioned, one of three MPs of Bangladeshi heritage in the House, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq).

We have heard that Bangladesh has made progress on poverty reduction and prosperity is rising. Its economy has grown by around 6% a year despite political instability, structural constraints and the global financial crisis. Many of the millennium development goals have been reached, such as the goal on getting girls as well as boys into primary and secondary education, although there is always an issue about children dropping out as they get into secondary education—particularly girls, when marriage is on the cards.

The country is heavily reliant on agriculture and the garment industry; the latter accounts for more than 80% of exports. We have heard about Rana Plaza, to which I will return in a moment. There is potential for growth in some sectors, such as the information and communication technology sector, which generates some $300 million in revenue. At a very local level, microfinance has made a real difference. I was fortunate, when I visited Bangladesh with Results UK, to meet Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel peace prize winner, whose microcredit system has reached out to some 7 million of the world’s poorest, many of them in Bangladesh, and helped when the conventional banking system would not. It is notable that he said that 95% of its loans were given to women. Women are very much the driving force of economic regeneration locally.

Remittances from the diaspora community accounted for 8% of GDP in 2014, which is some $14 billion. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has done excellent work on this front, trying to ensure that the flow of remittances continues to countries such as Bangladesh, but there is still a need to look at whether remittances can be better channelled into growth, so that it is not just about subsistence and supporting families to keep their heads above—let us leave that metaphor. It should not just be about supporting families to get by on a daily basis.

Bangladesh remains a poor country. Political violence is a major concern. Last year’s elections were boycotted by the main Opposition party and more than half of the 300 seats were uncontested. There was violence on election day, including arson attacks on polling stations; 21 people died, adding to the death toll after 120 people lost their lives in pre-election violence. This year, with the anniversary of the election, there were more deaths and fires, and thousands of people were arrested. Amnesty International has reported in the past on the use of excessive force, torture and extrajudicial killings by the police in Bangladesh. Questions have to be asked about the police response to the violence. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester said about conversations in his local restaurant regarding developing policing, and about the contribution that we can perhaps make on that front.

The Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, reportedly encouraged protests in January. The Minister will be aware that she has been charged with corruption—allegations that must be dealt with independently and in accordance with the rule of law. I hope that, during her visit, the Foreign Office discussed the matter with the Prime Minister in more detail.

The Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 was one of the world’s most serious industrial accidents, as hon. Members mentioned, in which more than 1,100 people lost their lives and 2,500 people were injured. It exposed the hidden costs of the clothes we buy on our high streets. The TUC and organisations such as the Bristol-based Labour Behind the Label have done great work to campaign for justice and reforms. I understand that the compensation target was finally reached in the last few weeks. The tragedy demonstrates the importance of the International Labour Organisation, yet the coalition Government withdrew funding for it. Of course, we have seen plans to erode workers’ rights at home, too.

It would help if the Minister outlined how the FCO was working with Bangladesh to improve rights and safety conditions for workers, and how it was demonstrating to the international community, as well as to businesses operating in the UK, that this is a concern for the Government; and it would help if he said that the Government recognised the importance of raising labour standards, not just internationally in Bangladesh, but to protect those in this country.

As the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire said, Bangladesh is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. It produces just 0.3% of global emissions, but is especially susceptible to cyclones and rising sea levels, which threaten the lives, homes, food and livelihoods of its 160 million people. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and I were at a meeting with climate scientists this morning, and some of the facts and statistics they put in front of us were absolutely frightening. If the world does not act, rising sea levels and global warming will impact on not just such countries as Bangladesh, but every country. That is why we need a strong global deal on the table at the Paris talks later this year. It is also why we need action on climate change when the conference on the sustainable development goals meets in the autumn.

Bangladesh warned last year that it would need £3 billion over five years to adapt to current climate challenges, including help to build 700 km of coastal defences. If that is not done by 2050, rising sea levels could cover 17% of Bangladesh, displacing millions and potentially forcing 50 million people to flee. If any more incentive were needed—again, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire touched on this—we need only look at the wider impact of climate change. According to Human Rights Watch, 29% of girls in Bangladesh marry before the age of 15, despite that being illegal. That percentage is higher than in any other country. By the age of 18, 65% of girls are married, in part because of poverty and lack of access to education. Climate change is another driver of that, with parents marrying off their young daughters after losing their home or crops to floods or soil erosion.

The APG visited an institute for the paralysed. While we were there, we saw many children who looked like they had cerebral palsy, but it was the result of young women giving birth and those births going wrong. It is important that young women are protected from entering into having children at a young age.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Parents may see marriage as a way of securing a better life for their daughters, but too often they suffer abuse in marriages. Even where that is not the case, the physical risks of giving birth at such a young age can be bad indeed. Child marriage is illegal in Bangladesh and the Prime Minister made some encouraging commitments at the girl summit in London last year. Reports indicate, however, that there has been little progress on her pledges. There has even been some discussion about the legal age for marriage being reduced in Bangladesh. The UK Government were rightly lauded for hosting the summit, so I hope the Minister can update us on how they have been trying to maintain that momentum and get Bangladesh to deliver on the commitments made there.

As the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned, there is serious concern about the persecution of Hindu communities and the decline of the Hindu population in Bangladesh. Freedom of religion and expression are a grave concern. Earlier this year, three secular bloggers were hacked to death on Bangladesh’s streets. Those responsible for such horrendous acts must be brought to justice, and the Government must protect the rights of religious minorities and atheists in Bangladesh, as well as the majority Muslim population. We have seen bloggers, Facebook users and human rights organisation officials arrested because of what they have put online. The FCO listed freedom of expression on the internet as one of its six human rights priorities, so perhaps the Minister can advise us on whether the new Government continue to have those six priorities. How have they been working with Bangladesh to support reform in this area? Abolition of the death penalty was another of the FCO’s priorities, and the UK must continue to push for a moratorium in Bangladesh, as we do elsewhere.

Finally, one area where Bangladesh has been less proactive is the boat crisis with Burmese and Bangladesh migrants. We have previously discussed our concerns that Bangladesh has returned Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma and blocked aid agencies from accessing Rakhine state. The international community is horrified by the discovery of mass graves and scenes of migrants from Burma and Bangladesh packed on board ships and risking their lives in search of a new home in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. I know that the Minister responded to an Adjournment debate in the Chamber only last week or the week before on the situation in Burma, but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has dismissed the Rohingya as economic migrants who are “mentally sick”, and said they should be punished, as they were

“tainting the image of the country”.

Will the Minister comment on the situation from the Bangladesh perspective?

I hope the Minister will agree that the international community needs to address not only the immediate crisis in the Andaman sea, but the underlying issues forcing people to flee their homes in Burma and Bangladesh. Bangladesh is of course part of the discussions about Rohingya citizenship and whether they can eventually be given rights of citizenship in Burma.

I regret that my remarks may appear rather negative; I started by saying that there was much in Bangladesh’s future to be positive about, but it is important, as other Members have said, to highlight some of the issues, in a spirit of friendship, so that we can, with our common shared history and our role in the Commonwealth, work with Bangladesh to address them.

Before I call the Minister to speak, I remind him that there are approximately 15 minutes to go. It would be helpful if at the end he could find a little time for Mrs Main to respond to the debate and thank Members for their participation.

I shall certainly try to do as you suggest, Sir Alan. On that subject, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate and on the almost universal acclaim from all parts of the House for her work as chair of the all-party group on Bangladesh. I commend the commitment that she and all the group’s members, some of whom are with us this afternoon, have shown over the years to strengthening and deepening our relations with Bangladesh, as well as to encouraging progress in many areas, from human rights and economic and social development to educational and trade links.

In January 2014—more than 16 months ago—the House had a debate on Bangladesh immediately after its 10th parliamentary elections. Those taking part in that debate expressed concerns about: the high levels of violence and disruption; the removal from Bangladesh’s constitution of the provision for a caretaker Government, following the annulment of that provision by the Supreme Court; and the consequent lack of participation by some of Bangladesh’s political parties in the elections. Indeed, as we know, before a single vote was cast, just more than half of all seats were declared, meaning that 46 million out of 92 million voters were deprived of choice at the ballot box. While that was deeply disappointing, the UK recognised that elections had been held, in accordance with Bangladesh’s constitution, which was amended by its Parliament in 2011. While it is not for the UK to prescribe the constitutional provisions of other countries, I add that the caretaker Government system was not without its flaws and was open to criticisms of manipulation and abuse. It is certainly not the panacea or path to participatory democracy that some have claimed.

Since then, alongside our international partners, we have encouraged Bangladesh’s political parties to take bold steps towards building much-needed confidence, mutual understanding and co-operation as the only way for the country to remain on a strong democratic path with full political participation, so that its people continue to have political choices. That is a message I have conveyed personally in my engagements with Bangladeshi Ministers.

It was therefore deeply concerning when the situation deteriorated in Bangladesh earlier this year. There have been: restrictions on public gatherings around the first anniversary of the 2014 elections; nationwide transport blockades and enforced labour strikes declared by the Bangladesh Nationalist party; outbreaks of violence and disruption; more than 100 deaths, horrific arson attacks and many more injuries; and opposition and activist arrests, which a tough law and order response that saw a number of fatalities. On 5 March, I issued a statement calling for a peaceful way forward. Preparations for city corporation elections in Chittagong and Dhaka in April presented a real opportunity for Bangladesh to focus on democratic processes once more, but that opportunity was lost after the BNP withdrew part way through, citing widespread irregularities. The Election Working Group—an umbrella non-governmental organisation that the UK, among others, supports—found election day to be marred by significant levels of electoral fraud and violence, and judged the elections not to have been credible.

We and many other international partners called for all allegations of irregularity to be investigated swiftly and impartially. Sadly, that does not yet seem to have happened. The UK cares deeply about Bangladesh, so we continue to urge the political parties to do the right thing by Bangladesh’s future. Like any modern, vibrant democracy, Bangladesh must protect and promote civil society and human rights, and not least freedom of expression, whether through allowing peaceful protests on the streets, media commentary or digital expression. No one should fear reprisals if they express a view. I associate myself closely with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) about the importance of a secular society.

The recent horrifying and brutal murders of three bloggers in Bangladesh caused consternation around the world. The perpetrators must be brought to justice and the Bangladeshi Government must be unequivocal in protecting those who speak up. We are also deeply concerned about allegations of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Again, where allegations are credible, we call on the Bangladeshi Government to hold the perpetrators to account through impartial, transparent investigations.

I should note the final verdict yesterday in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh’s appellate division, confirming the death sentence against Jamaat secretary-general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, for crimes committed during the 1971 liberation war. Although I fully understand the strong desire finally to bring those who committed terrible atrocities to account, the UK remains strongly opposed to use of the death penalty in any circumstances.

Bangladesh has a strong network of non-governmental organisations, all contributing to Bangladesh’s future in a range of sectors, from supporting women’s and children’s issues, to food security and poverty alleviation. We regularly engage with the Bangladeshi Government to ensure that they support the vital work of these organisations and address legitimate concerns, including revisions to new legislation governing NGOs.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) commented on the Human Rights Watch report, “Marry Before Your House is Swept Away”, and the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) referred to passages in that report about girls being married off so that others can eat or be educated. We welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment at the girl summit last year to ending marriage for under-15s by 2021, and for under-18s by 2041. With two thirds of women in Bangladesh currently married before they are 18, it is hugely important that the new Child Marriage Restraint Act sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, with no exceptions. We continue to discuss with the Bangladeshi Government our concerns about the proposed legislation to lower the legal age for marriage.

We invest heavily in Bangladesh’s development. UK aid currently stands at £191 million a year. That support aims to lift 1.5 million Bangladeshi citizens out of extreme poverty, provide access to safe water for 1.3 million people, and ensure that 500,000 boys and girls complete primary school education. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans asked how the UK aid schemes are audited; the situation is complicated. I will ask my colleagues at the Department for International Development to write to her. Nevertheless, I can assure her that none of our aid is paid as direct budget support to the Bangladeshi Government.

Climate change is of course hugely important to Bangladesh. I remind the House that the Government set up the international climate fund to provide £3.87 billion between April 2011 and March 2016 to help the world’s poorest to adapt to climate change and promote cleaner and greener growth.

Hon. Members rightly mentioned the devastating collapse of Rana Plaza two years ago, which resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 innocent lives, many of them women’s. We welcomed the all-party group’s report and recommendations. The garment industry in Bangladesh has played a pivotal role in Bangladesh’s development by helping to reduce poverty and empower women. Significant steps have been taken to improve building safety and working conditions, but there is still more to be done. All the parties involved in the supply chain, including Government agencies, building owners, factory owners, and the international brands, need to share responsibility for ensuring that change happens.

The UK is providing £7.4 million to fund factory inspections, train new inspectors, strengthen factory health and safety, help garment workers to understand their rights and help survivors of Rana Plaza to find new jobs or start their own businesses. We are pleased that the $30 million Rana Plaza fund has now been met in full. Primark’s contribution of an additional $13 million, on top of its $1 million donation to the fund, is particularly noteworthy and will help to ensure that victims and their families are properly supported.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), mentioned the migrant crisis in the bay of Bengal and Andaman sea. I recently discussed the matter with the permanent under-secretary from the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and urged Bangladesh to take steps to improve border security and address the root causes of the crisis. He invited me to go with him to Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong to see for myself what is going on there. I very much hope to take him up on that offer. In parallel, UK aid is providing £4.79 million for food security, livelihoods and relief co-ordination for the Rohingya and host communities in Bangladesh, in addition to the significant existing UK aid programmes in Rakhine.

Before I draw my remarks to a close, it is worth reflecting on Indian Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Bangladesh. It is important that countries in the region collaborate to ensure the region’s long-term stability and prosperity. We therefore welcome the Indian Parliament’s long overdue ratification of the 1974 India-Bangladesh land boundary agreement and the 2011 protocol. That will make a significant difference to the lives of tens of thousands of citizens living in enclaves on either side of the border. We hope that this historic agreement, along with other Bangladesh-India bilateral agreements made during Mr Modi’s visit, paves the way for even more—for example, on Teesta water sharing. Incidentally, the boundary realignments have already unleashed a whole tranche of long-overdue Indian investment in infrastructure—I think my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans alluded to that earlier.

It is important that all countries in south Asia continue to play a role in tackling the threats of terrorism, extremism and radicalisation. I therefore welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment to eradicating terrorism, although it is important that, when countering risks, law enforcement agencies do so transparently, fairly and within the bounds of the law.

To conclude, the United Kingdom values its relationship with Bangladesh deeply. The 440,000-plus people of Bangladeshi origin in the UK make an enormous contribution to British society. That is why the Government will continue to work closely with Bangladesh on its democratic path and as it grows to be a strong and more prosperous nation that benefits all its people. On behalf of the whole House, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans for her work and for the opportunity to debate these important issues, and I thank other Members for their continuing interest in furthering the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh.

Thank you for that guidance, Sir Alan. I shall do so.

I thank all Members who have participated for their contributions. This has been a model debate in terms of the friendliness expressed by Members from all parties. I thank the Minister for his response. He gave us his thoughts about the election irregularities that he has asked be investigated. I really hope that they are, because such helpful pressure, which we are putting on all political parties in Bangladesh, will move things forward.

The all-party group expressed a desire at its inaugural meeting to look at flooding—the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) really wants to look into that. Infrastructure resilience is hugely important in Bangladesh. If the country is to grow, it is critical that it moves itself forward with the infrastructure upgrades that it so desperately needs.

I again thank the Minister. I am sure we will be asking for further updates.

That concludes the debate. I must point out that, although a Division has not yet been called, one is expected in a few seconds’ time at 4 pm. If that is the case, the next debate will not start until 4.15 pm.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards Assessments

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered deprivation of liberty safeguards assessments.

It is a great privilege, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairmanship.

I am highlighting an expensive bureaucratic nightmare that is engulfing councils up and down the country. Local authorities are struggling to cope with the tenfold increase in applications for deprivation of liberty safeguards, known as DOLS, which is not only costing millions of pounds and tying up countless police and other resources, but causing untold distress to relatives of dementia sufferers who are treated when they die as if they had died in state detention.

We need first to look at how we arrived at such an unsustainable position. DOLS were introduced by the Department of Health in 2009 under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. They were intended to comply with articles 5.1 and 5.4 of the European convention on human rights to ensure that appropriate safeguards were in place to protect adults deprived of their liberty. DOLS provide a procedure for authorising any deprivation of liberty in care homes, hospitals and supported living arrangements. I am particularly interested in the increase in applications for DOLS assessments from care homes.

If DOLS were working effectively, the system would prevent potentially abusive restraint and sedation. It would also help to ensure that day-to-day practice in a care home did not restrict a person’s liberty—for example, people with dementia should be able to move around as they wish, as long as it was safe, and should not be required to stay in one place simply because that was easier for the staff.

In March 2014, the UK Supreme Court handed down two judgments, commonly known as Cheshire West, which outline the test that must be used in determining whether arrangements made for the care of an individual lacking capacity amount to a deprivation of liberty. The key test is whether the person concerned is “under continuous supervision” and “not free to leave”. The judgments in effect lowered the threshold and resulted in the colossal increase in the number of DOLS applications to local councils.

The situation was first brought to my attention by GPs in my constituency, council officers and distressed relatives of dementia sufferers living in local care homes. To get an overview of the national picture, I tabled a parliamentary question in March asking, with reference to the Supreme Court judgment, how many requests for DOLS assessments there had been in each local authority area. The answer revealed massive increases. In 2012-13, there were only 11,887 applications for the year, but the latest figure, for only the three months January to March this year, was 36,000, and of those, two thirds—68%—had not been processed. The numbers are rising every month and the Local Government Association estimates that an additional £136 million is needed this year to cope with the additional applications.

Between 1 April 2014 and the end of January 2015, Stockport received 612 applications. It now has about 230 cases that have not yet been processed. All cases agreed will be reassessed automatically in 12 months’ time. Stockport council is now spending almost £1.2 million a year on DOLS assessments and employing six new social workers, a special DOLS co-ordinator and a part-time solicitor. The council has also had to draft in a private agency, because each average assessment takes about nine to 12 hours. That is a lot of time and money when social care budgets are being squeezed.

One of the main aspects worrying me on behalf of my constituents is the consequences of guidance issued by the Chief Coroner to local coroners in December 2014, subsequent to the Supreme Court judgments. The guidance stated that all deaths of people subject to a DOLS order must be investigated by the coroner, whether the death was from natural causes or not, and that such people were deemed to be “in state detention”.

As a result, when a dementia sufferer subject to a DOLS dies in a care home, GPs have to notify police, who must come and sit with the body until it is collected by the coroner’s mortician to be taken to the hospital mortuary, where it has to be formally identified before a formal inquest process starts. That system is causing untold distress to relatives and leading to an increased workload throughout the public sector. I understand that Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, has written to adult social care teams looking for information amid concern about how the changes will impact on police time and resources.

One lady contacted me about her 86-year-old husband, who has Alzheimer’s and lives in a care home. She was very distressed about what would happen when he died and to learn that he was classed as being in state detention:

“He’s not a prisoner just because he has a lockable door. He is not in prison—he has done nothing wrong.”

The couple have been married for 60 years and she visits him every day.

Another lady, whose father lives in a care home, told me:

“I am absolutely appalled at the ruling that residents in a care home with dementia and their families, need to be put through so much after death. Not only will it be a drain on public services that are already stretched to the limit but it will also prolong the agony of the grieving families at a really stressful and upsetting time.”

She added:

“I would like the guidance to be looked at again with more compassion towards grieving families.”

Nationally, there have been reports of relatives of dementia sufferers who pass away in care homes being forced to wait months to bury loved ones because of the rules.

In addition to individual constituents, I have been approached by the local GP practice in Brinnington, Stockport, an area in which there are 234 elderly care beds and five care homes, most of whose residents have some form of dementia. The GPs have said that they are worried that the Chief Coroner’s advice will have an enormous and far-reaching impact across a great many services,

“not least affecting patients and grieving relatives.”

Their main concern is that those subject to DOLS must have their death reported to a coroner. They pointed out that, technically, that could involve every single care home resident in Stockport: all care homes have lockable doors to help to protect resident welfare, so every resident could be liable to a DOLS assessment.

Nationally, doctors are unhappy. The British Medical Association is calling for an urgent review of DOLS to simplify the system, which it says is a time-consuming and cumbersome process that will divert resources from front-line services.

I wrote to the Chief Coroner, Judge Peter Thornton QC, to express my concerns. He confirmed in a reply in March that, in his view of the law,

“and as I set out in the Guidance, persons who die in a hospital or care home subject to an authorised DoLS die ‘in state detention’. Their death must therefore be referred to and investigated by the Coroner.”

He said that that interpretation of the law was shared by the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health, and was also the view of the Labour Government during the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. However, he accepted that

“the consequences of the law… may not have been appreciated at the time of enactment. They involve consideration by Coroners of all DoLS cases even where the death was from natural causes. That is unfortunate and may cause extra distress to the bereaved families, which should be avoided if at all possible.”

He went on:

“Within the framework of the law at present, I am therefore considering ways of easing the burden of such cases on families and easing the extra burden of work for coroners (an additional expense for local authorities). But this in itself may require a change in the law which will be a matter for Parliament.”

I understand that the Law Commission is reviewing DOLS following a critical report by a House of Lords Select Committee in March 2014—ironically, a few days before the Supreme Court ruling that said DOLS were “not fit for purpose”. However, the Law Commission’s recommendations are not due until 2017 and there might be no change in practice until 2020.

The setting up of the post of Chief Coroner was quite controversial. There were concerns that trying to introduce uniformity to the system would take away discretion from experienced local coroners, and it would appear that that is exactly what has happened in this regard. Local coroners, who make decisions every day about whether to have inquests, now feel obliged to have an inquest on someone because they were subject to a DOLS even though their death was entirely expected. The need for an inquest is being determined not by the nature of the death, but by a person’s status of being in state detention when they died.

I have been told about a case of a lady who died of natural causes in a care home and was cremated, only for it to be discovered afterwards that she was subject to a DOLS. The coroner then had to get permission to carry out an inquest in the absence of a body. The family were very upset because they had to revisit the death. Another elderly gentleman subject to a DOLS died of a type of cancer of the lung often linked to exposure to asbestos, and there now has to be an inquest with a jury because that is an unnatural cause of death for someone subject to a DOLS. That all takes time and money.

The Chief Coroner’s guidance, however, is essentially his opinion. Paragraph 46 of the guidance states:

“The Chief Coroner, who sits in the High Court on coroner cases, is not providing a judgment or ruling. This guidance is no more than the expression of an opinion, subject to the ruling of the High Court. Coroners, who are of course entitled to make their own independent judicial decisions, will do as they see fit in any particular case. But they are invited to take this guidance into account.”

The Chief Coroner may argue that it is therefore up to local coroners to make decisions, but the last sentence of the paragraph has been interpreted by local coroners as an order rather than guidance. The Chief Coroner, of course, has the authority of a judge. If that last sentence was removed, local coroners might feel they had more discretion over when to hold an inquest.

In reference to state detention, the Chief Coroner says in his guidance that there are two alternative views. The first is that the death of a person in hospital or a care home who was subject to a DOLS would not automatically require a coroner’s investigation. Indeed, in most cases there would be no need for an investigation, although the coroner would have to decide case by case whether one was necessary. However, the Chief Coroner has taken the second view, which is that a person subject to a DOLS

“falls squarely within the 2009 Act’s definition of ‘in state detention’.”

Given the distress caused to relatives, the diversion of resources from front-line care and the Chief Coroner’s stated objective of easing relatives’ suffering, it is time for him to reconsider his position on state detention.

Without a shadow of a doubt, that phrase, “state detention”, is causing great upset to relatives who, on top of their grief, have to cope with all the additional formality of process accompanying a state detention, such as, for example, the attendance of the police and an inquest. Further, if all the applications for 2014-15 had been processed, we would have had an additional 142,902 people in state detention. That could give rise to a misunderstanding among the international community, which might think that we were approaching the levels of detention in North Korea.

Although DOLS were introduced with good intentions, the situation is now out of control. The police, GPs and coroners are overloaded, local authorities are spending millions of pounds from reserves, grieving relatives are in terrible distress and two thirds of all applications are not being processed, meaning that some people are not being protected by a DOLS and could be having their liberty curtailed unnecessarily. Frankly, this is a tsunami and it is fast sweeping over us. We cannot wait until 2017 for the Law Commission review. We need a solution urgently.

There is also concern that some applications are unnecessary. Care home residents have differing capacities and the fact that a care home has some locked doors does not mean that every resident, as a matter of course, should be referred for a DOLS. The Care Quality Commission has an important role to play as an inspectorate to ensure that there is proper understanding of the Mental Capacity Act and DOLS among care providers, as well as an understanding that they need to provide environments that are flexible to residents’ needs, so as to ensure the greatest liberty consistent with their capacity. I welcome the CQC inspection regime of adult care that began in April 2014.

Care England represents independent care providers. Its main concern is the time it takes to process assessments, which has led to many providers being placed in a position in which their services are being inspected by the CQC yet they do not have DOLS authorisations in place for all the residents who should have them. Care England also stresses that the delay in burials caused by waiting for inquests is upsetting cultural norms. For example, there are care homes solely for members of the Jewish faith, whose beliefs require a quick burial after death. If the coroner has to carry out a full investigation, that will preclude the family from being able to carry out a quick burial.

I suggest the following way forward to the Minister. The Law Commission review should be speeded up and conducted urgently, before 2017. In the meantime, opportunities should be taken to change the law to make it clear that not all deaths need an inquest. The Chief Coroner should be invited to look again at his guidance and review it in relation to state detention and automatic inquests. The Minister could consider mounting a legal challenge to the Chief Coroner’s guidance on behalf of all those adversely affected by the administration of DOLS, including those residents in care homes whose applications have not yet been processed. Perhaps the Government might consider whether state detention should now be statutorily defined and finally conduct an urgent review of the DOLS regulations to simplify this bureaucratic and time-consuming system—for example, the fact that DOLS have to be reassessed automatically every 12 months.

The system takes a sledgehammer approach, which is not remotely sensitive, and the issue has aroused widespread concern. My concern, on behalf of my constituents, is that when their loved ones die in a care home they should not have their grief exacerbated. They have often spent months deliberating about admitting their relatives to a home and feel guilty that they cannot care for them themselves. The process now surrounding the death of a person subject to DOLS adds immeasurably to their distress. When someone asks, “How did your mother die?”, who wants to reply, “In state detention.”? The situation must be resolved.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) not only for raising an issue that she is closely involved in and has a great deal of knowledge about, but for kindly sending my office a copy of her speech to enable us to give the best possible response. I appreciate both that and the detailed but measured way in which she presented what has become a very difficult situation. She quoted the Chief Coroner as saying that

“the consequences of the law, however, may not have been appreciated at the time of enactment.”

If we all had £1 for every time that phrase was uttered, we would all be fairly rich. In answer to his quote, I would say, “You bet they weren’t,” but let me develop my argument further.

I welcome the opportunity to provide clarity and more information about what my Department is doing to support professionals in relation to DOLS. DOLS derive from the simple premise that a person who may lack capacity through a mental health disorder and is receiving care and support from the state has as much right to freedom of movement and choice as someone with full capacity. The background to DOLS is not always appreciated, but it is important, and I doubt that there is any difference between the hon. Lady and I on that point.

The phrase “deprivation of liberty” is, like “state detention”, an emotive one and derives from the legal framework. It may seem counterintuitive, but in some circumstances, a deprivation of liberty can be entirely appropriate in providing care and treatment for an individual who may lack capacity. Furthermore, it is worth emphasising that DOLS are firmly based within the Mental Capacity Act and, as such, reflect the Act’s core principles: namely, that a person’s wishes and feelings must be central to the decision-making process, and that the least restrictive form of care and treatment should be pursued wherever possible.

I stress that DOLS are a positive tool in that the assessments undertaken ensure that when a person is—in the legal sense—deprived of their liberty, it must be in their best interests. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that where DOLS are working effectively, they can prevent unnecessary restrictive measures and prevent people with dementia from being required to stay in one place simply because it is easier for staff.

As the hon. Lady said, until March 2014 the number of DOLS assessments a year was approximately 13,000. The Care Quality Commission noted in its annual reports that that figure seemed low. Then, in March 2014, in the case of Cheshire West, the Supreme Court clarified the law on what constitutes a deprivation of liberty by setting out a so-called acid test. I will not repeat that test now because the hon. Lady and the House know it well, but it is clear that the effect of the Supreme Court judgment has been to lower the threshold for what constitutes a deprivation of liberty when compared with previous standard professional practice. Official statistics from the Health & Social Care Information Centre have borne that out, showing that there have been 113,000 applications in 2014-15—roughly a tenfold increase on the previous year.

I will turn to the wider issues related to that in a moment, but let me concentrate first on the implications for coroners, which the hon. Lady spent the majority of time dealing with in her speech. The Supreme Court’s judgment had a number of unforeseen implications. One, which I know to be of particular concern to her, is the rise in coroners’ investigations.

The Chief Coroner for England and Wales has provided guidance to coroners in which he states his view that, under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the death of a person who is subject to a DOLS authorisation is regarded as a “death in state detention” and, as such, should be subject to a coroner’s investigation. Helpfully however, the Chief Coroner states that coroners are able to make their own judgment on that matter. He also states that, where appropriate, any inquest could be paper-based and certainly that neither a jury inquest nor a post mortem is required. None the less, I have heard distressing reports of coroners’ investigations leading to unforeseen delays in funeral arrangements and causing great anguish for relatives.

The Department has issued guidance urging local authorities to work closely with their coroner to develop a proportionate response. I am aware that many have done so and, for the time being, that may be the way through the difficulties. I can tell the hon. Lady today that my Department will issue further guidance on this specific matter in the next few weeks. Furthermore, I commit to writing to the Chief Coroner to ensure that we are doing all we can to encourage an approach that minimises the potential distress to relatives.

As I think I said in my speech, part of the problem is that the Chief Coroner is a judge and his guidance is seen as a question of law. If he could perhaps make it clearer that he is giving discretion to coroners, that might also help move things forward. Might the Minister take that up with the Chief Coroner?

The hon. Lady, in her concluding remarks, suggested that there might be a legal challenge to the Chief Coroner, but at this stage, I am not persuaded that that would be the best way forward. Perhaps we might leave it at this: depending on the Chief Coroner’s response to my letter, I might seek a meeting with him, so that I might have the opportunity to talk to him in a slightly different manner about some problems that the hon. Lady has raised and get an opportunity to take things further. I ought to get the Chief Coroner’s written response in the first place, but I appreciate her point of view.

We want to encourage an approach that minimises relatives’ potential distress, which, as the hon. Lady set out, can be severe. The key to best practice is good communication and information exchange between partners in the system. Leicester City Council is indicative of a local authority that has worked closely with its local coroner. Together they have designed a shared protocol that includes the clear steer that, unless there are suspicious circumstances, notification of a death can wait until office hours, negating the need for distressing out-of-hours visits from uniformed police officers. In the vast majority of those cases, police involvement will not be necessary. Certainly, 999 calls are not appropriate.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for stressing the importance of this issue. The Law Commission, which I will refer to in a second, is also looking at the issue of coroners’ investigations, and I want to see the results of that.

Let me say more about the Law Commission, having dealt with coroners to an extent. The Government’s policy is twofold in dealing with the significant challenge that has been given to local authorities and health and care providers now charged with implementing DOLS. First, we seek to understand whether legislative change can provide a system that is sustainable in the long term and that better balances the protection of individuals against the need for minimum bureaucracy to ensure that existing limited resource is maximised. Secondly, we are seeking to provide practical support and guidance to manage the challenges in the interim.

The case for a thorough review of the legislation in this area is unambiguous. The legislation underpinning DOLS was introduced by the then Government in 2007. It was criticised by Select Committees of both Houses, even before the implications of the Supreme Court judgment became clear. Following the judgment, the Government are funding the independent Law Commission to review the legislation underpinning DOLS. It will launch a four-month public consultation on a proposed new scheme on 7 July 2015.

Following the hon. Lady’s intervention, it has occurred to me that she and other parliamentary colleagues may appreciate a dedicated consultation event with the Law Commission on the parliamentary estate. If she agrees, I shall endeavour to make arrangements for that. I will contact the Law Commission to suggest such an event and I hope that it might want a session here so that it can listen to the expertise of colleagues. I am sure the commission would benefit from such expertise, and I will write to her and let her know what it makes of that suggestion.

Given the criticism of the current DOLS legislation, and bearing in mind the likelihood of unintended consequences, I strongly believe that it is important for the Law Commission to be given the time to consider the entire legislation in the round and, if appropriate, propose a comprehensive solution. It would be unwise to rush into specific legislative changes, the repercussions of which might not be clear, so I am not tempted at the moment to make any changes to the regulations.

However, I agree with the hon. Lady on greater urgency. The Law Commission’s review was scheduled to be completed, in the form of detailed policy proposals and a draft Bill, in the summer of 2017. I think, having taken up my duties, that that needs to happen quicker. Accordingly, I have proposed, and the Law Commission has agreed, an acceleration of the review to ensure that it will now be completed, in the form of detailed policy proposals and a draft Bill, by the end of 2016. I know that that is still some time away, but bearing in mind the complexity of the issue, I do not think we can afford to get the next bite at this wrong, so I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes that news.

In the interim, my Department has been working with various partners to support the system’s response to the Supreme Court judgment. I reiterate now that the response to that judgment must be rooted in the principles and values of the Mental Capacity Act. Our efforts have to be focused primarily on realising real benefits for individuals. DOLS are about people, not paperwork. My Department has issued clear guidance that has emphasised the importance of a proportionate Mental Capacity Act-centred approach, and emphasised that so-called bulk applications for all the residents of a care home are not acceptable. DOLS apply only to those who lack the specific capacity to consent to their accommodation. Many in care homes and hospitals will have that capacity and so not be eligible for DOLS. That must be made clear.

We recognise that the scale of the challenge set by the Supreme Court means that some local authorities will be unable to process DOLS applications within the 21-day legal timeframe. The Care Quality Commission has been clear that providers will not be unfairly punished for such technical breaches. However, the CQC has been equally clear, quite rightly, that a do-nothing approach is unacceptable, so providers and local authorities must have a plan in place for ensuring that those who stand to benefit most from a DOLS assessment receive one in a timely manner.

The Department has funded a reduction in the non-statutory bureaucracy accompanying the DOLS process, reducing the number of application forms from 32 to 13. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, which delivered that project, deserves particular praise for the support it has provided to its member organisations since the Supreme Court judgment.

The Department has funded the Law Society to produce excellent comprehensive guidance, in collaboration with practitioners, to assist in identifying a true deprivation of liberty, and in March this year, the Government announced that they would provide local authorities with an extra £25 million to support their efforts on DOLS in 2015-16.

I reassure the hon. Lady that I understand the concerns that some local authorities have about the cost of DOLS, and I praise the hard work of local DOLS teams. However, I am aware that there is considerable variation among local authorities as regards the number of applications that they have been able to process. Clearly, it is important that we identify and learn from current best practice, so my officials are in close contact with providers and local authorities, and I have instructed them to make further visits across England this summer to continue to understand the local response.

Although some may baulk at the idea of 100,000 DOLS applications a year, we should remember that every one of those applications represents a person having their care independently scrutinised. DOLS can help to shine a light on care that is unnecessarily restrictive and does not put the person’s views first and foremost. Therefore, we should strongly back the principles of DOLS. Our shared challenge now is, through the Law Commission review, to understand how those principles can be better applied in the day-to-day reality of the health and care system and after the unintended consequences of the judgment.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising these important issues. My Department and I would be grateful for any further insight she may have, conscious as we are of her expertise in the social care field. I hope that we have touched this afternoon—

Personal Independence Payment Applications

I beg to move,

That this House has considered processing of personal independence payment applications.

It is a novel and pleasant experience to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome to his place the new Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). As my colleagues know, and as people across the House will find, he will be excellent in this role. He has great ability and compassion, and I am sure that we all wish him well in delivering for disabled people throughout the country.

Over the past several months, I have been contacted by a number of desperate constituents who feel like they have nowhere to turn. They are often severely disabled people who already have to suffer significant physical pain and distress daily. On top of their conditions, they have had to endure months of delays in applying for the personal independence payment. A system designed to help them is instead increasing their hardship and anxiety. I called for this debate to give those vulnerable people a voice.

I begin by saying that I support the underlying principle of the personal independence payment. Under the old system of disability living allowance, half of all claimants never had to undergo an assessment, and 71% of people who received the benefit never had their award reviewed. That meant that people whose conditions worsened were underpaid and those whose conditions improved received more than was necessary. That system was neither effective nor compassionate in supporting disabled people. Clearly, the money was not being well targeted at those who genuinely needed it.

By contrast, the personal independence payment is a more dynamic benefit, capable, at least in theory, of adapting to disabled people’s complex and often changing conditions, and providing them with the appropriate level of support. However, I have dealt with many cases locally of people waiting far longer than the target of 16 weeks to have their PIP claim processed. I have serious concerns that the administration of the new benefit has not functioned as well as it should have done in order properly to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

When PIP was introduced in the last Parliament, average delays were as long as 30 weeks. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rightly acknowledged that those delays were “unacceptable”. Since then, the number of healthcare professionals has doubled, the number of assessment centres has increased and their opening hours have been extended. I understand that that has helped to bring down average waiting times substantially, which is welcome. I commend the Minister, who has been in office for a limited time, and his predecessors on their work in getting to grips with the issue. However, the many letters and emails that I continue to receive from my constituents, including one only yesterday and another as I waited for this debate to start, suggest that there are still unacceptable delays.

To highlight my concerns, I shall describe in detail two cases. After having an accident at work, Mrs Lynn Dodds from Beverley suffers from two chronic pain conditions: chronic regional pain syndrome and fibromyalgia. She has to use crutches to get around her house and needs a wheelchair whenever she goes out. She has a carer for 37 hours a week. She suffers daily seizures, brought on by stress and anxiety.

Mrs Dodds first applied for the personal independence payment in November 2013 and she had to wait eight months before being assessed. In that time, her condition deteriorated. She was then, unbelievably, told by Department for Work and Pensions staff that she had to start the whole application process again. Devastated by that news, she none the less reapplied for PIP in August 2014. She had to wait a further seven months to receive her reassessment. The healthcare professional told her that the decision could have been made on paper, without a face-to-face assessment. That is what she was told after all that time.

Mrs Dodds was then told that she would receive a decision within four weeks. It has been nine weeks and she is still waiting, although I think that something may have happened in the last few days, coincidentally or otherwise. When I raised the case with the DWP, I was told that the delays in her application were due to a heavy workload. When Mrs Dodds inquired herself, she was informed that the reason was that Atos had not yet sent her assessment forms to the DWP. She is frustrated that whenever she phones up to try to register a complaint, she is told that she must wait five working days for a call-back—call-backs that of course do not come within the five days, or at any time. After her initial attempt to lodge a complaint four weeks ago, she is still waiting for the DWP to call back. So much for five days.

Mrs Dodds says that following her experiences over the past two years, she suffers from depression and anxiety. We can easily understand why. She has gone from being a wife and mother looking after her family full time to being completely dependent on the care of others. I understand there are inherent difficulties in introducing a whole new benefit. I also understand that PIP’s more rigorous and improved assessment process will lead to an increase in work for DWP staff, but the length of time it has taken to process Mrs Dodds’ claim is unacceptable and completely wrong.

The second constituent’s case that I want to highlight is that of Mr Terry Read, also from Beverley. He lives with his 16-year-old daughter and is unable to work because of his disability. Following a deterioration in his condition, he applied for a reassessment of his personal independence payment to reflect his change of circumstances in October 2014. It was not until April 2015 that he was given a medical assessment. Every day his condition was deteriorating. Every day he called the DWP to ask why the decision was taking so long. When he contacted me, he said he was at his wits’ end. When DWP eventually awarded him the benefit last week, it did not backdate it to when the decision was made, so even after months of delays, he was given less money than he was entitled to in order to support the costs of his deteriorating condition.

Although I have named only two examples, many others have contacted me in the last few months about delays in receiving the personal independence payment. Mr Davies, you may be aware of a recent verdict in the High Court: the judge ruled that the delays experienced by two PIP claimants were unlawful. In that case, the claimants had to wait more than seven months for their benefit applications to be processed. The benefit should assist with the additional costs of disabilities, but the delays make disabled people reliant on family, friends and carers, when they want to be able to support themselves. In many cases, the delays cause added stress and anxiety, which aggravates claimants’ conditions.

From October this year, those still claiming disability living allowance will be invited to make a claim for the personal independence payment. That is why it is so vital that problems in the system are resolved now, and that average delays continue to decrease. What steps has the Minister taken to reduce delays in processing applications? What lessons can be learned from the roll-out so far, as October will be the beginning of a large and doubtless challenging process? What is his analysis of what has gone wrong?

I am aware that there are particular difficulties in setting up and running assessment centres in sparsely populated rural areas. I chair the Rural Fair Share campaign and the all-party group on rural services. It is easy to design policies in this place that do not work very well for vulnerable disabled people in rural areas, where there might be few, if any, public transport services and there is a real challenge in getting to cities to be assessed. I have spoken on numerous occasions in this place about the need for the Government to ensure that their policies are rural-proofed. A disabled person who happens to live in a rural area should not have to wait longer for an assessment for the financial support on which they rely for their independence.

Is the Minister investigating the feasibility of pop-up assessment centres that have shorter opening hours, but that enable people living in rural areas, such as my constituents, to have their assessments carried out locally? If further work could be done, or if there were guidelines on what such a pop-up centre might require, perhaps communities including those in my area could look at them and identify premises where such provision could be made available.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He seems to be implying that rural constituencies such as his and mine suffer more delays than urban constituencies. Has he been able to conduct any research into this, because one would assume that it is more difficult to employ assessors in urban areas than in rural areas?

I cannot claim to have done such research, but perhaps the Minister can cast some light on the matter. Perhaps we could jointly request further work to see what can be done to try to make sure that we have a balanced system that serves everybody as equitably as possible.

I do not know whether it is wise to pick up something from Facebook at the last minute, but in response to a notice about this debate, a constituent posted this a few minutes ago:

“8 weeks to decide if you are eligible. Another 8 weeks to receive the form. You have 2 weeks to complete it. It then takes then another 8 weeks to arrange someone to visit you and a further 8 weeks for them to decide. That was what I got told this morning when I rang up! That's 34 weeks!!!! How on earth can they justify that????? We will back date it to the date I applied. It will be no good by then....!! Idiots and that's being polite”.

I hope the Minister will be able throw light on that and make sure people are not given such messages, because that is not my understanding of what the situation should look like.

I conclude by stressing again that I support in full the principle behind the Government’s reform of disability benefit. It is right that we target financial assistance at those who need it most, in a way that takes into account the changing nature of many people’s disabilities. I commend the Government’s success in bringing down the overall average processing time in recent months, albeit from unacceptable heights. However, my constituents’ cases show that significant further progress is still required in implementing this reform effectively and ensuring that the system is capable of handling the 1.5 million claimants who still need to migrate from DLA to PIP later this year. I look forward to working constructively with the Government to address the remaining delays that compound the despair and anguish felt by many of my disabled constituents.

I intend to go to the Front Benchers no later than 5.25 pm. Five people are seeking to catch my eye. You can do the maths yourselves, but if everyone is to get a fair crack of the whip, there will be about five minutes each. I am not imposing a time limit, but I hope people will be mindful of that, so that everyone gets a fair chance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate, and on the measured way in which he introduced it. I reiterate his point about the High Court ruling on 5 June, paragraph 93 of which stated that the way two claimants’ applications for PIP were processed was “not only unacceptable” but “unlawful”. They had been waiting for 13 and 10 months respectively. I wanted to set the record straight on that point.

PIP has been beset with problems since it was introduced. In October 2012, I remember the former Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, Dame Anne Begg, debating this issue. She raised concerns about the migration from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. At that point, 40,000 assessments a month were being undertaken; the further 70,000 assessments estimated for DLA/PIP that would be breaking point for the assessment providers. She did not feel the capacity was there, and she has been proven right on this issue, as on others.

Opposition Members welcome welfare reforms where we can see there will be genuine benefit. I mentioned the other assessment process; we feel that the accumulation of assessments has not necessarily been wise. They underpin what is behind the Government’s welfare reform agenda. An estimated 607,000 people in receipt of DLA will not be eligible for PIP. In total, it has been assessed that the Government will have cut nearly £24 billion from 3.7 million disabled people by 2018. Concerns have been raised about the reliability of the assessment process, as well as the limited involvement of the Royal Colleges on specific conditions, and of disabled people themselves in determining the metrics. The toll of the PIP process cannot be overestimated.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this debate. Does the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) agree that, for people with mental health issues or particularly traumatic disabilities who finally get to an assessment centre, the process can be traumatic? Perhaps the process needs to be reconsidered for such people.

As I was about to say, I had a meeting with Mind yesterday. One of the people in attendance said that he is due to have his PIP assessment tomorrow, and he is absolutely terrified. About a third of respondents to a survey of more than 4,000 Parkinson’s sufferers became financially worse off after they were diagnosed; for a quarter of them, money concerns are having a negative impact on their Parkinson’s. Those impacts are compounded by the process and their experience of PIP.

Dame Anne got it right two and a half years ago, and it is a shame that the Government did not listen at the time to her and my other former colleagues on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, Sheila Gilmore and Glenda Jackson. It was not until the February 2014 National Audit Office report described “poor early operational performance” and “long uncertain delays” for new PIP claimants, and until the Public Accounts Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee pointed to the unacceptable delays, that the Government finally took action. At that time, the average wait was 107 days, and in some cases many months more, whereas there was a 74-day target for completion. For terminally ill claimants, claims were taking 28 days on average when they should have taken only 10 days.

Last year’s report by the Work and Pensions Committee made a number of recommendations; in particular, it suggested that penalty clauses in the contracts for assessment providers be used to recoup money when the providers fail to deliver value for taxpayers’ money. What moneys have been recouped? I am pleased that we are now seeing progress, for the sake of claimants and the taxpayer, but we are still not getting it right, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness has shown. Some 42,000 people are waiting more than 42 weeks, and four out of 10 people are still waiting for their PIP claim to be processed.

I heard from a woman whose partner has cancer and is waiting for radiotherapy. They have been living on £113 a week since they applied at the beginning of April, and there is also an effect on passported benefits such as carer’s allowance, disability premiums and concessionary travel. I have also heard about the case of someone who received a full PIP award last July but has been told by the Department for Work and Pensions that she has to go through the process again. That beggars belief.

I recognise that the median waiting time has been coming down, and I am pleased about that, but I am concerned about the measures that have been used to bring it down. We have heard about people having to travel considerable distances to remote assessment centres. One person with Parkinson’s was required to get to a 9 am appointment in Deptford from Crawley, which exacerbated their condition. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that paper assessments can be undertaken instead of face-to-face assessments? On the training and skill of assessors, what steps has he taken to ensure the use of skilled assessors who are able to interpret clinical evidence for a range of clinical, physical and mental health conditions? Given the recent capacity issues, will the Department be revising the roll-out of PIP to a further 1.7 million DLA claimants in October?

My final couple of points are about the independent review of PIP that was published last year, which recommended that there be a full evaluation. I have already mentioned the concerns about the effectiveness of the assessment process, and it was recommended that the Government put in place a rigorous quantitative and qualitative evaluation strategy. When might we expect to see that strategy? Finally—this is definitely my final point—we know that the Chancellor will be announcing further cuts to social security in next month’s Budget. What cuts are being considered to disability and associated benefits, including through taxation? Will the administration of those benefits also be affected? Given that the introduction of PIP did not have an impact assessment, which was a big failing, will the Minister guarantee that any changes to disability benefits will have the necessary impact assessment?

I will try to make myself a bit clearer. I will call the Front Benchers from 5.25 pm, and if we carry on with speeches of that length at least one person will not get in. I urge people to be mindful of others who wish to speak.

I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and will try very hard to conform to your stricture; in fact, my speech will last less than five minutes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate, and I am grateful to follow the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams).

I congratulate the Minister on his maiden appearance in this Chamber. I had a very bad constituency case. The media contacted me about it, and his Department tracked my interview on Radio Gloucestershire. He invited me in to talk about it and, having talked about it, I am now much more reassured about the PIP process, so I am particularly grateful to him.

Like other Members who have spoken, I support the replacement of DLA with PIP, which is a much more targeted allowance. My particular constituent, Mr Stephen Smart, had to wait more than a year for his PIP payment, and we would all admit that in the past the system was far too slow. Waiting for more than a year is completely unacceptable. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth referred to the court case, and no doubt the Minister and his Department will have to react to that. The only thing I would say about my constituent’s case is that, had the Cirencester citizens advice bureau brought it to my attention much sooner, I believe that, as a Member of Parliament, I could have helped to resolve it. Indeed, I was able to resolve a number of other cases last year, so I urge my CAB to refer cases to me much quicker.

I am delighted that, in March, claim times were down to 15 weeks from 41 weeks last year. That is a terrific step in the right direction. For people with terminal illnesses, 99% of decisions lead to an award, with an average clearance time of six working days. I agree with the hon. Lady that claims involving terminal illnesses are particularly sensitive, and it is right that the time has come down.

The new scheme will need to find new resources to manage the claims process, so I am glad that the Government have doubled the number of staff working on PIP, but I suspect that the system is still patchy across the country. There are particular problems with recruiting staff in London, and I wonder whether there is the same problem in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness, and maybe in my own constituency. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that, although we discussed it in the meeting and I think our constituents are assessed in the Minister’s Swindon constituency. I think we are one of the better performers, so hopefully there has been considerable improvement since my experience. It is regrettable that I was not contacted much earlier in my constituent’s claim, which would have given me time to act on his behalf.

As others have said, the trials of the scheme will go nationwide in October, and hopefully the transition will be complete for those 1.5 million people early in this Parliament. It will be a great milestone when we get everybody on to the new system. We must ensure that it is properly targeted so that they get the benefits they should have and are able to apply and get help in their own home in the most severe cases. We must be sensitive to the fact that, for some people, filling in the form is difficult. I would welcome the Minister’s assurance on that.

We should consider the issue of the appeals process to the tribunal. In particular, I urge the Minister to address the issue of further appeals to the upper tribunal. I have known cases of appeals to the upper tribunal—not just for PIP payments—to take an interminably long time. He needs to look at that to ensure that, for every Government process, everybody has access to a reasonable appeals mechanism. Things do not always go right. When things go wrong, people need to feel that there is a reasonable mechanism for putting things right if they have a justifiable case.

I absolutely take the point about people with mental health problems, which are often difficult to diagnose. The assessors need to be particularly sensitive to that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I thank the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) for securing this important debate.

I want to bring to the Minister’s attention some issues that have been brought to me by some of my constituents who suffer from Parkinson’s disease. As he is aware, Parkinson’s is a progressive, incurable disease. It presents some visible symptoms, such as tremors, and some non-visible symptoms, such as dementia, depression and, often, pain. Against that background, I make the following points.

First, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) raised the issue of delays. Parkinson’s disease can be exacerbated by the stress and anxiety caused by delays. Awards have been backdated where there has been a delay, but will the Minister consider apologising to the people who have suffered due to the delays?

Secondly, on the nature of the assessment process, the Department for Work and Pensions guidance states that, where there is sufficient medical evidence, the assessment should take place on paper. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be widely known throughout the system. I have been told by some of my constituents that the norm is still that a face-to-face assessment is expected. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that the guidance, which is of some antiquity now, is known to staff throughout the system? It would not only help claimants, but relieve the assessment burden, if fewer people had to go to the assessment centres.

Thirdly, there is consistency. There are, as the Minister is aware, what are known as informal observations—in other words, people are observed as they approach the assessment centre. What they are carrying is often taken into account. Will there be a robust system in place to ensure that there is a set of objective criteria? Even when informal observations are taken into account in an assessment, they should be evidence-based.

I am wary of your strictures on time, Mr Davies, so I will finish on this point. How confident is the Minister in the robustness of the system? As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said, more and more people will be migrating from long-term disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, but will the system cope? We must not have delays of the scale we have had in the past. Is the system sensitive to the particular conditions—particularly progressive and incurable conditions—that people are suffering from? What steps can the Minister take to ensure that assessors such as Atos and Capita gather the information that will enable them to be sensitive to those conditions?

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) for securing this important debate. Like him, I have had many constituents contact me because they are worried and distressed about the transfer from DLA to PIP and the delays that have been taking place.

My constituency is in the north-west of England, which has been particularly hard-hit by the delays. They have caused an unacceptable number of my constituents to be living in financial hardship. I echo the points made about problems in rural areas, as my constituency has poor public transport.

I am pleased that improvements have been made to the system. I am aware that the Minister has confirmed this week that the average claimant wait is seven weeks for PIP assessments, down from the 16-week target set by the Secretary of State. Although I welcome those long-awaited improvements, will the Minister clarify whether the 16-week target covers the whole process from the applicant’s request to the final decision?

In January, the Minister confirmed that DWP would implement the full PIP roll-out in a way that is commensurate with capacity. He said:

“Claimants will be randomly selected...on a post code basis where we are confident that capacity exists.”

It would be helpful to know exactly how that is being assessed and how capacity across all parts of the system will be maintained.

As has already been mentioned, October is the beginning of the most challenging phase of reassessing people currently in receipt of DLA. In addition to dealing with new claims and the fixed-award DLA claims that are ending, the Department will have to manage the PIP awards that are ending and the roll-out of indefinite awards. I seek assurance that the Government have taken that into account when assessing the capacity, so that we do not go backwards and return to the delays and unacceptable waits for assessments and decisions.

It is important to recognise that PIP is a gateway to other areas of support, such as tax credits and carer’s allowance. People cannot access those other benefits until they have had a decision about PIP. The problem is that, particularly with the delays that have been happening, although PIP is backdated to the date the claim was made, the other benefits are not. That is grossly unfair. Why does that have to be the case, and will the Minister consider reviewing it?

What really concerns me, and what I genuinely fail to understand, is how, when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told us that PIP was created to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society would get proper support for the extra costs that have to be borne through long-term illness and disability, my constituents feel they are being punished and victimised because they are unwell or disabled. I have seen people in tears on the doorstep because they are genuinely frightened for their future. We need to look at how the Department manages people.

Finally, I want to mention some of the language that is used when discussing PIP and disability allowances. The Prime Minister, in reply to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on 3 June about cutting disability benefits, said:

“What we have actually done is to increase the benefits paid to disabled people by bringing in the personal independence payment, which is more generous to those who are most disabled.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 589.]

Whether that is actually true is open to challenge, but I want to talk about the phrase “most disabled”. Redefining people as “most disabled” is incredibly unpleasant, because so much hinges on some form of recovery, which is something that medical practitioners have commented on. How do we judge whether someone is “most disabled”? Is it in the same way that we assess whether someone with a learning disability is more mobility impaired than a person who can walk 25 metres? I would like to know how the Government calculate that the people with the most severe disabilities have had an increase, either in overall terms or in benefit levels.

Disabled and ill people want to be part of society; they are part of society. They want to work, and they do not deserve to be treated in the way they have been. I would like the Minister to assure people on such benefits that he understands their needs and that they will be treated with the respect and compassion they deserve—the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness spoke about that—as he continues to roll out PIP.

I will be as quick as I can, Mr Davies.

I declare an interest as the past chair of the all-party parliamentary group on motor neurone disease and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Parkinson’s in the previous Parliament. I also declare an interest because my late husband, who died recently of motor neurone disease—a condition called Pick’s disease—was in receipt of personal independence payment.

I do not think we can stress enough how PIP provides a financial lifeline for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, which both bring increased costs to daily living, whether relating to the need for constant heating; additional laundry costs; the equipment that people need to buy; the aids and adaptation to make their home liveable in; the food wasted as they try to find food they can eat and swallow; the transport costs related to keeping a normal life, getting people out of the home and accessing daily living; and the change in clothing as weight changes. Those are just a few of the huge costs that people face—never mind the stress and anxiety that hon. Members mentioned—that make it essential to get the processing of the change to PIP right. Those changes create anxiety every day, not just for the sufferer, but for their carers, who carry on caring while being denied access to carer’s allowance because the PIP process has not been completed.

If a visual assessment is being made, the outward signs can vary, depending on the progress of the condition: in the early stages, it can include simply slowness and stiffness when moving; breathing and walking difficulties; incontinence; and loss or slurring of speech. The less physical signs are pain, depression, anxiety and memory loss, all of which are exacerbated when the process goes slowly. I remind hon. Members that those diagnosed with some conditions of motor neurone disease can be dead within one year, so people can die before accessing the benefit if there is a delay in the process.

I stress the importance of paper-based assessments for people with such long-term conditions for which there is no relief, from which there is no going back and which mean a death sentence. It is nonsense that people are still being called in for face-to-face assessments. It is also nonsense that people are being assessed in places across the other side of a town, or a country area, that are difficult to access when people get to them, with, for example, long distances to walk or steps to climb. When they get to the assessment in such a place, having suffered the pain, anxiety and difficulty of getting there, they are told, “Well, you’re obviously well enough, because you’ve managed to get here.” It is nonsense. Will the Minister commission a detailed review of delays and problems with PIP, ahead of the independent review that is due in 2016?

Lord Freud said in the other place that the Government have speeded up the PIP process by giving paper assessments for those with incurable and progressive conditions. We all welcome that, but the evidence shows it is not happening. Will the Minister please make an assessment, with providers, and ensure that they adhere to the policy and report back to the House on progress?

I am sure that the hon. Lady was at the Motor Neurone Disease Association gathering yesterday. Les Halpin, a constituent of mine, had motor neurone disease. He told me that he had got a death sentence of between six and two years. It is just that simple. It is a dreadful disease: all the body’s organs close down one by one, except the brain. I have been listening to the hon. Lady. Will the Minister consider giving more guidance to the assessor, so that once a disease such as that is diagnosed, they have detailed notes on their IT systems on how it is likely to progress?

It ought, automatically, to mean that such a diagnosis leads to a rapid paper assessment, because people are facing a death sentence and their carers need to be given the financial support to help them cope with the horrible life that is ahead of them—and I promise hon. Members that it is a horrible life.

Finally, will the Minister meet Parkinson’s UK and the MNDA to hear first hand about the difficulties that people with those conditions are facing and that the PIP assessment is adding to their daily lives?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to congratulate the Minister, too, and welcome him to his new position.

As we have heard, this debate is important for many of our constituents who have applied for PIP and experienced long delays, anxiety and hardship. We heard about the recent case of Ms C and Mr W, where it was found that the delays were unlawful. It is regrettable that we have not yet had any expression of apology from the Government for those delays. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to offer that apology.

Many MPs know of cases in our constituencies where assessments and decisions have taken a long time. In my constituency, in at least one case the waiting time, end to end, was more than a year and the Department had to pay compensation. This afternoon we have all welcomed the improvements in the time taken for assessment and processing since the benefit was first introduced, including welcome improvements to speed up assessment for special terminal illness cases including cancer. We have also welcomed today’s figures from the Department that show further improvements; it is now 15 weeks, end to end, for new claims, and 11 weeks for reassessments. However, we must recognise that these have been achieved because of a significant increase in the number of healthcare professionals and fewer face-to-face assessments than had been envisaged. In fact, this represents a significant policy change by the Department. An early criticism of DLA by the coalition Government was that it lacked face-to-face assessments; those were to be one of the marks of a new approach under PIP.

We are pleased to see the improvements. However, as hon. Members have noted, Ministers now face a significant new challenge in embarking on the mass migration of the 1.5 million DLA cases to PIP, which is due to commence in October. The independent reviewer, Paul Gray, has said that this is the most challenging phase of the roll-out of the benefit. It is not just challenging for the Department and the assessment companies; it is causing uncertainty and anxiety among many DLA recipients. It is also causing uncertainty in respect of the public purse. The Office for Budget Responsibility, which has already revised spending forecasts upwards by £1 billion per annum between 2014 and 2015, said in the welfare trends report last week that structural changes to welfare benefits, such as migration from DLA to the new benefit, PIP, mean that any spending forecasts made are

“subject to even greater uncertainty”.

It is important, as we have heard, that this mass migration is not botched or rushed. That is the lesson from the earlier phases of the roll-out of this benefit, and from the roll-out of other benefits with intrinsic assessment processes, particularly the work capability assessment.

The Minister said on 15 June, in a written answer to my question 1541, that roll-out will be “commensurate with capacity” and

“on a post code basis”.

That still causes a great deal of anxiety to claimants: they are not sure where they fit in that postcode lottery. It is not clear what it means for the overall profile of public spending on the benefit, and it is unclear when the end date of the migration will be. Will the Minister assure us that there will be sufficient capacity, both in the Department and among the independent assessors, and say what extra cost is being incurred to ensure that that capacity is sufficient? During the migration, how many face-to-face assessments does the Minister expect there to be, or what proportion of assessments would be done face to face? How many home visits will there be? What use is the Department making of the opportunity to share information with other assessment processes, as Paul Gray suggested?

The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) rightly highlighted appeals. It has been assumed that 40%—a very high level—will go to appeal. I hope the Minister assures us that not just the Department, but the Courts and Tribunals Service, can handle the appeals that are expected. Can he say how many people are expected to lose benefit or receive a lower payment than under the disability living allowance? We know from Motability that 40% have already lost the higher-rate mobility award and therefore their Motability vehicles. It would be interesting to hear what further forecast the Minister makes.

Most worrying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said, is the backdrop of £12 billion of welfare cuts—“Newsnight” suggested yesterday that it could be as much as £15 billion—and what they might mean for the roll-out of the personal independence payment. In the House of Lords on 10 June, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton pointed out that the Prime Minister said during the general election campaign that PIP would be enhanced and protected. In response, Lord Freud only confirmed that disabled people would be “supported”, which is not quite the same thing. As has been pointed out, in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on 3 June in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister failed to rule out cuts to disability benefits. Indeed, he claimed that the Government had increased the benefits paid to disabled people by introducing PIP, which he said was more generous to the most disabled. That is a startling statement, given that there has been no change in the top rate of payments as regards PIP and DLA, that 40% have already lost the higher-rate mobility award and that the Government introduced the benefit with the intention of making a 20% budget cut.

A little patience might be useful, might it not? We have heard in this debate about the very vulnerable people who rely on this payment. Rather than shroud-waving and trying to second-guess the Chancellor and what might be announced on 8 July, might it not be better not to further worry people who might already be worried?

What would give disabled people the most reassurance is if the Minister categorically said this afternoon that PIP will not be subject to the proposed £12 billion of cuts. Perhaps he will take that opportunity.

Finally, will the Minister say what progress has been made with the independent reviewer’s recommendations? Paul Gray highlighted a disjointed claimant journey, a lack of trust in the process and a lack of transparency. He also highlighted the nonsense of so-called interventions, which mean starting a new assessment process pretty much as soon as the last one has been decided. He proposed a series of actions to address some of those concerns. We have also heard about ongoing operational problems with venues, inaccessibility, long journeys and difficulties in rural areas. Sheffield citizens advice bureau in particular has highlighted problems in that regard. Inappropriate expertise or behaviour from assessors was mentioned in a recent report from Inclusion Scotland. As one Member said this afternoon, there have been delays when circumstances have changed in the middle of a claim. I am grateful for the chance to ask the Minister questions. This issue is the major challenge facing the Department when it comes to disability benefits, and the history is not entirely encouraging. We need to know that lessons are being learned, and we look forward to his response.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, especially as you were the first to invite me to come on an official visit to a constituency. I am very much looking forward to it, but we will wait to see whether I will be invited a second time. The tone and the constructive and proactive nature of the debate are a real credit to Members. It is such an important subject, and Members gave a lot of first-hand experiences that will help shape how I take things forward, and I am grateful for that.

In the limited time I have, I will try to respond to as many of the points that were made as I can. If I have missed something, I will follow up on it after the debate. The debate is a credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), who is widely respected for standing up for his constituents. He faces the challenges of representing a rural community, and he has done it a good service today. I am delighted that the particular cases that were highlighted at the beginning of his contribution have, we believe, been resolved. It was absolutely right, however, to highlight the principle.

This is my first debate as the Minister for disabled people. As a Conservative, I am very proud that, when William Hague was the Minister, we introduced the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. We have made a clear commitment to halving the disability employment gap, which we would all welcome and support. It is a role where I know I can make a tangible difference. I have already spent a huge amount of time engaging and working with stakeholders, and I have made numerous visits.

During my five years as a constituency MP, I have done a huge amount with local organisations, charities and businesses acting in that area, and the one big thing that I get when I talk to people is that they are enthused about opportunity, and in particular about the opportunity to work. Only this morning, I met Liz Sayce of Disability Rights UK. She said that disabled people are too often seen as recipients when all they want is to be net contributors. That was brought home to me when I went to the fantastic charity Whizz-Kidz. I met the Kidz Board ambassadors, George Fielding, who is the chair, and Kayleigh Miller. George is a politics student, and he knows more about politics than all of us. He will come to take our jobs before too long. They made it clear that they want a focus that gives them the same opportunities that their friends enjoy in going to work. They both have fantastic career prospects. As a former employer who has employed people with disabilities, I would snap them up without hesitation.

It is important to reflect why we are doing what we are doing. There was a real need for reform. DLA was too often a crude, blunt instrument in providing support. Only 6% of claimants had a face-to-face assessment. Some 50% were assessed without any medical evidence and 71% of people were given an indefinite award, yet one in three will have their circumstances change within 12 months. It could be that their circumstances got worse and they were not getting appropriate support. The system needed to be changed. PIP considers how impairment affects a person’s life, rather than labelling individuals on the basis of their impairment. It rightly recognises that every disability is unique.

Through the face-to-face assessment, there is an opportunity to articulate individual challenges that cannot be done purely on a paper-based form, and in my visits, it has been repeated to me how important that is. Trained healthcare professionals can tease out exactly what support is needed. I have sat through an assessment in my constituency of Swindon. Those professionals do it in a fantastic manner and try to be supportive. I understand that people are nervous, and I am keen to see a lot more videos put online so that people can see in advance what to expect. That is an important message that has come forward today, and I want to see more work on that. Crucially, the system will pick up on such things as mental health conditions and learning disabilities, which it was felt that the paper-based system simply did not pick up on, and there is broad stakeholder support for that. For the most vulnerable people who need the most support, 22% of people who go through the system will expect to get the highest rate of support. Under DLA, that was only 16%.

Members have rightly highlighted that there have been delays, and in some cases that is clearly unacceptable. However, a huge amount of work has been done by the Department, the providers, my predecessor and me. I am having two or three meetings a day on PIP, and am beginning to dream about it. The headline is that we have quadrupled the number of healthcare professionals. I went to Cardiff to sit through a claimant’s entire journey, and I will continue to look closely to try to find ways to improve that process. We have over 200 more assessment rooms. We have doubled the number of DWP staff. In the initial stages, productivity levels for decision makers was at about four cases a day; it is now up to about eight a day, which is making a big difference. The IT systems have been improved and are a lot more reliable, which was greatly welcomed by the staff in Cardiff at a question and answer session I attended. There are also more prompts in the system, so if the same things are being written repeatedly, that will be picked up. Again, that improves productivity.

On communications, letters are being improved to remind people of the types of evidence they need to bring in so that the system flows more smoothly for them. We are being proactive: when people are sent forms to fill in we would expect them to be returned within 28 days. If after 20 days we have not heard anything, the system automatically triggers two telephone call reminders, as well as a letter, and we are now looking at text messaging. We are trying to be proactive, and that is making a big difference. We are clearing the backlog. Since August 2014, every month, month on month, we have seen cases being cleared. Between January and April this year, we cleared about 71,000 claims a month, against an average of 52,000 new claims a month coming into the system. That is four times the rate in January 2014.

I welcome the Minister to his post. I appreciate the statistics he is rolling out, but they do not reflect the comments that I hear from my constituents. There are concerns that the delays will continue. In that vein, will he consider supporting the devolution of all welfare powers to the Scottish Parliament through the Scotland Bill? That would be supported by Enable Scotland and Inclusion Scotland. Will he also consider delaying the roll-out of PIP until that process is complete?

My job is to continue with the roll-out. Greater minds than mine are continuing the discussions, and it may well be that welfare powers will be devolved, but we will leave it to the greater minds that represent us both to decide that.

Average claimant waiting time has been reduced by around three quarters since June 2014, so we are now looking at a new claimant waiting just five weeks for an assessment, with reassessments down to four weeks. Crucially, the median time for the whole journey, end to end, is now 11 weeks, which is a considerable improvement. Having cleared significant amounts of the backlog, we expect to be operating as “business as usual”. That is very welcome. The end-to-end time for terminally ill people, which was highlighted, is now down to six days, with 99% of claimants awarded.

I am conscious of time, so will try to rattle through—

I am afraid I will not because I have only a very short amount of time.

We have made sure that legacy cases are a priority, but they are unique and complex. Often, the cases brought to me are not black and white. We have to recognise that everyone’s application is unique and the medical evidence is complicated. Sometimes, people choose to reschedule their appointments themselves. Sometimes, people chose to fail to attend; are in hospital, which makes face-to-face assessments difficult; or are in prison. Nevertheless, we are making it a priority to clear any legacy cases.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness is a strong voice for his constituents and he rightly highlighted the need to tackle delays. We have demonstrated that we are making good progress, but I will continue to keep a close eye on that. We are looking at rural coverage and have increased the number of assessments. Currently, the rule is that people should be within 60 minutes’ travel in a car, which most people are, or within 90 minutes by public transport. I know that there are challenges in rural constituencies, particularly in Hull. I think my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) would have raised that point, and an excellent one it would have been too. People can get face-to-face assessments, they can ask for a taxi, and all travel costs are refunded, so there should be no reason not to come out.

I am conscious of the time, but I want to pick up on some of the points that Members made. I will correspond on any that I miss. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) has a very proactive approach. I have visited the centre in Swindon that we share, and I am encouraged. The hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) made a good point about language, and I would be happy to discuss further any areas we can improve, but it is important to remember that carer’s allowance is backdated.

In answer to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), yes, we have strictly applied service credits, and rightly so. Appointments can be rescheduled, and, if 9 o’clock in the morning is not appropriate, some centres are looking into changing their opening hours if that is what claimants want. We have done some of what was recommended in the full PIP review, and will continue to look at that. I will update Members further in due course.

In response to the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), assessments are evidence-based and sensitive to conditions. We will continue to learn because quality is vital. The personal experience of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) is also vital. I attended the Motor Neurone Disease Association event yesterday, and I would be delighted to meet both it and Parkinson’s UK. I extend that invitation to the hon. Lady.

There are many points that I do not have time to address, but I will quickly say that the roll-out will match capacity and will be done in a calm and cautious manner. I welcome all feedback. The debate has been very proactive, and PIP is a real priority for me so I will keep a close eye on it.

I thank Members from all parties for their contributions, and the Minister for his extremely constructive response. My final message to those listening or viewing this debate is that they should contact their Member of Parliament with any problems because we will take them straight to the Minister and ensure that his aspirations are real and delivered on the ground. We must all work together to ensure that that happens so that disabled people everywhere are treated fairly.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered processing of personal independence payment applications.

Sitting adjourned.