Tuesday 30 June 2015
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered shale gas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
Is shale gas exploration right for the UK, right now, and right for the constituency I represent? The benefits of shale gas exploration are clear. Greater energy independence and security at a time of significant international uncertainty is a compelling proposition, as is the prospect of a prosperous new industry that can provide new jobs, business opportunities and direct financial benefit to local communities. The economy is important, but no economic benefit, vested interest or party political pressure could ever lead me to support something that I believed would have a detrimental effect on our countryside or the health of local residents. Over the last 10 months, I have met parties on either side of the fracking debate in an attempt to get a clearer understanding of the issues.
Shale gas exploitation will produce harmful greenhouses gases. The natural gas produced is a fossil fuel, and many object to its production because when burned it produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Some say we should instead focus on renewables, such as wind farms, solar and producing energy from household waste, but most reasonable observers would accept that we are a long way from green energy being able to met all our needs. Natural gas produces 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than coal and can help us to meet our climate change targets more quickly and cheaply. Although renewable energy production is increasing, in 2014 it delivered only 7% of our total energy needs. We need a mixed, and ideally domestic, solution to our energy requirements.
On Saturday morning, I visited the village of Kirby Misperton in my constituency, where an application to drill for shale gas has recently been submitted. Of about 50 people in attendance, 44 were against fracking and six had an open mind; none was in favour. These people are not professional campaigners: they are decent local people, desperately worried that fracking will change their lives forever, and not for the better. Their concerns mainly centre on safety—the potential for contamination of water supplies and air pollution—during production and after the producer has made their money and left; the spoiling of countryside by drilling rigs, noise and light pollution and lorry movements; and, at the end of the day, who cleans up and who pays up if things go wrong.
First, on safety, the fact that other Administrations—France, Germany, New York state and so on—have banned fracking is a major worry to many. So too is the “Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts” report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which had 63 redactions within 13 pages, including of a whole section on the impact on house prices. The Government’s position that
“There is a strong public interest in withholding the information”
did little to ease anxieties. It leads many members of the public to feel that they are being deceived, patronised or treated with contempt. We have only one chance: we need to get it right an to be seen to get it right.
The Environment Agency, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the mineral protections authority and the Health and Safety Executive regulate operations. Having met the Environment Agency, I am confident that our regulations are strong. Fracking will be allowed only outside groundwater source protection areas. According to one representative of the agency, chances of contamination are entering the “realms of fantasy”, but I would like to see a clearer, more robust and independent monitoring regime for the regulations. The Environment Agency is already stretched and cannot be reasonably expected to carry out truly independent checks on the producers’ operations and any consequential effects on the environment.
A 2012 International Energy Agency report on unconventional gas exploration includes in its golden rules:
“Recognise the case for independent evaluation and verification of environmental performance”.
Our current regulations require the producer to instruct a chartered independent contractor to take baseline checks before drilling and to monitor water and air quality before, during and after production. Concerned local residents do not feel that those checks would be truly independent, as there is a clear commercial relationship between the producer and the contractor. Would it not make sense for the Environment Agency to instruct the relevant chartered environmental engineers, with the bill reimbursed by the producer?
The Royal Society’s 2012 report states:
“The operator commissions and pays for the services of the well examiner… This might be someone employed by the well operator’s organisation. It is important that those carrying out examination work have appropriate levels of impartiality and independence from pressures, especially of a financial nature. Promotion, pay and reward systems should not compromise professional judgement…. The independence of the scheme must not be compromised.”
Evidence provided to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee in 2013-14 states:
"the weakest point of the regulatory process concerns the Environment Agency”,
which appears to have
“insufficient in-house expertise.”
The Committee stated that the agency
“should make it much clearer to the industry and the public exactly how and when they would inspect well sites.”
Many are also concerned about the amount of water required and whether it can be safely decontaminated and recycled, and whether contaminates can be disposed of, particularly on the scale proposed.
The spoiling of countryside is another major concern. I would be first in a long line of local residents who would fight tooth and nail to prevent any attempt to produce shale gas in my area in a way that industrialises the landscape. Traditionally, the fracking process involves a high number of lorry movements and unsightly infrastructure that could be a real blot on the landscape. Just one of the companies, Third Energy, has stated that it might drill 950 wells in less than a third of my constituency, which would require hundreds of thousands of lorry movements, all in one of the country’s most beautiful counties, with an economy heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism. North Yorkshire County Council, which would handle any application, has to take into account the impact on other parts of the economy, particularly tourism, and the suitability of our roads to handle additional traffic. The beauty of our countryside is North Yorkshire’s main asset and we must protect this at all costs.
A 2012 “World Energy Outlook” report on unconventional gas stated that production is
“an intensive industrial process”,
“can have major implications for local communities, land use and water resources… Improperly addressed, these concerns threaten to curb, if not halt, the development of unconventional resources.”
I propose clear planning guidance that there must be buffer zones, with a minimum distance between sites of, say, six miles. We do not want the images of a fracked industrial landscape from North Dakota to become a reality here. The 2012 Royal Society report recommends recycling and reuse of waste water and that water disposal options should be planned from the outset, thereby reducing traffic and the impact on local communities.
Who cleans up and who pays up if things go wrong? We need to make sure that our green fields are not turned into brown fields. Appropriate regulation and supervision may reduce the chances of things going wrong, but we also need to understand and provide for a situation where it does. Although groundwater source protection zones are excluded from fracking activities, what protections are in place for boreholes and artesian wells? According to United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas, the body that represents the industry,
“if a company causes damage, harm or pollution to the environment, they can be required under these regimes to remediate the effects and prevent further damage or pollution…. Environmental regulators and planning authorities have the power to require upfront financial bonds to address these risks. The industry does not wish to leave this to the taxpayer or the landowner. As a less expensive alternative to upfront bonds, UKOOG is working with Government on the development of an industry scheme that will step in and pay for liabilities.”
The Royal Society report states:
“Arrangements for monitoring abandoned wells need to be developed. Funding of this monitoring and any remediation work needs further consideration.”
What if the producer has gone bust? Who compensates those who have lost out?
As far as the jewels in the crown are concerned—namely, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, ancient woodlands and sites of special scientific interest—we need to state unequivocally that production will not take place in such areas. We must ensure that people do not feel that the Government agenda is being directed by big business. Many members of the general public do not trust business and also feel, perhaps unfairly, that too often politicians will support business at their expense. We need to take it one step at a time and ensure that people see that the process and facts are being properly monitored, assessed and reviewed.
All energy sources have impacts. As Members of Parliament, we have constituents who might be against onshore wind, solar farms, nuclear power or energy from waste. Twenty years ago in my constituency, many had similar fears when proposals were announced to carry out conventional gas exploration. Protests took place, views were heard and compromises were reached. Gas has been produced in the area ever since, with many residents unaware of its existence. Many members of the public have an open mind on fracking; others have genuine safety concerns. Whatever their viewpoint, it is critical that we keep the public informed and that local communities are consulted on the case for fracking, the potential benefits, the environmental risks and the proposed safeguards. We need to reassure the public that we are prepared to stop if fracking is significantly affecting lives and livelihoods, just as we did in 2011 when it caused earthquakes at Preese Hall in Blackpool.
In summary, we need: truly independent monitoring and publicly available analysis; a defined minimum radius between production sites; a clear solution on water recycling and disposal to reduce traffic; additional blight compensation for any person or community directly impacted; the release of an unredacted version of the DEFRA report; a clear willingness to stop if lives and livelihoods are affected to unacceptable levels; and, a clear answer to the question of who cleans up and who pays if the worst happens. We need to take the public with us, consult, provide expert scientific information and ensure that people do not feel they are being pushed or manipulated.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I thank him for his reference to Preesall in my constituency. Is he aware that yesterday, Lancashire councillors overwhelmingly voted to reject fracking in the county? The result was very clear: nine voted against and three voted in favour, which broadly reflects opposition to fracking across Lancashire—two thirds of people are in opposition, and the figure might be similar for his constituents over in Yorkshire. We had 300 local businesses write to the council, urging it to reject fracking. Those businesses included farmers, bed and breakfasts, media companies, the retail sector and many others. Does he agree that opposition to fracking runs across many different parts of our communities?
Order. It might be of assistance to remind those hoping to take part in the debate that interventions should be short and to a single point. I think the hon. Lady made a mini-speech there, and I will not tolerate that in any future contributions.
As a point of correction, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) mentioned Preesall in her constituency. For the record, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) was actually referring to Preese Hall, which is a fracking well in my constituency.
I am grateful for the lesson in geography. It is not a part of the world I am all that familiar with, but I am very familiar with the geography of the beautiful parts of North Yorkshire, and I am strongly keen to ensure that they remain that way.
As the IEA report recommends, we need to:
“Integrate engagement with local communities, residents and other stakeholders into each phase of a development starting prior to exploration; provide sufficient opportunity for comment on plans, operations and performance; listen to concerns and respond appropriately and promptly.”
The public deserves precise answers to those questions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he acknowledge that although the United States and Canada initially saw a transformative economic effect from shale gas, there has been a slowdown since 2014? Some gas fields are running at a loss. Does that not show that we need to ensure that there is an economically viable case in all instances of exploration?
There is clearly an opportunity here. The volatility of oil and gas prices is not within my remit, but there is commercial pressure to exploit shale gas for future domestic security. I understand that; it is why we need to get it right.
The public deserve precise answers to their questions via every means possible, including a comprehensive series of community meetings conducted by real experts with real answers. It would be all too easy to join the chorus of political voices who oppose fracking in North Yorkshire, but I do not believe that politics should be about doing what is convenient or being swayed by a vocal minority; it is about doing what is right. At this stage, we need to look at the issues and solutions more closely and find those solutions that reassure the public that we have their interests at heart and that allow us to realise the benefits of low-carbon, low-cost energy independence.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on obtaining this debate. It is important because it goes to the heart of the distinction between what it is to drill an exploratory well and what it is to have a fracking industry in any particular part of the country. He clearly set out the safeguards that are needed as an absolute baseline for any fracking at all to take place, as well as the cumulative effects of fracking and the extraction of shale gas on particular areas and what impact that has on the community in the longer term, as well as the impact on the consequential things needed to keep that industry in place—whether that is the disposal of wastewater, consideration of the intensity of various fracking pads, or a range of other issues.
I shall concentrate for a moment on thinking about what fracking as an industry might look like in this country, as opposed to what an occasional exploratory well might look like. The proposition in front of us is not for occasional bits of exploration; it is “Go for it. Let’s have a substantial fracking industry. Let’s change the nature of how we obtain our gas supplies.” The argument in favour of fracking is that it is a substantial addition to our national security. Some of the further reaches of the argument relate to bringing prices down, but that is quite wrong and misunderstands the nature of gas trading in Europe. There would not actually be any great difference in gas prices unless the whole of Europe decided that it would frack everywhere in Europe.
The argument that a substantial fracking industry might be good for national security is the main argument put forward for it.
It is true that there is no reason to believe that prices in Europe will come down by a factor of four, as they have in the United States, but it is also true that if we have more of something, the price is likely to come down. Increasingly, our strategy is to buy gas from Russia and liquefied natural gas from Qatar. That is not a viable way forward.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we buy some LNG from Qatar, but only about 0.5% of the UK supply comes directly from Russia. Buying gas from Russia is really not an issue for this country, although it is for some other parts of Europe. My point was that the international trading arrangements for gas have three nodes across the world—the far east node, the north American node and the European node—and gas is traded and pipelined within those nodes. The product of shale gas in this country would simply go into one of those nodes and be traded across them, and the price would even out. That is my point about whether a shale gas industry would mean a substantial reduction in price.
I want to concentrate on what a shale gas industry in this country would look like. We have only one serious document sponsored by the Department of Energy and Climate Change that looks at the consequences of a serious industry. My concern is that that document, a strategic assessment produced by AMEC a little while ago, estimates the output from shale gas wells to be 3.2 billion cubic feet per well over 20 years. As an average output for wells in the UK, that would equate to the best level ever obtained in any well in north America. Conditions for shale gas in the UK are very different from those in the United States, and the likelihood is that the output per well would be far lower than the very best output in the US. On top of that, the current average US well output is about 0.8 billion cubic feet—far lower than the best ever output—and, more to the point, there is a rapid rate of depletion per well.
In fact, a shale gas industry in the UK would see relatively low gas output per well, with a fairly rapid depletion rate and the necessity for re-fracking, probably once every seven or eight years, were the well to be retained in production over 20 years. It is not a question of a well pad being drilled and then the equivalent of “nodding donkeys”, such as we have at Wytch Farm, nodding away quietly in the countryside. The process of trucks, waste water and re-fracking would have to be repeated every few years on that well pad in order to keep it going. Even then, the depletion rate is more rapid after the second re-fracking, after which the well goes out of business.
Given the multiplicity of wells that would have to be drilled, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK would require a massive pipeline system and investment in a massive gas storage system? That would affect a large number of constituencies, not just where the drilling originally was.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the location of various wells would require either that the gas was stored in tanks near the well and then transported or that new pipelines be constructed to take it away. A pipeline could not be organised in the same way as for the North sea.
On the basis of the scenario I have outlined for what a shale gas industry would look like in this country, the estimates are that, in order to divert, let us say, 10% of our gas supply from conventional gas into shale gas and remove part of the need to have gas from Qatar or Russia—10% is a modest diversion—we would need to drill somewhere between 10,000 and 18,000 wells, and they would have to be re-drilled over a period. Of course, those wells would not be evenly distributed throughout the country—Members would not have around two wells per constituency; wells would be concentrated in the two areas of the UK where there are reasonable shale plays. Those shale plays are geologically faulted and difficult to get at; nevertheless, they are the main areas: Bowland shale in the north-east of England and across the weald in the south.
We are looking at 10,000 to 18,000 wells concentrated in two parts of the country. As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said, that would probably result in the very intensive geographical concentration of fracking in those areas, with a substantial geographical concentration of take-off facilities and of the need to remove waste water, 7 million gallons of which per well will have to be removed and disposed of fairly safely as hazardous waste. We do not currently have the ability to do that in this country. We can do it for the occasional well, but we would not be able to do it very easily without substantial new facilities for such a concentration of hazardous waste, which would be repeated as the wells were re-fracked.
We need to ask whether all that is a realistic prospect compared with the gain that might come from extracting the additional gas. It seems to me that, if that is what we want for our energy strategy, there will be a very high price to pay throughout the country for a marginal gain. Are we really, seriously committing ourselves to that? Recent events in Lancashire demonstrate that it is rather difficult to get two wells into the ground, let alone 18,000 over a longer period. I am worried that we are setting ourselves up by assuming that some of our future energy supplies are going to be pencilled in for this particular route, when either there are unacceptable costs to reaching that goal or, to make the industry work, we will have to build a whole lot of infrastructure on the back of what we already have.
Having considered at how a UK shale gas industry might look, it might be interesting to look briefly at an alternative industry: green gas, which is the production of gas by anaerobic digestion plants and associated methods. It has been projected that, by using most of the available feedstock that could go into anaerobic digestion plants, we could probably divert between 5% and 10% of our domestic gas supply requirements. When I say “divert”, I mean literally divert, because green gas AD plants can now inject gas directly into the mains.
There are eight green gas plants currently operating in the UK. I recently visited one in Poundbury, which, at certain times of the year, injects gas into the mains grid. People living between, roughly speaking, Lyndhurst and Weymouth will receive green gas from the Poundbury anaerobic digestion plant at various times of the year. There is direct substitution of the existing gas going into the mains. An AD plant would probably produce some 6 million cubic metres over 20 years. A well could produce rather more at some 20 million cubic metres, but it would have to be re-fracked several times. After that, the well would be capped and the operators would walk away. Because plants and animals continue to produce feedstock, AD green gas plants would simply continue. If we are considering changing from gas imports to domestic production for national security purposes, it might be a better idea to build a large number of AD plants and have one at the end of every lane.
I support green gas and anaerobic digestion. The hon. Gentleman said that the gas could be injected directly into the mains gas system. Is he implying that the characteristics of shale gas or other unconventional gas mean that they cannot be put directly into the grid? I do not follow.
I am sorry if I unintentionally misled the hon. Gentleman. Shale gas can of course be injected directly into the grid. AD-produced gas has a slightly different calorific value, but with minimal treatment it can actually go directly into the grid in the same way as shale gas, so there is a direct comparison in production and in end use between the two processes. I suggest that if we want an industry that diverts substantial amounts of gas from import, building up AD plants and injecting green gas into the system might be a more environmentally sound and less intrusive way of doing so which might be more acceptable to the communities affected by any potential intensive fracking.
I appreciate that a farm AD plant at the end of a lane is not exactly the prettiest sight in the world, but it produces gas at a near zero overall net carbon cost, because it simply recycles what has captured carbon in the first place, and produces a different pattern of use. In the long term, it is potentially—
This hon. Gentleman was actually just about to finish.
Considering the industry as a whole, I suggest that AD is a rather sounder route in the long term than imposing 18,000 wells across the country with all the consequences that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton outlined. I heartily concur with his concerns, but there is an alternative and it should be seriously considered.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this debate. I will keep my remarks short.
The decisions taken at county hall in Preston yesterday and last Thursday directly affect my constituency. Lancashire County Council’s planning committee has rejected Cuadrilla’s applications to frack at Roseacre Wood and Little Plumpton, both of which are in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies). Those two sites are on the north side of the River Ribble, just a few miles away from a site at Hesketh Bank in South Ribble, where Cuadrilla was given a licence to frack in 2008. That licence was suspended, along with all others, in 2011.
Most of my constituents accept that we need to explore this new form of energy as it will help national self-sufficiency in energy. Too often, however, those with legitimate concerns about fracking are dismissed as luddites or nimbys, but many of my constituents’ worries have not yet been adequately addressed by Government or the energy companies. The main worries are about safety, specifically water contamination, the lack of adequate infrastructure to support a new industry and the details of the compensation framework.
South Ribble is the floodplain of the River Ribble and is known as the salad bowl of England. Grade 1 agricultural land makes up 32% of my constituency, which puts it in the top 10 of such constituencies in the country, and 41% of my constituency is grade 1 or grade 2 agricultural land. The neighbouring constituency of West Lancashire has the highest proportion of grade 1 agricultural land in the country, and many of the farmers and growers in my constituency have fields that cross constituency boundaries. The industry employs many thousands of people and contributes to our nation’s food security.
The quality of the products grown relies on their growing in pristine soil that must be free from water-borne contaminants, which is the growers’ No. 1 concern. Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground, but what is the composition of those chemicals? We are told that drilling takes place well under the water table, but my constituents are looking for further reassurance from Government and the energy companies that there will be no seepage into the water table and that the pipes will not develop fissures. They also have certain concerns about residual flowback fluid.
The site at Hesketh Bank is down a long country lane. The villages of Tarleton and Hesketh Bank are already clogged up with wagons transporting salad and vegetables to market. I am already working with local campaigners to put pressure on the council to build the “Green Lane Link” because the road system is not even adequate for our primary industry of agriculture. Were a new industry to be introduced, local people would expect the energy companies to contribute towards new infrastructure. They would not want it all to come out of their council tax.
Finally, let me turn to the compensation framework. Research from the US is conflicting on whether house prices are affected by having wells nearby. There needs to be robust compensation for those whose homes and livelihoods are affected. We need statute to set down the framework, which should include obligations to provide infrastructure such as roads and schools, rather than leaving it to local council planning authorities. Furthermore, the news on jobs is unclear. Are they the sort of high-skilled, long-term jobs that we want in Lancashire? DEFRA’s report from March 2014, “Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts”, states that jobs will be available for locals
“on the availability of skills and experience in the local labour market.”
My constituents want more reassurance that energy companies will train local apprentices and employ local people for the long term.
My hon. Friend rightly highlights the local impact of the industry, which generates significant concern in my constituency. Given the Government’s statement last week that local communities should have the final say on wind energy, does she agree that there should be special rules for fracking—I see in the paper today that the industry is calling for a change in the legislation—requiring applications to go through the normal planning process, like in every other industry? Local communities would therefore get a say about what the industry looks like in their area—if it appears at all.
We have all accepted that local communities need to have total buy-in, and I am talking about what the energy companies do as well. National Government need to lay down such obligations. The companies need to be seen to be engaging fully with young people, providing apprenticeships and local jobs.
My constituents are not nimbys, but they want reassurance that fracking will not affect the quality of their land. They want concrete reassurances that their communities will be adequately compensated for any risks that they might face.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on an extremely well balanced speech. All discussion about the energy industry is fraught, because it tends to deal not only with the detail, but with people’s particular ideological positions.
In the time available, I will make two major points. The first is that this country is at a particularly critical moment in its economic history. The energy policy that we have had for the past seven or eight years—putting up the price of energy by moving to intermittent renewable sources, which has increased people’s bills—has had two unfortunate consequences: not only the price going up, but the deindustrialisation of the country, as industry has moved elsewhere in the world. As a result, although the policy objective is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the overall carbon footprint of the country has increased. The policy has been a mistake. We now have a big decision to make on runway capacity in the south-east—which I will not talk about, Mr Howarth—as well as on fracking. All those decisions are critical for our country’s future wealth.
On fracking, there are two intellectually coherent arguments. I understand people from the green lobby who say—this often invades the discussion without being explicitly stated—that we should leave all fossil fuels in the ground forever, because we have already taken enough out. I do not agree, but it is intellectually coherent for people to say that. The argument that I support is that we need to look at every possible energy source for this country’s energy future. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) that we should look at green gas, and we should also put more money into research, because at the moment renewables cannot compete with the energy-intensity available from fossil fuels.
In the meantime, we also need to be developing shale gas. There is a case against and a case for, but there is not a case for pretending that we do not know or for simply kicking the can down the road and saying, “Oh, we’ll have a moratorium,” as some of the candidates in the competition for the leadership of the Labour party are doing. We have to make a decision about such things, and I think we should go for shale gas. More than 1 million wells have been drilled in north America. All those wells that have complied with the safety regulations—which are not as tough as the regulations that this country will have—have been drilled without any problems. The scare films are often about areas where the issues might not be to do with fracking, as it turns out, or where, if fracking is involved, the rules have not been followed. We have to go for it.
We have heard from two Conservative Members about the normal planning concerns that one gets—about the amount of road usage and what will happen to an area. Those are obviously genuine local concerns, but as a country we have to decide on the balance between those people with genuine local concerns and what is part of the national infrastructure plan. There is nothing unusual about that: when the country was cabled, the amount of local cabling decisions that could be taken were reduced. Shale gas is of such importance that we should have a national infrastructure plan.
I will finish with the final point made by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton. Rumours are sometimes put about wilfully by those who are ideologically opposed to fracking, so the worst thing that any Government can do, whether a Conservative or Labour one, or a coalition, is to hide information. We need to get as much information out there as possible, because fracking is safe and water will not travel through half a mile of rock. People need to be reassured about that and, by reassuring them, we are much more likely to get the economic benefits of a real shale gas industry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this debate.
The benefits of unconventional drilling have been well flagged. While bridging to a low-carbon future, it might provide the UK with a secure source of energy. However, the Government have only one opportunity to get things right, as my hon. Friend said. We are routinely told about the economic value associated with extraction, so in that context it is critical that people, especially those living near extraction sites, have cast-iron confidence that proper and sufficient investment is being made to ensure their safety during and after the drilling period. My constituency has seen exploratory drilling conducted near Balcombe under a licence granted in 2013 to Cuadrilla. The concerns of many residents were far from being assuaged and, if the resource is to be exploited, public acceptance and support are critical. The Government must ensure that the public have complete confidence that their overriding concern remains the safety of their citizens around the sites.
There are advantages to a country in being a second mover. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) referred to the US experience, which is clearly useful to learn from. I am sure that the Minister will place on the record her Department’s continuing monitoring of the US experience. We have much to learn from it and, given the far higher concentration of population in the UK, it is essential that we do so. However, I have constituents who are concerned that the Minister’s Department, having in large measure set out a safety regime, will cease to focus as much on the US experience. I would like a reassurance that that is not the case, not only in the Minister’s response today, but, more critically, in how the Department responds to the stories that emerge from the US in the coming months and years.
I also support my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton in calling for the monitoring of fracking activities not only to be independent, but in every respect to be seen to be independent. It would be damaging for the industry if a perception were to emerge that those being paid to monitor activities had a vested interest in those activities being ongoing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that environmental impact assessments are key, in providing information to local communities before planning applications and looking at possible consequences, so that they may be taken into account and dealt with early in the planning processes?
I agree with my hon. Friend in every respect. Other hon. Members have referred to the importance of getting information out there to reassure the public, and that is one example of us doing exactly that.
Water contamination is one example where reassurance might be required, as was referred to earlier. The construction of wells is key to this, with sufficient casing and cementing being essential to prevent groundwater contamination and manage the flowback fluid. As we have seen in Pennsylvania, there is inevitably a failure rate in certain new wells. Will the Minister provide a reassurance that the regulatory regime on well construction is sufficient to prevent substances from leaking? Monitoring of groundwater for contaminants is essential, not on the basis of an investigation every three years, but as a regular, routine undertaking during and after drilling. I appreciate that the Infrastructure Act 2015 specified that
“hydraulic fracturing will not take place within protected groundwater source areas”.
A lot may hang on the exact definition of what “groundwater source areas” comprise, so I look forward to that being clarified.
Lastly, under the Environment Agency’s recent consultation, flow testing could be covered by a standard permit granted to the explorer. The Minister will appreciate that, at this early stage of unconventional drilling in the UK, particularly in the context of early flow testing, anything that suggests a standard approach without particular consideration and monitoring will cause concern. We look forward to that being clarified in due course.
I have no doubt that the Minister will act with her usual boldness and determination in pushing this agenda forward. I simply ask that, in doing so, she uses the same determination—I have every conviction that she will—to ensure that the safety regime is not only highly effective, but capable of assuaging the concerns of people living close to drilling operations.
I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this debate on a subject that is close to most people’s hearts, of that I am quite sure.
I will be brief, but first let me say, by way of background, that I am speaking today because Falkirk, the area I represent, is at the heart of fracking operations, with test bore drills already in place. INEOS has planning permission to build shale gas tanks, and it has to be said that that is a hugely significant investment.
On 19 May last year, I attended a fracking conference at the Mermaid theatre in London on behalf of Falkirk Council, of which I was a member at the time. I assume that many Members present have attended similar conferences. After about an hour, I was thinking to myself, “Why do we keep being told that our regulations are the best and safest in the world?” It reminded me of an anecdote about Sir Alex Ferguson, who when looking at a player he was interested in was told that there was no truth in the rumour that the player had injury problems; the first thing he thought was that he needed to look at the player in a great deal more detail. I took that methodology back to my constituency: more analysis is required.
Does my hon. Friend agree that perception is reality, and that even if fracking were technically proven to be safe, the public concerns surrounding it would also need to be addressed, or else it could still be damaging to our economy in terms of our water production, the reputation of our food and drink industry, and house prices?
I agree totally with my hon. Friend. Perception is everything. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) referred to the salad bowl. If Mr Birdseye thinks that water contamination is going to affect his product in any way, he will withdraw and people will not buy the product. I am convinced of that; there is no second-guessing there.
The delegates at the conference I attended went on to listen to various utopian and dystopian presentations. That ignited for me the other reason we are here today. Last Thursday I asked the Secretary of State to produce a detailed health and environmental impact assessment for the conference in Paris this year. She answered that safety would always be a priority and that this country has a safe environmental working record. I eagerly await the presentation of the findings on the health and environmental impacts.
Medact, a registered public health charity with over 1,000 public health clinicians and the like as members, has produced a report on fracking. The report concludes that fracking poses significant public health risks and calls for an immediate moratorium, to allow for the completion of a full and comprehensive health impact assessment. I agree totally with that position.
In Scotland, there is what we call the WOW factor—wind, oil and water. There is currently a moratorium, as the Scottish Government have listened to concerned communities not just in Falkirk but across Scotland. We have a worldwide reputation for the purity of our water; our vast food and drink industries require that that reputation is not tarnished in any way, shape or form. Under the Smith commission’s proposals, licensing of fracking will be devolved to Scotland, which makes absolute and total sense. We need to tread warily on this huge issue, which affects all our communities.
I intend to write to the Secretary of State to ask her to share with the Scottish Government the report she will present on fracking to this House and to the Paris conference. I cannot help but note that the Prime Minister’s comment about going “all out” for shale gas in the UK was a little premature. It could involve huge financial costs for companies that have invested in fracking, such as INEOS, as I sincerely hope that fracking does not take place in this country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing this debate and for the balanced way in which he presented his case, as others have noted.
If I put my national hat on—and given that I am a Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton down in Devon, where at the moment there is no notion that there will be fracking—it is easy for me to say that it is good for the country to have a great gas supply, so we must make sure that we get on with fracking. From the national perspective, that is absolutely right, but as a Government, we are keen on taking local people with us, and—dare I say it—at the moment we do not seem to be doing terribly well on that. All the locals are turning fracking down. We are going to have to rethink our approach to all this. We have to make sure that we do not simply talk about a sovereign fund that might help local people. We must be much more up front. How does an industry like fracking help local people? They have to see something tangible before they buy into it.
If I put on the hat of Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, we of course are concerned about our land, food production and groundwater. In the previous Parliament, the Committee was assured that when fracking takes place the water used is well beneath groundwater sources and the area from which we extract water to purify for drinking water—but is that the case? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) that we cannot simply have a blanket licence from the Environment Agency; each case has to be looked at individually.
Putting my Conservative hat on, I want to make sure that we are competitive and have an efficient industry. In this case, we must have an industry that extracts the gas—that is absolutely right. We still use an awful lot of gas and will still do so in future; if we do not use Russian gas, someone else will, so the gas we can extract for home consumption has to be good, but that gas should not be brought out of the ground at any price. If we need to put in more pipelines, reduce lorry movements and improve roads in villages and other areas where there are proposals for help with infrastructure, we have to do so. I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years, so everything in Europe is my fault—I just put that on the record. I look at the French: now, I do not always agree with the French, but I acknowledge that when it comes to exploiting resources, they put in all the infrastructure necessary for local people’s lives to be enhanced.
I say to the Minister, who is a very good Minister, that we must make sure that local people buy into fracking much more than they are doing at the moment. If we are going to stick to our principle that local people decide—I think we should—we are going to have to reassure them a great deal more about environmental safety, especially on water, and make sure that fracking is properly monitored. In evidence to our Committee, the Environment Agency said it had the capability to do that, but people need to be reassured that that is the case and that the agency will not be overstretched.
Another problem is that, while all of us can be experts beforehand on whether the gas will or will not come out, we cannot know until we have a number of wells in place whether the ground will actually give up the gas. We know the gas is there, but we are not certain that it can be got out. We may not, in the end, be able to produce the gas we expect, although we may be able to produce a lot more, which is very exciting.
There must be a balance: as we move forward, we must take local people with us, reassure them about the environmental position and reduce the number of lorry movements by piping more gas, however expensive that may be. In that way, the local population will, in the end, be able to buy into these projects, and our green and pleasant countryside will remain green and pleasant. We have a large population, and we want to keep our green spaces and our food production.
The hon. Lady makes a good point, which I am sure the Minister will address.
I will leave my comments there, because others want to speak, and it is right that everybody has a chance to debate this issue. Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton.
I too thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), and I congratulate him on securing a debate on this important national issue. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) take all the blame for what has gone wrong in Europe. I am pleased, at long last, somebody has done that.
My position on this issue is clear, definite and unambiguous: I will not be in favour of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, while there is any reasonable suspicion that it has a negative impact on the environment and public health. There is still a lot of work to be carried out on that. The Government have progressed the matter too quickly.
It is easy to say that fracking in the bigger states of America is positive and produces a massive supply of energy. We need to compare those states with some of the areas we have heard about today and with my constituency, where there is cross-border exploration between Northern Ireland—in other words, the United Kingdom—and the Republic of Ireland. It is clear that we cannot compare a small, densely populated area such as mine with the vast, sparsely populated areas in America that are carrying out fracking. There is no comparison at all, but the Government have not taken that on board.
In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, we set up a group to investigate fracking. Anyone who wants a report that is positive about fracking can find one, while anyone who wants a report that is directly opposed to it can find one too, so we set up our own group to look at the issue. The group, which contained someone from the medical profession, solicitors, business people and farmers, came up with three recommendations, which I fully support.
The first is that we cannot progress with fracking unless there is a full, independent—I stress “independent” —environmental impact assessment that demonstrates that there will be no negative environmental impact. Secondly, there must be a full, independent public health impact assessment. Members have talked about public health, but it is not always given the importance it should have, and it is sometimes overlooked. We must therefore have confirmation that there will be no negative public health impact. Thirdly, there needs to be an economic appraisal of how good fracking is not only for the UK, but for local people. What will they get out of it economically? Will their land simply be taken off them and vested in someone else? Will trucks drive through their areas? Will they have monstrous structures on their back doorsteps? Will they get a reduction in their rates or council tax? Will there be a direct economic benefit for them, or will the big companies come in and take all the benefits? That is something people will not comprehend.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton indicated that we have not been good at taking people with us. That will not happen unless the three points I mentioned are dealt with and it is shown that fracking is not harmful to the environment or public health and that it provides an economic benefit to local people. That is the position of the Ulster Unionist party. I should make it clear again that the Government have moved on too quickly.
Order. I am afraid I have to allow time for the two Front-Bench speakers, and the spokesman for the Scottish National party also has to take part. I will have to restrict the remaining Back-Bench speech to three minutes. I call David Mowat.
In my three minutes, I shall make just a couple of quick points.
Although I support fracking, I agree with the three points made by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Tom Elliott): there can be no issue with public health, we should have done more to bring local benefits to the fore, and the environment cannot, of course, be damaged. In the end, those things will have to be assessed by people who are independent and have the confidence of the local community. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, it is clear that, whatever else we take from the debate, we must accept that we have not brought local people with us on fracking. However, every form of energy has issues, whether it is solar, wind or nuclear, which is still by far and away the dominant form of decarbonised energy in the world. Fracking also has issues, and we have to work through that to decide whether fracking is worth it. Members have said that fracking may not be cost-effective, and if it is not, it will not be done, so that problem goes away.
I want to talk a little about the three elements of UK energy policy: low-cost energy, sustainable energy and energy security. Gas has a major role to play in all those, but the fact is that our own gas is running out. Output from the North sea is 70% of what it was 10 years ago. Some 85% of the energy used in this country still comes from fossil fuels, with coal and oil making up by far and away the majority. If we could replace all the coal being used in the world with gas, that would reduce global carbon emissions by the same amount as a fivefold increase in renewables. That is something we should be going after, and parties that believe in a low-carbon future should embrace it. There are, therefore, environmental advantages to fracking.
We have talked about cost, and it has been said that fracking in the UK may not transform the economy, as it has in America. In the United States, there is massively lower fuel poverty—I have not heard those words today. We may well not succeed in reducing our gas bills by a factor of four, with the same transformative impact that has been seen in American manufacturing. Manufacturing is relocating from parts of the UK.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the reduction in gas prices in the United States of America simply will not happen in the United Kingdom, so it is not appropriate to talk about fracking being a game changer in terms of reducing fuel poverty?
In an intervention I said I thought it unlikely that gas prices would be reduced by a factor of four. I also think it unlikely that if we have more gas in Europe there will not be a reduction in gas prices, with a knock-on impact on fuel poverty and on the competitiveness of our chemicals industry, what is left of our steel industry, and our aluminium industry. Those industries have to a large extent left our country, not only for south-east Asia but for other parts of Europe with lower energy prices than ours where coal continues to be burned.
The issue before us is the fact that we produce roughly 80 GW of electricity in this country, and 24 of them will be turned off by the end of the decade. We already have a 2% capacity margin for 2017. Members in this Chamber—not just those on the Front Benches—must be accountable on the question of the lights going out. Shale gas is not a panacea and I do not argue that it is, but we should explore it responsibly and take into account the environmental issues raised today. However, we should not fail to understand that our country is not infinitely rich. The resources in the North Sea that kept large parts of our country going for a long time are running out. We import more and more of our gas from Qatar and increasingly, potentially, from Russia. Parliamentarians all have a role, and a responsibility for the UK as a whole to take those issues seriously.
I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and congratulate him on obtaining the debate, and on his impeccable timing, given the news on the decision in Lancashire. Time is clearly of the essence, so I shall crack on.
Five themes have been brought out in the debate, and alignment between them is needed if fracking is to be a viable part of the energy mix: safety, public support, climate change, how that fits in with the total energy mix, and economic viability. Dealing with this is to be devolved to Scotland. Scottish Ministers have suggested a moratorium while concerns are explored. That is welcome and it will go a long way towards ensuring that discussions on the food and drink and tourism industries, which my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) mentioned, are not put in jeopardy by fracking.
There is a question about whether new licences will be issued while the process is going on—it has been suggested that they will not—and there is also a question about licences that have been granted, and how they will be considered when things are devolved. I think there are issues about the economics. If we are to have a truly safe regime it needs to be gold-plated, but that is likely to be more expensive, and I understand that it will be more expensive in the UK than it would be in the United States. Doing things more safely than they are done in the United States, from a more expensive cost base at the start, with gas prices considerably lower than those of a number of years ago, brings the economics into question. I take the point that if shale gas extraction is not economic it will not happen, but we need to consider that when time is spent on exploring.
Perhaps the biggest issue is not economic viability or whether shale gas will change our dependence on fossil fuels, but whether it would be the best use of this country’s resources, from the carbon dioxide point of view, and whether we are going to meet our objectives on reducing carbon emissions. Shale gas will produce more.
I certainly do, but it has been pointed out that other technologies could be better. In the context of carbon, when we extract more resources we need to make sure that we get the best ones and the biggest bang for our buck. As I represent Aberdeen, and given the continuing potential of the North sea, I wonder what effect investigating new onshore gas will have on the well established offshore industry, which makes an immense contribution. That needs to be considered along with the entire energy mix that we are considering.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for securing the debate. That fact that 18 Members from four parties have taken part shows how important and pressing the subject is for many parties. I know the Thirsk and Malton area well and acknowledge its beauty. My train stops there on the way down to London and on the way back, although I have another hour to go then.
This is the first debate I have participated in from the Front Bench on the subject of shale gas. Before the election my former colleague Tom Greatrex, who was the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, looked after this area of policy. His expertise on energy policy was recognised on both sides of the House and I am sure that Parliament will miss his knowledge and good humour.
Our position on shale gas was formally set out in debates on the Infrastructure Act 2015. We made it clear that there should be no shale gas extraction without a framework of robust regulation and comprehensive inspection. Regrettably, the Government have consistently sidelined our legitimate environmental concerns, and those of the public, in a headlong dash for gas. Speeches from different parties today supported that view. With 80% of homes in Britain still reliant on gas for heating, shale gas may have a role to play in displacing some of the gas that we currently import, boosting our energy security; but I want to make it clear that that potential worthwhile benefit must not come at the expense of robust environmental protection, or our climate change commitments.
During the passage of the Infrastructure Act 2015, we were clear about what changes were needed. The Government initially accepted Labour’s amendment to overhaul the regulatory regime for shale gas by introducing 13 vital measures before extraction could occur. That was a huge Government U-turn and a great victory for the protection of Britain’s environment. However, in the House of Lords the Government watered down five of those crucial commitments.
The Government watered down regulations to prevent fracking under drinking water aquifers, ignoring the existing definition of such areas and insisting on the need for a new definition—thus scope was opened up for the weakening of the measure through leaving some areas out. They weakened regulations to prevent fracking under protected areas such as national parks, dropping our proposal to prevent fracking “within or under” protected areas. Instead, they indicated that they would block fracking only “within” them, creating the prospect that protected areas such as areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks could be ringed by operators fracking underneath them. They dropped requirements for operators to notify all residents individually of potential developments, and to monitor all fugitive emissions—not just methane. Finally, they weakened regulations requiring an environmental impact assessment at all sites.
We tabled an amendment to reverse those changes, but were denied a vote. There should be no shale gas developments in the UK unless those protections are re-introduced. It is right that individual applications should be decided at local level, as has been outlined this week. It is not the place of central Government to become involved and to trump local democracy. That is the Eric Pickles way of doing business. It is not mine, nor that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). However, the decisions made in Lancashire in the past few days and people’s concerns reflect the fact that the Government have repeatedly ignored genuine and legitimate public concern in a dash for shale gas at all costs.
Does the Minister accept that the continued public concern over shale gas extraction might be caused, at least in part, by the Government’s refusal to address their legitimate concerns? Does she agree with me that the best approach would be to accept, as they have once before, the amendment that Labour tabled to the Infrastructure Act 2015, which would ensure there was a robust regulatory framework? Without that, people will not have the confidence they need and to which they are entitled. I look forward to the Minster’s reply to those concerns and to the crucial questions of many colleagues. There is public concern across the country, as yesterday’s events in Lancashire showed. I hope she will address those things directly, so that the public can be fully informed of the issues in this important debate about how we can safely and most cost-effectively meet our energy needs and our climate change commitments.
It is a great pleasure to be here today, Mr Howarth. This has been an incredibly valuable and timely debate on the potential of shale gas. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) was exactly correct to say that to take advantage of the huge potential offered by shale, we need to get it right, and as the new Minister for energy, I can assure him that making sure we get it right is a key focus for me.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) mentioned that often, the people who object to shale are called nimbys or luddites, and she is also exactly right. I would never call those with local, very well founded concerns nimbys or luddites. Plenty of people in my constituency have concerns about all manner of things, ranging from HS2 to wind farms, to anaerobic digestion plants. They are not nimbys or luddites, but local communities who need to understand better. My priority will be to reassure them and, yes, to use an element of persuasion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) pointed out, we need to take local people with us, so that will be my absolute focus.
The Minister is absolutely right about taking local people with us. The whole debate about fracking is ultimately about trust, as has come out loud and clear in this morning’s debate, but sadly, findings of the Government’s “Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts” report were redacted. That does not fill people with trust, so will she encourage the relevant Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to publish that report as soon as possible?
The report is going to be published. The timing is up to DEFRA, but I share my hon. Friend’s concern that it should be made available to the public, so that they can draw their own conclusions.
I want to mention that my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) was keen to speak up for his constituents, but sadly, there was not the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) rightly pointed out that keeping the lights on is a key and critical role of Government, and that shale has the potential to contribute to that. We need home-grown energy more than ever before, so we in this Government remain committed to renewables, which now provide 15% of our electricity. We are also committed to energy efficiency and, vitally, to affordability. Shale gas could be a pragmatic, home-grown solution to help meet those needs.
Gas is the cleanest fossil fuel. It still provides a third of our energy demand and we will need it for many years to come. Around 70% of the gas Britain uses is for heating, and many people in businesses will need to keep using gas for heating while we develop and deploy renewable heat sources. We are likely to continue relying on gas to provide much of our heat, as well as to generate electricity into the 2030s, but even with our projected doubling of renewable capacity by 2022 and the planned creation of additional nuclear-fuelled generation in the 2020s, increases in gas-fuelled generation will be needed, as we phase out unabated coal. Flexible electricity generation, such as that fuelled by gas, is also needed to help balance the electricity grid as our policies bring forward relatively inflexible and intermittent low-carbon generation.
We used to be net gas exporters, but that is no longer the case as North sea gas declines. By 2025 we expect to be importing over half the gas we consume. Meanwhile, events around the world show us how volatile energy supplies can be. Developing shale gas could make us less reliant on imports from abroad while providing more jobs and creating a whole new British industry. It is therefore vital that we seize the opportunity to at least explore the UK’s shale gas potential while maintaining the very highest safety and environmental standards, which we have established as world leaders in extracting oil and gas over decades.
I fully appreciate, of course, that many people are worried by the stories they have heard about fracking, so I want to address, as a key point in my remarks, the most important and overriding concern of shale gas exploration, which is safety. Reports by the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Public Health England have considered a wide range of evidence on hydraulic fracturing in a UK context, concluding that risks can be well managed if the industry follows best practice, enforced through regulation. We have one of the world’s most developed oil and gas industries in the North sea basin and some of the world’s most experienced and highly regarded regulators. We have been successfully regulating the gas and oil industry in the UK for over 50 years. Our regulatory system is robust and we are proven world leaders in well regulated, safe and environmentally sound oil and gas developments. We have strict requirements for on-site safety to prevent water contamination and air pollution and to mitigate seismic activity.
The health and safety and environmental regulators are independent, highly specialised and well trained and will enable the development of shale gas in a safe and environmentally sound manner. Regulators simply will not allow unsafe or environmentally unsound operations. They are able to suspend and revoke permits immediately, and if necessary, impose criminal sanctions, including prosecution.
No, I am sorry. We are really short of time—I apologise.
The Environment Agency assesses the hazards presented by fracking fluid chemicals on a case-by-case basis. They will not permit the use of hazardous chemicals where they may enter groundwater and cause pollution. The Health and Safety Executive scrutinises well design and requires week-by-week written updates on drilling progress. DECC has implemented a thorough system of rigorous checks before any drilling or fracking, as well as a live traffic-light system during the actual operations to ensure that earthquakes will not occur.
To reinforce the regulations further, the Infrastructure Act 2015 introduced a range of further requirements if an operator is to carry out hydraulic fracturing. They include a mandatory environmental impact assessment, which is absolutely vital. There was a misunderstanding that fracking would not require an environmental impact assessment, but that is not the case and DECC has tried to remedy that misunderstanding. Any hydraulic fracturing will require separate independent environmental impact assessments. Additionally, unlike in the United States, in this country disclosure of all chemicals used in the fracking process and 12 months of baseline groundwater monitoring will be required. There will be specific community benefits to be paid and the complete exclusion of protected areas. We already require everything that has been recommended by the European Commission.
To summarise on safety, we have among the best and most experienced regulators in the world and a 50-year track record on safe oil and gas exploration. Our regulatory environment for shale is the toughest in the world, but it is also important to discuss the enormous potential benefits of a successful shale gas industry, not just in energy security, as I have said, but in direct benefits to jobs, growth and community investment.
Ernst and Young has estimated that a thriving shale industry could mean 64,500 jobs nationally or over 100 jobs per year at a typical site. The value of the supply chain for the industry has been estimated at £33 billion between 2016 and 2032. This is an incredible opportunity. We are at a pre-beginning phase, but there is a huge amount to play for. British engineering is at the forefront of the world and we have the opportunity to showcase that further by developing for ourselves a safe and environmentally sound shale gas industry. In November, we announced a new national network of colleges for onshore oil and gas to train the next generation of specialists to help the UK seize those opportunities.
The final, very important, point I want to address is the position of local communities. We believe that every community hosting shale should share in the benefits, so we have committed to setting up a sovereign wealth fund to ensure that revenues are shared fairly. We welcome industry’s commitment to putting £100,000 per fractured exploration well to local communities and then a minimum of 1% of any subsequent production revenues. That could be worth as much as £5 million to £10 million over the life cycle of the well. Wider communities will also benefit, as local councils will retain 100% of the business rates that they collect from productive shale gas developments.
I sincerely thank all Members for participating in this debate. It is important that we have the opportunity to discuss such a key issue for our future energy mix. As the UK’s Committee on Climate Change said of shale gas in 2013
“the UK will continue to use considerable, albeit declining, amounts of gas well into the 2030s”,
“if anything using well-regulated UK shale gas…could lead to lower overall…greenhouse gas emissions than continuing to import”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered shale gas.
Ampthill Primary Care (Parking)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Ampthill primary care and parking.
It is a pleasure to bring this debate here under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I spend many hours sitting in the Chair that you are in at the moment, so it is a pleasure and delight to be on the other side, representing Ampthill residents and GP surgeries. It is also a delight to have this Minister—my friend and constituency neighbour—answering the debate. It is worth putting it on record that he is not only one of the nicest and kindest MPs in Parliament, but someone who is absolutely deserving of his position. It is an honour to present this debate to him.
I would like to begin by discussing Ampthill. I hope that I will not disclose anything that I should not here, but my right hon. Friend and I have bumped into each other in my constituency on more than one occasion, not least when he was checking out the new Waitrose store opposite the area that I am about to discuss. I would like to set the scene by talking about the Ampthill surgeries and the problem we have, before I go on to some of the finer points.
Just off Oliver Street in Ampthill is about an acre of land, on which sit three GP surgeries, a fire station and a nursery and playschool. It is an incredibly busy area. Unfortunately, only a few months ago, for reasons that I do not fully understand, a car left one of the car park places and went through the windows of the GP surgery into the waiting room. There is a constant feeling of panic, anger and fear in the car parks. I myself have witnessed on a number of occasions cars not only mounting the kerbs, but mounting the kerbs—it is a very narrow kerb; there is limited kerb—where elderly people are walking. I was myself the subject of a road rage attack at the GP practice just a few months ago. There is nowhere for people to park when they visit the doctor, so people become very distressed. Many drive away, which leaves the GP appointments unfulfilled. Many just abandon their cars to get into the doctor’s practice, which causes chaos. Many people become very stressed and agitated, and start shouting not only at the receptionist, whose fault it is not that there are no car parking spaces, but at each other out in the car park.
At 9 o’clock in the morning, there is a stream of cars arriving to drop children off at the nursery and playschool. Around the outside of this area of land are the doctors’ practices, with their allocated car parking, but in the middle of this very congested area is the shabby prefabricated building that is the playschool. A constant stream of traffic is coming in to drop children off and going out again, leaving people with appointments from 9 am in a desperate state as they try to get to the surgery.
During the general election campaign, I was visiting my doctor’s surgery with a member of my family. I could not park, so I dropped my mother off to go in and was hovering around trying to get a place when a couple knocked on my car window and begged me to do something about the car parking. Then I was driving along and someone else did exactly the same thing. The fact is that I had already tried to do something. I had brought the situation to the attention of the local Central Bedfordshire Council. I set up a petition in the GP surgeries and was astonished that within no time thousands of people had signed the petition, which I will present to Parliament. People are desperately concerned that something very serious is about to happen in that car park area.
I ask the Minister whether, as part of the solution that I will come to, he will come with me to see the area so that he can understand what I am talking about, because I think it has to be seen to be understood. It has to be seen to be believed—how bad it is. He could talk to some of the reception staff, who are on the end of patients’ anger, upset and stress and have to answer to the doctors as to why people cannot get in for their appointments or blood tests—because they simply cannot get out of their cars.
The situation is exacerbated because the doctors’ surgeries in Ampthill are so good. The doctors are excellent; the reception staff are too. We all know the gatekeepers from hell who usually have those jobs in a doctor’s surgery. We do not have that in Ampthill surgeries; we have compassionate, understanding and extremely helpful staff in those surgeries. I think it would be good for the Minister to meet those staff and hear their story as well, because I will need his support to find a solution.
In their wisdom, SEPT—South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust—decided earlier this year to reallocate 20 district nurses to this incredibly congested area, so that it would be used as a base by those nurses, with their cars, even though there was nowhere for them to go. So an already very tense situation was made 20 times worse by 20 more cars turning up daily in the area. People are already afraid and an accident has already occurred, so for that to happen as well is exasperating for everyone concerned, staff and patients alike.
Some action has to happen, and soon. The status quo is not acceptable. I wanted this debate today because I wanted to put this on the record. I want it on the record, if something does occur in this area, that the problem had been noticed and people had been notified and that, on behalf of the doctors, staff and patients, I, Central Bedfordshire Council and others were trying to reach a solution to ensure that something did not occur.
There are a number of options. I will describe what would be the best scenario for this area, because the GP practices are not in the best condition. They are in shoddily erected, prefabricated buildings. People will know the kind of thing I am talking about; when a town is growing, infrastructure is hastily put in place. They are not the best facilities. The ideal solution would be for us to have a polyclinic—a new, purpose-built facility. We could amalgamate the three surgeries and have one new facility that provides enhanced services compared with what we have now. A number of patients, such as those needing INR—international normalised ratio—testing and other testing, have to travel to Bedford for services that, in this day and age, should be available at their GP practice.
The ideal solution would be a brand-new, off-site, purpose-built GP practice. That is what I would like to push for, because it is what Ampthill needs, and it needs it because it is growing. New houses are being built. It is a very popular, central destination in Mid Bedfordshire. It is very close to Flitwick train station. Interestingly, the patients who attend Ampthill surgeries come from areas in a 20-mile radius. They come from as far away as Wootton, Toddington, Flitwick and Barton-le-Clay. Patients from all over the area attend Ampthill surgeries. In fact, one of the people who are leading the campaign and part of the patient representative group is a patient who lives in Wootton. Because of the excellence of the GP practices, they attract patients from a wide area. The ideal scenario is for us to recognise what a good GP, primary care situation we have there, and to take that and move it to a purpose-built building.
Another scenario would be to demolish the shabby prefabricated building that is the playschool and move the playschool somewhere within Ampthill where there is not the constant congestion and traffic fumes all day long around the facility or the enhanced danger that comes from such dense traffic going in and out of the area. That is another solution—to move the children away. There are buildings in Ampthill that could be used in any of those situations.
The solutions are not easy, but no solution ever is. I have found, as an MP and in other aspects of life, that whenever anyone proposes an obvious solution to a problem, someone will always come along with 100 reasons why it cannot happen. Too often, people who would otherwise be required to put a great deal of imagination and effort into finding a solution simply say, “We can’t do that.” We must dispense with the words “We can’t do that, because” and look for ways we can do this. We need to come up with imaginative proposals, knock down a few barriers, chuck a few of the excuses out of the window and find a solution. I am concerned about the fact that too many people are treading water. Instead of meeting their responsibility to find a solution, they are finding excuses for continuing with the current untenable situation.
If anybody suggests as a reason for inaction that there is no popular support, I have a petition with the signatures of thousands of people, all of whom expect action. Ampthill residents expect something to happen. There has been extensive new development in Ampthill, from Fallowfield to Ampthill Heights, but most of the section 106 money from those developments went into education. I do not decry that fact; I simply point out that in Ampthill not everybody has children, but everybody needs to use the NHS facilities. The elderly do not have young children, but they are some of the biggest users of NHS surgeries. The GP receptionist told me that many people ask for late evening appointments so that they can avoid the pre-school traffic, because they think that parking will be less congested. Unfortunately, the situation is quite bad at that time of night, because that is when everybody comes out of work and wants a GP appointment.
The local feeling is that we need to find a solution, and a polyclinic would be an ideal one. More than anything, however, we need money. I know that NHS England has money from section 106 allocations that belongs to Ampthill residents. That money is sitting in NHS England. I am not sure exactly how much it is, but I have been told various amounts, from £8,000 upwards. It belongs in Ampthill, and it should be spent on primary care in Ampthill. There is no better cause to spend it on than the parking situation at the Ampthill surgeries.
Other people have to come to the table, including Central Bedfordshire Council and the GP practices. As fundholders, they should bring their allocation. The whole thing should not rest on the shoulders of the GP practices, Central Bedfordshire Council or NHS England, however; we need partnership working to find a solution. I have asked my right hon. Friend the Minister whether he would come and visit the surgery. What I would prefer is a meeting, with him, the fundholders, Central Bedfordshire Council and NHS England, and me, so that we can all work together to thrash out the solution we need for Ampthill, to make visiting the GP practice—something that nobody ever does willingly or happily—a less stressful, tense and sometimes turbulent affair. We must do that soon. I hope my right hon. Friend will agree to that, and I hope he agrees with me that it is a good way forward.
I also hope that my right hon. Friend might have some ideas of his own, and that he might be able to bring to the table something that will reassure the fundholders, the patients, the doctors, the receptionists and the councillors. I pay tribute to the councillors in Ampthill, who have done their bit to try to sort out the problems. I spoke to Mike Blair and Paul Duckett about the matter only recently, and I know that they have tried to do their bit, but they keep meeting a brick wall of: “We can’t do this, because—”. I hope the Minister will help me to bash down that brick wall and find a solution, so that we can work in partnership to resolve this difficult situation. Let us hope that if we do that, we can prevent a tragic and disastrous scenario of the sort that may result if we tread water for much longer.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Some years ago, I canvassed for the Conservative party in your by-election. I have many happy memories of that time, not least because I had the opportunity to meet regularly almost all the Conservative voters in the constituency, none of whom prevented you from being here.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) warmly for her kind remarks, and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. She was right about a number of things, including my knowledge of Ampthill, where I have indeed bumped into her. She has been an excellent colleague and partner in a variety of matters that affect Bedfordshire, and our two constituencies abut each other. I know Ampthill well because I regularly run in the park and use the tidy tip. The significance of that is that the main street to the tidy tip from my home in Wootton is, of course, Oliver Street, so I know it extremely well. In the world of the future, new technology will make it possible for viewers of our debates to see maps of areas that we are discussing. It would be easy to project a map into a televised debate such as this. However, as we are in a Chamber full of words rather than pictures, I can merely allude to that idea.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in her description of Oliver Street. It is a tight street, which is closely parked. Whichever direction they travel along the street, drivers will at some stage have to stop behind parked cars and allow traffic from the other direction to pass. In the area surrounding the surgeries, there is a cluster of buildings and some car parking arrangements that my hon. Friend has described well. I emphasise that I know the street well, and I shall be happy to respond later to her comments on the car parking problems.
I shall start by talking about GP services. My hon. Friend referred in a recent blog post to the growth taking place in Ampthill. She has described the primary care group as “the Cinderella of Ampthill” and said that it has had none of the recent investment or money associated with that growth. I want to address the issue of GP care being a Cinderella service and the question of investment in Ampthill. I pay a particularly warm tribute to all who work in primary care, not least in Ampthill, and in general practice: the GPs, the practice nurses and all others who work for patients. Primary care is the bedrock of the NHS, and although we are all familiar with what happens in hospitals, too often we seem to take for granted the service that patients receive from primary care.
My hon. Friend spoke about primary care in the widest sense, and I echo that. Primary care is much wider than general practice; it is all the day-to-day healthcare provided by healthcare professionals, and thus it includes such professions as district nurses, pharmacies, dentists and other ancillary occupations. Accordingly, as my hon. Friend has said, the trend is for the expansion of primary care facilities to be more than simply GP surgeries, and the Government have recognised that. Recently, in his first speech about general practice during this Government, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the primary care infrastructure fund. That is a fund of about £750 million spread over the next four years, which offers practices the opportunity to seek investment in premises for development and the like. Such investment is sought by way of a competitive bid, and that is being taken forward in various waves. If the practices involved have not put in a bid, it is a matter for them. Clearly, £750 million spread across the country will not solve everyone’s problems, but it recognisees the need for some practices to seek to grow and for their premises to have the sorts of ancillary functions that we will all start to take for granted as, hopefully, fewer people go to acute hospitals for treatment that can be carried out elsewhere. The modern practices of the future will do that.
Easy access has to be part of that future. There is no point in seeking to do minor ops at the various ancillary services provided in the community if people cannot park. My hon. Friend spoke about the wide range of places from which these practices draw their patients. Ampthill has a population of about 6,000, but the practices have a total of some 20,000 patients, so the majority of those patients will clearly not be walking but coming by car. It is therefore necessary to ensure that adequate facilities are available. Ensuring adequate parking will be important for the premises of the future.
Primary care probably has the widest scope in healthcare, and it includes patients of all ages, from every socioeconomic and geographic origin and with all manner of acute and chronic physical, mental and social health issues, including multiple chronic diseases. Consequently, a primary care practitioner must possess a wide breadth of knowledge in many areas. Some 90% of all NHS patient contacts take place in general practice, which is why it is important to ensure that modern general practices, and the practices described by my hon. Friend, have everything they require. What many of us think of first when we think about the primary care profession in this country over recent years is that it has developed a wide skill base and body of knowledge. GPs provide a complete spectrum of care within their local community for problems that combine physical, psychological and social components. They attend patients in surgery and primary care emergency centres, if clinically necessary, and they visit patients’ homes. GPs must be aware and take account of all factors when looking after patients.
In his recent speech, the Secretary of State made it clear that he recognises that GPs need to call on an extensive knowledge of medical conditions to be able to assess a problem and decide on the appropriate course of action. They must know how and when to intervene through treatment, prevention and education to promote the health of patients and their families. Recently, the Commonwealth Fund, an independent institute based in the United States, declared that the NHS is the best healthcare system in the world. Although many people assume that to be because of our acute hospital care, the bedrock for the research on which that determination was based turned out to be family care and general practice, which is a further reason for addressing the needs of general practice—in the widest possible sense, from availability to ease of access—as my hon. Friend has done.
Most GPs are independent contractors to the NHS. That independence means that, in most cases, they are responsible for providing adequate premises from which to practise and for employing their own staff. As we have heard from my hon. Friend, GPs are determined to do the right thing in relation to parking. It is noticeable that the three surgeries that serve Ampthill’s population of 6,000, and patients from the wider area, are located within yards of each other in the middle of town. There is already parking for staff and patients, and there is a bus service with a bus stop nearby. Oliver Street is a main through-route in Ampthill. It is busy and narrow, and the presence of a fire station, an ambulance station, a nursery and a school in the vicinity all contribute to heavy traffic, particularly at certain times of the day.
I missed out a point that I want to put on the record. A fire engine was recently prevented from leaving the fire station because of congestion caused by cars coming in and out of the pre-school off Oliver Street, which is near the practices. A fire engine being trapped and unable to leave a fire station owing to traffic density is not good.
There are things that we are able to do and things that we are not able to do. The general traffic issues in the town are, of course, a matter for other authorities beyond the Department of Health, but my hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point.
In the Houghton Close area, there is pressure on parking for both practice staff and patients. GP practices, as independent contractors, are responsible for providing adequate premises and for employing their own staff. In passing, I want to say a word about the way in which such practices look after their patients, which is entirely relevant. Good things are happening in primary care and in Ampthill. The key test of that is the GP patient survey, which gives patients a chance to comment on the performance of the practice where they are registered. Patients say that the three Ampthill practices—the Oliver Street, Houghton Close and Greensand surgeries—have a good story to tell. Overall, across all measures, the three practices are averaging around 90% satisfaction. Most of us would love to have that degree of satisfaction, although, Mr Howarth, you have that in your constituency, as indeed does my hon. Friend. No score of the practices is below 84%, and the scores are much higher in many domains. For example, all of Greensand’s scores are 90% or above, with 96% reporting satisfaction with their overall experience of the surgery. It is therefore clear that today’s debate concerns what patients agree are good, all-round, high-performing practices. While addressing their needs, I congratulate each practice on its commitment to providing the best service to patients, of which, to a degree, the subject of this debate is an element.
There is pressure on parking in the Ampthill area, which is why there have been recent moves, encouraged by my hon. Friend, to consider what can be done about it. In matters such as land purchases that affect the public sector, it is often advisable to take advice from the district valuer. The Ampthill practices have had discussions with the town council about purchasing a grassed area next to the fire station which they hope to convert to additional parking. NHS England is prepared to contribute part of the cost. However, the decision on whether to buy or sell the land is not for me or anyone in Whitehall; it properly belongs to the prospective purchasers and the landowners.
The town council has made a request to NHS England to fund the purchase and set up a car park to increase parking capacity in the area. The land, once purchased, would not be for the sole use of the practices but would be open to all users. The estimated cost of the land is between £8,000 and £9,000. NHS England has agreed to fund some 25% of the cost, which is believed to be a fair portion of the practices’ proposed usage of the area, with no commitment to recurring costs. NHS England was also asked to provide funding for maintenance of the parking facility. Although NHS England is prepared to contribute to the purchase cost, it is not prepared to fund the maintenance costs because it will not be the dominant or exclusive user.
My hon. Friend made a fair point about the recent addition of some 20 practice nurses in the practices at the request of NHS England, which carries a certain amount of obligation. I therefore hope that we will be able to go back and see what more can be done. In February 2015 the town council’s planning committee considered the matter and advised the practices to discuss it directly with the fire service’s landowners. I will therefore encourage the continuation of that process. We have discussed the matter further with NHS England, which is prepared to think again about the costs involved. Following this debate and the representations we have made, the way is open for my hon. Friend to further discuss the situation directly with NHS England, the town council and Central Bedfordshire Council. I am grateful for the advice of the leader of Central Bedfordshire Council, James Jamieson, to whom I spoke last night. I am pleased to accept the invitation to visit the area more formally, which will give me a great opportunity to speak to the practices involved, to see the situation on the ground and to consider whether there is anything further we can do.
Although this matter is not fundamentally the responsibility of the Department of Health, I acknowledge our interest in ensuring that these practices have what they need to provide what is obviously an excellent service to constituents, to consider the opportunity for purchasing proper parking facilities and to help and liaise in some of the discussions that will take place under other people’s auspices. Finally, I will have a chance to see the situation on the ground, rather than passing through on the way to the tidy tip or another run in glorious Ampthill Park.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the House today. Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
Question put and agreed to.
Human Rights Act
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Human Rights Act 1998.
I am delighted to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Betts, and to see that we have a healthy turnout of Members and non-Members here today. I am grateful to the organisations that provided briefings ahead of today’s debate. I should particularly like to place on the record my appreciation of the efforts of Liberty, Amnesty International, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The Gracious Speech included a commitment by Her Majesty’s Government to introduce proposals for a British Bill of Rights. I was pleased that it was framed in such terms for two reasons. First, it is still apparently the policy of Her Majesty’s Government that it should be approached at least on a British, if not UK-wide, basis. Secondly, I was pleased that they are seeking to bring forward proposals and not, as in respect of other commitments in the Gracious Speech, legislation. I take it from that that we are in a place where there is still a debate to be had and where thinking is still going on within government, and I welcome that. I hope that today’s debate is an early part of the debate that will be conducted elsewhere, within the Chamber and the Select Committees in this House and the other place, and even within the various all-party groups. I also hope that this debate will, as befits a subject of this magnitude, be conducted in a thoughtful way and one that accepts good faith and differences on all sides.
The Minister has a significant background in the area of human rights and I do not question his good faith in this matter. I would probably disagree with him both on the definition of the rights and also on the way in which they might be perfected, but I certainly accept his background and his good faith. I hope that the debate in government will not take as its starting point the paper published last year by the former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), which was entitled “British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities”.
The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), whom I am pleased to see in his place today, said that that paper contained a number of howlers which are quite simply factually inaccurate. Those who have known the right hon. and learned Gentleman for as long as I have will know that for him such language borders on the intemperate. Those within government who are considering how to proceed in this way would do well to listen to his words. I expressed that view at the time as a Cabinet Minister. I felt that that contribution to the debate failed to take proper account of the way in which the Human Rights Act had become part of the constitutional architecture of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield also asked the question that goes to the nub of the issue: what are we seeking to achieve here? Having seen recent pronouncements within government, that remains the question. To answer that question, however, we first need an answer to a much more fundamental question: what is the Government’s intention in relation to the European convention on human rights? Is it that we should remain party to the convention, or will the Government at some future stage, if they are unable to achieve their stated aims, countenance withdrawal from it?
It is worth reminding ourselves of exactly what the Human Rights Act does and the change that it wrought after its implementation. In a dry legal sense, it allows access to convention rights through our domestic courts. Section 2 of the Act says that in reaching judgment our UK domestic courts must take account of the European Court of Human Rights judgments. Whether this was to be extended to make it a binding precedent was considered in the other place during the passage of the Bill and was expressly excluded, so I think the ambit and the extent of the operation of section 2 is an important part that is often misunderstood or just ignored.
The Human Rights Act has brought much more than dry jurisprudence to our legal system and to our constituents. It has offered many of our fellow citizens a basic, fundamental right to respect and dignity in their dealings with government and other public bodies. To take a few instances, it has allowed people with mental health problems the opportunity to retain some rights and some control over their own lives when dealing with the national health service; it has allowed victims of crime to insist on proper investigation of the crimes from which they have suffered; and it has allowed families to be kept together in circumstances in which the operation of the state might otherwise have kept them apart. At its most basic, it has in one instance ensured the right to life. In one case that was offered by way of a working example, a patient suffering from dementia was on a ward where he had been subject to a “do not resuscitate” order. On investigation, it was found that the doctor in charge of the ward had imposed such an order in respect of everybody on the ward without discrimination. At its most fundamental, the Human Rights Act protected the patient’s right to life.
I suspect that such cases are the easy cases. If we dealt only with the easy cases, we probably would not be here today. There is no denying that the application of the Human Rights Act has produced a number of controversial cases. The cases of Abu Qatada and those relating to the right of prisoners to vote are two that spring most readily to mind. This goes to the heart of the matter for me. Human rights are not just there for the nice people. If we are to defend human rights in a meaningful and worthwhile way, we have to be prepared to defend the rights of the unworthy individual from a legitimate authority, or the right of an unpopular minority against the popular majority. Perhaps I should declare an interest: as a Liberal Democrat, I know what it is to be part of an unpopular minority.
For such reasons, the Human Rights Act is inevitably going to be unpopular in government, because it stops Ministers doing what they might otherwise wish to do and what they might otherwise find it expedient to do. That is why, if the protections are to be meaningful, they must be overseen by the judiciary, and not by Parliament or by the Executive, who are insulated from the mood of public opinion at any given time. That brings us back to the question posed by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield: what are we hoping to achieve here? In truth, the Abu Qatada case and the right of prisoners to vote are cases that, before the Human Rights Act, would have got to Strasbourg. Those are exactly the sorts of cases that we saw going from this country over the years.
The question that then arises is if we are trying to get round these cases by somehow seeking to repatriate jurisdiction, what does that mean for the United Kingdom’s future as a contracting party to the European convention on human rights? When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope he will answer this question: what is the Government’s position in relation to our continued future as a contracting party to the convention on human rights? Are there circumstances in which the Government would be prepared to leave the convention? Doing so would put us in rather select company: it would be us and Belarus, and that is not the company I envisaged the United Kingdom finding itself in. In previous Parliaments, I worked with Amnesty International and other organisations on the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. I campaigned with various groups in the United States, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere. The UK has tremendous standing on human rights across the world. We would lose a lot if we walked away from the convention and put ourselves in the company of Belarus. We should be doing what we can to bring Belarus within the convention; we should not be seeking to join it outside.
I want briefly to consider the constitutional architecture of which the Human Rights Act is now such an important part. For example, it is hardwired into the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Before the hon. Gentleman gets to that issue, he has just been dealing with UK jurisdiction delivered by the 1998 Act. Is he aware of the appalling delays that existed before the Human Rights Act? For example, in the case of Abdulaziz, Balkandali and Cabales, which I was involved in when director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, women were separated from their husbands for seven years before getting a judgment that proved that the then British immigration rules breached their human rights.
Indeed; the time it took to get such cases to court—and the need to have the means to do so—was a glaring injustice, and that situation was affected by the introduction of the Human Rights Act. People needed money, or somebody behind them with the means, to get access to human rights. We should not return to that.
On the devolution settlements, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly both have the Human Rights Act hardwired into them: their Acts must be compatible with it. It has already been established that if this is to change, at least for the Scottish Parliament a legislative consent motion would be required in accordance with the Sewel convention. Given recent votes in that Parliament, I do not see how that is going to happen.
The situation in Northern Ireland is even more acute, because there the Human Rights Act is the subject of part of the Good Friday agreement. The second part of the “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity” section of the agreement states:
“The British Government will complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency.”
The creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the body overseeing it, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, have given effect to that.
The right hon. Gentleman makes compelling points about the need for the Human Rights Act to be retained. In relation to the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday agreement was enshrined in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, with a direct coincidence of human rights provisions. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Northern Ireland Committee on the Administration of Justice recently stated unequivocally that any breach of human rights legislation, or any plan to withdraw it, would be a breach of the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and of the Northern Ireland Act 1998?
Indeed. That illustrates perfectly what I say about the Human Rights Act being hardwired into these agreements, including that settlement. Underpinning that, we should remember that many parties on both sides—in both communities—in Northern Ireland took a massive leap of faith when entering into the Good Friday agreement in the first place. Many of them were prepared to take that leap of faith because of the assurances given by the Government about protecting human rights. Let us not forget that the roots of the civil rights movement are to be found in that conflict; for many people, human rights have always been at the heart of that movement. We should also not forget that the peace process remains a very delicate animal, as was made apparent just before Christmas. We should never take its continuation for granted.
Let me return to the question: what are we seeking to achieve here? If there is a risk to the stability and sustainability of the Northern Ireland peace process, is it worth it? Either there is a UK Bill of Rights with the widest possible operation or we will end up with different standards of human rights protection applying in different parts of this—I use the term advisedly—United Kingdom. That is not what my party, and other parties represented in this Chamber, campaigned for last September. Human rights protection should be uniform across the whole United Kingdom.
I fear that in introducing this proposal the Government have created more problems for themselves than they have realised. I offer the Minister one piece of assistance before I conclude. My learned noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill recently delivered a lecture entitled “Do we need a new Magna Carta?” in which he spoke about how human rights can be protected by a British Bill of Rights. I will happily send the Minister a copy, if he needs it.
If we are to move beyond the Human Rights Act, it can only be done in a way that improves, not diminishes, the protection that is available to our citizens.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), whom I congratulate on securing the debate.
I will not repeat points made by the right hon. Gentleman, particularly his survey of the benefits of incorporating the European convention into our own law through the Human Rights Act. I will concentrate on what I understand the broad thrust of the Government’s proposals to be, because only by doing that can one start a proper analysis of whether benefits might flow from the proposals that outweigh some of the costs—particularly the costs he identified of problems relating to the devolved institutions and Governments—that are undoubtedly present.
It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that there was talk before we created the Human Rights Act of a British Bill of Rights, which was much trawled over by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats during the early 1990s. The project was not pursued because there was a realisation, as time went by, that it was a highly controversial proposal that inevitably sought to bring into one place all sorts of suggestions about rights that might be included in it. Indeed, it is noticeable that as a result of the renewal of this debate, prompted by the Government’s approach, lots of interesting papers are being produced on the possibility of having a Bill of Rights—I was reading one the other day by Geoffrey Robertson QC—not all of which are likely to commend themselves to the Secretary of State for Justice, because of their content.
It was because of that realisation that the then Labour Government in 1998 adopted what was in many ways a very conservative—with a small “c”—proposal in respect of simply bringing about incorporation and preserving the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, tweaking the text in one place to emphasise that, where there was competition between freedom of expression and anything else, freedom of expression should be given a high priority; but otherwise simply allowing the law, through the convention’s incorporation, to be interpreted in our courts. I have to say that I entirely agree with what the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. While there are areas where I have criticisms—I think they are well known—broadly speaking, I think the Act has conferred huge benefits on this country in terms of the accessibility of rights.
It is right that the proposals remain opaque. I do not criticise the Government for that; in so far as they are going away from the proposals published in October, that seems to show a high level of common sense. The question then still arises: what benefits will we get from having a Bill of Rights? I accept that if we wish to have a Bill of Rights that includes rights not protected by the European convention on human rights, such as the right to trial by jury or some practices that might be different in different parts of the United Kingdom, there might be some merit in it; but as long as we remain adherent to the convention, the wriggle room for the Government regarding the convention and its text will be extremely limited—so limited that the ideas prevalent in the Daily Mail that the Bill of Rights would lead to some seismic change in the diminution of rights is simply misleading. We are on dangerous ground indeed if we start to peddle that as a notion to those who seem to be infuriated by the existing rights we have at present.
I was greatly reassured by the Prime Minister’s comments that he had no intention of pulling out of the convention. It would be so contrary to every Conservative philosophical principle of building an international regime for the rule of law and the promotion of rights that I cannot conceive of any mainstream political party embarking on such a course. I was delighted when he confirmed that recently, and I think the Minister may be able to confirm it again this afternoon.
Where does that leave us? The answer is that it leaves us embarking on a project that I am happy to help the Minister with, but one that I think will prove in reality to be extremely difficult, for the reasons given by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, and that, at the end of the day, will deliver extremely limited benefits—indeed, so limited that I begin to wonder whether the project is worth pursuing at all.
With those thoughts in mind—I keep them general at the moment—I simply wish to assure the Minister that I am more than happy to continue to engage with him and others from the Department in which he serves on this issue. I have all sorts of ideas that I am happy to put forward, but it is important that we get some idea at the outset of what we are trying to achieve. Without that, we are in serious danger of taking a wrong turn.
I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. It is timely and important, and I concur with all the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) on how we approach this subject. We have to be aware that we are all concerned about human rights. Some of us have spent a great deal of time trying to defend the human rights of the most vulnerable people in this country and other parts of the world. I regularly attend the UN Human Rights Council, for example, and see the importance there of having a forum where those rights can be defended, difficult though it may be. It at least gives the rest of the world an opportunity to say to an authoritarian Government, “You are in breach of the universal declaration of human rights of 1948, and there will be consequences if you persist.”
The European convention on human rights, which was drafted by the Tory Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, gives serious levels of protection to an awful lot of people—the right to family life and a number of other things which are frequently quoted against it in relation to immigration law and other matters. I urge those who decided to go down a tabloid road of saying, “All that matters is to get rid of the controversial Human Rights Act,” to be specific about what they want and what they mean by that. It seems to me that the agenda behind it is to walk away from the convention on the basis that it somehow interferes with our laws and rights. Well, at one level, any time any Government or Parliament anywhere signs a treaty, of course to some extent it reduces their powers and their unfettered ability to do something. That is the whole point of a treaty. By signing up to a convention that covers the whole of Europe, it means that we support a basic level of human rights for people across Europe.
Is it not important to draw a distinction between the convention and section 2 of the Human Rights Act? The point made about the Human Rights Act is that it incorporates the convention into English law. There were convention rights in the United Kingdom and in particular in England before the Human Rights Act. Section 2, which requires that the courts “must take into account” the acts of convention bodies, could be repealed without coming out of the convention. It is important to draw that distinction.
To clarify the apparent misunderstanding among Government Members, section 2 of the Human Rights Act is quite clear. The former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), was careful to remind the House of the careful steps that the Government went through before 2000. Section 2 says that UK courts and tribunals should take account of Strasbourg case law. It is not that they have to do so; it is possible for a UK court to consider and then ignore the jurisprudence. The understanding is that it is about taking account of, rather than blindly following the jurisprudence.
Thank you, Mr Betts. May we get back to the question of the Human Rights Act and what it says? It incorporates the convention into British law and requires courts to take account of the contents of the convention and the rights within it. The Conservative party’s love affair with the tabloids before the last election was all about walking away from this controversial thing because it interfered with British law. Interestingly, the Government, in the person of the Foreign Secretary, now say that we will not leave the convention, but that we might not operate within the purview of the European Court of Human Rights in the future. I am not sure how those two things can be put together. The Foreign Secretary said he will restore rights to British courts, but the rights of British courts have never actually been taken away; they have been asked to take into account an important convention.
The politics are simple. If Britain withdraws from the European convention on human rights and sets up a British Bill of Rights that is outwith that convention and may have all kinds of things within it—good, bad, indifferent, appalling or wonderful—it sends a message to every other country in Europe. Those countries thinking about withdrawing from the European convention because they have been criticised for their treatment of Travellers, for their treatment of gay, lesbian or transgender people, for suppressing popular protest or for closing down internet sites and suppressing newspapers would be a little bit happier if one country withdrew. If Britain—one of the original authors of the document—withdraws, I suspect that many others will withdraw, and the human rights of the whole continent will be significantly damaged as a result. I urge the Government to think carefully about this issue before they go any further.
The Prime Minister was quick to quote Magna Carta, but then bizarrely went to Runnymede to make a speech saying, in a sense, that he would ignore Magna Carta and withdraw from the European convention. He did not seem to realise that most of Magna Carta has been overturned by subsequent legislation anyway, and I think it is only the section on the right to trial by jury that remains. There was also a fundamental misunderstanding about Magna Carta defending the rights of free people. Unfortunately, the statutes of the time defined free people as those who had been given their freedom by the King. The vast majority of the population—the peasantry—was not given any rights at all.
In St Stephen’s, there is a wonderful painting of King John reluctantly putting his seal to Magna Carta. All the barons are saying, “Do it,” but a peasant is lying on the ground saying, “There is nothing in this for me. This is between the barons and the King.” The principles set out in Magna Carta—I would urge people to visit the Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library—descended through the law in many other ways, on the basis that irrational Government should be held to account for what they do and that everybody should be given rights to stand up for what they believe in, with the rest of society being required to allow them to do so.
I do not know what will be in this British Bill of Rights, if it comes about, but I am pretty horrified by the mood music surrounding it, which is about damaging our civil liberties and rights.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, just as judges often made decisions that did not please all the tabloid media before the Human Rights Act was passed, it is possible that judges will make decisions that some newspapers do not find to their liking even after a Conservative Bill of Rights has been introduced?
It is part of the balance in our constitutional process that Parliament is independent of the Executive and that the judiciary is independent of Parliament. Sometimes, the judiciary makes perverse decisions, and sometimes its decisions upset Ministers and lots of other people. That is the point of having an independent judicial system and of referring to the basic principles in the European convention on human rights—the right to assembly, the right to free speech, the right to know and the right not to be discriminated against.
I urge the Government not to go down this road, but to accept that the contribution made in the aftermath of the horrors of the second world war by the European convention on human rights and the wonderful document that is the universal declaration of human rights, with the work that Eleanor Roosevelt put into it, is part of a narrative of giving rights to everybody around the world, whatever their station. If this country, which prides itself on being the longest continuous democracy and having the longest lasting parliamentary system of government and judicial system, walks away from the European convention, every dictator and every person who is annoyed by international conventions will be a bit happier, and it will be a sad day for those who are standing up bravely for human rights against the most oppressive regimes in the world. Please don’t do it!
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I welcome the Minister to his place in what is the Justice Department’s first debate in Westminster Hall.
At the risk of offending both sides, may I suggest that we need to be a bit less theological? I have much sympathy for the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) in opening the debate, and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who is a distinguished lawyer. However, I suspect that the truth is somewhere in the middle.
There were human rights protections before the Human Rights Act came into force. The United Kingdom was a signatory to the European convention, and it is worth observing that although Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, in his subsequent career, was not noted for being on the liberal wing of the Conservative party, he none the less thought that the convention was a good and desirable thing. There were protections in the convention that the British courts took account of. It is fair to say that there were also sometimes practical issues about access and implementation, and we should not lose sight of that. The thought, therefore, that the Human Rights Act is a sort of holy grail is probably misleading, and we should not be afraid to think of looking at it again and reforming it. Equally, we should not assume that the convention is a permanent intrusion on the rights of British courts, because that would be wrong too. Let us try to find a way through the middle.
I serve on the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly and legal affairs committee. Perhaps rather horrifyingly to some people, I also serve on a committee that appoints the judges to the European Court—the idea that a committee of politicians appoints judges may seem odd to us, and that is perhaps an issue we have to look at. The quality of the current Court is, frankly, variable: we have some very good people, and we have some people whose independence does not come from the tradition that we are used to, if I can put it that way. On the other hand, the United Kingdom generally does not have an issue in terms of being at variance with the Strasbourg Court—we have one of the highest rates of compliance with its judgments—so, again, a bit of perspective might be required.
It is perhaps ironic that the Human Rights Act did not seek to create a binding precedent, but the approach taken by our domestic judiciary has frequently got fairly close to that. That is not an issue that withdrawal from the convention, of itself, would address, so we have to be realistic about what can be achieved. In any event, Strasbourg judgments would be regarded as being at least of persuasive value in arguments before our Supreme Court. Simply repealing the Act will not, therefore, make some of the controversy go away, and we have to be realistic about what can be achieved.
On the other hand, bizarre consequences sometimes stem from the Act’s operation, and we perhaps need to look carefully at that. I do not take the view that that would be a signal that we have turned our back on human rights. Britain’s compliance with the convention is rather better than, for example, Russia’s—I do not think we have invaded any of our neighbours recently—so let us put our disagreements with the convention into a bit of perspective.
I hope the Minister will give us a little more assistance on how we go forward. We are committed to a consultation, which is right. In fairness, the Government have committed themselves to a much more significant consultation than that which happened before the Human Rights Act. I would like to know more details of the consultation’s timetable and what form the consultation will take.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is one thing we need to look at? In the past, where we have found difficulties, we have legislated in separate legislation—we did that with the Immigration Act 2014. Changing the text of the Human Rights Act may not be the best course of action. If there are areas of difficulty, we can see whether there is separate legislation that is still compatible with the convention that we can introduce.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very fair point. I hope the Government will include that as part of the consultation. Some of the things that cause offence to many of our constituents might be remedied more easily in a more appropriate fashion. That is an important point.
The Government are committed to basing a British Bill of Rights on the convention, but we need a little more detail about what “basing” means. For example, are there any rights in the convention that it would not be proposed to include in the Bill? That is critical, because people would be concerned about a diminution of protections. On the other hand, are there areas where the current protections might be enhanced? We need that spelled out at an early stage.
What is the timetable? What is the proposed scope and level of detail of the prelegislative scrutiny? The Justice Committee, which I chair, will be most anxious to be involved in that scrutiny, but other parts of the House will also rightly have to have an input. We also need carefully to address the impact across the whole United Kingdom, because the United Kingdom was a signatory to the convention, and the Human Rights Act was a United Kingdom piece of legislation. It is important that we reflect on all those matters.
I am not perhaps as pessimistic about the prospects for constructive change as my right hon. and learned Friend. Perhaps that is because I am a West Ham supporter, so optimism must come naturally to me—something that you, as a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, will understand very well, Mr Betts.
I am glad my right hon. and learned Friend is a optimist—he may need to be in the present circumstances. One subject we may be able to address in making any changes is extraterritoriality, under article 1, particularly with regard to the military. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) may have touched on that when he talked about the possibility of other legislation being the way forward.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that promotion, which is unexpected and undeserved on both counts. I always look forward to the future with optimism as far as those two matters are concerned. Extraterritoriality is an important issue. It has exercised those involved in a number of recent Court judgments, and it is precisely the sort of area where we might find a proportionate and sensible way forward.
I hope we will engage with the profession on these issues, because there is a great deal of knowledge and understanding about this issue. We tend to regard what happens in the Strasbourg Court as a bit of a sideshow, and that would be a mistake, whatever side of the argument we are on.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as Chair of the Select Committee, and I wish him well. He talked about potential reform of the Human Rights Act. Does he envisage, and is he optimistic about, there being additional rights, or does he think the Government intend to take away rights that are in the Act?
That is the question the Government need to answer. The phrase “based on the convention” is important. I do not say that every bit of the convention’s wording is absolutely perfect in modern terms, but I think most of us would say that we want the principles that underpin the convention to be incorporated in any proposals. For what it is worth, my early urging to the Government is that the closer they stick to the convention’s wording in anything incorporated into British law, the better, because that would give us great clarity and security. Then we must look at the point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about the unintended consequences that were not always seen through in the Act, to do with extraterritoriality and related matters. I hope we will get assurances from the Minister on that point.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on bringing it forward.
It is my belief that we are elected to this place to do the best for our constituents. The best may not always translate as the most popular, but these are the choices that must be made by Members of this House. I cannot say that no good has come from the Human Rights Act—this would be an untruth—but I can, and as an MP I should, question whether it is the best form of rights protection. My conclusion may not please everyone in the House, but it is something that my party and I have deeply considered. We do not believe that it is the best way of protecting rights.
The Democratic Unionist party has long been critical of the Human Rights Act and the way in which it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. The Act has been abused by criminals and terrorists, who have used spurious challenges to avoid deportation. It has failed to protect the rights of innocent victims adequately. We want laws that assist victims to secure justice rather than enabling perpetrators to avoid it. We support, as a minimum, the reform of the Human Rights Act, to remove the “right to family life” defence against deportation upon conviction for a serious criminal offence.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his party is part of the institutions? His party leader is the First Minister in Northern Ireland and he is part of those institutions, as is his party. That is deeply enshrined with the Human Rights Act and the Good Friday agreement. Both are co-related; one cannot exist without the other, and central to all of that is human rights.
Obviously I would not agree with that. We certainly do not adhere to or support the Belfast agreement. We have no affinity with it whatsoever—I will speak about that later, if I can.
Whereas the Human Rights Act in principle was a good thing, once lawyers became involved it changed. A researcher in my office has a BA in law and I understand that she and I agree about this. I sometimes feel when I hear of European judgements that the status of our own judiciary is perpetually challenged by cases in courts where some of those presiding have questionable experience and make questionable rulings. How often do we hear of a European ruling and ask, “How can this be?”? Many is the time I ask this, and others do as well. The ruling on the Abu Qatada case has been mentioned, and it has been revealed that seven out of the 11 top judges at the Court have little or no judicial experience. Our British judges have to go through all the years of professional experience before they get to that position, yet some of the other judges making those decisions do not have the necessary experience or qualifications. How can we accept judicial rulings by those who are not in a position to do their job? That is one of my major reasons for opposing the enforcement of the Human Rights Act over our own law and rulings.
Mr Betts, I am conscious that others want to speak, and I want to give them the chance.
Four-hundred and twenty-five foreign national prisoners won their appeals against deportation
“primarily on the grounds of Article 8”.
I have some concerns about article 8; perhaps the Minister will give us his thoughts about that.
In response to those who say that any amendment of the Act would be a breach of the Belfast agreement, my answer is short and clear—I am sure that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) will listen carefully to this. The DUP did not support the Belfast agreement and has no affinity with it whatsoever. In fact, it has long argued that the United Kingdom should have a Bill of Rights that recognises and respects the diversity of the devolved arrangements across the country. The more pressing challenges that face the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland relate to the £2 million per week penalties being incurred because Sinn Fein has reneged on the Stormont Castle agreement—an agreement, incidentally, that the party of the hon. Member for South Down has adhered to as well. Yet she tells us off for not supporting the Act, when she and her party have not acted on what they signed up to in the Stormont Castle agreement, depriving us of £2 million that could be used to employ more nurses and teachers.
The DUP is fully committed to creating a society in which people are safe, secure and protected. We are also working to tilt the balance away from the criminals and towards the innocent victims of crime. That is where our focus will be. For too long people have felt as though the forces of law and order are not fully on their side. We are working to change that. Whether the hindrance lies at a local, national or European level, we want it tackled. It is for that reason that the DUP and I firmly believe that the Human Rights Act cannot continue as it is.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on obtaining the debate. Were he, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and I sitting as a three-man court of appeal, I should simply say, “I agree with my brothers and have nothing further to add,” but since we are not and I have a few minutes to say something, I think I shall.
First, the political reality is that there is no majority in this House, and there certainly is not in the other place, for a repeal of the Human Rights Act—still less for our removal from the European convention. The second point to think about was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), although perhaps the speed with which he spoke slightly confused things: there is a world of difference between attempting to repeal or amend an Act of Parliament and resiling or removing ourselves from an international treaty. That comes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the Good Friday agreement and other devolved questions. In so far as those are matters of treaty, there is not much that we can sensibly do in the House of Commons, apart from talking about it, to amend them or remove ourselves from them; but it strikes me that that feeds into the political reality. We are not going to unpick the devolution settlement at the behest of a tabloid newspaper that finds the word “Europe” disobliging.
There are several things that we need to think about, which I have discussed before, in relation to the problem. The question is a mixture of politics and law. I truly confess that there are plenty of lawyers who do not like politicians because they find them thoughtless, intemperate and political; and plenty of politicians who have not condescended yet to read the Human Rights Act, still less the convention. There is therefore a gap between people’s state of knowledge and their prejudices. Politicians need to arbitrate that difference.
Perhaps the most important question that we need to ask is what the point of the exercise is. Is it necessary, and what will it achieve? Well, it will achieve an awful lot of political angst, a split in the Conservative party and a disagreement across the Chamber to little effect. At some point we will have to work out whether it is all worth the candle. Yes, of course there are things that one can do to tinker with an Act of Parliament. One should pay more attention to section 2; one should understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) a moment ago about the human rights regime and our armed services. There are all sorts of sensible things that we could talk about, but we do not need to waste the next four and a half years of this Parliament banging our heads against an impenetrable brick wall to no effect.
Thank goodness we have my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary here to handle the flaming cauldron, and carry it carefully, like—mixing my metaphors—a delicate Ming vase all the way to the next election, where he can quietly lock it in a cupboard and forget about it.
I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for bringing this debate to the Chamber. It is important to recognise the significant journey that human rights law has made in recent years, but such developments speak volumes about the necessity to ensure that all protections are given to individuals in society.
It speaks volumes about the Government’s priorities that they would rather unravel the substantial and important progress that has been made than protect and enhance people’s rights. They would rather ignore the voices echoing from the Opposition Benches on austerity, tackling poverty and building a fairer society, and instead focus on a narrowly defined British Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, those of us elected to champion the voices of our constituents are faced with ensuring that individuals can face a challenging job market that rewards big business while the poorest in our society struggle to put food on their table to feed their children. Is this really the priority of a Government faced with real challenges here in the UK?
It is true that one of the most important roles of any Government is to ensure the safety of their citizens, but where do we draw the line between security and the infringement of people’s liberty and rights? Although I concede A. V. Dicey’s principle of sovereignty that suggests that Parliament may
“make or unmake any law”,
perhaps we could imagine for a second that even Dicey might call into question the balance of the rights of citizens and that it ought not to be undermined by the belief that a currently undefined British Bill of Rights could provide any more guarantees or protections of the rights of citizens than the Human Rights Act.
We ought to focus on enhancing and improving the existing Act to ensure that the rights and responsibilities of citizens are not neglected but respected. A British Bill of Rights raises serious concerns and costs, which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has already raised. Such a Bill would inevitably weaken the existing human rights safeguards and protections, most likely affecting the most vulnerable citizens in our society.
It is easy to take for granted the European convention on human rights and the crucial protections that is has guaranteed thus far, but we must remember the important role played by the 1998 Act and the rights that it has guaranteed. Victims of domestic abuse have received better protection. Victims of rape have been given proper police investigations. Disabled individuals who have been affected by the welfare reforms imposed by the Government have the right to challenge legislation that they deem unfit and unfair—most notably the bedroom tax. Social housing tenants have the opportunity to challenge decisions that affect their right to safe and secure housing. Members of the LGBTI community have overcome discrimination. Families of military personnel killed on active service have been given recourse for the supply of the out-of-date equipment that has cost lives and affected the loved ones left behind.
For all the reasons I have outlined, we must protect the European convention on human rights. We must strive and continue to be a tolerant, compassionate and equal nation, with a progressive and outward vision in a global context.
I look forward to having a British Bill of Rights on the statute book. That was in our manifesto, and it would only increase cynicism in politics if we abandoned such a clear manifesto commitment.
When the Bill is introduced, I hope it will include the word “responsibilities”. One thing that really annoys constituents is that the principle of equity, which runs right through English law like a golden thread, is not applied in very many human rights cases. People want a sense of fairness. They particularly want to ensure that those who come before the courts do so with clean hands, and that if they do not, they cannot expect to be treated in the same way as those who do.
The issue is not compliance with the strict words of the European convention on human rights—they are not an issue, because we all agree with them. The only reason why one country in Europe is currently not a member of the Council of Europe is that Belarus refuses to disapply the death penalty. That is a fundamental breach of the legislation.
More difficult is the judicial interpretation of the original words of the convention, which now extend into what is effectively judge-made law, over which Parliament and the people have no control. We are all familiar with the issue of voting rights for prisoners and how it was specifically excluded in the discussions leading up to the signing of the protocol. The sentence of life imprisonment was clearly introduced as a substitute for the death penalty, but even that is now being undermined by the European Court of Human Rights saying that there should be the opportunity for a review, rather than life meaning life.
I am not going to take any interventions, because even if I get an extra minute it will mean others will lose out.
Article 31.1 of the Vienna convention on the law of treaties makes it clear that
“a treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its objects and purpose”.
If the European Court of Human Rights was doing that, there would not be a problem.
The UK Government are in close contact with the thinking of the European Court of Justice. In its opinion earlier this year, the European Court of Justice said that the EU could not join the European convention on human rights because of concerns that the interpretation of human rights law in Europe would then rest with the European convention on human rights rather than the European Court of Justice. We are in exactly the same position in this country: we want our own Supreme Court to interpret the treaty, rather than to leave it to an external body.
The Government are on the right course and should not be deterred by the siren words we have heard from so many people this afternoon.
Order. We have time for only two more speeches before we go to the Front-Bench speakers. I am sorry that I cannot call everyone who wants to speak, but I will call everyone who asked in advance. That should be a helpful tip for Members in future.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on initiating this debate and introducing it so thoughtfully.
I hesitate to give any opinion in such an eminent gathering as this, but it seems to me that this debate is not between those who support human rights and those who do not—the lovers of free speech and defenders of liberty and the right to trial on one side and the torturers, summary executioners and deniers of basic freedoms on the other. It is not that sort of debate; it is simply about the place in national law of human rights and the related conventions. It is about the place of basic standards of morality and legality in public life, lawmaking and social action, and the fundamental principles by which those things can be judged.
Not everyone believes in human rights functioning in a fundamentalist way. I do not know how many Members read Matthew Parris’s article in The Times, but he described human rights as desiderata. John Stuart Mill and the utilitarians, who are practically saints in liberal circles, described human rights as “nonsense upon stilts”. Reading the Daily Mail, it is sometimes quite easy to see why people say such things. The catalogue of human rights varies and grows. Sometimes the frivolous demands of vexatious people are expressed as though they were human rights. Even when there is agreement on the wording, there is often difference over how the words are to be interpreted: more or less every nation on the planet has signed up to the United Nations declaration of human rights, but they interpret them in their own idiosyncratic ways.
Crucially, it is very hard to sort out cases where laws and actions to protect one basic human right conflict with or impact detrimentally on another. It is hard to weigh and prioritise such matters. All the important difficult issues have been of that nature—for example, weighing up the right to family life against national security, or the right to public participation through voting against the justifiable expectation that prisoners will be punished and forfeit something.
It appears to me that the European convention on human rights is grounded in a time when things were a lot clearer than they are now. The previous theory inherited something from the natural law theory of the middle ages and then disposed of it, but when we got to the end of the second world war, there was a clear expectation that minimal standards had to be set, against which to benchmark any nation’s behaviour, even if it was validated by the nation’s own law. At that time, the rule of law on the continent had effectively been the rule of terror. I cannot see anything in the convention that lays down a social blueprint for any nation; it simply defines the conditions for a just society. Some of the rules are uncontentious—almost formal—and some are more arguable and substantive, but no one has questioned today the idea of such benchmarking. No one in the entire debate has suggested that it does not play an important role in encouraging a civilised and tolerant society.
Having recognised that, on which there seems to be consensus, the next questions are how it should be policed, who does it and who enforces it. We would all agree that it could not be nations themselves as they would in effect be marking their own homework. As some have suggested, it could be a national judiciary that carries out that role, with or without further appeal, but that assumes a universal cultural independence from Government and that judiciaries are the same across Europe, both of which cannot be assumed. It would also defeat the purpose of international validation of what an individual country is doing, and it fails to apply effective pressure on rogue states and their behaviour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to salute the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the former Secretary of State for Scotland, for initiating and leading this debate. He dealt with the devolution issue extraordinarily well and none of us disagreed with his fundamental point that to unravel devolution agreements by challenging the Human Rights Act would not be wise.
I ask the Minister for his interpretation of “taking into account”. We need clarification of that, following the exchanges of this debate. When I tell someone that I am taking their views into account, I am usually saying, “I heard, but I’m not going to do it.” We need to recognise that that is really what the phrase means. That is why it is probably unwise of the Government to be quite so controversial in their proposals.
The other issue to consider is what a Bill of Rights looks like. Without giving a history lesson, we already have a Bill of Rights. It was passed in 1689, but it did not actually do the job that the Government will have in mind for any future such Bill. The danger is that once rights start to be defined they can be restricted. Calibrating or describing rights is not as easy as it first appears. The risk is that a Bill of Rights could be too tight or too loose. It is important that we see what the Bill of Rights might look like.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem with the rights debate in Britain has been that, unlike countries such as South Africa, we have failed to debate what to do when rights clash? For example, the right to private and family life and the right to protest clash, and we in Britain have not debated how to deal with those clashes.
My way at looking at things in terms of English law is that I prefer to assume that I have a right unless Parliament has told me that I do not. That is how we should be operating.
Doing something different from what we have done in the past also has international implications. As we have already heard, the architect of the European Court of Human Rights was a former Conservative Home Secretary who was not a libertarian in the true sense of the word. Leaving the Court would be to depart from that tradition and would risk our international reputation while making it harder still for other nations to think in terms of their own aspirations for rights, and might not discourage others in their intention not to give rights. The issue is not only legal, but one of foreign policy.
In short, we must consider the matter carefully. I would prefer to have legislation that improves what we already have, rather than undermining and changing the structure that we have become used to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate on an important topic. He rightly said that human rights are part of the UK’s constitutional architecture, he touched on their significance for the devolved settlement and he asked us what we are seeking to achieve through appeal of the Human Rights Act and what the Government’s future intentions are regarding the European convention on human rights.
The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) made a valid point when he said that repeal here is an extremely difficult project that could deliver limited benefits. He also asked what we are trying to achieve—a question that has been echoed by many speakers. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) stated that our repealing the Human Rights Act would send out the wrong message.
I am conscious of the time limit, so I will quickly move on to my points, which, as the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, particularly relate to the devolved settlement and how it affects Scotland. The SNP has been deeply concerned by recent statements from Ministers that suggest that they believe that the UK Government could repeal the Human Rights Act without reference to the Scottish Parliament. They argue that the Sewel convention would not be engaged because human rights are a reserved matter. That is wrong and legally illiterate. Human rights are not a reserved matter and are not listed as such in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Schedule 4 to the Scotland Act protects the Human Rights Act against modification by the Scottish Parliament, but human rights per se are not a reserved matter. It was part of Donald Dewar’s scheme that all matters would be devolved unless they were specifically reserved. Human rights are not specifically reserved.
Moreover, human rights are written into the Scotland Act. The European convention on human rights is entrenched in the Act through section 29(2)(d), which provides that an Act of the Scottish Parliament that is incompatible with the ECHR is actually outwith the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. Section 57(2) states:
“A member of the Scottish Executive has no power to make any subordinate legislation, or to do any other act, so far as the legislation or act is incompatible with”
the ECHR. It is therefore incorrect to say that human rights are a reserved matter. They are devolved and I urge the Minister to think carefully about the statements made by his colleagues to the effect that the Sewel convention would not be engaged.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of a “respect” agenda, and I stand here as one of 56 SNP Members elected at the general election. I urge the Government to consider their respect agenda, to return to the Scotland Act 1998 and to get their lawyers to look at it carefully. They will find that human rights are not a reserved matter and are devolved, and that the Human Rights Act should not be repealed or otherwise interfered with by the British Parliament without first seeking the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
I want to make it clear, however, that the SNP would seek to prevent the repeal of the Human Rights Act for the whole United Kingdom. It is a fundamental issue and we want the Human Rights Act to remain on the statute book for the entire UK because, as the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said, it has brought huge benefit in terms of the accessibility of rights for people in this country. Examples of those rights were provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Betts. I congratulate all who have spoken so eloquently today and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate and bringing the matter before the House before the summer recess. I am going to take an unusual course by endeavouring not to take my full 10 minutes. I will do that because the official Opposition’s position is clear, so I would simply be restating it, whereas the Government’s position is unclear and I am sure that the Minister will want the maximum time to be able to elucidate it.
When I was responding to the debate on the Gracious Speech, I made it clear that we will resist any attempt to undermine or repeal the Human Rights Act, or to detach this country from the European convention. More importantly, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) made a detailed speech on the subject on 16 June, in which she said:
“The Government has signalled that they want to fundamentally undermine the Human Rights Act. This is what lies behind the announcement in the Queen’s Speech that they would be consulting on a ‘British Bill of Rights’. We think that even the consultation is the start of a slippery slope… I give you my assurance that we are going to be clear with the Prime Minister that he must not go ahead with this. I’ve today written to the Prime Minister demanding that he drops these plans and… Their policy is intellectually incoherent and, worse, it’s wrong in principle.”
It would be at best otiose and at worst lèse majesté for me to amplify or qualify what the leader of the party has said.
The real question for the debate is: what are the Government’s intentions and what is the process to get us there? That is particularly important given the contradictory signals coming from the Government almost daily. Days before the Gracious Speech, the repeal of the Human Rights Act was being presaged as one of the centrepieces of the Queen’s Speech, only to be dropped entirely from the first Session’s legislation. We are now promised a consultation—perhaps the Minister will enlighten us as to what form it will take or when it will take place. Will the Minister also publish some of the drafts—I think we are up to about 10 or 14—of the Bill that was being prepared under the coalition Government in private by Martin Howe QC and others on behalf of the Conservative party? Presumably that document will now become a Government one.
The key issue has to be the relationship between the Human Rights Act and the European convention. I will correct, or at least qualify, one thing that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. He said he hoped that Government policy was not the same as it was last October. I wondered about that, so on 4 June I asked that question specifically of the Leader of the House of Commons—he was the person who produced the original documentation. He responded:
“The Conservative party’s policy on human rights has not changed since last October.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 784.]
For those who have not read the document recently, it states something that will no doubt please the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) about the Council of Europe accepting UK demands:
“In the event that we are unable to reach that agreement, the UK would be left with no alternative but to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, at the point at which our Bill comes into effect.”
Is that now Government policy? It is not inconsistent, for example, with what the Home Secretary said two years ago, although it appeared to be inconsistent with what the Prime Minister was saying. According to press reports, the Prime Minister was somewhat “at odds” with the Home Secretary and the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). Now, however, there appears to be some agreement at the top of the Conservative party and the Government that we will at least countenance withdrawal from the European convention, but it is confusing.
The Minister here today gave this response in Justice Questions last week:
“We will legislate for a Bill of Rights to protect our fundamental rights… Our plans do not involve us leaving the convention; that is not our objective”—
only for the sentence to continue—
“but our No. 1 priority is to restore some balance to our human rights laws, so no option is off the table for the future.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 748.]
What is the situation? Within an hour of that reply, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was on the “World at One” on the BBC saying that it was perfectly possible that we would be withdrawing from the European convention.
I endeavoured to find some record of what the Justice Secretary might have said before coming into his post. This is what I found, from when the convention was incorporated in 2000. I do not know if his views have changed, but interestingly it was written in the context of the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland:
“The Human Rights culture is already spreading in our society, uprooting conventions on which our stability has rested… It supplants common sense and common law, and erodes individual dignity by encouraging citizens to see themselves as supplicants and victims to be pensioned by the state.”
That does not sound like a strong endorsement of human rights, but perhaps the Minister will be able to elucidate in his response.
There are very difficult problems and hurdles. With all due respect to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, the matters we are discussing are not “theological” ones. Our relationship with supranational law will become an issue if we produce some British Bill of Rights that is the bespoke device of the Justice Secretary and the Minister. Unless they are intending to withdraw from all international treaties and conventions and indeed from the European Court of Justice, whose judgments are far more prescriptive and binding than those of the Strasbourg Court, inevitably there will be two systems running in parallel, a British one and an international one, to both of which our courts will have to pay attention.
The Minister must address the issues raised by the Front-Bench spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), about the devolved Administrations. He must also address some practical problems, such as how he will get his own colleagues and the House of Lords on board and how—perhaps the central point to have come out of today’s debate—he will explain why any of it is necessary in the first place.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) has said that most of the problems that have arisen with the European Court of Human Rights over a period of time are in the process of being, or have been, resolved.
If it is so impossible to have a British Bill of Rights alongside adherence to the convention, why is it the case that Germany, France and almost every other European country have their own constitutions with enshrined charters of rights that sit quite comfortably alongside adherence to the convention?
That question is for the Minister to answer, because we have seen literally nothing from the Government to explain any compatibility. As for the question about “taking into account” raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and how we square the circle between the judgments of the Strasbourg Court, our own higher courts and the sovereignty of Parliament—none of that is in issue any more. The question really, if I may put it back to the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), is this: what is wrong with the existing system that allows the law to evolve and the judiciary in this country to influence judgments of the European Court, often in an entirely beneficial way because of the quality of such judgments? Why are we seeking to retreat from, rather than to advance the cause of international law? Why are we seeking not to have the benefit of international law? It seems to be a little England, or little UK approach, and when the hon. Gentleman reflects on it, he might find himself on the side of those who believe that little needs to change, instead of throwing out an honourable tradition of human rights drawn up over many centuries.
It is an honour and a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate on the future of the Human Rights Act.
I listened with great interest to all the contributions. I shall touch on a few of them, such as that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who gave a powerful speech about some of the risks involved in this enterprise. I detected that he is perhaps not quite as sympathetic to the concept of a Bill of Rights as he was when he was shadow Justice Secretary, but I was heartened to hear that he was offering creative solutions along the way.
The Minister is quite right. In 2009 I worked on a paper with him as my chief of staff about the possibility of a Bill of Rights. As was rightly said, such a Bill of Rights is perfectly possible, but it will not solve the problems or issues that have been the driving force behind the Government’s current project unless we intend to decouple ourselves from the European convention, which, mercifully, I understand not to be our policy. There is the conundrum that my hon. Friend will have to grapple with.
I thought I had detected a slight revival of my right hon. and learned Friend’s former enthusiasm, but perhaps I was too optimistic.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for his contribution. He always speaks powerfully on these issues—I have listened to him speaking on human rights since I joined this House. He took us back to Magna Carta and its modern-day relevance.
I am sure you could.
I also welcome the contribution made by the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I congratulate him on his election to that post and look forward to being grilled in due course. He counselled us not to treat the Human Rights Act as a holy grail that cannot be questioned. That was a useful injection of common sense into the debate.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who highlighted some of the cases under the HRA that have been of concern to his party. He raised in particular the application of article 8 with regard to deportation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) made some powerful points on section 2 of the Act and on extraterritorial jurisdiction. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) raised the difficult issue of the balance between liberty and security. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) discussed judicial legislation from Strasbourg—he has huge experience of that as a result of his representation on the Council of Europe.
There were other excellent speeches to which I cannot pay individual tribute, but I should also acknowledge the speech made by the shadow Minister, who reiterated his party’s position and lamented the lack of detail in the Government’s current proposals. I say to him gently that one issue with the Human Rights Act, arguably, is that it was rushed through, as it was introduced within six months. As a result of that haste, some problems have now emerged that we were warned of at the Act’s inception. The Government are not going to rush in the way the then Labour Government rushed through the Human Rights Act. We will take a little time, because we want to get it done right rather than quickly.
Most people do not think it was rushed but would say that it was 20 or 30 years too late. The effect of the Act is to incorporate the convention, which it does, to use the phrase of the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), in a very conservative way. What is the problem with that?
The shadow Minister makes an interesting point. If, as a new Government, we had introduced a Bill within six months, it would have been argued that that was too hasty.
On the problems that have arisen as a result, a former shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who is no longer in his place, took to The Daily Telegraph just last year to point out some of the problems with section 2 of the Act:
“Too often, rather than ‘taking into account’ Strasbourg rulings and by implication, finding their own way, our courts have acted as if these rulings were binding on their decisions. As a result, the sovereignty of our courts and the will of Parliament have both been called into question. This needs sorting out.”
If the Labour party has U-turned on that rather thoughtful critique of its own legislation and now, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, believes the Act to be a holy grail that cannot be touched, called into question or criticised at all, there are some questions for Labour to answer. I know hon. Members in the shadow Minister’s party would not all agree on that matter.
I shall take this opportunity to set out the Government’s position. I should say that I have found the debate very valuable at this still formative stage of the Government’s process towards enacting a Bill of Rights. To answer some of the questions put, we will be consulting formally this Session, including with the devolved Administrations—I am aware that there are some issues there—and I hope hon. Members will understand if I do not prejudge that consultation or its terms in my remarks today.
I remind hon. Members that the United Kingdom has a strong tradition of respect for human rights that long predates the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government are proud of that tradition and will be true to it in delivering our reforms. As I explained at Justice questions, our plans do not involve us leaving the convention. That is not our objective. We want to restore some common-sense balance to our human rights, which are out of kilter, so nothing has been taken off the table.
The hon. Gentleman is alluding to the idea of having a middle course between throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as some have described it—tearing up human rights, getting rid of the convention and not replacing it—and trying to reform the current model by looking at the way the convention has been applied and interpreted. There are not huge numbers of objections to the black letter law of the convention’s text, but the way it has been applied and extended is a matter of concern. All that will be the subject of debate and consultation.
I say, in passing, that I hope we never get to the stage where the implementation of law by the courts is entirely to the satisfaction of the Government. Surely the problem is that if we get to a point where we have a British Bill of Rights but remain a contracting party to the European convention, which has a higher standard of human rights protection, anyone dissatisfied with their rights as applied in the UK domestic courts under the British Bill could still have recourse to the wider protection of the European Court in Strasbourg.
The right hon. Gentleman is tempting me to prejudge the substantive content of the Bill and the consultation. He has raised some interesting points, which we will no doubt thrash out in due course; I look forward to that.
I will refer to some of the principal concerns about the Human Rights Act, as that is the subject of the debate. Given the time restraints I will refer to just a few examples from what is by no means an exhaustive list. The first is the exponential expansion of rights that the design of the Human Rights Act, whether tacitly or otherwise, has promoted. It has encouraged a rights inflation that, as has already been acknowledged, has tended to undermine the so-called liberal model of human rights, shifting away from what people like Isaiah Berlin would refer to as negative liberty, or the John Stuart Mill model of shielding the citizen, towards imposing obligations on the state rather than constraining it. If that were in any doubt, the textbooks—I am sure hon. Members across the House are familiar with them—are littered with examples of the celebration of that, whether through the living instrument doctrine in Strasbourg or our own case law.
The practical effect of rights inflation has been to dilute personal responsibility. The growth of rights—the expansion of the realm of rights—increases the power of the individual, however nefarious or otherwise, to trump the good of the rest of society. The more that extends beyond the bedrock of core liberties, the more corrosive the effects. I will give one brief illustration, to highlight the fact that personal responsibility is being eroded or diluted: the claim that the Government’s welfare to work policy amounted to forced labour under the European convention.
I should say straight away that that claim failed, but the fact that it made its way through the UK court system to the Supreme Court is telling. It is striking that lawyers thought they could stretch an article of the convention that was designed, after the experience of concentration camps during world war two, to address grave issues of slavery and forced labour so as to attack the principle of conditionality in welfare reform. It is just one illustration of how the HRA has proved rather malleable material for the ingenious twisting of the basic conception of human rights, rather than simply bringing rights home, which was the Act’s explicit contention.
The second concern I will raise about the HRA is its effect on the rule of law, and in particular the effect that some of the haphazard case law has had on legal certainty. I refer hon. Members to the tragic case of Naomi Bryant, and the review by HM Inspectorate of Probation of the case, which found that the licence conditions placed on Anthony Rice on his release were too lax and noted that lawyers had whittled away the conditions by deploying arguments to do with the Human Rights Act. I will not go into that further—I have the quotes with me but will not read them out—but if anyone wants to look into that case further, they should look at that report.
The third issue I will raise is the way that the Human Rights Act has exposed us unnecessarily to too much judicial legislation from Strasbourg—for example, in the case of prisoner voting. In truth, as we should not make this into some strictly European bogey, there have been examples of domestic judicial legislation as well, about article 8 in particular—we should deal with our home-grown problems, too. That is easy to do without bringing into question our membership of the European convention.
Finally, I hope the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has had the opportunity to read the excellent article by Baroness Faulkner, Liberal Democrat spokesperson on foreign affairs, in May’s edition of Prospect. In case he has not, and for the benefit of this wider audience, I will quote a few choice words:
“Britain can replace the HRA and retain a decent, humane legal system. The human rights lobby has reacted with horror at the government’s proposal. But they are mistaken... A British Bill of Rights is a good idea.”
I do not agree with the whole article but it is well worth a read.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and welcome his contribution. I hope he will not mind if I encourage him to circulate that article among the other members of his party.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Human Rights Act 1998.
MV Seaman Guard Ohio
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the detention of MV Seaman Guard Ohio crew in India.
At the beginning of my contribution, I want to place on record my sincere thanks to Lisa Dunn, the sister of Nick Dunn. She has worked assiduously on behalf of the six men who are still being detained in India, despite having the charges against them quashed more than a year ago. The six men’s families have been absolutely outstanding under the most extreme and difficult circumstances. They deserve the utmost praise for their actions, which have been relentless.
Having said that, this is a very serious case involving, in my view, a serious breach of the international human rights of six British citizens—former military men who served this country on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly and understandably, they feel utterly betrayed, abandoned and ignored by the British Government—by the country that they so bravely fought for. At their greatest time of need, they feel betrayed. We should put ourselves, just for a minute, in their shoes. They have had so many false dawns and promises and so much false hope and misinformation. After all this time, they are still awaiting firm action and some decision by the Indian authorities.
I want to mention the staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have kept and still keep in contact with the families. They have done a marvellous job, but they seem to be totally constrained by protocols, democracy and convention, which has been a great source of frustration, as the families believe that little if any real progress has been made.
There is a lot of merit in what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I will come to that question. At the same time, it is very difficult to tell the six British citizens that there is very little we can do other than just talk across the political divide and speak to the Indian authorities without actually making any progress. They feel betrayed, and that is the problem. It is up to us as British politicians to do what we can to try and help them.
My constituent—indeed, my friend—Ray Tindall, who, as my hon. Friend said, served loyally in some very dangerous war zones on behalf of this country, feels bitterly betrayed. Is it not the case that, even within India, there is no doubt about the men’s innocence? I am sure that hon. Members here have never doubted that either, so perhaps we might see a little more effort on behalf of the British Government to impress that on the Indian Government.
There is no doubt that these people are innocent. All the charges against them were quashed in July 2014, which is nearly a year ago. In my view, they are not even in the judicial procedure, because the charges against them were quashed. I am sure that the Minister will address that point of contention.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way again, which I appreciate. If I am wrong on this point, I am sure that the Minister will correct me in his winding-up speech, but I understand that the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Modi, may well visit Britain later this year. If he does and if this matter is not resolved by then, does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be an excellent opportunity for our Prime Minister to raise the case with the Indian Prime Minister?
I sincerely hope that these gentlemen are on British soil before the Indian Prime Minister gets here. I believe that the British Prime Minister has spoken to the Indian Prime Minister—it has been at that level before—so the issue has been raised between the two parties. However, the families and everyone else will hope sincerely that these people are back way before then. That is how the situation stands.
The families feel as though there has been an extreme lack of any progress. On many occasions, news has filtered through the system from other nationalities. News about different court dates and important items discussed with, for example, the Estonians and Ukrainians has filtered through to our six UK citizens before any information has come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I mentioned the Prime Minister to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), and I have spoken to him personally. I have raised this matter on the Floor of the House with him, with the former Foreign Secretary and, on numerous occasions, with the Minister. The question really is: has anybody listened? I do not want to be too critical, but the men are still there after nearly two years. Has anybody listened? The men and their families are extremely angry. The men are still in India; they are not allowed to leave. Their passports are still withdrawn by the authorities, despite the charges of illegal acts being quashed. It is a clear violation of their international human rights. These are innocent people in a Commonwealth country.
I have spoken to the Minister, who I thank for the meetings that he has kindly arranged on this issue. He has stated numerous times that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot interfere in other countries’ judicial/legal systems, but these men have had the charges against them dropped. They are basically destitute. They are stuck in another country—a Commonwealth country—and we should be able to assist. They are innocent.
The series of rather unfortunate events began a long time ago, on 12 October 2013, when the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, a Sierra Leone-flagged vessel owned by AdvanFort, was intercepted by the Indian coastguard off the Tuticorin coast. The vessel had been involved in supporting anti-piracy operations by supplying armed escort services to commercial vessels travelling through a piracy hotspot in the Indian ocean. The crew were arrested and detained by the Indian coastguard near the port on suspicion of possessing arms without the appropriate licences.
The crew of 35 aboard the ship were of different nationalities, including Indian, British, Ukrainian and Estonian nationals. The British crew members were Mr Paul Towers, Mr William Irving, Mr Nicholas Simpson, Mr Raymond Tindall, Mr John Armstrong and my constituent Mr Nick Dunn. All crew members were remanded in custody following questioning on 18 October 2013. Two crew members—the captain and an engineer—were not arrested initially but were later. Q branch then submitted charges against 45 accused persons, including the company, its director, 35 crew members and eight locals, for offences under the Arms Act 1959, the Essential Commodities Act 1955, the Motor Spirit and High Speed Diesel (Regulation of Supply and Distribution and Prevention of Malpractices) Order 1998 and the Indian penal code of 1860. On 20 October 2013, 22 foreign nationals among the 35 arrested crew were moved from the prison they were in to Chennai Puzhal Central prison.
Not until 18 December 2013 were bail applications made on behalf of all the crew. In the bail plea, the crew alleged that the vessel was coming into the port for supplies. The vessel was stormed by as many as 25 officials from eight different agencies as it tried to enter the port. Counsel for the crew contended that, based on the doctrine of innocent passage as envisaged in section 3 of the UN convention on the law of the sea 1982, no charge could be levelled against the crew. However, the High Court in Madras refused bail, stating that the investigations were still at an initial stage and a release could jeopardise the investigation.
On Boxing day 2013, conditional bail was granted after the crew argued that Q branch had failed to file the charge sheet within 60 days of their arrest. However, on 7 January 2014, the Principal Sessions Court cancelled the conditional bail granted by the lower court. In February 2014, a new bail application was filed. It detailed the brutal treatment of the prisoners and their deteriorating health due to malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, mental harassment and emotional trauma. Conditional bail was granted on 26 March 2014, but the men were not released until 6 April, some 11 days later. However, the British vice-captain, Paul Towers, remained in jail. On 10 July 2014, the charges against the crew were quashed in the Indian High Court in Madras.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time and I congratulate him on the tireless work that he has done to keep this matter in the public eye. This debate allows me to highlight the case of my own constituent, Mr William Irving from Oban, who is one of the six people in India. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that today Mr Irving had the opportunity to meet his son for the first time? His partner, Yvonne, had to take the baby to India to allow Mr Irving to meet his child for the first time. I spoke to Mr Irving’s parents this morning, and they are very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter again in this way. They feel, as Mr Irving does, both betrayed and abandoned. All they want is this ordeal to stop. Does the hon. Gentleman agree me that until it does, the Government have a duty of care towards the six detained people and that they must look after them in the way that other Governments seem to be looking after their detained seamen? Our Government seem not to be doing that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am delighted that Mr Irving has met his son. It is just such a shame that, two years after this began, his partner and son have had to travel to India. The sister of my constituent, Nick Dunn, travelled there almost a year ago to visit him and saw the horrible, squalid conditions in which he was living in Puzhal prison. Of course we need to be acting, as I have been saying during my contribution.
On 25 August 2014, the state of Tamil Nadu filed an application to appeal the decision to which I have referred. We are almost a year on from that, yet the men remain in India. Despite numerous court hearings, including one that saw all charges against them dropped back in July, their passports have not been returned and they are unable to leave India. Each time the six British nationals and former servicemen have been told that a final judgment on their case is imminent, the deadline has been put back. It had been hoped that a judgment would be forthcoming before the courts in India adjourned for their annual summer recess on 15 May. However, that did not happen and the men have now been told that it will be July before they hear any news.
The treatment that these people have had since their imprisonment has been nothing short of appalling. AdvanFort, the company that owned the vessel, abandoned the men almost immediately. It was more interested in the return of the ship than the safety and welfare of the crew. Despite emails from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and communications from the offices of MPs—including, I am sure, people in the Chamber today—it did not reply or respond to anyone at all. Will the Minister say what powers the Government have in relation to companies, such as AdvanFort, that abandon British nationals to defend themselves without even legal representation?
I would like the Minister also to consider a few questions that have been relayed to me from the families and the individuals themselves. Why have the British Government sat by while they have been illegally detained since September 2014, even though they have been given lawyers’ letters stating that fact? The individuals claim that legal advice has been passed to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office explaining how they are innocent, yet there has been little if any progress. Legal evidence provided to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Chennai and London from legal experts clearly states that the actions of the Indian authorities are a breach of the crew’s human rights. Why has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office not sought to investigate that? Why was that information not taken seriously by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UK Government? Have the UK Government not just updated their policy on the promotion of international human rights aimed at protecting UK citizens abroad, including in relation to the unlawful detention of our citizens? If that is the case, why is the situation different for our friends, the UK citizens in India?
These men are not allowed to work. They are not allowed to earn a living; they are not allowed to earn anything. They are being held against their wishes and are relying on charity and assistance from their families in order to exist. They have to pay for their accommodation, food and drink and medical treatment. And what about the families back home, who have lost their worldly possessions? They have lost cars, in some cases homes, and much, much more as a result of this illegal detention. Quite simply, these men’s lives and family lives have been utterly destroyed. Will the Minister say what the Government can do to assist in that respect?
The Minster has made reference to the issue being raised continually. Is he able to inform the individuals of the content of the conversations that he and the Prime Minister have had with the Indian authorities? The crew members wonder why the detail of those conversations has till now been kept confidential. Can the Minister clarify that the men were not officially required to stay in India following the quashing of their charges? Why are they currently detained when they should be free men? Why have new passports not been released? Will the Minister confirm his next steps to bring an end to the sheer misery being suffered by the men and their families? I am talking about the mental, physical and financial torture that they continue to suffer through being detained. Please give them, Minister, a glimmer of hope. Remember that these are men who jeopardised their own lives—they put their own lives in danger—for their country. They need the Government to act positively to return them to their loved ones without delay. Remember that these are innocent men.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing the debate and I commend the strong support he has given to his constituent, Mr Nick Dunn, and the rest of the British crew of the Seaman Guard Ohio. Three of the men are now represented by three new hon. Members, who I think are all in their places in this Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a number of issues relating to the case. As he concedes, I, too, have taken a close interest in the matter. I have met the current and former MPs involved and the family members several times, most recently in March, and I will meet right hon. and hon. Members again once we have had the verdict of the Supreme Court of India on the case.
I must stress at the outset that this is a legal, not a political, case. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), who has been assiduous in representing his constituent, has pointed out, the British Government cannot interfere in another country’s legal process any more than we would allow another country to interfere in ours. Incidentally, I believe that that is something that the former Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) has struggled to understand.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my speech, I will remind people that the matter has been appealed, and the case starts tomorrow in the Supreme Court. That is the Indian judicial process, within the boundaries and confines of which we have to operate.
Consular staff are not investigative officers or legal advisers, nor can they—or any of us—take a view on the guilt or innocence of those to whom they provide consular assistance. Nevertheless, no one in the Chamber this afternoon will fail to appreciate that this has been and continues to be a difficult and distressing time for the men and their families. I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record the Government’s approach to the case and the consular assistance we have provided and continue to provide. We believe that our consular staff have behaved with professionalism despite considerable provocation at times.
The Minister says that the matter is not political, but will he confirm that of the 35 people originally arrested, the Indian contingent have been allowed to go home and seek employment, the 16 Estonians are being subsidised in their food and accommodation by the Estonian Government, but the six British servicemen have been instructed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to beg from family and friends to house and feed themselves? Although we are not asking the Minister to get directly involved in the Indian judicial system, there must be a system of support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I will come to that. At no stage have we asked anyone to beg for anything.
On 12 October 2013, the ship was detained by the Indian coastal guard security off the Tuticorin port in Tamil Nadu. Consular staff in Chennai were alerted on 14 October to reports of a vessel being held, and the Indian legal process began four days later on 18 October. Permission to visit the men was sent on the same day to the Ministry of External Affairs. Consular staff conducted their first prison visit on 21 October and passed on messages to the men’s employer, lawyer and families.
The crew were charged under the Arms Act for being in possession of assault rifles and ammunition, the Passports Act for entering India without a valid visa and the Essential Commodities Act for procuring fuel in India without permission. During the men’s imprisonment, consular staff visited them on no fewer than 18 occasions. Consular staff liaised with the prison authorities to ensure that the men received an enhanced diet, and they raised medical and dental concerns. Staff also helped the men to maintain regular contact with their families, friends and the Mission to Seafarers by passing on letters and facilitating visits. Since the men’s release from prison on 5 April 2014—one was released later, on 19 July 2014—consular staff have continued to provide assistance by liaising with the company AdvanFort, the lawyer, hotel and police, and by putting the men and their families in contact with organisations that offer help from financial assistance to counselling. Ultimately, however, it is each man’s decision whether to take up those other sources of help. Some of the men have also received assistance from private individuals and their own regimental associations.
As the hon. Member for Wansbeck knows, I managed to track down Samir Farajallah, who owns AdvanFort, and I reminded him of his responsibilities, but as I know the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, communication with Mr Farajallah remains extremely difficult. Although, as I have said, we cannot interfere in another country’s legal system, the British Government—the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and his predecessor William Hague, who represented one of the men, Nicholas Simpson; as well as British officials and myself—have repeatedly raised the case with the Indian authorities at local, state and national level, urging resolution as quickly as possible. I raised the matter most recently with the Indian Foreign Secretary in my office here in London on 25 June.
As the hon. Member for Wansbeck said, in July 2014 the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court dismissed all charges against the crew. As is allowed under Indian law, the prosecution decided to exercise its right of appeal and take the case to the Supreme Court in New Delhi, so the legal case continues. At the Supreme Court hearing on 28 April this year, the judge committed to giving a written verdict. The Supreme Court has been in recess since then, and it reopens tomorrow on 1 July. There is no set date for the written verdict, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we cannot request one.
Meanwhile, I am conscious that the decision of the Indian authorities to prevent the men from leaving India until the completion of the legal process has taken a great toll. Among other things, it has meant that they could not support their families through illness and the birth of a first child. We have made representations on compassionate grounds and issued emergency travel documents to some of the men, but I repeat that this is a legal process in which we cannot interfere. That is why consular staff have provided lists of lawyers and suggested that the men seek independent legal advice.
Although we, too, are frustrated by the continuing case, we are unable to demand the release of British nationals overseas. We are unable to interfere in another country’s legal process. However, we have made and will continue to make known our ongoing interest in the legal case at the highest level. Indeed, if things are not satisfactorily resolved by the time Prime Minister Modi visits, the matter will almost certainly be raised at that point as well. We will express our desire for a swift conclusion, and we will continue to do all we can within the remit of our consular service for the men and their families.
I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members who represent the families for continuing to take such an interest in the case, and I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House. I repeat that the Supreme Court hearing starts tomorrow, and we hope that it will issue a swift ruling. We do not want to do anything, inside or outside the Chamber, which could in any way prejudice the men’s chances of an early release and repatriation to their families and loved ones.
Order. I would be grateful if hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber did so via the Members’ entrance, because we need to admit some members of the public who are in wheelchairs. I will suspend the sitting for a couple of minutes to facilitate that process.
Welfare Reform (People with Disabilities)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered welfare reform and people with disabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Roger. It is poignant that this debate falls on the very day that the independent living fund closes. A further £1.2 billion is being cut from support for people with disabilities. Such cuts were a hallmark of the Tory-led coalition, and many are concerned that not only will this increase but the cuts will get worse under this Government. My purpose in calling this debate is to highlight where we are now and the effect on disabled people, but I also want to draw attention to the punitive and dehumanising culture that has been part of the delivery of these welfare reforms, which set the tone for the leadership within the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government’s wider tone on social security.
In the final days before next week’s Budget, I urge the Minister to listen to disabled people, their carers and the millions of compassionate people across the UK who are saying that enough is enough. Going back to the 2010 emergency Budget, we know that £500 million was cut within weeks of the general election. The following year the analysis by Demos on behalf of Scope assessed the cumulative impact of the Government’s so-called reforms, and estimated that, by 2018, £23.8 billion of support would have been taken from 3.7 million people with disabilities. Demos identified a total of 13 cuts, of which I shall mention the top few.
First, the indexation of social security payments was changed from the higher retail prices index to the lower consumer prices index, and there was also a 1% cap on the uprating of certain working-age benefits. That cut £9 billion from 3.7 million people. Secondly, people on incapacity benefit were reassessed, and we could have a whole separate debate on that—we had a number of debates in the previous Parliament on the work capability assessment. That cut £5.6 billion of support available to people with disabilities. Thirdly, there was the limiting of the time that disabled people in the work-related activity group are able to receive the employment and support allowance. Such people are now able to receive only two years of support, which is a further cut of £4.4 billion. Fourthly, and this is four of 13 cuts, disabled people in receipt of disability living allowance are being reassessed to determine whether they are eligible for the personal independence payment, which is another cut of £2.62 billion.
How have the Government managed that? How has there been buy-in from the public? How can such draconian cuts be acceptable? Part of the Government’s strategy has been the invidious spreading of a culture of blame and fear. In the 1980s we saw the unions being targeted; today the focus is on the poor and the vulnerable. The narrative associated with the so-called welfare reforms has been one of divide and rule, deliberately attempting to vilify people who receive social security as the new undeserving poor.
In the past year, across Tameside, Oldham and Manchester there has been a 230% increase in the number of people going to citizens advice bureaux for help after being sanctioned. One man in my constituency who is not computer-literate, is dyslexic and has a recognised learning difficulty was sanctioned for four weeks for not properly filling out a job search agreement. Does my hon. Friend agree that Ministers need urgently and closely to consider the impact of benefit sanctions across the whole of Greater Manchester?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the punitive sanctions regime. We have called for an independent inquiry into sanctions, following on from the Oakley review. Oakley himself said that his review was “insufficient,” which the Government still refuse to accept. Will the Minister respond to that?
The Government have spread a culture of pejorative language, such as “shirkers” and “scroungers”. They have intentionally attempted to demonise social security recipients, including disabled people. The innuendo that people with a disability or illness might be faking it or are feckless is, quite frankly, grotesque and belies the epidemiological data.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, “When you go to work in the morning and see the curtains of your neighbours pulled tight, you know there is somebody lying in there who can’t be bothered to get out of bed and go to work.” Somebody might actually be lying in there because they cannot get of bed owing to an incurable disease. Is it any wonder that some people tar everyone with the same brush? Was that not a deliberate ploy by the Chancellor?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I cannot remember whether it was during the Budget or the autumn statement, but it is absolutely shocking that the Chancellor used that language. Incapacity benefit and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators, so what is implied by words such as “shirkers” and “scroungers” is not supported by the evidence.
I am worried by the hon. Lady’s language. She is attempting to project the party of government as demonisers who are against people with disabilities, which is offensive to those of us who employ people with physical and mental disabilities. I ask her to look at the other side of the coin, which is the work that some of us have been doing on events such as Disability Confident to help get people back into work. What many people with disabilities in my constituency want is not more endless handouts but the respect of being encouraged and enabled to get jobs. Today some 320,000 more people with disabilities are in jobs than was the case a year ago.
I would not want to impugn the hon. Member’s reputation because I know he is an honourable gentleman, but, frankly, I refer back to the language that is being used. We can see a pattern and, again, the Government have to be responsible for that. I will come on to what the Government have done, or how little the Government have done collectively, to support people with disabilities into employment.
Unfortunately, the regular misuse of statistics is another way that the Government are trying to harden the public’s attitude. The facts are that, in an ageing population, the largest proportion of social security recipients are pensioners and not, as is often implied, the workshy. Again, fear and blame are not the Government’s sole preserve. We all need to be very careful of the language that we use and how it is perceived. As the Government prepare to cut £12 billion from the annual social security budget in next week’s Budget, there are real concerns that, in addition to potentially slashing tax credits for the working poor, they will cut further support for working-age people with disabilities.
A recent analysis of trends in disability benefit spending showed that, far from being generous, disability benefits are approximately 15% of average earnings. With the recent changes—the 1% uprating and the indexation to the consumer prices index—they will fall even further. The 2012 public spending on people with disability was just 1.3% of GDP. If we compare that with our European neighbours, we find that that is lower than Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
That figure has decreased since 2012, given the Government’s welfare spending cuts in 2013. Total social security spending in the UK in 2012, before the cuts, was only 15.5% of GDP. That spending supports our pensioners, the sick and disabled, people in low-paid work and people out of work. We are 17th out of 32 EU states. Again, I contrast that with the fact that the Government are trying to say how generous we are in terms of what we provide.
The hon. Lady mentioned percentage of GDP, which I might address later if I have a chance to catch Sir Roger’s eye. What does she think the percentage should be? We spend 0.7% on international development and 2% on defence. What does she think is the appropriate and right percentage of GDP to spend on disability?
I would not be so pushy as to state such figures at this stage in a Parliament. I am making a point about the mood music that the Chancellor in particular is stressing before the next Budget. I warn hon. Members that we are not over-generous; our spend is 1.3%, and we need to bear that in mind.
There are more than 12 million people in the UK living with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term condition, 7 million of whom are of working age. That is one in five of the population. Of those, 4 million working-age disabled are working already, and another 1.3 million can and want to work but are currently unemployed.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me that there are about 5,000 people with motor neurone disease, which is a rapidly progressive and fatal illness, and that not all of them can obtain a DS1500? That pushes things to the point where people think that they can or should work, when they are not physically capable of doing so. The Government must deal with that rapidly to ensure that all 5,000 people in the UK with MND are taken care of.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The work capability assessment’s insensitivity to mental health conditions, progressive conditions and fluctuating conditions makes it unfit for purpose at the moment, and there is a lot of evidence to support that.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) raised an interesting point about MND sufferers. Has the hon. Lady also thought about people suffering from multiple sclerosis, a condition that often deteriorates over time? Some of my constituents with MS who have been assessed physically and moved from disability living allowance to personal independence payments are receiving an increased amount of money because their condition has worsened over time. It varies from condition to condition and situation to situation, does it not?
It does indeed, but the fact is that 600,000 fewer people will be eligible for PIP than currently receive DLA; those are the statistics. However, I will come to that.
The UK currently has a disability employment gap of 30%. The Oldham fairness commission, which I chaired, found that the local disability employment gap is 34%. As the vast majority of disabled people—90%—used to work, that is a waste of their skills, experience and talent. Attitudes, perceptions and judgments can often get in the way of identifying someone’s talent or skills—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I indicate to Members now, to allow them a little preparation, that I intend to impose a five-minute limit on Back Bench speeches. Six hon. Members from various parties have indicated a desire to speak: if you can manage it in less than five minutes, it will help others. That will leave about five minutes each for Opposition Front-Bench speeches and for the Minister.
I was discussing the experiences of disabled people, 90% of whom have worked. For people with disabilities, the experience of an interview can be particularly discouraging.
People with disabilities should be able to access the same opportunities as everyone else, including being able to use their talent and skills to the best of their ability. No one should feel that they are unable to reach their potential or that their hopes and dreams do not matter. The Government have cut the support for disabled people that allows them to live as normal a life as possible, but they have failed to provide meaningful support to help disabled people into work and enable them to thrive, thereby protecting them from leaving the labour market prematurely.
Having just one disability employment adviser for 600 disabled people is quite shocking and reveals the Government’s priorities. Similarly, there is chaos, and inadequacies, in the specialist employment support service Access to Work, which last year supported just 35,000 disabled people into work and at work. That just does not cut it. What happened to the money de-invested from Remploy, which was meant to be reinvested in Access to Work?
The extra costs commission analysed the additional costs faced by disabled people and found that on average they spend an extra £550 per month on costs associated with their disability. By contrast, in 2015-16 the average award of personal independence payment or disability living allowance was £360 per month. On top of this, as I mentioned earlier, Scope has estimated that 600,000 fewer disabled people will be eligible for support. Couple this with the £3.5 billion cut to social care and it all adds up.
It comes as no surprise that people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in persistent poverty as non-disabled people: 80% of disability-related poverty is caused by extra costs. This has implications for disabled people’s families as well, because a third of all families living in poverty include one disabled family member.
George has a mild learning disability. He has suffered with a bad back since an accident a few years ago and can no longer do the heavy lifting work that he used to do when he worked in a warehouse. George works 12.5 hours a week as a cleaner in a local college, but wants to work more to earn working tax credit. He said:
“Hopefully I might be able to find another job or increase the hours with the job I’ve got. Next year I might have a word with my supervisor but everyone is short of cash at the moment so I’ll have to wait and see!”
For now, he relies on employment support allowance to top up his wages. He lives a modest life. He attends a local self-advocacy group, where he receives additional support when he needs it, and meets up with friends and family when he can. He certainly does not have cash to spare. Without ESA he could not afford to get out and about and would risk becoming very isolated. He has been in financial difficulty in the past, and it was only because of the support he got from the self-advocacy group that he managed to keep his own home—he was under threat of being made homeless. George is lucky. Unfortunately, thousands of people do not have the benefit of the support that he has.
I am sure it has not escaped your attention, Sir Roger, that more than 336,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Government to publish data on the number of people on incapacity benefit and ESA who have died since November 2011. This petition was started followed a ruling by the Information Commissioner on 30 April compelling the Government to publish these data in 35 days, including the number of those who died following being found fit for work.
Last week there was an amazing sequence of events. On Monday, the Secretary of State told me that he could not publish these data because they were not kept, and told me to stop scaremongering; on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that they would be published; and this was swiftly followed by the Government saying that they were appealing against the Information Commissioner’s ruling, stating that publishing these data would lead to “probable misinterpretations” and “was too emotive...and wasn’t in the public interest”. What an absolute shambles! I could not disagree more. This is definitely in the public interest. As a former public health academic, I am more than aware of the strict criteria for establishing causality, but there are no grounds for not publishing numbers of actual deaths as well as the Government-proposed standardised mortality ratios, including those who died within six weeks of being found fit for work. Will the Minister now confirm when these data will be published?
At the same time, following on from Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiries into sanctions beyond Oakley, I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed when the Government will publish redacted information on the circumstances of the deaths of claimants who died while sanctioned, and what changes the DWP instigated in the light of reviews of these deaths. It is notable that, since the Government’s new sanctions regime, the rate of sanctioning of people on IB and ESA has doubled. Will the Minister also confirm whether the significant surge in suicide rates for both men and women since 2010—but particularly for working-age men—is being analysed by the DWP? I thank my former public health colleague Ben Barr for providing me with these data.
My final comments relate to next week’s Budget. There is much concern that the Government may once again target disabled people. Will the Minister pledge today that there will be no further erosion of support for disabled people, including taxation of universal disability benefit or restricting the Motability scheme, which enables over 56,000 to keep their job? He did not answer the questions I asked him during our previous exchange on the PIP process, so I should be grateful for a yes or no answer today.
Being disabled is not a lifestyle choice. I am proud of the principles underpinning our model of social welfare, where any one of us is afforded protection should we fall ill or become disabled, but it is at risk from this Government. I urge the Government not to take any further steps along their regressive path.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which is timely as we look forward to the Budget. It allows us to consider welfare reform and people with disability without being drowned out by the common refrain and focus on how much money needs to be saved from the welfare budget. We can look seriously at what we mean by disability and how we can stand up properly for those who are vulnerable.
I want to make three points. First, we need to support and uphold the positive value of a generous safety net. We should be able to do that, be proud of it and stand up for it. We have to find a better way to discuss welfare. We should focus particularly on disability, so that we can properly protect vulnerable people. We need a positive approach.
I recognise that there need to be cuts in the overall welfare spend, not least because, as the Chancellor said, we have 1% of the world’s population, 4% of its GDP, and 7% of global welfare spend, so reform is needed. Although we are considering the subject through the prism of cuts, protection for people with disabilities should not be regarded as being at the end of the queue, after protection for pensioners and child benefits. Disability campaigners are concerned about what is happening. Disability should not be at the end of the public spending queue after the NHS, international development, which is protected, defence, which some of us think should be protected more, and education. Somewhat mischievously, I asked what percentage of GDP should be given to disability, but we should consider the real spending requirements before considering what is needed in terms of reform.
It is worth making some international comparisons. We should be proud that we spend £33.5 billion each year on benefits for the disabled, excluding social care. It is a small amount when shared among the many vulnerable people. We all have individual experiences, as I do in my surgeries, of people who are challenged by living on those benefits and dealing with some of the reforms. Nevertheless, as a proportion of GDP, the UK spend on benefits for the disabled is double that of the US, a fifth more than the European average and six times that of Japan. We can be proud of that record while realising that there are ways that we can do better within that budget.
We should uphold the principle of dignity—the dignity for disabled people of being independent, for those who can be live independently, and the dignity of working for those who are able to work, although not everyone can. It is also about dignity in terms of showing compassion, standing alongside them and being able to support them in the ups and downs. Some need that safety net temporarily, and some need it permanently.
My second point is on the importance of de-weaponising welfare. On the one hand, campaign groups say that the cuts will fall on the most vulnerable and the poor, and as much as I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth on securing the debate, we did hear that from her. On the other hand, the tabloids—do not just put this at the door of Ministers—say that it is all about the workshy and condemn them for exploiting the system. Everyone is in the mix. We need to get beyond that argument and look at what needs to be achieved for us to have an honest debate.
The facts are important and they need to be heard. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that between 2011 and 2014, spending on disability living allowance increased by £1.8 billion, spending on attendance allowance increased by £200 million, and spending on carer’s allowance increased by £400 million. The number of unemployed disabled people has fallen by more than 15% over the past year. That matters; it means that 230,000 more disabled people are in work, so it is not all scaremongering and doom and gloom.
There are challenges—the independent living fund was mentioned. It was scrapped, but the funds were not scrapped. Let us be honest about the situation: the £300 million was reduced to £262 million and the funds were devolved to local councils, where efficiency savings can be made by having everything under one roof. We have to see how those efficiencies are made, but the funds are there to help the same people as the ILF helped, and for the same reasons. We have to have an honest debate. We have to recognise that we need to be on the side of the vulnerable and the poor. Not all disabled people are poor—in fact, two thirds are not in low-income brackets. We need to recognise that, while understanding that they all might be vulnerable in the long term.
I am very much interested by what my hon. Friend has said and how he has tried to take the middle ground in the debate. We have heard a lot about the apparent failures of the Access to Work programme, yet disability employment is now at 3.1 million. The employment rate for disabled people rose by 2.5% in the year to September 2014. I hope my hon. Friend agrees that those are encouraging figures, but that more needs to be done.
That is right. There are some excellent Disability Confident events in our cities that help those figures, and we must support them.
I am calling for an honest debate. The IFS said that the number of DLA claimants is twice what it was in 1992. We cannot say that that increase is simply because of an increase in the number of disabled people; we have to look at why the number of claimants has doubled and seek to make reforms.
We should look at a new way of dealing with the whole welfare debate, and in particular at disability and the spend needed in that area. We should look not only at benefits, but at social care, which poses serious challenges for local authorities dealing with disabled people. We need integration. We are looking at personalised budgets, so we should look at their impact on social care, the cuts and challenges, as well as on the issue of disability benefits. Let us bring that together for all our constituents and work hard to give them the best deal.
As we approach the Budget, I want to be able to look disabled people square in the face and say, “Whatever is happening around the economy, we are wholly committed to being on your side and giving those disabled people who need it that independence for living and work.” We need to show compassion and that we are on their side all the way along.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate. I know she feels strongly about the subject.
The Budget speech given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 18 March set out that there would be £12 billion of welfare cuts by 2017-18, yet since then there has been the general election campaign, numerous Prime Minister’s questions, Department of Work and Pensions questions and Treasury questions and we still have no definitive answers on where the cuts will fall. Indeed, on 22 June, the Minister was asked directly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) whether he would rule out cutting the benefits of any disabled person over this Parliament, but all the Minister gave in answer was:
“We are clear that we will protect the disabled and vulnerable.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 600.]
This area needs definitive answers. With the uncertainty, a number of possibilities are regularly mooted for the Chancellor’s next Budget, such as restrictions to carer’s allowance and to the contributory element of employment and support allowance, as well as taxing disability living allowance, personal independence payments and attendance allowance. All those things would have an enormous impact on the weekly incomes of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Since the election, I have had some of the most vulnerable people in our society—the disabled—coming to my constituency surgeries extremely worried about what may happen in this Parliament. That includes people with mental health problems and people who have been disabled since childhood.
The Minister shakes his head, but he is welcome to come to my surgeries and hear what is said to me, because that is where the firm evidence is. Take, for example, the specific worries of sufferers of long-term conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Those in receipt of long-term disability living allowance will soon be starting a reassessment, yet the mobility criterion has been reduced to 20 metres. Parkinson’s is a fluctuating condition, so they are extremely worried about losing the wheelchairs and scooters from which they may benefit, for example. Similarly, there are Parkinson’s sufferers in the work-related activity group. The nature of that group is about going back to work, but the condition is degenerative. Does the Minister not accept that the uncertainty created since the Chancellor’s Budget has been a source of worry and great anxiety to those in our society in receipt of benefits? I can only urge him to make representations to the Chancellor to at least come clean in the Budget on 8 July on precisely what will happen.
I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have had email upon email from my constituents saying that they are hugely worried about what will happen in the Chancellor’s Budget. They are people with disabilities, their carers and their families—people in the most difficult of circumstances who are suffering huge anxiety and are feeling stigmatised, too. They do not want to hear so much rhetoric about hard-working people; they may well be hard-working people or aspire to be. We also heard something about handouts. Again, I agree with the concerns expressed by hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) about terminology. These people deserve our support, and it is our job to provide it.
I agree with the hon. Lady. The Government’s language is deeply worrying. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) made a point about weaponising the welfare state, and I am afraid that language like “shirkers” does exactly that.
Above all, I hope that through this debate the Minister has heard a real strong voice from the most vulnerable people. Some years ago, Aneurin Bevan said of the plight of those who were out of work in the winter months:
“It would be a disaster and it would be a disservice to the House if the feelings of those men were not allowed to find an echo within these walls.”—[Official Report, 26 November 1931; Vol. 260, c. 632.]
The same can be said of disabled and vulnerable people in 2015. If nothing else, I hope that today their voice has found an echo within these walls.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate on a subject in which I take something of an interest.
I would like to reflect on the language that we use. This is an emotive and emotional subject for many people, so it is important that Members from all parties get the language right. I must say that I do not recognise some of the language being used to describe the Government. I certainly would not want to sit as part of a Government party that had those sorts of feelings and thoughts, and I really do not believe that we have. It is wrong to suggest that we in this party have that sort of thought, because we really do not. I do not recognise that at all.
I am very aware of the strictures of time, Sir Roger, but I want to say a few things. It seems to me that the holy grail is to help people with disabilities off welfare and into work. That would be a useful direction for this discussion to go in. It is vital that where people are able to work, they are given the opportunity to do so. The Government should support them along that road as much as possible. I am struck by the fact that today there are 320,000 more people with disabilities in jobs. That is extremely significant.
Of particular significance for me is those with mental health conditions who are getting back into work, because I have some relevant experience. I worked for five years as a manager in an office where we made particular provision to ensure that we could employ people with mental health conditions. A lot of it is to do with understanding the individual—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. By being understanding and putting into place some very personal provision, we were able to ensure that people felt that they were able to work for us and that they were not disabled by their disability, if I can put it like that. I am a big believer that it is vital to help people off welfare and into work where that is possible. I really want to explore that further, as will my hon. Friend the Minister, I am sure.
The Government have introduced a number of pilot projects, which are to be welcomed. For too many people with disabilities, it is simply too difficult to get into a job. In addition, an episode of mental ill health can set people back disproportionately compared with people who have physical health ailments. Until now, the system has not recognised that sufficiently. The Government are now introducing a number of evidence-based pilot projects to try to see how people are being assisted and how we can help them more. I would be interested to hear more from the Minister on that, because it is really important.
The Disability Confident events have been mentioned already. They have been hugely constructive. I am looking to organise one in my North Devon constituency, and I know that many right hon. and hon. Members will be looking to do the same in their constituencies. The events do what they say on the tin: people with a disability need to be given the confidence to get off welfare and back into the world of work. That is vital.
I believe that the Minister and the Government will be doing good work in this area. I cannot second-guess—any more than the Minister can, I suspect—what our right hon. Friend the Chancellor is going to say in the Budget statement a week from now. Nevertheless, from my conversations with the Minister, I know that he and the Government are absolutely committed to doing their best.
I bring my comments full circle by saying that we really need to be careful about the tenor of the debate and the language used on all sides. I look forward to hearing in positive terms from the Minister about the welfare reforms and how they will help disabled people, particularly those with mental health conditions, to get off welfare and back into work. That is our holy grail.
I draw attention to the interest that I declared in a previous debate. I would rather not repeat it.
We have talked a lot about language. Language is critical, because we are talking about a spectrum of capability and disability. Sometimes, it is all too easy to lump the disabled all together. Part of the problem is that that has happened, largely in this place, but also in the media and, sometimes, in the mind of the public. That is dangerous. We in this place are responsible for ensuring that the public are given a wider and clearer understanding of what we are talking about. We have failed in that. It is time that we stopped, looked at our language, and were clearer.
There is no doubt that there has been some language of “shirkers” and “scroungers”, but there has also been a failure to recognise that some of the people who undergo assessments are terminally ill. They have been assessed by their GPs and consultants as having life-ending conditions. They are the people about whom I want to talk. They should not have to face accusations of being shirkers. They should not face onerous assessments and a requirement that they justify their access and right to benefits.
These are people whose lives are able to continue only because of the carers who care for them with deep love and affection. They are people for whom the assessment process brings huge fear, not only of not getting the benefit, but of not being able to stand up and describe what their life is like—of not being able to say, “I deal with incontinence every day. I can’t swallow. I can’t speak. In fact, I can’t even articulate to you how bad my life is.” We need to recognise that too many people in this country endure that on a daily basis.
I remember, when my husband was passported on to personal independence payment, having to talk, on the telephone, about what his life was like. I have to say, that is not easy. We should not place people in that position. A few days later, I received a letter that said, “If you don’t hear from us by this date, please come back to us.” I did not hear, so I went back to them, and they said “You don’t need to ring us. You don’t need to talk to us.” I had got myself into a state before I rang, and I am somebody who has dealt with disability all their professional life. I had made 20 or 30 phone calls before I got through, and to be told, “Oh, we don’t know why we send those letters out. We don’t need to talk to you; it’s under process,” is insulting.
Let me mention briefly the DS1500. It is an extremely painful thing for someone to receive, because it basically tells them, “This life is about to end”—potentially in six months. I have dealt with people with terminal cancer who have refused a DS1500 because they do not want to be told that. They do not want to know it, and yet it is a huge passport for people to other benefits. We have to look at the DS1500, because many GPs are loth to discuss giving a DS1500 to someone who is terminally ill. We cannot allow that to continue.
We have to look at how we ensure that people who have life-ending illnesses are dealt with compassionately and with dignity, and we are not doing that now. We need to ensure that their carers are enabled to carry on in a way that makes them feel trusted and respected by the state, not like a scrounger or someone who is not dealing with the worst horrors that life can bring. We must always remember that disability benefit fraud is at 0.5%. Let us keep that in mind.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Sir Roger. I thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for making a necessary and pertinent examination of what is happening in the welfare state, with particular regard to disabilities. As the SNP spokesperson on disability, this is a matter of great importance to me.
We have had some good speeches today, and I particularly welcome the conversation about the narrative that we spin around disability. The general election was particularly bruising, and for disabled people to hear parties talk not about being the party of people with disabilities, but about hard-working people, with the inference that people who are not in work are not hard-working and do not aspire to be, damages the debate. Today in the Chamber, my SNP colleagues are debating the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill, in particular welfare and disabilities. Many of the amendments in our name are aimed at ensuring that the Scotland Bill delivers more devolution and does not devolve further austerity and shackle the Scottish Parliament to further Tory attacks on the welfare state. They are the result of extensive consultation with civic Scotland and work done in partnership with other organisations.
Just this morning, 12 of Scotland’s leading third sector organisations published a letter in The Herald, timed to coincide with today’s debate and ahead of the emergency Budget next week, expressing grave concerns about the severe detrimental impact of the Government’s austerity measures on low and middle-income families. In particular, they highlight the threat to tax credits and other support that would fall within universal credit and say to us, here in this House, that as, we begin the process of defining the shape of Scotland’s social security system, we need to
“understand how high the stakes are”.
It is incumbent on every one of us—not just those from Scotland—to listen to those voices. The groups that have put their heads above the parapet on this matter are some of Scotland’s largest and most influential civil society organisations, including Citizens Advice Scotland, Barnardo’s Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, the Church of Scotland, Inclusion Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland, Oxfam Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Trussell Trust. These organisations bear on their shoulders much of the burden of mopping up some of the worst effects of austerity on the most vulnerable in our society.
The UK Government’s programme of welfare reform has had a devastating impact on too many people across the country. In Scotland, the Scottish Government estimate that UK Government welfare cuts have reduced welfare funding in Scotland by almost £2.5 billion in 2015-16 alone. That estimate comes before the additional planned welfare cuts of perhaps £12 billion across the UK, which can only have a further devastating impact on communities across Scotland and the UK. Where will those cuts be made? How much more can be cut?
What is absolutely clear is that people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by welfare reform, which fits in perfectly with a pattern whereby the UK Government’s cuts programme hits the most vulnerable in our society hardest, punishing them for the reckless damage done to the economy by the few at the top. Further planned cuts can only cause greater and sustained damage, driving yet more households into poverty and desperation. The roll-out of the personal independence payment has been riddled with delays and errors, which have caused a great deal of distress and hardship for people with disabilities. BBC News reports that 78,700 people are currently waiting to hear whether they can claim PIP, 3,200 of whom have waited more than a year to have their claims processed and 22,800 have waited more than 20 weeks. In June 2015, a High Court judge ruled in favour of two PIP claimants who had had their applications delayed by around nine months, to the detriment of their health and financial security.
Is the hon. Lady as concerned as I am by the Motor Neurone Disease Association finding that, accompanied with the move to PIP and universal credit, people with MND are now expected to attend face-to-face assessments, despite clear medical evidence that such assessments have a severe impact on their condition?
The Scottish Government have repeatedly called for a halt to the PIP roll-out, which has been an extremely messy, damaging and stressful process for claimants. Last week, I tabled a question to ask the Minister what review was being done of those with mental ill health who had been denied PIP on the basis of tests with a physical aspect. The answer was that the Government are not currently reviewing the matter, which is no comfort to constituents of mine who have come to me in abject despair having been denied PIP and become embroiled in the messy, uncertain and lengthy appeals process.
Disabled people are already at risk of being in lower-income households, and the UK Government’s cuts are making things worse. Currently, half of all people living in households with a disabled adult are in the bottom 40% in terms of income.
Some 20% of individuals in households containing a disabled adult were in relative poverty. For households with no disabled adult, the figure was 14%.
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to halt the move to PIP and to implement an urgent review of the assessment at test centres and the unconscionable delays in the assessment and appeals systems. I also urge him to listen to disability organisations in civic society ahead of next week’s Budget.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing the debate and on making an excellent and well-informed speech. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who spoke powerfully from her personal experience and demonstrated the sensitivity and difficulty of this issue for many people.
Government Members have been telling us that the key thing is to get people with disabilities back to work, but the Government’s schemes have unfortunately not succeeded. The Work programme has failed, with fewer than one in 10 disabled people getting into work. Work Choice has not worked well. Access to Work has been cut. The number of disability employment advisers has been cut. Those things are not going as Members across the House would like. We must acknowledge the fact that, in any society at any time, some people will always be dependent on such benefits.
I was disappointed that the Minister thought that he could somehow set the debate up well by stating previously that PIP claimants are only waiting four weeks. I have gone through my constituency case load and I can tell him that people are waiting much longer not only for their PIP assessments, but for the money. For example, Mr C attended a medical assessment for PIP in April, but he has not received any correspondence about whether it was successful. He has been awarded ESA, which has been backdated, but it takes 13 weeks for him to get the money. I do not know what he is supposed to live on in the meantime. Perhaps the Minister will tell us.
The most important issue that I want the Minister to address is where the £12 billion in cuts are going to come from. Will he now rule out cuts to PIP, cuts to attendance allowance, cuts to carer’s allowance, cuts to industrial injuries disablement benefit and cuts to ESA? Will he further rule out taxation of PIP? As the Royal National Institute of Blind People has said, it is absurd to tax a benefit designed to cover the costs of disability. I hope the Minister will rule those things out.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir Roger. I have a limited amount of time, but I will do my best to address as many of the points made as I can—I do not have a set speech. If I run out of time, we will send further information.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on calling the debate. She is a long-standing campaigner in this area, and that does shape what we do. She covered many things, but she can always come and see me face to face to run through some of them—my door is open and she has a huge amount of experience. I picked up the point about language. That is not something that I recognise as a Minister, but if there are examples that the hon. Lady wishes to bring to my attention, she should please do so.
I have only four minutes in which to respond, so that is what I have to do.
On the disability employment gap, in the past 12 months, an extra 238,000 people got into work, which is 650 a day, an increase of 2.4%, which is the biggest in the past decade. We are committed to halving the disability employment gap—it is about a further 1 million. That is a key priority.
Scope’s Extra Costs Commission report was fantastic. I have already met with Scope’s chief executive to look at different ways to support it—for example, this morning I was at the Inclusive Technology Prize competition. Clever people are coming up with ways to improve access in people’s everyday lives to the sorts of things—
Honestly, I would like to, but I cannot.
The amount of money spent on disabilities actually increased by £2 billion over the last Parliament, and DLA and PIP are uprated in line with inflation. Access to Work was also mentioned in the debate, and numbers increased to 35,500 last year, which is up 4,000. It is demand-led. We are always looking to promote that, which is where the Disability Confident campaign comes in, in particular by highlighting Access to Work to small businesses, which provide 45% of private sector jobs and are not always aware of things. I know from meeting the Federation of Small Businesses that that is felt to be important.
I hear the concerns about sanctions, which were expressed by more than one Member. They are a last resort and we are looking continually at how they are operating. Even the Oakley review stated that sanctions were
“a key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system”,
and we accepted 17 of its recommendations to improve the process. I am happy to provide details on those 17 points.
I know that the hon. Lady wishes to come in, but time is tight.
On the point about George, universal credit will help, in that different disabilities can have different impacts from week to week. That would therefore allow somebody to maintain a certain income, and where they work extra, they have an income on that. We will be publishing them the mortality stats—I know the hon. Lady is keen to see them soon; we would all like to see them as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) kindly made her points in a debate two weeks ago and has agreed to meet with me on Thursday, with Parkinson’s UK and the Motor Neurone Disease Association. I am grateful for that. It will be an opportunity to discuss all the points made today. With regards to terminally ill people, we are processing things within six days and 99% are being awarded. I understand the points made about the DS1500 form. GPs are not comfortable doing it. We are talking to the Department of Health about that, so we can expand on that from the meeting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) again took a reasoned and proactive approach. A lot of stakeholders echo the words that were used—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady should not panic; I am coming to that.
I understand what the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) was saying about the frustration, but I am afraid that this happens with every single Budget, whoever the Government are. There is always uncertainty before the Budget. I am no different to anyone else present—we are not the Chancellor. What I do know, however, is what underpins his reform. We will continue to support disabled and vulnerable people. We are providing a strong welfare net for those in need and we will always ensure that work pays. The hon. Gentleman is a strong voice and I would be keen to continue to work with him, in particular on issues arising from surgeries or personal experience.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) and I have shared experience of employing people with mental health conditions. The Government have spent £42 million on a series of pilots that provide group work, telephone support and face-to-face individual support. In the Budget earlier this year, we put in for direct purchase of support, to bring it about much quicker. Through the Access to Work scheme, that can provide help for people within work, and there is a 92% success rate.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).