House of Commons
Wednesday 6 February 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Duchy of Lancaster
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
Public Services Delivery: Technology
Last month I announced five new public sector challenges, to be funded from the £20 million GovTech innovation fund. In the spring we will publish a strategy for the use of innovation in public services.
I am delighted to confirm that to my hon. Friend. There is huge potential here for improvement in public services. So far the GovTech Catalyst has funded two health-related challenges: the first seeks to improve the medication pathway for people entering custody, and the second will assess how machine learning could improve prediction and provision in relation to adult social care.
At the weekend, 70 Labour MPs and Members of the European Parliament signed my letter to the Government asking them to review the operation of the EU settled status app for EU citizens, which is currently available only on Android phones and not on iPhones. What advice does the Cabinet Office gives other Departments to ensure that no digital discrimination is embedded in the new technologies that the Government are rolling out?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question of the digital verification system. It is perfectly possible to subscribe to it with any phone. The issue relates to the document verification, which can be carried out in respect of Android phones but not, currently, in respect of Apple phones. However, the Home Office is working on that as we speak.
I know the Minister will be aware that delivering public services in rural areas is particularly challenging. Will he consider how he could use tech and innovation to facilitate better public services in areas such as those that I represent?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the great aspects of the GovTech challenge fund is that it is often used in rural areas. In rural Scotland, for example, we are looking into how it could be used to help to ensure that the environment is properly managed, and we are working on other similar schemes.
Time and again, Mr Speaker, you have heard me raise the issue of deeply unsatisfactory broadband coverage in my constituency, which greatly impairs the delivery of vital public services. Responding to a question that I asked not long ago, the Prime Minister mentioned the shared prosperity fund. Might that fund be used to tackle the problem of very poor broadband coverage? If the Minister cannot give me an answer now, will he agree to meet me to discuss the issue?
I am always happy to meet all Members, and I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representation in respect of the shared prosperity fund. Our industrial strategy has already committed us to spending more than £1 billion on digital infrastructure, including £176 million on 5G and £200 million on broadband for local areas. There is, I know, an issue with the Scottish National party Government getting the money to the frontline, which is why my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has announced that in future, money will go directly to councils.
When it comes to the delivery of technology with the use of public money, we know whose side the Government are on: their mates in the megafirms. Their spending on Cloud provision with just one company, Amazon Web Services, has increased by 8,000% since 2015. The next time the Minister signs off another multimillion-pound tech contract, will he perhaps spare a thought for one of the UK’s incredible small and medium-sized enterprises?
The Government are committed to ensuring that SMEs win their fair share of Government contracts. Unlike the Labour Government, this Government have set the target of devoting a third of all spending to SMEs. However, the hon. Lady rightly raised the issue of Amazon Web Services. Let us look at the figures. AWS is a G-Cloud supplier. A total of £3.2 billion has been spent on G-Cloud. How much has been spent on AWS? Just £70 million, which amounts to less than 2.2% of total spending.
Public Sector Procurement
We are determined to deliver value for money for taxpayers through better procurement, and to support a healthy and diverse supply market. We recently announced measures including simplifying procurement processes, taking account of social value when awarding contracts, and excluding large suppliers from Government contracts if they cannot demonstrate prompt payment.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The number of businesses receiving late payments from the Cabinet Office has nearly tripled in the past two years. Does the Minister agree that this makes a mockery of the Government’s plans to crack down on public sector suppliers who pay late?
Prompt payment is important to all businesses, particularly small businesses. That is why we have set a target for 90% of undisputed invoices from small and medium-sized enterprises to be paid within five days. We are making good progress, and six Departments are already exceeding that target. I know that there has been an issue in respect of the Cabinet Office, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the latest figures, from December, which show that 95% of invoices are now meeting the 30-day target and that 82% are meeting the five-day target.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming moves to roll over the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement—the GPA—and in welcoming the access that that would give to UK companies competing abroad and the opening up of our own markets to foreign competitors?
I know that my right hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in this area, and he is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the GPA. I am pleased that we have made progress and reached agreement in principle for the United Kingdom to join the GPA, and I am confident that we will have that in place shortly.
Is not the Minister guilty of a bit of jiggery-pokery? [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] The fact of the matter is that if the Government looked at good examples such as Huddersfield University and Kirklees Council, they would see the way in which they emphasise local and regional procurement, which brings in jobs and wealth and retains them in our communities. Why do this Government not do the same?
We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we get the very best suppliers, which is why we have introduced a balanced scorecard approach. That allows suppliers to take into account a wide range of factors, including environmental factors and factors relating to the quality of produce. Those are the sort of reforms that this Government are committed to introducing.
The Government give a very welcome emphasis to the employing of small and medium-sized enterprises in Government contracts, and that is very good stuff, but does the Minister not agree that in reality, Government procurement processes are so complex, so difficult, so massive and so expensive that it is actually companies such as the defence primes that get the contracts and then hammer down the prices they pay to their subcontractors? How can we find better ways to ensure that SMEs win some of those valuable contracts?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the issue of SMEs winning contracts. This is why we have abolished complex pre-qualification questionnaires on small-value contracts, for example, and in November I announced that if major strategic suppliers were not paying their small providers on time, they could face being excluded from Government contracts.
I am aware that current statute means that wage rates cannot be mandated, but it is possible to use the procurement process to encourage employers to consider paying the real living wage in the context of fair work policies. Indeed, that is the process undertaken by the Scottish Government. Will the Minister consider following Scotland’s lead and using procurement to ensure that employers pay the real living wage?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I hope that he will acknowledge the progress that this Government have made in introducing a national living wage for the first time. The effect of that national living wage, which will rise by almost 5% this April, is that an average person working full time on the national living wage will be almost £3,000 a year better off—and that is not counting the massive increase in the personal allowance that also cuts their taxes.
Of course, it is not a living wage; it is just a minimum wage re-badged.
The Government have repeatedly insisted that Interserve’s
“current intentions are a matter for the company itself.”
However, it emerged last night that Cabinet Office officials were playing an active role in talks to negotiate a rescue package. It seems that the Government cannot make up their mind whether they have a responsibility to intervene and protect public services and jobs or whether to let the market decide, so which is it?
The Government are absolutely clear that their principal task is to ensure the continued delivery of public services, and that is what we have ensured in respect of our strategic suppliers. The hon. Gentleman raises the case of Interserve. I welcome this morning’s announcement, which I am sure he has seen, which demonstrates that it is making good progress towards refinancing, but we are clear that that is a matter between the lenders to that company and the company itself. The Government are not a party to those negotiations.
The Government are fully committed to transparency and openness across the public sector and have already introduced a range of measures to increase transparency in contracts. That means that we are publishing more data than ever before to the benefit of taxpayers. I am grateful for the Information Commissioner’s report, which we will consider carefully, but we have no plans at present to legislate further in this area.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply but, as the Information Commissioner tells us, the Government spend £284 billion a year on external suppliers that are currently beyond the scope of freedom of information laws. The Information Commissioner tells us that that would have made a difference at both Grenfell and Carillion, so why will the Government not commit to real transparency and adopt the Information Commissioner’s recommendations?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set out an important package of measures last year to improve transparency in contracting. However, I do not think there is evidence that the collapse of Carillion could have been anticipated by the reforms in the report. Indeed, the relevant Select Committees said that Carillion’s directors were responsible, not the Government.
Public Life: Intimidation
The increasing prevalence of intimidation in public life can seriously damage our democracy, which is why the Government have consulted on a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners. We are currently analysing the contributions to the consultation, with a response due to be published soon.
My hon. Friend makes a good point that he has made strongly before, which is to his huge credit. We have been clear that much more needs to be done to tackle online harm. Too often, online behaviour fails to meet acceptable standards, with many users powerless to address such issues. A joint Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office White Paper is expected to be published in the near future and will set out legislative and non-legislative measures detailing how we can tackle online harm and set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe. We want to ensure that we do that in a fair and proper way.
Someone came to my surgery this week and clearly made an implied threat to me, a number of Members of this House and a former Prime Minister. However, if I report any of that, I am breaching the confidentiality of the person who came to see me, so I want to know the Minister’s advice.
I have been subjected to online intimidation. Does the Minister agree that we need to drive home the message that the secrecy of the iPhone or keyboard is not protection enough for people to spew vile, intimidatory statements and messages to anybody in public life?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. All of us in public life should call out such things when we see them. We must be clear about what is unacceptable and report it to the authorities where appropriate, so that people feel able to engage online in a proper and fair way without intimidation or abuse.
Tiers of Government: Collaboration
We are committed to working productively with all levels of government, including local authorities, directly elected Mayors and devolved Administrations across the UK. We will also work closely with the devolved Administrations to review the formal structure of inter-governmental relations.
People across the Tees Valley are delighted at the devolution model led by Ben Houchen, our excellent Conservative Mayor. Ben is delivering on his manifesto promises, which included rescuing Teesside airport and leading the regeneration of the steelworks. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to maintaining their excellent record of support for Ben’s work in getting Teesside on the front foot again?
I pay tribute to the leadership that Ben Houchen and his colleagues on the Tees Valley combined authority have shown. They have very ambitious plans, and we look forward to continuing our joint working with them on a local industrial strategy to drive productivity, growth and employment in the Teesside region.
In light of there being no Executive in Northern Ireland, what measures are being taken to ensure services can be delivered for Northern Ireland? Especially within the public sector, we have had difficulty in getting decisions across the line. We need ministerial intervention.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, Parliament agreed to change the law late last year to give Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office greater powers in giving directions to the Northern Ireland civil service, but the answer is for the political parties in Northern Ireland to come together so that we can see the Executive and the Assembly restored. That is the way to give effective representation for effective decisions to be taken.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is no formal machinery for the Parliaments of the United Kingdom to work together and to scrutinise the work of the Joint Ministerial Committee and the Executive functions that work together. The Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit again met in January and called for this. Will he support this Parliament and provide it with the necessary resources so we can institute proper interparliamentary machinery in the United Kingdom?
The Smith Commission was clear that the Scottish Government should work with the Scottish Parliament, civic Scotland and local authorities to develop ways in which greater devolution within Scotland could be provided.
Voter ID Pilot Schemes
A diverse range of local authorities have confirmed that they will be taking part in the voter ID and postal vote pilots for the 2019 local elections. These pilots will provide further insight into ensuring security of the voting process.
I know different local authorities are using different methods as to what constitutes ID, but does the Minister believe enough progress will be made so that, should this Parliament go the full five years, we will have voter ID available at the next general election?
Mr Speaker, I am incredibly grateful to you for those kind words and for coming along to Cumbria Day.
Is the Minister aware that voters in my constituency, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales cannot vote at all on planning and housing issues that affect them? What steps will she take to bring in democracy for those parts of our country that are under the aegis of a national park, which are not directly elected?
Last week, I announced new measures, as part of the follow-up action to the Government’s racial disparity audit, to improve outcomes for ethnic minority students in higher education; to ensure league tables reflect performance in addressing inequalities; and to encourage higher education providers to make their workforces more diverse.
Some 16% of the adult population of this country has some form of disability, yet when I look around this House, I see very few Members with a disability. When are we going to see an effective Access to Elected Office Fund? We need a Parliament that is representative of the public it serves. When are we going to be like that?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raises this issue. He is right to say that we need to raise that level of participation. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities is working on a fund that will help that to happen. Furthermore, a statutory instrument will be before the House next Monday that will help with this by addressing election expenses.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and it comes down to what the people of Peterborough need: a hard-working and present local MP. Of course we have passed legislation in this place to enable recall. I suspect that may be used in this case, but I hope it will happen promptly, for the sake of the people of Peterborough.
Let us consider these figures: 25,342 and 21,900. Those were the number of voters who cast their votes for me and for the Minister to serve as elected parliamentarians, yet just 100-odd votes secured a win in the most recent hereditary peer by-election in the other place. The winner was eligible to stand because his great-grandad’s cousin’s dad’s fourth cousin’s dad’s cousin’s great-great-great grandad was made a Lord by Charles I in 1628. What progress is the Minister making on reform of the other place?
May I first welcome the hon. Lady back to the Dispatch Box? It is a pleasure to see her here again. Two points need to be made: first, the legislation she cites was that of her own party; and. secondly, reform of the House of Lords is not a priority for this Government. We have been clear on that matter and I can be so again today.
The Government have a policy of seeking to relocate Government offices and agencies outside London wherever possible. We are keen to work with Scottish local authorities, as well as local authorities from all around the United Kingdom, to secure that objective.
Yes. It is right that different elements of cyber-security report in to different Departments. For example, where this relates to an offensive cyber-capability, as part of our defences, that is rightly part of the Ministry of Defence’s responsibility. The relevant Ministers do co-operate regularly, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that this all reports back to the National Security Council where the relevant Cabinet Ministers take the decisions.
On the inter-ministerial early years working group, which is an excellent initiative, is the Minister aware that the cost of child neglect is estimated at some £15 billion per year? So when negotiating with the Treasury, will he be mindful that funding for this is not only the best way of giving kids the best start in life, but a good way of saving money?
What with the £1 billion-plus of Northern Ireland contributions secured by the Democratic Unionist party, the knighthoods for the European Research Group, and now the cash-for-votes inducements that we hear are being offered to MPs, are the Government not a bit worried about sailing dangerously close to the wind of the Labour-introduced Bribery Act 2010? Will the Minister reaffirm that no votes in this place should be for sale? Especially not mine; I have not been offered anything.
Some of my most engaged constituents are expats who currently reside in France or Spain. Does the Minister agree that it is unfair and undemocratic to deny these British citizens the right to vote after an arbitrary 15 years?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support on this matter. We should see such support throughout the House for a set of measures that are reasonable, proportionate and already used in countries around the world and in our own country, the United Kingdom, to help to protect voters and ensure that their vote is theirs alone.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I have been asked to reply, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland outlining the Government’s commitment to the people there and our plan to secure a Brexit deal that delivers on the result of the referendum.
I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in welcoming today’s announcement that the next meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government will take place in London in December 2019. This is fitting, as 70 years ago this year, the United Kingdom, led by those Atlanticist champions Clement Attlee and Ernie Bevin, was one of the alliance’s 12 founding members and London was home to the first NATO headquarters. We will continue to play a key role in NATO as it continues its mission of keeping nearly 1 billion people safe.
I have always considered the Leader of the Opposition to be just an unreconstructed Marxist. However, in the light of video footage that has emerged this week, I may well have to change that view. He clearly campaigned vigorously against repeated EU referendums in Ireland, and he declared forcefully that he did not wish to live under a
“European empire of the 21st century”.
In the spirit of cross-party consensus, will my right hon. Friend join the Leader of the Opposition and dismiss once and for all any prospect of a second EU referendum and reaffirm that we are leaving on 29 March?
The Government’s position is clear. We said to the British people in 2016 that we would accept their vote as decisive. The duty of politicians is to implement the result of the referendum and not to suggest that the public got it wrong and, I think, undermine trust in democracy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am so glad to renew my acquaintance with the Minister for the Cabinet Office, or, as the newspapers always call him, “effectively the Deputy Prime Minister”—surely the only occasion these days when the words “Prime Minister” and “effective” are used in the same sentence.
Although there are many other important issues that I would like to discuss with the Minister for the Cabinet Office today, sadly none is more vital or urgent than Brexit, so I would like to use our time to have a sensible, grown-up discussion about what the actual plan is between now and 29 March. To that end, I ask him this: if the briefing is correct that there will not be a fresh meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement next week, when will that vote take place?
I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was completely clear on that at this Dispatch Box last week. She said that the meaningful vote itself would be brought back as soon as possible, and if it were not possible to bring it back by the 13th, next Wednesday, the Government would then make a statement and table a motion for debate the next day.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I take from that and from other briefings that the time for a fresh vote will be after the Prime Minister has secured what she called last week
“a significant and legally binding change”—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 679.]
to the withdrawal agreement so that this House has something genuinely different on which to vote. If that is the case, will the Minister simply clarify what will happen if we start to approach 29 March and that significant and legally binding change has not been achieved?
The Prime Minister, as has been announced by No. 10, will be in Brussels tomorrow where she will be seeing President Juncker, President Tusk and the President of the European Parliament, Mr Tajani, to discuss the changes that she is seeking following the recent votes in this House both to reject the deal that was on the table and to support the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady). I do think that the right hon. Lady needs not just, perfectly fairly, to question the Government, but to face up to the fact that if, as both she and I wish, we are to leave the EU in an orderly manner with a deal, it requires this House to vote in favour of a deal and not just to declare that it does not want a no-deal scenario.
Again, I thank the Minister. Does the Prime Minister seriously think that she will get anything different from the responses that we have heard from the EU over recent days? None of them has given us any encouragement that the EU is willing to reopen the withdrawal agreement unless the Prime Minister is willing to reconsider the red lines on which the agreement is based. Does he not agree that the sensible, cautious thing to do at this late stage is to seek a temporary extension of article 50 so that we have time to see whether the negotiations succeed, or, if they do not, to pursue a different plan?
The problem with the right hon. Lady’s proposition is that it would simply defer the need for this House, which includes the Opposition Front Bench team, to face up to some difficult decisions. She has criticised the approach that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has taken, but I have to put it to her that, last week, the Leader of the Opposition, having met the Prime Minister, went out in front of the cameras and demanded changes to the backstop as part of the approach that he wanted to see for the future. The right hon. Lady has said that she would be comfortable with the backstop. Does she agree with her leader, or is she sticking to her guns on this?
I hear what the Minister says, but he does not seem to give us any answers. I genuinely appreciate his attempts, but I hope that he will understand the concern that all of us have, not just in this House, but across the country, that we have a Government treading water in the Niagara River while the current is taking us over the falls. [Interruption.]
Order, be quiet. The Whip on duty, the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), has no useful contribution to make other than to nod and shake his head in the appropriate places. No chuntering from a sedentary position from him is required or will persist.
Can we go back to the central issue: there is no way that we can avoid a border in Ireland after Brexit without a full customs union, or a permanent backstop, or some new technological solution. Will the Minister tell us which of those options the Government are currently working towards?
The right hon. Lady again makes this commitment, saying that the Labour party wants to see a permanent customs union, but most people who support a customs union say that they want to ensure that businesses can expect to export to the EU without tariffs, quotas or rules of origin checks. That is precisely what the Prime Minister’s deal does, and it also allows this country to establish trade agreements with other nations around the world, so what part of that deal does the right hon. Lady actually object to?
If the right hon. Gentleman would like me to answer questions, I would be quite happy to hold a seminar for him at another stage regarding what a proper Brexit ought to look like, but let me continue with my job, and perhaps he can continue with his and answer some questions. The technological solution is a non-starter. A permanent backstop will never be acceptable to the European Research Group or the Democratic Unionist party, and the only solution that will actually work is a full customs union. That is what I said at our first encounter here in 2016. It is the answer that is staring the Government in the face. If they backed it, it would command a majority in this House. It would avoid the mayhem and chaos of no deal, and protect the jobs at Nissan, Airbus and elsewhere that are currently at grave risk, so can the Minister explain why the Prime Minister is so dead against it?
Even if we did take the right hon. Lady’s somewhat ill-defined description of a permanent customs union, it would not address issues in respect of Northern Ireland and Ireland regarding regulatory standards for industrial goods or phytosanitary checks for foodstuffs and livestock. Even in her own terms, her answer is inadequate. The right hon. Lady may well then go on to say that she also wants to be part of a single market. Indeed, she has said that she would be happy with the same position as Norway, but that means the continuation of free movement and her party’s manifesto explicitly said that free movement would stop, so is the right hon. Lady supporting a Norway model or is she supporting the Labour party’s manifesto?
Flattered though I am that the Minister feels it necessary to ask me questions, it is important to make it clear that the reason that I have asked these questions today is that the Minister for the Cabinet Office understands Europe, Northern Ireland and Brexit probably better than any of his Cabinet colleagues. If anyone from the Government could give us answers, it would be him. But the truth is that there are no answers. Plan A has been resoundingly rejected by Parliament, plan B was ruled out by the EU months ago, and the Government are in danger of sleepwalking the country towards leaving with no plan and no deal at all. With just over 50 days to go, may I give the Minister a final opportunity to tell us whether there is a better plan than this—or, for goodness’ sake, will they let Parliament take charge instead?
As I said earlier, the Prime Minister will be reporting back to this House next week following her discussions in Brussels and elsewhere. I have to say to the right hon. Lady that the two-year deadline—the 29 March deadline—stems from European law and the wording of article 50, which lays down the two years. As I recall, the right hon. Lady voted in favour of triggering article 50; perhaps it was one of those votes where she was present but not involved. If she and her Front Bench are worried about no deal, they have to vote for a deal. Every time they vote against a deal, the risk of no deal becomes greater. It really is time for the Opposition Front Bench, for once, to put the national interest first, do the right thing and vote for a deal.
My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary was very impressed by what he saw on his visit to Harlow, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) will remain a very ardent champion of the need for renewal of those hospital facilities. He knows that as part of the Government’s long-term plan for the NHS, NHS England will make decisions about its capital investments for the future, and I am sure that he will drive his case home with it.
I welcome the Minister to his place.
While the chaos of the UK Government’s shambolic Brexit negotiations has dominated the headlines, this Government have sneaked through a cut in pension credit that will see some couples up to £7,000 a year worse off. An estimated 300,000 more pensioners are now living in poverty than in 2012. Does the Minister agree that his Government need to change course and, instead of robbing pensioners, start supporting them?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the situation of mixed-age couples with one person over pensionable age and receiving a pension and the other of working age. What the Government have done—indeed, what this House voted for some years ago—is perfectly logical and in line with the intention of the benefits system.
We certainly did not vote for that. What we have seen from this Government is that they continue to put their hands into the pockets of the poorest in our society. In fact, this Tory Government are allowing a proposal to take free TV licences from pensioners. It is this Conservative Government who are denying women born in the 1950s their full rights to state pensions. It is this Tory Government who preside over the lowest state pension in any developed country—quite shameful. Pensioner poverty is not a myth; it is a reality. With Scottish pensioners being short-changed by the UK Government, the Minister must agree that the only way to end pensioner poverty in Scotland is to put fairness back into our pension system and give older people the dignity that they deserve in retirement— for pension reform to be taken on by the Scottish Government in an independent Scotland, where we take our responsibilities seriously.
Order. There is a lot of wild gesticulation and very animated expressions, and people looking at me pleadingly. It is very difficult to hear what is being said. I was trying to listen to the erudition of the Minister, but there is too much noise—let’s hear the fella.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that he and his party have voted against this Government’s Budgets even though those Budgets have reduced tax upon the lowest-paid in every part of the United Kingdom. He knows that the budget set by the SNP in the Scottish Parliament last week has led to Scots being more highly taxed than people in any other part of the United Kingdom —and that in a year when the Scottish Government’s block grant as a result of the Chancellor’s Budget decisions was increased by £950 million. The SNP has squandered that Union dividend. The message that we get is that if you have an SNP Government, Scottish people pay more and get less.
I certainly understand, not least from my own constituency, the valuable service that Citizens Advice provides in many parts of the country. As my hon. Friend knows, the funding available through the local government settlement is largely not ring-fenced. These are decisions for elected local authorities to take at their discretion, but I am sure that the local authority in Solihull has heard clearly my hon. Friend’s concerns.
Obviously if there are concerns about a particular case, the relevant Health Minister will be happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman. On his more general point, as part of sensible contingency planning, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and his Department have been talking to the suppliers of insulin and other key medicines and treatments to ensure that supplies will remain available to patients who need them, whatever the outcome of the current Brexit negotiations.
I completely understand the concerns about that issue of not only my hon. Friend but many parents. Of course, a lot depends upon the location of a school and the circumstances of the roads around it, but I am sure that a Minister from the Department for Transport will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those ideas.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about EU health workers, with the end of freedom of movement, we will need to put new arrangements in place. The immigration Bill before the House provides the framework within which those more detailed arrangements can be made for the future. Of course, the health service in Wales is devolved and a matter for the Welsh Government and Assembly, but NHS England’s long-term plan will see the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation.
I listened very carefully to the quiet and earnest exchange between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Foreign Secretary, on the subject of arrangements for Brexit. I have to say that I formed the impression they were trying to find detailed points on which they could disagree, and that if it was left to them, they would take about five minutes to agree a proposal that would take us smoothly through 29 March into proper negotiations. May I ask my right hon. Friend if he would arrange that, on 14 February, we can finally have some indicative votes in the House so that the sensible majority can express their opinion? We can leave smoothly and start proper negotiations, based on a customs arrangement and some regulatory alignment in the transition period, and stop being so dominated by Corbynistas and the European Research Group.
I have to say that, in the past couple of weeks, one of the things I have been spending my time doing is talking to right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House, including Labour Members, about their views regarding the way forward on Brexit. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) wanted to come and see me as well, I would be very happy to talk further to her. I just think it is a pity that the Leader of the Opposition waited a full fortnight before even opening discussions with the Government.
The hon. Gentleman has been a completely open and honourable champion of the second referendum, and I respect that fact. He knows the Government’s concerns that that would lead to an erosion of public trust in our political process, and that it would not actually settle the question because there would then be demands from whoever lost a second referendum to proceed to a third. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he needs to persuade his own Front Benchers, because I find that opposition to a second referendum is quite deep in both major parties in the House.
I have just come from speaking at the launch of a draft EU-UK free trade agreement. It lays out 300 pages of what such an agreement would look like and invites the Government and businesses to engage, but it depends on our being outside a customs union with the EU. Notwithstanding the earlier exchanges on this very topic, will my right hon. Friend recommit himself today to our manifesto commitment to be outside a customs union with the EU in the future relationship?
My right hon. Friend, perfectly properly, made reference to the 2017 Conservative manifesto, but I could also refer him to many, many statements made from this Dispatch Box and elsewhere by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the same effect. I would say to him that, for the complex negotiations that would be needed to establish the detail of the future economic partnership between ourselves and the European Union, we need to have the implementation or transitional period that is specified in the withdrawal agreement. That is what businesses of all sizes in all sectors are asking us in this House to do, and that is why the House should come together and support a deal.
Of course, new tests of housing need have recently been introduced. They are designed to reflect the fact that under successive Governments of all political parties, we as a country have been building far fewer new homes than our country and particularly our younger generation now need. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that, representing one part of the country with some of the fastest housebuilding rates anywhere in England, I think this is a social justice challenge that we have to face up to, but the national planning policy contains within it very strong tests to protect against inappropriate development in the green belt, and the Government will stand by that approach.
Last week it was announced that emergency services and women and children’s services are going to be moved out of borough from Telford’s Princess Royal Hospital. I have asked the Health Secretary to call in that decision for review, because the needs and health outcomes of people in both Telford and Wrekin have not been considered. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the Health Secretary to review the decision and to listen to the concerns of people in Telford and Wrekin?
The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that the most vulnerable people get support when they need it most. It is important, obviously, that people are able to keep their homes warm during any cold snaps, and the cold weather payments and winter fuel payment enable them to do that. I will ensure that the relevant Minister looks into the particular constituency issue raised by the hon. Gentleman.
On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who has been in his constituency this morning, I want to thank Staffordshire fire and rescue and Staffordshire police for their efforts in the horrific fire that occurred in Stafford this week. I also want to thank the local schools for the support being given to children who know the family. Will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing our condolences to the family and friends involved?
I do not believe that there is any Member of this House whose reaction to that ghastly news yesterday was other than horror and the most deeply felt sense of sympathy with the family and friends of the children and parents involved. Thinking through what that family have had to live through, and must face living through in the future, it strikes one that it must be almost unendurable. On behalf of the whole House, I hope, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the emergency services—let us not forget that, for those who were called out to the scene, this would have been a traumatic experience—and to the local schools. The fire and rescue service will lead an investigation into the causes of this tragedy, and obviously we will have to await the outcome of that before deciding whether any further lessons should be drawn.
As the Prime Minister has said, it is not right that grieving parents have to worry about how to meet the funeral costs for a child. We have confirmed that parents will no longer have to meet the costs of burials or cremations, and fees will be waived by all local authorities and paid for instead by Government. We have been working, as I think the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, on the most effective way to deliver the fund, because we need to make sure that we get this right, but I take his point about the need to step up the pace. We will provide an update to Parliament on implementation as soon as possible, and I will certainly draw his comments and the support that he has from other Members right across the House, on a cross-party basis, to the attention of the Ministers concerned.
I am proud to represent Penzance, which is at the start of the rail link to London and elsewhere. Five years after the track was cut off by both coastal erosion and landslides, the planning application has finally gone in to create a resilient rail link for Devon and Cornwall. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents and the House that adequate funds will be made available to avoid any further delays?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the critical importance of this stretch of line not just to south Devon but to the whole south-west, in particular people living in Cornwall. I have been told by the Department for Transport that the first phase of work to protect the sea wall at Dawlish began in November last year, with essential repairs to breakwaters. That is part of a £15 million wider investment to make the railway at Dawlish and Teignmouth more resilient to extreme weather. Top-quality engineers have been carrying out detailed ground investigations to develop a long-term solution to protect the railway and to minimise disruption for passengers. We are now talking to Network Rail about the long-term plan.
The hon. Gentleman raises a constituency case. I do not know the details other than those he has just relayed to the House, but I will ask the relevant Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions to talk to him and to look into the details of the case in greater depth.
May I point out to my right hon. Friend that the House has already had some indicative votes? The House did not like the withdrawal agreement as it stands and would prefer not to leave without a withdrawal agreement at all, and the whole Government voted to replace the backstop. What progress is being made in the discussions led by a remarkable alliance of my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)? They are promoting what is known as the Malthouse compromise, which would replace the backstop with a perfectly viable scheme to secure an open border in Northern Ireland under all circumstances. What is holding it up?
There is no attempt to hold anything up. The Government are very determined that we need to make progress, not least because of the two-year deadline under article 50 and the importance to our businesses of leaving the EU in an orderly manner with a withdrawal agreement. The group to which my hon. Friend refers has been meeting my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. Those talks continue.
Two issues were raised there. On the point about access to a Member of Parliament, there is no excuse for any organisation or individual to try to stop a constituent approaching their Member of Parliament. While this is ultimately a matter for you, Mr Speaker, there have been previous occasions when such attempts have been ruled as a contempt of Parliament, so I hope that message will go back. On the substantive point about the operation of the contracts, clearly the contract would have been let by the relevant part of the NHS, but the Health Secretary has indicated to me that he is very willing to sit down with the hon. Gentleman to talk through the details.
Following on from the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), I remind the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that the House passed the so-called Brady amendment on 29 January. Three hundred and seventeen Members were present and actively involved, as they all voted for it, including my right hon. Friend and the whole Government. The amendment said:
“and requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.
As the Government voted for it, will he confirm that that is still their policy, and if not, which bit of “replaced” was not clear?
The motion also said, of course, that subject to those changes, those who voted for it would be willing to accept the withdrawal agreement. Talks are continuing with the so-called Malthouse group, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spelled out in Belfast yesterday how she intends to take forward the work following the vote for the amendment in the name of our hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady).
The expressway is part of a strategic plan for the Oxford-Cambridge corridor, which is probably the best opportunity for economic growth, innovation and job creation anywhere in Europe at the moment. Like the hon. Lady, I speak as somebody who has a constituency interest—not just a Government interest—in this. There will be a public consultation on route options later this year. There will then be a public consultation on the preferred route, and communities will be able to comment on all aspects of the expressway during those consultations.
There can be no doubt that the people of Venezuela are really suffering: 40 of them were killed in recent protests, many more have been detained and many are simply voting with their feet and leaving—those who can. What more can we do as a Government to help these people, and does my right hon. Friend agree that sanctions are still a valuable tool?
What is happening in Venezuela is appalling. We have seen the suppression of democratic institutions and traditions, and we have seen 3 million people forced to leave their country and live as refugees. We and our EU partners have been clear that we need to put pressure on those around Maduro. We need to keep that pressure up, and we are looking at what further steps we can take to ensure peace and democracy, including through possible sanctions. It would be a help if, in this House, we spoke with a united voice, rather than having the Leader of the Opposition looking to Maduro’s Venezuela as a role model for this country.
Party matters are not a subject of Government responsibility, but all donations to the Conservative party have been properly accounted for and declared to the Electoral Commission in accordance with the law. There are people of Russian origin who are United Kingdom citizens and as entitled as any other naturalised UK citizen to support and donate to the political party of their choice.
For parents across East Renfrewshire, the safety of their children online is an absolute priority, so I very much welcome the announcements from the Government of more steps in relation to social media companies, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that the online harms White Paper remains on track to be out on time and that, whatever happens with Brexit, this workstream will be a priority for the Government?
Yes, and I actually talked to the Culture Secretary this week about the need to press ahead with urgency on this task. We have heard the calls for an internet regulator and a statutory duty of care, and we are seriously considering these options. Our White Paper will clearly set out how responsibilities should be met and what should happen if they are not.
As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I am not familiar, as he is, with the details of his constituency case, and I was not certain from how he posed his question whether the problem was with the documentation alone or whether there was a more substantive problem, but the Immigration Minister or another relevant Minister will happily talk to him to try to sort this out.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Brexit provides us with the opportunity to introduce a controlled and fair immigration system that no longer discriminates against the rest of the world outside the EU and that that system should be the least bureaucratic possible?
I agree with my hon. Friend on both those points. It is important that in the future we have a system that is fair, makes it easy for the brightest and best in the world to come and work and study here and judges people not by the country they come from but on the skills they bring to this country and their commitment to this country.
The Minister will recall that my colleagues and I in the coalition introduced the naming and shaming of companies that fail to pay the minimum wage. This practice has ceased since last summer, apparently because civil servants are tied up on Brexit duties. What does this tell us about the Government’s new-found enthusiasm for labour rights, and when will these lists be published?
I would have hoped that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged that the Government have continued to take forward and strengthen further the policies on the national living wage, which we worked together on during the coalition days, but I will look into the point he has made, discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and perhaps a drop him a note to say what we have concluded.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Prime Minister’s questions, I raised the issue of the attack on pensions and pensioners, and I was surprised to hear the Minister for the Cabinet Office claim in response that the Scottish Government had responsibility, if we so chose, to deal with the problems created by the UK Government. He will know that pensions are reserved and that the Scottish Parliament cannot create any new pension or old-age benefit because of the restrictions in section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016, under which we cannot give pensions assistance or assistance for reasons of age. We find it intolerable that time after time the UK Government claim that the Scottish Parliament or Government have powers they patently do not have, and it must stop.
That is not a matter for the Chair, but the right hon. Gentleman has made his point with force and clarity. If the Minister for the Cabinet Office wishes to respond, he can. He is not under an obligation to do so, but if he does not, I suspect, knowing the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) , who is a persistent blighter, that he will not go away. Quite understandably and justifiably, he will want to return to the issue over and over again, so it might be best if the Minister would deploy his considerable intellect and respond.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am very clear that the advice I have is that under the Scotland Act 2016 the Scottish Government have the power to top up reserved benefits. It is for the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) to defend the decision of a Scottish Government not to do so.
I think the idea of further debate is fermenting in the mind of the leader of the Scottish National party as we speak. I am not sure that there is any “further to”, but I am in a generous mood—[Interruption.] I think that gesture means it will be short, so very well.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It has been widely reported that the Secretary of State for International Trade has advised industry representatives that he proposes to introduce measures in the event of a no-deal Brexit to reduce all import tariffs on goods to zero. The impact of that in job losses in our manufacturing and farming industries would be enormous. It would also undermine the Government’s much vaunted ambition to negotiate new trade deals by giving away what other countries would happily bargain access into their own markets to obtain. Have you, Mr Speaker, received any indication from the Government that a Minister is preparing to make a statement to this House on such a far-reaching and important matter?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry that I have not given you notice of this, but it was not possible. Since Prime Minister’s questions began, the President of the European Council has said that there is a “special place in hell” reserved for Brexiteers. I do not recall any President insulting Members of this House, members of the Government and the British people in such a way. What means are open to the House or the Government to respond to such a completely outrageous insult?
I am not responsible for the statements of the President of the European Council, and I did not know—I was not hitherto conscious—that the hon. Gentleman was notably sensitive, that he was in any sense a delicate flower, and that he was capable of being a quickly and severely injured soul by virtue of the ad hominem remarks of others. If indeed he has been developing a sensitivity and he feels insulted—[Interruption.] Or even, as the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) chunters from a sedentary position, wounded.
Deeply wounded, apparently. Well, then I am sorry for the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). Whatever views he has and expresses, as far as I am concerned, as he knows, I hold him in the highest esteem because he takes Parliament seriously— he always has done and he always will do. It is not for the Speaker to arbitrate between different political opinions. What the Speaker likes to see and hear is the sight and sound of committed parliamentarians who take their responsibilities seriously. No one does so more obviously than the hon. Gentleman.
I shall keep this brief, Mr Speaker. I did not have the chance to advise you of my point order in advance, as it arises from that of the right hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). May I respectfully suggest to you that you respectfully suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he might want to go beyond the headlines of the BBC in future? What the European Council President Donald Tusk actually said was that there is a “special place in hell” for
“those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely”.
So perhaps—[Hon. Members: “Oh!] Well, Mr Speaker, sometimes the truth hurts, doesn’t it?
To be frank, as Speaker I do not really mind what it is that the President of the European Council has said, because it is not a matter that concerns me. I hope that the hon. and learned Lady will forgive me if I note en passant that in the course of making a point that I know was very important to her, she inadvertently elevated the hon. Member for Wellingborough to membership of the Privy Council. Perhaps it is only a matter of time, but the Treasury Bench might wish to take that as a hint; alternatively, they might not. We will leave it there for now, but I am glad that the hon. and learned Lady is in a jocular spirit, and the same seems to be capable of being said of the hon. Gentleman, even if he is deeply wounded.
European Union (Referendum on Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Tom Brake, supported by Sir Vince Cable, Jo Swinson, Wera Hobhouse, Mr Ben Bradshaw, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Stephen Gethins, Jonathan Edwards, Caroline Lucas, Stephen Doughty and Geraint Davies presented a Bill to require the holding of a referendum in which one option is to endorse the agreement between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and the other option is for the United Kingdom to continue to be a member of the European Union; to require the Prime Minister to seek an extension of the period of two years specified in Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union to a period ending after that referendum; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 331).
Armed Forces Covenant (Duty of Public Authorities)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require public authorities to deliver services in accordance with the armed forces covenant; and for connected purposes.
It is a great privilege to present this ten-minute rule Bill. I consider it a huge privilege to serve as Northern Ireland’s only voice on the Defence Committee, following the service of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We recognise the enormous sacrifice given not only during the Northern Ireland troubles and through Operation Banner, which remains our country’s longest continuous military deployment, but historically and to the present day, and we value the above average contribution that Northern Ireland makes to our country’s overall strength. Collectively, as a nation, we honour that commitment. Collectively, as a Parliament, we progressed the armed forces covenant, which nobly states:
“To those who proudly protect our nation, who do so with honour, courage, and commitment, the Armed Forces Covenant is the nation’s commitment to you.
It is a pledge that together we acknowledge and understand that those who serve or who have served in the armed forces, and their families, should be treated with fairness and respect in the communities, economy and society they serve with their lives.”
I stand by those laudable and honourable words, but, regrettably, we cannot as parliamentarians say with confidence that the covenant runs smoothly and is always applied equally across the United Kingdom. That is the injustice that I hope my Bill will address. The statutory duty it proposes will extend throughout the United Kingdom. The covenant is intended to be a universal commitment, and the experience, care and compassion veterans receive should be the same, but their experience is far from universal.
For too long, the experience of Northern Ireland-based veterans has been substandard. Yes, we have devolution. Yes, we have particular issues that are alive in Northern Ireland that do not pervade other parts the country. But the covenant was not caveated in any way, and we should not caveat our resolve to ensure its full implementation.
I recall the first occasion when, during scrutiny of the covenant implementation report in the Defence Committee, I laid before the then Veterans Minister correspondence received from the Health Minister in Northern Ireland at the time, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill. Responding to the needs of an individual veteran, she stated categorically that the armed forces covenant did not apply in Northern Ireland. In fact, she said that it did not apply “here”, because she could not bring herself to say “Northern Ireland”. She was wrong, but she was able to abuse her ministerial role to frustrate the honourable outworking of our nation’s commitment.
Such sectarian intransigence exists, and, depending on the allocation of ministerial office in Northern Ireland, it has the potential to block implementation in all the key operational departments. The shame of that action is matched only by the apparent unwillingness of this Parliament to meet it head-on. The sacrifice offered across our country is the same. The lives lost or injuries sustained do not confine themselves to respective parts of our nation, nor should we confine ourselves in our response.
For two years, successive covenant implementation reports have highlighted the fact that armed forces champions have been appointed in each of Northern Ireland’s 11 local authorities. On the face of it that is great progress, but when we know that local authorities in Northern Ireland have no role or influence in housing, health—including mental health—or education, it amounts to nothing more than tokenism.
In the most recent covenant report, some space was given to the through-life support offered to our veterans community. I read with interest three pages about the great work being undertaken in England, a further page about the work undertaken in Scotland, and yet another about the work undertaken in Wales. There was not a single line about Northern Ireland. There was nothing: no encouraging progress, no hurdles to be overcome, no aspirations for the future.
When Border Force recruitment in Northern Ireland was suspended because one of the eligibility criteria was service in the armed forces, the tension between the covenant and equality legislation became all too apparent. There is a misguided belief that equality laws in Northern Ireland act as a barrier to providing for our veterans community. It would, of course, be hugely advantageous to amend section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to include veterans as a protected class, in line with the aims and aspirations of the covenant. More pronounced, however, is the embarrassing failure to mount any justification for the reasonable aims of the covenant, which is all that Border Force needed to do.
Rather than justifying the reasons why service in the armed forces was a sterling criterion, demonstrating key skills that would enhance an application from a veteran—which is what the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland sought—Border Force decided that it was better to remove veterans’ opportunity to serve their country once again. How dishonourable that was. Rather than advancing the cause of those applicants, Border Force pulled the rug from under them. They were prepared to defend our country in their armed service careers, and they were prepared to defend it again through service in Border Force, yet we in this Parliament did not manage to defend their future career prospects.
Given all the constraints, and the seemingly intractable unwillingness to overcome them, I must especially praise the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association for Northern Ireland, which seeks valiantly to serve our veteran population. I also pay tribute to the Ulster Defence Regiment and Royal Irish Regiment benevolent funds, which continue to support veterans and their families, from Omagh to St Patrick’s in Ballymena and from Thiepval to Palace Barracks in North Down at the edge of my constituency.
With its new veterans support officer, RFCA NI attempts to navigate the system in Northern Ireland and seeks to find subtle workarounds, but in doing so, it is unfolding the circumstances of scores of individuals who, unlike their mainland counterparts, have had no opportunity to avail themselves of the services that they require and expect and that we should provide. It is discovering a lack of resources and a lack of legislative support.
When I say that, I look at the Veterans Minister, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I know of his personal commitment, and I know how much he has engaged in matters that do not arise solely in Northern Ireland. The issues raised by the fact that the covenant is not running smoothly apply throughout the United Kingdom. In the Defence Committee, we are identifying distinct differences in mental health provision and other support services in Scotland, Wales and England.
I believe we must say that no longer should our veteran population in Northern Ireland—and in other parts of this United Kingdom—remain with one hand tied behind their back. We owe them more than that. I have focused my remarks on Northern Ireland, but I know only too well that the principle applies across our nation. We have the chance to change that. At the very least, let this parliamentary process—through my quest for a statutory duty to implement the covenant—honour those who so gallantly honoured us.
Question put and agreed to.
That Gavin Robinson, Nigel Dodds, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Emma Little Pengelly, Dr Julian Lewis, Mrs Madeleine Moon, John Spellar, Leo Docherty, Mr Kevan Jones, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Ruth Smeeth and Jamie Stone present the Bill.
Gavin Robinson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March and to be printed (Bill 332).
I beg to move,
That the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 15 January, be approved.
These two statutory instruments will increase the value of lump sum awards payable under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the diffuse mesothelioma scheme, which was set up by the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008. Those schemes stand apart from the main social security benefits uprating procedure, and there is no legislative requirement to review the level of payments each year. None the less, I am happy to increase the amounts payable from 1 April this year by September’s consumer prices index of 2.4%.
The Government recognise the very great suffering of individuals and their families caused by the serious and often fatal diseases resulting from exposure to asbestos, coal dust and other forms of dust. The individuals affected may be unable to bring a successful claim for damages, often owing to the long latency period of their condition, but they can still claim compensation through these schemes.
I will briefly summarise the specific purpose of the two compensation schemes. The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, which for simplicity I will refer to as the 1979 Act scheme, provides a lump sum compensation payment to those who have one of five dust-related respiratory diseases covered by the scheme, who are unable to claim damages from employers because they have gone out of business and who have not brought any action against others for damages. The five diseases covered by the 1979 Act scheme are diffuse mesothelioma, bilateral diffuse pleural thickening, pneumoconiosis and byssinosis, as well as primary carcinoma of the lung if accompanied by asbestosis or bilateral diffuse pleural thickening. The 2008 mesothelioma lump sum payment scheme widens the criteria for compensation to those who have contracted diffuse mesothelioma but who are unable to claim compensation for that disease under the 1979 Act scheme—for example, those people who were self-employed or whose exposure to asbestos was not due to work.
Payments under the 1979 Act scheme are based on the age of the person with the disease and their level of disablement at the time of their diagnosis. All payments for diffuse mesothelioma are made at the 100% rate. All payments under the 2008 scheme are also made at the 100% disablement rate and based on age, with the highest payments going to the youngest people with the disease. In the last full year, from April 2017 to March 2018, 3,680 people received payments under both schemes, totalling £49.2 million.
I am aware that the prevalence of diffuse mesothelioma is a particular concern of Members, given the number of deaths from this disease in Great Britain. It is at a historically high level. The life expectancy of those diagnosed with diffuse mesothelioma is poor, with many people dying within 12 months of diagnosis. The disease has a strong association with exposure to asbestos, and current evidence suggests that around 85% of all mesotheliomas diagnosed in men are attributable to asbestos exposures that occurred through work. Our latest available information suggests that there will continue to be around 2,500 diffuse mesothelioma deaths per year before the number of cases begins to fall during the next decade, reflecting a reduction in asbestos exposures after 1980.
The Minister will be aware that Barrow and Furness has the highest number of asbestos-related cancer deaths in the whole of England and Wales. Is she aware of how many sufferers who were previously compensated under the scheme covering pleural plaques are now falling victim to terminal asbestosis and finding themselves ineligible for any compensation under these schemes? Does she not feel that that is unjust? Will she meet me and representatives of my community to discuss that?
I am always happy to meet colleagues from across the House if they have particular constituency issues or if people who really need support are falling between the cracks. There are three different schemes available to support people, and we are talking about two of them today. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to explore those issues and to discuss the three compensation programmes to see whether there is more that we can do. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that people get the support to which they are entitled.
We expect to see a decline in the number of people being diagnosed with diffuse mesothelioma in the coming years, but many people will continue to develop the condition and the other respiratory diseases, based on their exposure, for some time to come. That is why the Government are committed to working in partnership with their arm’s length bodies and agencies to improve the lives of those with respiratory diseases. I want to give the House an example of that commitment.
Last summer, I hosted a lung health summit, bringing together the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) and for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and representatives from the British Lung Association and the NHS. This was an opportunity to discuss the important work that the Government and our partners are doing and to listen to the first-hand experiences and problems, brought to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, that miners are encountering today as they try to get an appropriate diagnosis and therefore the financial support that we want them to receive.
A huge amount of work has been done as a result of that lung health summit, and I was delighted—as I hope everyone will be—to see that the recently published NHS long-term plan recognises the objective of improving outcomes for people with respiratory disease. The long-term plan sets out how the NHS will take action in a number of areas. This includes expanding programmes that support earlier diagnosis of respiratory diseases—including the pioneering lung health checks trialled in Manchester and Liverpool—and increasing access to proven treatments such as pulmonary rehabilitation. As part of the engagement process for the Government’s long-term plan, an NHS England respiratory oversight group has been created, which includes membership of the British Lung Foundation. In addition, NHS England has been working closely with the taskforce for lung health, which has also recently published its own five-year plan to improve lung health.
I want to take a few moments to talk about the work of the Health and Safety Executive in this regard. It does excellent work, the length and breadth of the country, but we seldom have an opportunity to reflect on that in this House. As a nation, we should be really proud of our long history of trying to prevent illness and injury at work. The very first factory inspectors were appointed under the Factory Act 1833 to prevent injury and overworking among child textile workers, and we have come a long way since then. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act came into force in October 1974 and the Health and Safety Executive was formed in January 1975. The HSE is now well established as a mature regulator with a mission to prevent work-related death, injury and ill health. This is borne out by the most recent published HSE statistics, which show a long-term downward trend in the rate of self-reported non-fatal accidents and fatal accidents to workers. Indeed, the UK consistently has one of the lowest standardised rates of fatal injury when compared with any other large economy.
Turning back to the importance of these regulations, I am sure we all agree that, while no amount of money can ever compensate individuals or their families for the suffering and loss caused by the diffuse mesothelioma and pneumoconiosis covered by the 1979 Act scheme, those who have those diseases rightly deserve some form of monetary compensation. Finally, I am required to confirm to the House that these provisions are compatible with the European convention on human rights, and I am happy so to do.
The Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 made provisions for lump sum compensation payments to be made for those suffering from diffuse mesothelioma. It also made provisions for their dependants. The mesothelioma lump sum payments regulations laid before the House have uprated the lump sum payments for sufferers and their dependants by 2.4%. We welcome the fact that the Government have reviewed the rates in line with inflation, and we recognise that, as the Minister said, they are under no obligation to do so under the 2008 Act.
Mesothelioma is a type of cancer that covers the lining of the body’s organs. It is also almost exclusively caused by asbestos, when fibres have entered the lungs of sufferers and caused damage over time. The greater the exposure to asbestos, the more likely it is that someone will be at risk of mesothelioma. It can also affect those who have been indirectly exposed to asbestos. The victims of indirect asbestos exposure have been seeking justice through access to the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme for some time, and the Government must seriously consider that matter.
It can take up to 40 years after the original exposure for mesothelioma symptoms to develop, and it is likely that the increase in the numbers of mesothelioma sufferers’ deaths in recent years is due to exposure that took place before the introduction of asbestos regulations in the 1970s. Mesothelioma has devastating effects on sufferers, as the Minister rightly said. For most victims, a diagnosis brings with it the inevitability of death, and one such death was that of my good friend, Brian Jamieson, who passed away in December. He was an active trade unionist who worked on Trafford Park, where he unfortunately acquired the disease. Tragically, only five in 100 people survive the cancer for more than five years after diagnosis.
The damage caused by asbestos is widely seen as one of the biggest public health crises in this country, ruining the lives not just of sufferers themselves, but of their families, friends and communities. The Department for Work and Pensions suggested that 53,000 people will die from mesothelioma between 2030 and 2037, and it is estimated that 2,500 people die every year as a result of the disease. The 2008 scheme provides a one-off payment to sufferers who have no occupational link to the disease or who are self-employed, including, for example, sufferers who live in close proximity to a workplace containing asbestos.
While Labour welcomes the regulations and the uprating of the lump sum payments, several serious issues remain. Alongside many campaigners, we are concerned about the disparity between lump sum payments made to dependants and those made to sufferers. It is unclear why dependants, who are themselves usually impacted by the effects of mesothelioma, receive so much less than sufferers. The difference in the amounts is stark. A mesothelioma sufferer aged 70 will receive £17,961 under the draft regulations. However, if the sufferer dies at aged 67 or over, their dependants receive just £8,000 as a lump sum payment. In 2010, the then Minister, Lord McKenzie of Luton, rightfully pledged to equalise payments, noting the unfair nature of the regulations. The Government have faced repeated calls to honour that commitment, but they have failed to do so. This is also an equality issue. The difference in payments is likely to affect mainly women whose husbands were directly exposed to asbestos at work. How can the Government continue to justify the difference between lump sum payments? Will the Minister tell us the most recent estimated cost of providing equal payments for sufferers and their dependants?
Communities are still being affected by asbestos exposure to this day, and exposure results in an estimated 5,000 deaths every year. The all-party group on occupational safety and health estimated that, shockingly, 75% of the 29,000 schools in Britain contain asbestos, so it is vital that we continue to raise awareness. What additional funding will be made available this year to ensure that we continue to make people aware of the dangers of exposure to asbestos? What campaigns are being run by the Health and Safety Executive about asbestos exposure?
As the Minister noted, the HSE plays a vital role in ending harmful exposure to asbestos, but this Government are responsible for a 40% cut to its budget. By this year, it is estimated that the HSE will receive £100 million less in Government funding than it did in 2009, and that comes despite estimates that 12,000 people are dying each year as a result of occupational cancers or lung diseases. Will the Minister conduct an impact assessment of the cuts to HSE funding on occupational health? Will she end the devastating cuts to the HSE? When will the HSE get the “austerity is over” cheque that the Prime Minister promised?
Labour also welcomes the regulations to increase lump sum payments to pneumoconiosis sufferers in line with inflation. We have further noted that the Government are under no statutory obligation to do so. The pneumoconiosis regulations refer to the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979, which provided lump sum payments to people disabled by dust-related diseases, including as a result of asbestos exposure and coal mining. Statistics show that there are an average of 140 deaths a year as a result of the disease. While we welcome the uprating under the regulations, the Government have failed to ensure that there is parity between the amounts offered to sufferers and to their dependants. Will the Minister finally act to ensure that there is parity between the two groups?
Sufferers of pneumoconiosis and their families have to go through onerous and often expensive hurdles in order to receive payments from the Department for Work and Pensions. A number of problems prevent people from receiving the support they deserve, including a lack of specialist knowledge about work-related diseases and issues with the DWP assessments. Will the Minister meet my colleagues and the National Union of Mine- workers to discuss changes to ensure that sufferers and their families are not prevented from receiving vital support for this incurable disease? Information about the disease is not widespread, and the disease is hard to diagnose because it does not show up on two-dimensional X-rays. Will the Minister tell us how much funding is going into promoting awareness of the disease?
The lump sum payment is a form of industrial injuries disablement benefit. Under universal credit, IIDB counts as unearned income, reducing the UC award. Under tax credits, the lump sum payment is disregarded completely. Sufferers and dependants on tax credits therefore stand to lose out if they naturally migrate on to universal credit. Will the Minister act immediately to ensure that no sufferer will lose out in this way? No impact assessment has been made of the effectiveness of either scheme, nor have the Government consulted trade unions about how best to compensate those who have lost out. Will the Minister act immediately to do so and provide an equality impact assessment on this most vital area of support?
My hon. Friend is making some important points—I am sorry that more Members are not in the Chamber to hear them. There is real anger in former coal mining constituencies such as mine about the failure to pay out. People fought hard to get compensation in the first place—it took years and years of effort. Were it not for the previous Labour Government, we would have a lesser scheme than the present one. I support what my hon. Friend says, and we must give proper answers to the sufferers of pneumoconiosis and their families.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I have family members who were miners until they were put out of work, so I completely agree.
Labour welcomes the support available to sufferers and the uprating of the provisions, but it is clear that issues remain. I urge the Minister not only to ensure that equal treatment of sufferers and dependants is achieved, but to consider the implications of Government cuts and the introduction of universal credit for sufferers throughout the UK.
I welcome the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2019 and the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2019. I understand that both schemes, which will ensure fair and timely payments to those with asbestos-related diseases, fall outside the general benefits uprating process and that, as such, no review mechanism is formally built into legislation to uprate the payments each year.
The Government’s 2.4% increase in the payments is very welcome and rightly demonstrates an ongoing commitment to supporting those suffering from asbestos-related diseases, many of whom contracted the disease through no fault of their own, and their families. For reasons that will become apparent, I wonder whether a future statutory instrument will include a table of occupations or professions—the regulations include a helpful breakdown of the ages of those with mesothelioma at first diagnosis—as that would help to identify those at risk and could perhaps be cross-referenced with other areas of support for those suffering from mesothelioma, where necessary.
Five years and one month ago, our former colleague from Wythenshawe and Sale East, Paul Goggins, tragically and suddenly passed away. Paul and I had tabled several cross-party amendments to the Bill that became the Mesothelioma Act 2014, and colleagues on both sides of the House will agree that his expertise and compassion have been and continue to be a great loss. He was the driving force behind much of the work on mesothelioma, and the ongoing success of the scheme is testament to his commitment to the issue and a fitting legacy for him as a parliamentarian.
I was the Minister responsible for taking the Mesothelioma Act through Parliament and, despite the restrictions I was under, Paul was an enormously useful knowledge base. At times I went back to my civil servants and said, “No, I have facts from people who were involved in this.” That was very useful, and the House should recognise the work of Paul Goggins.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention. I still have the Christmas card that Paul gave to me just before we rose for Christmas in 2013, in which he started, “Dear fellow meso warrior”. He was passionate about this, and it was a real privilege to have tabled amendments in his name—obviously, he was unable to be here to push them through.
We were successful during the passage of the Mesothelioma Act—with the support of colleagues on both sides of the House and in the other place, led by Lord Alton of Liverpool—in aligning payments with the 100% average civil damages. I am therefore sure that, like me, Paul would have welcomed the Minister’s written ministerial statement of 23 January on the diffuse mesothelioma payment scheme which confirmed, thanks to the excellent work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), that the levy to be charged for 2018-19, payable by the insurance industry to fund the scheme, will be just short of £40 million.
Since the launch of the scheme in 2014, £130 million has been paid in compensation to almost 1,000 sufferers—that is £130 million that was not previously available to those suffering from mesothelioma who are not covered by the alternative schemes and unable to trace their employer’s liability insurance. I am grateful for the efforts of everyone in the House, including the late Paul Goggins and my right hon. Friend, who was the Minister at the time, in helping to provide such compensation for those who would not have had it previously.
Having worked with long-suffering officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for three and a half years as a Minister, I will take a second to praise the oversight committee’s annual report on the scheme. The report is well set out and tells us everything we need to know in a clear and transparent way, so I thank the officials who worked hard on it.
One amendment that Paul and I were sadly unsuccessful in adding to the legislation would have introduced an additional levy on the insurance industry to fund research into mesothelioma. It remains the case, as it has for decades, that mesothelioma is poorly understood and underfunded. We know it has a long latency period and is an incredibly aggressive form of lung cancer, and we also anticipate a future spike in diagnoses, with Medway a particular hotspot for the disease given its rich shipbuilding and industrial heritage. I am pleased that Medway clinical commissioning group is working with the local hospital to review its respiratory pathways, including the care of lung cancer patients, and the CCG is keen to be in the next round of lung health checks because of the higher incidence of mesothelioma in the area.
As the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, we urgently need better to understand the disease. We need to work towards a meaningful treatment, and perhaps even a cure. Although I accept that this does not fall wholly within the remit of the Department for Work and Pensions, it is notable that the annual review shows that the levy scheme had a £3.45 million surplus last year. Following agreement with the insurance industry, the surplus was divided equally into the levy for the next three years. It might have been better to put that money into research, as while £3 million is small change in the insurance world, it is a lottery win for research. Again, that might be worth considering for next year. I would be grateful if, on the back of this debate, the Minister would write to me to elaborate on what work her Department is undertaking to engage the Department of Health and Social Care in better understanding the disease and improving outcomes for sufferers.
Asbestos in schools is an important topic. Although, again, this does not fall wholly within the remit of the DWP, it does have important implications for the various schemes the DWP administers for sufferers. In a 2015 Adjournment debate on asbestos in schools, I mentioned that the issue needed a cross-departmental effort led by the Department for Education through the Priority School Building programme. I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on any discussions she has had with DFE colleagues on the potential impact of asbestos in schools. For example, is any data shared on the profession of applicants to the asbestos-related schemes whose benefits are administered by her Department?
There is a huge amount to commend in the Government’s ongoing commitment to supporting those who suffer from mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases. I miss my meso partner in crime, Paul Goggins, enormously. Although he would agree that the progress should be celebrated, he would continue to say that there is always much more that can be done further to improve the outcomes for sufferers of this terrible disease.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate. The Whips Office asked me whether I would like to contribute because my constituency historically had a strong mining tradition, and I am particularly pleased to take part because 3,000 or so people lose their life to mesothelioma each year.
In August 2008 one of those who lost their life to the disease was John MacDougall, then the Member of Parliament for the constituency I have the privilege to represent. John was only 60 years old, and he should have had years and years of active life ahead of him. He had given 26 years of service to the people as a councillor and as a Member of Parliament, and for many years before that he had been a trade unionist. It is a tragic irony that while John, through his trade union activities, was working for safer working conditions for his colleagues at the Rosyth dockyard and, later, at the Methil oil rig yard he was working in an environment that led to his tragic early death, denying him and his family the active retirement he had a right to expect.
The last time I remember seeing John—as far as I know, it was the last public activity he was able to carry out—was at an event organised by a stalwart of Fife Council, Willie Clarke, as part of a campaign to get proper recognition and proper compensation for former miners and others whose lives were blighted by pneumoconiosis. It seems appropriate to mark both John and Willie today. Willie gave 43 years’ service as a councillor in Fife, and he retired in 2016.
I think the reason for these regulations today and for why there is a statutory compensation scheme for miners, plumbers and others who suffer from these terrible diseases, is the determination of people like Willie Clarke. As a councillor and as a National Union of Mineworkers official, he worked with other officials in the NUM and in other trade unions. Without them, I do not think we would have a statutory scheme today, so I pay tribute to Willie, the late John MacDougall and others who have gone before us. They deserve the credit for our having this scheme.
The scheme is not perfect, and it can be criticised, but it has to be better than what we had before. Until we had a statutory compensation scheme, people had to take their employer through the courts. As the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned, the compensation to a family for the loss of a loved one is often much, much less than the compensation paid to a patient who has to live with the consequences of their illness. That fact has been abused mercilessly by employers and others for decades. Often the reason for delays and so-called “complications” in compensation cases was purely down to the fact that the employer knew that if they could keep the case going until the claimant died, the size of any compensation payment would be significantly reduced. This was an insidious, vile and evil way to treat people, when they had often given years of service to companies, but that was what the business interests of employers often dictated. Again, I pay tribute to those who have helped to make sure that such a situation has been significantly improved. It has not been entirely sorted out, but things are better than they were in years gone by.
My grandad, Peter Quinn, whose name I am proud to bear, died when I was 10. I only remember him as an old man, one who was usually sick. He had to get a downstairs bathroom installed in his house and convert a front room into a bedroom because he could not get up and down the stairs. He could hardly walk the length of his garden—that is what I remember of him—but he was not much older than I am today. He had been a plumber all his days, which is clearly what caused the damage to his lungs and ended his life prematurely, as it ended the lives of tens of thousands, and possibly millions, of hard-working people the length and breadth of these islands. Those who are left behind and still have to live with the consequences of these appalling diseases deserve all the help we can give them, as do their families and loved ones.
I certainly support the proposal being put forward today. I was not surprised, because I already knew this, but it was disappointing that the Minister said there is not a statutory entitlement for these payments to be increased by the rate of inflation every year. Why is there not? Surely it is time to say to these people, “We think that the compensation that people like you will get in five years’ time should be worth the same in real terms as the money you are getting just now.” It should not need a decision of Parliament to accept—or, in theory, to reject—that increase. This is not money given to people to let them live in luxury. It is given to people as inadequate compensation for the loss of many years of their life and, very often, for the loss of quality life during the years they have left. We are talking about the people who made this collection of nations what it is. We would not have the economy we have today were it not for the shipyards in places such as Burntisland, which John MacDougall represented for so long, and for the mines, which produced massive wealth for so few, but which also destroyed the lives and livelihoods of so many. It is therefore appropriate that we continue to operate this compensation scheme and give, as an absolute minimum, an increase that allows people to keep pace with inflation.
However, I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to amending the legislation so that in future these increases in benefits can be made automatically. There should not be any option for this House to impose what would, in effect, be a reduction in real terms. I support the inflationary increase now, but I hope that by this time next year this increase, and perhaps a wee bit more, will be given automatically as a matter of right and not at the discretion of this House.
I rise in support of both these statutory instruments, which are sensibly being taken together, not least because we can now talk about the need to compensate people because of two basic products: coal and coal dust; and asbestos. This country got its wealth from coal, as men went down the mines to bring the coal out. For centuries, the wealth it provided put this country where it was. Asbestos was the great invention post-war, the insulating product that saved many lives, not least in fire prevention and insulation. Subsequently, however, it has destroyed millions of lives in this country today.
I am supporting the Minister today. I sat on the Bench where she is, taking these original measures through. I will make some more arguments in a moment, but at that time I made exactly the argument that the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) just made: why is this increase not automatically put through? I do not think there is an answer to that; I think this is just about bureaucracy and red tape. When the Bill was introduced all those years ago it was not perfect, as Bills often are not. There was so much happiness that that compensation Bill was brought through by the Labour party that things were missed or, as was my experience when I brought through the Bill that became the Mesothelioma Act 2014, people said, “It is too difficult. We don’t have the information at the moment. It can’t quite be done in that way.” I will touch on that in a moment. Such a measure would need primary legislation, but it could be tagged on to the many, many social security Bills that this House sees regularly—if we get the long title right, that can be done.
I know that the Minister will be listening, not only to me, but to Members from across the House, as, rightly, that is how she is as a Minister. So, first, I ask her to say to her officials, “This should be the last time that this is done this way.” This House can find time, if it really wants to, to right a wrong. There is no way in the world this House will say no to the uprating, so let us be pragmatic and sensible about it. I know that the officials in the Box will be sitting there thinking, “That Penning is going on again, just like he did when he was a Minister”, but what I am saying is right.
I wish to touch on a trivial point that the shadow Minister made: it is not “fibres” that cause mesothelioma, but fibre; something so small it would sit on the end of my finger will, 40 years from now, almost certainly kill people if it develops. No one understands why, and I will address that in moment. The public need to understand that this could affect people working in a school, a shipyard or myriad other occupations, including my former occupation of fireman. We were completely unprotected when we were going in to pull ceilings down, and turn things over and damp things down so that they did not reignite. Often there would be asbestos there, and we knew that. But we were the lucky ones, I think, because we were protected by the Fire Brigades Union, the union I was a member and branch secretary of; I recall being thrown out of the Labour party for a few years because we were too militant at the time. For me, as a trade unionist, this issue was very important, as firemen have died from asbestos-related diseases.
We have talked about the mines. Miners, often generation after generation after generation, put their lives at risk to go down the mines. Should we have learnt from the dangers? I agree that in some cases we should have done, but in other cases we did not really know. I used to live just down the road from a coal merchants, and as lads we often used to go to earn a bit of pocket money by filling the sacks. The coal dust there was not that much different from that in a mine, although the work was not as arduous as working down a mine. Did we realise, and did they realise, that this could seriously damage our lungs in the future? Of course not. So we need to learn from the past, and we have rightly done so.
I was enormously proud to bring through this House, as the Minister, the 2014 Act, which compensates people in cases where we cannot find their insurer and their employer, and where they were the missing few. I was lobbied heavily by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and by Paul Goggins and others to make it 100% rather than the 80% that was initially proposed, and to include third parties. Let us just think for a minute about what “third party” means. It often means the partner. It often means the wife of someone who worked in a shipyard and came home in his overalls covered in asbestos, which she then washed and hung out on the line. Is it right that we do not make sure that she has just as much, and that those families and those kids have just as much? The kids playing in the yard where those overalls were hanging could have been affected, but let us hope that has not happened. Could we, as was suggested in the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, have written into the legislation that research should be part of the funding? I was told by my officials that we could not guarantee the money and we must not jeopardise the Bill, but that we could come back to that later. Well, here we are now, later. I stood at that Dispatch Box and said that if there was money there from the levy, that would be used for compensation. I said that on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, on the Treasury Bench, as the Minister, with full authority from the Government. That should now be happening. There was clearly enough for the 100% compensation based on the average for those who had found an employer or insurer, and we now have a golden opportunity to say that the money is there. The insurers will say, “We can’t guarantee this,” but they said that before, and it is based on a levy.
We are not even talking about taxpayers’ money; it is a fund, and we could use it to do two things. First, if possible, we could find a cure and work out exactly what is going to go on. In retrospect, that will save lives and stop people needing money from the levy fund in the first place. I am no longer confident—hindsight is a wonderful thing—about the figures that were put in front of me and that this will taper off in the way predicted. I am not convinced about that because it involves too many industries and professions that are completely different from what we thought in the first place. We were looking at shipyards and plumbing, where asbestos was used extensively as insulation, but, as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned, there are currently teachers in schools who are not allowed to put a drawing pin into the wall for fear of moving the asbestos fibres. When it is in place, asbestos is perfectly safe; the issue is when it is moved. There are also hospitals to consider. There is one in Watford that looks after my constituency and dates back to before Victorian times. I am told that rather than build a new hospital, they are going to plough loads of money into that one to regenerate and refurbish it. We know that the asbestos in that hospital is a major problem. Why are we treating people in hospitals where we know that asbestos and dilapidation are issues? We need to protect the public as much as possible and make sure that the compensation schemes are there.
Before I finish, let me touch on the Health and Safety Executive, for which I was responsible as a Minister back in 2014, and which does a remarkable job. At the time, we looked carefully at how it was funded, and almost all its funding came from the central departmental funding stream. It is relatively different now: the Health and Safety Executive is a world leader in health and safety and brings a huge amount of money into the country’s economy, because we have freed it up to be able to do that. That does not mean that outside money should pay for everything. I am absolutely sure that the Health and Safety Executive needs to do the best possible job.
In 2005, my constituency was blown up by the Buncefield explosions—the largest fire and explosion in this country since the second world war. The Health and Safety Executive was absolutely brilliant. We were very lucky that no one died, and that meant that the Health and Safety Executive was responsible for the inquiry. As the constituency MP, I gave the Health and Safety Executive a pretty rough time, as everybody would expect me to have done, to get answers. In many ways, the Health and Safety Executive got those answers, and it was a privilege to be the Minister responsible for it some five years later.
I want to tell the Minister and the House a little about the life of Jack Hordon, who was until recently one of my constituents. Sadly, Mr Hordon died in December last year after a life in which he had worked in Barrow shipyard and in the merchant navy on behalf of the New Zealand Shipping Company. He was similar to many thousands of my constituents over the years, and similar to many people in shipbuilding areas and coalmining towns who served their families and their communities. They provided for themselves and their families, but in Barrow shipyard they also did a service for the nation by building vessels that went to war and the submarine fleets that have kept our nation safe for many years. Sometimes because of a lack of knowledge and often because of employers’ lack of care for their employees at the time, those people were exposed and unwittingly exposed their families—including their children, as the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) rightly described—to this deadly killer that sometimes lay quiet for decades until it struck and took away their lives in the most cruel and painful circumstances.
I raise Mr Hordon’s case partly because his life is representative of so many, but also because of the particular gap and injustice exposed by his recent experience. I am very proud to be the successor of Lord Hutton of Furness. He now sits in the other place but was the previous Member of Parliament for Barrow and Furness. He was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the previous Labour Government, when I was privileged to serve as his special adviser, and he was determined to speed up access to justice for mesothelioma sufferers and to stop the terrible situation in which there were delays in many sufferers getting their compensation payments, as previous speakers have described.
While Lord Hutton was serving in government, there was also a debate about pleural plaques. After he left the post, he privately lobbied his successor in the Department not to close the scheme and to remain alive to the potential pitfalls of the Government’s approach to pleural plaques. The window for claiming pleural plaques compensation was closed in 2007, and there was a debate about that at the time. Mr Hordon fell ill in 2017 and was diagnosed in August that year as a sufferer of malignant mesothelioma. For 20 years, he had been the full-time carer of his wife of 65 years. Throughout their life—all the time that she suffered from severely debilitating disabilities—they had never claimed. He had always worked assiduously to provide for the family so that they could stand on their own feet. When he fell ill, there was severe distress in the family at his no longer being able to perform that role. Mrs Hordon was forced to go into emergency care, which became permanent, at great distress to her and to the family.
The financial burden and the uncertainty meant there was a real imperative to seek mesothelioma compensation. The initial contact with solicitors was positive. As was the experience of many Members’ constituents, the solicitors said that the case could be taken forward at the greatest possible speed. However, they soon came back with the discovery that Mr Hordon had previously made a claim for pleural plaques, and it turned out that he had signed that, on the strong advice of his solicitors at the time, as a full and final settlement. The family were left unable to claim. They went back over their experience, and Mr Hordon could remember that the advice he was given was that there was only a 1% chance of the pleural plaques worsening into a terminal condition. The solicitors advised him, in the words of the family, “to bite off the hand” of those offering it.
I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to a meeting because, clearly, this will not be an isolated case. Two issues arise from Mr Hordon’s tragic death and the circumstances around it: one is the injustice of him being denied the compensation that he needed every bit as much as anyone else who falls victim to such a condition; and secondly, there is a case for an inquiry into the practices around pleural plaques at the time. Mr Hordon’s family is clear that he cannot have been given proper advice by the solicitors and by those who were estimating the chances of his condition developing into something that was terminal. The fact is there was a financial incentive for some firms to use sharp practices: they wanted to seize the chance of cash without proper analysis of what the real risks were to people and what their circumstances might be in the future.
Mr Hordon and his family were clear that the risks were not properly spelled out to him. He cannot be alone in that. I speak on behalf of my own constituent and, as I said in my intervention on the Minister, of a constituency that has the highest number of asbestosis-related lung cancer deaths in the whole of England and Wales. I am sure that, potentially, the condition will affect many thousands more people across the country. Will the Government please agree to examine this issue so that there is the prospect of justice for people who find themselves in this situation?
I never thought that I would be involved in this debate at such a late stage in my life. I remember making my maiden speech. I had worked down the pits. There were 700 pits and 700,000 miners at the time. Those miners were very much responsible for assisting the nation both during the second world war and after. Those were very hard days in the mines, yet I finished up in this place, mainly because they wanted me to stop another Labour candidate from getting the seat. [Interruption.] That is the truth. I finished up in the palace of varieties, and here we are, many years later, discussing the very thing that I spoke about way back in 1970. It is almost like the Common Market coming back all over again—which it is.
I want to say from the outset that I agree with the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) who talked about the yearly increase. We do that for a lot of things in Parliament; we increase things automatically. When I think about this subject, I can say that there is no better reason for having an uprate in September, or whenever it is, in accordance with the increases that have taken place in inflation, in pensions and in quite a lot of other things. It would be excellent if, in these 90 minutes, we were able to get that message across. If we get the right kind of people at the Dispatch Box later, perhaps they will be able to give a nod and a wink in this direction. I have seized on this issue today mainly because it was raised by the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead from the Tory party and the hon. Member for Glenrothes from the Scottish National party.
I remember the time when mesothelioma was first raised in the House; it was raised by Mick Clapham, one of my colleagues from Barnsley. Unlike Lord Hutton, he is not in the House of Lords. I suppose that he should be—in a way. He was the one who came here with this funny sounding word that is very difficult for people to remember—mesothelioma. I remember thinking, “How does he manage to get it out of his mouth?” I had to practise saying the word at night. Yes, it is very important to remember Mick Clapham and the fact that he seized on this very important subject.
I remember Mick Clapham because for my sins—for which I have repented through my rebellions over the Mesothelioma Act 2014—I worked for the insurance industry. Mick was the bane of our lives, particularly around the subject of compensation not just for mesothelioma—for those who could not find their employers—but for pleural plaques. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to recognise the sterling work that he did to change hearts and minds among not just Labour Members but Conservative Members for the plight of those who suffer from asbestos-related diseases.
Yes, I will get on the phone to Mick and let him know about today’s events. Seriously, if I can tell him that there will be an automatic yearly increase, it will be a token to him and to all those who took part in that exercise at the time. I am very pleased to be here, and very pleased to be taking—
Well, he has actually.
This is why this House is so important. We can come together and say what is right, what is wrong and what can be done. If we come together to put a little bit of pressure on the Minister—not so much at the Dispatch Box today because she will be dragged over the coals—the Secretary of State and the Treasury, we can simply say, “This must be easier for you as a Government, and rather than bringing this forward, we can unite on this.”