Tuesday 26 March 2019
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
Forced Live Organ Extraction
I beg to move,
That this House has considered forced live organ extraction.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to open this debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have found time to attend this morning, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. This issue is very topical, and something that I, along with other hon. Members, have followed for some time, and we are pleased to participate. I thank members of the audience who have come to listen to our proceedings, in particular Becky James, who I thank for everything she did to provide me with important information. Many others also contributed, including Rob Gray, who is in the audience, and I thank him for his help in putting this speech together. I also thank Amro, who works for me on the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, because this issue is regularly brought to my attention.
Finally, I thank the Minister for being here—he is always responsive. He knows that we are fond of him as a Minister, but we are also fond of his responses, which are always excellent and sum up the points made. I thank him in advance for summing up the debate. He knows that I am impressed by his tireless efforts, and we very much looking forward to hearing his response.
Two days ago, the UN marked the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. Its purpose was to honour the memory of victims of gross and systematic human rights violations, and to promote the importance of the right to truth and justice. How fitting that we should be gathered here today to seek the truth about one of the most concerning human rights violations imaginable—forced live organ extraction. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is also here. When preparing for this debate, we discussed these issues and decided that that would be the most appropriate title.
For years, human rights organisations have reported that the Chinese Government are complicit in forcibly removing the organs of religious prisoners of conscience to supply organs on demand for China’s vast and lucrative transplant industry. That horrifying practice is so terrible that it is hard to believe. A major world power—a permanent member of the UN Security Council no less—is treating human beings like commodities, like cattle, because they profess the wrong faith. Can any of us even begin to imagine living in a world where Government officials could stroll in, round up all the Christians in the Chamber—with respect, that probably includes most people here—and take their organs to supply to anyone who needs them? That is totally unacceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Today I wish to highlight forced live organ extraction from prisoners of conscience, including Christians, Uyghur Muslims, and those who have been in jail for some time. It is hard to encapsulate the vastness of what is taking place and the numbers involved. This level of cruelty is almost impossible to comprehend, and as much as we would all like the allegations against the Chinese Government to be unfounded, an extensive and growing body of evidence suggests otherwise.
One of the principal pieces of evidence—I am sure the Minister is familiar with it—is the work of former Canadian Cabinet Minister, David Kilgour. Alongside international human rights lawyer David Matas, and investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann—he has also been a good friend and helped us along the way—Kilgour conducted an investigation that indicates that somewhere between 40,000 and 90,000 more transplants have taken place in China than official figures claim. It is quite unbelievable.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his usual commitment to encouraging debate, and I have been listening to his good speech. Is he drawn to the comparisons and the fact that we have seen this before? People were herded into camps; they were experimented on and had their organs harvested. People were persecuted for their faith, and we know where that ended, because millions of people died as a result of the holocaust. If we look at history, we see that there were opportunities for Governments to intervene and act, but they did not. Are we now at the point where we, as the western world, should say, “This must stop”?
As usual, the hon. Gentleman is diligent in speaking about the causes he pursues. This issue is very important. Under the Chinese Government, the Falun Gong are being re-educated and persecuted for their faith. Does he agree that between 70 million and 100 million people are affected by such actions and—this returns to the point raised by the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths)—perhaps we are in a way going down the road that led to the second world war. We found out after that war what took place in Germany.
The hon. Gentleman and I are often in debates together—sometimes I intervene on him, or he intervenes on me, and it is pleasing to hear his comments. He reinforced the point made by the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths).
The investigation by David Kilgour is far from our only source of evidence. There are testimonies from prisoners, confessions from Chinese medical professionals, and impossibly short waiting list times for transplants—I could go on and on. Some of that evidence was supplied by the China tribunal, which is chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC. The focus is on the allegations, and on what evidence has been submitted, investigated and documented. For example, there are discrepancies in explaining the source of the organs for the claimed number of transplants, which suggests an undisclosed source. Wider concerns link religious persecution and mass imprisonment with the threat of live organ extraction in China. That includes the Falun Gong, Christians, and the Uyghur Muslims. Case studies from the China tribunal give examples of Chinese prisoners facing torture, or undergoing forced DNA, blood and organ scanning tests. There is also the Chinese law relating to forced organ removal from executed prisoners, which led to an international response from Governments and subsequent legislation. All those things are mentioned in the inquiry by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, and they clearly underline the issues.
I agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for attending this morning. I know he is attending a Select Committee later, but he contributed early to this debate, which I appreciate.
All that evidence has been reviewed by many different organisations across the world including parliamentary bodies, or Parliaments themselves, in Italy, Spain, Canada, Israel, Taiwan, Ireland, the Czech Republic and the United States, as well as non-parliamentary bodies such as the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission— the hon. Member for Congleton is involved with that—and the China tribunal. I am here because of my interest in human rights, and because I wish, as we all do, to stand up for people across the world who are being persecuted because of their faith, or because they have no faith.
It would be much easier politically—and it would make it easier to sleep at night—to remain sceptical in the face of the evidence and be reluctant to accept it, and to push for absolute certainty before reaching any definitive conclusions, yet despite that natural inclination, all those bodies, on examining the evidence, could not help but arrive at the view that forced organ extraction is taking place in China. Indeed, the ongoing China tribunal, which is being led by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, went as far as saying, in an interim judgment, that
“the tribunal members, are all certain, unanimously, beyond reasonable doubt, that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time, involving a very substantial number of victims...by state organised or approved organisations or individuals”.
The evidence must be remarkably convincing to have drawn such a strong statement from an esteemed body of impartial investigators. Indeed, it is so convincing that several countries have passed or introduced legislation to make travelling to China for organ transplants illegal.
I carry an organ donation card. We have a different system in Northern Ireland. I am glad that legislation is coming through for change here at Westminster. I totally support that and I would be pleased to know that my organs might save a life if I were to pass. That would be good. However, where else in the world other than China is it possible to get an organ almost on demand?
The UK still claims that, because the World Health Organisation has declared China’s transplant system ethical, all the evidence can be ignored. How has the WHO arrived at such a different conclusion? Has it assessed all the same evidence? If not, why? If it has, why has it not produced an explanation of why the evidence is unsatisfactory? What investigations has it carried out? Has it been to military and prison hospitals in China? Has it asked to go to them? Has it been free to examine those hospitals independently, or were its representatives taken on show tours by Chinese authorities? My principal request of the Minister today is that he formally write to the WHO and ask it to assess all the evidence and, if it deems that it is not accurate and does not reflect the situation, to produce a report to demonstrate clearly why that is so. Surely that would not be too burdensome for the WHO if it has already collected the evidence to show that there is nothing suspicious about China’s transplant system.
It is worth noting that there will be further public hearings of the China tribunal on 6 and 7 April. The tribunal has issued a public call for evidence and is open to receiving further evidence on China’s past and present transplant practices from Chinese officials, as well as from organisations such as the Transplantation Society, the Declaration of Istanbul Custodian Group and the WHO. I thank the Minister for sending FCO officials to attend the previous hearings. It shows commitment. I ask him to encourage the WHO to participate in the process. The truth is that we all sincerely, desperately hope that the allegations against the Chinese Government are false. If they are, is it not in everyone’s interest for China and the WHO quickly to demonstrate that they are false so that we can all focus on other pressing issues?
That brings to me one of my key points. The allegations have been around for years. If there is no truth to them, have not the Chinese Government had ample time to prove that they are false? They have not done so. Would it not be a simple thing for them just to open their doors and allow the world in to investigate? They have not done that. The WHO itself has said it has concerns about the transparency of China’s transplant system. What reason could there be for secrecy about the programme if it is clearly and demonstrably operating in line with international standards? Surely if the WHO has evaluated the system, it is a simple matter to point to the evidence that shows that there are no problems. Perhaps there is a perfectly genuine, straightforward reason why it is possible to get a kidney in two weeks in Beijing, as opposed to two years in the United Kingdom. Surely that in itself tells a story. Does it not raise a question in people’s minds? Perhaps not, but we should honestly ask how it is possible. It seems that China has an organ transplant system that is the envy of the entire world. What possible reason could there be for hiding it?
Moreover, should not the Chinese Government want to stop the allegations? If the UK were for years to be incorrectly accused of killing religious minority groups to provide the rest of the population with organs, and if countries the world over were passing legislation against us, we would be doing everything in our power to present the evidence showing that the allegations were false, yet for some reason China has been utterly unable or unwilling to do so.
Why should that be? One might argue that China would not want to dignify the rumours with a response because they are so ludicrous. That might be the logic. However, the Chinese Government have already admitted to taking organs from executed prisoners without their consent in the past. There is an evidential basis, and it is hardly as if the allegations are so beyond the realm of possibility that they are not worth responding to, yet the Chinese Government continue to claim that their transplant system is ethical, while maintaining its shroud of secrecy, and the UK Government continue to accept the claim at face value despite all evidence to the contrary. I refer the Minister again to the evidence available through the forum of the inquiry led by Sir Geoffrey Nice.
What we are talking about in this debate is organ harvesting—crimes against humanity, and a regime that is responsible for the greatest mass incarceration of a religious group since the Nazis in the second world war, as the hon. Member for Burton said in his intervention. I am afraid that simply to accept the Chinese Government’s flimsy narrative because it is convenient is a total and utter abdication of our responsibility to all those who have suffered at the hands of tyrannical regimes. How will history judge us? The hon. Gentleman is right: now is the time to draw the line and stop live organ transplantation, and transplantation without permission of the people whose organs are removed. We say “Never again”, but we do not, with our next breath, do something to make that brave declaration reality and ask the tough questions—although we are trying to do so in the Chamber today. We would rather bury our heads in the sand than deal with the harsh light of the truth that radiates all around us. The evidence has been gathered, presented, analysed and judged countless times by countless different institutions. It has repeatedly been found to be wholly credible and convincing. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government have offered nothing substantial by way of rebuttal, despite the fact that it would be easy to do so if they were telling the truth. The absence of comment from them reinforces what I am saying.
I ask the Minister, therefore, to act on the findings of the China tribunal and to take appropriate action, including potentially following in the footsteps of many other countries and banning organ tourism to China from the UK. Over the years I have put down a number of questions. It is wrong that people should travel from here to China for what is almost a live organ on demand to suit themselves. It is hard to take in what that means —it leaves one incredulous. It means someone can sit in London or in Newtownards and order an organ to be provided on demand. Within a month they can have the operation. We need to control that, structurally, as other countries have, not simply because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is necessary to protect UK citizens from unwittingly playing a role in the horrifying suffering of religious or belief groups in China.
If, however, the Government are not willing to do that, I ask the Minister at the very least to be a friend to the Chinese Government and ask them and the WHO to engage with the China tribunal process in their own interests. Will he ask them to present clear evidence that shows that the Chinese transplant system is ethical, and that makes all the sceptical investigators, human rights organisations and legislatures feel very silly indeed? Perhaps there is some issue I am not seeing, but I simply cannot fathom why that would be a controversial or difficult request. It seems to be logical and sensible and absolutely what we should be doing morally. If China is operating an ethical transplant system, it should be jumping for joy to have opportunities to present the proof, or at least to relay it to the Minister to present to the House. If the Chinese Government are doing nothing wrong, there is absolutely no reason why the issue should be a sensitive one, or even require private diplomacy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Although much of what we are rightly talking about concerns external pressure on the Chinese authorities to do what is right in the face of mounting evidence, does he agree that internal pressure could well be added to that? If the tens of thousands of Chinese tourists who come here and the Chinese students who study in further education colleges in the United Kingdom became aware of the extent of the problem, they could add to the pressure when they returned to the Chinese mainland. We know how Chinese authorities respond to internal pressure, but it would add to the external pressure and hopefully bring a satisfactory conclusion.
I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for his salient and appropriate words.
I will quote the comments in the report, particularly the words of Sir Geoffrey Nice QC in the last paragraph:
“China’s totalitarian approach of exerting absolute control over its citizens often causes widespread criticism and concern while leaving many serious unanswered questions. Many of the linked concerns stem from the climate of religious intolerance that prevails throughout China. This has also been documented as being a key element of the campaigns currently being inflicted on multiple faiths and ethnic groups. These campaigns would, under most analyses, be described as bearing the hallmarks of genocidal intent.”
That is the seriousness of what we are saying here today. The report continues:
“The growing evidence of forced organ extraction in China, and the expert analysis of China’s transplant system is hard to refute or ignore. As, too, is the gravity of the threat of live forced organ extraction faced by prisoners of conscience in China. This is demonstrated by the China Tribunal making the unusual decision to issue an Interim Judgement.”
I referred to that earlier, and it is impossible to think otherwise. Sir Geoffrey Nice says:
“We should all, perhaps, reflect on how the oxygen of publicity given to the allegations made and supported to the extent they are by our interim judgment, may allow the real oxygen of life to continue life itself in some who might otherwise be killed. Such a conceivable outcome—slight as a probability, arguably remote but certainly possible—makes it not only appropriate for us to record our present certainty about the…forced organ harvesting practices but a duty publicly to do so. Doing so now may possibly save innocents from harm.”
In conclusion, when we add all those things together, they confirm why this debate is so important and express the viewpoint of Westminster Hall, our Minister and how we all collectively think. Let us give the Chinese Government a chance to clear its name proudly and publicly, and, if it should refuse that opportunity, let us not simply shrug our shoulders and move on, as others have said. We need to do something now.
Let us question this reluctance from China. Let us finally accept what all the evidence is telling us: that when it comes to organ transplants in China something is deeply, horrifyingly, morally not right. I put the issue before Westminster Hall for consideration and I look forward to contributions from right hon. and hon. Members; in particular, I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I start by commending the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his impassioned, stirring and challenging speech. This is not the first time he has addressed the House on this issue and, sadly, I am sure it will not be the last. This is not the first time that I have addressed the issue of forced live organ extraction in China in this House, but again, it is unlikely to be the last; nor is it the first time that I have expressed my disappointment at the lack of attention to this issue from the UK Government—I say that with all courtesy to one of the most attentive and courteous Ministers in this place. It is also likely that it will not be the last time I express my disappointment at the lack of attention from the international community to an issue that cries out for such action.
Later on in my speech, I will be so bold as to suggest some specific action that could be taken to address a serious human rights concern, a crime against humanity and, if the information we are hearing is correct, potentially nothing less than a 21st century genocide, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) implied in his strong intervention. Surely, at the very least, it demands further investigation at both UK Government and United Nations level.
Over the years, as we have heard, substantial research has been done on the issue of forced live organ extraction from prisoners of conscience in China. I have attended many meetings in this House, including with the Minister’s predecessor, and listened to the accounts of that research in countless meetings in Committee Rooms as well as in debates in this Chamber. The sheer numbers alleged are absolutely staggering.
As long ago as 2016 the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which I have the privilege of chairing, produced a report on this issue. We called it then:
“A form of genocide cloaked in modern medical scrubs”,
quoting Ethan Gutmann, to whom I pay tribute for his persistent work on this subject. We also quoted the first-hand testimony to us of Dr Enver Tohti, formerly a doctor in China, who gave evidence to our commission personally of having been forced to remove an organ from a live prisoner. He subsequently fled China and now lives in London, driving a London bus.
In this place, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission showed the horrifying film “The Bleeding Edge”, starring the brave actress Anastasia Lin. If the Minister and his officials have not seen that film, I urge them to do so. It showed in graphic detail a young Falun Gong woman being taken from prison and held down, screaming and without anaesthetic, while operators began the act of removing her organs. Let us make no mistake: once this lethal act is committed, the victim faces certain death. Indeed, that is how the film ends. It is a far cry from the voluntary organ donation we are used to in this country. That is why I do not use the term harvesting; as the hon. Member for Strangford has said, that is far too gentle a word for an utterly sinister act.
Yet, time and again, our Government give the same response to concerns expressed by Members of this House and of the other place on the issue of alleged forced live organ extraction in China. Just a few days ago, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon quoted the same response given in this Chamber in October 2016 when he said, in reply to concerns expressed by Lord Alton in a written parliamentary question on the issue:
“Although I do not doubt the need to maintain close scrutiny of organ transplant practices in China, we believe that the evidence base is not sufficiently strong to substantiate claims about the systematic harvesting of organs from minority groups. Indeed, based on all the evidence available to us, we cannot conclude that this practice of ‘organ harvesting’ is definitely happening in China.”
That answer is simply not good enough.
Over the years, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford, more research has been done on this issue. Most recently, as we have also heard, in December 2018, a people’s tribunal, the independent tribunal into forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China, was set up. Should not the very fact that that is being led by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC—a world-renowned lawyer and professor of law with decades of relevant experience who, among other things, led the prosecution of Slobodan Milošević at the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia—show that this issue merits time and attention at the most senior level of Government?
The tribunal has done its work. It has conducted days of hearings, it has heard evidence from some 30 witnesses and it is showing again and again that the evidence produced in the 2016 report by David Kilgour, David Matas and Ethan Gutmann, which I believe is 700 pages long and is entitled: “Bloody Harvest/The Slaughter: An Update”, must be looked into at Government level. In his recent oral evidence to the tribunal, Dr Matas emphasised that although there are problems with establishing exact data, sufficient concern has been raised for this issue to be investigated at the most senior level, both by Governments and by the UN.
The estimates in the report are so wildly different from the Chinese Government’s that they merit investigation. China’s central Government suggest that there are approximately 10,000 organ transplantations per year, but the research suggests that it may be as high as 60,000 to 100,000. In one hearing, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission heard of the size of the hospitals constructed to undertake these operations, pointing to a far greater number taking place than the Chinese Government’s official figures indicate.
That is a graphic description. Anyone who has seen an indication of these buildings has to be concerned about the scale of what is going on, and about the number of people disappearing. What is happening to those people?
Indications suggest that prisoners of conscience routinely have their blood type and DNA assessed, so that they can be made available for this tragic and sinister practice of forced organ removal. Indications suggest that specific groups are being targeted, such as prisoners of conscience and people of certain faiths, including Falun Gong, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and House Christians. This is religious persecution and a crime against humanity —the crime of crimes.
Witnesses have testified to the China tribunal that they have seen Falun Gong practitioners examined by doctors while other prisoners are not, then often disappearing from the prison without a trace. One witness, a Falun Gong practitioner herself, suggested that she was subject to the same thorough medical examinations as others but was diagnosed with a heart condition, so did not face the same fate. Presumably, because of her heart condition, she was deemed to be unfit to become an organ donor.
The hon. Lady is outlining in very graphic terms the extent of some of the problems. Does she agree that, for issues such as this, a huge amount of emphasis and onus rests on bodies regarded as reputable and reliable, such as the World Health Organisation? A considerable degree of responsibility rests on bodies such as those to respond to this emphatically, and to do their homework and research to ensure that they give a more accurate picture.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I raised that very point in a meeting with the Minister in Portcullis House. That must have been well over a year ago, yet nothing has been done to raise it with the WHO, as far as I am aware.
The China tribunal published an interim judgment confirming that it had identified several human rights violations, including breaches of the right to life under article 3 of the universal declaration of human rights, the right not to be subject to arbitrary arrest under article 9 and the right to be free from torture under article 5.
My hon. Friend has such a passion for human rights. She is a real asset to this place, and I am privileged to intervene on her. When we hear about the selection of people to go through this process of forced organ harvesting, I am reminded yet again of the death camps. We hear about the WHO saying that the evidence does not demonstrate these kind of practices, which is reminiscent of the Red Cross turning up to the Nazi death camps and giving them a clean bill of health. We talk about the industrial nature of this practice, and that same industrial nature of the death camps meant that the Nazis could be so efficient in their hideous operation. Does she agree that all the evidence points to that taking place, and that we must do more to definitely prove it, and to take action?
My hon. Friend is right. We condemn holocaust deniers absolutely. With all that is being done to raise concerns about this issue now, surely something must be done. To carry on—potentially—denying it is insufficient, inadequate and irresponsible. Let me reiterate: we are discussing the forced removal of organs in China, frequently from prisoners of conscience, which ultimately results in the death of the individuals subjected to this practice—a practice that amounts to manslaughter or, more probably in most cases, murder.
The speed with which organs can apparently be matched to those who request them, often from the west, is so swift—perhaps a couple of weeks. Matches in this country might take months, years or might never happen. There seems to be no other explanation than that organs are being removed to order. For donors to be available at such short notice seems virtually incredible.
The hon. Member for Strangford is right: organ tourism, as it has been called, has been banned by several countries, including Italy, Spain, Israel and Taiwan, and the Canadian Senate has approved similar legislation. We must do the same. It would send out a strong message of concern on the part of the UK Government. No evidence is needed for our Government to do so, if they are concerned about pointing to official evidence.
Far more Members in the House are concerned about this issue than will have the opportunity to speak today. Early-day motion 2138, which calls on the UK Government to ban organ tourism from this country, has been signed by 38 Members as of yesterday. That is a very high number to sign an early-day motion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it may be an idea for the hon. Member for Strangford, herself and others to seek a Backbench Business debate on the issue, so as to better inform our colleagues? While 38 have signed that early-day motion, I am sure that, if the facts are laid before more Members, more will support our taking action.
Indeed, I very much hope that, as a result of this debate, more and more Members will be concerned. It staggers me that so many people are silent in the face of such concerns. Is it because, putting it bluntly, contrary to contemporary mass atrocities, such as Daesh atrocities against religious minorities in Syria or Iraq, or military atrocities against religious minorities in Burma—now Myanmar—we do not have what might be called a smoking gun?
In the case of the Daesh genocide, we continue to find new mass graves. We hear from those tortured and raped; we hear from abused survivors. In the case of the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, we hear from people forcibly displaced to Bangladesh about the abuse that they suffered at the hands of the Burmese army. That is how we obtain the evidence to inform our actions to address such atrocities. But in the case of killing or murder by way of forced organ removal from prisoners of conscience in China, there are no such victims to tell their stories. That is because no one survives. It is almost a perfect crime.
Should that prevent us from speaking out? It should not. The continuing expressions of concern over several years should at least trigger red flags and stir the UK Government to, at a minimum, engage in a dialogue with the Chinese Government to inquire about those reports. Let me respectfully suggest that if the endeavours at dialogue fail, our Ministers should call for an independent UN inquiry. Surely, in all humanity, the time has come for that.
Should the challenge of the lack of evidence of mass graves faced by anyone trying to explore the truth prevent us from doing so? Should it prevent the UK Government from using their very considerable international influence to do so? Interestingly, I was at a meeting just last night with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who said that we underestimate in this country the respect with which our Government are regarded internationally—across the world.
Will we once again hear the phrase “never again” spoken with regret when eventually the truth comes out about this issue, as it surely will one day? It is not the case that nothing can be done. Our Government could inquire about the numbers of organ removals and their sources, as we have heard. They could reduce demand by banning organ tourism. If it becomes clear that the majority of organs do come from prisoners of conscience or Falun Gong practitioners, that in itself should sound alarm bells. If the Chinese Government do not want to co-operate with such inquiries, the international community must be engaged. This is not a case of a few voluntary organ transplants; it is a case of alleged mass killings through forced organ removal, of religious persecution, of grave allegations of crimes against humanity. It cries out to be addressed. Those who fail to do so will one day be held to account.
One step that the UK Government could take would be to proactively ensure that the UN investigate the alleged crimes properly. That could be achieved by way of a UN Human Rights Council resolution establishing, first, a UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in China and, secondly, a commission of inquiry to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in China.
If I may, I will be so impertinent as to read from two draft resolutions. I am sure that they are highly imperfect. I would be delighted if the Minister were willing to discuss them with me at some point after the debate and perhaps with others concerned about this issue. Let me explain what I mean. The draft resolution to establish a UN special rapporteur states:
“The Human Rights Council, Guided by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights and other human rights instruments, Reaffirming that all States Members of the United Nations have the obligation to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms…Expresses its deep concern about continuing reports of systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the People’s Republic of China…Notes with regret that the authorities of the People’s Republic of China have not created the necessary conditions to permit the international community, including the United Nations system, to examine these reports in an independent manner and calls upon the Government”—
“to address these reports and concerns in an open and constructive manner, including…By providing all pertinent information concerning the above mentioned issues and removing restrictions on access to the country by the international community”.
There is much more detail in the draft.
I will just quote briefly from the second proposed resolution, to establish a commission of inquiry. It states that the
“Human Rights Council, Alarmed by”
“the precarious humanitarian situation in the country”—
the People’s Republic of China—
“especially of religious groups persecuted because of their religion or belief, Reaffirming that it is the responsibility of the Government of the People’s Republic of China to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of its entire population, including by ensuring the right to freedom of religion or belief for all…Decides to establish, for a period of one year, a commission of inquiry comprising three members, one of whom should be the Special Rapporteur”.
As I have stated, the special rapporteur would be established by the previous resolution. The second resolution states that the Human Rights Council
“Further decides that the commission of inquiry will investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the People’s Republic of China, including…violations of…freedom of religion or belief, and enforced disappearances, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity”.
Will the Minister agree to meet me and others concerned about this issue to discuss what we have raised today? I believe that they are among the gravest concerns that have been raised in this House in recent times. Will the Minister agree that at the very least these issues merit further investigation by the UK Government and by the international community through the UN?
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it and for the detailed and powerful speech that he delivered this morning.
I found it very difficult to learn about these graphic practices in China. I am simply appalled and disgusted by them. Credible research from multiple organisations, including the British Medical Journal, suggests that many thousands of people are being killed for their organs, particularly people in minority groups and most notably practitioners of Falun Gong—a peaceful, meditative practice—although Tibetans, Uyghurs and, potentially, House Christians have also been targeted for political reasons.
The allegations that Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans and Uyghurs have been victims of this horrific practice are well documented and strong. The international community has strongly condemned organ harvesting in China, and action needs to be taken to end this abhorrent and unethical practice. The UN special rapporteurs on torture and on freedom of religion or belief have both requested that the Chinese Government explain the sources of the organs and that they allow them to investigate. There has been no response.
I understand that the Chinese ambassador to the UK and prominent doctors in China who are involved in transplantation were invited repeatedly to give evidence, but they have not responded. That is deeply worrying. There needs to be accountability for these blatant human rights abuses.
My primary concern is that people’s organs are being harvested because of those individuals’ beliefs. The sheer discrepancy between the official transplant figures from the Chinese Government and the number of transplants reported by hospitals is alarming. Although the Chinese Government say that 10,000 transplants occur each year, hospital data shows that between 60,000 and 100,000 organs are transplanted each year. Clearly, something does not add up.
Medical ethics are simply being put aside. An unregulated system exists in which organs are being delivered not to the most deserving recipients, but to the highest bidders. Furthermore, with the current situation of religious persecution and mass imprisonment of Uyghurs in re-education camps, it is clear that an independent investigation is required. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments on that. I strongly advise the Government to follow in the footsteps of the European Parliament and the US Congress, both of which have called for an independent investigation. Several countries have already taken legislative action to prevent their citizens from taking part in transplant tourism.
Will the Minister provide urgent assurance that the British Government will step up their efforts to hold the Chinese Government to account for these blatant human rights violations? Will the Minister also urge the Government to condemn publicly and in the strongest possible terms any form of live forced organ extraction, and call for an end to the practice? The world’s silence on this barbaric issue must end.
I am pleased to participate in this important debate, and I extend my warm thanks to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it. He set out a comprehensive and convincing case, as did other hon. Members, concerning forced live organ donation in China. We have heard from several hon. Members about the allegations of forced live organ extraction from prisoners in China. We have heard, for at least the past decade, about the alleged victims being members of religious and ethnic minorities.
Forced organ removal is when people are killed so that an organ can be removed—with the recipients being, apparently, wealthy Chinese people or transplant tourists who travel to China and pay substantial sums to receive transplants. The waiting times for such transplants are short, and it seems that vital organs can even be booked in advance. As the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, the China tribunal, which has investigated this, has issued an interim judgment stating that it is
“sure beyond reasonable doubt—that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims.”
We also heard that from the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). That is absolutely horrific and an affront to all that is decent. Quite frankly, it is the sort of thing that one would expect to read about in a science-fiction novel.
Around 2006, a report was published giving credence to the claims that the Chinese authorities were indeed removing organs from executed members of the Falun Gong. At that time, the Chinese authorities acknowledged that organs had been taken from executed prisoners, but only with their consent. However, the European Parliament disputed China’s official version of events and passed a motion condemning the state sanctioning of organ removal from non-consenting prisoners of conscience, including from large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The figure for transplants—we will probably never know the true figure—is somewhere between 40,000 and 90,000, as the hon. Member for Strangford set out.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She tempts me to skip to that point in my remarks, but I will get there in due course. Her point is well made, and it has been made several times around the Chamber.
This barbaric, inhumane practice must end. As my hon. Friend said, the international community, including the UK—I hope that the UK will lead the international community on this, but I will settle for the UK being included—must leave China in no doubt about how repugnant this practice is to any country that has any sense of decency or places any value on the dignity of human life. There can be no equivocation, no excuses and no turning of blind eyes.
As the hon. Member for Strangford has pointed out, people are being treated like cattle. He gave us a comprehensive account of how utterly unspeakable the practice is. We find ourselves in a bizarre situation in which the World Health Organisation has declared organ transplants in China to be ethical, claiming that there is no cause for suspicion. I urge the Minister, as other hon. Members have done, to query and pursue that as a matter of urgency, since it seems to fly in the face of a considerable amount of evidence from the China tribunal, Geoffrey Nice QC and others. A number of hon. Members have expressed alarm at the World Health Organisation’s assessment, and I think that such a ruling undermines the organisation.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Congleton, Italy, Spain, Israel and Taiwan have introduced laws banning their citizens from participating in organ tourism, with Canada working towards adopting similar legislation. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what plans are in place to introduce similar legislation in the UK. Given that the UK has signed the Council of Europe convention against trafficking in human organs, forbidding the intentional removal of human organs from living or deceased donors, it is quite a small leap for the UK to forbid its citizens from engaging in organ tourism. Perhaps the Minister can explain what the Government are doing to take that small but extremely important leap. As the hon. Member for Congleton informed us, the UK Government and the UN must do more about the vast industrial scale of this horror and what can only be categorised as crimes against humanity.
The fact that Falun Gong practitioners are targeted in this way in China goes to the heart of the matter, as the hon. Member for Strangford has articulated, because an attack on freedom of religion is an attack on all freedoms. The right of all people to worship their God in peace, however they perceive their God, is a fundamental right. The threatening of that right endangers the very basis of freedom, in the widest sense, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton pointed out.
In June last year, the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief produced a report, which found a signal lack of understanding and misperception of religion and belief among decision makers working within the UK asylum system. We need to understand religious persecution better and deal with it in an appropriately sensitive way. Decision makers in the UK asylum system need to have the appropriate training to ensure that they make the correct decisions, which are literally a matter of life and death to applicants seeking asylum.
There is no doubt that China exerts absolute and cruel control over its citizens, and that is something about which the international community is, and ought to be, exercised. The targeting of multiple faiths and ethnic groups has been characterised by some as the hallmark of genocidal intent, as the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), who is no longer in his place, indicated. There are loud echoes of the evils of history.
The UK Government need to step up to their international and moral responsibilities, as does the international community. No one could fail to be moved and horrified by the evidence and the stories of forced live organ extraction. It is an outrage, and we must not be afraid to say so. International institutions and Governments around the globe must bring to bear as much pressure as possible on China. That is our duty, and it is what decency demands of us.
If any nation treats any of its people in such a cruel and despicable way, we need to stand with other free and democratic states and condemn it using the harshest and most unequivocal language that we can articulate. I look forward to the Minister telling us what influence and pressure his Government have exerted, and will continue to exert, on China in the light of this debate. I also ask the Minister what the UK Government will do to encourage greater action from the international community on this barbarism.
There is no doubt that China is an important and influential international player, but no state should be allowed to engage in such horrific human rights abuses simply because it is influential. We have an international duty to uphold human rights and values however we can. We can do more to effect change. It is time for the international community to do so, and the UK must play its part.
Before I call the Minister, I should acknowledge that I had prior advice from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who has just arrived, of a domestic emergency that prevented her attendance earlier. She has had a member of staff making notes throughout and I am sure that if she has notes for the Minister or for those who have called the debate she will deal with that afterwards. I call the Minister.
I suggest, Mrs Moon, that if the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) wanted to speak I would be very happy to hear her and then I will sum up on that basis. As she has just rushed into the Chamber she may not feel it is appropriate to do so.
I am very sorry that I was not here at the beginning of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on raising this important issue about which we are all extremely concerned. It overlaps with a debate we had a few months ago about the situation of the Uyghur people and the camps that they are in. That is where some of these activities are thought to be going on.
I have been concerned about the subject for some time. I think I first asked a parliamentary question about it in 2006, so it is a long-standing issue. As I was not able to be in the debate, I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford and we look forward to hearing from the Minister about what he is going to do.
I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for giving me a mere 29 minutes to sum up on the debate. She was ably deputised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan).
This is a serious issue, so I do not want to be too light-hearted, but it is great to be able to congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate and for his birthday yesterday. There is also a birthday girl in the Chamber today: my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I am sure there was a misprint in The Times about the age.
There is clearly something in the water that gives these late March babies an interest in human rights. Both those hon. Members and others have raised major concerns about live organ extraction going back many years. I commend their characteristic dedication and welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) put on pressure when she said that we need to do more about the situation. We can work together with officials. I will set out the position, which I suspect may not be entirely satisfactory in the eyes of some of those who have contributed. As Minister, my commitment is to try and raise the profile of the issue internationally—not necessarily ramp up the pressure—because only when we work internationally can we make a genuine impact on the broader ethics of organ harvesting, as well as on the specifics about what we do with the WHO and other United Nations-related organisations.
In her brief contribution, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland referred to broader Government concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang province, in north west China, and about wider reports about restrictions on freedom of religion and belief. Many Members will be aware about the Government’s extensive concerns about the situation in Xinjiang, which I discussed and debated with Members in this Chamber as recently as 29 January. There are credible reports that over 1 million Uyghur have been held in extrajudicial camps in Xinjiang and have faced a plethora of restrictions on their cultural and religious freedoms.
We also have substantial evidence of persecution of other religious minorities, including Christians, a range of Muslims from different sects, Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners. They all face persecution and interference in their places of worship, their religious teaching and their customs. The UK Government are deeply concerned by the situation. In the last year no fewer than three different Ministers, including myself, have raised our concerns about human rights directly with our Chinese counterparts when visiting Beijing or at various international and public forums. At this month’s session of the UN Human Rights Council our Minister for Human Rights, Lord Ahmad, raised our concerns about Xinjiang in his opening address. The UK also raised the issue in our national statement and we co-sponsored a side event focusing on human rights in Xinjiang.
On the specific issue of Chinese state-sanctioned or state-sponsored organ harvesting, Members outlined concerns about the sheer number of transplants taking place in China, which far exceeds the publicly reported supply of organs available. Some have suggested that the reason for that must be Chinese state-sponsored and sanctioned organ harvesting. Others have alluded to reports that the supposed donors are held extrajudicially and murdered on demand to supply organs to wealthy Chinese and foreign patients. If true—we have to recognise that there has to be evidence—these practices would be truly horrifying. We need to properly and fully investigate such reports and allegations, and establish the facts.
It is certainly the case that China’s organ transplant policy and system is far from transparent, as we would understand it in this part of the world. We are also aware of the cultural sensitivities in China regarding voluntary organ donation, and that the number of registered donors is low.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on bringing the debate. Does the Minister agree that the UK has a duty to update legislation—specifically the Human Tissue Act 2004—so that we can prevent UK citizens from travelling to China and participating in forced live organ donation, whether knowingly or not? The Minister has raised the issue of the doubts over what is happening. While those doubts exist, surely we must be doing more here to prevent people travelling to China.
I will come to the hon. Lady’s points later in my speech—there is a specific passage about that. We recognise that there are international comparators, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, which I would like to explore. I do not want to commit further than that, as I suspect it may be a Home Office or public health matter. My hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have made very serious points about ethics, and I will come to them.
It would appear that, in the past, a significant proportion of organs were routinely taken from executed prisoners without prior consent. China committed to stopping this practice from January 2015. While this was an important and positive step, there are still fundamental ethical questions about the ability of condemned prisoners in China to give free and valid consent. Indeed, China’s use of the death penalty is itself a subject of great concern, not least because there is no transparency about the number of executions it carries out. Many NGOs assess that China executes more people than the rest of the world combined, but no accurate figures are available. We advocate against the use of the death penalty worldwide in all circumstances, including in China and a number of other countries, including close allies. We do not just condemn the practice, but advocate against it.
Members today have outlined concerns that organs are not only being taken from executed death row prisoners, but also from prisoners of conscience, primarily Falun Gong practitioners, as well as other religious and ethnic minorities. Concerns have been raised that sometimes organs are removed while the victim is still alive, and without anaesthetic.
There is a growing body of research, much of which is very worrying. As the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned in his speech, one key source is the written analysis by David Kilgour, David Matas and Ethan Gutmann. My officials have studied their latest report carefully and consider it to be an important source of new information about China’s organ transplant system. It points out that it is extremely difficult to verify the number of organ transplants conducted in China each year, and to verify the sources of those organs. The report rightly questions the lack of transparency in China’s organ transplant system, but acknowledges the lack of incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing. The authors make it clear that they have no smoking gun, or smoking scalpel, to prove their allegations, so they are forced to rely on assumptions and less-than-rigorous research techniques. Some of those assumptions, particularly the statistical assumptions, came up in hon. Members’ contributions, but they are still assumptions. We have to work on the basis of rigorous evidence—obviously, we are trying to develop as big a body of that as we can. Those research techniques include having to infer the scale of the organ transplant system from hospital promotional material and media reports, rather than properly corroborated data sources.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Along with that evidence, which many hon. Members referred to in their contributions, is he aware of the report of the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which referred to a clear evidential base? That might help the Minister when it comes to gauging and bringing together all the information. It recognises the outcome of the China tribunal in the investigations it has carried out. That wealth of evidence across the world—at home, as the Minister has referred to, and in the United States—cannot be ignored.
I am now aware of that report and I will try to learn more in our future discussions.
The Kilgour, Matas and Gutmann report was used at the recent tribunal organised by the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, which was chaired by the eminent lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice, as has been said, and which my officials attended. Additional evidence considered by the tribunal was due to be published online earlier in the year. We are still waiting for it to be uploaded, but we are aware of the provisional findings, parts of which have been quoted extensively by hon. Members. We await with great interest the full publication.
From all the available credible evidence, it appears that China has not fully implemented its organ transplant commitments of January 2015. However, the World Health Organisation takes the view that, from its observations, China is putting in place a system of donation and transplantation that it regards as ethical and voluntary, and that allocates organs in a fair, transparent and traceable way in keeping with international norms and principles. The World Health Organisation shares that view with several of the world’s leading experts on organ donation and transplantation.
Several hon. Members raised the issue of the WHO, the UN and international pressure. The WHO does not have a mandate or role to act as an inspector of whether new policies are being adhered to in China or any other country, but we will make it aware of the debate, of the new evidence and of the sources to which I have referred, as well as providing a copy of Hansard to illustrate the concerns that have been expressed. We also note with interest the work done by the tribunal, and the information generated so far. We do not want to duplicate that work, so we are keen to utilise the evidence when it is finally published.
The hon. Member for Congleton asked whether we could call on the UN to undertake an inquiry or push for a rapporteur on the specific issue. We are working closely with international partners in the UN Human Rights Council, and will continue to do so, on a range of human rights issues in China. That work has previously included calling on China to implement the recommendations regarding Xinjiang from the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and to allow the UN unrestricted access to monitor that implementation. Xinjiang is obviously a priority, but I appreciate that this is a separate issue, for which an increasingly important body of evidence is being amassed. I hope that, by working closely with the international community within the UN again, we can make genuine progress.
I shall be delighted. I suspect my colleague, Lord Ahmad, will do that, but it makes a lot of sense, not least given our relationship in the United Nations.
We shall continue to scrutinise the situation carefully, and we welcome all new evidence. At present, however, our assessment is that there is not a strong enough evidential base to substantiate the claim, which has come up today, that systematic state-sponsored or sanctioned organ harvesting is taking place in China.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who was unfortunately unable to be present at the start of the debate, referred to the previous debate about the Uyghurs. I understand that there is an evidential base: some 15 million Uyghurs have had DNA blood tests for the compatibility of their tissue for organ transplant; nine crematoriums have been constructed in Xinjiang province, the first of which hired 50 security guards; and there is a dedicated organ transplant lane at a Uyghur airport. They are just some of the stories, but if they are not evidence of what is taking place, what would be?
There is evidence for deep concern, as has been demonstrated in the debate, but we believe that we are some way away from the notion of it being evidence that it is state sanctioned. However, I am well aware that the issue is now being looked at by a number of interested parties, to which I and the hon. Gentleman have referred. As I have said, we will work within the international community on the issue, which I think will raise the attention of many countries that have deep concerns about such matters.
The hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for North Ayrshire and Arran raised the separate but related issue of British citizens travelling to China for medical treatment—so-called organ tourism. We do not collect data on that and are not really able to do so, but we believe that relatively few people in the UK choose to travel to China for that purpose. As it stands, the British Government cannot prevent those individuals from travelling—I am sure hon. Members recognise that it would be difficult to police that and understand whether people had gone for that purpose—but it is important that we make them aware that other countries may have poorer medical and ethical safeguards than the UK, and that travelling abroad for treatments, including organ transplants, carries fundamental risks.
There is a broader issue about the sheer ethics of what we might call a free market in transplanted organs. This debate is an important staging post, although we have had debates in Parliament before. Health is one of the few attributes that some of the poorest people in the world have, and we find the notion that the rich world can take advantage of that an even bigger ethical concern. Travelling abroad, whether to China or elsewhere, is something that we want to work on with other countries. Where manageable legislation is in place that seems to be operating effectively, we should take it seriously.
I will come back to hon. Members with some thoughts about whether we feel legislation is practicable and can be introduced. I recognise hon. Members’ deep concerns, which reflect deeper ethical concerns about the notion of there being a free market for organs, and about the large-scale travel of British citizens to take advantage of that terrible harvest, although I do not think there is any evidence.
I understand the Minister’s point about the difficulty of preventing people from travelling. I ask him—in his remarks a moment ago, he hinted at this—to consider that we pass a law preventing people from travelling for this reason and from being organ tourists. That would put our moral position on the map and set a marker, which is very important.
As the Minister says, we can look at what countries such as Italy, Taiwan, Israel and others have done and what measures they have in place to prevent their citizens from becoming organ tourists. Ethically, it is very important that we introduce such measures and it cannot be beyond the wit of any UK Government to put them in place.
I do not want to make any great commitment on this—I recognise that another Government Department may well have responsibility. We do not just want to put laws in place. We want to ensure they are effective. The worst of all worlds is to have legislation that is essentially bypassed in a straightforward way. Rather than making a commitment now that I end up having to backtrack on, I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me if I say that, given the depth of concern reflected by all Members, we will go back and try to look at things, particularly international comparators, to see how we can craft legislation that will be effective in the way that all of us would desire.
I conclude by taking this opportunity to reassure all hon. Members that, contrary to suggestions, our trading and economic relationship with China does not prevent us from having very frank discussions with the Chinese authorities, and nor does it affect our judgment on this increasingly important issue. We shall continue to engage with China on a full range of issues, including human rights. I outlined earlier the UK’s recent actions in the UN Human Rights Council and our vocal condemnation of the abuses perpetrated in Xinjiang. We shall continue to promote universal freedoms and human rights, and to raise serious and well-founded concerns with China at the highest levels.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I know that so much else that is going on crowds out interest elsewhere. It is great to see so many people in the Public Gallery, obviously recognising that these issues are close to the hearts of many representatives. Although it is perhaps understandable that much of the press coverage focuses on Brexit-related issues, a terrific amount of other work goes on. Many hon. Members—Back-Benchers and Front-Benchers alike—focus on that work.
As a Foreign Office Minister, I try to do my level best to keep working hard. I am afraid that a few conversations abroad obviously have a Brexit flavour to them, but there is also a sense that there is other important work to be done. Last week, I had two days away at the OECD in Paris, doing some very good work to stand up for the rules-based international order, and to work in relation to anti-corruption and integrity matters together with a number of other countries from across the world.
It is rather important that all of us utilise our energies in any way we can to address the important issues raised today, which I know we will come back to. I hope Members will work closely with the Government—with the Foreign Office and other Departments—to try to ensure that the terrible scourge of involuntary organ harvesting is, before too long, firmly in the past.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, which were very significant and helpful. I am particularly thankful to the Minister for his response. I never doubted that it would be honest, truthful and helpful, and I appreciate it. I understand the issues as we try to move forward, but I gently suggest to him that we need to use every avenue of opportunity we can to persuade China to stop what has been referred to as the industrial-scale removal of live organs.
Members have referred to the religious, ethnic and other groups across the whole of China that are affected: Falun Gong; Christians and House Christians; Uyghur Muslims; Tibetan Buddhists; and prisoners who are doing time for their crimes, but none the less should not have their organs removed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) was very helpful in her contribution, as indeed were all Members. It was said that there is no victim to tell their story except for the person who found that they had a heart defect and therefore were unsuitable for a heart transplant. There is some of the evidential base.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who spoke for the Scottish National party, suggested that this was like something out of a science fiction novel. It is not. It is worse than that—it is real life, or in this case real death.
We are all deeply indebted to you, Ms Moon, for chairing the debate. I am grateful to hon. Members who have taken part, and to the audience who have attended today—a significant number of people are here.
We are here for one purpose. We want to see change, we want to see accountability and we want to see the removal of live organs for transplant stopped. We want China to grasp the urgency of the issue. The Minister referred to murder on demand, which we can never sanction. We urge the Chinese Government to realise that and draw back.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered forced live organ extraction.
Royal Commission on Police Funding
I beg to move,
That this House has considered a Royal Commission on police funding in the 21st century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Moon, and it is excellent that I am three minutes ahead, so we have 33 minutes for this debate. I am delighted to have secured the debate and to see the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service in his place. I am sure that his father is watching Parliament with great interest, but I will not go on about that.
The purpose of the debate is to implore the Government to implement a police royal commission. The last one was in 1962, which was before the Beatles; it is that long ago. It was the time when Elvis Presley was in his pomp, but this country has changed quite a bit since then, to put it mildly. In the ensuing 57 years, some elements of policing have remained the same—for example, there are 48 forces, all of which are very independent—but much else has changed. Governments of all complexions have made a few piecemeal adjustments here and there. Funding has gone up and down; it has been feast or famine. Now we are in 2019, and the vista for crime-fighting and the police force is completely different from how it was 57 years ago.
The idea of having a police royal commission has been around for about seven or eight years. My view is that over the last year or so, it has really begun to gain traction. The public understand it, and more than 370,000 people have signed a petition on it. In Parliament, there is growing cross-party support for it. In total, 51 MPs—from, importantly, all the different political parties—have signed my early-day motion. My objective in calling on the Government to establish a royal commission is not partisan, because I am absolutely certain that in this Parliament, in particular, anything partisan has absolutely zero chance of happening. My whole approach is to make this cross-party call; to engage with the different representatives of the police forces, from the national Police Federation to the superintendents to the Association of Chief Police Officers; and to engage with the media.
This is all about securing a royal commission, but why? I have talked about how it is 57 years since the last royal commission reported, and crime has changed so much in that time that I am not even going to labour the point—the Minister knows about that very, very well. In those days, we did not have cybercrime or the supranational, global crime that we are dealing with today. Equally, on a basic level there have been significant changes in how the police deal with crime. The Minister will be aware that research tends to indicate that the fêted bobby on the beat does not make a huge difference in driving down crime. He will also be well aware that there are good reasons why the public like to see police on the beat, so that they feel secure. The job of our police forces is to serve us and the public, and to ensure that the public feel secure.
To be blunt, in today’s climate, morale within the police is, as the Minister knows, perilously low, and it has been for the past couple of years. I do not want to say that it has never been lower, because that sounds like grandstanding.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. About 25 years ago, I served as a policeman in Greater Manchester police, which last summer ran a scheme that enabled MPs to go and experience what it is like. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that things have changed; things have changed since I was a police officer, and we can see that even more clearly if we look further back. How can we engage more Members so that we can go ahead with his good idea?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, particularly as he used to be a police officer. His intervention is really useful, because he has hit the nail on the head. To make the idea work and to put enough pressure on the Government—they have one or two other things on their mind at the minute—we need to grow the number of Members who back it in Parliament, and grow it in the media. We have a good support base of 51 Members. I was talking to some peers last night, and we are looking to push this in the Lords as well. To me, it is self-evident that policing has transformed, and that policing needs have completely changed in almost 60 years.
As I said, the changes in police forces have been piecemeal. It is difficult for politicians today to understand what the real issues are, because so many different groups give us different ideas and solutions. Only a week or so ago, we had the Prime Minister saying that the cuts in police numbers bore no relation to the increase in knife crime, and the following day the Metropolitan Police Commissioner saying that they did.
I am not making a political point. I believe we need this royal commission because the public yearn to have a group of independent experts—not politicians or the media, but people from policing around the world—taking evidence from a whole range of groups. On a royal commission, such people would be recognisably independent and expert. Using the evidence that was given, they could assess what was fact and what was fiction. I use those words advisedly, because when I and other politicians try to understand policing issues, be they about resourcing or about what we ask the police to do, one problem is that we are told so many different things.
I am not an expert. Unlike the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), I have not been a policeman.
In my police force, a lot of what the hon. Gentleman is talking about already happens. The force is already changing how it delivers police services; for example, there is a much bigger emphasis on rural crime. I am not sure how a royal commission would link into that, and what effect it would have on our very different constabularies.
That is a moot point, but the hon. Gentleman’s intervention reflects precisely my point: we can no longer have piecemeal changes, with one force doing one thing and another force doing another. A lack of consistency is at the heart of the problem of poor morale within police forces and a lack of engagement, support and trust among many of the public.
Let us take the numbers. Our ratio of policemen and women to members of the public is the third lowest in Europe. I do not know whether that is acceptable; perhaps it is, or perhaps we should have more, or less. The point is that it is incredibly difficult for politicians and the Government to understand accurately the needs of modern-day policing and what the resources should be. That is because when it comes to policing and resources, there is so much noise, and so many noises off, from the different interest and lobby groups, and we must draw a line.
No one in the Chamber can fail to recognise that policing and crime have changed so much in 57 years; we know they have. With a royal commission, we want to get the politics out of it. Policing is too important—I will not even get on to police and crime commissioners; that is for another day—for politics. Politics goes straight through policing, from top to bottom, be it about resourcing—too much, or not enough—or what the police should and should not be doing.
I think I am offering the Government an opportunity, because I believe that if a Government, of whichever kind, set up a royal commission properly and robustly, the public will be grateful to them. The findings and conclusions of such a commission will set policing for the next 40 or 50 years. Because of the respect in which a royal commission is held, the public will listen to it and believe what it says in its report. That is crucial, because all the spin, disingenuousness and vested interests around policing mean that the public do not know who to believe. They do not believe us any more, and I do not blame them. What the hell do I know about policing?
As it happens, I have family members in the police and I work closely with the force in Eastbourne, which is brilliant. I was out with Sergeant Scott Franklin-Lester only a few months ago. After four hours, in which he arrested two people, I said, “I hope your mum doesn’t know how dangerous your job is.” I asked that excellent police sergeant for guidance and advice, and his feedback was really helpful and productive. I am not going to drop him in it, but his feedback reminded me how huge the issue is, and that there is a lack of consistency and public trust, as well as low morale in the police. It seems to me that a police royal commission, which I am convinced would get wide cross-party support, is one answer.
At its heart, the matter is complex, and things have moved on. The Home Affairs Committee has said that the
“current model for police funding is not fit for purpose”.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that relying on council tax is a particularly unfair way of raising that funding, because areas that have been hardest hit by cuts will raise the least funding? There are clearly complex areas that need to be considered, and a royal commission would be the right way forward.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent intervention on that specific point. I have a lot of respect for the Select Committee. However, he identifies, as did the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), that there are many different issues around funding, resources and what we want our police to look like over the next 40 or 50 years. That is why, in my campaign to get the police royal commission off the ground, I am deliberately trying not to pinpoint specific problems. I know them and I see them, and the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton is absolutely right. But I do not simply want the Government to fix one issue, and then next year—or in six months’ time, after Brexit, if we are not in “Groundhog Day”—fix another little problem. As the hon. Member for Henley has quite rightly pointed out, for example, his own force recognises that rural crime is an issue, so it has fixed it. I am saying, “Stop.” We need to draw a line in the sand.
We need to get the right people on the commission. We need them to take evidence for, say, a year, from all the vested interests and from people with opinions, be they representatives of police forces, academics or possibly even politicians. Following that, we need to come up with a report that, depending on what we want for 21st-century policing and what areas we want to focus on, shows us the resources and the number of police officers required to keep the public safe. That would allow the public—and the politicians, but in this instance the public are key—to give real buy-in to what the commission propose, and also to our police force. I am not going to use clichés: our police force is highly respected as one of the best in the world, and the public have a lot of time for it, but I am concerned that that is fraying. That is wrong for the men and women who are in uniform out there, trying to keep us safe, and it is also wrong for our country.
It is absolutely crucial for the Government to make this decision while we are still slightly ahead of the game. A royal commission would not cost a ton of money—it is not a Chilcot report, or anything—or take an awful lot of time, but it would make a huge difference to the value that the public will put back into our police force. Most importantly, it would improve the police’s delivery and their capacity to fight crime. I urge the Government to recognise that a royal commission is going to happen; I am sure of it. With respect to the Minister, I know why the Government will push back: the line will be, “It will not be for a few years. We need to do something fast.” I do not know about the Minister, but frankly, I am pretty fed up with every Government bringing in new changes to the police here and there, and continuing with that piecemeal process. Let us get this done properly.
A royal commission would mean that other things, such as the excellent rural initiatives, stop. I think, however, that it would be worth the 18 months or so that it would take to put a commission together and compile a report, and the two or three years it would then take to roll out its conclusions. Let us prove to the public—particularly at the minute, with Brexit—that we are not just focused on short-term fix and mend; let us get this one right. If the Minister puts his name to a royal commission, I am sure that he will be much loved and appreciated across the length and breadth of the country, and that such a commission will have an enormously positive impact on our police forces, our public, and, most importantly, fighting crime in all its different forms. Let us not wait another 20 years; the time has come, and I urge the Minister to push the forward button now.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, for what I think is the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on having secured this debate, and on presenting a good case in an extremely beguiling manner. He has promised me the love and admiration of the nation if I accede to his request; he took me back in time to 1962, and he mentioned Elvis, but obviously the most important feature of that year is that it is the year I was born. He did his very best to beguile me, but he has not entirely persuaded me of his case. However, since we are in the mood for finding common ground, let me establish some, because it is important.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are recognised as having one of the best police systems in the world, and that the public still have relatively high levels of confidence in the police. He is right to point out that the public are increasingly concerned about crime, and are, I think, primarily unsettled by the terrible cycle of serious violence; that is not just an urban issue, but is deeply unsettling for everyone. The hon. Gentleman is also right about his fundamental point: we are working through a period of profound change in the nature of crime, the risks to public safety that we are trying to manage, and the nature of the demand on the police and the resources available to them. He did not mention this, but one of the defining features of our age is the growing power of technology to do both good and evil, and the make-up of our country’s communities and the cultural norms and attitudes that underpin them also continue to change fast. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do the fundamental power of the seventh Peel principle:
“the police are the public and the public are the police”.
All of those are fundamental truths, and arguably the core challenge facing any Government or police leadership at any time.
We are living through a process of accelerated change, but I wholly support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell): the police are managing that change. There are ways in which we can improve, but just as the country and crime are changing, so are the police. My local police force, the Met, is unrecognisable from what it was 10 years ago. A lot of rubbish is talked about the police and their attitude to change, and some people have fallen into the trap of talking about them as one of the great unreformed public institutions. The police are managing a huge amount of change in what they do and how they work.
The point that I was trying to make was that if we compare Thames Valley police with the Metropolitan police, for example, they are completely different organisations tackling different sorts of crimes. I wonder whether the differences in the make-up of constabularies are now so great that a royal commission would not be able to work across all those different activities.
That is a valid and important point. I understand the temptation to say, “There are lots of difficult things going on and there is a need to take a long-term view, so let us ask some sensible people to take some time, go away and talk to people, and think about this.” My concern is not just that which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley expressed, but that a royal commission feels like a rather outdated and static process, given the dynamic situation that we are in.
The practical point is that we are approaching an extremely important point in defining the future of policing in this country, which is the next spending review. We cannot be certain, because we live in uncertain times, but the Chancellor has indicated that all being well with Brexit—I know that is a big “if”—that will be a summer for autumn event. For me, that spending review is the next critical point for shaping the immediate future of policing in England and Wales, and there are some things that we just do not need royal commission advice on.
Quite rightly, the hon. Member for Eastbourne talked about resources and officer numbers. If we cut through all the smoke, fire and political heat, there is cross-party recognition of the need to increase the capacity of our police system. We can argue about how fast and how far, but the Government and Labour Front Benchers recognise the need to do that, and we are moving in that direction. Next year, as a country we will be investing £2 billion more in our police system than three years ago. Police forces up and down the country are recruiting more than 3,000 new officers, in addition to staff. It is not only about increasing investment and officer numbers, but about looking hard at how police time is managed, the power of technology to free up time and internal demand and external demand, not least of which are the demands of looking after people on the mental health spectrum. A huge amount of work is going into looking at how we can increase capacity through increased investment and looking again at how the valuable time of frontline officers is used. We do not need a commission to help us in that critical work.
The commission being proposed has a lot of weight. In a sense, two fundamental issues make the difference: the ability of people to move around and the ability to communicate. That has opened up a world of things on the crime side in terms of how criminals operate across counties and internationally, on the internet and through fraud. It would be helpful to have a commission to look at the totality and to help us have a police force that is fit for the 21st century.
I understand the point, and I will address it, but my point is that I am not sure that a royal commission is the right solution at the moment for addressing some of the challenges that we know about. We have the capacity among the Government, the political process in this place and police leadership to work through them ourselves. I mentioned the spending review, and that is the major opportunity in the short term. We must not lose sight of getting it right or be distracted by the idea of royal commissions.
We are working closely with the police to look at demand and cost pressures and to ensure that the bid into the spending review is properly informed. With the police we are working through the question of how much further we can go in making the police more efficient and productive on behalf of the taxpayer. We are looking at the balance between crime prevention and the reaction to crime. We are looking at how we can give better support to frontline officers, because it is clear that we can and should do that. We are looking at system issues—issues that have rolled down through the ages, but that continue to be relevant, such as the balance between the centre and the local, the question of how we build and deliver national capabilities and the fundamental question of how we learn from the past for the next stage of upgrading police technology across this fragmented system.
How do we develop more consistent standards across the fragmented system? How do we do a better job of spreading innovation and best practice? Some of that best practice is frankly brilliant, but it exists in pockets. How do we ensure that it is spread across the system? How do we ensure that the fragmented system takes a more systemic approach to tackling some of the perennial problems that it faces? How do we ensure that we allocate resources in the fairest possible way? Those are challenges that we know we have to address, and we are working together with the police to do so. I simply am not persuaded that a royal commission will help those things in the immediate specific context, but I will come back to the point. First, I will give way to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who is a great supporter of the police.
I thank the Minister for giving way and the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) for eloquently setting out the challenges facing the police. Will the Minister give us a little more information on the points he was making? I am aware of the work Tom Winsor is undertaking with forces as they go through their assessments of what crime demand will look like in the coming years, with a view then to look at the resources required to match that. What might the timeline and the process be? However we approach having to meet resources in the future, that information and analysis will be important.
The hon. Lady is superbly informed and passionate about policing. She makes a good point and illustrates something I was trying to capture: the degree to which the police are changing and responding to challenge. The challenge to police leadership from Her Majesty’s independent inspectorate was, “You don’t do a good enough job of anticipating and managing future demand.” That sounds critical, but we know the reality. Police leadership is stretched in dealing with the demand in front of it.
The challenge from the inspectorate is that we need to do a better job of anticipating future demand, and the instrument was the force management statement. There were some grumblings and criticism at the start of that process, but every force complied with it. The inspectorate handled that process very well. We have all our first force management statements in, and we are now into a second iteration of that process. That is a good example of where the police have recognised the need for change, prodded by external eyes and external challenge. The system is now working together to improve on the first iteration, and I am encouraged by that.
I recognise the clarity of the argument made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, and I understand its drivers. I have tried to explain why I am not persuaded in the short term that a royal commission is the answer to some of the challenges we have to work through with the police in the immediate context, which is the critical spending review. We have to get that right, because it will shape the future of policing for the next three to five years.
I want to close on a more constructive and positive note. Looking at the history of police reform in this country going back centuries, it is striking that the same questions are always asked. They tend to come back to, “What is the right balance between the centre and the local?”, “Who are the police accountable to?”, and, “How do we strike the right balance between law and order and the protection of individual liberties?” Then there is the fundamental question of, “Have we got the right structure of policing?” That tends to come back, as it has over the years, to the question of, “What is the right structure in terms of the number of police forces?” If we look at the length of history, we have come down from 200-odd forces to 43, and the question whether it is the right structure is still being asked.
The reality is this: the system has real strengths in local accountability and ensuring that local police forces are attuned to local need and accountable to the residents and citizens they serve. The hon. Gentleman spoke about piecemeal reform, but I would argue that the reforms to the police system since 2010 have not been piecemeal. They have been extremely significant, not least the introduction of police and crime commissioners to further sharpen local accountability. That is a real strength in the system that the public understand and respect, but the reality—it is heard from every police audience—is that the system is extremely challenged by the current environment of policing, not least because more and more crime simply does not respect borders, because it is either online or physically runs across borders, such as county lines. The fragmented police system struggles with this environment of rapid change. Although a lot of change is going on, it is driven at a slow and unsteady pace across the system, and the police recognise that.
As it has been over time, the whole question of whether this is the right policing structure continues to be valid, and it will continue to be asked. I happen to think that we can do a great deal to make the system work smarter, and that is one of my major priorities, but the political reality is that no party—Conservative, Labour or any other—has a mandate from the British people to take a big-bang approach to restructuring policing, even if it wanted to. I have no doubt that whoever is in power, we will come back to the question whether we have the right structure to combat modern crime and modern demand on the police as the police evolve, as we understand it through the police’s own understanding and as we build capability in the system to look ahead a bit further, which is one of my priorities. In that context, there may well be merits to and an argument for an independent look at that.
I have to intervene otherwise the debate will run out of time. All I will say in answer to the Minister is that the fundamental thing the police royal commission would give, which we lack, is trust for the public.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Personal Independence Payments: Merseyside
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the administration of personal independence payments on Merseyside.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I welcome the Minister, who has been, though is not at present, the Minister for Disabled People. As a former Minister for Disabled People myself—I served for an entire Parliament, in fact—I am grateful for this opportunity to highlight a worrying deterioration that I have noticed in the administration of disability benefits in my constituency.
Personal independence payment is meant to help people with the extra costs of disability, and is payable regardless of income. None the less, many sick and disabled people who apply for it and receive it are often unable to work, tend to be poor and find it difficult to make ends meet. Many have chronic fluctuating conditions, and are very ill or very disabled. PIP is therefore usually, in my experience, an essential component of enabling people in such situations to live a decent and dignified life. It is a crucial benefit, which is all the more reason to get it swiftly and correctly to those who are entitled to it.
According to the House of Commons Library, since 2010 some £4.8 billion has been cut from disability benefit. Indeed, the introduction of PIP and the replacement of disability living allowance, its predecessor benefit, was intended from the start to cut entitlement to make it less generous, and to create monetary savings in the escalating cost of DLA. The expected savings of £3 billion a year have not materialised, but the Tory Minister in the Lib Dem-Tory coalition who introduced the benefit in 2013 said that PIP would be
“easier to understand and administer, financially sustainable and more objective.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 463.]
“Financially sustainable” means, in this context, cheaper in terms of the overall spend. That means cutting entitlement and awards when we get down to the circumstances of individuals.
Since PIP’s inception, administrative problems have been to the fore. In its first seven months, only 16% of the targets for resolving claims were met. The National Audit Office was critical, suggesting that the Department for Work and Pensions should
“set out a clear plan for informing claimants about the likely delays they will experience”.
I wish it had, because my constituents are increasingly experiencing delays, and I do not see any plan to stop them. Ever since PIP was introduced, constituents have complained to me about the way in which they have been treated when being assessed, the delays in the process of administering it, and subsequent reconsiderations and appeals. Whatever the outcome of the original assessment, it is hard to find people who are satisfied with the administration of the benefit.
Recently I have noticed that things are worsening. For the previous two years, until last December, I had a stable, steady number of cases coming through, spread over the months. I have been able to help with some cases and not others, but the flow has been pretty steady. However, during the first three months of this year my office has faced a threefold increase in complaints about PIP, and some of the circumstances my constituents relate to me are simply horrendous.
There are a set of different problems. For example, I hear about inappropriate questions at assessment, so that when people are disqualified from the benefit they consider the process completely unfair. Asking somebody who is debilitated by mental illness whether they can pick something up off the floor just does not seem relevant to that individual. In my experience, home assessments are rarely allowed, and when people cannot attend, usually for genuine reasons, they are simply disallowed the benefit.
I have one constituent who has been trying since December 2017 to be assessed. He has been refused, despite many debilitating conditions, including severe schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. There are physical and mental reasons why he cannot attend an assessment centre, but PIP administrators simply will not attend him at home. He has been unable to get to the 11 face-to-face interview assessments he has been set. Consequently, his last DLA payment, which was received in the middle of last year, has long since expired.
My constituent has lost employment and support allowance as a consequence. He has now lost almost £5,000 of income, and is financially reliant on his extremely elderly and disabled mother for the basics—all because he cannot get to an assessment. Why on earth can they not assess him at home? It is ridiculous that he has been asked to attend 11 times when he clearly has problems doing so. Why can we not have some common sense?
In addition, there are poor assessments and a poor attitude from assessors. My constituents report that they are often simply not believed. Some feel sneered at, and some are right to feel that way, from the accounts that I have heard. Inaccuracies in medical assessments mean that sometimes the reports that are produced end up bearing no resemblance whatever to what has been said at the face-to-face interview, and my constituents tell me that they feel as if a completely different case and person has been reported on.
May I reflect on the hon. Lady’s opinions regarding PIP? I am very involved in this matter in my constituency back home, with the changes that there have been. Does the hon. Lady feel, as I always have, that it is important that the assessor or officer who comes out to visit the person in their home, or takes them to an office for interview, has knowledge of the medical circumstances of that person? Also, when it comes to mental and emotional issues, does she agree that it is important to have someone there to support the person being assessed—perhaps as a witness as much as anything?
I agree with both those points. A lack of understanding and basic common decency sometimes seems to creep into these assessments.
I also have vulnerable constituents who are being prevented from getting help in explaining their situation to assessors. For example, I have a constituent who has a brain stem tumour, among other physical conditions. Perhaps not surprisingly, her mother was with her at the assessment. However, she was told that her mother could not answer any questions for her, despite the fact that my constituent has significant difficulty in processing information because of her condition. That goes completely against the PIP assessment guidance, which says that
“companions may play an active role in helping claimants answer questions”.
I have constituents who were prevented from having that kind of help and, perhaps not surprisingly, thereafter had their PIP stopped because it was felt that they had not answered the questions appropriately.
There are extremely long delays in assessments, reconsiderations and particularly tribunal dates for appeals. It is hard to justify the fact that the average waiting time for PIP is now 15 weeks. That is almost four months. It is completely unacceptable to make disabled people, who rely on that money to make their lives a little easier, wait so long for a first payment.
Reconsiderations are a necessary step to be gone through, but they almost never overturn the original decision. In my recent experience, I have not come across a single case in which that has happened, even when it is blindingly obvious that that is the point at which what has gone wrong can be put right with the least possible damage. Surely the purpose of the reconsideration stage is to apply a little common sense, but these days it just seems to be a way of wasting another two or three months, during which the individual does not get their benefit.
The wait for a tribunal is the killer. On Merseyside, the average wait is more than nine months, but I know of people who have waited for 12. It is an absolute scandal. How can the Government or the Minister possibly justify treating vulnerable, sick and disabled people in such a callous and horrendous manner?
I have also come across many reports of compassion fatigue among bureaucratic and indifferent contractors who are paid to assess vulnerable and desperate people. Compassion fatigue is not a new phenomenon, but it seems to be rife these days. It was reported in the newspapers recently that a DWP official had submitted papers to an appeal tribunal in which they referred to the appellant, a disabled person, as a “lying bitch”. How revealing of their attitude is that? Yet there is not much evidence of fraud in claims for these benefits: according to DWP figures, it represents only 1.5% of the total expenditure. That figure is put into context by the heftier 4.2% of total expenditure on making up underpayments to people who have not claimed their full entitlement—one can hardly argue that there is a huge problem of fraud that we need to crack down on.
Let me give a few examples of cases in my constituency that illustrate my concerns. Some people’s benefits have been stopped, quite unfairly, when they have fallen foul of overly bureaucratic practices that take no notice of plain common sense and that apparently cannot be put right without the lengthiest process imaginable, causing extreme hardship and pain. I have a constituent with kidney disease who attends hospital weekly for dialysis. She was diagnosed with a very painful and severe complication of her condition and was treated for it as an in-patient. When she got home after being discharged last July, she was exhausted, disoriented and in severe pain. She was expecting a district nurse to attend her at home to change a dressing, but her carer was confronted at the door by someone who claimed to be a health professional, but who—sure enough—seems in hindsight to have been sent by the DWP.
The “medical professional”, who was turned away by the carer because my constituent was in no fit state to be seen, appears to have had a compassion bypass. Instead of being given another appointment at a more convenient and sensible time, my constituent had her benefit stopped last August because she was said to have refused to be interviewed. Not only was she in no fit state to be interviewed, but she had received no letter. Even if such a letter had been sent, she had been in hospital for weeks and was very poorly, so she certainly would not have seen it. Why on earth was another appointment not made as a matter of plain common sense? Her request for a reconsideration last October was refused. What is the point of having reconsiderations if we cannot reconsider a case like that?
My constituent applied for a tribunal hearing in December—given her very poor health, it took her that long to navigate the process of filling in all the required forms. For three months, she tried to make the best of things, but she came to see me last week asking how long she would have to wait for an appeal. As I have said, and as the Minister may know, the average wait on Merseyside is 38 to 42 weeks, so I had to tell my constituent that she might have to wait another six months before the matter could be resolved. I have no doubt that the decision would be overturned at a hearing, as happens in 75% of the cases that get that far.
When I asked my constituent how she was doing, she told me that she had no money for food. Her weight had reduced to just 6½ stone. On the day she came to see me, she had eaten two slices of toast—one for breakfast and one for lunch—and was planning a main meal of a bowl of soup. I would normally offer food bank vouchers to a woman in that condition, but my constituent has a special diet because of her dialysis, so she could not have eaten what a food bank would have given her. She was able to take advantage of Can Cook, a charity in my constituency that stepped in at my request to provide some fresh food commensurate with her dietary requirements—but most people do not have Can Cook in their constituency.
I happened to bump into the Secretary of State, so I asked her who I should write to about this scandalous case, given that the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) has resigned as Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work and has not been replaced. The Secretary of State got her officials to sort it out within two days, which is excellent, and I thank her for it. My constituent has been reassessed on higher rates of care and mobility than those from which she was disqualified, and she will receive full back payments this week. Thank goodness she came to see me, but she did not see me for 10 weeks—and what about those constituents who have not come to see me and who are suffering in silence and despair at home? What about those who are too vulnerable to get out to see me, particularly those who are debilitated by mental ill health and are struggling on with no money and no food?
I am quite moved by what the hon. Lady says. Many of us know of people in similar circumstances. At my constituency office, three people in 10 days came to see us who had fallen off the radar—no one knew about them. Their issues were clearly mental and emotional. Does the hon. Lady feel that someone in the benefits system should be following up on people who have been refused benefits? That would be a method of finding out what is happening to those people.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. One would have thought that the reconsideration would introduce an element of plain good sense, but it does not seem to be working in that way at present. There is a general issue with how the debility caused by mental ill health is not well recognised or sympathetically dealt with in the system. People who are debilitated with mental ill health often find it even harder than people who have physical disabilities to face up to filling in the forms and getting themselves organised to get some help, so they are even more vulnerable.
PIP has less generous criteria for its mobility component than DLA, because it is designed to save money: people are required to be less able to walk than under the older benefit system. Because PIP is the gateway to one of the world’s most innovative and practical disability entitlements —the world-leading Motability scheme, one of the best things that makes disabled people’s lives easier—problems in its administration hit recipients particularly hard. For many of my disabled constituents, access to a Motability car is a lifeline—it makes their lives liveable—yet in the last two years, the DWP’s own figures show that 44% of people who were getting the higher rate mobility component under DLA lost their entitlement under PIP. Of those who are being reassessed from the DLA higher rate mobility component to PIP, only 53% got the equivalent of the enhanced rate. The other half either got the lower rate, and therefore lost their car, or got no mobility component at all.
People naturally appeal when they lose so much, and they are entitled to do so. PIP appeals accounted for 52% of all social security and child support tribunal receipts, and 73% of PIP appeals succeeded. Too many people who should appeal do not; they put up with the loss of income and the hardship because they cannot cope with the process. For people who first joined the Motability scheme before 2012, the car has to go back once the benefit has been gone for 26 weeks. However, the average wait for a tribunal on Merseyside is nine months, which means that people’s cars have to go back even if they win the tribunal, as 75% of them do. What is the point of taking away a disabled person’s car only to give it back again? Is it any wonder that people feel messed around? They have been messed around. I have a number of cases where people have quite wrongly lost their Motability car. When they finally get to appeal, they get it back. Why mess them around in the first place?
One constituent has lost her car and is awaiting a tribunal hearing—she will have waited almost a year by the time she gets one. I tried to have her case expedited with the Courts and Tribunals Service, as I have with a number of others, as this young woman has to make three or four journeys to hospital, in different directions, to different hospitals every week. She and her parents, who are fairly low-paid workers, used the car to get her to those hospital appointments. Her journeys cost £17 per journey in a taxi, multiplied three or four times a week. When her mother came to see me, they were starting to decide which hospital appointments to go to and which not to go to. I asked the Courts and Tribunals Service to expedite the hearing, and it was put in front of the judge—that is the first time I have got that far—but he said no, so she will have to wait until this summer.
The Mayor of Liverpool has a mayoral hardship fund, with millions of pounds that were raised through the invest-to-save arrangements, which was supposed to be about improving the Merseyside economy. He now spends all of that fund supporting poor people, and the young woman now has her taxi journeys paid for. That is the only reason she is still able to attend her hospital appointments.
The Minister must recognise that there is a severe problem here, at the very least in the length of time it is taking to get appeal hearings, and in the way in which people are being messed around in the interim. The people who benefit from PIP are some of the poorest, most vulnerable and most disabled people in our society. They should not be being put through the mill to get their basic entitlement to an extra benefit. I hope the Minister will be able to show us that the situation is going to improve in future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on a powerful and passionate opening speech. She has addressed the injustices and spoken up on behalf of her constituents. We know that disabled people and those with long-term health conditions are much more likely to live in income poverty and significantly less likely to be in employment, and that they face barriers to participating in wider society and therefore to being able to lead active and independent lives. Personal independent payments and their predecessor, the disability living allowance, can be a lifeline for disabled people and their families, but, as my hon. Friend set out, all too often our constituents come to us in a state of great distress, having encountered an array of difficulties during both the application and assessment process for PIP.
The feedback from my constituents and from organisations working in my constituency is much the same as that set out so fully by my hon. Friend. Claimants say they have little trust in the application process; they find it unfriendly, distressing and opaque. They experience difficulties completing the application forms and understanding the basis on which they are being assessed. Many say that the staff conducting the assessments for Atos and Capita frequently lack the expertise to make accurate decisions on claims involving a wide range of mental and physical health conditions. Claimants often find that their assessment reports include basic factual errors and omit relevant details, and they are therefore ultimately a misrepresentation of the assessment.
I want to highlight the case of a constituent who has schizophrenia and a personality disorder. She struggles with every aspect of daily life, including maintaining her tenancy and her home, paying essential bills and maintaining a relationship with her son, who is in care. Because of paranoia and panic attacks, she is not able to use public transport, but she is physically healthy. In her assessment, she was able to perform activities such as standing up from a chair and touching her toes, and she also told the assessor that she occasionally went jogging to support her mental health. As a result, she was awarded nil points. She was also refused PIP at the mandatory reconsideration stage. My experience of reconsideration is much the same as that of my hon. Friend—very few receive a reconsideration that results in a different decision.
On appeal, my constituent was represented by my fantastic constituency caseworker at the tribunal. She was awarded the standard mobility rate and the enhanced daily living rate of approximately £400 a month, which is a life-changing amount of money for her. However, during the period when she was not entitled to PIP, she was forced to use food banks on several occasions. She was unable to visit her son because she could not afford to pay the taxi fares. As my hon. Friend set out so clearly, it simply takes too long for appeal decisions to be made.
As we have already heard, the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that the average time to appeal a PIP decision successfully has more than doubled since 2014-15, to a national average of 31 weeks, while the average time is longer for the Liverpool tribunal venue, at 38 weeks. Those delays force some of our most vulnerable constituents into isolation and destitution. They are left struggling to pay for food, rent and bills. Indeed, benefit delays and changes are the main reason why people are referred to food banks on Merseyside, and the Trussell Trust has warned repeatedly that benefit changes are forcing people to turn to food banks, as I know from my own experience volunteering at the North Liverpool food bank at St John’s church in Tuebrook. I pay tribute to the selfless and dedicated individuals who work at food banks across the city, and across the country.
My constituency of West Derby has a PIP claimant rate of 8.6%, which is the 13th highest PIP recipient rate of all the constituencies in Great Britain. The case of my constituent is by no means unique; we have heard the cases cited by my hon. Friend. I am struck by two observations—first, the high proportion of claimants who are eventually successful in winning their PIP appeal and, secondly, the particular difficulties faced by individuals with mental health issues.
As my hon. Friend said, around three quarters of all PIP refusals that go to appeal in Liverpool are successful. That appeal rate comes as no surprise to me, my casework team or charities in Merseyside, who have worked tirelessly to help local people receive the support they are entitled to. I thank the numerous organisations across Merseyside that support our most vulnerable constituents to navigate the complex benefit system. I mention in particular St Andrew’s Community Network in north Liverpool, and Merseyside Welfare Rights, now known as the Merseyside Law Centre.
I anticipate that the Minister will say that decisions are overturned because claimants submit more evidence at appeal stage than they did earlier. I appreciate that that is a factor, but surely something is fundamentally wrong in the system when the figure for successful appeals is so high. We need to look at both the assessment and reconsideration processes for reform.
I finish by saying something about the disadvantage and challenges faced by people who are struggling with mental ill health when navigating the PIP process. For those who have mental health issues, the assessment process can be a doubly challenging experience, with the stress of undergoing an assessment exacerbating existing health conditions. Research by academics at York University released earlier this year found:
“Overall, claimants with a psychiatric condition were 2.4 times more likely than a claimant with a non-psychiatric condition to have their existing DLA entitlement removed following a PIP eligibility assessment.”
Mental health conditions are very common among PIP applicants, but our benefit system appears to continue to discriminate against people with mental ill health. We have a long way to go to achieve parity of esteem in the social security system for physical and mental health.
Today I received an example from one of the charities working on behalf of my constituents. It has
“been supporting a gentleman who is coming to us for life coaching. He had previously been awarded High rate DLA for life due to his injuries from an accident in work, his mental health & Type 1 diabetes. He had to go to an assessment for PIP and…made to walk the whole length of the building to the assessment room even though he asked her if there was a closer room as he was struggling only to be told no and to hurry up!!! He said the interview was very rushed…he felt really uncomfortable and made to feel like he was making his illness’s up. He wears a monitor on his arm”—
because of his diabetes—
“so his blood sugar’s can be read constantly and when the report was sent it stated he had a gadget on his arm but not sure what it was,”
even though he had explained that during his interview. The charity’s letter continues:
“He then received a letter stating that he was going to be getting a drastically reduced rate as he didn’t need special care and that his mobility was fine so he would also be losing his mobility car. The report also stated his pain medication was moderate!! Did the examiner have the medical knowledge & Qualification to make that assumption?
He has since slipped into a total depression and on our last coaching session he just sat and cried and said he didn’t know why he was even bothering. He hasn’t had the enthusiasm to see his 3 young boys, which he used to see daily on the school run. He is terrified that once the car is repossessed he won’t be able to see them at all as they have recently moved.
He has sent off a mandatory reconsideration with the help of us and PSS however some people don’t have this support and wouldn’t know where to go for this kind of help. This process has totally turned his already unhappy life totally on it’s head and his self harming is more apparent than I have seen in the last 12 months.”
The letter finishes with the rhetorical question:
“Why when a person was awarded DLA for life should they have to be reassessed???”
As the local charity said to me today in an email, this story has a number of policy implications. They include the question of reassessment when an award had previously been made for life; the way that interviews are conducted and how that leaves claimants feeling; the perceived lack of appropriate medical qualification, especially in complex circumstances such as the example that I have described; and the eventual reconsideration on appeal, which, in the words of the local organisation,
“will end up costing a fortune and is likely to reverse the original decision.”
Time and again, the PIP process lets down some of our most vulnerable constituents. As a result, trust in its administration is in desperately short supply. I hope the Minister will listen to these concerns and the example cases we raise through our speeches, so that we can work together to ensure that in the future we have a PIP system that really works for all disabled people.
It is a pleasure to be here, although I wish we did not have to discuss this extremely difficult issue. I pay tribute to my sister and hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and other colleagues who are here to talk about this important issue. I want to spend a bit of time relating what is happening with personal independence payments on the other side of the River Mersey, on the Wirral. For the Minister’s interest, I will mention five cases. I will give him a letter with the more important details, and I hope that he will help me to deal with the three that are outstanding.
Wallasey is 25th in the table of PIP cases and our authority, Wirral Council, is 22nd out of 380 local authorities for volume of such cases. Within Wallasey, what are known as psychiatric disorders were the most common reason for claiming PIP, which is why I associate myself with all the points made so far by my hon. Friends on how cruel and disruptive the stress people are put through when making claims is. Psychiatric disorders include anxiety and depression, learning disabilities and autism, and 36% of people who make claims for PIP in Wallasey belong to that group. The system should take much more account of the effects that the process is likely to have on those who are already suffering from mental illness or depression, or who have learning disabilities that mean they cannot—even with the best will in the world—operate effectively in the kind of system that the Government’s PIP reforms have placed them in.
The second most common reason for awards was musculoskeletal disease in general, which includes osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis and chronic pain syndrome. In Wallasey, waits at the Birkenhead tribunal were 33 weeks, but as of two weeks ago that had risen to 38 weeks—that is nearly 10 months, on average, to get a re-assessment and an appeal. Some 73% of appeals found in favour of the claimant by the end of last year. That is what the statistics say. Once more, we see the same pattern of extremely and unacceptably high, and increasing, waits for access to tribunals. It is close to a three-quarters success rate for people who appeal. I join my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) in saying that we worry about those who do not make claims, do not come to see us at our advice surgeries, and are suffering an often catastrophic loss of income in silence when we can see that they might well be entitled to support from the PIP benefit.
There are some general themes about how Atos Healthcare runs the contract for PIP assessments. I will go through some cases—I will not use names—and then spend a bit of time pointing out the themes that worry me the most. Constituent one has a benign brain tumour, epilepsy, short-term memory loss, anxiety, mild depression and an adjustment disorder. He has had brain surgery and will need to have it again in the future. He has regular seizures, which cause loss of awareness, perception and consciousness.
On 10 January he had a reassessment, which was carried out at his house, although, funnily enough, it was not requested that it should be. He has received DLA, carer’s allowance and mobility for the past 15 years, but in this assessment he scored only six points, despite medical evidence stating that he needs help at home. There were also discrepancies between the points scored and the information in the report. Medical evidence states that he cannot prepare food or clean himself without supervision, but his PIP assessment report states that he can do both unaided. He was recorded as being able to carry out complex budgeting calculations because he recognised a £5 note. The assessor recorded him as having good eye contact and focus, despite the fact that he was crying and shaking throughout the interview. There is no mention in the report of this man hurting himself and other people in the middle of the seizures that he has regularly. It was emphasised that he is not safe alone either inside or outside the home because he is a risk to himself and others. Despite my constituent showing the assessor some of his injury marks from seizures, which were not mentioned in the report, and his doctor’s letter that references them, he had reductions in his benefit that leave him and his wife £578.20 a month worse off.
Constituent two has 95% hearing loss, agoraphobia and anxiety and has been on DLA for 17 years. Because of her severe anxiety she asked for a home assessment, having previously had severe panic attacks when she attended the jobcentre. It was initially refused, but I intervened and a home assessment was granted. At the assessment in September last year, a sign language interpreter was not provided. Her father sat in the interview and asked if he could write the questions down for my constituent so that she would know what was going on, because she has 95% hearing loss. The assessor refused to allow that, claiming my constituent was making it up and could hear the questions. The assessor terminated the interview early, and the DWP claimed it had no knowledge of my constituent being deaf, despite the fact that she had been claiming DLA for her disability for 17 years. The Department must surely have known that. In February this year my constituent received a letter stating that her PIP claim was terminated because the interview ended early. It was the assessor who terminated the interview and the DWP did not think the fact that she could not hear was a good enough reason. She has now been without benefits for almost a year.
Constituent three received a wheelchair from the local NHS service because her mobility and health was declining. She was advised to apply for PIP as the wheelchair she was fitted with does not fit in her car and she is unable to get around independently as a result. In the assessment she stated that she could walk for only 10 to 15 metres, but the assessor recorded her as having the ability to walk for 50 metres. The assessor also failed to record other issues with mobility and health that my constituent mentioned. The incorrect information meant she did not score highly in the assessment and as a result was not awarded PIP. The case has gone for mandatory reconsideration and she is waiting to hear back.
A couple of issues have been resolved now. Constituent four has had multiple sclerosis for 30 years. He was diagnosed with secondary progressive MS in 2003. He received DLA and qualified for higher rate mobility. Yet at his most recent assessment for PIP in November last year he lost the higher rate mobility component and was worried that he would lose his Motability car, which has been specifically adjusted to allow him to drive to work. He has an electrical stimulator in his leg to help him move, and he uses crutches, which means he has tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome, and he has lost fine motor skills in his right hand. Despite that, the assessor said that he could use crutches and so his hands were fine.
Despite not seeing my constituent walk more than 15 metres at his assessment, the assessor claimed he could walk between 20 and 50 metres with aids. My constituent provided 13 letters of support from medical professionals, including neurologists and consultants, but despite all that and despite having multiple sclerosis, which is a deteriorating condition, it was decided he needed less support, not more. After I wrote to the DWP and raised his case with the jobcentre, his mobility component was reinstated last month, but it took four months. Just think of all the anxiety that my constituent suffered as a result, none of which helped his condition.
Constituent five was on PIP enhanced daily living from 2005 and received the mobility element because he has epilepsy. He has depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and cancer in the pituitary gland. He asked in advance of the assessment if it could be recorded because he has problems with his concentration and memory. He was told by the DWP that it would not provide a recorder and it would accept only a double tape machine, such as the police use. At interview the assessor wrote that he was relaxed and coped well when he was actually anxious and upset, and he was crying because he had to attend the assessment on his own as his family live in Northern Ireland. The assessor listed medicines that my constituent does not take and omitted medicines that he does take. He was also not warned that as a result of his claim being reduced he would lose the enhanced daily living component and the ESA enhanced disability premium. Consequently, he struggled to manage to live and feed himself. A reconsideration took place relatively quickly, thanks to my intervention, and the benefit was reinstated. Having heard about such cases, the Minister must surely see what is going on.
Assessors are not adequately prepared for the assessments that they must do. For example, sign language interpreters are not provided, but the assessor carries on with the interview regardless. The DWP claims it is not aware of someone’s major hearing loss when it has been paying DLA for hearing loss for 17 years. It takes no extra care to ensure that the constituent involved can have a fair assessment.
Over and again, the process is demeaning and dehumanising. It is a grossly unfair system. It is flawed and uncaring and puts people through the mill. Recently the Disability News Service put in a freedom of information request and although the DWP said it would be too expensive to produce figures for all the claims, it did produce figures for a sample of 100 cases. In 97 cases decisions were made without the DWP making any attempt to seek further advice or clarification from Atos, despite ongoing complaints about assessors’ inaccuracy and omissions since PIP was introduced in 2013. That must be why so many appeals are successful. All the relevant evidence is considered a second time around, and it is hard not to come to the conclusion that claimants are assumed to be lying if assessors do not record things accurately. Are targets set by the DWP or by the organisations that have the contracts for knocking people off disability benefits such as PIP?
There seems to be a pattern of behaviour not being caught by how the system runs, and it causes some of the most vulnerable people in our society massive amounts of distress. It deprives them of the money that is not only their entitlement, but which they rely on to live and to afford the basics. It does not give them any chance to appeal until an average of 10 months have gone by, often leaving them destitute. We ought to be able to change the system to take account of the very important and special needs that some of the most vulnerable have. I hope the Minister will accept the envelope containing the three outstanding cases that I mentioned in my speech and I very much hope we can get a resolution for them sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this important debate, and I agree with all the comments that she made. The situations recounted by my hon. Friends who have spoken today echo the experience of my constituents.
My constituents’ experience of PIP is marked by gross unfairness and sometimes blatant deception. The assessment system itself is not fit for purpose, and there are too many examples of clear disregard for claimants. Sometimes, reports do not reflect the interviews that have taken place. I want to highlight the experience of my constituent, Mr A, a highly intelligent man who has undertaken skilled work over many years, despite a long-term and permanent disability caused by serious illness in early childhood. He has faced many operations. His Motability car makes it possible for him to work. It is his lifeline.
My constituent’s PIP assessment sought to remove his enhanced mobility benefit, which meant that his Motability car would be withdrawn, resulting in the loss of his employment. The decision was reached five years after his previous award, although he had been informed that it would not be revisited for 10 years, in view of the ongoing nature of his disability. He was distraught. At his mandatory reconsideration he was unsuccessful, and I supported him in pursuing his case to a tribunal. In preparing for that, my constituent uncovered evidence that the report submitted by Atos for the mandatory reconsideration was not an accurate record. Indeed, it was fabricated. It was simply an exercise in cutting and pasting from the earlier failed assessment. No separate examination had taken place.
Confronted with that clear evidence, the DWP withdrew its threat to remove Mr A’s car, reinstated his enhanced mobility award and restored the original commitment to a 10-year assessment period, in view of the ongoing permanent nature of his disability. The tribunal was cancelled. I was delighted with that result, but I was, and remain, appalled by my constituent’s experience and by the knowledge that he was put under such stress. I was outraged to hear that the report that was to decide about his future and his health was simply made up. It is disgraceful that that could have happened, and it was only my constituent’s diligence that unearthed it.
There are wider questions, however. How many similar injustices have taken place, and how many of those went unchallenged by people without the knowledge or resilience to pursue the matter? My experience suggests that there are many such instances. It is not good enough. The questions for PIP eligibility are not framed to elicit the correct information to describe the claimant’s condition effectively. Sometimes the reports that are drawn up do not reflect the assessments that were done, and sometimes, as in my constituent’s case, they are simply made up.
I see many constituents who make representations about the withdrawal of benefit. I see injustices too often, and I see too much suffering. Sometimes people pursue their claims to a tribunal and often they win, but as we have heard this afternoon it can take nine to 12 months for a tribunal to take place, and by that time many of my constituents have become destitute—and what of those who do not appeal? It is time that there was an investigation of the assessment procedure for PIP. That investigation should include the reliability of the assessors. The DWP appoints Atos and Capita, which act in its name. It is the Government who are ultimately responsible.
I know that the Minister will be concerned to hear the example that I have cited, and those given by my hon. Friends. I call on him to act, and to investigate the whole process. It is a matter of justice.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing the debate, and on her speech.
Personal independence payment has been debated in this House on many occasions. Members have highlighted their constituents’ experiences and the failings of the system in their constituencies. The fact that we are here today yet again highlighting the failures of the PIP system and the resulting impact on our constituents speaks volumes about the Government’s inaction on the issue. We already know that there are too many people being denied the support that they need. We need only look at the figure of 28,000 mandatory reconsiderations of benefit decisions taken by the DWP, or the fact that the Ministry of Justice cleared nearly 21,000 benefit appeals in the quarter leading to December 2018. The figures for mandatory reconsiderations and appeals are even more staggering when we consider the rates of success: 89% of mandatory reconsiderations in January 2019 led to a change in the DWP’s original decision, and 73% of appeals were decided in favour of the claimant in the quarter leading to December 2018. It is clear that people are being denied the support that they need, not because of their own actions but because of a systematic failure at the heart of the Government’s welfare reforms. The success of claimants in challenging the decisions taken by the DWP highlights that clearly.
As I have said, the Government’s inaction is shameful and impacts negatively on the lives of ordinary people every day. There have been repeated calls for action, from charities, third sector organisations, parliamentarians, claimants and even the United Nations. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions made some key recommendations in its 2018 report on PIP and employment and support allowance assessments, including that face-to-face assessments should be recorded, and that claimants should be provided with a copy of the assessor’s report. Another recommendation related to using contractual levers to improve contractor performance. Yet claimants are still being denied access to assessors’ reports and most assessments pass with no record of the proceedings. Private companies such as Atos that hold contracts for PIP and ESA assessments in both Scotland and Merseyside continue to make profits while denying vital support to claimants.
I am pleased that there is now a commitment that the next Labour Government will ban the outsourcing of public services for vulnerable people to companies such as Atos. We should be looking after the vulnerable, not penalising them so that private companies can turn a profit. In preparation for the debate, I looked at the statistics produced by the Library about the administration of PIP on Merseyside. I was struck by how much the Merseyside situation resembles that in my constituency. Liverpool Walton, Birkenhead and Knowsley all have higher PIP claimant rates than most constituencies and the overall rate for Merseyside is higher at 7.1% than the UK rate of 4.4%. The figure of 5,040 PIP claimants in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill contrasts sharply to the 3,700 average per Scottish constituency. A majority of PIP claimants in Merseyside were reassessed from disability living allowance, as were a significant proportion of claimants—46%—in my constituency. In Merseyside, the percentage of awards decreased following reassessment is higher than the national average, and that is also true of the rate in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, compared with the Scottish average. We are twin towns. It is clear that the people of Merseyside are, just like my constituents, being let down by the Government. The next Labour Government will end unfair PIP assessments and invest in proper support for vulnerable people across the country.
To conclude, I would briefly like to refer to the situation in Scotland. Members will be aware that the Scottish Parliament is due to take responsibility for 11 benefits, including PIP. The Scottish Government have established a new agency, Social Security Scotland, which will be responsible for the administration of those benefits.
It is still related to Merseyside, Sir Edward. The point I am trying to make is that the Merseyside connection is the same as the Scottish connection. We can see that there are no Tory or Scottish National party MPs here to stand up for their constituents as I am doing. There is a twin connection between Scotland and Merseyside. In 2024 the SNP will get that administration of benefits—but they have rejected it just now.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) on securing this important debate. As a former Minister for Disabled People, she is well aware of many of the issues and barriers that disabled people face. I mean no offence to the Under-Secretary of State, but it is appalling that to date we still do not have a Minister for Disabled People, given that it is nearly two weeks since the former Minister resigned. However, given that the Under-Secretary is, himself, a former Minister for Disabled People, I am sure he will address some of the concerns that have been so eloquently raised by many of my colleagues.
My hon. Friend raised some important points, and highlighted the dire situation in her constituency. She started by mentioning the increase in complaints about the personal independence payment, and said that in the last three months alone, there has been a threefold increase in appeals. There are multiple issues and problems with the assessment framework, beginning with the lack of provision that means that people who require a home assessment are not given one. Inaccurate assessment reports are provided by assessment providers, and many individuals who are assessed do not even recognise what has been written. Some providers do not comply with guidance that allows supporters to be in the room to contribute to the assessment or support the person they are with.
The most important point, which was highlighted by many hon. Members, was the delay in PIP award decisions, and the long time that people have to wait for appeals. One person had to wait more than 12 months for an appeal, and the average is more than 36 weeks, which is not acceptable. There are a high number of mandatory reconsideration cases where decisions are not overturned. That stage was introduced by the Department to help get the decisions right, but that is not happening, as demonstrated by the number of assessments that are overturned when they arrive at tribunal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) referred to a culture of indifference among assessment providers, and other Merseyside MPs made strong cases and represented their constituents well. Frankly, however, they should not have to come here, plead, and bring forward their cases. It is great that we can do that, but the Department should be getting those decisions right in the first place. The problem is that that is not happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) highlighted the experiences of his constituents who have been turned down for PIP. Those decisions are often overturned at tribunal, but in the meantime people are left destitute and have to turn to foodbanks, which cannot be acceptable. We also heard about the experiences of those living with mental health distress, which we know causes untold problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) highlighted the experiences of her constituents; in her area people wait an average of 33 weeks for an appeal, and more than 70% of those decisions are overturned at tribunal. She highlighted five cases, and in each one the decisions made were wrong, and people were left financially worse off. The personal independence payment is supposed to help meet people’s extra costs, but if those costs are not being met, what happens to the lives of those individuals? We should be supporting ill and disabled people.
It is deeply moving and troubling that so many people’s lives are affected in this way by what appears to be poor quality administration by some staff in the Department. I realise that civil servants are under intense pressure, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is perhaps a need for much greater training to try to avoid the terrible problems of delays and people having to resort to foodbanks?
My hon. Friend makes a valid contribution to the debate, and he is absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside spoke about the assessment frameworks and providers, such as Atos, with which there are countless issues.
When PIP was first introduced, make no mistake, it was a cost-cutting exercise. The Government wanted to cut expenditure and the disability living allowance case load. However, that has not happened, and the Government have spent £4 billion more than anticipated, despite thousands of disabled people losing out on vital support. I frequently hear from disabled people from Merseyside to Merton who have been pushed into destitution by the poor administration of PIP.
Earlier this month, the Liverpool Echo covered a case of a lady whose epileptic mother had been left penniless after her PIP was suddenly withdrawn. In Merseyside, as in the rest of the country, disabled people are suffering because of the fundamentally flawed PIP assessment framework. Thousands of disabled people on DLA have been denied vital support when reassessed for PIP as a result of the assessment criteria.
There is no better example of that than the changed criteria for those who claimed the enhanced mobility component. Under the DLA, a person qualified for that component if they were unable to walk 50 metres, but under PIP that has reduced to 20 metres. That has impacted on many people who received the higher rate mobility component and who had access to the Motability scheme. Indeed, 51,000 disabled people have lost their Motability vehicles, as have those who challenged decisions, and who then had to get their vehicle back when the decision was overturned in their favour. One lady who wrote to me said that having her car taken away was like “losing her independence”, which is unacceptable. Why will the Government not take note of such experiences, and understand that the criteria must change?
We know that 72% of PIP decisions brought to tribunal are overturned, which demonstrates the appalling inaccuracy of the assessment framework and the poor decision making. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey highlighted, in her constituency 76% of appeals are overturned, and disabled people are forced to wait on average for nine months, or 36 weeks, for cases to be heard.
In the past year, the Ministry of Justice has spent £104 million administering social security and child support tribunals. The Government have spent more than £1 billion on outsourced contracts to assessment providers such as Atos and Capita, which have repeatedly failed to meet the Department’s own quality standards. A survey by the Disability Benefits Consortium found that almost two thirds of people claiming PIP felt that their evidence was not taken into account by their assessor. Recent figures released by the DWP show that more than 3,500 people died within three months of being denied PIP. Does the Minister agree that there is no stronger indictment of a failing system than thousands dying after being deprived of social security? When will he finally recognise that it is time to bring those assessments back in house and end the outsourcing?
The DWP is currently carrying out seven reviews into disabled people being wrongly deprived of social security, and four of those are due to the unfit-for-purpose PIP assessment. Most recently, we learned that the DWP is conducting a review into 4,500 people who were on DLA but wrongly denied PIP. In 2017, the tightening of the criteria for those experiencing psychological distress was ruled by the High Court as “unlawfully discriminatory”. That led to a review of 1.6 million people’s PIP cases.
We have heard that Liverpool City Council is introducing a support scheme, but it should not have to do that. I urge the Minister to think about overhauling the assessment framework for PIP, rather than merging the assessment frameworks for PIP and ESA. It is time for a radical overhaul of the system, because PIP has created a hostile environment for disabled people—the very people we should be supporting.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I understand that we are waiting for a permanent Minister for Disabled People, but in the meantime—I am sure it will not be long—it is a great honour to be here. I formerly served as the Under-Secretary with responsibility for disabled people, but the role has been significantly enhanced. It is an extra pleasure to be here in the enhanced role, albeit temporarily.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). We met just last week about a separate case, and we had a debate earlier this year, I think, on a similar topic. As a former Minister, she has genuine feeling and passion for supporting the most vulnerable people in her constituency, backed up by her genuine knowledge about this issue. I am happy to look at the cases that hon. Members have raised. I will take that envelope—I can see that it is ready. I also pay tribute to the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), for Liverpool, Riverside (Dame Louise Ellman) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova). There was a common theme: it is clear that they all genuinely care about vulnerable people who rely on people like us—the decision makers—to get it right. Although I did not necessarily agree with everything they said, I understand why they made those comments.
The PIP assessment is meant to be high quality, objective, fair and accurate, and it should focus on the fundamentals of living an independent life. Today we spend somewhere in the region of £55 billion supporting people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. In real terms, that is about £10 billion higher than when we first came to office in 2010. That is about 2.5% of GDP and 6% of all Government spending. It is an incredibly important area of Government expenditure. There are just over 2 million claimants on PIP, and many more are coming into the system or are due to do so.
Currently, 31% of PIP claimants access the highest rate of support. That contrasts with just 15% under DLA. I do not wish to diminish any of the points that hon. Members made—I will cover many issues about which we still need to do more—but we must remember that the system has come a long way from the old legacy benefit. One thing that is consistent among all stakeholders and charities that I speak to in my current role, and that I spoke to formerly when I was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, is that nobody advocates going back to the old DLA system.
Under PIP, 45% of people with autism spectrum disorder will have the highest rate of support. For motor neurone disease, the figure is 85%. For multiple sclerosis, it is 53%, and for Parkinson’s, it is 55%. Many hon. Members rightly spoke about mental health. Under PIP, 31% will get the highest rate of support. Under DLA, only 6% did, so under PIP five times as many claimants with a mental health condition will access the higher rate. That does not mean that we are getting it right all the time, but there has clearly been a significant and much-needed improvement. In cash terms, the average claimant is getting £15.04 a week more on PIP, compared with DLA.
Yes, it is an average, and we are highlighting cases. I will come on to that.
The old DLA system relied solely on self-assessment. For many claimants, the very complex DLA forms were a barrier too far, and people who were in genuine need of support were missing out. Although the lifetime awards were seemingly attractive, they missed the point that many people enter the benefit on a lower rate of support, because conditions can get progressively worse. People on a lifetime award were often told, “If things deteriorate, please contact us for reassessment.” People often did not, either because they did not want to risk losing their benefit or because they did not appreciate that getting a reassessment could work to their advantage financially. Bear in mind that one in three claimants’ conditions changed so significantly within a year that they could be due a change in those circumstances, and the majority would be higher.
The Minister is making a case for the benefit, but nobody is arguing that it is fatally flawed. We are asking for the assessments to be more accurate, because they are causing problems. He is making a case about conditions that deteriorate, but I have brought to his notice cases of people with deteriorating conditions whose awards have been lowered.
It is important to set out the overview of where we are. That is why it was so important to highlight those cases in Liverpool and Merseyside, which shape how we do the administration. All our work is done in conjunction with stakeholders that have frontline experience. Hon. Members highlighted the excellent charities and support groups in Liverpool and Merseyside, which are feeding in. They are right to challenge, shape and help us implement the changes. I have seen many cases in which their frontline experience has brought to our attention common sense that should be applied. That has been done, but that work is not complete. I do not know all the details of the examples that hon. Members highlighted—sometimes there are two sides to a story—but presumably their offices have looked into the cases extensively. There are clearly issues that need to be looked at. Hon. Members have my commitment that we will look at those cases very carefully.
The Minister says that he will look at those cases, of which there are many, but does he recognise that there is a significant problem? We have had a snapshot from just one part of the country—Merseyside—but we know that there is a wider issue with the administration of PIP. Does he recognise that?
We always recognise that there is a need for improvement, and we continue to review all the processes—not just PIP, but all parts of Government activity. It is right to do that, and I am sure any party in government would make the same commitment.
Some 92% of claimants complete the forms, but that still leaves 8% who have challenges with them. We have already tried to make improvements by changing the language, tone and style, and shortening the paragraphs. We commissioned further independent research to support further changes. For those 8%, ahead of further changes, we can grant an additional two-week extension. We try to identify vulnerable claimants whom we may have to help with the initial application. With the support of charities and stakeholders, we have produced videos to explain the process. We are trying to make it clearer and remove claimants’ understandable anxiety. For claimants who have severe mental or behavioural conditions, learning disabilities, development disorder or cognitive problems and who cannot engage with the claims process, we will try to offer what support we can, beyond the excellent work of local organisations, which has been highlighted.
Many of the concerns that hon. Members raised were about the assessment process. We encourage help from carers, family friends, social workers or local support workers. I am really disappointed to hear the two examples from Liverpool and Merseyside of people who were trying to provide that support, which would have resulted in a better quality assessment. That should not be happening, and we should look into it. That is an incredibly important part of the process—not just because people are anxious or because demonstrating all their individual challenges is a complex process, but because for some people, particularly those with long-term health conditions, their issues have become a given. They no longer see those issues as a challenge and do not raise them, so they do not get the support that they should be getting. It sometimes takes having someone with them to say, “Actually, that isn’t right. We need to do something.”
I thank the Minister for giving way—it is a bit hard with twins. He said he was disappointed to hear the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and I gave of that going wrong, but can he explain what he is going to do to stop it happening? It is a fundamental problem with administration.
I will come to that. Fear not; I have woven in as many of the answers as I could.
The average length of time for assessments is now 15 weeks, and it has actually fallen. Initially, in July 2014, when it was at its worst, it stood at 42 weeks, so it has fallen by two thirds to 15 weeks. We got it down to about 13 weeks, but feedback from stakeholders and charities suggested that it was better for assessments to take a bit longer, to help people—particularly the most vulnerable claimants—to gather evidence.
The assessors must be health professionals—occupational therapists, nurses, physiotherapists, paramedics or doctors—who have had at least two years’ experience since they became fully registered. Although there has been understandable criticism of some important cases, the vast majority of the staff on our frontline are well-trained and exceptionally hardworking, and they have claimants’ interests at heart. I think that we all recognise that. In the skills that assessors must have there is an emphasis on assessing people with conditions affecting mental health, intellectual or cognitive functions. There is comprehensive training on how health conditions and impairments affect claimants’ day-to-day lives.
Hang on; I will address the previous intervention. What are we doing to ensure that cases such as those that hon. Members have mentioned do not happen? First, there is the independent audit for quality assurance, which is separate from the Department. It is important that we look at that. Our own DWP clinicians will also observe cases, and we get a considerable amount of helpful feedback from stakeholders.
Such examples are part of the reason behind the call for video recording. We agreed to pilot that in the autumn of last year, and it has progressed encouragingly. If there is no backlash from stakeholders, we will look at making that a given by the end of the summer. Video recording would make a huge difference, particularly in cases where something clearly is not going right. We would be able to look back at recordings, which would hasten our addressing of problems, and recordings could be used for appeals.
Satisfaction in 2015-16 was at 76%, and it is now at 82%. It still has some way to go, but the direction of travel is improving.
I raised a case of someone who was 95% deaf. Her father was not allowed to write the questions out so that she could see them. The interview was terminated early, and the assessor was of the opinion that my constituent could hear but was pretending that she could not. How on earth is that allowed to happen if the system is as good as the Minister claims?
It is difficult to comment without having seen the details. I am not saying that what the hon. Lady says is not true, but if that case is exactly as she describes, that should not be happening and needs to be looked at, which is why I have committed to doing so. In general—as in the case about which I met the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood last week—common sense is not being applied. We must make sure that the rules and guidance that are in place are consistent across the board.
A number of hon. Members highlighted that in Liverpool and Merseyside, home visits are not offered. Between 15% and 20% of claimants in Liverpool and Merseyside have actually been offered home visits, as they should be. If, for a variety of medical reasons, travelling to the assessment is a barrier to accessing the benefit, that should be taken into account. Certainly, when I was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, we improved the communication by making it more proactive to encourage that. We want the assessment process to work for the claimant.
I also welcome our introduction of the video relay service for those who are deaf and use British Sign Language. That is important not just for PIP, but across all frontline services.
That is the key thing that I will address, but I will cover one last matter first.
Some 600,000 claimants currently access the Motability scheme. I echo the comments about what a wonderful scheme it is. I think it is the second-largest purchaser of motor vehicles after the Chinese army, so it has significant buying power and is very important. I visited a car salesroom that dealt with Motability and that said it was the dream customer. Some 144,000 people who were formerly on DLA and did not access the higher rate of mobility now do, following re-assessment, and they can therefore access the scheme. That goes back to the point about the 31% against the 15%.
Those who were on DLA on a higher rate, and who could therefore lose their car, will get to keep the car through the £175 million transitional fund that was set up. They keep the car for eight weeks, and then they can either take £2,000 or keep the car for up to six further months, but with a lower payment at the end if their appeal is unsuccessful. That provision was brought in because of a recognition that the appeal process, which I will come to in a moment, often took longer than the time for which the claimant could keep the car. That meant that a car could be taken away, only to be given back two weeks later. When the difference is very close, Motability Operations can exercise some discretion. Fundamentally, the challenge is the length of time of appeals, and that is probably the most tangible concern that has been raised by all who have spoken. I emphasise that the absolute priority is getting it right first time. If we could get every decision right first time, we would not have to worry about mandatory reconsiderations and the appeal process. We all agree on that.
The MR process was introduced to try to intercept cases in which mistakes are made and stop them having to go through the appeals process, which is a real challenge and reduces capacity, and thus bring down the time for other cases. Although I accept that very few decisions appear to change, about 22% of cases are actually picked up by MR. It is absolutely right to focus on that, however, and I think we all recognise that more decisions could be changed. Often, a lot of the MR process is just checking the current processes. The nub of the matter is that the appeals process often considers late, additional evidence. The common-sense point is that we should be doing a lot more, and we are testing that concept by asking whether there are any obvious gaps that we can pick up. Has there not been a GP note? Has supporting evidence that we suspect will be presented not been submitted?
The case that I mentioned, which has now been fixed, involved a woman who should really just have had another appointment at home. That was not picked up on a mandatory reconsideration. There is surely a point at which some common sense should be injected.
Absolutely. That is what we are testing, so that we can assist claimants by strengthening areas where there are obvious gaps. It would be quicker for the claimant, and we would benefit, because those gaps reduce capacity in the process. We are working with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to try to address the capacity issue, in terms of both the new digital service and recruiting additional judges and tribunal panel members. That cannot come quickly enough.
It is true that the majority of successful appeals are successful thanks to late evidence. We should see that as an opportunity to look at how we can do more to get such evidence in the first place. We are committed to learning those lessons to improve the process for everyone.
It has been a pleasure to respond to this debate. The group of hon. Members who have spoken are passionate about this matter, and they are real champions for their constituents. I have listened to all the points that have been raised, and I will look at the individual pieces of casework. We have a collective duty to keep applying common sense to improve the situation, and we are heading in the right direction. That is welcomed by stakeholder groups, but there is still more to do, and I am committed to doing what I can to support that work.
I am grateful to the Minister for his constructive approach to the points that have been raised, and I am glad that he and the Department seek to improve the administration of the benefit. From our experience on Merseyside, there is still some way to go. Some simple things can be done, such as getting the assessments right and doing more to ensure that those who conduct them are properly trained and conduct them correctly.
For goodness’ sake, let us cut the amount of time that it takes to get through the process and restore some basic common sense, so that our constituents, many of whom are the most vulnerable people in our communities, are not put through the mill to obtain a benefit that should be theirs by right and is intended to make their lives easier. Instead, because of the way that the benefit is administered and the mistakes that are made, it ends up making their lives much harder.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the administration of personal independence payments on Merseyside.
Housing Need: Shropshire, and Telford and Wrekin
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered housing needs in Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin.
I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me this important debate. I also thank the Minister for attending—the Minister of State, no less, rather than the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, which outlines the importance of this housing issue in Shropshire and the borough of Telford and Wrekin.
For context, the debate highlights the development plans of two local planning authorities: Shropshire Council, and Telford and Wrekin Council. I will start with Telford and Wrekin, a council that states in the foreword to its local plan for 2011 to 2031 that
“it seeks to preserve the borough’s heritage and protect the many green spaces that our residents value”—
fine words, and words that I agree with and that many of the residents and my constituents would agree with. In reality, however, it seems that nothing could be further from the truth, sadly.
That council has proven that it does not regard the borough’s ecological heritage, that it has total disregard for the environment and that it is complicit in what I call environmental vandalism, on a scale unprecedented in the borough’s relatively short history. I am sorry to say that, but it happens to be the case. Let me be clear with the Minister present that my constituents are not saying that they object to all housing—they are not nimbys—which would be an unreasonable position and not one that I would support. They are saying that the number of new homes proposed—indeed, already built, but that is past now—needs to be proportionate and sustainable, and such homes need to be built in the right places and not the wrong ones.
A current example is the area of Shawbirch. It is not appropriate to build a major industrial unit on farmland, and farmland approximate to an ancient iron-age settlement, one of the earliest recorded in the borough. It is not appropriate to put such a facility only metres away from quiet residential homes. There are question marks about the lack of consultation, of which I hope the Minister will take note.
I have been told that only 15 homes were consulted ahead of that major development application. That is fundamentally wrong and not genuine public consultation. In my view, that is trying to pull a fast one on the local residents of Shawbirch. That has been repeated time and again by the borough council. It is completely unacceptable and I hope that the Minister, too, will make that clear.
Such a facility will have a huge and detrimental environmental impact, as well as a cumulative effect on the local road infrastructure, which is already very busy at peak times. Moreover, the timing of the marketing of the proposal was driven by the borough council, which I will touch on later, even though the land belongs to Homes England.
Through this debate, I will call on the Telford and Wrekin Council to support the Conservative group, who are committed to removing that particular piece of land from the development plan altogether, which would be good news for local residents. I pay tribute to Councillor Anthony Lowe, who has worked very hard to ensure that the voice of local residents in Shawbirch is heard. It is good news that we have people such as him and Gemma Everson, a local resident, working hard on behalf of local people.
I hope the Minister agrees that the council needs to bring forward and prioritise brownfield sites for development in the borough. There are many such sites, and so there is no excuse for building on farmland. However, the Shawbirch example is not a one-off; the same applies in Apley and the beautiful market town of Newport in Shropshire. As an aside, that is where the Leader of the Opposition attended school—a fee-paying school, but let us not go there. He is there regularly, and we welcome him.
The green-belt land around Newport, Apley and Shawbirch, and in other wards, has been under huge pressure, but an abundance of brownfield options are available as an alternative. I pay tribute to Councillors Tim Nelson and Eric Carter in Newport, who are also trying to ensure that the voices of local residents are heard.
As I said, housing and affordable housing are needed, but the council must avoid turning a semi-rural borough—a relatively new town, of course, but getting rid of the few open green spaces that remain—into one giant housing estate. We need to protect green spaces and the green belt. Also, fairer distribution of the new homes bonus is needed—something on which the Minister might want to comment. Communities that have to accept new housing should have the material and financial benefit from having that new housing put in but, unfortunately, that is often not the case.
Section 106 agreements, too, need far greater transparency, scrutiny and independent oversight of how funds are spent in local communities. This is one for the Government, a Conservative Government: there is much room for improvement in how such agreements are managed by local authorities and distributed to local communities.
Another ongoing problem is that of land banking. I hope the Government will soon come forward with new initiatives to stop new home builders sitting on the planning consents without developing the sites in a timely manner. The Minister, who has a local government background, will agree that land banking causes uncertainty for local authorities and skews the local development plan process and the overall gross housing figures.
I hope the Minister will tell the Chamber today that Homes England, which owns a significant amount of land in the borough of Telford and Wrekin, will not be dictated to by the borough council and, unlike the council, will ensure, first, the prioritisation of brownfield sites and, secondly, full, orderly and genuine public consultation. There has to be public confidence in the housing system and in the strategy that councils put before their publics, and that is done through genuine consultation, which I fear is not always the case with Telford and Wrekin Council.
It is also not appropriate for Homes England to allow the borough council or other councils—this has to be on a case-by-case basis—to market Homes England sites. It is for Homes England to market those sites, as is the timing of marketing them, rather than particular local planning authorities that may or may not have a conflict of interest. Sometimes tin-eared councils do not listen to the public and are not genuine about feedback from local communities.
The Government’s national planning policy framework of July 2018 prioritised developing brownfield land. I hope the Minister might think about what sanctions there are for those councils that ignore national planning policies. If they are ignoring them, there appears to be very little sanction. I hope that might change. Before I move on, I would like to pay tribute to Shawbirch Action Group for shining a torchlight on Telford and Wrekin Council’s unpreparedness to engage genuinely with communities.
Let me move on to Shropshire Council and the Shropshire local planning authority. The council wants to concrete over huge amounts of green belt in east Shropshire, yet it has the 12th worst housing density rate in the country. We need more densely populated residential development in the right places. It is not good that it is approximately 18 units per hectare—that is very low and it needs to increase.
The Minister may not know that the council wants to build up to 3,000 houses on prime green-belt land near the historic village of Tong, which is one of the most beautiful in the diocese of Lichfield and, I would argue—surely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne)—has the most beautiful church in Shropshire. That is part of its so-called strategic sites initiative, effectively equating to a brand-new settlement. As the Minister will know better than me, strategic sites is a parallel system alongside the local development plan. That speculative, aspirational but nevertheless concerning document is a genuine attempt to bring that amount of housing to an inappropriate location.
It is significant that the plans have no local support at Shifnal Town Council or Tong parish council. The Minister has said in this place that developments of that size, whether they be called garden villages or new settlements, must have public support, meaning through their locally elected representatives and at town and parish council level, whether they are statutory consultees or not.
In addition to the gross imposition on the pristine green belt and farmland, Shropshire Council, adding insult to injury, wants to put 50 hectares of employment land on the green belt and farmland, even though plenty of other brownfield sites are available. Apparently, the housing and employment land allocation in the strategic sites initiative is needed because, unbelievably, the west midlands does not have enough employment land of its own—so much so that it has to come over the border into Shropshire in an attempt to gobble up all our green belt. That is not satisfactory at all—frankly, it is unbelievable and rather fanciful.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. As he has identified, our constituencies are adjacent. On development on the green belt in the Shropshire Council area, there are proposals under the Shropshire Council plan for significant development on green belt immediately to the east of Bridgnorth, which is on the western extremity of the green belt coming out from the Birmingham metropolitan area.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to sanction development on green belt, the local authority needs to be clear about the exceptional circumstances in which, under the planning guidance, green-belt development is allowed? Will he join me in pressing the Minister to provide some clue about how a council can demonstrate exceptional circumstances? What are the criteria by which that is judged? Without that, presumably, any such development would not proceed.
I am always grateful to my right hon. Friend for his interventions—he has huge experience, having been a Member of Parliament representing Ludlow and that beautiful other part of Shropshire for 14 years. Bridgnorth, for which he is the Member of Parliament, has taken quite a lot of housing in recent years. Again, I think Bridgnorth residents have been very good: they have not been nimbys; they have just said that the housing needs to be sustainable and proportionate. The exceptional circumstances for the green belt are very narrow—they have to be exceptional. I think that test is right, but whether Shropshire Council has met it is a matter for others, such as my right hon. Friend and the Minister. In my constituency, my view is that the council has not met that test to date. Whether in Bridgnorth, Shifnal, Albrighton, Tong, Shawbirch or Apley, we should avoid at all times building on farmland and greenfield sites.
The Minister of State heard me mention the west midlands and the so-called lack of employment land, which I do not accept—it is inaccurate—but even if that were the case, there are plenty of vacancies for both heavy and light industrial employment uses in Telford itself, on the industrial parks of Stafford Park, Halesfield or even down the road in Wolverhampton. I do not accept that Tong, Shifnal or Albrighton should become the dumping ground for west midlands housing and employment, with employment being the gateway for the housing and the revenue stream.
There are questions to be asked about the relationship between the west midlands combined authority and Shropshire Council. It is in the public interest and my constituents have a right to know the financial and commercial relationship between those two authorities, and the commercial and financial relationship between the borough of Telford and Wrekin and Shropshire Council. I hope it does not take freedom of information requests to elicit that material from those authorities. The public have a right to know why employment land, with residential housing on the back of it, is coming to green belt when it is pretty clear to anybody that there is plenty of employment land in the west midlands. That raises serious issues.
I would like to touch on Shifnal, if I may, which is a beautiful market town. For years, Shropshire Council has agreed to an integrated transport scheme, but it has never come forward. We have to see benefits in local communities. Shifnal has taken a lot of housing in recent years but has seen none of the benefits of the new homes bonus. It has seen no major infrastructure benefits. We still have issues with drainage that have not been dealt with by Shropshire Council, yet it expects the town to take more.
The Minister will know that if the housing is unsustainable, there will be issues with sustainability socially, with physical infrastructure, schools, GP services, roads, drainage as I have touched on, and flooding and displacement of water tables. Shropshire needs to bring forward its plans for the power station in Buildwas and its plans for a major site in the barracks at Tern Hill, and encourage the Ministry of Defence to bring that site forward more quickly than currently planned. We need to ensure that RAF Cosford, outside the wire, develops as much MOD land as possible brownfield land in order to safeguard the green belt.
Finally, I refer to the Government’s national planning policy framework document 2018, on the purpose of the green belt. It serves five purposes:
“to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas; to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another; to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns and to assist in urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.”
As the proposals currently stand, around 2,500 homes are planned for Shifnal, 3,000 planned for Tong and over 600 planned for Albrighton. If these plans go ahead, the current distance of 3.7 km between Shifnal and Tong will be reduced to about 1.2 km to 1.4 km, which goes against the very spirit and letter of what the green belt is supposed to be about.
In conclusion, my constituents are not saying no to housing. They are saying yes to housing, but to sustainable —not unsustainable—housing. I will allow the Minister to respond.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you for the first time, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate. Having felt the breeze on my face and heard the skylarks atop the Wrekin, and sung in Ludlow church as a boy chorister, I can appreciate why my hon. Friend and his county colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), are quite so assiduous in seeking to curate that beautiful part of the country as carefully as possible.
As Members will know, the Secretary of State has a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, so I am sure they understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the detail of individual decisions or plans. However, I can talk more broadly about the issues raised by my hon. Friend. Like him, the Government fully recognise the need to plan for and build more homes. We are committed to enabling the housing market to deliver at least 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. We need to make sure that homes are supplied that meet the diverse needs of our communities, such as homes for first-time buyers, homes suitable and accessible for older people, high-quality rental properties and well-designed social housing.
Each and every part of the country has its role to play in ensuring that these homes are delivered. The vital first step in the process is to bring forward local plans that give communities certainty about where development will take place. The planning system should be genuinely plan-led, with up-to-date plans providing a framework for addressing environmental, social and economic priorities for every area, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Local plans should be prepared in consultation with communities. I hear exactly what my hon. Friend says about consultation and I urge all local authorities to ensure the public are fully involved in the planning process at every level. Local authorities play a key role in delivering the development and infrastructure that is needed in the right places, and community participation is a vital part of that.
The best plans are those that have been developed through effective engagement with communities throughout the process. Having an up-to-date plan in place is essential to planning for housing, providing clarity to communities and developers about where homes and supporting development should be built—and where it should not—so that development is planned for, rather than the result of speculative planning applications. The two local authority areas over which my hon. Friend’s constituency spans should have regard to that. I am aware that Telford and Wrekin Council adopted its local plan last year, for which it should be congratulated. I understand that Shropshire Council is undertaking a partial review of its site allocations and management of development plan at present—I emphasise how important that is for the communities those councils serve.
Through the revised national planning policy framework, we have made significant reforms to make it easier and quicker to get a plan in place. We have introduced flexibility in how plan-making happens, with a new, more flexible plan-making framework and an expectation that plans are kept up to date and reviewed at least once every five years. We have also introduced a standardised approach to assessing housing need locally. When it was published last year, the revised NPPF introduced a standard method for assessing local housing need. After extensive consultation, it was introduced to speed up and reduce the cost of the plan-making process and to make the process more transparent and accessible. It was introduced to help ensure that we meet our commitment to deliver more homes, which have been better designed, faster.
In practice, all councils should make a realistic assessment of the number of homes their communities need, and they should use the standard method as the starting point, not the end point, in the process. The starting point is used to identify the minimum number of homes needed every year. What the standard method does not do, however, is provide a maximum number of homes needed, nor does it provide a target that must be planned for. It would be wrong to think that this is just a numbers game; we need to make sure that communities are fully on board through local plans. We need to make sure that constraints, such as green belt, are considered and that we find the right places for homes, within those constraints. We also need to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place and that we underpin all development with good design principles.
Development should not be progressed at any cost and local circumstances should be taken into account. Local authorities are best placed to do that and should plan how to meet the housing needs of their communities, considering land availability and relevant constraints, including green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty, and whether need is more appropriately met in neighbouring areas.
Does the Minister agree that the relationship first between the West Midlands combined authority and Shropshire Council, and secondly between Shropshire Council and Telford and Wrekin Council, whether it be commercial and/or financial, should be transparent? It is in the public interest that documentation relating to those relationships should be published.
I agree with my hon. Friend. As he will know, under the plan-making process, all local authorities have a duty to co-operate with their neighbours in seeking to allocate housing need most appropriately in their region or area. Where those plans are put in place and there is co-operation about the allocation of housing, of course it should be completely transparent for local communities to see how their democratically elected representatives are disposing of the required housing need in their area.
I want to talk about environmental protection. The NPPF carries forward into planning the basic principle of the 25-year environment plan that we must leave our environment in a better condition than when we inherited it, and plan and design developments accordingly. The area which both my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow represent is particularly sensitive in environmental terms, and should be protected as much as possible.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the green belt is a key feature of our natural heritage and fundamentally aims to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open. It is a national policy, but applied locally with green-belt land defined and protected by local planning authorities. By providing strong protection for the openness of green-belt land the NPPF prevents inappropriate development. He is right that local authorities have a duty to look at brownfield land first before they consider green-belt sites.
I cannot comment on specific dispositions towards plans, but it sounds surprising to me that the west midlands, which is such a large area, might be short of employment land. Nevertheless, dispersed employment, even in my hon. Friend’s constituency, should be welcomed. As he says, it is for local authorities to decide exactly which area is right to use for their employment and housing land. He is right that there should be a close relationship between Homes England and local authorities. That relationship should be transparent, with plans and decisions on display, subject to commercial confidentiality, giving local communities confidence that what is being done in their name and in their area has both involved them in its production and can be justified.
On transparency, I want to say a word about section 106 agreements, which my hon. Friend raised. To improve the section 106 process, we have recently mandated local authorities to publish viability assessments of particular developments. Local people can now see what the section 106 gain for their area will be, and can compare it against their neighbours, because we see different patterns of performance on section 106 agreements. All of that, allied with other changes we have made in the planning process, such as producing neighbourhood plans and pushing neighbourhood plans forward, is designed to make local people, including my hon. Friend’s constituents, feel that they are more the masters of the planning system and less its victims.
If we are going to raise acceptability for vital housing so that young people are able to live in beautiful areas of the country such as the one my hon. Friend represents, we need to ensure local people are in charge of where housing goes, what it looks like, how it is disposed and what kind of housing it is. Local people need to be an integral part of the process of producing new homes, having accepted that a significant number of homes need to be built for the next generation, as a moral obligation to be passed from one generation to the next. I will work closely with my hon. Friend and his county colleagues to make that happen sensitively in his constituency, as I will across the rest of the country.
Question put and agreed to.
Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland: Legacy Cases
Before we start the debate, I will issue a reminder to hon. Members that under the terms of the House resolution on the matter of sub judice, they should not refer to specific cases that are currently subject to legal proceedings. Hon. Members may, of course, speak on general issues. The Clerk will be advising and prompting me and I will rule accordingly.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in legacy cases.
I welcome the opportunity for this debate this afternoon. I thank the Minister, the shadow Secretary of State and other colleagues for their presence and participation today.
I will say at the outset that this is a matter that rightly requires the attention of this Parliament, not a parochial issue for Northern Ireland MPs alone. Although the appointment of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is a matter for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the finance is overseen by the Department of Justice, a devolved Department in Northern Ireland, legacy matters form a significant part of the work of the police ombudsman’s office, a significant part of which relates to national security, which of course is not a devolved issue. Therefore, I believe it is entirely appropriate that we consider these matters.
Hon. Members will be aware that there is currently an ongoing judicial review of one particular case investigated by the police ombudsman, which relates to a report on killings in 1994 in Loughinisland. I will not go into the detail of the judicial review, but I will refer to the case in general terms and give my view, as a public representative, on where I think the police ombudsman’s report was deficient in the context of the debate. This is not about the legal issues that are the subject of the judicial review, but if you feel I am straying at any stage, Mr Owen, you will of course bring me back into line.
It is worth recalling that the primary role of the police ombudsman in Northern Ireland is to investigate complaints by the public against police officers. That includes complaints linked to cases that are part of the legacy of our troubled past. Unlike most, if not all, types of—
Order. If I may just help the right hon. Member, this is a live case and there is a sense that this might prejudice it in some way, so I would be very careful in how he proceeds on this one. That is the advice I have been given and I ask him to take that on board now.
Of course, Mr Owen, but since the ombudsman’s report is a matter of public record, it is entirely appropriate that public representatives comment on that report and its findings, and that is what I intend to do. I will of course be open to advice on this subject.
Thank you, Mr Owen.
As I was saying, unlike most, if not all, other types of ombudsman in the UK, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has significant powers that include powers of arrest, detention, interview and conducting searches on property. Indeed, the powers are similar to those of the police. Those functions must be carried out under both the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and the police ombudsman must comply with the requirements of that legislation. Nevertheless, I think many people would be of the view that using “ombudsman” to describe the work of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland might be a misnomer, given the wide, sweeping police powers that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has—unlike, I believe, any other ombudsman.
My comments today will focus on the making of section 62 public statements on findings arising from reports by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on legacy cases involving complaints that have been subjected to an investigation by the police ombudsman. Although I note that the police ombudsman has the right in principle to make such statements, I have significant concerns about the content of some of those statements and that the ombudsman may be exceeding their remit in that regard.
I had no idea that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland had such great powers. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether those powers include actually saying to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, “I require these officers, of this rank, to come and give me assistance.”? Is that what happens?
In relation to current or contemporary investigations regarding complaints against police officers that are post the troubles, yes, the police ombudsman may require serving police officers to be interviewed and has the powers of arrest and detention of serving police officers. My focus today, nevertheless, is on—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before the Division, I was about to speak about a couple of cases that have given rise to concerns on my part and the part of others about the manner in which the police ombudsman’s office conducts its investigations.
I was going to talk about Loughinisland in a little detail, from the perspective of a public representative, but I will not now go into the detail, because of your advice, Mr Owen, that we may stray into areas covered by the judicial review. I shall merely say that, to date, the findings of court proceedings have not eased my concern about the manner of the report, the findings that arise from the report and, in particular, how evidence was gathered and those conclusions were drawn. I will not go into any further detail about the Loughinisland case, save to say, of course, that we must not lose sight of the fact that in each of these cases there are human tragedies.
In relation to Loughinisland, the murder of six Catholics by the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1994, in the Heights Bar, while they were watching a World cup game, is to be condemned without reservation. The issue for me is not that justice should be done for those six men—because it should—and that the perpetrators should be brought to justice; the issue for me is the police ombudsman’s findings in relation to the case.
I shall focus, perhaps a little more than I had expected to, on another case. It involved the killing of two people in the Creggan estate in Londonderry on 31 August 1988. It is sometimes referred to as the “Good Neighbour” bombing. It is a very tragic story, which in a way epitomises the tragedy of the Northern Ireland troubles. The resident of a flat at 38 Kildrum Gardens on the Creggan estate had been kidnapped by the Provisional IRA. They had planted in the property a booby-trap bomb that was permanently affixed and was designed to be triggered when someone entered the property—at any time. In that sense, it was an indiscriminate device: it would kill whoever walked into the property.
The Provisional IRA held the resident for a number of days, and the police in Northern Ireland became aware, through intelligence, that there was going to be an attempt to kill police officers. Although they were not given a precise location, the Creggan estate was identified as the general area. The police immediately introduced an exclusion zone for members of the security forces, because the intelligence that they had suggested that the device was aimed at the security forces, but they did not have any more detail than that.
As the days went by, other elements occurred that were linked to this incident. The IRA, becoming increasingly desperate because the security forces had not entered the area, never mind the property, tried a number of ruses to attract the police into the area so that they might trigger the device. That did not happen, and sadly, on the morning of 31 August—some six days after the kidnapping of the householder, I think—three of his neighbours went to investigate, because they had not seen the resident for a number of days. As good neighbours, they did the right thing and went to check on their neighbour. Sadly, on entering the property through a window, Sean Dalton, one of the neighbours, was killed instantly, along with Sheila Lewis. The other neighbour, Thomas Curran, was seriously injured.
Of course the IRA apologised for the killings, admitting that they had been a mistake, but to his credit, Dr Edward Daly, the then Bishop of Derry, presiding at the funeral mass of the two victims, said that the explosion did not go tragically wrong; it did what it was designed to do—kill people who went to the flat out of concern for the missing occupant.
Six years later, the relatives of Sean Dalton, one of the deceased, made a complaint to the police ombudsman’s office. They claimed that the police in Londonderry had been negligent in allowing civilians to approach the flat, and alleged that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was aware that the flat had been booby-trapped and therefore had failed in its duty, under article 2 of the European convention on human rights, to uphold the right to life of Mr Dalton.
The police ombudsman took eight years to investigate the case and, at the end of the investigation, concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the police had been negligent and had failed to uphold Mr Dalton’s right to life. However, when we examine the police ombudsman’s report, we see that that conclusion is not based on hard evidence or facts; it is based on the balance of probabilities.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate. Does he agree that in relation to this case, like so many others, we and the police ombudsman’s office have to ensure that, however intensive and comprehensive its investigations are, it must never allow the emphasis to depart from those who carried out the atrocity by allowing an investigation to stray into areas where more criticism is made of those whose job it is to try to deal with the aftermath than the people who perpetrated the act in the first place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in his assertion. Of course the appalling deaths of Sean Dalton and Sheila Lewis are to be condemned by us all. As has so often been the case in Northern Ireland, the actions of terrorists resulted in the tragic death—murder—of innocent people. The IRA cannot escape the disapprobation, the condemnation, of all of us for that heinous crime.
May I make one comment? I bet the police had no idea that the gentleman was missing. And may I ask one question? I know the area under discussion. How can the police, who always do what they can to save lives, be blamed in any way for what happened? As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, it is definitely something to be laid at the door of the Provisional IRA and the people who actually did it. Have they been brought to trial?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Any reasonable person who read the police ombudsman’s report would conclude that the police did not know the precise location where the explosive device had been left by the Provisional IRA, did not know all the circumstances surrounding the incident—the kidnapping and so on—and had only broad general intelligence about an imminent attack on the security forces. However, the ombudsman concluded that the police failed to uphold Mr Dalton’s right to life. His death is tragic, and our hearts go out to his family; I understand their anger and their concern, but in the end it is the Provisional IRA who are to blame for that death, not the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I do not believe that the RUC had information available to it that could have prevented Mr Dalton’s death. There is no evidence in the police ombudsman’s report to support any other conclusion, yet he is able to say that, on the balance of probabilities, the police failed in their duty to uphold Mr Dalton’s right to life. And he says that against a background where he has the power to arrest, detain, interview and search.
This is an opportunity that is being used by those who want to rewrite history and try to imply that there is collusion in incidents that have happened. There might well be in a small number, but to try to paint it on every incident that ever happened in which someone was killed is to try to rewrite history. It is an attempt by republicanism to influence a Government-run body to bring forward those sorts of messages.
My hon. Friend makes a broad point that is of concern to many of us regarding how the legacy process is addressing the totality of what happened in Northern Ireland during those tragic 30 years and more. The Osman test, which is often used in such cases, is very clear about what matters need to be considered when coming to conclusions about article 2—about the failure of the state to uphold the right to life. I do not believe that a conclusion reached on the balance of probabilities meets the threshold set out in the Osman test, and consequently I believe that the decision of the ombudsman is wrong.
I know that my right hon. Friend has met with many of the families —as I have—including those who have been going through and are on the list to go through investigations by the ombudsman and the coroner’s court.
Due to the stalling of the Historical Enquiries Team process—the investigations into criminal offences by the police—and because many families are not happy with the result of that HET process, and because there is no funding for those criminal investigations, many genuine families who recognise that the perpetrator was the terrorist organisation do not have any options for an investigation or further investigation other than what is available, which tends to be either an ombudsman’s investigation or an inquest through the coroner’s court.
That means that we are ending up in a situation with a disproportionate push between those two aspects, where allegations of collusion are the grounds to try to get that re-investigation. That is not doing anybody any justice, not least by letting those who actually perpetrated the crimes get away with their criminal acts.
I will add nothing to what my hon. Friend has said, because she said it very eloquently and summarises the concern for us. I know the Minister will talk about the proposals to bring a more balanced, fair and proportionate system for dealing with the legacy of our troubled past. I am dealing with one aspect of that today.
To be clear, my concern is that, even though the police ombudsman has the power to arrest, detain, interview and search properties, in this report on the “Good Neighbour” bombing not a single police officer has been recommended for discipline or criminal prosecution, and no claim of wrongdoing has been brought against any police officers, yet the conclusion remains that the police failed in their duty to protect the life of Mr Dalton. I think that is unfair, unreasonable and irrational, and it is an example of the ombudsman exceeding his remit and powers, despite the fact that he has many powers available to him, to go after the evidence and bring forward that evidence. The evidence is not there to support the conclusion. Therefore, with all the powers available to him, to conclude, on the balance of probabilities, in his opinion—not on an opinion based on evidence—that the police breached their article 2 obligations, shows that there is something seriously wrong when this is the outcome in such a case.
This case is not alone—I could give other examples. The main example I wanted to bring today, apart from this case, was Loughinisland. In light of your concern, Mr Owen, I will not pursue the matter further, but I encourage hon. Members to read some of the commentary and findings in court in relation to the report by the police ombudsman on the Loughinisland case. I think they will find that those conclusions support the contentions I am making today about the ombudsman and how he approaches investigations of this nature.
I am also concerned about the manner in which the police ombudsman’s office treats those who have served our country in the police—retired police officers who stood on the frontline in Northern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary lost over 300 officers and countless hundreds more were seriously injured in the conduct of their duty. They held the line and protected the entire community in Northern Ireland, yet at times one is left wondering whether there is an understanding of the contribution that the police in Northern Ireland made towards bringing peace. We would not have the peace that we enjoy today in Northern Ireland if it had not been for the courage and bravery of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Her Majesty the Queen recognised that with the award of the George Cross to that fine police service. In her citation, she spoke of the courage and outstanding bravery of the RUC.
When it comes to the ombudsman and how it deals with those retired police officers, the Salmon principles are very important. The Salmon principles were introduced some years ago, after the inquiry into the Profumo affair. They were designed to protect participants in such public tribunals of inquiry. The police ombudsman for Northern Ireland ought to be complying with the Salmon principles.
There are six Salmon principles—they were devised by Lord Justice Salmon—of fair procedure under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. Those principles require that any person who is the subject of an inquiry
“must be satisfied that there are circumstances which affect them and which the tribunal proposes to investigate.”
I guess that the ombudsman would argue that it complies, but I am concerned the ombudsman is not complying fully with other elements. For example, a retired officer who is the subject of an investigation should be given an adequate opportunity to prepare their case, and of being assessed by legal advisers, and their legal expenses should normally be met out of public funds. They should be informed of any allegations made against them and the substance of the evidence in support of those allegations. They should be able to call material witnesses. They should have the opportunity of testing by cross-examination conducted by their own solicitor any evidence which may affect them.
Retired police officers who are the subject of investigations by the police ombudsman’s office are not afforded the opportunity of doing that. Indeed, often they are not even interviewed by the police ombudsman, yet they read a report concerning an investigation in which they were involved when they served, which criticises their conduct, and they have not even been afforded the opportunity to present their side of the story and put their point of view across to the ombudsman. That is simply unfair, and it is not compliant with the Salmon principles. It needs to be given closer examination.
Another major deficit in relation to the police ombudsman and how it operates is that there is no independent complaints procedure, whereby someone who is the subject of an investigation by the ombudsman may make a complaint about the manner of that investigation. Again, it is highly unfair that there is no recourse to complaint. People must either complain to the ombudsman himself or, I guess, raise the matter with the Secretary of State, but that does not constitute a proper independent process for dealing with a complaint. I believe that that is in breach of article 13 of the European convention on human rights, which the ombudsman seems to be quite keen on.
I do not believe that what the ombudsman, as currently constituted, offers is compliant with article 13, which requires an independent complaints mechanism for those who are the subject of investigations by the ombudsman’s office. The Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association has pressed the Secretary of State and others to make provision for such an independent complaints procedure, and it has not been done. That is most unfair —there is no recourse for people who feel they have been treated unjustly by the police ombudsman, which is a public body.
The schedule of bodies that are required to be subject to independent scrutiny and investigation of complaints made against them excludes the ombudsman, despite the fact that the offices of other ombudsmen are subject to independent complaints processes. That is another area where there is a deficiency in the manner in which the police ombudsman’s office operates. There ought to be an independent complaints procedure, so that those who are subjected to investigations by the ombudsman have the right to make a complaint if they feel they have been treated unfairly, and so that that complaint is properly examined and investigated.
For some time, my hon. Friends and I have been raising concerns about the operation of the police ombudsman’s office and about its reports’ findings, which are often the subject of banner headlines. Behind those headlines, however, there is little or no evidence to support the conclusions that have been reached. That is simply untenable, because, as some of my hon. Friends have said, it lends itself to the efforts of others who are seeking to denigrate the forces of the state, to paint them as the bad guys in the troubles, and to somehow justify the actions of those whose actions are completely unjustifiable.
We welcome the Government’s proposals to remove the role of investigating legacy complaint cases from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and to transfer that role to a new independent investigative body. In supporting that, I say to the Minister that, when the legislation is being drawn up, and when the terms of reference and the remit for the new investigative body are being set, we need to address those concerns. We need to ensure that the manner in which the police ombudsman’s office has acted in dealing with legacy cases is not repeated in the future; that there is fairness; that there is a balanced and proportionate approach; that people are afforded the opportunity, if they feel aggrieved, to pursue a complaint against the ombudsman, or in this case, the new investigative body, to an independent body; and that the investigative body complies with the requirements of the Salmon principles in relation to the rights of those who are the subject of an inquiry.
I say to the Minister that it is important to right those wrongs. It is important that police officers, or retired police officers, who are the subject of investigations, are treated fairly and properly, and that the investigative body is restricted in its remit to what ought to have been the remit of the police ombudsman’s office, which is to send its findings to the Chief Constable if there is evidence of disciplinary malpractice, or to the Director of Public Prosecutions if there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing. That is what the police ombudsman is required to do.
The police ombudsman should not make statements that imply guilt and wrongdoing when the evidence is not there to support them, and when he is not bringing any charges against any police officers in those cases on matters of discipline or of criminal wrongdoing. That is unfair. The system is unjust and needs to change. I hope that in the new independent investigative body that will be established, those steps and wrongdoings will not be revisited on retired police officers. It is simply wrong.
I was tempted not to speak, but I will be short. I want to say two things.
I served with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I watched how it worked for three and a half years. I know 38 Kildrum Gardens in the Creggan. I was the intelligence officer in Londonderry in 1978. I watched Royal Ulster Constabulary officers go forward, while we gave them cover, to knock on doors and investigate suspicious activity. I find it absolutely appalling if there is any suspicion that the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is not fair in dealing with those incredibly gallant men and women. The whole service thoroughly deserved the George Cross, but most of them actually deserved additional decorations. I am absolutely dismayed by what I have heard. I did not realise it was as bad as that. I will take an increased interest in the matter from now on as part of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.
I am personally indebted to the way the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its officers protected my soldiers and acted when we were out there with them. It was not them and us, and “them” were not Catholics, Protestants, Jews or Buddhists. The Royal Ulster Constabulary did not give a damn who it was going to help—all it wanted to do was help. It is absolutely tragic if there is suspicion that the ombudsman is not giving credit to those extremely gallant men and women.
Order. Before I call the hon. Gentleman, I inform hon. Members that I will call the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson at 5.26 pm. The Minister will then have 10 minutes and the right hon. Gentleman who sponsored the debate will have two minutes to wind up.
I treasure the thought of being able to speak until five to six—I know you did not say that, Mr Owen—but I am not going to do that today. I will be careful with my comments in the light of that advice.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) for presenting a good case, as he always does, and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for putting the case as well. I also thank the Speaker’s Office for giving us the opportunity to highlight the issues in Westminster Hall. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley and I are not just colleagues but good friends, and I also have an interest in the issues that he talks about. We always listen to his comments, which are well put.
My comments come from a personal perspective. In recognition of my role as an elected representative of the people of Strangford, I fully support what my right hon. Friend has put forward. As well as being the most beautiful constituency in the world—I have to say that, but I say it honestly—Strangford is home to a large number of veterans of the armed forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and now the Police Service of Northern Ireland, as well as prison officers and other service personnel.
My constituency has a tradition of service and I am always pleased to represent it. It is a wonderful place to retire, and historically, it has been viewed as a safe place in terms of the troubles for serving and retired personnel to live. For that reason, I am confident that I speak on my constituents’ behalf when I say that the role that has been played by the police ombudsman when it comes to legacy issues is simply not acceptable, and that the direction of his office must be quickly and completely changed. My right hon. Friend outlined that in an exceptional way.
Just over 17 months ago, I joined my hon. Friends and other right-thinking people in calling for the reconsideration of Dr Maguire’s position as the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. That is on record. I also join my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley in condemning the despicable murders that took place at Loughinisland. Those responsible, whoever and wherever, need to be held accountable for their actions.
My hon. Friend knows that some of us in this House had loved ones and families who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and were butchered by the provos. Those families have never had justice. The people who committed the murders have never been brought to justice. It is disgraceful and totally wrong that the ombudsman is treating certain cases in a certain way—he should be impartial. Everybody is equal under the law. It is hurtful for those of us who have lost family members who served, and it is hurtful for those families who have to relive it.
Along with my hon. Friend and others, I would be concerned if any landmark reports that are available to the general public, or in the public domain, should in any way throw any slight on the determination of police. I believe that would exceed the ombudsman’s statutory powers.
Very often whenever these issues are reported, there is some suggestion that in some way those who have done wrong should get away with it because they are in a particular category. May I put on the record—I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with this—and echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) that any murder was wrong, and that any criminal act, by terrorists or others, or wrongful murder, must be condemned and fully investigated? We absolutely agree with our right hon. Friend on that.
However, there must also be fairness within that system and the concerns that are being articulated are very much about the lack of consistency, and the apparent absence of guidelines in terms of the adjudication and reporting of these cases. That is leading to inequality and to concern for many.
With my hon. Friend’s legal mind, she obviously succinctly focuses on the issues that we need to be aware of.
I believe that police officers involved in any case, wherever that may be, and who have not been afforded the protection of due process, should not be subjected to destructive and withering condemnations by any person who has a position of power. I believe that the ombudsman’s office has lost credibility and respectability, not simply among those who designate themselves as Unionists but among all who are right-thinking.
When I was sitting here and listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley, I thought the release of a report that gave no right of reply, and that was ambiguous and condemning of officers at any time, was an indication of the intent of the ombudsman, as we sit by and see more and more focus on alleged state collusion. The allegations are made willy-nilly and without proof or evidence.
I can think of many atrocities during my lifetime. My right hon. Friend referred to atrocities, but not specifically. I can remember them from when I was a young man to the age that I am now. I think of Bloody Friday, when the IRA murdered innocent men, women and children across the whole of Belfast. In the Abercorn restaurant, where I used to eat as a young man, people were murdered while they were there having a meal—children and women butchered and destroyed.
There was the La Mon Hotel in my constituency, where again those who were in high positions of IRA leadership and who are now in positions of political leadership seem to have got away with what they have done. There are also the murders at Kingsmill. We all know the story about Kingsmill and the massacre there, and we know that there have been clear allegations of collusion by some members of the Garda Síochána in relation to that massacre—that is well-known. When we look to an ombudsman to investigate issues, those are the sorts of issues that they should investigate.
There was the Darkley massacre of men and women who were worshipping their God in their church. In my own family, there was the murder of my cousin, Kenneth Smyth, outside of Clady. Lexie Cummings was murdered outside Strabane. Four Ulster Defence Regiment men, three of whom I knew personally, were murdered in Ballydugan: John Birch; Steven Smart; Michael Adams; and Lance Corporal John Bradley. They were four young men who were murdered in the prime of their life.
I am coming to the end of them.
The last case that I will refer to is the murder of Louis Robinson, a detective constable who was kidnapped in South Armagh and murdered.
All of these things tell me that the ombudsman’s time could be better spent. I see constituents referring deserving issues to the police ombudsman regularly. All experience a refusal due to a lack of resources to investigate every complaint. Perhaps if the ombudsman was more determined to leave legacy issues to the designated body and if it investigated what was needed today, my constituents, who I represent, might find resolution and justice.
The time has passed for the Secretary of State, or for the Minister of State, who will respond to this debate, to intervene and appoint someone who has knowledge of Northern Ireland and of what the ombudsman’s role is—someone who at least has the grace to admit what that role is—and someone who will forgo what has been described as personal ambition of retribution. Instead of retraumatising officers who have seen what we cannot imagine, who have paid their dues to this country and who do not deserve to be accused of collusion at any stage to satisfy a republican rewrite of history, that individual should do his job as it is understood by all right-thinking people.
This has been most certainly an interesting debate, although possibly not the one that either the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) or I thought it might turn out to be.
Let me say this: the role of the ombudsman is vital. The problem is that it has been constructed in the wrong way. The ombudsman has responsibility for the investigation of contemporary irregularities by the police service, mirroring what I had some responsibility for as the police and crime commissioner in Greater Manchester, although more generally they were dealt with by the then Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is now under a different guise. There is no doubt that there needs to be that contemporary role, but the problem has come because that role has been mixed with the role of historic investigators. Quite honestly, neither the ombudsman nor the victims nor the Police Service of Northern Ireland nor politicians think that is a satisfactory process.
I will begin by asking the Minister whether he can throw any light on an issue. One of the things that I welcome is the recent announcement from the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland of a further £55 million for coronial investigations. However, that will put pressure on both the PSNI and whoever is the investigating authority, whether that is the ombudsman or another body; I will come on to that later. Can the Minister tell us whether there will be extra resources for those other investigatory bodies and of course for the prosecuting bodies, including the Crown Prosecution Service, because it is important that we see resourcing for them within the package?
I echo the words of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, who said that we are talking about human tragedies, and about victims. Right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned a number of particular atrocities. Let me make it clear that victims, whether they are victims of republican terror, of loyalist terror or of state actors, are entitled to have resolution of their cases, as their loved ones are loved ones, their mothers and their children are the same, whatever the background of the perpetrator. We must establish that because there cannot be some sense in which there is differential justice, but at the moment we have differential justice, particularly when we have different agencies involved at different times. We have ad-hockery.
In the case of Pat Finucane, it was only because of the intervention of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, that there was an inquiry. For 30 years, the family had been fighting for a process of justice. They have had a partial victory recently at the Supreme Court, but there now needs to be a continuation with proper investigation of the murder of Pat Finucane.
That brings me on to another case—that of Edgar Graham, the Ulster Unionist Member of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont. He was a young man who was murdered in the most public of ways on the campus of Queen’s University of Belfast, when he stood next to one of his Ulster Unionist colleagues. That brutal murder has not been brought to any satisfactory conclusion. In fact, when the then Historical Enquiries Team process took it up, all that the family got was a letter saying why there would be no report into that particular atrocity.
Let us make it clear that we now have to move to a situation where there is proper and uniform treatment, whatever the authorship of a crime, and I say this advisedly: whether it be republican or loyalist paramilitaries or state actors —
Of course my point brings us to the very important role of the Historical Investigations Unit. I have to say to the Minister that it is now five years since the Stormont House agreement concluded that that was needed. It is now more than six months since the consultation on that body finished. We need to see that body up and running, because, and I say this to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), if we are to see equity the ombudsman cannot investigate things other than where the police are involved. In the future, he or she will have no locus beyond that. If we are to see equity, we have to see the HIU in operation, investigating across the piece whatever the authorship, whatever the body. Minister, we need progress on that. We need to see the HIU’s terms of reference, and see it established, so that it can begin that vital work, which is so long overdue.
It is good to be under your capable hand, Mr Owen, because it ensures that we stay just on the right side of any court case rules and do not prejudice anything. You have been carefully doing that and steering us aright.
I start, as others have, by congratulating the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) not only on securing the debate but on setting out such a properly considered and careful exposition of his concerns, which are shared, I think, by many of the other Members from whom we have heard. Although the right hon. Gentleman had to steer a careful course around the sub judice rules, he was right to make the central point that behind every single one of the legacy cases that have been cited in the debate and mentioned elsewhere, there is invariably a human tragedy. We have heard some examples today, but it is essential to remember that there are many, many others that could be mentioned, on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and they all deserve justice and to be treated equally and fairly.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out the Salmon principles—I will not try to do a legal job on them, but broadly speaking they are the central points that many people would naturally reach for—of fairness, due process and equality before the law. It is essential, no matter what processes and institutions we apply, that those central principles are front and centre and are adhered to, otherwise the family and friends of the victims of the troubles will never get the justice that everyone here has called for.
Other Members contributed strongly to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has personal experience, as he rightly pointed out, of operating during the troubles in Northern Ireland. We also had cogent input from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The only remark of his with which I disagree was his description of his constituency as the most beautiful in the world, when clearly that applies to my own constituency of Weston-super-Mare. Beyond that, I suspect everyone agreed with many of the points he made. It was also good to hear from the Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), a high degree of cross-party unanimity and consensus.
That brings me neatly on to a point that I think everyone agrees on: it is essential that we all mark our support for the principle behind the office of the police ombudsman. If there is to be confidence in the operation of the police on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, it is essential to have an ombudsman with the powers necessary to investigate current concerns and cases regarding the operation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Without that office, it would be much more difficult to maintain confidence across communities in the working of the PSNI. I am sure that everyone here supports the operation of that office, its continued existence, and its ability, where necessary, to investigate fearlessly and even-handedly.
However, the point has been made on both sides of the debate that in Northern Ireland that role is much broader, applying also to some of the most difficult and sensitive issues surrounding legacy cases from the troubles. That is a very unusual position. It is, inevitably, unique, because the position in Northern Ireland is, for many understandable but tragic reasons, also unique. That is one of the most important reasons why people have said that the current arrangements for dealing with legacy cases from the troubles are not passing the test for many people, on all sides of the community and the debate in Northern Ireland. The arrangements clearly need to be upgraded and improved. It is not just about the operation of the police ombudsman’s breadth of current responsibilities; it is also to do with something that I think the Labour spokesman mentioned: the coronial system, some of the legacy cases going through the courts and the inquest process. There are many other examples, too, which is why we are currently working through the 17,000 responses to the public inquiry into how to take forward the proposals for upgrading and improving the legacy process.
The hon. Member for Rochdale rightly mentioned the historical investigations unit, but there are other proposals to round out a potential solution for the legacy process, including proposals for an independent commission on information retrieval, an oral history archive, and implementation and reconciliation groups. There are many different possible elements to getting this right and doing it better for all sides. However, it is essential that we listen to the 17,000 proposals because, as the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley pointed out, behind many of them is a grieving family, a victim and a case of personal tragedy.
I recently looked around the door of the team who are going through the 17,000 responses to the legacy consultation. On one side of the room, against the wall, was a very large pile of boxes of submissions that they had already gone through. They had to do so with enormous care and respect, because of the tragedies that lie behind many of the proposals. On the other side of the room, I am happy to say, was a much smaller pile of boxes of submissions that the team had not yet gone through. They are working through the submissions as fast as they reasonably and decently can, given the sensitivity and importance of the material.
Once the team are through, we will not simply be able to issue the Government’s response. We will be able to say that the proposals for the historical investigations unit and the other new institutions are a starting point that we need to overlay with the results from the 17,000 proposals and ask, “What is the final answer? What will allow a settlement, a conclusion and, perhaps, peace and justice, and what will allow us to draw a line under an awful moment in Northern Ireland’s history in a way that provides justice for all sides?” Only then will Northern Ireland be able, perhaps, to begin to put this awful moment of its history a little further behind it and continue the process of healing.
At that point, it will be fairly straightforward for many of us to say that the role of the Northern Ireland police ombudsman will, sensibly, become rather more normal. The responsibility for the legacy cases will rightly be passed to the new institutions and processes, and the ombudsman role will become much more akin to ones that we see elsewhere in the United Kingdom, dealing mainly with current cases.
To leave a little time for the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley to respond, I finish by saying that I am very reassured to have heard that everyone here understands, salutes and agrees with the principle that justice must be done, that fairness must be achieved—no matter who, and no matter what—and that everyone should be equal before the law. The difficulty, of course, is that these legacy cases are incredibly difficult and sensitive—perhaps more difficult than many other kinds of justice that we have to administer in the UK. I therefore hope that when we have finished with the 17,000 submissions to the consultation, we will come up with a set of proposals for which there is cross-party and cross-community support, which will allow us to move forward at long last and make progress in this incredibly important and sensitive area.
I thank all who took part in this afternoon’s debate, including the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I thank him on behalf of my colleagues for his service to the people of Northern Ireland, and the enormous courage that he displayed in leading his men and women at that very difficult time. There are many in Northern Ireland today—the great majority—who truly appreciate that service and the sacrifice that accompanies it, and will not forget what was done for our country and for the people of Northern Ireland.
I thank my colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for the beautiful constituency of Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their contributions and interventions. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) summed it up well when she said that often, because of the lack of a proper process to deal with the legacy of a troubled past, people go to the police ombudsman as a means of pursuing a grievance. As I have already referred to, I wonder about the extent to which that puts pressure on the ombudsman to come to conclusions and make findings that should not normally be part of its remit, and lead to the ombudsman exceeding that remit. I continue to be concerned about the conduct of the ombudsman’s office in dealing with these investigations.
I refer to the case of R (Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police) v. Independent Police Complaints Commission, which found that it is the job of a police ombudsman to gather evidence and report breaches of discipline to the relevant chief constable, and breaches of the criminal law to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Court of Appeal in London confirmed that only a properly constituted court can find guilt. The difficulty I have is that, in report after report, the police ombudsman is inferring guilt, implying guilt, and in some cases openly stating that police are guilty. However, it does not bring forward evidence to substantiate those claims or go after police officers for disciplinary or criminal wrongdoing, because the evidence to support the claims is not there. I therefore think there is a problem here that needs to be addressed. We welcome the prospect of new legacy institutions replacing the work of the police ombudsman in respect of legacy cases, but we must be mindful of the need to ensure that the new arrangements take care of the concerns I have referred to.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).