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Column 625syndrome of more traditional interventions, so that readmission is rare and minimal psychiatric follow-up is needed. The success of that approach is shown by the fact that, over the past five years, eight out of 10 patients attending Broomhills have not required readmission or psychiatric aftercare.
I turn to the experiences and views of some of the patients themselves. I hope that my hon. Friend will find them interesting and worthwhile. All the Government's efforts at improving the Health Service are surely designed to improve delivery of services to the patients themselves. Therefore, I believe that the patients and their families should speak for themselves in the House today.
One former patient writes :
"Before arriving at Broomhills I had already been a patient in two hospitals. My treatment was ECT and tranquillisers. In the short term my treatment was successful. But as time passed on I was still unable to cope with my life. I feel that Broomhills worked because it was more of a common endeavour, therefore allowing patients to exhibit odd behaviour. I know by my experiences in an ordinary ward I would probably have received more pills for odd behaviour. But instead, with warmth and acceptance, I was able to release and work through difficult feelings. This was an extremely important part of my recovery. My quality of life is now far richer and I am able to live it less painfully. In fact, I can now move on to help others as a social work assistant. I know that if I had not had the chance to experience Broomhills, I would still be unable to cope with my life and still be dependent on the National Health Service. I feel privileged to have spent a year of my life in a place which holds so much warmth and commitment and in particular dedication from the staff. Broomhills is a valuable place."
Another former patient's mother writes :
"I am Anne's mother and I am writing on her behalf because she no longer lives here--in fact, she married a steady, reliable young man in July last year and they are buying a house something I would have thought impossible at the time she came to you. It would appear that your help at that troubled period of Anne's life has contributed greatly to this change in her attitude of life."
Another former patient who is now a solicitor writes :
"I have personal knowledge of the value of the unit, having been a patient there for approximately 20 months two years ago. My stay at Broomhills provided me with, I believe, a very necessary respite Since leaving Broomhills, I have started my own solicitors' practice, and also do some locum work. I have, amongst other things, learnt to drive. Quite to my surprise, I discovered an ability to design, make and sell ceramic figurines. Having recommenced playing chess at Broomhills (after a gap of many years) I have found that I am a fairly strong club player. Finally, I now do a significant amount of both paid and voluntary work for The Project for the Mentally Handicapped in Camberwell Road and at an ILEA youth club Fast Forward' in Peckham, both concerned with handicapped children and young adults. Broomhills was valuable to me in many ways. It provided me with a place where I could belong--it is not too strong to say it was, for me, a home in the best sense of the word--at a time when I felt desolate. That is not to say that it was easy to stay at Broomhills or that it was some sort of soft option--quite the reverse. Broomhills was for me a highly stressful place to be at, both because of the many, varied, and often conflicting personalities there, and because of the daily group and other work. On the other hand, since it was opened only during weekdays, and we patients went home from Friday afternoon until Monday morning, contact was not lost with life in the real world'. Indeed, such contact was encouraged Broomhills is, after all, very much the sort of community orientated service that is apparently, as it should be, encouraged by the government." Those letters speak for themselves. They make our case for us. Broomhills also provides a valued and well-used training resource. Student and pupil nurses are regularly
Column 626attached to the unit, and staff from other professional disciplines and agencies attend as part of their specialist training. Hon. Members will have noted that the patient in my last example said that it was not easy to stay at Broomhills--that it was no soft option. Assuredly it is not. The assessment process is a very careful one, and is followed by a two-week trial period during which the patient stays at the unit. Commitment to use, to contribute to and abide by the rules of the community are absolute requirements for patients. Group pressure, guided and controlled by the staff with warmth and dedication, is the key factor in achieving long-term progress, and giving patients the ability to return to an active life in their communities is the end product.
What, then, is the present difficulty? Until now, Bexley has been the management organisation running Broomhills, and it continues to do so. Patients have been referred to it from Bexley, Greenwich and Lewisham, but Greenwich and Lewisham are now likely to withdraw their funding owing to financial constraints. For one district health authority to continue to fund a centre for 18 patients in such a specialist area would not continue to make sense. We now need to market the Broomhills unit. It is a very cost -effective service : a charge of £8,000 per patient for a treatment programme lasting approximately a year is astonishingly cheap compared with other similar units in other parts of the country, of which there are relatively few.
The staff of the unit, supported by Bexley health authority, have taken action to make the unit's work more widely known. My debate is part of that effort, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to set this type of work within the context of the Government's policy of care in the community for the mentally ill. Broomhills seems to me an ideally suited staging post ; surely it must have an enlarging rather than a diminishing role.
So many times in recent months we have debated changes in arrangements--for tests on teeth and eyes, family allowances or social security benefits--and I have supported the Government. Those changes have been designed to ensure that those in the most need are given support and provided with effective treatment. Improved National Health Service structures and pressure to improve management effectiveness have all been designed as part of Government policy to target funds on those who need them most.
May I summarise the key factors that make the Broomhills unit unusual and say why it should become a facility that is supported by and made available to health authorities and their patients throughout the south-east region and other parts of London. A patient goes all the way from the midlands to Broomhills on a weekly basis. That is possible because a weekly residential system is used. It is a rare residential facility for emotionally damaged people. It falls outside the mainstream of the normal treatment of mental illness. These people suffer from severe depression, cruppling anxiety states, suicide attempts, self-mutilation and neurosis. The five-day week discourages institutionalism, maintains contact with families and the community and is part of community care. Patients learn to understand their deep-seated problems through group work and through the rest of the programme. Drugs are not used--a great financial saving, as well as avoiding the problems of addiction that occur in
Column 627other people who are undergoing long-term drug therapy. I have already said that readmission is rare, either to Broomhills or to other psychiatric units. Patients learn to live together and run the unit completely for themselves. Surely that is good and sensible practice. It leads to their return to the community and, as I have been able to read out with some excitement today, to a return to valued work by many ex-patients. Again I emphasise that it is a very low-cost unit.
The staffing levels, because of the involvement of patients and because treatment does not have to be provided on a one-to-one basis, are low and help to keep costs down. The training facility, too, is important. It is used for training nurses and social workers and for training art therapists, psychologists and psychotherapists. After leaving Broomhills, patients often return to their old jobs, or find new ones. Some seek retraining through disablement resettlement officers and the resettlement training schemes. Others return to interrupted university or college studies, while others have started GCSE courses as adult entrants so that they may qualify for places later in polytechnics. There are a few similar facilities in the London area--at Henderson hospital, the Cassel hospital, the Ingham centre and to some extent the Maudsley hospital, but Broomhills has its own contribution to make. It is uniquely useful contribution that should be made more widely available and that should not run the risk of closure.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Roger Freeman) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) for his kind words on my new appointment. I look forward to being closely involved with the challenges facing the Health Service at the national level, but I am also well aware that, locally, plans for the delivery of services can be very sensitive. That is shown by, among other things, the large number of debates on local health issues. I think that I shall be a frequent visitor to the Dispatch Box. I think that this week I have already appeared at the Dispatch Box more often than I did during the months that I spent as a Ministry of Defence Minister.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks on securing this Adjournment debate. I know that he is very assiduous in pursuing the interests of his constituents in local health matters in debates and in correspondence with my ministerial colleagues. I quite understand that he is raising not simply a constituency matter, but a much wider regional issue. They are very important matters and I am pleased that he has had the opportunity to raise them. It must surely be a mark of civilised society, with all the pressures and strains on our citizens, that we are able properly to deal with those with mental illness and to return them to the community to play an active role, if that is possible. The National Health Service has a very important part to play in that process.
The work of the Broomhills unit and its future have been brought to Ministers' attention not only by my hon. Friend, but during the past few months by correspondence from my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) in whose constituency the unit lies, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr.
Column 628Heath), my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes). I have received correspondence from those right hon. and hon. Members recently, and following this Adjournment debate I shall be writing to them more fully.
It might be helpful if I first say something about policy on the planning of psychotherapy services. Psychotherapy services can range from any form of psychological treatment without drugs to very specialised treatment such as that being provided at Broomhills. Most psychotherapy treatment is provided not by designated
psychotherapists but by various mental health professionals as part of their general work. In those circumstances, it would not be appropriate for the Department of Health to prescribe a particular organisation of psychotherapy services. I know that my hon. Friend agrees with that. It is a matter for clinical judgment, not ministerial directive, as to how mentally ill patients should be treated. It is up to individual district health authorities to develop their own models of how patients should be treated and make available the necessary resources. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about emphasising the importance of the patient. The patient must come first. In this case we are dealing with mentally ill patients, a very important part of the wide spectrum of patients treated by the National Health Service which should always be orientated towards patient care. The patient is first and last on our list of priorities.
I repeat that it must be for individual health authorities to develop their own model of service, taking into account the local demand and the resources available. The major need for psychotherapy comes from those who are best treated on a day case or out-patient basis, although a very small number need in-patient psychotherapy treatment. The trend in local provision of services therefore appears to be away from in-patient treatment to community provision on a district basis. I understand that the Royal College of Psychiatrists has been developing a document recommending a full district-based psychotherapy service.
The work of the Broomhills unit, which my hon. Friend has described so well, has to be considered within that context. As my hon. Friend has explained, the future of the unit is jeopardised by the fact that Greenwich health authority and Lewisham and North Southwark health authority have decided to develop their own psychotherapy services. I do not criticise those health authorities for doing that. They are following the trend which I have explained. Greenwich, which has been the main user of the unit, referring about seven to 10 patients per year, is developing community- based services for mentally ill people based on new mental health centres, which will provide psychotherapy. Lewisham and North Southwark has referred only six patients to Broomhills in the last five years. It has its own 12- bed psychotherapy community ward at Guy's hospital. It is planning to increase psychotherapy consultant services by four more in February 1989 and is very much advocating community psychotherapy in the future.
Only last month Bexley health authority, which manages the Broomhills unit, published a consultative document on the future organisation of mental illness services in the district. In that document it saw the development of psychotherapy as being integrated into the mainstream of community services. The document also details a service in which hospital-based care will be part of a wider range of community and residential facilities,
Column 629leading to an accessible and flexible service. The plan recognises that most individuals with mental health problems are already managed in the community by general practitioners, families and other carers and it is proposed that their contribution should be fully recognised and supported.
I stress that the psychotherapy services in general in those districts are not being lost. Rather they are being developed in an alternative way on a more local basis. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome that, as he and I believe that there are many different ways of treating patients in this area. That is not to belittle what the Broomhills unit does--perhaps it underlines its contribution. It is recognised that the Broomhills unit provides a service that is not widely available. I recognise that it is committed to the multi-disciplinary team approach to treating disturbed people. The unit bears the imprint of Dr. Edward Herst, the consultant psychiatrist, and I pay tribute to him and all members of his staff for their expertise and the valuable service that they provide. For those reasons, Bexley health authority wishes the unit to continue if there is a demand for its services. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it would be unreasonable for Bexley to continue to run the unit for only a few patients. That would not be cost-effective. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the health authority on its positive action in marketing the unit to the four Thames regional health authorities to see whether there is a wider demand for its services. That is a sensible, positive and constructive step. I have seen the authority's information leaflet and am very impressed with it. The authority's actions have the full support of staff at the unit. I, too, hope that there is a favourable response from other health authorities to this vigorous marketing. It is a good example of the entrepreneurial approach that we wish in the NHS.
Column 630I understand that responses have been requested by 20 January next year. If those efforts are unsuccessful, I have been told that Bexley will consider approaching authorities outside the Thames regions. I am convinced that Bexley health authority is doing its utmost to ensure the continuation of the unit.
Mr. Wolfson : I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned the timetable involved and Bexley's readiness to be flexible in looking for a wider market than the one it initially circulated. But there may be a problem with the timing. There was some administrative delay in producing the brochure--one can understand how that happens--and 30 days may not be long enough to obtain a response. We may need a little longer.
If the district is not as successful in its marketing strategy as we would all hope, it will be for the district to decide what level and type of psychotherapy service it should provide, and it would be wrong for me to anticipate any such decision now. However, it is clear that Bexley health authority, the South East Thames regional health authority and fellow hon. Members all want the unit to continue, and Bexley health authority has been active in trying to secure the support necessary from other health authorities. I hope that it is successful and that it takes the time necessary to do that. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks fully and comprehensively described the unit. He will appreciate the many pressures on my time, but I shall arrange soon to visit Bexley health authority and the Broomhills unit.
I take this opportunity to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a happy Christmas. I also wish my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, his constituents and those at the Broomhill unit a happy Christmas and prosperous and healthy new year.
Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : I join in that salutation to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and add my mourning to that already expressed about the tragic air crash. It is something with which those of us who are about to take off for India, Hong Kong and Australia identify. We deeply mourn what has happened to others and pray that it will not be a precedent.
The debate, which I am glad to be able to instigate, concerns the vetting of employees who are seeking work or who are at work. My hon. Friends and I who are concerned about this subject accept that vetting is proper for security matters, but believe that it should be done in an intelligent and recognised way by those who are responsible ; it is a Government job to vet people on security grounds.
When vetting people who are seeking work, employers are entitled to exercise their powers of discrimination but not to discriminate on the grounds of sex, race or trade union membership. It is wrong for them to turn to private secret shadowy organisations such as the Economic League, which hoards information that it does not allow any independent organisation to see. I hope that, as a result of today's debate, the Government will institute an independent inquiry into the operation of such organisations, especially the Economic League. The Economic League is known to be the key organisation in this sector. I am pleased to say that, at its meeting yesterday, the Select Committee on Employment laid on the table a letter received by hand from the Economic League dated 20 December. I have spoken to Mr. Michael Noar, the Economic League's director general, who has no objection to it being placed before the House. The letter refers to subscribers but says that the Economic League does not publish a list of them ; it is secret. It is known that many of the subscribers are major companies and that none of them subscribes to any political party other than the Conservative party. Many of the 2,000 companies that Mr. Noar says belong to the organisation do not declare their gifts to this evil organisation but launder them, and I ask the Government to conduct an independent inquiry to investigate its funding.
The debate is not about Reds creeping out from under the bed or, as Mr. Noar suggests, a "Communist-backed campaign" against the Economic League. I have been accused of much wickedness, but never of being Communist of Communist-backed.
It is extraordinary to consider the people who have been pinpointed by this organisation. Among hon. Members are my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), a well-known militant ; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), who told me that it has a file on him because in 1972 he addressed a meeting of War Resisters International, but he can think of more wicked ways to behave than that ; my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is not exactly on the far Left of any party ; and that well- known extremist, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). Ninety per cent. of those wo are known to be on
Column 632the list because of leakages are Left-wing activists. I shudder to think what the list says about you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to give anything away, but in the same letter Mr. Noar said :
"any individual who believes that he or she may appear in the League's records is free to check with us and be told precisely what information, if any, is held."
I applied and was told that the Economic League was fairly sure that there was nothing on the computer, but if I sent £10 an official search would be conducted. The league's letter said, in words to this effect, "We keep a list of Labour Members of Parliament and that is all that appears to be there about you."
I asked Mr. Noar whether it was possible to obtain copies of the Economic League's information and was told that that was much too expensive but might be done if individuals requested it. I appeal to any member of the public, trade unionist or hon. Member who feels strongly that people should not be subjected to the scrutiny of advisers and company spies who hide behind a well-financed organisation of this sort to ask what is held on him or her. It is difficult to find out what goes on, but there have been some inquiries.
Among those who have been defamed and whose lives have been made thoroughly wretched because of the disclosures is Mr. Kenneth Williamson, chairman of a campaign to stop an Oxford hospital for the elderly from being closed, who was on the list as a troublemaker. Mr. Sydney Scroggie, a blind pensioner from Dundee who wrote a letter to his local newspaper supporting Edinburgh city council's decision to buy--this is very wicked--a portrait of Nelson Mandela, was also on the list. Richard Stokes, a former personnel manager who was approached by an Economic League official while working for Glaxo, was told : "The important thing really is to make sure that they didn't omit any subversives."
There does not seem to be any concern about the lives, work and jobs of innocent people on the list and the damage done to them. Mr. Stokes noted that Dame Olga Ovarov CBE, a distinguished veterinary scientist who worked for Glaxo, was on the list. When he asked why, he received this reply :
"anybody with a Russian name would come under scrutiny." I wonder whether that would hold true today. I look back at my ancestors and am glad that my name does not sound Russian. A former regional director of the league, Mr. Richard Brett, said that he thought that the league's central register was "chaotic" and "more fiction than fact". Presumably, reputable companies go to the league for information. I wonder whether they realise that the register which is consulted is "chaotic" and "more fiction than fact".
A solicitor, Derek Ogg, was branded an "anarchist" because he was the editor of a fringe magazine on sale in anarchist bookshops apparently aimed at Edinburgh's gay community. He had a very sinister political involvement- -he was a member of the Conservative party. Indeed, he was a candidate in the regional and district council elections and was chairman of the Young Conservatives in his constituency for two magnificant years. He, too, was on the list. I wonder whether the Minister is on the list. In charge as he is of tourism, he brings in people from east European countries. I know that, in his hidden way, he has been helping to get tourists to come here from Communist
Column 633China. He should carefully look at what the Economic League has on him. I invite him, as part of his independent inquiry, to ask about himself. There are one or two very doubtful characters on the Conservative Benches behind him who are probably also on the list. If the league knew a little of what I know about them, their political reputation might be harmed. One is a member of the Institute of Personnel Management and the other is a member of a Select Committee--it would be a sub-committee anywhere else--who agrees with me on occasions.
A 1986 official publication of the Economic League entitled "Companies under Attack" identifies a range of organisations that are
"unduly influenced by political aims"
and therefore virtually Communist fronts. These include the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and such extreme left-wing bodies as Oxfam, War on Want, Christian Aid and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This organisation is effectively and seriously inefficient, chaotic and rotten, and sensible companies should not waste shareholders' money upon it. Shareholders should demand that the companies in which they are involved do not pour money into it. It is a pernicious, insidious, modern McCarthyite body which haunts the shadows of the world of industrial relations, causing damage which it cannot prove to innocent people's reputations.
If the Data Protection Act 1974 extended--alas, it does not--to non- automatically processed personnel data, access might be obtained. We know-- because it has told us--that the league keeps automatically processed data to a minimum. There is no way in which we can find out what it has on us.
As a Christmas gesture of good will to innocent, good people seeking jobs in the new year, will the Government undertake--I seek no more than that-- to examine the possibility of an inquiry, sparked off by the Department of Employment? That would reassure the public and the shareholders whose money has been put into the organisation, often without their knowledge. Also hopefully it would put an end to wicked political vetting that is done secretly by private organisations, as opposed to proper vetting done publicly by those whose job it is to do so and who are responsible to the public if they make a mistake that causes harm.
This debate is about human rights. Individuals should be able to apply for a job and be judged on accurate information and not, as seems to be happening according to articles in newspapers such as The Observer and the Financial Times --hardly Left-wing journals--on inaccurate, secret and biased information. Such a procedure is even more insidious and more dangerous to society than salmonella in eggs. We need, from the Department of Employment, somebody with the courage of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) to stand up for those whose are so disadvantaged.
In the north-west, 6,000 people are on the Economic League black list and the figures of companies involved range from 300 to 200. It is all too easy in an area with high unemployment, where many people are applying for jobs, to reject an applicant without looking too deeply into
Column 634whether information on which a decision is based is accurate. If people are being adjudged, they have a fundamental right to know that the information about them is accurate. If the information is wrong, there should be a state apparatus that allows one to defend one's rights and honour.
I hope that the Minister will at some time enshrine in legislation the employee protection--for prospective employees and those already in employment. A meaningful step forward would be to extend the Data Protection Act 1984 to files and card indexes. One of the insidious features of the Economic League is that, although it honours the letter of the law, it defiles its spirit. That is why we must seek redress. I am concerned that companies can avoid telling their shareholders and customers that they are contributing to an organisation such as the Economic League.
Perhaps the real subversives are those who, under the cloak of freedom and defence of democracy, charge people, find them guilty and condemn them, without the individual having the right to answer the charge. That is the real subversion of the British way of life and of everything for which this House stands.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee) : First, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish you a very happy Christma even though I do not give you mistletoe as the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) did. Nevertheless, my good wishes are sincere.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for raising this matter. It is an important issue on which there has been a good deal of misunderstanding of late. I welcome the opportunity to clarify the issues that are involved and to state clearly the Government's position.
Essentially, there are two aspects that we must consider. The first aspect is the way in which employers decide which individuals to recruit to their businesses, and that is a matter for the Department of Employment. The second aspect is the collection and storage of personal data, where my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has the main interest.
There have been suggestions that the employment service might have made use of information held by the Economic League before submitting job applicants to an employer. I wish to make it clear at the outset that it is not the policy of the employment service--nor has it ever been--to use the services of the Economic League or of any similar organisation. Employers place vacancies with the employment service and the function of the service is to assess the suitability of a potential applicant to carry out the activities of the job in question.
I shall clarify the obligations of employers when they decide to recruit someone to their business. Provided that they do not offend the laws against race or sex discrimination, they are free to choose how to go about selecting and recruiting new employees. There is nothing odd about that. After all, it is employers who know their own businesses best. It is reasonable that they should be able to choose who they wish to employ. They may, for example, decide to seek information on an individual from an independent source. I see nothing wrong with that. It is
Column 635a generally accepted practice that prospective employees should supply a reference from, among others, their former employer as to their suitability for a certain job.
There is another important reason why employers should have the freedom to recruit who and how they wish. Too many restrictions would add to the burdens on business and tend to make employers reluctant to take on new recruits. We know that that would have a disastrous effect on new employment opportunities and the unemployed. There are organisations such as the Economic League that have set themselves up as providers of information, and there is nothing unlawful about that. Equally, there is nothing unlawful about employers choosing to use such information to reach recruitment decisions if that is what they wish to do.
My previous remarks do not mean that there are no restrictions on the activities of organisations such as the Economic League. Those who provide this sort of information bear a heavy responsibility to ensure that it is accurate. Equally, employers who use such information should satisfy themselves of its quality and accuracy, perhaps by asking for a second opinion from a reliable source. As I have said, it is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary who has the main responsibility for data protection considerations. However, I shall attempt to explain the current legislation and I shall ensure that any points with which I am unable to deal are brought to the attention of my colleagues in the Home Office. For individuals who believe that information that is held about them on computer is incorrect, extensive remedies are available under data protection legislation. As hon. Members will know, all data users who hold and process personal data are required automatically to register with the Data Protection Registrar. Data subjects have the right of access to data about them on payment of a fee of up to £10 a record. The registrar will assist any individual who has a complaint against a data user and will investigate any case in which he considers that the data protection principles have been infringed. He may issue an enforcement notice to the data user, who has a right of appeal to the data protection tribunal and thence the courts. Some data users who have not registered have been prosecuted.
It is true that data protection legislation does not cover manually held records, and I shall return to that point in a moment. At this stage, I want to clarify what remedies already exist. In addition to the statutory right that I have outlined, it would be open to someone who has evidence of misinformation being supplied about him to mount an action for damages in the civil courts.
The Opposition have made a number of suggestions about what the Government might do to deal with what they perceive to be a problem. It has been suggested that the Government should set up a review of employers' recruitment and vetting practices, but I am not clear how
Column 636such a review would help us. The Government believe that employers must have the freedom to decide how to recruit to their work force, providing that they respect the laws on sexual and racial discrimination. Employers have always been free to take up confidential references on prospective employees, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is employers who can best decide how to achieve their recruitment objectives.
New legislation on these matters is neither necessary nor desirable.
Another suggestion is that the activities of supplies of information should be regulated. Legislation would be necessary to make it an offence for an individual or organisation to supply false information to an employer on a prospective employee or to supply information without the knowledge of that employee. The legislation, therefore, would require the organisation to inform the individual concerned to give him or her the opportunity to correct any inaccuracies. That is an impracticable suggestion because the proposal is patently unenforceable, and unenforceable law is bad law.
Another proposal is that the use by employers of information provided by organisations such as the Economic League should be regulated. It has been suggested that that could be done by requiring employers who propose to use such information to inform job applicants that such information is being sought. Again, that is a wholly impracticable and undesirable suggestion. I have already made it clear that the Government's view is that employers should be free to decide whom to recruit, provided they do not break the law on sexual or racial discrimination. Again, I doubt whether such provisions could be enforced, and there is no point in having an unenforceable law.
It has been suggested that it should be made illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of their political or religious views, in the same way that it is illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of sex or race. I must emphasise that the Government are opposed to any form of unfair discrimination. Such discrimination is not only morally wrong, but economically stupid. Employers should recruit the best person for the job.
The Government's policy on discrimination on the basis of race or sex is backed by legislation because the scale of the problem merited such action. It is not clear that there is widespread abuse, in terms of political or religious discrimination, that would merit specific legislation, although discrimination in general is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
I have dealt with suggestions that would affect employment law. I come now to the suggestion that the data protection legislation is defective, in that it does not cover manually held records and that that loophole should be remedied. I understand from correspondence in the past 24 hours that the Economic League is considering computerising some of its records.
Mr. Lee : I understood that a letter setting out that possibility had been conveyed to the hon. and learned Gentleman, and a copy was sent to me. I shall show it to the hon. and learned Gentleman after the debate.
I have already made it clear that this is a matter not for me but for my Home Office colleagues. Have Opposition Members really thought about the practicalities of the suggestion? It is relatively straightforward to give someone a printout of computerised information, as it usually consists of specific items of information in summary form. Moreover, the Data Protection Act provides safeguards in relation to information held on computer, requiring it to be relevant, accurate and not excessive in relation to the purpose for which it is held.
Imagine the difficulties in providing for a system of access to manual records analogous to that provided for data processed automatically. Manual files relating to individuals would have be be weeded to ensure that the subject saw only information relevant to him. It would be necessary to provide accommodation to enable him to read the file and supervision might be necessary to ensure that nothing was removed or altered. Thus, the resource costs involved would be considerable.
Computerised data can be sought and transmitted very easily and speedily. That was one of the main considerations that led first to the provisions in the European convention on the protection of individuals dealing with automatic processing of personal data and subsequently to our domestic data protection legislation. The same does not apply to manual records.
The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West made a number of allegations, and similar allegations have been made in the media and elsewhere. It is certainly not for me to defend the activities of an independent organisation, but I should like to place on record that, following the "World in Action" programme in February 1987, the Home Secretary asked North Yorkshire police to investigate the allegations that the Economic League had access to police information. No evidence was produced to support those allegations, and Home Office Ministers do not consider that any further police investigation of the league is warranted following allegations made in subsequent programmes. The Data Protection Registrar also received a number of complaints and discussed with the league the general question of the use of personal information. No evidence was discovered of any offence under the Data Protection Act.
I shall conclude--
Column 638I have made--that he consult the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Employment as to whether an independent inquiry could be set up? Someone independent could then go in and look at the files of the organisation and satisfy the Government, if it was the case, that there was no impropriety. I would hope that the league would not object and that the Government would do that. If the Government will not do it, there must be some reason that I am sure the Minister would not wish to contemplate.
I want to conclude by saying something about the state of industrial relations, as the debate concerns the effects on industrial relations of employers' recruitment practices. Over the nine years that have elapsed since the Government came to power, the number of days lost through strikes has decreased dramatically. The figures for 1987 show that 3.5 million days were lost in that way compared with almost 27.5 million in 1979. It is clear that the Government's policies--particularly the step-by-step trade union reforms--have contributed significantly to the new realism that has become the dominant feature of our industrial relations.
I have already referred briefly to the effects of excessive regulation on employment opportunities. I emphasise that once more by drawing attention to the most recent unemployment figures, which show that unemployment is at its lowest since April 1981. Long-term unemployment is at its lowest level for more than five years and is falling faster than unemployment generally. As an hon. Member who represents one of the regions, I find it most encouraging that unemployment in the regions has fallen very fast--I am thinking particularly of the fall in unemployment in the midlands, Wales and the north-west.
The number of job vacancies registered at jobcentres has remained high throughout the year. Indeed, we calculate that, presently, about 700,000 job opportunities are available. I am convinced that our deregulation policy has significantly contributed to that improvement. Sweeping away unnecessary red tape has helped create conditions in which enterprise can flourish and employers are encouraged to recruit.
I can only conclude that the sort of proposals for further legislation which we have heard about would represent a return to the stifling red tape which we have so successfully removed, at that they would have only a detrimental effect on employment opportunities.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : The purpose of this debate is to draw attention, by the use of a particular example, to a set of general propositions that I hope will engage the interest of the Minister, to whom I am grateful for his courtesy in responding to this debate at a time when even Ministers must be thinking wistfully that it would be better to be at home.
Present policies and attitudes towards the environment must change immediately, or the grandchildren of today's policy makers stand a real chance of never having grandchildren. This is one of the last debates before Christmas, and I believe that it would be a remarkably fine Christmas present, both to this country and to the world, if we could be assured that--following the Prime Minister's growing intrest in this subject--the Department of the Environment, and the Government generally, would take a much more positive role in protecting the environment and in changing public attitudes towards it.
The Government have a truly remarkable record of raising the British people's standards of living, and they are right to be proud of that. Now they must ensure that a much higher proportion of this nation's growing affluence is spent on ensuring that future generations, here and in other parts of the world, have something left to enjoy--and, indeed, are here to enjoy it.
In less than 90 years, our world has already warmed up by 0.5 deg. C. That does not sound very much, but it is enough to cause anxiety. The record for the warmest year in global surface air temperatures has been broken four times in this decade alone--in 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1987. If it continues to do so at the present projected rate, Bangladesh, among other countries will entirely disappear and many thousands of British citizens will be made homeless by flooding around the major estuaries and elsewhere.
It is a matter of will to do something about it. By the year 2020, the developed nations could reduce per capita energy consumption by as much as 50 per cent. That would, of course, dramatically alter the present position, which I believe to be almost obscene, of 15 per cent. of the world's population consuming 85 per cent. of the world's energy.
On the whole, huge Government programmes involving millions of pounds are not the answer. The individual must be directly involved and the best way to do that is through his or her personal bill. Water privatisation is a step in the right direction. Water will cost each of us, as consumers, more than it has in the past. Provided those higher charges are spent on preventing pollution from reaching the sources of supply and on preventing our sewage from poisoning the earth and sea, consumers will understand. We need to do the same for electricity.
It is obscene that the power generating industries should be permitted to contribute as much acidity--or more--to the atmosphere than any comparable industry in the developed world. Our plans for controlling CEGB power stations' emissions are too feeble and much too slow. The price of electricity must include the price of protecting the atmosphere, and the Department of the Environment has a duty to become involved.
The same is true of cars. It should be illegal to build or sell a new car in Britain which is not fitted with a catalytic