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Departmental Staff

33. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Attorney-General how many people were employed in his Department in each of the past three years; and at what cost in current prices. [5202]

The Solicitor-General: Total staff in the four departments for which the Attorney-General is

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responsible were 7,117 in the year 1995-96, at a cost of £184 million. In the previous two years the number of staff was 7,346 and 7,322 and costs at current prices were £179 million and £184 million respectively.

Mr. Greenway: Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that that seems to represent an improvement in productivity? Did any of his officials play any part in granting legal aid to the two young men of 19 to take their former schools to court with a view to suing them for damages for their lack of achievement? Should not the officials have looked at whether those young men worked hard at school and whether there is any explanation in that respect for their lack of achievement, or has my hon. and learned Friend no responsibility at all?

The Solicitor-General: I can confidently acquit my officials of being involved in any such exercise. The allocation of legal aid is a matter for which the Lord Chancellor, not the Law Officers, has ministerial responsibility. All departments for which the Attorney-General is responsible show increased output, and that applies particularly to the Crown Prosecution Service, which we regularly visit at branch level. More lawyers at branch level are putting in more court appearances than ever before.

Mr. Skinner: It is not surprising that, in the year that Asil Nadir was due to go before the court, the 7,000 people in the Department were incapable of keeping him in Britain. He was able to get out on a flight to Cyprus and has never been brought back. Is that not connected to the fact that this same Asil Nadir gave £440,000 of somebody else's money to the Tory party? The party will not disclose those funds, but as they were fraudulently obtained, we would expect the Attorney-General's Department and his 7,000 staff to see to it that Tory central office handed that money back to the shareholders and the customers.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman's question is shot through with error--unsurprisingly and as usual. The department responsible for the prosecution

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of Mr. Nadir was the Serious Fraud Office, which has a total complement of 170 out of the 7,000 plus staff in the Attorney-General's departments. What is more, Mr. Nadir was able to leave the country because he had been granted bail by the court, notwithstanding objections by the SFO and by counsel briefed on its behalf.

Racial Harassment

36. Mr. John Marshall: To ask the Attorney-General what representations he has recently received about prosecutions for racial harassment. [5205]

The Attorney-General: I frequently receive representations concerning the enforcement of the law relating to incitement to racial hatred. During 1996, to date, the Law Officers have received 10 applications for consent to prosecute for such offences. Nine have been granted, and one is under consideration.

Mr. Marshall: My right hon. and learned Friend will be well aware of the campaign of hatred and intimidation waged by Hizb-ut-Tahrir on university campuses, which culminated in its, fortunately unsuccessful, attempt to close down the Jewish Society in Manchester. There is a feeling of surprise that that campaign has not yet resulted in one prosecution. Would my right hon. and learned Friend be willing to meet a deputation from the Union of Jewish Students to explain the position?

The Attorney-General: I am not sure that my hon. Friend is entirely right on his last point, because there was a prosecution related to HUT or to a very similar group of activists. However, I remind my hon. Friend that that prosecution was stopped on certain grounds by the trial judge. My hon. Friend may have noticed that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has established a working group to consider what advice can be given to universities faced with groups that incite racial, religious or political hatred. If that assists the police in bringing cases to the Crown Prosecution Service, I assure him that those cases will be most carefully considered.

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Meningitis Outbreak (Cardiff)

3.30 pm

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Wales to make a statement on the meningitis outbreak at the University of Wales, Cardiff.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. William Hague): An outbreak of meningococcal infection has occurred among students at the University of Wales college of Cardiff, in which there has been a total of six cases, with two deaths.

The first case occurred on 14 October, when a student normally resident at university hall became ill at home. Her close social contacts, both at her own home and at the university hall, were traced and given antibiotics. That is the recognised course of action in an isolated or sporadic case--which this was thought, and may still prove, to have been. That student has now made a complete recovery.

Over one month later, between 16 and 20 November, two further cases occurred, one of which affected a student normally resident at university hall. Both those students are still recovering in hospital. Again, antibiotics were administered to close contacts.

Three further cases arose between 27 and 29 November. Two of those affected died within hours of exhibiting symptoms. By late morning on 29 November, clinical and public health physicians decided that there was evidence to suggest that all the cases were linked and were probably all group C organism cases, although complete diagnostic information was not by then available from the laboratory. An outbreak control team of experts was established by the health authority.

The same day, antibiotics were offered to all residents of the hall, and the students were told that a vaccination programme would commence. Advice to students includes avoidance of close physical contact. They are being advised to stay on campus, where expert medical surveillance is available. A help line and counselling service is being manned by the Meningitis Trust. A hotline has also been set up for general practitioners treating students, to obtain clinical information and advice.

Yesterday, 550 students were vaccinated, and the total will rise to 900 by the end of today. Vaccination is also on offer to any guests who may have stayed overnight at the hall since 16 November.

A special ward has been opened at the University hospital of Wales for observation of residents of university hall. Several students have been admitted overnight, although only one has symptoms suggestive of meningitis, which is possibly of the viral type, and therefore not linked to the other cases.

I am confident that the health and university authorities have instituted all possible means of preventing further spread of the infection. My chief medical officer has discussed the position with the outbreak control team and has visited university hall to assess the situation. Contrary to some press reports, she said that the atmosphere at the hall--although, understandably, tense and sober--does not demonstrate any panic. The students are behaving very responsibly.

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Detailed information about the epidemic will be available only when the results of all tests are known and the epidemiological studies are completed. This may take several weeks. For that reason, I intend to await the report from the health authority on the outbreak before deciding whether to undertake any further inquiry.

Finally, the House will wish to join me in sending deep sympathy to the relatives and friends of the students who have died of this very serious infection. The health authority and the university authorities have collaborated very well in co-ordinating their action, and we are grateful to all those who have worked so hard over the weekend, including the staff at the University Hospital of Wales NHS trust, the Public Health Laboratory Service and the Meningitis Trust, for their help and support.

Mr. Jones: First, I associate myself with the Secretary of State's latter remarks and offer my commiserations to the families who have lost their young and gifted children, and to those families who are understandably anxious at this time. I thank the Secretary of State for his statement; I also thank the Secretary of State for Health for joining him in the Chamber.

What assurances can the Secretary of State give that there is now adequate communication between the health authorities and those students who are no longer in the hostel, or indeed in Cardiff, but who have gone home? I understand that between 140 and perhaps even half of the students who were in the hall of residence concerned have gone home. I imagine that it is important to communicate with them and their families to ensure that they receive vaccinations or other medical treatment.

Will the Secretary of State instigate an inquiry into the earlier incident of meningitis which occurred, I believe, on 14 October? If it was not an associated incident, it is an enormous coincidence that there have been two separate outbreaks of meningitis in the same hall of residence within a month. If it was an associated incident, perhaps the guidelines for dealing with meningitis need to be re-examined.

I understand that meningitis is perceived to be a disease of close family connections, and students living in a hall of residence are in many ways living in a large, close and extended family. It may well be that we need to reconsider the way in which we deal with cases involving many people who are living in close proximity to each other, and that we need to act more quickly in instigating preventive treatment.

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