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House of Commons

Wednesday 29 July 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Adjournment (Summer)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

9.34 am

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of dignity at work before the House rises for the summer recess. I wish to put down a marker, and I give notice that I shall return to the matter after the recess. I should also mention the good work already done in another place by the noble Lord Monkswell on bullying at work.

Bullying at school is usually our first taste of the cowardly and thuggish behaviour of individuals. The perception of a bully is usually male--someone who picks on those smaller than himself--and his actions usually involve petty crime, such as stealing or demanding money. What I have just described happens, but the crude thuggery of bullying away from the school yard is commonplace in the workplace. It is often perpetrated through psychological abuse--often by women against women--and does not get the publicity it should. We often hear about sexual harassment at work, but there is substantial evidence of harassment by someone of the same sex.

Another form of bullying can best be described as career assassination. Let me cite a constituency case in Lanarkshire involving a woman boss in charge of a dozen other women in an education department caring for children with special needs. I shall not name my constituent, but Mrs. X, as I shall call her, is a middle-aged, well-qualified, professional educationist. She is an excellent worker, conscientious and caring, and, because of her confidence in her own ability, she is the ideal caring professional whom we would all want to care for our own children if they needed her special care.

However, because Mrs. X was popular and respected by her fellow professionals, her newly appointed boss saw her as a threat, and began undermining, demeaning and intimidating her. My constituent decided to deal with the problem by ignoring it, hoping that it would resolve itself when her new boss had got her feet under the table--but that did not happen. Unfortunately, Mrs. X's attempts to ignore her boss only made her all the more unreasonable, vicious and sly, and the psychological abuse continued.

How can we deal with bullying? Perpetrators of such behaviour are usually sick. Their cowardly actions suggest that they have a form of mental illness.

As a result of prolonged intimidation and psychological abuse, my constituent became ill, and took time off work. An expert in a profession where her skills are at a

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premium has been off work for a considerable time, has lost thousands of pounds in earnings and her services to children who need her special care have been lost.

The House may think that that is an extreme case--I should like to think so, too--but I suspect that such abuse is quite common. I suspect that every hon. Member present could give some example of similar bullying in their constituency. I therefore welcome the Dignity at Work Bill, promoted by Lord Monkswell, which was given a Second Reading on 4 December 1996. I give notice of my intention to persuade the Government to include protection for employees against bullying in the workplace in their legislative programme. I am pleased to have been successful in raising this important issue. I know that right hon. and hon. Members want to raise their concerns on other issues, so I will soon conclude.

I was proud to be raised in a working-class home in a mining community--a humble background to some, but a very proud and particularly character-building experience for me. My parents instilled in me an ethos of always being considerate and respectful to others. One should be respectful to others if one wants to be treated as an equal. The right to dignity is not just about good manners, or even buzz words such as "good practice". It is a human right which should be available to all. The right to dignity at work is a human right, too.

Employers--and, on occasions, some politicians--may indulge in such abuse. They could be called control freaks. Control freaks use many tools, such as the tools of patronage--a posh word for rewarding obedience. Careers are controlled by the carrot and stick of political patronage. Career assassination is viewed in this place not as a dastardly act, but more as an occupational hazard.

The carrot takes many forms: a position in the Government--if it is a big carrot--a promise of a seat on a quango, or even a trip to Mauritius or some such exotic place. If everything else fails, the occasional knighthood or peerage has been known to thaw strong resistance. This week, some of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have had a lifetime of political carrots experienced a wee bit of the stick. A part of me thinks, "What did they expect?"

I close my contribution by making a proposal that will send shivers down the spines of some of my political colleagues. If we are to protect and extend to our citizens the democratic process, we must open up government to them. Transparency, scrutiny and openness should be our three watchwords. When we talk of an inclusive process, radical constitutional change, and honour and integrity in public service, let us, in the words of the Prime Minister, say what we mean and mean what we say. If we are to do that, we must look radically at how the House of Commons and its whipping system operate. At best, the whipping system must be reformed--although there is a good democratic argument for abolishing it.

9.44 am

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) may have been referring to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry--the post previously held by the Leader of the House--when he talked of character assassination. The right hon. Gentleman has been well known for some time for the character assassination of several of his colleagues. The hon. Gentleman has focused our attention on some of the events of the past few days.

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I welcome the Leader of the House to her new post. She and I represent neighbouring areas in Derbyshire. As Leader of the House, I expect that she will become Chairman of the Modernisation Committee, and therefore provide a lead on several important decisions in the not too distant future.

The hon. Member for Clydesdale talked of character assassinations, of which we have seen some interesting examples this week.

Mr. Hood: I do not want the hon. Gentleman to misunderstand my point--and I certainly do not want him to mislead the House. I talked about career assassinations, not character assassinations.

Mr. McLoughlin: I stand corrected--although, given the machinations of the week, the two could be linked. We saw the departure from the Government of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), the former Minister for Welfare Reform, who was originally asked by the Prime Minister to "think the unthinkable". Perhaps he did, and that was why he could not stay in the Government for very long. Perhaps we shall now be able to hear those thoughts expressed in the Chamber.

My main reason for catching your eye,in this short debate, Madame Speaker, is to raise the issue of the proposed closure of magistrates courts in Derbyshire--particularly West Derbyshire. I want to do so because, as it happens, this morning I received a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, in which he explained to me that decisions on such matters are usually made within three months of the receipt of objections. For objections to be considered by the Lord Chancellor, the county council must first object to the proposals. Derbyshire county council made such an objection on 16 June. Given the three-month procedure for determining appeals, we may expect the Government to make an announcement before the House returns.

There is, without question, a need for a magistrates court to serve West Derbyshire. I support the retention of the three magistrates courts in Ashbourne, Bakewell and Matlock until a magistrates court is built solely to serve West Derbyshire. If that long-term objective were proposed, I would consider a possible reorganisation of the courts structure in West Derbyshire.

It is vital that justice is administered locally, and is seen to be so. It is a fundamental tenet of the system. The 1989 Le Vay report included the following nationally accepted definition:

Particularly in rural areas, people are concerned that more remote benches will not understand the rural way of life and the importance of the matters being brought before them. Furthermore, there are particular problems with rural accessibility contained in the proposals submitted by the magistrates courts committee in Derbyshire.

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Nor does local justice stop at the court itself. The editor of the Ashbourne News Telegraph said in a recent article:

However, it is accepted that blame and shame have a notable effect on local offenders and their victims.

In coming to its decision, the magistrates courts committee suggested a travelling time of

It shows a marked lack of understanding of rural transport to assume that it is possible to travel via public transport from Sudbury, Hartington, Youlgreave, Fenny Bentley and many other villages throughout my rural constituency--which the Leader of the House knows well--to Chesterfield or Derby within an hour. I would argue that it is only just possible to do so in one's own vehicle in an hour, and that is in good weather. In winter, it would take considerably longer.

If the proposals go forward, magistrates have said that there will be

I received a letter the other day from one of the local magistrates who serves West Derbyshire. It pointed out West Derbyshire is not only a huge geographical area, but is one of the most visited parts of the United Kingdom, with more than 20 million visitors every year. The letter said that the magistrates court committee's proposal to split the division and to take the court work to Chesterfield and Buxton

    "was rejected after considerable public outcry, and in July 1995 the Committee stated then that 'Commitment should be given to provide a court in the West Derbyshire division in the long term.'

    This commitment was short-lived."

We now have the proposals that the Government are considering.

The magistrate's letter continued:

There is a point that the magistrate particularly wanted me to make. The letter said:

    "Significantly it alters the court-hours differential between the 'losing' and 'receiving' court by a factor of two. A court hour added to Buxton or Chesterfield and lost from West Derbyshire becomes two hours for the purpose of comparison of court needs for the area."

The magistrate added that, during 1995 and 1996, many custody cases were moved from West Derbyshire:

    "The Bench were assured that these hours would be credited back to them, but this does not appear to have been done, and the Bench have not been able to obtain any figures, or access to court registers."

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The magistrate said that a new dock and secure facilities were installed at Bakewell for 1997, and added:

    "Suggestions which would have enabled all West Derbyshire youth cases to be heard there, thus ensuring that young people were dealt with as near to their home as possible, which is the legal recommendation, were ignored. Youth Courts in West Derbyshire were cancelled, or held irregularly, and on some occasions, magistrates, staff, solicitors, co-defendants, police and social workers . . . waited in vain for the return of young offenders who had been improperly taken to Chesterfield and dealt with there. Some young defendants travelled from Clay Cross to Matlock (for Matlock offences) to a court which had been cancelled, as did a young defendant with a social worker who had travelled from secure accommodation in another county."

At the same time, the youth court sittings at Buxton were increased from 25 to 38 days for the year, and a policy of adjourning all youth cases to the first available venue, regardless of the site of the crime, was instituted, without any consultation with the West Derbyshire members of the joint High Peak and Glossop panel.

As one of the venues has 38 sittings and the other 12, the outcome is apparent; youth work has been taken to Buxton and Chesterfield from West Derbyshire. That is very expensive for social services. Time and money are being wasted on transport and waiting, and a day can be spent on one youth. The committee failed to make use of the facilities at Bakewell, provided at a cost of £18,000 from public funds.

It seems that the committee has neglected to provide basic facilities for a large area of Derbyshire. When it was reprimanded, its reaction was to remove cases from that area to other courts. The committee has used the hours generated by those moves to increase the apparent need for courts in the receiving areas. That ensures that courts are built in the receiving areas, which already have reasonable court facilities, and the people of West Derbyshire are denied the facility for which they are paying.

This may be a familiar subject to you, Madam Speaker. On 20 May--in a debate before the Whitsun recess--the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) raised the subject of magistrates courts in South Derbyshire, and I agree entirely with his comments near the end of his speech. He said:

The issue has moved on since the last time the House debated it, and both Derby city council and Derbyshire county council have now objected. The proposals are now before the Lord Chancellor.

I accept that the Leader of the House will not be able to comment in detail on the proposal before the Lord Chancellor, but I hope that she will assure me that my comments this morning will be brought to the Lord Chancellor's attention, so that, when he comes to make his final decision, he will be aware of the strong misgivings--shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House--about the court relocations. I hope that he will decide to reject the proposals, and to keep open the magistrates courts in West Derbyshire, and in other parts of Derbyshire which have made a similarly good case.

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