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Northern Ireland

Q7. [33169] Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): When he will next visit Northern Ireland? I should say that it is a closed question.

The Prime Minister: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for telling me.

I have no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. Barnes: Tomorrow there is to be an important debate in Westminster Hall about those forced into exile from Northern Ireland by paramilitary intimidation. As representatives of Sinn Fein are now allowed into Westminster, they could at least listen to that debate; and would it not be a good idea if, afterwards, they were to have discussions with those of us who attend that debate to consider the ways and means by which paramilitary organisations will end intimidation? After all, I believe that that was the reason why many of us wanted those representatives here.

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend. I think that he is right. I hope that representatives of Sinn

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Fein listen to the debate and I hope that they are prepared to take part in discussions. Indeed, I hope that all those political parties that have been connected with paramilitary organisations are prepared to take part, because this is not simply something that is about republicans; it also applies to loyalists.

If we are genuinely concerned, as we should be, about putting the past to rest in Northern Ireland, one major part of that is people who were intimidated out of the country—the so-called exiles. Of course they should be allowed to return in peace. That, I think, would be a proper part of any significant undertaking in relation to the peace process. If the parties really support the peace process, they should support every dimension of it.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire): It is very good to hear the Prime Minister going that far, but will he go a little further? Is it not rather shameful that the Government should be considering introducing legislation to give amnesty to criminals who are outside this country, and to prisoners who escaped, allowing them to return? Distasteful as that may be, it may be necessary in the overall context of the peace process, but will the Prime Minister give us an assurance that he will use his considerable personal influence to ensure that no such legislation is brought to the House before he has an absolute guarantee from those who control the paramilitaries and the political parties that are associated with them that the punishment beatings and expulsions will end? In that way it would be a two-sided agreement and not, like so many in the past, a one-sided one?

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said about recognising the necessity of making difficult—indeed, distasteful—choices in moving the peace process forward. I will certainly listen very carefully to what he said. I repeat that there can be no place for punishment beatings, attempts to exile people or any so-called paramilitary activity which is outside the rule of law and destined to undermine democracy rather than support it. I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said and I agree that we should make it quite clear that those people who have been excluded from Northern Ireland should be allowed to return.

Q8. [33170] Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Will the Prime Minister reconsider the equal value claim made by female canteen workers against the former British Coal? Although progress has been made and £40 million has been paid out to 1,300 workers, more than double that number are in the same situation and are set to receive nothing. The problem springs directly from bad practice by one of the trade unions. In the spirit of fairness, will the Prime Minister join us in looking for a solution?

The Prime Minister: The relevant Secretary of State and I will note my hon. Friend's comments. He is right to state that we have paid out £40 million and that more than 1,000 people who were affected have received compensation. The difficulty is that strict rules govern whether equal pay claims are allowed and there would be considerable implications were we to digress from those.

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I am happy to consider my hon. Friend's concern, but I am afraid that I can make no promises or give any undertakings in that respect.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Will the Prime Minister break one of his new year resolutions and take time to speak to Mr. Ken Livingstone today? Will he

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tell him that the mayor of New York is a welcome visitor to London today and that if Mr. Livingstone wants to know how to run a great city properly, he should have discussions with him?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly be in a better position to consider that after my discussions with Mr. Giuliani today.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following question No. 1 to the Advocate-General yesterday, have you been able to reflect on the difficult problems of media privilege on the one hand and parliamentary privilege on the other in relation to the trial that is taking place at Zeist on events at Lockerbie?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order.

I have no responsibility for what may or may not be said by the press. My responsibility is to the House and to uphold the rules that it has agreed will regulate its proceedings. It has long been the practice of the House that matters awaiting the adjudication of a court of law may not be raised in debate or in other parliamentary proceedings, including questions.

On 15 November 2001, the House reaffirmed and clarified earlier resolutions about matters bound by the sub judice rule. The 2001 resolution makes it plain that the rule covers appeal proceedings. I understand that an appeal is currently being heard on the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I cannot, therefore, allow references to the case in the House until the appeal proceedings are ended. I hope that that helps him.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given you prior notice of my concerns and you will have heard the exchange between myself and the Prime Minister in Prime Minister's Question Time. I have expressed concern over a period of time that Members should be able to rely on the accuracy of statements made by Ministers to the House. I am not satisfied with the response today and fear that the Prime Minister is unable to substantiate his comments. I seek your leave to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has written to me on that matter and I have replied to him. I will not comment on it when it is raised as a point of order. He has no right to continue raising it in such a way.

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Patients Without Legal Capacity (Safeguards)

3.33 pm

Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough): I beg to move,

The Bill, which is supported by hon. Members from the three main parties, the charity Mencap and the Alzheimer's Society, attempts to close a loophole in the legal protection of the most vulnerable members of society. It would introduce a procedure whereby decisions that involve deprivations of liberty are taken in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law which can be challenged. That will ensure that patients who are informally detained benefit, as far as is practicable, from the rights that formally detained patients have under the Mental Health Act 1983 the moment a carer challenges the informal decision.

My Bill applies to people with a mental disorder who are unable to consent to being admitted to hospital. They have no capacity to consent to admission but are deemed from their behaviour not to have dissented to that admission. The proposals would apply to those with severe learning disabilities who are unable to make decisions for themselves and to people with dementia whose loss of capacity may be permanent.

The issue was prominently highlighted in the Bournewood case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who is one of the Bill's supporters. The case is that of a 48-year-old autistic man, known for legal reasons as Mr. L, who cannot speak. Mr. L had been a resident at a hospital run by the Bournewood NHS trust and had gone to live with a couple who were his carers. They regarded him as one of the family. One day, at a day centre, Mr. L became agitated. His carers could not be contacted, and Mr. L was given a sedative and taken to hospital. The doctor decided that there was no need to detain Mr. L in hospital under the Mental Health Act as Mr. L was compliant and did not resist or attempt to run away. He was kept in hospital on an informal basis.

Mr. L's carers described the fact that they were not allowed to see him for nearly four months

They demanded his release but had no legal basis on which to challenge the doctor's decision. The carers took action against the trust, claiming that he was unlawfully detained. The Court of Appeal ruled that he was unlawfully detained, but the decision was reversed in the House of Lords. The judgments relate to the scope of section 131 of the 1983 Act. This section preserves the right to admit on the basis of common law. Common law is a useful concept, but it contains none of the safeguards of that Act, and that is what my Bill seeks to address.

In any event, the concerns raised in the case of Mr. L certainly have not gone away. At the time of the judgment, Lord Justice Steyn said that those patients who would continue to be admitted informally would not benefit from any of the protections provided by the 1983 Act. In particular, they would continue not to have the right to apply for, or to be automatically referred to, mental health review tribunals in accordance with the provisions of that Act.

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Currently, people who for whatever reason lack the mental capacity to consent or dissent can be informally detained indefinitely, on the opinion of a single doctor. Relatives and carers have no right to appeal against the doctor's view of the best interests of the person being detained; nor do they have a right to be consulted prior to the detention. There is no mechanism to review the lawfulness of the detention and no requirement to review the patient's conditions of detention. Such patients are not protected by any formal safeguards at all and have to rely on good professional practice to defend them. They are not even open to a writ of habeas corpus since they are not being detained. That places effective and unqualified control in the hands of hospital psychiatrists and other health care professionals.

I am aware of other cases. An Alzheimer's sufferer, Mrs. P, has been informally admitted to hospital because of her aggressive behaviour. She is very agitated and her carer—I shall call her Joyce—does not think that she should be in hospital, but Joyce has no legal basis for challenging the doctor's decision that Mrs. P should remain in hospital. The Bill would allow Joyce to challenge the decision on whether Mrs. P should be allowed to go home. The Alzheimer's Society tells me that this case is typical of those in a number of calls that it receives on its helpline each week.

I am not for one moment suggesting that all those cases should or would proceed to a tribunal. Speaking from experience, however, I think that if carers knew that legal safeguards were in effect, that would give them the confidence to dispute a decision to detain or continue to detain their loved one if they did not believe it to be in that person's best interests.

The Government have published a White Paper on the review of the Mental Health Act. It contains proposals to address the deficiencies in the current legal framework, but I do not know when a Bill will be introduced or whether it will deal with this issue. I believe that my Bill would do so in a simple and effective manner. It is not

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about preventing informal admissions when nobody objects to them, about undoing the good work of the Mental Health Act review or about putting the cart before the horse in mental health reform.

We cannot ignore the fact that the Bournewood case has drawn attention to the deficiencies in the present law. Mr. L was detained without any right to have his detention reviewed by an independent tribunal. Only one month ago, the health ombudsman strongly criticised the Bournewood Trust for detaining Mr. L for four months. My Bill provides that once someone's placement is challenged, formal procedures come into play.

The way in which we choose to safeguard the rights of individuals who do not have a voice to speak up for themselves reflects our maturity as a civilised society. Reform is needed to uphold an individual's rights to liberty and to be treated with dignity, and to ensure their freedom from detention. We also need to safeguard against misjudgments and lapses of judgment on the part of health professionals—these can occur.

The law as it stands fails to give adequate protection to a vulnerable group of individuals, and it discriminates against those who are most disadvantaged and their families and carers. Mr. L's carers have already sought an application arguing that Mr. L's detention contravened article 5 of the European convention on human rights. I hope that the House will accept my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Helen Clark, Mr. David Amess, Sir Paul Beresford, Mr. Roger Berry, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Paul Burstow, Mr. Tom Clarke, Dr. Julian Lewis, Jim Dobbin, Dr. Ian Gibson, Ms Debra Shipley and Dr. Jenny Tonge.

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