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3.16 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I should like to raise our constituents' ability to gain justice when a wrong is committed against them or a member of their family. I shall give two different examples of circumstances faced by my constituents in North Durham over the past year. Each constituent was let down by the system, and left angry and disillusioned with the legal system.

The first case concerns Mrs. Ann Stevens of Annfield Plain in my constituency. In October 2002, Mrs. Stevens was involved in a road traffic accident. The other driver collided with Mrs Stevens's car but fled the scene of the accident. Her car was a write-off and she was hospitalised. The police arrested the other driver, a young man, who was brought before the local magistrates court and found guilty. Mrs. Stevens was awarded £150 in compensation but, even so, she was severely out of pocket. Her car, worth over £500, was written off, and she could not claim against her own insurance. The other driver had no insurance at all. In addition, Mrs. Stevens had to pay £105 for her vehicle to be recovered. Not only was she several hundred pounds poorer but she had to go to hospital and was left traumatised by the experience of the accident.

On 20 December 2002, Mrs. Stevens was notified by North Durham magistrates court that she would receive the compensation awarded to her on a monthly basis. She waited and waited, and the first payment arrived at the beginning of March this year. It was worth a grand total of £2.25. The cheque was accompanied by a letter explaining that compensation would be awarded on a monthly basis, and that her compensation was consolidated with amounts being paid to three other people by the person who caused the accident. The letter explained that deductions would be made from that individual's state benefit, and that the amount would be divided among all those being compensated. Mrs. Stevens was to receive a cheque worth £2.25 each month.

My constituent received payments for a few months, but nothing has arrived since 13 June. She has received no explanation as to why the payments have ceased. Mrs. Stevens is the victim in this case, but she is the one who is suffering, along with the taxpayer.

I also question the administrative costs in the case. Those costs include making deductions from the other driver's benefit, writing cheques to the recipients of compensation, and posting them off. The only winner is the person found guilty of the original crime.

In July, I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), about the case. He replied:

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Those are fine and tough words, but they are little help to Mrs. Stevens, or to other victims still waiting for compensation. It also misses the main problem: what is the point of imposing fines and compensation orders if they cannot be enforced? The Minister, like my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, seems to want to be tough by imposing fines, but it is clear that in some cases alternatives—such as community orders and other sentences—need to be found. They may appear softer, but they are much more effective when it comes to securing justice.

Since I raised the case with the Minister, I have spoken to the Durham magistrates committee. It appears that the problem is not that the magistrates are unwilling to pursue defaulters, but that it is hard to collect the money because of evasion and the difficulty in tracing offenders. Also, repeat offenders incur mounting debts that become unmanageable.

Some 67 per cent. of offenders receive state benefits. The present system means that the Government are recycling their own money in a very inefficient way. Fines do not punish the guilty, and do not help victims. In poor areas, there are many people on benefit, and collection is very difficult. That means that the recovery rate for fines can be as low as 40 per cent., and the costs of recovery are disproportionately high. The system needs to be reviewed. To prevent the evasion that is clearly going on, fines and compensation orders should be made only when courts have full personal details about the people involved. We should stop wasting everyone's time by imposing fines on people receiving state benefits. Those fines cannot be collected, and the inefficient system does not help taxpayers. The task should be to ensure that fines and compensation are imposed only when they can be collected. Where alternatives are available, they should be pursued.

The other issue that I want to raise is the fight for justice by constituents who worked, or whose families worked, in the coal mining industry. Many people contracted debilitating lung disease from their exposure to coal dust, and many died slow and agonising deaths.

I congratulate the Government on putting in place the handling agreement that means that people are now being compensated. In North Durham, more than £10 million has been paid out to victims and their families—something that has been achieved because a Labour Government are in power.

However, I want to speak in particular about the unjust and unfair fees levied by solicitors and claim handlers on claimants and their families. Some of them act like vultures as they take a cut out of claimants' compensation, on top of the fees already paid to them by the Department of Trade and Industry. They exhibit nothing short of greed when they take money off the people and families for whom it was meant. Those people include many who are dying, as well as poor and aged widows.

In North Durham, I have been made aware of the activities of one particular firm of solicitors—Mark Gilbert Morse of Grey street in Newcastle upon Tyne. My constituents Mrs. Greener and Mrs. Elliott of Stanley agreed that the firm should handle their late father's case after a leaflet was pushed through their doors. Both recently received interim settlements of their claims, and in both cases just over 21 per cent. of

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their claim was deducted by the solicitors in fees. Last week, an 83-year-old widow came to see me who had had £8,000 deducted in the same way. In the cases of Mrs. Elliott and Mrs. Greener, the irony is that the fees were deducted before their case has been completed. The letter that was sent to them clearly stated that under the conditional fee agreement into which they entered, up to 25 per cent. of the damages could be deducted.

That is nothing short of unjustified greed. Mark Gilbert Morse will have been paid its fees by the DTI, but not content with that it is eager greedily to plunder the compensation of my needy constituents. I have written to the Law Society about the firm and raised it with the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths). I congratulate him on the strong line that he and the Government are taking against such companies in insisting that 100 per cent. of the compensation should go to the claimants. I issue a challenge to Mark Gilbert Morse to pay back to claimants the money that they have deducted. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has, on behalf of his constituents, made similar charges against a firm in Doncaster called Beresfords, which has agreed to pay back the money. I understand that Mark Gilbert Morse is dealing with thousands of claims in the north-east. If it refuses to pay the money back, the Government should seriously consider withholding any further payment of fees until there has been a full investigation of its activities.

Another problem in the north-east is that vulnerable people are being exploited by claims handlers, who are not solicitors and have no legal qualifications, but act as middlemen in sorting out claims. Last week, I heard about an horrendous case from a solicitor who was approached by a claims handler with several thousand cases on his books and asked if he wanted to buy them. I fear that next year, when the cut-off date for claims arrives, many people who think that they have submitted claims to firms of solicitors will find that they are languishing in the hands of claims handlers. I would urge my constituents, or anybody else, to avoid claims handlers like the plague. Action against those rogues is urgently required. Decent, hard-working people are being ripped off and having money that they justly deserve taken away from them.

In closing, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity to wish you and your family, and the rest of the House, all the best for Christmas and a prosperous 2004.

3.27 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish that you had been in the Chair to hear the speech by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), who eulogised the beauty of the countryside around Stansted, which you, Sir, know so well. He speculated as to why the proposed new runway that the Government have approved in principle should be so far from the existing one: that is a good point.

We benefited enormously, too, from the courageous speech by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). How right she was to warn us, at this time of peace, of the danger to community relations that is posed by Islamic fundamentalist fanatics who preach a hostile gospel against Jewry the world over.

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Last, but by no means least, I must mention my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell), whose speech was a masterpiece of its kind. Most of us feel accountable to our constituents and are content to leave it at that, but he rightly feels that in all his doings in his constituency he is answerable to this House. He enjoined us, at least implicitly, to do something that, candidly, I have been unable to do as yet—that is, to attend a school in the constituency for every day of Advent. I believe that this is admirable. He rightly made it clear to those who might have thought from his election literature that a bulldog was just for election time that a bulldog is not for an election or for Christmas but for life.

I wish that the Secretary of State for Transport—and for Scotland, for he is both—had presented his White Paper on civil air transport much earlier in the year. If he had done so, many of our constituents would not have appalling blight hanging over them this Christmastide. Parliament could have held a proper two-day debate on his strategic framework for air transport and reached considered conclusions. The planners could have progressed with all that was necessary to put in place airport and related facilities for developing civil air transport in our country for the next generation. Instead, there is grave uncertainty.

If I am fair to the Secretary of State—I try to be—I must say that there is some merit in his White Paper; it is half sensible. I suppose that one would expect a half sensible document from a half-time Secretary of State. I have no cavil with its basic premise that civil air transport is crucial to this country. I applaud the way in which he has fought off those, probably mostly in his party, but perhaps some Liberal Democrat Members, who are instinctively hostile to air transport and mainly want to tax it.

I also applaud the Secretary of State's measured, incremental approach to developing the industry in an uncertain world in the next 20 and 30 years. I am sure that this is wise. We do not know how terrorism will affect the industry or the impact of ultra-large aircraft such as the A380. We do not know the extent to which high-speed rail will compete in our continent and domestically, although Eurostar's share of passengers who previously travelled by air to Paris and Brussels is surely significant. I have outlined reasons for the Government to be cautious and I welcome the Secretary of State's incremental approach.

I also welcome the right hon. Gentleman's appreciation of the importance of air transport for regional development and his emphasis in the document on the importance of developing regional airports. I leave Scotland to him, but I shall comment on England because England and our English economy, not least in the south-east and London, make fundable those matters that the Scottish Executive cover. I have no quarrel with his aims for developing regional airports. An additional runway at Birmingham; the extension of Liverpool's runway and those at Newcastle, Teesside and Leeds-Bradford; and the extensions at Bristol and at Luton are wise and sensible measures.

The fullest use of minor airports in the south-east of England is important. They include Southend, which is

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an admirable airport. I used to instruct there—and at Stansted too in the good old days before the little hangar from which we used to operate was submerged under a terminal.

However, sentiment is not a basis on which to evolve a strategy; the Secretary of State must be decisive. He has failed in that because he has put off important decisions. The only significant decision that he has made is that there will be another runway at Stansted. When we get the debate on the White Paper, that is bound to go through because of the majority that the Government enjoy. That is an arithmetical fact.

However, great uncertainty remains about the two principal airports in the London system, namely Gatwick and Heathrow. In my judgment, the Government are fundamentally wrong about Heathrow. The main reason why they are unwilling completely to commit themselves to another east-west runway there, between the A4 and the M4, is that they are frightened of the European Union—the only body that makes the Government take fright and take notice. They are wary of infringing the directive on air pollution, particularly in relation to nitrogen dioxide emissions. On those grounds, they seek to say that all the environmental conditions have to be met, particularly on air pollution, but the main environmental condition is that it is a wholly inappropriate place to build another runway.

Why are the emissions so high there? Because it is a built-up, congested area that already has an enormous amount of air traffic and motor traffic—the M4 is part of the nearby motorway network. A lot of aircraft taxi around, and with a fifth terminal and the possibility of mixed-mode operation for at least part of the day, the level of emissions is likely to increase, even if the Government seek to impose higher landing charges on the more polluting aircraft.

The Government have therefore ducked the basic environmental issue, which is that this is the wrong place to put another runway. The airport's potential should be fully realised within the existing geographical confines of Heathrow. British Airways is to concentrate its services at the fifth terminal, rather than dividing them between the first and fourth terminals, which is all to the good. We also know that its domestic and European services will continue to decline because of the competitive impact of low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet. That being the case, I am not certain that the build-up of traffic at Heathrow is going to be quite so large as the Government anticipate.

Furthermore, the Government have assigned to the European Union what should be a basic national right: the right of any sovereign state to decide air service agreements and negotiate them with other Governments. I fear that the consequence of that will be that Brussels will decide that Heathrow is too preponderant on the north Atlantic routes, and that it will seek increasingly to grant air service agreements to carriers on those routes and other long-haul routes, stipulating Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Brussels as a gateway to the European Union, rather than Heathrow.

The proposed site for the new runway is on green-belt land on the edge of Harmondsworth village, where my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall)

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and I recently had the privilege of attending a carol service in the great barn alongside the mediaeval church, by virtue of an invitation from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). That village would be appallingly blighted by the new runway, as would Sipson. That part of the green belt is a crucial lung between highly developed Heathrow and the communities of Hayes, West Drayton and Uxbridge. I speak as the president of the Green Belt Council. It is an unpaid appointment, but I should declare my interest.

I urge the Government to think again about this proposal. There are also purely technical aspects that militate against it. There would be an inordinately long taxi from the central area to the new runway, for example. Aircraft would have to cross the more northerly of the two existing east-west runways to get there. Furthermore, movements on that northern runway will be impinged upon by departures out of RAF Northolt. The White Paper agrees that this is the case. In answer to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, the House was told that flying operations out of RAF Northolt—a core station of strategic value to the country, as the White Paper admits—would impinge on the departure pattern of the most northerly of what will be three runways at Heathrow, if the new one is built. That, too, has not been thought out. Of course, there is a need for a sixth terminal alongside the new runway with parking facilities. High-speed transport links would have to be put in—who would pay for those? That question has not been answered. When the inspector recommended that the fifth terminal at Heathrow should go ahead, he said that in his judgment it should be conditional on there being no further runway development at Heathrow.

The Government have said in the White Paper that if the runway at Heathrow does not go ahead, another should be built at Gatwick. In my judgment, if aviation professionals at the Department deem it sensible that there should be another runway at Stansted, another one at Gatwick is even more overdue because there are already two terminals there. Of course, there is a covenant or arrangement whereby this should not come into operation before 2019, but it is admitted that if another runway were built at Gatwick, the environmental impact would be less than at Heathrow. There would be less noise disturbance and fewer problems from pollution emissions, and those considerations ought to be taken into account.

To conclude, the White Paper is good in parts, but as far as the overall equation in the London area is concerned, the basic decisions have been ducked. There is more potential at Luton—particularly with its new transport links and extended runway—than is recognised. Luton has a great future. There is much more potential at City airport, and if we make more use of places such as Southampton, Manston and Southend in the south-east, we can take the pressure off the London system. That should be the way forward. We should certainly not build a third east-west runway at Heathrow.

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