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HOUSE OF COMMONS COMMISSION

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Disabled Parking (Parliamentary Estate)

31. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab): How many parking places for disabled drivers there are on the House of Commons estate. [61513]

Nick Harvey (representing the House of Commons Commission): There are four marked parking spaces for disabled drivers in Star Chamber Court and two in Norman Shaw car park. The roadway markings in Star Chamber Court will be redrawn over the Whitsun recess, with some minor remarking done over the Easter recess to clarify that the two bays affected by the new bollards remain available for use.

Mrs. Riordan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those reassurances. However, the disabled parking bays in Star Chamber Court have for many months been eaten into by alterations. As they need to be longer and wider to allow for disabled access, could the hon. Gentleman reassure me that four, not three, disabled parking bays will be put back into full use?
 
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Nick Harvey: I can offer the hon. Lady that assurance. We will make certain that four are available for use, and if those do not appear to meet the necessary demand we can always consider other possibilities as well.

Environmental Performance

32. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What further steps the Commission plans to take to improve the environmental performance of the House. [61514]

Nick Harvey: New energy and water policies were adopted by both Houses in late 2005, bringing the parliamentary estate closely into line with efficiency targets set by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for Government Departments. Work with the Carbon Trust since April 2004 is also helping to identify a range of measures that can improve our environmental performance.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that during the debate on 3 November, serious concern was expressed on both sides of the Chamber about the lamentable environmental performance of this House. Can he confirm that the comments that Members made on that occasion, including those in my report, "How Green is Your Parliament?", will be taken forward and that we will have a full debate later this year when we can consider whether the House has made significant progress on that matter or is still spending almost half a million pounds on useless canopies?

Nick Harvey: My hon. Friend's dedication on this issue is known across the House, and he did indeed produce a helpful report late last year. I have already indicated to him that many of the suggestions that he made are being taken up by the House authorities. Later this year, the Commission will produce a further annual report, and I very much hope that time will be made available for a debate on it in the autumn so that my hon. Friend has the chance to satisfy himself that progress is being made.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the question by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the unwanted environmental protection screen cost £422,000. Would not it have been cheaper to supply each of the 646 Members of Parliament with a £20 umbrella from the Commons Shop, costing £12,920 and saving £409,080 that could have been invested in energy-saving measures?

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman is wrong in thinking that the principal reason for the walkway was environmental—many users of the parliamentary estate had slipped there because of the wet surface. It is also the principal access to the House for disabled people, and the need for a walkway had been identified in that regard. The cost of the walkway has been addressed previously during questions in this House.
 
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Cleaning Services

33. Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): On how many occasions since 10 October the brass fittings in the lift to the Special Gallery West have been polished. [61515]

Nick Harvey: The brass fittings in the lift to the Special Gallery West have not been polished for many years. Following professional conservation advice, the policy has been that, to prevent damage, such metalwork should not be polished but regularly cleaned with a dry chamois leather or duster.

Mr. Bacon: I thought that we would hear something about conservation. Could we please have some consistency? One has only to visit the Ways and Means Corridor or the Library Corridor to see fittings treated differently. Tourists now visit parts of the Palace that look shabby because of lack of cleaning. It is a disgrace.

Nick Harvey: As I explained, we are following advice in adopting our policy. Given the mixture of heritage and modern brass in the Commons, it would be difficult to begin distinguishing between them. It is therefore considered safer to avoid polishing and let a protective patina build up.

LEADER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS

The Leader of the House was asked—

Business Committee

34. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will bring forward a motion to establish a House of Commons business committee. [61516]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): We have no plans to alter the current arrangements for setting House of Commons business.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for that non-reply, which was courteously delivered. Does not he accept—as the Leader of the House will accept, as he attended a Hansard Society seminar this morning—that most other legislatures in the world have a business committee? The devolved institutions—the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and the Parliament in Scotland—have Business Committees. Does not the hon. Gentleman believe that it would help the House to have a business committee and thus bring the business closer to the people who comprise the House, not only Ministers?

Nigel Griffiths: No. Is that direct enough?


 
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Far East Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

3.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the outcome of the review that I announced on 12 December 2005 of the Government's ex gratia payment scheme for former far east prisoners of war and civilian internees.

The review has been thorough. It has been an immense undertaking, requiring a check of nearly 30,000 claim and policy files to determine whether consistent eligibility criteria had been used for civilian internees over the life of the scheme. The review has confirmed that the eligibility rules, based on the 1950s Japanese asset scheme, were the basis for making payments between the introduction of the scheme on 7 November 2000 and March 2001.

The civilian eligibility criteria under the 1950s scheme were based on normal residence in the United Kingdom at the time of internment. We now know that that was not consistent with the birth-link criterion introduced from March 2001. The birth-link criterion was introduced to expand eligibility, not restrict it. Consequently, the number of former civilian internees who qualified increased by 40 per cent. However, some 245 claimants who were paid under the Japanese asset scheme criteria cannot, on the evidence available, be shown to meet the birth-link criterion.

Furthermore, some 13 claimants who would have met the Japanese asset scheme criteria were denied payments because they failed to meet the birth-link criterion. Fewer than 20 claimants were paid in error around the time of the introduction of the birth-link criterion, apparently on the basis that they were recorded as British on contemporary camp lists.

I have considered a wide range of options for how we should proceed in the light of those inconsistencies. I have listened to the views of the Association of British Civilian Internees of the Far East Region. I have met the chair of the all-party group on far east prisoners of war and internees, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), and other colleagues.

I have also looked again at the principle that to qualify, claimants should have a close link to the United Kingdom. That principle has underpinned the scheme from the start, and the fact that decisions were originally based on a 1950s scheme whose criteria included normal residence in the United Kingdom before internment is consistent with that. I have considered very carefully whether this is still a reasonable basis for the Government's definition of those to whom the country owed a debt. I have concluded that it is—a view that was supported by the courts.

I understand the argument put forward by many that all those who were British subjects at the time—and interned on that basis—should qualify for a payment. However, anyone born in a British colony was a British subject, and many of those people are now the citizens of a country that was given independence, and have never had a close link to the United Kingdom. I have therefore concluded that the right course of action is for
 
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there to be a further widening of the scheme to include those who have made some clear commitment or contribution to the United Kingdom.

On that basis, I have decided to make certain changes to the criteria for civilian internees. First, I am clear that we must include those who were rejected under the birth-link criterion but who would have met the Japanese asset scheme criteria, whether or not they had a Japanese asset scheme record. It would be unfair and improper if, as a matter of policy, claimants who were identical in all significant respects should have succeeded before March 2001 but failed thereafter. These rules will also apply to new claimants.

Secondly, I have decided to introduce a new provision to include those who have resided in the United Kingdom for at least 20 years since world war two, until November 2000, when the scheme was introduced. I have had discussions with the all-party group and with ABCIFER, and I have listened to their views. Indeed, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and his colleagues, and to Ron Bridge of ABCIFER, whose comments and advice have been extremely helpful as we have all sought to resolve the matter before us. I have chosen the figure of 20 years as a reasonable measure of an individual's commitment to the United Kingdom, meaning that they are likely to have spent at least part of their working life here. This is consistent with the original principle that British civilians should have a close link with the United Kingdom in order to qualify.

Eligibility will go to anyone who was alive on 7 November 2000, when the scheme was introduced, or to their spouse or estate if they have since died. It will also extend to members of the armed forces of our former colonies, including the Indian army, who similarly meet this residence requirement and were held as prisoners of war. We have previously had reservations about a residence criterion because of the difficulty of providing supporting evidence. However, the 1950s scheme was residence based, and we expect the numbers now to be much smaller, both of which considerations suggest that the task before us should be manageable.

We also need to resolve details of how the 20-year rule should be applied. We will publish details of the qualifying criteria as soon as they are agreed, and I would ask potential claimants not to apply until then, so that when they do so they can provide the evidence required to process their applications. To that end, I can announce that ABCIFER and the chair of the all-party group on far east prisoners of war have accepted my invitation to join me in a working group to consider how we should take forward these points and resolve them. We assess that the change could admit some 500 new claimants, although the figures cannot be estimated with certainty.

I should also comment on the birth-link criterion. This was found by the High Court to have resulted in unlawful indirect discrimination. The judgment is the subject of appeals from both sides, and I have decided that we should not take any decisions on its future until that appeal is resolved. The review has shown that, in part at least due to the scale and urgency of the desire on all sides to make payments, there have been shortcomings in administration of the scheme. Those are the subject of a separate ongoing investigation due
 
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to be completed in the summer, and I will make a further statement to the House at that time. But our review has shown that the numbers adversely affected—that is, those who met the Japanese asset scheme criteria, but were rejected because they did not have a birth link—represent a very small proportion.

I apologise deeply for the fact that a number of people did not receive the payment that they should have received. We will address those cases as a matter of urgency, in particular contacting those whom we know to have been affected. The Government have made payments in excess of £250 million since the scheme was introduced, and more than 25,000 people have benefited.

I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that the steps I have announced today address the one outstanding group who could reasonably claim to have a close link to the United Kingdom based on residence since the war. I am confident that the revised eligibility criteria are a fair reflection of our country's debt to those for whom it could be reasonably said that we have a responsibility. On that basis, I ask the House to support the scheme that I am announcing today, and I commend this statement to the House.


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