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5 Dec 2006 : Column 21WH—continued

John McDonnell: In one of our community conference consultations, the point was made that under the Inner London education authority a group of Punjabi speakers came together to establish an association and in that way became advocates for the language. That group also set standards about how the language was taught in both schools and community organisations. In many ways, it is the community sector
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that requires the support. It would be helpful if we could pass on to the relevant Department the suggestion that such an initiative might be reinvigorated through cultural funds.

Meg Munn: As I said, I am happy to pass the issue on to the DFES, which I am sure will give it appropriate consideration.

My hon. Friend also raised the important issue of the role of the media in promoting community cohesion, and I agree with the point that was made. There are clear benefits to be had from representation in the media and in the important areas of arts and culture, to which he referred. Inviting the relevant Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to a meeting of the all-party group might be an appropriate way to take those issues forward.

My hon. Friend also raised the important issue of cases where Sikhs have been attacked. One victim was a constituent of his. Like all other hon. Members, I deplore such crimes. The Government have introduced racially and religiously aggravated offences, which are designed to send a clear message that racist and faith-related crime will not be tolerated. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced nine new racially aggravated offences, which in England and Wales carry higher maximum penalties where there is evidence of a racist motive or racial hostility in connection with the offence. Clearly, my hon. Friend wishes to ask the Home Secretary to examine those issues, and I shall pass the substance of the debate on to the relevant Minister.

Hon. Members raised issues about religious dress. This Government believe that each of the UK’s faith and ethnic communities should be free to express its particular beliefs. Freedom of religious observance for all citizens is a fundamental principle of a free society. In a democratic and diverse society, people of faith must have the right and choice in respect of whether to wear religious dress or not. Such a decision should be made according to their own conscience and beliefs, and should not be subject to interference from Government.

Hon. Members asked how these issues are dealt with in certain circumstances. Adopting some form of protocol on the wearing of religious symbols is an interesting idea that we could discuss. I am interested to hear about situations where people feel that the matter is causing a problem. I listened to the points made by hon. Members about problems in other European Union countries, and I shall make the relevant ministerial colleagues aware of the issue so that they can raise it in appropriate situations.

Patrick Hall: I thank my hon. Friend for alluding to the issue that I raised, which was specifically the attitude of security staff at Brussels international airport. Brussels is home to the European Union Commission and Parliament, never mind that there may be other reasons why Punjabis, particularly Sikhs, might want to go there. Will she raise that issue with her colleagues?

Meg Munn: Absolutely. The matter should be raised in the appropriate forum and I will ensure that the relevant ministerial colleagues are made aware of the issue.

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Tom Brake: The Minister referred to a code of practice or general procedure being an interesting idea. The idea was raised around 18 months ago, immediately prior to the general election, and a promise was made that a code of practice would be delivered. What has happened since then?

Meg Munn: My understanding is that further work is being done and that the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, led by Darra Singh, will be asked to examine the issue, which goes wider than just the Sikh community.

Hon. Members will be aware, or at least not surprised to learn, that India has the UK's largest visa operation. Applications are expected to rise to more than 400,000 in this financial year. Our four visa issuing offices continue to offer an excellent standard of service with around 96 per cent. of straightforward applications being processed within 24 hours. That meets public service agreement targets. I can offer the assurance that the refusal rate is falling. It was 26.5 per cent. in 2005-06 and is 18.9 per cent. so far this year.

John McDonnell: It would be remiss of us as hon. Members who deal with visa cases almost daily not to record the improvement and congratulate the staff involved in the various consulates and embassies. Those of us who deal with visa cases at our surgeries have often found them extremely distressing because people have missed funerals, weddings and other important occasions. Many of those cases have now been resolved, and I thank the staff for what they have done and the Government for their involvement.

Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend and assure him that the issue is being monitored. I am sure that hon. Members will raise the matter with the relevant Minister if there are difficulties.

Patrick Hall: I want to reiterate the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made about the opening of the British High Commission’s sub-office at Jalandhar. That is extremely welcome, not least because of the convenience of not having to travel to the High Commission’s office in Delhi. It is important to enhance the Jalandhar office because it will help to reduce the number of instances of Punjabis receiving bogus advice, which they pay for, about what they need to do to secure entry clearance. That bogus advice often costs them a visa, not just once but for many years thereafter.

Meg Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue and will communicate it to the relevant Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington raised the important issue of torture and the specific case of Professor Bhullar, which are matters of concern. We are aware of that case and, as hon. Members are aware, the UK opposes capital punishment in all circumstances. Only last month, we formally raised with India its use of the death penalty and expressed our concern about that.

Rob Marris: India is a friend of this country. Have the UK Government recently raised with the Government of India the fact that Amnesty International has been excluded from Punjab for 30 years, as has the UN
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rapporteur on human rights? It seems extraordinary that the Republic of India allows that to continue in the state of Punjab. What representations have the UK Government made to the Indian Government about that?

Meg Munn: I am afraid that I do not have the specific details. My hon. Friend will be aware that that matter does not come within my portfolio. However, I shall make inquiries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington raised the issue of compensation for prisoners of war and other issues with which the Ministry of Defence is concerned. No doubt he and the all-party group will seek to raise those directly.

John McDonnell: May I put on record the work that Colonel Chanan Singh Dhillon has done in both India and this country? He highlighted the overall issue and has taken up individual cases. It would be invaluable if he could meet Ministry of Defence officials on his next visit to this country to discuss those cases.

Meg Munn: I am pleased that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to put that on the record.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on local government, gave us an opportunity to review last year’s debate and raised a number of issues. On appointments, clearly the most important issue is to ensure that people apply and that they are aware of them. The Government encourage organisations to ensure that that happens. When we were seeking commissioners for the commission for equality and human Rights recently, we were most concerned, particularly given the nature of that new body, to ensure that as many people as possible with relevant experience from all communities had the opportunity to apply. A great deal of effort was made to ensure that that was taken forward. There is a recognised code of practice for the Commissioner for Public Appointments to ensure that the processes take place properly.

It is important to say that the Government have mechanisms for meeting representatives of all faith communities through the Faith Communities Consultative Council, which meets regularly and is usually attended by either my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government or me. That body includes a representative from the British Sikh Consultative Forum and from the Network of Sikh Organisations. That is the mechanism that we use to raise issues with faith organisations and to take them forward.

We have had an extraordinarily wide-ranging debate and I have done my best, in the time available, to respond to as many as possible of the points that hon. Members raised with the information that is immediately available to me. This has been an important debate and an important way of having an in-depth discussion about one section of our community. The all-party group should congratulate itself on again having had what I hope it believes was a fruitful discussion. I look forward to continuing to work with all hon. Members who have concerns about these important issues.

10.59 am

Sitting suspended.

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Staffordshire Ambulance Service

11 am

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): It is a pleasure—in some ways—to be here, and a pleasure, too, to see so many Staffordshire Members of Parliament present. I bring apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who had to be abroad on parliamentary business today.

We have all heard of a postcode lottery in the national health service. Until recently, we in Staffordshire have been the beneficiary of that lottery. We have the best ambulance service in Europe, and until now, a person was four-and-a-half times more likely to survive a severe heart attack in Staffordshire than in the west midlands. Why? Staffordshire ambulance service crews and community first responders arrive quickly to attend to victims, and until now, they have had the right drugs and equipment to apply treatment. But no longer. Life-saving equipment has been withdrawn from emergency ambulances, and drugs and equipment have been removed from community first responders. It is something that all Staffordshire MPs—Labour and Conservative—feared. We warned the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health, and we are now witnessing a tragedy unfold before our eyes.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Michael Fabricant: I shall give way in a few moments, once I have developed my argument.

The tragedy will unnecessarily reduce standards of care in the NHS, and people have estimated that it will cost many lives each year in Staffordshire. If it is not halted, the clock will start ticking with the first death. Let me be clear: this debate is all about saving lives and praising the paramedics and community first responders who are so professional in their work in Staffordshire. However, they are being let down badly by the lack of leadership, the weakness and the unprofessionalism of some of their senior management.

Although Ministers provoked the problem through their merger plans with the West Midlands ambulance service, there have been unintended and avoidable consequences. I shall go further, and say to the Minister that the Department of Health has been professional and consistent in its advice to the management of Staffordshire ambulance service. They have chosen to ignore it, and to risk lives as a consequence. I hope that the Minister will pass on my praise to the health professionals in his Department, whose letters I shall quote from later.

Roger Thayne—the former chief executive of Staffordshire ambulance service, who built it up to become the great service that is now so under threat—and many others estimate that 20 lives or more will be lost unnecessarily in Staffordshire each year, because of confused and bewildered management. They have a lot to answer for.

I intend to expose to the Chamber the web of deception and lies that has engulfed the new
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management of the Staffordshire ambulance service ever since the Government announced their intention to merge it with the West Midlands ambulance service. Before that announcement, Staffordshire ambulance service had been demonstrating the kind of leadership in public care that was the envy of communities throughout the United Kingdom—and overseas.

When Staffordshire ambulance service recognised that most lives were saved in the first five minutes after an emergency, and that it would never be able to secure the resources to provide a rapid emergency ambulance service to rural areas, it set up progressive, community-focused initiatives. They included teaching first aid to children as young as five, and making defibrillators available in local areas. That common-sense approach resulted in the Staffordshire service achieving the UK’s quickest response times and some of the country’s highest survival rates. Cardiac arrest outcomes were about five times better than the national average, and four-and-a-half times better than in the area served by the West Midlands ambulance service.

In a national context, if all ambulance services were as successful as the Staffordshire service was—it is important that I have to use the past tense—the NHS would discharge each year between 4,000 and 5,000 more patients alive than dead. Staffordshire did all that while maintaining costs to the taxpayer which were 30 per cent. lower than the national average. A success story, indeed.

I shall discuss two issues. The first is the drugs that have been withdrawn from community first responders, or CFRs, and the second is the ResQPOD units that have been removed from CFRs, regular ambulance crews and paramedics. One of the most important and successful initiatives developed by the Staffordshire service is the community first responder service. Those local volunteers are highly trained, and they are supplied with the necessary drugs to treat heart attacks, asthma, epileptic fits, injuries due to falls, or serious trauma. They start the treatment that is continued by a community paramedic, who is also based locally, which is in turn continued by an emergency ambulance crew. All CFR work is supported and overseen by a doctor, who is available 24 hours a day and provides instruction over the phone. Often, CFRs reach an emergency first, in those life-saving minutes immediately after an incident.

Why have the new management of Staffordshire ambulance service, in the shape of chairman, Robert Lake, and acting chief executive, Geoff Catling, removed vital drugs from CFRs and life-saving equipment from paramedics and trained volunteers? We can only speculate. They blame the law, the Government and the Medicines Act 1968. However, that is a lie, as I shall demonstrate later.

One possible reason for the removal is that a West Midlands ambulance paramedic, not from Staffordshire, who is a paid UNISON official, first raised the issue of CFRs carrying life-saving emergency drugs and equipment through his concern that paid paramedics and ambulance crews would lose out on overtime and job opportunities. We do not have such problems with industrial relations in the Staffordshire ambulance service, thank God. In any event, Staffordshire CFRs are never used as an alternative to the ambulance service; for all 999 calls, a paramedic
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and/or ambulance is called out. CFRs simply arrive on the scene more quickly, as they are based in the area; I want to reassure UNISON, a good and constructive trade union, of that fact.

A quick response time is not enough, however. Without drugs and equipment, CFRs cannot do their job.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the Coppice Lane estate in my constituency? It is effectively cut off by a railway line, which creates enormous problems, because there are no facilities available with the proper equipment and medical care.

Michael Fabricant: I used to represent Stone, before a boundary change, so I know the area. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, there are many other areas like that in rural Staffordshire. At this point, I should like to heap praise on the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) who has been only too aware of that very problem in her own rural constituency.

Why has the change taken place? The excuse given by Lake and Catling for withdrawing drugs and services is that their use is illegal under the Medicines Act. The Act prescribes which drugs can be administered by whom and under what circumstances, such as emergencies. It also outlines clinical governance for the storage and distribution of those drugs. That news first became public when on 17 October, NHS West Midlands head of special projects, Steve Coney, wrote to Members of Parliament and others informing them that all but three drugs previously available to save lives were to be withdrawn. Confusingly, the very next day, Staffordshire ambulance service issued a press release saying that, actually, six drugs remained available.

The press release was supported by correspondence from acting chief executive, Geoff Catling, who wrote to MPs and others. In his letter from the Staffordshire ambulance service, he said:

I am glad that he admits that—

by whom, we do not know—

The indictment is clear. He blames the Medicines Act and the Government. He is right that the Medicines Act is clear, but it is not as he misleadingly claims. The use of the drugs is entirely legal—an opinion consistently supported by the Department of Health and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. I have a letter from Victoria Milnes at the Department of Health’s customer service centre:

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which they are,

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