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To summarise the point that I was making and to conclude this section of my contribution, the exemption in the Bill—which some seek to put into law and which the amendments in this group seek to negate—for MPs’ correspondence with public
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authorities would allow Members of Parliament to present different faces at local level and national level. That is also a reason why the exemption is unhelpful. Members of Parliament should be made to make a choice and should be clear where they stand. It is key to whether we are seen to be accountable that members of the public in our constituencies are able to access letters that we have written to public authorities on important matters. Where the matters are inherently sensitive, they will, of course, fall within the scope of the existing exemption in the same way as normal. The Bill would mean that correspondence would be protected regardless of its sensitivity. That cannot possibly be right.

Moving on to a new point, having taken your strictures to heart, Mr. Deputy Speaker—painful though it may be—I also wonder why the correspondence of Members of Parliament should enjoy special protection that is not available to correspondence from other sources. There is no special protection for communications to a public authority from, say, a local councillor. Local councillors are elected at various levels, including, of course, the London assembly level. They have constituents, as we do, and they take on issues on behalf of their constituents. They have their representational role, as we do. In many ways, their roles in public life mirror what we do. They have a role in creating the framework for action in their council and they have a role in looking after individual constituents.

If the correspondence of Members of Parliament is exempted, why should that exemption not apply to local councillors in the same way? However, there is no suggestion that local councillors should be dealt with in that way. There is no suggestion that Members of the Welsh Assembly, Members of the Scottish Parliament, or anyone in the Northern Ireland Assembly should be dealt with in that way—or anyone in the London assembly, or any other elected public body in this country, all of which have their democratic mandate and constituents with whom they deal, and all of which interact on a daily basis with public bodies of various sorts.

So what is so special about the House of Commons that we have to exempt MPs’ correspondence in that way? It gives out a double-edged message—a message that we create the law for somebody else and do something else ourselves. That is an extremely unattractive message. It risks our being seen by the public at large as hypocritical and it does not command public support. If we are going to provide a special exemption for Members of Parliament, there needs to be a pretty good reason for it, and so far no such reason has been given. I mentioned local councillors. The same thing might apply to NHS chief executives—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot go on repeating examples. He is making the error that he made earlier. I would respectfully say to him that—if we are not going to hear any other arguments—so far there has been no opportunity for anyone else to intervene.

Norman Baker: I am happy to take any interventions.

If MPs’ correspondence alone is withheld—regardless of the circumstances—while everyone else’s
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is disclosed, that will diminish rather than enhance the esteem in which MPs are held. Unfortunately, it will raise the spectre of the possibility of improper lobbying. Above all else, we need to make sure that we are seen as pristine clean and that we have our house in order and have the highest possible standards. The amendments are part of the campaign to achieve that. In recent years, we have seen progress in that regard, whether it is the Register of Members’ Interests or the publication of MPs’ expenses. Those things are part of the same deal.

Mr. Winnick: Would we not have a particular problem in our constituencies and boroughs? If our correspondence is protected in the way outlined in the private Member’s Bill of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), what do we say to councillors in our own borough who say, “Why don’t we have the same protection?” Councillors could ask, “Is our correspondence less important than yours?” That correspondence may be about the same problem. It may be quite likely that someone has written to both of us, so—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The question that the hon. Gentleman is posing follows the answers that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has already politely given to the House. The hon. Member for Lewes should not be tempted to repeat what he has said in response to the desire of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to get information on that point.

Mr. Winnick: If I may continue with my intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was trying to support what the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was saying by giving an illustration of what could happen in my borough.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Of course, I understood that, as the hon. Gentleman knows. However, I thought that we had already had a full exposition of that point.

Norman Baker: I am grateful both for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and for the intervention made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North. It is useful to know that one is not alone and that other Members share my concerns.

Having dealt with amendment No. 2, let me turn to amendment No. 14, which states:

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. There is really no need for the hon. Gentleman to read out the amendment; everyone has it in front of them.

Norman Baker: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was merely trying to be helpful to the House as we address this complicated matter.

Amendment No. 14 would slightly reinforce the protection of personal information about Members’ constituents by a different route. As I explained when I was speaking to amendment No. 2, I do not believe that amendment No. 14 is necessary. Nevertheless, it
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has been tabled in good faith to encourage Members who have genuine worries about the issue to find an alternative way forward. I make it plain for the record that the amendment is not my preferred solution. However, it offers a way forward to those who have concerns but are not persuaded by the arguments for amendment No. 2, difficult though it is to believe that that could be the case.

Amendment No. 14 would establish part of the case for the exemption of personal information about Members’ constituents under section 41 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. There are three criteria under which information would qualify for an actionable breach of confidence: the information disclosed must be confidential; it must be supplied explicitly or implicitly in confidence; and it must be likely to cause detriment to the confider if disclosed. The amendment would establish the second criterion precisely, especially through the phrase—I was about to read this out before you properly curtailed me, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is defying the Chair if he is proceeding to read out something that I had asked him not to read.

Norman Baker: I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not intend to read the entire amendment. I was merely picking out eight words to highlight the key point about the criterion, but obviously I will not read them out if you believe that it would be inappropriate for me to do so.

It is clear that the supply of material to a Member of Parliament in confidence is at the heart of our discussion. The question whether it is implicitly or explicitly supplied in confidence is also important. Constituents will write to us saying that information is being explicitly given in confidence by writing “confidential” on a letter, or by expressly saying in a letter that they do not want the information to be passed on. However, we get a much greater volume of correspondence including information that is implicitly given in confidence. Amendment No. 14 would ensure that that implicit confidentiality was recognised. I hope that that will give succour to hon. Members who still have concerns.

David Howarth: I do not want to cause trouble for my hon. Friend’s amendment. However, given that there is now a lot of common law about confidentiality, did he intend the amendment to be in line with judge-made law on confidentiality, or to start a whole new statutory scheme?

Norman Baker: It is important that we try to build on existing law when possible. We should try to ensure that what the House does through legislation corresponds as fully as possible to what the public expect and case law in the courts. It would be very foolish to begin a whole new process and create a structure that people did not understand. That might lead to correspondence being dealt with inappropriately. The strength of the present position is that the Data Protection Acts and the Freedom of Information Act are clearly understood. They work
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well together, and amendment No. 14 builds on them without seeking to open up new avenues—

It being half-past Two o’clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday next.

Remaining Private Members’ Bills

Vehicle registration marks bill

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [19 January], That the Bill be read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 18 May.

criminal law (amendment) (protection of property) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 29 June.

INfrastructure audit (housing development) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 29 June.

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Elder Abuse

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Cawsey.]

2.31 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I call Mr. Paul Burstow. Where is Mr. Burstow?

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he is extremely fortunate. Because of where he was sitting I might have thought that he was not in the Chamber.

Mr. Burstow: I apologise for my laxness in not being in the right place at the right time. I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak on this subject.

I have come to the House in the past to express concerns about elder abuse, and I hope not to have to do so in future. I start by acknowledging that things are being done by the Government, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and other agencies that mark progress since I first raised these matters in the House in the early part of the century, in 2001-02. However, I want to deal with a number of issues that require more response, more action and more initiative from the Government. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

I want to deal with two recurring examples of abuse of our elderly citizens. Indeed, they are recurring indictments of the failure fully to realise the nature and scale of the problem and what needs to be done to tackle it. The first is the appalling practice of elderly people in care homes being subject to chemical management by over-medication and inappropriate medication. The second is the continued failure of the “No Secrets” guidance to deliver the professional and compassionate protection that vulnerable and elderly people deserve.

Elder abuse is a widespread, growing and historically under-acknowledged problem. In many ways it is still a taboo subject. The most up-to-date research is from 1995, and I openly acknowledge that during the Health Committee’s inquiry the 1995 estimate of the number of older people being abused was not accepted by the Government as an indicator of the position today. The problem is that two or three years after the Health Committee published its report we do not have an up-to-date figure. The 1995 data given to the Committee during its inquiry indicate that at any one time 500,000 older people are being abused. That is without accounting for the abuse of people in care homes. In 2004, the Community District Nursing Association revealed that 88 per cent. of district nurses reported seeing cases of elder abuse. That cannot continue.

There is some evidence, from research by King’s College London, that public awareness of the problem is beginning to grow, thanks to campaigns such as those run by Help the Aged and Action on Elder Abuse. Some 55 per cent. of respondents interviewed felt that there was a great deal of neglect and
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mistreatment of older people in Britain, while 25 per cent. knew an older person whom they believed had been subject to neglect and mistreatment, with half saying that it had occurred either in care homes or hospitals. Lack of personal care was felt to be the greatest failing, and one in 10 respondents cited mismanagement of medicine as a core problem. Despite the growing public awareness, a lot still needs to be done to meet the challenge.

I come now to the question of over-medication and inappropriate medication. That is sometimes described as the “chemical cosh”, although that might or might not be appropriate. I have spoken on past occasions about the dangers of anti-psychotic drugs, their overuse in care homes, the tendency for care homes to use them to sedate patients to the extent that they lose mobility and mental capacity, the way in which the drugs strip patients of their dignity and autonomy, and the Government’s failure to address such abuse.

In 2001, I published a report entitled “Keep taking the medicine.” It detailed the worrying rise in the prescription of those drugs to people in care and highlighted the evidence that thousands of elderly people in nursing homes were being kept in a state of sedation for no medical reason. I updated the report in 2003, finding that little had changed and that action was still required. A third report in 2006 revealed that more than 25,000 people in care homes could be the victims of over-medication and inappropriate medication.

The evidence is clear: medicine is being given incorrectly; adverse reactions to the drugs are under-recorded; and better alternatives are available. The Minister may therefore understand the disappointment and concern that I felt last month when I read a report from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust confirming that anti-psychotic drugs are still being used to manage dementia patients, to the long-term detriment of their health, well-being and dignity.

Those drugs are not licensed for the treatment of dementia, yet they are prescribed to as many as 45 per cent. of sufferers in nursing homes, and are used in an attempt to deal with problems such as agitation, delusion, anxiety and aggressive behaviour. The trust’s findings show that far from enhancing the life of those patients, the drugs shorten life, they slow response, mobility and cognition, and they do nothing to treat the illness. That is to say nothing of the fact that the medicine safety experts state that patients suffering dementia are three times more likely to suffer a stroke if they are being given those drugs.

The issue of prescription is key. The Commission for Social Care Inspection published a report entitled “Handle with care.” The CSCI has stated that

It has also said:

In addition, it has said:

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