Previous Section Index Home Page

18 Dec 2007 : Column 736

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the agreement. He puts his finger on an important point. As he will know, the UK will invest some £800 million through the environmental transformation fund over the next three years. We also need to redirect a lot of the funding from the international financial institutions, and that is what the clean energy investment framework is about. Ultimately, the issue is having an effective, functioning carbon market. As carbon increasingly acquires a price, we have the best hope of redirecting the huge amount of investment that will be going into energy generation, which is—from memory—some $22 trillion over the next few years, from high-carbon energy generation to low-carbon energy generation. That is where the bulk of the money will come from. Some of the pilot projects that I mentioned in answer to an earlier question on carbon capture and storage are the UK Government’s contribution to helping to demonstrate that technology working in practice. Whoever perfects it first will have a lot of CCS kit to sell, which is another example of the big market opportunities available in tackling climate change and moving towards a low-carbon economy.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I pay tribute to the energy and commitment that my right hon. Friend brings to this issue and his role in the successful outcome of the Bali talks. On the question of the US, did not the representative from Papua New Guinea capture the sentiment of the world when he said to the US representatives, “We would like you to lead the world on this issue, but if you cannot lead the world, at least do not stand in the way of the world finding solutions.” Is not the real point that it is not a choice, as the US believes, between technology and targets, but that the remedy lies in technology and targets?

Hilary Benn: I agree completely with my hon. Friend. That moment on the Friday morning was especially striking, and we should acknowledge that the leader of the US delegation, Paula Dobriansky, shortly afterwards said that her group wished to join the consensus. In the end, a negotiation is a negotiation. Does everyone always get what they want in a negotiation? No, they do not. The question is whether people are prepared to show enough flexibility to achieve a deal, and in the end the US did. My hon. Friend is right: we need technology, targets, effort and political will to achieve deals such as the one we got in Bali. Despite all our differences, no delegation wanted to leave without having reached an agreement, as we all understood just how much was at stake.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me if I missed the answer to my question in an earlier exchange, but to what extent did nuclear power feature in the Bali discussions? What assessment have he and his ministerial colleagues made of the positive input that civil nuclear power could make to helping this country cut its contribution to global warming?

Hilary Benn: I cannot recollect anyone raising that question in the course of discussions and, from memory, I do not think that civil nuclear power figures in the agreement. Although it is tempting to prejudge the consultation that has been taking place, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until after Christmas for the outcome.
18 Dec 2007 : Column 737
However, in the fight against dangerous climate, we are all having to think about things that we did not have to think about before.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I should like to congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on the progress made towards including deforestation in a post-Kyoto framework. Does he agree that that progress must give renewed emphasis to our efforts to tackle illegal logging during next year’s Japanese presidency of the G8? We must make sure that that dialogue is firmly on the agenda. Does he agree that, if we are to succeed in introducing red lines into the post-Kyoto settlement, special emphasis must be placed on clarifying land rights and rendering land-use contracts transparent?

Hilary Benn: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the enormous amount of work that he does on deforestation, and he is right to say that it is a practical problem. It is very appropriate that we should have reached the first global deal on deforestation in Indonesia, given the scale of the challenge that that country faces. Fundamentally, it is a matter of governance in the countries that produce the wood. For instance, do they know who, if anyone, should be cutting down the trees? Can they verify that, and certify that exported timber has been legally logged? When the appropriate arrangements are in place, customs officers at Harwich or Lowestoft will be able to ask whether a shipment of timber from Indonesia, for example, has a certificate of legality. If it does not, they will not let it into the country. That is the deal that producer and importer countries must arrive at, and we will play our part when producer countries are able to play theirs.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I, too, welcome moves to reduce and prevent deforestation, but the reduction of tariffs on foodstuffs as a result of World Trade Organisation negotiations is one of the biggest incentives for people to cut and burn established forests. If we are serious about deforestation, should
18 Dec 2007 : Column 738
not reduced tariffs apply only to food products that are produced in a sustainable manner, and not to those produced as a result of rainforest destruction?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting and important point that most often arises in the context of biofuels. They are a major issue in Indonesia, given the extent of the palm oil plantations there. Biofuels will make a contribution, but they will not solve the problem, and the most important thing is to draw up ways to measure the sustainability of the biofuels that are produced. For example, the corn grown for methanol often has a worse impact than what it replaces, but other forms of biofuel are much better. If Europe sets the sustainability standards for what we import, that will send a message to producers that they should not slash and burn, as that would make the problem even worse, rather than better.


Expenses of Public Servants (Publication)

Norman Baker presented a Bill to make provision for the recording and publication of specified expenses incurred by certain public servants; to promote transparency in the use of public funds; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 29 February, and to be printed. [Bill 46].

Road Traffic (Prohibition of Anti-detection Devices)

Mr. Alistair Carmichael presented a Bill to prohibit the supply of devices and substances designed to impair the recognition of vehicle registration marks by speed cameras and other authorised traffic control devices; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 16 May, and to be printed. [Bill 47].

18 Dec 2007 : Column 739

Human Rights Act 1998 (Meaning of Public Function)

1.25 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I beg to move,

The purpose of my Bill is to ensure that, when the private sector carries out public functions—for example, in contracted-out care for the elderly—the Human Rights Act 1998 will apply. My Bill seeks to reinstate unambiguously the wide interpretation of the term “public function” that was understood to be the meaning of section 6 when the Act was passed, but which has now been cancelled out by court judgments. My intention is to ensure that human rights’ protections apply comprehensively, directly and consistently to all those who receive public services from private providers, including the most vulnerable members of our society, such as the elderly in care homes. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, is extremely concerned about this issue and continues to press the Government to resolve it.

The Human Rights Act 1998 brought home the rights set out in the European convention. Previously, British people had to go to Strasbourg to challenge breaches of their human rights. However, the protection of the Act has been less comprehensive than Parliament intended, because of the judges’ interpretation of the meaning of “public function”. Under section 6, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in way that is incompatible with a convention right.

The Act states that a public authority includes

During the Bill’s passage through the House, the then Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor made it clear that privatised or contracted-out public services were intended to be within its scope. We were told that the “public function” definition emphasised the functions rather than the institutional status of the body performing them. Since the 1998 Act came into force, a series of court cases has considered whether a specific private company or organisation that provided services came within its ambit. The exclusion of the private sector has caused the wide interpretation that was originally intended to be disregarded completely.

In 2002, the local authority-funded residents of a care home run by the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, a private charity, wanted to challenge the decision to close their home. They claimed that that decision broke their right to respect for their home under article 8 of the European convention. However, the Court of Appeal found that the care home was not a public authority under section 6 of the 1998 Act, so the residents could not enforce their rights, even though the council still had its obligations to them.

In the most recent case—the YL case—the Law Lords put matters beyond doubt. YL was an 84-year-old lady with Alzheimer’s, and the council had organised her care in a private home. Her family raised concerns about her treatment, and the home then gave Mrs. YL 28 days’ notice to quit, because care home residents have no security of tenure whatsoever. There was evidence that her condition would deteriorate if she was transferred
18 Dec 2007 : Column 740
to an unfamiliar setting, so her relatives challenged the decision under section 6 of the 1998 Act. However, the Law Lords ruled that care homes run by private companies, even when they have a contract for the placement of residents at public expense, are not public authorities for the purposes of the 1998 Act.

In 2004, the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded that the test being applied by the courts in such cases was “highly problematic”. In many instances, it resulted in an organisation

but without the State’s legal responsibilities under the 1998 Act. That had led to a “serious gap” in the protection that the Act was intended to offer.

The judgment in the YL case has made matters worse. It has created a problem with immediate practical implications of much wider significance, because so many services previously delivered by public authorities are now privatised or contracted out. The implications extend across the range of especially vulnerable people in society, affecting not just elderly people in private care homes but, for example, tenants in housing association properties, people with physical or learning disabilities and looked-after children.

In November 2005, the Government published guidance for local authorities on contracting in the light of the Human Rights Act. We found that guidance alone cannot solve the problem; in reality it has proved utterly useless. It dissuaded procurement officers from taking a positive approach. No model process was recommended, nor were standard contract terms. The guidance was badly written, difficult to follow and unpublicised. The guidance lacked accessibility. It was written in highly technical language, and was difficult to understand. It was hard to find and gave no practical examples. There were no mechanisms to monitor the impact on procurement. In general, local authorities were not even aware that the guidance existed. Guidance can never be a substitute for the direct application of the Human Rights Act to service providers.

The Government strategy of intervening in court cases has proved a failure, too, following the YL judgment. The legal position for other services is now extremely uncertain and must not be left to the vagaries of judicial interpretation. There is an urgent need to ensure that our human rights law clearly and unambiguously protects vulnerable people. The recent Joint Committee on Human Rights report on the treatment of the elderly in hospitals and care homes drew attention to appalling evidence of woeful neglect, lack of dignity and respect, and ignorance of the human rights of the elderly. The existing legislation does not sufficiently protect and promote the rights of older people in health care.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who has responsibility for care services, and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who has responsibility for human rights, both agree that the present position is anomalous and must be addressed. Recently, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health told me:

In evidence to my Committee last month, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice said:

I am not persuaded that the problem can be rectified by the regulators; nor am I satisfied that legislative reform should have to await the outcome of the Government’s proposals for a British Bill of Rights, which could take years to emerge, if they ever do.

The Health and Social Care Bill, currently before Parliament, provides an ideal opportunity to address the specific anomaly identified in YL, but the Government have yet to explain why the Bill should not be amended to ensure that providers of health and social care are brought within the Human Rights Act. However, although a sector-by-sector approach could provide a short-term fix for some cases, we need a legislative solution to achieve the broad scope of the Human Rights Act originally envisaged by Parliament.

Last year, the then Lord Chancellor made the extraordinary proposition that a widening of the definition of public authority could have the effect of driving private providers out of the market. I say “extraordinary”, because it would not be a widening of the definition, but would be on all fours with what Lord Irvine of Lairg—the previous Lord Chancellor—told Parliament was intended when the Bill was before it. Moreover, the appalling implication of that comment is that private sector care home residents are not to have the right to challenge abuse in our courts, making them second-class citizens—in growing numbers—as local authorities continue to contract out. The commercial interests of contractors are being put before the decent treatment of the elderly and vulnerable.

18 Dec 2007 : Column 742

I am pleased that that position was rejected by the then Prime Minister when I questioned him about it during a Liaison Committee meeting last February. He made it clear that in his view private sector providers should be brought within the scope of the Act. The Government should not toy with the idea of narrowing the scope of the Human Rights Act in any sector.

In the previous Session I proposed a Bill similar to this one, and on Second Reading, the then Minister, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), now the Solicitor-General, said:

It is thus hardly surprising that I am disappointed when, on the very last sitting day of 2007, there is still no decision on how to resolve the chaos of the YL case and no plan for legislation to solve the problem comprehensively.

Time is of the essence for vulnerable people who ought to benefit from the full protection of the Human Rights Act, but are currently denied it. The Government are not moving quickly enough to deal with the problem, so I urge the House to support my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Dismore, Dr. Evan Harris, Nia Griffith, Mr. Virendra Sharma, John Austin, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Paul Burstow, Clive Efford, Mike Gapes, Mr. Andy Slaughter, Jeremy Corbyn and Shona McIsaac.

Human Rights Act 1998 (Meaning of Public Function)

Mr. Andrew Dismore accordingly presented a Bill to clarify the meaning of ‘public function’ in section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 16 May, and to be printed [Bill 45].

18 Dec 2007 : Column 743

Christmas Adjournment

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

1.35 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The business of government in a democratic country is a delicate balance between the needs of the population and the desires and political objectives of the Government. Although we have a system that enables us to vote for our Governments on a four or sometimes five-yearly basis, in the interim it is essential that whoever the Government are they do not misunderstand the implications of the changes they make.

In the administration of our country, local government has an important part to play. Indeed, one might say that the present Government have channelled large sums of money into local government and given it extra powers precisely because they expect there to be a partnership between the needs of the population at local level and the Government centrally. There are frequently objections from people who believe that all decisions should be taken centrally and imposed on those who for one reason or another have different views. That has never been my view and it never will be.

I believe that today the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—to whom I have given notice that I intend to mention her—intends to announce the reorganisation of Cheshire. She has never at any point deigned to explain the reasons for those major changes. Indeed, just before the summer recess, when an announcement was made that it was the intention to divide Cheshire into two, irrespective of the needs or wishes of the population, a letter was issued from the Department saying that the decision would none the less be subject to close examination of a number of factors, of which the economic ones were enormously important.

Rather foolishly, I thought that comment was serious and in the intervening time, with the assistance of people in education, the health service and general services, I have endeavoured to persuade Her Majesty’s Government—pointlessly, as it now appears—of the inequity and imbalance of the scheme they were proposing. My reasons were simple. The decision is not political. As anyone who bothers to make even the most elementary calculation will discover, the Labour party has little to gain from what is being proposed. The fact that my constituency will become part of a council dominated by a 56 per cent. Conservative vote is obviously of no concern to some people, but it is important to understand that the other part of Cheshire will be no safer. Those who pretend that the decision is political should examine the facts and figures.

The decision is certainly not economic. Cheshire is a mixed, interesting and dynamic county, which is changing every day. It has close relationships with Manchester in one direction, Liverpool in another and with north Wales and the potteries at various points. It is notable not only that the county has responded at all levels to the need for imaginative change, but that it is clearly capable of carrying forward at county level a unitary government that would be economically viable and would respond to the dynamic that the Labour Government have been proposing.

Next Section Index Home Page