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22 May 2008 : Column 411

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The findings of the review on sex and relationship education delivery are due to be published this summer, but I understand that no consultation on them is planned. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House so that hon. Members can express their views on this important matter before any policy changes are made?

Ms Harman: I understand that we had a debate on sex education a number of weeks ago, but I think that the handling of the findings will be announced at the time.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that Tonderai Ndira, a prominent Movement for Democratic Change activist in Zimbabwe, whom I had the privilege to meet in 2004, was found dead on Tuesday in a Harare hospital mortuary only days after being violently abducted by a group of armed thugs, may I reiterate the pertinent request of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) that the House should debate the escalating crisis in Zimbabwe as a matter of urgency? Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that we are owed that, as the Deputy Leader of the House gave us reason to feel encouraged on that point during business questions on 24 April? We need a full day’s debate in Government time on the Floor of the House in order to determine how on a multilateral basis we can bring the mass murderer Mugabe to book sooner rather than later.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes his point forcefully. I would not seek to add to it other than to say that we take his points and that we will return to them shortly.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): May we have a debate about services in our communities? Members have asked for debates on post offices, rural bus services and even village schools, but BT has announced that it is going to remove 5,500 public phone boxes and is in consultation over removing another 8,700. I thought it was bad enough when the traditional red telephone boxes were replaced with ghastly shower cubicles, but to take them away completely is the wrong decision. I understand that it is a private company, but it has a public responsibility. Not everybody has mobile phones, so in an emergency a public phone box could provide the lifeline that people need. Will the Leader of the House use her best offices to ensure that BT understands its responsibilities to the community?

Ms Harman: That is a matter for Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and for the regulators. I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s points to their attention.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Yesterday, the “Yes Minister” Bill received its Second Reading, having been debated for two hours and 44 minutes, leaving more than three and a half hours of unused debating time. On the previous day, as the Leader of the House has said, the House was at its best when it considered amendments on abortion in respect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, but that debate lasted for only three hours, with many Members unable to contribute. Was that incompatibility of debating time a deliberate ploy by the Government to curtail debate or was it just another Government cock-up?

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Ms Harman: We attempted to discuss through the usual channels and with Back Benchers the amount of time necessary for the exceptional debate in Committee on the Floor of the House. There are always going to be demands for more time for debate, but I think we had enough time to air all the issues and for Members to vote accordingly.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I say how delighted I am to have secured the debate on eco-towns on the Tuesday after the recess? Will the Leader of the House request that the Minister for Housing—I am not asking for the Secretary of State—responds to the debate? Notwithstanding their letters and appeals to the consultation process for information, a number of colleagues are still particularly interested to find out whether the city region will include York so that the site of Skelton in the Vale of York will be included. That is why I want the appropriate Minister to respond to the debate.

Ms Harman: I congratulate the hon. Lady on her success in securing the debate, which I know concerns a number of hon. Members. I will raise her point with the Minister for Housing.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Notwithstanding what the Leader of the House said earlier, I ask her seriously to consider finding Government time for a further debate on post offices. My constituents were outraged that 12 of their 42 post offices were consulted on and all were closed. They will be watching very carefully to see whether post offices in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform remain open. It would be completely unacceptable to my constituents if Post Office Ltd were to embark on a further round of closures in the near future. That would be totally out of order; we need a further debate to put that point of view across.

Ms Harman: I know that hon. Members feel strongly about this issue. There was an opportunity earlier this morning, perhaps in topical questions, to raise such questions with Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman sought to catch the Speaker’s eye— [Interruption.] I understand that he did; no doubt he got a full answer.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an early debate on Belarus? Does the Leader of the House agree that President Lukashenko needs to engage with Europe rather than confront it? Indeed, Europe wants to engage with him, but he first needs to allow freedom of speech and freedom of religion and to release the political prisoners currently suffering in Belarus prisons.

Ms Harman: I know that the hon. Gentleman is raising a point about Belarus, but I would like to pay tribute to his and other Members’ work on the all-party Russia group. I will make sure that his points are brought to the attention of appropriate Ministers in the Foreign Office.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Following the excellent point made by the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), may we have a debate in Government time about the inability of the French authorities to protect the interests of members of the British public
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caught up on the other side of the channel in French industrial disputes? My constituent, Mr. John Shephard from Boughton near Northampton, who sailed across to France on Monday, and 24 other British vessels have been trapped in Cherbourg harbour because French fishing boats are blockading it with ropes and steel cables and firing flares at any vessels that try to escape. The French police are doing absolutely nothing to protect the interests of British citizens caught up in the dispute. May we have a debate in Government time, and will the Leader of the House urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to get involved at an early stage?

Ms Harman: I will bring those points to the attention of colleagues in the Foreign Office. I know that they are already involved, but I will explain the constituency issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) as well as the hon. Gentleman have raised.

royal assent

Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and a Measure:

Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Supplementary Provisions) Act 2008

Transport for London Act 2008

Church of England Marriage Measure 2008

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Point of Order

12.19 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, at column 356, the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern), who is in the Chamber, intervened on his own Minister as a Parliamentary Private Secretary for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Madam Deputy Speaker pulled him up on that and said:

In fact, it is more than that. Paragraph 3.9 of the ministerial code says that PPSs should not

I wish the hon. Gentleman no ill; I suspect it was a matter of ignorance rather than anything else. However, I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you could ensure that the ministerial code issued by the current Prime Minister, not the last one, is enforced and that the Government take it seriously—they say they do—and inform Ministers, including PPSs, of their responsibilities under it.

Mr. Speaker: This is a convention, and the ministerial code is not a matter for me to interpret. I say to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) was embarrassed, and I do not think that we wish to embarrass him further. He had absolutely no desire to break any convention of the House. After all, we all learn. We learn by listening—[Hon. Members: “They don’t.”] I assure the Leader of the House that the hon. Member for Blaby learns; I help him along from time to time.

I have mentioned apprenticeships. My foreman used to say, “The man who has never made a mistake has done nothing.” We make mistakes.

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Whitsun Adjournment

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

12.21 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am pleased to contribute to the debate. It is an opportunity for Back Benchers to raise issues of concern to their constituents. I shall touch on something that I have spoken about in Adjournment debates, including in Westminster Hall, before, and it is the continuing scandal of the compensation for miners whose health was ruined by exposure to coal dust.

The Government can be quite proud of the compensation scheme, which has paid out nearly £5 billion. Many disabled miners and their families in my constituency have benefited from it. In saying that, however, the shameful side of the scheme is the way in which it has been seen as a pot to plunder by not only greedy solicitors, but also, tragically, greedy former trade unions, or organisations purporting to be trade unions.

The reason why I raise the relationship between Durham National Union of Mineworkers and Thompsons Solicitors again is that what has happened since the last time I mentioned it in the House is a scandal. It was bad enough that a former trade union charged its former members and even their widows 7.5 per cent. of their compensation and asked them to pay a £20 fee to join as “associate members” of the trade union, but now the organisation has de-listed itself as a trade union and set itself up as a claims handling company, which is what we all thought it was.

Let me set out the history of the scam, which is what it is. I am glad to say that many former members and their families who have been duped by Durham NUM and Thompsons Solicitors have had their compensation returned after complaints by myself and others. I strongly urge anyone who is still out there who has had money deducted by Durham NUM or Thompsons Solicitors to make a complaint as soon as possible to ensure that they get that money back.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Or by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers in south Wales.

Mr. Jones: I have no detailed knowledge of NACODS, but I know that it is involved in a similar scam.

The situation publicly is that Durham NUM is like the Durham NUM of 20, 30 or 40 years ago—a proud, working-class organisation. But it certainly is not today. I first raised the issue in a Westminster Hall debate on 23 May 2007 and exposed what was going on. Two individuals, Mr. David Hopper and Mr. Guy, who are president and general secretary respectively of Durham NUM, were getting huge sums from the compensation scheme. The sole source of income of Durham NUM was the 7.5 per cent. that was deducted from people’s compensation by Thompsons Solicitors and passed on to it. I am still asking questions about what they did for that money, but I have never got a satisfactory answer. It is clear, however, that the solicitors confused their role and were acting in the best interests not of their
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clients, but of Durham NUM. That is why the Law Society has been clear in saying that the money needs to be paid back. The two individuals whom I just mentioned are each drawing salaries, benefits and bonus packages of nearly £70,000, and for doing what? Many people would be shocked by that.

If that process was not bad enough, what has happened in the past 12 months is scandalous and is slowly coming out in the public domain. Durham NUM has de-listed itself as a trade union so that it no longer has to submit accounts, which it had to do in the past, to the certification officer, and has set itself up as something called “an unincorporated association”. It is important to get on the record how the situation has arisen.

As I said in my previous speech in an Adjournment debate, the organisation has assets of nearly £5.5 million. For some strange reason, £680,000 of that is in an offshore bank account, and I have never been given a plausible explanation of why that is so. I accept that the £5.5 million-plus that it has may well have been reduced because it has had to pay money back to people, but the union also has assets in terms of Red Hill and other property assets that it owns.

If there are to be major changes in a trade union, we would expect the members to have a say in what happens to those assets, but if I told you, Mr. Speaker, that the decision to de-list the organisation as a trade union was taken by 10 people, including Mr. Hopper and Mr. Guy and, I think, their wives, you would appreciate that there are a lot of angry people out there. Those people have been members of the trade union for years but have not had a say in what happens to the assets. One of the individuals I mentioned chaired the meeting; the other took part in it. They not only have a connection with the change, but have a direct financial interest in what happens to Durham NUM.

I have secured the minutes of the meeting, which was convened on 19 March 2007. I was pilloried locally when I stood up and said that Durham NUM was no longer a trade union, but a claims handling company. Lo and behold, that is exactly what Durham NUM set itself up as on 19 March 2007. The minutes need a larger hearing. Lo and behold, who is the solicitor who gave advice to the meeting? It is Mr. I. Walker from—you guessed it, Mr. Speaker—Thompsons Solicitors.

The minutes say that the meeting was opened and that the president of Durham NUM explained:

I met the certification officer a few weeks ago and have to say that Durham NUM has not met that criteria for perhaps 20 years. It has never negotiated. What has suddenly changed now apart from myself and other hon. Members raising the issue?

The minutes continue:

—that did not happen recently; it happened 20 years ago—

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It was explained that

—this is the funny bit—

Given Durham NUM’s vehement denial that it was a claims handling company, why should the Compensation Act affect it ? Clearly the Act did affect it, because for the last God knows how many years it has in fact been a claims handling company. It obviously recognised that it would be caught by the new legislation.

The minutes state:

I do not think that Durham NUM had done any collective bargaining for 15 or 20 years.

Since I have been a Member of Parliament I have always found Durham NUM’s language strange, with its suggestion that Durham still contains the mass structure of pits that has not existed there for years. Obviously, if Durham NUM has now emerged from the parallel universe that it has been inhabiting, that is a welcome development.

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