Previous Section Index Home Page

That was clearly intended to give the impression that the organisation was comparable with an association that had been established 100-odd years ago in the days of working miners. Durham NUM has nothing to do with that proud history now; it is a claims handling company. It would have been far more honest to call it “the Durham Miners Association Claims Handling Company”.

What concerns me, and has concerned a number of former members of the union, is who was involved in the decision. Apparently, only full members could participate. I have obtained a copy of the rule book through the certification officer, which confirms that that is the case. I understand that at least two of the people who attended the meeting were women. I am not sure whether women ever qualified for full membership of the NUM; I know that they did in some areas but not in others. Interestingly, one of those attending was a Mrs. C. Guy, no doubt a relation of Mr. S. Guy. A motion was moved by George Simpson and seconded by Alan Johnson, and it was resolved unanimously that the new rules should be adopted.

A number of people who have been associated with Durham NUM for many years have asked me why they did not have a say in what happened to their trade union. I have examined the rule book closely, and it all seems to revolve around the definition of “full member”.
22 May 2008 : Column 418
It is interesting that the individuals whom I mentioned were the only full members. When I asked people who have complained to me whether they were invited to the meeting and whether any consultation took place, they replied in the negative.

If there is one core thing about a trade union, it is that it ought to represent the interests of its members. That clearly did not happen in this case. A small group of individuals—some of whom had a direct vested interest in keeping this going because they were getting a blooming good living out of it—were making decisions on the assets and moneys accrued over many years by hard-working former members of the union, many of whom are rightly very unhappy.

As if that were not bad enough, what happened next was mind-boggling. It involved retired union members who had been members for many years, including a number of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp)—for example, Mr. F. Smith of Newfield in Pelton and Mr. Ron Wilson of Pelaw. One of them had been a member of the NUM for 50-odd years, since he joined as an apprentice. When he went to pay his annual retired member’s fee of, I think, £20, he was told that he could not be a member of the new organisation. The reason was that he had asked for his money back—his 7.5 per cent. Anyone who had the audacity to ask for their 7.5 per cent., which should not have been taken by Durham NUM in the first place, was barred from membership of the new organisation.

Quite rightly, those two individuals and many other former union members across the county of Durham—not just in my constituency—are extremely annoyed. They include Joseph Orrell, who made the front page of the Sunderland Echo under the headline “Sick miners axed by union”. The newspaper used the word “outrage”, and it is an outrage. What annoys me is that people who set up what is basically a claims handling company are wrapping themselves up in proud traditions and left-wing rhetoric, purporting to be socialists and to be representing the poorest and most disadvantaged members of the community, which they are clearly not doing. They are not representative of those people. They did not ask them whether they wanted the new association to be set up. They have established a small club consisting of those with direct vested interests.

Looking at the rule book, I discovered a technicality whereby retired members should at least have been consulted, which they clearly were not. Another murky aspect of the affair appears in the minutes of the special meeting, and it is something that I have suspected for a long time. The scheme does not have a proud history, given that former trade union officials have been doing deals with claims handling companies. One of those present at the meeting was a Mr.—I presume—A. Mardghum. I think that that is one Alan Mardghum, who used to be the lodge secretary of the Wearmouth branch and is now clearly involved with Durham NUM. He was also involved with an outfit called FreeClaim IDC in Ashington, which was one of the most disgraceful organisations handling claims. In one case, about which I complained to the Law Society, the company took some £3,600 from the compensation awarded to a Mr. Jobe. The relationship between people who seem to flit between different claims handlers while giving the impression that they are representing the interests of the poor and downtrodden is something of a scandal.

22 May 2008 : Column 419

Some might ask “Why does this matter?” I think it matters chiefly because the money that has been taken away from retired miners and their widows should not have been taken away, but also because a number of very angry miners who have paid in for many years, such as Mr. Orrell, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wilson, feel that they have had no say in what happens to the assets. Those assets are not inconsiderable. The amount held in the disbursement fund is £1.18 million, and the total value of the investments is £3.7 million. The value of the unquoted investments is £863,000, including—this is in the accounts, in brackets—£687.62 in an offshore bank account, or offshore investments. The total cash assets, according to the last return, amount to £5,563,000, which is not an insubstantial sum. There are also the fixed assets, which are not quoted, in the form of the Red Hill property and other property owned by the organisation.

What should have happened to the money? If the organisation was no longer a trade union, it should have followed the example of other unions that have been wound up. The money should have been given to, for instance, the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, which would at least have reinvested some of the money back into mining communities, and not put it into the pockets of a few individuals—who, since the mines have closed, have had a very good living out of compensation claims for many years. There needs to be an investigation into Durham NUM. I am due to meet the regulator for claims handlers in a few weeks—unfortunately I could not meet him last week—and I shall ask whether some of the issues I have raised can be examined.

There are also broader issues to do with how the assets of such organisations are dealt with. I have spoken with the certification officer. To be fair to him, he was very helpful—and privately appalled by what happened, I think. However, he is limited by legislation in what he can do. However, by that one move, Durham NUM has made accounts that were in the public domain every year—even though it was necessary to go round the houses to find them because those involved were quite clever in hiding the salaries and moneys in the accounts—no longer public. Therefore, basically what has happened is that £5 million and the assets of a former trade union have been squirreled away into an organisation that no longer has to produce any public accounts. Many former miners and their families are rightly very angry about that.

There should be an urgent investigation into the organisation. Although some people are getting their money back—I put on record again that I welcome that, and I urge anyone who has had money taken to contact the legal complaints service because moneys are being given back—this issue will not go away. I understand that I am being pilloried in certain quarters as the villain of the piece. I am sorry, but if what I am doing is exposing people to proper scrutiny, that is my role as a Member of Parliament. I will take no criticism from people who have direct vested interests and have done very well at the expense—this is what really sticks in my throat—of some very poor individuals.

May I touch on a few other constituency issues? I was proud on 15 May when Stanley town council held its inaugural meeting. I have been campaigning for that council, along with local people, for a few years. The turnout in the local election showed that people in
22 May 2008 : Column 420
Stanley are interested in having a voice, and I look forward to working very closely with the town council—not only Labour members, but independents and others—to improve the town of Stanley.

Turning to health care in my constituency, on Saturday this week I will have the honour of attending the opening of the new Sacriston health centre. It is a former mining village, which suffered badly throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, and a brand new health centre has been built for it, which will be opened by Sir Bobby Robson. I ask people to come and look at the health centre, as it is a carbon-neutral building and a fantastic example of what can be done in a public building both to provide top quality local health services and to protect the environment.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and I have been involved in the campaign to have the Lindisfarne gospels returned to the north-east. That campaign has been well supported by many north-east politicians of all parties, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who cannot speak because of the Whip’s purdah. The campaign is creating some movement, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is now talking to the British Library not merely about loaning us the gospels, but about there being a permanent home for them in the north-east. I also pay tribute to Durham university and the cathedral, which are now actively looking at building a resource and visitor centre on Palace green in Durham, not only as a possible home for the gospels, but to display the university and cathedral’s rich collection of early Christian manuscripts. That would be a great tourist attraction not only for the city of Durham, but for the north-east.

This week’s welcome announcement of the aircraft carrier order will be a tremendous boost to the north-east economy not only in terms of direct fabrication jobs, but in terms of the impact on small and medium-sized enterprises in the area. We hear a lot of doom and gloom at present about the economy, but employment levels in the north-east have never been higher. We have some tremendous organisations: Nissan, for example, is taking on 800 new workers and producing cars not only at an efficient rate in terms of this country, but of world-beating class. In the last 10 years the north-east economy has come a very long way. I look forward to working with the new unitary council in Durham—its inaugural meeting is on Friday—to ensure that County Durham is part of the renaissance, both cultural and economic, that is taking place in the north-east.

One of the pioneers of the work to change the perception of the north-east, to attract jobs and to move the north-east forward was Lord Tom Burlison, former deputy general secretary of the GMB and regional secretary of the GMB in the north-east. Sadly, he died earlier this week. Tom was a great advocate for the north-east. If people want to see the good side of trade unionism, they should look at how he worked in partnership with Dr. John Bridge, the CBI and others to form organisations such as the Northern Development Company. That spirit of partnership was there even in the dark days when we were losing heavy industry throughout the north-east. His passing will be mourned by a lot of people in the north-east, and he will be fondly remembered for the contribution he made.

22 May 2008 : Column 421

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): May I also pay tribute to Tom from the Opposition Benches? He was a fellow member of the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. He was a dedicated member of both bodies and he—and his contributions—will be sadly missed.

Mr. Jones: As a friend of Lord Burlison, I think I can say that his family will greatly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Unassuming individual that he was, when he was ennobled in 1997 he then took a key role in organisations such as the Council of Europe. He took that seriously, and not only as an honour; as a working peer, he worked very hard. His passing will be mourned by many people of all political persuasions who knew him from his second career in the other place.

May I conclude by wishing everyone a happy recess and a restful week off before returning to the fray in a fortnight’s time?

12.48 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): May I begin by associating myself and my hon. Friends, many of whom will have known Lord Burlison and his work, with the comments of regret on his passing away, and pass on our condolences?

I, too, wish to make a series of constituency points, rather than a Front-Bench speech. This Adjournment debate does not really warrant Front-Bench contributions, because it is about hon. Members putting to the Government the reasons why we should not adjourn for the Whitsun recess as we think there are issues that need to be debated and dealt with. I have three such issues which I wish to put to the Government. The first is the arrangements for commissioning tier 4 mental health services for people with moderate and severe personality disorder. The second is public sector housing finance. The third is the lack of a system for protecting vulnerable adults.

The current system for securing the provision of specialist mental health services in England is not fit for purpose, and I shall give some evidence that supports that view. I have seen this flawed system at work in my constituency, but its impact goes much wider and should be a cause of concern for all hon. Members.

My constituency is home to the Henderson hospital. To most people, it is a little-known, even obscure, small hospital tucked away in Belmont. Among those with any experience of the treatment of personality disorder, however—clinicians or patients—it is a nationally and even internationally renowned tier 4 residential service for the treatment of moderate to severe personality disorder. It offers a practical and challenging route to recovery through personal responsibility and social inclusion. I have met many ex-patients over the past few years, and especially in recent months during the trauma of threatened closure. For those who have received the service, it has been life-saving and transforming. It does not only offer patients a way to manage or contain their mental health problems, but provides treatment for those problems and a way for people to restart their lives. Many of them cannot understand why a service that they prize so highly and that has given them an opportunity to realise their potential could be taken away from the many others who might benefit from it.

22 May 2008 : Column 422

The service treats personality disorder, and it facilitates change in people’s lives. Unlike many other mental health services, it is not simply about the management of the status quo or the containment of the threats that those with mental health problems can pose to themselves and in a few cases to others. Research on the Henderson has shown that its approach reduces acute admissions and interventions by the criminal justice system. The number of people in prison who have severe mental health problems is a blot on our criminal justice system and shows that provision does not adequately meet those people’s needs. The service at the Henderson does offer a way to meet some of those needs.

Despite the evidence that the Henderson therapeutic model works, the service has been earmarked for closure and indeed it has already been closed temporarily— as the euphemism has it—pending the outcome of consultation. The Henderson has a 60-year history. Over that time, it has taken from referrals from practically every part of the United Kingdom from Land’s End to John O’Groats. However, in some circles, that history marks it out as old fashioned, out of date and ripe for closure. In truth, the model of care that it offers is a very modern one. It is run on democratic lines, with residents taking personal responsibility for much of the day-to-day running of the service. They make decisions about everything from menus to direct staff involvement in the provision of the service. That is very different from the typical model of mental health services that is still the norm in much of the country.

A few years ago, the Henderson was even asked to replicate the service in two new units, at Webb house in Crewe—events there may be the reason why the Chamber is not especially well populated with Members seeking to contribute today—and at Main house in Birmingham. Webb house has since closed because of funding cuts, and Main house is struggling to keep its doors open.

So why is such a successful service under threat? Until 2005, the Henderson was funded by the Department of Health through the national specialist commissioning advisory group. After 2005, funding passed to a consortium of 128 primary care trusts across London, East Anglia and south-east and central England, so many hon. Members will have constituents who have benefited from the service in the past. It has to be said that this was not a consortium of the willing. Within a year of the change in responsibility for the funding of the service, PCT after PCT took the opportunity to pull the plug on funding.

As a result, the mental health trust that hosts the service, the South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, has been confronted with a growing funding crisis. The clinical need has not changed and clinicians still want to refer patients to the service, but the PCTs are refusing to fund referrals. So the closure is based not on clinical need, but on financial reasons. The NHS and the Minister responsible accept there is a need for tier 4 provision such as the Henderson. Everyone wills the ends, but no one will identify the means to deliver them. The Government’s review of the commissioning of specialist mental health services, the Carter review, found that PCTs are ill equipped for the task of specialist commissioning of such complexity. In a system driven by tick boxes and targets, services such as the Henderson do not fit. So when Ministers say that this is a devolved matter for PCTs and that they
22 May 2008 : Column 423
cannot intervene, they miss the point. Closure is a direct result of the way in which devolution to PCTs was designed by the Department of Health. It is a consequence of policy, not of individual decisions of PCTs. There are no incentives for the complex regional collaborations necessary to commission specialist services.

I hope that the Department of Health will wake up to that fatal flaw in the system before it is too late. Every day the service is closed, the risk is that the clinical expertise will be lost and, far worse, that the lives of those people who could have been helped will not be changed for the better. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will sign early-day motion 1547 and, if they represent a constituency in the south of England, challenge their own PCT to support the service.

The second issue I want to raise involves housing. In March, I joined a determined group of council tenants from the Sutton Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations and councillors of all parties from the London borough of Sutton to present a petition to the Prime Minister. The petition sought to highlight what my constituents and I regard as a stealth tax on tenants. The tenant tax is known in official Government circles as negative housing subsidy. It means that if the Department for Communities and Local Government determines that a council’s rent account will be in surplus, the Government can cream off some of the money. This is money that tenants pay as rent in the belief that it will be used to pay for the management and maintenance of the local council housing stock, and even—dare I say it—of their own homes.

In Sutton and Cheam, this year tenants will pay nearly £10 million in tenant tax or, to put it another way, tenants will be paying their rent to the Government until mid-August. Until then, not a penny piece of their rent will benefit them. The Government say that the system of housing subsidy and negative subsidy is there to support areas that need the money more, but it means that families on modest incomes living in my constituency and in many others bear the brunt of that redistribution.

What is worse is that the current subsidy regime is headed for a national surplus. In 2001-02, the Government made a net contribution of £351 million. That fell to £252 million in 2002-03, and to £191 million in 2003-04. It is widely believed that the system is reaching a tipping point at which the Treasury will pay out less in subsidy than it receives in negative subsidy from local authorities. At that point, any argument that the negative subsidy is anything other than a stealth tax will fall to pieces.

Indeed, reports in Public Finance magazine suggest that this year the Treasury could be skimming as much as £194 million off rent payments across the country, and that figure will perhaps rise to £500 million within a decade. Tenants have every right to demand to know what the Government intend to do with that money. They have every right to call it a tenant tax and every justification in calling for it to be scrapped. At a time when the Government are reeling from the consequences of their decision to double the 10p rate of tax, it seems remarkable that they would continue to defend a stealth tax of some of the poorest in our country—that is, many of our council tenants.

Next Section Index Home Page