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I have served in the Home Office, and have always respected the calibre of the staff there and considered them second to none in government. However, if it was
Sir David Normington who called in the police, he really is the guilty party whose judgment is so flawed that he is not fit to retain his position. If it was the Cabinet Office driving the affair forward, the guilty person would be Sir Gus ODonnell, and he too should explain his actions and consider his position. I leave it to people in this House much more distinguished than I am to argue about how much the Home Secretary or other politicians knew, but the point is that David Normington and Gus ODonnell knew everything. They thought it right and proper to arrest a Member of Parliament who revealed the truth about the Home Officea Department described by a former Home Secretary as not fit for purpose.
In my 25 years in Parliament, I have never attacked or criticised a civil servant, and I deeply regret that I am now forced to do so for the first time. However, the evidence seems to suggest that Sir David Normington and Sir Gus ODonnell were the ones who brought in the Metropolitan polices special branch and anti-terrorist squad to track down the leaked Home Office documents. If that is what happened, they are the ones who are not fit for purpose and they should explain themselves rather than hiding behind the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and other senior members of the Government. Ministers may have their own explaining to do in due course, but we are in danger of losing sight of who initiated this arrest.
Although I regret that there is no Bill on civil service neutrality in the Queens Speech, we are promised a Bill on police accountability and I turn now to the Metropolitan police. I was a Police Minister for four years, and it was the greatest and most exciting job in government that I was ever asked to do. I liked it so much that I turned down promotion to something else so that I could stay on as Police Minister. I have always defended the police in this country because I regarded them as the finest in the world. I think that all of us have had our illusions about British policing shattered because of this despicable assault on parliamentary privilege by some officers or a section of the Met.
Who are the senior officers who responded to Sir David Normingtons demand to investigate Home Office leaks? Why did they not tell the Home Office to sort the matter out internally, as they always used to? Of course, the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say today that operational independence is very important for the police, but that also means that they should not act as lackeys of the Home Office or the Cabinet Office when the senior civil servant there picks up the phone and says, Excuse me, chaps, could you send in your top team to get this politician? Who thought it right to involve anti-terrorist officers to raid the home and offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green)? Where is the sense of judgment or proportionality? Furthermore, have they nothing better to do?
We are very fortunate that the Government withdrew their proposals to hold people in detention for 42 days without trial. Some of us who were sceptical about that have now seen that some sections of the Metropolitan police cannot be trusted with nine hours of detention, let alone 42 days.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall my long campaign to try and get to the truth of what happened to Army recruits at Deepcut barracks. It was
claimed originally that they committed suicide, but the truth may not be so clear. One of the greatest frustrations in my campaign was getting the release of a report by Devon and Cornwall police into the actions of Surrey police in investigating those deaths. I now feel that there has been a conspiracy of concealment, involving a Government Department and those police forces, to cover up what may have been murder. Does he agree that a police accountability Bill might help us to get the truth about what happened to Cheryl James and the other dead recruits?
David Maclean: The whole House has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am not expert in that area and would not wish to go down that path, but we will all now wish to examine carefully any police accountability Bill to see what additional safeguards it might require.
The hon. Gentleman mentions an independent inquiry. The Met has called in the transport police to conduct an independent inquiry. Irrespective of how senior the head of the transport police may be, this is a matter of great constitutional significance. Half a dozen people in the other place may be qualified to rule on the constitutional propriety of parliamentary privilege; some in this House will be qualified to do that, but I am certain that the head of the transport police is not capable of conducting a proper independent inquiry into whether the Metropolitan police acted with due care and diligence and proportionality in arresting a Member of Parliament for leaks from the Home Office. It is a farce; it is ridiculous; and it does the Met even more damage.
Today, I understand that the acting commissioner has made a robust defence of the police. He says that they must be able to act without fear and favourhe is absolutely rightbut Members of Parliament must be able to do our duty. Using police officers to interrogate a Member of Parliament for doing his duty is a gross abuse of police powers. I regret that I am saying these words because I have liked the Met for years. I had an old uncle who served in the Met many years ago. I greatly enjoyed being the Minister responsible for the Metropolitan Police in my four years at the Home Office. But until the Met police get their act together and sort themselves out, they are casting a shadow on the neutrality and integrity of the whole British police service that the rest of the police service does not deserve.
Finally on this matter, I say to my colleagues that, clearly, some decisions were made in the Housewe shall find out more about themthat were perhaps not best advised, but I ask colleagues on both sides to call off attacks on the Chair of the House. Such attacks only feed those in the print media, some of whom sit in judgment above Mr. Speaker and have always held a grudge against him. Yes, we must make it clear that we will defend Parliament from all unwarranted assaults on our rights, but we do not defend Parliament by going along with some in the media who wish to bring down Mr. Speaker. It is interesting that some of those in the print media who now profess to want to defend the status of Parliament are among the first who want to rake in our dustbins to find every derogatory item that they can get. So let us turn the spotlight not on those who are at the end of the chain of accountability, but on
those who initiated the action in the first place in the Home Office, in the Cabinet Office and in the Metropolitan police, who did not have the sense to do the right thing and tell the Home Office to sort it out itself.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I have listened with care to an attack on the Metropolitan police and civil servants. The right hon. Gentleman has a very strong record as a former Home Office Minister, so I am surprised to hear him make that sort of attack. Does he understand that the central allegation is serious if not unprecedented? It is that a former Conservative council candidate, after seeking a job from a Tory MP, whom I understand was a spokesperson on the Home Office at that stage, later joined the civil service to act as, in effect, a spy, giving information on political opponents and to steal confidential information.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In part of the last sentence, the Minister was saying why someone had joined the civil service. If that remark does not have any supporting evidence, it should be withdrawn instantly, please.
Mr. O'Brien: May I make it very clear that if the hon. Gentleman had listened to the rest of my intervention, he would understand that I am not quite making an allegation but asking a question about the stealing of some confidential Home Office documents? The inducement might have beenand this seems to be part of the concern of the policethe hope of some sort of preferment if the Conservatives won an election.
Peter Bottomley: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we know that no charge has been laid. We have now had a second allegation from the Minister. If he has that information available in his hand in writing, will he provide the evidence, put it in the Library and lay it on the Table of the House of Commons? He has a prepared intervention. Will he lay down the basis for what he is saying now, so that the whole House has it?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I think that the Minister is developing a point of intervention into the length of a speech. I think it is also outside his current ministerial responsibility. Nothing that he said was out of order. It might be a matter of dispute, but I think that the more we delve, the more difficult territory we get into, which would be better reserved, in so far as it is in order, for the debate that Mr. Speaker has indicated will take place on Monday.
I rise just to clarify for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the fact that we do not know whether any of these allegations are true or not. I am merely saying in response to the point made by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), a well- respected Member who is a former Home Office Minister, that those allegations merit a serious police investigation
at least. Whether the incident in relation to the House of Commons was right or not is a matter for others to look at. I merely responded in an intervention to the point that he was making. I took the view that his making that point and attacking the police was a matter of great seriousness, considering his experience. We do not know whether any of these allegations are true or not, but they are serious and it is right that the police should investigate them.
David Maclean: Precisely. I had concluded my remarks on that matter, but I respect the Minister and I gave way to him. I simply make the point, which has been made by others, perhaps from a sedentary position, that we do not know whether any of these allegations are true, so why repeat them in this place? I have not made general attacks on the civil service; I have strongly criticised two very senior civil servants. If I am wrong, I will happily withdraw my remarks and apologise in a public place to them, but I am commenting on facts that do seem to be in the public domainthat Sir David Normington at the Home Office and the Cabinet Office have initiated this action. I am commenting on the fact that the Metropolitan police have done what they have done and I said that their judgment was flawed because it was a gross over-reaction which has left me deeply saddened by and disappointed in the Metropolitan police. I hope that this matter can be cleared up because I want my faith and trust in the Met restored. I always thought that they were a tremendous police force, acting under the most difficult conditions, doing an almost impossible job in the capital. I have defended them from many previous attacks. The fact that I in my position now find I am attacking a section of them gravely disappoints me more than perhaps it does the Minister.
I welcome the marine Bill. I believe that it will give access to our coast, which leads me to the point that, if people are going to have the right to walk around our coast line, we must have adequate safety measures for them. The House may not know that in a part of my constituency on the Solway firth we have large mudflats very similar to those in Morecambe bay, with the same sort of tides and highly dangerous access. When one is out on those mudflats, if the tide comes in one has only a few minutes to get to shore before one finds oneself in deep ravines; one can drown.
There is only one sort of boat that can rescue people on those mudflats: it is a flat inflatable dirigibleI think it is called a DIR boat. It is run by the coastguard service. Our coastguard masters in Liverpool have withdrawn the boat because they said that it was not safe enough. They say that the Silloth on Solway lifeboat can do the job instead. The courageous souls of the Silloth on Solway lifeboat thought they would do a test, and of course they got stuck in the mud within minutes; the boat was too deep adrift to go on to those mudflats. I have been protesting vociferously about that.
I wrote to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), whom I deeply respect, although I regret his taking the same line as the head of the coastguard service. In one splendid passage in his letter, he said:
In practice, for rescues at the upper reaches of the Firth at low tide, Liverpool Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre is more likely to task a search and rescue helicopter or a mud rescue team approaching on foot across the mudflats.
If someone were on the mudflats and could walk off, they would not need rescuing by a team walking on to the mudflatsthe proposition is barking. If we are going to enact the marine and coastal access Bill, we need a proper lifeboat service and must make sure that the coastguards have the proper resources. We need flat, little, inflatable boats, which are not expensive, in areas such as Burgh by Sands in my constituency and other parts of the country, or we will face deaths and catastrophe.
I note the introduction of the banking Bill, which, in the Governments words, will bring in fairness. I support and welcome that Bill, but if we are going to have fairness, the Bill must deal with the iniquitous charges that banks impose on not only businesses that are renewing their overdrafts but ordinary individuals. One of my constituents has informed me that when they went 50p over their overdraft with the Halifax, they got a £39 penalty, which is the routine penalty. Another constituent went 1p over with Barclays, and the fine was £35Barclays has now reduced it to about £6.
I pay tribute to the wonderful website moneysavingexpert.com, which has been fighting a long battle to limit unfair, ruthless banking charges. More than 3 million people have downloaded letters from the website, which they can send to banks to say that they want their money back from unfair charges. Credit card companies now charge an admin fee of about £12 if one goes over ones credit limit, so the banks have recognised that charges of £39, £35 or £25 are totally unfair in the case of someone who has technically gone over an overdraft limit.
The Office of Fair Trading won a court case in the High Court in April this year on the introduction of fairness into the regulations. The banks have, of course, appealed, and everything is on hold. The banking Bill is a splendid opportunity to lay down that the OFT shall have the absolute right to determine a fair banking penalty or the cost of sending a computer-generated letter stating, Oi, Maclean, youre £10 over your overdraft. Pay it back. We must build it into the legislation, and not leave it to the OFT, that the banks will refund within six months every penny of the £2 billion that they have ripped off individual consumers over the past few years through unfair charges.
I note that the Queens Speech does not include legislation on pharmacies, for which I am grateful. I hope that the Government will withdraw their pharmacy White Paper and plans to change the pharmacy system. There is no problem with pharmacies, as hon. Members will have found in their constituencies. The White Paper includes proposals that would be disastrous for some rural areas, because people would not be able to use the local dispensing chemist in the doctors surgery and would be forced to go many miles to another chemist. I understand where the Government are coming fromif a town contains two or three good little private pharmacies, it may be unfair for the doctors to have one toobut the parameters set by the Government would mean GP dispensing being wiped out in many parts of the country, in which case there would be no other convenient dispensary for people to get their medicines.
David Taylor: Far be it for me to defend the Government on that issueI have made criticisms and written to them on many occasionsbut will the right hon. Gentleman accept the correction that, as I understand it, the White Paper proposes ending GP pharmacies only if there is a pharmacy within a mile of the GP practices headquarters?
David Maclean: Yes, that is right. However, in some cases those private pharmacies will be open only nine-to-five and on Saturday afternoons; they will not be available during the out-of-hours times that a GP service could manage. If in my town of Kirkby Stephen, for example, somebody needed a prescription late on a Saturday afternoon and GPs were not allowed to prescribe, that person would not be able to get their medicine at that time.
The White Paper lays down the option of doing nothing, and I ask the Government to take that option. Has anyone encountered a huge problem with GP prescribing at our pharmacies before? The Government are shaking the system up for no good reason, except oneGP prescribing is more expensive. It seems that doctors tend to prescribe more expensive drugs, rather than the generic ones that they could prescribe, from their own pharmacies. However, the control method is in the Governments hands: they could inspect GP pharmacies and impose sanctions on doctors who over-prescribed expensive drugs.
David Taylor: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. The Measham medical unit in North-West Leicestershire is an example of an excellent GP dispensing pharmacy. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Governments view that GP prescribing is more expensive. People at the unit would say that such prescriptions are more effective, and that effectiveness rather than cost is the measure by which we should assess how effective GP dispensing is.
David Maclean: I would certainly accept that as a criterion, but it is not one of the three reasons given in the White Paper about why the Government are disturbing the system. There is no mention of making the system more effective through GPs or private pharmacies issuing better quality, more effective medicines. One of the main reasons given is cost. GP prescriptions for GP pharmacies are more expensive than those for external pharmacies, so the Government are bearing down on thatand if they cannot bear down on the cost in that way, they will ban the GPs from making such prescriptions. That is the wrong approach. If GPs and individual practices are prescribing over-expensive medicines, there is a system in government and the health service to spot that and clobber those responsible.
Finally, I wish to comment on the private water supply regulations. I can see nothing in the Queens Speech directly relevant to them, and I hope that there will be a chance for the Government to withdraw them. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is consulting on the implementation of EU
regulation 98/83/EC. As has happened under all Governments, DEFRA is adding bells and whistles and gold-plating. The regulation covers even private water suppliers. If one has a well in ones back garden, its water has to come up to a basic standard of purity. The cost of inspection at the moment is about £50 to £70; under the DEFRA proposals, it will go up to between £700 and £800. The Department is suggesting that it will bring in the full risk assessment system and the full inspection that applies to larger private water users, which consume more than 3 cu m of water a day. That is a lot.
Scotland, of course, is not going for that. It is going for the derogation and will not apply the measure to any private water user consuming less than 3 cu m of water. Ireland is not applying the measure. I understand that the Welsh Assembly is in discussions with DEFRA about the regulation at the moment, and I will be amazed if the Welsh implement it. However, DEFRA in England is going full steam ahead towards imposing those ludicrously high chargesand on people who could not get a public water supply in any case. Those people are not making a lifestyle choice to live in the mountains, have a bore hole and put up two fingers to United Utilities. They cannot get water through the mains pipeline because they are so far away from it. In addition to their not being able to get mains water and sewerage, they could now face punitive charges for having their own water from their own well inspected by busybodies who think they know better than local householders.
I have mentioned my reservations about what is not in the Queens Speech, but I welcome large parts of the measures that are in the Queens Speech. I end where I started: I am sorry that we may have to build in measures to put police controls into a Bill dealing with police accountability so that the police do not exceed and abuse their powers. Furthermore, we will step up our calls for a Bill to restore the civil services impartiality and integrity, and the respect that it has had in every country of the world. Despite what I see as failings at too high a level at the Home Office and Cabinet Office, we still have the finest and best civil service in the world.
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