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In a previous life, I worked as deputy head of compensation for the National Union of Mineworkers. The process that applied then was very similar to the one that we have now. When a person died whose disablement assessment showed that more than 50 per cent. of his disability was caused by pneumoconiosis, it was accepted that the pneumoconiosis would have contributed to his death. That meant that the usual
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procedure would have to be followed: a policeman would visit the family and a short investigation would take place, after which there would be a post mortem and the coroner’s inquiry.

However, the union had a relationship with the coroner’s officer, who would telephone me when his office was alerted to a death through pneumoconiosis. He would tell me where the death had occurred and when the visit would take place so that I could arrange for the family to be told that they were going to be visited. If the people being visited were elderly parents, I would arrange for younger family members to be present. That helped enormously.

The measures suggested by the BLF need to be implemented in the justice Bill. In that way, we could ensure that we have a coroner’s procedure that follows best practice and is the same, without variation, right across the country—in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Finally, there is an important omission from the Gracious Speech, which proposes no legislation to overturn the Law Lords’ decision of 17 October 2007 on pleural plaques. I know that the Secretary of State for Justice is conducting a public consultation exercise on pleural plaques, and that he will make an announcement when that is complete, but the Gracious Speech should have said that the Government were prepared to bring forward legislation to overturn the Law Lords’ decision.

It has been suggested that when the public consultation exercise ends, we might get a proposal for a no-fault liability scheme. I believe that such a scheme would be detrimental because, before the Law Lords’ decision of 17 October 2007, a person who went to court and won compensation for the development of pleural plaques as a result of exposure to asbestos would also receive notification that the liability issue had been decided. In other words, the question of liability was decided when the court made a decision about compensation.

If a no-fault liability scheme is introduced and the Law Lords’ decision is not overturned, the question of liability would not be decided for the men and women who receive compensation. Consequently, they would be able to start to deal with the question of liability only if their condition worsened into mesothelioma cancer. That might be 20 or 25 years after the original compensation claim was upheld, with the result that the relevant documentation needed to substantiate liability might no longer be available.

That is why I believe that we need legislation to overturn the Law Lords’ decision. I hope that the Minister who is listening to this debate will make the Department of Justice and the Secretary of State aware that we need legislation to overturn the Law Lords’ decision, rather than a no-fault compensation scheme.

7.27 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) in these debates. I do not want to appear patronising in the least, but he always makes a thoughtful and useful contribution.
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He is an expert in the matters that he raises, but he is also practical in what he says, and it is a great pleasure to listen to him.

I do not propose to dwell overmuch on the so-called “Ashford One” matter, other than to say that three or four years ago I was visited by the good men and true of the Met’s SO11 unit. I was not arrested, nor interviewed under caution, but the visit happened because the police alleged that I had documents about the Iraq war. I did not allow them to search my premises or interview my staff, and I said that I had nothing to tell them. The officers went away again, and that was it.

The difference this time is quite marked: we talk about sledgehammers and nuts, but my goodness me—for all I know, the document about the Iraq war that the police said that I had could have been damaging to security if it had emerged into the public domain but, although this latest incident does not seem to have anything to do with security, the police still acted in the way that they did.

The Met have been around for a while. Today, I was running along to make a small, amateur contribution to the BBC’s “World at One” programme, and I was confronted by a police officer as I tried to cross from Parliament street to the House of Commons. He said, “I’m afraid you can’t cross this way.” When I asked why, he said that a cordon sanitaire had been set up. I showed him my pass and said, “I’m sorry, I’ve got six minutes to get to Millbank to do a piece on the “World at One”,” to which he replied, “I’m sorry, you can’t.”

I pointed to a lady and a young woman with a pram and asked the officer why they were able to walk through the restricted area. He said, “I’m sorry, sir, you can’t.” Next, a Minister appeared and the policeman tried to stop him too. I was so frustrated that, in the end, I made my feelings clear and the officer said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m going to have to take your name.” At that, I gave him my card. What I am trying to say is that, if I am arrested tomorrow morning, I hope that someone will pay my bail, because things have not been so good in Wales recently.

I do not know whether there is a souring of relationships or whatever. I am not anti-police. My late father was a police officer. My brother and my cousin are police officers. Everyone is police officer, apart from me. But there seems to be something going on, and I hope that I am wrong in saying that.

The Gracious Speech has some good things about it, and hon. Members would expect me to say that there are some perhaps not quite so good things as well. I intervened on the Prime Minister about the credit guarantee issue. The response was that about £1 billion has been put in, exactly for that purpose. Last weekend, I visited a company in my constituency, and its representatives told me that one of the biggest problems that they now have is that the people who normally guarantee their credit are not prepared to do so. They named two large retailers that they supply. I will not name them in the Chamber, because I do not want to create a panic, but I was really panicked when I heard who they were.

What we need is an accessible, easy system, underwritten by the Government, as is now happening in France, to ensure that the economy goes round and that companies can deliver their goods. The company I visited is in a
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bad position because 18 per cent. of its turnover is with Woolworths. If that is not bad enough, it has delivered £585,000-worth of goods recently to Woolworths, and because those goods have been delivered, the proprietary interest has moved to Woolworths and the company is getting not a dime for all that work. It is an old family concern in my constituency. The managing directors—two brothers—are friends of mine. I am deeply concerned about them.

We are talking about the Queen’s Speech and financial stability. I hope that, when we get to look at more detailed Bills, we will consider how it can be that that small company, having produced £585,000-worth of goods and delivered them to F. W. Woolworth, is now told by the administrator, “Sorry, lads, you not getting a dime for it.” At the same time, the administrator is doing his best to sell off the goods. He will undoubtedly sell them between now and Christmas, if not well before then.

I am a lawyer; I do not use the phrase “legalised theft”, because it does not make sense, but it does make one think, does it not? As soon as those goods are delivered, any hope of being paid seems to go completely out of the window. The only saving grace is that other goods are on their way, and the administrator has said that a discounted sum will be paid for them. That is one good thing. I am mindful of the fact that we have only just had an insolvency Bill, but do we need to think again about looking at the insolvency legislation to provide for that kind of situation, so that the administrator could pay perhaps not the whole £585,000 but a good chunk of that money to keep that company going and continuing to trade.

I understand that there is a plan for Woolworths to trade until Christmas. I am just making a point about whether we need to look at that situation. I am not sure whether the American model of protection under chapter 11 or some sort of abridged version of it might help. I am no expert in that, but I hope that others who are more expert in the field who may read the report of the debate might be able to assist in due course.

I hoped that the abolition of stamp duty would have been included in the Queen’s Speech. That would have been one way to kick-start the economy. Stamp duty is a pernicious tax, and it has become more and more pernicious because it has not been uprated in the right manner, year on year, or Budget on Budget. Today, the Prime Minister mentioned the protection for those who face repossession, and I welcome that part of his speech very much indeed.

Her Majesty the Queen referred in the Gracious Speech to her Government continuing to work closely with devolved Administrations. I am pleased to say that, on 8 September of this year, Ms Jocelyn Davies—the Plaid Cymru Housing Minister in Cardiff—announced a mortgage rescue plan. So we are ahead of the game on this one, albeit in a less dramatic fashion perhaps, not seeking to change the world, but we have taken steps in that regard before now. It is almost Christmas, and we have got this welcome announcement today.

Another thing that I should have liked to see is some form of reining in of the energy companies. It is all very easy to say, “Let’s have a windfall tax.” It is almost a totem that we have got to say, “Windfall tax.” I do not really disagree with that, but I will not propose it this evening. However, I should like greater powers to be
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given to Ofgem, so that it intervenes and is proactive, not reactive. I believe that we should reintroduce price controls on gas and electricity. Hon. Members will know of course that we had them until 2002, but in the guise of light-touch regulation of the market that new Labour has apparently embraced, we allow Ofgem to have a brief—

Mr. Clapham: It has gone now.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. It went earlier this week, so perhaps we can therefore see a swift reversal in the way that we deal with that regulator. Let us see. However, with such an important regulator, such a light-touch approach is not what is required.

We also need to consider why people who use prepayment meters are being over-charged. They are the most vulnerable people in society, and we are unable to do anything about them. I hope that, somewhere during the next round of legislative proposals, we can really get to grips with that. Can we not abolish VAT on electricity and gas, at least for the time being—a simple point—bearing in mind that an attempt has been made, via £12.5 billion-worth of VAT, to spark the retail market? As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, that is not going to work. It has not a chance of working when stores are discounting by 20 or 30 per cent. already. I would have thought that it would be far more effective if we were to alleviate the problem suffered by those people who are unable to afford to heat and light their premises. That must be our No. 1 priority in all this.

Frankly, to be fair, the Government had to bail out the banks. I cannot see that anything would have remained if they had not done so; we would all have imploded if something had not been done. It might have been done earlier—we can argue about that—but it has been done; it has cost a lot of money; and we will have to pay for it at some future date. All that I understand, but I also understand that something had to be done. However, I believe that now is the time that we should look again at the way in which the banks work, bearing in mind that some of them are part-nationalised and others have been nationalised. We should tell them, “Look. We expect you to start lending to one another,” in order to deal with the examples that we heard from the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) about firms and companies with good trading histories being denied assistance. That is absolutely appalling. Whether that is to do with the gearing of their assets to lending, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said, or whatever the cause, we are all aware, as Members of Parliament, of many similar examples.

I know of an example where a chap has an overdraft of about £50,000. He has never gone above £15,000, but the bank has said that it can still offer him £50,000, but it will charge him as though he had taken out £50,000. That is absolutely wrong. It is usury, to use a Biblical word. It is absolutely foul. We all know of such examples. We talk about trying to get the economy back on its feet, but the ability to borrow is fundamental. I know that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who is a member of the Treasury Committee, and others know more about that issue than I do, but even I have noticed the problems. There should be some measure in the Gracious
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Speech—a responsible lending Bill—to get to grips with that. I do not know whether we need regulation or a Bill.

We are now seeing an increase in door-to-door lenders and lending at massive interest rates. Only last week, during a debate, someone mentioned that an interest rate of 350 per cent. was being charged. I believe that charging such rates should be a criminal offence. It can be dealt with in the civil context. One can take the matter to a county court. If the interest rate is unconscionable, one has to prove it before a judge. Lawyers such as me can do that, but an individual who cannot afford a lawyer and will not get legal aid is expected to go along and argue that the rate that they agreed is unconscionable. That legal tool cannot be reasonably used. The only way forward is to criminalise such activities. I know that some people rely on that kind of credit, but heaven’s above—to make someone pay 350 per cent. interest is appalling.

I give another reason why we are in a pickle at the moment. I came across it when I spoke with an ex-regional director of one of the four big banks who told me that the various bank managers had targets that they had to meet on the number of mortgages that they gave out each month, or whatever it might be. He told me that, if I went to them saying that I would like a mortgage of, whatever the amount might be, and my accounts were not okay, nine out of 10 of those managers would say to me, “Go back, inflate your figures by 20 per cent., come back next week and I will give you the mortgage.” In fine weather, that is lovely. The same goes for 120 per cent. mortgages on premises. But when it starts to rain, the roof leaks big time, to coin a phrase. That is such a common practice that that ex-regional director even referred to them as “liar loans”. The bank manager ticked the box, the customer was happy during fine weather and everyone seemed to be happy about that rosy boom, or whatever we might call it. That is part of what has been going on and someone at some point will have to account for it.

On the crime and policing issue, I do not see the need for elected police authorities, because there is a danger of politicising the police—if we have not reached that point already, given what was said earlier—and making that happen Britain-wide, rather than Met-wide. If the vast majority of those on police authorities are elected councillors, there is democratic accountability and transparency already, so I do not necessarily think that directly elected police authorities will take us much further.

I appreciate the continued reference to eradicating child poverty by 2020. I am pleased that that target is in the Gracious Speech. I am also pleased that there will be a Bill to fight discrimination and to bring equality to the workplace. That is very good indeed.

On training and apprenticeships, which I have been banging on about for years, let us see the detail, but I am sure that we can all say that that will be a good thing if it is properly done. One of the problems that we have had of late is the target to have 50 per cent. of young people at university while a good percentage of those young people have no commensurate jobs to go to. I know that it is a difficult political issue to discuss. Whenever anyone mentions it, people say, “Well, you
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went to university and you want to drag the old ladder up and to hell with everyone else.” That is not the point. Is it wise to tempt youngsters into obtaining a degree that might not be all that useful in the workplace and then expect them to carry a £30,000 or £20,000 burden? They may end up stacking shelves in Tesco.

It would be much better if we fostered the old idea again in our schools that vocational work is as good any day as work that one might obtain after going to university. Often, it pays better—think of plumbers and electricians, and good luck to them. We need to consider that option. However, we must have a properly structured apprenticeship scheme, so that people come out fully qualified and we do not have a six or nine-month affair that gives them one piece of paper that needs to be added to later, but which cannot happen because they cannot access further training. I am sure that all those points can be dealt with in due course.

With the Gracious Speech, the old curate's egg comes in: there are some good parts and there are some not so good. I am slightly concerned about the reference to people moving from benefits. I hope that there will be greater support and choice for those people and that they may exercise some control. I also hope that they will be offered incentives; if there is to be a carrot-and- stick approach, I hope that the emphasis will be on the carrot, and not necessarily on the stick.

Parts of the Gracious Speech are very good, parts of it are not so good. I give a broad welcome to several parts of the speech, and I look forward to seeing the detail of the Bills as they come through. It is a short Gracious Speech and it has to be said that there are some rehashed statements within it—things that we have heard announced before. That said, it contains some useful measures as well. We should all work together, especially on the economic front. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham said, at a time when there is a crisis—let us not beat about the bush, as it is a crisis—it behoves us to work together. The monopoly of wisdom is not always on the Government side of the Chamber.

7.47 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): I remind the House of the interests recorded in the Register.

I join the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), the leader of the Welsh Nationalists, in welcoming a large chunk of the Queen's Speech. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said earlier, a number of its proposals—for an independent exam regulator, stricter border controls, welfare reform, a proper constitution for the NHS—were Conservative proposals. It is good to see them in the Queen's Speech and I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will support them in due course.

Other proposals in the Queen’s Speech seem rather peripheral—for example, the proposal to crack down on lap-dancing clubs. Hundreds of thousands of our constituents may be put out of work in the next few months or lose their homes, so it seems rather odd suddenly to concentrate on lap-dancing clubs.

The most revealing thing that I read about the Queen’s Speech was the leak last weekend—another leak—from the Prime Minister that he was revising the entire speech to make it more recession friendly. That was revealing.
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It is his mistake that he did not prepare us earlier. It is a bit late now suddenly to start making everything recession friendly.

For example, 16 months after the collapse of Northern Rock, we still do not have a proper system of depositor protection for our constituents who have bank accounts. We do not have the reserve powers that the Governor of the Bank of England has said for months that he needs. They are in the Bill, which is winding its way slowly through Parliament, but 16 months have elapsed since the crisis and, time and again, the Government have been caught behind the curve, moving too slowly, making mistakes. Much more needs to be done, as several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), have pointed out. We are seeing a dramatic shrinkage in credit across our businesses—small and large, including shops. A lot more needs to be done. I claim no prescience for my warning when I spoke on the banking package:


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