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24 Apr 2009 : Column 539

All those hon. Members have a strong and honourable tradition of raising in this House the issue of asbestos-related conditions. They reflected widespread concern about the issue outside the House, too. For example, let me look at the submissions from the trade union movement to the Government as part of our recent consultation. I can see strong elements of support for action in relation to this Bill from Unite the Union, which has indicated that many of its members have suffered and died as a result of asbestos-related illnesses. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians has said that the House of Lords decision in Johnston, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon referred, was a huge blow to sufferers of pleural plaques. Unison has said that it believes that those who, through no fault of their own, have been exposed negligibly to asbestos should be rightfully entitled to compensation.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister mentioned Unite. He will be aware that Unite is asking for £5 million to £10 million to fund an asbestos-related disease centre rather like the one in Australia. The Australian Government provided 6.2 million Australian dollars. Are the Government minded to provide such funding?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will expect us to consider those issues seriously, but no decisions have been taken. We need to look, as we are, at a range of matters relating to the issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, there has been considerable legal discussion. As he will know, there have been interpretations through the High Court following the challenge by the insurance industry, Rothwell v. Chemical and Insulating Co. Ltd and conjoined cases. My hon. Friend has outlined—I do not need to repeat this point—the continued discussions in the legal system, which ended with the House of Lords judgment on 17 October 2007, when the Law Lords upheld the Court of Appeal decision that the existence of pleural plaques does not constitute actionable or compensable damage. In this instance, the House of Lords based its decision on two further principles underpinning the law of negligence. These are the matters that relate to today, and my hon. Friend’s Bill is trying to examine that issue and to make a change on that basis.

In the light of concerns raised by hon. Members after constituents were diagnosed with pleural plaques, the Government published a consultation paper on 9 July 2008 to gather views on the most appropriate means of responding to the House of Lords decision. Indeed, my hon. Friend referred to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister responded to that decision in Prime Minister’s questions, whereas my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice brought forward the consultation paper, which considered several issues.

The consultation paper considered the law and medical evidence underpinning the House of Lords decision and sought views on a range of possible options. It proposed that action should be taken to improve understanding of pleural plaques and in particular to provide support and reassurance to those diagnosed with pleural plaques to help allay their concerns. In the light of representations that have been received from those who are strongly of the view that pleural plaques should be compensable, the paper considered the issues that arise in relation to changing the law of negligence and invited views on whether that would be appropriate.

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The consultation also invited views on the merits of establishing a no-fault payment scheme for individuals who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques and considered two possible approaches. One would be to establish a no-fault payment scheme limited to those with work-related exposure to asbestos, and the other would be to establish a no-fault payment scheme for those similarly exposed and diagnosed now or in the future. The paper discussed whether any payments should be made and, if so, crucially, by whom, what amount the payment should be and the risks, benefits and costs of both schemes.

The paper also explained that it was important to ensure that any decisions on pleural plaques were reached on the basis of the best available current medical evidence, an issue that was alluded to by the hon. Members for Epping Forest and for Lichfield. For that reason, the paper indicated that independent reviews of the medical evidence have been commissioned from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council and the chief medical officer.

The consultation closed at the beginning of October last year. Let me be honest: I fully understand the concerns about the time that we are taking to consider the consultation issues. In some way, that answers the questions asked by the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) about why my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon introduced the Bill today, and whether the matter is not one for the Government. I say to the hon. Member for Blaby that we are looking into the issue extremely seriously. We have had the consultation, and it has been considered. Responses have been received; there were over 224 in total, including 125 from people who have been diagnosed with pleural plaques, or whose relatives have been diagnosed with the condition—so the Government do take the issue seriously.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has rightly taken the opportunity offered by the Bill to raise the issue and to seek legislative redress. We are considering the matter. There is confluence of the Government’s consideration of the consultation and my hon. Friend’s Bill, but that, I hope, does not reflect on either party.

Mr. Robathan: In all seriousness, the issue is not, as far as I am concerned, in any way a party political matter. It is a serious subject, and concerned constituents have written to me about pleural plaques. Has the Minister received responses to the consultation? I know that the process takes a long time, and although I do not doubt the Government’s good intent—well, I sometimes do, but not in this case—the House needs to know the Government’s view, following the consultation. When will we get the response? With all due respect to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), the Bill may raise the issue and perhaps goad the Government a little bit, but I think it has been introduced at the wrong time.

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will understand that we have to produce the response to that consultation, and we will do so. It will be provided to the House, and it will be part of the ongoing discussions. I very much hope that it will be part of the considerations when we reflect on the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has discussed .

Mr. Dismore: Nothing would please me more than if the Government introduced their own proposals. I simply say that my Bill is designed to push them along a little
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bit and help them to make their mind up. Of course, I am more than happy to consider any Government amendments to my Bill, should it reach Committee.

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend brings me to a point that is worth putting on record. There are concerns, some of which were recognised by the hon. Members for Epping Forest and for Lichfield. The Government have concerns about some aspects of the Bill, and those concerns will have to be explored if it proceeds to Committee. For example, the Bill does not interact with law on Northern Ireland. There are different limitations and different legislation available in Northern Ireland, and clause 3 does not reflect that. Clause 2 extends the Bill to asbestosis and asbestos-related pleural thickening; those conditions were not included in the consultation, and we need to consider carefully whether they should be included in any legislation.

Having said all that, although we have reservations that need to be explored, I am happy to allow the Bill to be read a Second time today, if the House so wishes. I am happy for those issues, and the issues raised by the hon. Member for Epping Forest, to be explored in Committee. Undoubtedly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon will be aware, there will come a time when we respond to our consultation. Hopefully, that will be within relatively short order. We will look at the consultation response in light of the progress in Committee. I cannot say today whether ultimately we will support all the details of my hon. Friend’s Bill, but if the House wishes the Bill to proceed, we certainly will not today force a situation in which it cannot do so.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon for introducing the Bill. It deals with a serious issue that affects people who have had injuries and illnesses that have damaged their lives in considerable ways. It is up to the House to reflect that in a proper and effective way. If the House wishes the Bill to proceed to Committee, I know that full consideration will be given to all the issues raised, not just by me as the Minister speaking on behalf of my colleagues, but by all Members of the House. I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to discuss the issues today.

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2.29 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am keen not to talk the Bill out, but I have to say to the Government that I do not think that they have given an adequate response. We are talking about a very serious issue that affects my constituents and others. It is not an adequate response to say, “We’ll push the matter into Committee and discuss it through a private Member’s Bill.” The Government have had time to consider the issue, and they must determine whether they wish to change the law or not.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee. (Standing Order No. 63)

Business without Debate


Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 1 May.


Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 8 May.


Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 8 May.

Scottish banknotes (acceptability in United Kingdom) bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (6 March), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 8 May.

24 Apr 2009 : Column 543

Council Rents (Lambeth)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Barbara Keeley.)

2.31 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): In a few weeks I will have represented the people of Vauxhall as their Member of Parliament for 20 years. When I was elected, I promised to speak out loudly about their needs and concerns, and to represent them powerfully, whoever was running Lambeth and whoever was in government.

My constituency, covering the north of Lambeth, is a wonderful diverse community with very many people deeply committed to working with others to make where they live a better place to be. The 2007 index of multiple deprivation places Lambeth as the fifth most deprived borough in London and the 19th most deprived in England. There are, of course, pockets of affluence, and one of the most pleasant corollaries of this is that in areas such as Kennington, Waterloo, Stockwell, Brixton and Clapham there is a coming together in the myriad community and voluntary organisations of people from all backgrounds and financial income.

Over the years we have seen huge improvements in the environment in the borough—in our parks, streets, street cleaning and so on. Although a large number of my constituents are well paid, highly educated and play a major role in the wider London economy, many are denied opportunities to succeed and we still face long-term problems, such as higher than average rates of unemployment, low levels of skills, and high teenage pregnancy and crime.

However, throughout my time as an MP there has been one overriding theme of discontent and even anger, as I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who I am pleased to see beside me today, will agree. Regardless which political party has been in power at Lambeth town hall, whether Labour, Liberal Democrat or no overall control, there have been real failures in the housing department and in housing management. I emphasise that this is not a strictly party political issue. It has been a fact, regardless who has been nominally in control. There has been a culture of incompetence, arrogance and—I choose my words carefully—outright corruption among too many in the structures of the housing department, many of whom have now left.

I know that the current administration is aware of the situation and of the history, and that greater attention is being paid to trying to tackle it. In particular, I pay tribute to the ongoing efforts of our chief executive, Derrick Anderson, who has taken a huge hands-on role in trying to sort housing out once and for all, and of our cabinet member for housing, Lib Peck, who is relatively new to the job and showing a determination to face up to the challenge. But it is still nowhere near fixed, and I could spend all the time available to me today chronicling the many mess-ups that there have been. I shall however refer to just a few.

During the past few years we have seen a fraudster from within the housing department steal £2.9 million, which was eventually retrieved through insurance; an £11 million budget for homeless accommodation overspent by £6 million, because the council had leased too much property for a declining number of homeless people; and an all-party report by councillors finding that the
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authority ignored Government homelessness funding cuts, branding the officers reckless. There have been failings to keep contractors in check, shoddy work that is never penalised and countless other examples of financial mismanagement, as well as failings on the monitoring of repairs and other day-to-day management of what is happening on our estates.

The word “blame” could be widely used against many people and the organisation generally over a long period, but my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing must be aware that the one group throughout all this who certainly cannot be blamed and have had no hand in any of the mismanagement is the council tenants, who make up about 50 per cent. of the residents across Vauxhall and who have suffered terribly poor service from their housing department. The department is often unresponsive, dismissive and hostile. Repairs have not been done and many of my constituents are in despair at the service that they receive.

I want to pay tribute to the many tenant leaders who give up so much of their time to improve the situation—Roz Munday, Rita Fitzgerald, Norah Anne Sheey and, most of all, Pat Scahill from the Mursell estate who has badgered tirelessly to get Lambeth officers to do their job properly. If only the council had listened over the many years to the tenants who knew what was going on. Eighteen months ago I brought a delegation of tenants to see the former Minister, and they said then how dire things were. Those very same tenants now face enormous rent rises to make up for matters beyond their control. They have never been listened to and I hope that they will now be listened to.

The proposed rent increases this year will mean an additional £11.79 a week for a one-bedroomed flat and an additional £12.20 a week for a two-bedroomed flat, rising to £15 a week for larger flats. On top of that, increases in service charges will mean an additional 68p a week across the board. These huge rises, totalling about 16.49 per cent. on average, are by far the largest proposed anywhere in London and indeed in the country, and they will hit many tenants hard, particularly those who do not receive housing benefit. Those people are largely men and women who have worked hard all their lives, paid their taxes and contributed fully to their communities, and they will now find themselves clobbered by these increases, which have nothing at all to do with them.

The reason for the proposed rent increases is to plug the deficit in Lambeth’s housing revenue account, which is projected to be £9 million over the next 18 months, and to meet the forecast need to bring the account back into surplus in the medium term. That was despite last summer the tenants council being told by officers that the HRA was fine—no problem. Two months later, we suddenly had a huge deficit and the rent increases were discussed. The suggested alternative of swingeing cuts in the housing repairs budget, which is already not delivering nearly enough and practically nothing on some estates, is just not possible.

The reason for my coming to Parliament today is to see how my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing can help. I am being very honest. There is a solution and I know that my right hon. Friend wants to help if she can. Lambeth’s administration had expectations of receiving funds through the rent constraint allowance, which was paid out in 2006-07 and 2007-08 to authorities
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that were able to hold down rents. Lambeth was not entitled to receive RCA until the incoming Labour administration de-pooled its rents from its service charges for 2007-08. However, it was considered that that was too late, because by the time the RCA ended at the end of that period, Lambeth had not established a two-year base of data. An earlier de-pooling under the previous administration might have made Lambeth eligible.

The council has calculated that the difference in RCA entitlement before and after de-pooling is a subsidy loss of £11 million—enough to plug the deficit in the housing revenue account. I know that the council leader has been lobbying the Department for Communities and Local Government for a one-off special determination for that amount to reflect the loss from de-pooling in expectation of the RCA in 2007-08, and my plea today to the Minister is to look favourably on that. If the Secretary of State would use her discretionary powers to issue a special housing subsidy determination to grant Lambeth an amount equivalent to that which due to the time lag was lost in the RCA calculations, the HRA would be immediately restored to balance and decent people who do not deserve the worry of all this, particularly at a time of economic recession, would not be penalised by such large rent increases.

There is another way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister might help. Lambeth council has included in its response to the HRA subsidy amending determination consultation a way of allowing an authority that de-pooled in 2007-08 additional subsidy for the amount of RCA lost. Currently, the Government’s incredibly welcome determination to get rent increases down to an average of 3.1 per cent., and their offer of help to those local councils that do so, does not in any way help the tenants of Lambeth. All around them they see other boroughs’ tiny increases being made even tinier because of the Government’s welcome guidelines, and even some boroughs that have made reductions, but all they have is ever-increasing bills.

I know that my right hon. Friend will have huge sympathy for the problems that those tenants face; she has a long history of involvement in and concern about housing. I have been inundated with letters and e-mails from despairing tenants. Time is short and I cannot read from all of them, but I shall read one extract from one e-mail, which sums up the overall feeling. It is from a lady—I shall not give her name—living in my constituency on Minet road. She writes:

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