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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Justice Secretary has announced today that there will be five prisons, each holding 1,500 offenders, but he has identified only two sites: one in Essex and one in metropolitan Essex. Today’s Colchester Gazette reports that his Department is looking at three sites in my constituency. Will he
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explain what consultation has taken place with the local authority and the local Members of Parliament? Will he give us a decision on whether Essex is going to get one of the additional three sites?

Mr. Straw: We have no plans to build additional prisons in Essex, apart from the ones that have been announced. Last Friday, we responded to a freedom of information decision of the commissioner—the FOI request had been put in by the hon. Member for Billericay—and from recollection, the information provided listed 72 sites across the country. That reveals an inherent problem in the planning of all such big projects: to begin with, such sites must be identified fairly privately—the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) will know that, as I think he served on a local authority—but many sites are ruled out from the beginning. However, an FOI request was made. I thought there were good reasons, precisely so as not unnecessarily to worry local residents as the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have been worried, not to make those proposed sites public, because these were simply inquiries. However, wherever a decision is made to secure a site—that is the decision, and no more, that I have announced today in respect of Runwell and Beam Park West—there is a proper planning process and process of public consultation in the normal way.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): I would have liked to ask the Secretary of State why he thinks locking up an additional 25,000 people—many if not most of them with drug and mental health problems—is a matter to boast about, but I will not, as I must ask him about probation cuts in Leeds and west Yorkshire. He said that this is simply a matter of moving resources to convictions. The Leeds MPs have been approached by the Leeds probation officers, who tell us that they are losing a large number of posts, yet the work load is growing.

Will the Secretary of State agree to look at the Leeds situation to see whether Leeds MPs are being misled. If they are not, will he reverse these cuts in my area?

Mr. Straw: I am very well aware of the concern of parliamentary colleagues and the probation services across the Yorkshire and Humberside region. There are particular reasons for the levels of concern, and of course I am ready to meet with my hon. Friend and his colleagues. As the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who has responsibility for prisons and probation, has just commented, Steve Wagstaffe, who is the new regional director of offender management for Yorkshire and Humberside is examining the budgets of those probation services in conjunction with those services. If we need to make other decisions, we shall do so.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): The Beam Reach business park in Rainham in my constituency was actively being considered as a potential site for the prison in London and I note that Beam Park, which is on the edge of my constituency, has now been put forward. Will the Secretary of State confirm the category of prison envisaged at Beam Park and the nature of the consultation and discussions that will take place with local residents, so that they are clear as to the proposals being made?

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Mr. Straw: It will not be an open prison and it will not be a category A prison. For different reasons, open prisons and high-security prisons most worry local residents. It will be a normal category B or category C prison. The precise decision will have to be made closer to the time of opening, but of course there will be a lot of consultation about that. In some areas—although not, as it happens, in my area of east Lancashire, where we want a prison but cannot find a site for one, despite active local authority support across the political spectrum—there is public concern about the siting of prisons. I understand that, and I saw for myself in Peterborough, for example, huge opposition to Peterborough’s new prison when I was Home Secretary, but it now has a prison, which is working well and is publicly supported. I am glad to see the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) expressing his support for that.

There will be anxiety, but these are very good, well- paid, secure jobs—typically for those who have lost their jobs as semi-skilled or skilled manual workers, especially men, in manufacturing industries. This is really good news for the area, economically as well as socially.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Is not asking the public what offenders should do as part of the community payback scheme the worst kind of populist nonsense imaginable? May I also ask my friend about the small print of the prison budget in the Red Book, where he calls for £82 million of savings to be made by allowing prison staff arrangements to be reprofiled? What, exactly, does that mean in plain English?

Hon. Members: Go on—condemn populism.

Mr. Straw: One man’s populism is another man’s or woman’s democracy. I say to my hon. Friend, who
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shares a valley with me, and much else besides, that all of us have an interest in maintaining and responding to public approaches and public attitudes. Personally, I do not think that it is remotely populist in the pejorative sense of the word to ask the public where they think various works of environmental improvement should be carried out. The public, not me or the local probation service, came forward with that idea at one of my residents’ meetings on Friday. Why should we as Members of Parliament, Justice Secretaries or the probation service think that we know best and the public know least.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I say to the Justice Secretary that he is quite right to jettison Titans? I noted in the statement that the new prisons are to be run privately. May I also say to him that it is very important that the contracts make express provision for proper and purposeful activity, particularly education and work, and that furthermore the Department must do its best to prevent people from being churned through those prisons? What is important is stability within the population, so that purposeful work can be delivered.

Mr. Straw: I entirely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman in all the points he makes. One of the values, if one gets them right, of larger prisons—for example, the cluster at Her Majesty’s prison Hewell, formerly Blakenhurst, between Bromsgrove and Redditch—is that it is possible for prisoners to serve the whole of their sentence in one place: in a cat. B local prison, to a cat. C trainer, and then to a cat. D open prison. With one offender manager, there is a better chance of ensuring that prisoners stay straight when they leave.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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Swine Flu

4.12 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the reports of human cases of swine influenza, known as the A(H1Nl) infection, in some parts of the world, notably Mexico and the United States of America.

The outbreak began in Mexico on 18 March, and as at 9 pm last night, there have been over 800 cases and 89 deaths in that country. However, to date, only 18 cases in Mexico have been confirmed as being caused by the H1Nl virus, and it is highly possible that other, more routine causes of infection are also currently circulating in that country.

On Tuesday last week, under the terms of the international health regulations, the United States reported seven cases of the H1N1 infection. On Friday 24 April, the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that samples from Mexico contained the same virus as those in the United States. Twenty cases have now been confirmed in five different states of the USA, four have been confirmed in Canada and one in Spain. Suspected cases have also been reported in New Zealand, France and Israel, although it is important to note that these are suspected cases and have not yet been confirmed as the H1N1 infection.

In the UK, 25 cases under investigation have been reported. Eight of these have proved to be negative, and three are currently undergoing further specialist tests. These three patients are in isolation wards in hospital, after recently travelling in Mexico. People who have been in close contact with them are being contacted. The remaining 14 suspected cases are undergoing initial investigation and the people involved are sufficiently well to be managed in the community.

It is too early to say whether the cases in Mexico and the US will lead to a pandemic. Scientists do not yet understand the extent to which cases in Mexico and the US are linked and are not yet able to make a complete assessment of the health implications of this new virus.

A pandemic is declared when the World Health Organisation raises the pandemic alert to phase 6. That means that there is widespread person-to-person transmission of a virus in the general population. At the moment we are at phase 3.

The director general of the WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, has declared that this is a public health emergency of international concern. The WHO is convening a committee of experts from around the world that is meeting this afternoon to review the situation and to determine what further action is required at a global level.

In deciding the state of the pandemic alert, the WHO bases its decision on expert scientific advice based on the available epidemiological and scientific evidence. The range of symptoms in the people affected is similar to those of regular human seasonal influenza. It is important to note that, apart from in Mexico, all those infected with the virus have experienced mild symptoms and made a full recovery. The swine flu that has been isolated in Mexico and the United States is sensitive to the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza. Those drugs
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are effective in treating the illness, provided they are taken quickly enough. They can also reduce the length of symptoms and usually their severity.

I would like to outline the measures that we are taking in response to this significant health threat. The UK has been preparing for a flu pandemic for the past five years. We have established a stockpile of enough antivirals to treat more than 33 million people—half the UK population. All NHS organisations have pandemic flu plans in place and the Department of Health is now working closely with the NHS to ensure that those plans can be put into action so that antivirals can be made available to the public very rapidly should we reach that stage.

Over the weekend, the Government have been putting in place precautionary measures to implement the plans that we have been developing in case of more widespread infections in the UK. I have spoken to ministerial colleagues and my Opposition shadows this morning, and I will be convening a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Committee immediately following this statement.

We have enhanced our port health checks so that passengers arriving in the UK with symptoms of illness are identified and assessed. Information is being made available to passengers arriving at ports and we have provided urgent advice to doctors. Should the virus start spreading widely in the UK, we propose to use our antiviral stockpile for treatment of symptomatic patients. We already have advance agreements in place with manufacturers, should a vaccine be developed, although it is important to note that it will be some time before scientists can develop a vaccine, as the virus is not yet sufficiently understood. Experts are currently examining whether vaccination with the regular, seasonal flu vaccine can in any way boost immunity to the H1N1 strain, and we are considering how best we can use the limited stocks that are currently available within the UK.

Many people will wish to know whether they should wear face masks. Although we are aware that face masks are being given out to the public in Mexico, the available scientific evidence does not support the general wearing of face masks by those who are not ill while going about their normal activities. We are, however, urgently looking into how we can increase our stockpiles of face masks for health care workers who are treating sick patients. We have also established infection control guidance to support staff when treating or caring for people who have symptoms.

We already have well-advanced plans for providing information to the public in the event of a pandemic, in particular about what people can do to help themselves in the event of swine influenza being confirmed in the UK. Updated information is available on the NHS Choices and the Health Protection Agency websites. Further information is also available for health and social care staff on the Department of Health website. We are putting in place an information line containing recorded, up-to-date information for those who want to know more about this type of flu. In addition, NHS Direct is providing information to people who have recently travelled overseas and are worried that they may have symptoms.

There are three key messages that I would like to stress at this stage. First, it is important to emphasise that in all cases outside Mexico the symptoms of this illness are mild and all patients have made a full recovery.
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Secondly, we can all take simple measures to prevent infection, in particular, covering one’s nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, and washing hands regularly. Anyone who develops flu-like symptoms should go home and contact their general practitioner. Thirdly, anyone who has recently travelled to the affected areas and is experiencing influenza-like illness should stay at home in order to limit contact with others and seek medical advice by phone from a local health professional or NHS Direct. In line with advice from the World Health Organisation, there are currently no travel restrictions on those who are planning to visit affected areas. Anyone who is planning to do so is advised to ensure that they take the measures I have outlined to prevent infection and consult a doctor immediately if they show signs of flu-like symptoms. To enable local health services to respond to the pressure that the possibility of a pandemic may put on services, we are working with primary care trusts to ensure that arrangements are in place to support that distribution arrangement for antivirals, should it become necessary.

There is understandable trepidation and concern across the world. Here in the UK, we are monitoring the situation very closely, alongside the WHO and our international partners. The UK has been preparing for such an occurrence for a number of years, and the WHO has recognised that the UK and France are the two best-prepared countries in the world. I wanted to use this opportunity to update the House on what we know so far, but I shall, of course, keep Parliament fully updated on what is obviously a rapidly developing situation.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am sure that the House is grateful to the Secretary of State for making a statement at the first opportunity, and I was grateful for the opportunity to see it beforehand and for the conversation that we had about this matter this morning, to which he referred.

May I express—I hope on behalf of the whole House—our sympathy with, and support for, all those in Mexico who have suffered as a consequence of this outbreak? I hope that, through the WHO, we will be able to continue to give the greatest possible support to that country. However, the current situation illustrates a point that we have discussed before in relation to pandemic preparedness: that an influenza pandemic would expose dramatic differences in the ability to respond in different parts of the world between the most developed countries and the least developed countries. The national reporting systems in Mexico are clearly not as good as they should be. For a month, several hundred cases had emerged in Mexico before the point last week when the CDC in Atlanta—the Americans’ responsible authority in this area—on behalf of the WHO, became aware of the new strain and was able to trigger the necessary alerts. Clearly, the UK and developing countries are interdependent, and we should be supporting them and trying to ensure that we have not only better alerts, but the resources available to support such countries in responding more rapidly and more effectively to flu outbreaks.

As the Secretary of State said, the United Kingdom is among the better prepared countries, and we have been discussing such preparations for nearly five years for that to be the case. If the WHO, which is meeting
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this afternoon, moves the alert status from phase 3 to phase 5, as is possible, given the nature of what we know, that will trigger a response in this country. As the Secretary of State implied, it is important for us not to assume that what is in the UK pandemic plan and its underlying assumptions about the likely profile of an influenza pandemic is what we will experience in this case. That plan is much more geared to more severe symptoms than we have seen in the cases that have emerged in America and elsewhere; this is, in a sense, more like the Russian flu of 1977, which was an H1N1 flu virus for which the vaccine was available within three months and the clinical attack rates and mortality rates were much lower than were assumed in the pandemic plan. We do have reasons to be optimistic, including the mild nature of the flu that has been experienced in other countries. However, we do not know whether there is a much greater prevalence in Mexico, with only the most severe cases going to hospital.

It is important that we review our preparations, and I have several points to make in that respect. We have a stockpile of treatments, although in an answer on 12 January the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo) said that Department modelling had shown that prophylactic or preventive use of antivirals in a flu pandemic would be effective. That would require a stockpile of 75 per cent. equivalent of the population, rather than the 50 per cent. that we have at the moment. Perhaps the Government could tell us what further steps they have taken following that reply in January.

The Secretary of State will also know that for four years we have told the Government that other countries, including France and Australia, have a strategic stockpile of face masks and gloves. It is not for distribution to the whole population, but it is to ensure that everybody in frontline care would be able to wear face masks and gloves. The Government say that they are urgently looking for face masks, but when SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—emerged the international supply of face masks disappeared almost overnight. It is therefore unlikely that the Government will be able to procure face masks very readily.

The Secretary of State may be able to tell us something about vaccine research and our support for it. In November 2005, President Bush devoted $2.8 billion to improvement of vaccine technologies, and I hope that we can say that we are doing our bit, especially as we have some of the leading scientists in the area.

If there is a change in the WHO alert status, it will trigger a communication exercise with the public about our pandemic preparations, under the pandemic plan. On 22 January, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) asked for a debate in Government time on pandemic preparedness, but the Government have not given us that. I wish that they had, as it is better to discuss the issues raised by a pandemic before it happens rather than when we face the immediate prospect of it happening. None the less, will the Government now accept that request?

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