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12 Jun 2009 : Column 1059

Lastly, there was a reference in the statement to using clinical diagnosis to a greater extent, rather than laboratory testing. That is, of course, sensible but it raises questions about getting an accurate picture of the levels of infection. Is any differential diagnosis now available between swine flu and seasonal flu?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I repeat what I said earlier. We are interrupting private Members’ business.

Andy Burnham: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his foresight in bringing the issue to the House all those years ago. I mean that genuinely. It was important that colleagues with a scientific background and understanding of these matters raised public awareness and the public debate, and I am grateful for his acceptance that the Department for Health, the Health Protection Agency and others responded and significantly upped their game. As a former Health Minister coming back, I know that the subject occupied a great deal of my time two years ago, so I can assure him that the importance of the issue was internalised a long time ago.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the media. Perhaps I can do something that not many Members of the House have felt inclined to do for some time, and thank colleagues in the media for the balanced, fair and accurate way in which they have put over to the public information about the outbreak. That has characterised the vast majority of the media coverage so far. All of us, in all parts of the House, want that to continue through the rest of the year. It is important that we give a clear message to the public that things carry as normal.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the move from containment to mitigation and the issues that might arise about public messaging. I understand his point. Along the trajectory of this outbreak, there will be points where careful thought will have to be given to public messaging. Of course, there is a balance to be struck between the practicality on the ground for health staff carrying out the strategy, and the successful containment of the disease. The clear consensus of the committee this week was that we should give that flexibility to the Health Protection Agency.

The hon. Gentleman says that people might draw a distinction based on whether they can get an antiviral in one part of the country but not another. It is important to point out that there are dangers in over-prescribing and in giving medication to healthy people. That also has to be a consideration as we try to get the balance right.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to speculate on the projection of the disease, but it is important that I do not get into what can only be speculation at this stage. Obviously, there are scenarios for the development of the condition, which could take different paths, one of which he mentioned. There are also other potential scenarios. I assure him that the relevant scientific advice is being given to the committee. We need to plan for all scenarios, and that is what we will continue to do. The strategy has been described as “hope for the best, plan for the worst”. We will continue to plan for the worst at all times and make sure that robust plans are in place. I assure the hon. Gentleman on that point.

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What the hon. Gentleman said about clinical diagnosis rather than lab testing was very much in tune with what I said earlier about flexibility for health staff. That is a sensible and practical step to take at this moment. At all times, we want to preserve an accurate picture of how the disease is spreading in the country. We have plans in place to ensure that.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask hon. Members to ask just one single, concise question. If responses are brief, all Members present might be successful in catching my eye. I am ever-mindful that we have interrupted private Members’ business.

Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North) (Lab): Across Whitehall and in many parts of the economy a great deal of planning has taken place because of fears of an outbreak of avian flu. I thank the Secretary of State for his calm and well informed statement and I am grateful to his Opposition counterparts for their approach. Will the Secretary of State assure the House, as I expect he can, that what we learn from swine flu will be fed into the longer-term planning for a more serious outbreak of avian flu, which we still expect to happen one day?

Andy Burnham: I thank my right hon. Friend for his important question. The information that we are gathering now is important not only for the immediate challenge that we face but, more generally, in preparing the country for any challenges in the future. That is why we have to strike a balance between practicality on the ground and accuracy. That takes me to the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). There is some discussion about the hospitalisation rate for the condition. The figure given by the World Health Organisation is 7.5 per cent., but it could be higher because of under-reporting in other parts of the world. It is important that at all times we try to get as accurate a picture as possible, not only to help in the here and now but to leave information that will be useful to future generations in dealing with any similar or worse conditions.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion to the top of the greasy pole at the Department of Health. I warn him, however, that if his party changes leader in October, his tenure might turn out to have been short.

Sadly, the Secretary of State has said nothing today about travel, although most of the country are thinking about going away, including many people in Hinckley, Burbage and Market Bosworth in my Leicestershire constituency. What advice is he giving? So far, we have had only two cases in Leicestershire, but there is real concern. Finally, is he trying to reach young people through YouTube and Facebook?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I said that hon. Members should ask only a single question.

Andy Burnham: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s congratulations and I look forward to discussing complementary therapies with him at great length in the coming weeks.

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The advice on travel has been clear throughout: there are no border closures and no restrictions on travel. The World Health Organisation reiterated that yesterday; I did not reiterate it again because I did not want to imply that there might be a problem. There is not a problem; there are no restrictions on travel at all.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I understand that the Health Protection Agency, whose headquarters are based in my constituency, is encouraging the testing of people who have flu-like systems but have not travelled to one of the high-risk countries. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all primary care trusts in London are able to run the required algorithm and that GPs have sufficient swab-taking supplies in their practices? Barnet, my PCT, has that facility. Its area has had seven cases; the first case in Barnet occurred in my constituency. It is important that all PCTs should be able to run that algorithm.

Andy Burnham: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance and I will write to him with further details on that point.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Will the Secretary of State consider preparing for to issue of a written statement on Monday? It could answer some of the detailed questions to which I am not sure the House has heard the answers this morning. What is the telephone number, either now or then, that someone should ring if they believe that someone in their household might have one of these respiratory conditions?

Andy Burnham: I would grateful if the hon. Gentleman said what he has not heard that he wants to hear. I answered the shadow Health Secretary’s questions. If the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) want answers to specific questions, I would be grateful if he submitted them to me today in writing. I shall make sure that he gets an immediate response. The swine flu information line is 08001513513.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new post. As he is new to it, he might not know that one of the early outbreaks of swine flu took place in Finsbury in my constituency, when a young Australian man came back from Mexico. However, the outbreak has been contained because of that man’s responsible behaviour and the prompt action of the local medical staff. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them for their prompt and appropriate behaviour?

Andy Burnham: The most admirable thing about our national health service is how, at moments such as this, committed people up and down the country move into action and work hard to protect the public. That is a great thing. The shadow Health Secretary was right to raise that point; we would all wish to thank those people. We will be calling on them in the coming months, but as always they will be there for us and up to the task.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): If there is a large increase in the number of people infected by swine flu, as we seem now to be anticipating, the national flu pandemic service will be the only means of distributing
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antiviral drugs. Why is that service not already up and running, as was intended? What has gone wrong with the BT contract? Will the Secretary of State give a clear explanation? What does he mean by “the autumn”?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Once again, I repeat that I have asked for a single question from Members.

Andy Burnham: We have put in hand plans for a national service that can deal effectively with the mitigation phase of the condition, as and when it is reached. A detailed business case for the service has been prepared. That, of course, has to be tested to ensure that it delivers proper value for money and that the system being developed does the job that we want it to do. That work is now well in hand, and as I said in my statement, the service will be up and running by the autumn.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It has been suggested that widespread prophylactic use of antivirals could lead to the development of resistance to those antivirals in the virus itself. Is that factor being taken into consideration in planning the use of antivirals?

Andy Burnham: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is a consideration. The decision taken this week on restricting the use of antivirals prophylactically is mainly because of the practicalities of doing it for health staff. However, he makes the important point that overuse of medicines among the healthy population is never sensible.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in coming to the House so promptly after yesterday’s statement by the WHO—perhaps that will spread like a contagion among his colleagues, so that they too make rapid statements. Are any special measures being taken for those who have a lot of contact with people coming in from overseas, such as those who work at Luton airport, or those in my constituency at Yarl’s Wood, who deal so promptly with a lot of asylum seekers coming into and out of detention?

Andy Burnham: I do not believe that any particular measures are being taken for immigration staff at the moment; I will seek to get the hon. Gentleman a fuller explanation of why that is the case.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The Secretary of State has now admitted that he cannot prevent a widespread outbreak of swine flu. Why is it not better to have that widespread outbreak in the summer rather than putting it off until the winter?

Andy Burnham: My family love me, but there is a limit to what I can do, four days into the job. I am doing my best, as is everybody else, to ensure that the country is prepared. It makes sense to contain the condition as much as possible to give us time to put the necessary systems in place on the ground to take the country through this particular moment. [ Interruption. ] I am still slightly taken aback by the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Secretary of State only touched on the impact of school closures and said that that will be a local decision. However, many people
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will be worried about the possible effect of school closures on parents and the knock-on effects on businesses. What assessment have the Government made of that possibility, and what discussions has he had about it with other Government Departments?

Andy Burnham: Obviously, we are working closely with other Government Departments to get our advice right on this point. School closures continue to be discussed by the civil contingencies committee, and we will update the hon. Gentleman and the House as necessary. Although more serious in a minority of cases, it is important to reiterate that in the vast majority of cases this has been a mild condition, and people have made a very speedy and full recovery. It will be important not to raise heightened concern about widespread school closures. Where they are necessary to prevent the spread of the disease within a particular area, let us leave that to the professionals and the experts. If they wish to give advice to school governors and head teachers, that is how these things should properly be done. It is not necessary at this stage to have a national policy on school closures, or whatever the hon. Gentleman seems to be pointing towards. Let us deal with this calmly as we go along, but at all times taking the steps advised by the experts.

Mr. Jenkin: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I point out that Front Benchers took 31 minutes to make their opening statements and ask questions, so you inevitably had to curtail the few Back Benchers who are present in our questions? I understand that, but will you and Mr. Speaker look into whether Front-Bench contributions should be formally time limited?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I can inform the hon. Gentleman that they are time limited, for that very reason, and that is why I intervened. That is even more important today, because it is a day for Back Benchers to bring their Bills before the House.

12 Jun 2009 : Column 1064

Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Bill

Proceedings resumed.

11.43 am

Mr. Timms: As we have heard, the proposals in the Bill are a direct result of Treasury consultation on the review of co-operative and credit union legislation in Great Britain, which was carried out in December 2007. The responses identified areas in the legislation for co-operatives and credit unions that would benefit from an update. We have held extensive discussions in the Treasury with the sector and key stakeholders, and we are taking forward the majority of the reforms using a legislative reform order, which I hope will be laid before the House before too long. The Bill complements the work that the Government are doing and deals with issues that have not been included in the LRO but have been widely sought by the sector. The sector and its supporters certainly wholeheartedly support the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks).

The Bill provides for a change of name for relevant institutions, and specifically that societies registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965 should be registered as co-operative societies or community benefit societies. Respondents to the consultation made a powerful case that the industrial and provident society name sounds somewhat outmoded and constrains the development of the sector. The Government agree that a name change would help modernise the sector and attract a new range of members, so we fully support it. However, my right hon. Friend is right that a simple renaming is not enough, and we also have to change the IPS name throughout the relevant legislation.

Applying the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 to officers of industrial and provident societies as it applies to companies, building societies and friendly societies will be useful, too. Clause 3 is necessary, as it will go a long way towards improving corporate governance standards by providing for industrial and provident societies to be subject to closer scrutiny by their registrar, the Financial Services Authority. The Bill gives the FSA new powers of investigation to enhance its scrutiny role.

The benefits of that increased scrutiny are twofold. First, enhanced corporate governance standards will give societies added credibility, which is particularly important in the current circumstances of the worldwide economic and financial sector crisis. Secondly, it will provide extra assurance and protection to societies’ members and to the statutory authorities.

It is equally important to ensure that powers are available to regulate the corporate body, as well as the individuals who control it. I therefore welcome the aspects of my right hon. Friend’s Bill that will help to create a level playing field by enabling the striking off and dissolution of defunct societies by the registrar and the application of company law in the investigation of companies. Importantly, it will also make it possible to apply to societies company law on company names, including directing a society to change its name if it is similar to other names or if the society has provided misleading information to register a particular name. At the moment there is no clear sanction for businesses
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operating under the guise of a co-operative, or with the word “co-operative” included in their full corporate name. Helpfully, the Bill will remedy that anomaly.

Peter Bottomley: Again, the Minister may or may not know the answer to this question off the cuff, and I do not mind getting a letter later. Will that power apply retrospectively if a company already has the word “co-operative” in its title and it is challenged as being misleading?

Mr. Timms: I believe that the answer about retrospection in the way that the hon. Gentleman defines it is yes, but I will ensure that that point is covered in the response that I promised him earlier.

On clause 5, credit unions share a number of similarities with building societies, although they are on a smaller scale. Credit union membership has expanded significantly, and we need to ensure that the protections offered to members keep pace with the expansion of the sector. The Government consider that the best way of reconciling regulatory oversight with credit unions’ expanding membership and operations would be to bring it into line with building society law, which is tailored to deal with issues specific to institutions that accept deposits. For example, we should allow credit union members a statutory right to vote by proxy and require institutions to provide a summary financial statement to members and depositors. In fact, the Bill will allow any provisions of building society legislation that are deemed appropriate to be mirrored for credit unions. I should give the reassurance that the Government would consult fully on any application of building society law to credit unions before bringing it into effect.

The Bill extends to Great Britain only, and excludes Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It would not be right to interfere with the separate regime governing similar institutions in Northern Ireland, although there is a limited power in the Bill to make consequential amendments to Northern Ireland statute if appropriate.

The contributions to this morning’s debate have reflected the affection and esteem in which Members throughout the House hold the mutual sector, and I am pleased to reaffirm the Government’s wholehearted support for my right hon. Friend’s Bill.

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