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David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab):
I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, but may I press him a little further on the position of thalidomiders
in Scotland, such as my constituents Mr. Stewart Macleod and Mr. Alan Deegan? He said in his statement that the evaluation would be focused on survivors in England, but that he fully expected that survivors living outside England would also benefit. Will he explain how that will happen? Will it be entirely at the discretion of the Thalidomide Trust in England, or is there some formal agreement with thalidomiders in Scotland? Has he had any discussions with his opposite number in the Scottish Government to see whether they might be prepared to make a contribution to this pot of money that would ensure that thalidomiders throughout the UK will benefit equally-let us not forget that the damage was done well before devolution was ever thought of-as they are all affected equally?
Mr. O'Brien: We hope that the devolved Administrations will look at the settlement, recognise that there are a number of thalidomiders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and feel that they can make a further contribution to the funding. Perhaps 15 per cent. of thalidomiders live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and a further 10 per cent. live outside the UK. The way in which the Thalidomide Trust has asked to be able to deal with this question is satisfactory to us. We will make the payments to the trust and it will determine the appropriate way of making payments to thalidomiders, including those in Scotland; the trust will adjust its funding arrangements so that thalidomiders in Scotland are helped appropriately. However, that will be an internal matter for the Thalidomide Trust. Funding from this Government on this occasion, because health is a devolved matter, will be for English thalidomiders, but the Thalidomide Trust will adjust its funding to ensure that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish thalidomiders do not lose out.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): I add my congratulations to the Minister on his statement. It is no surprise to me that this has happened on his watch. May I ask him a question about the pilot scheme? I have no problem with the principle of a pilot scheme, but it is inevitable that people will move towards asking what will happen beyond that date. Three years is actually quite a long time to be considering that question. Will my right hon. and learned Friend at least leave the door open? If, during the three-year period, it becomes very obvious that the work of the trust is needed permanently in the future, can a review be held more quickly and the scheme be made permanent even before the end of the proposed three-year scheme?
Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend raises a good point. The scheme is a pilot and there is no commitment at this stage to go beyond the pilot period. Let me say, however, that we are looking at whether we can create a situation in which it is clear from the pilot that there will need to be a Government decision about future funding and a continuation of that future funding. There is no commitment at the moment, but the evaluation is necessary to determine whether the project has been a success. If it has been, Ministers would, we hope, decide that it could continue. It will be a decision, however, for Ministers. They might want to wait a little less than three years, so that there can be an indication to the Thalidomide Trust of how funding can be developed in the longer term. However, there will need to be research in the meantime into how the money is being spent.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): I also add my grateful thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend for his statement today. We all have cases in our constituencies that we have had to bring to his attention. May I also pay tribute to the chair of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton)? He has also worked tirelessly on behalf of thalidomiders. I pay tribute to the trust, too, for the way in which it has lobbied parliamentarians. I listened very carefully to the Minister's response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for-
Mrs. Williams: From Scotland. His point was about the devolved Administrations. May I probe a little further on whether we could have a more formal means of working with the devolved Administrations? I would like to reach a situation in which thalidomiders in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are not treated any differently. There could still be people out there who are not on anybody's list, and I hate to think that there are some people in parts of the UK who might not receive the same service and financial support.
As Members have already said, some of the carers have left. They have become old and weary, and so the carers aspect of the question is also important. Thalidomiders are also getting older, and are perhaps having to rely on young carers to look after them, which is an issue. I am pleased that the Minister referred to the work that Lord Ashley and Lord Morris have done; I have been on other all-party groups with them. I also hope that it will be possible for the Minister to express his firmness and sensitivity when dealing with the blood contamination issues-perhaps at a later date.
My hon. Friend has raised a number of important points. We shall see whether the devolved Administrations are prepared to make a further contribution of perhaps £5 million between them, which would deal with the trust having to readjust its own finances internally to ensure that no thalidomider loses out. She is entirely right that there has to be a continuation of care, and that some carers are at an age where it is becoming
increasingly difficult to continue caring. They may well need extra help, and I hope that that would be available as a result of this funding, but it is important for me to say very clearly that it is intended that this extra funding will affect neither the tax position of thalidomiders nor their access to the benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled.
My hon. Friend asked about Lord Ashley, and I join her in paying tribute to him. There is a uniqueness about the position of thalidomiders, but I have made it clear that, if the project shows that a national organisation with appropriate funding can make a real difference to the health care of a particular specialised group, that may have a wider application in the sense of establishing an administrative process to ensure that money is targeted in a way that best helps people with particular and sometimes unique needs.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): May I endorse the comments made by my Welsh colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) in congratulating my Welsh colleague my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), who has led the all-party group on this matter? I also want to reiterate the impact that the campaign has had on thalidomiders in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Would it be in order for the Minister to convene a meeting of Health Ministers of all those Administrations to discuss adopting a uniform approach across the UK?
Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend asks about convening a meeting, but Health Ministers are in regular contact in any event. The Government have certainly been in contact with the devolved Administrations about the settlement.
I entirely agree that we should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), who has led the campaign in this House. We will be holding a reception at the Department of Health after this statement, which I hope some of the thalidomiders will be able to attend. I hope that my hon. Friend will also be able to attend, along with those who have been strongly involved in ensuring that the campaign was brought to a successful conclusion.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has tabled a motion for debate at the commencement of public business today under the rules set out at pages 167 to 168 of "Erskine May".
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I wish to call attention to my complaint that an e-mail dated 4 August 2009 from Withers LLP, a firm of solicitors, committed a contempt of the House by seeking to intimidate a Member in his parliamentary conduct.
That the matter be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise this complaint. If the House agrees with my motion, it will be up to the Standards and Privileges Committee to examine not just the wording used by Withers in its e-mail to me of 4 August, as printed in yesterday's Hansard just after Mr. Speaker's statement, but the full context of the way in which attempts are being made to intimidate a Member of this House and to deter him, by threats ostensibly directed elsewhere, from exercising that freedom of speech enjoyed by this House as one of the principal foundations of the liberties of the British people.
This is an issue for the Committee to consider in detail, and detailed submissions will be made to it, but I feel that it is worth giving the House some of the background to the case. It relates to a dispute that has gone for about 10 or 11 years in respect of the Swan area of Yardley and which has been described as "store wars".
Initially, there was a proposal by Sainsbury to develop the site, but then Tesco put forward an alternative proposal that involved using less green space. For that reason, local politicians supported the Tesco proposal, but then Asda came in and bought a plot of land. Various problems arose. A person called Jeremy Knight-Adams had bought some land there previously, and a compulsory purchase order to buy Mr. Knight-Adam's land was finally arranged last year. He objects to that order, and we distributed a leaflet that refers to the actions of Asda, in particular, and of Sainsbury in buying plots of land. Mr. Knight-Adams has wrongly taken the leaflet as being intended to refer to him.
The real difficulty for this House arises from the e-mail of 4 August, and also from the great deal of other correspondence that has taken place since. Mr. Knight-Adams has threatened me with proceedings-not related to this House, but directed to a different issue-to prevent me from raising my concerns about the effects being felt by residents of Bakeman House.
Bakeman House is a sheltered scheme of 120 flats, about 118 of which are occupied by senior citizens. Those most vulnerable people are suffering from living in a building site, where there are all sorts of problems with parking and so on. A developer trying to ransom a plot of land is using spoiling tactics to stop me talking about the matter. He has threatened that he will take proceedings against me, although those proceedings do not mention the House. Obviously, the e-mail of 4 August is very explicit, but there is a lot of other correspondence that will go to the Committee.
"Throughout our client's dispute with John Hemming MP, we have acted entirely properly and professionally in defending our client's reputation. We strongly refute Mr. Hemming's allegations that our actions were intimidatory in any way."
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): These are important issues for the House and hon. Members, and I should like to give the Government's support for referring the motion in the name of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): We on the Conservative Benches also support the motion, as it clearly impacts on what Members of Parliament can say in this House. We should all be able to speak freely and without fear on any matter that arises as we carry out our duties.
For the sake of good order, however, there is one matter that I should like to clarify. The e-mail in question refers to materials that have been written and distributed outside the House. I should therefore like to make it clear that my comments are confined to what can be said in the House itself, and that Members of Parliament, like the general public, are of course subject to the normal laws of libel and slander in connection with anything that they say outside the House.
The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that the Standards and Privileges Committee has a very heavy work load, and that it is important that the matter before us is resolved before the Dissolution of Parliament. Will she assure the House that she will make sure that the Committee gets any additional support and back-up-manpower, resources and so on-that it requires? In that way, we can ensure that we resolve this very important matter before the Dissolution of Parliament.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I entirely support what the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) said about resourcing the Standards and Privileges Committee if this matter is referred to it.
This is the second time in the past couple of months that my attention has been drawn to a potential issue of privilege that has involved lawyers. I wonder whether lawyers are fully aware of constitutional law and the very important part that the privileges of this House play in our history and our democratic processes. To that extent, I admit that I am a little concerned by the
briefing from the Law Society. It appears to question the basis on which parliamentary privilege is employed, but I hope that that is not the Law Society's position.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has raised issues that should properly be considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I hope that the House will refer them to it with expedition.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): It is sometimes surprising what one picks up while waiting for the next business. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), and read the letter printed in yesterday's Hansard and studied it carefully. Of course the motion is correct, and the matter should be considered properly, but it surely relates to what is said in this House. We must be free to discuss things in the House without fear or favour, but that does not relieve us of our responsibility to be extremely careful in what we say outside this place. I have to say from years of bitter experience that the Liberal Democrats are particularly adept at putting out material of a doubtful nature. This case might serve as a lesson to them that they should be more circumspect.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I do not want to get involved with the facts of the case; I simply want to get involved with the issue that Parliament and Members of Parliament should have the absolute right, as set down in the 1688 Bill of Rights, to say what they like in this House. It is a fundamental right that was restated by Lord Denning in the 1970s when he said:
"whatever comments are made in Parliament"
As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has said, this is the second case in two months. We had the Trafigura case, in which a wide injunction was sought against persons unknown and the solicitors Messrs. Carter-Ruck sought to use that to
prevent The Guardian from even reporting a written parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly). I was at a table the very night of that incident with four QCs, and they were extremely worried about the operation of the law in attempting to gag Parliament in that way.
"an undertaking not to repeat the allegations or any similar allegations particularly in Parliament."
If those solicitors said that, I as a Member of Parliament consider that a breach of privilege, and I hope that the House will vote for the matter to be considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee.
In 17 years in the House I have used privilege only once, and with great care, and it had the desired effect of getting the matter resolved. I believe that the vast majority of Members of Parliament respect that privilege and use it sparingly, only when it is absolutely necessary. The other part of that privilege is that we should not infringe the judiciary's privilege when matters are sub judice. If matters are sub judice, the House has no remit to examine them, but it is clear to me that the privilege of the House to report matters without fear of being in contempt of court must remain absolute. I hope that this short debate will demonstrate that in true measure.
Freedom of speech in the House is the freedom to speak on behalf of our constituents. This case is about the residents of 118 flats in Bakeman House-senior citizens in a vulnerable situation who, through the actions of one man, a Mr. Jeremy Knight-Adams, have to live on a building site. That is wrong. To that extent, I am pleased that hon. Members support maintenance of freedom of speech on behalf of the people of the UK.
That the matter be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
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