Representations heard in Public

Questions 1 - 20



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Taken before the Backbench Business Committee

on Tuesday 13 March 2012

Members present:

Natascha Engel (Chair)

Mr Peter Bone

Jane Ellison

John Hemming

Mr Philip Hollobone

Ian Mearns

Mr George Mudie

Austin Mitchell made representations.

Q1 Chair: Thank you very much for coming. We have had your e-mail about regional and local newspapers. Do you want to take us through your proposal for a debate?

Austin Mitchell: Yes. Have you got the motion for debate?

Q2 Chair: Yes. Could you read out the motion, for the record? Austin Mitchell: "That this House believes that there is a growing crisis in the local newspaper industry; notes that local newspapers play a vital role in the political life of the country in reporting at a local level and in holding elected representatives to account; further notes that local newspapers are closing across the country and that staff face redundancies and an uncertain future on many titles; and further believes that local newspapers are community assets." The motion has the support of a dozen MPs-I am alone today, because they are a bit harassed elsewhere-from all parties.

Q3 Chair: Could you read out those names?

Austin Mitchell: Yes. The first is me. Then there are: John McDonnell, Alex Cunningham, Caroline Lucas, Iain McKenzie, Dennis MacShane, Valerie Vaz, Kelvin Hopkins, Steve Rotheram, Angela Smith, Andrew Griffiths, Hywel Williams and Jim Dowd.

Q4 Chair: Thank you very much. Is this a votable motion? Were you applying for something in the Chamber, or in Westminster Hall?

Austin Mitchell: A debatable motion in the Chamber.

Q5 Chair: How many hours were you anticipating that the debate would be?

Austin Mitchell: I think the subject is of interest to so many MPs-we all depend on our local newspapers-that a three-hour debate might be appropriate. It will do with less, but we want the subject to be discussed, so I would aim at three hours.

Q6 Chair: That is fine. The only thing I would say is that we have no time to allocate in the Chamber at all, certainly not until after the Easter recess; we just have not been given any time. We do not have anything in Westminster Hall either. Even if we agree in principle on the importance of the debate, it may not happen until after the Easter recess.

Austin Mitchell: I would leave the time allocation to the Committee’s discretion. A debate after Easter would also be appropriate, because we are getting company reports at this time of year, and the National Union of Journalists-I chair the Westminster branch-is compiling dossiers on the financial effects on all the local newspapers, and the numbers of staff facing redundancy. A debate after Easter, when that reporting season is over, would be appropriate.

Chair: Thank you very much. Philip Hollobone.

Q7 Mr Hollobone: There are two things I would say; one is that I was not immediately struck by the number of Conservative MPs on your list. Between now and Easter, you might usefully want to get some Conservative names on the list to support your application.

Austin Mitchell: Can I just say that I agree with that, and we will try? We have Conservative members in the branch, but we will try more widely, because I think there is a good deal of interest among all parties in the fate of their local paper.

Q8 Mr Hollobone: The second thing I would say is: who would disagree with the motion? Isn’t there something more punchy you could ask for, or ask the Government to do? As it stands, I am not sure that there would be much debate on this motion; I think everybody would more or less agree.

Austin Mitchell: Well, there will be a debate on local newspapers, and everybody will have their own problems and their own views to urge. The motion is a bit bland, you are perfectly correct, but I thought it better to word it that way to broaden the discussion, so that we can propose in the course of the debate the remedies that we think appropriate. A series of remedies could be put forward, but I thought it better to put them in the debate, rather than in the motion. The motion is a general expression of the views of the House on the importance and value of local newspapers.

Q9 Mr Hollobone: The problem is that your motion leads us into general debate territory, which means that we might allocate you time in Westminster Hall, rather than the Chamber. It is not an absolute rule, but we would do so on the basis that substantive motions, where there is a ding-dong on each side, might be more appropriate for the Chamber, whereas a general debate could go into Westminster Hall.

Austin Mitchell: A motion that divides people, or rouses people on both sides, would be subject to a vote, but what we want is an expression of concern. The motion is focused clearly and totally on local newspapers and their value to the community. That is an area on which everybody will have their views, but we want a consensus rather than a clash.

Q10 Mr Bone: Having heard that, it seems that a three-hour debate in Westminster Hall would achieve everything that you want, because you would have a full-scale debate with a ministerial response, but you are not looking for a vote at the end of it. It makes life easier for this Committee, generally speaking, to schedule Westminster Hall debates. If we were to offer you Westminster Hall, would that be acceptable?

Austin Mitchell: I would prefer a debate in the Chamber, because it magnifies the importance of the vote and broadens the interest. We would accept a debate in Westminster Hall, but as a less adequate alternative.

Q11 Chair: What we are saying is that we have no time at all at the moment, so if the only thing available-we think that this is a great debate-was Westminster Hall, that might be something that we came back to.

Austin Mitchell: Okay, but that is Hobson’s choice; it is between nothing and nothing.

Q12 Chair: That is right. We are just presenting you with that. Thank you very much for that, and for coming today.

Austin Mitchell: Thank you very much.

Sir Peter Bottomley, Jon Cruddas, Mark Durkan, Dr Julian Lewis, Nicky Morgan, James Morris and Mr Charles Walker made representations.

Q13 Chair: Could we have Charles Walker, please?

Mr Walker: And supporters.

Chair: And supporters.

Mr Walker: You said I did not bring enough people last time. You saw me last time, so I am just going to read out the names. You have the most up-to-date list. Conservative: Oliver Colvile, Sir Peter Bottomley, Julian Lewis, James Morris, Nadine Dorries, Jackie Doyle-Price, Edward Leigh, Bob Stewart, Tracey Crouch. Labour: Bob Ainsworth, Ann Clwyd, Gloria De Piero, Lindsay Roy, Grahame Morris, Kelvin Hopkins and John Cruddas. Duncan Hames for the Liberal Democrats, Hywel Williams and Mark Durkan. I am now going to hand over to Peter.

Sir Peter Bottomley: We are grateful to be heard. The critical point to remember is that one in 10 of us at any one time, and one in four of us at some stage in our life, will be affected by mental ill health, and aiding us and others back into recovery and wellness is not just a matter of community support, which is the on dit-the word that goes around. The acute care sector matters.

Charles has had hearings, which are impressive. I am pleased to be able to come and join him and I pay tribute to his leadership in this. I speak as someone who was on the council of Mind, the national association of mental health, 25 years ago, when a Minister wanted to have a Conservative on it to be able to go on funding it, because it was then thought to be a bit racy. If you want to show that mental health and mental illness are not racy, but normal, and that parliamentary concern is there, I am authorised by Charles and others to say that we do not want to be the first in for a debate, but we are prepared to wait for the Commons Chamber. We do not expect to have a motion, even one redrafted with your help, that is controversial. It is a question of airing the issues in a way that has impact. Without wishing in any sense to dismiss the impact of a debate in Westminster Hall, this is a subject which is so big, so important and so lasting that when the Committee has time to allocate in the Commons, can we have it please?

Chair: Thank you, that was very clear.

Q14 Jane Ellison: One of the points that has been made to the Committee before is that relatively little airtime is being given to the issue. Can you expand on that and tell us how you feel it has been neglected as a big issue?

Sir Peter Bottomley: The way you put the question almost makes it better if I stay silent. The key point is that when there is a Health Minister who is concerned with mental illness and mental health, it gets more prominence. That happened between 1990 and 1995, when my wife, who was a social worker, was Minister of Health and then Secretary of State for Health. Mental health then got attention. It now does get attention, but it does not get it publicly and prominently.

If we think of the 700,000 people born each year, each of them going through the stages of childhood and adolescence, going into the tunnel and hopefully coming out of it, each having probably two parents-some have more, some have fewer-who are concerned about how to help them, and if we also think of the services that are around, which frankly are not co-ordinated, your saying that the subject has not had much air time allows us to reply, "We are trying to speak for the voiceless, and to let people say the things which cannot normally be said." You cannot normally talk about mental illness here and you cannot normally talk about sex here. We are coming to you on mental illness.

Q15 Chair: Could you say a little about the Health and Social Care Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment and why you feel that mental health is not being adequately debated under that umbrella?

Sir Peter Bottomley: I think those who glanced through the whole of the debates in the Lords and the Commons will hear that, but Charles is our expert.

Mr Walker: There is a real, fundamental problem with mental health. Most people like a beginning, a middle and an end, and that is why cancer and heart disease get so much attention. There is the beginning, diagnosis; the middle, treatment; and the end-kill or cure, at the end of the day. The problem with mental health is that it does not fit nicely into that packet. There is often a beginning, but there is no end; there is just a period of management and control.

Mental health has been debated to some degree in the Health and Social Care Bill, but there is still a huge problem about parity of esteem. The noble Lords are trying to ensure that mental health is recognised as a key priority, but we are still struggling to overcome the hurdle that really it is heart disease, stroke and in particular cancer that grab the public focus and the public’s attention.

The motion before you is more gritty than the previous motion we brought forward, because there is concern that a number of mental health trusts are shutting down acute beds and positioning that as a fantastic thing. Let me be clear: you do need acute beds. The threshold for admittance is now so high that only the very illest people get there. Often, you will have young men and women being admitted to extremely frightening environments that are 100 or 200 miles from their home, because that is the only place a bed can be found. You might have a 17, 18 or 19-year-old in crisis who ends up 150 to 200 miles away from their family.

Q16 Chair: Just before I bring in Ian Mearns and Peter Bone, could you read out the motion, since it has changed?

Mr Walker: "While recognising the central role of community-based support, this House urges the Government not to de-emphasise the importance of acute care in supporting people with severe mental illness back into recovery and wellness."

Q17 Ian Mearns: In common with many Members of Parliament, I guess, a significant part of my casework has a mental health aspect. Whether it be a housing crisis, an employment issue or one of a range of other problems people come to us with, a significant number of cases have a mental health aspect. As a member of the Select Committee on Education, I have recently been at evidence-gathering sessions where CAMHS have been described as a national scandal and a disgrace, so I believe that there is something here that needs to be probed. Do you want to focus on child and adolescent mental health services in particular, or do you want to look at this generally, across the board?

Sir Peter Bottomley: That is very helpful. Having this debate, whether in three, six or nine months’ time- honestly, we are not pushing for any one of those three-will provide a focus for other work around the Commons. This morning, the all-party health group had a hearing where, for the first time, the carer of a particular child-the child actually had a learning handicap, rather than a mental health difficulty-saw education and social services together. We could bring outside services together and get House of Commons Select Committees involved-indeed, one result of the debate might be that the Education Committee and the Committee that covers social services and health can talk together about a joint hearing or a joint inquiry. Families do not want a silo for education, a silo for social services, a silo for health and a silo for crime-crime is sometimes involved. They are saying, "We want to be treated as human beings. Give us one stop, if you can."

Mr Walker: Very briefly, in answer to that point, there is a growing problem in child and adolescent mental health services with youngsters presenting as a result of high-strength cannabis consumption, which increases their risk of developing psychosis. If people in your family are prone to psychosis and you smoke high-grade skunk cannabis, that can open the gate to psychosis, and we are seeing that in a lot of mental health trusts, whose child and adolescent mental health services are having many more youngsters presenting with psychosis, which is causing huge concern.

Q18 Mr Bone: Sir Peter, at the moment we cannot say that we could give you a debate on a particular day in six months’ time, because we do not have that power, although some-perhaps most-on the Committee would like to have that power. However, one thing has been very successful in the past. The Committee does not take the view that Westminster Hall is in any way inferior to the Chamber-indeed, some of our best debates that have got the biggest media attention have been in Westminster Hall, while some that we have put in the Chamber have had no coverage and no effect. For instance, we recently put on a very successful Westminster Hall debate on cycling, which got national coverage. In the past, we have sometimes given people an opportunity to discuss their topic in Westminster Hall-we might be able to get that debate on within a month-then enabled them within the next six months to come back and have a substantive debate in the Chamber. We might be able to put you in Westminster Hall earlier and then come back, perhaps later in the year, for a main debate in the Chamber, depending on the level of interest in the Westminster Hall debate.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Thank you for being sympathetic. I understand the point you make about a Westminster Hall debate. I have taken part in two recently: one was on women bishops, where there is an issue coming up in July. The debate was incredibly good, in part because there was no opposition, which was interesting and a change from previous times. It was also good because material was there that could be used outside at the Church of England Synod, in dioceses and parishes. That was vital; it built up into something much more important than any of us could have anticipated. I also took part in a Westminster Hall debate on the media and that was significant. Walking back from an event yesterday, I bumped into a person from the BBC who said, "That was a really good debate and I am going to write to you about it." That is Parliament interacting with the people.

The suggestion of having two debates is not one that we have considered. If you are in effect saying that, because we understand that Westminster Hall debates can be good, we could have that and then come back and make the same presentation and hope for a different result, we might say there is a logical question mark hanging over that approach. In your own discussions you might say, "We have heard them and can see the point of having a Chamber debate. We can decide straightaway to give them the Westminster Hall debate." Then if you decide now that when the time comes you will give the subject a Commons debate, that would be perfectly acceptable.

Chair: Can I make a slightly different point? With the Westminster Hall debates that we have allocated-that came to us originally as Chamber debates but of a more general nature-what has happened is that the Westminster Hall debate has provided the opportunity to air all the general issues, and then it can come forward to the Chamber. In your case, you have made some specific suggestions of what you think might come out of the debate, such as having a combined Select Committee inquiry. That would be a purpose for having a vote in the Chamber to set up something like that. What we are talking about is two bites of the cherry, not saying that you get Westminster Hall and that’s it, or that you repeat exactly the same thing in the Chamber. That is only a helpful suggestion.

Q19 Mr Bone: Madam Chairman, you put it much better than I could.

Mr Walker: I think we are going to let you decide. I am confident that if we have a Westminster Hall debate it will be well attended; if we have a Chamber debate, it will be extraordinarily well attended. In getting these signatures, I have been having surgeries all over the House of Commons. People are signing and saying, "By the way, I have got this surgery case-this, that and the other." We’ll leave it in your hands. Thank you for the hearing.

Q20 Jane Ellison: Can I just make two more points? First, thank you for coming back; it is an amazing cross-party group that has come to the Committee. We respect that because it is what we ask of people. Sometimes people go off and never come back again. You have come back and done exactly what the Committee asked, which is show a wide range of support. For me that carries a lot of weight.

Secondly, on your last point, we are giving you a positive vibe about time somewhere at some point, as soon as we can do it. However, it is important that the people who have supported the bid for the debate also support the debate. Back-Bench debates, particularly in the main Chamber, are often on a Thursday afternoon-that is just the way it is-and there have been a couple of instances where lots of support for a debate has not translated into lots of speakers on both sides in a debate on a Thursday afternoon. If you could keep your group warmed up to the idea that we would want them to attend and support the debate. We obviously would want to see it given its fullest airing if you ultimately end up in the Chamber on a Thursday afternoon.

Mr Walker: Ms Ellison-I call you that as this is a formal setting-you have received many letters from me about various things to do with Back-Bench stuff I am involved with. You know I love writing to colleagues and I will push and push to try to guarantee as far as possible a great turnout on the day. I will put body and soul into it.

Chair: Mr Walker, thank you.

Prepared 15th March 2012