I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who initiated the debate. He is absolutely right to say that culture change is the key. In the November report of the all-party parliamentary group for micro-businesses—I have to declare an interest here because I chair that group—the research that was supported by the London Business School, Lancaster

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university, Imperial and Manchester Metropolitan indicated that we needed an education change, not just at university level but at primary and secondary level. We need to consider how to inculcate the idea that setting up a business is a good, valuable and genuine alternative.

I am delighted with the Government’s support for the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurship, which has put in £500,000 to support the establishment of entrepreneur groups in universities across the country. It has succeeded in establishing groups in about three quarters of the universities across the country. It is now looking at colleges.

Finally, we need to enable the self-employed who are setting up small businesses to have bottom-up mentoring support. Although there is a Government scheme to create 40,000 mentors, a scheme that will require the banks to mentor those who get refused loans and the “mentors me” website, which is great, it is still not enough and we need to consider bottom-up volunteering, and, as has been suggested by the Virgin Group, we need local chambers of commerce and others to take some responsibility as well.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply. I hope that I have not taken up too much time and I welcome the changed agenda that this debate heralds.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Let me remind colleagues that wind-ups begin at 12.10. Let us try to get in three more colleagues.

12.1 pm

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): Government should, of course, try to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), I welcome the reintroduction of the enterprise allowance scheme, which enabled me to kick off my business in the early ’90s. I learned last night that in India, thanks to advances in technology, it is possible to incorporate a firm in 24 hours, which we cannot do here. We also need an increase in the availability of start-up loans. Banks should get better at providing some of the money that they were bailed out with.

In the spirit shown to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), perhaps the Minister will consider this idea. Graduates who start businesses and then employ people should be eligible for university fee debt relief—well, that clearly went down well in the Chamber. I appreciate my colleagues’ support!

Starting a business should not be an ambition exclusively for young people. Many successful entrepreneurs become self-employed later in life after a successful career. They may be interested in helping others make money or they may become self-employed out of necessity or because of redundancy.

Advances in technology have led to an explosion of people working from home. As such an approach has advantages for family life, I urge the Government to continue their efforts in ensuring that every part of the UK gets access to superfast broadband.

If there is one thing that entrepreneurs know, it is that waiting for Parliament to act will get them nowhere. Entrepreneurs do not wait around for help; they take

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action. Although business people cannot do anything about clearing university fee debt or increasing the availability of start-up capital, which is down to the banks and venture capitalists, one obstacle they can help young people and anybody wanting to start a business overcome is lack of knowledge.

I am encouraged by the Government’s plans to set up a network of experienced mentors. For too long, business advice has been doled out by well meaning people who invariably have never run a business. Recently, I met some careers advisers who had hardly ever spoken to local employers.

I am pleased to say that via the excellent local business accelerators programme, which was set up by the Newspaper Society and backed by the Prime Minister and that excellent newspaper The Selby Times, I shall be providing mentoring to a local Selby business called LRB Trophies run by the Butler family. The company was born out of adversity, but it will hopefully go on to great things.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Prince’s Trust also runs a business mentoring scheme? I was a business mentor for the Trust, which helps young people to start businesses. Again, such organisations are really helpful for young people.

Nigel Adams: I am aware of that, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend is involved in such a scheme. It is crucial that people get to speak to those who have been at the coal face. There is nothing like real world experience to help people with small businesses.

The Government should say to existing business people with an interest in encouraging the next generation of entrepreneurs, “If you know anyone who is interested in entrepreneurship, be their mentor. Check out the excellent apprenticeship programmes at your local college and hire some apprentices. If you have kids of your own, involve them in your business at an early stage and show them that entrepreneurship is a viable option for them. Let anyone you come across know about the benefits and thrill of being their own boss.”

Finally, we should be celebrating entrepreneurs and the wealth creators and not demonising them. There is nothing wrong with success and there is nothing wrong with those who fail while trying to succeed. Those who put everything on the line to grow businesses, to create jobs and to pay the taxes that pay for the public sector and our services should be applauded and supported.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): George Hollingbery followed by Marcus Jones. Mr Jones will be the last speaker.

12.5 pm

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): I am very grateful to you, Mr Streeter, and I shall be very brief.

I shall mention two things that the Government have put in place. The first is universal credit, which is coming through as part of the Welfare Reform Bill. The 65% taper takes away the 16-hour-a-week cliff edge,

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which is incredibly important. Those who are unemployed and who are looking to start their own business from their own homes now have an incentive to look forward to the future. I am talking about them having not just a limited income but a proper business run for the long term. They can now go through that 16-hour barrier and not see some of their benefits disappear. That has a beneficial effect for those bosses who would employ such people in, say, restaurants, bars or whatever. They can invest in the training of such employees and expect them to remain full-term employees for the long term. That has to be a good thing both for the employer, who is generally self-employed, and the employees.

The second area is planning. Hon. Members who know me well will not be surprised to hear that I am going to bore them slightly on planning. They may ask, “How can that possibly relate to self-employed businesses?” Let me say very straightforwardly that I chaired a conference on that matter last Thursday. We talked about neighbourhood planning. It is now entirely within the remit of small businesses, especially rural ones, to petition for the go-ahead of neighbourhood development plans that take a real account of what local businesses need, particularly in regard to converting farm buildings and using redundant rural buildings for accommodation. I urge all hon. Members to make it plain to their constituents that there is a real opportunity for small businesses here. Small businesses can shape their communities around them and take full account of affordable housing all the way through to the conversion of redundant buildings for their business for the long term. It is a huge opportunity, and one that they should all take.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Marcus Jones, you have three minutes.

12.7 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I will try to use that time wisely, Mr Streeter.

Many people often have a rosy view of self-employment. They think of afternoons spent on the golf course, corporate boxes at cricket matches, sloping off early and the large financial rewards that come with all that. In reality that is not the case. The hon. Members in this Chamber who have run their own businesses know that running a small business involves hard graft and long hours. That is particularly the case to start with, when there are often few rewards and plenty of stress. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) hit the nail on the head earlier when he mentioned taking on people and the fact that for small businesses it is about not only employing people and the difficulties that come with that but being in a situation in which people are dependent on them for their living and their livelihoods.

As I have so little time, I will focus on the issue of risk and reward, particularly in relation to taxation. I will then specifically focus on the relationship between people who operate very small and micro-businesses and those who then expand those businesses so that they can take on people to grow our economy. When I looked on Wikipedia, it said that taxation may well be higher for someone starting a small business than for someone who is actually employed. We must ensure that we allow people to expand those businesses. One example that I

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want to bring to the Minster’s attention is that of a hairdresser who may go from renting a chair in an existing business to taking on their own premises, if they were so incentivised. A VAT threshold of £73,000 could cause a problem with incentivising people. That is one micro-example, but we need to consider taxation in the round and think about how it affects micro-businesses and small businesses in comparison with medium-sized enterprises and larger businesses to ensure that the Government create an enterprise culture, which was sadly lacking under the previous Government.

12.10 pm

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, even if only for 10 minutes. It has been an excellent debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on obtaining it and on his speech.

Like some other hon. Members, I have run my own business—twice: the first time was at the back end of the last century, when I set up an IT recruitment firm; subsequently in 2005 I launched a rugby product business, Club Rugby, which I continued to run until I was elected. As someone who has been on that journey twice, I know very well the different motivations for heading towards self-employment. In my case, it was inspiration on one occasion and desperation on another. In fact, many great businesses have been created from fledgling inspirations caused by the desperation of those trying to feed a family and keep a roof over their heads in tough times. Certainly, some will still thrive in these most desperate of times. However, the fact that some will still come through, and that the strongest may still thrive and survive, is not a reason for the Government not to do everything in their power to support people in all walks of life and all parts of the country to take that first brave step and put their name above the door.

One of the lessons of the recent past is that we must create an environment that gives the greatest number of new business people an opportunity to be a successful business owner. Why would any Government not want to do that? Therefore I particularly welcome a debate in which the hon. Member for Watford expressed his frustration at what he sees as the unglamorous image of running a business in Britain today. Of course, he is right to say that we all—politicians, school teachers, careers advisers, business leaders, media figures and trade union leaders—have a responsibility to promote the vital importance of new start-ups and small businesses in creating the growth we need to get the economy moving again. For that reason I welcome television programmes such as “The Apprentice” and “Dragons’ Den”, which for all their flaws at least tend to get young people to see business in a sexier light.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Toby Perkins: I am afraid that there is not time, if I am going to leave time for the Minister.

“The Apprentice” in particular also has a welcome focus on the importance of sales techniques and ability, which is a vital and intrinsic part of business success, which the nation has neglected for too long, and which I want to promote through the Labour party’s policy review. I started my first job in sales at the age of 17.

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The old adage that until someone sells something in a business nothing happens has never been truer than it is today. As part of the Labour policy review programme Nigel Doughty, a tremendously successful business investor, is chairing our small business task force. Within that policy review process, he hosted a session on high-growth businesses. There were many contributors to that session from across the business spectrum, but one of the key defining facts revealed during it was that about 7% of all businesses will go on to become high-growth firms, irrespective of market sector or geographical location. The key to getting more high-growth firms coming out of the bottom of the funnel is to get more going into the top.

Of course, we have been here before. Starting in 1997, Labour’s new deal programme was the most successful back-to-work programme in British history. The self-employment programme was the most successful part of it. Some 70% of the people who started on it went into business, and 81% of those businesses were still trading three years later. Moreover, they were employing, on average, an extra 1.6 people each, meaning that for every 100 people who started on the programme, 112 were employed three years later as a result. That may be the first and only back-to-work programme ever to have a greater than 100% success rate.

The key features of the success of that programme that are not being duplicated by the current Government’s back-to-work programme are the special provision with a ring-fenced pot of new deal money specifically for the self-employment option and the financial cushion in the early stages of self-employment, which was so important in giving new business people an opportunity to test trading as a viable career option. In that context, the void in face-to-face business advice left in the absence of Business Link is deeply worrying.

It is a key aim of the Government to encourage the unemployed to look towards self-employment as a viable career option, and we entirely support them in that general aspiration. However, we must also be aware of the dangers of false self-employment. Bogus self-employment has rocketed in the past decade, particularly in the construction industry. Workers are often told that they will be taken on only if they agree to declare themselves self-employed, thus giving up hard-won employee entitlements such as national insurance contributions, and sick and holiday pay. Recognition of the unique challenges that the unemployed face in setting up new firms or becoming sole traders must lead to specific actions to support them into self-employment. The unemployed are less likely to have the cash to enable them to set up in business, and less likely to be able to borrow money towards start-up costs. They are likely to be less able to cope with the early cash flow shortages that are often inevitable for fledgling businesses.

As a Member of Parliament, I am a publicly employed representative of the people, who earns about £64,000 a year. Yet if I decide to write an article, provide advice or even take on a directorship to provide me with extra income, I am legally entitled to do so. However, if an unemployed person on £65 a week wants to see whether they can make a go of a business as a painter or hairdresser and does a few jobs before coming off benefits, they are committing a criminal offence. In the new deal, there was an opportunity to recognise the fact

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that the informal economy plays an important part in helping people to move from unemployment to self-employment.

On the new deal programme, the test trading aspect entitled people who were unemployed to enter the world of self-employment with a six-month financial cushion between leaving benefits and setting up. Subsequently the tax credit system replaced that financial cushion. Originally there was hope that the universal credit would also be an effective tool. However, as it is currently structured it works on the narrow basis of a set number of hours and set earnings, which does not fit easily with the self-employment model. Under Labour’s policy review, we are investigating an enterprise credit that would recognise the flexibility of income derived from self-employment and replace that all-important cushion to give new start-ups the security that they need.

I want to touch on a couple of speeches by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Watford talked about the sleepless nights that often come with running one’s own business—and, indeed, we are led to believe, with being a Conservative Member of Parliament. He expanded on his wife’s role and the lack of help that she provides him with on those occasions, which she may wish to discuss with him at a future date. He also talked about children who want to go into fields such as advertising or marketing, but who do not see setting up their own business as a viable or exciting option. He rightly mentioned the huge social value in setting up a business and going on to provide employment to other members of the community.

The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) supported Labour’s policy on a national insurance holiday for micro-businesses that take on a new member of staff. He was also right behind us on pushing the Government to take forward the late payments directive. We thank him for that support. I hope that he will be successful in persuading other hon. Members to be equally enlightened.

The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) shared my concern that the “mentors me” website may not provide enough support for new businesses, and she expressed the importance of that. The hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) said how important it is to celebrate entrepreneurship and highlight people’s success. The hon. Members for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) warned us not to give a sugar-coated view of the ease of running a business. In doing that, however, I feel that the hon. Member for Nuneaton added to the myth that Britain has a particularly difficult regulatory system. The reality discovered by the World Bank is that Britain is the easiest place to set up a new business anywhere in the EU and the fourth easiest place in the world. It is important that hon. Members speak up for all the positive aspects of running one’s own business and do not exaggerate the difficulties.

There is a broader context to the discussion. When the Government have choked off the recovery with their anti-growth policies, they cannot seriously expect the private sector to provide the growth that we so desperately need. That is why we have put growth at the heart of our five-point plan and why we called for a temporary cut in VAT; it is why we supported the call by the Federation

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of Small Businesses for a cut to a rate of 5% for VAT on home improvements; and it is why we are calling for a national insurance holiday for micro-businesses to boost employment at small firms.

People want more than gimmicks from Government. They want a genuine programme for growth. Where the Government deliver that, they will have our support. We recognise the vital role that self-employment can play in delivering growth, creating jobs, reducing unemployment and, most of all, giving people back their pride and their sense of belief. They need have no doubt whatever about Labour’s commitment. After all, we got Britain working for itself before.

12.20 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to speak in this important debate, to which there have been many valuable contributions. I do not want to be excessively partisan—as you know, I regard it as vulgar—but it is noticeable that this debate has been dominated by my party, the party of business. It must be slightly disappointing for the shadow Minister that he has been so poorly served by his own Back Benches. There is almost no one here to support his—I was going to say oratory, but I do not want to overstate the case.

Ezra Pound, the great poet, said that genius is the capacity to see 10 things where an ordinary man sees only one, so I shall try to make 10 points in response to what has been said in this debate. Education was mentioned in the introductory remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. He led it with style and acumen, making a strong point about the importance of education, of ensuring that young people are imbued with a sense of enterprise, which permeated several Members’ contributions, and of countering the prevailing prejudice against business.

Justin Tomlinson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hayes: No, will not, because of time. Forgive me. Chesterton said that those who were impatient enough to interrupt the words of others seldom have the patience to think of good words themselves. I put on record that that is not true of my hon. Friend, but just in case, I will not give way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) spoke about the importance of finance. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) discussed enterprise and small business, and what a champion he is for the small businesses of Britain. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) spoke about tax and the importance of having the right tax regime. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who is no longer in her place, made a useful contribution on information about careers. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) made a point about the disproportionate effect of regulation on very small businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty also mentioned skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) mentioned mentoring and my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) discussed the communal value of business.

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I think that I have covered most of hon. Members’ contributions. If I have not, I apologise. They were all immensely valuable, and are valued by the Government.

It is important to recognise the critical role that small business in particular plays in our economy. As an expert on these matters, Mr Streeter, you will know that small and medium-size enterprises are a crucial engine for growth and are critical to our national economic success in every sector. Together, they are responsible for almost half the private sector’s £900 billion output and 60% of private sector jobs. Since 2000, the 31% increase in businesses has been driven entirely by SMEs. Small business is the backbone of our nation and the driver of innovation. It is the embodiment of enterprise, because it is in start-up businesses that ideas have their genesis and subsequently germinate. Every business starts as a small business.

Politely—almost flatteringly—several Members referred to my own business career. I was lucky in business. All success in business is a combination of good luck and good judgment. I entered the IT industry when it was growing; what a great place it was to be in the 1980s. I learned there that politicians must be sensitive to the needs of business. They particularly need to understand that by and large, businesses want politicians to get off their back and on their side. The Government play their part through regulation, the tax system, information, support and pump-priming, but they must step back to let business thrive.

Having said that, I will mention the 10 things that Government can do, in the six minutes available to me. First, we are focusing on education. We are establishing an enterprise village website, which we will develop further, enabling teachers to access free online resources to assist them in developing school businesses. Secondly, on the “inspiring the future” website, we have made more information available about business and business education to at least 2,500 local enterprise champions and role models.

Thirdly, the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs, which was mentioned in the debate, is building sustainable national infrastructure to develop and drive forward student enterprise societies across higher education institutions and further education colleges. I expect about 90 universities and 160 FE colleges to be involved in that initiative. Fourthly, reducing the small profits rate from 21% to 20% from April 2011 and reversing the previous Administration’s plans to raise the rate to 22% will undoubtedly help business.

Fifthly, we have increased the national insurance contributions threshold for all employers by £21 a week above indexation from April 2011, reversing the previous Government’s plan, which I think the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) failed to mention because he is embarrassed about it. He is a decent and honest man, so I can understand his embarrassment, and I will not dwell on it further.

Toby Perkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hayes: No, I cannot, because of time.

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Sixthly, the Government also know that ensuring the flow of credit to viable small businesses is essential and a core priority for the Government. We want to ensure that the financial sector can supply the affordable credit that businesses need, and we would like to see more sources of credit and finance. I accept that banks have a role, but other organisations need to play their part too.

Seventhly, in April, we will launch a new seed enterprise investment scheme to encourage investment in new start-up companies. Eighthly, at the same time, we are launching two new Business Link services with an additional investment of £1.2 million and a new initiative to recruit and train 15,000 volunteer business mentors, which numerous people have welcomed during the debate.

Ninthly, as I am sure you know, Mr Streeter, the Government have placed great emphasis on start-up Britain. This is the year of enterprise. We want everyone to know what is happening in the UK, to promote enterprise and to give young people who wish to set up a business access to diverse sources of finance. We want to support SMEs with improved information and streamline the process by which they and others can get the knowledge and information that they require to set up their business.

Tenthly, the introduction of a national loan guarantee scheme to help businesses raise funds from non-bank sources, the £1 billion finance partnership to invest in medium-sized businesses and SMEs, the continuation of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, a new export enterprise finance guarantee scheme, the continuation of the Government’s enterprise capital funds programme and, of course, the encouragement of the business angels scheme that we established will give businesses the boost that they need.

What has been repeated in speeches throughout this debate is that we need to change the culture to one that recognises that business has not only a communal role in delivering the growth that we need to prosper but also a vital role in enabling many of our citizens to achieve their potential to be the best they can be and, through that role, to create jobs and growth, seeding recovery in every community in Britain. The problem in Britain is not that none of that exists; far from it. We know from our constituencies and our personal business experience that that spirit exists. The problem is creating circumstances that allow it to thrive.

In those terms, the contrast between this Government and the last is profound. There is no doubt that the last Government were starry-eyed about the glitz and glamour of money, but it is clear that they were blind to the needs of small business and enterprise in particular. I hope that there has been a change, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield said. My hope is that we can understand throughout the House that business is virtuous, because it builds jobs, sustains growth and fuels healthy communities. My business is the promotion of growth, and my mission is the pursuit of the common good. It is clear that in that mission, I have the support of many colleagues in my party and throughout the House who share my enthusiasm for British business and my determination that business will prosper under this Government.

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084 Telephone Numbers (NHS)

12.30 pm

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr Streeter, for presiding over my debate.

In 2008, in response to a consultation, the Department of Health concluded that for some individuals on low incomes and unable to access a fixed line, the use of NHS 084 telephone numbers constituted a significant proportion of their weekly income. In April 2010, as a result of that conclusion, the Department amended the general medical service contract and the personal medical service agreements for GP practices to ensure that

“persons will not pay more to make relevant calls to the practice than they would to make equivalent calls to a geographical number.”

GP practices were given until April 2011 to comply with the amended terms, but unfortunately, now, nine months after the deadline, Which? and other organisations estimate that 13% of surgeries in England continue to use 084 or 085 numbers that cost more than the equivalent geographical call.

One might think that as the amendment was made at the end of the previous Labour Government and we now have a new Conservative-led coalition, there would have been a change of policy, but that is denied. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) said, on 12 July:

“It is absolutely clear that there is no distinction between landlines, mobiles or payphones. The directions are very clear that patients should not expect to be charged any more.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 150.]

So we can only conclude that 13% or thereabouts of GPs, including at the Crossley practice, which serves a deprived part of my constituency, and at least one other service in Coventry, are in breach of their own contracts, which were agreed by the previous Government and are supported by the current one. We have to ask why they are being allowed to continue to do that.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Ainsworth: If my hon. Friend can wait, I will try to give way later. A number of Members want to intervene.

The GPs argue that they have entered into contracts that give them enhanced telephony solutions, and that they cannot get out of them. That is the kind of thing that they say to justify their non-compliance, but none of it is true. All the arguments are flawed, and there is the simple solution of migrating to an 034 number, which provides the same supposedly enhanced telephony services. As an aside, I will say that what we mean by such services is call queuing and call diversion options. When in the middle ages people fell foul of the inquisition, they were shown the instruments of torture but not made to pay for them, but people are now being made to pay for these supposedly enhanced telephony solutions.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr Ainsworth: If the Minister does not mind, a number of Members want to intervene, and he will have an opportunity to respond in a moment.

The people affected are disproportionately the more deprived members of our community. It is no longer the case that people who use mobile phones are among the better-off. That might have been the case once upon a time, a generation or so ago, but there is proven evidence that people who do not have access to a fixed line and therefore depend on a mobile phone are disproportionately from the poorer sectors of society. The other people who are disproportionately affected by the excessive charges are those who are concerned about the cost of their fixed lines and have therefore entered into contract agreements that charge for the use of the access numbers for GP surgeries because they do not fall under the contracts. How can we can allow GPs to continue to flout their contracts? Why are we not effectively enforcing them?

At the moment, the Minister is trying to convey to the House that the NHS will not be made unaccountable through his health Bill, and it would really help his argument if he made an effort to show that he is prepared to make the NHS accountable, as it currently is. I would therefore like to know what he intends to do about this. I want him to issue new Department of Health guidance that makes it clear to the GPs who are effectively trying to deny it that the use of such telephone numbers is in breach of their contract and that they must comply without further delay and migrate to an 03 number or provide a landline equivalent. He must not take no for an answer.

I wonder whether all the changes that the Minister is imposing upon the NHS are affecting PCTs’ ability to enforce what they are supposed to be enforcing. I want him to ensure that PCTs, to which he appears to have passed the buck of responsibility for this, enforce compliance by GPs. GPs must stop evading their responsibilities, under the very principles of the NHS, to enable people to access services without enhanced costs.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend been able to measure the profit being made from the poorer members of society, who are most likely to need the services? That might be difficult; it might be a question for the Minister. Less well-off patients are clearly being exploited, so does he have any idea how much they are being exploited by?

Mr Ainsworth: The GPs will deny that there is any profit and will say that they provide an enhanced service for which the customers pay. But if there is profit in the partnership at the end of the year, it returns to the doctor, so potentially there is a profit, and that would clearly be in breach of the contract. People could be provided with access to their GP services without any enhanced charges, but GPs, because they have chosen to enter into the contracts, are passing the costs on to their patients.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate, on an issue that my constituents, in Risinghurst in particular, have raised with me. I commend his suggestion to the Minister that renewed guidance be issued. Could the Department not send out with it a legally watertight

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template letter that any GP practice that is genuinely worried about its legal status regarding its present contract could use, to change to the cheaper alternatives that he has mentioned?

Mr Ainsworth: That is a good idea. If the Minister communicates with GPs again, he should do so in the strongest of terms, because it is clear that well over 10%—the estimated figure is 13%—of GPs have totally ignored the Department of Health to date. They are determined to continue not to pick up the costs of the systems that they have put in place and to pass them on.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this critical issue to the House’s attention. Many of my constituents do not have landlines, but they have mobiles, the costs of which are extreme. A call to a doctor can cost £4, and some of my constituents’ tariffs have run out while they were on the phone. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is time to return to a landline number rather than an 084 number?

Mr Ainsworth: The 03 number would give people an opportunity to use the system for no enhanced charge, and the GP should, if they are not prepared to migrate to an 03 number, provide a landline alternative. Since I first raised this issue, most of the people who have contacted me have been pensioners. They have told me that they have contracts with their telephone provider and have found that, at the end of the quarter, the charges under discussion are additional to the contract and therefore to their bill. People who use mobile phones are probably not as ready to contact a Member of Parliament, or do not listen as closely as pensioners to such debates. People who use mobile phones—overwhelmingly poorer people—are being charged extortionately for access.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): This is a very important issue, because it affects all parts of the UK. A much smaller percentage of people in Scotland are affected by 084 numbers, but more than half of them are in the Grampian health board region. I am concerned, because although I share the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments on the difficulties faced by people in lower income groups in relation to 084 numbers, if we secure a ban on them, how will we prevent the goalposts from shifting and another revenue-sharing number from taking their place?

Mr Ainsworth: We can do that only if the Department of Health is determined, right up to ministerial level, to enforce the contract. The terms of the contract are clear, as I hope the Minister will say when he responds. No one should pay enhanced charges to access their GP.

Mr Simon Burns indicated assent.

Mr Ainsworth: The Minister is nodding. Let us hope that he says that and that, for heaven’s sake, we do not have non-Government and that, having made a decision, they make sure that it is complied with across the board. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

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12.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) on securing this debate on the use of 084 telephone numbers in the NHS. The Government’s position is extremely clear—when patients contact their GP or anyone else in the NHS, they should not be charged more than they would be to call their next-door neighbour’s landline. Those are the rules. That is why we have retained the previous Government’s directions, published in December 2009, and regulations, passed in April 2010, which make it a contractual requirement for GP surgeries to ensure that that is the case.

Under the directions and the amendments to the general medical services and primary medical services regulations, it became compulsory for GP practices and NHS bodies to review how much it cost patients to call them. If they found that patients were being charged more than a standard local landline call, they had one year to take all reasonable steps, which could include varying the terms of their telephony contract, cancelling the contract, or offering an alternative number to call, such as an 03 number, which charges callers at a local rate. GP practices should not, in any case, enter into, extend or renew their contracts with their telephone supplier if patients are being charged more than a local call.

This legislation was the result of a lengthy consultation by the Department in 2009, to which there were about 3,000 responses. The vast majority agreed that patients should not be charged additional costs to contact their GP. However, many also valued the enhanced services they receive when calling their GP, such as queuing and additional booking options, but we are clear that that should not cost patients any more than a local landline call.

Mr Andrew Smith: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Burns: I will not at the moment, because I do not have much time to answer all the points raised by the right hon. Member for Coventry North East. [ Interruption. ] I might give way in a moment, although hon. Members should remember that the right hon. Gentleman did not give way to me either.

We must also be clear that the additional services can also be offered on other number ranges—such as 01, 02 and 03—and GP practices should feel able to choose the number that is most suitable for their patients, provided that it does not cost them any more to call.

Many people ask why we do not simply ban 084 numbers outright. I fear that that would not solve the real problem, which is that some patients continue to be, or believe that they are being, charged too much to contact their GP.

Mr Andrew Smith: Given that the Minister has said that practices should not charge more than the cost of a landline call to a neighbour, if a patient can demonstrate from their bill that they have been so charged, will they be able to get the money back, and how would they go about that?

Mr Burns: The right hon. Gentleman has anticipated something that I will deal with shortly, namely the 1,300 GP practices mentioned by his right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East that have allegedly been abusing the system.

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As I have said, I fear that banning 084 numbers would not be the panacea that Opposition Members might believe it to be. The Department, to its credit, banned the use of premium-rate telephone numbers beginning 087 and 09 in 2005, but new number ranges with additional costs began to appear. Although it seems to be a simple solution, I do not think that it will be over the medium and longer term, because people will seek to avoid it. That is why it is crucial that the previous Government rightly sought to tackle the problem at source and why we have continued the policy that they introduced in the dying days of their regime. The 2010 regulations make it clear that patients must not be charged more to contact their GP than they would be if they called a local number.

Since the rules came into force, I understand that there has been confusion in the NHS about what the regulations and the directions include. I am grateful for this opportunity to clarify some of those misconceptions in the NHS and elsewhere. There have been claims that mobile phones are not covered by the 2010 regulations, but that is not true. The regulations cover landlines, mobiles and payphones equally. The legislation is absolutely clear that if a person calls a GP surgery with an 084 number from a mobile, landline or payphone, they should not pay more than they would if they called a local landline number from the same phone.

That is very important, because more and more people now use mobile phones as their primary form of communication, as has been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Coventry North East. That is particularly true of the less well-off—the right hon. Gentleman also made this point—where 25% of households only have access to mobile phones, and for young people, where a third of people under 25 only use mobile phones for communications purposes. In 2011, for the first time, the majority of call minutes originated from mobile phones.

Questions have also been raised about how a patient can challenge their GP practice or PCT if they believe that they are being charged more than the cost of an equivalent local call. Any action taken should be on the basis of robust evidence. GP practices and their PCTs should look at evidence of call costs to determine whether their patients are being charged more than they should be. Such evidence could include cost-per-call information from providers, such as O2, Vodafone and BT. A suitable sample should be considered, bearing in mind the different contracts that patients can choose to sign up to.

A practice can also look at cost-per-call information that is provided by patients. Using that information, it would be possible to compare directly the cost of calling a GP practice’s 084 number with the cost of calling a local land-line number. If the evidence suggests that using a specific number is not costing patients more than it should, the GP practice should be free to continue using 084 numbers. If patients are being charged more than they should be, they should take the steps that I have already mentioned to rectify the situation.

Mr Ainsworth: Although I welcome a lot of what the Minister has said, I am not at all sure that we can afford to leave this problem to the individual. There is deference

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towards doctors and people are loth to offend or upset their doctor. The Department and the local PCT must be prepared to take action to ensure compliance, and they should not expect individual patients to do so.

Mr Burns: The right hon. Gentleman anticipates a point that I was about to make. As a preface to that point, however, I must say that patients can be extremely helpful in providing evidence that can help to prove if this practice of overcharging, which is in defiance of the regulations and directions, is going on.

I now come on to the point that the right hon. Gentleman made about the figure that is in the public domain and that is used a lot, namely that there are 1,300 GP practices that are—in effect—defying the regulations and charging patients more than they should. I have made inquiries and I can find no evidence to support that figure. People say that there are 1,300 GP practices that charge more than they should; what they do not say is which practices they are, and they do not provide the robust proof that overcharging is happening.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman, and to anyone else who has an interest in this important subject, “Please send us the evidence”, because we cannot find concrete evidence that overcharging is going on. If it is going on, we want to see the evidence and we want to see which GP practices are engaged in it, so that the PCTs, which enforce these regulations, can take action. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that if we get the evidence and if it is proven that overcharging is happening, the PCTs and—after the modernisation of the NHS—the NHS Commissioning Board, which will have responsibility in this area, will also vigorously pursue the matter because, like his Government, we believe that such overcharging is unacceptable.

However, I must reiterate that we need the evidence. We do not need anecdote or the “friend of a friend”, who has said this or that. We need precise, concrete evidence, to be able to pursue this matter.

As I have said, PCTs are currently responsible for ensuring that GP practices meet the terms of their contracts, including ensuring compliance with these regulations. The Department will soon clarify the existing guidance, which I hope will help GP practices and PCTs to understand this issue more fully and to dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings about the use of 084 numbers.

This Government are committed to creating a patient-focused NHS, as the right hon. Gentleman said we were planning to do; I can confirm that he was accurate when he said that. One of the key elements of that process is ensuring that patients find it easy to access the services they need, when they need them. Using an 084 number can help a GP practice to offer additional services that improve patients’ access to care. It is right that GPs remain responsible for their own access arrangements, including their telephone number, opening hours and booking arrangements. Those arrangements will be different for different practices, and the ability of GPs to be locally responsive is something that we know patients value. Primary care is the cornerstone of the NHS. Around 90% of patient contact with the NHS takes place in a primary care setting, with around 300 million consultations per year, so it is essential that patients can easily access care, and have a choice about how to do so.

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One way that we are improving access to care is through the roll-out of the NHS 111 service, which will be available to everyone in England by April 2013. That service will give the public a phone number that is easy to remember and free to call when they need help urgently but do not know where to turn. Callers will be quickly assessed, and sent to the right service on the first point of contact. The primary aim of NHS 111 is to ensure that patients get to the right service, and quickly, at any time of the day or night. In most areas, patients can also expect to be able to see their out-of-hours GP through NHS 111, which will simplify how patients access NHS services and improve patient experiences.

NHS 111 will replace NHS Direct’s 0845 4647 service, which obviously uses an 084 number. NHS Direct was exempted by the last Government from the directions and regulations, and rightly so. That is because the Department had already begun considering plans to implement NHS 111, and it would have been confusing to the public to change NHS Direct’s number shortly before introducing a new number for patients to call that will be free to the user.

By April 2013, there will be a simple system in place, whereby patients can access care quickly and easily. If there is an emergency they should dial 999, but if people do not know where to go they should dial 111, and otherwise they should continue to use their GP as usual.

I give an assurance that we take these directions and regulations very seriously indeed. We expect them to be adhered to and obeyed. I can assure Opposition Members who raised this issue that PCTs carefully monitor the situation to ensure that, when there are complaints about 084 numbers, GP practices are adhering to the regulations and not costing patients more than they should. The PCTs vigorously enforce the regulations.

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I also reconfirm that we are issuing clarification guidance to GPs, which I hope addresses another point that the right hon. Gentleman made.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough, however, that despite the numbers that are bandied around—as I said earlier, 1,300 is the number that is most commonly used to describe the number of GP practices that are not adhering to the regulations—we cannot find any evidence to establish the accuracy of that figure. Nevertheless, we are anxious that the regulations are enforced. So, if there is any concrete information, proof or evidence that GPs are abusing the system and not abiding by the regulations, it is important that that it is provided to the PCT, which acts as the enforcement officer. If the right hon. Gentleman himself has concrete evidence— following the research that he has conducted to secure this debate and then take part in it—and wants to send it to me, I would be more than happy to accept it and I will direct it to the appropriate body, whichever PCT it is, so that the allegation can be investigated.

In conclusion, the use of 084 numbers is controversial but we are very clear that patients should not be charged more than they would be to make an equivalent call to a local number. That is the belief and principle that underlies the policy, one that we are continuing from the last Government’s term in office. However, we also believe that we should not restrict the freedom that GPs have to improve access arrangements for their patients, provided that they are complying with the regulations. I hope that this debate has not only clarified the situation but has set a challenge to the right hon. Gentleman and others to provide evidence if they have it or come across it, so that if there are any abuses we can put an end to them.

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HMS Affray

1 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to raise such an important matter in this Chamber.

HMS Affray was an A-class submarine, which entered service in 1946. She left Gosport harbour at 4.30 pm on 16 April 1951 on a training exercise. She was due to resurface at 10 am the following day, but no signal was received. Within three hours of her failure to report, a major search began, in which the entire home flotilla and many foreign vessels took part. The search was scaled back on the evening of 19 April. Some weeks later, the wreck of the Affray was discovered on the sea bed north of Alderney in the Channel Islands, beneath 260 feet of water.

The tragedy took the lives of 75 men. It is clear that it could easily have been avoided and that those men lost their lives needlessly. The inquiry that took place at the time was a closed inquiry. When its details were made public under the 30-year rule in 1981, it became clear that it had been staggeringly inadequate. In the words of a widow of one of the men lost on the Affray, this was an inquiry of the admirals, by the admirals and for the admirals—it was not for those who died or for those they left behind.

The widow I have just quoted is Mrs June Tower. June is a constituent and, in 1951, she was married to 23-year-old John Treleaven. John was one of 25 trainees among the 75 crew who lost their lives. On 16 April— 61 years after the event—June will attend a ceremony on the island of Alderney, where a plaque will be unveiled to commemorate the 75 who died in the Affray tragedy. The event presents the perfect opportunity for our Government to make amends for six decades of obfuscation.

The closed inquiry in 1951 reported to James Callaghan, who was Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty. It reported that the loss of the Affray was most likely caused by metal fatigue and faulty welding on the Affray’s snort—a long tube added to the vessel in 1950 to act like a large snorkel. When the wreck was discovered, it was reported that the snort had snapped and that the likely cause of the tragedy was the resulting influx of water into the ship.

What was not included in the report to the Minister was the Affray’s dubious history, the extraordinary lack of experience among the crew and the fact that the Affray was carrying a significantly larger crew than normal. The mechanical problems that beset the Affray included the fact that her battery flooded without warning during trials, defects she had experienced in a starboard supercharger on her way to Australia and the need for a partial refit when she was in Singapore.

By 1950, the Affray had done 51,000 miles and was not rated highly by seamen who knew her well. Chief Petty Officer David Bennington reported that

“she leaks like a sieve and when doing a deep dive the other day the water poured into the engine room faster than we could keep it out”.

He also described an occasion when an engine broke down. After the same exercise, he stated that

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“we limped in on one”—

one engine—

“and just as we arrived in the other went...I think that this boat is just about finished.”

The snort was fitted in January 1950, but it developed defects very quickly. Mechanic William Day was responsible for raising and lowering the snort, and he detailed a number of defects with the device, adding that

“as soon as we surfaced from snorkelling there was always a lot of water in the engine room”.

Lieutenant Commander Blackburn, who captained the Affray and died with his men, told the crew that they would be going on a short, five-day voyage because the Affray was booked to go into dock at the end of those five days due to trouble with her battery.

There is plenty of evidence that the Affray was bordering on unseaworthy, if not actually unseaworthy, and that the Admiralty was well aware of that. The Affray was an unfit vessel. Each of the 75 men who died was talented, dedicated and proud to serve their country, but as a collective unit, they were the wrong crew for the wrong ship—again, something the Admiralty was fully aware of.

The Affray carried 75 crew on that voyage, but she was meant to carry only 61 in peacetime. Even in wartime, which this was not, she was meant to take a crew of only 66. Worse, only 26 of those on board were part of the Affray’s regular crew. A further 20 crew members had been moved out of barracks at the last minute to take part in the exercise, due to confusion over Easter leave. There were also four Royal Marines and 25 trainees. Among those trainees was John Treleaven, who, in the words of June, his widow,

“had spent 2 years on HMS vanguard but hadn’t a clue about submarines and had never been out in the Affray”.

This was, therefore, an unfit submarine, carrying a brave but unsuitable and oversized crew. Yet, the inquiry, which was hushed and rushed, reporting just three and a half months after the tragedy, concluded that the cause of the loss of 75 men was a snapped snort pipe. The snort was no doubt snapped, but was it the cause of the tragedy or the result of an explosion caused by the faulty battery? I have no idea, but the closed inquiry made no serious attempt to look at the issue.

When all is said and done, though, there are two failures for which the Admiralty must take responsibility. One was sending out a vessel with 75 men on board when it was clearly not fit for duty. The second was sending out an ill-prepared, inexperienced crew on such a ship. It is entirely possible that an accident happened that day and that it could have been mitigated had the crew been smaller or more experienced.

One of the other widows, Mary Henry, who was married to First Lieutenant Derek Foster, told June that she had found her husband in the garden on 15 April, the day before the Affray set sail. He was working unusually furiously at his garden, and his wife inquired what was upsetting him. He replied that

“we are taking a gash—or rubbish—crew and they’ll all be sick and get in the way, it’s dangerous”.

June Tower talked to one of the men who was taken off the crew at the last minute due to double booking and the complications over Easter leave. He told June that

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“it was incredible that they took those trainees out in the Affray, if there had been an emergency they wouldn’t have known what to do”

He added that

“the affray leaked like a sieve, she was always turning turtle but nothing that an experienced crew couldn’t deal with”.

He explained that the 20 crew who were swapped over at the last minute to allow those in barracks to join the ship were later told by their superiors not to talk about the incident for fear of blackening the Navy’s name.

That gives us a clue as to what happened in the hushed and rushed inquiry. Britain was, and remains, rightly proud of her Navy. In 1951, we were in the early and fevered days of the cold war, and out in Korea, it was getting decidedly heated. The foolhardy decision to allow an unfit ship, crewed by the inexperienced and the untrained, to take part in a challenging exercise, which led to such a dreadful tragedy, must have been a matter of huge embarrassment to the Admiralty and the Navy as a whole. The need to present a picture of an invincible Navy must have overridden the need to ensure justice for the families of the dead. However, that was 61 years ago. Do we need to allow those considerations to haunt us today, while June and other relatives are still yearning for answers? I am sure the answer is that we do not, of course, need to allow those considerations to hold us back.

June Tower is an incredible woman. For 61 years she has sought justice for John. Now, she is a widow for a second time. Like the other relatives of those who died, she is delighted by the decision to unveil the plaque to them. She is hugely grateful to the Essex Submariners Association, which has led the work in raising the funds for, and organising, this important memorial. When John died, she was overwhelmed by the gifts of condolence sent to her and the rest of the bereaved families from right across the Commonwealth. Happily, she remarried in December 1954. She married a GP, Julian Tower, with whom she spent more than 50 wonderful years. When she and Dr Tower married, the Affray fund provided her with a generous dowry. She says that she has much to be grateful for and many to be grateful to.

The great shame is that the Navy and the country to whom June’s first husband was so dedicated, and for which he gave his life, have acted quite differently. We have had a hushed and rushed inquiry, a lack of truth and no contrition, no admission of fault and no apology. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that that is a dishonourable position for us to be in. I hope he will do all in his power to put that right.

June is clear that the wreck of the Affray is a grave and that it should remain undisturbed. She does not want it lifting to the surface, and she does not want divers to risk their lives to investigate it, because it lies on the bottom of the English channel. However, there is sufficient evidence above the water for there to be a reinvestigation of the evidence, and I formally ask the Government to do just that. Secondly, June and the other relatives of the crew deserve an apology from the Royal Navy and Her Majesty’s Government for the mistakes made in sending out an unfit submarine with an inexperienced crew. Thirdly, I would be grateful if moneys remaining in the Affray fund could be utilised to pay for the maintenance of the bronze plaque on Alderney, so that it will remain a fitting and proud tribute to the 75 who lost their lives.

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June wrote a delightful and extremely moving book about her relationship with her husband John, culminating in the Affray tragedy. She wrote the book, “Maritime Mail”, because she wanted to provide a memorial for those brave men. The plaque and June’s book are tremendous memorials and outstanding tributes to a brave crew who died needlessly. The most important tribute that we can pay them today is to agree that a reinvestigation should take place and that an apology should be made.

1.11 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on raising this important issue through the vehicle of an Adjournment debate. I acknowledge his concerns for his constituent, who lost her first husband in this tragedy. I would, of course, like to pass on my sympathy to her and to all the families and relatives of those who were affected by this loss. I also have a constituent affected by this, Mr Kevin Cook, whose father went down on the Affray in the months before he was born. He has approached me for help with this issue as a constituency MP.

As my hon. Friend explained at the outset of his speech, it is now 50 years after the Affray was lost with all hands. However, what passes as history for many can remain a fresh concern to some, particularly if they feel—as clearly my hon. Friend’s constituent does—that there remains unfinished business. We have a duty to ensure that concerns are addressed as fully as they can be and that they are dealt with sensitively, within the bounds of what can reasonably be achieved this far after the event.

Let me set out a little of the background. HMS Affray was an A-class submarine completed in 1946. The class had originally been designed to undertake operations in the far east during the latter part of the second world war. The submarine used diesel-electric power-plant. Diesel engines were used for surface propulsion and charging of the electric batteries, which were used to power electric motors for propulsion when dived. Subsequently, Affray was fitted with a snort mast, which was a breathing tube to permit the submarine to run its diesel engines while at periscope depth, much reducing the chances of it being detected.

As we have heard, on 16 April 1951, Affray left Gosport on a training exercise under the command of an experienced submarine captain, Lieutenant Blackburn. There were 75 men on board and she was scheduled to make a surfacing report by radio at 10 o’clock the next morning, 17 April. When that was not received, Operation Subsmash was ordered in accordance with standard submarine search and rescue procedures, beginning at 11 o’clock the same morning. Over the next few days, many ships and aircraft were involved in the search for the Affray, but, sadly, to no avail. On 19 April, the Admiralty accepted that the Affray was lost, with no reasonable hope of any survivors. It was not until 14 June that the wreck of Affray was detected and identified north of Alderney in the Channel Islands, lying in 260 feet of water. In the following months, divers from HMS Reclaim spent much time investigating the wreck, hoping to discover the reasons for her loss. That was considerably dangerous work.

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The board of inquiry convened to investigate the loss of HMS Affray presented an interim report on 19 July. The board considered a number of possible causes. Material failure was considered the most likely cause. That was not, however, a definitive finding. The board also considered issues of human error or the possibility of collision. The board of inquiry continued to seek further evidence. Diving continued to be carried out on the wreck, using some of the most advanced techniques available at the time, but no firmer conclusions could be reached and diving was brought to an end in early November 1951.

The final report of the board of inquiry reached conclusions that were broadly similar to those of the interim report: that the submarine was lost because of the material failure of the snort mast, which broke off without warning, and that the resultant rapid influx of water resulted in the submarine dipping markedly by the stern, becoming increasingly heavy and sinking to the bottom. The board also concluded that the rapidity of events did not allow the release of position indication signals, that the crew died rapidly and that the search organisation was rapidly and energetically implemented.

The report was laid before the House on 14 November 1951 by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr J P L Thomas. It noted that there was no certainty about the reasons for her loss and that the broken snort mast might be either the cause or the consequence. The Government judged that any attempt to salvage the Affray would be dangerous, expensive and not at all certain to be successful. With the extra risk to life that salvage would have incurred, the Government decided that it was best not to proceed. As a result, the definitive cause of the loss of the Affray could not be proven and the wreck of HMS Affray would therefore be the final resting place for the 75 souls on board.

As I am sure the House will agree, it is fitting that that grave is now protected from being disturbed under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. I took note that my hon. Friend told us that his constituent’s clear preference was that it should not be disturbed. As Members may be aware, claims were made in print in 2007 alleging that the true cause of the loss of the Affray was known but suppressed to spare the embarrassment of senior naval officers. A study of those claims has been carried out by the Naval Historical Branch of the Royal Navy, but it has concluded that there is no reason to disagree with the findings of the original board of inquiry. Indeed, scrutiny of the paper trail around the inquiry found that it was far from a review carried out by the Admirals for the Admirals, which was, I think, the expression my hon. Friend used. In fact, far from the Royal Navy hierarchy encouraging the board of inquiry to the conclusion that what happened was caused by the mast snapping, they were, on the contrary, very sceptical about that account. They did not encourage the inquiry down that line, but continued to question whether that was the true explanation. Some people have called for a new inquiry to be launched on the basis of those various allegations.

I listened to the points that my hon. Friend has raised today. He stated very confidently that this was an accident that could easily have been avoided and that the lives were lost needlessly. I cannot see any

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evidence that enables so bold a statement to be made. It is perfectly true that there had been problems with the condition of the vessel, but it had spent three months in the dockyard earlier in 1951, during which time most of the serious problems were addressed.

Furthermore, it is true—this is, effectively, common practice—that the Affray was booked in for further repairs to be carried out. However, the decision on whether or not she was fit to go to sea was not taken by the hierarchy of the Admiralty in the fashion described by my hon. Friend; the decision rested with the commander of the vessel, who was, as we know, a popular, decorated and extremely experienced captain. He judged that the vessel was in a fit condition to go to sea, although it is also true that there were more people on board than usual because the exercise was going to combine two different training exercises: one for the submarine crew and one for a small number of Royal Marines who were on board for that purpose. Again, the captain made the decision that the size of the crew was reasonable in all the circumstances, and that it was appropriate to go out to sea with that number on board.

Some of the issues that have been raised, and some of the points that were made separately in the Bennington letters, were known to the Board of Inquiry when it was considering the events that led up to the tragedy. We cannot say with any certainty at this point what the board members made of each of those pieces of information, but we can say with reasonable confidence that those factors were known about at the time, and were considered by the Board of Inquiry. I am struggling to see that new evidence is available today that was not available to the Board of Inquiry when it looked into the matter. It is my duty to tell the House that in the absence of any new evidence, it would not be possible to authorise a new inquiry. The main purpose of a Board of Inquiry is to ascertain the cause of an incident so that a recurrence can be avoided.

The House will understand that submarines of the same class as Affray have been out of service for more than three decades. Indeed, we do not even have any diesel electric submarines in the 21st-century Royal Navy. The subsequent safety record of the Royal Navy submarine service since the sinking of Affray has been excellent—Affray was the last submarine lost at sea—so it is exceedingly unlikely that a new inquiry could make recommendations that would materially affect the running of our modern nuclear-powered Vanguard, Trafalgar or Astute class submarines. A new investigation, even with new technology, would involve significant expense and significant risk, and we would have to be realistic about what it would be capable of discovering, particularly if we respected the wishes of those who would not want graves to be tampered with.

My hon. Friend also raised a question about the Affray fund. It is an independent fund, and is not controlled by the Ministry of Defence. The trustees are the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, the mayor of Gosport and the Public Trustee. If he wishes to pursue any matters pertaining to the fund, it would be best if he addressed them to the trustees.

Submarines are complex ships, operating in an environment that is extremely dangerous, even in peacetime. Submariners operate at the limits of human ingenuity, and that is to their credit. They are among the bravest men in the Royal Navy, and soon to be the bravest

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women too. The loss of Affray and the men who served on her was a national tragedy, as well, of course, as a personal tragedy for many. We all understand only too clearly why those who were personally affected want definitive answers, but nothing can bring the fallen back, and after more than 50 years, there seems to me to be no realistic likelihood that we can ever provide the answers that, for understandable reasons, they crave. I cannot see that any new evidence is available to us now that was not available to the original Board of Inquiry. The passage of so much time seems to me to make the prospect of discovering anything new infinitesimal.

Tim Farron: The Minister is right to say that there is not much in the way of new evidence, but there are two clear sides that were never really put together. He referred to Affray’s dubious service and maintenance history, and the technical and mechanical problems that it experienced. It is the marrying together of sending the craft out in that state with a crew that was oversized and, probably crucially, under-experienced—25 trainees and a crew that was two thirds inexperienced in that ship—that makes Mrs Tower and me believe that those in charge were culpable. I accept that the argument about the inquiry is one thing, but an apology should be made for that poisonous cocktail of an inexperienced crew and an unfit vessel.

Nick Harvey: I have already touched on the points about the condition of the vessel. The records of its condition were all available and properly documented at the time. They were available to the Board of Inquiry to consider. It is true that Affray had had some service and maintenance issues, but there is no particular evidence that their number was unusually high for submarines at that time. Therefore, the decision by the commanding

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officer and the chain of command was based on their judgment at that time about the safety of the vessel. There is no evidence that anyone can see that they were pressed to take the vessel out. According to the standards of the day, the risk was within the parameters of what they considered to be normal. It is also true that there was quite a large number of relatively inexperienced trainees on board at the time, but again that was not radically out of the ordinary. The captain judged at the time that the blend of experience and trainees on board was acceptable, and that the vessel was fit to set sail.

I would be hugely regretful and deeply sorry if either of those factors contributed to the loss of the Affray, but there is no evidence in truth that either factor did. We must be realistic about what we can hope to establish as definitive fact 50 years after the event when a Board of Inquiry conducted in the immediate aftermath with all the information at its disposal at the time was not able to say with certainty exactly what the cause was. It remains a huge tragedy for the Navy and a personal tragedy for those involved, but after more than 50 years, I just cannot see any new evidence or any realistic prospect that we would be better able to identify the cause of the disaster now than we were at the time.

I am delighted that in April some of the relatives will go out to commemorate the anniversary. I hope that my constituent, who is planning to go with them, finds the experience moving and meaningful, but I just do not think that there is anything we can do to put to bed the unanswered questions, because I do not believe that any more information is available to us today than was available then. I fear that the 75 souls who were lost will have to be left in peace on the sea floor, and that we will not find out anything new as a consequence of the allegations that have been made in the recent few years.

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Legal Aid (Women and Families)

1.30 pm

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): It is a great honour and a privilege to present this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Legal aid was first established by the post-war Labour Government under the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. It was established to ensure that ordinary members of the public who cannot afford legal fees can obtain legal services when they need them in areas such as family law, mental health, education, immigration and asylum, consumer issues, welfare benefits, employment and criminal defence.

The aim of legal aid is to ensure that individuals are able to defend or to enforce their rights, or to obtain advice on how to tackle the problems they face. As a result, it plays a key role in tackling social exclusion, and in helping individuals to protect their rights against richer and more powerful opponents. Since its creation, it has formed a central plank of the post-war welfare state. It is the arm of the welfare state that keeps the other arms honest and ensures that they are all directed towards the public good.

Legal aid funds private practitioners to provide that service, rather than setting up a legal equivalent of the NHS. As a result, many legal aid practitioners provide support through a comprehensive network of outlets, often run by self-employed individuals in small partnerships, as opposed to the state directly contracting lawyers. But that makes them uniquely vulnerable to major systemic shocks, such as current plans brutally to cut social welfare legal aid.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on securing this important debate, which I know he cares passionately about. On funding and sustainability, does he accept that our legal system costs more than £2 billion a year and is one of the most expensive in the world and that that is, in current economic and financial circumstances, unsustainable?

Mr Virendra Sharma: The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer who has practised in the past. I will respond to his point later.

The Government know that many legal aid practitioners provide support in the way that I have described. That is why the Cabinet Office has taken over this Minister’s mess and is trying to ensure the long-term viability of the advice sector. Legal aid support, particularly early intervention, demonstrates effective value for money for the taxpayer. According to cost-benefit analysis by Citizens Advice, for every £1 of legal expenditure on housing, debt, benefit and employment advice savings are made, although I will not give all the figures, which I am sure are available to hon. Members. As a result, it is clear that the savings made by cutting the legal aid budget will be dwarfed by increased costs elsewhere to the public purse. That is why cuts to advisory services, particularly to welfare advice, are both short-sighted and short-termist.

There is also a human cost. In any given year, legal problems such as divorce, eviction or debt will be experienced by one in every four people, but by one in

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three people with long-term sickness or disabled people, half of unemployed people and half of lone parents. People with one unresolved problem often accumulate other problems rapidly. If you cannot resolve early-stage problems, more problems will often accumulate and end up in a vicious circle. These cycles can result in people losing their jobs and income, suffering stress-related illnesses and experiencing relationship and/or family breakdown.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that if we do not deal with the whole cluster of problems, we might allow problems to get worse? If people’s employment and debt problems are related, and we resolve the debt problem but not the employment one, we are merely postponing the problem and it will come back again.

Mr Sharma: I thank my hon. Friend for her important intervention. I agree with every word that she said. I will come back to this matter and develop it later in my speech.

Such problems are closely related to social exclusion, poor outcomes for children and levels of crime and antisocial behaviour, all of which represent significant costs to public services. Children whose families are experiencing civil and social problems are more likely to become involved in truancy, exclusion, and offending.

For the past 40 years, local law centres have been providing legal advice and support to the most vulnerable and needy in their communities. In the late 1970s and early ’80s I worked as an advice worker in a law centre and have experience in that field. I dealt with communities that suffered due to unemployment and other reasons. Law centres are an essential part of community life and are the first port of call for many people experiencing social and civil legal problems.

Law centres must be protected because of their experience. They have been working for 40 years with local communities, building a relationship with the public, landlords, organisations, local authorities and projects. They have local access; they are well established in communities; they are easily accessible; and they are trusted by communities. The brand power of law centres, like citizens advice bureaux, lies in their having gained public trust and confidence. They provide face-to-face advisory services and build trust and stronger relationships with clients. Services provided by the 52 law centres in England and Wales can be divided into three strands, namely individual casework, education and prevention, and developing policy. All three strands of services provided by law centres and CABs demonstrate the important strategic role played by these organisations in their local communities.

Rehman Chishti: On advice centres, does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that this Government will spend £4.7 million to fund 44 court-based independent domestic violence advice positions across the country, which clearly shows that they are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in our society?

Mr Sharma: I will answer that question later in my speech.

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Issues raised in individual casework are often the root causes of problems faced by communities, which places law centres in the unique position of being able to disseminate information to other support bodies and to propose remedies. Research by the New Economics Foundation calculated the contribution of law centres by quantifying the social value such institutions provide and found that for every £1 invested in a law centre, a further £15 of social value is generated.

Family legal work remains the most costly area for the civil legal aid budget. It covers issues of child welfare and protection, as well as divorce, property and relationship breakdown issues. The proposals have retained legal aid for cases where domestic violence or forced marriage is involved and for cases where children’s safety is in danger.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. A lady in my area who reared her children and left her job, and depended on her husband for income, finds herself needing legal aid after a messy divorce, but cannot receive it. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that families—ladies in particular—will find themselves vulnerable at this time?

Mr Sharma: I agree. As I stated earlier, the impact will be on families in society.

Abundant research has been carried out into the adverse consequences of family breakdown. There is also ample evidence suggesting that job loss, financial difficulties and loss of income can bring about family break-up. Therefore, the provision of advice for other civil law problems, such as employment, housing and debt are important in preventing problems from escalating.

The Government’s proposals would seriously damage access to justice, especially for the most vulnerable in society. The Ministry of Justice impact assessment shows that there will be a disproportionate effect on women. Similarly, the cuts disproportionately impact on black and minority ethnic clients and those with disabilities. As legal aid is targeted to those with low incomes, it will have a disproportionate effect on this section of the community. However, it is likely that those on very low incomes will be particularly negatively affected.

And then there is domestic violence. I direct the Minister to a speech of great power delivered by the noble Baroness Scotland in another place to the Minister, Lord McNally:

“look at the average case, such as when a woman has run from her home. She manages to go to her GP, who sees the injuries and notes them and then sends her to hospital because there are fears that she may have cracked a rib or another bone. She is seen by the medical staff and they verify that the injuries that she complains of are genuine. Her neighbours may have come in to rescue her from an assault. They may not have seen the assault taking place but have noted what was happening and taken her away. Social services may have come along and examined the children, spoken to them and heard what they had to say. All of that might have been used by the police who then came along and arrested the man. He may then acknowledge that he has indeed committed the offences that are alleged against him. Even if all those things had happened, under”

the Government’s current

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“provisions the woman would not be entitled to legal aid. That cannot be right.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 January 2012; Vol. 734, c. 595.]

Rehman Chishti: Does the hon. Gentleman accept, in relation to the interdepartmental working between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, that the Home Office is providing more than £28 million of stable funding until 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services and £900,000 to support national domestic violence helplines and the stalking helpline, and that that shows its commitment on this issue?

Mr Sharma: Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a very good intervention, but at the same time we need to consider the impact of the reductions and where the resources are going. That is what the debate is about.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree with the noble Baroness Scotland that the definition that the Government plan to adopt on domestic violence could result in some 46% of the cases that currently attract legal aid no longer doing so?

Mr Sharma: I thank my hon. Friend. Every hon. Member who has spoken has made a very good intervention. I agree with what he has said and am sure that everyone will have recognised and noted it.

I was referring to the speech delivered by Baroness Scotland. She is a practitioner of great experience and ability and is, of course, right.

I am fortunate enough to have the brilliant Southall Black Sisters in my constituency of Ealing, Southall. It is one of the UK’s leading organisations for black and minority ethnic women, and it told me that those women will be particularly hard hit by the Government’s plans. It said that

“the Legal Aid Bill will make it difficult for all vulnerable sections of society, especially BME women, to access justice and in doing so, remove meaningful legal protection from them and instead push them into community forums such as religious arbitration tribunals where not only will they be denied justice and protection but they will be encouraged to reconcile with abusive partners in order to uphold so called religious and family values. Women who have experienced and are at risk of violence and abuse will be at further risk of domestic and sexual violence, sexual exploitation and forced labour.”

It has been widely reported as fact that women who have experienced domestic violence will still be eligible for legal aid in private family law proceedings, such as disputes concerning the care and upbringing of children, but that is simply not the case. Experts in the field have unanimously raised the concern that too many women who have experienced domestic violence and need help will fall through the gaps in the proposals.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that men are likely to be financially better off than women and therefore better able to pay for legal work privately and that women are more likely to be in non-unionised jobs?

Mr Sharma: I agree with every word that the hon. Lady has said. I am sure that the Minister will also take note of those points in his response.

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Experts in the field cite two particular concerns. First, the definition of domestic violence currently used in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is inconsistent with the cross-Government definition of domestic violence, which guides statutory agency practice and governs access to Government services. Importantly, the definition used in the Bill fails explicitly to refer to financial abuse and sexual violence, which are particularly insidious forms of domestic violence. It is not clear why the Bill uses a different definition of domestic violence, unless the purpose is to restrict the number of cases that will be deemed eligible for legal aid. Under the current proposals, many who are already known to be victims of domestic violence by other departments will not obtain the legal support that they need.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way; he has been very generous. I wonder whether he would like briefly to address the fact that 23 special domestic violence courts are closing on the current Government’s watch. How will that affect women?

Mr Sharma: I think that I will come back to that. I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention. When I reach the last lines of my speech, he will hear about the impact of the various proposals on women.

Under the proposals, victims of domestic violence will be expected to provide “objective evidence” of that violence to qualify for legal aid. Experts unanimously agree that too many victims will remain ineligible for legal aid because the evidence that they will be required to present is dangerously restrictive. The evidence of domestic violence that the Government propose to accept relies on victims taking civil and criminal proceedings against perpetrators, yet we know that a large proportion of victims do not take those routes. To ensure that all women affected by domestic violence are protected, it is essential that the evidential criteria used reflect the experiences of women and the reality of domestic violence. That must include evidence from specialist domestic violence organisations, health services and social services. The Government have failed to think through their proposals adequately.

The notion that “We are all in it together” is not alien to the Labour party. Indeed, this may be the first time that a Conservative Prime Minister has adopted a socialist slogan as his mantra. However, these cuts are deliberately, unashamedly and, I argue, viciously targeted at those who most need help. I am looking at the time; I am sorry, but I have indicated that I need to rush. As I have said, the cuts are targeted at those who most need help and, in the case of domestic violence sufferers, there can be no defence.

I ask the Minister to think again, particularly on domestic violence. In its current form, the Bill will leave thousands of women who have experienced the trauma of domestic violence, trafficking for the purposes of sexual and other forms of exploitation and exploitation as a migrant domestic worker in a private household with a stark choice between representing themselves in legal proceedings or taking no legal action at all to protect themselves. It will also have a life-threatening

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impact on black and minority ethnic women, who, as a result of cultural, religious and other social pressures and racism, already struggle to access the legal system. The Bill will violate the rights and fundamental freedoms of all vulnerable women, but it will have an immensely disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic women.

It is not too late to think again, but if the Minister does not make up his mind to do what I have asked, I pray that my colleagues in the other place will make his mind up for him.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate. This is an important topic and one that we have discussed at length. I recognise a number of Bill Committee colleagues in the Chamber today. As the hon. Gentleman said, the issue is still being discussed in the other place, as the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill continues its passage through Parliament. However, I welcome the opportunity to have a debate on this specific topic today.

It is notable that the subject of the debate on the Order Paper emphasises the effects of our reforms to legal aid, rather than leading us to debate only the justification for those reforms. It may be helpful, therefore, if I give the wider context for our proposals, without which a proper response about the effect on women and families cannot be given.

I start by confirming that the Government are committed to the principle that domestic violence victims need support both legally and otherwise. The Home Office is providing more than £28 million of stable funding until 2015 for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services and £900,000 to support national domestic violence helplines and the stalking helpline.

The Ministry of Justice has contributed towards the funding of independent advisers attached to specialist domestic violence courts since 2007-08 and will have contributed just over £9.25 million by the end of 2012-13. In addition, the victim and witness general fund will provide a total of nearly £15.5 million in grant funding over the next three years to voluntary sector organisations that support the most seriously affected, vulnerable and persistently targeted victims of crime. Of that, nearly £4.7 million will be used to fund 44 court-based independent domestic violence adviser positions across England and Wales for the next three years. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) was right to mention that. We will also allocate nearly £3 million a year for the next three years to 65 rape crisis centres, and we are working with the voluntary sector to develop the first phase of the new rape support centres where there are gaps in provision.

Domestic violence protection orders are being piloted in three police force areas. They are designed to give immediate protection to victims by banning a perpetrator from returning to the house, thus giving the victim the breathing space that they need to consider their next steps. Such orders show a real commitment by this Government to tackling domestic violence—and, if I may so, it is a commitment that is rarely recognised or taken into account when directing criticisms to our proposals for legal aid.

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Karl Turner: I am obliged to the Minister for giving way. Will he address the point that I made in my earlier intervention? What effect does he think that the closure of 23 special domestic violence courts will have on women?

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman is avoiding the reality of the situation. In all except for fewer than five of those courts, the service is being transferred to other surrounding courts. I will write to him with the specific details because I do not have the numbers in front of me.

With that context in mind therefore, I will move on to the specific issue of the legal aid reforms. The £2 billion annual cost of legal aid, combined with the economic climate of the day, mean that hard choices must be made. It is essential that resources are focused on cases where legal aid is most needed—that is where people’s life or liberty are at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home, or where their children may be taken into care.

As well as retaining legal aid for criminal cases, we are also keeping legal aid for mental health matters, asylum matters, debt and housing matters where someone’s home is at risk and legal aid for judicial reviews of public authorities. All of those are directly relevant to family welfare. That means that we are retaining legal aid to seek an injunction to prevent domestic violence and to oppose a child being taken into care. We are also retaining legal aid for private law family cases where domestic violence is a feature. We will also be keeping and extending legal aid for family mediation. The power to waive the financial eligibility limits in cases where someone is seeking an injunction against domestic violence also remains, so those who need help securing protection will be able to get it.

Mrs Grant: Does the Minister agree that excluding undertakings from the domestic violence gateway could have the perverse effect of encouraging litigation, thus potentially increasing costs?

Mr Djanogly: As I said in Committee, the Government are looking at the question of undertakings and that continues to be our position. We hope to come forward with that as the Bill progresses through the other place. If I am to say very much more, I will not be able to take any further interventions.

We are also retaining legal aid for all child parties in family cases, and of course exceptional funding will be available in any out-of-scope case where a failure to provide legal aid might breach the European convention on human rights or EU law. Taken together, we expect such provisions to mean that we will continue to spend around £120 million a year on private family law legal aid, based on 2009-10 figures. When we include legal aid for public family law matters, spending will well exceed £400 million, again based on 2009-10. We will continue to spend nearly £130 million a year on legal representation for child parties. That represents around 95% of current spend.

I accept that women and children will often be directly and indirectly affected by private family law proceedings, but, as I have said in the past, we have had to make tough choices here. We cannot afford to fund generally lengthy and often intractable disputes in the family

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courts. However, we know that mediation can lead to better results that are consensually and less acrimoniously agreed and that are potentially longer-lasting than those imposed by a court. We expect an extra 10,000 mediations a year, which is up from the current figure of around 15,000.

Mediation will not always be appropriate, however, particularly when domestic violence is involved. We know that it can have a devastating effect on women and children, as well as men, who are a significant and often overlooked group of domestic violence victims. Domestic violence is also a significant predictor of children being taken into care as well as a precursor to all sorts of other social problems. On top of that, we also know that perpetrators of domestic violence can assert a controlling, insidious power over their victims, which could potentially stop a victim from effectively presenting their case against the perpetrator in court. On those points, I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall and with Baroness Scotland. However, the hon. Gentleman’s example of a woman who would not get legal aid after running from an abusive husband is not accurate. That sort of case would get legal aid. When a person is convicted of domestic violence against a partner, the partner will be eligible, as conviction would count as evidence. That is why we have made a large, and extremely important, exception in our proposal to remove most private family legal aid from scope of our reforms—that is where domestic violence is a feature.

There has been much debate about the definition of domestic abuse in the Bill and the fact that we do not use the definition of the Association of Chief Police Officers. We are considering that as the matter proceeds through the other place.

There has also been much focus on the evidence criteria for domestic violence to qualify for legal aid in private family law cases. We need clear, objective evidence of domestic violence to target taxpayers’ money on cases where the victim needs assistance. The allegation, which has again been made today, is that the Government’s criteria will miss a great number of genuine victims, and various pieces of evidence have been adduced to support this, and we will continue to look at them. They include the evidence provided by Southall Black Sisters, who have made a significant contribution to the whole case.

Those pieces of evidence refer to domestic violence victims as a whole and point out their difficulties in dealing with the civil or criminal justice systems. We are dealing with a subset of that group—those who are seeking private family law legal aid. They will have, in certain respects, slightly different characteristics to domestic violence victims as a whole. By definition, they will be engaged in the civil justice system. A significant number, nearly 10,000 in 2009-10, will be seeking civil legal aid for a protective injunction at the same time as they seek legal aid for their private family law matter. They will all meet the evidential criteria. We know that in total there were 70,000 legal aid family cases in 2009-10. Let me compare that figure to the prevalence of the types of evidence that we are requesting. Around 24,100 domestic violence orders were made in 2010, the great majority with the benefit of civil legal aid. Around 74,000 domestic violence crimes were prosecuted in 2009-10, and there were 53,000 domestic violence convictions. Around

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43,000 victims of domestic violence were referred to Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences in the 12 months up to June 2010.

We also propose that an ongoing criminal proceeding for domestic violence and a finding of fact in the courts will be taken as evidence. Now these figures will clearly overlap to some degree, but what they point to is that a significant proportion of those 70,000 private family law cases that we currently fund will continue to be funded. We think that this proportion will be around 25%, which matches our rough estimate of the prevalence of domestic violence. I should also say, though, that this comes from a number of sources, and definitive evidence is not available.

I have also committed to look again at whether the issue of undertakings in a court can be used as evidence. We are clear about the need to ensure that those who are victims of domestic violence and need legal aid can access it and these requirements are designed to enable that.

Turning to legal aid for children, we have protected funding in areas that specifically involve children. We have retained legal aid for child protection cases, civil cases concerning abuse of a child, and for cases concerning special educational needs assistance. We have also made

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special provision so that legal aid is available for children who are made parties to private family proceedings.

I should highlight that in civil cases, such as clinical negligence, claims brought in the name of a child are usually conducted by their parents acting as the child’s “litigation friend”, rather than the child themselves. That is a normal part of the rules around civil litigation. As I mentioned earlier, there will also be an exceptional funding scheme for cases where legal aid will not generally be available, which will take into account a person’s ability to represent themselves in legal proceedings where the European Court of Human Rights applies. That will clearly be an important factor in the case of children who might otherwise be left to present their case without assistance.

It is worth noting that the Government published an equality impact assessment, which laid out our assessment of the effects on women of planned changes to legal aid. It recognised the potential for the reforms to have an impact on women and children, but in the context of the cuts that need to be made, and the deliberate focus of legal aid on those who are most vulnerable and in need, we do not believe that this impact is disproportionate.

I do not pretend that the choices we have had to make will have no impact, but they needed to be made.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).