3.2 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) not just on securing the debate and on the informed and eloquent way in which he has spoken but on putting this issue on the parliamentary and political agenda over the past six months in many different ways across the country. It is a great credit to him that he has done so so effectively, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for giving us this opportunity to participate in this debate today.

Like the hon. Gentleman, as a young child I watched the events in 1972. This year, older and wealthier, I had the opportunity to purchase tickets to see the Olympics at first hand. As he said, it was a wonderful experience. It made me think what the reaction would have been if there were a comparable terrorist outrage at the London Olympics. If, in whatever way, a terrorist or a terrorist cell had managed to kidnap and murder athletes, coaches or officials from whichever country, it would have been

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a rather big event. We would have reflected on it not just in this House, but in the country for many, many decades; we would not forget it.

If, in 1972, it had been 11 Americans or Britons, Germans, French, Canadians, Chinese or Russians who had been murdered, there would have been, in some way, a small symbolic but significant reference to it in every Olympics. I do not have a view on how such symbolism should be represented; it is not my place to have such a view. None the less, the principle of having such a reference would have arisen.

A term that is used, not least by members of the International Olympic Committee, is “the Olympic family”. There have not been many Olympics, so there have not been many opportunities for such outrages. There have not been many Olympians in the history of the modern Olympics. Proportionate to the Olympic family, this is a major and thankfully unprecedented event—all would hope and pray that it will remain unprecedented. It is all the more incongruous therefore that it is not appropriately symbolised in some way. Indeed, the Olympics are full of symbolism. I have not watched many opening ceremonies in the past. I seem to recall Mr Ali in Atlanta. In our own splendid opening ceremony, was not the flag of Greece raised and the Greek national anthem played? Doubtless, that was a symbolic gesture in recognition of the fact that both the ancient and the modern Olympics originated in Greece. I was a little taken aback—perhaps I should have been more up on my Olympic history to realise that. None the less, I duly sat in silence and watched and observed and paid due homage. I have no objection to that whatever, but if such symbolism and historic reference can be achieved, then not to manage to work in, in an appropriate way, recognition of this outrage is wrong. The Olympic movement has a bit of history when it comes to problems in dealing with Jews and anti-Semitism, so it is even more wrong that it failed to do so.

The real outrage—I use that word more modestly this time—are the excuses that were given, such as there will be some people who would object. That is the nub of the problem. Who would object? Which athlete from the family would object to recognising the murder within our lifetime of other members of the Olympic family at the Olympics? Anyone who would object has no place in an Olympic games. People would not dare to object even if their countries had Governments or dictatorships that might like them to do so. There is a duty, or a responsibility, on this great Olympic family to learn from the mistakes that the IOC has made in London and to ensure that they are not repeated in future.

I do not care precisely how these events are recognised, as long as it is done in a way that gives true significance to the fact that this could happen in a recent Olympics—thankfully, it did not happen on our watch—and the Olympic family will be all the stronger because of that recognition .

Double standards when it comes to Jewish people and Israel have no place in the modern world. We see double standards when it comes to anything Israeli, and that is a major problem. The Olympic ideal should counter that in its very essence, which is why I commend those who have campaigned for the measure. I hope,

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and I am sure that we can ensure, that the IOC gets to hear about and read our deliberations today, so that it can act more appropriately in future.

3.10 pm

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Like the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), I deeply regret the failure by the International Olympic Committee to commemorate properly the 40th anniversary of the murder not only of 11 Israeli athletes and team members but of a West German policeman at the Munich Olympiad in 1972.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) pointed out in his excellent opening speech, it is especially apposite to bring this issue to public attention today as it is the 40th anniversary of the massacre; it is exactly four decades ago that those terrible events began to unfold. At that time, I was a seven-year-old schoolboy. However, as someone of part-German heritage, I recall the great hope that surrounded those Olympic games. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) pointed out, people had memories not only of the war but of the previous German Olympiad of 1936, which took place only 36 years before the Munich Olympics—some of the disgrace that the 1936 games brought to the Olympic movement was very much going to be laid to rest. We had a modern Munich—a modern Bavarian city—and an outward-looking West Germany. It was a time to remember the past but also—rightly—a time to look to the future. Of course, all of that hope was shattered by the Palestinian terrorism and the bitter irony of young and hopeful Israeli Jews perishing on German soil.

The Olympic games are precisely the right occasion to remember and commemorate the events of 1972. I fear that the IOC may have felt that to do so would be too sensitive for Arab nations, especially in view of the much-vaunted so-called Arab spring of the past 18 months or so. It is particularly ironic that the Black September terrorists were initially funded out of Egypt, bringing Yasser Arafat, among others, to international attention.

I used the term “the so-called Arab spring” advisedly. There has been a huge amount of naivety from western Governments, including at times our own Government, about what has happened and what is currently happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. Ms Dorries, I hope you will forgive me if I say a few words about these issues.

It seems to me that in planning the 9/11 attacks, which took place 11 years ago next week, Osama bin Laden was realistic. His hope was not to bring the US down, or to bring it to its knees. It was to show the populations in the Arab world that the mighty US was not as invincible as many people thought and to encourage uprisings against US-backed leaders. To that extent, I fear that—a decade or so on from bin Laden’s terrible work on 9/11—the so-called Arab spring has not led to some great rush to democracy but has become little more than a power-play against western-backed leaders, bringing forth what are often more aggressive and far more violent regimes.

We are at a very early stage of all of this and, as I have said, there has been a lot of naivety about what is coming into play. It is happening in Egypt and Libya. We are seeing what is happening—before our very eyes—in Syria. I just say that, as we commemorate the events of

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1972, some people may accuse us of talking about just one section of world humanity, the Jewish population. My worry about what is happening out in the Arab world today is that there are Christian populations that have been there for many years; in Syria, there have been Christian populations for virtually 2,000 years. St Paul himself started promulgating Christianity in the first few decades after the death of Christ in territory that is now modern-day Syria. That population of some two million Christian people in Syria is under immense threat. Ironically—because that population has not been under any threat whatsoever under the Assad regime—it is the so-called Free Syrian Army and elements of that rag-tag group that are proving a great threat to the Christian population of Syria.

We should not forget the 9 million Coptic Christians living in Egypt either. My fear about the great upheaval in that part of the world is that, within a decade or so, many of those Christians will have to go into exile from their homelands, which, as I say, have in many cases been their home for virtually 2,000 years.

It is important that we look at this issue in the context of what is going on in the Arab world. As I say, there are elements in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt that all of us would support, but there are also elements that are a far greater danger to the stability that we would all like to see in the region in future. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for securing this apposite debate. It is regrettable that the IOC has sought to put elements of political correctness before a proper commemoration of one of the darkest days of the Olympic movement. As my hon. Friend rightly said, we should all celebrate a wonderful London Olympiad and a wonderful London Paralympic games that still has another five or six days to run, but it is also right that we should take this opportunity to commemorate and remember the terrible events that took place exactly four decades ago today.

3.16 pm

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate. I want to make only a brief contribution, but I feel very strongly that I should put my views on the record. The Olympics were an incredible moment for our country. It was a brief period when we took a break from our favourite national pastime—talking Britain down. We reminded ourselves of what we can achieve when we put our mind to it. I have to say that “family Evans”—the five of us—were watching the opening ceremony and my nine-year-old turned round to me and said, “Dad, doesn’t it make you proud to be British?” I said, “It does, son.” Then we saw Mr Bean and my five-year-old little girl erupted in laughter and said, “He’s funny.” Then we saw Her Majesty jumping out of an aeroplane and I had to reassure the rest of the family that Her Majesty does not normally jump out of aeroplanes.

For many people, however, one of the highlights of the Olympics was the excellent opening ceremony, as I have just described. It was not just an amazing spectacle that helped to suspend our scepticism. It also contained many moving moments, none more so than—as has already been said—the tribute to the people who lost

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their lives in the 7/7 bombings in London. However, that tribute also highlighted something else—the deafening silence about what happened 40 years ago in Munich, when a Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, murdered 11 Israeli athletes and one German police officer. Surviving murderers were eventually released and allowed to return to a hero’s welcome, giving a global press conference in which they were able to glorify murder and terrorism.

Such appalling events should not be forgotten. The Prime Minister was absolutely right to speak at a memorial event for those who lost their lives. What possible argument could anyone make for not wanting to remember the senseless murders of young innocent men who had simply wanted to compete in the Olympics and who were murdered simply because they were Israeli?

The International Olympic Committee has said:

“We must consider what this could do to other delegations that are hostile to Israel.”

In my view, that is simply unacceptable. If someone is prepared to boycott the Olympics because of a simple memorial for murdered Israelis, why would we want them to attend anyway? A minute’s silence in front of athletes from all over the world could have been more than just an appropriate time to remember those who were killed; it would have helped to encourage a sense of unity between nations. Sadly, the IOC showed a complete lack of moral leadership. At least, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, who secured the debate, we are remembering in Parliament what happened 40 years ago today.

3.19 pm

Dame Tessa Jowell (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab): I am delighted to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing it and on being so actively engaged for 10 years in the procuring for and planning of the Olympics.

Obviously, the Munich massacre has been a recurrent preoccupation and concern. This occasion is remarkable and noteworthy. When I was in government, I had the privileged responsibility of supporting the bereaved families of those who suffered as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and of the 52 innocent Londoners who died on 7 July 2005, as well as a similarly privileged association with families bereaved in the Bali bombings and the tsunami, albeit that was not related to terrorism. I therefore have personal experience of the importance of anniversaries and of a sense of place that enables people to gather together. Next Tuesday, we shall mark the 11th anniversary of the loss of 67 lives in New York. We should never forget that. In a way, such atrocities are too easily absorbed into the everyday narrative of our shared history.

The reason why the timing of the debate is so important is that there will probably not be in our lifetimes another Olympic moment like this summer in London in which we can restate our horror at what happened, and its complete contradiction of the founding values of the Olympic movement. I believe—I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House share my view—that that movement has been a force for peace, and it is the antithesis of the behaviour of the Black September group that led to the death of 11 innocent Israelis.

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The hon. Member for Harrow East remembered the names of the victims, and I, too, want to remember: Mark Slavin, who was only 18 years old when he died; Eliezer Halfin, his wrestling team mate; David Berger, Yossef Romano and Ze’ev Friedman, who were Israeli Olympic weightlifters; Amitzur Shapira, Kehat Shorr and Yakov Springer, who were athletics, fencing and weightlifting coaches; and Moshe Weinberg, Yossef Gutfreund and Andre Spitzer, who were referees. The group was representative of the people one would expect to be at the Olympics. I have been privileged to be a mayor of the Olympic village this summer and thus to live alongside athletes of every competing nation.

The event we are commemorating is an affront to the Talmud, which states that taking a single life is like destroying an entire world. Something of the innocence of the Olympic movement was lost on that day. Children lost their fathers, mothers lost their sons, and wives lost their husbands. As the ages of those who were killed suggest, lives with enormous potential were simply extinguished. We have only our sense of national outrage, and our private speculations about the potential that would never be realised. As with all such moments—9/11, 7/7 and September 1972—we can all remember where we were on that day 40 years ago, because the sense of incomprehensible tragedy and the violation of the very essence of the Olympics lives on in our collective memory. This was an attack on not just Israeli athletes, but on the values and spirit of the entire Olympic movement. The memory of the tragedy remains not just with the victims’ families, but with the whole Olympic family and the world beyond—and here, for a brief time, in our House of Commons, which is something of which we can all be proud.

One reason why London won its bid for the games is that we are proud of our diversity and tolerance, as has been demonstrated at every turn in the extraordinary few weeks of our Olympic summer. The city is home to people from every part of the world who practise every religion and follow every faith. In the Olympic athletes’ village—now the Paralympic village—such an intense representation of the whole world was there for everyone to see, from the flags outside the flats to the diversity of the diet in the dining hall, which was big enough to accommodate six football pitches. One touching observation came from the amazing polyclinic, which treated athletes from around the world. Every athlete was treated according to their need—this was no way of stealing a little competitive advantage for the home team. I vividly remember one of my last visits there when the Cameroon football team were having mouth guards made so that they would be properly equipped for the matches ahead.

We celebrate the fact that in our city 200 nationalities speak more than 300 languages, and that 200,000 Jews live alongside 600,000 Muslims. In some ways, our city is the embodiment of the Olympic ideal, where people of different faiths and cultures live in the same neighbourhoods, and where their children go to the same schools. As with the Olympic ideal, we seek to build our city around the values of equality, respect, friendship and courage. Whether Jew, Muslim, Christian or Hindu, we hope that those shared values allow us to recognise our communities’ potential and ambition, as well as to celebrate our differences. It is that character

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that has brought London and Londoners to embrace the Olympics and everything that they stand for, and to reject those who want to divide one community against another. It is a characteristic that has seen us through not just 7/7, but other moments in our history, when that precious part of our identity has been under threat.

We must also remember that for each surviving family of the 11 victims, this year’s Olympics will be another especially poignant reminder of what they suffered 40 years ago. The ambition of the Olympic and Paralympic games has always been more than to provide a festival of world-class sport; it has been, as the Olympic charter says,

“to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of”

man to promote “a peaceful society”. The Munich attacks were a gross betrayal of that ideal and of everything that the Olympics stand for. The degree of sustained outrage is a measure of how the Olympic movement, and the millions of people who have been inspired by it, have marked the anniversary in different ways.

In the Olympic village is the Olympic truce wall which, at the end of the games, bore the signatures of thousands of visitors, officials and Olympic athletes. I conducted some 16 welcome ceremonies for about 64 teams, and the ambition of peace, the Olympic games as a period of truce, and the invitation to sign the truce wall were fundamental messages in those ceremonies, which extended a welcome to teams from around the world.

We can all join in sharing this moment today, and I am delighted that you, Ms Dorries, and the Minister have agreed that we should mark it with a minute’s silence. I conclude by saying that every time our world is scarred by this kind of atrocity, it redoubles our shared effort and determination to achieve peace and tolerance.

3.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the debate, on the anniversary of the massacre in Munich 40 years ago.

As the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) said, we have just witnessed, in London, one of the most successful Olympic games of the modern era, hailed by athletes, officials, spectators and the International Olympic Committee as “the friendly games” and “happy and glorious”. We in London and the United Kingdom should be proud that we delivered not only a successful but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East pointed out in his opening remarks, a safe Olympic games. We set the stage for what has been, and continues to be, the most wonderful Paralympic games, the first in history for which the tickets have sold out. I was there this morning.

It is the horrible disjuncture with the joy and harmony of the Olympic games that we have experienced in London that makes the appalling events in Munich 40 years ago so shocking. It is absolutely right that we should remember the terrible events in Munich, and absolutely appropriate that we should be having this debate on this day. The right hon. Member for Dulwich

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and West Norwood and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East read out the names of the athletes and officials who were killed, but it is worth spending some time talking about the people who lost their lives in such a pointless act, and it is worth remembering also the West German police officer, Anton Fliegerbauer, who was killed in the execution of his duty.

It is worth remembering that although these were Israeli athletes and officials, they came from everywhere. They were American-born, Romanian-born, Polish-born, Libyan-born and Russian-born—many nations had an interest in them. Mark Slavin was the youngest victim, at only 18 years old. He was a Greco-Roman wrestling middleweight junior champion in the USSR, and in his first international competition for Israel. David Berger, an Israeli weightlifter, was born in America and had won a silver medal at the Asian weightlifting championships. He was a lawyer, and had studied at Tulane and Columbia universities. Romanian-born Yossef Gutfreund was a wrestling judge, in his third Olympics as a referee, and he planned to become a vet. He left behind a wife and two daughters. Yossef Romano, born in Libya, had been an Israeli weightlifting champion for nine years. He was also an interior decorator, and he left behind three children and a wife. Moshe Weinberg was a prize-winning wrestler and the coach of the Israeli Olympic wrestling team. Yakov Springer, the weightlifting coach, was born in Poland. He took part in the Warsaw ghetto uprising during the holocaust and made aliyah to Israel, along with his wife and two children, in 1957. The 1972 Olympics were his fifth games. As an international judge, he could have stayed outside the Olympic village, but he chose to share apartments with the Israeli delegation. Ze’ev Friedman was a flyweight weightlifter who came only 12th in his event but produced one of the best results of any Israeli athlete at the time. He was born in Poland towards the end of the second world war and moved with his family to Israel in 1960. Amitzur Shapira was the track coach. He was born in Israel and lived there with his wife and four children. Eliezer Halfin was only 24, and a wrestler. He was born in the Soviet Union, and became an Israeli citizen only seven months before he was killed. Kehat Shorr, the shooting coach, was born in Romania, and lived in Israel with his wife and daughter, and Andre Spitzer, the fencing referee, was also born in Romania and moved to Israel in 1964. His daughter, Anouk, was born only a few months before he was murdered.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East pointed out, there was a ceremony during the Olympic games. On Monday 6 August, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers, including the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is now the Secretary of State for Health, and myself—still a culture Minister, as far as I am aware—along with the Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of London attended an event at the Guildhall in London to commemorate the events of 1972. The Prime Minister said:

“As the world comes together in London to celebrate the Games and the values it represents, it is right that we should stop and remember the 11 Israeli athletes who so tragically lost their lives when those values came under attack in Munich 40 years ago…Seven years on from 7/7, I am proud that as we speak, this great city of London, probably the most diverse city in the world”—

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that echoes the words of the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood earlier in the debate—

“is hosting athletes from 204 nations. And I am delighted that a strong Israeli team is among them.”

Many people spoke at the event, including the Mayor, and a minute’s silence was held. It was an extremely moving occasion, and I was delighted that the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, turned up to pay his respects. A few days earlier, he had stated:

“The 11 victims of the Munich tragedy... came to Munich in the spirit of peace and solidarity. We owe it to them to keep that spirit alive and to remember them.”

In July, the Mayor of London unveiled a commemorative plaque in Hackney, in remembrance of the athletes who tragically lost their lives at the Munich Olympics, and today the Foreign Secretary issued a statement commemorating those who were murdered.

The right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood talked about the importance of the Olympic truce, and it should be noted that we have taken many steps to promote the truce in relation to London 2012. Although the Olympic truce is based on ancient Greek tradition, the IOC has revived it in modern times to recognise the global context of the games.

The Olympic truce seeks to protect, as far as possible, the interests of athletes and sport in general. I pay tribute to the determined efforts of my noble Friend Lord Bates to raise awareness of the truce. The UK-sponsored UN Olympic truce resolution was co-sponsored by all 193 UN member states on 17 October 2011, which was a record. The Government and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games have taken unprecedented action in support of the Olympic values and truce, both at home and internationally. Through the nations and regions group, run in partnership with LOCOG, the Government are promoting the principles of the Olympic truce through specific initiatives, such as Get Set, the London 2012 education programme, and the Inspire programme. Additionally, International Inspiration is delivering the games bid promise to reach young people across the world and to connect them to the inspirational power of the games through sport. The programme, delivered by the British Council, UK Sport and UNICEF, is now working in 20 countries across the world, and more than 12 million young people have been reached.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is co-ordinating the Government’s international response to the UN resolution on the Olympic truce and is determined to use this historic opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of conflict prevention and resolution by working with NGOs and civil society partners domestically to develop a number of creative initiatives for delivery overseas. Moreover, the UK’s overseas posts are looking for opportunities to emphasise the contribution of youth, women and those with disabilities to promoting peace through sport, culture, education, sustainable development and wider public engagement. Of course, the Government, with their allies and partners, continue to seek a just and lasting settlement in the middle east.

I pay tribute to the Members who made such powerful speeches during today’s debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), for Cities of

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London and Westminster (Mark Field) and for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I also pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). They each made incredibly powerful contributions recalling the events of 40 years ago and pressing the case for the Munich massacre to be remembered appropriately at future Olympic games. I also pay tribute to their work in the House day in, day out to combat anti-Semitism.

I recognise that many people were disappointed that a minute’s silence was not held during the Olympic opening or closing ceremonies, but events that form part of the games are primarily for the International Olympic Committee, not for the Government of the host country. The British Government recognise the importance of remembering the tragic events at the Munich Olympics.

Terrorism in all its forms is completely unacceptable, and the Olympics should be an opportunity for people from across the world to come together in the spirit of peace and solidarity. We demonstrated that through our high-level attendance at the event on 6 August, which included a minute’s silence. The event was similar to those held at many Olympic games since 1972 and was an appropriate and respectful way to remember the Israeli athletes and officials who lost their lives so tragically. We recognise, however, that other people would like the International Olympic Committee to go further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East made the point that commemorating tragic events in an opening ceremony is not unprecedented. During the opening ceremony in London there was a moment of reflection on the events of 7/7, the tragic bombing that took place so soon after we won the bid. Many people in the stadium, and many more watching at home across the world, will have been remembering others who could not be there with us to watch the opening of the games.

Before I conclude my remarks and we prepare for our minute’s silence, I will say something about the delivery of a superb London Olympic games and ongoing Paralympic games. I hope the House recognises that the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood is entirely responsible for the Olympic and Paralympic games. I am privileged to serve with some of the officials who served her, and they fondly recall her being given clear and unequivocal advice, 10 years ago, that bidding for the Olympic and Paralympic games was a ridiculous idea that should not be pursued. They clearly remember their Secretary of State overruling that advice and going around Whitehall Departments to convince various members of her Cabinet, including the then Prime Minister, who was crucial, that bidding for the games was the right thing to do.

I am pleased that the bid had cross-party support, and I am delighted that men of the stature of Lord Coe and Paul Deighton came on board to deliver a fantastic Olympic and Paralympic games. I am pleased that Lord Coe and the soon-to-be Lord Deighton will work to deliver a lasting legacy, and I am delighted that the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood has maintained her involvement in the Olympic games. She was a superb mayor of the Olympic village.

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Mark Field: I do not doubt what everyone has said. The Olympics were a fantastic spectacle and were probably even better than many of us anticipated. They enlivened the spirit of people throughout our country and across the world. Does the Minister recognise that, as he has already touched on, the biggest issue is to ensure that we get the legacy right? That is not just the sporting legacy but, importantly, the infrastructure legacy. Without wishing to put a further burden on the shoulders of the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell), the real test will be whether, in 10 years’ time, we see the phenomenal improvements making that part of east London an exciting place to live, work and play.

Mr Vaizey: Absolutely. I recognise the achievement of the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood in putting together the bid and the subsequent delivery of the Olympic and Paralympic games with cross-party support. Legacy was at the forefront of the Olympic games; legacy was not an afterthought that people have just start thinking about. People were thinking about legacy from 2005, and perhaps even earlier when we were preparing the bid.

I recognise what my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster says about legacy being an important test, and I am convinced that the key figures charged with delivering that legacy will do a superb job.

Jim Shannon: Legacy is not only about what happens in London and the infrastructure that is put in place, but about sport across the UK. The delivery of some sports is measured not only by medals. Will the Minister assure us that those sports that perhaps did not deliver in the medal table this time will receive the same money as other sports to ensure that, next time round, they can win and do well in the medal table?

Mr Vaizey: I am not actually the Sports Minister. I did not realise that by praising the Olympic games, I had effectively opened a debate on sport. I am tempted to yield the floor to the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, who as the Opposition Olympics spokesman probably knows more. What I can say is that one reason why we were so successful at the Olympic games and are being so successful at the Paralympics is that we have an uncharacteristically ruthless approach to supporting Olympic and Paralympic sports: we back success and not cul-de-sacs. However, each sport is important, and it is essential for any sporting legacy to recognise not just the Olympic and Paralympic sports in which we do well but those in which we do not do as well and those not classified as Olympic or Paralympic sports. As we all know, sport is a very good thing.

I echo the opening remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East in commending the servicemen and women who stepped in to support the games at short notice, and all the security personnel and police officers. The Mayor of London is so carried away by the success of the Olympics and Paralympics that last night, at an event that I attended, he praised G4S. The games have been our biggest peacetime logistical exercise. The story that has not been written is the fact that no serious incident took place during the Olympic or Paralympic games. That is something of which we can be extremely proud.

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My hon. Friend also mentioned the 70,000 volunteers, who were absolutely astonishing—and are, as they are still doing the job. It is not just that they bothered to give up their time to support the Olympic and Paralympic games; it is the spirit in which they carried out the jobs that they were asked to do. They did them with such humour and good will that they enhanced the experience of people who went to the events.

In the shadow of the terrible events that we are commemorating, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering outlined the incidents in some detail and put them in their historical context. Although such events were unprecedented at the time, we have, unfortunately, become all too used to them now. At the games, security was of the utmost importance. It was sad but inevitable that there were armed policemen at the Olympic park and venues, but they did a superb job. We allocated an extra £475 million in policing and £553 million in venue security on top of existing investments to help us cope with any possible security effects. That is the cost and one of the legacies of that terrible day at the Munich Olympics.

To end on a positive note, the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games—this is, in effect, the first debate in the House since the games began—have been inspirational for us in Britain, especially given Team GB’s huge haul of 65 Olympic medals, including 29 golds—the most in any Olympic games since 1908. With each day that passes at the Paralympics, Team GB is homing in on its own medal target. None of us could forget Mo Farah’s tremendously exciting wins in the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres, the dominance of our cyclists on both road and track, our haul of equestrian and rowing medals, Andy Murray finally winning at Wimbledon—if that is not the Olympic effect, I do not know what is—Nicola Adams winning the first ever Olympic gold medal in women’s boxing or Jade Jones’s magic medal moment in tae kwon do.

In the Paralympics, we have seen Ellie Simmonds’s superb feats in the swimming pool and David Weir’s dramatic win in the T54 5,000 metres. My own special moment was making a boo-free delivery of flowers to Sarah Storey at the velodrome after she won gold. Usain Bolt’s double treble and Michael Phelps’s historic medal tally were other moments to treasure. In the spirit of this debate, I should also acknowledge the success of athletes from nations other than Britain.

Jim Shannon: Peter Wilson also won the gold in shooting, a first for Team GB in many years. That was a great occasion as well.

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Mr Vaizey: It was amazing. I watched him win that gold on television while at home looking after my children. One could not turn on the television without seeing a British athlete on the verge of winning a gold medal. It was fantastic.

It was also wonderful to see radio and TV coverage of how the games were firing many of our children with enthusiasm and ambition for the athletic feats they had witnessed. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale has young children, so I have a small tip for him when looking after them: set Olympic heats. Get them running up and down in the street outside and time them. One can pass about two hours like that while reading the paper.

The games would not have happened without seven years of effort by the Olympic Delivery Authority, LOCOG, and their staff and contractors. I always said that 2012 would be the year when the UK got its confidence back. What could be a better symbol of modern Britain’s ability to deliver complex projects? It has been a fine advertisement for the UK construction industry. The opening and closing ceremonies, the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 festival are still providing something close to my heart: a showcase for our vibrant cultural sector and creative industries. Even the weather, after a damp early summer, decided to play its part by being kind to us, and the roads and public transport system coped admirably. The games would not have been the success they were without cross-party support. Everyone got behind them.

This important debate is drawing to an end. To recall what I said at the beginning, the massacre at the Munich Olympics was an unprecedented event of enormous tragedy. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East for having the foresight to secure this debate on this day, the 40th anniversary of that massacre. It is important that we commemorate what happened, and that hon. Members feel free to put their points forcefully to the International Olympic Committee. I stand with him in hoping that the IOC has heard what he and all our colleagues have said. We should also not lose sight of the fact that the Olympics are a unique sporting occasion capable of bringing together the nations of the world. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood and to everyone who made the London Olympic and Paralympic games such an extraordinary success.

3.58 pm

The Chamber observed one minute’s silence.

3.59 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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HMP Wellingborough

4.13 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), the new Prisons Minister, to the debate and congratulate him on being appointed to such an important ministerial role. I know from personal experience that he will bring energy, integrity and common sense to his position. I appreciate that he will not have had time to acquaint himself with the situation at Wellingborough prison and that he will have to read a speech largely prepared by his officials, but I hope that the debate will allow him to reflect on the situation and postpone any immediate closure of the prison. It would be most unfortunate if the first action of a new Prisons Minister was to close the third most cost-effective prison in the country. When it was announced that Wellingborough prison was to be closed, I knew that 600 jobs were at risk in my constituency; I did not know that it would also lead to every Minister in the Justice Department losing his job. I would like to thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate in the first week back after the summer recess.

At 9.30 am on 17 July, the House’s last sitting day before the summer recess, the Secretary of State for Justice announced the proposed closure of Wellingborough prison. I was given no prior warning about the decision and found out about the announcement only during a live BBC radio interview. That was an unacceptable divergence from parliamentary protocol and utterly disrespectful to me as Member of Parliament for Wellingborough; more importantly, however, it was disrespectful to my constituents.

By contrast, when Wellingborough prison was placed into market testing, the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), personally phoned me from Downing street at 6 am to inform me of the decision. He was gracious enough to warn me in advance of the announcement and to answer any of my questions on the matter. In addition, he made an oral statement to the House of Commons during which hon. Members from all parties, including myself, could ask him questions. That was a far cry from the miserable, secretive and back-handed action taken by the previous Secretary of State for Justice in this Government.

I am afraid that this is yet another example of Departments wanting to ignore Parliament, ignore scrutiny and avoid debate, and of the Executive thinking they know best and that anybody else’s ideas are irrelevant. They regard Parliament as an annoying irritant that should be avoided as much as possible and think that, when it cannot be completely avoided, policies should be rushed through with the absolute minimum scrutiny.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the excellent way he has run the campaign to save Wellingborough prison on behalf of his constituents. No constituency could ask for a more hard-working Member of Parliament.

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In the light of all the bad practice that my hon. Friend has highlighted, is not this a wonderful opportunity for the new Minister to stamp his authority on his Department and his civil servants from day one, and to say clearly that what has gone on is not up to standard and that they should go away and think again? That would earn him the respect of the civil servants under him and force them to think again.

Mr Bone: I am grateful for the kind words of my hon. Friend and neighbour, and for his usual sensible advice to the Government, which I urge the Minister to take on board. The Minister’s mind must be in a whirlwind at the moment, given all the things that he has to deal with, but this is not just a little local matter—it needs to be addressed.

Immediately after I heard the announcement on the closure of Wellingborough prison, I applied to Mr Speaker’s office for an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24. Although Mr Speaker was sympathetic to the important issue, he was unable to grant me an immediate debate, partly because the announcement was made on our last sitting day. It is rare for the Speaker to allow a Member even to make a Standing Order No. 24 application. Parliamentary protocol requires a Minister from the relevant Department about which a Standing Order No. 24 application is made to sit at the Dispatch Box and listen to it, yet the Ministry of Justice failed in this regard—no Minister was present. Yet again, this was gross discourtesy to Parliament.

The key reason given by the Ministry of Justice for the decision to close Wellingborough prison was cost. According to the Government, its closure would save the taxpayer £10 million a year and a further £50 million in renovation costs. However, if Wellingborough prison is so expensive to the taxpayer, why do the Government’s own figures show that it is the third cheapest prison in the country? The National Offenders Management Service annual report shows that there were 122 state-owned prisons in 2010-11, and that Wellingborough prison had an annual cost per prison place of £27,898, with the national average being £39,175. In other words, according to the Ministry of Justice’s figures, Wellingborough prison is £11,277 cheaper per prisoner than the national average—more than 28% cheaper. Wellingborough is therefore more than a quarter cheaper to run than the average prison in the country. Only a Department dominated by lawyers could think that closing Wellingborough prison would make good economic sense. Only lawyers could think that closing the third cheapest prison in the country on economic grounds would be right. If there is a need to close a prison, that should be an outdated Victorian prison with a higher cost per prison place.

It is estimated that £50 million is needed to renovate the prison but, as a chartered accountant, I am always wary of an estimated figure that happens to be a neat rounded sum. To me that is almost saying, “Let’s make up some huge figure to make it appear that Wellingborough is uneconomic.” I have looked into the economics of the capital investment and that is exactly what has happened. At this stage, I shall thank my researcher, Adam Trundle, for many of the facts and figures that I am using today.

First, the cost is a capital one, which would be spread over the useful life of the asset being built, which in this case is around 40 years. It would not be a revenue cost

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and it would not be £50 million a year. It would be only a small extra cost per prison place per year, and it might even work out that there would be a saving to the cost per prison place. If a new, modern building was built to replace the older 1960s part of the prison, the number of prison officers needing to manage that building would be dramatically reduced. There would be significant savings in the costs of lighting and heating, and significant savings in repairs. Instead of increasing revenue costs, they might actually be reduced. Even if there was no saving to the revenue cost due to running a new building—of course, that is nonsense, as there would be a significant saving—the cost per prison place at Wellingborough would increase by only around £2,000 per year, which would mean that Wellingborough prison would still be well below the national average for cost per prisoner place.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is desperate to kick-start the economy into growth through capital infrastructure projects. The renovation of Wellingborough prison is therefore exactly the type of project that the Chancellor and the Government are looking for, so I do not think that the new Prisons Minister should cross the Chancellor at such an early stage in his ministerial career. If we had some joined-up government between the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury, the renovation of Wellingborough would be a win-win situation: the Treasury would get a quick and relatively inexpensive infrastructure project to boost jobs and the economy; while the Ministry of Justice would get a more energy-efficient and modern prison that would last for years.

In the response of the previous Secretary of State to my letter about the announcement on closing Wellingborough prison, he painted the prison as a 1960s borstal that was outdated, deteriorating and falling to bits. He did not mention, however, that half—actually, it is more than half—of the prison is less than a decade old, with modern facilities and the ability to hold 300 prisoners. In fact, the contractor for the new prison buildings at Wellingborough received a national award of excellence in 2006.

If the reason for closing the prison is because it was originally constructed in the 1960s, and that it is therefore outdated, although more than half of prison was built in the past 10 years, how does the Ministry of Justice explain two much older prisons that are close to Wellingborough—Leicester and Bedford—remaining open while the more modern Wellingborough prison is closed? Both Leicester and Bedford were constructed in the early Victorian era. They are also not as cost-effective as Wellingborough, as is shown by the Government’s figures. They both cost more than £50,000 a year per prisoner, which is £20,000 more than Wellingborough for each and every prisoner.

The following category C prisons—the same classification as Wellingborough—all cost more than £40,000 per prisoner place: Brixton, Bullwood Hall, Canterbury, Castington, Coldingley, Kennet, Kingston, Lancaster Castle and Shepton Mallet. If we were to close any one of those prisons, we would save more than £10,000 per prisoner place compared with Wellingborough. It is absolutely absurd to say that Wellingborough prison is being closed on the basis of economic cost.

Another reason that is given for allowing Wellingborough prison to be closed is the supposed decline in the prison population, but that comes after years of announcements

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by the Ministry of Justice that prisons were full and overcrowded, which forced the previous Labour Government to let out prisoners early before they had completed their sentences. The Ministry of Justice’s figures show that, in 2005-06, the prison population was 76,564 in 139 prisons throughout the country. In 2011-12, the prison population had increased to 86,638 in only 136 prisons. That represents a 10,000 increase in the prison population over six years, with the actual number of prisons declining. Today, the prison population is even higher—at 86,801. How can the Ministry of Justice claim that the prison population is falling when, in every year over the past decade, the Department’s own figures have shown a constant increase in the prison population? I suggest that the Ministry of Justice is as good at predicting the prison population as G4S is at hiring enough staff for the Olympics.

Last week, a review by the highly respected Prison Reform Trust claimed that almost two thirds of prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. In fact, the trust said that there are 7,294 more prisoners than the system was designed to hold. Even with a supposed spare prisoner capacity of 3,500, the prison system will still be almost 4,000 places short to deal with overcrowding. The overcrowding is so severe that one of our closer neighbouring prisons, Leicester, is running at 171% of capacity—it has a designed prisoner capacity of 200, but it actually holds 342. The overcrowding means that there is a higher ratio between prisoners and prison staff, which leads to prison staff having less time to spend rehabilitating inmates, thus further increasing reoffending rates and putting more pressure on the prison system. Closing Wellingborough prison would only make an unacceptable situation even worse.

The governor and staff of Wellingborough prison have been recognised by the former Secretary of State for Justice and the former Prisons Minister for their excellent work improving the prison. The independent monitoring board reported that Wellingborough improved from being a level 2 to a level 3 prison, which is one of the highest levels possible in the prison system. Wellingborough prison has also moved from 123 out of 130 in the prison rankings to 93, because of the hard work and commitment of its governor and staff. The prison has also become far more cost-effective, with efficiency savings of 5% in 2011-12 and a further 3% planned this year. In fact, the number of staff members has reduced by 12 since Wellingborough prison was put into market testing, which shows how efficient the prison staff have been in maintaining high standards.

I should mention the determination of the prison staff to make those improvements to Wellingborough prison. They are following the debate carefully. Moreover, the local prison staff have ignored their national union to implement change, so they should be applauded by the Minister for their actions, not kicked in the teeth.

There has been overwhelming local support for keeping Wellingborough prison open. The most recent meeting of Wellingborough borough council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Government’s decision to close the prison and supporting my campaign to keep it open. There was a united front from all political parties on the council in support of the resolution. Lynne Holcomb and Martin Fields have organised an energetic campaign to keep the prison open, and they organised the “Save the Prison” petition with 3,000 signatures that

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I presented to Parliament last night. There was a massive protest meeting in Wellingborough town centre on Saturday in support of keeping the prison open. There have also been community meetings that have been attended by me, the leader of Wellingborough council and other councillors. Even today there was a protest outside Parliament by prison officers, their families and members of the public.

I have a simple proposition for the new, excellent, understandable and understanding Minister, who takes on board arguments and acts accordingly. I request that the new Secretary of State for Justice postpones the decision to close the prison for at least six months and stops the transfer of prisoners from Wellingborough. That would allow time for a proper and fundamental review of the prison system throughout the country. It would also allow the costs and benefits of closing any prison in the country to be analysed to see what prison, if any, is suitable for closure. That would allow for a well-thought-out decision, and for the most expensive prison to be closed. It would also surely prove that there are no financial grounds whatever to close Wellingborough prison. Let us have a proper prison closure plan, if necessary, that is based on clearly identifiable costs, not a random knee-jerk closure of one prison. I firmly believe that this is the wrong prison being closed for the wrong reasons at the wrong time.

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): It is a pleasure, Ms Dorries, to see you in the Chair. This is my first opportunity to speak with my new responsibilities. It is an even greater pleasure to be able to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I congratulate him on obtaining this debate, and on how he presented his case. I agree entirely with the assessment by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) of how he serves his constituents.

I want to put on the record the Government’s appreciation of the continued efforts of all those who work at HMP Wellingborough. Like front-line staff in prisons throughout the country, they do a huge amount of excellent work that is hidden behind prison walls. I want to make it clear that any decision to close the prison is not a reflection of their work or performance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough knows that any decision to close a prison is not taken lightly, and is never easy. As he would expect, it follows a comprehensive evaluation process led by senior operational managers in the Department and in the National Offender Management Service. Any such decision deserves an explanation not just to him, but to those he represents and to those who have campaigned to keep HMP Wellingborough open. The way in which he heard about the announcement of the closure is, as he said, profoundly unacceptable. It should not have happened, and I apologise to him for that.

I want to explain why the decision was made, and to set out the context for the decision-making process. As my hon. Friend knows, it is the duty of any Government to ensure that the prison system retains sufficient capacity and resilience to manage all those committed to custody

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by the courts. I assure him and the House that neither the Secretary of State nor I, as the prisons Minister, will announce any reductions in prison capacity unless we are confident that that duty can be discharged. It is equally clear that the Government have a duty to their citizens to ensure that we make best use of public funds. As a result, we must ensure that we do not maintain an over-provision of prison accommodation or operate prisons that are uneconomic. My hon. Friend should know that there has been the sort of comprehensive analysis that he says he wants across the system to determine which prisons those should be.

The prison system is necessarily complex, as my hon. Friend understands it must be to meet a variety of needs. They include being able to receive new prisoners direct from courts throughout England and Wales, providing health care and education, tackling deep-rooted, dangerous and harmful behaviour, and providing specialist intervention to particular groups of prisoners. Maintaining a wide geographical spread of prisons and a functional balance that meets the changing needs of the prison population is essential. By doing so, we remain able to carry out the punishments by the courts, to maintain strong security to protect the public, and to provide opportunities for different types of offenders to reduce the likelihood of them committing further crimes. Accordingly, individual prisons are robustly assessed to determine whether their closure is operationally viable before a recommendation is made.

My hon. Friend has reminded me that this is my first day in the job with all the constraints involved. A large proportion of my career at the Ministry of Justice so far has been spent on HMP Wellingborough, and I have, as he would expect, asked some questions about the decisions that have been made. I am satisfied that the process has been followed correctly, and that all the necessary criteria have been met. I know that that will discourage him from continuing his campaign, and I fully understand that. I and, I am sure, my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Justice will be happy to discuss the matter with him further, but I want to be realistic.

Mr Bone: I am grateful to the Minister for reading out the notes from his officials, and he is doing exceptionally well. I thank him for offering to have a meeting with me and perhaps the Secretary of State. Can that meeting take place soon? Otherwise, there will be no point in having it.

Jeremy Wright: At this early stage in my career, I cannot speak for my diary, let alone for that of the Secretary of State. However, I have no doubt that if my hon. Friend, with all his persistence and eloquence, asks the Secretary of State for a meeting, he will get one as soon as it can be arranged.

Mr Hollobone: I very much respect the Minister, who is a good man, but this is day one of his job, and he has not even had time to sleep on the matter. As a human being, he cannot possibly be confident that the assessment of this prison closure is right. I know that that is what his officials are telling him, but he has simply not had time to digest it and to think about it. It would be perfectly reasonable for him to tell the House that as it is day one of the job and he has not had time to sit and

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think about the matter, he will postpone the decision for a set period. He could then be confident about whether it should close.

Jeremy Wright: My hon. Friend makes a tempting offer. This may be day one for me in the job, but it is not day one of consideration of the issue. If he is patient, I will try to explain the work that has been done, and the reasoning that led us to the decision. I take him back to July when the then Secretary of State announced the closure of HMP Wellingborough. The gap between the prison population and our useable capacity then stood at 3,500 places, which represented the most headroom experienced in the prison estate since early 2011, with more empty prison places than there were before last year’s announcement of the closures of HMP Latchmere House and part of the Hewell cluster, formerly known as HMP Brockhill. It also represented more unused places than were available immediately before the serious public disorder in August 2011, and I remind the House that the prison system coped admirably with the unprecedented prison population growth experienced following those events.

The latest figures demonstrate that that degree of headroom has widened further, with a population of 86,708 on Friday 31 August against a useable capacity of 90,897, a gap of more than 4,100. Throughout this year, the capacity of the prison system will increase further as new accommodation at HMP Oakwood and HMP Thameside, with a total of more than 2,500 places, becomes fully operational. The provision of new accommodation is part of our wider strategy to improve prison conditions, to reduce operating costs, and to ensure that the prison system is able to provide opportunities for prisoners to work and to reduce their risks of further offending. That goes entirely to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough made about capacity within the system. Accordingly, it is clear that the loss of 588 places at HMP Wellingborough will not materially affect the Government’s ability to accommodate all those who are committed to custody by the courts in the foreseeable future.

My hon. Friend made the point that even if a prison closure is necessary, it need not be the prison in his constituency. Indeed, he has previously made similar arguments forcefully. The reason for closing HMP Wellingborough is, as he knows, linked to what happened when the running of that prison was put up for competition by the previous Government. He will recall that the reason for withdrawing HMP Wellingborough from that competition has been known to the House for some time. It was central to the decision on closure, and is summed up in the comments of the then Secretary of State:

“During the preparations for the bid it became apparent that competition could not produce improvements at HMP Wellingborough without significant capital investment to secure its long-term viability. In the current financial climate, this is clearly not a tenable proposition, so I took the decision to remove it from the competition process.” —[Official Report, 31 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 526.]

It has taken longer than we would have hoped to determine the prison’s future, not least because of the significant pressure placed on the prison estate in the aftermath of last year’s public disorder. However, in the intervening period, the continued deterioration of

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the site has only served to make the need for a decision more pressing. They key point is that the cost of running the prison is not solely operational, as there are also costs for repairs and for bringing the prison up to an acceptable standard.

My hon. Friend mentioned that Wellingborough is the third most cost-effective prison in the country, but as ever, it depends on how that is calculated. That statistic relates to the prison’s running costs; it does not take account of the capital costs required to deal with the backlog of improvements that are needed on site. He is right that Wellingborough has an annual budget of £11.6 million for 588 places, which does not compare unfavourably with other prisons of the same type. However, as it was built in the 1960s, the physical fabric has deteriorated over the years.

Mr Bone: I hope that the Minister does not believe everything he is being told. More than half the prison was built in the last 10 years and it is exceptionally modern. The renovations that he mentions are about knocking down and completely rebuilding the old part of the prison. It is not quite as he is explaining it to this Chamber.

Jeremy Wright: In my understanding, it is true that almost half the current prisoner accommodation was built in the last 12 years, but sadly, that accounts for less than 25% of the prison’s overall infrastructure. It is not simply the accommodation that needs bringing up to standard; many other improvements are required and I shall come back to those, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.

My hon. Friend mentioned the figure of £50 million, which is the amount required in a major refurbishment programme. He is right that there is no such thing as an accurate, round number in these matters—if he wants the accurate figure, however, I understand that it is £49.7 million, and I hope he will forgive that being rounded up a little. The prison is increasingly unsafe, with poor services and infrastructure.

The proximity and size of the financial liability has presented prison management with a decision. We could either proceed with the outstanding and necessary refurbishments, which, as I have said, are estimated to cost up to £50 million. That would improve the wings that were not built in the past 12 years—wings A to E—and includes the services infrastructure. That would happen at a time when there is sufficient prisoner accommodation in the rest of the prison estate and many other pressures, as my hon. Friend knows, on the Department’s budget. Alternatively, we could close the prison and use the capital to better effect elsewhere.

Prison closures are only part of the Department’s wider strategy, and we will discuss them at length on another occasion. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept—if not today, at subsequent meetings—that we have looked at this very carefully. I am sorry that I cannot offer him better news this afternoon. I can assure him, however, from what I have been able to determine, that careful consideration has been given to the matter.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): Order. We move on to the next debate.

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Employment and Support Allowance (Blackpool South)

4.43 pm

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I welcome the Minister to his new role.

There is a paradox, in that the reason why many people move to seaside towns—this is not only about those who have lived there all their lives—is to retire, get well, and improve their physical lives but, sadly, illness and physical circumstances do not always permit that. That is the paradox in Blackpool, where the numbers of older people and those with disabilities are larger than average. Many of the disabilities and conditions are fluctuating and transient, and such transience adds to the mental and physical issues that people face.

I want to discuss what my office and I have seen of the experience of claimants who have been transferred from incapacity benefit and other benefits to the new employment and support allowance. In particular, decisions have been made about whether people go into a support group or a work-related activity group. In recent months, we have observed a gradual build-up of people bringing cases to us. There have sometimes been between three to five a week over several months, and as that has happened, I, and people from disability groups across Blackpool, have become more worried.

The concerns have related to the nature of the medical examinations, inaccurate recording and inconsistencies of judgment. Sometimes, they have been about the overall principle of the Atos assessments and what can be described only as a tick-box culture. Only half an hour ago, Advice Link in Blackpool e-mailed me to say that it was giving out advice that the ESA50 form that the claimant receives and the scoring system used by decision makers do not add up. We have seen particular problems with people who have had their Motability taken away.

It is important that I stress the nature of the conditions faced by those who have come to us. Many have chronic illnesses or deep-rooted mental problems, and a number have had degenerative conditions that, by all modern standards, are incurable. I was alarmed and concerned that two or three of the cases involved medical professionals employed by Atos whose methods and judgment we had expressed concerns about three to four years earlier. On that occasion, the Department admitted that they were inadequate.

I want to press the Minister about Atos. Who does it employ? What balance is struck between Atos and the decision maker? Research shows that the majority of decision makers do not feel that they can question much of what has been said. A research summary from the Department for Work and Pensions said:

“Some felt that they still had the ability to reach their own decision over borderline cases”,

but others felt very limited. They

“felt they had been expressly told that they could not make a decision that ran contrary to the Atos advice without securing Atos agreement to do this”,

which they had found that Atos was unwilling or unlikely to supply. What happens when the appeals process takes place, and what happens in the meantime?

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One of my constituents suffers from osteoporosis of the spine, fibromyalgia, spondylosis and partial deafness. Following a medical by Atos last November, her disability living allowance claim was disallowed, which also impacted on her husband’s claim for carer’s allowance. My constituent submitted a request for reconsideration but less than 24 hours later, the decision maker rejected it, confirming the original decision. What capacity did the decision maker have to make a considered judgment on that assessment?

I stress the problems about changes to Motability. The rules now say that the Motability component has been altered, with a movement from six months to four weeks for the removal of a vehicle. That was introduced with scant publicity. I have already referred to the swiftness with which the decision makers rejected my constituent’s request, but the real problem, right across the piece, is the time that appeals now take. My constituent was told that it could be at least six months before her appeal was heard.

Another constituent, Mr L, said that his jobcentre adviser was putting him in touch with his mental health worker, but that the process had been undermined by two consecutive medicals. My constituent says, “The adviser bangs his head on the wall. His hands are tied because of the rules that the DWP are using.”

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): I recognise much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but will he clarify whether he supports the overall principle of reassessing the claims, or is he merely seeking to draw attention to inadequacies in the implementation?

Mr Marsden: I thank my constituency neighbour for that question. I do not think that the two questions are separate. The inadequacy with which some of these issues are treated inevitably casts light on the strength or otherwise of the process. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether I am in favour of disabled people being given every opportunity to expand their capabilities and to work if that is proportionately possible, the answer is an unqualified yes—and that would be the case for most hon. Members—but that issue is not under discussion today.

The Minister also needs to think about the effects on the families and carers of people who are knocked back. One of my constituents, a lone parent of two sons in their teens, one of whom has Asperger’s, was knocked back last month. My constituent says, “Two days before being admitted after a series of operations on my shoulder, I received a letter to inform me of the results of the medical I had to attend with Atos, saying that I was fit for work and that my claim for ESA had ended from yesterday. Both my sons live with me, but my housing benefit will stop because my ESA claim has ended. I don’t want to be claiming benefits. I would rather be back working, but with the pain I am in, I am unable to do that.” I have already mentioned what happens to the income of the carers of partners judged fit for work.

Another claimant who was knocked back, who had had long-term depression, wrote to say, “Is there any way you could possibly have the appeal process speeded up? I have been told it could take up to eight months. I feel so lost and powerless.”

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The stress falls not just on the person with a disability, but on the partner, particularly when, as a number of my constituents have told me, they were discouraged from going to the assessment because of the restrictions of the venue. That is a denial of human rights, as well as, practically, a very silly thing to do.

Another constituent with chronic pain has been through this revolving door and says, “I am now mentally preparing myself for the fact I will have to take my case to a tribunal. I have been without any payment from DWP since April and although my partner has taken on extra duties during the lunch hour, we still cannot meet our outgoings—full-time hours where she works will not be available.” That is the reality of these people’s lives in Blackpool; it is the reality of the work process there.

Ministers and officials needs to address some fundamental questions. Leaving aside the individual inadequacies of the Atos process, what are the jobs for which these people are alleged to be fit? How much will it cost the Government and the taxpayer to support them properly in those jobs and, in particular, given some of the new Government restrictions on working tax credit, will they ever be able to earn from them a living wage? I have already said that I fully support proportionate and fully rounded initiatives to enable such people to use their abilities, and I feel strongly about that, having had a mother disabled by osteoporosis for 25 years. However, there is a balance to be struck.

Yesterday, in my local newspaper, TheBlackpool Gazette,in a piece written by the feature writer Jacqui Morley, the wife of one of the constituents who had come to me, who is a gentleman with a severe degenerative condition akin to motor neurone disease, said that her husband’s former bosses had moved heaven and earth to keep him until he had realised that he was taking more than he was giving. She said that unless the Government were prepared to give disabled people all the support they need—in her husband’s case, certain facilities, personal assistants, and aids and equipment that cost a fortune—this is just a tick-box exercise about integration, not real inclusion. The system also dictates that the man will have to go through the process again in three years’ time to be reassessed on that progressive degenerative condition.

Alan Reid, who manages Disability First, our Blackpool disability information service, has commented that many people in the town who are genuinely in need are being dumped by these assessments. He says, “They come to us desperate and, in some cases, suicidal.”

Some of these concerns were raised during pilots of the process—indeed, disability group representatives in the Blackpool area took part in those pilots—so it is not entirely surprising that some of the problems have come to pass. I strongly stress that there is a sense of waste and people saying, “Working for what?”

The same constituent’s wife who was quoted in the Gazette put her finger on the problem in the letter that she wrote to the decision maker at Jobcentre Plus. When talking about the test, she said that the question should be about to what end people could press a button and use a keyboard and mouse, and whether they could do so at a speed—and without the need for continued support—that would facilitate meaningful input and a financially viable outcome such that their employment could be sustained by an employer. Surely that should be one of the elements considered in the process.

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I have cited all those examples in the context of Blackpool, but the truth, of course, is that this is a country-wide issue. That is why various disability groups, such as the disability benefits consortium, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Parkinson’s UK and Scope, have all raised serious doubts. The DBC has said that the work-capability assessment is poor at identifying disabled people’s needs.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on illustrating very clearly the position in Blackpool South. He is right to say that the situation is replicated across the whole country. Does he feel that when it comes to ESA appeals and the medical evidence that is used, there should be direct contact with the GP and consultant as a matter of course? That is not always the case, but if it happened, there would be better knowledge of the person’s medical condition for the tribunal and the appeal.

Mr Marsden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He leads me to the series of recommendations that the disability benefits consortium makes in that area. They include the fact that evidence is not routinely gathered from the health-care professionals who know the claimant best, such as consultants and nurses; that evidence is often ignored. I accept that that cannot be the sole deciding factor, but it certainly seems ludicrous that it should be excluded entirely. The other side of the coin, as I have mentioned in relation to an individual we had concerns about in Blackpool, is that some of the health-care professionals who carry out the process that we are discussing have limited knowledge of complex or uncommon conditions.

The DBC also discussed the issue of people with long-term degenerative conditions, especially progressive forms of multiple sclerosis, being reassessed far too frequently. Even people in the support group are being reassessed very regularly. Of course, there has been the revelation—this was subject to freedom of information—that more than 1,000 people died shortly after their work capability assessment. That does not take into account the others who died shortly before.

Those mistakes—they are mistakes—must not be replicated when personal independence payments are introduced in 2013. It is no surprise that disability organisations have expressed concern about that. I want to quote just a couple. Mr Ford, chief executive of Parkinson’s UK, has said:

“It is hugely concerning to see that Atos have been given the green light for the Personal Independence Payment contract.”

He says that its assessments

“have led to many people being forced to appeal against decisions that are plainly wrong. How can someone with Parkinson’s—a progressive neurological condition—have an assessment report that implies they will be ready for work again in six, 12 or 18 months?”

Others have written in the same vein.

The concerns in this area have been emphasised by the sheer complacency and smugness—I use the words advisedly—with which Atos has responded in relation to these processes. I received, as no doubt have other hon. Members in the north-west, a very bland letter from its general manager that told me that it had been awarded the contract for the north-west of England. It said:

“Engagement with MPs and the wider stakeholder community was an important element of our successful bid”.

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As far as engagement with MPs is concerned, I am not aware that it ever engaged with me in any way, shape or form whatever. As far as the wider stakeholder community is concerned, it may well have engaged with them. That stakeholder community expressed concerns and reservations, most of which it completely ignored. The British Medical Association has also expressed serious concerns in this area.

Blackpool offers a sample what is going on nationally. It may be a particularly strong sample, for the demographic reasons that I have described, but it is a sample. The comments made in yesterday’s debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and others showed the depth of concern in the House about the process. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) put his finger on it when he talked about “a weird revolving door”: people get assessments, question them and wait ages for an appeal. He said that they

“may or may not win the appeal, but by the time the appeal comes up, they have had another assessment and…they go through”

another

“revolving door”.—[Official Report, 4 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 19WH.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) who, as most Members will know, knows a great deal about such things, not least through her chairmanship of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, said that she did not think that this

“Government have grasped how disastrous the ESA assessment system is…In too many cases, genuine claimants are not scoring any points in their initial assessment. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system and the contract that Atos is delivering.” —[Official Report, 4 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 27-28WH.]

The Minister and his officials could and should take notice of the proposals on the table, not least those from the DBC. They should think about proactively gathering relevant written evidence, about reassessing it only when changes in circumstances are likely and ensure that there is an appropriate assessment venue for the full range of disabled people. Atos decision-makers should be trained in a wide range of conditions and share their reports and observational evidence with claimants. The supreme irony in all of this is that the storm is gathering during the Paralympics. Atos is one of the sponsors of the Paralympics. I will leave others to judge the appropriateness of that, but as Prime Minister’s questions demonstrated today, it is a major issue.

I have already welcomed the Minister to his position. He has come from the Treasury, and is, I am afraid, inheriting this mess. I do not envy him. I urge him to reflect not only on what I have told him about the situation in Blackpool and the individual miseries of the affected constituents who have come to me, but on what so many organisations are telling him. It is rare that Ministers are given the opportunity to have an open mind and open the books—normally, it is only at the beginning of their tenure. I ask him to look at what the RNIB and the DBC have said. I urge him to consider whether the Select Committee on Health and others should not look at the quality of some of the doctors; at empowering decision-markers; and at seriously re-examining the target-based approach, considering a qualitative, not only a quantitative, approach.

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The Minister should be in no doubt that if he does not address the problems, that will be on his head, and on his reputation—the fiasco will indelibly imprint itself on his record. Seventy years ago, the great parliamentarian, Nye Bevan, laid down the principle that Ministers should not allow outsourced officialdom to play with or ruin people’s lives without a source of redress. The buck very much rests with the Minister.

5.2 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr Mark Hoban): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) on securing the debate. I sense that this might not be the last debate that I will have deal with on this matter. I assure him that we are committed to continuously improving the work capability assessment and appeals processes.

Many people with disabilities or health conditions want to work, which is why our reforms distinguish between those who are able to work, those who could work at some point with the right support, and those who cannot work due to health-related problems. The WCA is crucial in ensuring that those people are identified properly. We believe that the principles of the assessment are right, but the system we inherited from the previous Government contains flaws that undermine its effectiveness.

The hon. Gentleman is right: new Governments have an opportunity to make changes. We have made changes. We inherited a flawed system, which we are reforming to ensure that we get it right. We have moved swiftly to put things right, and have worked closely with a wide range of organisations to do so. We are trying to identify where claimants need additional support to prepare for work and ensure that they receive it as part of the ESA work-related activity group.

We have a statutory commitment to review the WCA for the first five years of its implementation. In June 2010, we appointed Professor Malcolm Harrington—a highly respected occupational physician—to undertake independent reviews of the assessment. He has completed two reviews and is currently undertaking the third. Those reviews set out a series of recommendations for improving the assessment. We fully endorsed the recommendations and are committed to making the changes as quickly as possible. For example, we have improved the standards and consistency of decision making through additional training of Atos employees and the better use of evidence. The hon. Gentleman made a point about communicating the findings of assessments to claimants. We have improved the way in which we do that, by providing personalised statements that summarise the key points of the assessment and by ensuring that we implement the customer charter. We have also changed the claims process better to support the claimant at each step of the process and ensure that they understand what is required of them.

We are confident that the improvements we are making to the assessment following the reviews will ensure that we increase the number of decisions that are right first time and improve the service provided to claimants. In addition, we are working with the relevant charities to build an evidence base for changes to the mental function and fluctuating condition descriptors—known as the evidence-based review.

Mr Marsden: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr Hoban: The hon. Gentleman spoke for slightly longer than 15 minutes and raised issues that I want to cover in the time available.

We are consulting on changes to the cancer provisions. Individuals being treated for cancer should be placed in the support group. Professor Harrington recommended increasing the time taken to conduct WCAs, which we have accepted. It should improve the quality of decision-making. We seek to tackle and reduce the backlog that has been generated—indeed, clearance times have improved since January 2012.

The hon. Gentleman asked about training for Atos employees. All health-care professionals are registered with a professional body such as the General Medical Council or the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and must have at least three years post-qualification experience. All the health-care professionals are fully trained in disability assessment. They receive comprehensive training, ranging from eight days for a doctor to 24 days for a physiotherapist, before being approved by the Department’s chief medical adviser. Once approved, all health-care professionals are subject to ongoing quality checks through audit, which the Department itself validates. Approximately 20,000 such checks have taken place this year.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that DWP decision makers were decision makers in name only, and had to follow Atos guidance. Let me be clear: they are decision-makers, and they are able to look at the evidence supplied to them and to make the right decisions. They are empowered to divert from the conclusions that Atos reaches. I hope that that reassures him; it is a proper decision-making process, not a rubber-stamping exercise.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of access to assessment centres. There are 123 permanent assessment locations and an additional 25 sites are used on a casual basis. I understand that 27 of those sites do not have ground-floor assessment rooms. Where Atos identifies individuals who have mobility problems, we try to ensure that such problems are accommodated and we will offer an alternative assessment centre. We are aware of the issue and Atos is working to resolve it.

The Courts and Tribunals Service received over 181,000 appeals in 2011-12. That is a reduction of 8% on the previous year, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not complacent and have introduced various initiatives to reduce that figure further. We will maintain a firm focus on decision making and continue working with the Courts and Tribunals Service to ensure that processes are as efficient as possible where an appeal cannot be avoided. The Department makes millions of social security benefit decisions each year, the majority of which are not appealed.

To give an example, more than 1 million decisions on new employment and support allowance claims were made between October 2008 and May 2011 following the receipt of work capability assessments from Atos.

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Some 258,000 appeals were heard against decisions that the claimant was fit for work, and the tribunal upheld the DWP decision in 161,000 of those cases. That means that only 9% of the 1 million decisions made by the DWP in that period were overturned by the tribunal service, which speaks for itself in terms of our approach to ensuring that we get the best-quality evidence and make the best-quality assessments.

One reason why tribunals overturn decisions is that claimants sometimes present new evidence at the hearing. I would ask colleagues and others to encourage constituents to provide the DWP with such evidence as early as possible, because that would enable us to review and potentially revise earlier decisions, and to provide the claimant with the correct level of benefit sooner. We want claimants to provide evidence from their GP or consultant as early as possible, rather than wait for an appeal. We proactively seek evidence from GPs, but they sometimes do not respond to such requests, and medical professionals who are entrusted with the care of claimants also have responsibilities in that area.

We are trying to introduce, from 2013, a mandatory reconsideration process for social security benefits, which will be extended to remaining benefits, including ESA, at a later date. The new process will help to improve outcomes. It will allow the DWP to provide a full explanation of decisions with which claimants disagree, encourage claimants to identify and provide any additional evidence that may affect decisions and enable the DWP to review and, if appropriate, revise decisions. However, if claimants still disagree with the amount of benefit in payment, they can appeal to the tribunal. We are trying to beef up that reconsideration process to avoid the need for people to go to a tribunal, because we recognise the time that that takes. We are also trying to work closely with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to improve feedback from tribunals to understand better why decisions are overturned, which will help us to make further improvements to decision making.

I am conscious that time is running out. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we inherited quite a poor situation from the previous Government. The issues are difficult to resolve, but we are making progress, which is why we have asked Professor Harrington to undertake reviews—two are complete and he is now doing a third. Our approach is to make continuous improvements to the process to get the right outcomes for claimants, ensuring that those who can work receive the support that they need to get back into work and that those who are unable to work receive the support that they need through the welfare system. We are committed to making improvements. That is the path on which my predecessor set out and which I will continue to follow.

5.13 pm

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