“The Secretary of State has the levers of power in this question and he must pull them—he must exercise them”.—[Official Report, 22 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 188WH.]

That is what we expect. We do not want the question shuffled off to a panel of experts, with automatic acceptance of what they say. Different experts come up with different decisions.

Time is pressing. In Leeds we have a centre of excellence. It deserves our support, and already has the support of those we represent. I am sure that the Minister and the Secretary of State would not want to be responsible for destroying it.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): If the final three hon. Members who want to speak in the debate take five minutes, they will all get in.

3.23 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing this important debate. He has been a champion of the children’s heart unit in Leeds, and I know that the staff, and, most importantly, the young patients, appreciate all that he does to lead the campaign in Westminster to save it from closure. It is a testament to the campaign that so many hon. Members from across the House are here to support it.

The debate over the Safe and Sustainable review has been going on for months. At each stage I have openly supported the need for the review. We must always strive to improve clinical standards in the health service. That is right; and it is right that the responsibility for treating children’s heart problems should be transferred to units that can offer the outstanding treatment that all affected children and their families deserve. The families of those children would not want anything else. I am a parent and understand it completely. Indeed, my support for the Leeds children’s heart unit is based not simply on close geographical links to my constituency or the wider region that it serves; it is based on the fact that the unit offers superb clinical outcomes for young patients. Indeed, as other hon. Members have mentioned, it scores higher on the JCPCT’s core clinical standards than the preferred option for the north-east. Core clinical standards should be combined with core statistics from the local area, too. More than 600,000 people have

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signed a local petition demanding that the Leeds unit should remain open. Leeds serves a population of 5.5 million, and 14 million are within two hours of the city. That is a catchment area far larger than those of other units.

Throughout the saga, I have been reluctant to compare the Leeds unit directly with others, particularly Newcastle.

3.25 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.40 pm

On resuming—

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. Mr Sturdy has about three minutes remaining.

Julian Sturdy: Thank you, Mr Hollobone. As I was saying, throughout this saga I have been reluctant to compare the Leeds unit directly with others, in particular Newcastle’s. My intention is not to criticise the Newcastle unit, which has also carried out great work, saving many young lives over a number of years. Rather, my belief continues to be that the Leeds unit has always had the strengths to merit its survival without such comparisons. Put simply, its own case is strong enough. That is my message to the Minister today, and it was also put eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey.

The single biggest failing in the consultation has been the flawed decision-making process of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, from the lack of weight given to transport and travel times, and the population that centres such as Leeds serve, to the true co-location of services. There has also been a lack of clarity over the terms of the review, and the failure of the JCPCT to release the information and evidence behind its decision is only adding to the controversy and suspicion. Without being able to break down the scores awarded to each children’s heart surgery unit by Professor Sir Ian Kennedy’s assessment panel, the decision-making process lacks basic transparency and scrutiny.

Throughout York there exists huge public interest in this ongoing and disruptive issue. I am particularly concerned for the families of affected children in York who now face the problem of having to travel to other areas for treatment—I stress “other areas”. The Minister must be under no illusion that the families and children displaced to Newcastle if Leeds closes will not automatically head north. They will disperse to centres throughout the country, and we must not lose sight of that.

In conclusion, the Save our Surgery campaign has suggested a balanced solution to the current dispute, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. It suggests that the decision should be implemented in full throughout the country, but delayed in the north-east until April 2014. That window of opportunity could then be used to clarify the figures and findings of the JCPCT, allowing both affected units to demonstrate their capacity and capability on a level playing field.

I am delighted that since the election, the Government have worked to make health services more representative and more responsive to local people. I urge the Minister

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to continue that fine work by listening to the concerns of patients and residents in Yorkshire and taking on board and responding positively to the Save our Surgery campaign to save the children’s heart surgery unit in Leeds from an unjust and ill-informed closure.

3.43 pm

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I add my thanks and compliments to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and all hon. Members who have engaged in this debate. The brevity of my thanks and congratulations in no way reflects my sincerity.

I want to make a brief point about where I believe responsibility for the decision lies. The Health and Social Care Act 2012 contains a contentious element concerning the Secretary of State. The contentious Bill was debated at length in the Lords, and in the Commons, but it remains within the legislation that the Secretary of State retains ministerial responsibility to Parliament for the provision of the health service in England. That is where I believe responsibility for the final decision should lie.

I turn to local circumstances. Most people will be aware that Bradford has the fastest-growing young population outside London. It has grown by 25% during the past 10 years. The issue is not simply the large number of young people in the area, but the incidence of the ailments that must be dealt with. As was said, 23% of Leeds cardiac surgery patients are south Asian, which is 6% of the population in the catchment area as a whole, but 23% are children on cardiac wards. Many come from Bradford and south Leeds—about 90 a year, and the number is increasing. Proportionately, those children have far more complex bowel deformities and facial deformities such as cleft lip and palate, and can be treated under one roof—that is the key—only at Leeds children’s hospital.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) is not here. That is not surprising but it is a shame because two of the constituencies in Bradford are in the top 3% in terms of deprivation and unemployment in the country. Bradford is generally a community that is less well off than average, and people would face particular difficulties in having to travel more than 100 miles further, not only because of the cost of travel and accommodation, but because of lost income from having to be away from work to be with their children. Bearing in mind what I said about incidence, it does not make sense to move the children’s heart surgery unit away from the community that is statistically more likely to need it.

Finally, much has been said about the flawed process in the analysis, but I want to talk about the flawed process of the consultation. The review did not have any translated documentation. Of the families attending the unit, 23% speak Urdu at home. Translated copies were requested, and a small number finally arrived, but they arrived three months after the consultation had started. The translation was largely unreadable in Urdu because italics were used for quotes. The Safe and Sustainable review tried to rectify that by holding separate events for black and minority ethnic participants, but they were told that that community would not travel to Newcastle. They were clearly given that strong message. The community indicated that to the review team, and it

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was shown clearly in the PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis and in a Mott MacDonald study, which stated that children from that community would be worse off and would not travel north.

The message has been consistently clear. Unfortunately, there has been an unwillingness to listen to that message, and I hope the Minister has taken it on board now. The community has largely been ignored in the process, and that shows that the process outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and others was flawed not only in its methodology, but in the consultation exercise.

3.47 pm

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing this debate and providing very effective team leadership that has crossed parties and brought us all together in support of this unit. Teams need leaders, and he has been a very effective one.

I am aware of the time, but I want to say a few words. I welcome the decision to have an independent review of the Safe and Sustainable process. I do not think it was wrong; it was right in principle, and none of us would want a repeat of the Bristol scandal, but the highly unexpected decision surprised and disappointed me. I did not expect the Leeds unit to be rejected in favour of Newcastle.

Colleagues have explored some of the arguments, and my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey detailed the excellent clinical standards in Leeds, and compared them with those of Newcastle. This is not a Leeds versus Newcastle fight. We must focus on the process and recognise that both units have merit, and both have patients with heart-rending stories. We need to look at how we take this forward to deliver the best for patients. In Leeds, we have a unit that offers excellence. The question in the review is about location, and in my opinion, that is where the Leeds unit should have scored particularly highly. It is also where the independent review needs to focus.

Colleagues have mentioned the 5.5 million people in our area, and compared that number with the numbers in the north-east, but transport links are also an issue. Leeds has good transport links, not only from north to south, but from east to west, and the key point is that the review proposed that 100% of people in the Harrogate postcode should now travel north to Newcastle. It assumes that everybody will do that, but I want to share with colleagues that the feedback from those in the Harrogate and Knaresborough postcodes—I acknowledge that that area stretches beyond the Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency—is that that is nonsense. It is absolutely ridiculous; they simply will not do it. Bear in mind that the geography suggests that if anybody is going to do it, it should be those in the Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency, because we are already 15 to 20 miles north of Leeds, and therefore 15 to 20 miles nearer Newcastle.

The impact of population numbers, and travel times and patterns, simply needs far more weight in the review. I want to see the Leeds unit continue its excellent work, serving the people of Yorkshire and beyond, but as we take the review forward, correct weighting needs to be

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given to the important factors of travel time and population numbers. I hope that the Minister hears that point today, and that we do not start viewing this as a Leeds versus Newcastle contest. We should explore the opportunities for co-location and for a child-driven service.

3.51 pm

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing the debate, and on the way in which he and other Members across the House have put their case. The issues surrounding Leeds children’s heart surgery unit are important and certainly merit our debate. I also take the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) that a wider debate on the Floor of the House may be warranted.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the dedicated NHS staff who work in children’s heart services, both in Leeds and across the country. We are all incredibly grateful for the tremendous job that they do, more often than not in complex, difficult circumstances.

Clinicians and professional bodies, including the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, have been clear that children’s heart services need to change. Surgeons are too thinly spread, and services have grown in an ad hoc manner in England, which, to be fair, the hon. Member for Pudsey recognised in his opening speech. Changing how we provide any hospital service is difficult, but when changes are necessary to improve patient care, as they may be for children’s heart services, politicians on both sides of the House should be prepared to listen to that argument and, if necessary, support it.

I know, however, that there have been real concerns and a great deal of protest in the communities surrounding the unit at Leeds general infirmary, particularly about the plans to close it. A motion of support from Leeds city council has been supported by people from across the political spectrum in the city. There has also been a large protest in Millennium square in Leeds, where, I am informed, over 3,000 protestors were joined by local MPs, parents and nurses to campaign to prevent the closure.

As we have heard today, there are similar concerns about plans to close the Glenfield hospital in Leicester, and the Royal Brompton in Chelsea, west London. That could mean that in future, children’s heart surgery would remain at the London children’s hospitals, and in Southampton, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle and Liverpool. Although the Opposition support the principle of fewer, more specialist centres, we have concerns about the location of the selected sites, which would leave a huge swathe of the east of England, from Newcastle right down to London, potentially without a centre.

As we have heard, the unit based at Leeds general infirmary serves the 5.5 million residents of Yorkshire and the Humber, and performs 360 operations a year, done by three surgeons. We have heard, too, that there are concerns that the closure of the unit will leave millions of people in the region without local access to the children’s heart surgery expertise that currently exists in Yorkshire and the Humber at Leeds. The local Save Our Surgery campaign group, under the Children’s

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Heart Surgery Fund, believes that families from Yorkshire, north Lincoln and the wider Humber region may have to travel up to 150 miles for treatment at the nearest unit in Newcastle or Liverpool, if the closure goes ahead.

As an aside, I was privileged to visit the hospital in Hull, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), as part of my duties as a shadow Health Minister. It took me an hour and a half to get from Manchester to Hull to visit the hospital. However, because there was a slight flurry of snow on the way back, the M62 ground to a halt, and it took me over five hours to get back over the Pennines to Manchester. I have never seen so many Lancastrians trying to desert Yorkshire at the same time as me, but it shows that geography matters in such decisions. We cannot ignore the fact that the Pennines are there, and sometimes they are impenetrable.

Clearly, there is concern that families may be faced with having to travel further at what is undeniably a very stressful time for them. That case has been made eloquently by Members on both sides of the House in the debate. It is also worth remembering that it is not only the care of poorly children that needs to be taken into account; the care of the whole family is important.

I ask the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, whether she was satisfied that the NHS joint committee of primary care trusts properly balanced clinical decisions with practical and transport issues for families. Furthermore, does she believe that the review was fair to families in the eastern half of England, which is now left with no centre between Newcastle and London? As we know, the JCPCT came to the decision in July to close the unit. The SOS campaign group launched legal proceedings against the NHS to stop the unit being closed, submitting an application to the High Court for permission for a judicial review. Last week, as we have heard, the Health Secretary asked the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to review the decision to close three centres.

We know that children’s heart surgery matters greatly to many people. However, as we also know, the issues surrounding children’s heart surgery have needed to be resolved for some time. The findings of the Bristol Royal infirmary inquiry into children’s heart surgery 10 years ago highlighted that between 1990 and 1995, a number of children died at the infirmary as a result of poor care. It is clear that children’s heart surgery has become an increasingly complex treatment. The aim must be for children’s heart services to deliver the very highest standard of care. The NHS should use its skills and resources collectively to gain the best outcomes for patients. The Government rightly want changes to children’s heart surgery services, so that they provide not only safe standards of care, but excellent, high quality standards for every child in every part of the country.

Fabian Hamilton: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not only the continuum of children’s heart services and the care of parents and other family members that is important? The treatment should continue beyond 16, if it has to. There needs to be an overview of pre- and post-16 services; they should be taken together, because that is how we ensure that the young person, who becomes an adult, survives and lives the rest of their life.

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Andrew Gwynne: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. He makes the point that I was about to come on to. We want that for children’s heart services. It cannot be good enough to say that it is possible to move a service; we want to know whether it is desirable to do so, in order to get the very best outcomes. He makes the point that if we are to have a specialist centre for adults, we should remember that it is often the same surgeons who deal with children, and rather than losing that, it is better to have one specialist centre for all.

It is proposed that the number of cardiac centres in England be reduced from 11 to seven, and it follows that they will all be working at full capacity, so can the Minister ensure that in the event of a superbug outbreak like the one in the Belfast neonatal unit this year; a fire like the one in the Birmingham hospital in 2010, or the one in Leicester in 2011; or any other unforeseen incident occurring in one of the cardiac units, the other six will be able to cope with the pressure without endangering the lives of the critically ill children and babies in their care?

As I have previously said, I welcome the recent decision by the Health Secretary to have a review of the decision to close the children’s heart surgery unit at Leeds general infirmary. It is important that there be a full review, and that the right decision be made, with full consideration of all the facts. I echo the concerns raised by other hon. Members on that point. Many campaigners are concerned that the review by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel will simply repeat a process that was seen as flawed the first time round. What steps will the Minister take to reassure the campaigners in Leeds that it will be a full and comprehensive review? As I have said before, it is not good enough just to close one service and move it to a different part of the country. We must ensure that any potential decisions take full account of the facts, and that any moving of a service will result in a clear and demonstrable improvement in the outcomes for children’s cardiac services.

4.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry): Here we are again. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is about a week since we had a very similar debate, also under your chairmanship. That has already been described by my right hon. Friend—sorry, I always call my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) the right hon. Member for Pudsey. [Hon. Members: “Soon!”] Perhaps I am trying to elevate him too soon, but as he has explained, we had a similar debate only last week about the situation at Glenfield. I join everyone else in paying tribute to him for securing this debate.

I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have spoken, of whatever party. In many ways, this has not actually been a debate, because normally in a debate there is a degree of disagreement and people put forward their arguments for or against a particular motion or notion, but that has not been the case in this debate. Here, we have had an outbreak of complete unity, which I acknowledge, between all political parties. It is right and proper that, on this matter, people come together, are not divided by political party and are determined not to score any form of party political point in making their argument. All hon. Members have come to this debate for the right reasons. They have come to represent

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their constituents and to put forward all the arguments that they can on behalf of their constituents and with full force. That is absolutely right and as it should be, but I want to make this point as well, and not because I am any form of coward—after all, I spent 16 years defending, largely, the indefensible.

I have to say that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) was treading somewhat on my good humour with some of his remarks when he was asking me for my opinion because, as we all know, this whole review has taken great pride in the fact that it has been an independent review—independent of Government. It was set up, quite properly, by the last Government, on a cross-party basis, and it was on the basis that we needed fewer but larger and more specialised children’s heart services in England. It was accepted—I say this with great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers)—that that was the basis of it all and that it was being done so that we could secure the best children’s heart services for babies and young children that we could possibly obtain, and so that we could ensure that those services were sustainable. We wanted to concentrate the specialist heart surgeons in a smaller number of centres to ensure that they had the best skills for dealing with babies and young children.

At the end of the day, we are talking about arguably some of the most specialised surgery that exists. There are instances in which surgeons are operating on a baby’s heart that is no bigger than a walnut. As I say, it is perhaps the most specialised and the most precarious of all types of surgery, so their skills have to be the best. It is also the case that if we have fewer, but larger, more specialised units, we can ensure that those surgeons, those doctors, those nurses and the other health professionals are training the future surgeons, doctors, nurses and other health professionals to do this very important and highly specialised work.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey. As we would all have expected, he advanced a thoughtful, well researched and sound set of arguments on behalf of his constituents. He gave the examples of Lauren, Libby and Abi. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) also spoke with considerable feeling about what his constituents had told him. That is only right and proper. I am sure that all those constituents will welcome the comments of their Members of Parliament in advancing their arguments for keeping their children’s heart surgery unit open. It is quite clear from the various interventions that this has all-party support. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and my hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). As I said, people are coming together, whatever political differences they might otherwise have, in agreement and in support of children’s heart surgery at Leeds general infirmary.

A number of matters strike me from the speeches that have been made. In addressing some of the remarks made and arguments advanced by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, I shall try to give a response that perhaps allays some fears and certainly answers some questions.

Fabian Hamilton: I am sorry to intervene when the Minister is about to give those responses, but she said that the review, quite rightly, was independent; it was set

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up by the previous Government to be independent of Government. I think that the prevailing view this afternoon is that it was not impartial. Will she comment on that?

Anna Soubry: I will not comment on that, quite deliberately, because it is imperative that I am seen and, indeed, fellow Ministers are seen to be completely independent and impartial ourselves. Of course, that does not prevent hon. Members from making their own judgments and vocalising them, and there may be merit in them, but it is not for me to say whether there is, because, as hon. Members know, this has all been referred to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel—that is right and proper, in my view—and it will look at all aspects of how these decisions have been made. It will take evidence not just from the NHS, clinicians and local authorities, but from Members of Parliament. I am in no doubt that all hon. Members who are here today will make their own representations to the IRP on behalf of the children’s heart services at Leeds general infirmary and will make them with the force with which they have made them today and on the basis of as much information, sound evidence and argument as they have shown us here today.

Julian Smith Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry: I was going to try to move on to some of the issues, but I will happily give way.

Julian Smith: I thank the Minister for giving way. Can she confirm that the panel will include some people who are actually living in the north? What is the make-up of the panel?

Anna Soubry: I shall be absolutely blunt: I cannot answer that question. I took a strong view some time ago that if I did not know the answer to a question, I would say so. However, I am more than happy to write to my hon. Friend and answer his question as much as I can.

Travelling times were mentioned by a number of hon. Members. I was going to go through all those who mentioned them, but I may not have time to do so. I shall just make this point. Of course, it is surgery that it is proposed will be lost from Leeds and will go to Newcastle. It is very important that all hon. Members, when they communicate to their constituents about this debate, make the point that the plan is that the surgery will take place in Newcastle, but all the follow-up, all the support and all the other things that we might imagine are involved when a baby or a small child has surgery will continue to be provided at Leeds. It is not the case that the whole thing will move up to Newcastle; it is simply the surgery. I just put that into the pot because the point was made about travelling times. Of course, it is for others to say, but it may be that they take the view that those were very good points that hon. Members advanced in the debate today.

The hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) asked specifically about the JCPCT’s refusal, or otherwise, to disclose information. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) spoke with passion, as ever, and commented on that, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and other hon. Members. It is for the JCPCT to decide what information should be disclosed,

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in accordance with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. I am told that the Yorkshire overview and scrutiny committee has indicated its intention to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner, which is the established recourse laid down by legislation. I am afraid that it is not for Ministers to order the JCPCT to disclose information to the OSC in Yorkshire or any of the other local authorities involved. The various authorities are open to make applications under the Freedom of Information Act. I hope that answer deals with that point.

The powerful arguments the hon. Member for Leeds East put forward were largely based on population figures. I have already alluded to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes. In large part, my hon. Friend and I disagree on the basis of the review. He said that different experts have different views, but I have to tell him that we have seen an outbreak of unity on this issue among many of the royal colleges, experts and leading clinicians in the field, who welcomed the decision of the JCPCT.

Martin Vickers: We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West that experts in Scotland disagree, so there is clearly some basis for doubt.

Anna Soubry: I am grateful for that contribution, but I know that when the JCPCT’s decision was announced, it was universally welcomed by many of the clinicians who have been involved in such specialised surgery, certainly throughout England, but I cannot comment on the views of those north of the border.

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I have a short time left to speak. The Independent Reconfiguration Panel is just that—an independent reconfiguration panel. I can provide details to those who need to know its composition. It comprises independent experts, and Members can be assured that they will conduct a full and independent review. As I said, they will take evidence from NHS organisations, local authorities and local MPs. It is hoped that their deliberations will conclude at the end of February. It will then be for the Secretary of State to receive the findings and recommendations and to decide whether to act on them. There is a concern that there may be some delay due to a legal challenge.

In last Monday’s debate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey made a helpful intervention, to which I responded that if any local authorities in Yorkshire are minded through their OCSs to refer the matter to the IRP, they should get on and do it. I want to put that into the pot, because the one thing that nobody wants is any more delay.

This debate began back in the 1990s, and hon. Members talked about what happened in Bristol. It was determined then that we needed to ensure that our babies and young children had the finest specialised heart surgery services possible, which is why it has been a long process. It is difficult and painful, but the Safe and Sustainable review was set up on the basis that there would be a reduction in the number of units. No one wants to set one hospital against another, and I pay tribute to everyone who has avoided doing so, but unfortunately sometimes tough decisions have to be made. It is always important to remind ourselves that they are made for the very best reason, which is to ensure that our babies and young people are safe and get the very best service.

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Court-appointed Deputies

4.14 pm

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I applied for a debate on this subject to raise the case of one of my constituents, who, for today’s purposes, I will call Mr Able. He has seemingly exhausted every official regulatory channel available, without anyone taking responsibility for remedying what has happened to him. Although cases of his kind may be in a minority, I want to illustrate how easily a vulnerable adult has been appallingly failed through poor communication and a lack of scrutiny in the system of court-appointed deputies and in the Office of the Public Guardian.

In 1997, my constituent was awarded a not insubstantial sum following a road traffic accident in which he was injured. He was assessed as being affected by learning difficulties and additional cognitive impairment following the collision. The following year, the Public Trustee was appointed his receiver—the role now known as that of the deputy—and in 2001 that role passed to a firm of solicitors. They failed not only to protect his existing funds, but to secure and maximise his income. Over the nine years that followed, Mr Able’s award was virtually wiped out, and the local authority has been looking after his deputyship since 2010.

It is clear that the eventual decision to replace his court-appointed deputy with Wiltshire council is the best thing that has happened to Mr Able during my involvement in his case. Before that, inadequate sharing of information across agencies about my constituent’s actions and circumstances led to a large proportion of his capital being eaten up by solicitors’ fees, and to him not receiving the benefits to which he was entitled.

Nearly £33,000 was spent on the cost of his court-appointed deputy, but despite the hefty price tag, the deputy was not able to prevent a further £13,500 being spent on a different firm of lawyers’ pursuit of a speculative unfair dismissal case, which adds up to more than £46,000. That firm predicted that Mr Able could secure between £20,000 and £36,000 in damages, but won him less than a tenth of that, leaving him substantially out of pocket and his deputy trying in vain to get those lawyers’ costs below £13,000. How can the system conclude that it is in the best interests of a vulnerable adult, with no other means, to run up such fees? How could the situation have gone so far with no one in authority suggesting that it was in any way exploitative?

The Court of Protection has a panel of people who can be appointed deputies. My constituent’s case suggests that those considered for appointment are not suitably equipped to serve some of the clients assigned to them. It also suggests a disturbing degree of laxity in how some individuals become deputies. Mr Able’s deputy for much of the period had no links to the panel of deputies. To all intents and purposes, he had inherited his case from a deceased colleague. The level of vagueness that my staff and I encountered when trying to clarify exactly what happened in that period, and how the application process to find Mr Able a new deputy was managed, was disturbing.

I understand from the Office of the Public Guardian that a review has been undertaken of the panel of deputies, one of the aims of which was to introduce

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clearer procedures on how individuals become and remain panel members. I would appreciate the Minister’s assessment of how that exercise has gone, and how it has treated the question of whether solicitors are, in all circumstances, suitable for appointment by the court as deputies.

Mr Able has gained access to the support he needs only through a patient and conscientious local authority team, to whom he pays nothing comparable to the solicitors’ fees I outlined. However, that support was secured only when he was approaching the point of crisis, and after his money—the management of which was his deputy’s task—had been almost entirely depleted.

It seems that at that and too many other points in this case, Mr Able’s behaviour and capacity have been cited as a reason why certain things did or did not happen, and have been used to explain and justify action, or inaction, by those who were supposed to have his best interests at heart. That is not acceptable. If professional court-appointed deputies are unable to work with their clients’ behaviour, they are probably not the right people to do the job. If that is what happened in this case, they should have said so. Instead, they were just happy to take his money for the time and the attention that he demanded of them.

There is a related point about scrutiny and who monitors whether deputies are undertaking their duties effectively. The Court of Protection visitor had decided to stop visiting Mr Able back in April 2003. Mr Able did not receive another visit until January 2011.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Would this gentleman’s circumstances have been different if the court had recognised early on that he did not have the capacity to look after himself, and if someone suitable had been appointed from an organisation that looks after people with disabilities? Does responsibility for what took place lie with the court or the solicitor?

Duncan Hames: That is the astonishing thing about this case. The court made an assessment, in which it determined that Mr Able was not capable of managing his own finances. The things that we are led to believe the system considered Mr Able capable of doing, in terms of looking after his best interests and challenging what was happening to him, is extraordinary given that original assessment. I certainly agree that part of the problem is that inconsistency in what he was expected to be able to do, given the decision that the court had already made about his ability to manage his finances. That does not absolve the court-appointed deputy of the responsibility of saying that in the circumstances they were not the best people to serve him.

Mr Able did not receive a visit from the Court of Protection visitor again until January 2011. Even a change of deputy in 2005 was not considered an appropriate trigger for a visit, despite the fact that it took a year for Mr Able’s deputy’s replacement to be confirmed. As part of the oversight process to protect people who lack capacity, visitors can be commissioned to make reports by either the Court of Protection or the Office of the Public Guardian. I contend that not having Mr Able visited at any time in eight years demonstrates a terrible sense of complacency among those who were meant to be looking after his best interests.

In this case, my constituent was removed from the list of people to be visited for the “time being” on the grounds that regular visits would not “achieve anything”.

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However, a court visitor was engaged on Mr Able’s case when the deputy applied to be discharged, and produced a report in 2009, which seems to have been compiled without the visitor even meeting Mr Able. In such cases, the system seems to serve the needs of the deputies rather more than those of their clients. I wonder how well the criteria for how deputies manage their clients’ money are set and monitored, especially clients in Mr Able’s position, given the view that had been taken about his capability. I would welcome the Minister’s opinion on whether the system of visits is in need of review to help improve the situation for people in similar circumstances.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am interested to hear my hon. Friend say that a review is required. Does he agree that there is perhaps a need for a fundamental review of the entire system? I have come across a case of a court-appointed deputy, a solicitor, who made a misleading statement to the Court of Protection, gave incorrect information to agencies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, appointed inappropriate case managers who did not have the required expertise, paid bills against invoices without first checking that the invoices were valid, and took an enormous fee in the process. I must declare an interest, because my wife was recently appointed court deputy in place of the solicitor and is, of course, saving the client a fortune in fees. Does he agree that the system has basically not performed adequately at all, and needs fundamental review?

Duncan Hames: I do agree. I hope that the Minister will conclude—if not today, then before long—that a thorough review of the situation is required. I raised this case because it is illustrative of many others. As I shall explain, one of the things about this case that has frustrated me immensely is the lack of accountability for what is happening. In any situation, there will be people whose conduct is not up to the standard that we would hope for. There may even be people who exploit a situation. If there is sufficient accountability in a system, we have some safeguards. I am not convinced that there is such accountability in this case.

Mr Bacon: Does my hon. Friend agree that one possible way forward is to increase the powers of the Public Guardian, whom I met quite recently and found to be an extremely reasonable individual? He said that one of the issues is that his current statutory powers are limited. Is one way forward to increase the scope of what the Public Guardian can do?

Duncan Hames: I understand that we have a relatively new Public Guardian. I hope that he will be rather more concerned about this situation than his predecessor appeared to be, given the report that I received when I made this investigation. Perhaps that is something that we will hear more about from the Minister.

I have been pursuing this case, with the help of my staff, since before my election in 2010. I have taken every available route, up to and including the parliamentary ombudsman, to get the full facts and to bring scrutiny to bear on the individuals and agencies involved. Frustratingly, after all the reviews and oversight processes that have been triggered at every level, none has found

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any individual at fault, and that is despite the evident general failure to ensure my constituent’s financial well-being. Indeed when I requested that the parliamentary ombudsman investigate this case, I received a thoughtless parroting of the Public Guardian’s own review, which had been conducted at my request and completed in January last year. It added no value to the scrutiny of the situation, and I find that completely unsatisfactory.

There was consensus among professionals that Mr Able did not have the capacity to manage his finances, so it cannot be suggested that the outcome—the depletion and, in some cases, wasting of his money—was his fault, or something for which he can be held to account; that is the very point of deputies acting on his behalf. None the less, the result, effectively, is that a vulnerable man has been left more or less penniless by the inaction of those who were meant to protect him, and the regulatory reaction has been tacit indifference. For example, on the costs that my constituent was charged by his deputy, the Office of the Public Guardian’s internal review said that it found no evidence that Mr Able was ever formally told by his deputy, or anyone else, that he was entitled to challenge the assessment of his costs by the Senior Court Costs Office.

Similarly, I look at the failure to secure Mr Able’s income through benefits to which he was entitled. The Public Guardian considers that his deputy “made reasonable attempts”' to do that, but that these did not always succeed, and that

“with hindsight, different approaches should have been tried.”

More than a third of the personal capital that Mr Able possessed when control of his financial affairs was passed to court-appointed solicitors was subsequently paid to those solicitors as fees for the job of controlling his expenditure, yet they did not even ensure that he received appropriate benefits when he was unemployed. The Public Guardian, however, does not consider that Mr Able’s deputy was at fault for not providing him with the support to ensure that he attended the right appointments, was able to cope with benefits-related interviews and assessments, and continued to sign on.

However, now that Wiltshire council acts as Mr Able’s deputy, he has qualified for employment and support allowance, and he receives support that addresses his needs appropriately, including the use of reports from medical staff and social workers when applications are made. If the council can achieve that, surely—given the expense that Mr Able was forced to incur—his court-appointed deputy should have been able to achieve it, too.

No review of the case has concluded that any agency has done something wrong, and no lessons have been learned. Although this case may be unique, as we have heard today, the failings exposed by it are certainly not unique. I draw the Minister’s attention to the Westminster Hall debate secured by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on 19 July 2011, in which I participated, and to the transcript of BBC Radio 4’s “File on 4” report on court-appointed deputies by Fran Abrams—I gave the Minister a copy today—which catalogues failings similar to those I describe.

I ask the Minister what other avenue is available in seeking redress for my constituent. I recognise that she is new in her post, so I ask that she personally looks further into the wider issues discussed today, and raises

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them with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. In particular, I ask her to consider whether the panel from which deputies appointed by the court are drawn is too narrow, and whether it could include, for certain cases, representatives of voluntary sector organisations, especially those with experience of dealing with the sometimes complex circumstances of vulnerable people. My final question is this: is the OPG, as currently constituted, fulfilling its responsibilities to vulnerable people, or has it been captured by the learned and organised legal practitioners who collectively draw such great revenue from this work?

Exasperated as I am to see my constituent suffer this unremedied injustice, it is imperative that—at the very least—lessons are learned from his saga, so that others do not face the same fate in future.

4.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant): It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) on securing this debate. I know that he has a keen interest in these matters, and I am glad to have the opportunity to speak about the work of the Office of the Public Guardian and in particular the Public Guardian’s role in supervising deputies appointed by the Court of Protection. This is a vital and complex area of work, and people who have lost capacity are often very vulnerable indeed. It is absolutely right and proper that we consider whether the arrangements that are in place to support and protect them are completely acceptable and operating as well as possible.

My hon. Friend raised issues that centre on the role of deputies appointed by the Court of Protection and then supervised by the OPG. It would be helpful if I outlined how the system of deputyship currently operates, before describing how the OPG is considering, through a fundamental review, some of the wider issues raised about deputies and how they are supervised.

The decision whether a deputy is required, and who the proper person is to take on that role, is entirely a judicial matter. The court will only appoint a deputy when the person concerned lacks capacity to make the relevant decisions and if no legal arrangement had been made while they still had capacity. In the case of financial matters, if there are assets that require management frequently the only option is to appoint a deputy.

Once a deputy is appointed, they must always act in the best interests of the person for whom they have been appointed. They must also ensure that the individual concerned is supported to make as many decisions for themselves as they can. Where the deputy has to make decisions on the person’s behalf, they must still ensure that the person concerned is involved in the process as much as possible. That is especially important in cases where a person may lack capacity to make some decisions but not others, or where their level of capacity can fluctuate or vary over time. These factors make the role of deputy a challenging one and the balance between allowing a person to make decisions for themselves and having to make a decision for them is often a fine one.

When a deputy needs to be appointed, they will often be a family member or close friend of the person

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lacking capacity. Normally, the court will consider appointing a professional deputy only in circumstances where there is no one else suitable and able to act. It may be that the person lacking capacity has no close family or friends, or it may be that a conflict of interest exists within the family, or that the size and complexity of the estate mean that a professional deputy is better placed to act on their behalf. Such professional deputies are entitled to charge fees and in complex cases these costs can be very high. However, the costs must be representative of the work done by the deputy. The costs charged by professional deputies are set out in a practice direction issued by the president of the Court of Protection. If a deputy wishes to claim over and above the fixed costs, their claim must be assessed and approved by the senior court costs office.

Once a deputy has been appointed by the Court of Protection, the Public Guardian is responsible for supervising them to ensure that they carry out their duties properly and act in the best interests of the person they are representing. This is a statutory duty placed upon the Public Guardian by the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and it is entirely right that, where the state has had to intervene to appoint an individual to make decisions on another person’s behalf, that individual is subject to adequate but proportionate oversight.

However, the Public Guardian does not have any role in directly managing the affairs of a person who lacks capacity. Their role is entirely to supervise and investigate. It is not within their jurisdiction to remove a deputy once they are appointed or to place limits on how the deputy exercises their powers. If the Public Guardian believes that a deputy is unable to fulfil their role or functions effectively, they may make an application to the Court of Protection seeking the deputy’s replacement or seeking to have limits placed on their powers.

In most cases, the Public Guardian will require the deputy to report to them on at least an annual basis. In the early stages of appointment, there may also be additional contact from the Public Guardian’s office to ensure the deputy is carrying out their duties properly and to identify any need for additional support. In certain cases, that may also involve a visit from an independent Court of Protection visitor who will report their findings to the Public Guardian. My hon. Friend may be pleased to know that almost 6,500 such visits took place last year.

I now turn to the work that is currently going on at the OPG as part of the Ministry of Justice’s “Transforming Justice” agenda. This work is being taken forward under Alan Eccles, who was appointed earlier this year as the new Public Guardian. The OPG is currently taking forward a major transformation programme that is designed to move its services on to a digital platform, to reduce the bureaucracy of the current paper-based system. The programme is focused squarely on placing the needs of users, including deputies and those whom they support, at the heart of the business, and on ensuring that the OPG is able to meet the demands placed on its services well into the future.

As part of that work, the new Public Guardian has launched a fundamental review of how the supervision of deputies is carried out. The aims of the review are twofold: first, to ensure that proper safeguards are in place to protect people who lack capacity and to ensure that decisions are made in their best interests; and

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secondly, to ensure that supervision is proportionate. That means focusing attention on those cases that require most support or where there are potential concerns, but allowing deputies who are operating effectively to do their job with minimal intervention. That might mean tailoring supervision to the needs of different kinds of deputies. Professional deputies, such as legal professionals and public authorities, might require a different type of supervision from lay people acting on behalf of family members. Also, a new deputy will often require additional support so that they understand their responsibilities and the support available to them.

Any changes will also need to be in line with the Public Guardian’s statutory duties, to which my hon. Friend referred, and must also consider the demands that the increasingly ageing population places on the OPG’s services. The OPG must be able to deal with the rising number of deputies in the future, as well as encouraging people to plan for the future by making lasting powers of attorney, which may remove the need for a deputy to be appointed at all. A key element of the work is the need to build a richer understanding of the deputies’ circumstances and their needs. I am pleased to say that the OPG has already surveyed some 1,300 deputies. In the coming months the OPG will conduct in-depth interviews with deputies to gain a deeper insight into their needs and the needs of those for whom they care.

The OPG will continue to listen to experts across the mental capacity field as it looks to improve its services. Building a clearer picture of its customers will help the OPG to design a more responsive and effective supervision regime, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham will support.

Mr Bacon: The Minister mentioned the Office of the Public Guardian and his statutory powers. In cases of over-billing, once it has been stamped by the court, as

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the Minister alluded to, the issue for the Public Guardian is that, under present legislation, his scope to act is extremely limited, even if, as it may transpire, the over-billing has happened as a result of the Court of Protection successfully being misled by a deputy.

Mrs Grant: The issue that my hon. Friend raises in relation to over-charging vulnerable people is extremely important. It is worrying and it is one of the reasons why the new Public Guardian has launched a fundamental review into the supervision of deputies. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham raised the matter with me just a few moments ago, and I will look into it. I will write to him, and perhaps we can take matters forward.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issues. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, who I know has met the Public Guardian and who has extensive personal experience of the current system of deputyship. The issues are important and I hope that both my hon. Friends are reassured that the Government take matters very seriously. I will look carefully into the issues they have raised on accountability, visits, the statutory powers of deputies and panel composition. I hope they are both reassured that the OPG continues to look into this area to make further significant improvements.

Duncan Hames: I very much welcome the fundamental review that the Minister has advised us of this afternoon. She said that the OPG had been and would be surveying deputies as part of the review. I hope that she will ensure that the clients of deputies are consulted and interviewed and asked their views as part of the review in order that the true customers of the service have their voices heard.

Mrs Grant: I am happy to look into all the important issues that my hon. Friend has raised today. The Government consider vulnerable people to be very important and a high priority. I am happy to talk further to my hon. Friend about what more might be done.

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4G (Interference)

4.42 pm

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate an issue that has so far received little attention, but one that will affect large numbers of people in this country quite soon. It is appropriate that we should be debating it today. This is the day on which 4G services have become widely available in a number of cities as a result of Everything Everywhere making use of the 1,800 MHz spectrum.

Understandably, the competitors to Everything Everywhere have been concerned that it should be given a lead and so have been pressing to be able to go ahead with the provision of their own 4G services, and to do that they require access to the 800 MHz band. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I am proud to chair, also shared the view that we needed to get on with the allocation of spectrum for 4G, because 4G carries real benefit to the economy, and we did not wish to get left behind.

I am pleased that Ofcom is now pressing ahead with the auction. However, the use of 800 MHz for mobile telephony will have consequences. It will result in interference with the provision of services currently using that band, particularly digital terrestrial television.

We have, of course, just been through a major exercise: the analogue switch-off and digital switchover. When I first became Chairman of the Committee, the first inquiry we had was into analogue switch-off. We felt that this was a huge undertaking, with risks that we highlighted. Happily, the exercise has now been completed and it has gone remarkably smoothly. I pay tribute to Digital UK for its success in overseeing the switchover process with very little problem or complaint. I like to think that the report of my Committee, in which we flagged up some of the problems in advance, allowed us to take account of those and put in place measures so that they did not cause the complaints or disruption that we were concerned about.

Similarly, I want to flag up one or two concerns that I have about the effect of mobile services being made available on 800 MHz, and what we might do to try to avoid difficulties. It is estimated that the reception of digital terrestrial television in 2.3 million homes may be affected once mobile 4G services become available. Of those, 900,000 are primary DTT households that will require filters for them to continue to receive television without interference. I welcome moves by the Government to make filters available to those households. I also welcome the additional help of a £50 voucher, should they have a loft or masthead amplifier, so that the filter can be professionally installed.

I recently met with Ofcom and saw one of the filters that it is intended should be fitted. I accept that as long as someone does not have an amplifier, it is pretty simple to unplug the aerial cable, insert the filter and plug it back in again. However, there will be households for which it is not so simple and the Government are right to make additional help available.

One of my concerns, however, is that the Government are making the filters available only for primary DTT households, and yet there will be a large number of additional households that have second sets, and they

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will not receive filters. I accept that the Government have to draw a line somewhere, but given that the mobile companies will be bidding a substantial amount of money for the spectrum, I think there is a case for households that still use DTT, but not as their primary means of receiving television, to receive some help.

I also understand that additional measures can be taken to try to mitigate the effect of the interference at the base station. That could help all households that are likely to suffer from interference, but it is not clear to me yet what plans the Government have put in place to ensure that the mobile companies carry out the base station mitigation at the stations that will result in interference. I think it is relatively cheap to install a filter at the base station—I was given a figure of £400—and I hope that the mobile companies do that. Will that be made a condition of the auction, so that the mobile companies carry out the base station mitigation to try to minimise the interference that could result?

I am also slightly concerned that while we are relying on projections of the number of households that may be affected, to some extent we cannot know whether such forecasts are right. The Minister conceded that point when he gave evidence to the Select Committee. One way in which we could perhaps get round that is to have a trial in advance, similar to that which took place at Whitehaven prior to the beginning of digital switchover. There may well be a case for a trial in order to get precise figures for exactly which households will suffer interference and to what extent that interference is a serious problem. I hope that MitCo will consider that. I understand it is still a possibility once the advice is received.

Another issue is whether the filters will work properly, and it would help if they too could be tested in a trial. The prototype filters are now available—as I have said, I have seen one—but mass production has not yet started on the scale that will be required.

The situation has been made more difficult by the bringing forward of the timetable for 4G’s introduction. I do not criticise that; it is important that we get 4G roll-out as soon as possible, but there is no question but that the accelerated timetable will make the process more difficult. Digital UK did a good job in overseeing the transition for analogue switch-off, but it did so over a number of years. It mounted a significant publicity campaign in advance, region by region, so that when it came to switch-off almost everyone knew what was happening, and was hopefully prepared.

Instead of a period of years, however, this process will be done in a period of weeks. The auction of the 800 MHz band is due to start in February and it is intended that the installation will take place shortly after, perhaps in March or April, so we could start rolling out 4G in June. Yet, I am prepared to bet that we would be hard-pressed to find anyone on the street who was aware that there was a risk of their television reception suffering interference again, and that they might have to take further measures to those they have already taken to deal with the analogue switch-off.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. Is he aware that in a presentation to the all-party parliamentary media group, Arqiva estimated that for some 40,000 homes there was no solution at all, because they were too near to the

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base stations? In those cases, there will be more than interference; the households will simply not be able to get television reception at all.

Mr Whittingdale: My hon. Friend raises an important point, which I have not addressed. He is entirely right. I have been informed that 38,500 households—very much the figure he gave—will still be affected after filter installation and that, of those, perhaps 18,000 will be primary DTT households. After the various measures have been taken, there will certainly be some households that still cannot get DTT, and the Government have put aside a budget to address that problem. The only solution will be for such households to change platform, to Freesat, cable or Sky, and where those options are not available either, they might even need to have a special relay station installed. It will be interesting to hear whether the Minister accepts that those are the current figures. The degree of interference will vary, but some households at the extreme end will no longer be able to get DTT under any circumstances.

As I was saying, the Government need to start alerting people to the problem very soon. I have been told that it is difficult to mount a publicity campaign until we know who has obtained the licences and therefore which base stations will be affected, but it would be a good idea to start informing people of the problem. We must have a fairly good idea of the base stations that are likely to be involved. We do not know which operator will obtain which licence, but if the Government are successful in their hope to achieve competition in 4G provision, it seems likely that at least the majority of the major operators will obtain licences, so there is certainly a case for beginning to prepare the ground now for telling people what will happen.

I want to raise two other concerns. The first is about our old friend the PMSE sector, with which the Minister will be very familiar. The programme making and special events sector includes those who need microphones for television productions and live music performances. This important sector is concerned that it, too, might be affected by interference. It has already had to vacate channel 69 and deal with problems resulting from the analogue switch-off and the making available of the spectrum there, and it is now concerned that the problems might continue. It has been suggested to me that industry experts have said that anything above channel 56 might no longer be suitable for PMSE use, which leaves the sector with just two options. The first is that it suffers interference in the five channels it currently has that might be affected, but that is not really an option. If there is a live performance by Bon Jovi—I think I cited them on a previous occasion—sudden interference in the communications is simply not acceptable. The alternative is that the PMSE sector has to vacate those five channels and find new ones further down. The sector has made a perfectly reasonable request for MitCo’s remit to be extended at least to consider the potential interference, and that the sector be represented on its supervisory board, and I hope that the Minister will consider that.

Finally, I turn to the longer term. The Minister will be aware that there is a debate about the likely ever-increasing demand for mobile services and about mobile telephony’s appetite for bandwidth, as a result of which

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it is being suggested that mobile telephony might in due course creep into the 700 MHz band, possibly from 2018. That would cause further problems for DTT, which might have to move out of 700 MHz and into the 600 MHz band. That date of 2018 is still a little way off, and it is after whatever decisions are taken at the next world radiocommunication conference, but I ask the Minister for one or two assurances now.

First, in the event that that were to happen, it would seem only right that there should be an allocation of spectrum in the 600 MHz band for DTT, and that if DTT were forced out of its current spectrum it should not have to participate in an auction process. It is worth beginning to consider, some way in advance, how many households might be affected and how many might need new set-top boxes.

My real concern, however, which I hope the Minister feels able to address, is that there has been a suggestion that in due course we might no longer need DTT. We have internet protocol television, or IPTV, coming down the wire, and there might come a time when the different ways of receiving television—broadband and satellite—mean that there is no longer a need for Freeview DTT. I can anticipate that day being reached, but as IPTV services are still in their infancy I think it would take a long time.

A certain amount of concern was raised within the industry by the recommendation of the Lords Committee on Communications. I do not want to criticise my colleagues in the other place, but the Committee’s report on broadband states:

“We recommend that the Government, Ofcom and the industry begin to consider the desirability of the transfer of terrestrial broadcast content from spectrum to the internet and the consequent switching off of broadcast transmission over spectrum”.

As 2018 is likely to be too soon to even contemplate that, I seek the Minister’s assurance that if DTT finds itself unable to use the 700 MHz spectrum and has to move as a result of further allocation of spectrum to mobile telephony, it would be the Government’s intention to continue to have DTT services, certainly for some considerable time to come.

4.59 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, Mr Hollobone.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) on securing this important debate. As he points out, apart from a brief evidence session before his Select Committee, Parliament has not debated 4G interference with digital terrestrial television, so this debate is a useful opportunity to set out the Government’s position and perhaps address some of the concerns that he highlighted in his excellent speech.

First, I make it clear—my hon. Friend is an expert in such matters, but those watching the debate may not be—that we are talking about interference from the 800 MHz spectrum. As hon. Members may know, after the spectrum auction, mobile phones will use a range of spectrums—800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1,800 MHz, 2.1 GHz and 2.6 GHz—but only the 800 MHz spectrum risks causing interference as it is adjacent to the 700 MHz spectrum used for digital terrestrial television. It is important to make that point, because as my hon.

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Friend points out, today sees the launch of the UK’s first 4G service by EE, as we must now learn to call it, but that is in the 1,800 MHz spectrum, so nobody need go home tonight in fear that they will miss “BBC News at Ten” or “Newsnight.”

Secondly, only digital terrestrial television viewers will be affected. Again, effectively that is people watching Freeview. People who get their television through Freesat, cable or a commercial satellite provider will not be affected by the 800 MHz spectrum.

My hon. Friend points out that Ofcom has estimated that some 2.3 million households will be close enough to mobile phone base stations using the 800 MHz spectrum to risk being affected by interference. That is an estimate, and the figure may be substantially lower. There are a number of reasons why that may be the case. First, Ofcom estimates that only 40% of those households will be viewing Freeview; the rest will be getting their television in other ways. That brings the figure to 900,000 homes.

My hon. Friend asks whether mobile operators will be compelled to put filters on their base stations. I am pleased to inform him that all the base stations being procured by potential winners of the 800 MHz licence will include a filter as a matter of course. Without wishing to confine myself to a specific figure, I have been informed that it is therefore likely that the new base stations, which are substantially more advanced than the ones used in other countries, may substantially reduce the number of households affected. When that becomes clearer, I will, of course, inform him.

My job as a Minister, working with Ofcom, was to work out the best way to reduce any interference for potentially affected households. First, the obvious decision was to put the mitigation measures into the hands of the mobile operators. They are the ones who will site the base stations and procure the relevant technology, so it seems sensible that, as the people potentially causing the interference, they are in charge of reducing that interference as much and as upstream as possible.

Secondly, I was given a range of financial support options that I could make available for mitigation. To put it bluntly, those options included zero and figures across the spectrum. I chose the higher end of the spectrum. I would rather be the Minister who set aside too much money for this programme than the Minister who set aside too little to get the job done.

How will the money be used? First, all the households that might be affected by the base stations will receive a free filter. So, on the current figure, 2.3 million households will receive a free filter. That means that, for the sake of argument, if a household receives the signal for the main television set in the living room through cable or satellite, it will receive a free filter for, say, a Freeview set in the bedroom. That will help many households that have second sets.

If we zone in, as it were, on the 900,000 households that use Freeview for their primary set, we estimate that some 150,000 of those households will be able to fit a filter without any problem. I have fitted a filter, and my hon. Friend has fitted a filter, which is literally a piece of aerial, to put it in layman’s terms. I simply unplugged the aerial, attached the filter and put the aerial back in. That took me 10 seconds, and I would not class myself as a DIY expert.

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We are then left with 220,000 households that are technically vulnerable, which means people with disabilities or people aged over 75. I do not want to get into a secondary debate—I know many 75-year-olds who might not class themselves as vulnerable—but technically, they are vulnerable. That is about one in four of the 900,000 households, and help will be available to them should they so choose. We know from the digital switchover scheme that, of the people who were eligible for help, only 15% chose to make use of the available help scheme. Nevertheless, money will be set aside on the basis that every single one of those households will use the help scheme.

The next category is people with amplifiers, which are used to boost the power level of the TV signal. Before the switchover, amplifiers were quite prevalent because, obviously, people were using them to boost weak digital signals before we completed the switchover. Sometimes amplifiers are used to boost a strong signal where there are two or three televisions in a home. Ofcom estimates that some 380,000 of the affected Freeview homes have amplifiers, but many of those will no longer be in use and there will be no need to fit a filter. Where there is an amplifier, there is no reason why, in quite a significant number of cases, a normal able-bodied person will not be able to fit a filter. There has been a suggestion that, if the amplifier is in the loft, that could be a problem, but it should be possible to go into the loft to fit the aerial extension.

We acknowledge, however, that if the amplifier is on the roof, we certainly would not expect someone to get out the ladder and climb on the roof to fit the aerial. Ofcom estimates that there are some 125,000 households in that category and, as a result of the high-profile concerns that were raised on that specific issue, we have instructed that about £12 million of the £180 million be set aside to pay for the reasonable costs of professional installation. We have estimated those costs to be about £50 plus VAT. It is important to stress that by “professional installation” we mean going up a ladder safely and putting the aerial extension into an amplifier. That is not the same as adjusting an aerial for the digital terrestrial television switchover, which was a more complicated, technical task, but we expect people to use a registered digital installer. That is something that we inherited from the digital switchover scheme and will ensure that people are using professional installers.

Finally, there comes the issue of fitting filters to communal properties. We think there are about 20,000 such properties, which make up the rest of the 900,000 affected households. Those properties will require a more sophisticated filter, which we think will cost up to £300, but those filters will be provided to communal properties free of charge. Fitting such a filter is probably more demanding than fitting the filter that my hon. Friend and I have used, and we think a figure of about £220 is right. As a general rule, we would expect landlords to be responsible for ensuring the fitting of that filter to their property.

My hon. Friend says that he thinks people with second or third sets should get additional free filters. I am afraid that at this stage all I can do is agree to disagree with him. Additional filters will be easy to obtain and should cost £10 or less. It is difficult to give an open-ended commitment to provide free filters and to ask people to write in to say that they have two, three,

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four, five or six television sets, or to try to guess how many television sets they have. I think it is easier simply to give everyone a free filter and then say, “If you want a second filter, they are relatively cheap.”

I have also noted my hon. Friend’s suggestion for a pilot or trial period before rolling out 4G. There have been a number of technical trials already, and we have seen commercial roll-out in other countries, so we have a great deal of experience to draw on. We do not believe that a trial would add anything to our knowledge, and it would significantly delay much-anticipated 4G services. We will keep the matter under review, but it is important to explain again that 4G will roll out gradually; not all the country will be covered by services the minute 4G goes live in the 800 spectrum category.

I note my hon. Friend’s concerns about the lack of a public awareness campaign. Again, the mitigation programme is different from the digital switchover programme, because it does not affect every household in the country. Far fewer households will be affected. Also, every single household within range of a base station will get at least four weeks’ notice, and the roll-out process will take two to three years. We believe that embarking on a widespread publicity campaign at the moment might not have the impact that my hon. Friend suggests.

It is also important to stress that those who hold 800 MHz licences after the auction will have strict key performance indicators on the provision of public information as part of their licence conditions. Our final guarantee is that if any of the mobile network operators fails to meet the key performance indicators, the immediate sanction will be that they must switch off the offending base station and not add any others until they have remedied the issues for local TV viewers. That strikes me as an elegant and effective way of ensuring that mobile network operators take the issue seriously.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that because of our work in clearing the spectrum more quickly than we had anticipated, bringing the benefits of 4G to the UK more quickly than planned, we have a stretching timetable, but I am pleased that the mobile network operators moved quickly to set up the mitigation company, which

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has the elegant title of Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited and Andrew Pinder as its interim chair. The creation of the company has been at the heart of discussions with the MNOs about bringing forward the roll-out of services, and the MNOs are still required to have the mitigation company operational in time to launch services. I am confident that the MNOs are taking that requirement seriously. Furthermore, we will have oversight through an oversight board. I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that the board had its first meeting this morning, and it was very productive.

Finally, let me address three points quickly; I am conscious that I might run out of time. My hon. Friend said that 38,500 people could be so seriously affected that no filter will help them. That figure may change over time as base stations become more sophisticated, but yes, we have made provisions for them to have a full platform change, or even a direct digital terrestrial television relay should one be required.

We note the concerns of the programme making and special events sector. I met with Lord Grade recently to hear its concerns. It is for Ofcom to deal with the PMSE sector and find suitable frequencies for it. It has a dedicated channel, channel 38, but we will keep the issue under review, and I promised Lord Grade that we would meet regularly.

Finally, my hon. Friend mentioned the long-term future of 700 MHz. We note concerns about the long-term future for spectrum as mobile phone demand increases, and we have an ambitious campaign to release public sector spectrum. There is, of course, an international dimension to the designation of the 700 MHz band, and we will undoubtedly continue to negotiate with our international partners about its future use, but I note absolutely my hon. Friend’s comments. It is important that we do not run before we can walk.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I do not think that there were any problems with transmission or reception during that debate, but I am afraid it is time to tune out and switch off.

Question put and agreed to.

5.13 pm

Sitting adjourned.