1.48 pm

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing this important debate.

The system is not working for those suffering from mental health conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has just mentioned the Mind survey. Some 87% of those surveyed said that the system caused distress and 75% said that it had worsened their mental health condition. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, 51% said that they had suicidal thoughts as a result of it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton referred to the deaths of people who have been through the Atos system. Through a freedom of information request, I understand that the DWP keeps a figure for the number of people who have died but does not record the causes and how they died. It has been asked to record the suicide cases, for example, but has not done so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington eloquently demonstrated, there

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1082

are a number of well-publicised cases where people have taken their own lives because of this system. It is not too putting it too strongly to say that this coalition Government have blood on their hands for the deaths of those individuals.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), a lot of constituents come to see me at my surgery about this, and I should like to give an example. I also referred to several cases in the mental health debate on 14 June. I suggest that people look at the Mental Health Matters website, which gives some very heart-rending examples of people in the north-east with mental health conditions. The individual I mentioned is a 59-year-old who suffers from severe schizophrenia. He failed the Atos interview and is now being told by the DWP that he should be retrained as a security guard because that was the last job he did 10 years ago. What a waste of resources. This is despite his GP writing a letter on his behalf, which I have seen. I know his GP, because he is my GP as well.

Much has been made of the Harrington reviews, and we have heard a lot about the mental health champions, but they are there not to help applicants but to give advice to the health care practitioners. There are only 60 of them, and there are some 140 assessment centres throughout the country. Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, who was on the scrutiny panel, resigned because the system was clearly failing people with mental health conditions. The Minister’s predecessor then tried to rubbish him by saying that he had been asked to resign because Mind had a conflict of interest in a legal case, but it did not. Mind is very clear that the system is failing.

The system is also costing the taxpayer money, not only through the additional health care provision for those with mental health conditions but through the extra work load on GPs, the tribunal system, which is at breaking point, and the reassessment system. The other week a 60-year-old nurse with osteoporosis, who has spent 38 years in the NHS, came to see me. She failed the work capability test. She is 61 in April and is now being told that she will be retrained for a new career until she is 62, when she gets her pension. What on earth is the point in wasting money on individuals like that? There are also cases such as the 21-year-old young lady who ended up in the local psychiatric hospital because she failed the Atos interview. What is the cost of that to the NHS?

I raise serious questions about the capability of the individuals who are doing the Atos assessments. We see from today’s very welcome briefing from the BMA that it is concerned about the turnover of GPs. Let me tell people—I do know a bit about mental health—that GPs are not experts on mental health. It is wrong to get someone who has no training in mental health to assess these cases. We need a new start for people with mental health conditions. We need to take them out of the system and we need a separate work stream for dealing with them. They should be assessed by people who are qualified psychiatrists and people who understand mental health. If we do not do that, we will continue to have the torture—I will use that word—that people are going through in this system and the deaths to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington referred. If the Minister can have that on his conscience, so be it; I do not think that I could if I were in his shoes.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1083

1.53 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing this very important debate.

Over 5,000 of my constituents are on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance and they are facing this terrible system. I should like to give a few examples. Mr H, a double-leg amputee, was told to undertake an 80-mile round trip for his work capability assessment. Mr W, who has serious mental health problems, had a panic attack and was physically sick during his WCA but was told he was fit for work. His wife believes that he is being victimised by Atos. Mrs D, a district nurse who broke her back at work, was told that she is fit for work. Mrs M, who was treated for cancer in July 2010, was deemed fit for work before the results of the operation came through. Her appeal will not take place until next month. Mr E, who is one of the people the RNIB is worried about, had been completely blind for 16 years and forced to give up work, but was told by Atos that he was fit for work.

As the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), has said, we need fundamental reform of the system, including the descriptors. There are problems with the descriptors not only for mental health but for physical health, in every category. I will read out the conditions that have a score of 9, which means that people with all these conditions are deemed capable of going to work. A person who

“Cannot mount or descend two steps unaided by another person even with the support of a handrail”

is deemed fit for work; a person who

“Cannot, for the majority of the time, remain at a work station, either…standing unassisted by another person…or…sitting…for more than 30 minutes, before needing to move away in order to avoid significant discomfort or exhaustion”

—fit for work; a person who

“Cannot pick up and move a one litre carton full of liquid”

—fit for work; a person who

“Cannot use a pencil or pen to make a meaningful mark”

—fit for work; a person who

“cannot use a suitable keyboard or mouse”

—fit for work; a person

“Unable to navigate around unfamiliar surrounding, without being accompanied by another person, due to sensory impairment”

—fit for work; a person

“At risk of loss of control leading to extensive evacuation of the bowel and/or voiding of the bladder, sufficient to require cleaning and a change in clothing, not able to reach a toilet quickly”

—fit for work. And only scoring 6, a person who

“At least once a month, has an involuntary episode of lost or altered consciousness resulting in significantly disrupted awareness or concentration”

—also fit for work. As the RNIB points out, it is possible for a person to have an epileptic fit once a fortnight and be deemed fit for work. As it happens, Mr Deputy Speaker, my husband suffers from epilepsy, and last time he had an epileptic fit he had the headache and the hangover for several days, so the notion that anybody can do a job if they experience this once a fortnight is completely absurd.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1084

Also supposedly fit for work is someone who

“Cannot learn anything beyond a simple task, such as setting an alarm clock”,

or whose

“Reduced awareness of everyday hazards leads to a significant risk of…injury to self or others; or…damage to property or possessions such that they frequently require supervision”.

The situation is not even safe for their colleagues, but somehow they are deemed fit for work. The same applies to someone who

“Cannot cope with minor planned change”,

such as a change to lunchtime, or a person who

“Is unable to get to a specified place with which they are familiar, without being accompanied by another person.”

A person in the following category is also deemed fit for work if:

“Engagement in social contact with someone unfamiliar to the claimant is always precluded due to difficulty relating to others or significant distress experienced by the individual.”

This is a cynical exercise and Ministers know it. In the current situation, none of those people are ever going to find work. It is a cruel and demeaning system and it should be changed now.

1.58 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is an honour to follow my fellow north-eastern MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for North Durham (Mr Jones).

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, I want to demonstrate to the House, through a series of examples from my case load, the crass, degrading and unprofessional way in which my constituents are being treated. A constituent of mine—let us call her Mrs J—is 51-years-old and suffers from diverticular disease. This leads to a compacting of her bowels, which means that she soils herself on a daily basis, requiring a change of clothes. Often she requires hospital treatment because when her bowels are heavily compacted she is unable to deal with the matter without medical intervention. She was on contribution-based ESA, but was allowed to be on it for only 365 days, and that period expired in 2012. She asked to be reassessed on the basis of her condition, and her assessment stated that she was fit for work. She appealed against this decision, but the appeal was declined. She had to go down the tribunal route but, as she told me in an e-mail last September:

“So I’m now faced having to go to a tribunal which I was told today will take months. I’ve got no representation. I’m unable to go to the CAB as when I attempted to do this I’d soiled myself on route so ended up going home in tears. What can I do? I’ve not got a penny to my name. I’ve borrowed just to survive since April…I’m now faced with another 3-4 months with a tribunal decision again without money…I don’t know what to do and cannot carry on like this. Surely this isn’t how you expect people who legitimately cannot work. And the likelihood is I’ve failed my appeal just because I’ve not worded my appeal correctly when clearly my medical records and specialist have stated otherwise. Please, please help before I end up on the streets.”

A gentleman in my constituency—let us call him Mr D—served in the forces for many years and is now in his late 50s. In the past 18 months, he has undergone extensive surgery to the brain, following a tumour, and in November 2011 he was informed that he required further surgery, this time to his neck, to remove the growing tumour. At the same time—in precisely the

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1085

same month—Atos assessed Mr D as being fit for work. That assessment was undertaken by someone who was not trained as a doctor at a time when Mr D was going to assessments with a gaping wound in his head and still undergoing treatment. Does it not make an entire mockery of the whole process if that is allowed to happen? Does it not cast real doubt on the effectiveness and accuracy of the whole system? Most ominously, does it not reveal the system’s true intention?

Several of my constituents—far too many to be isolated incidents—have told me that they were asked by the person carrying out the assessment whether they just sat around all day watching Jeremy Kyle. I expect uninformed, unprofessional and crass comments from the likes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but not from medical professionals with the serious task of determining whether a person is fit for work in, presumably, an objective and non-prejudicial manner.

Another woman in my constituency—let us call her Mrs M—left school at 16 and worked diligently for 33 years. She paid her taxes. She was made redundant a couple of years ago at just the time that she was starting to suffer from ill health. Mrs M suffers from Crohn’s disease, which has led to severe diarrhoea, incontinence and abdominal pain. She has had surgery to remove a large section of her bowel, but the symptoms are getting worse. As Members may know, there is no cure for Crohn’s disease. Mrs M will not recover. There will be a gradual and irreversible increase in the severity and frequency of her symptoms. Mrs M is a proud and dignified woman who is embarrassed by her condition. She wants to do nothing more than work, but is unable to do so. She suffers from about two bouts of diarrhoea a day, for which she has no more than a second’s notice, and she cannot leave the house unaccompanied.

Mrs M was assessed as having 15 points with limited capability for work. Her assessment and appeal were degrading, insensitive and unprofessional. She was described throughout her appeal notes as a man. Incorrect dates and fictitious telephone calls were placed on her files—in other words, lies. Mrs M was told that she could wear a nappy for work. What sort of country have we become? What sort of ethical values do the Government have, if that is the degrading and crass way in which decent, law-abiding constituents of mine are being dealt with?

I believe that everybody who can work should be entitled to work and that the role of the state is to help achieve that, but all the evidence in my constituency demonstrates that the system is not working and the most vulnerable and ill constituents in Hartlepool are paying the price. The Government are treating my constituents like dirt and that needs to change.

2.3 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Last week I held a meeting in my constituency for a number of disabled constituents, their carers and family members, and the organisations that support them. I want to highlight to the Minister two or three messages that build on some of the things that have been said this afternoon.

First, and most importantly, the Minister needs to understand how totally discredited this whole system has become. My constituents told me categorically last

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1086

week that they believe that the whole system was deliberately designed and operated to trick them—to make them incriminate themselves and to catch them out. They firmly believe that the system is deliberately designed, not to assess and then help them into work if they are fit for it, but simply to stop paying benefits wherever possible. I regret that they continue to believe—I know that this is not the case—that Atos is paid to bring that about.

Whether or not the system is deliberately designed to trick them, it is clear that there are far too many instances of trickery and misleading people and of distorting what they have done, said and reported and drawing conclusions from that. That is happening far too often. It is an absolute disgrace that we should run a public assessment process in such a discredited way.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: I will not, because others wish to make speeches.

The Minister has to either sort out the process or address the fundamental scepticism and mistrust of the system. Many Members have already said that we do not believe that that is possible unless the system is scrapped and we start all over again.

I say to the Minister—because I think I know what he will say in his response to the debate—that I understand that this is an occupational assessment, not a medical assessment. I understand why it is not just doctors, but other occupational health professionals who can carry out the test, but it is disgraceful when those professionals have no understanding of the underlying medical condition and can arrive at such distorted judgments on a person’s fitness for work.

I also want to report to the Minister that, of the couple of dozen constituents I met last week, about half of them had no idea that they could take a companion to the assessment process. They said that they had not been told. Of those who did know that they could take a companion and who had sometimes done so, that companion was not made to feel welcome and was not able to assist them. Someone who suffers from autism is likely to behave in a particular way when responding to the questions asked—by trying to please and to give the answer that they think is wanted, rather than accurate—so I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that a companion who can support them and, if necessary, intervene is very important indeed. This bit of the system is not working and the Minister needs to look at it very carefully.

When the work capability assessment was introduced, we knew that it would be difficult and that we were trying something new. We built in the review process that led to the appointment of Professor Malcolm Harrington and some of the early improvements, which I think we all welcomed. Today, however, we have to face up to the fact that it is no longer possible to make the kinds of improvements that would make the system viable.

I get the impression—perhaps the Minister will correct this—that the Government have moved from trying to improve the system to either defending it or, to be frank, washing their hands of it. I honestly do not believe that

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1087

that is a good enough response. If the Minister intends to say that there is not a problem, that improvements can continue and that these are simply still early days teething troubles, I say to him that the extent of the reports from throughout the House and the country of repeated, systemic problems means that it is time to look again.

I am sure that the Minister and many Members will remember—I most certainly do—the last time we had such a failure, whatever the intentions, of public policy implementation: the Child Support Agency. It took us 20 years to realise that the design that had been put in place simply could not work. Please let us not wait 20 years to realise that this system cannot work and must be started again.

2.7 pm

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): As a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I was delighted that we scheduled this topic for debate. I believe that it is an example of the exact reason why the Committee was set up on the insistence of people who were Members way before us. This is about Parliament doing business. It is not about petty, party political point scoring; it is about issues that face thousands of our people every day. Those issues might one day face some of us or our family members. The issue also impacts on this country’s taxpayers, who are not getting value for money. It is about a system that has failed.

The Prime Minister said in May 2010:

“The test of a good society is how you protect the poorest, the most vulnerable, the elderly and the frail.”

I agree with the Prime Minister on very little, but I certainly agree with him on that. That is the test that should be held today.

People say that the jury is out on Atos, but it is not —it has been out and has come back in, and the evidence is that Atos is failing miserably. We have already heard that 40% of appeals are successful. Evidence published this week has shown that, when people are represented, 70% of appeals are successful. The system is broken. This is not just about the financial cost of appeals; the human cost and suffering of people waiting to go through appeals is drastic.

I will not go through individual cases. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to evidence from those who represent people. First, I ask the Minister whether he has read “The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment”, which was produced in November 2012. It contains 67 pages of indictments of the system. It was supported by people across this House and by professionals inside and outside the system.

I asked my caseworker, Sheila Stevenson, how the work capability assessment was affecting people in my constituency. She said, “How many people do you want me to tell you about?” I asked her to give me her view. This is a woman who for seven years was a legal officer for the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and has worked for me for four years. She said that about every third call is about benefits—mainly about ESA and people being found fit for work. People are being found fit for work despite an NHS GP, a consultant or psychiatric reports saying that they are not. Atos does not seem to take medical reports into account when deciding on someone’s capability. About

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1088

90% of my work is now benefits-related, whereas two years ago the figure was about 20%. As the citizens advice bureaux and jobcentres cannot cope, they refer cases to their local MP.

Recently, the all-party parliamentary group on coalfield communities, which I chair, heard evidence from Keith Lamb from the Durham Colliery Mechanics Trust and Mick White who works for the Yorkshire miners about their experiences from decades of representing people at work. They have had a huge increase in their work load and a very low success rate in overturning these decisions. They talked about how people have been failed. Doctors have made a number of mistakes. Assessors have been used whose first language is not English, so they cannot discuss clearly with claimants what their problems are. Claimants have signed medical reports and doctors have filled them in afterwards, when they were not even present at the medical. Claimants have been told that they do not have a disease.

I will give a classic example of the last point which the Minister should know about because, like me, he comes from a part of world where diseases such as pneumoconiosis cripple people. The Americans call it “black lung”. It is where somebody has a lung full of coal dust. People who have pneumoconiosis never improve and there is no way of getting better. And yet, people who are inexperienced are saying that people with the disease are no longer suffering and are capable of work. That is utterly out of order.

I spoke last night to Dave Hopper, who is the general secretary of the Durham Miners Association, an organisation that has represented people in this country for almost 200 years. He said:

“The system is breaking down.”

He told me that decades of close, professional relationships that had been built up between the association and the examiners and the chairmen of the tribunals are being undermined by the aggressive attitude of the people from Atos. He said that claimants are in dread of examinations and many refuse to appeal because of their initial experience. Surely that has to be wrong.

We are told in this House time and again that we need evidence-based policy. The Minister has today heard evidence from both sides of the House of where the system is breaking down. I suggest that he takes the evidence on board, listens to the people out there in the real world who are dealing with this matter day in and day out, gets them to sit around the table with Professor Harrington, and puts the system right. The system has failed, we need to put it right and we need to do so now.

2.12 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): There is so much to say and so little time. Let me start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing this important debate.

The Government have many questions to answer about the way that work capability assessments are being carried out and about Atos. The way in which decisions are made on the ability of disabled people to work is nothing short of scandalous. The attack on people who are unable to work, in which they are labelled as skivers and scroungers, has demonised them in the eyes of the public. Yet fraud in disability benefits

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1089

is very low—so low that it is not even under continuous review. Why are Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions cruelly finding people fit for work or putting them in the work-related activity group when they are clearly unable to work?

About 40% of appeals against the assessments are successful. Interestingly, the figure rises to 70% for claimants who are represented by a benefits expert. Of course, the success rate is only half the story because some people are too ill to appeal, others decide to resubmit their application from the start, and still others die before they get to the tribunal.

There are real questions about Atos and the Government. If I had a contract with anyone who failed in 40% of their decisions and cost me a lot of money, I would not continue to use them. However, the Government have just given Atos the contract for the personal independence payment, so they cannot be dissatisfied with its performance. There are questions to answer. Are the Government giving targets to Atos, either covertly or overtly? Have the Government discussed their expectation of reducing the number of people on benefits or is Atos doing that of its own accord? Everybody says officially that there are no targets, but workers report a different story.

When Dr Steve Bick went undercover for the “Dispatches” programme, he was told more than once that the process is meant to take people off benefit, and that if he did not find enough people fit to work, his assessments would be monitored. He was also told that if he found more than 12% or 13% of people unfit for work, he would be told that his rate was too high.

My surgery is full of people who have been cruelly treated by the DWP and Atos. I wish that I could tell all their stories, but I will tell just a few. I have changed their names. Sylvia’s husband came to see me because she was too ill to come. She had a subarachnoid haemorrhage four years ago, but aged 41, has now been found fit for work. She suffers blackouts, cannot dress herself, cannot self-medicate, cannot climb stairs by herself and cannot go out alone because she cannot remember where she lives or where she is going. Three to four times each month, she gets hemiplegic migraines, which last between two and six days, and mean that she becomes paralysed on her right side and loses her speech. Despite that, she has been found fit for work. The jobcentre, however, will not sign her on because it says that she is not fit for work. Needless to say, the stress sets off her migraines. One wonders what is the matter with her assessors.

Susan, a sufferer of fibromyalgia and hypermobility syndrome, told me that she felt like she was on trial for benefit fraud at her assessment. Bill, a former long-distance lorry driver, had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and diabetes. He thought the fact that he could not breathe would be reason enough to find him unfit for work, but of course he was wrong. He did not tell the assessors about his cerebral brain ascension, which means that he has terrible memory problems, because he is ashamed of having the condition. Of course, he has now had to tell them. He waited for nine months and then the decision was overturned.

There are many more people I could talk about, but I will finish with Clare, who has severe mental health issues and scoliosis. She scored 15 points and was

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1090

placed in the work-related activity group, even though she will clearly never be able to work. She appealed the decision and had to wait for 12 months, which made her condition far worse. She was then put in the support group.

People being placed in the work-related activity group is the next scandal. When people score 15 points and are found not fit for work, but are put in the work-related activity group, they will lose their benefit after 365 days. Is that another way of saving money, but one that also puts disabled people into abject poverty and causes them terrible stress?

There are so many questions. Why do the assessors give more weight to work capability assessment descriptors than to professional medical assessments? Why do they reassess people who have just won their appeal? Why do they not record the number of people who die through illness or suicide when being rejected for disability benefit? Why do they not track people who have been found fit for work and people who no longer receive benefit? How much do all the botched assessments cost us?

We believe that we have a contract with the state. We work and pay our national insurance and tax in the belief that when we can no longer work, the state will look after us. The Government seem to have broken that contract. Surely the Minister cannot accept this cruel and heartless treatment of ill and disabled people. What is he going to do about it?

2.17 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Like everybody else, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) for securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to it. Clearly, we could have done with double the time or even more. Most of us could probably speak for at least an hour on these issues.

Getting the system right is hugely important for individuals. People have spoken about the effects on people’s mental state and their well-being, but I will mention some of the financial effects, which the last speaker began to touch on, for people who go into the work-related activity group. If that decision is not right, those people lose their contributory benefits after a year. The people who suffer the most from that are those who have a working partner—that partner may only work part time—and who have built up some savings, because they cease to get any benefit. If they want to get their national insurance credits, they still have to go through the assessment or they will not get the credits that will help them in the future with their pension. They may not be getting any money, but they are still going through the assessments.

Depending on the prognosis that is given in the recommendation—we are told it is not a “decision”—by Atos, many of the people in the work-related activity group will be mandated into the Work programme. That happens if the prognosis is that they might be fit within six months, but we are told that that will shortly be increased to 12 months. That means they could experience sanctions if things go wrong with the Work programme. If something goes wrong, perhaps because they have a learning disability or a mental health problem, and they do not turn up or are deemed not to be co-operating, they could be sanctioned. I have a constituent

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1091

in that position who was sanctioned for six months for that reason. The people in that group are the ones who are most affected by having only a 1% increase in benefits for the next three years, although it must be said that people in the support group are in large part also affected, contrary to what has been said.

Getting it wrong can mean that people slip off benefits altogether. Research commissioned by the previous Government, which I understand is not being continued by this Government—the Minister might reassure us on that—found that 43% of those found fit for work were neither in work nor in receipt of an out-of-work benefit a year later. We must ask where they are. What is happening to them? We should know and we should care. It is not good enough for Minister to say, “We have reduced the number of people on out-of-work benefits,” and to imply that those people are happily in work when that is almost certainly not the case.

The Minister will probably say that things are improving, but the work on the descriptors shows that the pace is glacial. In November 2011, Professor Harrington suggested that new descriptors be tested. The Government said then that they would look at the suggestion in early 2012. The current position is that the testing has only recently begun, and we will be lucky if we get a full response and report on it by autumn 2013, which is nearly two years since Professor Harrison made that suggestion.

Another problem—this has already been touched on by others—is that some people are falling into a hidden trap. They are found fit for work, but are told that they cannot sign on for JSA, which is the only benefit for which they are eligible, because they are not fit for work and hold a medical certificate. Potentially, people in that situation get no benefit. I am not sure whether Ministers are even aware of that procedural issue.

On appeals, finally, after a lot of pushing, tribunal judges are giving limited information on their reasons, but it is not good enough—it is too general. But that information is being used by Ministers, and it was used by Atos in a briefing that I presume was sent to all MPs, to say that all is well, because it was found that Atos was found to be at fault in only 0.5% of cases. That is very misleading, because people are winning their appeals on the basis of new oral evidence.

2.22 pm

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow so many passionate speeches this afternoon and to say a few words on behalf of some of the constituents who have contacted me. Like many hon. Members, I have held meetings in my constituency. I have also met Parkinson’s UK and the local branch of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and received representations from many cancer patients. I hope the Minister can say something about their situations and about how descriptors affect cancer patients.

However, I want briefly to highlight other issues. There is a perception—notwithstanding what Atos or the Department for Work and Pensions says—that there are targets for placing numbers of people in the various groups. One constituent got in touch with me when he found out about this debate. He states:

“Getting a copy of the ESA85 report…to which everyone examined is entitled was like getting blood out of a stone.”

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1092

The man was found fit to work despite being on crutches and in constant pain at the time. He said:

“When I eventually received a copy I found that the examiner had stated clearly that I was found unfit for any kind of work and would remain so for at least two years.”

He tells me that when he tried to follow that up via the DWP, he was left with the distinct impression that staff had been advised, encouraged or instructed that everyone was to go into one of the employment support groups rather than be deemed completely unfit for work. I am sure the Minister will be able to comment on that.

Another issue that people frequently raise with me is about consultants. People who have seen consultants for medical conditions for a number of years feel that their consultant and general practitioner know their condition well, but they suddenly find that the Atos examiner takes a very different view. I have one example of a gentleman who was brought to my constituency office by a neighbour. He had had his third WCA in May 2012 and was zero rated. On the previous two occasions he appealed, and his appeals were upheld on the basis that the tribunal decided that he had reduced awareness of everyday hazards, leading to a significant risk of injury to him or others, and was therefore not fit for work.

That gentleman was brought to my office in August 2012 because he was awaiting his third appeal and was distressed by the process. Obviously, we gave him advice. On 8 October, the neighbour contacted me to say that the gentleman had passed away. We have heard a few such examples in the debate, but I hope the Minister realises the stresses and strains and the problems caused to family and friends when people are waiting for extended periods for their appeals.

I should briefly mention mental health, which was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, and again quote a constituent who contacted me this week. He says:

“I have been treated by my GP for over seven years for this illness, he is aware of the ups and downs, and the debilitating effects I am subject to. How can a registered nurse make a decision on my mental health in 41 minutes, most of which was asking questions about my physical health? This is what happened at my Atos WCA…There must be a change to the way people with mental health problems are dealt with by the system. I have spent the time since my WCA in June in misery, and the weeks leading up to the tribunal hearing in a mix of terror and stress. I was terrified at the tribunal itself.”

That is no way to treat people in a civilised society. The gentleman says that he is

“part of the last generation of ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘put the best face on it’ people.”

He says that that “works against” him because he does not fit what he describes as the stereotype of someone with a mental health problem.

We need a system that is sophisticated enough to deal with those situations, but also one that is fair enough to ensure that people who are in the last weeks of their lives are not left in misery while they await tribunals.

2.27 pm

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): We have a heard a large number—26, I believe—of extraordinarily powerful speeches in the debate. There is no doubt that the current WCA arrangements are causing immense problems and anxiety for people for whom all hon. Members want anxiety to be minimised.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1093

In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) mentioned the distress, indignation, fear and anger that have been caused. His assertion was amply supported by contributions from both sides of the House. We should not allow the system to continue. It needs fast and fundamental reform. I put it to the Minister—this struck me as I am sure it did him—that calls for such reform have come from both sides of the House, which does not often happen. It certainly happened today.

Part of the background to the debate is that a very small proportion of people who are placed by the WCA in the work-related activity group of ESA are getting into work. The invitation to tender for the Work programme said that the minimum performance standard would be that 5.5% of new applicants for ESA get into sustained job outcomes within one year, but the data published in November show that the proportion was 1%. The Work programme has performed terribly for the group of people we have spoken about in this debate.

What has gone wrong? The structure of the employment and support allowance is right. In the 1980s—my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) was absolutely right to remind the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) of this—thousands of people were encouraged to move from unemployment benefit to invalidity benefit in order to reduce headline unemployment. People who worked in benefit offices at that time have explained to me how staff were given incentives to encourage people to make that shift. Once they had gone on to invalidity benefit, later incapacity benefit, that was it—they were abandoned. No further support beyond the cash benefit was provided. It was only in 1997 that that began to change. It was recognised that the vast majority of people in receipt of incapacity benefit would prefer to be in employment, if they could be. Starting with the new deal for disabled people and later with pathways to work, new ideas were developed. Nothing previously had been done to practically support people with serious health impairments into work. The approach can be summarised as: work for those who were in a position to work, and support for those who were not.

Out of that experience was drawn the design of the employment and support allowance. From that, the work capability assessment was designed to allocate people into the three groups: fit for work, work-related activity group, and support group. That is the right structure and architecture for the benefit, but it is the assessment—the topic of this debate—that is now in doubt. The key problem is that very soon after the election, the Government announced that they would reassess the entire incapacity benefit case load on a very fast timetable. At that time, the WCA had been introduced less than two years previously. Problems were still being ironed out and the organisation had not properly bedded down, yet on to this still developing system was placed the enormous burden of reassessment. Atos tells us it carried out 1 million work capability assessments last year. The load has just been too much, resulting in the problems that we have heard about, and which have been expressed so impressively in this debate.

The Minister will be aware of a good deal of concern among disability rights organisations about the Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1094

They were laid before Parliament just before Christmas on 17 December, and come into force on 28 January. They include the changes that will allow people recovering from cancer to go more frequently into the support group—a welcome change that was referred to by the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). He said that the changes had already happened, but in fact they will take place on 28 January. A lot of people are worried that the regulations appear to give Atos permission to take account of non-existent, imaginary adaptations or medication in the assessment, and introduce a false distinction between physical and mental impairments. There is a lot of concern and I am sure the Minister is aware of it. Will he be able to say anything to address it?

The Government have recognised that the WCA needs modification. However, as we have heard from a number of speakers, they have gone about the task in an extraordinarily leisurely way, which has been described as “glacial” by a number of Members. I hope that the Minister can encourage us and tell us that the Department will now get a move on. I want to put to him a number of specific points. When will the changes to the descriptors for fluctuating conditions and mental health conditions, which were recommended months ago by the disability organisations, be implemented? He answered a question that I tabled last week on this, and there still seems to be a terrible, lackadaisical approach. He said:

“The Evidence Based Review (EBR) remains a priority for the Department and work is continuing at pace. The final report is due in 2013.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 180W.]

That was the first alarm signal, because his predecessor, in an answer on 25 June 2012, had told me that the final report would be due in spring 2013. Now the Minister is saying it will be in 2013. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East suggested that it will not be until autumn 2013. If that is right, that is another six-month delay. We really need to get a move on.

In his reply to me last week, the Minister said:

“We have undertaken extensive work with these charities throughout the summer”—

that was an answer last week, and the summer was the season before last. What happened in autumn?—

“to ensure that the ‘alternative’ WCA assessment combines recommendations from both the mental functioning and fluctuating conditions groups, and that the descriptors are suitable for testing.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 181-82W.]

The mental health descriptors were signed off by the charities in March last year. I really hope that the Minister will get the Department to get a move on and not just try these things out, which is what the evidence-based review—when it finally happens—will do, but introduce the changes that are clearly so urgently needed.

On progressive conditions, does it make sense to push everybody with a progressive condition, such as Parkinson’s disease, through regular reassessments when we all know that those conditions are only going to move in one direction and get worse. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) made that point in an intervention. The Minister answered a question from me recently about this. He said:

“Around 360 people with Parkinson’s disease in the Work Related Activity Group have undergone a repeat assessment following their initial assessment…Of these, around 20 people…were found Fit for Work at their first repeat assessment.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 725W.]

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1095

No doubt some of them will have appealed and had their appeals upheld. Is it really worth putting 360 people with Parkinson’s disease through reassessments in order to find that perhaps 20 should be fit for work—although, as I say, a number of those would no doubt have been overturned? I also asked how much the reassessments were costing. As a number of Members pointed out, the Minister simply will not answer any questions about cost, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. This is public money, and we need to know where this money is going and how it is being spent.

We need to make better provision for people to be able to supply their own supporting medical information in their assessment—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton in opening the debate, and by the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). The application form should be amended to invite people’s own supporting medical information, and Atos assessors need to be more open to being informed by that information.

Atos assessors should be told why previous assessments were overturned on appeal—a point raised with me by Atos itself some months ago. We have heard how often people have won their appeal, gone back to Atos and immediately been found fit for work again. Part of the problem is that Atos was never told why a person’s appeal was upheld. I believe that changes are in hand or perhaps have been introduced to assess that problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), however, was among those who referred to the seriousness of this revolving door problem. It needs to be addressed. I was also troubled by what she said about the difficulties people had getting their assessments recorded. That was supposed to have been sorted out, but her comments, and those of others, suggest otherwise.

Sheila Gilmore: Is my right hon. Friend aware that although tribunal judges are giving brief statements of reasons, these are not enough to help the decision makers or Atos understand?

Stephen Timms: My hon. Friend makes a telling point. That information needs to be provided.

The architecture of ESA is sound, but the assessment system is clearly not up to the load it is being asked to bear. That is why we need fundamental and much faster reform, with a much greater sense of urgency than we have seen from Ministers so far.

2.39 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr Mark Hoban): I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing this helpful debate. It gives me the opportunity to address some of the concerns expressed on both sides of the House about this process.

“For too long, too many long-term sick and disabled people have been written off by the welfare system to a life of dependency, entirely reliant on benefit and devoid of experience of the labour market.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 246.]

Those were not my words, but the words of the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) when he was employment Minister on Third Reading of the

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1096

Welfare Reform Bill in January 2007. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) was a DWP Minister at the tail end of the previous Government, so I am sure she made her concerns known at that time to her ministerial colleagues—or perhaps not. This measure was introduced by the previous Government. The argument of the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire was right then, and it is right now.

Helen Goodman: Government Members are constantly asking Opposition Members to say sorry. Actually, about the way this has run, I am sorry.

Mr Hoban: I welcome the hon. Lady’s candour. It would be good if more of her colleagues expressed similar candour.

One aspect of the Welfare Reform Act 2007 that has been referred to frequently throughout the debate is the establishment of the independent annual review. The last three have been undertaken by Professor Harrington, a distinguished occupational physician. What evidence has he put forward? In his first report, he stated that he did

“not believe that the system is broken or beyond repair”.

In his second report, he noted that the WCA had

“noticeably changed for the better”,

and in his third report, he said that

“real progress has been made”

and stressed that

things are beginning to change positively in the best interests of the individual.”

It is important not to lose sight of that.

Mr Anderson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Hoban: I want to make a bit more progress, because a lot of detailed points were raised and I want to address as many of them as possible.

Despite the improvement, it is clear—today’s debate reinforces this—that the WCA continues to generate heartfelt and passionately held views, but some of the worry experienced by claimants is a result of adverse media coverage and risks being fuelled by incorrect anecdotal information and—indeed—total myth. We have heard some of those myths today, and I want to set the record straight. This is an opportunity to address the facts behind the process and to set out what is happening in the Atos process.

Several hon. Members suggested that Atos had targets for finding people fit for work or placing them in a particular group. Let me be absolutely clear—let nobody in or beyond the House be in any doubt—there are no such targets. There are no targets for who should be put into which group. Instead—hon. Members would want this—there are quality-control checks. We want the right decisions to be made for our constituents and we want to ensure consistency between physicians and practitioners, and assessment centres. That quality control —saying that we should all be familiar with things we do and come across in our daily life—is not the same as a target. Atos has no targets to recommend that people go in particular groups.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1097

Mrs Gillan: I am grateful for that assurance, because it is a matter of great concern. Will the Minister go a step further and say whether he is aware of any internal targets? Will he give us an assurance that there are no internal targets at Atos?

Mr Hoban: There is nothing in the contract with Atos to suggest that there should be any targets for whom they recommend gets placed in particular groups. I want to be absolutely clear: there no targets and it is absolutely right that there should be no targets, because what all of us want, whichever side of the debate we are on, is to ensure that we get the right people in the right groups for the right support. We cannot do that with targets. We have to treat everyone individually. That is the dignity that we should accord the people going through the process. They should know that they are going to be treated with dignity. There are no preconceived targets.

Julie Hilling: The question then is not whether the Government are putting targets in place, but whether the Minister is 100% convinced that Atos does not set targets for any of its work force in any way, because that does not seem to be the evidence coming out. Is he utterly convinced about that and if not, will he investigate whether that is the case?

Mr Hoban: We have these discussions; there are no targets in the system. Indeed, the proportion of people who have been placed in the support group has doubled. To my mind, that suggests that there are no targets—it is very clear evidence of that.

Natascha Engel: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hoban: No, I am not going to give way. I want to make some more progress and the hon. Lady raised some questions that I want to address.

It has also been suggested that Atos health care professionals make decisions on benefit entitlement. They do not. Those decisions are made by DWP decision makers. They take the ESA50—the form people complete when making an ESA claim—any further medical evidence produced by a GP, consultant or health practitioner with whom the claimant is working, and the Atos assessment, but they look at all that evidence. The decision is made by DWP decision makers, not Atos. That is why there are a number of cases where the DWP decision maker’s decision has been different from any recommendation made by Atos. It is up to the DWP—the decision is made by the Department, not Atos—to decide who goes into which group.

Pamela Nash: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hoban: Let me make a bit more progress.

People say that the number of appeals overturned at tribunal is evidence of poor Atos reports—a point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). When we asked judges why they overturned DWP decisions, they said that an error in the Atos assessment was the primary reason for an overturn in only 0.3% of cases. However, although it happens very rarely, I agree with her on one point: I would like to get more information from the judges.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1098

Mr Iain Wright: You’re a Minister!

Mr Hoban: The hon. Gentleman says that I am a Minister, but the judges are independent—one of the strengths of our system. I hope that the judges have heard the comments that have been made—not only in this debate, but in other debates—about the need for more detail. To get the system right we need better feedback from the judges, but let us not forget that where we ask judges for the reason for an overturn, in a large proportion of cases they say it is the presentation of fresh evidence. They are very explicit in saying that the primary reason for overturn in only 0.3% of cases is the Atos assessment.

Sheila Gilmore: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because this is an important point, especially as it has been briefed on so often. What I want to know—the Minister has to ask this question too—is this. I suspect that the question of overturns is simply one of some fairly simple error in the form, but according to the same judges, in 40% of cases they made their decision because they disagreed with the presentation of the case. That still suggests something wrong with the initial assessments—whether because the people concerned did not present them well or because the Atos assessors rushed them through. In 40% of cases the judges came to a different decision.

Mr Hoban: Just because the statistics do not suit the hon. Lady’s argument does not mean that they are wrong. A lot of this debate is about constituency casework and experience. Sometimes we also need to look at the overall stats and figures behind this issue to put those cases in context, which is why I made the point about the overturn rate.

It has been suggested that GPs should make the assessment. The British Medical Association has been prayed in aid. Let me quote what the BMA said about that idea:

“However, it is not part of the GP’s role to provide any opinion…on the patient’s capability to work as part of this process. It is vital that these two roles are kept separate and that GPs are not asked to provide an opinion on their patient for the purpose of receiving the Employment and Support Allowance; doing so could damage the doctor-patient relationship.”

It has also been said that the work capability assessment does not take full account of mental health conditions. Let me say a bit about that important issue. We have sought to improve the process and the support for the health care professionals who are undertaking the assessments. All Atos health care professionals receive specific and additional training in assessing mental health conditions—

Mr Kevan Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hoban: No, I am going to continue.

Mr Jones: You are talking rubbish, that’s why.

Mr Hoban: We do ensure that those professionals receive the support that they need to assess those conditions.

Following Professor Harrington’s recommendation, Atos has 60 mental health function champions in place to spread best practice. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) asked whether

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1099

they had specific training in autism. I can assure her that that is the case. She also asked, as did other hon. Members, whether we could review the effectiveness of the mental health champions. It is not for me to dictate the work that Professor Harrington’s successor will undertake as part of the fourth review, but I think that that is a good suggestion. We need to look at the effectiveness of the recommendations that Professor Harrington has made.

Mr Anderson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hoban: I am going to make some progress, as I have only a few minutes left to speak before the next debate starts.

In March 2011, we also implemented the recommendations of a Department-led review of the work capability assessment, which included the expansion of the support group to cover more people with certain communication problems and severe disability due to mental health conditions.

Hon. Members have suggested that the assessment does not take account of fluctuating conditions, but that is not the case. It gives people with a fluctuating condition the opportunity to explain how their condition varies over time. It is not a tick-box assessment, as some have suggested. There is a discussion between the health care professional and the person making the claim for ESA to determine how their condition varies over time. The questionnaire that customers are sent has been redesigned for that purpose, and people are now asked to give more details about how their fluctuating condition affects them as an individual. If a person cannot carry out a function repeatedly and reliably, they will be treated as unable to carry out that function at all. We all recognise that the capacity of people with a fluctuating condition can change, and it is important that proper regard should be given to that fact.

I want to pick up on a point made by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). We have committed to a review of the descriptors for fluctuating conditions, and we are working closely with charities on that. We also need to ensure that any new descriptors are as good as, or better than, the existing ones, for the purpose of assessing someone’s condition. That work is going on at the moment.

Stephen Timms rose

Mr Hoban: I know that the right hon. Gentleman is keen to find out when that review will be published, but let me just say this. We want to make changes, if there is evidence to support such changes, and we need to ensure that that evidence is gathered and evaluated. I am as keen as he is to ensure that changes are made as quickly as possible, and that we make the right changes and the best changes to improve the process. I am not in any way seeking to delay the process—we want to ensure that it happens—but we have had to work quite hard to get the right descriptors that will provide the evidence on functional ability, and we are now assessing them.

Stephen Timms rose

Mr Hoban: I will not give way. I have only three or four minutes left and there is a bit more to say.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1100

Some criticism has been made of Atos, with suggestions that—

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister is most courteously attending to the issues, and he refers to three or four minutes. I know that he will be leaving at least two, if not three, minutes for the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) to wind up at the end. I think that we are clear on that.

Mr Hoban: I am, Mr Speaker. I am aiming to finish at 2.58 to allow the right hon. Gentleman his two minutes. I would quite happily continue for longer, but I know another debate is to follow in which hon. Members are also interested and another time limit applies.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab) rose

Stephen Timms rose

Mr Hoban: I have only four minutes left and I want to address some more questions.

Let me deal with the issue of Atos’s capability. Atos deals with 100,000 cases every month and it consistency meets the quality thresholds. Only 3.6% of assessments are below standard compared with a threshold of 5%. It receives complaints about only 0.6% of assessments. DWP decision makers return to Atos assessments that are inadequate for reaching a decision in only 0.2% of cases.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) asked about the appeal rates. Let me be clear about the rate of successful appeals. Of all the fit-for-work decisions taken by the Department, only 15% are overturned on appeal. Only 15% of all the decisions we take, then, are overturned on appeal, which I think demonstrates that while we need to ensure that there is a proper appeals process, we should not be bandying around figures that misrepresent the level of successful appeals.

Natascha Engel: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hoban: No. I have two minutes left and I want to make some more comments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) talked about quality. The tribunal service can refer substandard reports back to Atos as an appeal for further action. It has exercised that right only 23 times in the past year. Rigorous checks are in place to ensure that quality applies.

Much has been said about employment and support allowance not working—that is untrue. What we are seeing is people coming off ESA and getting into work. The number of working-age people on ESA and incapacity benefit in February 2012 was 2.56 million—the lowest level since the introduction of IB in 1995. Early estimates to September 2012 suggest that overall numbers for this benefit are falling and will for the first time be below 2.5 million.

Finally, although there are many other myths, the last one I shall address today is the myth that the WSA is not fit for purpose. Professor Harrington has made it quite clear that the WSA, designed as a first positive step for work, is the right concept for assessing people who need our support. There is a need to improve it. No

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1101

one doubts that, which is why we have implemented Professor Harrington’s recommendations. The assessment we inherited needed refinement. That is why we accepted and have largely implemented more than 40 of his recommendations over the past two years. That is why twice as many people have gone into the support group in comparison with when ESA was introduced.

Overall, the proportion of people with mental health conditions being awarded ESA has risen from 33% to 49%. We are seeing improvements and more will be introduced later this month on the categories of cancer treatment that allow people to go straight into the work-related activity group. These changes are happening. We should recognise that change is important and that it is happening. This is the right approach; demonising the work capability assessment does not help our constituents and does not address their concerns.

2.58 pm

Mr Meacher: I cannot remember attending such a compelling and powerful debate, combining passion, analysis and a very powerful demand for radical reform. It is absolutely clear that the consensus of the whole House is that the current Atos system has failed irretrievably and needs to be replaced by a wholly new and fair system.

I have to say that the Minister’s response just now was extremely disappointing. He gave no assurance whatever that the present failed, mechanistic, tick-box system used by Atos will be replaced, or that the evidence of GPs and other medical personnel who know the disabled person will be taken into account. He could thus give no assurance that the original decisions will be made any more accurate or fairer. As a consequence, the appeals system, already overloaded, is going to remain choked.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, made the forceful point that when Atos works for another employer, such as the NHS or Royal Mail, it produces very different results in terms of fitness for work—which strongly suggests the very uncomfortable truth that perhaps the DWP is entirely prepared to accept the results that we all deplore if that is only way of getting hundreds of thousands of people off benefits.

That is not just the view of the Opposition. I think that the mood of the House was caught by one of the Minister’s very senior colleagues, who said—I noted it down at the time—that the reputation of Atos was so damaged that it was necessary to park it to one side and move off in a different direction. That is exactly what is needed.

This issue is a test of the Government’s accountability to the House. In my opinion, the incontrovertible message conveyed by today’s debate is that until the Government and the DWP listen to, and act on, the unanimous view that has been expressed today—I have never seen such unanimity across the Benches—and introduce a wholly different system, the House will not let the matter go.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of Atos work capability assessments.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1102

Nuclear Deterrent

[Relevant documents:The Fourth Report from the Scottish Affairs Committee, on The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: Terminating Trident-Days or Decades?, HC 676, and the Government response, HC 86.]

Mr Speaker: Interest in this debate has led me again to impose a six-minute limit on each Back-Bench contribution.

3 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the nuclear deterrent.

The motion stands in my name, and that of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn).

Obtaining the debate involved a genuinely collaborative effort across the political divide. Part of the beauty of the Backbench Business Committee process is that it compels people who disagree profoundly about issues to work together to ensure that those issues are brought to the Floor of the House. No fewer than two dozen colleagues representing both sides of the argument supported our application for the debate at various stages. They are too numerous to list, but representations were made to the Backbench Business Committee by—as well as the hon. Member for Newport West and me—the hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and my hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for Crawley (Henry Smith), for Woking (Jonathan Lord), and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). Others who were particularly supportive include the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), and my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).

I know that several of those Members, as well as others—not least the former Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who is participating in a broadcast on this very subject this afternoon—regret that Committee meetings and other inescapable commitments prevent them from attending today’s debate. I am grateful to them all, and I hope that the tone and content of our debate between now and 5 pm will justify the effort that they all put into encouraging the Backbench Business Committee to select this important topic.

Given that we must fit some 20 speeches into just two hours, I shall endeavour to make my own remarks as brief as possible. I wish to outline just five military arguments and four rather more political arguments in favour of our retaining the independent deterrent. The first of the military arguments is the most important argument of all: that future military threats and conflicts will be no more predictable than those that engulfed us throughout the 20th century. That is the overriding justification for preserving armed forces in peacetime as a national insurance policy. No one knows which enemies may confront us during the next 30 to 50 years—for that is the period that we are discussing, when the next generation of the nuclear deterrent will be in service—but it is highly probable that at least some of those enemies will be armed with weapons of mass destruction.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1103

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I greatly regret that, owing to a prime ministerial meeting with GPs from my constituency, I shall be unable to take part substantively in the debate.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our independent nuclear deterrent has helped to keep the peace in Europe for the past six decades, and that, because we effectively bankrupted the Soviet Union, it has led to the freeing of millions of people in eastern Europe?

Dr Lewis: I am sure that will be a central topic in our debate, and I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope some of the later points in my list of nine arguments will serve to endorse what he has said.

My second argument is that it is not the weapons themselves that we have to fear, but the nature of the regimes that possess them. Whereas democracies are generally reluctant to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear dictatorships—although they did so against Japan in 1945—the reverse is not true. Let us consider what might have happened if in 1982 a non-nuclear Britain had been facing an Argentina in possession of even just a few tactical nuclear bombs and the means of delivering them. Would we then have dared to use our conventional forces against its inferior conventional forces?

The third military argument is that the United Kingdom has traditionally played a more important and decisive role in preserving freedom than other medium-sized democracies have been able, or willing, to do. Democratic countries without nuclear weapons have little choice but either to declare themselves neutral and hope for the best or to rely on the nuclear umbrella of their powerful allies. The UK is a nuclear power already and is also much harder to defeat by conventional means than many other democracies because of our physical separation from the continent.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman arguing for every independent country in the world to possess nuclear weapons?

Dr Lewis: Absolutely not. I am saying that those countries that do not have nuclear weapons already often have other reasons that make it difficult to defend their borders, whereas, fortunately, we find it easier to do so because of our physical separation from the continent.

The fourth argument is that our prominence as the principal ally of the United States, our strategic geographical position—to which I have just referred—and the fact that we are obviously the junior partner might tempt an aggressor to risk attacking us separately. Given the difficulties in overrunning the UK with conventional forces in comparison with our more vulnerable allies, an aggressor could be tempted to use one or more mass destruction weapons against us on the assumption that the United States would not respond on our behalf. Even if that assumption were false, the attacker would find out his mistake only when it was too late for all concerned. An independently controlled British nuclear deterrent massively reduces the prospect of such a fatal miscalculation.

The fifth of the military arguments is that no quantity of conventional forces can compensate for the military disadvantage that faces a non-nuclear country in a war

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1104

against a nuclear-armed enemy. The atomic bombing of Japan is especially instructive—not only because the Emperor was forced to surrender, but also because of what might have happened under the reverse scenario. If Japan had developed atomic bombs in the summer of 1945 and the allies had not, a conventional allied invasion to end the war would have been out of the question.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I want to follow on from the question from the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and press the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on the logic of his argument. How can it be right for us to claim that we should have nuclear weapons, yet lecture every other country against trying to acquire them? If we are saying that the UK depends on nuclear weapons to be safe, does it not logically follow that every other country has the right to make the same argument?

Dr Lewis: The answer to that is catered for by the point I made earlier: it is not the weapons we have to fear but the nature of the regimes that have them. I have no desire to lecture other democracies on whether or not they should have nuclear weapons, as that is a question for them and it is about whether they feel they can afford to do that. It does not bother me if democracies have nuclear weapons, but I do reserve the right to lecture dictatorships, and preferably to try to thwart, baulk and deter them from having such weapons, because they are the threat, not the weapons themselves.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con) rose

Dr Lewis: I will give way, but it will be for the last time as otherwise I will be in danger of taking too much time. [Interruption.] I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in resuming his seat.

I wish briefly to make four political points. The first political argument is that when people are asked whether it is safer for this country to continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them, a large majority of the population consistently take the view that we should do so and that it would be unwise and dangerous to renounce them unilaterally. We can ask different poll questions that seem to point to a different answer, but when that question is asked, the answer is surprisingly consistent.

The second political argument is that in the 1980s, under cold war conditions, two general elections demonstrated the toxic effect of one-sided disarmament proposals on a party’s prospects of gaining power. The third argument is that it was and remains widely believed—this refers to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) a few moments ago—that the nuclear stalemate of the cold war enabled all-out conflict between the majors powers to be avoided for 50 years, despite their mutual hostility and in contrast to what happened in those many regional theatres where communists and their enemies could and did fight without fear of nuclear escalation. The final political argument is that the ending of the east-west confrontation has not altered the balance of public opinion on this question. First, that is because a danger could easily re-emerge of a reversion to a confrontation of that sort. Secondly, it is because even today there are unpleasant

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1105

regimes, such as Iran’s, on the point of acquiring nuclear weapons and some, such as North Korea’s, that have already done so.

The role of our strategic nuclear force remains what it has always been: to deter any power armed with mass destruction weapons from using them against us, in the belief, true or false, that nobody would retaliate on our behalf. The use of our deterrent consists of its preventive effect on the behaviour of our enemies. The actual launching of a Trident missile would mark the failure of deterrence and would presuppose that a devastating attack had already been inflicted on our country.

Because strategic nuclear deterrence is largely irrelevant to the current counter-insurgency campaigns with which the British Army has been involved, some senior Army officers have been suggesting that we must choose between fighting “the war” of the present and insuring against the more conventional prospect of state-versus-state conflict in the future. I say that that choice is unacceptable, and that the underlying message that the era of high-intensity, state-on-state warfare is gone for good is a dangerous fallacy. Every sane individual hopes that such warfare will never return, but to rely on that in the face of past experience would be extremely foolhardy. The lesson of warfare in the 20th century, repeated time and again, was that when conflicts broke out they usually took their victims by surprise. Obvious examples are: the failure to anticipate the first world war; the follies of the “10-year rule” from 1919 to 1932; and the entirely unanticipated attacks on Israel in 1973, the Falklands in 1982, Kuwait in 1990 and the United States in 2001. Conversely, and on a brighter note, the speed with which the Soviet empire unravelled from 1989 left even its sternest critics largely nonplussed.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: I will not, because I am about to finish. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

Our current counter-insurgency campaigns are very important indeed, but they cannot be compared with battles for the very survival of the United Kingdom homeland. Such existential threats confronted us twice in the past 100 years and, if international relations deteriorate, they could easily confront us again.

My final remark concerns the alternatives. I can see only three possible alternatives to renewing Trident other than getting rid of the nuclear deterrent completely. The first is that suggested by the Liberal Democrats of putting cruise missiles on Astute class submarines. I have said in the past and say again that that would be more expensive and less effective, would put the submarine at risk because of the shorter range of the missiles, which would bring the submarine closer to shore, and could start world war three by accident because no one would be sure whether the launched missile had a conventional or nuclear warhead. Apart from that, it is a great idea.

The second alternative is to come off continuous at- sea deterrence, to put the nuclear deterrent on stand-by and to say that we will reactivate it if things get worse. That is an extremely dangerous suggestion as having a part-time deterrent is probably as dangerous as, if not more dangerous than, having no deterrent at all.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1106

The final suggestion is that we could perhaps combine our deterrent with that of the French and therefore have fewer submarines. All I can say about that is that our deterrent is strongly connected with the excellent working relationship we have with the United States, which would not admit of such a solution.

I hope that I have given people plenty of food for thought. We have an hour and three quarters left and I very much look forward to hearing both sides of the argument in the time that remains.

3.15 pm

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on obtaining this debate. He knows that we have disagreed on this subject for decades and nothing has changed today.

One of the questions that is never adequately addressed in such debates is why people believe, as the hon. Gentleman does, that there could be a nuclear threat uniquely directed at Britain. The 2006 White Paper that argued for a continuation of Trident described three threat scenarios: the re-emergence of a major nuclear threat; new states acquiring nuclear capability; and state-sponsored nuclear terrorism. On the first scenario of the re-emergence of a major nuclear threat, can anyone think of a plausible reason why a future Russia, having enjoyed the fruits of capitalism and democracy, albeit that it is limited, would threaten to attack the UK and just the UK? On the contrary, Russia’s interests depend on a peaceful and prosperous Europe.

The second scenario is the potential threat from new states acquiring nuclear weapons, and Iran is the country most frequently cited. Embroiled as it is in middle east politics with a nuclear-armed Israel on one side and a nuclear-armed Pakistan on the other, Iran’s ambitions are regional. Condemnation of Iran might unite us all, but that is no reason for not asking why on earth Iran would uniquely target the UK.

The third scenario, sponsored nuclear terrorism, deserves the closest attention. The White Paper explains how deterrence should work. It states:

“We make no distinction between the means by which a state might choose to deliver a nuclear warhead…whether by missile or sponsored terrorists”

and goes on to say that a state identified as the source of the material could expect a proportionate response. The threat of retaliation must be credible for deterrence to work, so how will we determine which is the sponsoring country? Remembering George Bush’s conviction that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, we will not be relying on politicians. No, the nuclear material will be sent to the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston to determine where it came from. A decision will then have to be taken.

Let me remind members of Trident’s power. The Hiroshima bomb killed more than 100,000 people and injured thousands more. Just one Trident submarine could target up to 48 cities, with each warhead having eight times the effect of the Hiroshima bomb. Does anyone believe that in the cold light of day, after the Aldermaston analysis, a British Government would give the order for nuclear retaliation which would wipe out a nation of innocent people and leave an environmental legacy for many generations? This is not a credible threat.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1107

In my view not one of those three scenarios stands up to scrutiny, but they share a further fundamental flaw. The hon. Member for New Forest East seems to forget that in reality Trident is assigned to NATO. Its purpose is not to deter a unique threat to the UK. Does anyone honestly believe that the UK could use its nuclear weapons unilaterally? Of course not.

In the world we now inhabit the greatest threats to the UK are climate change, international terrorism, cyber attack, global economics, health epidemics and competition for scarce resources. It is received wisdom that every one of these challenges can be addressed only by international co-operation, the building of trust, diplomacy, peacemaking and development. In all these fields the UK under successive Governments has made a positive contribution.

There are far better ways to protect the people of these islands, and in an age of austerity there are far, far better ways to spend the £25 billion capital and the £2.5 billion annual costs of the Trident programme. When our conventional forces—of course we need them, and I have never been a pacifist—are so stretched, when our hospitals, fire stations and police stations are closing, where is our real security? Not in Trident. It is an obscene waste of the public’s money and of our precious skills and resources, which we desperately need to put this country back on its feet. We need to face the truth. British nuclear weapons have no utility. The scenarios for use are not plausible, and if Trident cannot be used, it cannot deter.

3.21 pm

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring that we have this important debate today. Members will know of my special interest in the Royal Navy, as the mother of a serving Royal Naval officer, although my daughter assures me that she has no desire to serve aboard one of the four Vanguard class submarines.

I am pleased that the Government are committed to maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The Government have also approved the initial gate investment, and selected the submarine design for the successor nuclear deterrent. Contracts have been signed for the first 18 months of work on the assessment phase of the successor submarine programme.

Trident has provided a massive amount of employment for my constituents in South East Cornwall. Repair, refuelling and refit of the Vanguard class submarines is carried out in the D154 submarine support facilities at Devonport. The expertise and experience that Devonport now has should be utilised in any future programme. As a local county councillor at the time, I will never forget standing by the banks of the River Tamar in Mount Edgcumbe park, and watching the first Vanguard submarine edge her way around Drake’s island and into Devonport dockyard for refit. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that the £350 million contract to refit and refuel the nuclear missile submarine HMS Vengeance had been awarded to Devonport in March last year. It will safeguard up to 2,000 jobs.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1108

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that that is also an important part of our skills base, and that if it were to go, we would see a significant diminution in our skills base?

Sheryll Murray: My hon. Friend is right.

Maintaining a continuous at-sea deterrent is essential. It sends the positive message that the UK is always prepared to respond instantly. There is the additional advantage of a moveable location, which assists security against any possible threats. The Government have excellent principles to abide by when considering nuclear arms. These include the use of nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self-defence, a commitment to a minimum nuclear deterrent, and not to use any weapons contrary to international law. In other words, the highly powerful weapons would be used only as a last resort.

It is important to retain nuclear weapons. I was concerned at our going into coalition with partners who stated in their last election manifesto that they would be saying no to like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Given the reports in The Independent on 19 July last year, I am still concerned that they might scale down our vital nuclear deterrent in increasingly uncertain times.

We need to remember that the UK’s nuclear deterrent contributes towards our collective security as part of NATO. If the UK did not have an at-sea deterrent, NATO’s collective security would be weakened, leaving the UK dependent on the US and France.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that major wars tend to start when dictators believe that democracies are too weak to stand up to them? For democracies such as Britain to give up their nuclear deterrent would send out entirely the wrong message about how we seek to protect others and ourselves.

Sheryll Murray: That is exactly true.

The UK has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We were awarded that position because our nation was one of the most powerful in the world following world war two. The UK’s membership of that exclusive club could be called into question without the continuation of our nuclear deterrent.

A British at-sea nuclear deterrent has served us well for 60 years; it can and should serve us well into the future. I hope that refitting work on any future submarines will continue to provide much-needed employment opportunities for my constituents in Saltash, Torpoint and throughout the rest of South East Cornwall.

3.26 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): There are two mindsets in this debate: there are those on the other side who are locked in the permafrost of the fear of cold war thinking and there are those who have hope for a better and safer world.

The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) mentioned the 1980s. I vividly recall what the historian E. P. Thompson said at that dangerous time, when the world had enough nuclear weapons to kill humanity

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1109

57 times over and we were in deadly peril because the geriatric fingers on the nuclear buttons belonged to Andropov, who was on a life support machine and virtually dead from the neck down, and to President Reagan, who was dead from the neck up.

The likelihood of a nuclear war does not come from design, plans or escalation but from accidents. What the hon. Member for New Forest East, who introduced the debate, is arguing—there is no denying it—is for every country in the world to have its own nuclear insurance and nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Things are changing. George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn, the four titans of American foreign policy, have all called for a world free of nuclear weapons and so has their splendid President. That gives a new momentum to the idea and hope that have become the centre of the policy debate—“They are the past and we are the future on this.”

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), I have repeatedly asked for anyone to give a plausible future scenario in which nuclear weapons could be used independently by the United Kingdom. There is no such scenario. We are carrying on being comfortable with the policies of the past. We should go back to the vision of previous Governments. In 1968, a UK Foreign Affairs Minister urged the United Nations to sign up to the newly negotiated non-proliferation treaty. He promised United Kingdom support and added:

“It will, therefore, be essential to follow the treaty up quickly with further disarmament measures”.

That was 45 years ago. There was a clear vision and hope of declining stocks of nuclear weapons throughout the world.

The continued possession of nuclear weapons of mass destruction has a pernicious effect on our economy, with resources that could have been invested in research for the NHS, in education or improving our environment being squandered on high-tech killing machines.

Coming into the House today, I met a former Member—a distinguished Committee Chairman who stood down at the last election—and told him what we were doing today. He said, “That was the most difficult decision. I needed a Whip behind me with an arm lock to get me into the Lobby to vote for Trident”, and the Whip had told him beforehand, “I don’t believe in it either.” Ministers give the party line and the deterrence fiction when they are at the Dispatch Box, but we see a remarkable turnaround when they stand down and have an epiphany. Last Friday, Michael Portillo said that Trident was

“completely past its sell-by date”,

and added:

“It is neither independent, nor is it any kind of deterrent because we face enemies like the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons...I reached the view after I was defence secretary.”

So we have nonsense when they are in power, when they can do something, and the truth comes out with their realisation afterwards. Why is good sense invisible to politicians in office but monumentally obvious outside office?

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1110

However, there is a glimmer of hope. Even our own Prime Minister is perhaps approaching a moment when he will change. Last October, he said that

“if we are to have a nuclear deterrent, it makes sense to ensure we have something that is credible and believable”.—[Official Report, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 319.]

Trident is neither credible nor believable. It undermines our credentials on non-proliferation, which is the best hope for a safe future. Its replacement should be cancelled, and then we could use the existing stocks of weapons of mass destruction—

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): We should be proud of our role in the non-proliferation treaty and the fact that the nuclear deterrent has helped us to avoid wars in the past and is an insurance policy for the future. The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing for unilateral disarmament. In that scenario, which other country would disarm because we had disarmed?

Paul Flynn: I am not arguing for unilateral disarmament because it is not a practical possibility; I do not believe that it is attainable. When the hon. Gentleman intervened I was about to say that we can use the weapons we have as part of our bargaining to achieve disarmament and to make the nuclear non-proliferation treaty a practical one. How can we say to other countries, “You can’t have nuclear weapons but we’re insisting on ours”? That way forward will not be possible.

The problem is the return of the mindset that our country is somehow very special. We are going back to the 19th-century view when we had an empire, insisting that we are powerful and determine world peace. That is a very damaging view. We saw it this week in relation to the fact that we have to join almost every war that comes along. It was said here on Monday that by joining the war in the state of Mali, even if there is no mission creep we have already exposed ourselves to the possibility of terrorist attacks. That was pooh-poohed by Ministers, but the attack has happened, a life has been lost, and others are under threat. That is the position we are in.

To some, Trident is a virility status symbol; to others, it is a comfort blanket. The Foreign Secretary of the moment will often say that we have to have it because the UK must punch above its weight. Punching above our weight means spending beyond our interests and dying beyond our responsibilities.

3.33 pm

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Most Members will be aware of this, but for the record I should like to state that I firmly believe in our nuclear deterrent. In this uncertain world where countries that are not necessarily friendly to the west have nuclear weapons, it is an unfortunate fact of life that we need them as well to guarantee Britain’s safety. However, that does not stop us also working towards arms reduction. When President Obama launched his global zero initiative, I very much welcomed it. We also owe a debt of thanks to the Royal Navy and our Vanguard submariners, who are always on patrol, for safeguarding the country and providing the essential British contribution to NATO.

I want to suggest that our commitment to our nuclear deterrent should not just be about the current capability and future plans. There is a legacy from the dawn of our

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1111

deterrent that we have still not yet fully recognised. We have to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to another group of people, who also deserve our recognition and thanks, without whom Britain would never have joined the top tier of nuclear powers. They are, of course, our nuclear test veterans.

In the 1950s and 1960s, in the largest tri-service operation since the D-day landings, 20,000 service personnel participated in British nuclear weapon tests in the south Pacific and Australia. These men’s service was unique. When they took part, the science was largely unknown. Pre-test precautions were primitive and inadequate and failed to protect individuals fully from the effects of heat, blast shock and ionising radiation. Many veterans believe that their health was adversely affected by those tests, a view substantiated by scientific research undertaken in New Zealand by Professor Rowland that was peer-reviewed and accepted by the then New Zealand Government.

Some years ago, following an inquiry from a constituent, I became involved with the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association and I am now its patron. After a long campaign, the BNTVA and I succeeded in persuading the Ministry of Defence to undertake a health needs analysis of all surviving veterans. It showed that 84% of them believed that their main health condition was caused by radiation. If anybody thinks that that was an easy task and analysis to accomplish, they have not dealt with the MOD, but I thank it for taking that on.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): It was me.

Mr Baron: To a certain extent, yes.

Many helpful, practical measures are now being introduced as a result—for example, small but important things such as markers denoting veteran status on NHS records.

Following the success of the health needs analysis, the BNTVA and I recently started a new campaign with three objectives. The first is to secure a lasting legacy for these men and their descendants. There is still much to learn about the effects of exposure to radiation and how we can continue to make nuclear energy safe. The second is to secure public recognition from the Prime Minister of our debt to these veterans. That could include recognition through the medal system by adding a clasp to the general service medal. The third is to establish a benevolent fund courtesy of Government, the suggested figure being £25 million. This would support atomic veterans and, more importantly, their descendants, who have also suffered medical setbacks that can be attributed to their fathers’ exposure.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I am very pleased to hear the hon. Gentlemen’s speech and endorse every word he has spoken. I am a member of the group that he has set up and I, too, have been horrified to hear from my constituents about the effects on grandchildren as a result of the tests in which the veterans took part. He is absolutely right: we must not forget the part that those veterans and their families continue to play.

Mr Baron: I thank the hon. Lady for her support; it is much appreciated.

The Government may say that £25 million is an awful lot of money in these austere times.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1112

Mr Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Baron: If I am allowed a second intervention that will add another minute to my speech, then by all means.

Mr Jones: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was pleased to put in place the health study, against the opposition of a lot of the civil service, when I was a Defence Minister. A generous settlement proposal was put to the lawyers—I got the Treasury to agree to it—but it was rejected. That was an opportunity missed for veterans to get some compensation.

Mr Baron: I recognise the part that the hon. Gentleman played in the health needs analysis. However, let us be absolutely clear about a confusion that is all too readily accepted by the MOD: the BNTVA has never participated in the legal cases that some individual veterans have brought. That is a vital distinction to make and I ask the House to take it on board.

Although £25 million sounds like a lot of money, we should set it in the context of how other nuclear countries have treated their veterans. The US gives each veteran £47,000 plus a further £47,000 for any secondary attributable illness. No causal link is required between the cancer suffered by the veteran and the fact that they were there. If they were at the tests and they have cancer, they automatically get the compensation. Canada pays more than £15,000 in addition to money, from pensions and compensation legislation. The Isle of Man makes an ex gratia payment of £8,000 to any resident test veteran.

In all three cases, the service personnel in question have access to free health care provision. The MOD argument that veterans in this country have access to the NHS therefore does not stack up. The fact remains that this country’s nuclear test veterans are almost at the bottom of the scale in the international comparisons going by how they are treated by this country. I hope that the House will accept that that needs to be put right. Against those comparisons, the campaign for £25 million, which works out at about £6,000 per veteran, is modest.

I should at this stage repeat what I said to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and make it clear that the BNTVA has never participated in the legal challenges brought by some veterans.

We have had several meetings at the MOD with successive Ministers for veterans. I wrote to the Government in November to set out the details of our campaign. Despite chase-ups, I still await a response. No doubt the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), will carry that message back to the MOD. Meanwhile, I have written to all Back Benchers requesting their support for our campaign for recognition. As the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) mentioned, many have been kind enough to write back positively. I will be taking the matter further in due course.

In conclusion, as the Government are on the verge of commissioning the next iteration of our nuclear deterrent, it is right that we remember those who first created it and finally, after so long, repay the debt that we owe them.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1113

3.42 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate, due to a prior commitment. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for calling me.

After Labour was massacred in the 1983 and 1987 general elections because of its advocacy, under a charming but useless leader, for unilateral nuclear disarmament, I was appointed by Neil Kinnock to review foreign and defence policy for the Labour party. As a result of that review, Labour became eligible for re-election and was re-elected at long last in 1997.

If Britain did not have nuclear weapons, I would not advocate our acquiring them, but history has bestowed them upon us. Let us not forget that it was a Labour Government in time of peace who decided that the United Kingdom should acquire nuclear weapons.

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reviewing the history of the decision making. Would he say that the conclusion that he came to was about politics or policy?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: The hon. Gentleman’s question requires a yes or a no, but it is not as clear as that. We are prisoners of history. That history decided that a medium-sized power that was pretty well bankrupt at the end of the second world war should possess nuclear weapons. We are a medium-sized power, and, for better or worse—it is worse in many ways—we would not be listened to any more than anybody else, including Italy, Spain, Greece or Germany, without the unwanted legacy of possession of nuclear weapons.

This is not a question of how we acquired them; the fact is that we are in possession of them. Owing to that fact, unlike those other western European countries and other countries in different parts of the world, we are eligible to participate in international nuclear disarmament. That is essential. We should take into account that it is 58 years since the end of the war. It is remarkable how few other countries have acquired nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel have acquired them, but even Iran—an aggressive and objectionable power with foul internal policies—has not yet done so. We have a voice on the international front that exists to try to prevent nuclear proliferation. If we did not by accident of history possess nuclear weapons, nobody would listen to us on nuclear disarmament. For that reason, we should use the result of that accident of history to take part in international negotiations to reduce, and eventually to eliminate, all nuclear weapons owned by any country.

Incidentally, I have a great affection for my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), but Reagan offered the Soviet Union a major internationally agreed nuclear disarmament. He might not have been the greatest President in the world, but at the same time, being there and having what he had, he was able to make the offer. It is deeply unfortunate that the Soviet Union did not grab that offer.

That being so, I say clearly that I do not want nuclear weapons; I am not happy we have got them, but we have got them. Divesting ourselves of our nuclear weapons would be regarded by many as an act of self-indulgence.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1114

We can use our possession of them to persuade others not to use them—there is always a danger that India, Pakistan and Israel will use them—and to take part in international negotiations to reduce and abolish them. That status comes to us by chance and by history. We should use our status.

3.48 pm

Sir Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): The UK must decide by the middle of 2016—just three years from now—whether to proceed with a like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent. I do not believe we need a further generation of nuclear weapons based on the scale we thought we needed in 1980 at the height of the cold war, and I do not believe we can afford to have one. I do not believe that national security assessment and strategy suggest we need it, or that our defence posture can stand it—our posture would become lop-sided if we were to commit to another generation on the same scale. In addition, I believe that the opportunity cost of committing so much money and manpower, and such a large proportion of our equipment budget, would have a malign effect on our general military capability.

In 1980, at the height of the cold war, we had a known nuclear adversary—the Soviet Union. It had British targets in its target set, and we had Soviet targets in our target set. There was a logic—I do not say that I necessarily subscribe to it hook, line and sinker—to having continuous at-sea deterrence, because we had a known adversary. Today’s circumstances are very different. At that time, we computed that the only way to fulfil the classic definition of deterrence—to put into one’s adversary’s mind the certainty that we were capable of inflicting damage that would be unacceptable to him—was to maintain the capability of overcoming Moscow’s nuclear defences and being able to flatten that city. Moscow was where the Soviet elite hung out and the only things that they valued, and to which they considered damage would be unacceptable, were themselves and their regime. The Russia of the 21st century, for all its imperfections, is very different. It is perfectly possible to deter modern Russia from a nuclear attack on us by a variety of other means, and there are other ways of inflicting on them damage that they would consider unacceptable.

Mr Kevan Jones: Why then have the Russians recently upgraded their anti-ballistic missile protection in and around Moscow?

Sir Nick Harvey: I did not say that they would be willing to see Moscow flattened—most certainly they would not. I am saying that there are other ways of inflicting damage on Russia that it would consider unacceptable.

I mentioned that there will be a vast opportunity cost to be paid if we decide to commit these funds, which, let us refresh our memories, in today’s money will be approximately £25 billion to £30 billion on the capital investment in a further generation of submarines. On top of that, we have to factor in the running costs of a nuclear deterrent on this scale for 30 or more years of through-life costs—more than £3 billion a year in today’s money. Beginning to total that out and factoring in decommissioning at the end, we are talking about an expenditure of more than £100 billion. We need to look closely at whether that is justified in the context of the

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1115

size of our defence budget, and what we are able to make available for other forms of defence and security in an increasingly dangerous and changing world.

Mr Jenkin: My hon. Friend has started to talk about 20, 30, 40 years ahead. Would he like to describe the strategic context in which we might be operating a nuclear deterrent in 20, 30, 40 years’ time, or indeed find ourselves operating without one? What is it going to be like then?

Sir Nick Harvey: The truth of the matter is that none of us knows. If we retain a nuclear deterrent of any description and any scale, it is an insurance policy against the unknown. I am saying that the current nuclear deterrent is scaled specifically to overcome the threat that we believed the Soviet Union posed in 1980. As we look to an unknown future over the course of this century, we have to decide what proportion of our defence spend and effort should go into this one part of our defence livery, and the opportunity cost of doing that.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we move to some form of cruise missile-based nuclear weapons system, that would be destabilising internationally and positively dangerous?

Sir Nick Harvey: I am waiting for the Trident alternatives review, which is being conducted by the Cabinet Office and is looking at exactly those sorts of issues. When it reports, I look forward to coming back and debating them with the hon. Gentleman. As a considered study of exactly these sorts of issues is nearing its conclusion at the moment, the time to debate those details will be when the report has been published.

I want to look at the pressures that will face Defence Ministers in the years when the large capital expenditure that I have described would have to be spent. In the same period of time, we will have to put the joint strike fighter aircraft on to the two new aircraft carriers and build the Type 26 frigate. Whatever the next generation of remotely piloted air systems and whoever we do that with, it will fall in the same time frame. Bearing in mind that HMS Ocean is due to leave service in 2018, any future generation of amphibious shipping will have to be paid for in exactly that time frame; and whatever we equip the Army with for the 21st century—it has been the poor relation in the equipment budget for many years—and bearing in mind how little seems to be left of the original future rapid effect system, as conceived by the previous Government, again, it will fall in that time frame. If we decide to give the nuclear deterrent a bye and think it has some magic claim on the money, an opportunity cost will have to be paid across the rest of our defence systems.

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) talking quite rightly about the part that Plymouth plays in the nuclear deterrent, but I put it to her and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) that if we commit all our money to one system, the opportunity cost will be felt above all else by the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy might fight—and win—to keep the nuclear deterrent on its current scale, but the price will be paid in the scale of the conventional surface Navy, which, in my view, is already trying to do far too much with far too little.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1116

The UK has a sensible range of military capabilities at the moment, and with that we can take part in international operations. We have global interests and ambitions, and uniquely we have the will to use military power when we need to in pursuit of those interests. Ours is still the fourth largest defence budget in the world. Our place on the top table does not depend on our being a nuclear power; we are there in our own right, and besides which any change to the line-up of the UN Security Council would require the UK’s assent, which we could simply withhold.

We must make a contribution to disarmament. That is an obligation we have under the non-proliferation treaty. We must wait and see whether the Trident alternatives review can find another system that offers us a way of sustaining a credible deterrent. It would not have the same capability, but there might be a way of doing something at a lesser cost. We should keep an open mind about trying to do that.

3.56 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey). I am glad that he did not repeat his assertion that the world would be a better place if my constituents were sacked and sent to the Bahamas with the money from the deterrent in their back pockets. It is also good to be back speaking here again for the first time since I banged my head. All will be fine, but if at any point, Mr Speaker, I look confused and ask what all these people are doing in my bedroom, please intervene and reassure me—no, I am not that bad.

The devastation of nuclear war would be an affront to nature itself, which is why I have said on many occasions that, if we could genuinely be confident that the UK disarming would make this horror less likely, that should come ahead of even the many thousands of jobs that the industry supports in my constituency and across the country. I am proud that the last Labour Government shifted Britain’s nuclear policy for the first time towards the aim of a global zero, but we should advance non-proliferation in a way that will maintain the security of the UK and, most of all, in a way that will make a nuclear catastrophe less likely, not more so.

That is one reason why I am wary of a party that up until now has been grossly irresponsible on the question of nuclear weapons and has suddenly be given access to the levers of power. It is one thing to be a fringe concern, making up positions that sound good on the doorstep. “When money is tight”, say the Liberal Democrats”, “Let’s have a mini-deterrent”—the nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on the Astute class submarines already being built in my constituency. “They would cost less”, they say, “providing more money for schools and hospitals, and they would be much less destructive than those awful Trident missiles to which the main parties are wedded. Vote for us!”

If that policy becomes a genuine possibility that could be enacted by a party of government, it will be put under scrutiny in the run-up to an election and its fundamental weaknesses exposed. The apparent savings evaporate when considered against the enormous cost of procuring new missiles—probably without a cost subsidy from the Americans this time—building new warheads from scratch, making considerable adaptations

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1117

to the Astutes and writing off the £3 billion that will already have been spent on the successor by then. When the operational capacity of this “mini-deterrent” is scrutinised, we will come up against the points that the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made so adeptly in opening this debate. All in all, this option is not a winner.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): It is really delightful to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place. The problem with using cruise missiles is precisely that they are vulnerable. The whole point of deterrence is that there should be an invulnerable system. Cruise missiles are vulnerable, which destroys the concept.

John Woodcock: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Most of all, such cruise missiles are indistinguishable on an enemy radar from conventional cruise missiles, raising the chilling prospect that in the confusion of battle, a conventional attack by the UK could trigger nuclear retaliation against British cities.

Sheryll Murray: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we took up this idea, we could see another tuition fees scenario?

John Woodcock: I certainly know what the hon. Lady means—I am reluctant to compare tuition fees to the ultimate deterrent, but in political terms she is absolutely right.

To those looking to the latest review into the future of the deterrent and hoping that a major—and needed—push on global non-proliferation could make it possible for the UK effectively to wait and see before committing to renew, I put two questions. First, is it really realistic to expect a breakthrough within the next few years in global security—involving not just the former Soviet Union and America, but the whole world—that would give us sufficient hope that a hostile nuclear power could not plausibly threaten the United Kingdom 20, 30 or 40 years hence? That is the judgment that we have to make now. Secondly, what would be the industrial and financial consequences of a further delay, on top of the already significant increase in cost caused by the coalition Government’s delay, which enabled them to kick the main gate decision on a successor into the next Parliament?

Industrially, we must think in terms of jobs now and over coming decades. Let us not forget that we are talking not just about 5,000 or 6,000 jobs in Barrow shipyard, critical to the regional economy though they are, but about the 4,000 jobs and rising in the nuclear submarine supply chain, stretching right across the country. We must also consider the UK’s prized capacity to manufacture submarines of any kind. We rightly say that, for security reasons, we should not procure from abroad, but if we leave another gap in production like the one in the 1990s—the Astute programme is still suffering from the attempt to recover from that—we could lose those highly honed skills from these shores for ever.

Of course we should always examine new evidence, but so far all credible evidence has pointed to the same place: that like-for-like renewal is the most effective—and

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1118

the most cost-effective—way of maintaining the UK’s minimum independent deterrent and that the decision to renew should be kept at arm’s length from our profound moral obligation to pursue a world free from the threat of nuclear war.

4.4 pm

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) back in his place. He put the case extremely well on behalf of Barrow-in-Furness for the current policy remaining in place and being renewed. I welcome the fact that we are having this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing it. We have been brothers in arms on defence, one way or another, for quite a long time. He has really distinguished himself on these issues, and I congratulate him on encouraging the Backbench Business Committee to hold this debate. His position is in the ascendancy and it speaks to his intellectual depth and courage that he is prepared to put his ideas to the test in the Chamber. I also want to congratulate the former Minister of State for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), on his contribution to starting, and initially leading, the review of the alternatives to Trident. We owe it to ourselves to think rather more deeply about this matter than we have done in the past.

It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) explaining how the Labour party had moved to its present position. Those on the Opposition Front Bench are no longer allowed to think about this issue, because the politics of 1983 were so appallingly scarring. Labour Front-Benchers are now frozen in a position in which any sense of doubt about the continuation of the present policy would be seen as politically catastrophic, and they are not allowed to go there. The only expressions of doubt that we will hear today will come from the old stagers of the 1980s who fought and lost the battles on disarmament at the time. I believe that it was quite proper that they lost those arguments.

We are now in a completely new era, and we owe it to ourselves to review the policy properly, and as openly as we can. That review is now being carried out under the leadership of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and it will report to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, but I am concerned that there has been no undertaking to publish it, and that there will therefore be no opportunity for us to examine the costings.

Sir Nick Harvey: If my hon. Friend studies the coalition mid-term review document that was published last week, he will see that, for the first time, there is an explicit commitment to publish the review. I understand that the review will be concluded in March, and that publication will probably be in May.

Mr Blunt: I am delighted to be corrected on that point.

This is the hub of the issue. We are being invited to engage in an insurance policy that is going to last about 40 years and cost between 5% and 6% of our defence budget. Will that insurance policy ever be cashed in? My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) would probably suggest that it is being cashed in all the time, owing to the fact that it exists. In that sense, the deterrence is eternal.

17 Jan 2013 : Column 1119

We need to get into the minds of the likely decision makers who might attack British interests in a way that would engage the use of our deterrent. We also need to get into the minds of our leaders who might then have to contemplate the use of the deterrent in response. There has been a change in the debate on how states conduct these affairs. The question of whether it would be a matter for the International Criminal Court if a leader chose to eviscerate millions of wholly innocent people in pursuit of their state’s policy is one that ought to engage us, particularly as we no longer live in a bipolar world consisting of one alliance taking a position against a competing ideology. The world has changed.

I do not pretend to have an answer to this question, but I want the House to have as much data as possible so that we can begin to make as informed a decision as possible. It is the position of the Government—and, I believe, of those on the Opposition Front Bench—that paying a premium of 5% to 6% of the defence budget for the 40 next years would be worth it because of what it would buy. Well, would 10% or 15% be worth it? How solid are the figures of 5% to 6%? Why should that cost be coming out of the defence budget, given the cost of the equipment that is going to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who are carrying out the other tasks that we ask them to undertake? Should the cost be found from outside the main defence vote?

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. Given the importance of the deterrent, does he share my concern about what a potential yes vote to Scottish independence would mean, and does he share my hope that the Scottish people will see this as another reason for staying part of the United Kingdom?

Mr Blunt: It could work the other way. It could provide a reason why the Scottish people would vote to leave the United Kingdom, as they could then dispose of having to host the deterrent and of the threat of counter-measures for the people living immediately around the area.

I would like to be exposed to more data about the vulnerability of the future submarine systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) intervened to say that what was required of the system was that it be invulnerable. Well, I do not know how he can predict the efficacy of surveillance systems in 40 years’ time, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex said that we have no idea what the international situation will be in 40 years’ time. It is perfectly possible that satellite observations and surveillance of the sea would make it pretty straightforward to trace a submarine in 40 years’ time. I do not know, but I would be grateful for the best data available so that we can test whether or not we will need to spend this eye-watering amount of money on something that will do what it says on the tin, to use a current phrase, in 40 years’ time.