The new guidance published by the Home Office recently includes specific provisions to ensure that individuals with a history of domestic violence are not entrusted with a firearms licence. As part of that guidance, police offers are told that they should speak to the

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family of any applicant with a known history of domestic violence and that speaking to an applicant’s spouse or partner might be considered essential. Such discussion would be in complete confidence and a partner would not be asked to approve or not approve a firearms licence. That guidance will ensure that the correct consultation takes place when anyone with a history of domestic violence applies for a firearms licence.

While the hon. Gentleman was speaking, I was thinking that when I first became a Member of Parliament 21 years ago the law did not require police officers to investigate domestic violence at all unless bodily harm was involved. That shows how far we have come on domestic violence and I suspect that the law and practice relating to firearms certificates and domestic violence have not caught up with the general trend in society.

Grahame M. Morris: Perhaps I was a little unclear about the specific case, but domestic violence was cited by the officers who sought to revoke Atherton’s shotgun licence. A senior officer looked at case law and, because a firearm was not used in the four earlier recorded incidents of domestic violence, the judgment was made that the courts would not support revocation of his firearms licence. The guidance is not strong enough in such circumstances and we must ensure that the courts will back up the police.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I know a little about the subject, and I think it is often easier for police officers to grant or re-grant a firearms or shotgun certificate than risk the possibility of judicial review. In fact, they should be more robust and say no if they believe that someone should not be granted a shotgun or firearms certificate and should, if necessary, defend the case robustly at judicial review. In my experience that does not always happen and it is when it does not happen that there are problems such as the Atherton case. There was clear evidence, which I will come to later, that the police should have decided to revoke the certificate. In any case, I think the new guidance that was published at the end of 2012 will help. I have no doubt the Minister will mention it in his summing up and I look forward to hearing what he says.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I apologise, Mr Sheridan, for not being present at the beginning of the debate—I was in a Committee meeting that has just finished—but I am interested in this subject. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of many other incidents? I am aware of allegations in my constituency by ex-partners or ex-wives against their spouses that are then unsubstantiated.

The process that applicants for firearms certificates must go through is laborious, and they may be removed or reinstated. A balance must be struck. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the legislation, which I understand the shooting bodies support, is balanced?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend—I call him that because I know he knows a great deal about the subject—is absolutely right. Of course, a balance must be struck and, as he said earlier, often a judgment must be made. If an experienced firearms-licensing officer, hopefully with the appropriate training, has made a

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judgment that a licence should never have been issued or should be revoked, they should stick to that judgment robustly, even if it leads to judicial review.

My hon. Friend is right, and there is always a process that must be gone through, inquiries to be made, and a judgment to be reached. The experience of firearms officers should ensure that a wise judgment is made. According to the guidelines, every new incident of domestic violence should automatically prompt a police review and police officers would not have to rely only on actual convictions of domestic violence in making their decision, allowing them to use their discretion on whether they believe an applicant is suitable to hold a firearms licence.

My second point is the lack of need for specific legislation on firearms licensing. I understand that the hon. Member for Easington wants consistent application of the rules throughout all 43 police forces and I strongly agree with him. It is critical that the guidance on firearms control is implemented fairly, equally and consistently throughout the country. I have spoken to the Minister about that and I believe that he has some sympathy with it.

I agree that it would be more rational to have a national licensing authority instead of licensing decisions being made separately by 43 different authorities. That would achieve much greater consistency in the application of the guidelines and gun licensing legislation, as well as being quicker and cheaper for applicants. It would ensure that all current shotgun or firearms licence holders are immediately entered on the police national database.

Bill Wiggin: I wholeheartedly agree that a national firearms register is the right way forward, but ultimately the visit will have to be done by a local officer, so we will return to the problem of a subjective judgment needing to be made. At least the cost would be consistent and uniform, because I fear—I hope my hon. Friend agrees—that forces such as West Mercia police in my constituency are trying to add to the cost of owning a firearm in the hope of discouraging people. That must be wrong.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will refer in a moment to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and licences. I envisage that many local police firearms officers would still be employed by the national agency to make the local inquiries, so there would still be an element of localism in a national firearms licensing organisation.

If the new guidelines are recognised and implemented consistently throughout the country, they will be able to protect against inappropriate decisions being made. The guidelines are there to be implemented, and it is crucial that they are used by police officers when making decisions on issuing firearms licences.

In line with that consistency, I also want to see an improved system of health checks for firearms licence holders, which the hon. Member for Easington also talked about. We need to have proper arrangements in place so that doctors are required to pass on any related health developments to the police. One way of achieving that may be to negotiate such an obligation into the GP contract. That duty must be done on a continuous basis, and not just at the application or renewal stage of a firearms licence. That is because a very small number

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of people’s medical circumstances can change dramatically; for example, if they become a severe depressive, or addicted to alcohol or drugs. That should be reported to the police by a medical professional and should lead to serious consideration of a revocation of a licence, which in normal circumstances, only occurs every five years. There should also be a robust check when a licence is granted or re-granted to assess whether any information is being withheld by the applicant from the doctor or police.

Jim Shannon: I just want to put this point on record. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that some police forces in England share data with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example. Because of that, and the fact that data can be used by other—well, we do not know what it can be used for, of course; that is the question we are all asking. However, does he feel that when it comes to the data that the police hold, they need to ensure that the data are for use within the control of the police and that they are not for use by any other organisations, whatever their motives might be?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Where I do agree with my hon. Friend is that there should not be a two-way share of information; I think the police should be able to gain their information from any source they like. However, I, too, read the reports that the police are sharing their information with the RSPCA and I wholly deprecate that. It is quite wrong for the police to share any information that they have with any other organisation. After all, it is of a confidential nature and it should remain confidential. Perhaps the Minister may care to say something about that when he winds up.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) after his intervention, a comparison is to be made with the issuing of a driver’s licence. Although there is no legal obligation on the medical profession, there is a strong public duty on a doctor to report a change in a driver’s medical condition. Doctors can report their concerns to the DVLA. GPs are able to do that at any point and are not expected to wait until a licence is due to be renewed. I understand that the DVLA follow up medical investigations that are reported to it. Indeed, it has its own medical team to carry out medical investigations and assessments. There should be a similar, although perhaps stronger, obligation on doctors in relation to firearms certificates.

I would also welcome a codification of the existing pieces of legislation. As the hon. Member for Easington said, there are 34 separate pieces of legislation relating to firearms. Bringing them into one document would provide clarity and understanding, and I would completely support that move. However, I am opposed to increasing the amount of legislation, as I do not think it will be any more effective in protecting vulnerable people against the consequences of putting guns into the wrong hands.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I think we would all agree that unsuitable people should not be able to obtain firearms licences, but I want to pick up on a point my hon. Friend just made. Clearly, he would agree with me that the danger of having legislation imposed in this area is that unintended consequences flow from it, particularly for those law-abiding people, in the vast majority, who hold firearms licences.

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Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: That is precisely why I do not want to see any further legislation in this area. I want to see it consolidated into one completely clear piece of legislation, so that for the 43 police forces—if we have to have 43, rather than one national licensing authority—it will be easier for their firearms licensing officers to interpret exactly who should have a certificate and who should not. I repeat that it is the 0.01% that we need to be concentrating on to see whether they should have a certificate. Those are the people who wreak such havoc, causing damage and loss of life.

The Minister has previously highlighted that firearms control in the UK is already among the toughest in the world, and he is right. However, where there are gaps, we need to ensure that that they are tightened up, but further legislation is not the way to go about it. After all, the majority of gun crimes are carried out with illegally held firearms. If the guidelines are applied consistently across all 43 police force constabularies, they will succeed.

That brings to me to my third and final points. The actions of Michael Atherton, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Easington, were appalling under any circumstances, and no one wants to see them repeated. He should never have been given a firearms licence, given his history. Indeed, in September 2008, following an incident where he threatened to commit suicide, his guns were taken away from him. However, they were returned to him later. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the possibility of judicial review in the courts, but if the police reckon that they had the grounds to take them away from him in the first place, surely they had the grounds to ensure that he did not get them back again, unless there was compelling evidence that something had changed. As far as I am aware from the case’s circumstances, nothing had changed. It was a catastrophic error on the part of the Durham constabulary, as his licence should have been permanently revoked, as it almost certainly would have been in similar circumstances under a different police. Had the guidelines been followed by the Durham constabulary and Atherton’s licence revoked, we would not have seen the tragic events in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

The case highlights the importance of police forces using published guidance, because that clearly was not used in the Atherton case. That was highlighted during the inquest, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, following the tragedy, where officers dealing with Atherton’s licence claimed never to have seen the Home Office or ACPO guidance. Those guidelines had been published 10 years previously, so there is little excuse for a firearms licensing officer to be unaware of them. It is obvious that if a police force does not use the guidance given to it, these tragedies will occur.

Grahame M. Morris rose—

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I will happily accept the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but before he speaks, I was about to make a comment that may be the subject of his intervention. This issue concerns the training of police firearms licensing officers. Given that there are only 43 constabularies, and given that most constabularies only employ one or two firearms licensing officers—so we are dealing with between 40 and 80 officers, because

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some forces amalgamate the function among themselves—it should not be too difficult to ensure that they all receive better training. I happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Grahame M. Morris: The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my intervention and answered my point. What he said would be completely sensible, and I find it difficult that the Home Office and Ministers say that it is not practicable. It clearly is, and it is in the interests of public safety to do it.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman and I agree on a great deal of things surrounding the whole issue—except, perhaps, on the need for additional legislation.

It is obvious that if police forces do not use the guidance given to them, these tragedies will continue to occur. In similar cases, other police forces have used the guidelines to revoke the licences of individuals who have displayed patterns of inappropriate behaviour. It is that failure that needs to change to ensure that people like Atherton are never given access to firearms. Increasing the amount of legislation around firearms will not improve public safety any more than implementing the current guidelines.

Let me return to where I started. The Atherton case was a dreadful tragedy and I praise the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, Bobby Turnbull, for his campaign. It is right to ensure that effective measures are in place to prevent firearms from landing in the wrong hands. I note, however, that there are 146,000-odd firearms certificates in England and Wales, up to the end of March 2013. That was up 3.2% on the year before, slightly refuting the comments of the hon. Gentleman’s neighbour, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), about the huge proliferation of firearms. There are 570,726 shotgun certificates in existence. That is up 1.4% compared with the year before. This is where the 0.01% of serious incidents comes from; there are a very large number of firearms and shotgun certificates in existence and an incredibly low number of significant incidents. Having said that, one incident is too many, and that is what the debate is all about today.

I strongly believe that further legislation is not the best way of achieving our aims. If new Home Office guidelines are listened to and implemented by police forces across the country, we should never again see the tragedy that took place in County Durham. The incident was not a failure of the law or of the guidelines; it was a failure to implement them consistently across the country.

3.19 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): I join other Members serving under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, in addressing this important issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on bringing the matter of gun control to the House again and on raising it so effectively on numerous occasions.

The debate is about a specific aspect of gun control: how we reduce the small percentage of gun deaths resulting from actions taken by individuals with a history of domestic violence or of alcohol and other problems. We have had a useful debate, including the contribution from the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey

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Clifton-Brown), which contained nuggets worthy of pursuit. He raised issues about the way in which firearms are licensed, which the Minister should address. Although there was a swathe of his comments I cannot agree with, he has raised some important points.

It is also worth mentioning that the hon. Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for Lincoln (Karl McCartney), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) have taken the time to come to the debate to intervene and to add their expertise to our discussions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington approached the issue in a measured, reflective and considered way. On his doorstep, he has faced what can only be described as an enormous tragedy, with Mr Michael Atherton’s murders of Susan McGoldrick, Alison Turnbull and Tanya Turnbull on 1 January 2012. That has highlighted to him a way in which we could tighten the legislation to prevent such incidents in the future. As he said, he has not jumped to conclusions; he has looked at this matter.

I, too, have not jumped to conclusions; I have looked at what the Home Affairs Committee, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, Durham police and ACPO have said about the steps the Government could take to mitigate the circumstances we are talking about. I agree with the hon. Member for The Cotswolds that they may be small in number, but that does not mean we should ignore the issue. There is real merit in looking not only at the guidance, but at whether we need legislative back-up to reduce the potential for incidents such as the one that took place in my hon. Friend’s constituency last January.

I fully accept, as the hon. Member for North Herefordshire said, that this boils down to judgment. Judgment is important, but it is now coloured by not only the old guidance, but, potentially, the new guidance issued this month. However, it can also be coloured by legislation, and my hon. Friend made the case for small tweaks during the passage of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill to strengthen previous and current guidance, applying additional rigour and scrutiny to applications for gun or shotgun licences. It is that potential which I support.

As we have heard, there is a pressing need for action better to control firearm violence, small though the number of cases may be. My hon. Friend pointed out that one in three women killed by their domestic partner is shot with a legally owned weapon. Some 64% of those murders involved shotguns. In the past 12 months, 75% of female gun deaths occurred in a domestic setting; in 2009, the figure was 100%. Whatever our view of the small number of deaths caused by shotguns or guns, that figure shows that a high percentage of women who die in domestic violence situations do so as a result of someone using a gun or shotgun.

Grahame M. Morris: Those are important figures. Members are saying that the problem is relatively small, given the large number of licences that are issued, and that people use firearms properly. However, evidence from Canada suggests that if we went down the route I suggested, we could dramatically reduce the number of fatalities—particularly those where partners or ex-partners involved in domestic violence use a firearm.

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Mr Hanson: That is worthy of examination. Nobody is saying that the two women per week killed by a husband, partner or ex are killed with shotguns or guns. However, if a significant body of evidence says there is a high correlation between gun deaths of women and domestic violence, the issue is worthy of consideration.

Bill Wiggin: One must never underestimate the importance of doing everything we can to combat any form of domestic violence. However, I urge the shadow Minister to be careful, because two thirds of these murders—that is what they are—are not caused by firearms.

Are people applying for guns so that they can murder people? No, they are not. Does the fact that guns are available force somebody to go to a gun cupboard, unlock it, take the gun out and commit murder? If that is the process they go through, it does not matter what the law says, because they are determined to commit a crime so serious that they deserve to go to prison for the rest of their lives. We have to be careful to think about why these things take place, rather than how they take place.

Mr Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that important point, which we need to reflect on. However, other domestic violence deaths occur because of the use of the body—the hands—or of day-to-day items around the house, such as knives. We cannot control or legislate for such potential activity, but we can reduce the risk posed by access to shotguns, which are not day-to-day items readily available around the house, where there is substantiated evidence that people—this is not about all the hon. Gentleman’s constituents or all my constituents—are guilty of violent conduct, domestic violence, or drug or alcohol abuse. That, in a sense, is what the guidance said previously, and it is what the revised guidance, announced at the end of July and issued by the Minister, is trying to do.

The discussion we had in the Committee considering the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, and the discussion we are having today, is about whether we could back up that guidance with the rigour of legislation. That would reduce the ability of the courts to make a determination about the judgment of the police. ACPO has made representations to me, saying that police forces refused an application for a firearm licence on three separate occasions, but, despite the deputy chief constable or the chief constable appearing in court to defend the decision, the courts upheld the appeal because there were not sufficient legal grounds to refuse the individual’s application.

If we look at the wording of my new clause 4 to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which will be debated in October—[Interruption.] I hope the hon. Member for North Herefordshire will examine it with interest. Let me tell him, however, that I doubt it is perfect; I do not have the great back-up of the Home Office, as I once did when I held ministerial office. However, the Minister does, and he could reflect on the principle of new clause 4 over the next few weeks before Report to see whether legislative back-up of the guidance is practicable and deliverable. That would at least ensure that we had a black-and-white judgment, rather than a judgment based on a court interpretation.

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Members do not need to listen to me, although I hope they will. They could, however, listen to the Independent Police Complaints Authority. Having looked at my hon. Friend’s constituency case, it said in its first recommendation:

“The Home Office should revise the current legislation and guidance to allow for a single uniform test for the assessment of suitability and fitness to possess both firearms and shotguns. ‘Fitness to be entrusted’ should form a specific element of the shotgun application process to ensure clarity and consistency around both applications.”

The word “legislation” was included by the IPCC. In finding 3 of the report it said:

“The Home Office, Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the College of Policing should devise clear guidance and tighter restrictions around applications for firearms or shotgun certificates”.

I venture to suggest that the guidance element has been examined, but will the Minister confirm that to date the IPCC’s legislation recommendation has not been met?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: The right hon. Gentleman has just made my case. He has read out two paragraphs from the report. One asks for legislation about a person’s fitness to hold a shotgun or firearms licence. I do not know quite how legislation about someone who has been involved in a domestic incident would be framed, or the exact nature of the incident that would contribute to someone’s not being a fit person to hold a firearms licence.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman referred to guidance. It is much easier to frame such matters in guidance. Before he rushes to call for extra legislation, does he know how many times, in other force areas, someone who has been involved in a serious incident of domestic violence has not had his licence revoked?

Mr Hanson: The IPCC also said in its report that the legislation should be devised in particular to

“take account of bind-overs, arrests and police call outs for domestic violence and an accumulation of convictions for offences where the penalty falls short of that requiring prohibition”.

That means that if someone has a history of a range of matters to do with domestic violence, but has not yet fallen foul of the guidance so as to prevent their having a shotgun licence, that should be sufficient in legislation to ensure that the guidance is tighter. That should be backed up by strong legislation, and we have attempted to draft such legislation in new clause 4 to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. I sense a difference between my view and that of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds. That is the nature of our debates, but our intention is to put to the Minister, in the measured way of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington, suggestions for helping to reduce such incidents.

My hon. Friend mentioned the issue of full cost recovery for shotgun and other firearms licences. There was a nugget in the remarks of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds, about improving the licensing procedure, that sparked some interest in me. It may come as a surprise to hon. Members that only this year ACPO gave the net cost to police forces of shotgun licences as £18.6 million. The debate has focused primarily on domestic violence, but the Minister needs to reflect on what he will do to ensure that we deal with the current costs.

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I will give three examples. North Wales police spent more than £417,000 on issuing licences, but recouped only £113,000 in licence fees, which means that taxpayers in my constituency faced a net cost of £303,000 for supporting the issuing of police licences. In Devon and Cornwall, a £1.2 million total cost generated only £514,000 in revenue. In Thames Valley, £928,000 of cost generated only £148,000, leaving a net cost to the local ratepayers of £780,000.

At a time when we are potentially asking more of the police in relation to shotgun licensing, with legislation at hand, this is an appropriate moment for the Minister to reflect on the cost of licences, and whether taxpayers and ratepayers should continue to subsidise people who apply for them to the tune of £18.6 million this year. The figure is worthy of examination. ACPO has said it would like the fee for a shotgun licence to rise to about £94. That would not mean full recovery of costs, but given that the figure for a licence has not changed in 10 years, there is scope for the Minister to reflect on the matter, or to explain why he is happy for £18.6 million of ratepayers’ money to be taken from police budgets to support the cost of issuing licences to be used for work or sport.

I have touched on only two points, but there is a strong case for the Government and Parliament to consider tightening legislation, to ensure that what happened to Susan McGoldrick, Alison Turnbull and Tanya Turnbull does not happen again, to give the police extra support to work positively on the issue, and at the very least to begin examining the issue of recovering the cost of gun licences. That cost is already a considerable one for the 43 forces, which are hard-pressed by what are, by any stretch of the imagination, severe cuts in their grants.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Easington and other hon. Members for their thoughtful speeches. The Committee on the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will consider new clause 4 after the September recess.

3.36 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I want to add my voice to the congratulations given to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), particularly on the measured tone in which he introduced the debate. I agree with his remarks about the appropriate way to discuss the matter, and I am happy to say that that approach was echoed throughout the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) made a speech that was knowledgeable and thoughtful, as were the interventions from both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Easington has inevitably been concerned about the issue in question since the tragic events in his constituency on New Year’s day last year. Our thoughts remain with the family and friends of the three victims, Susan McGoldrick, Alison Turnbull and Tanya Turnbull, whose lives were so terribly cut short by the incomprehensible acts of Michael Atherton.

I have listened carefully to the speeches. It is now a year since the hon. Member for Easington obtained a similar debate on firearms control, and apart from answering the specific points that have been raised I

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should like to update the House on some of the work that has been done since then. The Government have responded to the terrible act in question, and there have been many changes. One of the things that unites everyone in the debate is agreement that the focus of the work must be on ensuring that gun controls continue to be robust and effective, so as to minimise the risk of harm to members of the public.

As has been mentioned several times, since the debate last October the Independent Police Complaints Commission has issued its report into the Atherton case. We are considering the recommendations and we shall respond in the autumn. In doing so I shall, of course, take into account the points that have been made about the report in today’s debate. As the hon. Member for Easington said, I have met Bobby Turnbull, a close relative of the victims, more than once, and I will take his views carefully into account.

In June this year, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary responded to a letter from Mr Andrew Tweddle, the Durham coroner, who wrote to draw attention to a number of issues related to the Atherton case. Mr Tweddle expressed the view that there needed to be a root-and-branch review of firearms licensing. I absolutely understand why he made that recommendation, but I do not agree with him. Many of the issues raised by the coroner centred on the weaknesses in the handling of Atherton’s case by the local police force. That has been the subject of much comment today as well.

Durham constabulary has, of course, subsequently reviewed and strengthened its processes and shared the development of that work directly with the Turnbull family. Again, I take the point made by a number of hon. Members that we need consistency of application throughout the country and a degree of competence and common sense in applying the laws throughout the country. I know that other police forces will take that into account as well.

Jim Shannon: On the point about consistency, I mentioned in an intervention on the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) the data that some police forces in England make available to other organisations—for example, the RSPCA. That information is confidential. It is specific to firearms, where they are held, but also to the individuals. Does the Minister intend to ensure that confidential information such as that is not disclosed to other organisations without knowledge of what is going to happen, and that whatever happens happens consistently across the whole of England and Wales?

Damian Green: I am as concerned as the hon. Gentleman that the use of confidential data should be controlled so that it is serving a specific purpose, proportionate and done in an appropriate way. Indeed, the issue that he has brought up has been brought to my attention by other hon. Members, so I am very aware of it.

However, I think that the practical problems that the coroner revealed are different from there being issues with the licensing process at national level. I am satisfied that the existing test in law for the grant or renewal of a firearm or shotgun certificate remains

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appropriate, but there are indeed issues about how the current law is applied in individual cases, which I will come to shortly.

Grahame M. Morris: I thank the Minister for the considered way in which he is responding to various points made in the debate by me and other hon. Members, but we cannot overlook the fact that the coroner discovered, having questioned the two police officers who were the licensing officers in Durham, that not only were they not familiar with the guidance—they could not quote the various sections—but they claimed that they had not seen it, had not referred to it, as a working document.

I am not suggesting that every force was the same, but surely a simple solution is to ensure that there is adequate training of licensing officers, not just in Durham—I might say that that has been properly addressed now by the new police and crime commissioner—but throughout the country. I know that there will be a cost to that.

Damian Green: I agree with the point; I shall come to the training point in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.

Overall, the low rates of gun crime in this country support the view that the legislation is robust. Figures from the Office for National Statistics, which my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds cited, show that firearms offences account for fewer than 0.2% of all recorded offences. Provisional figures show that in the 12 months to March 2013, there was a 15% fall in firearms offences, and the volume of firearms offences has more than halved—it is down by 54%—since its peak in 2005-06.

Nevertheless, I, like everyone else, am deeply concerned by the fact that Atherton had been permitted to continue to possess guns despite a history of domestic violence that was known to the police. I want to make it very clear that, although each case must be assessed on its merits, evidence of domestic violence and abuse will generally indicate that a person should not be licensed to possess a gun. To that end, on 31 July we published new firearms guidance on domestic violence as a specific issue. It sets out how the police should handle firearms applications where it may be a factor.

It has been proposed that it should be mandatory that the partners of firearm applicants are directly involved in the process and that they should be interviewed to establish whether they support the application. We sought views on that proposal, including those of domestic violence organisations, and our collective conclusion is that we should not adopt that approach. We are concerned that it could put victims of domestic violence at greater risk, particularly if an application is subsequently refused; or they may feel unable to speak openly for fear of reprisals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) said that he had been regarded as instrumental in preventing a licence from being granted and he was subsequently blamed for that. Imagine how much more difficult it would be for a potential or actual victim of domestic violence to be put in that position. We think that it is better to have a system in which the police can interview widely if the evidence suggests that that is merited. It can include interviews with partners

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or ex-partners. In that way, their views can still be sought, but without making them a specific and identified component of the decision-making process.

The firearms guidance on domestic violence provides a framework for the police in handling cases sensitively and linking up with domestic violence teams and other agencies. I intend this revised guidance to have a real and positive impact in supporting the police to make robust and evidence-based decisions on applications where domestic violence is a factor.

During this debate, much of the time has been spent discussing legislation. The hon. Member for Easington and the shadow police Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), have said that new guidance is not enough and that we must go further and change the law. The hon. Gentleman co-sponsored the new clause that was debated during the Committee stage of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. That new clause was designed to amend the Firearms Act 1968 to mandate that background checks be carried out by the police and to introduce a presumption in favour of the refusal of an application where there is substantiated evidence of violence, mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse.

The right hon. Gentleman has already advertised that he has tabled a similar new clause for Report in October. In Committee, I explained why we do not support such an amendment to the Firearms Act, and that remains our position—I will spare the right hon. Gentleman the speech that he heard from me a few weeks ago—mostly because the police can already take these factors into consideration when they consider a firearm application.

The Firearms Act specifies that, before a licence can be issued, the police must be satisfied that the applicant can possess a firearm or shotgun without danger to public safety or the peace. As I said, the revised guidance, which we issued in July, after the Committee stage of the Bill, sets out the factors, including any history of domestic violence, that must be considered in more detail. I believe that the law is sound in this respect and there is no need to change it. In fact, inclusion of that level of detail in the firearms guide, rather than in law, enables it to be updated rapidly when necessary. I invite the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman to consider that point.

It has also been suggested that the firearms guide should be statutory or an approved code of practice. I do not think that that would be the right way forward, either. The law provides the police with discretion in recognition of their responsibility for issues of public safety in local areas. That is important because each application is different and needs to be considered on its merits. I have not seen any evidence or heard any compelling arguments to indicate that that is the wrong approach.

I should say that I am not ruling out legislation in all areas of gun control, because we have introduced legislation to combat the illegal import and supply of guns. That will help to tackle the threat posed by middlemen who supply firearms that are used to harm others, particularly by gangs and organised criminals. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will increase the maximum sentence to life imprisonment for illegal importation and exportation. We are also creating a new offence of illegal possession of a prohibited weapon

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for sale or transfer. That will also carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and will attract the mandatory minimum sentence within the existing legislation.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: What action is my right hon. Friend the Minister taking with the Department of Health to address the medical questions in relation to the granting, re-granting and revocation of firearm and shotgun licences? I know that he has to collaborate with colleagues in the Department of Health. He knows that there is considerable inconsistency at the moment as to how such matters are dealt with. Some forces require a medical certificate prior to the granting of a licence, while some do not. We need consistency across the country and a robust system that works.

Damian Green: I am happy to tell the House and my hon. Friend that we are in discussion not only with colleagues at the Department of Health, but with the British Medical Association, the police and, as he knows, shooting organisations over the role GPs can play in ensuring that the licensing process is as effective as it can be. The police generally now contact an individual’s GP when a firearm or shotgun certificate is granted or renewed. That means the GP has the opportunity to raise any concerns they may have, and has resulted in a number of revocations of firearms licences. We now want to explore whether we can build greater safeguards into that arrangement by making the consultation with GPs part of the application process. In doing so, we obviously need to ensure that there is balance around burden and cost. Those discussions continue.

The hon. Member for Easington made a good point about training. The police are taking steps to improve consistency and promote high standards across police firearms licensing departments. Authorised professional practice on firearms licensing will be introduced by the College of Policing early next year to complement the firearms guide. He will be interested to know that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary is undertaking a scoping exercise on this very issue with a representative number of forces. I hope he welcomes that.

The conclusions of the scoping study will determine whether a full inspection should take place at a future date. I hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured that, first, the College of Policing—a new body designed to enhance professional standards in the police—is producing a new code on the very specific issue he raises, and, secondly, that HMIC is looking at forces to see how the system works in practice. If it decides that the system is not working on the ground, it will mount a full inspection. I am confident that if HMIC concludes that the system has not improved, it will say so and police forces around the country will act.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that whether we are talking about guidance or legislation, we need to get it right, but it is at least equally important that individual firearms officers in police forces across the country do their job effectively and consistently. We have taken steps to ensure that that happens.

As I said, we are in the process of revising and updating the whole firearms guide. I am glad to say that that task is nearing completion and should be completed this year. As hon. Members observed, firearms law is complex. There are a large number of separate pieces of legislation, so the revision of the document is a significant

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step forward in aiding understanding of the law. Sixteen chapters have now been published, and the aim is to complete the revision by the end of September.

Mr Hanson: On that point, is not the key issue that although guidance is open to judicial discretion, legislation is open to tighter discretion in the judicial process? Why does the Minister think that a guidance approach will not result in similar judicial discretion, which will allow firearms licences to be issued?

Damian Green: The right hon. Gentleman will know from his experience in the Home Office that just as guidance is open to judicial interpretation, so is legislation. I have been involved in passing various laws that the courts have interpreted in a way that surprised me, as the Minister who introduced the legislation. To some extent, it is a distinction without a difference.

Whether we are talking about legislation or guidance, it should be written clearly enough that the amount of judicial interpretation is minimised. That is a job for this House and we need to get better at it. We need to be able to respond more quickly than we have in the past, and, as I said, changing guidance is easier and quicker than changing legislation. With the forthcoming revision of the guide, for the first time, we are ensuring that it can be updated online, which means that updates will be made faster in future. If anomalies arise, perhaps as a result of judicial interpretation, we will be able to respond much faster.

There has been discussion this afternoon about a national licensing authority. We are worried that a central authority would not be in touch with the kind of local information known to police. In his report on the Dunblane tragedy, Lord Cullen recommended that licensing functions remain with the police. We should listen to what he said in the wake of that terrible tragedy.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for the comprehensive way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister is putting the case for how the system will operate. I have one question. If he has rejected a national firearms licensing authority, can he tell us how the 43 police forces will not only operate consistently according to the guidelines, but operate an efficient system consistently, so that the worst performing constabularies come up to the level of the best performing constabularies and the licence holder knows what to expect from the police?

Damian Green: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. We are taking a number of steps, as I explained. The College of Policing is producing a new

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standard, which all forces, obviously, will apply. As he knows, we are moving to a different licensing system, which will be online.

We are making other changes—for example, a new single form for firearm and shotgun applications is due to be introduced shortly. I hope that greater consistency will be built into the system from the start. It is impossible for any Minister to guarantee that all 43 police forces will perform at the same level in all areas of activity. We all recognise that there are likely to be better and worse performers in each area. It is sensible to ensure that the system is flexible, clear, as simple as possible in this complex area, uses new technology to assist with the desirable changes we want and guarantees the consistency and competence that people of all views wish to see.

I shall talk briefly about the Select Committee on Home Affairs report, because the right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned it.

Bill Wiggin: Like me, the Minister is disturbed, I am sure, by the domestic violence figures we heard today. We will never know how many victims would have been murdered had the murderer not had access to a firearm or shotgun, but we can know, if he would be kind enough to find out, how many times a shotgun or firearms certificate holder has committed an offence and not reached for a gun. Whatever sort of crime is committed, if it involves a firearm or shotgun certificate holder, it must be logged in police records. Will he write to me, when he knows what the numbers look like?

Damian Green: I hesitate to answer off the top of my head. I suspect that cross-referencing someone’s being the legal owner of a shotgun with their committing a crime is the sort of information that would, to use the phrase, “be available only at disproportionate cost.” I cannot guarantee to find out the information, but I take the point my hon. Friend makes.

The Government support shooting sports and are not opposed to the possession of firearms for legitimate purposes. The vast majority of firearms are used responsibly and safely and the controls must be proportionate and administered fairly. We intend to keep firearms controls under review, so that public safety is protected and to minimise the risk of tragic events occurring, such as those last year in the constituency of the hon. Member for Easington.

I am carefully considering the IPCC recommendations with that approach in mind. A good deal has been achieved over the past year, which is helping to ensure that firearms controls are as effective as they can be, and that will continue over the coming months. I welcome this debate as part of that process.

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Kamran Majid and the Legal Services Commission

4 pm

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I am grateful, Mr Sheridan, for this opportunity to talk about a dispute that has been going on for three years, and which highlights serious concerns about the work and responsibilities of the Legal Services Commission. At its heart is an issue about the role of the commission in relation to duty solicitor slots and the application of the 2010 standard crime contract and section 6 of the contract specification.

My constituent, Mr Majid, suffered when the Legal Services Commission—the LSC—launched an investigation into fraudulent activities at Knights Solicitors, which resulted in its terminating Knights’ unified contract for crime. My constituent is the son of immigrants and he has represented this country as an Olympic sportsman, winning world and European championships in weightlifting. Through his own honest endeavour and hard work, he has achieved the position of solicitor and advocate of our Supreme Court—something of which one might think we would be proud. Instead, today I am telling the story of how the LSC set out to wreck Mr Majid’s career and reputation.

I want to highlight two main points: first, the injustice suffered by my constituent and the reluctance of the LSC to deal with the matter, admit its errors and seek to put them right and, secondly, the appalling performance of the LSC, and of other agencies one might reasonably expect to call upon in such circumstances, such as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman—the PHSO—the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The last two bodies have distinguished themselves by washing their hands of concerns about the treatment Mr Majid received. The intervention of the PHSO leaves a great deal to be desired, and the behaviour of the LSC in dealing with the fraudulent activity of Sajjad Ahmed Khan of Knights Solicitors needs a great deal of scrutiny. It is not Mr Majid who should be suffering as a result of this affair. He is an innocent victim.

Mr Majid’s experience involves a catalogue of unsatisfactory behaviour by the LSC and an insipid response from the PHSO, which calls into question why we pay public money to support the two agencies. Mr Kamran Majid has done nothing wrong, but he has been dismissed as a nuisance and a pest by the agencies, because he is unwilling to accept their flawed reasoning, inadequate investigations and failure to address the core of his complaint. The matter has still not been resolved, despite three years of battling on Mr Majid’s part. During that time, my constituent has suffered unemployment, loss of income and damage to his reputation, and has been forced to accumulate considerable debts—he estimates that he is approximately £45,000 out of pocket.

Let me clarify a point that seems to have escaped the LSC, despite so many of its communications being mired in legal gobbledegook. Mr Majid was never an employee of Knights Solicitors. He was a freelance duty solicitor, an arrangement that the LSC approved and encouraged. The commission approved Mr Majid’s application to work as a freelance duty solicitor through

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Knights Solicitors, and on 7 May 2010 it approved his electronic registration for a CDS12—the duty solicitor application form. At that time, the LSC knew that Knights Solicitors was under investigation for legal aid fraud, and had been since 2009. On 27 May 2010, it terminated Knights Solicitors’ unified legal aid contract, having previously placed a contract sanction on the firm’s accounts.

When Mr Majid complained to the LSC about how he had been disadvantaged as a result, Mr Ross Lane of the commission attempted to muddy the waters by claiming that Mr Majid knew that Knights Solicitors had been under investigation since 2009. Mr Majid discovered details of the investigation only through a subsequent county court order, but the LSC attempted to use that as a reason for dismissing his claim. Mr Lane, of course, knew that the LSC was doing everything it could to resist Mr Majid’s freedom of information requests, which would have shed light on the fact that it negligently registered him with a firm that was under investigation for fraud and that it withheld that information.

Mr Majid has a further complaint about the LSC. When he discovered that Knights Solicitors had lost its contract, he asked if he might be able to transfer his slots to another law firm. The LSC was quick to deny him the opportunity, and drew his attention to section 6 of the standard crime contract specification. It is unable, however, to offer any explanation as to why 14 other solicitors, identified by Mr Majid, have been given that same opportunity. I could name those people—people to whom the LSC afforded an opportunity it denied my constituent, people who have suffered no financial loss and no damage to their reputation or career—but I will not, because Mr Majid has no desire to cause them distress. I am happy, however, to share their names with the Minister, because the time for trying to brush what has happened under the carpet is at an end.

Let me further point out that some of those people benefited from the opportunity to transfer their slots before Knights Solicitors lost its contract, and some afterwards, so the LSC’s attempts to argue that it was an error that it has now put right do not stand up to scrutiny. It allowed flexibility in contract arrangements to safeguard the finances and reputation of 14 other people, but denied the opportunity to my constituent and attempted to cover that up.

We also need to ask some wider questions about the LSC. For how much public money is it responsible? I believe it is about £2 billion. To whom is it accountable? Can the Minister say in all candour that it is an agency in which he has confidence, or that its transition in April of this year to the Legal Aid Agency will have a significant impact on its behaviour? Mr Sajjad Ahmed Khan of Knights Solicitors—the real villain—is involved in a fraud that might run into millions of pounds, as a result of claiming legal aid fees for services that were never provided. It would appear that, after four years, Sajjad Ahmed Khan is finally likely to be brought before the solicitors disciplinary tribunal, but as yet there has been no effort to recover the millions he fraudulently obtained, and he still practises as a solicitor.

No wonder that the Government are being forced to make swingeing cuts in legal aid, which risks bankrupting thousands of small, decent law firms and calling the whole of our legal system into question. If the Legal Services Commission and its successor are allowed to

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cover up a multi-million pound fraud and penalise the innocent, because they dare to bring that fraud to the attention of the authorities and get too close to the truth, something rotten is going on.

I have attempted to assist my constituent since the summer of 2011. I have had numerous exchanges of correspondence with the LSC and the PHSO. Gina Brady of the LSC’s complaints handling team replied to my inquiries with a rather curt note confirming that the LSC was of the opinion that Mr Majid had received a full response to all his complaints and that it would not respond to any further inquiries. I am here today because the LSC is judge and jury—not willing to engage with a Member of Parliament, and not accountable to anyone. When it comes to malpractice, misuse of public funds, incompetence and cover-up, that agency might be top of the list.

I also find it shocking—I hope the Minister does as well—that the PHSO comes out of this case as toothless and hopeless, and all too ready to drop Mr Majid’s case on the say so of the LSC, whose arguments simply do not stack up. On 5 January 2012, PHSO’s assessor Michelle Yore wrote to me that it had now concluded its investigation. It used a familiar approach: it asked the LSC about Mr Majid’s complaint. The LSC denied there was any substance to it and, relying on that, the PHSO told my constituent that he had no grounds for his complaint. When he objected, and argued that it had not looked properly at the substance of his complaint, the PHSO investigated its own procedures and concluded that it had complied with them.

I hope that the Minister can see how unsatisfactory that is, and what a waste of public funds. The whole thing is all process and expensive form-filling. Like too many investigations we have come across recently, this is yet another example of investigators being more interested in process than in getting at the truth and delivering justice—wasting public money in endless hours of process, rather than finding out who did what wrong and what is required to put it right. I cannot believe that these people accept their bloated salaries and can sleep at night. No wonder there is a crisis of confidence in our public services.

Who is the responsible person? Is it the current chief executive or the former chief executive, Carolyn Regan, who, I understand, departed with the usual large pay-off after questions were asked about financial controls at the LSC? I do not know how many people work for the agency and its successor, but so far I have come across Stephen O’Connor—he seems to have played a major role in not enforcing section 6, other than against my constituent—Mr Rimmer, Mr Williams, Mr Forrester, Ross Lane, Sarah Aylwin, Natasha Hurley and Gina Brady. With so many fingers in the pie, it might be better if one person had set out to get to the bottom of the affair.

The Legal Services Commission has sought to deny that Mr Majid has a valid complaint. It must know perfectly well that it should not have accepted his registration, given that it knew that it was investigating the firm and that action was imminent. The LSC was wrong to allow 14 other solicitors to transfer business between law firms before and after the action against Knights Solicitors, to attempt to disguise what had

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actually happened and to quote a contract specification that it had failed to follow in other cases, but insisted on using against my constituent. Mr Majid suffered compared with his contemporaries. The LSC told the PHSO that Mr Majid knew about the investigation into Knights, which was not true, and it deliberately sought to avoid explaining that it was responsible for sitting on FOI requests that would have confirmed the basis of his complaints. It also behaved appallingly in the way that it handled the Sajjad Ahmed Khan fraud, and it gives no confidence that it is fit to discharge its public duties.

I would appreciate anything that the Minister could do to recognise how much my constituent has suffered and that he deserves to be compensated. I would welcome a thorough investigation into the agency. I believe that there is a precedent for a judicial review in a similar case, because too many people are gaining from the public purse who are not doing the job for which we are paying them. Someone is getting away with a cover-up, and it is plain wrong.

4.16 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for calling this debate, and I appreciate the passion with which he presented his case. I should also put on the record my appreciation for the information that he sent me before the debate, so that I could consider the points he proposed to make.

I will make some general remarks, and then move on to the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, but I note at the outset that an entirely independent body, the PHSO, has rejected Mr Majid’s case. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says in criticism of that body, but it is worth noting that it is entirely independent of the LSC and of the Government more widely.

I have obviously listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. I hope that he agrees that we should be very proud of our legal system: it is a valuable contributor to our society, and the Government recognise that legal aid is a vital component of the system. I am well aware of the important role that duty solicitors, such as his constituent, play in the criminal justice system.

I have always made it clear that defence lawyers are central to the criminal justice system. Throughout this year, I have taken their views on how to make the system more efficient and on what we can do to help them work more efficiently. Today, there are about 6,500 duty solicitors—qualified professionals who can offer advice and assistance to those who, without their own lawyer, are being questioned by the police or facing charges before the courts. The system ensures that all eligible people have access to legal advice from suitably qualified legal representatives, whose role is crucial to ensuring that the criminal justice system can operate efficiently.

Last year alone, there were 734,000 acts of assistance to people being questioned by the police, at a cost of £160 million to the taxpayer. A similar scheme for solicitors in the magistrates court operated at a cost of almost £22 million, providing help to individuals in courts across England and Wales. The Legal Aid Agency—as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, that is what the Legal Services Commission has become—has a statutory responsibility to run and maintain both the

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police station and the magistrates court duty solicitor schemes in England and Wales, which it does by entering into contracts with firms of solicitors. The last tender process was for the 2010 standard crime contract, with contracts starting on 14 July 2010.

The case made by the hon. Gentleman is that his constituent raised a concern with him about how the then LSC dealt with his complaint regarding the allocation of duty solicitor slots in the summer of 2010. From his contribution, I can appreciate that the period in question and since has been extremely distressing for his constituent. What I can usefully do now is explain a little more about how the process works so that we can understand more about how the issue arose in the first place.

The first point on which to be clear, and this directly addresses one of the hon. Gentleman’s points, is that contracts are not awarded to individual duty solicitors, but to legal aid firms. The proportion of slots that each organisation receives is determined by the number of duty solicitors that it has registered with the LAA, formerly the LSC. The allocation of slots is typically refreshed every six months, and organisations are required to submit the necessary forms to demonstrate how many duty solicitors they employ. A deadline is set to ensure fair and equal treatment for all the firms involved.

Steve McCabe: Does the Minister think that it was just bad luck that, with those 14 people I mentioned, there was no effort to implement that part of the contract—for those who were granted the exemption before the termination of Knights Solicitors’ contract and those granted it afterwards—or that my constituent has clearly been dealt with differently from the other 14 people?

Damian Green: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He kindly gave me advance notice of some of his points, so I can happily guarantee that I will go away and look at some of the details. However, there are some details that are worth setting on the record now.

I have talked about the deadline for slot allocation, and there are two advantages to that approach. First, it ensures that firms have six months of stability of duty solicitor slots, enabling them to plan their workloads. Secondly, it provides administrative benefits to the LSC as rotas are issued at fixed points without the need for many amendments. That is essential given the scale of the task in assembling the rotas. There are more than 250 individual schemes with almost 800 rotas generated at each point.

In the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, there was a deadline for all firms to submit their list of duty solicitors by 14 May 2010. It would not have been possible to accept new submissions in June 2010 without treating firms differently in the tendering process. Owing to the finite number of slots available, late additions would affect the allocation set for all firms that work on those schemes. No other firm was requesting an extension to the May deadline. If a firm wishes to challenge its duty slot allocation, there are options available to it to appeal under the terms of its contract. However, the approach to slot allocation has been the subject of attention during 2013 as part of the debates that have been taking place following the publication in April of the Government’s proposals to transform legal aid.

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Those proposals have focused on criminal legal aid, which accounts for around £1 billion of the overall legal aid budget of just under £2 billion. Obviously, no sensible Government can overlook such a sizeable portion of Government spending, which is why we have embarked on the proposals to transform legal aid to deliver a more credible and efficient system.

The Law Society, as part of its response to the consultation, has highlighted some inefficiencies within the current system. In particular, it has focused on the precise issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised today—that of the duty work allocation methods. The Law Society has described the current approach to slot allocation as inefficient. In its response to the consultation, it described the incentive that firms have to employ more and more duty solicitors to gain more slots, even though the total size of the market is declining. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that that is not a sustainable approach. The Law Society has also highlighted a practice that it calls “ghost solicitors”, which refers to solicitors who have minimal links to a firm receiving a payment that is neither a salary nor linked to work done for the firm.

The Law Society has called for a new method that no longer allocates work to firms on the basis of the number of duty solicitors employed. The Government have been working with the Law Society to explore those proposals and are considering all the other responses to the consultation. There is a real general issue here. I appreciate that most of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was about the specific things that his constituent suffered, but it is worth putting that in context. I will deal briefly with some of his individual points now, but I will also take them away and look at them further.

The hon. Gentleman said that the LSC approved Mr Majid’s application to work as a freelance duty solicitor through Knights Solicitors, and on 7 May it approved his electronic registration for a CDS12. Mr Majid did not personally make an application to the LSC to work as a freelance duty solicitor for Knights. The LSC accepts only applications from firms, and those firms are required to declare that the solicitors are employed by them. Therefore it cannot be said that the LSC approved of any specific employment arrangement between Mr Majid and Knights in May 2010.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the LSC negligently registered Mr Majid with a firm that was under investigation for fraud and withheld that information. Again, I have to be clear that the firms themselves submit their own lists of duty solicitors. The LSC simply received the application in May 2010. On the allegation of withholding information, I should be clear that this was a police investigation, so the LSC was not acting inappropriately at the time.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the LSC has behaved appallingly in the way in which it has handled the fraud and therefore gives no confidence that it is fit to discharge its public duties. It is fair to say that the LSC acted promptly on concerns that Knights breached its contractual duties, and that led to the termination of the contract. The LSC, or the LAA as it now is, is always there to act to protect taxpayers’ money.

The hon. Gentleman also made some remarks about the PHSO. Experience tells us that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman always acts robustly with organisations such as the LSC and on this occasion,

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it mounted a full investigation. It was completed without any further action being required. We have all been in this situation, whereby our constituents have gone to the parliamentary ombudsman and not had the result that they required. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say about the PHSO, but I can only repeat that sometimes it comes up with a result that we regard as satisfactory and sometimes it does not, but it is an entirely independent organisation. It is designed to be a court of appeal outside governmental structures, so that people can have some confidence that they are getting an independent response, and that is what it did in this particular case.

Steve McCabe: Is the Minister willing to have a further meeting with me to discuss some of the other aspects of this case that have not been aired today?

Damian Green: I suspect, and I will happily discuss this with the hon. Gentleman afterwards, that the most useful meeting he can have is with Matthew Coats, who is the chief executive of the new organisation. That might be a better way to take his case forward. If he is happy with that suggestion, I will just say that I am grateful to him for giving us the opportunity to discuss what is clearly a vital issue to his constituent and an important issue to him.

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Brain Tumours in Children

4.30 pm

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for calling me to speak; I believe that this is the first occasion that I have spoken under your chairmanship.

I have to say that on this particular topic I come as something of a novice. I was regrettably unaware of many of the basic facts about children in Britain who are afflicted by brain tumours until recently, when I was approached during the summer by a constituent, Anne Pickering, who is here in Westminster Hall today. On a family holiday to the Isle of Wight in 2008, Anne’s daughter, Charlotte, collapsed on a beach as a result of a brain haemorrhage. Charlotte was rushed to Southampton general hospital. She underwent surgery, she remained on life support for 10 days and she lay in a coma for five weeks. Later she spent five months in rehabilitation at the amazing Children’s Trust in Tadworth and this courageous young woman, who is now 16, has made a full recovery.

I should say at this point that I have been down to the Children’s Trust to see for myself the incredible work that it does. Witnessing the tenacity of children with serious brain injuries from tumours, haemorrhages and various other illnesses making the long, hard and often uneven road to recovery is like watching someone crawl a marathon, inch by inch. It is nothing short of heroic—both heartrending and uplifting at the same time—and what is achieved at the Children’s Trust is quite something to behold.

However, the truth, of course, is that not all such stories end as well as Charlotte’s did. During Charlotte’s treatment, her mum Anne met Sacha Langton-Gilks, whose son, David, was fighting a brain tumour that had been diagnosed late. Despite David’s herculean efforts, he died aged 16. All anyone has to do is to google his name to read the many accounts of this lad’s epic bravery. David was diagnosed with a tumour the size of a golf ball on 24 October 2007. He struggled for nearly five years, through chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a stem cell transplant, stoically refusing to give up on life, whether it was reading up on Buddhist philosophy or tobogganing in the snow with his brother and sister. The term “inspirational” does not even begin to do this young man justice. Very sadly, David died on 14 August last year, but not before he stood up in front of the full glare of the national media, despite his terminal diagnosis, in a valiant effort to raise awareness of the prevalence of brain tumours in children, in order to save lives.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is great that my hon. Friend has been able to secure this debate. Early diagnosis is vital, and there are charities such as the Brain Tumour Charity, which runs the HeadSmart campaign, and others that are working along with the Government to try to ensure that professionals are aware of brain tumours at a very early stage, because the sooner they can be found the sooner people can be cured. I have constituents who have been affected by tumours.

Mr Raab: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right, and what we must do is to keep pushing the HeadSmart campaign to move it along even further.

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Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Raab: I will just make a small amount of progress before giving way, because I do not want to give a disjointed account.

David’s case is tragic and moving, but it is not a one-off; that is why we are here in Westminster Hall today. The cases I have mentioned are not isolated incidents. Each year, 500 children are diagnosed with a brain tumour and brain tumours take three young lives every fortnight. Brain tumours kill more children in this country than leukaemia does; only traffic accidents take more young people’s lives than brain tumours. Brain tumours pose as great a danger to our children as meningitis, and yet most parents and doctors have at least a rough idea of how to identify the symptoms of meningitis. Of course, it is not just those children who lose the battle with a brain tumour who suffer. Of the children who survive a brain tumour, 60% of them are left with life-altering disabilities, including blindness and brain damage.

Jim Shannon: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the House for consideration; it is a very important issue. He will be well aware that it is better for a child to be diagnosed with a brain tumour in the United States of America, for instance, than in the United Kingdom; to be precise, it is three times better. One reason why the United States does better in its diagnosis of children with brain tumours is that education and health work together there. Does he feel that perhaps what the Minister could do here is to have better co-ordination between staff in schools and the health system, to achieve better early diagnosis?

Mr Raab: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and he is absolutely bang on. I will come on to discuss the three specific measures that are key as part of that co-ordination.

Many of these tragedies could be averted. Whether it is preventing avoidable deaths or limiting the permanent damage inflicted by brain tumours, early diagnosis is the key, as has already been said; I suspect that there will be consensus on that.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): As well as early diagnosis, early treatment is vital; in many cases, that involves immediate surgery. Will my hon. Friend press the Minister to make some statement as to how long it takes from diagnosis to treatment, and about how things are progressing on that front?

Mr Raab: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; I know that he feels very strongly about that point. It is an excellent point and the Minister will have heard it. I have a range of points that we can certainly follow up with the Minister if they are not addressed in her speech, but that is an important point on top of the critical importance of early diagnosis.

There is a wealth of clinical and scientific evidence to back up the argument that early diagnosis is key. Research up until 2006 showed that the median delay in diagnosing a brain tumour in a child in Britain was 12 to 13 weeks. In other words, half the affected youngsters took more than three months to reach diagnosis and then treatment.

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That was up to three times longer than the diagnosis delay in other countries, including the US and Canada. Let us just think about what that means. It means child after child walking around—in their home, around their school and even through their own GP’s surgery—with identifiable symptoms of brain tumours that could have been picked up but sadly were not.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I am lucky enough that I collapsed in this austere palace and was taken straight to St Thomas’s hospital with a brain tumour, and I am living proof that someone can recover from a brain tumour. I should declare my support for the National Brain Appeal, which I raise money for.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a designated GP within the cluster of GPs’ surgeries that we all have in our communities who is the first point of reference when an individual child or adult presents to a GP clinic with some designated head symptoms?

Mr Raab: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. That sounds to me like a perfectly sensible suggestion. Again, it is a practical recommendation about how to deal with the fast-tracking from diagnosis to treatment, and again I am sure that the Minister has taken it on board.

The key thing that I have realised from being informed by HeadSmart and others about this issue is that the warning signs of a brain tumour—particularly in children, who are the focus of this debate—are not especially technical or terribly difficult to detect. We are talking about regular headaches or vomiting; difficulty in co-ordinating, balancing, or walking; blurred vision; and fits or seizures. Those are the most common symptoms, and they are signs that parents, doctors, teachers and children should be able to pick up on.

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Raab: Again, I will make a small amount of progress and then I will give way to my hon. Friend. As I was saying, those signs are symptoms that we should be able to pick up on, even if it is just to get them checked out properly so as to allay fears.

The scale of these tragedies led the Brain Tumour Charity to launch the HeadSmart campaign in 2011, to try to raise greater awareness and in particular to cut this life-threatening delay in diagnosis; there is also the issue of the delay between diagnosis and treatment. The thing that occurs to me is that we have seen truly amazing public awareness campaigns in this country. Think of the drink driving adverts; think of the campaigns in the 1990s to “Just Say No” to drugs; and more recently there have been the Vinnie Jones CPR adverts and the campaign to identify the early signs of a stroke, which is particularly germane to this debate. We are quite good at this work in this country, if we get hold of an issue and grasp it. HeadSmart wants to do something similar about brain tumours in children, but in a different way.

Mary Macleod: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has taken up this issue. I have already been to see the Minister about it, and generally she has been very helpful on brain tumours. Does he not find the statistics

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that he mentioned about the delay of 12 to 13 weeks unacceptable? If there was some sort of public awareness campaign on those symptoms, more people might be helped to go to their GP earlier and then we might also need extra sharing of best practice among the primary health sector.

Mr Raab: My hon. Friend is right. It is particularly regrettable that we have such a delay in comparison with other countries if we could take simple steps, which would not even cost the taxpayer money, to reduce the delay through political will and co-ordination.

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He has mentioned political will and co-ordination; does he agree that county councils and local education authorities can play a critical role in getting the HeadSmart cards out to schools? Will he join me in commending Hampshire county council, which has met Mrs Langton-Gilks and is working to ensure that the message is better disseminated to schools to increase awareness?

Mr Raab: My hon. Friend is bang on. I was going to come on to exactly that point, and I could not agree more.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Raab: I will make a bit more progress, because otherwise the Minister will not have a chance to respond at length, which I know she will want to do.

The HeadSmart campaign has developed an online education module to help health professionals to recognise the signs and symptoms of brain tumours in children and young people. There is now a network of clinical champions in each of the neuro-oncology centres around the UK giving presentations to fellow health professionals on the subject. There is also, critically, a network of local champions. David’s mum, Sacha, who is also here for the debate, is the first of those.

HeadSmart awareness packs have been distributed to more than 1,000 doctors’ surgeries around the country, and more than 625,000 symptom cards have been distributed across the UK. Only one year after the launch of the HeadSmart campaign, the diagnosis delay has fallen from an average of 9.3 weeks in 2011 to 7.5 weeks in 2012. This year, it is down further to 6.9 weeks. That is terrific progress, and we should welcome it.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Raab: I am just going to make a bit more progress, if I may, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman. The progress has been good, but it has also highlighted how easy it is, with practical steps, to save lives and prevent the serious and permanent damage that tumours can inflict on their survivors. HeadSmart’s explicit aim is to get the average diagnosis delay down to five weeks, which represents best practice in the west. That would save countless lives and reduce the number of permanent disabilities.

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There are various aspects to the ongoing campaign, and hon. Members have intervened already with particular dimensions that they want to explore. I want to focus on three basic steps, which are well within our gift as politicians, to help us reach that critical five-week target. The crux of the debate, compared with so many others that we grapple with, is that that target is reachable and these three measures are in the “eminently doable” category. We really ought to stretch our sinews as politicians to ensure that the target is reached.

First, and most importantly, the HeadSmart campaign has made it a priority to get its credit card-sized awareness cards into every school and nursery in the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) has mentioned. I have got one here. It can fit into the smallest wallet or purse; it explains the early symptoms of a brain tumour; it differentiates between symptoms depending on the age of the child; it tells you what to do if you are worried; and it gives contact details and a website to find out more information. If the cards are handed out to children at school to take home to their parents, that will go a long way towards heightening awareness and ensuring that children and parents have an easy reference tool to hand.

HeadSmart is already making progress. As we have heard, distribution has been carried out in Wiltshire, East Sussex, Sutton and Reading. Those areas are the trailblazers, and other councils are expected to follow their lead soon. I will be visiting Surrey county council with Sacha tomorrow. To date, the campaign has benefited from local co-ordinators who make contact with councils to encourage them to disseminate the cards through their internal mail system. Critically, because the Brain Tumour Charity pays for the cards and bundles them for distribution, the measure costs the councils nothing.

What we need now from Government is co-ordination and, frankly, political will, rather than pounds and pence. I have a very simple request, which is the most important purpose of the debate. Will the Minister write to every head of public health in all our councils, given their new responsibilities in the area, and urge them to back the campaign by sending out these cards for distribution via every school and nursery? That is the single measure that can contribute the most towards nailing the five-week target.

Andrew Selous: Brain tumours are the main cause of cancer deaths in children. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that they get only 0.8% of research funding, given that they are so significant?

Mr Raab: Although I am focusing on three practical aspects of the campaign,I thank my hon. Friend for that wider point about research funding. It was well made and I am sure that it has been registered.

The second key measure under the HeadSmart campaign is for the Government to encourage secondary school head teachers to invite the Teenage Cancer Trust to do a one-hour talk on the subject, because that has a proven track record of spreading awareness. Will the Minister take the lead and team up with her colleagues at the Department for Education to deliver on that important step?

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Mary Macleod: I have a quick suggestion based on my hon. Friend’s last two points. Might MPs perhaps help in the co-ordination effort? HeadSmart could send their leaflets to MPs to distribute to schools in their own areas. I, for one, would be perfectly happy to do so.

Mr Raab: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I am open to that idea, but the point is that councils have an internal mail system for delivering items to schools and nurseries. They are used to distributing in bulk, which is what we are talking about, to all schools. If we distributed the cards via MPs, I am not sure that it would happen in every case, although it certainly would for many. We need a comprehensive, co-ordinated approach, and, of course, our local councils have responsibility in this area.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con) rose—

Mark Pawsey rose—

Mr Raab: I am going to make progress, because otherwise there will not be time for the Minister to respond.

The third and final measure that I recommend to the Minister is that she write to the cabinet members for children’s services in all our local councils to direct health visitors to include the awareness cards in every child’s and baby’s red book, or at least to display them in every baby clinic alongside the meningitis cards that are already there. That is an effective way to raise awareness among parents of babies and young children.

The campaign is powerful and compelling, and I pay tribute to HeadSmart and all those who have been involved in it. It is compelling not least because we can do something about the problem. The tragedies of children dying or being left permanently and severely scarred by disability as a result of late-diagnosed brain tumours move us all. How could they fail to? The scale of the suffering is far greater than is generally realised or acknowledged, but we have a real opportunity to do something about it through a concerted team effort, by joining up central Government and local authorities with the pioneering efforts of the voluntary sector through HeadSmart.

Today, I have flagged up three simple steps that can bring us within touching distance of the five-week diagnosis target, which would represent a major breakthrough in this country.

Mark Pawsey: I want to speak about the impact of awareness among medical professionals. A constituent of mine whose son suffers from a brain tumour and a friend of mine who lost his daughter to a brain tumour have both drawn my attention to the fact that the symptoms of brain tumours often mimic those of less serious conditions. We must be aware of the fact that brain tumours are often undiagnosed by the medical profession, as well as of the need to create awareness among the broader community.

Mr Raab: My hon. Friend has made a good point, and I am not suggesting that the awareness cards will suddenly save every single child with symptoms. They

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will, however, increase our opportunity to pick up obvious and evident symptoms and ensure that they are checked out further.

I am asking for three basic measures, which I hope the Minister will respond to. I am not asking for a miracle cure, which is something that science regrettably cannot yet provide. I am not asking for a huge financial investment in a time of austerity; the measures I have outlined will not cost the taxpayer a penny. I am calling for the political will to implement three modest but ambitious measures that will have a massive impact on families across Britain. The Minister is known for her gumption, and I urge her to put her shoulder full square behind the cause.

4.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry): It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I have been called some bizarre things today. I was called “very libertarian” in a debate in this Chamber this morning, and I have been called something else this afternoon. I think it is a compliment, but in any event I will take it as such.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this important debate. As I have said on many occasions, the clock is always against us. I look around and I see the faces of Members who have been engaged not just in similar debates but, most importantly, in some of the meetings and in the all-party group on brain tumours, with which we have all been involved for some time.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). She and I had a very good meeting with some of her constituents on brain tumours in adults, and many of the problems of diagnosis are also experienced by adults who suffer from this unpleasant, horrible and often fatal disease. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) and Trudy’s Trust. Some of us were at the launch of Trudy’s Trust with Mr Speaker.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) and the Danny Green Fund. We hear today of yet another tragedy that has occurred, but some good comes out of every evil. One of the good things that comes out, especially when a child dies from a brain tumour, is the great power of a family to leave a legacy and make a great tribute to that child. There is nothing worse than the loss of a child—it is every parent’s nightmare—but to be able to turn that awful situation into something good, and to use that power to great effect, is something that we see in many instances. Today we have heard about just some of them, and there are others.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on securing this debate, because HeadSmart is based in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend, the Minister pay tribute to Neil and Angela Dickson? Their daughter Samantha died of a brain tumour and they have done fantastic work, not only to produce the kind of initiatives that have been mentioned by several hon. Members today, but to raise funds that have contributed to research that has produced results

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that have enabled the causes of brain tumours to be identified in part. Neil and Angela Dickson deserve many congratulations on what they have achieved.

Anna Soubry: I am more than happy to add my grateful thanks for the work of Neil and Angela Dickson, and the work of all those who support them. There are many such examples, and funds are often raised for research and to support families or other bits of work.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, money that goes into research often has the most powerful results. I pay tribute to Headcase cancer trust in my constituency, as I am very much aware of the great work that continues to be needed on brain cancer, which is a pernicious and horrible disease that affects people of all ages, but it seems somehow to be particularly cruel and wicked when it is inflicted on children.

There are a few things that I want to mention before moving on to some of the substantive points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton. We recognise that we need to do more to bring cancer survival rates up to the level of the best in the world—survival rates have been languishing in the wrong place for too long—so we have an outcome strategy that sets out our ambition to halve the gap between England’s survival rates and those of the best in Europe through saving an additional 5,000 lives every year by 2014-15. We know that the earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the greater the scope for curative treatment, and our strategy therefore prioritises addressing late diagnosis. To support that, we have £450 million over four years going into early diagnosis, which is part of the £750 million of additional funding from the Government for addressing cancer over the spending period. That funding will do much great work that I am happy to identify in a letter to my hon. Friend.

On direct GP access to diagnostic tests, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) made a good point about having someone within each clinical commissioning group who knows about not only brain cancers and brain tumours but other similar afflictions. As he rightly identifies, when a child has a headache, or when an adult has some other complaint and they are not sure what it is, there could be a more specialist GP who can say, “Maybe this is the sort of case that we need to scan swiftly,” or, “Maybe it needs some other treatment.” That is a very good point, but we need GPs to recognise symptoms that could be indicative of cancer and, where appropriate, to refer patients to more specialist care.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has published referral guidelines for suspected cancers, including a section on children, to help GPs and primary care professionals identify children with suspected cancer. The Department of Health published guidance in April 2012 on the best practice for what we call “referral pathways” for GPs.

When GPs suspect a brain tumour, they are able urgently to refer patients for special care using the two-week urgent referral pathway, and I have been helpfully supplied with some figures that I hope will give comfort and encouragement. Some 95.5% of patients were seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent

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GP referral for suspected cancer—that is for all cancers—in the first quarter of 2013-14, and 96.4% of patients urgently referred by their GP for suspected brain or central nervous system tumours were seen by a specialist within the two-week period. In the first quarter of 2013-14, 96.4% of patients in England urgently referred by their GP for a suspected children’s cancer were seen by a specialist within the two-week period. I think those are good figures, but of course we can always do better.

James Duddridge: Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry: Briefly, yes.

James Duddridge: Those are the figures for being seen by a consultant, but are there figures for when surgery actually takes place? Will the Minister provide us with those figures after the debate?

Anna Soubry: I do not believe I have those figures in front of me, but I am more than happy to provide them to everyone who has taken part in the debate. My official is indicating that we have the figures, and it is not a problem for me to give them to my hon. Friend.

NHS England now monitors the use of key diagnostic tests through the diagnostic imaging dataset, and the latest available provisional data for the period from April 2012 to March 2013 show that 28,995 tests—which is about a quarter of all tests—that may have been used to diagnose or discount cancer were requested by GPs under direct access arrangements.

I pay huge tribute to HeadSmart, and of course I welcome its “Be brain tumour aware” campaign and the collaboration between the Brain Tumour Charity, the children’s brain tumour research centre at the university of Nottingham—to which I admit I have a bias, being a Nottinghamshire MP—and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. I have written to HeadSmart offering encouragement and advising that it could apply to the voluntary sector investment programme for funds to raise awareness of HeadSmart cards in schools. I will continue to work with those great and wonderful charities, and I look forward to seeing them inform the development of our nationally led campaigns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton directly challenges me to take action, and I shall tell him what I will do. I might not completely agree with all that he proposes, but I am more than happy to speak to my colleagues at Public Health England—cancer screening is an obvious priority for Public Health England—about how we can best advance HeadSmart cards in schools. As he knows, of course, public health is now devolved to local authority level. And as he also knows, we are a Government who believe in localism, and therefore it is not for Ministers to tell people what to do, however much we might want to at times.

The idea advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth is very good. A great deal of work can be done by local MPs. Of course, hon. Members might not know about this, but we can talk afterwards about how we can alert our colleagues throughout the House to what can be done. A letter from a local Member of Parliament to their director of public health, or to the chair of their health and wellbeing board, will frankly have more weight than any letter from me.

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Andrew Selous: As my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) has said, local authorities are already writing to schools and putting stuff in the post. If MPs do that too, it will cost the public purse. It strikes me that that already happens, and cheaply.

Anna Soubry: I do not agree. I do not know about my hon. Friend, but I write to all my schools. In truth, I do not have that many schools, so there are not that many letters. A letter from a Member of Parliament to all their schools and to their health and wellbeing board could be very powerful. I am more than happy to talk to my colleagues in the Department for Education, but I am not sure that a letter to cabinet members will have any weight.

Mr Raab: Will the Minister give way?

Anna Soubry: I am going to run out of time. Unless my hon. Friend is very quick, I do not see how I can respond.

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Mr Raab: I thank the Minister for giving way. The whole point of this debate is to try to get central Government to co-ordinate with local government. We are not talking about forcing local government, but we are talking about urging local government to do something through its internal mail system. Will she give that further consideration and perhaps meet me and the HeadSmart campaign?

Anna Soubry: Yes. That is a brilliant idea, and I am more than happy to do it, especially as I have only six seconds left. Seriously, though, between us all we can find a way to ensure that we all get what we want.

Question put and agreed to.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned.