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That shows something that insurers often deny: the complexity of some mesothelioma cases—causation often can be an issue—and the lengths to which some insurers

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will go to defend claims. The point that the insurers made in Mrs Haxton’s case is that, because she was going to die soon because of mesothelioma, she was not entitled to the same amount of damages as she would have received if she were a dependant of her husband who had not been affected and lived longer.

Thankfully, the Court of Appeal ruled entirely in Mrs Haxton’s favour. The £700,000 awarded will perhaps be of some assistance to her family, but it is no comfort to that family that both parents will have died from this terrible disease. That is the type of case we are dealing with and that is why there were arguments with the Government, throughout the progress of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in both Houses, about why that exception should be made.

Votes as well as arguments went on in both Houses. In the other place, votes were successful, in the sense that the Government were defeated. The final defeat of the Government on this issue took place on 23 April 2012, by 205 votes to 214, on a motion on an amendment moved by Lord Alton. Consequently, on the following day in the ping-pong process, the then Minister made this concession:

“I can now give the House the assurance that we will not commence the relevant provisions in clause 43, on success fees, and clause 45, on after-the-event insurance, in respect of mesothelioma claims in April next year. Rather, we will implement the clauses in respect of those claims at a later date, once we are satisfied on the way forward for those who are unable to trace their employer’s insurer. The amendment commits the Lord Chancellor to carrying out a review of the likely effect of the clauses in relation to mesothelioma proceedings and to publish a report before those clauses are implemented.”

Hon. Members from all parties did not entirely accept what the Minister said. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who is rightly sceptical on such occasions, said:

“On the point about the delay until the review has been undertaken, is that merely a delay or is it a genuine review? If it is a review, what will it consider and will he give an indication of its timetable?”

The Minister replied:

“Given the timing of this development, we have not thought through the exact procedures of the review, but it will certainly be undertaken before we move to ending the provisions that remain.”

That, at least was honest.

Other hon. Members made speeches, raising concerns, including the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford and Paul Goggins. The shadow Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), also mentioned the review and was intervened on by the hon. Member for St Ives, who said:

“The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my intervention on the Minister, when I sought to distinguish between a mere delay in the implementation of the policy and a genuine review. I hoped that the Minister would give me some indication that if the findings of a review required the Government’s policy to be amended in some way, there would be an opportunity for a rethink.”

The shadow Lord Chancellor, showing unusual confidence in the Government, said:

“I believe that this will be a genuine review…but the report needs to be based on proper evidence”.—[Official Report, 24 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 831, 837.]

The concession was accepted here and in the other place, in good faith, because it was believed that there would be a proper review and a report. However, on 24 July 2013, considerably later, the consultation paper,

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“Reforming Mesothelioma Claims”, was published. That consultation was primarily about the proposed pre-action protocol, fixed cost proposals and the electronic gateway. Tagged on to the end of that paper—it really was tagged on to the end, at part 4 of that report—was a heading, “Review under section 48 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.” The Minister was not in post at the time, but I hope that he has read it.

That peculiar document begins:

“This part of the consultation paper”


“the review…The Government believes that other changes set out in this consultation, and the changes to the statutory framework for funding of litigation described above, together with the changes being introduced in the Mesothelioma Bill should make it possible, and appropriate, for sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act to be brought into force for mesothelioma claims at the same time as those other changes.”

It talked about a review but did not appear to be the review. The question that it posed at the end bore no relation to a review taking place. The review, if it claimed to be a review, was flawed. As has been the case throughout, it appears to have been convenient for the Government to muddle through, to let time elapse and to go back to the position they wanted in the first place.

It gets worse, because we then come to the written ministerial statement of 4 December in which the Minister blithely said:

“The Government have carefully considered the responses and have concluded that they intend to apply sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act to mesothelioma cases, as for all other personal injury cases.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 56WS.]

Extraordinarily, the report was not published at the same time as the statement, and it has still not been published, so we do not know what the reasons are. The statement really was a “we are here because we are here” answer. The Minister said, “We are going to do what we were going to do all along,” ignoring all the objections, the votes and the assurances that were given during the passage of the LASPO Act.

Further attempts have been made to ascertain where the Government are on this, and the issue has come up repeatedly at Justice questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston has brought it up. At the most recent Justice questions on 17 December, I raised the issue with the Secretary of State, who replied:

“Of course this is not a new problem, and in many areas we are picking up on things that were not done by the previous Government. We will bring forward a further consultation on these issues shortly.”

I do not know whether that is right, and the Minister will no doubt enlighten us on whether there will be a further consultation, but when Paul Goggins asked the same question later in the same Question Time, the Minister replied:

“We had a consultation, and we have come up with the preliminary report. As was said earlier, we will come up with a fuller report in due course.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2013; Vol. 572, c. 610, 618.]

Again, I do not know what that preliminary report is, and I do not know when the fuller report will come to light, but none of that helps to clarify the situation.

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I will not take up much more time, but there has not been a proper review. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck read out the question that purported to be the review:

“Do you agree that sections 44 and 46 of the LASPO Act 2012 should be brought into force in relation to mesothelioma claims, in the light of the proposed reforms described in this consultation, the increase in general damages and costs protection described above, and the Mesothelioma Bill?”

That is not a proper review, and it is not the review that Parliament was promised.

Two months after the written ministerial statement announced the decision, the report has still not been published. Most importantly, the Government have conceded that their criteria for not making mesothelioma a special case no longer apply. They conceded that point on the Mesothelioma Bill, as they did when they finally answered the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston. A similar response was given to my noble Friend Lord Beecham and Tony Whitston, which made it clear that the only link between the LASPO provisions and the Mesothelioma Bill is that they might happen at the same time, in July 2014. Well, the World cup final is happening in July 2014, so it has as much to do with LASPO as the Mesothelioma Bill in that respect.

The second point that has been made, which I will not labour, is that, somehow, it was right to go ahead with applying sections 44 and 46 to mesothelioma claims because of the other changes that were being made. Under the influence of the Association of British Insurers, as always, the Government were pretending that the pre-action protocol, the gateway and the fixed costs would actually help mesothelioma sufferers. Let us be fair to the Government, because for once they did not go down the route of pursuing the ABI agenda. I am pleased to say that on some issues, such as the changes to the small claims limit for whiplash—with which the Government are not going ahead either—the Government are not slavishly following the insurance industry’s agenda, as they have previously. They are following that agenda most of the time, but not all the time.

Having now resiled from those positions, the Government cannot rely on the changes as a reason for not going ahead with the review and for not persisting with mesothelioma as a special case. All they are left with is the proposed reforms described in the consultation. That is a completely circular argument that takes us back to exactly where we were when the Government tried in the first place to say that the changes to CFAs and ATE premiums should apply to mesothelioma as they do to everything else. All the Government are saying is, “We were right all along. We had to say something to get our legislation through, but we never had any intention of complying with it. We have gone forward.”

Finally, I remind the Minister of the points made by Paul Goggins during our consideration of both the LASPO Act and the Mesothelioma Bill. The problem with the new cost regime is, first, that a successful claimant will pay up to 25% of their general damages as success fees. Secondly, to mitigate that attack on their damages, a claimant will have to shop around for a cheaper lawyer. Thirdly, the qualified one-way costs shifting does not provide a complete defence against costs. It does not address disbursement, part 36 offers

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or issues where a court decides that a claim has been misconducted. Finally, there are far fewer lawyers who will be able under the new regime to take on such cases. It may be that not only will people have to pay their own costs out of the damages but they may not be able to bring the case at all. That is without going into the problems of complexity and difficulty that, under the most difficult circumstances, mesothelioma claimants already have to deal with, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford have said.

With all those problems, which affect other personal injury and civil claims but which many Members of both Houses believe particularly apply in mesothelioma cases, the Government should honour their commitment to doing a proper review and a proper report explaining why, if they wish to persist with applying sections 44 and 46, they intend to do so. They should not do that in such a flippant and offhand way.

Perhaps the Minister could take the Secretary of State’s hint and go back to consult properly by calling for evidence on exactly what will be the consequences of applying sections 44 and 46. If he did that, he would find overwhelming evidence that mesothelioma sufferers are a particular case and that the Government’s commitments should be honoured. I end on that point, but I ask the Minister to tell us what the Government’s plans are, to justify the Government’s intended actions and to tell us whether he will now go away, properly consider the matter and honour the pledges made by his predecessors when the LASPO Act was considered by both Houses.

3.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I echo the words uttered about our former colleague, Paul Goggins. If Paul was with us, there is no doubt that he would have been in the Chamber with us today, expressing his views as passionately as he always did. Paul spoke with conviction and passion on a number of issues, and he will be sorely missed by all of us. He was a true parliamentarian, and a very decent parliamentarian at that. We will all miss him.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) on securing this important debate. I commend him on the passion with which he spoke. All Members from across the political divide have spoken on this important subject with conviction and passion.

A number of issues have been raised, and I hope to be able to address some of them in the time remaining. I refer colleagues to the last sentence of the written ministerial statement of 4 December 2013:

“The Government will publish their response to the consultation, and the report under section 48 of the LASPO Act, shortly.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 56WS.]

The report is not something that is not going to appear; it will appear. I hope that hon. Members appreciate that today’s debate is in response to a request by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough. That request was made before the report was published, but it will be forthcoming.

Other issues were raised. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) referred to comments by the Lord Chancellor. He rightly referred to consultation,

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and we hope to consult further with stakeholders to try to ensure that we improve the claims process. I will return to that.

Kate Green: I note the final sentence of the written ministerial statement. Presumably the report, which must be in the Minister’s hands by now, offered sufficient information and analysis to enable the Government to make their decision, so will he explain what has held up its publication for almost two months?

Mr Vara: I hope the hon. Lady will agree that, given the sensitivity and importance of the matter, it is right and proper that we should make known to the public our broad thrust of thought, rather than people having to wait a further few months before the report comes out. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) secured a debate when there was much agitation about the timing of the review, what it would say and so on. I am sorry if trying to be helpful is now being held against the Government.

Let me say at the outset that the Government recognise that mesothelioma is a terrible disease and has a devastating impact on the families of its sufferers. We take very seriously the plight of sufferers and their right to be able to claim compensation for negligently caused personal injury. The subject is, understandably, emotive, and that has been demonstrated in our heartfelt and thorough debate today, as well as during the passage through both Houses of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Debates on LASPO included consideration of the Government’s reforms to no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, or CFAs, and led to the limited exception of mesothelioma cases, to which I will return shortly.

This debate has highlighted the importance of the issue, and the Government wholeheartedly agree that, given the short life expectancy after the disease has been diagnosed, it is imperative that there is early payment of compensation when necessary. That is why we announced on 4 December 2013 that we will explore whether more can be done to improve the compensation claims process.

I appreciate that today’s debate has been about the Government’s decision to remove the limited exception from no win, no fee reforms in relation to mesothelioma cases. I want to deal with three main issues. The first is why our reforms to CFAs are the right way forward, and the second is the limited exception to these rules in respect of mesothelioma claims and the circumstances in which that exception will end; thirdly, I want to clarify the position relating to the section 48 review and how it was carried out.

I will start by setting out briefly the rationale for our changes to CFAs. Many mesothelioma claims are funded under such agreements. Legal aid has not been available for some time. The previous Government’s Access to Justice Act 1999 removed legal aid for the majority of personal injury cases, including mesothelioma cases, when alternative forms of funding, such as CFAs, were available. As hon. Members will know, the Government have introduced reforms in England and Wales relating to the way that civil cases are funded, and the costs involved in bringing those cases. Those reforms are set out in part 2 of LASPO and took forward recommendations by Lord Justice Jackson, a distinguished Court of Appeal judge.

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Hon. Members will be aware that Lord Justice Jackson had been asked to investigate the high costs of civil litigation, and to make recommendations for reform. He found that the arrangements for CFAs were

“the major contributor to disproportionate costs in civil litigation in England and Wales.”

He recommended that the recovery of success fees and after-the-event insurance from defendants be abolished, saying that that would lead to

“significant costs savings, whilst still enabling those who need access to justice to obtain it.”

The Government accepted the recommendations, and they were implemented in sections 44 and 46 of LASPO, with the reforms coming into effect in April 2013.

These important reforms will generally ensure that meritorious claims can still be pursued, but at a more proportionate cost. As part of our reforms, earlier settlement will be encouraged, and damages for non-pecuniary loss, such as pain, suffering and loss of amenity, will be increased by 10%. The Government agreed with Lord Justice Jackson that the level of such damages in England and Wales was generally low, and that a 10% increase could assist claimants in meeting the costs of the success fee and other funding changes. Lord Justice Jackson argued that in the majority of cases his proposals

“should leave successful claimants no worse off than they are under the current regime”.

Those words are relevant.

During LASPO’s passage through Parliament, the Government accepted that the reforms should not be brought into effect for mesothelioma claims until a review had been carried out of the likely effect of those reforms on such cases. That review provision is in section 48 of the Act. If Parliament had intended the LASPO provisions not to apply to such claims at all, it could have legislated to that effect. In the event, mesothelioma claims were exempted, and Parliament legislated to the effect that the provisions could be commenced for claims following the conduct of a review, as set out in section 48. Of course, we must recognise that a review could lead to a number of possible outcomes—to claims continuing to be exempted from the reforms, or alternatively to the exemption not continuing.

The Government carried out the section 48 review as part of the consultation on reforming mesothelioma cases, which concluded on 2 October 2013. That was a 10-week public consultation, and all interested parties had the opportunity to participate. Some 105 responses were received from interested parties and expert stakeholders on both sides of the debate; that is the specific advantage of a public consultation. The respondents included Thompsons, the personal injury solicitors firm to which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough referred when declaring an interest at the outset of the debate.

Some respondents to the consultation questioned the timing of the review and how it was carried out. However, the Government are satisfied that it meets our obligations under section 48. The Act makes it clear that in conducting the review under section 48, the Government are required to consider the likely effect of sections 44 and 46 on proceedings on a claim for damages in respect of diffuse mesothelioma. That is what we have done.

Comments have been made about the Mesothelioma Bill and the timing of the review. As Members will know, the Government introduced the Bill in May 2013.

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It creates a compulsory payment scheme for victims who are unable to trace a liable employer, or liable employer liability insurer, from which to claim the damages that are rightly due. The Bill has completed all stages in both Houses and is awaiting Royal Assent. It is an important milestone in ensuring that those who were previously unable to claim can do so when the scheme is up and running.

Andy McDonald: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vara: I am about to come to the point to which I think the hon. Gentleman wants to refer, but I am happy to take a question.

Andy McDonald: The Minister is concentrating on the Mesothelioma Bill, but we are talking about LASPO. Does he accept that there is no connection between the two?

Mr Vara: I am coming immediately to the point that I anticipated the hon. Gentleman would refer to. In conducting the review, the Government focused their consideration on matters relevant to claims for mesothelioma that are subject to litigation—in other words, where a solvent defendant is identified. The provisions of the Mesothelioma Bill, however, apply to sufferers who cannot trace a defendant to sue for compensation. If claimants are able to identify a defendant, the Mesothelioma Bill is not directly relevant to their claim, and the Government have carefully borne this in mind.

The Government have not therefore taken the Bill into account in relation to litigated cases in respect of the review. However, the Bill is relevant to the timing of the application of sections 44 and 46 of LASPO, since we have always intended to synchronise the implementation of any decision on this matter with other reforms directed at improving the position of mesothelioma sufferers. This was made clear when Parliament agreed the relevant provisions in LASPO. Much was made of that in earlier speeches, so I refer hon. Members to a debate on LASPO on 24 April 2012. The late Paul Goggins asked the then Justice Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly):

“Crucially, how will the commencement of the relevant provisions of the Bill be aligned with the proposals that the Department for Work and Pensions hopes to publish before the summer recess? I would be happy to take an intervention from the Minister if he wishes to make a clear commitment this afternoon that he will not seek to implement the relevant provisions in the Bill unless and until an improved system of compensation is in place.”

My hon. Friend the Justice Minister replied:

“I do not want to give any binding commitments about the process today, because things have not been finalised. However, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that if the process is to be improved by the Department for Work and Pensions, which we hope it will be—he will have some insight into our proposals from the discussions he has had—that could well require DWP legislation, in which case”—

the relevant words—

“we would look to roll the ending of the provisions into the commencement of the DWP provisions. That is how I foresee the process now, but again, I am not making that a commitment.”—[Official Report, 24 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 838-39.]

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The following day, the noble Lord Alton questioned the Justice Minister in the upper House, the noble Lord McNally. Lord Alton asked:

“First, is the Minister able to assure us that there will be absolute synchronisation between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the mesothelioma provisions in the Bill will not be implemented in advance of the new regime coming into force?”

Later in the debate, Lord McNally responded:

“I can absolutely guarantee that we will work in a synchronised way with the DWP.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 April 2012; Vol. 736, c. 1818 and 1824.]

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) was present at the House of Commons debate. She made a contribution at Hansard column 834—

Kate Green: I accept everything that the Minister has said. Are we to conclude therefore that the connection is simply about synchronisation of timing, and not in any way about synchronisation of approach to treatment of victims, or am I misunderstanding what he is saying?

Mr Vara: I hope that I am clear when I say that it is important that we synchronise the timing, so that everyone affected by this terrible illness knows what the position is, whether or not they have a traceable employer or liable insurer. It is the timing that is at issue. That is what was referred to in the debates in both the upper and lower Houses.

Andy McDonald rose—

Mr Vara: I am happy to give way, because it is the hon. Gentleman’s debate, but I hope that hon. Members accept that I have limited time, and I want to get through things.

Andy McDonald: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he explain something? We have a group of people way over in the distance with one group of problems—in Weymouth, for example—and another group of people in Wolverhampton with another set of problems. If he addresses one situation, how would that benefit the people in the other place? They are not connected; it is just that he is trying to do things at the same time. Does he not agree with that analysis?

Mr Vara: It was agreed by Parliament in the debate that there would be a synchronisation of what the Department for Work and Pensions did and what we did. That is what has happened. I trust that Members will now allow me to proceed, because a number of issues were raised, and I want to put the Government response on the record.

The Government have carefully considered the likely effect of implementing the LASPO reforms on mesothelioma claims, including the evidence put before us by respondents to the consultation. The issues raised, however, were generally similar to those in other very serious personal injury cases to which the reforms already apply. There was little explanation of any particular feature of the mesothelioma claims process that would lead to a different or disproportionate effect on claimants’ access to justice, should the reforms apply. Ultimately, in our view, there needs to be a specific justification for the continued difference in treatment between mesothelioma cases and other personal injury cases—most particularly, other serious personal injury cases that have their own

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tragic features involving, as some do, catastrophic injury and the need for substantial care arrangements for the remainder of a claimant’s life, sometimes when the claimant is very young.

Let me emphasis that we entirely understand that mesothelioma victims face an appalling and fatal disease with which they and their families have to come to terms, while also having to engage with the claims process. Without in any way seeking to minimise the distress that this entails, however, there are many other serious personal injury and fatal claims, to which the LASPO reforms already apply, that produce difficult challenges for victims and families.

On 4 December, we announced that we intended to apply sections 44 and 46 of LASPO to diffuse mesothelioma cases from July this year, when the Mesothelioma Bill is expected to be implemented. When the reforms take effect, claimants will be entitled to a 10% increase in general damages. The average general damages for such cases, as set out in the Judicial College guidelines, is £70,000, so that would be an average additional £7,000 in damages.

Claimants will be liable for any success fee claimed by their lawyer, as in any other personal injury case, but there is no requirement for a success fee to be charged. The amount of any success fee is a matter for negotiation between claimants and their lawyer. Claimants will also benefit from costs protection in the form of qualified one-way cost shifting, to protect them from having to pay the other side’s costs if the claim fails. Additionally, the costs of any after-the-event insurance that claimants feel they need in order to deal with defendants’ part 36 offers—a process of negotiation between parties on a reasonable offer for resettlement—are expected to reduce. If a part 36 offer is unreasonable, a claimant is not at risk for rejecting it. Claimant lawyers tend to know what is and is not a reasonable offer. Claimants are of course liable for disbursements in relation to their case, but the general rule in all civil litigation is that reasonable costs will be paid by a losing defendant.

We announced in December that we anticipate publishing the Government’s response some time in the next few weeks. Colleagues will appreciate that we could have waited until we announced the outcome of the consultation, but we were keen to let stakeholders know the outcome as soon as possible, especially on those issues that we are not currently taking forward.

I want to emphasise that the Government firmly support the right of those who suffer from this terrible disease to be able to claim compensation. Over the past 10 years, significant progress has been made in streamlining the process, including in relation to those matters headed by Senior Master Whitaker. We wish to explore further ways of streamlining the process, and we seek the co-operation of the appropriate stakeholders.

The LASPO reforms are about tackling the high cost of civil litigation, rather than questioning the validity of claims. The Government believe that the reforms should apply to all personal injury cases, including those of the utmost severity. We have conducted the review as required, and as soon as we are able to do so, we will publish our report. In the meantime, my thanks again to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough for securing this debate. It is fair to say that we are united on at least one matter: the great importance of this issue.

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Elections in Bangladesh

4 pm

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to have been able to secure this Westminster Hall debate. I welcome the opportunity not only to discuss recent elections in Bangladesh but to talk about the lessons of the past few months—I believe that the UK can learn from those lessons—and the opportunities that are open to us as we help Bangladesh to work towards political stability in the coming years.

Bangladesh is a country that has seen significant progress since its infancy. Responding to the millennium development goals, it has reduced the poverty gap ratio from 17% to 6.5%. Investment in children’s health has resulted in a reduction in the mortality rate of under-fives, and the prevalence of underweight children has almost halved. The World Bank recognises the advances that the country continues to make, suggesting that it will become a middle-income country by 2021.

Clearly, what happens in Bangladesh is hugely important for its prosperity and the life chances of the people living there. However, the recent election has seen those advances undermined by the country’s own political leadership. As we all know, on 5 January, Bangladesh held its 10th general election. On paper at least, it demonstrated overwhelming support for the Awami League, which won 232 of the 300 seats. However, the reality of the election was a turnout that was reported as being as low as 10% and a mass boycott by Opposition parties that meant that half of the seats remained uncontested. Schools used as polling stations were burned down and the lives of 21 were people lost.

We celebrate the progress made by Bangladesh since its modern birth in 1971, but the ongoing mistrust between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist party and other Opposition parties points to a dysfunctional political climate in which the prospect of free and fair elections seems elusive.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate and endorse what he has said about the importance of the progress that Bangladesh has made. Does he agree that one of the fundamental problems with the election was the Awami League’s refusal to follow the precedent of previous elections, whereby there had been a caretaker Government to oversee fair process, foreign observers and the rest, and that that failure and the political thinking behind it led to the tragedy that now confronts us?

Gavin Shuker: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which has been much debated not just in the House but further afield. The events running up to the election were deeply regrettable. The question whether it was right to press on with the elections will perhaps be left for others to decide—or even for history. Right now, it is vital that the international community takes a lead—as the UK has—in saying that the elections were neither free nor fair and, for that reason, were not right.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing and leading this debate. Like me, he probably has a large number of people from Bangladesh in his constituency. Obviously, they are extremely concerned about what happens back

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home, to use an expression, because that can have effects here. The absence of an interim Government to oversee the elections was certainly a major setback in a country that is now moving from third-world status and lifting the living standards of its people. Does he agree with me that the United Nations and other international organisations should put pressure on the Bangladeshi Government to stop harassing and jeering the Opposition?

Gavin Shuker: Indeed. In the excellent debate we had in this House a few weeks ago on the political situation in Bangladesh, a recurring theme was concern about human rights abuses and the failure to follow the rule of law adequately in political discussions. It is important to keep that in the forefront of our minds.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done on this issue and for calling for this debate. He has raised a point that has been raised before in the Chamber: there was a real lack of democratic credibility for the elections that took place. That is the past. The question I have for him—and for the Minister—is about how we move forward. Does he agree that the international community needs to work with the current Government in Bangladesh and urge them to work with the Opposition to work out a time frame and a framework for a future election that will have that democratic credibility?

Gavin Shuker: It is an excellent point. What is required in a situation such as this, where there appears to be deadlock, is for the international community to play an appropriate role. I will go on to speak about Britain’s unique role and ability to help in that regard.

We have that role not least because we are a major investor in Bangladesh: in this calendar year, the Department for International Development will spend around £275 million in Bangladesh. Around a third of that will go directly to the Bangladeshi Government, and a significant proportion of the money that will be spent is aimed at boosting political participation and promoting safety and justice. One programme that falls into that category, called Strengthening Political Participation in Bangladesh, holds three clear goals: first, to make political parties more responsive to citizens and their interests; secondly, to strengthen core democratic institutions, namely the Bangladesh Electoral Commission and Parliament; and thirdly, to ensure that civil society advocates effectively for a more accountable and responsible political system. Despite the commencement of that programme four years ago in 2009, the 2014 election was notable for its success in weakening all three objectives.

The ongoing political conflict has a damaging effect not only on empowerment and accountability but on other things. The Centre for Policy Dialogue has estimated a total economic loss of over £3.8 billion as a result of the conflict around the election caused by blockades and ongoing political turmoil. That loss has hit the transport industry, the agricultural sector and the clothing and textiles industry hardest. Those are three sectors in which Bangladesh must succeed if it is to reach its goal of becoming a middle-income country.

It is only right that in this scenario DFID should reflect on the relative success of the programmes that are funded in conjunction with the United States Agency for International Development and amount to aid of

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over £56 million over a five-year period. Arguably, their success is questionable. The issue is complex—I am not suggesting that the programmes simply do not work, or that they should be junked or the money withdrawn—and DFID Ministers should look urgently at how that money is spent, so that it can be fully effective in engaging and empowering voters across the country.

An internal review of the programmes would be helpful, as through them we have the potential to shape a relatively young country, and shape a structure that is fair and sustainable. That must be done quickly, as tensions remain high and local elections will take place over the coming months. Will the Minister reflect on that in his discussions with the Department for International Development and, in his reply, will he commit the Government to publishing the findings of the DFID review that is already being spoken about? There is scope for reviewing all in-country programmes in Bangladesh, to assess whether they have made an adequate contribution to building political governance and civic society.

There are no easy answers for the international community as to whether it was right to press ahead with elections or to work to maintain an interim or caretaker Government. I reiterate what I said earlier this month during the excellent debate in the Chamber: whatever someone’s view on that question, it was right, as a nation, to issue statements to make it clear that the elections were neither free nor fair. We are not alone in feeling a responsibility to make public our concerns about the Bangladeshi people caught up in this conflict. The elections have not only encouraged a reaction from the UK Government, from Members who participated in a Back-Bench business debate earlier this month and from those who are here today, but they have led to an international response. Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, has called for new elections, stating:

“The government and the opposition must take up their shared responsibility to hold a new, fully contested and transparent election as soon as possible.”

She has also said:

“It is vital that the people of Bangladesh are able to express their democratic will and exercise real choice.”

Rehman Chishti: The hon. Gentleman has referred to the Australian Foreign Minister’s comment that there should be elections “soon”. In Pakistan, for example, General Zia said when he took over as dictator that elections would be held soon, and that went on for many years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to secure a time frame for new, fresh elections, rather than simply saying “Elections will take place soon”, which may mean by the end of the five-year term.

Gavin Shuker: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The timetable will come about not by our imposing it from on high but through negotiation with the interested parties. We are talking about the general election, but we are about to roll into a period of local elections in Bangladesh. In whatever we do, we must look first and foremost to the immediate window ahead of us to try to build capacity in the democratic process. If we can build faith in the democratic process through the local elections, that may move through to the other elections.

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Rehman Chishti: The hon. Gentleman says that we should move forward and that people should take part in the local elections. Does he really think that the Opposition, who say they have been prevented from taking part in those full and fair elections, will put up candidates in local elections? I believe that that is very unlikely.

Gavin Shuker: We can only go on the statements of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and I am encouraged that the party has confirmed that it will take part in the elections. I sincerely hope that parties can be equally engaged in a fair and democratic process that empowers voters. The hon. Gentleman’s scepticism is completely understandable in the circumstances. We must not be cynical, but it is incumbent on all of us to be sceptical about the statements that have been released. As we know, a series of statements have been put out and rescinded in the past.

The deputy spokesperson of the US State Department has said that

“the results of the just-concluded elections do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people”,

and called for new elections to be held “as soon as possible.” The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on parties to resume dialogue and to demonstrate “calm and restraint”. In Germany, the Federal Foreign Office stated that the election was an extremely poor reflection of the electorate’s will. Even the Japanese ambassador to Dhaka, Shiro Sadoshima, said that

“the political leadership in Bangladesh, regardless of their positions, should immediately initiate serious efforts to provide Bangladeshi people with a voting opportunity for making political choice in a manner that responds to their aspiration.”

Not all countries have been as helpful however; Russia, India, China, Vietnam and Nepal have come out in support of the new Government.

It is right to condemn human rights abuses—a subject that we do not have time to go into today—committed by all sides, but we must not lose sight of the imminent needs of the Bangladeshi people. We must encourage the President to act on the assurances given to work with the 18-party alliance. We must discourage the personal exchanges that have occurred between party leaders, because such actions have enormous implications for their ability to work together in the interests of Bangladesh. We should call for the release of the many political prisoners who have been detained in the run-up to the presidential election and who await bail. That is happening, but clearly not fast enough. I ask the Minister to reflect on that in his response.

We must also celebrate some signs of progress. As I have said, Bangladesh has plans in place for this year’s local elections, and it is incumbent on us to ask what practical support is necessary to ensure that those, and the subsequent phases in March and May this year, happen cleanly. It goes without saying that Britain, where half a million members of the Bangladeshi diaspora live, should continue to play a significant role. Those individuals remind us of Britain’s historical relationship with Bangladesh, our privileged role as a member of the UN Security Council, our position as a key member of the Commonwealth, our relationship with the USA and other English-speaking nations and our seat at the heart of Europe. Working from this place with our partners, I hope that Britain will make the contribution

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that only it can to help the people of Bangladesh take the step up to the fully democratic system that they deserve.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Our man at the Foreign Office, Mr Hugh Robertson.

4.14 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): Thank you, Mr Hollobone—although perhaps not for that introduction, to be honest. May I begin by saying that I am grateful to the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) for securing this important debate? I apologise to him at the outset for not being the Minister with direct responsibility for Bangladesh, but I read the Backbench Business Committee debate from 16 January before this debate and I give him a commitment that I will ensure that his remarks today are passed to Baroness Warsi and, in view of the comments he made, to my ministerial counterparts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

It was clear from reading the report of that debate that Members on both sides of the House share a common commitment to the well-being, future prosperity and stable democratic development of Bangladesh, but considerable concerns have been expressed about all three areas. As the hon. Gentleman said, the relationship between the UK and Bangladesh is strong, with considerable ties of history and family. We want to promote a shared belief in democracy, good governance and sustainable development. He is right to say that the recent election in Bangladesh fell drastically short of the ideals we would expect. Our response falls into three areas. First, we expressed public regret at the lack of participation and the scenes of violence. Secondly, we call on Bangladesh’s political parties to begin a dialogue that finds a long-term, sustainable solution, in a way that does not exist at the moment, for the good of Bangladesh’s people. Thirdly, we recognise that a proper functioning democracy, as we would understand it, is vital for Bangladesh’s future security and prosperity. I shall take each of those in turn.

Successive British Governments have believed that peaceful, credible elections that express the will of the voters are the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy. The 10th parliamentary elections, held in Bangladesh on 5 January, were constitutionally correct, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, but the main Opposition party did not participate. Indeed, half the electorate did not get the chance to vote. There must therefore be concern as to whether the will of the Bangladeshi people has been properly reflected and whether the elections met the goals of a true democracy.

In the run-up to those elections, the UK engaged with all political parties in a number of ways, calling on them to ensure full, open and participatory elections. My honourable and noble Friend Baroness Warsi delivered the same message personally to leaders of the ruling and Opposition parties when she visited on 12 December. Her public statement on 6 January expressed our disappointment at the election outcome and condemned the acts of intimidation and unlawful political violence.

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Those acts are striking: more than 500 people are believed to have lost their life as a result of political violence in 2013; 21 deaths were reported on polling day; and more than 100 polling centres, many of which were schools and colleges in poor rural areas, were burned down. By any standard, that is shocking. The deaths and destruction sadden me, as I know they sadden Members on both sides of the House.

We remain deeply concerned about the deaths and the continued political harassment, and the heightened political tensions that underlie them. However, as the hon. Gentleman said in his well-balanced and fair speech, there have been some positive moves recently. We are pleased that the Bangladesh Nationalist party has condemned the violence and announced a suspension of its enforced strikes and transport blockades. The relaxation of police restrictions at Opposition party offices and the granting of bail for some BNP leaders by the High Court brings some promise, but it is not nearly enough. Further bold moves by all sides are needed if the needs and wishes of the people of Bangladesh are going to be met and put first. As he said in his balanced speech, in the meantime, the UK continues to do what it can to support Bangladesh and its democracy.

We remain absolutely committed to supporting the Bangladesh development goals, as laid out in the millennium development goals. Between 2011 and 2015, as the hon. Gentleman said, our support will lift 1.5 million people out of extreme poverty, provide access to safe water for 1.3 million people and ensure that 500,000 boys and girls complete their primary school education. I am pleased that UK aid is working to improve governance in Bangladesh. It is vital to develop a political system that is more capable, more accountable and much more responsive than it is at the moment. I will ensure that the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made are brought to the attention of DFID Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman briefly mentioned the support that was given around election time. The UK supported the Bangladesh Election Commission and work was done to update the voters register, train polling officials and develop new systems to publish candidates’ details, including declarations of wealth, which I imagine is a controversial topic in that part of the world. Notwithstanding the outcome of the poll, we believe that those improvements will stand the Government in good stead in future elections.

Unless the hon. Gentleman particularly wants to raise anything else, I shall end where I began; by congratulating him on securing the debate and on the tone with which he led it, and by thanking him for his continued interest in the country. It is shared by many across the House. Bangladesh is an important partner for the United Kingdom and we will continue to support its people in their aspirations, as we see them, for a more stable, prosperous and democratic future. In doing that, however, it is important that we never shy away from delivering tough messages to the political leadership to try and ensure that those expectations are fulfilled.

4.21 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Morecambe Bay Disaster (Aftermath)

4.30 pm

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): First, may I express my mixed emotions about introducing this debate on the cockle picking disaster that took place 10 years ago, in 2004? I have mixed emotions because I am extremely honoured to represent Morecambe and Lunesdale, but the event that we are talking about is a great scar on my community and our whole nation.

Morecambe bay is one of the most picturesque places on earth, but it is also an unforgiving environment that can claim lives in minutes. I have always found it hard to reconcile the sedate appearance with the dangerous reality. In 2004, many people believed that the risks associated with Morecambe bay had been mitigated. After all, we had been offering guided tours under professional supervision for years, warning signs were all around and in any case the amount of onshore fishing had declined. Given that background, it is easy to see why the people of Morecambe felt such a profound sense of shock and sadness when the events of 5 February unfolded.

Before I make any comments on the 10 years since the cockle pickers’ tragedy or what we should do in the future, perhaps it is worth remembering what happened. On 5 February 2004, a group of some 38 illegal immigrants from China were working to collect cockles near Hest Bank, which is the northern part of the bay. Shockingly, they were being paid £1 per kilogram of cockles—a desperately low wage by anyone’s standard. As the day drew on, a team of British cockle pickers tried to signal the Chinese workers and warn them that the tide was coming in. Given the distance, they tapped their watches and tried to speak to them, seemingly to no avail. At about 9.30 pm, the Chinese cockle pickers were cut off by the incoming tide. It is a long-held belief locally that they were waiting for the evening to come, as cockles come to the surface at night.

When it was clear that the cockle pickers were in trouble, they phoned the emergency services for help. Sadly, what followed was fairly confused, for the following reasons. It was quite dark, and a basic description of the location was unlikely to enable emergency services to pinpoint exactly where they were. The cockle pickers were not fluent in English and found it hard to explain their predicament. The phone call was unclear, and the severity of the situation was not successfully conveyed to the emergency services. All of that led to delays that undoubtedly cost lives. In the end, 23 people, mainly from Fujian province in China, lost their lives. Just 15 people escaped. Sadly, one body has never been found.

In the aftermath of the cockle pickers’ tragedy, the gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He had sent a group of people who had little or no experience of Morecambe bay out without any proper guidance or supervision to their deaths. Anyone who knows Morecambe bay will say that sending people out in that way is unforgivable. Indeed, Lin Liang Ren was described in court as a callous man, motivated by money. The men and women he exploited paid a heavy price for that cavalier and greedy attitude. Not only did many die, but all of them had paid enormous sums to be smuggled into the UK in the first place.

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In June 2007, the Guardian newspaper reported on the plight of the family of Wu Hong Kang, who was killed on 5 February 2004. His wife and children bear a debt of nearly £20,000 to pay for his transit to the UK, yet their monthly income is just £20. They have no prospect of ever paying off that sum. At first glance, we might say to ourselves that they should not pay the debt. After all, what was done was illegal, so perhaps the authorities could step in. Sadly, the reality is that the gang collected the money many years ago. The debt is to friends and family who put up the money for Mr Wu’s transport, and these are people who cannot afford to write off the debt. I have no idea what it must be like to be paying a crippling debt for something that ultimately killed a loved one.

In 2005, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) introduced a private Member’s Bill that ultimately created the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I want to place on the record the gratitude of the people of Morecambe and Lunesdale for his work on this issue and for the work of my predecessor, Geraldine Smith. Like all bodies, the GLA is not perfect, but the 2005 Act set the groundwork for much of the work that is being done to protect these vulnerable workers’ lives.

Obviously, a range of national and international issues have been raised by this disaster, and the 10th anniversary is the time to review what work has been done and what has yet to be done, but before that, I want to talk to my hon. Friend the Minister about some very localised issues. I take the view that, no matter how much we regulate gangmasters and reduce illegal immigration, and no matter what the salaries we pay to workers, no one should be out in the middle of Morecambe bay unless they are properly trained and supervised and are aware of the dangers of their working environment. No amount of general employment regulation will ever be enough in such an environment. For that reason, I believe we should be licensing people to undertake onshore fishing in the bay. The aim would be not to stop people making a living, but to ensure that when teams go out they possess the proper skills required to work both profitably and safely.

With the right training and knowledge, Morecambe bay need not be a dangerous environment. In fact, tour guides take people out daily with no problems. We must recognise, however, that they can do so because local knowledge and experience are paramount. Teams of onshore fishermen who do not hold such a level of knowledge are endangering themselves, their staff and the emergency services that might have to intervene. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend the Minister update me on the progress of the Morecambe bay hybrid fishery order? I know that it has a number of facets to it, but how does he believe it will protect vulnerable workers in future? Also, when will it be implemented in full, what has happened up until now and what have been the hold-ups? I am sure he will agree that, whatever national issues were faced in the aftermath, we have a duty to get the regulation right for the bay and for offshore fisheries around the nation.

The tragedy raised national and international issues. Nationally, we have the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I know that there have been discussions about what changes might be made to it as we approach the 10th anniversary of the disaster. With that in mind, what lessons have

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been learned from its first nine years in operation? Does it need any reform or change of scope? What impact has it made in reducing the abuse of vulnerable workers? I should say that I am not tied to any one system; if reform is needed I am happy to work with anyone to look at it. It is important to the people I represent that we feel we are doing all that we can to ensure that we balance protection for employees with a viable system that will not damage the economics of food production.

There is no point in having this debate if we do not touch on the problem of illegal immigration. The cockle pickers’ disaster demonstrated that, at best, illegal immigrants and their families are small cogs in far larger and more sinister criminal gangs. At worst, they are nothing more than victims. Most are from poor backgrounds, forced to leave their home countries due to extreme poverty. We all know that we have a problem with illegal immigration in this country, and I am glad that we are taking steps to deal with it because I believe that it is far worse for the immigrants themselves. As I said earlier, they are forced to pay enormous sums of money to be herded like cattle into container trucks.

There are numerous examples of Chinese immigrants being carried to the UK in appalling conditions. In 2000, 58 Chinese immigrants died of suffocation when they were packed into a consignment of tomatoes. The Dutch lorry driver, Mr Perry Wacker, closed the air vents of his refrigerated truck on the ferry from Belgium to Dover. After he was sentenced to 14 years, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutor Karen Wiseman said:

“The smuggling of humans has become as profitable as drugs. This trade hinges on the promise that at the end of the journey the illegal immigrants are heading for a better life. Tragically for these 58 victims, commercial gain took precedence over human life.”

Only two people survived that incident, and it only came to light because customs searched the lorry. Once again, each person had paid £20,000 for their passage to the UK.

We just do not know whether any similar tragedies have taken place without being detected. The solution is not simple, but what assessment has the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made on the level of illegal labour in the agricultural industry? What steps are being taken both in the UK and across the world to reduce the number of criminal gangs operating in the sector? How are we working to educate people around the world about the reality of what it is like to be transported to the UK and treated in such a manner?

Members from all parties recognise that the matter is complex, and that no single magic wand will resolve the issues around the exploitation of vulnerable workers. That said, I do think that in the past 10 years we have taken significant steps towards making such workers’ lives safer. Enforcement at ports has been tightened up, the GLA has enforced against unscrupulous employers, and the Morecambe bay hybrid fishery order will soon be in place.

Before I finish, I would like to put on the record my personal thanks and those of the whole community for the work of the emergency services 10 years ago, particularly Harry Roberts from the RNLI, a former colleague of my father who led the rescue of the cockle pickers and undoubtedly saved lives.

We are not going to solve the issues of Triad gangs overnight and we are not going to stop people desperately seeking a better life, but we owe it to our community to

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drive forward enforcement and work on illegal immigration and improvements in the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. We owe it to those who have suffered so much hardship and trauma as a result of the disaster 10 years ago. It must never happen again.

4.40 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing this timely debate. I thank him and the Minister for allowing me to speak briefly on this important matter.

The hon. Gentleman will know that on that night 10 years ago, the cockle pickers could just as easily have set off from the Furness end of Morecambe bay, had the tides been different. Indeed, those gangs were a regular sight, going on to the sands from the coast road between Aldingham and Rampside. His predecessor, Geraldine Smith, and my predecessor, now Lord Hutton, were strongly involved in establishing the Gangmasters Licensing Authority after the tragedy, to try to ensure that this horrible activity—and the way that these people were being abused and exploited—could not happen again.

Let me, too, call on the Minister to respond on his Government’s commitment to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. It was recommended for abolition in the Beecroft review. I understand that there is a firm commitment from the Government not to enact that recommendation, but it is important that the Minister puts that on record and shows that he understands and hears the calls. The rush to abolish regulations and strip away so-called burdens on business can sometimes target the essential element of safety, and we could also end up with people who want to observe safety standards, as many of our local cockle pickers did and do, finding themselves undercut by these horrible, unscrupulous practices.

4.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing this debate, which is poignant and relevant to his constituency. The 10th anniversary next week of the tragic events in Morecambe bay is indeed an appropriate time to reflect on developments since. As my hon. Friend said, we know that the Morecambe bay sands are no stranger to loss of life over many centuries; it is, as he said, a beautiful yet treacherous place.

On the evening of 5 February 2004, some 40 Chinese workers were picking cockles on the sands, sent by their gangmaster. For him, maximising profits meant cutting corners, ignoring tidal information and flouting basic safety rules. As night closed in, hours after they should have been told to leave the sands, the workers realised the tide had come up too fast for them to escape and they were stranded. The bodies of 21 men and women were recovered from the bay in the next few days. There were two further known victims: one was not found until 2010 and, as my hon. Friend said, one has never been found.

The victims were illegal immigrants, inexperienced, untrained and with poor English language skills. Their gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was eventually convicted of

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21 counts of manslaughter, facilitating illegal immigration and perverting the course of justice. In sentencing him to 14 years’ imprisonment, the judge at Preston Crown court said he was motivated by greed to exploit his countrymen shockingly with no heed for their safety.

The causes of the 2004 tragedy stem from the management of the foreshore fisheries at the time and employment legislation that allowed ruthless exploitation of workers and neglect of safety to go unchecked. The Government’s response addressed both those aspects. Following the disaster, the north-western sea fisheries committee and later the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority instituted a raft of measures through a succession of byelaws to regulate access better to the fishery, including tighter permit conditions to improve safety standards. In specific terms, the number of permits issued has been reduced from 2,000 in 2004 to 120 now. In addition and more importantly, in order to be granted a permit to fish for cockles, applicants must now complete a safety course which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is so important.

Those measures and others will be taken forward in the proposed Morecambe bay fishery order, which is due to be consulted on in the near future. I know that my hon. Friend expressed frustration that there is no time scale for that. Beyond saying “in the near future”, I am unable to give him a specific time scale at this point, but after today’s debate, I will ask officials to make inquiries about the exact status of the order and when he can expect it to be introduced, so that it can be signed off and put in place. When in place, the order will allow for more long-term and adaptive management of the entire mollusc fishery, including the cockle beds. Most importantly, safety measures imposed through the proposed order will be more stringent than those that are in place now.

In response to the disaster 10 years ago, the Government adopted a private Member’s Bill, introduced by the then hon. Member for Renfrewshire West, now the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), resulting in the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. That established the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to regulate the supply of labour in the shellfish, agriculture, food processing and packaging sectors. The GLA’s role provides protection to vulnerable workers, including taking action against criminals, while operating an effective licensing regime to ensure that standards are maintained and to prevent exploitation.

Casual labour agencies in the agricultural sector perform an important function. The seasonal nature of harvests in areas such as horticulture means that flexible labour arrangements are crucial. Most operators in the sector are responsible and compliant businesses, and GLA licensing enables the well-regulated supply of casual labour to the sector. We know, however, that there will always be a small minority who ignore the rules.

Since beginning operations in 2006, the GLA has issued more than 2,500 licences, and there are currently just under 1,000 licence holders. In that time, the agency has brought 67 successful prosecutions—43 for unlicensed gangmasters, 23 for using an unlicensed gangmaster, and one for obstructing an investigation—and in the past three years, it has helped to recover some £4 million for casual staff who have either been underpaid or had

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unfair deductions taken from their pay. The GLA has also revoked licences in 203 cases, where the holder has breached licensing standards on pay, safety and other matters.

Most court sentences result in fines of between £300 and £5,000, community service and probation orders or suspended sentences. It is important to note that that is to be expected since we would want fines and penalties to be proportionate to the breach committed. However, we should also note that there is scope for custodial sentences in extreme cases. In a landmark decision last December, the first custodial sentence was handed down; a man in Norfolk was jailed for seven years for acting as an unlicensed gangmaster. It was an extreme case, involving violence and intimidation, and the individual built up an organised crime group responsible for placing large numbers of vulnerable people from Lithuania in substandard accommodation, demanding high rents and charging for finding them work in local GLA-sector industries. What that case illustrates is that the law can and does provide the powers to deal with a full range of incidents that the GLA encounters, from minor breaches right through to criminal abuse and intimidation.

The Government have made it clear that they want the GLA to focus more on the worst excesses in the areas that it regulates and work more closely with other agencies that tackle crime, while stripping out unnecessary burdens on the majority of compliant businesses. I would say that the GLA is doing that. In September 2013, as part of the round of action to ensure that public bodies remain fit for purpose, a triennial review was announced, which provides an opportunity to test robustly the requirement that the GLA is operating and is organised as effectively as possible.

The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) asked for reassurance on the Government’s intentions regarding the GLA. The GLA has been considered by several reviews in recent years, including the red tape challenge and the 2010 public bodies review. The triennial review, which will be published shortly, provides an opportunity to consider whether we can better organise the authority to address the challenges that we face.

I will shortly publish a statement on the GLA triennial review, but I will outline the main points today because I have been specifically asked about our intentions. The review will conclude that the functions of the GLA are necessary and that the GLA remains the right body to deliver them. We will also conclude that the GLA should remain a non-departmental public body and should continue to deliver reforms already in train to reduce financial and administrative burdens on compliant businesses and to focus effort on enforcement. We believe that reforms to the GLA board should happen as soon as possible to bring about a smaller, better structured board that is able to provide a clear strategic direction for the authority.

The GLA is already proceeding with reforms to remove burdens on the majority of compliant businesses by removing the need for all applicants to receive an application inspection and by introducing longer-term licences. That fits with the Government’s commitment to have safeguards in place to monitor those businesses that are at risk of breaking the law while enabling law-abiding, compliant businesses to get on with business unhindered.

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The GLA is not alone in taking steps to mitigate the risks to vulnerable workers. On 16 December 2013, the Home Secretary published the draft Modern Slavery Bill, which would consolidate existing human trafficking and slavery offences; increase the maximum sentence available from 14 years to life imprisonment; restrict the activities of offenders and those who pose a risk to others; and require statutory bodies, such as the GLA, to report all victims of human trafficking to the National Crime Agency, which the GLA currently does routinely.

The draft Bill will now be subject to a period of pre-legislative scrutiny. The answer to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale on what more we are doing to address extreme abuse of vulnerable workers is contained in the draft Bill.

John Woodcock: I thank the Minister for giving us those details ahead of the review. The issue will be difficult, and hon. Members will want to be able to scrutinise the draft Bill if it is genuinely to increase the level of protection, rather than simply cut costs. Will he commit to an oral statement in the House when he publishes the review, so that Members may ask questions?

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George Eustice: We will publish the review when it is ready, and there will be a written ministerial statement. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have been generous in giving him foresight of the key elements of that review. This debate is an opportunity for us to set out our intentions. The review is a detailed document, and I am sure he will find all the information that he wants. If, subsequent to that, he would like to challenge me in another debate, he has a right to call for such a debate.

In conclusion, the events that occurred at Morecambe bay a decade ago were a terrible yet avoidable tragedy. I hope that I have persuaded hon. Members that lessons have been learned. We are in a better place than we were 10 years ago, but we are not complacent. I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale that much has been done to ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated. I will get in touch with him and make inquiries to see whether we can progress the order that he seeks sooner rather than later.

Question put and agreed to.

4.54 pm

Sitting adjourned.