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Police forces have also seen their budgets cut considerably, and understandably, electoral conduct is only a very small issue for them. Again, however, there is clearly merit, from a crime prevention point of view, in ensuring that they stamp out discrimination in electoral campaigns before it reaches the point described in the report, with police having to escort the hon. Member for Ilford North to hustings and stepping in in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005. Of course, the Electoral Commission has a responsibility to ensure that elections are conducted in an orderly way. It seems sensible for that to include an overarching responsibility to pull together the various strands of work to help to prevent discrimination.

We should not forget that the vast majority of political campaigning in this country, and certainly that done by the parties represented in the Commons, maintains very high standards. Yes, it is often negative in tone and it is sometimes, regrettably, personal in nature, but by and large it seeks to highlight facts and figures and policies and records, whereas discrimination in all its forms, whether it is born out of ignorance, irrational fear or plain old stupidity, is simply unacceptable in 21st-century Britain and should not go unchallenged. But even more than that, discriminatory behaviour, and the encouragement of such behaviour by others, that is born out of cynical calculation, a desire for self-promotion or simply cowardice is absolutely despicable and should have no place whatever in British politics.

It is our responsibility as people who serve our constituents—not just some of them, but all of them—not just to avoid discriminatory behaviour and language ourselves, but to challenge it wherever we find it. Doing and saying nothing is not being diplomatic; it is pandering to it and tacitly agreeing with it. I believe that, as elected representatives, we have a responsibility, a duty, to lead work aimed at strengthening the bonds that tie communities together, not to stoke the flames of suspicion, fear and illogical hatred, which rip them apart. That duty applies just as much when we are seeking the support of those communities in an election as when we are not.

I have already said that I am more than happy to speak further to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire about what we can do within the Labour party on these issues. I agree with her recommendation that each political party have a named person to take the lead on them. However, she and her colleagues are right to say that this is a cross-party issue, so although I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister intends to do to address some of the concerns raised by the report and by my hon. Friends and others during the debate, I for one would be happy for the debate to continue outside the Chamber and to see what action we can agree on a cross-party basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire and her colleagues on the inquiry panel have set a great example, and it is important that their work now be taken forward and that we do everything we can to stamp out discrimination and the victimisation of others for political gain.

3.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities (Mrs Helen Grant): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank all hon. Members for their passionate and sensitive

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speeches and many interventions about an issue that is certainly important to us all. Also, right at the beginning, I congratulate the all-party parliamentary inquiry into electoral conduct on its work. I was personally dismayed by the shocking examples of racism and discrimination during election campaigns featured in the detailed report that was produced.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who introduced the debate, already knows this, but for the benefit of the other people in the Chamber, I can confirm that a meeting has been set up for us in, I believe, June—I am not sure of the precise date. I look forward to meeting her. I am also very happy to meet members of the commission to discuss the inquiry’s findings. This is a very important issue to the Government and to me, as the Minister for Women and Equalities. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said when the inquiry published its report, we need to ensure that we keep this sort of horrible racism out of politics. That is exactly what some of the conduct and behaviour is.

As Minister for Women and Equalities, I recently took part in a debate on parliamentary representation. It was clear from the discussion that the Government, political parties and Parliament are making quite good progress, but it was recognised by everyone that we still have a very long way to go. I believe that tackling prejudice and ignorance is essential to the functioning of our democracy. Human rights principles provide a basis from which to build and maintain a safer, more prosperous, cohesive society, with care and consideration for the dignity and well-being of everyone at its heart.

Eleanor Roosevelt spoke about the importance of making the universal declaration of human rights

“a living document, something that is not just words on paper”;

something that is not just written down, but that we

“bring to the lives of all people”.

When the UN General Assembly agreed the Paris principles, Roosevelt’s vision started to become a reality. The Paris principles detail the role that national human rights institutions are expected to perform and make it very clear that such institutions must be independent of Government and that their independence must be guaranteed in legislation. The Equality Act 2006 established the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Britain’s first national human rights institution. The EHRC is independent of Government, and its remit is limited to equality and human rights issues. In 2009, the United Nations reviewed the EHRC’s work and structures and subsequently designated it an A-status national human rights institution, which means that it fully complies with the Paris principles.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire and many other hon. Members have raised genuine concerns about the EHRC and its response to the inquiry’s recommendations. I will respond to some of those concerns in as much detail as I can. I know it has been claimed that the commission should engage in certain work and that it should be taking responsibility and showing enthusiasm. However, if the Government failed to respect the independence of the EHRC by requiring it to do certain work, the EHRC could see its status downgraded or cease to be recognised as a national human rights institution by the United Nations. I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but I think that it is for the all-party group against anti-Semitism,

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which has played an important role in getting us to the position that we are in today, or hon. Members with concerns or other relevant groups, to make the case to the EHRC’s board, which sets the work programme. I will come back later to the question of encouragement.

If the Government directed the EHRC to create an election toolkit, which was recommendation 1 in the inquiry’s report, we would be asking a regulator charged with ensuring people’s freedom of expression to seek to limit how people exercised that freedom of expression in relation to campaigning. That would create a degree of inconsistency. The Government believe that it is for individual political parties to decide what they want. If they feel that such a toolkit might be useful, it is for them to produce one.

Various political advertisements have been mentioned today, and it is worth noting that political advertising is exempt from the British codes on advertising and sales promotion. Consequently, even the bodies that could in principle regulate in this area are unable to do so. The best course of action—it is a practical one, which often works—for anyone with concerns about a political advert is to contact the party responsible and exercise their democratic right to tell that party exactly what they think. If it is felt that the advert amounts to discrimination or hate crime, that is a matter for the courts and the police. The police take hate crime and racism very seriously.

Sir Andrew Stunell: The guidelines made available by the CRE were used extensively by local authorities, returning officers and others who regulate the election process. Does the Minister not see a wider role than simply issuing guidelines to political parties?

Mrs Grant: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say, and I know that he participated in the inquiry. However, the issues are electoral ones. The Electoral Commission publishes guidance and deals with misconduct. If the sin or the abuse is worse than misconduct, it is, of course, discrimination and it is dealt with by the courts. If it is worse than that—if it amounts to hate crime or racism—the police will take such matters seriously. If political parties feel that codes of practice are needed, it is for them to reach agreement and produce such codes.

Natascha Engel: I think the point that the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) raised, which I would like to raise as well, is that there is a need for the EHRC to look at preventing discrimination. The Minister is talking about a process for dealing with discrimination when it is found, but we are saying that it would be much better if the EHRC were more proactive in going out and training, advising and using toolkits to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.

Mrs Grant: I hear and understand the point that the hon. Lady is making. The EHRC is a highly respected, A-status established body. I know that she has concerns, but the EHRC does a huge amount of work to tackle unlawful discrimination and promote equality. Should it do more? That is something that we might discuss in our meeting in June, but I must emphasise that the EHRC is independent, and it must decide what it will do. It is important that lobbyists lobby appropriately,

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particularly when it comes to racism and discrimination. I will say a little more about the role and function of the EHRC as I progress.

If the EHRC’s remit was extended to cover electoral law, it might go beyond its powers as specified in the Equality Act 2010. Some of the ideas raised today might well result in such an outcome, so we must be careful. It would be inappropriate for the EHRC to draw up annual guidance on electoral conduct, as set out in recommendation 3 of the inquiry report—the Electoral Commission leads on that area—or on hate crime, which the police enforce through the courts. Instead, the Government believe that relevant groups, including all-party parliamentary groups, and hon. Members who have concerns must work with the Electoral Commission and the police to deliver recommendations aimed at electoral reform, criminal harassment and hate crime.

I agree with the all-party parliamentary inquiry that it is important that people know exactly where to go if a candidate’s campaign material contains false or misleading statements or breaches of electoral rules. However, the Electoral Commission already produces guidance for the police and the Association of Chief Police Officers, so it seems sensible for the police and the Electoral Commission to ensure that that guidance covers discrimination and hate crime rather than for the EHRC to create separate guidance. We are in agreement about what needs to be done; it is simply a question of the vehicle, the tool or the method by which we achieve it. I want to work with the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire on this.

Recommendation 19 suggests that the EHRC should produce a standardised framework for reporting discrimination during election campaigns. In practice, the Electoral Commission and the police have their own published guidance on how to report electoral misconduct and how to report a crime. Guidance on reporting unlawful discrimination is available from the Equality Advisory and Support Service, which is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Let me pick up some of the other questions that I have been asked. I have touched on the question of encouraging the EHRC to work more proactively and to show leadership, and we can certainly discuss that when we meet in June. I will be happy to see the hon. Lady and members of the commission there. Of course, the EHRC will be invited, and I am hopeful that a very senior person will be able to attend. As I have said, it is for relevant groups, APPGs and concerned Members of the House to lobby and make the case to the EHRC’s board, which sets its work programme. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) will be pleased, because I am moving right off the type of script that he described. The EHRC may be able to provide assistance, and when we meet, we can discuss that further.

The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire mentioned the press code and asked whether the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could raise with the Press Complaints Commission the issue of discrimination. The standards code is a matter for press self-regulation,

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not for Government, but I hope that there will be an opportunity for organisations to put forward their views on any revisions to the standards in the code.

What the hon. Lady had to say about the possibilities for local authorities was very interesting. I am happy to raise such issues with Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government, but I can tell her now that it is already an offence to make or publish false statements about the personal character or conduct of other candidates; it is also an offence to publish or distribute threatening, abusive or insulting material that is intended to stir up racial hatred. Of course, it is for the returning officer to investigate any claims of electoral malpractice, and they would refer the matter to the police for further investigation if necessary.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), asked a couple of times whether the EHRC could use the programme funding to help to fund the type of work we are discussing, if it felt that that was appropriate; my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) also raised that issue. I can tell them both that programme funding bids can be made, provided they do not overlap with the work of other Government Departments or agencies. It is a matter for the EHRC to make that application, not for the Government to tell it to do so, and it must decide what work it considers appropriate and wants to do. The shadow Minister asked whether any such bid had been made thus far; to my knowledge, no bid has been made in relation to this particular type of work.

The shadow Minister asked about the current role and functioning of the EHRC. It certainly does want to promote understanding and good practice, and it has indicated that it will use its powers under section 8 of the Equality Act 2006 to enable it to do so with any interested parties. However, as the hon. Lady knows, the EHRC no longer has a specific good relations mandate, and the Equality Acts do not apply specifically to electoral conduct.

Budget cuts were raised, but I am not going to dwell on that because I do not want us to be distracted from such an important debate, which focuses on the very important problems of discrimination and racism. Nevertheless, I can confirm that the EHRC was not established to deal with electoral issues; it was set up to deal with equality and human rights issues.

The parliamentary inquiry on electoral conduct was thorough and detailed and made recommendations to a number of bodies, including the Electoral Commission, the police and political parties. Building its findings into current work and guidance and working with the right organisations is the best way to ensure that political life becomes a battle of ideas, not of race hate and discrimination. The inquiry raised very important issues relating to racism and discrimination in elections that must be dealt with. The means to tackle those problems are in place, but it is important that all concerned work towards combating racism and discrimination. I will of course play my part where I can.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I thank the Minister who is due to respond to the next debate for attending in such a timely fashion. He has agreed to the debate starting early, with the permission of the hon. Member who initiated the debate.

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Employment and Support Allowance Application

3.54 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this short debate on the employment and support allowance application process for those with mental health problems, Mrs Main. We may be a small, select company this afternoon, but I am sure that I am not the only MP to have seen over the past couple of years a steady and increasing stream of people with quite serious mental illnesses falling through our social safety net, which is now very frayed because of welfare reforms. Despite modifications, the work capability assessment is still failing too many people.

It goes without saying that most people with a mental illness will never need to depend on the benefits system, but some of those with more severe or persistent illnesses do require support, and some of them are extremely vulnerable. In the time we have for this debate, I want to focus on the shortcomings of work capability assessments with regard to mental health conditions and make some concrete suggestions about how the process might be improved.

The issue is by no means new. Ever since the introduction of the work capability assessment, mental health care professionals and representative organisations have expressed concerns that it does not capture the impact of more serious mental illnesses on a person’s capacity to function in a working environment and consequently leads to poor decision making. A core problem is that too often assessors and decision makers have little or no relevant background information about claimants’ complex medical histories and too rarely seek input or opinions from claimants’ clinicians.

The problems were clearly acknowledged at the time of the first Harrington review, when Professor Harrington said that decision makers should be

“able to seek appropriate chosen healthcare professional advice”.

In his third review, he recommended that they

“should actively consider the need to seek further documentary evidence in every claimant’s case”.

The fourth review, led by Paul Litchfield, devoted significant attention to the assessment of mental function and made a number of recommendations, some of which the Government have accepted. However, the Royal College of Psychiatrists said this week that

“there is little evidence of any significant increase in the collection of evidence by either ATOS HCPs or DWP Decision Makers.”

The issue is not going away; indeed, it is being compounded by the new Department for Work and Pensions sanctions regime, which is having an acute effect on people with mental health conditions. According to a freedom of information request, in 2013, 58%—almost six out of 10—ESA claimants sanctioned were people with a mental health condition or learning difficulty. That is an increase from 35% of sanctioned claimants in 2009, and it suggests that people with mental health problems are being inappropriately sanctioned.

There is a growing body of evidence from a range of sources that, in spite of the changes that have been implemented along the way, the work capability assessment is still failing people with serious mental health problems.

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However, I want to highlight the report published recently by the Scottish Association for Mental Health, or SAMH, which details findings on how experiences of living in poverty affect peoples’ mental health, and how SAMH service users have been affected by welfare reforms.

SAMH has been a leading mental health charity in Scotland for many decades and works directly with thousands of people across the country, helping them to recover from mental illness and offering support and training. It also works to improve policy and practice in relation to mental health, reduce stigma, raise awareness and promote well-being. SAMH undertook a major survey of its service users in 2013. The truly shocking finding was that 98% of respondents said that welfare reforms were negatively affecting their mental health, including increasing stress and anxiety, while 79% were also facing financial problems. Of SAMH staff, 85% said that they were having to provide additional support to service users as a direct result of the welfare reforms, and, in six cases, SAMH staff had to carry out suicide interventions directly related to welfare reforms.

I know that the Minister will be well aware of the tragic case of a woman known as Ms DE, whose suicide in 2011 was the subject of an investigation by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland. Ms DE took her own life after scoring zero points in a work capability assessment made in the absence of an ESA50 form and without any additional information from her clinicians. The only information her assessor had about her condition was the single word “depression”, a word that in her case masked a long and difficult psychiatric history. Both her general practitioner and consultant psychiatrist considered Ms DE unfit for work at the time of her death, even though she had worked for most of her adult life. Indeed, the significant event review after her death noted that

“Ms DE was hoping to return to employment at some point.”

However, it also noted the distress caused by her benefits assessment and the role that it may have played in her suicide, concluding that there was “no other known trigger”.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and for her permission to make an intervention. Just this week my office has dealt with two ESA appeals and four inquiries on the subject. Each one of those six cases relates to addiction or mental health problems. I am very aware of the far-reaching impact that the process has on people, which the hon. Lady outlined. Does she agree—she probably will—that if there is no compassion and understanding in the system, as there seems not to be, many other people will come to the same point as the lady whose case she is describing?

Dr Whiteford: I think that is right. On reading the evidence produced by organisations that support people with mental health problems, it is very clear that the increased anxiety and stress can contribute to ill health and make people more ill than they were to start with.

The report makes upsetting reading, and we should all express condolences to the unnamed woman’s family. Her death is a sobering reminder to all of us of the very real impact that Government decisions and state bureaucracies have on people’s lives. However, I was

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also struck by the very robust terms in which the Mental Welfare Commission, a statutory body, questioned the effectiveness and appropriateness of the work capability assessment and how it was working. As part of its investigation, the Mental Welfare Commission conducted a survey of responsible medical officers working in health boards across Scotland, most of whom are consultant psychiatrists, and 80% of respondents had patients who had undergone work capability assessments. Of those 80%, most had been asked to provide medical evidence, either before or after the assessments. However, three quarters had never been asked for their opinion at any point in the Atos or DWP process. Only 25% had had a request—some before the assessment, some after—and 96% said that their patients had been distressed by the assessment process; 93% reported patients distressed at the outcome of an assessment; and 80% reported patients who had successfully appealed decisions.

What also gave me great cause for concern was the impact on clinical care provision: 85% of the RMOs reported an increased frequency of appointments; 65% had had at least one patient who required an increased dose of medication; 35% had at least one patient who had been admitted to hospital as a consequence of a work capability assessment; 40% had at least one patient who had self-harmed after the assessment; 13% reported that a patient had attempted suicide; and two psychiatrists reported patients actually taking their own lives. In the light of the anecdotal evidence from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I can say that various sources show that this is not just hearsay; evidence is coming from reliable and credible people who are involved in the process, and who understand that the systems are having real and difficult consequences for people.

It is critical that greater use of expertise is drawn into the assessment process for claimants with mental health conditions. I acknowledge the conclusions of the Litchfield review on this point, which were that it may not be necessary in every case, but there seems to be an enormous gulf between a universal approach and current practice. It is a chasm into which large numbers of very ill and vulnerable people seem to be falling. SAMH found that 56% of its service users did not receive any supporting information from a health care professional in their ESA application, which, in the wake of the tragedies we have heard about, should shake us out of any sense of complacency that we are doing enough.

The DWP’s most recent quarterly statistical bulletin, published in March, outlined the total caseload to date. With regard to completed claims, 52% of people who made new applications for ESA on the grounds of mental or behavioural disorders were found fit for work, so the high numbers of people awarded ESA on grounds of mental ill health represent less than half of applications made because of these conditions. Too many people are falling through cracks in the assessment process. I have alluded to the increased pressure that this creates in the NHS, but it also brings attendant costs in social care, policing and homelessness, which outstrip the cost savings that the DWP might be making.

Throughout the work of the Harrington and Litchfield reviews, there is an implicit acknowledgment that the work capability assessment is not working as it should and not working well enough for people with mental

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health problems. My request to the Minister today is simple: will he meet me and representatives of SAMH to discuss some of the ways in which the recommended improvements might be integrated into the work capability assessment?

I know some changes have been instigated since 2010, and I note Professor Harrington’s evidence-based review of December 2013, which considered whether a more specialised test developed with disability organisations might be more effective. Although that test was found to be less effective than the work capability assessment in determining fitness for work, it proved more effective in determining limited capability for work. Lessons could be learned from the scoring approach used in each assessment, so I want to ask the Minister whether he can provide an update on how the Government are using those insights to improve the work capability assessment.

It was announced in March that Atos Healthcare will leave its contract early, with new contractors commencing in 2015. The renegotiation of the contract presents an ideal opportunity for the DWP to reconsider how the right information and expert opinions can be brought into the assessment and decision-making processes. SAMH is of the view that claimants should be asked at the beginning of their application to nominate relevant health care professionals to provide supporting statements. That would significantly reduce the stress on individuals, improve input from professionals, and, we have to conclude, lead to better decisions the first time round, reducing the need for costly and stressful appeals. With the DWP in the process of reviewing and updating its contract, surely this is a prime opportunity—the ideal moment—to introduce a process by which the statements could be secured. What practical steps might the Minister take to move this forward?

Lastly, the SAMH report highlights the increased stress and anxiety for claimants who face lengthy waits for assessments, often have to live on a reduced income, and fear that they will not get a fair assessment. That has come out in the past few years as people see what happens to those in their support groups and social networks, who have come through the system and feel that the assessment concentrated on their physical health, not their mental health. Sometimes their physical symptoms can be connected to their mental health problems, but they are often more easy to cope with in day-to-day life than the debilitating effects of mental illness.

The reduction in support services as a result of austerity cuts has left some very unwell people unsupported. The DWP could minimise such distress by providing clear, accessible information to applicants at the outset of the process, signposting them to organisations that can provide advice on welfare rights, finances and well-being, and setting out the process by which health care professionals can be contacted regarding supporting statements.

Jim Shannon: Problems have come to my attention relating to correspondence with those who have mental health issues. Often, correspondence is mislaid or inappropriately addressed, which means that people with mental health issues are not aware of the process and how they should respond to it. The Minister always responds positively to the issues, but does the hon. Lady feel that one of the things that could be done better,

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when dealing with people with addiction and mental health issues, is ensuring a follow-up whenever responses are not made directly to the Department?

Dr Whiteford: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Indeed, that was one of the key recommendations of the report by the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland in the case of Ms DE. Attempts had been made to contact her, but there were no repeat attempts and no one managed to get hold of her. It is easy to envisage somebody who is suffering from severe depression not answering the phone and not opening the mail in the way that someone in a healthier situation was more able and minded to. Those points have been well made, and I am sure that the Minister is already cognisant of them, but I will be interested in his response on the process, particularly in the DWP, going forward.

Relatively small steps could have a marked impact on people’s lives, and could help ensure that the process does not actively contribute to people’s mental health problems, but helps set them on the road to recovery. Will the Minister consider what he can do in terms of signposting, explaining to people their rights in the process, and making sure that we are not making things worse for people who are already very ill? It is in everyone’s interests to achieve a work capability assessment that is fit for purpose. I hope that the Minister will take the time to read the SAMH report and hear the perspectives of those with most at stake in the process and who badly need our support, and I hope he will meet us in the not-too-distant future.

4.8 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): In the short time that I have before we go to vote—I will continue when we come back—may I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on securing this debate on a very important issue? In the short period that I have been the Minister in the Department, the issue has occupied a huge amount of my time, not least because, like many families in this country, my family has been touched by mental health issues, including depression, so I understand the issues very well. Even if I do not agree with all the hon. Lady’s comments, I know that they were heartfelt.

Some of the things that we are trying to do aim to get to the core of how we can deliver a service that is fit for purpose—I often use this term—in both ways. I have met so many people with mental health illness who want to work. A lot of them, particularly those with depression, tell me that their conditions, which some of them have had since long before I became a Member of Parliament, have got worse because they have not had assistance to go to work. They want to be part of the community and want to feel as if they are contributing; they do not necessarily want to be on benefits—something that a lot of them find difficult. Of course, the job of the welfare system is to enable people to be looked after when they cannot fulfil their financial needs and have to deal with certain health requirements.

The hon. Lady asked me if I would meet her. By all means; my door is always open. Anybody who knows me, knows that. That is the way I am. I have met numerous stakeholders in the area of mental health since I came to office.

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Although we have moved to a degree, there is always more work to be done. As I said to the hon. Lady before the debate, I am somewhat restricted in what I can do in the Department today, because I have a judicial review running in this area and cannot implement some of Harrington’s third review, though I would like to, let alone do some of the work that we would like to do in respect of Litchfield. I had a meeting earlier today about how to do that.

I agree with the hon. Lady: small things can be done that would have a dramatic effect on the big picture. I am minded to look carefully at whether we can have advocates, whom I think the hon. Lady mentioned, for not only people with mental health issues, but those with learning difficulties—we do this now—and people with hidden disabilities. As she rightly said, there is often a multitude of disabilities, some obvious and others less obvious. Often, more difficulties arise in respect of the ones that we cannot see.

The hon. Lady mentioned that I have negotiated with my officials that Atos will leave the work capability assessment contract. She will be pleased to know that the new contractors will be in this year, not in 2015, and that they will initially run in parallel with Atos and the Atos software, not least because if we stopped today and brought a new contractor in tomorrow, some serious problems would come out of the other side of that. If she thinks there is confusion with the system now, she can trust me on that.

What Harrington and Litchfield touched on is the fact that the system is not broken, but can operate better. Some hon. Members fundamentally disagree with work capability assessment; I do not, although it is not perfect. The previous Administration brought WCA in. It is important that specialists consider whether an individual is capable of doing some type of work, and that they are not the person—not, say, the GP—who sees the individual on a daily basis and has a personal relationship with them.

The hon. Lady made the crucial point that clinical evidence from specialists must be there and available when decisions are made. That is where a lot of the work needs to be done. We already extend the period for people with mental health problems beyond the normal period, while we are waiting for the ESA50 to come back, because we understand the rationale for that. We also have to understand that the filling in of forms and the commentary that needs to be given to officials, whether from Atos or the new contractor, is vital. We need to get as much information as possible—not least, as the hon. Lady said, so that we do not get into an appeal and tribunal situation when that is unnecessary.

Evidence in respect of changes that I have made in the past couple of months clearly shows that fewer people are appealing their WCA than did a year ago. We will release more evidence on that. A lot of that is because we are, for want of a better phrase, getting it right and making it better. We need to do more work on hidden disabilities, and mental health is one of those.

I do not get quite the numbers at my surgery that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, but people do come to see me and, I think, other hon. Members on the subject. Anyone with an ounce of compassion in them will understand the issues and concerns that these people come to them with. I stress that it is not just about ensuring that a person gets the

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financial benefit that they need; it is about ensuring that they get the help they need, whether from the mental health side of the health service or from clinicians, and that they get assistance to get back into the workplace.

I reiterate that I am more than happy to work with not only the hon. Lady and SAMH, but all the groups, which are working much more closely with us now. Of course, I would prefer to have the judicial review addressed and done as soon as possible, so that we can not only hear the ruling, but move on with pilots for some of the ideas in the report. I will be perfectly honest and say that I have read the report summary but not the report in its entirety—it is a detailed report—but I assure the hon. Lady that it landed on my desk almost before it was in print.

This is an important issue, and it is important that we get it right; the Government are determined to get it right. It will never be perfect, because of the issues and the complexity that we are dealing with, but as long as I am the Minister, making sure that we address the issues will be at the top of my list.

Jim Shannon: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I have sat down, so it is up to the Chair.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): The Minister has concluded his remarks. We will suspend until 4.30 pm. If there is a Division in the main Chamber between now and 4.30 pm, we will take 15 minutes for that Division.

4.16 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Migratory Birds (Malta)

4.33 pm

Sir John Randall (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) (Con): It is a privilege, Mrs Main, to serve under your chairmanship. Knowing your record on these matters, I am sure you will be interested in the debate, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting it. I feel privileged to be given the opportunity to voice the concerns of many thousands of people in this country and further afield about the mindless slaughter of migrant birds in Malta.

This year marks the 50th year that I have been a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I joined as a very young boy, and throughout those years, I have been acutely aware of the existence in the Mediterranean area of a culture of killing migrant birds of all types. I regret to say that one of the worst culprits has been Malta, and as a result, I have never had the pleasure of visiting that island. That is a real pity, because I have an otherwise positive image of a courageous George Cross island that is steeped in history. The Maltese people that I have met have always been friendly and incredibly pleasant.

Like many people who have an interest in wildlife—I have to admit that in my case it is a passion—I have been riveted recently by the daily video blogs produced by the well known broadcaster Chris Packham and a dedicated team of volunteers. They were helped by a courageous group from BirdLife International and BirdLife Malta. I say courageous, because they faced personal intimidation, questioning from the Maltese authorities and even physical danger. Men with firearms are not confronted lightly.

Some of those brave Maltese who have been fighting against this illegal hunting over the years have put their lives on the line, but what has that got to do with us in the UK? Nature does not respect national boundaries, so co-ordinated international action is essential if we are to protect our wild bird species for future generations. The EU’s birds directive and habitats directive are the cornerstones of conservation action across Europe and provide a policy framework that has helped to improve the status and prospects of wild birds across Europe.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I commend the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this important matter to Westminster Hall for discussion. It is important to get a balance, though. I know his point of view, and he referred to the conservation groups that have catalogued evidence, but some shooting organisations have evidence as well. When it comes to getting the balance and the full picture, it is important to contact the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance. They have direct contact with those bodies in Malta.

Sir John Randall: One thing that I have found is that legitimate shooting interests in this country and elsewhere in Europe regard what goes on in Malta as not part of their sport. I will go on to say more on that. I am in no way anti-shooting, whether in the UK or elsewhere, if it is legitimate.

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree with many of my constituents, who do not understand why this barbaric practice is still going on in the 21st century?

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Sir John Randall: I know that my hon. Friend and his constituents have a keen interest in this issue. He is absolutely right that there is no place for the practice in the 21st century.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Following on from that point, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that from 1 April this year, the penalties for illegal shooting in Malta were multiplied by 10? I welcome that. I lived in Malta and I fully understand that there is still a hunting party out there, which needs bringing to heel. Secondly, just yesterday—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. May I ask that in a half-hour debate Members keep their comments very short?

Andrew Miller: I promise you, Mrs Main, that I will be very quick.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I call Sir John Randall.

Sir John Randall: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and pleased to hear about the increased penalties, but the point is that penalties have to be enforced. Earlier, he was telling me that the Maltese are taking action. If that is so, that is welcome news and I wait to see what happens.

Andrew Miller: Yesterday’s Malta Independent reported the arrest of four people in Naxxar following the shooting of a flamingo last year. That is good news.

Sir John Randall: That is good news. We would all welcome those arrests, which we want to see happening more often. Malta holds the only derogation for recreational spring hunting of turtle doves and quail, and we all know that that provides a smokescreen for illegal hunting. The UK Government and the European Commission must insist that Malta abides by the spirit, as well as the letter, of the EU’s birds directive and habitats directive and puts an end to spring hunting for good.

Malta sits on the central Mediterranean bird migration flyway between Europe and Africa. Every spring and autumn, large numbers of birds fly over the islands on their migration between the two continents. Many are shot in Malta. Spring hunting is significantly more damaging than autumn hunting, as it reduces the numbers of birds returning to breed. That is self-evident.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Is he willing to emphasise how much this is a British issue? British birds are migrating over these routes. Does he have any estimates for the effect that Maltese shooting has had on British bird numbers over the years?

Sir John Randall: Many of the birds are not in fact coming to Britain, although some are. For cuckoos in particular, we now know more about their migration, and we know that they are British birds. Regardless of whether the birds are British or not, they are European. On that point, I am a European.

An open season runs from 1 September to 31 January, during which 41 species of bird can be legally hunted in unlimited numbers, but the trouble is that there is a mix of legal and illegal hunting. Spring hunting is not

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usually legal in the European Union. Article 7.4 of the birds directive obliges member states to ban hunting of species to which hunting regulations apply during their period of reproduction or during their return to rearing grounds. Malta is the only country in the EU with a derogation from the directive. The directive states that derogations made be made

“where there is no other satisfactory solution…to permit, under strictly supervised conditions and on a selective basis, the capture, keeping or other judicious use of certain birds in small numbers.”

In 2009, no spring hunting of quail and turtle doves was permitted for the first time ever due to an injunction from the European Court of Justice, which ruled that too many birds were being killed. It followed a complaint from BirdLife Malta to the European Commission in 2005 and a petition to the Maltese Prime Minister with 115,000 signatures from RSPB members. In 2010, however, spring hunting was reopened despite an ECJ ruling that by allowing spring hunting in the 2004 to 2007 period, Malta had failed to comply with the conditions for derogation.

Hunting in Malta currently breaches many if not all of the conditions for derogation. The spring hunting derogation specifies that a maximum of 16,000 birds can be killed, but each licensed hunter is allowed to kill four birds in total of turtle dove and/or quail, so more than 40,000 turtle dove and quail could be shot by licensed hunters. Turtle doves are in serious decline in western Europe, and this hunting is taking out the remaining populations. An agreement between the new Maltese Government, elected in 2013, and the FKNK, Malta’s largest hunting organisation, allows every registered hunter to obtain a spring hunting licence, meaning that more 10,000 hunters are supposed to hunt just 16,000 birds. At the same time, the spring season has been extended.

The current derogation framework is frequently abused by the hunting community in Malta. Consecutive spring hunting reports from BirdLife Malta show that the number of birds shot is much higher than allowable bag limits set by the Maltese Government. The derogation framework allows two species to be hunted, but more than 19 species were observed to have been shot or were brought into the BirdLife Malta office by volunteers last year. The same is true this year, as we saw in the video blogs. Many of the species targeted every spring hunting season are threatened in Europe, including Montagu’s, marsh and pallid harriers, common cuckoos and nightjars. One of most heart-rending scenes in the video blogs was the euthanising of a Montagu’s harrier that had been shot.

It has become increasingly difficult to gather evidence and numbers as poachers become more sophisticated in their illegal activity, including using illegal electronic lures and even hunting birds on the ground at night. It should not be imagined that it is a fair contest of man and rifle against his quarry; this is slaughter, pure and simple. Some on the island claim that the activity is traditional. Indeed, it was, but there is no place for such traditions in the 21st century. Bear baiting and cock fighting were once traditions in this country, but I do not think that anyone is arguing for their return.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Coming from Portsmouth, I understand well the connection that Britain has with Malta. As well as our shared naval history, we

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are the guardians of each other’s wildlife. In my experience, that is well understood not only by the people of Portsmouth, but also by the people of Valetta, which is why I find this lax attitude so difficult to understand.

Sir John Randall: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. I regret this problem with a few people in Malta, because the ties between our two countries are immense.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the case he makes. In congratulating the movement in Malta and the Government’s approach, is he not shocked that Chris Packham was detained by the police for highlighting the abuses going on in the country?

Sir John Randall: I do not know the exact situation, but it seems on the surface that that was not the best move.

In March, 33 MEPs from 10 member states wrote to Environment Commissioner Potocnik saying that

“the Maltese government has sought to justify the derogation through inaccurate reports and unreliable and even fictional data.”

Will the Government call on Janez Potocnik, the EU Environment Commissioner, to ensure that the directive is properly enforced in Malta?

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the situation smacks of the European Commission having lost the will to address the problem?

Sir John Randall: I am not entirely sure. All I know is that the European Commissioner’s time is running out and it is not the best time to discuss such matters, so I think that we will return to them in a couple of months.

The main law that defends our shared wildlife is the EU birds directive, but a new environmental inspections directive is also under consideration. However, we cannot be too cocky. We must get our own house in order, as the illegal persecution of birds still happens in this country, including the recent killing of some red kites in Ross-shire. We cannot lecture people unless we get our house in order—although I stress that I am not trying to lecture the Maltese people.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, alongside the UK Government taking the matter up with the European Commission, it is also important to hold bilateral talks with Malta to see whether some agreement can be reached?

Sir John Randall: I like the idea, but this is a European thing. I do not want the Maltese to think that Britain is pushing them; other European countries, such as Holland and Germany, are thinking exactly the same. It just happens that we are in the UK Parliament today.

There is considerable public support in the UK for stronger action. In 2010, 230,000 people signed a petition calling on the Government to do more to end the illegal

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killing of our own birds of prey. With the publication of the England biodiversity strategy, the coalition Government committed themselves making it one of their priorities.

Returning to Malta, it is important to recognise that hunting is not a national pastime in Malta and that there is a majority in Malta who want the practice to stop. BirdLife Malta seeks to use the Referenda Act 1973 to force a national referendum to ban spring hunting permanently. It has collected 45,000 signatures so far, which is some 10% of the Maltese population, and we hope for a referendum in early 2015. If anybody wants to do something constructive, there is a fund to help the referendum campaign. I am sure that it can be found online and that all donations will be gratefully received.

When discussing hunters in Malta, we are talking about a group of fewer than 10,000 people who are damaging species that are precious to the public across Europe. In recent days, a young lady called Michela Spiteri wrote the following on the Times of Malta website:

“We want to be able to enjoy the little countryside we have unrestrainedly, without being subjected to the shooting sounds and the wrath of territorial hunters who, after all, have no business telling the rest of us where to get off. And above all, we are entitled to wash our hands of and not to want anything to do with the veritable bloodbath that this cruel and illegal exemption brings about.”

That is the spirit of the youth in Malta and that is what I want to encourage today.

In all other respects, I am sure that Malta is a great place for tourism. I believe strongly, as someone who used to lead birdwatching trips around the world, that if the slaughter was stopped, Malta would rapidly become a favourite destination for birdwatchers and their families at key migration periods, which would actually extend the tourist season. Like Chris Packham, for whom I have the strongest respect, and others, I am certainly not calling for a boycott—far from it. I want the Maltese people to know that we in the UK support the majority that want the cruel practice to end. I hope that the House will join me today in condemning bird killing in Malta and that the Minister will do everything possible to help bring it to an end by raising it with his European counterparts in appropriate forums in the European Union. I have been amazed by the reaction not only from the public, but also from colleagues across the House. This is a half-hour debate that traditionally involves a Member and the Minister, yet some Members have not been able intervene. There is a positive way forward and we must keep the topic in the public mind.

4.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) on securing the debate and on bringing the subject to the attention of the House. He has a lifelong passion for such issues, being a member of the RSPB for some 50 years, as he said. Last time I debated with him in Westminster Hall, the subject was farmland birds, so I know that he is a long-standing campaigner. He is also in tune with the mood of many in the country.

Britain has always been a pioneer of conservation, and birds have always been at the forefront of this country’s passion for wildlife. Groups such as the RSPB

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are among those with the largest membership in the UK. As a result, wild birds have been afforded strong levels of protection in the UK since the introduction of the Protection of Birds Act 1954—a full 25 years before the EU birds directive made the protection of wild birds, in much the same manner, an obligation on all member states. It therefore comes as no surprise to me that my right hon. Friend, along with many others, was disturbed to see recent media coverage of the annual spring hunting season in Malta.

In reacting to such reports, it is important to bear in mind the distinctions between lawful hunting activity that the EU birds directive specifically permits member states to undertake, and the illegal hunting carried out by those acting outside the law. The directive provides a strong framework for the protection of all naturally occurring wild birds throughout the EU and requires each member state to take measures to ensure the protection, management and control of birds, their eggs, nests and habitats, and to maintain populations occurring within their range at levels that correspond to their particular ecological, scientific and cultural requirements. The directive, however, also lays down rules for the exploitation of such birds through hunting activity and permits the “judicious use” of wild birds for economic and recreational purposes.

Some species may be hunted for sport or food throughout the European Union, while certain others may be hunted only within specified territories. The birds directive is clear that any hunting activity must remain compatible with maintaining the populations of the species, and it contains safeguards to ensure that. The responsibility of individual member states and of the European Commission is to ensure the correct transposition of, and compliance with, EU directives. It is, however, a well known fact that the Commission has previously expressed concerns about the hunting of migratory birds in Malta. Permitting the spring hunting of turtle doves and quail has been the subject of particular Commission scrutiny to ensure that it is compliant with the directive.

Together with other islands in the Mediterranean, such as Crete and Cyprus, the islands of Malta play a vital role for many migratory species of bird during their long flight between Africa and Europe. The EU directive recognised that it is important for the birds to receive particular protection in spring, so that they may breed and build up their populations from the low point in their natural annual cycles. Some evidence suggests, in particular for turtle doves, that the impact on populations of spring hunting can be up to eight times higher than the impact of autumn hunting.

In 2009, as a result of such concerns, the European Commission referred Malta to the European Court of Justice for permitting the hunting of turtle doves and quail during their spring migration. The Court ruled that, by permitting that activity between 2004 and 2007, the Maltese Government had failed to comply with the derogation conditions associated with hunting and, as such, had failed to fulfil their obligations under the directive. The Court, however, also recognised that Malta’s unique bio-geographical circumstances restricted hunting opportunities in autumn, and it therefore reaffirmed Malta’s right to permit limited hunting in spring through a derogation from the birds directive, subject to meeting the stringent parameters of article 9(1)(c) of that directive.

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Sir John Randall: I apologise for stopping the Minister mid-flow. What particular bio-geographical factors make hunting more difficult in the autumn?

George Eustice: I am told that the doves migrate through Malta, rather than being resident there. That was a conclusion of the Court—that the situation could not be dealt with in other ways, which was why it upheld the right. That was its judgment.

In response to the 2010 judgment, the Maltese Government developed a new legal framework and introduced a number of changes to how they control the spring hunting of turtle doves and quail to ensure compliance with the directive. Measures include annual estimations of the populations of species; limits on the number of birds that may be shot during the hunt under the derogation; and an assessment of whether the populations are likely to suffer any detrimental effect.

Despite the changes, a number of organisations and individuals have continued to campaign against the spring hunting permitted by the Maltese Government. I understand the concerns expressed, but it is for the Maltese Government to investigate any alleged illegal hunting activity that might be taking place alongside their permitted hunting regime. We should also bear in mind, as a number of Members have pointed out, that the issue is an incredibly contentious one in Malta itself. It has been said that more than 10% of the population have signed a petition calling for a referendum—as my right hon. Friend pointed out, it already has up to 45,000 signatures and it is being considered.

Fortuitously, I was in Athens over the past few days, at an informal meeting of the European Council. Knowing that the debate was coming up, I had the opportunity to discuss the subject briefly with my opposite number, Roderick Galdes, on the margins of one of the meetings. In fairness, the Maltese Government believe that they have done a lot to tackle the illegal killing of doves, and they feel frustrated that that has not been recognised. He highlighted some of the steps that Malta has taken to strengthen enforcement. It now has the highest ratio of enforcement deployment possible per square kilometre of countryside anywhere in Europe. He also pointed out that Malta’s penalties and legal deterrents against bird-related crime are among the most severe in Europe. He stressed that there had been some 4,000 physical inspections. I am simply pointing out the argument made by the Maltese Government.

Sir John Randall: We are talking about the illegal hunting not only of turtle doves, or quail for that matter—far from it—but of other species, which is well documented. That is what does not seem to have been tackled.

George Eustice: Yes. I am simply reporting the argument of the Maltese Government. As I said, I took the opportunity to discuss the matter briefly with my opposite number. They feel that they are not given credit for the steps they have taken, which they argue have resulted in a very tight regime, with tough reporting requirements.

Where there is evidence to suggest that illegal hunting activity is occurring, the UK Government encourage all relevant authorities to ensure that sufficiently robust action is taken. As I have stated, compliance with the European Union directives, including any alleged failings,

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is a matter for the individual member states and for the European Commission. Representations have been made, for example by a number of MEPs in the European Parliament, and many organisations and members of the public may also express their concerns through their MEPs.

Finally, turning to the situation here, sadly a number of the UK’s migratory bird species have experienced population declines over recent decades. A range of factors are thought to have contributed to that trend, many of which we discussed in the previous debate on this issue, including habitat loss from historical farming intensification, poor food availability and disease.

The impact that overseas hunting may have on British populations of migratory birds is unclear at the moment. Malta’s geographic position means it is unlikely that a significant proportion of our migratory bird populations pass over it; most are thought to come through places such as Gibraltar. We therefore think that spring hunting in Malta is unlikely to be having a direct impact on populations here. However, my right hon. Friend has made the valid point that he is not taking a British but a European perspective on the issue, and it may be having an impact on populations elsewhere.

Domestically, we have implemented a range of initiatives to help improve bird populations. When I last discussed the issue with my right hon. Friend, we talked at great length about the environmental stewardship schemes and the new environmental land management schemes. Turtle doves are one of six targeted species for funding in the current regime, and we expect that the new

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environmental land management schemes will see further benefits for farmland birds. We have made it clear that we want to prioritise biodiversity.

We are aware that illegal hunting and killing activity is a problem for many countries that are important in the life cycle of migratory birds—that is the case with Malta. This issue therefore needs strong co-operation and enforcement activity at every level. In the UK, the joint nature conservation committee has always played a leading role in the international action plan for African and Eurasian migratory land birds. We are playing our part and continue to make the case on these issues.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend once more on securing the debate. As I said, he has long championed these issues. This is a contentious issue in Malta as well. I am not sure that a British intervention will necessarily help Malta to make up its mind, given that the issue is so contentious and so many people there have expressed clear views on it. The debate has been an interesting one that has highlighted an issue that is important to many people.

Sir John Randall: I believe there are three minutes left, Mrs Main—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that as the Minister has concluded his remarks, the sitting stands adjourned, Sir John.

Question put and agreed to.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned.