“Low-income working-age households have lost the most as a percentage of their income from tax and benefit changes introduced by the coalition…Middle-income working-age households without children have gained the most”.

That is what the Government have achieved. Low-income households have lost and middle-income households have gained. That is not what the Minister and his hon. Friends used to argue for when they were in opposition, but it is what they have delivered in office.

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The IFS found that households with children have been hit hardest by tax and benefit changes. The poorest households with children have lost more than 6% of their incomes and those without children in the middle of the income distribution have seen their incomes rise as a result of tax and benefit changes, as they have benefited from personal allowance increases and have not been affected by social security changes such as those to tax credits. Families out of work or with only one parent in work lost almost £2,000 a year as a result of the changes, while families with both parents in work lost between £1,000 and £1,500 a year.

The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), published new analysis from the House of Commons Library last week that shows that five more years of failure to make work pay of the kind we have seen in the past five years, with wages today on average £1,600 less in real terms than at the general election, and wages falling short of expectations to the same extent in the next Parliament as they have in this, would mean another £10 billion in social security spending on top of the figure already projected.

The Government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, in its second annual assessment of progress towards the 2020 child poverty targets, was scathing. It states:

“The impact of welfare cuts and entrenched low pay will bite between now and 2020. Poverty is set to rise, not fall. We share the view of those experts who predict that 2020 will mark not the eradication of child poverty but the end of the first decade in recent history in which absolute child poverty increased…We have come to the reluctant conclusion that, without radical changes to the tax and benefit system to boost the incomes of poor families, there is no realistic hope of the statutory child poverty targets being met in 2020.”

The Minister served, as I did, on the Public Bill Committee on the Child Poverty Act 2010. He argued then that the targets should be more demanding, but his legacy, and that of his colleagues, will be that there is no realistic hope of achieving those targets by 2020.

Should we be elected in May, our approach will be different. We will balance the books and get the national debt falling in a fair way. We also want the Office for Budget Responsibility to monitor and report on the Government’s progress in reducing child poverty. That is something that the OBR should do. We plan to restrict the growth of benefit spending through stronger, more balanced economic growth and more good jobs paying decent wages. We will tackle low pay and insecurity, raise the minimum wage and improve its enforcement, tackle the abuse of zero-hours contracts and expand free child care for working parents. We will incentivise payment of the living wage by employers by offering a 12-month tax break employers who raise their employees’ wages to that level. We will introduce our compulsory jobs guarantee to get more young and long-term unemployed people off benefits and into work.

We will reform the banks and end the dither on big decisions, such as airport expansion, with an independent infrastructure commission, and we will back British firms by cutting business rates for small firms and unashamedly arguing for Britain to stay in a reformed European Union. We have a radical plan for spreading power and prosperity across the country, including

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giving England’s city and county regions more power over their public transport networks and devolving £30 billion-worth of funding over five years to the English regions. We will tackle the housing crisis with a commitment to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020.

We could have recognised the case for a temporary use of CPI for benefit uprating as an element of a balanced programme of deficit reduction. We do not, though, support the Government’s decision to adopt CPI permanently. We do support the increase in the state pension in line with the triple lock, and as voting against this measure would have the effect of delivering no increase at all, I will not be asking my hon. Friends to vote against the orders.

When we look at the impact on poverty and on middle income households of the policies that have been adopted over the past five years, it is clear that it is urgently time for a change.

4.46 pm

Steve Webb: With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly. The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) will not be asking his hon. Friends to vote against the orders because he has sent them all home, as far as I can tell.

Let me try to deal with a few of the points that were raised. There were lots of comparisons between the rate we are paying and what would otherwise have happened, so to be clear about the £560 statistic, the comparison is as follows: the basic state pension—the £520 comparison—is the triple lock against earnings. That is what would have happened, compared with uprating in line with earnings, but there are several different benchmarks.

On the state pension, we cannot have these debates without refreshing our memory. One of the reasons that we have the triple lock and that 2.5% floor is that the Opposition, when in government, once raised the pension by a paltry 75p. They were so embarrassed by that that they had to have a £5 increase the next year. We do not think that is good policy, so we say that there should be a worthwhile increase each year, which is where the triple lock comes in.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the benchmark is lower than it would have been if we had linked the pension to an index of inflation which the Office for National Statistics report says is discredited, so why is that an interesting comparison? He says that the Labour party rejects the move to CPI, but presumably he is not committing to RPI as he is not allowed to make any spending commitments because the shadow Chancellor will not let him. “Vacuous posturing” is a rude phrase and I would not use it. The Opposition do not like what we are doing, but to imply that in a year when we are increasing the benefit by four times the average wage and twice the rate of inflation that that is still not enough is extraordinary.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to stand up and say, “We’d pay a higher pension,” fine. He is entitled to say that, but he has not said that Labour would pay a higher pension. He wants us to think that, but there is no money to pay a higher pension. He simply wants to imply that Labour would do so. He says that the Opposition reject CPI as the main measure, but he has not told us what it would be. How can people vote for the Labour party in anticipation of what it would do on the pension

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when it has not said what it would do on the pension? I hope that before the election Labour say what it would do. There was an opportunity to do so this afternoon and the right hon. Gentleman failed to take it.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of universal credit, a matter which is regularly debated in the House. He referred to the current rate of progress and said that it will go on for ever. He understands the importance of an accelerating process—the need to get a benefit right and to start with a limited group before applying it to a broader group, and that is exactly what has been happening with universal credit. It is worth saying that our projections for the numbers on universal credit are affected to some extent by the jobs revolution that is going on. As fewer people are unemployed, fewer people will be within the scope of universal credit. Every time we look at the numbers, falling unemployment is one of the factors that reduce the number of people on universal credit.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the IFS report. It was quite candid about a number of limitations. For example, it acknowledged that the figures it uses assume that everybody takes up their benefits, which we know is not the case, so that is an unrealistic assumption. Crucially, the report does not include spending on public services. We know that the poorest 20% of households get five times as much value in kind from public spending as they contribute in tax, so the fact that we have ring-fenced the key public services, such as health and schools, is of huge benefit to those at the bottom of the pile, but that is not something that the report takes into account.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned work incentives. The IFS report states:

“By cutting benefits for non-working families and increasing the personal allowance, the coalition has significantly strengthened average financial incentives to work for most groups.”

He says that there is a challenge, and of course there has been over the past four or five years. On one hand the Opposition say that we have not cut the deficit enough, but on the other hand they have voted against practically every measure we have brought forward to tackle it.

Stephen Timms indicated dissent.

Steve Webb: The Opposition voted against the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which made the principal changes necessary for reducing the deficit. They recognise that, had they been in office, there would have been substantial cuts in public spending, and no doubt that would have

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included social security, which is one of the biggest single areas of public spending, but they have had the luxury of never having to say where the cuts would have been made. The right hon. Gentleman knows in his heart of hearts that, had his party been in office, there would have been significant reductions in spending on social security, so he cannot compare the situation with some blank sheet of paper against some benign economic backdrop. In the last year of the previous Labour Government we saw record borrowing—£150 billion, which is an extraordinary amount of money—so the idea that they could somehow have closed the deficit without having any impact on people’s living standards is extraordinary and unrealistic.

Let us be absolutely clear about the comparison figures. On the issue of the level of the pension, compared with what it might have been, £560 is the key figure we should be using. What we have done through the triple lock, and through each successive measure, means that the pension is higher than it would have been under the policy that the Labour party told us it would implement—RPI to 2012 on earnings, which was in its manifesto—and higher than it would have been had we gone for earnings throughout. Obviously, the figures depend on which baseline one assumes. The idea that the Labour party, had it been in office, would have carried on with RPI, ignoring the statisticians telling them that it should not be used and ignoring the fiscal position, is simply implausible, because it is not a relevant benchmark.

These regulations are important because they pave the way for the next step in our efforts to restore the state pension to where it should have been—a decent amount that provides security and dignity for people in old age. What matters is what people get in retirement, relative to what they used to earn, and on that measure the state pension as a share of the national average wage, and the pension as a result of these regulations, will be at their highest level for more than two decades. That is something of which this Government can be proud. I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.



That the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2015, which was laid before this House on 19 January, be approved.—(Steve Webb.)

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Social Security (Statutory Instruments)

4.53 pm

The Minister for Disabled People (Mr Mark Harper): I beg to move,

That the draft Mesothelioma Lump Sum Payments (Conditions and Amounts) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): With this we shall take the following motion, on pneumoconiosis:

That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.

Mr Harper: I am sorry that the names of these regulations are not very catchy, but they are important none the less. I confirm that they are compatible with the European convention on human rights. The two schemes stand apart from the main social security uprating procedure, and there is no legislative requirement to review the level of payment each year. However, I am happy to increase the amounts payable for 2015 by the consumer prices index—that is, 1.2% as at September 2014, which is the same rate being applied to some social security disability benefits and industrial injuries disablement benefit. I was here for the previous debate when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions clearly set out why CPI, rather than the discredited retail prices index, is the right measure by which to increase these benefits. I do not propose to detain the House by repeating his very clear and detailed explanation.

The Government recognise that people suffering from diseases as a result of exposure to asbestos or one of a number of other listed agents may not be able to bring a successful claim for civil damages, partly due to the time lag between exposure and the onset of the disease, which could be as long as 40 years. As well as compensating people who cannot make civil claims, these two schemes fulfil an important role by ensuring that most sufferers receive compensation while they can still benefit from it.

The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 provides a lump sum compensation payment to those who suffer from one of five dust-related respiratory diseases, who are unable to claim damages from employers who have gone out of business, and who have not brought any action against others for damages. The 2008 scheme provides compensation to people who contracted mesothelioma but were unable to claim compensation for that disease under the ’79 Act, perhaps because their exposure to asbestos was not due to their work. The 2008 scheme means that payments can be made quickly to mesothelioma sufferers at their time of greatest need.

Under both schemes, a claim can be made by a dependant if the sufferer has died before being able to make a claim. Payment levels under the ’79 Act scheme are mainly based on the level of the disablement assessment and the age of the sufferer at the time the disease is diagnosed. The highest amounts are paid to those diagnosed at an early age and with the highest level of disablement. All payments for mesothelioma under the ’79 Act scheme are made at the 100% disablement rate—the highest rate of payment. Similarly, all payments under the 2008 scheme are made at the 100% disablement rate and

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based on age, again with the highest payments going to the younger sufferers. In the last full year, April 2013 to March 2014, over 3,700 payments were made in respect of both schemes, totalling over £54 million.

These regulations increase the levels of support through the Government compensation schemes. I am sure we all agree that while no amount of money can ever compensate individuals and families for the suffering and loss caused by mesothelioma, those who are suffering rightly deserve some form of monetary compensation. I commend the regulations to the House.

4.57 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his remarks. Labour Members welcome the uprating by 1.2% of payments made under these two important schemes. As he said, there is no requirement for those payments to be uprated, but it is surely right, at the very least, that those who receive awards under the schemes should see them rise in line with increases to social security disablement benefits.

As things stand, the uprating of the payments has to be confirmed by a Minister bringing forward legislation in the House in each year that uprating takes place. When the regulations were considered last year in the Delegated Legislation Committee that met on 24 March, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) suggested that the awards should be put on a statutory footing. The then Minister for disabled people, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said that the Government were actively reviewing the way in which uprating could be done in future. What consideration have the Government given to that approach since then?

For a number of years, when uprating regulations have been debated, the main item of discussion has been the differential treatment of dependants and sufferers under the schemes. Dependants receive lower awards than sufferers in three ways. First, the cut-off age for dependants to be in receipt of an award under these schemes is 67, compared with 77 for in-life claims. Secondly, some in-life claimants can receive a 10% enhancement under the 1979 scheme, although not the 2008 scheme. Thirdly, awards to sufferers are in any event set at a higher level than those made to dependants.

Those anomalies have long concerned hon. Members, and furthermore they are at odds with the treatment of civil mesothelioma claims for compensation in the courts, where dependants actually receive higher awards. As hon. Members will appreciate, the speed and ferocity of these terrible diseases means that differentials can operate particularly harshly. Some sufferers, for example, may feel under pressure to rush through a claim to ensure that the maximum amount can be secured for their loved ones—a truly distressing experience when the life that remains to them is so short—while others may simply be too sick to claim at all before they die, and some may not be diagnosed while they are alive.

In 2010, my noble Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton took steps to eliminate the difference in treatment and began work towards equalising payments for dependants and sufferers. There has been no further progress, however, in narrowing the gap since then. I did not hear the Minister say anything about that, and it appears that it has once again been overlooked.

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On 7 March 2013, when these schemes were considered by the Delegated Legislation Committee, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), recognised the wish to equalise payments for dependants and for sufferers and said that the Government were keeping the issue under active review, but at that time he blamed the economic situation for lack of progress since 2010. What further consideration have the Government given to moving towards equalisation, and what sort of economic performance do they believe would create the conditions for reducing the differential?

My understanding—I think this was confirmed by the Minister, although I may have misunderstood him—is that the vast majority of awards are made to sufferers and only a small number to dependants, so what estimate has he made of the cost of full or partial equalisation between the two schemes? How much has been recovered from civil compensation compared with the cost of the schemes, and is there any scope this year to fund some of the cost of equalisation from the civil compensation recoveries?

These matters have been raised each year we have debated the regulations, and I hope the Minister will at the very least be able to assure the House that they are not dropping off the radar. They are of deep importance to sufferers and to their families.

Finally, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead told us last year in Committee that the Health and Safety Executive would launch a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos and that there would be a full evaluation of that campaign’s effectiveness. Everyone knows the importance of repeatedly reminding people of the threat that asbestos poses—even today when so much is understood about its dangers—and how, in so many industrial and other settings, people continue to be at risk and exposed to it. Will the Minister update us on the progress of the HSE campaign and tell us what formal evaluation has been or will be carried out?

We certainly do not object to the uprating announcements that the Minister has made, but I hope he will be able to say something about the Government’s intentions in relation to becoming more generous to sufferers of some of the most terrible diseases that people can die of—diseases that are almost invariably contracted through no fault of the sufferer him or herself. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

5.3 pm

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): Mesothelioma is a disease that affects far too many of my constituents. In fact, numerous studies show that some parts of my constituency have the highest percentage of asbestos-related disease per head of population in the UK by a considerable measure. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green): of course, we welcome the uprating, but it is still some way from the compensation levels that people suffering from this awful disease should receive and deserve to receive.

I want to mention the Clydebank Asbestos Group in my constituency. While the Prime Minister faffs around with his big society project, its members just get on with helping their fellow Bankies and people across Scotland who have been diagnosed with this terrible disease. The

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Mesothelioma Act 2014 was very welcome—it was overdue—and it obviously means that many people can access compensation that they would not otherwise have had.

It is not acceptable that those responsible for poor working conditions or for exposing employees, tenants and others to asbestos can shirk their responsibility and live their lives without consequences, while too many of our constituents have succumbed to this terrible disease or have watched their loved ones die. I suspect that if we looked at the uprating of the payments compared with the profits of the insurance industry over the past year, we would see a significant difference, and that makes the case for making compensation levels far higher than those set thus far.

There is still a serious anomaly for veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma. It was brought to the Government’s attention by the Royal British Legion, as well as by me and other hon. Members some five months ago. It is a clear breach of the armed forces covenant because veterans diagnosed with mesothelioma are receiving only a fraction of the compensation paid to civilians—in some cases, up to £100,000 less—which is clearly unacceptable. I appreciate that this is an issue for both the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence, but five months ago we were told that the matter would be looked at urgently and that there would be action. Will the Minister discuss that with his colleagues in the MOD as a matter of urgency?

5.7 pm

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I apologise for missing the beginning of the Minister’s speech, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you for allowing me to say a few words on this incredibly important matter.

I represent Chatham, where the former dockyard was involved in ship lagging for many years—centuries in fact—so the issue of mesothelioma is very dear to my heart and to those of my constituents. Chatham is one of the UK hot spots for mesothelioma, and for that reason I have been very passionate about the issue for many years, including before I entered the House.

Today’s announcement of the uprating of benefits for mesothelioma claims is obviously very welcome. It is fair to say that the Government have made great progress on compensating those who could not trace their insurer in the past. I know that that scheme is different from the one we are discussing now, but compensation and benefits for mesothelioma quite often get mixed up into one big pot, and people sometimes find it very difficult to navigate their way around the various schemes available. I appreciate the fact that the Government have made great progress in ensuring that people not subject to this scheme can find a way to get the compensation they are owed if they cannot trace their insurer, although some people who claimed benefits for mesothelioma but were then successful in the Government’s other scheme have lost 100% of the compensation to receive only 80% in return.

I want to touch on the points made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) about research and other establishments. The research still has some way to go, and people are not necessarily coming forward to take advantage of existing research bursaries.

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I recently visited the university of Greenwich, which has a base on the Medway campus. It is doing great work on trying to identify ways to break the link in the chemical structures that form mesothelioma. As well as having a fantastic re-acquaintance with the chemistry I learned at school and learning what double bonding was, I was told of some interesting research that it had done into the number of research papers on mesothelioma. It found that in one year, there had been only 15 papers across the entire world, compared with thousands and thousands on other cancers. We clearly have a long way to go.

Traditionally, asbestos conditions, particularly mesothelioma, have been linked with industrial employment. We are now seeing an increase in the number of people from other sectors, particularly the teaching profession, who are becoming the victims of mesothelioma. Something like 122 former teachers died of mesothelioma last year.

It is important that people who are getting this incredibly painful cancer, and who will die very quickly as a consequence, are getting the money that they deserve. Although we have had long discussions about dependants—I note that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston raised this matter in her speech—there is still a long way to go before we give mesothelioma victims adequate compensation and the benefits that they deserve.

I welcome the uprating today. It is an incredibly important step forward. I am pleased that there will be no Division, because this is a sensible thing to do for those who get this horrible disease. There is so much more that we need to continue to discuss in this Chamber and elsewhere to ensure that people who get this horrible cancer, who will die quickly and painfully, are given the right amount of money and the compensation that they deserve, and to ensure that this Government and future Governments continue to support research into this incredibly important area.

5.11 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): May I, too, apologise for missing the start of the debate? I was taken by surprise by the starting time.

I wholeheartedly endorse what has been said by Members on both sides of the Chamber. This is an important step forward, but it is not the last word on the matter. Mesothelioma victims and those who represent them have struggled for years to get justice. They were disappointed when this Government chose to cap payouts at 80%. Nevertheless, it is progress. We have seen an all too slow but steady improvement from the days of the last Labour Government, when I was pleased to play a small part in setting up the 2008 scheme at the Department for Work and Pensions.

Progress has been made since then, but let us not forget that this House and this country owe a debt of gratitude and responsibility to those people and their families, because they gave their lives to national service in shipyards across our country to build the ships that kept us safe. Through no fault of their own, they put themselves in the care of employers who exposed them to this lethal, horrific disease from which they are still suffering. The country still has a duty of care to those sufferers, and their struggle for overall justice will go on.

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5.13 pm

Mr Harper: I will try to respond to all the questions that have been asked.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), asked about the progress that has been made to change the statutory position on uprating. That remains under review, but the House can see the Government’s view clearly from the fact that I am bringing forward the orders to increase the payments by the rate of CPI. As hon. Members have said, that reflects the importance of uprating the amount in line with inflation.

The shadow Minister and one or two other Members referred to the balance between the compensation that is paid to sufferers of the disease and that which is paid to their dependants. The main intention of the schemes was to ensure that financial support went to the people suffering from those diseases. They were set up as they were, with no fault having to be produced and a focus on the speed with which payments were made, to ensure that the support could go to the sufferer of the disease while they were still in a position to benefit from financial compensation.

When the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008 was debated in the House—the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) referred to his part in that—I was a shadow Minister and the Bill had the full support of the Conservative Opposition. One issue was about ensuring that we were speedy in providing compensation, given the small gap between when someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma and, sadly, their inevitable death. We got compensation to people while they were still able to—I am not sure “enjoy” is the right word, but to benefit from it to the extent that that was possible.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston is right to say that most payments are made to sufferers rather than dependants: in 2013-14, 3,410 payments were made to sufferers and 360 to dependents. As my predecessor rightly said in the debate last year, the case for the equalisation of those payments was kept under review, and our most recent assessment is that it would cost a further £2 million a year. It is worth putting on record that in the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 and the 2008 schemes, payments substantially outweigh the money received from compensation recovery. There is no money sitting around to make those payments. The Government paid out more than £54 million of taxpayers’ money, and recovered just under £26 million. The two schemes together cost the taxpayer nearly £29 million, and in the current financial position one has to make difficult choices about funding these schemes. They are already costing £29 million, and it would cost a further £2 million to make those changes. However, we will keep the position under review.

The hon. Lady referred to what the Health and Safety Executive is doing to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos. I am familiar with that because I launched the current £1.13 million awareness campaign last October, which was particularly aimed at helping at-risk workers recognise that asbestos was relevant to them and their work. It encouraged them to seek reliable information about how they can protect themselves, and encourage and enable safer working with asbestos through behavioural change.

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On the day we launched that campaign I went to a large company that sells products to small traders, who are often at risk when they carry out that work. We used information packs and information that small traders could use and access on their smartphones to answer questions about the type of properties they were working in and the risks they may face, and those I spoke to found that helpful. That campaign is due to end in March, and a fuller valuation of it will be undertaken before any decision is made about a further campaign in the next financial year. The HSE and those in the various trades that are affected by this issue take it very seriously. I was encouraged to see that there is a fair degree of knowledge about it, although not as much as one would hope, given the serious health consequences of not taking the issue seriously.

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) made a point that was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), which was that sufferers of this disease are not evenly distributed throughout the United Kingdom. They reflect industrial work patterns and are not evenly spread, and some Members who have spoken today will obviously have a larger number of constituents who are affected.

The hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire and for Barrow and Furness also referred to the new scheme that was set up last year. That is not what we are debating now, but in case hon. Members are not already aware—I am sure they are—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) has secured a debate on that issue this Wednesday in Westminster Hall at 9.30 am. I will be responding on behalf of the Government and will deal with any questions that hon. Members may have.

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire raised an issue concerning the armed forces. If she will forgive me, I will take that away and raise it with my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. I am not quite sure what the answer will be, but I suspect that the most sensible way to progress is for either me or a Defence Minister to write to the hon. Lady and to put a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library. I have no doubt that she will be assiduous in pursuing us if that does not happen on a timely basis, or if she is not satisfied with the response.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred to the increasing incidence of the disease. There is a very long period between people being exposed to asbestos and being diagnosed and, sadly, dying from the disease. The latest available information suggests that the number of deaths will continue to increase and peak at about 2,500 in 2018, but will then start to fall, reflecting a reduction in asbestos exposure following its peak use in the 1960s and 1970s. The research she mentions is clearly important. If there are bursaries out

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there, it is obviously helpful if people take them up. More research by some of our best scientists would clearly be welcome to see if there is anything that can be done, once people have been exposed to asbestos, to stop the development of this dreadful disease.

I think that that deals with all the questions raised by Members on both sides of the House. I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Social Security


That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved.— (Mr Harper.)

Business without Debate

delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (Amendment) Measure

That the Care of Churches and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction (Amendment) Measure (HC 914), passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for her Royal Assent in the form in which it was laid before Parliament.—(Canon Sir Tony Baldry.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Ecclesiastical Property Measure

That the Ecclesiastical Property Measure (HC 915), passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for her Royal Assent in the form in which it was laid before Parliament.—(Canon Sir Tony Baldry.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Church of England (Pensions) (Amendment) Measure

That the Church of England (Pensions) (Amendment) Measure (HC 916), passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for her Royal Assent in the form in which it was laid before Parliament.—(Canon Sir Tony Baldry.)

Question agreed to.

9 Feb 2015 : Column 587

Peanut Allergies (Announcements on UK Flights)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

5.23 pm

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): A few months ago, my constituent Helena Erwin and her young daughter Emily visited me at my constituency advice centre in Ballymena. Helena told me of her desire as a mother to ensure that her child was kept safe while travelling. Emily has a very severe peanut allergy that requires her to be kept away from contact with peanuts for fear of anaphylactic attack, which could be deadly.

The family only became aware of this condition when they were on a family holiday and Emily was taken seriously ill. Subsequently, her consultant reported that she has

“an instant and extreme allergic reaction.”

Any parent of a child who requires special attention or care knows that that means constant care and attention daily, which has a broad impact. That is the case with this child, Emily. Her GP told her mother that in future, for all air travel, she will need to inform the carrier of her daughter’s condition. Her older sister has been taught how to recognise signs of anaphylaxis and what to do in an emergency, and her contemporaries—cousins, family and school friends—have had to be told what consumables Emily cannot be exposed to. The adult members of her family have each been trained to use an EpiPen and know how to administer her medication, which must accompany her at all times.

The Erwins go abroad for work and recreation, and as a result of their travel experiences, Helena contacted me to raise awareness of the needs, particularly when travelling, of the many people who, like her precious daughter, suffer from anaphylaxis and could be helped by greater awareness and safety announcements, particularly onboard aeroplanes.

It is important to put things in perspective. In 2013, there were 1,300 emergency admissions to A and E units in English hospitals following adverse food reactions and shock, and there have been six deaths in the past 13 months across the UK from anaphylaxis caused by food. Today, when we board a flight, we hear several standardised announcements, all of which we are very familiar with and are designed for our own safety: “Fasten your seatbelts”, “Put your folding table away”, “Stow your baggage”, “Keep window blinds up for take-off and landing”, and “Put down your seat’s arm rest”. There are also announcements about when and where smoking is permitted, and where and when a passenger can use a telephone or computer. We are well used to these announcements; those are just seven that I, as a regular commuter to Parliament, hear each week while flying.

From time to time, but randomly—the crux of the issue—I hear allergy announcements. When I do, I accept that they are made for my safety and that of fellow travellers, and that they should be obeyed. However, it is the random nature of the peanut allergy announcements that has prompted this debate. The Minister and his Government can do something practical and positive to help. He can ensure that tonight we begin a process to

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achieve a consistent style of announcement on all flights, so that public safety is increased. I am not campaigning for prohibitions; I am championing the case for consistent safety announcements when required or requested by a traveller.

Let me tell the House about the current inconsistent state of affairs. I have with me a report on 36 air carriers that fly to the United Kingdom and their policies on food allergies and announcements. Is there one consistent approach? No, there are 36 different approaches. To be fair, some airlines are doing their best, but a consistent, universal approach would actually be welcomed by the airlines as a beneficial starting point.

I want to tell the House a little about what Emily experienced on a recent flight. I asked her mother to write out the details, and it is important that they be put on the record:

“We incurred a 6 hour delay. An aircraft and crew were flown in from Paris to take us home. It was very obvious from when we stepped onto the flight that the crew were not happy at being there. We spoke to the crew member who knew nothing about us and didn’t even understand what a nut allergy was due to the language barrier. I do carry a translation card but this was in Spanish and not French.

Eventually with much explaining from ourselves and some other passengers seated around us, the crew understood what we meant but refused to make an announcement. Their reason being simply they didn’t have to. My husband and I were by now beginning to get distressed as was our 6 year old daughter Lucy. We repeatedly asked and asked for the announcement to made, eventually we were told in a minute, other passengers were now starting to pass the information back and shouting at the crew on our behalf. The doors of the aircraft had been closed and my husband and I were now thinking about asking to get off the flight rather than take the chance. At this point the crew member agreed to make the announcement and when he made it was given a round of applause by all the passengers. As a family this was a very humiliating situation to be in and very upsetting for Lucy. About 2 hours into the flight the crew member actually apologised to us but we did not get an explanation why he wouldn’t announce it to begin with.

On returning home I...called the CAA and got speaking to a Doctor from the medical department. He gave me a few pieces of advice. He felt any risk posed to my daughter would be from 3-4 rows in front or behind me and had I considered policing these rows myself to see what people are eating? All this while I am responsible for 2 small children and also adhering to the seatbelt signs. Another suggestion was just don't fly. Take a boat!”

I think that tells its own story about the inconsistency, and shows that airlines require what I am suggesting. They probably need an impetus to drive them to come up with a policy that will work.

Since I secured this Adjournment debate, I have been inundated with calls and e-mails from people across the United Kingdom. The story of Andy Hyams is well documented. He and his suffering daughter were alleged to have been bullied off a flight because no announcement was made. It is easy to understand why a parent would not want their child to stay on a flight in those circumstances; they could not move away if there was a problem. If the issue arises in a hotel or in public, people can at least leave, but they cannot get off an aeroplane when it is in flight.

Another constituent, Francis, wrote to me to say that

“unless you actually go through the stages of death by anaphylactic shock until you are left with your lifeless child in your arms it is very hard to imagine what happens.”

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Frank had that experience, and said that it was only when people saw it happening that they realised the huge need address this issue.

Another lady, Danielle Toner, wrote to me to say of airlines that

“yes some will make an announcement, others will not. When you have a child in a confined space with a life threatening condition I feel it is a must that airlines should be accountable for all passengers on their flights.”

I think she makes a very good point on behalf of her little six-year-old boy, who suffers from this condition.

These allergic reactions affect one in 50 children in the United Kingdom, and I think the Minister knows that something needs to be done about this now. Putting in place a requirement that a consistent announcement, agreed with the Civil Aviation Authority, be made on a passenger’s request should not be beyond the scope of this House, or the care of this Government.

I do not believe that new legislation is necessary, but if it is, there is an opportunity to make the Consumer Rights Bill, currently in the other place, the legislative vehicle to get this job done. I appeal to the Minister to put Emily’s law in place. Let us do something to make the airlines announce consistent messages on peanut and other food allergies, so that people can travel in safety and feel that they are not being hindered in any way or having their rights taken away from them. I appeal to the Minister to do something about this.

5.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) on securing this debate about announcements relating to peanut allergies on flights entering and leaving the UK. I genuinely thank him for raising this topic, which is an important one. The responses he has had from his constituents and others show that many people around the country have been affected and have real concerns about their own or their families’ health.

The Government take the health and safety of air passengers and crew extremely seriously. The UK is recognised throughout the global aviation community for its high standards and excellent record of safety in commercial aviation. Severe allergic reactions, such as those that may be associated with peanut allergy, can be frightening for those who experience them at any time, and particularly for parents and carers of babies and infants. Within the confines of an aircraft cabin, there are few options for relief. The distress can be particularly acute.

We have the greatest sympathy for those who suffer—or who witness the suffering of their loved ones—as a result of such extreme reactions, wherever they occur, but we must have regard to evidence relating to the incidence and cause of such reactions. There is little published scientific evidence concerning the risks of exposure during travel and the efficacy of any mitigating measures. The risk of nut or peanut allergy, including anaphylaxis, as a result of consumption by mouth is well documented, but evidence of allergic reactions resulting from the inhaling of the allergen is mainly confined to anecdotal case reports. However, I know

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that airlines try to reduce the risk of serious medical incidents, including allergic reactions, while people are on board their aircraft. It is already standard practice for carriers to request passengers to notify them before travelling if they have any medical conditions, including allergies, so that they can take appropriate action, such as ensuring that wheelchairs and other assistance are available.

Most airlines carry information on their websites which outlines their policy in relation to passengers with allergies. Some have taken additional measures, such as removing peanuts from their in-flight snacks—that has been done by British Airways, among others—or offering to broadcast requests to other passengers not to consume nuts that they have brought on board with them. EasyJet and Norwegian already deploy that strategy. However, few airlines are able to offer or guarantee peanut or nut-free meals. TheDaily Mail website today draws attention to my hon. Friend’s constituents the Levitan family, and the problems that they experienced. There is a very fetching picture of the hon. Gentleman and me—and, on the same page, Madonna, who was attending the Grammys.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade body for airlines, has also published detailed information for allergen-sensitive passengers. It includes guidance on the applicable regulations, such as the requirements for aircraft to carry first aid and emergency medical kits, and for cabin crew to be trained in first aid. However, the guidance acknowledges that the detailed regulations are the responsibility of each country, and that there may be variations in the extent of the medical equipment that is carried or the training of cabin crew. Its advice to passengers includes recommendations that they contact a physician before travelling to discuss any related risks, contact the airline once the booking has been made, ensure that prescribed medication is carried in hand baggage, and arrive early at the airport to re-confirm any specific requirements that they have made. Comprehensive advice is also available on the Anaphylaxis Campaign and Allergy UK websites. The Government commend those organisations for their work, which supports the range of other practical help and advice that is available.

We recognise—and we have heard again tonight—that passengers sometimes face inconsistent responses from airlines when they notify them of their history of allergy, and we understand that that can lead to pressure to require all airlines to meet certain minimum standards of support. However, there is a very limited amount of evidence relating to the risk, and the efficacy of any specific mitigation measures. The Government would need to be certain that the benefits of introducing any new regulation, such as a requirement for airlines to make a pre-flight announcement, was proportionate, and would have a significant impact in terms of risk reduction.

I accept that air travel is qualitatively different from other modes of transport, in that there is less opportunity to seek respite from environmental factors by moving. However, aviation competes with other modes on some routes. The measures proposed by the hon. Gentleman would place a duty on one mode of transport—aviation—but not on others, such as ferries and international rail, which compete with it. We should also have regard to

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the extent to which any actions requested in an on-board announcement might unreasonably limit the freedom of other passengers. For example, a family might have brought their own food—such as peanut butter sandwiches —on to an aircraft, and might have no alternative food to give their children during the flight.

Ian Paisley: I am, of course, very aware of the issue of freedom. I do not think that anyone is campaigning for a prohibition, which is an important point. However, I have not once met a family who, having been told by others, “One of our children suffers from peanut allergies—please do not eat those peanuts,” would wilfully want to eat peanuts in front of them, I think that most people would comply with such a request if they knew that the health of someone who was exposed to peanuts would be at risk.

Mr Goodwill: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right. Indeed, the way ventilation works on aircraft may mean that a person who is seated well to the back of a plane and well away from the person with the allergy problem will not pose a risk. There is also interesting information about the effect on people when they smell peanuts. Their reaction may not be entirely an allergic reaction; if a person has had a bad experience before, they would certainly be feeling a degree of stress, which could be a risk to them. We should also not forget situations when peanuts have been served on a previous flight or people have had peanuts on a previous flight. Parents might sometimes want to check the seat so a toddler cannot find peanuts in between the upholstery and then consume it, thereby causing a problem.

We should not impose restrictions on other passengers without evidence that this would be necessary and effective. We should also consider that a carrier is unlikely to be able to guarantee an environment totally free of the trigger substance. For example, an aircraft may have had only superficial “turnaround” cleaning following a previous flight that day, possibly operated by a different airline, and a passenger on the previous flight might have consumed a product containing the allergen as other passengers may bring their own food with them which can contain the allergen.

Furthermore, the effect of such an announcement may be limited. I am slightly ashamed of this, but I am sure that I am not the only airline passenger not to devote my entire attention to each part of the announcements made every time I fly. In some cases language difficulties may also mean that some passengers do not understand the announcements.

Another issue is that if an announcement was to be made in relation to peanuts without clear evidence that the action sought reduced a real risk, there could be pressure to make announcements on other topics, for example other foodstuffs such as cooked fish and chickpeas, which have been linked to severe allergic reactions, or dog hairs which may be present on the clothing of passengers, or indeed an assistance-dog on the flight. The list of substances potentially causing an allergic reaction is long and includes strawberries, eggs, soya, milk and sesame seeds. Also, photosensitive epileptic reactions could be linked to some movies or video

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games that could be played by a passenger on a device during a flight in the vicinity of a person subject to such attacks.

Where action is to be required by regulation there needs to be an evidence base that it is necessary. I have today asked officials to write to the British Air Transport Association, which represents 80% of UK carriers, asking what its current policy is: whether the declaration should be made as a ticket is booked, which is the current situation; whether carriers should ban nuts from the foods they provide on their flights; and what type of announcement they should make and the practicality of that on some aircraft where the announcements are made via a drop-down video screen rather than by cabin crew over a microphone. I have asked my officials to try and get that information from BATA as a direct result of this debate.

Finally, it is only practical for any requirement to make such an announcement, if introduced under UK domestic legislation, to apply to UK airlines. As a result significant numbers of passengers flying in and out of the UK on foreign-owner carriers would not be covered by such a provision.

Ian Paisley: I welcome the fact that the Minister has been prompt in deciding to call for the gathering of that information. Will he go a bit further and give me a commitment that when he has that information he will turn that research into some serious policy that will allow for a change, if the evidence is there—I accept that the evidence must always be there to make a decision?

Mr Goodwill: I hope we might not have to introduce legislation. I get the impression that, given the sensitivity surrounding this subject and the publicity it has received as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s actions, many airlines in this country, and indeed around the world, are looking at this and looking at what standardised announcement might be made. I therefore hope we can make progress without the need for legislation, but we will keep all options open, of course. Several of the cases that have received recent media attention and been the subject of correspondence with the Department for Transport have concerned foreign-owned airlines.

I mentioned earlier that the Government take passenger health and safety very seriously. We are aware of the concerns expressed in Parliament on this matter. When it was discussed in another place at the end of last year, I had the pleasure of meeting the noble Lord Mendelsohn and the noble Baroness Kennedy of Cradley on 18 November to discuss and, I hope, allay some of their concerns.

In order to inform this debate, the Department for Transport and the aviation health unit of the Civil Aviation Authority have committed to work with medical specialists in allergies to develop evidence-based guidance for airlines. As a first step, it is intended to commission a review of the scientific literature to evaluate the evidence for a link between environmental exposure to aerosolised food particles and serious allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, in subjects who have been diagnosed with a food allergy.

The objective of the scientific review will be to identify what, if any, steps could be recommended on the basis of the existing evidence and to identify the need for any

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further research. In that way, the industry could not reasonably object that the regulation was arbitrary or unwarranted. The regulation would have clear benefits in terms of reducing risk, and it would be easier to secure consensus on any international action necessary to offer protection to those at risk. Once again, I thank

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the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and for providing the opportunity to bring this issue to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

5.46 pm

House adjourned.