3.23 pm

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate; I meant no disrespect to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), who has been a tireless campaigner on the issue. I will take only a brief amount of the House’s time, partly because I must again be rude and leave the debate before the end—it is that stage of the parliamentary process.

I want to express my gratitude and that of my constituent. The hon. Gentleman spent two hours going in great detail through the difficulties suffered by her daughter, a 24-year-old girl, as a result of the HPV vaccine Cervarix. The anti-NMDA receptor antibody effect on her is massive. My constituent’s daughter will require financial support for life—disability benefits and a range of other support to get her through her difficulties. Those difficulties result from a reaction to a vaccine that has been an enormous success in this country in protecting young women from a viral condition, but which, in certain circumstances, has the effect I have mentioned. There is more evidence not just in this country but abroad, and there is emerging research.

I hope that the Minister will recognise the circumstances, and recognise also that more needs to be done, including looking at research from abroad. We should understand the difficulties of the individual concerned, who must go to endless meetings that require explanation of a complex medical condition not understood by people in the benefits world—and why should it be? It requires someone with a detailed understanding of a narrow field of clinical work to understand it. It is a question of constantly having to explain it again to someone new, and recognising that the situation will last a lifetime.

Perhaps a miracle cure or a way to reverse the condition will be found, but we cannot say. At the moment we need the Government to recognise—through the benefits delivery networks, as well as in terms of the Minister’s responsibilities—that there are people who acted for the right reasons and who need support. They need support in their battle to get their condition recognised and understood. There is a growing experience across developed economies, where the right measures are taken to protect young people from disease, of people being affected in the wrong way in certain circumstances. I hope that in future the system will permit greater protection for people such as my constituents. I applaud the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for calling the debate.

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3.27 pm

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): I will not detain the House for long. I want briefly to raise the case of my constituent Stacey Jones, who suffered life-altering changes to her health following the administration of the HPV vaccine six or seven years ago. For Stacey it has meant seizures and mood swings—severe continuing problems that require treatment to this day. I pay tribute to her brave mother, Julie Jones, who has fought to have her daughter’s condition recognised. She brought it to my attention and that of Ministers and the local medical profession, and she has tried to put the plight of young women such as Stacey on the agenda.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for his work in obtaining the debate, and more broadly on the issue. Although the subject is compensation, I want to put a broader question to the Minister. Does she agree that it cannot be right for young women and their families, such as Stacey and her mother, to be regarded simply as collateral damage for the vaccine programme? That is how the families feel. In a sense, that is a question for my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) as well as for the Minister, because there is an election coming and I am not sure whether the Minister or my hon. Friend will occupy the Government Front Bench in a couple of months. I hope that they both agree that it cannot be right for young women such as Stacey to be regarded as collateral damage of a vaccine programme. If so, how do we change the view of such families, who feel that the Department of Health simply brushes aside their concerns, does not acknowledge them and does not take them seriously?

The health problems that those young women are suffering from are real, but they feel that they are being ignored. I ask the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, to address in their summing-up speeches the question of not just compensation, but the attitude shown to such families, who feel that they are being ignored, so that their plight is taken more seriously whether or not they are entitled to compensation under the law.

3.30 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) for securing this important debate and for his work as chair of the all-party group for vaccine damaged people. His tireless campaigning on behalf of his constituents, and others who have been affected by vaccine damage, is commendable.

I also thank all hon. Members and right hon. and hon. Friends for their contributions throughout the debate, which are testament to the strong feelings about this issue on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) talked about the challenges experienced by her constituents. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a large contribution and I was specifically interested in hearing what he said about the emotional trauma experienced by families. The hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) both talked about their constituents’ experiences of the HPV vaccine.

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Vaccinations are crucial to our NHS as a way of preventing disease and the spread of infection. The research and discoveries made every day by the scientific community lead us closer to disease prevention that could not have been imagined when the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 was passed. The improvements in vaccine uptake in recent years have resulted in a greater proportion of children being vaccinated now than ever before.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway made clear the purpose of today’s debate is not to question the importance of the national vaccination programme to the health of our population; instead, it is to bring to the House’s attention those occasions on which vaccinations have gone wrong, with deeply distressing and life-changing consequences, and the challenges surrounding the support system in place for those people who are sadly affected.

I recently attended a meeting of the all-party group in Parliament and at another meeting I met a group of parents and their daughters who had been affected by the HPV vaccination. The stories I heard in both meetings highlighted that, in the event of such tragedies, it is vital that people who suffer from vaccine injury can expect to receive support to ease the burden on them and their families. They certainly should not have to battle to get what they are entitled to.

At those meetings, the deep sense of injustice felt by many of the families who live every day with the burden of disability caused by vaccine damage was clear. In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East, I should say that I hope that the parents and people affected believe that I was at that meeting to listen to them. I very much appreciate that they feel that they are not being listened to, on top of the challenges that they have faced over many years.

As we heard, the vaccine damage payments scheme was established under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act in 1979 to provide tax-free lump sum payments to people severely disabled as a result of vaccination against specific diseases. Despite the gradual expansion of support under numerous Governments and some important reforms made in 2000 following a review of the scheme, the system has many challenges today. We have heard many compelling reasons for reform.

Since the scheme was first introduced, the number of payments made has fallen dramatically. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway said, since 2010-11 no vaccine damage payments have been made at all. That may be down to vaccines and vaccine safety, but it is troubling that, despite hundreds of applications from people whose disability was sufficient for them to be considered to have a strong enough case, not one payment has been made. I hope that the Minister will explain why such a gulf exists between applications for support and actual payments made. I hope she will share her view on why the number of payments has gone down to zero in recent years.

I understand that there is a robust qualification process and that, to qualify for compensation, a person must be assessed to be 60% permanently disabled for life. In considering cases, it is right that medical advisers have regard to whether informed medical opinion suggests that there may be a causal link between the claimed adverse event and vaccination. I appreciate that the line must be drawn somewhere, but will the Minister share

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with us whether any flexibility is built into the system to allow a person assessed as being very close to the 60% qualification point—perhaps they are 59% permanently disabled—to receive support under the scheme? Surely a person suffering such a level of disability has a substantial need, which the scheme is intended to accommodate. It seems unjust that, by just missing out on the threshold, they would receive no payment at all under the scheme, so it is left to the family to shoulder that burden.

Has the Minister considered the case for reforming the minimum level of disability required for a person to qualify? We have heard today that, even when a person does qualify as having a serious disability, the Government have fought against such decisions. Take the case of people who suffer from narcolepsy as a result of the swine flu vaccine, which we have heard about today. Despite a causal link with the vaccine having been established and a tribunal having concluded that that should be considered a “serious disability,” the Department for Work and Pensions appealed against the decision. Will the Minister share with us why the DWP would go against such a decision? Will she clarify how her Government reach a decision on whether to appeal against a tribunal decision?

As we have heard in the debate, there are many other anomalies in the coverage provided by the Act. I note the recent additions this year of the rotavirus and influenza vaccinations to the list of specified diseases to which the Act applies. Despite that, it does not provide a comprehensive safety net. Will the Minister explain the review process that takes place before a vaccine is included on that list? Why are some vaccines, such as pandemic influenza and hepatitis A and B vaccines, excluded? The current scheme focuses largely on the childhood immunisation programme, but it covers people over the age of 18 for certain diseases. We have heard the word “patchy” used today, which is a fair assessment.

I was concerned to learn that 814 applications had been rejected on non-medical grounds because they were made either out of time or outside the scheme’s scope. The scheme allows for no extension to the time limit, even when the applicant did not have knowledge of the scheme or did not know that they might qualify for a claim. To refuse someone the support they need on the grounds that they have not made the deadline seems inflexible. Does the Minister have plans to build more flexibility into the rules about the time frames in which applications need to be made?

There are other anomalies. In the event that a child under two dies from an adverse reaction to a vaccine, their family are not eligible to receive any payment under the scheme. The logic for that is unclear. Why should the family of a child who dies after their second birthday be more deserving of compensation than one whose child died a day before? I would welcome clarification from the Minister on whether she plans to review that.

In a written answer to me at the end of last year, the Minister said that the Government had

“no plans to make changes”

to the 1979 Act. Has she reconsidered that position since then? If not, does she have any plans to review that decision?

The debate has raised issues that need to be tackled if we are to ensure that we have a comprehensive support system for vaccine damaged people and to promote

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confidence in the uptake of vaccines. The support scheme put in place by the 1979 Act was of its time and intended to be an interim solution. However, it has become—albeit with some changes over the years—a permanent one.

People need to be assured that, in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, they will be looked after. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway made a powerful case for reform, which I hope the Minister will take away and give her full consideration. I look forward to her response.

3.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison): I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) on securing the time to discuss an issue that is never easy to discuss. Other Members have alluded to the fact that when I, as a Health Minister, have looked at schemes about population-level health, sometimes there are discussions about the impact on individuals within that population and those discussions are very difficult to have.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the tone in which he has conducted this debate and indeed on the way that he has represented families and individuals over some years because, as I say, sometimes these are difficult issues to discuss. He has chaired the all-party group in a constructive way and I am sure that that has been appreciated by successive Ministers.

Also, the hon. Gentleman has said it before in this House, but I was very pleased that today he reiterated his support and that of the all-party group for a public vaccination programme. We are lucky to have a comprehensive and world-class national immunisation programme. I note that the vast majority of people who have concerns about the issue that we are discussing today do not disagree with the need for vaccination programmes of that nature.

Such programmes are a vital way of protecting individuals and the community as a whole from serious diseases. Vaccination is recognised by the World Health Organisation as the most effective public health intervention after the provision of clean drinking water. It has led to the eradication or major reductions in infectious diseases that used to be a serious threat to public health. British parents no longer see their children being crippled by polio, because that disease has been eliminated from the UK and, thankfully, from most of the world. Before measles vaccines were introduced, there were as many as 750,000 cases of measles in England and Wales in epidemic years, and about one in every 1,000 children infected would die.

Vaccinations are now safer than they have ever been, notwithstanding—obviously—the concerns that have been expressed during this debate. However, I recognise that on the very rare occasions when vaccinations can cause severe disability, that places both the person themselves and their families under enormous strain. Right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about that most movingly during the afternoon.

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Of course, that is one of the main reasons why the vaccine damage payment scheme was introduced. As others have said, it was intended to help ease the present and future burdens of those individuals who are severely disabled as a result of vaccine damage.

I am sure it has been said before, but it is worth clarifying for the House that the VDPS payment is not compensation and it does not prejudice the right of the disabled person to pursue a claim against the manufacturer of the vaccine, although I of course acknowledge the obstacles that many people face in doing that. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway, who led the debate, spelled them out. However, such payments would of course be taken into account if compensation was awarded.

The scheme, introduced in 1979, provides a tax-free, lump sum payment—as others have said, it is now up to £120,000—for those who are severely disabled as a result of a vaccination against those diseases listed in the 1979 Act and those that have been specified since 1979 by statutory instrument. It acknowledges that people who are severely disabled early in life have less opportunity to earn and save, and the degree of disablement is assessed on the same basis as for the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme.

The disability threshold is set at 60%. I understand, of course, that there are those who argue that the level of disability should be assessed on a sliding scale. However, such a sliding scale of disability and payments would run counter to the scheme’s principle of providing a straightforward single payment for those who the Secretary of State for Health is satisfied are severely disabled as a result of vaccination.

To qualify for the scheme, a person must have become severely disabled as a result of vaccination. As I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), acknowledged, that causative link is needed for the scheme to be workable, but it does make for some difficult cases and some difficult conversations. I understand that, but that causative link helps us to target public funds properly for people who suffer disablement as a consequence of vaccination.

As with all civil matters, the standard of proof for causation is “on the balance of probabilities”. So, based on the available evidence, does the medical adviser consider that vaccination caused the disability? Notwithstanding the suggestions made to change, improve or even replace the scheme, there would always need to be an assessment of causation and it would always be the case that for some people who had suffered a disability, it would be viewed that the cause was not vaccination. There would always be instances that did not meet that criterion.

The scheme does not require the medical adviser to be certain or sure but only to consider that it is more likely than not that vaccination caused disability. These independent medical advisers are well placed and experienced enough to make that judgment, which is not made by politicians but by people who are carefully trained. For example, doctors who assess claims must be approved to carry out assessments by the chief medical adviser to the Department for Work and Pensions, and that approval is only granted when they have demonstrated full competence. Also, those doctors are subject to strict 100% quality audits until approval is achieved. I say that to make the point that there is a considerable degree of both medical expertise and

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independence involved in those assessments. I can also confirm that mental health, which I think was mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is taken into account in those assessments of individuals.

The payment scheme is not intended to address all the financial implications of disablement for those affected by vaccines, which we have heard about this afternoon, and, as I have said, there is nothing to prevent people from bringing claims, although I understand that that process is difficult, as has been outlined.

The scheme is only one part of the wide range of support and help available to severely disabled people in the UK. For example, as many hon. Members will be aware, disability living allowance provides an important non-contributory, non-means-tested and tax-free cash contribution towards the disability-related extra costs of severely disabled children.

The VDPS covers immunisation provided in the routine childhood vaccination programme against specified diseases. It also temporarily covered vaccination against pandemic swine flu during the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010. Hon. Members have raised applications to the scheme from individuals who developed narcolepsy and cataplexy following immunisation that used the swine flu pandemic vaccine, pandemrix. I will take this opportunity to emphasise that we appreciate how distressing narcolepsy and cataplexy are, and we understand the concerns of those who have been affected, and the concerns of their families. The DWP administers the VDPS and takes professional medical advice on the degree of disability involved, and obviously the Department of Health is responsible for policy in this area.

Swine flu vaccines were developed specifically for use in a flu pandemic, when the number of lives that could be lost and the number of people who could suffer serious illness would have been enormous. In the circumstances, it was considered by Ministers at the time that it was suitable to extend the VDPS temporarily, but in the circumstances that currently prevail it is inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases; I hope the House understands that.

The Government are advised on all immunisation matters by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is a statutory and independent body. The JCVI is also a departmental expert committee, constituted for the purpose of advising the Secretary of State for Health, and it keeps all immunisation matters under review, providing advice and recommendations to Ministers on all current and potential programmes, and advising the UK health Departments on national immunisation policy, including the safety and efficacy of a programme.

The Department of Health ensures that all its information on vaccination is clear that vaccines may have side effects, which thankfully are usually minor. However, the fact that a vaccine has been licensed shows that the benefits have been assessed as outweighing any known possible side effects. Nevertheless, as with any medicine or health care product, unfortunately a vaccine may cause side effects in some people. We have heard the stories of some of those who have been affected in that way.

Vaccine safety is of paramount importance and, as with all medicines and health care products, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the Government’s independent expert advisory Commission

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on Human Medicines keep the safety of all vaccines under close and continual review. In response to the concerns that were raised by Members during the time that I have been the Minister with responsibility for public health, I have sought the advice of the MHRA, and had discussions with it, to raise some of the issues that Members have put to me, and to understand in some detail that process of continual review. I was satisfied that it is very robust and based on a continual review of the available evidence, both in this country and internationally.

The UK’s childhood immunisation schedule has been recommended by experts after consideration of a wide range of evidence, which, as I have said, includes evidence about safety reactions. That evidence is both national and international. The vaccines have undergone rigorous testing with large numbers of people before they are licensed, and their safety is continuously monitored to discover and assess any rare side effects. Vaccines are among the safest medicines available and as such, and as I have said before, side effects are rare. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman thinks that reactions are not being captured properly. Again, I asked the MHRA about that. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the yellow card scheme, but perhaps he wants to give me more detail after the debate about reactions not being captured.

Mr Brown: On that point, it became abundantly clear, when I met the two ladies whom I mentioned in respect of their daughters and the HPV vaccine, that one of those mothers faced a major challenge in pursuing the local health authority to get the card recording exactly what had happened. There appeared to be some reluctance, although I am not sure what was underpinning all that. Some people have faced a challenge getting it properly recorded.

Jane Ellison: I am sure it would help the MHRA if the hon. Gentleman sent it details of that example. However, it sounds a little bit more as if there was a problem with a local clinician recording adverse reaction than with the scheme itself. I note what he says.

The UK’s programme has been a considerable success. I know that, in the context of such a debate, it seems hard to assert that, but I think that all hon. Members would acknowledge that generally speaking this country is seen as having a successful immunisation programme. Regarding MMR, which has been mentioned, coverage in England for children reaching their second birthday rose to 92.7% in 2013-14, compared with 92.3% in 2012-13. That is the sixth consecutive year that a rise in MMR coverage has been reported, and coverage is at its highest level since the vaccine was first introduced in 1988.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern that the current level of award may limit the take-up of vaccines, but I am hesitant to accept that as evidence, given the improved take-up of the MMR vaccine during a period when the VDPS has not changed. I am hesitant to accept what he says, but if there is peer-reviewed evidence of the link between the level of the scheme and the take-up of particular vaccines, I suggest he submits that to the Department.

Hon. Members will know that, since 1 May 2014, the VDPS has been the joint responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. As set out in the 1979 Act, the Department of Health is

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responsible for policy, for example, changes to the list of infectious diseases covered by the Act in line with changes to the immunisation programme. The shadow Minister mentioned diseases added to the scheme. As has been said, the Department for Work and Pensions remains responsible for assessing the claims.

Hon. Members have put on the record the number of claims and awards made. I note concerns about awards made in recent years, but again it is perhaps not entirely right to assume that that is, in some sense, because the criteria have been changed, or anything like that. I have outlined the independent expertise of the medical assessors, and said that vaccines have got safer. Again, the causative link needs to be proved. However, I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and that of other hon. Members, about the lack of recent awards.

The vaccine damage payment scheme has always covered diseases vaccinated against as part of the childhood immunisation programme. That approach underlines successive Governments’ intention that the scheme should help children who are rarely, but regrettably, severely disabled. As I said, changes to and recommendations about that programme are made by the JCVI.

In 2002, the scheme was reviewed and changes were made. The threshold of disability was reduced from 80% to 60% and, as we have said, the payment increased to £120,000.

Mr Brown: I appreciate what the Minister is saying. Will she give hon. Members in the Chamber her personal thoughts on the balance of probability?

Jane Ellison: My sense is that the scheme, which aims to provide proportionate help, has got the balance about right, but I have heard the concerns expressed today. It is worth noting that successive Governments have considered this matter and chosen not to alter the scheme. That consideration would have involved looking at it in some detail. Equally, I note gently that the shadow Minister, analysed the situation and asked many questions, but made no commitments, although she aspires to sit in my place in just a few weeks.

The House will note that many successive Governments of different parties have looked at the scheme and have,

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I think, drawn the same conclusion, which is that the balance is about right. That is not to say that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns are not listened to: far from it. I have listened to his concerns and will take those away and reflect on them.

There are no current plans to make any changes to the time limits. Again, the hon. Gentleman made his case about that, as did other hon. Members.

Barbara Keeley: I hear what the Minister is saying, but this may be the last chance to comment. I talked about a case where the payments are not in any way compensatory. Previous Governments lifted the level of payment substantially up to £120,000. Can she not give any hope to parents in their 60s who are struggling with care? Care is expensive, and increasingly so under her Government. What can she say to give some hope to parents in that situation, of whom, as we have heard, there are very many, including my constituents?

Jane Ellison: The challenge is that a number of aspects of the scheme, which has existed under successive Governments, make some individual cases particularly hard. The hon. Lady has touched on some reasons for that in her contribution.

The Government have no plans to change how the scheme is run, as one might expect in the last week before the House rises before the general election, and there are no plans to review it, as I have said. However, we are about to have a new Parliament. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and other hon. Members may wish to return to this subject. The work of the all-party group will continue. The hon. Gentleman has indicated that he wants to raise the reform of the Act in the new Parliament. The shadow Minister has made some points, but no commitments. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway may therefore wish to use the next few weeks lobbying within his own party, if he cannot speak in Parliament, making his case forcefully to his colleague.

I note the concerns expressed today. I am not in a position to say that the scheme will be reviewed. As is the way of these things, all these matters will now be for a new Government to consider. However, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway put his points thoughtfully, as ever, and they have been thoughtfully taken on board and will be considered.

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The Shrewsbury 24

3.58 pm

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.

I do not intend to rehearse the issues raised during a debate on 23 January 2014, because I think that all hon. Members in this Chamber attended it. However, I shall say that the will of Parliament is being defied by this Government. The will of Parliament on 23 January 2014, by 120 votes to three, was that documents should be released so that people who were locked up in 1973 could have the chance to clear their name.

We were advised and supported by the Minister, who said he would try to help us take this matter forward. He met us in the Lobby after the debate, and he then met us—me, along with Ricky Tomlinson, who was one of those locked up in 1973, and Eileen Turnbull, who works for the campaign—in July last year. We told him then that there were far more documents than he related in his response to the debate—four redacted letters, currently being withheld. We said there were a lot more than that; and, to give credit where it is due, the Minister went away and released an Excel spreadsheet of 2,282 file references being held by the Government.

Out of those 2,000-plus, the campaign team, led by Eileen Turnbull, selected 51 that she believed could have a direct connection to the trials. When she inquired whether those files could be released from the National Archives, she was told that she would have to apply to each respective Department where the files were being held. She has applied for six files from two Departments by way of freedom of information requests. She has been told in no uncertain terms that “None of the above” will be available for public scrutiny. They are being withheld under section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. On asking for a review of those decisions in February this year, she was told on 20 and 24 February that the response to the application for a review was not to release the documents. Therefore, with great respect to the Minister, the words he gave us had no bearing. We have moved nowhere.

Those of us who are involved in this issue are clear that we would like to see a number of files. I will list just six, but that is out of a great big bunch that we could go into. First, we would like access to the relevant un-redacted Cabinet documents and internal police, intelligence and Security Service records for the period from the start of the national strike in May 1972 to the subsequent convictions in March 1974, together with any such files relating to the Shrewsbury pickets beyond those dates. Secondly, we would like access to documents that deal with communications between Departments and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, particularly those involving Sir Robert McAlpine.

Thirdly, we would like access to any documents that deal with the decision to set up a police investigation squad in north Wales led by the chief constable of Gwynedd and the chief constable of West Mercia after the strike in 1972 to collect statements that led to the prosecution of the 24 Shrewsbury pickets. Fourthly, we ask for a copy of the joint report of the chief constable of Gwynedd and the chief constable of West Mercia in 1972-73, which included a statement that, in their view, any violence by pickets was sporadic and episodic and

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that they did not have the evidence to bring conspiracy charges against the pickets, although those were ultimately levied against them in court.

Fifthly, we would like records of communications between any combination of the following: the Home Secretary and the Home Office, the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Treasury counsel, the chief constables of West Mercia and Gwynedd and Sir Maurice Drake, QC, who was acting for the prosecution in 1972-73. Finally, we would like all documents relating to the decision of the Lord Chancellor to make the practice direction ending the right of the defence to know the occupation of jurors, something that was overturned just before the case. We would also like a copy of said direction. That document, which should be in the public domain, is still unobtainable through the usual sources. That is a short list of some of the things that have been hidden from public view by this Government and by previous Governments.

What we are talking about in this debate is justice, integrity and honour, but we are also talking about real people’s lives—the 24 men who were convicted in 1973: John Carpenter, John McKinsie Jones, John Elfyn Llywarch, Kenneth Desmond Francis O’Shea, Eric Tomlinson, Dennis Michael Warren, William Michael Pierce, John Malcolm Clee, John Gary Davies, Derrick Hughes, Samuel Roy Warburton, Thomas Brian Williams, Alfred James, Dennis Morris, George Arthur Murray, Patrick Kevin Butcher, William Charles Leslie Hooson, Terence Renshaw, Graham Roberts, John Kenneth Seaburg, Peter Alfred Sear, Bryn Thomas, Edward Leonard Williams and Thomas Bernard Williams.

Those 24 men have never had their names cleared. Sadly, four of them—John Carpenter, Des Warren, Alfred James and John Kenneth Seaburg—will never know if their names will be cleared, because they are now dead. Their families are still living with the burden that their husbands, fathers and brothers have gone to their graves as convicted criminals. The youngest of the men still surviving is almost 70 and the oldest is 90. It is 42 years since they were convicted and this Government are holding on to records, transcripts and paperwork that could clear their names. It simply is not right in this day and age. We are constantly told by our Prime Minister that we should let the sunshine in and have transparency. That is all we have asked for in these debates, and it is the one thing we have never had.

With your latitude, Mr Caton, I want to quote from the transcript of the court case. I will quote from the summing up of the case, first from Ricky Tomlinson and then from Des Warren. Everyone knows who Ricky Tomlinson is—he is a national treasure and an icon—but he still clearly regards himself first and foremost as a City and Guilds plasterer who was doing a job trying to protect himself and the men he worked with from working in some of the worst and most arduous conditions in the world. While he was waiting to be sentenced, this is what he said to the judge—the judge did not want to hear it, and I am not surprised. These are just some snippets. He said:

“It was said by Goebbels in the last war that if you repeat a lie often enough it eventually becomes accepted as the truth. This I have observed being put into practice here in this court…I can sympathise with members of the jury because they have been used in this charade in just the same way as myself and my colleagues. We must remember that British justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done…No sentence passed on me by this court,

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however lenient or however severe, can hurt me more than I have already been hurt. I have been almost continuously unemployed since my arrest and, of course, this punishes my wife and two infant sons to a far greater extent that it does me. During the length and course of this trial my family have been abused by the very people whose duty it is to assist them…The sentence passed on me by this court will not matter. My innocence has been proved time and again by the building workers of Wrexham whom I represent, and also by the building workers from all over the land who have sent particular messages of support to myself and my family and my colleagues…I know my children when they are old enough, will understand that the struggle we took part in was for their benefit and for the benefit and interest of building workers and their families.”

That is true; sadly, they know that their father is still effectively a convicted criminal. He then went on to say these words, which are why we are here today:

“I look forward to the day when the real culprits of these crimes, the McAlpines, the Wimpey’s, the Laings and the Bovis’s, and all their political bodies, are in the dock facing charges of conspiracy to intimidate workers from doing what is their lawful right, picketing.”

He also spoke about the fact that those companies were running building sites in this country where one builder a day was dying. The companies were abusing health and safety legislation, which was there to protect the men and boys working on the sites.

I now move on to the speech made by Des Warren. He was the first to admit that he was a political activist. He was one of the “reds under the bed” that people were terrified of in the 1970s. He never hid away from that, but he was also a proud working man. This is what he had to say:

“I have spent a week in jail, and people in there and various other people, not including my counsel, have told me that it was always a mistake to make a speech from the dock, because whatever you are going to get will be doubled. I tried to explain to them that the system that operates is purely for the upper class, and I don’t expect any leniency or mercy from it, so I’ll continue anyway.

It has been said in this court that this trial had nothing do with politics. Among ten million trade unionists in this country I doubt if you would find one who would agree with that statement. It is a fact of life that Acts of Parliament have been passed and picketing and strikes are looked upon as a political act. It therefore follows that every action taken in furtherance of an industrial dispute also becomes a political act…On the other hand, employers, by their contempt of laws governing safety requirements, are guilty of causing the deaths of a great many workers, and yet they are not dealt with before the courts. Mr. Bumble said: ‘The law is an ass.’ If he were here now he might draw the conclusion that the law is, quite clearly, an instrument of the state, to be used in the interests of a tiny minority against the majority. It is biased; it is class law, and nowhere has that been demonstrated more than in the prosecution case in this trial…Was there a conspiracy? Ten members of the jury have said there was. There was a conspiracy, but not by the pickets…The conspiracy was between the Home Secretary, the employers and the police. It was not done with a nod and a wink. It was conceived after pressure from Tory Members of Parliament who demanded changes in picketing laws…The working class movement cannot allow this verdict to go unchallenged. It is yet one more step along the road to fascism, and I would remind you that the greatest heroes in Nazi Germany were those who challenged the law, when it was used as a political weapon by a fanatical gang for a minority of greedy, evil men.”

This man died as a direct result of the way he was treated in prison. He was treated disgracefully. He was beaten up and given liquid medication that caused him to develop Parkinson’s. He suffered desperately. My sister

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nursed him in the 1980s and said it was the hardest she had ever done. This man was effectively killed by the state, even if it took 30 years for him to die.

So this is a debate about justice and honour, but it is also about the Minister; because the Minister, if he does not help us today, will again defy the will of Parliament. We all recognise his long track record inside and out of the House of being honest and being honourable—of being a seeker after truth. What we saw in the mid-1970s was a group of men who were set up and who were locked up. Ever since then there has been a cover-up, which has lasted 42 years.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very timely debate. Does he agree that the only crime that these men committed was to fight for better health and safety on the building sites? During that time, 571 people had been killed in a three-year period and 221,000 people had been injured on construction sites. That, coupled with £30 for 30 hours, was what these people were fighting for. It was a miscarriage of justice of the highest order.

Mr Anderson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Like me, he worked in the mining industry, which saw some of the most horrific accident and death statistics going back centuries. We fought against that and turned it around in the mining industry. The people in the building industry were trying to do exactly what we did. They wanted to bring to the building sites the sort of legislation and protection that we had achieved, sometimes through industrial action, but also through coming into this place and getting legislation passed to protect people at work. That is what these men were doing. They also wanted a decent living wage, because £30 was not a lot of money in 1972. They wanted a reasonable pay rise, but they were also defending people’s lives and limbs.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): May I ask the Minister a question through my hon. Friend? Why is it that the Government are reducing the 30-year rule to 20 years, yet in correspondence on this matter with me the Ministry of Justice has increased the information release date from 30 years to 40 years? My five constituents, who are among the names mentioned by my hon. Friend, cannot get justice until 2022, when many of them will be very old indeed.

Mr Anderson: My right hon. Friend asks a very valid question, and I hope that we get an answer from the Minister. It beggars belief. We know the context in which this case took place. We had industrial strife in a number of industries and obviously a lot was happening in Northern Ireland. We also know the context of police behaviour in the 1970s, because it is now coming out through things such as the Saville and Hillsborough inquiries, issues relating to the miners’ strike at Orgreave and the behaviour of the security services in relation to the Birmingham and Guildford bombings, for example. We are talking about 24 men among a larger group who went to a picket line. On the day, not one of them was charged, warned or arrested. If they had done something that warranted arrest, they would have been arrested there and then—not five months later, not after a fishing expedition, but on the day.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has assiduously pursued this issue since he came

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into Parliament. One way in which the trade unions were undermined in the ’60s and ’70s, certainly in the building industry, was through something called lump labour, which kept wages down. Sometimes these things are forgotten in this day and age, but they happened then. Sometimes people were expected to work in appalling conditions, and if someone got blacklisted, it was like a life sentence: they never got another job.

Mr Anderson: I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of that, because what the building employers were doing was not only bad in terms of people’s working conditions; they were actually breaking the law. They were encouraging people not to be paid properly. In effect, those employers were not paying income tax or national insurance contributions, so they were stealing from the public purse, while at the same time coercing the Home Secretary to pressure the police into bringing forward a case against 24 innocent men, whom the judiciary would then prosecute as a warning to others. That is exactly what this is all about, and I am convinced that the papers show that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) asked why the information release date has been extended to 40 years; I am not sure that we will get the answers even in 2022, if we are still around. The sad reality is that some of these men will not be around. That is a disgrace.

I look to the Minister as someone who, I believe, is an honourable man. I know that he does not have much time left over the next few days, but he may be in the same post in eight weeks’ time. Obviously, my colleagues and I hope that it will be someone from our party sitting in his place, because we have pledged to release the papers, and we have said that we will do it no matter what the Security Service or the spooks tell us. We will release them, because we see this as a debt to the people of the country, but we also see it as exercising the will of Parliament. Parliament spoke in January last year; that voice has been blocked deliberately by this Government. I look to the Minister today to try to help us to move that blockage and to move it now.

4.16 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Simon Hughes): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson); he knows that I respect hugely his commitment to this issue. I will not repeat myself, but he also knows from the large debate that we had on the Floor of the House in January last year that I am very sympathetic to the cause that was the basis of the dispute. I represented many building workers in the past, and I know that practice in the building industry was often appalling. In the ’70s and earlier, safety was poor, so it was an important campaign for the unions to be involved with. I therefore start from a position of both respect for the people in the unions who were involved and support for the cause that they were campaigning on. I remember the dispute, and I thank the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for continuing to pursue the issue. I will be as helpful as I can. He came to see me after the previous debate, and we discussed how we could make as much progress as possible.

I will try to deal with the issues quickly, but let me first summarise the facts. In 1972, there was a strike by building workers in Shrewsbury. A number of the picketers were then arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and

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conspiracy to intimidate. Several picketers, whom the hon. Gentleman named, were given prison sentences. That was controversial, partly because of the alleged role of the security services, and the Justice for Shrewsbury Pickets campaign was established with the intention of having the convictions overturned.

In recent years, there has been a renewed push for the release of all Government-retained papers on the issue. I have seen Ricky Tomlinson here. He attended the previous debate and has taken a direct interest, having launched an e-petition for the release of the documents that garnered 33,000 signatures. Another petition was submitted in December 2013 with about 70,000 signatures. Together, they probably crossed the 100,000 signatures trigger line for e-petitions. That led to the Backbench Business Committee granting the debate on the Floor of the House on 23 January last year. The hon. Gentleman is right that an overwhelming majority of the Members who voted in that debate called for the papers to be published, and that included not only Opposition Members but Government Members.

Since then, some of the Shrewsbury 24 have applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission—I discussed that with the hon. Gentleman when we met. Ministers understand that, as part of its ongoing consideration of the case, the CCRC has exercised its powers under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 to access papers relevant to the case. It has not come to a public position on that, but its staff have seen the papers and they have regarded and taken account of them in as much as they wish to do so.

The majority of the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24 were released under the Public Records Act 1958 to the National Archives. Under sections 62 and 63 of the Freedom of Information Act—this relates to the point made by the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson)—a record becomes an historical record 20 years after it was created, so the right hon. Gentleman is right, the Government have legislated to make the 30-year rule a 20-year rule. Gradually we are working our way down so that in a few years all public papers, unless they are exempted, will be released under the 20-year rule. I will come on to the qualification to which he referred.

Under the existing public records legislation, all records selected for permanent preservation must be transferred to the National Archives by the time that they are 30 years old unless—this is the key issue—they are needed for administrative purposes or

“ought to be retained for any other special reason”.

Where that is deemed to be the case, the Department in question must seek the Lord Chancellor’s approval.

Since 1967, successive Lord Chancellors in the three different types of Administration have been satisfied that information related to security and intelligence matters falls within the category of “other special reason”. The approval granted in an administrative instrument signed by the Lord Chancellor is referred to as a security and intelligence “blanket”.

The date to which the hon. Member for Blaydon and the right hon. Member for Delyn referred arises from the current blanket approval given on 19 December 2011 by the then Lord Chancellor, running up to the end of 2021. It is then up to individual Departments to decide whether they wish to rely on the security blanket to keep information from the National Archives.

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Papers retained under the blanket should be reviewed for ongoing sensitivity every 10 years. The Cabinet Office has told me, as I told the hon. Member for Blaydon last year, that the process to review the papers held by it is now under way and will be completed by the end of this year, as required under the Public Records Act.

I am aware that colleagues have been in touch with Ministers in the Cabinet Office. There have also been questions to me by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), which I answered in March last year, and by the hon. Member for Blaydon on 9 March this year, which the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General answered:

“A review of these retained papers is under way and will be completed by the end of 2015, as required by the Public Records Act.”

Today I saw that the hon. Gentleman was down to ask an oral question as well.

I have also seen a letter about a constituent to the Minister for Employment from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General dated yesterday:

“Thank you for your e-mail…addressed to the Minister of State for Justice…regarding the release of papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24. The ongoing sensitivity of this material is subject to periodic review and they are being reviewed this year. I am responding as the Minister responsible.

An outline of the material which has been retained was given to Parliament in a statement by Simon Hughes on 23 January 2014. The process to review the papers is under way and will be completed by the end of 2015, as required by the Public Records Act. I can also advise you that the Criminal Cases Review Commission has seen the papers and expressed no interest.”

It is open to the hon. Member for Blaydon, even at this stage in this Parliament, to make a request to the Cabinet Office, whose decision it is, to have a meeting with the Minister whose responsibility it will be as to whether to release those papers this year. I urge the hon. Gentleman to do that. He has pursued assiduously all sorts of approaches to open up what has happened and I hope that, if he has not already done so, he will approach the Cabinet Office Minister directly for a meeting to make the formal request ahead of the decision.

Mr Anderson: That is the intent of my question to the Cabinet Office, which is down for tomorrow, but I am on my feet to ask a different question. Does the Minister not find it strange that despite what was said in last year’s debate and what I have said today, and despite campaigners out in the public domain attacking judges, police, Ministers, big business and every part of the establishment, not one of them has responded by saying, “You have made all this up”? Not one has said, “You’re wrong, you’re out of order.” Does that not give even more credence to the fact of a cover-up to conceal what people have done, which was deliberately to put those people in jail as a lesson to working men and women?

Simon Hughes: I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s drawing that conclusion. To be fair—trying to step back for a second—the fact that nothing has been said can be open to interpretation in either direction, but I completely understand the view that if there were nothing to hide, someone might have said that. Legalistically, however, people might rightly have said that they could make no comment.

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May I be helpful in two other ways? In fact, I want to say three other things in the remaining few minutes. Four documents are central to the case, so let me put on the record what they are: a Security Service report; a letter from the director-general of the Security Service to the Cabinet Secretary, which was released but for one redacted paragraph; a minute from the Cabinet Office to No. 10 referring to the report, which was released except for a single paragraph; and a minute from No. 10 to the Cabinet Office in reply, which has been released except for a single paragraph. Those are the four documents that we are talking about—the four documents that we know about.

We also know that the bulk of the documents on the subject that are held by the Government have been released. According to the figures I have, of the 1972 records—all records, not only those concerning the builders’ strike—93.5%, or 50,917, are available to the public already; 2,932 are closed at the National Archives; and 1.1%, or 625 documents, are retained by Departments. The assiduous researcher of the hon. Member for Blaydon has addressed herself to those Departments on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf. The Departments have the responsibility to decide whether to release the documents. I do not have the power to order other Departments to release documents. If release is refused, there is a right of appeal under the Freedom of Information Act to the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal. I will continue to be as helpful as possible.

Ian Lavery: My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) commented that the Minister was a respected person. I have no doubt that that is the case. Will the Minister tell us what powers he has to progress the matter? He has been in his position for quite some time now and I am wondering whether he has done anything at all.

Simon Hughes: Within my powers as a Minister in the Ministry of Justice I have done all that I can do. I do not have the power to direct other Departments to release documents for which they have the responsibility. The process is: application to the Department, which the researcher of the hon. Member for Blaydon has made, and, if turned down, a Freedom of Information Act appeal to the commissioner and to the tribunal. My advice continues to be to fight the case, as it were, in the other Department—this is not in relation to the four documents, which are covered by the Cabinet Office secrecy blanket. To see if there is further material, other documents have to be pursued Department by Department.

Ian Lavery: I understand all that. The question is, what powers does the Minister have and what powers has he used since becoming a Minister to progress matters in his own Department?

Simon Hughes: We do not hold any of the documents in my Department. The reason why I was responding to the debate is in part that I am the Minister with responsibility for freedom of information. I have ensured that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Blaydon know exactly how to use the powers given to them by the law. I cannot take those powers away from them and I cannot tell Departments which information to release if they choose to refuse to do so, but there is a process in law that will take the hon. Gentlemen to the courts in order to have the information released.

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May I share one other thing that I hope will answer hon. Members’ questions? I am keen, if possible, for the FOI requests to be accepted and for the information to be released across the Departments, as well as from the Cabinet Office. Under this year’s Cabinet Office process to decide whether to retain the documents, officials look at the material afresh and the test is whether the transfer of the records to the National Archives or any other place of deposit creates a “real risk of prejudice” to national security. That is the criterion they have to judge by. Officials have to make that decision with authority delegated from the Cabinet Office Minister.

The Lord Chancellor looked at the papers in 2012 and satisfied himself that the test was applied, but even that decision—if the hon. Member for Blaydon goes to the Cabinet Office to make the request and the papers are still not released—can be challenged by asking for that information through an FOI request, which has an appeals process, and through judicial review if appropriate. I am happy to put the resources of my Department at his disposal as a seeker after the facts, but it is the Cabinet Office, subject to the courts, that makes the call that will determine whether a document is released. I hope that there can be progress this year and that, for his sake and the sake of those whom he represents, there is therefore the release of the documents. The decision, however, is that of the Cabinet Office Minister.

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Property Taxes in London

4.30 pm

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The so-called mansion tax is a big issue and will continue to be so in London for the next 44 days, in the run-up to the general election. It is not enough for those of us who are against what is proposed simply to oppose it. We—mainly Conservative Members—need to be on the front foot and have our own proposals for a property tax. That is what I want to put forward in this short debate.

As the new year dawned, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) announced that the Labour party would

“tax houses in London and the South East to pay for 1,000 new nurses in the Scottish NHS.”

Although he later clarified that he was referring only to Scotland’s share of any new mansion tax, the coupling of Labour’s mansion tax policy to its battle to the death with the Scottish National party, north of the border, over NHS staffing was doubtless deliberate. The Scottish Labour leader knew only too well that his focus on two targets of Scottish resentment, notionally London and the well-off, would play wonderfully with his audience.

Alas, such messages resonate south of the border, as well. The notion of London and Londoners as some sort of cash cow able to fund all manner of policy promises has gained widespread traction in recent years. The capital city apparently sparkles with success and is brimful of confidence at a time when other parts of our kingdom are struggling. Increasingly people speak of London’s alienation from the rest of the UK, as the metropolis gobbles talent and makes a compelling case for its ever-increasing infrastructure budgets.

Meanwhile, the issue of housing in London itself has become toxic. Boosted by the weakness of sterling and the perception of the UK as a safe haven, foreign money has flooded into England’s prime housing market. As the international enclave expands in the central London boroughs, prices are driven up in the outer suburbs. Meanwhile, rapid population growth, a lack of housing supply and the difficulty of saving for a vast deposit, alongside boosted prices that were already artificially affected by low interest rates and Government programmes, have made it tough even for professionals to enter the property market in our capital city.

As a result, a passionate debate now rages about the possible imposition of a mansion tax, as a means of addressing the resentment felt both by the rest of the country towards its capital and by those Londoners excluded from the apparent property bonanza. Both the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats have made it clear that they wish to push ahead with such a levy on all properties valued at over £2 million. I appreciate that in a globally mobile world it is increasingly difficult to raise tax income, and so fixed assets such as real estate will inevitably tend to attract higher rates of taxation. But in spite of those parties’ apparent concern for fairness, as they would put it, neither has been receptive to the genuine worries of many of those hit hardest by their plans: people who happen to reside in homes whose value has inflated in recent decades to a level that bears no relation to the household’s ability to stump up large annual cash sums in a mansion-tax type levy—in other words, the asset rich but cash poor.

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I suspect a hefty annual mansion tax would drive greater numbers of Londoners from their homes, vacating even more prime central property for the global super-rich. As such, it should be vigorously opposed. Undeniably, however, my own Conservative party risks being left behind in the public debate on the issue if it fails adequately to address the resentments behind the mansion tax’s apparent popularity. The Chancellor has already rapidly raised rates of stamp duty, particularly for homes purchased by companies, non-doms and offshore vehicles. Local authorities in London have also been given the power to remove most exemptions from council tax for empty homes and second homes via the Local Government Finance Act 2012. But the coalition is yet to grasp the nettle on council tax, and it is that prospect that I will raise with the Minister today.

As the Minister will know, council tax was introduced in April 1993 as the primary source of collecting income from local residents by local authorities, as a hybrid personal and property imposition. It came hot on the heels of the ill-fated and short-lived community charge—better known as the poll tax—which had itself replaced domestic rates in England in the spring of 1990. As we know, the levy for councils in England is calculated by allocating a dwelling to one of eight bands, A to H. The allocation is made on the basis of a property’s assumed capital value. But that assumption is based on prices as they stood on 1 April 1991—almost a quarter of a century ago. Newly constructed properties are also assigned a nominal 1991 value, albeit one reflecting national rather than localised variations in value over the past 24 years.

The tax is not even particularly proportionate to property values, as the same amount is levied on all homes valued at over £320,000 at 1991 prices, which is the national band H. That means that about half of all houses in the capital are now placed in the same council tax band, even though their size, location and value are vastly different. A Knightsbridge oligarch, for instance, is paying £1,353.48 in council tax on a £60 million home, exactly the same amount as that levied on properties worth one thirtieth of that sum—properties that would fall within the mansion tax band.

If the current outdated system of valuation seems ludicrous, it can be explained by a concern among politicians that the process and time taken for revaluation would be contentious, difficult and potentially costly to voters. However, there is a solution that is neither overly complex nor anything like as painful as a mansion tax. More important still, it could have a big upside when it comes to the provision of affordable housing.

My central London constituency has one of the highest concentrations of high-value properties anywhere in the country, so my constituents would be particularly vulnerable to the imposition of a new blanket mansion tax along the lines proposed. Indeed, over the past six or seven months I have been bombarded with letters telling me that, in spite of my vigorous opposition to a mansion tax, I should be doing more to stop my political opponents from even talking about one. Many of my constituents simply do not have the thousands of pounds in cash needed each year to pay a mansion tax levied in addition to council tax. They are also concerned that any additional income would go straight to central Government

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and be distributed elsewhere, along the lines of the promise of the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire to pay for Scottish nurses with Londoners’ money.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Like me, my right hon. Friend has received letters from people who have lived in their houses for very many years, many of whom are now widowed, who face the prospect of being forced out of their homes by this relatively iniquitous tax. It takes no account of ability to pay; it works from a snapshot. Its unfairness is regional and also generational.

Mark Field: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have all had heartfelt letters from elderly folk in particular who are worried sick about the prospect. As I say, the perverse impact would be that they would be driven out of their homes and those homes would be more likely to end up in the hands of the very oligarchs that the mansion tax is supposed to prevent from monopolising the London property market.

Many of my correspondents recognise that the current structure of council tax requires urgent updating and would be receptive to the imposition of additional bands to recognise differential property values—something that would, again, disproportionately penalise London. Currently, all banding ratios are set down in statute, but the Government could allow local authorities to set their own for band H and above, with bands A to G remaining at their existing statutory ratios. A ceiling could be set so that council tax would always be limited to, for example, a band J of three times the existing band H charge, to ensure that it would not become a mansion tax by the back door.

The City of Westminster might not be the most typical of local authorities, but obviously it is close to my heart. In that central London borough, a band H property is now likely to be worth more than £2 million; there are just under 15,000 of such homes. However, there is a vast difference between a £2 million flat in Pimlico and a home valued at £60 million in One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge.

Local authorities could be empowered to impose additional bands—for example, a band H for prime properties worth between £2 million and £5 million, a band I for intermediate prime properties worth between £5 million and £15 million and a band J for super-prime properties worth more than £15 million. Crucially, the Government ought to ensure that all additional council tax or prime property tax income over and above the existing band structure is retained by the local authority on the proviso that it is earmarked exclusively for affordable housing in the area. That positive and highly localised proposal could be a far more eye-catching and exciting way of countering the envy-driven mansion tax and tackling perceived housing inequality. It would also chime perfectly with the spirit of the age. As I mentioned earlier, the Government have moved towards a system that gives local authorities discretion over empty property taxes, so we are already empowering local authorities to apply local circumstances to the levying elements of council tax.

Strong currents are pushing us towards a further devolution of central powers. London, in particular, would surely be able to make a compelling case for localised revenue raising—particularly if Scotland becomes ever more autonomous. Meanwhile, the enormous and growing pressure on London’s housing supply will lead

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to an ever stronger case being made for the money raised in the capital from its prime housing stock to be retained in the city for the provision of affordable housing.

Politically, there is a compelling case to make. Residents in prime central houses are paying about a third of what they were paying in rates, compared with even the 1980s, while the burden for those further down the scale has increased proportionally. Reformers should take up this opportunity with relish. However, the proposal will work only if the additional ring-fenced income is disregarded by central Government when determining a local authority’s funding stream, to prevent councils from being financially disadvantaged by the use of the proposed new bands. That could be achieved through a relatively minor revision to the Government’s annual tax base return—CTB1—to show that each local authority’s tax base calculation for bands H, I and J are along the lines I have proposed and are based on the existing 18/9 band H ratio. That would ensure that the local authority funding streams calculated using the CTB1 tax base data remain unaffected. It would be a relatively straightforward change, as far as the Minister’s Department is concerned.

Although my proposal avoids the complexity of a fully fledged revaluation, it should nevertheless be noted that such complexity is fast reducing with the rise of online property sites, which are able to provide pretty accurate historical and current market assessments. Would it really be that difficult to establish a system of self-assessment, such as the one in France, where there is a wealth tax whereby the worth of the equity of a property is submitted on an annual basis and can be challenged by the town hall if it is thought not to be an accurate assessment of market value?

My party must never give in to the politics of envy and to class war rhetoric, but the wide support for a mansion tax among some fair-minded people is, in part, a reflection of a collective failure to grasp the nettle by comprehensively reviewing property taxes. However, the mansion tax, as proposed by the other two main political parties in England, must not go ahead. It is mooted as fair—whatever that really means—but the real, practical concerns of people in my constituency are simply disregarded as the bleating of the cosseted rich, despite its threatening to ruin many. That applies to Wimbledon as much as it does to the Cities of London and Westminster. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and I are used to heartfelt pleas from elderly constituents, many of whom are sickened with worry about this matter.

The time is ripe to tackle the outdated system of council tax in a way that is fairer and allows for genuine local discretion. Incremental targeting of the highest-value properties could be accompanied by a new localised council tax support scheme that would allow specific instances of individual hardship to be addressed.

It is widely reported that our capital city may just have equalled its peak population, and it is anticipated that 100,000 people per year will be added to this great metropolis. The capital urgently needs more housing of all types, but particularly more affordable housing. If the money from London’s additional council tax bands were to be reinvested directly into the communities whence it came, we could begin to provide the homes that the next generation of Londoners desperately needs.

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I implore the Minister to look in detail at these issues so the electorate can be presented with a real choice on these matters on 7 May.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I welcome the constructive input of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and his fresh perspective on the topic of council tax. It is clear that a lot of work has gone into developing his ideas, and I commend him for his thoughtful approach. I also commend the London borough of Westminster for having kept council tax levels at the same rate for the past four years. The banding system is set nationally, but council tax levels are set locally, and Westminster’s approach has helped to keep living costs down for hard-working residents.

There are many matters about which my right hon. Friend and I agree. We agree that a mansion tax is not the answer, whatever the question. It would be complex to introduce, involve the re-evaluation of many homes and raise fairness issues about the ability of those liable to pay the tax. We have no intention of introducing a mansion tax.

My right hon. Friend and I also agree about the importance of affordable homes, which is why, despite the fiscal constraints, we have secured capital resources for affordable housing. Almost 217,000 affordable homes have been delivered in England since April 2010. Our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver another 170,000 affordable homes between 2011 and 2015. More than 144,000 homes have already been delivered under the programme.

The Government are now seeking to accelerate the increase in the number of affordable homes. By the end of the next Parliament, we should see 275,000 additional affordable homes built with £38 billion of public and private investment. That means that we will have built more new affordable homes than during the equivalent period in the past 20 years. We have introduced a range of measures to get Britain building again, to fix the broken housing market and to help hard-working people get the homes they want.

We recognise that the process of devolution is positive and necessary, with regard to local government finance. Indeed, the Government have devolved significant responsibility to local authorities, and the reforms are still bedding in. The affordable homes programme, which the Mayor has undertaken, comes with £1 billion of devolved money. There is a real commitment to work with boroughs and councils in London to deliver that package of housing.

My right hon. Friend and I also agree that the re-evaluation process is expensive and complex. However, we differ in that the Government do not support the introduction of a higher council tax band. Council tax is not a wealth tax but a charge for the use of local services. The current banding system reflects the fact that larger homes make a slightly greater use of local services, but it is intentionally not a poll tax or a domestic tax.

Mark Field: I accept that Westminster is relatively exceptional, but the £320,000 limit means that more than half the properties are in the same band, which

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suggests that the banding system is not working well. Although Westminster is an exception in that regard, I suspect that it is not the only area in London or the south-east in which a significantly disproportionate number of properties are in either of the top two bands.

Kris Hopkins: I recognise the tensions associated with this, but as a former Housing Minister, I have to respond to the idea of taxing people who live in certain houses. As both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) have pointed out, the fact that a person lives in a particular house may not mean that they are cash-rich as a consequence. A set of circumstances may have led to their owning the house, and simply placing a greater tax burden on those individuals does not necessarily produce more affordable homes.

Stephen Hammond: Will the Minister follow that line of logic? Even if he is not prepared to accept part of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) said, perhaps he will be prepared to look at the structure of banding regionally, to give a greater reflection of the differentials in house prices in different parts of the country. The current band structure clearly cannot reflect that, so the case for regional banding becomes even stronger.

Kris Hopkins: I respect my hon. Friend’s comments, but as a Conservative who has had many conversations about the word “regional”, I can tell him that that word does not sit comfortably in the Department at this time. I assure him that we will not be having a “regional” conversation about taxation.

The Government have already taken strong action against owners of high-value property who seek to avoid paying their fair share of tax. We have introduced a number of measures, including the 15% rate of stamp duty land tax, the annual tax on enveloped dwellings, and the extensions to capital gains tax, which target those individuals who “envelope” residential properties by owning or purchasing them through certain non-natural persons, such as companies. Those measures are proving effective. For instance, in its first year of operation—2013-14—the annual tax on enveloped dwellings raised about five times more than the original £20 million forecast. It is expected to raise £110 million in 2014-15.

Two important phrases came out of what my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend said: the “politics of envy” and the “class warfare” element. Both the measures that we have introduced to pursue the individuals who are avoiding tax are about making sure that people who have money and should pay tax do so. That argument is different from the one that the Labour party is making, which instils the politics of envy and class warfare against those who have achieved, rather than supporting those who are ambitious and seek to be successful in life. That is at our root as Conservatives: we will support the individual who wants to aspire to own something, rather than punishing somebody who has achieved those goals and ambitions.

The admirable achievements of successful local authorities, such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, demonstrate the effectiveness of the current council tax system. We believe that the implementation of higher

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bands would unbalance that system and alter the key principles of council tax, which, after all, is not a wealth tax. Extra revenue has been raised, however, by the taxes placed and targeted on owners of high-value property who seek to avoid paying their share of tax, as I have said. Furthermore, our innovative measures and programmes and a range of products that will meet a range of housing needs, with support from councils, housing associations and the private sector, will continue to deliver and build on the affordable homes programme.

My right hon. Friend raised the issue of foreign investment, and I appreciate that a significant number of people come to this great international city and invest. They have done so for many years, but sometimes people can distort the sort of comments that he made. In my time as Housing Minister, I saw many acres of coverage discussing the issue in many supplements. We should recognise that we are open-minded about people wanting to come to this city and invest in our infrastructure and housing.

Mark Field: Before the Minister concludes, I would like to put it on the record that I very much support the free movement of capital; it is a positive thing, broadly, for London and for the UK as a whole. That said, there has been controversy about the so-called dark lights in large bits of Kensington, Knightsbridge and Belgravia, although I think that is exaggerated to some extent. Quite a lot of the properties that are purchased are rented out to UK nationals or other London residents. A big sea change would be needed if we were somehow to discourage the free movement of capital, and although that might open up matters a bit in the London property market, it could have a very detrimental effect on much of the rest of the British economy.

Kris Hopkins: I completely recognise the huge support for inward investment in the country that my right hon. Friend has promoted and encouraged, and he will continue to, I am sure.

We should put on the record the fact that in 2013, the Bank of England estimated that foreign buyers represented some 3% of the total residential property transactions in London. Savills said, again in 2013, that the current level of sales to overseas buyers is the same proportionately now as it was in 1990. It is important to put things in context, so that individuals do not race away with another idea that some of the issues associated with affordable housing are about foreign people coming to our country. Foreign people are coming to our country and investing in our infrastructure and our housing.

In conclusion, I genuinely appreciate the time taken on this issue by my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will make representations to other parts of Government about his ideas. I reassure him that, from my time as Housing Minister I know that the Mayor of London takes the issue of affordable housing extremely seriously. I am sure that through working with partners such as Westminster and through the leadership that my right hon. Friend has taken on this issue, we can begin to address this need—and there is a huge need—for both affordable and private sector quality houses for the people of London.

Question put and agreed to.

4.56 pm

Sitting adjourned.