30 Jun 2015 : Column 416WH

I am not perhaps as pessimistic about the prospects for constructive change as my right hon. and learned Friend. Perhaps that is because I am a West Ham supporter, so optimism must come naturally to me—something that you, as a Sheffield Wednesday supporter, will understand very well, Mr Betts.

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): I am glad my right hon. and learned Friend is a optimist—he may need to be in the present circumstances. One subject we may be able to address in making any changes is extraterritoriality, under article 1, particularly with regard to the military. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) may have touched on that when he talked about the possibility of other legislation being the way forward.

Robert Neill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that promotion, which is unexpected and undeserved on both counts. I always look forward to the future with optimism as far as those two matters are concerned. Extraterritoriality is an important issue. It has exercised those involved in a number of recent Court judgments, and it is precisely the sort of area where we might find a proportionate and sensible way forward.

I hope we will engage with the profession on these issues, because there is a great deal of knowledge and understanding about this issue. We tend to regard what happens in the Strasbourg Court as a bit of a sideshow, and that would be a mistake, whatever side of the argument we are on.

Sadiq Khan: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as Chair of the Select Committee, and I wish him well. He talked about potential reform of the Human Rights Act. Does he envisage, and is he optimistic about, there being additional rights, or does he think the Government intend to take away rights that are in the Act?

Robert Neill: That is the question the Government need to answer. The phrase “based on the convention” is important. I do not say that every bit of the convention’s wording is absolutely perfect in modern terms, but I think most of us would say that we want the principles that underpin the convention to be incorporated in any proposals. For what it is worth, my early urging to the Government is that the closer they stick to the convention’s wording in anything incorporated into British law, the better, because that would give us great clarity and security. Then we must look at the point raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about the unintended consequences that were not always seen through in the Act, to do with extraterritoriality and related matters. I hope we will get assurances from the Minister on that point.

Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair): I am reducing the time for speeches to four minutes, to try to get everyone in.

3.20 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on bringing it forward.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 417WH

It is my belief that we are elected to this place to do the best for our constituents. The best may not always translate as the most popular, but these are the choices that must be made by Members of this House. I cannot say that no good has come from the Human Rights Act—this would be an untruth—but I can, and as an MP I should, question whether it is the best form of rights protection. My conclusion may not please everyone in the House, but it is something that my party and I have deeply considered. We do not believe that it is the best way of protecting rights.

The Democratic Unionist party has long been critical of the Human Rights Act and the way in which it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. The Act has been abused by criminals and terrorists, who have used spurious challenges to avoid deportation. It has failed to protect the rights of innocent victims adequately. We want laws that assist victims to secure justice rather than enabling perpetrators to avoid it. We support, as a minimum, the reform of the Human Rights Act, to remove the “right to family life” defence against deportation upon conviction for a serious criminal offence.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his party is part of the institutions? His party leader is the First Minister in Northern Ireland and he is part of those institutions, as is his party. That is deeply enshrined with the Human Rights Act and the Good Friday agreement. Both are co-related; one cannot exist without the other, and central to all of that is human rights.

Jim Shannon: Obviously I would not agree with that. We certainly do not adhere to or support the Belfast agreement. We have no affinity with it whatsoever—I will speak about that later, if I can.

Whereas the Human Rights Act in principle was a good thing, once lawyers became involved it changed. A researcher in my office has a BA in law and I understand that she and I agree about this. I sometimes feel when I hear of European judgements that the status of our own judiciary is perpetually challenged by cases in courts where some of those presiding have questionable experience and make questionable rulings. How often do we hear of a European ruling and ask, “How can this be?”? Many is the time I ask this, and others do as well. The ruling on the Abu Qatada case has been mentioned, and it has been revealed that seven out of the 11 top judges at the Court have little or no judicial experience. Our British judges have to go through all the years of professional experience before they get to that position, yet some of the other judges making those decisions do not have the necessary experience or qualifications. How can we accept judicial rulings by those who are not in a position to do their job? That is one of my major reasons for opposing the enforcement of the Human Rights Act over our own law and rulings.

Robert Neill: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jim Shannon: Mr Betts, I am conscious that others want to speak, and I want to give them the chance.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 418WH

Four-hundred and twenty-five foreign national prisoners won their appeals against deportation

“primarily on the grounds of Article 8”.

I have some concerns about article 8; perhaps the Minister will give us his thoughts about that.

In response to those who say that any amendment of the Act would be a breach of the Belfast agreement, my answer is short and clear—I am sure that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) will listen carefully to this. The DUP did not support the Belfast agreement and has no affinity with it whatsoever. In fact, it has long argued that the United Kingdom should have a Bill of Rights that recognises and respects the diversity of the devolved arrangements across the country. The more pressing challenges that face the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland relate to the £2 million per week penalties being incurred because Sinn Fein has reneged on the Stormont Castle agreement—an agreement, incidentally, that the party of the hon. Member for South Down has adhered to as well. Yet she tells us off for not supporting the Act, when she and her party have not acted on what they signed up to in the Stormont Castle agreement, depriving us of £2 million that could be used to employ more nurses and teachers.

The DUP is fully committed to creating a society in which people are safe, secure and protected. We are also working to tilt the balance away from the criminals and towards the innocent victims of crime. That is where our focus will be. For too long people have felt as though the forces of law and order are not fully on their side. We are working to change that. Whether the hindrance lies at a local, national or European level, we want it tackled. It is for that reason that the DUP and I firmly believe that the Human Rights Act cannot continue as it is.

3.25 pm

Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on obtaining the debate. Were he, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and I sitting as a three-man court of appeal, I should simply say, “I agree with my brothers and have nothing further to add,” but since we are not and I have a few minutes to say something, I think I shall.

First, the political reality is that there is no majority in this House, and there certainly is not in the other place, for a repeal of the Human Rights Act—still less for our removal from the European convention. The second point to think about was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), although perhaps the speed with which he spoke slightly confused things: there is a world of difference between attempting to repeal or amend an Act of Parliament and resiling or removing ourselves from an international treaty. That comes back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the Good Friday agreement and other devolved questions. In so far as those are matters of treaty, there is not much that we can sensibly do in the House of Commons, apart from talking about it, to amend them or remove ourselves from them; but it strikes me that that feeds into the political reality. We are not going to unpick the devolution settlement at the behest of a tabloid newspaper that finds the word “Europe” disobliging.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 419WH

There are several things that we need to think about, which I have discussed before, in relation to the problem. The question is a mixture of politics and law. I truly confess that there are plenty of lawyers who do not like politicians because they find them thoughtless, intemperate and political; and plenty of politicians who have not condescended yet to read the Human Rights Act, still less the convention. There is therefore a gap between people’s state of knowledge and their prejudices. Politicians need to arbitrate that difference.

Perhaps the most important question that we need to ask is what the point of the exercise is. Is it necessary, and what will it achieve? Well, it will achieve an awful lot of political angst, a split in the Conservative party and a disagreement across the Chamber to little effect. At some point we will have to work out whether it is all worth the candle. Yes, of course there are things that one can do to tinker with an Act of Parliament. One should pay more attention to section 2; one should understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) a moment ago about the human rights regime and our armed services. There are all sorts of sensible things that we could talk about, but we do not need to waste the next four and a half years of this Parliament banging our heads against an impenetrable brick wall to no effect.

Thank goodness we have my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary here to handle the flaming cauldron, and carry it carefully, like—mixing my metaphors—a delicate Ming vase all the way to the next election, where he can quietly lock it in a cupboard and forget about it.

3.28 pm

Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP): I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for bringing this debate to the Chamber. It is important to recognise the significant journey that human rights law has made in recent years, but such developments speak volumes about the necessity to ensure that all protections are given to individuals in society.

It speaks volumes about the Government’s priorities that they would rather unravel the substantial and important progress that has been made than protect and enhance people’s rights. They would rather ignore the voices echoing from the Opposition Benches on austerity, tackling poverty and building a fairer society, and instead focus on a narrowly defined British Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, those of us elected to champion the voices of our constituents are faced with ensuring that individuals can face a challenging job market that rewards big business while the poorest in our society struggle to put food on their table to feed their children. Is this really the priority of a Government faced with real challenges here in the UK?

It is true that one of the most important roles of any Government is to ensure the safety of their citizens, but where do we draw the line between security and the infringement of people’s liberty and rights? Although I concede A. V. Dicey’s principle of sovereignty that suggests that Parliament may

“make or unmake any law”,

perhaps we could imagine for a second that even Dicey might call into question the balance of the rights of citizens and that it ought not to be undermined by the

30 Jun 2015 : Column 420WH

belief that a currently undefined British Bill of Rights could provide any more guarantees or protections of the rights of citizens than the Human Rights Act.

We ought to focus on enhancing and improving the existing Act to ensure that the rights and responsibilities of citizens are not neglected but respected. A British Bill of Rights raises serious concerns and costs, which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has already raised. Such a Bill would inevitably weaken the existing human rights safeguards and protections, most likely affecting the most vulnerable citizens in our society.

It is easy to take for granted the European convention on human rights and the crucial protections that is has guaranteed thus far, but we must remember the important role played by the 1998 Act and the rights that it has guaranteed. Victims of domestic abuse have received better protection. Victims of rape have been given proper police investigations. Disabled individuals who have been affected by the welfare reforms imposed by the Government have the right to challenge legislation that they deem unfit and unfair—most notably the bedroom tax. Social housing tenants have the opportunity to challenge decisions that affect their right to safe and secure housing. Members of the LGBTI community have overcome discrimination. Families of military personnel killed on active service have been given recourse for the supply of the out-of-date equipment that has cost lives and affected the loved ones left behind.

For all the reasons I have outlined, we must protect the European convention on human rights. We must strive and continue to be a tolerant, compassionate and equal nation, with a progressive and outward vision in a global context.

3.32 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I look forward to having a British Bill of Rights on the statute book. That was in our manifesto, and it would only increase cynicism in politics if we abandoned such a clear manifesto commitment.

When the Bill is introduced, I hope it will include the word “responsibilities”. One thing that really annoys constituents is that the principle of equity, which runs right through English law like a golden thread, is not applied in very many human rights cases. People want a sense of fairness. They particularly want to ensure that those who come before the courts do so with clean hands, and that if they do not, they cannot expect to be treated in the same way as those who do.

The issue is not compliance with the strict words of the European convention on human rights—they are not an issue, because we all agree with them. The only reason why one country in Europe is currently not a member of the Council of Europe is that Belarus refuses to disapply the death penalty. That is a fundamental breach of the legislation.

More difficult is the judicial interpretation of the original words of the convention, which now extend into what is effectively judge-made law, over which Parliament and the people have no control. We are all familiar with the issue of voting rights for prisoners and how it was specifically excluded in the discussions leading up to the signing of the protocol. The sentence of life imprisonment was clearly introduced as a substitute for the death penalty, but even that is now being undermined

30 Jun 2015 : Column 421WH

by the European Court of Human Rights saying that there should be the opportunity for a review, rather than life meaning life.

Sir Edward Garnier: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Chope: I am not going to take any interventions, because even if I get an extra minute it will mean others will lose out.

Article 31.1 of the Vienna convention on the law of treaties makes it clear that

“a treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its objects and purpose”.

If the European Court of Human Rights was doing that, there would not be a problem.

The UK Government are in close contact with the thinking of the European Court of Justice. In its opinion earlier this year, the European Court of Justice said that the EU could not join the European convention on human rights because of concerns that the interpretation of human rights law in Europe would then rest with the European convention on human rights rather than the European Court of Justice. We are in exactly the same position in this country: we want our own Supreme Court to interpret the treaty, rather than to leave it to an external body.

The Government are on the right course and should not be deterred by the siren words we have heard from so many people this afternoon.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair): Order. We have time for only two more speeches before we go to the Front-Bench speakers. I am sorry that I cannot call everyone who wants to speak, but I will call everyone who asked in advance. That should be a helpful tip for Members in future.

3.36 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on initiating this debate and introducing it so thoughtfully.

I hesitate to give any opinion in such an eminent gathering as this, but it seems to me that this debate is not between those who support human rights and those who do not—the lovers of free speech and defenders of liberty and the right to trial on one side and the torturers, summary executioners and deniers of basic freedoms on the other. It is not that sort of debate; it is simply about the place in national law of human rights and the related conventions. It is about the place of basic standards of morality and legality in public life, lawmaking and social action, and the fundamental principles by which those things can be judged.

Not everyone believes in human rights functioning in a fundamentalist way. I do not know how many Members read Matthew Parris’s article in The Times, but he described human rights as desiderata. John Stuart Mill and the utilitarians, who are practically saints in liberal circles, described human rights as “nonsense upon stilts”.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 422WH

Reading the

Daily Mail

, it is sometimes quite easy to see why people say such things. The catalogue of human rights varies and grows. Sometimes the frivolous demands of vexatious people are expressed as though they were human rights. Even when there is agreement on the wording, there is often difference over how the words are to be interpreted: more or less every nation on the planet has signed up to the United Nations declaration of human rights, but they interpret them in their own idiosyncratic ways.

Crucially, it is very hard to sort out cases where laws and actions to protect one basic human right conflict with or impact detrimentally on another. It is hard to weigh and prioritise such matters. All the important difficult issues have been of that nature—for example, weighing up the right to family life against national security, or the right to public participation through voting against the justifiable expectation that prisoners will be punished and forfeit something.

It appears to me that the European convention on human rights is grounded in a time when things were a lot clearer than they are now. The previous theory inherited something from the natural law theory of the middle ages and then disposed of it, but when we got to the end of the second world war, there was a clear expectation that minimal standards had to be set, against which to benchmark any nation’s behaviour, even if it was validated by the nation’s own law. At that time, the rule of law on the continent had effectively been the rule of terror. I cannot see anything in the convention that lays down a social blueprint for any nation; it simply defines the conditions for a just society. Some of the rules are uncontentious—almost formal—and some are more arguable and substantive, but no one has questioned today the idea of such benchmarking. No one in the entire debate has suggested that it does not play an important role in encouraging a civilised and tolerant society.

Having recognised that, on which there seems to be consensus, the next questions are how it should be policed, who does it and who enforces it. We would all agree that it could not be nations themselves as they would in effect be marking their own homework. As some have suggested, it could be a national judiciary that carries out that role, with or without further appeal, but that assumes a universal cultural independence from Government and that judiciaries are the same across Europe, both of which cannot be assumed. It would also defeat the purpose of international validation of what an individual country is doing, and it fails to apply effective pressure on rogue states and their behaviour.

3.40 pm

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to salute the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the former Secretary of State for Scotland, for initiating and leading this debate. He dealt with the devolution issue extraordinarily well and none of us disagreed with his fundamental point that to unravel devolution agreements by challenging the Human Rights Act would not be wise.

I ask the Minister for his interpretation of “taking into account”. We need clarification of that, following the exchanges of this debate. When I tell someone that I

30 Jun 2015 : Column 423WH

am taking their views into account, I am usually saying, “I heard, but I’m not going to do it.” We need to recognise that that is really what the phrase means. That is why it is probably unwise of the Government to be quite so controversial in their proposals.

The other issue to consider is what a Bill of Rights looks like. Without giving a history lesson, we already have a Bill of Rights. It was passed in 1689, but it did not actually do the job that the Government will have in mind for any future such Bill. The danger is that once rights start to be defined they can be restricted. Calibrating or describing rights is not as easy as it first appears. The risk is that a Bill of Rights could be too tight or too loose. It is important that we see what the Bill of Rights might look like.

Fiona Mactaggart: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem with the rights debate in Britain has been that, unlike countries such as South Africa, we have failed to debate what to do when rights clash? For example, the right to private and family life and the right to protest clash, and we in Britain have not debated how to deal with those clashes.

Neil Carmichael: My way at looking at things in terms of English law is that I prefer to assume that I have a right unless Parliament has told me that I do not. That is how we should be operating.

Doing something different from what we have done in the past also has international implications. As we have already heard, the architect of the European Court of Human Rights was a former Conservative Home Secretary who was not a libertarian in the true sense of the word. Leaving the Court would be to depart from that tradition and would risk our international reputation while making it harder still for other nations to think in terms of their own aspirations for rights, and might not discourage others in their intention not to give rights. The issue is not only legal, but one of foreign policy.

In short, we must consider the matter carefully. I would prefer to have legislation that improves what we already have, rather than undermining and changing the structure that we have become used to.

Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair): Order. Joanna Cherry, the SNP spokesperson, will now have four minutes before I call the shadow Minister and then the Minister to speak for 10 minutes each.

3.45 pm

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate on an important topic. He rightly said that human rights are part of the UK’s constitutional architecture, he touched on their significance for the devolved settlement and he asked us what we are seeking to achieve through appeal of the Human Rights Act and what the Government’s future intentions are regarding the European convention on human rights.

The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) made a valid point when he said that repeal here is an extremely difficult project that could deliver limited benefits. He also asked what we are trying to

30 Jun 2015 : Column 424WH

achieve—a question that has been echoed by many speakers. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) stated that our repealing the Human Rights Act would send out the wrong message.

I am conscious of the time limit, so I will quickly move on to my points, which, as the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, particularly relate to the devolved settlement and how it affects Scotland. The SNP has been deeply concerned by recent statements from Ministers that suggest that they believe that the UK Government could repeal the Human Rights Act without reference to the Scottish Parliament. They argue that the Sewel convention would not be engaged because human rights are a reserved matter. That is wrong and legally illiterate. Human rights are not a reserved matter and are not listed as such in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998. Schedule 4 to the Scotland Act protects the Human Rights Act against modification by the Scottish Parliament, but human rights per se are not a reserved matter. It was part of Donald Dewar’s scheme that all matters would be devolved unless they were specifically reserved. Human rights are not specifically reserved.

Moreover, human rights are written into the Scotland Act. The European convention on human rights is entrenched in the Act through section 29(2)(d), which provides that an Act of the Scottish Parliament that is incompatible with the ECHR is actually outwith the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. Section 57(2) states:

“A member of the Scottish Executive has no power to make any subordinate legislation, or to do any other act, so far as the legislation or act is incompatible with”

the ECHR. It is therefore incorrect to say that human rights are a reserved matter. They are devolved and I urge the Minister to think carefully about the statements made by his colleagues to the effect that the Sewel convention would not be engaged.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of a “respect” agenda, and I stand here as one of 56 SNP Members elected at the general election. I urge the Government to consider their respect agenda, to return to the Scotland Act 1998 and to get their lawyers to look at it carefully. They will find that human rights are not a reserved matter and are devolved, and that the Human Rights Act should not be repealed or otherwise interfered with by the British Parliament without first seeking the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

I want to make it clear, however, that the SNP would seek to prevent the repeal of the Human Rights Act for the whole United Kingdom. It is a fundamental issue and we want the Human Rights Act to remain on the statute book for the entire UK because, as the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said, it has brought huge benefit in terms of the accessibility of rights for people in this country. Examples of those rights were provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley).

3.49 pm

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Betts. I congratulate all who have spoken so eloquently today and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate and bringing the matter before the House before the summer recess.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 425WH

I am going to take an unusual course by endeavouring not to take my full 10 minutes. I will do that because the official Opposition’s position is clear, so I would simply be restating it, whereas the Government’s position is unclear and I am sure that the Minister will want the maximum time to be able to elucidate it.

When I was responding to the debate on the Gracious Speech, I made it clear that we will resist any attempt to undermine or repeal the Human Rights Act, or to detach this country from the European convention. More importantly, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) made a detailed speech on the subject on 16 June, in which she said:

“The Government has signalled that they want to fundamentally undermine the Human Rights Act. This is what lies behind the announcement in the Queen’s Speech that they would be consulting on a ‘British Bill of Rights’. We think that even the consultation is the start of a slippery slope… I give you my assurance that we are going to be clear with the Prime Minister that he must not go ahead with this. I’ve today written to the Prime Minister demanding that he drops these plans and… Their policy is intellectually incoherent and, worse, it’s wrong in principle.”

It would be at best otiose and at worst lèse majesté for me to amplify or qualify what the leader of the party has said.

The real question for the debate is: what are the Government’s intentions and what is the process to get us there? That is particularly important given the contradictory signals coming from the Government almost daily. Days before the Gracious Speech, the repeal of the Human Rights Act was being presaged as one of the centrepieces of the Queen’s Speech, only to be dropped entirely from the first Session’s legislation. We are now promised a consultation—perhaps the Minister will enlighten us as to what form it will take or when it will take place. Will the Minister also publish some of the drafts—I think we are up to about 10 or 14—of the Bill that was being prepared under the coalition Government in private by Martin Howe QC and others on behalf of the Conservative party? Presumably that document will now become a Government one.

The key issue has to be the relationship between the Human Rights Act and the European convention. I will correct, or at least qualify, one thing that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. He said he hoped that Government policy was not the same as it was last October. I wondered about that, so on 4 June I asked that question specifically of the Leader of the House of Commons—he was the person who produced the original documentation. He responded:

“The Conservative party’s policy on human rights has not changed since last October.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 784.]

For those who have not read the document recently, it states something that will no doubt please the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) about the Council of Europe accepting UK demands:

“In the event that we are unable to reach that agreement, the UK would be left with no alternative but to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, at the point at which our Bill comes into effect.”

Is that now Government policy? It is not inconsistent, for example, with what the Home Secretary said two years ago, although it appeared to be inconsistent with

30 Jun 2015 : Column 426WH

what the Prime Minister was saying. According to press reports, the Prime Minister was somewhat “at odds” with the Home Secretary and the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). Now, however, there appears to be some agreement at the top of the Conservative party and the Government that we will at least countenance withdrawal from the European convention, but it is confusing.

The Minister here today gave this response in Justice Questions last week:

“We will legislate for a Bill of Rights to protect our fundamental rights… Our plans do not involve us leaving the convention; that is not our objective”—

only for the sentence to continue—

“but our No. 1 priority is to restore some balance to our human rights laws, so no option is off the table for the future.”—[Official Report, 23 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 748.]

What is the situation? Within an hour of that reply, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was on the “World at One” on the BBC saying that it was perfectly possible that we would be withdrawing from the European convention.

I endeavoured to find some record of what the Justice Secretary might have said before coming into his post. This is what I found, from when the convention was incorporated in 2000. I do not know if his views have changed, but interestingly it was written in the context of the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland:

“The Human Rights culture is already spreading in our society, uprooting conventions on which our stability has rested… It supplants common sense and common law, and erodes individual dignity by encouraging citizens to see themselves as supplicants and victims to be pensioned by the state.”

That does not sound like a strong endorsement of human rights, but perhaps the Minister will be able to elucidate in his response.

There are very difficult problems and hurdles. With all due respect to the Chair of the Justice Select Committee, the matters we are discussing are not “theological” ones. Our relationship with supranational law will become an issue if we produce some British Bill of Rights that is the bespoke device of the Justice Secretary and the Minister. Unless they are intending to withdraw from all international treaties and conventions and indeed from the European Court of Justice, whose judgments are far more prescriptive and binding than those of the Strasbourg Court, inevitably there will be two systems running in parallel, a British one and an international one, to both of which our courts will have to pay attention.

The Minister must address the issues raised by the Front-Bench spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), about the devolved Administrations. He must also address some practical problems, such as how he will get his own colleagues and the House of Lords on board and how—perhaps the central point to have come out of today’s debate—he will explain why any of it is necessary in the first place.

The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) has said that most of the problems that have arisen with the European Court of Human Rights over a period of time are in the process of being, or have been, resolved.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 427WH

Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): If it is so impossible to have a British Bill of Rights alongside adherence to the convention, why is it the case that Germany, France and almost every other European country have their own constitutions with enshrined charters of rights that sit quite comfortably alongside adherence to the convention?

Andy Slaughter: That question is for the Minister to answer, because we have seen literally nothing from the Government to explain any compatibility. As for the question about “taking into account” raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and how we square the circle between the judgments of the Strasbourg Court, our own higher courts and the sovereignty of Parliament—none of that is in issue any more. The question really, if I may put it back to the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), is this: what is wrong with the existing system that allows the law to evolve and the judiciary in this country to influence judgments of the European Court, often in an entirely beneficial way because of the quality of such judgments? Why are we seeking to retreat from, rather than to advance the cause of international law? Why are we seeking not to have the benefit of international law? It seems to be a little England, or little UK approach, and when the hon. Gentleman reflects on it, he might find himself on the side of those who believe that little needs to change, instead of throwing out an honourable tradition of human rights drawn up over many centuries.

3.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Dominic Raab): It is an honour and a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate on the future of the Human Rights Act.

I listened with great interest to all the contributions. I shall touch on a few of them, such as that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who gave a powerful speech about some of the risks involved in this enterprise. I detected that he is perhaps not quite as sympathetic to the concept of a Bill of Rights as he was when he was shadow Justice Secretary, but I was heartened to hear that he was offering creative solutions along the way.

Mr Grieve: The Minister is quite right. In 2009 I worked on a paper with him as my chief of staff about the possibility of a Bill of Rights. As was rightly said, such a Bill of Rights is perfectly possible, but it will not solve the problems or issues that have been the driving force behind the Government’s current project unless we intend to decouple ourselves from the European convention, which, mercifully, I understand not to be our policy. There is the conundrum that my hon. Friend will have to grapple with.

Mr Raab: I thought I had detected a slight revival of my right hon. and learned Friend’s former enthusiasm, but perhaps I was too optimistic.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for his contribution. He always speaks powerfully on these issues—I have listened to

30 Jun 2015 : Column 428WH

him speaking on human rights since I joined this House. He took us back to Magna Carta and its modern-day relevance.

Jeremy Corbyn: I can go back further if you want.

Mr Raab: I am sure you could.

I also welcome the contribution made by the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). I congratulate him on his election to that post and look forward to being grilled in due course. He counselled us not to treat the Human Rights Act as a holy grail that cannot be questioned. That was a useful injection of common sense into the debate.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who highlighted some of the cases under the HRA that have been of concern to his party. He raised in particular the application of article 8 with regard to deportation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) made some powerful points on section 2 of the Act and on extraterritorial jurisdiction. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) raised the difficult issue of the balance between liberty and security. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) discussed judicial legislation from Strasbourg—he has huge experience of that as a result of his representation on the Council of Europe.

There were other excellent speeches to which I cannot pay individual tribute, but I should also acknowledge the speech made by the shadow Minister, who reiterated his party’s position and lamented the lack of detail in the Government’s current proposals. I say to him gently that one issue with the Human Rights Act, arguably, is that it was rushed through, as it was introduced within six months. As a result of that haste, some problems have now emerged that we were warned of at the Act’s inception. The Government are not going to rush in the way the then Labour Government rushed through the Human Rights Act. We will take a little time, because we want to get it done right rather than quickly.

Andy Slaughter: Most people do not think it was rushed but would say that it was 20 or 30 years too late. The effect of the Act is to incorporate the convention, which it does, to use the phrase of the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), in a very conservative way. What is the problem with that?

Mr Raab: The shadow Minister makes an interesting point. If, as a new Government, we had introduced a Bill within six months, it would have been argued that that was too hasty.

On the problems that have arisen as a result, a former shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who is no longer in his place, took to TheDaily Telegraph just last year to point out some of the problems with section 2 of the Act:

“Too often, rather than ‘taking into account’ Strasbourg rulings and by implication, finding their own way, our courts have acted as if these rulings were binding on their decisions. As a result, the sovereignty of our courts and the will of Parliament have both been called into question. This needs sorting out.”

30 Jun 2015 : Column 429WH

If the Labour party has U-turned on that rather thoughtful critique of its own legislation and now, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, believes the Act to be a holy grail that cannot be touched, called into question or criticised at all, there are some questions for Labour to answer. I know hon. Members in the shadow Minister’s party would not all agree on that matter.

I shall take this opportunity to set out the Government’s position. I should say that I have found the debate very valuable at this still formative stage of the Government’s process towards enacting a Bill of Rights. To answer some of the questions put, we will be consulting formally this Session, including with the devolved Administrations—I am aware that there are some issues there—and I hope hon. Members will understand if I do not prejudge that consultation or its terms in my remarks today.

I remind hon. Members that the United Kingdom has a strong tradition of respect for human rights that long predates the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government are proud of that tradition and will be true to it in delivering our reforms. As I explained at Justice questions, our plans do not involve us leaving the convention. That is not our objective. We want to restore some common-sense balance to our human rights, which are out of kilter, so nothing has been taken off the table.

Jeremy Corbyn: If the proposal is not to withdraw from the convention, would it still be applicable in British law and in decision making by judges in British courts?

Mr Raab: The hon. Gentleman is alluding to the idea of having a middle course between throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as some have described it—tearing up human rights, getting rid of the convention and not replacing it—and trying to reform the current model by looking at the way the convention has been applied and interpreted. There are not huge numbers of objections to the black letter law of the convention’s text, but the way it has been applied and extended is a matter of concern. All that will be the subject of debate and consultation.

Mr Alistair Carmichael: I say, in passing, that I hope we never get to the stage where the implementation of law by the courts is entirely to the satisfaction of the Government. Surely the problem is that if we get to a point where we have a British Bill of Rights but remain a contracting party to the European convention, which has a higher standard of human rights protection, anyone dissatisfied with their rights as applied in the UK domestic courts under the British Bill could still have recourse to the wider protection of the European Court in Strasbourg.

Mr Raab: The right hon. Gentleman is tempting me to prejudge the substantive content of the Bill and the consultation. He has raised some interesting points, which we will no doubt thrash out in due course; I look forward to that.

I will refer to some of the principal concerns about the Human Rights Act, as that is the subject of the debate. Given the time restraints I will refer to just a few

30 Jun 2015 : Column 430WH

examples from what is by no means an exhaustive list. The first is the exponential expansion of rights that the design of the Human Rights Act, whether tacitly or otherwise, has promoted. It has encouraged a rights inflation that, as has already been acknowledged, has tended to undermine the so-called liberal model of human rights, shifting away from what people like Isaiah Berlin would refer to as negative liberty, or the John Stuart Mill model of shielding the citizen, towards imposing obligations on the state rather than constraining it. If that were in any doubt, the textbooks—I am sure hon. Members across the House are familiar with them—are littered with examples of the celebration of that, whether through the living instrument doctrine in Strasbourg or our own case law.

The practical effect of rights inflation has been to dilute personal responsibility. The growth of rights—the expansion of the realm of rights—increases the power of the individual, however nefarious or otherwise, to trump the good of the rest of society. The more that extends beyond the bedrock of core liberties, the more corrosive the effects. I will give one brief illustration, to highlight the fact that personal responsibility is being eroded or diluted: the claim that the Government’s welfare to work policy amounted to forced labour under the European convention.

I should say straight away that that claim failed, but the fact that it made its way through the UK court system to the Supreme Court is telling. It is striking that lawyers thought they could stretch an article of the convention that was designed, after the experience of concentration camps during world war two, to address grave issues of slavery and forced labour so as to attack the principle of conditionality in welfare reform. It is just one illustration of how the HRA has proved rather malleable material for the ingenious twisting of the basic conception of human rights, rather than simply bringing rights home, which was the Act’s explicit contention.

The second concern I will raise about the HRA is its effect on the rule of law, and in particular the effect that some of the haphazard case law has had on legal certainty. I refer hon. Members to the tragic case of Naomi Bryant, and the review by HM Inspectorate of Probation of the case, which found that the licence conditions placed on Anthony Rice on his release were too lax and noted that lawyers had whittled away the conditions by deploying arguments to do with the Human Rights Act. I will not go into that further—I have the quotes with me but will not read them out—but if anyone wants to look into that case further, they should look at that report.

The third issue I will raise is the way that the Human Rights Act has exposed us unnecessarily to too much judicial legislation from Strasbourg—for example, in the case of prisoner voting. In truth, as we should not make this into some strictly European bogey, there have been examples of domestic judicial legislation as well, about article 8 in particular—we should deal with our home-grown problems, too. That is easy to do without bringing into question our membership of the European convention.

Finally, I hope the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has had the opportunity to read the excellent article by Baroness Faulkner, Liberal Democrat

30 Jun 2015 : Column 431WH

spokesperson on foreign affairs, in May’s edition of


. In case he has not, and for the benefit of this wider audience, I will quote a few choice words:

“Britain can replace the HRA and retain a decent, humane legal system. The human rights lobby has reacted with horror at the government’s proposal. But they are mistaken... A British Bill of Rights is a good idea.”

I do not agree with the whole article but it is well worth a read.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and welcome his contribution. I hope he will not mind if I encourage him to circulate that article among the other members of his party.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of the Human Rights Act 1998.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 432WH

MV Seaman Guard Ohio

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

4.10 pm

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the detention of MV Seaman Guard Ohio crew in India.

At the beginning of my contribution, I want to place on record my sincere thanks to Lisa Dunn, the sister of Nick Dunn. She has worked assiduously on behalf of the six men who are still being detained in India, despite having the charges against them quashed more than a year ago. The six men’s families have been absolutely outstanding under the most extreme and difficult circumstances. They deserve the utmost praise for their actions, which have been relentless.

Having said that, this is a very serious case involving, in my view, a serious breach of the international human rights of six British citizens—former military men who served this country on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly and understandably, they feel utterly betrayed, abandoned and ignored by the British Government—by the country that they so bravely fought for. At their greatest time of need, they feel betrayed. We should put ourselves, just for a minute, in their shoes. They have had so many false dawns and promises and so much false hope and misinformation. After all this time, they are still awaiting firm action and some decision by the Indian authorities.

I want to mention the staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have kept and still keep in contact with the families. They have done a marvellous job, but they seem to be totally constrained by protocols, democracy and convention, which has been a great source of frustration, as the families believe that little if any real progress has been made.

Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Is it not worth placing on record the fact that we are dealing with a sovereign, democratic, independent country, and that no British politician can tell the Indian authorities what to do?

Ian Lavery: There is a lot of merit in what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I will come to that question. At the same time, it is very difficult to tell the six British citizens that there is very little we can do other than just talk across the political divide and speak to the Indian authorities without actually making any progress. They feel betrayed, and that is the problem. It is up to us as British politicians to do what we can to try and help them.

Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab): My constituent—indeed, my friend—Ray Tindall, who, as my hon. Friend said, served loyally in some very dangerous war zones on behalf of this country, feels bitterly betrayed. Is it not the case that, even within India, there is no doubt about the men’s innocence? I am sure that hon. Members here have never doubted that either, so perhaps we might see a little more effort on behalf of the British Government to impress that on the Indian Government.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 433WH

Ian Lavery: There is no doubt that these people are innocent. All the charges against them were quashed in July 2014, which is nearly a year ago. In my view, they are not even in the judicial procedure, because the charges against them were quashed. I am sure that the Minister will address that point of contention.

Sir Greg Knight: The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way again, which I appreciate. If I am wrong on this point, I am sure that the Minister will correct me in his winding-up speech, but I understand that the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Modi, may well visit Britain later this year. If he does and if this matter is not resolved by then, does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be an excellent opportunity for our Prime Minister to raise the case with the Indian Prime Minister?

Ian Lavery: I sincerely hope that these gentlemen are on British soil before the Indian Prime Minister gets here. I believe that the British Prime Minister has spoken to the Indian Prime Minister—it has been at that level before—so the issue has been raised between the two parties. However, the families and everyone else will hope sincerely that these people are back way before then. That is how the situation stands.

The families feel as though there has been an extreme lack of any progress. On many occasions, news has filtered through the system from other nationalities. News about different court dates and important items discussed with, for example, the Estonians and Ukrainians has filtered through to our six UK citizens before any information has come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I mentioned the Prime Minister to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), and I have spoken to him personally. I have raised this matter on the Floor of the House with him, with the former Foreign Secretary and, on numerous occasions, with the Minister. The question really is: has anybody listened? I do not want to be too critical, but the men are still there after nearly two years. Has anybody listened? The men and their families are extremely angry. The men are still in India; they are not allowed to leave. Their passports are still withdrawn by the authorities, despite the charges of illegal acts being quashed. It is a clear violation of their international human rights. These are innocent people in a Commonwealth country.

I have spoken to the Minister, who I thank for the meetings that he has kindly arranged on this issue. He has stated numerous times that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot interfere in other countries’ judicial/legal systems, but these men have had the charges against them dropped. They are basically destitute. They are stuck in another country—a Commonwealth country—and we should be able to assist. They are innocent.

The series of rather unfortunate events began a long time ago, on 12 October 2013, when the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, a Sierra Leone-flagged vessel owned by AdvanFort, was intercepted by the Indian coastguard off the Tuticorin coast. The vessel had been involved in supporting anti-piracy operations by supplying armed escort services to commercial vessels travelling through a piracy hotspot in the Indian ocean. The crew were arrested and detained by the Indian coastguard near the port on suspicion of possessing arms without the appropriate licences.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 434WH

The crew of 35 aboard the ship were of different nationalities, including Indian, British, Ukrainian and Estonian nationals. The British crew members were Mr Paul Towers, Mr William Irving, Mr Nicholas Simpson, Mr Raymond Tindall, Mr John Armstrong and my constituent Mr Nick Dunn. All crew members were remanded in custody following questioning on 18 October 2013. Two crew members—the captain and an engineer—were not arrested initially but were later. Q branch then submitted charges against 45 accused persons, including the company, its director, 35 crew members and eight locals, for offences under the Arms Act 1959, the Essential Commodities Act 1955, the Motor Spirit and High Speed Diesel (Regulation of Supply and Distribution and Prevention of Malpractices) Order 1998 and the Indian penal code of 1860. On 20 October 2013, 22 foreign nationals among the 35 arrested crew were moved from the prison they were in to Chennai Puzhal Central prison.

Not until 18 December 2013 were bail applications made on behalf of all the crew. In the bail plea, the crew alleged that the vessel was coming into the port for supplies. The vessel was stormed by as many as 25 officials from eight different agencies as it tried to enter the port. Counsel for the crew contended that, based on the doctrine of innocent passage as envisaged in section 3 of the UN convention on the law of the sea 1982, no charge could be levelled against the crew. However, the High Court in Madras refused bail, stating that the investigations were still at an initial stage and a release could jeopardise the investigation.

On Boxing day 2013, conditional bail was granted after the crew argued that Q branch had failed to file the charge sheet within 60 days of their arrest. However, on 7 January 2014, the Principal Sessions Court cancelled the conditional bail granted by the lower court. In February 2014, a new bail application was filed. It detailed the brutal treatment of the prisoners and their deteriorating health due to malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, mental harassment and emotional trauma. Conditional bail was granted on 26 March 2014, but the men were not released until 6 April, some 11 days later. However, the British vice-captain, Paul Towers, remained in jail. On 10 July 2014, the charges against the crew were quashed in the Indian High Court in Madras.

Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP): I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time and I congratulate him on the tireless work that he has done to keep this matter in the public eye. This debate allows me to highlight the case of my own constituent, Mr William Irving from Oban, who is one of the six people in India. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that today Mr Irving had the opportunity to meet his son for the first time? His partner, Yvonne, had to take the baby to India to allow Mr Irving to meet his child for the first time. I spoke to Mr Irving’s parents this morning, and they are very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter again in this way. They feel, as Mr Irving does, both betrayed and abandoned. All they want is this ordeal to stop. Does the hon. Gentleman agree me that until it does, the Government have a duty of care towards the six detained people and that they must look after them in the way that other Governments seem to be looking after their detained seamen? Our Government seem not to be doing that.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 435WH

Ian Lavery: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am delighted that Mr Irving has met his son. It is just such a shame that, two years after this began, his partner and son have had to travel to India. The sister of my constituent, Nick Dunn, travelled there almost a year ago to visit him and saw the horrible, squalid conditions in which he was living in Puzhal prison. Of course we need to be acting, as I have been saying during my contribution.

On 25 August 2014, the state of Tamil Nadu filed an application to appeal the decision to which I have referred. We are almost a year on from that, yet the men remain in India. Despite numerous court hearings, including one that saw all charges against them dropped back in July, their passports have not been returned and they are unable to leave India. Each time the six British nationals and former servicemen have been told that a final judgment on their case is imminent, the deadline has been put back. It had been hoped that a judgment would be forthcoming before the courts in India adjourned for their annual summer recess on 15 May. However, that did not happen and the men have now been told that it will be July before they hear any news.

The treatment that these people have had since their imprisonment has been nothing short of appalling. AdvanFort, the company that owned the vessel, abandoned the men almost immediately. It was more interested in the return of the ship than the safety and welfare of the crew. Despite emails from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and communications from the offices of MPs—including, I am sure, people in the Chamber today—it did not reply or respond to anyone at all. Will the Minister say what powers the Government have in relation to companies, such as AdvanFort, that abandon British nationals to defend themselves without even legal representation?

I would like the Minister also to consider a few questions that have been relayed to me from the families and the individuals themselves. Why have the British Government sat by while they have been illegally detained since September 2014, even though they have been given lawyers’ letters stating that fact? The individuals claim that legal advice has been passed to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office explaining how they are innocent, yet there has been little if any progress. Legal evidence provided to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Chennai and London from legal experts clearly states that the actions of the Indian authorities are a breach of the crew’s human rights. Why has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office not sought to investigate that? Why was that information not taken seriously by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UK Government? Have the UK Government not just updated their policy on the promotion of international human rights aimed at protecting UK citizens abroad, including in relation to the unlawful detention of our citizens? If that is the case, why is the situation different for our friends, the UK citizens in India?

These men are not allowed to work. They are not allowed to earn a living; they are not allowed to earn anything. They are being held against their wishes and are relying on charity and assistance from their families in order to exist. They have to pay for their accommodation, food and drink and medical treatment. And what about the families back home, who have lost their worldly possessions? They have lost cars, in some cases homes,

30 Jun 2015 : Column 436WH

and much, much more as a result of this illegal detention. Quite simply, these men’s lives and family lives have been utterly destroyed. Will the Minister say what the Government can do to assist in that respect?

The Minster has made reference to the issue being raised continually. Is he able to inform the individuals of the content of the conversations that he and the Prime Minister have had with the Indian authorities? The crew members wonder why the detail of those conversations has till now been kept confidential. Can the Minister clarify that the men were not officially required to stay in India following the quashing of their charges? Why are they currently detained when they should be free men? Why have new passports not been released? Will the Minister confirm his next steps to bring an end to the sheer misery being suffered by the men and their families? I am talking about the mental, physical and financial torture that they continue to suffer through being detained. Please give them, Minister, a glimmer of hope. Remember that these are men who jeopardised their own lives—they put their own lives in danger—for their country. They need the Government to act positively to return them to their loved ones without delay. Remember that these are innocent men.

4.28 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing the debate and I commend the strong support he has given to his constituent, Mr Nick Dunn, and the rest of the British crew of the Seaman Guard Ohio. Three of the men are now represented by three new hon. Members, who I think are all in their places in this Chamber.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a number of issues relating to the case. As he concedes, I, too, have taken a close interest in the matter. I have met the current and former MPs involved and the family members several times, most recently in March, and I will meet right hon. and hon. Members again once we have had the verdict of the Supreme Court of India on the case.

I must stress at the outset that this is a legal, not a political, case. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), who has been assiduous in representing his constituent, has pointed out, the British Government cannot interfere in another country’s legal process any more than we would allow another country to interfere in ours. Incidentally, I believe that that is something that the former Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) has struggled to understand.

Ian Lavery: Will the Minister clarify a point? The charges against the men have been totally quashed, but their passports have been withheld by the Government. Are they being withheld illegally? If the charges have been quashed, why are the men not innocent?

Mr Swire: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my speech, I will remind people that the matter has been appealed, and the case starts tomorrow in the Supreme Court. That is the Indian judicial process, within the boundaries and confines of which we have to operate.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 437WH

Consular staff are not investigative officers or legal advisers, nor can they—or any of us—take a view on the guilt or innocence of those to whom they provide consular assistance. Nevertheless, no one in the Chamber this afternoon will fail to appreciate that this has been and continues to be a difficult and distressing time for the men and their families. I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record the Government’s approach to the case and the consular assistance we have provided and continue to provide. We believe that our consular staff have behaved with professionalism despite considerable provocation at times.

Brendan O'Hara: The Minister says that the matter is not political, but will he confirm that of the 35 people originally arrested, the Indian contingent have been allowed to go home and seek employment, the 16 Estonians are being subsidised in their food and accommodation by the Estonian Government, but the six British servicemen have been instructed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to beg from family and friends to house and feed themselves? Although we are not asking the Minister to get directly involved in the Indian judicial system, there must be a system of support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Mr Swire: I will come to that. At no stage have we asked anyone to beg for anything.

On 12 October 2013, the ship was detained by the Indian coastal guard security off the Tuticorin port in Tamil Nadu. Consular staff in Chennai were alerted on 14 October to reports of a vessel being held, and the Indian legal process began four days later on 18 October. Permission to visit the men was sent on the same day to the Ministry of External Affairs. Consular staff conducted their first prison visit on 21 October and passed on messages to the men’s employer, lawyer and families.

The crew were charged under the Arms Act for being in possession of assault rifles and ammunition, the Passports Act for entering India without a valid visa and the Essential Commodities Act for procuring fuel in India without permission. During the men’s imprisonment, consular staff visited them on no fewer than 18 occasions. Consular staff liaised with the prison authorities to ensure that the men received an enhanced diet, and they raised medical and dental concerns. Staff also helped the men to maintain regular contact with their families, friends and the Mission to Seafarers by passing on letters and facilitating visits. Since the men’s release from prison on 5 April 2014—one was released later, on 19 July 2014—consular staff have continued to provide assistance by liaising with the company AdvanFort, the lawyer, hotel and police, and by putting the men and their families in contact with organisations that offer help from financial assistance to counselling. Ultimately, however, it is each man’s decision whether to take up those other sources of help. Some of the men have also received assistance from private individuals and their own regimental associations.

As the hon. Member for Wansbeck knows, I managed to track down Samir Farajallah, who owns AdvanFort, and I reminded him of his responsibilities, but as I know the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, communication

30 Jun 2015 : Column 438WH

with Mr Farajallah remains extremely difficult. Although, as I have said, we cannot interfere in another country’s legal system, the British Government—the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and his predecessor William Hague, who represented one of the men, Nicholas Simpson; as well as British officials and myself—have repeatedly raised the case with the Indian authorities at local, state and national level, urging resolution as quickly as possible. I raised the matter most recently with the Indian Foreign Secretary in my office here in London on 25 June.

As the hon. Member for Wansbeck said, in July 2014 the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court dismissed all charges against the crew. As is allowed under Indian law, the prosecution decided to exercise its right of appeal and take the case to the Supreme Court in New Delhi, so the legal case continues. At the Supreme Court hearing on 28 April this year, the judge committed to giving a written verdict. The Supreme Court has been in recess since then, and it reopens tomorrow on 1 July. There is no set date for the written verdict, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we cannot request one.

Meanwhile, I am conscious that the decision of the Indian authorities to prevent the men from leaving India until the completion of the legal process has taken a great toll. Among other things, it has meant that they could not support their families through illness and the birth of a first child. We have made representations on compassionate grounds and issued emergency travel documents to some of the men, but I repeat that this is a legal process in which we cannot interfere. That is why consular staff have provided lists of lawyers and suggested that the men seek independent legal advice.

Although we, too, are frustrated by the continuing case, we are unable to demand the release of British nationals overseas. We are unable to interfere in another country’s legal process. However, we have made and will continue to make known our ongoing interest in the legal case at the highest level. Indeed, if things are not satisfactorily resolved by the time Prime Minister Modi visits, the matter will almost certainly be raised at that point as well. We will express our desire for a swift conclusion, and we will continue to do all we can within the remit of our consular service for the men and their families.

I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members who represent the families for continuing to take such an interest in the case, and I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House. I repeat that the Supreme Court hearing starts tomorrow, and we hope that it will issue a swift ruling. We do not want to do anything, inside or outside the Chamber, which could in any way prejudice the men’s chances of an early release and repatriation to their families and loved ones.

Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I would be grateful if hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber did so via the Members’ entrance, because we need to admit some members of the public who are in wheelchairs. I will suspend the sitting for a couple of minutes to facilitate that process.

4.38 pm

Sitting suspended.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 439WH

Welfare Reform (People with Disabilities)

4.41 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered welfare reform and people with disabilities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Roger. It is poignant that this debate falls on the very day that the independent living fund closes. A further £1.2 billion is being cut from support for people with disabilities. Such cuts were a hallmark of the Tory-led coalition, and many are concerned that not only will this increase but the cuts will get worse under this Government. My purpose in calling this debate is to highlight where we are now and the effect on disabled people, but I also want to draw attention to the punitive and dehumanising culture that has been part of the delivery of these welfare reforms, which set the tone for the leadership within the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government’s wider tone on social security.

In the final days before next week’s Budget, I urge the Minister to listen to disabled people, their carers and the millions of compassionate people across the UK who are saying that enough is enough. Going back to the 2010 emergency Budget, we know that £500 million was cut within weeks of the general election. The following year the analysis by Demos on behalf of Scope assessed the cumulative impact of the Government’s so-called reforms, and estimated that, by 2018, £23.8 billion of support would have been taken from 3.7 million people with disabilities. Demos identified a total of 13 cuts, of which I shall mention the top few.

First, the indexation of social security payments was changed from the higher retail prices index to the lower consumer prices index, and there was also a 1% cap on the uprating of certain working-age benefits. That cut £9 billion from 3.7 million people. Secondly, people on incapacity benefit were reassessed, and we could have a whole separate debate on that—we had a number of debates in the previous Parliament on the work capability assessment. That cut £5.6 billion of support available to people with disabilities. Thirdly, there was the limiting of the time that disabled people in the work-related activity group are able to receive the employment and support allowance. Such people are now able to receive only two years of support, which is a further cut of £4.4 billion. Fourthly, and this is four of 13 cuts, disabled people in receipt of disability living allowance are being reassessed to determine whether they are eligible for the personal independence payment, which is another cut of £2.62 billion.

How have the Government managed that? How has there been buy-in from the public? How can such draconian cuts be acceptable? Part of the Government’s strategy has been the invidious spreading of a culture of blame and fear. In the 1980s we saw the unions being targeted; today the focus is on the poor and the vulnerable. The narrative associated with the so-called welfare reforms has been one of divide and rule, deliberately attempting to vilify people who receive social security as the new undeserving poor.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 440WH

Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): In the past year, across Tameside, Oldham and Manchester there has been a 230% increase in the number of people going to citizens advice bureaux for help after being sanctioned. One man in my constituency who is not computer-literate, is dyslexic and has a recognised learning difficulty was sanctioned for four weeks for not properly filling out a job search agreement. Does my hon. Friend agree that Ministers need urgently and closely to consider the impact of benefit sanctions across the whole of Greater Manchester?

Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the punitive sanctions regime. We have called for an independent inquiry into sanctions, following on from the Oakley review. Oakley himself said that his review was “insufficient,” which the Government still refuse to accept. Will the Minister respond to that?

The Government have spread a culture of pejorative language, such as “shirkers” and “scroungers”. They have intentionally attempted to demonise social security recipients, including disabled people. The innuendo that people with a disability or illness might be faking it or are feckless is, quite frankly, grotesque and belies the epidemiological data.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, “When you go to work in the morning and see the curtains of your neighbours pulled tight, you know there is somebody lying in there who can’t be bothered to get out of bed and go to work.” Somebody might actually be lying in there because they cannot get of bed owing to an incurable disease. Is it any wonder that some people tar everyone with the same brush? Was that not a deliberate ploy by the Chancellor?

Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I cannot remember whether it was during the Budget or the autumn statement, but it is absolutely shocking that the Chancellor used that language. Incapacity benefit and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators, so what is implied by words such as “shirkers” and “scroungers” is not supported by the evidence.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I am worried by the hon. Lady’s language. She is attempting to project the party of government as demonisers who are against people with disabilities, which is offensive to those of us who employ people with physical and mental disabilities. I ask her to look at the other side of the coin, which is the work that some of us have been doing on events such as Disability Confident to help get people back into work. What many people with disabilities in my constituency want is not more endless handouts but the respect of being encouraged and enabled to get jobs. Today some 320,000 more people with disabilities are in jobs than was the case a year ago.

Debbie Abrahams: I would not want to impugn the hon. Member’s reputation because I know he is an honourable gentleman, but, frankly, I refer back to the language that is being used. We can see a pattern and, again, the Government have to be responsible for that. I will come on to what the Government have done, or how little the Government have done collectively, to support people with disabilities into employment.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 441WH

Unfortunately, the regular misuse of statistics is another way that the Government are trying to harden the public’s attitude. The facts are that, in an ageing population, the largest proportion of social security recipients are pensioners and not, as is often implied, the workshy. Again, fear and blame are not the Government’s sole preserve. We all need to be very careful of the language that we use and how it is perceived. As the Government prepare to cut £12 billion from the annual social security budget in next week’s Budget, there are real concerns that, in addition to potentially slashing tax credits for the working poor, they will cut further support for working-age people with disabilities.

A recent analysis of trends in disability benefit spending showed that, far from being generous, disability benefits are approximately 15% of average earnings. With the recent changes—the 1% uprating and the indexation to the consumer prices index—they will fall even further. The 2012 public spending on people with disability was just 1.3% of GDP. If we compare that with our European neighbours, we find that that is lower than Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

That figure has decreased since 2012, given the Government’s welfare spending cuts in 2013. Total social security spending in the UK in 2012, before the cuts, was only 15.5% of GDP. That spending supports our pensioners, the sick and disabled, people in low-paid work and people out of work. We are 17th out of 32 EU states. Again, I contrast that with the fact that the Government are trying to say how generous we are in terms of what we provide.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is an outrage that disabled people spend an average of £550 extra in connection with their disability, and that one in 10 disabled people spends more than £1,000 extra?

Debbie Abrahams: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to the additional costs of being disabled.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): The hon. Lady mentioned percentage of GDP, which I might address later if I have a chance to catch Sir Roger’s eye. What does she think the percentage should be? We spend 0.7% on international development and 2% on defence. What does she think is the appropriate and right percentage of GDP to spend on disability?

Debbie Abrahams: I would not be so pushy as to state such figures at this stage in a Parliament. I am making a point about the mood music that the Chancellor in particular is stressing before the next Budget. I warn hon. Members that we are not over-generous; our spend is 1.3%, and we need to bear that in mind.

There are more than 12 million people in the UK living with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term condition, 7 million of whom are of working age. That is one in five of the population. Of those, 4 million working-age disabled are working already, and another 1.3 million can and want to work but are currently unemployed.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 442WH

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady agree with me that there are about 5,000 people with motor neurone disease, which is a rapidly progressive and fatal illness, and that not all of them can obtain a DS1500? That pushes things to the point where people think that they can or should work, when they are not physically capable of doing so. The Government must deal with that rapidly to ensure that all 5,000 people in the UK with MND are taken care of.

Debbie Abrahams: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The work capability assessment’s insensitivity to mental health conditions, progressive conditions and fluctuating conditions makes it unfit for purpose at the moment, and there is a lot of evidence to support that.

Richard Graham: The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) raised an interesting point about MND sufferers. Has the hon. Lady also thought about people suffering from multiple sclerosis, a condition that often deteriorates over time? Some of my constituents with MS who have been assessed physically and moved from disability living allowance to personal independence payments are receiving an increased amount of money because their condition has worsened over time. It varies from condition to condition and situation to situation, does it not?

Debbie Abrahams: It does indeed, but the fact is that 600,000 fewer people will be eligible for PIP than currently receive DLA; those are the statistics. However, I will come to that.

The UK currently has a disability employment gap of 30%. The Oldham fairness commission, which I chaired, found that the local disability employment gap is 34%. As the vast majority of disabled people—90%—used to work, that is a waste of their skills, experience and talent. Attitudes, perceptions and judgments can often get in the way of identifying someone’s talent or skills—

4.54 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.10 pm

On resuming

Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I indicate to Members now, to allow them a little preparation, that I intend to impose a five-minute limit on Back Bench speeches. Six hon. Members from various parties have indicated a desire to speak: if you can manage it in less than five minutes, it will help others. That will leave about five minutes each for Opposition Front-Bench speeches and for the Minister.

Debbie Abrahams: I was discussing the experiences of disabled people, 90% of whom have worked. For people with disabilities, the experience of an interview can be particularly discouraging.

People with disabilities should be able to access the same opportunities as everyone else, including being able to use their talent and skills to the best of their ability. No one should feel that they are unable to reach their potential or that their hopes and dreams do not matter. The Government have cut the support for disabled people that allows them to live as normal a life as

30 Jun 2015 : Column 443WH

possible, but they have failed to provide meaningful support to help disabled people into work and enable them to thrive, thereby protecting them from leaving the labour market prematurely.

Having just one disability employment adviser for 600 disabled people is quite shocking and reveals the Government’s priorities. Similarly, there is chaos, and inadequacies, in the specialist employment support service Access to Work, which last year supported just 35,000 disabled people into work and at work. That just does not cut it. What happened to the money de-invested from Remploy, which was meant to be reinvested in Access to Work?

The extra costs commission analysed the additional costs faced by disabled people and found that on average they spend an extra £550 per month on costs associated with their disability. By contrast, in 2015-16 the average award of personal independence payment or disability living allowance was £360 per month. On top of this, as I mentioned earlier, Scope has estimated that 600,000 fewer disabled people will be eligible for support. Couple this with the £3.5 billion cut to social care and it all adds up.

It comes as no surprise that people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in persistent poverty as non-disabled people: 80% of disability-related poverty is caused by extra costs. This has implications for disabled people’s families as well, because a third of all families living in poverty include one disabled family member.

George has a mild learning disability. He has suffered with a bad back since an accident a few years ago and can no longer do the heavy lifting work that he used to do when he worked in a warehouse. George works 12.5 hours a week as a cleaner in a local college, but wants to work more to earn working tax credit. He said:

“Hopefully I might be able to find another job or increase the hours with the job I’ve got. Next year I might have a word with my supervisor but everyone is short of cash at the moment so I’ll have to wait and see!”

For now, he relies on employment support allowance to top up his wages. He lives a modest life. He attends a local self-advocacy group, where he receives additional support when he needs it, and meets up with friends and family when he can. He certainly does not have cash to spare. Without ESA he could not afford to get out and about and would risk becoming very isolated. He has been in financial difficulty in the past, and it was only because of the support he got from the self-advocacy group that he managed to keep his own home—he was under threat of being made homeless. George is lucky. Unfortunately, thousands of people do not have the benefit of the support that he has.

I am sure it has not escaped your attention, Sir Roger, that more than 336,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Government to publish data on the number of people on incapacity benefit and ESA who have died since November 2011. This petition was started followed a ruling by the Information Commissioner on 30 April compelling the Government to publish these data in 35 days, including the number of those who died following being found fit for work.

Last week there was an amazing sequence of events. On Monday, the Secretary of State told me that he could not publish these data because they were not

30 Jun 2015 : Column 444WH

kept, and told me to stop scaremongering; on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said that they would be published; and this was swiftly followed by the Government saying that they were appealing against the Information Commissioner’s ruling, stating that publishing these data would lead to “probable misinterpretations” and “was too emotive...and wasn’t in the public interest”. What an absolute shambles! I could not disagree more. This is definitely in the public interest. As a former public health academic, I am more than aware of the strict criteria for establishing causality, but there are no grounds for not publishing numbers of actual deaths as well as the Government-proposed standardised mortality ratios, including those who died within six weeks of being found fit for work. Will the Minister now confirm when these data will be published?

At the same time, following on from Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiries into sanctions beyond Oakley, I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed when the Government will publish redacted information on the circumstances of the deaths of claimants who died while sanctioned, and what changes the DWP instigated in the light of reviews of these deaths. It is notable that, since the Government’s new sanctions regime, the rate of sanctioning of people on IB and ESA has doubled. Will the Minister also confirm whether the significant surge in suicide rates for both men and women since 2010—but particularly for working-age men—is being analysed by the DWP? I thank my former public health colleague Ben Barr for providing me with these data.

My final comments relate to next week’s Budget. There is much concern that the Government may once again target disabled people. Will the Minister pledge today that there will be no further erosion of support for disabled people, including taxation of universal disability benefit or restricting the Motability scheme, which enables over 56,000 to keep their job? He did not answer the questions I asked him during our previous exchange on the PIP process, so I should be grateful for a yes or no answer today.

Being disabled is not a lifestyle choice. I am proud of the principles underpinning our model of social welfare, where any one of us is afforded protection should we fall ill or become disabled, but it is at risk from this Government. I urge the Government not to take any further steps along their regressive path.

Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): The debate will end at 5.55 pm. I shall have to call the Front Benchers to speak not later than 5.40 pm.

5.17 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which is timely as we look forward to the Budget. It allows us to consider welfare reform and people with disability without being drowned out by the common refrain and focus on how much money needs to be saved from the welfare budget. We can look seriously at what we mean by disability and how we can stand up properly for those who are vulnerable.

I want to make three points. First, we need to support and uphold the positive value of a generous safety net. We should be able to do that, be proud of it and stand up for it. We have to find a better way to discuss welfare.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 445WH

We should focus particularly on disability, so that we can properly protect vulnerable people. We need a positive approach.

I recognise that there need to be cuts in the overall welfare spend, not least because, as the Chancellor said, we have 1% of the world’s population, 4% of its GDP, and 7% of global welfare spend, so reform is needed. Although we are considering the subject through the prism of cuts, protection for people with disabilities should not be regarded as being at the end of the queue, after protection for pensioners and child benefits. Disability campaigners are concerned about what is happening. Disability should not be at the end of the public spending queue after the NHS, international development, which is protected, defence, which some of us think should be protected more, and education. Somewhat mischievously, I asked what percentage of GDP should be given to disability, but we should consider the real spending requirements before considering what is needed in terms of reform.

It is worth making some international comparisons. We should be proud that we spend £33.5 billion each year on benefits for the disabled, excluding social care. It is a small amount when shared among the many vulnerable people. We all have individual experiences, as I do in my surgeries, of people who are challenged by living on those benefits and dealing with some of the reforms. Nevertheless, as a proportion of GDP, the UK spend on benefits for the disabled is double that of the US, a fifth more than the European average and six times that of Japan. We can be proud of that record while realising that there are ways that we can do better within that budget.

We should uphold the principle of dignity—the dignity for disabled people of being independent, for those who can be live independently, and the dignity of working for those who are able to work, although not everyone can. It is also about dignity in terms of showing compassion, standing alongside them and being able to support them in the ups and downs. Some need that safety net temporarily, and some need it permanently.

My second point is on the importance of de-weaponising welfare. On the one hand, campaign groups say that the cuts will fall on the most vulnerable and the poor, and as much as I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth on securing the debate, we did hear that from her. On the other hand, the tabloids—do not just put this at the door of Ministers—say that it is all about the workshy and condemn them for exploiting the system. Everyone is in the mix. We need to get beyond that argument and look at what needs to be achieved for us to have an honest debate.

The facts are important and they need to be heard. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that between 2011 and 2014, spending on disability living allowance increased by £1.8 billion, spending on attendance allowance increased by £200 million, and spending on carer’s allowance increased by £400 million. The number of unemployed disabled people has fallen by more than 15% over the past year. That matters; it means that 230,000 more disabled people are in work, so it is not all scaremongering and doom and gloom.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 446WH

There are challenges—the independent living fund was mentioned. It was scrapped, but the funds were not scrapped. Let us be honest about the situation: the £300 million was reduced to £262 million and the funds were devolved to local councils, where efficiency savings can be made by having everything under one roof. We have to see how those efficiencies are made, but the funds are there to help the same people as the ILF helped, and for the same reasons. We have to have an honest debate. We have to recognise that we need to be on the side of the vulnerable and the poor. Not all disabled people are poor—in fact, two thirds are not in low-income brackets. We need to recognise that, while understanding that they all might be vulnerable in the long term.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): I am very much interested by what my hon. Friend has said and how he has tried to take the middle ground in the debate. We have heard a lot about the apparent failures of the Access to Work programme, yet disability employment is now at 3.1 million. The employment rate for disabled people rose by 2.5% in the year to September 2014. I hope my hon. Friend agrees that those are encouraging figures, but that more needs to be done.

Mr Burrowes: That is right. There are some excellent Disability Confident events in our cities that help those figures, and we must support them.

I am calling for an honest debate. The IFS said that the number of DLA claimants is twice what it was in 1992. We cannot say that that increase is simply because of an increase in the number of disabled people; we have to look at why the number of claimants has doubled and seek to make reforms.

We should look at a new way of dealing with the whole welfare debate, and in particular at disability and the spend needed in that area. We should look not only at benefits, but at social care, which poses serious challenges for local authorities dealing with disabled people. We need integration. We are looking at personalised budgets, so we should look at their impact on social care, the cuts and challenges, as well as on the issue of disability benefits. Let us bring that together for all our constituents and work hard to give them the best deal.

As we approach the Budget, I want to be able to look disabled people square in the face and say, “Whatever is happening around the economy, we are wholly committed to being on your side and giving those disabled people who need it that independence for living and work.” We need to show compassion and that we are on their side all the way along.

5.24 pm

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate. I know she feels strongly about the subject.

The Budget speech given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 18 March set out that there would be £12 billion of welfare cuts by 2017-18, yet since then there has been the general election campaign, numerous Prime Minister’s questions, Department of Work and Pensions questions and Treasury questions and we still

30 Jun 2015 : Column 447WH

have no definitive answers on where the cuts will fall. Indeed, on 22 June, the Minister was asked directly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) whether he would rule out cutting the benefits of any disabled person over this Parliament, but all the Minister gave in answer was:

“We are clear that we will protect the disabled and vulnerable.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 600.]

This area needs definitive answers. With the uncertainty, a number of possibilities are regularly mooted for the Chancellor’s next Budget, such as restrictions to carer’s allowance and to the contributory element of employment and support allowance, as well as taxing disability living allowance, personal independence payments and attendance allowance. All those things would have an enormous impact on the weekly incomes of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Since the election, I have had some of the most vulnerable people in our society—the disabled—coming to my constituency surgeries extremely worried about what may happen in this Parliament. That includes people with mental health problems and people who have been disabled since childhood.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Justin Tomlinson) indicated dissent.

Nick Thomas-Symonds: The Minister shakes his head, but he is welcome to come to my surgeries and hear what is said to me, because that is where the firm evidence is. Take, for example, the specific worries of sufferers of long-term conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Those in receipt of long-term disability living allowance will soon be starting a reassessment, yet the mobility criterion has been reduced to 20 metres. Parkinson’s is a fluctuating condition, so they are extremely worried about losing the wheelchairs and scooters from which they may benefit, for example. Similarly, there are Parkinson’s sufferers in the work-related activity group. The nature of that group is about going back to work, but the condition is degenerative. Does the Minister not accept that the uncertainty created since the Chancellor’s Budget has been a source of worry and great anxiety to those in our society in receipt of benefits? I can only urge him to make representations to the Chancellor to at least come clean in the Budget on 8 July on precisely what will happen.

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP): I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have had email upon email from my constituents saying that they are hugely worried about what will happen in the Chancellor’s Budget. They are people with disabilities, their carers and their families—people in the most difficult of circumstances who are suffering huge anxiety and are feeling stigmatised, too. They do not want to hear so much rhetoric about hard-working people; they may well be hard-working people or aspire to be. We also heard something about handouts. Again, I agree with the concerns expressed by hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) about terminology. These people deserve our support, and it is our job to provide it.

Nick Thomas-Symonds: I agree with the hon. Lady. The Government’s language is deeply worrying. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes)

30 Jun 2015 : Column 448WH

made a point about weaponising the welfare state, and I am afraid that language like “shirkers” does exactly that.

Above all, I hope that through this debate the Minister has heard a real strong voice from the most vulnerable people. Some years ago, Aneurin Bevan said of the plight of those who were out of work in the winter months:

“It would be a disaster and it would be a disservice to the House if the feelings of those men were not allowed to find an echo within these walls.”—[Official Report, 26 November 1931; Vol. 260, c. 632.]

The same can be said of disabled and vulnerable people in 2015. If nothing else, I hope that today their voice has found an echo within these walls.

5.29 pm

Peter Heaton-Jones (North Devon) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this important debate on a subject in which I take something of an interest.

I would like to reflect on the language that we use. This is an emotive and emotional subject for many people, so it is important that Members from all parties get the language right. I must say that I do not recognise some of the language being used to describe the Government. I certainly would not want to sit as part of a Government party that had those sorts of feelings and thoughts, and I really do not believe that we have. It is wrong to suggest that we in this party have that sort of thought, because we really do not. I do not recognise that at all.

I am very aware of the strictures of time, Sir Roger, but I want to say a few things. It seems to me that the holy grail is to help people with disabilities off welfare and into work. That would be a useful direction for this discussion to go in. It is vital that where people are able to work, they are given the opportunity to do so. The Government should support them along that road as much as possible. I am struck by the fact that today there are 320,000 more people with disabilities in jobs. That is extremely significant.

Of particular significance for me is those with mental health conditions who are getting back into work, because I have some relevant experience. I worked for five years as a manager in an office where we made particular provision to ensure that we could employ people with mental health conditions. A lot of it is to do with understanding the individual—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. By being understanding and putting into place some very personal provision, we were able to ensure that people felt that they were able to work for us and that they were not disabled by their disability, if I can put it like that. I am a big believer that it is vital to help people off welfare and into work where that is possible. I really want to explore that further, as will my hon. Friend the Minister, I am sure.

The Government have introduced a number of pilot projects, which are to be welcomed. For too many people with disabilities, it is simply too difficult to get into a job. In addition, an episode of mental ill health can set people back disproportionately compared with people who have physical health ailments. Until now,

30 Jun 2015 : Column 449WH

the system has not recognised that sufficiently. The Government are now introducing a number of evidence-based pilot projects to try to see how people are being assisted and how we can help them more. I would be interested to hear more from the Minister on that, because it is really important.

The Disability Confident events have been mentioned already. They have been hugely constructive. I am looking to organise one in my North Devon constituency, and I know that many right hon. and hon. Members will be looking to do the same in their constituencies. The events do what they say on the tin: people with a disability need to be given the confidence to get off welfare and back into the world of work. That is vital.

I believe that the Minister and the Government will be doing good work in this area. I cannot second-guess—any more than the Minister can, I suspect—what our right hon. Friend the Chancellor is going to say in the Budget statement a week from now. Nevertheless, from my conversations with the Minister, I know that he and the Government are absolutely committed to doing their best.

I bring my comments full circle by saying that we really need to be careful about the tenor of the debate and the language used on all sides. I look forward to hearing in positive terms from the Minister about the welfare reforms and how they will help disabled people, particularly those with mental health conditions, to get off welfare and back into work. That is our holy grail.

5.34 pm

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I draw attention to the interest that I declared in a previous debate. I would rather not repeat it.

We have talked a lot about language. Language is critical, because we are talking about a spectrum of capability and disability. Sometimes, it is all too easy to lump the disabled all together. Part of the problem is that that has happened, largely in this place, but also in the media and, sometimes, in the mind of the public. That is dangerous. We in this place are responsible for ensuring that the public are given a wider and clearer understanding of what we are talking about. We have failed in that. It is time that we stopped, looked at our language, and were clearer.

There is no doubt that there has been some language of “shirkers” and “scroungers”, but there has also been a failure to recognise that some of the people who undergo assessments are terminally ill. They have been assessed by their GPs and consultants as having life-ending conditions. They are the people about whom I want to talk. They should not have to face accusations of being shirkers. They should not face onerous assessments and a requirement that they justify their access and right to benefits.

These are people whose lives are able to continue only because of the carers who care for them with deep love and affection. They are people for whom the assessment process brings huge fear, not only of not getting the benefit, but of not being able to stand up and describe what their life is like—of not being able to say, “I deal with incontinence every day. I can’t swallow. I can’t

30 Jun 2015 : Column 450WH

speak. In fact, I can’t even articulate to you how bad my life is.” We need to recognise that too many people in this country endure that on a daily basis.

I remember, when my husband was passported on to personal independence payment, having to talk, on the telephone, about what his life was like. I have to say, that is not easy. We should not place people in that position. A few days later, I received a letter that said, “If you don’t hear from us by this date, please come back to us.” I did not hear, so I went back to them, and they said “You don’t need to ring us. You don’t need to talk to us.” I had got myself into a state before I rang, and I am somebody who has dealt with disability all their professional life. I had made 20 or 30 phone calls before I got through, and to be told, “Oh, we don’t know why we send those letters out. We don’t need to talk to you; it’s under process,” is insulting.

Let me mention briefly the DS1500. It is an extremely painful thing for someone to receive, because it basically tells them, “This life is about to end”—potentially in six months. I have dealt with people with terminal cancer who have refused a DS1500 because they do not want to be told that. They do not want to know it, and yet it is a huge passport for people to other benefits. We have to look at the DS1500, because many GPs are loth to discuss giving a DS1500 to someone who is terminally ill. We cannot allow that to continue.

We have to look at how we ensure that people who have life-ending illnesses are dealt with compassionately and with dignity, and we are not doing that now. We need to ensure that their carers are enabled to carry on in a way that makes them feel trusted and respected by the state, not like a scrounger or someone who is not dealing with the worst horrors that life can bring. We must always remember that disability benefit fraud is at 0.5%. Let us keep that in mind.

Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): I apologise to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) because we have run out of time for non-Front-Bench speeches. I am placing your presence on the record, but you may seek to intervene in one of the winding-up speeches.

5.40 pm

Natalie McGarry (Glasgow East) (SNP): Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Sir Roger. I thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for making a necessary and pertinent examination of what is happening in the welfare state, with particular regard to disabilities. As the SNP spokesperson on disability, this is a matter of great importance to me.

We have had some good speeches today, and I particularly welcome the conversation about the narrative that we spin around disability. The general election was particularly bruising, and for disabled people to hear parties talk not about being the party of people with disabilities, but about hard-working people, with the inference that people who are not in work are not hard-working and do not aspire to be, damages the debate. Today in the Chamber, my SNP colleagues are debating the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill, in particular welfare and disabilities. Many of the amendments in our name are aimed at ensuring that the Scotland Bill delivers more devolution and does not devolve further austerity and

30 Jun 2015 : Column 451WH

shackle the Scottish Parliament to further Tory attacks on the welfare state. They are the result of extensive consultation with civic Scotland and work done in partnership with other organisations.

Just this morning, 12 of Scotland’s leading third sector organisations published a letter in TheHerald, timed to coincide with today’s debate and ahead of the emergency Budget next week, expressing grave concerns about the severe detrimental impact of the Government’s austerity measures on low and middle-income families. In particular, they highlight the threat to tax credits and other support that would fall within universal credit and say to us, here in this House, that as, we begin the process of defining the shape of Scotland’s social security system, we need to

“understand how high the stakes are”.

It is incumbent on every one of us—not just those from Scotland—to listen to those voices. The groups that have put their heads above the parapet on this matter are some of Scotland’s largest and most influential civil society organisations, including Citizens Advice Scotland, Barnardo’s Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, the Church of Scotland, Inclusion Scotland, One Parent Families Scotland, Oxfam Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Trussell Trust. These organisations bear on their shoulders much of the burden of mopping up some of the worst effects of austerity on the most vulnerable in our society.

The UK Government’s programme of welfare reform has had a devastating impact on too many people across the country. In Scotland, the Scottish Government estimate that UK Government welfare cuts have reduced welfare funding in Scotland by almost £2.5 billion in 2015-16 alone. That estimate comes before the additional planned welfare cuts of perhaps £12 billion across the UK, which can only have a further devastating impact on communities across Scotland and the UK. Where will those cuts be made? How much more can be cut?

What is absolutely clear is that people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by welfare reform, which fits in perfectly with a pattern whereby the UK Government’s cuts programme hits the most vulnerable in our society hardest, punishing them for the reckless damage done to the economy by the few at the top. Further planned cuts can only cause greater and sustained damage, driving yet more households into poverty and desperation. The roll-out of the personal independence payment has been riddled with delays and errors, which have caused a great deal of distress and hardship for people with disabilities. BBC News reports that 78,700 people are currently waiting to hear whether they can claim PIP, 3,200 of whom have waited more than a year to have their claims processed and 22,800 have waited more than 20 weeks. In June 2015, a High Court judge ruled in favour of two PIP claimants who had had their applications delayed by around nine months, to the detriment of their health and financial security.

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Is the hon. Lady as concerned as I am by the Motor Neurone Disease Association finding that, accompanied with the move to PIP and universal credit, people with MND are now expected to attend face-to-face assessments, despite clear medical evidence that such assessments have a severe impact on their condition?

30 Jun 2015 : Column 452WH

Natalie McGarry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and echo his concerns. I would add that other people with systemic and advanced disabilities have to attend test centres that are well out of their geographic reach. The Scottish—

Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I would urge the hon. Lady to leave the Minister time to respond to the debate.

Natalie McGarry: The Scottish Government have repeatedly called for a halt to the PIP roll-out, which has been an extremely messy, damaging and stressful process for claimants. Last week, I tabled a question to ask the Minister what review was being done of those with mental ill health who had been denied PIP on the basis of tests with a physical aspect. The answer was that the Government are not currently reviewing the matter, which is no comfort to constituents of mine who have come to me in abject despair having been denied PIP and become embroiled in the messy, uncertain and lengthy appeals process.

Disabled people are already at risk of being in lower-income households, and the UK Government’s cuts are making things worse. Currently, half of all people living in households with a disabled adult are in the bottom 40% in terms of income.

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I am terribly sorry, but the Minister must have the time to reply to the debate.

Natalie McGarry: Some 20% of individuals in households containing a disabled adult were in relative poverty. For households with no disabled adult, the figure was 14%.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to halt the move to PIP and to implement an urgent review of the assessment at test centres and the unconscionable delays in the assessment and appeals systems. I also urge him to listen to disability organisations in civic society ahead of next week’s Budget.

5.47 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing the debate and on making an excellent and well-informed speech. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who spoke powerfully from her personal experience and demonstrated the sensitivity and difficulty of this issue for many people.

Government Members have been telling us that the key thing is to get people with disabilities back to work, but the Government’s schemes have unfortunately not succeeded. The Work programme has failed, with fewer than one in 10 disabled people getting into work. Work Choice has not worked well. Access to Work has been cut. The number of disability employment advisers has been cut. Those things are not going as Members across the House would like. We must acknowledge the fact that, in any society at any time, some people will always be dependent on such benefits.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 453WH

I was disappointed that the Minister thought that he could somehow set the debate up well by stating previously that PIP claimants are only waiting four weeks. I have gone through my constituency case load and I can tell him that people are waiting much longer not only for their PIP assessments, but for the money. For example, Mr C attended a medical assessment for PIP in April, but he has not received any correspondence about whether it was successful. He has been awarded ESA, which has been backdated, but it takes 13 weeks for him to get the money. I do not know what he is supposed to live on in the meantime. Perhaps the Minister will tell us.

The most important issue that I want the Minister to address is where the £12 billion in cuts are going to come from. Will he now rule out cuts to PIP, cuts to attendance allowance, cuts to carer’s allowance, cuts to industrial injuries disablement benefit and cuts to ESA? Will he further rule out taxation of PIP? As the Royal National Institute of Blind People has said, it is absurd to tax a benefit designed to cover the costs of disability. I hope the Minister will rule those things out.

5.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Justin Tomlinson): It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir Roger. I have a limited amount of time, but I will do my best to address as many of the points made as I can—I do not have a set speech. If I run out of time, we will send further information.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on calling the debate. She is a long-standing campaigner in this area, and that does shape what we do. She covered many things, but she can always come and see me face to face to run through some of them—my door is open and she has a huge amount of experience. I picked up the point about language. That is not something that I recognise as a Minister, but if there are examples that the hon. Lady wishes to bring to my attention, she should please do so.

Mr Anderson: Will the Minister give way?

Justin Tomlinson: I have only four minutes in which to respond, so that is what I have to do.

On the disability employment gap, in the past 12 months, an extra 238,000 people got into work, which is 650 a day, an increase of 2.4%, which is the biggest in the past decade. We are committed to halving the disability employment gap—it is about a further 1 million. That is a key priority.

Scope’s Extra Costs Commission report was fantastic. I have already met with Scope’s chief executive to look at different ways to support it—for example, this morning I was at the Inclusive Technology Prize competition. Clever people are coming up with ways to improve access in people’s everyday lives to the sorts of things—

Debbie Abrahams: Will the Minister give way?

Justin Tomlinson: Honestly, I would like to, but I cannot.

The amount of money spent on disabilities actually increased by £2 billion over the last Parliament, and DLA and PIP are uprated in line with inflation. Access

30 Jun 2015 : Column 454WH

to Work was also mentioned in the debate, and numbers increased to 35,500 last year, which is up 4,000. It is demand-led. We are always looking to promote that, which is where the Disability Confident campaign comes in, in particular by highlighting Access to Work to small businesses, which provide 45% of private sector jobs and are not always aware of things. I know from meeting the Federation of Small Businesses that that is felt to be important.

I hear the concerns about sanctions, which were expressed by more than one Member. They are a last resort and we are looking continually at how they are operating. Even the Oakley review stated that sanctions were

“a key element of the mutual obligation that underpins both the effectiveness and fairness of the social security system”,

and we accepted 17 of its recommendations to improve the process. I am happy to provide details on those 17 points.

Debbie Abrahams rose

Justin Tomlinson: I know that the hon. Lady wishes to come in, but time is tight.

On the point about George, universal credit will help, in that different disabilities can have different impacts from week to week. That would therefore allow somebody to maintain a certain income, and where they work extra, they have an income on that. We will be publishing them the mortality stats—I know the hon. Lady is keen to see them soon; we would all like to see them as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) kindly made her points in a debate two weeks ago and has agreed to meet with me on Thursday, with Parkinson’s UK and the Motor Neurone Disease Association. I am grateful for that. It will be an opportunity to discuss all the points made today. With regards to terminally ill people, we are processing things within six days and 99% are being awarded. I understand the points made about the DS1500 form. GPs are not comfortable doing it. We are talking to the Department of Health about that, so we can expand on that from the meeting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) again took a reasoned and proactive approach. A lot of stakeholders echo the words that were used—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady should not panic; I am coming to that.

I understand what the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) was saying about the frustration, but I am afraid that this happens with every single Budget, whoever the Government are. There is always uncertainty before the Budget. I am no different to anyone else present—we are not the Chancellor. What I do know, however, is what underpins his reform. We will continue to support disabled and vulnerable people. We are providing a strong welfare net for those in need and we will always ensure that work pays. The hon. Gentleman is a strong voice and I would be keen to continue to work with him, in particular on issues arising from surgeries or personal experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) and I have shared experience of employing people with mental health conditions. The Government have spent £42 million on a series of pilots that provide group work, telephone support and face-to-face individual

30 Jun 2015 : Column 455WH

support. In the Budget earlier this year, we put in for direct purchase of support, to bring it about much quicker. Through the Access to Work scheme, that can provide help for people within work, and there is a 92% success rate.

30 Jun 2015 : Column 456WH

5.55 pm

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).