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Column 482It remains the firm opinion of many right hon. and hon. Members that that is the basis of our approach to this question and that is the reason for the support.
A second reason for the continuing great support of my right hon. and learned Friend is the developments of the past year. No one who follows the situation can have any illusions whatever about the fragility of the ceasefires. The events of the past 48 hours or so have underlined and demonstrated that point. We have come a long way during the past 12 months, but there are still problems. The greatest is demonstrated by the orchestration of the unrest on the streets of the past few days. We know that the paramilitaries retain their structures, and that they continue to recruit, train and target. Nevertheless, the facts that exploratory dialogue has started, and that the Government seek to move rapidly to substantive talks, are great achievements, which deservedly win support.
During the past 48 hours or so, the prisoners issue has been very much on the agenda. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State may add to his earlier comments on the subject. It remains the understanding of many of us that, although in due course this vital issue can feature on the agenda of talks, we are not yet at that stage. We must first clear the initial hurdle of the decommissioning of illegally held arms and weapons. When that has been cleared, when the paramilitaries, both loyalist and republican, have clearly committed themselves to the principle of decommissioning, when there has been agreement over the modalities of decommissioning and when there has been an acceptable start to that progress, the agenda can widen.
It is, however, quite wrong for many well-intentioned people to argue that people who, quite unlike Private Clegg, set about their business with the direct purpose of murdering and maiming should be regarded in some way as "victims" of the troubles. They are not victims of the troubles; they were the orchestrators of them. It is to prostitute both reasoning and morality to say that people who took part voluntarily in terrorist activities are in some way victims of terrorism. That is not true, and we must reassert that point. The order must be approved. We have come a long way in 12 months, but let us have no illusions about the difficulties that face us. However, the broad strategy that the Government have followed, with exploratory dialogue continuing, one hopes, eventually to substantive dialogue, should command support.
Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): On the occasion of my maiden speech, I pay tribute to my predecessor, the late Sir James Kilfedder, a man of kindness who was without peer as a constituency Member. It was entirely in character that his maiden speech should call for the accelerated payment of pension increases for the elderly. The aged and the disadvantaged are among the many who mourn his passing. I am honoured to be the Member of Parliament for North Down. It is perhaps the most truly representative constituency of pro-Union sentiment in Northern Ireland. Its electors span the entire social spectrum and its main town, Bangor, has been the scene of a number of major terrorist bombings. The people of North Down share an almost universal desire for peace, but in electing me, they
Column 483have elected someone who is an open opponent of both the joint declaration and the framework documents as workable mechanisms for achieving peace.
I am proud, however, that the people of North Down endorse an inclusive, pluralist Union, free from the failed ascendency badges of the past. I am aware that a maiden speech is not supposed to be controversial. If it provokes a degree of intellectual or other energy, it may be allowed.
Mr. McCartney: Well, some of us are more humble than others. This evening, the Government propose to extend-- [Interruption.] I believe that I am not being offered the usual courtesies of the House. This evening, the Government propose to extend for another year a measure that was introduced more than 20 years ago as a temporary expedient. For 21 years, Northern Ireland has been governed, in the words of the distinguished Irish historian J. C. Beckett, like a half-alien dependency in a manner that would have been objectionable in a 19th century colony.
Arbitrary unaccountable government has turned part of the United Kingdom into what can be described only as a bureaucratic paradise. In its original and temporary form, such provision was barely defensible as emergency legislation in trying circumstances, but at least then this Parliament was solely responsible for Northern Ireland's affairs. Today, that despotic unrepresentative government is shared with a foreign power, in circumstances without precedent. There is no like situation throughout Europe.
The presence of a minority seeking union with another state is by no means unique, even within the European Community, and the present arrangement is in breach of international conventions and arrangements for dealing with similar problems. In Northern Ireland, 1.6 million British citizens are being jointly administered in secret, like a mandated territory, and not one of the Ministers from either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland enjoys the benefit of having received a single vote from any person in Northern Ireland. It does not help to assert that the final executive decisions are taken by the British Government by right of their claim to nominal sovereignty, or that the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom will not change without majority consent. The truth is that the rights of each citizen in Northern Ireland are being systematically diminished by secret Executive action.
The claim that Northern Ireland is different and must be governed differently is both morally and politically repugnant, and implies the form of political apartheid once condoned in the United States and the Republic of South Africa as "equal but separate". The British citizens of Northern Ireland know that their interests will always be made subservient to those of their fellows in Great Britain who have the means to turn a Government out of office.
In Northern Ireland, the peace process is seen primarily as a mechanism for protecting Great Britain's economic interests rather than as one designed essentially to secure a democratic and permanent peace in NorthernIreland. The on-going discussions between scarcely rehabilitated--some might say dry cleaned--terrorists without any significant electoral support demonstrate the Government's true priority. Those same people are orchestrating the violence of the past few days.
Column 484The peace process is viewed as a disguise for marketing a political settlement acceptable to the two sovereign powers, regardless of how unpalatable it may be to the pro-Union majority. Indeed, the people of Northern Ireland believe that they, like the Czechs in 1938, are being asked to pay the price for England's peace.
The pro-Union people from both communities desperately seek and desire peace and a permanent cessation of violence, but they could have had that 25 years and 3,000 deaths ago at the price currently on offer. Peace is not to be found in the byzantine complexities of the framework document, which is designed to effect a policy, not to achieve a peace. Its clearly recognisable bias in favour of the single solution of Irish unity makes it patently unworkable. Peace, I believe, can be found in the policy that I have entered this House to advocate. It is to be found in a cross- community, pro-Union majority which eschews sectarian triumphalism and embraces the principle of pluralism and socio-economic politics. It has a voice that is pro-Union, rather than Unionist, and advocates a cause that deserves to be heard. It spans both communities, and commands an expanding centre which can isolate the extremes of both terror and violent rhetoric. It redefines the Union in a way that includes everyone and excludes no one. It offers subscription to a political identity without the sacrifice of ethnic pride and cultural heritage.
The bipartisan agreement between the Government and the Opposition has, paradoxically, not helped the cause of peace. It has been said that when this House is in tumult and filled with dissent, the real business of the people is receiving its attention, but that when this House is in pious and self-congratulatory agreement, the cause of liberty is often not well served. Those oppressed by the Government rightly rely on the Opposition to protect their rights and redress their grievances. When such help is not to be found, both freedom and justice suffer. Did I not, however, believe in the essential fairness of the British people as reflected in their representatives in this House, I should not have come here in the first place.
The declared policy of the Government is to preserve the Union, but in reality they offer--in the opinion of many--a policy of covert institutional coercion into a united Ireland. The policy is designed to buy off terrorists who retain the means of damaging the British economy. It has been said that the discussions should continue between the Government and the representatives of Sinn Fein, who everyone knows are nothing more than the political front or aspect of a violent Provisional IRA.
In this, as in many other matters, the British Government would perform the role of honest broker--some might say judge. But how can a judge deal with a situation impartially when he himself has an interest? The interests of the British Government are not, and never have been, entirely congruent with the interests of the British citizens of Northern Ireland. The policy is pursued against the will of a peaceful majority and of an entire community disgusted by the elevation of terrorist supporters to the role of statesmen. If there is one allegation or complaint made by the ordinary and decent people of Northern Ireland, it is an expression of disgust at seeing men and women, their hands still stained with the blood of innocents, being given an honoured place in discussions with representatives of Her Majesty's Government. There
Column 485seems to be no position that the Government say that they will defend to the end that the same Government do not retreat from within a matter of weeks.
One of the more novel aspects of political life in Northern Ireland is the remarkable semantic athleticism displayed by members of the Government team. Parallel progress is one term which I heard this evening for the first time. I add it to parity of esteem and a working assumption of permanence. All those terms are difficult to understand.
Parallel progress presumably means that there will be some equal movement in tandem by both sides to the argument. We have heard of troop withdrawals, roads being opened and observation posts being dismantled. Where is the parallel progress and balance being displayed by those terrorist organisations with whom the Government would seek to negotiate? They continue to train, to observe and monitor the whereabouts, the goings, the to-ings and fro-ings, of members of the security forces. They continue to test even more wicked and awful weapons of destruction.
I am so recently elevated from the ranks of the governed--not to the ranks of those who govern, but to the ranks of those who observe that process a little more closely--as to be able to make some comment of, I believe, an objective kind upon what ordinary people think. The ordinary people of Northern Ireland do not, I venture to say, see matters relating to the peace process with quite the optimism of Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
I should like to say something finally about the declared policy of new Labour, which is said to be unity by consent. I pose the Opposition this question: would they be equally dedicated to union by widespread consensus if that can be patently demonstrated? For my part, I believe that new Labour could be so persuaded, because I believe it to be a party of principle rather than expedience. [Interruption.] Yes, it is a party of principle because experience teaches those who live in Northern Ireland that the Labour party in office has given greater support to the maintenance of the Union than Her Majesty's Government of the Conservative party. That Government have been loyally followed through the Lobby over a lengthy period by my currently estranged colleagues of the Ulster Unionist party while the people of Northern Ireland have witnessed what they believe to be an on-going weakening of their constitutional position.
The cause of democracy demands an end to secret government and requires the restoration of an accountable Administration, reflecting the will of the overwhelming majority of those representative of the entire community in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): It is not merely the exercise of the conventions of the House that encourages me to congratulate the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) on his thoughtful and challenging address. He is, after all, my Member of Parliament as a resident of North Down, at least until the boundary revisions take place.
Column 486Mr. Robinson: The right hon. Gentleman no doubt hopes to be my Member of Parliament after the next election.
The hon. Member for North Down gave us a brief analysis of events in Northern Ireland, one with which I concur. That will not be a shock to the Secretary of State. I believe that the hon. Gentleman will make a valuable contribution to debates within the House. Many of us, having had a trailer this evening as he skirted the bounds of parliamentary convention, will look forward to the occasions when he can take the handbrake off and let loose in the House. My colleagues and I look forward to working closely with him in the years ahead. I believe that we can do so for the benefit of Ulster and its people and for the benefit of the Union that we cherish.
On the one hand, the debate this evening appears to be something of a ritual and, on the other hand, it could be said to be something of a fraud. The Secretary of State said that it was the renewal of direct rule. Those of us who live in Northern Ireland know that we do not have direct rule in Northern Ireland; it is anything but direct. The Secretary of State might be able to make that remark technically and legally, but everyone knows that he is almost the servant of Dublin. He can take no major decision without going, cap in hand, to seek the permission of the Dublin Government.
If that were not bad enough, the Secretary of State now finds himself further confined by having to take decisions within the parameters of Irish Republican Army acceptability. When the Government take decisions for domestic reasons that depart from that yardstick, they are quickly brought back into line by
IRA-orchestrated violence. Some of us will hold our breath in the next few weeks as we wait to see what sops will be offered to Republicans in order to balance--if that is a fair description--the release of Lee Clegg.
The Government have followed a Republican agenda. They have done so from 8 December 1980 when the former Prime Minister signed the Dublin communique , which put the totality of relationships within these islands on the table for discussion, and they have continued with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the Downing street declaration and now the framework document. The framework document, signed with the approval of John Bruton, sets up an all -Ireland body with a single purpose: to grow and grow until it exercises executive authority over the whole island of Ireland. Tory Members should blush when they reflect on how their party in government has betrayed the Unionists of Ulster.
After 25 years of terrorism, we are being induced to believe that the disease of terrorism has been cured because, by concession and capitulation, a means of achieving some moments of respite from the pain has been discovered. There is no inherent peace in such a process. It is a surrender package, varnished with a specious and a deceitful gloss. It contains nothing that answers its appearance. Behind the facade of continuing peace, Unionists are invited to yield and to relinquish their rights and liberties. Peace is offered on IRA terms and those who are not disposed to embrace it are branded as warmongers, wreckers and spoilers.
Meanwhile, the Provisional IRA continues to target and to train. It keeps its organisation intact while it stockpiles and develops new weapons. The IRA tells us that there is not--to quote one of its leading spokesmen
Column 487--a "snowball's chance in hell" of its handing over its weapons. During Prime Minister's Questions, the Prime Minister told us: "Prominent members of Sinn Fein were present at a number of those events. They are far from the only violent demonstrations organised by Sinn Fein in recent months. I think that everyone in Northern Ireland is aware of that fact".--[ Official Report , 4 July 1995; Vol. 263, c. 140.]
Everyone in Northern Ireland is indeed aware of that fact, but the Government have made a working assumption that the IRA has ended its violent campaign permanently. I asked the Secretary of State when he made his statement whether he would review his position in the event of violence and he said that he would do that. I hope that in his concluding remarks he will let us know what revision he has made of the IRA's permanent peace.
Meanwhile, the guiltless victims of IRA terrorism are despised and forgotten while their murderous oppressors are elevated and rewarded. Is it any wonder that we see around us in Northern Ireland a demoralised and alienated Unionist community that has been systematically and intentionally marginalised? Terrorists are promoted and, immune to the consequences of their actions, the Government pander to the tormentors of the community. They leave in their wake a community without faith in the political process, without trust in those who govern them, without belief that democratic methods can redress their grievances and, worst of all, without hope.
Under the cover of the renewal tonight, the Government, along with their Dublin partners, continue to pursue their all-Ireland programme. The Government raise a smokescreen to mask the betrayal by promising that their intentions will be subject to democratic consent. They do that by means of what the Prime Minister described as a triple-lock mechanism. I recall that the first of those mechanisms was that the agreement of political parties in Northern Ireland was required for the framework document proposal. As 13 of the 17 hon. Members representing Northern Ireland oppose that framework document, as do the two main Unionist parties representing the majority of people in Northern Ireland, does not the Secretary of State accept that there is not and will not be widespread acceptance of the framework proposals and, therefore, if the triple lock is to be applied and not to be considered a sham, the framework document should be ceremoniously shredded?
I believe that the Government have no intention of applying the triple lock or of giving the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to give or withhold their consent. The Government will learn that the principle of consent is not a device of political convenience to be offered and then denied. The principle of consent is more than a legal right. It is more than a political doctrine; it is a practical requirement. Without consent, Ulster cannot be governed and if the Government move to execute the framework programme the people of Northern Ireland will withdraw that consent. If, however, the Government wish to operate democratic principles in Northern Ireland and accept that consent does not exist for their framework proposals, they will find Unionists willing to work with them and co-operate in seeking arrangements that are capable of winning widespread power in the Province.
My colleagues and I have already submitted to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State an alternative talks process and alternative proposals for the
Column 488constitutional future of Northern Ireland. We are keen to talk to the Government about those proposals. We will not, however, enter into talks based on the rejected framework process, but if the Secretary of State seeks to engage us in those proposals which are workable and can receive the consent of a widespread section of our community, we are certainly willing to engage him in dialogue. I conclude for the sake of saving time, as other hon. Members wish to speak. The Government's present policy and their policies over all the years were based on the false assumption that there would inevitably be a united Ireland. I do not know whether they were convinced because of demographic changes or because they believed that the political argument had swung in that direction, but there is no inevitability about a united Ireland.
The strength of argument in Northern Ireland shows a growing support for the Union and a more inclusive support for it. There is nothing new about the concept of an inclusive Union; that was the concept of Carson to which every traditional Unionist should be adhering. I believe that the overwhelming majority of the people--Protestant and Roman Catholic--will continue to support the Union. Instead of basing their policies on the false assumption that the Union is to be overthrown and a united Ireland is inevitable, the Government should build policies based on the firm conviction that the Union will remain and determine how best Northern Ireland should be governed within that Union.
Mr. Mallon: We have heard not only the various strands of unionism which claim to represent all the people of the north of Ireland but the strand that emanates from the Government Front Bench. It has been an interesting pot pourri, and I have been trying to work out where all these strands of unionism coalesce. Of course they do not--for a very simple reason. There is no such thing as undiluted unionism, any more than there is such a thing as unadulterated nationalism. Tonight we have heard various attempts to define a form of unionism that best describes the mood and thoughts of the ordinary people of the north of Ireland.
The ordinary people of the north of Ireland think many things. They have many philosophies and many objectives, and they have a very sensitive approach to the political process. But the one thing of which they are sure is that the most valuable part of their lives now is the peace that is on them. The most valuable part of their lives, based on that peace, is the principle of consent which, for the first time, has been accepted on the island of Ireland by every political party, by the Irish Government, by the British Government, by all the nationalist parties in the north of Ireland and by the Republic of Ireland. I do not yet speak for Sinn Fein's position, because it has not yet defined it in this regard.
Column 489If I may make so bold, I would point out what ordinary unionists and ordinary nationalists are thinking about at the moment. First, they are thinking about the absence of violence and killing; that is precious and it must be defended by us all. Secondly, they are thinking about the principle of consent which the British Government, along with the Irish Government, have written into the entire political equation: into the Anglo-Irish agreement, the joint declaration and the joint framework document. So the precious element of consent, which is the very contradiction of violence, is built into those three documents--which are opposed, we are told, by all elements of political unionism. One wonders who is reading unionism aright.
I offer my congratulations to the new Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). I apologise for my little sedentary intrusion into his speech, but I do not think that it will be the last. I wish him well in this House, and I have no doubt that he will add to my confusion as to what real unionists in the north of Ireland think and want. 10.23 pm
Sir Patrick Mayhew: We have had a characteristically lively debate. A good many vintage vehicles have been brought out of the garage and, with more or less noisy exhausts, have contributed to an enjoyable concours d'e le gance.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) on his election. His majority might have been a little less if the Conservative candidate had not rejected my offer to canvass for him. He began with a gracious tribute to his predecessor, Sir James Kilfedder, which all who are present in the Chamber will have appreciated. He has a great example to follow. Sir James was, as the hon. Gentleman said, a most remarkably dedicated constituency Member. I think that all of us will wish to try to attend his memorial service, which takes place in the Palace tomorrow.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have been a little light. He took that approach in extolling the virtues of his new constituency, as is the custom. I can put things right. I was in the hon. Gentleman's constituency not very long ago, in Bangor. After an enjoyable visit to the council, I walked about with the mayor, Mr. Roy Bradford. It took me an hour and a quarter to travel 150 yd, so eager were the hon. Gentleman's new constituents to shake my hand, wish me well and urge me to keep up the good work.
Column 490I thank the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) for her welcome to me. As for the status of the team, it is well established and all its members are back. We all think ourselves very fortunate.
I also thank the hon. Member for Redcar for the way in which she has responded to the Government's approach and the responsibilities of Opposition in the context of security in Northern Ireland. I hope that it will not do her a lot of damage if I say that I regard her attitude as highly responsible. I acknowledge that the hon. Lady is a doughty opponent on other matters of policy where she regards it as entirely right and proper to depart from the view that the Government are taking. That is an entirely proper line to take.
We have said that in the lifetime of this Parliament we shall not proceed with the privatisation of water supply, not least because of the extremely Byzantine problems that are to be found in charging arrangements. We need not take further time about that.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) is well known for not going overboard in responding to immediate changes. He is fairly canny, as most people would acknowledge with admiration. The right hon. Gentleman might have acknowledged that some 10 months have passed in which there has been an enormous reduction of terrorist violence. He might have acknowledged also that the economy has taken a pretty substantial turn for the better, that unemployment is falling fast and that employment is rising. I felt that he approached what he had to say in a negative way to which we are not accustomed. I am grateful, however, that he said that, looking to the future, he was optimistic. He was right to say that. I hope that the hon. Member for North Down will come also to share the optimism that--
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Order [19 December].
Question agreed to.
That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 12th June, be approved.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.),
That the draft Trade Union and Labour Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 20th June, be approved.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]
Question agreed to.
Warley (Secure Unit)
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I beg to present a petition on behalf of my constituents within the village of Warley within my constituency. The petition contains more than 1,300 signatures. It represents the majority of the village of Warley, which is concerned about the granting of planning permission to itself by Essex county council to construct a secure unit. The petition reads:
To the House of Commons
The Petition of residents of the Parliamentary Constituency of Brentwood and Ongar Declares that they are opposed to the erection of a secure unit at Boyles Court on the grounds of the erosion of the Metropolitan Green Belt, impact on a Grade II Listed Building, loss of several mature trees and on grounds of public safety.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons do urge the Secretary of State for the Environment to review the granting of Planning Permission to itself for the development of a Secure Unit at Boyles Court, Warley, Brentwood, Essex.
And the Petitioners remain in duty bound to this honourable House.
To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): I hoped--and still hope--to raise some of the problems facing asthma sufferers, but I had not bargained on having to make a speech just a day after a leadership challenge and on the night of a reshuffle. One's chances of getting some coverage in the newspapers tomorrow morning may be severely curtailed because of the remarkable events that have occurred.
The background to the debate is simple. There are now more than 3 million asthma sufferers in Britain. Reports quote some 2,000 deaths nationally due to asthma every year, of which it is estimated that 80 per cent. are preventable. Research shows that 13 per cent. of children aged five to 17 have been diagnosed with asthma. The cost to the national health service in terms of prescriptions is astronomical--about £400 million a year--and the number of prescriptions has increased by more than three quarters in the past 10 years. In addition, the cost to the economy is something in the region of 7 million working days a year, £70 million in sickness benefit and £400 million in lost productivity.
Why is the problem getting worse? Why is asthma the only treatable chronic condition in the western world which is increasing in frequency and severity? I suggest that there are various reasons. One that has been much in the news recently is house dust mites, which thrive in badly ventilated houses. We suspect that additional problems are caused by diet, smoking and traffic pollution with which I shall deal in a moment.
There is a great deal of confusion among the public about the extent of the problem because conflicting messages are reaching them through the press. Many of those messages are scare stories. A recent report stated that asthma cases had doubled over the past 20 years and that one in five children suffered asthma symptoms after exercising. Another report said that 7 per cent. of boys and 8 per cent. of girls were taking medication for asthma. Those contentions need to be validated. My hon. Friend the Minister could do a lot worse than to commission studies enabling accurate statistics to be put across. Although I do not dispute the figures, the reports are evidence of great concern.
In Leicestershire, a county of which I am proud to represent a part, an average of 20 people die from asthma each year, and there are approximately 50,000 sufferers there. A third of the people with asthma in Leicestershire have a substantial amount of time off work, and a third of asthmatic children are confined to bed for up to 10 days a year. A quarter of all the children with asthma have restricted sporting activity, and two thirds lose substantial time at school. In Leicestershire, we are addressing the problem through an asthma strategy group, which has been set up with the specific objective of increasing awareness through a guidelines pack, which is readily available, by supporting a school nurse asthma project for training nurses in schools, and by encouraging the development of parent support groups.
Column 493Leicestershire is at the forefront of counties which are addressing the problem of asthma, and I suggest to my hon. Friend that there are some lessons there that could be taken on board nationally. Leicestershire has made asthma a priority. The steering groups's developments include agreement for funding the appointment of a district asthma co-ordinator, the redistribution of £10,000 from the "Health of the Nation" budget, the development of a disease specification, which will be introduced in 1995-96, and the appointment of asthma nurse specialists in all acute units. The objectives in the local plan include a review of the adoption and implementation of clinical standards, asthma training for 90 per cent. of local nurses by 1995-96, and an audit of hospital admissions.
Those initiatives, with the new nurse practitioner network and a community awareness and public education campaign, have greatly assisted the people who suffer from asthma in my constituency and elsewhere in the county to address the problem. Furthermore, in Hinckley, the main town in my constituency, there was sufficient concern about asthma for an asthma support group to be set up and for the mayor to choose asthma as her charity for the year. That demonstrates the concern on the ground. I have met parents in the Royal Infirmary in Leicester and in Hinckley who are members of that group and discussed their problems with them. Asthma is a terrifying experience for the parents of children who suffer from it. What is important about the support groups is that they help parents to understand the condition, to understand the treatment, why it is necessary, how to respond to the changes, the different uses for inhaled drugs, peak flow meters and the difference between preventive and symptomatic treatments. There is nothing more frightening than to have a child with asthma and not know what to do about it. I declare an interest as my own son has suffered from asthma and I speak from the heart when I say that it is a very frightening experience.
Leicester city, which I do not represent, also has its own initiatives. Time prevents me from going into them in detail tonight, but pollution levels are certainly a concern. To my mind, pollution on the roads is one of the key problems that we have to address as we try to come to grips with this illness, which is on the increase. I believe that small-scale measures could achieve great effects. My hon. Friend on the Front Bench does not, as yet, represent the Department of Transport, but the need for measures to reduce the number of vehicles emitting diesel fumes is evident. There is scope for discussions with petrol supply and retail industries with a view to securing the introduction of stage II pump controls. There should be more research into the health effects of PM10s from diesel fumes. Anybody who drives along the M1, as my hon. Friend and I do many times when travelling to our constituencies, will be aware of the problems that those fumes cause.
I referred to the issue of dust mites in the home. This is a little closer to my hon. Friend's Department. Not a lot is known about dust mites, but they cause problems for small children. These minuscule bugs live in eiderdowns and blankets. We must educate people about the problems caused to asthma sufferers by blankets that are not properly sterilised and cleaned. That could be done by means of an extended education programme.
Column 494I also believe--my hon. Friend will say that this is not his Department's responsibility, but he may wish to pass it on to his colleague at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food--that oilseed rape causes a problem, with those vast fields of yellow flowers that we see in the countryside nowadays. A couple of years ago my family stayed in a house surrounded by such fields, and I have no doubt that the gas, or scent, emanating from the flowers contributed to the respiratory problems that we experienced at the time--although I confess that my research in the Library was inconclusive.
I have referred to some of the difficulties experienced by asthma sufferers, and some possible solutions. Westminster council has a welcome solution to the problem of traffic fumes: on-the-spot fines. A possible solution whose importance is underestimated, however, is alternative treatment. As my hon. Friend knows, I have been treasurer of the parliamentary group for alternative and complementary medicine for many years, and I believe that alternative medicine has a great deal to offer asthma sufferers. My son was treated by a homeopathic doctor. The Department of Health could do much worse than recognise the possibilities.
I should say, in fairness to my hon. Friend the Minister, that his colleague Baroness Cumberlege recognises the need to integrate alternative medicine into the health service generally. I believe that a number of alternative treatments are relevant to asthma--not just homeopathy, but Chinese medicine and acupuncture. It is important for fundholding general practitioners and hospital doctors to understand the scope of the alternative treatments that are available. We should aim for integration of alternative and complementary medicine into the health service; my colleagues and I have campaigned for that for a long time. We also want health authorities and GPs fundholders to be free to purchase complementary therapies that would help asthma sufferers.
As I have said, Leicestershire has been at the forefront in dealing with asthma. There are some very good support groups, such as the one in Hinckley, which help parents to understand the difficulties. There are two national requirements. First, there is poor co-ordination between the different groups responsible for asthma; voluntary groups do not have enough resources to co-ordinate their activities. My hon. Friend's Department could act decisively and effectively in that regard. Secondly, the Government could take a leaf out of Leicestershire's book and make asthma a priority in their programme. Leicestershire health authority has set aside additional resources, having reached an agreement on funding and redistributed resources from its budget.
How effective it would be if my hon. Friend the Minister could tell us tonight that the Government will make dealing with asthma a "Health of the Nation" key objective. I believe that if he did so he would win many friends throughout the country. Asthma is perhaps the only illness of its kind that is on the increase, and affects people of all ages. We have much work to do. If my hon. Friend cannot give us an undertaking tonight to make asthma a "Health of the Nation" key objective, will he please consider the possibility in the near future?
Column 495raising this subject, and I commend Leicestershire health authority for the priority that it clearly attaches to asthma treatment. In doing so, it mirrors in an effective way the concerns of my Department about the burden that results from asthma, and about its increasing prevalence. I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the dreadful effects that that condition can have for children, and, indeed, for their parents.
As my hon. Friend knows, asthma is estimated to affect about 4 per cent. of the population sufficiently severely for them to require regular medical supervision. We would estimate that there are some 2 million sufferers in England, or perhaps 2.5 million sufferers in the United Kingdom. A broad range of statistics on asthma was brought together in "Asthma: An Epidemiological Overview", which was produced by my Department and which I launched on 22 March this year. Recently, I supplied my hon. Friend with a copy, and I hope that he found it useful.
Asthma costs the national health service a vast sum. The figure is about £450 million a year, of which £380 million represents NHS prescriptions. General practitioner consultations, hospital admissions and prescriptions for drugs used in asthma treatment suggest that the prevalence has been on the increase for many years. We do not, of course, know the causes for certain, but it is likely that they are connected with both genetic and environmental factors. It has been suggested by the media and by some doctors that the recent rise in prevalence is related to increasing levels or changing patterns of exposure to air pollutants, particularly those related to motor vehicles.
As yet, there is no proven relationship between such pollution and asthma. Increasing levels of asthma have been recorded in countries such as Sweden, Fiji and New Zealand, which do not suffer from high levels of air pollutants. Other factors would seem to be involved, including air quality, maternal smoking and diet.
Episodes of poor air quality make the health of some people with asthma worse by increasing either the frequency or severity of asthma attacks, but trigger factors, as they are known, for asthma also include other substances in the environment which induce allergic reactions. As my hon. Friend has said, those include house dust mites, pollen, fungal spores, respiratory infections such as cold and flu, and events such as exercise, emotion and stress. Some trigger factors could clearly be more easily avoided, such as exposure to cold air, to which some asthma sufferers are particularly susceptible, pets and animals, some medicines such as aspirin, and cigarette smoke. I was interested to hear my hon. Friend's comments on the possible effects of road traffic emissions on asthma sufferers. I mentioned that the effect of traffic emissions on asthma remains uncertain. Although air pollution can exacerbate symptoms, the evidence suggests that air pollution is not the main factor triggering asthma attacks in those who are susceptible to them. Nevertheless, we remain concerned to investigate those issues further and to do what is reasonable to reduce undesirable effects of traffic emissions, which may have other effects, as well as those on asthma sufferers. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Government have developed proposals for improved management of air quality, set out in the document "Meeting the Challenge",