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Mr. Blunkett: I do not want to be totally facetious, but they would have to work a damn sight better than my mobile phone works.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): I welcome my right hon. Friend's incremental approach to this subject. Of course, the brand-new thing being proposed is the introduction of encrypted information on the cards. Will he consider setting up some kind of independent regulator, such as the Data Protection Registrar, who could be approached by members of the public who want to check the contents of their cards, because that has been a very important aspect of controlling data protection until now?

Mr. Blunkett: First, the commissioner has offered to work closely with us in making sure that what we do is compliant. Secondly, I have made it clear that Parliament must lay down what is held on the chip, and that anything held on the chip over and above that would be illegal if we had not authorised it. In years to come, individuals may request that their cards hold their emergency treatment requirements, but that will be a different matter entirely.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): The Home Secretary is well aware of my strong support, and that of my constituents, for his proposals. Can he tell the House what comments he has received so far from the police in relation to the concept of the introduction of ID cards?

Mr. Blunkett: The police service at every level are in favour of them, and they understand the parameters, as I have laid them down this afternoon, within which they would work.

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Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, as an old-fashioned socialist who believes in state provision from the cradle to the grave and the planned economy that is necessary for that provision, I believe that it is essential that we have some idea for whom and for how many we are providing? An identity scheme could help us to do just that and to cut out the cost of those who do not qualify.

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend and I agree with the thrust of her question. I shall reserve my position for the future and think about the question of the planned economy.

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Points of Order

1.31 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am concerned about a letter that I received from an editor of a major newspaper following queries that I had raised about sexual harassment and bullying at News International. The letter was a thinly disguised attempt to warn me off.

I recently received an unsolicited copy of a letter to News International's lawyers from a firm representing a victim of serious sexual harassment. The allegations had been made against Stuart Higgins, one-time editor of The Sun. I understand that the eventual settlement involved a payment of about half a million pounds, with a condition of silence imposed on the victim. As far as I am aware, no proper disciplinary hearings took place and other senior staff appear to have colluded with what was by any standard extremely offensive and destructive behaviour.

The police were not called when hate mail was being sent to the victim on News International stationery. I do not know whether either the offence or the settlement was reported to Rupert Murdoch, although I think that that would have been likely. There was no attempt to deal with the underlying problem of sexual harassment and bullying, and my contacts tell me that it was not an isolated case. The solicitors' letter tends to confirm that.

I must raise this matter with you, Mr. Speaker, because after I had written to Les Hinton, the chief executive of News International, I received a letter from Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun. The letter asked me how many complaints of sexual harassment had been made to me, while chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, by my staff—the parliamentary Labour party staff—and by MPs' staff. In fact, I had received none. It is impossible to see the letter as anything other than a threat, as I had not approached any editors—I had approached only the chief executive's office.

It must be a matter of serious public concern when a major multinational media group uses its editors to threaten a Member of Parliament who is carrying out a legitimate inquiry into that group's employment practices. As I am asking other employees who also suffered abuse to contact me or their lawyers, it is important that editors and management understand that this House will not tolerate explicit or implicit threats against its Members when carrying out their proper duties. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to make it clear that Members of Parliament have those duties, and that they should be allowed to pursue them without threats or warnings of any type. I am a strong defender of legitimate investigative journalism, but the press cannot and should not expose others while covering up their own problems.

Mr. Speaker: In order to help the hon. Gentleman, the best thing that I can do is fully to investigate this matter. If he will allow me, I will do so.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You did a great job in allowing dozens of Members of Parliament to speak in response to the statement, but a large number—perhaps a dozen—were unfortunately not able to make their

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points. May I ask you again, as the guardian of Back Benchers' rights, to ensure that Front Benchers do not take more than half the time allocated for the statement? May I please ask you to consider that matter again, as I know that you have done previously?

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I do not think that the Front-Bench statements today were unduly long, but there have been occasions when some Ministers and Opposition spokesmen have taken an undue length of time with their statements, and I will bear that in mind.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on the announcement by the new shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), whom I informed of my intention to make this point of order, that he intends to retain his remunerated directorship with the investment banking arm of N. M. Rothschild and Sons Ltd. Could not such an arrangement be misinterpreted as lobbying for reward or consideration, even when such lobbying was inadvertent and arose out of the normal duties of the shadow Chancellor? What is your advice in relation to such potential conflicts of interest?

Mr. Speaker: My advice to the hon. Gentleman is not to raise such a matter on the Floor of the House. It is not a matter for me.

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Group Personal Accident Insurance (Regulation)

1.36 pm

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): I beg to move,

This Bill aims to regulate group personal accident insurance, otherwise known as dead peasants' insurance.May I begin by congratulating the Scottish press on highlighting this sharp practice and, more so, the Scottish Trades Union Congress on its support and advice in preparing the Bill.

There are many disturbing aspects to group personal accident insurance, and none more so than employers being able to take out life insurance on their employees without the knowledge or consent of that employee or their family. Employers can then cash in the policy when the employee dies and keep the money for corporate coffers.

Group accident cover includes compensation for death, loss of limbs and so on, and explicitly states that the company may be the sole beneficiary of such a policy. That appears to suggest that a company can be the beneficiary of a policy when an employee has died or lost a limb without them or their family ever having realised that the policy existed. The criteria for compensation would appear to be attached to the loss that the individual will suffer rather than that of the firm. If that is the case, it is entirely inappropriate that the company should be the beneficiary.

That begs the question: how is compensation for the loss of a limb by an individual reconcilable with compensating the company? I may be old-fashioned, but I find it obscene that employers can profit from the death of their employees. It also has the potential to undermine safety at the workplace. What is equally concerning is the ambiguous position that surrounds any direct or indirect tax exemptions for companies that indulge in this immoral practice. I hope that this Bill, if successful, will flush out those companies that participate in such a scheme, and legislate against the practice.

To date, it has been extremely difficult to establish detailed facts relating to which companies are exploiting this system due to their reluctance to volunteer any information, although it is estimated by some industry insiders that those types of policies account for 30 per cent. of the life insurance market. Indeed, a study carried out in 2002 for Royal Sun Alliance by Continental Research found that nearly half all mid-sized or smaller UK companies take out such policies or similar ones, such as key-man insurance policies, which are targeted mainly at chief executives.

The clandestine practice has been imported into the UK from America, where there is anecdotal evidence of corporate profit being made from the untimely deaths of employees. For example, a young man in America died of AIDS, and although his employer received more than £200,000 in death benefits, his family did not receive a single penny—or cent—from the company. The major cases that are being pursued in various states in America

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against dead peasants' insurance centre on the tax situation regarding the schemes. It is possible, in some states, for the premiums to be tax deductible, even if there is a corporate beneficiary. The situation in the UK is, at best, unclear. There appear to be circumstances in which premiums could be tax deductible, but I am unable at this point to be more specific about something that is fraught with complications.

The implications of the schemes for health and safety in the workplace are more important. It could be argued that it is unrealistic to propose that the existence of such policies has a direct link to undermining health and safety at work in the UK, although such a link has been made in America. However, companies are allowed to choose whether the policy should be confined to covering accidents at work or accidents that happen anywhere.

A more direct link can be made with best practice culture. The trade union movement rightly argues that the best care of employees is of benefit to both employees and employers. Any insurance policy that mitigates the damage to the employer of not following best practice should be viewed as highly suspect.

The Bill would not stop good employers taking out life insurance for their employees, but it would provide that they should ask for the consent of employees and their families beforehand. The policies should not be a vehicle for making profits for a company.

Like the Government, the whole trade union movement and I want British business to invest in best practices for staff development and consultation, health and safety and effective management structures. Group personal accident insurance will make no positive contribution toward that, but it has the potential to undermine employee confidence.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Jim Sheridan, Mr. John Lyons, Jim Dobbin, Anne Picking, David Hamilton, Mr. Siôn Simon and Mr. John MacDougall.

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