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Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): In response to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), I agree that young people are switched off by party politics, but they often have a great interest in politics in a wider sense. They are very much involved in a big campaign that is taking place at the momentMake Poverty History. They have great concern about environmental matters, the quality of life generally, and issues of war such as the invasion of Iraq, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We need to realise that it is not the case that there is nothing out there as far as younger generations are concernedthere is a great deal, but politicians need to focus on making things seem relevant to them. I want to speak about young people, but in a different sense from their involvement in party politics.
When parents have their lives shattered by the actions or failures of others in relation to their children, they often experience a deep-seated need for a form of official recognition of their plight. When that is not forthcoming, the deep psychological scars that they have experienced can never be fully lifted from their lives. I shall give three examples of what I mean.
First, like many other hon. Members, I have a constituent whose adult son was killed by a reckless driver, but the courts did not deliver a significant decision against the culprits. My constituent now feels
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that his son's life was undervalued. I knew the son and was dealing with a Child Support Agency case on his behalf.
Secondly, I have parents in my constituency who, years after suffering the trauma of their child's death in hospital, discovered that Sheffield children's hospital held a wide range of slides and blocks of their late child, with other body parts having been disposed of following a coroner's post-mortem. Yet the official recognition that eventually emerges in hospital post-mortem cases has not emerged in their child's case, and they still therefore feel aggrieved. The mother once said to me that after her child's death she had the comfort of knowing that no one could take away her memories of him, but that is exactly what the body part revelations did to her.
The third case is the one on which I wish to concentrateit is that of Christopher Butcher from Dronfield in my constituency, where I also live. Christopher is much the same age as my own sonapproaching 37. In normal circumstances, they would have known each other, attending the same classes in the same school, but Christopher suffers profound disabilities and irreversible brain damage. Although he obtains day care from the social services of Derbyshire county council, his parents look after him, and as they become older the task becomes greater and they worry about his future. They have compelling reasons to believe that his condition was caused by the whooping cough vaccinean issue to which they were alerted by publicity in 1977when Christopher was nine years old.
I have been involved with Christopher's case throughout my entire parliamentary career of 18 years. Indeed, my predecessor, the late Ray Ellis, also dealt with it. I first met Mr. and Mrs. Butcher shortly after I first arrived here in 1987. I cannot use this Adjournment debate to help to open a door to obtain official recognition of the reasons why Christopher was robbed of his normal life, for each door has long since been firmly closed, although I, and especially Mrs. Butcher, kept trying to prise those doors open. All that I can now do, in what is probably my final Commons speech before retirement, is to put a few words on the record so that at least Mr. and Mrs. Butcher can feel that Parliament has heard something of their case.
Mr. and Mrs. Butcher have tried numerous avenues, including the family practitioner committee, numerous Ministers in Conservative and Labour Administrations, solicitors, the Association of Parents of Vaccine Damaged Children, the vaccine damage tribunal and the Solicitors Complaints Bureauthe latter because one of their solicitors had links with the consultant with whom they were in dispute. Their efforts always fell foul of a series of standard barriers. First, too much time was said to have elapsed since Christopher was given the vaccine in 1968. Secondly, the balance of arguments was said to go against them. Thirdly, new evidence was insisted on, but when it was provided, in what we called a leaked letter, it was dismissed for the balance-of-argument reason again.
I always thought that, in reality, the balance told in favour of Mr. and Mrs. Butcher's case. The timing of the vaccination shortly preceded the onset of brain damage. The leaked letter that I mentioned showed medical evidence that the probability was that an error had been
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made in Christopher's hospital treatment, while the solicitor, who had links with Christopher's consultant, failed to advise Mr. and Mrs. Butcher of a closing date for applications to the vaccine damage tribunal.
"that in 1968 two batches (3741 and 3732), each batch containing an estimated 60,000 individual doses, never passed key toxicity tests. One batch was 14 times more potent than the British standard doses, the other batch 16 times more potent. A further 14 batches were not tested at all and some experts now believe these batches could be the reason for a massive rise in reported adverse reaction to whooping cough vaccine."
Mrs. Butcher's strongest point is that, as a baby, Christopher was in hospital with meningitis and made a good recovery. However, he was then immunised despite the fact that Department of Health guidelines, which she did not know about at the time, said that that should not happen in such cases. I quote from a letter that she wrote to me on 28 June 2000:
"Clear contra indications make this the worst type of vaccine damage because it could and should have been avoided. These contra indications set by the Department of Health came into being in 1956 to safeguard children like Christopher who suffered a serious neurological illness to protect them against vaccination. These safeguards were issued to all prescribing GPs in 1957. As you are aware, Christopher made a full and complete recovery from this illness"
My files on the case are extensive, and in the time available to me today I have been able to give only a flavour of the matters involved. I just hope that Mr. and Mrs. Butcher will feel that a few minutes in the Commons, where they have heard about their son's plight and their grievances, provide something for them, and that they will recognise that their MP, having whittled away at aspects of their case over the years, felt it important enough to give it his final parliamentary spot for a full speech.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who has demonstrated yet again, after a distinguished parliamentary career, that speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves is a very important role for every Member of this House. I am grateful to him for how he presented the case, and I have a similar task.
Following previous recess debates, the Deputy Leader of the House has been meticulous in obtaining answers to the questions that we have raised, even if some of those answers have been far from illuminating. He may recall that I have raised on several occasions the alarming case of Sergeant Steven Roberts, the first British casualty in the Iraq invasion, who came from Wadebridge in my constituency.
Today happens to be exactly the second anniversary of his avoidable, unnecessary and truly tragic death. Hon. Members may remember that Steve died because he had to give back his enhanced combat body armourwhich, it is now accepted, would have saved his lifedue to the Ministry of Defence's failure to
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ensure sufficient supply of that essential protection. All the evidence is that if he had been wearing the ECBA, he would still be alive today.
As I pointed out as long ago as the recess debate before Christmas in 2003on 18 December 2003, at column 1753the National Audit Office reported that no fewer than 200,000 sets of vital equipment had been "lost" by the MOD in the previous few years, and nothing had been done to remedy the discrepancy in the long months of preparation leading up to the Iraq war. I note in passing that today's report from the Select Committee on Defence points to yet more discrepancies and inadequacies in the preparations made by the Ministry of Defence both before and since the invasion.
Sergeant Roberts's family were told at an early stage that the fatal shot might well have come from a colleague's weapona sad case of so-called friendly fire. However, the fact that it was fatal was due entirely to the lack of effective protection.
On 19 January 200414 months agoI took Steve's widow Samantha, his mother and his brother to meet the Secretary of State. We were given an explicit promise that the investigation would be completed as soon as possible, that he would meet us again when it was, and that the MOD would not dodge its responsibilities. He even accepted that he and the Ministry would face up to the consequences of the logistics failure.
Some 14 months later, that has not happened. Instead, there have been constant attempts to pass the buck and shift the blame. Talk of courts martial and of the Metropolitan police examining the case for a prosecution of the unfortunate other members of Sergeant Roberts's unit all have the unpleasant stench of a search for scapegoats. Meanwhile, his widow Samantha Roberts and her solicitor await confirmation of the previous informal hints of accepted liability.
All Members will recognise that I have a duty to demand a proper explanation from Defence Ministers to establish what is going on. The family have surely waited far too long for a full explanation and for justice. I know that they share my frustration that lessons still seem not to have been learned from the episode. We cannot even be sure that such an avoidable tragedy will not be repeated.
As it happens, I have also been involved as a Member in a number of exercises to try to support and assist service families. There are many in the south-west, but obviously other Members here will represent them, too. Successive Governments have not treated service families with the respect and consideration that they should have. For example, ever since the first Gulf war, there have been all too many examples of veterans whose health has been devastated by their service. My particular interest in the chronic long-term effects of exposure to organophosphate pesticides has led me to work for some years with the Royal British Legion to seek a fully independent and expert investigation. Whether the impact was simply from OP poisons, the combined effect with the cocktail of inoculations, or some other exposures, many troopshundreds and possibly thousandswere sent to one of the most dangerous war zones on our behalf and placed at extra risk to their health by the MOD. Some have died, and many others have had their lives and livelihoods ruined as a result.
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Surely that is no way to encourage recruitment to and retention in the armed forces. Is it any wonder that the armed services are having such difficulty in that respect? As we all know, it is service families who often provide new recruits, and the way in which they have been treated has done great harm to our national interest.
As it happens, we in the Gulf war group in the Royal British Legion eventually succeeded, despite rather than because of ministerial interest, in securing an independent inquiry into Gulf war illnesses, headed by Lord Lloyd. I have challenged the Prime Minister to permit Ministers and civil servants to give evidence to that inquiry, but without success. Although, clearly, its robust conclusions give victims at long last some sense that their fate and needs are being recognised, that is no thanks to the Ministry of Defence.
That group, of course, is a cross-party group, and from my experience in the House, I believe that many of us can perform an important function through cross-party work on such issues. My most constructive and rewarding preoccupations have been on a cross-party basis, and I like to think that such activity has been even more important than my contribution as a Front-Bench representative of my party and even as my party's Chief Whip. I am proudest, however, of my occasional role as a facilitator and catalyst for such cross-party initiatives. I hope that the House will forgive me if I comment briefly on the way in which we operate in that respect, as I suspect that, like other Members today, this speech will be my swansong.
In addition to the all-party organophosphates group that I formed and have chaired since 1992, which has made some progress, I have been a humble contributor to the Parliament First group, led by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), which has done important work in identifying the way in which Parliament can improve its scrutiny of the Executive. I have worked in the Modernisation Committee, which has made improvements, on a cross-party basis, to the way in which the House operates. I am also currently engaged in the Hansard Society commission, Parliament in the Public Eye, which is chaired by the noble Lord Puttnam. I hope that that will report soon after the election with helpful, positive and constructive suggestions as to the way in which Parliament can restore its authority and reputation.
As Members might know, I recently brought together a cross-party team of experienced parliamentarians, such as the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), to kick-start again the movement towards reform of the other end of the building, which I believe to be both urgent and extremely necessary if Parliament is to re-establish its authority collectively.
I am devoted to this place and what it represents. I am even more convinced than when I returned here, however, that we must deal with the essentially wasteful, trivialising and disenchanting nature of a great deal of the confrontational exchanges here. The ritual of mock mediaeval jousting in a mock mediaeval palace should be put into the dustbin of history.
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The main change in Parliament between my first brief appearance in 1974 and my return in 1992 was the emergence and evolution of Select Committees. The contrast between the proceedings in this Chamber and in the replica line-up in Standing Committees on Bills, and the more consensual work in which we are all involved, across parties, in the best Select Committees, is marked. Select Committees provide genuine and effective accountability. Any Member who might have doubts about that should read the annual report of the Liaison Committee, which shows that Select Committees are ensuring effective accountability and making sure that the Government are scrutinised effectively.
Bill Committees, however, are now certainly the weakest link in the whole process of legislative scrutiny. They cannot remain unreformed for much longer if we are to produce better legislation and enhance the reputation of Parliament. I spent this morning in the Inquiries Bill Committee, on which a Government Member sits who also happened to be a member of the Select Committee that has been considering those issues. The cross-fertilisation of such careful scrutiny does not come across into the consideration of legislation, however, which is surely a major weakness in the way in which the House operates.
Let us also contrast the absurd music hall performances at noon every Wednesday with the real interrogation of the Prime Minister in Portcullis House twice a year. That truly provides more light than heat, and shows Parliament operating more effectively. I give full credit to the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Livingston, for persuading the Prime Minister to submit himself to those two-and-a-half hours of solo investigation, and to the Prime Minister for being persuaded. I suspect that any future Prime Minister who sought to step back from that would be held to ridicule.
I am also proud of my small role in the introduction of Westminster Hall sittings, which have enabled Back-Bench Members of all parties, and perhaps Government Back Benchers especially, to probe and question without the artificial us-versus-them bias that we enjoy across this divide. The shape of the room, as with Select Committees, reflects the multi-party, pluralist character of our Parliament, at long last catching up with the end of the two-party system in the country at large.
I am delighted, too, by the progressstill limited but usefulin improving access by the electorate to the decision-making process here. I do not mean the expensive, in my view, and certainly long-term development of a visitor centre, but the two-way, interactive electronic engagement that is now possible between our work and the work outside. The Modernisation Committee report, "Connecting Parliament with the Public", has some useful contributions to make to the process, and I hope that the necessary resources will be provided in the new Parliament.
I leave the House with mixed feelingswith some achievements, I hope, but much unfinished business. Having been heavily involved in every election since 1964, I will no doubt have terrible withdrawal symptoms. Indeed, I may need some clinical treatment to help me to deal with the political addiction. On that cheerful note, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish you, and all my colleaguesin all parts of the Housea very happy Easter and very best wishes for whatever lies in store for them in the next few weeks.
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