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The Home Secretary is always in charge of anything he is doing. He may not be in charge for too long, as he has a habit of moving on, but
whenever he is at the head of a Department, he is certainly in charge, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman should address his questions to that particular right hon. Member.
Finally, I want to deal with Iraq. Making the Loyal Address on 20 February 1923, a Mr. Lambert, speaking for the Liberal party, which was not the official Opposition at the time, moved an amendment to the effect that
we humbly suggest there should be an immediate and drastic curtailment of British responsibilities in Mesopotamia.
In the last Parliament, thanks to the brilliant oratorical imagery of Mr. Winston Churchill, who conjured up visions of a new millennium, the resurrection of Nebuchadnezzar and the rebuilding of Nineveh, the facts were somewhat obscured. To-day I hope we shall come down from the soaring mists of imagination to solid earth. When an advance was made to Basra in 1914, it was a very proper precaution, and I suggest that it would be unwise if we now evacuated that port. But since then our advance into Mesopotamia has been one of long misfortune, mingled with some momentary and futile triumphs. The Mesopotamian policy throughout has been disastrous strategically and profligate financially.[ Official Report, 20 February 1923; Vol. 160, c. 865.]
On the subject of the lessons of history, it is clear that the Prime Minister does not have much time for the subject. He is always talking about the future, although as I listened to the Labour conference, I understood that he recognises that he is not the future for long. The lessons of history would have been very useful for the Prime Minister over the last few years. He would have benefited from looking at the lessons from our previous policy in Mesopotamia.
I find it extraordinary that the House should tolerate the position in which a Prime Minister considers it proper to give video evidence to a congressional commission in the United States of America, yet does not think it a requirement of a Prime Minister who has led this country into a disastrous conflict over a period of three years to state his strategy to Parliament or the people. That is truly extraordinary, regardless of the politics of whether people are for or against the war and regardless of a variety of notions about how to extract ourselves from the nightmare. It seems to me that those who have led us into this blood-soaked quagmire have something of a responsibility to tell the rest of us how they intend to extricate us from it.
In common with many hon. Members, I have received many representations on the issue. Today I received a phone call and subsequent e-mail from Dr. Kamal Ketuly, who is chairman of the committee for the release of hostages and detainees in Iraq and who has campaigned since 1980. He suffered grievously under the Saddam regime and opposed it as eloquently as he could both internationally and here in this country at a time when British Governments were rather friendly to that regime. Speaking as a Kurd about the present situation, he says that his views have been sidelined. He continues by saying that
serious mistakes have been made in Iraq which has now led to the establishment of the Iraq study group to try to find a solution for the current escalation of violence and the disintegration of the country.
I have never heard him more distressed or concerned about the current position. He has never been more convinced of the disastrous nature of the present strategy, particularly when there is no end game whatever, just a continuation of the present disaster.
Evidence from Carne Ross to the Foreign Affairs Committee last week is also revealing. If anyone doubts that the dossier was sexed up, I would advise them to read the evidence of that former high-ranking diplomat, who was closely involved in the preparation of the Foreign Office position. One particular point is worthy of repetition, so I shall quote from a BBC news report:
In other evidence to the committee, Mr Ross said the Foreign Offices official view before the build-up to war began was that an invasion would lead to chaos.
We have been told by the Prime Ministerthis has been repeated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough and others and refuted in excellent terms by the former Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), even though I did not agree with his proposalsthat it is somehow not possible for us to inquire, investigate and have a strategic rethink or assessment of the position in Iraq because that would send the wrong signals to our armed forces. In that case, how is it possible for America to have not one, but two current inquiries and assessmentsthe congressional one and now the White House one that was announced todayinto the Iraqi policy? How is it possible that the nearly 200,000 American men in Iraq are not demoralised by the assessments going on in the United States but that our, by comparison, limited force will be demoralised by the thought that Parliament is investigating or demanding from the Executive a reassessment of strategy? The only thing that demoralises our forces in Iraq and elsewhere is the idea that their elected representatives have been reduced to mere ciphers who meekly accept any nonsense that comes forward and do not do their constitutional duty of demanding from the Government an account, rethink, strategic assessment and exit strategy from this appalling, bloody quagmire into which they have led us.
I see nothing in this Queens Speech that will be strong enough, big enough or firm enough to provide the legacy for which the Prime Minister is so obviously waiting. As the former leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), once said, I believe that regardless of what the Prime Minister does, the one word carved on his political tombstone will be Iraq, and deservedly so.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate the mover and the seconder of the response to the Gracious Speech and associate myself with Members remarks about those who have recently died serving this country in Iraq.
I also pay tribute to the four Members who have died in the past year or so. In doing so, I wish to refer to the same three whom the hon. Member for Banff and
Buchan (Mr. Salmond) mentioned. I had the privilege to serve with Rachel Squire on the Select Committee on Defence. She was not only a decent human being but a great parliamentarian who had amassed a great knowledge of defence. She not only defended the interests of her constituency but worked on the international stage by serving on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Throughout her work and her long and debilitating illness, she expressed her forthright views.
I also wish to refer to Eric Forth, with whom, politically, I had nothing in common. You might ask, Madam Deputy Speaker, how and why Eric Forth came to cross my path. It occurred in the previous Parliament on the last day of consideration of my private Members Billthe Christmas Day (Trading) Bill. For some reason unknown to me, initially Eric was sympathetic to my Bill. I think that was more to do with the fact that if my Bill succeeded, which it did, it would stop the following Bill, which had been introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).
As I got to know Eric, it became clear to me that the views he expressed in the Chamber and his public persona were completely different from how he was in private. He was a very genuine individual who cared deeply about his constituents and about the causes that he was passionate about. Someone asked me whether politics is getting boring these days and it certainly is with the passing of characters such as Eric Forth. I can sum up my view only by saying it is a bit like toothache. We miss it when it is gone. That is what I would say about Eric.
Robin Cook was a great parliamentarian and tributes have been paid to him by Members on both sides who recalled his contribution to the debates in the House and his opposition to the war in Iraq. My first recollection of him goes back to before I become a Member of Parliament. In 1991, Robin and I were campaigning in the Monmouth by-election when new Labour was unfortunately in its beginnings. We had a programme of campaigning set out for the day, but I hasten to add that we spent the afternoon at Chepstow races. We were all better off for that given the betting advice that we received from the former Member for Livingston.
I wish to concentrate on three aspects of the Queens Speechthe legal services Bill, the draft road transport Bill and the local government Bill. I welcome the introduction of a legal services Bill to set up a legal services board. For far too long, the legal profession has been left to regulate itself. The Law Society has been the best closed shop in the country. When the Conservativessome would say rightlyoutlawed the closed shop in the 1980s, they unfortunately left the legal profession to its own devices. I associate myself with the conclusions of the Clementi review, which said that the current framework was
outdated, inflexible, over-complex and insufficiently accountable or transparent.
My dealings over the past five and half years on behalf of constituents who have been claiming under the excellent Government scheme for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have given me countless examples in which consumers have received not only poor service from the legal profession, but in many cases have been
ripped off by the very people who were supposed to act in my constituents best interests, but clearly did not.
Most people have, thank God, little contact with the legal profession. Unfortunately, most of them think that if they engage a solicitor or legal professional, they should somehow trust them. The COPD scheme involves people, including the elderly and the vulnerable, who are not used to dealing with solicitors. Numerous scams have been exposed under the scheme and I hope that the legal services board will be able to deal with them. I shall mention three.
The first scam is overcharging. Under the COPD scheme all the fees for solicitors work are met by the Government, but, not content with that, many greedy solicitorsincluding firms such as Mark Gilbert Morse, which I exposed in the Chamber two years agowere then going to take another 25 per cent. in charges from individuals compensation. Many of the people involved were elderly constituents of mine or widows who had suffered long and hard for that compensation, and taking compensation off them was a clear rip-off. Thankfully, the Law Society took quite a tough line and I also congratulate the Government on the hard line that they took. However, I am not convinced that everyone has got their money back. One of the problems is that unless people complain, they do not get their money back. I shall refer to that later.
Another scamI do not mind calling it thatis the relationship between firms of solicitors and third parties such as claims handlers. I congratulate the Government on the Compensation Bill that they introduced in the previous Session, which now regulates claims handlers. However, I want the legal services board to take some control over the relationships between solicitors and claims handlers.
I have an example from the north-east. A company in Newcastle, Watson Burton, worked in collusion with a claims handler, P and R Associates of Sunderland, to deduct £325,000 from victims compensation and pass it on to P and R Associates even though there was no need for the clients to use a third party. It is important that this sector is regulated and what solicitors can and cannot do and how they advise clients is made clear.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) has worked for Thompsons solicitors, but I condemn the firm for its relationship with the Durham National Union of Mineworkers. The firm took 7.5 per cent. of peoples compensation at the conclusion of their cases. This is an area where things need to be made quite clear.
Another issue is the inconsistent way in which claims and other matters are dealt with. Solicitors vary tremendously. Unfortunately, many people go to solicitors and think that they will get the same service across the board. That does not happen in different specialisms, but it also does not happen under the COPD scheme. One of the scandals is the under-settling of COPD claims. The solicitors range from Thompsons, who get the maximum compensation for people under the schemeI have to give credit for thatto others such as Watson Burton, the solicitors in Newcastle. According to a written answer I received a few weeks ago, the average COPD claim is £4,978. For some unknown reason, Watson Burtons average is only £4,123. I understand that my concentration on Watson Burton irritates those involved, but, as I said, I
got the information from a written answer. Unfortunately, Northeast Press and, I am sad to say, even the The Journal seem to be timid about reporting any of that. I hope that it is not a threat from those solicitorsin relation to withdrawing advertising revenue and other things from the papersthat is gagging them and making sure that the information is not put into the public domain.
The COPD scheme has been a feeding frenzy for greedy solicitors. I hope that, when the legal services board is introduced, it can look back at some of the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and I have raised of the way in which solicitors have handled claims, to see what can be done to protect the individual client. The legal services board needs to have at its heart not the solicitor but the consumer. It also has to set down a clear framework of what a solicitor will provide to a client or consumer. The language needs to be considered and the charges to the consumer should be spelled out.
It is also important that the legal services board concentrates on the relationship between solicitors and third parties. Earlier, I raised the issue of the relationship with claims handlers. The board needs to look at that, and at the messy and murky business of referral feesfees that are paid to organisations, including, for example the Automobile Association, to refer peoples claims to certain firms of solicitors. Individuals under insurance policies should have the freedom to pick and choose their solicitors. There should not be bulk selling of legal claims to certain firms of solicitors, with organisations such as the AA and others receiving large amounts of money for doing that.
Another issue that needs to be looked at is how people get redress when they have problems with a firm of solicitors. At the moment, the Law Society will look at individual complaints. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw and I have made a record number of complaints to the Law Society. I think that he beat me last year, but I hope to beat him this year. It is frustrating for me and others that, time and again, it is the same complaint against the same solicitors, the same individual issues and the same solicitors defrauding people of money under the scheme. What is needed is a mechanism whereby the legal services board can not only react to individual complaints, but, if it finds that a firm of solicitors is continually doing the same thing, it can look across the board and make a judgment against that firm to repay the money. I hope that can be taken on board.
We have recently written to the DTI and the DCA to indicate that, primarily from our experience in miners compensation cases, we would wish to include a provision in the Legal Services Bill to enable restitutionary orders to be made in a disciplinary context...This would mean, for example, that if a firm were found to have made improper deductions it would not be necessary for all clients to complain in order for them to obtain redress.
That is vital. There are still many people out there who have had money deducted by unscrupulous solicitors
and have not got it back because they do not know that they have to make a claim. Under the BillI may even move an amendment if this provision is not includedthat power of the legal services board should be retrospective, so that we can make sure that people are paid back the money that has already been deducted by firms such as Mark Gilbert Morse and others.
The consumer has to be at the heart of the Bill. The information for people going to solicitors has to be clear. The judgments in complaints made against solicitors have to be made public. At the moment, that does not have to happen, but it is vital that people know if complaints have been made against a firm of solicitors. There should be the power to close firms if malpractice that is defrauding clients is found. I am talking not just about the usual complaint relating to firms dipping into clients funds, but about some of the malpractice that has been exposed under the COPD scheme. More importantly, the legal services board has to be seen to be independent from the legal profession. I hope that if we can do that, we will have a new system of regulation that puts the consumernot lawyers and the Law Societyat the heart of the relationship.
The second issue that I would like to raise relates to the draft road transport Bill and the problem of buses. In the 1980s1986the Conservative party believed in the free market economics that led to the nonsense that we unfortunately still see today. I am talking about the deregulation of buses outside London. The idea was possibly that competition would lead to more efficiency and better services, but in fact in North Durham it has led to a worse service. Two companies, Arriva and Go North East, have a monopoly not only in Durham, but across the north-east. People will be told that competition can be opened up, but in practice those two companies have a monopoly.
In rural constituencies such as mine that led to bus services being completely withdrawn. If someone in one of the rural villages in my constituency has not got a car, a bus is not a luxuryit is a necessity to get to work, or anywhere else. Time and again, Go North East and Arriva withdraw services and simply say to the county council, Well, if you need to provide a bus service in that area, can you give us some subsidy? AlasI do not know whether the companies fear that regulation is going to be introducedover the past few months there seems to have been a spate of Arriva and Go North East in Durham stripping out services and concentrating on the main routes in the area.
I attended a public meeting on Monday night in Great Lumley in my constituency. There were more than 70 people complaining about the withdrawal of the 21 bus from Great Lumley to Newcastle. That is in addition to other buses such as the 177 and 178 to Bournmoor. That has led to a poorer service. Whole areas have been left without buses, or with no direct bus routes to major towns. For example, the 720 has been withdrawn, which severely affects Beamish, West Pelton, East Stanley and Grange Villa. There is no direct bus from the city of Durham to one of the major tourist attractions in my constituency, Beamish open air museum. The response that we get all the time is that those routes are not profitable. It is quite clear that unless some type of regulation is put back in, the bus companies are not going to supply those communities.
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