3.7 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on securing the debate and on his excellent opening speech, which set the discussion in context. I am secretary of the all-party parliamentary group for the National Union of Journalists, of which he is also a member. We have been addressing the subject for numerous years and have had a series of ministerial meetings, including with the Secretary of State for Defence some years ago about embedded journalists and what mechanisms could be put in place. I concur with the statement about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. When individuals have been detained or gone missing—a number of journalists have disappeared—the FCO has been nothing but superb in the support that it has given to families and the representations that it has made.

We thought that our representations years ago were an opportunity for us to tackle the issue of impunity. Various international instruments were in place, and we

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thought that the number of journalists dying and disappearing would decline, but that has not occurred. It is shocking. I went through last year’s list. I will not read the names into the record, as it would take too long. Most names are probably not even notable; often, they were simply journalists working on the ground at local level. The list ranges around the world and includes support workers as well as journalists and TV production crew.

I will read out the figures for the past five years. I cannot remember when we last debated the issue, but we certainly debated it in 2006. In 2006, we were angry and concerned because 155 journalists and staff were killed. Then, in 2007, the number rose to 172. It was 85 in 2008, 139 in 2009, 94 in 2010 and 106 in 2011. The right hon. Gentleman is correct: the number has grown to 120-odd in the updated figures and, therefore, things are not improving. Records prepared by the NUJ, working with the International Federation of Journalists, confirm that more than 1,000 journalists and support staff have been killed over the past 10 years. Only one in eight of the killers is ever prosecuted, and two thirds are not even identified.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, we can identify individual regimes. The Gambian regime under Jammeh has been a nightmare, and we have raised the issue time and again. Jammeh will brook no opposition or democratic debate, and any journalist who reports on corruption in the regime is risking their life. Many journalists have left the country, and this country has given many of them refugee status.

Given that we are taking on such regimes, it is embarrassing that we have not been able to secure a proper inquiry into the deaths in Iraq of Terry Lloyd and the person working alongside him. When democratic countries do not pull their weight, it is difficult to enforce proper practices in other countries.

I share the concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) raised about women. On international women’s day, the NUJ, via the IFJ, once again raised the issue of the extreme violence against women. The IFJ and NUJ have consistently tried to expose and denounce individual cases. As Mindy Ryan, the chair of the NUJ’s equality council and the IFJ’s gender council, said:

“The climate of impunity for crimes against female journalists constitutes a serious threat to the most fundamental of free expression rights. Moreover, there is an on-going concern over the fact that the authorities tend to deny that these women have been killed because of their work as journalists. Instead, they tend to indicate robbery or ‘personal issues’ as motives of the media killings.”

Unless we can demonstrate that women are being raped, abused and murdered as a result of their professional work, what happens to them suddenly becomes just an ordinary crime, and countries and regimes can act with impunity. One of the worst examples involved the journalists who were exposing the sexual abuse and assaults taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 8,000 cases of sexual violence were perpetrated in a single year. Women journalists, in particular, came under attack and faced threats as a result of the work they did to expose those things.

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As the right hon. Member for Bath said in opening the debate, everything comes back to the question whether we can get UNESCO and other international organisations to ensure that there are reports on investigations into crimes against journalists. The investigations that do take place are extremely limited, and the reports on them are often not published. Indeed, even if they are, there is no follow-through against the regime or the country involved—we do not seem able even to expose them effectively.

The Government could take a lead on the issue. That is not a party political point, and Members across parties have urged such action in debates in the past. The UK Government need to be the Government who are seen to stand up for journalists around the world. Where they are a member of an international body that has a role in protecting journalists against such crimes, they should not allow it to meet without our raising these issues and ensuring that we gear up for action.

In addition, we need to put the issue on the agenda in some of our bilateral relationships. For example, the next time the Government meet Putin, we have to put this issue back on the agenda. Russia has been one of the worst places for journalists, who are hounded simply for revealing some of the corruption in that country. We cannot try to develop harmonious relationships with countries while turning a blind eye to the atrocities that are perpetrated against journalists just because they are doing their job.

We need to think in more detail about the mechanisms that can be used not only to expose countries, but to ensure that action is taken against them. We should seek to isolate those countries and regimes that are notorious for assaulting and murdering journalists simply for undertaking their jobs.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Philippines, which is a stark example of what we are talking about. We virtually know who the killers are. We know how journalists have been murdered and what butchery has taken place, but no action is taken. When defendants are brought to court, they are not the real defendants, and the people who motivated or employed the killers are never prosecuted. We should expose such rogue regimes for their attacks on journalists, and the international family should isolate them.

Somalia has also been mentioned, and I pay tribute to the Foreign Office for the work it has done to ensure that we secure the best protection we can for journalists. One issue there, however, is that the secretary of the National Union of Somali Journalists was murdered. We are playing an increasing role in providing assistance to Somalia, and we are developing the country and investing in it to ensure that we bring peace and security to the Somali people. Whatever governmental systems are established, however, we need to embed in Somali culture the critical role that journalists play both in developing democracy and as one of its foundations. We need to embed in the Somali culture and system of government a respect for journalists, as well as protections for freedom of speech, freedom of journalism and democratic expression.

I want our Government to stand up on this issue. There is not a lack of political will, but we need to tell the rest of the world, “If no one else will, we are going be the country that protects journalists and puts this issue on the agenda whenever we can. We are going to

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be the country that makes sure that international bodies perform the roles set out in their statutes.” There are various protections for journalists in statute; the Geneva convention has been mentioned, and we have various UNESCO and UN directives. All the law is there, but it needs implementing. Our role is to shame international organisations into working alongside us to ensure that such statutes are implemented.

In addition, we must call out those regimes that murder and butcher journalists simply for reporting the truth. In that way, we can stand as a beacon of light on the issue and help to reduce the catalogue of death and murder that has gone on year after year. We were here five years ago, and I do not want to be here in another five years, after another 500 journalists have been killed. I do not want to see any more Marie Colvins, and I do not want to see any more disappearances.

3.17 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I join other Members in congratulating the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) on securing the debate and on highlighting some serious examples of the danger that journalists continue to face while working overseas.

We are all familiar with high-profile cases such as the recent tragic death in Syria of Marie Colvin, an internationally renowned foreign correspondent who was rightly feted for her bravery and for her determination to carry on and get the story, even though she faced great personal danger. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said, we do not hear as much about the local journalists who are investigating corruption or reporting on conflicts, and who also run a serious risk of persecution, injury or death, but who do not have the benefit of a Government overseas who can raise concerns and provide consular support.

Reporters Without Borders has said that local journalists pay the highest price every year to guarantee our right to be informed about wars, corruption and the destruction of the environment. Let me cite one example. I have recently returned from a visit as part of a delegation to Colombia. We looked at the human rights situation there and met a great number of human rights activists, journalists and campaigners for press freedom and civil freedoms. The Minister has also just returned from Colombia, although I gather that his trip was mainly to discuss trade issues. However, he will, of course, be very much aware of the human rights situation and the risk to journalists, and perhaps he will tell us whether he had an opportunity to discuss those issues.

The right hon. Member for Bath talked about impunity, and the crux of the matter is that if we do not ensure that those who are guilty of crimes against journalists are brought to justice, whatever those crimes are, there will be no deterrent to those who want to threaten or terrorise them, or otherwise to prevent the development of a free press, or stop journalists working. A free press is one of the most essential elements of a democracy, and one of the most important tools for promoting it, and opposing oppression. It must be protected, which includes bringing people to justice.

These days, the issue is not just press and broadcast journalism, which we might describe as mainstream journalism. The Arab spring, in particular, has highlighted

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the role of so-called citizen journalists. People now blog, tweet and post pictures taken on their camera phones, or video footage that they have taken in the middle of unrest. Sometimes that is the only voice that we hear about what is really going on. Those people give a voice to protesters and ordinary citizens who would otherwise be voiceless. It is far more difficult to bring those people, who are sometimes known as netizens, or citizen journalists, under the formal umbrellas of protection. They will not be trade union members or work for companies that can protect them and push their case. However, there is not, these days, a clear dividing line between one form of journalism and another.

Even in this country, we have bloggers who are now regarded as mainstream journalists. They can be seen on “Newsnight”, but the bulk of their work is blogging from the street. In some countries where the mainstream media are banned, or subject to serious repression, the voices of those citizen journalists are the only ones that we hear. I would be interested to know what efforts have been made to bring those informal journalists under the umbrella of protection. There is little mention of that in the UNESCO draft action plan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the need to build a strong press in the countries concerned. The stronger the press, the safer and better protected the journalists are, because other people working in the field will be able to highlight abuses. I have been involved with some work being done on that front by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Quite often in meetings with members of delegations from abroad, or at overseas conferences, it is possible to talk to politicians about their work as politicians, but rarely is there an opportunity to talk to journalists. The politicians often do not have the support of a free, robust and well equipped and resourced press. That makes it difficult for them to do their work of democratic scrutiny. There is considerable scope for the UK Government, whether through the foundation or otherwise, to do more to promote strong and independent media in such countries.

Today’s debate is timely, as UNESCO is presenting its draft action plan this week. UNESCO notes that there has been little improvement in the safety of journalists in the past few years. Figures for casualties tend to vary quite dramatically from year to year, depending on circumstances, so there was a fall in the number of deaths in 2007 and 2008, because the situation in Iraq improved, but there was a significant rise in 2009 because of the one-off horrific incident of the deaths of 30 journalists in the Philippines on 23 November. There are some differences between the figures cited by the UN, those reported by Reporters Without Borders and those of the International Federation of Journalists, but all the sets of figures make it clear that across the globe journalists are still coming under attack and being censored, kidnapped, threatened, arrested, jailed, forced to flee or even killed.

The draft action plan emphasises the need to extend UNESCO’s work, such as in assisting countries to develop laws and mechanisms that support, rather than suppress, freedom of expression and information, and to implement the rules and principles set out in UNESCO’s 1997 general conference resolution on violence against journalists. The Minister may well say that that the draft action plan stems from a meeting that was called

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following a UK initiative last year, and I would be interested to know more about the role that the UK played in drawing up the draft plan, and what role it envisages in taking it forward. When will the five aims of the plan be implemented and what resources will be devoted to that?

Recently, the Government have taken considerable interest in Somalia, with the conference in London, which I welcomed. I have met journalists from Somaliland, and even there, where it is relatively peaceful, there have been problems with the jailing of journalists. Are there countries where the Minister feels the UK could play a particular role—perhaps on a pilot scheme or project basis—and do imaginative and innovative things to support the development of a free press, as well as protect those who promote it?

3.25 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): Thank you, Mrs Main, for giving me the opportunity to conclude this fairly brief but important debate. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who has a long record in his 20 years in the House of championing the safety of journalists. It is to his credit and to the benefit of the House that we have the opportunity to discuss it this afternoon. I thank other hon. Members who have taken the opportunity to take part in the deliberations. Of course, the main business of the House today has been the Budget statement in the main Chamber, but there are many other important things happening in the world and the one that we are debating warrants our attention.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for her speech and for highlighting the threat faced by women journalists, which may sometimes be greater than that faced by males. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for his praise both for the Foreign Office—such praise does not always flow as freely during debates as we might wish—and for the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). I shall pass the expression of gratitude on to him.

I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for his speech today, and for the consistent and manifestly sincere interest he takes in the subject, and to the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for her contribution. To answer her question, I was in Colombia on Wednesday and Thursday last week, and although there were considerable discussions about trade and commercial opportunities and about political and diplomatic relations between Colombia and Britain, there was also a focus in my programme on human rights issues in the broadest sense, including threats to journalists and trade unionists, and the action that the Colombian Government and others were taking to deal with those threats. It was a broad-ranging visit, which concentrated very much on that issue.

I should say at the outset that the Government are deeply concerned about the safety of journalists; we strongly condemn their harassment and intimidation, and of course the assassinations that take place in some

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awful cases. I am full of admiration, as are others who have spoken in the debate, for those who bring us news from around the world, many of whom take enormous risks and who occasionally pay a great price to provide that service. I think we are all sometimes inclined to take it for granted that we can switch on the television or radio or read a newspaper and feel that we have been transported to an area of great hazard and danger and given an instant understanding of the political situation and threat to life there. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the person who brings that news and information to us is in that environment, as are the cameraman and other support staff. At great risk to themselves they inform us, and without their doing so we would not be informed.

The efforts of such people enable voices that would otherwise go unheard and events that would otherwise go unseen to reach audiences not just in the United Kingdom, but around the world. Although there are distinguished journalists of all nationalities, British journalists and news organisations play a leading role in informing not just British audiences but global ones about global events. The deaths of Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik and Rami al-Sayyed while reporting with great bravery from Homs are a terrible reminder of the risks that journalists take to report the truth. Every Member who has contributed to this debate has rightly dwelt on their deaths and paid tribute to their work.

This Government attach great importance to freedom of the media, which with the freedom to express one’s views is fundamental to a strong democracy. A free press allows space for challenge and innovation, supports transparency and deters corruption. It exposes human rights violations and ensures that people can exchange ideas. All citizens must be allowed to discuss and debate issues, challenge their Governments and make informed decisions.

Sadly, according to studies by both Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit, we are witnessing a decline in media freedoms around the world. That is affecting both print media, which in an increasing number of countries are coming under state control or heavy state influence, and the internet, where there has been an increase in blocking and censorship. Many Governments do not wish to be accountable to their people and want to remove all checks on their power.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath has set out comprehensively, that means that in many parts of the world the work of journalists, bloggers and others is obstructed. They are harassed, monitored, detained and, on occasion, subjected to violence. Some have paid the highest price—we have discussed some such cases today. According to the latest figures from Reporters Without Borders, 11 journalists have been killed so far this year in connection with their work. In 2011, 66 journalists were killed and 71 were kidnapped, while 199 bloggers and netizens were arrested and 62 physically attacked. Although such occurrences may not be the norm, they are not quite the exception either. For many years—the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to this—journalists have faced problems that, while they may or may not be isolated incidents, add up to a consistent pattern of threats to them.

It is vital that the international community continues to speak out in support of press freedom and the protection of journalists. The UK is supportive of the

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work of UNESCO and looks forward to a positive outcome from its meeting in Paris on the safety of journalists. We fully support the aim to strengthen the mandate and working methods of UNESCO and other United Nations bodies to tackle violence against journalists and the high levels of impunity. We welcome initiatives that encourage UN agencies and special rapporteurs to work closer together and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath has proposed, we are already pressing UNESCO to be more transparent and speed up the publication of its information on the killing of journalists. We also support the proposals to raise greater awareness of the issue and to encourage states to fulfil their commitments on media freedoms. We believe that concerted, co-ordinated action is vital. Later, I will talk about countries that are of particular concern to us—another issue raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington—but severe abuses take place in many countries.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bath is right to say that the UK is not currently funding the work of the international programme for the development of communication. I do not wish to sound like I am passing the ball within Government, but that decision was taken by the Department for International Development, although the Government may revisit it in due course. I assure my right hon. Friend that we are providing, and will continue to provide, assistance to journalists working in difficult environments. We are doing so via support for specific projects, such as an ongoing one in Mexico with Article 19 as part of our human rights and democracy programme fund, and other mechanisms, such as the Lifeline fund for embattled non-governmental organisations, which provides emergency assistance to journalists working in support of human rights.

In times of armed conflict, states bear the primary responsibility to respect, protect and meet the needs of civilians. We encourage all states to respect the Geneva conventions affirming that journalists are civilians under international humanitarian law. We fully support UN Security Council resolution 1738, passed in 2006, which makes it clear that deliberate attacks on journalists, media professionals and associated personnel who are reporting on armed conflicts and are not directly participating in hostilities are unacceptable.

At the 31st international conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva in December 2011, we made three further pledges on the protection of journalists, namely: integrating specific components on the protection of journalists into the training of our armed forces; providing journalists embedded with our armed forces with security training; and ensuring that national criminal law makes it possible to prosecute those who commit serious violations against journalists. We will report back on our progress to the 32nd international conference in 2015.

As highlighted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights reports, our missions around the world continue to raise freedom of expression issues in countries of concern. That will be reflected in the latest human rights report, to be published in a few weeks’ time. We consistently raise individual cases of attacks against journalists and call for prompt and full investigations into them. We stated publicly our concerns about the treatment of foreign journalists in China when, in February 2011, several were physically intimidated

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or detained without explanation. In Azerbaijan, support from the UK and others resulted in the release and pardon of blogger Mr Fatullayev on 26 May. In July 2011, we condemned attacks in Belarus, where more than a dozen journalists were detained, beaten and their equipment broken during peaceful protests.

We also frequently raise our significant concerns about the fate of journalists in Iran. A 2011 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that, once again, Iran has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world. The arrest of six journalists in September and October who were accused of working for the BBC and of espionage was particularly troubling. All have now been released, but too many others remain in prison.

My right hon. Friend talked about events in East Timor and Syria. I share the concerns about the two British journalists, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and the other journalists killed in East Timor in 1975. The UK Government firmly believe that those responsible for their deaths should be held to account. Following publication of the Australian coroner’s report, the authorities there took the decision to review the evidence and consider the conclusions of previous investigations into the case. For legal and investigative reasons, they are unable to provide specific details of their work, which is ongoing. I fully appreciate the frustrations with the pace of progress, but the FCO continues to act as an intermediary between the British families involved and the Australian authorities, and will do so for as long as necessary.

Mr Foster: I know that the Minister has to read what his brief says, but will he tell us whether he seriously believes it is acceptable for five years to elapse since the conclusion of the coroner’s work before the Government decide whether they are going to bring about a war crimes proceeding on behalf of two of their citizens who were murdered in East Timor by the Indonesians?

Mr Browne: I appreciate the passion with which my right hon. Friend brings us again to that case. Let me undertake to go away and look at the matter in greater detail, because I have not only responsibility for human rights policy in the generality, but geographic responsibility for that part of the world. I give a personal undertaking to him that I will consider what more can be done to assist the families of the journalists concerned. There are practical constraints on the British Government, often bigger than the public or even sometimes Members of Parliament fully appreciate, and obviously we are not operating within our own jurisdiction. Nevertheless, we will do what we can. I will let my right hon. Friend know what more, if anything, we can do in that case.

The other country I wanted to mention before I concluded is Syria, where terrible atrocities continue to be committed. The UK sees it as vital that evidence of those atrocities is systematically gathered, documented and securely stored. What form of accountability or justice processes should take will be for the Syrian people to decide. That will be an essential means of reconciling communities in Syria following the trauma that is being inflicted on them both by the regime and, in some cases, by those on the ground who oppose the regime. We want to make sure that comprehensive

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justice is done in Syria, which requires that information is gathered according to an international evidential standard suitable for local and international courts.

Let me make our central purpose clear: all those who commit human rights violations or abuses in Syria should and must be held accountable for their actions. We commend the work being done by local organisations, the UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria, Amnesty International and others to document what is happening in Syria. The UK is also directly helping to document those atrocities. After despatching a scoping mission to the region in February, the UK sent a further mission between 27 February and 12 March to gather evidence on human rights violations and abuses committed in Syria. The work undertaken by the mission is necessarily a snapshot, but it has had harrowing accounts of President Assad’s brutal efforts to hold on to power. No one who is responsible can act with impunity or believe that the world will not find out who they are. Justice has a long memory and a long reach. In this case, as in others, there will be a process of accountability.

Once again, I thank my right hon. Friend and others for giving me the opportunity not only to address topical issues of concern, such as the situation in Syria, but to talk about individual cases more generally and to address the wider concerns in the House about the safety in which journalists do—or, in some cases, do not—operate around the world.

I reiterate that the Government believe that journalists must be allowed to express themselves freely and safely within international standards. We strongly condemn their harassment, intimidation and assassination. The role of media professionals remains vital in providing citizens with reliable and accurate information. That role must be protected. The UK is one of the world’s greatest and longest standing democracies, and it transmits around the world our values of freedom of expression and of the importance of people being able to exercise free and informed choices. It is therefore right that we should continue to be at the forefront of setting the highest standards and of insisting that others should meet those standards to the benefit of people around the world.

3.44 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Litigation Friends

3.59 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this debate.

If somebody is in an accident and ends up in a coma, they need a litigation friend to instruct a solicitor to sue for damages. A litigation friend, or next friend, is very different from a Mackenzie friend. A litigation friend makes decisions for the person who does not have capacity. If somebody is not in a coma, there is a question of what threshold is required before appointing such a litigation friend or guardian. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, recently stated:

“Persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities are today routinely placed under a guardianship regime in several European countries—they are deprived of their ‘legal capacity’. In the eyes of the law they are seen as non-persons and their decisions have no legal relevance. This policy violates agreed human rights standards.”

He refers to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities of 2006.

In England and Wales, the situation is materially worse, primarily because secrecy of the judicial system has allowed widespread malpractice to develop, as revealed last week by Professor Jane Ireland’s report on psychological expert reports. A good example of that is Rachel Pullen’s case, which is currently grinding through the Strasbourg court. Her daughter was removed and adopted, although there were no hearings at which any of the evidence was challenged, because the psychologist appointed to assess her deemed her too stupid to instruct a solicitor. That was clearly not true, as was determined by a later psychological report. However, it was too late. The psychologist said she was incapable of instructing a solicitor. The Official Solicitor came in as her litigation friend and conceded the case against her on paper and there was no hearing. At her appeal, I made two important points for which the court criticised me.

My first point was that the system allows the local authority to veto the appointment of an expert, thus making the expert financially beholden to the local authority. Professor Ireland’s report revealed that the overwhelming majority of experts in the family courts made most, if not all, their income from writing expert reports. Parents only instruct an expert once, but the local authority does so continually. That creates a complacent environment in which experts frequently write the report the local authority would wish to see—well, those experts who drive Ferraris, Porsches and Formula 1 motor cars do anyway.

My second point referred to a letter from the Official Solicitor to Rosleys solicitors. I expressed the view that the letter was created at a later stage and inserted in the file. It was obvious from the letter that whoever did that did not have access to Rosleys office, as there was no received stamp on it, no headed paper was used for its purported sending out, its address format was unusual and the date of receipt and purported posting out was impossible. The court decided that my mentioning those facts was not providing evidence and was critical of my claim. I stand by my claim, and I believe that what I have just said is indeed evidence of forgery. Real problems remain with the appointment of litigation

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friends. The Rosleys letter was supposed to explain to someone that the Official Solicitor had been appointed as their litigation friend, which is why the letter was so important.

Given the secrecy of the system, people are not generally aware of how the process works. Lee Gilliland, for example, was evicted without notice because he had the Official Solicitor appointed to defend his probate case. The Official Solicitor did not warn him that he was due to be evicted. The Official Solicitor was appointed on the say-so of his general practitioner, Dr Hoyte, who said:

“He has grievances and fixed ideation about many official bodies.”

I find it odd that that is relevant to his having legal capacity. In my view, the fact that someone has a grievance about an official body does not warrant their being turned into a non-person and prevented from making decisions.

The big problem for anyone for whom the Official Solicitor has been appointed is finding any way to challenge such a decision. Most firms of solicitors simply refuse to act for someone without litigation capacity. The civil procedure rules do not really allow people to challenge the appointment of a litigation friend. CPR rule 21.9 states:

“(2) Where a protected party regains or acquires capacity to conduct the proceedings, the litigation friend’s appointment continues until it is ended by court order.”

The assumption is that litigation friends cannot be wrongly appointed. In Professor Ireland’s review of 126 court bundles, she found that two thirds of the reports were “poor” or “very poor”—84 cases where, if the judge relied upon the report, really the decision should be quashed. That raises questions.

England and Wales do not have the facility for a proper review of expert evidence. We do not have the Daubert process that is used in the USA. Any solicitor appointed to act on behalf of a protected party is in danger of being subject to a conflict of interest. Let me mention the case of Anthony Neil Barker, whose website is www.neebert.net. He has written me long, detailed e-mails about how he has regained his capacity, but cannot escape from the Court of Protection. I have some difficulty understanding how that can happen, but when it involves large sums of money, it is not surprising. It is in the solicitor’s interest to keep him as a non-person, as the solicitor can then charge him for things.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. Is the hon. Gentleman talking about a case that is no longer active in the UK courts?

John Hemming: In this case, there may be activity, but I am referring to things that have happened in the past. I discussed the matter previously with the Clerk, and I am being careful not to refer to any decisions that are coming before the court.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentleman.

John Hemming: Noreen Akhtar is a constituent of mine, whom I have been refused permission to meet. She is a secret prisoner. Experts have determined that

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she does not have the mental capacity to decide where she lives. I have seen the expert reports, and they look as unreliable as many of the other reports referred to.

Husan Pari has now left the country to get away from the system that made her a non-person. The psychologist who interviewed her through an interpreter said that she was a non-person. A psychologist who later interviewed her in her own language was clear that she did have mental capacity.

The Official Solicitor’s office is an unaccountable place. He has told me that he is not accountable to Parliament on the basis of individual cases. Furthermore, he is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, or at least not within this area, but he is subject to it in other areas of his activity. Instead, the Official Solicitor is accountable to individual secret court hearings. That really is not good enough. There must be some accountability beyond a few people in suits who have a common interest in concealing malpractice. Hon. Members need to read Professor Ireland’s report to find out about that.

An interesting additional function of the Official Solicitor is to deal with people imprisoned for contempt of court. Deborah Paul is currently serving a one-year sentence in Holloway prison for contempt of court, as part of a private family law case that has turned public. The civil procedure rules strictly forbid people being imprisoned in secret. However, it was revealed in Hammerton v. Hammerton that people are imprisoned with reporting restrictions. I wonder who is protecting Deborah Paul’s rights. When I wrote to the Official Solicitor about his duty to protect the interests of contemnors, he gave me no confidence that he was doing anything. The recent striking off of Dr Ruth Coppard and the attempt by Dr George Hibbert to remove himself from the General Medical Council practising register should really ring alarm bells.

Our family legal system is founded on expert opinion. However, these foundations appear to be more like quicksand. The secrecy in family court hearings has allowed a culture of complacency to develop. Although procedures such as a modified Daubert procedure would enable improvements, secrecy creates a culture that tolerates malpractice. Secrecy in family court hearings has led to broader unaccountability in the appointment of litigation friends and their management of decision making.

I was quite surprised when Professor Ireland’s excellent report on the quality of psychological expert opinion was produced, not because I did not know that this was happening, but because the report was part-funded by the Family Justice Council. However, I was not surprised that, although the report was ready for release in September 2011, it was released six months later. There are people who would like to sweep the contents of the report under the carpet.

I will not quote a lot from the report. Anyone who is really interested in justice in our secret courts should simply read it.

Professor Ireland and Professor John Beaumont, who is from the same university, have produced proposals for a modified Daubert procedure, but that is only a partial solution. Secret courts are unreliable courts. What is needed is less secrecy. Anonymous reports by parties to proceedings should not be subject to any

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constraints. There must be a facility, potentially via the Information Commissioner, to produce fully public reports.

Justice is important, and it is clear that the system is very unreliable. It is also clear that Parliament needs to resuscitate its powers of investigating individual cases. It is too easy for authorities to refuse to provide information. In the Goder case, where a litigation friend was appointed and the daughter, Yvonne Goder, was imprisoned, probably in secret, there is an allegation that the money from three houses was stolen. Even taking the issue through to the legal ombudsman has not identified what happened to the money. Tracking payments is quite easy and accounts can be provided. However, if a case gets to the legal ombudsman without accounts, I am worried about whether the regulatory system is working properly.

The question always is, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In this case, who is regulating the regulators? The answer has to be Parliament. Parliament needs to establish a small inquiries committee to find answers where none are forthcoming. Where litigation friends are appointed in secret hearings based upon expert evidence that is known to be systemically unreliable in three courts and about which there is no other systemic research, it is very difficult to find out what is happening in a very murky system. We know that large sums of money are being paid, but we are unsure what for and whether that is in the interests of those people for whom the money is held.

There is always a question about who is appointed as a litigation friend. The Official Solicitor is supposed to be a last resort, but seems to me to be the first choice in many instances. I tried to use judicial review through a limited company to find out what was happening with one secret prisoner—Matthew Hawkesworth—but got nowhere, and the court decided to punish me for the effrontery of challenging the system by awarding costs against me personally, as well as against the limited company. That is one reason why judicial review is an insufficient remedy for a quite significant, wide-ranging problem.

Some solutions to the problem therefore rest with Parliament, rather than with the Government, but they do need to review the situation. I have always spoken about how our judicial system is not compliant with the European Union standards as applied to Croatia, and I will not repeat that in my speech. The Government must take such things seriously.

I have rattled through my speech reasonably quickly. The Minister is well aware of my concerns, because I have been concerned about this matter for a long time. One great difficulty in respect of how our constitution operates is that we have developed an approach whereby Parliament is regarded primarily as a body holding the Executive to account, but the courts—the judicial estate of the constitution—are held to account also through public consideration of their decision making, which then influences Parliament. Parliament then makes decisions and guides what happens if any rules need to be changed, and they clearly need to be changed in a number of situations.

One of the reasons why I have ended up helping to get rid of the Official Solicitor, as people might put it, or to remove their litigation friend is that it is almost impossible to find a way of doing so. People who are

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often quite bright go around phoning up firms of solicitors and saying, “Oh, the Official Solicitor is acting for me,” and the firms reply, “Well, we can’t deal with you.” Even then, there is still the matter of legal aid.

I tend to get involved because people must be aware of my concerns about how the litigation friend system operates and come to me. I have talked to other hon. Members who have encountered difficult situations as well, but people often get excited about the being made into a non-person thing. I do not blame them for that, but they get quite angry, and when they present themselves to other hon. Members, they do so in quite an angry state, yet that is in part because the system is simply not responding to them. As described by Thomas Hammarberg, they are treated as non-persons and their decisions have no legal force.

I have spent some time studying the historical records of Parliament, which are interesting and available in the Library. What Parliament used to do more readily, because people came with casework or whatever, was to establish small committees of inquiry into issues that might have developed because they got stuck and could go no further. Parliament needs to have a willingness to establish a committee of inquiry just to find out the facts. The House of Commons may be a court, but, constitutionally, it would be wrong to revert to taking decisions that have legal force on individual cases. What about investigation, however, and that question of who is regulating the regulators? How do we manage the process when a regulatory system goes wrong? In a limited number of cases—we would not want to overwhelm ourselves with work—Parliament has the power to find out what is going on.

To take the case of the three houses, there is clear evidence of some sort of fraud, and finding out what fraud has occurred is critical. One difficulty, as in the recent Asian royal family case, is that sometimes the regulators or the police will steer clear of an issue. Interestingly, in that case, which relates to the funding of al-Qaeda, the Australian police are willing to investigate, whereas I am told that the UK police are not. I do not have that in writing, but I shall pursue it with the Government if I do so.

I leave the Minister a reasonable amount of time to respond. Some serious issues are going on and have been for some time. With Professor Ireland’s report and the recent regulatory action in respect of Dr Ruth Coppard and Dr George Hibbert, it is becoming more obvious that the problem is serious. I am interested in what the Government have to say.

4.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on securing this Adjournment debate today on a subject in which I know he has significant experience and interest. He mentioned a number of live cases, which he must appreciate I am restricted in discussing, but he also discussed a wide variety of interrelated and serious topics, which I shall do my best to address.

I acknowledge that the family courts and the Court of Protection deal with some of the most difficult questions affecting the lives of individuals and families, their rights and capacity to make decisions about their

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own future, as well as decisions about who is best able to take care of children and to provide them with a loving and caring home environment. The courts take such matters seriously, and rightly so. They are sensitive and personal matters and there is a difficult balance to be struck between respect for an individual’s privacy, in particular that of children and other vulnerable people, and promoting openness to support public confidence in the court system.

On litigation friends or guardianship, my hon. Friend has written to me on several occasions regarding the effectiveness of the Mental Capacity Act 2005—he has doubts about the effectiveness of the Act and how it is used. The Act is, however, widely supported by stakeholders for the empowerment it gives to individuals. He referred to an article by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights—I thank him for sending it to me before the debate—on persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities under guardianship being deprived of their legal capacity in several European countries. In the article, the commissioner calls on European Governments to review their legislation on legal capacity and urges recognition that supported decision-making alternatives should be developed for those who want assistance in making choices or communicating them to others.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Mental Capacity Act provides a statutory framework to empower and protect people aged 16 and over who lack or might lack capacity to make certain decisions for themselves because of illness, a learning disability or mental health problems. Implemented in October 2007, the Act encompasses five main principles. First, there is a presumption of capacity—that all adults have the right to make their own decisions and must be assumed to have capacity to do so unless it is proved otherwise, and that capacity is presumed to be ongoing until there is evidence to the contrary. Secondly, it sets out the right of individuals to be supported to make their own decisions—that all reasonable help and support should be provided to help individuals to make their own decisions and, if necessary, to communicate those decisions, before it can be assumed that they have lost capacity. Thirdly, the Act provides that it should not be assumed that people lack capacity simply because their decisions might seem unwise or eccentric. Fourthly, if people lack capacity, anything done on their behalf must be done in their best interests, and the Act provides a checklist of factors that all decision makers must work though when deciding what is in the best interests of the incapacitated person. Finally, if people lack capacity, before a decision is made on their behalf, all alternatives must be considered and the option chosen should be the least restrictive of their basic rights and freedoms.

The Act is intended to assist and support people who might lack capacity and to discourage anyone who is involved in caring for someone who lacks capacity from being overly restrictive or controlling. It also aims to balance individuals’ right to make decisions for themselves with their right to be protected from harm if they lack capacity to make decisions to protect themselves. The Act covers a wide range of decisions made or actions taken on behalf of people who might lack capacity to make specific decisions for themselves. Those decisions can be about day-to-day matters such as what to wear or what to buy when doing the weekly shopping, or

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about major life-changing events such as whether the person should move into a care home or undergo a major surgical operation. Certain decisions, specified in the Act, can never be made on behalf of a person who lacks capacity to make those specific decisions, either because they are so personal to the individual concerned, or because they are governed by other legislation. Such decisions concern family relationships, such as consenting to marriage or a civil partnership, consenting to have sexual relations, treatment under the Mental Heath Act or decisions on voting in an election or referendum.

The capacity to litigate is based on a common law test of capacity set down by the courts. My hon. Friend is aware of the Masterman-Lister case which makes it clear that the presumption is that all adults are competent to manage their property and affairs; it is for the person alleging incapacity to displace that presumption and to prove incapacity, not for an adult to prove his own capacity; and it is a fundamental right of a person to conduct proceedings. That presumption is not removed lightly. The assessment of litigation capacity is a matter for the court in the individual case to decide and—this is important—not for an expert giving evidence on capacity. I confirm to my hon. Friend that the legislation in force in England and Wales supports individuals to make their own decisions, as called for in the commissioner’s article.

My hon. Friend also questioned how litigation friends are appointed. The appointment of a litigation friend is governed by procedural court rules. The duty of a litigation friend is set out in rules and associated practice directions. The courts would not wish people to be deprived of their autonomy or prevented from conducting their own proceedings in the absence of cogent evidence that they lack the mental capacity to do so.

John Hemming: My intervention might be reasonably long, to deal with some of the Minister’s points. I accept that the Government do not comment on individual cases at all, not only on individual live cases. I accept the Minister’s argument that to some extent the Mental Capacity Act is compliant with the UN convention of 2006 and that movement has been in the right direction, if not as far as one might hope. My argument is that the system itself has no real accountability or any proper checks and balances. The court makes the decision, but it is based on opinion from a social worker or expert, and there is no real opportunity to check that process.

Mr Djanogly: I have addressed the position of the courts, which are independent of the Government. I will come to the question of experts later.

My hon. Friend also queried the role of the Official Solicitor as a litigation friend. The Official Solicitor is an independent office holder of the senior courts whose duties include acting as a last-resort litigation friend to those who lack the capacity to conduct their own litigation. He is not accountable to Ministers or to the Ministry of Justice for his decisions in individual cases, nor are Ministers or the Ministry responsible for those decisions. The Official Solicitor will conduct the litigation on behalf of the person for whom he is acting as litigation friend fairly, competently and in their best interests.

John Hemming: I asked the Minister a question about the Official Solicitor, who I accept is supposed to be the litigation friend of last resort. My point is that he

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is often the litigation friend of first resort. The most important question is: how do we know that the Official Solicitor is doing his job properly?

Mr Djanogly: That question could be asked of any lawyer who has a relationship with his client.

John Hemming: The Official Solicitor may be legally qualified, but his role is not that of a lawyer: his role is to make decisions and to instruct lawyers. Normally, the Official Solicitor instructs another firm to act. The question is: how do we know that the Official Solicitor is doing his job properly?

Mr Djanogly: The Official Solicitor is an independent appointment, and my hon. Friend could ask the same question about a judge, for example. How do we know that a judge is doing his job properly?

John Hemming: It obviously comes back to the question of secrecy and monitoring of the legal system. If there is transparency, one can have some comfort that people are doing their job properly. I see many examples of people apparently not doing their job properly.

Mr Djanogly: I will come back to my hon. Friend in more detail, but I have to get through quite lot of his other points in the remaining three minutes—

John Hemming: The Minister has more than three minutes; he has nine minutes.

Mr Djanogly: Five minutes perhaps.

I turn now to the family justice review and expert witnesses in the family courts. In their recent response to that review, the Government set out plans to implement a comprehensive programme of reform of the family justice system. We are grateful for the impressive work undertaken by David Norgrove and his fellow panel members in diagnosing the problems of the current system and setting out clear recommendations to remedy them.

The review was clear about the need to create a more coherent system, characterised by trust and co-ordination between the different courts and agencies involved. As the first step towards that, we are establishing a Family Justice Board to provide greater leadership and co-ordination across delivery agencies nationally and locally, and to prepare the system for the changes to come. In private law, we are determined to put in place a framework that will support separating couples to resolve their disputes more reasonably and more quickly. Whenever possible, there should not be a need to resort to litigation in court.

In public law, when the state intervenes to take children into care, our overriding priority is significantly to reduce the current unacceptable levels of delay. The average care case now takes 55 weeks, and many take much longer. That means months of uncertainty for a child trapped in a difficult situation. That must not continue. We intend to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows for a six-month time limit on care and supervision proceedings. That will send a powerful message that the current level of delay is unacceptable.

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We appreciate that the six-month limit will not be achieved without fundamental changes to the way the system works. One aspect of the reform is to the way in which expert witness evidence is used in the family courts. The evidence suggests that in public law family proceedings, expert witness evidence is used in about 90% of cases, and on average, nearly four reports per case are requested. That high number of reports may well reflect an understandable desire for certainty and for as thorough a process as possible to be gone through before life-changing decisions are made. As the family justice review acknowledged, expert witness evidence can often be necessary to ensure a fair and complete court process—for example, to establish whether a child has been harmed by accident or not. Nevertheless, we agree that too many reports are commissioned that add little value to the court’s understanding of the issues and add further delays to the process. We have already announced our intention to legislate to ensure that reports are commissioned only when they are necessary to resolve the case.

In family proceedings involving children, the court must decide whether to permit an expert witness to be instructed, or to allow expert witness evidence to be used in court. Expert witnesses have an overriding duty to the court that takes precedence over any obligation to the party or parties who have instructed them. They are under a duty to assist the court with objective and independent advice and to provide advice that conforms to the best practice of their profession. My hon. Friend mentioned recent research and cases reported in the press showing that there is a problem with expert witnesses in the family courts.

My hon. Friend referred to practice in the United States, and I would be interested to see data on the systems used there, but we do not agree that a review is necessary. The family justice review has already conducted a thorough analysis of the problems in the family justice system, and the Government have made a commitment to significant reform. We will consider carefully the findings of the recent research on psychological expert witness reports. We accept the need for reform of the use of experts in family proceedings and for more research following the study.

John Hemming: I do not think that the family justice review managed to identify the real problems in the system. It was flawed from the start inasmuch as the panel members were generally people who worked within the system, instead of people who have had experience of it and are critical of it. I do not agree with the Government’s conclusions or those of the family justice review.

Mr Djanogly: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but the family justice review has been well received widely and across all sections and stakeholders, and that is the basis on which the Government are proceeding.

My hon. Friend mentioned Professor Jane Ireland’s recently published research on psychological expert witness reports used in family public law proceedings, and I agree that it is a useful contribution to our understanding. As Professor Ireland points out in her report, it is the first study of its kind and is based on only a small sample of family cases. While it is indicative of weaknesses in the practices of some psychologist expert witnesses, it

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is not possible to determine from this preliminary study whether the findings are representative. Nevertheless, the Government accept that there is a need for further research in this area, including on the quality of expert witness reports, to further our understanding of the issues identified by Professor Ireland and the family justice review.

We also agree that there is a need to improve the quality of expert reports. We intend to work with the relevant bodies, including the Legal Services Commission, expert witnesses, health sector bodies and local authorities, to develop quality standards. Others in the system also have a role to play: they include legal sector professional bodies providing support and guidance to lawyers who are responsible for commissioning expert witnesses; those responsible for maintaining ethical and quality standards within the medical profession: and expert witness representative bodies. Each has an important contribution to make to ensure that expert witnesses undertaking this vital work for the courts have the right training, skills and knowledge.

My hon. Friend discussed openness in family courts, and there are often calls for greater openness. It is of course vital that the family justice system commands public confidence and that justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. At the same time, there is a clear need to balance the desire to be more open with ensuring that the privacy of vulnerable children and families involved in these cases is protected.

John Hemming: Does the Minister accept that there are people like me who perceive that justice is often not done?

Mr Djanogly: I cannot argue against my hon. Friend’s position. He goes to courts and sees cases, and he takes a view. It is not an easy balance to strike. The debate on this issue has been long running and is controversial. It has been subject to two public consultations, but little consensus of opinion has resulted. The Government have accepted the concerns expressed by the Select Committee on Justice in its inquiry into the operation of the family courts and agreed that we should not commence the provisions in part 2 of the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010. We are still looking at ways in which the family courts can release more information. In doing this, we will take into account the findings from the final report into the family courts information pilot, which was published in September 2011.

I emphasise that the Government firmly support the right of every adult to make their own decisions about their future whenever possible, and to be assisted to make those decisions if necessary. We also support the need for greater transparency in the operation of the courts. We accept that the current position in the family courts is unsatisfactory and we are considering ways in which more information can be released. We are committed to radical reform of the family justice system to help to improve the lives of thousands of children and families.

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Mobility Scooter Safety

4.29 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): It is good to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. Given that this is, I trust, a non-contentious issue, I hope that you will not be called to action.

Like many hon. Members, I have heard complaints and concerns about the design and safety of mobility scooters on the road, and the risks posed to those who use them and to other road users. Only yesterday, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) proposed a ten-minute rule Bill to update and clarify the Road Traffic Act 1988 on the use of powered wheelchairs, and his speech in the main Chamber also touched on mobility scooters.

I secured this debate after being contacted by one of my constituents about the design failing of his scooter, and following a meeting that I held with a Plymouth-based organisation called Scoot-A-Long. Both meetings forcefully flagged up significant failings in the system that cut across a number of Departments. I therefore tabled questions and wrote letters to the Departments of Health and for Transport, but the responses have not satisfied me or my constituents.

I would like to mention Mr Brian Fleming and describe his experiences, which have angered and frustrated him. He has been frustrated because, despite every attempt to highlight the problems, no one appears to be listening and he worries, as do I, that at some point a fatality will occur. He has been dedicated to raising awareness about the safety of these vehicles, and he has tried to interest programmes such as “Panorama” in his story.

Let us start at the beginning. What do we know about accidents involving mobility scooters? The answer is virtually nothing, and the full recording of incidents on the road that involve mobility scooters is unlikely to start before 2013. We are also not sure how and where off-road incidents take place, and whether they are ever likely to be recorded.

Recently, there was the tragic death at Bodmin in Cornwall of an elderly gentleman, Mr Moore, whose scooter flipped over on a steep slope. Because of the interest generated by this debate, Thompsons solicitors contacted me to provide a couple more examples of incidents that were linked to mobility scooters or motorised wheelchairs, which are known legally as invalidity carriages—that definition probably ought to be updated. A 79-year-old woman was left with serious injuries after a van collided with her mobility scooter in Sunderland. One claimant was shopping in Newcastle, but as she queued up a mobility scooter suddenly came towards her, knocking her to the floor. She suffered serious damage—a broken hip—and still has difficulty walking. Those are just a few examples, but we need to reduce the risk of such accidents and tragedies happening by increasing our knowledge of where and how they occur.

What do we know about the safety standards applied to imported mobility scooters? Again, not a lot. The Department for Transport has not commissioned safety checks on any vehicle model, and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—the MHRA—which, according to the Department, is responsible

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for regulation in that area, does not commission safety checks on mobility scooters before their placement in the market. One has to ask, why not?

I find that astonishing. Would we allow a medicine to enter the market without it reaching a certain standard? No, we would not. Would we allow a car to go on the road without it reaching a certain standard? No. Why, then, is a mobility scooter allowed to go anywhere without a check, particularly when, on occasion, they are used by people who have never driven a car, perhaps have no road awareness and who may be frail? We expect people who drive cars on the road to take a driving test, yet a significant number of people are using a scooter on the roads with little or no road knowledge, other than as a pedestrian. I will return to that point.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. There is an active group in my constituency that makes mobility scooters available, and it has noted the issues that she seeks to address. A lot of police forces have also tried to emphasise the need for safety, and for people to have experience and to take advice when using mobility scooters. Does she feel that the time for the police to give advice, as with The Highway Code, is long overdue and that introducing registration will secure safety for everyone?

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. A lot of good work is being done by various police authorities and other organisations to try to raise safety awareness. I will return to that point.

There is growing pressure to have a Minister with responsibility for older people, and such a person might be responsible for drawing these issues together—putting them in one place—and considering whether we need to regulate further, or indeed to legislate. The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety called for such a post to be created, and there is no doubt that the safety of mobility vehicles was one reason behind that request.

Let me return to Mr Fleming. He is getting on in years—I will not say how old he is—but he has had a distinguished career. He has a degree of engineering knowledge, and he therefore speaks with some authority on the workings of his scooter. He contacted me because he has a Pride Colt 8, which, I understand, the MHRA has received complaints about. Indeed, one Pride Colt 8 was involved in an accident in Staffordshire, and the investigating police officer got in touch with me. He wanted to know what I knew about that vehicle, given the parliamentary questions that I had tabled. That cannot be right: police officers should not need to ring a Member of Parliament who happens to have tabled some questions to seek out information on the background and mechanical failings of a particular vehicle. Such information should be available elsewhere.

The Pride Colt 8 owned by Mr Fleming had a series of failings. Its electric autobrake failed, the head console was affected by corrosion and there was a catastrophic failure of the drive, leading to the product being recalled—need I go on? There is a long list of complaints, and a frankly unsatisfactory response from the manufacturer. The scooter does not appear to be fit for purpose and it

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can stop without warning. It passes basic requirements for use on the pavement, although not the road, yet it is being used by some on the roads.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate about something that affects a growing number of people in our society, either as scooter users or as their fellow pedestrians and road users. Does she agree that we need to set the discussion in the wider context of ensuring that the design of pavements and lowered pavements takes account of the needs of scooter users, so that they are not left in dangerous situations or forced to cross the road? I have been to look at certain locations in my constituency with users of mobility scooters.

Alison Seabeck: My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I will touch on the problems faced by local authorities. His comments reinforce concerns that I have heard from local authorities, as well as from users of mobility scooters.

Jim Shannon: One point that I have been made aware of concerns the advertising of mobility scooters. The adverts show an almost deluxe mobility scooter that can go anywhere. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has seen the adverts, but the scooters seem to be able to go through muck and snow, and go anywhere, almost like a four-wheel-drive mobility scooter. Does she agree that adverts ought to show what is achievable?

Alison Seabeck: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that between him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), my speech has been covered. The hon. Gentleman’s point is correct: the adverts suggest that some of these vehicles are all-singing and all-dancing. Indeed, there are individuals who soup up their scooters, for whatever reason, but that is clearly a separate issue.

Many imported vehicles are not legal on our highways, yet that is where they are innocently being used by the purchasers. In addition, there is no requirement for insurance. I would welcome the Minister’s view on why that is. Is it because of the cost factor? How many vehicles have been prevented from reaching the market because of design flaws or other concerns? What powers do local trading standards officers have in such circumstances, and are they being encouraged to use them? Mr Fleming feels that he has been going round in circles locally, as one organisation passes responsibility to another.

The Pride Colt 8 has no width-indicating lights for night use and no brake lights, so right hon. and hon. Members will understand the obvious risks involved should these scooters be taken on to the highway. Many owners of the scooters say that they are forced to use the roads because local councils have not created a safe pavement environment for them. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East on exactly that point. Clearly, with council budgets being cut, they are very unlikely to be able to commit significant spending to this area, however desirable.

Scoot-A-Long supports disabled people to support themselves in getting out and about to places such as Dartmoor and even taking scooters on to Dartmoor.

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It also runs training courses and has expressed to me serious concerns about the lack of training available generally and about the quality of some scooters. I tried one of them out, and I have to say that the top speed of 8 mph is extremely fast. The limit on pavements is 4 mph, but untrained people do not know that. John Seamons, an excellent chap from Scoot-A-Long, expressed concerns to me about the way mobility scooters are sold to the public. Some highly reputable companies will ensure that the scooter size is correct for the user and that training is offered, but others are interested simply in a quick sale. Anecdotally, there are people who buy scooters and then are far too scared to use them.

Others adapt scooters in interesting ways. I heard yesterday from a person in Stevenage who had been out shopping when he suddenly heard “Land of Hope and Glory” playing. He turned round to see a gentleman on a mobility scooter who was having trouble reversing. The gentleman on the scooter smiled at him and said, “It’s all right. It helps me because it plays when I’ve reversed into something.” That is not really how it is supposed to work. People need support and training. Although that is an amusing story, it makes a serious point.

There are some excellent examples of organisations attempting to ensure that good advice is given. Norfolk constabulary—the police force—is one of many organisations trying to do good work. It is working alongside Halfords and is one organisation whose advice, as part of its Safe Scoot campaign, is extremely thorough and easy to follow. It encourages safety awareness courses, but those are not compulsory. How many mobility scooter users have read The Highway Code? They might have passed their driving test decades ago, when the rules were slightly different. The Highway Code also applies to people who intend to use scooters on the pavements, but I imagine that very few scooter users have gone to the trouble of reading it. How many users understand the different issues raised by using a mobility scooter in icy conditions or that wearing reflective clothing is a good idea? How many users know that they should not be in bus lanes?

I know that the Minister is aware of the issues that I am raising, but I hope he agrees that with an ageing population action must be taken to ensure that standards are maintained with regard to the safety of these vehicles and that some basic training should be undertaken by all users. It is also important that, if scooters are sold to people who have never driven and they intend to use them on the road, training is compulsory. I am not sure whether they should even be on the road if they have not passed the driving test.

We also need to be aware that younger, able-bodied people are buying mobility scooters. Recently, one was seen cruising along the seafront at a Devon resort—the young man driving it had his golf clubs on the back. We see young women who appear to be able-bodied when they get on and off their scooters using them to do the shopping. A scooter may be an alternative to a small car in some circumstances—a much cheaper alternative, because people do not have to pay all the additional road taxes and so on—but that could spiral out of control if we do not get a grip on it.

What action can the Government take to close some of the loopholes? What action will they take to ensure that the products that come to market are safe and fit

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for purpose, and have been checked? That will require cross-departmental working. What action will be taken to ensure that records are kept of accidents? I suppose I am asking for a coherent, cross-departmental strategy, across the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the DFT and the Department of Health, pulling together all the safety issues to ensure that proper guidance is always issued and that vehicles cannot be imported for sale in the UK without the designs being checked and being safe.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) for securing this debate on an important matter that is of increasing interest to many people—mobility vehicle safety. She referred to the ten-minute rule Bill proposed yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). She will have noticed that he was arguing that, because these vehicles are a lifeline for many people, we should deregulate to some degree to give them the mobility and independence that we would agree in principle they should have. She argues that they should be safe and that we should take steps to ensure that people are properly trained to use them; everyone would agree with that in principle as well. That is the nub of the problem: both perspectives are valid, but they point in different directions. The Department for Transport is trying to deal with that problem, which is quite complicated, but let me try to give the hon. Lady reassurance about the steps we are taking to try to resolve it.

Officially, the UK has more than 10 million disabled people and our population is increasingly ageing, so mobility vehicles will in future have an even more important role to play in enabling disabled people to live independent lives. It is part of our policy, as it was the previous Government’s, to seek to improve access and safety for all people, including disabled and older people, to help to enhance their quality of life. We consider the issue of mobility scooters in that context.

By the way, if the hon. Lady looks at my written ministerial statement of 1 March, she will see that I indicated our intention to replace the legal term “invalid carriage” as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is in primary legislation, so we will need a slot to deal with it, but we fully accept that it is an inappropriate term in this day and age.

Our aim is to balance the mobility needs of disabled people with their safety and that of others. The previous Government consulted formally in 2010, and on 1 March this year I published the Government response to that consultation. Let me take first the safety of particular scooter models that are available to buy.

The position on design standards for mobility vehicles sold in the UK is that before a manufacturer can offer a vehicle for sale, it must meet EU manufacturing standards. To obtain that mark in the UK, a manufacturer must first submit a technical file relating to the product to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. On imports, there is nothing to stop someone buying a mobility scooter from another country over the internet without taking advice. If the vehicles do not conform to European standards, trading standards officers have the authority to seize them, but I cannot imagine that that

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happens very often in practice. I think that many trading standards officers, if they came across such a vehicle, would be very reluctant to seize someone’s lifeline—the vehicle necessary for them to get from A to B.

There are challenges, but the straight answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that someone can bypass the regulations if they buy on the internet, and trading standards officers have the power to deal with that when they come across such vehicles. Part of the problem is that vehicles are not always bought from reputable dealers. They are often bought on the internet, or second hand, or by some other means where the control mechanism is not in place.

Alison Seabeck: There is a case for information to be passed on by GPs—who may recommend a vehicle to a patient—pensioners’ groups and Age Concern to ensure that proper advice is going out to those who are considering buying mobility scooters. It is about information getting to people before they take the step of going to the internet or somewhere else to buy such a vehicle.

Norman Baker: I agree that information is important, and I will come on to what we are doing, but it may not be a complete panacea.

One of the main concerns about the carriage of scooters on public transport is whether or not they can be safely secured. The design of the scooter may mean that it does not have appropriate anchorage points, so there is a danger that it may tip up and cause injury. There are international standards to which manufacturers can refer to determine how to secure wheelchairs and their occupants when travelling in a vehicle, but there are no such standards for mobility scooters. That is one of the issues that I want operators and manufacturers to consider when it comes to improving the design of scooters for carriage on public transport.

There are also concerns among public transport operators that people are being sold scooters that are inappropriate for public transport and yet they have an expectation that they can use them. There is a space designed for wheelchairs and some scooters will necessarily be designed at a level above that, so transport operators can legitimately say, “This vehicle is unsuitable for carriage on light rail, tram, train or bus.” I want to ensure that we get some consistency of approach from operators and some clarity for members of the public as to which vehicles can and cannot be carried on public transport. If we end up with vehicles that are heavier and bigger and do what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase argued for yesterday, it will benefit users when they take them on the road, but not when they want to take them on public transport. These are very complicated issues to get right.

As the hon. Lady said, there are also safety concerns about the use of mobility scooters. There are reports of people being injured by them when they are used on pavements, and of users being hit by other vehicles when they are used on the road. Unfortunately, no accident statistics are available to demonstrate that the use of mobility vehicles represents a major public safety problem—the evidence is all anecdotal. However, I have raised the matter, and from 2013 the police will be able to record—I hope they do—whether a mobility vehicle

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has been involved in an accident on the public highway. Thus we will begin to gather more reputable and objective information than we have at the moment.

I recognise the concerns, however, which is why, in my written ministerial statement of 1 March, I indicated that I do not intend to change the maximum permitted speed of mobility vehicles. I agree that 8 mph does not sound very fast, but it certainly is fast on one of those scooters. I tried one out myself when I went to a scooter place in Rochford, and I was taken aback by its acceleration and speed—and I am someone who has been driving on the roads for some 30 years. I was also rather taken aback by the instability of the vehicle. I believe it is absolutely right not to increase their maximum speed. It is possible that some vehicles might be bought on the internet, without the controls of reputable dealers in this country, but the concerns about the reduced stability of vehicles at speed, and the more serious consequences of any collision if higher speeds are permitted, are such that I will not be increasing the speed at which those vehicles are permitted to travel.

I have also announced that there will be no change to the minimum age for using a class 3 vehicle. There would be safety concerns if a child under 14 years were permitted to take a vehicle on to the public carriageway. However, I have to balance that judgment against the legitimate health and independence benefits that such a vehicle can bring—these are difficult judgments to make—so I have decided to permit class 2 powered vehicles, which are restricted to the pavement, to weigh up to 150 kg unladen in order to help children with more acute clinical needs to have more equipment on their chairs. For reasons of public safety, I have also decided that the use of two-person mobility scooters should not be allowed on the public highway. Two-person scooters are likely to be heavier than the maximum legal weight limit—150 kg for class 3 vehicles. Some two-person models also exceed the maximum speed limit of 8 mph.

The consultation in 2010 considered whether the law is adequate or whether there should be a new means of tackling misuse of these vehicles. I have concluded that no new legislation is required—not even to make these vehicles more conspicuous—but I have asked officials to examine how current legislation could be better enforced. That does not mean that we are looking to prosecute more mobility scooter users. The laws relating to mobility vehicles are not the same as road traffic laws that apply to motor vehicles, but there is legislation dating from Victorian times that can be used to control reckless driving and we want this to be more widely publicised and better understood.

Issues remain around insurance, eyesight tests and training, which brings us on to the question of what we can do to help people who use these vehicles. There is currently no mandatory requirement to insure vehicles, although we strongly recommend that individuals take out insurance voluntarily, or to have eyesight tests, although my Department has for many years advised that people should be able to read a number plate at a distance of 40 feet. I want to look at how the test can be made more practical so that there is much greater take up. I have concluded that mandatory eyesight testing is not necessary for users of class 2 scooters, which are restricted to the pavement, but I am clear that the position in respect of class 3 scooters requires further

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consideration. I am talking about the vehicles that can travel at 8 mph as opposed to 4 mph and that can be allowed on the highway.

The consultation responses in 2010 emphasised real concerns that mandatory insurance and training could unfairly penalise a particularly vulnerable section of the community. However, we want to find ways to achieve greater take-up of insurance and training, which is why I have been talking to key stakeholders. I held a meeting only yesterday with the trade association, vehicle training organisations, the insurance industry and disabled charities and organisations to review the available evidence and options relating to insurance and the use of specialist training providers. My written statement on 1 March deliberately left open the questions of eyesight testing, insurance and training because I wanted to take advice from everyone concerned, including users, disabled charities and road safety people to try to get to a position that everybody finds comfortable. It was a useful meeting, and my officials have taken away the comments and will use them to take the next stage forward. As the hon. Lady rightly said, it would be helpful if more training was available.

Norfolk constabulary was represented at the meeting yesterday. The hon. Lady mentioned that county, where some really good work has been done—indeed I was in Norwich before coming to this debate. We can learn from Norfolk’s example. The trouble with Norfolk is not that it is not doing the right thing—it is—but that its practice is not emulated everywhere. We need to find a way of rolling that practice out right across England and Wales—I hope that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will forgive me, but England and Wales are my responsibility—to ensure that that training is available more widely. That is one of the issues that we are trying to address sensibly for the future.

There are clearly issues about basic training and about the safety of these vehicles, particularly ones that have slipped in under the net and do not meet European Union standards. I am not able to answer the hon.

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Lady’s question about whether models have been stopped from being brought into the country, but I will raise the matter with MHRA. Cross-departmental work on the issue is under way. We have been in touch with the Department of Health, and if she was in the Chamber yesterday, she will have seen that the Minister for Disabled People from the Department for Work and Pensions was with me on the Treasury Bench to listen to the ten-minute rule Bill. We are trying to work collaboratively across Departments.

Alison Seabeck: I acknowledge the work that is going on with all the groups that the Minister has mentioned, but use of these vehicles by people who are neither elderly nor disabled is increasing, and that is very worrying.

Norman Baker: That is a relatively new issue. I have not yet come across anyone going to play golf in a mobility scooter, although I have no doubt that it does happen; nor have I come across scooters that play “Land of Hope and Glory”. I am sure that whoever composed that particular tune did not have reversible scooters in mind. None the less, I take the hon. Lady’s word for it. If these scooters are now being used by groups for whom they are not designed, particularly if people are using them to avoid the requirements of road traffic legislation for other vehicles, that is a serious matter that I will take away to consider.

I hope that I have managed to convince the hon. Lady of two things: first, that we are seized of the need to make progress and we are trying to do so in a constructive and consensual way; and secondly, that this is not an easy issue. There are conflicting demands on us from different directions. Coming up with an answer that meets everybody’s aspirations will be difficult, but we will try.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.