11 Feb 2015 : Column 241WH

11 Feb 2015 : Column 241WH

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 February 2015

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)

9.30 am

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. At the outset, may I welcome yesterday’s written statement from the Minister on behalf of Lord Freud? It goes some way towards addressing one of the central points that I wished to raise, but it also raises a host of points that require clarification. I hope that the Minister will be able to address those. I am certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who has led the campaign for fair compensation for sufferers, will also have a number of questions for the Minister, as will other Members.

As the honorary president of the Merseyside Asbestos Victim Support Group, I place on the record my thanks to the mesothelioma victim support groups up and down the country for their continued championing of victims and for the dignified and diligent manner in which they fight their cause. I should also make special mention of the late Paul Goggins, who did so much in this place to advance the cause of mesothelioma sufferers and without whom we would not have reached this advanced point.

To give credit where it is due, and so that I cannot be accused of being partisan, let me also say that the work of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) should also be recognised. The Government’s U-turn should vindicate her steadfast support for victims of this dreadful disease. By the way, I suspect she might still be smarting from the result of last night’s match, when Liverpool secured a deserved victory over her beloved Spurs.

It is now eight months since the Mesothelioma Bill—now the Mesothelioma Act 2014—passed through Parliament. Given that Parliament will dissolve at the end of next month, I thought this would be an appropriate juncture for MPs to convene to discuss the status of the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme. That, of course, was before yesterday’s announcement, but the issues before us are no less relevant for that.

Throughout my contribution, I wish to focus on two key points: the 3% levy and research funding. First, however, I would like to highlight the issues that remain outstanding after the Minister’s statement. The 2014 Act delivers the legislative framework for the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme, which is a source of compensation for mesothelioma sufferers who could prove they were negligently exposed to asbestos at work, but who could not trace a relevant employer or that employer’s insurer. In addition, the scheme makes payments to eligible dependants of mesothelioma victims who have, sadly, passed away.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 242WH

Originally, payments of 80% of the level of average civil claims were to be made in respect of people first diagnosed on or after 25 July 2012. The new guidance means that the uprating to 100% will include all those diagnosed from yesterday onwards but exclude those who have already lodged claims.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on holding this important debate, which is very much needed. I also welcome the change that the Government announced yesterday. He mentions the 2014 Act and those who were diagnosed on or after 25 July 2012, but some were, of course, diagnosed before then. A constituent’s husband died in November 2012, but she cannot get compensation because they fell outwith the claim period of a year. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that should be remedied, given yesterday’s changes and the Government’s more enlightened understanding of the issue?

Steve Rotheram: The case the hon. Gentleman highlights is similar to cases Members raised in Committee and on the Floor of the House when the issue was debated. It is for the Minister to respond to the question of what will happen to those diagnosed before the 2012 threshold.

The arbitrary nature of yesterday’s ruling caused great distress to a small group of about 250 claimants who already receive payments from the scheme. Will the Minister comment on the unjust nature of the anomaly created by Lord Freud? Instead of sticking to yesterday’s written statement, the Minister should stand up today and announce that he will backdate the increase to include victims who have successfully claimed at the lower, 80% rate during the scheme’s first eight months.

It is obvious that Lord Freud has had to take the action he has, because, as the Opposition predicted, the number of claimants has not reached the inflated figure the insurance companies came up with to make the compensatory package look punitive—the number is far smaller. Lord Freud admits:

“The number of claimants has proven to be below the level anticipated.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2015; Vol. 592, c. 42WS.]

Yes—a whopping 70% lower. He might put this down to the fact that insurers are only now tracing an increasing number of policies, but if we start with an overestimate of the number of claimants, we cannot simply put any decrease down to the fact that the industry has only belatedly got its act together and started tracing compensators for remedy.

It should not be forgotten that, over the life of this Parliament, pressure from mesothelioma campaigners has pushed the Government to increase compensation rates from the initial derisory offer of 70%, to 75%, then to 80% and now to 100% of the level of civil claims. I pay tribute to those resolute campaigners. The Labour party consistently called for an increase during the passage of the Bill, so I am delighted to see that increase come to fruition.

The scheme is funded by a levy on insurers that provide employers’ liability insurance. Throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government gave assurances that the levy would be set at a rate equal to 3% of the gross written premiums on employers’ liability insurance policies. Ministers told us that the insurance industry could afford to fund the scheme through a levy of 3% of GWP without having to pass on the costs to its customers

11 Feb 2015 : Column 243WH

through additional premiums. The expectation in the original impact assessment was that the levy on the industry would raise £338.7 million over 10 years.

In a ministerial statement on 28 November 2014, the Government announced that the levy would raise £32 million in the first year. That in fact represents a levy equivalent of just 2.2%, not the 3% originally agreed to and promised. That was due to the fact that the employers’ liability market accounted for GWP of £1,418 million in 2013—an increase of 4.8% on the previous year. From that figure, it is clear that a 3% levy would net £43.6 million, not the £32 million cited in the ministerial statement. The Department for Work and Pensions does not contest those figures, and it verified them at a meeting involving Lord Freud and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford. I guarantee that, if the converse had happened and the take from the insurance pot at 3% had been lower than anticipated, the Government would not have argued to increase that percentage. Why, then, are they letting the insurance industry get away with a lower yield because the market has increased?

The issue is a cause of major concern, because the Government explicitly promised that the 3% target would be met in year 1. The importance of the additional 0.8% differential cannot be understated. If the Government chose to act, the additional £11.6 million difference could enable payments to be made to sufferers of other asbestos-related diseases, who are currently not covered by the scheme, or in respect of those diagnosed before the scheme was in place, such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). The additional £11.6 million could provide much-needed investment in medical research—something I will say more about shortly.

The Minister was not in his current post during the passage of the Bill; his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), was. The right hon. Gentleman declined, in Committee, to enact Labour’s proposal for the 3% levy to be enshrined in law. Instead, he gave Members a cast iron guarantee:

“I say to the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, that I met Lord Freud, my fellow Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, this morning. Three per cent. is 3% and we have no intention of moving away from it.”––[Official Report, Mesothelioma Public Bill Committee, 12 December 2013; c. 117.]

He was unequivocal. What do they say about actions speaking louder than words? If the Government do not commit to ensuring that the insurance industry will meet the 3% levy target, they will leave themselves open to legitimate criticism from mesothelioma campaigners that they are on the side of the insurers, not the victims, and are letting insurers walk away from that cast iron guarantee. That is why we pushed for the 3% to be enshrined in law.

I should be grateful for answers to some questions. Why are the Government set to renege on the promise that they made to mesothelioma victims and Members of this House about the 3% levy? Given the present understandable uncertainty about whether the 3% levy figure will be met, will the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to amend the 2014 Act to enshrine it in law? If applications to the scheme increase steadily,

11 Feb 2015 : Column 244WH

as more people become aware of it, and claims exceed 3% of gross written premiums, will the industry pay out from the windfall that it gets from the underpayment it currently presides over? What work is the Minister doing with hospitals, colleges, surgeries and GPs to make those diagnosed with mesothelioma aware of the scheme, to encourage increased take-up? How much is his Department spending on promoting the scheme to sufferers?

I will remind the House—as if this were needed—of what a terrible disease mesothelioma is. Thankfully, it is not a common cancer, but according to Cancer Research UK it is responsible for 2% of all cancer deaths in the country. The latest statistics showed that there were 2,570 known cases, which was a rise on the previous 12 months, with 2,429 subsequent mesothelioma deaths in the same year. A victim is likely to live less than a year after contracting mesothelioma. The disease is commonly associated with men who have worked in heavy industry, such as the construction industry, which is why I am proud of the lead that my union, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, has taken on the issue.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a good case. As he says, mesothelioma is an asbestos-related condition usually associated with heavy industry, but the incidence in my very rural constituency is higher than the national average. I just wanted to point out that it does not necessarily occur only in big cities and industrial centres.

Steve Rotheram: I absolutely agree, and was not painting a picture in which only males or people working in heavy industry are affected. Women who never worked and who were housewives have contracted mesothelioma, because they washed clothing with asbestos dust and particles on it, which they breathed in. I was not trying at all to underestimate the impact on the rest of the country.

There cannot be a debate on mesothelioma without talking about research. When the 2014 Act was being considered, the late Paul Goggins tabled amendments on that very matter, which I moved. The Government contended in the House of Lords on 9 December 2014, at column 1710, that funding for mesothelioma research is available, but no good research proposals have been forthcoming.

There are two points to make. First, it is estimated that at present £1.4 million is spent on mesothelioma research. That can be compared with research spending of £22 million for bowel cancer, £41 million for breast cancer, £11.5 million for lung cancer and £32 million for leukaemia; we can quickly see that mesothelioma is at the bottom of the research pile. Lord Alton of Liverpool previously made it clear that there are 17 other forms of cancer for which far more research resources are reserved than for mesothelioma.

Secondly, the Government’s position on the quality of forthcoming research proposals is contradicted by the recent announcement that Aviva and Zurich have commissioned the British Lung Foundation to undertake £1 million of mesothelioma research. That is of course welcome, but is not a statutory requirement. It is voluntary, and future moneys may not be guaranteed, but it shows that the industry believes that quality research proposals

11 Feb 2015 : Column 245WH

exist and that it is only the Government who are not willing to back the scientific community to lead on the matter.

I come back to the point about excess moneys raised from the full 3% levy being utilised for the benefit of the victims. Should an additional £11.6 million be available in the pot, even if claimants were paid out at 100% of their claim, as they now will be, there would still be about £5 million left, which could be devoted to research. Why is that not happening? Under section 13(2)(b) of the Mesothelioma Act 2014 the Government can use the amount recovered from scheme payments under the recovery of benefits legislation to help pay for the costs of the scheme. Now that the costs of the scheme can be covered completely by a 3% levy, there is no need for the subsidy. It is currently estimated that nearly £5 million will be recovered from payments. That money should be used to fund medical research, not to subsidise the insurers unnecessarily.

I have several questions for the Minister. I would appreciate it if he replied today, but if he cannot answer them all, perhaps he would write to me and the shadow Minister on each point. The written statement released by the Department yesterday says:

“Following discussion with the insurance industry, I have agreed to introduce some additional administrative safeguards to ensure that we can all be confident that the scheme continues to act as we intended and remains a scheme of last resort.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2015; Vol. 592, c. 42WS.]

What assurances can the Minister give sufferers and their families that that will not lead to increased restrictions and a higher threshold for proof of employer negligence? Why did he meet only with the insurance industry and not with victims to discuss possible amendments needed in the scheme? Why was the need for additional safeguards not picked up during the passage of the Bill through both Houses? Are the Government still lending the insurance industry a full £17 million, even though the take-up of the scheme is lower than expected?

Lord Faulks told peers,

“The Government fully recognise the need to stimulate an increase in the level of research activity and continue actively to pursue measures to achieve this.”

What measures are the Government taking to increase the amount of research? In the same House of Lords debate, Lord Faulks went on to say:

“It is absolutely not the case that there is insufficient funding for research. As I have said more than once, the case is that, at the moment, there is not a suitable number of applications for research.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 December 2014; Vol. 757, c. 1710-1712.]

What specific number would constitute a “suitable number” of research applications? Has that figure been met?

Finally, there has also been a question of whether insurers have made a profit out of the system because the levy target of 3% has not been met. Lord Faulks agreed to look into that. Can the Minister update Members?

For the public and the mesothelioma victims support community to have confidence in the scheme, it is vital that in the first instance the commitments that this House made to the victims should be met without any hiccups or backtracking. Failure to enforce the 3% levy and to commission the necessary research, with adequate and proportionate funding, would be a dereliction of duty and undermine the entire scheme. We owe it to the victims of this cruel disease to get things right.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 246WH

9.49 am

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. Despite his cruel reminder of last night’s football result, I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this timely debate.

This is a matter of great importance to me. I have campaigned on it for a decade, both before and after my election as an MP. Naturally, my interest as an MP stems from the fact that the Medway towns are a mesothelioma hot spot, with 6.5 in every 100,000 people across the area getting meso, compared with the national average of 2.5 in every 100,000. The area’s history of shipbuilding and heavy industry contributes to that exposure and diagnosis rate, so it is an issue that the people of Chatham and beyond are acutely aware of.

Much progress has been made on mesothelioma, but I want to start by congratulating the noble Lord Freud, via his and my Commons ministerial colleague here today, on yesterday’s announcement about increasing compensation under the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme to 100% of average civil damages to those who are unable to trace their insurer. If it had not been considered unparliamentary or just a bit weird, I would have hunted him down in the other House to give him a big hug. Instead, I will do the entirely British thing of just saying, through the medium of Hansard, well done.

It is also appropriate to congratulate the noble Lord Alton, who has been an absolute champion on this issue in the other House. His tireless campaigning on meso issues has been a source of great hope to many victims and campaigners. He has been an inspiration to those of us in this House who have often been wearied by procedural hurdles. Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, I pay tribute to the asbestos campaign groups, which not only lobby us on this issue but hold the hands of the victims once they are diagnosed.

Although the Minister was not in the Department at the time, he will be aware that, during the passage of the Mesothelioma Act 2014, I pushed for 100% compensation for victims of this fatal disease. Parliament settled for a compromise deal of 80%, albeit after a lot of pressure from campaigners in all parts of the Commons and Lords. That compromise was agreed after levels were raised from 70% to 75% and then to 80%, on the understanding that insurance companies would not participate in the scheme at all if the levy were to cost them more than 3% gross written premiums, which they in turn would be forced to pass on to an already difficult employers’ liability market.

I think “reluctant acceptance all sides” is an appropriate phrase; none the less, many felt that the outcome remained unfair. The fact there were far fewer claims than predicted, representing a total of just 2.2% GWP, was surprising, but perhaps not unexpected, given the number of times that the calculations and the costs were altered during the consultation and the passage of the legislation. It was a pleasure, therefore, to meet with Lord Freud immediately after Christmas to discuss the shortfall. I am delighted that, through his inevitably tough negotiations with the sector, he has managed to pull off a deal that means that, as of yesterday, anyone diagnosed with mesothelioma will get 100% compensation.

The Minister may think it is cheeky to ask for more, given how much progress has been made, but a few questions need to be asked. Around 200 people were

11 Feb 2015 : Column 247WH

compensated under the original scheme, at the rate of 80%. Are there plans to reconsider and uprate their payouts? Although I appreciate that there may be issues about retrospective payments, it would be reassuring to know whether the Department is undertaking any further consideration regarding those claimants. Yesterday’s statement also alluded to additional safeguards that have been requested by the insurance industry and agreed by the Minister. Although I fully accept that the 100% compensation scheme would not have been agreed without some form of negotiation, it would be helpful for the House to be made aware of what those administrative safeguards are and whether they require changes to either the primary or the secondary legislation.

I want to mention research, an issue that was much debated during the passage of the legislation for this scheme. The late Paul Goggins was a champion of ensuring more medical research into mesothelioma, for both treating and curing the cancer. The Minister will be aware that Paul sadly passed away between the Committee and Report stages of passing the Mesothelioma Act; I moved his amendments on the Floor of the House for him. It is an honour to continue to fight for more funding for research in his name.

Emotion aside, the facts are simple. Mesothelioma is an invasive type of lung cancer for which there is no cure. Victims often experience painful, debilitating symptoms, and most will die within 12 months of diagnosis. Someone dies from meso every five hours in the UK. It is estimated that 2% of men born in the ’50s will get the disease; yet research into this cancer is lagging way behind. As an illustration, I was given a table of the number of research papers into meso. In 2012, when 2,431 people died from mesothelioma, just 44 papers were published on it, compared with 2,828 papers on oral cancer and 1,160 on cancer of the uterus—both of which, thankfully, have nearly 1,000 fewer deaths per year.

Great work is being done out there, but it is starved of money. I visited the Medway campus of the university of Greenwich, where Professor Adrian Dobbs is leading the research into meso, including looking at the recent discovery of the compound JBIR-23, which is the first ever natural product to show activity against tumour cells. That work is being funded by the June Hancock Mesothelioma Research Fund, but with much more to do to refine the biological activity—from the scale of an oil tanker to a saloon car and down to the scale of a grain of sugar—significant funding needs to be found.

Insurers have contributed to wider research funding programmes with the British Lung Foundation. I was delighted to see that my old company, Aviva, has joined forces with Zurich to donate a combined £1 million over two years to the BLF’s meso programme. However, it is not fair that only those two companies are funding the research; frankly, others should be ashamed of themselves for not also contributing. It is also disappointing that the funding is time limited, and there is no guarantee that it will continue after the two years.

Finally, I want briefly to mention the issue of teachers dying of mesothelioma, which was also discussed during the passage of the Mesothelioma Act. Today, 75% of the 33,600 schools in Britain still contain asbestos. There is some variation in the statistics—which is why I

11 Feb 2015 : Column 248WH

may have confused matters further with a possibly incorrect recollection of the figures in the Chamber on Monday—but the often-cited stat is that in the past 10 years, 140 school teachers have died of meso. In the United States, for every one teacher who has passed from mesothelioma, nine children will follow.

Quite simply, we have a problem with asbestos in schools, which is why those who are diagnosed with the disease are not limited to the industrial professions. Just one fibre of asbestos can cause the cancer, and fibres can be transferred simply by putting a drawing pin in a wall. Local education authorities have insurance, which is why the scheme was deemed not appropriate in general terms for teachers; nevertheless, as politicians who will inevitably have schools in our constituencies that are riddled with asbestos, we need to be mindful of the potential problems. We need to introduce regulations similar to those in Australia and the US to remove asbestos in schools. I hope that, post 7 May, the Government will consider this matter extremely carefully.

Time is short and I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. Let me end by saying that the victims of the disease will now get the full compensation that they deserve. There are still issues to resolve, such as those I have raised, as well as others, which I have not had time to go into, that are equally important, such as secondary exposure. There are many people who will today hear that they have mesothelioma. That news will, in a short time, take them away from their family and loved ones; but at least now, if they are unable to trace their insurer, they can have financial peace of mind. It can only be the good thing and right that we have finally achieved that.

9.59 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for securing it and for giving us all a chance to participate and give a viewpoint—I will obviously give a Northern Ireland viewpoint. It is also a pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and to hear her contribution.

This issue has affected a great number of people in my constituency of Strangford and, indeed, across the whole of Northern Ireland. I thank the Minister for his announcement, but I seek clarification on how the compensation will affect Northern Ireland. I am aware that the Northern Ireland Assembly made a decision in 2012 on the issue. I will ask him some questions on that later, because it is important to get the situation and how the compensation payments will affect those in Northern Ireland entirely clarified. When I comment on that later, hon. Members will see the clear disparity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Those are important issues.

This is a common disease, particularly among the older generation and particularly in the old industrial towns of Belfast. With Harland and Wolff employing some 15,000 workers in the shipyards, and as many as 30,000 workers at one stage, it is unsurprising that so many men—and also women—in and around Belfast were affected by asbestos-related illnesses. For many plumbers, electricians and builders working in the ’50s and ’60s in towns within and outside the shipyards, asbestos was commonplace, so unsurprisingly a large

11 Feb 2015 : Column 249WH

number of people in my constituency have been affected. Indeed, the story is told that when Harland and Wolff was at its height, the asbestos flakes were of such enormity and quantity that they were in the streets of east Belfast, where the children played among them, never realising that doing so would be detrimental to their health, so it is not necessarily just the workers in the shipyard who were affected, but those outside it. Over some 30 years as an elected representative—I was doing the figures the other day; figures are always a reminder of how many years we have been on this earth—as a councillor, a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and, now, as a Member of Parliament here, I have had occasion to represent many of my constituents on this issue in relation to their benefits and their compensation claims as well.

Malignant mesothelioma is the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases. As has been mentioned, exposure to asbestos is the primary cause and a risk factor for mesothelioma. Making a correct mesothelioma diagnosis is particularly difficult for doctors because the disease often presents with symptoms that mimic other common ailments, so people may sometimes not be aware of exactly what is happening. There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, but treatments are available to help with the typical mesothelioma prognosis.

It is clear that investment in research into mesothelioma is desperately needed. The United Kingdom has the highest rate of the disease in the world—that is not something to be proud of, but it is a fact of life that we have the highest figures. That is largely because the UK Government permitted the use of asbestos long after other countries outlawed the mineral’s use. In addition, and as mentioned previously, shipbuilders historically are among the people most affected by mesothelioma, and the shipbuilding industry plays a large role in the history of the United Kingdom, in particular in Belfast and Northern Ireland, especially around the time of second world war. The British Lung foundation has said that this year, it is estimated that 2,400 people will die of the disease, and that over the next 30 years, more than 50,000 people will die of mesothelioma in the UK unless new treatments are found. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton and for Chatham and Aylesford both mentioned the need to do more research and to try more actively to find a cure.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): My hon. Friend is talking about heavy industry and the shipyards, and the impact that they had. Given that the numbers of people dying from mesothelioma are continuing to increase post that revolution, that would indicate that the research that he is talking about—and is generally agreed should increase—should be where the effort is concentrated after the announcement yesterday that greater research has to be done for the future.

Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend and colleague for that intervention. Yes, that needs to happen. I know that this Minister is not responsible for health, but perhaps he could give us some idea of what discussions he may have had with the relevant Health Minister on finding a cure or treatment that works and is more effective.

Relatively little is spent on mesothelioma research in the United Kingdom compared with other cancers of comparable mortality. In 2011, the National Cancer

11 Feb 2015 : Column 250WH

Research Institute reported that £400,000 was invested in mesothelioma research by its partners. That seems like a lot of money, but compared with figures for research today, it is not, so we need some indication of how that will be increased. The amount compares with some £5 million and some £5.5 million spent respectively on myeloma and melanoma—two cancers that kill a similar number of people each year—in the same year.

Given how aggressive this cancer is, it surprises me, but also saddens me, that in 2015 we are still not working hard enough to find a cure. That is the very issue to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred. I was pleased to see that the Northern Ireland Assembly introduced a scheme to help those not just affected first hand, but who had come into contact through relatives—by washing clothes, for example, which is how many of the wives, girlfriends, mothers and children have been directly affected by what has happened. On 1 October 2008, the scheme was launched and then, last year a scheme was introduced in the UK. Although it is similar, there are some key differences, and it is those key differences that concern me most. I will focus on those quickly and seek the Minister’s response on them; his help would be greatly appreciated.

In Northern Ireland, a person—this includes dependants—has to claim within 12 months of receiving a diagnosis or within 12 months of receiving an industrial injuries disablement benefit. On the UK mainland, a person has three years to make the claim. That is quite a difference, so I seek to clarify how and what methods can be used to address that issue. The scheme is also open only to those diagnosed on or after 25 July 2012. That automatically cuts out a large proportion of the community, because so many of those who worked in the ’50s and ’60s and before that were diagnosed some time ago. That means that they are directly disadvantaged and excluded. That simply should not be the case, because every person affected by this cancer deserves some form of compensation. Unfortunately, compensation will not make them better; but what it does do, importantly, is help them in some way, and it is what is deserved, so it just seems like a no-brainer to me that we should be doing our best to help them.

Not only that, but there is a significant disparity between compensation payments in Northern Ireland and those on the UK mainland. Both systems work on the same basis, so the younger someone is, the more compensation they receive. In Northern Ireland, if a person is aged 37 or under, they will receive just over £80,000 as a lump sum. At the other end of the spectrum, if a person is aged 77 or over, they receive just over £12,500. At the same time, in the UK mainland, someone aged 40 or under will receive just over £216,000, and a person aged 90 or over will receive just under £70,000. There is a massive disparity in payouts. It is quite shocking to see such a difference, so I seek an explanation from the Minister and perhaps his help on how we can make progress, so that there is a similarity between payouts across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Mesothelioma does not change. It does not stop at the Irish sea, nor does it lessen when it crosses the Irish sea, so it disappoints me that people living in Northern Ireland are afforded so much less because of their postcode. Last January, I asked the Secretary of State

11 Feb 2015 : Column 251WH

for Health what discussions he had had with his counterparts in Northern Ireland about introducing this strategy on a UK-wide basis. He said at the time that he had not had any discussions with them. A year on, I put the same question, this time to the Minister present in the Chamber. What discussions have taken place with his counterparts in Northern Ireland about a UK-wide strategy to tackle mesothelioma, so that everyone in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland can have the same payouts, the same compensation and the same help?

10.8 am

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on once again bringing this really important debate to the fore in Westminster Hall.

Only last year, I had the experience of sitting on the Bill Committee for the Mesothelioma Act 2014. Many problems were brought up about that Bill. Like other Members, I think it really important to remember Paul Goggins’s work, efforts, commitment, passion and dedication on behalf of mesothelioma victims. As a Member of Parliament, he was much treasured in this House, and he did fantastic work right up to the Bill stage. He was sitting with us the weekend before he tragically died from a medical condition. We must always remember people such as Paul Goggins for their efforts.

One big issue with regard to the Mesothelioma Bill was the compensation. That was discussed long and hard, as were the insurance companies. Initially, the maximum was 75%, because the insurance companies could not and would not be able to afford anything more than that. The arguments were long and very bitter at times, because not many compensation schemes agree to pay only 75% of what people should be entitled to.

We should not forget, and we did not forget, that to be entitled to any form of compensation, people have to be diagnosed with the dreaded disease mesothelioma. Once someone is diagnosed with mesothelioma, the prognosis is death. They are lucky if they can last 18 months. The position at this point in time is that once a doctor informs someone that they have this horrendous, horrible disease, they can see the end of their natural life.

We should always recognise and support the victims, and the vast majority of the Bill Committee and Members of this House do, but at that time there was—there still is—too much focus on the power, influence and finances of the insurance companies. The Minister in the Committee said that he was extremely concerned at the Opposition pushing for 80%, 90% and 100% compensation, because the insurance companies had not come to the table willingly. In his words, not mine, the insurance companies had to be dragged to the table. He was concerned that if we pressured the insurance companies—again, these are his words, not mine—they would walk away and there would be nothing for the victims. We agreed eventually, after the Bill was enacted, that the figure for compensation would be set at 80%.

I was delighted that yesterday’s written statement increased the compensation to 100%, but I am not really here to celebrate the fact that the insurance companies

11 Feb 2015 : Column 252WH

have made that decision. The decision should have been made many moons ago. It should have been enacted in the Bill and then we would have seen the correct compensation paid to many of these individuals and their families. It was not, and the Minister might consider—in fact, should consider—whether the people who have been able to claim since July 2012 should be able to claim backdated finance: the difference between 80% and the 100% that was, happily, announced yesterday.

There are a few other things to say about the insurance companies. We should never let these people off the hook, because the insurance companies made millions and millions of pounds on insurance for mesothelioma and other types of disease. They had the finance to pay this money; it is not that they have not had the money. The insurance companies have had the money and have invested the money, or did they give the money out in dividends, meaning that we cannot compensate the people who are suffering greatly as a result of mesothelioma? The insurance companies have had the finance, but it was said that they needed to be dragged to the table. That in itself speaks volumes.

I agree with the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), who is no longer in his place, that mesothelioma does not affect just those who have worked in shipyards, mining and heavy industry; it goes across the board. Teachers are one example. Thousands of teachers have died as a result of mesothelioma. They are dying on an annual basis. Of course, the problem with this dreaded disease, as we all understand, is that its latency period can extend up to 20, 25 or 30 years. People can be fine right up to that time. Then they start to feel unwell, and the prognosis for mesothelioma is, as I said, a death sentence.

Can I mention, Mr Owen, something extremely important? If teachers are getting mesothelioma from working in schools, what is happening to the kids? That is a different issue, but it is cancer and asbestos-related. I fear for the future of many kids who are in schools constructed in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s—sometimes earlier—in which there is still a large asbestos presence. If teachers are dying, that means that kids are being exposed to the same asbestos dust because of the nature of the school’s construction. We need to look at the issue of asbestos in schools and see whether we can monitor kids who might be exposed. We should in some way be able to measure and control that situation. That is a huge concern of mine.

Let us look at the disease itself. Many people in my constituency have had this dreaded condition. I place on the record my thanks to the Mick Knighton Mesothelioma Research Fund, from the north-east region. It does tremendous work, as my hon. Friends mentioned, across the UK. There are a very large number of people in these support groups. Many of them do not have mesothelioma and will never have it, but feel the need, because of the nature of the condition, to support individuals who do have it. My thanks go to those people.

I mentioned the cut-off date in the legislation. People can claim mesothelioma compensation only if they were diagnosed after 25 July 2012. That is nonsense. There is not a politician in the House of Commons who would not accept that mesothelioma has been present for many years—decades, in fact. Insurance companies were taking premiums for mesothelioma 50 and 60 years

11 Feb 2015 : Column 253WH

ago, so the idea that it is acceptable to have a cut-off date of 25 July 2012 is nonsense. It is an affront to the many hundreds, if not thousands, of victims of mesothelioma who were diagnosed before the cut-off date and can in no way claim compensation. That is just not fair.

Mr MacNeil: To back up the hon. Gentleman’s argument, I reiterate that I have a constituent whose husband died after 25 July 2012 but was diagnosed before 25 July 2012.

Ian Lavery: Again, there are all these anomalies. If we look at the other types of compensation deal with insurers, trade unions and law firms, we see that the vast majority would pay compensation dating back to what is classified as the date of guilty knowledge, not a date that has just been plucked out of the air. As I said, mesothelioma goes back for generations. We should be looking to compensate people—never mind the cut-off date of July 2012. There was even a document for a consultation that began on, I believe, 25 February 2010. Is that not a date of guilty knowledge in itself? Why can compensation not be paid to victims going back to at least 2010?

Everyone who has spoken has mentioned the real issue at the moment, which is medical research. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned Dr Moore-Gillon, who has said that mesothelioma is

“not an attractive area for researchers…If you’re a bright person with a PhD making a career in cancer research and you are told you can work on a mesothelioma project for a year, you’re looking for a new job in 12 months. Instead, you can hook into breast cancer research and be employed for 20 years.”

Steve Rotheram: On that point, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. A leading researcher has done some positive work using adult stem cells, which, once they are adapted and injected into a vein, target cancerous mesothelioma cells. Unless additional funding is put forward to develop that research to clinical trials, we will simply be paying compensation to people who have this terrible disease instead of doing what we should be doing—giving them a cure. I am sure that everybody who has mesothelioma would rather have a cure than the compensation.

Ian Lavery: I do not think I could have put it better myself. We debated medical research long and hard in the Mesothelioma Bill Committee, but we have not really made any progress. I urge the Minister to think about the fact that we really should put mesothelioma right up there with other cancer-related disease so that we can, as my hon. Friend has said, try to cure and prevent that horrible disease, rather than just thinking that it is right to pay compensation 30 or 40 years later.

Finally, I want to ask for clarification on a point that I am genuinely unsure about. When it was agreed that 80% of the compensation would be paid, the DWP stated that 100% of any benefits that had been paid with regard to mesothelioma would be clawed back. I am not sure whether that has changed, but I would welcome the Minister’s view on that. If it is still happening—the insurance companies and everybody else has come up with 100% compensation, and that is fine—for the period where people receive 80%

11 Feb 2015 : Column 254WH

compensation, compared with 100% clawback from the DWP, surely there is a case for them to have some form of claimant rebate.

All in all, I welcome the statement, but there are still lots of questions to be answered. The Mesothelioma Bill gave us a great opportunity to give 100% support to the victims, but we did not quite get there. Perhaps we are getting there step by step, but why do we not simply take the massive step that is needed and put things right as soon as we possibly can?

10.23 am

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate. I am delighted that we are joined by parliamentary colleagues from all parties who have long been doughty campaigners on this issue. I join colleagues in paying tribute to the asbestos victim support groups, which have kept us so well informed about the issues in relation to this matter. I also join colleagues in remembering the late Paul Goggins, my good friend and former parliamentary next-door neighbour. We miss Paul very much, but I think he would have been pleased to see that there has been further progress in the light of yesterday’s written ministerial statement.

It is just over a year since the Mesothelioma Act 2014 completed its parliamentary passage, and I warmly welcome the opportunity to debate what has happened since then. Although everyone recognises that it is early days still to assess the effectiveness of the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme, even in its short life so far there have been a number of developments, some of which were welcome and some less so. I know that hon. Members who take a close interest in the matter appreciate the opportunity to raise issues of concern with the Minister today.

The Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme is an important and welcome development in offering a measure of justice to sufferers of that terrible disease. It serves to ensure that those who contracted the illness as a result of exposure to asbestos at work, but who cannot now trace an employer or an employer’s liability insurer, can receive payment in recognition of their suffering. Initially, as we have heard, the Government set the proposed payment at 70% of average civil damages, but an increase was made to 80% when regulations to implement the scheme were introduced last year, as a result of savings that had been found in legal and administrative costs. Yesterday, we learned from the written ministerial statement that payouts are to be increased to 100% of average compensation. Of course, that is very welcome, although I echo my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) in asking the Minister why the increase cannot be backdated to those who have already received 80% payouts under the scheme or who have already been diagnosed. The Department’s press release painted a rather rosy picture of the impact of the increase, suggesting that victims would receive an additional £54,000. In fact, that amount would be paid only to those aged under 40, and so far no victims as young as that have been compensated under the scheme. The average increase will be more like £21,000, which is welcome but not quite as good.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 255WH

I am also concerned that the reason for increased payments is because the take-up of the scheme has been lower than expected. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton was right to express some scepticism about the assumptions that were made when the scheme was first proposed. Take-up has been substantially below expectation. It was originally envisaged, if memory serves me correctly, that in the first year of the scheme there would be some 900 applications, but I understand that the expectation now is that there will be only 300 claims in the first year. What analysis has the Minister made of the much lower than expected take-up and the reasons for it? What discussions has he had with the oversight committee on the matter? Is he confident that the application process is working smoothly and speedily for applicants? Is he confident that the scheme has been adequately promoted? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that potential claimants are made aware of it? What evaluation of the application process is he undertaking, and, in particular, what measures is he taking to ensure that he obtains feedback from the asbestos victim support groups?

Have any claimants yet resorted to arbitration when they have been unhappy with the outcome of their claim? Is the Minister confident that the much lower figure for expected claims represents a true picture of those who could make a claim under the scheme? What profile, over time, and what volume of future claims does the Department now expect? As has been mentioned, yesterday’s written statement referred to administrative changes being made as a result of discussions with the insurance industry to ensure that the scheme remains one of last resort. Will the Minister tell us exactly what those administrative changes are, and what impact they will have on victims and their ability to access the scheme?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has explained, the scheme is funded by a levy on current employers’ liability insurers. When the legislation proceeded through Parliament, we were told that the levy would be set at 3% of gross written premiums, because the industry could accommodate a levy at that level without having to pass the cost on to its customers via increased premiums. In addition, because it was expected that claims would peak in the first few years of the scheme, which would mean that the cost of meeting payouts could exceed the levy, we were told that the Government would make a £30 million loan and £17 million gift to the industry to smooth the cost of the scheme in the early years. Although the expectation was that 3% would prove insufficient fully to meet claims in the early years of the scheme, there were always fears that the industry might try to get away with a lower payment. That is why I tabled amendments to the legislation, in Committee and on Report, to enshrine the 3% levy rate in law. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), gave assurances to the Public Bill Committee on 12 December 2013 that there was no need for such amendments, because:

“Three per cent. is 3% and we have no intention of moving away from it”.––[Official Report, Mesothelioma Public Bill Committee, 12 December 2013; c. 117.]

In a written statement on 28 November 2014, however, the Government announced that in the first year the levy would raise £32 million, so it was in fact set at 2.2%.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 256WH

Following yesterday’s written ministerial statement, the position on the levy is somewhat opaque. I hope the Minister will clarify the situation today. First, can he confirm whether the uplift in payments to 100% is met from a levy of 2.2%, a levy of 3% or some other figure? How much is the levy now raising in cash terms? Is it still £32 million, or is it another amount? How much in cash terms are the additional and total costs of meeting payments at 100%? In a briefing to MPs in December, the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK estimated that increasing payments to 100% would cost an additional £5.5 million and that increasing the levy from 2.2% to 3% would raise an additional £11 million. With lower than expected payouts, there would be plenty of surplus cash if the levy were set at 3%, even with payments at 100%.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, at whatever level the levy is set, it is perfectly clear that there is more than enough funding available to do the right thing by those victims and families who received under-settlements at 80%? We could do the right thing by those victims and give them the full compensation at 100%.

Kate Green: Absolutely. Given the relatively small number of claims and the relatively small amounts involved, it is a matter of justice, and I hope the Minister will address the mood of the House this morning by giving us some assurances.

Even if 100% payouts could be afforded from a lower levy, the 3% figure is important because, in addition to funding more generous payouts, surplus cash could be put to other uses, as we have heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton and the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) all asked about funding for research. Mesothelioma is always fatal. It is a truly terrible disease that is massively cruel to sufferers and their loved ones, who have to watch them die in the most horrific manner. There is a crying need for research into treatment of the disease, yet today research is woefully underfunded. Although the recently announced voluntary contribution to the British Lung Foundation by the insurers Aviva and Zurich over the next two years is welcome, the abundance of good research proposals, as evidenced by the written answer I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), on 7 January 2015, suggests that mesothelioma research could benefit from more funding, which would benefit the insurance industry, the public purse and, of course, victims. What steps are the Government taking to place research funding on a sustainable footing?

With claims lower than expected, and with a 3% levy, another possibility is to backdate payments under the scheme to an earlier date. Under the legislation, the cut-off date for claims is for those diagnosed after 25 July 2012 but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck pointed out, we have known about the lethal effects of asbestos for many years—indeed, since the early decades of the last century—and for many years, the industry did all it could to evade its responsibilities to victims. There will now be very few, if any, survivors who received a diagnosis before 2012, given the speed and ferocity of the disease after diagnosis. The usual prognosis

11 Feb 2015 : Column 257WH

is less than 12 months, and personal representatives cannot make a claim where the sufferer died before the commencement of the scheme. None the less, in a few cases there may be an opportunity for greater generosity in relation to the cut-off date, or the Government might like to rethink their position on personal representatives. Has the Minister considered the scope for earlier eligibility? What will happen if claims increase over the next few years to the extent that the levy is insufficient to meet them after all? Will payments remain at 100%?

Can the Minister confirm that the cost to the industry will never fall below 3% in any given year? Or is it his intention that the levy will not average less than 3% over the whole life of the scheme? What is happening to the Government’s £30 million loan and £17 million payment to the industry to help it meet the costs of the scheme? Given the lower than expected number of claims, will that generous Government support now be reduced or removed? We know that the industry expected the scheme to run for 30 to 40 years because of the long latency of the disease. What discussions have the Minister or his colleague, Lord Freud, who has been leading discussions with industry representatives, had about the industry’s forecasts of future costs?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said, we would like the Minister to say something about the figure for benefits recovered by the compensation recovery unit. Under the legislation, social security benefits that have been paid to sufferers are clawed back if the sufferer makes a successful claim under the scheme. My understanding is that recoveries amounted to £8 million in the scheme’s first seven months. Does the Minister think that clawing back benefits at 100% is fair to sufferers who received less than 100% of average damages? Will he consider reducing recoveries from their benefits, at the very least, in line with the proportion of average damages that they actually received?

On other matters, what progress has there been on addressing the difficulty we ran into with the approach of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to releasing employment records, which are essential to making a claim under the scheme or, indeed, to pursuing a claim in the courts? I am pleased that a Government amendment to the Deregulation Bill has ensured that, in future, HMRC will be able to release those records without fear of breaching data protection law, but the Bill has not yet completed its parliamentary passage. Is the Minister aware of any cases in the meantime in which HMRC has been asked for records? What approach is HMRC currently taking? There has, of course, been a recent helpful legal judgment in a case brought by my own union, Unite, but I understand that the limitations of the judgment mean that the matter will not be fully resolved in all cases until the Bill becomes law.

Finally, and especially given the lower than expected take-up, has the Minister taken the opportunity to consider how the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme might be widened to non-employment cases, to cases of collateral contamination—for example, where a family member contracts the illness as a result of exposure to the clothes or equipment of a relative who has worked with asbestos—to the self-employed or to Government employees, including veterans of the armed forces, who are not covered by the scheme? What steps are the Government taking to provide relief for sufferers of other asbestos-related diseases?

11 Feb 2015 : Column 258WH

The legislation passed by Parliament last year and yesterday’s announcement have at last offered some justice to some victims but, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, this country has the shameful record of having one of the highest incidences of asbestos-related illness in the world. We can, and we must, do much better for those who have suffered. I hope the Minister will indicate his willingness, indeed his determination, to look for ways to do so.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): I am grateful to the hon. Lady and to all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. I ask the Minister to respond.

10.37 am

The Minister for Disabled People (Mr Mark Harper): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this debate. He takes a close interest in asbestos-related issues. A little while ago, we both took part in an Adjournment debate on other issues related to asbestos and safety.

I start by echoing the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments towards the late Paul Goggins. I remember very clearly the debate in the House on the Mesothelioma Act 2014 shortly after his sad death. I also echo the hon. Gentleman’s generous comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who picked up the baton on that occasion, although I do not echo his comments about football. Coming from Gloucestershire, which is a rugby-playing part of the world, I should probably leave the football dispute to other people. [Interruption.] It is probably not good for me to talk about rugby in your presence, Mr Owen, so we will move on.

This has been a very good debate, and it has been helpful in the context of yesterday’s written statement. I will answer some of the questions that colleagues have raised. Following some of the contributions, including from the shadow Minister, it is worth briefly placing on record that the scheme that was legislated for last year, the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme, is of course not the only scheme in statute to address such difficult issues. The Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 set up the first scheme. That had significant gaps in it, which is why the previous Government, with the support of the then Conservative Opposition, introduced the 2008 scheme in the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008, which deals with those who did not necessarily work in the industry, but were self-employed, or, in some cases, family members of those who worked in the industry. This scheme comes in the wake of that to deal with some of the issues that those schemes did not deal with.

It is worth putting on the record the scope of the schemes. Although the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned them, the 1979 scheme and the 2008 scheme are both Great Britain schemes, so they do not apply to Northern Ireland. The responsibility for welfare policy lies with the Northern Ireland Executive. The 2014 scheme, which we are discussing today, is a UK-wide scheme and applies in Northern Ireland as well as England, Scotland and Wales.

To pick up the point raised by the hon. Member for Strangford, people in Northern Ireland have three years to apply for the scheme from the point of diagnosis, which is the same as in England, Scotland and Wales, so

11 Feb 2015 : Column 259WH

I do not think there is a difference in the way the scheme operates. However, he is right to point out that the previous two schemes do not apply in Northern Ireland.

Jim Shannon: I thank the Minister for giving way; he knows I have to leave fairly shortly and I wanted to intervene in advance of that. After the announcement has been made, when does the Minister hope to have direct contact with the Minister responsible in the Northern Ireland Assembly so that we can co-ordinate the delivery of the compensation plan for the whole of the United Kingdom—Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Mr Harper: I referred to the hon. Gentleman’s point first because I know that he has other pressing business on behalf of his constituents, and he had the courtesy to let me know, so I wanted to deal with his point while he was still in the Chamber. As he knows, I plan to meet the Northern Ireland Minister with responsibility for welfare to discuss other matters to do with welfare in the wake of the Stormont House agreement. I will ask my officials to place this issue on the agenda and we can have a conversation about that to make sure it is clear how it will be implemented in Northern Ireland.

One point flowed through the remarks of the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. I will set out my understanding of the position, which is clear. There was a lot of discussion about the levy on the industry. The scheme is effectively demand-led: people make applications to it and the costs of the scheme are then recovered through a levy on the industry. The 3% that has been talked about is a cap. The insurance industry agreed that if the cost remained below that level, it would absorb the cost of the scheme and would not pass it on to other employers who take out employers’ liability insurance through increased premiums. That was important. The Government did not want the cost of the scheme to fall on employers across Britain: we wanted it to be absorbed by the insurance industry.

So the 3% is a cap, not a target. The costs of the scheme are calculated and then the levy is calculated to recover the costs of the scheme. The hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton, for Strangford and for Stretford and Urmston referred to Lord Freud’s written statement on 28 November last year. He set out the costs of the scheme in the first period of the year, how much that encompassed and how much would therefore be recovered from the insurance industry. That position is clear. [Interruption.] Let me finish this thought and then I will take a question.

Hon. Members seem to have envisaged, although it was not envisaged by the Government, that there would be a 3% levy, some of the money from which would be used for settling claims and the rest would form a pot of money that could be distributed as Ministers or others saw fit. However, it is a cap on the costs that land on the industry. The industry agreed that if that remained the cap, it would absorb the costs of the scheme and not pass them on to employers more generally.

Kate Green: Unlike me, the Minister did not sit through all the Bill’s Committee sittings when we were passing the legislation. It really was not our understanding,

11 Feb 2015 : Column 260WH

when his predecessor said that 3% is 3% and not going anywhere, that that meant it was a cap. We took it as a figure that would be reached, and it was also what was understood by the victim support groups.

Mr Harper: I take the hon. Lady’s point that I was not the Minister at the time and was not present at those sittings. She asked me a written question following the written statement in November, and I made it clear in my answer that the 3% figure was the maximum percentage of the active employers’ liability insurance market to be levied on the insurance industry to recoup the costs of the scheme. I made it clear that the figure was a cap, rather than a set rate, and that the levy rate was based on the estimated costs of the scheme, extrapolated from the first seven months of the operation. The scheme is demand-led and calculations for the levy are done afresh each year. An upturn in applications to the scheme would result in a higher levy rate in future years, so the levy rate is kept under continual active review.

Steve Rotheram: The Minister has used the words “levy” and “cap” interchangeably on numerous occasions, which is confusing. During the passage of the Bill, it was clear that we talked about a levy. The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) was the Minister at the time, and he talked about a levy. When is a levy a cap?

Mr Harper: No, I do not think we are at cross purposes at all. It is a levy, but it is capped at 3%. The amount of the levy is set, based on the costs of the scheme. The costs are calculated and then the levy rate is calculated to recover the costs, and it was agreed that the cap would be 3%. That is the position that I made clear in my answer to the written question from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston. It is a levy that is capped at 3%. The deal was that the insurance industry would absorb the costs of the scheme and not pass them on to employers through employers’ liability premiums if they remained below 3%, which is why the 3% cap was set.

Steve Rotheram: The Minister is trying valiantly to justify what he has picked up. It is not what was intended for the scheme and it is not what was said during the passage of the Bill. I understand that the cap is a maximum, but it was calculated according to what the industry said it could afford. The industry said 3% of this huge figure—about £1.4 billion or £1.5 billion—was the levy it would draw down. That was the amount that the industry thought would be needed for claimants, and that is why we get the figure of 80%, by the way. It was 80% because the industry thought it would be swallowed up by the 3% levy. I am sorry, but the Minister cannot have it both ways.

Mr Harper: The commitment that the industry made was not in terms of what it could afford. It was about what the industry was going to absorb and not pass on to employers more generally. It was important that the costs of compensating sufferers of the disease did not fall on employers generally. We wanted the costs to fall on the insurance industry. It is worth reminding people that the insurance companies that pay the levy today are not necessarily the insurance companies that took

11 Feb 2015 : Column 261WH

the premiums for the policies in the first place. That is part of the problem, because of the long latency of the disease.

Governments have created all the schemes—the 1979 scheme, the 2008 scheme and this one—because of the long period between when someone has exposure to asbestos and the diagnosis of the disease. The impact of the disease over a very long period of time led to all the issues with employers not being in business—that generated the 1979 scheme—and the inability to trace either employers or their insurers. All such issues relate to that long period of time, which is why it is important that the costs are borne by the insurance industry, although they are not necessarily the same companies that took the premiums in the first place. That is why it was important for the Government to work on this in an agreed and proportionate way, so that we could get the scheme in place to ensure the benefits go to the victims of the disease. If the matter had got bogged down in a big argument and legal disputes, there would not be a scheme and there would not be any compensation for people. Both Lord Freud and my predecessor as Minister wanted to make sure that the scheme came into force, so that it could start benefiting victims of this disease.

Let me respond to a couple of questions that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton specifically put about the written ministerial statement yesterday, which I think was generally welcomed by colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. Lord Freud made it clear at the beginning of that statement that we are going to monitor the progress of the scheme and the extent to which the assumptions about claim rates are borne out.

During the first months of the scheme, the number of claims is much lower than at other times. However, partly because the Employers’ Liability Tracing Office has been doing an increasingly good job of tracing insurance policies—meaning that sufferers of this disease can more easily, and rightly, pursue compensation from those from whom compensation is due—the costs of the scheme are lower than had been thought. Therefore, we thought it was right to increase the tariff from 80% of average civil claims to 100% from the date of the announcement. The regulations to bring the scheme into effect will become law next month, but as is usual in government the uprating will apply from the date of the announcement, in the same way that the scheme in the first place applies from the date it was announced, which was 25 July 2012.

That is a general rule in government. I know that it is always difficult, because when a scheme is set up there always has to be a starting point and obviously some people will always be on the wrong side of that starting point. However, it is a general rule in government that we have to start things from when we announce them, and not backdate them. [Interruption.] I hear the shadow Minister, sighing, but if she ever has ministerial responsibility—for various reasons, I hope that she will not have such responsibility—I think she will very quickly understand the logic of not backdating things, and if she does not then the conversations she will have with others in her party will soon persuade her of the wisdom of that approach.

I want to be clear, although I think it was made clear in the written ministerial statement yesterday, that the announcement yesterday means that the scheme will

11 Feb 2015 : Column 262WH

start from yesterday for those already diagnosed, even though that is ahead of the legislation coming into force. Again, that is the same argument that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) made—I probably mispronounced the name of his constituency, although I always try to pronounce it correctly—when he referred to the starting point of the scheme. I know that he has tabled a number of written questions about this subject on behalf of his constituents, but I am afraid that that has to remain the position.

Both the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton and for Stretford and Urmston, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, talked about increasing the take-up of the scheme. We have been working with stakeholders, including the Asbestos Victim Support group, Macmillan nurses and other groups, to ensure they have information about the scheme, so that they can notify those victims who have been newly diagnosed. We will continue to consider what more we can do. For example, if someone searches for information about this subject on the internet, as is common now, we have made sure that the scheme will come high up on the search list, so that people can locate it. If anyone has any ideas about how better to communicate that information, I am very happy to listen to them. We think that we are doing a good job, but I guess that one can always do better at communicating.

Mr MacNeil: I just wanted to check a point with the Minister. Is it his intention that everybody who suffers from this terrible disease gets the compensation they are due, regardless of dates, timings, or whatever? They have suffered and there is compensation in place, so should they all not get that compensation, regardless of some bureaucracy around the edges?

Mr Harper: When one sets up a scheme, it has to have a starting point; we cannot extend it indefinitely. Of course, this scheme is not the first such scheme or the only scheme that is available for those who suffer from mesothelioma. There were two previous schemes—the 1979 scheme and the 2008 scheme—and the reason for developing the latter scheme is that there were obviously groups of people who were not covered by the earlier scheme. I remember that the 2008 scheme was specifically designed to cover, for example, family members of those people who had perhaps come into contact with asbestos fibres but who had not worked in the industry and had not been covered by the 1979 scheme; I think that it was the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) who mentioned those family members. So, we can widen the scope of schemes, but we still need to have a starting point for a scheme. That always generates some concern, because wherever one starts a scheme there will always be somebody on the other side of the line. I recognise why those people will not be comfortable with that, but I do not think that it is an issue.

I will just be clear about another point. Although people affected will be encompassed by the scheme from yesterday’s date, the actual payment to them from the scheme will obviously have to wait for the regulations to come into force next month. Nevertheless, those people will be eligible for the payment from yesterday.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, and others, referred to the issue of research. I know that she has a long interest in this subject because her

11 Feb 2015 : Column 263WH

constituency is, as she said, a hot spot for this disease, given the industrial history of the local area. So she was interested in this subject even before she was a Member of this House. She referred to some research that is taking place in her local area and welcomed the fact that two insurance companies have put money into research. She made the point very well, that those companies had perhaps demonstrated a certain amount of leadership, and she was keen for others in the industry to follow their lead; I am sure that they will have noted that call.

As I say, my hon. Friend specifically talked about research. The Government agree with her: we also want to see more research in this area. The National Institute for Health Research is calling for mesothelioma research proposals. I listened carefully to the point that was made—I think it was by the shadow Minister—about a written answer that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), had given about this issue. I have not seen that written answer, but it sounded like he had talked about some research proposals that were awaiting funding. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford referred to a shortage of research proposals. So I will ask officials to look at this apparent discrepancy. The shadow Minister said there were lots of proposals but no money, whereas my hon. Friend said that there were not really enough proposals.

Another hon. Member also referred to a shortage of research proposals; I forget whether it was the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton or the hon. Member for Wansbeck. The general sense that I was picking up was that the number of research proposals did not seem to be in line with the tragically large number of people who are dying from this disease—it seemed out of kilter—so the points by my hon. Friend and other hon. Members about research were well made. We set up a partnership, including patients and clinicians, to identify research priorities in this area, and the results were published in December.

Mr MacNeil: What then is available to my constituent, who was diagnosed before 25 July 2012, but died in November 2012?

Albert Owen (in the Chair): The Minister has just over two minutes left to speak.

Mr Harper: Given what the hon. Gentleman says, and it is obviously the reason why he has tabled written questions, his constituent is not eligible for this scheme. What I do not know without looking at the specific

11 Feb 2015 : Column 264WH

facts of the case—obviously, if he has not already done so, he can either write to myself or Lord Freud with those facts—is whether they will be eligible for one of the other existing statutory schemes. If the hon. Gentleman writes to us, we can then look into the case to see whether his constituent is eligible for the other schemes.

Steve Rotheram: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: Of course—briefly.

Steve Rotheram: I will be very brief, before the Minister finishes his remarks. Given that the expectation, even from the industry, was that the cost of the scheme would equate to 3%—I do not think that is arguable; hence the levy—does he believe that some of the residual amount, or underspend, should be invested in research? It is really important that research is top of the agenda.

Mr Harper: There are two separate questions there. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation—I suppose it depends where you start from. His understanding was that the 3% was an amount that was going to be levied to generate an amount of money, some of which would be used for the compensation and then, effectively, others could choose to spend it, but that is not my understanding and not the Government’s understanding of the scheme.

However, his general point—I am trying to answer his question about research funding—is that there is a clear view that there should be more research in this area. I will undertake to go away and look at the gap in the general debate between—

Kate Green: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: Let me just answer the hon. Gentleman’s question; I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me for not giving way to her. As I was saying, I will look at the gap between the number of research proposals—my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford suggested there are not enough proposals, whereas the hon. Lady suggested there were quite a lot of proposals but not enough money. Let me look at what money is available from statutory funding sources; from the National Institute for Health Research and other funders in the area. It might be helpful if we can draw that funding information together, so that Members can see the overall picture of funding in this area. I would be interested to look at that and see how it is related to the need, based on the number of people who are sadly victims of this dreadful disease. That may be helpful to inform further developments—

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 265WH

Housing (Horden, County Durham)

11 am

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, for what I believe is the first time. I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise an important issue on behalf of the residents and community of Horden in my constituency of Easington.

By way of background—this is for the Minister’s benefit, because I am unsure whether he is familiar with the communities of east Durham—Horden, like many of the communities I represent, is a close-knit former mining community, located on the east Durham heritage coast. The village, which has a long and proud industrial heritage, was established to serve the needs of the colliery. The sinking of the pit brought new workers and the village began to take shape with the construction of terraced housing—that style of housing will be familiar to you, Mr Owen, because similar terraced housing exists in all the former mining areas, including in Wales and Yorkshire.

The demand for housing remained high until the closure of Horden colliery in 1987. I recall that Horden was one of the biggest collieries in Europe when it was at peak production and we had a number of associated industries, including a petrol-from-coal plant, which was a considerable employer, which I think was developed during the war.

The loss of the coal mine has led to issues found in many former mining communities such as unemployment, health inequalities and an ageing and declining population, which has led to lower demand for family-type housing in particular. While today’s debate is on the situation caused by the Accent housing association, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the wider issues concerning the lack of investment and support given to Horden in particular—other mining communities have received such support—to attract new industries, jobs and investment since the end of its mining operations.

I hope that the Minister is aware of precisely what has happened with Accent. It is quite a large housing association that manages more than 20,000 properties nationally, but I want to raise specific concerns regarding the 361 properties that it manages in Horden and Blackhall, the neighbouring village. Of its 220 homes in Horden, 130 are currently empty. In Blackhall it owns 141 properties and 30 of those have become vacant. The problem is that, as properties become empty, Accent no longer seeks to let them as homes. Instead, vacant properties are being boarded up, which are an eyesore and a drain on the community.

It is clear, from walking around the area, that properties have gradually fallen into a state of disrepair and now require substantial work. Accent did have an investment plan in place to improve those properties to the decent homes standard through replacing bathrooms, kitchens, windows, doors and heating systems as well as making other repairs, but millions of pounds of regeneration funding were withdrawn following the Government’s implementation of the bedroom tax. In Accent’s view, those properties are no longer financially viable because many of them had been let to single people who, under the terms of the bedroom tax, would be under-occupying them and so be subject to an additional charge.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 266WH

Although the bedroom tax was the tipping point, to be fair to the Minister—I hope that he is paying attention—the cause of the problem is long-term mismanagement by a social landlord that has failed to invest in the homes over many years. Accent acknowledges that as long ago as 2008, it was letting two-bedroom former colliery houses to single people in the knowledge that that was not a long-term option. Its failure to maintain its properties adequately is evident: estimates suggest that to bring the homes up to a fit standard would require a £7 million investment, based on £20,000 a property. The bedroom tax significantly reduced demand for the properties and although I will criticise Accent for many things, it cannot be blamed for the bedroom tax. However, it is responsible for a chronic lack of investment.

I have had considerable communications with local residents and representatives of Horden residents association, who are highly critical of Accent. They said that it has had a “non-dynamic” approach to the care and maintenance of the properties that goes back as far as 2006. It seems to have total disregard for the community in terms of vetting potential tenants. The residents’ groups, who have worked closely with the local authority and the police, have been out litter picking, clearing up fly-tipping and identifying problems to report to the local authority. However, the residents say that their efforts to clean and improve the area have been undermined

“as a result of poor quality tenants being given access to poor quality properties, which were suffering from a lack of investment by Accent”.

As we know, when areas fall into disrepair, they become a target for crime and we get a vicious circle of decline. Accent has an obligation not just to its existing tenants, but to the neighbours of its tenants, because its properties are not necessarily continuous on streets; they may be in small clusters and groups. Residents in neighbouring properties are also experiencing problems such as antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and rat infestations owing to issues in the Accent-owned derelict properties. The crime figures from the previous three months indicate that in this relatively small village there have been 409 reported incidents, including 88 incidents of antisocial behaviour and 14 incidents of criminal damage. Arson is not uncommon at the derelict properties.

The feeling is that Accent has abandoned the community and I would like the Minister to ensure that it will not be allowed simply to walk away from its responsibilities. I understand that it is currently seeking permission from the Homes and Communities Agency to dispose of its properties on the private market, which means that it will put them up piecemeal for auction. However, a wholesale sell-off where the homes disperse into many ownerships would be the worst possible option for the community. The genuine fear is that that will lead to an influx of absentee landlords with no interest in the community buying and letting substandard properties to maximise their return and get a quick profit from housing benefit. That would be bad for the residents, future tenants and the wider community.

I would also like to mention the role of the Homes and Communities Agency, which in relation to Horden has been hugely disappointing and incredibly ineffective. It seems to have no long-term plan for the regeneration of housing in Horden. As an aside, I perhaps should

11 Feb 2015 : Column 267WH

have declared a non-pecuniary interest at the start. I am the secretary of the all-party group on housing in the north. We have had many presentations from housing associations and organisations with an interest in housing. The big issue that we face in the north and in particular in my constituency—in Easington, Horden, Blackhall and some of the other villages—is not so much a lack of housing, although there is a need for new housing, but the fact that the existing housing stock in many cases is very old. It needs modernising. We need some selective demolitions and the existing stock needs to be refashioned in a way that accommodates the needs of local populations. The Homes and Communities Agency should be taking a lead in developing that strategy.

The views that I have received on the effectiveness of the HCA are that its priority and primary concern seems to be the viability of the social landlords, of the housing association, rather than the legitimate concerns of the local community about the condition of their neighbourhoods and localities.

The Homes and Communities Agency and the Government have no strategic plan for housing in the north. Particularly in former industrial areas and especially in former coal mining areas, housing is often tied accommodation—houses were built to accommodate the workers—and part of the legacy of the coal mining industry. There is a failure to recognise that the problems with housing needs in the north are not the same as those faced, acute though they are, in London and the south-east. Housing in the north needs a different set of solutions and strategies. We certainly need more housing, but we also need to reshape our communities, replacing high-density colliery housing with more modern housing to meet the needs and aspirations of local communities.

You might be aware, Mr Owen, that these densely packed terrace houses have no gardens or parking facilities. They tend to have a path running along the front of the terrace and yards at the back. We need some selective demolition and some strategic oversight to open up these areas, as has happened with Easington colliery, where some excellent schemes have been carried out by the Durham Aged Mineworkers Homes Association, East Durham Homes and others. There is a model to follow there.

Will the Minister rule out the wholesale disposal of the properties on the private market? Everyone in the locality feels that that would be a retrograde step that would hurt the community in the short, medium and long term. Instead, I would like the Minister to intervene and to seek alternative options.

A homesteading scheme has been suggested, and I saw some coverage in the national news of schemes in Staffordshire, Liverpool and Middlesbrough. Homesteading involves a property being purchased by a first-time buyer at a significant discount. They then renovate the property as a home and are prohibited from selling the property for a specified period. I understand that the aim of that is to deter speculators, who would pick up the properties very cheaply, improve them and sell them on. If that happened, that would put us back in the same situation we are in now, where large amounts of property are in the hands of absentee landlords.

We need stable communities. Homesteading would help that, and the proceeds from any sales of such properties could be used to support the homesteading

11 Feb 2015 : Column 268WH

initiative or be reinvested in the remaining housing stock, to bring it up to a decent standard where it could then be re-let. It is an interesting idea that is worth considering, but significant investment is required to repair the properties in Horden and, to a lesser extent, in Blackhall. If it is a viable solution, I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on it.

I highlight the community initiative of the Horden residents association. It has been extremely active in looking to establish a community-led co-operative similar to those in Liverpool and closer to home in Middlesbrough. It will be holding a meeting on Friday to explore the option further. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the Homes and Communities Agency will offer practical assistance to the residents association if it tries to pursue that option? Ideally, we would like a long-term investment strategy for former industrial communities, both for regeneration and redevelopment.

I understand that we are in a time of austerity, but if there is a political will, we can overcome any barriers on finance. With all due respect, I point out that huge spending commitments have been made recently—on High Speed 2, for example. My good and hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is serving on the Committee considering that legislation, tells me that the estimates on the cost of HS2 vary between £40 billion and £50 billion. Already, £1 billion has been committed to acquisition, and the scheme has not yet got full parliamentary approval. The lifetime cost of replacing the Trident missile system is estimated to be in excess of £100 billion.

Those are just two items of Government spending. One is not coming to the north-east and the other’s success is based on the assumption that it will never be used. I am not asking for tens of millions of pounds or billions of pounds, but a similar level of commitment from the Government to former industrial communities. At the moment, we lack a national plan and the political will and resources to tackle this important issue.

I will conclude, because I would like to hear what the Minister has to say. Before that, I will ask him some questions and raise three specific issues. First, in the short term, will he use his influence with the HCA to ensure that Accent is not allowed to walk away from its responsibilities by disposing of its properties in a piecemeal fashion on the open market? That would be another betrayal of a community that feels it has already been betrayed by Accent.

In the medium term, will the Minister investigate the role and effectiveness of the Homes and Communities Agency? As a Government agency, it has clearly failed in Horden, and I am sure there are other examples. We need to work in the interests of the community, rather than in the interests of social housing providers; as we have seen with this case, they are not necessarily one and the same. In the long term, we need a national housing plan that recognises the unique needs of former industrial communities. We need not only more housing, but full-scale regeneration to ensure that our communities can succeed and thrive for future generations.

11.18 am

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Owen.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 269WH

I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing a debate on this topic, which bears directly on his constituency.

First, I will respond to the specific points he raised about the challenges faced by his constituents who are living in places blighted by empty homes. I am absolutely committed to bringing empty homes back into use. Secondly, I will explain that our welfare reform programme is part of the solution—not part of the problem, as has been suggested by some. Thirdly, I will look more widely at the action we have taken to reduce empty homes and improve affordable housing for tenants. Finally, we need to acknowledge that we are fixing a broken housing market and reviving an economy that will give Horden and Blackhall the hope and economic future that they are looking for. We should bear in mind that in 2010, we inherited the lowest level of house building that this country has seen since 1923.

Grahame M. Morris: I am looking for some constructive help, so I do not want to have a row, but I point out with all due respect to the Minister that the issues we face in the north—I believe he represents a northern constituency, although it is not as far north as mine—are very different from those faced in the south and the south-east. The issue is not so much the lack of housing, but the lack of decent housing. That is why Labour concentrated on reaching the decent homes standard, particularly in the local authority stock.

Brandon Lewis: That is the first time that I have heard the East Anglia coastline described as the north, but I will take that as a compliment for Great Yarmouth. If more people from the north want to visit our fantastic seaside resort this summer, we will be pleased to see everyone.

The hon. Gentleman made the point about what the Government are doing with housing programmes in the north more generally; I would point out that Durham is the fifth highest beneficiary in the entire country of the benefits introduced by the Government’s Help to Buy scheme. We are very much helping people in the north. Durham is not the only part of the north that is one of the higher beneficiaries of Help to Buy, let alone other schemes.

The hon. Gentleman painted a sobering picture of a town struggling with empty homes and the damaging impact that that can have on the wider community. Horden is in one of the most beautiful corners of the country. I appreciate that, having visited the north-east in the past few weeks: I visited Newcastle and took part in announcing the £40 million of devolved money that we have given to the local enterprise partnership there. That money is there for regeneration as well. The north-east has a lot to offer in terms of location and, as the hon. Gentleman says, environment, but the blight of empty homes is an issue.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I keep a close eye on the effectiveness of the Homes and Communities Agency and have confidence in its work. In the local area that he discussed, the HCA has been working with Durham council and Accent, seeking to allow the two parties to reach an agreed way forward. He mentioned the examples that we have seen in the past few weeks of schemes, which I fully support, in Liverpool and elsewhere in the

11 Feb 2015 : Column 270WH

north and south of the country to get empty homes back into use and to get discounted sales to benefit local residents. I understand that Accent is currently working on a homesteading initiative, whereby, as he said, properties can be sold at a discount in return for the purchaser guaranteeing that the property will be their home for a specific period. That proposal will require the consent of the HCA, bearing in mind its objective to ensure value for money from public investment in social housing. As we have seen elsewhere in the country, such schemes can work very well.

The HCA is not only taking action in Horden, but working across the wider area to ensure that empty homes are brought back into use and that new affordable homes are delivered. I am pleased to report that the HCA has been working with Durham county council in nearby Seaham, for example, where it has entered into a joint venture agreement to provide a site for the new Seaham school of technology, as well as the delivery of more than 400 homes on HCA and council-owned land, of which a percentage will be affordable. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that more than 1,000 homes will be delivered in County Durham under the affordable homes programme, from more than £25 million of funding. As of the end of September 2014, 843 of those homes had been completed.

Empty homes on the scale we are talking about is a particular issue to the communities and the provider that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. To provide a point of comparison, a local arm’s length management organisation, East Durham Homes, also owns stock in the area, albeit with some different types of property—I acknowledge that—but it has a very low vacancy rate of less than 1%.

Some of the media coverage of the issues in Horden has seemed to imply that the removal of the spare room subsidy was part of the picture. That is not an implication that I accept. The removal of the subsidy not only balances fairness in a system based on what the previous Government did in the private rented sector, but is encouraging the more effective use of social housing by addressing issues of overcrowding and under-occupancy. Let us be clear about the facts: in this country, 820,000 spare rooms in social housing in working-age households were being paid for by housing benefit, while about a quarter of a million households live in overcrowded accommodation. The removal of the subsidy has already introduced greater fairness between claimants living in the social and private rented sectors, where benefit entitlement has been based on household need for more than two decades. In the current climate, let us also remember that it is achieving savings of more than £1 million per day.

More widely, we have made significant changes to encourage local authority and housing association landlords such as Accent to provide decent homes for their tenants. We have put in place measures that have brought empty homes to their lowest level since records began. Bringing empty properties back into use helps to support local economic growth. We have brought forward a number of measures related to that. Self-financing reforms give local authority landlords a long-term, stable source of funding—on average, 15% more to spend on their homes than previously. The new homes bonus rewards local authorities for not only delivering new homes but bringing

11 Feb 2015 : Column 271WH

empty homes back into use. Local authorities have received £3.4 billion from that, and 100,000 empty homes have been brought back into use.

Durham’s unitary authority is the 24th largest earner of bonus funding in the country: taking account of the recent allocations, it will have received almost £24 million by the end of the financial year. We have set up a £200 million direct funding programme for community groups, councils and housing associations, that has so far created just shy of 5,000 homes from empty property, with the potential to deliver more. That has provided opportunities for apprenticeships, training and employment, as well as homes and better neighbourhoods for local people. We have promised almost £2.5 billion of funding going forward to 2016 to make social homes—to take the hon. Gentleman’s point—decent. In addition, the affordable housing programme prospectus for the years to 2018 makes it clear that private registered providers of social housing are expected to take a strategic and rigorous approach to considering vacant properties as part of their active asset management.

We have not only made substantial progress in social and affordable housing, but are fixing the broken housing market. We have to look at things in the context of some 700,000 new homes having been delivered, including just shy of 220,000 affordable homes. We have got house building up to a seven-year high. Councils are giving planning permission at a rate that we have not seen for a long time—650 homes a day—and local people now have a real say in local development. That turnaround bears testament to our approach to housing and planning—as well as to our action to cut the deficit, which has sustained low interest rates and economic growth—giving local people local power in planning while ensuring that we are building the homes that we need and getting empty homes back into use on a scale that we have not seen before.

I recognise the particular circumstances in Horden that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted today. We need to see beautiful places such as Horden thriving, but we must also ensure that we fix the broken market so that they can deliver on that. That is why we are taking action in the wider Durham area, and nationally, to tackle the underuse of social housing, reduce the numbers of empty homes, and deliver the affordable homes that we need. The Homes and Communities Agency is working with local partners to seek a solution to the problems being experienced in Horden. If it would be useful, I will be happy to facilitate a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and the HCA so that he can discuss some of the ideas that he has outlined. I will take that up with him after the debate. I wish all parties well with the work that they are doing.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 272WH


[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to see an interesting cross-section of colleagues present at what I hope will be a good debate about the lessons from the war in Afghanistan.

Over the past week I have had to put up with a number of colleagues rather facetiously asking, “Lessons from which Afghan war?”—with the assumption that my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) might come along and talk about the first Afghan war and his own personal experiences. However, there is a serious element to this, because of course we, the British, were directly involved, more or less on our own, in three wars in Afghanistan—the 1839-42 war, the 1878-81 war, and in 1919—and then as part of a wider coalition from 2003 to 2014. That is part of the background for the Afghan people and what they think about the British—even if that is thoughts in the most benign way.

The second point to make is that I do not have military experience. I was a soldier manqué and taught military history at Sandhurst and the Army staff college, as well as for the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy—a few of my former students who slept through my lectures are sitting here in the Chamber. My point, however, is that we tend to forget—perhaps not colleagues in the Chamber now, but often journalists and many times the public—that if we decide to initiate military action, two things are consequences. First, no military plan normally conforms to immediate contact with the enemy, so it is usually incredibly difficult to see how military action will develop. Secondly, such action will inevitably result in casualties.

We know that, for example, in both Iraq and Afghanistan the British suffered heavy casualties—not as many as the Americans or, indeed, as the Iraqis and the Afghan people. For example, in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, we lost 179 people, with several hundred wounded. In Afghanistan, between 2003—or, if we count Helmand, 2006—to the end of last year, 453 were killed and about 2,000 wounded. Without degrading that loss, that is probably about two days’ casualties suffered by the British Commonwealth armies in the 1944 Normandy campaign. The difference, of course, is that in 1944 it was total war—a war for national existence—so the public, while not welcoming the casualties, were more than prepared to tolerate them. With Iraq and Afghanistan, however, a sizeable proportion of British public opinion never supported either intervention.

Why do I wish to debate the lessons from the war in Afghanistan? I think that to do so is crucial. In a debate we had the other week on the Chilcot inquiry, I said that we are in fact talking about a two-act play. Iraq is the first act and overlapping with it is Afghanistan. In many respects, Afghanistan is as important, if not more so. The Chilcot inquiry is looking into the reasons why we went to war in Iraq and the lessons to be learned. That inquiry will tell us certain things, but Afghanistan is a black hole into which, as far as I can see, the Ministry of Defence, other Departments and the Cabinet Office are not as yet prepared to look for strategic lessons that should be learned.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 273WH

A vast amount of evidence, ironically, is in the public domain. We have the evidence of many witnesses at the Chilcot inquiry who touched on the war in Afghanistan—the military, the intelligence and the politicians overlap. We also have a whole series of memoirs of one kind or another. The great lacuna is of course the memoirs of politicians and Ministers. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, spent a considerable amount of time in his memoir on Iraq, but only about a dozen pages on Afghanistan. Perhaps for obvious reasons, we do not have any memoirs of former Foreign or Defence Ministers—perhaps constrained by the Chilcot inquiry—but we have the memoirs of the military, mainly the Army, ranking from non-commissioned officers, through middle-ranking officers to a whole series of senior officers and generals, some of which have said more about their personal ambitions and their desire to get retaliation in first, rather than giving us an overview and an insight into what went on.

I want not only to get down into the weeds, looking at the lessons from the war in Afghanistan, but to address some fundamental points that are crucial to understanding the war and to our foreign policy and security posture.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The good news is that I will not be present for all of it, because I have a union group to attend—which I am sure he would like to be at too. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of history and I am fascinated by his historical references, which are important, but does he not also think that there is another narrative: the stories of the ordinary people of Afghanistan who have been through the war, are still going through it and are still living in poverty? Sadly, tens of thousands of them are ending up as refugees well away from Afghanistan. Is that not a failure of the whole operation?

Mr Simpson: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. That is the law of unintended consequences. I do not think that we, the Americans or our allies wanted things to turn out in that way in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but he is correct: that story is continuing and should concern all of us.

Were the policy and strategy outlined by the British Government at the time correct? Were they well thought through? Was the intervention considered calmly and rationally, taking into account the best advice of Whitehall, the Departments—the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development —and the intelligence services?

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I have enjoyed the first eight minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. A thesis gaining ground is that after the British Army’s failure in Basra, the top of the Ministry of Defence wanted to increase our involvement in Afghanistan in order to prevent greater cuts in the Army and to prove itself after not being as successful as it had wished in Basra. Does he agree with that thesis of a direct connection between Iraq and Afghanistan?

Mr Simpson: There is a direct connection, although I do not necessarily completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s logic. If he will bear with me, I shall come on to that.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 274WH

The basis of British foreign and security policy is twofold: first, absolutely to hang on to and stand by the special relationship with the United States of America; and, secondly, to play a leading role in NATO. Those two elements merge in our participation in the operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to think seriously about the first, our special relationship with the United States of America. Crucial to it, and part of our mythology, is the way in which Winston Churchill persuaded the Americans to come into the war when we were on our knees. That, however, is of course a myth, because the United States of America eventually came into the war because Hitler declared war on it after the Japanese attack.

The special relationship, in many respects, has been more important to us than to the Americans, because of the decline of empire and because we want to participate with and influence a superpower with which we had much in common. However, by the time of our participation in Iraq in the 1990s, it seems to me that there was a serious problem with the ability of a British Prime Minister to influence the United States of America and make certain that Britain’s national interests were addressed.

At a military level, our problem is increasingly that we cannot will the military resources to the promissory notes we write to the Americans. Sustainability of political and military effort then becomes very crucial indeed, and we are found wanting—not because the military are incompetent or because the men and women in our armed forces are not courageous, but because we are punching above our weight. We need to look seriously at what we can and cannot do as a powerful regional power with global interests and commitments.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he not think that there is a case to be made for saying that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were in our national interest, in keeping our streets safe and maintaining our homeland security?

Mr Simpson: The problem with our participation in the Iraq campaign and our military commitment in Afghanistan, which then expanded, was that the policy aims changed, and widened out. There is an argument—I do not actually stand by it but there are many who believe it, including perhaps some hon. Members present—that, through our participation in Iraq and Afghanistan, we made our streets less secure. But that comes back to the issue that we and the Government should be considering: the lessons learned.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. My point in a way reinforces his key earlier message. Is not the key error that we made in Afghanistan that, on succeeding in our initial objective of ridding the country of al-Qaeda, we allowed the mission to morph into one of nation building—a mission that we have struggled to resource properly?

Mr Simpson: I agree with my hon. Friend. That was the problem.

The material in the public domain—official records and the memoirs of civil servants and senior military officers—shows that it is difficult to establish how, for

11 Feb 2015 : Column 275WH

example, our commitment to Helmand came about. Helmand province was irrelevant in terms of the overall security picture in Afghanistan, and we did not want to go there. The logic stated that we should go to Kandahar, but unfortunately the Canadians were already there.

Loose political-military thinking bedevilled our military mission, coupled with the fact that, as my hon. Friend rightly said, we then glued on to our original policy things such as poppy eradication. At the time, many experts said that all we would do with that was drive impoverished farmers into the hands of the Taliban—we now know that was the case. That was a problem not just for the British but for the United States of America and many of our partners as well.

Coming back to the business of willing the means, I should say that there is no doubt in my mind that a crucial element in all this was what was perceived by the Iraqi Government and the Americans as our failure in Basra. It appeared that we had abandoned Basra. I am simplifying—there was a big argument at the time made by successive military commanders on the ground—but there was a sense that we were unable to cope with the situation in southern Iraq. At the same time, there was the feeling—and I have heard contradictory views about this, which is why, in terms of lessons learned, it would be nice to hear the truth—that there were elements in the Ministry of Defence who wanted to get out of Iraq because it was costly and not going anywhere, we had achieved our original objective and it seemed that Afghanistan was going to be an easier policy to explain to the British public. I am open to persuasion on that.

The interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan were predicated on the idea that they were part of the war against terror, but, as I have said, the objectives kept changing. Many of us who participated in debates on the interventions at the time were horrified by the inability not just of the British and American Governments but of our allies to show any understanding of the history and culture of both those countries—and, indeed, previous military operations in them. There were many voices attempting to explain that the interventions would be more difficult than people thought. Naturally, given a mission, the military were prepared to get stuck in and to think about the consequences later.

There is a real need to look at the policy-making machinery of the Government in Whitehall. To use the words of Lord Reid when he was at the Home Office, I am beginning to wonder whether that machinery is partly dysfunctional when it comes to complex operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no lead Minister or Department for either Iraq or Afghanistan. Ultimately, decisions were made by the Prime Minister. There was no National Security Council then to at least try to co-ordinate policy. Individual Ministers attempted to take a lead, but I can remember going to briefings with officials in the Foreign Office, laid on in 2004 and 2005 by the Labour Government; after the second one, several of us said, “Perhaps it would be a good idea to have officials from the MOD and DFID along.” It took some time to get them to appear.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I accept that the National Security Council did not come into being until 2010, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that, when

11 Feb 2015 : Column 276WH

I was a Minister, a cross-departmental body, including the MOD, DFID and other Departments, met about Afghanistan on a weekly basis at least.

Mr Simpson: As we all know, that kind of co-ordination is helpful, but it is not the same as having a proper machine, with minutes, allocation of clear objectives and a full-time National Security Adviser.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend for having brought forward this debate and I am listening to him carefully. This is absolutely the sort of thing we should be doing much more frequently. In his research, did he find any evidence of serious conversations with those who know the history of the region even better than us—those who are there?

In my work at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over recent years, I was struck by how much was known by those in the region, who gave warnings to us about what we might have done, and how little that knowledge seemed to have been fed into the processes. Is that something else that he thinks should be looked at further?

Mr Simpson: It is indeed. My right hon. Friend, who is very experienced, has touched on a problem that occurred not only with the Foreign Office but with DFID and the Ministry of Defence. Often in life, there is the feeling that once an overall decision has been made to do something, the phrase, “I hear what you say,” comes out, but people are not prepared to factor in what they have heard because it complicates the situation.

It also seems to me that, under successive Governments, we have stripped out large parts of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office to make savings, to make Government smaller, and the like, and have therefore got rid of a lot of the specialist expertise that was there 20 years ago but is not there now. We have probably reduced the knowledge base in the Foreign Office and we have reduced the size of the armed forces, so that now there is only a limited critical mass that can provide that kind of expertise, or—if we think of the armed forces, for example—sufficient people for the special forces, which are not recruited separately as some people think but are taken from the broad mass of our armed forces. It is increasingly difficult to provide expertise in languages and intelligence. In my opinion, the situation is worse now than it was 10 years ago.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): We are all grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing his expertise here. I am worried that the contraction in our armed forces and everything else he has talked about will diminish Britain’s influence in the world. Earlier, he made a point about the special relationship, which I think is critically important. Does he agree that there are concerns in America, which were expressed today by President Obama—it was in The Daily Telegraph, so it must be true—about the fact that Britain is considering further reducing our spending on defence, which will further diminish our ability to influence a turbulent world?

Mr Simpson: There is no doubt that the Americans have viewed with a degree of dismay what they see as the decline in the critical mass of our foreign policy and

11 Feb 2015 : Column 277WH

defence, because they value that. However, they have often been disappointed in our ability to deliver what we promise.

We suffer, and have suffered in the past, from what I call “Montgomery syndrome”—a snobbery, particularly among the armed forces, towards the Americans. Macmillan also had it; he said that we were like Greek slaves in the Roman empire. There has been a view that they were awful, rather vulgar people who did not know how to hold a knife and fork properly and did not have the kind of experience we had. Unfortunately, they had all the money and resources, but we would teach and train them. That view was particularly apparent before the operation in Basra in southern Iraq, when the Americans got the impression that we could teach them about counter-insurgency. They thought that our experience from Malaya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland meant that we knew how to do it. However, not only did we perhaps not know how to do it, but we did not have the resources either. We suffered and have suffered badly since then.

I will make only two or three more points because I am conscious of the time, and other colleagues want to speak. There is a serious issue about the Ministry of Defence’s ability to practise the kind of operations that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ministers frequently arrive with no experience of the military or the complex jungle of the Ministry of Defence. There has been a high turnover of Ministers under both Governments. There is tension among the Chief of the Defence Staff, the chiefs of staff and the senior civil servants. The Ministry of Defence, as my colleagues know, is both a Department and a command post, and the Permanent Joint Headquarters is out in the sticks. All the things we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan show that there was considerable tension among the forward combat commanders, PJHQ and the Ministry of Defence. Frequently, people did not know who was in charge, which was complicated by the fact that we were also a member of a NATO alliance.

It is often Buggins’s turn to take the post of Chief of the Defence Staff, but the gene pool—I mean this in the nicest possible sense—is getting smaller. One of the Army generals’ criticisms is that when the CDS was from the Air Force or the Navy, he had difficulty understanding the mainly land operations. There are serious questions to ask about that.

The Army is now on a learning curve. I have no doubt that the Minister will say that during these operations the Army learned many lessons from combat analysis. My problem is that, although the Army learned many lessons, the Minister, in an answer to a parliamentary question on 3 February, told the House that at the moment the Ministry of Defence has no plans to study the lessons of the war in Afghanistan. The Cabinet Office also has no plans to look overall at the lessons, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that the strategic defence and security review, which will be carried out in the autumn, needs only a light touch. I am just a humble Back Bencher, but I think he is wrong. I think the strategic defence and security review needs not a light touch but a fundamental reassessment based on all the things that I have set out.

Sir Gerald Howarth: My hon. Friend is making an important point. I was a Minister at the Ministry of Defence, and when I had some responsibility for the

11 Feb 2015 : Column 278WH

strategic defence and security review it was Treasury-driven. It had to be so, because of the catastrophic state of the public finances. Strategy took second place. Does my hon. Friend agree that there can now be no excuse—I am looking at the Minister when I say this—for not taking a proper, strategic look at our armed forces, particularly given the extraordinary events that have taken place since 2010?

Mr Simpson: None of us is naive enough not to think that the view of the Treasury is paramount, but there has to be a balance. It is not about Ministers versus the military. I would draw into the National Security Council not only the CDS but the chiefs of staff. I would put their fingers in the mangle, because we know that they leak like sieves.

The Times recently ran a front-page story about the fact that the Chief of the General Staff is thinking of cutting senior ranks by a third. It came as a surprise to Ministers, as they did not realise that that policy would be put into the public domain. I do not expect the Minister to comment or even raise an eyebrow about that. That story made no mention of the Navy or the Air Force. The military must be gripped on this, in the best possible sense.

Finally, we in Parliament need a greater say on this issue—and not only for our amour propre. If we are going to persuade the electorate, who do not rate spending on foreign policy and defence as one of their highest priorities, we have to show that we are investigating this issue and have good arguments about why it is necessary for us to continue our close special relationship with the United States of America and why we need to spend money on the armed forces. I hope the Minister will be able to address at least some of the points I have raised.

2.57 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on his tour d’horizon. I am sure that, given his wealth of experience and knowledge, he could have used up the entire hour and a half with an analysis from which we would have derived nothing but benefit. As he has been generous enough not to do that, the rest of us can make brief contributions to the debate.

I would like to focus on four lessons from the campaign in Afghanistan. First, we failed to focus on the key objectives. Secondly, we overreacted against former campaigns. Thirdly, we failed to fight on the ground where we are stronger and our enemy is weaker. Fourthly—and, importantly, my hon. Friend concluded by drawing attention to this issue—we failed to maintain dedicated decision-making machinery for controlling and constructing campaigns of this sort. Let me deal briefly with each of those lessons in turn.

In my opinion, there were only two relevant strategic objectives in going into Afghanistan: first, to prevent it from again being used as a base, a training ground or a launch pad for further terrorist attacks against the west; and, secondly, to assist its neighbour, Pakistan, in preventing its nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or its imitators. We did not stick to those objectives, as my hon. Friend said and as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) emphasised in an intervention. We allowed

11 Feb 2015 : Column 279WH

the campaign to change into one that effectively committed us to transforming Afghan society and building up the Afghan nation on the lines of a modern democratic state.

Even if we had been able to succeed in carrying out that objective, what would we have done if al-Qaeda, having been driven from Afghanistan in the first few days or weeks—as it was—had then re-established itself in another state that was vulnerable to acting as its host and base for operations? Would we have invaded that country too and built it from the ground up, all over again, while our enemies, fleet of foot, went to one bolthole after another? We did not concentrate on the key objective, which was to deny Afghanistan to al-Qaeda as a future terrorist training ground and launch pad for its operations. As for the second objective—of being able to assist Pakistan, should the need ever arise, to protect its nuclear arsenal from falling into the wrong hands—that remains as far from being fulfilled today as it was at the outset of the campaign.

However, I do not go along with critics who say that taking a military campaign to Afghanistan was wrong in principle, even if it was badly handled in practice. What was the United States meant to do after an attack had been launched on its homeland, killing nearly 3,000 of its citizens, many of whom were Muslim American citizens? Was it simply supposed to sit back and take no action by way of punishment, retribution and, as an example for the future to other countries, a determined policy to make sure that no such attack could be repeated? Of course it could not be expected to operate in that way, and with our ally having been attacked, it was right and appropriate that we participated in the campaign in response to that attack. The mistake was trying to take over and micro-manage the whole country.

The second question—that of overreaction against former campaigns—leads us to the question of why the mistake of trying to micro-manage the whole country and rebuild it from the grass roots upwards was made. I am sure that it was in response to the way in which Afghanistan had been left entirely to its own devices after the Russians had withdrawn. It was felt, therefore, that by allowing ungoverned space to exist in that way, the opportunity had been created—as it had—for the pestilence of an organisation such as al-Qaeda to take root and flourish. The pendulum swung from leaving the country completely ungoverned to total management, reform and burden-carrying by the western countries for the whole nature of Afghan society. Then, when that did not work and when there was a change of Government in this country, we overreacted again, and the pendulum swung back from micro-management of the whole society to setting an arbitrary date for withdrawal, four years from the announcement in late 2010.

The third failure that I mentioned was the failure to fight according to our strengths. That is where the doctrine of war “down among the people” came in. We do not hear too many people talking about war down among the people these days, but at the time it was very much in vogue. It was a method of combating the enemies that we had mobilised against us in Afghanistan—quite apart from al-Qaeda, who had been expelled from the country—and it was a method by which we sought to fight them at ground level. The effect was that with

11 Feb 2015 : Column 280WH

every patrol that we sent out, we supplied the Taliban with targets to be shot at and blown up at will. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland set out in his survey of the scene, every casualty we incurred was an individual tragedy played out in the living rooms of the whole nation, even though, as he rightly said in relation to the sort of casualties taken in a war of survival such as the second world war, the casualties of a single day in that war were often greater than the casualties of the entire campaign in Afghanistan.

What method should we have adopted? The method that I have always recommended is one of strategic bases or garrisons and bridgehead areas. One does not have to swing from one extreme, of having no involvement in a country and allowing it to become ungoverned space, to the other extreme, of trying to govern the whole country, manage it at the most basic level and build the whole nation and carry the governance of that country on one’s shoulders. One can have regional centres of power from which one can exercise military power periodically and through methods that suit our purposes rather than our enemies’, yet without having to take on the burden of governance of the whole territory concerned, thus making ourselves an irritant and a target for the indigenous people.

That leads, fourthly, to the failure to maintain dedicated decision-making machinery. I was particularly struck by what my hon. Friend said about whether one particular Chief of the Defence Staff from one service could fully appreciate the strategic concerns that somebody from another service might better have grasped. That leads me back to another theme I have been trying to pursue in recent months: the mistake of allowing the chiefs of the armed forces, who used to be central to strategic planning, instead to become the managers of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force is likely to have further consequences of this sort. If one is going to get joint advice on military campaigns, the top representatives of each of the services should be involved in debating and agreeing the military advice that should be given to the political leaders.

I finish by saying that unless we get back to a situation in which there are solid, consistent and tri-service forums in which strategic plans can be properly evolved, politicians will tend to take campaigns in directions that sensible strategic thought would not have them go.

I shall give just two brief examples. First, there was the decision that we took to bomb Libya in 2011. That was a classic case of not having learned the lesson of sticking to the task that was originally set out, because we thought we were voting on having a no-fly zone imposed over Libya. If a no-fly zone had been imposed over Libya, the result would probably have been a stalemate, but the moment Parliament voted for a no-fly zone to be imposed, we got something very different: an all-out aerial offensive on behalf of one side in a civil war. The result was to replace yet another Arab dictator with another aggressive, potentially lethal Islamist state.

Secondly, in Syria in 2013, Parliament prevented something similar from happening. If the Government had had their way at that time, we would have done exactly the same thing in Syria as we did in Libya. Now people are coming to the view, albeit reluctantly, that Assad’s downfall would not necessarily have improved the situation. On the contrary, it would have given our deadly enemies, who have now morphed from al-Qaeda into ISIL, opportunities to take the offensive.

11 Feb 2015 : Column 281WH

To conclude, there are lessons to be learned, and my hon. Friend has done us a great service by giving us the opportunity to outline a few. I join him in regretting the fact that no serious study is being made of the lessons to be learned. If Libya and Syria are anything to go by, some of the lessons we should have learned from Afghanistan have yet to be taken on board.

3.10 pm

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing the debate. I first came across him at Sandhurst, where he was chairing a debate entitled “This house would rather be dead than red.” It being the Army, I was instructed to propose the motion, regardless of my views at the time.

My hon. Friend spoke with his customary knowledge and intelligence about this difficult issue. He quoted the famous German field marshal, Moltke, who said that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and that was certainly the case in the United Kingdom’s foray into Helmand.

Afghanistan remains the monkey on the back of United Kingdom foreign policy. I recall the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), talking in 2006 about how difficult it would be to succeed in Afghanistan. He quoted historical precedents, and some Members of the House smiled and laughed at that, but my right hon. Friend was right. He was prescient about the morass of conflicting political agendas in that country; indeed, the Pashtun peoples alone comprise 60 major tribes.

Currently, there is an element of historical revisionism being played out between the political and military leaders at the time of the Helmand deployment, with each perhaps seeking to deflect criticism or to deny shortcomings. Some of this occasionally has the unattractive smell of those at the top drawing on circumstances in which commanders on the ground were found wanting, which is regrettable.

To truly understand the decisions that were made, and whether they were right or wrong, we need to take a more sensible approach. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who spoke so well, and I are on the Defence Committee, which is looking at decision making in defence matters. One of the key decisions we are looking at is the move into Helmand, and I hope the Minister will take our report very seriously, because I think it will inform future operations.

I do not want to stand here like some armchair general and second-guess decisions taken in the teeth of battle. There were difficult decisions to be taken at times, when local Afghan requirements were one thing, the requirements of the international security assistance force and the Afghan Government were another, and the demands of the United Kingdom Government and our constituents were in conflict with both. It is incredibly difficult to assess what happened and what was right or wrong.

However, the first fact of which there should be no doubt—I intend to deal in facts—is that our troops performed magnificently against, in the main, a determined and incorrigible enemy. Like many hon. Members, I have been moved to hear commanders describe with pride how young men and women have performed in the most difficult and testing circumstances. We are told daily in

11 Feb 2015 : Column 282WH

the media about the failings of the young—the PlayStation generation—but we have seen in recent wars how this generation is every bit as brave and resourceful as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were in a perhaps more heroic age.

One of the groups of men I have in mind is the platoon I once had the honour to command several decades ago—9 Platoon, C Company, in what is now 2 Rifles. In one day, the platoon lost four men, with several more wounded, including the platoon commander. His replacement was severely wounded on his journey to the patrol base to take command. The whole unit was held together by a remarkable man—Platoon Sergeant Moncho. He has since been awarded the conspicuous gallantry cross, and I can do no more than recite a line from his citation:

“His supreme courage in the face of the most testing of circumstances was exemplary and his personal actions steadied all those around him.”

With much of the public and media focus centred on the as yet to be published Chilcot report into Britain’s military endeavours in Iraq, understanding and learning the lessons of a conflict that lasted longer than the first and second world wars combined, and that was Britain’s fourth foray into Afghanistan, should by no means be neglected. It is clear that, between 2004 and 2006, policy makers in Whitehall significantly underestimated the threat posed by the Taliban and the conditions on the ground, which led to the roll-out of inadequate equipment in the early days.

That situation was compounded by huge gaps in our capacity to deliver nation building, and I entirely accept the concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) expressed about that. As a result of opaque directives, the term has now come to be used in a different sense—using an armed force to underpin an enduring transition to democracy, as opposed to making a deliberate effort to construct and install institutions, which was the accepted view before.

What is even more frustrating about this period is that the threats and risks posed in the intelligence picture were clear and present. However, they were misunderstood, ignored or clouded by differences of opinion or conflicting priorities. In 2005, the failure of senior military officials to react to the intelligence picture was exacerbated by the fact that our force was under-resourced and based on best-case and aspirational objectives.

Either the brutal facts were kept from political leaders, or politicians did not ask the right questions. Lord Reid has my respect for pausing the deployment in the early days, but many argue it should have been paused for longer. That was, of course, a double-edged sword, because it allowed the Taliban to organise more determined resistance.

The key point is about the mission. In the Falklands, the mission was simple: to retake the islands. In Afghanistan, one got a different priority depending on which Department, ally or actor in the conflict one spoke to. Put simply, how can one hope to achieve success when success and failure are undefined concepts? Was the mission to defeat the Taliban? Was it to implement an anti-narcotics strategy? Was it to pursue nation building? Was it to introduce education for women or one of the other laudable things that were mentioned in the House? Or was it all of them?