Apparently the Opposition support the Information Commissioner’s decision, so one assumes that they also support the process, which prompts one to ask why they have alighted on this subject for today’s debate. Why not instead set out a motion describing how they might improve the NHS? In choosing this motion the Opposition have ignored the long-term care of the elderly, the shocking amount of unmet need, the growing challenge of dementia and related conditions, opportunities to invest more in medical research and the clinical disengagement felt by many health care professionals. They have also ignored the Grey Pride campaign and the terrible divergence from National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines by NHS trusts that
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means that Members of this House, health care professionals and councillors have to write hundreds of letters of appeal in order to secure for patients the treatment “guaranteed” under the NHS constitution.
Do the Opposition have a vision to tackle those problems? No. For all they have said today, there has been no alternative vision and no constructive criticism—just a lot of opportunism, scaremongering and misinformation. What makes matters worse is that through all that bluster, the shadow health team know that less than two years ago the Government they supported were trying and failing to accomplish many of the things that the Health and Social Care Bill will bring about. During the Labour Administration I was a director of Diabetes UK—the largest patient organisation in Europe—and I worked with the Department of Health and people such as Professor Paul Corrigan, who was then based in Downing street. That is why I find the political opportunism on show today so nauseating. I hope it is in order, Madam Deputy Speaker, for me to suggest that the shadow health team have today invented and taken a new kind of “Hippocratic” oath.
However, for better or worse, we are still debating the risk register, so I will play ball and reluctantly turn away from issues that will actually impact on patients and health care workers across the nation and address myself to Labour’s lack of thought for the day. The risk register is an internal Department of Health document, the purpose of which is to enable Ministers robustly to test their ideas. Challenging and testing a Government’s ideas is part of the role of the civil service and, for obvious reasons, civil servants value the licence to be forthright that confidentiality bestows. One might have thought the Opposition could see the value of that approach, having had so many shocking ideas themselves, but perhaps it is because the Labour party no longer has any ideas that it is now so relaxed about the erosion of good civil service practices.
The risk register is a red herring. Its publication will add nothing to the scrutiny process, and could be detrimental to the good governance of this country. Today’s debate might have availed us of nothing so far as the improvement of the NHS is concerned, but we are now at least far better informed about the Opposition’s agenda—not that it took us six hours to learn that the Labour party has nothing to say. A casual glance at the motion tabled by the Opposition for today would have told us that.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): We have heard much hollow praise for the health service from those on the Government Benches. They say wonderful things about it, then they kick it in the teeth. The NHS is one of the best health care systems in the world, full of dedicated professionals. I am very proud of what Labour did when we were in government. We invested in health and we resuscitated the dying NHS that previous Tory Governments had left starved of resources and unable to meet people’s needs.
When I predict decline, I do not think I have got it wrong, but if the Government want to correct me on that they could publish the risk register so that the medical profession, patients and the House can know the true extent of the potential damage that their Bill
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will do to our national health service. Perhaps the risk register says the Bill is a great idea. I do not know. Perhaps the Government could share it with us.
Yes, something can be done to build on Labour’s legacy, but we do not need several billion pounds to change something that most people believe is an excellent service already. In November last year the Commonwealth Fund, an international foundation that supports independent research on health care issues, ranked the NHS as the best performer on a range of measures looking at how health systems deal with people with chronic and serious illness. It found that of the 11 high- income countries surveyed, Britain was among those with the fastest access to GPs and the best co-ordinated care, and suffered from among the fewest medical errors.
UK patients reported more positive health care experiences than sick adults in the other countries—they were more likely to be able to get a same-day or next-day appointment when sick and to have easy access to after-hours care. They were less likely to experience poorly co-ordinated care. All that was in spite of the fact that per capita health spend in the UK is the third lowest of the 11, at just under £2,000 per head, almost two and a half times less than in the USA.
In the light of these fantastic achievements, it is all the more baffling why the Tory-led Government are so intent on causing such havoc in our wonderful national institution and undoing all the hard work that has gone into making our health care first class. Is it not sad that they are not prepared to reveal the details of their own risk study? Again, I ask what they are afraid of. We are the envy of the world when it comes to health care, most notably leading the field in ease of access, co-ordinated care and good patient-doctor relationships. Although we must not rest on our laurels, our first priority must be to preserve and build on the strengths of general practice by producing more GPs so that even more can be done to improve the health of their patients. The excellent work done by GPs is what makes the NHS safe, fair and value for money.
Instead of looking to us for inspiration, however, the world is now looking on in astonishment that the Tory-led Government are willing to dismantle such an innovative, effective and well loved system. Patients in my constituency, Stockton North, are already feeling the pain from the Tories’ reckless policies. The number of admitted patients who have waited longer than 18 weeks for an operation rose by a staggering 49% between May 2010 and November 2011. James Cook hospital in nearby Middlesbrough serves many of them, and they tell me of mastectomies being cancelled. One patient had an operation cancelled four times owing to a lack of beds. Three patients were left on trolleys, again owing to lack of beds, and another constituent told of an out-patients department closed all afternoon because of a lack of staff. Sadly, I understand that their experiences are mirrored elsewhere in the country.
There are almost 500 fewer nurses in the north-east England strategic health authority area since the Tories came to power—500 fewer nurses who are not treating the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable at a time when health inequalities in the north-east are already unacceptably high. The gap was narrowed under Labour. Now we are seeing it widen again. In total, more than £3.5 million will be spent reorganising the NHS—an astonishing
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amount to spend when the economy is in such dire straits. That is all the more reason why the risk register should be published, so that we get the truth of these disastrous effects.
Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): Having listened to the majority of this afternoon’s debate, I wish to start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his team for putting the interests of patients over the vested interests that we have heard continually try to vilify him this afternoon and over the past few weeks.
Many of my constituents have been concerned about the irresponsible spin being peddled day in, day out by Opposition Members and opponents of the Health and Social Care Bill. Frankly, they have become frightened by the rumours, rhetoric and misinformation emanating from Opposition Front Benchers. One constituent forwarded to me an e-mail, circulated by an NHS trust, that had been authored by the shadow Secretary of State. It referred to “our battle to save the NHS” and called on NHS workers to support Labour’s campaign to drop the Bill and stop the “Americanisation” of the NHS. By sending out such a provocative e-mail, he is attempting to demean my constituents and insult their intelligence. The Opposition’s motion refers to informing parliamentary debate—[ Interruption. ]
Priti Patel: Those misleading comments from the shadow Secretary of State do nothing to add credibility to the wider debate or the Opposition position. Let us not forget that they went into the general election with a commitment to cut the NHS budget.
The need for this Bill is nowhere more evident than it is in Witham town in the heart of my constituency. Witham has a chronic lack of health care provision, which leaves my constituents with no choice but to travel to either Chelmsford or Colchester for the many treatments they need. That is why the local town council, including Labour and Conservative councillors, and local residents are campaigning for better local services. That is at the heart of the Health and Social Care Bill and will emanate from it—[ Interruption. ] Opposition Members laugh and sneer, but my constituents have been affected disproportionately by the way the previous Government maladministrated the NHS.
What is more, because of the efforts of local primary care trusts, bureaucracy and red tape has taken money from the front-line care that my constituents could have benefited from—[ Interruption. ] It has a lot to do with this, actually. Instead of investing in front-line health care, which is exactly what the Bill is about, the money is going to recruit bureaucrats and managers. They might be part of the wider back-room team, but I am concerned about front-line care for my constituents. My constituents might not be important to Opposition Members, but they really are important to me. This is exactly why the Bill needs to be passed. This layer of bureaucracy needs to be scrapped. There is no doubt about it.
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I find it astonishing that this afternoon we have heard Labour Members preach about publishing the risk register. Let us not forget that when they ran the NHS they embarked on widespread, top-down reform on a nearly annual basis, yet they never furnished this House, Parliament or the public with confidential risk registers, analysis or data produced by Ministers and officials, so how genuine and sincere are they? If Labour Members were sincere about the NHS, they would stop their scaremongering and misinformation and recognise that the Bill is about patients’ interests and putting patients first, not their own personal vested interests.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): It really does not matter what vote the Government Whips are able to secure tonight, because the truth is that the Government have lost the argument. The Secretary of State has squandered whatever political capital the Prime Minister was able to accumulate on the NHS and lost the trust and confidence of the public and professions with this Bill. There cannot be a single person in the country who does not understand that there is secret information, pertinent to the passage of the Bill, that he is determined to withhold from Parliament and the public. That is the position we are in.
The vote does not matter, but I would not like to be a Government Back Bencher having to go back and explain the matter to my constituents. I certainly would not like to be one of the Lib-Dem Members having to do so, because whatever the arguments and posturing here in the Chamber today, they will not cut any ice with a public who know that the facts are being withheld and feel they are being conned over a measure that they were promised would never be introduced by this Secretary of State.
I do not say this with any malice, but I think that it is too late to restore the Secretary of State’s reputation. Even at this late stage he could agree to release the information, but more importantly he should pause again and, this time, really listen to what people are saying about the NHS. He is probably not keen to take advice from me, but I have consulted my constituents in Selly Oak quite extensively on the Bill, and it is important that he knows that 76% of the people whom I consulted said that it is the wrong priority at the wrong time. Their concerns are about faster diagnosis and treatment and shorter waiting times.
Steve McCabe: Off the top of my head. I can check the figure, because the Secretary of State wants to be accurate, but I think it is 36%—since he became Secretary of State. It is going up, and he must know that, because he was quite happy to cite other figures earlier.
The money should be spent on reducing waiting times; it should not be withheld by the SHAs to cover the cost of the reorganisation. The Minister of State says that that is not happening, but his own operating framework shows perfectly well that that is exactly what
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the money is being withheld for. It is spelt out in black and white in his own documents, and that is what is wrong at the moment.
The public feel that waiting times are rising, they have difficulty accessing GPs and they are worried about the confusion surrounding the measure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said earlier, in some parts of the country it is already destabilising the NHS, but what we have today is the Government dismissing all those arguments while hiding behind a cloak, saying, “Everything’s going to be okay, but we’re not going to tell you the facts of the matter.” It is disgraceful, and the Secretary of State knows perfectly well that during the years that he spent in opposition he would never have tolerated such behaviour. His behaviour since taking office has been to undermine the NHS and to waste every bit of political capital that the Tory party accumulated during its years in opposition.
That is what is fundamentally wrong with the measure. It does not matter how many times people try to deal with the minutiae of the risk register; the reality is that the report is there and the information is there. There is only one person hiding it, and he is sitting opposite me on the Government Front Bench at the moment. That is what the public know. This is no longer an argument confined to what happens in this Chamber; it has gone way beyond that. It has got to the stage where the Secretary of State’s credibility is on the line, and I am afraid that it has been lost.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): What an exasperating and frustrating afternoon it has been—for three reasons. First, for the past six hours we have been subjected to the absurd claim from Opposition Members that only they have a monopoly on good sense, compassion and organisational skills when it comes to the NHS. What a ridiculous claim to make. No party is able to make it—ours or theirs; this is a joint effort, and it demeans patients and NHS staff to claim otherwise.
The second frustrating thing about the debate is that I came here to hear about what we could do for patients, but all I have heard is what we can do about Labour party politics. That is no way for an Opposition day debate to be conducted. Those watching it will wonder why on earth we came to discuss that instead of the important reforms that the Bill contains.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I come here as someone who lives under a devolved Administration. If ever there was an example to demonstrate why reform of the NHS is required, it is Labour’s record as an Administration in Cardiff, where the health service falls solely under their jurisdiction. In Wales, there is an 8.4% reduction in health spending during the lifetime of this Parliament, amounting to £534 million; 27% of people wait more than six weeks for diagnostic services, compared with 1% in England; the number of patients waiting to start treatment has risen by 45% since the election; and the number of patients waiting longer than 36 weeks to start treatment has more than doubled in the past 12 months. That is what one gets with a Labour Administration in charge of the health service,
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and that is why these reforms are necessary. The debate should have been about those statistics rather than the spurious subject of the risk register that was put before us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) put his finger on the matter when he described the register as being out of date. There is nothing particularly new about risk registers. They occur across all Departments of Government, and similar things happen all over the private sector. They are tools of risk management, not tools of party political PR or political one-upmanship, or devices to prop up one leader or another in one political party or another.
There is a fine line between being open and transparent and being irresponsible. It would be irresponsible to put the morale of NHS workers at risk or to scare patients and their families. The Government are absolutely right to resist this proposal, and Members will be right to reject the motion.
Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): Today’s debate has shown that we have a Government who refuse to be open about the risks of their health Bill and arrogantly reject the widespread concerns of patients, the public, and NHS staff. Instead of providing the leadership that the NHS needs, Ministers have left staff struggling to cope with the effects of their damaging Bill.
Unlike the Government, the NHS is facing up to its responsibilities by publishing local risk registers to try to mitigate the effects of the Government’s plans. NHS North of England warns that the Government’s reorganisation has a high risk of compromising patient safety, as knowledge about how to deal with mistakes and adverse patient events is lost. NHS Midlands and East says that there is a high risk that waiting times will suffer, primary care will be neglected, and joint working with councils will be undermined. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) said, NHS London warns that there is a high risk that clinical commissioning groups will not have the skills they need, and that the NHS will fail to deliver either the best outcomes for patients or the best value for taxpayers’ money. NHS Milton Keynes warns that there is a high risk of failure to deliver its statutory requirements, leading to significant harm or fatalities of children and vulnerable adults. That point was raised by several of my hon. Friends, and particularly eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell).
However, the Government are not concerned about the risks that the Bill poses to patients, only to their own political prospects. In the past few weeks, we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of Conservative Ministers scrambling to distance themselves from the wreckage of their Bill and desperately pointing the finger of blame. An anonymous source in No. 10 told The Times that the Health Secretary
“should be taken out and shot.”
Anonymous Cabinet Ministers have told ConservativeHome that the Bill is as bad as the poll tax, that it must be dropped and that the Secretary of State must be replaced. The Financial Times has said that the
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Chancellor is worried that the Bill will retoxify the Conservative brand. Apparently, the Deputy Prime Minister is furious that the Tory in-fighting is ruining his attempts to get his party and MPs on board. The Secretary of State accuses the British Medical Association of being “politically poisoned” in opposing the Bill; I say that the source of the poison is all on his own side.
Instead of fighting among themselves, the Government should be relentlessly focused on ensuring that the NHS meets the challenges of the future. Our ageing population, the increase in long-term conditions, and the huge medical and technical advances mean that the NHS must continue to change to improve patient care and deliver better value for taxpayers’ money. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) said, that means shifting the focus of services into the community and more towards prevention, so that people stay fit and healthy for longer. It means centralising some health services in specialist centres so that patients benefit from medical advances and get the best standards of care. It also means ensuring that local NHS and council services work together so that older and disabled people can stay living independently in their own home.
The NHS needs service reform, not structural reform. The Bill will make the changes impossibly hard to achieve. The recent Health Committee report on social care states that the best examples of integrated services have been achieved by care trusts, which were set up under the Labour Government, and yet those are being swept away by the Bill. In 2009, NHS London centralised stroke services into eight hyper-acute units. That decision was very controversial at the time, but within six months it had more than tripled the number of patients getting vital clot-busting drugs to the highest rate of any large city in the world. The Bill will put strategic service changes such as that at risk.
Liz Kendall: I have outlined what local NHS services have said about the risk register. If the hon. Gentleman had been in the debate earlier, he would have heard Government Members saying that we are not focusing on patient care or setting out how the NHS needs to change. The point that I am making is that the Bill will prevent the strategic changes that the NHS needs.
There is no evidence that smaller, GP-led commissioning groups can deliver major changes to hospital services. The organisations that have done so, such as NHS London, are being abolished. The real risk is that the full, free and unfettered market that will be introduced by part 3 of the Bill will stop the NHS from making the changes that patients desperately need. It risks preventing hospitals from working together to centralise stroke or trauma care; it risks preventing hospitals from running
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local community services or working with GPs and local councils to better integrate care, for fear that they will fall foul of UK and EU competition law; and it risks putting power into the hands not of patients and clinicians, but of lawyers and the courts.
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I am delighted by the conversion of the Opposition to more transparency now that they are out of office. Can they show the Government how to do it by publishing the internal documents that are critical of their leader’s strategy for change in the Labour party?
Government Members should realise that GPs, nurses, midwives, health visitors, public health professionals, psychiatrists, physiotherapists, radiologists and Opposition Members are against the Bill, not because we are against change, but because it will prevent the changes that the NHS needs.
Government Members do not want to talk about part 3 of the Bill, because they know that people do not want their NHS run like any other market. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister claim that their Bill is all about cutting bureaucracy and putting patients and clinicians in control, yet the Department of Health now admits in its fascinating document, “Design of the NHS Commissioning Board”, that there will be five layers of management in the Government’s new NHS, except in the performance and operations directorate, in which
“an additional layer (or layers) will be required”.
In place of strategic health authorities and primary care trusts, we will now have the NHS Commissioning Board, four commissioning sectors, 50 local offices, commissioning support units, clinical senates and clinical commissioning groups, as well as Public Health England and the health and wellbeing boards. Patients and staff have been left completely confused about who is responsible for running different services and how they will be held to account.
According to the Government’s own document, the cost of running commissioning support units and commissioning for Public Health England is not included in the costs that have been given. Indeed, it states:
“The costs of providing clinical advice to the wider system will be separately funded.”
That prompts the question, what are all those different organisations doing if they are not helping to improve clinical care? The Government are not cutting red tape, they are increasing it, and they are not liberating clinicians but suffocating them—not my words but those of the NHS Alliance and the National Association of Primary Care, which used to champion the Bill.
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“been duped…set up to fail…We stand baffled in the wreckage…put down the sledgehammer. Get rid of the Bill.”
The Secretary of State should listen to the good doctor’s advice. He should grant the freedom of information request submitted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and publish the risk register. He should listen to the 78 Opposition Members and 15 Liberal Democrat Members who have signed the early-day motion tabled by my admirable hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) calling for the register to be published.
Even today, as this debate has taken place, the Information Commissioner has told the Evening Standard that he thinks the Government should publish the risk register while peers are still debating the Bill. He has said:
“Where proposals are particularly contentious and with far-reaching consequences, it’s better for more information to be available for a broader discussion about the pros and cons before everything’s decided. By enabling people to express their views on proposals, the final decision will be better informed and better understood.”
I say to Liberal Democrat Members that voting for the motion will show that they really support the early-day motion that they have already signed. It will show their constituents that on this issue, they mean what they say and are different from Conservative Members.
Parliament has a right to know the risks of the legislation that it is debating, and the public have a right to understand the true risks of the Government’s reckless NHS plans. I commend the motion to the House.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): We have had an interesting debate. The number of right hon. and hon. Members taking part has shown the interest in it. I congratulate Opposition Members who have made speeches—unfortunately, so many spoke that I cannot go through all their speeches—on sticking meticulously to the line in the parliamentary Labour party briefing. They repeated meticulously the mistakes and wrong information in it.
I have a degree of sympathy for the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), because very early in the debate his predecessor as Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), seemed to hole his argument below the line when he came out with what was a rather surprising statement at the time, although having listened to the winding-up speech of the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) it does not seem that surprising. He said that the risk register was a second-order issue. Given that the debate is about the risk register, that struck me as rather odd.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on an excellent speech. As we listened to more Opposition speeches, his speech began to strike a strong chord that risk registers could be misinterpreted and become a charter for shroud-waving.
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who with great logic and clarity argued an overwhelming case, and I was delighted to hear yet again a speech from the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). A health debate without a contribution from him would be a severe loss. No doubt the news editor of the Morning Star will be fascinated with his comments. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti).
I am disappointed that the right hon. Member for Leigh has decided to politicise a topic that, at its core, is not really about health. The question of publishing risk registers has implications that will be felt across the Government. For the reasons I shall outline, risk registers have implications for the successful running of a parliamentary democracy.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that by heart already, but let me tell him again, in plain English, one last time. The reason why risk registers are not released is the same now as it was when he was in government: if their contents are taken out of context, they could be misleading for parliament and the public.
As many hon. Members have mentioned, the right hon. Gentleman cleared the line in a letter sent from the Department of Health on 1 October 2009, when refusing to publish a departmental risk register. He rightly said that there was a
“public interest in preserving the ability of officials to engage in discussions of policy options and risks without apprehension that suggested courses of action may be held up to public or media scrutiny before they have been fully developed.”
Releasing the risk register is directly contrary to the public interest he described. As he knows, risk registers outline any conceivable situation, however improbable, on the subject they are evaluating. Any risk at all, even the most minuscule or unlikely thing, is included. They help the Department to see the possible pitfalls and to ensure that they do not happen.
This case has implications not only for the Department and Whitehall, but across all levels of government. As hon. Members will know from the debate, risk registers are essential because they are records of frank discussions between Ministers and civil servants on policy formulation. If a precedent were set for those records to be made public, it follows that such discussions and conversations would be a lot less open and a lot more guarded. That would mean that policies might develop with a lot less candid thought and debate than they do now. That might have been the argument under the previous Government, but the reason prevails and the argument is the same today.
The right hon. Gentleman understood that argument when he was Secretary of State for Health. Similarly, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who made an interesting speech, understands it. That is why, regardless of what he said in interventions today, during his time in the Treasury—
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As a Treasury Minister, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne wrote to Mark Oaten, the then MP for Winchester, upholding the Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s refusal to disclose information about gateway reviews and the identity cards scheme.
Tony Blair—a name that is not often heard with joy on the Opposition Benches now—understood that too. In his memoirs, he calls himself a fool, a nincompoop and an imbecile for introducing the Freedom of Information Act, because, in his words, Governments need to be able to discuss issues
“with a reasonable level of confidentiality”.
“If you are trying to take a difficult decision and you’re weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations…And if those conversations then are put out in a published form that afterwards are liable to be highlighted in particular ways, you are going to be very cautious. That’s why it’s not a sensible thing.”
Several hon. Members asked about the strategic health authorities that published their risk registers. I would like to clarify this point, because there seems to be considerable confusion about it, particularly among Opposition Members. The purpose of the Department of Health’s risk registers is to allow civil servants to advise Ministers properly about the potential risks of a policy. SHAs, on the other hand, are further removed from Ministers, and are more concerned with operational issues—not policy formulation—and the more day-to-day business of health care. They are not concerned with providing objective guidance to politicians. Their risk registers are routinely published every quarter, and are written with publication in mind. That is evidently not the case with Department of Health registers, which, to remain useful, must be confidential.
Risks are inherent in any programme of change, and we have been open about them, having published a vast amount of detailed information, including the original impact assessment, in January 2011, and the revised impact assessment last September. In addition, the Public Accounts Committee’s health landscape report was published in January 2011, and there has also been the annual NHS operating framework, and the oral and written evidence presented to the Health Select Committee and the PAC. The risks must be scrutinised, we have supported that scrutiny and the risks have been scrutinised. The Bill received 40 sittings and two stages in Committee, and as one hon. Member mentioned, there have been 100 divisions. Even the lead shadow spokesman said, on conclusion of the Committee stage, that the Bill had been thoroughly scrutinised. To claim otherwise is ludicrous.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I wanted to ask the Secretary of State this question earlier because I was rather confused. The Information Commissioner has said that the risk register should be released. If the Government lose the appeal, will they publish it, given that it would be the right thing to do?
I am grateful for this opportunity to clarify the situation. The hon. Lady is right that the Information Commissioner has taken a view, and under legislation my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has the right to appeal to the tribunal. That appeal, which he lodged some time ago, will be heard on 5 and
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6 March and a decision will be made according to a timetable set by the tribunal—we have no control over the timing.
Of all the topics that the Opposition could have chosen to debate for the past six hours, this is probably one of the most pointless. The tribunal for publishing the risk register sits in a fortnight’s time, as I have just told the hon. Lady, so why not wait for it to report back and use this opportunity to talk about something more useful? Since they have chosen to race down this particular dead-end, however, all I can say to them is this: wait until after the tribunal. There is nothing to add until then. We have explained which areas the risk register covers; we have subjected the Bill to unprecedented scrutiny and consultation; we have debated it for countless hours, and yet still the Opposition bleat that we have not been open. My advice to them is this: change the record. What they are doing is cynical, opportunistic and shallow. I urge my hon. Friends to vote against the motion.
The House divided:
Ayes 246, Noes 299.
Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob
Alexander, rh Mr Douglas
Allen, Mr Graham
Anderson, Mr David
Bailey, Mr Adrian
Bain, Mr William
Balls, rh Ed
Barron, rh Mr Kevin
Beckett, rh Margaret
Bell, Sir Stuart
Benn, rh Hilary
Benton, Mr Joe
Betts, Mr Clive
Blears, rh Hazel
Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben
Brown, rh Mr Nicholas
Brown, Mr Russell
Buck, Ms Karen
Burnham, rh Andy
Byrne, rh Mr Liam
Campbell, Mr Alan
Campbell, Mr Ronnie
Chapman, Mrs Jenny
Clarke, rh Mr Tom
Clwyd, rh Ann
Cooper, rh Yvette
Crausby, Mr David
Cunningham, Mr Jim
David, Mr Wayne
Davidson, Mr Ian
De Piero, Gloria
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr Brian H.
Doran, Mr Frank
Eagle, Ms Angela
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Field, rh Mr Frank
Flint, rh Caroline
Francis, Dr Hywel
Glindon, Mrs Mary
Goggins, rh Paul
Hain, rh Mr Peter
Hamilton, Mr David
Hancock, Mr Mike
Hanson, rh Mr David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Mr Tom
Havard, Mr Dai
Healey, rh John
Hepburn, Mr Stephen
Hodge, rh Margaret
Howarth, rh Mr George
James, Mrs Siân C.
Johnson, rh Alan
Jones, Mr Kevan
Jowell, rh Tessa
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Khan, rh Sadiq
Lammy, rh Mr David
Love, Mr Andrew
MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan
MacShane, rh Mr Denis
Marsden, Mr Gordon
McCann, Mr Michael
McFadden, rh Mr Pat
McGuire, rh Mrs Anne
McKenzie, Mr Iain
Meale, Sir Alan
Michael, rh Alun
Miliband, rh Edward
Moon, Mrs Madeleine
Morris, Grahame M.
Mudie, Mr George
Murphy, rh Mr Jim
Murphy, rh Paul
Raynsford, rh Mr Nick
Reed, Mr Jamie
Robinson, Mr Geoffrey
Roy, Mr Frank
Ruddock, rh Dame Joan
Sharma, Mr Virendra
Sheerman, Mr Barry
Skinner, Mr Dennis
Slaughter, Mr Andy
Smith, rh Mr Andrew
Spellar, rh Mr John
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry
Thomas, Mr Gareth
Timms, rh Stephen
Umunna, Mr Chuka
Vaz, rh Keith
Watson, Mr Tom
Watts, Mr Dave
Weir, Mr Mike
Whiteford, Dr Eilidh
Whitehead, Dr Alan
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Winnick, Mr David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Wright, Mr Iain
Tellers for the Ayes:
Mark Hendrick and
Susan Elan Jones
Amess, Mr David
Arbuthnot, rh Mr James
Bacon, Mr Richard
Baron, Mr John
Beresford, Sir Paul
Binley, Mr Brian
Blunt, Mr Crispin
Bone, Mr Peter
Brady, Mr Graham
Brazier, Mr Julian
Browne, Mr Jeremy
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Buckland, Mr Robert
Burns, rh Mr Simon
Burrowes, Mr David
Cable, rh Vince
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair
Carswell, Mr Douglas
Cash, Mr William
Chope, Mr Christopher
Clappison, Mr James
Clark, rh Greg
Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth
Coffey, Dr Thérèse
Cox, Mr Geoffrey
Davey, Mr Edward
Davies, David T. C.
Davis, rh Mr David
de Bois, Nick
Djanogly, Mr Jonathan
Duncan, rh Mr Alan
Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain
Dunne, Mr Philip
Ellwood, Mr Tobias
Evennett, Mr David
Foster, rh Mr Don
Fox, rh Dr Liam
Francois, rh Mr Mark
Gale, Sir Roger
Garnier, Mr Edward
Gauke, Mr David
Gibb, Mr Nick
Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl
Goodwill, Mr Robert
Gove, rh Michael
Grayling, rh Chris
Greening, rh Justine
Grieve, rh Mr Dominic
Gyimah, Mr Sam
Hammond, rh Mr Philip
Harper, Mr Mark
Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan
Hayes, Mr John
Heath, Mr David
Herbert, rh Nick
Hollobone, Mr Philip
Holloway, Mr Adam
Hughes, rh Simon
Huhne, rh Chris
Hurd, Mr Nick
Jackson, Mr Stewart
Jenkin, Mr Bernard
Jones, Mr David
Jones, Mr Marcus
Knight, rh Mr Greg
Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Lansley, rh Mr Andrew
Laws, rh Mr David
Lee, Dr Phillip
Leigh, Mr Edward
Letwin, rh Mr Oliver
Lewis, Dr Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian
Lidington, rh Mr David
Lilley, rh Mr Peter
Main, Mrs Anne
May, rh Mrs Theresa
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick
Moore, rh Michael
Morris, Anne Marie
Murrison, Dr Andrew
Newmark, Mr Brooks
Nuttall, Mr David
O'Brien, Mr Stephen
Offord, Mr Matthew
Paterson, rh Mr Owen
Pickles, rh Mr Eric
Poulter, Dr Daniel
Prisk, Mr Mark
Raab, Mr Dominic
Redwood, rh Mr John
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Robertson, Mr Laurence
Ruffley, Mr David
Sanders, Mr Adrian
Scott, Mr Lee
Shapps, rh Grant
Shepherd, Mr Richard
Simpson, Mr Keith
Smith, Miss Chloe
Smith, Sir Robert
Soames, rh Nicholas
Spencer, Mr Mark
Stanley, rh Sir John
Stuart, Mr Graham
Swayne, rh Mr Desmond
Syms, Mr Robert
Tapsell, rh Sir Peter
Timpson, Mr Edward
Turner, Mr Andrew
Tyrie, Mr Andrew
Vaizey, Mr Edward
Walker, Mr Robin
Walter, Mr Robert
Whittingdale, Mr John
Wilson, Mr Rob
Yeo, Mr Tim
Young, rh Sir George
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr Shailesh Vara and
Question accordingly negatived.
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Business without Debate
That the draft Revenue and Customs Appeals Order 2012, which was laid before this House on 11 January, be approved.—(Jeremy Wright.)
European Union Documents
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. EUCO 91/11, relating to a draft Protocol on the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union to the Czech Republic and No. EUCO 92/11, relating to a draft Protocol on the concerns of the Irish people on the Treaty of Lisbon; and supports the Government’s intention to approve the draft Protocols. —(Jeremy Wright.)
DELEGATED LEGISLATION (committees)
That the Motion in the name of Secretary Vince Cable relating to Financial Assistance to Industry shall be treated as if it related to an instrument subject to the provisions of Standing Order
22 Feb 2012 : Column 986
No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees) in respect of which notice has been given that the instrument be approved.—
(Sir George Young.)
SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (20 AND 23 MARCH)
(1) there shall be no sitting in Westminster Hall on Tuesday 20 March; and
(2) this House shall sit on Friday 23 March.—(Sir George Young.)
BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE (PRIVATE MEMBERS’ BILLS)
That Private Members’ Bills shall have precedence over Government business on 6 and 13 July, 7 and 14 September, 19 and 26 October and 2, 9 and 30 November 2012 and 18 and 25 January, 1 February and 1 March 2013.—(Sir George Young.)
Redevelopment of Tesco Site in Linwood (Renfrewshire)
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): I wish to present the humble petition of residents of Linwood, Renfrewshire and of others. May I make special mention of the Linwood Community Development Trust, which has worked hard to try to get the development off the ground? The petition states:
The Humble Petition of residents of Linwood, Renfrewshire,
That the Petitioners believe that the town centre in Linwood, Renfrewshire is in urgent need of redevelopment; that Tesco, who have owned the derelict site since 2007 with the express promise to demolish the site and build a new shopping facility for the town have failed to deliver on this promise in a timely manner; and that the delay in redevelopment is detrimental to the community.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Government to ask Renfrewshire Council to take all possible steps to facilitate the redevelopment of Linwood Town Centre.
And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c.
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Turquoise Resort (UK Property Owners)
Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): Most people, when they purchase a holiday property, do so with the expectation of escaping the stresses and strains of home. Perhaps they even hope that it will be a good investment for the future, but for my constituent who purchased a property in the Turquoise development in Bodrum, the reality has been far removed from that dream.
A number of other right hon. and hon. Members have constituents who have been similarly affected, so they will be familiar with the case. However, I would like to outline what home owners have related to me about what they have endured over the past number of years. It is a tale of woe in which they have experienced significant problems with the build quality; the advertised facilities promised either never materialised at all or, if provided, fell well short of the standards advertised; and their properties, far from being prudently managed on their behalf, have allegedly been rented out without their receiving income. As a result, they have been forced to pursue costly and time-consuming legal action to try to repair the situation. The Turquoise development is one of three by Artev Global on this site, the other two being Royal Heights and the Flamingo country club. Villa Turizm was appointed by Artev Global as the sub-contracting company to manage the site, and it controlled a total of 1,350 homes across the three developments.
The problems began with the build quality of the developments themselves, where to varying degrees home owners found that what they were promised did not match what was delivered, For example, an owner in the Royal Heights development whom I met recently has stated that those properties are significantly smaller than advertised. The layout of the development was also changed unilaterally by the developer, with the result that many of those purchasing a property which purported to have a sea view instead have the rather less appealing view of the rear wall of the adjacent apartment. I have been advised that many properties suffer from damp; others have leaking roofs; some of the structural elements on the site, such as retaining walls, have not been properly constructed; and people have experienced ongoing problems with the sewerage and drainage systems. Their view is that the builder has undertaken only minimal repairs in response to complaints about building defects, simply to get through the five-year period, beyond which responsibility for such problems passes to individual home owners.
Furthermore, the developments were marketed with the promise of certain facilities, such as a golf course, a sandy beach and exclusivity of use. Some have materialised, others have not, with the quality of those provided often at variance with the brochure description. It is worth bearing in mind that these properties were advertised in the UK at various reputable exhibitions and that those promoting them are, in many cases, UK citizens, yet there appears to be limited opportunity for legal redress.
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prepared by the homeowners group that sets out the detail of the allegations has been sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The dossier documents the multifarious ways in which those in the group believe the property management company has defrauded them, and they are too numerous to cover in any depth this evening.
Let me give just a flavour of the alleged illegal practice. Home owners believe that they have evidence to prove that the company has been surcharging them for utilities, such as water and electricity—they have been advised that that is illegal under Turkish law. In addition, they believe they have also been paying twice or overpaying for some provisions of the management agreement, including maintenance.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. My constituents have also been adversely affected by the situation at Turquoise in Bodrum. Does she agree that although the Turkish authorities are correct in saying that this is a legal matter, it is doing huge reputational damage to Turkey, and that it is in Ankara’s interests to make sure that this is gripped, as it seems to be somewhat systematic?
The dossier also contains statements from a significant number of home owners alleging that their properties were rented out either against their wishes, or without their having been informed of the rental or receiving the income due for the periods in question. Some owners became aware of that when they received utility bills for the properties indicating that they had been in use when no rental was notified, for others it emerged when personal property was missing when they returned to the property after an absence. Others still turned up on site to find someone else staying in their property, and one resident has described arriving at their property to find that their keys no longer fitted the locks. On investigation, they have concluded that a window had been forcibly removed from the property while they were off site to gain access, the locks had been changed and the property had been rented out without their consent. Despite their complete lack of trust in the management company, they then discovered that under the management plan for the site they had no ability to replace the locks. I will revisit the matter of management plans later.
Allegations of intimidation of those who were vocal in their complaints about how the complex was managed are numerous. At one point, those involved in organising an extraordinary general meeting to co-ordinate legal action against the management company were arrested and questioned by the police after a complaint was made against them for doing so. One home owner has told me that the atmosphere became so intimidating that he varied his travel arrangements to and from, and within, Turkey, staying in hotels rather than at the site, and often changed hotels during a stay.
In 2011, residents were informed that Villa Turizm had left the site and, it would appear, large debts, including money owed to the home owner funds. The home owners have estimated that that could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, but with Villa Turizm
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now gone their only option is to pursue resolution and compensation through arduous and costly legal action in the Turkish courts.
The developments are now being managed directly by the developer. The home owners have negotiated, through their solicitor, a voluntary arrangement, whereby they pay their management fee into a UK bank account, under their control, and release the money to the site management only once they are satisfied that the previous month’s financial transactions are legitimate. In the short time that that has operated it appears to be working well, and other similar developments are looking at it as a potential model to follow. However, it has no legal standing, and until the management plan is legally annulled the home owners will remain vulnerable, as the developer could revert to the previous management company scenario.
The arrangement also does nothing to address the wider issue of the alleged missing money, which the home owners estimate could be upwards of £1 million across the three sites; nor does it give them retrospective access to the accounts for that period, which will be the subject of another protracted and costly legal battle, with no certainty of success. In response to my letter to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the case last year, the Minister for Europe stated:
“The Government cannot intervene in private legal disputes within other states, nor can we become involved in steps to recover any capital outlay in respect of individual property deals that have gone wrong.”
“private ownership of immovable property is purely a private law matter which does not allow much to be done by this Embassy.”
Both I and my constituents accept that, up to a point. However, what is alleged here is not a simple property dispute between one purchaser and a developer, but potentially a much more complex and systematic fraud against many UK home owners. Given the seriousness of the allegations, I do not think it unreasonable to expect the Turkish authorities actively to investigate them with a view to pursuing criminal prosecutions, if appropriate, or to expect the UK Government to press them to pursue the matter with vigour, given the number of UK citizens affected.
“We would encourage anyone experiencing problems with property to seek legal advice by engaging an independent lawyer who will be best placed to advise on rights and methods of redress”.
“strongly urged them to get professional aid from a practising Turkish lawyer if they have not already done so”,
and referred them to the same website. It is worth noting that, despite using that list of lawyers, it took the home owner group over a year, and six different lawyers, to find one in whom they could have confidence to act purely in their best interests as the client. In one case, confidential documents relating to the home owners’ case against the developer ended up in the possession of the developer, adding to their wariness regarding the
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independence and trustworthiness of the legal support available to them. Allegations of bribery and corruption of legal teams are frequent.
In addition, the requirement for foreign nationals to lodge a bond of 10% of the value of the claim—in many cases, the value of the property—with the court before being able to pursue action against a Turkish citizen makes seeking legal redress prohibitively expensive for many, who are forced to cut their losses. This is another specific issue that I hope the Government will raise with the Turkish authorities, as access to fair and transparent legal representation and due process under the law is fundamental.
I accept that the Government cannot become involved in individual property disputes in other jurisdictions. Even within those strictures, however, there are things that the UK Government have been doing—and, indeed, could be doing—to help those already caught up in such situations and, importantly, to prevent others from falling foul of the same trap. Indeed, the Minister of State acknowledged that to be the case in his letter to me, and stated that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would continue to work with the Turkish authorities to find ways to improve the situation.
One significant improvement relates to management plans. Under Turkish condominium law, every resort must have a management plan, and that document must be lodged with the local authority. However, there is no onus on the local authority to check the legality of the content of the document submitted. In this case, the management plan effectively prevented the home owners from replacing the management company by a vote at an AGM. The home owner group has been advised that the management plan is illegal under Turkish law and contravenes their international human rights. However, it will be able legally to take control of the site only if that management plan is annulled. Pursuing a legal case to do so over the past nine months has already amassed legal costs of £20,000, and it is expected to take at least another year for the case to reach its conclusion. An immediate change that would help immeasurably would be a requirement for local authorities to check that any management plan was legally valid and compliant with Turkish condominium law. It would still remain the responsibility of each purchaser to seek legal advice on the document, as to whether they personally found it acceptable, but at least they would have reassurance that its contents were within the law. Any influence that the UK Government could bring to bear on the Turkish authorities to introduce such a change would be very welcome.
About £70 million has been invested across the three sites in the development, mainly by UK and Dutch citizens, with around 90% of the home owners being from the UK. The same developer has a further three or four sites in the same area of southern Turkey, so at least 2,000 other British people could be affected. This represents a significant investment stream for Turkey, in terms of the property investment and of the associated visitor spend generated by those staying in the resort. To have such a large number of people affected by allegedly fraudulent practice carries with it significant reputational risk for Turkey, as an investment and as a holiday destination. The perception that foreign nationals will also find it more difficult to access justice when things go wrong compounds the situation. In addition,
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some of the alleged fraudulent practice relates to the avoidance of tax and national insurance payments, at a direct cost to the Turkish Government. It is therefore not in the interests of the Turkish authorities or the many reputable developers and solicitors working in that country to allow this situation to continue.
“issue of fraudulent builders along the seaside resorts of Turkey, including those of Artev and Turquoise, has already been brought to the attention of the relevant Turkish authorities.”
Further, in the Minister for Europe’s correspondence, he indicated that meetings were taking place between the two Governments, and that the British embassy had raised the issue with provincial governors and mayors. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on any progress that has been made. Also, given the information available regarding this and other sites, and the recent high-profile conviction in Northern Ireland in relation to a Turkish property scam, would the Government consider reviewing the advice for UK citizens seeking to purchase property or needing legal advice in Turkey, as the degree of risk attendant on the process would appear to be higher than is generally perceived?
Although the story of that particular resort has been the primary focus of my remarks, it would be remiss of me not to mention also the wider experiences of those purchasing property in Turkey, as they raise one other key issue affecting buyers and involving the Tapu or habitation certificate, which is similar to property deeds. Unscrupulous developers have be known either to remortgage a property which the buyer has already paid for in full on the strength of the Tapu before registering it in the buyer’s name and disappearing, leaving the original purchaser to clear the debt or forfeit the property, or to fail to register the Tapu in the name of the buyer, instead selling it on to someone else but pocketing both payments.
In the run-up to this evening’s debate, I was contacted by people from across the UK who were keen to share their appalling experiences, first at the hands of those scammers and then in the Turkish legal system. I want to share a couple of those experiences with the Minister this evening. One gentleman bought a two-bedroom villa, having given power of attorney to a prominent lawyer in Bodrum in respect of the sale, only to discover two years later that it belonged to someone else. Despite a four-year battle with a new lawyer, he ended up with nothing: no money, no villa, and even his furniture and electrical items, valued at £2,000, were taken and sold to pay the court costs of the holder of the deeds.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady feel that as well as seeking legal advice in Turkey, where these people have purchased those properties, they should also be seeking legal advice at home to give them a double guarantee?
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complaint to the Turkish Bar association, but first has to get it translated into Turkish and then pay for the complaint to be investigated.
Another retired couple contacted me about the property they bought on a small site in Bodrum. They followed the Turkish property purchasing guidelines obtained from the embassy in London and had an estate agent, a lawyer and the clearance to buy. After many delays, they learned that it had been sold a second time to a local businessman with the deeds in his name and they have been engaged in a legal battle since October 2007 to secure either the deeds in their name or their money back. A court-appointed expert was of the opinion that they were victims of illegal practice and they had witness statements supporting their case. Bodrum court upheld the current deed holders’ ownership, but did award the couple a full refund. However, that award was reversed in the Ankara Supreme Court. In addition, they now have to pay the court fees of the two defendants of approximately £8,000 and that latter decision has been upheld on appeal. They have a final appeal but are, understandably, not optimistic.
Four other couples, three English and one Irish, have already lost everything on that site. If the retired couple's case is also ultimately lost, those behind the scam will have gained around £160,000 minimum from the five couples and properties. The reselling or remortgaging of Tapu is one of the most common means by which people lose, quite literally, everything—their money and the property that they purchased. It would help if Turkish banks were unable to accept the habitation certificates as collateral for a loan without first authenticating the status of that certificate through their own independent legal searches. That is, perhaps, another issue that the UK Government could press with the Turkish Government to help protect home buyers.
“Obviously, we are just one in the very long line of foreigners who have fallen foul of the twists and turns of property buying in Turkey over many years. To date, so far, we have not heard of a single person involved in a property deeds dispute retaining the house they bought and rare if any of having their money returned.
We are the INNOCENT victims but it doesn’t feel like it and the criminals walk away unrepentant, well rewarded and their names clear to carry out the same activities again. The worst feeling is we have no figurehead to turn to, no one to support or stand up for us or person with authority/power to put a stop to these practices, which have been going on for years and it seems will continue to do so. Their own government national or local are not interested. Most say ‘Oh not another scam’ and move on and it seems our own government do not ‘interfere with other countries laws’. This is why we are sending this e-mail.”
I hope that the Minister in his response will be able to reassure those people and the many other UK property owners who feel both vulnerable and exploited that our Government take the matter seriously and that he will work closely with the Turkish Government to do what he can to help bring an end to this property misery. I hope that he will also be able to say what robust advice and guidance the Government might be able to issue to those who are thinking of buying a dream home in Turkey, which might better equip them to avoid purchasing a nightmare.
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The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): May I start by thanking the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for bringing this subject to the House’s attention? Anyone who heard her speak will have no doubt that her constituents have a formidable champion in her. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who brought their constituents’ concerns to the House in their interventions. The way in which Governments around the world encourage foreign property investment in their countries and subsequently support those who invest is a subject in which everyone in the House has an interest. In the United Kingdom, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular has a responsibility to ensure that where necessary we are delivering high-quality consular services to our nationals as part of their overseas experience.
Before I come to the specific issues concerning Turkey and the particular site raised by the hon. Lady, I want to put this issue in the broader perspective of the Government’s consular policy with regard to overseas property issues more generally. The Institute for Public Policy Research reported in a paper that it published in 2006 that more than 5.5 million British citizens were living overseas permanently. Its most recent analysis, which was published in 2010, showed that the number had grown to 5.6 million, with another half a million of our fellow citizens living abroad for part of the year. In comparison, our overseas missions confirm that only a very small percentage of British nationals abroad contact them about property disputes in their chosen country of residence. I do not want to sound complacent, but I think that suggests that the majority of British nationals who live overseas do so with relatively few property problems. However, I acknowledge from the start that those statistics do not reflect the distress suffered by those who do come across such property problems and the potential loss of large sums of hard-earned and hard-saved money.
I want to assure the House that the British Government do everything they properly can to offer practical assistance. In those countries where a large number of British nationals buy property, our missions now provide guidance about the local housing and property market. That is achieved mainly through our embassy websites, which are the most effective way of reaching a wide audience, but also through ad hoc media opportunities. The information on our embassy websites aims to raise public awareness of the potential pitfalls of buying a property in a foreign country and also offers advice on steps to take before buying a property. Naturally, the information on websites varies from country to country and is tailored to reflect the relevant local and national circumstances. In some cases, we include contact details for organisations that might help those with property problems or recommend where specific complaints can be directed. In other cases, the websites provide contact details of relevant Ministers or information about local legal aid that is available.
We will continue to monitor local property markets; that is a duty of our mission heads in all countries where large numbers of British citizens choose to live. Our mission heads are also responsible for updating the advice hosted on their websites accordingly. Where we are aware of more systemic property issues that affect
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our nationals in particular, such as national property laws that exclude British property owners from benefits, our officials raise the subject with the authorities in the relevant country, and we do that at all levels of government, from Ministers to local police forces. During my most recent visit to Spain at the beginning of February, I discussed some of the problems experienced by British citizens buying property in Spain with my Spanish opposite number, Mr Mendez de Vigo. I also discussed the property issue with the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Nikolai Mladenov, in Sofia earlier this month. About 15,000 British nationals own property in Bulgaria, and its Ministry of Justice works closely with our officials at the British embassy in Sofia. They are constructing a new website, which has been designed to take account of the kind of complaints that have been received in order to help foreign property investors better in future. I will continue to raise property issues during my meetings with Ministers and senior officials of foreign Governments.
In recent years we have also devoted more resources both in Britain and abroad to understanding the nature of property problems in the countries to which I have referred, and we now have a dedicated property issues team at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, as well as a large number of consular staff overseas with relevant expertise, who all work closely on the subject. We are starting to see foreign Governments respond positively to our efforts. For example, in Spain there have been significant changes to the property laws. In addition, the Andalucian regional government is preparing a decree to legalise or recognise the majority of properties, many foreign owned, which had previously been declared illegal.
Another way in which we seek to raise awareness with the British public is through an FCO presence at a variety of property road shows. For example, we host a stand twice a year at the “A Place in the Sun” property exhibition, and information on Turkey was included in that exhibition last year.
The help that we can give to individual British citizens is appropriate to the individual circumstances of each case. As the hon. Lady acknowledged, our advice to those caught up in a property dispute overseas is that they should seek independent legal counsel, who would be best placed to advise on their rights in that country and the correct methods of legal or other redress in the country where the property is located. I will be straight with the hon. Lady. Our consular policy is very clear: we cannot give formal legal advice. We do not have the expertise to judge the legal right in any dispute or the funding to pursue it. For those reasons we cannot get involved in individual cases.
Additionally, property laws are in the end the competency of individual sovereign states. The British Government have no authority to intervene in another country’s domestic legislation, in the same way as those Governments have no authority to intervene in the making of legislation or individual court cases here.
Bearing in mind those overall points, I shall now talk about the case that the hon. Lady raised. If I am unable to complete my remarks, I will write to her in further detail after the debate. I want to stress how sorry I was to hear about the experience of her constituents and their fellow property owners. Although about 34,000 British citizens have bought properties in Turkey without such
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difficulties, there is, we believe, a small but regrettable number of British and other foreign citizens who have faced problems.
My officials in London, our embassy in Ankara and our consulates in Turkey are aware of the case, and I received a dossier from those affected last year. We have been in contact with a number of concerned parties, including individual owners and Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom. Our proconsul in Bodrum was approached by at least one of the British nationals associated with this case, a member of the Turquoise supervisory committee—a group established by those affected.
Our proconsul offered advice in line with our consular policy, suggesting that those affected seek legal advice, contact Turkish authorities and, if necessary, consider taking legal action in Turkey. I should say in response to the hon. Lady that although we offer on our websites or from our consulates and embassies lists of English-speaking Turkish lawyers whom we know to be available, we cannot judge the competence of a particular lawyer or firm of lawyers in Turkey or any other foreign country.
Our proconsul proposed to the gentleman to whom he spoke that he—the property owner—should return if further help was needed. In that case, the British national concerned did not ask for further assistance. Following those initial approaches to our officials in Turkey, our officials have not been asked directly for follow-up assistance by any of the concerned parties since early in 2011.
None the less, our ambassador and his officials in Turkey have raised the systemic problems of property purchasing in Turkey with the Turkish authorities, at both central and local government levels. As a result, property laws are being revised—for example, on the need for foreign nationals to obtain military permission. I give the assurance that our embassy will continue to raise these issues at future meetings, but I must repeat that we can lobby only on systemic property issues. In the case we are debating tonight, the grievance concerns the individual management of the Turquoise resort complex and the alleged intimidation of apartment owners. The management of the complex is a private dispute and, as I have said, those affected should seek legal advice on how this can be addressed in Turkey.
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Naomi Long: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is very generous. There is a systemic issue over who checks that the management plan is legally valid when it is lodged with the local authority. Will he raise that matter with the Turkish authorities?
Mr Lidington: I am certainly willing to consider whether that issue can be described as systemic. I will want to reflect on the points that the hon. Lady made in her speech, but if we judge it to be something that has wider application than to one individual case, in principle I see no objection to our raising it in our conversations with the Turkish authorities.
We take the safety of British citizens in Turkey seriously, as do the Turkish authorities. Any allegation of intimidation or violence against a British citizen should be reported to the gendarmes, who would be expected to take action in line with Turkish procedures. If a British citizen is concerned that the gendarmes are failing to take legitimate concerns seriously, they should contact our consular team in Turkey so that they can make the appropriate representations to the Turkish authorities. If requested, we will certainly consider making further formal representations once all due legal processes have been exhausted, and especially if there is evidence that due process has not been followed.
On the point about advertising, anyone who considers themselves to have been a victim of fraudulent advertising should present evidence to Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud reporting centre, which provides a central point of contract for information on this subject. That service is run by the National Fraud Authority.
I know that hon. Members will have examples of overseas property disputes individual to their constituents. Where they are indicative of systemic property issues, we will raise them with the relevant Governments. I assure the hon. Lady, and the House, that the British Government will not let up in our efforts to pursue this subject in those countries where, sadly, some of our citizens continue to face the distressing difficulties that she has described.