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Industry and Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:16 pm on 21st November 1994.

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Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham , St Helens South 7:16 pm, 21st November 1994

I propose to raise five simple points. I noticed that the Gracious Speech contained a measure to increase our contribution to Europe. I understand from the newspapers that I read at the weekend that the measure is somewhat controversial for Conservative Members—perhaps even for some Opposition Members. I certainly find it controversial.

Our current payments to Europe total £1.75 billion. I have a cri de coeur: if we are paying into a club we really should receive its benefits. Parts of this country have objective 1 status—Merseyside, for instance. Our problem is with obtaining the money. We are eligible for up to £700 million over the next few years—money that is desperately needed in parts of this country to make good the ravages of the industrial decline that has attended the modernisation of British industry. I recognise that some of that modernisation had to happen. All we need now is investment, but to get the full benefit of the European money the Government are supposed to match it pound for pound.

The problem is that the Government will not do so. Although they want to increase our contributions to Europe, they will not enable the areas with the benefit of European money to obtain what they need for investment. I should like a commitment from the Government to the effect that they will direct the European money to the parts of the country where it is desperately needed to replace aging infrastructure.

Earlier, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) did not allow me to intervene, although I only meant to be helpful. The Gracious Speech contains a measure to do with the hearsay rule in civil evidence. I declare an interest as a practising lawyer. The problem with civil cases is that there is already too much hearsay evidence. We know from the family division that tittle-tattle from the neighbour's second cousin's uncle's aunt can often influence the outcome of cases. The same applies to libel and civil cases. The Government have adopted the wrong measure and it is opposed by many lawyers. Instead, they should have taken up the Lord Chancellor's proposal—Speedier trials and simplified costs.

My third point was one that I failed to raise on Friday, when I did not manage to catch Madam Speaker's eye. We Back Benchers find it a bit off-putting, to put it mildly, when Front Benchers take up two and a half hours of a five-hour debate, as they did on Friday. I appreciate that Back Benchers are not important in the minds of Front Benchers, but many Back Benchers will echo the sentiment that if Front Benchers continue to dominate 50 per cent. of debates many of us will begin to dominate the Back Benches in our own way. Let that be a warning. If my Whip, who is listening, wishes to report me to his superiors he is welcome to do so. With a smile, I tell him that I will take as much notice of him afterwards as I do now. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That shows the power of Back Benchers. We are united against the Whips in particular and against Front Benchers specifically.

I sought to raise a simple matter on Friday. The Home Secretary spoke for between 45 minutes and an hour but announced few measures that will ease the problems in the criminal legal system or the prison system. He spoke about cutting home leave, but the idea of rehabilitation and the integration and reintegration of long-term prisoners seems to have passed him by. The best way to rehabilitate prisoners is to reintegrate them. Those of us who know anything about the subject know that, but the Home Secretary seems to know very little about the subject. That might explain his mistakes.

The Home Secretary proposes to take 40,000 people out of the home leave system. We all deplore people who break home leave conditions, but for every one who does so those who keep it are legion. The Home Secretary is penalising the many for the folly of the few, which is not good penal policy.

There are currently 51,000 prisoners in overcrowded gaols, many of whom are living in deplorable conditions. They are bored to death and think only of the next crime to commit when they get out. That makes one wonder whether our penal system is right. As I think every hon. Member knows, I am not soft on crime but I am in favour of a penal system that reforms and rehabilitates rather than educates people in the art of further crime.

My fourth point is a serious one. The Gracious Speech mentioned legislation on mental health, and reform of the Mental Health Act 1983 is long overdue. The 1983 Act resulted from a European Court case with which I had some connection as I was senior partner in the firm of instructing solicitors. I have always had several grounds for concern about that Act. First, no provision seems to be made to allow the clawing back into the system of a patient who deliberately does not take his medicine. There have been several such serious cases, some of which have led to deaths. A patient who is on a loose rein, if I may put it that way, and who refuses to take his medicine and do all that is necessary becomes a risk to the public at large. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind for future legislation.

Another matter that causes me concern relates to people who, through no fault of their own, are beginning to deteriorate mentally. There should be a means to identify such people and a measure by which care can be exercised and facilities made available so that they can be treated before they become a danger to themselves or to the community at large. The problem of mental illness is serious and needs to be addressed. I warn the Government that a solution will not be cheap. We must have measures that cover many current deficiencies in the mental health legal system and in the way in which people are assessed and reassessed.

In a recent classic case a patient was told that he was not being sent home but was being returned to Broadmoor. That patient escaped, giving rise to family fear. There must be a system to prevent such happenings. When considering the Mental Health Act and amendments to it, we must look long and carefully at the flaws that have been exposed time and again and take steps to give the appropriate authorities the necessary powers to deal with patients who either refuse to take their medicine or are beginning to deteriorate. Facilities also need to be extended to treat mental illness, which is increasing.

My final point is a cri de coeur on behalf of those who were foolish enough to listen to insurance salesmen who tempted them out of occupational pension schemes. Many such people lost a considerable amount and now have pensions that are worth nothing like the pension that they would have been paid if they had remained in their occupational scheme. The Government should consider altering pension law to enable a pensioner, potential pensioner or investor who has left an occupational scheme to return to it, subject to paying the premiums for the time during which he has been absent from the scheme. That would place them in the position that they were in before they listened to the outlandish advertising gimmicks of insurance companies who sold them what can only be described as duff pensions. We are aware of a number of companies that have had to retrain their agents and take other measures. The treatment of many pensioners is a crying shame, but it can be rectified and I hope that the Government will do so in the year ahead.

I shall end as I began. I want to see us making use of European grants and thinking of social policies that will benefit a nation that has such a need for social policy changes.