Debate on the Address — [1st Day]

Part of Outlawries Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:09 pm on 3rd December 2008.

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Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone 7:09 pm, 3rd December 2008

I agree with the comments by Peter Bottomley about Mr. Speaker, although on the economy I am nearer to the position of my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell than that of the hon. Gentleman. As we have moved from a Milton Friedman approach to Keynesianism, there are new opportunities. As we seek to build on the stabilisation of the financial sector, we need more investment. In making that investment, we need to think carefully about the technology and to relate it to larger projects. I am talking about carbon capture and storage. It is a pity that the Government have not moved as quickly as they could have done on carbon capture and storage.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is sitting on the Front Bench, will know, the Government have already selected four projects that might become eligible for Government funding, but we will not choose the one company that we will fund until next autumn. That is much too late, because we have allowed others to get in front of us. The Chinese are already working on carbon capture and storage, as are the Americans and some Europeans. Our failure to move speedily—I believe that, had we had the will, we could have had a small carbon capture and storage unit running in 2003—means that we have lost the opportunity for exports. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the technology, because we require it for the future. We need to combine it with a grand scheme, and that is why I want the Under-Secretary to ask his colleague the Energy and Climate Change Minister to consider a project proposed by Yorkshire Forward.

Yorkshire Forward has a plan to develop carbon capture and storage on a grand scale. The project would capture all the CO2 from the power stations in the region and from large industry and it would then be pumped out in a series of pipes to be stored in the oil wells in the North sea, which are the nearest oil wells to the Yorkshire coast. I understand that Yorkshire Forward has been refused Government aid, yet the project would create some 50,000 jobs. It would stimulate the steel industry and the engineering industry in Yorkshire, and would give great opportunities to new apprentices, offering the kind of apprenticeships that we want. In developing that technology and relating it to the project proposed by Yorkshire Forward, we could stimulate employment in the Yorkshire region. I hope that the Under-Secretary will urge the Energy and Climate Change Minister to consider the Yorkshire Forward project.

A little earlier, we heard a good speech, which I did not agree with, from Mr. Redwood. I thought that it was a passionate speech, even though I did not agree with the economic analysis. Nevertheless, what he had to say about small and medium-sized industries was correct. On Friday, I visited such an enterprise in my constituency. It was a print works—Print City, which employs some 50 workers. I was told by the management that there are difficulties with the banks, particularly in relation to overdrafts, but the company basically works for the banks. Most of its printing is for the banks; for example, it prints the forms that they use. The managers told me that the order book goes well into the future. Business is coming in from the banks, and the only thing not coming in is the credit from the banks to facilitate the company.

Ensuring that the credit is available from the banks for small and medium-sized enterprises is important, and the Government must take up that issue. If they do not, small and medium-sized enterprises will close, and we have already been given examples from some constituencies. The hon. Member for Worthing, West referred to the closure of some factories in his constituency. We cannot afford that. Our economy has moved towards small and medium-sized enterprises; 60 per cent. of gross domestic product comes from such enterprises. It is essential, therefore, that we get an understanding from the banks that the credit must flow towards industry.

Let me move to the issue of protecting the public. I refer my hon. Friend the Minister to recycling projects around the country. As we move towards greater recycling, we find that there is no process that has really been thought out. In my constituency, and in a number of constituencies represented by hon. Members from all parties, we see windrow composting, where green waste is set out on a concrete base in lines to rot in the open. It is turned from time to time, and as it is turned organic dusts—or bioaerosols—tend to be released. Those bioaerosols can be quite dangerous to communities that are near at hand.

The Environment Agency sets a general rule that windrow composting should happen no less than 250 m from the nearest residential dwellings. Research that I have seen and that I have had carried out suggests that the distance between the composting process and the nearest dwelling needs to be far greater. In fact, the most up-to-date study that has been done, which was produced at Giessen university in Germany, suggests that the composting process should be at least 500 m from the nearest dwellings.

That problem is not the only issue to do with composting. We need to move composting to a vessel-type system rather than leaving it in the open, where bioaerosols present a problem to nearby communities. We need DEFRA to ensure that in protecting the environment and the public, particularly in rural communities, it considers whether we should use a completely different process. I refer the Minister to a process that is considered safe: anaerobic digestion, which treats biodegradable organic waste in an enclosed vessel using bacteria in the absence of oxygen. The process breaks down the waste, generating usable products that include biogas, which can be burnt to produce energy, fibre for soil conditioning and a liquor that can be used in a liquid fertiliser. We would be recycling in a meaningful and productive way.

Some of the windrow composting around the country to which I have been alerted produce a nauseating smell that, in some places, has caused the Environment Agency to intervene to close down the scheme. There is a danger that unless we grasp the issue, in two or three years' time we could engulf the country in a nauseating smell that comes from recycling. We must grasp the nettle now and we must ask the Environment Agency to work with the Health and Safety Executive to decide on a process—I suggest the anaerobic digestion process—that will ensure public safety.

The Gracious Speech contains some very helpful proposals. One of them is the justice Bill, whose most important changes for my constituents will be the improvements to the coroner service and the process of death certification. The British Lung Foundation produced a report in 2007 entitled "An Unnatural Death", which highlighted the problem that deaths as a result of mesothelioma cancer caused by asbestos are referred to as unnatural.

When a person dies in that way, there has to be a post-mortem investigation and a coroner's inquiry. Often, that means that uniformed police in marked cars turn up at the home of an elderly lady because the gentleman who also lived there has passed away as a result of mesothelioma, and such visits can cause great but unnecessary concern. However, although coroners in England, Wales and Northern Ireland respond to mesothelioma cases and unnatural deaths in the way that I have described, the system in Scotland is different. There, people whose medical records show that they suffered from mesothelioma cancer are not considered to have died unnatural deaths. The fact that their deaths are considered to be natural means that the procedures that have to be followed are different from those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In a previous life, I worked as deputy head of compensation for the National Union of Mineworkers. The process that applied then was very similar to the one that we have now. When a person died whose disablement assessment showed that more than 50 per cent. of his disability was caused by pneumoconiosis, it was accepted that the pneumoconiosis would have contributed to his death. That meant that the usual procedure would have to be followed: a policeman would visit the family and a short investigation would take place, after which there would be a post mortem and the coroner's inquiry.

However, the union had a relationship with the coroner's officer, who would telephone me when his office was alerted to a death through pneumoconiosis. He would tell me where the death had occurred and when the visit would take place so that I could arrange for the family to be told that they were going to be visited. If the people being visited were elderly parents, I would arrange for younger family members to be present. That helped enormously.

The measures suggested by the BLF need to be implemented in the justice Bill. In that way, we could ensure that we have a coroner's procedure that follows best practice and is the same, without variation, right across the country—in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Finally, there is an important omission from the Gracious Speech, which proposes no legislation to overturn the Law Lords' decision of 17 October 2007 on pleural plaques. I know that the Secretary of State for Justice is conducting a public consultation exercise on pleural plaques, and that he will make an announcement when that is complete, but the Gracious Speech should have said that the Government were prepared to bring forward legislation to overturn the Law Lords' decision.

It has been suggested that when the public consultation exercise ends, we might get a proposal for a no-fault liability scheme. I believe that such a scheme would be detrimental because, before the Law Lords' decision of 17 October 2007, a person who went to court and won compensation for the development of pleural plaques as a result of exposure to asbestos would also receive notification that the liability issue had been decided. In other words, the question of liability was decided when the court made a decision about compensation.

If a no-fault liability scheme is introduced and the Law Lords' decision is not overturned, the question of liability would not be decided for the men and women who receive compensation. Consequently, they would be able to start to deal with the question of liability only if their condition worsened into mesothelioma cancer. That might be 20 or 25 years after the original compensation claim was upheld, with the result that the relevant documentation needed to substantiate liability might no longer be available.

That is why I believe that we need legislation to overturn the Law Lords' decision. I hope that the Minister who is listening to this debate will make the Department of Justice and the Secretary of State aware that we need legislation to overturn the Law Lords' decision, rather than a no-fault compensation scheme.

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