Jim Fitzpatrick – 2019 Speech on 25th Anniversary of John Smith’s Death

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, in the House of Commons on 9 May 2019.

I am grateful and honoured to be called to speak briefly in this debate to pay tribute to John Smith. I am pleased to follow the very personal testimonial of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).

We have heard some moving speeches, but we have also heard about John’s humour. In case colleagues have not seen it, there is a great compilation of clips on Twitter of John Smith at the Dispatch Box tearing the Tory Front Bench apart. I mean no disrespect to the present Tory Front Bench, but it is so funny that even Lord Heseltine is laughing, and he is the butt of most of the jokes, which shows that it is really worth watching. It was posted by David Ward, and I have retweeted it, so colleagues can find it easily.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for affording this time, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. I did not know John very well. I was chair of the London Labour party for nearly 10 years, from 1988 until 1997, and I only met him on a few occasions. Neil—now Lord—Kinnock saved the Labour party from the hard left and turned around our fortunes, making us a serious party again. John Smith, as leader after Neil, consolidated that process and set us on course to win the 1997 general election.​

In the 1980s, the capital was not a happy place for our party. The Sun branded us the “Labour loony left” or, more precisely, the “London Labour loony left”. But through the support of the national leadership and the great efforts of professional staff like Terry Ashton, Margaret—now Baroness—McDonagh, David Evans and David Wilkinson, and hundreds and thousands of councillors, activists and volunteers, London became Labour heartland again. John Smith drove that progress, and one of his first regional visits on becoming leader was to London, which was not always a popular place for Labour leaders to visit in those days.

John’s belief in Europe is chronicled in today’s New European by his former head of policy from 1988 to 1994, David Ward, who is here listening to the debate. David has supplied me with a reminder of John’s legacy, some of which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South and others. The John Smith Trust runs the fellowship programme, which promotes good governance. It is very positive to see that the Foreign Office is funding the trust, which I hope will continue.

One spin-off from the trust is EASST—the Eastern Alliance for Safe and Sustainable Transport—which was founded by Emma MacLennan and other trust alumni. Emma, who is married to David Ward, was Labour’s social security and taxation policy officer during John Smith’s time as shadow Chancellor and leader. EASST promotes road safety in former Soviet countries and saves lives there. More recently, John’s legacy includes the John Smith Centre at Glasgow University, promoting leadership in public service. Kezia Dugdale has just been appointed its first director, and I wish her well. Both those important programmes keep alive John’s strong commitment to democracy and public service.

As we have heard, some of John’s policy legacies were the national minimum wage, which he strongly supported as both shadow Chancellor and leader; constitutional reform and devolution, including on freedom of information, the Ministry of Justice and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and internal party reforms, including one member, one vote and electoral college revisions, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), a fellow Holyrood boy from Glasgow.

John was known for his commitment to social justice, and his strongest belief was that social justice and economic efficiency went hand in hand, hence the Commission on Social Justice. I am told he believed that party politics was like an aeroplane—you need a wing on the left and a wing on the right, and if you don’t have two wings, the beast won’t fly. Sometimes we forget that in modern party politics, in both the main parties.

John Smith’s incredible wit and debating skills in the Chamber led him to being credited, as we have heard, with provoking the resignations of Leon Brittan over Westland and of Nigel Lawson over Sir Alan Walters, Mrs Thatcher’s economic adviser.

On “Desert Island Discs”, John’s luxury item was a case of champagne. He told Sue Lawley that when he had drunk it, he would send a message in a bottle asking for more champagne. He was tickled to receive correspondence from a member of the public rebuking him for being so stupid for not knowing that you cannot put corks back into champagne bottles. Apparently, he loved that letter.​

I would like to conclude, like my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South, by quoting from John Smith’s last leader’s speech to the Brighton Labour conference of 1993. This passage is perhaps a little more tribal than my hon. Friend’s, but this is a measure of the time and of his incisiveness. John said:

“Today I offer the British people a better way and a clear choice: a choice between Labour’s high skill, high tech, high wage economy, and John Major’s dead-beat, sweatshop, bargain basement Britain; a choice between Labour’s opportunity society which invests, which educates and which cares, and the sad reality of neglect, division, and rising crime that is Tory Britain today; a choice between Labour’s commitment to democratic renewal, rights, and citizenship, and John Major’s centralised, secretive and shabby Government.”

In conclusion, we were robbed of a great Prime Minister. Britain would be a different place today if John Smith had been given the opportunity to serve and to lead our country. It is 25 years on, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend and his supporters for giving the House the opportunity today to remember John and to pay a fitting tribute.

Jim Fitzpatrick – 2017 Speech on Grenfell Tower Fire

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, made in the House of Commons on 26 June 2017.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the tragic Grenfell Tower fire and to put on record a number of questions for the Government, most of which are on the record already, especially after the statement today by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I will not be covering the awful response by the authorities locally to the survivors—that is well documented—but I do want to pay tribute to all those who tried to help, volunteers and officials, and to my new hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad), who has performed admirably in the service of her constituents.

Because I was in the London fire brigade for 23 years and I am a former Fire Minister, I have been asked to make many comments on the fire. I need to say that I am no fire prevention expert. I was an operational fireman for 13 years and an elected Fire Brigades Union lay official for 10 years, acting as a safety rep, as well as performing other duties. I am therefore no expert, but I know many who are—those who work with the all-party group on fire safety rescue and in the field of firefighting, fire protection and fire prevention, and of course I had my departmental officials, who were also very knowledgeable.

Armed with that assistance, experience and common sense, there are many questions that I want to ask or, rather, that I want the public inquiry to address. It would be very helpful if the Minister gave the House any details of when more might be known about the inquiry, which will face many questions on many issues. They include: the source of the fire; the rapidity of the spread of the fire; the catastrophic failure of all the fire protection features that the building should have contained; the building’s refurbishment, including the original specifications and the materials actually used, as well as the quality of the work and the finish; the monitoring of building control; the inspection of the completed job by the council, the designated responsible person and the fire service; and the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner’s inquiry concerning a review of building regulations guidance in Approved Document B and the role of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. I will finish with the question of the Government’s decision not to equip new schools with fire sprinklers, reversing the upgraded advice that they should have sprinklers, published in 2008.

Mr Speaker, you may know—I would be surprised if you did not—that my original bid was for an Adjournment debate this week on the subject of the governance and accountability of registered social landlords, or housing associations, but obviously matters changed shortly after and I retendered my bid. When Labour came to power in 1997, there were 2 million homes below the decency threshold in our social housing sector. We tackled that challenge aggressively, spending billions on new kitchens, bathrooms, double glazing, central heating and security. The de-municipalisation of much housing brought many pluses in recent decades, but also problems. Those wider problems need examination, as we have heard with the many challenges in recent days, in connection ​with how we provide social housing in the UK. How we address that question sets the perspective for how we approach the build, maintenance and safety of those homes—the kind of housing I lived in for decades.

In respect of the questions I want to raise, I would like to thank Jon O’Neill OBE of the Fire Protection Association, London fire brigade, Sir Ken Knight, Ronnie King, the Fire Brigades Union, the Commons Library and the Lakanal House coroner for their assistance with material for my remarks this evening. Let me take the questions in turn.

The police have apparently identified the source of the fire as white goods on the fourth floor. London fire brigade and the Electrical Safety Council, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who I am pleased to see in his place, have been leading the Total Recalls campaign for such faulty white goods—dryers and the like—and for improvement in their design. Initially, the Government seemed well disposed to this. I am pleased to see the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service in his place, as he responded so positively and has had a number of meetings with colleagues about the campaign, which would have required compulsory product registration at the retail point of sale and better manufacturer marking of goods to allow them to be identified after a fire and traced back to source. One person has already died and there have been a series of serious fires, including one in a Hammersmith tower block. Fortunately, the fire integrity of that block was better than at Grenfell. If the Minister responding to the debate has any information about the campaign from his colleague, I would be very pleased to hear it.

As for the fire integrity of the Grenfell block, it is difficult to know where to start. The public inquiry, assisted by fire investigators, forensic specialists from the Metropolitan Police Service and the Building Research Establishment, will pronounce on the cladding and the insulation, why the fire spread so rapidly and what other contributing factors there may be. There will be questions not only about the fire resistance specification of the material used for the refurbished block, but about whether the architect’s original plan was followed, as well as the finish. Those, along with compartmentalisation and correct fire doors, are the basis of the “stay put” policy about which so much has been written. I am sure that the public inquiry will look again at that as well.

The failure of all the cladding panels tested since the fire, allied to the Secretary of State’s startling information from Camden earlier today about fire doors, indicates a complete systemic failure. Many decent local authorities and housing associations are under scrutiny in relation to how they manage their housing stock, and many good construction companies are as well. Questions about monitoring, building control, “responsible person” and fire brigade sign-off, and the rules that we put in place, will all be issues for the inquiry, as well as the question of how contracts are delivered, including the system of subcontracting.

Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jim Fitzpatrick

I am sorry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have declined intervention requests from other colleagues. If I have time at the end of my speech, I shall be happy to give way.​

I am not sure whether the Minister will be able to comment on any of those building matters. The fire service, as inspector and enforcement body, should offer us some peace of mind, but reports of a 25% reduction in both domestic fire brigade inspections and fire safety audits do not inspire confidence, and perhaps the Minister will be able to comment on the accuracy of those reports. I am pleased to see that the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service is present; he may be able to advise his hon. Friend.

Of course, the Lakanal House fire, the six people killed there and the coroner’s inquiry were a wake-up call, as was the Shirley Towers fire in Southampton, in which two firefighters, Alan Bannon and James Shears, died. Much happened as a result, but not all the lessons were learned. The key lesson for the Government was about the reviewing of the building regulations guidance on fire, as contained in Approved Document B. That is the architects’ bible: it says what is allowed and what is required. The guidance needs to be reviewed regularly to take into account not only new methods of construction, but new materials being used. They are changing all the time, as we can see from the structures and the skyline around us. Approved Document B gives details of when and where sprinklers should be used, and what types of fire alarm system should be mandatory for which types of building.

I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement earlier today, and the convening of his new independent expert panel of advisers. As I said to him at the time, the Building Regulations Advisory Committee has historically been central to such work. The last published review of Approved Document B appeared in 2006. Her Honour Frances Kirkham, CBE, the Lakanal House coroner, wrote to the Secretary of State in 2013 saying, very simply,

“It is recommended that your Department review”

Approved Document B. The Secretary of State’s response, in the same year, was:

“We have commissioned research which will feed into a future review of this part of the Building Regulations. We expect this work to form the basis of a formal review leading to the publication of a new edition of the Approved Document in 2016/17.”

As the Minister will know, however, BRAC has not met for five years, although a succession of Ministers assured us that work was in hand.

As late as last Thursday, when I asked the Prime Minister what assurance she could give

“that the review of building regulations and Approved Document B, as recommended by the Lakanal House coroner, will be carried out as urgently as possible, and that the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, which has historically undertaken this work, will be recalled as a matter of urgency”,

she replied:

“That work is indeed in hand.”

She also said:

“Obviously, that will be one of the issues that the public inquiry will want to look at.” —[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 178.]

As I said then, that work does not need to wait for a recommendation from a public inquiry. Can the Minister assure us that the new independent panel of experts will undertake it as a matter of urgency? I should be grateful if he could give us a timeframe for its work programme.​

The final matter that I want to raise, before making some concluding remarks, is Government policy in respect of fire sprinklers in new schools. In 2008, the Minister of State at the Department for Education upgraded the guidance for local education authorities and school governors, and changed the wording on what was expected. He wrote, and the Department published, the following:

“It is now our expectation that all new schools will have sprinklers fitted. Any exceptions to this will have to be justified by demonstrating that a school is low risk”—

for instance, single-storey or brick-built. The Government have changed this guidance, and the now revised version from the Department for Education states:

“The Building Regulations do not require the installation of fire sprinkler suppression systems in school buildings for life safety and therefore BB 100”—

that is, building bulletin 100—

“no longer includes an expectation that most new school buildings will be fitted with them.”

The regulations that it cites are 11 years old. They are overdue for revision, and at least one coroner’s inquiry has requested that they be reviewed. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm press reports at the weekend that the Government were reversing this and going back to the original guidance from 2008.

Sprinklers save lives, and they are not as expensive as some detractors claim. The situation is not helped by TV adverts, dramas and films incorrectly portraying buildings being flooded whenever a sprinkler head activates. It is only the sprinkler directly above the fire that sprays water, not those across the whole building or even a floor. We know from reports that the cost of fitting sprinklers to Grenfell Tower would have been £200,000. If we divide that by 79—you do the math, Mr Speaker—it works out at just over £2,531 per death, and that figure is likely to come down as more deaths are confirmed.

To conclude, we need to know the terms of reference of the public inquiry as soon as possible. We need to know who is to preside over it, when it will be expected to report and when we can expect interim reports on urgent life safety matters. We need to know when the independent panel will be convened, and when we can expect building regulations and the guidance in Approved Document B to be published.

It has been said often over the past 12 days that the Grenfell Tower fire could have been prevented at best, or at least mitigated. The deaths could also have been prevented, at least in the main. It is right to acknowledge—there has been controversy over this—that the Lakanal House inquiry did not order the retrofitting of all high-rise blocks with fire sprinklers. What it did say was:

“It is recommended that your department”—

the Department for Communities and Local Government—

“encourage providers of housing in high-rise residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises to consider the retrofitting of sprinkler systems.”

It was not quite an instruction, but coming from a coroner’s inquiry, it was a pretty forceful recommendation.

There will be harrowing accounts to come at the public inquiry and/or the inquests. Historically, the vast majority of safety legislation has been written after a ​tragedy or disaster, and that includes fire regulations. Health and safety regulations, which are much derided in the media, save lives but they also cost money. The message from the Secretary of State’s statement today is that there will be a cost to local authorities and registered social landlords, and we need assurances of Government support that will pay to keep our people safe. The full lessons of Grenfell Tower will not be clear until after the public inquiry, but it is clear that actions need to be taken now. The Government have a responsibility. Ultimately, the buck stops here in Parliament with all of us, and we need to commit the support that is needed in communities across the country now.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter forward. There are 32 high-rise blocks of flats in Northern Ireland, plus other private high rises as well. Does he think that the independent panel of advisers should include Northern Ireland in its investigation, so that all parts and regions of the United Kingdom can benefit from its findings?

Jim Fitzpatrick

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter of the devolved Assemblies, because there are different practices in different countries. I commend the Welsh Assembly in this regard. Ann Jones, a former colleague of mine in the Fire Brigades Union, has piloted legislation through the Assembly, and Carl Sargeant, the Minister, has been on to my office today. The legislation in Wales is different from ours; it has improved and is more protective. I know that there are different procedures in Northern Ireland and Scotland as well. A lead from the Westminster Government would be very welcome, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. My last word is to commend the emergency service workers—firefighters in the main—who risked life and limb to try to help. If we give them the resources and the kit, they will do the job, and we stand in admiration of them, as always.

Jim Fitzpatrick – 2017 Speech on Cochlear Implantation

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, in the House of Commons on 24 March 2017.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the question of the funding and assessment of cochlear implantation, and I do so as chair of the all-party group on deafness. I am pleased to see the Health Minister in his place; I know he has this issue on his radar.

The starting point is a petition calling for a review of the tests for implants approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. I have been contacted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on behalf of their constituents Lamina Lloyd and Diane Matthews respectively.

Both constituents fall foul of the Bamford-Kowal-Bench test—the BKB test. It is this aspect that concerns them and their MPs, and they want it reviewed and changed. I will come back to that later, as well as to the case of Robert Gee, a constituent of the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who I am pleased to see in his place on the Treasury Bench. I want to register my appreciation for Action on Hearing Loss, the Action Group for Adult Cochlear Implantation, Professor Chris Raine and the Ear Foundation for their assistance with briefings for this debate.

I shall start with papers sent to me by the Ear Foundation. Sue Archbold writes:

“I was at the World Health Organisation in Geneva for the meeting on World Hearing Day, 3rd March…with WHO for the first time confirming that cochlear implants and hearing aids are cost-effective and should be made more widely available globally”.

The WHO has produced two documents: “Global costs of unaddressed hearing loss and cost-effectiveness of interventions” and “Action for hearing loss”. I am sure the officials at the Department will have brought them to the Minister’s attention.

Professor Chris Raine, who I believe is one of the UK’s leading clinicians in this field, emailed me and wrote:


cochlear implants—

“are funded for health and NICE only look at this aspect. What needs to be addressed is, value for the taxpayer. For example, in education: children with CIs are now going into the mainstream sector which results in a significant saving of education funding of special classes. We have a generation now going through higher education, and this means better employment prospects and more people paying more tax. Adults who go deaf can expect better health outcomes with CIs. Deafness is associated with illness and unemployment. Also, studies in the USA and France have shown improvement and reduction in dementia in the elderly. We are spending £13 billion on dementia.”

Professor Raine concludes with the recommendation that

“we need adult hearing screening”.

The Ear Foundation has produced a document, “Improving access to cochlear implantation: Change lives and save society money”, written by Brian Lamb OBE, Sue Archbold, PhD, and Ciaran O’Neill, PhD. It recommends, for instance,​
“That NICE urgently conducts a formal review of its current guidance on cochlear implants”,

and that the review

“considers lowering the current audiological threshold for candidacy…That any cost benefit analysis done…ensures…real world benefits are taken into account”,

including those relating to social care. It also states:

“A screen for candidacy for cochlear implants should be built into routine audiological appointments.”

Action on Hearing Loss writes:

“More adults could benefit from cochlear implantation than are currently doing so. NICE…should review and update its current guidance on cochlear implantation”.

It also writes:

“74% of children who could benefit from cochlear implantation aged 0-3 have received them, increasing to 94%, by the time they reach 17 years of age. The comparable figure for adults who have severe or profound hearing loss is only around 5%.”

I am sure that the Minister is aware of that.

“Research is also currently underway to see whether the BKB…sentence test… could be excluding adults who could benefit.”

The document recommends a review of guidelines, as well as the raising of awareness of cochlear implantation among the public and NHS organisations and professionals.

Brian Lamb also writes, this time on behalf of the Adult Cochlear Implant Action Group:

“Hearing loss is one of the most challenging health and social issues facing the UK…Those with hearing loss have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment.”

Hearing loss is associated with the risk of developing dementia:

“Those with severe hearing loss are at five times the risk of developing dementia as those with normal hearing”.

I remind the Minister again of the billions that we are spending on dementia.

“In older age people with hearing loss are at greater risk of social isolation and reduced mental well-being”.

Yet we have never had better solutions to address hearing loss.

The ACIAG states:

“Hearing aids can make a huge difference to the majority of people, but for those who are severely or profoundly deaf cochlear implantation offers the main way of hearing spoken language again. We now have world-leading technology in cochlear implants to address hearing loss, but many more people could benefit from this transformative technology than currently do.”

It also states:

“There are an estimated 100,000 people with a profound hearing loss and 360,000 with a severe hearing loss who might benefit from implantation at any one time. Yet”

—as I said earlier—

“only 5% receive CIs.

The UK currently has one of the most restrictive tests across the whole of Europe…In this country it is not until the hearing loss is over 90 dB that people qualify, while in Europe the majority of clinics use a measure between 75-80 dB.

We also use a word test, the BKB test, which is no longer fit for purpose according to a recent review by experts in the field who concluded, ‘use of this measure… alone to assess hearing function has become inappropriate as the assessment is not suitable for use with the diverse range of implant candidates today’.

The guidelines have been in place since 2009 and not reviewed since 2011.

The Action Plan on Hearing Loss, published by DoH”

—the Department of Health—​
“and NHS England in 2015, made clear that there should be ‘timely access to specialist services when required, including assessment for cochlear implants’.”

That action plan was widely welcomed when it was published, and I, along with others, commended the Department, Officials and Ministers at the time, but much of it seems to be being ignored by a number of clinical commissioning groups. Indeed, some are following policies that contradict the plan. The ACIAG requests more research on the links between hearing loss and dementia, and mental health issues. In conclusion, it writes:

“The NHS has been a leader on cochlear implant technology and helped transform many people’s lives. The NICE guidance was welcome when originally produced in 2009, but we are now falling behind the access available in many developed countries. It is our health and social care services which will pay the cost of not intervening early for those who could benefit.”

I wear two hearing aids, primarily because of damage to my ears sustained while I was in the fire service, although I am sure that age has now added to the problem. I am one of the 11 million people in the UK—one in six of the population—who suffer from hearing loss. Despite the annoyance I cause friends and family by asking them to repeat things, the use I make of the House of Commons loop system, and the assistance I seek here from the sound engineers and technicians, who are always very helpful, I still rely on my hearing aids because they work for me, despite sometimes having limitations. However, I have listed the problems for people suffering profound hearing loss, which are much more serious. We can do something about this; we have the technology, and it is not a matter of costs, because it should save money. It should save the NHS and the taxpayer money, as well as allowing profound hearing loss sufferers to live more complete and productive lives.

In conclusion, I return to the emails from the constituents of my colleagues. One of them writes:

“Lamina passes the pure tone threshold for a cochlear implant, but had to take a speech recognition test in what she regarded as a ridiculously false atmosphere of a soundproof booth with very simplistic sentences in an environment totally different from real conversation or the normal outside world. She is, in her own words, too deaf to hear, but not deaf enough for an implant.”

Robert Gee, the constituent of the hon. Member for Daventry, writes similarly, but gives more details of what 70 dB actually is. He says:

“Now just to give you some benchmarks: 60 dB equates to the volume of conversation in a restaurant. 70 dB is twice that volume (busy traffic). 80 dB is 4 times that volume (an alarm). And 90 dB is 8 times (factory machinery etc).”

He then refers to the sentence comprehension test:

“A candidate qualifies if they can only hear (with hearing aid fitted) and repeat less than 50% of the sentences which are played over speakers. The problem with this test is that it is conducted in a soundproof booth with the sentences played at 70 dB…double the volume level of standard conversation. This test does not represent reality at all.”

I give the last word to Mrs Diane Matthews, who started the petition to ask NICE for a review. She writes:

“I started a petition for NICE to revise their cochlear implant tests after refusal again for a CI in January this year…The tests are in a soundproof room at a sound intensity of 70 dB. Whilst I understand there has to be set parameters, this does not mirror the real world. There should be a test with background noise and the sentences should be comparable with adult conversation…A ​CI is life-changing and whilst it’s not a cure, it’s the best option. To know there is something to help and be denied is heart-breaking when you want to work and contribute to society.”

I hope that NICE will accept the requests from individual patients, professional clinicians and campaign organisations, and I hope that the Minister in his response can articulate something in the way of support, or at least acceptance and understanding that there is a major issue out there, and obviously write to NICE directly as well.

We have a solution. It is at worst cost-neutral, and in reality offers huge cost benefits both in productivity and economically, and in human wellbeing. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Jim Fitzpatrick – 2016 Speech on Electoral Fraud in Tower Hamlets

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Fitzpatrick in the House of Commons on 18 April 2016.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise the concern of many of my constituents not only about the breathtaking decision of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police Service not to prosecute following the judgment of the election court in the case of fraud at the 2014 mayoral election in Tower Hamlets, but about the way that decision was communicated.

If I may, I will briefly lay out some of the background. There have been regular allegations about electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets at almost every election in recent years. Following the chaos at the 2014 mayoral election, especially at the count at the Troxy centre, many complaints were again registered. This time, however, there was a major difference. In the absence of prosecutorial action and to the embarrassment of local political parties, four brave citizens—Andy Erlam, Debbie Simone, Azmal Hussein and Angela Moffat—decided, at considerable personal risk, to raise a private prosecution in the election court. As you know, Mr Speaker, that court has all the powers of the High Court or the Court of Session.

As long ago as 1947, a report produced by a committee considering electoral law reform commented:

“Irregularities in elections should not be regarded as a private wrong which an individual must come forward to remedy, but as attempts to wreck the machinery of representative government, and, as an attack upon national institutions which the nation should concern itself to repel”.

The committee also noted that

“the integrity of elections…concerns the community as a whole”.

Those words should give us some idea of the enormity and significance of what the four Tower Hamlets petitioners did not only for Tower Hamlets, but for the whole of the national electorate. Indeed, the judge stated:

“To bring an election petition as a private citizen requires enormous courage”,

as, for the petitioners, it involves

“a potentially devastating bill of costs”.

He also observed the misery that the petitioners faced, who

“would be portrayed as racists and Islamophobes, attempting to set aside the election…And so it proved. The Petitioners have been duly vilified—but they have hung in there.”

No one suffered in this respect more than petitioner Azmal Hussein, whose efforts to highlight and bring to an end corruption in the borough of Tower Hamlets brought all manner of vile abuse literally to his door. The verbal abuse and threats lasted right through to the case in the High Court. Azmal Hussein was told he should die for challenging the election result, and was despised as someone who failed to join others in the view that ethnic and religious solidarity should outweigh any respect for democracy and fair play. Mr Hussein’s van and restaurant window were vandalised, but he stayed resolute and strong.

The judge quite rightly said in his judgment:

“The court expresses surprise that this Petition was not brought by the Labour Party.”
His words resonate, embarrassingly, with many of us. It should not have been left to four tenacious and brave individuals to insist that democracy, not Kray twins-style gangsterism, should be the system that governs in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

I want to say a word in praise of Mr Hoar, who provided the legal representation for the four plaintiffs. I echo the sentiments of the judge, who said in his judgment:

“For Mr Hoar, this has been a complete tour de force. He accepted the case on the basis of direct access”,

as his four clients could not afford to instruct solicitors. Of his efforts, the judge said:

“By any standards this was a considerable feat and worthy of the admiration of the court.”

After a trial lasting 30 days, with Mr Richard Mawrey QC sitting as a judge, on 23 April 2015 Lutfur Rahman was reported personally guilty and guilty by his agents of corrupt and illegal practices, of making false statements of fact about another candidate’s personal conduct or character, of administering council grants in a way which constituted electoral bribery and of spiritual intimidation of voters. He was also reported guilty by his agents of personation, postal vote fraud, fraudulent registration of voters and illegal payment of canvassers. That is quite a list.

The judge also stated that

“the financial affairs of THF”—

Tower Hamlets First—

“were, at best, wholly irresponsible and at worst, dishonest.”

The judge’s observations indicated that he recognised that character assassination had happened not only during the election campaign, but in the court. In referring to evidence given by THF members about a woman who gave evidence against them, he said that

“the three men were quite deliberately lying.”

In the end, the election of May 2014 was declared void, with Mr Rahman disqualified from holding electoral office for five years. The court judgment says:

“These penalties are entirely separate from any criminal sanctions that might be imposed if the candidate concerned is prosecuted to conviction for an electoral offence.”

In an article in The Guardian, Dave Hill said of Judge Mawrey:

“He did not give Rahman a back alley kicking of the type that recur in the more gruesome East End mythologies, but he did dish out a legal equivalent.”

As I understand it, the level of proof required by the election court is equivalent to that in criminal law, rather than civil law. The judgment states:

“It is settled law that the court must apply the criminal standard of proof, namely proof beyond reasonable doubt.”

It later says:

“Thus the court will apply a) the criminal standard of proof to the charges that Mr Rahman and/or his agents have been guilty of corrupt or illegal practices; b) the criminal standard of proof to the question of whether there has been general corruption”.

The plaintiffs have been seeking costs. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has recently confirmed that Mr Rahman is to appear before its disciplinary tribunal. At the very least, there are suggestions that he has been hiding his assets, offloading to his family or not declaring properties owned here and in Bangladesh. As was reported recently in the East London Advertiser,

“The £500,000 legal costs of the original six-week election trial was awarded against Rahman,”
although, as the article went on to say, £3 million of property assets have been frozen. The four petitioners are still trying to recoup heavy financial losses from Mr Rahman.

There is talk of a property in Bow that is owned by Mr Rahman, although it takes some effort to get beyond the layers of complication in respect of his properties, with his wife claiming part-ownership and beneficial interest. There is also undeclared income to the taxman on two properties that they rented out. It seems that money and property are sloshing around, adding additional features to the catalogue of wrongdoing. Mr Rahman, meanwhile, has declared himself bankrupt.

On the question of property, the judge referred to a particular address, 16 Prioress House, and its place within this narrative of dodgy dealings. Two THF candidates had asserted that they lived at that address. The judgment declared:

“I am completely satisfied that neither of these two THF candidates ever resided at 16 Prioress House.”

It states that they were therefore

“guilty of an offence under s 61”.

The judge drew a number of conclusions on the issue of grants, including, for the record, that

“enormous sums of public money had been paid to organisations in excess of that which Council officers had recommended and, in many instances, to organisations that had not even applied for grants”.

The judgment states that

“a total of 15 applications receiving aggregate funding of £243,500 did not meet minimum eligibility criteria and so were not scored by officers”,

and continues:

“Further, 21 applications totalling £455,700, which did meet the minimum eligibility criteria, but did not meet the minimum quality threshold score of 40, were successful in the final awards.”

The judgment went on to say:

“By way of another example, grants totalling just under £100,000 were handed out to ten organisations, all Bangladeshi or other Muslim organisations, for lunch clubs when none of them had even applied for a grant.”

It states that

“organisations deemed totally ineligible…found themselves the grateful recipients of tens of thousands pounds of public money”,

and that

“£352,000 was awarded without an open application process”

from a fund called the “954 Fund”. It continues:

“Shadwell’s grant increased from £204,386 to £460,750”,

meaning that it more than doubled. Subsequently,

“Shadwell returned two THF candidates…Bow East, on the other hand, saw its grant reduced from the officers’ recommendation of £99,397—cut by roughly a third to £67,000.”

The opposite effect to what we saw in Shadwell is all too clear:

“Bow East returned three Labour Councillors.”

We can do nothing but conclude that Tower Hamlets First candidates benefited from money that their party invested locally.

The judge’s conclusion? I quote:

“Was the making of those grants corrupt? Again, this seems inescapable.”

He observed that it was bribery

“by any ethical or moral standards”,
but posed the question,

“is it bribery contrary to s 113 of the 1983 Act?”

In its formal conclusions the judgment says:

“The court is satisfied and certifies that in the election for the Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets held on 22 May 2014…the First Respondent Mr Rahman was personally guilty and guilty by his agents of an illegal practice contrary to s 106 of the 1983 Act…the First Respondent Mr Rahman was personally guilty and guilty by his agents of a corrupt practice contrary to s 113 of the 1983 Act…the First Respondent Mr Rahman was personally guilty and guilty by his agents of a corrupt practice contrary to s 115 of the 1983 Act.”

Scotland Yard dropped its investigation into electoral fraud after finding

“insufficient evidence that criminal offences had been committed”.

How does that tally with the election court’s findings? Detectives launched their investigation after Mr Rahman was found guilty of corrupt and illegal practices. How can practices with such a description not be worthy of prosecution? I have written to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner about these matters, and have secured a meeting soon with Commissioner Hogan-Howe, when I hope to raise these and other questions.

The police findings have led Mr Rahman’s supporters to claim that he has been proven innocent of all charges. Who can blame them? As pointed out by local Conservative Councillor Peter Golds,

“if the police fail to prosecute, there are no convictions and therefore no fraud…Even a successful election petition can be swept under the carpet when the police do nothing.”

It should be noted that the judge paid tribute to Councillor Golds, by whom the petitioners “have been greatly aided”.

The Bangladeshi media in Tower Hamlets have reported events as anticipated. Mr Ted Jeory, a reporter of high reputation who has long taken an interest in these matters, says:

“The Bengali media failed miserably in their journalistic duty to hold the borough’s leaders to account. Instead of ‘without fear or favour’, there was far too much fear and they were full of favour. Lutfur…demanded almost nationalistic loyalty to his cause, and it was given. They did their readers and viewers a huge disservice.”

Mr Speaker, I hope you can imagine the consternation all this has caused in Tower Hamlets to all of our residents interested in democracy, regardless of their colour, religion or background.

On the various views of the court and its findings, I feel it is worth pointing out that, contrary to what Mr Rahman’s supporters have espoused, the judge was not interested in indulging in a wholehearted, blinkered condemnation of the former mayor. However, the judge highlighted the extent to which the former mayor’s supporters nursed and perpetrated the belief that they and their candidate were victims:

“In their minds, they were being targeted because they were Bangladeshi and Muslim: so their critics were necessarily racists and Islamophobes.”

Such swiftly despatched gibes not only slander, besmirch and cause distress—as they are designed to do—to those innocent of such charges, but they devalue the terms and diminish the plight of those who experience and suffer real prejudice.
The election court says Lutfur Rahman is guilty, but the CPS and the MPS say there is not enough evidence. However, there are suggestions that other inquiries into aspects of fraud and corruption are ongoing. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline exactly what is going on. Which inquiries are still ongoing? Where do the plaintiffs stand in respect of recovering their costs? Where do voters stand in terms of having confidence in electoral arrangements in the future? The Government have appointed commissioners to rebuild the public’s confidence that the system can protect against bribery and corruption, and is robust enough to prevent those who have contempt for our democracy from continuing to undermine it in the future. Can the Minister reassure us that the new Mayor, John Biggs, and the commissioners are on track to deliver?

With the greatest respect to the Minister, I had expected the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice to respond to this debate, or perhaps a Justice Minister. I received a nice letter from the Policing Minister who said that a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government would respond, but it is actually a Cabinet Office Minister. As he knows, I hold him in high regard, and I mean no disrespect. It does not matter to me—I want a Government response, and I am sure that he will be able to provide one. These are serious matters, so I hope that he will reassure the good people of Tower Hamlets that the authorities will defend their rights, ensure that their elections are not stolen again in future, and say that the petitioners will receive the costs to which they are entitled.

Jim Fitzpatrick – 2016 Speech to Commons on Queen’s 90th Birthday

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Fitzpatrick in the House of Commons on 21 April 2016.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), and I am grateful to be able to contribute to this collective greeting. I just wish to relate three experiences from my period as the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household between 2003 and 2005. I see that another former Vice-Chamberlain, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), is in the Chamber. As colleagues will know, the Vice-Chamberlain, who traditionally is a senior Government Whip, has a variety of duties to fulfil, three of which are: to design a daily message to send to Her Majesty outlining what is happening here; to act as hostage during state openings of Parliament; and to take to Her Majesty treaties to be signed and presented to the House of Commons.

I was first presented to Her Majesty in 2003. When I asked her what she would like to see in the message—the same question, I am sure, that all my predecessors and successors have asked—she answered, “That which generally does not make the papers will be of interest.” In other words: “Just give us the gossip—that which is not fit to print.” Given how we are reported in today’s media, that was a pretty high bar, but I managed to achieve it at least once.

The second duty is to act as hostage. Since our predecessors executed Charles I in 1649, every time the monarch comes to visit us, we have to send a senior MP to act as a hostage, which I did on two occasions. I felt like Patrick McGoohan in “The Prisoner” and that I was not allowed to leave, although I never actually tried. The Buckingham Palace officials were very generous and hospitable. They said that I could watch television, read the paper, have a coffee or a gin and tonic, or walk about, but I was not leaving. When I expressed my anxiety at this experience a short time later to the then head of our armed forces, Sir Mike Jackson, he said, “Jim, you shouldn’t have worried.” I said, “Shouldn’t I, Mike?” and he said, “No, if anything had happened to Her Majesty, we would just have shot you.” He was not kidding, as I am sure that Members know.

One Easter, when we needed a document to be signed and then presented to the House, the civil servants in the Whips Office contacted Buckingham Palace, which responded that Her Majesty was not at Buckingham Palace, but at Windsor. Our officials said, “Well, Fitzpatrick will go to Windsor to get the document signed.” The message came back from Her Majesty, and the officials looked at me and said, “Her Majesty said, ‘If Mr Fitzpatrick is coming all the way to Windsor, ask him if he would like to stay to lunch’”. My civil servants said, “Do you want to stay?” I said, “Bite her royal hand off”—except I do not think that I used the word “royal”.

When I was being driven down in the Government car to Windsor castle, on a beautiful, sunny Easter Monday, I wondered, “How many people does Her Majesty entertain to lunch on an Easter Monday?” There were six of us: her private secretary, three equerries, me and Her Majesty. I was totally unprepared. It was a measure of the dear lady’s humanness that for an hour and a half she commanded the conversation around the table and included everybody. Not having known her before, I saw her charm, generosity and regality.

I am grateful for the experience of being Vice-Chamberlain for two years and am pleased to add my and my constituents’ greetings to Her Majesty on this auspicious day.