Please Look After Mother – A Korean Perspective On Dementia


In September the universal Church commemorates the feast of the Korean martyrs. The one time Anglican bishop of Korea, noted scholar and, later, Catholic priest, Monsignor Richard Rutt, who died in July, put their number at between 8,000 and 10,000. Mainly lay men and women; married an unmarried; young and old – they even include children in their ranks.  The first Korean priest, St.Andrew Kim, barely 25 years of age, was also among their number:


John Paul II was deeply admiring of the Church in Korea, remarking that:


“The Korean Church is unique because it was founded entirely by laypeople. This fledgling Church, so young and yet so strong in faith, withstood wave after wave of fierce persecution. Thus, in less than a century, it could boast of 10,000 martyrs. The death of these many martyrs became the leaven of the Church and led to today’s splendid flowering of the Church in Korea. Even today their undying spirit sustains the Christians of the Church of Silence in the north of this tragically divided land.”


But out of that tragic history and the unresolved tragedy of the divided Korean peninsula the spirit of the vibrant Catholic community continues to touch countless lives – both through its institutional life and increasingly through popular culture.


I recently wrote about the movie celebrating Fr.Lee Tae Sok, whose work among the lepers of Southern Sudan has fired the imagination of thousands of Korean people ( He was nurtured in a Church which now comprises around 12% of the population and has created a hugely impressive network of universities, schools, hospitals, broadcasting outlets, and lay people committed to entering the public and political life of their nation.


But even more extraordinary and intriguing is the way in which Catholic identity and Korean identity have merged with one another, positively affecting attitudes and values; and how Catholic themes and Korean themes – such as the intrinsic worth of every human being; issues of human dignity; the commemoration of those who went before; and the value we attach to the family have synthesised so strongly.


Take, for instance, one of the best books which I have read this year: “Please Look After Mother”, a beautifully crafted novel by the Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin. It has deservedly sold more than a million copies worldwide. Available in nineteen countries, it is a spiritual classic and deserves to be read as such.


Translated into English this triumph of creative writing is a wonderful example of the increasing globalisation and worldwide appeal of Korean literature.  It explores issues which unite our cultures. It also introduces us to a growing band of female Korean writers blessed with great and sensitive insight.


The Korean mother who emerges in Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel could be any of our mothers. Affected by dementia she accompanies her husband to visit her children in the city. Separated from her husband as they try to board a train in Seoul, her husband is helpless as he leaves her stranded on the platform. It will be the last time he sees her.


The novel then takes up the affecting story of her children’s subsequent attempts to find her; now looking at their mother through different lens and from different points of view.


As the story unravels we learn about her children and about the family’s secrets. Memories are recalled of a simple life in a tougher but more innocent time. Her distraught daughter tries to piece together a picture of the woman who has now been lost but whose memory mustn’t be.


There are touching vignettes.   Mother, she recalled, had once told of her ambition to walk the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, knowing that in reality she would never leave Korea.


She insists that it will be different for her children, confidently telling her daughter that one day the girl will visit “the smallest country in the world” and there she is to get her a rosewood rosary – a memory which returns while trying to come to terms with the failure to find her mother. With a boyfriend the daughter does indeed travel to Rome and in St.Peter’s basilica she prays that God will “look after mother”. Remembering her mother’s words she finds a rosewood rosary.


In learning about the woman whom they have lost her children also discover that their mother had been quietly given away the money they had posted to her each week, giving it to the church orphanage, where, unbeknown to them, mother had become a volunteer. Overcoming illiteracy she had proudly read her daughter’s writing to the children.  It reminds us of how little we sometimes really know about the people who mean the most to us.


“I wanted to show,” said Kyung-Sook Shin, “that the mother is, yes, a point of strength, the root of the family, but is also fragile and sensitive.”  L’Osservatore Romano described the book as “a rich tapestry” and “a clamorous success.”


Born in 1963 in Jeolla Province in the South of Korea, like the character in her fiction, Shin was born in a rural village, the fourth child and first daughter of a family of six.  Her parents were subsistence farmers and struggled to pay school fees. Shin went to live with her older brother in Seoul and her first foray into publishing came in 1985 with “Winter’s Fable”, followed in 1988 with a collection of short stories.  Her subsequent works have been widely acclaimed and she is the recipient of the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as the French Prix de l’Inaperçu.


Shin herself says that people have told her that what they enjoyed about the book was those glimpses into Korean society. There are very Korean-specific parts, about Korean society, like the march, or the Korean mothers cooking, or the Korean traditional holidays — the rituals involved… so a lot’s always happening.”


But above all, this is a religious and spiritual book; appropriate to celebrate in this month when Korea’s great Catholic men and women are remembered in the liturgies of the Church.


Shin’s beautiful prose invite us to think more deeply about what matters in life; not to lose our identity; not to lose our families; not to forget the things which bind us to one another; and in the end, to entrust the ones we love – in this case the lost mother suffering from Alzheimer’s – into the hands of the One who made her, with the simple prayer, “Please Look After Mother.”      



Parliamentary Interventions 1979-


Parliamentary Speeches and Interventions: 1979 – 2005

Mr David Alton

March 15, 1951 –


  1. Liverpool Edge Hill March 29, 1979 – June 9, 1983
  2. Liverpool Mossley Hill June 9, 1983 – March 8, 1988
  3. Liverpool Mossley Hill March 8, 1988 – May 1, 1997

Titles in Lords

  1. Baron Alton (Lord Alton of Liverpool, of Mossley Hill in Liverpool) 1997 –


First recorded, on April 3, 1979 FINANCE BILL Commons

By year, 6560 in total: 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005

Last recorded on this site , on March 17, 2005 Mental Capacity Bill Lords.  For later contributions (2005-present) visit


Information presented on this page was prepared from the XML source files, together with information from the History of Parliament Trust, the work of Leigh Rayment and public sources. The means by which names are recognised means that errors may remain in the data presented

John Lee Tae-Sok: Korean Schweitzer among Sudan’s lepers – “Don’t Cry For Me Sudan”

A few months ago I hosted a delegation from North Korea which included the Speaker of their national Assembly, Choe Tae Bok. During the visit each member of the delegation was presented with a DVD celebrating the life of a remarkable Korean who has become known as “the Albert Schweitzer” or “Fr.Damian” of Sudan.


I chose the DVD because it says nothing about the fierce hostility and enmity between North and South Korea and I chose the DVD because it celebrates the story of a remarkable man whose heroism and self sacrifice should unite the people of the north and south, both in admiration and pride in the life of John Lee Tae-Sok.


I also chose the DVD because Catholic priests have been banned from North Korea for sixty years and John Lee Tae-Sok was a Catholic priest, a Salesian, and a medical doctor. Perhaps the DVD – “Don’t Cry For Me Sudan” – will help the North Koreans to see the Church and the work of its priests in a different way. The Sudanese he helped christened Fr.John “Fr.Jolly” because of his winning smile and gentle humour.


The story of his life has certainly had a phenomenal impact in South Korea, where newspapers reported that audiences have been leaving the cinemas in tears, having been so affected by Fr.John’s outpouring of love. 300,000 people have now seen the film.


Fr.John was born into a poor Catholic family in 1962, the ninth of ten children – another of whom has also been ordained.  John’s father died when he was aged nine and John would also die at too early an age – succumbing to cancer of the colon in 2010.


After his father’s death John’s mother brought up the family by herself, counting the pennies earned from her work as a seamstress. They lived in the St. Joseph parish of Song Do in Pusan:  a parish built for the poor and needy of Pusan, after the Korean War, which had left many Koreans destitute and unemployed.


John was helped through his studies by his mother who encouraged him to read medicine. On qualifying, he practised as a surgeon in the Korean army but repeatedly he felt the call to be a priest. His mother felt she had already given one son to the Church – his brother is a Capuchin friar – and initially she tried to deter John from entering the priesthood but ultimately gave her blessing. He was ordained in 2001.


It was while he was training for the priesthood that John visited the Salesian mission in southern Sudan. It was the first time he had been in a colony of lepers – men and women with Hansen’s disease. He was so disturbed by the rotting limbs and squalor that in a state of shock he went off into the bush to get the disturbing encounter out of his sight and mind. The Salesians working there did not expect to see the young army doctor again.


They were wrong.


On his return to Seoul the memory of the lepers never left him and in 2001 he announced that he would “be a better missionary among the lepers than anywhere else.”   Alarmed that he should want to go to Southern Sudan – where two million people had lost their lives during the civil war waged by Khartoum’s despotic government, his mother and family were deeply distressed but once again they finally accepted and endorsed his decision.


Arriving at a place called Tonj, Fr.John began the arduous task of erecting a medical clinic. Using the same hands that would treat 300 patients daily, he personally constructed the building to which desperate Sudanese would bring their illnesses. In his jeep he went out searching for the lepers.


A memo written by Lee Jae-hyeon, a policy director for South Korea’s Environment Ministry, who visited Tonj while working for the United Nations, and who was one of Fr.John’s sponsors graphically described the working conditions in the village:


“The heat wave was deadly. It was 55 degrees Celsius. I didn’t realize thermometers had more than 50-degree markings until the priest showed me. I felt like my clothes were burning. The river in Tonj was a muddy puddle. Children splashed in the water, and instead of dabbling in it, they gulped up the water.”


After the clinic came classrooms for a school and other facilities. In the absence of anyone else to do it he would teach the children maths and music.  A gifted musician, Fr.John persuaded Korean friends to send a crate load of instruments and uniforms and he founded and trained the Don Bosco Brass Band.


News of his work spread and a South Korean film maker came out to make a documentary.  Following Fr.John on his rounds they recorded the social developments and the health programmes which he had initiated.


This phenomenal out-pouring of energetic love and commitment inevitably took its toll and it was during a short break in 2009 that cancer was discovered.  In Seoul he underwent chemotherapy but on January 14th 2010, aged 47, his life came to an end.


This, however, was not the end of the story.


The film-maker, Koo Soo-Hwan, returned to Sudan and interviewed many of the families of the Dinka warriors whose lives had been so profoundly touched by Fr.John’s humanitarian work.   The film that emerged was “Don’t Cry For Me Sudan” – taking its title from the Dinka boys who weep as they carry a picture of “Fr.Jolly” through the village of Tonj as they hold their own funeral in his memory. They are members of Fr.John’s brass band. Not much given to public displays of emotion these young people and their families are tearful as they describe the acute loss they experienced in learning that their priest and doctor would not be returning to them.  A copy of the Korean movie has now been made with English subtitles and extracts may be seen on You Tube at


The film’s director recently came to see me in London.  He had been intrigued to learn that I had given a copy of his movie to the visiting North Korean delegation. What had I hoped to come out of this? “An appreciation that one man’s life can change a world, and that all Koreans should be inspired by and celebrate the life of a remarkable and truly wonderful man.”     



Archive – House of Commons1980s

Results 21 to 30 of 95

Local Government Finance (No. 2) Bill

Lords — May 13, 1982

Baroness, Lady Stedman, and by my honourable friend David Alton, and by the honourable Member, Mr. Roberts, in another place. It has been put down so many times, and so many attempts have been made to deal


Commons — June 15, 1982

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. George Cunningham, Mr. David Alton, Mr. John Cartwright and Sir Brandon Rhys Williams.

Victims of Violent Crimes

Commons — June 30, 1982

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Alton, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. William Pitt, Mr. Eric Ogden, Mr. David Penhaligon, Mr. Cyril Smith and Mr. James Wellbeloved.


Commons — June 30, 1982

Mr. David Alton accordingly presented a Bill to improve the help given to victims of violent crime: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 30 July

The Homeless Young

Ms Inga-Stina Robson

Lords — November 11, 1982

for these people. This lack of proper provision becomes tremendously expensive. My honourable friend Mr. David Alton, who prior to becoming a Member of the other place was chairman of the housing committee

Health and Social Services and Social Security Adjudications Bill [H.L.]

Mr Eric Lubbock

Lords — December 9, 1982

I am sorry; I was distracting my noble friend when the noble Lord was putting that question. I intervene briefly to pay tribute to my honourable friend Mr. David Alton, who introduced a Bill during

Members Sworn

Commons — June 21, 1983

David Patrick Alton, esquire, Liverpool, Mossley Hill.


Commons — November 18, 1983

Motion made, That Mr. Richard Alexander, Mr. David Alton, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. Reginald Eyre, Mr. Reg Freeson, Mr. Robert B. Jones, Mr. Norman Miscampbell, Mr. Allan Roberts, Sir Hugh Rossi, Mr


Commons — November 24, 1983

That Mr. Richard Alexander, Mr. David Alton, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. Reginald Eyre, Mr. Reg Freeson, Mr. Robert B. Jones, Mr. Norman Miscampbell, Mr. Allan Roberts, Sir Hugh Rossi, Mr. Chris Smith

Results 81 to 90 of 95


Commons — May 11, 1988

Mr. David Amess, supported by Sir Bernard Braine, Mr. David Alton, Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Robin Corbett, Mr. Stan Crowther, Miss Janet Fookes, Mr. Harry Greenway, Mr. Ken


Commons — December 21, 1988

Miss Ann Widdecombe, supported by Sir Bernard Braine, Mr. David Alton, Mr. Seamus Mallon, Rev. Martin Smyth, Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours, Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock, Mrs. Marion Roe, Dame Peggy Fenner


Commons — January 31, 1989

Mr. Menzies Campbell, supported by Mr. David Alton, presented a Bill to prevent the unofficial resale at unreasonably high prices of tickets to events to which the public are admitted: And the same

Empty Property and Community Aid

Commons — March 21, 1989

Mr. Frank Field, Mr. David Alton and Mr. Simon Hughes.

British Nationality (Honorary Citizenship)

Commons — March 22, 1989

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Amess, Ms. Diane Abbott, Mr. David Alton, Mr. Peter Archer, Mr. David Atkinson, Mrs. Rosie Barnes, Mr. Alistair Burt, Mr. Cecil Franks, Mr. Ken Hargreaves

Unprescribed Spectacles (Health Warnings)

Commons — April 5, 1989

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Ann Widdecombe, Dame Jill Knight, Mr. David Blunkett, Mr. David Amess, Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours, Mr. Robert G. Hughes, Mr. David Alton, and Mr. David Shaw.

Cash Limits

Mr Kenneth Baker

Written Answers — May 25, 1989

Affiliation David Ball Chairman, David Ball Group (Engineering Manufacture) Sir Terence Beckett KBE Former Director General, CBI; Former Chairman and Chief Executive, Ford Motor Co. A. H. Cherry MBE


Commons — November 8, 1989

Mr. Simon Hughes, supported by Mr. David Alton, Mr. Malcolm Bruce, Mrs. Ray Michie, Mr. Richard Livsey, Mr. Matthew Taylor, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Charles Kennedy, Mr. Menzies

Hong Kong

Mr Francis Maude

Written Answers — November 16, 1989

The list for the current and three previous financial years is as follows:1986–87 Full Sponsorship Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Ex-Stockton, South) Mr. Jack Dormand (Ex-Easington) Mr. David Alton (Mossley

Abortion (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

Mr Arthur Houghton

Lords — December 14, 1989

and other gestational limits. Behind the 24 weeks, with exceptions, were 75 per cent. of the consultants. Only 3 per cent. were in favour of 18 weeks, which was the gestational limit included in the Alton

Results 91 to 95 of 95

Abortion (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

Ms Beatrice Seear

Lords — December 14, 1989

both the David Steel Bill and the determination expressed last year to defeat the Alton Bill, I must say that of course I do not like abortion any more than the noble Duke. Indeed, in a perfect world

Abortion (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

Mr Peter Rawlinson

Lords — December 14, 1989

they would say. However, I was flabbergasted to hear the noble Lord and those who support him complain about the rules of procedure relating to private Bills, when I think of what happened to the David Alton

Abortion (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

Lords — December 14, 1989

by Mr. David Alton. The climax was the release from the roof of the Albert Hall of 2·5 million tiny paper darts each represrenting a fetus aborted since the Abortion Act 1967. I gather that the present

Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill

Ms Maria Eagle

Commons — June 17, 1997

which the Government can and should tackle—the provision of adequate housing. First, I want to refer to three of my predecessors—Eddie Loyden, David Alton and Sir Malcolm Thornton. All have represented


Ms Rosalind Howells

Lords — July 9, 2001

the 1980s and, more recently, in Oldham, we have seen what happens when people, and especially younger people, feel that they have no stake in their society. I say that it is better not to exclude…


1983 Nationality Bill § Mr. Deputy SpeakerOrder. The Minister is not giving way; he has finished his speech. Mr. David Alton.

§ Mr. HowellOn a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is no truth in anything the Minister has said about that matter. Had he given way I should have put the record straight, as I did in the Press Gallery today. There is no truth in the suggestion——

§ Mr. Deputy SpeakerOrder. I call Mr. David Alton.

11.17 pm

§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)I listened with interest to what the Minister said. It takes us back to the debate on 5 March when we were considering these matters. I am sad that we do not have time to discuss the issues more fully. I suspect that part of the reason for the anger and frustration felt by the Opposition results from the fact that there is so little time left.

The Minister said this evening that the regulations would result in lower fees for the majority of people. I welcome that and believe that all hon. Members should welcome it. He also said that the regulations were a response to the Select Committee’s report. In fairness it has to be said that the Select Committee made a number of other points to which the Minister has not responded this evening.

One of the matters about which the Select Committee complained, and to which the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) referred, was that the accounting methods—creative accounting, some might call it—which talked about£6 million profit were at the heart of our discussions in the House in March and are at the core of what we are discussing this evening.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants contends that the profit was real and was not concealed because of bookkeeping. The council says that the Minister has failed to take account of a grossly inaccurate estimate of applications in 1982 and 1983, which was used to inflate the fees from April 1982. It also claims that a windfall profit of £3.8 million has been written off and that the Government have failed to provide accounts for 1982–83 and are therefore able to deny the existence of profit for that year. The council says that if the old or new accounting systems were applied to 1982–83 it would be seen that the nationality operation clearly made a profit. That point is worth making in view of what has been said this evening about profit and loss. It is a shame that citizenship should be seen in terms of a profit and loss account.

§ Ms. Clare ShortDoes the hon. Gentleman agree that the way in which the Minister talked about British citizenship, as though it was the same as renting a television set, belittles our country, our citizenship, the Government and everyone who seeks to apply for that citizenship?

§ Mr. AltonThe analogy with the television licence was one of the most unfortunate analogies that I have ever heard in the House. It was inappropriate to put citizenship into that context.

497 Citizenship is not a commodity like a special offer in a supermarket. It is not about discounts, driving a hard bargain or getting a good price. It should not be seen through the eyes of a profit and loss account. It devalues the currency of citizenship to link it in that unseemly way to television licences or to see it as part of a Klondike claim. However, that is what has happened since 1981, when 100,000 people have been scared into rushing into getting citizenship because they were frightened that if they did not apply they would lose all chance of being British citizens. Many people are worried that if they do not get their claim in before 1987 they will have no chance of getting citizenship. Many people genuinely cannot afford the chance to become British citizens.

§ Mr. JannerIs the hon. Gentleman aware that in the part of the city of Leicester that I represent many people cannot get citizenship now? They include Mr. Vasani, who is blind and unemployed, and Mr. Ruparelia, who has lost his job.[Interruption.] Much as Conservative Members may jeer at that, we are talking about human beings who are excluded from British nationality because of the refusal of Her Majesty’s Government to follow the unanimous report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

§ Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester. East)On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for me to present a list of my constituents in my part of Leicester——

§ Mr. Deputy SpeakerOrder. We have little time left. Such interventions prevent the debate from continuing.

§ Mr. AltonThe hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) made the valuable point that for many individuals it is difficult to become a British citizen. If people are unemployed or on social security, it is difficult to meet the fees, whether it is the original £70 or the present £55.

§ Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)Will the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that the Minister was being somewhat deceitful with the House when he referred to what had happened in the past without drawing our attention to the fact that in the past many individuals had no need to claim nationality? Children born in this country had the right to British citizenship. Many people felt secure about not needing to apply for registration, but under the present Government they have to do so.

§ Mr. AltonI refer the House to an example of a constituent of mine who has been in this country for more than 40 years. He came to fight for this country in the last war. He came from Jamaica; he is a black citizen. He now has to apply for citizenship. He feels demeaned by that process. He says that he cannot afford to pay the fee. His children are here, and he is a British citizen. It is worth bearing in mind that a comparison should be made——

§ Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to suggest that the Minister is being deceitful with the House, as the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) did?

§ Mr. Deputy SpeakerI did not hear that.

§ Sir John Biggs-DavisonIt was unparliamentary.

§ Mr. Deputy SpeakerIf any hon. Member was accusing the Minister of being deceitful with the House deliberately, that is not in order, but I did not hear it.


§ Sir John Biggs-DavisonBut that is what the hon. Lady said.

Hon. MembersWithdraw.

§ Mr. AltonIt was not I who said it.

§ Mr. Deputy SpeakerOrder. I did not hear it. If any hon. Member made such an accusation it should be withdrawn, but I did not hear it.

§ Mr. AltonIt would be difficult for the hon. Lady to intervene again in my speech to make a withdrawal, so I shall continue.

It is outrageous that this country should charge £55 as a fee, and although I am pleased that it has been reduced from £70, it will still be difficult for many people to pay it. I give the example of a single parent wishing to register himself or herself and the child. It will now cost £110 instead of £105. There is also the matter of non-returnable deposits. Every applicant will have to apply by sending in a £10 deposit. Many people who apply unsuccessfully will lose their £10. That will add to the profit of the Home Office. What has that to do with citizenship?

§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Home Office has rejected the reconuneridation of the Select Committee on Home Affairs that those on supplementary benefit and those on family income supplement should not have to pay any fee? That affects many of my constituents, and those of many other hon. Members, who want citizenship. Is it not a disgrace that the Home Office is discriminating against the poor?

§ Mr. AltonThat is the point that I have been making. I think that this speech will go down as having had a record number of interventions. I shall try to finish rapidly.

The fees that are charged in other countries are nothing like those charged here. In the United States, for instance, the fee is £22, in Canada it is £5, and in Australia it is nothing, and that is what it should be here. It should cost nothing for people to become British citizens.

No hon. Member could resent Zola Budd having obtained citizenship. I wish her well. However, I want the same right for my constituents and for those of every other hon. Member. Otherwise, the system of nationality application will be brought into disrepute. It is important that the Government make it clear that the rules that were applied in the Zola Budd case will apply in any other case.

It is also important, in view of the other issues that this raises about apartheid in South Africa, that the Government reiterate their commitment to the Gleneagles agreement and their condemnation of apartheid in South Africa and of those countries which discriminate against some sportsmen and sportswomen purely because of the colour of their skin.

§ Mr. CorbynIs it not disgraceful that the Minister should have spoken at great length about the Zola Budd case and apparently ignored the plight of many who are waiting nationality applications and, above all, failed to inform the House what discussions, negotiations and correspondence went on with the Daily Mail, its editor and the people in South Africa before Zola Budd arrived here, and to reveal the date on which her application was first received by his office and why it was processed so quickly? Should not this information now be made public?

§ Mr. AltonI agree with that. It is unfortunate that the Minister did not give way so that he could answer such 499 questions. I shall happily give way if the Minister wants to reply to the points made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn).

§ Mr. AltonI am afraid that I do not have time.

These nationality fees and regulations create great insecurity in the black community. If the Government and the Minister do not believe that they can give back to those who paid into the profit and loss account the £6 million which the Committee estimated was paid in nationality fees, perhaps they could return it in kind. It is time that the Government looked again at the way in which section 11 of the Local Government Act 1966 operates towards non-Commonwealth citizens, particularly the black citizens, in our inner city areas. If they did so, some of this money in the profit and loss account could be used to the advantage of immigrants—many of them fourth and fifth generation citizens.

§ Mr. HoyleDoes the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister should not have talked about the petty objection to Zola Budd coming here, when there have been objections from the Church of England, the Bishop of Leicester and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants—all people who understand? What they are demanding is equal treatment for other immigrants. We have not had that guarantee from the Minister.

§ Mr. AltonLike the British Nationality Act 1981, which in the view of the Church of England Synod offends all Christian ethics, these regulations are totally unacceptable not only to the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) but to myself, my hon. Friends and my colleagues in the SDP. For that reason, we shall vote against the Government.

11.29 pm

§ Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)We have been treated to the most disgraceful episodes on the Opposition side of the House, and a gross violation of the House——

§ It being half-past Eleven o’clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 4 (Statutory Instruments, &c. (Procedure)).

§ The House proceeded to a Division:

Archive – House of Commons Speeches 1979/80

HC Deb 13 November 1979 vol 973 cc1169-72 1169

§ 4.3 pm

§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to confer on tenants of privately owned property the opportunity to become owner occupiers of the property concerned, and to require owners of privately rented property to install inside sanitation whenever that property has a life-expectancy of five years or more. About 200 years ago Thomas Spence argued that the ultimate logic of the private possession of real property is that the landlord can oblige every living creature to remove off his property; so of consequence were all the landlords to be of one mind, all the rest of mankind might go to heaven if they would, for there would be no place for them here. Thomas Spence was arguing that the security that landlords have should be extended to all. Only ownership of property can be true security.

Today over 9 million British homes are private rented properties, 45 per cent. of the population are tenants, nearly 3 million properties are in the private sector and 13.9 per cent, of the population live as tenants in private property. Their rights have not greatly improved since the days of Thomas Spence. They do not have control over their own homes or immediate surroundings. Ultimately the landlord determines many matters affecting his tenant’s daily life.

The Bill seeks to give tenants the same rights that are to be conferred on council tenants by the Government later in the year. It amounts to discrimination, and it goes against every elementary principle of justice not to extend the same rights to the tenants of private landlords. Not to do so is to apply double standards.

If the Bill were enacted, landlords would receive the market value for the property, with such factors as the length of tenure and improvements and repairs undertaken by tenants being taken into account when fixing the price. A discount system similar to that being given to council tenants would also be available for private tenants wishing to become home owners.

The benefits for Britain in creating a great property owning democracy would be untold. Democracy’s weaknesses lie at its roots. Its failures may be found 1170 in different degrees of indifference, inactivity and unwillingness to accept responsibility. There is no better way of strengthening democracy than the creation of a nation in which each person has a stake in the community through the ownership of his own home. Equally there can be no surer way to undermine democracy than to confer that right on some tenants in the public sector but refuse to do so in the private sector. That is deliberately divisive.

Many private tenants have lived in their homes all their lives, as their parents did before them and their grandparents before them. However, they do not own one brick, although they have paid their rents religiously over three generations. The Bill will liberate many hundreds of thousands of tenants who want the opportunity to own their own homes without having to move to a different house in a different district. Where there is multi-occupation, the Bill will confirm a statutory right to establish co-operatives.

The Bill embraces different localities and different circumstances—for example, seaside landladies and resident owner-occupiers renting spare rooms. In those instances property will be excluded from the terms of the Bill. Local authorities will be empowered to determine the suitability of the Bill’s powers in the context of their local housing needs. Liberals are arguing that that should apply to the Government’s new housing Bill. In Liverpool, where 32 per cent, of all property is still privately rented, the Bill will create the right balance between rented and owner-occupier property.

The second major area covered by the Bill concerns the standard of property that remains in the private rented sector. There are still about 1½ million homes without inside toilets and bathrooms and a supply of running hot water. In the 1880s Octavia Hill, and other great reformers who were concerned to improve the housing of the working class, adopted as a standard the assumption that privies and a water tap could be shared by several households on the same landing. They considered it justifiable for a family with several children to live in one room.

We have moved on since the 1880s. A council tenant living in a brand new Parker Morris house has toilets upstairs and downstairs. The Bill will make it 1171 compulsory for landlords to provide at least one inside toilet. That will eliminate the appalling indignity that hundreds of thousands of elderly people will suffer this winter as they skate across ice in the middle of the night to find an outside loo. These are the children of the soldiers who were promised homes fit for heroes to live in. Some photographs that have been given to me by Shelter prove that there are people still living in squalid and totally unacceptable housing conditions.

The Bill will also make it compulsory for any landlord owning a property with more than a five-year life expectancy to provide inside sanitation. If he is not prepared to do so, it is my contention that he is not fit to be a private landlord. The Bill will create a right to have repairs carried out and for tenants to be able to undertake repairs and to charge landlords who have refused to do the work.

Such reforms and simplification of procedure have been promised for years and are long overdue. Reform was first mooted in June 1977 in the “Housing Policy: A Consultative Document”, Cmnd. 6851, which stated: Local authorities have powers to compel improvements and repair of unsatisfactory housing, but the procedures involved are complex and cumbersome. They will be examined with a view to making them simpler and more effective. In August 1978, the Department of the Environment consultation paper on home improvements and repairs stated: The proposal to examine existing procedures for compulsory improvement with a 1172 view to simplification was welcomed by all respondents, who criticised present procedures as laborious, cumbersome and complicated. In April 1979 the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, in a submission to a panel of Members of Parliament examining the new Conservative proposals, wrote: More immediate powers are required to integrate compulsory procedures with grant legislation. The best way of achieving this objective is to compel owners to provide basic amenities in the same way as they can at present order repairs to fit or unfit houses. The Bill meets those requirements. It will give tenants home rule and the chance to have ownership, a stake in their community and a genuine say in the running of their own homes. Nothing is more basic than that. It also aims to provide them with basic amenities which in this day and age should be theirs by right.

§ Question put and agreed to.

§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Alton.


Speech:  November 25th 1980 on Housing:  Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)It was interesting to listen to the recollections of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain). He made an interesting observation about homes for heroes. That was one of the promises made after the First World 367 War. One of my constituents put it very well to me recently. She lives in a home without an inside toilet or bathroom, and she said “In these days you have to be a hero to live in these conditions.” There are over 1 million people in Britain who are still living in homes without inside sanitation and for them the set-piece battles that take place so regularly when policies are swung drunkenly to and forth have no real value.

In a perceptive speech, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) talked of the dangers as our housing funds are slashed. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major). I entirely agree. We have now passed the first piece of major housing legislation. It is disappointing that the Queen’s Speech makes no mention of future housing legislation. The old battle cries are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the problems. The housing authorities of the future will have a complex mixture of roles, for which the old slogans will be a poor guide. The steam has gone out of the housing argument. The biggest slum clearance programme anywhere in the world, having been completed, and the biggest housing improvement programme of any country in Europe having been mounted, a variety of unorganised and less popular minorities are now left in housing need. Their requirements are often forgotten.

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) mentioned the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) sponsored that Bill. It was not promoted primarily by the Labour Party, as the hon. Member suggested. He said that he hoped that the Act would be repealed. That would be appalling and would cause immense problems for the homeless. However, we all know that there are no votes in homelessness.

§ Mr. HeddleI said that I looked forward not to the legislation being repealed but to my right hon. Friend’s review of the Act. Since its enactment in 1977, it seems not to have done that which it set out to do. It has increased the incidence of homelessness from 36,000 to 56,000 families.

§ Mr. AltonThat remark shows the naivete of the hon. Gentleman. The Act has not increased homelessness. The policies of this Government, and those of the previous one, have increased the number who have become homeless and need to be helped by local authorities, upon which a statutory requirement is laid under the Act. That is why the Act is so important. Those people were not previously a figment of the imagination. The hon. Gentleman, by his remarks, has turned homeless people into scapegoats, which is most unfortunate.

§ Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)I might be able to assist the hon. Gentleman. Is he aware that in 1978–79 about 40,000 lettings were made to homeless people, which was only 13 per cent. of the total number of lettings? Sometimes, the furore over the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act is unjustified.

§ Mr. AltonThe point that I am making is that to talk about repealing part of the Act or to try to diminish the need for that legislation does the homeless no service. The recommendations of CHAR and the comments of the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) on the way in which 368 we deal with homelessness prove that we need additional legislation. We should not try to diminish the provisions of the existing Act

§ Mr. Allan RobertsThe hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) is not the only hon. Member who represents Liverpool, as the two previous interventions appear to suggest. Many of us represent Liverpool constituencies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act should be extended to cover single people? Does he agree also that the intentional homeless clause should be looked at, because it is being used by reactionary councils to get round their responsibilities?

§ Mr. AltonI agree with the hon. Member—whose constituency falls outside the boundaries of Liverpool—that the intentionally homeless clause. is being used wrongly by some local authorities. Again, there are no votes in the single homeless. It is not a popular issue in the electoral battleground. We seem to spend too much time on the old arguments about whether houses should be sold and not enough time dealing with fundamental issues.

Since the Secretary of State took office, rents have gone up by 23 to 28 per cent. His announcement today means that they will have gone up 50 per cent. in two years. However, practical measures can be taken to reduce local authority rents. It is a problem that all local authorities, the Government and the Opposition have to face. There would have been some increase whichever party was in power. The Opposition’s objection is to the way in which the Secretary of State made his announcement, in a written reply, at the eleventh hour and tried almost by subterfuge to prevent hon. Members from knowing about the increase and taking action. He could not be challenged during the several days of recess before the new Session began.

The scale of the rent increase perturbs us all.

§ Mr. KaufmanIs there not a further point? This is not a rent increase that is being decided by local authorities to deal with the needs of their housing revenue accounts but one that is being imposed by the Government by the use of a section in an Act which, when the Bill was being discussed in Committee, the Government denied was designed for that purpose.

§ Mr. AltonThat adds to the subterfuge. It is a further erosion of the right of local authorities. They should determine the levels of rents and rates. The erosion of local authority power is evidenced not only in the Housing Act but in local government and planning legislation. Local councillors are elected on mandates to deal with rents and rates. Their rights to take such decisions are being eroded.

One of the most perturbing aspects about the state of housing revenue accounts is the high levels of rent arrears. Between 1978 and 1979, rent arrears were £61 million. We should tackle that problem. Many council tenants pay their rent regularly and, whatever the increases, will continue to do so. I feel that it is unsatisfactory that they should subsidise those who cannot be bothered to pay their rents. I am not talking about those who cannot afford to pay. There are rebates and allowances to help such people, and it is also possible to have rent paid direct.

But there is insufficient co-operation between the Department of Health and Social Security and local authority housing departments. Perhaps the Minister could try to bring them together. Often one of the biggest debtors 369 to a local authority is the DHSS, which does not always pay the backlog of arrears. We should try to reduce the high level of arrears for local authorities.

We should also try to reduce the large number of empty properties owned by local authorities. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe and others referred to the private sector, but properties are empty in the public sector and are bringing in no revenue. We must try to increase the speed of lettings and ensure that vandalism does not occur between lettings. That would be a more constructive approach in getting value for money than arbitrarily putting up rents by extortionate amounts.

It is also a more constructive approach than suddenly imposing a moratorium, again before Parliament reassembles. No one can convince me that the Government could not have waited five or six days so that the announcement could be made in the Chamber. It was most unfortunate that the Secretary of State made the decision before Parliament reconvened. We have heard nothing about when the decision will be rescinded or the moratorium lifted. It has halted house improvement programmes and stopped the construction of new homes. More construction workers will be on the dole as a result. It makes no economic or social sense to pay £6 billion or £7 billion a year to keep construction workers and other unemployed people on the dole when there is work to be done and their talents and skills could be used.

I come now to the improvements programme. Some years ago, the bulldozers were pensioned off and it was decided to renovate and modernise homes. Millions of pounds have been invested in housing action and general improvement areas. But, as a result of the moratorium, there will probably be a patchwork quilt of decay and renovation in our inner-city areas. It will mean that many homes will not now be improved. It will also mean that those that have been improved will linger and languish alongside houses that are derelict, ugly horrible eyesores, a breeding-ground for vermin and totally unfit for people to live in. That is why the moratorium was unwise. I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of when it will be lifted.

There is also the question of the right to buy—an idea that was much vaunted during the first 12 months of the Government’s period of office. We were given no indication today by the Secretary of State of what level of sales had been achieved. I am sure that those figures will be interesting when they are brought to the House in the near future. From my experience in my own constituency, where more than 30 per cent. of the people are out of work—many of them council tenants—I know that the sad truth is that they simply cannot afford to buy their own homes. Many of them will not be able to take up the opportunities afforded to them by the legislation that the House has enacted. Rather than bandy slogans about the right to buy, it would be more realistic and helpful if the Government would let us know how this scheme is working. If they did so, the House could perhaps reconsider its attitude.

I turn now to shorthold. I am not against the idea of empty properties in the private sector being used for a short period by people in housing need—far from it. It is a good idea and it is one that I supported when it was recommended by Conservative Members in a Private Member’s Bill. However, the provisions that the Government brought forward were very different from the provisions in that original Private Member’s Bill. Many 370 Opposition Members felt that they could not support the shorthold arrangements because many of the safeguards were removed and it could become a charter for Rachmanism. Many of us would like to see the introduction of shorthold experimental areas on a limited basis, to see how the proposal works. If we were convinced that it could go ahead without causing all the problems about which we have fears, I am sure that the Government would receive support from Opposition Members.

I turn to the mortgage rate. It is ironic that before the 1974 general election it was the Prime Minister herself who talked about fixing the mortgage rate at 10 per cent. She said that it would not go higher than 10 per cent. if a Conservative Government were elected.

§ Mr. KaufmanThe right hon. Lady actually promised 9½ per cent. by Christmas.

§ Mr. AltonPerhaps an allowance for ½ per cent. can be made, but the present mortgage rate is 15 per cent. That is why many people cannot afford to buy their own homes. It is a reason why many people have been forced to sell and have become a burden on the local authorities. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why the number of homeless people is increasing. People are being forced to give up their owner-occupied property. I have met such people at my housing advice surgeries, and I can supply factual evidence of that.

§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Liverpool, Wavertree)Is the hon. Gentleman aware that more than 4,000 houses and flats in the ownership of Liverpool city council are at present unoccupied? Does he consider that they should be occupied first?

§ Mr. AltonHad the hon. Gentleman bothered to be present for the earlier part of the debate, and had he been here at the beginning of my speech, he would have heard me refer to the scandal of empty properties in the public sector. I agree that something should be done about that problem. Indeed, the number of empty properties in Liverpool has doubled since I was chairman of the housing committee. I do not think that that is the fault of the local authority, be it Labour or Liberal-controlled—it has rotated between the two for the last 10 years. It has far more to do with the reduction in funds that are made available to the local authority. As a result of the Government’s policies, Liverpool is at present overspent by £2.5 million due to the reduction in funds to the housing investment programme. The number of vacant dwellings are increasing at the rate of 30 a month. Rents are to go up by £2.85 this year, plus the increase that will have to be added as a result of the Secretary of State’s announcement.

The how Gentleman’s party has nothing to write home about. He would do far better to question his own Ministers about the reduction in funds which enable local authorities to turn over vacant properties at a faster rate. One must also accept that the community itself should do more to try to detect those who are committing crimes of vandalism, and it should ensure that the police are made aware of who are the culprits.

I want to refer to the question of housing co-operatives. The hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) referred to the lack of help that housing co-operatives receive. II is a great shame that there are no 371 recommendations in the Gracious Speech to enable tenants on council estates to take over the management and control of their properties. If such management co-operatives did exist, I am sure that many of the problems referred to by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen) would be removed, because tenants would have a greater responsibility and involvement in the running of their own affairs. That will not be achieved by the sale of a house here or there. We must go far deeper into the problem, and that means initially the establishment of management cooperatives.

I turn next to the question of sheltered accommodation. In Liverpool at present, one-third of the people are over the retirement age. There is a massive shortage of sheltered accommodation. That inevitably means that many houses are under-occupied—houses that could be used for people and families in need who are now on the waiting list. While there is a shortage of sheltered accommodation, it is impossible to rehouse those elderly people. It means that people are remaining in under-occupied property, and that is something to which the Government should turn their attention.

Then there are the problems of the North-West in general. The cuts in housing association budgets will exaggerate the region’s growing housing crisis. Local authority building has been cut back to the core. Private building for sale and rent is in serious decline. The Select Committee on the Environment has looked at the output from the private housing sector over the next few years and has concluded that The private housing sector will at most make only a small contribution to offset the reduction in public sector investment. Furthermore, in 1979 more than 25 per cent.—600,000 out of 2.4 million, the highest proportion of any English region—of all the homes in the North-West were unfit for human habitation, lacked basic amenities or needed major renovation. A total of one-third of the region’s housing stock was built before 1914. The Department of the Environment’s quality of life indicators show that the North-West is below the national average in respect of 21 out of the 26 factors selected. Unlike some parts of the country, there is an absolute shortage of homes in the North-West.

Local authorities have estimated that there is a need for 223,000 additional dwellings by 1984. Homelessness is on the increase. Waiting lists are swelling. More than 150,000 families are on local authority waiting lists in the North-West alone, and more than 400 families are in bedand-breakfast or hostel accommodation. The elderly, single parents, those who are already in substandard housing and the poorest in our community will be the hardest hit as a result of these housing cuts.

One of the groups that has done most to try to tackle the problems of bad housing is the voluntary housing movement—the housing associations. Housing associations have produced 235,000 homes through new building and property rehabilitation. In the 10 years 1970 to 1979, 135,675 new homes were created as a result of new building and 99,857 as a result of property rehabilitation. In the last four years of that period, completions averaged 36,000 each year, including an average of just over 1,000 in Wales. This year, however, North-West approvals are down from 8,429 to 3,450, and the total stock of the voluntary housing movement was approximately 410,000 372 homes at the beginning of 1980. It will be interesting to see what the effects of the cuts will be on the voluntary housing movement.

In the years 1977–78, 1978–79 and 1979–80, loan approvals to housing associations in England through the Housing Corporation provided for an average of about 33,500 homes each year. There were 34,579, 32,455 and 34,494 in those three years successively. About half were in schemes of new build and half in schemes of rehabilitation. In 1980–81 the housing association movement had to shoulder a heavy share of the public spending cuts. The level of Housing Corporation loan approvals for the year was cut by 35 per cent. this year, to 21,700 homes in England. However, because it became clear that the cost of the new programme, when added to the cost of schemes coming through the pipeline, would exceed the cash targets set by the Government, the moratorium announced by the Minister on 12 September was suddenly called. For a month no schemes proceeded. Now, a much-reduced programme has been resumed, with loan approvals down to 14,900, and building work on a large number of sites and properties has been postponed until next year or, in some cases, indefinitely.

That is not the whole story, because housing associations have also borrowed money for their work from local authorities. Loan approvals for about 8,000 homes were given by local authorities to housing associations in 1979–80. Because of the need to cut their spending, many local authorities have stopped lending for further schemes and are cutting money for schemes already approved. The effect of that loan approval in 1980–81 will probably come down below 3,500 homes for the year. The picture for 1980–81 is of a probable level of loan approvals for about 18,000 homes, compared with 42,500 last year. That represents a cut in the programme of nearly 60 per cent.

§ Mr. StanleyWill the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the figures that he has given for loan approvals are highly misleading and in no way represent the level of activities of housing associations? As I am sure he knows, there is a substantial pipeline of housing association activity, and the Department estimates that at the beginning of this financial year about £700 million of housing association activity was in the pipeline. That represents about 50,000 units of accommodation.

§ Mr. AltonThe figures that I have given were provided for me by the National Federation of Housing Associations. Frankly, I believe its figures. After all, its members are people working at the coalface. They are having to administer the Government’s policies and shoulder the burden of the cuts. The difference between funding in 1981–82 at £420 million and, say, £400 million makes a huge difference to the work of associations. Falling below 20,000 homes because of corporation funding means depriving people in extremely harsh circumstances of a decent home. It also reduces the level of activity of the movement at large to a point from which it may prove impossible to recover in the years ahead.

I wish to relate that to the cuts that have been made in the public sector. The Government’s White Paper on public expenditure set out proposals for cutting public expenditure. The aim is to reduce it from £69,500 million in 1980–81 to £60,100 million in 1983–84. That is at constant 1979 prices. In reality, it will actually be an 373 overall cut of £2,400 million. The cuts in public sector housing over those three years amount to £1,910 million, and 80 per cent. of the cuts come from the housing section of Britain’s economy. The cash to housing has been cut by 40 per cent.

The Secretary of State has not made clear how the global figure will be achieved by local government or how it will affect different sorts of housing activity. That is part of the new freedom that he gave to local authorities—the freedom to determine how to make their cuts. Local authorities are having to face cuts, Housing Corporation Loans to associations are being reduced and local authority loans to associations, expenditure on council housing, home loans, improvement grants and so on are all being cut. In overall terms, housing is taking the brunt of public expenditure cuts, which means that local authority and housing association activities are being reduced in real terms and placed in competition with each other in achieving cuts.

The Secretary of State suggested that a substitute for the funds could be found in three separate areas, all of which will badly hit housing associations. First, he suggested that more money could be found by raising rents. If rents are raised at a higher rate than costs increase, the net gain can make a significant difference to the housing revenue accounts of local authorities. However, the housing association rents are currently 30 per cent. higher than those for comparable council houses. In any case, they are set by rent officers and are not under the control of the housing associations. Raising the rents is no use to them. It does not compensate for the funds that they will lose.

Secondly, the housing associations have been told that they can find more funds by selling properties to existing tenants. Although there may be opportunities for local authorities to do so, few housing association tenants have the statutory right to buy or the associated favourable mortgage and other arrangements. Most association homes are owned by charities and meet specialist needs where sales would not be appropriate. Because half of the stocks of the voluntary movement have been completed in the past eight years, there are few surpluses, after deducting discounts, from any property.

Thirdly, the Secretary of State suggested that the loss of funds could be compensated by reducing the number of employees and by ensuring wage restraint. Again, that has a minimal effect on the financial problems of housing associations. Only just over 1 per cent. of the total expenditure of the voluntary housing movement’s programme goes in salaries to association staff, because it does not have direct labour departments. Only in a minority of cases does it employ in-house professionals. Where it has its own architects or surveyors, it normally contributes a surplus that offsets other costs.

It is important to remember that local authorities are passing on much of the burden of public expenditure cuts direct to the housing associations and the voluntary housing movements. They are in an extremely exposed position, and a threat to their very existence hangs over their work. Even though it may be fully acknowledged that they are doing an important job, without public funds they will wind down, to the detriment of those who desperately need their help. That is why I said to the Secretary of State during one Question Time that by his policies he is turning what was known as the third arm of housing into the dead arm of housing.

374 I recall the words of the Secretary of State when he spoke to the CBI a couple of weeks ago. He said that sacrifice “was not an option” and that “someone would have to make sacrifices”. He then compared himself with Wellington before the Battle of Waterloo. It is precisely that sort of pretentious nonsense that is at the core of our problems. While he is fighting imaginary battles, people are living in homes that are turning into rotting slums. They are living in conditions that defy description. Local authorities and housing associations are grinding to a halt because of the Government’s policies. Instead of fighting imaginary battles, the Secretary of State should come and see the real battles that are being fought, not only in our inner city communities but in our rural areas, where there is rural deprivation and when houses there are also in a great state of decline. To ignore those problems is to fly in the face of disaster.

The Biased Broadcasting Corporation, Martin Green, and Euthanasia


In their television coverage of the euthanasia debate, the BBC  are being derided as the Biased Broadcasting Corporation –  reduced to mere cheerleaders for a change in the law, producing five programmes in the past three years in favour of a change, while signally failing to present the other side of the argument. But this isn’t just about bias.

The BBC’s recent programmes celebrating assisted suicide not only break their own Code about providing balance when discussing ethical issues but, even more seriously, they also  breach the World Health Organisation’s (WHO)  guidelines, published in 2000.

The WHO clearly set out the responsibilities and duties of the media. Consider some of these strictures in the context of the recent programme featuring Terry Pratchett and the euthanasia centre in Switzerland.

The WHO begin by reminding the media of the incredible impact which it can have in informing attitudes and behaviour:

“Media play a significant role in today’s society by providing a very wide range of information in a variety of ways. They strongly influence community attitudes, beliefs and behaviour, and play a vital role in politics, economics and social practice. Because of that influence media can also play an active role in the prevention of suicide.”

Then they remind the media that people who may be disturbed, depressed or vulnerable can be influenced into taking their lives by the way in which suicide is portrayed in the media:

“Suicide is perhaps the most tragic way of ending one’s life. The majority of people who consider suicide are ambivalent. They are not sure that they want to die. One of the many factors that may lead a vulnerable individual to suicide could be publicity about suicides in the media. How the media report on suicide cases can influence other suicides.”

The WHO points to the way in which television can influence suicidal behaviour.  One study showed an increase in the number of suicides for up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide.

They also warn against publicising suicide stories where celebrities are involved and warn against sensational coverage – which they argue should be assiduously avoided. The coverage should be minimized to the greatest possible extent possible.

They say that photographs of the deceased, of the method used, and of the scene of the suicide are to be avoided. Front page headlines, they insist, are never the ideal location for suicide reports.

They warn against the danger of reporting suicide as inexplicable or in a simplistic way; that it is usually caused by a complex interaction of myriad factors such as mental and physical illness, substance abuse, family disturbances, interpersonal conflicts and life’s stresses. And they tell the media not to depict suicide as a method of coping with personal problems such as bankruptcy, failure to pass an examination, or sexual abuse.

Reports should take account of the impact of suicide on families and other survivors in terms of both stigma and psychological suffering; and that nothing should be done which appears to honour suicidal behaviour.  Instead, they say, the emphasis should be on mourning the person’s death.

In line with these WHO guidelines I would expect to see is a sober and balanced assessment of the issues, not cheap voyeuristic programmes which could easily form part of the genre known as “snuff” movies. A person’s death should not be a form of prime time entertainment, part of the battle for programme ratings – dressed up in the name of a hollow compassion.

The BBC’s coverage of this issue has rarely mentioned the opposition of the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges, the hospices and Disability Rights Organisations, or the care and attention which has been given to this issue in Parliament – and which, on three occasions (twice in the Lords, once in the Commons) has led to the rejection of proposals to change the law, on grounds of public safety and ethics.

The House of Lords has had two full Select Committee enquiries to examine the current law. On the last occasion, the enquiry covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively, 15 oral sessions, 48 groups or individuals giving evidence, with 88 witnesses giving written evidence, 2,460 questions asked and the committee receiving 14,000 letters. After consideration of all the issues raised, as on the previous occasion, proposals to change the law were rejected by a wide margin. When the last vote took place in the House of Commons the proposal was defeated by 91 votes to 236. The Scottish Parliament recently reached the same conclusion.

And in failing to report any of this where was any examination of the motives and practices of those who run euthanasia centres like Dignitas?

Where, in their coverage, has been any analysis of the economic arguments that are now driving this debate, characterised by Lady Warnock’s remark that: “If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service.”

A recent edition of  the BBC’s Radio Times claims that watching a man die in Switzerland is “5 minutes of television that will change our lives”.

The sub editor who chose that caption perhaps failed to appreciate its irony: that the 5 minutes it took to change our lives, irredeemably ended another’s life.

In this country 550,000 people die each year. Very rarely do any make the newspapers or the media. Why does one lethal cocktail – but not 549,999 deaths – warrant wall to wall campaigning coverage?

Macmillan nurses, hospices and palliative care give the overwhelming majority in Britain a dignified death which does not involve commissioning doctors and nurses as patient killers. By all means agitate for improvement where the provision or practice isn’t good enough but let the BBC end this one sided and relentless campaign. We’re all in favour of dignity in dying – but we don’t need a doctor to kill us to achieve a good death and we don’t need our minds to be made up by programme makers at the BBC.



But it isn’t only the BBC who are promoting euthanasia and assisted dying. On August 28th Martin Green, a dementia expert for the Department of Health, said patients who were too frail to take their own lives were being denied “choice” and “autonomy” because assisted suicide is illegal in the UK.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he urged ministers to review the law and suggested that a referendum or a free vote in Parliament should be called to settle policy on the issue. In a letter to Health Minister, Earl Howe, I have challenged the idea that there has been no “settlement of this issue” and that there haven’t already been free votes in both Houses….


Dear Freddie,


The newspaper statement  by your Department’s advisor, Martin Green,  on issues affecting the elderly ignores two House of Lords Select Committee Inquiries into assisted dying, along with two free votes: presumably because they reached a conclusion with which he disagrees.


On the last occasion, the inquiry covered some 246 Hansard columns and two volumes of 744 pages and 116 pages respectively, 15 oral sessions, 48 groups or individuals giving evidence, with 88 witnesses giving written evidence, 2,460 questions asked and the committee receiving 14,000 letters. After consideration of all the issues raised, as on the previous occasion, proposals to change the law were rejected by a wide margin. When the last vote took place in the House of Commons on a free vote the proposal was defeated by 91 votes to 236. The Scottish Parliament recently reached the same conclusion.


Would you please let me know whether Mr.Green’s view represents the Government’s position and whether there are any Departmental advisors who reflect Parliament’s view – one which is shared by the BMA, the hospice movement, disability rights groups and most of the Royal Colleges. Perhaps you would be good enough to let me know who they are and whether they will also be issuing statements to the media.


Yours sincerely,



The Great Partnership, God, Science and The Search For Meaning by Jonathan Sacks

When Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, made his Maiden Speech in the House of Lords he recounted that at the burning bush an overwhelmed Moses told God he could not speak because he was “not a man of words”.

“Mind you”, continued Lord Sacks, “that did not stop him speaking a great deal thereafter. In fact, on one occasion, when pleading with God to forgive the people for making the golden calf, he spoke for 40 days and 40 nights.”

Although it doesn’t require 40 days to read his new book, “The Great Partnership, God, Science and the Search for Meaning” (Hodder and Stoughton), once again establishes Jonathan Sacks’ reputation as a formidable apologist and wordsmith.

With admirable precision and clarity, whether it is in his public utterances, his broadcasts, his contributions to the Credo column of The Times, or through his impressive publishing output, recorded now in eighteen books, he is widely regarded as the authentic voice of faith and reason.

The Great Partnership” intelligently builds upon his previous exegesis.

Here he counters what he calls “the unusually aggressive assault on religion” by “the new atheists”, sharing with Albert Einstein the belief that “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”  At all costs we must avoid a clash of fundamentalisms – what Matthew Arnold, in “Dover Beach” described as a place “where ignorant armies clash by night”

Nothing in science – whether it be cosmology, evolutionary biology or neuroscience – can lead to the conclusion that the universe is bereft of meaning or without the hand of an intelligent designer.

This is a formidable broadside against the vitriol of Richard Dawkins who argues that religious faith is “comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”   It also eschews what Chesterton called the “survival of the fiercest”, the Darwinism which has led to the infamy of eugenics.

Einstein asserted that such misuse of science could only be countered “by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion…I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith.”

Science operating in an ethical void carries huge risks for any society.

Who better to poignantly remind us than the country’s leading Jewish figure that more than half of the participants at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, which planned “the final solution to the Jewish question” – the murder of Europe’s Jews – were either medical practitioners or in receipt of other academic doctorates.  Nazi collaborators included a cast of scientists, doctors, judges, lawyers, philosophers and academics.

Tackling head on the argument that it is impossible to believe in a God who permitted the concentration camps, Sacks says: “I have known people who lost their faith in God during the Holocaust, and others who kept it. But that anyone can have faith in humanity after Auschwitz to me defies belief.”

We don’t need leg irons but we do need constraints; scientific exploration must guard against intellectual conceit.

For Sacks, science cannot be depended upon to safeguard human dignity.  Why? Because human dignity is based on human freedom.  Free will is a concept which lies outside the scope of science but rooted in the Abrahamic faiths. The blame game – of blaming others for our misfortunes – began in the Garden of Eden, with Adam blaming Eve, and Eve blaming the serpent. They failed to take the right decision because they failed to remember the principles on which their idyll had been created. Each was responsible for their own actions, their own choices, and for the consequences. The Garden’s lesson is that in discarding virtue we destroy a society from within.

Unlike the planets which have no freedom in their movements we are not constrained in our orbits: “chemical elements do not choose which way to combine, genes do not make decisions.”  We are free agents – which is why science needs the scaffold of religious ethics on which to build its discoveries.

In our own times Sacks warns that the dangers which flow from “the scientisation of the human person have not disappeared.” He says that “life becomes disposable, in the form of abortion and euthanasia. That is often the first warning signal”. He points to the dangers of human cloning, the use of psychotropic drugs and the medicalisation of human behaviour.

Jonathan Sacks tells us that “science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

He introduces a fascinating insight into science as an activity of the left hemisphere of the brain; religion as an activity of the right; contrasting Greek and Hebrew belief and culture – one concrete, the other abstract; Aristotle versus Abraham; tragedy versus hope. There are also beautifully crafted insights into the great stories and figures of the Hebrew Bible – especially the portrait of Abraham; the lessons of the Fall; the murder of Abel; the struggles of Job

When religious faith disappears five things happen: a loss of human dignity and the sanctity of human life; the loss of the politics of covenant and the common good; the loss of half remembered concepts such as duty, honour integrity, loyalty and trust; the deconsecrating of relationships; and the loss of a vocational life of “being called.”    

Sacks commends Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal work, After Virtue (1981), and  the work of two other Catholic philosophers, Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe, who build on Tolstoy’s contention that when Christian faith is lost Christian ethics are not far behind.

MacIntyre insists that the Enlightenment’s belief in rationality – devoid of religion and stripped of tradition – simply failed. It failed because of the cacophony of competing voices offering different takes on philosophy, economics, and the structure of society.   Politics becomes our church and we become our own gods.

It is not that there aren’t exemplary atheists; manifestly there are; and manifestly some horrendous things have been done by religious people. Pascal astutely observed that “Men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”.  But, that isn’t the point.

In a world where charlatans strip away a nation’s assets or looters pillage a high street’s shops, we have had a glimpse of the practical consequences of a society robbed of virtue and values.   George Washington presciently observed that “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Sacks concludes that “God and good are connected after all.” 

All of this points to the Abrahamic vision – where the monotheistic religions meet God; where we encounter the men and women made in God’s image; where we meet those we love;  where we strive for the common good.  The truly great partnership is when God and man meet and embrace.