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London Ambulance Service

3.31 pm

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Health if she will make a statement on the breakdown of the recently introduced control procedures of the London ambulance service.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley) : I am very concerned about recent reports relating to failures in the London ambulance service. These were caused by exceptional circumstances which led to a breakdown in the computer-aided dispatch system earlier this week. I have had urgent talks with the London ambulance service, and with the South West Thames regional health authority, which is responsible for overseeing the LAS. They have assured me that firm action has been taken to tackle these difficulties and make sure they do not happen again.

The computer-aided despatch system, which cost £1.5 million to install, has the potential greatly to improve the service to patients. Ambulances can be despatched in seconds rather than minutes. However, it is obvious that there are initial technical problems. The LAS will therefore establish, from 11 pm tonight, a support system, involving, where necessary, direct voice contact between the control centre and ambulances. This will build in an extra safeguard to ensure that ambulances are on their way. This system will remain in place until we are satisfied that the problems with the CAD system have been remedied.

The LAS has also decided to conduct an external inquiry into the operation of the CAD system and the circumstances surrounding its failure on Monday and Tuesday of this week. Full details of this inquiry will be announced as soon as possible, but it is envisaged that it will be headed by a chief ambulance officer from another metropolitan region. The inquiry will identify lessons to be learnt for the operation and management of the service.

The House will want to know that, as a result of recent difficulties, staff levels in the LAS control room have been increased-- [Interruption.] The House will also want to know that earlier this afternoon the South West Thames regional health authority accepted the resignation of John Wilby as chief executive of the London ambulance service. Martin Gorham, deputy chief executive of the regional health authority, will take over as acting chief executive of the LAS immediately until a permanent replacement can be recruited.

My overriding concern is to ensure that proper management is in place in the LAS so that the problems which exist can be dealt with speedily and effectively. In particular, I am concerned that the problems with the computer-aided despatch system are solved and that, in the meantime, the support system that I have already described is functioning properly. Mr. Gorham will be reporting regularly, on behalf of the board of the LAS, to Chris Spry, the chief executive of South West Thames RHA. In turn, he will be reporting to Duncan Nichol, chief executive of the NHS.-- [Interruption.] This reporting system will ensure that Ministers are kept in proper and regular touch with progress.

The problems in the London ambulance service do not result from a lack of resources.-- [Interruption.]

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Madam Speaker : Order. Members below the Gangway must come to order while the Secretary of State is making this very important announcement-- and that includes Members on both sides of the House.

Mrs. Bottomley : I well understand that London Members are concerned about these matters, but I find it difficult to understand why they should seek to interrupt throughout my statement. I appreciate that many London Members, rightly, want to be sure that their constituents will have the benefit of a good ambulance service.

The problems in the London ambulance service do not result from a lack of resources. Funding this year is up 9 per cent. over last to nearly £70 million. In 1991-92, Government investment enabled the purchase of 130 new vehicles. There will be another 80 this year. The number of fully trained paramedics has risen in the past two years from three to 326.

The Government have invested substantially in the London ambulance service. The capital needs and deserves a better return on this investment from the service than it is currently receiving. It is a job for management and the work force to see that this is achieved. A better ambulance service for London is our top priority. The action that I have described today will help to bring this about.

Mr. Spearing : Does the Secretary of State agree that, over the past few months, she has had representations from London Members on both sides of the House, from the Back Benches and the Front Benches, about the progressive deterioration in the London ambulance service? Is she aware that, in June 1991, her predecessor refused to see a deputation of London Labour Members about the shortcomings of the ambulance service in general, and in particular the failure of the £3 million first computer despatch system? Does she recall that, on 3 June, 17 July and 14 September of this year, I wrote to her warning of the impending crisis in the LAS? On 28 September, a junior Minister replied, blaming ambulance personnel for some of the problems and stating that the computer system was functioning correctly.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, on 14 September, I spent over an hour with the chairman of the London ambulance board, telling him that, if in October he introduced new rosters, as was his intention, together with activation of the computer-aided despatch system, he would be gambling with the lives of Londoners?

Do not all these matters show that a terrible disaster was wholly preventable and that the Secretary of State's action in bringing into the picture members or officers of the South West Thames regional health authority was entirely inappropriate as they are responsible for the appointment of the London ambulance board, which is responsible for this mess? Will the right hon. Lady appoint a well experienced and well regarded ambulance officer from outside London to take over the direction of a vital service to Londoners, being accountable directly to her and through her to the House and to the people of London?

Mrs. Bottomley : I think that I have made it clear that I well understand the concerns of London Members generally and those of the hon. Gentleman in particular. There has been a substantial investment in the London ambulance service. Many Members who have ambulance services operating in their constituencies that are not within the London service would envy the investment in

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terms of computer equipment and vehicles that has taken place in London. About one third of the fleet will be replaced by 1993. The fact is that the service, especially the new computer system, has suffered from considerable teething difficulties. That is why I have made my announcement this afternoon.

As for the hon. Gentleman's point about the skills of a chief ambulance officer benefiting London, that is why I have announced that there will be an external inquiry into the operation of the system, the circumstances surrounding its failure this week, and any lessons that can be learnt from the operation and management of the service. I shall announce in the near future who that officer is.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : There is undoubtedly a long catalogue of complaints from London Members of Parliament on both sides of the House about the London ambulance service. Is it not time that my right hon. Friend announced a completely independent and deep-seated inquiry into the working of the ambulance service in London? We understand that there are far more calls for ambulances in London than anywhere else in the country. Far more people leap for a telephone to call an ambulance in London than elsewhere. Will the inquiry look into the working relationship between the officers and the union in the London ambulance service?

Mrs. Bottomley : My hon. Friend identifies what has been a particularly difficult area for the London ambulance service--some of the management issues and the relationship with those providing the service. I hope that effective management, good communications and an understanding of the new system will lead to full co-operation and an improved service. The vast majority of those working in the ambulance service want to give the standard of service that is routinely available in other parts of the country, often with fewer resources than are available in London. I am confident that the arrangements that I have announced will result in clear improvements. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville), who has responsibility for the London ambulance service, will be more than happy to speak to any hon. Member about particular constituency problems.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that the new management of the London ambulance service will listen seriously to those who have given a lifetime of work to the service, instead of condemning them and attempting to break up the union organisation, as the unlamented Mr. Wilby was trying to do? Will she also assure the House that she will no longer even countenance any proposal to create an NHS trust out of the London ambulance service but instead will give Londoners an efficient, safe and accountable ambulance service, which is so desperately needed and which so obviously has not been provided for the past few years?

Mrs. Bottomley : The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is yes, good communication is essential to good management. The answer to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is no. Many hon. Members' constituencies benefit from an ambulance trust, providing a first-rate service. I advise the hon. Gentleman

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to visit Essex, Northumbria and many other areas to see what can be achieved when an ambulance service becomes an NHS trust.

Mr. John Gort (Hendon, North) : Will my right hon. Friend, who knows that I have put several cases to her recently, bear in mind that her explanation does not adequately explain why a 92-year-old lady should have to wait seven hours for an ambulance despite the fact that crews were available throughout the day only a few miles away? What is the minimum time that people can now expect to wait for an ambulance in the light of the new arrangements that my right hon. Friend has just announced?

Mrs. Bottomley : I agree with my hon. Friend's comments about the inadequate service that was available, but some of the stories that have been alleged about that day have not been borne out by the facts. However, I accept that, as things are, the service is not delivering good enough results. My hon. Friend will know that we expect 95 per cent. of calls to receive a response within 14 minutes. There are also standards to be met regarding the time that it takes to activate an ambulance once a call has been received. That is why it is so important that we have the 16 extra call takers at the headquarters in order to ensure that people do not have the unacceptable response of a telephone answering machine. We have sufficient lines and sufficient call takers.

Exceptional circumstances arose on Monday and Tuesday this week. It will take us longer to identify all the aspects of those events, which is the reason for the external inquiry. I may say that there was a dramatic increase in calls and a large number of exception messages, in which ambulances did not notify their status to the headquarters.

Mr. Malcom Wicks (Croydon, North-West) : Ambulance staff in Croydon telephoned me this morning to tell me what has been happening, and some said that there had been tears this week because of the appalling situation. I was told about a woman who suffered a heart attack and who, after waiting 45 minutes for an ambulance, died after her husband took her to hospital by car. Does not the Secretary of State agree that Londoners are in pain and misery, that some are at risk, and that many have died? The right hon. Lady has been warned about the situation for months. We have met with complacency, and my questions have not been answered by the Department. I say with sadness that complacency and inaction have cost the lives of too many Londoners.

Mrs. Bottomley : I have made it clear to the House that we must await the results of the great investment made in the London ambulance service. It is not a good enough explanation to say that there are unique reasons for inner-city anbulance services delivering the required standards all over the country but failing in London. In Greater Manchester, 97.4 per cent. of responses are made within 14 minutes, but in London the figure is only 64 per cent. In Merseyside, it is 94 per cent., and in the west midlands it is 92 per cent. Other inner-city and urban areas deliver results that are not achieved in London. We have made clear our investment commitment and announced the external inquiry, and must now deliver the result.

Mr. David Mellor (Putney) : Recently I wrote to my right hon. Friend to draw her attention to a series of incidents in my constituency that caused widespread

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concern when the London ambulance service failed to arrive in proper time to deal with casualties. In one case, in which a constituent had a heart attack and subsequently died, it took 45 minutes for an ambulance to reach him. That suggests that London ambulance service failures are not isolated and cannot be blamed merely on a computer system, but are systemic. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they call for top-to-bottom reform?

While it is helpful that responsibility is carried by those at the top of the organisation, will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is nothing for the unions to be proud of? Why has it taken so long for new rostering arrangements to be introduced? I hope that my right hon. Friend--

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : The Secretary of State is in charge.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Who is in charge?

Mr. Mellor : It is a jolly good thing that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is not in charge.

I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that it is crucial that the crisis that has arisen is not used as a tit-for-tat battle in the service's industrial relations problems, which have continued for far too long, but provides an opportunity for everyone to look to their consciences and to give the people of London the ambulance service which they deserve and which they do not currently have.

Mrs. Bottomley : My right hon. and learned Friend is exactly right. The real progress that we want to make can be achieved only if management and staff co-operate and work constructively together. There must be more effective and harmonious dealings within the London ambulance service.

My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned the new rostering arrangements, which should result in 20 per cent. more ambulances being on the roads in peak periods. However, we have not been making the staff side progress with that practical improvement which the management wants, and which would benefit London and Londoners.

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) : Does not the Secretary of State realise that simply recounting stories about increased resources and efforts by the London ambulance service cuts no ice with Londoners whose simple test is whether or not the service works, and it is patently clear that it does not. This is merely the latest episode in the deterioration of London health services.

Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that no one telephoning a 999 service--which by definition will be in exceptional circumstances--will receive a response other than a human operator, and that no caller will suffer the trauma and distress of having to hang on, listening to an answering machine, while waiting for a loved one to receive emergency treatment?

Mrs. Bottomley : I think that I have made it clear that there are to be 16 more call takers for the London ambulance service. About half that number have already been appointed. They have experience in the field, and they are also receiving careful training.

I am satisfied that sufficient lines are available. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that calls should be promptly received, promptly answered and promptly responded to, and it is clear that improvements are needed

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at every level in management, with co- operation and determination to provide a first-class service throughout the ambulance service.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that not only the emergency ambulance service but the ordinary service is unsatisfactory and causing great distress across London? Many elderly people--and others who are not so elderly--sit at home waiting to be collected for an urgent hospital appointment by an ambulance that never arrives. After receiving hospital treatment, people find themselves waiting for an ambulance that never arrives to take them home.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there are sufficient ambulance men in London to deal with both emergency and ordinary cases? Will she also ensure that the inquiry looks into attendance levels, and into whether ambulance men are fit to be at work all the time? Should not that factor be considered?

Mrs. Bottomley : I think that the entire London ambulance service will benefit greatly from the advice of a chief ambulance officer from outside London, who will be able to review some of the difficulties and advise on the way forward. As I have said, however, many hon. Members take for granted an ambulance service that is resourced less generously than the London ambulance service and achieves a very much higher standard of service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) asked in particular about absentee rates. It is cause for concern that, in the London ambulance service, the rate is running at about 10 per cent., compared to about 6 or 7 per cent. in the rest of the health service.

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) : The Secretary of State said that resources were not an issue. How does she explain the case of my constituent, 18-year-old Keeley Donaghy, who died of an asthma attack while her frantic mother rang the ambulance service between 4 and 5 am on 4 July this year? An ambulance was indeed dispatched within a reasonable time, but it could not find the address. We understand that the reason--referred to by the coroner--was the fact that there was no local ambulance available at that time in the morning, and those who were sent were not familiar with the geography. Surely the Secretary of State's inquiry must examine staffing levels and the number of operational vehicles available at any one time.

Mrs. Bottomley : I offer my great sympathy to the hon. Lady's constituent, who underwent a very distressing, frightening and tragic experience.

The computer-aided despatch system is intended precisely to ensure maximum use of the available ambulances. Its teething difficulties are the reason why we have taken half a step backwards and supported it with radio contact. The very large investment of £1.5 million in the London ambulance service, however, was made with the precise purpose of enabling ambulances to be located, and to be put in touch immediately with callers in their vicinity.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people in London believe that the problems of the ambulance service predate this week's difficulties with the computer? Given that the service receives such good resources, must not the problem

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be one of management or bloody-minded employees? The people of London will welcome my right hon. Friend's inquiry, which will lead to a much better service in the months to come.

Mrs. Bottomley : I have nothing to add to what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) on his tenacity and his wholly justified pursuit of this issue over the past six years.

Will the Secretary of State join me in offering further congratulations to the Daily Mirror on its excellent expose of what has been happening over the past few days? I suspect that, without that, we would not have heard this statement today. Does she agree that the time for prevarication is over, that lives have been lost and that people continue to be at risk? She should immediately introduce outside managerial expertise, not merely for the inquiry but to run the service in the interim period.

Does the Secretary of State agree that she failed to respond to the clear signs of crisis in the service or to the appeals of hon. Members? She refused my request in a letter of 16 September for a public inquiry, but wrote to me instead about the computer system, saying :

"When fully operational, this system will result in improved response and call waiting times. Calls will be answered in seconds rather than in minutes."

Does she agree that that not only proved to be incorrect but led to the situation that arose this week, when people have died? Their demise and their families' bereavement could have been avoided. On Friday, the closure of London hospitals was announced. Yesterday, we learned of the scandal of what is taking place in the west midlands. Does the Secretary of State agree that the time for complacency and neglect is over and that she should act in the interests of everyone, as Conservative and Labour Members have suggested?

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Mrs. Bottomley : About £70 million is being spent on the service in London. A third of its vehicles will be new by next year and it will have an extra 326 paramedics. I think that I made it clear that other parts of the country would envy such investment.

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's view that the computer system is without value. It clearly stands to benefit London and Londoners. It has had teething difficulties, and we shall have to think further about how we can ensure that it works properly and that all the staff co-operate with the new working procedures. Teams throughout London must understand that, for the computer to work properly, they must press the buttons at the right moment and be in touch with the centre. Management must effectively lead that change so that Londoners can benefit. Martin Gorham, deputy general manager of South West Thames regional health authority, will be acting, and we will have the benefit of the chief ambulance officer from another metropolitan area to advise us.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the west midlands. The requirement is that 50 per cent. of calls should be answered within eight minutes. It is managing to answer 72 per cent. of calls. Ninety-five per cent. of calls should be answered within 14 minutes, and the west midlands is just meeting that target. It is setting a good example in ambulance services. If we can get the London service to match the west midlands service, all Londoners and hon. Members should be content.

BALLOT FOR NOTICES OF MOTIONS FOR FRIDAY 13 NOVEMBER Members successful in the ballot were :

Mr. Bernard Jenkin

Sir Michael Grylls

Mr. Tony Lloyd

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Sexual Offences (Amendment) Etc.

3.58 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 ; to make further provision in respect of the offences of rape and sexual assault ; to provide protection for women and children at risk of rape, sexual assault or domestic violence ; to make related new provision in respect of compensation and legal aid, and consequential entitlement to certain social security benefits ; to amend the Child Support Act 1991 ; and for connected purposes.

Sex is fine, but rape and sexual assault are not and they must be criminalised. The important distinction involves consent, as against coercion, violence or threats of violence. The House needs to modernise the rape laws to make that distinction crystal clear. On 21 February 1990, I introduced my Rape in Marriage (Offence) Bill, which secured some action. After that, I met members of the organisation Women Against Rape, who said that the rape laws in general were badly out of date and in need of reform. Working with them, I introduced my Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill--a version of my present Bill--on 19 June last year. Now, still working with Women Against Rape, I introduce the present Bill, which would bring about an even more comprehensive and radical update of the rape laws. There are four crucial necessities, the first of which is recognition of the crime of rape in marriage, and the second a recognition of the crime of male rape. The third necessity is greater rights for survivors of rape, including increasing their physical safety, giving them improved protection in courts hearing rape cases and ending the discriminatory compensation arrangements which now work against them. The fourth necessity is a redefinition of rape, based on coercion and lack of consent.

First, the Law Lords made a judgment that rape in marriage should be a criminal offence, and the Government referred the matter to the Law Commission, which in January reported that legislation was needed to make the existence of such an offence absolutely clear. We are still waiting for a response from the Government.

It has been argued that, if rape in marriage were made a crime, vast numbers of women would bring charges, so, although the Law Lords made the recommendation, I shall still quote what Helena Kennedy QC said about that idea :

"The real position is that that's not going to happen because the evidence is going to be difficult to find the Crown Prosecution Service is going to have a great difficulty in looking at the cases which will stand up evidentially in court, and those which will, will be ones where there's been a history of domestic violence or where there's going to be evidence of domestic violence".

That sounds much like the law before the Law Lords' ruling. Clearly, the Crown prosecution service will not move unless the House lays down instructions for it.

What the judges can give they can also take away. Their discretionary powere should go. We need legislation so that there is no such discretion in cases of rape in marriage. There are no two ways about it ; it is a serious crime and it must be written into the statute book.

Secondly, my Bill would for the first time make male rape a specific criminal offence. There is an assumption that only women can be raped, but that is not true. There is no law concerning male rape, but there is a law concerning indecent assault on a male, and the numbers of such cases are increasing. There was one in my constituency only yesterday, and in London the numbers

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of such cases have doubled over the past 10 years. More than nine out of 10 such cases are not even reported to the police, perhaps because of the fear, the humiliation and the shock which are felt or because of the fear of being criminalised or branded as a homosexual. A law on male rape is needed, so that victims have the confidence to come out into the open. As that happens, more such cases will be reported. Another reason why such a law must be on the statute book is that at present the rapists get away with it, perhaps to do the same thing again. That must be changed.

The third necessity is for greater rights for rape survivors. Those rights fall into three categories, one of which is the right to physical safety for the victim. My Bill would enable secure places to be provided for victims while cases were heard : a local authority would have to provide emergency accommodation. There would also be income support for a woman in danger from a partner who had raped her. With that assistance, women would not be forced to go back to the rapist.

Furthermore, bail would not be given to a man with previous convictions for similar offences. If bail were broken, he would be subject to immediate arrest. That would be in the interests of the victim's better physical safety. Victims would also have protection in court and there would be guaranteed anonymity. At the moment, discretion should be repealed and the victim guaranteed anonymity. Victims should have the right to legal representation in court and to have someone with them in court while the case is being heard. The Bill would also end the discriminatory compensation arrangements that currently apply. It would extend legal aid to the victim in any compensation board hearing. A carer who has been raped may incur costs in the care of a child or elderly relative, and those costs should be reflected in the compensation. At present, there is a limit of £5,000 on the compensation that can be awarded to a woman who has had a child as a result of a rape. That goes nowhere near reflecting the costs of bringing up a child. The Bill would get rid of that limit.

The Bill would prevent any arbitrary assumptions made by the compensation board about the victim--for example, an assumption about the reason for a victim's delay in reporting a rape. Such delay should not be held against him or her. Similarly, the compensation board--and judges, too--often make assumptions about a victim's dress or alleged character. That should be stopped and should certainly not penalise the victim in any compensation arrangements. No social security benefit should be deducted from the compensation and compensation should be disregarded in calculating any means-tested benefit entitlement. The key point here is that women should not be prevented for financial reasons from using the law to leave violent husbands or partners.

The Bill would contain a redefinition of rape based on coercion without consent. That includes not only physical force but deception, economic coercion or threats to women or their children. The Bill would thus widen the definition of rape.

This change in the law is needed because the rape laws are out of date-- just consider the fact that rape in marriage and male rape are not properly covered--and because victims cannot be confident of obtaining justice or even a fair and sympathetic hearing.

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Let me refer to the comments made by Mary Tuck, the former head of the Home Office research and planning unit and the chair of a working party that looked into these matters for the Home Office. She said : "Dealing with domestic violence is the single most important preventive strategy we could put into practice against violent crime. Domestic violence is a central problem for society."

I agree with that comment. The House must come to terms with domestic violence, which often includes rape.

A survey conducted by Women Against Rape in 1985, whose findings have been confirmed in other surveys since, showed that one in seven wives had been raped by their husbands ; one in six women had been raped ; one in three women had been sexually assaulted ; one in eight black women had suffered racist sexual assault ; one in five women had been raped or sexually assaulted as children or teenagers ; three in four married women who had been raped had been prevented from leaving by lack of money and/or housing and one in 12 women who had been raped had reported the rape to the police. Those are amazing figures, and we need action on them from the House.

Immigrant women should not lose their right to stay because they leave a violent partner and a child support action--

Madam Speaker : Order. I am sorry, but I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to conclude his speech. I assure him that I have been trying to attract his attention to the clock.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Cohen, Ms. Diane Abbott, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Malcolm Chisholm, Ms. Jean Corston, Mrs. Maria Fyfe, Ms. Mildred Gordon, Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mr. Eddie Loyden, Ms. Marjorie Mowlam, Ms. Dawn Primarolo and Ms. Joyce Quinn.

Sexual Offences (Amendment) Etc.

Mr. Harry Cohen accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 ; to make further provision in respect of the offences of rape and sexual assault ; to provide protection for women and children at risk of rape, sexual assault or domestic violence ; to make related new provision in respect of compensation and legal aid, and consequential entitlement to certain social security benefits ; to amend the Child Support Act 1991 ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 11 December and to be printed. [Bill 66.]

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Public Accounts

4.9 pm

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Although certain reports are listed in the motion, may we debate any reports of the Public Accounts Committee? For the sake of clarity, may we be sure that that is the case?

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentlman and the House may debate all the reports listed on the Order Paper under the public accounts motion. 4.10 pm

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne) : I beg to move,

That this House takes note of the 36th to 43rd Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 1990-91, of the 1st to 24th Reports of Session 1991-92, of the 1st to 11th Reports of Session 1992-93, and of the Treasury Minutes and Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda on those Reports (Cm. 1725, 1784, 1798, 1819, 1865, 1856, 1949, 1998 and 2074), with particular reference to the following Reports :

Thirty-sixth, Foreign and Commonwealth Office : Qualification of accounts, 1989-90 ;

Thirty-seventh, Fraud and irregularities at defence establishments ; Session 1991-92

First, Sale of Rover Group to British Aerospace plc ;

Third Management of road maintenance ;

Twenty-second, PSA Services accounts 1990-91 ; Session 1992-93 Seventh, Sale of the water authorities in England and Wales. This is the annual debate on reports of the Public Accounts Committee. Last year, we had 45 reports and this year we have 43. As usual, we have highlighted several of the reports in the motion, but others will, as usual, be mentioned in the debate. Of course, the debate is on all the reports--43 of them--that we prepared last year and were published. Almost every report could warrant a full debate on its own. In fact, on an estimates day when no suitable subject for debate could be found, we volunteered one of our many reports, and the debate ran for its entire length with a number of hon. Members being unable to be called. One of the problems is that the large number of reports tends to frighten some colleagues and, as a result, they do not take part in these important debates.

My first thanks must be to the Committee. It meets more often than any other Select Committee and it agrees many more reports. The pressure on hon. Members to digest the voluminous information is very great. My thanks, of course, also go to the Committee members and my particular thanks must go to Sir Michael Shaw, who was the senior Government Member for many years. The development of the Committee owes much to him. As a result of the general election, we lost a number of valuable Members, one of whom is the present Chairman of Ways and Means, but there were others, too, some who found their way to the other place and others who have played a part in other aspects of our public affairs.

As usual, the House is by no means full. I do not interpret that as a lack of concern about our work, but in some peculiar way we must regard it as a tribute to it. We know full well that if we failed to hold Departments to account and if we were felt to be failing in that crucial

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