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Ms Walley: Does not the hon. Lady understand that if we do not have the same number of spot checks on vehicles, there will be an increase in the number of dangerous vehicles on our roads? The Minister might say that there is no suggestion of that, but he should know what took place during the course of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill.

Lady Olga Maitland: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention--she sounded somewhat defensive.

Families have been tragically torn apart because a loved one has been killed, very often by a drunk driver. I speak with personal experience because the wife of one of my first cousins was killed in an accident, having been smashed into by a drunk driver. She was barely 30, had two young children and left a grieving widower. All too often my constituency's local papers, the Sutton and Cheam Herald and the Sutton Borough Guardian , feature appalling car crashes that have occurred as a result of drink- driving. In any week one can guarantee at least

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one third of the court cases reported will cover a drink-driving charge. Last year alone, nationally, more than 500 people died as a result of drink-driving. The encouraging news is that the figure has fallen by a half over the past 10 years. In 1984, more than 1,000 people were killed. That shows that today's programme of stick, carrot and persuasion is changing public attitudes. Drivers involved in accidents are more likely to be breath-tested, but less likely to fail than they were 10 years ago.

As we move into the Christmas season of office parties, now is the time for the Government, as they always do, to step up their advertising campaign on drink-driving. Although some people were startled by the shock approach of those advertisements and the horror they revealed, frankly it was worth it. If that campaign can cut the number of people killed in drink-driving accidents this year from 500 to 250, it would save many more families from suffering a devastating bereavement and a miserable Christmas.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend will probably not recall it because she is far too young, but when the then Minister of State for Transport, Barbara Castle, introduced penalties against drink-driving she was interviewed by the BBC and other media. They portrayed her action as draconian because it was considered that she was trying to deter people from having a good time. Surely that demonstrates how far we have moved on from those ignorant days.

Lady Olga Maitland: I agree with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to Baroness Castle for her efforts to prevent drink-driving. How interesting it is to note how social habits have changed. It is now the normal way of life for a couple invited to a party to discuss who will drink and who will drive. It is quite normal for a host to serve soft drinks and a party goer who sticks to orange juice or tomato juice is no longer regarded as a wimp or a killjoy. Parents also play a vital role when their children give parties by insisting that all the guests should stay overnight. That may mean we have households of sleeping bags all over the floor and no space at the breakfast table in the morning, but, as parents, we are acutely aware that we should not allow young people to drive after going to a party.

When I attend constituency association dinners I notice that many people determinedly leave their cars at home and arrive by taxi. When we have a dinner at the House of Commons the guests hire a coach. Attitudes have not changed by accident, but because the Government have taken determined action to promote good behaviour on the roads and I congratulate them on that.

I think that we could still go further and we should look at banning drivers from drinking any alcohol. I know that that is the subject of much debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) has already suggested that perhaps one or two drinks is permissible. I have the feeling that we have reached the point when drivers should not be allowed to drink. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to know what is one's real limit--everyone has a different benchmark. Three glasses of wine may knock one person out, while another person may be safe to drive. I think that it would be better to say that drivers should not drink at all.

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Such a prohibition would help to reach the worst offenders--those heavy drinkers, usually male, in their mid-20s. Research shows that young men reach their peak age of misbehaviour in terms of drink-driving at 24. Next comes 29-year-old men, who are also high-risk offenders and, when stopped, are found to have drunk themselves blatantly over the limit, as though they could not give a damn.

The other road menace is the white spirit drinker, who sticks to gin or vodka and who takes advice from no one--that is, until we make the penalty really fit the crime. We need to create that deterrence. Unless we hit those drivers hard and impose penalties that hurt, they will carry on regardless.

I welcome the considerable powers that the courts have been given as a result of Government concern. Although the maximum penalty for someone who kills a person while under the influence of alcohol is five years' imprisonment, the courts should not hesitate from passing more custodial sentences when appropriate. They should certainly not hesitate about withdrawing a driver's licence and banning someone from the roads, not just for two or three years, but at least for 10 years or even for life. When I have suggested that to lawyers and judges they have argued that that is not practicable because such people would return to the roads anyway. I do not accept that argument, and we should examine seriously the question of banning drivers for life.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister wishes to reply to the debate, but I will make two more points. My hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, South and for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) expressed their concern about changing to double summer time. It is iniquitous to have rolled along all these years with an inconvenient mode, which makes life difficult for business men and is dangerous for road users.

It is estimated that 2,000 accidents a year occur when dusk falls earlier in the afternoon, including 120 deaths. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to press on with supporting double summer time. I cannot imagine anyone who would object. There is a myth that children can go to school only in daylight and that people can wake up only in daylight. It is a fact that people are most alert in the morning, even if it is dark. In the afternoon and early evening, people are weary and do not concentrate so well. That is when they need all the light available.

I was lucky enough to be drawn 17th in the ballot for private Members' Bills. I have not yet decided the subject of my Bill, but I am seriously considering whether the rules and regulations for newly qualified drivers should be stiffened, and penalties imposed in the first year or two of their driving lives. Drivers under 21 are involved in 1,000 of the almost 3,500 fatal accidents that occur every year. They are positively lethal and it is time to give serious thought to measures that could bring them under control.

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If such drivers committed offences that exceeded a minimum limit in their first year of driving, they could be compelled to retake their driving test.

Ms Walley: Is the hon. Lady able to say whether the Minister would approve such legislation introduced under the private Member's Bill procedure?

Lady Olga Maitland: I have every reason to believe that it would have his support. I am sure that it would receive across-the-board support. It should be a non-contentious issue, and I should be sorry if the Opposition obstructed its passage.

Mr. Miller: No. It would find sponsors among Opposition Members.

Lady Olga Maitland: That is good to know.

In an earlier intervention, I raised the question of traffic calming. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to encourage local authorities to adopt more flexible attitudes to traffic-calming measures. I am not convinced that road humps are the only way to control speeding drivers. Local authority traffic departments take the view that they must follow the Department's guidelines, but they should not follow only one route.

The Department of Transport has produced some colourful booklets about alternative schemes, but somehow the message is still not getting through. Not only is it unpleasant to go over those humps in a conventional car, but, as the Minister has admitted, we should look at the problems faced by low-platform buses that are coming on stream throughout the country to help not only the disabled but many other people. They would find the humps difficult to cope with. Ambulances that must drive up residential streets riddled with those humps have a dangerous task. Imagine what it is like when an ambulance carries someone with a spinal injury. It defies belief that patients are subjected to journeys that could make them more devastatingly ill than they already are. The point has been made and I have the impression that the Minister will look into it further.

I congratulate the Minister and his Department on the enormous progress that has been made in attitudes towards road safety. We have changed society's attitudes through schools, teaching children how to ride bicycles, and educating people on how to behave on the roads and on drink- driving. My hon. Friend should not flinch from taking the credit which is entirely due to him.

2.5 pm

Mr. Norris: With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had an excellent debate this morning and I am glad of an opportunity to refer to a number of the points that have been made and to try to answer as many as I can.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and I have sat on opposite sides of the Dispatch Box for several years and I have heard her make a number of speeches. In all honesty, today's was not one of her best. A classic error that permeates the Opposition's thinking and which we heard trotted out again today is that, the minute we try to make an organisation with the

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slightest responsibility, direct or tangential, for safety even remotely more efficient, it necessarily results in reductions in safety standards.

Mr. Miller: My hon. Friend did not say that.

Mr. Norris: With respect to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), I listened carefully and the record will show that that is exactly what she said. Moreover, it was the tenor of what she said, and what she was not prepared to say explicitly she implied. To put the matter to rest, may I make it clear that we have made it a cardinal principle of all the deregulation legislation that we have introduced--it is a cardinal principle of the concept of deregulation--that it means getting rid of unnecessary regulation that does not contribute to safety, better health or higher living standards but is simply bureaucratic nonsense.

The hon. Lady was not on the deregulation Bill Committee whereas I was. I sat there month in and month out, as did the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. Try as they might during the Bill's proceedings, there was not one occasion when the Opposition could show that there was even the possibility that safety standards might be compromised. That was a given, and it remains a given. In the context of road safety, I admit that we have required efficiency savings from the Vehicle Inspectorate, for example. The inspectorate responded constructively, as it always does, and those savings will be available to taxpayers to spend in areas where there is a need. The savings will be derived from eliminating waste, from restructuring and from redesigning responsibilities, which responsible organisations are doing all day long. There will be no reduction in enforcement activity or in safety levels because the Government are fundamentally committed to the concept of safety in the office, in factories, homes, schools, the workplace and, more important, on the roads. Let there be no doubt about that. The hon. Lady mentioned the availability of police resources. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary recently wrote to chief constables about key policing objectives. There is general agreement that one of their objectives should be to ensure that road traffic law is properly enforced in the most efficient and cost-effective way. He has commissioned a thorough study of the use of public resources and established a working group of officials, including members of the police and HM inspectorate. It appears that some functions are not central to the police's responsibility--for example, escorting abnormal loads, although the hon. Lady mentioned a number of others which could be said to fall into the same category--where it might be possible to release expensive and expert police resources for more useful work. They would, by definition, be areas of activity where no great technical expertise was demanded or fairly straightforward supervision jobs. Before anyone says that escorting an abnormal load requires expertise, I must

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point out that it is a discrete skill and it may be possible with such activities to obtain a more rational deployment of services. If so, we would be keen to do so.

Ms Walley rose --

Mr. Miller rose --

Mr. Norris: I will give way first to the hon. Member for Stoke-on- Trent, North as a matter of protocol.

Ms Walley: I have listened carefully to what the Minister says. The important point of principle in this instance is that the police have the power to stop vehicles on the road. That power needs to operate in conjunction with safety checks carried out on vehicles or in respect of any other problems that may arise. Is the Minister saying that he does not foresee a continuing role for the police with regard to their stop and search powers?

Mr. Norris: Of course I foresee a continuing role for the police in respect of stop and search powers, the Vehicle Inspectorate and traffic. The hon. Lady will know that in Northern Ireland Vehicle Inspectorate officials as well as the police have the power to stop. It provides an interesting opportunity to see what happens when one extends the principle. There may be merit in it and, if so, we should explore the notion further.

Mr. Miller: I am sure that the Minister will be aware that professional drivers of abnormal loads are deeply worried about the proposal that has been floated to remove police officers from escort duties as they feel that it would further the tendency described by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) in her peroration about motorway madness. Does he accept that solving the problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant)--taking breath tests at the scene of all deaths on the road--will have resource implications and can be dealt with only by involving more police officers?

Mr. Norris: Let me make it clear that I am not suggesting--nor has it been suggested during the consultation--that there should be no escorts for abnormal loads. That is not the issue. It is perfectly proper for people to express their concern. It is part of the innate conservatism of this country that the minute one suggests any change, people rush to defend the status quo. It is important that one always ensures that a change is for the better before one makes it. It is clear that there are some advantages to be gained from at least considering the proposal and the caveat mentioned by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is sensible. In contrast to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, he made a useful contribution to the debate on the issue of prosecution policy. I do not accept that there is evidence that it is a question of police resources. I gave the House some impressive statistics--I shall not repeat them--about police stops where breath tests are administered. The hon. Gentleman's point is a serious one and I may touch on it in a second. I do not think that the resources issue is the key to it. The key to it, as he quite rightly said, is how one reconciles the principle of consent, which neither he nor I would willingly set aside, with the important benefit that might be derived from a change. He expanded on that point very well.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned bull bars. I was grateful to her for that, as it is an important point. As I am sure she knows, the technical

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position is that, unfortunately, some vehicles which have bull bars fitted as standard have European type- approval; there is also the question of after-fitting. I am afraid that it is not easy to take immediate action, as she suggests. Although in theory great danger could arise, we are concerned to be sure of the effect of bull bars in practice. The first question I asked when the matter was put to me was whether we could relate bull bars to a given number of additional accidents. The evidence is not great.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North is right to say that it is a real irony that although manufacturers have made great progress with crumple zones and soft fronts to reduce the impact of accidents on pedestrians, one sees fitted to vehicles, often for purely cosmetic reasons, as the hon. Lady said, pieces of equipment that have no practical use. In practice, such vehicles are unlikely to encounter a bull; we can be reasonably certain of that. Most bull bars are fitted to vehicles which are capable of driving up the side of Everest, but which scarcely ever leave the metalled road. Ms Walley rose --

Mr. Norris: Does the hon. Lady want to say something? Incidentally, I know that she cannot be here for all my remarks and I quite accept that.

Ms Walley: Certain organisations, such as the Staffordshire Ambulance Trust, have voluntarily withdrawn bull bars from their vehicles. Would it be possible for the Minister to devise a way in which to redefine bull bars that were not being used for the purpose for which they were specifically designed--that is, for off-road vehicles? Would that be a way in which to deal with the problem? That would mean that fewer people would be likely to be involved in serious accidents caused by collisions.

Mr. Norris: I understand the hon. Lady's concern to try to seek a solution to the problem. As I said, there is the difficulty that certain vehicles have European type-approval for the fitting of bull bars. As with seat belts in coaches, one can make progress only at the rate that the Community allows. In some countries in the Community, there may be a more genuine need to have this fitment than there is in the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Sir K. Carlisle), when Minister for Roads and Traffic, took action because he was especially concerned about the issue. I erred in not referring earlier to his contribution at the Department. He contacted the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and pressed upon it the desirability of not fitting bull bars as standard. In general, there has been a good response from manufacturers, though sadly not a unanimous one.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, especially as I have had to flit in and out of the Chamber all morning. While he is on the topic of European directives, could he say a few words about the Government's intentions as regards the proposed directive on the design of coaches? I have had

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a letter from a Mr. Masterton of Delta Coaches in Elderslie in my constituency who is concerned that the directive will greatly endanger road safety.

Mr. Norris: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's concern, and that of coach operators and coach builders. We intend to be scrupulous in examining the details of the proposed directive to ensure that it is compatible with sensible construction and use regulations and will not unduly hinder the operations of responsible coach operators. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has written to me about the matter. That is excellent, and I will ensure that he receives a prompt reply to his constituent's concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) was right to invite us to engage in some lateral thinking and it is an invitation that I willingly accept. Several hon. Members have made suggestions on which I shall reflect seriously. When my hon. Friend said-- it was a phrase that I shall use on other occasions--that we are looking for fewer bad drivers and fewer bad cars, that summed up exactly what we are trying to derive from the debate and from our current thinking.

My hon. Friend rightly said that it is a scandal that perhaps nearly one in 10 motorists may not be properly insured. His argument that an insurance certificate should be displayed on the windscreen is a serious one. There is a case, too, for an MOT test certificate to be displayed more obviously, when appropriate. I undertake seriously to consider the proposition.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind my saying that it is not the first time that I have heard the argument that insurance certificates should be placed on windscreens. However, there are factors to be taken into account such as the need to show that vehicle excise duty has been paid, clutter on the windscreen and difficulty of enforcement, for example. If I may, I will write to my hon. Friend to tell him about the recent work that we have undertaken. Perhaps I shall be able to discuss the matter with him on another occasion. He has raised a serious proposition.

My hon. Friend's point about the progressive deterioration of eyesight was extremely well made. The deterioration takes place one day at a time. It is only when circumstances such as my hon. Friend described come about that we realise that we shall not live for ever and that we are deteriorating day by day. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution to the debate.

The arguments that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston advanced about statistical analyses of convictions and prosecution policies were well made. They raise complicated matters and we must take account of issues such as a reluctance to convict and the implications of the tariff system before we take action.

I undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary because I think that they merit that referral. I am grateful to him for what he had to say.

Mr. Miller: I hope that I made it clear in my earlier remarks that we have just passed the closing date for consultation with the Law Commission. I understand that the commission, as a matter of course, will read the report of what we have to say on these issues when framing its

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recommendations. As for the motor manslaughter charge, it would be helpful if the Minister would put his views on record.

Mr. Norris: I do not want to be drawn into a debate on that issue at this stage, for several reasons. First, we are coming to the end of our allotted time, and the matter was not raised earlier. It might be an abuse- -

Mr. Miller: I raised it.

Mr. Norris: The hon. Gentleman is right. I withdraw what I so recently said. He raised the matter, but not specifically in terms of addressing the Law Commission.

Secondly, the matter is not exclusively the responsibility of the Department of Transport. It comes within the responsibilities of other ministerial colleagues. Thirdly, I would want to reflect carefully on the precise form of words that one might want to use to make a submission.

Mr. Miller: Ducking.

Mr. Norris: Those who suggest that the absence of one clear statement is ducking away from a problem tend to be the sort of people who always assume that there is a straightforward answer to all life's great and complex issues. That is invariably the wrong answer and I fear that that might well be the case here if we were to respond intemperately.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) raised several points. With regard to photographs on driving licences, let me make it clear that we propose no alteration to the arrangements whereby an individual may or may not carry a driving licence. As is the case now, a licence will be required to be produced in appropriate circumstances. The important point is that there is an issue about impersonation in driving tests and when specific licences, such as HGV, PSV and taxi licences, are being sought. It has been acknowledged that photographs would go a long way towards dealing with those problems. Some 85 per cent. of respondents to consultation on the proposition have already said that they believe photographs would be a great asset.

The use of cameras at pedestrian crossings is entirely consistent with our thinking. The use of cameras in relation to bus lane enforcement will increasingly become necessary because, as our traffic system becomes more sophisticated and, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North said, as police resources are stretched, we will have to consider how we can use technology to help us maintain a proper system of enforcement.

I have an important point to make about traffic lights. I am aware of the "amber flash to proceed with caution" system and the discreet left turn when the lights are at red. One of the features of the systems in the United States is that they generally work on fixed-time traffic lights whereas we tend to have vehicle-sensitive systems so that the lights change only when vehicles approach. Therefore, there would be few gains from the American system in this country.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind me saying that I slightly disagree with him about frustration. I fear that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) got it exactly right when he questioned why a driver who is prepared to go through a red light now--and who one presumes at least bothers to stop and look both ways first--will be less safe if he

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drives on, perhaps without bothering to look both ways, because having seen the proceed with caution signal, he assumes that he can proceed without taking the elementary precautions.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire for his suggestions. He did say that he did not expect everyone necessarily to agree with him, but that his comments would be thought-provoking and worth while and that they certainly were. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) referred to the greatest epidemic of our time--a timely phrase. He mentioned the reissue of the "Highway Code." My hon. Friend might be interested to know that when we reissued the "Highway Code" recently after updating it, the demand from ordinary members of the public was quite extraordinary. One million copies were issued in the first month after the new "Highway Code" was issued. That illustrates the fact that my hon. Friend's point was common sense. We believe that there is merit in people reacquainting themselves with what is nowadays a more complex road safety situation than it was hitherto.

I noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South said about issuing the "Highway Code" to the 25 million drivers in this country and the many more people who should be aware of it. That would obviously be a significant exercise. However, I hope that my hon. Friend is encouraged by our experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South made a good point about cut- and-shut cars and we will keep that issue under review as there are some worrying aspects. However, the fact that a vehicle has previously been seriously damaged does not prevent it from being perfectly safe provided that the repair has been carried out expertly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) carried on from his successful ten-minute Bill and went into some detail on the advantages of the Daylight Extra campaign. I will not repeat the point that I made. One of my colleagues was kind enough to say that I had acknowledged that there is a technical advantage which is simply undeniable in relation to road safety and I am happy to confirm that. I noted my hon. Friend's points about his scheme in relation to the A27.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth made several worthwhile points. The cones hotline number is 0345 504030. This is a good opportunity to make one point absolutely clear. The other day, I read a wonderful article by Richard Littlejohn. It was the usual wonderful trenchant stuff with which squire Littlejohn normally regales us, saying, "It can't be any use; they have moved the cones only three times." That is the classic misapprehension of what the system is designed to do. It is designed to explain precisely why the cones are present, rather than to move them. The three occasions on which we have had to say, "Goodness, we have obviously got it wrong," were the failures of the system. The success of the system is that many people who ring the hotline receive a good response, and they acknowledge that the cones are there for a reason.

On distance-measuring technology, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth will be pleased to know that the Prometheus project is going on in Europe, in which Jaguar is playing a part-- It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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Points of Order

2.30 pm

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will recall that, at the height of the cash-for- questions sleaze controversy last month, a number of Conservative Members, not least among them the Prime Minister, accused Mr. Al Fayed, the chairman of Harrods, of attempting to blackmail the Government by threatening to reveal ministerial impropriety. You will recall also that the Prime Minister referred those allegations to the legal authorities.

Your duties in the Chair this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, might have prevented you from hearing that the Crown Prosecution Service has stated that Mr. Al Fayed has been cleared of those allegations. In fact, according to the Crown Prosecution Service, the meeting between the Prime Minister and an intermediary did not disclose "the commission of any criminal offence by Mr. Al Fayed" and

"further police investigations were not warranted."

In the light of that, should not Mr. Al Fayed be given the opportunity to give evidence to the Privileges Committee, so that the truth about that squalid scandal can be revealed to the House and to the--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. That is a matter not for the Chair but for the Privileges Committee. The Chair has now ruled on it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I hope that it is a different point of order.

Mr. Skinner: It is a different point of order, because I am not going to deal with the Select Committee at all. What concerns me is that, as the charge of blackmail has now been found to be untrue and the Tory paymaster has been let off by the Crown Prosecution Service, it seems necessary for the Prime Minister to come to the House and make a statement- -

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is the same point of order, and I have already ruled on it.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Is it the same point of order?

Mr. Madden: I am afraid not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will know that, as a result of statements made in the House, the Prime Minister has refused to answer parliamentary questions on those matters. Is it now in order for hon. Members to table questions concerning the Department of Trade and Industry report into the House of Fraser? I should like guidance from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on whether questions about those matters are now permissible. As you know, they have been blocked for a considerable time. If it is possible for such questions to be tabled, I seek your guidance, as I believe that it is very important indeed that Mr. Al Fayed now has an opportunity of giving his version--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I can deal with that point. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) has

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been a Member for a long time. He knows that, if he supplies his questions to the Table Office, it will advise on whether they are in order.


Ordered ,

That Mr. Michael Bates be discharged from the Select Committee appointed to join with a Committee of the Lords as the Joint Committee on Consolidation, &c., Bills and Mr. Hartley Booth be added to the Committee.--[ Mr. Conway. ]


Ordered ,

That the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business) shall not apply to the Motion in the name of Sir George Young relating to the salary and pension of the Data Protection Registrar.--[ Mr. Conway. ]

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Legal Aid

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Conway.]

2.33 pm

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley): A year ago, I was approached by a constituent whose story portrays the other side of the legal aid coin which has been much in the news and which has been roundly condemned. There is no need to repeat the well-known scandal, which was universally condemned, of some of the richest families receiving millions of pounds of legal aid. The only official reply we received was the statement that "rules are rules and are the same for rich and poor alike". Thus I understood the Lord Chancellor to explain the position in a recent Radio 4 interview. I hope that he will not respond in the same way to what I will reveal to the House today. I have every confidence that the Lord Chancellor's long tradition of equity will allow him to see the merits of the argument which I respectfully put before the House. I hope that he will change some existing rules to assist people.

The aspect of the legal aid scheme which I raise today needs urgent attention. It is illustrated by the case of my constituent, Mrs. A, who came to my surgery in Finchley. She was a teacher who had suffered an unfortunate injury at school which had been compounded by medical negligence in hospital. She had apparently been close to appointment as a head teacher, but as a result of her injuries her promising career was ended. I am told that the evidence of medical negligence in her case was quite strong, with doctors prepared to testify in her favour, and because of the loss of future earnings the damages could have been substantial. However, she was not able to claim legal aid benefit as she was just over the means threshold and her husband earned too much. Her problem was made more acute by the difficulties and costs associated with caring for a disabled dependent family member.

Thousands of people suffer from this predicament: their income is just too large for them to receive legal aid. My constituent was denied the chance to sue the perpetrators of her injuries because she received state invalidity benefit of just over £4,000 a year, which took her over the income threshold of about £7,500 per year. The rules for calculating disposable income in order to establish eligibility for civil legal aid are set out in schedule 2 to the Legal Aid (Assessment of Resources) Regulations 1989, which is statutory instrument 1989/338. According to paragraph 5 of the statutory instrument, all applicants who are in receipt of income support are eligible for civil legal aid regardless of their capital costs. In calculating a person's disposable income, it is important to note that payments of disability living allowance, attendance allowance, constant attendance allowance and payments from the social fund are disregarded under paragraph 6. However, the same is sadly not true of payments of invalidity benefit, which count towards a person's disposable income.

My constituent's case throws up a number of anomalies that should be addressed. First, it is crazy that one arm of the state is providing benefits which prevent a member of the public from going to court when, with the help of that second arm of the state, she could gain damages to pay back the state.

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