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Column 1570He continued:
"However, asthma is generally not compatible with service in the armed forces and potential recruits with a history of this condition would not be accepted for service".--[ Official Report , 8 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 305 307 .]
He appears to be saying that no one who carries the gene could possibly have been in the Gulf. That is rubbish, particularly when we take into account all the civilians who were present. I questioned one of my constituents about whether there was any asthma or a tendency to hay fever in the family and the answer was yes. In a recent debate in the other place on 12 December, in answer to a question from the Countess of Mar, the relevant Minister, the noble Lord Henley, stated that full research on all the protective products had taken place at the Ministry of Defence's own establishment at Porton Down. That is the only place that does such research and much of its work, I think quite rightly, is classified.
Tests were conducted on healthy volunteers for two weeks at a time. They were then paid £200 and returned to their regiments. One must observe that that was hardly a sound basis for treating thousands of men and women who were taking tablets for months on end under battle orders. Given the amount of junk pumped into the soldiers, we should not be surprised if some developed illnesses, the symptoms of which have persisted long after their return from the Gulf. It would have made medical history if no side-effects had resulted.
In the United States of America, several investigations have been under way at Senate level. One conducted by Senator John D. Rockefeller of the Congress Committee on Veterans' Affairs recently branded the US Government's usage of the products in this way as "reckless".
I can appreciate the difficulties involved. The conditions that have been dubbed "Gulf war syndrome" seem to fall into various categories that tend, confusingly, to produce similar symptoms. Some illnesses appear to be associated with an infective agent. Dr. Vivien Lane, formerly senior medical officer at RAF Stafford, nursed a group of sick soldiers who had been invalided out of the Gulf. She fell seriously ill herself and required intensive care. She has since suffered from chronic sickness, weakness and fatigue, chest pains, skin sores and severe debilitation. Three years later, she is still poorly. A visit to America revealed the presence of large numbers of unknown bacteria in her urine. Intensive antibiotic treatment has helped. She never, at any time, visited the Gulf.
The Library informs me that some US veterans have been diagnosed as suffering from leishmania tropica. So far, 12 have shown evidence of a new strain-- viscerotropic leishmaniasis-- which does not show up in ordinary blood tests. It is at least possible that the bacteria mutated in the exotic circumstances that I have described. There are also psychiatric conditions: depression and intense anxiety. Some men seemed to get high when taking the NAPS tablets, while others developed explosive rages or bouts of uncharacteristic aggression. Some soldiers have been referred to psychiatrists and others were told that they were suffering from post- traumatic stress syndrome.
No one appears to have noted that these symptoms are the recognised results of organo-phosphoric poisoning. The fact that exposure to certain chemicals can cause
Column 1571severe and persistent personality changes is known throughout the medical world, but not at the Ministry of Defence.
Still others seemed to have some form of neurological damage or a change to their immune systems. They reacted badly to something that they were given or to a combination of the vaccines, NAPS and other agents to which they were exposed. For some, the effect was immediate and catastrophic.
Corporal Robert Lake, formerly of the 11th Armoured Workshops, collapsed after an anthrax injection and was unable to breathe. He is now severely disabled. He is the first to receive a war pension because, in the view of the War Pensions Agency--although not yet of the Ministry of Defence--his condition was caused by the injections that he received.
Kevin Wilson of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers had a kidney infection, breathing problems and a persistent skin condition. Paul Ash, of the same regiment, was vomiting blood and still gets pains in his legs and sweats profusely on exertion. Eddie Blench, formerly of the 1st Armoured Division, also has aching joints, bruises easily, can walk only slowly and at one point lost his sight, which has only slowly returned. I was told that 20 of our local regimental band went out to the Gulf. In wartime, they are the field hospital orderlies. Four of the 20 have come back ill.
Yet, no one can tell those people what they are suffering from and no effective care pattern has been offered. Instead, medical records have been altered and, in several cases, requests for records have been ignored or denied.
To those men and women, the words of Colonel Box of the Defence Medical Services directorate are incomprehensible. I quote from correspondence with him, in which he said:
"There is absolutely no scientific or clinical evidence that a medical condition exists which is peculiar to the Gulf conflict." Colonel Box's statement, which I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not repeat, is tantamount to saying that those veterans are mistaken. One soldier had "hypochondriac" written on his records. That is not merely deeply cruel and thus bad military practice--the wrong way to deal with sick soldiers--but bad medicine, too. The result of that extraordinary denial is all too apparent. The only people prepared to come forward are those who have left the armed forces. Those who wish to continue their careers face an impossible dilemma. If they seek help, they are officially branded as malingerers.
What should we do? Anecdotal evidence of the type that I have presented is clearly unsatisfactory. We need a proper inquiry, which could be conducted jointly by the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health. The objective would be to find out what the condition or conditions might be, as a first step towards treating the victims effectively. An investigation conducted by medical personnel of the highest standing would gain the confidence of all concerned. All the possibilities--infections, neurological conditions, psychological damage and all the multiple causes-- must be checked out thoroughly.
Column 1572With the national health service, the United Kingdom is in a unique position to perform medical research of that calibre, but the research must be thorough. Only if we have access to the whole population of sick people and they are all dealt with honestly and with a genuinely open mind, will we get to the bottom of the matter. The Ministry of Defence can help by issuing regimental part I orders, insisting that anyone who has shown the symptoms must come forward. I am assured that, if they are ordered to do so, they will, and they will be secure in the knowledge that, by obeying orders, their future careers will be protected.
Sooner or later, the matter will be out in the open. More than 400 veterans are suing the Ministry of Defence and some have been granted legal aid. The Ministry is in the same position as the Department of Health found itself in over vaccine-damaged children and haemophiliacs infected by HIV. In both cases, Health Ministers recognised the inevitable. Treatment was guaranteed, compensation was paid and court cases, which are so distressing for all concerned and are of value only to the lawyers, were avoided.
My constituents tell me that all they want is diagnosis, care and treatment for the sick. I hope that Ministers can properly accede to that reasonable request. We could go a little further. In conjunction with the Americans, French, Canadians and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies, we could far better establish what precautionary treatment to give soldiers in the field of war and what to avoid. We will still need to protect our troops, but if we could develop better measures out of the current misery, all would benefit--the armed forces, the soldiers and their commanders and the causes for which they so willingly and bravely serve.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) for putting her case so powerfully and sensibly. I hope to deal with most of the points that she raised. She mentioned a number of very important matters, some of which she was good enough to inform me about in advance, for which I am grateful. I will do my best respond to those questions, but inevitably I shall take the opportunity to write to my hon. Friend on some of the details after the debate because of the time factor.
This is the first time that the matter has been debated on the Floor of the House, but it has been the subject of a considerable amount of interest in the past few years. I acknowledge the interest of my hon. Friend, whose constituent rightly came to see her to express concern.
First, I must say--my hon. Friend, who is a former and distinguished Minister at the Department of Health will know this--that the health of the members of our armed forces is clearly of paramount importance and a first and cardinal responsibility of the Government. I therefore want to begin by explaining the Department's involvement with the issue of what is alleged to be a medical syndrome which has become known as "desert storm syndrome" or "Gulf fever".
We first became aware of the claims that United States Gulf veterans were suffering from illnesses which they believed were due to their service in the Gulf conflict at the end of 1992. The symptoms claimed were numerous
Column 1573and diverse, and covered many that are commonly experienced among the general population. They included diarrhoea, hair loss, bleeding gums, breathing difficulties, joint pains and fatigue, but it was not until some months later that media reports surfaced in this country alleging that similar unexplained illnesses were being suffered by our troops.
The causes alleged to be responsible for the illnesses were diverse. They ranged from the use of depleted uranium shells, sandfly bites and smoke from Kuwaiti oil fires--as my hon. Friend rightly mentioned--to the medical protective measures rightly administered to the troops against the clearly and definitively assessed threat of chemical and biological warfare agents in the theatre. All those theories were examined fully by my Department's scientific and medical specialists, and no evidence was found of any harmful exposure of troops to those agents. Nor were the symptoms reported of the type which would be expected to result from such exposure. From the outset, our medical specialists determined that the only way to establish whether there was a genuine health problem among the Operation Granby veterans that was peculiar to their service in the Gulf was by a systematic examination of all those complaining of the symptoms. Shortly after the initial reports, the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), made vigorous public requests in the media for all those suffering from ill health which they believed to be due to their Gulf service to come forward at once for a medical examination. Those who had left the service were, for reasons of medical ethics, advised to seek referral through their GP. Service medical officers were also clearly directed to refer for assessment any serving patient who had been in the Gulf and was suffering from unexplained and inexplicable symptoms.
I should like to repeat that invitation once more. It is extremely important that concerned individuals come forward for examination. Despite the appeals, by the end of 1993 fewer than 20 veterans had come forward or had been referred by medical officers. By mid-1994--a year after the initial request--the figure had risen to about 50. All those examined were, however, found to be suffering from recognised medical conditions, none of which was peculiar to service in the Gulf.
Despite the initial findings of our investigations, reports of veterans suffering from unexplained illnesses have continued to surface, and those have been reinforced by allegations from the families of Gulf veterans who were also suffering from ill health. Thorough investigations of the continuing allegations have revealed them to be a mixture of unsubstantiated rumour, incorrect information or a repetition of earlier allegations which have been fully investigated and found to be unsupported by the facts.
My Department's approach has continued to be to subject all the allegations to rigorous medical and scientific examination. Only in that way can an objective database be built up, from which increasingly firm conclusions about the existence or otherwise of a Gulf illness can be drawn.
To date, our investigations of all those issues have failed to establish scientific or medical evidence of the existence of an illness among Gulf veterans, or their families, peculiar to their Gulf service.
Column 1574Since the middle of 1994, increasing numbers of veterans have come forward for examination under those arrangements. Rather than a medical phenomenon, it appears to be the result of a specific request that we made to solicitors representing some 440 veterans who, as my hon. Friend said, are potential claimants against my Department in seeking compensation for ill health which they claim is due to their Gulf service.
I find it rather difficult to accept my hon. Friend's suggestion that we are not getting a true picture of the problem as those who are serving are reluctant to come forward because of their anxieties that their employment and promotion prospects will be adversely affected. Having said that, my hon. Friend related her views about why she believed that is so, and I therefore give her my absolute personal assurance that those who come forward with genuine concerns about their health will be treated fairly and sympathetically and that their future prospects will in no way be jeopardised. Medical officers in the services are much closer to their patients than a civilian GP, and if service personnel were suffering the debilitating symptoms claimed but not seeking help, their service doctors would soon become aware of it, as would, just as important, their immediate commanders who deal with them, see them and have them in the palm of their hands every day.
My hon. Friend suggests that one way of ensuring that more individuals come forward is to order them to do so. I understand her argument but do not believe that it is advisable or necessary to take such an extreme step. To do so would create unnecessary concern among service personnel and their families. We have said publicly, often and regularly that people will be treated sympathetically and in full medical confidence and I have repeated that assurance again today. I shall now give more details of the medical assessment programme which we have been operating since the middle of 1993. To date and to ensure consistency, all those coming forward for assessment have been examined initially by the service consultant physician at the Princess Alexandra's RAF hospital, Wroughton, although other service consultants will be employed on initial examinations at times when the patient load requires it.
Under the assessment programme, each patient is examined as an individual and the examination tailored accordingly. Approximately 208 people have now come forward to enter the assessment programme and 67 have so far been assessed. The majority of those now being seen are from the group of potential claimants to which I referred. I recognise that the rate of examination has not been as rapid as, ideally, it should have been, and have taken action to double the rate of assessments to 20 a week. The progress of the programme has, however, been hindered by a high proportion- -about half--failing to turn up for their appointments. That is not only foolish but risks slowing down the work rate as a consequence, as my hon. Friend will know only too well because of her experience in the Department of Health.
All patients have a thorough medical examination, which includes taking a full medical history, blood tests, urinalysis, X-rays, ultrasound scans, electrocardiograms and vitalograph studies. If considered clinically necessary, further tests or referrals to other civilian or service
Column 1575consultants are then arranged depending on the patient's individual circumstances, and may include assessment of immune status or toxicological tests.
While the assessed patient sample has not yet been able to catch up fully with the recently increased numbers, there is still no evidence emerging of an unexplained illness peculiar to service in the Gulf. The symptoms complained of are varied, often unverifiable by objective tests and most of them are commonly suffered by the general population. The only observable pattern to the symptoms seems to be a commonality, in about half the patients seen, of vague tiredness, fatigue and depressive-type symptoms, but with no evident link to Gulf service.
A recently published survey of psychiatric morbidity in Great Britain clearly demonstrates how common these symptoms are in the adult population: 27 per cent. complain of fatigue, 25 per cent. complain of sleep problems, 22 per cent. complain of irritability and 20 per cent. of general worry. I have no wish to diminish the importance of such complaints when they arise in Gulf veterans, for all symptoms are very real to the patient and must be taken seriously, but I am bound to point out this day-to-day background of common symptoms so that the issue is seen in its proper perspective. There were 45,000 UK troops in the Gulf and it is a statistical inevitability that a proportion of them would have suffered illness, including the symptoms most commonly linked to the alleged syndrome, even if they had not gone to the Gulf.
Much concern has been expressed about the measures taken to protect service personnel from the assessed threat in the Gulf from Iraqi chemical and biological warfare agents. My hon. Friend dealt responsibly with that matter. To protect against nerve agents, servicemen were required to take one 30 mg tablet every eight hours from their nerve agent pre-treatment set, commonly known as NAPS. The constituent drug of NAPS, pyridostigmine bromide, has been used for many years in civilian medicine in much larger doses over longer periods without long-term adverse health effects. NAPS was fully tested for safety and efficacy and has been granted a licence by the Medicines Control Agency.
Column 1576To counter the possible Iraqi use of biological warfare agents, vaccines to meet the assessed threat were offered to UK personnel on the basis of voluntary informed consent. I regret that I can neither give, nor confirm, details of the vaccination programme because they remain classified for operational reasons, in order to protect the position of our forces who might have to face a similar threat in future. I can assure my hon. Friend, though, that the vaccines had well-recognised civilian applications and were fully tested and cleared for use.
When judging our protective programmes, I ask my hon. Friend to recall, as I know she does, just how serious the threat from Iraq was at the time. I know she will agree that we owed it to our troops to give them the best protection against this threat and that it would have been indefensible for us to have held back from providing available measures that might well have proved life saving. We have also investigated the other causes which have been suggested for the alleged syndrome, but no scientific evidence has been found that our forces were exposed to any harmful levels of toxic substances or that the medical protective measures, either singly or in combination, could lead to long-term health problems. My hon. Friend asked that an independent inquiry be established. I have to say that in the absence of any confirmed scientific evidence that there is a health problem resulting from Gulf service, I do not believe that there are any grounds at present for such an inquiry. Having said that, I have some sympathy with the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend, and I can assure her that I will look again very carefully at the case for such an inquiry--we shall discuss that in more detail when we meet--should any evidence emerge, or indeed if there is anything else that my Department can reasonably do. In closing, I should like to emphasise that despite the lack of scientific evidence we keep a genuinely open mind. We shall continue our investigations based on a medical and scientific evaluation of the growing data bank resulting from our medical assessment programme and we shall monitor other developments closely, especially those in the United States of America.
My hon. Friend has raised an extremely emotive matter, which is clouded in debate in the press with so much nonsense and foolishness that it was a pleasure to hear her present her case with such clarity. It is a serious matter, to which we attach the greatest importance. We do not take it lightly, and we shall do everything possible to lay at rest the minds of those people who are concerned, but they must come forward for examination. They may come forward in full confidence that everything will be treated as they and their families would hope, and that it will certainly not affect any of the prospects of serving soldiers, sailors or airmen.
Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): This season intensifies all emotions. We have children around us, going over the top with excitement; loneliness becomes more intense; road accidents at this time of year become more tragic. It is therefore appropriate to discuss road safety in urban areas, because there are bound to be some tragedies throughout the country and along the way.
I have asked for this Adjournment debate because of a sad case in my constituency of a five-year-old boy called Ryan Monk, who was knocked down by a car on 11 July 1994 and was in hospital for many months, very severely injured. He may never quite regain all his capacities.
You can therefore imagine Ryan's parents' feelings, Madam Deputy Speaker, when they were told informally by the police that they were not prepared to prosecute the driver for any offence, especially as the parents had received a copy of the accident record of South Yorkshire police dated 21 July, which showed that the driver was travelling at about 39 mph on a main road that has a 30 mph speed limit. The brake marks extended 24.9 m and the accident report says that, had the vehicle been travelling at 30 mph, the braking distance would have been reduced to approximately 14 m. If the approach speed had been at or less than the permitted speed and the child had entered the carriageway at any spot between the origin of the marks and the limited braking distance, the impact would have been considerably less, and if the child had entered the road slightly outside that area, the impact would not have occurred.
Ryan's parents met me and said that they were very worried. I wrote to South Yorkshire police and was surprised to receive a letter from them saying that they had reviewed the case and were not prepared to prosecute, because
"in reality, we would rarely prosecute any driver for driving at 39 mph in a 30 mph area, even based upon accurate technological evidence."
Having received that reply, I pursued the matter because it seemed to me that if 30 mph was the appropriate speed limit on an especially dangerous main road in my constituency, 30 mph it should be. In that case, even though there was no question of the driver being at fault in the sense that the child ran into the road, the impact could not have occurred, had the speed limit been complied with.
A comparison of braking distances shows so accurately what we all know-- that the speed at which a motorist is travelling is probably the most significant factor in the severity of any accident. Therefore, I welcome the £2.5 million that the Government have recently put into the effective campaign urging people to kill their speed, not a child. If those are the facts and we are prepared to put that sort of money behind such a campaign, it should be part of an integrated programme to reduce accidents on busy roads in urban areas so that the £2.5 million is not wasted.
In pursuing the matter of the 39 mph figure with the police authority, I was told that the Association of Chief Police Officers suggests a 10 per cent. variable in its guidelines. However, 10 per cent. of 30 mph is 33 mph, not 39 mph. I understand that it is common to suggest another 3 per cent. variable in case the speedometer is wrong, and yet another 3 per cent. variable in case the
Column 1578police monitoring is wrong. The Government have an opportunity here to act with much greater firmness by clarifying the speed tolerance and making it clear, rather than giving so much discretion to police officers, that if it is 10 per cent., that is the tolerance that should be accepted.
When I asked what was happening to prosecutions for speeding offences in police force areas around the country, I was surprised to find a remarkable drop between 1992 and 1993, mirrored almost police force by police force-- 161,352 in 1992 dropping right down to 110,571 in 1993. In Yorkshire generally, the number of prosecutions dropped from 12,447 to 7,117--a remarkable drop.
I accept that the bulk of the drop in the number of prosecutions is accounted for by the increased use of fixed penalties and cameras and that that may be a more cost-effective way of dealing with people who break speed limits than prosecuting them. But using spot fines and camera checks makes it easier to be clearer about speed limits and therefore to clarify that a speed limit of 30 mph means just that. In addition, having three sets of figures--for prosecutions, for fixed on-the-spot penalties and for motorists caught as a result of a speed camera--makes it more difficult, and unnecessarily so, to monitor the efficiency with which police deal with speeding in their areas. Simply collecting the number of prosecutions does not take account of the number of people whom the police know have committed a speeding offence but have not prosecuted.
Following on from that, my next assumption--it is possibly wrong--was that the reduction in the number of prosecutions might have been a convenient way in which to reduce the crime statistics, which, as Labour Members know, have been particularly embarrassing for the Government, as they have shown their appalling record on law and order over the past 10 years. I understand, however--I should like some clarification from the Minister on this--that motoring offences, certainly not offences such as speeding, are not counted in the crime statistics. That is the information that I have from the chief constable of south Yorkshire.
If motoring offences and speeding offences are not recognised as criminal statistics, it seems to me that the Government are saying that it is more of a criminal offence to have stolen a car than to be driving a car at a speed at which somebody could be killed or seriously injured. That is not necessarily an issue for the Department of Transport, but it is of concern to me. If somebody is sitting behind the wheel of a car and is driving outside the rules of the road, that person is a danger. If people are driving at excessive speeds, they are driving almost with criminal intent, because of the potential damage that they can do to the life and limb of other members of the public. I would like some clear answers from the Minister on that point.
Before I leave the question of enforcement, it is important to say that there is room to operate much more effective monitoring, to recognise, clarify and publish the motoring offences clearly, police force by police force, and to look at that matter of public safety in the same way in which we look at other crime statistics.
I have paid a lot of attention to the question of enforcement and prosecution in connection with road safety, because I think that it is possibly the simplest, most
Column 1579sensible and easiest way to make a major contribution. I can remember the time when seat belts were not compulsory. There was much opposition before that legislation was enacted. As soon as the legislation was enacted, the opposition to it vanished and it made a major impact on the number of people who were badly damaged in road traffic offences.
I shall deal now, within the same theme of an integrated approach, with specific road safety measures. The Government have many ways in which they can make a positive impact on road safety. Burncross road in my constituency is a major road--the A629. It is built up on either side, as are many main roads in the outskirts of urban areas. It runs for perhaps two miles without any pedestrian crossing, without traffic lights at junctions with other roads that cross it and, therefore, without any natural break to ensure that cars travel at only 30 mph. Incidentally, that is another reason why, on roads where they have the necessary discretion, the police should make it clear that in such areas the speed limit must be adhered to. The police wrote to me as recently as April to say that 37 people had been injured on Burncross road since 1986. It clearly has an extremely poor accident record.
I recognise that local authorities, highways authorities and police authorities are working closely together to develop an approach to speed and road safety which emphasises the provision of breaks so that motorists have to reduce speed. Groups of constituents come to my surgery asking for road humps or pelican and pedestrian crossings but, when I put their case to the authorities, I am told that the prime reason why they cannot be provided, or at least not in the foreseeable future, is finance. I am aware that five or six road humps along a suburban street can cost several hundred thousand pounds. In Sheffield, about two pelican crossings are installed each year. Any other requests for such crossings have to join a queue, often for many years.
Will the Minister guarantee that there will be a redistribution of finance from the roads budget to road safety in urban areas? I am especially disappointed that Sheffield's road settlement, which it received last Thursday, does not reflect that notion. Sheffield asked for £750,000 for road safety measures but was offered only £350,000. Its road improvement budget also suffered a cut of £18,000, but without the necessary finance we can do nothing to increase the number of pelican crossings, road humps or school crossing patrols. There have also been cuts in the latter in Sheffield.
I put it on record that I welcome the reduction in spending on new roads. The fourth key criterion in road safety in urban areas is the need to encourage people out of their private cars and on to public transport. However, I cannot welcome what the Government have done to public transport in Sheffield in the past 10 years. The arguments have been well rehearsed in the House and I shall not repeat them. Sheffield had the best integrated public transport system in Europe but it has been destroyed by the deregulation legislation introduced in the mid-1980s.
I seek an integrated policy on urban road safety. The Government should back up their campaign against speed by issuing unambiguous guidelines to police authorities
Column 1580about what a speed limit really means and ensure that prosecutions can be undertaken simply and efficiently, with fixed penalties for excessive speeding if necessary.
Finally, the Government must back that up by redirecting the finance for road safety measures to local authorities in urban areas, and they must work co-operatively on those issues with the Home Secretary, with local authorities and with the police authorities that must enforce such measures.
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): We have heard an interesting speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), articulating the view that we should reduce the road programme. That is a commonly held view, which has led me to define a new law of politics. It was Churchill who said that we are all in favour of reductions in general and of expenditure in particular. My new maxim is that we are all in favour of abolishing the road programme, except in our own constituencies. Anyone who listened to Question Time yesterday would have heard Labour Members urging the Secretary of State to build roads fast in their constituencies, because they recognised how vital those roads were to the economic regeneration of the parts of the world that they represent.
I tell the hon. Lady in passing that when I came to the Department of Transport two and a half years ago, I had the dubious pleasure of examining Sheffield's transport infrastructure. I came to the clear conclusion that nothing had destroyed the public transport infrastructure of the town so successfully as the efforts of Sheffield council. Much of what has happened there has been inflicted entirely by the local authority--in marked contrast with what is happening in other cities all over the country whose public transport infrastructure is excellent, and operates under exactly the same Government regulations as apply in the people's republic. However, let us deal with the serious points that the hon. Lady raised about road safety. First, I am sure that the whole House would want to send young Ryan Monk our best wishes for a speedy recovery. Let us hope that he can recover as completely and speedily as possible and enjoy a happy Christmas.
Much of what the hon. Lady said about the operation of speed limits and the way in which prosecutions are brought was entirely sensible and fair, and I want to underline one or two of the points that she made. First, whoever was responsible for the accident, and whether or not the young child ran into the road without giving the motorist sufficient notice--it is not for us to judge what none of us witnessed--suffice it to say that the more slowly the vehicle that hit the child had been travelling, the greater would be the prospect of the child's surviving, and of his suffering only minor injuries. As the hon. Lady said, that was one of the key messages of the campaign, and I am glad that she appreciates it. It is not a matter of politics but the result of hard work by the excellent officials in the Department who produced the campaign based on the slogan, "Kill your speed, not a child". I shall say something later about how that is developing as part of our integrated approach.
Prosecutions must be a matter for the appropriate chief constable and for the Crown Prosecution Service. However, I make it clear for the record that the speed
Column 1581limit is the limit. Decisions about prosecutions--taken, essentially, in local circumstances, and having regard to the desirability of achieving convictions--do not disguise the fact that the limit is the limit, and remains the limit. If authorities wish to raise or lower limits, they are at liberty to do so. I am sure that the hon. Lady will appreciate the fact that it is dangerous to speculate on individual decisions.
I shall write to the hon. Lady about the relevance of speeding convictions in relation to overall crime statistics. I fully understand that although speeding offences may not be in the same category as other areas of criminality, I am advised that some categories of motoring offence are included in the national statistics. More to the point, though, I know that such offences can cause terrible tragedy. Indeed, if one were to try to evaluate such matters one would find that their consequences can be out of all proportion to those offences that are regarded as more serious in terms of penalties.
The hon. Lady spoke about enforcement. Let us develop that. She was right to see enforcement as an important issue, but even more important is changing attitudes and habits. The remarkably successful drink driving campaign started by telling people that drinking and driving was unlawful and that if they did it they were likely to lose their licence for a long time. That, indeed, was the case and remains the case. It is worth underlining that.
It is interesting that what changed people's habits was changing the message to a more subtle but much more powerful one. We told people that drinking and driving was anti-social and was not funny and that they might do something that would live with them for the rest of their lives. They certainly might be imprisoned, heavily fined and lose their licence, but that would be the least of the scars that they would bear. They would have on their conscience an avoidable accident which the driver allowed to happen by unwisely drinking. That remains the theme that we have adopted in this year's campaign launched on 6 December. We point out that normal, decent, law-abiding people can make an unwise decision about a Christmas drink.
Let me underline if I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, that by all means people should have a great Christmas party, enjoy it and have as many drinks as they like. But for goodness sake, at the end of it they should not go anywhere near a motor car. That remains consistently good advice.
The same message applies to speed. We have used the concept of inappropriate speed in an attempt to change mental attitudes. As well as going for enforcement, which the hon. Lady is right to highlight, we should induce in motorists the realisation that speeding is not about absolute speeds. Ironically, the speeding problem is a problem of urban areas, not motorways. Proportionately,
Column 1582far more accidents occur in urban areas than on motorways. Through the campaign that we are running, we are trying to show motorists how they might well be operating within a legal speed limit but still be driving at a speed which is inappropriate to the conditions. The classic example that we used is that of a vehicle travelling past a school at the time of day when children are leaving school. To travel at 25 mph may be to be travelling far too quickly. It is important to underline that. The concept of appropriate speed is difficult to get across. We may not have succeeded entirely in our last campaign. I have received letters from people who are worried that we seem to suggest that someone who is acting lawfully and driving within the speed limit is none the less doing something wrong. We have had to explain that we are talking not about something that is criminal in the legal sense of the word but about something that is clearly inappropriate to the driving conditions.
As for resources, I have personally ensured that, in the past two years, we have maintained £50 million a year for local safety schemes throughout the country. I cannot comment on the amount for which Sheffield bid. Undoubtedly, it consistently bid for more than even it believed that it could spend. That money goes into local safety schemes and is effective. We have 130 20 mph schemes. I opened the 100th scheme in my constituency in Epping Forest in a rural context. It was an interesting variation of the usual urban scene. Such schemes are producing good dividends. We have achieved about 70 per cent. overall casualty reduction. Better news still, there has been an 80 per cent. reduction in child accidents. That is a good pointer to the future.
None of the measures works all the time. They all have to be seen in context. We have produced a new, user-friendly booklet entitled "Safer by Design", which includes a glossary of all the measures available to us. Speed control humps, speed cushions, chicanes, narrowings and so on all offer us an opportunity to take on even more work in speed control.
On the subject of casualty reduction targets, if the hon. Lady had been here on 25 November she could have participated in an excellent debate in which we made it clear that, although we have met our fatal and serious injury targets seven years in advance of the target date, we still have further to go. No one in the House is complacent about road deaths despite the fact that there have been fewer this year than at any time since records began in 1926. No one will be complacent as long as, sadly, approximately 80 people are killed on our roads every week. It is a challenge to us all--an all-party challenge and a challenge to both central Government and local authorities. I hope that Sheffield, as elsewhere in the country, will be willing to participate in that challenge so that we can do something about such dreadful and needless deaths.
Mr. William Cash (Stafford): My constituency is in a predominantly rural area and contains some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain. We cherish and love our rural community, but we are constantly aware of the threats to it and to those practical farmers who work the land and are so industrious.
What I have to say is partly national and partly local. I shall first mention the scale of the problem and the pressures. Some 12 million people- -23 per cent. of the population--live in the countryside and there is inevitably much pressure from visitors who make 900 million trips a year to the countryside. We must take into account the desire of the millions who belong to the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ramblers and others who want to use the countryside. We have constantly to strike a balance between providing facilities necessary to enable people to enjoy the countryside and ensuring that the countryside is not diminished by over-invasion and misuse.
It is also fundamental to our way of life, our culture and heritage to devote a significant amount of time and policy making to the countryside and the rural community. In that respect, village halls are immensely important. There are several in my constituency, including in Ashley, as well as the new Grosvenor centre at Gnosall, which was refurbished, voluntarily, by local people. I hope that some effort can be given, for example through the lottery, to help people who make such a positive effort to help others in their local rural neighbourhood.
People often associate crime primarily with urban areas. But Peter Cadbury- -a relation of mine--recently, and famously, commented on the problems of rural law and order. He is right. The problems have grown significantly worse in our area and elsewhere throughout the country. In many places-- even in some reasonably sized towns--local police stations have been closed so that one can obtain immediate help from the local police only by means of switches through the local police telephone network system, which causes much concern.
The House of Lords recently produced a report on rural housing. Some 39 per cent. of parishes have no shop, 60 per cent. have no primary school and 74 per cent. have no general practitioner practice. A great number of changes have been made, but I am trying to show that people who think that life in the countryside is some sort of idyllic Fragonard-style life are sometimes unaware of the fact that rural inhabitants do not always have brilliant communications. Sometimes, more elderly residents do not have facilities that people living in towns take for granted.
The Government have taken important initiatives in relation to using housing associations as a means of drawing money from the Housing Corporation and so forth. Between 1990 and 1993 those initiatives produced only 11 per cent. of the projected need. We must look again at the very important question of rural housing. The House of Lords report said that the issue was considered by some witnesses to be the most pressing of all in rural areas in the United Kingdom. We need to take careful note of that point.
Hunting, shooting and fishing are part of the culture and identity of the countryside. Many people associate those pursuits with elitism, but that is not the case. Fishing
Column 1584is one of the most popular hobbies in the United Kingdom--I believe that as many as 3 million people go fishing. Before he moved to London, Izaak Walton lived in Stafford and wrote many of his great works with the area in mind. He left his estate to the burghers of Stafford with the proviso that, if they did not behave themselves, the remainder of his estate would pass to a rural area called Eccleshall.
Shooting is not an elitist activity by any means; it is now enjoyed by a broader section of the community than ever before. Hunting is a controversial issue. I have expressed my strong objections to hare coursing and badger baiting, but I believe that foxhunting is a traditional country pursuit which should be allowed to continue. We must reform the common agricultural policy and, in the process, reform the support that is given to farmers. Today the Council for the Protection of Rural England produced a new policy paper which shows that an extraordinary amount of public money is spent on farm support throughout rural England, but the quality of the English landscape--its flora and fauna--continues to decline at an alarming rate. It says that the farm support system must be changed. The balance of opinion in the agricultural community is shifting. British farmers must be given a fair and reasonable deal, not only by this Government but by the European Community and the general agreement on tariffs and trade. British farmers deserve a fair deal for their industry, high efficiency and the quality of their products. Although one welcomes reports such as this, it is important to make sure that they have the right emphasis and look after the British farmer as well.
The set-aside policy is not welcomed enthusiastically by farmers in general; they do not want it. There is something extraordinarily perverse about the scheme. As a result of European Community directives, land is compulsorily put to one side and farmers see their land, which they would prefer to use, covered in weeds. That practice is counter-productive to the wonder and the beauty of the countryside. Thistles and weeds spread from one field to another, which means that farmers must use more pesticides to eradicate them, and they may tend to use too many concentrated fertilizers on the remaining land to increase the volume of production. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way in which the scheme works.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Herriot drew inspiration from our countryside. We should examine to what extent rural life is destroyed by the vast amount of red tape which farmers face. Farmers in my constituency are tearing their hair out over the volume of paperwork about set-aside and so on with which they have to deal. It is exhausting to have to fill out paperwork late into the night when one has been up since 5 am. Most farmers are small business men and they have to contend with an enormous burden of paperwork.
The movement of livestock is very contentious. I have made my position clear. Farmers are being badly treated. As I told my hon. Friend the Minister in Committee the other day, they should not be put over a barrel because of the monopolistic activities of the ferry owners. I am glad to see that there has been some movement, but we still have a long way to go, as my hon. Friend knows.
Column 1585Perhaps the code of conduct that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agreed is a move in more or less the right direction, but the real problem is that farmers are up against it and need as much help as possible.
On the use of nitrates, it is highly inappropriate for European directives and rules to be applied throughout Europe when the water tables, aquifers and water supply systems are different in each country. Often, the person convicted or harassed about bad pollution did not cause it. The polluted water often seeps through the sandstone or whatever and percolates to another part of the countryside and the person held responsible is not the person who caused it. We must deal with problems of that type.
We should pay more attention to the new reed bed proposals, which will help to combat pollution and sewage in streams and rivers. I understand that that is a brilliant, simple and cheap way to reduce the sewage and other pollutants that get into our river system. As I am not much of a chemist, I do not know about sonochemistry, but I understand that it is a system designed in the United States, which is a highly effective means of cleaning up water in a cost-efficient manner.
Leisure is another important factor. The English tourist board should be encouraged to provide more help for getting the balance right. People know of my strong opposition to car boot sales. When 20,000 cars descend on Eccleshall in my constituency they cause pollution, destroy the environment and are a noise nuisance. The sales are also unfair to other small businesses. We have debated all those factors before and I hope that in the near future an hon. Member will take up the Bill that I tabled last year.
The criminal element is associated with such sales. We heard how Peter Cadbury found that articles were stolen from his and his friends' garages and outhouses. The relationship between car boot sales and the development of crime is important. It is a serious problem.
Also, we do not want the countryside to be turned into theme parks. I shall merely leave that as a general thought for my hon. Friend. Farmers need a proper economic return from agriculture and the rural economy must have the capacity to provide them with another source of income. Farmers in my constituency, whom I meet regularly, are deeply concerned about several issues, for example, the lack of sheep quota for developers. That means that young farmers who have taken on a larger farm cannot obtain milk quota or an increase in their allocation of sheep quota to match their increased acreage. The policy should be carefully thought through.
The proposed removal of the waste grant means that the smaller farmer, who has endeavoured to acquire sufficient capital to install a slurry management system, will not be able to proceed.
The problems associated with livestock exports are increasing, not decreasing. Despite some of the efforts that Ministers have made, the result will be an oversupply on the British market and a collapse in prices, which will affect small farmers who do not have milk quota. I shall refer to the 1994 Budget proposals. Farmers and rural communities are deeply concerned about the question of taxation placed on fuel in an attempt to