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Electoral Reform

17. Mr. Bayley: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the Government's proposals for considering a new voting system for parliamentary elections. [931]

Mr. Straw: By our manifesto, the Government are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. The manifesto continued:

Work is now in hand to establish the commission and I will make a further announcement as soon as I can.

Mr. Bayley: My right hon. Friend's helpful reply will confound the critics who wrongly speculated that the size of the Government's majority would mean that Labour might now backpedal on its commitment to a referendum on the electoral system. Will he be a little more specific on the timetable? When does he hope the electoral commission will be established and start its work?

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for his opening point, although it should be no surprise that we are settling with a will to implement all our manifesto promises, and the size of our majority makes that all the more straightforward. He asks what we mean by "early"; we mean as early as possible. I hope to make an announcement during the summer.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will Labour Members be whipped to vote in favour of a referendum? Does the Prime Minister's position remain as it was? Is he still opposed personally to a change in our voting system?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, but the idea of having a referendum is so that the issue is

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decided not on a whipped or free vote in the House of Commons, but by the British people. Regardless of the partisan views that some of us may hold, it is high time the matter was settled once and for all by the British people.

Mr. Grocott: Does my right hon. Friend agree that anyone considering this issue would be well advised to look at the experience of New Zealand at its recent election, where many people who, prior to the election, thought a change to the electoral system was a good idea are not so sure having seen it in practice? Does he further agree that the first-past-the-post system--like any other system--has its disadvantages, but has many advantages as well?

Mr. Straw: I share my hon. Friend's view on his last point. It is a personal point of view, but it was my view when we were in a minority and in opposition and it is my view now that we are in government. Of course, around the world there are many examples of proportional representation systems, which have advantages and disadvantages. That is all the more reason why they should be examined by an independent commission, which should then produce its recommendations.

Mr. Richard Allan: Does the Secretary of State agree that reform and a fairer voting system in time for the European elections in 1999 will be an important test of faith of the Government's commitment to electoral reform in principle? Can he give us an idea of how he may introduce such changes with the necessary urgency to get there for 1999?

Mr. Straw: No, I would not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There was no manifesto commitment to introduce proportional representation or the regional list system by the 1999 European elections. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear, we will take final decisions on the appropriate electoral system, which we will recommend to this House and the other place, in the next few months.

Prisons (Illegal Drugs)

18. Mr. Flynn: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what new proposals he has to reduce illegal drugs use in prisons. [932]

Mr. George Howarth: My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are very concerned about the extent to which drug abuse takes place in prison. That is why we will be seeking to build on, for example, mandatory drug testing and the availability of drug treatment programmes in the prison system. We hope to keep a good eye on the problem and to find out what else needs to be done--what needs to be done is what will be done.

Mr. Flynn: In welcoming my hon. Friend, may I sympathise about the dreadful situation that he has inherited from the last Government, with a prison system in which illegal drug use is endemic and out of control in the great majority of British prisons? Has he observed that it has been claimed that the drug testing programme has had the perverse effect of making prisoners move from the use of soft drugs, which can easily be detected, to

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hard drugs whose detection is often difficult? Is he also concerned that many prisoners have moved from the use of illegal drugs to the use of medicinal drugs? Ten times as many people are addicted to medicinal drugs as to hard drugs. Will he make the figures available to this Parliament--unlike the previous Government, who denied the figures on the use of medicinal drugs in prisons to hon. Members?

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. One of the ways in which we will seek to help people in prison get off drugs is by introducing access to voluntary testing for all prisoners. In time, we hope to be able to establish that system, so that they can prove that they are living a drug-free existence.

The statistics for drug abuse and the perverse incentive to move from cannabis to opiates are less than clear. I have asked for further information and statisticians are working on it. As soon as that information is available, I will certainly undertake to publish it if it is in a reasonable format. It is important that we take whatever steps are available to enable people who are caught up in drug abuse in prison to move away from it and to prevent drugs from getting into prisons in the first place.

HM Prison Weare

19. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the use of HM Prison Weare, based in Portland. [933]

Mr. Straw: As the hon. Gentleman knows I visited Her Majesty's Prison Weare on 16 May. I am pleased to be able to tell him that the health and safety concerns relating to the occupation of The Weare have now been resolved. The Health and Safety Executive, the Home

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Office fire adviser, the Dorset fire service, the port authorities and the Prison Officers Association have all agreed that it is now safe to occupy a part of the accommodation before completion of the refurbishment work elsewhere in the prison. Prison population pressure makes it essential that we take into use the top landing at The Weare. I have therefore decided that up to 50 category D sentenced prisoners will occupy The Weare from 11 June. The refurbishment work on the remaining accommodation will be completed in July, allowing the prisoner population to rise to 400 in stages.

Mr. Bruce: This is the first time I have said this: it is difficult to ask a supplementary because the main question has been so well answered by the Home Secretary. I thank him for that. Will he reiterate what I have been saying to my constituents: that no Home Secretary, including him, will allow prisoners or prison staff to go into the prison ship unless he wholly satisfied about their safety?

Mr. Skinner: This broad church is getting broader.

Mr. Straw: There is always space for sinners to repent, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of my answer. He asked about health and safety: the prison ship is not an ideal solution to the rising prison population, but it is one of the many far from ideal situations that we inherited on taking office. As he knows, I visited the ship, which is in his constituency, and went to great lengths to satisfy myself personally that it was safe to house prisoners.

I have ensured the fullest possible scrutiny of the concerns of the Prison Officers Association, which hired a marine consultant to check the safety of the ship. We answered every one of the concerns that the association quite rightly raised, and it has written to me saying that it now endorses the opening on a phased basis of the prison ship. The cell accommodation is of a higher standard than is to be found in most land-based prisons in this country.

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Breast Screening

3.30 pm

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon) (by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the errors in the results of breast screening scans carried out in Exeter and east Devon and give whatever assurances are possible to the many women who are extremely worried about the situation.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this very serious matter to the attention of the House.

I am determined that the truth should out, and the awful truth is that 12 women who were not referred for treatment after being screened for breast cancer subsequently developed breast cancer, and two of them have died.

More than 12,000 women are screened for breast cancer each year by the Royal Devon and Exeter Healthcare NHS trust and the South Devon Healthcare NHS trust. As a result of that screening, some women are identified as having breast cancer and referred for further tests and treatment; others are told that they need not return for further screening until three years have elapsed; and others are told that they do not need treatment, but should return for earlier screening. The trusts cannot tell me how many women fell into each category, but all 12 of the women to whom I referred were screened, but not referred for treatment.

In February, medical staff at the Royal Devon and Exeter trust expressed concern about women who had been screened and not treated and who subsequently developed cancer. The trust sent details of all 12 cases to the national breast screening centre in Nottingham on 1 April and asked for its advice.

The centre did not reply until 28 May, when it concluded that the 12 women concerned should have been referred for treatment, and recommended an audit of mammograms of all women scheduled for recall earlier than three years; of all women recalled in the past two years; and of all breast cancers that have occurred between screenings in the past five years. None of those audits is yet under way.

The review also recommended that the two doctors concerned should stop screening for the time being, pending further training. A special helpline was established on 5 June for women in Exeter and Devon who want advice, help or reassurance. I understand that the doctors concerned have also been carrying out screening at private hospitals in the area and that a similar helpline has been established.

Breast cancer screening, like other forms of medical screening, has two purposes: to identify patients who need treatment and to reassure patients who do not. The breast cancer arrangements in Exeter and Devon have failed on both counts. They have failed to ensure the most prompt treatment for breast cancer and they have given false reassurance. I am not satisfied with the performance of East Devon breast screening service. I have asked the chief medical officer to conduct a preliminary inquiry. If I remain as dissatisfied after that as I am now, I shall exercise my statutory powers to establish an independent inquiry.

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At the same time, I have asked the chief medical officer to review the breast screening programme nationwide. Women in England deserve a breast screening service on which they can rely to identify cancer when it is present and to give accurate reassurance when it is not. On behalf of the Government, I offer my sympathy to all the women affected by the failure and to their families. Finally, I urge women to continue to attend centres for breast cancer screening, because, whatever went wrong in the south-west, screening remains the best method of identifying breast cancer and ensuring early treatment.

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