Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. O'Brien: The system in Scotland is not inherently less fair. As my hon. Friend says, there is broad support among the Scots people for the criminal justice system. It does not include the right of election, which some criminals have been able to abuse. We are now cleaning up some of the problems in our legal system. Far from

19 May 1999 : Column 1073

undermining public support for our legal system, I suspect that we shall restore confidence among the English and Welsh people in our criminal justice system.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I shall put to one side for the sake of brevity what has already been said about the way in which this announcement has been handled--I agree with those remarks. I have been in precisely the same business as the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), probably for the same number of years. I urge the Minister to reject comprehensively everything that he said.

The Minister has referred on four occasions now to the effect that a court case can have on reputation, and he has said that reputation will be an aspect of his proposals. If a thief with a long criminal record were convicted of the theft of £100, his conviction would make little difference to his lifestyle or his reputation in his community. However, if many people, including the Minister or me, were convicted of stealing just £10, our careers would be wrecked and destroyed for ever.

I do not ask for a definitive reply to my question, but will the Minister at least consider that, where a person of previous good character is tried for the first time for an offence in which there is an essential ingredient of dishonesty--in which dishonesty is the mens rea--there should be not just a discretion to allow that person to elect a Crown court trial but an absolute right to do so? Who knows?--the Minister may then find that support for his "disgraceful" proposals is rather wider than he thinks.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that will no doubt be the subject of debate when the matter comes before the House as a Bill in due course. We currently intend that magistrates will have to consider the impact of conviction and sentence on the reputation of a person of previous good character in their community, and perhaps on their livelihood too. We believe that magistrates are able to make an informed and reasoned decision and to make the best judgment as to where the case can be dealt with.

Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest): I did not intend to speak this afternoon, but having heard protestations on behalf of what I can only describe as the lawyers' party rather than the party for which Opposition Members were elected, may I ask my hon. Friend to put the matter in context? Does he agree that someone who appears before a court accused of an offence as serious as assaulting a police officer, which could well carry a sentence of six months' imprisonment, has to be tried before magistrates; yet someone who steals a Mars bar from the corner shop has a right to trial by jury and can cost hundreds of pounds and many months of delay by making an election?

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend is a distinguished lawyer and is well able to understand that the courts are able to deal with these issues effectively. The magistrates courts deal with many cases involving people of previous good character and many others in which people have many serious issues before them. The magistrates court adjudicates on these cases and is a perfectly good venue for dealing with them. My hon. Friend is right.

Madam Speaker: We shall now move on.

19 May 1999 : Column 1074

Points of Order

4.5 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is not the first time important changes of Government policy have appeared in the press before they were announced to the House. That has the effect of undermining the role of the House and making it more difficult for Parliament to hold the Executive to account. What steps are open to you, Madam Speaker, perhaps in consultation with the Procedure Committee, to ensure that this insidious practice comes to an early end?

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. There is a consideration that you might like to bear in mind. I have noticed that this practice tends to happen most often when the policy announcement to be made involves a reversal of the Government's previously declared policy. I wonder whether you would bear that sort of case in mind as one for which oral statements are particularly appropriate.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Is it related?

Mr. Baker: Yes.

Madam Speaker: I did not call the hon. Gentleman in Question Time, so let me hear it.

Mr. Baker: Thank you, Madam Speaker. The explanation given for why the issue turned up on Radio 4 this morning and on the front page of the Daily Mailis pathetic. The wafer-thin explanation was that the newspapers telephoned and asked for an explanation, or for answers to their questions. I ask many questions of the Government and receive no straight answers from them. Why should the Daily Mail get a straight answer?

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The Government have been caught red-handed in a particularly blatant case of abuse of Parliament. An attitude of slight contrition might have been rather more appropriate from the Minister, rather than one of defiance coupled with multiple and unconvincing excuses.

What can we do about this? What can you do about it, Madam Speaker? I am afraid to say that if nothing is done about this systematic abuse very soon, you will be seen in retrospect to have presided over a period of fundamental erosion of Parliament.

Madam Speaker: That is a very serious allegation.

Mr. Davies: It is no criticism of you, Madam Speaker. I am simply saying objectively--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. He must remember that I granted the private notice question today. The House knows that I deprecate statements that are made in the written press or in the media before they come to the House. I do so very

19 May 1999 : Column 1075

much again today. I have been asked by right hon. and hon. Members to do whatever I can to ensure that the leaks or information given to the media cease. I have been involved in this for very many months and I shall continue to use my best endeavours.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. So that we have a little balance in these matters, will you confirm that there were similar practices hundreds and hundreds of times under the 19 years of the previous Government?

Madam Speaker: Yes, I am aware that Governments of all colours tend to use the media when they feel that it is to their advantage to do so. I am quite wise to what happens in the House; I have been a Member for a quarter of a century.

19 May 1999 : Column 1076

Bells on Pedal Cycles

4.8 pm

Dr. Palmer: I beg to move,

Among the Bill's virtues is simplicity, and I will take 10 seconds rather than 10 minutes to describe it. The current law permits the Secretary of State to require bells to be fitted on bicycles. The Bill simply amends the law to make it mandatory, thereby restoring the position as it was until 1983.

The Bill has generated considerable interest, not least because the Government are currently brooding on the results of a consultation exercise. In May 1997, Baroness Hayman informed another place that the question was being considered with priority. In August 1997, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions wrote to the Lakes parish council, which has campaigned on the issue for some years, to say that an announcement was expected "in the near future". In September the Department wrote to the Lakes parish council again, stating that a decision was anticipated "very soon". In April 1998 the Government completed a consultation exercise in which 150 responses were collected, and said that they hoped to make an announcement "soon". The baby seems to be somewhat overdue.

The Bill is intended to stimulate the debate and encourage an early, favourable decision. I am aware that the black hand of Bromley and Chislehurst will close its clammy grip on the Bill, as it has on so many others, but I hope to influence the Government's decision.

The originator of the initiative was a constituent and newly elected councillor in Broxtowe, Janet Thorley, who typifies the indomitable spirit of so many poorly sighted people. When her guide dog was hit by a bicycle, her response was to organise a petition for the restoration of bells on all cycles, for which she amassed no fewer than 2,487 names, including those of my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman), for Luton, South (Ms Moran), for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) and myself. I shall present that petition, by leave of the House, this evening. I was delighted to receive support from Maureen Colloquhon, whom many hon. Members will remember from her time in the House.

I am extremely grateful to all those who have written to me, in particular the environmental campaign Sustrans, which sells more cycle bells at £3 than any other product and warmly supports the proposals, and the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which has given me strong support in the context of a major new transport and mobility campaign, which it is launching this week.

It is important to stress that all the organisations supporting the Bill are also strongly in favour of cycling. The Bill is not a veiled criticism of cyclists, as we recognise that only a small proportion of road accidents are due to cycling. We are seeking to achieve a reinforcement of cycling's image as a safe, environmentally friendly form of travel that threatens no one.

The RNIB's briefing notes that bells will also help cyclists to avoid collisions with each other, as well as the injuries incurred in collisions with pedestrians. I am

19 May 1999 : Column 1077

encouraged that whereas in 1984 nearly all cycling organisations opposed the idea, on this occasion the Bicycle Association has no strong view against bells being fitted.

Is there a real problem? In 1997, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reported that there were 329 cyclist-pedestrian incidents, in which there were 427 injuries. Fourteen cyclists and 86 pedestrians were seriously injured, and three cyclists and three pedestrians were killed.

The RNIB notes that accidents and near-misses are frequent enough to be a factor in discouraging poorly sighted people from going out. A survey of 500 active blind and partially sighted people showed that 73 per cent. were worried about cyclists, and that that was the strongest reaction on transport issues in the survey.

It is, of course, possible to shout instead of ringing a bell. Sometimes that will be the best action in an emergency, as the highway code points out. However, shouts tend to be intimidating and cause poorly sighted people to freeze, whereas a bell gives a clear directional indication that can enable the pedestrian to step out of the way.

The figures mentioned are dwarfed by those for car accidents, but they are sufficient to suggest that there is a problem. If a £3 add-on to bicycles will make a useful difference, should we not take that step?

In summary, the Bill will help to reassure elderly and blind people, the cost to individual cyclists will be minimal, and the image of cycling will be enhanced. If, as we all hope, cycling becomes increasingly popular in the years to come, interaction with pedestrians will increase further. The measure will help to preserve good relations between the cycling and pedestrian communities, to the benefit of all. I commend it to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page