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13 Nov 2002 : Column 75—continued

6.51 pm

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): I want to refer briefly to a number of points. First, legislation dealing with crime, antisocial behaviour and law and order is central to the Queen's Speech. It is clear to me and, I think, almost everybody that a consensus is emerging that our constituents who live in poverty can suffer most from crime and law and order problems and, therefore, that those on the left as well as those on the right in British politics ought to take these matters seriously. I welcome the Government's intention to deal with them through legislation, but many other things need to be done within the criminal justice system that do not require legislation, but which could help to restore a degree of faith in that system—a faith that, sadly, many of our citizens have lost.

I want to exemplify that statement by referring to my constituent, Mrs. June Harrison, whose husband, a coach driver, was tragically killed while driving on the correct side of the A638 in my constituency by a French lorry driver who was on the wrong side of the road. It was a great personal tragedy, as the House can imagine, and many hon. Members will have come across similar circumstances. What happened next contributed to the cynicism over criminal justice.

As the House would expect, the French lorry driver received hospital treatment paid for by British taxpayers as well as free legal aid and advice, which he was entitled to. Again, British taxpayers paid for that. At Pontefract magistrates court, he was fined #500 and received a six-point penalty on his licence. Many people might think that a low price to pay for killing a person with a wife and family and a reasonable future ahead of him, but that was the decision of the court.

Many people might disagree with the fine—indeed, June Harrison, the widow, feels that it is inappropriate—but my point is that, although magistrates courts levy many fines, many people do not pay. Recently, the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, discussed the matter, and it is apparent that many people who are fined in a magistrates court simply fail to pay and that the criminal justice system does not cope very well with the non-payment of fines. It seems that foreign nationals can simply choose not to pay, and there is no process by which the fine can be collected.

Sadly, the driver in this case, Mr. Boulanger, decided to take advantage of the situation and refused to pay his fine, which it seems he was perfectly entitled to do. It is extraordinary that a French citizen can kill somebody in this country and receive free legal advice and hospital treatment—the process of co-operation across Europe works in those respects, so why should such a person not receive them?—yet a fine cannot be extracted from him. Furthermore, he has said from his home in France that he believes that my constituent's poor husband would not be dead if the British had only changed the side of the road on which they drive. Frankly, that is a disgraceful statement, but, as hon. Members can imagine, the fact that he has not paid the fine has caused grievous insult to the widow, to the community that I represent and to me.

Worse, the six points on that person's licence have no meaning whatever in France. It disturbs me that we have no criminal justice system whereby fines or punishments

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registered on a licence can have an effect in the rest of Europe. This man is plying his trade in France and earning money while my constituent, June Harrison, faces a sad loss and a life without her husband.

I have looked into the matter, and I think that the system by which magistrates courts issue fines and that by which European sister countries co-operate need to be reviewed carefully to avoid bringing the criminal justice system into disrepute. I have corresponded with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the matter and I hope that we shall pay attention to such apparently small details somewhere in the raft of legislation that is to come before us. Those small details can do enormous damage to the reputation of the criminal justice system and, indeed, to the broader European project.

I wish to refer briefly to other matters in the Queen's Speech, including one mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron). In many mining communities such as those that I represent the National Coal Board originally provided social housing. Some time ago, it was decided to privatise that housing. Some people bought their properties with savings or by taking out mortgages, but many of the houses were disposed of to so-called social landlords such as housing associations and, in many cases, to private landlords.

In the communities that I represent, there has been a process of abandonment—not of the odd house, but of whole villages. The private landlords and, to some extent, the so-called social landlords have put in tenants who, frankly, are inappropriate in small, enclosed communities in mining villages such as Fitzwilliam, South Elmsall, Hemsworth and Featherstone. There was a flight from the villages of the original tenants—the mining families—and the people left behind are those who bought their own house, who form a small minority. I could name five villages that have been totally abandoned, and my communities are in a deplorable situation. I have comments to make on that.

The Queen's Speech contains a proposal to license private landlords in certain areas. I strongly welcome that legislation, which I shall follow with interest, and I hope that early implementation is achieved. There are many good private landlords, by the way, and I do not wish to say that they all operate inappropriately, but it is clear to me that licensing and control are imperative in certain areas if we are to stop the continuing collapse of communities.

One can visit some communities almost any day of the week and see furniture vans and people who are moving away. I fear for the future of the people who are left behind and their children. After seeing some of those communities, it is hard to believe that this is England in the 21st century. Children are growing up facing a future represented by abandoned villages, which is an appalling indictment of the situation in which people find themselves.

I know of the commitment to economic stability and full employment, but in some of my communities the regeneration initiated by the Government has not begun. The process has not penetrated there. Former mining communities continue to collapse, and we urgently need further help. Economic stability is not enough for us; action must be properly targeted. There

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is talk of overheating of the economy elsewhere, but my communities are collapsing. We need strategic action, such as the action taken in south Kirkby, a former colliery site. The Government found #3 million to recover the land and deal with the poisoning that was left when the mine closed. The site is now ready for redevelopment, but we need further support from the Government.

Action has also been taken at Green lane in Featherstone. I am sure that the Government know of our need for more regeneration, because Ministers have visited my community to look at the problems. I have mentioned housing problems and the collapse of villages. We do not need just action to deal with housing, though; we need social and economic community regeneration.

According to the Queen's Speech, a Bill will be introduced to ensure that local authorities support older people awaiting discharge from a hospital. Bed blocking prevents local authorities and other agencies from looking after the elderly. It would obviously be better for elderly people not to be in acute hospitals—better for their welfare, and better because acute hospitals should be dealing with acute medical problems.

A big private finance initiative project is in progress in my area to reconstruct two hospitals, one in Pontefract and one at Pinderfields in Wakefield. That project depends on what is described as intermediate care. We are short of 200 beds, which can be provided only by the local authority. I think that the authority will welcome the duties that are bound to be imposed on it, but the fact remains that while it is all right to legislate for the council to be an enabler in this context, the problem is one of resources. The PFI project cannot succeed in rebuilding hospitals unless someone provides for the elderly people who are currently—and inappropriately—being cared for in acute hospitals. I am troubled about the project, and about the proposed Bill. Resources must accompany the legislation.

I am proud that the Government have made one of their flagships the proposal to invest heavily in public services. Those on the left of British politics firmly believe in public service provision. I am not one of those who believe that the status quo is defensible: it is clear that many of our public services are hierarchic, involving tiers of management that are inappropriate and would not exist in the private sector, and it is also clear that on occasion the needs of consumers are not responded to. I welcome the idea that investment and reform should go together.

The Government talk of devolving power, and the Queen's Speech proposes a change in the status of hospitals. We must not confuse two separate principles, uniformity and universality. Public service provision has been far too uniform, and I do not object to, for example, the idea of a post-comprehensive era in education or that of more freedom for hospitals. Uniformity is the enemy of customer-friendliness and help for consumers, and I approve of any measure that would reduce it. Many Members may, like me, have been councillors before they were elected to this place. On housing estates that I knew, front doors had to be painted red, green or blue. Uniformity of that kind went a long time ago, but uniformity in public services is still a problem.

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I fear, however, that our proposals to abolish uniformity may undermine the principle of universality—and the principle of a universal service, equally available to all, must not be undermined. I am worried, for instance, about the proposal to allow hospitals that are providing excellent services to borrow more money. That principle of universality, surely, depends on equal access for all to excellent provision. I fear that if funds follow excellence in management there will be two levels of management. I hope very much that neither the Prime Minister nor any other Minister intends to undermine the universality principle in that way, as it is not a course that I could easily follow—although, as I have said, I have no problem with the abolition of uniformity.

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