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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If they can all manage to take a little less than the allotted 15 minutes, I am sure that everyone will get in.

5.51 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I shall follow your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by only touching on one issue.
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The matter that is most important for me to raise on behalf of a constituent of mine relates to how insulin-dependent diabetics are treated when applying for public service vehicle driving licences in Northern Ireland. The current arrangements are not only discriminatory, but inconsistent and irrational. The issue came to my attention when one of my constituents, Mr. Glen Floyd, applied for a PSV driving licence and his application was rejected because he is an insulin-treated diabetic.

The regulations state:

In essence, the justification offered by the Government is that of road safety. It is suggested that there is a greater possibility of accident and injury because of that medical condition. That Government policy may at first glimpse appear rational, and to those with little or no   knowledge of the medical condition it will unquestionably have a superficial attraction, but when one considers the wider context, it is seen to be inconsistent and unreasonable.

It is not as though insulin-dependent diabetics are not permitted to drive—they are. Special arrangements are in place, with a more regular requirement to renew their licences. It is not as though insulin-dependent diabetics are not permitted to drive for the Government—again, they are. My constituent, Mr. Floyd, is presently a driver with the Department for Regional Development water service, which among other things involves him in driving people around in the course of his employment. He is not permitted do that on his own behalf in Northern Ireland, but he is apparently allowed to do so on behalf of the Government.

It is not as though people who are insulin-dependent diabetics are not permitted to be taxi drivers in Northern Ireland, as an absolute rule. Grandfather rights apply, so anyone who held a licence before 1991 can continue to drive a taxi. Clearly, the danger to the public is not so great when someone who has been driving for over 14 years is regarded as suitable. There can be no rationale behind the fact that, without any recourse to the individual merits of a case, someone making an application for the first time is not permitted to hold such a licence.

The situation becomes even more bizarre when one considers that a number of local authorities in Great Britain issue taxi driver licences to people with that medical condition. It would seem that, under the rules, people with the condition in some parts of the UK are considered safe to drive taxis on the roads while others are not. That is simply absurd. How can it be right that Mr. Floyd can drive his own car, drive passengers while doing his Government job, have a PSV licence if he has held it before 1991 and have a taxi licence in another part of Great Britain, yet cannot hold such a licence in Northern Ireland? No one underestimates the importance of road safety in Northern Ireland, but there must be a rational relationship between the measures and the dangers. A blanket rule that pays no regard to individual circumstances offends against the notion of fairness, especially when one considers the wider context.

The experience of my constituent is not an isolated case. It merely highlights the wider problem that is faced by many diabetics who use insulin. More than 3 per cent.
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of the UK population is affected by diabetes. More than 2 million people are diagnosed with diabetes, including 51,000 people in Northern Ireland alone. Evidence from the United States, where legislation has recently been passed to lift the blanket ban on insulin users from driving heavy goods vehicles, indicates that the accident rate for people with diabetes is lower than the national rate. There is no evidence that the accidents that drivers in that category have had are related to their condition.

A major consultation exercise in Northern Ireland on PSV licences in general has recently closed. There is thus a clear and timely opportunity for the matter to be revisited and the anomalous situation to be resolved. I   am not suggesting that diabetes should be disregarded so that it plays no part when people's suitability for a licence is judged, but I am arguing that there should not be an automatic blanket ban, which is the case in Northern Ireland. Individual assessment to consider an applicant's specific circumstances must be just and the appropriate way forward.

Diabetics undergo regular check-ups to ensure that their overall general health has not deteriorated. Perhaps the holding of a taxi licence could be made dependent on acceptable health assessments. However, there should be case-by-case consideration. All people with insulin-dependent diabetes are not the same, so   they should not be treated the same. There can be a wide variation in the medical history and condition of people who suffer from the problem, which will have an impact on their suitability to drive. The Government's one-size-fits-all regulation is not appropriate. If they really believed that insulin-dependent diabetics were a danger on the roads, they would all be banned, instead of just taxi drivers. Moreover, such people would be banned from driving taxis in every part of the United Kingdom.

It is widely accepted that if a diabetic's condition is well controlled and their doctor believes that they are safe to drive, there is no reason why they should not be issued with a driving licence. Dangers can be judged on their merits and compliance with strict requirements should be used as a road safety measure rather than the banning of those living in certain areas. Measures should be proportionate to danger and directly related to a problem. Such a discriminatory ban is not justified when there is a more tailored and less restrictive way to deal with the problem.

There is no good reason why there should be a variable standard across the United Kingdom. That is especially ludicrous in Great Britain, where a driver could get a licence to drive a taxi in one specific area, yet in the course of his work enter an area in which a different set of criteria apply. A nationally organised system with clearly defined criteria and the capacity for individual consideration would be fair, consistent and safe.

Organisations such as Diabetes UK have done a lot of good work on the matter and have taken a responsible and measured approach. It is in no one's interests to have people on the roads at all if they are not capable of driving safely, but, equally, it is unjust to prohibit someone who can drive safely from doing so. I urge the Government to take advantage of the opportunity that the recent consultation process presents and to allow
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people such as my constituent, Mr. Floyd, to be judged on their own circumstances, rather than summarily rejected without individual consideration. At a time when discrimination on the grounds of disability is high on our political agenda, it would be wrong to deny someone employment and perpetuate discrimination on a basis that is neither fair nor consistent.

I join others in wishing everyone in the Palace of Westminster a blessed Christmas and, I hope, a peaceful new year.

6 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I shall speak on three items. Several Members have raised the issue of the reorganisation and reconfiguration of both our local police and our health services. I shall speak particularly about the proposed reconfiguration in Greater Manchester, and especially about the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS trust.

During health questions earlier today, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Gordon Prentice) raised the issue of the closure of the accident and emergency unit at Burnley hospital. Rochdale hospital faces a similar situation, as well as the loss of its maternity and paediatric services. Such loss of services will have a dramatic effect on people in my constituency and also on those in the Rossendale valley, because they will be faced with a journey to Blackburn or to Oldham. In dangerous situations where minutes count, that is not very good.

The friends of our hospital—a group that has been set up and chaired by Father Arthur Neary in my constituency—and the local newspaper, the Rochdale Observer, are campaigning against these changes. I hope that once the consultation starts in the new year we will begin to see the Government listening and taking note of the real concerns that are felt by my constituents.

Secondly, there is the issue of housing. Like many Members, I receive many requests for re-housing and so on. I was shocked this week when I received a statistic telling me that every council house in Rochdale is being chased by 34 people. I never thought that I would see the day when it would be impossible for people in Rochdale to get a house when they needed one. However, many people are sleeping on floors and living in extremely unsatisfactory conditions.

I know that Shelter recently organised or launched a campaign to convince the Government that they need to increase the availability of socially rented houses that are being built. No doubt we will be told by the Deputy Leader of the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his recent statement, announced some changes. However, those changes are too little and too late, and will not meet the real housing crisis in Rochdale, across the borough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) talked about the tsunami, and we   are approaching its first anniversary. I know that a statement was issued last week about the arrangements for memorial services. I was off the island of Phi Phi at the time of the tsunami. I know that I am very lucky to be here in this place. I know also of the devastation that was wreaked by the tidal wave. I am still concerned by the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth
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Office—I know that many of the relatives of those who lost their lives feel this—in offering support to those who were injured and to those who lost loved ones.

There has been a joint National Audit Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on the matter. A couple of weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House whether we could have a debate on the subject. I   know that many of the relatives are extremely dissatisfied by the response and support offered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I am referring particularly to the support that was offered in Thailand. It is a fact that the Government chartered only one plane and sent it to Bangkok and not to Phuket. Given the support that was offered by many other European Governments, a stark contrast is to be drawn. I see that the Minister is shaking his head, but at no stage was I   offered any support or help. Thankfully, I and my friends were safe, but I know of others who were suffering. What arrived, arrived late—days after the help that came from other countries. Many people were left to make arrangements for themselves whereas they could and should have had support offered to them by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Having read the report, I know that the Department says that it has learned the lessons. I certainly hope so, because the services that were offered were not very helpful.

I pay tribute, however, to the Thai Government, who were very helpful, and assisted us in finding alternative accommodation. They also helped many of the injured. As I said, I hope that the British Government have learned lessons from the disaster. Like many others, I   shall go to the area in a few days' time, and I hope that people remember those who lost their lives.

Finally, I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Mr. Speaker and everyone associated with the House all the best for the new year and Christmas.

6.5 pm

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