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12 Jun 2006 : Column 582

The hon. Member for Broxbourne pointed out, in his wide-ranging but interesting speech, that fraud is not a victimless crime. The Bill will help to tackle many of the examples that he gave of victims of fraud.

We have faced a growing threat from fraud. Tackling it requires effort by all concerned on several fronts and on prevention as well as enforcement. However, modernisation of existing criminal law is one essential building block. The existing statutory offences are specific and overlapping, yet they are not related to each other to convey the variety of fraudulent behaviour in an organised way. That untidiness in the law means that it is not always clear which offence should be charged and defendants have successfully argued that their particular deceptive behaviour did not fit the definition of the offence with which they had been charged.

Our reform efforts date back to 1998, when the then Home Secretary asked the Law Commission to consider whether a general offence of fraud would improve the criminal law. This is a tricky area of the law and the commission consulted stakeholders and gave the issue the most careful consideration. The 2002 report was the result. It decided that it was not a realistic solution to plug loopholes in fraud law by adding more specific offences, as has been done in the past. Such piecemeal law reform leads not only to further complexities and the potential for charging defendants wrongly, but means that the law will always be lagging behind any development in technology or new methods of committing fraud—a point that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I congratulate the Minister on his promotion. Clearly criminals are increasingly using more sophisticated IT methods, on which the police will need to be constantly trained and retrained. Can he give the House some assurance that the police have systems in place to be able to do that and that they are not going to find that they are continually outsmarted by ever-smarter criminals?

Mr. Coaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. There is always a race between the police and the criminal. The police are always racing to keep up with the criminal, but in the brief time I have been in post I have been to the Serious Organised Crime Agency and other agencies that are at the cutting edge of technology and are trying to ensure that they keep up with the criminal. They are soliciting support from all over to try to do that, including from the private sector. I have seen examples of those agencies working with various internet and computer companies, using their expertise and experience to try to ensure that, as far as possible, they keep up with developments in IT and the internet to tackle crime in the way that we would all want.

Our reform dates back to 1998, when the Home Secretary asked the Law Commission to look at this issue. The 2002 report was the result, and it was decided that the proposal to which I referred earlier was not a realistic solution that would plug the loopholes. Piecemeal law reform leads to further complexities and to the potential for charging defendants wrongly. As I said, the law will always lag behind new developments in technology.

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The Bill introduces a general fraud offence, as recommended by the Law Commission, which does not focus on specific acts, as previous fraud statutes have done. Instead, it defines three broad ways in which fraud can be committed. The aim is to cover a variety of fraudulent behaviour, and that the offences should continue to be relevant as methods of committing crime and technology change and develop. The offence of obtaining services dishonestly is also important, as it plugs a legal loophole whereby fraudsters obtain services over the internet but are not subject to the current fraud law, as they have not deceived a person.

The shift in emphasis that the Bill brings—toward dishonesty and away from deception—is a critical and powerful element of this legislation. While it has always been the case that attempts to commit deception offences can be charged, the Bill simplifies the law and avoids the difficulties that arise from the narrowness of the existing offences. In simplifying the law, the Bill will make it more easily comprehensible to juries and the general public, and make the prosecution process more effective by providing a clear definition of fraud. The aim is to encompass most forms of fraudulent conduct within a law that is flexible enough to deal with developing technology. That could prove particularly beneficial in complex and serious fraud cases, and could shorten the time taken by each trial and lead to more efficient prosecutions.

In the end, the Bill will help us to prosecute the criminal and to defend victims—a goal common to us all. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),


Question agreed to.




Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With the leave of the House, I shall put motions 5 and 6 together.


Home Affairs


Statutory Instruments


Royal Shrewsbury Hospital

7.2 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I present a petition about the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, which is a very important hospital that covers not just the residents of Shrewsbury but many people throughout the whole of Shropshire, and many in mid-Wales who come across the border to use our services. It has been signed by 2,968 of them and reads as follows:

To lie upon the Table.

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Health Services (Gloucestershire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Michael Foster.]

7.3 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I rather regret the need for this debate, but having said that, I am pleased to have secured it and thank the Minister for attending. I want to set out the picture regarding health services in Gloucestershire and seek clarification from the Minister on a number of issues.

There are three primary care trusts in Gloucestershire and one hospital trust. Cheltenham and Tewkesbury primary care trust, which covers most, but not all, of my constituency, is in surplus, but other trusts have been in deficit. The result is that across the county, there are some £40 million-worth of deficits. All the trusts together are proposing cuts in health services amounting to some £30 million, as things stand.

There is of course great opposition in Gloucestershire to this proposal. I have a petition with more than 2,200 names on it, which I hope to present to the House in the next few days. That constitutes a high percentage of the population affected. Indeed, there have been rallies and marches across Gloucestershire. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who cannot be here tonight, initiated a debate in the Chamber on 25 May, and he has been very active in opposing the cuts. Indeed, there is united opposition to them throughout the House. Members from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, and from the Government party, will seek to catch your eye to contribute to the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and it might be helpful if I confirm that they have approached me to ask for permission to do so.

I should say at the outset that we of course have no disagreement with organisations balancing their books; every organisation must do that. Also, no one is going to accuse the Government of having cut spending on the health service, as that is not the case, so I hope that the Minister will not defend the Government against charges that I am not going to make.

I turn first to my main, particular and most immediate concern—I shall come on to others shortly—which is the proposal to close Winchcombe hospital. It was built in 1928, with a lot of the funding provided by local people and benefactors. It provides a caring and comfortable convalescence for people, especially older people, recovering from operations or other treatment. It also provides a very helpful minor injuries unit in a rural area where public transport is not particularly useful.

The White Paper on community hospitals issued some while ago made it clear that community hospitals should not close

Sensibly, it recognised the value of, and need for, such hospitals—as, indeed, do I. I was recently treated at Tewkesbury community hospital within five minutes of having had a rather nasty car accident. The staff were excellent, and I pay tribute to them, and place on the record my thanks to them. The alternative to that treatment would have been a long car journey and delayed treatment, thereby putting additional pressure
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on staff at, say, Cheltenham or Gloucester hospital. So although the White Paper opposes such closures, that is exactly what is being proposed in Gloucestershire.

People in Winchcombe are united in total opposition to the proposed closure of their hospital; they value it and they need its services. If it closes, they, too, will have to go to Cheltenham or Gloucester for immediate treatment, and those who are currently being treated or operated on in one of those hospitals will, presumably, have to be sent home early if Winchcombe hospital closes.

I acknowledge that there is a debate going on about how long people should stay in hospital, and I accept that nowadays, some people can go home earlier than they might have done in the past. Often, home is the best place for people to recover, but not always. A while ago, my daughter was sent home from hospital after a major operation the very next day, even though she had no one to look after her and had two children to look after herself. That is unacceptable these days, but if we close hospitals and reduce bed numbers, it will become common practice, which I would greatly regret.

Have the people who make these decisions considered the knock-on costs—to social services, for example? Have they calculated when people need help at home? In the light of meetings that I and others have had with Gloucestershire county council, which would have to provide many such services, it appears that those knock-on services have not been costed. According to the local primary care trust, they have not been costed. Its director of finance said today, when asked about the future alternative proposals:

How does it know that the books will balance even after the cuts have been made, if those cuts have not been thoroughly thought through or properly costed? What that director did confirm was that closing the hospital will save only an estimated £240,000 a year. How can that be right? How can that make financial, let alone clinical, sense?

I am also concerned by the lack of joined-up thinking about the knock-on costs, and generally. For example, just recently the doctor’s surgery in Winchcombe closed, and it was proposed that another one be built outside the centre. Why was no consideration given to moving the surgery to the hospital, and expanding the services available there instead of cutting them? The surgery would have remained in the centre of the town, where many old people live, and there would have been no need to build another one.

If the hospital is not needed, why are local health chiefs considering buying in several beds, for the very purpose of convalescence? We already have 22 beds at Winchcombe hospital, so why lose them and buy in beds from elsewhere? I totally oppose the proposal to close the hospital, but other cuts across the county also worry me.

For example, Delancey hospital, which is just outside my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), is also proposed for closure, but it provides a good service. St. Paul’s maternity wing in Cheltenham general hospital was opened just 10 years ago at a cost of £6 million, and that is proposed for closure. The overnight facilities at Battledown children’s ward, also in Cheltenham hospital,
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will be closed, and other hospitals in neighbouring constituencies are closing. Mental health units are being proposed for closure, and further cuts are being “considered”, but are not confirmed yet.

All that represents short-term thinking. Where will it end? The proposed closure of those and other services is extremely worrying. Why are we having those cuts at all, and whose fault are they? People are taking a stand not only because of the present proposals, but the further ones that they fear. We are not a third world country—we are supposed to be the fourth largest economy in the world—so why do we face those cuts? Are we not entitled to expect enhanced, more efficient health services, not just services cobbled together to match the particular budgetary pressures at the time?

On 6 April 2005, the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box:

My constituents have paid the extra tax, but where is the money going? All they are seeing is cuts. Yes, they are getting vague promises from local health chiefs about better provision being on the way, and that health care will be provided in a different way in future. Well, we will believe it when we see it. If there is a better way to treat patients, why was not that way pursued before? Why does it take budgetary pressure to force decision-makers to follow the correct clinical path?

Who is to blame? It is an interesting question. No doubt the Government have increased funding, but have they increased their requirements from trusts to the extent that the extra money has been swallowed up in extra costs? Or have the local health chiefs mismanaged the extra expenditure? I would like the Minister to give me her view of Gloucestershire, because I do not necessarily blame the Government. I want to explore tonight exactly where the fault lies. Who is to blame for the deficits? What is the Minister’s view? How do we sort the deficits out? It could be done by closing front-line services and making patients suffer, but it could also be done more sensibly, given a little more time.

The question that I would most like the Minister to answer—it is a crucial question that has been raised before—is about the balancing of the budget. The local trusts claim that they have to balance their books for the whole of this financial year, including making up historic deficits within this financial year. I quote from their consultation document published just today:

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