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17 July 2007 : Column 52WH—continued

Will the Minister accede to that request from a bereaved father?

The next issue may not be the Minister’s direct responsibility, but I want to apprise him of it so that he has a full picture of exactly what happened, and of the interplay of his Department with local authorities and justice Departments. The issue is the role played by local authorities’ gritting departments.

One of the key lessons to be learned from this tragic accident is the need for a national review of the protocol that governs arrangements for gritting roads that cross county boundaries. This accident occurred 0.9 miles from the Denbighshire border. The A547 runs for approximately five miles between Rhuddlan in Denbighshire and Abergele in Conwy, and the accident occurred almost on the border. On the day of the accident, the Denbighshire side of the A547 was gritted early in the morning, and I congratulate Denbighshire on that. The Conwy side was not gritted, despite the fact that accidents were reported. Had that road been
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gritted, this accident might not have occurred. A simple agreement between neighbouring authorities could help to share the gritting of principal highways and known danger spots, so that it does not stop arbitrarily at the county border. That would be eminently sensible. If someone is driving and hears rock salt knocking against the bottom of the car, they alter their driving accordingly. If they hit an icy spot after the county boundary, that can and will cause mayhem.

There was no protocol in place for any formal liaison between adjoining authorities before the accident. In fact, the inquest heard that the two neighbouring councils of Denbighshire and Conwy were always haggling over who should grit the road on which the four cyclists died. One control-room worker told the inquest:

The on-duty highways officer for Conwy county council at the time of the accident was informed of an earlier accident by the police. He told the police that the road had already been gritted that morning, but that he that he would get someone to the scene of the accident immediately. That did not happen. He had decided to take no action, and to delay his decision to send someone out until he had received more reports of crashes. The coroner also asked why notes were scribbled in the margin next to the entry of the Towyn crash, when the rest of the operative’s records were immaculate and pristine. He even went so far as to suggest that they had been altered.

Over the past five days, I have been trying to find out whether any protocol is up and running between Denbighshire and Conwy, 18 months and one winter after the accident. I have been informed that, in the great tradition of Wales, a committee has been formed, and that Denbighshire, my own local authority, is taking the lead role. When I asked to meet chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, the chief executive of Denbighshire, Ian Millar, and the chief executive of Conwy, Derek Barker, I received positive, professional responses from the chief constable and the chief executive of Conwy. However, the chief executive of Denbighshire said:

One would not have thought that we were discussing the deaths of four innocent people. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister is as appalled as I am at that response. Mr. Millar has missed the big picture. Death is not a devolved matter. Wherever it occurs, we must look at the reasons, learn from mistakes and spread best practice around the UK and beyond.

Cross-border issues are of concern in the four nations of the UK. They are of particular concern in Wales, because we have 22 small local authorities with thousands of miles of borders and thousands of miles of roads crossing those boundaries. The matter should be considered seriously.

I now turn to the remaining issues that I want to raise, and again, the Minister may have only tangential, indirect responsibility, but I hope that he will take these issues back to his colleagues. The driver of the car involved in the crash, Mr. Robert Alan Harris,
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admitted that he was driving too fast for the weather conditions. His car had three defective tyres. A collision expert, PC George Skinner, blamed Mr. Harris for failing to drive at an appropriate speed for the road conditions. The ice on the road was patchy and there were enough dry patches for Mr. Harris to regain control of his vehicle. PC Skinner said that if Mr. Harris had paid attention to the freezing conditions and not driven at 55mph, which was his estimated speed before the crash, it might not have happened. He said:

He also said:

but added:

Despite all that evidence, the Crown Prosecution Service refused to prosecute Mr. Harris. The family have said that they were badly let down by the CPS. The coroner said that, and I say that. The family said:

I want to apprise the Minister of the time taken by the inquest to reach its conclusion, and of the added burden on, and torment of, the families affected. The whole process could have been speeded up if the police, Conwy county council and their legal and insurance advisers had co-operated more fully with the coroner, John Hughes.

I do not expect the Minister to respond to the last two points, but I shall take them up with the Ministry of Justice and with the Prime Minister at Question Time tomorrow. I hope that the Minister will be able to meet me and the families when the police and the local authority have concluded their inquiry into the coroner’s report.

1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) not only on obtaining this debate and raising the important issue of safety on our roads, but on the dignity with which he has campaigned and the gravitas with which he conducted himself during a difficult debate. That is a credit to him and his constituents.

I was sad to hear of the tragic death of the four cyclists, Thomas Harland, Maurice Broadbent, David Horrocks and Wayne Wilkes, on a practice ride on the A547 near Abergele in north Wales on 8 January 2006. I express my deepest sympathies to their families, and pay tribute, as my hon. Friend did, to the dignity with which the families have conducted themselves following this terrible event.

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I am perfectly happy to meet my hon. Friend and the families to discuss with them the matters that he raised and his ideas so that, as Mr. Harland said, something positive comes out of this terrible tragedy. I am perfectly happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the whole issue of reporting to the police, what action the local authority should take and what protocols are in place. As far as I am aware, protocols do not exist, and the issue is an operational matter for each force, which will have systems by which officers report to the control room as they think appropriate, and the control room contacts agencies as it thinks appropriate. Following the accident and the coroner’s report, it will be necessary for North Wales police to consider the situation, and one would hope and expect that following what happened, other police forces will also consider it. Again, we may discuss it at a meeting to understand the way in which we can take the process forward.

My hon. Friend appreciates that I cannot comment in detail about the police handling of individual cases, particularly as I understand that that incident is still the subject of a continuing inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which North Wales police voluntarily requested. I shall turn in a while to the inquest into those tragic events, and to what has emerged from it, but first I shall briefly outline the general situation regarding police investigations of fatal road collisions, and the Government’s position with respect to it.

The investigation of road traffic collisions and the enforcement of road traffic law are entirely operational matters for individual chief police officers. However, the police service is duty bound to investigate all serious incidents, particularly those involving death or serious injury, professionally and thoroughly. They will of course be expected to gather all the evidence from the scene, so that follow-up action can be taken as appropriate. In undertaking that work, all police forces now use the Association of Chief Police Officers road death investigation manual.

The manual brings out the need to investigate road deaths and serious injuries in order to serve justice. It recommends best practice for such investigations, and its overall aim is to standardise and improve the criteria observed during an investigation, and to promote a consistent approach. Of course, the manual’s guidance and police best practice are relevant only after the event, when the tragedy has already occurred. What concerns us more is trying to prevent such tragedies in the first place. Indeed, my hon. Friend said that we should learn from what has happened in the incident under discussion, and that, although we cannot rewind the clock, as much as we would all like to, we should work out whether any lessons can be learned from it to prevent such a tragedy occurring again.

Roads policing and police motoring law enforcement have a vital role to play. That is reflected in the roads policing strategy statement, which was agreed by the Home Office, the Department for Transport and ACPO, and published in January 2005. It cites reducing road casualties as one of the five key actions on which roads policing will focus. It may be that during my next conversation with the ACPO lead on road policing, I
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can mention some of the general issues about the investigation of road traffic accidents, and the way in which the manual is applied, to work out whether lessons can be learned from the tragedy that my hon. Friend has described.

I now turn to the outcome of the inquest, and to any lessons that there might be for the police, especially the North Wales police. The inquest jury ruled out accidental death and returned a narrative verdict, delivering factual statements on events leading to the fatalities. They decided that the deaths were a direct result of an out-of-control vehicle crossing the carriageway and colliding with the oncoming cyclists. From the evidence, the jury deemed the following points to be contributing factors: the vehicle was being driven inappropriately for the adverse weather conditions; there was a serious lack of communications and guidance in the following areas, with critical information not being passed on to key personnel by all parties involved within the North Wales police area control room, between Conwy borough council and Denbighshire county council and between Conwy borough council’s duty officer and his field staff. Conwy borough council lacked a proactive approach to its legal responsibilities, particularly with reference to its out-of-hours service.

The coroner subsequently publicly made his own critical comments about the North Wales police control room, communications between the councils and the failure to prosecute the driver of the vehicle involved—a point that my hon. Friend made. He knows that the last point is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service, and I cannot comment on it. However, following the inquest, the coroner also wrote highlighting his concerns to the chief constable of North Wales police.

At the inquest, there emerged one issue that I know is of particular interest to my hon. Friend: road gritting. As the inquest jury were informed, North Wales police had earlier that day, following a motorist’s report of skidding, advised Conwy council that roads needed treatment. It was then a matter for the council to review the state of local roads and take action accordingly. I understand that the council has reviewed its procedures, and that it has measures under way to improve communications.

Chris Ruane: As I said in my speech, one incident was reported, which was actioned by the police control centre. There were, however, another three incidents involving police officers during that morning, and the information was given to the police control centre but not to the local authorities. That is a Home Office responsibility, so may I ask my hon. Friend to comment on it? There was a lack of action on behalf of the police.

Mr. Coaker: As I have said to my hon. Friend, I shall review all his remarks today to work out whether there is anything that we must do in response to them. The point that I was also trying to make is that the lack of communication, as the coroner pointed out, is one of the key aspects that the local authorities have analysed in order to ensure that they do not happen again. It will clearly be something that the police themselves must analyse to ensure that they, too, have listened to the coroner to work out whether they need to change their practices and procedures. In trying to reassure my hon. Friend, I shall of course review his remarks to work out whether there is anything that we must do in respect
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not only of north Wales, but, as he has made it clear, of the rest of the country in order to prevent any such occurrence, due perhaps to a lack of communication, anywhere else.

More generally, I know that the North Wales police roads policing unit works in collaboration with local authorities and the Mid Wales Trunk Road Agency to identify routes with collision cluster sites. A multi-agency site meeting follows every fatal collision to identify opportunities for remedial engineering work, which is exactly the sort of co-operative working that we need, and I welcome it.

From the comments that my hon. Friend, the families and the north Wales public have made following the accident, the key issue is about people working together and communicating with one another. Whenever something as terrible and awful as that event takes place, it is incumbent on all of us with responsibility to reflect on it, work out whether there are lessons to be learned and put in place, as far as we possibly can, procedures and practices to stop it happening again.

In addition to those actions, the police consider education and enforcement and tailor their activities to address the relevant features of any emerging trend. Where appropriate, “red routes” will be established, enabling local authorities and the Mid Wales Trunk Road Agency to prioritise engineering work, and the North Wales police to deploy roads policing officers to key locations for visibility and enforcement. Again, it is recognised that road safety involves a number of different agencies.

The police will fulfil their role of patrol and enforcement, and I am sure that the local authorities and others will play their part in ensuring a co-ordinated approach. North Wales police also recognises the particular vulnerability of road users who are cyclists, and in partnership with its local authorities, it is seeking to adopt the updated cycling proficiency training and test, Bikeability, which has been introduced in England with the aim of giving cyclists—children and adults—the skills and confidence they need to ride their bikes safely. North Wales police is also involved in implementing the “Safer Routes to Schools” programme.

I have been in touch with North Wales police, and I assure my hon. Friend that it will consider the coroner’s observations very seriously. As I have mentioned, it has already voluntarily referred the handling of the incident to the IPCC, and the investigation is not yet concluded. When it is, the police will have to consider what it says.

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss in more detail the points that he has raised. The key issue is for everyone with responsibility for safety on our roads to work together and communicate effectively. Although we cannot bring back those who unfortunately have gone from us, all of us, as Mr. Harland and no doubt the other families would wish, can as far as possible try to learn from that tragedy, to ensure that not only in north Wales but elsewhere, any such event does not occur again where it could reasonably have been prevented.

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NHS Emergency Care

1.30 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): It is a delight to speak under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I am pleased to have obtained a debate on this issue as it is one of the most important things facing patients and staff in the national health service. I am delighted to welcome the new Minister, especially as this is a one-to-one debate. The huge advantage of such debates is that one gets the undivided attention of a Minister for half an hour. I am pleased that the Minister could come and I thank him very much.

Miss Begg, you and the Minister will have noticed that I am sitting bang in the middle of the Chamber. My regret about the main Chamber is that there are no seats bang in the middle so I have to sit on the Opposition side. I am sure that the Minister will have noticed that I not infrequently vote with the Government on NHS issues. I regard my job as voicing the concerns of patients and staff, both of whom I am in close touch with, to help the Government to get things right. In so many ways, they have got things right in the NHS, and I am the first to acknowledge that, but we must address the problems with emergency care.

The recent Opposition day debate on access to NHS care showed that both sides of the House recognised the problems with access to emergency care. I shall divide my contribution into two parts. First, I shall address access to emergency care. Secondly, I shall suggest a long-overdue classification of hospital emergency departments so that people will know what they will get at the end of their journey.

Access to emergency care is confusing and poorly understood, especially in areas that have lost their accident and emergency department. There are at least eight options for people who are worried about a sick child, who are sick themselves or who have a wife in the late stage of pregnancy. They can do the following: dial 999; go to an accident and emergency department—if there is one; go to a minor injuries unit; go to a walk-in centre; contact their GP, but that is only possible a third of the time because GPs are only there for a third of the hours of the week; and out of hours they can call the GP out-of-hours service or NHS Direct, or drop in to a primary care out-of-hours centre.

There are many confusing ways of accessing the service. That has been brought to light dramatically by the sad case of Penny Campbell who died of septicaemia. This week’s British Medical Journal contained a comment on that, the last paragraph of which stated:

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