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16 July 2008 : Column 84WH—continued

On average, learners spend about £1,500 learning to drive, which is a big outlay for young people, who are keen to get better value. Young people complain that learners do not have sufficient information to plan their training properly or to choose the best driving instructor available. We will give learners a better idea of what is required through a new syllabus, which will also help instructors and others who are helping learners to practise, and a workbook to give them a much better understanding of what they need to learn and why. We want to encourage people to demonstrate that they have driven in a wide range of conditions such as at night or in bad weather. The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) raised
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both those points, and I will return to them when I respond, at the end of my speech, to comments made in the debate.

I commend the pre-pass support scheme developed by Lancashire county council, which is just the sort of positive measure we seek to help learners and the family members who are helping them with driving practice. We want to give learners better information about driving instructors through a star rating system, so that they do not have to rely on family and friends for recommendations. We are reviewing the way in which instructors are trained and tested, before they qualify and after they are registered, to help them all to offer the best tuition possible.

The practical test is seen as the end of formal learning, and learners are not encouraged to continue developing their skills. We want to create incentives to learn in new ways, both pre- and post-test, to gain bankable additional qualifications. We want to develop additional qualifications to supplement the driving licence, working with employers and insurers. Our consultation document explains why we are not proposing restrictions on newly qualified drivers. Briefly, if we have to impose restrictions on people after they have passed their driving test, we have failed to train and test them properly. I recognise that newly qualified drivers have too many accidents.

Mr. Prentice: The British School of Motoring, which knows about these things, tells us that the most sensible way to reduce accidents in the newly qualified driver group would be to have a graduated licence scheme. That is what the instructors are saying. Why does my hon. Friend the Minister repudiate that advice?

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend mentions that driving organisation; he also described measures in other countries. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby spoke about the provisions in Sweden. Some countries that my hon. Friend mentioned do not have graduated licences and those that do, which we have looked at—the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—have graduated driving systems. However, those countries have not cracked the challenge of young drivers and, although they have introduced those systems, their statistics are not going in the direction in which ours are going. We are open to argument during the consultation, but, despite the BSM’s opinion, we are not convinced that the evidence from other countries that have the types of schemes that my hon. Friend mentioned and which the Transport Committee has proposed, shows that they work in practice. That is where we are at the moment with the consultation scheme.

Our consultation document explains why we are not proposing restrictions on newly qualified drivers. I recognise that such drivers have too many accidents, but many of those are down to inexperience and ineffective learning. That is best addressed by changing the way in which we train and test people. It is unfair to penalise all young people, most of whom want to be—and are—safe and responsible drivers, with measures aimed at a minority who flout the basic rules that are already in place. I accept that there is a minority who drive badly—speeding, drink-driving and driving unlicensed and uninsured. We hope to educate young people about the risks of
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such behaviour. However, we will not tolerate the dangerous behaviour of those who do not listen to that advice. We are talking to the police and other partners who deliver road safety about how we can tackle that minority more effectively, without imposing unfair and disproportionate penalties on everybody.

We are making the consultation exercise as inclusive as possible, and it is open for responses until 8 September. We are running a series of open meetings, and we plan other events to gather the views of young people and other interested parties. Whatever the conclusion, the Driving Standards Agency is preparing plans to implement both the proposals that we decide to pursue and the way forward. That major programme of change will take several years to complete. As I said in the previous debate, young people value being able to drive and they deserve a fit-for-purpose driver training and assessment system, so that they can enjoy that important freedom safely. The hon. Member for Cheadle asked about people being tested in all conditions.

Paul Flynn: The Minister has just said that that will take several years to complete. I think that that chilled the blood of many hon. Members in the Chamber, because we are calling for a measure that will come into force quickly. I think that the evidence is there. However, I do not see the evidence for improving skills that will reduce these accidents. We know that there is a particular problem involving young men drinking alcohol at weekends. That has to be tackled with the courage of previous holders of the Minister’s post, who introduced measures such as the breath test and compulsory seat belting. If we go on consulting, tragedies will keep on occurring and we will read about them in our newspapers every Monday. Is it not time for a courageous decision by Government?

Jim Fitzpatrick: A moment ago, I said to my hon. Friend that we are persuaded that introducing such restrictions at a stroke will not have the effect that he suggests. The measures that we propose in our consultation document include the educational qualification, changing the way in which people are trained, the star-rating system, the professional career development scheme for approved driving instructors and examining people in a different way, all of which will take time to roll out and have to be piloted. That does not mean for a second that we are wasting any time in our efforts to push these statistics down further. The fact that the figures have been moving in the right direction for the past 12 months is encouraging, but no more than that, because for several years they hit a plateau.

We know that we have some of the safest roads in the world. After last year’s statistics, we are back in second place in Europe, after Sweden. We are in contact with other European partners—particularly Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway—which have good safety records to ensure that we share best practice and information and that we use that intelligence and develop it. We are about to launch our consultation on the post-2010 strategy. Our 10-year strategy from 2000 to 2010 was to reduce by 40 per cent. the number of adults killed or seriously injured on the roads, and to reduce by 50 per cent. the number of children killed or seriously injured. We have achieved the reduction in child deaths and serious injuries. We are on track to achieve the reduction in adult deaths and serious injuries.

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We will consult on the next strategy and consider whether we should adopt the Swedish model of zero tolerance to road deaths. However, such a policy runs counter to British philosophy, which says that there is no point in setting a zero target because we know that we will not achieve it. Perhaps we should be more pragmatic. Let us set a target similar to that in Holland, which focuses on sustainable safety. We should consider whether we have a 10-year or a five-year strategy, and whether we separate deaths from serious injuries. The rates for serious injuries have been falling quite quickly, unlike those for deaths.

The Road Safety Foundation raised a number of questions on the matter last week. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby and I attended a launch, with other hon. Members, which focused on road safety design and engineering particularly on rural roads, on which so many crashes are taking place, including the crash that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West mentioned at the beginning of his speech. Road safety engineering is a method of bringing such figures down more quickly.

Mr. Prentice: I think that my friend is in danger of overcomplicating things. The fact is, there is a downward trend in accidents, deaths and injuries. We accept that and we have said that. The exception is young people, specifically young men. I am not asking the Minister to reveal the secret inner working of government, but has he had a conversation with the Secretary of State for Justice, my friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), about his proposals, and if he has, is the Secretary of State on board regarding his proposals?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I personally have not had a discussion with our right hon. Friend. However, the consultation document has been cleared across government. It is a Government consultation document, so the Department would have been cited. Certainly the Secretary of State for Transport, meets our right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary on at least a weekly basis in Cabinet and they have direct discussions on matters of mutual interest. I know that at departmental level, official level, and at a level above my pay grade, such meetings are taking place, but I cannot say that I personally have met the Secretary of State for Justice.

To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Cheadle, who asked about testing in all conditions, we are considering how wider knowledge and skills can be tested, not just in the practical road test but in a modern computer-based test as well. We cannot run all driving tests at night or wait for rain and snow. However, any question about breaking up the tests is a matter for consultation. The hon. Gentleman also asked about research on the scope and status of the proposed workbook. Young people tell us that they welcome the means to
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structure their learning up to and after the test. That is how they learn other vocational skills, so we are considering how best to deal with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and the hon. Member for Cheadle both asked about pass plus. We recognise the need to review and reform pass plus, as the scheme does not demonstrate any benefit to road safety. There were some initial gains, but insurance companies are cooling towards it, because it does not provide the benefits that they expected. With regard to reduced premiums for young drivers, the insurance companies say that they are interested in the “Learning to Drive” consultation paper because if it produces safer drivers, it will allow them to reduce premiums, which are high because they have to pay out so much money as a result of crashes. That is led by the evidence to a certain extent, but insurers are fully involved and interested in the consultation.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby raised the issue of motorcyclists. I may be wrong, but, from memory, I think that 599 were killed in 2006, and 588 in 2007. We have taken some very positive steps. We set up a national advisory board, which meets on a quarterly basis. Last month, we launched a new safety rating for helmets, which will prevent about 50 deaths a year. We advise motorists on the safest helmet for their particular needs. I heard what the hon. Gentleman says about his concern about travel distances, and we will watch that. He acknowledges that what we are trying to do in the more rigorous and robust tests is to make motorcyclists safer, just as we are doing for all drivers. However, I acknowledge that most motorcyclists are victims of road crashes, not the cause.

In conclusion, I return to the main issue. Hon. Members have said that we should single out young male drivers for special attention. That is not what the restrictions will do; they will restrict all young drivers, including young women. I have stressed that we are still consulting on the matter and we have outlined our recommendations. However, we are listening. This is a life-and-death issue, and I can assure hon. Members that we will continue to work across the House, within the Department and with all the agencies as hard as possible to push the horrendous figures down further. I will take the opportunity to say that we are about to consult on our post-2010 road safety strategy and would welcome any contribution from right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I thank the Minister, the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), and everyone else here for the courteous way in which the debate was handled, and for a very interesting debate. As we have the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) with us, we can proceed with the next debate. All those who are leaving, please do so quietly and speedily.

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Young People with Disabilities

10.58 am

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): When I applied for this debate, which was only publicised last week, I did so as the chair of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy. Despite that, I was inundated by children’s campaigners from Mencap, Whizz-Kidz, epilepsy support groups and Every Disabled Child Matters. They all wanted me to raise their issues here today. I explained that because of the time constraints, that was not possible. However, the needs that I will raise today are linked, and may be addressed by some of the issues that we will discuss today. The fact that I do not go into any detail about the diseases does not mean that those campaigners do not have a genuine case that should be listened to by Government.

Within the all-party group on muscular dystrophy, we have worked very hard. I became a chair of the organisation three years ago. We have done a lot of good work with Government and have persuaded them to give us money for research to try to find a cure. In particular, we have discussed the lack of support across the country. In certain areas of excellence, particularly Newcastle and London, people who suffer from these problems get a much better deal than those in the rest of the country.

I shall consider the issue of the quality of life for people who suffer from these diseases and also how we can give our young people the best possible opportunity to make their way in life. I shall also consider how they can be given access to as normal a life as possible because quite clearly the young people who are affected by these diseases cannot live the normal life that most people in this room have. It is our responsibility to go as far as we can to make sure that their life is as good as possible and of the best quality.

What are we talking about? What is the scale of muscular disease in this country? There are more than 60 different types of muscular dystrophy and related neuromuscular conditions in the UK. It is estimated that for every 1 million of the population, more than 1,000 children and adults are affected by muscle-wasting diseases in the UK. Those disorders can be genetic or acquired. A number of the conditions, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, hit young boys very hard and are particularly aggressive. They cause progressive muscle wasting, weakness, orthopaedic deformity, cardiac and respiratory compromise, and result in premature death. Many young boys in this country—two a week—are dying before they get beyond their teens. That is quite simply unacceptable.

Other types of the disease cause long-term and lifelong disability for many people. Some disorders can present in childhood or in young adult life; others have late onset conditions in adulthood. However, the sad reality for those suffering from all these diseases is that there is no cure, which is even more reason for us to do everything that we can to make life as good as possible for such people.

It has been shown that a lack of specialist diagnosis, treatment and care for these conditions, particularly for people with life-limiting conditions, can negatively affect their life expectancy. On the other hand, where neuromuscular specialist services are available, they have
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a real impact on quality of life—even if they do not necessarily improve life expectancy. Another common factor associated with the disease is that patients almost always have heart-related problems. Muscle weakness is also often associated with poor ventilatory ability and respiratory failure, which is often overlooked by professionals, who are unfamiliar with the conditions. I do not wish to criticise those professionals; that is just the reality of what we are dealing with. Pain management is a common feature of the daily life of those suffering from such conditions and can cause nerve deterioration.

Despite the above points, neuromuscular services are not yet recognised as specialist services by the Department of Health. That is one of the things that we in the all-party group on muscular dystrophy are strongly arguing and campaigning for. In September last year, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign published findings taken from interviews with young adults living with these conditions. Those findings resulted in the launch of a new campaign called “Bridging the Gap”, which aims to improve the transition into adulthood for young people and ensure that it is as smooth as possible, particularly for those suffering from these diseases and neuromuscular conditions. We, as a society, need to do all we can to ensure that the young people inflicted with these conditions are provided with the best possible access to appropriate work experience, proper training, higher and further education and good quality employment. Those for whom paid work is not an option should be given valued activities.

Sharp research—an independent research agency—interviewed 20 young people with the condition about their university plans and the experiences they have had. The list is in the report, but I shall mention some of the findings. Students found it difficult to find employment during university holidays. Some social services departments had little idea about how to implement feasible care packages for disabled students going away to university. Students who remained at home because of that felt that they had missed out on key parts of university life. The short time between A-levels and the start of a term sometimes caused delays because universities only started to make adjustments once they knew disabled students would definitely be attending that place of learning. Many universities reported that there was a huge amount to organise and their No. 1 plea is, “Help us to plan early for others coming along.”

Following the success of last year’s campaign, the charity was awarded £250,000 by V—the youth volunteering charity—to set up a young network of campaigners across Britain. Yesterday, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign launched the new campaigners’ network, Trailblazers, at the annual general meeting of the all-party group on muscular dystrophy. Trailblazers aims to be part of the antidote to the problems identified in “Bridging the Gap” interviews by providing a real voice to young people with neuromuscular conditions.

The Trailblazers network has 12 regional campaign groups that are led and run by young people with these conditions and other disabilities. The groups will identify, research, report and campaign on issues that are important to them in their region. Our vision is to ensure that all young people with these conditions can access work experience, training, higher and further education, and quality employment.

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The challenge facing the Government and us as a society is huge. Those people involved with the issue are very aware of the skills gap in this country. The reality is that by 2020 few people who do not have sills will be able to get into work. It is estimated that by 2020, 40 per cent. of jobs will require people to have at least a level 5 qualification before they can get a foot through the door. As of last year, 40 per cent. of disabled people had no qualifications at all. That is the size of the problem we face. Out of all the people not in work, 40 per cent. have a disability or a long-term health condition. The number of disabled adults of working age living in relative poverty has increased during the past decade. More than one third of all people in this country with no formal qualifications are disabled. In fact, figures from the Minister’s own Department show that the current employment rate of disabled people is only 50 per cent. compared with 74 per cent. for non-disabled people.

For disabled people with a higher education qualification, the “lacking but wanting work” rate of 14 per cent. is actually higher that that of non-disabled people with no qualifications at all. We must be concerned about the lack of employment opportunities for people with neuromuscular conditions. Not all disability employment advisers at job centres have adequate knowledge of these conditions—again, that is not a criticism of them personally, but of the system that they work in. There is a need to develop a small specialist team of disability employment advisers who have the knowledge and can go out and give specialist advice and support to staff in local offices.

We have to face up to the fact that, as a Government, our economic ambitions for ending child poverty and giving young people the best start in life will not be achieved without much more innovation and investment to raise the skill level of disabled people. Increasing the number of disabled people in mainstream employment will also help to achieve equality for disabled people in society overall, which is, after all, one of the ambitions of my Government.

Skills are critical to people getting on at work—as well to people getting into work and, critically, staying in work. Disabled young people want and need a highly personalised package of education, training and support that meets their individual needs. What does that mean in the real world? Judith Merry, who is 19 years old and whom I met yesterday for the first time, is in attendance today. This is what she has to say:

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