In a wide-ranging speech on the Loyal Address, Sir George touched on prisoners getting compensation for being weaned off drugs; reform of the Coroner Service; road pricing; the probation service and reform of the House of Lords. See below for text
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). I hope that he will excuse me if I do not follow every subject that he touched on, but I want to mention the probation service in Hampshire if I have a moment. I want to speak briefly on both transport and home affairs, but dealing with subjects that have not been touched on so far. I shall begin with transport, after a short detour to the section in the Gracious Speech on enhancing confidence in Government statistics.
If people speak to folk in the City, they are absolutely convinced that the Government stand behind the borrowings of Network Rail. If people speak to Ministers, they are absolutely confidentthat there is no such contingent liability. That misunderstanding is of enormous convenience tothe Government because, of course, it displays Government to be more prudent than would otherwise be the case, but both sides cannot be right. The National Audit Office has classified the borrowing as public borrowing; the Office for National Statistics has not. If we are to have a Bill that enhances confidence in Government statistics, perhaps it can resolve that statistical conundrum once and for all.
I want to talk about the Bill on road pricing. If the Government want some political cover while they advance into dangerous territory, I am happy to provide some for them. As with congestion charging, it is an area in which the Government are following, rather than leading. They let Ken Livingstone take the flak on congestion charging, and then moved in behind him. Let me ask the Secretary of State for Transport a pub quiz question: who was reported to have said the following, and when?
“Britain’s 21m motorists can expect to pay for using the nation’s 2,000 miles of motorway network within four years”.
The answer is John MacGregor, on 25 April 1994. As one of the successors to his post in what is now the Department for Transport, I recall that when the Major Government fell, our policy was that motorway tolls would be introduced, subject to the satisfactory completion of technology testing then under way.
The 1996 White Paper, “Transport: the Way Forward” committed the Government to
“introducing good price signals, ensuring as far as possible that transport costs included environmental and other economic costs”.
After 1997, the trail went cold until July 2003, when the White Paper “Managing our Roads” was published. It included some elegant but essentially bland sentences, such as:
“A system of road pricing might allow motorists to make more informed choices about how and when they travel”,
“Nonetheless, it is increasingly realistic to consider the possibility of a road pricing regime in the UK as necessary.”
Sir Humphrey would have been proud of that last sentence. To be fair to the current Secretary of State, he has made the courageous statement that such a scheme will come into force by about 2015, depending on the results of a large trial scheme.
Of course, important questions about road pricing need to be answered, but political commitment to the issue has been lacking, and without it, we simply will not get a sustainable and balanced transport policy. We seem to have reversed from the position held in 1994, even though technology has moved on and made the proposal more practical. I believe that road pricing should be introduced with nil net cost to motorists; in other words, the revenue from tolling should be offset by reductions in petrol duty. Road space is a scarce resource, and there is neither the political appetite nor the financial resource to meet current and potential demand by expanding the road network. Indeed, our environmental commitments do not allow us to build our way out of congestion.
We must make more intelligent use of the road space that we have. When practical, we should nudge journeys on to public transport, and discourage journeys at peak times. Crucially, we need to price roads on the same basis as other modes of transport, which have different tariffs at busy times. At the moment, we pay for using the road through vehicle excise duty and petrol tax, but neither is sensitive to costs. Road pricing can reduce congestion and help road users, and it can benefit the national economy, too. The policy can be sold to motorists; indeed, the motoring organisations are not, in principle, opposed to it. I hope that when the Secretary of State for Transport gives his winding-up speech he can advance on what he said in May:
“I am clear that we need to explore the scope for developing a national system of road pricing. I want to set out the work we will be taking forward in the next few months to move the debate on.”
I believe that it is the Government, rather than the debate, who need to move on.
Mr. Andrew Turner: Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a model, or pilot scheme, of road pricing that the Government may wish to examine, which, uniquely, does not involve roads? In the stretch of water between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, the cost of crossing depends very much on the time of day and the place at which one chooses to cross. I am sure that it would help the Government enormously to examine that model. Perhaps they would then recognise the need to recompense my constituents for some of the costs of crossing that stretch of water.
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes the point that there is water pricing, and if that is possible, so is road pricing. He also makes the point that travellers are accustomed to differential tariffs. I simply propose extending a well established principle to the only mode to which it does not already apply.
The price signals for travel are moving the wrong way. In 1997, the regime for controlled rail fares was the retail prices index minus 1. That gave a clear signal that, in real terms, the cost of rail travel would fall. Since then, that signal has been switched from green to red, as rail fares have increased in real terms. We are
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promised a White Paper on rail in the new year, and I hope that it will make it absolutely clear that capacity will be increased to meet demand, and that demand will not be choked off, using fares. I hope, too, that there will be something in the White Paper on a particular hobby-horse of mine: rail-cycle integration.
While I am on the subject of bicycles, I should like to address a transport issue closer to home. I hope that we can improve facilities for visitors who come to Parliament by bicycle. We have looked after ourselves, and there is now adequate provision on the parliamentary estate. Visitors, however, must use the underground car park in Abingdon street, or the racks on Millbank. Most meetings take place in Portcullis House, so we need racks on the Embankment outside that building, and I hope that discussions with Westminster city council on the subject will bear fruit.
I want to talk briefly about coroners. I confess that until recently I had not taken much interest, in my30 years in this place, in the coroner service, but in February 2005, some constituents came to see me about their daughter-in-law, who died in hospital in Oxford in 2001. An inquest was necessary because of the circumstances of her death, which was possibly a suicide, but when they came to see me, the Oxford coroner had not yet held the inquest, and that was causing some distress. I wrote to the coroner in February and received an answer in May, telling me that there would be an inquest in July. It did not take place, so I went on writing. Eventually, I had to write to the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who replied in February this year, saying that the coroner
“acknowledges that he has not responded to your letters as he would have wished. He attributes this to pressure of casework”.
I was told that the case would be listed for a jury inquest in June or September this year, but the inquest has still not been held, even though the death took place more than five years ago. We need a better system. Again, the story is one of slow progress by the Government.
In 2000, Harold Shipman was convicted, on sample charges, of murdering 15 patients, although the real total of victims is likely to be nearer 250. The Government set up two reviews: a judicial inquiry by Dame Janet Smith, and a wider fundamental review of the death certification and coroner systems, led by Tom Luce. Both reviews reported in summer 2003, more than three years ago. They concluded that the death certification and coroner systems provided completely inadequate safeguards against homicide, and had a number of other serious defects, too. In particular, they mentioned the distress that could be caused to bereaved families.
In March 2004, the Government committed themselves to a serious reform of both systems. The coroner service was to become a national service, with new responsibilities for the oversight of all death certificates, but it was to keep its historical responsibilities for investigating deaths reported to it for special examination. The Government’s proposals would largely have remedied the defects identified in the two reports. The Government promised more details within a year, in a White Paper and a draft Bill that was to be published by March 2005. Sadly, that promise simply was not kept, and those proposals have
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not been followed through. Instead, in February this year, the Minister made a statement that retreated seriously from the Government’s original proposals, as did the draft Bill that we were promised would be included in last Session’s list of Government Bills. It was eventually published in June this year.
Instead of the radical but necessary reform of the coroner and death certification systems called for in both the reports, the Government retreated from the creation of a national coroner service and left virtually untouched the existing system. That will do little or nothing to prevent a new Shipman from killing patients and certifying their deaths as natural. The Government’s proposals totally failed to remedy a defect in the death certification and coroner systems that means that death certification by doctors is completely unsupervised. Ministers did not convince the Constitutional Affairs Committee that their approach was adequate, and Dame Janet Smith told the Committee that the proposals
“go no way at all towards remedying the defects that failed to detect or deter Shipman. If these reforms go through...there could still be a Shipman out there”.
Given the mauling that the Government took from the Select Committee, it is no surprise that there is no legislation on coroner and death certification reform in their programme. However, we need to make progress, and it is absolutely astonishing that, more than half a decade after the discovery of the Shipman catastrophe, the Government are still unable to come up with, and follow through on, reforms that would adequately respond to the situation.
I want to pick up on a point that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) made about probation services. The probation service in Hampshire is one of the most progressive and successful in the country. I saw the service in action when I sat at the back during an anger management course to which men who had beaten up their partners were sent as an alternative to custody. A young probation officer in her 20s was handling 12 fairly aggressive and at times very disagreeable men, and I was enormously impressed by the way she coped with them.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many probation workers in their 20s are completely unable to deal with people on such schemes? I have witnessed the opposite of what he described.
Sir George Young: That underlines the point that I was making: the probation service in Hampshire is well recognised and progressive. I am concerned that the proposed reforms may destabilise it.
I am not against private sector involvement in the probation service but I hope that we can keep good probation officers; I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that there are good probation officers. I also very much hope that we can keep the links with the statutory agencies—the other bodies necessary for probation services to be successful—and that we can maintain some local connections. Local boards are being abolished but a local dimension is important.
In the remaining time, I want to touch on one more subject. The people in my constituency are fairly
tolerant and easy-going, but their patience was tested by the recent news that prisoners were receiving compensation for being weaned off drugs. The matter was raised at business questions last week and the Leader of the House, a former Home Secretary, struggled to find an adequate reply. Such incidents bring human rights legislation into disrepute and funds are diverted from elsewhere.
We were led to believe that this was the Prime Minister’s last Queen’s Speech. The verdict on the Queen’s Speech, as on the Prime Minister, might be that it was a missed opportunity. On reform of the House of Lords, for example, the Gracious Speech says that the Government “will bring forward proposals”. It is a comment on the Prime Minister that with three decent majorities after three elections, at each of which we were promised House of Lords reform, in the10th year all we have is
“on reform of the House of Lords”—
the Government “will bring forward proposals”. Perhaps that could be the Prime Minister’s epitaph: he brought forward proposals.