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14 Sep 2010 : Column 214WH—continued

For many years, accident and emergency services have been operating under the rigid law of the four-hour wait target. How long someone waits in A and E before receiving treatment is important, of course. Not only does it affect the patient's overall experience of care, but timely treatment generally means better and more effective treatment. However, the problem with the four-hour wait target, an incredibly blunt instrument by itself, was that it became the be-all and end-all of performance management. Such a narrow focus led to the distortion
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of clinical priorities. I am sure that we are all familiar with tales of hospitals admitting patients unnecessarily, solely in order to meet the target. There have even been persistent allegations that some hospitals have failed to record figures properly, undermining confidence in the whole system. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that will not do.

From next April, we will introduce a range of more meaningful performance indicators balancing timeliness of treatment with other measures of quality, including clinical outcomes and patient experience. I trust that the shadow Minister will reflect on that. She is looking a little puzzled, because that is at variance with the shock-horror statement about targets and A and E that she made in her contribution.

Diana R. Johnson: Just so that we are all clear, is the Minister saying that there will still be a waiting time target for patients in A and E?

Mr Burns: No, that is not what I said. I am sure that you were listening carefully, Mr Walker, but for the benefit of the shadow Minister, I will repeat what I said, so that there can be no misunderstanding whatever. From next April, we will introduce a range of more meaningful performance indicators balancing timeliness of treatment with other measures of quality, including clinical outcomes and patient experience. Those performance indicators are currently being drawn up by the profession and will enable doctors and nurses on the ground to deploy their greatest asset: their own professional judgment. Based on clinical advice, the Secretary of State has already reduced the threshold for meeting the four-hour target from 98% to 95%, as the shadow Minister said. The move has been widely welcomed within the medical profession.

The shadow Minister will understand that the issue is about locally led, clinically led services. The same goes for the configuration of those services. It is vital that the NHS continues to modernise and improve for patients' benefit, but it is also vital that when that means reconfiguring local services, reconfiguration is based on sound clinical evidence, has the support of GPs, clinicians and the local community and considers patient choice. The days are over when a select group of people could meet behind closed doors to decide the future of local health services. In future, change will be led from the ground up, not from the top down.

Where local NHS organisations have already started to consider changing services, we have asked them to go back and ensure that the proposals meet the new criteria and, if they do not, to take steps to ensure that they do so before they proceed. We have asked commissioners to complete any such reviews by 31 October. However, we do not intend to ask the NHS to reopen previously concluded processes or to halt work that has passed the point of no return-that is, projects where contracts have been signed or building work has started.

The hon. Member for Southport discussed the lack of clear definitions for various services. When somebody walks through the doors of an A and E department, a walk-in centre or an emergency care centre, what exactly should they expect? What ailments or injuries are most appropriate for each setting? It is not only an issue of
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general confusion; it is also a matter of safety. If someone presents at a place describing itself as an accident and emergency department, but it does not have the same facilities as most A and Es, that patient could face delay and unnecessary risk.

As part of the quality, innovation, productivity and prevention programme, work on standardising urgent and emergency care is under way. Its aim is to clarify what services can be expected in various facilities. By using criteria based on clinical evidence, it should be possible to standardise those terms across the country. That is currently being done in three pilot areas: east Lancashire, Manchester and Salisbury. The conclusions should be published by the end of the year, alongside the operating framework. However, it will not state which types of service should be provided in particular areas. That decision will be made locally.

The hon. Member for Southport specifically raised the issue of children's services in his constituency. I understand that services were reconfigured across Southport and Ormskirk hospitals in 2005. As a result of that reorganisation, emergency surgeries, including adult accident and emergency, were centralised in Southport. All children's services, including A and E, were concentrated in Ormskirk, as the hon. Gentleman said.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been vigorously campaigning for the development of a children's walk-in centre for Southport for some time. Sefton primary care trust commissioned two national experts in paediatric emergency medicine to conduct an independent clinical review of that proposal. On 8 September this year, I understand that the hon. Gentleman met Mike Farrar, the chief executive of the North West strategic health authority, to raise some serious issues about the content of the report that he was shown in advance-issues such as his belief that the report mixes up issues of clinical safety with those of affordability.

The SHA has suggested that the PCT receive that report as a preliminary report, and that further work should be conducted to address the hon. Gentleman's concerns. The final report should be completed by December. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State fully endorsed such an approach when he met the hon. Gentleman yesterday. Although that will add a further three months to an already drawn-out process, I hope that it will provide a far stronger platform for moving forward. Such an approach will also underline the Government's determination that decisions about local services should be taken locally and include the views of GPs and the wider community.

On the question of children's A and E services, one important aspect of high-quality care is ensuring that a particular institution receives a sufficient volume of cases to be safe. Patients are best seen by professionals who have access to the right equipment and support services, the right specialist skills and frequent opportunities to exercise those skills. Mercifully, serious illnesses and injuries are relatively rare but, when they occur, it may be better for a patient to travel slightly further to a specialist centre where the appropriate skills are concentrated. That is why regional trauma and stroke centres have been set up and are proving such a success. Similarly, children are best seen by specialist paediatricians
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in a child-friendly environment. Of course, that is and remains a matter for local decision making, based on local demand for urgent care for children.

I shall turn briefly to the points raised by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who mentioned a number of issues concerning the provision of health care in the Hartlepool area. As he rightly said, we have had a number of debates on health care, and I am starting to feel extremely familiar with his constituency's issues, although sadly I have not yet visited it. First, on the issue of NHS 111-which was, of course, inevitably picked up by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson)-as I am sure the hon. Member for Hartlepool knows, NHS 111 is being piloted in four areas this year. We will evaluate the experiences and knowledge we gain from those pilots and roll out nationally the 111 number to replace the NHS Direct number. He will appreciate that a 111 number is more easily identifiable in everyone's mind than the far longer 0845 number that NHS Direct uses. We will wait and see what happens on that matter.

The situation that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North outlined was not quite accurate. There has been no confusion. Ironically, what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing in piloting a 111 number is simply reflecting and implementing a manifesto commitment made by the hon. Lady's party at the last election. There are times when political parties share views and think that an idea should be experimented with. I am running out of time for my speech, but I reassure her that there is no confusion.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool also mentioned the issue of A and E and ambulance services. As he will be aware, ambulance calls are put into the category of A, B or C. Any cover from Hartlepool would be imaged under that system, and who should use what type of ambulance or transport would depend on the category that their condition, illness or injury falls into. At this stage, I believe-I shall choose my words fairly carefully, so that the hon. Gentleman does not immediately intervene and contradict me-that the A and E at Hartlepool has not yet closed. If he will allow me, I shall look into the matter a little further, because I would like to know for my own education and knowledge exactly what is going on there. If he thinks it would be helpful, I will write to him after I have looked into the matter. I hasten to add that I do so simply for my own education and knowledge, because decisions must be taken locally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) raised some extremely important issues, not least those relating to mental health. She also mentioned a crucial matter that not only causes problems in the health sector, but gives rise to antisocial behaviour and law and order considerations: that of alcohol and alcohol-related admissions to A and E or minor injury units. I reassure her that considerable work on that
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is being done across Government, including in the Department of Health, because we are as concerned as she is to come up with solutions to alleviate and reduce that pressing problem, which affects all our towns and villages, particularly on a Friday and Saturday night. On the question that my hon. Friend raised about opening hours and the availability of some minor injury units at Newton Abbott, Teignmouth and Dawlish, I will make sure that her comments are drawn to the attention of the South West SHA, so that it is aware of her concerns.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) was courteous enough to give me advance warning of the issues that were of particular concern to him. I understand and appreciate the points he raised. I know that he has written to me and if a response has not yet been received, one will shortly be sent to him from the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton). I must emphasise that it is not for me to reconsider the application of the new criteria with regard to the proposed reconfigurations in the hon. Gentleman's area. That is for local people to consider. It is for GPs, the public, local authorities and local PCTs to reassess what they consider to be a viable and successful future for the services provided in Burnley and Blackburn.

The Department of Health has asked the local NHS to look at how ongoing schemes meet the new criteria, as laid down by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, including meeting patients' needs. NHS North West has advised us that that work will be concluded in October 2010, and that it will be able to advise on the process and the progress of that review then.

As the hon. Member for Burnley outlined, he has done considerable work. I encourage him to share his and his constituents' concerns again and again with NHS North West or the PCT, as is appropriate. He needs to ensure that the strong body of public feeling and opinion within his community and constituency is brought home to the relevant authorities that are considering the matter and recommending decisions on what should happen, so that they can fulfil the criteria that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set out.

In conclusion, this has been an extremely helpful and useful debate. A number of very important issues have been raised by hon. Members across the divide, and by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North. I know that there are a number of things that she will never accept, not least in the vision unveiled in the White Paper. However, as with all other areas of health care, on A and E-urgent care-I reassure her that the overriding principle of this coalition Government is to judge patients' quality of care by raised outcomes, rather than through process targets. That will ensure that we can give the finest health care to all our patients.

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Private Car Parks

12.30 pm

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Thank you, Mr Walker, for the opportunity to raise the matter of better consumer protection for those using private car parks. Having just walked through Westminster Hall, I am deeply aware that we are close to a place of great significance in our nation's history, and that the subject of the debate might sound somewhat mundane, but it has been the single greatest issue of concern expressed by constituents since I was elected in May. Indeed, even before I became an MP, when I was the leader of the local county council and a parliamentary candidate, many local people raised the matter with me. It is a concern that has been highlighted recently by the Automobile Association, the Royal Automobile Club and the Consumers Association.

I do not want to give the wrong impression; the majority of private car park operators conduct their business in a reasonable and responsible way that respects the consumer. However, there are all too many examples of private car park operations that use highly questionable methods, and I am afraid that one such operation is located in the heart of my constituency.

What is the problem? Well, more than 60 constituents have contacted me because, having visited a private car park and bought a pay and display ticket, about a week later they received a somewhat threatening letter claiming that they did not purchase a ticket and demanding payment. It is not enough for the constituent to produce evidence that they did purchase a ticket, because the operator then claims that it was not correctly displayed. Interestingly, the operator does not produce an adhesive label with the ticket so that it can be stuck to the window. By contrast, a fine issued in a local authority car park is cancelled when a ticket that has fallen off the dashboard is later produced.

Another concern that many constituents have raised, and which is a problem in private car parks across the country, is that motorists are being issued with tickets for irresponsible parking for the most minor infractions, such as having a wheel only an inch on a white line, even when there is no parking space next to the vehicle. By contrast, much more discretion and explanation is allowed in council-controlled car parks. Indeed, around 60% of appeals relating to council car parks in England and Wales are successful.

Another concern is that the clocks on pay and display meters seem to be deliberately set between five and 10 minutes fast, so when shoppers look at their watches or mobile phones they think that they still have a little more time to get back to their cars, but of course they do not, according to the meter clock, and so are issued with a ticket. By contrast, in council-controlled car parks people are allowed a grace period when returning to their cars and the clocks usually run on time.

The sheer scale of the fines that some rogue private car park operators charge is another cause for concern. The car park in my constituency charges £70 on average when a ticket is issued, which must be paid within a fortnight. If that is not paid, the operators hike up the amount by £30 every fortnight. The letters sent out have a rather threatening tone.

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Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate; I suspect that the issue is as passionate in Ceredigion as in Crawley. As he mentioned, the problem is not just the scale of the fines, but the threatening tone of the letters that demand payment. A constituent of mine, Mrs Yvonne Partington, was issued with a £110 fine and received a letter with the familiar black and white checkerboard pattern of the Dyfed-Powys constabulary, even though it came from the company she had the misfortune of dealing with. She had left the car park in good time but became stuck in a traffic jam. The photographic machine recorded her as staying in the car park, but she had attempted to leave long before her ticket was up. Those are the kind of injustices that the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and those of many other Members, are experiencing.

Henry Smith: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The strange practice of making the demand for payment look like an official ticket and the threatening nature of the letters mean that many elderly constituents become concerned and are essentially intimidated into paying the fines. Other people are worried that their credit rating will be damaged if they do not pay the fine, as that is often used as a threat.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this crucial matter to the House's attention. I suspect that every Member present has received complaints from constituents on the subject. He is absolutely right that a vehicle need be only a millimetre over a white line for the enforcement to be draconian and rapid. My point, which reinforces what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, is that the fines are pursued very aggressively. The time limits and the rates at which the fines increase are such that the average householder is unable to work out whether the claim is justified and then sort out payment. More interestingly, once a fine is hiked up to the top figure-

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): Order. This is an intervention.

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) makes a good point. I have found that there is zero compassion from the car park company in my constituency. In local authority car parks, justifiable reasons, such as a ticket falling off a windscreen, are at least usually heard fairly in an appeal, but no discretion is allowed by the private car park firms that I have been dealing with. I have never come across a case in which they have cancelled a ticket. They are simply interested in seeking the "fine" from the person they wish to charge.

Not only is that worrying for elderly residents and those concerned about their credit records, but it is starting to damage town centre businesses. Such rogue parking firms are bad corporate citizens, and their practices start to have negative effects on other town centre businesses. I have plenty of evidence for that. I was talking to a constituent the other day who told me that he simply would not go into the town centre again because he feared that he would be slapped with a fine, despite doing nothing wrong. The problem is starting to damage business.

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Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Perhaps my hon. Friend will agree that there are wider issues here. He will be aware of the Government's proposal to ban clamping on private land, which would make ticketing the only available recourse, and that would be a failure unless it was responsible ticketing. Consequently, the Government's plans rely wholeheartedly on responsible companies ticketing only in appropriate cases. Otherwise, the proposal will fail.

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I fully support the Government's proposal to ban wheel-clamping on private land in England and Wales. That has been successful in Scotland since 1992; the ban has not created any problems there. He is right, however, to highlight the fact that such a change could shift some private parking operators from their usual suspect practices to simply using the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency database, which is easy to register with, to continue issuing threatening fines. Although I fully support the proposed legislation, I feel that it might create an unintended consequence elsewhere. A complete picture would be provided by better regulation of the way all private operators issue tickets.

What is the answer to the problem? As an elected representative, I see it as my role to raise this kind of issue in this place, and I am happy to do that. However, as a politician, my instinct is not suddenly to reach for the statute book or create a new quango or agency. We have enough of them in this country-we need to trim back on quangos and agencies-and I do not think that they are necessarily the answer. I certainly do not want to place on our police officers or local authority traffic wardens the extra burden of policing private car parks as well.

I wonder whether it would be worth considering giving a power to license private car parks to the local authority-the elected local government in an area-which would, of course, be responsive through the ballot box. Local councils are used to licensing small, local outlets. Publicans are licensed by the local authority, and if they are caught consistently selling alcohol to under-age individuals, they lose their licence. Taxi drivers are another example: they are licensed by the local authority, and if they fiddle with the meter or are convicted of dangerous driving, they lose their licence to operate.

In a similar way, local councils could simply license local car park operators to operate. This could be self-funding through a small levy on the private operator, which makes considerable sums through the business. The council would be able to respond to complaints that come into the town hall, and to say, "There is clearly a problem with an operator, and the licence conditions need to be reviewed."

At present, the only way that local authorities can have any real influence over rogue car park operators in their administrative area is through planning permission, but that works only if temporary planning permission has been granted to a site. Once a precedent has been set in planning and plans have been approved, rescinding permission is extraordinarily complex and difficult-I would argue that it is almost impossible. Local authorities really do not have many powers in their armoury that enable them to defend their residents-our constituents-from such practices.

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There is another possibility. An agency that I was not aware of until recently, the Security Industry Authority, which I understand sits under the Home Office, has been-and technically still is-responsible for licensing private wheel-clampers and other security companies across the country. Obviously, if the legislation goes through-I am sure that it will-and the ban on private wheel-clamping becomes effective, part of the agency will cease to have a role. There would be a golden opportunity to slim it down, and perhaps its power in that respect could be devolved so that local authorities could have greater influence.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, this may seem like a mundane issue to discuss, considering the great issues of the day, but I have been struck by the considerable angst and upset the subject has caused constituents, and often those who are most vulnerable.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent case. He appears to acknowledge that clamping, which the British Parking Association's voluntary code says should be used only as the last resort, is in fact often used as the first resort, within nanoseconds of a ticket going over the limit, as we all know from our casework. I assume from what he says that he would welcome further regulation and a body to which people can complain and through which they can get redress.

Henry Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I spoke earlier about my political instincts, which may not be shared by everyone across the Floor. My instincts are that if an industry can self-regulate, it is probably preferable that it does so. He is right to mention the industry body called the British Parking Association, but from the research that I have done, it seems that it has failed to police its members and look after the consumer. It appears to be there to look after the interests of its members only. I certainly have yet to come across an instance-no doubt there are examples-where it has upheld a complaint by a motorist. Therefore, it seems that self-regulation is failing.

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point, and we all have to deal with such issues. Rather than introducing a complicated system of licensing or a complaints ombudsman-type procedure, would it not be better just to have clear regulation, and expressly to limit the powers of the parking companies, perhaps by making it clear that they cannot levy fines greater than the prevailing fines of the local authority, and that fines should be waived if a ticket is produced retrospectively? That kind of clear regulation could be included in the Government's current legislation on car-clamping.

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend raises a good point. My instinct is not to increase regulation-I am a fan of increased local accountability and control. I am not claiming today to know the answer. One of the reasons why I asked for this discussion was to have an opportunity to explore how best to address the situation.

Personally, having researched the issue, I think that a local licensing function need not be a burden. Licensing committees often meet for only about 20 minutes at a time, and an extra item on the agenda every so often
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need not be a problem. As for additional expense, a simple fee for applying for a licence could cover it. However, I certainly would not oppose looking at legislation to set a maximum fine, or legislation similar to that which went through relatively recently to regulate local authority car parks and set clear standards for them. It would be worth considering extending such standards to private operators.

My concern about civil cases is that most people do not have the ability or resources to pursue them, and it seems that rogue car park operators rely on that. Frankly, they scare many people into paying the fine; they think, "I'll pay the £70 because I just want the problem to go away." It seems that that accounts for 90% of their business.

The suggestion has merit, and I would ask the Government to consider a broad range of options not only to clamp down on the clampers-no pun intended-as proposed, but to ensure that the other sharp practice of some private car park operators is brought to a halt, so that the industry can be respected again. There needs to be greater clarity between private car park providers and local authority car park providers.

Thank you, Mr Walker, for the opportunity to raise this issue. I am grateful for hon. Members' contributions.

12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing this debate on consumer protection-in effect, that is what it is-for users of private land. I also congratulate him for the first time officially on his election. He had a good reputation as leader of West Sussex county council, and I hope he carries it through in this House, as I am confident he will.

This issue can be controversial and, understandably, can raise strong emotions. I note the contributions of support from my hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), for St Ives (Andrew George) and for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice).

Off-street land accounts for a significant proportion of the space that is allocated for parking in England, and highway authorities have a statutory duty to manage the traffic network to ensure the expeditious movement of traffic, as required under the Traffic Management Act 2004. Off-street land may be in the ownership of and managed by the local authority, or it may be in private ownership. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley said, off-street parking on private land has caused more controversy than that on public land.

The owners of private land are entitled to decide who may or may not park on their land, and the terms and conditions on which that land may be used. For example, national health service organisations have autonomy to make decisions that best suit their local circumstances, and private land may include land controlled by public bodies for the purpose of the point made by my hon. Friend. We uphold the right of landowners to limit and to control who parks on their land, but it is important that those who want to park there are aware of the status of the land, the terms that apply and any penalties
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that might flow from contravening those terms. It is also important that any penalties are appropriate and proportionate.

One option open to landowners who wish to limit use of their land for parking purposes is to use gates or barriers, which are relatively inexpensive to install and probably one of the simplest and most effective ways for landowners to manage use of their land. Barriers can either prevent access entirely or ensure that a charge for parking there can be collected. They also have the advantage of making it absolutely clear to motorists where they may or may not park.

However, in other areas it may not be so clear to the motorist that land is not available for parking by anyone, or they may believe that they can park with impunity. I am told that it is not unknown for motorists to park outside the kiosk at a petrol station while nipping off to transact business elsewhere. Clearly that is not acceptable, and landowners are entitled to deal with the problem. Motorists parking on private land allocated for that purpose have the protection of the Government's consumer legislation. Exactly what that protection comprises will, of course, depend on circumstances, and it is for trading standards officers to decide whether the circumstances merit action being taken.

Consumer protection legislation includes legal safeguards enabling motorists to seek legal redress if they have been unfairly penalised for parking on private land. For example, if signs or price indication about a service are misleading, or if information about high charges is available only when motorists have entered the car park and they cannot exit without paying, they may raise the matter with their local trading standards officer. In response to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley, trading standards officers may also be interested in aggressive letters that are sent to individuals. Aggressive debt collection is an offence, and may result in action by trading standards officers. I am aware of constituents who have been frightened into paying because of the threat that the sum may double and because the tone of letters is so threatening that they feel obliged to pay. That cannot be satisfactory.

Marketing information to promote the supply of parking services that is given to consumers at the entrance to the land or elsewhere is likely to be a commercial practice within the meaning of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. If such information is misleading or aggressive, or unfair in other ways, it may be prohibited under those regulations, which are enforced by trading standards officers or the Office of Fair Trading by way of injunctions and through the criminal law.

If a motorist decides to park in a car park and buys a pay-and-display or similar ticket, it is likely that a contract is established and that some or all the information on a notice at the entrance or elsewhere setting out the terms under which parking services are offered may become the terms of the contract in law. If the motorist contends that a term is unfair, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 may be relevant. Those regulations provide that unfair terms are not binding on consumers, and trading standards officers and the Office of Fair Trading may wish to take action.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 deal with misleading signs. There may be an offence under regulation 6 if material information
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is hidden or provided in a way that is unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely, or if it is omitted. That may apply if signs cannot easily be seen or read for any reason, but must be material and likely to affect the decision making of the average consumer-in this case, the motorist.

If parking charges cannot easily be seen before entry and the information relating to them is placed, for example, much higher than the motorist would reasonably expect, and the motorist cannot exit the car park without paying, that may constitute an offence, but it is less likely to be an offence if the motorist can easily exit without paying when they have seen the charges and if they decide not to park, or if the charges are around what the consumer would reasonably expect. That is because it is unlikely that the motorist's decision is affected by the omission.

Anne Marie Morris: Will the Minister give way?

Norman Baker: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I was left with only 12 minutes in which to respond and I want to answer the points that were raised. If I find some space later, I will give way to her.

Owners of private land will often want recourse to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to secure information about vehicle ownership. DVLA policy is to ensure that organisations such as private car parking operators are subject to adequate controls and safeguards before disclosing personal data about vehicle keepers. To safeguard the release of information from DVLA's vehicle record, the agency requires parking enforcement companies to be a member of an accredited trade association. To retain membership of such an ATA, the company must abide by its code of practice to promote fair treatment of motorists. Car parking operators who do not comply will face expulsion from the ATA and will not be able to access personal data in the course of their business.

So far, the British Parking Association is the only relevant ATA for the parking industry, and all members must comply with its code of practice, which covers, among other things, requirements for signage and methods of contact with motorists. The BPA'S code of practice provides that there must be signs that show in plain and intelligible language all the terms on which an operator may wish to rely. Signs must be placed at the entrance to the car park, and there must be adequate signage placed in other locations throughout the car parking area so that motorists are aware of the risk involved at the time of parking or leaving the vehicle.

The code of practice sets out the information that must be included on a ticket. That includes the parking operator's registered company name and, if the operator is using a trading name other than its registered company name, a geographical address where documents may be served, as well as details of all other communication methods, including a phone number or non-mechanical contact point by which motorists may challenge a parking ticket. Parking operators are encouraged to provide an e-mail or website address.

One condition of membership of the BPA is that the company has a complaints procedure that enables motorists to challenge any ticket that they believe was not merited. This year, the BPA will launch an independent body to consider cases in which a motorist is unhappy with the
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way that a company has dealt with a complaint, and it will be mandatory for parking companies to abide by the decisions of that body. Those that do not, without good reason, will be expelled from the BPA and will no longer be able to enforce parking restrictions on their land with the use of vehicle keeper data from DVLA. As my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley and for St Ives said, that relies on effective self-regulation by the parking industry, and we are prepared to see whether that works but we reserve the right to take further action if it does not. I note that two companies have already been expelled since the approved operator scheme was set up in October 2007, so it seems that the BPA recognises that self-regulation must not be toothless.

I turn to the suggestion that local authorities might license private sector car parks. Powers exist to enable that to be done, but it is wholly a matter for local authorities, such as West Sussex county council, to decide whether to do so. Section 44 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 enables the provision of an Order in Council to enable the operation of public off-street parking places to be regulated in England and Wales by the county council. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley may have been unaware of that when he was leader of that august body. The Government would be willing, in principle, to consider that if a county council sought it. My officials tell me that they are not aware of any such order ever having been sought by a county council.

Not only are powers available to local authorities to regulate off-street parking, but they may also, with the agreement of the landowner, take over operation and enforcement on that land. For many landowners, particularly public bodies, such as hospitals and educational establishments, local authority enforcement using the Traffic Management Act 2004, with its strong regulated framework, may be an attractive option, which enhances public accountability, but a local authority cannot force a landowner to take on that responsibility, nor can a landowner force a local authority to do it. There must be a willing partnership on both sides.

I assure hon. Members that the Government are very aware of public concern about the enforcement practices adopted by some companies operating private car parks, including unreasonable behaviour and excessive additional charges. As set out in the coalition agreement, the Government are committed to banning unacceptable wheel clamping on private land and I hope that my hon. Friend saw the Home Office's welcome announcement last month taking that forward.

We are working with the industry to ensure that the legislation is introduced smoothly and effectively, and can come into force as soon as possible. Apart from tackling outrageous and unacceptable behaviour by some clamping companies, that will help to improve the image of the private parking industry, which works well overall but has been tarnished by such behaviour and the actions of some companies. We are working with the industry to improve working practices, and to encourage compliance with relevant codes of practice.

Anne Marie Morris: I am delighted to hear that there are so many remedies. My only comment is that one must be a lawyer rather than an average driver to take advantage of them. Something should be done to make them more public.

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Norman Baker: We will do our best to publicise what is available and to ensure that good, sensible, straightforward language is used so that people can understand it.

I am grateful for the opportunity to set out-

Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair): Order.

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Maidstone Hospital (Maternity Services)

1 pm

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): In a few months' time, if current plans proceed, there will be no consultant-led maternity services at Maidstone hospital. That means that each year, 2,000 women will be put at greater risk, with potentially lethal consequences. The community in Maidstone has spoken out loud and clear, and thousands of people have signed a petition to say no. Our borough and county councillors have said no, and members of the business community have said no. As a local resident and mother of two, I also say no. In a recent survey, 97% of respondents said no, and the response rate to that survey was 77%, which is high.

We are not resistant to change and we have no hidden agenda. We do not ask for anything new, and we do not seek something different. We simply want to retain our existing services, and maintain genuine, safe choices for our community. The NHS trust tells us that for the first time, choice will be available to Maidstone mothers. There will be a midwifery-led birthing unit with six beds in Maidstone, or people can travel to Pembury, Medway, Ashford or Dartford, which all require long journeys. However, I say that mums with complications or those who need an epidural will have no local choice; mums who need a Caesarean section, or those who simply want to know that they will have the best expertise and equipment available when their baby decides to come out, will have no local choice. The trust tells us that patients will vote with their feet, but it does not mention that many patients cannot vote to remain in Maidstone.

I have with me in the Chamber a bundle of letters addressed to the Secretary of State for Health. They have been signed by 100 GPs from the Maidstone area who claim that the new journey times over bad rural roads are unacceptable. They say that the extra risk and stress to mothers in labour is unacceptable and that, worryingly, it is a near certainty that some babies who are delivered in Maidstone will need immediate medical treatment and could die or suffer brain damage while en route to Pembury or elsewhere. Those are our GPs and future commissioners of services, and they are talking about our mums, children and babies.

I will not go on too long or go into too much detail, but I can speak from personal experience because my first child arrived a month early. I was in a full service NHS hospital and was cared for by a superb midwife called Sister Butler. Near the end, my baby became tired and his heart rate started to drop. Sister Butler looked worried and suddenly there was not one but four heads around the delivery table, including a consultant, and there was lots more equipment. That happened in moments, and it illustrates how quickly an apparently normal birth can change. Baby Benjamin Grant arrived safely, but I shudder to think of the consequences if he had had to take a 50-minute journey to Pembury-that is what it would have been.

Our campaign is about community, choice and safety. The evidence against downgrading our maternity services is powerful and profound. The reconfiguration plans are utterly wrong and dangerous and will lead to fatalities. On 21 May, the Secretary of State set out new, visionary criteria for hospital reconfigurations. Those criteria show
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his commitment to reforming the NHS and giving power back to our patients and-rightly-to our health professionals.

On 7 September, in reply to my oral question, the Secretary of State said:

We have clearly demonstrated in my constituency that local GPs are strongly against the reconfiguration plan. In his recent White Paper, the Secretary of State said that there would be "No decision about me without me." Maidstone GPs and patients have answered that call: they have said no, and they have said it loud and clear. When he considers the proposal in detail at the end of the month, I urge the Secretary of State to reject the reconfiguration plan that would move services for women and children from Maidstone. I am grateful to you, Mr Walker, for allowing me the opportunity to speak, and I believe that some of my colleagues have something to say.

1.6 pm

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this important debate, and I thank her for allowing me to take up some of her valuable time to make a few points. Although she has led on this issue, it significantly affects my constituents, too. For expectant mothers in Aylesford, Larkfield, Ditton, Snodland, and the three villages of Burham, Eccles and Wouldham, the town of Maidstone-and the closest hospital-is only a few miles away.

This is an emotive issue and it is fundamentally founded on concerns about practicalities. I do not know whether the Minister has been to Maidstone and made the journey from the current hospital site to the new unit in Pembury. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, the doctors, and the several hundred expectant mothers who have campaigned on this issue would, I am sure, be delighted to show her that even if someone is transferred by ambulance, it will take a significant amount of time to reach the unit. That could be critical in an emergency. Furthermore, mothers who have further to travel to a hospital tend to leave earlier, possibly at the first twinge. Instead of arriving at the appropriate time, they end up arriving too early and using valuable resources that would otherwise be available to others. Evidence suggests that the longer a mother stays at home before giving birth, the better the outcome. Therefore, moving the unit further away could have the opposite effect to that intended in the proposals, namely better maternity outcomes.

I promised my hon. Friend that I would take up only a few moments of time, so I conclude by saying that I fear the impact that the reconfiguration will have on the busy maternity ward at the Medway Maritime hospital. Earlier this year, the hospital reported a record month for childbirth, with a staggering 434 babies born in May. Midwives at the Medway Maritime hospital already deliver about 4,500 babies per year, and I believe that a further 8% increase on that is expected each year. The hospital is fortunate to have good facilities and it is
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recognised as the largest unit in Kent. However, it too is bracing itself for the fallout from the reconfiguration. We have already seen some worrying near-misses, with babies being born in ambulances that were diverted from Maidstone.

At present, about 50 women from Medway choose to have their babies in Maidstone, but I expect that figure to be revised, and I suspect that it will be much higher following the reconfiguration. Although I appreciate that funding will follow the mother from West Kent primary care trust to Medway, the pressure that will be put on resources could prove dangerous.

The Medway Messenger newspaper has recently covered incidents of babies sadly dying due to what mothers have described as stress in the service. Clearly, any complaint should go through the proper process, so I do not intend to say anything on individual cases, but even though the Maritime is well prepared for an increase in capacity, concerns remain that increased pressure on maternity units could lead to further cases of infant mortality.

I am in no doubt that the intention behind the proposals is to improve maternity services for my constituents and others, but it is not right to do so in a manner that could put mothers and babies at risk. I urge the Minister to listen to the excellent case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald and to reconsider the proposals in order to ensure that expectant mothers in mid-Kent are given the best possible chance to deliver their babies safely and locally.

1.10 pm

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): Thank you, Mr Walker, for calling me to speak in the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) have already made very significant points. I speak as someone who was, before entering the House, an obstetrician working in the London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex training rotation as a registrar. The points that have been made are valid; I just want to add another couple of issues to the debate.

First, it is true that throughout the London, Kent, Surrey and Sussex area, there has been a push to have more midwifery-led units, but generally speaking, if we consider the example of Crawley and East Surrey hospitals, examples that are being developed in Brighton, and the Bromley hospitals, we see that the push has been to have a low-risk, midwifery-led unit alongside a higher-risk unit. We in obstetrics know that a greater number of women-rising to about 30%-are giving birth by Caesarean section, and that number is going up year on year. Many births that we initially think uncomplicated end up being much more complicated.

I will concede that in Crowborough in Sussex, there is a midwifery-led unit that is run very well for a small number of mothers who are multiparous and have a very low risk of developing complications. Generally, however, accepted obstetric practice has been to put the high-risk unit close together with, or alongside, the low-risk unit.

The other issue that I want to raise is junior doctors' training, because Maidstone hospital has very close links with the unit at Benenden hospital and shares
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gynaecology provision with Benenden hospital. If we take away the key driver of obstetric and gynaecology training, which is obstetrics, there is an issue about whether there will be a loss of gynaecology expertise at Benenden and, indeed, the whole of mid-Kent.

Having raised those few issues, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will address, I shall conclude my comments.

1.12 pm

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): I know my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) well, because he was the resident registrar at our local hospital, the Conquest. We had a major maternity campaign there two to three years ago to save our consultant-led service, and we stressed safety, which I know is a main issue for the Government. However, I would also like to stress, in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), that supporting the vulnerable is very important to the coalition Government and it is sometimes the vulnerable who are most left out of the sort of decisions that we are discussing. Vulnerable young women are sometimes not able to think ahead and plan their pregnancies. They find themselves in difficult circumstances and particularly need the support of consultants and obstetricians. I therefore support my hon. Friend in this debate, and place particular emphasis on the vulnerable; that is the issue that we led with in Hastings when we saved our service.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): It is an outstanding pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this debate on the future of maternity services at Maidstone hospital and, in particular, the consultant-led maternity services there. I know that the future care of women and their babies in Maidstone is extremely important to her, her constituents and their families. No one could have done more to represent their views. She brought to the debate her own experience as a mother, as indeed do I. Interestingly, I had four children in four different hospitals, so I feel that I have quite wide experience on a personal level of maternity services. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), who has professional experience in obstetrics. There is a wealth of experience in the Chamber on an issue that is clearly dear to many people's hearts.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the NHS staff in Maidstone and, indeed, across the south-east region, who provide such wonderful care to all the people who use it. I pay tribute in particular to those who deliver babies, by the second, around us, bringing joy to many of us.

It may be helpful if I briefly describe the wider context of NHS reform, before turning to some of the more specific issues. All health care constantly needs to adapt to changes in demography, changing lifestyles, changes in disease patterns, innovation in health care and, indeed, rising health care costs. Change is always
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unsettling, however. Constituents rely on local health services and, naturally, any suggestion of those services being moved or reorganised always causes concern. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald stated, that does not always mean that people are resistant or see change as a negative thing. That assertion-people always hate change-is sometimes used unfairly to dismiss concerns, but what is clear about any change is that it must be managed openly and transparently. It should not be dictated by politicians from the Dispatch Box or in this Chamber. It must be a collective, informed and locally made decision, genuinely driven by clinical professionals, genuinely grounded in firm clinical evidence and genuinely recognising the views of the local community.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has therefore been clear about the four crucial tests that any future change to the NHS service must pass. First, it must have the support of GP commissioners. Secondly, the public must be fully involved, with public and patient engagement duly strengthened. Thirdly, there must be greater clarity about the clinical evidence base underpinning any proposals. Fourthly, any proposals should take into account the need to develop and support patient choice. That will mean that patients, local GPs and clinicians, local people and local councils have a far greater say in how services are shaped in the future.

I understand that the proposals to centralise the consultant-led obstetrics and in-patient paediatric service in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells area to the new Pembury hospital were consulted on in 2004, and that the plans to consolidate consultant-led obstetrics and in-patient paediatric services at the new Pembury site have been agreed since 2005.

There are often strong arguments for centralisation. It is not, as is often believed, always about saving money, but is sometimes about delivering higher standards of care. There is no doubt that centres of excellence achieve that status by seeing critically high numbers of complex cases. I can cast my mind back to my own experience as a nurse and someone who worked in the NHS for 25 years. Even back in those dark days-it was a long time ago-we had centralisation of neurosurgical services and other specialties for exactly that reason. Critically high numbers of patients being seen produced centres of excellence that could deal with and make better people with rare and not commonly occurring conditions and diseases.

However, I am aware of the considerable public concerns about changes to services in Maidstone. I know that two petitions have been submitted-one to No. 10 Downing street and one to the Department of Health-and that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has written on numerous occasions to the Department to express concerns about the transfer of consultant-led obstetric services from Maidstone to the Pembury. Indeed, she has brought with her today a wodge of letters expressing those concerns.

In the light of the concerns, the council's health overview and scrutiny committee referred the case to the previous Secretary of State in February this year. He asked the independent reconfiguration panel to provide advice, and in its response the panel concluded that due process had been followed. The current Secretary of State accepted those recommendations in July and
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therefore made it clear that plans for the centralisation of consultant-led obstetrics and in-patient paediatric services at the Pembury should continue.

As I have described, however, the new Government are determined that local voices should be properly heard and that any concerns are taken seriously. The Secretary of State has also asked the local NHS to work with clinicians, GPs, the local council and patient groups, to allay public concerns and demonstrate that those four tests are met. He has asked the strategic health authority to report to him at the end of September, and we would expect that report to set out clearly how the concerns mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald-around accessibility, staffing, clinical quality and the huge concerns about transport-have been properly addressed.

I understand that the local NHS has to date conducted 26 one-to-one-interviews, 16 focus groups and addressed various other meetings and groups. Those included a focus group with nursing and midwifery staff, interviews with councils' representatives and discussions with GPs across the area. Until the SHA report is submitted to the Secretary of State, it would, of course, be inappropriate-albeit, I am sure, disappointing to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald-to speculate on what the report might say, but we must wait for that report to be published. The Secretary of State will look carefully at what the trust proposes to do, to allay those concerns and ensure that the voice of the whole community is heard in the implementation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) raised some concerns about the funding for Medway PCT. I understand that the service changes will have no impact on that funding. I also understand that South East Coast SHA has advised my officials that Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS trust has
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had detailed conversations with all the surrounding trusts about the impact of additional activity. She detailed the large number of births and concerns for a rising number of births. There is no doubt that, for anybody working in the field of maternity and anybody representing constituents who have had babies or are about to, the continuing safety of mothers and babies is absolutely paramount. I want to reassure her that these changes will provide some choice in a birthing setting for local women, who will perhaps have increased rather than decreased choice. However, what will be important is that the SHA takes full account of the impact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) also detailed some of the issues surrounding the reconfiguration for the Conquest hospital, on which I know she has campaigned. She also raised the issue of the impact on vulnerable people. At times like these, it is extremely important that we remember that there are people out there who do not necessarily get good representation and who rely on their local Members of Parliament to provide that for them. The needs of the vulnerable are critical. I fully understand that these issues arouse strong feelings.

I again congratulate my four hon. Friends who have spoken in this debate on representing their constituents so well. These decisions involve finely based judgments around how available resources should be used to achieve the best possible care for patients. I applaud the determination of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald to campaign for the best maternity services, and indeed all hospital services, for her constituents. I reassure her that it is a commitment that I share.

1.23 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Police Commissioners (Wales)

1.30 pm

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Thank you for the chance to have this debate, Mr Walker. I am grateful to other hon. Members from Wales for coming along.

Few issues exercise my constituents more than crime, and I am sure we all agree that policing is far too important for us to get it wrong. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and to question the Minister. I say that not least because the Home Office consultation "Policing in the 21st century: reconnecting police and the people" lasted only eight weeks, which is less than the 12 weeks set out in the Cabinet Office guidelines. The consultation was also done over the summer holiday period, thereby restricting consultation on this hugely important issue before the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill begins its progress.

With any new proposal on law and order, we all ask ourselves the fundamental question whether it will allow us to work better together to cut crime. The proposal for directly elected police commissioners will not do that, and it is a costly diversion. The proposal to remove police authorities and to replace them with directly elected police commissioners is opposed by the Local Government Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and, according to some reports, many Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors-not least councillors, and indeed magistrates, who have given police authorities valuable service. We then realise that there are serious concerns about the Government's proposal, and they need addressing.

Those councillors, myself and other Opposition Members feel that the proposal has the potential to politicise policing, to impinge on the availability of funding for front-line police services, to be unrepresentative of the community and to go against the coalition's desire for localism. If we set those concerns against the backdrop of the belief that the proposal would be hard to reverse once it had been implemented, we start to fear that it could damage the future of policing.

Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of any evidence at all of a public appetite for such a change?

Jessica Morden: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am not aware of any public appetite. I was about to say that, like all hon. Members, I have frequent conversations with constituents about crime, antisocial behaviour and policing, and I have yet to encounter a clamour in my constituency for an elected police commissioner. My constituents want more police out on the beat preventing crime; the last thing they want is another politician. That is what the previous Government understood when they consulted. Although the present system is not perfect, substantial progress was made, and crime is down. It is no coincidence that there are now more police and police community support officers. Following on from my hon. Friend's intervention, I would be grateful if the Minister could provide evidence of the appetite for change.

I am at a loss to know why the Government's policy is being prioritised when forces are facing one of the most challenging times financially because of the coalition's cuts. Surely, the priority is to keep as many police on the
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beat as possible. Will the Minister give me a breakdown of the cost of his proposals, because Ministers have not addressed the issue in any forum that I have attended? In a recent answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales told me that electing police commissioners and the new crime and police panels would cost not a penny more than the existing police authorities, which is clearly not the case. The LGA estimates that the elections could cost as much as £54 million. Today, the president of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales has said that crime and antisocial behaviour might increase with the cuts, particularly if the police have to reduce the number of officers because of the spending cuts. Can we really afford the proposed change?

If we take into account the cost of running the elections, the salary of the commissioner-it is a powerful role, which will presumably require substantial remuneration -the cost of his or her advisers, the administrative support, and the cost of the police and crime panel and its administrators, we have to ask whether the Government have made any estimate of the costs.

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that only a political party would be able to fund a campaign to elect a police commissioner? We would therefore have the madness of people voting for their Labour or Conservative candidate for police commissioner.

Jessica Morden: I very much agree, and I will come to that later. My hon. Friend makes the point very well.

In Gwent, the police authority costs just 0.6% of the total policing budget for each year. Can the Minister confirm that the running costs and the elections for the new system will not cost a penny more than that? The chair of the Devon and Cornwall police authority, who is a former returning officer, claims that elections alone will cost £1.9 million in his part of the world, which is £350,000 more than the existing police authority's annual budget, or the equivalent of 50 police officers. No details of the costs have been forthcoming, so could the Minister address the issue and enlighten us?

My experience as an MP working with my local force and police authority, which are very proactive and accessible to the public, is that they are open to change and would certainly welcome debate with the Government on improving the current structure. They know better than anyone the current system's strengths and weaknesses, and it is unbelievable that the Government are determined to throw away all the knowledge, expertise and experience that police authorities have acquired over the years. Given the financial constraints, why not just work with them to improve the system that we have?

The coalition seems to base its argument for elected commissioners on a survey that shows that only a small percentage of the public know about police authorities, but some Welsh police authority surveys undertaken over recent months seem to show otherwise. Will the Minister look at those surveys and the evidence that they have collected before becoming welded to this policy?

The Home Office consultation document indicates that the Government want candidates to come from a wide range of backgrounds, because they believe that the current system does not allow for that. That is bizarre, considering that one strength of the current
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system is the diversity of representation. For example, Gwent police authority is an independent organisation made up of 17 local representatives-councillors and independents-who hold the chief to account. The nine councillors come from the five unitary authorities, so each council is represented. The allocation of the nine council representatives reflects the actual votes cast by the electorate, so there is true political proportionality. As we all know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) said, candidates from political parties, wealthy individuals and single-issue campaigners are most likely to mount the most serious election campaigns. That raises the question of why the Government want to replace a system characterised by greater accountability and diversity with the new proposed model, particularly when they will semi-duplicate that system anyway by setting up smaller crime and police panels.

The consultation document proposes the introduction of police and crime panels, but is the Minister happy that they have the right balance of powers and responsibilities to provide robust checks and balances in respect of police commissioners? Will they be strong enough to scrutinise and hold a commissioner to account, bearing in mind that the commissioner will set the budget and the precept, appoint the chief and set the force's strategic direction? I am concerned that the police and crime panel will lack any teeth and will, in reality, have little say over the decisions made by the commissioner.

That leads me to one of the most worrying aspects of the Government's proposal. There is a danger that the commissioner will focus on short-term populist measures and priorities and not have proper and responsible regard for the bigger picture now and in the longer term. For example, the four police authorities in Wales, together with their chief constables, are acknowledged leaders in working together to tackle extremism and serious organised crime, and that is a hidden service to the electorate. If a commissioner, who will always have an eye on the next election, is publicly elected with the mandate of bringing in an additional 200 police officers but the chief constable wants to use those resources to tackle organised crime, who would win? With each force having a commissioner, where is the incentive for cross-force collaboration? Does the Minister agree that it would be hugely dangerous if the productive and effective work done by Welsh forces, and the hidden services that they provide, were put in jeopardy?

In view of the number of elections in Wales-next year, we will have three all-out elections, two of which will be on the same day-is the Minister worried about low turnouts and the very real threat of leaving the door open to candidates who might have more extreme views? I would be interested to hear what he estimates the turnouts for those elections will be and whether he has had discussions on the issue with the Electoral Commission.

Mr David: An important principle of policing in this country has been the need to establish a consensus about policing priorities, and the need for democratic accountability and responsibility. Is my hon. Friend aware of any consultations that the Government have carried out with the Welsh Assembly Government? We could say that policing is a non-devolved matter, but increasingly we see policing measures in effect being, in
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part at least, the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government. We therefore need to ensure that we are all pulling in one direction. Has there been any such consultation?

Jessica Morden: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The proposals will have very different effects on Wales and England. As the Minister is aware, the Welsh Assembly Government have direct responsibility for community safety matters, which results in the police in Wales working to different policy agendas from those in forces in England. I, too, would be grateful to hear what discussions the Minster has had with the Welsh Assembly Government about the proposals, and what their opinion on them is. Has he also taken into account the possible advancement of the devolved settlement? Finally, does he also plan to hold the election for directly elected commissioners on the same day as the local government elections in 2012, and has he discussed that with the Welsh Assembly Government?

To conclude, I have struggled to find anyone in Wales with any enthusiasm at all for the policy. The Western Mail has suggested that police authorities could be strengthened rather than abolished-a view that I share-because they represent a diversity of opinion, through several members, rather than one elected person with the power to wield a P45. The Welsh Local Government Association has called the idea half-baked, and has stated that it is a retrograde step, and that police and crime commissioners would be hugely damaging. The idea was rejected by the previous Government and there is no demand for change, I believe, from the public. The public care about front-line policing and our view is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it": why not work with the current police authorities to improve the system we have, saving money and using the authorities' expertise?

1.41 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): It is a pleasure to see you presiding over us today, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate, and on the clear passion with which she has put her case. I disagree, however, with almost everything that she said. I am sure that this topic will be the subject of considerable debate over the coming weeks and months, not least when the Government bring forward the legislation that will provide for the introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners as a replacement for police authorities.

I will try to take both the hon. Lady's points and those raised by other hon. Members in turn. First, the hon. Lady suggested that the consultation period was only eight weeks rather than 12. In the run-up to the formal consultation period, the Government, and I, did extensive pre-consultation with stakeholders, including police authorities and police chiefs. We have been anxious right from the beginning to discuss the matter with stakeholders, but we are also anxious to ensure that we introduce the Bill in time, and secure its safe passage so that we can hold elections in 2012.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): I have also been taking soundings, from Mark Mathias, the chief superintendent for Swansea. As my constituency is in Swansea, I shall be neutral and use Cardiff as an
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example. In a middle-class area, such as Heath, voter turnout is very high, but in the Ely area, where there is a lot of crime, voter participation is very low, and there is a concern that there will be a tendency for the person running for office to say, "Let's do antisocial behaviour in a middle-class area and deploy the resources there, because that's where the votes are, and not do so much activity in the poorer area." The output, other than the loss of the money to run the democratic process- £50 million, I think, across the UK-is that the money that is left, which is being reduced, will be targeted in the area of least operational need. Does the Minister not think that that is an inherent problem of the whole system?

Nick Herbert: I do not agree. We live in the age of transparency, and the decisions of people in elected office are rightly subjected to intense public scrutiny. Those of us who are elected to any public office have a responsibility to represent all the people we are elected to represent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree on that in relation to our own constituencies-that we must include the people who did not vote for us, and people from all sorts of backgrounds and different parts of the constituency. That is our obligation.

One thing that I will come on to is the experience of the Mayor of London. He represents a very large number of people. The enhanced visibility and accountability of that elected office has been a good thing, and it has broadly been welcomed by Londoners. I am sure that the Mayor has an acute sense of his responsibility to represent people in all sections of the community in relation to policing, and to hold the police to account. I do not, therefore, accept the hon. Gentleman's premise.

Chris Evans: I shall also use the example of the Mayor of London. Does the Minister agree that that is a political appointment? The concern expressed when I have spoken to the Gwent police authority is that the police force is being politicised. Politics does not have a role in modern-day policing.

Nick Herbert: I absolutely disagree. There are elected members of police authorities from all parties, and the chairman of a police authority can represent a party or be independent. I do not believe that the experience in London suggests that the Metropolitan police has become in any way politicised. Were that to be suggested to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, or to his staff, he would absolutely reject it. We need to ensure that the operational independence of the police is fully safeguarded, and the Association of Chief Police Officers is rightly concerned that it be protected. Of course, decisions were taken by the newly elected Mayor that resulted in the previous commissioner resigning, but I do not believe that that amounted to any kind of politicisation in the party sense.

Geraint Davies: There is an issue of geography, of making comparisons with London. We understand that London is one place-it is a metropolis. In south Wales, the perception of people in Swansea-if I may, representing Swansea West-is that the chief of police there is well integrated with local political stakeholders, including councillors, Assembly Members and MPs, and the worry is that with a ballot we would end up with a commissioner
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in Cardiff. We would become Cardiff-centric and, as I have already said, there would also be a propensity to be middle-class focused. All those things are beginning to take away to some other place the accountability of the police and their sensitivity to local problems. The problems of south Wales are very different from the problems of London, which is one place. Rather than getting closer to the people we would become more isolated, with decisions being made by middle-class people in Cardiff.

Nick Herbert: Again, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The chief constable has to represent the force and cover the whole area concerned. He succeeds in doing that, so why should not the elected individual who holds him to account? We are, of course, proposing the introduction of police and crime panels that draw on locally elected councillors to ensure that the local authorities in the police force's area have representation in holding the commissioner to account, and independence as well. That will be one way of ensuring that voices within the whole police area are heard.

I will now continue to address the points made by the hon. Member for Newport East. I have talked about the consultation period and the fact that we conducted extensive pre-consultation ahead of the formal consultation period. Even those who would disagree with us about the proposals, such as the Association of Police Authorities, would, I am sure, agree that we have been very ready to talk to them about the detail of all this and to consult widely.

Mr David: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: Yes, but I am being left with little time in which to respond to these important points.

Mr David: The Minister is being very generous. On the issue of consultation, has there been any with the Welsh Assembly Government?

Nick Herbert: Yes, and I will come to that. There certainly has been consultation, and it is important that there should be.

The hon. Member for Newport East suggested that the idea of police and crime commissioners is opposed by a wide range of people, including the Association of Chief Police Officers. Actually, it is noticeable that it does not oppose the introduction of commissioners outright; it rightly expresses its concerns about operational independence. Nor, even, is the Association of Police Authorities-although it does not support the proposal-mounting a great campaign against the change. I think there is recognition that it makes sense to work with the Government to ensure that the design of the proposals will be right. That is a sensible way forward. The Government, after all, have a mandate in this respect. Both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats stood on a platform of reform of police authorities. The Conservative party wanted to introduce a directly elected individual; that was in our manifesto. The Liberal Democrats wanted to introduce direct elections to police authorities. Therefore we have a joint mandate and the proposal is part of the coalition agreement. Our views were very clear and formed part of the manifesto that we put to the country. We are entitled therefore to introduce the Bill and proceed with the policy.

Geraint Davies: Will the Minister give way?

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Nick Herbert: I want to press on, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

Concerns have been expressed about politicisation of the police. I reject them, for the reasons I set out. We need to maintain the operational independence of policing, but as I said to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) in debate last week, on the Floor of the House, someone has to hold the police to account. In my view that should be an elected politician. We cannot have the police answering to no one. Therefore what we are discussing is simply the nature of that accountability; but politicians will be involved in one way or another.

Other concerns were raised about extremism, and that is a familiar refrain. Again, I pointed out on the Floor of the House last week that the British National party secured 2% of the vote in the general election that we have all just fought. I do not believe that it is realistic, given the nature of the electoral system that we propose, to believe that such extremists would secure the general public's support as police and crime commissioners. We are happy to trust the public about that.

Chris Evans: I thank the Minister for giving way, as I know that time is of the essence. If an extremist should be elected, would there be a mechanism to remove that person?

Nick Herbert: We are setting in place a range of checks and balances in the consultation document; they will govern the activities of police and crime commissioners. Specific proposals will relate to recall, and so on, when there is wrongdoing. However, it is up to the general public to decide who they want to elect. As democrats we should trust the people. We go down a dangerous road if we start to prescribe who may or may not stand for public office.

Jessica Morden: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: I shall give way on this point, but I repeat that interventions are leaving me little time to respond.

Jessica Morden: In view of the sensitive information that a police commissioner might be privy to, is the Minister saying that there would be no checks at all before a candidate put themselves forward for election, or was successful?

Nick Herbert: Perhaps the hon. Lady could tell me what checks are placed on politicians elected to this House when they assume high office. That is not the basis on which we work. We have a system of public scrutiny but we trust the people to elect to office the politicians they prefer. In relation to the hon. Lady's contention about the appetite for change, I believe that there is a strong appetite for the police to be connected with communities, and to be visible and available. We live in the age of accountability and transparency, when people expect public bodies to answer for their performance. The problem with police authorities is that they are relatively weak and to be invisible bodies. The public do not, in the main, know who they are. Creating a single point of accountability, so that a single individual holds the police to account, will hugely enhance accountability.
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We saw that in London: through the persona of the Mayor, albeit that he delegates decisions to his deputy, people feel that he has a responsibility for London's policing. That has broadly been welcomed, and I believe there will be a very beneficial effect on policing.

The proposal is an important part of the exchange we want to effect: we want to reduce the degree of central direction of the police that has accrued in recent years, as police forces have been subjected to increasing interference from the Home Secretary and the Government. In my view, the old, tripartite arrangement of a balance between the chief constable, the police authority-representing the local-and the Government or centre, has been distorted. Our proposal is an important reform, which will enable us to reduce central interference, target and central direction, while ensuring that the police are properly held to account, in this case by their communities. It is important to understand that that is the exchange that is proposed. I do not believe that we could cut back on all the central direction while leaving police authorities in their current form. They would not be strong or visible enough to hold the police to account and we would find that the police were not answering to anyone. That would not be acceptable to any of us.

As to the hon. Lady's point about costs, it is true, as my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for this matter said, I think last week, that we intend that the reforms-the introduction of both police and crime panels and police and crime commissioner-should not cost more than existing police authorities. That is the last thing that any of us would want in the current age, when resources are tight. There will, however, be a cost in relation to the elections, which will be held every four years. Those of us who propose the change must accept that; there is a price to democracy and that will be budgeted for separately. We shall set out the costs when we launch the proposals. There will be a full assessment of the cost when we introduce the Bill. However, we must secure the design of the proposals before we can set out the costs; that is what the consultation is about.

I do not accept any of the contentions that have been made, either in this place or outside it, that the restraints on spending that will necessarily have to be imposed overall on policing will result in an increase in crime. Indeed, those who contend that they will do so are unwise; I doubt whether there is any academic evidence to suggest such a link.

I have already addressed the matter of diversity-

Geraint Davies rose-

Nick Herbert: No, I am not going to give way any further. I have only four minutes in which to complete what I want to say, and I have some important points.

Police and crime panels will play an important role in ensuring that there is diversity. As to collaboration, we are placing duties on the police and crime commissioners to ensure that such collaboration as has happened in Wales can be extended. Crimes cross force boundaries and collaboration is necessary to deal with serious and organised crime, and to drive down cost. We want to ensure that such collaboration can continue.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly made an important point about the specific position of Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government. We have made it clear
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that we shall work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that the framework within which commissioners operate reflects and respects the devolved responsibilities. I visited Cardiff as the recess began in the summer, to have discussions with officials and to consult police authorities and police chiefs. Officials have maintained a dialogue with officials from the Welsh Assembly Government about all those matters. We were not able to meet Ministers at the time. I have spoken to them on the telephone, but we-my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I-plan to meet them in a short time to make sure that the consultation takes place.

I assure hon. Members that, whatever our differences on this matter, we intend to respect the devolved arrangements in Wales. That is particularly important with respect to those areas that are the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government, essentially relating to areas in which the police and crime commissioner will
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have a role. That includes community safety partnerships, which at present answer to the Welsh Assembly Government. We must get the design right for Wales, consult properly in Wales, and, where appropriate, secure the agreement of the Welsh Assembly to the proposals. We intend to proceed on that basis.

We want to introduce the reform and to include Wales. It is a reserved matter but we want the design fully to reflect the position in Wales. I am confident that the reforms will improve policing in Wales and rebuild the bridge between the police and the public, and that we shall continue to ensure that police officers are out in the streets doing the job that people want them to do, preventing crime and tackling it where it occurs. Our whole purpose is to improve policing and ensure that that essential public service is shaped to withstand the challenges of the future.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).

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